Neverland

NL Don't believe

Chapter 1

 

A LAUGHING BUNDLE of strawberry blond hair squirms on my bed. “Angel! Angel, stop! I’m gonna pee my pants!”

Immediately, I stop tickling my baby sister, sit down on the bedside, and put her on my lap, giving her one of those you-do-that-and-I-rip-off-your-stuffed-bunny’s-head looks. She knows I would never really do it, but the threat works every time.

At that moment, the exact likeness of the five-year-old on my legs comes walking through my door. Only this one’s wrapped in her purple fairy dress that has a pair of net wings attached at the back. The chiffon buckles angrily, and I wonder if she’s been sitting on the floor with her dolls for the past half hour.

She waves her glowing pink fairy wand that has a star tip in my face. “Why is Paulina screaming like the Barbie Dreamhouse is burning down again?”

The Barbie Dreamhouse didn’t burn down…completely. It caught fire when we lit some candles on Christmas Eve a few weeks ago. Dad draped a blanket—Mom’s favorite cashmere quilt—over the wooden house and extinguished the flames. The house was saved, but its west wing needed reconstruction and my sisters bugged me to paint the sitting room walls candy pink to cover the smoke marks.

“She’s screaming because the ugly Captain Hook is on the hunt for little princesses again,” I snarl, before putting Paulina back on my bed and chasing after a squeaking Brittney Renae, who makes a dash for the hallway and, in her polished, dark-red, patent-leather shoes, runs for her life.

I catch her right before she makes it to our parents’ bedroom and would have slammed the door in my face, no doubt. With one arm around her tiny body, I scoop her up and flop with her onto the king-size bed that will stay empty once again tonight because our parents are at another charity thing, which they do almost every weekend. I claw my index finger like it’s the ruthless pirate’s silver hook. “I’m the captain of the pirates, and I’ll slice you with my hook from your belly to your nose,” I say in a deep, rumbling voice.

Brittney Renae buries her face against my shoulder and giggles. She bursts into laughter like a volcano exploding as soon as I dig my fingers between her ribs.

There’s nothing in this world that delights me more than the sound of the twins’ laughs. Their carefree temperament catches me every time, whether I’m stuck in the middle of studies for my high school graduation in just a few months, or helping Miss Lynda with the household.

Mom and Dad don’t like me giving our stone-aged housekeeper a hand in the kitchen. Girls from a good family don’t get their hands dirty is what they taught me all my life. I wasn’t allowed to play in the mud with other kids, nor could I wear torn jeans with hoodies, or listen to rock music in my room without headphones on.

When the twins’ nanny moved away last spring and my parents couldn’t find a replacement that did an equally good job, my chance for a change had come. I offered to watch the girls on weekends, if my parents would allow me to wear normal clothes instead of the expected blouses, pantsuits or classy dresses—at least inside the house and as long as we weren’t expecting any guests for a dinner banquet. I hate being dressed like one of the Queen’s closest confidants.

Mom agreed after a long discussion dominated by sighs. Dad insisted they keep looking for a new nanny, but when the twins made their huge puppy eyes at him, he gave in. No one in this family can resist Paulina’s or Brittney Renae’s soulful looks when they push the pretty-please button.

Dad’s condition to let me wear my own choice of clothes inside was that I meet Jasper Allensik, the son of his business partner, who apparently was related to the royals in some convoluted way. I agreed but later nailed Dad down on the fact that the deal was: I only had to date the guy if I liked him at least sixty-five percent. Which I did not.

Jasper Allensik is a jerk. He’s tall, thin, wears his oiled black hair in a side part and drinks tomato juice at every meal he eats, which again comes out through his nose if something absolutely not-funny makes him laugh, like a ridiculous article in the Financial Times.

After a long school day in London, I like drinking strawberry milk with my fries if I have a chance to drop in at Burger King, but I never release the milk through my nose, laughing or not.

We usually don’t have strawberry milk at home, because Dad isn’t a big fan of that, and neither do we get to eat fries. Miss Lynda is advised to serve things like lobster, chicken breast, and sometimes even caviar on toast. Brittney Renae and Paulina are allowed to skip the fish-egg antipasti, but from the time I turned twelve, I was told to get used to the god-awful stuff, so I wouldn’t embarrass my parents again by spitting a mouthful back into the bowl in front of their guests. Yeah, sometimes it’s just exhausting to be the firstborn in George McFarland’s house.

I grab Brittney Renae by her waist and set her on her feet. “Now you have to make their bed again,” she says, waving her wand at me.

I obey. Miss Lynda makes the twins’ beds at least five times a day to keep my parents pleased, since they are sticklers for tidiness. I make my own bed every morning and try to keep it that way until the evening, which doesn’t happen often so I remake it as often as Miss Lynda does the twins’ beds. But to frolic with my sisters in my parents’ bed is a sacrosanct no-no. We aren’t even allowed in this room. But George and Mary are out, so who would stop us from turning the mansion into a playground?

I pull at the sheets’ ends and smooth them with my palms until they are perfectly straight again. The little fairy bug has left me alone and probably went back to her room to continue playing tea party with her dolls. As soon as I turn off the light in the room and step out into the wide carpeted hallway, Paulina skips into my arms. I lift her up and wonder why she’s grinning like a birthday clown. It usually means she has a brilliant idea…or that Miss Lynda smuggled some homemade cookies into the McFarland house, which happened just this afternoon.

“What is it, honey bunny?” I ask and rake my fingers through her long, straight hair that’s thick like weeds.

“I have a surprise for you.”

Uh oh. Her last surprise gave me a strand of green hair. Thank goodness finger paint isn’t a permanent dye. I shroud my grimace with a fake smile. “Great! Let’s see it.”

“It’s a tattoo.”

“Bloody hell!”

Paulina instantly covers her mouth with her tiny hands and sucks in a shocked breath, but I don’t care. My parents aren’t here to send me to my room for swearing. In a slight panic, I put my sister down, squat in front of her, and shove up the sleeves of her red panda-bear sweatshirt, one at a time, checking her arms for images of any kind.

She giggles. “Not me, silly.”

Phew! My mother would have killed me.

“It’s your name, so you have to put it on,” Paulina informs me, and my chin knocks against my chest.

“What?”

She holds out her hand und uncurls her fist. In her palm lies a paper snippet with the word Angel on it. No one but the twins call me that, and it’s the only word in the world they can spell yet. On their demand, I had to teach them—over an entire week. If it wasn’t for the cute reason that they couldn’t say Angelina properly when they learned to speak, it would have been totally ridiculous that I was called Angel. Seriously, I look like anything but. I didn’t inherit Mom’s angelic strawberry blond locks but instead Dad’s raven black hair, which I wear nowadays in a chin-length bob. My skin is pale and my dark brown eyes stand out from the rest of my face.

I take the cutout from my sister’s hand and examine it. It’s one of those tattoos you find in Disney princess magazines. The letters are curvy and purple with a mist of small stars underneath. Fantastic. And she wants me to put that where? On my forehead so my parents can blow a gasket about it in the morning?

As if she can read my mind, Paulina shrugs. “We can put that on the inside of your forearm. You always wear those black sweaters. Mommy won’t see it.”

Who could ever say no to a hopeful heart-shaped face like that? I blow out a resigned breath and make a mental note to scrub the tattoo off tomorrow morning before joining my family downstairs for breakfast. “All right. Let’s do it.”

I usher her across the hallway into the bathroom. The light comes on as soon as we open the door and reflects in the shiny peach and white tiles all over the place. I sit down on the edge of the oval white tub and watch the busy dwarf pull out the stool from under the washbasin so she can step on it and reach the faucet. She then brings a wet cloth and tampers with my arm while I patiently wait.

When she’s done and radiantly happy, the fairy bug appears in the doorway. “What are you two doing in here?” she asks and stems her little fists on her hips. For once, she didn’t bring her wand.

“I tattooed Angel’s name on her forearm,” Paulina informs her.

“Really?” Brittney Renae dances over to us, clapping her hands when she sees the result. “Aw, this is so beautiful! You must never wash your arm again and leave this on forever.”

“Why? So I can use my forearm as a cheat sheet in case I forget my name?”

Paulina scrunches up her face. “What’s a jeet jeet?”

“It’s something you have in…ah, never mind.” Better to change the topic and save myself from being dragged into another what-and-why inquisition that always leave me with a headache. Downstairs, the tall grandfather clock starts chiming eight. “Time for bed, girls.”

The twins smile, because getting ready for bed starts in the same way whenever we’re alone at home. Everybody finds a spot in Paulina’s bed, Brittney Renae brings a book, and I read. We do this before all the other stuff, like brushing their teeth and changing into their flannel PJ’s, because Brittney Renae likes to keep her costume on until the very last minute.

I sprawl out on the bed, leaning against the headboard, let my sisters snuggle up to me at either side, and open the book that Brittney Renae hands me. It’s Peter Pan. I’m not surprised. It’s their favorite, and I read this book to them night after night. The twins speak every single line with me while I read.

With the girls pressed to my sides, I soon get warm in the heated room. I pull my sweatshirt over my head and toss it at the end of the bed then continue reading.

“The pirate took the kids aboard his mighty ship, the Jolly Roger,” all three of us say with the same dramatic edge to our voices. “He tied them to the mast in the middle and laughed into their frightened faces. The dirty crew hurrahed their captain, each waving a flag in their hands. For they all knew, today was the day that Peter Pan would lose the battle.”

“Oh no,” Paulina whines when I take a breath and turn the page. “What if the ugly Captain Hook catches him this time?”

I roll my eyes. She knows exactly how this tale goes. But every time we read it, she gets sucked into the story so much that her fears seem genuine and her tiny hands clench into shaking fists.

I let the girls look at the pictures for a while, before we reveal the ending together and everyone takes a relieved breath—including me. I don’t know why I do it. Possibly because of the twins’ infectious excitement whenever I read the story of Peter Pan.

I shut the book and put it back on Paulina’s nightstand. We will surely read it again tomorrow night. The girls know what comes next and, without complaints, they both head into the bathroom to brush their teeth. While they’re gone, I open the French doors that lead to a semicircle Victorian balcony. In the moonlight the slowly falling snowflakes look like a romantic rain of stars.

A cold breeze wafts around my body. Goosebumps rise on my bare arms and remind me that the French doors in my own room have been open for the past couple of hours. I shut the cold out from my sister’s room and head back to mine. It’s freezing cold in here, but before I close the French doors, I can’t resist stepping out into the dancing flakes. I drag my feet through the thin layer of snow on the concrete balcony, leaving a trail with my tennis shoes.

My hands braced on the marble railing, I tilt my head skyward and catch some snowflakes with my mouth. The flakes melt away on my tongue and more keep falling on my face where they tangle with my lashes. It’s that time of the year I like best. Everything is calm and peaceful outside. I look down at our wide English garden and imagine a deer coming out from behind the few trees at the very back. But nothing happens. We live just outside London. There’s no city bustling around here, but we’re still too far away from any woods to glimpse a deer or rabbit scurrying by.

“Angel!”

With my mouth still open and my tongue lolling out to catch more snow, I turn to the left and find the fairy bug out on Paulina’s balcony. We’re separated only by three meters of space and the crown of a common ash tree planted close to the house between our balconies. I straighten. “What’s up?”

“You forgot your sweater.” She holds out my black sweatshirt in her tiny hands.

“Toss it over!” I walk to the left side of my balcony and stretch out my arms to catch the bundle of fabric. But her aim is as bad as my mother’s taste in music, and the hoodie lands in the top of the tree. “Ah no.” I sigh and lean over the railing as far as I can, but there’s no way I can grab the sweatshirt. It’s caught in the many twigs and branches.

It’s only a few inches away, so I get a hold on the façade of the house and climb onto the broad marble balustrade. This way I’m able to lean farther out and finally reach one sleeve. My fingers around it, I want to step off the railing again, but it’s slick from the snow, and I slip. A high-pitched cry bursts out of my throat as I struggle to catch my balance. I pray that somehow I’ll come down on the inside of my balcony. But when I catch a glimpse of Brittney Renae’s shocked face as I fall, I know this is going to hurt.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

I FALL. A scream rips from me. The cold wind carries me in a spiral of fast-moving air. I open my eyes which for some reason I had kept shut until now. There’s nothing around me. Really, nothing. I face a clear blue summer sky. Panic rises in my chest. I’m still falling—where in the world am I?

In my right fist, I hold the sleeve of a black hoodie that flutters over my head like a helium-filled balloon. It does nothing to slow me down. Then I remember. Jeez, the balcony! I lost balance. I should have landed on the ground by now and broken each and every little bone in my body. So why the heck haven’t I?

I turn and look down. Cotton candy clouds float beneath me. I can see my shadow on the fluffy white mass as I near them, and seconds later, I fall right through them.

My scream fades to a terrified whimper. As I emerge from the clouds, I finally see land beneath me. Luscious green hills, a thick jungle, and in the distance, colorful houses dotting an old seaport. The island I’m speeding toward is shaped like a half moon. There’s nothing beneath to break my fall.

This is insane. People don’t just fall right out of the sky. I pull the sweatshirt to my chest and hug it tight with trembling arms. Oh God, I’m going to be mash in a minute.

I’m coming down too fast on the jungle. The Caribbean-blue water surrounding the island fades from my view. All there is below me are trees and bushes. A taller tree stands out from a little clearing and I miss the wide top by a few feet.

As I zoom past the top branches, I catch a glimpse of a face between the leaves. The person attached to it shoots forward and stops at the end of the longest branch. Holy cow, there’s a boy in a grass-green tee and brown leather pants scaling the branches of the tree. He follows my fall with his surprised gaze, then he cups his hands around his mouth and shouts, “Watch out! It’s raining girls today!”

It takes me a moment to realize he’s not speaking to me, but to a group of boys on the ground. Boys that I’m going to squash in seconds. They all tilt their heads up and stare at me with stunned expressions. And then the weirdest thing happens. Out of nowhere, each of them pulls a black umbrella and they all stretch it, as though I could be fended off like rain.

ARE THEY NUTS?

Facing my end, I shriek the hell out of my lungs. But right before I land, something catches me and lifts me high in the air again. It’s the guy in the green t-shirt who saves me. “Ugh, girl. You scream like a tortured pig. Mind stopping that?” he says, grimacing, and cuddles me tight against his chest as he freaking flies with me over the jungle.

My mouth wide open, I fall silent and gaze at his face. An instant later, my arms wrap around his neck in a death-hold.

He turns a sly grin at me. “Hi there.”

I say nothing. I just can’t believe it. This boy appears a little younger than I am, looks totally normal with blue eyes, thick brown hair and all, but he’s sailing on the thermal wind like a kite. And I with him.

“Are you afraid of flying?” he asks me.

“I don’t know,” my croak comes out. I think that I’m usually not, but then I don’t remember ever being carried across the sky like this.

“Well, if you are, you shouldn’t be jumping off clouds, you know.”

“I wasn’t.” A slippery balcony railing should have sealed my death. Then again…what if I was dead? And this was the other side? I pinch the boy’s cheek and he yips. Thank goodness he felt that. No dreaming and no waking up in heaven. A relieved sigh escapes through my clenched teeth.

The guy lands on his feet by his friends—all teenagers by the looks of them—with me still in his arms. Carefully, he releases first my legs and waits until I stand steadily on the grassy ground in the small clearing before he loosens his grip on me. He’s a few inches taller than me and slim. Doesn’t his mother feed him enough? But then he’s probably not fully grown yet. Most boys around sixteen look a little underfed.

He holds out his hand. “I’m Peter. Peter Pan.”

With some reluctance, I shake it. “I’m…” I begin, but that’s all. For some strange reason, there’s no information about myself stored in my mind. What the hell—?

He tilts his chin low and searches my face. “You forgot your own name?”

“Obviously,” I admit, totally forlorn, scrunching up my face. “And what’s worse, I have no idea why I just fell out of the sky.”

“You don’t know what you did in the clouds?” Peter demands.

“No. The last thing I remember is falling down the side of our house back in London. It’s winter. Everything should be covered in…” Uncertain, I look around and add, “Snow.”

“Where’s London?” one of the boys whispers to another. “And what’s snow?”

“I don’t know,” says the other. “Maybe she lost her mind.”

“Ooh, that’s bad,” the first one whispers back, loud enough for everybody to hear. “I bet Hook hit her with a cannonball.”

I run my fingers through my hair and look down at myself. Everything seems just fine. I sure wasn’t hit by a stupid cannonball.

“What’s this?” Peter takes my hand once again and twists it so that the inside of my wrist is up. “Angel,” he reads out loud. “Maybe that’s your name? Would make sense you have it tattooed on you, since you seem to forget it.”

I examine the purple letters on my skin. Stars are brushed beneath the name. Is this real? It looks familiar but I don’t remember when I had one done. Rubbing my thumb over the tattoo doesn’t make it disappear. “Could be,” I agree with Peter.

“Well then, nice to meet you, Angel!” he cheers and shakes my hand again as if we just met. “Welcome to Neverland.”

“Neverland…” I test the sound of the word on my tongue. The name rings a bell. Somewhere far back in my mind. Too far for me to put a finger on. Whatever, I’ve always been a slouch in geography. Not so much in physics, though—I do know for a fact that humans shouldn’t be able to fly. So the really nagging question is this: Is Neverland real, or am I just about to go gaga?

When Peter releases me, the boys grab my hand one after the other and rather enthusiastically introduce themselves. They all look between fourteen and sixteen years old, but they jump up and down like excited preschoolers.

“Hi, Angel, I’m Skippy!” one of them shouts in my face. He has amazingly big ears and huge round eyes. He reminds me a bit of an elf, though he has inclined teeth like a troll.

“I’m Sparky!” says the next, already taking my left hand before Skippy even lets go of my right.

“This is Toby, and I’m Stan!”

“How are you doing, Angel? I’m Loney.”

“My name’s Skippy!”

Yeah, we heard that before.

“I’m Toby!” … “I’m Sparky!” … “Skippy, that’s me!”

More handshaking, and I’m getting a little dizzy. The guys pull on my arms and make me twist from one side to the other. They laugh and keep telling me their names as if each time was the first.

“Lost Boys, leave her alone!” Peter Pan shouts over the noise and I have my hands back to myself. I throw him a grateful look. He nods then steps forward and picks up the hoodie that I dropped when they all got so excited about me. As he holds it up and glances at the front, his brows knit together. “Are you friends with Captain Hook?”

I mirror his expression. “Captain who?” Knowing his question has something to do with what he sees on my sweatshirt, I reach for it, but Peter pulls it away quickly, then he pushes off the ground and levitates out of my reach. It’s totally crazy to see this boy flying like a darn balloon.

“Captain Hook,” he repeats with a scolding growl and turns my sweatshirt around so everybody sees the Pirates of the Caribbean image on the front. It’s a skull with a bandana, and crossed torches burn behind it.

All the boys suck in a loud breath and jump one step back. Two for Skippy. “You sure you aren’t one of his pirates?” he demands.

“Do I look like a pirate?” I snap back but quickly shut my mouth and inspect myself. Do I look like a pirate? I’m wearing the same clothes as a few minutes ago, when I was playing with the twins: blue jeans, a black tee and light grey tennis shoes. They don’t seem like the right clothes for a pirate ship, but then who can say what’s normal in this place, given there’s a boy hovering two feet above me?

Peter tosses the hoodie at me. “If you’re one of his spies, you can tell your captain he’ll never get the treasure! And sending girls is so beneath him.”

“Hey!” I fold my arms over my chest. “I don’t know any pirates! I live in an exclusive neighborhood just outside London. We have a huge, clean house, a cook and housekeeper, and every second Saturday of the month my parents give a dinner banquet for friends and business partners. No one skewers anybody with a saber there!”

“So you admit you do know about piracy custom then!” Peter accuses me. I roll my eyes in refusal of this unbelievable situation and rub my hands over my face. Slowly, Peter levitates up and down in front of me a few times, scratching his chin. “Fine. Let’s say you aren’t a pirate. What are we to do with you then?”

I let out a long breath and suggest with a surge of hope, “Help me get back home to England?”

Puckering his lips, he considers. “Okay. We can do that.” Suddenly, his face lights up. “Tomorrow!”

“No, wait! I have to—” But it’s too late. Peter somersaults in the air and comes down to reach under my arms, cutting me off. I have no chance to escape. He lifts me up again and flies with me to the top of the tree. I scream all the way. When he lands on a thick branch, he waggles his eyebrows. “Let me show you our home.”

Home? I try to catch a glimpse around me to make out a house somewhere close, but apart from the thick jungle I can’t see anything. And then Peter hustles me forward. “What the hell—” I drop down into the middle of the tree. Everything goes dark. It seems like I’m falling right through the trunk, which is outright crazy. What weird land is this?

I kamikaze-fall a few feet then feel the smooth surface of a slide at my back. It turns me in a new direction. Round and round in a spiral I go down, and if this wasn’t the scariest moment since I fell through the clouds, it would actually be fun. The slide leads into the center of the tree that seems even bigger from the inside. On my mad descent, I scan the tree’s interior with wide open eyes.

The trunk is completely carved out. Small windows are built into the bark, and pictures are hanging on the round-about wall. Cozy looking sleeping booths are hewn into the sides where big branches sprout from the trunk, and rope ladders lead down from each of them. This is amazing.

This is insane!

The slide ends abruptly and I’m catapulted into a trampoline. Lying spread-eagle, I breathe hard and wait until the wobbling of the net stops. Jeez, what a ride!

“Make way!” I barely had time to gather myself, when Peter’s warning booms through the inside. A moment later, Loney, the boy with a fox-fur hat that still has ears, comes sliding down my way. Peter must have lifted him to the top of the tree like me.

Panicky, I crawl off the trampoline and wait until all the guys have come down, one by one. Peter is the last to follow. He, of course, doesn’t climb out of the trampoline but simply glides down through the air right in front of me. Bowing deep, he sweeps his arm sideways. “Welcome to the Empire of Pan.”

“Your empire consists of an entire tree?” I mock him.

“It does. But you haven’t seen all of it yet.” He wraps an arm around my shoulders and pulls me along with him. “Here’s where we eat when we’re lucky on the rabbit hunt.”

The three seconds he grants me to look around the spacious area dominated by a huge, round wooden table with eight tree-trunk chops for chairs hardly seem enough to take in the full beauty of this place. We walk on to a spot right behind the trampoline that’s plastered with mattresses. Lots of ropes and hammocks hang around.

Peter catches me unawares and pushes me forward. I land on my front on a pile of pillows and quickly roll on my back. “What did you do that for?”

Instead of an answer, he throws a sword at me. I cover my head with my arms in self-protection. The sword lands on my belly and pushes an ugh out of my lungs. It’s carved from wood. Thank God, it’s just a toy and not a medieval one made of iron.

“If you want to become one of us, you have to learn how to fight,” he informs me with a glint in his eyes as he pulls another wooden saber from the belt around his waist and attacks me.

Like a rolled-over turtle, I try to defend myself from his blows, but each time his wooden toy hits mine, a nasty vibration rattles up my arm. I jump to my feet and parry his next blow. That was actually really good of me. I grin. But a second later, Peter somehow twists the sword out of my hand and it flies in a high arch across the room. He pushes me on my back again and places the tip of his saber to my throat. “Game over.”

Toby catches my weapon and comes over. He pinches his nose closed and mocks me by imitating the sound of a pooping cow. Drops of his saliva spray down in a mist. “That was a pathetic attempt of becoming a Lost Boy, Angel.”

“I don’t intend to be one!” I climb to my feet and fight my way past Peter and the boy who’s wearing his black hair in a ponytail with an undercut, and off the pillow and mattress nest.

Peter is at my side in a second again, taking my hand to drag me on. “Don’t be sad. We’ll practice with you every day, and soon you’ll fit right in with us.”

Practice? Fit right in? Didn’t he just hear me? “I’m not going to live here, Peter. I told you that I have to find my way home.” I pause. “And what was that about the Lost Boys anyway?”

“We can discuss this later. First, I want you to meet someone.” He grins, the wooden sword still in his hand.

Even though there were so many windows on my ride down here, I notice that this place is unusually dark for daylight, but tinted in a soft glow. There are no windows in this section, so I scan for the source of the light.

“Candles?” I burst out as I shoot around to face Peter. “Inside a tree?” Lanterns are placed everywhere. Our shadows are dancing on the wall, and for a tiny second I think Peter’s shadow is mocking me by lifting its shoulders, even though Peter himself just looks at me with his hands in his pockets.

I’m getting a really bad feeling in here.

“Relax, Angel.” Peter rolls his eyes. “We might not be grown-ups, but we’re not stupid. We know how to handle fire. Anyway,” he changes the subject and drags me past the mattress playground toward a small door. “This is Tameeka’s room. Let’s hope she’s home.”

Did he say room? But all this is much too big to fit into a tree. How’s that possible? I stroke my palm across the wall next to the door. It’s made of stone. And mud. Realization begins to dawn; we’re no longer inside the tree. This place is built beneath it, into the earth. What a brilliant idea! Now it’s clear why they need all the candles.

Peter knocks on the door and I stand back until it opens. A thin girl, maybe eight years old, pops her golden blond head out. As I see her sparkling green eyes and her pointed ears peaking through the locks, I gasp.

“Tami, meet Angel,” Peter introduces us as Tameeka emerges from her room. “Angel fell out of the sky today.”

Seeing her full feminine figure, I clap my hands over my mouth. This is no normal child. She wears a short dress made of ivy leaves and there’s a pair of see-through butterfly wings attached to her back. Dear God, am I on some magic mushroom high?

Tami comes forward, pirouettes on her bare toes and curtseys in front of me. “Nice to meet you, Angel.” Her voice sounds like Christmas bells. “Did you get lost?”

“Well…yes,” I murmur, shaking her tiny elfin hand. “How did you know?” But considering there’s a house built into a tree, Peter can fly, and she’s something closer to a fairy than a human child, I shouldn’t wonder, really.

Tami tilts her head and smiles like I missed the obvious. “Everybody Peter brings here got lost somehow.”

I turn to Peter Pan with quirked eye brows. “Really?” Then my gaze skates over the boys in the room.

They avoid my look, tuck their hands deep into their pockets, and poke their toes into the ground. All but Sparky. The stout boy just peels a banana and shoves it into his mouth, grinning and shrugging his shoulders. “Neverland is cool. None of us ever want to leave again,” he tells me around the banana mush.

I face Peter. “You brought all the guys here to live with you?”

“Well—” He sounds defensive all of a sudden as he jumps backward up onto one of the hammocks, where he swings leisurely back and forth. “I gave them a home when they didn’t know where to go. Toby and Stan were washed up on the shore one day, Skippy was hanging in a tree when I found him, and I had to save Sparky and Loney from the clutches of Captain Hook. It was their choice to stay.”

There was that name again: Hook. Every time somebody mentions that name, the boys grimace. “Who is this captain that Sparky and Loney needed to be rescued from?” I want to know.

“Ooh, Hook is the ugliest, meanest and scariest man in Neverland,” Stan tells me with a cruel look and clawed fingers. All the others agree with enthusiastic nods. “His face is scarred something awful, his nose is longer than a raven’s beak, and there’s a hook on his right arm.” He pulls the zipper of his bear-fur vest closed, as if speaking about Hook gives him chills. “He’s the worst pirate sailing these waters. His only aim is to steal our treasure, and he won’t stop at anything to get it. He would let us all walk the plank with tied hands in a heartbeat.”

“In fact, Peter had to save us more than once in the past,” Skippy adds in a dead-serious tone. Then he presses his palms over Tameeka’s ears and his voice drops to a whisper. “Hook never gets tired of making new plans to kidnap our little pixie and steal the map to the treasure’s den.”

Tami fends him off and scoffs in his face, standing on her tiptoes. “You don’t have to do that all the time. I’m not a baby. I know what he’s after.”

Skippy placates her, holding his palms up. “Just trying to be sensitive.”

“You? Sensitive? Hah!” Peter laughs and flies out of the hammock. He smacks Skippy over his head with the toy sword. “The sharks around the Jolly Roger are more sensitive than you.”

Skippy takes on the challenge and runs to grab another wooden weapon from the mattress playground. The Lost Boys holler and cheer as Peter and Skippy fight a perfect battle where neither manages to touch the other with his sword.

I watch them in deep fascination, until someone tugs on my hand. Turning my head, I find Tami next to me. She sighs. “He does this every time.”

“What? Start a fight?”

“No, they aren’t really fighting.” She laughs. “It’s just a game. Peter doesn’t like us being too serious.”

“Is Peter a Lost Boy, too?” I wonder out loud.

“Oh no!” When she shakes her head, golden dust rains out of her hair. “He’s the only one who came here for a reason. He never wanted to grow up. So he ran away.”

Her words intrigue me, but more so does the raining gold. I catch some and rub it between my fingers. It disappears. “What’s this?”

“Pixie dust. You’ve never heard of it?”

Should I have? I cock my head then shake it.

A slow grin spreads on her childish face. “With the right thought in mind, it can help you fly.”

Fly. Like Peter? Damn if I didn’t fall right into a fairy tale. “I’m afraid there’s no such thing where I come from.”

“Where do you come from?”

“A city in Great Britain. It’s called London.” Full of hope to get a reaction of recognition from her, I lift my brows.

“Ah, I see. London,” she replies with a meaningful look. Anticipation kick-starts my heart. Then she puckers her lips. “Never heard that name before.”

I grab my head between my palms and moan, frustration taking over. This can’t be true. Someone here must know about my hometown. “Where do the Lost Boys come from?” I press then. “I mean, where did they live before they got washed up on the shores of this island?”

“The boys don’t remember where they came from. Nobody knows.” Tami’s tone is matter-of-fact. “And it’s better this way, too. I think if they did, they’d try to get back home.”

“How can you say that? Of course they should try to go home. They surely have families who are missing them.”

The little pixie shrugs. “Maybe they have, maybe they haven’t. Anyway, it doesn’t matter now. When they made the choice to live here, Neverland fully embraced them. They are part of it now. You heard Sparky before. No one wants to ever leave again.” She smiles a warm, welcoming smile.

My heart sinks and I feel totally lost and alone. I don’t want to become a part of Neverland. I want to go home to the twins and my parents. What will happen to Brittney Renae and Paulina without me? The fairy bug saw me fall. They’ll run down and outside. What will they do when they realize I’m no longer there…in their world?

A shudder, cold as a scoop of ice cream, skitters down my spine. This is just too much to wrap my mind around. When I gaze at Tami once more, I remember what she said about Peter before. About his wish to never grow up. “How old is Peter?”

Tami’s delicate butterfly wings start to flap. She takes off from the ground, flies a circle around me and lands on my other side, giggling. “How old does he look to you?”

I let my attention wander back to the battling boys and study Peter Pan’s face for a moment. “Sixteen?”

Tami shakes her head and more pixie dust rains down. “He was fifteen when he left his home and came to live in the jungle. That was a very long time ago.”

I rub my neck and come to the conclusion that nothing works right in Neverland. This is a seriously queer place. “And all the boys have been the same age for…”

“As long as they’ve been here,” she finishes my sentence.

“Does this mean, if I stay, I’ll be forever seventeen?”

“Yes.”

Heck, I don’t want to be stuck in the body of a teenager for eternity. I want to grow up. And what’s with the guys not remembering where they come from? What if I too forget my family one day? Raking my hands over my skull, I drag in a scared breath. “Really, I can’t stay here. I have to go. Now.”

Someone places an arm around my shoulders. As I look up, I’m face to face with Peter. “I told you I’m going to help you tomorrow,” he assures me. “It’ll be dark in a couple of hours. Since you’re new to the jungle, it wouldn’t be a good idea for you to roam around alone at night.”

“Peter’s right,” Toby backs him up. “Stay for the night, eat with us, and tell us everything about you. Any information can help with getting you back on track.”

Through the windows higher up in the tree, daylight’s already getting dimmer. Maybe it’s for the best to camp out with Peter and the Lost Boys and start my exploration early tomorrow morning. I can’t do this on my own after all. Hopefully, Mom and Dad will soon be home, so the twins don’t panic or something terrible happens to them.

With a nod, I agree and let Peter drag me to the area with the wide table. Loney and Skippy start a fire in the hearth and set up something that looks like a skinned rabbit on a skewer. Obviously we’re going to eat roast bunny tonight. I wonder if this is something I’ll like.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

THE RABBIT IS excellent, and the best thing about this dinner is there’s lots and lots of strawberry milk to wash it all down. Best dinner I ever had.

I help Tami and Toby clear the table, but when I go back for the second load of dishes, Peter grabs my arm and pulls me aside. “What do you say? Shall I give you a quick tour through Neverland before night falls?”

A hike through the jungle? I might spot a possible way to get off this island while exploring. Great! So I don’t have to wait until tomorrow after all. “Let me just get my sweatshirt, then we can hike off.”

“Hike off…” Peter says, testing the words while I slip into my black hoodie.

As I pull it down, an ear-piercing shriek bounces off the walls inside the tree. The little pixie with the pointed ears dashes to her room, leaving a trail of golden dust in her wake. With a loud boom, her door slams shut.

“What in the world—” I don’t get to finish my sentence. Each of the boys in the room points at the skull on my sweatshirt. Actually, they look rather ridiculous with their outstretched arms. I make a sheepish face.

“Get Tami out of there and tell her Angel is not a pirate,” Peter instructs Sparky, who’s running a helpless hand over his buzz cut. “Angel and I have to go now, or it’ll get too dark for the tour.”

While the boys talk to Tami through the wall, I sidle up to Peter, waiting for him to show me a door that’s leading out of this underground tree house. To my total astonishment, he just scoops me up in his arms like earlier this afternoon and rises with me in the air. “What are you doing?” I cry.

He stops and hovers a few feet above the ground. “I thought you wanted to explore?”

“I do. But why do we have to fly again?”

“Because it’s the easiest way. Are you scared?”

“Not of flying. I’m just afraid I’ll be too heavy for you and you’ll drop me.” From two hundred feet.

“Yeah, now that you mention it…” Peter sets off toward the opening in the top of the tree, but he’s flying like a drunk, wobbling to all sides. “Whoa. Girl, I don’t think I can hold you any longer!”

“What?” We’re halfway up through the trunk.

“I’m sorry!” He tips from left to right, clearly losing his balance. “You’re just too heavy!”

All of a sudden, his hands are off me, and I plummet. Rowing with my arms is no use. A moment later, gravity flings me into the trampoline and shoots me back up. I gasp as Peter catches me and waggles his brows. He zooms with me out of the tree. The laughter of the Lost Boys follows us.

“Very funny,” I growl, wrapping my arms tightly around his neck this time.

Lightheartedly, Peter replies, “Yes, it was.” Then he rolls his eyes and grins. “Too heavy for me…? Crazy girl.”

The deep orange sun slides low on the horizon as we glide across the sky. The weird thing is, Peter tells me we’re starting off north, and if he’s to be trusted, the glowing orb is lowering on the east side of the isle.

Frankly, why does this even surprise me?

“Look! Down there’s Mermaid Lagoon,” Peter says into my ear.

I tilt my head to catch a glimpse. We’re right above the north peak of Neverland. The Caribbean-blue sea glistens in the last sunrays of the day. Young women with beautiful long hair and fishtails frolic in the waves, shouting up to us that we should go down and meet them.

“Do you know these girls?” I ask Peter as we descend to the rocky north shore.

“Some of them. Mermaids are usually shy people, but once they get to know you, they sort of warm up.” He chuckles, and I’m sure it’s about a memory he shares with the mermaids.

Peter sets me down on the shore and waves at the girls in the water. “Hey, Melody! Come and meet my new friend!”

One of the mermaids detaches from the group and pops her head out of the water several feet away from us. She pushes her wet auburn hair behind her ears while the long strands float in the water around her and gives us a shy smile. “Hello, Peter. I haven’t seen you in a while. I almost started to believe that Hook had gotten you in the end.”

“Never!” Peter laughs and pumps up his chest like a proud rooster. “The day that Hook catches Peter Pan is the day that the sun goes down in the West.”

I guess for Neverland this is a working metaphor.

“It would be a sad day for us all,” Melody replies. Then her curious gaze wanders to me.

Peter places a hand at the small of my back but his attention is still on the mermaid. “This is my friend, Angel. Dropped from the clouds today.” He leans forward a little and adds in a loud whisper, “She got lost.”

“Don’t they all?” Melody giggles a soul-warming sound and does a back-flip into the water. She comes up a little closer to us next. Near enough to reach for my hand, actually.

“Whoa,” is what I say for a greeting. “I’m shaking hands with a mermaid.”

Melody’s kelp-green eyes begin to glint with a hint of mischief, and suddenly she tugs hard on my hand. “Come in and play with us!”

I gasp as I lose the ground beneath my feet.

“Oh no!” Peter laughs. “Not today, Mel.” He has already wrapped his arm around my middle, preventing me from plunging head first into the waves. “I want to show Angel our treasure as long as we have low tide. Maybe we’ll come back tomorrow to play.”

Note to self: If you aren’t wearing a bathing suit, keep a safe distance from mermaids in the future.

Melody pouts and bats her lashes, but in the next moment she smiles again and splashes water at us with her mighty fishtail before she dives into the waves and swims off. “See you tomorrow!” she shouts over her shoulder.

Yeah. Tomorrow, I think and realize that Peter’s still hugging me to his chest. “You do have crazy friends, you know that, Peter Pan?”

“Aw, you’ll love them once you grow used to living in Neverland. I promise you’ll never want to leave again.”

He is right. This dreamy island feels too good to be true. Pixies, houses in trees, and mermaids…who wouldn’t want to live in a place like this? On the other hand, back home I have a room of my own and don’t have to share a tree with six immature guys and a shrieking pixie. I also miss my sisters, and I’d never trade the adventure of riding on a red double-decker bus for a flight in a lanky guy’s arms.

“Are you ready to go?” Peter breaks through my thoughts.

I nod. “Where to?”

Lifting me in his arms again, he pushes off the shore and glides out to the sea. “Treasure island,” he informs me. “If you can’t fly, you can only reach it with a boat. And then you’ll only find it when the tide is out.”

“Really? Why?”

“At low tide, the top of the rock protrudes from the water. There’s a cave with a hole at the top. We sealed it with a trapdoor. This way no water gets inside when the tide is rolling in. And Hook can’t find it, because he can only move out with his ship when the tide is high.”

“Very clever,” I agree to his smug grin.

We fly about half a mile until we finally reach a rock formation that looks like birthday candles on a cake. Peter lands on the rock closest to us, then he says, “Now second to the right.” As if the two of us are weightless, he takes a gazelle-like jump from our rock to the next, and the next. That one’s a little bigger than the others. Peter puts me down and starts carrying stones out of the way. I help him and find a square wooden trapdoor beneath. My anticipation rises as he fishes a key from his pocket and unlocks the door. It flaps down on one side. The scent of seawater and rusty copper wafts in my face.

Peter straightens, giving me a teasing look. “Okay, for going down there, you have to actually hug me. The door’s too small to carry you through in my arms.”

I see what he means, but I feel a little awkward when I sling my arms around his neck and he pulls me closer. Like an embracing couple, we glide down through the porthole. Pitch-black darkness surrounds us. I can’t tell how far we really descend, but after a few seconds I feel some sort of ground beneath my feet. Something tingles when I shift my weight from one foot to the other.

“Wait here,” Peter orders, then he leaves me alone in the dark. I can hear him scurry around somewhere to my left. Moments later, the warm flames of a torch brighten the cave.

I suck in a sharp breath. “Oh my goodness!”

Peter flies back to me. “You like it?”

In a wild frenzy, I grab his collar, pull him close until our noses touch, and cry, “This is unbelievable!”

Three quarters of the cave floor are covered with heaps and heaps of gold coins, silver goblets, mirrors specked with gemstones, and all kinds of jewelry. I stand on the highest pile, shoving clinking coins in all directions as I drop to my butt and slide down one side. The urge to dive into the heap and swim in the money pool like Uncle Scrooge grips me by the neck, but Peter’s voice drags me out of my fascination.

“Come. I want to show you the rest of our treasure.”

I make big eyes at him. “There’s more?”

“Just a little bit.” He pulls me past the hills of gold, toward a huge heavy wooden chest in a corner. When he opens it, thousands of diamonds and multi-colored gemstones glimmer in the torch light.

I run my hands through them, trying to remember to breathe. “Where did you find all this?”

Peter shrugs. “It’s Hook’s treasure. We stole it from him some time ago.”

“You stole a pirate’s treasure? Oh my God! Now I understand why this guy is after you.”

“Ah.” He waves a dismissive hand at me. “If it wasn’t for us, Hook would be bored to death by now. He can consider himself lucky we’re taking care of him like this.”

“Yeah, right.” I chuckle and cut an amused glance his way. “You’re such a selfless person, Peter Pan, aren’t you?” He gives me a half-smile back. Then I spot a smaller chest right behind his feet. “What’s in there?”

Following the direction of my gaze, Peter lifts the silver chest that is actually no taller than a shoebox from the damp ground and blows across the lid. The dust cloud rising makes me sneeze twice. “Nobody knows what’s in there,” he tells me. “It’s sealed with this iron lock, and Hook still has the key. He carries it on a chain around his neck.”

I run my fingers across the dents in the metal. “You’ve tried to open it?”

“With a stone, with an ax, by tossing it from the top of a mountain, by trying to melt the iron lock…you name it.”

The burning marks are still visible and make me laugh. “No chance of getting hold of the key?”

“For years we’ve been trying to grab that key, but it’s the only thing we haven’t been able to take off Hook yet.”

“I see. Maybe you should bargain with him. Buy the key with part of his own treasure?”

“No way!” Peter flashes a keen grin that makes him look a lot younger. “One day, I’ll get hold of that key. You just wait.”

I tilt my head but hesitate with my reply. To me it seems like Peter doesn’t really want this key so much. It’s more the actual adventure of trying to steal it that keeps him motivated. “I hope I’ll be here to see it when that day comes,” I reply and only then realize how thoughtless that was of me.

“Oh, you can.” Peter puts the chest back down and reaches for my hand, tugging me up to the top of the biggest hill of gold. “You can stay here. With the Lost Boys and me. And Tami. Forever.”

Forever is not an option for me. “So you can teach me how to hang out in trees and make me a Lost Boy like the others?” I mock Peter and throw a handful of coins at him.

“Why not? You’d be the first Lost Girl in Neverland. And I’d make you a brilliant sword-fighter, too.” He tosses some coins back at me, which I dodge. When I straighten again, he gets me in the face with a pearl necklace. “Just think—we could steal Hook’s key together.”

Remembering how Toby mentioned a cannonball when I first met them this afternoon, I pull a face. “Sounds tempting but…no. I’m not in any way keen on meeting this horrible pirate.”

“Aw, you don’t know what you’re missing out on.” Peter bends over and pulls a small silver flute from between the coins. “Neverland is the most wonderful place of anywhere.” With the instrument between his fingers, he levitates a few feet up, crosses his legs as though he’s sitting on an invisible magic carpet, and starts to play a lovely tune.

I cock my head. “You’re a musician?”

“I only know this one melody. Can you play the flute?”

I shrug. So far I haven’t tried it, but it can’t be too difficult. Peter tosses the flute down to me. Carefully, I place my fingers over the tiny holes in the slim metal pipe and blow, lifting random fingers. The sound is god-awful.

Peter and I grimace at the same time and simultaneously we say, “Nah…!” There’s no musical talent whatsoever hidden in me. I toss the flute away and it lands on the treasure heap again with a clink. “Shall we go back?”

Peter nods then grabs me around the waist and flies out through the trapdoor before my cry of surprise even makes it out of my throat. Together we cover the entrance with stones again, then he takes me back to the island. It’s already dark when he lands on a hill somewhere close to the jungle. Stretching his limbs, he sprawls out on the ground.

I follow suit and study the many stars in the velvety sky. The grass is still warm from the sun and smells amazing. “I love lying in the grass back home on a warm day like this,” I muse into the silent night.

“If you stay, you can do that every day. There’s never one day of bad weather in Neverland.”

Fascinated, I roll onto my front and gaze at his daring face. “Never?”

“Never, ever! Pixie swear.” With his right index finger, he draws a cross over his heart and smirks. “So, what do you think? We have an empty sleeping booth in our tree. It’s the perfect size for you.” He waggles his brows in this typical teasing manner that I’ve gotten to know today.

“You’re fighting a dirty battle, Peter Pan. And you’re absolutely right, Neverland really is amazing.”

His grin spreads wider at my words.

“But you have a group of fine friends around you,” I argue. “You love them all, don’t you?” When he nods, I continue, “So you can understand why I must leave? Back in London, my baby sisters are waiting for me. They would miss me terribly if I never came back. And I miss them so much.”

For a short moment we are both silent. I wait for Peter to say something, to show me he understands my need to go back. But he says nothing. So I ask, “Why do you want me to stay anyway?”

“Because you’re a girl…and girls know how to tell stories.”

“Stories? That’s it?” Somehow I feel a little disappointed by his answer.

“Well, yeah.” He shrugs and laces his fingers behind his head, looking back at the sky. “I think it’s cool to have someone to tell you stories before bedtime.”

I do know many stories, and the twins love me reading them picture books every night before bedtime. Come to think of it, what was the last story I read to them? Was it Little Red Riding Hood? I’m hooked on that thought, because the harder I try to remember, the more the answer seems to drift away from me. Just like my name.

Next to me, I hear Peter sigh. “None of us boys know any good stories, and Tami…well, she’s really not the kind to sit at your bedside and tell a tale.” He snorts. “She would just dip us all in pixie dust.”

It seems so odd for a guy his age to listen to stories. Maybe it has something to do with his past. His life back in his real home? I go for a random guess. “Did your mother read you stories before bedtime when you were little?”

“I don’t remember the time before I came to the jungle,” he answers, his tone stark and distant. He sounds so hurt and defensive that my breath freezes in my lungs for a shocked second.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper after a while. “I didn’t mean to get too personal.”

“You weren’t. It’s just what it is. You don’t remember your name; I don’t remember where I come from. End of story.”

I don’t like his sudden change of mood. Mostly because I feel sad for him when he lays out cold facts like this. What’s more, I feel like he’s not being completely honest with me right now. Maybe a smile and a gentle poke in the ribs can tease out the happy Pan again. “You were right before, Peter,” I mock him, wrinkling my nose. “You are a lousy storyteller.”

Eventually a laugh slips from his lips and he shoves playfully against my shoulder. I shove back, and he shoves again. This time I tip sideways, but I can’t let him get away with this, so the shoving continues until we both roll in a bundle down the hill. Our joint laughter echoes around us.

By the time we reach the bottom, I’m dizzy. The world keeps turning around me for a minute. Then I realize I’m straddling Peter’s stomach, hands braced on his chest. He grabs my upper arms to steady me. On his right arm, there’s a fading scar that I haven’t noticed before. It runs from his elbow upward und disappears under the sleeve of his t-shirt. From the looks of it, this must have been a painful wound a long time ago. Because of his earlier mood swing when I asked him about his past, I decide not to question him about it just yet.

Smiling instead, I find his blue, blue eyes that are focused on mine. I can tell he really wants me to stay in Neverland. Not for the sake of getting a good story told. But because he sees something in me that he seems to like. Not my musical talent, that’s for sure.

I must have been staring at him for a minute too long, because his brows come together in a frown and he cocks his head. “You okay?”

“Um…sure—” My smile is blown away by something happening in the distance. “Holy crap!” I jump off Peter and stumble up.

Peter is by my side in an instant. He takes on a fighting stance, scanning around me. “What is it?”

“Over there!” I point south, or what I think is south, to the middle of the island. My hand trembles. “A volcano!” And it’s erupting.

Peter lets out a long breath. “Ah, you scared the crap out of me. I thought Hook found us.”

Turning to him, I feel the blood draining from my head and my voice takes on an insanely calm edge. “There’s a freaking volcano exploding, and you’re all relaxed?”

“Would you rather I pee my pants like a girl?” He laughs at me, but then he takes my hand and pulls me down to the ground. “Come, sit. You’ll like this.”

Like watching a volcano erupt and extinguish half of the isle? I doubt it. Peter doesn’t let go of my hand, and though he’s slim and appears fragile, he is strong, so I sit with him and train my gaze on nature’s furious display of fireworks.

Molten lava slowly creeps over the edge of the opening in the earth. Only the color doesn’t seem right. It looks like someone melted gold in there, powdered some pixie dust on it and is now shoveling it out of the high rock. And then, with a bombastic fizzling, a rainbow shoots out of the volcano. In a high arch, it races east over Neverland and dips into the sea, where it gets swallowed by the waves.

“Oh my God, how beautiful…” I mumble.

Peter leans in to me and speaks in my ear. “You think that was nice? Just wait and see.”

Quickly, I move my gaze to his face so close to mine then back to the volcano. Already the next glowing rainbow erupts from it. And another. And another. For at least three minutes, the mountain in front of us keeps spitting the most wonderful arches of glimmering colors. They zoom in all directions, each of them landing in the sea where they brighten the water and finally fade away.

“Cool, huh?” Peter says. I nod. Then he pulls something out of the chest pocket of his shirt. When he holds his hand out to me and opens his fist, there’s a little heart-shaped ruby on his palm.

The rainbows completely forgotten, I stroke my fingertips over the gem’s smooth surface. “This is lovely,” I breathe.

Peter gives me a warm smile. “Take it. It’s yours.”

“Mine?”

“It’s a present.”

“Did you take this from your treasure?”

“M-hm.” He nods slowly. “Welcome to Neverland, Angel.”

A little uncertain, I take the stone from Peter’s hand. It’s heavier than it looks and surely would make for a beautiful necklace. “Thank you, Peter.” I place a chaste kiss on his cheek and behold the beautiful ruby for another endless moment, then I tuck it in my pocket to keep it safe.

Inside the pocket, my fingers brush against something and I go stiff.

“What’s up?” Peter asks me.

“Nothing,” I murmur. I already know what’s in my pocket before I pull out the one-by-two-inch piece of paper.

“Travelcard,” Peter reads out loud as he leans over my shoulder to inspect my personal, tiny treasure. He makes a quirky face and adds, “To London.”

A wave of fear and homesickness hits me. I’m definitely not on any normal island somewhere in the world. Where I landed is a place that shouldn’t exist. What if I can never get away from here again? Never get back home?

Bile clogs my throat. I stand up and walk a few steps away from Peter, clutching the card with both hands.

“Is this a map for you to find London?” Peter’s voice is close behind me. “Can you use this to go home?”

I turn around and face him, clearing my throat. “No. I used this yesterday. It’s a train ticket. I went to the city to buy a birthday present for my sisters.”

“The Lost Boys can become your brothers if you stay. And Tami will be like a sister to you.” With narrowed eyes, he looks at me, angling his head. A muscle ticks in his jaw. “You don’t have to go back.”

I hesitate and reach out for his hand, but he pulls it away. I don’t like seeing him depressed. “Please understand, Peter. Neverland is your home, not mine. How would you feel if you landed in the middle of a city you don’t know and you couldn’t ever see the Lost Boys again?”

A couple of silent seconds tick away. Suddenly Peter straightens and his face takes on a hurt expression. “Fine. Go back to your London. I don’t care.”

“Peter—”

He flies up a few feet, then hovers for a second and scowls down at me. “Good luck!” An instant later, he zooms away.

“This isn’t funny, Peter!” I shout after him and wait a few seconds, but nothing appears out of the dark. Clenching my hands into fists at my sides, my whole body tenses. “Peter Pan! Come back! Please…!

He’s already too far away to hear me. I’m left by myself in Neverland. Fantastic.

 

 

Chapter 4

 

I CROSS MY arms and grit my teeth. Stupid, ignorant boy! I’ll never find my way back to the tree house alone through the jungle. Even if I did, I probably wouldn’t be welcome anymore. Since plan A is cancelled, I look around, weighing my options. Plan B is to camp outside. That’s not how I intended to spend the night, wandering around on a strange island with no idea of where I am, but this is my best bet.

Behind me is the jungle, in front are rows of hills. It’s probably best to find a place beneath a tree where I can overlook the area and still have my back protected from whatever danger creeps through the thicket at night.

“I’m not a coward,” I mumble as I sneak closer to a mahogany tree. “Darkness doesn’t scare me.” My teeth start to chatter. Okay, maybe it does.

The grass rustles under my feet. An owl hoots in the distance. Sliding down with my back scraping along the rough tree trunk, I try to stay alert and watch for anything that’s moving around me. My arms wrapped tightly around my knees, I inhale deeply, filling my lungs with courageous breaths. This is Neverland. The land of treasures and pixies and rainbows. Nothing to be afraid of.

But it’s also the land of Hook. That name looms in my mind. Captain of the pirates. Ugly as hell, with a silver hook on his arm. Did he lose his hand and somehow replace it with a hook for a weapon? What if he finds me in this thick jungle and slices me with his hook from my belly to my nose?

Jeez, where did that thought come from? I shake it off and concentrate on something nicer: the feeling of golden pixie dust between my fingers and the vision of hundreds of rainbows shooting across Neverland. Yeah, with that picture in my mind I manage to calm down my racing heart. I close my eyes. But with that damn owl still hooting and other nocturnal sounds along with the darkness, it creeps me out.

Jumpy like a rabbit, I sit through the night and pray that the dark clouds shrouding the moon aren’t loaded with rain. Peter said there’s never one day of bad weather in Neverland. I hope he’s right.

My back is stiff and my butt hurts from sitting, so at one point I just tip over to lie on the ground, rest my cheek on my arm and finally sink into a dreamless sleep.

What feels like minutes later, I wake up again, but the dark has already made room for a bright blue sky. The warm sun shines down at my face. With a good stretch, blood rushes to my numb limbs and my arms and legs no longer feel like dead twigs attached to my body. Yawning louder than a cougar, I get up and dust off the rest of my makeshift bed from my clothes.

My stomach rumbles. I’m hungry as hell, but what’s really killing me is my bone-dry throat. I could drink up a lake…if I found one anyway. I didn’t see one yesterday, when Peter carried me above Neverland. But the image of the seaport presses into my mind. Maybe I should try to make my way south. There’ll certainly be food and water, and who knows, maybe even a ship that sails off this island. Someone surely knows which direction London is.

With my stomach grumbling, I wander off toward the grassy hills separating me from the seaport. As I climb them one by one, beads of sweat form on my forehead. My tongue sticks to the roof of my dry mouth. I’m ready to suck the dew from the grass if necessary, just to get one drop of water. Then, on the fifth hill, the sound of rippling water drifts to me.

A rush of joy quickens my heartbeat. I climb the last few steps and can eventually see the little river rolling though the valley in front of me. My legs develop their own will and carry me down too fast. At the bottom, I stumble and lose balance. Like an avalanche I come down hard and land with a splash in the river.

Not bothering to step out of the shallow water, I sit up and take a few deep breaths to calm myself. Wonderful water! I drink my fill and dip myself under once more to get the dust and jungle filth off me. When I’m done with my sketchy bath, I feel invigorated and ready to walk on. I wade to the other side and climb out.

It’s not far anymore. From the top of the last hill, I could already make out the sea and some rooftops. Minutes later, the sounds of the port carry to me and cheer me on to walk faster. It feels like a one-hundred-pound stone is lifted off my chest when the dreamy little port comes into view.

Leaving the hills behind, I walk down a cobblestone street, welcoming the hardness of a street under my feet. Man, it was about time to get out of the wilderness and into civilization. A deeply relieved sigh escapes my lips.

Houses of multiple colors line the street. Some have Venetian balconies and double-wing doors. Others are simpler with flower pots placed next to the doors and beneath windows. The first people I see are a couple of ladies, dressed in bell-bottomed gowns of burgundy and frog-green silk. They carry parasols, but only the woman in red uses hers as shelter from the sun. I want to ask them about a passenger ship, but when I get closer, I see the fear in their faces. Hurriedly, they lift their dresses, exposing their booted ankles, and flit into a narrow alley to my right.

Scratching my head, I pivot. Was it me? Do I stink? No, can’t be, I decide after sniffing the sleeves of my sweatshirt, which the sun had dried by now like the rest of my clothes. Then it dawns on me that my hoodie must be the reason. Oh darn. Tami was scared as hell when she saw the skull on the front yesterday. These women must think I’m a pirate, too.

To avoid any more misunderstandings, I pull the sweatshirt off over my head and wrap it around my waist, with the image hidden. Tying the sleeves to the front, I walk on and come to what looks like the Main Street filled with people hurrying about. Beyond it spreads the mighty ocean. I speed up and slip into the crowd, where I clearly stand out with my jeans and snug-fitting tee. Although not all are dressed as elegantly as the ladies from two minutes ago, this fashion is clearly from a different time. Maybe from the past century or earlier? One can easily distinguish these people’s status by their clothing and style of hair. The rich women wear their hair in updos, decorated with overworked hats, and their gowns cover almost every inch of skin from their neck down to their toes. The poorer folks are wrapped in linen, some even walking barefoot. I feel like I burst in on the set of Downton Abbey.

Though everyone still gives me strange sideways glances as they pass me, none of them back away. I fluff up my hair and paste on a friendly smile, then I walk up to a young woman carrying a fruit basket. Her naked feet are smudgy and she might have cooties, but she looks friendly when she hands a pea to a small boy at the side of the street.

“Excuse me, ma’am.” I stop right in front of her and tilt my head a little.

“Aye,” she says, eyeing me from head to toe.

“Do you know how I can get off this island?”

“With a boat, I’d say.” Her gaze glides up to my face and she starts to smile, too, although hers seems skeptical. “But where would you be going, lass? There’s nothing but deep, blue sea out there.” Holding the basket with one arm, she sweeps the other to the right toward the waves sloshing against the port.

My spirit sinks at her answer, and uncertainty creeps into my voice. “I need to get to London.”

“London? Sorry lass, ain’t never heard of a place called that.” She purses her lips. “Per chance you mean the Indian camp at the east side of the isle?”

Pinching my eyes shut, I release a pained breath. I definitely don’t mean an Indian camp. “No, but thanks anyway.”

The girl nods, but before she walks off, I grab her arm and ask, “Can I buy an apple?” It must be early afternoon already, I’m starving.

She rubs her palm clean on her simple gray gown, then holds out a deep red apple to me. “That’s half a doubloon.”

I have no idea what a doubloon is, but I always carry some change in my pockets. I fish out two one-pound coins and seventy-five pence.

“What is this?” the young woman demands, pulling back the fruit.

“We use this to pay for goods in London.”

“Your coins have no value here.”

Wringing my hands, I shift my weight uncomfortably from one leg to the other. “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything else to give you.” Of course, there’s a fat ruby sitting in my pocket, but that’d be a ridiculously high price for an apple.

The girl puckers her lips again. Her gaze wanders down to the sweatshirt tied around my waist. “You can have two, if you give me that,” she offers.

Ugh. “I don’t think you’d be happy with it,” I whine.

She shrugs one shoulder and places the apple back into her basket. “My sister needs something new to wear. Take it or leave it. Your choice.”

My stomach hurts from hunger. I don’t really have much of a choice here. “Fine.” Loosening the knot of the sleeves, I sigh and pray that she won’t freak out when she sees the pirate image on the front. But all my praying is in vain. As soon as I hold the hoodie out to her, she gives a shriek, nearly splitting my eardrums, and dashes away in the opposite direction, taking her food basket with her.

Luckily for me, the shiny red apple falls out from her basket and rolls down the street. I don’t pay attention to her or anyone else at this moment but race after the fruit. If I can’t catch it within the next few seconds, it’ll drop into the waves. And then I’m screwed.

People complain and skip out of my way as I chase the rolling red ball. Bending over, I almost reach it. But still, I’m too slow. Someone beats me there.

A black boot stops my apple and traps it under the toe, squishing all my hope in a heartbeat. Moaning, I drop to my knees right in front of that boot. My disappointed expression reflects in the furbished silver buckle.

A hand moves into my vision and claims my meal. I look up into the face of a young man. When he straightens again, I straighten with him. With a couple of feet between us, he gives me an unsettling once-over, surely because of my unusual clothes. According to his dark purple brocade coat and clean black leather pants, and no less because of the demeaning look he gives me, I rate him upper-class.

Sharp blue eyes stare at me from under his over-long, bright blond hair that looks as if the wind had ruffled it. His jaw and upper lip sport a dusting of stubble in the same sun-kissed shade. His brows come together in a frown. Maybe because he’s used to lower-class people backing away from him. Well, I don’t.

“That is my apple,” I state with the steadiest voice I can manage when his glare actually causes the little hairs at the back of my neck to stand on end. I hold out my hand, palm up.

The young man purses his lips as though he doesn’t believe his ears. Then one side of his mouth slowly tilts up as he slides the apple into the wide pocket of his coat. He looks straight into my eyes for another intense second, then he starts laughing, turns on the heels of his well-worn boots and walks away.

“Damn wretch,” I mumble and trudge off—not after him but over to a low stone wall surrounding what looks like an abandoned fishing hut with boards nailed across the windows and door. Exhaustion eats at me and my stomach feels like it’s munching on itself in hunger.

One foot placed on the crumbling wall, the other dangling, I sit and lean against a jamb stone behind me. My hair snags on the rough surface as I tilt my head up and I wince. A clear blue sky is the only thing in my vision for a while. If this is all but a dream, I’d do anything to wake myself up. Maybe I should find Melody again and ask her to pull me underwater until I run out of air. One can’t die in a dream, right? It would wake me up for sure. Only there’s the rub: if this isn’t a dream, I’d be screwed.

I sigh and wish I could hug my little sisters. What if I never see them again? Or Mom and Dad and Miss Lynda? Pissing off Peter wasn’t my best bet. He might have eventually helped me figure out what to do. Maybe he’ll stop sulking at some point and come find me. He can’t really be mad because I don’t want to spend the rest of eternity in Neverland.

Realizing there’s something cold in my hand, I look down and find the ruby heart in my palm. I stroke it a few times, then turn it over and over and finally hold it against the sky. The warm sunrays break in the many facets and cast a swarm of red dots on my t-shirt. They dance when I tilt the gem back and forth.

My gaze starts to wander out to the waves lashing against the concrete port then back to land and over the finely dressed people busying themselves on this romantic marketplace of a different age. Some buy food or bales of silk, others drink the day away in front of pubs. The throaty laughter of a few men draws my attention. They are seated on small stools around a barrel that serves them as some sort of poker table. I stiffen. In their midst sits the apple-stealing scamp.

He’s not laughing with the others. In fact, I wonder if he even heard what they’re laughing about because, with his elbows propped on the top of the barrel and his fingers steepled under his chin, he seems deeply in thought. And unless he’s interested in the run-down hut behind me, his focus is on me.

I hold his stare for just a moment, my teeth clenched, then I deliberately look away. This guy can go sit on a tack. He sure has more money than is good for him and still he couldn’t spare me one darn apple.

Continuing to roll the ruby between my fingers, I try to come up with a plan for my departure off this island. Obviously, airplanes aren’t an option, but maybe one of the few ships harboring farther down this promenade will get me back. Although they don’t seem like they’ve been out on the sea in a long time. People walk on and off the decks of those ships, but it looks more like they’ve been converted into shops or pubs rather than transportation.

“You hold a diamond worth more than half of the town, and you’re running after an apple. What’s the deal?”

I tilt my head to the soft male voice. Leaning against the streetlamp a few feet away, the thief in his purple brocade coat gazes at me with an intrigued half-smile. His arms are folded across his broad chest and one of his feet rests on the iron post behind him.

My first reaction is to quickly shove the stone into my jeans pocket and hide it from his view. “I don’t see how that is any of your business,” I snap.

He reaches into his pocket and without warning tosses the apple at me. “Make it my business.”

I catch the fruit with both hands and sort of panic, immediately biting into it before he can reclaim it. Oh dear mother of God, this tastes delicious. The saliva in my mouth mingles with the apple’s juice and I swallow, quickly taking another bite.

“You’re a visitor.”

“What gave me away?” I ask around the piece in my mouth and give him a cynical look.

He comes over and sits down in front of me. He doesn’t bother to dust off the wall with a tissue first, like I expected from someone of his status. So maybe he’s not a haughty little prince after all. Instead of answering my question he counters, “Where do you come from?”

Now that he’s abandoned that demeaning scowl from earlier, he looks a lot less intimidating. And since he seems interested in my story, maybe he’ll help me. Licking the juice off my lip, I study him for another moment, but when he lifts his brows, prompting me to continue, I tell him, “I come from a different island.”

“Really? What’s it called?”

“Gr…ah…” I snap my fingers twice and roll my eyes skyward, struggling to get the name out that’s on the tip of my tongue. Agh. Why can’t I remember it all of a sudden? I know I told it to Peter last night. But it’s just like with my own name. The information seems completely eradicated from my memory.

Feeling awkward to the bone, I move my gaze back to the man in front of me and say with a firm voice, “The name of the island doesn’t matter. I live in London, a huge city there.”

“Oh. Okay.” He shrugs. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“Yeah, I thought so. No one here seems to have. Which doesn’t make it any easier for me to go back there.”

“You want to go back?”

“Of course!”

“Then why did you come to Neverland in the first place?” His face is still all innocence and intrigue. He swings one leg over the wall so he sits astride it and braces his hands on the space between us. “Isn’t it irrational to go to a place where there’s no way to leave again if you don’t intend to stay?”

“Hey, it wasn’t my intention to come here. It was an accident.”

He flexes his shoulders. “Ah. I see. Makes all the difference.” He sounds like he doesn’t believe one word. “And now you’re trying to countermand that mistake.”

“Accident.”

“Right.”

“Yes. Sort of. If only I knew whether all this is really real,” I whine and finish off the juicy apple then throw the apple core in a high arc into the water. “You know, like whether I’m just dreaming or hallucinating.”

The man fidgets again in his coat then opens the buttons and frowns, pulling uncomfortably on the collar. “To me it seems real enough. Or I wouldn’t feel so compressed in this bloody thing.”

Somehow I get the feeling the dress coat isn’t what he usually wears. Did he only put it on to impress somebody today? Certainly not the booze buddies at the barrel over there. One of them just tipped over and is now snoring on the hard cobblestone street.

“Can you tell me how to get off this island?” I ask him, not intending to waste any more time on chitchatting. I really have to return to my sisters.

He shrugs. “Ship.”

“Do they go out anytime soon?”

Looking over his shoulder, he rubs his neck and drawls, “I don’t think so. But I know of a ship outside town. It should be leaving in an hour. If you hurry up, you can make it.”

I jump to my feet like an excited puppy. “Which way?”

The young man laughs. A soft sound I wouldn’t have expected from him either. “I’ll show you, and you can tell me all about this London while we walk.”

Whatever. I’d even give him a piggyback ride if it meant I’d get back home. At my prompting smile he pushes to his feet then reaches down to the other side of the wall and picks up my fallen sweatshirt, which I forgot in my euphoria.

Uh—no!” I shout. But it’s too late. He already shakes it out and of course sees the image of the Caribbean pirate on it. Pursing his lips, he freezes and his eyes go dark. “Really, this is nothing. Just a meaningless image. I swear I’m not a pirate!”

His gaze wanders up over the black fabric and meets mine. Amusement replaces the darkness in his look. One corner of his mouth twitches. “I didn’t think you were.”

A relieved sigh escapes me.

Stepping out of his rigid composure, he smiles at me, places one hand in the small of my back and steers me to the right. When he hands me the sweatshirt, I tie it—image toward my butt—around my waist again.

We leave the town behind us and the cobblestone street gives way to a narrow dirt road. Occasionally, the waves lap against the rocky shore to my left and a faint spray of water catches my arm. The chill feels welcome against the afternoon heat.

There’s nothing in front of us but grassland to one side and the sea to the other. No other port, no ships, not even a boat. I hope we’re going to reach this ship before it takes off, and with it—my only chance to go home.

“So, what’s your name, lass?” he asks me after some time with an odd notch of amusement in his voice, clasping his hands behind his back as we walk.

“Angel…I think.”

“You think?”

I grimace. “It’s complicated.”

From the corner of my eye I see him turn his head my way, so I look at him too and find him smiling. “I’m sure I can cope,” he says.

As we walk so close to each other, I catch a whiff of seawater and leather on him and wonder if he lives close to the ocean. The note of tangerine underneath strokes my senses. He actually smells nice.

“I don’t really know where to start,” I say and scratch my head. “See…I live in the real world—” The young man interrupts me by arching one brow. “You know,” I explain, “where there are big cities…and traffic…and airplanes. And McDonald’s.” His second brow follows suit. Right, I’m on the entirely wrong track here. “Let’s just say it’s a world pretty different from yours, obviously far, far away, if no one here knows of it. I went out on my balcony last night; it was freezing cold. I slipped and fell. Only I never really hit the ground. Instead I was suddenly sky diving to Neverland.”

He silently listens. Maybe he has heard of similar cases before.

“Anyway, when I landed here, I remembered everything of my life, just some minor information seems to have gotten lost.”

Now he laughs. “Your name is minor information?”

“I…er…” I clasp my hands, then I decide to show him my wrist with the tattoo on it. “I think this is my name, though I have no idea how or when I got this tattoo, or if it’s real for that matter.”

“It’s not,” he states in a matter-of-fact tone, surprising me. How can he tell the difference from only one quick look at it? Because I’m stunned silent for a second he adds, “I know a little about tattoos myself. See—” He grabs my wrist and tilts it. His hand is surprisingly callused. “The surface glistens in the sun. No real tattoo does that. The ink should be in your skin, not on it. Somebody painted this on you.”

Painted it on me? Who would— A sudden smile slips to my face. Paulina. She loves these things and is just the girl to make me stick them on my arms. Maybe she did it last night and I just can’t remember? What had we been doing all evening anyway?

“Where have you gone?”

Startled out of my musing, I blink and focus on the guy’s curious blue eyes.

“It seemed like I’d lost you for a moment. Everything okay?”

“Yeah. I was just trying to remember what really happened right before my accident. My memory feels awkwardly…spongy.”

Pursing his lips, he lets go of my wrist and clasps his hands behind his back again. “Rumor has it every now and then a stranger comes to Neverland. But they usually don’t remember where they come from. They just show up and stay forever.”

The corners of my mouth point down. “I’ve heard about that.”

“So you really do want to go back.”

He sounds like only now does he really believe my intention. If he didn’t before, why show me to a ship that’s sailing away from the island? And where is this ship anyway?

A sudden rush of panic swamps me and makes me freeze on the spot. He halts too, a puzzled expression creeping to his eyes. “What’s wrong?” he asks, seeming genuinely concerned.

“Do you know who owns this ship that you’re taking me to?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s not this Captain Hook’s ship, is it?”

He pauses for a moment, studying me with his head tilted. A frown knits his brows together as he slowly asks, “Whoever is Captain Hook?”

Phew, I’m safe. If it was Hook’s ship, this man would surely know. My shoulders and back relax and I continue walking with him. “I’ve never met him, but apparently, Hook is a pirate. He’s alleged to be the ugliest, meanest and scariest man in Neverland.”

“Oh my, if that’s the truth, I hope I never cross paths with him.”

I smile. “Me, too.”

“Well, you don’t have to be afraid. I know everyone on that ship. Trust me, you’ll be absolutely safe.”

I try to calm down and forget about Hook. He’s probably just a phantasm after all. I wouldn’t be surprised if Peter and his friends made him up just because they were bored or to scare people like me. Now I can actually laugh about Loney’s silly suggestion that I was hit by a cannonball when I fell out of the sky. Too funny.

Returning my attention to the man at my side, I ask, “What’s your name anyway?”

One corner of his mouth impishly tilts up. Probably because it took me so long to come up with this basic question. Only now I realize I was talking about myself all the time. He waits another second before he answers, “My name’s Jamie.”

I like how his half-smile grows into a full one. When he doesn’t pull this sharp-eyes, I’m-upper-class shit, he really is a handsome man. Hard to say how old he is, because the suntan he’s sporting makes him look mid-twenties at first sight, but when one looks a little closer, he still bears those boyish lines of someone much younger. Twenty-one or even twenty-two if you stretch it.

His smile eases and is replaced by a curious look. Realizing I stared at his face a fraction too long, I feel an embarrassing heat sneaking to my cheeks. He saves me from this awkward moment when he informs me, “We’re almost there,” and nods into the distance, where the tip of a mast swaying behind a low hill gives away the location of our destination.

Relief pushes through me. He wasn’t lying, there actually is a ship. But as we draw nearer, another worry swamps me. “Wait. I have no doubloons on me. Do you think they’ll let me on board?”

“I think they will. And if not, you still have a ruby the size of a marble in your pocket. If nothing else, that one should get you anywhere.” A hint of ravenousness flashes in his eyes, but it’s gone before I can be sure. I was probably mistaken. If he really wanted to steal the ruby from me, he had plenty of time on the way down here.

“Yeah, it should cover the cost of any voyage,” I agree. “Although I would hate to give it away. It was a gift from a friend.”

“A friend here in Neverland?”

“Yes. His name is Peter.”

Jamie suddenly struggles to keep his expression under control. Startled doesn’t even begin to describe how he looks. A muscle ticks in his jaw. “Peter…Pan?”

“Yes. Do you know him?”

A sluggish smile creeps to his lips. “You could say we’re close like…brothers.”

“Without Peter I’d be mash in the jungle now,” I tell Jamie. “He was the one who saved me from the fall yesterday.”

“I’m not surprised. The lost ones usually find him first. There’s something about him that pulls you kids in.”

The fact he calls me a kid grates on my ego. Partly because of what I learned about Peter and the guys last night. Staying a child forever…ick. I’m almost eighteen, I run with the grown-ups now. Babysitting my little sisters every weekend should be proof enough. But I don’t let my anger show. Then I stop worrying about it altogether as we reach the top of the hill and I see it.

My ticket home!

My heart steps up a beat at the sight of the ship calmly bobbing on the waves close to the shore. It’s taller than I expected, made entirely of cappuccino-brown wood. Its beauty takes my breath away. I can just imagine how Christopher Columbus sailed around the world in a ship like this. Only one of three sails is hoisted—the middle one and obviously the biggest of them all. It’s plain white and bloats in the soft breeze.

The front and back part of the ship are higher than the middle, housing exclusive cabins from what I can see. There are small square windows built into them, and some even have drawn curtains. On top of the back quarters must be the bridge. The vacated wheel with the many handles catches my eye even from a hundred and fifty feet away.

A handful of people start bustling around as a guy with a spyglass next to the railing sees us and shouts an unintelligible warning to the others. Could be he told them to wait with the departure, because more passengers are coming on board.

Excited, I walk faster, my eyes almost popping out with wonder. Jamie, who matches my stride, chuckles next to me. When we reach the plateau closest to the ship, I hesitate and crane my neck to stare up, taking in all of it. He pokes me gently in the ribs with his elbow. “It’s a mighty fine ship, eh?”

“Stunning,” I breathe.

“Then what are you waiting for? Come on.” With one hand placed on my back, he leads me around to the long narrow gangplank and has me step on it first. Watching my feet, I warily make my way toward the main deck. The farther I walk, the more the wooden board wobbles under my weight. I can hear Jamie’s footsteps right behind me, which gives me a little comfort.

With a quick glance, I assure myself that we’re already closer to the ship than to land. But at the same time I catch a glimpse of a very dirty sailor on deck. He wears a torn shirt and a black bandana. A real saber is attached to his belt and a black patch covers his left eye. I stop dead.

Jamie bounces into my back at my sudden halt. His hands come to my waist and keep me steady. “What’s up?” he asks into my ear.

I turn my head just slightly, not letting the man out of my sight, and whisper, “Are you sure this is the ship you talked about?”

“Of course.”

“Did you see what they’re wearing? I think these men are pirates.”

“Don’t worry,” he replies with a chilled laugh. I do worry, though. Goosebumps rise on my skin. I want to get off this gangplank and back on land, but Jamie pushes me forward.

A few more steps and I stand on the wide deck, earning the greedy looks of more men dressed in shabby clothes. One of them flashes a gold-toothed smile at me.

“Jamie?” I croak, my knees turning to rubber. “I think we are on the wrong ship.”

“Relax, Angel.” He makes my name sound like a mocking endearment. The tip of his finger glides down the back of my neck in an uncomfortable caress. “We’re exactly where we’re supposed to be.”

Sucking in a sharp breath, I spin around. Jamie pulls off his brocade coat with now obvious disgust for the cloak and tosses it over the railing. “Ah. Much better!” He flexes his shoulders and releases a deep sigh.

He’s only wearing a plain off-white linen shirt now with long sleeves and a laced collar. Jeez, how could I have missed before that this was totally out of character with the fine purple coat? “You—you’re one of them,” I hoarsely state the obvious. “You’re a pirate.”

Amusement glistens in his eyes. He gives me a taunting half-smile that freezes the breath in my lungs. “And the ugliest, meanest and scariest of them, too, I was told.”

The man with the gold tooth steps up to Jamie and hands him a wide black hat with a single black feather, then he cups his hands around his mouth and shouts, “Get up, ye mangy dogs! The cap’n is on deck!”

“Hook,” I breathe.

Jamie rakes a hand through his hair and puts the hat on his head, gazing at me with a wicked gleam in his eyes. His smile turns into a dangerous promise. “Welcome aboard the Jolly Roger.”

 

 

Chapter 5

 

I TRY TO rush past him and get off the ship, but Hook captures me easily with one arm around my waist and pulls me back. I fall against his rock-hard chest, away from the gangplank that two of his men pull in.

“Put her out, Smee!” he shouts over my head to another young man dressed completely in black, who appears on the sterncastle. His ginger hair looks shaggy and he wears a red bandana around his neck. First, I think Hook is talking about me and wonder what he means. But moments later the pirate on the bridge yells orders to draw anchor and hoist sails. The ship starts to glide away from the shore.

I’m trapped on the Jolly Roger.

“Let go, you freaking bastard!” Thrashing about, I scream like a snake has wound around my waist instead of his arm. On second thought, Hook is just as bad as a snake.

His mocking laughter rumbles in my ear. “There, there. Who taught you such nasty words, little Miss London?”

My elbow connects with his diaphragm and smacks the damn grin right off his face. I’m free and stumble away. With one hand pressed to his chest, Hook bends forward and pushes out a cough. He clearly underestimated me. This is my only chance, but we’re already too far out, and several members of his smudgy crew are blocking my sight to the shore, backing him up. There’s no time to think. Frantically, I spin around, dash across the ship and climb onto the railing. Gathering all the power I have inside me, I leap out and plummet fifteen feet into the waves.

The cold water takes me under in a wild spin, determined to smash me against the belly of the ship. Seconds pass, I battle to gain back control of my limbs and orientation. With lungs compressed to the size of tennis balls, I push up from the watery depths and finally break through the surface, sputtering water from mouth and nose, and suck in a lifesaving breath.

“Look what we’ve got down there, Cap’n!” I hear Smee’s faint laughter from deck and turn to find most of the men standing behind the railing, gaping down at me with dirty grins. “A mermaid.”

The crowd parts and Hook steps through. Slowly, he braces his hands on the railing, leans forward and arches his brow. “Was that really necessary?”

Yeah, it would all be so easy for him if I just played the nice captive. But I don’t think so. To get back on land, I have to swim around the ship, so I start paddling and struggle through the water with arms weak from hunger.

“What now? Are you trying to swim away? Back to London?”

I don’t answer Hook’s amused shout but swim faster. The tied sleeves around my waist loosen and my sweatshirt slips away. Hastily I reach underwater to grab it, but I can’t get a hold. If the situation wasn’t so dire, the fact the sea swallowed my Pirates of the Caribbean hoodie would have made me laugh. I swim on.

“Come on, Angel. You’ll never make it. If we don’t catch you, the sharks will.”

Refusing to let his taunting words put me in a panic, I grit my teeth and ignore him.

“Aaaaangeeeel…!” He keeps pace with me, walking slowly along the railing and has fun at it, too. He sounds like he’s talking to an infant when he tells me, “We’re seventeen men and a ship against you. Why can’t you just be nice and surrender? Be my guest!”

Guest, hah! He must be bonkers. But he soon seems to reach the limits of his patience and growls, “Smee! Fish her out!”

No matter how fast I pedal, I can’t escape the fishing net that’s being cast over me then. As they pull the strings of the net together, I’m tossed about and they haul me back on board like the catch of the day. My struggling is in vain. I land like a flopping catfish on deck.

Two men with their shoulder-length hair tied in a braid grab me by my arms and yank me to my feet. “What we do with her, Cap’n?” the one to my left asks Hook. He wears an earring the size of a bracelet and both his forearms display mermaid tattoos. With his wrinkled skin and the gray streaks in his black hair, he looks to be the oldest man on board, though I doubt he’s older than his early forties. He smells like rotten fish.

“Tie her to the mast, Fin.” Hook’s order is cold, emotionless. Arms folded over his chest, he waits until I stand pressed with my back against the tallest mast on the ship, my arms yanked to the back of the pole and tied with a rough rope chafing my skin. All the time, we never break eye contact. When the pirate called Fin is done and my hands are secured, Hook waves him away.

A cold aura surrounds the captain when he moves his hands down to his belt and slowly walks over to me. The letter J is engraved in the silver buckle. Only on a second look do I realize it’s not a letter but a hook. And suddenly I wonder why he still has both his hands. The Lost Boys said he had a hook on his right arm. Apparently, he doesn’t.

“Why are you holding me prisoner on your ship?” I snap when he’s only a couple of steps away.

“Because you’re of great value. And because you have something that belongs to me.”

“Yeah? And what would that be?”

The captain takes another step forward, closing the distance between us until we share the same breath. “My heart,” he says in a strangely soft way and caresses my cheek with his fingertips.

What the heck— Too baffled, I don’t get out a single word.

His eyes stay warm when his mouth twitches into a greedy grin. He lowers his hands to my hips then strokes them gently down to my thighs. “Ah, here it is.” His grin grows wider and this time his eyes match it with a dark glint. Violating my intimate zone without warning, he shoves his hand into the right pocket of my wet jeans. I gasp. But he withdraws it a moment later—and with it, the ruby from Peter Pan.

“Give that back!” I strain to get my wrists freed. “It was a gift! You goddamn thief!”

Hook tilts the gemstone in the sun, studying it with a frown that he directs at me next, and drawls, “ How…little Angel…can I be the thief when you carry something that’s rightfully mine?”

I hesitate with my answer and lower the level of my voice. “I didn’t steal it. Peter gave it to me.”

“Yes. Peter Pan,” he says through gritted teeth. “The one damn bug that has been annoying me for decades.”

Did he say decades? Oh my God, how long has Peter really been a teenager? And the entire island never aged a day? But then I realize I’m in deeper trouble than just stuck in a timeless area. I’m stuck on a ship that’s run by a ruthless captain and his ugly-as-hell pirates. I need a plan.

“Fine. You have back what you wanted. Now take off these ropes and let me go.”

A spine-chilling chuckle sounds from his throat. “Oh, Angel, Angel. You really don’t understand, do you? This little ruby is only a pebble of my original treasure. Heaps and heaps of gold, silver and diamonds.” He holds the gem between two fingers in front of my eyes, tilting his head, and studies me closely. Then he straightens and quickly wraps his fist around the stone. He tucks it into his pocket. His voice loses all warmth. “But I’m sure you already know this. You’ve seen it, haven’t you?”

Not daring to even blink, I shake my head.

“Where. Is. My treasure, Angel?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I shout, just short of a new panic. Peter Pan trusted me when he showed me the cave. I can’t betray him. Not even after he abandoned me last night. “Peter gave this to me yesterday. We sat on a hill, watched the freaking rainbow volcano, and he pulled the ruby from his shirt pocket. There sure weren’t heaps and heaps of gold hidden in there!”

He frowns, as if deliberating whether I was actually telling the truth. Spewing out a curse, he finally leaves me alone and walks to Smee who, until now, watched us silently from the railing. “What do you think, Jack? Is she lying?” Hook asks him in a lowered voice.

“I don’t know.” Smee casts a brief glance my way and scratches his left brow that’s parted by an old, whitening scar. I can’t stop wondering how many battles he’s already fought in the body of a twenty-year-old over the years. “A reckless jump off a ship?” he continues. “She seems like a tough one. Mighty fine blow she aimed at you before. I wouldn’t put it past her to lie to save the brats.”

“What do you suggest? Torture?”

I suck in a sharp breath at the thought of being hurt by these men, but both ignore me. Jack Smee raises an eyebrow at his captain. “She’s a kid, that one.”

Grimacing, Hook rubs his lower chest. “According to the blow that so obviously impressed you, she’s not.”

“Still. She’s a girl.”

His lips pursed, Hook gives me a thoughtful look. “She’s of no use to us, if she doesn’t reveal where the treasure is.” With resoluteness in his move, he turns back to Smee. “May as well let her walk the plank.”

“What?” We’ve sailed away from the island at a good speed for the past half hour. There’s nothing but water around us. “I don’t even know where the island is! You can’t expect me to swim back to the shore!”

Hook closes his eyes for a second longer and the corner of his mouth twitches up in a peculiar way. “Oh, I don’t.” He draws nearer, the heels of his boots clacking eerily on the wooden deck. “We let you get off here and the sharks will do the rest.”

Over his shoulder, I catch a glimpse of multiple dark triangular fins cutting through the water. They hadn’t been there a few minutes ago. We must be out really far. I start to tremble. Is this the right time to tell him I do know where Pan’s treasure is? Peter would hate me, and I mean really hate me, not just be miffed because I’m not aiming to stay in Neverland. And once I tell Hook, what guarantee is there he doesn’t push me off the plank anyway? Once he has the treasure, I’m definitely of no use to him.

Crap, what am I supposed to do?

Jack Smee loosens the rope around my wrists and pushes me a few steps away from the mast, then he ties my hands in the small of my back once more. As he leads me through the two rows of men, the crew cheers in anticipation of me being a shark meal.

Three men set up a board on the railing that leads out into the sea. Smee pulls me to a stop right in front of it and turns me to face Hook who’s standing with his hands clasped at his back and flashes a delighted grin.

“Any last words?” he asks me.

“Go to hell, you freaking…filthy…godforsaken…”

With a single step, he closes the distance between us. Our noses almost touch as he dips his head and brushes a strand of my hair behind my ear. “Darling, the word you’re looking for is pirate.” And there it is again, the dangerous gleam in his eyes. Ruthlessly, he grabs my upper arm and pushes me onto the plank.

One of the men fetches a broom and pokes me forward with it until I stand on the very edge. My knees wobble, my heart races like a machine gun. Only a few hours ago, I considered finding Melody and making her drown me in the sea to wake up. Now, with the sharks only a few meters beneath me, this plan doesn’t seem so brilliant after all. But in the end it might be the solution to all my problems. I’m stuck in some strange dreamland, and dying would get me out. Wake me up. Bring me back. I close my eyes…

“Wait!”

Hook’s sudden yell startles me. I look over my shoulder.

“Take her back in, Smee. I have an idea.” That’s all he says before he strides toward the ship’s stern and disappears in a cabin beneath the bridge.

I let go of a long sigh of relief as Smee takes me back on board. He leaves me in the care of the man who smells like rotten fish then follows his captain.

 

 

James Hook

 

OH, PETER PAN, this time I’m going to squish you beneath my boot.

Slamming the door behind me in irritation, I stride to the wide wooden desk in front of the row of tall windows overlooking the sea. In this study I usually plan battle strategies with Smee, but now I pull the ruby heart from my pocket, drop it on the desk together with my hat and pace the room.

You dare give away part of my treasure? I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget, you nasty little piece of work.

Removing the cufflinks from my shirt, I yank it over my head and toss it on the swivel chair between the desk and the windows. In front of the tall mirror in the corner I stop and brush my fingers over my chest. There’s a bruise forming on the right side. Damn, that girl has some strength in her. And an unbreakable will, too. The whereabouts of my treasure is still unknown. Not even in the eye of death did she succumb but instead shot down my excellent plan. None of the scared rats outside would have shown such courage. Well, probably Smee, but he’s the only one.

I close my fist around the golden key dangling from a chain around my neck and make a promise. I will find my treasure—together with the little chest. And then I’ll stop this whole remaining a child shit.

A rap sounds on the door.

“Come in, Jack!” I say, knowing it’s my first mate, because he’s the only one who I allow in here.

Smee steps in and shuts the door behind him, but not fast enough. Over his shoulder, I catch a glimpse of Angel in the middle of my crew. The men are teasing her, but none of them lay a hand on the girl. And they won’t. Not if they know what’s good for them.

“James?” Jack pulls me out of my staring at the now-closed door. “You look concerned. Is everything all right?”

“I find it highly disturbing to have a lass on my ship,” I admit through a clenched jaw. This is pirates’ domain, for God’s sake. You don’t toss a kitten into a cage of ravenous wolves.

“Then why did you bring her on board?”

“She had my ruby. There was no other choice. And when she said she got it from Pan, I was ready to bet my right leg on him coming to save her from the sharks.”

Smee leans against the door and folds his arms over his chest. “Yeah, I thought so, too. What do you think, why didn’t he come?”

I shrug and pull on the black shirt I left on the ottoman this morning in exchange for the finer one to go to town with. “She was alone when I met her. Maybe Peter thought she had already gone back home. The ruby could have been a gift of farewell.”

“I knew you wouldn’t toss her to the sharks in the first place, but what’s the idea you spoke of? You have another plan?”

“Maybe she can’t lead us to the treasure.” I let a smug smile enter my face. “But she sure knows where Peter Pan and his friends are hiding.”

“You want her to lead us through the jungle? Excellent idea. If she stayed with them for some time, she certainly knows where all the traps are and can lead us around.”

I nod. “Give them orders to return to the isle and have four men get ready to go ashore with us at nightfall. The rest will stay aboard to defend the ship.”

Smee leaves immediately. I lock the ruby in a drawer of my desk and put my hat back on, pulling the brim lower down my forehead.

Your last hour has come, Peter Pan.

 

 

Chapter 6

 

WE HAVE BEEN walking along a path leading away from the shore for at least an hour and a half with night surrounding us, and still no one wants to tell me where we’re heading. Smee and Hook flank me, four pirates following us. They hollered and made dirty jokes for the better part of this journey, but since we reached the jungle a few minutes ago, their chatting has gradually ceased. Now they are so silent I peek over my shoulder to make sure they’re still there. And only in the dim moonlight can I make out their shapes.

Hook didn’t say a word the entire time. He seemed deep in thought. Smee, apparently too scared to disturb his captain in his musing, was silent too. Or maybe they just didn’t want to discuss whatever they planned to do in front of me? However, while Hook set a fast pace at the beginning—I could hardly match his steps without jogging alongside him—I realize that his entire body has become cautious since we entered the thicker jungle, as if expecting trouble.

“Light a torch,” he orders Smee.

His companion pulls a long piece of wood from the bag he brought and kindles a flame with a match that he strikes on the sole of his boot. The burning torch casts a circle of comforting light around us. “Which way?” Smee asks then.

“I don’t know.” Hook shrugs. “Why don’t we ask our little Angel?” His gaze skates to me. “If you’d be so kind and lead the way, Miss London.”

My mouth sags open and I surely make wider eyes than a koala bear at him. “You want me to lead you through the jungle?”

“And show us to Pan’s hideout, yes. You’re the only one who knows where all the traps are.”

I squeeze my eyes closed and would have pinched the spot between them, but I can’t because my wrists are still tied at my back. “What traps?” I say through gritted teeth.

“The ones Peter Pan and the Lost Boys set up for us, of course,” Jack Smee explains with a parody of a smile.

Last night haunts me. If there really are traps in the jungle, I was lucky I didn’t venture inside alone. “I don’t know of any traps! And I don’t know how to get to his place either! We never hiked through the jungle.” Biting pain shoots up my arms as I struggle against the rope around my wrist. It’s no use; they’re awfully tight. “If you know him so well, it’s probably not a secret to you that he’s capable of flying. And he does it a lot!” My head starts to ache. I feel groggy and tired. Stepping aside, I lean against a tree. “Go find the way yourself.”

“You gave us a convincing show on the plank,” says Hook. “This time we won’t let you get away so easily. If you don’t know where the traps are, then you better start praying, because you will lead us through the jungle and to Pan’s den.”

I want nothing more than to lie down and rest. When is this nightmare going to end? My legs feel like rubber and I can barely see straight. What wouldn’t I give for Peter to find me and lift me in his arms again, flying me back to their tree. The cozy sleeping booths inside are all I can think of right now.

An idea pops up in my mind. Everything is quiet out here. My yell should carry over miles. I suck in a deep breath then scream, “Peeeeteeer!” with all the strength I have in my lungs. “Peter Pa—”

Hook grabs my arm, spinning me around. My back is flush against his front and his big hand presses over my mouth. “If you want to survive the night, you better stop this shit,” he growls in my ear.

Only when my thrashing and whimpering cease does he let go, turning me so he can glare at me. “Good. Now go and lead the way around the traps. And Angel…I swear if you’re trying to trick us, you’re going to regret it.”

“How can I trick you? I don’t know the way nor where the traps are!” Tears spring to my eyes but I blink them back. “I’ll be the first to fall into one. And you won’t even take off the bonds.”

“Better you fall into one than us,” he says coldly. But then he spins me around and surprises me as he cuts the ties with a knife he pulled from inside his boot. “Now go ahead and lead the way.”

I rub the burn from my wrists, staring stunned into his detached eyes. He must know I’m telling the truth…and he still wants me to go first. “You’re a ruthless man, Jamie,” I whisper through a constricted throat.

If I thought his expression was cold before, I wasn’t prepared for how he looks at me now. So full of loathing it ignites a shudder of fear down my spine. He takes the two steps to me, blocking out my view of Smee and the others. His hard gaze freezes the breath in my lungs. “If you ever call me that again in front of my crew, this”—he holds up the rope and slices through it with the knife—“will be your throat.”

I gulp.

Tilting his head, he demands in a dangerously soft voice, “Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Captain,” I croak.

“Fine. Now go.”

My entire body shuddering a number seven on the Richter scale, I turn away from him and take one wary step after the other deeper into the jungle. For the first time in my life I’m really scared. Scared of what lies in front, and even more so of the man behind me. I don’t want to be in Neverland anymore. I want to be back home. I want to hug Brittney Renae and tickle Paulina until I hear her lovely laughter again.

The sound of their voices echoes in my mind from far, far away. I hear them call my name. Call me back. I want to go. I so badly want to close my eyes and just go home.

I don’t know if it’s sheer dumb luck or if there really aren’t any traps, but I manage to hike on for another hour without getting caught in anything. We cross a small clearing, and I look up to the sky, wishing upon a star that this nightmare is over soon.

And then there’s a rustling to my right.

As the light from the torch behind me goes out, I spin around and stare into the dark. All the pirates are gone and I am alone. I know they must be somewhere nearby, hiding in the underbrush. Why?

“Angel?”

I turn to a voice I didn’t dare believe I’d hear ever again, especially tonight. “Peter!”

Standing a safe distance away, he glances around before he leaves the bushes and comes to me. “You changed your mind?” There’s a joyful smile in his voice. “Oh, I so hoped you’d come ba—”

“Good evening, Peter,” someone cuts him off from behind me. I don’t have to look to know who it is. If I survive this frightening adventure, I know his voice will haunt me for the rest of my life.

Peter stops dead and stares over my shoulder. “Hook.” When his gaze moves back to mine, there’s pain beneath a thick layer of anger. “You led him out here?” he whispers, hurt, but a moment later he yells at me with pure venom in his voice. “You allied with my enemy and freakin’ brought him out here?”

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to—” How can I possibly explain? And suddenly I realize my mistake. Peter is so baffled to see me with Hook that he doesn’t pay attention to what’s really going on. “Peter! Watch out!” I scream, but it’s already too late. Smee and two others ambush Peter, force him to the ground and hold him down flat on his stomach.

He fights and struggles, but not even his flying ability can help him against three men. Hook steps around me and squats in front of a cursing Peter. “See, little brother, I told you one day I’d get you.”

I suck in a startled breath. That was no joke Hook made this afternoon? They really are brothers?

“And now I suggest you show me the way to my treasure or your friends are going to find you without your head in the morning.”

“Shove off, you bilge rats!” Peter yells at the pirates, ignoring Hook, and starts to writhe under them again.

I run to his aid, but rough hands hold me back by my shoulders. Trapped, I watch helplessly as Hook grabs Peter’s face with clawed fingers and forces him to look up. “Surrender and I’ll go easy on you, little brother. Just tell me where the gold and the chest are,” he says with barely leashed anger.

Peter’s laugh is a painful sound. “When have you ever gone easy on me? You didn’t back then, and you won’t now.” Smee is pushing his knee harder into Peter’s spine. Peter coughs. “You want the chest? Go to the edge of the volcano and jump in. Maybe you’ll find it there, asshole.” Peter stuns me when he proudly lifts his head and imitates the cry of an eagle.

Moments later, a swinging bundle ambushes Hook from the side and knocks him off his feet. More bird cries follow, but not from Peter. The Lost Boys swing into the clearing on lianas one by one, landing on their feet, ready for battle. Three of them attack Peter’s capturers, the rest go at Hook. I’m glad to see they brought real swords and slingshots instead of the toys I saw in their home yesterday. This way, they might stand a chance against the pirates.

As soon as Peter is on his feet again, the battle takes a turn for the worse. He snarls that Hook is his to fight and they go down a dirty road with their battle. Both sides take jabs and slices, punches and kicks. My heart stops when Hook spins on his heels with a sword extended, but Peter flies out of the way just before he would have gotten decapitated.

It takes me several minutes to realize I’m alone. Unguarded. Stan engaged the pirate holding me before in a fight. This is my chance to flee. To get out of the jungle and find help…somewhere.

Taking a few deep breaths, I silently apologize to Peter for bringing this doom on him, then I turn around and run for my life. The cries of the battle fade behind me as I climb over roots and duck under broken branches. It’s dark as hell and I feel my way rather than see where I’m going, but I know I have to get as far away from Hook and his men as I can.

Suddenly, the ground disappears beneath my feet.

A frightened shriek escapes my throat. Hysterically, I flail my arms, struggling to hold onto anything I can. Sliding down an earthy slope, I grab onto roots that stick out from the dirt and cling onto them for dear life. As I tilt my head up, I can’t see much, only that it’s at least six feet up to safety. What’s beneath me, I don’t want to know.

“Help!” I cry out. Why I do that, I have no idea. Peter hates me and the pirates don’t care whether I’m dead or alive. But it’s all I can do, so I cry out again. “Help me, please!”

One side of the root comes loose and with another panicky shriek I drop a couple more feet. A searing pain spreads in my fingers from my iron grip. I don’t think I can hold on much longer.

 

 

James Hook

 

“WHAT WAS THAT?” I hear Smee shout beside me. I don’t know what he means, and I’m too busy parrying Peter’s jabs to even care. A second later, I hear it, too. The desperate scream of a girl.

Trying not to get skewered as I cast a quick look around, I can’t see our prisoner anywhere. “Where’s Angel?” I shout to my men, who are battling with the Lost Boys. Whalefluke Walter should have taken care of her, but he’s fighting against three of Peter’s friends alongside Smee.

“Wait!” I yell at Peter who’s going at my gorge with his sword that’s really just a big knife.

“Why? Need a break, Hook? Did you pee your pants?”

I dodge his next blow, strike hard with my rapier and cut his upper arm. “No, but it sounds like your friend is in trouble,” I growl.

Peter hesitates a second. He seems confused and unsure what to do. Apart from the shouts of the men and boys around us, the jungle is silent. Apparently he decides to ignore my warning. He comes straight at me, flying the last bit, and throws me to the ground. Just then, I hear Angel’s faint plea for help again.

Whatever happened to her, she sounds terrified. We’re even in numbers here and, as much as I loathe to admit it, we might not come out of this fight as the winners. If I lose Angel too, I’ll go back empty-handed tonight. And I cannot afford that.

Since Peter is still focused on me and not listening to what’s happening in the distance, I throw a hard punch at his jaw which tosses him off of me. Thanks to his irritating ability to fly, he lands ten feet to the side.

Climbing to my feet with my sword still in my clenched fist, I dash in the direction from which Angel’s scream last came.

“What? Now you’re running away?” Peter shouts after me. I know he’s following me through the underbrush. I can only hope he keeps to some code and doesn’t spear me from behind. I would. Maybe.

“Angel!” I shout instead of answering Peter Pan. When there’s no answer, I try it again, louder this time.

“I’m here! Please help me!”

She sounds terrified, but at least she’s still alive. I fight my way through the jungle for a few more steps and stumble to a halt when I find myself at the edge of a huge hole in the ground. It’s at least ten feet in diameter and so black inside that one can’t make out anything.

Smee and the others sidle up to me. They must have stopped fighting when Peter and I did. “Fire,” I tell Jack, who runs back and brings the torch, lighting it again. As he holds it into the hole, I can see Angel hanging onto a thin twig that stands out from the earth. Her feet dangle in the air. There’s nothing she can use to climb up or even just stand on. And fifteen feet beneath her, sharpened branches jut out from the ground. If she loses her grip, she’s going to get impaled in that vicious trap.

Furious, I snarl at Peter, “Damn, you had to make this impossible to escape from, didn’t you?”

“It’s the only way to keep vermin like you away,” he spits back.

“Congrats. Now fly down and get her out.”

Peter takes a small step back and crosses his arms over his chest, staring me straight in the eye. “Why should I?”

What the fuck was wrong with this boy? I thought I was the ruthless one here. “Because she’s your friend!” When that argument obviously hits a wall, I grab the first boy nearby in a bear-fur vest and press my blade to his throat. “And because I’m killing this one if you don’t.”

Clenching his jaw, Peter throws a narrow-eyed look to his other friends. They all retreat into the thicket of the jungle. My men immediately go after them, but I signal them to let the kids go. I don’t care about the rest. I still have little Bear here to make my point clear.

“Let him go and I’ll save her,” Peter bargains with me in a dead-serious tone.

Sure, he’s deeply hurt because he thinks Angel betrayed him, but I don’t see why he hasn’t already flown down and saved her. This isn’t how I know my little brother. For the briefest moment, I think I understand what’s wrong, but that thought is gone too fast to chase. There are other things to concentrate on now. Slowly, I lower my sword and ease my grip on the kid.

Peter nods toward the dark jungle and the guy walks away from me. Peter follows him.

“Wait!” I shout. “What about the girl?”

Looking over his shoulder, Peter says in the same cold voice as before, “She’s your friend, not mine.” Then he flies away. The kid in bear disguise stops and gazes back at the hole for a moment, as though he’s considering climbing down himself and helping her out. But when the cry of an eagle sounds above the trees, he quickly spins around and disappears after the others.

The frightened whimpering at my feet tears me out of my confusion. I step forward and gaze down, meeting Angel’s glistening eyes. We stare at each other for the length of a breath.

“Please, don’t leave me here,” she mouths.

I won’t.

Clenching my jaw, I hunker down by the edge of the hole and test the ground.

“Cap’n!” Fin Flannigan shouts out. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Saving the girl.”

Smee squats beside me. His voice is low and anxious. “There’s nothing there to hold on to, James. If you slip, you’ll fall to your death.”

I consider his concern for a second then nod. “That’s exactly why someone has to get her out of there.”

Smee pushes a breath out through his nose, plants a heavy hand on my shoulder and tells me to wait. Then he rises to his feet and tugs a knife from his belt. He walks to a liana, cuts it off and hands it to me. “We’ll pull you back up when you’re ready.” As if on a silent command, all the others take hold of the ropey vine.

Grateful for the possibility to come out of this alive, I wrap the liana around my fist and start to slide down to where Angel still hangs on to a tiny piece of a protruding root. When I’m at her side, I can see how she’s shaking and her breathing is hitched. Her hands have gone white from her desperate grip.

I ease one arm around her waist and pull her into me. “I have you. You can let go now.”

The chatter of her teeth is all that comes out of her mouth as she shakes her head. The girl is petrified, and I’m the one who put her in this situation. In a strange way, it makes my chest ache for her. I almost tell her I’m sorry, but at the last moment I realize my mistake. “You have to let go of the root now. I’m going to get you out of here, Angel, but you have to trust me.”

Shit, who am I fooling? I wouldn’t trust myself if I were her. But in her dire situation, she doesn’t have much of a choice. Still, it surprises me when she suddenly slings one arm around my neck, pressing her face against my shoulder.

“See, that wasn’t so hard.” I hold her tighter against me to give her a better sense of safety. The softness of her fragile body catches me unaware. It feels good to hold her. Slowly, the fingers of her other hand loosen and she wraps that arm around me, too. “All right…I won’t let you fall. I promise.” As if the word of a pirate counted for anything, I know. This time, however, I really mean it. “Get us out!” I shout up to Smee.

The men pull on a counting rhythm, slowly lifting us toward the edge of the hole. Angel is shaking so hard in my arms, I’m afraid of losing her. Holding on tight, I bring her up with me. Smee helps her over the edge and steadies her until I’m on my feet as well and can take over.

As soon as I touch her shoulders, though, she starts fighting me. Thrashing about, she croaks some unintelligible words. She probably wants to curse me to hell, but no real sound comes out of her throat.

Angel was a tough girl when I met her this afternoon. Tonight, I broke her.

She swallows a few times then tries speaking again without success.

“Let me support you,” I cut her off, noticing that the front of her shirt is shredded and bare skin flashes between the many gaps.

“No!” Frantically, she shakes her head, tears streaming down her dirt-smudged cheeks.

Until this very day, I never had to deal with tears in my life. They sort of scare me. “You’re under shock and not capable of standing on your own legs. Let. Me. Support. You.”

I cup her elbows, which she thanks me for with a look full of loathing and a weak punch against my shoulder. “Le’ go.” Twisting out of my hold, the silly girl staggers a couple of steps away then tips lifelessly to the side.

I dart forward and catch her, sweeping her up in my arms. The cinnamon smell of her hair creeps into my nostrils. She weighs nothing, probably only had that one stupid apple to eat all day. She must have been starving by the time I made her walk to the jungle with us. Well done, James. But then I never said I was good at taking care of things. I shouldn’t have brought her on board the Jolly Roger. That’s why pirate ships are run by men. Girls mean trouble. They are so…dependent.

Whirling around, I face the small part of the crew that came with me tonight. They all look at me like I’m marked with scabies. “What?” I bark.

Smee narrows his eyes. “What are you going to do with her?”

Yeah, that is a quality question. I shrug because I have no fuckin’ idea.

 

 

Chapter 7

 

MY HEAD HURTS and hunger has my stomach in a rebelling twist. Nausea creeps up my throat from a strange swaying sensation. Am I on the pirate ship again? I can hear quiet murmurs around me, but I feel too weak to open my eyes and find out where I am. Strong arms tighten around me and I realize I’m not on a ship. Somebody is carrying me. Hopefully, it’s Peter flying me far away from Hook and his men.

I roll my head to the side, leaning my cheek against a warm chest. A familiar scent clings to it.

Tangerine and seawater.

No, no, no, not him! He’s the enemy. I don’t want to be here. I think of my happy place, my home back in London, and wait until sleep pulls me under once again.

A whispered conversation wakes me some time later, but I’m still too exhausted to fully come to.

“You want to take her to your quarters?”

“Well, she has to sleep somewhere, and the bilge is hardly the right place to put her, is it? But we can take her to your quarters, if that’s a better idea.”

No! Your cabin is fine.”

I’m placed on something soft. Blinking a few times, I can only make out the flickering light of a candle flame. Figures move like shadows in the room. My shoes come off and a blanket is draped over my body. The shivering fades from my bones. I curl into the soft pillow and reach out for my sisters in the dream that I haven’t fully abandoned yet. Paulina laughs and flings her tiny arms around my neck. She kisses my cheek and tells me to come home. Closing my eyes, I do.

 

*

 

Something caresses my left cheek. It feels wonderfully soft. After a deep sigh of pleasure, I open my eyes and tilt my head to see what it is. The bright light of the morning sun flows through three wide windows and covers half the room with a blanket of warmth. Long white curtains are dreamily drawn apart and tied to either side of the windows. If I didn’t know better, I’d say I woke up in a palace.

Of course, I know where I truly am—held captive in a cabin on the ship of the meanest man in the world.

As I sit up in a sea of white sheets, every single bone in my body hurts, reminding me of the worst day of my life. I wince and rub my temples. The last thing I remember is trying to run away from Hook after he pulled me out of that hole. Why he did it is a puzzle to me. A random guess: he needs me for another gruesome plan of his. But how much value could I still have to him? After last night it must be obvious to everyone that Peter Pan doesn’t care what becomes of me. Honestly, who can blame him? He must think of me as the worst traitor ever, even if it wasn’t my intention or my fault that I led the pirates to his hideout. I feel bad for Peter and the Lost Boys.

Wondering if it’s a good idea to get out of bed at all, I let my glance move through the room. The bed I lie on, the shelves on the wall, and the huge antique wardrobe, everything is made of the same chocolaty colored wood—even the small desk set against the wall adjacent to the windows.

There are three doors on three different walls. One is right next to the desk, one in the wall opposite the windows where the wardrobe also stands, and one is leading to a room behind me. Curiosity makes me climb out of the cozy bed eventually, but I don’t get to explore any further, because a tray on the desk with a delicious-smelling breakfast pulls me in like a pile of presents under a Christmas tree.

There’s a pot with warm milk, slices of roasted pork and cheese, buns, and a bowl of fruit. Sliding into the swivel chair that’s made of the same wood as the rest of the furniture, I tuck in like a ravenous dog and within minutes inhale all the food, down to the last juicy red apple from the bowl. Who knows when I’ll get to eat again in this place?

Thoroughly full, I rise and walk to the door opposite the windows where the shouts of men and bustling on deck drifts to me. A handwritten note sticks on the wood at eye level, which I didn’t notice before.

 

Look left before you walk through this door.

 

Turning my head left, I find myself standing in front of a mirror that’s as tall as I am. Oh my God! Instinctively, I cover my upper body with my arms because my t-shirt is torn to shreds. It must have happened in the jungle last night—when I slid down that dangerous slope. It would be a stupid idea to face the crew with my body exposed like this. On a second look, bright colors behind me catch my attention. I swirl around. Three dresses hang on the side of the wardrobe, each of them breathtakingly beautiful.

One is blood-red, made of velvet, with a tight corsage and a fussy skirt. It has long sleeves that end in a flowing soft cone. The second is pink, sleeveless, and like the first it’s so long, I would step on the hem if I wore it without high heels. I pull the third dress from the hanger and hold it in front of my body, turning back to the mirror. The light blue dress barely reaches my ankles and has tight sleeves that end just above the elbows. The cut is a simple baby-doll style with a satin bow beneath the chest. It’s gorgeous. And the best thing about it is, wherever I go in Neverland, I won’t attract attention wearing it.

Carefully placing the dress on the bed, I pull off my torn shirt. There I spot from the corner of my eye another note, this one on the door next to the bed. It reads:

 

Bathroom

 

Cautiously, I open the door and peek inside. A toilet is at the back of the room and—Wow! There’s no roof! Two buckets filled with water hang over an open space, a string attached to both of them. Interesting shower. I wonder if it’s all right to use it. Discarding the rest of my dirty, torn clothes on the floor, I slip into the bathroom and step under the first bucket, pulling its string.

A curse escapes me through clenched teeth. The water gushing over me is arse-cold. Of course it would be; it’s seawater. There’s a bar of soap in a little basket attached to the wall. I rub it over my wet body. Foam builds and the smell of tangerine drifts to my nose. It dawns on me that when I’m done in here, I’ll smell like the captain of this ship. Well, nothing can change that now. Pulling the second string, I wash the foam off and watch the suds run together in a narrow gutter in the floor. The drain leads through a small hole in the wall and out of the ship, down into the sea.

There’s nothing to towel myself dry with, so I pull the dress on over my wet body, which is difficult, but I manage. My shirt and jeans aren’t good to wear anymore, so I stuff them into the bin under the desk, but not before I peel my travelcard out of the pocket. The paper card suffered a great deal when I jumped overboard yesterday. The dates are blurred, the corners creased, but the word London is still legible.

Tracing it with my finger, I let go of a heavy sigh. Mom and Dad will be worried sick about me. They’ve probably gone to the police by now and reported me missing. I wish I could tell them where to look for me. I wish I could let them know I’m still alive.

Good heavens, I wish I could remember their faces!

Startled, I sink onto the mattress. How can one not remember their parents? This is impossible. They’ve been there my entire life. We walked in and out of the same house for nearly eighteen years. How could I forget?

But the more I try to recall their faces from my memory, the clearer it becomes that this isn’t all that has gotten lost. I don’t remember their names, their voices, or even one single moment in my life we spent together. It’s like they haven’t existed at all.

What scares me most about it is that I don’t even feel sorrow about their loss. I’m sure I should miss them, grieve because I’m so far away from them. But I don’t. The words mom and dad have become empty shells in my mind.

Panic squeezes my chest. How long until I forget everything about my past? How many more days can I treasure the memory of Paulina and Brittney Renae? How long until I completely forget where I come from, what our house looks like, and who I really am?

This must not happen!

I’ll do anything to leave Neverland. If there’s a way home, I’m going to find it. I press the tiny card to my heart and promise myself that I won’t give up. I will fight for whatever memory I can save and I will find a way back to my sisters.

Filled with a new surge of hope and determination, I rise from the bed and tuck the travelcard into a side-pocket I discovered in the dress. It’s time to find out where we are—if the ship is still close to the shore and another attempt of escape makes sense, or if we’re far out again, surrounded by a school of sharks.

My tennis shoes don’t match the babydoll dress and they don’t fit into this epoch either. The floorboards are warm enough, so it should be all right to walk out barefoot. The doorknob already in my hand, however, I hesitate as another note attached to the third door to my left catches my eye. This one is fixed with a dagger.

 

Do not enter!

 

No sound comes from behind this door. I wonder what’s in there. Another treasure? Weapons? Someone else’s bedroom? Tapping my fingers gently on the wood, I wait for an answer. Nothing. Not even when I knock louder. If there are swords or even pistols behind that door, it would aid in my chances of getting off the ship. Nothing makes a point like a gun in your hand.

Carefully, I turn the knob and open the door just a crack. After the first glimpse, my heart sinks. This is not a weapon stash. It’s a boring study. I step farther into the room and look around. The odor of rum hangs heavily in the air. There’s a huge desk in front of the continuing row of windows, a map of Neverland on the wall, and another door opposite the windows, probably leading out on deck. I’m just about to turn on my heel when this door opens and sharp blue eyes meet mine.

I must have startled Hook as much as he startled me, because he freezes in the doorway for a moment. Then he runs his hand through his windblown hair and comes striding across the room.

My first impulse is to scream and flee, jump out a window, but panic keeps me rooted to the spot. Hook brushes past me and peeks around the door as though he’s checking for something. Right…if the dagger has fallen off and the note went missing.

I know it’s still there, so I chew on my bottom lip until he stands in front of me again, arms folded. The sleeves of his white shirt are rolled up to his elbows and I can see the angry twitch of his biceps underneath. Only the bottom half of the shirt is buttoned. For the first time I can see the tiny golden key on a chain around his neck.

“I assume you can read?” he snarls into my face and I look up. Swallowing hard, I nod. “Then which part exactly didn’t you understand?”

He’s trying to intimidate me. And he’s doing an excellent job. My heart drums a panicky rhythm. Last night, I saw what this man is capable of. What’s the punishment for disobedience on the Jolly Roger? Certainly something painful.

“Are you going to whip me in front of the crew now?” I whisper.

“What? No!” He pauses and his eyebrows draw even deeper than the scowl he directed at me just a moment ago. “Why do you think I’d do that?”

Fear has clogged my throat. “Because you’re a mean person…with an ugly soul.” And telling him this just might have doubled the number of lashes I’ll receive.

 

 

James Hook

 

THE FEAR IN Angel’s eyes almost chokes me. I thought I had done some good for her by rescuing her from the trap, carrying her back when she was too exhausted to even open her eyes, and giving her the captain’s cabin for the night. Obviously it wasn’t enough.

“I’m not going to punish you,” I say with some force in my voice to make her believe me.

Angel lowers her gaze to her naked feet. “Well, thank you then.”

Thank you? What bullshit is that? I’m a pirate but God knows I never tortured a woman. “Listen, I know I went hard on you yesterday. Won’t happen again. You don’t have to be afraid of me.”

Her eyes find mine. There’s a layer of confusion in her gaze and also a flash of hope. She clasps her hands in front of her stomach. “Am I still your prisoner?”

Theoretically she is, but I want her to feel comfortable, too. “You’re my guest.”

“Am I free to leave the ship?”

“Um…no.”

“Then I am your prisoner.” Sadness gives way to anger in her eyes as she walks past me back into my bedroom and closes the door. A click sounds from the lock when she turns the key.

My jaw drops. She fucking locked me out of my own cabin. I could walk out on deck and try the other door, but I’m sure she just locked that one, too.

She should have done that last night. Then I wouldn’t have been tempted to stand by the door for hours and watch her sleep. And I would have never found out that she does know where the treasure is.

After Smee and I had taken Angel to my quarters and he’d left, I tried to drink myself senseless in my study, just to escape the urge to slip through the door and sniff her hair again, which smells so temptingly of cinnamon it intoxicated me all the way back from the jungle. I was down to my second bottle of rum when the soft sound of her voice carried through the wall. She was mumbling in her sleep. About her life, her home, people there, and how she longed to hear someone laugh again. Things that didn’t make any sense to me. I think she even mentioned her real name, but I can’t be sure and I didn’t care much either. But when she started apologizing to Peter Pan for selling him out and assuring him that she didn’t tell the evil Captain Hook where the treasure cave was, she had my attention.

She didn’t reveal the location in her sleep, but now I’m sure that she does know where it is. I’m forced to keep her on board until I can tease the information out of her. And if she stays stubborn and I have to listen to her sleep-talking every night from now on…well, I know worse ways to spend a night.

But what she said about me—about my ugly soul—echoes in my mind like the beat of a drum. I realize I broke her spirit last night. Maybe I should try to repair some of it. She doesn’t look like the sassy lass I met at the seaport anymore. And it kind of bothers me. If I can find my treasure with Angel’s assistance, voluntary or not, I might as well help her find a way back to London in return.

“Smee!” I yell on the way out of my study. He stands behind the wheel steering the ship parallel to the coast, like I ordered him to do. “Drop anchor and get down here!”

Ten minutes later, Jack Smee meets me by the railing. “What’s up, Cap’n?”

“I need you to run another errand.”

A smug grin stretches his mouth. “More dresses for the girl?”

“No. The one she’s wearing looks good enough.” Much too good, I had the opportunity to find out while staring at her bare shoulders due to the wide-cut collar of the blue dress. “I want you to take a dinghy and two men. Go back to the port. Find every nautical map there is. Afterward go to the forest and meet the fairies.”

“Remona and Bre’Shun?” There’s an uncomfortable edge to his voice. I know he doesn’t like talking to the fairy sisters. Nobody does. There are rumors they use young men for their obscure potions and charms. And then they can be…exhausting at times.

“If anyone knows something about this London, then it’s them.”

“So we’re trying to help the girl now?” He takes on a huffish stance, arms folded, head tilted, and one eyebrow arched. “What about the original plan? To wait until she comes forth with the information we want?”

“Can’t hurt to look into the maps in the meantime, can it?” I set my jaw to show him it’s a bad idea to second-guess me, friends or not.

Of course, Jack isn’t impressed by my harsh tone. Never has been. It doesn’t help much that I’ve known him since I was six. On the other hand, it’s exactly why this makes him the most loyal of all my crew.

“All right.” He claps my shoulder. “Anything else?”

“Yes. Bring me a new hat,” I grumble. “I lost mine in the battle last night and I feel naked without it.”

Smee laughs. “I’ll get you one with a bigger feather.”

I watch him lower the dinghy with Fin Flannigan and Potato Ralph. It’s a good thing the cook is going too. If he grabs some meat and fruits, we’ll get something other than potatoes to eat for a change. The breakfast he’d prepared for Angel this morning was impressive. I didn’t know we had half of the stuff on board.

 

 

Chapter 8

 

I DON’T KNOW if Hook deliberately left the keys in the lock or simply forgot they were there, but it’s nice to have the opportunity to retreat to a small place of safety on this ship. Since this is obviously the captain’s bedroom, I wonder where he slept last night.

That incident with him half an hour ago in the study next door left me with a queasy feeling in my stomach. Ever since I put a foot onto this ship, he’d been trying to intimidate me. But last night, shortly before I must have been knocked out cold, he seemed different. Like there’s a real human beneath all this ruthlessness of his. He didn’t let me die in that hole, he gave me clothes when mine were torn, then he said I don’t have to be afraid of him. What exactly does that mean? That he won’t force me out onto the plank a second time?

Nestled against the headboard of the wide bed, my legs drawn under the skirt of the dress, I rub my hands over my face and sigh into my palms. I’ve spent only two days in this crazy land, and I’ve already forgotten so much about my life.

Fear takes hold of me. I don’t want to forget my past, so maybe I should start writing some kind of journal. Yeah, that’s a great idea. But then, what if in the end I don’t even remember why I wrote that particular story down? Or maybe I’ll forget that it was me, who started this journal in the first place? Here in Neverland, everything seems possible and, all of a sudden, my stomach twists into a tight knot. Writing things down doesn’t seem like the right way to deal with this.

Instead I try to recall all I know in a mumble. “My name is Angel.” Most likely. “I’m seventeen years old; I live in a beautiful two-story house just outside London; I like cinnamon cookies and strawberry milk, and my favorite movie is Pirates of the Caribbean.” I stop and stare at my toes peeking out from under the skirt’s hem. Now isn’t this just ironic? I won’t be able to watch that film without turning into a whining milquetoast in the future.

Okay, what else do I still know? “My sisters are twins, strawberry blond, and they love to make my life hell when my parents,”—the ones I don’t remember—“are out of the house.” Good. No important information has gone since I got up this morning. If I keep repeating these things to myself all day, I might not forget them after all.

And that’s the exact moment a realization hits me. From morning till evening, I remember everything—all the time. What’s there when I wake up is still there when I go to sleep. It’s the time when I’m not awake where I seem to lose yet another part of my memory.

A shudder cold as ice pricks a trail down my spine.

Sleep is the answer. I must not fall asleep again, or I’ll wake up with another chunk of memory lost forever. And that means I have to find a way off this island within the next sixteen to twenty hours.

Oh my God! Don’t panic now!

I jump off the bed and pace the room. What options do I have? Neverland is a small island. The only chance to leave is to swim or board a ship. With the sharks out there, I opt for the latter. The passenger ships at the seaport are useless. They’re rundown and have been converted to fit into a lazy town life. It would take weeks if not months to get them seaworthy.

Apparently, the only ship that still sails the ocean is the Jolly Roger. I need a plan to move the ship in the right direction.

Or…have it moved.

A wicked smile slips to my lips as I turn around and stare at the Do not enter note. It’s been fastened to the door with a dagger. Heck, all the time it was there in front of my nose and I didn’t see it! Seems like I don’t need a pistol after all.

I pull the dagger out just in time to hear the sound of the other study door opening. The heels of Hook’s boots clack on the wood. So he’s back and apparently alone. This is my best bet to convince him of my intentions. I don’t take another minute to think, just a moment to hide the silver dagger in the side pocket of my dress. It’s too long and the tip of the blade stands out, so I cover it by sliding my hand into the pocket, too. With the other, I knock.

“Last time I saw you disappear into that room, you locked the door,” comes Hook’s muffled answering growl.

Right. I turn the key and take this as an invitation to enter.

Hook stands by the middle window behind his desk, his back turned to me. When I close the door, he looks over his shoulder. “What can I do for you?” There’s a note of irritation in his voice.

I almost back out of my plan, but with the image of Paulina hugging her toy bunny in my mind, I take a deep breath, square my shoulders and say, “For one, you could let me off this ship, Captain.”

Hook lets his attention glide outside again and chuckles. “Off this ship…” Then he slowly turns, skirts his desk and leans against the edge, his legs crossed at the ankles and his arms folded over his chest. Tilting his head and smiling just enough to make me wonder if he locked his nasty pirate manners away for a moment, he studies me over the five-foot distance between us. “Tell me, Miss London, where would you go if I let you free?”

I shrug, lifting my chin. “Back to the seaport. Find someone who can tell me how to leave Neverland.”

“You already know that this ship is your only way to leave. None of the people in town can help you. Most of them don’t even realize that there’s a place outside Neverland.”

“But you do.”

He loosens his arms and grips the edge of the desk with both hands. “I have seen others come here. But I’ve never seen one leave again.”

I tighten my hold of the dagger’s handle in my pocket for more courage. “Still, you think it’s possible?”

A soft laugh rocks his chest. It’s the same warm sound I heard from him yesterday before he lured me onto his ship. “Tell you what,” he says. “You show me where my treasure is, and I’ll tell you what I think.”

My reticence yesterday on the edge of the plank obviously didn’t convince him. “Why do you think I know anything?”

“Oh, just a feeling,” he taunts me.

“A feeling?” I’m testing the word on my tongue. “Know what? I have a feeling, too.”

“Wanna tell me about it?” Hook still looks like we’re having a nice conversation here, while inside my body all my muscles are hard like taut wire. Admittedly, the friendly captain is much less disturbing than his alter ego. But I won’t be deceived this time.

“Sure.” I mimic his teasing smile. “I have this feeling that you’re going to steer the ship away from the shore right about now and see if you can find London for me.”

He lifts both his brows in a challenge. “And just what makes you so sure about that?”

Swiftly, I move forward. Pulling the dagger from my pocket, I press the point to the base of his throat. There! Stunned speechless, he stares at me wide-eyed and with his chin lifted. “My little friend here!” I snap. “Convinced?”

Amusement replaces his surprised expression and he starts to chuckle. “Not quite.” Wrapping his hand around mine on the dagger, he moves it away from his throat. Simple as that.

My mouth falls open.

He straightens from the desk and steps closer. I don’t have a chance to back away, because he’s still holding my hand. My fingers would tremble if he wasn’t pressing them together so firmly.

“Let me explain one thing to you, Angel,” he says in a darker voice than before and dips his head so we’re gazing at each other’s eyes from only two inches away. “Never point a knife at a pirate, if you’re not one hundred percent sure you’ll use it.” He brushes a strand of my hair out of my eyes and hooks it behind my ear, resting his hand in the crook of my neck and shoulder. “If you only had a little bit of the ruthlessness in you that you’re trying to feign here, you would’ve already used the information about the treasure’s lair to buy your freedom.”

His breath smells of rum, but his eyes are sober. Did he just offer me a deal?

He starts to stroke the sensitive spot beneath my ear with his thumb and, all of a sudden, I find it hard to concentrate. His blue eyes look so much warmer than when I saw them the last time. Even though our foreheads don’t touch, I can feel the tickling of his silky hair against my skin. Where is he going with this?

“I don’t trust you,” I whisper and try to blink myself free of his suddenly unbreakable spell.

“I know you don’t,” he whispers back.

“Where does that leave us?”

Slowly, Hook runs his tongue over his bottom lip, then one corner of his mouth curls up in a half-smile. “On a ship. Together. Trapped for eternity.”

Jeez, he’s teasing me. And he enjoys playing this game by his rules. But I’m not ready to play. I don’t have time for it.

Backing away, I clear my throat and state more firmly, “You can’t keep me a prisoner forever.”

Hook tilts his head, amused. “Is this another feeling of yours telling you so?”

I want to scream “Screw you!” at his face, but instead I clench my teeth and snort at him. Then I turn away, needing a plan B and fast. It’s better to return to my cabin. But Hook pulls me back by the hand I forgot he’s still holding.

Carefully, he uncurls my fingers from the hilt while he holds my wrist with his other hand and says charmingly, “If you don’t mind, I’ll keep the dagger.” He tucks it into his belt as he returns to his former place by the desk and folds his arms over his chest once more.

I just attempted to slice his throat open, and he’s letting me go with a grin? What in the world has changed him so? With narrowed eyes, I look at him sideways, but there’s no way I can figure him out. I let it be and stalk, chin high, back out the door. But before I can close it, I hear him call my name.

“What?” I snap over my shoulder.

“It’s good to see I didn’t break it all down.”

Baffled, I turn once more and peek around the doorjamb. “All of what?” I say deliberately slow.

He gives me the first real smile. “Your spirit.”

I open my mouth to say something then close it again. What does he care about my spirit? I shrug off my confusion and close the door, but without the bang I’d first planned on.

This encounter was even more disturbing than the first one this morning. His mood swings have me unsettled. Especially when they end with him caressing my skin. My stomach is still on a strange roll from that experience. I close my eyes and touch the side of my throat where his fingers were a minute ago. James Hook is an inscrutable man.

Unfortunately, he isn’t willing to help me and I’m running out of time. So instead of thinking of his seawater-blue eyes invading mine, I should concentrate on finding a solution to my problem before the day is over and I lose more bits of memory to sleep.

Shouts from the decks give me an idea. Maybe I can bribe the crew into mutiny. But what do I have to offer to make this adventure appealing for the pirates? Nothing.

Well…nothing here. If I can convince the men to sail far out and find other places to plunder, they might show some interest.

With an excited grin pasted on my lips, I flit out through the door and take a twist in the warm sunlight. My glance travels over the wide decks. Where to start? There are four pirates by the lowest mast of the ship. They hold rum bottles and bark with laughter. Drunk and too many—not the best ones to start with.

To my right, I find the gold-toothed pirate who announced the captain on board yesterday. He sits shirtless on a barrel, cleaning one of his boots. Spitting onto the tip, he rubs it with a smudgy cloth. Gross. But he’s the perfect member of the crew to tease into mutiny. He seems like someone who the others would listen to. Well, after Hook and Jack Smee.

As inconspicuously as a butterfly, I take a few swaying steps toward him, rock on the balls of my feet a few times and finally sit down on a heap of white linen and fishing nets. “Well, hello there,” I say innocently enough, though I can hear how my voice trembles.

The man gives me a greedy sideways glance, but he doesn’t return my greeting.

“What are you doing?”

“Cleanin’ me boots, lass,” he tells me in a rumbling deep voice and spits again. His saliva is tinted brown from tobacco and I have to take a deep breath in order not to puke.

“Is this all you do the entire day?”

“It’s enough for now.” Apparently he’s done with this boot, because he puts it on and pulls off the other, starting the disgusting procedure anew. I watch, transfixed. “Why are ye so interested in me boots, lass?”

“Hm? Oh, I’m just wondering why you’re spending time here, cleaning them, when you could be out doing, I don’t know, pirate things?”

“Pirate things?” he repeats in an amused tone.

“You know like ransacking other ships…fighting with other pirates. Isn’t this what you’re supposed to do after all?” Yeah, good tactic, Angel, I encourage myself.

“We would. But the Jolly Roger is the only ship out on the sea.” His eyes zero in on a spot of seagull poo on his boot and he gathers some real nasty phlegm from his throat. The sound raises goosebumps on my arms and makes my scalp prickle. He spits slime on the spot then polishes it off with the cloth. “There’s not much to pilfer in these waters.”

“That must be a boring life for you and the men on board then. I wonder why the captain doesn’t let you sail farther out and have some real fun.”

A soft laugh sounds from the sterncastle above. I tilt my head up and find Hook leaning casually against the railing on the bridge, obviously listening in on our conversation. He must know where I’m going with this and still he just laughs? I guess I’m safe then.

To show I don’t care in the least that he’s been eavesdropping, I flash a tightlipped grin back at him then return my attention to the shirtless man. “You should make him understand your needs as a pirate. What captain forces his crew to bob around a small island for years?”

“One who’s after a treasure.” When his boot is as shiny as can be, he slips it on again, stands up and shakes out the cloth. Only now I notice that it’s actually a shirt. His shirt. And he puts it on. Jeez!

“Ye sound like ye don’t approve of our cap’n’s decisions,” he states then and strokes his chin. “Are ye applying for the job yourself, lass?”

I stand up and shrug. “I’m just saying that pirates should be out doing something. Well, something other than cleaning decks or their shoes all day.”

“A fine cap’n ye would make, pretty lass. All skinny ‘n well-dressed.” He gurgles a laugh and places his hands on my hips. Whoa, not how I planned this conversation to go. When he strokes his thumb across my cheek, I’m sure he leaves a trail of grease behind. I back away, but he wraps his arm around my waist and pulls me close. “All the men would be at your feet.”

Suddenly he stiffens and it takes me only another heartbeat to realize why. The slim, sharp blade of a sword is pressed to his throat. “Take your hands off the lass, Brant Skyler,” Hook tells the man with venom in his voice. “Smartly.”

Mr. Skyler turns pale and jerks his hands away. “I was only jokin’ with her, Cap’n.”

“The joke is over. Leave her alone.”

Immediately, the pirate scuttles off to the group of his rum-drinking friends. Hook throws them a warning glare over his shoulder, then he shouts so loud everyone on the ship turns and listens. “The girl is not to be touched! The next man who puts a finger on her is shark bait! Understand?”

There’s a collective murmur of aye’s from all sides.

With a tight grip on my upper arm, Hook drags me toward the stairs leading to the bridge. He didn’t come down this way, I know because I’d been watching it. Did he just jump over the railing to come to my rescue?

Puzzled, I tilt my head to search his face. His eyes gleam with irritation, surprise and amusement. I can’t figure out which outweighs the others when he asks, “Why are you seducing my men, Angel?”

“I wasn’t.”

“Right. Unless I’m very much mistaken, you just tried to start a mutiny, which isn’t very nice either.”

For a brief moment, I stand on my toes to be on eye level with him. “Well, it backfired. Happy now?”

He pulls me closer until our noses touch and I gasp. “Do I look happy?” he growls.

No, he doesn’t. But nor does he look as angry as he should be. In a caress-like gesture, he places the blade of his sword into the crook of my neck. I don’t know what exactly he intends, but strangely enough it doesn’t scare me.

“Are you going to slice my throat?” I tease him.

“No,” he answers and even smiles a little. “But if you ever bother my men again, I’ll be forced to lock you up in that cabin.” With a brief nod in the direction of his bedroom, he makes his point clear.

I feel brave and smile back, not a fake one this time. “Fair enough.”

“I’m glad we have an understanding.” He eases the grip of my arm and sheathes his sword.

At the same time, a man in a basket kind of thing on top of the highest mast shouts, “Lower the ladder! The dinghy is back!”

I have no idea what a dinghy is, but soon I find out that Smee and a couple other pirates returned from a trip to the port in a tiny rowboat. They tie it to the ship and climb on board. Smee carries a bundle of long rolled papers under his arm. It must be something the captain has been waiting for, because his face lights up when he sees them.

“I brought the maps you wanted, Cap’n,” Jack Smee exclaims and pats the paper rolls.

“In here,” Hook orders and both men head into his quarters, closing the door behind them.

Maps? What maps? Could this be of any use to me, too? I tiptoe closer to hear what they are talking about through the door.

“These are all available nautical maps of the waters around Neverland,” says Smee. “But Bre’Shun said to tell you, you won’t find what you’re looking for on them. She gave me this.”

Hook laughs. “What did you have to give for it? Your firstborn?”

“Beaver meat,” Smee grunts. “On every damn solstice for the next five years.”

They are talking in riddles. But then I can hear how paper unfolds and next Hook’s voice drifts out. “A stellar map? Does the fairy think we’ll find London in the stars?”

Did he say London? That’s all it takes to switch off my reason and I burst into the room.

Hook, who’s standing with his back to me, hands braced on the table in front of him, lets his head sink between his shoulders and sighs. “I realize that a note and a dagger on the door can’t keep you out. But not even a knock this time?”

How does he know it’s me?

Rooted to the spot, I fight my surprise, then I cross my arms over my chest and argue, “You were talking about London. I want to hear what it’s all about.” Waiting for him to turn around, I pray that his mood is still on the positive side.

He straightens and rolls up the map in front of him. “We’ll take a look at this later,” he tells Jack Smee, who nods and silently walks for the door. When Smee passes me, he quickly lifts his brow and whistles through his teeth once in awe, like he’s dying to stay and watch what’s going to happen in this room in just a minute. Only after the sound of the door closing, Hook turns to face me, his expression darker than a storm.

I gulp.

 

***

Find out what’s going to happen next between Angel and Hook and grab the book from Amazon!

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