“I’m not sure I can pull this off.”
Annabel paused for a moment, staring unseeingly at the small duffel bag lying at her feet. Panic crashed into the dome of determination she had fortified herself with, but it didn’t penetrate, just slid down to the ground, fingernails scratching on the surface.
Annabel turned, studying the dark-haired girl behind her. She was biting her lip, arms locked over her chest like chains she couldn’t shake off.
This had to work.
“Listen to me,” Anna said, rubbing Mary’s shoulders. “We’ve been over this. You know me better than anyone. You know how I like my coffee, how I wear my hair, how I call my parents, what my pet peeves are, and which words I overuse. And nobody here has met me, so all you have to do is show up and say ‘Hi, I’m Annabel!’ and then it’s all you.”
Mary sighed, looking at the floor.
They had met for the first time half a year ago while touring the campus of Yale University in the same group. Annabel had still been trying to figure out a plan to deceive her family into thinking she was attending university while pursuing her actual goal—to join the Ascendant Order. If her parents or sister got even a whiff of her intentions, she was sure they’d fly her off to a warded private island and keep her there until she turned fifty.
Luck had smiled on her when Mary’s excellent application got rejected, while Annabel got accepted thanks to her good grades, her mother’s generous donation to the university, and her father’s acclaimed position as one of Harvard’s esteemed professors.
The deal she struck with Mary was simple.
Mary would assume her identity and attend school in her stead, making sure nobody found out the truth. She would get the education she wanted and enough money to live comfortably, while Annabel would be free to do and go wherever she pleased.
Mary released a long breath, letting her hands drop to her sides. Her nervousness didn’t disappear, though. She was ready, as ready as one could be to assume somebody else’s identity, but she had to fully commit to the plan or it would all end in an epic disaster.
Anna pulled her toward the lavish full-length mirror in the corner—an inscrutable present chosen by her mother who had been adamant that studying computer science was no excuse for Annabel to turn into anything less than a well-kept lady. So the extravagant thing had been among the hundred unnecessary belongings she had insisted on them bringing when they helped Anna move into the dormitory.
Her mother had met the idea of living in a dormitory with outrage, insisting that sharing a small room with a stranger was unnecessary when they could more than afford to get an entire apartment to suit Annabel’s needs. But Anna wouldn’t budge—living in a dormitory where her parents couldn’t just show up was precisely why she had chosen it. Mary could fool just about anyone, but they weren’t as delusional to think Annabel’s family wouldn’t recognize her in person.
They had other contingencies in case her family decided on a surprise visit, of course, but she doubted they’d be able to make the trip across the country that often.
“Look,” Annabel said, nodding at their reflection in the mirror. They were about the same height, with Mary rising above her a couple of inches. Same dark hair and fair skin, same brown eyes. Mary was skinnier, so some of Annabel’s tailored clothes hung loose on the girl. Mary also had a small scar just below her left eye from when she fell off her bike as a child, but that easily disappeared under a thin layer of makeup. One could say they were sisters and no one would question it. “Think about what you’re getting from it,” Annabel continued. “A high-class education in the Ivy League. You are brilliant and they are morons for not admitting you the first time around. You’ll blow them away, I know it. And just as we agreed, in the end, I will make sure your own name is on that diploma.”
“Okay,” she said, taking in a deep breath. “Okay. I can do it. I can do it.”
“That’s it,” Annabel smiled. “Just remember—no video chats with my parents or my sister and…”
“...write them an email every week, call every other week, and occasionally send the photos you gave me,” she finished, nodding. She turned to look at Anna and a hint of concern crossed her face. “I really hope you know what you’re doing.”
“Pfft, of course I do!” Annabel grinned, her stomach tightening in disagreement. “I really have to go now or I’ll miss my train. You can reach me on the number I gave you in the next few days, but if everything goes well, I’ll be unavailable after that.”
“Do you know how long it would take?” she asked as Anna finally let go of her and strode back to her bag. Crouching, she zipped it, then threw it over her shoulder.
“No idea. It may be a month, it may be a year,” Anna shrugged. “I’ve set it up so that part of my allowance goes to your account every month. Don’t spend too much at once to avoid unwanted attention, but other than that, have fun.”
“I still don’t feel comfortable spending your money,” she grimaced.
“Nonsense!” Annabel smiled, her hand already on the doorknob. “Believe me, what you’re doing is more important to me than anything I’ve given you. Just... enjoy it. And you know, make me proud.”
Mary grinned. “Will do.”
Annabel opened the door and was just about to leave when Mary’s voice stopped her.
“Anna, be careful,” she said, and Annabel turned to look at her over the shoulder. “Becoming part of the Ascendant Order is not a walk in the park. You will be in constant danger—from outside and from within—and you won’t know anyone there. They might not be the heroes you think them to be.”
Annabel paused for a moment, her mind recalling the whole crazy plan.
“Only one way to find out.” She shrugged. “See you later, Mary Parker.”