Sunday, January 6, 2013


Join us this week on our review tour for the first book in THE DARE CLUB series, and get a chance to win an gift card! THE DARE CLUB: NITA is the start of a new line of action/adventure stories that YA and Middle School readers are going to love.

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Chapter One

An orange gorilla barreled into the school cafeteria. Nita Conroy’s fork froze halfway to her mouth. Across the crowded room, she could see the enormous head flopping from side to side as it ran a zigzag pattern through a widening corridor of students. Someone nearby hollered “Streaker,” and a general uproar ensued as everyone dropped whatever they were holding to get a look.
Food went flying. Plastic trays and silverware clattered to the floor as the neon primate ran through the room. As it wove in and out of the long maze of tables, Nita caught glimpses of a mostly naked girl beneath the goofy head. Aside from the mask, all she was wearing were three cutout letters, “LRC,” which covered only was legally necessary--and nothing else. After a quick round of the lunchroom, the gorilla spun and headed toward the exit in the far corner of the room, close to where Nita was seated.
Nita felt a wave of admiration. Some brave, unclothed female had just sacrificed her dignity to liven up noontime at the dullest school on the planet. It didn’t hurt that she was tall and athletic-looking, with a killer body. So maybe it wasn’t as much sacrifice as exhibitionism. No matter what the motive, it was still commendable. The thick cloud of boredom had rolled away, and everyone was suddenly having fun.
Everyone except the boy sitting across from Nita.
Brad Keeley, the guy Nita had been watching for the past couple of weeks, had his eyes shut as if he’d witnessed a horrific accident. Nita could imagine lots of male reactions to the sight of a near-naked girl in the lunchroom, but that wasn’t one of them.
The gorilla mask swiveled in the direction of Nita’s table. From nerves or embarrassment, Nita tried not to gawk as the girl came closer. With a forced nonchalance, she took in the ratty orange mask, the spongy blue letters, and silver ankle bracelet the girl was wearing. Nita wondered what kept the spongy letters in place, and if it would be painful getting them off. But even more, Nita wondered if she would have the courage to pull off such a stunt.
The lunchroom was literally rocking with laughter; students were toppling over each other to get a better look. When the gorilla-girl finally reached the end of the Nita’s table, she skidded to a halt. All of the action in the room seemed to freeze along with her. Instead of rushing past, she suddenly folded at the waist and tried to cover as much of herself as possible. Good luck with that, thought Nita. Bending over made the girl’s ample cleavage pop even more.
Two men, whom Nita recognized as the principal and assistant principal, were now closing in. They struggled to keep their eyes averted from the naked girl while stumbling over tables, chairs, and students in their path. They had stretched a large white tablecloth between them. While it was obviously intended to snare the streaker, other students were deliberately trying to impede their progress by bouncing and rebounding off of the sheet.
The gorilla girl cast a desperate look toward Nita’s table--all she had to do was run past it to make her escape. Instead, she turned to face the advancing posse.
“Be good, now calm down…” Principal Stone spoke in a soothing voice, as if he were trying to capture a real gorilla. The nerdy assistant principal crept forward on wobbling knees. He was panting so hard his glasses were fogged. The whole scene was absurdly funny, and a new ripple of laughter ran through the cafeteria as students watched the unfolding drama.
“Here now, let’s get you covered up,” Principal Stone said. The gorilla girl hadn’t moved, so Stone stepped forward, tablecloth ready. The assistant principal lagged behind, looking terrified. The streaker obviously recognized him as the weak link. In a blur of fuzzy orange hair and bare flesh, she rammed the assistant principal, knocking him off-balance. Snatching his end of the tablecloth, she spun into it like a top, winding it around herself from top to bottom. When she reached Principal Stone’s end, she tried to jerk the cloth from his grasp.
But Stone wouldn’t let go.
He held on to the end of the tablecloth like his life depended on it. Trussed up like a mummy, there was nothing the girl could do. Her silly orange mask bobbed frantically, but she couldn’t get loose.
“I knew we’d get her,” the assistant principal proclaimed. He righted himself, straightening his shoulders with newfound courage. “It’s all about teamwork.” This time, there was no laughter. The students wanted the streaker to get away, but her chances were looking slim.
“Now there, let’s all go down to the office and have a little talk,” Principal Stone said. The assistant principal placed his hand on the girl’s shoulder to direct her toward the door. The cafeteria fell silent. She took one step with them, then another. Suddenly she dodged under Stone’s arm and pitched herself in the opposite direction. The tablecloth whipped out of his hand and she was free. The assistant principal dropped to the floor, cowering in a defensive position.
The gorilla girl staggered back as Principal Stone made a lunge for her furry face. Students drew a collective breath in anticipation. Stone grabbed the mask by the muzzle and it tore away, revealing the girl’s identity as—Principal Stone?
Beneath the gorilla head, the girl was wearing a cutout photo of Stone glued to a rubber Halloween mask. A thinned-out wig with comb-over wisps completed the look. It was a perfect likeness, and it fully concealed the girl’s own features and hair color.
At the sight of another mask, Stone emitted a cry of surprise, but didn’t seem to make the connection until the assistant principal gasped, “John, I believe that’s you.”
The cafeteria went into an uproar; earsplitting laughter shook the building.
“Sweet!” Nita exclaimed. She noticed that Brad had finally opened his eyes, just as the girl, who was now ‘aping’ Principal Stone, raced by with the tablecloth billowing around her. Flocks of students followed, blocking any possible faculty pursuit.
The girl fled through a doorway that led to the cafeteria kitchen. She slammed the door behind her, jamming it with yards of white tablecloth.
“After her!” Stone shouted; but to his dismay, no one followed. The cafeteria was in hysterics; even the assistant principal was laughing as he got up and dusted himself off. With a head start like that, Nita had no doubt the streaker was long gone. What a brilliant stunt! She glanced at Brad again. He looked unimpressed, and actually a bit ill.
Wow. She sure could pick ‘em. Nita had found the only boy in existence that didn’t want to see a naked girl. That made the last boy she was interested in—the one who refused to put yellow and green foods on his plate at the same time--seem normal. Of course, the last place she’d gone to high school was in Chicago, where quirks and loonies abounded.
“Everyone get back to your lunches. You have less than ten minutes to finish,” the Principal warned. “I won’t be signing any late passes today.”
Students reluctantly took their seats. Nita twirled a strand of hair, suddenly conscious of her indigo highlights. What was hip in The City made her feel weird and self-conscious down here. She’d been at Midville Vocational High School for two weeks now and hadn’t made a single friend.
The pace of the school was slow; in fact, the whole town was too small and too slow for Nita. Set in the middle of endless corn and soybean fields, Midville didn’t have anything to recommend it, culturally or otherwise. For entertainment, there was one movie theater. The aging downtown had a few tired businesses, including a dress shop, pharmacy, pizza place, and a furniture store.
A girl sitting next to Nita sucked in a breath and emitted an “Oooo.” She was browsing through the latest Sephora catalog, admiring designer lipsticks. The girls on the far end of the table leaned in to see. On-line shopping must be the rage in Midville. Of course, there wasn’t much choice. The closest mall was twelve miles away and it only had two budget-rack teen clothing stores.
The catalog was passed around between the girls, but no one pushed it her way. Nita stared across the lunchroom at tables full of kids who had grown up together and known each other—and whose parents had known each other—their whole lives. Families stayed in this town for generations, though she couldn’t imagine why. What she could imagine was how impossible it would be for a newcomer to get accepted into their cliques, and how unlikely it was that she would ever find a friend as restless and bored as she was.
Except, maybe the gorilla girl.
Nita had always craved excitement. She could identify with someone who was brave enough to shake things up in an outrageous, harmless way. The cafeteria was alive now, buzzing with new energy. That dazzling stunt had changed everything. School was suddenly fun, and Nita realized she’d been laughing along with everyone else.
Brad had finally recovered from his case of streaker-shock. A couple of the freshman boys at the table couldn’t stop talking about the “smokin’ hot bod” that just ran through. Brad ignored them, and seemed to concentrate on eating. Even with his jaw moving in a regimented grind, his dimples were deep and expressive. His wavy, caramel-colored hair was long enough to look stylish in Chicago; but down here, he was obviously in need of a trim.
She noted how the strands flared slightly over his ears, and took just the slightest upturn at the ends. He probably hated those curls, Nita mused, whereas a girl would kill for such great hair. She added this observation to her growing list of imaginary qualities Brad might possess.
He’d come to her attention because he arrived at lunch ten minutes late every day. As a consequence, he always had to sit at the table where nerds and stragglers found seats and refuge. It didn’t seem to bother him, so being non-judgmental was another mythical quality Nita had assigned to Brad.
While he was eating, she let her gaze wander. She took in his strong build and height—about six feet tall, she reckoned, which was perfect for her 5’4” frame. His white athletic shoes looked new. She tilted her head to see the brand, and was horrified when she looked up again to find him staring at her.
“Drop something?”
Nita was mortified to see he had a hint of a smile playing across his lips. This was the first time he’d ever looked at her, let alone spoken to her.
And she couldn’t think, couldn’t speak—what was it he’d asked? Before she could compose a dazzling response, she blurted, “Uh, no, I’m fine.”
So much for wowing him with her verbal skills.
He lowered his sandwich; Nita could see his eyes circling her blue-tipped hair. “You’re the new girl,” he said.
“That’s me,” Nita said dully. “The new girl.”
Brad resumed eating. “Where you from?” The question came out garbled between chews.
Could he really be interested? He swung his attention to a pile of potato chips and began crunching loudly. But then he looked up, waiting for her answer.
“Chicago. North side.”
That caught his attention. “Really? You grew up in Chicago?”
Truthfully, Nita had only spent the last two years in Chicago. She’d transferred in during eighth grade, and went to a city high school as a freshman. Before that, she’d lived in several suburban towns, a new one every few years. But she nodded “yes” in answer to Brad’s question, because the truth wouldn’t sound as glamorous.
“Cool,” he said.
Brad thought she was cool! Well, as long as he believed she was a native Chicagoan, but that was good enough. A square of red Jell-O now beckoned to him, and Nita had to struggle to find something else to keep the fledgling conversation flowing.
“I’m Nita Conroy.” Should she offer her hand—or would she hyperventilate if he touched her? She gripped the rolled edge of the lunch tray instead.
“Brad Keeley.” He shoveled a wobbling square of gelatin into his mouth with the hand he would have used to shake hers. “So what do you think about Midville? Must seem pretty lame after living in Chicago.”
Oh it did, it did. But why begin their friendship by insulting the town he’d probably grown up in? “It’s not so bad. Some things are sort of interesting.” Nita tried hard to think of an example to back up that statement. “Like that girl who just ran through here wearing her initials. You know, LRC.”
Brad frowned slightly as he spoke. “LRC stands for Learning Resource Center. Everybody is really into voting for the Olsen Grant money. It’s probably the biggest thing that’s ever happened at this school.”
Nita knew about the Olsen Grant. Some old guy had left millions of dollars to the school with the stipulation that the students got to decide what they wanted more—to build a new stadium, or to update the library and provide scholarships. If that was the most interesting thing that had ever happened around here, the future didn’t look bright for her at MVHS.
“That stunt was probably supposed to influence votes,” he concluded.
“I’m sure it will work, judging by the effect it had on the guys at this table.” Nita nodded toward the freshman boys, who were still exchanging juvenile, off-color comments.
“Hey, knock it off,” Brad snapped. A reprimand from an upperclassman stunned them to silence. Nita was impressed; it seemed like such a chivalrous thing to do.
Brad swiped a napkin across his mouth. “Basically, the athletes want a new stadium, but there are a lot more students who want the LRC to win. With the economy like it is, scholarships are a big deal. Each side is trying to swing the votes.”
“So it’s the jocks against the geeks.” Nita thought she’d made a clever analogy.
His look said duh.
Her food was getting cold, but it was no great loss. Nita shifted the congealed macaroni around with her fork and pushed it aside. She tore open a bag of fat-free pretzels and wondered how to restart the conversation.
Brad had begun to look around the room--a sure sign that his attention was waning. He was idly scanning until Nita saw him focus on a couple headed their way. She thought she heard him groan, though it could have been either her stomach or her imagination.
A golden-haired, god-of-a-guy stopped at their table. He was wearing a bright red sweatshirt that read, “New Panther Stadium—Vote YES.” He was also in one of Nita’s classes, but gave no indication he was aware of that fact.
“Did you see that streaker? Oh, man, who do you think it was?”
The equally blond girl who hung on his arm laughed. She was wearing a matching sweatshirt, but hers was cut off as a midriff, and she wore something tight and lacy layered beneath. Nita recognized her immediately: Mille Bertrand, ultra-popular cheerleader and shoo-in candidate for this year’s Homecoming Court. Now that she saw them together, Nita realized the guy in her geometry class had to be Taylor Gann, the Panthers’ star quarterback.
Brad forced a smile, which stretched his adorable dimples. “I didn’t see her very well.”
“Oh, really?” Mille chimed. Her tone was as icy as her silver nail polish. Brad dismissed the comment with a shrug, but Nita wished she could dissolve when Mille finally looked at her.
“What happened to your hair?” Mille’s voice rose until the entire corner of the lunchroom to turn to look at Nita.
Mille tilted her head in mock-examination. “I mean, were you born that way, or just trying to copy something you saw on MTV?”
“Lay off, Mille,” Brad said. “It’s not like your hair is natural, unless you dye the roots dark.”
Taylor Gann stifled a laugh. Nita thought she saw him flash her a conspiratorial wink, but she wasn’t sure. Mille arched her eyebrows in disgust; there was obviously no love lost between her and Brad.
“It’s so like you to defend lost causes, Brad. I’m sure Lindy and the new girl will have lots in common,” Mille said.
Now Taylor stepped in. “Hey, c’mon, Brad’s a bud.”
“I don’t care! These ridiculous pranks have to stop. No one wants to see a naked body while they’re eating.” Taylor’s eyebrows shot up obvious disagreement, though Mille didn’t notice.
“We all know who’s responsible. Everyone thinks they’re pathetic,” Mille added.
“Everyone thinks who’s pathetic?” Brad asked.
“Your sister and her secret club, that’s who,” Mille said.
“You still believe there’s a secret club at Midville?’” Brad looked at Mille like she was demented.
“I wouldn’t expect you to admit it,” she hissed. “But if it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to expose that gang of troublemakers, so they can get what’s coming to them for ruining my high school experience.”
“O-k-a-y,” Brad said, rolling his eyes.
“Yeah, Mille, you sound totally delusional,” Taylor said. “And you should stop picking on Brad’s sister. Lindy never did anything to you.”
Mille’s face turned fuchsia. “Never did anything to me? What about the ‘Hog Queen’ bumper sticker she put on my car? I drove around with that for weeks, with farmers coming up and congratulating me, before I noticed it.”
“You have no proof she did that,” Taylor said, struggling not to laugh. “And give it up on the secret club. You’ve been on this witch-hunt for the last two years. There is no club. It’s all in your imagination.”
“You think?” Mille’s voice hit a shrill note that hurt Nita’s ears. “Was it my imagination that the streaker who ran through here was wearing an ankle bracelet just like Lindy’s?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t looking at her ankles.” That remark earned Taylor a sharp jab in the ribs from Mille.
“Time to go.” Taylor swung Mille around to leave. “See you later, Brad. And if that really was Lindy, tell her she made my day!”
“Sure, I’ll mention it first thing,” Brad’s voice faded.
There was still five minutes before the bell rang, but Brad didn’t say anything. All Nita could think about was the club that Mille had mentioned. Was that the reason the girl streaked the cafeteria? Was it an initiation or something? When it was almost time to leave, Nita said to Brad, “Thanks for taking down Mille Bertrand. I may be new around here, but I already know who to avoid.”
He waved it off. “No one listens to Mille. She’s an idiot.”
But Nita had listened, and now she wanted to know whatever Brad could tell her about the secret club. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but…was that your sister, um, wearing the gorilla mask?” It was the most delicate way Nita could think to phrase it.
Brad visibly shuddered. “I didn’t look.”
Nita almost laughed out loud. That would explain why he had his eyes closed, and also why the streaker didn’t want to run past Nita’s table once she saw her brother was sitting there!
“Oh, wow…” Nita could barely tamp down her joy. “Does she do that often?”
Brad’s jaw dropped in incredulity.
How could she say such an asinine thing? Nita began backpedaling immediately. “What I meant was--”
Instead of being insulted, Brad threw back his head and laughed. The girls glanced up from their makeup catalog with envious looks. The new, blue-haired girl had made Brad Keeley laugh! Nita laughed too. The day wasn’t turning out so bad after all.
“That’s the first time I know of. Fortunately.”
“Why do you think she did it?” Nita asked.
“Guess she really, really wants the LRC to win!” Brad said.
They laughed and he began to gather his books. Somehow Nita found the courage to grab her tray and walk with him.
“So Mille mentioned a secret club…” Nita said, hurrying to stay beside him.
“That’s just a fantasy of hers,” Brad said. “She thinks there’s a club that’s responsible for all the pranks that happen around here. But it’s total fiction.”
“Too bad,” Nita mused. “A secret club would make school a lot more interesting.”
Brad separated and dumped the contents of his tray into the required trash bins. “It might, but it doesn’t exist.”
“Maybe I should start one,” Nita said. “An outsider with blue hair has nothing to lose, right?”
A smile broke across his face. “I like your hair.”
For an instant their eyes met; it could have been Nita’s imagination, but something seemed to pass between them. Interest? Too early to know, but she wanted to keep the channels of communication open and flowing.
Unfortunately, Nita was too nervous to think of anything else to say. That happened to her occasionally—well, pretty often. Especially around boys she found attractive.
She walked with Brad, feeling awkward, until she spotted something shiny near the kitchen doorway. Nita stopped to retrieve it—
It was the silver ankle bracelet the streaker had been wearing.
Dozens of charms dangled from it. Nita flipped past a grinning frog, a lemon, and a tiny hammer. What a strange combination. Black letters were interspaced between the links. She followed them around, C-L-U-B. She twisted the bracelet; the next letters spelled out the word D-A-R-E. Club Dare? No. She reread the letters in order from the clasp:
To her surprise, Brad had stopped too. He stood next to her, peering at the bracelet, looking ill once again.
“There’s no secret club?” Nita tried to modulate her accusatory tone. “You said it was fiction.”
“That, that…” Brad pointed at the bracelet and faltered. “Doesn’t mean anything.”
“It means there’s a club in this school that does daring things—like streaking through the cafeteria,” Nita said, in a low voice. “Is your sister in that club?”
“I have no idea what Lindy is involved in.” Brad wouldn’t meet her gaze, which did nothing to support his honesty.
Nita stared at the charms. The owner would probably be very grateful to have it returned. She suddenly realized the bracelet was her golden, er, silver opportunity, and Nita wanted to cash in on it. Brad was obviously lying, but she couldn’t hold that against him. It was understandable that he’d want to protect his sister.
“I want to join the club. Would you ask your sister if I could be in it?”
This time, Brad didn’t try to deny its existence. “Sure, I’ll mention it first thing.”
That was the same answer he’d given to Taylor Gann. It hadn’t sounded sincere then, and didn’t now.
“I’m serious.” Nita wove the silver links between her fingers. “If she wants her ankle bracelet back, tell her I want to join.”
Brad appeared surprised at her demand. He stared at her for what seemed like a long time, but was probably only a few seconds. This time, Nita wasn’t getting the attraction vibe from him; he seemed to be weighing out what to do in the uncomfortable situation. Finally, he held out his hand.
“Give it to me and I’ll ask her if you can join.”
Nita’s fingers tightened on the bracelet. She didn’t want to give it up. It was her only tangible proof that the club even existed. She was about to decline, when he shook his head.
“Okay, if you don’t want my help—”
The bell rang. Nita had to make a decision, something she wasn’t very good at even when she had the luxury of time. Brad stood waiting.
Reluctantly, she handed him the bracelet. “I guess it is your sister’s property.”
“Thanks. And never mention that you found it to anyone--my sister included,” he warned.
“Okay, I won’t.” Nita promised, though she didn’t understand why she shouldn’t mention it. Brad saw she was confused, and attempted to explain.
“See, the bracelets are like…a special award. You’re not supposed to even know about them in advance.” He cleared his throat nervously. “If you let my sister know that you had it, she might think you blackmailed your way into the club.”
He looked like he wanted to say more, but couldn’t.
What he’d already said sounded pretty harsh and ridiculous, but Nita reiterated her promise. “I’ll never mention I found it to anyone. As far as I’m concerned, it never happened.”
“Good.” He slipped the bracelet into his pocket. “I’ll probably see you tomorrow at lunch. I’m always late, it’s hard to find a seat.”
Was he asking her to save a chair for him? For a moment her heart thrilled, until she realized he was probably letting her know he sat at her table because there were no other spaces left. For Nita, strays and freaks were the only social option. Brad was there by default.
“Okay. See you tomorrow…maybe,” she said to his retreating back.



Debby said...

Sounds like a great story for middle schoolers.
debby236 aT GMAIL DOT COM

Laurie Bradach said...

Thank you Debby! We think so too--of course, we're a little biased! We're posting Chapter Two as well, to give everyone a good sample. Feel free to tell your favorite middle schooler or YA--and thanks for commenting!