by Lea Nolan
Emma Guthrie expects this summer to be like any other in the South Carolina Lowcountry—hot and steamy with plenty of beach time alongside her best friend and secret crush, Cooper Beaumont, and Emma’s ever-present twin brother, Jack. But then a mysterious eighteenth-century message in a bottle surfaces, revealing a hidden pirate bounty. Lured by the adventure, the trio discovers the treasure and unwittingly unleashes an ancient Gullah curse that attacks Jack with the wicked flesh-eating Creep and promises to steal Cooper’s soul on his approaching sixteenth birthday.
But when a strange girl bent on revenge appears, demon dogs become a threat, and Jack turns into a walking skeleton, Emma has no choice but to learn hoodoo magic to undo the hex, all before the last days of summer—and her friends—are lost forever.
Praise for Conjure:
★★★★½ stars, RT Top Pick. “If there is one book teens-and adults!-should have on their must read list, CONJURE is it!”
– RT Book Reviews
“Richly filled with exquisite imagery, a compelling story, and a strong, smart heroine, Conjure will keep you up way past your bedtime.”
- Trinity Faegen, author of The Mephisto Covenant series
“A true adventure, complete with pirates, romance, a flesh-eating curse, and ancient magic. I couldn’t put it down!”
- Inara Scott, author of The Talents (Delcroix Academy) series
© 2012 Lea Nolan
The waves thrash against the shore in a rage. Last night’s storm might be over, but St. Helena Island Sound is still angry. And I couldn’t be more thrilled.
“Emma, how much longer is that sketch going to take?” my brother Jack calls into the wind. “You promised to surf with us before the waves die down.”
An osprey squawks overhead, searching for prey in the churning water.
“Just a second.” Squinting at the oil pastel drawing in my lap, I wiggle my toes in the cool sand. This beach is normally postcard perfect—sharp blue sky, shimmering teal water, and white talcum-powder sand—a never-changing snapshot of sunny South Carolina summer. But last night’s storm switched everything up, if only for a few hours, and I’m determined to capture it. There’s no telling when it’ll be this dark and gloomy again.
Plus working on this picture gives me a good excuse not to stare at Cooper Beaumont, our best friend and sole heir to this beach and the rest of High Point Bluff Plantation. Cooper, whose golden-brown hair turns blond in the sun, and whose eyes switch from blue to green depending on his clothes. The same Cooper who smells like a perfect combination of summer and the sea. That Cooper.
The unrequited, secret love of my fourteen-year-old life.
After a school year away from each other—him at boarding school, me and Jack in Washington, D.C., with our mom—the last thing I need is for him to see me drool over the new, hard edge of his jaw or his etched cheekbones. Yup, that would definitely tip him off to my obsession and ruin the summer before it’s even begun.
My heart flutters, so before I have a coronary just thinking about him, I force myself to focus on my sketchbook instead. I’ve got the waves right—thick and choppy, a deep, murky slate smattered with frothy white caps—but the sky is wrong. I’ve blended the alabaster, blue, black, and gray to match the platinum clouds, but something’s missing. Holding my hand above the pastel tray, I clear my mind and breathe deep, knowing the right color will sing to me, beckon me to pick it up. As my hand passes over the greens, it stops over one in particular, just like always. My fingers tingle above chartreuse, a sickly combination of yellow and green. It’s just the tint I need. I pluck it and blend it in.
“Heads up!” Jack calls as he flings his faded orange Frisbee at Cooper.
Glancing around, I see the disc is headed straight for him, but then it suddenly wobbles and dog-legs. Without losing speed, it bends in midair and arches toward me, whipping past my face. A whoosh of wind grazes my skin, and I tuck into a ball, pressing my chest against my sketchbook.
“Hey!” I yell.
Cooper charges up the beach from behind me and snatches the Frisbee as he dives into the wet sand at my feet. “Got it!” He flashes that warm, easy grin of his. Holy hotness. Shivers race over my skin.
I gulp, determined to keep it together. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” He winks an emerald eye and picks himself up.
Jack rushes up to us, looking guilty. “Sorry, Emma, I wasn’t aiming for you, I swear. That old thing is warped.”
I peel the sketchbook away from my body. My white peasant blouse is smudged with grayish-blue and pukey yellow-green oil pastels, which probably won’t come out in the wash. I sigh. “Maybe next time you should try to hit me. Then it might land in the water.”
Cooper tosses the saucer at Jack, smacking him in the gut. “Works fine for me, bro.” He laughs, then glances at the roiling sea on my lap. “That’s really good.”
My cheeks flush. “Thanks. It’s not done yet.”
“Really?” Jack asks, studying the now smeared image in my sketchbook. “Because it looks pretty awesome to me.”
I drill my toes further into the damp sand. “Well, I’m not happy with the sky yet. It doesn’t look…”
I bite my lip and search for the right word. Mad and ill aren’t strong enough. I need something that means disgusted, furious, and nauseous all at once. As I concentrate, my feet burrow deeper into the coarse, cold grains.
“Ouch!” I wince and yank my left foot from the sand. Bright red blood streams down the pink skin of my arch. “What the heck?” Crusted with sand, the jagged cut burns.
Cooper kneels next to me and rests a hand on my bare knee. “Are you all right?” Normally his touch would make my heart race, but the pain beats him to it.
Blood trickles onto the sand.
Jack’s eyes fill with alarm. “What happened?”
I grit my teeth. “I’m not sure but something cut me.” My brow furrows as I bend my leg and peer at the dripping, inch-long wound. “I hope I don’t need stitches.” With a tentative hand, I probe the cut to see how deep it is, but it’s bleeding so much, it’s hard to tell. Ruby-colored streaks coat my fingers, and I try to remember whether I should flush out the cut in the Sound or if that will make it worse. “Whatever it was, it was sharp.”
“There’s only one way to find out.” Jack drops to his knees, shoves his hand in the sand at my feet, and digs.
Cooper stretches his lean body and watches Jack. “Careful, bro.” He picks up his discarded shirt and, without a thought for the designer brand, blots the blood as it drips toward my toes.
“Give me a hand, Coop.” My brother scoops up sand.
“What are you doing?” My voice rises as I pull my other foot out of the beach. “You could get cut, too.” I squeeze the wound together to apply pressure and stem the flow.
Jack shrugs. “Don’t worry, Em. It’ll be fine.”
So says the boy who bawls over a splinter. I shouldn’t be surprised, though. Jack’s always the one to jump into things without thinking. Like digging for an unidentified, dangerous object.
“Hey, look at this.”
I lean in, curious to see what attacked me.
Jack uncovers the top of what looks like a wax-covered bottle. The wax is dry and chipped in places, its sharp edges laced with my blood.
A queasy feeling swells in my stomach. I recoil and grimace.
Scraping away the rest of the sand, Jack frees the bottle. Its elongated neck and short, squat body look like the antique wine bottles on display at Cooper’s house.
“That’s cool,” Jack says. Then quickly adds, “The bottle, I mean, not that it cut you.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it.” The bleeding has finally slowed. The cut looks superficial, so at least I don’t have to find a doctor.
“This must have been here a long time,” Cooper says. “The storm probably eroded some sand and helped bring it to the surface.”
Jack lifts the bottle to the overcast sky. “Look, there’s something in it.” A rolled piece of paper is nestled inside.
Cooper digs into his pocket and pulls out his Swiss army knife. “Let’s see.”
My head spins. Dizzy, I brace against the sand.
Jack grabs the knife from Cooper’s hand and slides it around the bottle’s neck, slicing through what’s left of the crumbling black seal, then chips the wax away. A piece of cork is jammed into the top, but the knife’s screw easily removes it. He fishes out the thick, yellow paper and tosses the bottle onto the beach. Then he unrolls the parchment and scans it. “Dang,” he mutters.
Cooper reads over his shoulder.
Uneasiness crawls up my spine. Maybe it’s a delayed reaction to the cut and all the blood, but I think I’m about to hurl.
“What does it say?” I ask, heaving a deep breath.
“See for yourself.” Jack hands the letter over. Shaky, old-timey handwriting and scattered ink drops cover the page.
I squint to make out what it says.
St. Helena Island, Carolina Colony, anchored off High Point Bluff Plantation, April 1725
To ye who may find this bottle and the urgent missive it contains,
I, Bloody Bill Ransom, Captain of the vessel The Dagger, humbly request your most capable assistance. An old Gullah hag harnessed the wind and water to curse my ship and crew for plundering a flower, causing us grievous suffering. This abominable curse, The Creep, has taken half my sailors in the most heinous and gruesome manner and without your aid will surely ravage those who remain, leaving behind only a sorry bundle of dry bones to drift with the wind. We beg your assistance in removing the curse and will pay you richly, as soon as we are well enough to retrieve our treasure stolen by Edmund Beaumont, the Master of High Point Bluff Plantation. On my honour as a gentleman and an honest privateer, I pledge to share one half of the recovered treasure with anyone who responds to this plea and grants our fervent request.
Your most humble servant,
Bloody Bill Ransom
Captain, The Dagger
My stomach drops, and the hair on the back of my neck bristles. Shaking my head, I look at the guys. Before I can even process my reaction to the letter, a flash of color catches my eye and distracts me from the ancient parchment. Against the gunmetal sky, a figure in a crimson dress and straw hat approaches.
“Who’s that?” I nod in her direction.
Jack’s head snaps around. “No idea. I didn’t think the locals ever came up to High Point Bluff.” He jumps to his feet and turns toward the girl.
“Hey,” Cooper calls to her and stands, but I stay put on the sand, squeezing my injured foot.
She tosses us a wave as her long, lean features come into focus. She removes her hat and shakes out her tumbling ebony waves.
Somehow I manage not to gasp. The air quiets, and time slows as I take in each of her exquisite features. My vision tunnels, focusing on her smooth, brown skin, petal-pink lips, and coal-black eyes, as my mind struggles to assemble them into one perfect human face. Even the six tiny silver ringlets that line the curve of her left ear are beautiful. She’s about our age, but she’s unlike anyone I’ve ever seen before in real life.
Jack must be thinking the same thing because his jaw hangs open for a second before he manages to speak.
“Hi.” His voice is soft and breathy as he brushes his dark hair out of his eyes.
“Hello.” She tilts her head as if she’s waiting for him to say something else. Her flowery perfume fills the air. Sweet and cloying, it tickles my nose.
Jack stares, his baby blues vacant, so I help him out. “I’m Emma Guthrie.” I flick my thumb at him. “He’s my brother, Jack.”
Without even a glance in my direction, she grasps his hand. “Hello, Jack Guthrie. I’m Magnolia Akan.” Her accent is a weird cross between British, South Carolina Lowcountry, and Jamaican.
Jack’s brows rise in a mixture of rapture and disbelief. His lips move, but no sound emerges. I’m just wondering why she is using his full name.
She smiles at him and nods toward Cooper. “Who is your friend?”
“C-C-Cooper. Cooper Beaumont,” Jack manages.
Her smile slips as she gives Cooper the once-over while keeping a firm grip on Jack. “May I ask when you’ll come of age, Cooper Beaumont?”
“Huh?” he asks.
She looks up and off to the right, as if she’s searching for a word. “When will you come into your manhood?”
Cooper chuckles. “Um, I’m not sure what you’re asking, but I turn sixteen next month, at the end of July.”
She grins and extends her free hand toward Cooper. Except it’s not like a regular handshake. Instead, she holds her hand out flat like a princess and grasps his fingers when he reaches to touch her.
Jack snaps out of his daze and frowns at Cooper. “Emma and I will be fifteen soon.”
Um, only if he thinks four months is “soon.” Which it’s not.
Slipping her hand out of Cooper’s grasp, Magnolia finally acknowledges my presence and wags an elegant finger between Jack and me. “You two are the same age. How can that be?”
“We’re twins,” I answer, anticipating the inevitable explanation to come.
Her lips twist into an over-sweet smile. “But you don’t look the same.”
I resist rolling my eyes at her revelation that my strawberry-blonde hair and Irish-pink skin are different from Jack’s jet-black mane and olive complexion. As if we hadn’t realized it ourselves or heard it a million times. Yes, we’re twins who don’t look alike. We’ve noticed. But we’re fraternal, so it’s not that big a deal.
Jack laughs. “Yeah, no one ever believes us, Maggie—you don’t mind if I call you that, do you?”
She arches her brow but smiles and shakes her head.
He grins. “Oh, good, because I’m kind of a nicknamer. Plus I’m not really down with calling you the name of the Mississippi state tree. Don’t ask me how I know that. It’s just one of those things I learned in school, I guess.” He squeezes his eyes shut and tries to shake off whatever’s making him babble like an idiot. “Anyway, no one ever believes we’re twins because I look like our dad, and she takes after our mom. Thanks to my dad’s genes, I never burn in the summer, but she’s a total French fry.”
Maggie giggles, probably because Jack is acting like such a dork. “That is excellent. It is good to have family. Very good, indeed.” She squeezes his hand.
Why is she still holding his hand? I mean, it’s not that Jack is hideous—he’s actually pretty decent looking—but let’s face it, he’s no Cooper. Not that I’m suggesting she should switch her attention. I don’t need to compete with a supermodel.
“So, Maggie, are you from here?” I try to sound casual. “I haven’t seen you around any of our summers on the island.”
She nods, slow and easy, brushing her bare toes over the sand. “Sa’leenuh is my home.” She uses the local Gullah term for the island. Unlike a lot of the other Sea Islands, St. Helena still has a large Gullah population, the descendents of enslaved Africans who grew cotton and indigo for their masters.
I’m confused. She doesn’t sound like any local I’ve ever met.
Cooper rubs his chin. “Hmm, Akan. I don’t recall anyone with that last name on St. Helena.”
She narrows her gaze at him. “Small as it is, I doubt you’ve met everyone on this island.”
She finally notices the scarlet smears on my hand and foot. For just a moment, she goes still and pale. “You are injured, Emma Guthrie. You should cleanse that in the water.”
“I was going to, but—”
Jack cuts me off. “We found this cool letter in a bottle.” He wriggles free of her grasp, bends down, and takes the letter from my hand. “It’s about a treasure right here at High Point Bluff.” He thrusts it under Maggie’s nose.
Itchy unease creeps up my scalp.
Giving the yellow paper a cursory peek, she bats her eyes. “That sounds exciting.”
“Well, even if it’s real, it was written a long time ago,” Cooper says. “Any treasure is probably long gone by now.”
The chill spreads down my arms and spine, prickling my skin. “But it’s not just about a treasure.”
Ignoring me, Maggie strokes Jack’s shoulder. “There are many strange and unknown things in the Lowcountry. Who is to say a treasure couldn’t exist?”
Cooper shakes his head. “I don’t know. It seems like a story this good would have been passed down through my family.”
Jack persists. “But don’t you see? If you’ve never heard about it, maybe it was hidden.”
“Perhaps it is lying under this very ground.” Maggie flashes doe eyes at Jack. “You’ll never know if you don’t search.” She slips her hand back into his and entwines their fingers.
The tingling intensifies, and my heart races. What is wrong with them? “Um, am I the only one who noticed most of the letter is about a curse?” My chest is tight, making it hard to speak.
Jack scoffs. “Please, Emma, there’s no such thing. People were just superstitious back then.”
My stomach clenches. “But what about the bone thing? It says it’s gruesome.”
Jack looks at me like I’ve lost my mind. “Seriously? They probably had scurvy or something.”
Crossing my arms, I glare at him. “Uh, they were pirates. I think they’d know the difference between scurvy and whatever this was—what did he call it?” I hobble to my feet, and Cooper rushes to help me. Leaning on his arm, I look at the letter in Jack’s hand. “The Creep. That doesn’t sound like scurvy to me.” Another chill rushes through me.
“Give me a break. Why would anyone get cursed for stealing a flower?” Jack waves me off and turns to Cooper. “What do you think, Coop?”
Cooper scratches his temple with his free hand. “Honestly, I don’t know. This area is full of stories that sound crazy but are based on a little bit of truth. I don’t know what The Creep was, but Emma’s probably right.”
Maggie shrugs. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. But a treasure might be enough of a reward to try.”
“I say we do it.” Jack holds his free palm up for a high-five, but Maggie’s lids stretch in surprise, and she leaves him hanging. He chuckles and shrugs it off, drops his hand, and turns to Cooper. “Come on, what do you say? It’ll give us something to do besides sit on the boat. Plus it could be fun. We’ll start by poking around the Big House.”
Cooper takes the letter and reads it again. When his lips curl into a half-grin, I know he’s decided to give in to Jack and this ridiculous idea. “I guess there’s no harm in taking a look. But we should start at the ruins instead,” he says, referring to the remains of the original plantation house. “This letter was written before the first Big House burned down. In a hurricane, I think.”
The prickling eases, allowing me to think straight. “Burned in a hurricane? How the heck did that happen?”
Cooper shakes his head. “I don’t know. Maybe the wind knocked over some candles. Or maybe it was Captain Bloody Bill’s revenge. Bwuhaha.” He waves the ancient letter at me and laughs.
Maggie stiffens and glances over her shoulder. Shuddering, she releases Jack’s hand and rubs her arms like she’s freezing, even though despite all these clouds, it’s at least seventy-five degrees. “Forgive me. I must go.”
“Aw, really?” Jack asks, almost whining.
“Yes, my grandmother is calling me.” I quirk my head, listening for an old lady or a cell phone, but there’s only the sound of the endless, churning waves. Maggie backs up to leave. “Good-bye, Emma and Jack Guthrie. Good-bye, Cooper. Good luck finding your treasure.” She spins on her bare heels and saunters down the beach.
“Bye,” Jack calls, unable to peel his eyes off her. “See you…soon.” Only it comes out more like a hopeful question than a fact.
When she’s out of earshot, I clear my throat. “Wow, she was…different.”
Jack sighs, still transfixed. “She can be anything she wants to be. She’s hot.” He shakes his head to clear the Maggie-induced fog, then narrows his gaze at me. “What about you, Em? You in?”
I know what he’s really asking: will I spend the summer with him and Cooper, searching for the dumb treasure, or by myself, sketching at the nearby wildlife preserve?
Put that way, I don’t have a choice. Jack’s sucked Cooper in to this scheme, and I can’t be without Cooper. I sigh, shaking my head in defeat. “Fine. But just remember, I told you so.”