Home > Out of Character (True Colors #2)

Out of Character (True Colors #2)
Author: Annabeth Albert

 

Chapter One


   Jasper

   We’ve got to find a new prince.

   April’s latest text rattled around in my head as I shelved merchandise. My little sister was obsessed with our favorite game’s most iconic character. And I, being me, had promised to deliver for our cosplay group. Letting April down wasn’t an option. But where the heck was I going to find a dark-haired sea god on short notice?

   “I need help. I’m in trouble, man.” The voice startled me, almost causing a catastrophe of epic proportions because I had a dozen card-set boxes precariously balanced. No way could I turn around without toppling my last half hour of work, but I also wasn’t in too much of a hurry. The voice was vaguely familiar, probably one of our regulars, and their definition of urgent issues differed greatly from the general population. Whoever it was could hold their dice.

   “Give me a sec.” Even as I shoved boxes in place, I kept my voice as cheerful as possible. A customer was a customer, and God knew that the little game store where I worked needed more of those.

   “Here. Let me help.” A large hand peeking out of a black winter coat landed next to mine, steadying the stack, and we made fast work of stabilizing the display.

   “Thanks. Though I think I’m the one who’s supposed to be assisting…” My voice trailed off as I finally moved away from the display and turned to the customer. And it was trouble all right. Six feet and a couple hundred pounds of solid muscle of the worst kind of trouble. “Milo?”

   Milo Lionetti did not belong in any game shop ever. I couldn’t even picture him reading a comic book or shuffling trading cards. And I didn’t care what the problem was—no way would he let himself be seen at the “Nerd Superstore” as he and his jock crowd had dubbed the place in high school. Nothing good could come of him being here.

   “Yeah. I need—”

   “To involve me in your latest stunt. Or are you here to gawk at the gamers?” I stared him down, all chipperness erased from my tone. Luckily, the shop was pretty slow for a Sunday in winter. There were a few random games going on at the tables in back, but no one was milling about the front part of the store to witness whatever the heck Milo had planned.

   “I’m not here as a joke.” Milo stepped close enough to the counter that I could smell his sporty aftershave. Even his body products were strictly jocks-only, and damn whatever part of me that found the scent appealing.

   “Oh? Our restrooms are customers only. Need a gag gift?” It was the only other reasons I could think of for why he’d even set foot in here.

   “No. I need you.”

   “For what?” I demanded. Even as some rogue electrical pulse zoomed up my spine, the words bounced right off my rigid torso. He was about eight years too late—four of them a miserable high-school eternity—and college hadn’t softened my stance toward all things Milo one bit.

   His eyes narrowed. “You do work here, right?”

   “I do.” Folding my arms in front of my red work T-shirt, I stopped just short of waving my employee keys in his face. He might have been less smug than usual, but I was no happier to see him than I had been back in school. Then as now, the sight of him heading my way was enough to get all my muscles tensing. Red alert. Trouble incoming.

   “Good. Then you can help me.” He shifted his weight from foot to foot. His tongue darted out to lick at his lower lip in the same nervous gesture he’d had since forever. And in that moment, he wasn’t a bad high-school memory but rather the little kid who’d spent hours building complicated Lego structures with me. I missed that kid, far more than I’d give him the satisfaction of seeing.

   “Come on. Out with it. What do you need?”

   He took a deep breath, shoulders rolling back. “I need a complete play set of Frog Court cards in foil.”

   I laughed. Like full-out, whole-body chuckles, a few tears short of being a human emoji. When I’d recovered enough to speak, I couldn’t stop shaking my head. “Tell me another one. Who put you up to this? Luther? James?”

   Both of Milo’s sidekicks were too stupid to know much about rare cards from the hugely popular Odyssey game, but this was the type of stunt they’d relished back in school. Send a dupe in with a ridiculous ask, embarrassing the requester and wasting the time of everyone involved.

   “No, I’m serious.” Milo held up his broad hands. Even in bulky winter wear, he managed to look ready to star in an Italian car ad. His short, dark hair was neatly trimmed, and he’d recently shaved. He didn’t look to be drunk, hungover, or otherwise impaired, but no way was this anything other than some frat-boy dare.

   “Uh-huh. Well, unless you have a spare five to ten grand and a burning desire to go treasure hunting, it’s not happening. Not here. Arthur’s had this place for years now, and I know for a fact he’s never seen a complete set of all four cards, especially not in foil.”

   “Ten grand?” Milo paled as he gulped. “I need those cards.”

   “The money and a hunt,” I corrected him. “They’re not simply out there on the open market for the taking. Those are a serious collector’s item, and people spend years looking to find a matched set.”

   Milo’s eyes squished shut. “Damn it.”

   “Hate to tell you, but if someone made you promise the cards, they’re having you on.” Despite everything that had passed between us over the years, I actually felt for the guy a little. It sucked to be on the losing end of a prank. As I well knew.

   “I…lost them.” Milo went from pale to greenish gray, and for a second, I worried I’d be cleaning up puke next, especially when he swallowed hard.

   “You lost what?”

   “Bruno’s cards.” Milo’s voice was low and pained. “I had no idea they were that rare. I—”

   “Hold up. Bruno, your brother who’s some sort of special forces, plays Odyssey?” I had vague memories of Bruno, who was a good four or five years older than Milo and me. He’d joined the navy right out of high school, and last I’d heard from the mom gossip network, he was one of the people who worked on SEAL boats and other top-secret stuff. Not the sort of person I usually saw across the gaming table.

   “Yeah. A girl got him into it in high school, then he fell back into card games living in the barracks. He’s wicked good at it too.” Some of the pain in Milo’s tone was replaced with pride, which I would have found cute on anyone other than Milo.

   “Uh-huh.”

   “Won stuff off his teammates, that sort of thing. Anyway, he left a bunch of things with Mom and me before this last deployment. We played a few rounds when he visited.”

   “You played?” I blinked, trying to picture the badass SEAL support guy and jock king playing cards at their mom’s pretty, white dining table.

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