Emma’s excitement for freshman year quickly wanes when she discovers Doug has a new girlfriend. Although heartbroken, she’s determined to throw herself into school activities, and she decides to go out for cheerleading.
When she begins to witness strange encounters and glimpses what appears to be a phantom on the castle’s east tower, Emma’s investigative skills are put to the test and sparks a secret adventure through the academy’s underground caverns.
When an unforeseen danger threatens to undo all that she’s accomplished, Emma must gather her courage and do the right thing. But what will it cost? And will she and Doug ever be the same again?
“I truly enjoyed this read. This book has it all: action, romance, mystery, and suspense.”Cassandra Greene, Librarian and NetGalley Reviewer
Excerpt from The Phantom of the East Tower
Fifteen-year-old Andrew Dawes blew into his cupped hands and then rubbed them together vigorously in an attempt to restore some feeling to his icy fingers. The light jacket he was wearing did little to protect him from the cold wind that had been blowing steadily from the north all day long. It was unusually cold for mid-September Andy thought as he walked along the shoulder of the road. He hoped it wasn’t an indication of the winter to come.
Andy stopped for a moment to scan the road in both directions. There wasn’t a car in sight. Hitchhiking wasn’t as easy as he’d thought it would be. People were reluctant to offer a ride to someone they didn’t know—even someone as unimposing as himself. Andy was average height but his slight frame was painfully thin. He had a pale complexion and shoulder-length white-blond hair. His face was long and narrow with high cheekbones but his most striking feature was his eyes, which were a light gray.
Andy carried a dark blue backpack and bedroll on his shoulders. The pack contained a change of clothes, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a small bottle of shampoo, a comb, and a bar of soap. Andy had also packed a bottle of water and some granola bars just in case he got hungry. Added together it wasn’t much, but it was all he could carry.
Andy sighed as he shifted the pack to a more comfortable position. Then he set off once again. As he waited for a car to come by, he thought back over the past couple of days. As bad as things may seem today, they were still preferable to the situation he had so recently escaped. Andy had run away from home and his abusive stepfather just two days ago. Andy’s real father had been killed in a car accident when Andy was eight. Celia Dawes, Andy’s mother, had met and married Benny Barton a couple of years later after only having known him a few short months. While he and Celia were dating, Benny had managed to hide his terrible temper, but he had made no attempt to conceal it once the two were married. Afraid for her young son, Celia had hired a lawyer and begun divorce proceedings. Tragically, she too was killed in a car accident before the divorce was final, and Andy was left in the care of that horrible man. Andy suspected that Benny was somehow responsible for his mother’s death, but at the age of twelve he’d had no way of proving his suspicions.
Things at home had never been great, but during the past few weeks the situation had progressed from bad to worse. Benny’s construction business was in some kind of financial trouble. Every evening Benny would come home and take it out on Andy. Andy had been planning to run away for a long time, so he had been secretly doing odd jobs after school to earn a little money. When Andy heard that there’d been a fire at the new subdivision Benny’s company was working on, he hadn’t hung around to see what the repercussions would be for him. He’d hurriedly packed his bags, taken all the money he’d saved, and left.
That was why he now found himself walking along the right shoulder of a two-lane highway leading out of a small town with a name he couldn’t remember. Andy had been through so many towns in the last two days that he had quickly given up trying to keep track of their names.
A middle-aged couple had given him a ride earlier that afternoon. The woman had reminded him of his mother, not so much in appearance, but in her friendly smile and kind voice. Her husband had intimidated Andy at first. Not only was he one of the largest men Andy had ever seen, but he also had a booming voice to match. With a mustache and full beard, he had reminded Andy of a mountain man. Despite his gruff exterior, the man had turned out to be just as nice as his soft-spoken wife.
The couple had invited him to eat supper and spend the night in their home, which was a couple of miles west of town, but Andy had graciously declined their kind offer. Since Andy wouldn’t accept their hospitality, they’d done the next best thing. They had taken Andy to the town’s only restaurant and paid for his meal. Ignoring Andy’s protests, the big man had handed the waitress some money with instructions to give Andy whatever he wanted. Andy had tried to thank him, but the big man had waved away his thanks, saying, “Eat all ya want, son. This place may not look like much but the food’s great.” A moment later he had gone, and the room had seemed strangely empty without his larger-than-life presence.
Andy had chosen a seat at one of the booths by the window overlooking the town’s main street. After placing his order, he had taken a moment to look around. The man had said that the restaurant wasn’t much to look at. A brief survey of the dining area had proven him right. The main counter, as well as all of the tables, had Formica tops. The floors had been covered in linoleum in a black-and-white diamond pattern. The benches and chairs had all been upholstered in red vinyl. All in all, the décor had been dated and worn, but it had also been scrupulously clean. Andy’s survey of the dining room had ended abruptly with the arrival of his meal.
A moment later, he’d found himself eating the best fried chicken he’d ever had. While enjoying his meal, Andy had begun to feel guilty about the lie he’d told the man who had paid for it. Andy had told the couple that he was nineteen years old and that he was taking some time to see some of the country before going back to college next term. He’d hated lying, but if he’d told them his real age, they would have felt obligated to notify the police. Their offer of a good night’s sleep in a warm house and a soft bed had been tempting, but Andy couldn’t risk it. It was possible that his stepfather had reported his disappearance to the authorities, and if he had, Andy’s picture would soon be appearing on every televised newscast in the country.
Andy’s thoughts were brought back to the present when a raindrop hit his cheek. That’s all I need, he thought. He was in the middle of nowhere, and he hadn’t seen a car in over an hour. Andy looked at the sky. Not only was it beginning to rain, but it would also be getting dark soon. It was time to leave the highway and try to find a suitable place to bed down for the night. A quarter of a mile away, Andy could see a gravel road that took off at a ninety-degree angle to the highway. With any luck, Andy might be able to find an old barn or outbuilding down that road that he could sleep in. When another raindrop hit his face, he hitched his backpack into a more secure position and started to run.
Chapter 1: The New Girl
“I’m so nervous, I can’t even tie my shoes,” Emma said, throwing her hands up in frustration.
Martha, who was sitting next to Emma on the floor of Dinswood Academy’s new gymnasium, nodded in sympathy. “I know. It took me three tries to get my shoelaces tight enough. Let me help you.”
Without waiting for Emma to respond, Martha leaned over and began working on Emma’s laces. Cheerleading tryouts were about to begin, and both girls were experiencing a combination of excitement and nerves. Twenty girls had been preparing for this day for the past two weeks, but only eight would be selected to be on the junior varsity cheerleading squad.
The new gymnasium had been completed during the summer break, and this was the first year Dinswood Academy would have basketball teams. There hadn’t been enough girls interested to field a girls’ junior varsity basketball team, so Emma and Martha had decided to try out for one of the cheerleading squads. Because they were freshman, they were only eligible to try out for the junior varsity squad. That suited the girls just fine as their friends, Doug and Sebastian, had already made the boys’ junior varsity basketball team.
Because there were no former cheerleaders at Dinswood Academy to train the girls, cheerleaders from the high school in the nearby city of Benton had come to the academy to conduct a clinic. The past two Saturdays had been spent learning various cheers and routines along with the required tumbling moves. During tryouts each girl would be required to perform a cheer alone and with a group. The girls would also have to demonstrate their ability to perform a cartwheel, a front handspring, and the splits as well as a split-jump and a toe-jump. Many of the girls trying out today had some gymnastics experience. Emma had taught herself how to do most of the required moves after watching a college cheerleading competition on television when she was eight. Fortunately, she had enough natural athletic ability to compensate for her lack of formal training. Martha was among those who had been enrolled in gymnastics classes at an early age, but she had quit at the end of her sixth-grade year. Even so, she’d had more than enough training to perform the required moves with a high degree of skill.
Because she hadn’t had any gymnastics classes, Emma wasn’t as confident as the other girls, and this explained her current state of anxiety. Realizing this, Martha tried to encourage her friend. “Don’t worry, Emma. You’re going to do just fine. You’re just as good as the other girls. In fact, you’re better than most of them.”
Emma looked at Martha with a wry smile. “I know what you’re trying to do and I appreciate it, but it’s not helping.”
Martha smiled back. “Well, it was worth a shot. If it’s any consolation, I’m just as nervous as you are.” At Emma’s look of disbelief, Martha added, “I’m not kidding.”
Martha looked so serious that Emma couldn’t help laughing. “Okay, I believe you. We sure are a pair. How are we going to do cartwheels when we can’t even tie our shoes?”
“Good question,” Martha answered with a laugh of her own.
Since coming to the academy two years ago, Martha had been Emma’s best friend. Even though Emma wasn’t from a rich family like the majority of the students at the academy, Martha had accepted her without question. Looking at her friend now, Emma noticed how pretty she was becoming. Her curly red hair fell halfway down her back. Martha’s pale complexion was without blemish, and her hazel eyes sparkled with energy. Emma had come to think of Martha as more of a sister than a friend.
Emma took a moment to look around at the rest of the girls waiting for tryouts to begin. They looked just as scared as Martha and herself. When she told Martha what she was thinking, her friend agreed. Knowing this made both girls feel just a little bit better.
Just then, Miss Krum, the girls’ PE teacher, blew her whistle and instructed all those trying out to sit on the bleachers. Miss Krum also explained that the girls would be called in alphabetical order to perform their individual cheers and to demonstrate the various tumbling skills.
On her way over to the bleachers, Emma noticed Juniper Williams sitting by herself on the top row. “I wonder why Juniper isn’t trying out,” she asked Martha. Juniper was new to the school. Her father, Don Williams, had been hired to teach social studies and serve as the boys’ basketball coach. His wife, Joan Williams, was going to be the school’s new librarian. Emma had never spoken to Juniper, but for some reason she had disliked the girl right from the start. If she was honest with herself, part of Emma’s dislike stemmed from jealousy. Juniper was not just pretty—she was beautiful. She had shoulder-length chestnut-colored hair and dark brown eyes which were slanted just enough to give her an exotic look. She had high cheekbones, a pert nose, and full red lips. To top it all off, Juniper had a flawless olive complexion. She was a slender, petite girl, standing a little over five feet tall.
Emma’s appearance was almost the complete opposite of Juniper’s. Where Juniper’s hair was dark, Emma’s was honey-colored and hung just past her chin so that it framed her heart-shaped face. Emma’s eyes were a bright green with long dark lashes to emphasize them. Her complexion was clear except for a smattering of freckles on the bridge of her nose that she had always hated. While Juniper was petite, Emma now stood five feet five inches tall. The only trait the two girls shared was that they both had slender figures. Emma had always thought of herself as pretty but would never describe herself as beautiful.
This wasn’t the first time Emma had wondered why Juniper wasn’t trying out, but it was the first time she’d said anything to Martha. Martha looked up to where Juniper was sitting before answering. “I heard she’s going to be the manager for the team.”
“What does the manager do?” Emma asked.
“I think the manager takes care of water bottles and towels for the team. She’ll also sit on the bench with the team and keep stats.”
Emma did not like the sound of that last part at all. She most definitely did not want Juniper Williams sitting next to Doug on the bench all season, but she didn’t want to admit this to Martha so she simply nodded.
Doug Harwood was the dean’s son and Emma’s unofficial boyfriend. Emma had liked Doug ever since first coming to the academy in the seventh grade. Doug was extremely handsome with black hair and dark brown eyes. He had a lean athletic build and was a little over six feet tall. However, it wasn’t only his good looks that attracted Emma to him. Doug was also courageous and caring. He noticed everything and remembered the things people told him.
Although Doug had never referred to her as his girlfriend, he had treated her like one from their first meeting. He was always going out of his way to do nice things for her, and he had tried to kiss her more than once. Unfortunately, they’d been interrupted each time, but Emma was hopeful that maybe this would be the year she would finally experience her first kiss.
“She’s not supposed to be in here,” Martha said, interrupting Emma’s romantic musings.
Wrapped up in thoughts of Doug, it took Emma a moment to figure out what Martha was talking about. At the blank look on Emma’s face, Martha continued, “I’m talking about Juniper. She’s not supposed to be in here. Nobody is allowed in the gym right now except those of us trying out and the judges.”
“I know,” Emma agreed. “Maybe she’s getting to watch because her dad is one of the judges.”
“That’s not fair. She shouldn’t get to break the rule just because her dad’s a teacher,” Martha stated with a frown.
“I agree, but I don’t think complaining to the judges is a good idea since one of them is her dad.” The thought of Juniper watching their every move made Emma sick, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it. It was, however, comforting to know that the girl’s presence was bothering Martha too. “We’ll just have to ignore her and pretend she’s not there.”
“I’ll try,” Martha replied with a sigh.
All conversation stopped then as the girls took their seats on the bleachers. After all the contestants were seated and quiet, the judges began calling the girls one at a time to perform their individual cheers. There would be three judges presiding over the event: Miss Krum, Mr. Dorfman, who was the boys’ PE teacher, and Coach Williams.
Since the girls were being called in alphabetical order, Emma knew that she would be the fifth one to perform her individual cheer. Emma waited nervously while the four girls ahead of her took their turns. She had worked extra hard on her individual cheer, changing it frequently until she had it just right. The constant changing of her moves, however, turned out to be a big mistake. When the judges called for Emma Higsby to go next, Emma quickly stood and took her place on the gym floor directly in front of the judges’ table. Everything started off all right until Emma got to the portion of her cheer that she had revised several times. Her mind went blank, and she had to completely stop in the middle of her cheer. All the blood drained from her face as she stood there mortified. Gently, Miss Krum urged her to start over. Emma nodded and started her cheer from the beginning, but when she got to the part where she’d had to stop before, her mind went blank again. This time though, Emma continued on, making the moves up as she went. As this was her own personal cheer, no one would notice her mistake, except perhaps Martha, who had been with her each time she had worked on her cheer. Emma managed to finish with the toe-jump she had originally planned, and without waiting for any comment from the judges, hurried over to the bleachers and took her seat next to Martha. Convinced that her mistake was going to ruin her chances of being selected for the squad, she barely nodded when Martha whispered, “Good job.”
Emma watched numbly as the remaining girls took their turns. As the last girl finished, Emma realized she was the only one who’d forgotten her cheer. With a sinking feeling, Emma accepted the fact that she’d been too smart for her own good. She’d kept changing her moves instead of making sure that she had her cheer totally memorized. Emma’s cheer had been a good one, but she feared that all the judges would remember is that she’d had to stop in the middle of it.
The tumbling portion of the competition was next. With an effort, Emma stopped fretting over her mistake and concentrated on doing her absolute best from that point on. Both Emma and Martha did well in the tumbling section. The group cheer, which had been practiced until all the girls could do it in their sleep, also went well for both girls. Then it was over. The results were now in the hands of the judges. The girls wouldn’t find out whether or not they’d made the squad until the next day. A list of those selected would be posted on the bulletin board in the second-floor hallway.
In years past, Dinswood Academy had been a privately owned castle. Several years ago, Lord Percival Dinswood had donated the castle and its grounds to the state to be used as a boarding school. After some significant renovations and modifications, the school had been declared ready and open to any student from grades seven through twelve whose family could afford the rather substantial tuition. Two years ago, the board of directors had decided to begin offering scholarships so that exceptionally bright students could attend the academy, even if their parents couldn’t afford the tuition. Both Emma and Doug had earned one of the scholarships. Emma still viewed the day she’d received her acceptance letter as one of the best days of her life.
Emma had loved the school from the first time she’d seen it. The first floor boasted a large, well-equipped library; an equally large lounge; a kitchen; a dining hall; an elaborately appointed ballroom; and the administrative offices. The east and west wings were new additions, which had been constructed to serve as the boys’ and girls’ dorms. The classrooms could all be found on the second floor, with the faculty residences on the third floor. The castle also had an east and west tower, but these had been closed off and were not accessible to the students.
The castle had been constructed of large gray stones in the late eighteenth century and was nicely situated up in the mountains in the middle of Fangorley Forest. Emma loved the grounds as much as the castle. The forest surrounding the school consisted mostly of oak trees, but as one went further up, these gave way to a dominant population of pine and fir trees.
Winters at the academy could be rather harsh with a significant amount of snow. This was the reason for the early start to the basketball season. All games would need to be over before winter set in. This could be as early as the beginning of November. The boys’ teams had been selected at the end of the second week of school. They were currently in the third week of school, and tomorrow they’d know who the cheerleaders would be.
After the tryouts were over, the girls all went into the locker room to change out of their gym clothes. Emma was so upset over her mistake that all she wanted to do was cry. She sat on the bench in front of her locker, while the other girls chattered excitedly and discussed whom they thought had made the squad. To her dismay, Emma didn’t hear her name mentioned once. Martha knew what was troubling Emma, but didn’t want to say anything until the other girls had left the locker room. When the two girls were finally alone, Martha sat next to Emma and put her arms around her.
“You did great. So you forgot your cheer and had to start over. It really wasn’t that big of a deal. You did everything else perfectly.”
Martha’s sympathy was too much for Emma and she began to cry. Seeing Emma’s tears, Martha decided to try a different tack. As if she were a sergeant giving orders to her troops, she said, “All right. Get up and wash your face. I’m not going to stand for anymore crying. You’ve nothing to cry about anyway. I can point out any number of girls who tried out tonight that weren’t loud enough, couldn’t do a decent cartwheel, or follow along during the group cheer. By my reckoning, you are most certainly ranked in the top eight of those who went out for the squad.”
Martha’s direct approach worked. Emma stopped crying and with a hiccup asked, “Do you really think so?”
“I’ve never lied to you before, and I’m not about to start now,” Martha replied still in her sergeant tones. “I fully expect to see both of our names on that list tomorrow, so get changed and let’s get out of here.”
Emma was more than happy to follow Martha’s command. She changed so quickly that she got finished before Martha. “I’ll wait for you in the gym,” she told Martha as she grabbed her gym bag.
“Okay, I’ll be there in a sec,” Martha said.
Emma left the locker room and was surprised to see Juniper Williams standing right outside the door as if she was waiting for someone. It didn’t take long for Emma to realize that that someone was her.
Juniper didn’t waste time but came straight to the point. “I’ve been waiting for you. I have something I want to tell you.”
Emma couldn’t begin to imagine what Juniper Williams could possibly have to tell her, but curiosity and surprise kept her silent.
“Doug may have been your boyfriend before, but he isn’t anymore. He’s my boyfriend now, so you’d better stay away from him.” Juniper took a step closer to Emma in an effort to intimidate her. To Emma’s credit, she stood her ground and didn’t back away. In truth, Juniper’s comments had been so unexpected, Emma was too shocked to move.
Seeing that her attempt to bully Emma hadn’t worked, Juniper sneered at Emma and said more loudly, “I’m warning you! Stay away from Doug or you’ll regret it!” Then she turned on her heels and flounced out of the gymnasium.
All Emma could do was stare after her in shock. Vaguely, she heard the locker room door open behind her, and Martha stepped out.
“I heard every word,” Martha said with disgust. “I knew there was a reason I didn’t like Juniper Williams. The words spoiled selfish brat don’t even begin to cover it.”
“So much for making friends with the new girl,” was all Emma could think of to say in reply.
If you can’t wait to explore the world of The Dinswood Chronicles check out the first two books in the series below.
“This rollicking story for middle grades was full of excitement and suspense.”
— Sandy McPherson, LibraryThing Early Reviewer
“…a great installment of the Dinnswood Academy series. Fans of action-packed stories set at school and enjoy mysteries and puzzle-solving adventures will enjoy…”
—Amber Buttram, NetGalley Reviewer
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