Amelia’s world came crashing down when her parents separated and she was forced to relocate with her mother to a new part of town. But when Duke and Gabriella move into the suite downstairs with their menagerie of exotic animals, Amelia feels like she’s been thrown a lifeline. Helping care for the animals gives Amelia a sense of purpose, and she’s determined to keep Duke and Gabriella’s secret. But eventually her mother discovers the animals and refuses to let them stay. To make matters worse, Winston, a sulcata tortoise, has fallen ill, and the medical bills are piling up. Can Amelia figure out a way to help save Winston and keep her newfound family together?
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ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERS
Text copyright © 2016 Becky Citra
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Citra, Becky, author Duke's den / Becky Citra.
Issued in print and electronic formats. ISBN 978-1-4598-0901-7 (pbk.).—ISBN 978-1-4598-0902-4 (pdf).—ISBN 978-1-4598-0903-1 (epub)
I. Title.PS8555.I87D83 2016 jC813'.54 C2015-904490-1C2015-904491-X
First published in the United States, 2016Library of Congress Control Number: 2015946328
Summary: In this middle-grade novel, Amelia finds a renewed sense of belonging when Duke, Gabriella and their menagerie of exotic rescued animals move into the apartment downstairs.
Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.
Cover design by Teresa Bubela Cover artwork by Monika Melnychuk
To Michael, Bianca and Xander
Amelia saw everything through the slats of her bedroom blind. A rust-speckled blue van crept up the street and rattled to a stop in front of their house. She crossed her fingers. Please, please, please, make everything go right.
The front door of the van sprang open, and a guy with glasses and a mop of curly brown hair leaped out. He peered at a paper in his hand, glanced up at the house and then stared at his watch.
He must be Duke, Amelia decided. But where was Gabriella?
The guy got back in the van, but he left the door open, and hip-hop music drifted up through Amelia’s open window. Then, in the distance, a roaring sound grew louder and louder, drowning out the hip-hop. A silver motorcycle raced down the street. It swerved behind the van, and two people wearing black leather coats and pants and matching purple helmets scrambled off. One of them was very tall, the other much shorter. Was the tall guy Duke and the guy in the van someone else? Amelia chewed her bottom lip. Tall could be a problem. The short person tugged off her helmet, and red hair cascaded to her waist. Gabriella for sure!
They were talking to the driver of the van now, who had gotten back out. Then the guy from the motorcycle gestured with his arm, and they disappeared around the side of the house.
Amelia grabbed the key from her dresser and sped down the hall. The door to the downstairs apartment was at the back of the house, down three concrete stairs. The tall guy from the motorcycle was rattling the doorknob. He’d taken off his helmet, and he had a buzz cut. Up close, he was even bigger. Gabriella peered through the narrow window, and the van driver stared at his watch again and said, “I’ve got other things to do today, you know.”
“Hi,” Amelia said. “I’m Amelia. I live upstairs.”
Gabriella gave her a dazzling smile. “I am Gabriella, and this is Duke, and this is Duke’s brother, Simon.” She shook Amelia’s hand. “Enchantée.”
Duke was the tall guy!
“Gabriella’s French,” Duke explained, rattling the doorknob again.
“Parisienne.” Gabriella flashed another of her megawatt smiles.
Amelia loved the sound of that. Parisienne. And she loved the way Gabriella said her r’s and the way brother sounded like bruder. She would have beamed back, but she had broken off the tip of her front tooth running into a pole in the school playground, and she looked like a pirate.
“I thought there was supposed to be a key under some pot,” Simon said. “Does anyone know where it is? Or is that too much to ask?”
Amelia produced the key.
The door opened directly into the kitchen, which was crowded with four people. Amelia’s mom, Diane, had furnished the apartment with bits and pieces she had picked up from secondhand stores. She had also opened all the curtains so the apartment would look as bright as possible for a basement suite.
Before Amelia could shout a warning, Duke headed to the living room.
Crack! His head slammed into the top of the doorway.
“Ouch!” Amelia said.
Gabriella winced. “Merde!”
“The doorways are…um…a little low,” Amelia said.
Duke rubbed his forehead and gazed up. “The ceilings are a little low too. Not much clearance there. Maybe half an inch.”
But he didn’t sound mad. “I’ll try that again,” he said as he crab-walked into the living room. “It looks good in here,” he called back. “It’ll be fine.”
Amelia felt like she’d been holding her breath all day. Duke and Gabriella had taken the apartment sight unseen, which was risky. Six different sets of people had viewed it and turned it down in the last week. One person said it would be great for a family of hobbits.
The tour of the apartment took only a few minutes. A kitchen, a living room, a narrow hallway with two bedrooms and a bathroom. Amelia stood behind Duke and Gabriella while they inspected the smallest bedroom, which was empty.
“We ran out of furniture,” Amelia started to explain, but she could tell Duke wasn’t listening. He was counting the number of electrical sockets. She was sure she heard him mumble to Gabriella, “Perfect for Winston,” and then she decided she’d made a mistake. Her mom had said they had no kids. And who would name a kid Winston anyway?
Simon appeared in the doorway with a box. “Could use some help!” he growled.
They trekked back and forth to the van. Cardboard boxes, baskets and bags overflowing with clothes piled up on the kitchen floor.
Amelia kept sneaking peeks at Gabriella. Her bright-red hair was amazing. Her skin was almost white, and she wore lots of black mascara and eyeliner and smelled like vanilla. She had a tiny green lizard tattooed on her shoulder.
Gabriella chattered while they unpacked dishes from a carton. “We will come up tonight to meet your parents.”
“My mom,” Amelia said.
“Parents split up?”
Gabriella’s brown eyes filled with sympathy. “Men!” She leaned toward Amelia and whispered, “Duke is an angel, but he drives me crazy.”
“There’s no more room in the cupboards,” Amelia said, changing the subject. “And there’s still lots more stuff.”
“It doesn’t matter. We can leave some of it in boxes.”
Duke and Simon hauled in a freezer chest, sealed shut with duct tape. “We’ll unpack this one later,” Duke said.
“I’m off now,” Simon said. “I’ll take these empty boxes and get the rest later. What time are you coming tonight?”
Duke fired a definite warning look at Simon. Amelia intercepted it. She stopped wondering what was in the freezer chest and pretended to be busy stuffing crumpled newspaper into a garbage bag. She perked up her ears.
“Midnight,” Duke said in a low voice.
At least, that’s what Amelia thought he might have said. Duke was mumbling again and it sounded more like, “Mmmnnnat.”
So. Duke was going somewhere at midnight, maybe. What made it really interesting was that he didn’t want Amelia to know.
She tied the garbage bag shut.
Somehow she had to find out what was going on.
It was Amelia’s night to make supper. Salad and leftover grilled chicken. Her mom had been on a diet, on and off, since she’d seen Candice at the hockey game the night she and Amelia went to watch the Canucks.
Candice was Amelia’s dad’s new wife. Well, not wife—they weren’t married yet, but they might as well be. “He calls her Candy. Can you believe it?” Diane had said incredulously. “She’s had twins, for God’s sake, and now another baby, and she must be a size six!”
“Who cares, Mom?” Amelia thought her mom looked good. Maybe a little bit like she was squeezed into those new jeans she’d bought, but she had gorgeous honey-colored hair and great skin. Amelia always loved it when people told her she looked like her mom, even though it wasn’t totally true. Amelia’s hair was ordinary brown, and lately she’d noticed blackheads on her nose.
This was one of the weeks when Diane was on a diet. Amelia rinsed the lettuce and chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers and carrots. She put the salad in the fridge, grabbed her backpack and flopped down in the living room in front of the TV.
She spread out her homework on the coffee table, a page of long division and a paragraph for language arts that answered the questions Who? What? When? Where? and Why? She decided to write about a guy on Dr. Phil who cheated on his wife. The Why? was the hardest part. She set to work, and after one rerun of Family Guy and one episode of Dragon’s Den, she was done.
She heard her mom at the front door and hopped up to help her. Grocery bags dangled from Diane’s arms. Strands of hair had escaped from her ponytail, and her tan looked faded.
Diane let the bags slide to the floor. “Well?”
“They like it.”
“Bingo.” Diane grinned.
Amelia grinned back.
Diane’s smile evaporated. “Your tooth! Oh God, sweetie, I forgot to phone the dentist.”
“Mom, Gabriella’s from Paris!”
“Tell me all about it while we eat. I’m famished.”
Before they dug into the salad, they raised their glasses of apple juice and clinked them together.
“To Great-Aunt Mildred,” Diane said.
They always toasted Great-Aunt Mildred at supper. Great-Aunt Mildred (Diane’s father’s aunt) had died the summer before and left her house to Diane. Fortuitous timing, Diane had said after she got over feeling guilty (she had never visited the old lady and had actually thought she’d died years earlier). No one knew why Mildred had left her house to Diane, but she had. The house had a tiny mortgage that Diane’s job at Miss Jane’s was just enough to cover.
The house was okay, but it was nothing like their old place—a heritage house on the west side of Vancouver. Heritage meant that it was old but in a beautiful way, with real oak beams, hardwood floors, leaded stained-glass windows and a fireplace mantel carved by someone famous.
Now Candice’s seven-year-old twins, Kelsey and Kaitlin, were in Amelia’s old room, and the den had been turned into a nursery for the new baby, Sam. Amelia had never been back to her house, not once. She refused, even on Christmas Eve when “Candy” invited her to help make cookies for Santa with the girls and open presents.
Great-Aunt Mildred’s house was a bungalow on the east side of Vancouver. It was old too—“post-war stucco,” Diane called it—but there was nothing about it that you would want to preserve. It had linoleum in the kitchen, beige wall-to-wall carpet in the living room, and tiny square pink tiles in the bathroom, which Diane said were “very retro.” The best thing about it was the apartment in the basement.
The doorbell rang when they got to dessert—gluten-free chocolate-chip cookies from a bakery on Hastings Street. It was Duke and Gabriella. Amelia made the introductions, and Gabriella beamed and said, “Enchantée.” Then Amelia cleared the dishes, Diane got out a pen and the papers for the rental agreement, and they all sat around the kitchen table.
“We’ll go month by month for now,” Diane said.
“Perfect.” Gabriella picked up the pen and started filling in information.
Amelia watched Gabriella write, admiring her nails, which were long, tapered and painted bright purple. Gabriella put the pen down. “There. I put both of our cell numbers, so if there’s an emergency or something, you can reach one of us.”
“Do you have day jobs?” Diane said.
What her mom really meant was, Can you pay the rent each month? Amelia crossed her fingers.
“I give pedicures and manicures in a little salon on Cassiar Street,” Gabriella said.
“I work from home,” Duke said. “I do consulting work.”
“Really. Consulting for what?”
“Lots of things.” Duke glanced at Gabriella. “Some of my clients might be coming around. I hope that’s okay.”
“Well, yes,” Diane said slowly. “I can’t see that being a problem. I have to admit, you’re both much younger than I was expecting. I really should have asked you for references…you do have references, don’t you?”
“Oh,” Duke said. “Well, not actually with us, but I’m sure we could get some.”
“Of course we could!” Gabriella said. “Our last landlords liked us very much!”
Diane gazed at Gabriella. “Did they? Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter. No one else wants the apartment. And now, how about some iced tea? And Amelia, you could put those cookies on a plate.”
“Iced tea and cookies on such a hot night,” Gabriella said. “Délicieux!”
Amelia set her alarm clock for twenty minutes to twelve. Whatever was happening at midnight, she would be ready. She brushed her teeth and popped into her mom’s room to say goodnight.
Diane was in bed, reading a textbook. She was taking courses at Vancouver Career College to be a massage therapist. She said she wasn’t going to work for minimum wage selling old ladies clothes at Miss Jane’s forever. Lots of times, if Amelia got up for a drink in the middle of the night, she’d find her mom snoring with an open book on her lap.
“Can I get a tattoo?” Amelia said from the doorway.
“Please. Just a little one. It wouldn’t—”
“No. Absolutely not. Not a chance. You’re eleven years old. If I let you get a tattoo, you’ll want a lip ring next.”
“No.” Diane stared down at her page. “And you can’t wear mascara either. Or dye your hair bright red.”
“I think Gabriella’s gorgeous!” Amelia said.
“Me too. She’s lovely. Now I’ve really got to finish this chapter. Off to bed, sweetie.”
Amelia paused in the doorway. “I just have one more thing to say. You don’t know that Gabriella dyed her hair.”
Behind her book, Diane snorted.
Cripes. Why was her alarm ringing in the middle of the night? Amelia groped around on her night table until she felt her clock. She pushed the button down and muttered, “Shut up!” Then she remembered. Duke was meeting Simon somewhere at midnight. She bolted upright.
Footsteps crunched on gravel. Amelia scrambled out of bed and stumbled over to her open window. The only streetlight was at the end of the block, so she couldn’t see much. But she could make out a shape moving down the walk to the street. Duke. A few seconds later the motorcycle roared to life, and he was gone.
He might be gone for hours. Amelia went to the kitchen and got a glass of iced tea and carried it to her bedroom. She turned on her lamp and dug in her backpack for her French conversation book, buried at the bottom under her gym shorts and three school newsletters.
She read the dialogue at the beginning of chapter one, which was mostly people saying, “Bonjour” and talking about the weather. That was pretty well all they’d been doing in class for two years. They still couldn’t really say anything. Mrs. Pearson, who taught French, had to keep checking her teacher’s guide, and she didn’t make her r’s at all like Gabriella’s. And where were the elegant words like on-shon-tay?
Amelia turned to the dictionary at the back of the book. Gabriella had said an interesting word when Duke cracked his head. It had sounded like mare, with maybe a d on the end. She scanned the row of m words, but she couldn’t find anything that fit. A swearword, she guessed.
She flopped back against her pillow and tried counting in French to one hundred. The number seventy was hard (you had to say “sixty plus ten” or something like that) and she got all mixed up. What was she trying to prove waiting up for Duke anyway? She turned off her lamp and fell back asleep.
Duke’s motorcycle jolted her awake. She leaped out of bed and sped over to the window. A single headlight, followed by a pair of headlights, advanced down the street. Duke’s motorcycle pulled over in front of their house, the dark shape of Simon’s van right behind it.
Amelia stayed hidden at the side of the window and watched Duke and Simon stagger back and forth between the van and the side of the house, where they disappeared. They were carrying big, bulky things that they slid out of the back of the van, each of them holding on to an end. Amelia couldn’t tell what the things were, but they looked heavy.
She heard muffled exclamations from Duke. “Be careful!” “You’re tipping it!” “Shhhh! Don’t make so much noise.” And Simon’s exasperated, “Could you just relax, little bro?”
Water sloshed back and forth. Something gave a shrill squeak. A voice cried, “Beaker! Beaker! Beaker!”
Finally Simon came back by himself, slammed the rear door of the van, jumped into the driver’s seat and sped away.
Amelia pulled a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt over her pajamas and hurried out of the house, easing the front door shut behind her. She slipped around to the back. A light was shining from the apartment window beside the door, and she saw Duke and Gabriella standing in the kitchen, talking.
The two bedroom lights were on. Amelia sidled along the wall and peered into the first room. It was the small bedroom, the one that had been empty.
It wasn’t empty now. It was full of cages, glass tanks and plastic bins. She stared through the side of a wire cage at a bright black eye in a grayish-green scaly face. It looked like a little dinosaur!
A hand clamped down hard on her shoulder.
Amelia spun around.
Duke! Amelia wriggled out of his grasp. Duke was big, but she wasn’t going to let him freak her out. “What’s going on?” she demanded.
Duke gave her a long, hard look. “Are you one of those kids who has to blab everything?”
“No! I’m awesome at keeping secrets.”
“Then you’d better come inside.”
Amelia followed Duke into the apartment. “Look who I found,” he said to Gabriella, who was kneeling on the kitchen floor beside a huge blue plastic bin full of water.
“Amelia!” Gabriella said.
Amelia dropped down onto the floor beside Gabriella and peered into the bin. Two round turtles, the size of dinner plates, swam lazily under the water. “Wow! They’re enormous!”
“Romeo and Juliet,” Gabriella said. “They used to be cute and small, but they grew and now nobody wants them.”
“Beaker! Beaker! Beaker!” cried a voice.
Amelia gazed around.
“Beaker! Beaker! Beaker!”
It was coming from a cage at the end of the kitchen counter. Amelia walked over to have a look. She went cold inside with shock. “Oh my god,” she whispered. In the cage was a slim bird with sleek white feathers. His body looked normal. But his shoulders and neck were naked, the skin gray and scaly. He had a tiny bald head, with a few tufts of white down sticking up, and a scraggly white goatee.
“What happened to him?” Amelia said.
“Burned,” Duke said. “He escaped from his cage and got under a hot tub. They’re chemical burns, so he might have got into the filter or something. We don’t know for sure. The person who used to own him wouldn’t say. He just wanted to get rid of him.”
Duke spoke quietly, but Amelia could hear anger simmering in his voice.
“We call him Beaker,” Gabriella said. “Do not worry—he is not suffering. We have had him for five years now.”
“So his feathers won’t grow back?” Amelia said.
“Not on his head and neck,” Duke said. “He didn’t have any feathers at all when we got him, so he’s better off now. But Beaker doesn’t care anyway. He doesn’t know what he looks like.”
“What kind of bird is he?” Amelia said.
“A cockatiel.” Gabriella sighed. “He should have lovely red cheeks and a yellow crest.”
“How did you get him?”
Duke looked at Gabriella. “I guess we better tell you,” Duke said. “We run a kind of shelter for abandoned and sick reptiles, and a few other strays as well. Like Beaker and”—he pointed to a cage resting on the floor by the fridge—“Zak and Lysander.”
Amelia squatted beside the cage. Two fuzzy brown faces with huge round ears stared at her. “They’re brothers,” Duke said. “They’re called Dumbo rats because of their big ears. They were cute when they were babies, and then they got big. Owner didn’t want them anymore. Same old story.”
“Like the turtles,” Amelia said. “Do they bite?”
“Never!” Duke said. “They’re both sweethearts! Zak has lung scarring, and he lets me give him medicine every day and never does a thing.”
Amelia rocked back on her heels, her head spinning. “I want to see everything.”
“Okay,” Duke said slowly. “I’ll show you the reptile room. We’re setting it up in the spare bedroom. But only for a sec. I want to turn their light out. They’re pretty stressed from the move, and they’ll be calmer in the dark.”
Duke took Amelia into the bedroom and shut the door firmly. “I’m trying to warm it up in here. These are desert and tropical animals. They can’t get cold.”
Two heaters glowed in corners of the room. Cages and glass tanks were lined up against the walls. “I’ll be putting up some shelves,” Duke said. “So I can get some of them up higher where it’s warmer. But they’re okay for now.”
Amelia felt like eyes were peering at her from every direction. A prickle of excitement ran up her back.
“A quick tour,” Duke said, “and then we’ll leave them alone. You’ve already met Bill, I think. Through the window. He’s an iguana.”
Bill was draped along a thick branch, his long striped tail hanging down. A row of spikes stood up on his back, and a long flap of green skin dangled under his chin.
“He’s so big,” Amelia said. “He looks strong.”
“Don’t go too close—”
The iguana lunged at the bars and snapped his jaws.
“Yikes!” Amelia leaped back. “What’s his problem?”
“He’s a little cranky now. He thinks he’s supposed to be looking for a mate.”
“A little?” Amelia studied the iguana from a safe distance. His small dark eyes glared at her. “Does he have teeth?”
“Yeah. They’re tiny, but they’re sharp! But don’t worry. He’ll be his happy-go-lucky self again soon. You’ll see—you’ll be able to hold him in your arms.”
Not a chance, Amelia thought.
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