Use code DAD23 for 20% off + Free shipping on $45+ Shop Now!
Formats and Prices
- Trade Paperback (New edition) $10.99 $14.99 CAD
- ebook $8.99 $10.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 2, 2023. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Also available from:
Seventeen-year-old Cassie is a natural at reading people. Piecing together the tiniest details, she can tell you who you are and what you want. But, it's not a skill that she's ever taken seriously. That is, until the FBI come knocking: they've begun a classified program that uses exceptional teenagers to crack infamous cold cases, and they need Cassie.
What Cassie doesn't realize is that there's more at risk than a few unsolved homicides—especially when she's sent to live with a group of teens whose gifts are as unusual as her own. Soon, it becomes clear that no one in the Naturals program is what they seem. And when a new killer strikes, danger looms close. Caught in a lethal game of cat and mouse with a killer, the Naturals are going to have to use all of their gifts just to survive.
Jennifer Lynn Barnes's The Naturals is a gripping novel with killer appeal and a to-die-for romance. Don't miss the other books in the Naturals series: Killer Instinct, All In, and Bad Blood.
The hours were bad. The tips were worse, and the majority of my coworkers definitely left something to be desired, but c’est la vie, que será será, insert foreign language cliché of your choice here. It was a summer job, and that kept Nonna off my back. It also prevented my various aunts, uncles, and kitchen-sink cousins from feeling like they had to offer me temporary employment in their restaurant/butcher shop/legal practice/boutique. Given the size of my father’s very large, very extended (and very Italian) family, the possibilities were endless, but it was always a variation on the same theme.
My dad lived half a world away. My mother was missing, presumed dead. I was everyone’s problem and nobody’s.
Teenager, presumed troubled.
With practiced ease, I grabbed a plate of pancakes (side of bacon) with my left hand and a two-handed breakfast burrito (jalapeños on the side) with my right. If the SATs didn’t go well in the fall, I had a real future ahead of me in the crappy diner industry.
“Pancakes with a side of bacon. Breakfast burrito, jalapeños on the side.” I slid the plates onto the table. “Anything else I can get for you gentlemen?”
Before either of them opened their mouths, I knew exactly what these two were going to say. The guy on the left was going to ask for extra butter. And the guy on the right? He was going to need another glass of water before he could even think about those jalapeños.
Ten-to-one odds, he didn’t even like them.
Guys who actually liked jalapeños didn’t order them on the side. Mr. Breakfast Burrito just didn’t want people to think he was a wuss—only the word he would have used wasn’t wuss.
Whoa there, Cassie, I told myself sternly. Let’s keep it PG.
As a general rule, I didn’t curse much, but I had a bad habit of picking up on other people’s quirks. Put me in a room with a bunch of English people, and I’d walk out with a British accent. It wasn’t intentional—I’d just spent a lot of time over the years getting inside other people’s heads.
Occupational hazard. Not mine. My mother’s.
“Could I get a few more of these butter packets?” the guy on the left asked.
I nodded—and waited.
“More water,” the guy on the right grunted. He puffed out his chest and ogled my boobs.
I forced a smile. “I’ll be right back with that water.” I managed to keep from adding pervert to the end of that sentence, but only just.
I was still holding out hope that a guy in his late twenties who pretended to like spicy food and made a point of staring at his teenage waitress’s chest like he was training for the Ogling Olympics might be equally showy when it came to leaving tips.
Then again, I thought as I went for refills, he might turn out to be the kind of guy who stiffs the little bitty waitress just to prove he can.
Absentmindedly, I turned the details of the situation over in my mind: the way that Mr. Breakfast Burrito was dressed; his likely occupation; the fact that his friend, who’d ordered the pancakes, was wearing a much more expensive watch.
He’ll fight to grab the check, then tip like crap.
I hoped I was wrong—but was fairly certain that I wasn’t.
Other kids spent their preschool years singing their way through the ABCs. I grew up learning a different alphabet. Behavior, personality, environment—my mother called them the BPEs, and they were the tricks of her trade. Thinking that way wasn’t the kind of thing you could just turn off—not even once you were old enough to understand that when your mother told people she was psychic, she was lying, and when she took their money, it was fraud.
Even now that she was gone, I couldn’t keep from figuring people out, any more than I could give up breathing, blinking, or counting down the days until I turned eighteen.
“Table for one?” A low, amused voice jostled me back into reality. The voice’s owner looked like the type of boy who would have been more at home in a country club than a diner. His skin was perfect, his hair artfully mussed. Even though he phrased his words like they were a question, they weren’t—not really.
“Sure,” I said, grabbing a menu. “Right this way.”
A closer observation told me that Country Club was about my age. A smirk played across his perfect features, and he walked with the swagger of high school nobility. Just looking at him made me feel like a serf.
“This okay?” I asked, leading him to a table near the window.
“This is fine,” he said, slipping into the chair. Casually, he surveyed the room with bulletproof confidence. “You get a lot of traffic in here on weekends?”
“Sure,” I replied. I was starting to wonder if I’d lost the ability to speak in complex sentences. From the look on the boy’s face, he probably was, too. “I’ll give you a minute to look over the menu.”
He didn’t respond, and I spent my minute bringing Pancakes and Breakfast Burrito their checks, plural. I figured that if I split it in half, I might end up with half a decent tip.
“I’ll be your cashier whenever you’re ready,” I said, fake smile firmly in place.
I turned back toward the kitchen and caught the boy by the window watching me. It wasn’t an I’m ready to order stare. I wasn’t sure what it was, actually—but every bone in my body told me it was something. The niggling sensation that there was a key detail that I was missing about this whole situation—about him—wouldn’t go away. Boys like that didn’t usually eat in places like this.
They didn’t stare at girls like me.
Self-conscious and wary, I crossed the room.
“Did you decide what you’d like?” I asked. There was no getting out of taking his order, so I let my hair fall in my face, obscuring his view of it.
“Three eggs,” he said, hazel eyes fixed on what he could see of mine. “Side of pancakes. Side of ham.”
I didn’t need to write the order down, but I suddenly found myself wishing for a pen, just so I’d have something to hold on to. “What kind of eggs?” I asked.
“You tell me.” The boy’s words caught me off guard.
“Guess,” he said.
I stared at him through the wisps of hair still covering my face. “You want me to guess how you want your eggs cooked?”
He smiled. “Why not?”
And just like that, the gauntlet was thrown.
“Not scrambled,” I said, thinking out loud. Scrambled eggs were too average, too common, and this was a guy who liked to be a little bit different. Not too different, though, which ruled out poached—at least in a place like this. Sunny-side up would have been too messy for him; over hard wouldn’t be messy enough.
“Over easy.” I was as sure of the conclusion as I was of the color of his eyes. He smiled and closed his menu.
“Are you going to tell me if I was right?” I asked—not because I needed confirmation, but because I wanted to see how he would respond.
The boy shrugged. “Now, where would the fun be in that?”
I wanted to stay there, staring, until I figured him out, but I didn’t. I put his order in. I delivered his food. The lunch rush snuck up on me, and by the time I went back to check on him, the boy by the window was gone. He hadn’t even waited for his check—he’d just left twenty dollars on the table. I had just about decided that he could make me play guessing games to his heart’s content for a twelve-dollar tip when I noticed the bill wasn’t the only thing he’d left.
There was also a business card.
I picked it up. Stark white. Black letters. Evenly spaced. There was a seal in the upper left-hand corner, but relatively little text: a name, a job title, a phone number. Across the top of the card, there were four words, four little words that knocked the wind out of me as effectively as a jab to the chest.
I pocketed the card—and the tip. I went back to the kitchen. I caught my breath. And then I looked at it again.
Tanner Briggs. The name.
Special Agent. Job title.
Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Four words, but I stared at them so hard that my vision blurred and I could only make out three letters.
What in the world had I done to attract the attention of the FBI?
After an eight-hour shift, my body was bone tired, but my mind was whirring. I wanted to shut myself in my room, collapse on my bed, and figure out what the Hello Kitty had happened that afternoon.
Unfortunately, it was Sunday.
“There she is! Cassie, we were just about to send the boys out looking for you.” My aunt Tasha was among the more reasonable of my father’s various siblings, so she didn’t wink and ask me if I’d found myself a boyfriend to occupy my time.
That was Uncle Rio’s job. “Our little heartbreaker, eh? You out there breaking hearts? Of course she is!”
I’d been a regular fixture at Sunday night dinners ever since Social Services had dropped me off on my father’s doorstep—metaphorically, thank God—when I was twelve. After five years, I still hadn’t ever heard Uncle Rio ask a question that he did not immediately proceed to answer himself.
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” I said. This was a well-established script, and that was my line. “Promise.”
“What are we talking about?” one of Uncle Rio’s sons asked, plopping himself down on the living room sofa, dangling his legs over the side.
“Cassie’s boyfriend,” Uncle Rio replied.
I rolled my eyes. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Cassie’s secret boyfriend,” Uncle Rio amended.
“I think you have me confused with Sofia and Kate,” I said. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have thrown any of my female cousins under the bus, but desperate times called for desperate measures. “They’re far more likely to have secret boyfriends than I am.”
“Bah,” Uncle Rio said. “Sofia’s boyfriends are never secret.”
And on it went—good-natured ribbing, family jokes. I played the part, letting their energy infect me, saying what they wanted me to say, smiling the smiles they wanted to see. It was warm and safe and happy—but it wasn’t me.
It never was.
As soon as I was sure I wouldn’t be missed, I ducked into the kitchen.
“Cassandra. Good.” My grandmother, elbow-deep in flour, her gray hair pulled into a loose bun at the nape of her neck, gave me a warm smile. “How was work?”
Despite her little-old-lady appearance, Nonna ruled the entire family like a general directing her troops. Right now, I was the one drifting out of formation.
“Work was work,” I said. “Not bad.”
“But not good, either?” She narrowed her eyes.
If I didn’t play this right, I’d have ten job offers within the hour. Family took care of family—even when “family” was perfectly capable of taking care of herself.
“Today was actually decent,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. “Someone left me a twelve-dollar tip.”
And also, I added silently, a business card from the FBI.
“Good,” Nonna said. “That is good. You had a good day.”
“Yeah, Nonna,” I said, crossing the room to kiss her cheek, because I knew it would make her happy. “It was a good day.”
By the time everyone cleared out at nine, the card felt like lead in my pocket. I tried to help Nonna with the dishes, but she shooed me upstairs. In the quiet of my own room, I could feel the energy draining out of me, like air out of a slowly wilting balloon.
I sat down on my bed and then let myself fall backward. The old springs groaned with the impact, and I closed my eyes. My right hand found its way to my pocket, and I pulled out the card.
It was a joke. It had to be. That was why the pretty, country-club boy had felt off to me. That was why he’d taken an interest—to mock me.
But he didn’t really seem the type.
I opened my eyes and looked at the card. This time, I let myself read it out loud. “Special Agent Tanner Briggs. Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
A few hours in my pocket hadn’t changed the text on the card. FBI? Seriously? Who was this guy trying to kid? He’d looked sixteen, seventeen, max.
Not like a special agent.
Just special. I couldn’t push that thought down, and my eyes flitted reflexively toward the mirror on my wall. It was one of the great ironies of my life that I’d inherited all of my mother’s features, but none of the magic with which they’d come together on her face. She’d been beautiful. I was odd—odd-looking, oddly quiet, always the odd one out.
Even after five years, I still couldn’t think of my mother without thinking of the last time I’d seen her, shooing me out of her dressing room, a wide smile on her face. Then I thought about coming back to the dressing room. About the blood—on the floor, on the walls, on the mirror. I hadn’t been gone long. I’d opened the door—
“Snap out of it,” I told myself. I sat up and pushed my back up against the headboard, unable to quit thinking about the smell of blood and that moment of knowing it was my mother’s and praying it wasn’t.
What if that was what this was about? What if the card wasn’t a joke? What if the FBI was looking into my mother’s murder?
It’s been five years, I told myself. But the case was still open. My mother’s body had never been found. Based on the amount of blood, that was what the police had been looking for from the beginning.
I turned the business card over in my hands. On the back, there was a handwritten note.
Cassandra, it said, PLEASE CALL.
That was it. My name, and then the directive to call, in capital letters. No explanation. No nothing.
Below those words, someone else had scribbled a second set of instructions in small, sharp letters—barely readable. I traced my finger over the letters and thought about the boy from the diner.
Maybe he wasn’t the special agent.
So that makes him what? The messenger?
I didn’t have an answer, but the words scrawled across the bottom of the card stood out to me, every bit as much as Special Agent Tanner Briggs’s PLEASE CALL.
If I were you, I wouldn’t.
You’re good at waiting. Waiting for the right moment. Waiting for the right girl. You have her now, and still, you’re waiting. Waiting for her to wake up. Waiting for her to open those eyes and see you.
Waiting for her to scream.
And realize that no one can hear her but you.
You know how this will go, how she’ll be angry, then scared, then swear up and down that if you let her go, she won’t tell a soul. She’ll lie to you, and she’ll try to manipulate you, and you’ll have to show her—the way you’ve showed so many others—how that just won’t do.
But not yet. Right now, she’s still sleeping. Beautiful—but not as beautiful as she will be when you’re done.
It took me two days, but I called the number. Of course I did, because even though there was a 99 percent chance this was some kind of hoax, there was a 1 percent chance that it wasn’t.
I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until someone picked up.
“This is Briggs.”
I couldn’t pinpoint what was more disarming—the fact that this “Agent Briggs” had apparently given me the number to his direct line or the way he answered the phone, like saying “hello” would have been a waste of breath.
“Hello?” As if he could read my mind, Special Agent Tanner Briggs spoke again. “Anyone there?”
“This is Cassandra Hobbes,” I said. “Cassie.”
“Cassie.” Something about the way Agent Briggs said my name made me think that he’d known before I’d said a single word that I didn’t go by my full name. “I’m glad you called.”
He waited for me to say something else, but I stayed silent. Everything you said or did was a data point you put out there in the world, and I didn’t want to give this man any more information than I had to—not until I knew what he wanted from me.
“I’m sure you must be wondering why I contacted you—why I had Michael contact you.”
Michael. So now the boy from the diner had a name.
“I have an offer I’d like you to consider.”
“An offer?” It amazed me that my voice stayed every bit as calm and even as his.
“I believe this is a conversation best had in person, Ms. Hobbes. Is there somewhere you would be comfortable meeting?”
He knew what he was doing—letting me pick the location, because if he’d specified one, I might not have gone. I probably should have refused to meet with him anyway, but I couldn’t, for the same reason that I’d had to pick up the phone and call.
Five years was a long time to go without a body. Without answers.
“Do you have an office?” I asked.
The slight pause on the other end of the phone told me that wasn’t what he’d expected me to say. I could have asked him to meet me at the diner or a coffee shop near the high school or anywhere that I would have had the home court advantage, but I’d been taught to believe that there was no home court advantage.
You could tell more about a stranger by seeing their house than you ever would by inviting them to yours.
Besides, if this guy wasn’t really an FBI agent, if he was some kind of pervert and this was some kind of game, I figured he’d probably have a heck of a time arranging a meeting at the local FBI office.
“I don’t actually work out of Denver,” he said finally. “But I’m sure I can set something up.”
Probably not a pervert, then.
He gave me an address. I gave him a time.
I wondered what Agent Briggs hoped to accomplish by using my full first name. “Yes?”
“This isn’t about your mother.”
I went to the meeting anyway. Of course I did. Special Agent Tanner Briggs knew enough about me to know that my mother’s case was the reason I’d followed the instructions on the card and called. I wanted to know how he’d come by that information, if he’d looked at her police file, if he would look at her file, provided I gave him whatever it was he wanted from me.
I wanted to know why Special Agent Tanner Briggs had made it his business to know about me, the same way a man shopping for a new computer might have memorized the specs of the model that had caught his eye.
“What floor?” The woman beside me in the elevator was in her early sixties. Her silvery blond hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail at the nape of her neck, and the suit she was wearing was perfectly tailored.
All business, just like Special Agent Tanner Briggs.
“Fifth floor,” I said. “Please.”
With nervous energy to burn, I snuck another glance at the woman and started piecing my way through her life story, as told by the way she was standing, her clothes, the faint accent in her speech, the clear coat of polish on her nails.
She was married.
When she’d started in the FBI, it had been a boy’s club.
Behavior. Personality. Environment. I could practically hear my mother coaching me through this impromptu analysis.
“Fifth floor.” The woman’s words were brisk, and I added another entry to my mental column—impatient.
Obligingly, I stepped out of the elevator. The door closed behind me, and I appraised my surroundings. It looked so…normal. If it hadn’t been for the security checkpoint out front and the visitor’s badge pinned to my faded black sundress, I never would have pegged this for a place devoted to fighting federal crime.
“So, what? You were expecting a dog-and-pony show?”
I recognized the voice instantly. The boy from the diner. Michael. He sounded amused, and when I turned to face him, there was a familiar smirk dancing its way through his features, one that he probably could have suppressed if he’d had the least inclination to try.
“I wasn’t expecting anything,” I told him. “I have no expectations.”
He gave me a knowing look. “No expectations, no disappointments.”
I couldn’t tell if that was his appraisal of my current mental state or the motto by which he lived his own life. In fact, I was having trouble getting any handle on his personality at all. He’d traded his striped polo for a formfitting black T-shirt and his jeans for khaki slacks. He looked as out of place here as he had at the diner, like maybe that was the point.
“You know,” he said conversationally, “I knew you’d come.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Even though you told me not to?”
He shrugged. “My inner Boy Scout had to try.”
If this guy had an inner Boy Scout, I had an inner flamingo.
“So, are you here to take me to Special Agent Tanner Briggs?” I asked. The words came out curtly, but at least I didn’t sound fascinated, infatuated, or even the least bit drawn to the sound of his voice.
“Hmmmmm.” In response to my question, Michael made a noncommittal noise under his breath and inclined his head—as close to a yes as I was going to get. He led me around the bull pen and down a hallway. Neutral carpet, neutral walls, a neutral expression on his criminally handsome face.
“So what does Briggs have on you?” Michael asked. I could feel him watching me, looking for a surge of emotion—any emotion—to tell him if his question had hit a nerve.
“You want me to be nervous about this,” I told him, because that much was clear from his words. “And you told me not to come.”
He smiled, but there was a hard glint to it, an edge. “I guess you could say I’m contrary.”
I snorted. That was one word for it.
“Are you going to give me even a hint of what’s going on here?” I asked as we neared the end of the hall.
He shrugged. “That depends. Are you going to stop playing Who’s Got the Best Poker Face with me?”
That surprised a laugh out of me, and I realized that it had been a long time since I’d laughed because I couldn’t help it and not because someone else was laughing, too.
Michael’s smile lost its edge, and for a second, the expression utterly changed his face. If he’d been handsome before, he was beautiful now—but it didn’t last. As quickly as the lightness had come, it faded.
“I meant what I wrote on that card,” he said softly. He nodded to a closed office door to our right. “If I were you, I wouldn’t go in there.”
I knew then—the way I always knew things—that Michael had been in my shoes once and that he had opened the door. His warning was genuine, but I opened it, too.
“Ms. Hobbes. Please, come in.”
With one last glance at Michael, I stepped into the room.
“Au revoir,” the boy with the excellent poker face said, punctuating the words with an exaggerated flick of his fingers.
Special Agent Tanner Briggs cleared his throat. The door closed behind me. For better or worse, I was here to meet with an FBI agent. Alone.
“I’m glad you came, Cassie. Take a seat.”
Agent Briggs was younger than I’d expected based on his phone voice. The gears in my brain turned slowly, incorporating his age into what I knew. An older man who took pains to appear businesslike was guarded. A twenty-nine-year-old who did the same wanted to be taken seriously.
There was a difference.
Obediently, I took a seat. Agent Briggs stayed in his chair, but leaned forward. The desk between us was clean, but for a stack of papers and two pens, one of which was missing its cap.
He wasn’t naturally neat, then. For some reason, I found that comforting. He was ambitious, but not inflexible.
“Are you finished?” he asked me. His voice wasn’t curt. If anything, he sounded genuinely curious.
“Finished with what?” I asked him.
“Analyzing me,” he said. “I’ve only been in this office for two hours. I couldn’t even guess what it is that has caught your attention, but I figured something would. With Naturals, something almost always does.”
Naturals. He said the word like he was expecting me to repeat it with a question mark in my tone. I didn’t say anything. The less I gave him, the more he’d show me.
“You’re good at reading people, at taking little details and figuring out the big picture: who they are, what they want, how they operate.” He smiled. “What kind of eggs they like.”
“You invited me here because I’m good at guessing what kind of eggs people like?” I asked, unable to keep the incredulousness out of my voice.
He drummed his fingers over the desktop. “I asked you here because you have a natural aptitude for something that most people could spend a lifetime trying to learn.”
I wondered if when he said most people he was referring at least in part to himself.
He took my continued silence as some kind of argument. “Are you telling me that you don’t read people? That you can’t tell me right now whether I’d rather play basketball or golf?”
Basketball. But he’d want people to think the answer was golf.
“You could try to explain to me how you figure things out, how you figure people out, Cassie, but the difference between you and the rest of the world is that to explain how you just figured out that I’d rather get a bloody nose on the basketball court than tee off with the boss, you’d have to backtrack. You’d have to sort out what the clues were and how you’d made sense of them, because you just do it. You don’t even have to think about it, not the way that I would, not the way that my team would. You probably couldn’t stop yourself if you tried.”
"The Naturals is Criminal Minds for the YA world, and I loved every page." —New York Times bestselling author Ally Carter
* "[A] tightly paced suspense novel that will keep readers up until the wee hours to finish." —VOYA, starred review
"This savvy thriller grabs readers right away." —Kirkus Reviews
"It's a stay-up-late-to-finish kind of book, and it doesn't disappoint." —Publishers Weekly
"In this high-adrenaline series opener...even a psychic won't anticipate all the twists and turns." —Booklist
Praise for The Inheritance Games:—E. Lockhart, bestselling author of We Were Liars and Again Again
A New York Times and USA Today Bestseller
A GoodReads Choice Awards Finalist
A Kirkus Reviews Best Young Adult Book of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
A New York Public Library Best Book for Teens
An Amazon Top 100 Book
“Barnes is a master of puzzles and plot twists. The Inheritance Games was the most fun I’ve had all year.”
- "A thrilling blend of family secrets, illicit romance and high-stakes treasure hunt, set in the mysterious world of Texas billionaires. The nonstop twists kept me guessing until the very last page!"—Katharine McGee, New York Times bestselling author of American Royals
- "Impossible to put down."—Buzzfeed
- * "Part The Westing Game, part We Were Liars, completely entertaining."—Kirkus, starred review
- * "This strong, Knives Out-esque series opener...provides ample enjoyment."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- "Barnes's meticulously crafted novel is like the film Knives Out for the YA world, perfect for any reader seeking suspense, romance, and glamour.... Barnes crafts high-stakes tension, a swoony love triangle, and a large but memorable cast of characters. Fun and fast-paced, fans of Karen M. McManus's One of Us is Lying and Maureen Johnson's Truly Devious will find a new home at Hawthorne House."—SLJ
- "[A] well-characterized mystery that's packed to the brim with twists and tricks. Hand immediately to teen fans of Knives Out or readers who love Maureen Johnson's Truly Devious series."—Booklist
- "Prickly, witty, and stubborn as a mule, Avery is an eminently likable protagonist, and her savvy ability to manage the obnoxiously privileged people she suddenly finds herself surrounded by is admirable, helped plenty by her quippy one-liners that level even the snobbiest among them."—BCCB
- On Sale
- May 2, 2023
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers