Read an extract from Cosima Unfortunate Steals a Star

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LAURANOAKES

FirstpublishedintheUnitedKingdomby HarperCollins Children’sBooks in2023

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Allrightsreserved ISBN 978–0–00–857905–0

CHAPTER ONE

Cosima pressedher face against the frostcovered window of the groundfloor of the Home for Unfortunate Girls, herbreath foggingup theglass.Shecouldjust about make outa shadowedfigure striding purposefullytowards the front door. Muffledsoundsdrifted through theflimsy walls, and Cos caught the swoosh asMiss Stain welcomed in the mysterious guest from thesnowstorm outside. The well-to-do ladies MissStain had invited round for tea weren’t due for hours yet.

Footsteps thunderedtowards the schoolroom. ‘MrStain is coming,’ Coshissedto the others. ‘Hide everything!’

As fastas shepossiblycould Cos creakedherselfupright, herjointsperforming a cacophony of painful clicks.Activity

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buzzed through the schoolroomas maps were torn down from the wall,contraband itemshiddenhastily under loose floorboards, andDiya shoved herhalf-finished invention into the cupboard

Cos grabbed her walking stick,made froman old broom Diyahad found in theback of acobwebcovered closet,and limpedacross the groaningfloor.

She sat with a thud on a cramped school desk justas a peephole, embedded in the door, opened.A beadyeye peered inside,glaring at the children. Cos tried to look as innocent as possible as MissStain’sbrother, theequally awful Mr Stain, surveyed the room,counting underhisbreath to make sure all were presentand accounted for.

Cosglanced around at her friends. All were dressed in identical uniforms and crunched over desks, staring glumly at the old rope they were unpicking.

‘Number one, backto work!’ Mr Stainbarked at Cos. ‘Miss Stain wantseach of youto unpick threepounds of rope by tonight.’

Huffing, Cos grabbed the rope coiledupon the deskand began picking apart thefibres.

Number one, she thoughtmutinously, isnot my name.

Sheglowered at the wonkily-sewn ‘1’ on her uniform. Whena child arrived at theHome forUnfortunate Girls, they were immediately assignedanumber.Most children were

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prised from their families when they were older,and their disabilitieshad become unignorable But Cos, who had arrived at theHome when she wasababy, wasnumber one.

That fact clogged in Cos’ throat like the almost inedible gruel theStainsfed their charges

She swallowed it away,andahopeful flutteringsoared in her belly.

One day she would uncoverherpast.Not if, but when Mr Stainfinally slammed the peephole shut,and Cos immediately let the rope fall fromherhands.

Cos stoodup, wobbling a little as she leaned intoher stick. ‘Afternoon tea withtheir Ladyships doesn’t start forhours, thebaker’s dropped off thegoods, andnowan unexpected visitorhas distractedMissStain,’ Cos whispered, as soon as Mr Stain’s footsteps faded intonothingness. ‘It’s the only time today when she won’thave herhawkeye gaze on the kitchen door Thisis our chance!’

There was amurmur of agreement fromsome of the girls, but others still stared resolutely at their rope. Cossighed. They’d givenup.Shecouldn’tblame them But Cos wasa firm believer that a mouthful of cake hadhealing properties, and she was determinedto cheerher friendsup.She turned to the three girlsnearest toher; her best friends in theHome.

‘I’ll needa crackteam to pull this one off. What do you think, Mary?’

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A scraggly blonde-haired girlsat on the desk nextto Cos wrungherhandsand bouncedher kneesupand down The number 15 wasembroidered on her pinny Sheabandoned the section of rope she was midway throughpulling apartto grab her trusty wooden clipboard, which she twizzledabsentmindedly betweenherhands.

‘I dunno, Cos.She’ll lock us away with no dinner when. I mean if she catches us.’ As Mary spoke, herbreath billowed out in puffsandherteeth chattered. The weatherhad been bitterlycoldlately, and theStains weren’t for wasting roaring fireplaces on their charges.

‘But I’ve deviseda fail-proof plan!’ Cos protested,her bottom lip protruding. Her friends were woefully pessimistic about the chances of allher– rather fantastic– ideas.

‘I bet youhaven’t!’A loud voicehuffed in consternation.Diyapausedher task of stripping an old mattress of its springs.She rolledherself away fromher desk, the wheels on her wheelchair squeakingnoisily. Diyahadbrown skin anda swoosh of silkyhair,an overstuffed toolbelt slung acrossher waist andan oil slick smeared on her cheek. As a toddler,Diyahad been struck down with polio,ahorrible disease whichhad left her legs paralysed. Thenumber 10 was visible on her crumpled dress.She raiseda questioning eyebrow at Cos.

Cossighed.Shecouldalmost picture thecomplex

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calculations running throughDiya’s gigantic brain that would inevitablyjudge Cos’s ideas as lacking.

‘If we take your past shenanigans intoconsideration,’ Diyacontinued,spinning her favouritehome-madespanner betweenherfingers, ‘The projected success rate of this particular caper is 0.3%.Remember the time we crept into Miss Stain’s bedroom in the dead of night because you thought she might be a bloodsucking demonin disguise?’

‘It was a reasonable theory!’ Cos crossedher arms.

On the desk nexttoDiya, Pearl stifleda rare giggle.She was midwaythrough carefullypaintingapurple emperor butterfly on toher wrist. It joined the otherpaintings of dragonflies, moths, and bees that she’d decoratedher ink-covered arms with She’d also scribbled on her uniform, obscuringher assignednumber: 13 Pearl, like Cos, was a medical mystery. Doctors calledher behaviour ‘abnormal’, but Cos thought that short-changed Pearl’s wonderful-ness. Pearl likedspending time alone, found talkingtonew people tricky, andhardly ever smiled, which made it even morespecial when Cos coaxeda grin out of her.

‘Or,’ Diyabarelypaused forbreath ‘When you were convinced that running away to become pirates was agood idea. Miss Stain caught us before we made it out of the front door

We didn’t evenhave a ship!’

‘I still stand by that one, ’ Cosmuttered underher breath.

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‘And Ihaven’t gotto the fortuneteller debacle yet!’

‘Let’s refocus on the plan at hand,’ Cossaid quickly. ‘Pearl, how are your forgeries coming along?’

At thesound of her name, Pearlhopped up from the desk she’d beensitting at, tuckingherpaintbrush behindherear. ‘Remarkably well,considering the last time I ate cake was three years, four months, two weeks, four daysand approximately twelve hours ago.’She prised openher desk compartment, revealinga wholehost of cakesandpastries.

An ‘ooh’ escaped Cos’ mouth. Her tummy twisted in hungry knots as sheeyeda cherry bakewell TheStainsbarely fed the girlsenough gruelto get them through the dayand thepastry looked scrumptious. The icingglistened in the dusty gloom of the schoolroomas Cos reached outafingerto poke thepudding It was roughto thetouchandfelt like rope It wasrope. Fake cakes were a keypart of Cos’ plan,and Pearl (as usual) had created them brilliantly.

‘I think thesemight be your best fakes yet. Those fancy ladies won’t be able totellthe difference until they takea bite.’

Pearl’s mouth twitched intoa slight smilethat warmed the crook of Cos’ stomach, like a sunny spring dayafterahard winter.

Pearl was a master crafter. Shecould make the most amazing creations out of the huge coils of rope Mr Stainleft piled on the schoolroomfloor. The only other thing Pearlneeded

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forher creations was paint andabrush. Cos was in charge of sneakingin Pearl’s painting supplies, Diya’s inventingbits and bobs, andany othercontraband itemsher friendsneeded. She’d managedto strike up a friendship withthe grocery delivery boy, and in return for tippinghim off whenMiss Stain wasoutso hecould deliverhisgoods without being shouted at,hebroughther outside items.She’d also become anexpert at pinching bits and bobs from theStains,and recycling old and unwanted rubbish theMatron chucked out. With her paints, Pearl transformed the dull,brown rope into a myriad of wonders.

Cos turnedher attention to Mary ‘Have you plotted out thepotential pitfalls?’

Mary twitched as she tiptoed towards the old apple crate where the children stored thenuts and bolts, paint supplies, and Cos’collection of pilferednewspapers.Mary had what MissStain referredto as ‘anannoying level of hystericalneurosis’, butto Cos she was a protective friend who just worried a lotabout getting everything right. Because of that, Mary likedto plan for everypossible (andsometimes nearlyimpossible) eventuality for everything that the girls did.

Mary grabbedan age-curled scrap of paperand unfurled it, placing it uponherDiya-made clipboard. Scrawledall over itwere potential problems theymightencounter on their flightto the kitchen.

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‘Our main obstacle will be Mr Stain–he’s beenpatrolling thecorridors even more than usual lately,’ Mary trembled as shespoke.

Cos whistled as she pointed at theheadingmarked ‘PLAN

IF TORNADO STRIKES WHILST THE CAKE HEIST

HAPPENS’ ‘Do you think that’s likely, Mar?’

Mary raisedaneyebrow. ‘You cannever be too careful, Cos. We have to plan for every possibility.’

Cos clappedMary on herback. ‘And youhave planned for every almost impossible possibility, Mar. With this plan we can’t fail.’

Mary’s grin became sure as shepacked her clipboardand Pearl’s cake forgeries intoa large worn leather satchel that she slungacrossher shoulders.

Cos slunktowards Diya, who raised hereyebrowsand foldedher arms. Cos knew she’dhave topull out all the stops to persuade Diya that her plan was a good one. ‘How’s your latest inventioncoming along?’

Diya’s face litup like Mr Edison’s new-fangled electric lightbulbs.She rolled forwards,fetchingabrand-newcontraption from underher desk. With a flourish befitting a famous stagestar, Diya presentedher inventionto the others. Coscouldsee that her friendhad used chains (pinched from a failed velocipede venture theStainshadbrought into), an old bellows (usedtohelp those withchest issues breathmore

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freely), andahand-crank (chucked out by MissStainafterher phonograph broke).

At first glance, it looked like an ordinary, if very short, wooden ladder –smallenough for any one of them to tuck under arm. But as Cos peered closer, shenoticed that the penultimate rung of the ladder wasconnectedtoahandle Diya proudly placed the ladder upright on thefloor, and Pearl helpedto steady it.Diya began winding thehandle round and round. With everyspin, the ladder extended, shooting uptowards thecobweb covered rafters of the room. Even the girls who’d ignored Cosandcontinued picking apart their rope paused for asecondto admireDiya’s ladder. Cos clappedherhandstogether. ‘Brilliant. It’s just what we need.’

Ambition flickered in Diya’s brown eyes,ahalf grin creepingacrossher face. ‘I suppose it would be goodtosee The PhenomenalProtractible Ladder in action,totest if it really works in practice.’ Shehesitated suddenly,hereyes narrowing at Cos. ‘But can you promise us MissStain won’t catch us?I can’t facehaving my ma’s visit cancelled again.’

At the mention of theStainshabit of scrapping family visitations, three things happened:

Mary turneda shade ofoff-white that reminded Cos of the gruel they’d had for breakfast The last letter Mary had received fromher grandpahad mentioned that the workhouse

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had decided he was fitto work,and she’dspenta week fretting abouthishealth.

Pearlhuggedherself close, smearing the ink insectsupon her arm into swirls of darkness that contrasted againsther pale skin Cos knew she was desperatetosee whetherher little sister had grown any taller since she’dseenher last.

Diyasniffedupher sadness. Her dad was away at sea,and shehadn’t heard from him in months.

A sliver of sadness creptup Cos’ back. Whisperstravelled through the schoolroomand the other girls refusedto meet her gaze. Cos, unlike her friends, hadno familytospeak of She’d been at theHome for as long as shecould remember, andno onehad ever visitedher. She’d watched girls older thanher age get out, sent away to workback-breaking jobs or live in adulthomes the moment they becameteenagers. Cos onlyhada year or twoto unravel the truth of her past andfind a proper home. Tucked away in thecorner of herbrain was the memory of a blurry smile, but Coscouldn’t place it yet But every escapade out of the dormitory orthe school room gave her the chance to findsome scrap of information that might lead hertoher family.

Diya Nayak

Mary Turner

Pearl Wilson Cosima. Unfortunate. The others all belonged, even if they

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were separated from their families, but Cos had no-one.On the rare occasions theauthorities visited theHome, no-surname Cos wasalways referredtoas CosimaUnfortunate–a nicknamethat felt like a gutpunch.

Cos shookher sadness off as she refocused on the plan at hand. As she didso,her hopelessness melted away.

‘This one will work,I promise you. And we’llbringback cakes for everyone.’ Smiles crossed thehunger-panged faces of all the girls. Some nodded gratefully at Cos, afewhunched shoulders relaxed,andmurmurs of excitedconversation echoed in the schoolroom.

The girls gathered closerto Cos. ‘Here’s the plan.. .’