I float on a breeze through monsters, witches, celebrities, and a few costumes I don’t recognize. Hundreds of them are on the dance floor, and others are mingling outside the party tent. None of them react to my presence, but they never have any other time I’ve been here. It’s not their fault, though. I’m see-through, and they’re frozen like statues. They will remain that way until I find the one who brought me here.
Once I do, the party will begin. Everyone will have the same conversations and dance with the same partners they have all the other times I’ve visited. But it’s never dull. It’s better than rereading my favorite book.
The breeze carries me beyond the guests, and I spot her at the top of the terrace. She’s alone. It’s been a while since this dream has started here.
With ease, my light body glides up the steps and pauses beside her. She’s dressed as an angel in a flowing white satin gown. Her blonde hair is pulled back so it trickles down to her sheer fabric wings. She’s frowning while staring at the celebration, but even still, she’s beautiful. The rest of her face is hidden behind a silver masquerade mask. All that can be seen is the one thing we have in common: emerald-green eyes.
Hers show she’s strong, independent, and confident. I have no doubt in my mind it’s because she’s loved. I mean, really loved. Like the kind of loved that makes me wish this was my reality and that I, Maddy Page, were loveable. . . .
We’ve never spoken, even though I’ve known her all my life. She’s frozen like the others. But she’s different. She reacts to me. Once I enter her body, her world reanimates and I sink into the background as she takes control. I see everything through her eyes. I feel her emotions. I hear her thoughts. She’s completely in charge, and only when she decides I’ve seen enough does the night end and I return to my life. Her life is so great I often wish it wouldn’t end at all. I ease into her body, falling into my familiar role as the silent observer, and let the Dream Girl take over:
Dusk has settled over the bay, giving the evening a sense of magic—as if dreams really could come true tonight. Everyone is enjoying the party, except one. A man in a tux and devil horns has spent the last two hours weaving through the crowd but conversing with no one. I think he’s searching for someone.
I don’t know why I’m caught up in him. He’s handsome, but so is every other man here. After a few more trips around the floor, he leaves the party area and strolls along the pathway to the valet.
At the sight of my entertainment leaving, I lean on the railing and sigh.
He turns, and solid black eyes meet mine. I can’t find the will to break away, even when the masked stranger strides across the lawn and up the terrace steps to me.
“Good evening,” he says. Deep, soothing tones curl around me. There’s a touch of an accent, Old English–sounding, but it suits him.
“Hello.” Even though it was just one word, I feel as if I’ve gained back some control. I lower my gaze in time to catch a smile forming on his lips. “Are you looking for someone?”
“Did you find the person you were looking for?”
I take a deep breath, and a rich spice, like a burning log over a fire, fills my airways. My body even feels warmer. It’s wonderfully calming.
“Do you always spend every party watching from the shadows?” His black eyes hold mine again. There’s something oddly comforting about their simplicity. It’s as if they’re open windows to his soul.
“Not every party. Just . . . this one.”
I open my mouth to tell him it’s not his business, but the words disappear when I see the intensity in his eyes. He honestly wants to know my response.
For reasons I can’t fathom, I want to tell him not only why I can’t make myself go down to the party I have fantasized about for so long, but every other detail of my life too. Even down to the name of my childhood stuffed rabbit: George.
“What if it’s not as perfect as I dreamed it would be?”
He leans closer, pursing his lips while narrowing his brows. “I do not understand.”
I sigh and resume enviously staring at all the fun taking place nearby. “Ever since I was three, I’ve had this . . . vision of how tonight would go. It’s exactly right, except for one thing.”
“What?” Heat claims me once more as he leans so close, our bodies nearly touch. This time it’s not just from inside me, but it’s also radiating from him. It’s so hot, I feel as if touching him would burn me.
I focus on a couple dressed as Romeo and Juliet. They dance a waltz on the temporary dance floor set up near the boathouse and shoreline. That. I want that.
“Dance with me,” he whispers.
My heart skips a beat, and my cheeks heat. Earlier, he had moved between the crowds of people so easily, as if he knew exactly where their movements would take them before they did. It made me want to watch him dance. But I hadn’t expected I would be his dance partner. My lips twitch as I fight a smile. “Why me?”
“Because dancing with me for one dance is better than wasting the evening up here alone.”
I turn and stare up into his eyes, trying to figure out why he would care. “Who are you?”
“You may call me the Dark Prince.”
Great. I ask for his name, and he tells me his costumed name. “Never heard of him.”
“I would know if you did,” he states matter-of-factly. “So now that I have responded to your query, what answer do you have for mine?”
At some point, I’ll have to go down there. What better way to ensure this night will be unforgettable than by dancing with him? “Okay. You win. I’ll dance with you.”
My heart skips a beat at the joy radiating from him. All I did was say yes. . . .
He extends his arm, and after a deep breath, I accept. A rush of tranquility spreads through me. I know he said only one dance, but now that’s not enough. If I get my way, we’ll be the last to leave the dance floor.
I nod, and together we join what will surely be the best night of my life.
We navigate through the dancers to the center of the floor. As his hand touches mine, an intense heat rushes through me, causing us both to gasp. It’s so much more powerful than before. He is fire, and he could easily consume me. I want him to.
“Are you all right?” he asks.
I nod again, and with that, we begin our dance. He moves with such grace, I forget my previous worries, and everyone on my periphery fades into a blur. It’s as if we were the only two people here.
A beam of light hits the horns resting in his sandy-brown hair, and I smile.
“What is it?” he asks.
“Well . . . ” I pause and try to figure out how much I want to say. “Don’t you find it strange that the man now responsible for turning this evening from tragic to utterly perfect is dressed in a costume coordinating mine?” I nod to my angel wings and his devil horns. “I’m not sure if it’s fate or a coincidence.”
He stiffens, and his mouth sets into a harsh line. “There is no such thing as coincidence—simply a series of unwise decisions made by others that led me here tonight and ultimately to you. Fate, however, does exist. But up until recently, your fate was in your own hands.”
“Well, as I am here holding you close, I would say your fate is in my hands.”
“Oh.” My heart beats wildly against my ribs as if it were trying to push its way out. “So . . . what are you going to do with it?”
His hand holding mine tightens, then he sends me twirling across the floor, as far as our outstretched arms will allow. An unexpected, carefree laugh bubbles out of me as I spin back into his waiting arms. For the life of me, I can’t remember the last time I’ve ever laughed like that.
“You have a wonderful laugh.” He bends me low so my wings and hair touch the floor, then leans over me—his intentions written all over his face. He’s reeling me in for a kiss.
I didn’t expect this. I’ve watched couples kiss like this and I wanted to do the same, but can I kiss him? A kiss is much more complicated than dancing. Kisses are the basis for every tragic love story. If I kiss him . . . I’ll be hooked. I can’t allow myself to fall for him, to fall for a nameless mystery.
Before our lips can meet, I turn my head, and his lips press into my cheek instead.
Even still, my body pulses with euphoric bliss.
What have I done?
I peek at him from under my lashes. His eyes beseech mine, and I know he’s disappointed. I am too. He returns me to my feet and starts dancing again.
“I’m sorry, I—” I begin.
“Do not apologize. I got caught up in the moment, though I suspect it would be a common occurrence if I were to spend more time with you.”
Never have I wanted something so much than for his statement to come true. Not just a few more dances. I want to see him again, beyond tonight. But before I can respond, something behind me causes him to stiffen. I turn and follow his gaze.
My happiness fades as a familiar couple dressed as Anthony and Cleopatra move toward us. Our time is up. It’s not fair. Even Cinderella had until midnight with her prince. . . .
I grab his chin and force him to look at me. “Before they get here, I want to say thank you. No matter how many parties I go to or people I dance with, this one will always be my favorite because of you. Thank you for making my dream come true.” I want to say more, but there is no time.
He inhales sharply. “You have—”
“Forgive my interrupting, sir,” Anthony says to my Dark Prince. “But I couldn’t help notice your enchanting companion.”
I turn away, resting my head on his shoulder to allow myself an extra moment to breathe him in and absorb as much of him as possible. There wasn’t anger in Anthony’s voice, as I would have expected. Instead it was something else. It was tense, with just a dash of hope underneath it. It wasn’t for me. Although he had called me “enchanting,” it was merely an excuse to get my Dark Prince’s attention. Anthony didn’t know it was me. So what did he really mean by interrupting us?
With reluctance, I shift my attention to Anthony and Cleopatra to gauge their mood. Anthony’s smile is tight, one I know well. He wears it whenever he’s nervous about a business deal—hoping it will go his way but unsure of the outcome. Cleopatra rubs the four champagne flutes in her hands while watching the guests around us. This isn’t like them. They’re always gracious hosts, so why are they acting so differently?
“I do hope this means you’ve accepted the new terms of our agreement,” Anthony says, continuing to stare at him.
They know each other?
The Dark Prince’s knuckles suddenly graze my cheek. I gasp as the heat overtakes my body again. He closes his eyes and sighs. When his eyes reopen, they lock onto mine. “This gathering is everything you promised, Mr. H. You are a man of your word, as am I. After much deliberation, I agree to your suggested new terms.”
“Excellent,” Anthony says, though the sentiment lacks any emotion. “A toast, then, to the end of our successful partnership.” He takes two glasses from Cleopatra and hands one to my Dark Prince. Reluctantly, he removes his hand from my cheek to accept. I release the breath I didn’t know I was holding and accept a glass from Cleopatra. I’ve had champagne at parties before, but I’ve always snuck the glass from an unoccupied tray. She doesn’t even hesitate handing this to me. Either my secret costume works better than I expected or something else is going on here.
Beneath her shimmering gold mask, her emerald-green eyes meet mine. I’m not sure, but it’s as if they’re filled with sympathy—or regret. She turns away.
The Dark Prince stares poignantly at me. “To possibilities and hope, things I once thought foolish, but now I see they cannot exist without the other.”
Our glasses clink, and I down my glass to avoid Cleopatra. She retrieves our glasses, and Anthony places his arm around her waist. “Come, dear, we must get back to our other guests. Thank you, sir, for all you’ve done for me over the years. Good luck Miss . . . ” He pauses, extending a hand toward me.
“H.,” I respond, copying in their strange greeting style.
Time slows as my father and mother change from distant to angry and frightened as they reexamine my costume and appearance.
“No!” My father and mother gasp and step back in unison. She drops the champagne flutes, and they shatter on the floor. Around us, the party stops as others turn to see the commotion.
“I’m sorry, sir, but this won’t do,” my father protests. “I won’t allow it. Pick anyone else. I invited so many for—”
“We toasted to the new deal. It is set. If you go back on your word, then the next course of action is to honor our original agreement. What say you, Mr. H.?”
My father visibly shakes before me. I’ve never seen him react like this. Especially not in front of so many people. I turn to my mother to see tears welling up in her eyes. My father turns his attention on me, and his brown eyes are misty too. “But she’s my daughter.”
I have no idea what is going on, but I get the feeling it goes beyond he and I dancing together. What has he done, and how does he know my father?
“So I gathered,” the Dark Prince says. “I will be back in a year’s time to collect your decision, whatever it may be.” He bows formally to me. “Miss H., thank you for making the evening one that I too shall never forget.” He rises, turns, and exits the tent into the dark of night.
I rush after him, but there’s nothing. It’s as if he simply vanished.
As loneliness and desperation claim her, I’m pushed out from her body and out of the dream. I wake up in my own bed. Bright sunlight hits my eyes, and I roll over to escape the intrusion. The soft green light of my alarm clock greets me, telling me it is 9:46 a.m.
After two weeks of nightmares, I finally had a good dream—I even slept through my alarm, which I had set early enough to get in a run before . . . school. I glance back at the clock again, confirming that I’d read it right the first time. Not only have I missed my run, but also my first two classes.
“Crud,” I say out loud.
I pick off the clear, jelly-like substance from my white dress shirt and flick it onto the mist-covered ground. It sizzles, then disintegrates. It’s poltergeist residue. Alexander—my second-in-command—shakes himself like a dog, flicking bits and pieces of residue everywhere.
“Was that necessary?” I say.
“Consider it a memento of the time we’ve spent together,” he replies as we head down the main street to the Recordum—our replica of the Great Pyramid. We pass other buildings shaped to resemble famous mortal ones: the Petronas Towers, Buckingham Palace, the Empire State Building, the Colosseum, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. There are more than thirty all together, all designed to give mortals a sense of familiarity when they arrive here.
I pull open the Recordum’s front door and step into the long white hallway. The walls absorb the ever-shining sunlight, making it just as bright inside.
Alexander shakes his head. “I still can’t believe it. MJ, picking up his very last assignment, and I get to bear witness. There should be dancing girls or confetti or whatever mortals do to celebrate milestones nowadays. Cake, for sure. Or better yet, a cake with a dancing girl inside it.”
“The Council would never allow that. Once this assignment is finished, I’ll be reborn and move on like all the others. No big deal.”
“So . . . are you looking forward to anything?”
“Aside from not seeing your ugly mug every day?”
“Har, har. I’m serious. There must be something you miss from your old life.”
“Hmm . . . ” We don’t get a choice of what our next life will be, so I hadn’t thought about it. My old life was so long ago; the majority of it has faded. “I guess . . . I miss being surprised by something. It will be nice to sit with people and not know every detail of their lives before they even utter a greeting.”
“Touching will be great too. You’ll actually be able to feel something from it.”
I think back to the last time I touched someone and felt anything. It was a woman, and I held her hand while we ran for our lives. The feel of her skin on mine is gone too.
“I have half a mind to transfer now too,” he says.
“Let’s not get carried away.”
“True. Someone needs to stay here and pick up your slack.”
The hallway ends, and we face the Room of Innocence. The glass door opens on its own, as always. On glass shelves sit thousands of files containing information on souls currently tormented by demons or other paranormal entities.
Those are our Charges, and as Protectors, it’s our duty to help them.
A gust of wind, neither cold nor warm, swirls around us. Once it identifies us, the wind plucks two files, one a light blue and one a shimmering pink, from the shelves and floats them toward us. Each color pertains to the owner of the soul, not the case itself; it’s his or her favorite color. I open the pink one while Alexander opens the blue.
The file’s contents transfer to my mind. Even though Charge files are never wrong, one piece of information has me double-checking the pages to ensure its accuracy. The longest an assignment has ever taken is two weeks. When the Archangels asked me to do one last assignment, I agreed. Two weeks is nothing here. This has to be a mistake. On the fourth page, I find the one line that determines how soon my new journey can begin.
Estimated time of completion: Six weeks to one year.
It’s true. With that, I close the file and ask, “Trade?”
“You don’t even know what I have.”
“Fine. What is it?”
I grab his file before he can protest and leave the room. Exorcisms are simple. Pretend to be a priest, read from the Bible, sprinkle some holy water, then cast the evil spirit out. Memories of the mortals involved are altered, and they go on living as if nothing happened. At most it will take a day.
Unknown to them, the evil spirit enters the empty vial that held the water. Away from prying eyes, we toss it into a fire, which sends him to Hell. In the old days, the demons would stay there. Demon escapes have risen, and we haven’t discovered why.
“Wait,” Alexander calls. “I’ve never seen a case like this before. Says here your Charge is the last target of a very selective unknown demon. Well, not that selective as he’s also murdered 136 bystanders in the last year. Regardless, he’s overdue for a one-way ticket back to Hell. As much as I’d like to be the one to send him there, the file was selected for you.” He holds out my file and gazes at me expectantly.
“Fine.” I snatch my previous file, knowing the trade wouldn’t have been accepted anyway. It’s against the rules.
For once, I wish that rule didn’t exist. I don’t want to take this case. It’s not because of the timeline. It’s too similar to my past. To him—the demon that killed me. His tastes were blonde women with green eyes, all from the same blood line. I died trying to save the first one. I can’t beat him. He’s an Original. One of the five Archangels that fell from Heaven and now reside in Hell. Thankfully, this demon is targeting brunette teenage girls, so it won’t be him.
After collecting clothing for our assignments at the Vestimentum, which is currently shaped like the Petronas Towers, we head through the Pearly Gates. Lines of new arrivals watch on as we enter the Great Divide for one of my last journeys to Mortal Ground in this lifetime.
I rode my bike as if I were in the Tour de France and made it with twenty minutes remaining in the third period. The ride ruined my hair. It’s in a ponytail, but it’s a hot, knotted mess. I try fixing it again in my locker mirror before lunch, but give up and shut the door.
“Why does every teacher insist on assigning homework on the weekends?” Kelli, my locker neighbor and friend, asks. “My backpack is full, and we still have three classes left! Don’t they realize we have lives?”
I turn and face her. As usual, she’s in pajama pants and a Bon Jovi hoodie. Most people think she rolls out of bed and comes to school dressed in whatever she slept in, but it’s not true. This ensemble was planned. The red in the pants helps accentuate the new pink streaks in her blonde hair. Bon Jovi is and always will be her favorite.
“Do you really want to talk about school, or would you rather hear about my dream last night?”
She grins and hops up and down. “Ooh, ooh—dream! I choose dream.”
I knew she would choose that. She’s addicted to my dreams. I am too. They’re the best part of my life, even though they only happen on the full and new moon. Each time they begin at a different part—like walking in on a movie already playing. Last night I saw it from start to finish for the first time.
I try to play it cool while following the masses to the cafeteria. “They danced last night.”
“Shut up! You finally saw that?”
“Yep.” Saw it and felt it. . . . Even though I had been home in my bed, my legs feel as if I danced for hours in high heels last night.
“What else?” she squeals as we enter the crowded cafeteria.
I nod and wave to my younger sister, Hannah, sitting at a table with some other tenth graders then say, “They almost kissed, but she turned away at the last second.”
“What show are you talking about?” an underclassman ahead of us asks.
We stop talking.
I know she’d rather hear what happened now, but there are too many people around and she’s always respected my need to keep the dreams a secret. She’s the only person I’ve ever told about them.
We grab our lunches and head for the lobby. It’s packed with seniors and juniors huddled together in groups on the floor. With the threat of rain, almost everyone is playing it safe and eating inside. It’s silly. The sky has been the same charcoal gray for two weeks now, and it hasn’t rained yet. But Mankato’s weather is more unpredictable than any other city’s in Minnesota.
“Who’s that?” Kelli blurts. I stop, catching my tray before my salad becomes part of her outfit.
I follow Kelli’s bewildered gaze to our group of friends sitting at our spot by the door. Kayla, Maggie, and Jake—aka the triplets—Shawn, Luke, and Luke’s brother, Mason, are all gawking at a guy standing in front of them. In fact, the whole lobby is enamored with him.
His back is to me so I take a moment to check him out. Inky black hair comes to a stop just shy of his leather jacket collar. He’s wearing dark jeans and black riding boots, giving him a bad-boy edge. I could easily picture him on a motorcycle or playing in a rock band. I bite my lip while Kelli makes a moan she usually reserves for hotties.
One of his hands rests on the wall while the other helps describe what he’s talking about. The confidence oozing from him reminds me of someone. Someone I’m desperate to forget.
I shiver, feeling as if someone’s running an ice cube down my spine, and suddenly I remember I haven’t responded to Kelli’s original question. “I have no idea who that is.”
As the words leave my mouth, he stops talking and turns. My mouth drops open as all breath and sense of reasoning leave me. No matter how many times I blink, the image stays the same.
He found me.
Before I can look away, I’m drowning in the dark depths of Justin’s gaze. I know other people are here; I just can’t find them anymore. It’s only him and me, and that doesn’t frighten me, though it should.
His eyes skate over me, and I release my breath, grateful to be free of his weighted stare. But before I can regain my senses, his eyes hold mine again.
My insides become a tight, jumbled knot; my pulse quickens; and my throat constricts. I’m hot all over. He had this effect on me the night we met too.
I saw him the second I entered the house that night. He stood in the kitchen doorway with several girls grinding on him, but he acted as if they weren’t even there. As I watched on, he reached down, grabbed a red-haired girl, then sucked her face. His eyes stayed open, locked with mine. I couldn’t turn away. I’d never been kissed like that, and for some reason, I wanted to be. Worse, I wanted him to be the one doing it, even though I came there with my boyfriend, Ben.
Someone bumped into me, and I lost my focus. When I looked back at the doorway, he was gone.
Panic gripped me, and I had to leave. The music was too loud, it was too crowded, and I could barely breathe. I tried to find Ben, but I got caught up in the hallway. People danced behind me, pushing me forward while the crowd thinned ahead of me.
That’s when I saw him again. He had his arms crossed as he leaned on the wall. He was all dark and chiseled, and for the tiniest second, I allowed myself to fantasize that he was waiting for me—and I liked it.
He smiled and shoved off the wall, moving toward me in a way that matched the hypnotic beat of the music. He stopped just shy of touching me and said, “Leaving a party without speaking to the host is rude. Especially when I went to all this effort to impress . . . someone worth more effort than normal. You’ve offended me, but I know how you can make amends.”
I shouldn’t have cared about his feelings one way or the other, but for some stupid reason, I did. I looked into his eyes, expecting to find anger or at the very least disappointment. But what I found instead shocked me so much, I lost all train of thought. The look in his eyes was one I’d only seen in movies. It was lust. It was desire. And it was for me. I heard myself ask him, “What would you like me to do?”
His smile widened, and he replied, “Sleep with me.”
I was so stunned, I burst out laughing. I couldn’t believe he said that—or that he thought a pathetic line and wounded attitude would work. I couldn’t stop laughing, even though it wasn’t funny.
He didn’t like my reaction. At least that’s the message I took from him putting his fist through a wall right next to my head. I didn’t stick around long enough to double-check.
Since that night, I’ve had nightmares. I was glad the Dream Girl visited me last night. Tonight the nightmares will return. Seeing him again, I’m sure of it. In them, I don’t get out. No matter what I do, I end up in Justin’s bedroom and do whatever it takes to please him.
“Mads! There you are,” Justin says. He smiles, and his eyes shine as if he were looking at a long-lost friend.
Why is he here? Why is he so happy to see me? The answers terrify me. Instead, I focus all my attention on his new nickname for me. “My name is Maddy.”
His smile widens, and I cringe, knowing I just did what he wanted—I reacted to him.
I tear my gaze away from him and search for some indication that this isn’t really happening. I find none. My only comfort is that we’re not alone. We’re at school, surrounded by my peers. But they’re not much help. Their heads lean to one side, their mouths hang open like fish, while their eyes focus exclusively on him. It’s as if they’re in a trance.
“What are you doing here?” I ask as casually as possible, thankful for the distance between us. It’s maybe fifteen feet, but I’m grateful for every blessed inch of it.
“I came to talk to you.” He frowns, as if it should be obvious.
“You know him?” Kelli gasps.
“We’ve met, unfortunately,” I reply through my locked jaw.
Hushed murmurs flutter across the room as Justin chuckles. He turns his soulless gaze on Kelli. “I’m a friend of Ben’s.”
She fans herself as if she were about to combust. “Oh.” Her voice is breathy with excitement and awe. She takes a step toward him. “Did he send you here to talk to her?”
A light turns on in the back of my mind. Ben must have told him I go to school here.
“And why would he do that?” Justin’s deep voice takes on an almost animal-like purr. He’s such a sleaze.
I nudge Kelli in the arm and give her the shut-your-mouth look. He’s the last person I want knowing my business.
She bats her eyelashes and smiles coyly, oblivious to me. “Because they broke up last ni—”
“Kelli!” Last night, after Ben and I broke up, I Skyped with all my girlfriends. They call me every time they break up with a guy, so it’s expected. Not that my breakups with Ben are a big deal. This was our eighth one since he moved to Florida five months ago. I just didn’t want him to know about it.
Kelli blinks and looks at me. “What?” she asks sheepishly. “You did.”
Justin smirks. “What did he do this time?”
“None of your business!” I glare at him, hoping my hatred will make him leave.
“Maddy’s birthday is on Halloween, and there’s a dance here that Ben won’t take her to, so she dumped him,” Kelli says in a rush before I can stop her.
My jaw drops. How could she tell him all that as if it were nothing?
Justin shakes his head, then rewards Kelli with a huge smile.
She flushes scarlet.
“What do you want, Justin?” I snap before their disgusting display makes me vomit.
His gaze returns to me, and he takes a long, deliberate look at all five feet five inches of me. With the way he’s staring, it’s as if I were dressed in something out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog instead of my jeans and shirt.
“I’ll tell you outside in private,” he says huskily, then licks his lips.
At the change of his voice and darkening of his gaze, I resist the strong urge to back away. I know that would show how much he intimidates me. It would give him the upper hand, and I can’t let that happen.
“Here’s good.” My hands curl tighter around my tray to keep from shaking.
His smile drops, and he advances on me.
With each step, my fear grows. My mouth dries as I breathe in quick pants.
He stops a few inches from my tray and glowers at me.
His mouth is set in a tight scowl. “I came here as a peace offering, Mads. If you won’t speak with me for five minutes, then I’ll keep asking your friends the questions I want answered. They are being quite attentive.”
I don’t want to talk to him. But leaving him here to keep getting spoon-fed my secrets is much worse.
“Fine.” I hand Kelli my tray—her jaw is practically on the floor. I head outside . . . alone . . . with my worst nightmare.
I take a deep breath, and my chest feels lighter. I’m no longer anxious, and I kind of feel excited. Back inside, I felt like a toy winding down as it uses the last of its battery life, and now I feel recharged. Whole. Complete. My entire body hums with this new surge of energy. I want to run or jump or do anything but stand still. Mostly, I want Justin to try something so I have an excuse to attack him.
I’m not sure where this desire is coming from, but I want it more than I’ve wanted anything in a while. I shouldn’t. I know being alone with him is dangerous, but this overanxious, jumpy sensation is better than feeling scared.
I turn around, square my shoulders, and stare into Justin’s vacant black eyes. “Why are you really here?”
His eyes widen while he sucks in a breath.
If I didn’t know him, I’d believe he were capable of thinking of someone other than himself. But he isn’t. He thinks all women want him simply because he has a pretty face. Often the things in life with the prettiest packages tend to be the most deadly. Like poisonous flowers and venomous snakes. That’s what Justin is—a deadly snake.
Standing here, closer than I ever wanted to be again to him, I notice something I didn’t at his hazy party. I thought he wore contacts, but now I can’t see the telltale ring of them in the whites of his eyes. Black eyes aren’t natural. But as alien as they are, it’s not the first time I’ve seen them. The Dark Prince’s eyes are that way too. But he only exists in my dreams, so how can Justin’s eyes be that color?
He composes himself, slipping into that mask of control he had that night. “I’ll tell you why I’m here in a moment. First, I have a few questions of my own. Why do you hate me?”
“Are you serious?” I shake my head, resisting the urge to laugh, seeing it went over so well the last time.
“Everyone flocks to me. But you . . . you’re different. Why?”
“Um . . . do your actions at the party ring any bells?”
“I was drunk.”
“Hardly.” I hadn’t smelled it on him in that crammed hallway. A fact I pointed out over and over again while fighting with Ben about it. No matter how upset I said I was, he kept brushing it off and making excuses for Justin. Apparently being drunk means you can do whatever you want.
In both my nightmares and real-life thinking, I keep replaying meeting Justin in the hallway. He was so sure I would sleep with him. It wasn’t an I’m-so-hot-you-can’t-resist-me kind of way. It was something . . . else. As if the sheer weight of his words and the look in his eyes should have been enough to make me do as he said. No hesitation allowed.
“You’re sure that’s the only reason why you’re antagonistic toward me?” Justin asks, raising a brow and giving me that same stupid grin he gave Kelli.
“Does there really need to be more?” Whatever made me bold in the beginning is fading. I feel as if my very anger, determination, and confidence are being sucked down through my flip-flops into the concrete sidewalk. I need to get away from him. I need to get back inside.
Thunder rumbles, and we look at the dimming sky. The crisp scent of rain clings to the air. As refreshing as it is, I don’t want it to rain now.
Just in case I don’t get my way, I seek shelter under the awning.
He sighs and follows me. He leans on the limestone building, crosses his arms against his chest, and smirks as if he were enjoying a private joke. “Fine. Next question. What are your plans for the weekend?”
“Did you take stupid pills for breakfast? You honestly think—”
“Careful, Mads. You remember my temper.”
My eyes flash to his hands as I take a step back.
“I’m on my way to Florida to see Ben,” he explains, “and I wanted to extend an invitation. Before you object, I already know your parents are in Wisconsin for your father’s band and your sister, Hannah, is staying with a friend. So you can either make up with your boyfriend—and me—and have the time of your life, or you can waste your weekend doing absolutely nothing fun. It’s up to you.”
“How do you know all of that?”
“You’d be surprised by what I can coax out of girls your age by flashing a smile.”
My mind wanders back to Kelli. She didn’t even think before blabbing everything as if it were no big deal.
“What did you talk about with my other friends?”
“You. Bit by bit, I’m learning more. But so far, I can’t connect any of the pieces.”
I hadn’t expected this straight answer from him. Good luck, Justin. My own family doesn’t know everything about me. Still, I can’t ignore the fact that he’s here and trying to learn my whole life story. “What do you want to know?” Remarkably, I’m able to keep the rising fear from showing in my voice.
His eyes widen as he tilts his head. He gazes at me for a moment as if he were studying me. I put on my best poker face, but it must not be good enough. He shakes his head, then pushes himself off the wall. He slowly circles me, and I mimic his movements. There’s no way I’m turning my back to him.
“What happened to you three years ago?”
I suck in a deep breath, shocked by his question. “Nothing.” It was nothing, but it was also everything at the same time. How did he find out?
“Oh, come on. Don’t be shy. Everyone in your school believes different rumors. But it’s unanimous that your uncle was involved. What happened to you that summer? What made you go from a rising starlet to”—he pauses and gestures to me—“this?”
I’ve heard all the rumors, and it’s been hard not to react to them. But letting them think whatever they wanted, however ridiculous or unkind, was better than the truth.
Ever since I was a toddler, I’ve spent two weeks every summer camping with Uncle Duane. At least that’s the cover story. In reality, it’s more like a survivalist-type TV show. Thanks to Duane and his FBI training, I know about one hundred ways to kill someone, though I’d never do it. I hate violence, even on TV. I only go along with it because it gives him peace of mind—for some reason.
But that summer something did happen, and it changed everything. . . .
The blazing August heat in the vast woods of northern Minnesota seeped through my khakis and camisole. The wind did nothing more than blow strands of hair free from my braid, causing them to stick to the sweat dripping down my neck and face.
“Concentrate,” Duane said sternly as I stared at the bull’s-eye, ready to throw my third knife in that day’s lesson.
I ground my teeth, hating that he snapped at me again. Training was never easy, but he had been riding my butt all week, and I had the bruises and sore muscles to prove it. He was right. I was distracted, and he was making me pay for it. I kept trying to clear my head and focus, but nothing worked. Not meditation. Counting to ten. Nothing. As much as I didn’t like the idea, the only thing that could spare me from an even more grueling day tomorrow would be to suck it up and finally speak my mind.
I took a deep breath, lowered my arm, then turned to face him. “Why am I different than Hannah?”
He tensed. It was subtle, but I caught it. “You’re not twins, Maddy. You’re supposed to be different.”
I shook my head. “It’s not just her, though. I’m different from everyone. Every day I see people showing affection and I see the joy it brings the other person, but when someone does that for me . . . I don’t know. I just don’t feel what I think everyone else does.”
“Maddy, you can’t presume to know—”
“It’s other things too. Like sports. Hannah is ecstatic when she wins her heat. When my team wins a game or I get another trophy . . . all I can think is, Oh great, where am I supposed to put this one? Same thing with the awards from my piano recitals, dance competitions, and those stupid report cards Mom stuck all over the fridge. They gush over them, and it’s all meaningless junk to me. Why?”
“You’ve always been very hard on yourself,” Uncle Duane said. “Perhaps that’s my fault. Maybe I push you too hard.”
“No. You’re the only one who does challenge me. Everything else is like a black hole, sucking all the goodness from my life. Am I broken? Was I dropped on my head as a baby? Why am I like this?”
He opened his mouth, and for a moment, I thought he was going to give me another lame excuse. But then he closed it and sighed. “Maddy, you’re adopted.”
I stood there, expecting him to smile or wink or do anything to suggest that it was a joke. But the more I waited, the faster my heart raced and the harder I panted. In my mind’s eye, I could see the outline of a man and woman, and even though it was just their shadows, somehow I knew with everything in me, they were my real parents. It was true.
My hand gripped harder on the knife as I willed myself not to cry. As tears threatened to burst out, I turned and threw the knife so it landed beside its brothers in the small red center circle.
“When?” I asked, refusing to look at him.
“What do you mean?”
“When was I adopted?”
“When your parents lived in Georgia. Your aunt Deb and I were visiting their new home. We’d just finished supper when we heard a knock at the door. On the front step lay this tiny little baby wrapped up in a blanket that had ‘Madison Rose’ stitched into the border. There was no note and no one on the street either. The hospital ran tests and determined you were three days old and perfectly healthy.”
My vision blurred as tears welled up again.
Just abandoned and forgotten.
When I returned home from that camping trip, all I could think was, This isn’t my life. As long as I continued to be “Maddy Page,” I’d never figure out who I really was and whom I should have been.
I quit all extracurricular activities and let my grades slip. I planned to eliminate all traces of my false life, but I couldn’t bring myself to completely cut out the people. Instead, I kept my adoptive family—Dean, Marie, and Hannah—at arm’s length, feeling angry at the years of lies. My friends were harder. They were innocent in this lie, so even though I wanted to walk away from them too, I couldn’t. I settled for seeing them in school and only once in a while outside of it.
Three years later, and I’m still stuck in the same predicament. I have to pick between the lie that’s familiar and the truth that’s unknown. I want to choose the truth, but I can’t, and I don’t know why.
Justin’s smooth voice interrupts my reminiscing. “Don’t keep me in suspense. There has to be something more to the ‘What-Is-Mads’ game.”
He continues his slow circles, but his smile drops. His brows furrow, and he meets my gaze. “Before that summer, you were enchanting.”
“You still are, but you used to be driven. People admired you and wanted you to notice them.”
I shake my head, trying to come to grips with how drastically our conversation has changed. Enchanted? Admired? “Okay, clearly whoever fed you that line of BS needs to get their head examined.”
“I’ll tell Amber you said so.”
“Amber? As in the head cheerleader, girlfriend of the quarterback, and the hag responsible for all the gossip about me?”
“That’d be the one.”
The rest of my friends ignore her, but I can’t. I’ve been compared to her most of my life. It has nothing to do with our rank on the high school food chain, which couldn’t be more opposite, and everything to do with our looks. We look so much alike, we’ve unofficially adhered to separate dress codes. I usually wear my sandy-brown hair down and stick to plain shirts, skinny jeans, and flip-flops—unless there’s snow. Amber dresses as if she were auditioning to dance on a hoochie pole. There isn’t a world where she would think I’m better than her.
“Why do you care about any of this?” I ask.
He tosses his head back and laughs. It’s a rich, deep sound, and if more people were out here, I’m sure several would start laughing too, even though they didn’t know the reason behind it. It’s that kind of laugh. One that cheers you up the instant you hear it. Even though I don’t like him, I can’t help but acknowledge that Justin wasn’t always a jerk.
“Oh, don’t kid yourself. I’m bored. Meddling in your meaningless, pathetic life is somewhat entertaining.”
This whole fiasco today is because he’s bored? No. I’ve been bored, and I didn’t go around acting like a stalker. “I don’t get you. You show up after two weeks and offer to take me to Ben? Why? It doesn’t make sense.”
He pushes up his jacket sleeve to reveal a black watch. His jaw tightens as he glances at it. Then he fixes his sleeve. “My offer is merely an excuse to get you out of town. But before you jump to any more conclusions, it has nothing to do with me. I’m trying to help you. Call it my first good deed.”
“I don’t understand. What are you talking about?”
“Be a good girl and listen to me for once—say you’ll come with me.”
He runs his fingers through his hair and groans. “Fine. You’ve left me no other choice.”
He closes the gap between us and towers over me. His eyes burn into mine just as they did at the party. A dizzying fog spreads through my mind. I can’t breathe. I can’t blink. I can’t move. What’s happening? What have I done?
“Madison, you are going to Florida with me. This is not a request. Now, get into my car and don’t say another word unless I tell you to.” He blinks, ending our staring contest, and the fog lifts.
“I’m not going anywhere with you. Forget it!” I shout over a barrage of thunder.
He gazes at the sky for a moment. Then his narrowing eyes meet mine once more. His nostrils flare. “You’re really starting to irritate me, Mads. I’m trying to do the right thing and warn you, but you refuse to listen. You have it in your head that I’m the bad guy. But good and bad are subjective. There are others out there—others you have been taught are good—but they still pose a threat, okay?”
Something about these words makes me freeze. What “others” have I been taught about? And why would someone “good” be a threat to me?
“I’m about having fun, partying, and playing mind games,” he says. “The others are about the rules and strictly enforcing them.” He pauses, glances over his shoulder for a second, then returns his attention to me and leans in closer. “I’m breaking one of them by even telling you this. But you don’t play by the rules, Mads. If you don’t listen, it will cost you. One of the others is on his way to Mankato as we speak. There’s no doubt that he will find you. We don’t have much time.”
I lean back and gaze at him. “Are you even listening to yourself? Seriously, whatever drugs you’re on . . . you need to stop.”
Justin covers his face in his hands and groans again while they slide down. Once his hands are back at his side, he grins. But it’s nothing like his earlier ones. It’s shifty. Twisted. It reminds me of the Grinch. “Why did I expect this to be easy with you? Do you want to die? Is that it?”
“What? No.” My heart beats so hard, I can almost feel it hitting my ribcage. I take a few steps back while trying to regain control of myself and the situation.
His eyes soften as harsh lines on his face relax. “If you stay here, Mads, I won’t be responsible for what happens to you.”
I stare up at him, studying his expression for cracks in his I-suddenly-care-what-happens-to-you façade. The longer I look into his endless black eyes, they tighter the knots inside me get. “You’re not lying.”
He lowers his gaze and shakes his head.
I should be terrified. I can feel the urge to crumble, but I push back by focusing on him. “You’re getting out of town to avoid this ‘other’ guy. You’re afraid?” If he’s going to another part of the country to hide from whoever’s coming, maybe I should go. But Florida is so far away from Minnesota. It takes Ben nearly two days to get here every time he drives up. I can’t be in a car with Justin that long. And flying . . . my parents would have a cow.
He laughs. Hearing the low, deep rumble again causes the muscles all over my body to tighten. “I’m not afraid, Mads. He used to be fun—before he turned into the poster boy for righteousness. Now I find him irritating and his timing inconvenient. Still, he’s not a threat . . . to me anyhow. But he will destroy you the minute he lays eyes on you. That’s why you must come with me.”
No. It’s not possible. It’s a lie. Another one of his tricks. “I don’t believe you.”
“Fine,” he snaps, straightening himself. “Have it your way. But when you find yourself in trouble this weekend, remember it could have been prevented if you would have listened to me. Sweet dreams, Mads.”
He takes a long, hard look at me. For some inexplicable reason, I feel as if he’s attempting to memorize me. As if he honestly expects to never see me again. I should be happy about that, but it only adds to my rising panic. Once he’s satisfied, he turns, then rushes down the stone steps, whistling a familiar tune I can’t place. It sounds ominous, and it makes me cringe. He slides into a black sports car parked in the fire lane and drives away.
I spent the rest of the school day with my imagination in morbid overdrive, picturing me dying at the hands of some cloaked others. I needed the day to end so I could run. Running always clears my head.
After changing clothes at home, I do a quick stretch in the driveway and jog to the park across the street. With the chilly October weather, it’s mostly empty. I hate when it’s busy.
As I get closer to the start of the path that borders the pond, I notice a guy sitting on a bench. A light breeze rustles his finger-length brown hair, giving him that I-just-woke-up style. I’d guess he’s somewhere around seventeen to twenty years old, but I’m not sure. I wish I could get a better look at him, but he’s bending over, tying his red running shoes.
As his fingers twist and tighten the laces, my stomach clenches. Muscles bulge in his arms. My hands curl into fists, fighting the urge to feel those muscles just to ensure they’re real. They’re not too big, though—just to the point where it’s obvious he works out. And he doesn’t have a bulky frame either. He’s . . . perfect.
I’ve never been boy crazy. Hannah and my friends think I’m nuts because of it. But the closer I get to him, this strange spark of heat builds inside me.
I let out a slow exhale, hoping to remove all thoughts of him so I can concentrate on my run.
It didn’t work.
Instead I speed up. If nothing else, I can put him behind me, and eventually I will come back to my senses.
I drop my foot back to the ground once she passes me. I should have just approached her as I’ve done with all my other Charges, but I couldn’t. The instant I saw her, my head emptied, all sound faded, things on my periphery blurred, and even the leaves dancing in the wind stilled. It lasted only a moment, but long enough for her emerald-green eyes to pierce straight through me.
I hadn’t expected to meet her until Monday, but I can’t wait until then. A strange sensation is building the farther away she gets. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s as if everything inside me is trying to leap out and follow her. Having never experienced anything like this before, I summon a portal to the Veil of Shadows. A silver crack of light appears, and I step inside to watch her without her knowledge.
Once the portal closes, sounds become distorted like hearing a conversation being held in another room. But colors are brighter in the portal. Time is variable, specific to my needs. Right now, I want it to stay at the pace it was on her side so I can watch things progress as they happen.
I follow behind her, trying to decipher why I had such an abnormal reaction to her. Perhaps it’s not her, but the town itself—it’s smack-dab in the center of a Trifecta. I’ve never been to one this strong before, but to my knowledge, no other towns have limestone, water, and a tragedy of this magnitude grouped so close together.
On the outskirts of town is a limestone quarry. The majority of the buildings here are made with the rock. A river cuts through the center of town, and not even a mile away is the park with four small ponds—two are used for swimming. Add to that, in 1862 they hanged thirty-eight Native Americans, marking this site as the largest mass hanging in US history.
This town should be a veritable melting pot for spirits. The elements and tragedy emit an electromagnetic energy field that supernatural beings feed off. Most just want help crossing over. But it’s the dangerous ones that concern me. The ones that want to live again by plaguing the living.
I came to the park to clear out some of the spirits that could pose a threat to my assignment. I figured I would find a demon of some sort, or at the very least a lost soul, but there has been nothing. Only my Charge and a few other mortals.
Places with a Trifecta are listed inside every building in Immortal City to ensure we are well prepared for any and all types of paranormal beings when we are in those areas. But this town wasn’t. Something isn’t right here, and I’ll have to investigate it before finishing the assignment. It would be very bad for a rookie to come here unprepared.
Perhaps I’ll call Alexander down since he’s yet to experience one. He should be done with his exorcism shortly. It will be good training for him.
The girl runs faster. I expected to be bombarded with thoughts and images of me being superior to her favorite male celebrity, her calling all her girlfriends to inform them of me, her trying to take a picture when she thinks I won’t notice to confirm my existence to said friends, and other useless teenage notions. They’ve done it all, and then some. Instead she’s quiet. It’s refreshing, actually. Still, to ensure she’s okay, I move past her to the woods so I can get a better view of her and the trail. Sometime in the near future, a demon is coming to kill her, and I can’t get caught up in this town or her. When he comes . . . I’ll be ready.
Thank you for spending some time in the world of Unclaimed. Unclaimed is available for purchase on this site under the “SHOP” menu as well as Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The second book in the Unclaimed Series, Ignited, releases August 10th!