Updated: Mar 21, 2021
He watched through the tinted windshield as she started up her silver Honda. “She saw me in my true form,” he said the second his drothen answered the call. “Don’t worry, I took care of it. And I think you’re right—she knows nothing, not even what she is. But I want to test her alone before we get the others involved.”
Kade reacted strongly to the news, his shock through the phone clear.
“Yes, I know it’s against protocol,” he interrupted, unwavering in his decision, “but we can’t fail this time. She’s our last chance. Just give me a few weeks.”
The Honda’s lights flashed as she pulled into traffic. Ending the call, he unhurriedly pressed the ignition of his Lexus. At this hour, he knew she was headed home, having carefully studied her routine for the past four weeks.
When the tail lights faded, he adjusted his gloves and turned the steering wheel to follow her.
Freaking fates, this place belonged in a slasher film.
The large curtainless windows were giving off “I can see you” vibes, and the ghostly blobs dotting the dark interior were excellent hiding spots for would-be axe murderers. The blobs were only white sheets draped over the furniture, but hey, they seriously made the space look creepy.
I pulled out my phone. Cue unreliable cell reception for added effect. I tapped on my social media accounts only to see the dreaded “couldn’t refresh feed.” Well, that sucked. There went the few friends I had.
“It’s a fixer-upper, but you know how I like my projects,” my aunt said cheerily for my benefit. “And, look, free furniture.” She flicked on the entrance hall light—and nothing happened. With a long-suffering sigh, she fished out her phone and stepped onto the front porch, muttering, “Be right back. Gotta see if I can get an electrician out here this late.”
I shrugged like it was no big deal. “I’ll just be inside—” She walked off before I could finish, so I mumbled lamely to myself, “—looking for ghosts and serial killers.”
Only two months and sixteen days left of this pretending, I reminded myself reassuringly. I could play my aunt’s twisted game that much longer.
Pressing the flashlight icon on my phone, I began the preliminary exploration of our new home. We’d arrived sometime after midnight, having been on the road since before dawn. Aunt Tess had practically moved us across the country this time, from South Carolina to Rosewood, a small coastal town in Maine. Usually, we only hopped a state or two, picking a spot at random. But this time felt different.
She hadn’t even used a GPS to find this ramshackle house butted up against the woods. I had questions, as always, but knew better than to ask—especially this time. For once, I was pretty sure I knew what had spurred my aunt into moving again, and I wasn’t about to stir the pot by demanding answers.
She was spooked, and a spooked Aunt Tess meant another move.
The sooner we could settle into this place without me making a fuss, the better. I was done moving against my will. Being underage sucked. It forced me to follow my aunt across the country as she uprooted me again and again, making meaningful relationships impossible. I barely tried to make new friends now. What would the point be? I would just have to leave them behind in a few months.
At nearly eighteen years of age, I no longer doubted that Aunt Tess was keeping secrets from me. Always moving for my “safety” wasn’t normal. That, or she suffered from extreme paranoia. Either way, confronting her about it was pointless. She’d only become suspicious and ask if I’d seen anything weird lately.
I mean, yeah, I’d seen weird stuff. But was that really a good reason to move? This house was weird, this move was weird. What I saw or thought I’d seen shouldn’t send my aunt into a packing frenzy.
Our new digs was a lot bigger than our last one though, set back on a private gravel drive. Too bad the white, two-story house smelled of mothballs and abandonment. Shivering in my jean shorts, I pulled my red hoodie over my thick hair, tucking the long, chestnut brown tresses behind my ears. The temperature in Maine was far colder than what we’d left behind. It was barely autumn but felt like a southern winter. I sure hoped this dump had a heating unit.
After exploring the outdated kitchen, complete with white laminate countertops and blue floral wallpaper, I opened the door leading down to a spooky basement. Listening to my morbid curiosity instead of common sense, I carefully descended the creaky wooden stairs. That typical earthy, mildew basement smell hit me and I wrinkled my nose.
At the bottom, something brushed against my hoodie and I choked back a surprised squeak. Expecting cobwebs, I blindly batted at the air and struck a solid object instead. I whipped my phone up, and the flashlight’s beam revealed a swaying string. And attached to the string, dangling inches from my face, was a . . .
“Holy fates!” I jerked back and sat down hard on a dusty stair. Was that a chicken’s foot? Okay, whoever lived here last had a sick sense of humor. “So creepy.” I decided to save this part of my self tour until after the electricity was restored. Who knew what other surprises I’d find down here.
Hurrying back up the steps, I continued to the second floor where the bedrooms were. When I stepped into the last one with a window seat that overlooked the woods, goosebumps prickled my arms—as if my body was trying to tell me something. Yeah, that it was freaking cold up here. I already missed southern weather.
“Found my room, Aunt Tess!” I called, turning from the window to pull the white sheets off the furniture. Cool armoire. It had that vintage, shabby chic thing going on. When my words were met with silence, I headed downstairs again in search of my aunt.
She was pacing the driveway beside my old silver Honda, her bright auburn hair catching the moonlight. “I didn’t know what else to do,” I heard her say over the phone, so I retreated inside again. Respect for privacy was rule number one in our house. But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I’d demanded the rule go both ways.
I decided to busy myself with removing sheets, making sure no masked killers were hiding underneath them. I’d reached the dining room when something beyond the sliding doors moved. I whipped my gaze toward the backyard, heart jolting at the thought of someone watching me.
But it was only a deer.
Two of them actually, a doe and fawn, by the looks of it. The mother was too busy grazing on the overgrown lawn to notice me, so I oh-so-carefully unlocked the slider and nudged it open. The hinges soundlessly rolled back—which was unexpected, considering the state of this place—and I was able to slip outside undetected.
Turning off the flashlight, I raised my phone to snap a photo. The quality would be grainy, but I didn’t often get to see wildlife this close. Our last several moves had been to small apartments in the suburbs.
As I tapped the button, the night lit up. Crap! I’d left the flash on. Startled, the mama and baby deer took off, leaping into the woods.
“Shoot.” I clicked on my photos, hoping I at least got the shot. I smiled when two deer greeted me. Too bad their eyes were glowing from the flash, but . . .
There were three sets of eyes. One pair was farther back in the woods. But it wasn’t yellow like the others. More like a bright ruby . . .
A warning tickled my senses, followed by a memory. I quickly shoved the memory aside. There was a perfectly good explanation for this. Probably some trick of the light. I double-tapped the screen and squinted at the dark shape. Then squinted harder, willing the shape to transform into a deer. But the more I stared, the clearer it became.
There was a human in the woods.
A cold awareness skated across my skin, one I’d felt not too long ago. I fumbled to press the flashlight icon again and dropped my phone. I froze, suddenly realizing how isolated this place was. If there were houses nearby, I couldn’t see them. Which meant that if I screamed . . .
I snatched up my phone without taking my eyes off the woods. The memory came back to taunt me again, and I couldn’t shake it this time. Freaking out, I whirled and dove headfirst into the house. Air whooshed from my lungs as I crashed to the floor, but I was up again in a flash, slamming the slider shut with a thwack.
“Kenna?” Aunt Tess’s feet pounded the wood floor as she barreled into the house. “What’s wrong? What happened?” Her wild gaze searched every nook and cranny as she approached.
Needing a moment to compose myself, I turned and carefully locked the door. If I told her what I saw—or what I thought I saw—we’d be halfway across the country by morning. And despite the creep factor of this house, something about it felt . . . right. I didn’t know why, but I didn’t want to leave this place yet.
So I turned and adopted an embarrassed expression before saying, “Nothing happened. I just wanted to explore outside and the door jammed.”
She fixed me with one her deep, probing stares to see if I’d break, but I wouldn’t. Not this time. Eventually, she sighed and let me off the hook. “Do me a favor and stay out of those woods, okay?”
“What?” I glanced out the window, pretending to notice them for the first time. “Why, are there bears in there or something?”
“Or something. Just promise me, McKenna. I’m trying to keep you safe here.”
Feelings of resentment sprang up at that thinly-veiled guilt trip, as if the moves were my fault. I reached down and pinched my thigh hard to keep from saying anything I’d later regret. “Fine,” I quickly muttered and looked away.
We stood in tense silence for a few moments, long enough for me to feel guilty. Argh! She had a knack for doing that to me. She released another sigh, saying, “Come on. There’s no electricity or hot water, so we’re gonna stay at a hotel for tonight. Hopefully everything will look brighter in the morning.”
“Okay,” I agreed, because there was no way I could fall asleep tonight in this house. Not without curtains on every single window.
Thankfully, after a visit from the local plumber and electrician, the house was live-in ready two days later—except we still didn’t have curtains. Our storage container hadn’t arrived yet, but we’d mastered the art of living out of suitcases for extended periods.
The one thing I hadn’t quite mastered was the first day at a new school. Rosewood High would be my third school this year, but I’d purposefully lost count of how many I’d actually attended over the years. It was too depressing to think about.
I turned right on the road that led to Rosewood’s small but picturesque downtown, following the directions Aunt Tess had written down for me before I left. With all the pine trees near our house, cell reception was still poor, including the GPS. I wondered if it would make her job difficult, since she often worked remotely as an interior design consultant. At least her car was arriving any day now, so she could work from a shop in town if need be.
I eyed the quaint and colorful stores along Maine Street, wondering if any of them had side jobs available that paid in cash. It was the only way I could save a little money since Aunt Tess wouldn’t let me get a job. The only thing she’d finally caved on was letting me have a car earlier this year.
But I needed more money. That way, I’d be ready to strike out on my own the day I turned eighteen, the day I’d been counting down to for the last three years.
My trusty Honda traversed the windy roads with ease, allowing me to continue dwelling on my thoughts. Aunt Tess had been right. Things had looked brighter in the morning, and I’d put the red eyes in the woods incident behind me. I was determined to believe they belonged to a neighbor or hunter wandering the forest. Although, if they were attempting to shoot the doe, that was so not cool.
Besides that, everything else had been normal. The locals were direct yet friendly, which was refreshing. The town itself had less than six thousand people, which should put my aunt at ease. She hated cities—or crowds of any sort, really.
I would miss my morning runs to Starbucks though. The closest one was fifty miles away in Bangor. Guess I’d have to make do with Aunt Tess’s poor attempts at coffee-making. The woman had amazing design skills, but she could barely toast bread. One thing she excelled at though was spoiling me on my first day at a new school. It was like her way of apologizing for uprooting me yet again.
Not only had she showered me with baked goods this morning—that she didn’t make—but she’d bought me a brand new outfit. Thin beige crop-top sweater, ripped stonewashed jeans, and new ankle boots. Large hoop earrings completed the outfit, plus the silver charm bracelet that I never took off. I didn’t usually get all dolled up for school, but I was a sucker for first impressions—even if my relationships didn’t last long.
When I spotted the school five minutes later, first day jitters kicked in—although it was technically a month into the fall semester, which sucked. Rosewood High was a typical flat-topped, red brick building with a few newer wings branching off to the sides. But what made the jitters do backflips in my stomach was the fact that a graveyard resided next door.
I was getting some serious bad omen vibes.
So distracted by the sight, I took the turn into the school parking lot a little too fast. A tall figure was suddenly there, standing right in my path. “Fates!” I slammed on the brakes, tires squealing. Stop, stop, stop! Squeezing my eyes shut, I braced for impact. The seatbelt dug into my sternum as the car jerked to a stop, and my head snapped back to hit the headrest.
Dazed, I stared at the dashboard for an undetermined length of time, then unbuckled my seatbelt. Pushing the door open, I stumbled out, expecting to see blood and innards splattered over the road. I registered distant shouting and pounding feet, but all I could focus on was the patch of road in front of my car.
The empty patch of road.
There was nothing there. Absolutely nothing.
“Are you okay?” Someone touched my sleeve and I immediately pulled away, blinking several times to orient myself. Unfamiliar faces crowded around, some concerned and others confused.
“Y-yeah, I’m fine. I just . . .” I pinched my thigh as hard as I could. “I don’t really know what happened actually.” So much for first impressions. This had to be my worst one yet.
“McKenna Belmont?” A short, curvy girl with skin a couple shades lighter than my olive-toned complexion elbowed her way inside the growing circle. Her mouth formed an O as she took me in from top to bottom. “Why, hello there. You McKenna?”
“Uh, yeah. Or just Kenna.” Did she just check me out? Her wide, dark blue eyes were still openly roving without shame.
She stuck out her hand, flashing pink nail polish that matched the dyed tips of her blonde shaggy bob. “Isla Andrews. I’m part of the Welcoming Committee at Rosewood High. Looks like you’ve already met some people, good for you. If you’ll just park over there, I’ll show you to the administration office.”
Her handshake was firm and confident, which made me like her immediately. This girl was the real deal, not an ounce of fakeness about her. I did as instructed and maneuvered my car to a parking spot at a snail’s pace, which saved me from further embarrassment. The other students started to disperse, although a few leaned on cars and continued to watch me from afar. I supposed in a town this small, a new student was cause for gossip—especially one who had a freakout in the school parking lot.
“So where’d you move from?” Isla asked the second I emerged from my car.
Um, everywhere. “South Carolina.”
“Oh, is that why you’re so tan? I’m jealous.”
A laugh snorted out of me. She was so candid. “No, I don’t spend much time in the sun. Must be my Mediterranean roots.”
“So it’s natural? Double jealous. And your eyes are like molten silver.” She must have noticed my rising blush, quickly adding, “Sorry if I’m creeping you out. Most people just tell me to shut up when I get too personal. You don’t have to tell me anything.”
“No, I don’t mind.” I didn’t mind at all, actually, which surprised me. It felt good to have someone so genuinely interested in getting to know me.
All before entering the school building, I learned that Isla was a senior like me, her dad was the county sheriff, she had an older brother named Noah, was born and raised in Rosewood, and had never left Maine.
“I’m seriously going stir crazy. There’s nothing to do in this town,” she moaned. I smiled but didn’t comment. There were far worse things in life than boredom.
When we stepped inside, a locker-lined hallway accommodating a diverse crowd of teens and teachers greeted us. Several maroon and gold posters dotted the walls above the matching maroon lockers, sporting the school spirit and a growling cougar mascot. Curious eyes tracked our progress, making my skin feel tight and hot. It annoyed me. Not the staring—which was to be expected—but my reaction to it. I wasn’t normally this self conscious.
The downside to switching schools a month into the semester was catching up with what I’d missed. Every school had a different curriculum, and if I didn’t adapt quickly, I’d start to fall behind. I couldn’t let that happen, not if I wanted to earn scholarships for college—which I would desperately need since I doubted Aunt Tess would financially support me if I left her once I became a legal adult. Thankfully, I was used to the process by now. The school also had an art program, so I was good to go.
In the administration office, I was given a large stack of books and my class schedule. “Lemme see,” Isla said, snatching it out of my hand, then promptly scowled. “Ugh, we don’t have anything together until after lunch. Come on, I’ll show you to your locker, then your English Lit class.”
The scowl was there and gone again in a blink. Now it was my turn to be jealous. Despite my easy-going outward appearance, I was a sulker to the core. I accepted my schedule back and tucked it away so I could grab the large stack of textbooks.
“Here, I can help.” Isla reached for the stack, but I shook my head.
“How about you get the door? I’ve got this.”
“Deal. I didn’t want to chip my fresh nail polish anyway.” She grinned cheekily, opening the door with a flourish.
I smiled in return and nodded my thanks. Stepping through, I was promptly knocked sideways by a heavy hit to the shoulder. My books toppled to the floor and so did I. Except hands grasped my waist at the last second, keeping me from breaking my nose on the vinyl. I was lifted up and set back on my feet with ease, acutely aware of large fingers warming the strip of bare skin above my jeans.
“I’m so sorry,” a male voice rushed to say.
I turned and he immediately released his grip. The warmth from his touch continued to seep into my skin though. The feeling wasn’t unpleasant, just weird. Tucking clumps of hair behind my ears, I laughed nervously to show I was unharmed. “It’s okay. I really should watch where I’m going.”
He didn’t respond, so I looked up, only to see him studying his open hands with a frown. Okay, then. I cleared my throat awkwardly and bent to pick up the scattered books.
“Oh, no, let me do that.” He quickly joined me on the floor, scooping up books in his large hands. I used the moment to peek at his profile, discovering light brown skin, a square jaw, and spiked dark brown hair. He caught me looking and flashed a megawatt grin, his golden hazel eyes crinkling at their upturned corners. Before I could flush with embarrassment, he stood with the majority of my books and said, “You must be the new girl. I’m Reid.”
As I straightened to a stand, the warning bell rang.
“Oh, here’s your books. I gotta go.” When I held my arms out, I couldn’t help but notice that he seemed determined not to touch me this time. With a quick wave, he took off, calling over his shoulder, “Nice to meet you and sorry again.”
Isla came up beside me and whistled quietly, watching him jog up the stairs and out of sight. “I’m so jealous.”
I snorted. “Of what? Of being plowed over like a stalk of corn?”
“Yes. And because he touched you, and talked to you, and smiled at you.” She sighed dreamily.
“Who is he?”
“Only Reid Zimmerman, Rosewood High’s best football quarterback in decades and the most popular guy in school,” Isla crooned, then snickered. “Something tells me my life just got a whole lot more interesting now that you’re in town.”
I laughed with her, albeit uneasily. Because “interesting” in my world meant packed boxes and a moving truck.
The one perk to starting at a new school on a Thursday?
Today was Friday, and thank the fates for that.
I had woken up to a fever this morning. Still, I was determined not to miss school. It was only my second day, after all. First impressions hadn’t been all that great, but I could always make up for it today.
I opened the packet of Aleve I’d received from the school nurse’s office and chugged down the pills with a bottle of water.
“Not feeling well today, Kenna?” Isla set down her juice to eye me with concern. She’d basically adopted me and made sure I sat with her during lunch period, introducing me to a couple of her friends. Hailey Bradley and Peyton Goodall were nice, but nowhere near as genuine as Isla. I didn’t think anyone was. They stopped their conversation to watch me with interest.
“I might be coming down with something,” I admitted, poking at my salad which now looked unappetizing. “I’ll just take a nap after school. Probably still tired from the move.”
Isla nodded sympathetically, then brightened. “If you’re feeling better later, you should come out with us tonight. There’s going to be music and a big bonfire at North Point Cove.”
“Everyone will be there,” Peyton chipped in, playing with a strand of her straight black hair. “Including Reid Zimmerman.” Her dark eyes flicked a glance toward his table, and a faint blush rose to her flawless brown cheeks.
I snickered when Isla and Hailey sighed in unison. I could admit that he was charismatic and handsome, but I didn’t know if he was my type. Truthfully though, I was still figuring out what that even meant. My love life had a big fat zero stamped across it. Not that guys weren’t interested in me—or me in them, for that matter. But with all the moving, there simply hadn’t been time for dating. And I definitely didn’t want a long distance relationship.
“I’ll have to make sure my aunt is okay with it, but count me in,” I said, to a chorus of squeals. I wasn’t going to hold my breath though. Aunt Tess usually said no.
Hailey clapped her hands, her strawberry blonde curls bobbing as she bounced in her seat. “Reid might even say hi to us if you’re there,” she said, completely oblivious to how her words sounded. I didn’t mind, really, even if I was essentially being used. I didn’t have a lot of experience with relationships of any kind, but I knew all about feeling alone. Maybe helping these girls find companionship would distract me from my own loneliness, no matter how briefly.
But when I got home from school, the fever had worsened and Aunt Tess wasn’t there. Her car must have arrived while I was gone. I checked the dining room table and, sure enough, she’d left a note.
Kenna, I’m visiting with a friend. Leftovers are in the fridge. Make sure to lock the doors and don’t wait up. -Aunt Tess
“A friend? What sorcery is this?” I muttered, flipping the note over to see if there was a “just kidding” on the back. She hardly ever made friends—or spent time with them, for that matter. And she most certainly never stayed out late.
I pulled out my phone and called her number, sinking onto a chair as chills swept through me. Straight to voicemail. Hanging up, I tapped the table and debated what to do. I decided on leaving her a text:
Anyone I know?
That wasn’t too confrontational.
I sat for a moment longer, tired at just the thought of climbing the stairs to my bedroom. But I eventually did, dropping my burgundy school bag and ankle boots along the way. Aunt Tess would have a fit, but she wasn’t here. She was out being secretive.
I suddenly decided that no matter how awful I felt, I was going out tonight with my new friends.
It was half past nine when I finally found North Point Cove, a stretch of rocky beach surrounded by pine trees. The air was nippy so I’d brought a hooded sweatshirt, but I left it in the car. When I’d woken from my three hour nap, my skin had been hot to the touch. Even after a cold shower, I still ached with fever.
I had almost given in to my exhaustion and climbed back into bed, but my annoyance with Aunt Tess’s obtuseness kept me going. She’d always been a private person, but how had she mysteriously found a friend after less than a week of being here? Something was definitely different about this move. I could feel it in my bones.
And if she wouldn’t talk to me about it, then I wouldn’t tell her about this party.
Hearing laughter and thumping music, I followed a narrow, sandy trail through the pine trees until a large bonfire became visible. Beyond the glowing fire, ocean waves crashed against the rocks, illuminated by a bright, waxing moon.
The party was in full swing, at least fifty teenagers occupying the secluded stretch of beach. Couples dotted the sand, most of them making out. A handful of guys were throwing around a football, and I recognized the tall, spikey-haired one. Reid caught my eye and gave a friendly wave before throwing the football. When I spotted Isla, Hailey, and Peyton talking with a few others, I straightened and plastered on a fake smile. I hated pretending, even if it was to cover up not feeling well.
Isla saw me and broke from the group to pull me over. “I’m so happy you made it, girl. I was beginning to worry!” Even in low-heeled ankle boots, I struggled to keep up. The sand definitely wasn’t helping matters. She introduced me to a few senior year Rosewood High students—whose names I promptly forgot—then handed me a red plastic cup. “Do you drink?”
“Uh, depends what it is.” I sniffed the contents and immediately recoiled. “Smells like dog pee.”
Isla busted out laughing and bumped my shoulder. Liquid splashed over the cup’s rim, soaking my wrist. “Cheap beer, actually. I can take it if you don’t want it.”
“Sure.” I handed the cup over gingerly, watching as she swallowed a mouthful. “So your dad—you know, him being the sheriff and all—doesn’t mind you drinking alcohol?”
“Oh, he minds, but everyone here drinks. Not much else to do, you know? And after the hard time my brother gave him as a teen, he’s a bit more lenient with me. Besides, I’m the baby of the family.” She winked and took another swig of the foul-smelling stuff, choking a bit.
I huffed a laugh and dropped the subject. “So what kind of stuff did your brother do?”
“Oh, girl. Girl. It’s more like what didn’t he do. He’s all mature and teaching at an exclusive school now, but when Noah was our age, he used to street race.”
My eyebrows inched upward.
“And participate in illegal street fights.”
My mouth formed a large O.
“And date every girl in his class and then some.”
“Wow. No wonder your dad doesn’t get on you for drinking.”
“Right? And Hailey drove me anyway. We live in the same neighborhood. I would never drive while—”
A sharp ringing in my ears suddenly cut off her words. I popped my jaw and tried to clear it. The sound only intensified, until noises from all around blasted through my ear canals. Talking, laughter, shuffling feet, the music—the volume increased tenfold. I cringed and covered my ears, squeezing my eyes shut.
Argh. Stop, stop, stop.
A hand landed on my shoulder and I squinted to see Isla’s concerned face. “You okay?”
I waited a moment before cautiously lowering my hands. The sounds had dimmed somewhat, but were still louder than normal. I nodded anyway, then winced. “Actually, I’ve got a bit of a headache. I might find a quiet spot for a while until it goes away. Is there any water here?”
“Yeah, I’ll get you a bottle. I’m so sorry you’re still not feeling well.” She gave me sad, puppy dog eyes before whirling to find me a drink. Seconds later, she was back, pressing a bottled water into my hands and pointing to the left. “There’s a dark, quiet spot over there. I’ll be here if you need me.”
“Thanks, Isla.” You’re a good friend, I almost added, but bit my lip instead. I was already growing too attached to this girl.
Hailey and Peyton looked a bit put out that I was leaving their group so soon—probably because Reid hadn’t mosied over yet—but I simply waved and took off across the beach. Thinking, let alone talking, was starting to hurt my head, so I tried to avoid the scattered groups, walking along the treeline.
I had almost reached the fallen log Isla had pointed to when I heard someone yell, “Hey, new chick!” I ignored them, because turning my head would have taken too much effort. A couple yards later, I heard feet shuffling along the sand, then, “Hey, no need to be rude. We just wanted to ask if you’d like to join us for a little game.”
Someone tugged on my hair and I whipped around with a glare. Crap, wrong move. Pain splintered my vision. I must have blacked out for a second, because when I blinked next, a muscular blond guy was supporting my weight. His piercing green eyes weren’t on my face though, but wandering down the deep V of my white shirt.
I struggled to free myself. When he let go, I said, “No, thanks, I’m not feeling well. I might even be contagious.” Which didn’t faze him one bit.
“Let me carry you to your car then. Tell me where it is and I’ll—”
Frustrated at his bullheaded persistence, I went with blunt honesty. “No, really. I’m not in the least bit interested and you can go now.”
“Ah, c’mon, don’t be like that. I’m only trying to help.” And before I could stop him, he scooped me up.
Seriously, dude. Wrong move. My fever spiked, along with the temper I usually kept on a tight leash. “Let me go now, you neanderthal,” I snarled, and slapped his chest.
Male laughter surrounded us, his buddies crowding in close to watch—as if I was the game. Humiliation burned through me, followed by a boiling rage. Without warning, I lashed out at Neanderthal’s face, raking my nails down his cheek. He bellowed and threw me to the sand. I landed on my back with a loud ooph, and lay there stunned and struggling for air.
“What’s going on here?” someone said over Neanderthal’s swearing. Bodies shuffled aside to accomodate a new face, one I thankfully recognized. Reid crouched before me, clear worry in his hazel eyes. “What happened? You okay?”
Still unable to speak, I simply glared at Neanderthal. Reid stood up and approached the guy, surprising me by shoving him.
“Are you messing with a girl again, August? You know how I feel about that. Let’s see what Coach thinks about it when I tell him. I bet he’ll bench you next game for this little stunt.”
“She attacked me, man,” August whined, jabbing a finger at me. “The little vixen was playing coy, then raked her talons down my face without warning. Look!”
I ached to defend myself, to put this creaton in his place, but what little air was in my lungs deflated when I saw his cheek. Four long scratches had ripped open the skin and were leaking blood. I lifted my hand and gasped.
My nails were filed to sharp points.
When the freaking crap did that happen?
Horrified, I looked up to see Reid frowning, his gaze riveted on my nails. I scrambled backward a few feet, then picked myself up and stumbled back the way I came, tucking my hands out of sight.
“Kenna!” Isla called when I passed her and the others on my way to the parking lot. I didn’t turn, too busy trying not to faceplant as I speed-walked across the sand. The party’s sounds dimmed the farther I went down the trail leading to my car.
When I was completely alone, my thundering heartbeats began to slow. No one was in the parking lot, so I stopped and leaned against my Honda to catch my breath.
With trembling fingers, I lifted the water bottle to my lips and guzzled the whole thing. The fever was raging hotter than ever. Sweat beaded my brow and I was half tempted to remove my shirt. Actually . . .
Casting a quick look around me, I set the empty bottle on the car’s hood and yanked my shirt off, leaving on the sheer white tank top underneath. I wiped my face and neck with the shirt, closing my eyes and sighing when cool air kissed my overheated skin.
A strong gust of wind suddenly whooshed past me, making strands of hair smack my face. Startled, I wrenched my eyes open, checking the sky for signs of a storm. All was still. Not even the trees rustled. The whoosh came again, this time to my right. I whipped my head that direction, still seeing nothing.
Despite my fever, icy goosebumps prickled my arms. An awareness of being watched shivered through me. My body tensed, senses going on high alert. I’d parked at the only available spot farthest from the trail, my car butted up against the treeline. Being alone out here suddenly seemed like a really bad idea.
I squinted into the nearly pitch-black gloom where I’d last heard the noise. One of the partygoers was probably trying to scare me. Maybe that douchebag August.
“I’m not interested in your games, August,” I called, nervous but also annoyed at his bullheadedness. When no one replied, I fished out my car keys, wanting to avoid another Neanderthal encounter. Remembering my sharpened nails, I jerked my hand up too fast and dropped the keys. I bent, noting with relief that my nails were short and square as I snagged the keyring. The fever must have addled my brain earlier.
I was reaching for the driver’s-side door when a flash of red from the woods caught my attention. I turned, and what I saw froze me solid. There, yards away and cloaked by darkness, were two red eyes. They were glowing, even without a reflective light source. And they were staring . . .
Directly at me.
Before I could so much as blink, they were gone.
A man cast in shadow blocked my path.
Only his red eyes were visible as he watched me.
I couldn’t look away, even when he silently stalked forward.
Predator, my mind screamed. Run!
But I didn’t, even while he dipped down to breathe me in.
My eyes flew open and I sucked in a startled gasp, blinking up at my bedroom ceiling while I replayed the dream.
Ever since that night a week ago—the night my aunt went into another packing frenzy—I hadn’t dreamed of the man with the red eyes. But now that I’d seen red eyes watching me from the woods—not once but twice since we’d moved here—my memory of him came flooding back.
Shadow Man, I’d immediately dubbed him—since his features were entirely obscured by shadows. He was black mist in human form. Only his vibrant, piercing eyes were clearly visible.
He’d only approached me one time, but I would never forget the encounter, no matter how hard I tried.
After leaning forward to smell me, he’d said, “You’re not human,” his voice deep and rolling like a crashing ocean wave. When I’d simply gaped at him, too dumbstruck by his appearance to speak, he’d reached out with a gloved hand and captured my chin. “Forget this conversation,” he said, his red eyes penetrating mine. “Forget my face.”
And then he’d vanished.
“Did you hear about what happened this weekend?” Isla said the moment I stepped through the school doors Monday morning. The hall was bustling with chatter, more so than usual.
“No,” I replied, then quickly added, “Sorry for ditching you at the party on Friday. I couldn’t shake that weird fever.” Thankfully, it had petered out over the weekend.
She waved the apology away, clearly having forgiven me for my disappearing act. Peyton and Hailey joined us then, crowding in close as Isla spilled the news. “A linebacker on the football team, August Henderson, was attacked in the woods Friday night. He’s in the hospital.”
I paused with a hand on my locker as the name registered. “Is he blond-haired and kinda brutish, by any chance?”
“Yeah. Why, do you know him?”
The girls were staring at me curiously, but I schooled my expression, even as my heart sped up. “Not really. We just bumped into each other at the party. He was . . .”
“A jerkwad?” Hailey supplied, winding a strawberry curl around her finger. “What, you were all thinking it! He’s been a misogynistic douche ever since he grew peach fuzz on his face.”
Isla and Peyton mumbled their agreement.
“Anyway,” Isla continued, “my dad said there was blood everywhere. Bite and scratch marks all over him. Must have been an animal attack.”
My eyes flew to hers in alarm. “What kind of predators do you have here in Maine?”
“Black bears, lynx, bobcats, coyotes—they rarely attack humans though,” she tried to assure me.
“Knowing August, he probably instigated it,” Hailey grumbled. Her pale blue eyes flicked to me and she shrugged unapologetically. “I dated him for a couple weeks last year. Worst mistake of my life. I’m still salty.”
I nodded my understanding. Even one minute with him had been too long. “Will the sheriff’s department look for the animal?” I asked Isla.
“Animal control will, but it’ll be like finding a needle in a haystack. We’re surrounded by forest.”
I shuddered, glad that I hadn’t been around when the attack happened. Aunt Tess would have for sure freaked out if she’d known I’d been there. Something like that was cause for a move. Thankfully, she hadn’t found out about the party—just another secret between us. She had come in a few hours after I had on Friday night, sneaking upstairs like a teenager breaking curfew. She’d poked her head into my room, but I’d feigned sleep, still annoyed with her.
I spent the whole weekend in my room, curled up on the window seat drawing nonsensical things on my sketchpad. A chicken’s foot. My ornate armoire. A bonfire.
A pair of intense eyes surrounded by shadows.
I could hear my aunt banging around the house, putting stuff away now that our storage container had arrived. Despite the lingering aches and fever, I’d almost felt bad making her do it by herself. Then bitterness would well up again and I’d resume sketching. I could have asked her where she’d snuck off to with her mysterious friend, but I wasn’t in the mood for her excuses and lies.
Loneliness had pressed on my chest and I’d fingered the bracelet that used to be my mom’s, comforted by its familiarity. Glancing at the bedside table where a photo of my parents and a three-year-old me sat in a silver frame, I’d whispered, “Wish you guys were here,” a habit of mine when dealing with Aunt Tess became too much.
If they’d never taken that vacation without me—if they’d never boarded that plane—I was certain my parents and I would have been close. They would have told me everything, never leaving me in the dark. We would have stayed in the same house for years, and I would have countless close friends. They would’ve allowed me to have a job. They would have been proud of my future dream to pursue a college art degree. We would have talked about meaningful stuff over dinner every evening, laughing at each other’s jokes and sharing all our secrets.
But in reality, all I had was a picture. In reality, all I had were the memories Aunt Tess had given me of them, because I’d been too young to remember them on my own. The only living relative who had wanted me was Aunt Tess, and most days, I wondered if she couldn’t wait to be rid of me.
Well, fine. I didn’t want to be with her any longer than I legally had to anyway, so I had stubbornly remained in my room all weekend while she attempted to make the rickety old house look like a home.
The warning bell rang then, startling me from my glum thoughts. I waved to the girls and headed for my English Lit class. I knew my way around the school well enough on my own now, thanks to my astute observation skills learned from constantly moving. I was about to enter my classroom when I felt eyes on me, which was ridiculous since dozens of students were still in the hallway. Glancing over my shoulder, I searched for the source.
I’d almost given up when the crowd thinned, revealing not just one guy staring at me from across the hall, but two. I didn’t recognize them, but I’d only been at the school a couple of days. Both were tall, one with wavy, caramel-colored hair and the other black. Even from here, I could feel the intensity of their gazes.
But it was the guy on the left—the slightly shorter one with a sleeker build and obsidian hair falling into his dark, hooded eyes—that captured my attention.
I couldn’t help but notice everything about him, from his aloof almost bored expression, to his skin a shade darker than mine. From the effortless way he wore his slim dark jeans and black button-down shirt, to the tattoos snaking out of his rolled-up sleeves. I even noticed the thick leather watch on his left wrist and the large ruby ring on his pinky finger.
He pretty much had “bad boy” stamped all over him with a “do not disturb” sign around his neck.
Still, I continued to stare like a creeper. I should be thoroughly embarrassed but couldn’t seem to look away. Besides, he started staring first.
He suddenly broke eye contact and pushed through the administration office door, snapping me out of my weird stupor. The other guy, the carmel-haired one who looked like a bodybuilder, winked at me and entered the office too. A throat cleared from behind me, and I became all too aware that I was blocking the entrance to my classroom.
Okay, now I was embarrassed.
I quickly filed into the room and took a seat somewhere in the middle. That way, I could observe a good portion of the students without being noticed as often by the teacher. I almost jumped out of my skin when someone tapped my shoulder.
The first period bell rang while I turned in my seat to see Reid Zimmerman directly behind me. More embarrassment flooded my cheeks at how rude I must have looked by sitting down without acknowledging him.
“Good morning, class,” our English teacher said, way too chipperly for this time of day.
Meet me after class, Reid mouthed, and I nodded without thinking before facing forward again.
But now that I had, worry niggled at the back of my mind. Reid’s expression had been somber, and although I’d only known him a short time, the look seemed odd for him. I couldn’t help but remember the argument he had with August before I’d left the party. He’d even shoved him.
My eyes widened. What if . . .
What if Reid had attacked August in the woods Friday night, and was now making sure I hadn’t seen it?
What would he do if I had? Would he . . . would he threaten me so I’d keep silent? And if he was the violent sort, there was no telling what he’d do.
Okay, I was officially freaked out now.
For the duration of class, I could barely concentrate, too busy feeling Reid’s eyes on my back. I fingered and twisted my bracelet over and over. Maybe I was being paranoid, but I didn’t think so. I was pretty good at knowing when someone was staring at me. It was like a sixth sense or something. When the bell rang, I shot out of my seat like a bullet and beelined for the exit.
“Kenna,” Reid called as I reached the door. I pretended not to hear.
Next was my World History class. Crap! Reid was in that class too. Thinking fast, I pushed into the girl’s bathroom, almost knocking someone over.
“Sorry,” I muttered to the flustered girl and ducked into a stall. Slamming the door shut, I leaned against it and breathed deeply to calm my racing heart.
Hopefully Reid would take the hint that I didn’t want to talk with him. If not, at least I’d be last to arrive in class and could avoid sitting near him.
But now I looked panicked. Like I knew something.
Fates, I shouldn’t have run.
Too late now.
I left the stall a few minutes after the warning bell rang and slowly washed my hands. I looked up and spotted my dilated pupils in the mirror, barely able to see the silver-gray of my irises. “Calm down,” I whispered to my reflection and tucked wayward strands of chestnut hair behind my ears. “Nothing’s going to happen to you.”
Then why did I feel like the next few minutes of my life were going to change everything?
With one last look at my nervous expression, I smoothed a hand down my scarlet paisley dress and exited the bathroom. The hall was eerily empty while I swiftly crossed it to reach my next class, clutching my books tightly to my chest. My heeled ankle boots echoed loudly against the tiles, the sound raising the hair on my arms. I was practically jogging by the time I reached the room, arriving just after the bell rang.
The teacher—Mr. Davis, if I remembered right—looked over at me with a slightly irritated expression. “Nice of you to join us, Miss Belmont. Please take a seat so we can promptly get started.”
Oh, he was one of those teachers.
I scanned the sea of students in pursuit of an empty chair far from Reid. Moments like this were the stuff of nightmares. The silence, staring, and anticipation of where I’d sit. At least I wasn’t naked.
Horror of all horrors, there was an empty seat directly in front of Reid, as if he’d saved it for me. I avoided eye contact, desperately renewing my search. There! In the back left corner, second from the last row, was another empty seat. I strode toward it without hesitation, making it halfway down the aisle before my gaze caught on the person sitting behind my targeted chair.
I slammed to a halt.
It was the guy from earlier in the hallway, the one with black hair that fell messily yet artfully around his face. He was coolly watching me, his lids lowered to half mast. The caramel-haired guy who’d winked at me sat next to him.
“Sometime today, Miss Belmont,” the teacher said, distinctly annoyed now. “We’re wasting precious time.”
My cheeks flamed hotter than the raging fever from this weekend. I fixed my gaze on my shoes while I forced both feet forward and slid into the seat. If dying from embarrassment were possible, then I was about to keel over.
From my peripheral, I saw Reid turn to look back at me. But his weren’t the only eyes I could feel. The stares from the two guys behind me penetrated my overheated skin like laser beams. My instincts went haywire, screaming at me to protect my vulnerable back. But I couldn’t. I was stuck here. And concentrating on anything else became impossible.
So when Mr. Davis said, “What do you think of that, Miss Belmont?”—putting me on the spot again—all I could do was blink stupidly as every single head in the classroom swiveled my way.
Yup. I was definitely dying from embarrassment.
“Um . . .” I managed, but my mind was blank.
Seconds that felt like years ticked by.
Heat pricked my eyes and I quickly pinched my thigh, staving off the tears. Don’t cry, don’t you dare cry!
“I think the people’s intolerance and prejudice was what instigated the war,” a deep, rumbly voice said from directly behind me. “If they had chosen to respect each other’s differences instead of exploit them, bloodshed could have been spared.” The words were spoken in a lazy drawl, flowing like molten molasses—practically slipping beneath my skin and warming my insides.
I hadn’t realized voices could be sexy, but that right there was proof. It took all of my willpower not to turn around and thank my rescuer, because rescuing me was exactly what he’d done, intentionally or not.
“That’s an astute observation—Lochlan D’angelo, is it?” Mr. Davis said, finally taking his beady eyes off me. “But next time, please raise your hand before speaking.”
When he continued on, directing his attention to the rest of the class, my erratic heartbeats finally began to slow. Lochlan D’angelo, I silently repeated. I bet the name sounded heavenly coming from that voice of his.
Something knocked against the leg of my chair and my spine snapped straight. Without turning my head, I looked down to see a long, jean-clad leg extend beside my seat. Lochlan’s leg. As more heat flushed my skin, I forced my gaze upward. I needed to stick my head in the cafeteria’s freezer after this.
I managed to pull a fast exit and avoid Reid for the rest of the morning, but I knew this cat and mouse game couldn’t last forever. He cornered me in the lunch line, using his body as a wall so I couldn’t retreat. Gripping my tray, I tried my best to ignore him.
“We need to talk,” he said quietly in my ear, his breath teasing my hair.
I added a fruit salad to my plate.
“Kenna, I’m not playing around. This is serious.”
My pulse spiked. I was right. He did it. He attacked August and wanted to shut me up. I was so screwed.
“Back off, Reid,” I said, hating how breathless, how scared I sounded. Feeling like a trapped rabbit, I backed up with my tray, elbowing him so I could escape.
Before I could, his fingers dug into my upper arm through my leather jacket. “I’m sorry, but this can’t be ignored. You need to come with me.”
When he started to tow me away, panic leaked into my voice. “Let go, Reid. I don’t want to go anywhere with you.”
When he didn’t listen, I debated making a scene. Maybe smash my tray into him. That would hopefully give me enough leverage to yank free of his hold before he dragged me somewhere quiet—where no one could hear me scream. I was just about to make my move when he jerked to a halt, almost overturning my tray.
Confused, I looked up to see a muscle thrumming in his rigid jaw. His grip on me tightened, and I winced, more from surprise than pain. A low growl reached my ears, but it wasn’t Reid’s.
Someone chuckled darkly, and the growling stopped. “I would let her go if I were you.”
I peered around Reid, immediately understanding why he’d stopped. The two guys I’d sat in front of during history class were blocking his path. The caramel-haired one must have spoken, his broad mouth still twisted with wry amusement. The other guy, Lochlan, stood preternaturally still, his dark eyes fixed on something with laser focus.
I followed his gaze to where Reid still held my arm.
“Kade,” was all he said.
The amusement fled the other guy’s face, and he adopted a look nearly as menacing as Lochlan’s. “Seriously, man, let her go now.”
Reid’s hand immediately dropped to his side, then balled into a fist. “You don’t understand.”
“Oh, we understand perfectly,” the guy I assumed was Kade said, his amusement returning. “Now step away before the Lochness Monster comes out to play.”
At that, Lochlan snapped out of his intense staredown and rolled his eyes, donning an I-don’t-give-a-crap expression. I blinked, completely thrown off guard by the change. So busy gawking, I didn’t notice Reid leave until he was storming through the exit.
An uncomfortable silence fell between the three of us. Well, uncomfortable for me anyway. I fidgeted with my tray, suddenly aware that we had an audience. Practically the entire cafeteria, actually. Fates, would this day of embarrassment never end?
I opened my mouth, uncertain if I should thank them or not. I wasn’t even sure what had happened exactly. Before I could make up my mind, Lochlan turned for the side exit that led outside. “Wow. Okay, then,” I muttered as he pushed through the door. He hadn’t even looked at me—besides my arm anyway.
Kade chuckled again, and I met his eyes for the first time, which were a pretty sky blue. He winked at me, drawling, “It’s nice to officially meet you, McKenna Belmont,” before sauntering after his friend.
Um . . .
Somehow, I made my legs carry me to where Isla, Peyton, and Hailey sat gaping. At me. This should be interesting. Sure enough, the moment I sat down, their mouths fired off questions in rapid succession.
“What were you doing with Reid?”
“Who were those two guys? They’re hot!”
“Girl, if you weren’t so nice, I’d have to kill you.”
“They look way too mature to be in highschool.”
“Did you see how cut they were? And those jawlines.”
Isla suddenly raised her hands for quiet. “Hold it, hold it! What we should be asking is why they’ve arrived right after Kenna did.”
“Wait, what?” I said, finally finding my voice. “They’re new here too?”
“Totally. I know every face in this school.” She shrugged. “Must be a sheriff’s daughter thing.”
I frowned in thought. “How often do you get new students at Rosewood High?”
“Besides the new freshman, about a handful each year. But three seniors transfering a month into the semester? Unheard of.”
“It’s almost like they followed you here, Kenna,” Peyton said with rounded eyes, then she and Hailey laughed at the absurdity of her comment.
I laughed with them, but the sound was forced. Fake. Because a part of me thought that maybe she was right.
Shadow Touched is book one in Becky Moynihan's new paranormal vampire romance series. Set to release May 11, 2021. Preorder on Amazon now! Click here.