Welcome to our Main Street Sampler Sale where you can find sampler stories from great new authors. In honor of Halloween, every Friday for the month of October we’ll be posting excerpts from stories with a magical bent. If you’re a writer with a story to share, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be featuring holiday stories in November and December.
A Ghost of a Second Chance is FREE today
The Chinook wind stirred the fallen leaves and tossed them around the deserted street. An eastern wind carries more than dust and ashes, Laine’s mother had told her; it uproots secrets. And everyone knows once one secret is told, no secret is safe.
Laine paused in front of the Queen Anne Hill Chapel doors. The sun, a faint pink glow over the eastern hills had yet to shine, but Laine hadn’t any doubt that it would rise to another scorching Indian summer day. She looked out over sleeping Seattle. The dark gray Puget Sound stretched away from her. On the horizon, distant ships bobbed and sent quivering beams of light over the water.
She turned her back on the ships, on any dream of sailing away, and inserted the key into the heavily carved wooden doors. They creaked open before Laine turned the key. Odd. The chapel, built in the 1930s, had a musty, empty smell. She stepped into the cool shade of the foyer and the door swung shut, closing with a click that echoed through the cavernous room. The morning sounds of birds, crickets and insects disappeared when the doors closed. Laine’s sneakers smacked across the terracotta tile, her footsteps loud.
She had thought she’d be alone, which is exactly why she’d chosen to come near dawn. Not that she’d been able to sleep. She hadn’t slept for weeks, which may explain why at first she’d thought the girl standing in the nave, facing the pulpit, her face lifted to the stained glass window, might be a ghost—or, given her surroundings, an angel.
Although Laine couldn’t see her face, the way the child’s head moved, it looked as if she was having a conversation with the Lord trapped in the glass, or one of the sheep milling about His feet, giving Laine the uncomfortable sense of interrupting. The meager morning sun lit the glass and multi-colored reflections fell on the girl, casting her in an iridescent glow. Slowly, she turned and Laine realized she wasn’t a child, but a young woman, around twenty, maybe half her own age, wearing the sort of thing her grandmother would have worn. Vintage clothing, Laine noted, incredibly well preserved.
“Good morning,” Laine said, smiling. “I’m sorry to intrude. I wasn’t expecting anyone…” She let her voice trail away. Laine had certainly never felt any peace through prayer, but that didn’t mean she wanted to interrupt anyone seeking grace. Pastor Clark had given her the key, so naturally she’d assumed the chapel would have been locked, and that she’d have this time to practice alone.
“Well, where is he, then?” the girl-woman demanded, placing her balled fists on her hips. She had yellow blonde hair, cut in a curly bob, and wore a pale blue sleeveless dress that fell straight to her knees. Laine considered the young woman. Given the scowl and hostile eyes, she didn’t look like a humble Christian follower, but she did seem oddly familiar.
“I’m sorry—who are you looking for?” Laine tucked her hands into her pockets, feeling inappropriately dressed. She’d thrown on Ian’s sweats, one of the few sets of clothes he’d left behind. Perhaps he didn’t exercise at the hotel, or, more likely, he’d just bought himself a new pair of running clothes. Now that her grandfather had died, making Ian The-Man-In-Charge, Ian could afford new running clothes, the hotel suite, and room services of all sorts. Which didn’t explain, really, why Laine wore his cast-offs. Just because he’d left them behind didn’t mean Laine should wear them. And yet, she did. Frequently.
“Sid!” the woman spat the name. Her gaze raked over Laine, making her uneasy.
Laine tugged at the drawstring holding up the sweat pants, wondering why this woman would be looking for her grandfather. “He’s still at the funeral home.” She swallowed. “They won’t bring the casket here until tomorrow morning. There’s the viewing tonight at the house…” She heard her own sadness in her voice.
“Then what are you doing here?” The woman’s eyes matched the color of her dress and as she drew closer, Laine saw she wore a necklace of the same steely blue. Laine’s hand instinctively crept to her own necklace, a gift from Sid, an emerald he’d said matched her eyes.
“I’ve come to practice the organ.” Laine shifted on her feet. A tingle of déjà vu ran up her spine. Looking at this woman was like watching a rerun of an almost forgotten and yet beloved television show. They must have met some other time at some long ago, forgotten place; Laine was sure they’d been friends. Although, at the moment, this woman was not a friendly person.
The woman looked at the massive organ and then back to Laine. “Why are you playing the organ? I’m sure Georgie could spit out the money for an organist. No need for freebie-family members to play.”
Laine opened her mouth to ask how this woman knew her father or her relationship to Sid, but then remembered her family had never lived a quiet life. Well, except for her. Her own life had been, until now, ungossip-worthy. Her breath caught in her throat and then she let it out slowly, bracing herself for the difficult weekend. She’d weather the rumors and the chit-chat. She could be strong.
Even if she’d never been before.
“I wanted to play,” Laine told the woman, lacing her voice with resolve she didn’t feel. “As a gift to my grandfather.”
Why are you here? How did you get in? How do I know you? Laine wanted to ask, but years of social training held back her questions.
The woman snorted. “Not much of a gift, that.”
“Yeah, well, it’s something I want to do.” Laine let a little of her social training slip and she brushed past the woman. She marched up the aisle toward the organ, lifted the massive cover, turned on the switch and adjusted the bench.
“A gift to your grandfather, or an excuse not to sit by your husband?” The woman appeared beside her.
Laine squared her shoulders and bit back a rude retort. She’d have to get used to the questions. Even if they weren’t asked so bluntly, they’d still be asked. Maybe not to her face, maybe behind her back, but the questions would be there, either in people’s eyes or on their lips. Laine would not provide answers.
The woman stood at her elbow. “If you’ve come to practice, where’s your music?”
Laine gave her a tight smile as she settled onto the bench. “I memorize.”
“If it’s already memorized, why are you practicing?”
For the first time Laine caught a hint of the woman’s French accent. “Who did you say you are again?”
“I didn’t say and you didn’t answer my question.”
Laine began adjusting the stops. “Every instrument is different. A pedal may be broken, the bench could wobble… I’ve learned from sad experience that it’s best to give every instrument a test run. I mean, an organ’s not like a violin. You can’t just bring your own.”
The woman cocked her head. “What would you know of sad experiences?”
Most people would say her life was charmed, but if she lived such a fairytale, why was she so sad? Because the prince she’d been kissing for most of her life had turned into a toad?
“Do I know you?” Laine asked, her fingers pausing above the keys.
The woman leaned against the organ. “I don’t know, do you?”
All of Laine’s politeness drained away. “I’m sorry. I don’t know you. And because I don’t know you, I don’t feel I need to share.” Laine hit the keys, a D minor chord, and music reverberated through the deserted chapel.
“Good for you.” The woman chuckled and hitched herself up on top of the organ. She had reed thin legs, pale as porcelain and covered with silky hose. She swung them back and forth, like a child pumping a swing, her heels rap-tapping the organ.
Laine lifted her fingers, horrified. The sudden cessation of music filled the room. “You can’t sit on this organ.” Her words echoed.
The woman cut her a sideways smile. She wore bright red shoes with ribbon ties on the ankles and the red heels continued bumping rhythmically against the organ. “No?”
“No. It’s a 1930’s Wurlitzer, solid walnut. It’s extremely valuable, and you’re kicking it.”
“You’re very rich.” The woman smiled, but didn’t budge or stop swinging her legs. “You could replace it.”
Laine hated being reminded of her money. It made her feel guilty and dirty. She supposed that’s why she worked so hard at the foundation. She pounded out the first line of Pie Jesu and said, through gritted teeth, “Get off!”
And to her surprise, the woman did. Laine almost stopped playing, but after watching the woman wander down the aisle, her hands trailing along the pews, Laine turned her full attention to the music swirling through the chapel and, for a moment, she felt better than she had in weeks.
You can get your copy here: FREE
“They’re here, aren’t they?” Michael asked. Before taking ownership of the castle, he had scoffed at the idea that all the dead Lorimers of Lorne still lived here. It was, after all, the eighteenth century; nearly the nineteenth. Superstitions such as ghosts were for the credulous, not for rational English gentlemen.
His incredulity had lasted all of three nights. The first and second night, he had been convinced he was victim of a practical joke. On the third, he had so booby-trapped his bedchamber that the least mouse could not have entered to play ghost. When they appeared anyway, he had been sure he was going insane. Only when he realised that John and Caitlin saw much the same as him did he accept that the Lorne ghosts were real.
The ghosts—most of them—were outraged to have a Normington living in the castle, and managed to make their hostility known without words. The few young women whose love for Normington men had brought them (and usually their sweethearts) to an early death were even more importunate. If only Michael could understand the message they tried so hard to convey.
“The girls were watching you bathe,” Caitlin told him, with stiff disapproval, and he felt a spurt of triumph. He was not quite idiot enough to point out she must have been watching herself to see what the ghosts were doing, but his grin must have conveyed the message because she went all Mrs Morgan on him.
“Here is a towel, Your Grace. If you will come inside, Master John, we can do better than well water for your wash, and dinner shall be in an hour. Is that saddle bag all you have?”
She bustled away, sweeping John with her as he explained he had ridden ahead but his curricle would follow within the hour, driven by the manservant who performed all the duties of groom, valet, footman and friend.
Michael followed more slowly, but he had better not delay his own change. In her current mood, Caitlin would order dinner served without him if he were not at table. He might be the duke, but everyone obeyed Caitlin, even his butler. Even the ghosts.
It was just the three of them at dinner. That had been a fight he’d won long ago, when John was old enough to join him for meals. Caitlin would eat with them unless they had guests, and even then she would make up the numbers if they were uneven. It was not hard to make sure they were uneven.
Michael knew what the ton thought about the housekeeper who travelled from house to house with him and ate at his table as if she were family. He refused to forgo the pleasure of keeping her close, even for Caitlin’s sake; even when John came home from school with a black eye after fighting for his beloved Morgie’s honour.
She was not his mistress, as any servant in any of his houses knew. Why should they act as if they were guilty of something? Even if they once had been. Even if he would be again. In a moment, if Caitlin would allow it.
And if Caitlin wanted to stop the rumours, she could accept his proposal, damn it.
He went down to dinner in a belligerent mood, but the pleasure of sharing his evening with the only two people in the world he counted as family soon dispelled it. John seemed to have spent most of his month away following Viscount Radcliffe, his friend’s father, around the man’s experimental farm. Stories of mishaps and blunders kept Caitlin and Michael laughing right through dinner, but could not mask John’s real enthusiasm for such mysteries as crop rotation and the correct season for manuring.
In another year, he would be apprenticed to Michael’s chief steward. The man wanted to retire, and had agreed to stay on until John was ready to take over. Of course, if Michael’s hunt was successful, John would one day be the duke, and not just the duke’s steward.
The servants were withdrawing now, anxious to quit the castle before darkness fell.
John and Michael brought their port through into the drawing room, and Caitlin excused herself, to return a few minutes later with a tray of tea fixings.
“Are you still hunting for the treasure, Father?” John asked.
Caitlin shared a laughing glance with the lad. “He has been digging in the moat.”
“It seemed too good a chance to miss,” Michael explained. “No one here has ever seen it so dry.”
“It is like this all over the country, Father. It will be a poor harvest, Radcliffe says, and many will lack food and fuel for the winter. He is expecting his poorer tenants to have trouble paying the rent. It’s something we should think about, too. You, I mean, sir.”
Michael had already spoken to the steward about how they could help, but he encouraged John to share his ideas. What a duke the boy would make.
One by one, various ghosts filtered into the room. Not Fiona. He saw her rarely, and then only in his bed chamber. He had disappointed her, he was sure, in not finding the papers that would establish her son as his heir. Certainly, each time she appeared she seemed more and more distressed.
Her first appearance was the same day as his monthly proposal to Caitlin. He had woken that evening from a deep sleep to find her pacing the room, bristling with indignation to the tips of her nimbus of pale hair. That had been one indication she was a ghost, and not a dream. In life, and when he dreamt of his youthful passion, her hair was a glorious red, bright as flame rather than Caitlin’s more subdued copper.
He had assumed she was angry at his courtship, but she nodded vigorously when he pointed out she was seventeen and dead; that he had been a widower for close on twenty years and was far too old for her; that Caitlin would make a wonderful duchess. Whatever her current role in his life, whatever her origins. The surrounding country cast up the Lorimer looks in all sorts of humble families, and he suspected that Caitlin was the offspring of an illicit foray by one of the men of the castle. But bastard and peasant or not, she was every bit fit to be his duchess, and Fiona’s vigorous nods made it clear she agreed.
The ghost was upset about something else, and it was to do with his search. Nonetheless, after that he had made his monthly proposal outside of the castle.
Recently, her agitation had spread to the other ghosts. Even the men, who had been hostile since the day he took up residence, now seemed to be asking him for something. And he had no idea what.
Jack left the office the minute Nurse McAfree called to say Paige had regained consciousness. On his way to the hospital he had gone over what he would say to his soon to be ex-wife when he saw her, but now that he was approaching the ICU wing all thoughts had escaped him.
Was he grateful Paige hadn’t died in that crash? Yes, of course, but that did not mean he would take her back. And, in spite of the ordeal she’d gone through, he didn’t give a damn if that made him look like a prick.
They say a near death experience changes everyone, but he didn’t believe it for a minute. If anything, Paige would come out of her coma feeling as if he owed her something—like it was his fault the accident had happened. She would try to use it as leverage to stall the divorce. He needed to be careful; sympathetic because of her accident, but firm about the divorce.
Jack leaned against the wall of the elevator and ran his hands over his tired eyes. If he were being honest with himself right now, he would admit that he had suffered a certain measure of guilt. After all, it was his car she was driving that night, and he was the one who had forced her out into that fog and rain.
He sighed loudly, preparing himself to face Paige, as the doors to the elevator glided open. But his thoughts were stalled at the sight of Sheriff Hatcher standing down the hall outside Paige’s room.
The sheriff was a big man in his mid-forties, but with his leathery skin he looked ten years older. Jack supposed that was what happened when you went through three packs of smokes a day. You never saw the sheriff without a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Jack figured it must be killing the man not to be able to smoke in the hospital.
Jack greeted him with a nod as he approached. “Sheriff, are you here to see me?”
“Actually,” Hatcher said, “I’m here to talk to your wife. I was told she woke up from her coma this morning, but I just looked in on her and she’s asleep.” He scratched at his shaved head with nicotine stained fingers. “I do need to speak to you as well. Since you’re here you’ve saved me a trip.”
Lifting a shoulder, Jack asked. “What’s up?” He moved aside to let a nurse with a pushcart move past them.
“We finally had a chance to go over your wife’s car.”
“My car,” Jack corrected.
“Right.” Sheriff Hatcher looped a thumb into one of his belt loops and took a deep breath, his barrel chest swelling with the move. The gray uniform, complete with a holstered gun, seemed silly. Ashton Falls was not known for any crimes serious enough to require a gun. At least not in Jack’s opinion.
“You said you hadn’t had any problems with the brakes on that car, and your mechanic confirmed that. And yet, it appears someone may have tampered with them.”
“Tampered with them how?” Jack asked, disturbed by that piece of news. Without waiting for the sheriff to answer, he plowed on. “I had no way of knowing Paige was going to be driving my car that night, and neither would anyone else. Besides, who would do such a thing? Paige doesn’t have any enemies. None that would want to see her dead, anyway.”
“What about you?” Sheriff Hatcher asked over the noise of the loudspeaker. A woman announced a Code Blue and all hell broke loose at the other end of the hall.
“What about me? I was planning to divorce her, not kill her.”
The sheriff held up one hand in front of him. He smelled like a bonfire. “Mr. Bolinger, no one is accusing you of anything. I’m just doing my job here. And I wasn’t asking if you wanted your wife dead. I was asking if you had any enemies.”
“What? No, of course not.” Conflicting emotions ran through his exhausted brain. The week following the accident had been taxing. He didn’t know anyone who hated him enough to want him dead. The sheriff had to be mistaken. It was almost comical, and if he hadn’t been so damn tired he would have laughed.
Lowering his hand to his side the sheriff straightened to his full height—at six-four most men were forced to look up to Tim Hatcher. “Okay, then. Let me know when I can speak to Mrs. Bolinger. I want to hear from her what happened that night.”
With open frankness, Jack said, “Fine, but I can assure you no one was trying to murder her.”
“Like I said, Mr. Bolinger, I’m just doing my job. If your wife says she took your car that night without your knowledge, then we’ll rule this whole thing an accident. If not, someone could be arrested for manslaughter.”
Manslaughter? Jack hadn’t even considered something like that. He watched as the big man walked down the corridor and punched the elevator button before he looked in on Paige. Hatcher was right. Paige was sound asleep. And he was too on edge to sit by her side waiting for her to wake. Turning on his heels he marched out of the room. He’d stop by later.
When Jenna opened her eyes next, it was dusk. But this time instead of the nurse and doctor in her room, a man sat in a chair in the far corner, holding a little girl with long red curls on his lap. The child squirmed, banging her sneakered foot against the man’s shin.
“Madison, try to sit still. Please, honey.” The man pressed his lips to the top of the child’s head. “I’m going to have so many bruises I may not be able to walk tomorrow.” His tone was teasing.
“Bruises? You mean like Mommy’s?”
“Not quite as bad as Mommy’s, but yes.”
The girl settled back against the man’s chest. Then, as if they’d sensed Jenna watching, they both stared back at her. The girl’s bright green eyes grew wide with alarm, and she squirmed again. This time it was to climb off the man’s lap.
The man looked just as apprehensive. His eyes darkened to match the black satin shade of his hair which was badly in need of a cut. He drew his brows together in an agonized expression before spearing Jenna with a chilling look.
Jenna swallowed nervously. Who was this man? Why did he look so mean? And what was he doing in her room?
Slowly, he stood, placing his hands on the child’s shoulders in a possessive, or perhaps, protective manner. His gaze never left Jenna’s as he moved toward the hospital bed. He was tall, lean, and dressed in expensive looking gray trousers and a white dress shirt. The open collar revealed a smattering of dark chest hair.
“How do you feel?” he asked. His words were as cool and clear as ice water. The tensing of his jaw betrayed his frustration. Jenna wondered briefly if the man were a doctor, but ruled that thought out immediately. If he was a doctor, he wouldn’t have a child in the room with him.
“I . . . feel . . . a little weak.” Her voice was still not her own. It must be due to the sore throat.
“That’s to be expected. You’ve lost some weight.”
Had she? She’d wanted to lose ten pounds, but hated working out and refused to give up snacking. She loved her cheese curls.
How long had she been here? Panic started to set in, as she remembered promising Lamar she would be back to work on Monday. I just need three days off to go to Chicago and back, she’d begged before her manager had reluctantly given in. She also recalled his response. If you’re not back on Monday, you’re fired.
“Daddy,” the child said, tugging on the cuff of the man’s shirt. “She can talk now.”
“Yes, Madison. I can see that.”
The girl moved in closer until she was standing between her father and the bed. She lifted a sheet of paper under Jenna’s nose. “I made you a picture.”
“Thank you.” Jenna strained to see the crayon drawing of three stick people. A man, a woman and a child with long red curls holding stick finger hands. “It’s . . . lovely. Madison.”
“When can you come home, Mommy?” she blurted out, and before Jenna even had time to grasp the words, the man picked up the child and held her close to his chest.
“Mommy just woke up after a long nap. She needs to stay here and rest a while longer.” He met Jenna’s eyes and gave her a tight lipped smile.
A surge of trepidation filled Jenna’s insides. The child and this man had called her “Mommy.” Why would they do that? Was she dreaming? That had to be it, although it seemed so real.
The girl’s bottom lip puffed out and she looked on the verge of tears. “But, Daddy, you said she was better. You said–”
“Madison, why don’t you go wait in the hallway with Eva while I talk to Mommy alone for a few minutes.”
Madison didn’t look happy with her father’s suggestion, but when he set the child on her feet, she shuffled away from the bed and out of the room.
Everything was odd. Surreal. Jenna was definitely dreaming. Unless she had entered the Twilight Zone. It was way too creepy to think about. Then again . . .
She decided to play along for a minute. “You mentioned Eva,” Jenna whispered, remembering why she had driven from Chicago to Ashton Falls, Ohio. She’d finally located her birth mother.
“Yes, she’s waiting in the hall.”
“Yes. Our housekeeper.”
“Save your strength, Paige. Just let me talk.”
Paige? Jenna was getting more confused by the minute. Or maybe it was this man who was confused. Or psycho rather.
“Madison doesn’t know about our impending divorce. I didn’t tell her—couldn’t tell her. She’s been so traumatized over your accident I didn’t have the heart to crush her with more disturbing news.” He sighed, and then ran a hand through his hair. “I mean maybe we should wait a while before telling her, until you’re well and on your feet.”
“Yes. Remember?” His eyes became stony with anger. “As cruel as this may sound, the accident hasn’t changed the way I feel, if that’s what you were hoping.”
Jenna shook her head. “There’s been . . . some kind of mistake. You’re confused, deranged. This is all a bad dream. Something.” She pushed the covers away and tried to sit up. But a harsh wave of dizziness crashed down on her, and she swayed.
The man’s hands reached out to take her by the arms and steady her. “Whoa. What are you doing?” His hands were cool against her warm skin, and her body tingled from the contact.
“I have to get out of here,” she said, shrugging his hands away. The plastic tube connected to her arm wiggled with her moves. It was the first time she noticed the splint and bandage on the middle finger of her right hand. Her fingers looked strange. Thinner, perhaps? The man said she’d lost weight. Her head pounded as if someone had conked her with a bowling ball.
“Where do you think you’re going? You can’t just walk out of here after being in a coma for a week.” He blew out a frustrated breath. “I mean, you’re in no shape to be by yourself right now. You need help.”
Jenna gazed up at him, meeting his dark eyes. “A week? I’ve been asleep for a week?”
“Didn’t Dr. Harrison tell you?”
Jenna shook her head. “No, he didn’t.” And then the news hit her. Lamar was going to fire her for sure. Had anyone even called him? He’d probably already replaced her by now.
“Holy Hanna!” She swung her legs over the side of the bed and scooted toward the edge. But she was restrained by the tubes dangling from her. She wasn’t going to get very far, but she was determined to try. “I have to go. I have to get back to my job.” She tried to yank a tube from her arm.
“Wait,” the man said, placing his hands on her shoulders and looking into her eyes. “You don’t have a job.”
Jenna shook her head again, confused. “I need to call Lamar. I need to explain. Maybe
once I tell him about the accident he’ll feel like a jerk and take me back.”
“Paige, you’re acting crazy. Maybe you should lie back, and I’ll see if one of the nurses can find Dr. Harrison.”
“No!” She bit her lip, willing herself to calm down. “And stop calling me Paige.” She sucked in a large breath of air. “My name isn’t Paige. And who are you, anyway? You keep acting like you know me, but I have never seen you before in my life.”
The man took a step back and studied her, his vexation evident. “Are you serious?”
“Duh!” was her answer. “Why would I lie?”
“You don’t know me? Don’t remember me?”
She tossed her head back and forth, and then she saw it. A chunk of hair spread across her shoulder. Fixated on the hair she ran her hand along the silky tresses. It was only hair, nothing to be afraid of.
Only it wasn’t her brown, shoulder length hair. This hair was much longer than hers. It was red in color. And it didn’t belong to her.
Jenna gave it a tug, just to make sure it was attached to her head, and then she screamed.
CHANCES ARE IS FREE. GET YOURS HERE
The jeans on the blonde ahead of me in the girls’ bathroom were so long they trailed on the ground, and had become frayed and torn. Exactly how my nerves felt. Stepped on. Ragged. My momentary elation and relief at taking the photos morphed into a serious desire to curl up and nap. I didn’t want Mr. Esenberg to pick on me in Science. And I didn’t want anyone to think I could take pictures now, just because I had managed to do it once.
I also didn’t want Jordan to think his lab partner had freaked out again, so I dashed on some Nearly Nude lipstick and dragged myself to class.
“Hey, Evie.” Jordan sounded casual, but I had a sparkly feeling he’d been watching for me.
“Hey.” I collapsed into the empty seat in front of him.
I flashed him my best post-braces smile. “Sure.”
He scrunched up his face as if unconvinced. Luckily, Mr. Esenberg arrived, halting further communication.
About ten minutes into class, while Mr. Esenberg wrote on the board, I heard Jordan slide his feet under my desk. My breath wedged in my throat as the tips of his size nine high-performance sneakers nudged the heels of my shoes. Could the girl in front of me hear my heart thudding? Should I move my feet forward?
My feet tingled and refused to move. A blush blazed across my cheeks. I struggled to pay attention to Mr. Esenberg without making eye contact. Forty minutes passed, the bell blared, and I had no idea what had transpired. Hopefully, my notes will make sense. I think I took notes.
Jordan slid his feet back and thudded his book closed. We both bent down and reached for our backpacks. His leaned against mine. Our hands brushed and our heads were so close I could smell his herbal shampoo.
Students walked past us. I’m sure some of them were talking to each other or pulling out their cell phones. But it all faded away along with the smell of chalk, highlighters, and sweat. Everything receded except the warmth of Jordan’s skin, his cinnamon gum-scented breath, and the heart-stopping rush sprinting up my arm.
We jerked apart. Seeing Parvani in the doorway looking hurt and shocked snapped my senses into hyper focus. Conversations sounded extra loud. Colors seemed too bright. It felt like a movie had started, full blast, in a hushed theater.
I grabbed my backpack, stood up, and tried to look innocent. “Hey,” I said, a little too loudly.
Parvani adjusted her designer frames further up her nose. “My mom just called. She’s going to pick me up and drive me to the hospital. We have to drop off the pillows I made.”
Parvani glanced at Jordan as he rose from his chair and stood beside me. I wondered if he knew she made heart-shaped pillows for women who’d had mastectomies. The pillows kept seatbelts from rubbing against the stitches, or something. I should think about building my résumé for college. Besides, I’ve heard helping others alleviates depression.
“Could you tell your mom I don’t need a ride?” I heard a definite edge to her voice.
Jordan slung his backpack over his shoulder. “How’s it going?”
Parvani acted startled, like she had just noticed him. But her voice softened. “Oh. Hello, Jordan.” To me, she said, “Thank you. Goodbye.”
Unease spider-walked down my spine. I stepped toward her, trying to close the chasm that had sprung up between us. “Talk to you later.”
Parvani didn’t reply. She just left, her long black hair swinging across her shoulders.
Jordan fell into step behind me. “Did I miss something? Is she all right?”
He sounded like the old Jordan — the sensitive, pre-Smash Heads Jordan I had grown up with. Since I couldn’t give him the obvious and correct answer, I spun through possible alternatives.
Loud static from the school’s public address system blasted my eardrums, followed by the school secretary’s voice. “Evie O’Reilly. Please come to the office. Evie O’Reilly. Please come to the office.”
I froze. My flushed cheeks grew hotter. Every kid crossing the field had heard my name. Cold fear formed bricks in my stomach. What if something had happened to Mom?
“Maybe Evan’s parents called the principal,” Jordan said.
The blood sluiced from head and pooled in my feet.
“Come on,” Jordan said. “I’ll walk with you.”
As we headed toward the office, Jordan’s cell phone vibrated. He checked the phone number displayed then tapped the screen. “Hey, Mom.” After listening a sec, he said, “I don’t know. We’re walking to the office right now.”
I chewed my thumbnail. I had already lost one parent. I couldn’t face losing another one. What if Mom had gotten into a car accident or something?
“Okay. I’ll tell Evie. See you in about five minutes.” He tapped the phone. “Mom heard the announcement while she was waiting in the car. She says she hopes everything is okay.”
“That was nice of her.” Great. Even the parents know something is wrong.
We rounded the corner. A few juniors milled about in front of the lockers across from the office. “Perfect. I have an audience.”
Jordan took my hand, sending a jolt of warmth and fresh shivers up my arm. “Come on.”
My heart swelled. I knew Jordan had to be somewhere before practice. His mom was waiting. And I was pretty sure rumors we were a couple would scream through the eleventh grade by tomorrow morning. I just hoped it didn’t reach the ninth grade and Parvani.
Jordan released my hand and opened the door for me. Relief flooded every pore when I saw Mom. She stood in front of a boy who was taping an orange poster to the wall. It screamed Halloween Dance in black letters, dripping with what was supposed to be blood.
The vein at Mom’s temple throbbed and her arms were crossed. I didn’t care. She was okay. Nothing had happened to her. Which meant something was about to happen to me.
“Good luck,” Jordan said.
I nodded and watched him leave before going to Mom and giving her a quick hug.
WATCHER: BOOK I OF THE CHOSEN
I watch my daughter, the sunlight dancing across her long dark hair, cradle her swollen belly as she kneels to place the flowers on my empty grave. Pink carnations this time . . . last year was red roses; the year before, golden mums.
Her shoulders quake with her sobs and, swallowing, I fight to stifle my own. Her lips move as she whispers to the flower-strewn ground, but I’m too far away to hear her precious words. Throat tight, I struggle to remain still, hidden by the large eucalyptus at the other end of the cemetery.
She caresses my name etched into the grey granite, tracing the letters one by one before wiping the tears from her cheeks. Her fingers touch her lips, then the top of the cold, hard stone.
My own fingers clamp against my mouth and smother the impulse to cry out to her.
She looks so much like me—the me I used to be. Tall, willowy, she’s become a woman since I disappeared five years ago and soon, to my surprise, will become a mother. The inferno of emotions ignited by her pregnancy threatens to devour me and I do not think I can remain quiet much longer. For once, I hope she will end her visit soon and leave.
She stands and turns toward her car. A breath of summer wind lifts a few dark strands of her hair and they float for a moment, waving goodbye.
Her scent reaches out to me and triggers memories of our brief life together. Seventeen years was not enough—not enough time to share with her, to hold her and teach her and tell her how much I love her. In a flash of anger, I curse the evil creature that stole me away, leaving my daughter to finish growing up alone, and leaving me . . . leaving me no longer human.
My chest heaving, I watch her drive away, then step between the markers and cross the lawn to my grave. Once again, I read the inscription on my headstone:
Beloved Mother and Best Friend
October 10, 1969 –
Trembling, I rest my fingers where hers last touched, press them softly against my lips, and whisper, “I love you, Andrea.”
~ ~ ~
I step out of the Colorado Springs boutique feeling quite satisfied with my shopping adventure. In addition to heavy curtains, I’ve found a few interesting odds and ends to add some décor to my new house. I pause to look up at the clouds that have gathered overhead, grateful for their cover.
And then I feel it.
Something, or someone, is watching me. My gut clenches and an electric charge shoots through me, making my skin crawl as every hair on my body stands up. Alarmed, I step to the curb and study the people and cars nearby, trying to find the source of the eerie attention.
And then I see him.
He is standing directly across the street, focusing intently on me.
As I peer back at the tall figure in the long, tailored coat, at his striking looks, his stillness, his pale skin, everything in me slams to a stop.
He is like me. He is . . . just . . . like . . . me.
I freeze, unsure of what to do. Since I was reborn to this life, I have always been alone. I’ve never encountered one of my kind—except the one who brutally ripped away my humanity and left me for dead.
One of my kind. The thought chills me as I fight the rising panic. And while my mind races, he gives me a small smile, a slight nod, and is gone. Just vanishes, too fast for even my eyes.
My insides churn and I stand locked to the sidewalk, unable to move, my gaze pinned to the spot in which he’d stood. People flow around me, like water in a river, until someone bumps me. I snarl and nearly lash out, but catch myself, and with a final anxious look across the street, head to my car.
~ ~ ~
It’s finally closing time. I clean up my end of the bar, tell everyone goodnight, and head out the door. The clouds are hanging heavy in the cold Colorado air—maybe it’ll snow. I walk up the street toward the parking garage.
Then, out of nowhere—there he is. He’s standing on the sidewalk about thirty feet ahead, watching me.
Something extremely powerful radiates from him. Energy, aura, I don’t know what to call it, but I can feel it in every cell of my body, and it’s very disturbing.
I hesitate, then take a breath and keep walking. He waits, and I slow as I draw near, and finally stop.
He studies me a moment while fear races through my veins.
“Would you like to get something to drink?” he asks.
My mind shies away from what he might mean by drink and I hesitate before answering.
“A cup of hot tea would be nice.”
“Tea. That sounds perfect. There is an all-night coffee shop around the corner. Would you care to walk with me?” His voice is cultured, with a hint of European, but I can’t place the accent.
I pause, then join him as he proceeds up the street. My body and mind are both numb. I didn’t expect to see him again so soon. But apparently he expected to see me.
We arrive at the coffee shop. He holds the door open, and I walk through and wait as he comes in. Nodding to me, he heads to a booth in the back and I admire his physique as he passes. He’s about six-three, trim, but there are definitely muscles beneath his expensive, tailored suit.
I’m stirred from my trance as he graciously waves his hand to one of the seats. I make my way to the booth and he waits until I’m seated before sitting across from me.
The waitress comes to the table and offers us menus.
“We will have two cups of hot tea,” he says without looking at her. She nods, staring, then walks away.
She was staring, as I am, because he has the most beautiful and mesmerizing face I’ve ever seen. His features are noble, refined, elegant, his nose straight and his jaw strong. His age is hard to decipher. Physically, thirtyish. But bearing? Ageless. Ancient.
“So. You are new to the city. How long have you been in Colorado Springs?” His hair is raven black, and his eyes, light emerald green, flicker with intensity.
“About a week,” I reply, hoping the trembling in my body isn’t leaking into my voice.
“Tell me, then—where are you from? What brought you here?” His tone, though friendly, seems to carry an undercurrent of warning. I choose my answer carefully.
“I’m from the West Coast. I decided to try somewhere new, and this area looked like it had a lot to offer.”
He smiles and nods as the waitress sets cups and stainless steel teapots on the table. We prepare our tea in heavy silence.
Picking up a spoon, he stirs his and asks, “Are you here with anyone else?”
I hesitate, unwilling to reveal how defenseless I might be. But then the beast in me sits up and reminds me I’m not.
“No, I’m alone.”
“Hmm.” His green eyes reveal nothing.
We sip our tea.
He sets down his cup, his intense gaze fixed on me, and, leaning forward, breathes in deeply through his nose.
“You have a most unusual scent. I cannot quite place it,” he says as he sits back.
A bit shocked, I stare at him. No one has ever smelled me before, at least not like that.
Perhaps this is a custom among our kind? Unsure, I discreetly take in his scent.
It’s quite different from any I’ve ever encountered, yet there’s also something familiar about it. The blood in his veins has an exotic, rich fragrance that’s very alluring. But there’s another aroma woven in, one I finally recognize. It’s the coppery-sweet smell of human blood.
And it’s carried on his breath.
I was afraid of that.
“If you do not mind me asking, where is it that you obtain your . . . sustenance?” He takes another sip of tea. His eyes never leave mine.
“The . . . the mountains near my home.”
“The mountains? West of the city?” He looks puzzled.
“Yes. Is that someone else’s territory?”
“Someone else’s territory? No. My concern, though, is that the population up there is a bit sparse, and too many disappearances could draw unwanted attention.”
I swallow as scenes from horror movies, of human throats and fangs, flash through my head.
“That . . . that won’t be a problem.”
“Indeed. Then perhaps next time I may accompany you?”
“Uh, sure.” Though I doubt his diet includes anything on four legs.
His answering smile is warm and appears genuine. I can’t tell if he’s aware of the turmoil he’s sparking within me.
“Good. However, I would like to see you again before then. Do you enjoy the theater?” He watches me over the brim of his cup as he finishes his tea.
My mind spinning, I fumble for an excuse to turn him down. And fail.
“I haven’t been to the theater in a long time.”
“Then you must come with me.” His tone indicates he is not accustomed to being denied.
“I . . . I’ll think about it.”
“Nonsense. Are you available Friday night? I have season tickets.”
“I work until two-thirty that night.”
“Work?” He frowns.
“Yes, I tend bar at the club you saw me leave. I just started there tonight.”
“This is something you do often?”
“The last three years. At clubs on the coast.” I’m puzzled by his reaction.
“Hmm. I find that interesting. In fact, I find you interesting, very interesting. I look forward to getting to know you.” He smiles that genuine smile again, his eyes warm and friendly.
But I don’t trust him. Part of me is terrified of him, and yet, the other part of me—the part that is tired of being alone—is becoming captivated by him. I quell my thoughts as the waitress brings us the check.
He picks it up and, with a tip of his head to me, asks, “Shall we?”
Nodding, I stand and he follows me to the register. I can feel his energy emanating behind me, like a powerful electric force field. It’s unnerving, yet enticing.
He pays and we head out the door. He walks me to my car, which makes me even more nervous, because now he knows my license plate. However, I suspect he already knew. He certainly seemed to know where my car was parked.
“Perhaps we can meet when you are not working. Would you like me to show you around the city? We have several museums and galleries specializing in the history of the area that you may find fascinating.”
“I’d like that.” I’m fascinated already, and not in museums and galleries.
“How is Friday? We can meet at the coffee shop if you like. Say . . . noon?”
“One o’clock would be better for me.” Hopefully I’ll be awake in time.
“Then one it is. I am looking forward to it. And now, I must say goodnight.” He returns my smile and bows slightly and, with a brief ruffling of the cold air, is no longer there.
I didn’t even get his name.
~ ~ ~
április 3., kedd
Today, upon my return from Denver, I felt an uninvited and foreign presence in my city. My initial reaction was to hunt it down and destroy it for the sheer audacity of entering without permission. But my investigation revealed it to be a female, alone, and there was something quite strange, yet familiar, about her. Almost haunting, as if I have met her before. I know not yet what new threat this may be, but I will find out. She lives, for now.
The Elders knew nothing of her. When I returned from making my inquiries, she had disappeared from the city. I hunted for several hours, but was unable to locate her. Then, tonight after leaving Club Vér, I felt her again. I traced her to a downtown bar and waited.
She nearly ran when she saw me. She feigns innocence, but I am not sure it is an act. I have the distinct impression she has no knowledge of who I am.
Our conversation in the café gave me the opportunity to observe her a little more closely. Her scent is unknown to me, yet it carries a familiarity I cannot explain. As earlier, I almost feel as though I have seen her before, perhaps in a dream. But dreams are for those who sleep.
What caught my attention, though, was her complete lack of any human blood scent. She did not appear to be suffering from hunger, as her eyes were a pale, glacial blue—they were quite enchanting, I might add. I can only surmise that perhaps she does not feed on humans, which is highly unusual among The Chosen.
I was pleased when she agreed to meet with me again, which gives me time to verify her story.
I tracked her as she left the city and headed west into the mountains. At one point she abandoned her car and vanished into the forest on foot. I was called away shortly afterward and do not know if she returned. I have no choice now but to wait for our meeting. In the meantime, I will be watching for her.
And as I write this, it occurs to me that I do not even know her name.
~ ~ ~