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I’M NOT A PARTY GIRL. THE EARSPLITTING MUSIC, THE gyrating bodies, the inebriated smiles—not my thing. My ideal Saturday night would be at home, snuggling on the sofa and watching a rom-com with my boyfriend, Patch. Predictable, low-key . . . normal. My name is Nora Grey, and while I used to be an average American teen, buying my clothes at the J. Crew outlet and spending my babysitting money on iTunes, normal and I have recently become perfect strangers. As in, I wouldn’t know normal if it marched up and poked me in the eye.
Normal and I parted ways when Patch strolled into my life. Patch has seven inches on me, operates on cold, hard logic, moves like smoke, and lives alone in a supersecret, superswanky studio beneath Delphic Amusement Park. The sound of his voice, low and sexy, can melt my heart in three seconds flat. He’s also a fallen angel, kicked out of heaven for his flexibility when it comes to following rules. I personally believe Patch scared the pants off normal, and it took off running for the far side of the world.
I might not have normalcy, but I do have stability. Namely, in the form of my best friend of twelve years, Vee Sky. Vee and I have an unshakable bond that even a laundry list of differences can’t break. They say opposites attract, and Vee and I are proof of the validity of the statement. I am slender and tallish—by human standards—with big curly hair that tests my patience, and I’m a type A personality. Vee is even taller, with ash-blond hair, serpentine-green eyes, and more curves than a roller coaster track. Almost always, Vee’s wishes trump mine. And unlike me, Vee lives for a good party.
Tonight Vee’s wish to seek out a good time took us across town to a four-story brick warehouse throbbing with club music, swimming with fake IDs, and jam-packed with bodies producing enough sweat to take greenhouse gases to a whole new level. The layout inside was standard: a dance floor sandwiched between a stage and a bar. Rumor had it that a secret door behind the bar led to the basement, and the basement led to a man named Storky, who operated a thriving pirated anything business. Community religious leaders kept threatening to board up Coldwater’s hotbed of iniquity for disorderly teens . . . also known as the Devil’s Handbag.
“Groove it, baby,” Vee yelled at me over the mindless thump, thump, thump of music, lacing her fingers through mine and swaying our hands over our heads. We were at the center of the dance floor, being jostled and bumped on every side. “This is how Saturday night’s supposed to be. You and me gettin’ down, letting loose, working up good ol’-fashioned girl-sweat.”
I did my best to give an enthusiastic nod, but the guy behind me kept stepping on the heel of my ballet flat, and at five-second intervals, I had to shove my foot back into it. The girl to my right was dancing with her elbows out, and if I wasn’t careful, I knew I’d get clipped.
“Maybe we should get drinks,” I called to Vee. “Feels like Florida in here.”
“That’s ’cause you and me are burning up the place. Check out the guy at the bar. He can’t take his eyes off your smokin’ moves.” She licked her finger and pressed it to my bare shoulder, making a sizzling noise.
I followed her gaze . . . and my heart lurched.
Dante Matterazzi lifted his chin in acknowledgment. His next gesture was a little more subtle.
Wouldn’t have pegged you for a dancer, he spoke to my mind.
Funny, I would have pegged you for a stalker, I shot back.
Dante Matterazzi and I both belonged to the Nephilim race, hence the innate ability to mind-speak, but the similarities stopped there. Dante didn’t know how to give it a rest, and I didn’t know how much longer I could dodge him. I’d met him for the first time just this morning, when he’d come to my house to announce that fallen angels and Nephilim were on the brink of war and I was in charge of leading the latter, but now I needed a break from war talk. It was overwhelming. Or maybe I was in denial. Either way, I wished he’d disappear.
Left a message on your cell phone, he said.
Gee, I must have missed it. More like I deleted it.
We need to talk.
Kind of busy. To emphasize my point, I rolled my hips and swung my arms side to side, doing my best to imitate Vee, whose favorite television network was BET, and it showed. She had hiphop stamped on her soul.
A faint smile quirked Dante’s mouth. While you’re at it, get your friend to give you some pointers. You’re floundering. Meet me out back in two.
I glared at him. Busy, remember?
This can’t wait. With a meaningful arch of his eyebrows, he disappeared into the crowd.
“His loss,” Vee said. “He can’t handle the heat, that’s all.”
“About those drinks,” I said. “Can I bring you a Coke?” Vee didn’t look ready to give up dancing anytime soon, and as much as I wanted to avoid Dante, I figured it was best to just get this over with. Suck it up and talk to him. The alternative was having him shadow me all night.
“Coke with lime,” Vee said.
I edged my way off the dance floor and, after making sure Vee wasn’t watching, ducked down a side hallway and out the back door. The alley was bathed in blue moonlight. A red Porsche Panamera was parked in front of me, and Dante leaned against it, arms folded loosely over his chest.
Dante is six feet nine with the physique of a soldier fresh out of boot camp. Case in point: He has more muscle tone in his neck than I have in my entire body. Tonight he was wearing baggy khakis and a white linen shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest, revealing a deep V of smooth, hairless skin.
“Nice car,” I said.
“It gets the job done.”
“So does my Volkswagen, and it cost considerably less.”
“Takes more than four wheels to be a car.”
“So,” I said, tapping my foot. “What’s so urgent?”
“You still dating that fallen angel?”
It was only the third time in as many hours that he’d asked. Twice by text messaging, and now face-to-face. My relationship with Patch had gone through a lot of ups and downs, but the current trend was upward. We weren’t without our issues, however. In a world where Nephilim and fallen angels would rather die than smile at each other, dating a fallen angel was a definite no-no.
I stood a little taller. “You know it.”
“Discreet is the watchword.” Patch and I didn’t need Dante to tell us it was wise not to make a lot of public appearances together. Nephilim and fallen angels never needed an excuse to teach each other a lesson, and racial tensions between the two groups were getting hotter with each passing day. It was autumn, October to be exact, and the Jewish month of Cheshvan was just days away.
Every year during Cheshvan, fallen angels possess Nephilim bodies by the droves. Fallen angels have free rein to do as they please, and since it’s the only time during the year they can actually feel physical sensation, their creativity knows no bounds. They chase after pleasure, pain, and everything in between, playing parasites to their Nephilim hosts. For Nephilim, Cheshvan is a hellish prison.
If Patch and I were so much as seen holding hands by the wrong individuals, we’d pay, one way or another.
“Let’s talk about your image,” Dante said. “We need to generate some positive media around your name. Boost Nephilim confidence in you.”
I gave a theatrical snap of my fingers. “Don’t you just hate it when your approval ratings are low?”
Dante frowned. “This isn’t a joke, Nora. Cheshvan starts in just over seventy-two hours, and that means war. Fallen angels on one side, us on the other. Everything rides on your shoulders—you’re the new leader of the Nephilim army. The blood oath you swore to Hank is in effect, and I don’t think I have to remind you that the consequences of breaking it are very, very real.”
Queasiness pinched my stomach. I hadn’t exactly applied for the job. Thanks to my deceased biological father, a truly twisted man named Hank Millar, I’d been forced to inherit the position. With the help of an otherworldly blood transfusion, he’d coerced me into transforming myself from mere human into purebred Nephil so I could take over his army. I’d sworn an oath to lead his army, it had gone into effect upon his death, and if I failed to do that, my mom and I would die. Terms of the oath. No pressure.
“Despite every cautious measure I intend to implement, we can’t completely erase your past. The Nephilim are digging around. There are rumors you’re dating a fallen angel, and that your loyalties are split.”
“I am dating a fallen angel.”
Dante rolled his eyes. “Could you say it any louder?”
I shrugged. If that’s what you really want. Then I opened my mouth, but Dante was beside me in an instant, covering it with his hand. “I know it kills you, but could you make my job easy just this once?” he murmured in my ear, glancing around at the shadows with obvious uneasiness, even though I was positive we were alone. I’d only been a purebred Nephil for twenty-four hours, but I trusted my new, sharper sixth sense. If there were eavesdroppers lurking, I’d know.
“Look, I know when we first met this morning I carelessly said the Nephilim would just have to deal with me dating a fallen angel,” I said when he lowered his hand, “but I wasn’t thinking. I was angry. I’ve spent the day giving this a lot of thought. I’ve talked to Patch. We’re being careful, Dante. Really careful.”
“Nice to know. But I still need you to do something for me.”
“Date a Nephil. Date Scott Parnell.”
Scott was the first Nephil I’d ever befriended, at the tender age of five. I hadn’t known about his true heritage back then, but in recent months he’d taken on the roles of first my tormentor, then my partner in crime, and eventually my friend. There were no secrets between us. Likewise, there was no romantic chemistry.
I laughed. “You’re killing me, Dante.”
“It would be for show. For the sake of appearances,” he explained. “Just until our race warms to you. You’ve only been a Nephil one day. Nobody knows you. People need a reason to like you. We have to make them feel comfortable trusting you. Dating a Nephil is a good step in the right direction.”
“I can’t date Scott,” I told Dante. “Vee likes him.”
To say Vee had been unlucky in love was putting it optimistically. In the past six months she’d fallen for a narcissistic predator and a backstabbing slimeball. Not surprisingly, both relationships made her seriously doubt her instincts in love. Lately, she had unequivocally refused to so much as smile at the opposite sex . . . until Scott came along. Early last night, just hours before my biological father had compelled me to transform myself into a purebred Nephil, Vee and I had come to the Devil’s Handbag to watch Scott play bass for his new band, Serpentine, and she hadn’t stopped talking about him since. To sweep in and steal Scott now, even if it was a ruse, would be the ultimate low blow.
“It wouldn’t be real,” Dante repeated, as if that made everything just peachy.
“Would Vee know that?”
“Not exactly. You and Scott would have to be convincing together. A leak would be disastrous, so I’d want to limit the truth to the two of us.”
Meaning Scott would also be a casualty of the ruse. I did the hands-on-hips thing, going for firm and immovable. “Then you’re going to have to come up with someone else.” I wasn’t enamored with the idea of fake-dating a Nephil to boost my popularity. In fact, it seemed like a disaster in the making, but I wanted this mess behind me. If Dante thought a Nephilim boyfriend would give me more street cred, so be it. It wouldn’t be real. Obviously Patch wouldn’t be thrilled, but tackle one problem at a time, right?
Dante’s mouth compressed into a line, and he shut his eyes briefly. Summoning patience. It was an expression I’d grown quite accustomed to over the course of the day.
“He’d need to be revered in the Nephilim community,” Dante said thoughtfully at last. “Someone Nephilim would admire and approve of.”
I made an impatient gesture. “Fine. Just throw someone other than Scott at me.”
I flinched. “Sorry. What? You?” I was too stunned to burst into laughter.
“Why not?” Dante asked.
“Do you really want me to start listing reasons? Because I’ll keep you here all night. You’ve got to be at least five years older than me in human years—total scandal fodder—you don’t have a sense of humor, and—oh yeah. We can’t stand each other.”
“It’s a natural connection. I’m your first lieutenant—”
“Because Hank gave you the position. I had no say in that.”
Dante didn’t seem to hear me, charging ahead with his make-believe version of events. “We met and felt an instant and mutual attraction. I comforted you after your father’s death. It’s a believable story.” He smiled. “Lots of good publicity.”
“If you say the P word one more time, I’m going to . . . do something drastic.” Like smack him. And then smack myself for even considering this plan.
“Sleep on it,” Dante said. “Mull it over.”
“Mulling it over.” I counted to three on my fingers. “Okay, done. Bad idea. Really bad idea. My answer is no.”
“You have a better idea?”
“Yes, but I’ll need time to think it up.”
“Sure. No problem, Nora.” He counted to three on his fingers. “Okay, time’s up. I needed a name first thing this morning. In case it isn’t painfully obvious, your image is headed down the tubes. Word of your father’s death, and subsequently your new leadership position, is spreading like wildfire. People are talking, and the talk isn’t good. We need the Nephilim to believe in you. We need them to trust that you have their best interests in mind, and that you can finish your father’s work and bring us out of bondage from fallen angels. We need them to rally behind you, and we’re going to give them one good reason after another. Starting with a respected Nephilim boyfriend.”
“Hey, babe, everything okay back here?”
Dante and I swung around. Vee stood in the doorway, eyeing us with equal parts wariness and curiosity.
“Hey! Everything’s fine,” I said a little too enthusiastically.
“You never came back with our drinks, and I started to worry,” Vee said. Her gaze shifted from me to Dante. Recognition sparked in her eyes, and I knew she remembered him from the bar. “Who are you?” she asked him.
“Him?” I cut in. “Oh. Uh. Well, he’s just some random guy—”
Dante stepped forward, hand extended. “Dante Matterazzi. I’m a new friend of Nora’s. We met earlier today when our mutual acquaintance, Scott Parnell, introduced us.”
Just like that, Vee’s face lit up. “You know Scott?”
“Good friend of mine, actually.”
“Any friend of Scott’s is a friend of mine.”
Inwardly, I gouged my eyes out.
“So what are you two doing back here?” Vee asked us.
“Dante just picked out a new car,” I said, stepping aside to give her an unobstructed view of the Porsche. “He couldn’t resist showing it off. Don’t look too closely, though. I think the VIN number is missing. Poor Dante had to resort to theft, since he used up all his money getting his chest waxed, and boy, does it gleam.”
“Funny,” Dante said. I thought maybe he’d self-consciously fasten at least one more shirt button, but he didn’t.
“If I had a car like that, I’d show it off too,” Vee said.
Dante said, “I tried talking Nora into a ride, but she keeps blowing me off.”
“That’s because she has a hard-A boyfriend. He must have been homeschooled, because he missed all those valuable lessons we learned in kindergarten, like sharing. He finds out you took Nora for a ride, he’ll wrap this shiny new Porsche around the nearest tree.”
“Gee,” I said, “look at the time. Don’t you have somewhere to be, Dante?”
“Turns out my night’s open.” He smiled, slow and easy, and I knew he was relishing every moment of intruding on my private life. I’d made it clear right off the bat this morning that any contact between us had to be done in private, and he was showing me what he thought of my “rules.” In a lame attempt at evening the score, I glared my meanest, coldest look at him.
“You’re in luck,” Vee said. “We know just the thing to fill up your night. You’re gonna hang with two of the coolest girls in all of Coldwater, Mr. Dante Matterazzi.”
“Dante doesn’t dance,” I quickly interjected.
“I’ll make an exception, just this once,” he answered, opening the door for us.
Vee clapped her hands, jumping up and down. “I just knew this night was gonna rock!” she squealed, ducking under Dante’s arm.
“After you,” Dante said, placing his palm on the small of my back and guiding me inside. I batted his hand away, but to my aggravation, he leaned close and murmured, “Glad we had this little chat.”
We haven’t resolved anything, I spoke to his mind. This whole boyfriend-girlfriend thing? Nothing is settled. Just a little something to bear in mind. And for the record, my best friend isn’t supposed to know you exist.
Your best friend thinks I should give your boyfriend a run for his money, he said, sounding amused.
She thinks anything with a beating heart should replace Patch. They have unresolved issues.
He followed me down the short hall leading to the dance floor, and I felt his haughty, goading smile the whole way.
• • •
The loud monotone beat of the music drove into my skull like a hammer. I pinched the bridge of my nose, cringing against a swelling headache. I had one elbow perched on the bar, and I used my free hand to press a glass of ice water against my forehead.
“Tired already?” Dante asked, leaving Vee on the dance floor to slide onto a bar stool beside me.
“Any idea how much longer she’s going to last?” I asked wearily.
“Looks to me like she’s caught her second wind.”
“Next time I’m in the market for a best friend, remind me to shy away from the Energizer Bunny. She keeps going and going. . . .”
“You look like you could use a ride home.”
I shook my head. “I drove, but I can’t leave Vee here. Seriously, how much longer can she possibly last?” Of course, I’d been asking myself the same question for the past hour.
“Tell you what. Go home. I’ll stay with Vee. When she finally drops, I’ll give her a ride.”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to get mixed up in my personal life.” I tried to sound surly, but I was exhausted, and the conviction just wasn’t there.
“Your rule, not mine.”
I chewed my lip. “Maybe just this once. After all, Vee likes you. And you actually have the stamina to keep dancing with her. I mean, this is a good thing, right?”
He nudged my leg. “Quit rationalizing and get out of here already.”
To my surprise, I sighed with relief. “Thanks, Dante. I owe you.”
“You can pay me back tomorrow. We need to finish our earlier conversation.”
And just like that, any benevolent feelings washed away. Once again, Dante was the thorn in my foot, relentless in his pestering. “If anything happens to Vee, I’m holding you personally responsible.”
“She’ll be fine, and you know it.”
I might not like Dante, but I did trust he’d do what he said. After all, he reported to me now. He’d sworn allegiance to me. Maybe my role as leader of all Nephilim would have a few perks after all. On that note, I left.
It was a cloudless night, the moon a haunting blue against the black of night. As I walked to my car, the music from the Devil’s Handbag echoed like a distant rumble. I inhaled the chilly October air. Already my headache ebbed.
The untraceable cell phone Patch had given me rang in my handbag.
“How was girls’ night out?” Patch asked.
“If Vee had her way, we’d be here all night.” I stepped out of my shoes and slung them on my finger. “All I can think about is bed.”
“We’re sharing the same thought.”
“You’re thinking about bed too?” But Patch had told me that he rarely slept.
“I’m thinking about you in my bed.”
My stomach did one of those flutter things. I’d stayed the night at Patch’s place for the first time last night, and while the attraction and temptation had definitely been there, we’d managed to sleep in different rooms. I wasn’t sure how far I wanted to take our relationship, but instinct told me Patch wasn’t quite so indecisive.
“My mom’s waiting up,” I said. “Bad timing.” Speaking of bad timing, I unwillingly recalled my most recent conversation with Dante. I needed to bring Patch up to speed. “Can we meet tomorrow? We need to talk.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
I smacked a kiss into the phone. “I missed you tonight.”
“The night’s not over. After I finish up here, I could swing by your place. Leave your bedroom window unlocked.”
“What are you working on?”
I frowned. “Sounds vague.”
“My target’s on the move. I have to roll,” he said. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
And he hung up.
I padded down the sidewalk, wondering who Patch was keeping an eye on, and why—the whole thing sounded a little ominous—when my car, a white 1984 Volkswagen Cabriolet, came into view. I threw my shoes into the backseat and dropped behind the wheel. I stuck the key in the ignition, but the engine didn’t roll over. It repeatedly made a strained, chugging sound, and I took the opportunity to think a few choice and inventive words at the worthless piece of scrap metal.
The car had fallen into my lap as a donation from Scott, and had given me more hours of grief than actual miles on the road. I hopped out and propped the hood, glaring speculatively at the greasy labyrinth of hoses and containers. I’d already dealt with the alternator, the carburetor, and the spark plugs. What was left?
I flipped around, surprised by the sound of a nasally male voice behind me. I hadn’t heard anyone approach. More perplexing, I hadn’t sensed him.
“It would appear so,” I said.
“Need some help?”
“Pretty much I just need a new car.”
He had a greasy, nervous smile. “Why don’t I give you a lift? You look like a nice girl. We could have a nice talk while we drive.”
I kept my distance, my mind spinning wildly as I tried to place him. Instinct told me he wasn’t human. Nor was he Nephilim. Funny thing was, I didn’t think he was a fallen angel, either. He had a round, cherubic face topped with a thatch of yellow-blond hair, and floppy Dumbo ears. He looked so harmless, in fact, that it made me instantly suspicious. Instantly uneasy.
“Thanks for the offer, but I’ll catch a ride with my friend.”
His smile vanished and he lunged for my sleeve. “Don’t go.” His voice rose to a whine of desperation.
I took several startled steps back.
“That is— I mean— I was trying to say—” He gulped, then hardened his eyes into glittering beads. “I need to talk to your boyfriend.”
My heart beat faster and a panicky thought seized me. What if he was Nephilim and I couldn’t detect it? What if he really did know about me and Patch? What if he’d found me tonight to get a message across—that Nephilim and fallen angels don’t mix? I was a brand-new Nephil, no match for him if it came to a physical confrontation.
“I don’t have a boyfriend.” I tried to stay calm as I turned back toward the Devil’s Handbag.
“Put me in touch with Patch,” the man called after me, that same desperate squeak pinching his voice. “He’s avoiding me.”
I picked up my pace.
“Tell him if he doesn’t come out of hiding, I’ll—I’ll—smoke him out. I’ll burn down the whole of Delphic Amusement Park if I have to!”
I glanced over my shoulder warily. I didn’t know what Patch had gotten himself mixed up in, but I had an uncomfortable feeling swelling in my stomach. Whoever this man was, cherubic features aside, he meant business.
“He can’t avoid me forever!” He scurried away on his stumpy legs until he blended into the shadows, whistling a tune that sent a jitter down my spine.