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The old house glowed in the moonlight.
With Spanish moss whipping against my face, I slipped from the flagstone path to the shadow of the huge oaks, and lifted a hand to my throat. Breathe, I told myself. Just breathe.
It was March. Spring Break had started with the afternoon bell several hours before. Mardi Gras was in full, crazy swing. Two hours earlier I’d stood among thousands in the rain of doubloons and beads from the Krewe of Morpheus parade. Another six would roll tomorrow, all building to Fat Tuesday in four days.
And yet it was impossible to walk through the old Greek Revival without remembering the night last fall, when the first breath of evil whispered against my soul.
But a respected family lived in this house, a professor at Tulane and an antiques dealer, their five sons ranging in age from twenty-seven to sixteen. Thousands of twinkling lights turned the big white columns into candy canes of green and purple. Light shone from every window. Music blasted. Almost everyone I knew was inside. A nightmare was not about to unfold, only a party. My first since the rhythmic beep of hospital machines had gone quiet.
I needed to go back inside. Victoria or Deuce would notice I was gone, and they’d come looking for me.
After a quick check of the porch, I looked up through the swaying branches toward the sprawl of the sky. There the moon hung like a glowing crescent ornament against a glittering panorama of inky velvet.
Twenty-six days. Sometimes it seemed like only the blink of an eye since that final kiss in the shadow of the roller coaster. Other times it was like the whole world stood still, each moment, each breath, carved in its own eternity. I kept waiting to wake up, to pull myself from the nightmare and find everything as it had been before: my aunt dancing around the kitchen and Chase waiting by the fountain at school, Grace reading palms at her table in Jackson Square and Dylan—
That was where the rewrite stopped, the second his name drifted into the illusion.
“Trying to count the stars, Mile High?”
Turning, I found Deuce slipping between the big old trees, as if his body moved to a hip-hop rhythm only he heard.
“I always like nights like this,” he said, and with his voice the memory returned to the shadows. “When the sky’s so clear it’s like a window to another world.”
At a little over six feet, Deuce had the well-muscled body of a lightweight boxer. He wore his black jeans tight and his button-downs slim-fitting. Tonight’s shirt had a tribal pattern. His ebony hair was closely cropped. Long, thin sideburns angled down into a chinstrap. A thin scar streaked above his upper lip and another through his right eyebrow. On first glance, no one would guess that his soul was that of a poet, and that with only a few notes of his sax, he could stir emotions you didn’t know you had.
Only a few minutes before he’d stood on the steps, surrounded by girls in micro-dresses and knee-high boots.
“Escaped your fan club?” I asked.
He grinned. “They’re recruiting new members.”
My own grin just kind of happened. Deuce had that way about him. In those first few days after waking up in the hospital, riding waves of numbness and grief, I’d never imagined I could smile again. Then he showed up one night with a carton of ice cream. I told him I wasn’t hungry, but he said it didn’t matter.
Ten minutes later we were both covered in multicolored sprinkles and chocolate syrup, while my cat licked anything she could find, and I smiled.
Then I cried.
And there on the hard, cold wood of the kitchen floor, Deuce drew me into his arms and started to sing.
I have no memory of the words, only the feeling of being safe.
A long time passed before he let go.
“I know this great spot south of town,” he said as the back door fell open and music throbbed into the night. Laughing, a group of girls in baby-doll dresses climbed onto the porch rail and started to dance.
The Friday before Mardi Gras, the annual Greenwood bash was revving crazier by the minute.
“It’s down by the river,” he said. “What do you say we get out of here and—”
I realized where this whole conversation was going. “Deuce, no. You’ve got a gig.”
“And you’re standing out here by yourself, while everyone you know is inside.”
I hadn’t meant for anyone to see me.
“I saw, Mile High,” he said. “I looked up and saw you out here in the shadows, like you wished they’d swallow you, staring at your phone. You can’t tell me you really want to be here.”
Want. It should have been an easy word. Seven months ago, when I first came to New Orleans, the city where I’d been born but didn’t remember, it was. I wanted to meet people and make friends, go out and be like everyone else. I wanted an awesome pair of low-rise jeans and a new phone. I wanted my lab partner to—
The memory brought the stabbing feeling back all over again. I’d wanted Chase to look at me and smile, to feel the same awareness that rushed through me.
Back then I hadn’t known about the shadows waiting, or strangers who knew more about me, my life, than I did, who could heal with a simple touch, and devastate without lifting a hand.
Now I wanted the horrible things I saw to never come true, the fact that I saw them to never touch anyone I cared about.
Looking at Deuce, there was only one way to answer his question.
“I want you to have this gig,” I said. Playing the Greenwood party was a huge deal. “And I want Victoria to hear Trey sing.” Because whenever she did, my best friend lit up like a thousand-watt lightbulb.
And my aunt. I wanted her to be okay again.
And Grace. I wanted her to come back to New Orleans, for her to be okay, too.
But neither of those had anything to do with Deuce’s question.
The word I’d found scribbled in my journal that morning did.
I didn’t remember writing it, but the therapist I saw every Friday said that was normal, good even. That things locked inside me were finding ways to get out.
But the seven scrawled letters had sent something cold swirling through me.
Running through the dark. That’s all I’d seen since the afternoon I slipped inside a killer’s mind and discovered a deception that left the community in shock.
After that, it was hard not to jump at shadows.
But the word tonight didn’t mean anything ominous. I knew that. It wasn’t from somewhere unseen. It was merely confirmation that spending the evening with friends was the right thing to do.
That was all.
“So yeah,” I said, pushing aside the memory. I’d been here over an hour. Aside from some dizziness, nothing had happened. Nothing was going to. “This is where I need to be.”
Even if the thought of walking back inside the loud crush of people from every high school within thirty miles had my chest tightening all over again.
The charcoal of Deuce’s eyes gleamed. “Needing is a start,” he said all quiet, soulful. “But someday you’ll want again.” Watching me, he slid an arm around my waist. “You’ll want something for you, not only other people. It’s Deuce 101, the law of jumper cables. There may be nothing inside right now, but that doesn’t mean it’ll always be that way.”
I leaned into him, holding his gaze longer than normal before turning back to the oak-shrouded mansion.
“Come on,” I said, sliding my phone back into my hoodie. “Let’s go find Victoria and Trey.”
* * *
Through the frantic fusion of music and light, we made our way to the elaborate home theater. Three rows of cushy media chairs faced the giant screen framed by dark velvet curtains, while oil-painted movie posters lined the walls. In every space in between, guys and girls danced, oblivious to the muted movie playing in the background.
I found Victoria immediately, thanks to the bobbing purple feathers of her showgirl headband. I’d done a quick double take when she showed up at the shop in her little black dress and mismatched stilettos, not only in different sizes, but different heights, too. She’d scored them at the Muses parade, one covered in pink and purple feathers, the other shimmering with glitter. In total she’d been awarded seven, all because of a glitter-drenched sign proclaiming herself the founder of Glitterholics Anonymous.
She’d given me a clog and a mule, both the same height thankfully, one with thick purple and pink rhinestone stripes, the other covered in orange sequins.
Now with her back to me, she was absorbed in Trey’s orbit, their bodies pressed tight as they moved in slow, almost nonexistent, motion. If Deuce was the boxer, his Blood Brothas bandmate was pure California beach boy, with sun-kissed brown hair and a lazy, steal-your-breath smile.
He and Victoria, with the pink streaks in her bright blond hair and her tilted green eyes, her compact gymnast’s body, made a knockout couple. Hip to hip, he held her close, his arms slung around her waist. And as I moved closer, I could see his eyes were closed.
The tight feeling in my throat loosened a little.
Their flirting had turned serious the past few weeks. She insisted they were only friends, but I saw the longing in the way she looked at him, and in the way he looked at her. The way he touched her. It was no secret how into each other they were.
It was part of my agenda for the evening, to show her it was okay for her to be happy.
Deuce started toward them, but I caught him by the arm and pulled him back. “Not yet.”
Habit made me glance around, searching the dimly lit sway of grinding bodies for her ex. I hadn’t seen Lucas yet, but knew he was probably around. Everyone at school had been buzzing about the party, with the exception of Drew, whose family was joining Chase’s at the New Mexico cabin where they’d been since late February.
“Give them a few more minutes,” I said, stepping back against the wall. “Why don’t you go set up,” I suggested. “I’ll send Trey out in a minute.”
He hesitated. I could tell he didn’t want to leave me alone.
“It’s okay,” I assured him with an overly bright smile. “No more wandering off. Promise.”
It took another minute or two, but finally Deuce glanced at his watch and relented. “I’ll be out back if you need me.”
I shook my head, sending a few long, curly tangles against my face.
He slid them back and reluctantly turned away.
With two steps, the crowd swallowed him, and I was alone.
The song ended. Another blasted from the speakers.
Slipping against the wall, I watched the sweaty, energetic dancing and the groups standing around laughing and drinking, the couples wrapped around each other in the big chairs, not spending too much time on anything, not the girl in a blue butterfly mask or the one with the short pixie hair standing on a media chair, crying, nothing until the velvet drapes swayed.
He stood in the shadows, tall, apart from everyone else, his face concealed by a half-gold/half-white Venetian mask. But I didn’t need to see the hot burn of his eyes or strong line of his cheeks, not when the quiet, guarded intensity slipped through the frenzy, as if instead of watching, he’d lifted a hand, and touched.
Because he’d never needed that, a hand to touch me.
My heart slammed hard, and a thousand little pieces started to scatter. The hair was the same, maybe a little longer, but the same sharp curtain cutting above his jaw. But it was the unmistakable stillness to him that fired through me, the way he watched, exactly like that very first day from the shadows of his father’s porch. He wasn’t a come-over-and-say-hi kinda of guy.
The party fell away, taking with it the blast of music and crush of bodies, leaving only the shadows, and the remains of the dream I’d wanted so badly to believe. He watched me breath by breath, each deeper than the last, slower, until even that fell away.
Four weeks had passed. Four weeks since I’d opened my eyes in an unfamiliar hotel room to find him leaning over me. Four weeks since he’d dragged me from a fire and held my hand as I ran through a killer’s mind. Since I’d heard him shout my name.
Four weeks since I’d let fantasy carry us past the point of no return, since one second, one mistake, changed everything.
The voice registered, echoing in through some distorted tunnel, but I didn’t turn around, couldn’t turn around, not when everything inside me rushed.
He didn’t belong here. That was all I could think. Dylan Fourcade did not belong at an ordinary Friday night party.
“Hey, you okay?”
This time the voice ripped in closer, more urgent, and with it a guy blasted in between us, tall and thin with dark, chin-length hair tucked behind his ears and narrow eyes. He stood close, the way friends did, even though I’d never seen him before.
I took a quick step back. “Yeah,” I said, glancing from him to the sea of dancing beyond.
My view of the curtains was gone.
“You scared me for a sec,” he said. “You were really pale.”
I blinked, bringing everything back into focus. “I’m good,” I assured him.
The music changed, faster, more frenetic, everyone lifting their arms in the air, everyone except Victoria and Trey, who drifted in their own little bubble.
“Awesome,” the guy said, stepping me against the wall. “Then say yes.”
I kept glancing around. “Yes?” I hadn’t heard a question.
His eyes met mine. “Awesome.” With a this-is-gonna-be-good smile, he pressed a purple cup decorated with gold comedy and tragedy masks into my hand. Inside, something dark fizzed.
“Come on,” he said, sliding an arm around my waist. “I’ve been waiting all night to get you to myself. Let’s dance.”
I stiffened. Normal, I told myself. This was what happened at parties. But I didn’t want some random guy’s arms around me, didn’t want to feel his body pressed to mine. The last time someone had held me—
I didn’t want that memory, either.
“Not now,” I managed. My hand tightened against the cup. “I’m waiting for a friend.”
“Your bodyguard guy?” he asked with a slow, knowing smile. “Yeah, he went out back.”
More memories surged, memories I didn’t want.
“So, what? He appointed you my bodyguard?”
“I wish it was just your body.”
But the narrow-eyed guy didn’t mean Dylan, I realized, refusing to look back to the curtains. There was no way a stranger could know about that. He meant Deuce.
“He’s not my bodyguard,” I said, pulling my arm away.
“S’okay.” He swayed. “I get it. If I were you I wouldn’t go anywhere without a bodyguard, either.”
I slid along the wall, not wanting to draw attention by pushing him away and bolting like a freak, but more than ready to be rid of him. “I really gotta go.”
“It must be hard, living with what you know,” he said, closer now, so close I could feel his breath against my cheek. “That’s why you went outside by yourself, isn’t it?”
Then I realized this wasn’t normal at all. I jerked back.
He stopped me with a hand to my forearm. “You’re that girl everyone’s been talking about.” His eyes, suddenly dark and intense, met mine. “The prophet.”
Copyright © 2012 by Ellie James