Read an Excerpt
By Paige Cuccaro, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2011 Paige Cuccaro
All rights reserved.
I couldn't breathe. My heart slammed in my chest like a caged animal and sweat chilled down my back. Muscles all over my body tensed, and instinct screamed through my mind, telling me to run. Run. RUN!
I shook my head, unclenched my fists, and forced a slow, steadying breath. The instinct wasn't mine. It's not mine. I had to focus. I blinked at the older woman's smiling, pudgy face across the table from me and centered myself in reality again.
"Yes. Of course, Mrs. Bellmen. I'm ... I'm sorry. I'm just getting some ... outside psychic interference and it's, um, clouding my concentration."
Either that or my gift was finally giving me that aneurysm I always figured it would. Some gift.
God, I hated when other people's emotions swamped over me like that. It was like drowning on dry land — drowning in someone else's emotions with no life raft in sight. After twenty-three years of living with my gift, at least I'd gotten a handle on it. Gained control.
Feeling other people's emotions — happy, sad, angry, horny ... whatever — as though they were my own could seriously suck. If someone was close enough when the mood struck them, their emotions kind of splashed onto me, overwhelmed me until I couldn't tell which were mine and which weren't. My high school years, surrounded by raging hormones — mine and everyone else's — were all kinds of torture. Thanks to the control I'd worked hard to establish, it hardly ever happened anymore. And luckily, when it did, I'd learned how to push away the false emotions and keep my head above the surface.
I'd also figured out a way to parlay my annoying talent into a marketable skill. A girl's gotta eat.
I straightened, pushing the confusing clamor of angry, panicked emotions from my brain. I'd worry about where, and who, the emotions came from later.
"That's all right, sweetheart," Mrs. Bellmen said, nervously smoothing the giant gypsy-style scarf that doubled as my tablecloth. "You were saying something about my Dicky. That he wasn't ..."
Hope raised her brows, tugged at the corners of her age-thinned lips. I didn't need my gift to know the answer she wanted from her psychic.
I smiled. "He wasn't cheating before he died. Mr. Bellmen loved you very much. That's not to say he didn't notice his secretary, mind you, but you're the one he loved."
I was making it all up, of course. But I could feel by the rush of relief flooding through me — hers, not mine — that it's what she wanted to hear.
Mrs. Bellmen sighed, her smile going full wattage. She snagged her enormous purse from the floor and stood. "Forty-three years. They weren't all a walk in the park, but he was a good man. You're a wonder, Madame Hellsbane."
"Thank you, Mrs. Bellmen." I waited while she slung her purse over her shoulder, and then followed her through the pocket doors to the entry.
"You take cash, don't you, dear?" She crossed the hall into my dining room, which I'd converted into a waiting-room-slash-mystic-boutique.
"I love cash."
After picking up a smudge-stick bundle and some cleansing candles, Mrs. Bellmen settled her bill. With a happy wave, she left, and I closed the door behind her, my mood light and happy ... or maybe it was her mood. Either way ...
I liked using my oddity to help people. Made me feel like there was a reason I was the way I was, rather than just random bad luck.
"God, I'm hungry." I hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast, and it was coming around dinnertime already. Business was good, which meant I found little time for pesky things like eating. A nice problem to have.
With a smile stretching my cheeks, I pattered down the hall, the flat leather soles of my sandals slapping against the hardwood floor. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich I had pictured in my head beckoned me toward the kitchen.
I hooked my thumbs on the elastic waistband of my peasant skirt and shimmied it down over my hips as I walked. Couldn't wait to get out of the thing. I absolutely hate skirts, or dresses of any kind, but the look played great for customers. I had shorts on underneath, so it felt a little less commando. The maroon, bell-sleeved top was actually kind of comfy.
I made it as far as the half-bath under the steps before someone started pounding on my front door. After a second or two debate as to whether I should pretend I wasn't home or hike the skirt back on and answer the door, I tugged my skirt up, turned, and headed for the front entry.
It might be a client. I don't take walk-ins, but some of my regulars drop by when they've got something big brewing. They pay extra for the convenience so ... that helps.
The knocks came again — harder — rattling the inlaid fan window in the top half of the door. I could see the crown of someone's head through the glass as I neared. I was still four steps away when the person pounded the door again. The sound was urgent. I hesitated.
"Hello?" I pushed up to my tiptoes, but at five feet, I'm just too short to see through the window. The instant I leaned my body against the door though, my gut sank.
It was like the sensation you get on a rollercoaster or when your car goes over a hill at just the right speed. I dropped flat on my feet again, head down, my hand on the knob for stability.
"Yeah. Hi. Uh, Emma Jane?" The voice was vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place it. And no one called me Emma Jane anymore. I licked my lips, concentrating on slow even breaths, letting the sensation in my stomach pass.
"Can I help you?" I asked.
"It's me, Tommy. Tommy Saint James. From high school."
The sound of his voice above made me look up. He must've pushed onto his toes. Now, I could see the top of his face to his nose. He was trying his hardest to peer down at me with the same pretty blue eyes I remembered.
No way. Of all the people I knew in high school, Tommy Saint James was the last person I'd expect to show up on my doorstep. I hadn't seen him since he'd blown off the last half of our senior year. I unlocked the door and opened it. "Tommy? Hi. What are you doing here?"
"Hey, Emma Jane." He glanced over his shoulder, then back to me. "Long time no see. I was ... I was in the neighborhood. Thought I'd stop by, say hi."
He glanced over his shoulder again, fidgeting on his feet. He hadn't changed much in the eight years since I'd seen him. I took a second to do the mental math — I was twenty-three and, even though we'd been in the same grade, he was two years older than me in high school. How could he be twenty-five and look exactly the same? He still had curly light hair, the kind that goes sun-bleached blond in the summer and creamy butterscotch in the winter. It was early summer, so his hair was nearly the color of corn silk ... and it looked damn good.
He kept it short. The curls used to relax a little when he let it grow, but not much. He was tall, six foot three or four with a sinewy, athletic build. Tommy had the kind of body that at a glance might be considered thin, but he was all muscle.
He'd been our star pitcher in high school, the typical jock who'd made all the girls melt with his perfect smile, smoky DJ voice, and pretty pale blue eyes — a blue made more intense by a dark circle around the irises. Everyone had loved him or wanted to be loved by him, which had made his sudden withdrawal during senior year all the more strange.
"I can't believe it's you. How'd you know I was living here?" I was pretty sure he hadn't even known my name in high school — I wasn't exactly Miss Popularity. I was a couple of years younger than the other kids in my grade because I tested well, and Mom agreed with the school to let me skip ahead. No one had asked me. I know she'd only wanted what was best for me. But she just hadn't understood the social ramifications I'd had to deal with because of it. A mom who didn't understand teenage angst? Go figure.
Tommy shifted his weight, and suddenly, he was the suave jock-star all over again. One hand against the doorjamb, the other curiously hidden behind his back, he smiled. My awkward high school years swamped over me — Tommy had always had a sort of embarrassing effect on me. I'd lost IQ points when he was near and my stomach had rolled and flopped like I'd hatched a flock of butterflies in my belly. Not that he'd ever noticed.
He raised a brow. "I remembered your gram lived here. Can I, uh, come in?"
The house was my gram's. She'd left it all to me two years ago when she died. Still didn't feel like any of it was mine. But it was free and fully furnished, so I called it home.
He'd used the hey-there-sexy voice I'd heard him employ a hundred times in high school. Not with me, of course, but the effect was just as potent, eight years later.
"Sure, come in." I stepped back, opening the door wider, and he slipped through. His hand dropped to his left ribs, clutching himself over a tear in his T-shirt. I hadn't even noticed his shirt was ripped until then.
I glanced behind him as I went to close the door, my thoughts ping-ponging with questions when something caught my eye. I stopped the door. It looked like a bag of garbage was smoldering in the street. Smoke twined up from the melted black plastic, but there was no flame, just bubbling black goo.
"What is that?" Before I could open the door wider, Tommy reached over my head and shoved it closed.
"Lock it," he said, then reached past me to throw the lock himself.
"Hey! Rude much?"
Something changed behind his pretty blue eyes. He switched back to charming Tommy, flashed his smile. "Sorry. I just ... didn't want to let out the air-conditioning."
"Right. I always lock the door to help seal in the cool air." Sure, he was cute, and he still made my body feel like a bowl of Jell-O in an earthquake, but I wasn't sixteen anymore. I'd learned a long time ago how to keep my head around cute guys. "What's going on, Tommy?"
He shrugged and took a few steps down the hall. "Nothing. Just stopped by to see what my old friend Emma Jane was up to."
He couldn't hide his other hand anymore, or he didn't bother to — he must've figured the sword he held was too big to go unnoticed. He held it at his side, hand fisted around the hilt, the point of the blade almost nicking my hardwood floor.
"It's just Emma now, and we were never really friends. What's with the sword?" Years of dirty limericks incorporating Emma Jane Hellsbane had long ago made me drop the middle name.
He glanced at me as he walked into the waiting room. "Sorry. I had a lot of issues in high school."
He smiled, but it was just a smile, not the heart-melting one he'd always used. This was his natural smile, warm and easy. It lit his eyes and just barely dimpled his cheeks. He was all the more attractive for it.
"Forget it," I said. It was ancient history. "What about the sword?"
His free hand holding his side, Tommy grimaced as he eased himself onto one of my gram's old Victorian sofas, using his sword — hand on the hilt, point stabbing my floor — to steady himself. He settled back, sighing, and propped the long weapon against the front of the couch. Something thick and black edged the blade and covered the lower half to the tip. When he finally pulled his hand from his side, it was covered in blood and more of the black goo.
"Ohmygod, what happened?" I rushed over to him. I couldn't believe I'd been so caught up in the surprise of seeing him, in my own girly brain-freeze, that I hadn't even noticed the blood on his T-shirt and jeans.
"I, uh, had an accident." He laughed, clearly weak. "Mom always told me not to play with knives."
But when I knelt beside him and lifted his torn shirt, I doubted any sort of knife would do that kind of damage. "You look like you've been clawed."
"Yeah?" he said, tipping his head, trying to see the wound better. "Weird. Hey, you wouldn't happen to have any holy water lying around, would you?"
"Right. Dumb question. Peroxide, then?"
I looked closer. Three long, jagged wounds tore through skin and muscle and wrapped from his belly to his back. Like something big had tried to grab him and he'd slipped away. There wasn't as much blood as I would have expected. It'd already begun to clot, but the black goo was bubbling along the edges and there were meaty parts bulging out.
"God, Tommy, these are deep. You need stitches. We have to get you to a hospital." I pushed to my feet — I had some peroxide in the kitchen. I'm not real graceful with knives myself, so I'd learned it was best to keep the stuff handy.
He let his shirt fall back over the wounds, hissing when the cloth brushed his body. "No hospital. It's not that bad. Trust me, I heal fast."
"Whatever. Just sit still." I ran to the kitchen, grabbed the brand new bottle of peroxide, a bowl, and some gauze, and came back as fast as I could.
"Those aren't cat scratches, Tommy," I said, snagging a pair of scissors from Gram's china cabinet. "You might need surgery. At the very least, you should be worried about infection. What's that black stuff?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"It's ... it's brimstone."
"Brimstone? Brimstone's black and gooey?" I dumped the medical supplies on the coffee table and sat beside him on the couch, reaching for the sword to move it out of the way.
Tommy lunged, moving so fast he'd grabbed it before I could blink. "Don't touch that."
He laid the sword, still dripping goo, across the coffee table I'd personally refinished. But I gritted my teeth and kept my mouth shut. He was a guest and he was oozing guts, or something, so I could let it slide.
"It's not just brimstone," he said. "But that's what's making it bubble and burn."
"Lean over." I pushed up his shirt. "Lift your arm."
He did, and for a guilty half-second I let my gaze drift to the hard ridges of his abs. The man was still solid muscle. I shifted my attention to his wounds. "Whoa. You're healing."
"No, seriously. The skin is closing up." It still had a way to go, but whatever had been bulging out was back beneath the surface, and the edges of the wound were already shrinking closed, the very corners turning the wrinkled pink of new scars.
I wet the pad of gauze over the bowl with the peroxide then dabbed the wound. Blood turned the gauze pale red, but the black ooze wasn't affected. I could see the raw muscle and meat was still coated as the skin healed over it.
"How are you healing so fast?"
Tommy flicked his gaze to me. "It's a long story. But I didn't have anywhere else to go and I knew you were ... Shit, I shouldn't have come."
Instinct chased a chill down my spine. "You knew I was what? What did this to you, Tommy?"
He shook his head and took the wet gauze from my hand, dabbing his wounds. "Nothing. Don't worry about it. I'll get out of here as soon as I can stand without feeling lightheaded."
He hissed again, gingerly touching the ends that were already healed. "Dammit. I have to get this crap out of me." He looked up. "You have a cross, a Bible ... anything like that?"
"Are you kidding? You've obviously never met my family." Religion to my family was like medals to a soldier. It was something you worked at, suffered for, and used as an all-purpose excuse, reward, or threat, depending on the situation. Religion was like this great club they'd joined, and no one else would ever be as worthy as they were.
I left Tommy where he was and headed for the stairs. I'd kept Gram's bedroom suite. It was way better than anything I could afford. She'd always had a Bible in the bedside table, and since I don't clean where people can't see ...
I would've gotten my own Bible for him if I had one. I don't. I'm waiting for the sequel to come out.
I'm not an atheist. Actually, I'm not sure what I believe. I just need more to base an opinion on than a bunch of old stories.
I was halfway up the stairs when my doorbell rang. I crouched to see through the window on the door. It was the mailman. If he had something for me to sign and I didn't answer, it could be days before he tried again. I turned and jogged back downstairs, glancing in at Tommy as I passed. He was struggling to stand.
Excerpted from Hellsbane by Paige Cuccaro, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2011 Paige Cuccaro. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.