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Even over the sea, Thea could smell the blood on her. When she breathed in, it filled her with a familiar hunger that haunted her dreams. Except now it disgusted her, leaving a horrible taste in her mouth, because she knew where it came from.
"Is it done?" she asked. She stood on the rocky shore, staring over the sea, with her back to her sister.
"You know it is," Penn said. Although Penn was angry, her voice still kept its seductive edge, that alluring texture she could never completely erase. "No thanks to you."
Thea glanced back over her shoulder at Penn. Even in the dull light of the moon, Penn's black hair glistened, and her tanned skin seemed to glow. Fresh from eating, she looked even more beautiful than she had a few hours before.
A few droplets of blood splattered Thea's clothes, but Penn had mostly been spared from it, except for her right hand. It was stained crimson up to her elbow.
Thea's stomach rolled with both hunger and disgust, and she turned away again.
"Thea." Penn sighed and walked over to her. "You know it had to be done."
Thea didn't say anything for a moment. She just listened to the way the ocean sang to her, the watersong calling for her.
"I know," Thea said finally, hoping her words didn't betray her true feelings. "But the timing is awful. We should've waited."
"I couldn't wait anymore," Penn insisted, and Thea wasn't sure if that was true or not. But Penn had made a decision, and Penn always got what she wanted.
"We don't have much time." Thea gestured to the moon, nearly full above them, then looked over at Penn.
"I know. But I already told you, I've had my eye on someone." Penn smiled widely at her, showing her razor-sharp teeth. "And it won't be long before she's ours."
The engine made a bizarre chugging sound, like a dying robot llama, followed by an innocuous click-click. Then silence. Gemma turned the key harder, hoping that would somehow breathe life into the old Chevy, but it wouldn't even chug anymore. The llama had died.
"You have got to be kidding me," Gemma said and cursed under her breath.
She'd worked her butt off to pay for this car. Between the long hours she spent training at the pool and keeping up on her schoolwork, she had little time for a steady job. That had left her stuck babysitting the horrible Tennenmeyer boys. They put gum in her hair and poured bleach on her favorite sweater.
But she'd toughed it out. Gemma had been determined to get a car when she turned sixteen, even if that meant dealing with the Tennenmeyers. Her older sister Harper had gotten their father's old car as a hand-me-down. Harper had offered to let Gemma drive it, but she declined.
Mainly, Gemma needed her own car because neither Harper nor her father readily approved of her late-night swims at Anthemusa Bay. They didn't live far from the bay, but the distance wasn't what bothered her family. It was the late-night partÑand that was the thing that Gemma craved most.
Out there, under the stars, the water seemed like it went on forever. The bay met the sea, which in turn met the sky, and it all blended together like she was floating in an eternal loop. There was something magical about the bay at night, something that her family couldn't seem to understand.
Gemma tried the key one more time, but it only elicited the same empty clicking sound from her car. Sighing, she leaned forward and stared out at the moonlit sky through the cracked windshield. It was getting late, and even if she left on foot right now, she wouldn't get back from her swim until almost midnight.
That wouldn't be a huge problem, but her curfew was eleven. Starting off the summer being grounded on top of having a dead car was the last thing she wanted. Her swim would have to wait for another night.
She got out of the car. When she tried to slam the door shut in frustration, it only groaned, and a chunk of rust fell off the bottom.
"This is by far the worst three hundred dollars I ever spent," Gemma muttered.
"Car trouble?" Alex asked from behind her, startling her so much she nearly screamed. "Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."
"No, it's okay." She waved it off and turned around to face him. "I didn't hear you come out."
Alex had lived next door to them for the past ten years, and there was nothing scary about him. As he got older, he'd tried to smooth out his unruly dark hair, but a lock near the front always stood up, a cowlick he could never tame. It made him look younger than eighteen, and when he smiled, he looked younger still.
There was something innocent about him, and that was probably why Harper had never thought of him as anything more than a friend. Even Gemma had dismissed him as uncrushworthy until recently. She'd seen the subtle changes in him, his youthfulness giving way to broad shoulders and strong arms.
It was that new thing, the new manliness he was beginning to grow into, that made her stomach flutter when Alex smiled at her. She still wasn't used to feeling that way around him, so she pushed it down and tried to ignore it.
"The stupid piece of junk won't run." Gemma gestured to the rusty compact and stepped over to where Alex stood on his lawn. "I've only had it for three months, and its dead already."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Alex said. "Do you need help?"
"You know something about cars?" Gemma raised an eyebrow. She had seen him spend plenty of time playing video games or with his nose stuck in a book, but she'd never once seen him under the hood of a car.
Alex smiled sheepishly and lowered his eyes. He had been blessed with tan skin, which made it easier for him to hide his embarrassment, but Gemma knew him well enough to understand that he blushed at almost anything.
"No," he admitted with a small laugh and motioned back to the driveway where his blue Mercury Cougar sat. "But I do have a car of my own."
He pulled his keys out of his pocket and swung them around his finger. For a moment he managed to look slick before the keys flew off his hand and hit him in the chin. Gemma stifled a laugh as he scrambled to pick them up.
"Uh, yeah, I'm fine." He rubbed his chin and shrugged it off. "So, do you want a ride?"
"Are you sure? It's pretty late. I don't want to bother you."
"Nah, it's no bother." He stepped back toward his car, waiting for Gemma to follow. "Where are you headed?"
"Just to the bay."
"I should've known." He grinned. "Your nightly swim?"
"It's not nightly," Gemma said, though he wasn't too far off base.
"Come on." Alex walked over to the Cougar and opened his door. "Hop in."
"All right, if you insist."
Gemma didn't like imposing on people, but she didn't want to pass up a chance at swimming. A car ride alone with Alex wouldn't hurt, either. Usually she only got to spend time with him when he was hanging out with her sister.
"So what is it about these swims that you find so entrancing?" Alex asked after she'd gotten in the car.
"I don't think I'd ever describe them as entrancing." She buckled up her seat belt, then leaned back. "I don't know what it is exactly. There's just...nothing else like it."
"What do you mean?" Alex asked. He'd started the car, but stayed parked in the driveway, watching her as she tried to explain.
"During the day there are so many people at the bay, especially during the summer, but at night...it's just you and the water and the stars. And it's dark, so it all feels like one thing, and you're part of it all." She furrowed her brow, but her smile was wistful. "I guess it is kind of a entrancing," she admitted. She shook her head, clearing it of the thought. "I don't know. Maybe I'm just a freak who likes swimming at night."
That was when Gemma realized Alex was staring at her, and she glanced over at him. He had a strange expression on his face, almost like he was dumbfounded.
"What?" Gemma asked, beginning to feel embarrassed at the way he looked at her. She fidgeted with her hair, tucking it behind her ears, and shifted in her seat.
"Nothing. Sorry." Alex shook his head and put the car in drive. "You probably want to get out to the water."
"I'm not in a huge rush or anything," Gemma said, but that was sort of a lie. She wanted to get as much time in the water as she could before her curfew.
"Are you still training?" Alex asked. "Or did you stop for summer vacation?"
"Nope, I still train." She rolled down the car window, letting the salty air blow in. "I swim every day at the pool with the coach. He says my times are getting really good."
"At the pool you swim all day, and then you want to sneak out and swim all night?" Alex smirked. "How does that work?"
"It's different." She stuck her arm out the open window, holding it straight like the wing of a plane. "Swimming at the pool, it's all laps and time. It's work. Out in the bay, it's just floating and splashing around."
"But don't you ever get sick of being wet?" Alex asked.
"Nope." She shook her head. "That's like asking you, Don't you ever get sick of breathing air?"
"As a matter of fact, I do. Sometimes I think, Wouldn't it be grand if I didn't need to breathe?"
"Why?" Gemma laughed. "Why would that ever be grand?"
"I don't know." He looked self-conscious for a minute, his smile twisting nervously. "I guess I mostly thought it when I was in gym class and they'd make me run or something. I was always so out of breath."
Alex glanced over at her, as if checking to see if she thought he was a complete loser for that admission. But she only smiled at him in response.
"You should've spent more time swimming with me," Gemma said. "Then you wouldn't have been so out of shape."
"I know, but I'm a geek." He sighed. "At least I'm done with all that gym stuff now that I graduated."
"Soon you'll be so busy at college, you won't even remember the horrors of high school," Gemma said, her tone turning curiously despondent.
"Yeah, I guess." Alex furrowed his brow.
Gemma leaned closer to the window, hanging her arm down the side and resting her chin on her hand as she stared out at houses and trees passing by. In her and Alex's neighborhood, the houses were all cheap and run-down, but as soon as they passed Capri Lane, everything was clean and modern.
Since it was tourist season, all the buildings and trees were lit up brightly. Music from the bars and the sounds of people talking and laughing wafted in through the air.
"Are you excited to get away from all this?" Gemma asked with a wry smile and pointed to a drunken couple arguing on the boulevard.
"There is some stuff I'll be glad to get away from," he admitted, but when he looked over at her, his expression softened. "But there will definitely be some things that I miss."
The beach was mostly deserted, other than a few teenagers having a bonfire, and Gemma directed Alex to drive a little farther. The soft sand gave way to more jagged rocks lining the shore, and the paved parking lots were replaced by a forest of bald cypress trees. He parked on a dirt road as close to the water as he could get.
This far away from the tourist attractions, there were no people or trails leading to the water. When Alex cut the lights on the Cougar, they were submerged in darkness. The only light came from the moon above them, and some light pollution cast off by the town.
"Is this really where you swim?" Alex asked.
"Yeah. It's the best place to do it." She shrugged and opened the door.
"But it's all rocky." Alex got out of the car and scanned the mossy stones that covered the ground. "It seems dangerous."
"That's the point." Gemma grinned. "Nobody else would swim here."
As soon as she got out of the car, she slipped off her sundress, revealing the bathing suit she wore underneath. Her dark hair had been in a ponytail, but she pulled it down, shaking it loose. She kicked off her flip-flops and tossed them in the car, along with her dress.
Alex stood next to the car, shoving his hands deep in his pockets, and tried not to look at her. He knew she was wearing a bathing suit, one he'd seen her in a hundred times before. Gemma practically lived in swimwear. But alone with her like this, he felt acutely aware of how she looked in the bikini.
Of the two Fisher sisters, Gemma was definitely the prettier. She had a lithe swimmer's body, petite and slender, but curved in all the right places. Her skin was bronze from the sun, and her dark hair had golden highlights running through it from all the chlorine and sunlight. Her eyes were honey, not that he could really see the color in the dim light, but they sparkled when she smiled at him.
"Aren't you going swimming?" Gemma asked.
"Uh, no." He shook his head and deliberately stared off at the bay to avoid looking at her. "I'm good. I'll wait in the car until you're done."
"No, you drove me all the way down here. You can't just wait in the car. You have to come swimming with me."
"Nah, I think I'm okay." He scratched his arm and lowered his eyes. "You go have fun."
"Alex, come on." Gemma pretended to pout. "I bet you've never even gone for a swim in the moonlight. And you're leaving for college at the end of the summer. You have to do this at least once, or you haven't really lived."
"I don't have swim trunks," Alex said, but his resistance was already waning.
"Just wear your boxers."
He thought about protesting further, but Gemma had a point. She was always doing stuff like this, but he'd spent most of his high school career in his bedroom.
Besides, swimming would be better than waiting. And when he thought about it, it was much less creepy joining her swimming than watching her from the shore.
"Fine, but I better not cut my feet on any of the rocks," Alex said as he slipped off his shoes.
"I promise to keep you safe and sound." She crossed her hand over her heart to prove it.
"I'll hold you to that."
He pulled his shirt up over his head, and it was exactly as Gemma had imagined. His gangly frame had filled out with toned muscles that she didn't completely understand, since he was a self-professed geek.
When he started to undo his pants, Gemma turned away to be polite. Even though she would see him in his boxers in a few seconds, it felt strange watching him take off his jeans. As if it were dirty.
"So how do we get down to the water?" Alex asked.
She went first, stepping delicately onto the rocks, and he knew he wouldn't stand a chance of copying her grace. She moved like a ballerina, stepping on the balls of her feet from one smooth rock to the next until she reached the water.
"There are a few sharp stones when you step in the water," Gemma warned him.
"Thanks for the heads-up," he mumbled and moved with as much caution as he could. Following her path, which she'd made look so easy, proved to be rather treacherous, and he stumbled several times.
"Don't rush it! You'll be fine if you go slow."
To his own surprise, he managed to make it to the water without slicing open his foot. When he reached the water, Gemma smiled proudly at him as she waded out deeper into the bay.
"Aren't you scared?" Alex asked.
"Of what?" She'd gone far enough into the water to lean back and swim, kicking her legs out in front of her.
"I don't know. Sea monsters or something. The water is so dark. You can't see anything." Alex was now in a little over waist-deep, and truthfully, he didn't want to go any farther.
"There's no sea monsters." Gemma laughed and splashed water at him. To encourage him to have fun, she decided to challenge him. "I'll race you to the rock over there."
"That one." She pointed to a giant gray spike of a rock that stuck out of the water a few yards from where they swam.
"You'll beat me to it," he said.
"I'll give you a head start," Gemma offered.
"Five seconds?" Alex seemed to weigh this. "I guess maybe I couldÑ" Instead of finishing his thought, he dove into the water, swimming fast.
"I'm already giving you a head start!" Gemma called after him, laughing. "You don't need to cheat!"
Alex swam as furiously as he could, but it wasn't long before Gemma was flying past him. She was unstoppable in the water, and he'd honestly never seen anything faster than her. In the past, he'd gone with Harper to swim meets at the school, and there had rarely been one that Gemma didn't win.
"I won!" Gemma declared when she reached the rock.
"As if there was ever any doubt." Alex swam up next to her and hung on to the rock to support himself. His breath was still short, and he wiped the salty water from his eyes. "That was hardly a fair fight."
"Sorry." She smiled. Gemma wasn't anywhere near as winded as Alex was, but she leaned onto the rock next to him.
"For some reason, I don't think you really mean that," Alex said in mock offense.
His hand slipped off the rock, and when he reached out to steady himself again, he accidentally put his hand over Gemma's. His first instinct was to pull it back in some kind of hasty embarrassment, but the second before he did, he changed his mind.
Alex let his hand linger over hers, both of them cool and wet. Her smile had changed, turning into something fonder, and for a moment neither of them said anything. They hung on to the rock like that for a moment longer, the only sound the water lapping around them.
Gemma would've been content to sit with Alex like that, but light exploded in the cove behind him, distracting her. The small cove was at the mouth of the bay, just before it met the ocean, about a quarter mile from where Gemma and Alex floated.
Alex followed her gaze. A moment later, laughter sounded over the water and he pulled his hand away from hers.
A fire flared inside the cove, the light flickering across the three dancing figures that fanned it. From this far away, it was difficult to get a clear view of what they were doing, but it was obvious who they were by the way they moved. Everyone in town knew of them, even if nobody really seemed to know them personally.
"It's those girls," Alex saidÑsoftly, as if the girls would overhear him from the cove.
The three girls were dancing with elegance and grace. Even their shadows, looming on the rock walls around them, seemed sensual in their movements.
"What are they doing out here?" Alex asked.
"I don't know." She shrugged, continuing to stare at them, unabashed. "They've been coming out here more and more. They seem to like hanging out in that cove."
"Huh," Alex said. She looked back at him and saw his brow furrowed in thought.
"I don't even know what they're doing in town."
"Me neither." He looked over his shoulder to watch them again. "Somebody told me they were Canadian movie stars."
"Maybe. But they don't have accents."
"You've heard them talk?" Alex asked, sounding impressed.
"Yeah, I've seen them at Pearl's Diner across from the library. They always order milk shakes."
"Didn't there used to be four of them?"
"Yeah, I think so." Gemma squinted, trying to be sure she was counting right. "Last time I saw them out here, there were four. But now there's only three."
"I wonder where the other one went."
Gemma and Alex were too far away to understand them clearly, but they were talking and laughing, their voices floating over the bay. One of the girls began singingÑher voice clear as crystal, and so sweet it almost hurt to hear. The melody pulled at Gemma's heart.
Alex's jaw dropped, and he gaped at them. He moved away from the rock, floating slowly toward them, but Gemma barely even noticed. Her focus was on the girls. Or, more accurately, on the one girl who wasn't singing.
Penn. Gemma was sure of it, just by the way Penn moved away from the two girls. Her long black hair hung down behind her, and the wind blew it back. She walked with startling grace and purpose, her eyes straight ahead.
From this distance in the dark, Penn shouldn't have noticed her, but Gemma could feel her eyes boring straight through her, sending chills down her spine.
"Alex," Gemma said in a voice that barely sounded like her own. "I think we should go."
"What?" Alex replied dazedly, and that was when Gemma realized how far he'd swum away from her.
"Alex, come on. I think we're bothering them. We should go."
"Go?" He turned back to her, sounding confused by the idea.
"Alex!" Gemma said, nearly shouting now, but at least that seemed to get through to him. "We need to get back. It's late."
"Oh, right." He shook his head, clearing it, and then swam back toward the shore.
When Gemma was convinced he was back to normal, she followed him.
Penn, Thea, Lexi, and Arista had been in town since the weather started warming up, and people assumed they were the first tourists of the season. But nobody really knew exactly who they were or what they were doing here.
All Gemma knew was that she hated it when they came out here. It disrupted her night swims. She didn't feel comfortable being in the water, not when they were out in the cove, dancing and singing and doing whatever it was they did.