The compelling heroine of Eve Marie Mont's novel A Breath of Eyre returns to find truth and fiction merging through the pages of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic, The Scarlet Letter...Emma Townsend is back at prestigious Lockwood Prep, but her world has altered immeasurably since her tumultuous sophomore year. The best change of all: her boyfriend, Gray. And though Gray is leaving for Coast Guard training, Emma feels newly optimistic, even if the pain of her mother's long-ago death still casts a shadow.Yet Emma isn't the only one who's changed. Her friend and roommate, Michelle, is strangely remote, and old alliances are shifting in disconcerting ways. Soon Emma's long-distance relationship with Gray is straining under the pressure, and Emma wonders if she's cracking too. How else to explain the vivid dreams of Hester Prynne she's been having since she started reading The Scarlet Letter? Or the way she's found herself waking in the woods? As her life begins to echo events in the novel, Emma will be forced to choose between virtue and love. But can she forge a new future without breaking her heart?
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A Touch of Scarlet
By Eve Marie Mont
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2013 Eve Marie Mont
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Scarlet Letter was going to kill me.
Over the past week, I'd been trying to get through its 375 pages of densely packed text, and all I had gained for my efforts was a newfound hatred for nineteenth-century prose. Hawthorne never used seven words if twenty-seven were available. And so far, Hester and Dimmesdale's forbidden romance wasn't setting off any fireworks in my heart.
Not to mention, it was my birthday, the sky was a glorious blue, and I had the keys to the car. So why was I spending the day inside with dreary Nathaniel Hawthorne? Because I'd procrastinated and left my summer reading assignment for the very last minute. This was totally out of character for me. Then again, the entire summer had been out of character.
For one thing, I had a boyfriend. Admitting Gray Newman was my boyfriend still made me a little giddy. I'd always imagined my first boyfriend would be some sweaty-palmed thirteen-year-old, not this very grown-up guy with the hazel eyes and twice-broken nose. Over the past two months, we had seen each other almost every day, taking lazy drives to Salem and Yarmouth, window-shopping in Beacon Hill and Back Bay, hiking the trails at World's End, walking the beach at night. Always the beach at night. Being with Gray felt as natural as breathing. The knowledge that he was leaving tomorrow for Coast Guard training made me feel like someone was slowly carving out my insides with a dull knife.
For eight weeks, I wouldn't see him, wouldn't even be able to talk to him or e-mail. And after the training was over, we had no idea where they might send him. Best-case scenario was somewhere local like Cape Cod; worst case was some godforsaken part of the Bering Strait, one of most treacherous places in the world, particularly if you made your living rescuing people from frigid waters.
Resigned, I opened The Scarlet Letter and tried to resume reading:
Tomorrow would bring its own trial with it; so would the next day, and so would the next ...
This was hopeless. I flung the book on the coffee table.
And then I got the strange sense that someone was watching me. I glanced out the window and saw Gray's Jeep parked in the street. He was leaning against it in this casually sexy way, just waiting for me to notice him. We were kind of psychic this way that summer, deeply attuned to each other's presence.
I jumped from the sofa and ran outside, a smile bursting across my face. We hugged like we hadn't seen each other in weeks, and he spun me around in a circle before setting me gently down. Then he kissed me somewhat chastely given that we were standing in front of my house.
"You're early," I said.
"And you're beautiful. I couldn't wait another second."
"But I'm not ready."
"Then go and get changed. I can watch ... I mean, wait." He cracked a sly smile.
"Very funny," I said. "Dad and Barbara are home."
"Oh, Barbara loves me," he said.
This was true. Over the summer, my stepmom Barbara had become Gray's third-biggest fan, behind me and my grandma. Gray was polite, good-looking, and attentive, and he was joining a branch of the military, a major plus in Barbara's book.
"Barbara may love you," I said, "but my dad worries you're going to steal my virginal innocence."
"Rightly so," he said, swooping in for another kiss.
I swatted him away. "Rein in those hormones, Mr. Coast Guard. It's going to be all discipline and self-denial for you from now on."
"Even more reason we should enjoy ourselves now."
I rolled my eyes, but my insides melted. The truth was, I had been thinking about sex a lot. I never thought I'd be ready after dating someone for only three months, but things moved quickly when you saw someone every day. And I did love Gray. But there was something so weighty and scary about that word that neither of us had said it yet.
I grabbed Gray's hand and led him inside the house. My dad was in the kitchen, going over finances. It had been a slow summer for him. Overfishing had led to dwindling numbers on stripers, cod, and flounder—my dad's livelihood— not to mention, the heat of deep summer tended to slow down everything with fins. Fortunately, Barbara's real estate venture was keeping us afloat. But my dad still fretted about money daily.
He barely looked up from his books to say hello. But Gray had been a familiar face this summer; my dad didn't stand on ceremony. Barbara compensated for my dad's chilliness. When she came out of the den-turned-office, she gave Gray a huge hug.
"Well, you're looking handsome, Mr. Coast Guard," she said, eyeing his crisp green shirt, khaki pants, and gray linen blazer. "Where are you two headed for the big birthday dinner?"
"Melville's," I said.
Barbara scrunched her nose in disdain. It was true Melville's would hardly qualify as fine dining, but it had sentimental value. I loved it for its greasy fried food served in red plastic baskets and the tacky whale murals that covered every square inch of wall. Melville's felt like home.
Knowing Gray was in good hands with Barbara, who could make small talk with a band of terrorists, I went upstairs to shower. I spritzed myself with perfume and put on a cotton floral dress that was as comfortable as it was pretty, then grabbed my espadrilles with the ankle laces, perfect for carrying when we went for our inevitable walk on the beach later.
When I went downstairs, I kissed my dad and Barbara good-bye. "Not too late, Emma," my dad warned as we headed out the door. "Gray's got an early start tomorrow. And you still have to finish that summer reading."
He tried to veil his misgivings with a smile, but it didn't work. I knew what he was really worried about. Guilt settled over my shoulders, but I shrugged it off. It was my birthday, and I wasn't going to let my dad's overprotectiveness ruin it.
At Melville's, Gray and I shared a seafood dinner, followed by a giant piece of Oreo cheesecake topped with seventeen candles. Gray even had the waiters come over and sing "Happy Birthday." I shook my head in mortification, but secretly I loved it.
When we came out of the restaurant a little after nine, the sun was already dipping out of sight, a sign that the days were getting shorter. The sky was awash with red and pink streaks, reminding me of an old fisherman's proverb.
"Red sky at night, sailor's delight," I said.
"Red sky at morn, sailors take warn," Gray said.
"That's a good omen, right?"
"Of course." He smiled reassuringly, but I felt a shadow of doubt descend. "Let's go to the lighthouse," Gray said, grabbing my hand as we crossed the street. "I want to give you your present there."
We drove to the lighthouse and parked along the beach road, tumbling out of the Jeep into a dusky violet night. The lighthouse sat on a crest of the beach a few hundred yards away. We held hands as we walked the dune path toward it. A bronze placard showed the image of a Labrador retriever named Rex who had guarded the lighthouse for fourteen years, greeting visitors, providing companionship for the keeper, and chasing off ghosts. This part of the Massachusetts Bay was known for being treacherous; there were dozens of tales of sailors and keepers who had lost their lives along this coast and still haunted the dunes where we stood.
And nine years ago, my mother had killed herself on her birthday by walking into the ocean.
I shivered, pushing away the memory of my mother as we walked out onto the beach. The surf was pounding on the sand, moaning and hissing like a living thing. Coming to the lighthouse had sounded romantic when Gray suggested it, but now that we were here, I felt edgy and sick. Trying to quell my unease, I turned to face Gray, who was pulling something from his pocket.
He gazed at me sweetly and handed me a small box. "I know you always wear your mother's dragonfly," he said nervously, "but I wanted you to have a part of me, too."
I opened the clamshell lid and lifted up a dog tag hanging from a silver chain. Gray always wore his uncle's dog tags, but I knew him well enough to know he'd never surrender those, not even to me. I brought the necklace closer and inspected the tag, etched with the small image of a scorpion.
"It's your zodiac sign," I said.
"Look at the other side."
I flipped it over and read the inscription out loud: "To Emma, the only antidote for my sting." Tears welled in my eyes before I could stop them.
"I'm wearing yours, too," he said, pulling his collar away to reveal a dog tag he'd added to his chain, this one showing the profile of a woman with wings.
"The Virgo angel," I said.
"I was hoping you'd be my guardian angel while I'm away."
This made me lose it completely, and then I was sobbing and sniffling into his shirt in a completely undignified manner. Gray pulled me into a hug, and I melted into him, inhaling the comforting scent of his skin mixed with cologne and laundry detergent. Gray's particular smell had always reminded me of the ocean, which was fitting now that he had decided to spend the rest of his life on it.
"You okay?" he said after I'd wiped the last tears from my cheeks onto his sleeve.
I looked up at him, studying his downturned eyes and stubbled jaw. He cupped my face with his hands and brought his lips down on mine in that way that never failed to render me senseless. His hands followed the contours of my summer dress, pausing at my hips, then gripping my waist. My body lit up like a pinball machine.
Before I knew it, I was lying on the ground, my dress hitched up around my waist, with Gray's body shifting on top of mine—all rock-hard 170 pounds of him. I was so stunned by the intimacy of it that I barely felt the sand jabbing into my elbows or the cold breeze creeping up my bare legs.
I tore at his shirt, trying to undo the buttons with cold, nervous fingers, then traced the lines and curves of his stomach as he arched above me. Part of me wanted to go for it— to lose myself in this moment and not think about tomorrow. But the smallest reminder that a new day was coming—a day without Gray—paralyzed me.
He must have sensed my hesitation, because that quickly he was moving off me, and I was turning from him, overcome with emotion, adrenaline, and a shrieking sense of doom. My breath was thick in my throat, my face and hair soaked with sweat and sea air. Gray collapsed onto the sand behind me, wrapping his arms around me and hugging me so tightly it hurt.
"We don't have to do anything just because it's the last night," he said by my ear.
"I don't want you to do anything you don't want to. Not ever."
I turned to face him now, coming apart at the sight of his eyes, filled with worry. "Believe me, Gray, I want to. It's just ..."
"You don't have to explain," he said. "I want the moment to be right."
I burrowed into his embrace, and we lay like that for a small eternity. With my ear pressed against his chest, I waited until our heartbeats synchronized, then pulled away, not wanting to feel mine rush past his.
Finally, I propped myself up on an elbow, and he did the same, flashing me a sexy grin. "It was fun, though, right?" he said.
His grin faded slowly, his eyebrows knitting together. "I want it to be me," he said.
"When the time is right, I want it to be me."
I laughed nervously. "What, you think I'm going to run off and have sex with the first guy that comes along?"
"No. It's just, we're going to be apart for a while, and the thought of some other guy being there for you when I can't be ... it makes me sick."
"That's not going to happen."
"I'm just saying, don't do something with someone else because you miss me, you know? I want to be the first. Your first."
"Gray, you will be my first."
"Promise?" he said, gripping my hands, his face as vulnerable as a little boy's.
He collapsed onto his back, sighing in relief. I lay down next to him, one arm behind my head, the other resting on his chest as we stared at the stars.
"Hey, did you see that?" he asked a few minutes later, sitting up and pointing toward the sky. "That shooting star?"
I sat up and hugged my knees to my chest. "No, I missed it."
He leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. "I'm giving you my wish," he said. "Go ahead, Emma. Wish for something." "I don't believe in wishes."
"Come on," he said. "The universe has to know what you want before it can give it to you."
"You really believe that?"
"Yeah, I do."
"All right, then," I said.
And I looked into his sad lovely eyes and made a wish I knew could never come true.
When I crept into the house a few minutes later, expecting to tiptoe quietly up to my room, I nearly knocked the lamp over when I saw my father sitting on the sofa in a dim pool of light. His hands were knotted tensely in front of him. I looked down at my body self-consciously. In my damp and crumpled dress, I felt like a cupcake whose frosting had melted.
"Do you know it's two in the morning, Emma?"
Truthfully, I didn't. I'd been thinking it was closer to midnight. "I'm sorry," I said. "We must have lost track of time."
"The one thing I asked of you was not to stay out too late," he said, his voice cold.
"I know, Dad, but I figured since this was my last night with Gray, and since it's my birthday—"
"Can you think of any reason I might be worried sick about you particularly because it is your birthday?"
Guilt washed over me like a toxic cloud. "Oh God, Dad, I'm sorry. I forgot."
"You forgot?" His face was incredulous. Because I hadn't really forgotten. Some things, you never do. "It seems like you've forgotten a lot this summer."
"What do you mean?"
He wrung his hands together, bracing for a fight. "Your relationship with Gray has taken over everything. I hardly remember seeing you."
"Dad, we were here all the time."
"But you weren't really here. You were always taking off somewhere to be on your own. And even when you were here, it was like you were on your own planet. You were so wrapped up in each other you couldn't see anything else."
"Well, what did you expect?" I said, anger burning through me. "Last summer, you told me I should stop moping around the house and do normal teenage things, and now that I'm doing that, you can't handle it."
"It's you I'm worried about not being able to handle things."
"Dad, I'm fine."
"No, you're not." He ran his hands through his hair. "What's going to happen when Gray leaves? How are you going to go back to school when you can barely go a day without seeing him? I don't like you being so ... dependent on each other. I don't want you making yourself so vulnerable."
"But, Dad, if you love someone, it makes you vulnerable. You of all people should know that."
He closed his eyes and blew air out his cheeks. "I'm not going to tell you that you don't love Gray, because I'm sure you think you do. But, honey, you're seventeen years old. Gray's two years older than you. He's leaving for the Coast Guard tomorrow, and you're going to be stuck here, pining for him. Without knowing it, you're going to let yourself get in deeper and deeper until you don't even know which way is up. Believe me, I know what I'm talking about."
"Dad, you're wrong," I said, tears springing to my eyes.
"I see the way he looks at you. Like you're the sun and moon. But you can't be everything to him. It'll suck you dry."
"Dad, I'm not going to let that happen."
"I thought the same thing. I thought I was strong enough for your mother and me both. But I wasn't. I just wasn't." His voice trailed off, and he let his head fall into his hands.
All these years later, and my mother's suicide still haunted him. It still haunted me, too.
"Dad, I'm so sorry."
"I know you are," he said, wiping his cheeks, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, too. I didn't mean to ruin your birthday."
"You didn't. We're both just stressed out and tired."
"Yeah," he said. "Why don't we get some sleep and we'll talk about it in the morning?"
"Okay." I stood there, waiting for one of us to say something else.
"Good night," he finally said.
I headed upstairs, feeling sick to my stomach. Because the thing was, we wouldn't talk about it in the morning. We'd suppress it and resent each other later. This had been our pattern all summer.
And in a way, I knew my dad was right. Gray and I had been inseparable. I had neglected everything else this summer— my friends, my family, my schoolwork—to spend more time with him.
I crawled into bed and picked up my father's present to me—a journal with an embossed red leather cover. My grandma said it looked like The Communist Manifesto. I wrote the date at the top and filled the first page with thoughts about Gray leaving and me going back to school, about love and fear, expectations and change. Then I set the journal on my nightstand and tried to shut out the voices in my head that were warning me of loneliness, sadness, pain.
It took me forever to fall asleep.
Excerpted from A Touch of Scarlet by Eve Marie Mont Copyright © 2013 by Eve Marie Mont. Excerpted by permission of Kensington Publishing Corp.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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