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KND Freebies: Intriguing sci-fi fantasy WEAVER is featured in today’s Free Kindle Nation Shorts excerpt

“…one part science fiction, one part paranormal fantasy, and a whole lot of fun!…”

Travel into the wild world of John Abramowitz’ imagination with the first book in his compelling Weaver Saga sci-fi/fantasy series…

Weaver (The Weaver Saga)

by John Abramowitz

3.9 stars – 26 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Fifteen-year old Alex Cronlord just met the boy of her dreams. Literally. Unfortunately, the dream involved him killing her. When she encounters him at her school the next morning, Alex understandably freaks out and her mother’s bizarre behavior only makes it worse. What Alex doesn’t realize is that she can see the future — which will get her into a whole lot of trouble.

Across town, FBI Agent Moira McBain and her partner Andy Hall investigate a series of house burnings in Dallas, Texas. When a clue leads them to the Cronlords, Moira discovers a disturbing link between Alex’s family and her own — a link which opens an old wound Moira has spent years trying to ignore.

Something is rotten in Dallas, Texas — something involving a secret society, children with extraordinary powers, and human-looking creatures who might literally be out of this world….

Welcome to a different kind of world-wide web.

5-star praise for Weaver:

Page Turner
“…captured me from the opening paragraph and sustained its tension throughout….The characters are rich, the plot engrossing. I heartily recommend to anyone who likes a good science fiction yarn.”

Great read! I can’t wait for more
“…Mr. Abramowitz has done an excellent job of pacing both story and character development so that the two are intertwined. There is no extra fluff in Weaver, each and every page advances the story and our relationship with the characters…”

an excerpt from

Weaver

by John Abramowitz

Prologue

Alex ran frantically over the uneven ground, her feet seeming to almost have a mind of their own as she raced desperately, not in any particular direction, but simply away. The first beads of sweat broke out on her forehead beneath the crown of golden-blonde hair, but Alex didn’t care, couldn’t care about that, nor about the burning feeling starting to blossom in the pits of her lungs. All she could think about was keeping as much distance as possible between herself and what was chasing her.

Snick! came the soft noise as one of her tennis shoes collided with a branch on the ground in front of her, snapping loose a twig from the branch as she fell forward, her face hitting the dirt. Alex cursed herself even as she fell – she’d been so focused on the simple act of moving ahead that she hadn’t thought to watch what was ahead. Always were a clumsy bitch. She rolled onto her back as fast as possible, scrambling to her feet as she saw the dark streak swoop ever closer to her.

It moved with almost inhuman speed, closing a full third of the gap between them just in the time it took her to get to her feet. Alex shrieked and leapt to one side. It was a wooded area, so there were plenty of trees to hide behind. She scrambled behind a trunk and hid. The black thing raced forward, stopping a mere few feet from the tree behind which she hid.

Alex’s heart raced, a pounding in her ears that she was sure her pursuer could hear. She waited a few moments in the barest silence, the only noise being a slight breeze rustling the leaves above her head. A brown leaf fell across her nose and cheek. She struggled to resist sneezing as it tickled her sinuses.

What seemed like eternities passed in utter silence.

CRASH. CRASH. CRASH. Alex’s heart continued to pound in her ears, intermixed with the soft squeak-squeak-squeaking sound of her pursuer’s shoes against the dirt and grass as he searched for her. Unable to bear it any longer, she risked a glance over her shoulder – and her heart nearly stopped as she saw him.

Her eyes followed his frame from the beaten-up tennis shoes, up the slender legs covered in the black denim pants, past the torso in the black t-shirt, with sleeves just short enough to show hints of his muscular upper arms, to the sculpted face and short, close-cropped brown hair. There was something almost angelic about his features, even now, as he hunted her. Slowly, his head turned in her direction, and she jerked her own head back behind the trunk, actually holding her breath to avoid detection.

“I know you’re here, Alex,” came his baritone voice, at once lilting and lethal. “I can feel you. I can smell you.”

Another eternity-long silence in which Alex heard nothing – not the wind, not her heart, not his voice. It was the space between heartbeats, but it felt like a lifetime.

And then he found her. “Gotcha!” he roared, starting for her as she squealed in fright and tried to run away.

She could feel him closing the distance between them, but dared not look back, dared not put any of her already-exhausted body’s energy into anything but propelling herself forward, forward, forward. Adrenaline pushed the ache out of her muscles and the burning out of her lungs as she ran –

And then he was on her – one arm like a vise around her stomach, and his breath on her cheek and in her ear told her that he had brought their faces close. She looked over, trembling and whimpering, and saw the cool, predatory smile, the soft brown eyes gleaming with delight. And then, for just a moment, the eyes flashed blood red.

“I’m gonna enjoy this,” he whispered.

And then all she knew was a world of pain.

Chapter 1

Monday, 7:25 a.m.

Alex Cronlord trudged down the stairs of her family’s two-story house, yawning sleepily and rubbing at her eyes. Leave it to her body to sleep poorly and fitfully the night before her first day of school. Tenth grade.  The first thing she saw was her father – or rather, his posterior, as he stood hunched over his briefcase near the front door to their house.

“Honey!” he called loudly, in his chipper voice. “Have you seen my office key? I’m closing the Barov deal today and all the paperwork’s still in my office, being late would not look go – whoa!”

He stopped in his tracks as he turned around, nearly colliding with Alex as he started walking toward their kitchen. “Hi, honey,” he beamed, gray eyes twinkling behind the rectangular glasses as he folded her in a tight hug. “Tenth grade, huh? Can you believe it? You’re practically a woman,” he chirped. “Do well at this, and you’ll have a corner office and a Mustang convertible in no time.”

Alex outwardly laughed and inwardly sighed. This was typical of her father, to get this worked up about this development. He had gotten this excited about every development in her life since she was very young – from learning to ride a bike to starting kindergarten to surviving her first filling at the dentist’s office. As a young girl, Alex had found this endearing, but as she grew, she increasingly began to find it annoying.

But of course she said none of this to him. “Office right next to yours?” she asked, her typical reply to his academic-related kudos.

Her father smiled, the expression lending a bit of curvature to his square face. That was honestly how she thought of her father – very square. “I don’t think you’d want to be an insurance salesman, baby. It’s pretty frustrating work –” Here, he tilted his head to one side, “Especially when you can’t find your office keys! HONEY!” he called to Alex’s mother, who was presumably in the kitchen making breakfast.

“I do your laundry and cook your meals,” came a rich, thrumming voice from the adjacent kitchen, as Ainsling Cronlord swept into the room. With a frame that was curvy while staying just shy of overweight, Alex’s mother was a much more commanding physical presence than her father, who was slightly taller, but lanky. Whereas her father had a chipper, exuberant personality, her mother simply radiated unspoken authority wherever she went. Her green eyes narrowed beneath the aquiline brow as she completed her thought, “Why on Earth should I keep track of your keys, too?”

Alex’s father shrunk back a bit from the unspoken power in her mother’s voice. “…Err,” he replied, somewhat meekly. “I’m just stressed, that’s all.”

Ainsling nodded curtly, then turned a serious expression on her daughter. “Alex, dear, go eat your breakfast.”

Alex nodded and walked past her mother into the kitchen. She could hear their two voices continue to talk as she sat down to a plate of French toast, though she could not discern any words. Thus went the perpetual tug of war between her parents — her mother sometimes found her father’s perpetual optimism and energy irritating, and felt that he needed to be more down-to-earth with a greater sense of personal responsibility; her father, meanwhile, sometimes felt that Ainsling was overly joyless and did not give him sufficient credit for his accomplishments.

And yet, despite their frequent minor (and occasional major) disagreements, the two invariably found their way back to what appeared, to Alex, to be a loving relationship that benefitted them both. Alex chuckled slightly to herself around a bite of French toast drenched in maple syrup, and wondered if her own married life would be such a rollercoaster.

“Alex?” came her mother’s voice from the kitchen counter behind her, interrupting her thoughts. Alex turned with a start – she had not heard Ainsling re-enter the room.

“Hmm?” Alex asked, eyes still wide from her surprise.

“Are you feeling all right, dear? Ainsling asked, in her rich tones. “You don’t look well.”

“Huh? Oh,” she answered, realizing that her mother was referring to the bags under Alex’s eyes and the slightly pale tint to her skin. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just… didn’t sleep well, that’s all.”

“Oh really?” Ainsling asked, raising the eyebrow over one of her piercing green eyes as she regarded Alex curiously.

Alex did not answer for a moment, sure that her mother was going to suggest that it was mere anxiety about starting tenth grade, and then tell Alex that it was nothing to worry about, and she’d do fine.

But Ainsling did not.

“Alex?” she snapped, after a few seconds silence. “You know it’s rude not to answer someone when they speak to you. I asked you a question!”

Alex shrugged it off, cringing inwardly at the rebuke. “Just… bad dreams, that’s all.”

She started to turn back to her French toast. While she’d always admired her mother’s ability to exude authority, it had always made Ainsling a source of greater fear for Alex than her more easy-going father.

But Ainsling still was not finished. “Oh really?” she asked, leaning over the counter, putting her elbow on it and propping her chin in her hand. “Dreams about what?”

Alex truly did not feel like discussing her sleeping problems with her mother. “I – I don’t remember, okay?” she asked, irritated by her mother’s persistence.

The eyebrow went up again, and an incredulous expression came over her mother’s features. “You had frightening dreams and you don’t remember what they were about?”

“I didn’t say frightening, I said ‘bad,’” Alex answered, surprised that her mother had not upbraided her for her tone. “I just… I dreamed I showed up to my first class without clothes on,” she told her mother, and then, for extra flair, added, “And spent the whole period sitting at my desk waiting for someone to notice.”

Ainsling gave her daughter a long, skeptical look. Then, finally, she shrugged, waving a hand in the air dismissively. “So you’re nervous about starting school. Stop being silly. Go in, work hard, and you’ll be fine.”

Alex nodded, turning back to her food at last. This was closer to the response she expected from her tough-love mother. When she finished eating moments later, she grabbed her backpack, and headed off to school.

***

Ainsling Cronlord went at once to her phone, as soon as Alex and her husband were out of the house. She picked it up, poised a finger like a claw over the touchpad to dial. There was a strange feeling in her throat, in the pit of her stomach – excitement, certainly. The moment she’d long expected had arrived! But also a sort of sadness, or at least regret. What this would do to Alex….

And yet this did not stop her, nor did it delay her for even a fraction of a second as she began to dial the number, put the receiver to her ear. Too much was at stake, she reminded herself, and too many people had given up too much, to let some silly sentimentality get in the way. She was amazed that she even had such feelings – there was no reason to, she reminded herself. She swallowed, quashing those feelings down as she did so. By the time the phone stopped ringing, they were gone.

“Switchboard,” came a clipped voice from the other end of the phone.

“Yes, this is Ainsling Cronlord to speak to Dr. Rickston, please.”

“May I tell him what this is regarding?” asked the monotone voice.

Ainsling hesitated ever so slightly, before delivering the long-anticipated news. “Tell him I believe we’ve just had First Instance.”

That ended the talk. “Please hold….”

***

7:50 a.m.

Alex arrived at school just shy of eight o’clock. Like all the other students, she stood outside in the yard, since the school did not open its doors until eight a.m. sharp. Several of her friends passed her and waved as they headed toward the larger clumps of kids engaged in animated conversation. Alex waved back, smiling, as the light early morning breeze played with her long, blonde locks.

She stopped well shy of the large groups of congregating students. Alex had never been the most extroverted person, and her current tiredness made her even more reticent than usual. She tended to get lost in big groups, and she hated that feeling. So instead she leaned back against the fence and stood there, pulling her jean jacket tighter around herself as the breeze picked up.

It’s August, she thought. What gives?

“What up, girl?” came a familiar voice from behind her. Alex beamed as she turned and saw Tyler Emmonds coming up the yard behind her. He held up his dark-skinned fist in their usual greeting, and she bumped her own against it.

“Hey, Tyler,” she grinned at him, her mood instantly lifting. Ever the jokester, Tyler was far more extroverted than she, and the two had struck up a fast friendship in early junior high which had endured since then. Classmates had often suggested (some teasingly, others not) that the two should date, but there had never been any chemistry between them.

“You don’t sound so hot,” Tyler said. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” Alex answered, less-than-convincingly, “Just….”

“Your mom causin’ you problems again?” Tyler asked her, raising an eyebrow knowingly.

“Little bit,” Alex replied, laughing at how easily he’d guessed that part of it. There was more, of course, but she felt sure that even good-natured Tyler would think she was crazy if she told him what was really on her mind. “I had a bad dream last night, and she gave me the Spanish Inquisition over it.”

“Man, who put the honey in her shampoo bottle?” Tyler asked.

This brought a smile to Alex’s lips and a laugh from her throat. She was reminded instantly of why she liked her friend – his demeanor was almost imperturbable, and he had a talent for bringing humor to the most frustrating of situations. “I don’t know,” she answered finally, “But she was on the warpath this morning. Gave me and Dad the business.”

Tyler shook his head, and the two stood in a comfortable silence for a long moment.

“Tyler?” Alex finally broke the silence, speaking up hesitantly.

“Mmm?”

“Have you ever –“ Alex started, hesitating. She was sure he would think she was crazy, and Tyler was one of the few people in her life that she would be truly sad to lose, but she felt that she had to get this out, to tell someone, or she would go crazy. “Have you ever felt… like you’re gonna die soon?”

“What?” Tyler asked, and, sure enough, his expression told her that she’d managed to startle the usually-imperturbable young man.

But she’d locked herself in. She had to go on. “I had this dream last night, and….”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Tyler stopped her, holding up a hand. “You think you’re gonna die because of a dream? Alex, I’m your friend an’ all, but that’s whack.”

“I know,” Alex protested, her anxiety about this whole conversation rising. Tyler did not seem to think she was crazy yet, but she had no way of knowing how much damage she had done. “I know how it sounds, but there was this guy chasing me through a woods or a forest or something, and –”

She stopped as he appeared at the gate to the yard. Short, close-cropped brown hair over a sculpted face with soft brown eyes. Black t-shirt revealing hints of muscular arms, black denim pants, somewhat worn tennis shoes. Exactly as he’d been in the dream.

“Alex, what’s wrong?” Tyler asked, seeing his friend’s wide eyes and rapidly paling face as she stared straight ahead at the new entrant. As always, he tried to bring a humorous note to the situation. “That doesn’t look like your usual ‘crush-on-a-boy’ look.”

“That’s him,” Alex gasped, pointing at him before she even thought about it. “That’s the guy who’s gonna kill me. The guy from my dream.”

Now there was no mistake – Tyler was incredulous. His eyebrows shot up as his eyes bulged. “You saw that guy in a dream last night? Alex, are you sure you’re feelin’ okay?”

“No, and that’s just the point,” she answered, a touch of desperation creeping into her voice. As she spoke, the young man saw her point at him, and gave her a broad, picture-perfect smile. This sent a chill up Alex’s spine. “Either I’m going crazy, or I’m gonna be dead in a few days. I don’t like either choice.”

Before either of them could say more, the door to the school opened and Mr. Abernathy, the crotchety old vice principal, stood in the doorway, beckoning the students inside.

“You’ll be fine,” Tyler told her, starting to head in. “I’ll see you in second period, okay?” He flashed her a big smile, which cheered Alex slightly.

“Sure,” Alex answered. But I’m not talking to Goth Boy.

***

1:50 p.m.

As it turned out, Goth Boy decided to make the first move. When Alex turned from her locker to head to her sixth period class, she found him standing there, just inches away. She shrank back instinctively in surprise, her eyes rising from his black clothing to the sculpted face and finally meeting the brown eyes. What do you want?, she intended to say. What actually came out, though, was, “Oh, hi,” as she self-consciously ran a hand through her blonde curls.

The young man’s lips turned upward in a warm smile, and he spoke in a soft voice: “I’m Lucian Hunt.”

The smile and comforting tones sent a visceral excitement through Alex’s gut, where it warred with a powerful feeling of revulsion. What the hell are you doing? she asked herself inwardly. The Goth look has never been your thing, plus, there’s a decent chance he’s gonna try to kill you. Blow him off and walk away. Or better yet, run away. “Alex,” she replied shyly, hesitantly. “Alex Cronlord.”

“That short for Alexis or Alexandra?” he asked in the same soft, comfortable tones, leaning against the locker next to hers.

“Alexis,” she answered. “According to my mom, it was either that or Wilhelmina, and my dad talked her out of that one.”

“Probably a good call,” Lucian laughed gently. “So, any advice for the new kid? I just transferred here from San Antonio, and ….”

Going Goth is a good way to get beat up around here, she thought. And being late to class is a bad idea, too. She planned to say all of that, before turning on her heel and leaving him behind. She planned to say that, she wanted to say it, she fully intended to say it. And yet, somewhere between her brain and her lips, the message was lost. Instead, she felt her face warm, and she twiddled with her hands as she said, “Umm … not really. Just … keep your head down, I guess. Nothing really comes to mind.”

“Well, I’d really like to do well here,” he told her, his voice silken. “So, I tell you what – how about you think about it, and we can go have coffee on Wednesday and talk about it?”

No no no no NO, went the little voice in the back of her head, the one that had been advising her all along to blow Lucian off. And yet she found it increasingly difficult to listen as she felt herself drawn in by the brown eyes and the soft voice, the chiseled features and his relaxed demeanor.

“Sure,” she answered, sounding as if she’d wanted him to ask since she’d first laid eyes on him that morning. “I’ll see you then.”

***

2:04 p.m.

“So, lemme get this straight,” Tyler whispered to her as he and Alex sat next to each other in history class. “He just walked right up to you and asked you out?”

Alex started to reply, but saw the teacher turn her head toward the class, and did not want to get called out for talking on the first day of classes. So, instead, she simply gave a quick nod, trying to look as focused on the lesson as possible, which was difficult when the teacher was discussing pre-Revolution colonial America. Alex found the subject unbelievably dull.

As soon as the teacher was facing the board again, Tyler continued. “An’ you said yes?” he whispered incredulously, eyes roughly double their normal size.

“Yeah,” Alex replied, shame rising to her cheeks. Now that she was out of Lucian’s immediate presence, it was much easier to wonder why she hadn’t simply blown him off as she’d originally planned to do.

Tyler was silent for a moment. And then: “High school girl has flirtation with tall, dark, and handsome boy who may or may not want her blood. Didn’t I read about this somewhere?”

Alex made a face, but Tyler did not relent. “I don’t know what’s crazier, girl,” Tyler whispered skeptically. “That you think this guy’s gonna try to kill you, or that you agreed to go on a date with him anyway.”

“You’re right,” Alex answered, feeling sick to her gut now at having acquiesced so meekly. “You’re right, I don’t know why I did. I’ll catch him after class. Tell him it’s cancelled.”

Tyler smiled and patted her arm understandingly. “Don’t worry about it, Alex. Everybody does stupid stuff sometimes. Especially when it comes to dating. I mean, this one time, I ….”

Alex laughed gently. “Thanks, but if it’s you and your dating life, maybe I’m better not knowing,” she teased.

Tyler looked for the barest moment as if he might be ready to take offense, but as usual, the young man was absolutely imperturbable. A moment later, he gave an easy-going smile and whispered. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”

Chapter 2

Tuesday, 9:55 a.m.

Moira McBain stalked through the halls of the Dallas County Correctional Facility, led by a police officer escort. The two walked with brisk efficiency, rounding one corner, then another, Moira’s heels clack-clack-clack-ing against the tile floor. Finally, they stopped in front of the door to an interrogation room. A few feet away stood a tall, earnest looking man in a suit, wearing a name tag with the FBI logo on it, but Moira ignored him for a moment. She turned to the cop, pointed with her thumb to the holding room they stood in front of.

“That him?” she asked briskly.

The cop nodded. “Yup, that’s him. Jack Dunnell. Best of luck to ya,” he told her, shooting her a sympathetic look, and then walked off.

“Hey, partner,” came the suited man’s gentle voice, as he flashed her a smile that she did not return. “You ready for this?”

“I’m always ready,” Moira replied humorlessly, pushing her long, red hair behind her shoulders as if she were getting ready for a job interview. “Dunnell’s a violent psychopath, Andy, narcissistic personality disorder with homicidal ideations. No different than any other skel we’ve busted.”

Andrew Hall gave an ever so slight laugh, taking a step closer to Moira and putting a supportive hand on her upper arm. “This freak show kidnapped little girls and cut ‘em into pieces. This is the kind of case that agents fifteen years on the job need help dealing with, Moira. It’s okay.”

“But I don’t,” Moira replied, giving him a cool smile. “I’ll be fine.”

Andy’s face betrayed a hint of sadness, but he smothered it quickly, removed his hand. “All right. I’ll be right there if you need me.”

The smile warmed a few degrees. “Thanks,” she told him genuinely, her grey eyes growing a bit friendlier.

The moment of warmth passed quickly, and Moira grabbed the door handle and pulled the door open. With Andy a step behind her, she strode toward the table on the other side of which sat Jack Dunnell. He was a large man, with a bald, watermelon-shaped head with a scar near one temple. He sat back in his chair, looking carefree and relaxed, handcuffed hands resting in his lap.

“Well, well,” came his low, rasping voice, which sounded as if someone were rubbing sandpaper against his vocal cords as he spoke. “The welcoming committee’s here.”

“Hello, Mr. Dunnell,” Moira nodded to him, regarding him neutrally. “I’m Moira, this is my partner Andy. We’d like to ask you some questions.”

“’Course you would,” Dunnell replied, a grin breaking out over his face, seeming as calm as if he were meeting the two agents for coffee. “But I always got time to talk to pretty ladies, so go right ahead. By the way,” he added, as if it were an afterthought, “Your accent … Scottish?”

Moira hesitated only slightly as she sat down, Andy sitting in the chair next to her. “… I’m from the Scottish Highlands, yes.”

“Not the point, Dunnell, and you know it,” Andy Hall interjected. “Tell us what you did with the bodies.”

“Mine’s right here,” he pointed to himself with the thumb of one hand. “But, uh, not for you, though. I don’t swing that way. Your partner, though….” He turned his eyes slowly to Moira, let out a wolf whistle.

“The bodies you killed, Dunnell,” Hall replied testily. “You know, little girls. Little pieces. You hid them. We found one of your human remains dumps. What’d you do with the other four bodies?”

Disappointment crept into Dunnell’s features as his eyes remained fixed on Moira. “You need your white knight to protect you all the time?” he asked, rolling his eyes derisively at Andy before returning his glance  to her. “Gotta tell ya, not so fond of weak women.”

“You liked weak women well enough when it made them easier for you to cut ‘em up an’ hide ‘em,” Moira replied, trying to quash down the feeling of irritation that she felt rise up in her. Dunnell was trying to get her goat, and she knew it. Any sign that it was working would only encourage him.

Dunnell waved a hand dismissively. “Pffft,” he snorted. “You’re really gonna let the fact that there are a few dead girls out there stand in the way of what we could have together?”

Moira reached a hand into her suit jacket, pulled out a photograph. A young boy, perhaps ten years old, smiling that wide-eyed smile that only children can, before the realities of life set in. She held it at Dunnell’s eye level. “This is Troy Smith,” she told him, voice cold and hard. “His sister, Alice? You killed her. Troy’s an only child now, thanks to you.”

Dunnell once again regarded this assertion dismissively. “Even if I did, what’s it to ya? Not like it’s your sister, or anything.”

It was an off-hand comment, of course. There was no way that Dunnell could have known about Ian, and Moira knew that. And yet she couldn’t stop her face from twitching, just for a moment, eyes threatening to moisten and a lump forming in her throat.

And Dunnell saw it. “Or is it?” he asked, leering at her now like a predator savoring its cornered prey’s fear. “What’s the matter, girl? You think I killed one a’ yours too? You’re a bit old to have one that young….”

“That’s because I don’t,” Moira replied, voice and face now perfectly even, neutral, dispassionate. “You’re imagining things.”

“Maybe,” Dunnell answered, leaning back. “But I don’t think so. I think someone’s mixing business and pleasure. What happened, little girl? House burn down? Kid get into the medicine cabinet?”

Moira sat there, her mind split between thoughts of Ian, and desperately trying not to think of him, because that would make her expression change, betray some emotion, give this madman something to latch onto….

“Or was it worse than that?” Dunnell continued. “Maybe not so much an accident. Maybe something happened while you were left home on watch…?”

Before she even knew what she was doing, Moira was out of her seat, grabbing Dunnell by his orange jumpsuit and slamming him up against the wall. Her vision was red as pure, blinding rage exploded inside her “The only pleasure I’m gonna take is in watching you fry for murder, you sick pile of piss….”

Somewhere behind her, she was sure Andy was calling to her, pleading with her to stop, but she did not listen, could not even hear it. Her entire concentration was focused on the desire to pummel this man into oblivion, to kill him herself in ‘self-defense,’ and it was only the barest measure of self-discipline that prevented her from doing so.

“Agent McBain?” came the unfamiliar voice from behind her. “Agent McBain?”

Moira’s head slowly turned – one of the jail’s guards was calling for her. Slowly, her fist unclenched, she released Dunnell. “Yes?” she asked.

“There’s a phone call for you from the Federal Building, ma’am,” the guard told her, looking dismayed at what he’d just seen. “Are you all right, sir?”

“Fine,” Dunnell answered, licking his lips. “She was just giving me a kiss, that’s all. No need to worry.” He flashed Moira a predatory look, rubbing her nose in it.

“A – all right,” Moira replied. “I’ll be right there.”

She could not get out of the room fast enough.

***

When Moira reunited with her partner ten minutes later, Andy’s face was full of worry. She noticed it, of course, but pretended she didn’t, stopping at a professional distance away from him and speaking in clipped tones, her grey eyes steady on his face. “We’re up early tomorrow, Andy.”

“Oh?” he asked, banishing the worry from his face for a moment. “What’s the word?”

“That was Assistant Director Pileggi. He wants us in on a raid going down at nine a.m. sharp.”

“Raid of what?”

“You know all the house fires we’ve been having recently – the ones the Bureau and local police think are arson?” Moira asked.

“You mean the ones that are apparently completely random and have no apparent pattern?” Andy retorted.

“Well, apparently one of the analysts found a pattern, and then some, because they think they’ve found where the perps are holed up. Old abandoned glue-making factory. We’re doing a joint op with the Dallas P.D.”

Andy nodded. “I love the smell of arrest warrants in the morning.”

Moira cracked a very slight smile as a moment’s silence fell between them.

“Moira?”

“Hmm?”

“Who was she?”

“Who was who?”

“Your sister. I didn’t know you had one.”

The first hints of anxiety, even of panic, crept into Moira’s gut, but she covered them with cool confidence. Raising an eyebrow at Andy, she replied calmly, “That’s because I didn’t.”

Andy seemed skeptical. “Well, something Dunnell said shook you up, and it started right about the time he asked if he’d killed your sister. What’s goin’ on here, partner?” he asked, with a warm smile and a gentle hand on her arm.

You should really tell him, came a small voice in her head. He cares about you. He’s never been anything but good to you. She felt herself tempted to obey the voice as she stood there for a long moment, frozen in indecision.

Neither was Ian, she answered the voice with finality, easily silencing it. At least, not until he –

No. If she let her brain go further down that train of thought, if she let herself remember what Ian had done, it would break her composure and bring her to tears. Crying in front of her partner was the last thing she needed to be doing. “You’re imagining things,” she told him simply, brusquely.

“No, I’m not,” he replied, in an even tone that held complete confidence that he was right.

“I never had a sister, and Dunnell certainly didn’t kill anyone related to me. He just – I guess he just spooked me, okay?” she asked, a bit more aggressively than she needed to.

“All right,” he replied, clearly not believing it but knowing better than to press the issue. “I’ll see you back at the office?”

“Yeah, sure,” she replied, giving him a quick smile before turning on her heel and marching toward the exit to the prison.

She waited until she had shut herself in her car before she cried.

Chapter 3

Wednesday, 8:59 a.m.

Moira crouched behind a dumpster, muscles tensed, senses alert. Her eyes were fixed on the building across the street – the abandoned glue factory, their target – but her ears focused on her radio, waiting for the team leader to give the order to move in. Andy crouched next to her, and she could feel the nervous energy flooding from his body.

Sure enough, a moment later, her headset exploded with chatter. “Team One, are you set?” came the leader’s voice.

“Ready,” came the reply.

“Team two, are you set?”

“We are.”

“Team three, are you set?”

“Ready,” Moira answered.

“Team four, set?”

“Yes.”

“Go!”

Moira sprang forward like a predatory animal, stalking toward the building and beckoning for Andy to follow. She reached one of the doors, old and wooden and even rotting in places. It was no trouble at all for Moira to kick it in. Gun out and pointed straight ahead, she stalked into the glue factory. At the other end of the room, one of the other teams kicked in another door, and several more agents came flooding through another.

The room they found themselves in was large and cavernous. It was devoid of people and furniture, but that did not mean it was empty. There were sleeping bags and mattresses strewn about the floor, along with plastic food wrappers and soda cups and cans. The corners of the immense room were a mess of spider webs. “Not just arsonists and murderers, but slobs, too,” the team leader intoned. “Fan out, search the adjoining rooms.”

Moira did so, breaking into one side room, then another. They told the same story – no people, lots of trash. In the second room, however, she spied a piece of paper amid the burrito wrappers and soda cups. Moira approached it slowly, raising a curious eyebrow, and picked it up. Scribbled on the page was a list of names. Names, addresses, and phone numbers. Most of the names were crossed out, but a few were not.

“Whoever was here, they’re not here now,” came Andy’s voice from behind her. She turned with a start, cursing herself for letting her guard down, even for a moment. She put a hand to her mouth and her cheeks flushed as she saw that it was only her partner, not a threat. “… Oh, I’m sorry,” he told her, looking mortified at having startled her.

“It’s all right,” she replied, with a calming smile. “What’ve we got?”

“Perps bugged out,” Andy repeated. “Looks like recently, too. Team Leader thinks they knew we were coming.”

Moira raised a startled eyebrow. “How could they have known?”

“Dunno,” Andy shrugged. “Good question. What’s that?” he asked, pointing to the piece of paper she held.

“A list, apparently,” she replied, handing the paper to him. “Of people. What they have in common, I’m not sure.”

Andy squinted as he scrutinized the page. “I recognize some of these names. They’re previous victims.”

“Yeah? So maybe the ones that aren’t crossed out –“

“People they’re planning to attack,” Andy caught on instantly. “We can warn them.”

“Slow down, partner,” Moira held up a hand to forestall his optimism, though she had the same thoughts. “Let’s get this back to the FBI building and cross-check the names against past arson victims with this group’s MO to make sure this really is a list of targets.”

Andy gave her a wry smile. “I’m pretty sure your picture is next to the word ‘anhedonia’ in the dictionary.”

It was a joke, and she knew he meant it that way, but it still stung. Moira didn’t let that show, of course. “Obsessive compulsive and anal retentive, that’s my middle name.”

“Long middle name.”

“My parents didn’t like me.”

Andy gave a brief laugh. “Good job on finding this,” he told her, then turned and walked from the room.

***

3:45 p.m.

“Alex!” came Lucian’s voice from behind her as she headed out of the school. Somehow, even when raised, his voice came across calm and non-threatening. He made his way through the throng of students heading toward the exit, and she found him at her side, the brown eyes fixed on her. She had seen little of him in the last two days, and so had not had any chance to cancel their  date, which she realized belatedly was supposed to be this afternoon. She opened her mouth to do so, but before she could, he spoke.

“How’s it going?” he asked, smiling warmly at her.

“Oh, you know,” she shrugged, feeling the warmth in her stomach and wishing it would go away. That would make it very difficult to say what she wanted to say. “School is school. I’m just glad the homework hasn’t really started yet.”

“Sooo…” he began  coyly. “That means you have some time to hang out with me, then, right?”

“Oh, yeah,” Alex began, gathering her courage to tell him she’d changed her mind. Why was it so hard to do? “About that…” She fidgeted with her hands as she prepared to deliver her message.

But Lucian took advantage of her hesitation. “Don’t tell me you’ve found someone better?” he asked, facial expression fearful, as if he was dreading her answer.

“Well…” she began, feeling like maybe, just maybe, she could do it now.

Apparently seeing that he had only a split-second window, Lucian spoke again, giving her an ironic smile. “Come on,” he intoned. “It usually takes at least two dates before a girl decides they want nothing to do with me. Don’t set my new record.”

There was a quality about it all – his speech, his words, his manner – that was aloof while at the same time commanding her sympathy. The words were detached, but his inflections (as well as the gleam in his soft brown eyes) somehow told her that her answer actually mattered to him. The exchange made her feel special. It melted her heart a bit, and robbed her of the conviction to say “no,” as she had planned.

“Well … all right,” she replied shyly.

Lucian beamed at her – and was it just her imagination, or was there a predatory quality to the grin? The question was forgotten in the electric tingle as he took her hand, and the two of them headed out together into the clear, sunny afternoon.

***

4:00 p.m.

Moira McBain and Andy Hall pulled up in the driveway of the Cronlords’ two story house, the afternoon sun beaming down on their small golden car. “Y’know,” Moira remarked to Andy as the car slowed to a stop. “This is the part of the job I’ve never gotten used to.”

“What’s that?” Andy inquired, eyeing her curiously.

“How d’ya tell someone that some kids are gonna burn their house down?”

Andy gave her a bemused expression. “Just like that, I think. Can’t think of a lot of ways to sugarcoat that particular piece of news.”

Moira laughed softly. “All right then,” she told him, taking a breath as she pushed her car door open. “Let’s go get this over with.”

With Andy behind her, Moira walked to the doorway and rang the bell. “Just a minute!” came a thick, rich voice from the other side of the door, and a moment later, a woman stood in the doorway. Curvy and medium-height, the woman positively exuded authority, her green eyes piercing and dissecting both Moira and Andy within a second of seeing them. Even after several years as an FBI agent, Moira had only rarely met someone with whom she felt so ill at ease.

“May I help you two?” the woman asked, giving them a cheerful smile.

“Yes, I think so,” Moira answered, reaching into her jacket and pulling out her badge, displaying it for the woman. “I’m Moira McBain, this is Andy Hall, we’re with the FBI. You’re Ainsling Cronlord?”

“That would be me,” Ainsling answered in a clipped tone. It wasn’t rude, but it wasn’t particularly welcoming, either. “Have I done something wrong?”

“Oh, no,” Moira laughed briefly. “It’s nothing like that. Actually, we’re here because we’re concerned about what other people might do to you.”

“Oh?” Cronlord asked, raising an eyebrow.

Moira nodded. “I’m afraid so. May we come in? It shouldn’t take long.”

There was a hesitation, ever-so-slight, before the woman smiled and answered, “Of course, yes.” She was no doubt hoping that the two agents would not notice it, but Moira did. The woman stood aside, allowing Moira and Andy to enter, then led them to her living room. She gestured them toward the couch, while she herself took a large, cushioned easy chair to one side, her posture almost regal.

Andy’s eyes immediately fell to a picture that sat on the coffee table in front of the couch, a picture of Ainsling standing next to a tall, lanky man with a young, blonde girl in front of them. “This your family?” Andy asked, looking up at her, pointing to the picture.

“They are indeed,” she answered with a grin. “My husband sells insurance, and our Alex just started tenth grade this week.”

“You must be very proud,” Andy commented.

“Of course,” Ainsling replied. “So, you said we were in some kind of danger?”

“Unfortunately, you might be,” Moira told her. “Are you familiar with the recent rash of home fires in this area?”

“Yes,” Ainsling answered immediately, and Moira noted that she seemed not the slightest bit surprised at the inquiry. “The newspapers say the police think it’s arson. Do you believe we might be a target?”

“We raided an abandoned glue factory this morning that we think was being used by the people responsible for the fires,” Andy told her. “They weren’t there, but they left a list of names behind. A significant number of people on the list correspond with victims of the house fires. We’re sending agents to the homes of the other people on the list to warn them to be alert, since we think they may be the next targets.”

Ainsling nodded. “Very courteous of you,” she told Andy, in her clipped tone, dissecting the man once again with her eyes. “So, anything in particular we should be on the lookout for?”

“Well, we think the perpetrators are young – some adolescents, some in their twenties – so, if you see any kids lurking around that you don’t know….”

“I’ll be on the lookout,” Ainsling replied briskly, giving a perfunctory nod and seeming almost disinterested.

Andy’s eyes glanced to the picture, then back to Ainsling. “How old is your daughter?”

“Alex? She’s fifteen.”

“Do you know all her friends?” Andy asked her.

“Who ever knows all of a fifteen year old child’s friends?” Ainsling laughed dismissively, standing from her chair. “Certainly not her parents. Would you two like some tea, or something?” she asked, starting to walk out of the room, presumably toward the kitchen.

“It’s an important question, Mrs. Cronlord,” Moira put in. “We don’t know exactly how these kids are getting close enough to the houses to burn them down. For all we know, they could be getting the owners to let them in voluntarily, claiming to be friends of their kids or something.”

Cronlord turned her head, her mouth opening to reply, but before she could actually speak, she tripped over a book that someone had left on the floor. She fell with a yelp, her eyes widening in surprise, and as she did, a necklace flew out from underneath her blouse, a necklace with an intricately-carved metal symbol hanging on it. It was a symbol which, to Moira, was all-too-familiar.

“Dammit, Alex,” Ainsling grunted, anger seething in her voice. “I told you to clean up after yourse—“

But before she could even finish her sentence, Moira was up from the couch, charging toward Ainsling, grabbing her by the collar as she tried to right herself, and slamming her against the back wall with a CRASH! Moira took vengeful satisfaction in Ainsling’s expression, which betrayed the first traces of fear that Moira had seen in the other woman’s face. “Wells Society, huh?” Moira snarled at her. “What the hell are you doing to that poor girl?”

“Excuse me?” Ainsling shot back, trying to feign surprise – but to Moira, it was an obvious ploy.

“I know who you people are,” Moira growled. “Your whole game is sacrificing your children to your insane religion. Give me one good reason not to call Child Welfare right the fuck now.”

Ainsling’s fear disappeared instantly, replaced by a smug, almost predatory smile, and she replied coolly, “Because if you do, Agent McBain, you know perfectly well that they won’t find anything. If you know us as well as you claim – which you don’t, by the way – then you know we’re very good at covering our tracks. And I can assure you that, if I do get any calls from those folks, I’ll be having a talk with your supervisor at the FBI about the little assault you’re committing right now. So let’s just keep this whole thing our little secret, eh?”

Slowly, Moira released Ainsling, her face smoldering. She turned toward the door, beckoning Andy to follow her. “You’re lucky it’s my job to stop these adolescent arsonists, Mrs. Cronlord,” she told Ainsling as she headed for the door, not even turning to look at the other woman as she spoke. “Otherwise, I might just let you burn.”

… Continued…

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Weaver
(The Weaver Saga)
by John Abramowitz
16 rave reviews!
Kindle Price: $2.99

Kindle Nation Daily eBook of The Day Alert: T.L. Blankenburg’s Coming of Age Novel With a Dash of Adventure Loper *Sample Now For Free!

Loper

by T.L. Blankenburg

4.7 stars – 13 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Two decades after the Millennial Depression, America has entered a period of enlightenment, and a new political, social, and economic environment has emerged. Yet seventeen-year- old Will Warren struggles to find his way in this new world. Adventure finally arrives and takes Will on a journey from the small Michigan town of New Lothrop to the vast deserts of Africa. On this journey, Will discovers the strength of the human spirit, the evil that still lurks from the old world, and a secret kept buried within the confines of New Lothrop.

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About The Author

T.L Blankenburg was born and raised in the great State of Michigan. After graduating from New Lothrop High School he joined the United States Marine Corps, serving in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Since receiving an honorable discharge from the military, T.L. has worked in the private business sector. His Military and business activities have allowed him to regularly travel around the world, which has guided him to weave global issues and the modern human condition within his stories. T.L. is a graduate of Baker College, Indiana University, and Oakland University. He resides in Michigan with his wife of twelve years.

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Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

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“An endearing story of discovery and transformation and the importance of turning lemons into lemonade.” – Booklist

Forgotten: A Novel (x)

by Catherine McKenzie

4.2 stars – 66 Reviews
Text-to-Speech: Enabled

Here’s the set-up:

If your old life vanished completely, should you try to get it back or create a whole new one? That’s the intriguing question at the heart of Catherine McKenzie’s Forgotten.  The smart, funny, and provocative story of a woman who returns home after being stranded for months in Africa by an earthquake only to find that everyone in her life believed she was dead and moved on, Forgotten is captivating and thought-provoking contemporary women’s fiction from the author of Arranged and Spin—a fresh and witty tale that will not be soon forgotten.

Reviews

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About The Author

A graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine practises law in Montreal, where she was born and raised. An avid skier and runner, Catherine’s novels, SPIN, ARRANGED, FORGOTTEN and HIDDEN, are international bestsellers. HIDDEN, will be released in the US on April 1, 2013. She is currently seeking a new one-word title so she can write her fifth novel.

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Deep myths and thrilling magic...
Stormwinter
by Jeremy Vineyard
3.0 stars - 2 reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here's the set-up:
Masha and Thomas Page are friends for life. Masha with a grandmother who summons earthquakes and silences storms, and Thomas with a thirst for adventure. When their neighbor is kidnapped by a dark stranger, they follow her into a world where sleep, dreams, winter, the weather, and wishes are realized as characters in an epic adventure.

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4.4 stars – 113 Reviews
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Or check out the Audible.com version of Seeds of Discovery (Dusk Gate Chronicles – Book One)
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Here’s the set-up:
Quinn Robbins has never noticed William Rose at Bristlecone High School – not until the night she almost runs him down in her car.

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Storm Damage

by John A. A. Logan

4.8 stars – 9 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
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“10 magical modern short stories from a master of language” – The Kindle Book Review

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4.0 stars – 2 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
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Alleycat knows more about magic than he was ever meant to, but you’d never guess to look at him. When the head witch steals two new-born kittens from under their mother’s nose, he’s called out of retirement to put things right. But he doesn’t know that the witch’s secret agent is living in his house, and no one’s told him that the skullion rats are swarming along the sewers and getting ready to attack him. The witches have always feared Alleycat and this could be their one and only chance to get rid of him forever; and with him out of the way they can move in and take over.

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The Joy of Life

by Mary Beth Smith

4.2 stars – 8 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:
If you have never read a book about Theodore Roosevelt, read this one first. If you have read other books about him, read this one to discover more about his philosophy and spirituality based on his own works. It covers his entire life from birth to death.

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4.2 stars – 396 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
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When she was a child, the author of When Women Were Warriors happily identified with all the male heroes she read about in stories that began, “Once upon a time, a young man went out to seek his fortune.” But she would have been delighted to discover even one story like that with a female protagonist. Since she never did find the story she was looking for all those years ago, she decided to write it.

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4.7 stars – 18 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:
Like Woody Allen’s Radio Days and Jean Shepherd’s Christmas Story, the author takes us on a nostalgic and humorous trip back to his childhood home. His is in a Philadelphia neighborhood, across the street from Shibe Park, where Connie Mack’s A’s are challenging the Yankee dynasty of Ruth and Gehrig. His family, and their neighbors, has fans watching the game from their roofs and bedrooms, a practice that Mack tries everything to curtail. Neighborhood tykes sell hot dogs, lemonade and score cards to customers on the rooftops and charge for watching cars parked on the street.

*  *  *

It’s Only Make Believe

by Roseanne Dowell

4.8 stars – 4 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:
When Michele Markey is forced into marriage to the son of a long time family friend, the only stipulation she makes is he must remain faithful. Brad Lawson agrees, but faithful is one thing, celibate is another. Too bad Brad’s assistant is determined to break up the marriage. Is Brad keeping up his end of the bargain on those extended business trips and late night appointments? Or has he taken up with his sexy assistant again?

*  *  *

4.3 stars – 113 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:
Maddie Richards is an efficient and resourceful detective with a secret wish that she could handle her messy personal life as well as she handles her work life. As a homicide sergeant for the Phoenix, Arizona Police Department, she has one of the highest solve rates in America. Her success leads her chief of police to assign her a serial killer case. Some sicko the press calls the Beholder is killing beautiful women. Her chief describes the case as “a career maker or breaker, get me?”

*  *  *

Finding Cinderella: A Novella

by Colleen Hoover

4.9 stars – 519 Reviews
Here’s the set-up:
A chance encounter in the dark leads eighteen-year-old Daniel and the girl who stumbles across him to profess their love for each other. But this love comes with conditions: they agree it will only last one hour and it will only be make-believe.

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KND Freebies: “Brilliant” paranormal romance KEEP YOU FROM HARM by Debra Doxer is featured in today’s Free Kindle Nation Shorts excerpt

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Keep You From Harm (Remedy, Volume 1)

by Debra Doxer

4.5 stars – 8 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Secrets…

They weigh you down. I’ve kept a secret all my life. It’s my mother’s secret, too. I inherited it from her along with a unique ability that only we possess. She’s gone now, another victim of addiction. If her death isn’t enough to bring me to my knees, her betrayal flays me to the bone. Because the secret my mother and I have been keeping is just one of many she’d kept. She never told me I have an older brother. And now he’s here, eager to be my guardian.

There is no one else. So I move across the country to live with this stranger, my brother. But experience has taught me that most situations are temporary and forming attachments only leads to hurt in the end. That’s why I’m determined to keep to myself in this new place, struggling to seem aloof while I’m quietly breaking apart.

Then I meet Lucas…

His magnetism is hard to resist, and most girls at school aren’t resisting. I don’t fall so easily though, especially not for guys who use their good looks as a weapon. From the start, our interactions are tense and volatile. I know it’s because I’m denying the unwelcome desire that grips me when he’s near. I think he feels it, too. He looks at me with an intensity that threatens to unhinge my resolve. Soon he’s trying to break through the walls that past hurts have built.

But I’m not what I appear to be, and it wouldn’t be fair to get involved with him. At least that’s what I tell myself. Until a terrible act of violence reveals that Lucas has a secret, too. It’s a secret that links us together and ties us to an evil history I never could have imagined.

Praise for Keep You From Harm:

“5 amazing stars for this heartbreaking beautiful sexy YA read!”
Sizzling Pages Romance Reviews

“It has depth. It has betrayal, death, and love. Then the paranormal aspect hits and it amps this book from good to awesome…”
-Reading and Writing Urban Fantasy, Paranormal, and Romance

an excerpt from

Keep You From Harm

by Debra Doxer

Chapter 1

The first strange thing I notice when I approach my building is the absence of a crowd. In the two years we’ve lived here, our front stoop has been home to a revolving bunch of drug dealers and pimps who congregate around one of the biggest underworld purveyors of both services, a guy by the name of Apollo. He lives on the first floor directly below us. Despite his unsavory lifestyle, he’s been decent to me since we moved here, and we have an odd sort of friendship.

I climb the deserted concrete steps with my heavy backpack knocking against my tailbone. When I reach the top, I check our mailbox. The floor is littered with the same junk mail I find piled inside. Pulling it out, I bunch it under my arm as I head through the main entrance, a fractured glass door with a useless lock. I’ve lived in lots of places over the years, but this is by far the worst with its unrelenting bug issues and the stale odor of sweat and cigarettes seeping from the walls. I spend as little time here as possible.

I look toward Apollo’s door as I pass. It’s cracked open, but there’s no sign of him. I briefly consider knocking and asking him where everyone disappeared to, but then I think better of it. I’ve never just dropped in on him before. The fact is, Apollo is unpredictable, and he can be downright scary at times. I don’t want to risk his wrath today.

As I continue past his apartment and begin climbing the narrow stairwell, there’s an unsettling prickle on the back of my neck. Something is off. I can sense it. But I move slowly, cautiously rounding the corner and glancing up at our door. It’s closed, and there’s nothing out of the ordinary apparent on the second floor landing. The burned out fluorescents and the scuffed doorways loom above me, silent and familiar. When I step out of the stairwell, I stand listening as I pull the key from my pocket. The entire building is unusually quiet this afternoon.

The deadbolt turns too easily, and I realize our door isn’t locked. Sometimes my mother forgets to lock it despite my constant reminders. I step inside and begin looking around. Our tiny one bedroom apartment seems the same as it did when I said goodbye to my mother this morning and left for school. I shake my head and chastise myself for my paranoia.

Ignoring my unease, I toss the mail and my backpack on the couch that also serves as my bed and head into the kitchen to find some food. I make a beeline for the refrigerator and quickly locate a plate of leftover pasta from last night. When I turn to put the pasta on the table, I freeze. The plate drops from my hand, hitting the floor with a clank as I gasp at the nightmare in front of me. I see my mother in one of the kitchen chairs. Her limp body is draped over the table. Her blonde hair is soaking in her pooling blood.

I’m pinned in place as my comprehension wars with my denial. When the horrific image doesn’t disappear, my legs start to tremble, and I fall to my knees before her. My gaze travels over her too still form as I reach out to place my fingers on her arm. Her skin is ice cold, but I grip it anyway. The only sound I hear is my ragged breathing as the floor seems to tilt beneath me. I’ve feared this moment for so long, but not this way. This makes no sense.

Slowing my breathing down, I draw it in as deeply as I can. I reach inside myself for the familiar energy, but it isn’t there. There’s nothing. I feel only emptiness. She’s gone, and this time it’s forever.

***

I’m not sure how long I sat there in the kitchen before finally dialing 911. I didn’t want to make that call. I didn’t want this to be real. Right now, I can almost fool myself into believing that she’s disappeared again and will turn up when she’s ready. I want to pretend that’s the truth. I want to pretend hard enough that the images of her blood and her lifeless body disappear.

She’s been like a boomerang in my life, screwing up and losing me, then returning all bright and shiny with a mouthful of promises. I’ve spent most of my childhood hating my mother during her absences and fearing her abandonment during her brief stints of sobriety when she regained custody of me, pulled me out of foster care, and pretended we were going to be a family. It fucked me up, the constant upheaval. It forced me to shut down in order to cope. And now I don’t know how to react normally to this extreme situation, and the detectives are looking at me like I’m a puzzle they can’t seem to solve.

I’ve been at the police station for hours. I should be grief-stricken. Rivers of tears should be flowing out of me, but instead I feel numb and heavy, like all the gravity in this square, windowless room is concentrated on me.

After answering questions for the entire afternoon and into the evening, the detectives finally ask me if I have any family they can contact. When I shake my head, they talk about calling Social Services, and I’m left alone to wait.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned that my mother took a blow to the back of her head with an unknown object. I told them that I had no idea who would want to hurt her. It’s the truth. Two years ago, when she was still an alcoholic and a drug addict, that list would have been miles long. But she’s been clean since she got me back, and no one would know better than me if that fact had changed.

The police seem to believe that her death is the result of her old life coming back to haunt her. I don’t doubt that’s a possibility. I’m sure that Apollo and the rest of the building tenants know something. I wonder if the police questioned them. If so, I bet they learned nothing. The residents of our building are not the types who believe in cooperating with the authorities.

The door opens again, and the same detective I’ve spent most of the day with enters the room holding a thick file. His name is Brady. He’s very young for a detective, and he’s good-looking in a clean-cut I iron my undershirts kind of way. His dark hair is neatly trimmed, and his light brown eyes convey the perfect mix of concern and gravity. I get the impression he’s been assigned to me because he’s closer to my age than the rest of them. They probably think I’ll feel more comfortable around him. It’s foolish of them to think I’ll feel comfortable around anyone tonight. I feel nothing at all right now, and I’m glad for it.

“Your brother is on his way,” Detective Brady says.

My weary eyes widen. His non sequitur wakes me up like no alarm clock could. I wonder what kind of a joke he’s playing.

“He’s flying in from New York. He’ll be here tomorrow.”

He appears serious. I sit forward in my chair and calmly repeat myself. “I told you. I don’t have any family.”

His lips press together in a thin line. “I just learned that Social Services contacted him about an hour ago. He said he’s willing to take custody of you.”

I bark out a laugh and shake my head. He’s seriously confused. “I. Don’t. Have. A. Brother,” I say slowly, enunciating each word so he’ll understand.

Detective Brady lowers himself into the chair across from me and sets the thick file on the table between us. He looks almost as tired as I feel. “Actually, you do. He’s been petitioning the court for custody of you for the past two years.” He places his hand on top of the closed file.

My eyes travel from the file back to him. I shake my head at the certainty in his expression. “There must be some mistake.”

“Your mother never told you this?” he asks.

My stomach clenches as doubt starts to seep in.

“Did your mother tell you where she’s originally from?”

“Upstate New York,” I answer, gripping my hands together under the table.

He nods. “That’s where your brother still lives with his family. Your mother left when he was six years old. His father, your mother’s husband, still lives there, too. They had no idea where she was until a hospital here in San Diego contacted them about two and a half years ago. She was being treated for a drug overdose at the time and they found ID on her that led them to her husband in New York.”

My mind is processing what he’s telling me, fitting it into place with what I already know. I knew about the drug overdose and about the subsequent treatment, which finally succeeded. That’s when she regained custody of me for the last time. I knew she was from New York and that she was married there. I didn’t know she had a baby before me. I didn’t know she still had a husband there. I definitely didn’t know she was keeping such a big secret. All the goodwill she earned from me over the past two years begins to evaporate.

“It looks like your brother has been trying to gain custody since he found out about you. But because your mother was able to prove she was fit to care for you, they wouldn’t consider his petition.” He pauses. “You really didn’t know any of this?”

While he was speaking, my eyes shifted back to the thick file on the table, which obviously contains this information about my mother and me, information that she never bothered to share. Why didn’t she tell me I had a brother? Was that what kept her sober? The fear of losing custody of me to him? This threat was big enough to keep her sober when nothing else could? Suddenly, the idea of this brother feels threatening.

“Raielle?”

My head is spinning as I wrack my brain for anything my mother might have said that would hint at this. But there’s nothing. I glance over at the detective and shake my head. “I didn’t know.”

He eyes me with silent sympathy.

“Do I have to go with him?” I ask suddenly.

He raises his eyebrows at me.

“Do I get a choice?”

His lips form the tight straight line I’ve become accustomed to over the past few hours. “You’re a minor. He’s the only relative we’re aware of, and he’s willing to take you. What are your other options?”

I’m about to say foster care, but I know the system won’t want me back when I have a relative who is offering to take me off their hands.

When it’s obvious that I have no reply, he continues. “Social Services will be here soon. You’ll be placed somewhere temporarily while everything gets sorted out.”

I sit silently while a storm brews inside me. The numbness that got me through today is erased by a growing panic. We kept a secret together, my mother and me. But I didn’t know she had other secrets that she kept to herself. I was finally beginning to trust her, but she’d been keeping this from me all along. We celebrated my seventeenth birthday and the start of her second year sober just last spring. It was the first time she’d ever bought me a real birthday cake. She had my name written on it in pink icing. Her pale blue eyes shined so brightly in the candlelight as she told me to make a wish and blow them out.

Warm hands press down on my shoulders, startling me. “You’re shaking,” Detective Brady says. “Maybe you should lie down. I’ll get you some water.”

His concerned eyes hover before me. I take a deep breath, and I will myself to calm down. I open a drawer inside a familiar cabinet, and I force the breakdown my body craves deep within it. This is what I do. This is how I stay focused on what’s important. There are an infinite number of drawers in my imaginary cabinet, and I can only hope that it never crumbles under the weight of what’s hiding inside.

“What about a funeral?” I ask, my voice strained but strong now in the quiet room.

He straightens, eyeing me curiously. Then he rubs his hand along the back of his neck. When he answers, I can see he’s choosing his words carefully. “Once we’re done, you can make arrangements for her. If you don’t have enough funds, there are services that can help you take care of things.”

I interpret his vague statements to mean that the medical examiner still has her, and she can be buried along with the other indigent people once her body is released.

Then once again, I’m left alone with another cup of water. My muscles are tense. I don’t move despite how badly I want to bolt out of here right now. But I just sit, running the detective’s words through my head, not sure what they mean for me, not sure how to feel about this brother who has appeared out of thin air. My racing thoughts are a jumbled mess, and my mother’s betrayal feels like ice running through my veins. I need it all to stop. I want the numbness back.

There is no clock in here, and I don’t know how long I’ve been waiting before a short, squat woman with dull, dark hair abruptly pushes through the door. This is the woman from Social Services. I’ve never met this one, but they all have the same characteristics: tired eyes, a too bright smile, and a rushed demeanor which seems to signify that everything they’re doing is an emergency.

She sits across from me like a settling wind. She doesn’t mention my brother. Instead, she tells me that she’s taking me to a facility for the night. The police have brought some clothes for me from the apartment. She has those with her. I stop listening as I follow her out. I’ve been to this place before. I know the drill.

I passively allow myself to be placed in a car, driven across town, and then shuttled through a building where I’m served a dinner I don’t eat, and deposited into a room with four single beds, three of which are already occupied by other silent, sullen girls. I am afraid of the images I might see when I close my eyes that night. But thankfully, I’m so drained that sleep comes quickly, and it’s a temporary, but welcome break from reality.

Chapter 2

When I see him, there’s no mistaking who he is. The same dark, blonde curls that flow down my back are cropped close to his head. He stares at me with the familiar pale blue eyes that my mother and I also share. His tall, rangy build is the male equivalent of my narrow five foot eight inch frame.

“Hello, Raielle. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.” He smiles, and it appears genuine, but I nearly cringe when he mispronounces my name the same way most people do.

“Raielle Blackwood, this is Kyle Dean,” the social worker says, also mangling my name. “Your brother,” she adds as I stand there staring at him. We’re in a small room at the Social Services office. The bright morning sun streams in through a single window set high into the concrete wall. My belongings are packed inside a familiar oversized duffle bag, which used to reside in our closet and is now sitting in the corner. The items inside were gathered from the apartment by strangers since I’m not allowed back in. Apparently, the crime scene is part of an ongoing investigation, and it can’t be disturbed.

“It’s pronounced Ray-elle not Rye-elle,” I inform him.

My brother’s grin falters, and he glances at the social worker. Her plastered on smile also falls briefly before reappearing. “Well, Raielle” she begins, saying it correctly as she steps toward the door. “I’ll let you two get acquainted while I finish the paperwork.” Then she promptly leaves the room.

My gaze gradually tracks from the closed door to the stranger standing before me. We eye each other in awkward silence, and I can see that he’s noting our similarities the same way I am. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” he says gently, like he’s talking to a skittish animal that might dart away if startled.

It hurts to look into his eyes, my mother’s eyes. As though reading my thoughts, he says, “I’m very sorry about your mother.” When I don’t respond, he adds, “Our mother.”

“That’s funny,” I lob back at him, unreasonably angered by his words. “She never mentioned you.”

His brow wrinkles, and he studies me curiously. “If you were trying to hurt me, you succeeded,” he finally says.

I’m thrown by his honesty. I watch him walk toward a ratty looking couch that’s pushed against the wall. He sits down, folding his long legs and clasping his hands together. “I live in Fort Upton, New York with my wife and my three-year-old daughter,” he tells me.

I stand in the middle of the room and continue to take him in. When I woke up this morning, a part of me was clinging to the hope that this was all a mistake. My mother would never keep something this big from me. But looking at him now, my throat grows tight. This is undoubtedly my brother, and by the way he reacted to my mean-spirited comment, it seems that even in her absence, she fucked him up, too.

“We’re setting up a room for you in our basement. It’s been finished. It’s carpeted and heated. It’s my daughter’s playroom. But we can turn it into a nice bedroom for you.” He’s watching me for my reaction.

“Why are you doing this?” I ask.

He takes a deep breath and exhales loudly. “Because you’re my sister. Because I didn’t even know I had a sister until two years ago when I found out our mother was a drug addict who had been neglecting you.”

I blink at him blandly, purposely not reacting to his words, but not liking his blunt description of my mother, despite its truth.

“Since then, I’ve wanted to meet you. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“You wanted custody of me,” I clarify.

He nods. “Yes, if you weren’t being properly cared for I wanted to become your guardian. I understand you just learned of that yesterday.”

“Why do you think Mom never mentioned you?”

He watches me for a moment before answering. “I honestly have no idea. The last time I saw her I was six-years-old. You knew her much better than I did.”

His words are spoken calmly now, like he has no feelings about his abandonment. He’s right though. I did know my mother well or at least I thought I did. She was a weak person. Generally, when I wondered why my mother did or didn’t do something, the answer was because it’s hard. I can’t help but wonder why walking away from her son wasn’t too hard.

“I’d like us to leave this afternoon.”

I focus on him again.

“I’ve got your plane ticket and your things. My wife is looking into getting you enrolled in the high school.”

I start to feel panicky again. “But I have to bury her. There has to be a funeral.”

He nods. “I’ve already arranged it with a local funeral home. I’m taking care of her burial, but we can’t stay to plan the funeral. I have to get back. We can have a ceremony once we’re in Fort Upton if you like.”

“What did you arrange?”

“She’ll be buried in San Marcos Cemetery just outside of town. I ordered the casket and the headstone.”

I stare at him wondering how much that must have cost. After the way she walked out on him, I can hardly believe that he’s done this so quickly and willingly. I feel the gathering tears burning my eyes. I never could have paid for any of this. “Thank you,” I whisper.

His expression turns sympathetic, and I see another emotion that resembles compassion passing over his features.

I know I need to change the subject before I lose it in front of him. “Have you arranged to have my school records transferred?” I ask. “I have to be in the same level classes I’m enrolled in now.”

To my surprise, he nearly smiles as he shakes his head. “It’s been less than forty-eight hours. I haven’t gotten to that yet.”

I nod and start listing what needs to be done. “I’m in all accelerated and advanced placement classes. The colleges I’ve applied to will be making their decisions soon and I need to be in those same classes at my new school to maintain my ranking.” I glance up and see him smirking.

“I take it you’re a good student,” he says.

“Yes,” I inform him. Generally, with my background, that comes as a surprise to people.

He sobers at my seriousness. I’m as serious as a heart attack when it comes to school. This is my way out. This is how I know I won’t follow in my mother’s footsteps. This is my constant. Every time my mother disappeared, and I was placed somewhere new, I diverted my attention to getting all my academic ducks in a row.  Right now, I need this lifeline more than ever.

“Okay,” he agrees. “We’ll get to work on that next. I don’t know much about the high school, but our school district has a good reputation.”

I offer him a tight, but thankful smile.

“Do you already know what you want to study in college?

I answer immediately. “I want to take pre-med courses.”

This seems to intrigue him. “You want to be a doctor?”

I shake my head at the thought of that. I could never spend so much time near sick people. “No. I want to do research. Help cure diseases.”

His eyes are intent on mine. It looks as though he wants to say something more, but he takes a deep breath and turns away. “Let’s see if that paperwork is ready,” he says, moving toward the door.

As I watch the tall form of the man who is my brother leave the room, I can no longer hold back the avalanche of apprehension I’m feeling. I’m used to moving. I’m used to strangers taking me in. But my brother is a different kind of stranger. He’s already eliciting unwelcome emotions that I hardly recognize. I can only imagine what it would be like to have him as a real older brother, one who watches out for me and feels like family. I wonder if that’s what he wants. If so, would I welcome it or would I inevitably push him away? If he doesn’t want that, would I be disappointed? I’m surprised when I realize the answer to that may be yes.

I lower myself onto the same couch he just vacated and rub my hands over my face, trying to clear my head. I’ll be eighteen in a few months. I won’t be in his house long enough for any bonds to form and that’s probably for the best. Emotions are dangerous. So are expectations.

Chapter 3

I’ve never flown on an airplane before. It’s an odd feeling knowing that we’re winging our way across the country, putting thousands of miles between me and San Diego. I’ve never even left the state and within minutes of taking off, California is behind us along with my mother and the chaotic life I’ve lived up to now.

Kyle seems okay to me. It’s hard to get a read on him. I’ve learned some facts about him while we’ve been traveling. He’s an auditor for the state of New York, which is like an accountant, he tells me. His wife stays at home with their daughter. He volunteered to me that he had a happy childhood. He was raised by his father and his father’s girlfriend. They never married because his father couldn’t find my mother to obtain a divorce from her. I knew my mother wasn’t married to my own father, but she used his last name. I thought it was because she wanted to have the same last name as me. Maybe she was using it to hide the whole time.

It’s dark when Kyle pulls into the driveway of a quaint, single story white house. From what I can see, it’s in the middle of a neighborhood crowded with other similar homes.

“Are you sure your wife is okay with this?” I ask Kyle for the third or fourth time.

“Chloe is fine with it. She’s looking forward to meeting you.”

When I step out of the car, I feel an unfamiliar chill in the air. It’s early spring, but New York obviously hasn’t gotten the memo. Kyle opens the trunk, and I pull out my duffle bag. He’s withdrawing his own bag when I hear voices. I look over at the house next door. Three guys are standing in front of a dark colored truck parked in the driveway. They all look tall and athletic. Two of them are horsing around as one pushes the other and then barks out a laugh.

“Those boys are your age. Myles lives there. He’s a senior, too.” Kyle explains. When he closes the trunk, the one who has been standing silently, apart from the other two, turns toward us. He’s taller and broader than his friends are. It’s too dark to see him clearly, but rather than glance at us and turn back around, he seems to be staring right at me.

“You’ll meet them when you start school,” Kyle continues, taking both bags and heading up the walkway.

His shadowed silhouette pulls at me as I stand rooted there, and my heart starts to pump faster. From his outline, I notice wide shoulders that taper down to a trim waist and long, lean legs. His hair is thick with unruly waves that curl down just past his collar. As he watches me, unmoving, I can’t help but wonder if his eyes are traveling over me in the same assessing way. I can feel my cheeks heat, and I’m thankful for the cover of night. I’m not boy crazy. I never have been. So, my reaction to this stranger takes me by surprise, and I purposely snap myself out of it. I tear my eyes away from him, and I catch up with Kyle.

The front door swings open, spilling light out onto the walkway. I hesitate as Kyle moves more quickly and embraces the woman who steps out to meet him. She has a round face framed by long, brown hair, parted in the middle and swept back behind her ears. Her chin rests on Kyle’s shoulder. Her dark eyes widen when they find me standing behind him. I hear her gasp. She pulls out of his embrace and continues to stare at me.

“Raielle, this is my wife, Chloe,” Kyle says.

“She looks so much like you,” Chloe whispers, her gaze moving over me in shock.

He acknowledges her observation with a tired grin. “Let’s go inside.”

Chloe seems to realize she’s staring at me and rearranges her face into a tight smile. As her surprise settles, her assessing eyes find mine. “It’s nice to meet you, Raielle,” she says before turning to go into the house.

Warning bells start to go off in my head. The look on Chloe’s face, I’ve seen it before, too many times in too many foster homes. She’s wary of having me here, but her reluctance is loosely packaged within a façade of good manners.

I follow them through the front door into a small sitting area with floral couches and bright yellow walls. “I’m very sorry about your mother,” she says quietly, looking up at me. Chloe is about average height which means, in my clunky shoes, I tower over her. She’s curvy and attractive with round eyes that shimmer in the dimly lit room.

I feel awkward and out of place as I glance around their home wondering if I’ve just stepped into an alternate reality. This is the kind of overly decorated middle class house you see on sitcoms. “Thank you for letting me stay here,” I say politely.

“No need to thank us,” Chloe says. “I’m afraid you’ll have to sleep on the couch tonight. Our friends have an extra bed they’re giving us. But it won’t be here until tomorrow.”

“That’s fine,” I tell her, not bothering to mention that I’m used to sleeping on the couch.

“Are you hungry?”  She asks like she’ll actually make me a meal if I say yes.

I shake my head.

“We got dinner at the airport,” Kyle explains.

Chloe clasps her hands in front of her. “Well, you’re probably tired.” She points behind her. “The bathroom is right down the hall, and the kitchen is in there. Penelope is sleeping. So, you’ll meet her in the morning before I take her to preschool.”

“We’ll get your school records taken care of tomorrow,” Kyle reassures me before I can remind him.

“You can start school whenever you’re ready,” Chloe says brightly. “You’re all registered. The high school is just about a mile that way. Most of the kids in this neighborhood walk, but I can drive you if you like, especially on the cold mornings.”

“Could I start this week?” I ask. I’m anxious to make the unfamiliar familiar, to begin a reliable routine.

“Why don’t you wait until next week?” Kyle suggests.

I’m about to plead my case when Chloe speaks up. “Let Raielle rest tomorrow and then start on Friday if she wants.”

Her support surprises me, and I think it surprises Kyle, too. But as he looks at her, I can see him weighing his decision. At that moment, a realization hits me. Kyle is in charge of my life now. Although my environment has always been out of control, I’ve been in control of my actions and myself. For the first time though, I may be living with an authority figure who intends to pay attention.

Kyle sighs. “Fine. If you want to start Friday, go ahead. But if you change your mind, you can always start next week.”

I smile at his decision and nod my agreement.

Then I watch as Chloe makes up the couch for me. Once that task is complete, Kyle and Chloe smile awkwardly as they say their goodnights. The whole situation is bizarre and uncomfortable. My brother and his wife have just met me for the first time, and here I am living with them. We’re strangers, and we certainly do not hug each other despite the pause after Chloe’s goodnight when I think she may be weighing that possibility. I’m relieved when she doesn’t follow through. Unless I’m reading her hesitation wrong, and she’s actually worried about my stealing their stuff while they’re asleep. I find myself smiling at that thought. Chloe seems like the typical sheltered suburban girl. Something I’m certainly not. I’ve been exposed to my fair share of crime, but I’ve never directly committed any offenses myself. At times, I’ve been hungry enough to think about stealing food, but I never did. When there was no money to buy notebooks for school, rather than swipe them from a store, I would raid the recycle bins behind the school for discarded handouts or even write on my clothes and make sure not to wash them until after the exam. I’ve worked hard not to stumble into the typical pitfalls of my situation. Chloe has nothing to worry about, and I wonder if I have anything to worry about where she’s concerned.

I could have imagined the grudging acceptance of my arrival in her expression. Even if it’s true, and she doesn’t want me here, I can’t really blame her. I come from a messed up situation. She has no idea what to expect from me.

I pull in a deep breath, surprised by how shaky and disoriented I feel. After slipping on some sweats and a T-shirt, I locate my toothbrush and trudge to the bathroom. When the light comes on, I see lots of blue tile on the walls and on the floor. To my left is a bathtub filled with toys, including a yellow rubber ducky. No doubt about it, this is an alternate reality, a home filled with the clichés. My lips dip down into a small disbelieving frown before I turn toward the sink to brush my teeth.

I slept so soundly last night that I am unprepared for the restlessness that keeps me awake on the couch for hours, watching the hands on the clock inch their way toward morning. It’s too quiet here, not like in the city. With only the noise of a ticking second hand to break through the silence, I have to work hard to block out the images that won’t be put away so easily tonight. I roll from my left side to my right, feeling the place where the couch cushions meet digging into my side.

I finally doze off just as the sky begins to brighten only to be startled awake by a loud “Hi” directly beside my face. I turn to see a little girl tilting her head at me as though she’s trying to decide exactly what I am.

“Hi,” I say wearily to her as I sit up stiffly.

“I’ve got purple marbles,” she states, lifting her hand to show me several marbles resting in her palm.

“That’s nice,” I reply, smiling my amusement through a wide yawn.

“You can have one.” She pushes her hand at me.

I reach out carefully and take one from her.

She grins at me before turning to run into the kitchen with her loose hair flying behind her. “I gave her a marble!” I hear the girl exclaim.

“Sit down and eat your breakfast, Penelope,” Chloe says. Then she steps out of the kitchen, dishcloth in hand, and looks at me. “Did you sleep well?”

I nod even though I didn’t.

“That’s Penelope. Her favorite color this week is purple.”

I grin. I’m used to living with little kids.

“Would you like some breakfast? We’ve got fruit and cereal,” Chloe offers.

I shake my head. Every time I closed my eyes last night, I saw blonde hair swimming in a pool of congealing blood on our kitchen table. My queasy stomach will definitely protest if I put food in it.

I turn away and grab my duffle bag. I want a shower and then a long walk to clear my head.

Once I’m dressed, I find Chloe still in the kitchen, cleaning up from breakfast. “Is there a downtown I could walk to?” I ask.

“Well, yes,” she says, turning from the sink to look at me. “But if you’d like to wait, I can take you after I’ve dropped Penelope off at school.”

I smile politely at her offer, but I don’t want company this morning. “I actually feel like walking. I was just looking for a destination.”

“Oh,” she remarks, seeming unsure before reluctantly giving me directions to the town center, which turns out to be about two miles away.

“Take my cell number with you in case you get lost.” She turns to find a piece of paper to write on.

“Okay, but I don’t have a phone to call you from.”

She turns back around to face me, seeming at first surprised and then worried as she stares at me and chews her bottom lip. Then she reaches into a drawer and hands me an extra house key. Watching her, it almost feels like she’s nervous. Uneasiness pricks at me as I wonder what’s causing this reaction. A part of me just wants to ask her. Between the graciousness she displayed last night that seemed forced and her strange hesitation this morning, I really don’t know what to make of her. But, of course, I won’t say anything. Sometimes confrontation works. Other times, it just digs you deeper. I’ve never gotten in trouble for not saying something.

Once I’m outside, I stop at the end of the walkway and glance around the neighborhood. It’s a bright morning with no hint of the winter chill from last night. I’ve never lived anywhere where the seasons change and my slim wardrobe reflects that. I wonder about the possibility of finding a job. Back  home I had part-time jobs all over town, and once a week Apollo would pay me to sit on the stoop and collect cash that was owed to him. Familiar people would stop by to hand varying amounts of money to me. I was supposed to check their names off a hand-written list he gave me. I never asked questions, and I always turned in every cent. He once told me I was the only person he completely trusted.

I turn when I hear someone yelling “Hey” from the house next door. The owner of the voice has long, sandy hair that he pushes off his forehead as he nears. An olive-colored messenger bag is strapped across his chest, and it bounces lightly against his khaki-covered hip. I recognize his silhouette as belonging to one of the boys I saw laughing last night, but definitely not the tall one who I think was staring at me. The guy coming toward me could easily pass for one of the surfers that were abundant at my old school.

He stops in front of me. We’re about the same height, and I stand perfectly still while he unabashedly looks me over from head to toe. “You are going to be a very popular girl here,” he says with a smile that displays deep dimples in both cheeks.

Despite his statement, the glint in his eyes isn’t appreciative or predatory. It’s closer to intrigued or amused, and I wonder if he’s popular or picked on here.

“I’m Myles and you must be the long lost sister I’ve heard about.”

I arch a brow at him. “You’ve heard about me?”

He shrugs. “Chloe and my mom are friends. What’s your name?” he asks.

“Raielle.”

“Well, Raielle, will you be attending Fort Upton High School?”

I nod.

“You’ll have to let me introduce you around. When do you start?”

“Tomorrow.”

He shifts his weight and leans in closer to me. “Did you leave a boyfriend back home, Raielle?”

I tilt my head at him. The way he’s saying my name, like he’s teasing me, is both endearing and annoying. I can’t decide if I want to be genuine with him or shoot him down with sarcasm. The hint of playfulness in his light brown gaze makes me think that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. I go with genuine. “No boyfriend back home. What about you? Have you got a boyfriend?”

He lets out a laugh, pretending I’m joking. When he realizes I’m not, his eyes widen and his mouth drops open before he swiftly closes it.

I immediately realize my mistake. “Oh, sorry.”

He studies me for a minute before clearing his throat and taking a step back.

Now I feel bad. “Don’t worry. I won’t say anything.”

His brow furrows, and he looks like he’s going to deny it, but then he takes a deep breath and asks, “How did you know?”

“I just did,” I shrug. “It probably sounds lame to say some of my best friends are gay, but it’s actually true.” I smile. After realizing that being attractive was a huge handicap in a foster home when the foster dads and foster brothers were often perverts or worse, I started gravitating toward the gay boys. They were generally safer, and if I was lucky, they protected me.

He offers me a lopsided grin that shows his dimples again. “It’s not really common knowledge.  My friend Lucas knows. I think my parents might suspect, but I’m not interested in having that conversation with them any time soon.” He shifts his messenger bag and runs a hand through his hair again. “I think we’re going to have to be friends. You know, so you don’t get homesick for your old buddies.”

I look him up and down, pretending to think it over. “Yeah, that sounds all right.”

He grins at me again, a full-on smile this time, and the way it lights up his face makes me feel a little lighter.

I offer him a smile, too, and I take a step back. “It was nice meeting you. I don’t want to make you late or anything.”

“Meet me here at the same time tomorrow. We can walk to school together.”

I agree, and we go our separate ways.

Turns out, Fort Upton’s town center takes less than fifteen minutes to explore. There’s a diner, a dry-cleaner, a drugstore, a couple of real-estate offices, a little gift shop, a town hall, and a town library. That’s it. Feeling disappointed and more than a little claustrophobic, not only is this town landlocked—it’s miniscule, I turn around and head back the way I came.

I carry a paperback copy of Jayne Eyre in my backpack. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it. When I move to a new place, I open Jayne Eyre and get lost in the story that’s so familiar it feels more like home than any actual home ever has. With an empty day in front of me, and thoughts that I want to keep at bay, the desire to lose myself in its well-worn pages is gnawing at me.

The house is quiet and empty when I return. After a few chapters, I fall back to sleep on the couch. To my surprise, I sleep nearly the entire day away, not stirring until late in the afternoon when Chloe returns with Penelope. It’s a shock, waking up here, glancing around, and being hit by the realization of my situation all over again. I ignore the way my stomach rolls as I take a deep breath and focus on Penelope running in circles through the house with a toy airplane. I sit up and try to ignore the nerves I feel at being here in my brother’s house. I want to do what I’ve done in all my foster homes, stay quiet, keep to myself, and go about my business. But this isn’t a foster home. This is my brother’s home, and I feel like I have more of an obligation here. He’s putting himself out by taking me in. He’s opened his home to me. I should at least pretend to make some kind of an effort. It seems like I owe him and his family that much.

Soon after I wake, Kyle pulls up with a mattress and box spring tied to the top of a truck. He and a couple of his friends carry it into the basement, and the rest of the afternoon is spent organizing my new room.

The basement is a large open rectangular space with low ceilings, plain white walls, and a beige carpet. Penelope’s toys are piled onto shelves on one side of the long room and my bed, along with a dresser and nightstand, are on the other side. There is a half bathroom down here, too. It’s actually one of the nicer bedrooms I’ve had, and I decide to tell Chloe this. Once I do, her eyes light up, and Kyle smiles approvingly at me.

For my first official dinner with the Dean family, Chloe makes meatloaf, and we all sit around the kitchen table. Penelope sits in a booster seat and babbles throughout the meal about Dora the Explorer and the red dress Chloe bought for her after school today. Family dinners are not something I have much experience with. When I glance up, I see Kyle looking at me. He grins before turning back to his daughter and telling her to finish her milk, which she obediently does. I feel like a tourist as I eat quietly and observe them. Their easy interactions cause a dull ache to form inside my chest. I realize that it hurts to watch them, to see their happy family unit. I thought happy families were a myth. If they weren’t real, I didn’t have to mourn the fact that I never had one. But this one is real, a little too real. I direct my eyes down at my plate and finish my meal quickly so I can be excused. My hasty decision to make an effort getting to know Kyle and his family is going to be more challenging than I expected.

Chapter 4

Chloe wants to drive me to school. She’s torn between being happy that I already have a friend to walk with and disappointed that she can’t take me herself.

“You look really nice for your first day,” she says encouragingly.

“Thanks,” I say.  My first day uniform is my favorite pair of worn low-rise jeans with my clunky brown shoes and a short-sleeved navy sweater that’s not too tight or too loose. I know my legs look miles long in these jeans, and this outfit is perfect for intimidating the girls who might already be gunning for me without being too revealing or slutty in a way that could promote unwelcome attention.

I’m afraid my outfit falls short when Myles walks out of his house and whistles. “You’re gonna knock them dead today, California girl. You definitely do not look like the girls from around here.”

I glance down at my outfit. “The plan was not to call too much attention to myself. Maybe I should go change?”

He winds his arm through mine. “Don’t bother. Unless you’re planning to put a paper bag over yourself, it won’t matter. Besides, I’m going to enjoy being the most envied guy in school.”

“You’re really full of shit, Myles.” I laugh as I reclaim my arm and fall into step beside him.

“I am the most sincere person you will ever meet. By the way, we’re picking up my girlfriend at the next corner.”

I stop walking. “Your what?”

He shrugs. “All superheroes need an alter ego.”

I burst out laughing. “And does your girlfriend realize she’s the Lois Lane to your straight Clark Kent?”

He has the decency to look embarrassed. “It’s all good. She’s a nice girl. She took a vow of chastity at her church.”

“Uh-huh,” I mutter, continuing to walk.

He catches right up. “Listen, she doesn’t know…”

“Don’t worry. I told you I wouldn’t say anything and I won’t. It’s none of my business.”

As we approach the corner, a peppy redhead bounds down the steps of a large brick house. “Hey, Myles,” she calls. I notice that her nose is dotted with freckles. The energetic way she moves screams I’m a cheerleader. She stops short when she sees me.

“April, this is Raielle. She just moved in next door to me. I told her we’d introduce her around.”

April’s smile falters when Myles says my name. She looks at him. “You mean she’s the one whose mother was…”

“April.” Myles halts her with a look before she can finish her sentence.

Her face heats. “Sorry,” she mumbles at him before turning to me. “Um, it’s nice to meet you.”

“You, too,” I reply, wondering what she knows about my mother and how many other people know it, too.

April makes a quick recovery and spends the rest of the walk chattering about how great the school is; how friendly everyone is, and how much fun being a cheerleader is. Yes, I guessed right. I do my best to tune her out before my ears start to bleed. Beside me, it looks as though Myles’s eyes have glazed over.

When we arrive at the sprawling glass and concrete high school, Myles points out the main office, and he offers to accompany me while I retrieve my schedule. I wave him off, and thankfully, he doesn’t argue as I continue inside on my own. The office is quiet when I approach an older lady with grey bobbed hair sitting at the desk closest to the door.

“I’m starting here today. I came to pick up my schedule.”

She glances up at me with a friendly smile. “What’s your name?”

“Raielle Blackwood.”

She nods and turns to her computer. “Gwen!” she calls across the office.

A willowy girl stands and approaches us. “Raielle is a new student starting today. Could you show her to her first class?” The woman hands me my schedule and smiles. Just then, the school bell rings in the hallway. She reaches down for another piece of paper and gives that to me, too. “Tardy pass,” she explains.

I glance down at the paper in my hand and see that advanced placement history is my first class followed by advanced calculus and advanced placement English. I’m relieved that the classes I had at my last school seem to be covered here.

“Let me see it.” Gwen extends her hand to me. Now that she’s beside me, I see that her nose is pierced and both her ears are surrounded in piercings. Her blunt nails are polished black to match her wardrobe and her hair. Either she’s the token Goth (every school has one) or she’s part of a larger Goth movement here.

“This way,” she says handing me back my schedule and leading the way out. “The school is just a big rectangle of hallways stacked over four floors,” she explains in a flat, bored voice. The halls are quiet and her words echo softly. “If the classroom number starts with a one, it’s on the first floor. If it starts with a four, it’s on the…” she pauses and eyes me expectantly.

“Fourth floor,” I reply dryly.

She stops in front of a closed door. “This is you. I’ll see you later. I’m in your chemistry class.” Then she walks back the way we came.

I pause in the hallway, take a deep breath, hitch my bag up higher on my shoulder, and then pull open the door. The teacher stops talking and looks at me along with the rest of the full classroom. I ignore the students and keep my eyes trained on the overweight, middle-aged man who is already reaching for the note I have in my hand. As I move, my shoes click loudly in the silence. He takes my pass and tosses it on his desk.

“Take any empty seat,” he says.

I turn and feel curious eyes on me as I zero in on one of the vacant desks in the back. A low whistle sounds as I pass by the first row, followed by the word hot not so subtly coughed out on the other side of the room. This results in several giggles. I ignore my second whistle of the day, keep my head high, and move slowly toward the empty desk. Dropping my backpack on the floor, I slide into the seat and give my attention to the teacher.

“Okay, everyone,” he says, “let’s continue.” He begins discussing what I recognize as the Cuban Missile Crisis. I feel heads occasionally turning my way, but I ignore them as I open my notebook and start writing.

When class is over, I shove my books in my bag and glance at my schedule to see that calculus is on the fourth floor. When I glance up, there’s a burly guy standing in the aisle blocking my way.

“Hey, new girl.” He grins at me. “Do you need help finding your next class?”

I’m about to tell him no thanks, but the truth is that I could use some directions. “I know it’s on the fourth floor. I just need to find the stairs,” I reply.

“Then I’m at your service.” He extends an arm, allowing me to precede him down the aisle to the doorway. Once I move around him, I see a few guys congregated at the exit who have obviously been watching our exchange. They keep their eyes on me as I approach.

“I’m Tucker,” he says once he’s beside me, “and these asshats need to move out of the way if we want to get you to your next class.”

“Introduce us,” one of them says.

“I haven’t gotten her name yet.” He eyes me expectantly.

“Raielle,” I say, starting to feel sorry that I asked him for help.

“That’s an unusual name,” another guy says. This one is short and kind of doughy looking.

Tucker starts to push through them. “Cool your jets. We don’t want to make Raielle late.”

I smile hesitantly at them and follow him out into the hall.

“The first stairwell is down here.” He points as he’s walking. “What class do you have?”

I glance at my schedule to be sure. “AP calculus.”

He nods. “That’s at the end of the hall on the far corner. I can walk you.”

To my surprise, he grabs my elbow. Instinctively, I pull it away. “I can find it. Thanks.”

He’s taken aback and maybe a little offended, but he quickly recovers. “Yeah. No problem. Just trying to help.”

I attempt to look friendly, trying to offset the awkwardness. “It’s okay. I’ve got it from here.” Then I quickly ascend the stairs, dodging the flow of descending students.

I find my next few classes easily and manage to survive my morning without incident. A few other male students introduce themselves to me and one creepy one just leers at me throughout English. Unless they try to talk to me, I don’t really notice the other people in my classes.

The back of my schedule has a locker number on it with a combination. Before lunch, I make my way to it. As I’m tossing the textbooks I’ve collected inside, a shoulder leans against the locker beside me.

“How’s your first day going, California girl?” Myles asks.

I smile, happy to see a familiar face. “Like a first day.” I shrug.

“Do you have lunch this period?”

“Yeah. But I was hoping to head to the library to get some studying done. Do they let you do that here?”

His eyebrows arch up. “I suppose if someone actually wanted to spend lunchtime in the library, they could.” He watches me as I close my backpack and hoist it up. “How about a little socializing? You know, sitting with me and my friends, maybe making some of your own?”

I briefly wonder if one of his friends is going to be the tall, dark silhouette from the other night. But it doesn’t matter. I have issues that are more pressing. I shake my head. “Another time.”

“Are you telling me that you already have so much work you have to skip lunch?”

I sigh. “It looks that way.” The calculus class here is much more advanced than the class I was taking at home. I need to catch up quickly before I fall even further behind. Besides, I don’t have a lunch to eat. Back home, we were on assistance. As embarrassing as it was, the state of California provided a hot lunch to me at school every day. But today, I don’t have a lunch, and I don’t have any money for one.

Myles narrows his eyes. “Another time, then. I’m going to hold you to that, Raielle.”

Lunch in the library is quiet, and I get enough done that the calculus panic abates. During the next period, I see Gwen in my chemistry class. She doesn’t say hello, but lifts her chin in my direction when she spots me.  My last two classes of the day are Latin and art. I breeze through Latin having already taken three years of it, and I use art class to zone out and rest my fried brain.

The school is beginning to clear out, and I’m collecting my books at my locker at the end of the day, when I hear a high-pitched “Excuse me.”

I turn to find a petite stranger scowling at me. Thick blonde bangs frame her face, accentuating her pointy chin, the only facial feature that isn’t obscured by her mane of hair.

“You need to stay away from my boyfriend,” she informs me with a hand on her hip.

My eyes inadvertently dip down to the barely covered cleavage she’s puffing out in my direction. I can feel the few remaining students in the hallway turn to watch us. “No problem,” I reply evenly. Then I begin piling more books into my bag.

“I’m serious,” she bites out.

I exhale loudly and reluctantly give her my attention. “Who is your boyfriend?”

She blinks her disbelief at me. “Tucker Matthews.”

Tucker, of course. “Like I said, no problem.” I start to turn around again when she grabs my arm to halt me.

Then she gets in my face. “Keep away from him. Do you understand me?”

“Yeah. I think I’ve cracked your code.” I pull my arm from her grip.

“That’s enough, Hailey.”

We both turn in the direction of the deep, unfamiliar voice. I know immediately, it’s him. I recognize the wavy hair, the broad shoulders, and his confident stance. But now I can see his dark blue eyes, and they’re shooting darts at the blonde named Hailey.

“But she’s after Tucker,” Hailey argues.

He angles his head at her. “I seriously doubt that.”

She huffs with frustration. “Everyone saw her flirting with him.”

My eyes widen at this. His glances at me, then turns back to Hailey. “Everyone saw Tucker walking her to the stairs, and then they saw her blowing him off. He’s the one you should be worried about. Not her.”

Hailey’s mouth falls open and I think mine does, too. I wonder how he knows this because he hasn’t been on my radar at all today.

“Were you there, Lucas?” she asks in a small voice.

He nods.

Hailey visibly deflates but she doesn’t apologize. She turns to glare at me one last time. “Tucker is off limits. Don’t forget it,” she warns, before pivoting and stalking away.

“I think you two deserve each other,” I mumble under my breath. Then my eyes return to Lucas who is standing silently, watching me with an unreadable expression. I take in his full lips and the firm set of his square jaw. His hair falls in shiny, chestnut brown waves lifting back from his forehead looking like he just ran his hand through it. He’s so handsome; it’s hard not to stare. He must have girls ogling him constantly, and that thought fills me with a strange disappointment. I felt a connection to him the other night and ever since then his dark image has been lurking in the back of my mind. But now that I see him up close, I realize that it couldn’t have been real. He is not the type of guy who goes for someone like me.  Even though he’s not happy with Hailey right now, she’s what guys like him want; popular, aggressive, self-assured, with all her assets on display. He probably goes through them like water.

I wonder if he’s going to introduce himself or say anything at all. To my shock, he doesn’t. He just walks away. I watch his progression down the hallway until he disappears around the corner. Weird.

The remaining students avert their eyes and continue gathering their things. I see Gwen among them. I shake off my uneasiness and head toward the stairs.

“That’s Lucas Diesel,” Gwen says, slamming her locker closed and falling into step beside me. “Hottest guy I’ve ever seen in real life.” She tics this off on her finger. “Every girl in school wants him.” She tics off another finger. “And he talked to you on your very first day.” She points a finger at me now.  “That’s a big deal.”

“Since you obviously heard the whole thing, you know that he didn’t say a word to me.”

She shrugs. “But he knows you exist, and he defended you. That’s noteworthy.”

“So, is he a complete snob or something?” I ask, still bristling at his wordless dismissal of me.

She pulls out a pack of gum and offers me a stick. I take it to be friendly and to keep her talking. Despite my better judgment, I’m curious about Lucas. “He’s not a snob,” she continues thoughtfully. “He’s just sort of intimidating and unapproachable. And he doesn’t have a girlfriend in case you were wondering.”

“I wasn’t,” I reply quickly.

“Uh-huh,” she says, not believing me.

W

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The door opened.

“I’m coming!” I called, turning with my bouquet in hand, putting on my brightest face.

And it was him.

Dale slipped into the room and knocked the breath from me instantly. He wore a black tux, his hair cut short now, no longer the shaggy mess it had been when I met him. I couldn’t remember whose decision it had been—which manager or producer or publicist—but I liked the change. I could see his eyes, all that dark heat focused directly on me. It had been a month since we’d been in the same room together and here he was, finally materialized in front of me like a dream.

I wasn’t sure I wasn’t dreaming until he spoke.

“Sara.” Just my name, but it was in his mouth, soft and full, spoken like a little prayer.

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It was like coming home.

“You’re home,” I murmured against his lips, the heat of his body burning me like a brand, even through the layers of satin, far too much fabric between us. My God, I wanted him. There was a whole world waiting out there for us, a church full of people—it was Aimee’s day, not mine—but I was so full of him in that moment I could have forgotten it all. That was what Dale Diamond did to me.

“I promised.” He nuzzled my neck, sending delicious shivers down my arms, actually making goose bumps. I clutched at him, flowers still in my hand, arms around his neck, unable to believe he was here, real, flesh. “I told you, I’ll always come for you.”

I smiled at his words, those sweet song lyrics he’d written just for me. They were the first single on his album, just released and doing so well on the charts it was dazzling. I heard “my” song on the radio twenty times a day, saw Dale on MTV more now than I’d ever seen Tyler Vincent back during my dark, obsessive rock star days. And still, I craved more this man.

“I couldn’t wait to come home to you,” he whispered, lips burning a trail along my neck. “I can’t think about anything but you when you’re not with me.”

“I know. Me too.” I moaned softly as his hands moving over my dress, all that flowing, slippery satin. I felt his desperation, his urgency, and met it, using my bouquet of flowers to draw his head in toward me to kiss him hard, giving me a strong, heady combination of sweet roses and Dale to fill my senses. Our tongues met and slid and our mouths and arms locked as we lost and found each other in the moment.

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