Bored out of my mind in Lit class, I fought the urge to pull out my phone like my neighbors were doing. They were the kind of popular in their own cliques that they could get away with anything in class. Unfortunately, I wasn’t that lucky. I contented myself with staring at the clock. Another four minutes until class was over and I could lose myself in the din of the cafeteria.
As soon as the bell rang, I was out of there. Lunch didn’t usually have this kind of appeal. The hallway crashed with the sound of lockers opening and closing, some slammed shut. A chill crawled up my spine.
That was weird. I hadn’t felt that kind of cold since I was young and believed I could see faeries.
Looking around as inconspicuously as possible, I ignored the shivers that ricocheted across my skin. There was nothing there, not that I expected to see anything. It had been a particularly long night for me at the stable yesterday, on top of homework. Coming to school on so little sleep was a horrible choice.
I whirled around on my heel. “Ky, I could’ve killed you!” I snapped.
“But you didn’t.” She attempted a grin and failed. Frowning once more, she muttered sorrowfully, “Guess what day it is.”
Like I needed the reminder. I finished switching out my books and headed for the stairwell with her on my heels. A year ago, our friend Meghan had moved to Louisiana with her step-father’s new job. Two years before that, Kelsey left for Oregon, because her foster family was moving and she had no other family to house her. Now it was just me and Ky. A couple of brunettes who weren’t the same without their blonde counterparts. My heart ached at the mere thought of it all, yet I was quickly distracted by the same unearthly chill from before. There’s nothing there, I reminded myself without even glancing back. I knew something was hidden from me; I just didn’t know why.
Ky jerked her head around. “Did you hear that?”
“No,” I replied a little too swiftly. It was the ghost of a whisper, a voice I remembered well from my childhood. The reason Meghan and I had been friends was because we saw and heard these things no one else did. Then Kelsey moved to the neighborhood. She was later the one to introduce us to Ky, who thought the three of us were crazy for believing in the supernatural. Whatever her game was now, I wasn’t about to play.
Yes, you did, Starr. You’ve always been able to hear me.
I shook my head minutely. Meghan had spoken of a faery once as if he were her only love. I’d seen him, too, but something in me held back from the memory. It was… sort of recent, wasn’t it?
“Jem!” Ky called to her boyfriend.
Watching her go, I missed the Ky I’d grown up with. “Love you, too!” I shouted after her sarcastically. I had no appetite left to eat, anyway.
As I vanished outside to enjoy the nice weather, I instinctively headed for the empty corner of the courtyard. A dark figure I knew from the past somewhere lurked in the shade of the trees, and I was unafraid. Curiosity won over in my cruel mind. It was his silver gaze that promised a life I’d never known or never recalled. Part of me was drawn to him, so I had to have been with him before.
“You heard my voice and so you recognize me,” he answered, as though reading my mind.
The glint in those unearthly depths said something entirely different. He had the protective nature of a brother. For some odd reason, it was directed at me. If that were true, why couldn’t he tell me everything? “I might just be going crazy.”
“No.” He shook his head gently. “If my partner were here, you would remember everything that had been altered. While he likes to break the rules, I’m not one to even question them.” He coughed. “Unless it was for somebody I cared about.”
My veins cooled with his icy presence. It was a feeling I found I liked. Something told me he didn’t care about much; I must have been one of few people. Otherwise, why would a sidhe want to speak with me? My mind snagged on something. “What are you talking about?” Whenever Meghan talked about him, he had always been alone. “I never heard you had a partner.” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. Amusement gleamed in his eyes. I had the sort of tan that refused to show a blush, yet my cheeks flamed nonetheless.
A low chuckle vibrated the air around me. I felt myself relaxing into the familiar sound. “You’ll see me again, Starr. That is the one thing I can promise you.” With that, he disappeared.
“Bring your partner next time,” I grumbled. I was intrigued.
Jem’s worried expression zoned in on me immediately when I returned inside. I sat down beside him, with Ky across from us. “Can we end our tutoring session a bit earlier this afternoon? I have plans with my family.” I nodded once, my mind drifting. “Hey.” Jem nudged me with his shoulder. I slowly focused on him. “Are you okay?”
Is that your favorite word? You know I’m still around. I won’t leave you when I know–– Never mind.
The faery’s voice soothed the nerves I did not realize had taken over. As much as I wanted him to spill everything, I was grateful that the skin-crawling sensation had vanished. The chill his presence brought was different from this feeling. It might only be because I knew he would do nothing to hurt me and that the newcomer was probably malevolent. I had long since stopped assuming things, even before Kelsey and Meghan had moved away. Jem wrapped one arm around my waist comfortingly. That was the good thing about his and Ky’s relationship: My friend wasn’t jealous when he was helping me.
I curled into his side. There was a growl somewhere behind me that I ignored. It was a possessive sound, not an evil one. ...Okay, so maybe I wondered more about it than I truly blocked it out. Jem and Ky didn’t seem to notice anything strange, though, meaning I had little time to dwell.
At the end of the day, I was happy to go home in Jem’s car instead of on the bus. That was the plus side of tutoring people; I never took that sweaty, smelly iron trap anywhere. I knew that was the only thing Ky envied me on.
“You seem better now than you did at lunch,” he remarked after we were seated at his kitchen table.
Of course, that was because I had a faery constantly saying things to cheer me up every time I became even the slightest bit depressed. But I couldn't say that in good conscience. Playing with my pendant, I lied, “I don’t feel better.”
Predictable, the sidhe chuckled. I bit back a smirk.
“Ky told me she wanted to keep it a surprise, but you’re just so upset I don’t think she’ll mind.” He hesitated a beat. I lifted my eyes to his solemn hazel gaze. “She and Meghan booked trips to Oregon for spring break. The three of you are staying with Kelsey for five days, as a reunion, kind of.”
Trepidation shot up my spine this time. I should have been excited. “Let’s get started,” I mumbled, distracted.
His mention of spring break reminded me that we simply had tomorrow standing in our way. The prospect of seeing my blondes, as I once thought of them, was tantalizing. I expected to hear the faery during the whole tutoring session, but he had gone away as soon as I entered Jem’s house. I actually missed him, now that I was allowed to remember him.
Allowed? What the hell?
Oregon was rainier than Jersey. When Ky complained about it, Meghan claimed that Louisiana was somewhere in between. I preferred nighttime, but I still could not live without the sun. Although, I had to admit not even two hours later in Kelsey’s foster home, I liked the drizzle and overcast.
Walking around an Oregon mall was another matter.
“It sounds crazy to my own ears,” Kelsey began as she twirled in the twelfth dress she’d tried on. She and Ky were the girly-girls, and Meghan, although she was more tomboyish, agreed to go shopping with them. I refused to try on anything, which somehow designated me as their private fashion designer. I didn’t have much taste for fashion; I didn’t understand any of this. “I took a weeklong job with the traveling circus in town.”
Ky’s head jerked up from the heels she was eyeing on a shelf nearby. “And this week happens to fall on our vacation? Are you serious, Kels?”
“Sadly,” she answered with a shrug, not sounding very apologetic.
The weird part was that I expected her to feel sorry for ditching us during a shared vacation. Or at least be upset. Instead, Kelsey, who had never been truly happy since her parents’ deaths, had the kind of contented air I could feel from where I sat.
Raking a hand through my knotted bangs, I asked, “Now we have to come watch a show, don’t we?” I looked past her and into the full-length mirror. My natural summer highlights were back, but there was a darkness around my eyes I hadn't noticed in a long time.
On cue, Kelsey pulled three tickets out of the pocket of her jeans. She disappeared into the dressing room to try another outfit. She apparently did pre- and post-show food work for the animals, go figure, and got into shows for free. I did a double take when I saw the date and time of this particular show.
Tonight. We were going to see it tonight.
“Do you hate me, Kels?” I demanded. She hung up her clothes on the dressing room rack and led the way out. I did not drop the topic. “We just went through a travel day, and shopping, and now you’re dragging us to the show immediately after? There’s only so much I can do without passing out, I hope you know.” It was none of my friends who infuriated me. It was the sense something was watching me, something evil. And I had no idea where my dark faery was.
Meghan pressed a latte into my hand. I'd been beginning to wonder where she went. “You need some caffeine, Starr. Relax.”
They did not feel it. They never did. I could train them –– and I had –– but they were not fighters. Whatever had its watch on me, I was alone in facing it. I went into the next store brooding. Setting down the latte on the bench next to me, I blankly looked over my friends’ styles as they attempted one thing after another. My focus was on the too-dark shadow on the other side of the huge room.
“Oh my God!” Not two seconds after leaving yet another boutique, the exclamation caught me off-guard. Ky rushed over to the growing crowd near the mall's fountain, calling over her shoulder, “Catch ya later!”
Kelsey squealed and followed in her wake. “Fan girl much?” Meghan complained before I could. She paused for a minute, blue eyes fixed on something in the center of the commotion. “Uh, Starr…” I lifted my gaze from my empty Starbucks.
Desire for another latte fled from my mind. A faint whitish glow shone above the throng of excited fans. I had not seen who was there, nor did I need to. K-squared only ever freaked about something involving their favorite teen author. Meghan backed away from the sight, looking for somewhere to wait this out.
“You’re the first two girls to ignore my looks.”
We stopped dead in our retreat. Recognition shot through me before I even met his gaze. His shiver-inducing grin made Meghan turn away swiftly. She had a crush on him just like every other girl I knew, along with some guys. Not that she would ever admit it.
The grin vanished when the silver depths fell on me. “Your friends, Kelsey and Ky? They got signed books for both of you, I think. I was in a lot of chaos a minute ago.” The mirth in his voice did not show on his face. His features held an intensity that I could not figure out, even though I saw he wanted me to.
A ghostly hiss reached my ears. Those same unearthly depths flashed protectively. The darkness that had followed me all day peeled back with another hiss.
“You looked like you were having fun,” I taunted with no intention of talking about what just happened. “Famous author, and I have no clue what your name is, pretty boy.” I elbowed Meg to get her out of her daze. “If you don’t mind, we have plans.”
“Ash Winters,” he chuckled. “I’m sure we’ll meet again.”
Meghan purposely bumped into me as Ky and Kelsey joined us. I glared at her. “My name is Meghan Chase,” she chimed in like a normal person. “That’s Kelsey Hayes and Ky Black. The sarcastic one is Starr Lord. Maybe you could look us up sometime?” I choked on the air I was breathing. Yep, she was still socially awkward.
Laughter sparked in the silver depths. I doubled over coughing in a painful attempt to disguise my own mirth. Ice crept across my ribs soothingly. Without mentioning what he did for me or even saying goodbye, I stalked away from the pretty boy and my three friends. There was an aura of power that I didn’t like when I was around all of them. I would take that shadow-stalker over the so-called teen author anytime. Ash confused me. At least I knew the darkness was bad.
“Starr, wait!” I didn't stop. Kelsey had to run to catch up with me. “Don’t shoot the messenger, okay?” I turned my mutinous gaze on her, wishing I knew what the hell was going on these past several days. Kels flinched at whatever she found there. “I just wanted to warn you. A month before he was published, Ash was part of the rescue team that brought in the circus’s tigers. He’s coming to see how they’re doing tonight.”
An animalistic growl rumbled in my throat. Shocked, Kelsey halted and let the distance grow between us. I could not care less where Meg and Ky hid. I was more than pissed; if my friends were as smart as I gave them credit for, they would stay away from me.
It was less than a fifteen minute walk from the mall to the fairgrounds where the big top was set up. I gazed around the circus in pre-show mode. I had been too harsh on Kelsey. If there was a job for the fair amount she was paid each day, that lasted merely a week, and had different animals I loved, I would take it, too. I did not want to be here, though. Ash had ties to this place. I still had no way to connect him to my dark faery, or to explain why I trusted either one of them as much as I did.
My pendant flared, a bolt of light in the overcast day. The glow I hoped only I could see ended abruptly at one of the larger tents. I walked past temporary stalls and paddocks for the horses, missing my own gelding back home, before ducking behind a red flap. I went somehow miraculously unnoticed.
Three tigers with bright eyes focused on me immediately. My necklace grew hot against my skin. I usually kept it tucked under my collar, but I had to pull it out to keep it from burning me. I was pretty sure I started hallucinating that day when I first spoke with my dark faery. The visions kept getting worse and worse. Too bad I didn’t believe in coincidence.
Closest to me was the black tiger. His golden eyes reminded me of a pirate’s treasure: pretty to look at, deadly to touch. In the cage next to him, a white brute stared at me with icy cobalt irises. I continued farther into the tent, drawn to the more shaded corner away from the entrance. With a rugged pelt made unkempt from lack of self-grooming, the golden tabby had gotten to his feet by the time I reached him.
“You haven’t taken care of yourself, huh, mister?” I muttered, sitting down in front of the gate. The tiger padded over from his corner on stiff legs, tail flicking curiously. I fought the urge to reach out to him, not wanting to lose a hand, yet did not flinch when his warm cat breath swept over me. He rested his head on his paws, nose not quite touching the metal bars. Emerald depths watched me plaintively. “Kelsey always talked about your two companions. I guess you haven’t left much of an impression on her.” I lifted a hand but dropped it into my lap once more just as quickly. “I wasn’t going to watch the show tonight. But maybe if you join the act again, I’ll be convinced.”
The otherworldly green gaze was semi-familiar. The longer I held it, the more I thought I was losing my mind. A snarl erupted from one of the predators behind me. I shuddered.
My pendant flashed again, almost blindingly. As soon as the light dimmed, the possessiveness that had rolled off all three tigers in waves faded. Despite my better judgment, I leaned my head on the cage gate. Whiskers tickled the crown of my hair. For someone who had never been interested in anything except grades and sports, my heart ached suddenly with a loneliness I was unused to.
“I don’t know what to do,” I confessed softly. “I’m insane.”
Silky fur brushed against my forehead. An image burned into my mind of a hunter I thought I recognized. His name escaped my memory, though. Laced with terror and admiration, the vision held a murderous quality for the hunter.
“What the––?” I pulled back to meet the solemn emerald gaze of a freaking tiger. I had to be losing my mind, because there was no other explanation for it. My phone vibrated in my pocket, and I sighed. “I’ll see you during the show, okay, mister?”
No sooner had I gotten up and turned to leave than I heard a pitiful, deep sound of protest come from the cage. The voice was hoarse from lack of use; that was the only way I could describe it without wanting to check myself into a mental institution as soon as I left. I glanced over my shoulder at the golden tabby. He was sitting up with his tail curled around his paws, a silent promise waiting in his jewel-green eyes. A lump in my throat, I brushed past the black and white brutes who had watched the whole thing quizzically. I had to remind myself I would see them all tonight.Even Ash.