“Lena, quit moving!” Autumn pulled back the hairbrush. “I’m gonna tear your ear off!”
“I can’t help it!” Lena shivered. She sat on the edge of Autumn’s bed, her toes curling in the plush, pale yellow carpet. “I’m so nervous!”
Frustrated, Autumn grabbed her shoulders, trying to keep the fidgeting girl still.
“What’s there to be nervous about?” she asked. “We’re just going to a party!”
“I know, but,” Lena shook her head. “I’m going with the hottest guy in school!”
Autumn groaned, running the brush back through Lena’s hair. Since when had Jason’s looks been a factor in anything she did with him?
“I don’t care cute Jason is,” she said in annoyance. “We’ll never get anywhere if you don’t hold still!”
They’d already spent two hours trying to get ready. Autumn smoothed a wrinkle in her dress; strapless, light pink and floor-length. Her auburn hair fell in a thick braid down her back. Lena had insisted on a ponytail, a hairstyle she seemed obsessed with, but she was squirming so much that Autumn was close to giving up.
“Okay, okay,” Lena took a deep breath, doing her best to calm down. “He’s not even why I’m nervous. It’s that psycho bitch, Stephanie.”
So that was the problem. Autumn rolled her eyes.
“You shouldn’t care what she says,” she set the brush down and quickly put in a hair tie. She then wrapped a white strip of cloth around it, letting the loose ends hang freely. “She’s just jealous.”
Lena sighed, reaching for her backpack as Autumn slid off the bed.
“I’m pretty sure it’s more than that,” she muttered, slipping on her high-heeled sandals. Autumn stood at her vanity, gazing at three similar streaks of lipstick on her wrist. How many shades of rose could there possibly be?
“Hey, why’d you want me to put that thing in your hair?” Autumn glanced at her in the mirror. “Isn’t it supposed to be a choker or something?”
“Yeah,” Lena did the clasp on her necklace. “But I wanted to wear mine.”
Autumn turned to look at it, a pair of delicate silver chains with several small gems hanging from the lower one.
“That’s really pretty. Is it special?”
“This one’s my dad’s,” Lena touched the first gem, a diamond. Each jewel hung from its own chain, which grew longer the closer they were to the center. “The emerald’s Michael’s, the ruby’s mine and the sapphires are for Zach, Brianna and Kyle.”
“What about the last one?”
Lena gasped quietly, looking down at the deep purple gem.
“It’s an amethyst,” she whispered. “My mom’s…”
Autumn remembered the heartbreaking story had told her, how she’d barely survived her family’s massacre. She set down her chosen lipstick, going back to the bed and hugging her friend.
“You really miss them, don’t you?” she asked gently. Lena nodded, releasing a low sigh.
“The worst part is I know who…who killed them…”
“That’s what I don’t get,” she moved away. Lena always freaked out if she felt she’d been touched too long. Autumn couldn’t blame her. “If you know, why haven’t they been arrested? Why are they still free?”
“The cops couldn’t find any proof,” Lena bit the inside of her cheek, feeling that old hatred wake up again. “The gun didn’t have any prints, and they couldn’t figure out how the house burnt so quickly.”
“Look, I know it’s hard,” Autumn didn’t know what she could say to help Lena feel better, but she didn’t let it stop her from trying. “But they’re still looking out for you. They’re alive as long as you don’t forget about them.”
Lena sat quietly a moment before sniffling, wiping her eyes.
“I know you’re right,” she said. “It’s just…I still miss them.”
“And you’re always going to,” Autumn touched her shoulders. “But you can’t let it stop you from living your life.”
She looked up at the sound of a motor, smiling slightly when she saw Ty’s white car pull up to the curb.
“I can’t tell you to get over it,” she turned back to Lena. “But I know they wouldn’t want you crying the rest of your life. They’d want you to be happy.”
In response, Lena sighed again, wiping away the last of her tears. The short cry had actually felt kind of nice, almost cleansing in a way. Autumn returned her small smile, getting up and grabbing her coat.
“I’ll see if I can make them wait a few minutes,” she said jokingly. “You know how impatient they can be.”
Lena nodded, digging into the front pocket of her backpack again. Autumn shut the door softly behind her, what remained of her grin quickly fading. She still couldn’t believe how much Lena had been through; losing her family like that, forced to live with her vicious, abusive drunk of a stepmother. It was the last thing a person like her deserved!
There’s got to be a way to get her away from all that, she thought. But how?
“Is it even possible?”
“Is what possible?”
She gasped, looking up to see Ty. He was gazing curiously at her, tucking one of her spare house keys in his pocket. She’d almost forgotten she’d given him one. She stared at him, shaking her head when his question finally registered with her.
“I’m trying to think of how we could get Lena away from Kara,” she started. “The last thing she needs is to be stuck there any longer.”
“Yeah, but what can we do?” Ty turned to Jason, who was standing by the front window. “Hey, any ideas?”
“I don’t think there’s anything we can do,” Jason turned toward them. “I mean, there’s…”
He trailed off, his jaw dropping slightly. Lena waited at the mouth of the hall, a natural blush joining the powder on her cheeks. Her emerald gaze looked brighter than ever under dark eye shadow, ringed by thick black lashes. She fastened the sole clasp on her white fur bolero, giggling shyly as Jason stepped toward her. He took her hand, kissing it lightly.
“You look amazing,” he said softly. She took in his crisp appearance: black suit, white button-up shirt, dark blue tie. He’d shaved, as well, a small scar visible on his chin.
“So do you,” she smirked, seeing the low ponytail slung over his shoulder. “Even if your hair’s still longer than mine.”
He chuckled, letting his fingers tangle with hers.
“C’mon, we should get going,” he motioned toward the door, which was slightly ajar. “You don’t want those two to have all the fun, do you?”
She giggled again.
“That would just be wrong.”
The Vetra family manor was over two hundred years old, sitting on a large plot of land backed by the forest. The shaped trees and shrubs had withered from the cold, the lawn dusted with frost. Lena stepped from the backseat of Ty’s car, taking Jason’s arm as the four of them made their way up a beautifully-cut stone path. A small silver plaque engraved with vines stood out beside the ornate front doors, Isola etched in fancy script in the center. The compact mansion was even more stunning inside.
The heavy crimson drapes were drawn back from the large windows, allowing a stunning view of the clear night sky. Two deep green marble pillars held the upper hall, a grand staircase curving along the wall, the floor a swirled sea of white and black. An elaborately woven runner glided down the middle of three halls behind the pillars. Hanging proudly above it all was an opulent, glimmering chandelier.
All the wood was dark, highly-polished; on either end of the staircase stood a short, stout pillar wrapped in a carved vine, an old crest cut into the large orb resting on top. A rose in full bloom, a slim scroll wrapped loosely around its thorny stem. Etched into the scroll was the Amare è sacrifico. To love is to sacrifice.
Several timelessly elegant couples swayed to soft classical music drifting from hidden speakers. In each corner of the spacious room sat a stone vase filled with flowers, their petals floating gently to the floor. But Lena’s enchanted smile faded when her gaze returned to the arched front doors, falling on a familiar figure clothed in gold.
“What’s she doing here?” she hissed in Jason’s ear. He looked, subtly scowling.
“Nonna always invites Lance’s family,” he whispered back. “She thinks Stephanie and I should be together because they’re as rich as we are.”
“That’s not much to go on, especially since, well…” she shrugged, then looked back to Stephanie, who was talking to an attractive older couple. The man was tall, with thick white hair and bright, charming blue eyes. The woman looked unforgiving, her gray-streaked brown hair tied tightly in a braided bun. She caught Lena’s gaze, apologizing to Stephanie for cutting their conversation short. Lena felt Jason stiffen as the couple moved toward them, the woman’s dark eyes filled with thinly-veiled disgust.
“Jason,” she stopped in front of them. Her accent was smooth and flowing, a contrast to her sharp movements. “Who is this?”
“She’s a friend,” Jason slipped a hand over Lena’s, still tucked in the crook of his arm. “Una amica vicina.”
“My name’s Lena,” she did her best to disguise her irritation as nervousness. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. And Mrs. Vetra.”
“And just how do you know my grandson?” her voice showed no signs of softening.
“We’re in school together,” Lena felt her annoyance rise further. Who did this woman think she was, talking down to her like that? Mrs. Vetra sniffed, turning to Jason.
“Non ho mai capito perché continuate a insistere sul fatto che essendo parte di classe inferiore,” she snapped haughtily.
“Oh, tagliare la idiozie,” he returned sharply. “Non siamo al di sopra di chiunque.”
“Attento a come parli,” his grandfather interjected. It was the first time he’d spoken up. Jason flashed a sardonic smile.
“Lei merita per oltraggio Lena.”
His grandfather stared at him, unnerved when he met Jason’s harsh gaze. He turned to his wife, patting her hand.
“I think it’s best we go, dear,” his accent was just as elegant as hers, if a hint thicker. He led her away, still speaking in that soothing tone. “Let the boy do what he wants.”
“What was that all about?” Lena turned to Jason after they left. He groaned, putting a hand over his eyes.
“It’s just an old argument,” he sighed, letting his hand fall back to his side. “It’s not worth worrying about.”
He watched as his grandmother restarted her chat with Stephanie, his grandfather breaking away to speak with someone else. He turned back to Lena, giving a small smile.
“It’s a nice night,” he said. “C’mon, I’ll show you the garden.”
The back terrace was just as ornate as the rest of the manor, paved with the same intricately-cut stone as the front walkway. Soft white lights were string along the edge of a beautiful awning. Though the flower beds beyond it were bare, the lightly-misted space held a mystic charm all its own.
In the center of it all was a fountain, water spilling from conch shells held close by two tall, slender nymphs. Their heads were bowed, their eyes closed, their lips slightly parted, as though in song. Lena couldn’t contain her delighted gasp when she saw it, leaving him behind as she hurried to get a closer look. The level of detail was astonishing: the long, flowing strands of the nymphs’ hair, the matching shells, the drapes and folds in their simple, sleeveless robes.
Lena sat on the edge of the basin, reaching down to grab a flower that had fallen in the water. It was a half-opened rosebud, the light petals tinted silver by the moon. Jason sat next to her, turning to gaze at the fountain himself.
“My mom and I designed it,” he said. “Back when I was little.”
She twirled the rose slowly in her fingers, her other hand tucked under her bolero. Her eyes were alight, no doubt with memories of her own past.
“It’s kind of scary,” she said after a while. “How alike we are. We were both close to our moms, and we both had the chance for a normal life pulled out fro under us.”
“Yeah, but who’s to say what’s normal?” he stretched his arms over his head, draping one over her shoulders. She turned to him, looking as beautiful as the nymphs he’d helped his mother draw all those years ago. Giving her that same, sweet smile, he took the bloom from where it had fallen in her lap, carefully tucking the short stem into her hair.
His hand slipped to her cheek, his eyes never leaving hers. He found himself leaning closer, feeling her fingers brush against his chest. But she wasn’t stopping him, the gentle heat from her palm settling just over his heart. The arm around her shoulders drifted down to hug her waist.
The moment shattered as quickly as it had formed, the pair turning to see Stephanie striding quickly toward them.
“There you are,” she grabbed his arm, yanking him to his feet. “Nonna’s been looking everywhere for you!”
Jason bit back the scowl forming on his lips, about to tear his arm away when Lena stopped him. He flashed her a confused look, to which she gave a small shake of her head.
“You should really be in there,” she told him. “Don’t-”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Stephanie waved her off, dragging Jason along with her. He stared back until they got inside, merging with the growing crowd and soon vanishing from sight. Lena stayed on the basin’s edge, fisting her skirt and biting her tongue to keep the tears at bay. All the while, the tiny smile she’d given Jason was frozen on her lips.
“Hey, you okay?”
She looked up to see Chad, who looked dashing in his navy suit. A dark, thin crescent shone beneath his eye, no doubt the last remnants of the blow Jason had dealt him.
“I saw what Stephanie did,” he said. She’d been dancing happily in Jason’s arms when he’d passed them, Jason somehow making it look like he was enjoying himself. “She’s done it before, but I don’t think she’s ever been so obvious about it.”
He bowed slightly, offering his hand with a light smirk.
“I know I’m not him,” he started. “But you wanna dance, anyway?”
She managed a small giggle, taking his hand and letting him bring her to her feet.
“I guess I shouldn’t spend the whole night moping.”
He led her back inside, a new piece of music filling the air. It sounded familiar, though she couldn’t place where she’d heard it before. Chad let his other hand settle on her waist, grateful for the waltz Autumn had suckered him into learning with her.
“I don’t usually come to these things,” he said softly. “Not my style.”
“What made you come this time?” her voice was wispy. Her fingers tightened on his shoulder. Why was she suddenly feeling like this?
“Figured I should, since you and Stephanie were bound to cross paths.”
“Yeah…” she glanced around, hoping to catch a glimpse of blood-red hair. How had she not noticed it before? “Is Lance here?”
Mr. Carter had arrived with his daughter, his son and newly ex-wife nowhere to be found.
“He’s probably at his mom’s place,” Chad grimaced. “Poor guy started puking his guts out just before we left.”
“Maybe it was something he ate.”
She managed to spot Stephanie, who was flirting with an older man. Another turn let her find Jason, speaking with his grandfather and several other men.
“I’m starting to wonder why he hangs out with us,” she mused absently.
“He’s not like his folks,” Chad said simply, then shrugged. “I’m pretty sure he’d deny where he came from, if he had a choice.”
He shuddered, recalling the terrible history he’d been an unknowing witness to.
“If I had to go through what he did, I doubt I’d keep it together,” he blew out a long breath. “Forget being able to move past it.”
A few more minutes passed the music soon fading into another piece. Lena pulled away from him, refusing to meet his gaze.
“Thanks, Chad,” she said softly. “But I need to find Autumn, I have to talk to her.”
She left, throwing a muttered ‘sorry’ over her shoulder. She felt the stares of several women burning into her as she wandered through the crowd, heard the whispers about the posters they had seen around town. What was a girl like that doing here? How had she gotten invited? Lena did her best to ignore the comments, staring at the floor to hide the tears filling her eyes.
She didn’t see the man in front of her until she’d walked into him, his drink splashing them both. She shrank away, waiting for him to throw the glass at her like Kara always did. Instead, he laughed, the sound fading when he realized how terrified she looked.
“Hey, it’s okay,” he offered a small smile; she barely glanced up at him before running off. “H-Hey, wait! Lena!”
She didn’t answer, making her way quickly back to the garden. The fountain felt like ice when she collapsed against it, but she didn’t care. It cooled her burning cheeks, the mixed sounds of sobs and falling water nearly muting the male voice behind her. He knelt next to her, putting an arm around her shaking shoulders.
“It was just water,” he said. “No reason to freak out.”
She sniffled, lifting her head. Most of her mascara and blush were now black and rose trails down her cheeks, matching smudges on the sleeves of her jacket.
“I-I’m such a screw-up,” she muttered, then coughed from crying so much. He tilted her chin back, her eyes widening when they met Jason’s. It was then she noticed the wet spot on his shirt, wishing more than ever that she could just disappear.
“No, you’re not,” he said seriously, almost angrily. “Don’t you ever think that.”
“B-But I am,” she argued, sniffling again. “I-I’m just-”
“The most amazing and beautiful girl I’ve ever met,” he finished for her. He gripped her shoulders, gazing at her so intently she found it impossible to look away. “I promise I’m not lying when I say that.”
He hated the fresh tears that welled in her eyes, taking her in his arms again and letting her cry into his chest. With her this close, he couldn’t help but notice the enticing mix of scents wafting from her; the familiar sweetness of her apple shampoo, the exotic lure of her orchid perfume. If it were any other occasion, he was sure it would’ve driven him wild. Lena hiccuped, pulling slightly back from him. He stroked her wet cheek, glaring at the lit manor from the corner of his eye.
“I think it’s time we got out of here,” he turned his attention back to her. “How about you?”
She chuckled weakly, drying her face with the sleeve of her jacket.
“I think that’s a great idea.”
Ty pulled into Autumn’s driveway, then cut the engine, leaning back with a sigh.
“Okay, remind me to never go to one of those things again.”
“Same here,” Autumn rubbed her forehead. “I don’t know how I keep forgetting Stephanie’s always there.”
Jason scoffed, turning from the window. He’d been staring at the black, jewel-studded sky the entire time, unaware of the fact Lena was slumped against him.
“So you guys are gonna make me suffer through those things by myself again?”
Ty glanced at him in the rearview mirror.
“You’re the one who keeps putting yourself through it,” he said simply. Jason turned back to the window, saying nothing. Lena yawned, rubbing her eyes.
“What’s going on?”
“We’re back at my house,” Autumn opened the door and stepped out. “About time, too.”
“You’re the one who was ‘so excited’ to go in the first place,” Lena reminded her. She climbed out of the car, wishing she’d remembered to grab a heavier jacket. The temperature seemed to have dropped several degrees in the short drive back, the growing breeze easily cutting through her clothes. She followed her friends to the porch, pausing when she realized Jason hadn’t yet gone inside. He was staring at the sky again, his arms tightly crossed. She turned to him, letting the door click shut.
“You really like staring into space, don’t you?” she asked. He smiled faintly, then sighed.
“I’m sorry about the way nonna treated you,” he said quietly. “She’s just dead-set on me being with Stephanie.”
Lena shrugged, moving to stand next to him.
“Don’t be,” she said. “I’m actually pretty used to people talking to me like that.”
“That doesn’t make it right,” he took out his ponytail, then loosened his tie.
“Why does she want you to be with Stephanie so badly?”
“Our family’s worked with the Carters since this place started,” he explained. “For some reason, she thinks me marrying Stephanie is the only way to keep that going. She even tried arranging it when we were kids.”
“Are you serious?” she took one of the chairs arranged in front of the living room window. “How old were you?”
“I was in kindergarten and Stephanie was a seven-year-old that still pissed herself,” he rolled his eyes. “Thankfully, everyone thought nonna was crazy when she brought it up.”
Lena laughed, briefly wondering how it would feel to plaster that secret all over the school.
Not that I’d ever do something like that.
Sure, stooping to a bully’s level could help in some cases, but in most all it did was cause more trouble. Another lesson she’d had to learn the hard way.
“Is that why Stephanie’s so possessive of you?” she asked.
“Yeah, she just can’t get that old idea out of her head,” he sighed again. “She actually used to be pretty cool.”
“I’m actually not finding that hard to believe,” she stood, shivering. “But we should get inside, it’s freezing out here!”
“You go ahead,” he turned, resting his folded arms on the railing. “I’m gonna stay out a bit longer.”
He felt her stare on his back, releasing a low breath when the door clicked shut. The air was still lightly scented with apples and orchids, reminding him of when she’d cried in his arms at the manor. He hated his grandmother for driving her to that, yet he couldn’t help the small flame that had sparked in his heart. It had been almost two years since Emily, since he’d last let himself get that close to someone. Yet it still didn’t stop the dark thoughts whirling in his mind, he doubted anything ever truly would.
I should’ve done it weeks ago, a tiny cloud of mist rose from his lips. Why’d I let it happen like this?
The wind picked up, blowing dead leaves and forgotten trash down the silent, empty street. The quarter moon seemed to stare at him, as though wondering why. Why did he feel this way? Why wouldn’t the feeling leave him alone?
I don’t know, but I have to go through with it. It’s…he choked down the bitterness of uncertainty. There was no going back, there couldn’t be. Not this time. It’s for the best.
He watched the sky a while longer, then slipped inside. Autumn and Ty were nowhere to be found, the faint noise down the hall telling him exactly what they were up to. Lena was curled up on the couch in the living room, her shoes on the floor next to it, her jewelry discarded in a small pile on the coffee table. She’d let her hair down, as well, the chocolate mane falling wherever it wished.
She still looks amazing, he brushed some of the dark strands from her face, pulling back when her eyelids fluttered. She turned her back to him, stretching her legs out. Her dress clung to every curve of her body, igniting more sensations Jason wished would stay hidden.
Get ahold of yourself, jackass!
He tore his gaze from her, grabbing the blanket thrown over the back of the recliner. Doing his best not to wake her, he draped it over her, his fingers ghosting along her side. Ty, Lance, Autumn, even Chad had hinted at the fact that she liked him, his joy quickly souring every time he thought about it.
It wasn’t the fact she could do better than him, though he knew that was true. Instead, it was the knowledge he wouldn’t be around for much longer. He hadn’t told any of them yet, not wanting to pile it on what was surely the pain of knowing him. He slipped back outside, leaning heavily against the door, wishing his life had taken any other path.
I shouldn’t let it control me, he thought. But I can’t…
He covered his mouth to quiet a hacking cough, the second fit that day. The familiar wetness splattered across his palm, his fear rising as he waited for the rest. But nothing else happened, a rare blessing indeed. He stared at his hand, breathing raggedly, still hardly able to believe the dark blood dotting his fingers. Just another nightmare that never seemed to end.
What the hell’s wrong with me?
“You’ve got to be kidding me…”
Lena stared at the house. It rivaled Isola in size, though was much more modern, the grounds iced with a thin layer of fresh snow. She’d woken up that morning to Ty talking quietly on his phone, saying something about the concert not going as well as he’d thought it would, then to Autumn shaking her when she’d dozed off again. Chad chuckled.
“You didn’t think Jason was the only rich guy in town, did you?”
“That’s not what I meant,” she shook her head. She really had to stop going into trances like that. “If Lance lives here, doesn’t that mean Stephanie does, too?”
“Mom kicked her out last week, Lance offered. Pale, with faint circles under his eyes, there were few other signs how sick he’d been the night before. “Said she was done dealing with her.”
“What’d she do this time?” Ty asked. Lance groaned.
“That’d take all day.”
He turned at the sound of a motor, a pale blue Porsche turning into the long driveway. It growled to a stop behind them, Stephanie stepping from the driver’s seat. Her shiny dark purple jacket clung to every curve, her tight black ski pants tucked into black boots. She scowled when she saw Lena, her eyes blazed behind vintage sunglasses.
“What the hell is she doing here?” she demanded. Lena flipped her hair, flashing a perfect copy of the girl’s usual, arrogant smile.
“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked. “I’m just here to piss you off.”
Chad was the only one who didn’t bother to try hiding his smirk. Stephanie glowered at them, shoving Lance aside on her way to the house. The door slammed shut, Ty winced.
“Maybe we should go around back.”
“Good idea,” Chad pulled a guitar case from his backseat, curling the strap over his shoulder. His old car was more rust than paint, but according to him, it ran like a dream.
“Actually, I think I’ll stay out here a while,” Lena said suddenly. Chad looked at her, then shrugged.
“If you want.”
He followed the others, taking Jason’s wrist.
“You wanted to help her,” he murmured, tilting his head toward Lena. She was staring at the sky, her arms wrapped tightly around herself. “Looks like now’s your chance.”
He walked away before Jason could protest, watching his friend from the corner of his eye. Like he’d expected, Jason was hesitating, staring at him before finally going to Lena. Chad shook his head. Jason was more messed up than he let on, his quiet, sometimes blunt demeanor just a shield for the terrified kid they’d known since they were little. A shield he knew would never break unless Jason tried to.
He, like Lance and Autumn, had thought Emily would be the one to do it, and for a while, it seemed like she had. But then she’d started acting possessive, going off whenever Jason said he had to do something that didn’t involve her. The poor guy had been fired more than once because of her, the emergencies she created to keep him away from work. She’d swallowed pills, slashed her wrists, they’d even caught her trying to hang herself.
Yet her parents had always said it was Jason’s fault, that he was a ‘vicious player’ who was leading their ‘precious little girl’ down her path of destruction. Their attitudes hadn’t improved after the incident on the bleachers, if anything, they’d gotten worse. Even before then, Jason’s own suicidal tendencies had been held back by threads; it had taken everyone he’d known months to drag him away from them.
He, Lance, Dante, even Stephanie had finally told Emily’s parents off after Jason’s third trip to the hospital in less than four months. Saying they had to open their eyes and realize the jealous, manipulative psycho their daughter had really been. They’d moved shortly after that, and now the only signs of Emily’s existence were a plaque, a painted rock and a small tombstone in a corner of the cemetery. Two of which he felt she didn’t deserve.
“Hey, Chad? Chad!”
“Huh?” Chad snapped his head up, realizing he’d been standing in the doorway. Lance was staring at him, concern plain on his face.
“Sorry,” he uttered a small, embarrassed laugh. “Uh, guess I stayed up too late last night.”
“I know that look,” the redhead told him. “What were you really thinking about?”
Chad looked over his shoulder, his jaw dropping when he saw Jason invite Lena into his arms. Lance followed his gaze, the faintest hint of a smile touching his lips.
“He’s getting there,” he gripped his friend’s shoulder. “But you know he’s gotta do it himself.”
“Yeah, I know,” Chad turned away, blowing out a breath. He followed Lance to the basement, where Autumn and Ty were already waiting. He’d done his p art, all he could do now was wait and see where it went.
Jason stared at Chad’s retreating form, seeing the blonde gazing subtly back at him. That old anxiety was welling up again, the feeling he’d done his best to hide every time he was near Lena. He eventually managed to tear his eyes away, turning toward her. She hadn’t moved, still staring at the sky like heavy gray clouds full of snow were the most interesting things in the world. He swallowed, forcing his fear down as he walked closer to her.
“Lena?” his voice cracked. He cleared his throat. “You okay?”
“Michael was in a band,” she was talking to herself, an act he knew both of them performed too often. “God, why does everything do remind me of them?”
He touched her arm, making her gasp sharply.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he took his hand away. “I wanted to make sure everything was okay.”
“I’m fine,” she shrugged. “Just lost in the past, I guess.”
He knew that feeling, that her words were just the tip of it.
“You blame yourself for everything, don’t you?” he asked gently. She slumped.
“I just feel like there was a lot more I could’ve done…”
“It wasn’t your fault,” he didn’t notice when his hand trailed to hers. “It was out of your control.”
She sniffled, and found himself hoping she wouldn’t start crying. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to handle that again.
“We always tried to make Dad see what was going on,” she said. “But he never listened to us.”
Jason felt his jaw tighten. Being ignored after finally gaining the courage to speak was just another concept he knew all too well. Just how alike were they?
“T-They say love’s blind,” he stuttered, feeling foolish. She gave a weak laugh.
“It must be deaf, too,” her smile faded. “He never seemed to hear what she said about us.”
A tear trailed down her cheek. She wiped it away quickly, the action suddenly making him wish she would start crying. Holding it in never led anywhere good.
“I know it’s hard,” he said comfortingly. “But they’re still looking out for you.”
She turned to him, no doubt picking up the flicker of pain in his voice. He held out his arms, surprised when she accepted. He couldn’t believe how good that made him feel.
“You said you lost your parents, too,” she whispered. A diversion so she could stop thinking about her own past, one more trick he recognized from experience. “How?”
“My old man lost control behind the wheel,” it amazed him how easily the words came. Where was the stone that made him choke on them? “To be honest, I didn’t really care when I heard about it. I thought they’d gotten what they deserved.”
He couldn’t believe he’d just said that, a page of the story most of his own family hadn’t even read. She brushed something from his shirt.
“You don’t mean that,” she started softly. “Do you?”
“They didn’t want to deal with their mistakes,” he pulled away. The joy of having her so close to him had soured, just like it always did. He knew he was saying too much, yet he couldn’t stop himself from continuing. “And now, I don’t have a choice.”
He left quickly, not wanting to see the reaction to his last words. He stuffed his numb hands in his pockets, locking the incident away like he did everything else. It didn’t matter how he felt about her, or how she felt about him, all that mattered was making sure neither of them got hurt again. And if pulling away now was the only way to do it, then do be it.
Lena watched him go, wondering what had just happened. One minute, he was getting her to share her hidden feelings, he’d even hugged her, and the next he was leaving her alone in the cold.
Had she gone too far when she’d asked what had happened to his parents? She’d only done so because she’d wanted to stop thinking about her past, having forgotten his scars were even worse. And not just the ones on his skin.
She remembered the conversation she’d tried having with Autumn and Ty on the way over, starting with what Chad had mentioned at the party the night before. Neither of them had been willing to offer much beyond what she’d managed to puzzle out on her own, and now Jason had gone and added yet another layer to the mystery.
What mistakes had he been talking about? Had one of his parents, or even both, been involved in something they shouldn’t have? Was his family still involved in it? If they weren’t, then was he the one taking the blame for their backing out? What could it have possibly been in the first place, to put him under so much stress about it?
Ugh, she put her hands to her temples, vaguely aware of how stiff they were. All these questions are making my head hurt…
She decided to tuck them away for later, in one of the many boxes crowding her mind. The school counselor had said it would help focus her feelings; instead, it just made it easier to ignore certain things, whilst also making it more difficult to ignore others.
She shivered when the wind picked up, looking up to see the weak sun fade behind heavy clouds. Something about the drab winter sky had always been soothing to her, reminding her of one of her favorite games when she was little.
Michael, or any relative that felt like playing at the time, would drape a blanket over her head, then pretend they couldn’t find her. Sometimes, she’d sneak off to a different room when they weren’t looking, determined to make the game last as long as she could.
It had just been one of many things to end when Kara entered their father’s life, when her he’d decided his family was no longer important to him. The brief reverie ended when she sneezed, making her remember that she still stood in the middle of a frozen lawn. She shivered.
“I really have to stop spacing out like that.”
She hurried inside, completely unaware of the dark gaze trained on her.
“Yes, you do,” he lowered his binoculars. “It makes this job even more boring.”
It had taken him weeks to plant all those damn microphones in the house and grounds, but the setup allowed him to pick up the smallest whispers, assuring him the secret was safe. Among several other things. He watched the girl’s retreating form, chuckling lewdly as he his scarred lips.
“Hey, no daydreaming,” a harsh voice crackled to life in his headset. “You need to be ready at a moment’s notice.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he rolled his eyes. They never let him have any fun anymore. “But why bother taking her out in the first place?”
“He’s bound to tell her eventually,” his boss snapped. “Even if he doesn’t, we can’t afford the risk.”
“But won’t taking her out just-”
“Enough!” the voice dripped with more anger than usual. “Your job now is surveillance, not asking questions of creating theories. We need to get rid of her, understand?”
He rolled his eyes again. Could this old man get anymore aggravating?
The connection clicked out. He yanked off the headset, barely resisting the urge to throw it to the frost-covered ground. He sat in an old hunter’s nest on the edge of the Carters’ property, freezing his ass off while the boss sat behind his desk in a warm office at headquarters. But the lazy son of a bitch was paying more than his last four employers combined, so he guessed he couldn’t complain too much.
What danger does that girl pose to us, he moved from his kneeling position, crossing his legs. If he’d known he was going to spend this much time watching this place, he would’ve taken the time to turn the old nest into something more comfortable. What will taking her out really do for us?
He sighed, turning back toward the mansion. It was close in size to the Vetras’, though without the sprawling grounds and elaborate, old-fashioned décor. He perked up when another young woman stomped out the front door, whirling to glare at a random window on the second floor.
“You bitch!” her angry shout could be heard through the headphones still around his neck. “This isn’t over!”
She stormed toward the blue Porsche he’d watched her arrive in, the engine roaring as she blazed back down the driveway. A vile grin flicked across his narrow lips, a dark laugh slipping from his throat.
“Well, well,” he brought down the binoculars. “Looks like I’ve found an ally.”
Stephanie slammed her bedroom door, grabbing her old stuffed bear from a shelf, pressing it to her mouth before yelling out in anger. From the high ceiling to the hardwood floor, her room was every shade of red she’d been able to find. The only touches of other shades were the charcoal and pencil sketches she’d taped to the walls, along with the dartboard hanging on the back of her door.
The picture of Lena she’d photoshopped was tacked over the bulls eye, nearly every inch full of pinpricks. She grabbed a dart from the plastic basket on her dresser, stabbing it into the picture’s throat. She then flopped on her bed, turning on her side and staring longingly at the framed photo on her nightstand.
“Oh, Jason,” she touched the picture, smiling slightly at the scribbled-out face next to his. It hadn’t taken long to make Emily think the way she’d wanted her to, to make her obsess over him to the point of harming herself to keep him by her side. Sure, things hadn’t gone exactly as she’d planned, but they’d still worked out in the end. “Why are you doing this to me?”
She traced the edge of his cheek with her nail, following it to his then chin-length hair. It had been the first day she’d seen him with his braces, that she’d wondered if he’d ever grow out of his baby face phase.
“I don’t want anyone else to have you, Jason,” she went on sadly. “You’re mine!”
She gripped her pillowcase, gritting her teeth as tears ran across her nose. She’d been too young to understand when they’d met, but she’d fallen for him the moment he’d laid those beautiful onyx eyes on her. Those feelings had grown year by year, evolving into an all-consuming love. They’d be perfect together, she just knew it.
Why can’t he see that?
It was Lena, that had to be it, just like it had been Emily before her. She’d almost ensnared him when those bitches came along, each whisking him away without a second thought. If only there were some way to get rid of her. After a moment’s thought, she giggled, recalling the plan Alex had spelled out for her the week before.
“Oh, that’s perfect!”
She grabbed her phone, dialing Eric’s number. The muscle-bound, yet boyishly cute jock was completely under her spell, a stupid, obedient puppy dog.
“Eric, baby,” she put on her most seductive tone, knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist. “Call me when you get this, there’s something I need you to do for me.”
She tucked the phone back in her pocket, then slipped off the bed. She grabbed the bag sitting by her closet, throwing in the last of her things. Her mother had finally gone through with the promise she’d be kicked out if she kept smoking in the house.
No big deal, Stephanie shrugged. I like Dad better, anyway.
She stopped short in the hall, seeing Lena across from her. The girl had just finished in the bathroom, patting her still-damp hands on her jeans.
“Oh, hey, Steph,” she flashed a cheerful smile. “How’s it going?”
Stephanie glared at her.
“I know what you’re trying to pull,” she said angrily. “And it won’t work. Jason’ll come back to me, you’ll see.”
Lena stared at her, then took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.
“Okay, look,” she started calmly. “I don’t wanna keep fighting with you. Can’t we just get along?”
Stephanie sneered, her glower growing darker.
“Sure,” she said sarcastically. “When you learn to keep your filthy hands off my boyfriend.”
She shoved past before Lena could answer, stalking downstairs.
That bitch really thinks she can fool me, she laughed at the thought. Well, if she still thinks she can get away with stealing my man, she’s got another thing coming.
Jason set his guitar in its case. He’d barely been able to concentrate during practice, fully aware of Lena sitting on the floor just a few feet away. She really was beautiful when she smiled, the thought making it even harder to keep his voice from cracking, or skipping a chord and throwing the whole group off-track.
He’d ended up calling it quits a half-hour early, relieved when she and Autumn left on a shopping trip. Lance had gone upstairs to order pizza. He could hear Ty speaking quickly in Spanish, no doubt telling his over-protective parents he wasn’t getting kidnapped every time he left the house. Chad was leaning against the stair railing, tuning his base.
“You know, you’re gonna have to tell her sometime,” he said. Jason clipped the case shut.
“What do you mean?” he asked. Chad scoffed.
“We all know how much Lena likes you,” he went on. “Why not tell her how much you like her?”
“I already did,” he got to his feet, clutching the handle tightly. “And that’s as far as its gonna go.”
“What?” Chad looked at him. “Why wouldn’t you-”
“It’s too dangerous,” Jason cut him off. “You know that as well as I do.”
Chad set his bass down next to him, scratching his head.
“I’m pretty sure you’re just overreacting,” he crossed his arms. “I mean, what’s the worst that could really happen?”
Jason glowered at him.
“I don’t even have to explain that,” he said. “This is the only way to keep her safe.”
Chad tilted his head, cocking a brow.
“You sure about that?”
He watched the unsure expression bloom on his friend’s face, the hesitance flash in his dark gaze. Chad pushed away from the wall, going to Jason’s side and taking his shoulder.
“She might be in danger now,” he said seriously. He waited for Ty to head upstairs before continuing. “You really think she’ll be able to last much longer like this?”
Jason shrugged his hand off, looking at the floor. Chad could see the wheels turning in his head, the struggle to figure out the best option. Finally, he seemed to reach a decision, turning back to meet his friend’s gaze.
“Fine, I’ll do it,” he lowered his voice. “But if anything happens to her, it’s on your head.”
“Don’t worry, she’ll be okay,” he stepped aside. “Who knows, she might even end up helping you.”
“I doubt it,” he paused on the stairs. “I just really hate seeing her like this.”
Chad watched him go, letting out a relieved sigh.
They both need this, he told himself. Lena had to see what it was like to be happy again, and Jason had to learn there were people he could trust besides himself. And what was the worst that could really happen?
Just hope I’m doing the right thing.
“I can’t believe Lena’s still out,” Autumn looked around the cafeteria. It had been almost a week since she’d last seen or heard from Lena; she was starting to get worried. Ty swallowed, wiping his mouth.
“She’s probably still sick,” he said. She turned to him.
“You know what Kara’s like more than any of us,” she told him. “How can you be so sure about that?”
“Look, lately Kara’s either drunk or who-knows-where,” he got up to throw his tray away. “I really don’t think she’s much of a threat anymore.”
“Well, yeah, but…” she trailed off. Was she getting herself worked up over nothing? “But Lena hasn’t answered any of my texts. How do you explain that one?”
“Maybe she left her phone in her locker,” Lance and Chad sat down across from them, Chad’s food already half-gone. “Or she’s just tired of you bugging her.”
Autumn rolled her eyes, running a nail along the edge of her spring green metal lunch box.
“Can you really blame me?” she asked. Ty rubbed the back of his neck.
“Well, you do like getting carried away,” he said. Chad nodded.
Autumn didn’t answer, turning when she heard footsteps behind her. The first thing she saw were the angry red scratches on Jason’s cheek, going from his ear to his chin.
“Damn,” Chad laughed. “What happened to you?”
“Chelsea’s cat,” he sat down, taking a plastic container from his backpack. “She knows I’m allergic, but she keeps bringing the damn thing around.”
“He probably wouldn’t scratch you if your face didn’t scare him so much,” Autumn cut in. “Would it really kill you to smile more?”
He ignored her, half-heartedly digging into his pitiful attempt at a salad. Lettuce leaves, cherry tomatoes and thinly-sliced carrots tossed in for good measure; it was all he’d been able to eat the past week without getting sick. Lance pushed his tray aside, the undercooked tuna casserole the only thing left untouched.
“So, uh, how’s Lena doing?” he asked. It was a minute or two before Jason answered, lightly tapping his fork on the rim of the container.
“I…don’t really know,” he admitted. “I’ve just given her what she’s missed and then…left.”
Lance and Ty groaned, Chad facepalming. Just when they’d thought things were starting to change.
“Are you serious?” Chad asked. He refrained from adding ‘what’s wrong with you?’, already knowing the answer. “You can’t just leave her hanging like that!”
“Well, what do you expect me to do?” Jason shot back. “It’s not like I can-“
“Lena’s not gonna do what Emily did,” Lance told him. “You need to let go of that already!”
“I-It’s not-!” Jason grit his teeth, lowering his voice. “It’s not like that…”
“Then what is it, Jason?” even Autumn was sounding annoyed now. “Is it because of your-”
He glared harshly at her; she snapped her mouth shut. So that was it. He was afraid of getting close to Lena because there was no way to avoid hurting her in the end. His shoulders slumped.
“She’s been through too much already,” he sounded thoroughly defeated. “I don’t want her crying over me.”
A mocking laugh sounded behind him.
“You really think someone would waste their time crying over you?”
Jason looked over his shoulder, his eyes narrowing. It had been years since he’d last seen the man smirking down at him and, like many things, it was a cruel memory that refused to fade. His dark brown hair was slicked back as always, the cold, arrogant glint in his dark blue gaze still enough to make Jason’s stomach turn. The man’s gleaming white smile widened.
“Hey, there, cuz,” false pleasantry leaked through his accent.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Jason demanded. The man laughed again.
“È che ogni modo di parlare con la tua famiglia?” he asked.
“Non siete la mia famiglia,” Jason returned sharply. The man’s oily grin wilted slightly.
“Non hai ancora dimenticato, che hai?”
“Just tell me what the hell you’re doing here,” Jason switched back to English. The man shrugged, his smile finally fading.
“My parents said it would be good for me to live here a while.”
“Why?” Jason copied the smirk from earlier. “They have to bail your ass out too many times?”
The man scowled at him, then left. Jason turned back to the table.
“Great,” he muttered angrily. Ty looked at him.
“Who was that?”
“My cousin, Gabriele,” he explained. “I’ve got a bit of bad history with him.”
“What do you mean?” Autumn asked curiously. He shook his head.
“I’d rather not talk about it.”
He put away the remains of his lunch, leaving before they could question him further.
Lena groaned, leaning back until she stared at the ceiling. Her throat was itching like crazy, she’d lost track of how long she’d been holding back the need to cough. Her head felt like it was pulsing, her nose rubbed raw from blowing it what felt like every five minutes. Still, as much as she hated being sick, she had to admit it was better than having to deal with all the drama at school.
She turned to the pile of half-finished work on the coffee table, the biggest problem of the past week. It was bad enough she didn’t get most of it, she’d also become obsessed with figuring out what Jason was really hiding. There was something under the emotional and physical scars left by his childhood, but what was it?
She groaned again, ready to tear her hair out when the doorbell rang. Just like it had every afternoon for the last four days. Jason waited on the porch, playing with the open zipper of his dark leather jacket, yet another blue folder tucked under his arm. Lena smiled to herself as she opened the door, deciding it would be fun to try getting a rise out of him.
“So, is this gonna be any different,” she crossed her arms, leaning against the doorframe. “Or are you just gonna hand me the crap and leave like you usually do?”
He winced lightly, his braces catching the late winter sunlight.
“I’ve…had stuff to do,” he offered weakly. She cocked her head slightly.
“Like working in your piss-pot uncle’s garage?”
A flash of anger hit his eyes, she’d finally struck a nerve.
“Okay, what’s with you?” he snapped. “I know you’ve been cooped up lately, but don’t take it out on me!”
“I don’t have anything else to take it out on,” she countered smoothly. “So why shouldn’t it be you?”
He stared at her a moment, the anger fading as quickly as it had appeared.
“What’s this really about?” he asked. “I doubt staying home’s got you this pissed.”
Her response was a shiver; she pulled him inside, shutting the door behind him.
“Sorry, I’m just exhausted,” she half-heartedly covered a yawn. “This is the first day I haven’t been puking nonstop and I’ve barely slept this week.”
“Oh, is that all?” his tone was slightly sarcastic, yet sincere at the same time. She sighed, turning to the living room. The stack of homework on the coffee table looked even bigger than it had earlier.
“I don’t get any of this stuff,” she admitted. “And Kara took my phone because she found out my grades are in the toilet.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” he felt like a genuine ass for locking her out now. She scoffed.
“You didn’t really give me a chance,” she lowered her head, fear underlining her calm words. “And I didn’t want to give Stephanie another reason to hate me.”
He gave a small chuckle, tilting her chin back with his hand.
“She’s not here now, is she?”
Lena let the pencil slip from her grasp. The work she’d struggled with all week, done in less than two hours! It had all made perfect sense once Jason had explained it to her; she turned to him, unable to hide her excited smile.
“Who are you,” she asked jokingly. “And what did you do with Jason?”
“This stuff’s always been easy for me,” he shrugged. “Never really thought much about it.”
She giggled, moving slightly closer to him.
“So, is there anything else you’re hiding from me?”
She watched as the grin faded from his face, relief visible in his eyes when the front door clicked shut. A tall, slim older woman entered the room; attractive, ash-blonde, wearing a tailored blue skirt suit. Her eyes narrowed slightly.
“Lena, who’s this?” she glanced at him, lifting a finely-plucked brow.
“I’m a friend from school,” he went over and shook her hand. Good manners had been ingrained in him since birth. “My name’s Jason.”
“Jason, I’m sorry, but,” she looked past him. “Am I interrupting something?”
He put his hand in his pocket when she let go; there was something about her touch that gave him the creeps.
“I was just helping Lena with the work she’s missed this week.”
“Oh, should I let you get back to it?”
“We just finished,” he noticed her fine silver watch. “And there’s somewhere else I have to be right now.”
She smiled, looking to Lena.
“There’s something we have to talk about, but it can wait until you two are done.”
She went to the kitchen, setting her purse on the counter. Lena grabbed a small blanket draped over the arm of the couch, wrapping it around her shoulders. She followed Jason outside, sneezing.
“You sure it’s okay for you to be out here?” he asked worriedly. A breeze tipped with ice blew through his hair. Lena sniffed, pulling the blanket more closely around her.
“I just had to get away from her,” she muttered.
“Why? She seemed okay to me.” For the most part.
She shook her head.
“It’s all an act,” her fingers tightened on the blanket. “Believe me.”
He touched her shoulder, feeling her shake.
“This isn’t gonna last forever,” he assured her. “You’ll be on your own soon, and you’ll never have to look back.”
She scoffed, shrugging his hand off.
“Why does it feel like you’re giving me a pep talk?” she glared half-heartedly at him. He smiled.
“You looked like you needed one.”
His phone vibrated, reminding him of his other priority. His uncle Valerio hated it when he was late, even more than Luca did.
“Hey, I’ve gotta go,” absently, he brushed her cheek. “Just make sure you’re better by Sunday, okay?”
She looked at him.
He flashed a mysterious smile, winking at her.
She blushed, watching as he climbed in his car. He woke the engine, throwing her a brief wave before taking off. She waved back, feeling her heart start to race.
Why do I like him so much?
The quarter moon was lost behind fog and sleet. A lone figure hurried through the woods, his pants and boots soaked from splashing through half-frozen puddles. He slowed to a stop when he reached the river; ten feet across, the water flowing too quickly for ice to form. The only way to pass was a centuries-old bridge, the rotting planks that made up its narrow, decrepit body creaking with every step. The insistent echoes stayed in his ears long after he’d crossed, doing nothing to silence the thoughts that whirled through his mind.
You can’t do this, he told himself. You can’t betray them like this!
He knew it didn’t matter what team he ended up playing for in the end, that any choice he made would mean the death of someone he cared about. The worst part was there was no chance of escape; they had made sure of that.
Ugh, there has to be something I can do, he thought helplessly. Maybe id I…
“Are you gonna notice me any time soon?”
He looked up, seeing Anya. Her arms were crossed, a light smirk gracing her cherry-red lips. The maelstrom in his head finally quieted at the sight of her, just like always. He chuckled.
“I’d go blind if I looked at you too long,” he said charmingly. She laughed.
“I’ll be taking that as a compliment, if you don’t mind.”
He chuckled again, following her into the hut. Why she insisted on using the rundown place he’d never understand. As usual, a line of needles waited on the steel tray, a small black cooler sitting on the floor next to the stand. They hadn’t needed the extra blood or fluids yet, he doubted they ever would, but he was glad to see she cared enough to have them on hand. He pulled off his jacket, sitting on a tall stool as termite-eaten as the wall he leaned against.
“Well, let’s get started.”
She nodded, pushing up his shirt. The scars on his back, faded as they were, stood out to her as much as ever. She shuddered, telling herself not to think of how he had gotten them. Her hands shook as she soaked a scrap of cloth with the new sterilizing compound; some of the scientists had expressed a concern that normal rubbing alcohol affected the potency of the serums. Considering what was in most of them, it didn’t surprise her.
Quickly, she wiped down the injection sight, a clear space right in the middle of his back. She grabbed the first needle, taking off the clouded plastic cap. It may have been a trick of the light, but she could have sworn the liquid inside shifted from brown to a deep red. Swallowing, she steadied her hand, hearing his pained groan as she let the tip sink into his spine.
The effects were nearly instant, his body falling into violent spasms, his veins swelling as the mixture rushed through his blood. His eyes seemed to glow faintly, a thin, clear fluid dripping from his nose and lips. Anya bit the inside of her cheek, barely keeping hold of her calm demeanor as she struggled to give him the second shot.
“I’m sorry I have to do this…”
He tore at his face, his short nails tearing away shards of flesh. Every inch of his body burned to the touch, his ragged screams cut short as his jaw locked shut. A leg snapped on the stool, a muffled cry sounding when he caught himself on his hands. He looked up at her through tangled, sweat-soaked hair, shaking as he fought to gasp out a single sentence.
“P-Please, t-tell me it’s over…”
Anya choked, taking the last four syringes from the tray.
“I-If I don’t give you all of them,” she whimpered helplessly. “H-He’ll kill us.”
“I…already feel like I’m…d-dying,” he clenched his jaw, no doubt holding back another cry. “J-J-Just do it!”
She obeyed, administering them as quickly as she could. He screamed more with each one, no doubt feeling like every cell was being ripped apart. It wasn’t long before his eyes rolled back in his head, revealing whites stained red with blood. At last, the spell slowly began to fade; he gave a relieved sigh as he finally collapsed. Anya could only stand and stare, her soft sobs muted by the howling wind.