Deadly Pretenses: A New Adult Paranormal Romance

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" We’re here!” my dad cheerfully announced to the passengers of the Yukon.

I begrudgingly opened my eyes and sat up in the backseat. I so wasn’t ready for this. Nobody even cared how I felt about moving. My world was getting turned upside down because of some ridiculous job transfer my dad took. From the second row, my 6-year-old brother and 4-year-old sister squealed with excitement. I frowned and crossed my arms defiantly over my chest. My siblings wouldn’t even notice any change—they were too young. But that wasn’t my reality. My life had been centered around the hustle and bustle of the Windy City: goofy family pictures in front of the Bean at Millennium Park, taking in a Cubs game at Wrigley, fireworks on the Fourth of July at Navy Pier. Now all of it was being replaced with horse-drawn carriage rides and Trolley Tours through downtown Savannah! What a crock of shit!

I gazed down at my phone, smiling sadly as I scrolled through photos of my friends back home. This was what I knew! How could they just expect me to pack up everything I owned and move across the damn country?

“Oh Coco!” my mom exclaimed, her eyes sparkling as she took in the sights and sounds of the city. “Isn’t this the best?”

“Oh, the very best,” I replied, my voice dripping with sarcasm.

I gazed out the window, taking in the historical landmarks and painted Victorian houses with their well-manicured gardens. Ornately adorned horses guided antique carriages along the cobble‐ stoned streets, click-clicking as they traveled through the square and past the boutique and souvenir shops with their period gas-lamps that lined both sides of the avenue.

“Horsee!” my sister Emerson shouted, clapping her hands happily.

Our Golden Retriever, Samson, put his paws up on her lap and wagged his tail at her excited outburst. “Samson, down,” I commanded, snapping my fingers, and pointing at the floorboard. He obeyed, his large brown eyes looking to me for further guidance.

We passed by the stately Forsyth Fountain and its oak-shaded park, each tree branch stretching and twisting upward to create a darkened canopy. Tufts of Spanish moss strewn casually among the branches provided a macabre ambiance. My dad swung the car to the right, heading out of town. The beautiful scenery of numerous lakes and rivers greeted us as we traveled along an isolated stretch of drive named Greenwich Road. I read the sign aloud as we passed the entrance: “Greenwich Cemetery, established 1933.” The oak trees swayed in the breeze, their winding branches overlapping to create a darkened canopy above the headstones. A rush of cold air swept over me, causing the hair on my arms to stand on end. I rubbed them furiously, trying to generate warmth.

At my feet, Samson lifted his head and started growling, uncharac‐ teristically on edge. I frowned. “What’s wrong, Sam?” He whimpered, trying to convey his nervousness.

I rolled my eyes and glanced back at the graveyard. That’s when I saw her: standing by the road as the rusted iron gates swayed in the breeze. She raised her arm slowly and pointed a single bony finger at me. Her hair was matted against the side of her misshapen head, covered in blood that oozed over her face. Her long, ice-blue gown was torn and tattered, fluttering in the wind behind her. Patches of mottled skin hung from her face in chunks and a gaping abdominal wound gushed freely with darkened blood.

“Colette,” a haunting voice called through the earbud lodged in my left ear.

I quickly yanked it and spun around in my seat, staring out the rear window of the Yukon. Somehow, she had disappeared without a trace. I shook my head in disbelief, uncertain of what I had just witnessed. Going on a mere four hours of sleep, surely my tired eyes had fabricated that!

My thoughts returned to the promising words my mother had just uttered. “Yeah, seems like a great place Mom,” I mumbled.

The SUV took a sharp right turn into a gravel driveway. A wrought iron fence greeted us at the perimeter as rows of Live Oak Trees lined both sides of the drive, allowing slim beams of sunlight to peek through thick tufts of Spanish Moss. Our Yukon pulled up to an overgrown circle drive and came to a stop in front of a looming Greek-Revival style home. We climbed out of the vehicle and stood in front of the massive structure, taking in the Antebellum Architecture. The large covered front porch was supported by solid, Ionic pillars. The extravagant double-door entry served as the focal point of the structure and overlooked the expansive property and once-magnifi‐ cent gardens. The large, floor-to-ceiling windows adorned the face of both the main porch and stately balcony above.

“Big house!” my brother Mason exclaimed, pointing. He released my dad’s hand and raced toward the house.

The rest of us followed suit, ambling up the creaky steps of the front porch. Dad pushed open the front doors and we stepped inside, greeted by an enormous foyer, and a sweeping open staircase. Mom coughed as dust particles swarmed around us. She walked over to the adjoining dining room and opened a window.

“It’s a bit musty. Let’s air this place out.”

I looked up at the antique, crystal chandelier that hung above us in the two-story foyer. The home’s architecture was so vastly different than the Chicago loft I grew up in. Thick, plastered beams replaced Plexiglas walls and the industrial, metal spindles and floating steps of our former staircase lacked the grandeur of the intricately carved wooden balusters and continuous, curved handrail that lined our new, sweeping stairwell. I walked around the main floor and proceeded into the parlor, bedazzled by its prominent marble fireplace and tall, ceiling-to-floor windows with full-length curtains and swag valances. Proceeding through the Butler’s pantry, I headed into the kitchen with its glass cabinets and single basin sink. Rounding the corner, I real‐ ized that I had made a complete circle and now stood in the rear of the two-story entry hall.

A row of pictures and an ornate, full-length mirror were tucked away behind the staircase. A large painted canvas beckoned to me. Prominently displayed, it featured a beautifully painted replica of our plantation home. I ran my fingers along its edge, admiring the artist’s talent. My eyes traveled to the inscription scribbled in the lower right-hand corner: To Mom, Love Genesis. I surveyed the row of pictures, pausing briefly before each. About halfway down the row, I suddenly found myself frozen in place as I gazed at the picture: A young man and woman, standing in front of the very same antique fireplace I had just passed by in the parlor. Her pale blue eyes matched her long, flowing dress. She stared at the camera with a dazzling smile as the young man behind held onto her protectively, his long arms engulfing her small frame. I felt the blood drain from my face as I recognized her as the girl from the cemetery.

Coldness crept in, causing my breath to materialize and my teeth to chatter. I was helpless, unable to move when the hand clamped down on my shoulder, announcing its presence. I jumped, finally freed from my trance, and whirled around, fully expecting to come face-to-face with the apparition.

“Dad!” I cried out, clutching at my chest.

“Coco, you alright?” he asked, his face etched with concern.

My face contorted into a scowl. “Yeah, Dad. Everything’s just perfect.”

I stormed past him, heading for the staircase. The open second- story landing served as host to a single bedroom and bathroom. I crossed the landing and peered cautiously down the hallway that extended past the bathroom. A door on my right served as the second-story master bedroom while two doors on my left offered additional bedrooms. At the end of the hallway, isolated from the rest of the rooms, was another door, its purpose unknown.

Mom emerged from the master bedroom. “Coco, can you bring in some bags from the car? Oh, and you may want to pick out what room you want before Mason and Emerson pick out theirs.”

I sighed and backtracked to the first room directly off the landing. It was large and welcoming with a pair of white bookshelves that framed the massive bay window. The room offered panoramic views of the expansive property and a glimmer of the nearby river. It wasn’t my room from Chicago that had overlooked the busy downtown streets, but it would suffice.

I spun around and ran into a figure looming in front of me. It took a second, but the familiar scent of my dad’s cologne stung my nostrils. “Jesus, Dad! Do you have a daily quota on scaring the shit out of me?”

He ignored my dramatic outburst and dropped my bags onto the full-sized bed in the middle of the room. “You staking this as your room, Coco?”

I rolled my eyes. “Looks that way.”

He glanced around briefly. “Well, wanna give me a hand with the rest of the bags?”

“Do I have a choice?” I asked dryly.

He smiled wistfully. “Not if you don’t care about driving your Mustang to school.”

“When are the movers supposed to be here with my car?”

“Later on, tonight. Now, help me with the bags, and then I need you to take Samson for a walk.”

I groaned, submitting to the grunt work expected of the eldest child. “Fine,” I muttered, reluctantly following him outside.

I OPENED the front door and Samson eagerly bounded down the porch steps, before glancing back to ensure I was following suit. Something within the house caught his attention and he lowered his belly to the ground and started barking uncontrollably.

“What is your problem today, Sam?” I leaned down and patted his head reassuringly before cupping his face in my hands. “This move is rough on you too, huh? We’ll make it through this. It’ll be okay.” I rolled my eyes at the bullshit spewing from my very own lips.

Grabbing his leash, I let him lead us down the long gravel driveway towards the main road. Intermittent patches of sunlight streamed through the trees overhead, casting beams of warm Georgia sun upon us. As we neared the end of our driveway, a rabbit caught Samson’s attention and he took off. I lost my grip on his leash and he made a mad dash into the middle of the country road. The low grum‐ blings of an approaching vehicle made my heart drop into my stomach.

“Samson!” I screamed, the blood-curdling cry ripping from my throat.

I reached the road just as a 4X4 black pick-up truck careened around the corner. My flip-flops pounded against the blacktop, my feet burning as I thrust myself into the middle of the road. I scooped Samson up into my arms and braced myself for impact as the truck made a last-ditch effort to stop, its massive tires burning tread and squealing.

I closed my eyes and said a quick prayer.

The next thing I felt was the cold splatter of something across my face and shoulders. Blood. But I felt no pangs of excruciating pain that would have accompanied an otherwise mangled human body.

“Oh shit, are you okay?”

Good fucking question.

One I honestly didn’t know how to answer at that exact moment. I eased my eyes open, wiping a hand over my face to clear the curtain of red that obscured my vision. When I turned around, my heart plum‐ meted to my knees. Funny how that seemed to be a common occurrence lately. Only this time when it happened, it took my breath with it.

God’s most perfect creation stood before me: A muscular, 6′3" frame of a man with the most intense green eyes I’d ever seen. Tall, dark, and dangerous, he exuded an air of cockiness that was daunting. His tanned skin glistened in the sun, causing my stomach to do flip- flops despite the current situation. I wanted to run my fingers through his glorious, midnight hair and play counselor to all his prob‐ lems. He was the perfect blend of wicked charisma and sultry sex appeal—completely irresistible. I could physically feel myself being drawn into him, my knees growing weak as his eyes penetrated me, holding me captive and demanding my attention. Those piercing green beacons of light stared directly into my soul, provoking me to share my most vulnerable, erotic thoughts.

I still hadn’t spoken, and that fact wasn’t lost on him. He reached out to me tentatively, trying to ascertain my current state of mind.

Samson went crazy in my arms as he approached, baring his teeth as a deep growl vibrated through his body. The hair on his back stood up as he snapped his jaws in anger. Wriggling, he jumped from my arms and stood guard at my feet.

“Samson, stop!” I ordered, pushing blood-soaked strands of hair off my sweaty forehead. My fingertips were saturated in the sticky substance, snapping me back to reality as I realized that none of it was my own. I crouched down and frantically ran my hands through my dog’s golden coat, searching for wounds.

“I, um...nailed the rabbit,” Sexy Green Eyes called out to me, main‐ taining a safe distance as determined by my cock-blocking canine.

He hooked a thumb to the side, and I followed his gaze to the bloodied remains of the rabbit just feet away.

“Oh, thank God,” I whispered, exhaling deeply with relief. “So, are you?”

My brows furrowed in confusion. “Huh?” “Are you okay?”

Samson was still growling at my feet. I nudged him away. “Knock it off,” I ordered through clenched teeth. I raised my eyes, heat swarming my face as I took in just how aesthetically pleasing this guy before me was. Sweet Jesus, I was going to dream about those eyes.

Words, Colette. Words are good here.

“Umm...yeah, I think we’re alright.”

“I, uh, think I have a bottle of water in my truck if you want-” He started backpedaling towards his truck.

“Oh, thanks, but we live right up the drive here. I appreciate-”

The warm smile that lit up his features just moments before dissi‐ pated, his eyes widening in disbelief. “You what?”

“Yeah, we just moved in.”

He brought a hand up and rubbed his forehead. “Christ.” I frowned. “Something wrong?”

He flashed a quick smile. “Nope. I, um...gotta get going. You sure you’re alright?” His magnetizing green eyes emanated his concern, despite his sudden eagerness to depart.

I nodded. “Yep, nothing a hot shower can’t cure.”

A mischievousness I couldn’t quite place flickered across his features. He cleared his throat. “Well, nice to meet you,” he called over his shoulder as he retreated to his truck.

Had we actually met? I hadn’t even gotten his name. I stood there dumbstruck as Sexy Green Eyes climbed into his 4X4 and pulled away. I knew that it would be an interaction I would replay at least a dozen times in my head.

THE SOUND of weeping broke the silence, startling me from my slum‐ ber. I rubbed my eyes as the sobs intensified, the high-pitched cries reverberating around my bedroom. I sat up slowly, straining my eyes to see. A single beam of moonlight streamed through the window, providing the only relief from the surrounding darkness.

“Emerson?” I called out, searching for my sister.

My eyes adjusted just as the familiar, unsettling wave of coldness swept over me once more, inducing shivers and teeth chattering. I pulled my comforter closer to my chest. It shifted slightly, then resisted further movement. My eyes traveled up from the bed, widening as I saw the dark shape perched at the edge, her head covered in her hands as sobs racked her body. Blood droplets plopped casually onto my comforter, unnaturally loud in the deafening silence. I quickly found myself unable to breathe, gasping for air as my mind scrambled to make sense of what I was seeing.

I garnered that my struggle for oxygen disturbed her when she turned her head sharply in my direction, her joints squeaking in protest. Her light blue eyes glistened in the surrounding blackness. The light of the moon shifted, casting over her to reveal a swarm of maggots crawling out from her mouth and onto the comforter that I clutched with bone-white knuckles.

I tossed off the blanket in horror, stumbling to the doorway and out onto the second-floor landing. I hastily made my way to the bath‐ room and flipped on the light, my heart pounding furiously in my chest.

Water, you just need water.

I turned on the faucet and splashed some on my face, determined to wake myself from this nightmare. I patted my clammy cheeks with a hand towel, then studied my reflection in the mirror. My long black hair was matted with sweat against my forehead and my normally pale cheeks were flushed. My lips were cracked, and dark circles had formed under both eyes. I desperately needed sleep.

I took a deep breath and tip-toed back to my bedroom, pausing at the threshold to listen intently for anguished sobs. Hearing only the merry chirping of crickets outside and seeing only the telltale shapes of my bed, dresser, and bookcase, I stepped inside. I rolled my eyes at my ignorance.

Flipping out over a silly dream! Sometimes I was such a pussy!

I settled back into bed and quickly fell asleep. With my hands resting peacefully against the soft comforter, I was oblivious to the maggot that crawled over me, settling happily in the small pool of blood at the edge of the bed.

THE SCREECHING alarm clock buzzed incessantly, disturbing me from my slumber. I rolled over and smacked the top to turn it off. “Ugh, this is going to suck,” I groaned as I reluctantly sat up and climbed out of bed. I headed down to the kitchen, where I found my mother making waffles.

“Good morning sweetheart,” Mom called out, smiling warmly at me. “Ready for your first day?”

“Oh, just thrilled,” I answered flatly, pouring myself a glass of orange juice. I took a seat at the island. “This place gives me the creeps. It’s big, old, and dusty. And it’s NOT Chicago.”

Mom frowned. “Well, it’s going to be different, Coco. You’ll make friends here too, and you’ll get involved in extracurriculars and such. It’ll all pan out. Just hang in there for a little bit.” She plopped a waffle onto a plate and added two slices of bacon. “Here you go. And don’t take too long getting ready. Don’t want to be late on your first day.”

I scoffed. “Says who?”

She ignored me and turned back to the stove. I finished off my waffles and dragged myself upstairs to my room. The girl standing in front of my bedroom mirror looked worn-down and fatigued. Her black hair was unruly, and her almond-shaped gray eyes were glazed over. Resigning myself to the fact that I wasn’t a miracle worker, I pulled my hair into a simple ponytail, threw on a pair of jeans and a black tank top, and grabbed my book bag before heading outside.

Ruby, my red classic Mustang, purred to life as I slid into the driver’s seat and turned the ignition. Adjusting the rearview mirror, sad sunken eyes stared at me from the back seat. I spun around, catching only a brief glimpse of the apparition before it faded away. I gripped the steering wheel and tilted my head back, trying to main‐ tain my sanity.

You’re just tired from the move. Your eyes are playing tricks on you, I told myself. Yet I didn’t believe that—not in the least.

I slammed the car into drive and accelerated down the driveway, gravel rocks dispersing in protest as I sped towards the main road. Sorry, Ruby.

The early morning’s dense fog covered Greenwich Cemetery, obscuring the graveyard’s aging tombstones. I averted my gaze as I passed, instead choosing to keep an eye on the backseat via my rearview mirror. I sighed with relief to see that it was empty.

At the end of the road, Savannah Community High School came into view. Situated on a rolling expanse of professionally landscaped grass, the school itself was quite modest: a modern structure of red brick and large paned windows that backed onto a small pond. Curved sidewalks lined with pink and purple hydrangeas led from the student parking lot to the front steps of the school. I found a parking spot and hopped out of the car.

Here we go.

I put one foot in front of the other and headed up the sidewalk. Groups of students were gathered sporadically on the front lawn, too engaged in their conversations to pay any heed to the new girl. Two large stone cougars stood on either side of the main walkway, both poised to pounce and proudly serving as representatives of the school’s wildcat mascot. It was only when I reached the front steps that I felt eyes upon me, watching me intently.

Against my pledge to keep my head down and my mouth shut, I met their stares. Two gothic girls were leaning against a nearby tree, both hauntingly gorgeous and shooting daggers in my direction. One had shoulder-length black hair with purple streaks, pulled back from her face with a Cameo hair clip. Multiple piercings adorned her black lips. The lacy, Victorian-era blouse she wore fluttered in the breeze and her cold, dark eyes were unnerving. The other girl had much longer black hair with vibrant red strands that hung to her lower back. Her eyes were a contrasting light blue, highlighted with thick black eyeliner. Like her friend, she also had multiple lip piercings. The black tank-top she wore proudly displayed her tattoo-sleeved arms. But the next sight I noticed sent everything else spiraling into oblivion.

Sexy Green Eyes had joined them, his stare devouring my pres‐ ence. Heat radiated from my cheeks and spread down my neck until I forced myself to look away. However, as I climbed the steps and entered the school’s glass doors, I was certain his gaze hadn’t wavered. The main hallway bustled with the noise and commotion typical of a high school on a Tuesday morning. Along the entire entrance, a glass case filled with trophies, plaques, and other awards boasted of the school’s academic and extracurricular accomplishments. A large, gold frame surrounding a hand-painted portrait caught my attention. I stopped abruptly in my tracks, my blood turning to ice as I recog‐ nized the young man and woman depicted upon its rich, textured canvas.

“Holy shit!” I couldn’t keep the words from escaping my lips.

“Know them?” a deep voice asked behind me.

Sexy Green Eyes stood next to me, too close really. His strong, woodsy cologne enthralled me, wrapping me in its scent. He raised an eyebrow and nodded his head towards the picture. I couldn’t prevent my eyes from noticing his chiseled features and strong jaw. His sheer presence was hypnotizing.

Hello! Earth to Colette! He’s talking to you, dumbass!

“Um...what? I mean, no,” I stammered, trying to form words. “Just kinda confused.”

He snickered. “I could say the same.” “Excuse me?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Confused,” he repeated. “You look...different not covered in blood.”

Wow, what a charmer.

“Um, thanks I guess?”

He shook his head as if silently cursing himself. Regaining his composure, he stared at me demurely. “I mean, you ogle me out on the lawn, then come inside and curse at the picture of my brother.”

“Ogle you?!” I asked indignantly. What an arrogant asshole! “I wasn’t—wait, what? Your brother?”

“Yeah, Sebastian.” He nodded again at the picture. “The way you stopped in front of it, you looked like you had seen a ghost.”

His words struck me to the core. “Holy shit!” I couldn’t suppress my laughter. “You could say that!”

“Pretty sure I just did.”

Before I could respond, the buzzing of the first warning bell permeated the air. Sexy Green Eyes stepped back, taking his invigorating scent with him. “You’d better get to class. See ya around, No Name,” he said as he started down the hallway.

I watched him leave, my entire body screaming in protest. Halfway down the hall, he turned back and flashed a smile before disappearing completely in the throng of students that flooded the corridor. My knees buckled and I reached out to steady myself against the painted concrete blocks of the school hallway.

“Move!” a voice called out from behind, shoving me out of the way. The gothic girl with the purple hair walked by, her black lips curled in amusement. Her comrade with the red streaks turned back and waved sarcastically at me.

Biting my lip, I headed toward the main office. Yep, it’s been smooth sailing so far on making friends. I opened the door and stepped inside. A plump, middle-aged woman with short brown hair and bangs sat at a desk just inside the door.

“Hi, I’m Colette Vaughn. I’m just starting school here and need to get my schedule.”

The secretary smiled at me warmly. “Yes, our principal, Mr. Anderson, has been expecting you. His office is just around the corner.”

“Thanks,” I said, wandering off in the direction she had pointed to. Down a short, wood-paneled hallway I found the open door marked ‘Principal.’ I tapped softly on it and hesitated at the threshold. “Mr. Anderson?”

A lean and tall older gentleman with thick, silver hair looked up from his desk, his warm brown eyes lighting up as he noticed me. “Colette Vaughn, I presume? Please, come in and have a seat.” He motioned to a padded chair across from his desk then stared down at a stack of papers spread out across the glass top-surface, almost as if he were gathering his thoughts.

“We are so incredibly pleased that you have chosen to pursue your education with us here at Savannah Community High School. We’ve received your transcripts, immunizations, and other pertinent school records from your high school back in Chicago. You were an honor student, I see and a cheerleader and on the photography committee.

" He picked up a single sheet of paper before reaching across the desk and handing it to me. “These will be your classes, based on your GPA and prior academic history. I’ve asked one of our most responsible students to help you find your way around. In the meantime, do you have any questions for me?”

Immediately, my thoughts drifted to the portrait. “Actually, yeah. The picture in the hallway between the trophy cases. Are they students?”

Mr. Anderson hesitated, obviously unprepared for the question I asked. He opened his mouth to reply, but a knock on his door inter‐ rupted him.

“Mr. Anderson?” a bubbly voice called out.

I turned around in my chair. In the doorway stood Barbie. Freaking Barbie. I stared at the buxom blonde with the impossibly small waist and unnaturally large chest. Her aqua-blue eyes sparkled, and her plump lips framed a set of perfect white teeth. She was the high-school girl most wanted to be—stunningly gorgeous by nature. Damn my luck!

“I’m Kinsley Miller,” she said in her southern drawl, sticking her hand out to me.

As I shook her perfectly manicured hand, I was enveloped by an aromatic cloud of vanilla and honey. She smelled absolutely divine and it took every fiber of my being to prevent myself from doing something awkward and embarrassing—like sniff her.

Mr. Anderson stood and came around his desk. “Kinsley will help you get acquainted with our school and show you around. In the meantime, I maintain an open-door policy if you need anything else or have any questions.”

“Thanks,” I replied half-heartedly as Kinsley guided me out of the office. Truth be told, I hoped to not need anything further from him for the rest of my tenure.

We entered the empty hallway and headed towards the science wing while she looked over my schedule. “So, we’ve got Biology and English together. The other classes I will meet you after and help show you where to go next.” Kinsley paused and pursed her lips. “It’s important to start off on the right track around here, so I’ll introduce you to everyone at lunch. You need to know who’s worth knowing, and who’s not.”

My eyebrow immediately shot up. “Are there a lot of ’nots?” I asked with a snicker.

She did not appear amused, her pillowy lips turned down in a frown. Popularity and reputation were two topics that apparently triggered sharp emotions. “More than I’d prefer.”

Yikes! Something told me I did not want to be delegated to that list.

We reached our destination and she opened the door. The teacher standing at the front of the classroom stopped talking and immedi‐ ately yielded the floor to Kinsley. With prestige, Princess Barbie stood tall at the front of the classroom and addressed her loyal subjects. “Hello y’all,” she chirped. “I’d like to introduce Colette Vaughn.”

I stood awkwardly next to her, waving to a non-responsive mass of students.

Kinsley continued talking. “She’s from Chicago and is my new special friend, so y’all better be nice to her!” She squeezed my arm and placed both hands on her hips proudly as if she had just delivered The State of the Union Address.

The students stared at us blankly, as if they were too afraid to speak. Kinsley took a seat at a desk, and I sat at one behind her. Meekly, our teacher retook his position at the front of the room and returned to his monotonous lecture. Seconds later, Kinsley turned around in her chair.

“Don’t worry,” she hissed. “They’ll come around. I’ll make sure of it.”

I SAT THROUGH ALGEBRA, my stomach growling in protest. I looked again at my class schedule, then at the clock hanging on the far wall. Three minutes, just three more minutes until lunch. Then you can eat! I drummed my fingers impatiently on my Algebra book and chomped my gum. Finally, the bell rang, releasing me from my sanctioned prison. I raced toward the door, where Kinsley stood in wait.

“Ready?” she asked with a bright smile.

“Um...sure,” I said with a laugh. “We’ve all got to eat.”

“That’s a cute thought. But seriously, where one sits in the cafeteria is EVERYTHING. Just like WHOM you choose to sit with.” She threw open the cafeteria doors and sauntered down the steps like a queen ascending her throne. With her head held high, she led me to the back of the room. “This is our table,” she said pointedly, gesturing at the group that had already gathered. “That’s Bella Shaw, Devon Collins, and Harlow Thompson.”

Looking at each of them, I immediately felt self-conscious. Each girl looked as if she had single-handedly graced the cover of Vogue a dozen times. I should have known that this would be the sort of clique Kinsley would keep company with.

Bella Shaw was cute and bubbly with big, bright blue eyes and layered brown hair. She had a-girl-next-door-vibe, but with an air of sophistication and glamour. Devon Collins screamed ‘top model’ with her stylish, golden-blonde bob, high cheekbones, and long, lush lashes that framed her hazel eyes. The redhead sitting across from her was ethereally gorgeous. Harlow Thompson’s hair hung like spun silk to her lower back and her porcelain-white skin was flawless, accentu‐ ated by baby-blue eyes and a perfectly sculpted nose.

Kinsley pointed to a group of three attractive guys standing around the table. “And that’s Jagger Sullivan, Hunter Reed, and Galen Andrews.”

“Hey guys,” I said softly.

The tallest one stood next to Kinsley, wrapping his arm around her tiny waist. “Hey babe,” he said, greeting her with a session of tonsil hockey.

Not awkward at all. I’ll just stand here while you salivate into her mouth.

Finally, she pulled away and put a hand on his chest. “Colette, this is my boyfriend Galen.”

Whew! Just a boyfriend and not a soul-sucking incubus.

Galen was your typical high-school quarterback—handsome and athletically-built, he towered over Kinsley. He had short, dark-blonde hair cut into a high-fade on the sides and brown, puppy-dog eyes that gazed at his girlfriend with complete adoration. He nodded in my direction.

“Hey Colleen,” he mumbled a greeting. “Colette,” I corrected.

He grinned sheepishly. “Sorry.”

“Colette’s from Chicago,” Kinsley added. “I was telling her how important it is to start off on the right foot by associating herself with only the BEST that Savannah Community High School has to offer.”

“Hanging out with our group will do wonders for your image,” Bella agreed, nodding eagerly.

“Yeah, but there are a few bad apples around here,” Harlow chimed in, pointing at a table a few rows over.

I followed her trajectory to the duo of gothic girls and Sexy Green Eyes. He was staring at me again, but his expression had changed. A scowl plastered across his face; his eyes conveyed his disappointment.

“We’ve tried the whole ‘merging’ of the cliques before and let’s just say, there was no happily ever after,” Devon said bitterly.

“You guys were friends...with them?” I asked with raised eyebrows.

Kinsley shot a warning look at her model-esque friend, her face darkening in anger before quickly recomposing herself and flashing a dazzling smile in my direction. “Were is the operative word there,” she said briefly. Waving a hand in the air as if to clear the bad mojo, she then asked, “Who’s hungry?”

AFTER LUNCH, Kinsley walked me to another wing of the school. “You’ve got photography, then English with me, and then your first day is done!”

Thank God!

“Yep, see you in a little bit,” I said, heading into the classroom. I sat down at a table and waited for the rest of the students to file in. A jarring sound startled me, and I realized someone had slammed their bag down on an adjoining table. I looked over to see my biggest fan glaring at me.

“That’s where I usually sit,” she jerked her head at my seat, her purple hair falling over her pale face.

“Christ almighty, I’ll move,” I grumbled, rising from my stool.

Her hand flung out and gripped my forearm, stopping me in my tracks. “You’re already sitting there,” she grumbled. “But just a shred of advice: you don’t always have to do what you’re told.”

I scoffed. “Oh, you mean like earlier when you ordered me to move my ass and then shoved me out of the way?”

“I realize your new bestie’s antics might be rubbing off on you, but let’s not be melodramatic. The bell rang. People have to get to class.”

“Yeah, because you strike me as the sort of student that’s concerned with following the rules,” I said, sarcasm dripping from my lips.

“Are we sharing first impressions, doll face? Because from what I can tell, you’re about as authentic as the plastic souls you’ve been keeping company with. I mean, you’ve been part of this school for what, six hours now and you’re already chums with Kinsley Miller? Seems to me like you’re following protocol pretty nicely.”

“Protocol? Seriously?” I rolled my eyes. “She’s nice. Maybe partic‐ ular with whom she associates with, but this is high school, and cliques happen.”

“Bitch. Bitch is the word that you’re looking for.”

I shook my head and turned away as the final bell rang.

Our teacher stood at the front of the room and began taking atten‐ dance, rattling off names from her clipboard. “Fallon Young,” she called out, not looking up from her sheet.

“Here,” the Gothic girl mumbled a response. She leaned in and lowered her voice. “When you get bit by the snake, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

I get it, I thought to myself. You’re not a fan of Kinsley.

The instructor began spouting instructions. “So, we’ll just head down by the pond and snap a few pictures, keeping in mind what we’ve learned about lighting and angles. Colette, if you just want to share cameras with someone else until we can get you one, that’d probably be best.”

I nodded and fell in line as the class bustled outside. Fallon waited for me by the back steps, one of her black combat boots kicked up against the wall.

“Here,” she said, pushing her camera at me. “Snap away.”

“Thanks,” I muttered, cautiously taking the camera, and draping it around my neck. “So, speaking of pictures...” I ventured, adjusting the camera’s lens. “Care to tell me what the picture in the main hall between the trophy cases is all about?”

Her head snapped up and her eyes widened. “Um what?”

“I was talking to your friend about it this morning before first bell.

He said something about it being his brother?”

“You talked to Abel about that?” she asked, her jaw-dropping. “Wow! You’ve got balls, girl!”

“Well, I tried. He didn’t say much.” I took a few pictures, then handed the camera back to her.

Fallon grimaced. “That’s not really a topic anyone around here discusses. Especially not with Abel. Best to just let that ” she paused, snapping a picture of a hummingbird. “Stay buried.”

Her choice of words chilled me, causing the hair on my arms to rise. I pushed the uneasiness aside and cleared my throat. “So, Abel, that’s his name?” I asked nonchalantly.

She stopped snapping and looked over at me curiously. “Yeah. Why?”

I shrugged. “No reason. I just didn’t get his name during our conversation.”

Fallon’s mouth twisted into a smile. “Dare I ask what you did get?” I blushed, kicking the ground nervously to avoid eye contact. “Class!” our teacher called out. “Time to head back.”

I sighed with relief, thankful for the interruption. I barely knew this girl to be discussing something so personal. As we neared the school, she nudged me.

“Look, if you truly want to know about that picture, you need to ask Abel.”

I nodded, eager for any opportunity to talk to Sexy Green Eyes again.

When the bell rang for the next period, I grabbed my book bag and followed Fallon out of the room. “See ya around,” she called back to me, nearly colliding with Kinsley as she rounded the corner.

They exchanged glares as they passed, but neither spoke. Kinsley grabbed me by the arm, pulling me down the hallway. “Let’s go!” she hissed. We had nearly reached our destination before she released me.

“Ow,” I whined, rubbing my skin where she had dug her nails in.

“We DON’T talk to her or Scarlett anymore,” she chided. “I strongly advise you not to as well.” She worded it so eloquently, yet I knew it was a demand and not a request.

“Hey, No Name,” a familiar deep voice called from behind.

His voice was smooth as silk, beguiling me with seduction while his woodsy cologne tantalized my senses. I wasn’t normally the type to swoon over guys. I had only had one boyfriend my entire life and that was a direct result of his relentless pursuit and my desire to not go to my Homecoming Dance alone. But here I was with Sexy Green Eyes, panting after any blip of attention he threw my way. It was damn pathetic, yet uncontrollable. I could only pray that I had the same effect on him.

“Abel,” I murmured, turning to face him.

He raised an eyebrow. “So, you know my name, but I have yet to learn yours.”

“Colette,” I said quickly, suddenly wishing it were something sexier like ‘Sasha’ or “Blair.′ I could feel heat swarm to my cheeks as he grinned at me.

Kinsley cleared her throat, her face filled with disdain. I had forgotten that she was even standing next to me. “I’ll ignore the fact that you didn’t address me, Abel,” she said coolly, glaring at him from beneath her long lashes.

“Ignore it all you want. It wasn’t an oversight,” he said flippantly, heading into the classroom.

Ouch! Something told me that Kinsley wasn’t usually so easily dismissed. I watched her pout, arms crossed over her exemplary chest.

“Don’t ask,” she said through gritted teeth. She marched into the class‐ room and took a seat in the front row.

I took a seat near him, fully aware of his eyes upon me. Only moments later, I felt an elbow nudge me and looked over to see his outstretched hand. He unclenched his fingers and revealed a folded, triangular piece of paper. I reached out, my fingers brushing against his. Tingling surged through my body, causing my heart to pound furiously in my chest. My nervous hands unfolded the note as my eyes skimmed over the 10 numbers scrawled on the torn sheet of paper. 10 beautiful digits that comprised his phone number. Holy crap! He wanted me to call him! Wanted me...oh how I yearned for that day, that moment! I snuck a look through my curtain of black hair. He was staring at me with those eyes again, that perfect mouth pulled back in a swoon-worthy grin.

Oh, man! I wanted to throw myself into his arms and ask him to father my future children. But seeing as how we had only met today, that might not be appropriate. I couldn’t show him all my crazy cards at once or he’d go running for the hills. I forced myself to stay calm and be cool. Reaching into the front pocket of my book bag, I retrieved my cell phone. I ensured the teacher wasn’t looking in my direction, then punched in those 10 numbers and fired off a quick text.

Do you always give your number out to girls that don’t ask for it?

My phone vibrated only seconds later with his response. I read his text message, my palms starting to sweat.

Oh, you asked for it. And SO much more!

Ugh, either I sucked at appearing uninterested, or he was a fucking mind-reader. I fired off another text.

Your intuition must leave you disappointed---a lot!

My phone vibrated again.

Let’s test that theory. Are you free tonight? I want to show you something.

Eek! The sheer thought of him showing me anything sent my body into near shock. I forcefully reined in my thoughts and sent him a reply.

I keep a pretty busy schedule, but I can spare a few minutes. When? Where?

I waited with nervous anticipation for his response, my mind creating romanticized daydreams. Just the prospect of spending time alone with Sexy Green Eyes was enough to send my teenage hormones into overdrive. But when his text came through seconds later and my eyes read his proposition, only three words came to mind: WHAT THE FUCK?

8 pm. Greenwich Cemetery.

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