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Awakening (Dark Rituals #1)

An excerpt from


Awakening

Chapter 1

“You want to learn the Death Arts?”

The look on his face was hard to read. It couldn’t be every day that someone wandered into the shop and made such a request.

I tried to look more confident than I felt. He couldn’t tell my hands were slightly trembling inside my jacket pockets, could he? I forced myself to keep my gaze steady and resisted the urge to take to my heels and run out the door.

My mama always said, You can always ask. The worst they can do is say no. But I don’t think Mama was thinking about revenge and murder when she dealt out that piece of homespun advice.

He stood behind the counter with a questioning look in his eyes. He looked about my age—seventeen—and had shoulder-length blond hair. His black tank top sported a picture of a large red phoenix surrounded by fire.

I couldn’t seem to get the words out of my mouth, so I decided to look around the shop to buy me some time. Every wall in the place housed a set of shelves, and scattered around the room were waist-high, freestanding glass cases. Statues with menacing faces stared back at me from between leather-bound books on shelves. Every flat surface was crammed full of exquisite bottles filled with colorful liquids, dried herbs, exotic feathers, and cloth pouches tied with ribbon.

Mixed in with these harmless-looking objects were other things. Misshapen bottles filled with red liquid—probably blood—from a human, goat, or pig…who could tell? In a dark corner, I could make out the shapes of animal skulls. And something else. I leaned forward to get a closer look. What were those small objects hanging from a wooden pole over in the corner?

A chill ran down my back as I realized they were shrunken heads.

This was a magic shop, dimly lit, with items peering from the shadows where they hid. Some of them I’d only seen in pictures, and at another time I would have been tempted to spend a lazy afternoon exploring every nook and cranny in the place. But not today. I was here with a single-minded purpose.

“I was told the owner of this shop could teach me the Death Arts.”

“I’m sorry, someone’s playing a joke on you. No one here can help you, not with something like that.”

I’d anticipated that my request would be met with anger or disbelief, but he seemed almost indifferent. Almost. Those dark eyes had a hint of wariness about them. He might act as though everything was fine and dandy, but I had the impression that, at any moment, I was going to get tossed out on my butt.

“Luke, you know who she means.” A pretty girl with the longest hair I’d ever seen spoke from a doorway behind the counter. Her hair was the color of sweet yellow corn and fell just short of the ground.

“Darla, shut up.”

Darla looked a few years younger than Luke. She had on a long, flowing blue skirt covered in yellow flowers and a white bohemian shirt, the sleeves trimmed in blue lace.

“You’re looking for our Uncle Franklin. He’s out of town.” She glared at Luke as she came out and took her place next to him. “Ignore my brother. He’s worried you’re a Redeemer.”

Goddess, do I look like a Redeemer? Everyone knew about the cult by now. They started up two years ago—a group of non-mage born who hated all magic. Most members were innocent enough, but there were fringe sects that not only reviled magic, but also sought out anyone who practiced magic for the sole purpose of “cleansing” those offenders.

In the last month, five people had been found drowned in local lakes, their hands and feet bound by thick rope. Obviously this fringe sect of Redeemers—aka psychopaths—were watching too much of the History Channel when they came up with that idea. They believed anyone who was a witch would float and the innocent would drown. These crazies proclaimed poor souls who drowned cleared of all charges. Little help it did them, being dead and all.

A group of Redeemers did take credit for the deaths, but not in any way law enforcement agencies could track. The news reported that flyers proclaiming THE CLEANSING HAS BEGUN and REDEEMERS WILL TAKE BACK OUR WORLD had appeared on various city streets.

How does someone prove they aren’t a nut job on a religious cleansing mission? I tried to look as mentally stable as possible and replied, “I’m not a Redeemer, I swear.” I was told that you’re death dealers. From the Phoenix Guild.” I looked pointedly at his T-shirt.

Darla laughed. “She’s got you there,” She reached behind the counter, pulled out sticks of incense, and held them up. “What do you think…?” She cocked her head to the side.

“Colina. My name’s Colina.”

Her lips split in a smile. “Hello, Colina. I’m Darla Cross, and that’s Luke, my brother.” She waved the incense sticks around. “Lavender or root beer?”

“Root beer.”

She grabbed a box of matches from a nearby shelf, pulled one out, and struck it. The flame flickered wildly before she lowered it and carefully lit one of the brown sticks. She held the stick up to her mouth and blew out the flame at the tip. The smoke continued to rise, curling up in swirls around her face.

“Root beer is my favorite.” She smiled and placed the incense down into a carved wooden holder sitting on the counter.

The sweet smell filled the room. Darla pushed the wooden holder to the side and hopped up on the counter. Once settled, she swept the mass of her hair over her right shoulder. It slid down her body like a golden river.

I wondered how long it took her to wash and dry such hair. It had to be heavy and, I’d think, very hot in the summer. I watched, mesmerized as her nimble fingers divided the strands into three large sections and she began to braid it.

“Your uncle… When will he be back?”

Luke didn’t answer. He was starting to look annoyed. I waited two beats, and when he still didn’t respond I turned to his sister.

She looked up from her braid and watched her brother for a few seconds before answering. “Not for at least two weeks. He’s put us in charge of the store while he’s gone.”

I was desperate—there was no way could I wait two weeks. Chances were if I didn’t get help soon, I’d be dead in days, not weeks.

“Can you help me?” I couldn’t keep my voice from trembling a bit.

This time Luke responded. “Help you learn the Death Arts? So you can what? Take out your frustrations on the world?” He turned to Darla. “I’m betting someone pissed her off. You ever notice that it’s always the angry ones who think they can come and learn our craft? Think they can be taught our art during a weekend course? Why not just buy a gun? Oh, yeah, because guns don’t work on our kind.” He turned his attention back to me. “If you don’t mind me asking, who’s this almighty enemy who pissed you off? Ex-boyfriend? Some clerk at the local mini-mart?” His voice was dripping with sarcasm.

My chin came up, and I looked him straight in the eye when I answered. “I’m not asking you to train me in the Death Arts so I can take out a busload of nuns.”

This proclamation brought a half grin to his face. I wondered if he would take my request seriously. He was looking me up and down. I wore no Goth clothing, no long black trench coat. I wore the uniform of the middle class in my part of town: a striped white and blue sweater covered by a dark sailor coat, a pair of faded blue jeans, and black Vans.

I was beginning to regret the coat. The moment I entered the store a wall of heat had hit me. It was autumn outside, but someone inside liked to keep things toasty. Small beads of sweat were forming on my forehead. I considered taking my coat off, but the reception I was getting made me think I wouldn’t be staying long.

I tried not to wither under his scrutiny. I knew what he saw standing in front of him—a seventeen-year-old girl with dark brown hair pulled up into a ponytail. An average-looking girl. I’m not the type to stop traffic. A chin and forehead that were a bit too pronounced, thanks to my Scottish heritage. Blunt bangs fringed my forehead, coming to rest above nondescript hazel eyes, and my build was more tomboyish than Playboy Bunny. Nothing screamed, “Look at me!” I blended into a crowd, and that was something I counted on.

“I can pay.” I pulled a wad of bills out of my right jacket pocket. “I understand that you people prefer to work in cash.”

The cash made him frown. Worse, it made him move from behind the big glass counter faster than I could have anticipated. I barely had a chance to take a step back before he reached out and grabbed my arm.

“Who are you?”

He was much bigger up close. I looked up and our eyes locked, and I suddenly lost the ability to speak. He’d seemed amiable enough when I stepped into the shop, but now his whole body language took on a more threatening vibe. Those dark eyes shone not with anger, but with violence.

Normally a big, pissed-off stranger manhandling me would have freaked me out, but I needed to be strong. After what I went through—after the terrible things I dealt with—this guy couldn’t scare me. I gave myself a mental shake. I was past being intimidated. Fear left the building a few days ago when bullets were flying and bloody bodies covered the floor.

I couldn’t think about that now. I’d locked those images into the deepest, darkest corner of my mind, and maybe one day I would deal with them, but not today. Today I was on a mission. I didn’t have a lot to lose, and this guy might be the only one who could give me what I needed most.

I pushed the money at his chest with my free hand. “If this isn’t enough, name your price.”

His fingers curled around the bills, and he let go of my arm and took a step back. “You’re serious about this?”

“Yes. If you tell me no, I’ll go find someone else.”

The only problem was that there weren’t a lot of people willing to teach outside their guild, and we both knew it.

“You think you can handle learning the Death Arts?”

I wasn’t sure I could handle it, but I wasn’t about to admit my doubt. I kept quiet and nodded.

“Luke, you can’t be serious. You can’t teach her.” Darla had finished braiding her hair and her attention was now on the two of us.

“Stay out of it, Darla!”

“There’s no way Uncle would let you do it.” Her brown eyes blazing with anger, Darla jumped down from the counter and rounded on him.

He took a step away from her and turned to me. “Have you had any training?”

I lifted the sleeve of my jacket and turned my forearm, revealing the small tattoo of a blue swallow inked into the skin just above my palm.

“You’re a healer.” He couldn’t have sounded more shocked.

I could feel tears starting to form, but I forced them back. “I was.”

“You can’t learn the Death Arts. Your people would never allow such a thing.” He frowned. He’d looked at me first with ridicule, then amusement, and now he was watching me as though I was some kind of puzzle he was trying to work out.

It was true. I’d taken a sacred oath, and if anyone from my clan caught me learning the Death Arts, let alone using them, I’d be punished, possibly imprisoned. I knew the risk, but I didn’t care.

“Will you teach me?” I knew he could hear the desperation in my voice. I felt it in the very core of my being. My hands were visibly trembling. I’d done a pretty good job of keeping it together until now, but hunger and exhaustion washed over me. I’d been on my own, trying to deal with what happened, and it was suddenly all too much. If seeing me fall apart in front of him was the only way to convince Luke of my sincerity, then I didn’t care if he saw my fear and desperation. He was my last hope. This was my only chance to stay alive. Maybe, if I lived long enough and I got lucky, I would have a chance to take my revenge.

He didn’t answer right away. Darla stood next to him, her eyes wide but her expression unreadable. She watched us both in silence. As we stood there, the silence stretched on and on, and all the while Luke’s unyielding dark eyes surveyed me. I had a feeling he was trying to figure me out, trying to coax out my secrets. I wasn’t about to make it easy. I pushed down the urge to shift from foot to foot while I waited for an answer. When he finally broke the silence, I physically jumped.

“Come back tomorrow night after midnight.” He pocketed the bills.

“The witching hour.” I said the words through clenched teeth. It was not the response I was expecting. The witching hour was a time when people slept and the world seemed tranquil, but it was really more than that. It wasn’t truly tranquil and safe, not for people like us. For those of us who knew better, it could be wild, chaotic, and dangerous.

“Yes, the witching hour.” He crossed his arms over his chest.

A shudder went through me. What the heck am I getting myself into?

“There’s still time to change your mind.” His voice was low.

“I know what I’m doing.”

“Do you? A healer? Yeah, you’ve seen the life leave a person, watched their energy dissipate into the ether sea. But have you ever called on that same energy? Ever felt its pulse swirling and circling around you? It’s not for the faint of heart.”

What could I say? He was right. I’d never called on spirits. Honestly, I only had an inkling of the type of magic his guild used. I knew it was the strongest magic. If I was going to survive—if I was going to exact my revenge—it was the magic I needed to learn no matter the consequences. I had no choice but to head down this road. That knowledge didn’t stop fear and panic from settling into the pit of my stomach.

I knew that, theoretically, magic is magic, but healers and death dealers were on the opposite ends of the spectrum. More powerful clans could do different types of magic, I’d heard, but my clan had always been healers. In theory, I should be able to do the basics of the Death Arts, even if I didn’t have the inborn talent to become a master of them.

A phone rang before I could reply. Luke made his way back around the counter, picked up the receiver, and started talking.

I had gone looking for a death dealer, with no leads other than a piece of paper with an address and a brief description of the shop. I’d made it here in one piece and someone had grudgingly agreed to teach me. It was a victory. A small one, but I’d take what I could at this point.

I realized I was standing there like an idiot, watching Luke talk on the phone when I should have been hightailing it out of there. We’d completed our business. He might have reservations, but he’d taken my money and agreed to teach me. I had no reason to linger. If I hung around he might change his mind, yet here I was—staying and staring.

Luke was good-looking, with piercing, dark-gray eyes, dirty-blond hair, and a rugged jaw. He had broad shoulders and a long scar ran down his left shoulder, the end of it lost beneath his tank top. I wondered how far the scar traveled underneath the black material, and immediately felt a heat rise inside me. My cheeks flushed, and for a moment my heart pounded. I reminded myself that he was a death dealer, not someone to be trusted. I didn’t know if all the rumors I had heard about his kind were true, but I did know for sure that his kind were to be avoided. He dealt in dark magic—magic that my people both feared and hated.

I realized in horror that the phone conversation was over, and Luke was talking to me, but I had been so caught up in my own thoughts that I had missed everything he said.

I felt another blush spread across my cheeks. Like an idiot I mumbled, “Uh, what?”

“You can’t go back out in the streets.” He looked dead serious.

“Who’s going to stop me?” I regained my composure, but my voice was more than a bit defensive.

“The Triads. I just got a call from a neighbor. The Triads are hanging out down the block.” He walked around the counter until he stood in front of me. “You’ll have to stay here. At least for a couple hours until the coast is clear.”

No way was I staying—I had what I came for. It was time to leave. The Triads didn’t scare me. I was a healer and even they had a code against harming a healer.

But I’m not a healer anymore, I reminded myself. I was going to delve into the forbidden magics—I would soon become someone on the fringe of society. No respectable people mingled with the Phoenix Guild.

A wave of exhaustion suddenly hit me. I grabbed the corner of the closest table to steady myself. Making the decision to come here, surviving the last few days, convincing Luke to take me on…it all had taken the energy out of me. The anger, the desperation, the determination—everything suddenly evaporated.

“Are you okay?” Darla asked, coming to my side.

The words came out in a harsh whisper, “I’m fine. I skipped a couple meals.”

It had been at least three days since food had entered my mouth. I had forced myself to drink, but every time I tried to eat, the memories came and nausea set in.

“I just felt dizzy for a second. There’s no need to make a fuss.” My voice sounded unbelievably weak even to my own ears.

Darla bent down, and her fingers grazed across my forehead. “She’s not okay. Luke, bring her upstairs.”

I began to slump and Luke reached out and put an arm around my waist, supporting me.

I tried to pull myself out of his grip, but he was extremely strong. “You can let me go, I’m okay.”

“Darla, lock up the shop. With the Triads out there, best thing to do is lock up and sit tight until they get bored and move on.” He ignored my protest and began to lead me behind the counter and through the doorway into a small hallway. I felt like a helpless rag doll in his arms as he moved us along the hall to the foot of a wooden staircase.

“Since you can’t leave, you might as well come upstairs. We haven’t had a chance to eat. We can get some food into you. Can you make it up the stairs?” The harshness had gone from his voice. He sounded almost kind.

“I’m fine, I just need to—” I couldn’t finish the sentence as the world around me started to fade away.

“Hey, don’t pass out.” He leaned down and lifted me into his arms. He carried me up the stairs and delivered me across a large room onto a brown couch sitting against a bright, red-painted wall.

I needed a moment to catch my breath and gather my strength. Showing so much weakness in front of strangers embarrassed me. I had been an idiot to go so long without food. Sleeping was also something I was not doing a lot of lately. Every time I closed my eyes, nightmares rushed in. It wasn’t surprising that my body suddenly rebelled and gave way. I told myself I would lie here for a minute or two, catch my breath, and then head out.

Suddenly Luke was standing over me. He had a bottle of soda in one hand and two plastic cups in the other. He handed them over to me. “We’ve got some cheese and salami in the fridge. Darla picked up some fresh bread at the local bakery this morning.”

What choice did I have? If I kept going this way, I’d end up passed out on the streets.

I looked up at him and forced a smile. “Thanks for the dinner invite. I accept.”

* * *

The food was good. I ate until I couldn’t take another bite. I leaned back against the leather couch cushions, my coat draped next to me, and relaxed for the first time in what seemed like a lifetime.

My gaze kept going to Luke. There was little resemblance to the imposing figure I had dealt with down in the storefront; the Luke upstairs was relaxed. He hadn’t said much while we ate, and now he sat back in his chair, finishing a bite of bread.

Every time I glanced his way he was looking at me, his stare openly inquisitive.

He was not what I had expected. He didn’t hide like the rest of the members of his guild. He was wearing a phoenix on his T-shirt for Goddess’s sake. This was not a guy trying to keep to the shadows—this was a guy living openly in a society that deeply despised his kind. Did he feel alienated? Did he have friends outside his guild?

And what about his sister, Darla? I wondered if she practiced the arts. She sat quietly, finishing off her meal. It was hard to tell if someone possessed magic just by looking at them. Was she also a death dealer? Would the Phoenix Guild initiate someone so young?

I wondered how different her life was from mine. I had become a healer like my mother and her mother before her. The path to becoming a healer started at fifteen, but at that age I had only learned the basics about plants and medicine. Mama hadn’t allowed me to delve into the magics that went along with healing until I hit my seventeenth birthday. My training started three months ago and, in that time, I’d learned as much as I could as fast as I could.

No other career choice had ever entered my mind. It had been assumed that I would follow in my family’s footsteps and, honestly, I didn’t have any regrets. I loved working with plants, being out in the sunshine, my hands pushed into the dirt of Mother Earth. Growing fragile things with care and love, creating medicines to heal the sick, mixing potions, learning the craft that had been passed down through the generations—there was no part of being a healer that didn’t make my heart swell with joy and make me leap out of bed every morning full of excitement. The world once seemed a place of endless possibilities.

But all of that was now behind me. The path before me was full of shadows and darkness. I was going to become a death dealer, and I didn’t have the faintest idea what kind of lives they led.

I took a good look at my surroundings. I was in a studio apartment, but the space was enormous. A well-outfitted kitchen with granite counters and cherry cabinets stood at one side of the room. The middle area had been arranged as a living room and office. The couch I was on sat against the wall on a large, patterned rug surrounded by two oversized chairs. To the right of the couch in front of a row of tall windows stood a desk with a laptop computer and printer. Next to the desk was a small row of black metal cabinets. On the other side of the room were three large partitions—walls that didn’t quite make it all the way up to the ceiling. Bedrooms, I imagined.

“This is a nice place.” It was an expensive place. Every piece of furniture, every knickknack, screamed money.

“It’s our uncle’s.” Luke leaned forward and put his plate down on the old blue steamer trunk serving as a table for our meal. “Are you going to tell us what brought you here?”

“Good food, terrific soda—what’s not to like?” My answer brought a scowl to his face, but I wasn’t intimidated. I was paying for his services—I wasn’t about to fill him in on the details of my life. “My understanding is that your type of work comes with a certain assurance of anonymity. Like when you pay a shrink or a lawyer.”

“Client confidentiality.” He leaned back in his chair and took on a thoughtful expression.

“Exactly.” I poured myself another glass of soda.

He watched me in silence for a few moments. “I would like to know who pointed you to our doorstep.”

Again with the questions.

“Someone who wishes to remain anonymous,” I answered cautiously. Luke could keep asking questions, and I would keep being evasive. This might be a long couple of hours.

“A lot of people know the type of work we do, but most of them, I’d imagine, don’t run in the same social circles as someone like you.”

The way he said “social circles” made it clear it wasn’t a compliment.

“And what would you know about the social circles I run in?”

Luke took his time answering, his eyes scanning slowly over my appearance. “I haven’t seen you in this part of town before. If I had to guess, I would figure you for a Middleton gal.”

Middleton—a quiet, sleepy suburb about thirty minutes from the city. He wasn’t wrong. I’d lived on the outskirts of Middleton most of my life.

“Let me guess: your father’s a plumber and your mother’s a school teacher.”

Actually, he couldn’t have been further off the mark. I forced a smile onto my face. “Do you do fortunes? Are you going to tell me my horoscope next?”

“Not something I normally dabble in, but I could if you wanted me to.” His eyes focused on me in a way I found disconcerting.

Darla spoke up, “Luke, stop being so rude.”

“Why? What’s she trying to hide?” Luke looked over at Darla, an amused expression on his face. “Does she have top government secrets hidden away in the recesses of her mind?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but instead got up from his chair and started clearing away the dishes.

“I’m the private ‘no trespassing’ type. Let’s leave it at that,” I answered quietly to his retreating back. “What’s with all the questions?”

He spun around so fast my breath hitched in the back of my throat. He put the dishes down none too gently, and they rattled loudly as they hit the surface of the trunk. “What’re you really doing here?”

I closed my hands around my now-empty plastic cup, crushing it before taking a deep breath and relaxing my grip. This guy would not scare me off. I had food in my stomach and was feeling less shaky. I needed his help, and it would be best if I could get him to see me as strong and capable first.

I took a deliberately long pause before answering. “Paying you a lot of money.”

He took a step toward me. “To learn the Death Arts?”

I could almost feel the wave of violence and intimidation wash over him. He clenched his fists and towered over me menacingly. Here I was in this stranger’s apartment. No one knew where I was. At any moment, Luke could decide I was not worth the hassle and—what? Kill me? He already had my money. I‘d paid him the money upfront like an idiot. I had heard stories about his kind—most of them seemed outlandish, but I knew there was truth buried within the tall tales. Anger I could handle, but not violence, not now, not after what had happened. At the very thought of it, my stomach clenched and my mouth trembled.

I looked over at Darla. She was watching us, her expression sullen. So far she’d shown me only kindness. She wouldn’t let Luke hurt me, I was almost certain of it.

He glared down at me, and I tried to look confident and fearless, but I didn’t trust my voice not to betray me, so I nodded.

“Why did you come here? Why are you so desperate to learn the dark magics?”

I forced myself to sit up. I used to have a backbone, and if there was ever a time to show it, it was now. I wouldn’t tremble like a scared rabbit in front of this guy anymore. I could feel the anger growing within me. I tried to hold on to the feeling, will it along, forcing the flames of it to warm my blood and fuel my words.

“Why does it matter? I need to learn, and a friend told me that I could find someone here who would teach me!”

My reaction didn’t seem to surprise him. He’d been pushing, and I’d finally pushed back.

The anger abandoned me as suddenly as it had come. “Look, you guys seem pretty open about what you do. The shop even has a phoenix on its sign. It’s not like you’re hiding who you are.”

“I’m not ashamed of what I am.”

“A lot of people don’t share that view.”

His eyes narrowed. “Are you one of them?”

I slumped back against the pillows. “I’m the live-and-let-live type.”

His face softened, and he took a step back. “A healer.”

“I told you I was.” I was so tired, so sick of all the questions. All I wanted to do was go somewhere safe, somewhere I could try and get some rest.

“But not now?”

Why did he keep pushing? When I put down the crushed cup, my hands were openly trembling again. “Not anymore.”

“I’ve never heard of one of your kind walking away from the calling.” His voice was softer now, less demanding.

I was anxious to change the subject. “You said the Triads are out in the streets causing havoc. Do they do that a lot?” I knew the Triads were one of the largest street gangs in the city. They were mostly mage-born, many of them vicious human beings. Part mage and a whole lot of natural-born killer types—a deadly combination any way you looked at it.

“Recently more than usual.”

“So it’s not safe for me out there?”

“No.”

Those dark eyes were watching me. Once again, I felt like a puzzle he was trying to work out.

“I could pay you to be my bodyguard and escort me home.”

He shook his head. “It’s not safe for even the likes of me out there these days.”

Now that was something. I had never heard of a death dealer being afraid of anything. They were what I considered the top of the magic food chain—the hardest of the mage-born to kill.

“And you’re proposing what? I should bunk down here tonight?”

“It’s getting late. The streets are dangerous, and you don’t look like you’re up to fighting off trouble at the moment.” He did a sweeping gesture with his arm that took in his sister. “We are offering a place of refuge.”

Darla got up, walked over, sat down next to me, and patted my hand as if trying to offer some kind of comfort. “We’re about the same size. I have some sweatpants and a T-shirt I could lend you. Luke’s right, it’s not safe out there. You should stay with us.”

It had been a long time since anyone had offered to help me. I wanted to say no, but it would be foolish to go out and risk my life.

I moved my hand away but gave her a smile so she wouldn’t be offended. “I’ll take you up on the clothes, but what I could go for right now is a hot shower.”

She pointed across the room. “The bathroom’s over there. You can find clean towels in the cupboard.”

I walked over and opened the bathroom door. The tub was an old-fashioned one. It had a metal circle at the top that held a white and black polka dot shower curtain. A handheld showerhead hung from a long, retractable metal coil.

I slumped down on the side of the bathtub and wondered if I had the energy to take a shower. A pile of clean clothes sat on the toilet seat. The hot water would feel good against my skin. It might clean away the dirt, but what about the guilt? Could it wash that away?

I forced my body up and got undressed. If I had any sense I would get the heck out of here, but I knew I couldn’t. Not yet—not until I got what I needed. I looked in the mirror and shook down my hair. Now free, it came to rest at my shoulders in waves. I turned away from the mirror and stepped into the bathtub. I reached for the showerhead and held it over my head with one hand as I turned the knobs with the other. The hot water felt amazing as I sprayed back and forth across my body. When I finally got out, I rummaged through cabinet drawers until I came across a towel and a boar hairbrush. I dried myself, and then took my time brushing my hair. When I was done, I changed into my borrowed clothes.

Darla was wrong: we weren’t the same size. She might be younger than I was, but she had a lot more curves. Everything was a bit too large. I tied the bottom of the white T-shirt into a knot and pulled the drawstring on the gray sweatpants tight. For some reason, I felt more vulnerable when I came out, even though I was fully clothed. I realized it was because I was wearing someone else’s clothes.

I was in a strange place, with people I’d just met, and I was about to bunk down like a guest. An unwelcome guest. Even though he said I should stay, Luke did not have a welcoming expression as I came out of the bathroom.

“You were in there a while.” He was standing against the row of windows. He looked even bigger than I remembered. Was it possible that he’d grown five inches since I stepped into the bathroom? Impossible. It was just the play of shadows against his body.

“Sorry, did you want to take one? I didn’t mean to hog all the hot water.”

“I usually take my showers in the morning.”

I was having a hard time keeping my eyes off him. He’d changed and currently sported no shirt and a pair of black sweatpants. His broad shoulders tapered down to a very cut stomach. Suddenly an image of him dripping wet, stepping out of the bathtub, flashed across my mind. I couldn’t help it—I blushed, and like an idiot, the only thing I could think of to say was, “Oh, okay.”

“Darla put an extra blanket on the back of the couch in case you get cold.”

“Thanks. Where is she?”

He gestured toward one of the partitioned sections. “She went to bed.”

I stood there feeling like a moron, not sure what to say next.

He pointed to the couch. “The sheets are fresh, but the pillow is a bit lumpy. We aren’t set up for houseguests. I’ll leave the light on in the bathroom and the door ajar, that way you’ll have a bit of light in the room if you get up in the night.”

“I doubt I will. I’m a pretty sound sleeper.” It wasn’t a lie…not really. I used to be a sound sleeper until the nightmares set in. Chances were I would wake up in a cold sweat, trembling from head to toe. I desperately hoped I wouldn’t wake up screaming at the top of my lungs.

I gave him a smile and moved past him to the couch.

He walked across the room and flipped off the overhead lights.

I settled under the covers and watched the shadows from the window play against the ceiling. “Thanks again for the food, the shower, and the place to crash.”

Luke stopped, but didn’t turn around. “No problem.”

“I like your place. It’s—comfortable.”

“I’m glad you approve.” His voice sounded amused.

“Good night.” And as I said the words, I swear I heard my brother’s voice whisper in my ears, “And don’t let the bed bugs bite,” but it had to be my imagination. Lack of sleep was starting to affect my ability to function. A good night’s sleep and I’d be stronger tomorrow—and maybe ready to take on whatever challenges came my way.