Read an extended excerpt below:
Elemental Enmity Book I
I nearly turned around when I saw how tired Aunt Grace looked, but I had put this off long enough. The crinkles around her soft brown eyes betrayed years of worry, making her appear slightly older than forty-one. Her upper body slumped over a stack of bills as if they were chained to her neck. She shoved her fingers into her ginger hair at the nape and groaned as she went to work massaging what had to be tight muscles. She didn’t acknowledge me even though I hovered over her shoulder.
Hoping some of my pent up nerves would escape with my breath, I cleared my throat. “I need to talk to you about something,” I said, settling onto the chair opposite her. Despite my efforts in preparing for this, my voice came out tiny. The worst part was my eyes wanted to roam to the gigantic stack of dishes that looked mysteriously like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I held my breath, worried any sort of errant current would topple our chip-ware onto the dirt-ridden hardwood floor.
Where was Travis, anyway? Knowing him he was in hiding, trying to get out of his turn—again.
“Hmm,” she said absently. “Can’t it wait?”
“Grace,” I stated in the most grown-up tone I could muster. She cocked a brow but still didn’t bother to look up. “I’ve thought this through, and I want to go to St. Mary’s College with Cassie.”
“You are not Catholic,” she said, placing down her pen. Faster than I could look away she locked her gaze onto mine. Her usually warm eyes roamed over me coldly. Ironically her penetrating stare held no visible emotion, yet her scrutiny could have melted diamonds.
I frowned. “What does that have to do with it?” She wasn’t acting the way I had imagined. Cassie and I had gone over this a thousand times. I had been sure she would use her old standby—money.
“The school is based around a religion you do not practice.” She groaned in clear displeasure. “We have discussed this, Rayla. I need you close to home.”
What she really needed was a free nanny. What a joke. Her idea of discussion had been an emphatic “No” when I mentioned I wanted to check out other schools besides Snow College. “Jenny’s old enough to take care of Sarah,” I pleaded. I was ten when I started watching my cousins after school. Jenny just turned twelve. “Besides, I won’t be here anyway.”
“I’m relying on you to come home on the weekends. Jenny isn’t ready for that much responsibility.”
“We each have to do our part. Do you think you should have different obligations than the rest of us?”
The guilt she flung at me tried to stick. Too bad for her I wasn’t going to change my mind. “I just want to—”
“None of us get what we want. I can think of better things to do with my time than find ways to pay for you to have shelter over your head.”
My words came out in a rush. “Don’t you want different for your children?” Too late, I realized my mistake—I was not her child. She made sure I knew that from the day Mom disappeared. Don’t get me wrong. Aunt Grace had shown me unending kindness. She loved me, but she always kept a distance between us that wasn’t present in her relationship with her own kids.
Her pinched lips turned in a forced smile. “That’s why I’ve agreed to let you go to Snow. I had hoped you would be grateful.” Her eyes narrowed, her breath whooshing out in a gust. “It doesn’t appear either one of us is going to get what we want tonight.”
How could she be so cold? She wasn’t even willing to hear my side of things. Her expression was steel, the set of her jaw granite. Changing her mind may have been hopeless, but I was going to make certain she understood how I felt. “When have I ever gotten what I wanted—the time you let me go to Disney Land with Cassie?”
“We couldn’t afford—”
“Oh wait,” I said, right over the top of her over used excuse. “I didn’t get to go with her because I had to babysit. That’s all I’ve done for the last five years!”
Her tone dripped ice with a dash of hostility. “I realize you’ve made sacrifices, but no more than any other member of this family.”
I didn’t deserve to be treated this way. “I would rather work ten hours a day at the pig farm than waste my life taking care of your brats!” I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with her. At this point I would prefer a different continent.
I bolted out the back door. Aunt Grace stayed right on my heels. She placed a hand on my shoulder, halting me. “I know I expect a lot from you, but I’m only doing what’s best for everyone.”
I whirled around glaring with every bit of animosity I had in me. She pulled her hand back sharply. “No, Aunt Grace. What you’re doing is ruining my life!” With that said, I took off up the hill.
She called after me, but I didn’t want to hear it anymore. My skin prickled from the chilly night air. I should have grabbed a jacket, but I wasn’t about to turn around. Hoping it would warm me up, I started into a run. By the time I reached Cassie’s house sweat soaked my shirt, yet my arms could easily have been mistaken for a plucked chicken.
I rang the bell and bent over, resting my hands on my knees. To my surprise Mr. Lambert opened the door. He wasn’t supposed to be in town this weekend. I stood up and tried to smile, but from his worried expression my attempt fell short of realistic.
He took one look at me and rushed to my side. “What on Earth? What’s wrong?”
My voice came out as soft and defeated as I felt. “Is Cassie around? I need to talk to her.”
He ushered me through the door, briskly rubbing his hand down my arm. The heat of his skin burned. “It must be thirty degrees out there. Where’s your coat?”
I pulled in a deep breath. “Forgot it.”
He nodded. “Did you have a fight with Grace again?”
“She’s the most ridiculous person alive. I didn’t even get to tell her about my scholarship.” A ragged sigh escaped me. “She just said no.” I swiped the moisture out of my eyes and gritted my teeth, determined to not break down in front of him. Even though he hadn’t ever mentioned it, I knew he pulled some strings to get me accepted into St. Mary’s College, not to mention the scholarship that came out of nowhere. If I couldn’t go, it would be a total slap in the face to his generosity.
He smiled at me and nudged my chin. “Give her time to mull it over. She’ll come around.”
“Rayla?” Cassie asked, pulling my attention to the ornately carved staircase. Wider than most hallways, it curved gracefully along the wall. “What are you…” Her face turned in a frown when she looked at me.
I ran over to her and shook my head in response to her unfinished question. Her pale eyes softened with compassion as she placed an arm around my shoulder. “We’ll be upstairs, Dad.”
Mr. Lambert smiled. “Remember the old saying, Rayla: The world is always darkest just before the dawn.”
Was that really supposed to make me feel better? My tomorrows had no chance of getting any brighter if I didn’t do something to change my life. I returned his smile then let Cassie guide me to her room.
She closed her door softly as I flopped on the bed, pulling the covers over me. The TV showed an old rerun of Happy Days. I grunted, wishing my life could be that uncomplicated.
“Spill,” she said, sitting beside me.
I tucked my arms around my stomach. “She wouldn’t even listen to me. I hate her!”
Cassie touched my arm. “Maybe we should just go to Snow our first year. We could transfer to St. Mary’s next year when she’s had time to get used to you being gone.”
I shook my head. “She wants me home every blasted weekend. Said Jenny couldn’t handle taking care of Sarah.”
Cassie sucked her bottom lip into her mouth, gazing up at the ceiling as if it were a starlit sky. She shrugged a shoulder after a while. “I just don’t see how we could make it work.”
“I’m eighteen,” I reminded her. “She can’t make me stay here.”
She gave me a mournful smile. “She’s the only family you have left. Don’t you think you should just cool off for a bit?”
“I’ve never wanted to go to Snow anyway.”
Her smile turned to a light frown. “Everyone we know will be there.”
Uh-oh. This couldn’t be good. “Everyone?”
She stood up and began pacing. “Chase is going.”
My eyes flew wide. I knew it. That weasel still had his teeth in her. “When did you talk to him? I thought you were done getting used.”
She shrugged. “Can’t seem to get him out of my system.”
“You deserve better than that jerk. Think about it, Cass. Notre Dame. Real men, not that louse that acts like he’s James Dean reincarnated.” I had her interest. Now it was time to close the deal. “Oh, and don’t forget about football.”
The corners of her mouth turned up fractionally. She considered me for a moment then bounded over to her laptop, yanked it to her chest then sat beside me again. Her already bright eyes nearly glowed in the dim light.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
She smirked. “Looking up the team roster.”
My heart beat faster, but it wasn’t because I cared a whit about football. She was in it again, and with her help I could do anything.
Chapter One We spent the next eight months figuring out the details of my escape. I would have never been able to swing it if it hadn’t been for Cassie and her Dad. As far as Aunt Grace was concerned, I would be going to Snow College tomorrow morning. What she didn’t understand wouldn’t hurt me.
I sat my suitcase down by the bottom of the stairs. Jenny and Sarah waited for me with outstretched arms. I leaned into them, inhaling the scent of cheap strawberry shampoo.
Sarah wrapped her arms around my waist, gazing up at me with tears in her eyes. “I don’t want you to go,” she said then buried her face into my abdomen.
I held her tight for a few moments, feeling like the biggest loser but not the good kind. “I’ll be home before you know it, and if you promise to be good for Jenny, I’ll bring you a present.”
She pulled away from me, her eyes brightening. “Really?”
She ran into the kitchen, her tiny voice raised in excitement. “Rayla’s gonna get me a present, Momma!”
“Is she now?” Aunt Grace said, stepping into the foyer. Her face was tight with worry. “You call me when you get there.”
“I will,” I said.
“I don’t see why you can’t just stay here tonight.”
Not this again. “I already told you. We have to leave really early. I don’t want to wake anyone up. Cassie’s parents aren’t even in town right now so we won’t be bothering anyone at her house.”
Jenny hugged me from the back. “You better e-mail me.”
We were probably the only family on the planet that couldn’t afford a cell plan that included unlimited texting. Once I got a job, I was going to get a new phone and hopefully a new plan.
I touched her hand that perched on my shoulder. “Promise.”
She bounded up the stairs yelling for Travis to help her move her stuff into my room. He stopped by the railing, stared down at me and gave me his lopsided grin. He flipped his head to get his dark bangs out of his eyes. “See ya round, Cuz.”
I tilted my head in an upward nod. “Sure thing.” I pointed my finger at him. “Be good.” I wasn’t that much older than him, but I felt as if we had ten years between us.
He huffed. “When am I ever not?” Without even a backward glance, he took off around the corner before I could say anything else.
Sarah had already pulled Aunt Grace into the living room for her bedtime story. I waved goodbye, but neither of them noticed. The ancient door creaked when I pulled it shut. I quickened my step, but no one followed me to the car.
The tires threw up a cloud of dust as I sped away toward freedom. I gazed at my home through the haze of the rear view mirror. The moon set an eerie cast to the scene. The old Victorian had seen better days. Time had transformed the once stately estate into the humble residence of a working family. It needed a paint job, the porch swing still hung by one chain, and bicycles littered the two week overgrown lawn. It wasn’t anything compared to Cassie’s house, but it would always be special to me. I swiped the tears from my eyes and rolled down the window. Time for crying was over. I was officially on my way.
Cassie waited outside for me when I pulled up. Her grin couldn’t have gotten much bigger. The handle gave her some trouble, so I reached over and opened the door. Before I knew it she plopped onto the seat. Eyes glowing, she reached into her purse and pulled out a wad of cash. “Dad’s going away present.”
I kept my cringe to myself. I was tired of feeling guilty for taking advantage of Mr. Lambert’s endless acts of kindness. I needed to figure out a way to pay him back. “You’ve got to have the coolest father on the planet.”
She smiled brightly. “Yeah. Isn’t he great?”
“You sure you’re ready for this?” I asked with mock seriousness.
She laughed. “No backing out now!”
I waggled my brows before I put the car in gear and lowered her window. The invading night air sucked the moisture from my body like a sponge. She just shook her head at me, but I knew what she was thinking without hearing one word. We would have been much more comfortable in her car.
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t think it would still be this hot when we planned this whole thing.”
“If you think this is bad, you just wait until you have sweat dripping from you twenty-four-seven.”
She’d already tried to explain humidity to me, but I didn’t care if I had to take three showers a day. I was on my way to my new life. We had pulled it off without any snags. Nothing short of death would keep me from claiming my dreams.
We were on a lone stretch of Wyoming highway. The newness of our trip had swiftly worn to raw edged fatigue. I was going to have to wake Cassie up soon. Even if I could manage the weight of my eyelids, I couldn’t shake the dread that had attached to my spine ten miles ago.
For the second time tonight, icy gooseflesh erupted across my neck and skittered down my entire body like a million frosty spiders. I shrugged off a shiver before I checked the rear view mirror again. No monsters lurked in the back seat with the sole desire of making me their next juicy snack, so why did I feel like Satan himself decided to stalk me?
Cassie rested against the passenger door, blissfully sleeping away. I stretched my hand toward her, but pulled back just before I touched her shoulder. I had no right to wake her because of my absurd paranoia. This trip didn’t need me complicating it to make it unbearable. My fear of the dark would not cripple me anymore. Hopefully St. Mary’s offered counseling.
A thunderous rumble shattered the milky silence, sending a quiver through my bones. Even though empty dawn had greeted me in the mirror moments before, now a motorcycle rocketed toward us. Where had he come from? I shook my head. It was just a stupid motorcycle. No need to panic.
I held my breath, expecting him to zoom by, but he matched my pace instead. The bike zigzagged haphazardly in the lane as if the driver was loaded. Great, just what we needed.
I honestly wouldn’t have cared if he did wheelies behind me if he hadn’t been centimeters from my bumper. Why was he craning his neck in my direction?
He flashed his lights repeatedly as if I was hogging the entire road. My car wasn’t that big. I rolled my eyes and inched closer to the shoulder. My tires hit the rumble-strip, making me jump spastically. He had plenty of room to pass. No other vehicles were in sight. What was he waiting for?
Even if Aunt Grace had miraculously figured out what I was doing, she wasn’t ridiculous enough to send this lunatic to bring me home. What could he possibly want from me?
If I had more than noodles for a backbone at the moment, I would have pulled over to see what the heck was wrong with him. I sped up instead. I was weaponless—like it would have helped if I had an entire arsenal in my car. You sort of have to know how to use a gun for it to do you any good. I was not stopping. He could be a rapist or a serial killer.
The jerk wouldn’t back off no matter what I did. My entire frame quaked under the reality that this man was most certainly trying to get me to stop.
The thought that he might be in trouble flashed though my mind. Too bad for him this wasn’t the Sixties and I wasn’t that gullible. I clutched the steering wheel harder, hoping to anchor myself and moved the car back where it should have been. I would have sworn on a Bible this dude was secretly weaving puppet-strings around me; it was all I could do to keep my foot on the gas. Worse was the barrage of absurd thoughts swirling in my head about him.
I hadn’t even really seen him, but in my mind I was neatly tucked in behind him on that beast of a motorcycle. The wind whipped my hair around us. I leaned closer to him, inhaling spice and man. Even the daydream of him smelled divine.
What was I doing? Vivid couldn’t come close to describing this fantasy. No one should have that kind of power over me.
My back stiffened automatically, determination welling up in my heart. He wasn’t going to terrorize me an instant longer.
I stomped the brakes, hard. He was either going around me—or over the car. He was next to me in a nanosecond.
Cassie woke up with a startled yelp. “Rayla, what are you—what the hell?” She jumped away from me as though I were ablaze.
I turned toward bike guy to see what had freaked her out so badly. He should have been six miles ahead of us by now from the speed he’d been going. Maybe she had the same tantalizing snapshots rolling around her mind and wanted to call him back?
The minute my eyes locked with the scene next to me, I screamed. Instinctively, I jerked away from the thing, not motorcycle, next to my car. The back end fishtailed, but I managed to correct us before I gunned it. I looked again, sure I had imagined whatever that was. It was still there. I blinked several times to dislodge the image. Nothing changed.
Instead of seeing a motorcycle, flank and sinew of what looked like horseflesh rode beside me, black as midnight, taut as a cord. I shuddered when I recognized the low flap of an enormous, obsidian feathered wing.
The only sound louder than the roar of the motorcycle was Cassie’s chant of “It is not there.” She gave a final scream and covered her eyes. I wished I had that option.
The creature was colossal, bigger than all the horses I had ever seen. He was the stuff of legend.
A pegasus was supposed to be white. This monstrosity was deeper black than a bottomless pit. Smoke billowed forth from his nostrils as though he had a fiery furnace for innards. If his wings weren’t bad enough, a purplish-black glow radiated from him.
After every thrust of his gargantuan wings, my car veered. I had been going nearly a hundred miles-per-hour, yet the thing kept up as if I were out for a scenic drive.
The rider was a mammoth of a man, suited in what looked like leather armor. His jacket strained under bulging muscles as though the seams would burst. A helmet blocked any view of his face, but his head was turned toward me. Ghostly white knuckles gripped the handlebars.
Wait, what happened to the pegasus? A breath before, a mythical beast rode next to us: one that could have only escaped from the depths of Hades. Now, an ordinary motorcycle flanked my car.
Well, ordinary was not right. The chrome gleamed in the dim light as though it were alive. I tried to hold back the absurd thoughts that once more stole my mind. I ached to settle into the supple black leather while I curled my fingers around the high-set handlebars. Even from here, the rumble of the powerful engine shook my entire frame. Still, it was only a bike.
I refused to analyze the intrusive images of the mysterious stranger, especially because I wouldn’t have minded if he scooted back a bit to give me some room.
I reacted to him on a cellular level, as if he was a new source of gravity and I a wayward comet. An emotion I didn’t want to recognize stirred underneath my overpowering fear. My mind screamed at me to pull a one-eighty to get away from him yet my body craved to get closer to the stranger. I felt as though I were his somehow.
I didn’t like it one bit. I was not the type of girl to lose her brain over a guy. I couldn’t even see his face, but I wanted to. In fact, the curiosity left me feeling cheated.
Cassie kept her gaze locked blindly forward as if nothing abnormal was happening. I wished I could be so calm. The specter of insanity loomed close by me, ready to strike at any moment.
The man cocked his head to the side, saluted me.
Then bike, rider…everything just disappeared into the hot night air.
This time when I hit the brakes, the car skidded wildly to a stop. I craned my neck in all the unnatural angles I could manage: he was gone. What the heck? Had a trap door in the road swallowed him?
I pummeled the steering wheel to ease the tension welling in my heart. “Bum-scum!” My shrill words hung in the air before shattering into silence. I shoved my hands through my hair and squeezed my eyes shut.
Cassie shifted in her seat. The aged leather let out a shadow of the groan I currently had caged. I glanced over at her.
Her gaze locked onto mine before she licked the side of her mouth and sighed. “I wish you’d swear like a normal person, Rayla.” Her tone sounded more irritated than she looked. “That is so disgusting.”
I gawked at her. “Are you really razzing me about my cursing habits now?”
Her full lips pursed before she gave me a faint smile. “This seems as good of a time as any.”
Wait? Didn’t she see that? “You don’t find anything odd about being run down by a man on a motorcycle that turns into a pegasus and back again just before he disappears?” I frantically searched the sky again. “Where did he go?”
She seemed to be trying for casual indifference, but fear transmuted her normally delicate features into a mousy mask. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I smirked. “So when did ‘it is not there’ become your new mantra?”
Her fingers worried the bright white seam of her dark designer jeans. She shot a glance at me but barely made eye contact. “Rayla, drop it. We’re fine. He’s gone.” She shrugged. “You should be happy.”
“Happy?” I choked out. “I just had a real hell’s angel chase me down; you’re acting as if he was a dorky date!” A maelstrom of emotions swirled throughout my body. My heart pummeled my ribs. My breath came in halted gasps. Rivulets of sweat trickled down my back as though I had run twenty miles. If that wasn’t bad enough, my right front tire perched precariously on the gravel shoulder. A few more inches would have sent us plummeting onto the endless sea of sagebrush below the highway. I grunted. “Was he a figment of our collective imagination?”
I refused to let her explain this away. “Come on, Cassie. I know you saw the thing so don’t bother denying it.”
She looked out the window, but I still caught her grimace. “Could we just get moving again? We’re going to be late, or would you rather go back to Snow?”
Snow College was in the opposite direction. I was not turning around. She’d already given up her chance to change her mind. “So you’re actually telling me you didn’t see a pegasus?” Why would she have acted like that otherwise?
She slapped her hand against her thigh, startling me. “Mythical creatures are just that. They do not exist!”
I would have agreed with her ten minutes before, but that beast and rider would forever haunt me. I was pretty sure, even with my imagination, I couldn’t have come up with something like that on my own. How had he disappeared?
A tiny part of me had hoped to see the guy fly through the air for affecting me that much—only without the aid of his demon mount. I needed to make it clear to him, and more importantly myself, exactly who had control over my body.
I had never liked the dark. Now I had an actual reason to distrust the inky hours that had always brought a shiver of trepidation to my spine. I had expected my maiden voyage away from home to be full of excitement but nothing like this.
I shoved my fingers under my shirt to scratch the hideous scar between my ribs. I needed to stop, but I couldn’t. It was already raw. What the heck was wrong with me?
I found it odd that the usually—void of any kind of feeling—jagged patch of skin suddenly wouldn’t stop itching. Having the thing erupt with sensitivity for the first time since my horse riding accident seven years ago was more than a little weird.
***** Lunch was awkward. Cassie was really quiet. We came out of the cheesy restaurant in utter silence. The place had saddles for barstools, wagon wheels for chandeliers, and a mechanical bull in the corner. The only entertainment I’d had for the past hour had been watching complete strangers repeatedly fall off the thing.
Why did the air feel this thick? Every hair on my body tried to take flight. Suppressing a shudder, I glanced around the desolate landscape but didn’t see anything that looked out of the ordinary.
Although my scar had been itchy, tingling almost nonstop since my near-miss with that motorcycle, my terror had vanished with the sunrise: It was back like recurrent heartburn. I snapped my neck around when I heard a throaty rumble close by.
A leather clad rider pulled onto the road from the gas station across the street. Figures I only caught the back of him. It could have been the guy from last night, but there had to be thousands of black motorcycles in America ridden by huge men in leather, right? Cassie’s face dropped three shades paler than vanilla ice cream, her gaze locked to the motorcyclist.
“Do you think that was him?” I asked breathily.
She hadn’t moved a muscle, as if she was frozen where she stood. “Who?”
Why was she acting like this? She’d have to do better than that if she wanted me to drop the subject. “Don’t,” I said.
She glanced up at me coolly. “I really can’t imagine what you’re talking about, Rayla.”
I steeled my expression, still not getting why she refused to admit what had happened. “You should try harder, like when we were kids.”
She glared at me before stalking away. She stood at the driver-side door, arm outstretched.
I handed her the keys. “Why won’t you talk about it?” I asked, sliding onto my seat. “We both saw the thing.” My mind told me I couldn’t have really seen that pegasus, but something in my heart refused to let it go.
Her hands shook while she fumbled to get the key into the ignition. “You should get some sleep. You look exhausted.” She hadn’t even glanced at me. I had never seen Cassie this freaked out.
I couldn’t blame her. Even though the motorcyclist was gone, his presence clung to me like a second skin. How was I supposed to sleep believing that man was somewhere in this world? I hoped my feelings were wrong—that he wasn’t actually following us, unseen. I tried not to think about it, but the vision of him haunted me every time I closed my eyes.
Chapter Two The rest of the trip was a blur. Nothing weird happened, so I had turned my mind to more important things…like school.
I pulled into Le Mans Hall’s humungous circular driveway. My mouth fell open. This was going to be my home for the next four years.
The building was amazing—sort of gothic mansion meets military barracks. The square bell-tower loomed above us, nestled between a regal set of flanking wings.
Were the rumors true? Had a student really hung herself up there? I shrugged off the tiny shiver that raced through me and stepped out of the car.
Shielding my eyes from the late morning sun, I found the fourth floor. Which room was ours? A view of the lake was probably out of the question for freshmen, but there was always a chance.
With the ornate moldings that lined every wall and the marble tile that gleamed under the fluorescent light, our dorm had an old-world cool factor. We took our things to our room, which, surprisingly, was pretty great.
A bunk-bed rested tight against an aged ivory wall. Two small closets were nestled in the corner. A couple of dressers and a desk lined the other walls. We even had a small living area and a private bathroom. All we needed now was a comfy sofa and a shower curtain. Speaking of curtains, I peeked out the window and smiled. The lake glittered softly below us.
Too bad I didn’t have time to explore; I still had to call Aunt Grace. I told Cassie I was going to park the car after we unloaded our things.
She didn’t even ask to go with me, but she did wish me luck. She probably didn’t want to be in earshot of my conversation. I didn’t want to hear it either, but I couldn’t put it off any longer. I wasn’t about to make her come along for the torture.
After I shut off the ignition, I reluctantly pulled out my phone. Exhaustion from lack of sleep and my weird trip here washed over me. I had to put that guy out of my mind. Nothing else had happened and I already convinced myself that Cassie had been reacting to the guy not an imaginary pegasus. I’d probably dreamed it up because last night had been the first time in years I had gotten up the courage to even be outside at night. And the motorcyclist? Well, thinking more about him would wait for later.
True to her nature, Aunt Grace had left twenty-four messages. I didn’t feel like getting angry, so I decided to skip them.
I wasn’t surprised at all when she answered on the first ring. “Hi, Aunt Grace,” I said, a little less enthusiastically than I had intended.
To say worry clouded her tone would be the understatement of my life. “Rayla, thank the heavens and the stars! Where are you, girl?”
From her tone I was in the land called Trouble. She had probably figured out I wasn’t at Snow College already. I set into my speech, hoping she wouldn’t interrupt me.
“Grace, I made a decision—”
“Where are you?”
“I know you won’t be happy with it, but—”
“Rayla, you have no idea what you’ve done!”
“This is my life, and I feel it’s time—”
“You feel?” she said in a huff. “Where are you?”
She was not going to give up, so I decided to get it over with. “Notre Dame.”
No—Paris. “Yes,” I stated calmly, waiting for her to lose it.
Her tone lowered, deflating like a spent balloon. “What have you done?”
That wasn’t the response I had expected. I started again. “Like I was saying, I decided—”
“Did you ever consider I’ve been so strict with you for a reason?”
Of course I had, but I wasn’t buying her excuses anymore. I had finally taken control of my life, whether she liked it or not. “I thought you were just being overprotective because of Mom.”
There. It was out. I hadn’t found the statement as hard to say as I thought I would.
She sighed. It was a lonely sound. “I guess I should’ve just told you, but I was hoping to keep you from ever knowing about what you are.”
I chuckled, picking at the steering-wheel. “You aren’t going to tell me I was actually born a boy, are you?”
She harrumphed. “This is serious, Rayla. I didn’t think you would ever be this foolish.”
In what messed up universe was choosing a great school over a mediocre one foolish? “What are you talking about?”
Her voice held an accusation I didn’t miss. “Why didn’t you tell me you still wanted to go to St. Mary’s? You haven’t mentioned it in over a year.”
“Are you kidding? You would have never let me come!”
“You’re darn right! I can’t protect you now. None of us can.”
Would she always treat me as a child? “From what?” I asked. “I’m not that pathetic. I can take care of myself, you know.” Hadn’t I already proven that last night? Besides, I wasn’t about to make excuses for trying to be an adult.
She didn’t say anything for a while. Her voice was so soft I could barely understand her when she finally spoke. “I’m truly sorry I failed you and your mother.”
“What does this have to do with Mom?” Was she about to tell me I had cancer or something worse? Had my mom passed on a congenital anomaly of some kind? Had she really died a horrible death she refused to let me see?
Would I finally get to name what had stolen my mother from me?
I braced myself for something terrible. I had never known Aunt Grace to exaggerate—ever, but she had to be now. Her tone insinuated I was in real trouble.
Her voice was strained as though it was hard for her to talk. “I can’t tell you. It’s too risky. They’ll only find you sooner.”
They? “Who in the blazes are you talking about?”
She whispered, “You need to be very careful, honey. There’s more to this world than you can see. There are people that want you. Your life is about to change in ways you can’t even imagine.”
Huh? “Aunt Grace, I don’t know what has gotten into you, but what you’re saying doesn’t make any sense. Are you telling me to come home? Because if you are—”
“No, Rayla,” she nearly shouted. “You can’t come home! I have to think about more than you, now.”
I snorted. When had she only thought about me? I had been the last one in her household she even bothered to glance at most days let alone think about. “Would you get to the point?”
Her exaggerated groan was loud and clear. “Oh, to heck with it. They will find you soon enough anyway.” She huffed a couple times as though she was trying to control her temper before continuing. “Fae lords will be coming for you.”
I sat there for a moment, sure I had misheard her. “Uh, would you mind repeating that?”
“Good grief, girl, listen to me. There’s no telling how long we’ll have. Fae. Lords. Will. Be. Coming. For. You.”
I sputtered, “Fae. Like in Faeries?” I laughed until tears formed in my eyes. A vision of thumb-sized men with iridescent wings riding miniature horses galloped through my mind—my favorite childhood fantasy.
Many times, I had imagined being swept off my feet by a fairy prince. He had cast a spell on me to make me fae. My wings had been pink and purple, my hair a silvery light-blue.
Her voice couldn’t have sounded more hysterical. “Yes!”
I laughed uncontrollably. I couldn’t help it—until an image of a lone rider on a tricked-out Harley turned pegasus popped unbidden into my mind. My joviality turned into an elongated, “Ohhhh!”
Her tone kicked up a few decibels. “Have you seen them already?”
I huffed. “How should I know what a real one looks like?” The motorcyclist couldn’t have been fae, could he? Even if they did exist, which I wasn’t saying they did, that man was anything but diminutive.
Any second Aunt Grace was going to yell just kidding then laugh her butt off. I waited. And waited.
What came out of her mouth startled me. “They are stunning, cunning, and can be lethal.”
“Come on,” I mocked.
“You will listen to me! You can’t allow yourself to be alone with any boy!”
I knew her game. She wanted to scare me into coming home. She was still trying to control me from more than a thousand miles away. “I can hold my own with men, Aunt Grace.” If she only knew the situations I had gotten myself out of already, she would probably disown me.
“You say that, now: You don’t know how they can get to you. If they wouldn’t follow you, I would insist you come home.”
That was all it took. My temper skyrocketed. “I don’t care who’s after me. You can send freaking King Kong. I’m not leaving! I need my degree.”
“You’ll never get to use it!” she screeched. “Why do you think I’ve tried to interest you in other things?”
“Uh-huh, like an uncomplicated career at the pig farm?” I regretted the words the moment they escaped my lips. I didn’t mean to be rude to her, but my brain to mouth filter wasn’t working.
She sounded self-conscious. “It’s been good enough for me.”
“How can you go there every day?” Grace was a strong woman, but she had given up on herself way too soon. “You could have been so much more.”
“How I live is more important than my occupation,” she said. “Besides, you have no idea what I do every day!”
I dreamed of being so many things, but a production worker in a stinky factory wasn’t one of them. “I know enough to not want to follow in your footsteps.”
“There’s no chance of that happening now. You’ve ruined any choices you did have.” The heat in her tone faded. “I’m afraid the ones facing you will only lead to misery.” She sounded utterly forlorn.
Her faith in me was comforting. “Yeah, ‘cause I couldn’t possibly make a right decision on my own.”
“I didn’t say that. You won’t have much to choose from, sweetheart.”
The condescension in her tone blasted through me like a pistol shot. “I hate it when you call me that!” I was an adult. It was about time she treated me like one. The pregnant silence stretched to near bursting. For a moment, I thought she hung up on me then I heard her breathing. I wasn’t going to say anything until she did.
“Rayla, please, let’s not fight. I’m only worried for you.” Even though I didn’t want it to, her love for me seeped through the phone and into my heart.
I took some deep breaths to calm down. “Tell me what’s really going on then.”
She spoke measuredly as though she was carefully choosing her words. “That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do. What are you asking?”
“I want the truth. Did you send someone to follow me here?” I didn’t think she knew any world renowned magicians, but anything was possible.
“How could I do that when I didn’t even know you left the state?”
I ignored the hurt in her voice. “Something strange happened on my way here.” She gasped, but I continued, “There was this creepy guy—”
Wasn’t that enough?
She wouldn’t even let me finish a sentence. “I did say guy, as in singular.” Funny how she didn’t comment on the creepy part.
She sighed heavily, her voice calm when she finally spoke, “They run in packs during the hunt.”
I snorted out a chortle. “What am I a prize boar?”
She didn’t even laugh. “You’d be surprised.”
I would be astonished. Despite Cassie’s insistence, I was no cover model, although I didn’t resemble dog meat, either. There had to be a reason Cassie got dream dates throughout high school while my own social life could have used some work. Once she started liking football, she was way more popular than either of us thought possible. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get into it.
I still couldn’t figure out why Brody Smith, captain of the football team, had picked me instead of her. Man. I so needed to stop thinking about this. I couldn’t afford to let him enter my mind again.
Back to the topic at hand, I asked, “Let’s pretend for a moment what you told me was true, and fae lords really are hunting me right now. What could I possibly have that any other girl here doesn’t?”
The word she whispered floated through the airwaves like an ephemeral prayer: “Power.”
Her statement shocked me so much I sat there dumbfounded. Power could mean so many things, but at the base it was control. At the moment, I could hardly manage my emotions. “I’m quite sure I can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound, or run faster than a speeding bullet. Trust me, I’ve tried. What sort of power do I supposedly have then?”
“You are an Elemental. You were created for the fae.”
Gah. Was she on drugs? “What the heck is an Elemental?”
“You can manipulate matter, Rayla. The squadron of lords will hunt you down until one of them claims you. Once bonded, your power will enhance his.”
This sounded like the makings of a bad late-night movie. “I’m not saying I believe a word you’re saying, but I’m suspending disbelief once again just to clarify something; why would they have waited until now to come for me? And if they are so dangerous, why haven’t you come to get me?”
“It’s complicated. I would be there in a heartbeat if I could. There’s something you need to understand. I have to protect—” Her words cut out. She said something else I couldn’t put together. Gobbledygook was all I heard, then “shielded.” There were more non-words. The last one I made out was “mom.”
“I can’t understand you, Aunt Grace. What did you say?”
Just like that the jumbled words were clear. “It’s beginning already.”
The mixed-up sounds started again then, “…talk to Cassie. She can see…” She emphasized see in a way that made me think Cassie had lied about the pegasus. Maybe I wasn’t crazy after all.
“What does Cassie have to do with this?”
“…stay with her, okay? Keep away from Notre Dame!”
All I could hear were partial words and silence after that. “You’re breaking up. What’s wrong with Notre Dame?”
“What?” The call dropped. I tried her again and again, but my calls wouldn’t go through. Even thought she’d probably kill me, I decided to send her a text:
Phone died. Call later. Luv U!
I didn’t even get to tell her what that guy had done. I doubted she would’ve dismissed him so quickly if I had.
Cassie was making my bed when I entered our room. When she looked up at me, her eyes flew wide. “That bad, huh?”
If she only knew how surreal that call had been. “Aunt Grace just told me fae lords want me for some sort of power I have. You said they don’t exist. Which of you is correct?”
Chapter Three Cassie turned her back to me. I had expected her to laugh, but her breath came in rapid gasps. I waited: No response. Abandoning my bed, she moved to a suitcase and sorted through the contents.
Maybe this was more serious than I thought. Maybe Cassie did know something? There was only one way to find out. “Aunt Grace told me I was in danger,” I said. “In my estimation that puts you in danger, too.”
She stopped folding her delicates into neat piles and faced me. Her pale eyes brimmed with unshed tears. The smooth angles of her face contorted into a horrible grimace. I cringed when I heard the horror in her voice. “I can’t talk about this.” She covered her eyes with both hands. Her body trembled from thunderous sobs.
I edged closer to her and placed my hand gently on her shoulder. She shrugged it away.
I gritted my teeth. “It isn’t like I wouldn’t believe you. First the trip here and then Aunt Grace’s call, I’m up for anything just about now.”
She thrust her arms violently to her sides. “You can’t possibly understand what it’s like.” She hesitated for a few seconds, her tone frigid with fear. “I spent five years in counseling to combat my hallucinations. I embraced them once, and it cost me. I won’t do it again!” Quicker than I could respond, she spun away from me.
She thought she was hallucinating? Could two people have the same delusion? I closed the distance between us again. “I might understand if you were the only one that saw it. It was black and scary and that guy made me feel…so strange. I need you to tell me what you saw, Cassie.”
She offered a contemptuous look over her shoulder. “My eyes don’t work any differently than yours do.”
“Then you did see the pegasus?”
She huffed. “I didn’t say that!”
I frowned at her. We weren’t kids anymore and we weren’t playing make believe. “I guess I imagined the whole thing. Stress got to me. Is that it?”
She wouldn’t look at me when I stood in front of her. “It could be.”
“I thought we didn’t have secrets. Going through counseling for that long had to be horrible. I can’t say I understand, but I want to.” If Cassie really had seen the pegasus, that could only mean there was some truth to what Aunt Grace told me. “What if there is more to this world than we know? What if you weren’t delusional all those years ago? Your stories—”
“We’re here for school, not to talk about imaginary people.” Cassie narrowed her eyes, sending me a frosty glare. Even with that attempt, she hadn’t covered the fear that lingered beneath contempt. “I’ll go to Snow if you continue with this nonsense.”
I clenched my fists at my sides, trying my best to understand her. “You would leave over a question?” I couldn’t lose this life before it even started.
St. Mary’s would be horrible without her. Oh no if she left would her dad’s money go with her? I hated myself for even thinking about that.
“I hope I don’t have to.”
Her gaze chilled me more than her blunt words. I gaped at her. She had only been like this once before.
Her mother had taken her away for a seven-month sabbatical. She missed half of the sixth-grade. I hadn’t ever fit in with the kids at school. Without Cassie, my days had almost been unbearable.
When she finally came home, I expected vivid details about India. What I got was an “It was hot, but nice.” She refused to play our usual games after that trip. That was when her obsession with football began.
I never got the appeal. She loved the games more than my cousin Travis did. I didn’t think that was possible.
I missed our excursions into fantasy. Unfortunately, I had to make-believe on my own after that: It wasn’t the same. My tone fell flat. “I’ll just have to figure things out without you.”
She thrust a finger at me before turning to her clothes again. “Grace is trying to teach you a lesson for lying to her. It isn’t anything more than that.” Despite her solid exterior, a shudder rippled along her back. “It can’t be.”
I didn’t want Cassie to leave, so I decided to save my arguments for another time. “I guess so.”
She pulled away when I tried to hug her. I never thought I would see a day when I would want some distance from Cassie: I was wrong.
***** I went for a run. The one thing that usually cleared my mind wasn’t working.
My thoughts cycled in a whirlwind of why’s. Cassie was definitely lying to me about something big, and I had come to the conclusion she had been lying to me for quite a while. I wanted to think Aunt Grace was the deceitful one, but that didn’t feel right. Her words came back in a rush: Fae lords will be coming for you.
Considering such a thing went against the foundations of reality. Even if I had hallucinated the pegasus, the guy on the bike was more than an ordinary man. Something within him called to something within me. I didn’t understand it. The only thing I could really hope for now was that I would never see him again. I shuddered at the thought even though I had always wished something magical would to happen to me.
I hadn’t realized as a child how frightening being swept off your feet by a fairy prince would be in real life. He hadn’t been the prince charming I had conjured up as a kid, either. He was a far sight larger and an eternity scarier.
Falling down a rabbit-hole sounded great compared to this. After all, Alice was in a land of wonder. I was in Indiana. I just needed to keep telling myself that none of this was true; none of this was real. The logical part of my mind sure thought that. Cassie was right. Aunt Grace was probably playing a trick on me.
My feet flew over the pavement, making short work of campus. I should have been recuperating from our trip, but I couldn’t rest with so many unknowns parading through my brain.
I slowed, my lungs needing more air than I could currently give them at the pace I had set. My mono-vision blurred outward. What the heck? No buildings were in sight. Enormous pine trees surrounded the narrow path I stood on. Dizziness overwhelmed me when I looked up at the sprawling branches.
How had I gotten into the woods? The place looked more like the Redwood Forest than the Nature Area of campus. This was just great. It probably wasn’t the best idea for me to be out here alone.
Okay. No need to panic. The rush of water thundered somewhere near me. If I followed the river, I could find my way back to my dorm. I started toward the sound, kicking myself for not paying attention to where I was going.
A fat drop of rain pelted my cheek and slid down my face. A couple more splatter on my scalp. What was going on? The sky had been clear moments before. I gazed unbelievingly at the voluminous clouds rolling toward me. They were the deep, dark gray of a turbulent summer storm. The wind picked up, sending my hair whipping around my face; I pulled it into a makeshift bun to get it out of my eyes. I had to find shelter. If only I had a clue where I was. Why had I been this stupid?
The heavens dumped on me like a waterfall. I usually loved staying out in the rain, that was because I had never experienced a tempest like this. A small roofline caught my attention, barely visible through the trees. I cut into the bushes toward it. The bramble dug into my flesh, leaving a crosshatch of welts on my arms.
The old shack looked deserted. The door hung open at an odd angle, only attached by one leather hinge. Most of the windows were broken.
Once in the clear, I raced inside even though this was the sort of place an ax-murderer would hang out. It wasn’t like I had a better option.
The second I entered the room the musk of wet earth and ancient wood surrounded me. I breathed in deeply, savoring the freshness. The world seemed newer somehow.
The intricacy of the hand-planed walls mesmerized me. It must have taken forever to build this place. I sat cross-legged on the rickety floorboards waiting for the clouds to break. I could probably sit here for hours without much of a problem.
The sounds of nature floated near—the song of a bird melded with the percussion of the rain in a timeless, soothing rhythm. I closed my eyes, my nerves calming with every revitalizing lungful of air.
I would figure this out. Whatever it was, I would deal with it. My plight couldn’t be as bad as Aunt Grace had implied.
I pulled out my phone, trying her number again. It was busy. Of course.
I called Cassie to smooth things over before I went back—the same. It didn’t even roll to voice-mail.
I hit every saved number I had. They wouldn’t go through.
I tried the customer service number. No luck.
Frustration bubbled up in me like an over-full pot. What was going on? Despite the trees, I had a clear signal.
I took some more calming breaths, squaring my shoulders. I would use Cassie’s phone to call home. Everything was going to be fine. It had to be.
A twig cracked near the back of the shack, startling me. My scar lit up like a skyscraper at midnight. I turned toward the broken window. Nothing was there, but my senses shot to high alert.
A dark foreboding washed over me in thick waves. Was that the wind or a hungry growl?
Forget this. I bolted out the door, bounding on the sodden ground. I ignored the branches pulling at my arms and hair like greedy fingers. The rain soaked through my sweatshirt and jeans as if they were nothing more than a linen sack. I had to get to my dorm. I needed the safety of people.
A person stepped onto the path up ahead, undoubtedly male by the bulking frame. I skidded to a stop, my arms flailing for balance.
Most of his face was shrouded by the hooded trench coat he wore. Despite that and the sheets of rain, I felt the caress of his gaze travel the length of me. He started toward me in determined strides.
Frantic to find an escape, I searched the landscape for a side trail. I was being ridiculous. He was just a man—probably a Notre Dame student caught in the rain, just like me.
I would glide past him calmly. I might even say hello just to cut the tension.
A niggling thought made its way to the surface of my mind: What if he won’t let you?
A new emotion hit me like a tsunami. My body ached to be near him…just like the man on the bike. Could it be him? Had he really followed me here?
I stepped forward timidly.
What was I doing?
One more step.
Why were my legs moving without me telling them to?
A horrible impulse surged through me to rush to his side. I longed for him to fold me in his all encompassing embrace.
I was insane.
I did not know this man.
So why did I feel his pull no matter how hard I fought? Maybe I was hallucinating again. But how could a hallucination make my heart ache like this?
My faltering will and terrible need collided violently: I had to get closer to him.
He was my world.
I was reborn.
I smiled at my redeemer.
He moistened his bottom lip, biting down invitingly. Ever so slowly, his hands moved to the edge of his hood. Just then purple light pulsated around him.
That wasn’t normal.
The thought floated away before I could grasp it.
A new one needed my attention.
I was going to see him. My heart beat frantically in my chest as if it might sprout wings.
Did I look okay? I raised a self-conscious hand to smooth my saturated hair and wiped running mascara from under my eyes. Hardly aware of what I was doing, I took another step toward him.
My body convulsed when he hesitated and pulled his hood back into place. The only part of his face I could see was those glorious lips. Why was he suddenly frowning? Did I do something wrong?
Voices cut through my thoughts.
Someone was giggling. I hadn’t seen it before, but another path shimmered into view between us.
The hold this man had on me shattered. Apprehension flooded through me in a relentless wave.
He moved closer.
What was I still doing here? Why hadn’t I run when I had the chance? I retreated another step. I could still scream.
He frowned as if he knew what I was thinking and spun toward the chatter.
His rugged jaw tightened before his head veered to the right and back at me. His fists clenched at his sides.
One heartbeat. Two.
A flash of white.
A predatory smile curved his mouth moments before he saluted me. Then he stepped off the path toward the forest, disappearing behind a thicket of trees.
I remembered how to breathe.
A group of girls stomping through puddles came barreling toward me. One of them gasped, breaking away from the others. “Are you okay,” she asked, concern clear in her tone.
“I—I think I’m lost.” I glanced ahead. The man was gone. The tree line looked different, not so thick. I would have sworn I had been in the middle of a vast forest, but I was on a large path in a thinly wooded area. I even heard the sounds of campus now. Where was the shack that had been there moments before? I forced myself to turn toward the girl on trembling knees. “How do I get back to Le Mans Hall?” My smile took quite a lot of effort. I didn’t want her to know how freaked out I was.
She gazed at me through kind eyes. “This trail is tricky. I’ll show you.” Holding her umbrella higher, she stood beside me. “Here”
“Thanks,” I said, ducking under it. I welcomed the cover even though the rain had turned to a drizzle.
She laughed. “Won’t do you much good now. You look like you’ve been swimming in the river.”
My lips twitched into a minute smile. Was that man still lurking in the shadows waiting to strike until I was alone? I prayed he was just a figment of my overactive imagination, all the while knowing in the bottom of my soul that he wasn’t. With more effort than it should have taken, I tore my gaze from the trees. “I should have paid more attention to the weather when I left my room.” I glanced at the woods again. I couldn’t help it.
“Wow.” Her eyes roamed over me. “You’re really shaken up.” She placed a reassuring hand on my arm. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you home and dry in no time.” She extended her hand toward me, grinning. “I’m Natalie Walker.”
She had an infectious smile, a short curvy frame, bright green eyes, fair freckled skin, and thick, bouncy auburn curls.
I gave her a curt nod and shoved my trembling hands into my pockets. “Rayla Tate.” I couldn’t say anything else. My throat was too tight with fear.
“Where you from?” she asked, following my gaze over to the trees.
I ignored the intrepid call of the forest. I made myself look only at her. “Utah. You?”
“Arizona. Technically we’re neighbors.” She smirked, cocking her head. “I can’t seem to get used to this place. There aren’t any landmarks to keep me grounded.”
Natalie Walker was a refreshing distraction. My fear slowly subsided with every normal word she uttered. I laughed. “I know, right? I feel lost without the mountains.”
She pointed toward her friends who huddled together under cheery umbrellas, talking and giggling. Their bright rain-boots rebelled against the turbulent sky. “They keep telling me I’ll acclimate. I don’t know if that’s possible.”
We walked toward the group. She introduced me. I was never going to remember all their names.
“Are you coming with us, Rayla?” asked one of the girls.
“I…” I should have been settling into my new life, making new friends, doing whatever college students normally do, not worrying that a pack of fae lords were going to come for me. Whatever that meant?
Having one man stalk me was bad enough, even if by some miracle he did turn out to be imaginary; or more likely, a college student that was trying to be friendly. All I knew was nothing or no one could get me to go further down that path.
“I’m taking her back,” Natalie said, saving me. “She’ll catch a cold if she doesn’t get out of those clothes.”
I gave her a shy glance. “I don’t want to be a bother.”
Natalie took my elbow. “Couldn’t be if you tried.” She twisted toward the girls who were already skipping down the path in sets of two, arms linked. She shrugged. Her tone lowered. “See you guys later.”
I fought the temptation to tell them and campus police about the man because I was probably either being paranoid or delusional. If I set aside the purple light I had seen which I definitely could have imagined, that guy hadn’t actually done anything but walk toward me and smile—for all I knew he had been going for wolfish.
“I’m sorry to ruin your fun,” I said. I should have insisted she go with her friends, but I couldn’t get the words to come out.
She nudged my shoulder. “I hardly think pounding through puddles is enjoyable. You just got me out of an entire afternoon of wet misery. I should be thanking you.”
My mind stuttered momentarily. Was I actually having a real conversation? I blurted out the first thing that came to me. “Well, when you put it that way, why aren’t you?”
She laughed and I smiled. She showed me around campus a little bit before depositing me in front of my dorm.
Most of the buildings had a similar gothic charm, but some, like Regina Hall, were decidedly minimalistic boxes. Who knew the two styles could mesh so well.
“See you around, Rayla. Thanks again.” Without giving me a chance to reply Natalie headed for her dorm.
She couldn’t know how grateful I was to her. I was going to have to be more careful from now on. Aunt Grace had been right about one thing, at least. I needed to stay around people.