From my lonely seat in the back of the classroom, I watched my conniving cousin flirt with the guy I loved. With a flip of her golden, highlighted hair, Becky pasted on a friendly smile and turned to face Cooper High’s newest student. When she crossed her legs, her short skirt crept up, exposing a few additional inches of her tanned thighs. Becky had never quite mastered the art of playing hard to get.
A jolt of jealousy ripped through me, but recognizing this feeling as irrational and unjust, I tried to beat the green-eyed monster into submission. After all, Jace and I had never actually spoken. It was only the first day of school and he probably didn’t even know my name. So far, our relationship was fairly one-sided.
He smiled at Becky and I sighed in resignation. She always managed to entice the hottest guys in school, whereas I routinely repelled them. With great difficulty, I tore my gaze away from Jace’s tall, athletic form and absentmindedly doodled in my notebook. I tried to conjure up a favorite daydream to get lost in, but my thoughts kept drifting back to Jace. It was pointless to fantasize about Jace Alexander. He was so far out of my league, he would probably reject me in my dreams.
“So, where are you from?” Becky asked, leaning forward until her cleavage was displayed to its best advantage.
“We just moved here from Colorado,” he replied.
“Ooh, Colorado. That’s so interesting,” she said.
I wondered if she even knew where Colorado was. She probably thought it was in another country, or on a tropical island somewhere.
“I have cheerleading practice after school, but if you want to hang out later, I can give you my phone number,” she said.
I couldn’t help but wonder what she planned to do if Jace actually asked her out. My Aunt Leanne would automatically disapprove of Jace because of his skin color. I guessed Becky just liked the chase.
“Sure, I…” he trailed off when Becky shot me a nasty glance over her shoulder.
“What are you looking at, freak?” she snapped in my direction. Snickers filled the half-empty classroom. I blushed and looked back down at my notebook, embarrassed to be caught staring at a guy who would never return my interest. A million different come-backs and insults flashed through my mind, retaliatory comments far more creative than anything Becky could devise. But I never defended myself. I was too much of a coward.
Becky turned back to Jace. “So, about this afternoon…”
“Actually, I can’t today. But thanks,” Jace said. He didn’t press her for the phone number she offered.
I settled back in my seat and tried to calm my nerves. By lunchtime, the whole school would probably be talking about how I’d tried to scam on Jace, and by the end of the day, the story would be inflated and embellished to the point where everyone would believe I’d asked him to marry me. Becky would make sure of it.
When the bell rang, Becky followed Jace into the hallway. It was only a matter of time before he succumbed to her feminine charms. A few laughs and cruel comments followed me down the hall, but I was used to being tormented by Becky’s followers. All I could think about was Jace and the fact that he didn’t laugh at me. Not once.
I fantasized about Jace all morning, watching him when no one else was looking. He had a certain ease about him, a sense of self confidence unusual in someone our age. Most guys I knew were cocky and smug, but Jace wasn’t like that. He was funny without being snarky or mean.
“Jace, come sit by me,” Becky shrieked across the crowded cafeteria. Her entourage trailed behind her, watching their mentor as she staked her claim on the new guy.
I sat down at a lunch table in the corner—alone except for a couple of marching-band dudes with bad complexions. They didn’t speak to me, but at least they tolerated my presence. If Becky happened to turn her attention my way, my tablemates would probably scatter. They’d been recipients of her cruelty in the past. But for now, my cousin’s energy was focused on Jace. I silently thanked him for distracting her, and plucked a novel from my backpack.
“What are you doing this weekend?” Becky’s voice wafted across the lunch room along with the nauseating smell of overcooked cafeteria food. Maybe it was only Becky’s voice that was nauseating. It was hard to tell.
“We’re unpacking and I have to help my dad with something,” Jace replied.
“Well, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you snuck away for a little while.”
“I’m sure he’d kill me if I bailed. Why don’t you introduce me to everyone? I think I’ve only met Chance and Katie,” Jace said.
I glanced up from my book in time to see a pout pucker Becky’s flawless face. I swallowed a chuckle. Becky hated to have the attention diverted from her, but how could she ignore Jace’s request without looking like an attention-whore?
“This is Sydney, Justin, Amanda, Robert, and my best friend in the whole wide world, Rachel,” she said, pointing to each person in turn. “Rachel, can you be a sweetie and get me a bottle of water?”
Becky turned her attention back to Jace just before Rachel rolled her eyes at her “very best friend in the whole wide world.” She mouthed the word “sweetie” as she pushed her seat back from the table and rose to do Becky’s bidding. With a final act of rebellion, she stuck her tongue out at the back of Becky’s head. Rachel was usually so calm, so mature, her uncharacteristic act caught me by surprise and I laughed out loud. Bad move.
Heads swiveled toward me. Becky’s eyes narrowed and her cruel mouth twisted in an evil grin. “And, of course, you’ve met Alisa. She’s the girl who was totally drooling over you in first period. Watch out for her. She’s mental.”
Laughter rang out. I blushed, humiliated to be singled out in front of Jace. It was ridiculous. Becky wasn’t particularly funny or clever. Why was everyone still laughing at the same crap she’d been saying since middle school?
“Seriously,” Becky continued. “Back in eighth grade…”
“Here’s your water,” Rachel said, interrupting Becky’s story.
“Thanks, sweetie. I was just telling Jace about the time in middle school when…”
Again, Becky was interrupted, but this time by Jace. “So, what is there to do around here? What do you usually do on the weekends?”
With shining eyes and a brilliant smile, Becky listed all the “awesome” things our small town of Oaktree had to offer. Again, I silently thanked Jace for distracting my cousin. Whether it was intentional or not, the result was the same. Becky wasn’t tormenting me.
When the bell rang, chair legs scraped the floor as clusters of students disbanded. Just to be safe, I waited for Becky to leave the immediate area before I stood up. With my backpack in hand, I turned around, nearly crashing into Jace. Where was Becky? I thought she’d become permanently attached to his side. How did Jace escape her?
“Forgot my book,” he said in response to my unasked question. “You don’t seem mental to me. Nice to meet you, Alisa.”
By the time I managed to close my gaping mouth and still my roiling emotions, Jace was already at the cafeteria door heading toward the south hallway. At last, I propelled my feet forward and left the empty cafeteria. I didn’t care if I was late for class. I didn’t care if Becky tormented me every day for the rest of the year. Jace was nice to me. And he knew my name.
Maybe my junior year wouldn’t be so bad after all.
I didn’t want to spend the school year being Becky’s “best friend in the whole wide world.” Nor did I want to be her “sweetie.” Becky was already on my last nerve and it was only the first day of school. I couldn’t figure out why I was so irritable. Maybe it was the heat. Or maybe I was stressed out. Maybe I was just tired of Becky.
She burned up my cell phone all day long, and almost every single text mentioned Jace. I finally put my phone on silent mode and stopped reading her texts. There’d be hell to pay later for ignoring her, but the punishment would be far worse if my phone was confiscated by a teacher and they called my mother to pick it up from the office. I wasn’t about to lose my phone, my car, and the few freedoms I’d earned this year—not over Becky’s new crush.
Jace was cute. Okay, he was hot. But he was just a guy. A guy with sculpted muscles. Deep brown, intelligent eyes. Smooth mocha skin, just a shade darker than my own. Just a guy. I already had a boyfriend, so I had no business thirsting over Jace. As my mother always said, boys were a dime a dozen and there were lots of fish in the sea. It was stupid to get carried away over a boy.
After school, I stowed my books in my locker and trudged outside to the football field for cheerleading practice. I tried to participate in as many extracurricular activities as possible because my mother said it would look good on college applications. In addition to activities and sports, I also kept my grades up and did volunteer work, all the things I was assured would help me get a scholarship to a good school. My mother could probably afford to pay my tuition, but it would be tough. As she constantly reminded me, money doesn’t grow on trees. She loved clichés and used them liberally.
It was the only thing liberal about her. My mother was strict. To the casual outsider, it might seem like I had everything I wanted, and for the most part, that was true. I didn’t lack for anything. I had a car, a cell phone, nice clothes—and a list of chores a mile long. I had church work, bible study, and family obligations too. While my friends partied non-stop on the weekends, I had to earn my freedom. I had to ask before I made plans. I had to earn the keys to my car and the money for the gas to drive it.
My friends felt sorry for me because I had such an overzealous mother watching over me. My boyfriend, Robert, complained about her on a regular basis. He wanted a girlfriend he could stay out late with. A girlfriend who didn’t have to call her mama every two hours. Sometimes I feared he’d break up with me. Sometimes I hoped he would.
Becky, our cheerleading captain, was already outside standing by the bleachers. Girls milled around, whining about the ninety-five degree heat, drinking from plastic water bottles, and swiping at ribbons of sweat slithering down bare necks and midriffs.
“I texted you a million times,” Becky complained.
“Sorry. You know how Mr. Mills is. I didn’t want to lose my phone.”
“Jace is in my Geography class.”
“Isn’t he hot?” she asked sitting down on the grass and reaching out to grasp her ankle with both hands.
“He’s cute.” I sat down next to her and began my stretches.
“He’s more than cute. Do you think he knows I’m interested?”
I bit back a laugh. “Girl, I think everyone knows you’re interested.”
“Whatever. I need to make sure he knows I’m available before one of these other girls snatches him up.” She shot a nasty look at our fellow cheerleaders as if they were already plotting to steal her man.
“Ask him out,” I said.
“I don’t ask guys out. They ask me out.” She stood up and motioned for the other girls to line up.
During warm-ups, a tall, dark figure at the edge of the field caught my eye. Jace cut across the empty field behind the school, presumably on his way home. Why didn’t he have a car? Maybe he hadn’t turned sixteen yet. Or maybe he didn’t have his license. He probably wouldn’t have to walk home for long. In no time, he’d have girls clamoring to give him rides home. Of course, if Becky had anything to do with it, Jace wouldn’t talk to any other girls but her. Jealousy simmered under my burning skin, making the heat more uncomfortable than it already was. Why did I care about how Jace got home from school, or who he chose for a girlfriend? It was none of my business.
Another dark figure appeared at the tree line of the woods bordering the field and seemed to skirt along the edge. Dizziness assaulted me as I watched him, and I staggered, almost falling over. I blinked to clear my vision. When I peered into the woods again, the dark figure had disappeared. My eyes were playing tricks on me. It had been happening a lot lately, probably a result of the extreme heat. Another wave of dizziness passed over me and I missed a step in the routine we were practicing.
“Rachel, you okay?” Coach Patrice asked. “Girls, let’s take a break and hydrate. Everyone needs to bring a water bottle to practice. I don’t want anyone passing out.”
I sat down on the bleachers and took a huge swig from my water bottle. Squinting into the distance, I could barely see Jace. Another person trudged across the field, but it wasn’t the same dark, hulking figure I’d seen before. This person was smaller, shorter, and had a mop of brunette hair. Alisa. I’d seen her walk that way last school year. Always alone.
I felt sorry for Alisa. Becky always tormented her cousin for no reason at all. The rivalry started in middle school, but in all honesty, Becky had never been nice to her. I couldn’t remember why Becky decided to hate Alisa—it might have been a dispute over a crush.
Then again, I couldn’t remember when it had been decided I was Becky’s best friend. It was certainly not a conscious decision on my part. Becky chose her best friends based on convenience, and though I’d been declared her Bestie today, she might choose someone else tomorrow. There had been a time in ninth grade when it was an honor to be Becky’s best friend, but, for me, most of the glamour had departed long ago. Being Becky’s best friend meant fetching bottled water, listening to her rants, and lending her a favorite garment or purse she might never return.
At Coach Patrice’s summons, I stood up and followed the other girls back to the field. My gaze searched the field for Jace, but I couldn’t see him anymore. A fleeting feeling of disappointment washed over me. I wanted to see him one last time. But it was for the best. Jace was a distraction and even though he probably didn’t know it, he practically belonged to Becky. He’d been claimed.
The temperatures during the first week of school reached record highs and the walk home on Friday was beyond miserable. I’d been too apathetic to take my driver’s test. Consequently, I was practically the only junior at Cooper High who was forced to either take the bus or hoof it. I cut through the field behind school to get home faster.
I noticed two figures just ahead of me and nearly turned back. I’d seen Jace walking this way a few times, but he was usually alone. Since I had no social skills to speak of, I usually hung back, skulking along the edges of the woods, avoiding contact. There were a couple of times I’d been tempted to increase my gait, to catch up with him and start a conversation, but I’d never actually worked up the courage to do so.
So, who was Jace with? It wasn’t anyone I recognized. I slowed my stride, reluctant to draw attention to myself. Most of my fellow classmates despised me, and since the feeling was mutual, I tried to avoid contact with them whenever possible. For a moment, I considered turning back and taking a different route, but decided against it. The cheerleaders were practicing outside and the last thing I wanted to do was draw Becky’s attention.
I trudged forward, still trying to identify the person Jace was walking with. The guy next to Jace was a few inches taller and had a very muscular physique. Maybe he was a football player, but if so, why was he walking with Jace instead of practicing with his team? The guy pushed Jace. Jace shoved back. Books fell from Jace’s arms into the grass as the two guys scuffled. The bigger guy chuckled and shouted, “Wimp.”
I’d been paying such close attention to Jace, I’d unconsciously increased my speed and was close enough to see the other guy’s face. He looked a lot like Jace. Maybe he was an older brother or a cousin.
The two guys hadn’t noticed me yet, so I ducked into the woods, hoping the thick brush would conceal me. The large guy turned when my backpack hit the ground at my feet, but after a few seconds of staring into the woods, he focused his attention on Jace once again.
“Dad went to the hardware store. When he gets back, he has a project for us.” Okay, so the big guy must be Jace’s brother.
“He wants to finish the training room before I leave.”
“You know how much I love training,” Jace replied, leaning over to pick up his books.
“You might not like training, but you sure do need it. Seriously. You suck.”
“Oh, yeah? Watch this.”
The books hit the ground. Jace abruptly disappeared from where he’d been standing and reappeared behind his brother. I blinked and staggered back a step, nearly tripping over my backpack.
“You idiot,” the older brother said, turning and grabbing Jace’s upper arm. “Anyone could have seen you.”
“But no one did,” Jace said, jerking away. He retrieved his books and started to walk again.
His brother followed him. “Dad’s gonna be pissed when he finds out about this.”
“You don’t have to tell him.”
I couldn’t hear anything else because by the time the older guy spoke again they were too far away from me. I emerged from the woods, shaken. I could have used the heat and my own exhaustion to explain away what I saw, but something obviously happened—Jace’s older brother was furious about it. But what did happen? It looked like Jace disappeared. No. That was impossible. Wasn’t it?
On trembling legs, I renewed my trek home. For the first time ever, I wished I’d taken the bus. Then I could have avoided seeing what I saw, if in fact I saw anything at all. I still hadn’t ruled out the idea of hallucinations brought on by the heat.
When I reached my house and the glory of air conditioning, I stripped off my sweaty clothes, again wondering about what I thought I saw. It was bizarre. Unexplainable. Impossible. Probably a figment of my very overactive imagination, a result of reading too many fantasy novels. I’d always wanted to be a writer and was constantly composing stories in my mind.
Maybe this was a case of my storytelling gone awry. Yep. That’s what it was.
As I changed into fresh clothes and ran a brush through my hair, I began to weave a new tale. I daydreamed about Jace asking me out, our eventual engagement, marriage, children…A ridiculous fantasy, but it helped pass the time. Jace would never choose me over Becky. But then again, he’d managed to resist her so far.
Jace wasn’t the only person who’d resisted my cousin. I could only hope he would be able to hold out longer than the last guy. Back in middle school, Becky and I both liked the same boy, but when he expressed interest in me instead of her, she retaliated by spreading vicious rumors about me. Too shy to fight back, I remained silent while the whole school turned against me. Long after the boy moved away, long after Becky fell in love with someone else, the repercussions of that ill-fated crush continued to haunt me. I thought about Jace and how I might be willing to go through the whole love-triangle drama all over again on the off-chance that he might return my interest.
While all the other girls my age moved forward into their teenage years, buying the latest fashions, perfecting makeup techniques, and highlighting their hair, I sat at home reading. I never giggled with girlfriends while doing manicures and makeovers. I looked the same way I did in middle school. My long, brown hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail. I wore jeans and baggy t-shirts or hoodies to hide the extra ten or twenty pounds that plagued my short frame. I didn’t wear a trace of makeup and I never painted my nails. It was no wonder I was the odd girl out. In my current state, I’d never attract Jace or any other guy.
Maybe it was time to face reality. My best bet was to muddle through high school, go to college out of state, and move as far from Oaktree as possible. There was nothing for me in Oaktree—no friends, no future, and certainly no tall, dark, handsome stranger who would fall hopelessly in love with me. That sort of thing only happened in romance novels.
I overslept Monday morning and was running late. I usually listened to music while getting ready for school, but today, I had the pleasure of getting ready to the angry sounds of my mother shouting up the stairs.
“Alisa, you’re going to be late.”
“Yes, I know. I’m coming.”
I threw my hair up into a messy bun, jammed a pair of flip-flops on my feet, grabbed my backpack, and ran down the stairs. I was halfway to school before I realized I was probably going to have the single most embarrassing day of my entire life. It was bad enough that my hair was still damp, and that each one of my toes were painted a different color because of my weekend attempt at finding out whether or not I was suited to warm or cool colors. No. The real tragedy was the fact that, instead of grabbing my faded pink t-shirt with the retro throwback to a favorite cartoon character of yore, I grabbed the pink shirt my mom had picked out for me over the summer—the one that said “Too Cute” across the front in sparkly pink paint. It was a shirt I never wore in public. In fact, I only wore it around the house a few times to show my mom I appreciated her gift.
Unfortunately, it was the same shirt Cathy Delinios had worn for pictures last year, the same shirt Becky made fun of, the same shirt the whole school had been making fun of by the end of that day. Yep, and that was the shirt I was wearing right now. Oh, yeah. I was so dead.
“Mom, can we go back home?” I asked.
“No. No way. I’m supposed to meet a client in twenty minutes at a house that’s thirty minutes away. I’m already running late.”
“Um, my shirt has a stain on it,” I lied.
“When you get to school, go to the ladies room and try to dab it off with a wet paper towel,” she said irritably.
Great. Just great. As if my life wasn’t enough of a living hell, I had an entire of day of “Alisa thinks she’s too cute,” to look forward to. Becky would be sure to draw everyone’s attention to my fashion faux pas.
I removed a binder from my backpack, determined to use it as a shield. If I could hold it in front of me on the way to class, no one would really see what my shirt said. And then if I slumped down in my desk, or hunched down and crossed my arms in front of me, maybe that would hide the damning declaration written across the front of my shirt. Hopefully.
I slinked into the classroom, slid into my seat, and prayed for death. Becky entered moments later, her eyes instantly landing on me. It’s like she had some sort of Alisa-humiliation-radar.
“Oh, my God, Alisa. Aren’t you just Too Cute today?” she squealed. “I’ll bet everyone is going to think you’re Too Cute, and do you know why? Because it says it right there on your shirt.” The laughter from a half dozen students accompanied the punchline of her unfunny joke.
Rachel stepped in front of Becky, interrupting her. “Can you help me talk to Coach Patrice after school? If there’s money in the budget, we really need to push for new uniforms.”
Distracted, Becky took her seat. She ranted about the current cheerleading uniforms, complaining about every aspect from the skirt length to the color. Rachel caught my eye and winked at me. She’d done it on purpose. She’d deliberately distracted Becky and kept her off my back at least temporarily. Rachel was my new favorite person. She was a lifesaver. Just as I began to retreat behind my textbook, I heard a voice I’d often heard in my dreams.
“Hi, Alisa. Did you have a good weekend?” Jace asked.
What should I say? I couldn’t remember how to talk. “Yeah, you?” I finally managed to squeak out. Not the most brilliant and longwinded of speeches, but at least it was something.
“All right, people,” Mrs. Hanks said, slamming the classroom door behind her as she entered. “This isn’t a coffee shop, Evan. Get rid of the drink immediately. Becky, don’t stop talking on my account. By all means, finish your conversation.”The class quickly settled down. When it came to bringing a classroom full of unruly students to order, Mrs. Hanks was masterful.
As I set out across the field toward home, it was easy to ignore the heat in favor of fantasizing about Jace. I’d only known him for a few days, but he’d already spoken to me twice.
Halfway across the field, I spotted Jace. He was with his brother again. Or at least that’s what I thought at first glance. I hung back, watching as Jace and his brother circled each other. This time, their stances were more menacing. It didn’t look like they were messing around—not this time. I moved forward, slowly approaching, and after a couple of yards, I realized this guy wasn’t the same man I’d seen last week.
The man’s clothing was tattered, his hair matted. It was difficult to determine his age, but he was definitely an adult—he was at least a head taller than Jace. He was so filthy, he looked like he’d been camping out in the woods for days or even weeks.
The man lunged forward with a snarl and Jace leapt to the side, barely avoiding his grasp. A shriek escaped my throat as I stumbled back a step.
Jace looked over his shoulder. His eyes went wide. “Don’t come any closer.”
I took another step back and tripped over my own feet. The attacker took advantage of the brief distraction caused by my startled cry. He flew toward Jace and pinned him to the ground. The man clenched his hand around Jace’s throat. Jace struggled for about a minute, and then stopped moving. Paralyzed, I stared at the scene before me, unable to react. Thoughts darted through my mind and for one rational moment, I considered calling 911. The attacker didn’t seem to care what I did. In fact, he barely acknowledged me at all. Without considering the consequences of my actions, I sprinted forward and swung my heavy backpack at the man’s face. I hit him dead on, and he turned his attention to me for a second or two. His blood-red eyes bore into mine and I recoiled. The red-eyed man was distracted enough to release his death grip, allowing Jace to escape. He scrambled away from his attacker and leapt to his feet. They faced off once again. Jace crouched low and sprang toward the man. The attacker bared his teeth and darted out of the way. A ball of fire appeared in the palm of his hand, and he hurled it at Jace. Palms up, Jace raised his hands and the fireball sizzled into nothing.
In a fraction of a second, Jace disappeared and abruptly reappeared behind his attacker, just like he’d done last week when he was messing around with his brother. With supernatural speed, he jumped at the man and hooked his arm around his neck. He wrenched the man’s head to the side. The red-eyed attacker slumped to the ground. Swiping his hand across his sweaty forehead and breathing heavily, Jace leaned forward, his hands on his knees. He glanced up at me, as if suddenly remembering I was still there.
We stared at each other for a moment. Jace walked over to me and asked, “Are you okay?”
“We need to get out of here in case there are more of them,” he said, gesturing toward the lifeless body on the ground a few feet away from us. I flinched. Jace walked back and forth through the tall grass, scrutinizing the area closely. He bent down and picked up a textbook.
“Let’s go,” he said. When I didn’t move, he walked over to me and took my hand. I pulled it away. It was all too much. The attack. The fire. All of it. I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen. My hands shook spastically, and within seconds, tremors spread through my body as shock faded to terror.
“Come on, Alisa. You’re safe with me. I promise.” He lifted my book bag from the ground and began walking away. Staring at the bag dangling from his shoulder, I irrationally wondered whether or not it was a crime weapon and if my limited participation made me an accomplice to a murder. I questioned the wisdom of not having called the police. “Should I call 911?” I asked stupidly. “I’m sure you won’t be in trouble. He attacked you first. I’m a witness.”
He turned back to look at me. “Alisa, that thing back there isn’t dead. You can’t kill a Hunter that easily. He’s just stunned. There could be more of them, so we should get out of here.”
“What’s a Hunter?” I stammered, my teeth chattering. Tears came, but I fought them back. I’d cried enough in front of my classmates. I wouldn’t cry in front of Jace.
He seemed reluctant to answer. “Um, it’s hard to explain. You saved my life, though. Come on. My mom can explain this much better than I can.”
“We’ll go back to my house. Is that okay?”
His house? No. After what I’d seen, I just wanted to go home. I glanced away, my gaze falling on the red-eyed man. I could either follow Jace, or walk home by myself. What if Jace was right and the Hunter wasn’t dead? Would he awaken and follow me home? Obviously, I was no match for the red-eyed man, so I decided to take my chances with Jace. We left the field and took a shortcut through the woods. When we approached the rear border of one of the newer subdivisions in town, Jace helped me over the low fence enclosing his backyard. We stepped through the back door and into his kitchen.
“Mom. Hey, are you home?” he bellowed.
“Jace, you’d better have a good reason for yelling like that in the house,” a voice called out. A beautiful woman with caramel skin and curly, ebony hair came into the room. “Oh,” she exclaimed. “I didn’t realize you’d brought a friend.” Her eyes widened and a flash of recognition lit up her eyes, but only for a second.
“This is Alisa. I was walking home and she…well. Yeah. She saved me from a Hunter,” Jace said.
His mother gasped, swaying on her feet. So much for breaking the news gently, I thought. In a rush, Jace relayed a garbled version of events, and I wondered how she would be able to make sense of such a confusing recount. When he got to the part about me hitting the Hunter with my bag, his mother put her hand on her heart and flashed me a tearful half-smile. “Jace, thank God you’re safe.” She pulled him close. “I couldn’t bear to lose another son. Alisa,” she cried, releasing Jace and pulling me into a hug. “Thank you.”
As I stood in an unfamiliar kitchen locked in the embrace of a woman I’d just met, I was adrift in a fog of confusion. These people spoke of Hunters and weird, supernatural abilities as if they were perfectly commonplace. Who were they, and more importantly, what were they?
“Jace.” A deep, icy voice drifted in from the kitchen doorway.
Mrs. Alexander released me and I turned around. It was the same man I’d seen last week—the guy I assumed was Jace’s older brother. I wondered how long he’d been standing there listening in on the conversation. His eyes caught mine, and the look he gave me was searching and uncomfortable. I blushed and looked down at my feet.
“Dad will be home soon. I think we should wait for him to get here before we say anything else, don’t you?”
I dared another glance at Jace’s older brother. He would have been extremely attractive with his tall, muscular frame, and rich, chocolate skin, had it not been for his cold and off-putting demeanor. I shivered as my eyes met his again.
“She saved my life, Bryce,” Jace argued. “She saw my magic firsthand. We owe her some explanation.”
“She hit the Hunter with a book bag. Big deal. Why don’t we tell her all our family secrets, then?” Bryce crossed his arms in front of him and glared at his younger brother. Thick muscles bulged from his snug-fitting black t-shirt. He looked only slightly less intimidating than the red-eyed man who’d nearly killed Jace.
“She battled a Hunter, which, for all of your training, you’ve never done,” Jace snapped. Bryce’s expression turned murderous.
“Go ahead and mock me if you’d like. At least I’ve never had to depend on a human to protect me,” Bryce spat, advancing on his brother.
“How do you know she isn’t the one we’ve been looking for?” Jace shouted.
“If she was the Innocent, the Hunter would have gone after her instead of you, moron,” Bryce said. “She has no magic.” He motioned toward me dismissively.
“She has something...” Jace said in my defense.
“Enough,” Mrs. Alexander said firmly. “I’ll decide who stays and for how long. I’m the adult here, remember?”
I finally worked up enough nerve to speak. “Um, Mrs. Alexander? I should probably leave now. I have homework and…” I trailed off, sounding as stupid as I felt. I didn’t do well with new people, especially a whole room full.
Jace’s mother took pity on me. She put her arm around my shoulders maternally and said, “I’m sure this has all been very upsetting and confusing, dear. We’ll give you a ride home, but could I ask one favor? Could you come over and have dinner with us tomorrow? I promise we’ll explain everything to you then. In the meantime, I would be very grateful if you could keep all of this to yourself.”
I nodded in agreement, thankful to be going home at last. My relief was short-lived, however, when Bryce grabbed a set of car keys and said, “Toss the human in the truck, and let’s go.” I felt like a piece of meat.
“Bryce, that’s no way to treat our new friend,” she said. “If I find out you…”
“Whatever,” he mumbled, striding toward the front door. I followed the two brothers outside to a pickup truck. Smashed in between the two of them, we rode to my house in near silence. Jace tried to fiddle with the radio, but one nasty comment from his older brother had him sitting back in his seat and looking out the passenger side window.
The silence was broken occasionally when I was forced to offer directions. I prayed Bryce would have other plans the next day. I couldn’t imagine sitting across the kitchen table from him. I’d never met a more unpleasant and unlikable man in my life and I hated him instinctively. His darkness permeated the small cab of the pickup truck and I was close to tears by the time we pulled into my driveway.
I went upstairs and fell into bed, not bothering to change clothes or eat dinner. I had to fight back the urge to laugh when I remembered the promise I’d made to Mrs. Alexander. It was an easy promise to keep. If I told anyone what I’d witnessed, I would be locked away in a mental institution. My family already thought I was crazy.
By the time school rolled around the next day, I’d nearly convinced myself I’d dreamt everything that had happened over the past several days. One look in the mirror at the Too Cute shirt convinced me at least part of my recent nightmare was real. It was probably safe to assume I hadn’t imagined the Hunter attack and Jace’s use of strange, magical powers either. When I arrived in first period, I staked out my usual spot in the back of the classroom and tried to finish the homework I’d failed to complete the night before.
Jace entered the classroom alone. “How are you today? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. How are you, though?” I asked softly.
“Great. I’m looking forward to dinner tonight. You’re still coming, right?” He smiled at me and I fell even more deeply in love with him.
“Absolutely.” I returned his smile.
“You should give me your phone number,” he said. I scribbled my number on a sheet of notebook paper. He hadn’t accepted Becky’s number when she offered, but he wanted mine. Unreal.
Jace spoke to me for a couple of minutes and I struggled to think of witty, semi-coherent replies. I wasn’t a very skilled conversationalist, so I was relieved when he took his seat at the front of the room.
I expected our early morning conversation to be the extent of our interaction at school, but I was wrong. I sat alone at the back of the lunchroom and picked at the unrecognizable food on my lunch tray. A sudden wind lifted the wisps of hair at the nape of my neck, and an instant later, Jace pulled up a chair to sit next to me.
“What are you doing here?” I blurted, gaping at him in shock.
“Do you mind if I sit next to you?” he asked, gesturing at the four empty chairs grouped around the table where we sat. “You don’t have to,” I said.
“That’s good to know. What is this crap?” The fact that he couldn’t identify the food before him didn’t seem to dampen his appetite. He shoved forkfuls into his mouth, and I cringed as he devoured the mystery meat. Jace chatted in between bites as if it were perfectly normal to be sitting there with me. I thought I should tell him he was off the hook, that he didn’t have to pretend to like me just because he thought I’d saved his life.
“Hey, aren’t you eating?” he asked. I shook my head and he attacked my food with gusto. “My brother and I will pick you up for dinner tonight.”
I shivered as I recalled Bryce’s penetrating, cold stare. “I can walk. I like walking.”
“Yeah, but still. It may not be safe,” he insisted, glancing around the cafeteria to make sure no one was watching. They were, of course. Everyone was staring. Jace leaned in closer and I shivered. “You need protection.”
“Your brother said I’m not the one they’re looking for. What does that mean?” I asked, shocking myself. Ordinarily, I let others ask the questions, but my curiosity couldn’t be contained.
“We’ll talk about it later. So, do you want to come over to my house right after school?”
“I don’t know if I can. I mean, I didn’t ask…” I stammered. “My mom’s picking me up today…”
“Just make sure she lets you come over tonight.” His smile temporarily stunned me and I nodded in agreement before I could help myself. “Let me know if you need help convincing her, because I can be very persuasive,” he claimed.
I blushed and glanced away. I imagined he could persuade me to do nearly anything.
Jace continued talking to me as if he actually enjoyed my company. He didn’t act martyred or uncomfortable. I barely said a word to him, and yet he continued a one-sided conversation until the bell rang.
As I scurried nervously from the lunchroom, Jace finished the last few morsels of food on my tray. “Hey, Alisa,” he called across the lunchroom. “I’ll see you tonight.”
I nodded to indicate I’d heard him, and then made my hasty retreat. I was painfully aware half the school was watching me as I rushed to my next class. If Jace continued to associate with me, he’d better be prepared to join me in the cesspool of Cooper High gossip. I hoped he wouldn’t choose his budding popularity over our newly established friendship. I was tired of being alone.