“You don’t know anything about me. Do you understand me? Nothing.” One of the clovers curled over my knuckles, which was strangely soothing.
“I’m starting to get an idea. Does Radcliffe know you?”
“Of course,” I said, though I had doubts. Why couldn’t he sense how much pressure I was under? Why add to it?
“Une menterie.” A lie.
“None of what you say matters. I know my boyfriend and I are solid.”
He gave a scornful laugh. “As long as you doan mind sharing him with brunettes of the Cajun persuasion. He’s been sniffing around Clotile, for true. And you know it, too. That’s why you’re dressing like this.” He waved unsteadily at me.
Another shuttered gaze. Another drink from his flask. “Different.”
“Brandon’s not doing any . . . sniffing. He loves me. He told me he thinks about me constantly.” As much as football! “And aren’t you concerned about your girlfriend?”
“Girlfriend? Hell, Clotile’s probably my sister.”
My lips parted. Probably? Jackson and I weren’t just from different worlds, but from different universes.
“Look at Radcliffe down there. You think you’re on his mind right now?”
Brand was surrounded by a bevy of slores as he drank from the keg like it was a water fountain. The life of the party, worshipped and adored.
Where was Mel? Normally, she’d be throwing elbows at those other girls. I hadn’t seen her—or Spencer—for a while. I rose at once, stepping over Jackson to go look for her.
“Where you goan, Evie?”
Though I ignored him, he followed me down the stairs. Back on the ground, I saw a shadowy figure skulking among the parked cars. I squinted, but couldn’t see through the fog. Another hallucination?
I cautiously eased closer to get a better look, but Jackson stepped in front of me. I shimmied to the left; he blocked me.
“I don’t have time for this.”
He began edging me toward the mill.
“Stop it, Jackson,” I snapped when my back met a brick wall. The bass pumped so hard that I could feel the vibrations through the stone.
He leaned in, his brows drawing together. “You got on some kind of expensive perfume? Never smelled anything like you.”
“I don’t wear perfume.”
He looked at me like I might be lying. “You smell almost like . . . honeysuckle.”
“I’m not wearing anything.”
“My fondest wish.” The corners of his lips curled—the first time I’d seen his expression even come close to a genuine smile.
Despite myself, that half grin affected me, made my heart speed up.
Was Jackson flirting with me? Like a normal boy might? And not just to make me uncomfortable?
Too bad. Between Brandon, Death, and the cryptic boy, my dance card was full.
And this flirtatious side of Jackson made me wary. Even though the Cajun was attractive in a too-rugged kind of way, I probably trusted Death in armor more. “Just leave me alone.”
“I will as soon as you do two things. Admit you speak French, and show me the rest of your drawings.”
I was already gazing past him, done with this conversation. “Why are you acting so interested? Why are we even talking? You hate me, remember?”
“Mais yeah.” For sure. Pressing his palm against the wall beside my head, he leaned in, murmuring, “But maybe I want you a little, too.”
I’d just learned something I’d never known. A boy could desire to have sex with me and not like me at all. In fact, he could even hate me.
“Maybe I’ve decided to forgive you for making me la misère.” Causing me trouble.
I exhaled, sick and tired of these games. I was sick and tired of everything. “Jackson, listen—”
“Call me Jack.”
“No. Because we’re not friends.” Imitating his accent, I said, “And only your friends call you Jack, no.”
He grinned down at me again, his teeth even and white. “We may not be friends, but I’m about to get real friendly with you.” I could feel the heat coming off his body. He smelled delicious, like the woods, a little wild.
He had some unknowable look in his eyes. He seemed to be silently promising me something, but I didn’t know what.
“Friendly with me?”
“I’m goan to kiss you, cher.”
My thoughts scattered. Though the moment had begun to feel like a dream, I didn’t want to be a cheater. “I need to get . . . back to Brandon.” I laid my hands on Jackson’s chest to push him away, but his muscles flexed under my palms, that heat drawing me like a magnet.
“I woan let you go back to that boy—not until you give me one bec doux.” A sweet kiss. Then he reached forward, unlacing the ribbon from my hair.
“What are you doing?” I murmured.
“Souvenir.” He put it in his pocket, and for some reason that struck me as the sexiest thing I’d ever seen.
Energy began filling me. Sick and tired? No longer. I felt excited and alive for the first time in months.
Where was the meh I’d been feeling about kissing and boys and sex?
At that moment, I was dying for this Cajun boy to kiss me. I didn’t care about my reputation, the friends I’d disappoint, the popularity I’d lose, or the bragging rights he’d win.
I had to know what the look in his eyes promised.
He was staring at my lips, and before I could think better of it, I’d wetted them.
“That’s it, bébé,” he said in a coaxing rasp. “Ma bonne fille.” My good girl.
He wrapped one of his arms behind my back, cupping my chin with his free hand. “Evangeline, I’m goan to kiss you until your toes curl, until we’re breathing for each other.”
That was the promise. . . .
As if from a great distance, I heard someone yell, “Jack!”
He ignored the voice, inching even closer to me.
Our lips were about to meet—
“JACK DANIELS!” I realized Lionel was yanking on his arm.
As Jackson turned, he flashed Lionel the most frightening look I’d ever seen on a man. “What you want?” he thundered.
“Time to go, podna.”
Jackson shook his head hard, his arm snaking tighter around my lower back.
“We’re done here. Time—to—go,” Lionel repeated.
Whatever that meant. Yet Jackson was listening to him.
Lionel said to me, “They’re looking for you inside, Evie.”
“Oh. Oh!” I shimmied out of Jackson’s grasp, but I couldn’t stop from glancing over my shoulder.
When I bit my bottom lip, I thought he might come after me, but again Lionel hauled back on his arm. Jackson growled at his friend, “Want a taste of dat girl, me.” The look in his blazing eyes . . .
Lionel said something I didn’t hear.
Something that made Jackson scowl. “Go on, Evie,” he snapped. “Now! Go back to your friends.”
His curt dismissal stung, bewildering me even more. I hurried back inside, pressing my fingertips to my lips. Oh, God, I’d almost kissed another boy. I’d nearly cheated on Brandon, who didn’t deserve that.
I stopped in my tracks.
Clotile was slinking up to Brand, and he looked thrilled, holding out his hand for her. My jaw dropped as he helped her do a keg-stand, with all the wardrobe malfunctions that entailed. Football players cheered.
The humiliation! And in the midst of this embarrassing crisis, one mental plea stood out from all the rest: Please don’t let Jackson see this.
I shoved through the crowd toward the keg. When Brandon caught sight of me, he flushed red, helping a giggling Clotile down.
I was mortified that everyone had just witnessed this scene—and pissed off. Feeling reckless, I gazed up at Brandon. “Hey, big guy. Why don’t you give your girlfriend a kiss?”
“Here? In front of everybody?” he asked.
Hesitating? “Yes. Here.”
Finally, Brandon leaned down to slant his mouth over mine, once and again. With a stifled groan, he deepened the kiss, and I let him for a second, let him cover half of my ass with his palm. Then I smiled against his lips, nipping his bottom one with my teeth.
But instead of chuckling, he drew back, his lids heavy. “Ah, Evie, you don’t know—”
“Walk me to the river?” I interrupted.
With a dazed look on his face, he murmured, “Girl, I’d follow you into hell itself.”
Outside the mill, my satisfaction over my little victory dwindled—because now I had a drunken, hard-up boy to deal with.
As soon as the water was in sight, Brandon pulled me close. “You smell so good, Eves.”
When he began to kiss my neck—urgently—I peered up through the fog. I’d found my meh.
No, Evie, be smart about this. I reminded myself how easy it was to read Brandon, how open he was, how carefree. He was the type of boy I needed in my life.
I couldn’t lose him. Especially not to another girl. “Hey, hold up.”
“Uh-huh.” He didn’t hold up.
I grabbed his face with two hands and made him meet my eyes. “I’ve made my decision.”
His body shot tight with tension. “Yeah?”
“I’ve given the matter a lot of consideration, and I—”
A chorus of screams rang out: “Cops!”
My eyes went wide. The sheriff was here? “Oh, shit! Brandon!” As the music went dead, I swayed on my feet.
He caught my elbow. “Eves, I’ve got this! I’ll tell the sheriff that it was just me and some other football players, and the party got out of hand.”
“They’ll arrest you!”
“Doubt it. My dad plays golf with the sheriff. Everything’s gonna be fine! You were never here.” He cast me a drunken grin.
In that instant, he looked utterly heroic to me.
“Just wait right here. I’ll find Mel and tell her to meet you.” He turned, jogging away.
“Brandon?” I called. When he glanced over his shoulder, I started to say I love you, but all that came out was: “You’re the best.”
He gave me a wobbly salute, then set off for battle.
Alone, I nibbled my lip. Could Brandon keep this under wraps? I half expected more sirens to wail, or maybe a convoy of big vans to show up for arrests.
My first impulse was to call Mel, but my phone—along with all my stuff—was locked in her car!
A cool breeze swept over me, clearing the fog and sending leaves cartwheeling across the surface of the river. I rubbed my arms, suddenly freezing in this outfit.
On the heels of that wind, angry clouds moved in. An approaching thunder boomer? In Louisiana we got microbursts all the time. I wasn’t too concerned, would love to have the rain.
No, not too concerned—until chills skittered over the back of my neck.
Every rustle or animal call around me seemed amplified. I turned in a circle, but saw no one. Still I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched. Just paranoia? Just another symptom?
Then came that tingling sensation once more. Oh, no, no! Ignore it. Resist it—
A lightning bolt forked down not twenty yards from me.
I screamed, temporarily blinded, waiting for the deafening crack of thunder. None came.
When another silent bolt landed even closer, it zapped the ground with so much force that soil and sparks erupted into the sky.
I stared, dumbfounded. Smoking specks of dirt wafted on the breeze, the sight rousing me into action. I took off running, sprinting down to the river’s edge.
A third bolt drove me closer to the water, into the moccasin-infested reeds. “Shit, shit!” My footfalls landed in the muck, the shallow mud sucking at my boots. I shifted my steps, running on my toes.
As more lightning struck, I realized it seemed to be following me.
This couldn’t be real. Because instead of bolts, I now saw spears—like javelins. They were sparkling silver, engraved with symbols, but they exploded like lightning upon impact.
Not real, not real, I repeated hysterically, pumping my arms for speed. Reject the delusion!
One sizzled just inches from my last footfall. Someone was trying to kill me! I lurched around, heading back toward the mill. I’d rather be arrested!
“Oh God, oh God!” I blundered around trees, dodging branches that seemed to be going out of their freaking way to reach me, to hold me still. “Ugh!”
I risked a glance over my shoulder. Someone, or something, was definitely after me. I noticed that my thorn claws had returned, almost more upsetting than the—
I ran right into a man’s solid chest.
I nearly bounced back onto my ass, but a taped hand caught my arm. I craned my head up.
Jackson. “What’s wrong with you, girl?”
I gazed up at his face, catching my breath. “There’s l-lightning!” I curled my fingers to conceal my claws, waiting as they slowly returned to normal.
“You got spooked by a little lightning?” He looked at me peculiarly, like he was disappointed in me. “I knew you were soft, but damn, Evie.”
That look stung. I backed away from him, fearing that I was about to cry in front of this boy. “The bolts were so close.”
“Shouldn’t expect nothing else from a Sterling girl.”
“No, this was different! It was . . .” Like lightning, but not. Electric and sizzling, but cool. Yet when I looked above me, the sky was clear, the night still.
“You out here alone?”
I gave a shaky nod. “I’m supposed to meet Melissa.”
“Then what are you doing back here?” I actually felt safer in his presence. I didn’t sense a threat from him, and he was a hardened criminal with lots of experience fighting. I knew he’d landed at least some of his hits. “I thought you left.”