Gazing down at me, he said, “Maybe I came back to claim my taste of you.”
Between gritted teeth, I said, “Again, I have a boyfriend.”
“Again, I couldn’t tell. Seems Radcliffe ditched you in the woods. If you belonged to me, I’d never let you out of my sight—much less leave you alone out here.”
What was his fixation on girls belonging to boys? “Brandon went back to smooth things with the sheriff!”
In a voice dripping with scorn, Jackson grated, “Of course he did.”
“I’m going to find my friends.”
“Now, wait a minute. You can’t go back there, no. You’ll get pinched.” At my blank look, he added, “Arrested, on roll call, gaffled.”
“Wow, you expect me to speak Cajun and Juvie.”
He raked his taped fingers through his hair. “I doan s’pose I can leave you here.” He started squiring me away from the mill. I thought. I was so turned around I couldn’t get my bearings.
“Why are you being decent to me?”
“I’m not. I just want to get you on my bike, with you in that skirt. Where am I driving you to?”
I blinked at him. “I live here.”
“You live on this farm? In that eerie mansion up the way? No wonder you’re touched in the head.”
I didn’t deny the eerie description—or the touched-in-the-head comment. Fair’s fair. “You’ve seen my house?”
He gazed past me as he said, “I saw it from the road once, after harvest. When I was little.” He scrubbed his hand over his mouth, clearly wanting to be somewhere else. “I’ll take you home.” I realized we’d stopped near his bike, parked in the woods.
Where were his friends? Where was Clotile? “Wait, I can’t go home! I’ve been drinking. I’m supposed to spend the night with Mel.”
He raised his brows with an I should care about this why? look. “Two choices, peekôn.”
I frowned. Peekôn meant “thorn.”
“I can drive you home. Or I can leave your ass here. Alone.”
What if there was more lightning? I didn’t want to be out here by myself, at least not until I reached the cane fields. But I couldn’t ride a roaring motorcycle home. “Neither of those choices will work for me.”
He took a pull from his flask. “Nothing else will work for me.”
“Then leave.” Surely he wouldn’t abandon me.
“Bonne chance, peekôn.” He turned and strode toward his bike.
“Wait, Jackson! I can’t ride with you! My mom hates motorcycles, and she’ll hear me trying to sneak in.” I studied my muddy Italian boots as I mumbled, “Will you walk with me? Just as far as the cane fields?”
He exhaled with undisguised irritation. “I’ll stay with you that far.” He disengaged the kickstand, pushing his bike.
Tendrils of fog drifted in as we walked in silence.
Though he was buzzed, Jackson somehow seemed alert. He was also so clearly begrudging that I was tempted to snap, “God, just leave!”
But the lightning still had me spooked. Even if it hadn’t been real.
I hated that I was afraid. I hated that I wanted him close by.
As we continued, I peered up at him from under my lashes, struggling to understand the excitement I’d felt when he’d been about to kiss me—versus the meh I’d felt when Brandon had actually been kissing me.
I pictured Brandon’s clean-cut good looks, his wavy brown locks, his letterman jacket and bright future.
Jack’s prospects? The state penitentiary in Angola. Just a matter of when he got sent there.
If Brandon was a good boy but not yet a great guy, Jackson was a bad boy—and already a bad guy.
And yet with the Cajun, I’d gotten a taste of what it was like to desire a boy, really desire. . . .
He offered me his flask.
I declined, asking, “Why do you drink so much?”
“You’re a fine one to talk, you.” When he saw I was waiting for an answer, he said, “Give me one reason not to.”
“It’s bad for your health.”
“You think I’m goan to live long enough to die of the effects of alcohol? Cheers to that.”
I tilted my head at him, musing on all the rumors that swirled around him—the knifings, the correctional center, the thefts in Sterling. “Jackson, are you as bad as everyone says?”
At the rim of his flask, he said, “A thousand times worse, fille.”
Thunder rumbled in the distance, as if to punctuate his statement.
Once we’d reached the dirt track that ran between two large cane fields, I said, “Thank you for seeing me this far. I’m good from here.”
“I’m not goan to leave you in the middle of a field,” he grumbled, yet with every step deeper into the cane, he seemed to grow more uneasy. “In the bayou, folks think this place is haunted.” He again cast me that studying glance. “Is it?”
“Maybe a little.” When the cane whispered in the windless night, I edged closer to the rows, running my splayed fingers over the stalks, taking comfort after my hallucination. Here I was safe.
A calm descended over me. I soaked up the sultry air, savoring the insect chatter, the sweet smell of dew, the animals at play all around us.
Everything was so alive, teeming with life. I sighed, my lids going half-masted.
“Drôle fille,” Jackson muttered. In proper French, drôle meant funny. In Cajun? Weird.
“What did you say?”
“It’s a foggy night and we’re walking by these rustling canes. A p’tee fille like you strolling along without a care in the world? Shouldn’t you be hanging on to my arm?”
When something stirred nearby, Jackson said, “This cane doan . . . unsettle you?”
“I love it. You’re probably just hearing raccoons.” Or snakes.
I noticed that he hadn’t hit that flask once since we’d been surrounded by cane. Maybe he sensed that something wasn’t right with me, with this place. Maybe he believed the tales of hauntings and wanted to be on his guard.
When I could make out Haven’s lights in the distance, I asked, “Are you superstitious, Jackson?”
“Mais yeah. Just ’cause I’m Catholic doan mean I can’t be superstitious,” he said, exhaling with relief once we’d emerged from the cane. Then he immediately whistled low at the sight of Haven House. “Even bigger than I remember.”
I tried to see it from his eyes. The gaslights flickered over the twelve proud columns. Night-blooming jasmine ascended the many trellises, forever reaching for the grand old house as if with lust. Those majestic oaks had already caught it; they encircled the structure protectively.
Jackson’s gaze darted over the place with such keenness that I figured we were due for a break-in directly.
“You know what I think?” he finally said. “I think you are just like this house, Evangeline. Rich and fine on the outside, but no one’s got a clue what’s going on inside.”
He really could be surprisingly perceptive at times. “You think I’m fine, Cajun?”
He rolled his eyes, as if we were retreading established ground. “And both you and this place are a lot weirder than you have any business being.”
You’ve got no idea, Cajun. No. Idea.
With a shrug, I turned toward the barn. He eventually followed, catching up. When I opened the door, the horses nickered a welcome. Well, all of them except for my sweet old nag Allegra—named before that allergy medicine had taken off; she snored.
Outside the door, Jackson parked his bike, leaning against it. “A big ole mansion like this, and just you and your folks live here?”
Though only Mom’s silver Mercedes SUV was parked out front, I let him think I had a father on-site.
“You really are the richest family in the parish, then?”
“No. Everybody knows the Radcliffes are.”
A muscle ticked in his cheek. “Are you goan to stay out here? Woan you get scared?”
Scared? Six million strong.
“If you asked me nice, I might stay and be your bodyguard.”
When I gave a scoffing laugh at that, he scowled. “You love to laugh at me, doan you, peekôn? Enjoy it now, ’cause it woan always be that way.”
“What does that mean?”
He just narrowed his eyes at me, looking dangerous in the gaslights.
“Feel free to leave at any time, Jackson. Because I don’t need a bodyguard, and I won’t be scared. I don’t have a choice anyway, since you refused to take me to find Melissa or Brandon.”
“Radcliffe again?” With a grated curse, Jackson pushed up from his bike, striding to the doorway. “Even though he helped Clotile with that keg-stand? After that, I thought for true you’d be reevaluating your definition of solid.”
“You . . . you saw that?”
“Everyone saw that. And at your own birthday party, too. They also saw you trying to win his attention back. Looked desperate, if you ask me.”
Bile rose in my throat. Jackson had said that I needed to be taken down a peg. Mission accomplished.
“I just doan know what he thinks Clotile has over you. You’re pretty to look at in that skirt of yours, you’re good at dancing, and you smell like a flower. What’s not to like?”
When he smirked at me, I hit my limit. Enough! “You’re enjoying this!”
“De bon cœur.” Wholeheartedly.
“You would. Because you’re a cruel, classless boy who gets off on other people’s unhappiness.” I held his gaze. “Brandon is twice the man you are. He always will be.”
Jackson’s expression turned more menacing than I’d ever seen it.
Done with him, I slammed the door in his face, then marched into the office at the back of the barn. Fuming, I paced. Reevaluate your definition of solid?
I wanted to strangle him!
No, no, I didn’t need to be thinking about Jackson Deveaux; I needed to focus on who—or what—had attacked me.
Or at least to determine if I’d actually been attacked. When I reviewed every detail I could recall—and damn, I’d been buzzed—I concluded one thing. I was screwed.
I could accept the plants—hallucinations or not, they’d begun to comfort me. But the lightning javelins? Death on a pale horse? Seeing the cryptic boy in class?
Screwed. Two years and out would never work. Change of plans. Yes, I’d promised my mom that I wouldn’t contact Gran—but I was CLC-bound anyway.
Death had said, “No one told you to expect me?” Maybe someone had?
I would sneak a call to my grandmother tomorrow.
As I wondered how I’d begin our first conversation in eight years, my head and face started tingling. Then hurting. The barn soon faded away. “No, no!”
Too much! I can’t take any more of this! I squeezed my eyes shut, as if that would do anything.
When I opened them again, I was standing in a windowless room, with beanbags on a tiled floor and Star Wars posters on the walls. A basement playroom?
Then I spied the cryptic boy, standing just before me!
“You must prepare, Evie,” he said.
The bubbly sensation I usually experienced now felt more like a migraine, as if this vision were being shot into my skull with a nail gun. “J-just leave me alone!” Then to myself, I muttered, “How many visions can I have in one night?”
“Many,” he answered. “It’s the eve of the Beginning. Much work to do!”
Great. He was going to make as little sense as he had the first time I’d seen him. “Who are you?”
“Matthew Mat Zero Matto. Easier to think of me as the Fool Card.”
A card. Ah, God, I had internalized my gran’s Tarot teachings. A character from the deck she’d always played with was now talking to me. “And I suppose the reaper who visited—the one who wants to kill me—was the Death Card.”
He nodded. “Major Arcana.”
Hadn’t Gran once explained the Major Arcana to me? They were special cards, maybe the trump cards of the Tarot?
Wasn’t there a time when I’d shuffled through her deck, the cards feeling so big in my little hands . . . ? I couldn’t remember!
“And the red witch?” I demanded. “What card is she? How can she”—we—“control plants?” That was the extent of our similarities.
I was good and she was evil. Period. I’d be a Glinda the Good Witch of plants—all peace, love, and unity with them—and she would be our hated scourge.
Death himself said that I was all about life—and the witch was clearly all about death.
I pinched the bridge of my nose. As if any of these characters were real!
“Red witch?” Matthew frowned. “Ah, she arises. We’ll deal with her when the time comes.”
“Deal with her? You mean fight her?”
“She’s strong. You are not. Yet.”
The pain in my head grew excruciating. My eyes watered. “Matthew, this hurts!” I tasted blood running down the back of my throat, increasing my nausea.
The pressure eased a little, but not all the way. “I don’t want you to hurt,” he said gravely.
“Why do you keep appearing?”
“Field of battle. Arsenal. Obstacles. Foes. I’ve taught you each; you listen poorly, take pills, drink.”
When blood trickled from my nose, I pressed the back of my hand against it. “I’m about to go under, kid. I mean screaming, hair-pulling, whackadoodle cracked. I can’t keep having these visions.”
He gazed at me with solemn brown eyes. “I won’t fail you. Evie, you are my only friend.”
His heartfelt words took me aback. He did seem so familiar. Just when I was wondering why I felt a measure of trust in him—he’d done everything imaginable not to deserve it—I reminded myself that he didn’t exist.