At the cruel threat, the man swallowed and gazed longingly at me. Eventually, he lowered his gun.
Keeping him in sight, Jackson squired me down one nerve-racking block. Another. Clear.
Only then did he spare a glance at me, scowling at my loose hair. “Start looking for a hat—or a pair of scissors.”
Cutting my hair? Despite the heat, I shrugged back into my jacket, pulling the hood over my head.
“He actually thought about trying to steal you,” Jackson grated. “To steal you from me.”
I shivered. Something told me the man hadn’t been sourcing for just a nanny.
We walked on, both of us silent. Jackson was still seething, and I remained on edge. We’d just seen what were probably the last four survivors in this town.
Sometimes I thought I was being stubbornly foolish to believe my grandmother was still alive. But then I’d remind myself that I’d survived the Flash and so had Mom. Maybe there was something in our genes that had saved us?
And Gran would have known to take shelter, to make any preparations she could.
In my heart, I believed she lived. Which meant I had to reach her. At times in the last few days, I’d stared at the picture my mom had held, fighting to recall more of Gran’s teachings.
Slowly, so slowly, I was piecing together that last day with her. I’d recollected more details about all the cards she’d made me study, but especially Death’s.
Against a crimson background, the Reaper had been clad in that black armor, scythe at the ready, riding his pale horse. He carried a black flag, emblazoned with a white rose. His victims—man, woman, and child—had all been on their knees before him, with their hands clasped in pleading.
Though the image had been eerie, I remembered being enthralled with that card more than all the others—even my own. Which had made Gran . . . nervous?
When she’d asked if that card frightened me, or made me really angry, I’d shaken my head firmly. “It makes me sad.”
Gran hadn’t liked that answer at all. “Why would you feel that way, Evie? He’s a villain!”
“His horse looks sick, and he has no friends. . . .”
Now I cast my mind back, delving for more. Yet it seemed like the harder I fought to remember, the further those memories danced out of my grasp.
One thing I’d recalled? Gran’s voice from long ago: “Sometimes you have to let things unfold, Evie.”
I suspected I was putting too much pressure on myself, blocking all my own efforts. But I didn’t know how to stop. . . .
Jackson drew up short. “Look there, Evie.” He jerked his chin at a motorcycle ahead, lying on its side, clean of ash.
“The rider got bagged.” He pointed out a dried swath of blood and telltale slime leading from the motorcycle to a darkened bay in a fire station. “They dragged him over there, into the shadows to feed.” With a shrug, Jackson lifted the bike upright, engaging the kickstand. “Key’s in it.”
My eyes darted behind my shades. “Let’s go!”
“Nuh-uh, not without this bike.” He ran one palm along the frame, as reverently as he’d explored my paintings. “Do you have any idea what this is?”
“Should I care?”
As if he were speaking to a child, he said, “It’s a Ducati.”
His expression said I’d just blasphemed or something. “This is the bike to end all bikes!” His words thrummed with excitement; he was so the teenage boy at this moment, flipping out over a motorcycle. “And to find it today? It’s a sign, Evie. Things’re turning around for us.” He hopped on, cranking it.
When the engine fired, his lips curled. “She’s got a nearly full tank, too.”
“Can’t we put that gas into a car?”
“None of them around here will be fixed already.” He rifled through the bike’s storage compartments, ruthlessly tossing the dead man’s mementos and pictures to stow his own bag and bow within easy reach. It even had an empty leather holster for Jackson to stick the shotgun. “Perfect fit.” He turned to me. “You ready?”
“I’ve never ridden on a motorcycle before.”
“Pardon? I didn’t hear that right.”
“It’s true. My mom never let me.” I frowned at the small space on the seat that was left for me. “Um, my hood will come off, and I don’t want to cut my hair.”
“We’ll make an exception for this ride. Come on, you.” When I tromped over to him, he reached for my hood, pushing it back over my head. “You’re not scared, are you?”
In answer, I raised my chin and awkwardly climbed behind him. Our bodies now had, like, forty points of contact. I surveyed his back, wondering where I was going to put my hands.
Just when I realized how tightly my jeans had stretched over my thighs, I saw his head dip, his gaze locking on my right thigh, only moving to swing a glance over at my left.
He bit out a choked sound, then put his big, tanned hand flat on my knee. Even through the denim, his palm was scalding.
He balled it into a white-knuckled fist. The idea that I’d affected him in such a physical way made my breaths go shallow.
Without warning, he reached his arm back and wrenched me even closer to him, until I was flush against his body from one of my knees to the other and up to my chest.
Then his hand dipped back between us! Before I could sputter a protest, he’d snagged his flask from his back pocket. Shoving it into his boot, he murmured, “It was getting in the way.”
“This is where you put your arms around me, cher.”
“Maybe this isn’t a good idea.”
“Evie. Arms. Now.”
I rolled my eyes. After a hesitation, I finally reached around him—
Just as he rose up to disengage the kickstand.
My clasped hands brushed over him . . . there.
He sucked in a breath, his muscles gone rigid with tension; my face flamed as I yanked my hands back.
“If you touch me like that again, Evangeline,” he began in a husky tone, dropping to his seat once more, “in the space of a heartbeat, I will have you off this bike and onto the closest horizontal surface. And I woan be picky, no.”
Over my gasp, he explained, “I been strung tight for days, bébé.”
He must have suspected I was about to scramble off the bike like it was on fire—his hands, so rough and callused, captured mine, setting them well above his waist.
“Just so we understand each other.” Then he took off.
Strung tight? What exactly was I supposed to do with that knowledge? I sat stiffly behind him as we gained speed down the lonely road, through the town and beyond—passing a forlorn playground, a wide-open clapboard church, a field with bleached cattle remains.
But with each mile, I started to relax. I’d noticed that whenever Jackson and I touched, the voices went silent. Not just muted. Why?
I sighed, deciding to ponder that another time. For now, I just enjoyed the quiet. And the air blowing was like being in air-conditioning again. It almost smelled clean. I closed my eyes and raised my face.
“You like this?”
I opened my eyes to find him watching me over his shoulder. I bit my lip and nodded.
He gave me that sexy jerk of his chin, then shifted gears to go faster.
Adrenaline rush! I loved the speed, the feel of the bike, the way he could make it move so effortlessly. “Faster!”
He raised his brows over his shades. “Hold on tighter, you.”
As soon as I locked my arms around him, he floored the engine until the front wheel briefly left the ground. I yelped, then threw back my head and laughed.
How long had it been since I’d laughed like this?
Around corners, we’d lean in together. When he opened it up on a straightaway, I ducked down with him.
But soon I grew less interested in the ride—and more interested in the driver.
As his too-long hair whipped in the wind, I caught glimpses of the tanned skin on the back of his neck. I wondered what it would be like to kiss him there, to brush my lips against that smooth skin.
Jackson was often so rude, so crude, but all that could be forgotten when I thought about how warm and strong he felt against me. Or when I recalled how brave and intelligent he was.
Mom had said I could do a lot worse than Jackson Deveaux.
At that moment, I concluded she’d been right.
What would it be like to have him as my boyfriend? As I tried to imagine it, I sighed, pressing the side of my face against his back, fully relaxed against him. Soon exhaustion caught up with me. The constant rumble of the engine lulled me. My lids grew heavy.
“Sleep if you want.” Again, he covered my hands with one of his own. “I’ve got you.”
I loved it when he said that to me. “Are you sure?”
“I’m goan to find us a bonne place tonight. We’ll have us a grand ole time.”
Though I was curious what Jackson would consider a “grand ole time,” sleep overtook me. . . .
When I woke, a full moon was high in the sky and Jackson was only now slowing.
“We haven’t stopped for the night!” I darted my glance around. We looked to be in a rich subdivision. “What about Bagmen?”
“There weren’t any,” he said. “The night’s so bright, maybe they think the sun is out. Who knows?” He sounded drunk as he eased the bike to a stop. But he didn’t smell like whiskey—at least not more than normal. “In any case, the road was clear.”
“The road to where?”
He booted the kickstand down in front of an intimidating driveway gate, with lit gas lamps on each side. “I guess to here,” he said, scratching his head with a bemused grin. “Hey, check out the security on this place, Evie, the fences. They’ll be secure against brainless Bagmen.” Then he murmured, “Just not against us.”
When he climbed off the bike, he left me feeling cold and out of sorts. “Why would these lights be on, Jackson? This feels like a baited trap. How about we pass this one by?”
“Bet there’s loads of food inside.” He was already wedging his crossbow between the two gates, using it as a lever to pry them apart. “Watch and learn, peekôn.” With a click, the flourishing crest in the center parted, the gates swinging free.
He turned back to clasp me around the waist and set me on my feet. “We’ll walk the bike from here.” Once he’d pushed it past the fence, he shoved the gates back together behind us. Another click sounded as they sealed shut.
When the house—a gargantuan brick mansion—came into view, he whistled low. “Damn, Evie, you ought to feel right at home here.”
I narrowed my eyes at the landscaping lights. “Those are electric.”
“They’ve probably got a gas generator.”
“One that would’ve had to be filled up recently, right? This place must be occupied.”
He hadn’t even slowed. “Or maybe we’ll get lucky. What if the owner left to go source supplies and ran into trouble? He might’ve gotten attacked by roaming Bagmen. Like the rider of this bike.”
I rubbed my arms. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
“The last time you had a good one, we lost everything we owned, nearly got enslaved, and spent the night in Bagman Swamp. I’m goan to take my chances here,” he said. “It’s too late to find another place to stay, anyway. If there’s someone here and he’s decent, we’ll barter jewelry. If he’s not decent, we’ll take it. Kick him out.”
“You’re going to steal a house from its owner?”
“This house?” He smirked. “J’pourrais.” I might.
After we’d parked the bike near the side entrance, he cased the house with his crossbow in hand, taking in every detail before he approached the double doors. “Hasn’t been rolled yet. Still locked tight.”
With the end of his bow, he hit one of the glass sidelights that flanked the door, busting out a pane. The noise seemed startlingly loud.
Instead of entering, he stood motionless, cocking his head. After long moments, he reached in and opened the door, inhaling deeply. The air smelled fresh. No Bagmen around?
Weapon raised, Jackson finally entered the house, with me close behind.
“This is a mistake,” I whispered, trying to recall something Matthew had repeated in all his mutterings and ramblings. It was tickling at my brain. “Why is staying here so important to you?”
“ ’Cause you’ll like it here. Soft girl like you belongs in a place like this.”
“I’d prefer the shrimp boat.”
“I’ll make a note.”
Lamps burned low, lighting the interior enough for us to search the lavishly decorated house. It looked like a movie producer’s Hollywood pad. Even I was impressed by the wealth.
Every room was even more luxe than the one before. “This feels like a trap,” I repeated.
“Trust me, Evie, this place is goan to be a beauty. Remember? I got a sense for these things. And just think, if there’s power and a well, there’ll be a hot shower.”
I nearly moaned at the idea of piping-hot water. But when a breeze wafted from overhead fans, I still said, “Why is the occupant so wasteful? Eventually, the gas will run out.”
“The gas was already running out before the Flash. But I bet every room in your big ole mansion was cold as an icebox all summer long.”
“This situation is more acute.”
“If you think you could die tomorrow, why not go all-out? Part of me admires the owner for this.”
Sometimes when he said things like that, I was reminded of how different we were. Like fundamentally different. “We’ll have to agree to disagree. . . .”