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Chosen, Page 2

P. C. Cast

Chapter Two

  "Oooh, it's beautiful!" I stroked my hand over the folded material of the scarf, thoroughly shocked that I'd actually gotten a cool gift.

  "It's cashmere," Damien said smugly.

  I lifted it from the box, thrilled that it was a chic, shimmery cream color instead of the red or green birthmas presents I usually get. Then I froze, realizing I'd been thrilled too soon.

  "See the snowmen embroidered on the ends?" Damien said. "Aren't they adorable?"

  "Yep, adorable," I said. Sure-for Christmas they're adorable. For a birthday present, uh, not so much.

  "Okay, we're next," Shaunee said, passing me a big box haphazardly wrapped in green Christmas-tree foil.

  "And we didn't follow the snowman theme," Erin said, frowning at Damien.

  "Yeah, no one told us," Shaunee frowned at Damien, too.

  "That's okay!" I said a little too quickly and enthusiastically, and then tore into their package. Inside was a pair of black leather stiletto boots that would have been utterly cool and chic and fabulous . . . had it not been for the Christmas trees, complete with red and gold ornaments, that were stitched in full color on the side of each boot. This. Can. Only. Be. Worn. At. Christmas. Which makes it definitely a lame birthmas present.

  "Oh, thanks. " I tried to gush. "They're really cute. "

  "Took us forever to find them," Erin said.

  "Yeah, plain boots would not do for Ms. Born-on-the-Twenty-Fourth," Shaunee said.

  "No indeedy. Plain old black leather stiletto boots would never do," I said, feeling like crying.

  "Hey, there's another present left. "

  Erik's voice pulled me out of the black hole of my birthmas-present depression. "Oh, something else?" I hoped it was only to my ears that my tone said, "Oh, yet another tragic non-present present?"

  "Yeah, one more something else. " Almost shyly, he handed me a very small rectangular shaped box. "I really hope you like it. "

  I glanced down at the box before I took it and almost squeed in happy surprise. Erik was holding a silver and gold wrapped present with a Moody's Fine Jewelry sticker plastered classify in the middle of it. (I swear I heard the "Hallelujah Chorus" crescendo somewhere in the background. )

  "It's from Moody's!" I sounded breathless, but I couldn't help myself.

  "I hope you like it," Erik repeated, lifting his hand and offering the little silver and gold box like a shining treasure.

  I ripped through the lovely wrapping to expose a black velvet box. Velvet. I swear. Real velvet. I bit my lip to keep from giggling, held my breath, and opened it.

  The first thing I saw was the gleaming platinum chain. Speechless with happiness my eyes followed the chain down to the beautiful pearls that were nestled into the plush velvet. Velvet! Platinum! Pearls! I sucked in air so that I could begin my gushing ohmygodthankyouErikyou'rethebestboyfriendever when I realized that the pearls were oddly shaped. Were they defective? Had the fabulously exclusive and amazingly expensive Moody's Fine Jewelry Store ripped off my boyfriend? And then I realized what I was seeing. The pearls were shaped into a snowman.

  "Do you like it?" Erik asked. "When I saw it, it just screamed Zoey's birthday at me, and I had to get it for you. "

  "Yeah. I like it. It's, uh, unique. " I managed.

  "It's Erik who came up with the snowman theme!" Jack cried happily.

  "Well, it wasn't really a theme," Erik said, his cheeks getting a little pink. "I just thought it was different, not like those typical hearts and such that everyone gets. "

  "Yep, hearts and such would be so ordinarily birthday-fied. Who would want that?" I said.

  "Let me put it on you," Erik said.

  There was nothing else to do but pull my hair out of the way and let Erik step back to clasp the delicate chain around my throat. I could feel the snowman hanging heavy and disgustingly festive just above my cleavage.

  "It's cute," Shaunee said.

  "And very expensive," Erin said. Both Twins gave mirrored nods of approval.

  "It matches my scarf perfectly," Damien said.

  "And my snow globe!" Jack added.

  "It's definitely a Christmas birthday theme," Erik said, giving the Twins a sheepish look, which they responded to with forgiving grins.

  "Yes, yes, it certainly is a Christmas birthday theme," I said, fingering the pearl snowman. Then I beamed to everyone a very bright, very painted-on smile. "Thanks, you guys. I really appreciate all the time and effort it took y'all to find such special gifts. I mean it. " And I did mean it. I may loathe the gifts, but the thoughts behind them were a totally different thing.

  My absolutely clueless friends came together and we all did a kinda awkward group hug that left us laughing. Just then the door swung open and the light from the hall glistened on very blond, very big hair.

  "Here. "

  Thankfully, my turning-into-vampyre reflexes were pretty good, and I caught the box she tossed at me.

  "Mail call came for you while you were back here with your nerd herd," she sneered.

  "Go away, Aphrodite, ya hag," Shaunee said.

  "Before we throw some water on you and you melt," Erin added.

  "Whatever," Aphrodite said. She started to turn away, but paused and gave me a wide, innocent smile before saying, "Nice snowman necklace. " Our eyes met and I swear she winked at me before tossing her hair and flitting away, her laughter floating in the air after her like mist.

  "She's such a total bitch," Damien said.

  "You'd think she would have learned her lesson when you took the Dark Daughters from her, and Neferet proclaimed that the Goddess has withdrawn her gifts from Aphrodite," Erik said. "But that girl will never change. "

  I looked sharply at him. So says Erik Night, her ex-boyfriend. I didn't need to say the words aloud. I knew by the way Erik looked hastily away from me that they were easy enough to read in my eyes.

  "Don't let her mess up your birthday, Z," Shaunee said.

  "Ignore the hateful hag. Everyone else does," Erin said.

  Erin was right. Since Aphrodite's selfishness had caused her to be publicly kicked out of leadership of the Dark Daughters, the school's most prestigious student group, and the position of Lead Dark Daughter as well as priestess in training had been given to me, she had lost her standing as most popular and powerful fledgling. Our High Priestess, Neferet, who was also my mentor, had made it clear that our goddess, Nyx, has withdrawn her favor from Aphrodite. Basically, Aphrodite was shunned where she was once put on a big ol' popularity pedestal and worshipped.

  Unfortunately, I knew there was more to the story than what everyone else believed. Aphrodite had used her visions, which had clearly not been taken away from her, to save my grandma as well as Heath, my human boyfriend. Sure, she'd been bitchy and selfish during the saving, but still. Heath and Grandma were alive, and a good part of the credit for that goes to Aphrodite.

  Plus, recently I'd found out that Neferet, our High Priestess-my mentor, the vamp most looked up to at the school-was also not what she appeared to be. Actually, I was coming to believe that Neferet was probably as evil as she was powerful.

  Darkness does not always equate to evil, just as light does not always bring good. The words that Nyx had said to me the day I was Marked flitted through my mind, summarizing the problem with Neferet. She wasn't what she appeared to be.

  And I couldn't tell anyone-or at least not anyone who was alive (which left me with my undead best friend who I hadn't managed to talk to during the entire past month). Thankfully, I also hadn't talked to Neferet for the past month. She'd left for a winter retreat in Europe and wasn't scheduled to be back until the New Year. I figured I'd come up with a plan about how to deal with her when she returned. So far my plan consisted of just that: coming up with a plan. Which was no plan at all. Crap.

  "Hey, what's in the package?" Jack said, pulling me out of my mental nightmare back to my birthmas party nigh

  We all looked at the brown paper package I was still holding.

  "I dunno," I said.

  "I'll bet it's another birthday present!" Jack cried. "Open it!"

  "Oh, boy. . . " I said. But when my friends gave me confused looks I got real busy unwrapping the box. Inside the generic brown wrapper was another box, this one wrapped in beautiful lavender paper.

  "It is another birthday present!" Jack squealed.

  "Wonder who it's from?" Damien asked.

  I was just wondering the same thing, and thinking that the paper reminded me of my grandma, who lived on an awesome lavender farm. But why would she send my present through the mail when I was meeting her later tonight?

  I uncovered a smooth, white box, which I opened. Inside was another, much smaller white box fitted snuggly inside a bunch of lavender tissue paper. Curiosity completely killing me, I lifted the little box from its lavender tissue nest. Several pieces of the paper clung all static-electricified to the bottom of the newly freed box, and I brushed them off before opening it. As they floated to the table I peeked inside the box and sucked in a shocked breath. Lying on a bed of white cotton was the most beautiful sliver bracelet I'd ever seen. I picked it up, oohing and ahing at the twinkling charms. There were starfish and seashells and seahorses, and each of them was separated by adorable little silver hearts.

  "It's absolutely perfect!" I said, fastening it to my wrist. "I wonder who could have sent it to me?" Laughing, I turned my wrist this way and that, letting the gaslights that were so easy on our sensitive fledgling eyes catch the polished silver and make it glisten like faceted jewels. "It must be my grandma, but that's weird because we're meeting in just. . . ," and I realized everyone was totally, absolutely, uncomfortably silent. I looked from my wrist to my friends. Their expressions ranged from shock (Damien) to annoyance (the Twins) to anger (Erik).


  "Here," Erik said, handing me a card that must have slipped out of the box with the clinging tissue paper.

  "Oh," I said, instantly recognizing the scrawling handwriting. Oh, hell! It was from Heath. Better known as boyfriend no. 2. As I read the short note I felt my face getting hot and knew I was turning a totally unattractive shade of bright red.

  Zo-HAPPY BIRTHDAY!! I know how much you hate those lame birthmas presents that try to mush your b-day with Christmas, so I sent you something I know you'll like. Hey! It doesn't have anything to do with Christmas! Duh! I'm hating the stupid Cayman Islands and this boring vacation with my parents and I'm counting the days till I can be with you again. See you on the 26th! I heart you! Heath

  "Oh," I repeated like a total moron. "It's, uh, from Heath. " I wished I could make myself disappear.

  "Please. Just please. Why didn't you tell anyone that you don't like birthday presents that have anything to do with Christmas?" Shaunee asked in her usual no-nonsense way.

  "Yeah, all you had to do was say something," Erin said.

  "Uh," I said succinctly.

  "We thought the snowman theme was a cute idea, but it's not if you hate Christmas stuff," Damien said.

  "I don't hate Christmas stuff," I managed to say.

  "I like snow globes," Jack said softly, looking like he was about to cry. "The snowy part makes me happy. "

  "Looks like Heath knows more about what you like than we do. " Erik's voice was flat and emotionless, but his eyes were dark with hurt, which made my stomach clench.

  "No, Erik, it's not like that," I said quickly, taking a step toward him. He moved back like I had some kind of awful disease he might catch, and suddenly it really pissed me off. It wasn't my fault that Heath had known me since I was in third grade and had figured out the mushed birthmas present issue years ago. Okay, yes, he knew stuff about me that the rest of them didn't. There was nothing weird about that! The kid had been in my life for seven years. Erik and Damien, the Twins and Jack had been in my life for two months-or less. How was that my fault?

  Purposefully, I made a show of looking at my watch. "I'm supposed to meet my grandma at Starbucks in fifteen minutes. I better not be late. " I walked over to the door, but paused before I left the room. I turned around and looked at my group of friends. "I didn't mean to hurt anyone's feelings. I'm sorry if Heath's note made you guys feel bad-but that's not my fault. And I did tell someone that I don't like it when people try to mush my birthday together with Christmas-I told Stevie Rae. "