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The Next Generation (Conversion Book 4), Page 3

S. C. Stephens

  Just as Julian successfully removed her hands from his body, Arianna noticed the red and raw cut beside his eye. “Oh my God! What happened?”

  Arianna grabbed his face, angling his head toward her so she could examine the wound more closely. A feeling of extreme discomfort surged through Julian, and he quickly pulled his head away from her. “I…uh…fell.”

  Arianna sighed, her face heavy with compassion. “Oh, you poor thing.”

  Right when she looked like she might reach out and hug him, I heard the hum of a car that I knew very well. Julian and I looked across the football field at the exact same time. A silver BMW shone in the afternoon sun as it pulled to a stop. The horn honked twice, unnecessarily, since Julian and I were already aware of the vehicle.

  Relief rushed through Julian as he gave Arianna an apologetic smile. “I have to go. Our mom’s here.”

  Arianna frowned and looked back to the parking lot. A petite blonde had stepped out of the vehicle and was waving at us. It wasn’t a Welcome, glad to see you wave either. It was more a Hurry up, I have better things to do wave. Starla didn’t exactly enjoy being our fetching girl, but Gabriel had asked her to do it, so she did. There weren’t too many things Starla refused to do if her “father” asked.

  Arianna sighed and stepped back from Julian. “Well, I guess I should go home now, too.” She looked over at me. “See you Monday, Nika…Julian.”

  She gave me a swift hug, gave Julian a lingering gaze of longing, then headed off in the opposite direction. Arianna lived right behind the high school and always waited with me until I got picked up. Creepily enough, Arianna lived on the other side of a graveyard, and had to walk through it every day to get to her house. We sometimes scared ourselves silly by running though the cemetery at night. Well, Arianna was scared silly. It didn’t bother me all that much. I was used to nighttime excursions with my family, and since Halina was the scariest thing around, not much in a cemetery frightened me.

  “Would you two hurry up!”

  Julian and I looked back at Starla. Shaking my head, I told her, “We’re coming. Chillax.” I spoke it at regular volume, but Starla heard me just fine. She popped a bubble with her gum and ducked back inside her shiny vehicle.

  Smiling at each other in amusement, Julian and I started walking her way. “So…why don’t you just ask Arianna out, since you know she likes you?” I asked him. “I think you two would be cute together.”

  Julian smirked, humor flowing from him to me. “You think she’d be any cooler about what we are than Raquel?”

  Biting my lip, I considered that. Arianna was cool, certainly, but was she that cool? It was hard to tell. She would handle it better than Raquel, though. I was pretty sure of that. “Yeah, I think so…”

  Julian was quiet as we continued across the field. The smell of fresh-cut grass nearly overwhelmed my senses. It reminded me of the ranch. Once we were climbing up the small slope that led to the parking lot, he finally spoke. His words matched his mood—subdued. “I just don’t think I feel that way about her, Nika.” He looked over at me with a regretful smile. “She’s not the one I want to be with…sorry.”

  I patted his shoulder in sympathy. “I know.”

  Starla honked her horn again. Visible through the windshield, she raised her hands in a come-on-already gesture. Rolling my eyes, I hurried the short distance to her car. Cracking open the door, I darted in the front seat while Julian took the back. Starla stepped on the gas before I even had a chance to fully close the door.

  “Sorry I’m late,” Starla muttered, snapping another bubble with her apple-flavored gum.

  “It’s all right,” I muttered, glancing over at the woman. Starla was quickly approaching forty, but she still dressed and acted like she was much younger. Her light blonde locks were cut stylishly short, spritzed and sprayed into a rigid helmet of perfection. Her skin was tan and Botoxed to be as smooth as possible. Wrapped in a tight designer dress and sunglasses that were as large as they were round, she seemed like someone much more at home shopping on Rodeo Drive than hanging around Washington Square. And, in fact, she was exactly that person, but her nest was here, the love of her life was here, and, Gabriel, the man she eerily called father was here, so…she was stuck in Utah, for now.

  Smacking on her gum, she tossed a smile my way. “So, how was school?”

  “Fine.” Returning her smile, I relaxed into the seat. I didn’t want her to suspect that anything out of the ordinary had happened today.

  I felt tension coming from Julian and noticed him squirming in his seat, angling his head away from Starla so she wouldn’t see his damaged skin. He couldn’t do anything about the smell though. The fresh blood was faint, but it was still clear enough for a vampire; it even permeated the smells emanating from Starla.

  She inhaled, then looked back at Julian. “I smell blood on you…why?”

  Starla eyed his face for a long time, a lot longer than someone concentrating on driving really should. “Are you hurt? What happened?”

  Sighing, Julian stopped trying to avoid it and twisted to face her. “It’s fine…I fell.”

  Starla narrowed her blue eyes at Julian, appraising him. With a smirk, she shook her head and returned her attention to the road. “Sure, kid.” Looking at him in the rear-view mirror, she added, “You might want to work on your story before you get home, though. Your parents are going to buy it about as much as I do.”

  Julian groaned and laid his head back on the seat. A wave of reluctance and anxiety went through him, and I reached behind my seat to pat his knee. He felt the sympathy pouring from me and sighed as his tension started returning.

  Starla watched his reaction in the mirror, then said, “So, heard you talking outside…who’s the lucky girl you want to be with, Julian?”

  CLOSING MY EYES, I tried to relax. This was turning out to be the crappiest day ever. Well, maybe not ever—I’d had some crappy days in my life—but today was rapidly moving up the list.

  Focusing on steadying my emotions, so Nika would stop sending me waves of sympathy, I ignored Starla’s question about who I liked. I was not about to talk to Starla about my love life. Or lack of one. Not that I had anything against Starla—I didn’t—I just didn’t want to talk about it with anyone. No one but Nika, and she’d made her feelings on the matter perfectly clear—stay away from Raquel. She was trouble, and would bring me nothing but heartache.

  In my heart, I knew Nika was right. While Raquel and I had a decent friendship, she’d never given me any indication that she wanted something more from me. Russell was who she wanted. They’d been firmly attached to each other since Raquel’s freshman year, and Russell didn’t seem to be letting go of her anytime soon…as today’s debacle had shown me.

  A flash of anger ripped through my spine, opening my eyes. Nika removed her hand from my knee and twisted around to look at me. Concern momentarily overrode her sympathy. I ignored the question in her light brown gaze, and instead thought of the beady pair of eyes I’d been staring down this afternoon.

  It had all started after school. Up until that final bell had rung, my day had been as normal as any other day. But once all the kids had shuffled outside, I’d caught a whiff of Raquel’s perfume, and had followed the scent until I’d picked her out across campus. So attuned to her, I’d then heard the distinct sound of a sniffle being carried on the dry breeze. My sudden anger faded away as I remembered watching her walk into the empty gym. I’d known that I shouldn’t follow her in there, especially since she always met up with Russell after school, so odds were good that I would run into him, but there had been something about the pain in her whimper that had made turning away from her an impossibility. Stupidly, I’d walked in after her.

  Seeing Raquel sitting on the bleachers, her long legs exposed under her short skirt, her jacket folded in her arms, her thick, dark hair shielding her face as she sat with her head down, a burst of affection had exploded in my chest. A smaller version of that euphoria rippled through
me now, and Nika grimaced. Shaking her head, she turned back to the front of the car.

  Sighing, I turned to stare out the window; patches of brown earth and green lawn whizzed past, creating a blur of muted tones. It was frustrating at times that Nika didn’t understand my feelings for Raquel. It wasn’t like I could control them anyway. When Raquel was around I just felt…lighter than air. For once, I wasn’t a human-vampire mix hiding from the world in plain sight. No, I was just a normal sixteen-year-old boy trying to find his place. My feelings for Raquel were simple and beautiful, and I didn’t see how anything so wonderful could be wrong.

  Nika just hadn’t experienced it yet, not for herself anyway; otherwise, she would understand. Once a boy had made her heart skip a beat, then she would get it, and she’d leave me alone to crush on the girl of my dreams.

  Smiling, I watched the vegetation blur by as I listened to Starla’s conversation with Nika. It revolved around moisturizer, from what I could tell. Blocking them out, I reminisced about my conversation earlier with Raquel…

  “Raquel, you okay in here?” After quietly asking, I cautiously walked over to the woman with her head hanging in defeat. I hated seeing her like that.

  She lifted her chin and looked up at me. Her beauty was so searing, it almost made me stop in my tracks, for surely, if I stepped any closer, I’d be burned. Eyes as dark as night, skin golden and creamy, she was breathtaking. She made me ache in ways that I couldn’t talk about to anyone…not even Nika.

  Raquel wiped underneath her eyes after my question and gave me an untroubled smile. I instantly saw the lie in the gesture. Setting my backpack down, I sat beside her on the bleachers. “I’m fine, Julian…just waiting for Russell.”

  Studying her face, my enhanced vision picked out the wetness on her cheeks, the redness in her eyes. “You’ve been crying. What’s wrong?”

  Lip trembling, she shrugged. “Nothing…”

  I wanted to reach out and touch her skin; I was sure it would be the softest thing I’d ever felt. But I wasn’t brave enough, and only gave her a friendly smile as I bumped her shoulder with mine; just sitting beside her made my soul soar. “Doesn’t look like nothing.”

  Raquel gave me a genuine smile then, and my heart nearly swelled beyond capacity—thudding so loudly, I almost didn’t hear her response. “It’s just…Russell…he sometimes…” Sighing, she bit her lip and looked away.

  Warmth and good feelings overpowered me, and I found the courage to reach out and touch her cheek; it was as soft as I imagined. Fingers trembling, I turned her head so she was looking at me again. I always wanted her to be looking at me. Me. Not Russell. “I know I’ve told you this before, but you don’t have to put up with him. There are…other options.”

  Her mouth curved into a soft smile as she stared at me, and her eyes glowed with warmth as she searched mine. I never wanted to kiss a girl more than right then. I knew it was wrong—she was with Russell—but Russell didn’t deserve an angel like her. He didn’t treat her the way she should be treated. He didn’t treat her the way I would treat her. My heart surged uncontrollably at the thought of her lips on mine.

  I started to inch toward her, started to give her a kiss…my first kiss ever. We were so close—she was leaning into me while I was leaning into her—and then everything changed.

  “What the hell is this, Raquel?”

  I broke apart from Raquel and spotted Russell and his gang entering the gym. Raquel’s tan cheeks had gone completely pale, and she immediately stood up and stepped away from me, guilt as plain as day on her face. “Nothing…it was nothing, Russell. Just…waiting for you.”

  She simpered and bowed her head in a submissive way that fired me up. I hated how Russell beat down her spirit, made her seem almost a shadow of a person. She could be so much more, if I could just get her away from the creep. But she grabbed her stuff and walked down to him with only a fleeting, apologetic glance back at me.

  Once she reached Russell, he jerked on her arm, squeezing it until she cried out in pain. “There better not be anything going on,” he growled.

  The hatred in Russell’s voice, the fear on Raquel’s face, it was too much for me. I immediately jumped up from the bleachers. “Leave her alone, Russell!”

  Russell’s eyes snapped to mine. “What are you gonna do about it, Adams?”

  Honestly, I wanted to fight him, show him exactly what I would do about it, but I knew my parents wouldn’t approve, and the thought of Dad’s disappointed face gave me the strength to do something extremely difficult. Swallowing my pride, I grabbed my backpack…and walked away. Raquel sighed with relief; it sliced me to the core to leave her with him.

  But Russell wasn’t okay with letting me be the bigger man. No great surprise there, really. He and his buddies followed me when I left the gym. I was seething with anger already, and that feeling only grew with each step I took away from the jerk. Maybe Russell saw that he was affecting me, maybe Russell was just a grade-A asshole, but he amped up the situation by shoving me into the boy’s locker room.

  And that was when things shifted for the worse…

  Looking down as I felt Starla’s car crunch to a stop, I remembered my backpack falling to the floor, remembered the guys pushing me, backing me into a corner. It shouldn’t have affected me the way it had—it shouldn’t have affected me so negatively—but when they’d pressed me into the shower area, when they’d…trapped me…I’d started to panic.

  A slice of that remembered fear shot through me, and I swallowed a few times to push it back. Nika started to bring her hand around to me, twisting her body in the front seat to face me again, but I opened my car door and stepped out. I didn’t need to see Nika’s sympathy right now, I could feel it oozing from her anyway. I had to learn to deal with this debilitating terror on my own.

  Life had cut me a raw deal, but I’d been a toddler then, so surely I should be over the trauma by now. But as the wall of people had closed in on me, I hadn’t felt over it at all. No, I’d felt like it was happening all over again.

  Pausing beside Starla’s closed door, I let the lingering tension of the memory slip away. I hated sinking back into the darkness of those age-old fears, but Russell’s gang had pushed me over the edge. With all their bulk blocking the exit and my back against the cool tile wall, I’d felt like I was three years old again, trapped inside a dark, smelly trunk. The claustrophobia had kicked in full force, shifting my anger to instinctual fear and panic—I would have done anything to get out, and I had. I’d struck Russell.

  As I’d attacked, the panic had subsided and rage had taken over again. Preferring that to fear, I’d gladly let it in.

  As Nika stepped out of Starla’s BMW, a voice inside the car addressed the two of us. “All right, there you are, safe and sound at home. See you guys Monday morning.”

  Smirking, Nika leaned down to look back at Starla. “Thanks for the ride, Mom.”

  Starla groaned and dropped her head back on the leather seat; if she used just a touch more of that floral hairspray, she’d puncture the leather. Pulling down her oversized sunglasses, she glared at Nika. “You don’t have to call me that when no one’s around.”

  Nika smiled wider. Amusement flashed through her and my spirit momentarily lifted. Starla hated being called Mom. Closing the door, Nika waved at Starla. The high-maintenance woman waggled her fingers and revved her engine. “Have a good night, you two,” she murmured, her voice audible to us through the glass. Twisting to look back at me, Starla curved a painted lip. “And try not to fight anyone over the weekend.”

  My mouth dropped open in surprise as Starla stepped on the gas. Nika and I backed up a step so she wouldn’t run over our toes or spray us with tiny pebbles from the road. Since Starla was playing the role of our mom, she lived a few streets over with her boyfriend, Jacen, so she could be on hand in case we needed a parental figure in our lives.

  While Starla didn’t relish her assigned task, the housing situation worked out well for her; Starl
a had no desire to live out in the dirty, dusty countryside with the rest of the vampires. It also suited Mom just fine, since she found Starla to be a little grating; she’d strongly protested Starla living at the house with us, which would have been the easiest way to keep up the appearance that Starla was our mother. We’d solved that problem though. To prevent our neighbors from becoming overly curious about Starla’s frequent absence, the world around us believed that Starla spent an exorbitant amount of time with her boyfriend, leaving our “roommates”—Mom and Dad—to watch over us nearly every night. A nosy neighbor had complained to Starla once about her lack of parenting skills, but after a visit from Halina, the busy-body hadn’t thought twice about it. None of our neighbors did now. The arrangement was a touch on the complicated side, but it was preferable for everyone.

  After Starla’s sporty taillights disappeared around the corner, Nika turned to me. “She’s so maternal, it’s almost smothering.”

  I cracked a smile and shook my head. “Yeah, she should cut the cord already. We’re sixteen.”

  Nika laughed as she unzipped her backpack to get her keys. “You think Dad will let us get a car this year? Give Starla a break?”

  I listened to her digging fingers scraping against the fabric of her bag, then heard the metallic sound of a key scraping against another key. Starting to walk toward the house, I shook my head. “Doubt it. You know how overprotective he can be.” As we reached the door, I smirked at her. “We’ll be married with kids of our own before we get a car.”

  Imagining Raquel as my wife, I let out a wistful sigh. Nika frowned as she opened the front door. “Please stop that.”

  Adjusting the bag on my shoulder, I sniffed and changed my thoughts. “Stop what?” I murmured, knowing exactly what she meant.

  Nika gave me a wry look as I tossed my bag in the entryway, just a foot from the door. Ignoring my question, she instead asked, “What are you going to tell Mom and Dad?” She pointed to my face, to the tell-tale sign that I’d been in a fight.