Firelight, p.15
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       Firelight, p.15

         Part #1 of Firelight series by Sophie Jordan
 
Page 15

  Author: Sophie Jordan

  The house is silent when I slip inside, moving like a shadow through rooms that feel like they’re closing in on me. Now more than ever. Tamra is a motionless shape beneath the covers as I quietly kick off my shoes.

  The bed dips from my weight. I exhale as I pull the covers to my chin, fold my hands over my chest, and strive for a calm I don’t feel, all my thoughts tangled up in the shirt bearing my blood that’s now in Will’s possession.

  “If you ruin this for me, I’ll never forgive you. ”

  Strangely, my sister’s disembodied voice stretching across the dark doesn’t startle me. Not with my head spinning with rapid schemes to reclaim the evidence that I’m not human.

  She doesn’t ask for an explanation, and I don’t offer one. It’s enough that I snuck out, and she knows it. As far as she’s concerned, I can’t be up to anything good.

  Her bed squeaks as she rolls onto her side. I can think of nothing to say. Nothing to reassure her. Nothing to make me feel less guilty, less selfish.

  My lips hum from the memory of Will’s kiss. I almost lost it back there. Almost exposed myself. Almost ruined us all.

  And that still might happen if I don’t get my hands on Will’s shirt.

  I have to get it back. At any cost.

  14

  The following day sweat traces my spine as I run the last mile to Will’s house, the hard smack of my shoes on asphalt strangely fortifying.

  I promised Mom I would be back before dinner. She likes to eat early on Saturday evenings. There’s enough tension in the house that I don’t want to upset her.

  If I’m lucky, Will uses a hamper like Tamra and I do. I picture the shirt wadded up inside it, my blood, purple and iridescent and gleaming even when free of my body, unnoticeable. Hopefully. He of all people would recognize the purple stains for what they are. Discovering I’m draki exposes us all. Puts every draki at risk, even Mom and Tamra. Just by relation to me their lives would be forfeit.

  I slow as I approach his house, spotting the Spanish-tiled roof between the trees. I memorized the directions Catherine gave me over the phone. I knew I liked her for a reason. Other than a meaningful hmmm, she didn’t pry and ask why I wanted to know where Will lived.

  The gate is open, so I run down the drive, hesitating only a moment before the sweeping portico when I notice the Land Rover parked outside the detached garage. I jerk in place for a moment, debating my next move.

  In a perfect world, the house would be vacant with a window left open or unlocked. I would slip inside, find the shirt, and be out in five minutes. But my world has never been perfect.

  I don’t have a choice. I can’t risk another day. I just have to play it out. With an ugly mutter, I push on.

  Before I can reconsider, I’m up the front steps and knocking on the large double doors. The sound echoes, like a great cavern or abyss stretches out on the other side. I wait, wishing I had worn something other than my striped running shorts and tank top. I’d scraped my hair back into a ponytail that hangs like a horse’s tail down my back. Not my best look.

  When the door starts to swing open, that feeling sweeps over me again and I know Will’s on the other side before I see him.

  He doesn’t even try to look happy to see me. Given how fast I fled his car yesterday, it’s no wonder he looks surprised. “Jacinda. What are you doing here?”

  I toss back his explanation from the night before. “I thought I would check out where you live. You know. Just in case. ”

  He doesn’t laugh, doesn’t even smile at my joke—the reversal of his words last night. Instead, he looks uneasily over his shoulder. At least he’s not shouting out an alarm that a draki is on his doorstep. Clearly he hasn’t examined his shirt closely.

  “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

  “Will? Who’s here?” The door pulls wider. A man with Will’s hazel eyes steps up beside him. The similarity ends with the eyes. Not as tall as Will, he’s wiry, like he spends a lot of time in the gym, honing his body.

  “Oh, hello. ” Unlike Will, he smiles easily, but it’s empty. Like he does it all the time without meaning.

  “Dad, this is Jacinda. From school. ”

  “Jacinda,” he says warmly, reaching for my hand. And I offer it to him. Shake hands with the devil himself, see in his eyes, feel in his touch, that he’s nothing like Will. This hunter would never let a draki escape.

  “Mr. Rutledge,” I manage to say in a normal voice. “Nice to meet you. ”

  His hand surrounds my crawling flesh. “Likewise. Will doesn’t bring many of his friends around. ”

  “Dad,” Will says tightly.

  He releases my hand and claps Will on the back. “Okay, I’ll stop embarrassing you. ” He looks at me again, his expression avid as he surveys me with obvious approval. “Jacinda, join us. We’re grilling on the back deck. ”

  “Dad, I don’t think—”

  “I would love that,” I lie. Eating with Will’s dad ranks right up there with having my teeth drilled, but I have to get inside. It’s not just about me. Tamra, Mom, the pride, draki everywhere…leaving that shirt in this house puts us all in peril.

  Mr. Rutledge waves me inside. I sweep past Will into the frigidly chill house.

  “Do you like brisket, Jacinda? It’s been smoking since this morning. It should be ready soon. ”

  Will falls in beside me as we follow his dad through the vast entrance hall. Our steps echo over the tiled floor. The house is coolly perfect. Lifeless art hangs on the walls and solid white fans whir down at us from the double-high ceiling as we file down a wide corridor.

  Will’s voice is a rasp near my ear. “What are you doing here?”

  And with that question, I’m struck with being here. In his home, my enemy’s lair. Is this where they bring captive draki? Before selling them to the enkros? My skin ripples, fear dangerously close. I suck in a breath and chafe a hand over my arm, reining in my imagination.

  “Are you so disappointed to see me?” I ask, finding courage. His dad rounds a corner ahead of us. “You wanted to see me last night. ” I nearly choke on the reminder. Last night I almost thought he would chase me into my house.

  He grabs my arm and pulls me to a stop. Those changeable eyes of his rove my face, searching. I sense his confusion, his inability to understand me…or why I’m here. “I want to see you, I haven’t thought of anything else…. ” He pauses, looking uncomfortable. “Just not here. ”

  “Will? Jacinda? Come on!”

  He flinches at his father’s voice. His gaze flickers beyond me, over my shoulder. “We can see each other somewhere else. I told you how I felt about my family. You shouldn’t be here,” he says quietly.

  “Well, I am here, and I’m not leaving. ” I pull my arm free and walk ahead, calling over my shoulder, “Just in time, too. I’m hungry. ”

  “Jacinda,” he pleads, his voice tinged with a desperation I just don’t get. I’m certain his determination to keep me out of his home, away from his family, is tangled up in the fact that he’s a draki hunter. But what does that have to do with me? He doesn’t know what I am. His family shouldn’t suspect anything just because he has a girl over to his house.

  Will catches up with me in a kitchen of gleaming surfaces and state-of-the-art appliances. I sense his anxiety as we step through the French doors onto the deck. Several faces turn to stare. No one speaks.

  Mr. Rutledge motions at me as he opens the lid to the smoker. “Everyone, this is—”

  “Jacinda,” Xander supplies, rising from a wrought-iron chair, a sweating bottle of soda in his hand. “Will, I didn’t know you were bringing a date. ”

  Angus munches from a large bag of potato chips, not bothering to stand or speak, just watching with his thuggish stare.

  “Must have slipped my mind. ” Will guides me to one of the patio tables and introduces me to the others:
Xander’s parents, a set of uncles and aunts, several more cousins. Hunters all, I realize. At least those over thirteen. I don’t imagine the toddler sucking a juice box or the swinging seven-year-old hunts. Yet.

  They all welcome me, assessing me with the same avidity I’d endured from Will’s father. As we eat, I’m subjected to a battery of questions. Where do you live? Where did you move from? What do your parents do? Do you have siblings? Do you play sports? Like I’m being interviewed. Mr. Rutledge seems most interested that I run…that I ran the seven miles to their house.

  “She’s fast, too,” Will volunteers, almost grudgingly, like he knows small talk is expected but doesn’t wish to contribute.

  “Really. ” Mr. Rutledge arches his brows. “Long-distance running requires great stamina. I’ve always been impressed with those capable of such endurance. ”

  Throughout our dialogue, Xander studies me across the table, quietly intent. Will at my side gives me some comfort. That and the gentle misters spraying cooling vapor over the patio. My skin drinks it in.

  When the meal winds down, Will’s aunts rise to fetch dessert from the kitchen. I see my chance and jump up to help. In the kitchen, I break free, excusing myself to use the restroom.

  I take the stairs off the main entry. My sneakers race silently over a red runner as I open doors and stick my head inside room after room until I find Will’s.

  Even if I didn’t sense his long-imbued presence, I would have known the wood-paneled room belonged to him. It lacks the cold precision of the rest of the house. The bed is made, but otherwise it feels lived in. Books and magazines litter a bedside table. His literature book lies open on the desk, a half-written essay beside it. A framed photo of a woman with Will’s gold-brown hair sits there also, and I know it’s his mother, see him in her smiling face.

  Tearing my gaze away, I open his closet and spot the hamper below his hanging clothes. Digging through the garments, I pull out the bloodied shirt with a gasp of relief. Clutching it in my shaking hands, I close the closet door, my pulse a feverish throb at my neck. What am I going to do with it now?

  As I carefully peer out into the hall, an idea forms to hide the shirt somewhere outside, maybe in the front bushes where I can collect it later, after I’ve managed to extricate myself. The plan burns through my mind as I hurry down the hall, pleased with myself but still wary. Locating the shirt had almost been too easy.

  Gradually, a sound penetrates—thudding footsteps ascending the stairs.

  Panic flares hotly in my chest. I dive into the nearest room, closing the door with a soft click behind me. I grip the door latch, ears straining to hear the slightest movement on the other side. I stave off the fiery grip of fear with sharp sips of breath and focus on cooling my lungs. Manifesting now would be the worst possible scenario.

  My gaze drills into the door, almost as if I can see through it to the other side. Releasing the latch, I ease back a step, then another. My eyes fasten, unblinking on that door as I strangle the shirt in my hands. As if I might somehow kill it, cease its existence. If I could manifest and burn it to cinders without setting off any smoke alarms I would.

  As the moments pass, and no one comes, the tension ebbs from my shoulders. Breathing easier, I turn my attention to the room in which I find myself.

  Horror strikes me full force. Cripples me motionless. My gaze flies, taking it all in with dizzying speed.

  Draki skin stares back at me…everywhere.

  The desk, the lamp shades, the furniture. All are covered in the flesh of my brethren. Bile climbs up my throat.

  My knees give out and I stagger, reach to a chair for support then snatch my hand away with a pained hiss. I drop the shirt, gazing in horror at the gleaming black upholstery I touched, onyx flesh, shockingly familiar with its iridescent winks of purple. My father flashes across my mind. Could it be. . .

  No! Sick fury seizes me. I slap both hands over my mouth, stifling a scream, fingers digging into my cheeks. My eyes sting and I realize I’m weeping. Tears tumble over my hands.
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