Firelight, p.24
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       Firelight, p.24

         Part #1 of Firelight series by Sophie Jordan
 
Page 24

  Author: Sophie Jordan

  Laughter rises, bitter in the back of my throat. I swallow it down. Guess he isn’t as ready to face the world with me at his side as he thinks. I hug my books close to my chest, feet bouncing lightly on the floorboard.

  “I guess we better go in,” he says.

  I nod. He turns off the ignition. “So what’s your first period?”

  “Why?”

  He gives me a funny look. “Jacinda,” he breathes my name, almost laughs. “Haven’t you heard a word I said? Did you think I was kidding?”

  Maybe. Yes. It’s funny how doubt can make you ignore what’s as plain as day in front of you.

  “I’m walking you to class,” he announces, like it’s so obvious.

  This is what I want, I remind myself. To let myself get close to him, to explore this thing…this connection between us. To be close to him and become his confidante. Learn all I can about other prides. Just some subtle questions should do the trick. Then, when I have my answers, I can make my move. Break and run.

  I wither inside a little at the thought of leaving him forever behind. Staring down, I admire Will’s broad hand gripping the steering wheel, I wonder whether it’s possible to love a guy’s hands. To feel such deep longing just looking at them? So strong and tanned, the veins faint ridges in the backs.

  “Are you okay with this?”

  I pull my gaze back to his face. For a moment I think he’s asking about my plans. Am I okay using him? A bad taste coats my mouth. Shaking my head, I blink, try to think. If it was just about what I got from being with him, then I guess I would be okay. But it’s not. It’s not just that he keeps the core of me alive. Well, a large part of it is about that, but it’s more. It’s that he took one look at me in draki form and saw me as beautiful, as something—someone—worth saving. That will forever be there, branded deep, forever imprinted.

  That’s what draws me to him and always will.

  The leather squeaks beneath him as he shifts in his seat. “The way I feel about you, Jacinda…I know you feel it, too. ”

  He stares at me so starkly, so hungrily that I can only nod. Agree. Of course, I feel it. “I do,” I admit.

  But I don’t understand him. Don’t get why he should feel this way about me. Why should he want me so much? What do I offer him? Why did he save me that day in the mountains? And why does he pursue me now? When no girl spiked his interest before?

  “Good,” he says. “Then how about a date?”

  “A date?” I repeat, like I’ve never heard the word.

  “Yeah. A real date. Something official. You. Me. Tonight. We’re long overdue. ” His smile deepens, revealing the deep grooves on the sides of his cheeks. “Dinner. Movie. Popcorn. ”

  “Yes. ” The word slips past.

  For a moment I forget. Forget that I’m not an ordinary girl. That he’s not an ordinary boy.

  For the first time, I understand Tamra. And the appeal of normal.

  “Yes. ” It feels good to say it. To pretend. To drink in the sight of him and forget there’s an ulterior reason I need to go out with him. A reason that’s going to tear us apart forever.

  Stupid. Did you think you might have a future with him? Mom’s right. Time to grow up.

  He smiles. Then he’s gone. Out the door. For a second, I’m confused. Then he’s at my door, opening it, helping me out.

  Together we walk through the parking lot. Side by side. We move only a few feet before he slips his hand around mine. As we near the front of the building, I see several kids hanging out around the flagpole. Tamra with her usual crowd. Brooklyn at the head.

  I try to tug my hand free. His fingers tighten on mine.

  I glance at him, see the resolve in his eyes. His hazel eyes glint brightly in the already too hot morning. “Coward. ”

  “Oh. ” The single sound escapes me. Outrage. Indignation.

  I stop. Turn and face him. Feel something slip, give way, and crumble loose inside me. Set free, it propels me.

  Standing on my tiptoes, I circle my hand around his neck and pull his face down to mine. Kiss him. Right there in front of the school. Reckless. Stupid. I stake a claim on him like I’ve got something to prove, like a draki standing before the pride in a bonding ceremony.

  But then I forget our audience. Forget everything but the dry heat of our lips. My lungs tighten, contract. I feel my skin shimmer, warm as my lungs catch. Crackling heat works its way up my chest.

  Not the smartest move I’ve ever made.

  I break away before it’s too late. I feel the steam of my breath and compress my lips. My nostrils flare, and heat escapes that way. I brush my fingertips over my face, checking my skin.

  “Hey, Will. Jacinda. ” Xander passes us, his narrow face strangely mild, dark eyes slivered, empty, soulless.

  Will tenses. That muscle is back, feathering the flesh of his jaw.

  Angus is more obvious. A great burly ape walking beside his brother, gawking with his mouth open.

  Will watches them walk away with hard eyes. The first bell rings.

  “We’re going to be late. ” I glance at the front doors. Everyone’s on the move. Bodies flood through the double doors. Tamra nods once at me before joining the mass exodus.

  All except one. Brooklyn stands there, glossed lips pursed to a pinpoint, her glare fixed on me. I look away. Back at Will. He’s not looking at her. His eyes are fixed on me. My heart clenches. Nodding like he’s answering some silent question of himself, he takes my hand again.

  And I forget about Brooklyn.

  Catherine catches me in the hall before seventh period.

  “Where’s your boyfriend?” she teases. Again.

  She’s teased me all day. Ever since Will walked me to our lunch table before heading off to his class.

  “I don’t know. ”

  I look around the crowded hall. So far, he’s been waiting outside my classes when the bell rings. I haven’t quite figured out how he gets there so quickly, but I’m not complaining. Struggling through the jammed hall is easier with him by my side. I suppose it’s what he does to my draki. Makes me strong. Makes everything else melt away…even my skin when I don’t want it to.

  “Real quick. Let’s go to the bathroom before class. ” I follow Catherine and duck into the bathroom near our study hall.

  As I wait, she chats from the stall. “I’m going to a concert with Brendan tonight if you want to come—”

  “I have plans. ”

  “Let me guess. Will. ”

  A girl leaves the bathroom and it’s just the two of us. The warning bell rings and the drone of students outside reduces to a faint murmur. Catherine emerges and moves to the sink.

  “Better hurry,” I say.

  The bathroom door swings open then, and we’re not alone anymore.

  Brooklyn enters with four other girls. Her usual crew. None of them smile. All wear identical expressions on faces that I can’t help think look the same. Shiny lips. Smoky eye shadow. Perfect iron-straight hair.

  Catherine shuts off the water. Shaking off her hands, she turns, her gaze assessing the group of girls blocking the door.

  I sigh, strangely unmoved. I know why they’re here…guess it was bound to happen sooner or later. I’m only sorry that Catherine has to be involved.

  The tardy bell rings.

  The hall outside grows quiet, and we’re buried in sudden, tomblike silence with a group of girls determined to put me in my place.

  24

  Moments pass. Maybe minutes. I don’t know how long we wait for someone to speak or move. Watching Brooklyn, I’m not even sure she knows her next move, what she’s going to say or do.

  I finally speak, hoping to take advantage of her indecision. “That was the bell. We don’t want to get marked absent. ” I glance at Catherine, signaling her to follow me through the wall of girls.

  “Y
eah. ” Brooklyn cocks her head, her tone caustic. “That’s just not such a big deal to me right now. ”

  I stop inches from her. She and her followers haven’t broken rank. Nothing short of bulldozing them is going to have an effect.

  She continues, “But you know what is a big deal for me?”

  I wait, hold her stare.

  “Redheaded skags like you who come into my school and act like you own the place. ”

  Catherine breaks in, her voice the height of tired impatience. “Give it a rest, Brooklyn. ”

  One of Brooklyn’s girls gets in Catherine’s face. “No one’s talking to you, loser. ”

  Brooklyn moves in. We’re nose to nose.

  I shrug, certain I’ve stepped into some bad flick about angry cheerleaders vying for a championship. “What do you want me to do about it?”

  My calmness seems to fuel her anger. “Go back to whatever rat hole you came from. ”

  “I didn’t exactly choose to come here. Maybe you can talk to my mom about it…. I’m not having much luck. ”

  The angle of her head deepens as if she’s seriously contemplating it. “How about this? You disappear or your sister will pay. ”

  I inhale sharply and scan all five girls. Are they serious?

  “Yeah. You want it to suck for both of you here?” a blonde with braided pigtails pipes up—I think I remember her on top of the pyramid at the pep rally.

  “I thought you liked Tamra,” I say.

  Brooklyn shrugs. Crosses her arms. “She’s okay. Respects the order of things. We could have tolerated her. ” Her gaze flicks over me. “But not you. ”

  “Leave Tamra out of this. ” My hands curl at my sides, nails sinking into my palms. I welcome the pain. My anger likes it. My lungs squeeze, burn. Smolder deep within. “This is between us. ”

  “Oh,” Brooklyn mocks in a pouty voice. “Isn’t that sweet? Aren’t you the good sister? Maybe if you stop throwing yourself at Will, I can see my way to letting Tamra on the squad. ”

  The girls nod, smile smugly.

  I can taste the tension, as acrid as smoke, burning cordite on the air.

  “This is such crap. C’mon, Jacinda. ” Catherine tries to shove past them, working her body and arms to nudge an opening. Wrong move. The action ignites Brooklyn and her crew. The mounting tension splinters free. Springs like a popping coil.

  The girls converge on her in a blur. Catherine cries out, the sound sudden and sharp in the charged air. I catch a glimpse of her seawater eyes, wide and panicked before she’s gone, pulled beneath the blanket of bodies.

  “Catherine!” I dive into the pile. Suddenly, I’m caught in a confusing tangle of writhing bodies.

  An elbow in my ribs knocks the air from me. I can’t find Catherine. Can’t tell who anyone is…Pain drums me in the face. I think it’s someone’s fist.

  A buzzing fills my head, swells inside my ears. Deep vibrations break up from my chest. Then it’s too late. Somehow, I end up on the floor. A delicious scald purrs at my core, simmers, bursts, flares over me like a rash of wildfire. I’m consumed.

  The cold tile hisses against my hot, crawling skin.

  A pointy shoe kicks me in the ribs. I grunt, jerk from the force. The pain.

  I try to rise, but get shoved back down. My chin cracks against the floor. Blood runs over my teeth, the coppery odor filling my nose. I swallow back the bitter flood, hope it might cool the searing tide inside me. No such luck. I continue to burn, smoke. My lungs froth heat. Steam rises to fill my mouth, chars the inside of my nostrils.

  Profanities burn on the air. Along with advice. Encouragement on how to pummel me. Whatever their intention when they first walked into the bathroom, they’re lost to a mob mentality now.

  “Get her!”

  “Hold her!”

  “Grab her hair!”

  A hand tangles in my hair, grips a fistful. Long strands rip. Tears prick my eyes. I blink, fight to clear them.

  Without thinking, I turn my face into the suffocating press of bodies. Find the arm holding me, hurting me…
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