Copyright © 2016 by Tawdra Kandle
Published by Hayson Publishing
Palm Coast, Florida
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
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Table of Contents
About the Author
Preview of Breathless
In memory of my parents,
Robert and Jeanne Thompson.
And with gratitude and thanks to my family,
Clint, Devyn, Haley, Catie, David, Greg,
Robyn, Chris, Sean and Kaden.
All of whom taught me how to be…
New girl. She doesn’t belong here. Doesn’t fit in here. Not one of us.
I jerked my head toward the sound of the voice before I realized that no one was speaking aloud. None of the students in the Chemistry classroom were paying any attention to me, the new girl, standing up front at the teacher’s desk waiting for a textbook and a seat assignment.
I bit my lip and kept my eyes glued to the floor. This wasn’t the first time I’d mistaken someone’s thoughts for spoken words. Sometimes the voice was so clear in my head that I could swear I actually heard it, just another benefit to my particular talent.
I wondered which of my new classmates was already thinking about me in such glowing terms. I’d had more than my share of first days at new schools. I was used to the gamut of reactions, from warm welcome to a sort of benign neglect, but I hadn’t had anyone hate me right from the beginning. Until today.
Before I could begin to brood in earnest, the teacher handed over a thick hard cover book and looked at me appraisingly.
“Tasmyn…” She pronounced my name very exotically, and with more of a z sound than the softer s that I used. I detected a slight accent in her words. “Very different. And quite lovely.” She gazed at me with frank curiosity. “May I ask what your science background is?”
What was this, an interview? Did I have to qualify for this class?
“I took Physical Science when I was a freshman, and Biology last year,” I answered. “And actually, it’s Tasmyn. Rhymes with… has-been,” I added with a self-conscious laugh, shifting from one foot to another and wishing I was anywhere but here.
Ms. Lacusta stood, and I saw that she was shorter than me by several inches. She couldn’t have been much more than thirty-five or so; her jet black hair was long and curling, offsetting nearly translucent skin and flashing dark eyes. She wore a white lab coat over black cotton pants and a flowing turquoise shirt.
She examined me in silence for a moment and then nodded. “Fine, Tasmyn. You probably won’t have any difficulty with this class, then.” Her eyes scanned the classroom briefly, and I knew she was looking for a place to seat me. “Why don’t you join Liza at her table? She’s in need of a lab partner. Right there, behind Nell and Casey.” She gestured to an empty seat on the left side of the room.
Liza was a cool blonde, with lightly tanned skin and blue eyes. As I approached the table, she looked at me with cursory interest before turning back to the conversation she was having with the girls in front of us. Perfectly manicured fingernails tapped absently on her open notebook as she listened to the other two girls.
They were both turned slightly in their seats, facing our desk. Casey had light auburn hair, cropped short around her small face. She was very animated, and as she spoke in a low voice, her hands never stopped moving.
In contrast, her lab partner—I thought her name was Nell—sat quite still. She was about my own height, with hair nearly as dark as our teacher’s. It was long and waved about her shoulders. Her complexion was olive-toned, and her eyes were a very pale blue. The striking differences in her hair, skin and eye color were startling enough to be attractive. She appeared to be listening to the other girls, but I noticed that her eyes slid to me speculatively for a moment.
I sat down next to Liza and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. Glancing around the room, I noticed with a little bit of surprise that most of the students were girls. There were only two boys, sitting in the back. This was an upper level Chemistry course; I would’ve expected it to be a little more testosterone heavy.
First day jitters made it harder for me to maintain my mental block. I struggled to keep out the floating thoughts in the room by focusing on the front of my new textbook; filling my mind with anything else, concentrating hard, sometimes helped me mute the voices. It wasn’t working at the moment.
Hope she doesn’t call on me… didn’t get that homework… look at Casey’s shoes, wish I could buy stuff like that… don’t care what anyone says, she’s weird… who wants to be in that stupid chemistry club anyway… meeting at the clearing tonight, what will she teach us?
A blood sacrifice. It has to be a blood sacrifice.
A chill ran down my back, and I scanned the room in alarm. A blood sacrifice? Someone had actually been thinking that? It was impossible for me to tell whose thought it was since I didn’t know anyone yet. Sometimes I could zero in if I were concentrating on a particular person or familiar enough with a mind—like my parents. It was easy to recognize their thinking after seventeen years of hearing it—or trying not to hear it. But here it could have been anyone.
My palms were damp, and I forced my hands open, rubbing them against my jeans. There had been malice in that thought, a palpable cruelty. I usually picked up on emotions and feelings even more easily than I did on thoughts, and the evil I perceived now was chilling.
At the front of the room, Ms. Lacusta began her lecture. The girls in front of me turned around, and next to me, Liza busied herself with finding a pencil. I tried to steady my own hand as I got ready to take notes, and the minds in the room receded to a steady hum.
It had to be a mistake. Or a misunderstanding. There must be a perfectly good reason why one of my new classmates was considering a blood sacrifice.
I was still pretty shaky when I left Chemistry forty minutes later. As I walked toward the door, someone bumped me from behind, hard enough to make me stumble.
“Sorry!” The voice was low and intense and sounded everything but apologetic. Watch where you’re going was what I heard, and the thought was accompanied by a nasty tone as the girl who sat in front of me stared me down.
“I was—I mean, no problem.” I concentrated on answering only what Nell said aloud and tried to get out of her way.
Unfortunately, she followed me through the door and into the open-air walkway. I was more used to a traditional school building with hallways linking classrooms, but apparently in Florida, the classroom doors opened directly to the outside. Covered sidewalks took the place of the tiled hallways, and lockers were against the stucco building between the brightly colored doors.
I fumbled with my bag, trying to find the paper that told me where I was supposed to go next and hating first days at new schools with a renewed passion. I knew Nell was still standing behind me—I could hear the low rumble of her mind—but I pretended that she wasn’t there.
“Where did you come from?” Her question was clipped and abrupt. I decided to pretend that she was asking it in friendly interest.
“Uh—well, the last place I lived was Wisconsin. We just moved down here. I really like Florida—”
“Why are you taking Chemistry?” Nell demanded. There was another flare of animosity in her thoughts.
“Because the guidance counselor said so?” I didn’t mean it to sound like a question, but it did.
“I think you’d be happier in another class,” Nell announced. She glanced around us, as though she didn’t want anyone to overhear what she was saying. I didn’t blame her. I wouldn’t want anyone to hear me being a bitch, either.
“Um-Nell? That’s your name, right? Did I do something to offend you just now? Did I kick your chair or breathe too heavily? Because I can’t think of any other reason for you to say that.”
She raised one perfectly groomed eyebrow and pinned me with a stare that I assume brought other people to their knees. I could hear the fury churning in her mind; it kept me from making out any particular thought.
“We’re very selective about who joins this class. Ms. Lacusta isn’t a typical teacher, and it’s—it’s a very demanding course. I think if you go to the office and tell them you want to transfer to botany or astronomy or whatever, they’ll take care of it.”
“What if I don’t want to transfer?” I countered. I wasn’t usually able to stand up for myself like this, but something about this girl just got under my skin.
“I think you’ll live to regret it.” Nell all but hissed this last line. She sounded like the villain in a bad melodrama, and I stifled a completely inappropriate giggle.
“Hey—what’s going on?” Nell and I tore our eyes away from each other to glare at the boy who had interrupted our conversation. Nell looked away again quickly, but I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t look away at all.
He was taller than me by a good half a foot, and he had light brown hair that hung just a little long over his ears and forehead. But the eyes that held mine were what made breathing tough. They were huge, deep green and framed by the most improbable lashes I’d ever seen on a boy. And they were fastened on me, filled with an expression I couldn’t quite read.
Impulsively I pulled the focus of my mind away from Nell’s and aimed it toward the boy. I only picked up a few stray phrases over the buzz of the people pushing around us.
…the girl… beautiful… wonder what… her name… Nell up to her…
“Michael, this has nothing to do with you,” Nell said smoothly. “Leave us alone.” She gave him the same stare she’d given me a few moments before. He only rolled his eyes.
“It sounds like you’re giving her a hard time.” Michael jerked his head in my direction. “Wouldn’t it be nice to let the new girl settle in before you begin the torture?”
The temperature around us seemed to suddenly drop several degrees. Nell took a step closer to Michael. “It’s none of your business. Leave us alone.”
“Not going to happen.” Michael stood relaxed in front of Nell, but I sensed the subtle alertness lying just beneath the surface. Nell might have realized it, too, because she gave a slight shrug.
“Whatever.” She flicked her eyes across my face. “We’ll talk again later. You might want to give some thought to my advice.” She walked away from us without looking back.
I watched her go, still more than a little mystified by the hostility. A sudden tingle jolted my attention back to Michael; he was touching my shoulder, looking down at me with concern.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “Don’t worry about Nell. She’s that way to pretty much everyone. It’s not just you.”
“I guess that’s a relief,” I said. “She’s a little intense, isn’t she?”
Michael laughed, and my heart flipped over about ten times. “Just a little. What happened to set her off?”
I liked that he didn’t assume it was something I did. “I don’t know. She wants me to drop Chemistry class. She said it was—exclusive or something. No, she said the teacher was selective. That’s kind of weird, isn’t it?”
He shrugged. “Typical Nell.” He waited a beat, as though to let that subject drop completely. “By the way, I’m Michael Sawyer. This is your first day here, isn’t it?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Tasmyn Vaughn. I just moved here. Thanks for stepping in with Nell. I appreciate it.”
“No problem. Try to stay out of her way, and she probably won’t bother you again. She’s kind of a bully.” He hesitated again. “You’re a junior, right? You have lunch sixth period?”
“I am a junior. I have no idea about lunch—I’m just taking it class by class.” I waved the paper schedule that was my lifeline for the day.
“Well, all the juniors and seniors have sixth period lunch. If you want someone to eat with, look for my friends and me. There’s room at our table.” He glanced over his shoulder, and I realized that the walkway was almost empty. I was going to be late for my next class, and I didn’t even know where it was.
“Thanks. Um, I have a class called speech and debate next.” I scanned my schedule quickly. “Room 32? Can you point me in the right direction?”
Michael grinned. “Sure. Go to the corner of this building and make a left. Should be just a little way down.” His eyes lingered on me just a moment longer. “I hope I’ll see you at lunch.” He turned and jogged away from me.
I hoped so too.
The cafeteria was located near the center of the school. There was indoor and outdoor seating, and at the moment I approached, a long line of students snaked out the doorway.
I joined the throng, looking around for Michael. I didn’t see him, but it was so crowded, I could have easily missed him. Having so many people around me was also making it hard to keep up my mental walls, and I frowned in concentration. The last thing I wanted was a headache with my lunch.
I finally made it through the doors. It was a typical high school cafeteria. Long tables with attached benches were set up along the walls. I saw another door leading to the outdoor eating area. Immediately in front of me were the tray pick up and the food line. The room was filled with milling students, choosing their food and then their seats. The tables were nearly all filled, and I began to panic not only about finding Michael, but about finding a place to sit at all.
As my eyes swept the room, I saw Nell sitting at a table, along with Liza and Casey and four other girls. Ah, yes, I thought, that would be the in-crowd right there: Nell and her posse. She was clearly the center of the group, leaning on the table in the bored, self-assured attitude of one who was positive of her place in the world. I sighed at the injustices of life.
“Hey, you made it!” I heard Michael’s happy thought before I saw him. He was smiling and holding an overflowing tray in one hand.
“Yeah, here I am…” Well, that was a truly inspired reply. I tried not to wince at my own lameness.
“We’re right over there.” With his free hand, he pointed to a table in the corner, where two other boys and two girls were sitting. They were all watching us with great interest.
“Are you sure there’s room for me?” Oh, please say yes, I begged silently.
Michael’s thoughts were a warm and happy buzz in my mind, but I focused on listening to his spoken reply. “Oh, yeah, plenty of room. Grab your food and come on over. I’ll save you a spot.”
My hands were still shaking as I picked up a tray. My experience with boys was fairly non-existent. It was all part of the blend in, fly under the radar and don’t make a fuss theory of life to which my parents subscribed, at least when it came to me. Michael was not only a boy, he was an incredibly hot one who actually seemed to be interested in me.
I made it through the line, grabbing only a small salad, a pack of crackers and a bottle of water. Holding the tray in a death grip—what would be worse than to drop it at this point?—I carefully wended my way through clumps of people who were trying to find seats themselves. When I finally reached Michael’s table, he slid along the bench and patted the spot he had just vacated.
I put my tray on the table and dropped onto the bench, still warm from Michael. My heart was pounding so loudly in my ears that between its noise and the crowd of thought voices, I could barely hear Michael introducing me to his friends.
“Hey, guys, this is Tasmyn. She’s new.”
They were all looking at me already, and the rush of attention brought their minds into sharper focus for me. I couldn’t quite pick out who was thinking what.
Michael, with a girl at the lunch table…pretty… what was her name? …Hey, she’s in my speech class… oooh, Michael has a girlfriend!
I flushed and frowned, trying to concentrate on keeping my wall up and the voices out.
“Are you okay?” Michael dropped his voice low and looked at me with concern.
I forced a smile and nodded. “Yeah, sorry. Just—you know—a little headache. I’m probably just hungry.”
Michael’s expression cleared, and he turned back to the rest of the table, dropping a hand on my back. I smothered a gasp as a surge of electric feeling shot through me. I was immediately feeling everything he was feeling, and it was dizzying.
He pointed to the opposite bench. “So, over there, that’s Dan, Brea and Jim.” They each smiled in turn, and the girl, Brea, sketched a small wave. “And here on this side, Craig and Anne.”
Anne leaned over and beamed at me. “Don’t worry, there’s no quiz on this stuff. You’ll figure us all out sooner or later.”
One of the boys sitting across from me nodded. “Yeah. So where are you from?”
I kept the smile pasted on my face, trying hard to focus on the conversation and not on Michael’s hand—still on my back—or the curious thoughts buzzing around the table.
“I’ve lived all over, actually. We move about every two years. This last time, we came down here from Wisconsin.”
The boy at the end of my bench snorted. “That’s gonna be a change. So which are you, a skier or a surfer? Are you going to miss the cold or love the heat?”
I shook my head. “Not at all. I was really over the whole snow thing. I like the idea of year-round summer.”
There were snickers all around the table, and I realized I had just fallen into the typical new Florida resident trap.
Michael dropped his hand from my back and shot a mock-angry look at his friends. “Cool it, guys. We’ve all lived here forever. Tasmyn hasn’t had a taste of—uh, year-round summer yet.”
I ventured a glance at him. “Really? You’ve all been here always?”
“Yup.” Michael nodded. “At least, in Florida. Craig, Anne and I have been together since kindergarten, and everyone else came to King at different times.”
“That must be nice.” If my voice held just a touch of envy, Michael ignored it. He smiled and then looked at my tray.
“Where’s the rest of your lunch?”
“What do you mean?” I was lost.
“You’re going to eat more than a salad and water, aren’t you? You can’t get through an afternoon on just that.”
“I think I’ll make it,” I answered, not even attempting to hide my amusement.
He shook his head and shoved a small paper container of French fries toward me. “Here. Eat these at least. I don’t want to hear about you passing out in—whatever class you have this afternoon.”
I picked up one fry between two fingers and nibbled on it delicately. First days always gave me a queasy stomach, and I didn’t want to tempt fate.
“What do you have this afternoon, anyway?” Michael asked.
I pulled out my schedule and scanned it. “American History and Trig.”
“Cool. I have English and Botany.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Botany? Really? That’s not your typical high school Science class.”
Michael grinned. “It’s an elective for seniors. Retired professor from University of Florida teaches it.”
“You’re a senior?” I hadn’t picked that up in his mind. Which of course isn’t surprising; who goes around thinking of their vital statistics all the time?
“Yup. We all are here.” He indicated the table with a flip of his thumb.
I managed a crooked smile. “Does being a junior mean that I get tossed off this lunch table?”
Michael laughed. “Nah, we don’t discriminate against age.”
I clapped my hand to my heart and feigned a swoon. “What a relief!”
He smiled again, but his eyes—those deep green eyes—stayed riveted to mine. And then suddenly I could hear him, as though he were whispering into my ear.
Don’t want to come on too strong. Ride home? Maybe. Work today… but it could happen…
Too late, I realized I was staring. Michael’s expression had turned quizzical again, and I tried to remember the last thing he had said aloud. Before I could figure it out, he spoke again.
“Do you drive to school? I mean, if you need a ride… I live way outside town, so pretty much every neighborhood is on my way home.” He was trying to sound nonchalant, but even without hearing him think, I picked up the eagerness. It made my heart start flopping all over again.
“I didn’t drive. Actually, my mom is picking me up.” I felt the redness creep up my neck. Could I sound any more like a five year old?
But Michael didn’t even blink. “Okay, maybe another time. If you needed a ride to school or home or whatever. I’m just saying it’s on my way.”
The girl on the other side of Michael leaned around him, mischief dancing in her eyes. “What he’s trying to say is that he has a really cool car that he likes to show off, and you’d be doing him a favor if you let him drive you somewhere.”
Michael rolled his eyes and gave her a gentle shove. “Shut up, Anne. You’re just jealous because I don’t let you drive her.”
Anne laughed. “See that? ‘Her.’ His car is the real love of his life.”
The bell sounded, interrupting any comeback Michael might have made. Everyone stood up, grabbing books and any trays still left on the table. Michael took mine along with his, stacking and carrying them on one arm.
I took a deep breath. “Well, here I go. Nice short afternoon, anyway.”
Michael grinned and followed me as I pushed through the crowd. At the door, I paused and looked up at him.
“I think I need to go this way,” I said, pointing to the left.
He nodded. “Sounds right. I go in the opposite direction.” But he didn’t turn away.
“Well… thanks for letting me sit with you guys today. It’s one of the hardest parts of a new school, you know—having someone to eat with.”
“I hope you’ll sit with us permanently. I mean, all the time. You’re welcome to, anyway.”
“Thanks.” I drew in a deep breath. “I guess I’ll see you later?”
Michael’s eyes were drilling into mine once again. “Definitely.” He turned and disappeared into the throng of people on the walkway, and I stood watching after him.
My afternoon didn’t hold any real surprises. I liked my History teacher right away; he was an older man with a wickedly dry wit. I knew his class would be a challenge, but at least I wasn’t going to be bored.
Math was a different story. Anything with numbers was an anathema to me. The teacher didn’t seem too bad; she was young and energetic, and assured me with a snap of her fingers that I would “catch up just like that!” I didn’t share her optimism, but I smiled and nodded anyway.
I recognized some faces from my morning classes in History and Math, and some of them even nodded to me vaguely. I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see that Nell was in my History class. This time she was on her own, with none of the girls from Science or lunch surrounding her. She sat aloof, her eyes forward, and she didn’t even blink when I walked past her to my seat. I made a concerted effort not to pick up any thoughts or feelings from her direction.
I lingered for a few extra minutes at my locker, pretending that I was searching for a book. I didn’t even admit to myself that I was hoping to see Michael again. But when someone tapped me on the shoulder, my heart did give a little leap, and I turned expectantly.
But it was not Michael. My Chemistry teacher, Ms. Lacusta, stood behind me, her eyes bright and somehow knowing.
“Hello, Ms. Vaughn. And how was your first day in King?”
I frowned. I couldn’t hear anything coming from the teacher’s mind, just some odd kind of static. It made me dizzy, as though I had expected solid ground and instead had stepped into emptiness.
“Uh—good. Thanks. It was good.”
Ms. Lacusta smiled, and a chill snaked down my backbone.
“I’m glad. I think King will prove to be very interesting to you. If you need anything—any help in adjusting—please, don’t hesitate to come and see me.”
I didn’t know how to answer, so I just nodded and stuttered my thanks. After a moment, Ms. Lacusta turned and glided away.
That was weird, I thought as I slammed my locker door and headed toward the parking lot. I’d heard of involved teachers, but there was just something a little off about that woman. I shivered even as the mid-afternoon sun beat down on me.
My mother had parked near the front of the student lot. As I walked toward her, squinting in the glare of the sun, I picked up a loud thought at the same time that I heard my name.
“Hey, Tasmyn!” A light blue older model car slid up alongside me. It was a convertible and the top was down. Michael smiled up at me from the driver’s seat.
“Hi,” I answered. From across the parking lot, I could feel my mother’s shock and trepidation and from the car, I could feel Michael’s warm interest. It was like being pulled in opposite directions.
“Did you have a good afternoon?” Michael’s eyes were hidden by sunglasses, but I could just imagine the kindness there.
“Um, yes, I did. How about you?”
He shrugged. “Not bad. So, your mom’s here?”
I gritted my teeth and nodded. “Yeah, she’s over there.” I waved vaguely in her direction and struggled to save myself from total humiliation. “She doesn’t usually drive me to school, but since it was my first day here—and I didn’t know how long it was going to take—”
“Hey, it’s cool! My mom or dad drove me to school for years. We live too far outside of King for me to walk. And then my sister drove me once she got her license.”
“But now you’ve got your sweet car.” I touched the door. “It’s—is it an antique?”
Michael slapped a hand to his heart and feigned a look of horror. “Don’t tell me you don’t know what kind of car this is.”
I felt the flush returning to my cheeks. “I’m not much of a car expert.”
“Well, let me educate you. This, my dear, is a 1965 Mustang, the best car that ever rolled off a line in Detroit or anywhere else.”
“It’s… nice.” I knew I sounded lame, but I couldn’t think of anything else. The pressure of knowing my mom was watching this whole scene unfold was making me panic.
“Nice.” Michael rolled his eyes. “Let me take you for a ride soon, and I bet I can get more than ‘nice’ out of you.”
“Sorry.” I glanced over my shoulder at my mother, who was sitting with her hands folded over the steering wheel. Michael followed my gaze.
“No, I’m sorry. I’m holding you up, aren’t I?”
I shrugged. “Just—it’s my first day here, and she probably wants to know how everything went.”
Michael’s voice was very low when he answered. “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble. Is she—will she be mad?” And beneath the words, I could hear his churning thoughts and realized that he had misunderstood completely.
“No! I mean, she’s not that way. It’s just—” This was going to be mortifying, but it was better than Michael believing that my mom was going beat me when we got home. “I don’t usually talk to boys—they don’t talk to me—and she’s probably wondering what’s going on. I’m an only child. My parents can be a little overprotective.”
“You don’t talk to boys?” Now Michael was totally confused, but this time, what he was thinking made my heart flutter. A girl like her? Thought guys would be all over her. Can’t believe she doesn’t have someone already…
“I guess I tend to be a little shy.” That was an understatement. “Listen, I’m sorry, I don’t want to be rude, but I really do need to go. Can I—I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Sure.” Michael leaned back in his seat and grinned again. “See you then.”
I stepped back from his car as he pulled away, but I didn’t move toward my mom until he had turned out of the parking lot.
With a deep breath, I opened the car door. “Hi!” I wondered fleetingly if I could distract her with talk about the rest of my day. “Sorry about that. I had a really good first day, though—”
“So it would seem.” My mom’s voice was dry, and I felt the conflict of emotions rolling from her. She was both pleased and disturbed that I was talking to a boy. She was excited and frightened for me at the same time. I didn’t know which to address first, and neither did she. We were both quiet as she turned onto the street.
“It’s nothing big, Mom,” I said at last, affecting the best careless tone I could manage. “He was just being nice.”
“Are you cheating?” Her tone was only mildly accusing. I knew she was talking about the agreement we had made years ago, when I was very small: no listening in on parental minds. It was a hard agreement to keep: the two people in the world I was closest to were also the easiest for me to hear. But I had learned early on that I didn’t really want to know what my parents were thinking, and so I tried to block them pretty consistently.
“No, I didn’t need to listen to your mind,” I answered. “I could feel you from all the way over there. Plus, I know you. You’re already freaking, trying to figure out how to deal with this.”
“I’m not freaking!” Her voice rose an octave. “You’ve got to understand, this is new territory for your dad and me. I know most girls your age have boyfriends, and it’s completely fine. But you—Tas, you know you’re different. You’re special. We have to take special care…”
“I get that!” My voice rose too, despite my efforts to keep it even. “I understand. But I also know I need to have a life. And a life might include friends, and yes, even boyfriends. I don’t even really know Michael yet. Maybe he’s just a nice person who will turn out to be a good friend. But I won’t find out if I don’t—if you won’t trust me a little, give me a little space.”
“Michael?” She was a bit calmer. “That’s his name? How old is he?”
“Yes, Michael Sawyer. And he’s a senior.”
“You got all that from a five minute conversation at his car?” She already suspected the answer.
“No. I met him earlier in the day, and I ate lunch with him—and his friends.”
My mother’s concern ratcheted up a couple of levels. “That sounds like someone interested in more than just being nice.”
I blew out a breath between clenched teeth. “I told you, I don’t know yet. There was a girl giving me a hard time, and he kind of stood up for me. And then he asked if I wanted to sit with him at lunch, so I did. I liked not having to sit by myself for a change.”
My mom winced. “Tasmyn, we don’t make these rules because we want you to be lonely. We make them to protect you.” We pulled into our driveway, and she carefully put the car into park, engaged the brake and fiddled with the keys. “We only have your interest at heart, you know that. It’s so hard to know whom we can trust. Daddy and I realize how difficult this is for you.”
“I don’t think you really do,” I shot back. “I’ve been in seven schools in twelve years, and I’ve never had any friends. You always tell me how special I am, how I have to be careful. But I can’t live the rest of my life worrying about being taken advantage of. I just can’t. I need to be able to get to know people, to make some real friends. You and Daddy have each other. I have no one.”
I jumped out of the car, grabbing my backpack and slamming the door. Tears were threatening, and I wasn’t going to break down out here. I held myself stiff as my mother unlocked the front door, and I followed her inside, going directly to my room.
I threw my bags on the bed and then dropped down next to them, curling up with my head buried in the pillow. I had never been a dramatic teenager. My parents had gotten off pretty lightly when it came to adolescent angst. But right now, it felt as though all the injustices of the world were crashing down on me. Any other normal girl could talk to a boy in front of her mother without said parent envisioning doom. Why did I feel so guilty?
I sulked in my room until my mother called me for dinner. At the table, the tension was painfully thick. My father broke the awkward silence about half way through the meal.
“Your mother tells me you met someone today,” he began. “That must have been nice.”
“It was a change, anyway,” I muttered.
“Well, you’re a beautiful young lady. I’m only surprised this hasn’t happened before now.” I knew what this was. This was the praise that was supposed to make me feel good about myself before they lowered the boom of whatever came next.
“But…?” I prompted.
“But what?” My father was all innocence. “I was just commenting.”
“Really?” I broke off a piece of meatloaf with my fork and toyed with it. “So you’d be okay with Michael driving me home from school?”
My mother nearly choked on her green beans, and my father put down his knife with a deliberate clunk. They both gawked at me as though I’d grown a second head.
“Driving you home? When?” My mother found her voice first.
“I don’t know. He just mentioned that he could. Or would. Some time.” I was hedging.
“Why would he do that?” my dad demanded.
“I don’t know, maybe because I’m—what did you say? A beautiful young lady?” I bit back a smug smile.
For a few minutes, the silence returned. My father took a bite of his roll, chewing slowly. I didn’t cheat and listen to him, but I couldn’t block his swirl of annoyance, worry and fear.
When he did speak, his voice was serious.
“Tasmyn, we have been given the job of protecting you, all your life. Not only because of your—your gift, but just because you are our child. No matter what the circumstance, we would be very cautious about entrusting your safety to someone we don’t really know.”
“I understand that. But I also know that I’m seventeen years old, and I’ve never given you reason to believe that I’m anything less than trustworthy. We’re talking a drive from the school to here, less than ten minutes. I’d probably be safer that way than walking home, which was what I’d been planning to do, now that I know the way.”
Neither of them answered me immediately. I knew they were struggling, and in some ways, I felt guilty for being the cause of their distress. I inadvertently picked up a few phrases floating in their heads… she’s still so young, she doesn’t know… how do we know if this boy can be trusted… But still I stayed stubbornly quiet, my eyes glued to the table.
Finally, my mother spoke. “So, you really think it’s safe for you to ride to school with someone you’ve known—what, a day? Not even?”
I shrugged. “It’s not like he’s asked me out on a date. He just offered me a ride. I’d like to know I could say yes without you guys freaking out or getting mad.”
My father scowled at me. “I don’t think either of us has freaked out. We’ve expressed our reservations to you. If I’m going to be honest, Tasmyn, I’ll admit that I’d be more comfortable with you not getting involved with this boy. You might think it’ll all work out, but it’s going to be hard for you to be his friend without giving away your—what you can do.”
“I can do it. I’ve lived with this my whole life. I think I can handle it.”
My mother sighed heavily, and my father shook his head. “Tas, obviously your mom and I have serious reservations about this whole idea. But we do trust you. If you want to ride home with this—what’s his name? Mike?”
“Michael,” I answered, almost giddy that they were going to give in.
“Okay, Michael. If you feel that it’s safe for you to ride home with him, I guess it’s all right. But you need to take things really slow, understand? Be very, very careful.”
“I will. I promise.” They both looked so doubtful that I added, “I can do this. I know I can.”
“I’m a little worried.”
We were driving to school, and my mother broke the silence. I was preoccupied with thoughts of the coming day, and I glanced up at her in surprise.
“About what?” I wondered if she had picked up more about yesterday than I had shared. The thing about my particular talent is that sometimes, I don’t really buy that others cannot hear my thoughts. There have been many, many times that I was sure my mom was tapping into my mind, even though she claimed it was only mother’s intuition.
“You didn’t say anything about what everyone was wearing yesterday. That’s not like you.”
“Oh.” Relieved, I thought about the fashion scene at school. “Well, you know, it wasn’t that big a deal. Most girls were wearing shorts or cropped pants, jeans and that kind of stuff. I saw a couple of cute little sundresses. I think I’ll be okay with the summer clothes I have for now, although I might need a few shirts and maybe some jackets. The classrooms can get kind of cool, with the air conditioning.”
“All right. Should we plan a shopping trip this weekend then?” She turned onto the main street of town and glanced at me expectantly.
“Um… sure, I think that sounds good, as long as I don’t have too much homework.”
My mom nodded. “Okay.”
I could feel her reaching out to me tentatively, but I continued to stare out my window.
“Are you still upset because I wouldn’t let you walk to school today?”
I shrugged. “No. It’s okay.”
“You know it’s not that I don’t trust you. I just—”
“—want to keep me safe. I know.”
She sighed then and all the stress I’d caused her in the last twenty-four hours was heavy in that one breath.
“It’s not just from teenage boys that I want to protect you. You’re not used to Florida yet. There are alligators in the lakes, and water moccasins, too—”
Now I did turn from the window. “Are you serious? In every lake?” We just happened to be driving by a park that bordered an expanse of crystal blue water.
“Yep. Your dad told me that any standing water in this state can potentially have gators in it—even ditches.”
I shuddered. Maybe having my mom drive me to school wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
We pulled into the school parking lot, and I scooted out with a quick wave to my mother. I hated when things were tense between my parents and me; it made me feel off balance and cranky, probably because it happened so rarely.
I wandered toward the school building. It was still a little early, but I figured that I could find a bench and do some extra reading. There were a few other kids standing at lockers, but thankfully, their thought noise was muted this morning. I could easily handle blocking small numbers.
Although I didn’t even admit it to myself, I was keeping my eyes—and my mind—open for Michael. I had lay in bed the night before, envisioning different scenarios for today, imagining how I could let him know that I was free to accept a ride home from school. I didn’t want to be too pushy; what if he didn’t really mean it? What if he was just trying to be nice to me because I was new? What if he totally ignored me today? I had to be cool and not expect anything.
By the time I got to my locker, I had convinced myself that I probably wouldn’t even see Michael today. He had felt sorry for me yesterday after my run-in with Nell Massler. He was a senior, he already had a group of friends, and there was no good reason in the world for him to be interested in me.
At my locker, I swapped out books, taking what I needed for morning classes. My speech notebook was caught on something in the back, and I stuck my whole head in the locker, trying to pull it loose.
“Hi. You trying to climb in there?”
I jerked my head out, banging it against the top of the locker in the process. Michael was leaning against the wall, looking at me speculatively.
“Ouch.” I rubbed the top of my head, still seeing stars.
“You didn’t knock anything loose, did you? Should I get the nurse?”
Someone thought he was a comedian, I thought crossly. Hitting my head always made me grumpy.
“I think I’ll live. You just startled me. My notebook is stuck back there, between the side and the back.” Some part of my mind was noting in astonishment that this unbelievably attractive boy was paying attention to me—again—but somehow I was able to speak.
Michael leaned into the locker, and I moved out of the way. He glanced back and smiled full on at me. I felt my legs melting and wondered how I was still upright.
“Allow me.” With a theatrical flourish, he reached in and pulled out my notebook, intact and unharmed, and presented it to me triumphantly.
This was the goofiest behavior I had ever seen, so why on earth was I ready to swoon at his feet?
“Thanks.” I took the notebook and tucked it between my French and Chem books and decided to play along a little. I glanced up at him from under my lashes and smiled. “My hero.”
I heard him suck in breath. “Jeez, you’ve got a killer smile. Wow. Listen, do me a favor and don’t smile today, okay?”
I felt a little dizzy. “Why not?”
“Just a request. No smiling unless you’re with me. I really don’t want to have to fight off other guys. I could, of course—” he flashed a smug, self-assured look, “—but I’d rather not.”
I closed my locker and stood there just looking at him.
“What?” he asked, in mock bewilderment.
“I just—listen, you don’t need to worry about it. Guys falling all over me have never been a problem, and I don’t think it’s going to start today. And why do you care anyway? Are you the King High School Welcome Wagon?” I didn’t want to be rude or unfriendly, but I was confused. No one ever paid this much attention to me.
I shouldn’t have worried about being unfriendly. Michael didn’t look fazed at all. He smiled at me again, and his eyes never left my face.
“I don’t think I believe you about guys not paying attention. And I care because—” he hesitated and for the first time seemed a little unsure of himself. “I don’t know that I can explain it right now. You might think I’m crazy.”
I raised my eyebrows and just shot him a silent look.
“Oh, too late, huh?” His humor and self-confidence were back. “Let’s just say I am the Welcome Wagon—your own personal Welcome Wagon. And part of my duties are to make sure you eat lunch with me again today.”
I flushed. While I wanted to eat lunch with him almost more than I wanted my next breath, I didn’t need a pity date, and I had to be sure he wasn’t asking me out of some strange sense of obligation. But as I opened my mouth to say as much, Michael put out his hand to stop me.
“For me, okay? I’m not on some do-gooding trip. This is purely selfish.” He gave me a mock glare. “Indulge me. Please.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just nodded. “I’ve got to get to class.”
“Where are you going? What’s your first class?”
“French. Building 2.”
He made a face. “I’ve got European History in a satellite classroom. Opposite direction, and even I can’t move that fast in time. So—” he began walking backwards away from me, “—see you at lunch. I’ll meet you outside the door to the cafeteria.”
Still somewhat speechless, I nodded again, stood for a puzzled moment watching him go, then turned toward French class.
I was preoccupied during French, which was not a good thing. It was a small class and thus impossible to be inconspicuous. Since it was my second day, I was still trying to make a good impression on the teacher. I managed to fake it until she asked me to orally translate a passage from English into French, and I realized that I had no idea where we were in the book. I flushed in embarrassment when the teacher sighed her long-suffering impatience.
But I couldn’t help it. Although I wanted to concentrate, my mind kept wandering to Michael and our exchange this morning. And then I would think about lunch, and my heart beat just a little faster. I created a thousand scenes in my head, each one more improbable than the last.
Fortunately, my daydreams kept me from worrying about Chemistry. I didn’t have time to dread it until I walked through the door and saw Nell.
Actually, I didn’t see her before I heard and felt her. There are people whose minds are so loud and strong that blocking them is very difficult. Nell was clearly one of those people.
She was sitting in the same spot she had occupied the day before, talking to the same three girls. And she was not thinking very pleasant thoughts about any of them.
Liza is so stupid, she makes me want to gouge out my own eyes. Will she never shut up? On and on and on… better than Casey who thinks she knows everything.
I knew the minute she spotted me, as I lingered in the doorway. Her animosity and fury surged, and her mind narrowed to a single focus.
My throat tightened. The hatred struck me like a blow to my head, and I struggled not to recoil. Instead I gripped my books and walked to my seat as steadily as I could manage.
Liza glanced at me curiously and shifted her notebook away from my side of the table. Casey stopped talking as she realized that Nell was completely ignoring her.
“What are you doing here?” Nell asked, her voice tight with intensity.
I swallowed and tried for an off-hand tone. “This is where I sit. Ms. Lacusta assigned me this seat yesterday. Don’t you remember?”
Sense of humor clearly wasn’t one of Nell’s strong points. “What are you doing in this class? I thought you were transferring out.”
“No, you told me I should. I told you I need this class.” A few other girls were beginning to turn and stare at us, and I lowered my voice. “I don’t know what the problem is here, Nell. If I’ve done something to bother you, I’m sure we can—”
“I don’t want you here. I want you gone.” Nell was losing what little control she’d had. “You don’t belong. I told you—”
“Nell!” Ms. Lacusta had entered without either of us hearing, and she swept down on us, adding her own anger to the cacophony of fury that was nearly choking me. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Nell’s eyes darted from me to the teacher, and I felt her momentary indecision. “Just clarifying a few things for the new girl,” she said finally.
“It did not sound like clarification,” Ms. Lacusta remarked. She pinned Nell with a steely glare for a moment. None of us moved until she added, “I don’t have time for this now, Nell. We have a lab today. I will see you after school, and we can discuss whatever might be troubling you.” It was clearly a command, and Nell’s face flamed.
I mentally rolled my eyes. I understood that Ms. Lacusta was probably trying to help me, but getting Nell in trouble was not going to make her the president of my fan club.
There was a swell of whispering that ended abruptly when Ms. Lacusta stood at the front of the room, facing the class. Unlike most teachers, it seemed that she did not need to call for attention or even clear her throat for silence. Her eyes roamed over all of us, missing nothing. When she did speak, I detected again that musical quality that her accent gave her voice.
“Today’s lab is a relatively simple one. We will be working on identifying an unknown solution. This solution, which we will refer to as Solution X, contains a cation belonging to the alkaline-earth family and an anion belonging to the halogen family. By observing the ionic reactions between solutions of each of the cations with solutions of selected anions, you will be able to compare Solution X’s reactions with the same anions.”
Ms. Lacusta began walking down the rows between the desks. “If you turn to page 57 of your textbook, you will find the procedure for this lab. While none of the solutions in this experiment are dangerous, I will remind you of our laboratory safety rules. It’s a good idea to get used to assuming all substances are potentially dangerous, since as we know—” her eyes slid to Nell’s, “—even the safest solutions can become quite dangerous if combined with the wrong elements or handled carelessly.”
She paused for a moment before adding, “You may begin now. I will be strolling around observing. Raise your hand if you need help.”
Next to me, Liza flipped open her textbook. When I didn’t move, she glared at me. “Are you doing this or what? If you’re going to be my lab partner, you need to keep up. I’m not getting in trouble because of you.”
Obviously either Nell’s attitude was contagious or none of her friends were willing to cross her. I didn’t bother answering Liza. I found the lab in my book and read aloud as she began pulling out test tubes and beakers.
“Put about ten drops of sodium carbonate in each of the three wells of row A, the same amount of soda ash in three wells of row B, point two five milliliters of sodium oxylate in row C and point one milliliters of chromium potassium oxide in row D.”
Liza reached for the labeled beakers without comment. She was operating on the principle that if she ignored me, I didn’t exist. It was fine by me; I just wanted to get through the class in one piece.
That line of thought reminded me of the day before and the troubling words I’d overheard about blood sacrifice. In all the excitement of Nell expressing her hatred and my first meeting with Michael, I had shoved that memory to the back of my mind. Now a dark suspicion began to grow as I considered who might have been most likely to be thinking about spilling blood.
“Hey! What’s wrong with you?” Liza’s annoyance was a huge suffocating cloud as she snapped her fingers in my face. I blinked and shook my head.
“Sorry. Just zoning, I guess. What next?”
Nell half turned in her seat and raised one eyebrow as she smirked at me. “Maybe you should reconsider my suggestion. If you can’t keep up with a simple lab like this, I don’t know how you’ll handle the rest of the class.”
I felt the heat of a flush creep up my face. “Thanks so much, Nell, but I think I’m okay.” I turned back to Liza. “What do we do next?”
“I was saying, you need to fill row B. Ten drops in each well. Measure carefully, I don’t want to do this twice.” She shoved a glass beaker filled with some kind of clear liquid in my direction. I picked it up and looked around for the droppers. They were in a stand across the table, and as Liza was studiously looking away from me, I stifled a sigh and stood to reach carefully around her.
I caught the movement out of the corner of my eye at the same time I heard a malicious cackle coming from Nell’s mind. Both came too late for me to move out of the way as Nell slammed the back of her chair against our table, knocking me over in a spray of chemicals and broken glass.
My first thought was that I was glad I hadn’t worn the white t-shirt I had considered that morning. My second thought was that I was pretty sure that the solution all over me wasn’t dangerous. And my third thought involved inflicting bodily injury on Nell Massler.
“What’s going on over here?” Ms. Lacusta was instantly standing over me, annoyance crashing off her in overwhelming waves. I tried to tune it out, but in my current state of anger and embarrassment, it was hard to control or block anything.
“She seems to be having a little trouble with the lab,” Nell replied in a smug, laughter filled voice.
Ms. Lacusta’s face remained expressionless, but she turned to look at me.
“Miss Vaughn? Would you like to tell me what happened?”
I swallowed hard. I was in a no-win situation. I wouldn’t make any friends by implicating Nell; at the risk of sounding like a five-year-old, no one likes a tattle tale. On the other hand, I sensed that the teacher already knew what had happened. I could feel the challenge in Nell’s gaze, and I kept my eyes steady on hers as I answered Ms. Lacusta.
“I was filling the wells, and I needed the dropper. I went to reach for it, and I guess I lost my balance.”
Ms. Lacusta reached over to brush some shards of glass from my jeans. “Are you cut anywhere?”
I moved cautiously and checked my hands, which had taken the brunt of the fall. “I don’t think so. I don’t feel anything.”
She sighed and shook her head before offering her hand to pull me to my feet. “Would you like to go to the nurse? Nothing that we were working with is dangerous, but if you’d like…”
“No, thanks, I’m okay.” I didn’t particularly care for school nurses.
“You cannot finish the school day in those clothes. You’re soaked.” Ms. Lacusta pursed her lips before gliding to her desk to scribble a note. “Here. Take this to the office, and they will see that you can get a change of clothing.” As I began to pick my books and notebook out of the mess of wet and broken glass, she added, “Please have the custodian sent down to us as well.”
I barely made it out of the classroom before hot tears ran down my face. Nell’s hostility, both the outward expression and what I heard her think, stressed me to the point of exhaustion. I was still shaking from the fall, and the intensity of my anger meant I was hearing minds even more clearly, a confusion of noise that made me hold my head.
I managed to stagger around the corner, out of sight of the Chem classroom. Somewhat hidden from the main walkway, which was mostly empty at any rate, I collapsed against the rough stucco wall and slid down to the cold concrete. A sudden breeze made me shiver; the air was warm, but my t-shirt and jeans were both sodden and cold against my skin.
I just needed a moment to recover, away from the speculative minds and mean-spirited glee that abounded in the classroom. I had to calm myself before I went to the office. I hugged my arms tightly to my ribs and focused on the painstaking process of rebuilding my mental walls.
I hadn’t gotten very far when a shadow fell upon me, blocking the little bit of sun that shone through a gap in the walkway roof. I felt Michael Sawyer before I saw him or heard his concerned voice.
“Tasmyn? Are you okay?” Panic tinged his words, and I picked up some of the fleeting images in his head—he thought I’d been attacked. Well, he wasn’t that far off.
I blinked up at him, not quite able to speak yet. He sank to his haunches next to me, laying a hand on my shoulder.
A zap of electricity—or something very like it—ran through me, and I jerked my head up, my widened eyes meeting Michael’s bright green ones. For a moment, his thoughts were so clear that I couldn’t distinguish them from my own.
She’s hurt, who did this? Need to get help—can’t leave her—call 911—
“No!” I managed to choke out one word. “No. Don’t call anyone—I’m okay, just shaken up—it was an accident…” My voice trailed off as Michael’s face fell into lines of confusion.
“How did you…?” he began as mortifying realization dawned on me.
I had just broken one of the first rules my parents had taught me. I’d reacted to and answered Michael’s thought, not his words.
My heart pounding, I mentally scrambled for a logical explanation, and I remembered what my father always told me. People will believe the simplest rationale for something they can’t understand. Maybe if I just pretended that it never happened, he’d forget about it.
“I’m okay,” I repeated. “It was just an accident in Chemistry, and I ended up wet. I’m going to go call my mom and ask her to bring me some dry clothes, but I just needed to take a minute.”
Michael’s hand tightened on my arm. “What kind of accident? What’s all over you—are those chemicals?” And how did she know that I was thinking of calling someone? Lucky guess… maybe…
I concentrated on his spoken words. “Yes—whatever we were using for our lab. Nothing dangerous, though. Just—” I pulled my soaked tee away from stomach,“ —wet.”
“How did it happen? Did you drop something?”
I shivered again and drew my knees against my chest, moving carefully so that Michael wouldn’t take away his hand, still on my arm. “Kind of. I had some help. Nell knocked me over and I ended up on the floor in the middle of lots of glass and liquid.”
Another shock surged through me and my mind jumbled again. Nell… what the… what’s wrong with her… I’ll take care of Nell, she won’t mess with her again… she looks so pale, is she really okay… get the nurse… Images from Michael’s thoughts flashed into my throbbing head. I screwed up my eyes and dropped my forehead down on my knees, trying to dull the pain. I needed to separate what he was thinking from my own mind, but at the same time, I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to pull him in closer and savor the connection.
Going to get help…
“No, don’t go!” I burst out before I could stop myself. “Don’t leave me here.”
Michael frowned down at me. “I didn’t move.” He released my arm and brushed my hair away from my face. “But I think we should get you to the nurse. You’re shaking.”
“I’ll be all right in a minute. I’ll go call my mom.” I pushed up to my feet, and Michael took a step back. His thoughts were whirling suspiciously, and I couldn’t meet his eyes.
“Can you make it to the office?”
I nodded, still staring at the ground. “I think so.”
“See you at lunch?”
I ventured a glance up. “Are you sure you still want me to eat with you?”
He didn’t answer me right away. I couldn’t read his expression, and his thoughts were so jumbled that it was hard to get a fix on them, either.
Then he reached out and touched my cheek with the very tip of his finger. With the vaguest ghost of a smile, he answered, “Of course. I’ll see you then.”
By the time my mom arrived at the school with a dry pair of jeans and a fresh shirt—and not a few questions about how I had ended up wet—Chemistry was over and English had begun. I tried to slip unobtrusively into the classroom, but it was not to be. Mrs. Cook stopped lecturing when I opened the door; I meekly handed her the pass that excused my tardiness and sat in the first empty desk I spied.
As she resumed teaching, I scribbled some notes that I hoped would eventually make sense. When the bell rang, Mrs. Cook called me to her desk.
“You’ll need to copy the notes you missed from someone,” she said, her eyes roving over the last students in the classroom. “Ah, Amber! Could you come here, please? Can you lend Tasmyn your notebook?”
She addressed a girl who had been sitting diagonally across the aisle from me. I hadn’t really noticed her before this; Amber was the kind of girl who blended into the background easily. Her hair was brown, a little darker and straighter than mine. She was pretty in a very low-key way, wore no makeup that I could see and kept her hair in a simple ponytail low down her back. She wore jeans and a pale pink t-shirt and was not a little flustered to have been singled out by Mrs. Cook.
Amber ducked her head and nodded in response to the teacher. She flipped her notebook open to the needed page and handed it to me. I caught her eye and smiled.
“Thanks. I really appreciate this.” Amber stared at me for a moment, then nodded again.
“I can copy the notes over lunch and get them back to you before the end of the day, if you’d like,” I added.
“No rush,” she mumbled. “You can just bring the notebook to class tomorrow. I won’t need it until then.”
“Okay,” I replied. “Thanks again.” I watched as she left the classroom, looking like she was in a hurry. I thanked the teacher and headed toward the cafeteria.
As much as I had been looking forward to lunch earlier, I was kind of worried about it now. With some time to think about what had happened this morning, would Michael have figured out anything? Would he think I was crazy or some kind of freak?
All the way from my locker to the lunchroom, I prepared myself to be cool and collected, as self-assured and blasé as Nell was. No matter what Michael had to say, I would deal with it. I might even be able to play off this morning’s events. After all, I hadn’t told him anything. I could explain away nearly all of it. My parents would expect me to do that. It would be so much easier to simply deny everything, to play dumb.
Yet… I was surprised to realize how much I wanted to share it all, every detail, with Michael. The urge was amazingly strong. I wanted to tell him all the stories that had lived only in my mind for so long, all my memories, things I hadn’t even shared with my parents. It occurred to me in a sudden and painful way how solitary and lonely my life was. I had always known it had to be this way, so it didn’t even cross my mind to mourn what might have been. But now the longing to connect was consuming, as though part of me had been waiting for Michael all along.
He was standing outside the cafeteria as he had promised, which I decided was a good sign. He was talking with another boy, a tall and thin red haired guy I recognized from lunch yesterday. I knew the minute that Michael caught sight of me, because he pushed away from the wall and moved toward me, even as his friend continued to talk. The other boy looked at him, confused, until he saw me, and then I saw him grin and shrug as he went through the doors into the cafeteria.
“Hey,” Michael stood in front of me, his eyes never leaving my face. “You look… drier.”
I looked down at myself as though checking on my condition. “Yeah, I decided the wet look was over-rated.” I gestured to where he had been standing. “I think you blew off your friend.”
He looked over and shrugged. “Nah, he’s cool. He knew I was just waiting for you.”
“Really?” I thought most guys played it cooler than that. Michael continued to be an enigma.
He grinned and guided me toward the doorway and the lunch line. We didn’t speak as we chose food, although I saw Michael roll his eyes at my choices, and I clearly heard him thinking.
Is that seriously all she’s gonna eat? Get a quiet table, talk about this morning. Got to figure it out and see… just see…
I wasn’t surprised then when instead of heading for his friends at their normal table, Michael guided me toward the doors that led to the outdoor eating area.
“Do you mind?” he asked. “I know it’s kind of hot, but I wanted some… privacy.”
“No, that’s fine.” Privacy was abundant out here; I saw another couple sitting across the yard, but other than that, it was empty and quiet.
We stopped at a table that was partly in the shade. I looked at Michael’s tray as he set it down. It held two pieces of pizza, a plate of fries, some carrots and celery, two cookies and two cartons of chocolate milk. No wonder he thought I ate like a bird.
“That’s as much as I eat in a day. Where do you put it all?” I looked at him in amazement.
“I guess I burn a lot of calories.” He took a huge bite of pizza and shook his head as I picked at my fruit bowl.
“So…” he swallowed and took a swig of his chocolate milk. “You want to tell me about what happened in Chem today?”
I was taken so completely by surprise that I actually dropped my fork onto the table. I had expected questions, but not about that.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how did you end up soaked?”
I tore open my cracker pack and nibbled on one of them. “I thought I told you. I was doing a lab and I lost my balance and fell.”
Michael gazed at me steadily. “That’s not what I hear. And it’s not what you told me this morning.”
I tried to remember what I’d told him. What I had said was all jumbled in my mind with his words and thoughts. “What do you mean?”
“It’s a small school. People talk. Everyone’s saying that Nell Massler knocked you over on purpose in Chem, and that it was pretty nasty.”
I bit my lip. “Yeah, I guess that’s pretty accurate.”
“What did you tell the teacher?”
I cast my mind back. “Same thing I just told you. I was reaching for a dropper and I fell.”
Michael frowned. “Why didn’t you tell her the truth? Nell needs someone to stand up to her. You can’t let her get away with that kind of crap.”
“I didn’t want to make it a big deal, okay? For some reason, Nell doesn’t seem to like me. At all. I don’t know why. But I can deal with it.” I gave up on the main part of lunch and moved onto dessert, breaking off a piece of cookie. “I’m not really sure why you’re even asking me about it. I thought you’d want to talk about… something else.”
He smiled slightly. “Like what?”
I rolled my eyes and sighed. “I don’t know. Let’s see, you know next to nothing about me, and I don’t know anything about you except your name, your car and that you have a weird thing about welcoming new people to the school. You asked me to have lunch with you today. I thought it was so we could get to know each other. Or maybe talk about—what happened this morning after my Chem accident. And instead you’re interrogating me about Chem and what happened… and hey, speaking of that, how did you happen to be out of class at the same time I was this morning? Just coincidence?”
I expected him to be offended, but he merely smiled and polished off his fries. “I do want to get to know you better. I expect to do that. I don’t know that this is the place to do it. I thought you might like more privacy for that. I know I would. I can tell you anything you want to know about me. Just ask. Oh, and the reason I was out there today was I saw you walk past my physics class, and I asked for a bathroom pass. You looked like something was wrong, and I was worried.”
I didn’t really have any reply. The idea that he had been actively seeking me out to offer me help or comfort… that was astounding.
“So here’s my story, in condensed version. My name is Michael Sawyer, like I told you. I’m almost eighteen—my birthday is at the end of November. I’ve lived here all my life—in the country, outside of town. I have an older sister who is in college in Virginia.” He paused for a minute, thinking. “I don’t play football or baseball, but I run track. I’m a pretty fair student. I like to learn, so I usually like school. Did I forget anything?”
I tilted my head, considering. “You said something yesterday about a job. Where do you work?”
Michael’s forehead wrinkled as he frowned at me again. “I said something about work? I don’t remember.”
I nodded. “Yeah, when you were asking me if I had a ride home…” Suddenly, I couldn’t remember if he really had mentioned a job or if he only thought it.
He was looking at me oddly again, and I felt the same speculation from this morning. And once again, I heard him loud and clear.
I don’t think I said anything about work. Did I? It’s almost like she can…
I couldn’t help it. I flushed before he could finish that last thought. His eyes were fastened on my face, and I looked away quickly as my cheeks burned.
His next thoughts were so deliberately organized that I would have known he was testing if even the words hadn’t confirmed it.
That’s it, isn’t it? You can read my mind. You know what I’m thinking. This was followed by a huge wave of doubt as he began to second-guess his own intuition. Am I crazy? She’s gonna think so. Sitting here staring at her… psycho nut job…
I dropped my head onto my hand and closed my eyes. The smart thing here would be to say something, anything, that would convince Michael he was wrong. I could just go on about the job, make him feel ridiculous for his insane suspicions. Keep him at a distance, don’t let him know for sure… that was my typical modus operandi. That’s exactly what I should have done.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I raised my head and met his eyes. I nodded, just once, barely a movement.
Michael released the breath that he had been holding. “No way,” he murmured. “No freaking way.”
“I’m sorry!” The words burst from my mouth before I could stop them. “I didn’t mean to listen to you. I’m sorry—”
“Shhh.” Michael stopped me, raising his hand. “It’s okay. I think. I’m just—geez. Kind of—trying to figure this out.”
I stared unseeing at the brown grass beneath our feet and focused with all of my might on not hearing Michael’s mind. I owed him this small gesture of privacy at least.
“This is crazy,” he said finally. “You really can…?” When I nodded, he drew in a deep breath and smiled wryly at me.
“So you’ve been reading my mind since we met yesterday?”
“No!” I shook my head and met his level gaze. “I don’t try to hear thoughts—I really work hard not to hear them. I accidentally picked up a few things from your mind—but when I get upset, it’s harder to block. Sometimes I can’t tell what I’m hearing and what I’m—” I tapped my forehead, “—hearing.”
To my utter relief, Michael looked more interested than horrified. He opened his mouth to say something else, but before he could speak, the bell buzzed, signaling the end of lunch.
He ran a hand through his hair and scowled. “I want to talk about this more. But we can’t do it here.” He stood up abruptly, grabbing our trays, and I struggled to my feet, still feeling shaky.
Michael dumped our trash into the nearby garbage can and set the trays in the slot on top of it. He turned back to me with another smile and reached out to touch my shoulder. I felt the same zing as before and sucked in a breath. If Michael noticed, he didn’t react.
“Is your mom picking you up today?” he asked.
I shook my head, and Michael’s smile widened.
“Then can I give you a ride home? We could talk a little more, maybe.”
“That would be great. Thanks.”
We both hesitated a moment more before Michael turned to lead me through the now emptying cafeteria and back to the main walkways, crowded with students. I turned to look up at him, to say goodbye, but my breath caught at the expression in his eyes—a mix of question and longing. I could feel the same mixture coming off him in waves, and when he gripped my shoulder again, I was nearly overwhelmed by the flood of emotion.
“Are you okay?” Michael asked in alarm. “You just went white.”
“Yeah.” I pulled in a breath. “Sometimes touch makes the connection stronger.” I covered his hand lightly with my own. “It just took me by surprise.”
Michael nodded, his eyes never leaving mine. “Okay. I’ll see you at your locker after school.” He turned and joined the crowd, disappearing from my sight.
I don’t think too much happened in class that afternoon, but I really couldn’t swear to it. I was completely and totally in another world. Mr. Frame lectured on something that happened in the early nineteenth century, and the Trig teacher spent the whole class period wrapped up in a concept I could not even begin to comprehend. All I knew for sure was that they left me alone to think.
When I wasn’t with Michael, I could think rationally, and I could plan carefully. I knew that it was absolutely ludicrous to believe that this person I had known for barely two days could be so important to me already, and it was even more impossible that I could mean anything to him. I thought about each time we’d been together… but I couldn’t remember them in too much detail or I lost any of that rationality.
I came down to one conclusion: it didn’t make any sense. Michael had so far offered no explanation for why he was spending this much time and energy on me. If I had a suspicious mind—which I did—I might worry that it was my unique talent that drew him to me, but if I was looking at things logically, I had to admit that he had sought me out before he knew about my ability. So it was pretty far-fetched that he liked me for my freakish mind.
Far more frightening was considering my own reaction to him. I couldn’t look into his eyes for any length of time without losing all sense of reality. Each time he smiled at me, my insides begin to melt away. My whole being hummed with gladness when I knew I was going to be with him, and I felt every sense sharpen when we were together.
This was so new to me. In the past, I had found boys attractive. I could look objectively at a cute guy and admire him. I had even had a few small crushes on classmates—crushes that never had amounted to anything more than me sighing to myself when that boy passed me in the hall or fleetingly caught my eye. I never pursued those feelings, because they weren’t that important.
This situation was so radically different that I couldn’t even compare it. I wondered, though, what would have happened if Michael had never made a move to talk with me. What if I had just seen him in the cafeteria on the first day and that had been the end of it? Would I still be hung up on him? Or was it that he had reached out to me, had made it a point to talk to me, that made him so attractive?
At the end of two class periods, I didn’t have the answers. I knew that Michael was already more important to me than anyone except my parents. I knew that I trusted him. Beyond that, I was going to have to do something I rarely did: wing it.
I hurried to my locker after the final bell, anxious and ready to go. Michael was already there, leaning against the wall… He smiled as I rushed up with my books falling out of my hands.
“How was your afternoon?” he asked, as he watched me open the locker and juggle books.
I stepped back and spread my arms. “Well, I’m dry, so that’s one good thing. It was pretty uneventful. How about yours? And how did you get here so fast?”
“Mine was boring. English and Botany. And I got out a little early because we had a quiz in Botany, and I finished early. No more Nell issues?”
He had changed the subject so quickly I had to pause to think before answering. “No. She’s in my History class, but she pointedly ignored me.” I slammed the locker shut and turned to face Michael fully. “What’s her deal, anyway? I mean, I get that she’s the queen diva around here. I saw that right away. But usually those types don’t bother with anyone who doesn’t threaten them.”
Michael’s eyes were speculative. “Maybe you threaten her.”
I laughed. “Oh, that’s possible. No, I don’t think that’s the issue.”
“I’ve known her for as long as we’ve been in school. She’s always been someone you don’t want to mess with. Some of the guys can deal with her, but most of the girls steer clear, unless she chooses them to be in her little group.”
I laughed. “I don’t think that’s a concern of mine. I’ll be happy to be among the steering-clear crowd, if she leaves me alone.”
Michael smiled, too, ruefully. He glanced at his watch. “Are you all set?”
I nodded. “Ready to experience the wonder of your amazing cool car.”
He rolled his eyes. “She doesn’t appreciate sarcasm. Remember, she’s my best girl, so you’ll want to make a good impression.”
I giggled as we started toward the parking lot. Michael glanced sideways at me. “Assuming you do make the cut, do you think your mom would let me give you a ride to school? I drive in every day, and I could stop to pick you up… if you wanted.”
I did want, more than I could even express. And since my parents had—no matter how grudgingly—given their consent to rides from school, I decided that being driven to school couldn’t really be that different.
“Yeah, I think that would be fine,” I answered finally. Michael’s smile was nearly as staggering as the explosion of feeling that poured out toward me. I concentrated on keeping my steps steady.
We reached his car, and Michael opened the passenger door for me. I swung my backpack into the rear and sank into my seat as he sprinted around to his side.
I examined the interior carefully. “I like your car. It’s in very good shape for such an old… vehicle.”
Michael shook his head in mock despair. “It’s not old, it’s antique. And it’s been lovingly maintained. This car has been in my family since it was brand-new. That’s very unusual.”
“Really? I don’t know very much about cars.” I ran a finger over the chrome detail on the dashboard. “I mean, I can drive, and I do, but not that often. My mom usually needs the car during the day.”
Michael snuck a glance at me as he turned the key in the ignition. “Do you want to drive my car some time?”
Taken aback, I scrutinized his face to gauge his seriousness. “Are you kidding? You’d let me drive your antique?”
He laughed. “It’s a car, Tas. Yes, I am pretty fond of it. It was my uncle’s, then my dad’s, then my sister’s and now it’s mine. And I’d love for you to take it for a spin, if it would make you happy.”
Now I was more than surprised, I was touched. “Thank you,” I murmured. “I’d really like that.”
He grinned. “Of course, I should probably warn you… once you drive the ‘Stang, you’ll be spoiled for anything else.”
“I guess I’ll take my chances.” The car was meticulously maintained, and only a little bit of wear indicated its age. I looked at the vintage radio, the huge steering wheel… and the stick shift. Grimacing, I shook my head.
“Your car. It’s manual. I mean, stick shift.”
Michael turned in his seat, looking through the rear window as he began to back out. “Yup, it is.” He put his hand on my headrest as he did, and his wrist was nearly touching my face. I couldn’t breathe. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, just absorbing his closeness.
“You okay?” I heard the quizzical concern.
“Yes.” I opened my eyes but didn’t move my head. “But I can’t drive your car. I never learned how to drive manual.”
Michael moved his hand to the gearshift and the car slid forward smoothly. “Seriously?” I shook my head. “Well, when we have time, I’ll teach you to drive stick, so I can keep my promise, okay?”
The idea that he was making plans with me—even as incidental as a driving lesson—made me glow all the more. I closed my eyes again; with my head swimming, my blocks were worthless, and I could hear him so clearly.
… Pushing? Am I coming on too strong? Moving too fast… She makes me feel—I can’t even think about how she makes me feel… like I could conquer the world when she’s with me… but what if she doesn’t want me around?
I opened my eyes abruptly and sat up. Michael glanced over at me. “You okay? I thought you had fallen asleep. Which would have made it hard to get you home, since I have no idea where you live.”
I looked out the window as we drove through town. “No, just thinking.” I gave him the general location of my house and then gathered up my all my courage and continued, feeling my face heat as I did. “A driving lesson would be great. And I wasn’t trying to listen to you… but you’re not being pushy. And—” I took a deep breath, “—And I never don’t want you around me.”
Michael’s face was a study in confusion. I didn’t blame him. I usually spoke clearly, but for some reason, it was easier just now to say what I didn’t want—his absence—than it was to say what I did want—or need: his presence.
“So if you don’t not want me around, is that the same thing as wanting me around?”
I knew my face had to be flaming. “Yes, I guess that’s what it means,” I whispered, my eyes fastened on the road.
We were turning onto my street, where I was certain my mother was waiting by the front door, making sure I hadn’t come to any harm. Michael slowed the car and pulled up just out of sight of the house. Turning in his seat, he put a finger beneath my chin to raise my face, forcing me to look into his eyes.
What I saw there was steady and bright. He was smiling that wonderful smile, and when he spoke, his voice was low.
“I don’t not want you around either,” he said. “And I know we haven’t had the time or privacy to talk this through, but just so you don’t worry—this is not the norm for me. I don’t give girls the rush. I’ve dated a little—taken girls to dances and the movies with a group of friends—but I’ve never had anything like—you—happen to me.”
I was already shaking my head. “Me neither.”
He looked at me a minute more, and his finger moved from my chin to the side of my face, stroking lightly just along my hairline. He didn’t say anything, and I was able to keep whatever he was thinking from reaching me.
At last, regretfully, he dropped his hand and coasted the car to the front of my house. Before I could even turn, he had jumped out and come around to open my door for me, helping me get out my bag, too.
I could feel my mom was lurking beyond the front door, but I couldn’t go in without bringing up what I’d expected Michael to ask since we’d met at my locker.
“You didn’t mention—what happened at lunch.” It was a statement, but Michael answered the question he heard behind my words.
“I know. Car ride wasn’t long enough. I was thinking—I’m working tomorrow, but would you be able to hang out after school on Thursday? We could go out to Lancer Park and just… talk.”
I wasn’t sure I could endure two more days without clearing the air, but I nodded. “I think I can. I’ll have to ask my mom. Is the park in town?”
“Just outside. Would it be better if I asked your mom?”“No!” I was quick to answer. If my mom sensed that Michael knew that I could hear minds… well, I wasn’t sure what would happen, but it wouldn’t be good. “Thanks. My parents can be a little overprotective. Part of my whole. . deal.” I made a face, but Michael only smiled.
“Okay. I’ll leave it to you then. I’ll be here tomorrow at seven-thirty to pick you up, all right?”
I smiled back at him. “I’ll see you then.”
Getting permission from my parents to go to Lancer Park with Michael wasn’t as difficult as I had anticipated. There was the expected flare of surprise and the same predictions of disaster if I slipped up and revealed my ability. I was able to avoid out and out lying, since they didn’t ask me if Michael already knew about it. Eventually, they acquiesced, with lots of warnings to be careful, to keep up my blocks and my guard.
I was waiting by the door the next morning when the powder blue Mustang slid down the street at a safe and respectful speed and pulled up in front of our house.
“Mom! I’ll see you after school!” I called. My heart was pounding. I grabbed my bag and concentrated on walking calmly and coolly out the door.
Michael was out of the car and opening the door for me. I noticed, for the first time, how he was dressed. It seemed before I had never looked away from his eyes. Today he was wearing faded but decent looking jeans and a gray t-shirt. He smiled as I approached.
“Good morning, “ he greeted me, and I shivered at his voice. What was it, I asked myself, that made me feel this way? All I had to do was see him and I felt swoonish, if that was even a word.
“Good morning,” I answered. “Looks like it’s going to be a pretty day.”
Michael glanced at the sky through the windshield as he climbed into the driver’s seat. He smirked at me. “Yep, it’s Florida. Pretty days are the rule, more often than not.”
I cringed inwardly. What a trite, stupid thing to say, talking about the weather of all things!
But Michael didn’t seem to notice my embarrassment. “Guess it’s a lot more of a sure thing here than it was in Wisconsin.”
I was surprised that he remembered the last place I had lived. “That’s not saying much, but yeah, it is.”
We were both quiet, then I ventured, “I really do appreciate the ride. You’re possibly saving me from a horrible fate, if I had to walk.”
Michael laughed easily as he turned a corner. “Oh, yeah? What’s that? Blisters?”
“No!” I answered, my eyes widening. “You know, all the wildlife danger. Scorpions, snakes and alligators! Oh, and those biting ants, too.”
This time he laughed in earnest. “You’re not serious, are you?”
“Of course I am. My dad told me all about everything that lives down here. He said not to go near natural bodies of water, and I’d have to walk past a lake on my way to school.”
Michael shook his head, looking at me sideways in mock pity. “Sad. Do you really think there’s gators just roaming the streets?”
“There might be,” I replied darkly. “Who knows?”
He was still chuckling as we turned into the parking lot and found a spot. We climbed out of the car, Michael waiting as I slung my backpack over my shoulder.
“So, are we on for tomorrow afternoon?” he asked. I could tell he was trying to keep his tone casual.
“Yes! My parents said it was okay, as long as I was home by dinner and…” I altered my voice to mimic a parental tone, “be very careful and smart.”
Michael shot me a quizzical glance. “What does that mean?”
“It means my parents don’t want anyone to find out about what I—what I can do.” I kept my voice down. There weren’t many people near us, but I’d been well schooled in caution.
“It’s a secret, then?”
We had reached Michael’s locker, and we stopped there while he swapped books. I raised my eyebrows.
“Well, yes. No one knows. Just my parents and me… and now you. And they can’t know that you know, or they will really freak out, and probably send me away to military school.”
Michael slammed his locker shut. “Seriously?”
I shrugged. “No, it wouldn’t be military school. Probably we’d just move out of state and they’d home school me for the rest of my life.”
“No, I mean, no one else knows? And they’d be mad if they knew I knew?”
I shuddered. “Mad doesn’t begin to cover it. Mostly they’d be frightened, I think. Their worst fear is that someone finds out about me and then… I don’t know, they have all kinds of dark scenarios in mind.”
“Hmm.” We moved down the walkway toward my locker, and it was my turn to root through my books. Michael leaned against the wall, and I could feel his eyes on me before he spoke again. “So do you think you can keep yourself dry and out of trouble this morning?”
I rolled my eyes. “That doesn’t seem to be asking too much, does it? Sometimes I think I’m missing some essential element I need to be part of things. I’m always the invisible girl… unless I’m in Chemistry here, then I’m the girl with the target on her.”
“I don’t think it’s you. We get a certain amount of transient kids in King… you know, they move here for a year, then they’re gone. I guess it does take a while before people really open up.” He shrugged. “Like I said the other day, I’ve been in this area, at King schools, all my life. So I don’t know for sure.”
“Small towns are always harder to break into,” I agreed. “I thought Florida would be different, because there are always people moving in and out, and all the tourists, too.”
“King is a little bit of an oddity, though,” Michael remarked. “There are a few old Florida families, and sometimes they act like they’re royalty. Not all of them, but there are some odd ones.”
“King has been here a long time?” I questioned as I closed my locker.
“Haven’t you heard the history of this town?” Michael asked. “It’s kind of cool, I guess, if you’re into that sort of thing.”
“What sort of thing?”
“Oh, you know, history, magic, legends, all that paranormal stuff.”
My spine tingled. “Some people would say I am very into paranormal stuff,” I murmured softly, just for Michael’s ears.
He smiled gently. “Not like this. Gravis King was a carnie. Actually, he owned a big carnival, one of the largest in the south in the late nineteenth century. He retired down here, bought land, and brought his whole carnie family down to live here, established this town. Said they all needed a place to make a fresh start.
“Lots of people who still live in town can trace their family trees back to King’s carnies. If you go downtown and walk around, you’ll see shops with some of the carnie names up there. People trying to play on their heritage, I guess. Makes a good draw for tourists, and we get busloads every year. Whatever works.” He shrugged.
“That’s very interesting,” I mused. “Is yours one of the families?”
“No way!” he laughed. “My parents settled here as a compromise. My dad came from the panhandle, my mom came from south Florida, so they agreed to live here as a half-way point. And they’re not much on the mystical elements people in town play up. My mom says it gives her the creeps. So we don’t live in the town, we live just outside, like I told you.”
The first bell rang, and I looked up, startled. I had been totally absorbed in our conversation.
“Gotta run,” Michael sighed, regretfully. “See you at lunch. Stay dry!”
It was hard to believe it was only my third day at King High School. I managed to keep it relatively uneventful. In Chemistry, I slid into my assigned seat as quietly as I could, but I needn’t have bothered. Liza, Casey and Nell were all in full ignoring mode, not even bothering to acknowledge my presence. I was perfectly okay with that. I took notes on Ms. Lacusta’s lecture and kept my eyes on my notebook.
When the bell rang, Ms. Lacusta called me to her desk and handed me several papers stapled together.
“These are the notes from the lab you missed,” she explained. “And there is a summary worksheet on the back page. If you complete it tonight, I will make sure you receive full credit for the lab you missed.” Her eyes were very perceptive as she gazed at me. “I don’t believe that you were at fault yesterday. I should have kept a closer eye on the situation, especially considering the… personalities involved.”
I wasn’t sure what I should say at this point, so I just nodded and murmured my thanks. As I turned to go, Ms. Lacusta said softly, “Tasmyn… tread carefully. And please, do feel free to let me know if there is anything I can do to help you feel more settled and at home here. I think I could be very helpful to you.”
Her words were kind enough, but quite suddenly, I sensed a very different feeling pulsing from her mind. It swirled around me, almost like a tangible mist, and it was not pleasant. Rather, it was cunning and nearly—I struggled for the word—painful? No, not quite. Dangerous, that was a more accurate description. Like a beautiful snake that might lull its victim into admiration before it struck with deadly venom.
I took an involuntary step back from the desk and nearly stumbled. I mumbled another incoherent word of thanks and fled the room as quickly as I could. I spent most of Speech and Debate trying to shake off the sense of foreboding Ms. Lacusta had triggered in me.
In English, I returned Amber’s notebook to her with another word of thanks. Again, she didn’t respond to my efforts to start a conversation; she just took the notebook back with a nod and never even met my eyes. I stifled a sigh, wondering what I could have possibly done to offend yet another girl by my third day of school.
The rest of the morning passed quickly, and I was so glad to go to lunch that I felt like skipping the whole way. Michael was waiting for me in the same spot outside the door, and his smile upon sighting me lit his entire face.
The idea that I was the reason for that incredible smile was intoxicating. I really couldn’t understand why he sought me out, why he wanted to be with me, but I wasn’t going to press my luck and ask too many questions, lest he figure out that I wasn’t worth the effort. I was surprised and not a little scared to realize that Michael Sawyer was already so important to me.
As he had the day before, Michael opened the door and followed me inside. But today, he was taking a personal interest in my lunch. He added a plate of fries to my tray (which held a cup of soup and a salad) and made me take two cookies instead of just one. When I protested, he just shook his head and moved me forward.
“You cannot make it through an afternoon on just rabbit food and soup,” he told me firmly. “Besides, I’ll help you eat them.”
Everyone at our lunch table greeted me warmly as we sat down. I tried to keep up with the conversation that flew around us… If I kept my concentration on just one person at a time, I was able to tune out most of the thoughts. Fortunately, the few I did pick up were positive and friendly.
Michael made sure that I kept eating throughout the talk. He sat next to me today instead of across the table, and he angled his body so that I felt protected and safe, even as he encouraged me to talk to the others. I realized that he was giving me another gift: he was sharing his friends with me.
It was toward the end of lunch that Anne mentioned Nell Massler’s name. She rolled her eyes as she told us that Nell had joined the Harvest Moon Dance Committee. Across the table, Brea sighed in a show of empathy.
“I just don’t get it. She’s very popular, but she is so intense. We were having a meeting, and she gets all wrapped up about the dumbest things. I can’t believe how many people are listening to her. Drives me crazy!”
I was quiet. I had just met these girls, and I didn’t want to chime in on something negative.
Michael moved slightly closer to me and leaned to whisper in my ear. “Why don’t we beat the rush and go to our lockers now, if you’re finished eating?” He glanced down at my tray and sighed. “You didn’t finish your cookie.”
“I’m full,” I answered. “I’m ready to go.”
Once out in the hallway, Michael walked alongside me in silence. “I thought maybe the Nell talk was making you uncomfortable.”
I glanced at him sideways. “Are you sure you aren’t the mind reader here?”
He looked at me in surprise. “Pretty sure. I just try to be observant.” We stopped at his locker first, and as he twirled the combination, he said quietly, “You talk about it so casually. But I thought—what you can do was a big secret.”
“It is. I mean, it always has been. I don’t—” I struggled to put what I was feeling into words. “I’ve never been able to say those casual things to anyone but my parents. I guess it’s just really freeing. I’m sorry if it makes you uncomfortable.”
“No, it doesn’t.” Michael closed the locker. “I was just surprised.” He stood looking down at me so intently that I flushed and dropped my eyes. “There were some times at lunch that you seemed to be listening really hard. You were just looking at Anne and Brea—I don’t know, like you were concentrating intensely on what they were saying.” He hesitated, and I sensed that he didn’t want to say anything I might take the wrong way. “Were you… were you listening to them? You know, to more than what they were saying out loud?”
My face grew even warmer. “No! I don’t do that, not on purpose. Sometimes things slip in…” I was getting upset as I tried to explain. “What I was concentrating on so carefully was not listening. I work very hard to keep up the walls that block other people’s thoughts.”
Michael closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. “I didn’t mean that to sound—accusing. I was just wondering. I’ve been worrying about what you might be reading in my mind, that you might not like it. I didn’t even think that you might be trying not to know.”
His admission took my breath away. He was worried about what I would think? That was insane. I was the freak, the one who was made wrong. And he thought I would read his mind and not like it?
I took a steadying breath. “I haven’t heard anything from your mind since yesterday in the car. And I wasn’t trying then. It happens. I try to keep it from happening, but it does.”
Michael pushed off from the wall. “Tasmyn, I promise you, I am not mad at you. I wouldn’t have been angry if you had been reading my mind or the girls’ minds. I just didn’t know.” He put his finger under my chin to lift my face. “Please don’t be upset,” he murmured.
My eyes were caught in his, and I couldn’t look away. I could feel his warm finger just grazing my face. My wall slipped a little, but I could only interpret earnest, intense feelings from him—no specific thoughts. And then just for a split second, I saw my own face, looking up at him, the way he was seeing me, and I was completely blown away. I knew it was my face; I recognized the long brown hair and saw my own hazel eyes, but it didn’t look like the image I saw in the mirror each morning. It was beautiful.
The bell rang and the walkway filled with people. We were no longer alone, but Michael stood still. I was the first one to move.
“We have to go to class,” I said, although I had no idea how my voice was working.
“I know.” He breathed deeply and ran his hand over his hair. “I know. This is,” he shook his head, as if to clear it. “Okay, I’ll see you at your locker after school.”
“I’ll be fast. I don’t want to make you late.”
“You won’t. See you.” He took off around the corner and I wondered how I was going to move myself to class when my legs were suddenly made of rubber.
I spent another afternoon zoning through my classes, thinking only about Michael. When the final bell rang, I knew I had to get to my locker fast; Michael had to get to work, and I didn’t want to make him late.
I ran to my locker, already holding the books I would need to drop off and mentally listing the ones I needed to grab. Michael was there waiting, his eyes focused on the paperback book he held in one hand.
“Hey—I’m sorry you had to wait, I’m hurrying. She always keeps us in Trig until the last minute.“
He held up his hand. “I just got here. Take a breath. I wasn’t going to leave without you.”
I shoved my books into the locker and rooted for one I needed. Glancing back over my shoulder, I inquired, “What are you reading?”
He held up the book so that I could see the cover. “John Keats. We’re reading him in English and I needed—” he broke off for a minute, not meeting my eyes. “I was kind of preoccupied in class today, and I need to be more familiar with some of these. This kind of stuff doesn’t come as easy for me as Math and Science.”
I closed the locker. “All set. I love Keats. I wrote my sophomore lit paper on Ode on A Grecian Urn.”
Michael grimaced. “That makes me feel so much better, thanks.”
“No problem. You can do the same when I tell you that my Trig teacher was speaking in a foreign tongue today.” We were walking toward the parking lot, and I looked up at him, smiling a little. “At least I think she was. I was a little… preoccupied too.”
He blew out a breath. “Nice to know I’m not the only one. I was beginning to think that maybe I was.”
Michael didn’t answer me as we headed toward the parking lot and climbed into his car. He remained silent while he started up the car and then turned to me. “What I meant before was that I worry that I’m the only one who gets preoccupied. It’s crazy. It makes no sense. But sometimes…” His voice trailed off again, and he shook his head, looking down. “You probably think I’m insane.”
“I don’t. Not at all.”
Michael shifted into reverse and then pulled out onto the road. He kept his eyes on the road even as he prompted me. “But…?”
“But nothing. This is all so new. I’ve only known you for three days, and like I told you yesterday, I’ve never…” I drew in a deep breath. “I don’t have any experience with boys. At all. I feel totally comfortable when I’m with you, but then when I stop and think about it, the whole situation seems unbelievable. Like I must be crazy.”
“Well, that’s it then.” Michael shot a quick bright smile at me. “You need to stop thinking. And so do I.”
“Really?” I cocked an eyebrow at him. “We need to stop thinking?”
“Yup.” Michael nodded. “Or maybe we need to stop over thinking. When we’re together and talking, I don’t have any doubts that—well, about us. I like you, Tasmyn. And there’s more than that to it… more that we need to talk about. Not today.” He ran a hand through hair and scowled. “I don’t have time before work.”
“You never did tell me where you work,” I remarked. “When we were talking about it yesterday, we kind of got side-tracked.”
Michael laughed. “Yeah, we did. I work for my parents. They own a nursery and landscaping company, and I work there three days a week and most weekends.”
I was impressed. “Wow. I don’t know anything about plants. Do you like it?”
“It’s cool. I like working outside, and my parents are pretty flexible. But I don’t like to take advantage of them.” He pulled up to the curb in front of my house. “So as much as I’d like to stay with you and talk now, I need to just drop you off and get moving.”
I hopped out of the car. Michael met me at the sidewalk and handed me my backpack. I slung it over one shoulder and turned to look up at him.
He was looking down at me with such intensity that I couldn’t breathe, and for one moment I was sure he was going to kiss me, right out here in the open. But he only squeezed my arm.
“See you tomorrow morning,” he whispered. And as he left, I wondered how on earth I was going to make it until then.
I was up early again the next day. When I opened my eyes, I had a delicious sense of anticipation—remembering that something good was going to happen but not quite grasping what it was.
“Oh!” I sat straight up in bed. Today was park day, when Michael and I would have an entire three hours of uninterrupted time together without worrying about classes or other people. A wave of pure joy washed over me, and I jumped up onto my feet, turned on my music and dashed into my closet. I looked around for a minute before I ran back out and clicked on the computer to check the day’s weather. What I saw their inspired a little impromptu dance: sunshine, temps in the mid-eighties and virtually no chance of rain. That meant I could definitely wear the sweet little sundress I had been considering.
Even though I took much more time than usual with my primping, I was ready early. My mother had made pancakes, and I managed to eat one and drink a glass of juice before my stomach refused any more.
When I saw the Mustang turn onto our street, I called a goodbye to my mother, promising once again that I would be home by dinnertime. And then I was out the door.
“Good morning!” I fairly sang as I met Michael at the car.
He was grinning and looking at me with undisguised admiration. He whistled low.
I stifled the urge to laugh and twirl around to further show off. “Is ‘wow’ good?” I questioned teasingly.
“Wow is… very good.”
“Well, I do try to dress decently every once in a while.”
“It’s not the dress—not totally, anyway. It’s you. You look—” he paused and scrutinized me. “All lit up, kind of.” He helped me into the car, and his eyes were still warm when he climbed into his seat.
“I do like the dress, too,” he added.
I laughed. “Thanks. It’s a beautiful day and… I’m happy.” It was true, I realized as I said it.
Michael smiled at me so brilliantly that I felt my heart leap into my throat before it broke into an unsteady rhythm.
“I’m very glad that you’re happy. I’m happy, too.” He glanced at me slyly as we turned the corner. “The park should be nice today.”
“Where exactly is Lancer Park?” I asked. “My dad seemed to know what I was talking about when I told him where we were going. I know you said it was right outside town.”
“Yup, right on the Lancer Lake,” Michael answered.
“The lake? Where the alligators and the aggressive water moccasins live?” I wasn’t going to let a little thing like death-threatening creatures spoil my good mood, but it was wise to be prepared.
“I promise, no harm will befall you. People go to this lake every day, Tas. No one has ever been attacked by wildlife. At least no one in my lifetime…” He raised his eyebrows and looked at me meaningfully.
“Thanks,” I said. “But guess what? I am not going to think about that. I am in much too good a mood to think about creatures who are waiting to eat me at the park.”
“Water moccasins don’t eat you. They just bite you.”
I rolled my eyes at him. “Whatever. Not thinking about it. Not thinking about Nell either. Only happy thoughts today!”
We pulled into the parking lot, and as we walked toward the school, Michael looked thoughtful. “How about we eat outside today?”
“Really? Outside in the heat?”
“It’s not that hot today, and hardly humid at all. And that way we can talk in private without having to be social with everyone else.”
I frowned slightly. “I thought we were going to the lake to talk privately.”
“We are. But at the lake, I want to hear about you. I was thinking that in order for you to be honest with me, I need to explain some stuff about me. I told you yesterday that there’s more we need to talk about. So that’s the agenda for lunch today.” He looked determined, and for the first time, my happy mood faltered a bit.
“Is this stuff you’re going to explain good or bad?” I asked cautiously.
He smiled at me, assuring. “I think it’s good, but you’ll have to be the judge of that, after you hear it. It’s nothing that big, just me getting some things out there that I think you need to know. Okay?”
I took a deep breath. “Okay. So we’re eating outside. Sounds like a plan.”
“I’ll go ahead and get a table, since I always get to lunch before you. Oh, and don’t worry about getting any food, I’ll get your lunch along with mine.”
“Meaning there’ll be enough for a small army?”
He assumed an innocent face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I think I floated through that morning. French was a pleasure, one of those classes where it seemed I could do nothing wrong. I translated a passage from our book, reading it aloud, and the teacher actually complimented me on my accent. She passed back homework we had turned in the day before, and I had earned a perfect grade. It was gratifying to feel that I was finding my rhythm in a few classes, at least.
And then on my way to Chem, one of the girls from the lunch table, Anne, called my name and greeted me with a warm smile.
“I love your dress! It’s so pretty. I could never wear it, but it looks wonderful on you.” Anne was several inches shorter than I was and curvy in all the right places.
“Thank you,” I replied, sincerely flattered by her words.
“See you at lunch today?” she asked.
I hesitated. “I think—Michael said something about eating outside today.”
She smiled knowingly at me. “He wants you all to himself and doesn’t want to share! Well, I guess we’ll let him go for today, but you make sure he doesn’t hog you all the time. I enjoyed talking with you yesterday.”
More happy warmth spread through me. “I enjoyed it, too,” I told Anne. “I’m sure I’ll see you at lunch tomorrow.”
“Okay!” She slipped past me with a quick wave and smile as I continued on to class.
I was so far into my happy place that I didn’t even spare Nell and company a glance when I entered the chemistry classroom. I put my books down on the table and then walked to the front of the room to hand in my missed lab assignment worksheet. Ms. Lacusta took it absently from my hand; she seemed absorbed in something else on her desk, and I was happy to slip away without more interaction.
When I returned to my seat, though, my books were no longer piled neatly on the table; they were spread open and face down all over the floor in the aisle. I hadn’t heard a sound, so I assumed the three girls had worked together to quietly and quickly displace them.
Immediately I gathered the books and put them back on the table, taking my seat. Nell was turned sideways in her own chair, and in striking contrast to the previous days, she was staring insolently at me.
“All dressed up today, aren’t we?” she mused. “What’s the occasion?”
I was determined to keep things as peaceful as I could, and I answered her coolly but calmly.
“Nothing special. Just a pretty day. Oh, and I saw on the schedule that there’s no lab today, so I decided I was safe from having chemicals thrown at me.”
Nell rolled her eyes. “Oh, isn’t she dramatic!” she exclaimed, addressing Liza and Casey. She turned back to me. “No one threw anything at you. Your own clumsiness is what got you wet. Isn’t that what you told Ms. Lacusta? And if you had just taken my advice and dropped this class, maybe even that wouldn’t have happened.”
A day earlier, Nell’s words would have crushed me or at least angered me beyond the ability to reply, but in my current near-euphoric state of mind, I found I was able to respond.
“We all know what happened here, Nell. You can think whatever you like, but the next time you want to get nasty during a lab, I’m taking you down with me. Literally.”
Nell’s eyes flared at me, and she opened her mouth to say something, but at that moment, Ms. Lacusta began lecturing. With one final glare, she turned around. The atmosphere around us was tense, and I could feel the antipathy pouring off Nell.
Actually, I was amazed at myself. I had no idea where those words had come from. I never stood up to anybody. For that matter, I had never been in a position where I needed to stand up to anybody. But somehow the words had come, and it dawned on me that I had just threatened a girl who seemed to be a fairly powerful force in my new school’s social system.
And she wasn’t going to let it go. From the bits of loathsome feeling and waves of hate I was picking up, I knew that Nell was not one of those bullies who would back down when someone stood up to her. No, she was more like a black widow spider that would strike with deadly accuracy when I least expected it. I was going to have to watch my back.
Thank you for reading. We hope you enjoyed it If yes, then please buy the full novel for only 99 cents.
Total words: 112453
The King Series book one.
By Tawdra Kandle
Tawdra Kandle writes romance, in just about all its forms. She loves unlikely pairings, strong women, sexy guys, hot love scenes and just enough conflict to make it interesting. Her books run from YA paranormal romance (THE KING SERIES), through NA paranormal and contemporary romance (THE SERENDIPITY DUET, PERFECT DISH DUO, THE ONE TRILOGY) to adult contemporary and paramystery romance (CRYSTAL COVE BOOKS and RECIPE FOR DEATH SERIES). She lives in central Florida with a husband, kids, sweet pup and too many cats. And yeah, she rocks purple hair.
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Other Works on Erotica
Tasmyn Vaughn didn't expect much when her dad's job moved them to a small town in Florida; it was just another new school. But there is more to King than meets the eye, and soon Tasmyn's ability to hear others' thoughts is the least of her worries. Entangled in a web of first love, quirky and secretive townsfolk, magic and blood rituals, she discovers the town's secrets aren't just bizarre, they're deadly. Book 1 of THE KING SERIES. .