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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Paranormal

The Elect (Allison's Story #1)

THE ELECT

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, incidents, and organizations are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any similarity to actual events or locales or people, living or dead, is strictly coincidental.

 

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the author.

 

Copyright

© 2013 by Penny Palin

© Cover art by Celairen, 2happy/Shutterstock.com

All rights reserved.

 

ISBN-13: 978-1491075388

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

At ten thirty-two p.m. on Sunday, February first, Allison Noble turned sixteen years old. The occasion passed without acknowledgement, without even personal awareness, for as the moment arrived she was in that vague state between consciousness and a dream.

Her eyes closed, she breathed deeply of the cool air in her bedroom, buried beneath a pile of blankets mostly old and worn but undeniably warm. It was quiet and still in her small, violet room. It was peaceful… right up until it wasn’t.

The sound of a window sliding open, something dropping from the dresser beside it, had her sitting straight up in bed, heart pounding, breath frozen in her lungs. As her eyes scanned the dimly lit interior of her surroundings, she saw a figure against the light of her window and screamed.

The figure moved with lightning speed. A hand covered her mouth just as her foggy brain recognized the familiar form of the least threatening person alive.

“Are you kidding me?” Delaney Gray looked at her friend in disgust. “If your mother was home, we’d both be grounded right now.”

Allison pushed her hand away, then rubbed her own over her face. She felt damp and cold and disorientated. “What are you doing here?”

“You’d forget your head if it wasn’t attached.” Delaney dropped to the foot of Allison’s bed. “I thought you were going to stay awake.”

Belatedly, she remembered. They had plans tonight. Stupid, reckless plans only an idiot would see through. Because Allison had already promised to be that idiot, she threw the blankets off her lap and stood. “I was tired.”

“It’s ten thirty. How can you be tired at ten thirty?”

“Because I’m normal,” she said around a yawn.

“You are the furthest thing from normal I’ve ever seen,” Delaney said lightly. “You’re not wearing that, are you?”

She looked down at the Scooby-Doo pajama pants she’d thrown on hours ago. “Too flashy?”

“We’re wearing black. See?” She had on black slip-ons, black leggings, a closely fitted black knit sweater, and a black scarf.

“You look like Agent 99.”

“No one gets your weird sixties sitcom references.”

Allison said, “Yes, you do.”

“And that makes me sad,” she said gravely. Delaney got up and rummaged through the dresser drawers, tossing a pair of black socks, black jeans, then a long sleeved black tee at her friend. “Get dressed. I want to be there before eleven.”

Allison didn’t sigh, but she wanted to. She’d been best friends with Delaney since she was seven years old, when the school counselor decided Allison should skip second grade altogether and dumped her in a room with thirty kids a year older than her that she hadn’t known. Socially, it had been sink or swim. If not for Delaney’s fast friendship, Allison wasn’t sure she would have stayed afloat.

Because of that, and the nine years since of perfect loyalty, Allison threw on the clothes and began searching her room for her sneakers.

“You aren’t wearing those,” Delaney told her.

“Why not?”

“They’re white.”

“Nobody’s going to see my shoes,” she complained.

“No, they aren’t.” She disappeared into the hall, then returned with Allison’s mother’s black sneakers. “Because you’re going to wear these.”

“They don’t fit.”

“They’re half a size too big,” Delaney said. “Wear two pairs of socks.”

Allison rubbed her hand over her face again. “Do you see a rubber band?”

Delaney twisted her lips in contemplation. “We’re going to have to do something about your hair, too.”

“Like what?”

Again, she left the room. Allison heard her rummaging as she added another pair of socks and slipped on her mother’s shoes. When she saw what Delaney was carrying when she returned, she let out a groan. “You aren’t serious.”

“Why not?” Delaney waited until Allison had wrapped her long red hair into a ponytail before she slipped the jet black fedora on her head. “This will make you less noticeable.”

Allison checked her reflection in the mirror. “There is no one place in this entire city that this would make me less noticeable.”

“I kind of like it.”

“And that makes me sad.”

Delaney gave her a look, but tossed the hat aside.

They left her room, started down the carpet-covered stairway, then went straight out the front door. It was cool, but not cold outside. It was also pitch black. The streetlight in front of her house flickered, the old bulb fighting a losing battle for illumination. Silence surrounded them.

Allison looked up and down the street. Not a single window in any single house on her block had left a light on. It was, she thought with sudden foreboding, downright creepy. “What time did you say it was?”

Delaney pulled out her cellphone and hit a button on the side. “It’s a quarter till,” she whispered. “What time is your mom getting off?”

“Two,” she answered. “We’ll be back before she’s home.”

“Unless we get busted.”

Allison took another look down the street. “Or killed.”

“You’re neurotic enough for both of us. Stop trying to drag me down with you.”

“Come on. Let’s get this over with.”

They crept along the inside of the sidewalk, using the shadows of trees and the poor maintenance of the streetlights to disguise them. Stillwater City Council had instituted a curfew for anyone underage. If they were caught out after eight without a parent, they could face criminal mischief charges. At least, that’s what Delaney’s dad told them and, as Chief of Police, he probably had a good idea what he was talking about.

Allison stayed close to her friend, keeping a good eye behind them as Delaney watched in front. “You understand this is monumentally stupid, right?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“It’s not too late to turn back.”

“She totally deserves this, Ally, and if we don’t do something, I’ll just end up killing her.”

Allison rolled her eyes, though she didn’t argue. Rebecca Miller did deserve it, but Allison would rather enact her revenge more subtly, and without getting a felony for it.

“She started that rumor,” Delaney reminded her.

“I know.”

For days afterward, their classmates had looked at Delaney’s short crop of dark hair with suspicion. It hadn’t helped that the school nurse got involved and took Delaney to her office to search for lice herself.

As Delaney’s best friend—and a human being—Allison hated Rebecca for what she’d done. It didn’t matter that the other girl had never done anything to Allison. She didn’t look at her or talk to her or whisper behind her back. Allison might as well have been invisible for all the notice their classmates took of her. For the most part, and especially during times like these, Allison was grateful.

Whereas Delaney drew attention, both good and bad, Allison faded into the background. It wasn’t something either of them bragged about.

Two blocks from their destination, they reached the entrance to the park. In the daylight, Baxter Park was a lush, welcoming retreat with several small ponds, rolling hills, and deep valleys. At night, it looked like the entrance to a swamp. One likely filled with ghouls and or murderers.

Delaney walked right past. “We’ll take the long way.”

“Thank you.”

At the end of the block they turned right, past Delaney’s grandmother’s house, past the bar where Allison’s mother worked the closing shift. Stillwater was a small town, lacking the crime and commotion of bigger cities, but tonight it seemed to harbor its own dangers.

The quiet, darkened homes stood tall and imposing. Trees, with their thin, brittle branches, creaked against the wind. Thunder, from somewhere not too far away, rumbled in the distance. The moon was dark, not even a sliver of light through the thick gray clouds. Allison wrapped her arms around herself.

Not a single car passed them. Indeed, it seemed as though they were the only two people still awake in their small, sleepy community. While that should have given Allison a measure of comfort, it only added to her growing sense of unease.

They approached the school warily, scanning the perimeter before they let their eyes fall on the building itself. Jefferson High was a three story monstrosity built in the heart of Stillwater, Ohio. Constructed entirely of modern gray stone and shiny new glass, it sat on a wide field of manicured lawn against a background of trees and sky.

Delaney led her toward the side entrance. It was the only entrance partially hidden from the streets that ran both in front and behind the building. It was also, as Delaney had promised, always left unlocked.

Allison followed her inside. She slid her hand along the wall, finding the light switch and flipping it on. The room was small and windowless. Delaney opened the drawers of a workbench, then a desk. Allison scanned the shelves along the far wall, finally locating what hindsight told her they should have brought from home: a flashlight.

Allison flipped the light switch back off and turned the flashlight on. She pointed it at her friend. “Where were you on the night of February first?”

Delaney grinned. “Breaking into school.”

“You’re too easy.” She lowered the flashlight and put her hand on the inner door. With painstaking care, Allison turned the knob and they crept into the darkness of the hallway.

Rows of lockers lined the walls, between classroom doors and glass cabinets with championship awards. Rebecca Miller’s first place cheerleading trophy sat front and center, showcasing the accomplishment of the school…and justifying the deluded judgment of everyone who praised her.

Their shoes padded soundlessly down the halls, from one to the next. At the main hall, they turned left, toward a narrow corridor with six doors on either side. Delaney approached the first, that of Mrs. Gail Howard, Guidance Counselor, and tried the handle. Locked.

Allison blew out a breath. “It’s probably for the best,” she said, trying to disguise her relief and failing miserably.

Delaney shook her head. “It’s a cheap lock, I can get past it.”

She watched her pull a Macy’s gift card from her back pocket and slip it between the door and jamb. “You get that this is now officially breaking and entering?”

“We aren’t breaking anything,” Delaney whispered back.

And she didn’t. She maneuvered the card in and out, turning it this way and that, then pulled the door open with ease.

“We’ll be five minutes, tops,” Delaney told her.

Allison had never been in Mrs. Howard’s office. It was small, somewhat cluttered. An imposing desk sat along one side, two small chairs in front. She had four filing cabinets, a coat rack and a stack of boxes that almost reached the ceiling.

Delaney went for the desk, plopping down on the swivel chair, reaching underneath the top to turn on the outdated computer. Allison went to the window, drawing the curtains closed, then peeking around the edge. Only darkness and the faint outline of shadows could be seen.

The computer came on, illuminating the room. Allison winced against the light, her eyes shifting from the window to the gap between the bottom of the door and the tile floor. “If anyone walks past, they’re going to see the light.”

“No one is here,” Delaney said quietly.

Allison knew that, but committing a felony was making her paranoid. “I’m just saying.”

“Uh-huh.” Delaney opened the email program, which prompted for a password. Without hesitation, she hit several keys, then ENTER. Mrs. Howard’s email opened right up.

Allison looked at her friend. “How do you know her password?”

“It’s Huggles, after her dog. No creativity,” she said.

“But how—”

“I saw her type it in a couple months ago.”

“Oh.” Allison glanced at the door, then through the window before she looked over her friend’s shoulder. “You think he’s going to buy this?”

Delaney pulled an envelope out of the second drawer and handed it to her friend. “Look at this.”

Allison opened it. Inside was a copy of the test she’d taken two days ago. The answers were written in ink, in Mr. Jeffries’ handwriting. “Yeah?”

“Mike Cobb got caught with it.”

She understood at once. The perfect storm Delaney had been telling her about. Mr. Jeffries had been out with the flu all week. He was expected back on Monday, when Mrs. Howard officially began her maternity leave. “Are you sure she didn’t tell him already?”

Delaney pointed to the computer screen, where an email detailing the offense, as well as the culprit, sat in Mrs. Howard’s sent mail folder. “This is an ancient program. You can unsend as long as it hasn’t been received.” She hit the button and began editing. As she replaced Mike’s name with Rebecca’s, she smiled.

“I think this is the meanest thing I’ve ever seen you do.”

“We don’t hang out enough.”

She laughed, enjoying herself as she watched Delaney edit. Her friend replaced the word “shocked” with “appalled,” took out the week’s detention recommendation with a suggestion that Rebecca speak with the school psychiatrist and get after-school tutoring from the Science Club.

The sound of commotion in the hall stilled Delaney’s fingers. Footsteps shuffled past. No voices, just the movement of bodies, the rustling of jeans, the jingle of keys.

Delaney held her finger up in front of her mouth as they listened.

The sound was fading, nearly gone now. Allison forced her legs to move forward, to walk slowly and carefully toward the door. She let out a shaky, silent breath, and cracked the door an inch. Blackness greeted her.

She shut it again, and turned around to face her friend. Delaney ordinarily had the loveliest complexion: like dark, warm coffee. At that moment, she was nearly gray.

Though Allison was the coward of the pair, she had far less to lose than her friend. “Just hurry,” she told her, and forced her hand to turn the doorknob.

“Where are you going?”

“To see who that was.”

“Ally, don’t,” Delaney whispered. “It doesn’t matter!”

It mattered a lot. A teacher, unlikely as that possibility may be, meant they’d have to tread carefully. If they’d accidentally tripped some silent alarm and it was the police, however, the stakes were raised a hundred fold.

“It’s probably Mr. Jones.” The maintenance man kept strange hours, anyway. It made sense. She tried to reassure herself as much as Delaney.

“It probably isn’t.”

“I’ll be right back,” she told her. Before she let the door close, she added, “If I’m not back in five minutes, go home.”

“Ally!”

Allison shut the door and drew another deep breath. It had to be Mr. Jones. The heat wasn’t working well in the building. Of course he’d come in to take a look.

If not, she’d let the cops pick her up rather than allow her friend to go down. Allison might get grounded for a few months, but Delaney’s dad would never look at his daughter the same way.

She hugged the wall, tucking her ponytail into the neck of her shirt, wishing suddenly that she’d worn the fedora like Delaney suggested. Her face was forgettable, but her hair did attract attention. In the dark, hopefully, it wouldn’t matter.

Rustling. She heard it again when she reached the main hall. Allison closed her eyes, put all her concentration into listening. She thought she heard a voice, possibly a laugh, then a deep, bizarre whoosh!

It was too far away to make out. She crept closer, letting her ears guide her down another hall, to the top of the basement stairs. There was nothing down there, except the Olympic sized-swimming pool, two locker rooms and the gymnasium. To get to the furnace, you had to take the stairs at the opposite end of the building.

She hesitated. If whoever they’d heard was down there now, she and Delaney had a good chance of getting away. And yet…the whooshing was closer now. She could almost feel the sound, peculiar as that was. It was like heat, tingling at the tips of her fingers.

Allison never made the decision to go. Her legs seemed to move of their own accord, descending the stairs with measured steps. Damp warmth closed around her, a wave of suffocating heat. Still, she kept going.

The darkness was thick. The scent of the locker room told her where she was. From memory, she raised her hand and touched the door. Metal here, and hot. So hot.

Without a single thought as to what she might find—or whom—she opened the door. Soundlessly, the metal gave, heavy against her arms as she pushed her way inside. The room stood empty, except for the shadow of three figures at the opposite end of the pool.

Allison froze. She could still smell the heat, like burning wood or fire, but she couldn’t see either until the figure on the right turned. In his hand, held up waist high, hovered a small, perfect ball of flame.

In his hand.

She gasped, the sound too loud in the stillness of the building, the quiet of the room. As one, they turned towards her. The flame was too small, leaving their faces bathed in shadow, nearly unrecognizable in the dark.

As she stood there overwhelmed, confused, and afraid, two things happened at once. The small circle of fire snuffed itself out and as total blackness fell upon the room, she heard them move.

Whatever common sense had abandoned her long enough to get her into this situation, kicked right back into gear. She whirled around and ran, survival instincts pushing her legs harder and faster than she’d ever moved before. Allison barely felt the stairs beneath her feet as she raced back up.

The hallway passed in a blur of blue lockers and stone walls. She reached Mrs. Howard’s door and yanked on the handle. It was locked, but Delaney was right there on the other side, opening it quickly. “What—”

Allison clamped her hand over her mouth and pushed her back inside. “Shh!” she hissed, dragging Delaney deeper into the room, behind the desk, and finally underneath it. A narrow power strip lay on the floor, the cord disappearing around the side. Allison hit the button and the soft whirring of the machine turned off. The light died.

Her friend was squished beside her, chocolate brown eyes wide and locked on Allison’s. She said nothing while Allison worked to slow her breathing.

Footsteps: heavy, loud, and obvious, thundered through the hall. Voices, muted and indecipherable, murmured somewhere close by. They weren’t even trying to be covert now. They knew they’d been seen and they were determined to find her—

No, it had been too dark. They couldn’t have recognized her. She knew who they were, but she’d never spoken even ten words to any of them. They probably wouldn’t know her if they were introduced in the full light of day. They could know only that someone had seen them. Doing what, she wasn’t exactly sure.

He’d had a ball of fire in his hand… Of course, the more she thought about it, the more stupid it sounded. Had he been playing with a lighter? That made more sense, but the flame was too large. Wasn’t it? She tried to picture again exactly what she’d seen, but the memory was fading, unclear.

The footsteps were closer, directly on the other side of the door. Her heart hammered, then slowed. Her thoughts abruptly scattered.

They aren’t going to hurt me.

She felt her brows draw together. She didn’t know what their intentions were.

They’re nice guys. They probably just want to say hi.

They probably didn’t just want to say hi. If all they wanted to do was say hi, they’d have said hi when they realized they were being watched. They hadn’t. They’d come after her.

They’re harmless.

She didn’t know that and it was madness to assume she did. They could be planning to grab her and… what? They’d snuck into the school same as Delaney and Allison. Neither could rat on the other without bringing justice down on themselves. Both parties were equally in the wrong.

Except one of them had been playing with fire.

I should just come out and talk to them.

Her eyes narrowed. She absolutely should not just come out and talk to them.

Delaney was giving her a funny look, but with the quiet murmuring on the other side of the door, Allison couldn’t explain that she was having a ridiculous argument with herself.

She listened hard, tried to sort the voices, the words.

“Try again…”

“…idiot…”

“…get them back?”

Several doorknobs rattled, including theirs. Allison tried not to jump.

“Can’t you…”

“…brain dead…”

“…not my fault!”

“They’re close…”

It was quiet a long moment. So long that Allison wondered if they hadn’t left. She began to relax, as did Delaney, who went a step further and tried to scoot out from under the desk.

Allison snatched her back, holding tight when Delaney pushed away from her. “Are you crazy?” she said in a barely audible voice.

Delaney looked at her, her gaze not entirely focused. She opened her mouth to speak, forcing Allison to once again cover her mouth. She shook her head wordlessly, but Delaney paid her no attention. She kept trying persistently, if not very aggressively, to get up.

Allison held tight. Delaney had probably three inches on her, but Allison had her by fifteen pounds. She used every ounce of it to keep her friend down until abruptly, she stopped on her own.

The voices resumed.

“More than one…”

“…get a lock.”

“…no choice.”

“Go…”

“…idiots.”

Delaney stared at her, eyes now sharp and focused, and swallowed audibly. She did not speak. Not until the voices faded, the footsteps retreated and they waited a good five minutes just to be sure they were alone.

“What just happened?” Delaney’s voice was unsteady, as unsteady as Allison felt.

“I saw someone,” she whispered. “In the basement.”

“Doing what?”

“I don’t know. They were playing with a lighter or matches or something.” She trusted Delaney more than she trusted anybody, but she wasn’t telling her fireball theory to anyone.

“I figured it was bad when I saw your face,” she said.

“Then why did you try to get up?”

Delaney looked away. “I don’t know why I did that.”

“Just seemed like a good idea at the time?” she asked incredulously.

“I know how this is going to sound, but yeah.”

Allison had had the same impulse. “Maybe Mrs. Howard is an addict and we’re getting some kind of contact buzz.”

“Did they see you?”

“I don’t think so. It was too dark.”

“But you saw them.”

“Barely. If I didn’t know them, I wouldn’t have known them.”

Delaney understood. “Who was it?”

“The Baileys and Jeremy Austin.” The male half of their high school royalty. Until ten minutes ago, she would have said they were all decent guys. Snobs, but nowhere near as offensive as their female counterparts. Now, she never wanted to see any of them again.

“Playing with fire,” Delaney murmured. “Were they trying to burn the place down?”

“No. I don’t know.”

“Concentrate. Tell me exactly what you saw.”

She did, though without the influence of the adrenaline and outright fear, she was growing less and less sure of everything.

Delaney listened patiently, nodding along with her friend as she thought about it. “If you recognized them, why did you run?”

“Because they chased me.”

She raised one perfectly arched brow. “Did they chase you, or did they just move in your general direction?”

“They came up here looking for me!” At some point, Delaney had stopped taking this seriously. “You heard them!”

“So I did,” she conceded. “What do you think they were going to do if they found you?”

“I don’t think I want to know.”

“They aren’t evil. I know you felt threatened, but that could be more a product of your own neurosis than anything. They’re as much in the wrong as we are. The only difference is that we know who they are.”

“Do you think they left?” Allison asked quietly.

“Yeah, but I don’t know how far they went.”

“You think they’re waiting for us to come out?”

“Could be.” She got up and looked around the room as she brushed off a layer of dust she’d picked up somewhere from the side of her sweater. “We aren’t leaving anything, are we?”

“I’m not leaving at all. I don’t want them to see us!”

Delaney leaned a hip against the edge of the desk. “We can’t stay here all night. First of all, my dad would kill me. Second, your mother would have a heart attack.”

“But—”

“Think rationally, okay? They probably only wanted to know who we were. If they’re out there and they see us, so what? They can’t rat on us any more than we can rat on them.”

“What if that’s not what they want?” She couldn’t explain the fear she’d felt in the basement. It was like happening on a murderer in the middle of a spree. “They could be serial killers.”

Delaney laughed with genuine amusement. “Nate and Ryan and Jeremy as serial killers. I love that.”

“So glad I could amuse you.”

“Oh, come on. Jeremy? He looked like he was going to cry when we had to dissect that cat.”

“It was Jeremy holding the lighter.”

“Fine. We’ll take a different way out, okay? I doubt if they’re still out there, though. It’s going on midnight.”

As much as she might want to, Allison didn’t have the luxury of simply staying put. Her mother always checked on her when she got home from work and the sight of Allison’s empty bed probably would give Regina a heart attack.

“All right,” she said reluctantly. “Let’s go.”

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Monday morning, Allison was bleary eyed and dead on her feet tired. They’d made it home without seeing anyone and hopefully without being seen. Delaney was confident they were in the clear. As they walked to school, though, she made it clear she wasn’t worried either way.

“Even if they saw us, what can they do?”

“I don’t know. Tell Rebecca?”

Delaney shrugged. “Let them. I don’t care.”

“You were just as scared as I was,” she reminded her.

“Until I found out who it was,” she replied. “I’m not afraid of them, Ally. You shouldn’t be either.”

Logic told her Delaney was right. They’d all broken the law the night before. No one was more right or wrong than the other. Except the kid playing with fire. She tried to let it go.

“It was worth it, anyway,” Delaney said.

“We’ll see.”

“You don’t think it’ll work?”

“I’m sure it will. Temporarily. Rebecca isn’t just going to sit there and take it. I wouldn’t be surprised if her dad comes to school with her tomorrow.”

Delaney laughed. “Her dad’s an ambulance chaser. What’s he going to do?”

They cut through the park on the way. Allison marveled at how different it looked in decent light.

Delaney had other things on her mind. “I figure, at the very least, she’ll be out of biology a couple days.”

“Hey, gorgeous!”

Allison didn’t bother to turn at the new voice. Delaney gave a long-suffering sigh. “Hey, Troy.”

“I thought you were going to call me last night.”

“I can’t imagine why you’d think that,” she drawled, rolling her eyes at Allison.

Allison rolled them right back. Delaney’s biggest problem was that she drew attention, not just from Rebecca and her cronies, but from the opposite sex. Though Allison had never had the same problem, she spent enough time with Delaney to be annoyed by it.

Mostly, she couldn’t understand why they bothered. Yes, Delaney was disgustingly beautiful, but she was also inordinately picky about whom she was willing to spend time with. Though Delaney’s parents had given her their blessing to start dating at sixteen, Allison could count on one hand the number of times she’d actually gone out, and she’d never taken a second date with anyone.

“You said you’d call me!” Troy insisted.

Allison vaguely remembered the conversation. It had ended with Delaney’s promise to call…if and when hell froze over. Of course, she’d mostly muttered the last part and Troy heard what he wanted to hear.

“I’m sure I didn’t,” Delaney said.

“I remember,” he told her. “I remember everything you say.”

Troy Matthews was perhaps the most persistent of Delaney’s admirers. Every day, he approached her with at least one compliment, and one advance. Allison wished he’d just get it over with.

She saw the roof of the school peeking through the trees at the edge of the park. The sun was bright in the sky, the air crisp. Allison bundled herself a little deeper into her coat.

“I’m not leaving unless you promise to come out with me Friday.”

“Troy, I can’t. I have plans.”

“With me,” Allison piped in. Troy blinked at her, probably because he hadn’t even noticed her there. “If you get lost, I’ll see if I can’t talk her into cancelling.”

Now she was his new best friend. Troy beamed at her. “Really?”

“Yeah. See you,” she said pointedly.

He took the hint, however slowly, and disappeared through the brush. “He’s driving me nuts,” Delaney complained.

“Yeah, well, maybe if you tried harder to play up your basic ugliness, guys would leave you alone.”

Delaney laughed with all the confidence of someone who was undeniably gorgeous. “Or I could use your technique.”

“What’s that?”

“You know, ignore them completely. Pretend they aren’t there, even if they’re talking to you.”

“I don’t do that.”

“I’ve seen you do that.”

“Have not.”

“Have so.”

“Why are we talking about this? I’m supposed to be convincing you to see Troy again.”

“I don’t want to see Troy again.”

“Why not? He seems okay.”

“He isn’t. There’s some seriously messed up history there.” Delaney readjusted the strap of her book bag as they exited the park.

They crossed the street and started up the front stairs to the school. Small groups of students gathered off to the side, some loitering in the soft grass, some reclined on the stairs. They knew most of them, but no greetings were forthcoming. Allison and Delaney mainly kept to themselves.

In a low voice, she asked, “What kind of history?”

Quietly, Delaney confided, “I’m not saying he’s a stalker, but the potential is there. He’d be one clingy boyfriend.”

“How do you know?” Delaney was good at reading people, but she wasn’t psychic.

“One date two months ago and he’s still bugging me. It’s a bad sign.”

“Maybe he’s in love with you,” she suggested.

Delaney scoffed. “He doesn’t even know me.”

“You don’t think it’s even the slightest bit flattering?” Allison asked doubtfully. Yeah, it was annoying, but if she had guys falling all over themselves the way they fell all over Delaney, she’d be flattered.

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”

Allison pulled open the front door and started towards her locker. “I’ll see you in biology,” she called behind her.

“I wouldn’t miss it.”

Biology was fourth period, the last before lunch. Allison had to suffer through Geometry, English and World History before that. She did so absent-mindedly. She had first period with Jeremy Austin, who ignored her the same as he always did, but made her nervous anyway because now she knew he broke into school and played with fire then tried to chase down innocent bystanders.

Between trying to remember what a quadratic function was and taking notes from the rapid-fire lesson, she kept a wary eye trained on the back of his head. He might have those boyish good looks and easy-going façade, but she didn’t relax until the bell rang and she could get away.

English passed in a blur of varying opinions on The Crucible. Allison had both read the play, and watched the film, but with Ryan Bailey sitting diagonally across from her, she couldn’t summon enough of a response to participate.

If she was honest, she’d have to admit that she sometimes let her mind—and her eyes—wander in his direction. She couldn’t help it. The Baileys were gorgeous. Cousins, only a few months apart in age, they looked more like brothers. They had the same chestnut colored hair, golden complexions, and pretty, almond-shaped brown eyes.

The physical differences between them were minor. Ryan was an inch or so taller and bigger through the shoulders. Nate was a bit thicker through the middle and had a cleft in his chin. Personality-wise, they were on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Though neither were unfriendly, Ryan was at times almost excessively polite. The kind of polite that should come off as phony, but rarely did. Probably because he was smart enough to make it seem genuine. Unlike the people he surrounded himself with, he was always on the honor roll.

Allison sometimes wondered how someone so bright had ended up as Rebecca’s on again, off again boyfriend. She might be beautiful, but she was also manipulative and cruel. For a guy who tried so hard to project congeniality, one would think he’d avoid the source of all evil.

As though he could hear her thoughts, he leaned back in his chair, casting a glance over the room. Before he could look her way, Allison dropped her eyes, waiting for the bell to ring.

In History, Miss Murphy started a discussion on Henry VIII, which had nothing to do with the assigned curriculum for the quarter. Miss Murphy had a habit of wandering from the syllabus when the mood struck her, which Allison usually enjoyed, but couldn’t concentrate on that day because Nathan Bailey was sitting two seats in front of her.

It was hard not to like Nate. He had a wicked grin, an easy laugh and enough charm to weasel his way past the sometimes ridiculous things that came out of his mouth. Before last night, she would have called him a jokester. The class clown. Now, however, there was a darker interpretation to his antics.

“Did we lose you, Allison?”

Miss Murphy interrupted her thoughts with a raised, disapproving brow. Allison flushed. She felt too many eyes upon her and dropped her gaze. “Uh, no, ma’am.”

“Then tell us, who was Henry’s second wife?”

She should know this. She’d watched the PBS special a few months ago with her mother. She racked her brain. Catherine? If so, which one? There’d been at least two.

“Anne Boleyn,” Rebecca said, from the front of the room.

Miss Murphy gave Allison a look. “That’s correct, Rebecca.”

Of course it was. When the devil made her, he’d given Rebecca an excellent memory for details. Allison was really looking forward to Biology.

“Who can tell me what happened to her?” Miss Murphy asked.

Allison thought about it. He’d beheaded at least a couple of them. She vaguely recalled a divorce in there somewhere.

“He cut off her head,” someone said from the back of the room.

“That’s right. Does anyone know why?”

“She was a witch,” Maggie Albright called out.

Miss Murphy said, “That was one of the charges laid against her, but I’m sure we can all agree it was false.”

“She had six fingers on one hand,” she said, as if that was somehow proof.

Nate joined the conversation. “He cut off her head cause he wanted to marry someone else.”

Miss Murphy said, “Very good, Nathan.”

Maggie didn’t think so. “If he wanted to marry someone else, he could have divorced her.”

“Easier back then to just kill them off and be done with it,” Nate said with a cocky grin.

Maggie gave him a withering look, though Miss Murphy nodded. “He isn’t that far off,” she told Maggie. “You’re talking about the mindset of one of the most powerful men in the world, five hundred years ago when women were considered little more than property…”

Allison stole a glance at Nate. He beamed at Miss Murphy, the smile so bright and confident she forgot for a moment that he was a delinquent. Must be how he got away with it—how they all got away with it, for that matter.

If Jeremy and Nate and Ryan were moody and disrespectful, they’d be viewed with suspicion and distrust. Flash a couple smiles and impress your teacher and you were above reproach.

Until they got caught, anyway. Allison might have no plans to turn them in, but she had a feeling their outing last night hadn’t been the first time. Eventually, someone else would see them and then Allison wouldn’t be the only one wondering what they were capable of.

“Excellent point, Rebecca,” Miss Murphy said.

Allison hadn’t heard the point, but she doubted it was excellent.

“Thank you, Miss Murphy.”

Their teacher looked at the clock. “Homework tonight, guys. I’d like you to finish chapter ten, and answer questions one through twenty on the review.” She retreated to her desk, leaning against the side as the bell rang.

Allison gathered her things and went for the door. She stopped at her locker to drop off a few books, then turned the corner into Mr. Jeffries’ Biology class. Delaney was already there, waiting for her. Allison took the seat beside her.

As the classroom filled, neither spoke, watching instead as Rebecca filed into the room with Ryan, Jeremy, and three of her nearest and dearest suck-ups.

Allison had never considered the girls who trailed behind Rebecca to be her friends. They weren’t equals. Rebecca led them around like blind monkeys, telling them where to go, what to wear, even who to go out with. Her monkeys ate it up, as if somehow being that close to someone as perfect as Rebecca did anything positive for them. It didn’t.

They weren’t as clever as Rebecca and they lacked her charm, deceptive as it was. They didn’t have her confidence, nor her looks. Rotten as she was, Rebecca was unfortunately rather lovely. She was nearly as beautiful as Delaney and that was saying something. Her monkeys paled in comparison.

Delaney’s theory was that Rebecca enjoyed it. Superiority complex and all that. Allison thought she was probably right.

As they neared Allison’s table, Rebecca smiled at Delaney. In a soft, sweet voice that carried no farther than the three of them, she told her, “Your hair looks great.”

Delaney didn’t miss the innuendo, but neither did she rise to the bait. With a small smile of her own she said, just as quietly, “That’s really nice of you to say, Rebecca, especially considering what a bad hair day you’re having.”

Allison laughed out loud. Ryan, Jeremy, and the monkeys glanced at her curiously. Allison waited until they passed before she told Delaney, “You’re awesome.”

Rebecca and Ryan took the first table at the front of the room. Jeremy and Monkey Number One, aka Megan Howell, took the table behind them. Allison watched them settle in, Rebecca flipping her long blonde hair over her shoulders, Megan parroting the move with her curly brown locks. Jeremy put his books on the table and reclined in his seat while, in front of him, Ryan yawned.

They looked tired, she thought, refusing to feel sympathy. They were up and coming felons, as the events of the night before had demonstrated.

“You shouldn’t glare at them,” Delaney whispered.

Allison smoothed her expression and looked away. “I wasn’t,” she lied.

“She’s going to get what’s coming to her.”

Mr. Jeffries chose that moment to enter the room. He adjusted his thick, horn-rimmed glasses higher up on his nose and ran a hand through his bushy gray hair, stopping mid-stride to slap his book on the table before he turned to glare at all of them, individually and then as a whole.

Jeremy, whose happy-go-lucky demeanor remained oblivious to the sudden tension in the room, greeted their teacher with the demand, “Did you grade our tests yet?”

Mr. Jeffries had promised them a movie if everyone passed. Allison had forgotten until that moment. She had a feeling no movies would be forthcoming.

“Last week’s exam was compromised,” Mr. Jeffries announced.

A low murmur spread throughout the room. Ryan frowned. Jeremy sighed. Megan blew a bubble with her gum and Rebecca gasped, acting like she didn’t know what had happened, which Allison had to remind herself, she actually didn’t.

“I’ve rewritten the test, which you’ll take now. There will be no movie.”

Jeremy protested. “You can’t punish everyone for—”

“I can, and I will. Put your books away,” he told them. “Allison, pass these out.”

He held a stack of exams out to her. Allison rose, nervous though she had no reason to be. She wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans and walked to the front of the room. Because she was exactly the kind of science nerd that volunteered for extra credit and aced her tests with ease, she was often Mr. Jeffries’ helper. This was the first time she felt uncomfortable in that role.

No one paid much attention to her as she distributed the new exams. Jeremy still seemed disgruntled, but he’d finally learned to keep his mouth shut. Mike Cobb nervously accepted his, avoiding eye contact with anyone. Jaden Musto rolled her eyes playfully at Allison, who barely managed a small smile in return.

When she was finished, Mr. Jeffries told them, “You have forty minutes, starting now.”

Allison opened hers and realized exactly what their teacher had done. Though he usually wrote his own tests, sticking to material they’d gone over—and over—in class, he’d taken this one straight out of the teacher’s book. The new questions were more straight-forward, but less familiar.

Still, she did all right. If she hadn’t spent a few boring nights thumbing through her textbook, she might not have. The bell rang just as she closed the exam.

Delaney led the way to the door, pausing only briefly as they heard Mr. Jeffries say, “Rebecca, stay a minute, will you?”

Allison got a knot in her stomach the size of Texas, but kept walking. They took their lunch, as they always did, at one of only two abandoned tables in the cafeteria.

“Any regrets?” Delaney asked her.

“Not yet, but I’m pretty sure I got an A. What about you?”

Delaney shrugged. “I’m probably looking at a C.” It was probably what she’d gotten the first time, too. Biology wasn’t Delaney’s cup of tea.

Allison scanned the room. Ryan, Nate, Jeremy, and four of Rebecca’s monkeys sat at their usual table. Though the girls appeared to be anxiously awaiting their leader, the guys were deep in conversation at the other end of the table.

“How long do you think she’ll be?” Allison asked.

“I guess that depends on whether he hauls her down to the principal’s office.”

“Do you have regrets?” Allison asked her.

“Nothing’s going to happen to her, except a little embarrassment. Maybe a couple teachers won’t think she’s perfect anymore. Big deal.”

Allison tried to imagine the confrontation that was taking place on the other side of the building. Rebecca would deny the charges, but the evidence was stacked against her. “Think they’ll call Mrs. Howard?”

“I don’t know.”

She pushed at the spaghetti on her tray, using the greasy breadstick to shove it this way and that. “If they do, we’re busted.”

“No one knows we were here,” Delaney insisted.

“Unless they—” She nodded toward Jeremy’s table. “Saw us.”

“Even if they did, they can’t know what we were here for.” Delaney bit the tip of her breadstick. “Don’t worry so much. First of all, they’d have to call Mrs. Howard, which they have no reason to do because they have her email.”

“Which was sent at almost midnight last night.”

“She has access from home.”

Allison glanced at her. “You thought of everything, didn’t you?”

“I’m pretty amazing, aren’t I?”

She laughed, in spite of herself. “I just feel like it was a bad idea.”

“That’s cause you’re paranoid,” Delaney told her. “You want my prediction? Rebecca is going to stomp in here in a few minutes, pissed off. Mr. Jeffries might call her parents, and they’ll all sit down and argue about it after school. He’ll show them the email and the copy of the test. She’ll spend the next few days getting fawned over by the science club and by Friday, everything will be back to normal.”

“What if her parents get Mrs. Howard involved?”

“If—and that’s a big if—she has to come in, she’ll figure her preggo brain was overloaded with hormones and she made an honest mistake.”

“That seems very unlikely,” Allison said.

Delaney sipped her milk. “Worst case scenario, they figure it out. But again, they can’t pin it on us.”

“Unless Jeremy—”

“Admits that he was here, lighting fires? They’d probably expel all of us,” she said. “But I’m telling you, they didn’t see us. If they had, they would have let us know by now.”

“Why would they do that?”

“Jeremy doesn’t have a poker face. He’d be staring at us and whispering or something.”

Allison looked over at them to make sure they weren’t doing just that. They weren’t. They were staring at the door, where Rebecca had finally made an appearance.

She did exactly as Delaney said and stomped into the room, over to her table, her face flushed indignantly. She gestured wildly, angrily, as she spoke with Ryan and Nate.

“Here we go,” Delaney said softly.

Jeremy turned around in his seat to face Rebecca. Nate was frowning. Ryan narrowed his eyes, speaking so quietly they couldn’t even hear the timbre of his voice. All the while, Rebecca looked like she was on the verge of having a nervous breakdown.

“Is it wrong that I’m enjoying this?” Delaney said softly.

Allison was kind of enjoying it as well. How many times had Rebecca done this to someone else? Delaney wasn’t her only target. She spread gossip and pain with malicious generosity. This year alone, she’d reduced Maggie Albright to a weeping mess, Jennifer Cowan to a near-suicidal state and given Thea Keller a fictional STD. It had been months, and still not one guy in their school would get within five feet of Thea.

Jeremy’s eyes were wide and if Allison wasn’t mistaken, he was beginning to look amused. Nate had started rolling his eyes and even Ryan was losing patience. As Rebecca fumed, he threw up his hands and turned away from her. Only her loyal monkeys seemed particularly sympathetic, though she continued to ignore them, glaring instead at Ryan with enough dislike that Delaney murmured, “Looks like trouble in paradise.”

Rebecca pulled out her cellphone, hit a couple buttons and put it to her ear. The shrieking and gesturing started all over again.

“I’m betting that’s Daddy,” Allison said quietly.

“I’ll buy that.”

By now, the entire lunchroom was caught up in the drama. Mounds of spaghetti lay untouched on red plastic trays, milk growing warm, while over two hundred sets of eyes watched Rebecca Miller have a breakdown.

Delaney nudged her. “Take a look at her victims.”

Allison cast an eye over the crowd, locating Maggie, then Thea. Maggie was still confused as to the source of Rebecca’s upset, but Thea was close enough to have overheard. She wore a small, satisfied smile as she tore into her breadstick.

“We’re like heroes,” Delaney said.

It did make Allison feel pretty good. “As long as we keep our masks on, I’m fine with it.”

The rest of the day went by swiftly. Though Rebecca should have been in two more of Allison’s classes, she never showed. Ryan and Nate did, for study hall, quietly whispering to themselves the entire time. Allison was too far away to make out their words, but she had a good idea what they were discussing.

After the last bell rang, Allison joined Delaney in front of the building to start the walk home. Neither were overly surprised when Rebecca’s father’s Mercedes Benz parked in the front row. They watched him get out and walk up to the building, Rebecca leading the way.

“Ever wish you could be a fly on the wall?” Delaney asked her.

“Not this time,” she answered. “Five bucks says they’re going to bring Mrs. Howard in.”

“That would really ruin this for me.”

“Next time we’ll have to pick someone with fewer connections,” Allison joked.

Delaney laughed and they began walking. “You want to come over today?”

Allison loved Delaney’s house. It was large and bright and Delaney’s mother, Jackie, was usually in the kitchen by this time, starting dinner. Allison could picture her soft, friendly face as she plied them with food and listened to whatever stories they told her from their day. Jackie was always interested.

Allison felt a pang, knowing she had to refuse. “No, I’m going to fill out some applications.”

Delaney wrinkled her nose. “You’ve been sixteen for a day. You don’t have to start working yet.”

She didn’t have to, at all, but she was tired of her mother working three jobs when Allison was finally of an age to help. “I want to,” she told her.

“This is what I mean, when I tell you you’re not normal.”

Allison laughed. “You aren’t normal either.”

“Yeah, but I’m a good kind of weird.”

“You just keep thinking that.”

She let herself in to the back door at home. The house was empty, as she’d known it would be. During the school year, Allison felt like she never saw her mother.

Wandering into the kitchen for a quick snack before she set off, she found a note from her mother on the counter. “Banana bread in the fridge,” it read. “Leftover meatloaf for dinner. Love you.”

She cut a few slices of bread, wondering idly how her mother found time to make homemade anything when she barely had time to sleep.

Allison needed to find a job. She wasn’t overly confident in her ability to do so. Stillwater was hardly a hub of employment opportunities. They had a McDonald’s, Burger King, and Arby’s, and there was talk of a Taco Bell coming soon, but that was the extent of their national chain exposure. The quaint shops and restaurants lining the main drag of town were family owned and operated.

Well, she told herself, she was just going to have to endear herself to someone else’s family.

She changed her top, grabbed her keys, and set off. Three businesses had help wanted signs in their windows. The first, Greene Clean, was a Laundromat and dry cleaner. Allison went inside and requested an application.

The woman behind the counter was no younger than ninety years old. “What job are you applying for?” she asked Allison.

“What are you hiring for?” she countered with what she hoped looked like a trustworthy smile.

“I need someone to run the machines. You ever worked at a dry cleaner before?”

Rather than answer in the negative, she said, “I’m a very fast learner.”

The woman looked her over a couple times. Allison didn’t think she could see very well. “Have you ever had a job before?”

“Technically, no.”

“How old are you, sweetie?”

“Sixteen.”

“No, no. I don’t want to have to fight those child labor laws.”

Allison felt her brows draw together. “I don’t think you have to fight them.”

“Oh, yes, I will. Can’t work you too long, can’t work you too hard. Probably a better idea not to work you at all.” She shook her head. “Sorry, sweetie. Maybe in a couple years.”

In a couple years, Allison planned to be far away, tucked neatly into some prestigious university, earning some degree that would bring her buckets full of money. She didn’t have a specific goal in mind, she just wanted to be able to support herself and maybe give her mother the early retirement Regina deserved. If Allison was still here, getting a job would be the least of her problems.

She tried the library next, which promised to keep her in mind for a book sorter, but Allison refused to pin her hopes on it. Down the street, under a neon pink sign, she walked into Candy’s Cones.

Technically, it wasn’t an ice cream parlor. Not anymore, anyway. The small building hadn’t offered ice cream in ten years, choosing instead to specialize in baked goods. They kept the name, Regina had told her, in tribute to the former owners who’d passed the business down for three generations.

Allison blinked the sun from her eyes and approached the counter. A girl her age whom she vaguely recognized, but couldn’t place, said, “Can I help you?”

“Can I have an application?”

“You can, but I’m not recommending it.”

Startled, she laughed. “Uh…”

The girl drew a two page application from underneath the counter. “You’re Ally, right?”

“Yeah. You’re…?”

“Stephanie.” When that failed to jog Allison’s memory, she added, “Miller.”

Rebecca’s father’s first wife’s daughter. Rebecca refused to classify her as a sister, which made her all right in Allison’s book. “Oh yeah,” she said.

Stephanie looked nothing like Rebecca. She had dark hair, dark eyes, and a total absence of malice on her face. She went to Jefferson, but she was a senior this year and Allison rarely saw her. She was surprised the other girl knew her. “Have we met before?”

“I’ve seen you with Delaney Gray.”

Mystery solved. Delaney knew everyone.

“When did you turn sixteen?” she asked.

“Yesterday.”

“Good. Irene won’t hire anyone younger than that. You sure you want to work here?”

“Unless you have a compelling reason why not.”

“It’s a thankless job with long hours, crappy pay and rude customers.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s all I’m qualified for right now.”

Stephanie laughed. “Then fill it out. I’ll give it to Irene for you.”

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

“Oh, Ally, that’s exciting.”

Allison smiled at Delaney’s mother. The woman could get excited about anything. “Thanks, but it’s not a sure thing.”

“I think you’ll get it,” she said optimistically. “Here, honey, have another brownie.”

Allison shouldn’t even be looking at the brownies, but she took another anyway. “Thanks.”

Delaney grabbed one for herself and hopped on a kitchen stool. “What’s for dinner?” she asked her mother.

Jackie Gray motioned towards the crock pot. “Roast.”

“I hate roast.”

“It’s your father’s favorite,” she said. “And you don’t hate it.”

“Okay,” she said amiably enough. “I don’t prefer it.”

“Well, as soon as you start cooking dinner around here, you can decide what we’re having.”

Allison said, “The only thing she knows how to make is macaroni and cheese.”

“My macaroni and cheese is excellent,” Delaney boasted.

“Be that as it may, you should learn to make something else. Why don’t you help me do lasagna tomorrow?”

Delaney shot her friend a look. “Thanks, Ally.”

“It’s not her fault you’re afraid to learn to cook.”

“I’m not afraid.”

“Yes, you are,” Jackie said. “You think if I teach you, I’ll make you do it all the time.”

“Not all the time,” Delaney insisted. “Just often.”

“You’re lazy,” her mother said lightly. “You didn’t get that from me.”

“So she got it from me?” Trevor Gray entered the kitchen in full uniform, looking highly amused. He should have been intimidating, as big as he looked in the cozy kitchen, but the warm smile softened his features. He planted a kiss on his wife’s cheek and lifted the lid on the crockpot. “Smells good.”

“How was your day?” Jackie asked him.

“Long,” he answered.

Allison watched them catch up with a smile of her own. She was a little in love with Delaney’s parents. Maybe it was because they were happy and stable and obviously in love, or maybe simply because she didn’t have the same experience at home. Allison couldn’t even remember her father.

Supposedly he’d been a world class dad, right up until he took off when she was two. Regina made excuses for him—he was in the military, his time was not his own. As much as he wanted to be with them, he was an important man doing important work, and it was more important for him to be out saving the world than spending time at home with them.

When she was little, Allison spent hours writing him letters, telling him how much she missed him and asking when he could come home. One letter a week she sent, until she was twelve. That was the year she’d caught her mother writing his reply and realized her deadbeat father had never sent one letter to her in return.

After that, Allison didn’t ask when her father was coming home. She no longer cared.

“How’s your mother?” Trevor asked her.

“Good. Working.”

“You’re welcome to stay for dinner,” he said.

“That was already the plan, Dad,” Delaney told him.

Jackie handed Allison a stack of plates. “Would you mind helping Delaney set the table?”

“Sure.”

She spent the evening with her borrowed family, enjoying the conversation as much as the meal, then volunteered afterward to clear the table and start the dishwasher. Jackie beamed at her. Trevor told Delaney, “You picked a good one there.”

Delaney rolled her eyes. “You’re the daughter they never had,” she said, making them all laugh.

Jackie dropped her off at home later that night. “Your mom will be home soon, won’t she?”

“Another hour or so.”

“Well, if you need anything, honey, you just call.”

She really loved Delaney’s parents.

Allison let herself inside and flipped on the television. They had basic cable, which included sixty channels but that night it seemed every one of them was airing crap. She flipped it off again, but remained on the couch, staring up at the ceiling.

It was nine o’clock. She had no homework and nothing to do. Boredom rarely led to anything productive. She checked the urge to check the fridge. If she ate anything else, she was going to be sick.

Instead, she grabbed her laptop—the birthday present Regina shouldn’t have splurged on—and surfed the net. She was still at it when her mother came home from work.

Regina resembled her daughter. She had dark, dark red hair cut in a bob that didn’t quite reach her chin. Her eyes were the same, round and heavy lidded and bluish-gray, surrounded by a fringe of less than extraordinary dark brown lashes. Regina put more care into her appearance than her daughter, which was why those lashes were currently thick and long and black, but she accented them with a pair of dark bags that spoke of bone-deep fatigue.

“How was work?” Allison asked her.

Regina always had a smile, even when she couldn’t possibly mean it. “Good. How was school?”

“Same old, same old.”

Her mother sat heavily beside her as she kicked off the plain black shoes she wore no matter which of her jobs she was working. “Did you eat?” she asked around a yawn.

“Delaney invited me to dinner.”

“Do you have homework?”

“Finished.”

Her head fell against the back of the couch. “You want to watch a movie?”

Allison took pity on her. “Go to bed, Mom. It’s late.”

“I can hang!” she insisted.

“It’s okay. I’m going to bed, too.”

Regina took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I love you, baby.”

“Me too.”

*

On Thursday, Rebecca was back in Biology. She’d only missed two classes, but she’d gotten out of the science club’s tutoring, and the rumor was that Mr. Jeffries had apologized not only to her, but her father.

Mrs. Howard had been seen twice the day before, once entering the principal’s office, looking huge and harassed, then leaving the building an hour later in a huff.

“No one knows,” Delaney assured her. “Don’t worry.”

Oddly enough, Allison wasn’t worrying. If anyone knew, she and Delaney would know by now. She was, however, feeling guilty. Mike Cobb was on in-school suspension which he probably deserved for cheating, but was sentenced to more as a result of the administration’s assumption that he was behind the email.

“They can’t prove it,” Delaney told her. “His uncle gave him an alibi.”

“They probably figure he’s lying.”

“It’s not on his record.”

“Doesn’t matter. I still feel bad.”

Delaney sighed. “Yeah, me too.”

After school, they roamed the park. Allison wasn’t in the mood to go home and she was taking the day off from job-hunting. “Mom would give you a reference, if you asked.” Delaney told her.

“If no one calls me by Friday, I’ll ask.”

They drifted toward the edge of a low valley where a downed tree had fallen weeks before. Delaney sat on the trunk while Allison sank to the dry ground, resting her back against the log.

The sounds of the park surrounded them. Rustling leaves, chirping birds and what was probably a squirrel. She closed her eyes as she relaxed, still feeling a little guilty and more than a little bored, until she heard another noise somewhere not too far away.

Whoosh!

Allison opened her eyes, listening. A murmur of voices, a single laugh.

“Did you hear that?” Delaney asked.

Allison sat up, her eyes searching the thickly wooded area for movement. She didn’t see any, but the ground rose steeply behind them, sheltering her and her friend while disguising anyone on the other side.

More laughter.

Whoosh!

“What is that?” Delaney whispered.

Allison swallowed. She’d heard that sound before, felt the same warm tingling in the tips of her fingers. She stared down at them as the feeling passed.

They were getting closer. Twigs snapped beneath them, their words seeming louder, clearer.

“You’re idiots.”

Delaney met her eyes. They both knew that voice. Ryan Bailey. Three guesses as to who he had with him.

Allison gestured toward the peak of the hill. Fat bushes and skinny trees stood at the top. Delaney nodded. They could see without being seen, if they were careful.

“How am I an idiot? I didn’t do it,” Nate said.

“You encourage him,” Ryan answered.

“Yeah,” Jeremy said. “You might say you’re fueling the fire.”

Someone thought that was hilarious, but Allison couldn’t tell if it was Jeremy, or Nate. It definitely wasn’t Ryan, who said, “Complete morons. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s one brain between the two of you.”

More laughter.

Whoosh!

Allison ignored the brief tingle in her fingers as they climbed up the wall, wincing at each crisp leaf crushed beneath a shoe, or a knee. They had to use the branches of trees rooted firmly to the ground to help pull themselves up, as the face was nearly vertical.

Delaney made it first, tugging Allison up with her, where they crouched behind a wide, barren bush. On the other side, not thirty feet away, were Jeremy, Nate and Ryan.

The field was mainly level, shaded under the covering of long branches and thick gray clouds. Ryan sat against the trunk of a tree, looking annoyed. Nate stood across from him, looking amused. Jeremy was between them, flat on his back, smiling up at the sky.

“One of these days, you’re going to get caught,” Ryan warned. “Then what are you going to do?”

“Guess that depends on who does the catching,” Nate said.

Jeremy said, “You worry too much.”

“You don’t worry enough,” Ryan said. “Someone was there the other night.”

Delaney shot a quick look at her friend. Allison bit her lip. Jeremy said, “Nate’s working on it.”

“I’ve got it narrowed down,” he confirmed.

“To what?” Ryan asked.

“About a hundred.”

“Good work,” he said sarcastically.

“Dude, do you know how many people go to our school?” Jeremy said.

“They might not go to our school,” Ryan said.

“I think they do,” Nate said. “Why would anyone who doesn’t go to our school break into Mrs. Howard’s office and set up Rebecca?”

Allison swallowed hard. She tried to look at Delaney, but the movement shifted her just enough that she felt herself begin to slip. Delaney grabbed the arm of her jacket and hauled her back up. “Stop!” she mouthed the word.

Allison shot her a dirty look. “I’m not doing it on purpose,” she mouthed back.

“I still think that part’s funny,” Jeremy said.

“You haven’t had to listen to it all week. It’s the exact opposite of funny,” Ryan said.

“I told you they were in that office,” Nate said.

Ryan scoffed. “Let me pat you on the back.”

“If we would have waited…” Nate began.

“If Dumbo there hadn’t been showing off—”

Jeremy glared at him. “How was I supposed to know anyone was going to be there?”

“You have to be more careful than that. You know better.”

Nate snickered. “You sound like his dad.”

“Shut up.”

Jeremy sighed and as they watched, he lifted his arm and—

“Do it again and I swear I’ll kick your ass,” Ryan said.

Jeremy dropped his hand. “You’re a real downer, you know that?”

“And you’re a real idiot,” Ryan told him.

“You’re just jealous,” Jeremy said, pouting.

“Remember that when you’re locked away in a lab somewhere getting dissected.”

“I don’t think they’d dissect him,” Nate said thoughtfully. “He’d be too useful.”

“As a test subject,” Ryan said. “How long do you figure before you know?” he asked Nate.

The other Bailey shrugged. “Another week or so.”

“And what are we supposed to do then?” Jeremy asked.

“Damage control,” Ryan said grimly.

“They probably didn’t see anything.”

Even Nate was skeptical of that. “If they hadn’t seen anything, they wouldn’t have run away.”

They pondered that, all three of them. A crow flew overhead. Somewhere close by a squirrel lost an acorn and it bounced off several branches before it dropped beside Delaney.

Allison nudged her. “We should go.”

They slithered away nearly as quietly as they’d crawled up. Delaney retrieved her backpack from the ground. Allison picked up the single book she’d brought from school.

“They were talking about us,” Allison told her when they were far enough away that she didn’t fear being overheard.

“Probably.”

“Does nothing worry you?” she asked, annoyed.

“Why should it?”

“Nate said he would know in another week.”

“He’s bluffing. There aren’t any cameras at school, no tape they can look at. As long as we keep our mouths shut, they’ll never know.”

“I hope you’re right.”

They exited the park the same way they’d entered, through the front. Aimlessly, they strolled the streets, no destination in mind. “I always thought they were kind of boring,” Delaney said. “But I’m beginning to revise my opinion.”

Allison glanced at her. “If you tell me you’re getting a crush on one of them—”

“Not a crush,” she said. “An interest.”

“Terrible idea,” Allison told her.

A flashy red sports car raced past, blowing Allison’s long hair into her face. She pushed it back, retrieving the band she’d left on her wrist to contain it in a low ponytail at the base of her neck.

Delaney watched her, contemplatively. “You really shouldn’t be afraid of them, Ally.”

“They make me nervous.”

“I don’t know why.”

“Uh, maybe because they’re sneaky and devious? Or how about because they chased me down in an empty building? Could be because—”

Delaney sighed. “Okay, okay, I get it. Honestly, though, I think the whole thing is kind of mysterious.”

“Which part?”

“Well, you keep worrying about our secret when the fact of the matter is, they have one, too. What were they doing there?”

“Playing with fire.” Of that, Allison was sure.

“Yeah, but why? And what else are they hiding? Did you hear what Ryan was saying? They’ve got secrets. I’m guessing a lot of secrets.”

“You’re romanticizing them.”

Delaney grinned. “Yeah, a little. Come on, it’s boring around here, ninety-nine percent of the time. This is exciting.”

“It feels dangerous.”

“That’s cause you’re neurotic,” she said dismissively. “I think we should start tailing them.”

Allison gaped at her. “Are you serious?”

“Why not? We’re being proactive. They’re trying to find out something about us. If we keep our eye on them, maybe we’ll find out something about them.”

“I don’t want to know anything about them.”

“I think I do.”

“That’s cause you’re bored and criminally reckless,” Allison said. “It’s a terrible idea. We’re not doing it.”

Delaney gave her a look. It was one Allison recognized.

“We’re not doing it,” she said again.

“Whatever you say.”

Delaney thought she could wear her down, but there were some things not even her best friend could talk Allison into doing.

*

Monday morning, the phone woke her from a dead sleep. She reached blindly across her pillow to retrieve it. “Uh-huh?” she murmured.

“I’m calling for Allison Noble,” an unfamiliar voice said.

She pried open an eyelid. First of all, it was six o’clock in the morning. Second of all, people whose voices she didn’t recognize didn’t call asking for her. “This is she.”

“Hi, Allison. This is Irene Jensen, from Candy’s Cones? I wonder if you would be available to come in for an interview today.”

Now she was fully awake. A slow smile spread across her face. “Yes! Absolutely! What time?”

“How about four?”

“Yes! Perfect! Thank you!” She didn’t care if she sounded stupid. She had an interview for a job.

Irene chuckled. “I’ll see you then.”

She hung up, jumping a little when her alarm clock chose that moment to explode with music. Allison didn’t bother turning it off, instead standing and indulging in a little early-morning, utterly uncoordinated dance.

Her mother was already gone, so Allison had to wait until she caught up with Delaney on the way to school to share her news.

“I’m happy for you,” Delaney said, then added, “But only because for whatever reason, it seems to make you happy.”

Allison laughed. “It does.”

It made her so happy, in fact, that when she walked into Geometry, she smiled at several of her classmates, even Jeremy the Pyromaniac, who blinked in surprise, but smiled back.

“Somebody’s in a good mood,” Troy said from behind her.

Allison glanced at him. “Morning.”

“You talk Delaney into calling me yet?” he asked her.

“Working on it,” she lied.

“Did I make her mad or something?”

She considered telling him that he had, but he’d only go out of his way to make it up to her friend, whom Allison knew from experience was not going to change her mind. “Actually, she’s just not interested in having a boyfriend right now. She’s taking a break from guys.”

Troy didn’t like the sound of that. “I’m different,” he said earnestly.

I hear you are, Allison thought. “Doesn’t matter. She wants to focus on her studies.”

He opened his mouth to offer another reason that was a bad idea, but Mr. Horner walked into the room, demanding last night’s homework, and put an end to the conversation.

When she joined Delaney for Biology, she told her, “You’re going to have to do something about Troy. I’m starting to feel bad for him.”

“You want to break into the principal’s office and have him expelled?”

Allison looked at her.

“I’m kidding.” Delaney laughed. “He just needs to find someone else to latch onto.”

It wasn’t a bad idea. As one easily overlooked, Allison had the advantage of knowing more about her peers than they knew about her. “Megan likes him,” Allison said.

Delaney looked across the room to where Megan sat, mimicking her leader with a flip of hair and restless fingers drumming a staccato beat on the table. “I’ll talk to her in Spanish, feel her out.”

“I don’t know if Rebecca will approve.” Rebecca preferred her monkeys single. That way they had more time to fawn over her.

“Then we’ll need to find a way to make Rebecca think it’s a good idea.”

“How’re we going to do that?”

“I don’t know. I’ll think about it. Get back to you.”

Allison asked, “You ever think we’re too interfering?”

“We’re just a couple do-gooders,” she said.

Over a lunch of school pizza and chocolate milk, Delaney pondered a different dilemma. “I think they go to the park every day after school.”

“Who?”

She tilted her head in the general vicinity of Jeremy’s table. “I heard them talking.”

“You want me to tell you again how bad of an idea that is?”

Delaney ignored her. “Jeremy’s into something. I don’t think its drugs, but who knows?”

“It didn’t sound like drugs. It sounded like…” Her voice trailed off. She didn’t know what it sounded like. Ryan was riding him hard, but the threat that Jeremy would be dissected had her thrown for a loop.

“I don’t know either,” Delaney said. “That’s why I want to find out.”

“Lane, sometimes, some things, are better left to the imagination.”

“My imagination sucks,” she complained.

“Right,” Allison said sarcastically. “You’re the creative mastermind behind everything around here.”

“Not everything.” Delaney stole another glance at their table. “You suppose he’s like a pyromaniac?”

“The thought did occur to me.”

“You want to go to the park today?”

Allison was glad she had other plans. “I have an interview.”

“Your job is already putting a damper on my social life.”

“My apologies.”

“Tomorrow, then. Promise?”

Allison didn’t sigh, but she wanted to. “I really, really don’t think this is a good idea.”

“Fine. Then I’ll go by myself.”

Which was an even worse idea. Ryan’s voice, and the words, Damage Control, repeated themselves in her ear. If Delaney got caught spying on them, there was no telling what she’d see…and what they’d then do to her. “I’ll go with you tomorrow.”

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

When she wanted to, Allison could be a world-class suck up. She put that talent to use on her interview, telling Irene first what a good job she was doing with the shop, how it was genius to incorporate other items onto the menu, then complimenting her newest recipe, peanut-butter-banana-nut cupcakes. “My mom is the absolute best baker, but I’m telling you, her fudge doesn’t compare to what you’ve got going on in that kitchen.”

By the time she was finished, Irene was laughing. “Enough, already. You got the job.”

She left the small bakery with her uniform, a bright pink tee that said Candy’s Cones, and a tentative schedule for the following week.

In spite of her promise, Allison and Delaney had to postpone Operation Snoop Into Things That Were None Of Their Business. Heavy rains and cold weather prevailed the next several days, keeping even the Baileys and Pyro Pete out of the park.

“I’ve been eavesdropping in class, but I still don’t know where they’re hanging out.”

“Probably at one of their homes,” Allison said.

“Yeah, but which one?”

“Delaney, we aren’t going to sneak around one of their houses.”

“Can you imagine what we’d find out if we did? They’d be on their own turf, feeling safe and secure. They wouldn’t be being careful.”

“Yeah, and they’d have all kinds of privacy to dispose of our bodies.”

Delaney laughed. She still got a kick out of Allison’s serial killer theory. Jackie poked her head into her daughter’s bedroom. “I’m going to hit the hay, girls. You need anything, Ally?”

“Nope. Goodnight.”

“Night, Mom.”

Jackie closed the door behind her. Allison said quietly, “You suppose your mom has any idea what you’re planning?”

“If she did, she wouldn’t leave me alone. You want to go to the mall tomorrow?”

“Can’t. Mom has the whole day off.” Because it was such a rare occasion, Allison had no intention of being anywhere but home.

“Well, I have to. I need a new purse.” As evidence, she lifted hers from the floor. “I can’t carry this thing around anymore.”

“You liked it well enough a month ago, when you bought it.”

“That was a month ago. Besides, I heard Troy’s working at the Pretzel Plaza. I figured I could drop by, have a little chat.”

“You’re going to make his millennium,” Allison drawled.

“No, I’m going to point him in another direction.”

“Megan?”

“Yup.”

“Did you talk to Megan about it?”

“No, I think I need to get Troy on board, first. Megan’s already interested. I’m not going to dangle the prize before I can guarantee a win.”

“Good luck.”

“I don’t need it. I have right on my side.”

*

While Delaney played misguided matchmaker, Allison spent all day Saturday with her mother. They played boggle and scrabble as they hung out in the kitchen, radio blasting while they prepared chili, then kicked back on the couch for a movie marathon.

Regina was a hopeless romantic, which Allison couldn’t understand given her past relationship, but was willing to overlook because if Bridget Jones made her mother happy, who was she to argue?

“Isn’t he handsome, Ally?” her mother said over a sigh.

Allison looked at Colin Firth, who was more old than anything, and murmured, “Mmm,” noncommittally.

“He always put me in mind of your father.”

The pictures Allison had seen of Phillip Noble were over ten years old. They were snapshots, usually of herself, with her father either holding her up or smiling down at her in his lap. The resemblance between Colin Firth and her dad was vague, at best.

“How is Dad these days?” she asked.

“I wish you wouldn’t use that tone, Allison.” Regina followed her disapproving comment with a disapproving look. “Your father is doing important work. He’s keeping us safe.”

She gave another noncommittal, “Mmm.”

“You know he loves you, Ally.”

How was she supposed to know that? From the phone calls he didn’t make, or the letters he wouldn’t write? How about the child support money he couldn’t send? Allison had seen her mother’s checkbook. The only money that came into the house were the wages her mother earned breaking her back while she maintained a bizarre loyalty to a man who’d never done anything for her.

Allison pressed her lips together. She didn’t want to argue. “What are we watching next?”

Regina was silent a long moment. “How about, He’s Just Not That Into You?” Apparently, her mother didn’t want to argue, either.

Instead, they debated the superiority of Bradley Cooper to Ben Affleck and pondered the wisdom of any man who preferred Scarlett Johansson to Ginnifer Goodwin.

“She’s such a pretty girl,” Regina said.

Between Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility (her mother loved a good British accent), they snacked on chili, made cinnamon rolls and opened a bag of chips.

“Have you thought about getting your license yet?” Regina asked her.

She dug in the bag for more chips. “Not really.”

“Sweetie, I can afford to get you your license.”

Regina automatically assumed money was the motivating factor in any decision that had a cost attached to it. Though it was partially true, Allison said easily, “I know you can. I’m just not interested.”

“Allison…”

“Besides, if I get mine before Delaney, it’s really going to bum her out.”

Trevor Gray had decided years before that Delaney wasn’t getting her license until she turned eighteen, quoting statistics for underage drivers and the accidents they inevitably had. Jackie didn’t see the harm, but she hadn’t been able to talk him into changing his mind.

“I’m sure she wouldn’t have a problem with it,” Regina said.

No, she wouldn’t, but Allison had an agenda, so she replied, “It’d be like stealing her thunder. A real friend wouldn’t do that.”

Her mother offered her own noncommittal response. “Mmm.”

*

Allison caught up with Delaney over lunch Monday morning. “How’d it go with Troy?”

Her friend rolled her eyes dramatically. “He’s an idiot. There’s nothing wrong with Megan, but you’d think I’d suggested he inject himself with the plague.”

Allison had suspected he might not take it well. “It might help if you went out with somebody else. Send a clear message you’re over him.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I was never under him.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I don’t want to go out with anyone right now.”

“And I’m the weird one,” she muttered.

“You’re not seeing anybody, either.”

“Yeah, well, no one wants to see me.” She said it without a trace of self-pity. She wasn’t ugly; she was simply average, leaning more toward plain than pretty. That’s just the way it was.

“Sure they do. You shoot them down.”

“I do not.”

“Matt Young?” she said, eyebrow nearly to her hairline.

Allison scoffed. “He wanted me to help him in biology!”

“That was an excuse. He wanted to spend time with you.”

“When guys ask you for tutoring, it’s a pass. When they ask me, it’s because they’re failing and I’m smart.”

Delaney shook her head, fat gold earrings swinging wildly, accentuating her exasperation. “You are so much more damaged than I give you credit for.”

“Want me to tell Troy you’re interested in someone else?”

“You can try, but I don’t think it’ll help. One date and I have a…” Delaney’s voice trailed off, her eyes drifting, unfocused, towards the center of her nose.

“Delaney?” Allison said uneasily.

“I need to stretch my legs,” she said, more to herself than to her friend. She stood slowly, pushing back her chair, then rising to stand with that disconcertingly vague expression.

“What’s wrong?”

She said nothing, standing erect, just staring forward.

Allison got up, reached across the table and gave her a light shake. “Delaney?”

As though a switch had been flipped, her friend’s gaze sharpened, refocused. She let out a shaky breath. “Sorry. I guess I spaced out there a minute.”

“Are you okay?”

Nodding, Delaney lowered herself to her chair. As she did so, Allison felt her thoughts scatter.

I should sit down.

Her legs felt tired, achy, but something about the sensation wasn’t right. Something about the thought was foreign, almost as if it weren’t her own. She locked her knees, stubbornly refusing to give in to the urge to sit. “Are you okay?” she asked again.

“I’m fine.”

“You looked like you were about to start seizing.”

“My legs felt stiff,” Delaney said. “I needed to stretch them.”

Allison opened her mouth, snapped it closed. She had a funny feeling, deep in the pit of her stomach. “You were almost cross-eyed, Lane.”

“Why are you still standing?”

She realized at once that her legs felt perfectly normal again, and sat. “Did you hear me?”

“Yeah. I was almost cross-eyed. That’s weird.”

“That’s all you have to say? ‘That’s weird’?”

“Yeah. I didn’t feel right, either.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. I kind of felt like…like I was running on autopilot.”

Delaney didn’t seem overly upset, but Allison couldn’t shake her worry. “Do you want to go down to the nurse?”

“Uh, no.”

Of course not. Delaney had a grudge against the nurse. “You scared me,” she admitted.

“Sorry. I just spaced out.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. What were we talking about, anyway?” Delaney asked her. “Oh, yeah. Troy. One date and I have a stalker. I need to start running background checks on everyone I go out with.”

Was she overreacting? Allison wondered. She had a tendency to do that, but she’d never seen such a frighteningly vacant expression on someone’s face before.

“Are you listening to me?” Delaney asked her.

“No. What did you say?”

“I said, go ahead and start working on Troy. Tell him whatever you want. Whatever you think will do it.”

“And he’ll listen to me because?”

“Because he doesn’t think he’s in love with you.”

“True enough.”

“I think I might have hurt his feelings this weekend,” Delaney said.

“I can almost guarantee that you did.”

“That’s not fair.”

“I’m being realistic. Every time he sees you and you don’t tell him what he wants to hear, it hurts his feelings.”

“He’s too sensitive.”

“I’m not arguing with you. I don’t know why you ever went out with him in the first place.”

“He seems normal until you get to know him.”

Allison laughed.

“That, and I was bored.”

*

“Keep yourself busy,” Irene told her on her first day. “If there aren’t any customers, you should be wiping down counters. If the counters are clean, you should start sweeping the floors.”

Allison nodded earnestly as Irene gave her a rapid-fire lesson in what she expected of her newest employee.

“I’m here at four o’clock in the morning, every morning, baking so that you don’t have to. All you have to do is keep an eye on the customers, keep everything clean, and keep a smile on your face.”

Allison fixed one there now. “I understand.”

“Good,” the older woman said. “Now, you’ll be with Stephanie most of the time. She knows what she’s doing. If you have any questions, ask her. Don’t call me at home. Don’t call me on my cell—not unless the place is burning down.”

“I won’t,” she promised.

Irene looked at her watch. “All right. I have to get some sleep. Stephanie, don’t forget to lock up.”

Stephanie stood off to the side, elbows on the counter by the register. “Have I ever forgotten to lock up?”

“Don’t let tonight be the first time.”

She grinned. “Go home, Irene.”

Irene did just that, gathering her purse, her jacket, and her own set of keys. At the door, she paused just long enough to say, “Have fun, girls.”

“She doesn’t mean it,” Stephanie said. “The first week I worked here she heard me laugh and told me I wasn’t working hard enough.”

“Really?” she asked nervously.

“It’s okay. She stopped drinking about a month later.”

Allison stared at her.

Stephanie laughed. “I’m kidding. Come on, I’ll show you how it really works around here.”

Really, it wasn’t far off from what Irene had told her. They didn’t have to cook anything. Irene had shelves and shelves of baked goods in the back, some refrigerated, some frozen, some simply waiting to go out front.

The place was already immaculate. “Basically, if you see something that needs cleaning, clean it. But we wash everything before the store opens, then again after we close. Irene has OCD. Never assume she won’t notice something.”

Stephanie showed her a small room at the very back of the building. “Security camera is hooked up out front. You can watch it on this television, but it records off site.” She nodded at the radio. “We’re in charge of tunes. Anything’s fine as long as it isn’t too loud.”

“Cool.”

She led the way back to the front. “We’re busiest in the mornings, which you’ll find out this weekend. There’s a small rush about eight o’clock during the week. Other than that, it’s a lot of standing around, waiting for something to do.”

And then waiting some more. Allison’s first day was the longest of her life. No one came in until after eight o’clock. The couple pushing sixty wanted two coffees, two glazed donuts and a table they occupied for fifteen minutes before the woman stood and told her husband, “Come on, Frank. I should have been in bed half an hour ago.”

Allison kept herself as busy as she could, but there simply wasn’t anything to do. “Not that I’m not grateful for the job, but why did Irene need another employee?”

“I’m cutting back to eighteen hours a week. I told Irene I wouldn’t do it until I found someone to take over my shifts, though, so you better be as trustworthy as I think you are.”

Allison wasn’t sure if she should be offended or flattered. “Okay.”

“Delaney thinks you’re great and Mr. Jeffries has nothing but good things to say, so I figure you’re probably all right.”

“Mr. Jeffries has nothing but good things to say?” That made her feel bad, given what she’d recently, indirectly, done to him.

Stephanie turned the radio to Aerosmith, one eye on the security footage of the empty storefront. “He’s going out with my mom. I asked him about you before I put you at the top of the list.”

Again, she wasn’t sure how to take that. “How do you know Delaney?”

“We were in girl scouts together.”

Delaney had probably mentioned it, but Allison couldn’t recall when. “You ever feel like this town is too small?”

“All the time.”

At ten minutes till closing, the pair of bells on the door chimed. Allison had already started sweeping the spotless floors, but she poked her head around the industrial sized oven to make sure Stephanie was still out front.

She was. Behind the counter, crossed arms resting on the unblemished glass, she stood waiting on Ryan Bailey.

“What can I get you?” Stephanie asked him.

“You know what I want.”

Even from partially behind the oven, Allison could see the way she sighed. “Don’t you ever get tired of this?”

Ryan nodded, chestnut hair shining under the fluorescent glare of the overhead lights. “Yep,” he said shortly.

Stephanie took her time grabbing a bag, then slipping in a red velvet cake donut. “You want anything?” she asked him.

“Not really.”

She nodded, walking the bag to the register. “One dollar.”

He handed it over. “Thanks, Steph.”

“Tell Queen Stuck-Up I said hi,” Stephanie called after him.

Ryan didn’t break stride, giving a half wave as he let the heavy door chime closed behind him.

Allison slithered out from her hiding place. She wanted to ask what their exchange had meant, but she had a pretty good idea. The school newspaper, which Rebecca was in charge of, had listed the ten best pastries last month. Red velvet donuts topped the list. “It’s almost nine,” she said instead.

“Let’s start closing up.”

Cleaning didn’t take long when everything was already clean. Still, they gave every surface a good once-over. Stephanie showed Allison how to lock the money away in the safe and which keys were for which doors, all of which had to be locked tight.

Main Street was dead quiet when they stepped outside. A green minivan sat, motor running, in front of the building.

“That’s me,” Stephanie told her. “Do you need a ride?”

“No. I’m just a couple blocks away.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

“All right. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

It didn’t take long for Allison to regret declining the ride. She’d done so because she didn’t see the point in giving herself a temporary reprieve from what would soon become a requirement. Until she’d earned enough money to get her license and buy a car, walking home was her only option.

It was colder than it had been only a few hours ago, and the wind had kicked up. She wore a light jacket that offered little protection against the frigid air. At least the sky was bright, with a sliver of moon and hundreds of stars twinkling down at her. She tried to appreciate that.

Though she was alone and it was quiet, she wasn’t afraid. Plenty of houses still had their lights on, and the occasional car passed by. She was used to being alone, even at night, even wandering the streets. Regina had held down at least two jobs as far back as Allison could remember.

She was actually kind of enjoying herself, at least the sense of freedom, the feeling of accomplishment…until she heard footsteps behind her. “Ally?”

She whipped around. “Troy?”

He caught up to her, stopping when she did in front of the old Presbyterian Church. “What are you doing out so late?”

“I just got off work.”

“Why are you walking?”

Because it was none of his business, she asked, “Why are you walking?”

“I’m on my way home from Matt’s.” He looked down the street. “Come on, I’ll walk you the rest of the way.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“That’s okay. You’re on my way,” he told her.

She fell into step beside him, not exactly grateful for the offer, but not resentful either. “Thanks.”

“Where are you working?”

“Candy’s Cones.”

“Cool. I love that place.”

You and at least three others, she thought. “You should stop in sometime.”

“I will,” he said, pleased by the invitation. “What’s Delaney up to?”

Allison bit back a sigh. “No idea.”

“Did she tell you she’s trying to fix me up with somebody else?”

“Uh. Yeah.”

“Why’s she doing that?” He sounded exasperated, and no little annoyed.

How best to put this? she wondered. “Well, I think she’s ready for you both to move on, Troy.”

“I don’t want to move on.”

Clearly. “Delaney does.”

He took a moment, and Allison hoped he was thinking about what she said, letting the words sink in. But when he spoke, she knew he hadn’t. “You think she’s trying to make me jealous?”

That was pretty much the exact opposite of Delaney’s goal. “No,” she said firmly. “She’s not.”

“Is she going out with someone else?”

She’d planned on telling him just that, but now she hesitated, unsure of what would be the least damaging reply. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings, she just wanted him to get over his infatuation. “I don’t know,” she finally mumbled.

“If anyone knows, you’d know,” he said.

“Look, Troy. There are other girls out there. Megan’s had a crush on you since last year.”

Resentment fought the brief surprise and he said, “I don’t want to go out with Megan.”

“Why? Because she’s not Delaney?” She felt sorry for him, but she was reaching the end of her patience.

“What if she changes her mind?”

They’d reached the sidewalk in front of her darkened house. She’d meant to leave a light on, but forgotten. Making a mental note to do just that tomorrow before work, she turned to Troy. “If Delaney changes her mind, dump Megan.” Sorry, Megan, she thought silently. “But, Troy…”

He seemed to know what she was going to say. “She could change her mind.”

Not likely. Once Delaney decided against someone, she didn’t revert. Ever. “You can’t wait around for someone who isn’t interested. Not when someone else is.”

He rolled his eyes. “Megan is—”

“What? Pretty? A fashionable dresser?” Allison was feeling generous, but she couldn’t in good conscience call the girl smart.

The side of his mouth kicked up in what might have been a smile, if it had lasted longer. “I don’t know.”

“Just think about it, okay?”

He shrugged. “Yeah, maybe.”

Not a promise, but he hadn’t ruled it out, either. She tilted her head toward the house. “This is me. Thanks for the walk.”

“No problem.” A thin line formed between his brows. “You shouldn’t be out walking alone at night.”

She didn’t smile, because he meant well. “I’ll remember that.”

“Goodnight, Ally. Thanks for…well, thanks for being a friend.”

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

“The next time you attract a stalker, you’re getting rid of him yourself.”

Allison made the announcement flatly, dropping into the chair beside Delaney for fourth period Biology. She slapped her books on the table, blew her bangs out of her eyes, and turned to her friend.

“What happened?”

“He told me I was his friend.” She’d never suspected he thought of her that way. Though they spoke often, it was always either about Delaney or their homework. Calling her a friend was a stretch. She knew very little about him and could guarantee he knew even less about her. At the same time, however, they weren’t exactly strangers. He was a decent, if delusional guy, who was always nice to her. Granted, he was always nice because she was his link to Delaney, but motive or not, she appreciated it.

“That sucks,” Delaney said.

“Yeah.”

“Sorry,” she offered.

Allison lifted her shoulder. “It’s not your fault.”

“Well, yeah, it is. I asked you to talk to him. Thanks, by the way.”

“Don’t thank me yet. I’m pretty sure I didn’t do you any favors.”

“What’d he say?” Delaney asked.

Allison filled her in. “I really think if he just gave Megan a chance, he’d be a lot better off. I mean, he’s been drooling over you since junior high. Imagine if we could get someone to drool over him.”

“I don’t know that self-esteem is his problem.”

“We’re in high school,” she said. “Self-esteem is everyone’s problem.”

Mr. Jeffries entered the room. “Open your books and turn to page seventy-eight.”

He read from the book, his lecture of the day on the precise copying of DNA during semiconservative replication. Delaney’s eyes glazed over long before the bell rang.

At lunch, they wandered to their table carrying trays heavy with the lead hamburger Ohio’s Department of Education had somehow approved. Delaney pulled a bag of chips from her purse, held them out to Allison, then withdrew another bag for herself.

“I don’t suppose you have a pop in there, do you?”

Delaney shook her head. “Drink your milk.”

“Yes, Mom.”

“Hey!” They looked up simultaneously as Jeremy stuck a hip on their table and smiled down at them. “How’s it going?”

It had been going just fine, Allison thought, until two seconds ago. Because she didn’t really know Jeremy and she was uncomfortable with the small amount she did know, she clamped her mouth shut and averted her gaze.

Delaney had no problem keeping up their end of the conversation. “Good, Jeremy. How are you?”

I should ask him to sit down.

Something about this building made her brain stupid, she decided, fighting the urge to invite him to stay.

“Do you want to sit with us?” Delaney asked him.

Allison gave her a sideways glance. Delaney frowned at him in a vague sort of way, then shook her head, replacing the expression with a smile.

“Hey, thanks.” Jeremy said, shooting a look at his own table before he lowered himself to the seat beside Delaney, across from Allison.

“You’re Ally, right?” he asked her.

She shouldn’t be annoyed that he didn’t know her name, but she was. “Mmm,” she murmured.

“Don’t tell me you don’t know my name,” Delaney said.

Allison recognized the syrupy sweet voice as a fairly obvious attempt to flirt. Jeremy fell right under her spell, blinking and smiling broadly and assuring her, “Of course I know your name, Delaney.”

Of course he did, Allison thought sarcastically.

Delaney always took control in conversations with the opposite sex, partly because she enjoyed having the upper hand and partly because they seemed helpless to stop it. Today was no exception. “I heard you got a new car. Jenny Sharp said it was pretty hot.”

He flushed, pleased, and proceeded to tell Delaney all about his brand spanking new Mustang convertible. “…and leather seats. It’s awesome. Dad had a speaker system installed and…”

Delaney nodded enthusiastically, waiting until he wound down before she said coyly, “How long are you going to make me wait to get a ride?”

“Oh, uh…” He glanced back at his table again. “How about Saturday night? Nate and Ryan are having a party. You’re welcome to come. You, too, Ally.”

She didn’t bother to acknowledge the backhanded invitation. She was surprised, though. Delaney knew everyone and generally got along with them. If there was a party, no matter who was throwing it, she’d be invited…unless it was a Bailey party. With Ryan’s loyalty more often than not to Rebecca, Delaney was firmly on the do-not-call list.

Allison wondered how he was getting around that, or if Jeremy hadn’t thought his invitation through.

“What do you say, Delaney?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She looked at Allison and smiled and Allison realized her friend had finally found a way to get close to them. “I don’t want to intrude.”

He chuckled. “That’s crazy. I want you to come. We all want you to come.”

A bigger lie, Allison was sure, she’d never heard. She chanced her own glance at his table. Ryan was pretending to listen to whatever Rebecca was saying, but he looked bored. Megan and the rest of the monkeys were clearly divided between nodding along with Rebecca and checking their make-up in a small compact they passed amongst themselves.

Only Nate appeared interested in Jeremy. He watched his friend, eyes flickering between Jeremy and Delaney, before they fell on Allison. He aimed a fake friendly smile her way then turned to monkey number four, Bree Hardesty, and struck up a conversation.

Allison tuned back in to the bad idea forming across her own table. Jeremy was all big smiles and flushed cheeks, Delaney a model of self-conscious uncertainty. “Are you sure I won’t be a bother? I’m all the way over on Elmhurst.”

Delaney lived eight blocks from Allison, but just around the corner from Nate. Allison thought about mentioning that, but didn’t see the point. She was pretty sure neither one of them would hear her anyway. Delaney was thoroughly engrossed in her performance and Pyro Pete had gotten sucked in too far to pull himself loose.

“I don’t mind picking you up,” he said sincerely.

“That’s so sweet of you,” she told him, letting her fingers drift from the top of the table to skim lightly over his forearm.

His face got even redder and Delaney withdrew her hand, her lips curved. Allison had always thought of Jeremy as a pretty self-confident guy, but around Delaney he was close to awkward. “This is great,” he told her. “Really great.”

The bell rang and Allison pushed her chair back, gathering her books, her tray, the pen she’d gotten out but forgotten why.

Jeremy stood. “So, I’ll see you both Saturday. Eight o’clock?”

Delaney said, “I can’t wait.”

He beamed at her. Allison rolled her eyes. Once she was sure he was too far away to hear her, she said, “I hope you understand I’m not going with you.”

“Of course you are,” Delaney said. “You have to work tonight?”

“Yeah, why?”

“I’m going to do some reconnaissance.” She slipped her book bag over her shoulder and turned toward the door.

“Bad idea,” Allison said. “If you want to spy on them, I’ll go with you.”

“I’ll be very careful,” she promised. “I’ll call you later.”

“Really bad idea,” she called after her, but Delaney was already gone.

Allison intended to talk her out of her plan on the walk home from school, but Jackie picked her daughter up instead for a dental cleaning. As a result, Allison spent much of the evening chewing on her lip as she worried that Delaney was going to get herself into trouble. When her friend failed to call her that night, then was out of school the next day, Allison left a terse message on her voicemail. “If you aren’t dead, you’re going to wish you were if you don’t call me soon.”

She’d spoken with Jackie that morning, who verified Delaney’s sudden flu. “She’ll be all right. Just needs a couple day’s rest.”

Allison wasn’t buying it. Delaney never got sick. Something had happened. She knew it.

*

“What’s the matter with you?” Stephanie asked her halfway through her shift Wednesday night.

“Nothing,” she lied distractedly.

“Normally I wouldn’t say anything, but I kind of like you so here goes: you’re a crappy liar.”

Allison blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“You don’t make eye contact. First rule of good lying? Eye contact. Second, stop fidgeting. It’s a dead giveaway.”

“O-kay.”

They were kept busy the next hour when Leslie Kennedy brought all five of the kids she was babysitting in for a treat. Not one of her companions was older than six and cookie crumbs, frosting and spilled milk coated their small table. It took Allison only ten minutes to have it clean.

“Good job,” Stephanie told her.

“I’m guessing it’s a bad thing that I hope she comes back?”

“You’ll like the weekends,” she promised. “Busy, busy, busy.”

Allison couldn’t imagine. Aside from the occasional customer, she and Stephanie mainly listened to the radio and cleaned. When that got old, Stephanie pulled her over to the table by the window and pointed to a middle aged couple coming out of the fabric store across the street. “Check them out,” she said.

The man was heavy-set with almost no hair at all and bifocals. The woman was bone thin. She had a pinched face and red hair—the kind of red that only came out of a bottle. “Yeah?”

“If you had to describe them in one word, what would it be?”

Allison said, “I don’t know.”

“Come on. You can do this. Tell me what his hobby is, or what her profession is. Anything.”

She looked towards the man again. He pushed his glasses farther up on his nose as he held his wife’s door open for her. “I don’t know,” Allison said.

“You aren’t trying,” Stephanie said.

Allison studied the man. He was wearing a very thick button up sweater and corduroy pants. His shoes were dark leather, shuffling around the side of the car as he retrieved his keys and unlocked the door—or not. He frowned at the door and tried to open it. He had to reinsert his keys and turn the lock again before the handle gave. Allison smiled. “The Nutty Professor.”

“Very nice.” Stephanie scanned the street, saw a young woman hustling a small child into the pizza parlor. “What about her?”

Allison didn’t hesitate. “Mommy Dearest.”

Stephanie laughed. “Movies,” she said. “I like it. We never tried a theme before.”

“Who’s we?”

“Oh, I play this game all the time.”

It wasn’t a bad game, Allison thought. Potentially mean, but not bad. She looked down the street again, but no one else was out.

“That’s what sucks about winter,” Stephanie said. “Not enough people to make fun of.”

Allison laughed, and went back to sweeping the spotless floor. At eight fifty, the doorbells jingled again and again, Allison watched Ryan walk into the store. If she’d known he was a frequent customer, she never would have filled out an application…maybe. She did need a job and no one else had wanted to hire her.

Because she was already out front and Stephanie in back, Allison was forced to wait on him. Customer service left no room for shyness, nor her possibly misplaced suspicions. Summoning a neutral smile, she asked, “Can I help you?”

He smiled back at her, one of those beautiful Bailey smiles that didn’t need to be sincere to set hearts aflutter. “When did you start working here?”

“Recently.”

Never uncomfortable, he asked with what had to be fake interest, “How do you like it?”

“It’s great,” she said shortly. There was a difference between being polite and being friendly. She only had to accomplish the one. “What can I get for you?”

He gazed at the delicacies behind the glass. “Jeremy said you’re coming to the party this weekend.”

He’d said it conversationally, but her paranoia tacked an accusation onto the question. She kept her neutral smile firmly in place. “I’m not. Delaney might go, though.”

“Why aren’t you coming?”

Because you people freak me out, she thought. “I’m not much of a party person.”

“It’ll be fun. You should come.”

And that was another reason they freaked her out. She’d had at least one class with Ryan every year since eighth grade. In all that time, he’d never spoken more than a dozen words to her. Now, out of nowhere, he was inviting her to one of his parties.

She wondered again if it was possible that they knew it had been she and Delaney at the school that night. It would explain a lot, but she couldn’t imagine how they would have figured it out.

He was waiting for her to say something, she realized. Because she had nothing, she kicked her smile up a few notches. “Mmm.”

Stephanie appeared at her side. “Hey, Ryan. Queen Stuck-Up need a snack?”

“Queen Stuck-Up is on her own. My aunt asked me to get some donuts for the morning.”

“They’d be fresher if you waited until the morning.”

“Undoubtedly, but I’ve seen the lines here before school. Just pack them up for me, will you?”

Allison had begun drifting toward the back when Stephanie appeared beside her and now she said brightly, “I’ll finish up for you, Stephanie, if you want to take this.”

Without waiting for a response, she returned to the small office and grabbed the broom. Sweeping the clean floors kept her busy if not engaged, until the bells jingled again and Stephanie returned to the back.

“Ally? Where’d you go?”

“I thought I saw some dust over here…”

“Really?”

“Mmm.”

Stephanie studied her. “Why are you being weird?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Seriously. Work on the lying. I’m sure you’ll get better if you put some effort into it.”

*

“I’ve been puking my guts out the last two days. What do you want?” In spite of the words she chose, Delaney spoke lightly, her voice a little hoarse.

Allison was immediately contrite. “You’re really sick?”

“Of course I am. What did you think?”

“It might be better if I keep that to myself.”

“Don’t bother. You thought I went to spy on them and they did away with me, right?”

“No,” she protested. “At least…not exactly.”

“I never even got the chance. I threw up halfway through my cleaning, right on the dental hygienist. I told Mom I’m never going back.”

“Sorry, Lane. I didn’t know.”

“S’Okay,” she murmured. “How’s stuff with you?”

“Meh.”

“Did you ask your mom about the party Saturday?”

Allison felt her jaw sag. “Seriously? I thought you were sick.”

“I was. Now I just feel weak and tired. I’ll be better by Saturday night.”

“I think you should take the weekend to rest. The flu is nothing to scoff at. Did you know only seventy years ago—”

“I’m hanging up,” Delaney threatened.

Allison bit back a sigh. “Okay, okay. If you’re really up to it, I’ll think about asking Mom.”

“Wow. That was very noncommittal.”

“I meant it to be.” Before she could argue, Allison said, “All right. If you’re going to be well and healthy again, you need your sleep. Call me tomorrow if you feel better.”

Delaney wasn’t in school again Thursday. Allison missed her friend as she walked to school, sat beside no one in biology, then drifted over to their empty table at lunch. Though she did alone well, Allison didn’t prefer it.

She dropped her tray of school pizza on the table, set her books beside it, and sat down by herself. The moment she opened the book she was reading for extra credit in English, the chair beside hers was pulled out.

Allison looked up at Nate Bailey, who didn’t hesitate before sitting down beside her. Jeremy took the chair across from her. Both of them smiled big smiles and said, “Hey.”

Her life just kept getting weirder and weirder. Because she had neither Delaney’s confidence, nor her charm, she asked them, “Did you need something?”

Jeremy laughed like she’d told the best joke. Nate said, “I heard Delaney’s sick. You think she’ll still be able to come this weekend?”

Even if she had to crawl to get there, Allison thought. “Probably.”

“Ryan said you aren’t coming,” Jeremy said. “Why not?”

I should reconsider. It’ll be fun.

“I’m busy,” she lied.

I’m not too busy for a party.

“With what?” Jeremy asked.

“I have to work.” Which was true, though she’d be off by noon.

“What time do you get off?”

I shouldn’t lie to them. They’d find out anyway.

That was absurd, she argued with herself. What were they going to do? Call Irene and ask? There was definitely something wrong with this building. Only here did she ever have such inappropriate thoughts and uncharacteristic urges.

A movement behind her caught her eye and she turned, surprised to see that several dozen heads were swung in her direction. They weren’t watching her, though. They were looking at Nate and Jeremy and undoubtedly wondering what the two of them were doing talking to Allison Noble.

“What time do you get off?” Jeremy said again.

“Noon,” she said automatically.

If their classmates could hear what they were saying, they’d only be more taken aback, she was sure.

“Then you have plenty of time to get ready for the party.”

I would have lots of time to get ready.

She turned back. Jeremy kept right on smiling at her, confident she’d change her mind. Nate, on the other hand, looked funny. He, too, was smiling, but he seemed distracted, even though he was making eye contact.

“What do you say?” Jeremy asked.

I should go. It might be fun.

Allison grew still.

I should at least think about it.

No, she realized. It wasn’t the building. It was them. Whenever she was around them, whenever they were close by, her thoughts were confused and oddly not her own. It hadn’t happened last night at work with Ryan, but the last few times she’d been with Jeremy, something hadn’t been right.

It was Jeremy…who kept right on smiling, waiting for the answer to a question she could no longer remember.

Allison frowned. Did she have a crush on Jeremy?

She instantly rejected the idea. Jeremy was nowhere near as attractive as Nate or Ryan and if she could keep herself from falling for one of them, Pyro Pete didn’t stand a chance. Still, she wasn’t sure why she couldn’t keep her head together around him.

Just say yes.

“I’ll, uh, think about it.”

*

Delaney called her after she got home from work. “I’ll be there tomorrow. Dad said if I couldn’t make it to school, I shouldn’t be going to anyone’s party.”

“Your dad’s right,” Allison said. “You know, I think it might be a bad idea, anyway.”

“I know. You’re going to do it for me, not for you.”

She wasn’t sure she was going to do it at all. If Nate and Jeremy had been trying to talk her into going, they’d done more harm than good.

“You’re worrying again, aren’t you?” Delaney said.

She told Delaney what had happened at lunch, leaving out the part where she suspected a crush on Jeremy. That wouldn’t help her cause. “It’s creepy, Lane. I feel like they’re planning something.”

“At the first sign of mayhem, we’ll get out of there. We can walk back to my house. I promise.”

It was incredibly reassuring that Nate lived so close to Delaney—and her big, tough, Chief of Police father—but Allison still thought it was a mistake. “Don’t you wonder why they want us to come?”

“I never wonder why people want to spend time with me,” she boasted.

Allison rolled her eyes, grateful her friend couldn’t see. “They’ve never invited us before. Never. Now all of a sudden, they’re gung-ho to hang out with us? I don’t think so.”

“Remember when I said I wanted to tail them? This is the next best thing.”

“Delaney…”

“Look, they are planning something,” she confided.

“How do you know?”

She hesitated. “I have a feeling.”

Delaney’s feelings were fairly reliable. “Well, then, we should definitely—”

“Go to their party and investigate?”

“That’s not what I was going to say.”

“Yeah, I know.” Allison heard her sigh. “Maybe you’re right and they’re serial killers or something but they can’t do anything to us in front of fifty other people, half a block away from the cops.”

“I guess…”

“So, let’s just go and find out what we can, then we’ll leave. Before they get out the guns.”

“Something tells me it would be knives.”

Delaney laughed. “Whatever.”

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Saturday arrived much too soon. Allison sped through her shift at Candy’s Cones, the hours flying because for the first time, they were busy. Incredibly busy. She’d arrived at seven that morning to see Irene stocking the cases with fresh goods. By eight, there was a line out the door.

Allison ran from the back to the front, from customers to the cash register, money changing hands as quickly as the shelves under the counter emptied. Stephanie danced around her, refilling the case, chatting with customers, running for Irene.

By noon, she should have been exhausted but instead, she could think only about her plans for the evening. She’d tried once more to get out of it, but Delaney wouldn’t have it. Even her own mother was no help.

“That sounds like fun, Allison.”

“Yeah, well.”

“Do you have a ride or do you want me to drop you off?”

“Jeremy’s picking us up from Delaney’s house. He’ll probably take us back.”

“Well, if you need me, call. I’ll be home after work.”

“Are you sure you don’t mind me staying at Delaney’s tonight?”

Regina disappointed her with another reassurance. “Of course not, sweetie. Have a good time and tell me all about it tomorrow.”

She walked to Delaney’s house at seven, totally not surprised to see her friend primping before the full length mirror on the back of her closet door. She had on snug hip hugging jeans and a slinky purple top. Her hair was perfect, her amethyst earrings glittering, her makeup flawless.

Delaney took one look at Allison and said, “I’m not letting you get away with that.”

She looked down at her Bugs Bunny sweatshirt, her baggy, faded jeans and the sneakers she never went anywhere without. “I don’t look that bad.”

“Compared to what?” Delaney asked. “Come here.”

“No. I don’t want a makeover. You know lipstick makes me break out.”

“As much as the threat of a makeover makes you lie?” She pulled Allison toward her vanity. “A little mascara and a different shirt. That’s all I’m asking for.”

She dropped the tube of mascara on Allison’s lap and turned toward her closet. Allison eyed the shiny silver tube. “I don’t want to dress up for them.”

“Then dress up for me.” She returned with two shirts on hangers. One was another slinky number in eye-popping blue, one was a wraparound blouse with a plunging neckline that Allison couldn’t believe Jackie had approved of.

“There’s no way,” she began.

Delaney dropped the shirts on her bed, and pulled a plain black tee from her dresser. She threw it at Allison. “Fine. Be boring. But ditch the cartoon characters. And put on the freaking mascara.”

Allison did as she was told, though she complained the whole time. “It feels weird.”

Delaney took the tube and fixed whatever mistake Allison had made with the mascara, then leaned back to survey her work. “Magnifique!” she announced.

Allison rolled her eyes under her now heavy lashes. “Great.”

“You have really pretty eyes,” she said.

“I have really pretty mascara.”

Delaney cocked her head to the side. “By that logic, I have beautiful foundation, awesome eye shadow and gorgeous lipstick.”

While that was true, it was also true that Delaney had beautiful skin, awesome eyes and a gorgeous mouth. Allison’s skin wasn’t terrible, but it flushed easily and was too pale the rest of the time. Her eyes were okay, especially with the help of L’Oreal, but her own mouth was far too narrow. “There’s a difference,” she insisted.

Delaney tossed the silver tube on the vanity. “You know, I’d argue with you, but I learned a long time ago how useless it was. You want me to do your hair?”

She eyed her catastrophe of wild red curls in the mirror. She’d brushed them, but the stubborn strands refused to lay nicely. At least it was long enough that the sheer weight of it kept it lying down…mostly. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

“We could put it up. You have a very long neck.”

“No, thanks.”

“You want some lip gloss?”

“Makes me break out.”

“Uh-huh. Has anyone told you lately that you’re a terrible liar?”

“Actually, yeah.”

“Well, they were telling the truth.” Delaney went to the window and peeked out. “He’s here. Come on.”

*

Allison eyed the shiny new convertible under the glow of the street lamp outside. She couldn’t believe she’d agreed to this. What was wrong with her?

“Come on, Ally. I’ll let you ride in back.”

Anyone else might have thought Delaney was being sarcastic, but Allison knew that Delaney would know she’d prefer to be alone in the back seat.

Except that she wasn’t alone. Nate sat behind Jeremy. He patted the seat next to him, as though she had any other option, and smiled. “Get in.”

Delaney owed her so big for this. “Can I ask why we’re driving when you live less than a block away?”

“I wanted to ride in Jeremy’s new car,” Delaney reminded her.

Nate shook his head. “The party isn’t at my house. It’s at my grandparents’.”

Allison looked at her friend. “Which is where exactly?”

“About twenty minutes outside of town.”

“Delaney,” she said quietly.

Delaney pulled Allison into what could have passed for a hug, then whispered in her ear, “I have my cellphone and a can of pepper spray in my pocket. Please?”

There was no graceful way to back out now. She could make up an ailment, or get in the car. Allison chose the latter, muttering to herself the entire time.

Jeremy kept the conversation going, on and on, about nothing but his new car. He’d driven a beater last year, a rundown old Chevy that shook the windows and stunk up the entire parking lot. His dad gave him an upgrade for his last birthday. Jeremy went into exhausting detail about every inch of his new car and how it was better than the last.

“You look different,” Nate said from beside her.

The mascara really did make her eyes pop. “Got my braces off,” she lied.

“You had braces?” he asked.

Delaney swiveled around to give her an exasperated look.

“No,” Allison admitted reluctantly.

I should stop giving him such a hard time. Nate’s a nice guy.

She scoffed, drawing the attention of all three of them. “My throat itches,” she said lamely.

“Allergies?” Nate asked politely.

“Something like that.”

She knew she was being a little rude, but she couldn’t help herself. She was never at her best when she was forced into doing something that didn’t sit well with her. As they drove out of town, her nerves grew.

“Why are you having the party way out here?” she asked Nate.

“Cause you can’t have a bonfire in the city.”

At the mention of fire, her eyes shot to Jeremy.

A bonfire would be fun.

Oh yeah, it was definitely them. She was beginning to feel schizophrenic. She hadn’t decided anything and the little voice in her head sounded less and less like her own.

She looked at Nate, who was still watching her. “What?” she asked him.

“Why don’t you want to come?”

He didn’t make it an accusation, which made it difficult to respond with a waspish comment. He seemed curious, that was all. “I don’t like crowds.”

“It’s a big house and everybody’s pretty spread out,” he told her. “Stick with me. I’ll make sure you have fun.”

It wouldn’t kill me to spend a little time with him, and since he knows everyone it might make this easier.

She braced herself as Jeremy pulled into the gravel driveway of a large farmhouse. It was two stories high, set far back from the road. No less than twenty cars had parked in front. As they pulled to the side, she saw more in back.

The house was lit up, every window spilling light outside, but failing to contain the sound of music blasting somewhere inside. They got out of the car, Delaney sticking close to Jeremy. Allison started to follow, then gave up, wandering towards the front porch, where too many people stood in too many groups.

Allison knew some of them and smiled when she was acknowledged, but kept moving, making her way inside. The house was huge; high ceilings, lots of space. The front room had two overstuffed couches facing each other with a low glass topped coffee table between them. The formal dining room contained a beautiful table and chairs. The kitchen was bright and airy with natural finished cabinets and a vaulted ceiling.

It was lovely and charming and if it weren’t for the sheer volume of people she couldn’t escape no matter where she roamed, she might have enjoyed seeing it. As it was, however, people dominated the space. There had to be a hundred there, the vast majority unfamiliar to her, many that appeared too old for high school, let alone the junior class. Bumping elbows, crunching toes, they ignored the idea of personal boundaries and spoke too loudly over the music.

She scanned the crowd for Delaney, who’d disappeared. She did stumble upon Jenna Stone and Megan Howell, who looked right through her, and Rebecca, who did not. Sipping from a plastic cup, Rebecca laughed at something Megan said, then glanced at the crowd, her gaze tripping over Allison.

Rebecca stared at her a long moment before she turned and ignored her. Allison left the room, trying a door at the far end of the foyer. It was a study, done in dark green wallpaper and old, dark paneling. She tried another, off the hall. Basement. In the kitchen, she finally noticed the back door and made her escape.

The field in back of the house was deserted. Allison breathed in the crisp, cool country air. There was a barn a ways back, off to the side, and a pond closer to the house. In the distance she could see the remains of a cornfield.

Allison wandered to the side of the house and sat down, her back against the stone foundation. This was why she preferred not to socialize. Too many people, too much noise. She sounded closer to sixty than sixteen. Maybe if she knew everyone, it would be different. Maybe if they lowered the music…but, deep down, she knew she was a freak.

Delaney was undoubtedly having the time of her life inside while Allison pouted alone in the dark. Not that she was pouting, she told herself. She just wanted some air.

The screen on the back door slammed. A second later she heard a familiar voice. “There you are!”

She was spending way too much time with Nate if his voice was that familiar.

“What are you doing out here?” he asked, his shoes coming to a stop only inches from her knee.

Allison checked the urge to scoot further away. “I needed some air.”

“Yeah, it’s getting hot in there,” he agreed. “You want to help me open some windows?”

She looked up in exasperation, wanting to just ask him, What do you want from me? Unfortunately, her cowardly parts would have none of it. “I’m fine here.”

Minutes passed as she refused to get up and he was apparently unwilling to leave her there. Neither spoke.

I shouldn’t stay out here alone. It could be dangerous.

Her brows drew together. That hadn’t even occurred to her. She shouldn’t go off by herself at all here. If they decided to do away with her, which she still hadn’t ruled out, she would be making it incredibly easy on them.

“Where’s Delaney?” she asked him.

“I saw her a minute ago. Basement?” he wondered aloud.

Allison forced herself to rise. “I thought you were going to have a bonfire.”

“Soon,” he said. “Jeremy’s getting everything ready. You want to see how he does it?”

She gave him a sideways glance, wondering if she’d imagined the double meaning. “Yeah.”

They found Delaney in the basement, lounged against a couch, watching several people Allison didn’t recognize play air hockey.

“I’ll get Jeremy,” Nate told her. “Come back out in a couple minutes.”

Delaney watched him go. “You find anything out?”

“Jeremy’s in charge of the fire.”

“Are they getting it started?”

“Yeah. You want to watch?”

“Why not?” She put down a half-full cup of the same red liquid Rebecca had had in hers, and got up. “You haven’t had any of that, have you?”

“I’m not thirsty.”

“Good. Somebody spiked it.”

“Then you shouldn’t be drinking it, either.”

“I’m not. I tasted the alcohol and just held on to it. I wouldn’t have thought they’d have booze here.” They took the long way through the house, exiting the front door instead of the back. “Can you believe how many people are here? Mike’s parties don’t get half this turnout.”

Mike Cobb threw a party twice a year. It was the largest she’d ever been to, but nowhere near this magnitude.

“So, where’d you go?” Delaney asked her.

“Outside. I think they’re keeping tabs on me.”

To her surprise, Delaney didn’t scoff. “I think so, too. After Jeremy wandered off, Ryan came over to talk to me, then you and Nate came down. What do you think they’d do if we just disappeared?”

“I don’t know. I don’t have a good feeling about this.”

“I’m kind of enjoying it.”

“You’re twisted,” Allison told her. “When can we go?”

“Jeremy is our ride,” she pointed out. “And I still want to know what they’re up to. They engineered this whole party for us and—”

“What?”

Delaney flushed. “I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d freak, but Nate and Ryan throw a party like this every year. In May,” she said. “And they didn’t tell anyone they were doing it early this year until after they’d asked us to come.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s for us,” she said, not wanting to give credence to a theory that did freak her out while she was still stuck there. “I thought I was the paranoid one.”

“It’s more than a coincidence,” Delaney insisted.

“Maybe. I’m just surprised to hear you say it.”

“I’m maturing,” she boasted.

The house was emptying, however gradually. The music still blared, and getting from one room to the next still required a bit of maneuvering, but when they reached the yard, what greeted them was the sight of fifty people standing around in a semi-circle, far back from the house, directly beside the pond.

That was a good idea, she thought. A large body of water nearby if you were going to be playing with fire…just like it’d probably have been a good idea, at least in theory, to go to the pool that night at the school, if they’d known they’d be lighting fires.

“Hey!” Nate emerged from the crowd, ridiculously happy to see them. “Jeremy’s coming. Wait till you see this trick he does.”

“He has a trick?” Delaney asked.

“Oh, yeah.”

Nate led them to a makeshift bench which was nothing more than a large steel tube set six feet from the kindling they’d set out for the fire.

“After he gets it started, everybody’ll go find sticks and branches to throw in. They’re not very ambitious, though,” he said, nodding at the growing pack of people gathering. “So maybe you’ll want to help?”

“I’m a very good stick finder,” Delaney said, somehow making the comment sound like a come on.

“Then I’ll count on you,” Nate returned every bit as flirtatiously.

Allison rolled her eyes.

“So, you guys do this every year?” Delaney asked him.

“Sometimes twice a year,” Nate said.

“Sounds like fun,” Delaney murmured, and Allison realized for the first time how much being excluded from these parties had bothered her.

Though it wasn’t her style, Allison decided to put him on the spot. “Why haven’t you invited her before?”

Delaney’s eyes widened, but Nate was incapable of being flustered. “It’s not an oversight I’ll let happen again. Look, there’s Jeremy.”

They turned together as Jeremy came around the barn… holding fire in his hand.

Delaney sucked in a breath. Nate smiled with an odd satisfaction. Allison had to force herself not to move. The urge to run was instantaneous.

He took his time walking towards them, the same satisfied smile lighting his features. The crowd around them took a collective breath.

“Do you see—!”

“How is he doing that?”

“—in his hand!”

As he drew nearer, Allison felt that strange, warm vibration in the tips of her fingers, but what she saw was that it was indeed a trick. Beneath the flame, just above his hand, lay a small square block. It wasn’t wood; the coloring was off white. It appeared to contain the fire and feed it at the same time.

“Pretty cool, huh?” Jeremy asked the crowd.

“That’s awesome, man,” someone said.

“What is that?” another voice asked.

Rebecca was at the front of the pack. “Is that drywall?”

How Rebecca Miller knew what drywall looked like was beyond Allison. The pampered princess of Waverly Lane couldn’t possibly have muddied her hands with common labor.

Jeremy bent to the pile of wood and as they watched, he laid the block at the base of the pile. She couldn’t see how he did it, but he managed to increase the height of the flame and the width of it, encompassing the majority of the pile in the roaring flame.

Twigs snapped, something crackled, and he stood. “Want to see a really cool trick?” he asked them. His enthusiasm was unmistakable and contagious.

As the group responded with a resounding, “Yeah!” Jeremy froze, the sharpness in his eyes fading. Then he glared at Nate.

Nate chuckled to himself. “There’re only so many tricks you can accomplish with fire without burning the whole place down.”

Allison was surprised no one argued. She, for one, wanted to see whatever else he had up his sleeve.

Nate got up from between them, and approached Jeremy. They spoke too quietly for them to hear, then Nate told Delaney and Allison, “I’ll be right back,” and headed for the house.

Delaney scooted closer to Allison. “That’s what you saw in the basement, wasn’t it?”

Allison said, “Believe me, across the length of a pool, it looks a lot creepier.”

“What’s wrong with your hands?”

She looked down. The tips of her fingers still tingled with that dull heat. She’d been flexing them almost subconsciously, but the warmth hadn’t left. “I don’t know. It’s happened before.”

“Probably cold.”

Allison didn’t contradict her. “You think they’re going to watch us all night?”

“Yes,” Delaney said, as Jeremy made his way over to them.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“Very cool,” she said admiringly.

“What was that?” Allison asked him.

Jeremy grinned. “Trade secret. You guys want to help find some sticks to throw in?”

“I’ll help you,” Delaney said.

“I’ll stay,” Allison murmured. She glanced at her friend, who was looking up at Jeremy adoringly, and wondered how much was phony admiration and how much—if any—was real.

Jeremy smiled down at Delaney. “Okay.”

Allison picked up a small stick from beside her shoe and tossed it in the fire. There. She’d contributed. Maybe her hands had been cold. As the heat soaked into her skin, she realized the tingling was all but gone.

“Where’s Jeremy?” Nate asked, appearing at her side.

“He and Delaney went to find some sticks.”

“Oh.” He sat down beside her. “Having fun yet?”

Fun isn’t what Allison would’ve called it. “Sure.”

“You want to dance?”

The offer surprised her. She hadn’t noticed until that moment that several people were paired up, dancing to the beat of the music, far off enough from the fire that their bodies were like golden shadows in the darkness. It made a pretty picture, she thought, but shook her head. Allison only danced alone and when no one was watching. As Delaney put it, she had “no rhythm.”

“You sure?”

“Oh, yeah. Thanks, though,” she added.

“You’re very polite.”

“I try.”

The fire was gaining height, as some of the more ambitious people added to the growing pile of wood at the base. It, too, was pretty. She had vague memories of lying on thick, soft carpet in front of a fireplace while the heat warmed her toes and the crackle of wood lulled her to sleep.

“Are you thirsty?” Nate asked her.

“Your punch is spiked,” she told him.

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, my brother thought it’d be a good idea. I’ve got some pop inside. You want one?”

“I’m good, thanks.”

“You aren’t having fun, are you?”

“Sure I am.”

“No,” he insisted. “I know what fun looks like. This isn’t it.”

“Is that right?”

He pointed to the couples dancing. “They’re having fun.”

“I don’t dance.”

His hand swung to a trio of what had to be his brother’s friends, chugging punch while they laughed at nothing in particular. “They’re having fun, too.”

“I don’t drink.”

“And I admire that about you,” he said seriously. He motioned towards Bree Holcomb, who looked to be in a heated argument with Greg Newman. “Okay, they aren’t having fun, either, but—”

In spite of herself, she laughed. “Trust me. I’m enjoying myself.”

He smiled back at her, another warm, beautiful Bailey smile. “Good.”

They sat together in surprisingly companionable silence, taking in the people, the scenery, the fire. It would have been peaceful there, if not for the argument between Bree and Greg, which was gaining both volume and audience.

Half a dozen people had gathered off to the side to watch the show. Greg was scowling at Bree, who still hadn’t let him get a word in edgewise.

Allison glanced at Nate. He was focused hard on the couple. His eyes were narrowed, his gaze locked. Dropping her voice, Allison asked him quietly, “Do you think you can get them to stop through sheer force of will?”

That got his attention. “What?”

“You looked like you were concentrating pretty hard,” she said.

He blinked. “I was just…”

“Trying to will them to shut up? Sorry, but I don’t think that’ll work.”

A small smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “No?”

“Nope.”

“I don’t know. I always thought if you want something bad enough, you can make it happen.”

“To an extent. But that,” she nodded toward Bree and Greg. “Is beyond the capabilities of mind over matter.”

Greg took Bree’s arm. The girl jerked it back, glaring at him. “Don’t touch me!” she said, loud enough for anyone within a two mile radius to hear.

“I guess I’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way,” Nate said.

Allison watched him approach the couple. He threw one arm around each of them, his voice only a murmur of sound. Within moments, Bree had lost her look of rage and Greg appeared embarrassed. Allison would have been embarrassed long before now. She didn’t like making a scene, didn’t really even like seeing one.

As they disappeared toward the front of the house and, Allison suspected, Greg’s car, she found herself wondering how long Delaney would be gone. It couldn’t be that hard to find some sticks. There were trees scattered close to the house. Allison could have found a dozen and brought them back by now.

When Delaney finally returned, she had two very skinny sticks in her hand. Jeremy held a small bunch, but not enough to excuse the length of their absence. They dropped them into the fire and Delaney sat beside Allison while Jeremy stirred the flames. Within moments, they were higher, hotter.

Her hands were tingling again. Maybe it wasn’t the cold that did it after all. Maybe it was the heat. She flexed them again, but it did nothing to abate the sensation.

Jeremy rose. “I’ll be right back.”

Delaney watched him head over to Nate, near the house. Allison studied her friend. “What were you really doing?” she asked her.

The innocence on her face was entirely contrived. “Gathering sticks.”

Allison opened her mouth to point out how unlikely that was when Rebecca drifted over to them, monkeys one and four following behind and two, Megan, at her side. “Delaney,” she said. “How are you?”

She felt Delaney tense. “How are you?”

“I can’t complain.” With a poor attempt at playing it casual, she stuck the toe of an inappropriately skimpy sandal in the dirt. “Are you having a good time?”

Allison could smell the trap, but Delaney answered honestly. “Yes.”

“Good.” There was that evil smile. “You mind if I ask you something?”

Rebecca probably did have manners—at home, with her teachers, with any of the countless adults who thought she was wonderful. But here, now, that polite tone was out of place. It was too sweet. Allison almost flinched when Delaney shrugged.

“We were just talking about you,” Rebecca confided. “And trying to figure out how it is you got here.”

“Jeremy brought us,” Delaney told her.

Rebecca’s smile widened. “Yes, Delaney. I know. But why?”

Allison had a feeling she knew what was coming. The tingling in her fingers took a turn for the painful. The dull heat was sharpening, focusing in the palm of her hand. Allison shook them vigorously.

No one seemed to pay her any attention. Delaney said, “He invited me.”

“And isn’t that something?” Rebecca said coolly.

Delaney didn’t respond to that, for which Allison was grateful. Megan said, “We just want to know how you got him to.”

Oh yeah, they were going in exactly the direction Allison had been hoping they wouldn’t. She fisted her hands, stretched them out. She heard a soft whoosh! somewhere too close, but couldn’t see either Jeremy or the fire because Rebecca and her cronies were blocking the view. “It’s really none of your business,” Allison told them.

“Isn’t it?” Monkey number four asked.

“Ryan’s my boyfriend,” Rebecca said.

Even somewhat distracted by the pain in her hands, Allison heard the satisfaction in that statement.

“Ryan didn’t have anything to do with it,” Delaney snapped. “And Jeremy is allowed to like whoever he wants.”

She hadn’t said invite, she’d said like, Allison thought. Megan produced an evil smile of her own, but it was Rebecca who spoke. “I hear a lot of guys like you.”

The innuendo was obvious. Delaney went utterly still beside her. “What does that mean?” she asked the other girl.

Rebecca turned sharply around, then backed up, behind Delaney and Allison. The fire was huge. She felt a blast of heat hit her face, stinging her skin, but it was nothing compared to the agony in her hands. It felt as thought she’d stuck them in the heart of the flame.

“A little big, don’t you think?” Rebecca told Jeremy.

He didn’t even acknowledge her. He and Nate were arguing in furious whispers no one could hear over the whoosh! of the fire.

“What’s your problem with me?” Delaney demanded.

“I don’t have a problem with you,” Rebecca said coolly. “I just thought you’d like to know what people are saying.”

Allison stood, partially because Delaney had risen to her feet and partially because she couldn’t stand to sit any longer in front of the fire that was searing the palms of her hands.

“Don’t you want to know what they’re saying?” Rebecca asked, that small, phony smile stuck on her lips.

Allison looked down at her hands, which appeared perfectly normal, and thought of the bucket of ice she’d seen earlier in the kitchen. She had to get some, now. Then she’d come back and kick Rebecca’s ass if Delaney hadn’t already done so.

“Delaney,” she said, her voice sounding more like a moan. “I have to—”

“They’re saying you can get invited anywhere, as long as you put out,” Rebecca said softly.

Delaney sucked in a breath.

Several things went through Allison’s head at once. First, that she was beginning to believe in spontaneous human combustion; second, the thought of Thea’s ongoing embarrassment because Rebecca had suggested something similar about her; and lastly, that the sheen in her best friend’s eyes looked too much like tears.

Allison had never seen Delaney cry. Her friend was too strong, too confident, to be broken by anyone. Rebecca had been tormenting her for years and she’d taken it in stride, ignoring it when she could, striking back when she couldn’t. This was different and whether that was because this latest insinuation was inarguably the cruelest, or because Delaney had simply reached her limit, Allison didn’t know. Nor did it matter. Delaney was about to break and Rebecca was the cause.

Something snapped inside of Allison. Between the heat and the rage, she felt something give and at that moment, the heat in her palms broke free. She felt it course through her veins, up her arms, into her chest where it burned with an intensity she couldn’t contain.

Her breath vanished. She felt a rush of smoldering air blowing against her. It lifted the strands of her wild hair, pushing it into her face. It burned the skin on her back and her legs and for one brief instant, she couldn’t tell if the fire was still behind her or if it was really inside her own body.

She became consumed by it, so much so that she was utterly oblivious to her environment. She didn’t notice the dead quiet that surrounded her. She couldn’t see Delaney, and nearly one hundred others gazing in a mixture of shock and terror at the bonfire. She didn’t hear the rustle as a single person moved, his footsteps pounding on the ground as he headed right for her.

Something hit her. It was like a giant fist striking her with all the force of a missile. She had the vague impression of red flames, licking towards her and brown grass, rushing past. Then another blow, this one to her head, and everything went black.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

When Allison opened her eyes, it was to pain. Blearily, she focused on the swirling images in front of her: the starry sky, a few barren trees, one of the Baileys.

“She’s coming around,” he said.

She couldn’t see clearly enough to know it was Ryan, but she was almost sure the voice was his. “What happened?” she asked in a low, guttural voice she couldn’t identify as her own.

“How many fingers?”

There might have been a hand in front of her, but it appeared no more than a flesh-colored blur. Dazedly, she tried to distinguish between the vague outline of shapes.

“Come on, Ally,” she heard him say. “How many fingers do you see?”

She blinked, once then again, and struggled to sit up. Several voices said, “No!” just as her stomach pitched violently. She managed to keep the contents of her stomach in her stomach, but couldn’t stop the moan that escaped her lips.

“Just hold still. Nate’s dad is on his way,” someone else said.

“Nate’s dad?” That was Delaney, her voice sharp. “I told you to call an ambulance.”

“Could you be quiet?” Allison whispered. “My head hurts.” She lifted her hand to her head and felt wet warmth and tenderness just above her ear.

“Don’t touch that,” Ryan said, pulling her hand away from her head, then lying it gently at her side.

“Get back. She needs space,” Delaney commanded.

“What happened?” Allison asked her.

Her friend leaned over her, her face a mask of worry. “Does anything hurt?”

“My head.”

“Anything else? They said you weren’t burned, but—”

The fire. The heat. It came back to her then, and whether it was from sheer will or continued consciousness, her vision began to clear. “Why does my head hurt?”

“Ally, the fire was out of control. It was huge, and believe me when I tell you I know how this sounds, but I thought it was going to get you.”

“Yeah,” she said absently. “That sounds pretty stupid. Why does my head hurt?”

“Ryan pushed you out of the way, but your head hit a rock.” Delaney held up a fairly large rock with a smear of blood on the face.

“I’m guessing that’s mine?” It made her want to throw up, so she deliberately averted her gaze.

“Yeah.” Delaney eyed the side of Allison’s head, gingerly pushing her hair out of the way. “I think it’s stopped now, but you lost a lot of blood.”

Her head felt fuzzy, though the pain was no longer at the forefront of her thoughts. Instead, as she surveyed the back of the house, she took notice of what had changed since she’d been lying there.

The house was all but abandoned now. Nearly all the cars were gone, as were nearly all the people. Nate stood not far away with Ryan, who kept shooting glances at her, and another guy she didn’t recognize. Jeremy was gone, Rebecca and her cronies missing.

“Where did everyone go?”

Delaney wrinkled her nose with disgust. “Someone said you were going to die, and they scattered.”

She looked behind Delaney, to where the bonfire had burned. It was completely out, not even smoke or a few glowing embers remained. The light, the heat, was gone. She felt chilled now, uncomfortably so.

Delaney pulled the blanket up to her chin. Gratefully, Allison snuggled underneath. “Did Rebecca leave?”

“Yeah.” A small smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “Nate told her to get out.”

Allison tried to enjoy the mental image that produced. “You suppose this was their plan all along?”

She’d meant it jokingly, but Delaney gave it serious thought. “I’d like to say it was, just so that I could throw something hard at their stupid heads, but I don’t think so. Jeremy looked like he was going to pass out, too, and Ryan’s been sheet-white the whole time.”

“Are you okay?”

“Don’t ask me that. You’re lying here bleeding to death. Now is not the time to worry about me.”

“I thought you said it stopped.” She reached up to touch her head, but Delaney swatted her hand away.

“Fine, you’re not bleeding to death anymore, but you scared the crap out of me.” She squeezed Allison’s hand. “You don’t know how close that fire was to you. I’m talking millimeters. If you’d have sneezed, your clothes would have caught fire.”

“Why was I so close? I don’t remember being that close.”

“It got bigger, and bigger. It was huge,” she said softly, as though she couldn’t quite believe it. “Jeremy must have put something in it to make it bigger than it should have been. After Dumbo over there threw you into a rock, Nate pushed him so hard, he fell down.”

“Ryan?” she asked in confusion.

“Jeremy.”

She shook her head, then winced. “Who’s Dumbo?”

“Oh. Ryan is Dumbo, but Nate pushed Jeremy. They’re blaming him.”

“Did he put something in the fire?”

“I don’t know,” she muttered. “He looked guilty.”

It had to be the head injury that made following Delaney’s conversation so difficult. “Why did he throw me into a rock?”

“Well, to be fair—not that I feel like being fair—he probably didn’t mean to do it. I’d just noticed how close you were to the fire when he dove at you. You landed here,” Delaney informed her. “Nate thinks he’s a doctor and wouldn’t let us move you.”

“His dad’s a doctor,” she said, as though that gave him some qualification.

“Yeah. Supposedly, he’s on his way.” She checked her cellphone for the time. “I’ll give him another five minutes before I call an ambulance myself.”

“Don’t.” Just the thought of a team of white coats poking and prodding had her grimacing. “I’m fine.”

“You are so not fine. Your mom’s going to have a stroke when she sees you.”

“You’ll have to help me clean up before I go home tomorrow.”

Delaney gaped. “You’re going to the hospital!”

“No, I’m not,” she said firmly.

*

“Yes, Allison, you are.”

Nate’s dad was a large man with dark, graying hair and dark, grim eyes. He checked her pupils, held fingers up for her to count, looked in her ears and questioned her about everything from her address and phone number to the current President of the United States.

Then he called for an ambulance and accompanied her to the hospital. “I have privileges at County,” he said. “Assuming your scans come back okay, I’d still like to keep you overnight for observation.”

“Do you have to call my mom?” she asked in a small voice.

“She’s waiting at the hospital for us.”

Oh, terrific. This was exactly what her mother needed. Delaney murmured a quiet, “Sorry, Ally.”

“Your father is meeting us there, too, Delaney.”

Neither girl was in the mood to chat after that. They arrived at the hospital thirty minutes later. Regina rushed outside to meet them, then took Allison’s hand, refusing to let it go as they wheeled her into an examining room.

“Oh, baby. What happened?”

Allison tried to explain, but she was a little fuzzy on the details. Trevor Gray nudged his daughter, who brought Regina up to speed quickly. It was obvious Delaney was trying to put a good spin on the situation, because the fire became a background fixture and Ryan, who was no longer Dumbo, had merely been trying to save Allison from a rogue branch falling from a tree.

“Well, then, I’m glad he was there,” Regina murmured. “But…”

“Yeah, but…” Trevor repeated, giving his daughter a funny look. “I’ll get to the bottom of this, Regina. But for tonight, I should get Delaney home.”

“Of course. Thank you for staying with her, Delaney.”

“No problem, Mrs. Noble,” Delaney said, looking like she’d rather be going anywhere other than home.

Allison’s scans came back fine and she was diagnosed with a concussion. She couldn’t get out of the hospital until the following day, and then only after say so from Dr. Bailey.

Regina missed work Sunday morning, as did Allison. She felt terrible about it, but Irene was very understanding. “Come back when you can. We’ll be fine here.”

Sunday night, just before six, she made it home. Regina insisted she remain in bed, and tried to forbid Allison from going to school Monday, but she actually felt fine. Her head was sore when she touched the wound, but her headache was gone, thanks to the painkillers she’d been discharged with. Aside from a mostly unnoticeable weakness, she felt like herself.

Monday morning, Jackie picked her up for school. “She doesn’t trust us to walk six blocks,” Delaney told her.

“Now, is that what I said?” Jackie asked her. “I said she wasn’t ready to walk to school.”

Delaney shot Allison a long-suffering look, making Allison laugh. “I’m really okay,” she told Jackie. “Dr. Bailey said I only had a concussion.”

“Concussions are serious, Allison.” She stopped in front of the school. “Now, I’ll be here to pick you both up at three.”

Delaney took Allison’s arm and dragged her up to the building. “You wouldn’t believe the lecture I got.”

“For what?”

“I should have told them where the party was. I should have called them when people started lighting fires—”

“You said it was a rogue branch,” Allison reminded her.

“Yeah, Dad didn’t believe that. Dr. Bailey told him there was a bonfire and I thought he was going to have an attack.”

“Sorry, Lane.”

“Don’t apologize,” she said. “I’m just telling you what happened. They almost grounded me. They basically did, they’re just not calling it that.”

“What are they calling it?”

“Taking better care of me. I couldn’t walk to school today, I can’t walk home. I seriously doubt we’ll get invited to another bonfire, but even if we do, I can’t go.”

“Yeah, well, I think maybe we should stay away from fire a while.” She looked at her friend. They’d barely had an opportunity to talk since that night, but Allison knew Delaney hadn’t forgotten what happened. “Are you okay? Really?”

Delaney said, “Yeah, why?”

“The whole thing with Rebecca.”

Her eyes dropped. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Allison nodded, offering, “We could break into her house and put peroxide in her shampoo.”

She gave a faint laugh. “She’s already blonde.”

“We could put Nair in it,” Allison suggested. “I don’t think she could pull off bald.”

“I’ll think about it,” Delaney said, opening the front door of the building. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

Allison sighed as she turned towards her locker. The best she could hope for would be that Rebecca at least leave her friend alone a while. But what was the likelihood of that?

She exchanged books, shed her jacket, and stepped into Geometry. Immediately, all eyes swung to her. Conversations died, faint whispers taking their place. Pretending she was invisible, she opened her notebook and poised her pen, praying their teacher arrived soon.

She tensed when someone tapped her on the shoulder and considered ignoring it until she heard Troy whisper, “Hey,” from behind her.

Resignedly, Allison turned in her seat. “Yeah?”

“I heard what happened. You okay?”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“How many stitches did you have to have?”

She frowned. “None.”

“Really? They said your skull was cracked.”

That might be the stupidest thing she’d ever heard. If her skull was cracked, would she be back in school again already? “Who are they?”

“Jenna Reynolds told me that, but everyone’s talking about it.” He leaned closer, lowering his voice to a barely audible whisper. “They said Jeremy tried to set you on fire and Ryan hit you with a rock.”

One of these days, she was going to start a rumor of her own, just to see how distorted it would become and how quickly. “The bonfire got out of control and Ryan pushed me out of the way.”

Troy looked doubtful.

“Honest,” Allison insisted.

“What were you guys doing there? I thought Delaney hated them.”

Which only went to show how little Troy actually knew Delaney. Instead of explaining it, she shrugged. “It sounded like fun.”

“It was your idea?” He sounded appalled. “Ally, you shouldn’t be hanging out with them. They’re…” His voice trailed off as he shot a look at Jeremy, three rows up. “They’re not right.”

Something in his eyes when he said that had her leaning closer still. “What do you mean?”

“Just trust me, okay? Stay away from them.”

Though she had every intention of doing just that, she said, “Give me one good reason.”

Troy looked toward Jeremy again, only to drop his eyes unreasonably fast. Allison glanced over. Jeremy had turned in his seat. His expression was slightly guilty, but not as much as she thought it should have been, if he’d been pouring gas or something on that fire. It was a more thoughtful gaze, a more considering look he gave her, before he turned back around in his seat.

Mrs. Carter, their Geometry teacher, walked into the room. “Good morning, everyone.”

A low murmur of reciprocating, “Good mornings,” resounded from the class.

“Pass your homework to the front and open your books to page ninety.”

For the rest of the morning, Allison had to contend with the same nosy questions and curious stares in each of her classes. Jenna Reynolds questioned Allison herself about Saturday night, clearly not believing her when Allison insisted she was fine. Matt Williams asked to see the wound, which Allison refused to let him do.

In English, where Ryan never showed, Greg Newland tapped her on the shoulder and said, “That was totally awesome last weekend.”

“You think so?”

“Dude, it looked like the fire was coming right for you.”

She wished she could have seen it, though she’d probably be traumatized if she had. “I guess I have a magnetic personality.”

He laughed uproariously.

“I’m always happy to entertain,” she mumbled.

“You know Jeremy got grounded for like a month. He put gas in it,” he confided. “We’re all lucky we didn’t blow up.”

Chelsea Fitzgerald shook her head at Greg. “We wouldn’t have blown up. Jeremy knows what he’s doing.”

Chelsea was a devoted member of Jeremy’s fan club. The small, dark haired girl made sure she sat near him in all the classes they had together and Allison could easily recall numerous stolen glances at the back of Jeremy’s head.

Greg scoffed. “He almost burned her to a crisp!”

“Maybe he wanted to,” she said with a dark look at Allison.

Several immature ooh’s sounded from the other side of the room. Greg rolled his eyes, abruptly switching attitudes. “Remember last year, when he had a ring of fire in the middle of the pond? If the dude wanted to burn her up, he could’ve done it.”

A ring of fire? Allison thought. And still, no one thought he was a pyromaniac? Incredible.

“Maybe he was just giving her a warning,” Chelsea suggested.

“Not to get too close to a fire?” Greg asked skeptically.

“Not to invite herself where she isn’t wanted.”

Allison hadn’t realized how vicious the girl could be. She might as well start following Rebecca around. Though she was well acquainted with teenage bitchiness, Allison was unaccustomed to having it directed toward herself. She bristled. “He invited me, Chelsea.”

“Don’t bother, Ally.” Greg laughed. “Somebody’s jealous.”

Chelsea flushed, but said nothing else.

Miss Murphy let them watch Saving Private Ryan in third period, which nobody really watched except the front two rows. Behind them, no one even pretended an interest in the movie. Neither did they approach Allison for the truth. Instead, they whispered around and behind her.

“She got Jeremy grounded,” someone whispered.

“Maybe he should stop setting fires,” someone else said.

“…only a matter of time until something like that happened.”

“That’s stupid. Do you know how many people have bonfires?”

“I wish I’d been there…”

“I heard Ryan hit her with a rock.”

“She was in the ICU at the hospital.”

“…Delaney, too.”

“Why was she even there? She isn’t friends with them.”

A few minutes passed, and Allison felt another tap on her shoulder. She turned her head fractionally, keeping her eyes on the movie at the front of the room.

Behind her, Mike Cobb leaned closer than was necessary to whisper, “How’s your head?”

“Fine.”

“When did you get out of the ICU?”

“I was never in the ICU.”

“But you had a skull fracture,” he said.

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did,” Maggie Albright whispered. “My cousin’s best friend works at the hospital. She saw you.”

“In the ICU?” Allison asked incredulously.

“She saw you on the fifth floor!”

“Radiology’s up there, too.”

“Oh.” She looked like she was trying to remember some other, more compelling evidence.

John Kimble provided it. “You were covered in blood.”

Yeah, she’d had to throw away her jeans and Delaney’s tee shirt, but that didn’t prove anything. “So?”

The door along the side of the classroom opened and Nate stepped inside. He passed a pink slip to Miss Murphy and took his seat, two rows ahead of Allison.

The conversation died an abrupt end. Allison wasn’t mentioned again, nor was the party, the fire, or any one of Nate’s inner circle. They still looked at her, though, out of the corner of their eyes and Allison suspected that when they left, they’d resume their speculation.

When she arrived in Biology, she was inordinately pleased to see that two parts of that inner circle were already inside the classroom and the whispers were again silent. Rebecca didn’t so much as glance at Delaney, nor did anyone else.

Lunch was another story altogether. More lowered voices saying her name, more people staring at her. Allison got her tray as quickly as she could and escaped to their table, grateful it was at the end of the room, so at least the stares weren’t coming from all directions.

Delaney met her there. “Everybody’s talking about the party,” she said, sliding her tray onto the table.

“I’m starting to feel like the star attraction in a circus.”

“You might be the star, but I’m in the cage with you.”

“Sorry,” she murmured, pushing the school pizza around on her tray.

Delaney said, “Don’t. If I hadn’t dragged you there…”

“If Jeremy hadn’t tried to burn the place down…”

“Yeah.”

Allison took a bite of her pizza. “You know what’s funny? Jeremy started a fire that could have easily burned down a house, and everyone’s talking about me.”

“They’re talking about Jeremy, too.”

“I heard some of that.” Allison looked toward their table. “Doesn’t seem to be bothering him.”

“I don’t know. He seemed pretty ticked off in Spanish. He told Jordan Ashland to shut the hell up.”

“Really? Why?”

“He kept asking Jeremy what he put in the fire to make it do that.”

Allison had been wondering the same thing herself. “What do you think he put in there?”

“No idea. All I know is he never did it before and I doubt he does it again. My dad went over and had a talk with his parents.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I wish I was.”

She couldn’t imagine how embarrassed her friend must be. “At least nobody else knows.”

Delaney gave her a funny look. “Of course they do.”

“Jeremy knows, and probably Ryan and Nate, but nobody else does. They’re blaming me for it.”

“How do you know?”

“I’m not deaf. Everybody’s been talking about it all day. Chelsea acted like I did it on purpose.”

“Chelsea?” she asked skeptically.

“Yeah. You should have seen her. She said I shouldn’t have invited myself to the party.”

“As if,” Delaney said, making Allison smile. “Look, I’ll tell her the truth. I’ll tell everyone the truth. I don’t want you being punished for something I did.”

“You didn’t do it, either. Don’t say anything to anyone. They’re all losers anyway. Screw ‘em.”

“Ally—”

“I don’t care if people are mad at me.”

Delaney’s face was a mask of guilt. “Is everyone mad at you?”

She thought of Greg, then of Troy. “Actually, Troy was weird about it. Said we shouldn’t be hanging out with them at all.”

“He has to get over me.”

“Believe it or not, I don’t think that had anything to do with it. He said none of them are ‘right.’”

“What does that mean?”

“Got me. I figured we could ambush him after school and ask.”

“Mom’s picking us up.”

“Oh, yeah. Tomorrow?”

Delaney shrugged. “I’ll do my best.”

*

Her best didn’t have a lot of results. Jackie drove them to and from school all week. For someone who was accustomed to spending much of her time unsupervised, Allison found it both very sweet and slightly overbearing.

At least no one hovered around her at work. Irene was there when she came in Monday afternoon, but after a brief, “Are you sure you’re up to this?” she left Stephanie in charge. Allison’s coworker was a little nosier.

“I didn’t know you hung out with them.”

“I don’t.”

“But?”

“But they invited us and Delaney wanted to go, so…”

Stephanie leaned against the counter, checking inventory on the glazed donuts. “How did Queen Stuck-Up take that?”

“Not well,” Allison said shortly. “It’s hard to believe you two are related.”

“I get that a lot.”

They were busier that night than they had been all of the previous week and it wasn’t hard to figure out why. Too many people her own age came into the shop, ordered baked treats they only picked at, then sat at the scattering of tables in front and gossiped.

Mike Cobb was there, with Megan and Jenna and another boy she didn’t recognize. Before they left, Ted Quincy dropped by with Chelsea in tow. The small girl shot Allison a few dark looks as she ignored her cinnamon roll and pretended to listen to Ted.

At seven thirty, a trio of girls Allison didn’t know came in for coffees they didn’t drink, and stood at the counter to quiz Allison about her skull fracture. After they left, Allison went to the back room and put her head on the desk.

Stephanie followed. “Irene will be thrilled you’re so good for business.”

“Can we turn the sign to closed, yet?”

“Half an hour.”

“We could close early,” she said, knowing it was impossible, but needing to voice the suggestion.

“And face Irene’s wrath? Trust me, those idiots aren’t worth it.” The bell out front jingled and Stephanie cocked her head to the side. “I should totally make you take that.”

“You can’t hate me that much.”

She laughed. “Take a break. I’ll get it.”

Allison took ten minutes, then straightened the desk and swept up the small office. She started towards the front just as the bells rang again. She was halfway there and thought seriously about turning back around when she saw Ryan standing at the counter.

“Hey,” he said to her.

“Hey,” she returned.

Stephanie looked from one to the other, then handed Ryan a box of pastries. “Five bucks,” she told him.

He handed her the money. “Are you okay?” he asked Allison.

“Aside from the memory loss and dizziness, she’s fine,” Stephanie said. “Those skull fractures are a real pain.”

To Allison’s utter shock, he appeared to lose a little color. “You really had a—”

“No, I didn’t.” Allison frowned at Stephanie, who laughed at her own joke. “She’s kidding.”

“Oh. Funny,” he said distractedly. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” he told Allison.

“About what?”

“I wanted to say I was sorry. I wasn’t trying to hurt you.”

“I know.”

“I just wanted to get you out of the way.”

“I know,” she said again. “Delaney told me what happened.”

Stephanie glanced at the clock. It was two minutes after nine, but she didn’t tell Ryan to leave. Instead, she handed Allison a rag, and took one for herself. “You don’t remember?”

Allison began wiping the counter. “It’s pretty hazy. I remember being hot, then something hitting me. I guess that was you.”

“Sorry,” he muttered.

Of all the things he could apologize for, that one didn’t even rate. He ought to apologize for his monster of a girlfriend. That, she’d like to hear. “It’s fine. I’d rather have a concussion than third degree burns.”

“Jeremy’s sorry, too.”

Stephanie flipped the open sign to closed and brushed off the tables. “Why isn’t Jeremy saying he’s sorry?”

Ryan said, “Jeremy’s grounded.”

“I heard,” Allison said. “You know, Delaney didn’t have anything to do with that.”

He gave her a puzzled frown. “Of course not.”

She might be a sucker, but she believed that he believed that. Jeremy must not have told his friends.

“Why would Delaney have anything to do with it?” Stephanie asked her, coming around the counter to the register.

“There are some rumors going around,” she lied.

“There are a lot of rumors going around,” Ryan said. “Most of the people talking weren’t even there.”

“That’s the way it works,” Stephanie said. She opened the register and pulled out the money, then disappeared into the back.

Ryan looked at the box of donuts in his hands, then back up to Allison. “So, you’re really okay?”

She nodded.

“Good. I should go, I just…”

“Wanted to apologize?” Stephanie asked, flipping off the lights as she made her way to the front.

“Yeah. And like I said, Jeremy’s sorry, too. He wanted me to tell you that.”

He could have told her that in school, Allison thought, but didn’t say. What she said surprised herself as much as Ryan. “What did he put in the fire?”

“He put something in it?” Stephanie asked him incredulously. “Like an accelerant?”

“No,” he said firmly. “I watched him do it. He didn’t put anything in that fire.”

“Then why did it do that?” Allison asked.

“We think there was something in the pile, before he started. If someone dumped a bottle of beer, or threw anything into it, it could have gotten too big.”

Allison didn’t know enough about it to say, either way. They followed Stephanie to the door, then outside, as she locked up. Ryan’s jeep sat out front and Stephanie’s boyfriend’s minivan was parked ahead of it.

“You walking?” Stephanie asked her.

Allison nodded, pulling the hood of her jacket over her head to cover her hair. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Stephanie opened the door of the minivan and got inside. “Later,” she said to Ryan, who offered a half wave in response, but didn’t start towards the jeep.

“You walk home?” he asked Allison. “At night?”

“Yeah.” She shoved her hands into her pockets, and started off, remembering her manners just long enough to add, “Thanks for stopping in.”

“Wait.”

She did appreciate the apology, but it was too cold to stand around and pretend they were friends. “What?”

“I can give you a lift,” he said.

“That’s okay. Thanks, though.”

“Come on. It’s dark and it’s cold and you shouldn’t be walking anyway.”

He sounded like Troy. “I’m a big girl. I think I can handle it.”

“I’m sure you can,” he said pleasantly enough. “But I’d feel better if you let me give you a ride.”

Allison said, “Look, it’s very nice of you to offer, but it’s only six blocks. I do this every night.”

“You shouldn’t. This isn’t Mayberry.”

Most of the time, though, it felt like it. The newspaper barely had a section for crime and it was usually filled with traffic offenses. The people of Stillwater were only dangerous behind the wheel.

“Why doesn’t your mom pick you up?”

“She isn’t off work yet,” she answered, adding pointedly, “And I like walking.”

He sighed. “Then I’ll walk with you.”

Allison stared at him. “Are you kidding?”

“No. I’d rather you just got in the car, but if you really want to walk—”

“Then you’ll walk with me?”

“Yep.”

“Why?” she asked suspiciously.

“And this is the thanks I get for trying to be a nice guy,” he muttered.

Allison studied him a long moment. She didn’t want a ride, but she wanted less to walk with him. If she took the ride, at least it would be over with quickly. “Fine. You can give me a ride.”

And just like that, his annoyance vanished and he flashed her a smile so warm and friendly she almost smiled back before she remembered he and his friends were aspiring felons. “Thank you,” he said.

She shook her head and got into the jeep. When he joined her, she asked, “Where’s Rebecca?”

“No idea.” He set the box of donuts on her lap, started the engine and said, “You know, in some cultures, when you save someone’s life, you’re then responsible for it.”

Allison thought about telling him she’d seen the same movie and was pretty sure the claim was bogus. Instead, she offered her own bit of nonsense. “In some cultures, saving a life is considered an interference with fate and is punishable by death.”

Startled, his eyes swung to hers. Then he laughed. “What culture is that?”

“It’s pretty remote. I’m sure you’ve never heard of it.”

“I guarantee it.” He took a right at the next intersection, easing the car down the street. “You’re sixteen now, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“Why don’t you have your license?”

“Who said I don’t have my license?” she countered.

“Do you?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

The reasons were so completely none of his business, she said, “I don’t want to grow up. I’m a Toys R Us kid.”

Ryan laughed again, the sound deep and rich. He stopped the jeep in front of her house and threw it into park.

Allison was surprised to see her darkened porch across the street. “How do you know where I live?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

That was a crap answer, she thought. Narrowing her eyes, she said, “You’ve never been here.”

“Sure I have. You used to pass out candy with your mom on Halloween.”

In fourth grade. No way he remembered that. Still, it was true, and she couldn’t dispute it. “I could have moved,” she mumbled.

“If you’d moved, you would have said something when I drove this way.”

Maybe. She hadn’t been paying all that much attention to the route he took to bring them here.

At her silence, he said brightly, “Thanks for letting me drive you.”

You’re welcome, tempting as it was to say, just didn’t seem appropriate. In the interests of at least appearing grateful, she said, “Thanks for the lift.”

He smiled at her. Allison resisted the urge to frown back at him as she got out.

“See you,” she said, hoping she wouldn’t anytime soon.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

“That was nice of him,” Delaney said when she told her the next day.

“It was weird,” Allison said.

“It was nice.” She shook her carton of orange juice before she opened it. “Nate came over last night.”

“Why?”

“Don’t know. My dad told him I was grounded.”

“You’re grounded?” Allison asked her.

“No,” Delaney said shortly. “I’m not.”

“Has he tried to talk to you today?”

“He isn’t here.”

“That’s a shame.”

“Dad says I can’t hang out with them anymore. He said they’re juvenile delinquents and he isn’t going to let them drag me down.”

“What did your mom say?” Jackie wasn’t a pushover, but she was more open minded than her husband.

“She said she’d talk to him.” Delaney took a sip of juice. “He’s being unreasonable.”

“He knows the fire was an accident, right?”

“He’s more angry that I let them believe I’d be a block away, and didn’t tell them there would be alcohol at the party.”

“You didn’t know!”

“I knew when we got there.”

Allison paused. “How do they know?”

“Dr. Bailey saw some beer bottles and told my dad.”

“Nate’s dad is a real tattletale.”

“The party was probably a bad idea, I just couldn’t help myself. I’d never been before and I wanted to know what it was like.”

“Well, now you know.”

“Yeah. They like to set things on fire and get drunk. Makes you wonder what’s wrong with them, doesn’t it? They’re all good looking and popular, but there’s also this twisted side to them…”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I’m not saying we should keep hanging out with them. I’m just curious.”

“Yeah, well, try to bury it, will you?”

“This from the girl Ryan drove home last night?”

“Not my idea,” she insisted.

It wasn’t her idea the following night, either. When he came into the shop, they were just about to kill the lights and lock the doors. “I can maybe get you six glazed,” Stephanie told him. “But the red velvet is gone.”

He said, “I don’t want anything.”

Allison pulled her jacket on and zipped it all the way up. Stephanie asked him, “Then you’re here because…?”

“She needs a ride home.”

Stephanie looked at Allison in curiosity. “Really?”

“No,” Allison answered, frowning at him. “I don’t.”

“Come on,” he said with a charming smile she’d have to be brain dead to buy into. “I didn’t bash your head into anything last night, did I?”

“I don’t need a ride,” she insisted. “Thanks anyway.”

Stephanie ushered them both out as she locked the door behind them. “Take the ride, Ally,” she said. “Later, Ryan.”

Allison crossed her arms over her chest. The dusting of snow on the ground should have warned her, but she hadn’t expected the bone-chilling cold she’d stepped into.

“You ready?” he asked her.

“This is really unnecessary.”

“You want to walk in this?”

The wind picked up as he said it, whipping her hair into her face, pasting the now icy cotton of her jeans to her legs. She shivered. “Sure I do.”

“Right.” He took her arm, drew her over to the jeep and opened the door for her. “Argue with me inside, will you?”

Allison gave up. She huddled in the front seat, cupping her hands around the vents, grateful he’d left the car—and the heat—on when he got out. After he climbed inside, she said, “This is going to sound ungrateful, but…why are you here?”

“You’re right. It does sound ungrateful.” He smiled as he pulled away from the curb, easing his way down the barren street. “I was on my way home and remembered you needed a ride.”

“I don’t, though.”

“Sure you do.”

She looked at him sitting there beside her oozing confidence and wondered what was wrong with him. He was a smart guy, but he seemed to be missing what was glaringly obvious. “You get how weird this is, right?”

“Why is it weird?”

“I barely know you. Before last week, I doubt if you even knew my name—”

“I knew your name,” he told her.

She ignored that. “And now you’re showing up at my work and giving me a ride home. It’s weird.”

He understood what she meant, but instead of answering her, he said flippantly, “I’m just one friend helping out another.”

It had been a stretch with Troy to allege friendship, but Ryan’s claim was so far from the realm of possibility, she stared at him. “That’s what you’re going with? Really?”

He took his time answering, so long she thought for sure he would lie, but when he finally spoke, he said simply, “I feel bad about what happened last weekend.”

And this was his way of making it up to her? She could have doubted his sincerity, but she remembered the way he’d looked when she was pushed into the ambulance: pale and guilty.

Allison watched the scenery pass through the foggy passenger window. The wind moved over the street in white curls of frozen air. She was reluctantly grateful not to be walking, and oddly compelled to reassure him, “I’m not mad about it.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“If you hadn’t done it, I’d be in the burn unit of some hospital.”

“Maybe.”

“Probably. Everyone says I was an inch away from being toast.”

Ryan said nothing to that. He pulled the jeep in front of her house, then stared out the window.

Allison wasn’t comfortable enough with him to enjoy the silence. “How long are you going to keep this up? Another day or so? A week? How much does your guilt buy me, in terms of free rides?”

She’d been trying to lighten the mood with humor, but his easy smile was nowhere to be found. “How long do you want me to?”

Allison hadn’t wanted him to, at all. He had to realize that. “I think you’re good now. Two rides for a concussion. Seems fair.”

“You think?”

“Yeah.” She pulled her door open and got out. “Later.”

He waited until she was inside before he drove off, which was the nice thing to do, she supposed. She watched him go through the window in the living room, his jeep pulling from the curb just as her mother’s car entered the driveway. Allison hoped Regina hadn’t noticed him, but her mother’s first words killed the possibility.

“Who was that out front?”

“You’re home early,” she said.

“Allison.”

She sighed. “Ryan Bailey.”

“That boy from the party? The one who set a fire—”

She hadn’t realized Delaney’s dad had told her mother about the fire. “The one that pushed me out of the way.”

“Oh. Are you seeing him now?”

Allison laughed. “No.”

Regina shrugged out of her jacket and kicked off her shoes. She sat on the couch, patted the cushion next to her. “You’re just friends, then?”

“Not really,” she said, flipping on the television. “How did you get off so early?”

“No customers. Neal sent everyone home.”

Neal was her mother’s boss, a nice guy around fifty who’d owned the bar two blocks away for twenty years. “That was nice of him.”

“I tried to find you,” Regina told her. “I drove by the shop on my way home.”

“Ryan picked me up.”

“Ryan,” her mother repeated. “The boy you aren’t seeing and aren’t friends with?”

That summed it up nicely, she thought. “He feels bad about the concussion.”

“He shouldn’t,” Regina said. “What he did was heroic.”

She looked doubtfully at her mother.

“Well, obviously, it was poorly planned, but it could have been a lot worse.”

“He came into the shop and apologized and when he found out I was walking, he offered me a ride.”

“I’m glad. I’ve been worried about that, honey,” she said. “It’s dark at nine, and it isn’t a good idea for you to be out walking by yourself.”

“We’re just down the street from the shop. It’s fine.”

“You know, if you had your license, you could drive yourself home.”

They had one car. If Allison was driving it that would mean her mother would end up walking home alone even later. She lifted her shoulder carelessly. “I’ll get it eventually.”

“After Delaney has hers?”

“Yep.”

Regina shook her head, then kissed the top of Allison’s. “Do you have homework?”

“Did it in study hall.”

“Did you eat?”

She’d had a cereal bar after school and a donut at the shop. “Yeah.”

They watched a rerun of Law and Order until commercial, then Regina asked, “Is Ryan going to give you a ride tomorrow?”

“Yeah.” He wasn’t, but if it made her mother worry less, Allison was fine with the little white lie.

Except that it wasn’t a lie after all. Ryan was there the next evening, and the next, to pick her up. Every night that week, he showed up just before closing and insisted on giving her a ride. Allison sighed when she saw him, but didn’t argue—mostly because each night proved colder than the last, and Stephanie told her she’d have to be stupid to refuse him.

“He’s a nice guy doing a nice thing for you. Don’t be an idiot.”

Delaney echoed the sentiment, adding, “It’s really sweet, Ally.”

“Somehow, I don’t agree,” Allison said.

“Paranoia,” Delaney told her. “It’s just part of who you are.”

She laughed, as she was meant to.

Delaney moved on. “Want to guess who I was in Mr. Crawford’s office with yesterday?”

Mr. Crawford was the principal for the junior class. Allison frowned at her. “Why were you in his office?”

“I was late to Spanish again. Mrs. Williams was ticked off.”

“Why were you late again?”

Delaney lifted a brow. “Do you want to hear this or not?”

“Yeah, yeah, sorry. Who else was there?”

“Jeremy.” Delaney smiled.

“Why was he there?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. He asked me if he could come over.”

“What did you say?”

“I told him my dad would kill him.”

She could picture Delaney’s dad and imagine the look on his face if he opened the door and saw Jeremy. “That’s true.”

“So, he’s meeting me at the library this weekend.”

“What for?” Allison asked.

“He wants to talk.”

“About?”

“I don’t know yet.”

Delaney looked way too happy about it, she thought. “You don’t like him, do you?”

Allison was treated to a total lack of eye contact. “I don’t know him,” she answered, dodging the question as far as Allison was concerned.

“This is a bad idea.”

“As soon as you stop hanging out with Ryan, maybe I’ll believe you.”

“Okay, first, I’m not hanging out with anyone. Second, you didn’t believe me before he drove me home.”

“No, I didn’t,” Delaney said lightly.

Allison rolled her eyes. “Just be careful, will you?”

“Yep.”

“And call me when you get home?”

“Of course I will.”

“If you don’t, I’ll call your dad and tell him you’re spending time with the source of all evil.”

“He doesn’t think he’s the source of all evil. Just a regular delinquent.”

Allison sighed.

*

She worked Saturday until noon. When she got off, she walked home for the first time all week. She wasn’t alone. Though Ryan never stopped in that day, Troy caught up with her halfway to her house.

“You coming from work?” he asked.

“Yeah. You?”

“Lori’s,” he said.

“Lori Morgan?” Allison smiled. “I’m glad you’re seeing someone.”

“I wish I could say the same.”

Her smile died. “I’m sorry?”

“You and Ryan.” He held up his hands. “I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but you need to stay away from him.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I saw you in his car last night.”

Every creepy thing Delaney had ever told her about him ran through her mind. Glad it was a Saturday afternoon and there were plenty of people on the road beside them, she murmured, “Is that right?”

“I wasn’t spying on you.”

“I didn’t say you were.”

“It’s what you were thinking. Look, I know this is none of my business, but you’re my friend and I care about you. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Allison remembered the half conversation they’d had in Geometry earlier in the week. “The fire was an accident, Troy.”

“Maybe.”

“It was. If they were trying to hurt me, Ryan wouldn’t have pushed me out of the way.”

“He covers for them,” Troy told her.

“For Jeremy and Nate?”

“Yeah.”

They’d reached her house. Allison climbed the steps and sat on the bench on the front porch. Troy sat down beside her. “Why does he have to cover for them?” she asked him.

“I don’t know, exactly.”

“Then how do you know—”

“I just know. Can’t you trust me on this?”

“If you told me why, it would be easier.”

He stared out at the street. “Why do you want to hang out with them anyway?”

“I don’t.”

“That’s not what it looks like.”

She stifled her impatience. “He showed up and offered me a ride. I took it.”

“You’d be safer walking.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

They sat in silence, watching the cars go by. It was cold out, but not freezing, and Allison’s jacket was doing a decent job keeping her warm. She’d rather get up and go inside, but she had a feeling Troy would take that as an invitation.

Halfway down the block, she saw a trio walking towards them. Two guys, both tall and oddly familiar, and a girl…

Allison tensed as she recognized Delaney and the identity of her companions became clear. She shot a quick look at Troy, who had his gaze on the bare branches of a dying tree across the street. Now didn’t seem like the best time for Delaney to flaunt her new friends, so Allison did the only thing she could think of. “Oh, you know what? I’m getting a terrible headache.” She put her hand to her temple, hoping the gesture appeared genuine. “You think we could talk about this later?”

The concern in his eyes made her feel like a hag. “You want me to get you something?”

“No. I just need to lay down.”

He took the hint and stood. “I’ll see you Monday, okay?”

“Yeah. Thanks, Troy.”

Troy never even looked down the street. He turned the corner beside her house and took off for his own.

Allison hated lying. She hated the effort it took to keep a story straight, just as she hated the fear of being caught. When Delaney and Jeremy and Nate reached the porch, Allison held the door open and ushered them inside.

Her home was about the last place she wanted Jeremy and Nate, but she didn’t have a choice. When she shut the door behind them, she glared at Delaney. “We need to talk.”

“Was that Troy?” Delaney asked her.

“Yes, now—”

But Jeremy wanted his turn first. “I really didn’t put anything in that fire.”

Allison was ready to forget the party had ever happened. “That’s what I hear.”

“But I’m sorry, anyway,” he said sincerely. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

It wasn’t even his fault, and here he is apologizing.

The thought felt bizarre and Allison shook her head to clear it.

What a nice guy.

Delaney beamed at Jeremy, who beamed right back down at her. Allison felt the beginnings of a real headache behind her eyes. “Thanks,” she murmured.

“We’re all going over to Ryan’s. You want to come?” Jeremy asked her.

Allison said, “I thought you were grounded.”

“I was. For a week.”

Delaney was giving her that big, bug-eyed pleading look, but Allison shook her head. “I have to work in the morning.”

“We won’t be there late,” Jeremy told her.

“Thanks anyway.”

Delaney took Allison’s arm, blasted an enormous smile on her face, told them, “We’ll be right back,” then hauled Allison into the kitchen.

“You can’t seriously be suggesting—”

Delaney cut her off. “They know it was us that night.”

Allison needed no further explanation. “How?”

“They overheard us talking about it.”

“When?” She couldn’t think of a single instance they’d discussed it anywhere around any of them.

“It doesn’t matter, Ally. They know.”

The knowledge put a funny feeling in her stomach. “What did they say?”

“They said they don’t care.” Delaney looked pleased by this. “Jeremy doesn’t like Rebecca very much.”

But Ryan did, and who knew about Nate. “Does she know?”

Delaney shook her head. “They aren’t going to tell her, either. Jeremy promised,” she said, like that meant something.

“Ryan’s her boyfriend, Lane. If he knows, it’s only a matter of time—”

“He hasn’t told her yet.”

Which proved nothing, Allison thought. She rubbed her hand over her face. So they knew. Ryan knew. Ryan, who’d been picking her up from work every night. “I don’t understand this.”

Delaney smiled fondly. “They thought they freaked us out. That’s why they invited us to the party.”

“That was supposed to make it better?” she asked doubtfully.

“Needless to say, it didn’t go the way they’d hoped. They just wanted us to have fun, and see Jeremy’s trick with the fire. I think they know how it must have looked.”

Allison tried to absorb that. It did kind of make sense. “So why are they still hanging around?”

“What do you mean?” Delaney said, with all the confusion of someone who was accustomed to being well-liked.

“They explained themselves. What do they want now?” She pushed the door open an inch, just far enough to see Jeremy and Nate sitting on her couch, watching basketball on the small television. “This doesn’t feel right.”

“Do you want me to tell you again that you’re crazy?” Delaney asked.

“No. I want you to tell me why we’re their new best friends.”

“We’re pretty awesome.”

“Yeah, to us.”

“One of these days, I’m going to drag you to a shrink. You have serious self-esteem issues, Ally.”

“I’m a realist, Lane. You should try it.”

“You want to believe they’re dangerous or creepy or whatever, fine. But come anyway.”

“To Ryan’s.”

“Yes, to Ryan’s. It’ll be fun.”

Allison seriously doubted it. “Why do you want to go?”

Delaney took her time answering. When she spoke, her voice was low and slightly embarrassed. “I might…a little bit—maybe… uh, like Jeremy.”

Incredulously, “Pyro Pete?”

“He’s actually very sweet, Ally.”

So that’s what this was about. “This is too weird.”

“It isn’t weird,” Delaney protested.

“A month ago, they didn’t know our names.”

“Yes, they did.”

“You know what I mean. They didn’t talk to us, they didn’t look at us, they sure didn’t invite us over. Now you’re crushing on a pyromaniac and we suddenly have social lives.”

“He’s not a pyromaniac,” she said defensively.

“Forgive me if I’m doubtful.”

Delaney rested her hips against the kitchen counter and crossed her arms over her chest. “I never ask you for anything.”

Allison felt her brows shoot straight up. “Really?”

“But this is important to me.”

“Then go. Why do I have to come?”

“Because you’re my best friend and if you hate them that much, I won’t hang out with them.”

It was a very effective guilt trip. Allison wanted nothing to do with them, but she felt herself getting sucked in. Wearily, she eyed her friend. Delaney was generally a happy person but being excluded for so long, so consistently, had obviously warped her.

“Give them a chance. For me. You let Ryan drive you home, and Jeremy’s a lot more fun than Ryan.”

“I don’t want to have fun with any of them—”

“I do.”

And that was that. “You really won’t go if I don’t?”

“No,” she said dully. “I won’t.”

It’ll be fun and Ryan lives close by. If I want to leave, I could walk home.

It wasn’t really even a thought. It was like someone else’s voice. She shook her head again. Bizarre didn’t begin to cover it. She wondered if sixteen year olds got schizophrenia.

“What?”

“I’m having inappropriate thoughts,” she said frankly.

Grinning, Delaney asked, “So we can go?”

“What happened to you being suspicious of them, too?”

“I still am.”

“But?” Allison prodded.

“But I’m not afraid of them. Whatever they’re up to isn’t dangerous.”

She sounded so sure. “I hope you’re right.”

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

Allison had never seen Ryan’s house before, though she’d had a good idea where he lived. Wingate was a small, gated community that contained the prettiest homes in town. Narrow, curving streets wound between houses that were all large, modern and expensive.

Ryan lived at the end of a cul-de-sac, between a monstrous three-story and a sprawling ranch. His house was neither as large, nor as wide as its neighbors. Still, it was impressive: two stories of well-kept brick; high, spotless windows; a deep, wide front porch. It sat back from the street behind a manicured lawn and a young tree.

Nate pulled his car into the driveway, stopping inches from the bumper of what she recognized as Ryan’s jeep. There was another car there, too. A pink VW Bug. Allison had a mental image of Rebecca sitting in the driver’s seat, and tensed.

“Is that Rebecca’s car?” Delaney asked.

Nate nodded. “She’s leaving.”

Allison looked at Delaney who, for the first time, seemed uncomfortable. Hadn’t she thought of this?

As Nate killed the engine, the front door opened and Rebecca stepped outside, followed by Ryan. When they saw Nate’s car, Rebecca stopped and looked inside. Allison knew the moment her gaze zeroed in on Delaney. The other girl whipped around. Allison could only imagine what was being said.

“She’s kind of a drag,” Jeremy muttered.

Delaney was quiet beside her. Allison watched, as the others did, while Ryan led Rebecca somewhat unwillingly to her car. She could only see Ryan’s expression, as Rebecca was turned away from them, but the annoyed look on his face spoke volumes.

“You know, if this is a problem—” Allison began.

Nate looked over his shoulder to smile reassuringly at her. “The problem is leaving. It’s cool.”

How could Delaney not see that something was going on? Maybe Jeremy did dislike Rebecca and maybe he genuinely liked Delaney. Allison would be surprised if he didn’t, but that didn’t explain why Nate and Ryan kept hanging around, even at the expense of their own relationships with Queen Stuck-Up, who very obviously had a problem with this.

They wanted something, Allison thought, but she couldn’t imagine what. Could it all be a setup? That was more realistic, even if she didn’t know the specifics. Maybe they wanted to lull them into a false sense of security, then turn them over to the authorities. She hoped Delaney hadn’t outright admitted anything. They could have had a tape recorder on them.

Rebecca pulled out of the driveway and Nate led the way into the house. It was like something out of Town and Country. Beautiful rooms, expensive furnishings, absolutely no clutter or personalization at all.

Nate seemed comfortable, though, as did Jeremy and Ryan. They brought her and Delaney into a huge room at the back of the house. There was an enormous flat-screen television on one wall, with a long, sectional couch facing it. A few feet away stood a soccer table, a dartboard, and a bar. At the other end of the room was a pool table.

“You know how to play?” Nate asked her.

Allison shook her head. “I do,” Delaney said.

Jeremy tossed her a stick. “Show me what you got.”

Nate said, “I want winner.”

Allison drifted to the couch. After a minute, Ryan sat down beside her. He handed her the remote. She turned on the television that was as big as her bed and started flipping the channels. Behind them, Nate said, “I guess you can play,” to Delaney.

Allison could imagine the look of satisfaction on her friend’s face. No matter the game, if there could be a winner, Delaney would be it. She could shoot hoops, hit a homerun, and score a goal with a talent that only came off annoying to those, like Allison, with no athletic ability.

Grateful to be left out, Allison kept the volume low, hoping they’d continue to ignore her. Teen mom was on, she saw, flipping past, as was Law and Order. She let the channel play long enough to realize she’d already seen the episode, then turned it. For ten minutes, she flipped around, mostly watching commercials.

“Hit the ‘guide’ button,” Ryan said.

Allison had to look at the remote several long seconds before she found it. An on screen line up appeared on the television. She navigated through the guide, pausing only briefly to ask, “What channels do you get?”

“All of them.”

Must be nice, she thought. At home, they had basic cable on a television that was older than she was. Because it wasn’t fair to judge someone based on wealth, she refused to hold that against him. She had other offenses to draw on, anyway.

“I can’t believe she made that!” Jeremy said in a loud voice.

Nate laughed. “She kicked your ass, dude.”

“You want to play, Ally?” Delaney called out to her.

Even if she knew how, she was pretty sure she wouldn’t want to. The only thing she really wanted was to go back home. “No, thanks.”

“My turn,” Nate said. “Ryan, you want winner?”

Allison felt him look at her a second before he said, “Nope.”

TBS was playing a marathon of reruns. It was better than nothing. Allison selected the channel and sat back against the cushions.

“You like The Big Bang Theory?” Ryan asked her.

She kept her eyes on the screen. “Yeah.”

He shifted in his seat a little, not moving closer, nor farther away. He didn’t speak again until commercial. “So I guess you guys don’t like Becca, huh?”

There was that awful, guilty feeling in the pit of her stomach again. Without turning from the television, Allison said only, “I guess not.”

Being uncomfortable made her voice stiff and her answers short. She didn’t want to explain anything, to any of them, but she knew she sounded far more rude than she intended. It was, Delaney had told her more than once, why most people thought she was a snob.

“You really pissed her off,” he said.

Allison squashed the impulse to apologize. Instead, she pretended an avid interest in the laundry soap commercial.

“Mind if I ask why?” he prodded.

She squinted her eyes at the screen as the commercial faded and Jim Parsons began his zany antics as Sheldon Cooper.

A minute passed. Ryan blew out a breath. “Am I supposed to believe you didn’t hear me?”

Belatedly, she glanced beside her. “I’m sorry, what?”

His eyebrow lifted mockingly. “Really? That’s what you’re going with?”

She vaguely remembered saying the same thing to him not long ago and was amused until she realized she wasn’t going to get around the question. “Yeah.”

“Why did you do it?”

Now she was more than merely uncomfortable. She was getting twitchy. “What exactly?”

“Set her up. Nate told you we know it was you.”

Allison picked a piece of lint from the bottom of her bright pink work shirt. “He might have mentioned it.”

“So?”

There was no way he was unaware of what a monster his girlfriend was. The question was ridiculous and she wasn’t going to answer it. “Why haven’t you told her?”

“She got around it. No harm, no foul, right?”

What an unbelievably tolerant viewpoint. So unbelievable, in fact, that she didn’t believe it at all. “What were you guys doing there?”

“Jeremy wanted to practice.”

“And you thought a school would be the best place to burn down?”

Just when she thought she might have gone too far, humor lit his dark eyes. “We figured there was plenty of water there to put it out.”

“There’s water at the park. Breaking and entering wasn’t necessary.”

“Not for us.”

She knew what he was getting at, but she wasn’t going to talk to him about what she’d done. Not when she was so much more comfortable trying to put him on the spot. “Then why do it?”

“Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Why didn’t you just tell us you’d seen us?”

“I could ask you the same thing.”

“We didn’t chase you guys down.” She looked back at the television, just in time to see the credits roll.

“We’re sorry about that,” Jeremy said from behind her.

She hadn’t realized he’d left the pool table and come over to eavesdrop. Okay, that wasn’t fair. She hadn’t asked for privacy and didn’t want any, but something about them rubbed her the wrong way.

Jeremy leaned over the couch, resting his hands between them on top of the cushions. “We weren’t trying to scare you, we just didn’t know who else was there.”

“You didn’t scare me,” she lied.

“Good.” Jeremy smiled. “I’m glad everything’s out in the open.”

She didn’t roll her eyes, but she wanted to.

“You sure you don’t want to play?” he asked them.

“Maybe later,” Ryan said.

Allison picked up the remote and started surfing again. She wasn’t in the mood for reality television, and that was the majority of the programming available. The movie channels offered a mix of romantic comedies and dated thrillers. She wouldn’t have minded watching The Silence of the Lambs again, but for some reason it seemed inappropriate. Maybe because the people she was surrounded by were disturbed and in no need of ideas.

“You look uncomfortable,” Ryan said.

I wonder why, she thought.

“You want to get out of here?”

She looked at the time, displayed at the top of the channel guide. It was nearing three. “Yeah,” she said. “I should probably be getting home.”

“That’s not what I was suggesting.”

She got it then. He was asking her to go somewhere with him. Suspicion immediately overtook surprise. “Why?”

“Because you’ve been sitting there almost an hour looking like you’re about to get a root canal.”

And she’d thought she was pretending so well. “Oh,” she said. “No, thank you.”

“Is it all of us, or one in particular?”

“What?” she asked blankly.

“That you have a problem with.”

Because she had a harder time lying to someone’s face, she turned towards the television. “I don’t have a problem with any of you.”

He went on like she hadn’t spoken. “Normally, I’d say it has to be Jeremy. Everyone likes Nate and Jeremy can come off as creepy.”

Yes, she thought, he certainly could.

“But Jeremy got you to go to the party, so that seems doubtful. What’s more likely is that it’s me.” He said it mildly, with more puzzlement than annoyance. “Of course, that doesn’t make sense either, seeing as how I’m the most charming.”

Her lips tried to curve. Calling herself an idiot, Allison pressed them together, stubbornly refusing to get sucked in.

“That was a joke,” he said confidentially, smiling his Bailey smile at her. “Really, I’m the least vain.”

Nobody should be that good looking, she thought. When you looked like that, you didn’t have to be smart or funny or talented. You had only to breathe and people would line up to give you things. How ridiculously unfair.

Delaney beat Nate and Jeremy insisted on another try. While they racked balls, Nate abandoned them to drop on the chair, grinning. “She’s really good,” he told Allison.

“I know,” she said, without even an ounce of jealousy. Delaney had her strengths and Allison had hers.

“What are we watching?” Nate asked.

She’d turned it to Wheel of Fortune at some point. Allison picked the remote up from her lap and turned on the guide.

“You want to play darts?” Nate asked her.

The last time she’d tried darts, she’d almost stabbed someone in the head. “No, thanks.”

“Isn’t she polite?” he asked Ryan, amused.

Allison’s smile was small, barely there, but Ryan noticed, murmuring, “See? Everyone likes Nate.”

“Well, of course they do,” Nate said. “I’m easy to get along with.”

“So am I,” Ryan insisted.

Nate smirked at him. Allison gave up trying to find something on television. She dropped the remote beside Ryan and said, “You can watch what you want.”

I shouldn’t give Ryan such a hard time. He’s a nice guy, too.

She froze. It was a whisper of sound, not quite in her head, not quite in her ear. It was also disturbingly familiar.

Ryan would be a great friend to have.

“Did you say something?” she asked Ryan.

He shook his head, as did Nate when she looked at him next. Nate added another sunny smile.

It’s silly to be so suspicious of them.

The whisper was louder, the voice more distinct. Her eyes swung back to Nate, who still smiled, now somewhat distractedly at her.

They’re all good guys. Maybe a little weird, but definitely harmless.

It was Nate’s voice. In that moment, she knew it for a fact. Nate was talking to her… without moving his lips. “How are you doing that?” she demanded.

“Doing what?”

Ryan looked at her, but she paid him no attention. Always quick to jump to conclusions, she stumbled on the only plausible explanation. “You’re throwing your voice.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I heard you,” she told him.

Ryan said, “He didn’t say anything.”

“Yes, he did,” she insisted. “He said you guys are weird, but harmless.”

Nate’s face went slack. Ryan continued to stare at her, confused.

“You can throw your voice,” she said, a little in awe. “Like a ventriloquist.”

As soon as she said it, she realized something else: that she’d heard him do it before. That the strange thoughts and odd impulses she’d had around them before weren’t thoughts at all. They were Nate. He could throw his voice so far, keeping it so low, that what was merely a suggestion became almost a thought in her head.

“He didn’t say anything—” Ryan said.

Nate cut him off, looking vaguely sick. “Yes, I did.”

Ryan stared at both of them, in turn.

“Where did you learn to do that?” Allison asked him.

“Do what?” Ryan wanted to know.

Nate smiled. The edges wobbled. “To throw my voice. A lot of people don’t hear me,” he explained.

“It’s quiet,” Allison told him. “But it’s there.” And he used it, she imagined, often. All the times she’d thought she was losing her mind… “If you weren’t using first person, I would have figured it out sooner. ‘Nate’s a good guy,’” she mimicked. “‘I should be nicer to him.’ Does anyone actually fall for that?”

Ryan said sharply, “What are you talking about?”

Nate laughed. It sounded forced. To Ryan, he said. “It’s okay. She can hear me, too.”

“What’s going on?” Jeremy asked, coming from behind them, Delaney in tow.

“Ally can hear me,” he explained. “When I throw my voice.”

It was an intense look he gave Jeremy, who frowned down at Allison. Delaney looked from one to the other. “What did I miss?”

Allison said, “Nate can throw his voice.”

“Really?” Delaney said. “Show me.”

“Uh. Okay.”

Jeremy sucks at pool.

Allison laughed. Delaney said, “What?”

“You didn’t hear me?” Nate asked.

“Do it again,” she said to Nate. “Listen,” she told Delaney.

Jeremy sucks at pool.

Delaney frowned, her eyes on Nate. “Tell me you heard that,” Allison said.

Her friend appeared uneasy. “What did you say?” she asked Nate.

“Jeremy sucks at pool,” he replied.

Jeremy said, “I do not.”

“But…” Delaney’s voice trailed off. She glanced at Allison, and only someone who knew her well would understand what she wasn’t saying: she was freaked out.

“I know,” Allison said. “It’s like he’s in your head.”

Jeremy sucked in a breath. Nate was getting color—and his cockiness—back. “Good, aren’t I?”

Allison nodded. Delaney still looked unsure. “It’s okay, Lane. The more you hear it, the more it sounds like him. Do it again,” she told Nate.

Ryan sat up. “I think maybe—”

Ryan’s a spoilsport.

Ryan showed no reaction at all. He was probably used to being called that, Allison thought, remembering what they’d overheard at the park.

Delaney’s mouth lifted in a poor impression of a smile. Jeremy said, “What now?”

“He’s making fun of you,” Allison said. “Both.”

“That’s really weird,” Delaney told Nate.

“Why can’t you hear him?” Allison asked Jeremy.

Nate answered for him. “I have to focus on one person, and throw my voice their way.”

“Delaney and I both heard you,” she pointed out.

“There’s always an exception. You must be a good listener.”

“It doesn’t sound like a voice,” Delaney said.

“I didn’t think so, either, at first. But after a while, you can recognize it,” Allison assured her.

“Do you do it a lot?” Delaney asked Nate.

“Not really.”

“Yes, you do,” Allison told him. “I was starting to think I was crazy.”

Delaney looked like she was starting to feel the same. “Don’t do it to me,” she told Nate.

“Okay,” he agreed easily.

“I mean it,” she said.

And he nodded, sincerely. “It gives some people a headache.”

“Why would it give someone a headache?” Allison asked him.

“It has to do with the frequency…” he said vaguely.

Delaney shut her eyes, wincing, as if on cue. “Yeah,” she whispered. “My head hurts.”

Jeremy glared at Nate, who finally looked away from Delaney and glared back. Neither spoke.

“You want to go home?” Allison asked her.

“Yeah.” She held both hands to her head and her perfect posture slumped. Delaney got migraines occasionally and this looked like a clear case. She’d be down until the next morning, anyway.

Jeremy put his arm around Delaney, his expression murderous. Ryan said, “Take her home, Jeremy.”

His concern for Delaney outweighed whatever his problem was with Nate. Carefully, he led Delaney out of the room. Allison turned back around. Ryan and Nate were looking at her; Ryan in speculation, Nate with narrowed eyes. “How’s your head?” Nate asked her.

Ryan opened his mouth, then shut it when Nate held up his hand.

“I don’t get migraines.” She scanned the room. “Where did I put my jacket?”

“The, uh, frequency doesn’t bother you?” Nate persisted.

“No.” She’d slung her jacket on a pinball machine tucked into the corner. Retrieving it, she said, “Later.”

*

Delaney lost three days to her migraine, missing church Sunday, as well as the freak snowstorm that hit afterwards, scattering four inches of snow on the ground, and cancelling school for two days. Even Candy’s Cones was closed, as well as several other businesses in town. The bar where Regina worked, unfortunately, stayed open.

“That’s stupid,” Allison told her mother.

“People may not be willing to face the elements for a donut, sweetie, but they’ll always go for a beer.”

And wasn’t that a sad description of modern man?

By Wednesday, the roads were clear, and business was open. Unfortunately, so was school. She met Delaney at the halfway point between their homes that morning.

“How’s your head?” she asked Delaney.

“Good. Now. That was the worst headache I’ve ever had. My medication didn’t touch it.”

Delaney had a serious prescription for migraine meds. They were strong and powerful. “I thought they always worked,” Allison said.

“They used to. Mom got me an appointment with the doctor. We’re going to see if he has anything else.”

“Sorry, Lane.”

“What are you going to do?”

She looked tired and worn down, Allison thought, and sought to cheer her up. “I’m pretty sure Jeremy likes you, too.”

The ghost of a smile traced her lips. “He called every day to see how I was doing.”

While it was undeniably sweet, Allison couldn’t help but wonder how they’d gotten around the obvious problem. “Did your dad hang up on him?”

“Mom’s wearing him down. He still glares when I say his name, but he isn’t forbidding me from talking to him.”

“I’m glad.”

“Really?” Delaney asked skeptically.

“Yeah.”

“You’re okay with it now?”

“Well, I still think you could do better, but it was very nice the way he took care of you last weekend.” Jeremy had driven her home slowly, apologizing every time he hit a pothole, then nearly carrying her friend into her house.

“I told you he was a sweetie. So you won’t mind seeing them again?”

Allison shifted her book bag to her other shoulder. “I guess not.”

“All of them?” she prodded.

“No, it’s fine. Nate’s pretty cool.”

One dark brow shot straight up. “You like Nate?”

Allison saw the direction she was going. “Not like that. I’m just kind of…the whole throwing his voice thing is impressive.”

“What throwing his voice thing?”

Delaney looked honestly confused. “You heard him, too, Lane.”

“When?”

“Saturday. When we were at Ryan’s. You don’t remember?”

“Not really. I remember playing pool and Jeremy driving me home and that’s about it. Mom gave me a big dose when I got there.”

“The last time you got a migraine, you didn’t forget anything.”

She lifted her shoulder in a careless shrug. “Yeah. That’s another reason I’m going back to the doctor.”

“It sounds serious.”

“It happens to people. The pain and the drugs can do a number on you. Tell me about Nate.”

Allison hesitated. “I can’t believe you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“And I won’t until you tell me.”

They crossed the street from the park to the school, pausing to let Mike Cobb pass in his Nova. As they climbed the steps to the building, Allison explained the best she could. “Nate can throw his voice. It’s like a ventriloquist, but not. I don’t know. His voice is really quiet and it’s like right in your ear. Do you remember when I said I was having inappropriate thoughts? Well, I wasn’t.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It was Nate. I think he does it a lot. I know he’s done it to me, several times. He whispers this stuff, like suggestions. And if you don’t know it’s him, you’d think it was your own idea.”

Delaney frowned. “I don’t think I like the sound of that.”

“You didn’t, when he showed you. You told him not to do it to you again.”

“Oh. What did he say?”

“He said he wouldn’t.”

She thought it over. “That’s weird.”

“Yeah. It’s kind of cool, though, too.”

“If you say so.”

“I do.”

“Are you sure you don’t like him?”

“Yeah.” She pulled the door open for Delaney and followed her through. “I want him to teach me how to do it.”

“It’s weird,” Delaney insisted. “You’ve got too much of that going for you already.”

Allison laughed, and set off for class. When she walked in to Geometry, Jeremy waved her over. “How’s Delaney?”

“She’s fine.”

He visibly relaxed. “Good. I haven’t seen her since the weekend.”

“She’s been pretty sick.”

“But she’s okay now, though?”

It was impossible to attend Jefferson High and not know what a softy Jeremy Austin was, but she was still surprised he needed so much reassurance. “She’s good.”

He nodded, as if reaffirming the idea. “Thanks, Ally.”

She crossed the room to take her usual seat, only to feel a tap on her shoulder the second she sat down. “How’s it going, Troy?”

“What was that about?” he asked, nodding toward Jeremy.

Because she knew he was genuinely concerned, she didn’t tell him it was none of his business. “Jeremy was asking about Delaney.”

“Why?”

“Because she was sick.”

The worry she expected to see didn’t appear. Troy was as tense as ever. “How does he know she was sick?”

“Don’t ask me.”

He didn’t, taking her words as she’d meant him to take them. “Did you think about what I said?”

“Did you think about what I asked? If there’s a good reason, Troy, I’ll believe you. You’re giving me nothing to go on.”

“I told you they’re dangerous,” he whispered, one wary eye trained on Jeremy.

“How are they dangerous?”

He clammed up. Allison turned back around as their teacher entered the room. When class was over, Troy rushed past her to get out of the room and Allison looked after him in concern. She could understand being wary of Jeremy and his cronies, but Allison had reason…

She stopped, considering. Troy had reason too, he just wasn’t saying. She wondered if his reason could be anything at all like hers. Had he seen Jeremy handling fire? Or had Nate been whispering in his ear?

Depending on the circumstances, either one of them could come off as creepy or dangerous or both, and Troy’s only problem with Ryan was his association with the other two. Which made it more likely that he’d caught them doing something they shouldn’t have been doing.

By History, she’d decided it had to be Nate. Jeremy’s hobby was more dangerous, but judging by Delaney’s reaction to Nate, his was the more unsettling. Unless Troy had experienced both. Was that possible?

The only reason Allison had was because she’d been spending so much time with them. Troy didn’t hang around any of them. Ever. She could dimly recall him once refusing to play in gym class because he was on Nate’s team and that was all the way back in middle school.

Nate dropped into his usual seat, two rows up. He flashed her a smile, then turned back around as Miss Murphy entered the room. “Good morning, class.” She sat on the edge of her desk. “Open your books to page two hundred one.”

A murmur of books sliding, pages turning, and bored sighs drifted around the room.

“Chapter fourteen,” Miss Murphy began. “Introduces us to World War II. Can anyone tell me what started the initial conflict?”

Allison knew the answer, but she didn’t raise her hand. She never raised her hand in Miss Murphy’s class. The setting was too laid back, too casual. Speaking out meant more attention than she was comfortable with. Allison preferred to sit in the background and observe.

Maggie Albright had no such qualms. “Hitler started killing Jewish people.”

Jacob Diller laughed at her. “That isn’t what started it. He invaded Poland.”

“Because he wanted to kill Jewish people.”

Nate piped in. “He wanted to dominate the world.”

Miss Murphy nodded. “Very good, Nathan. Someone’s been reading ahead,” she told the class. “There were two main sides to the war.”

“The Axis and the Allies,” Jacob said.

“That’s correct. Who made up the Axis?” she asked next.

Megan Howell said, “Japan, Germany and Italy.”

“And the Allies?” When Megan hesitated, Miss Murphy said, “Allison? I haven’t heard from you in a while.”

Her gaze dropped to her book. She couldn’t help it. Two dozen heads had swung in her direction and the attention flustered her. “Uh…”

She hated sounding like an idiot. Hated looking like one, too.

Us, Britain and Russia.

Her head shot up. Nate was smiling at her, Miss Murphy patiently waiting for the answer he’d just supplied. Startled, Allison looked around the room. No one else even shifted in their seats.

It really was the oddest thing.

Go ahead and say it.

“Russia, Britain and the U.S.,” she answered finally and because the idea that he thought she was stupid bothered her, she added, “And to a lesser extent, China.”

Miss Murphy nodded approvingly. “Excellent, Allison.”

Yeah, she decided. He was going to have to teach her how he did it. She couldn’t stand not knowing. It was almost like telepathy, if such things were real. She’d seen a ventriloquist at a show years ago when she was little and it’d been nothing like what Nate did. The next time Delaney suggested they hang out, Allison wasn’t even going to pretend to mind.

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

Delaney didn’t suggest it for a while. It didn’t help that Jeremy decided to glue himself to her side. He walked home with them after school and abandoned his friends to sit with her and Allison at lunch.

They were mildly disgusting to be around: all soft eyes and sappy smiles and holding hands. If Allison had doubted their affection for each other, the next week eliminated any skepticism she might’ve been holding on to—as well as any interest in being a third wheel.

When Delaney suggested they all study at her house, Allison told her she had to stay home and clean her room. Bowling that weekend? Allison insisted she needed to visit the library. What about grabbing a pizza and window shopping at the mall? Allison shook her head, citing a headache she didn’t have.

Delaney lost patience. “Oh, come on. We haven’t done anything together in forever.”

It had been exactly twelve days since they’d hung out at Ryan’s, but it did feel like longer. “Sorry, Lane. I’ve been busy.”

“Busy making up phony excuses,” she said. “We’re going to the movies Friday. You’re coming.”

It was, perhaps, the most ridiculous invitation yet. Allison was grateful she had to work. Not even Delaney could argue with the obligation.

Jeremy said, “You could ask for the night off,” even though he clearly didn’t want her to.

Allison refused the offer. “It’s my first night back since the storm.”

Because of the stock loss Irene suffered from a power outage and her insistence on making it up in salary, Allison’s hours had been cut shamefully down. If she was lucky, she’d get ten hours on her next check.

Stephanie was more fortunate. “I’ve been doing six hours every day,” she told Allison when she finally got back to work.

“Must be nice.”

“You haven’t worked with Irene enough,” she told her. “If you had, you’d be making me hot chocolate and patting my back.”

Allison laughed. “You think?”

“I know.” Stephanie hopped on the desk in the office and played tune master. “So, what’ve you been up to?”

“Not much.” It was true. She’d escaped Delaney and Jeremy as much as she could, but aside from finishing her report on Daphne Du Maurier, she had nothing to brag about. “Were you guys busy here?”

“Yeah, kind of.” She tweaked the tuner on the stereo until Hotel California blasted from the speakers. “I love this song.”

Stephanie, she’d discovered, had an eclectic taste in music. She’d listen to anything from Eminem to the Eagles. Allison prided herself on her tolerance.

“Ryan was in, looking for you,” she said casually.

Allison rocked in the swivel chair, munching on a lavishly decorated cookie. “You misunderstood.”

“No, really. He came in almost every night asking for you.”

“What for?”

Stephanie sipped coffee from a styrofoam cup. “I don’t know. Probably checking to see if you needed a ride.”

He probably wasn’t. He probably wanted to ask her about Delaney and Jeremy. Neither of them were talking, but Allison had the distinct impression Jeremy was avoiding his friends.

“Can I be nosy a minute?” Stephanie asked her.

“Sure.”

“What’s going on with you two?”

Allison glanced at the surveillance camera and took another bite of double chocolate chunk cookie. “What do you mean?”

“Don’t get me wrong. I like Ryan and I never understood what he saw in Rebecca, but if you’re thinking about messing around with him—”

If she hadn’t already swallowed, she would have choked. “No. No.” She held up her hand to emphasize her words. “Absolutely not.”

Stephanie pretended she hadn’t spoken. “I should warn you. They’ve been together, off and on, since like ninth grade. He’s probably more of a status symbol to her, but I’d steer clear.”

“Steph—” she began.

“Rebecca takes her possessions very seriously.”

“I don’t want anything of hers,” Allison said honestly.

Stephanie stirred her coffee before she took another sip. “I’m just saying. I mean, you’d totally be better for him, but…”

“No! Really, I get it. Rebecca’s crazy.” Allison got up from her chair. “I’m going to go man the counter now.”

“I didn’t make you uncomfortable, did I?” Stephanie asked her.

“No,” she lied. “We’re good.”

They really weren’t, and that fact was only highlighted when it neared closing time and Ryan walked inside. “Hey,” Stephanie greeted him.

“Hey,” he replied. To Allison, he said, “How are you?”

Stephanie threw a pointed look her way. “Fine,” Allison mumbled.

“Good,” he said. “We haven’t seen you guys around, so…”

Most people left things open ended hoping the other person would fill in the silence. Allison had no interest in prolonging the conversation. She wiped the spotless counter with her spotless rag and tried to pretend she was alone.

Stephanie cleared her throat. “Are we catering to your aunt tonight, or Queen Stuck-Up?”

“Neither. I’ll take a coffee before you close, if you don’t mind.”

Stephanie poured him a cup, handing it over as the bells on the door jingled, and Troy came into the shop. He stopped short when he saw Ryan.

Allison smiled, genuinely happy to see him. “Hey! I was wondering if you were ever going to come in.”

He approached the counter warily, keeping six feet between him and Ryan. “Yeah,” he murmured. “I kept meaning to.”

“Well, what can I get for you?” she asked him.

“I don’t know. A donut?”

“What kind?” Stephanie asked.

“Chocolate.”

Stephanie looked into the case. “Any particular variety?”

Troy shook his head. “Whatever.” His eyes were on the donuts but Allison didn’t think he was all that interested in what they had to offer.

Stephanie pulled a Boston Crème from the case and slid it into a bag. “This work?”

“Thanks.” Troy passed a dollar bill to Stephanie, who rang him up, then he asked Allison, “You walking tonight?”

“Yeah.”

Ryan said, “I’m driving her.”

Allison opened her mouth to refuse the offer when Troy cut her off. “I’ll walk her home,” he said firmly.

Ryan glanced at Troy, who looked at Allison, who frowned at Stephanie, who gazed at each of them in interest.

“Uh…thanks, both of you,” Allison said. “But I can get home by myself.”

“I’ll drive by your place on my way home anyway,” Ryan said. “It’s not a big deal.”

“She wants to walk,” Troy said. “And she lives closer to me.”

Troy and Ryan lived equal distances from Allison’s house. The lift of Ryan’s dark brow told her he was aware of that, but he didn’t argue the point with Troy. “It’s twenty degrees outside,” he said instead. “It’s too cold for her to be walking.”

“I’m glad that’s settled,” Stephanie said brightly.

The other girl hadn’t bothered to look at Troy, or she wouldn’t have said something so ridiculous. Troy’s jaw was locked, his eyes narrowed, his mouth tight. He wasn’t through, he just needed a better argument.

If the entire situation wasn’t so completely bizarre, Allison could have summoned one and helped him out.

Ryan rested a hip against the counter and the corners of his mouth lifted. “I can give you a ride, too,” he told Troy.

Something flashed in Troy’s eyes. “No, thank you.”

If she had to choose one of them, she’d pick Troy, but she resented the fact that they were trying to make the decision for her. It might be time to have a talk with both of them. “Listen,” she began. “I’m perfectly okay to—”

Troy straightened. “I gotta go,” he said. “Be careful, Ally.”

He was gone before she could think of the right words to make him stay. When the door shut behind him, Stephanie asked, “He’s a friend of yours?”

“Yeah. Kind of,” she answered, brushing a loose lock of hair from her cheek. Irene insisted both she and Stephanie secure their hair as long as they were in the shop, but Allison’s hair was silky and her ponytails never lasted very long.

“What’s his problem?”

Feeling oddly protective of her kind of friend, Allison lied. “No idea.” Even if she was willing to confide in Stephanie—which she wasn’t—there was no way she was going to reveal Troy’s issues to Ryan.

Allison looked at him. He was staring thoughtfully at the door. As if he felt her gaze, he turned and gave her a big, fake smile. “I’ll wait for you outside,” he told her, and promptly left the shop.

“Seriously, Ally,” Stephanie said. “Be careful.”

“I don’t like him,” she insisted.

“And I believe you, weird as that is, but I’m beginning to think maybe he likes you and that’s just as bad.”

“He doesn’t.” Whatever his motivation was, it wasn’t attraction.

They closed the shop five minutes later. Stephanie climbed in her boyfriend’s car and Allison got in Ryan’s jeep for what she was going to make certain was the last time. “Nice as this is,” Allison said, putting as much skepticism into the word nice as possible. “You don’t have to do this anymore. I like walking.”

“It’s too cold,” he said, pulling away from the curb.

He was going to force her to be rude, she realized, disappointed. If she alienated Ryan, it would make it harder to suck up to Nate and get him to show her his trick. But she was less comfortable with Ryan than any of them, and she wasn’t going to let this go on forever.

“I like the cold,” she said, brushing another lock of hair from her forehead. “And I like walking.”

He smirked, turning up the heat, which only further disarrayed her coif. “No, you don’t.”

“That just goes to show how little you know me. I love being outside.”

“In the freezing cold?”

“Yes.” The snow covered scenery sped past. Allison pulled the elastic band out of her hair and finger combed the loose strands back into place before she replaced her ponytail.

“Why?”

“Well.” She thought a moment, and came up empty. “It’s pretty when it snows.”

“It’s cold and slippery.”

“That, too.”

“I wasn’t suggesting it was a good thing. You’re risking frostbite or a broken leg.”

“I enjoy a challenge.”

Ryan laughed. He had a great laugh, she thought. Deep and warm and confident. It reminded her how completely different he was from her, and thereby how completely strange it was that they were together right then.

“I don’t need a ride anymore.”

He turned onto her street, carefully navigating the icy road. “What if I insist?”

“Now why would you want to do that? Up till now, I’ve been on my best behavior. I promise you it won’t last.”

“I’d kind of like to see that.”

Oh, yeah. He was going to force her to be rude. “Why are you doing this?”

“Maybe I like hanging out with you.”

An answer for everything. With censure, she replied, “I don’t think so.”

“You know, most people would take that as a compliment.”

“I’m much brighter than most people.” It was her only source of personal vanity. She wasn’t particularly pretty. She’d never put any effort into being charming and her sense of humor had a tendency to come off as sarcastic. What she had was a brain and she was unabashedly proud of it.

He stopped the jeep in front of her house and put it in park. “It is me, isn’t it?”

That threw her. “What?”

“You have a problem with me.”

“Oh.” She quickly adjusted her thought processes. “No, I don’t.”

“Yeah. I think you do. I’m just not sure why. I’m generally well-liked.”

She had two options, she figured. She could continue to play stupid or she could come up with a phony excuse. For a moment, she pondered the possibilities. She hadn’t spent enough time with him to tear down his character. What little she knew of him was positive. He was smart, he was funny. He had terrible taste in girlfriends, of course, but…

“Was it something I did, or didn’t do?”

“How could you have offended me by not doing something?” she asked him.

“I don’t see how I could have offended you, at all. But I’ve seen other girls get mad over imagined slights, so—”

“I’m not like other girls.”

He was giving her a funny look. “I know.”

“There’s always a real reason not to like someone.”

Ryan waited, but she didn’t elaborate. “So, what’s your reason?”

Allison looked out the windshield at her darkened front porch. She was sure she’d left the light on. Maybe the bulb burned out. She’d have to remember to replace it.

“Ignoring me is childish.”

Yeah, she thought. It was. “I don’t not like you,” she said finally. “I just don’t want you to keep showing up like this.”

“Why not?”

She had the sneaking suspicion she was now offending him. Trying to be comfortable with that, she pressed on. “We aren’t friends.”

He played with the edge of the steering wheel cover. “We could be.”

“Why?” she asked, exasperated.

“I don’t know,” he said, sounding both puzzled and amused. “I like you.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she said, annoyed that he’d even say it. She pulled the handle on the door and got out. “Look, thanks for the ride, but let’s not do this again.”

*

“I can’t believe you said that,” Delaney told her on the way to school the following Monday. “What did he say?”

“Nothing. I went inside.”

They entered the park, taking the shortcut to school. Jeremy had an early bird class twice a week and Allison was glad they were alone. If they’d had company, she never would have mentioned it.

“Wow,” Delaney said. “I’ve never seen you actually be mean to anyone.”

“I wasn’t being mean.”

“Right,” she said sarcastically. “I guess this is a bad time to tell you we’re supposed to go over there tomorrow.”

“I thought Jeremy was mad at them.”

“They must have made up.”

Good for them, she thought. “I’m going to pass. I should hit the library again, anyway.”

“You’re so boring,” she complained.

“Be careful over there.”

“And still, you think they’re dangerous.”

“I’m not saying dangerous. Just…sneaky, dishonest.”

When they reached the school, it was still early. Groups of students stood in front, on the sidewalks, the lawn, and the steps leading to the doors. Delaney and Allison crossed the street and started up the walk, only to notice that nearly every face in the crowd had turned to watch them approach.

Allison looked from one group to the next. Her eyes fell on faces both familiar and foreign, but without exception, each person averted their gaze. As they passed, Allison caught the low murmur of indecipherable whispers.

“What now?” Delaney murmured.

Mike Cobb stood near the door with Elena Rodriguez and Kelly Brandt. Jeff Quincy leaned against the stone façade behind them. Allison offered a small smile of greeting to Mike, who usually at least pretended to be friendly with her. He looked down almost immediately. As they passed, someone whispered, another laughed.

She had the sickening suspicion that she was being made fun of. The idea was silly, since no one ever bothered to pay enough attention to her to make a joke at her expense, but still. Something wasn’t right.

They entered the building warily and the few students inside copied the actions of those on the other side of the door. One brief look they allowed themselves before they dropped their eyes, whispered, and laughed.

Delaney paused at the main hall. “I can’t tell if it’s you or me.”

Neither could Allison. It felt a little like when everyone thought Delaney had lice, except no one was scratching their heads in an obvious, mocking way.

The bell rang, beckoning the students to move it along. They had four minutes till the day began.

“I’ll see you in Biology,” Delaney said. “Tell me what happens.”

“Ok.” She dropped her coat off at her locker and grabbed her books. When she entered Geometry, it was to stares and whispers. She hesitated at the door and Jeremy got up from his seat and sprinted over to her.

Without asking permission, without so much as a hello, he dragged her back out into the hall. “What happened last weekend?”

She blinked. “Huh?”

“What did you do?”

“Nothing. I went to work, went back home. Why?”

He looked immensely uncomfortable. “You pissed somebody off, Ally.”

The sick feeling intensified. “What are you talking about?”

“Everyone’s saying you, uh…” He flushed, finishing in a rush. “You’re a lesbian.”

“WHAT?!”

*

By the time she made it to Biology, Allison was hopping mad. The avoidance of eyes had evolved over three periods to insulting stares and outright snickering. No one talked to her, not even Troy, who neither tapped her on the shoulder nor whispered his paranoid warnings in her ear. In History, Nate threw his voice to tell her, If you want, we can make out in lunch. That’ll shut them up.

If the situation weren’t so excruciatingly unpleasant, she might’ve laughed. As it was, she could only wish she knew how to tell him to kiss her ass. Malicious rumors spread fastest and most effectively by the more popular kids, and there was no one more popular than Nate and his friends. She didn’t include Jeremy in that description, simply because the more she got to know him, the more she thought of him as a big, soft teddy bear. The guy wouldn’t purposely hurt anyone.

Allison dropped into the chair beside Delaney, who said, “Who do you think it was?”

“Who else?”

Delaney frowned, knowing immediately what she wasn’t saying. “I can’t see Ryan spreading a rumor.”

“It was either him, or on his behalf. I haven’t offended anyone else lately.”

“Speak of the devil,” Delaney murmured, looking up at Mr. Malicious himself, who entered the room with Rebecca, Megan, and a miserable looking Jeremy.

Ryan didn’t even look their way, but Rebecca smiled at Allison. It was her standard devious, I’m-so-glad-you’re-suffering smile.

“You don’t think—” Delaney whispered.

She hadn’t, until that moment. “What did I do to her?”

Delaney said, “What did I do to her—that she knows about?”

“You’re prettier than she is,” Allison told her.

“That’s stupid,” Delaney said.

“No one ever credited her with an enormous amount of intelligence.”

Mr. Jeffries walked into the room and took control of the class. Whispers died and not even an errant chuckle sounded the rest of the period. Allison tried to concentrate on the lesson, but she was already familiar enough with it to let her mind wander.

Afterwards, she walked with Delaney into the lunchroom. Jeremy walked behind them in a goofy, oddly protective sort of way. Allison couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to be grateful. Especially not when the cafeteria was already full and someone, not far from the door, coughed around the word, “Dyke!”

She stiffened.

Delaney took her arm, which drew errant laughter near the snack bar. “Let’s just sit down,” she said softly.

Jeremy said, “Ignore them. They’re a bunch of idiots.”

While it was true, Allison couldn’t get her legs to move forward. Across the room, Troy caught her eye, then looked away. She might not think of him as the friend he said he was, but his silent rejection stung. “I’m bailing,” she decided abruptly.

“Ally, wait,” Delaney said, starting to follow.

“Stay, Lane. I’ll see you guys later.”

Delaney looked up at Jeremy, who looked sadly back down at her. Allison turned around, rushed through the east hall, and walked out of school.

Outside, the melting snow oozed onto the sidewalks and the sun shined brightly overhead. How completely inappropriate, Allison thought. If life were fair, it would be raining. No, she amended. It would be storming. Black skies, deafening thunder.

And if life were fair, she would have remained invisible until at least her senior year of college.

She crossed the street to the park. She’d never ditched school before, and it felt wrong. It also felt lonely. Much as she didn’t want to drag Delaney down, she didn’t particularly want to be alone, either.

Wandering over the slushy hills, she found a spot under a wide old oak where a fallen tree sat rotting underneath. She sat gingerly on the damp surface and stared at nothing at all. She still had three classes to get through. The thought made her sick. She didn’t want to go back. Not ever. That, of course, wasn’t a possibility. Ditching the rest of the day, however, wasn’t out of the question.

She’d get an F on her homework in French class, but her average would still be near an A. Near an A, she thought. How galling. Taking an F for Ryan Bailey. If it was even him.

It had to be him, though.

I saw you come in here. Where’d you go?

Only one person in the world that could be. Allison kept her mouth shut. She didn’t want his company.

I’ll find you eventually. Come on. Help me out. We’re still friends, aren’t we?

On what planet did these people live? she thought moodily. The sound of movement behind her had her gritting her teeth. Go AWAY, she thought.

The movement paused. What?

She hadn’t said anything. He was probably trying to trick her into speaking so he’d find her. What a jerk. This was all their faults. If they hadn’t been lighting fires in the school at midnight, this never would have happened.

Ally?

I’m NOT going to talk to you, she thought. Leave me alone!

She felt, rather than saw, the figure behind her, and turned to find Nate standing between two thick trees wearing with a thunderstruck expression.

GO AWAY, she thought.

“You can do it, too,” he said in a stunned, strangled voice.

What was he talking about?

As though he’d heard her, Nate repeated himself. “You can do it, too. I can hear you!”

“You can hear me do what?” No, she told herself. She wasn’t getting sucked into this. “Leave me alone.”

“You’re elect,” he breathed.

“I’m a what?”

His eyes were enormous. “Elect. You—you’re elect.”

“What is that? Some trendy way to say I’m a lesbian? Thanks. I haven’t heard enough of that already today.”

“Ally—” She actually heard him breathing. They were short, uneven rasps of air. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“What are you talking about?” she said, too grumpy to cut him any slack even though he looked like he could use it.

“You…” his voice died. He shook his head in confusion. “I heard you. You’re—”

This morning, she’d still been looking forward to seeing him again. True, she’d mostly wanted to use him to teach her something, but…she’d begun to think of him as…well, whatever category was right below friend. She squeezed her eyes shut. Go away, she thought. Please just leave me alone!

Nate took a quick step forward. He thrust his finger at her. “There. You did it again.”

What was wrong with him? Was this some new way to humiliate her? she wondered. Why couldn’t everyone just let her be?

“Dammitt,” he said. “I heard you!”

Allison swallowed over the lump in her throat. If she was going to cry, it sure wasn’t going to be in front of what was likely one of her tormentors. She made herself stand and approach him. She didn’t do it politely. “What are you talking about?” she snapped.

“You can push,” he said. “You—you’re a controller. Like me.”

“I didn’t push anyone.” What an idiot, she thought. “Go away, Nate.”

“You should have told me. You knew what I was doing at Ryan’s. You knew I couldn’t have said anything.” His lips tried to curve, but his eyes were suddenly accusing. “Why the hell did you call me on it?”

She took pause, studying the seriousness of his expression, replaying his words. Warily, she said, “What are you talking about?”

“Why are you playing stupid?”

“You think I pushed someone. I don’t know if I understand what you mean.”

I mean this. You can do it, too.

“No, I can’t.”

He took a step towards her. There was barely a foot between them. His voice was louder, almost conversational now. It’s pretty hard to lie to someone who can do it, too. I heard you.

“I didn’t say anything.”

Nate ignored her. What do you call it?

“What?”

This. I call it pushing. What do you call it?

He was starting to freak her out. Warily, she eyed the line of trees behind him. Just in case she had to run. “I call it throwing your voice.”

It isn’t really that, though, is it?

Allison took a step in reverse, feeling the threat whether it was warranted or not. Oprah’s ancient lessons on dealing with a potential attacker raced to mind. “No, uh. I guess not.”

Why did you call me on it? In front of the others, I mean. Didn’t anyone ever tell you how dangerous that is?

“I…didn’t mean to?”

Yes, you did. You knew what I was doing. Did you think I was going to admit it in front of everyone? That’s a terrible approach, Ally.

“S-sorry,” she stammered.

Before she could jump, his hands clamped on her shoulders. What’s wrong with you?

“Nothing!”

Are you afraid of me? he asked in disbelief.

Let me go! she thought, wondering furiously what she could do to make this stop.

Nate smiled. There you go. You’re almost as good as I am.

At what? she thought wildly.

At this.

Only then did she realize she hadn’t spoken out loud. She was doing it, too, though she had no idea how. Unless he was somehow making her? Either way, Nate was right. It wasn’t like throwing your voice. Not at all.

We’re the same, Nate told her.

Allison cleared her throat, then didn’t use it. You can hear me?

Of course I can.

How?

The same way you can hear me.

No. I’m thinking. You’re like—trespassing…in my head.

Then you’re trespassing in mine.

I’m not doing anything. You’re doing it, she accused.

I can put something in there, he told her, tapping his temple with his finger. I can’t pull it out.

Well, you are!

You know better than that, he admonished her. I’ve never heard anyone else in my life.

Neither had she, before she’d started spending time with him. Let me go, she asked him. Please.

He released her, stepping back and smiling. Why do you look so freaked out?

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Allison rubbed her arms, increasing the distance between them. Nate looked happy, the complete opposite of threatening. It didn’t matter. As he spoke, she became only more disturbed.

I’ve never been able to talk to anyone like this. I didn’t think there was anyone else like me here, Nate told her.

I’m not like you, she insisted, though even as she did, she felt the lie in her words, just as she felt herself pushing them at Nate. Pushing, she thought again. It was a perfect description.

He laughed. Of course you are.

Allison’s mind raced. What did you call me? Elect. What is that?

How can you not know what that means? It’s what we are.

It’s what he was, maybe. You said we were controllers, she reminded him.

We’re elect, too. You can’t be gifted and not be elect.

How do you know? she asked him. How long have you been able to do it?

It was a strange look he gave her. Since I was born. How long have you been able to do it?

I didn’t know I could.

He stared, shook his head, then stared some more. That’s not the way it works.

How does it work?

You’re born this way. Jeremy threw fire when he was two.

She took another step back. He threw what?

Jeremy’s a fire starter. You can’t tell me you didn’t figure that out. That night in the basement, he was juggling a ball of it.

Exactly as she’d convinced herself he wasn’t. Her throat tightened. Then Jeremy’s…

Elect, he answered for her. Yeah. Ryan’s the only one who can’t do anything. He’s magically challenged.

He grinned the same infectious grin she’d always had a hard time resisting. Now her lips felt frozen. Why are you telling me all this?

You’re elect, too. As if that explained everything. You’re the same as us. I wish you’d told me sooner.

She hadn’t told him at all, she thought.

It would have made things easier. We’ve been trying to cover our butts ever since that night in school.

The invitations. The pushy companionship. All those rides home. They’d pretended to be her friends to keep tabs on her, and now she knew why. They weren’t burgeoning criminals. They were…something else entirely. Is that why Jeremy’s all over Delaney?

Jeremy thinks he’s in love. He rolled his eyes. Ryan’s been telling him it’s a bad idea. You get too close to someone and eventually they’ll figure out what you are.

Elect.

Wait till I tell the guys. Ryan’ll be relieved. About you, anyway. He’ll still worry about Delaney.

Leave Delaney alone.

He had the gall to look offended. We aren’t going to hurt anybody.

Of course not.

Is that sarcasm? It took me forever to project sarcasm. How long did it take you?

I’ve never done this before, Nate.

Right. That smile just wouldn’t go away. Does Delaney know what you are?

Allison didn’t even know what she was. No.

Good. We won’t tell her.

Great.

I should’ve known you were one of us. Ryan’s been saying it from day one, that there was something about you…

There’s nothing about me.

I could never control you. Most people are easy. I can multi task and still get Megan to jump through hoops. But you acted like you couldn’t even hear me.

I heard you.

But you resisted. Nobody can resist when I really put some effort into it. He looked strangely proud of her. I wonder if you could control me.

I don’t want to control you.

The low murmur of approaching voices had them both turning toward the low hill across the way. It was seconds before Jeremy and Delaney came into view.

We’ll have to try it later, Nate told her. Think you could get rid of Delaney so we can talk to Jeremy? At her hesitation, he continued, I guess I could, if you want—

Leave Delaney alone.

Nate shook his head. Man, you have a low opinion of people.

I mean it, Nate.

So do I. I’m not going to do anything to her again. Jeremy would try to kick my ass if I did and I hate embarrassing him like that.

She refused to laugh. What do you mean, again?

Nothing. We have to tell them, Ally. If this goes on much longer, Ryan’s going to end up with an ulcer.

Too bad for him.

They have a right to know. Relax, will you? We take care of each other. You don’t have to worry about us. He looked in the direction of the approaching couple. Can you get rid of her?

No.

Ally…

Do it later.

Fine. We’re going to Ryan’s after school. Be there.

Because she had no intention of going to Ryan’s house ever again, she pondered her excuse.

It’s his house or yours. You guys are the only ones whose parents are never around. My mom hasn’t left the house in a week and Jeremy’s dad is on vacation.

How do you know my mother won’t be there? she asked him.

She works like three full time jobs. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put two and two together.

Allison didn’t like the fact that he knew that. It made her feel vulnerable, as did the thought of him bringing them over. This isn’t their business, Nate.

Come on, it’ll make Jeremy feel better, too. He hates keeping secrets.

If you aren’t telling Delaney—

Honestly, no one ever told you not to spread this around? You can’t talk about it to people who aren’t like you. You’ll end up either dead or being dissected in a lab somewhere.

Ryan had said that, weeks ago. She finally knew exactly what he meant. Then you tell them. I’m not involved.

You’re not involved? He laughed out loud.

*

When Delaney reached her, she took Allison by the sleeve of her coat, and led her out of the park. Jeremy seemed to understand being left behind. “I told him you were in an hour of need,” Delaney said.

“I’m fine,” Allison said automatically. Then, because she couldn’t resist, she tried to throw a thought at Delaney. Can you hear me? she asked her silently.

“You are so not fine,” Delaney said. “Where are we going?”

You should go back to school, she thought hard.

“Is your mom at work?” Delaney asked.

“Yeah,” Allison said, feeling vaguely stupid. It wasn’t her at all. It was Nate—who’d gone, in the space of an hour, from charming heartthrob to creepy mind bender.

“Let’s go to your house.”

Allison wanted very much to go home, though her first instinct was to do so alone. She wanted to think, to replay everything that had just happened, and analyze. In spite of what Nate said, she already knew she was going to tell Delaney. She just wanted to absorb it herself first. “You should go back to school.”

“Too late,” Delaney said. “I already got all excited about skipping the rest of the day. What did Nate say? Does he know who started it?”

She’d almost forgotten the rumor. “Uh. No.”

“I think it was Rebecca. You’ve been spending all that time with Ryan. Of course she’d have a problem with that. And it’s not like she would say something to you. She’d just find a way to make you pay for it.”

Entirely possible, but Allison wasn’t ready to commit to the theory. “She doesn’t know he’s been picking me up. She never saw us together and why would he tell her, anyway? He was only keeping tabs on me for the others.”

“What does that mean?”

It meant that she’d been right. He wasn’t a nice guy doing a nice thing for her. He’d been Nate and Jeremy’s spy. Allison shook her head, tried to let it go. “Isn’t that what they told you? They thought they freaked us out that night at school, so they were inviting us everywhere?”

“They didn’t say anything about Ryan taking you home.”

Allison tried for nonchalance. “I’m sure that was all a part of it.”

“There’s something you’re not telling me,” Delaney said, studying her carefully.

She’d never been able to lie to Delaney. Not well, anyway. Allison didn’t even try now. “Yeah, there is.”

“Why?”

They’d reached Allison’s house. It was empty, as she’d known it would be. She took a can of pop for herself and one for Delaney, and sat down on a stool in front of the kitchen counter. Delaney joined her. “What is it, Ally?”

She flipped the tab on the can, though she wasn’t thirsty. “You know that voice throwing thing Nate does?”

“Yeah.”

“I did it, too.”

“Really?”

“In the park, with Nate.” She traced the rim of the can, gathering condensation on the tip of her finger. “Thing is, he isn’t throwing his voice, Lane. And neither was I.”

She waited, patiently, for Allison to explain.

“We were talking to each other…in our heads.” She felt embarrassed and idiotic. “I know how it sounds—”

But Delaney had a thoughtful look on her face. “You want to hear something funny? That’s what it seemed like. You were looking at each other, and your expressions kept changing like you were having a conversation, but your lips weren’t moving.”

Allison hadn’t given a thought to what it looked like to someone watching them. “Why aren’t you freaking out?” she asked her.

Delaney shrugged. “I’m not saying it’s not weird.”

It was weird. “I don’t know how I did it.”

“Do it now. On me.”

“I already did,” she admitted shamefully. “You didn’t hear me.”

“Try it again,” she insisted.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Say anything. Tell me what time it is.”

Allison glanced at the microwave. One thirty, she thought.

“Please?” Delaney asked her.

“I just did. I told you it was one thirty.”

“Concentrate,” she ordered her. “Tell me something else.”

I think Nate’s demented.

Delaney just kept waiting. “It isn’t working,” Allison told her. “But I’m not making it up. I think it was him, more than me. Like, somehow, he was making me do it.”

“What did he say?”

“He kind of flipped out. He started talking about pushing and being elect and—”

Delaney’s can of pop dropped to the floor. She’d never opened it, so it landed with a heavy thud. Allison looked from the can to her friend in surprise.

“What did you say?” Delaney asked her.

“I said he flipped out. Are you okay?”

“You said…” She shook her head. “He was talking about pushing and what?”

Uneasily, she replied, “Uh. I don’t know. Something about being…elect, I think.”

“Elect?!” Her voice was like a screech of sound. “He’s elect?”

Allison retrieved the can of pop, set it back in front of Delaney, and watched her warily. “You don’t look so hot, Lane.”

Her friend got up from the stool. She took a few steps toward the sink, stopped, turned back around. “He’s a freaking controller,” she said, her voice much too loud for the small room. “Isn’t he?”

“Yeah, he said controller at least once. What’s wrong? What does that mean?”

“I can’t believe I didn’t see this!” Delaney didn’t look overly happy to be seeing it now. “Does Jeremy know?”

“They all know. Lane—”

“That IDIOT! And he just came right out and…” She rubbed her hand over her face and the action seemed to give her a moment’s pause. She looked at Allison a full minute before she spoke again. “I need to know what he said. All of it.”

*

It took almost an hour for Allison to relay the conversation to her friend. She’d start, trying to keep the details fresh, only to have Delaney interrupt her with either a question, or a curse. Without fully intending to, Allison told her everything. Once it was all out, she felt better. Delaney, however, seemed torn between anger and something else. Something Allison couldn’t define.

“Have you ever heard of that before? Being elect?”

Allison shook her head.

“Your mom never said anything, ever? You’re sure?”

“I’m sure. Why?”

“I don’t even know where to start. You’re right, Ally. Nate isn’t throwing his voice, and Jeremy isn’t playing with matches. They’re both elect.”

“Which means what, exactly?”

“What would you say if I told you the X-men were real?”

She felt her eyes round. “They’re mutants?”

Delaney rubbed her temple. “Okay, bad example. Let’s try this. You know how there are people who are really good at one thing—like inexplicably talented?”

“Yeah?”

“Some people can play piano, and others can do like, crazy-hard math?”

“Uh-huh?”

“Well, there are also people who are gifted in other ways. People who can move things with their mind, and people who can heal just by touching you. We call them the elect.”

“Delaney, that’s—”

“It’s true. Nate’s a controller. He can push people around, mentally. Jeremy, obviously, is a fire starter. I don’t know if he can manipulate it or create it or both, but that’s what he is.”

“How do you know all this?” she asked quietly, though a part of her already knew the answer.

“Because…I’m one of them.”

Allison stared at her. “What can you do?”

“If you can trust me, I’ll show you.”

Of course she could trust her, she thought. Of course. Except that now, it felt different. “Show me.”

Delaney took her hand and held it in her own. “I want you to think about being in the park with Nate. Try to picture it for me, okay?”

Allison nodded, hesitantly, but proceeded to bring to mind Nate’s face, the utter delight there when he decided she was the same as him.

“I can see it,” Delaney said softly.

Allison jerked her hand in surprise. Delaney held tight and as she did so, the images brightened, solidified, and moved with a speed of their own. Nate grabbing her, smiling at her, telling her she was Elect. She saw again the myriad expressions on his face, hearing his words in her head, and sending him her own.

Delaney led her through the memories until the point when they’d left the park. Then she released Allison’s hand and sat back. “You shouldn’t be able to do that, Ally.”

“You can see?” she said unsteadily. “In my head?”

“To an extent. If you can remember it well enough, I can see it.”

She felt a stab of betrayal. “How many times have you done that to me?” she demanded.

Delaney flinched. “I was hoping you’d take it better than that.”

“You’re looking in my head.” Her mind reeled. “Do you do it all the time? Why do you bother asking me anything—”

Calmly, she said, “Could you tell I was doing it?”

“Yes!” Allison said.

“Have you ever felt me do it before?”

“Well, no, but—”

“What I do isn’t subtle, Ally. I can’t just creep in there and find out what I want to know.” Delaney smiled sadly at her. “Even if I could, I wouldn’t do that to you.”

Allison didn’t know what to say. Her sense of betrayal remained. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“You don’t tell someone who isn’t like you,” she said softly. “Nate was right about that, anyway. People get hurt.”

“But…”

“I know.” Her sad smile faded.

“So everything he said was true?”

“Yeah. Most of it, anyway. You shouldn’t have been able to do that, Ally. Gifts don’t just show up overnight.”

“Maybe it was Nate.”

“That’s not what he does. I’ve heard of controllers. There aren’t many, but they’re well-known. He shouldn’t have been able to hear you.”

“Well, he could.”

“I know.”

Allison felt like she was pulling teeth. “So what does that mean?”

“It means you’re a controller, too. You have to be, even though…”

“What?”

“Where did it come from?” Delaney toyed with a small gold bracelet on her wrist. “I mean…I’m assuming your mom isn’t gifted.”

“She could be. Apparently, you can spend years with a person and not know what they’re capable of.”

Delaney took the blow wordlessly, with only a wince.

Allison wished she could take it back. Because she couldn’t, she murmured, “I’m sorry. I just don’t know how I feel about all this.”

“Of course.”

“Maybe it was a fluke. I couldn’t do it to you.”

“When it’s new, it’s harder to control. People spend years getting the hang of whatever they’re given. But it wasn’t a fluke. It just doesn’t happen like that. If you did it once, you’ll be able to do it again.”

“Even though I never did it before?”

“The fact that you could do it at all tells you it’s there. It doesn’t go away, Ally.”

“I can’t feel it anymore.” That strange connection she’d had with Nate was gone. She wasn’t sure if she was relieved or not.

“Nate’s been doing it his entire life. If you can’t get the hang of it on your own, he’d be the one to ask for help.”

If she was honest, she’d admit that she did want to do it again. Maybe just to see if she could. It had been so brief, what happened earlier, she could almost convince herself it hadn’t happened at all.

“At least now we know their secret,” Delaney said.

“Yeah. I’d be hard-pressed to say it makes me feel any better, though.”

“It should. They aren’t dangerous. At least, not in the way you’d been thinking. And, honestly, who knows how long it would’ve taken to find out what you could do if we hadn’t been around them all the time.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t hear you,” Delaney said. “And maybe it’s not because it’s new. Maybe it’s been there all along, and you just didn’t know what to do with it.”

She hadn’t considered that.

“Nate’s the same. I don’t know exactly how it works, Ally, but maybe being around him is bringing it out in you. I mean, he said he couldn’t control you, and you could hear him trying even though I never could.”

“So?”

“So, if you don’t know you can do something, why would you even try? How would you know how to try?”

“How did you know?”

“Being elect, it’s in your blood. Most of the time there’s a relative, however distant, who had a gift, too.”

“Who was it, for you?” Allison asked her.

“My grandpa Gray. He was an empath. He could tell what you were feeling, and feel it himself.”

“Then your parents knew, and told you.”

She nodded. “It must be really far back in your family. Do you have any idea if your mom knows about any of this?”

“I don’t think so,” Allison said.

“It could’ve been on your dad’s side,” Delaney said quietly.

Which meant she’d never know. Allison stared out the window, letting it all sink in.

*

It was four o’clock when Allison heard a familiar voice in her head. I told you, your house or Ryan’s. Open up, Ally.

She and Delaney were sitting in the living room with the lights dim and the television off. They weren’t really talking, not anymore. They were both deep in thought.

***

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The Elect (Allison's Story #1)

Allison Noble never liked the Baileys. They were too good-looking, too popular, too charming to be legitimate. For most of their high school career she avoided the pair, convinced their outward affability was just a ruse to disguise their true character. Okay, yeah, she’s a little neurotic. Even so, she never suspected that what they were hiding was dangerous. It never occurred to her that they might have abilities based more in fiction than reality. Why would it? People can’t produce fire with their bare hands. There are no such things as mind control and telekinesis. Except, she discovers, there are. The Baileys are Elect, gifted with supernatural powers Allison is able to not only sense, but use herself. In the history of the Elect, there has never been one such as she, and with good reason. Because she wasn’t born to such power, she has a difficult time controlling it. Accidents happen, putting them all at risk. As others draw near—some who wish to protect her, others who want to destroy her—she is forced to uncover the secrets of her past, and face the consequences of being what her own kind refers to as an abomination.

  • ISBN: 9781311795823
  • Author: Elle Todd
  • Published: 2015-09-09 22:40:17
  • Words: 90708
The Elect (Allison's Story #1) The Elect (Allison's Story #1)