I have this thing for fire. It terrifies me. Because when I feel the warmth on my skin, or watch the dancing flames, it’s as if the pulsing glow is speaking to me. It’s only a small whisper, but it’s crystal clear in my mind. A voice that merges with the rhythm of the flickering tongues of light: Touch. Feed. Control. I’m sure something is very wrong with me, but my crazy isn’t my biggest problem right now. It’s my lack of a place to crash for the night.
I flick my lighter on and pretend I don’t hear the whispers as I hold the flame up to the end of Ziggy’s cigarette.
She pulls in a drag and then coughs. She’s totally asthmatic, but for some reason she won’t quit. “I hope they have some of those blueberry scones left over,” she says, leaning on the wall beside the back door of the coffee shop. She twists one of her short dreadlocks around her finger. “They make me feel fancy. And I need to feel fancy on Halloween, like I’m in disguise.”
The alley is lit by the small yellow lamp above the door. It casts an odd glow over our surroundings, making the shadows look deep and dangerous. There’s even a raven cawing above us, perched on a buzzing power line, rounding off the All Hallows’ feel of the night and masking the sporadic rustle of rats behind the dumpster several feet away. This is our routine every other night, dinner courtesy of Granada Grounds. Apparently, there’s some lame law that they have to throw the leftover “spoiled” food away. No donating it to the homeless, just the roaches and rats. But the owner’s daughter, Star, made a deal with us that on the nights she’s closing she’ll put edible leftovers in a sealed container before tossing them out. She usually puts something extra in there, like granola bars or bottles of sparkling water. I guess Ziggy and I are now her charity cases.
Whatever, I’m too hungry to care.
“You need meat, Sage,” Ziggy says, looking me up and down. “You’re totally bony, girl. Those tits are about to evaporate.” She shakes her head in disapproval, takes another drag, and coughs.
I look down at my chest and shrug. I’ve never been vain. Which is good, because at this point I haven’t showered in a week and I had to give myself a haircut with some guy’s pocketknife when I got goop in my hair that I couldn’t wash out. Ziggy actually cried. My “amazingly bamtastic fiery locks,” as she calls them, were ruined.
I’m so over it.
“I thought you liked skinny girls,” I say.
“Sorry to break it to you, but you’ve never been my type, white girl.” She winks at me.
I kick a rock her way with my boot. “Heartbreaker.”
“Look who’s talkin’.” She shakes her head. “You’ve been leavin’ puddles of drooling boys behind you for the three months I’ve known you. When was the last time you let one get up in that?” She motions to my body with her cigarette.
Try never. I don’t know why, but the idea of letting a guy get close terrifies me. I haven’t even let a boy kiss me since middle school. And that was just a peck—so maybe it wasn’t technically a kiss. How pathetic is that? It’s not like any guy’s ever hurt me; if anything, I think I intimidate them—Ziggy says it’s my stoic demeanor. But I don’t think that would stop a determined flirt. It’s just . . . every time I see a hot guy, someone I’d want to touch and kiss, my skin heats up like I’m a fifty-year-old woman having a hot flash. The urges I get in my head make me flush. So I just back away.
See what I mean about the crazy?
The door beside us squeaks, and Ziggy and I move deeper into the shadows just in case it’s not Star.
A blue head of hair peeks out into the alley. “Hey bitches, I got the goods.” She spots us and comes out the rest of the way. She’s dressed in this tight blue-checkered dress that makes her look like Dorothy from some porno version of The Wizard of Oz. “And I have the best idea ever.”
Uh-oh. Last time Star had an idea, we all nearly ended up in jail.
“We’re just hungry for food tonight,” I say. “No adventure.”
Star frowns, and her fake freckles scrunch up under her eyes. I don’t remember Dorothy having freckles, but then her blue dress was also made with a lot more fabric than Star’s is.
“There’s going to be a ton of food there!” She grins wickedly. “And guys. Loads of guys.”
“Chips and beer don’t count as food,” I say.
“And I’m not into dudes,” Ziggy adds, clarifying, even though she doesn’t sound as negative as I am about the adventure. “Plus, Miss Sage here is a nun.”
“I am not,” I say. A nun is holy and pure. That I am definitely not.
“Great!” Star claps. “I’ve already got the Uber heading our way.”
“Are you thick?” Ziggy asks. She takes a casual drag of her cigarette. And coughs.
Star waves at the trailing smoke. “I’m only thinking of you. The other night you said you slept in a laundromat. Tonight, you could have a good meal, sleep in a warm house with carpets and couches . . . possibly go in a hot tub!”
And a shower. Oh my god, a shower. “Okay, we’ll go,” I say.
Ziggy glances sideways at me, then shrugs and throws down her cigarette. “Whatever the nun wants.”
Star’s face opens in a huge smile and I have no idea what’s made her so happy. Oh goody, two homeless girls are gonna crash a Halloween party with me! Doesn’t she have any real friends? She claps again and makes a small squeal in the back of her throat. “We’ll stop by my house and dress you guys up. I have tons more costumes, and—”
“No!” Ziggy and I say in unison.
Star raises her hands in surrender. “Okay, too far. I get it.” She tips her head and her blue bangs fall across her eyes. “So, no Halloween? Is it a religious thing?”
“Do we look like we give a shit about holidays?” Ziggy asks.
Star shrugs. “Just checking. I don’t want to give you the wrong kinds of cookies for Christmas.” She spins in her red stiletto Mary Janes and heads back into the coffeehouse, waving us in after her.
The party is in an old Chatsworth neighborhood. The Uber driver pulls up the street, parking in front of a driveway, and Ziggy and I get out of the car, following Star up to the house. It’s sort of rocking the 1950s American Dream vibe with a sprawling lawn out front, a curved driveway lined with flowers, and a porch with a swing. It’s decorated in the usual Halloween fare: pumpkin lights strung over the garage, huge spider decals in the windows, and a skeleton hanging out in the bushes.
A raven lands on the roof with a sudden flurry of wings as we walk up to the door. It perches on the rain gutter, looking at us sideways. My gut churns. You don’t usually see ravens out at night, and this is the second one I’ve noticed now.
I’m distracted by something hanging from the eaves that looks like a blow-up sex doll dressed in a tuxedo.
“That’s Jeeves, the butler,” Star says when she sees the confused look on my face. “I helped decorate,” she adds with pride.
“How do you know these people?” This is probably something I should’ve asked earlier.
“My cousin lives here. It’s his place.”
Shit, I don’t really know this girl at all. This was an unsafe move on my part. But Ziggy’s with me, and no one messes with her. I’ll just get my shower, she can get food, and then we’ll jet.
“We’re early,” Star says as she opens the door without knocking. “The real fun won’t start for another hour or so. But you should be able to duck into a room and make yourselves at home, no problem.”
Ziggy steps inside with Star, and I follow, hesitant. “Will your cousin mind?” I ask. The front room is decorated like a bachelor pad, with beanbag chairs and a pool table. At first glance, I see only half a dozen people, most of them dudes, except one girl. Poor Ziggy.
“Nope, Ben is super chill,” Star says, “as long as you don’t steal his stuff or punch a hole through a wall.”
Not planning on doing either of those things.
“Just lead me to those hamburgers you mentioned in the car,” Ziggy says. “I’m famished.” Then she turns and points to me. “And skinny’ll take two.”
“I need to use the bathroom,” I say, ignoring her. I can’t waste time eating if there’s a usable shower in the vicinity.
“There’s a guest bedroom and bathroom in the back.” Star points to a hall behind her. “Last door on the left. Make yourself at home.”
I nod my thanks and zip past a couple of partygoers. The room is small, with an attached bathroom, and it has everything I need. I shut the bathroom door behind me, checking that it locks before stripping down. Then I slide into the shower and let the stream of warm water start peeling off the layers of street and smog.
I grab the soap and scrub more than I need to, mostly because I don’t want to get out. I haven’t had a hot shower in so long. Too long.
I try not to let myself feel my thin body, my ribs jutting through the skin, my scrawny hips and legs, unhealthy, unattractive, knees too sharp and bony. It’s been a rough year. But I’d rather be here, scrounging for a random shower and a meal, than stuck in a group transition home. I hear those can be even worse than foster homes. I ran away from the last place the system put me in. I’ve always made sure to get out quick once some bitch or bitch boy gets pissed at my presence, since it inevitably turns into me becoming their personal punching bag. I’ve always made people nervous. According to my last social worker, I was “difficult to place.” I’ve seen the notes in my file: Lacks personal connection with peers. And: Inability to invest in relationships.
I’m not really sure why Ziggy puts up with me.
I’m broken, mostly because of the broken woman who spawned me. I swear, adults should have to get a license to make a kid. Prove they’ve got their shit together before they bring a child into the world. My mom tried, I think. She thought she could piece herself into something resembling a mother by dropping the drugs and dropping the need to feed her overblown selfish streak. But she failed. And so, at age ten, I was released from her forever. I bounced around foster care until it eventually became a blur of angry kids and overworked caregivers. The only place I felt safe was my own head, where the sneers and fists could be ignored—I must’ve read a thousand books the first year or two. In the pages of the stories, I could catch killers or kill monsters. My favorite stories were the old ones. The legends with angry gods, cursed kings, or castles in the murky fog. Not the romance novels—hell, no. I liked the novels that ended in blood-soaked battlefields best. Which is ironic, I guess, considering I’ve become a master at conflict avoidance. My default mode is: leave if things get too tense.
I make it on my own now. And while life’s gotten more difficult in some ways, it’s also much more peaceful. I can sit on the beach and read all day if I want. I can walk for miles and still be home. I’m not tied to anyone or anything. I’m free. I turned eighteen last month, so I could choose to get aid now, or job training, maybe go back to school, but the system can kiss my ass. If I’m going to figure my life out, it won’t be under some social worker’s microscope. I’m done with being a name on a file.
I get out of the shower and dry off, then fold the towel, placing it exactly how it was before I used it. I look at my pile of dirty clothes on the floor and sigh. I don’t want to put those stiff things back on. There’s a robe on the back of the door, so I grab it and slip into it, then walk into the bedroom. It drags behind me, way too big for my shrunken frame. The noises of the party seem louder now, but I don’t hear anyone in the hallway. I check the closet for clothes and spot a couple of things that might work; there’s a white cotton button-up on a hanger and a pair of jeans in a stack of folded pants on the shelf above it. Maybe I could wear them for now. I’m so tired. And I’m dying to have clean clothes on for a second. I’ll put my own stuff on again before I leave.
The jeans are too big so I roll them at the waist, then find socks and a wifebeater in what looks like a small laundry basket. I put them on and slide the white dress shirt on over the tank. I gather my dirty clothes and throw them into the laundry basket, then shuffle over to the bed and plop down onto the heavenly mattress. I lean back on a pile of pillows so comfortable and soft, I can’t keep my eyes open.
I breathe deeply, and sleep pulls me under.
“She’s definitely not much to look at,” a voice says, pulling me from sleep. I was dreaming of . . . I don’t know, it’s fluttered out of my head already. But I do know I’m not alone in the room.
I sit up in a rush and scramble back against the wall.
Three large males hover over me, all wearing cat ears and holding red Solo cups. Two are blond with pale skin, and the third is super tan with brown eyes and dark brown hair. They study me intently, like I’m some sort of science experiment they’re trying to figure out.
“Whoa,” blond number one says, his head pulling back.
Blond number two adds, “Skittish thing,” like I’m not staring right at him.
The tan guy takes a drink, then says, “You’d be skittish too if you woke up to someone insulting you.”
Blondie One looks dubious. “You know I’m flawless, Ben.”
“Sure I do,” Brown Eyes answers dryly. He must be the cousin.
Star pushes them all aside. “Gods’ bones, give the girl space to breathe. I told you to leave her be until Faelan gets here.”
“You aren’t in charge, Star,” Blondie Two says, then chugs his drink. Whatever’s in the cup appears to be red; some of it stains his lips before he licks it off.
Star rolls her eyes and throws up her hands. “Far be it from me to make Faelan’s job easier.”
“What the hell’s going on?” I ask, looking from one figure to the other. I’ve woken up in the twilight zone. Who’s Faelan?
“Ignore these beefburgers, Sage,” Star says as she sets her cup down on the bedside table. “Go away, all of you. The girl needs to rest.”
Ben starts to object. “But what about the spe—”
She smacks her hand over his mouth. “Later, Ben.” She shoos at the three muscular guys with her tiny hands.
They bow their heads, looking contrite as they leave the room.
Star sighs dramatically and sits on the bed. “Boys are so annoying.”
“Star, what is going on?” I hug one of the pillows to my chest.
“Oh, they just heard about you and were curious.”
“You talked to them about me?” Why would she do that? That’s weird and creepy. Horror stories of street kids being bought and sold like cattle fill my head.
Her face fills with concern. “Not like in a stalker way!” she says. “I just told them that I was hoping we could . . . you know, help you. Good karma and all that.” She looks at me sheepishly. “Not creepy, I swear.”
“A little creepy,” I say. But I relax some, seeing open honesty in her eyes. It’s not normal for people to be so nice, which is probably why I’m freaking out.
“I’m sorry. I’m just bad with humans,” she says in a whisper, like it’s a confession. “But I’ll scold those boys later for scaring you, I promise.”
“It’s all right,” I say. “I’m not used to people giving a shit.”
“You poor thing,” she says, and her eyes glisten.
I laugh softly and nudge her shoulder. “It’s okay, Star.”
Her gaze skips to the space between us and her jaw clenches like she’s suddenly realizing how close I am to her.
Now we’re back to the awkward. I move away and lean on the wall again. “If it’s all right, I’d like to try and get some sleep. Then I’ll go. Feel free to burn the sheets afterwards.”
“No rush,” she says, not picking up on my sarcasm. She reaches over and grabs her cup, takes a sip, and then holds it out to me. “Here, have this. I’ll make myself another one.”
I accept the cup. It’s filled with brown liquid and smells kind of herbal. “What is it?”
“Spiced tea and vodka, my own special recipe.” She smiles in her genuine way again, and I can’t help but relax a little. “It’s super yummy.”
“Thanks for the shower and not freaking out about the clothes.” I motion to the white shirt and jeans I borrowed. “And thanks for a place to crash. I wouldn’t wanna be out there tonight.” Not on Halloween, when all of LA acts like lunatic children.
She blushes a little and nods. “Just sleep. I’ll check on you later. And I’ll make sure the boys don’t come back.” Then she slips out into the party and the cloud of laughter and music.
I scoot down in the pillows and sniff the drink. It has a nice nutmeg spark to it, kind of soothing to my nerves. I take a sip and breathe deeply, trying to focus on the moment. I’m safe. I’m warm and clean. It won’t be long until all three of those things go back to not being true. I need to enjoy this.
I drink a few more sips of the spiced vodka, then set it aside before curling into a ball and sinking into the soft mattress. Everything in me settles. I don’t remember the last time I felt this way. Maybe never. I hope Ziggy is okay. I should probably go check on her . . .
I reach over to take another sip of the drink. It’s really good. Like, really good.
I down the rest in a single shot, then set the cup on the table.
It falls to the floor.
I laugh, then sigh happily and roll over, suddenly fascinated by the textures on the wall. Maybe I don’t want to sleep. Sleep is boring. I’m always so boring, always scared to join the fun. I’m tired of being scared.
I sit up and stare at the door. The sound of people and fun and life is so inviting. The beat of the music buzzes against my skin, and the urge to be in the crowd fills me. I should go find Ziggy. Or go dance . . . I stand up, wobbling a little, but I make it to the door. Then I’m down the hall and in the cluster of party madness before I even realize I’ve made a decision to join in. I scan the faces in the living room for a second, searching for Ziggy, but then my body is swaying and twisting to the electronic pulse of the notes, and my friend is forgotten.
As I move through the crowd, I touch chests and arms and cheeks, and people turn to look as I head for where everyone’s dancing. I smile, feeling powerful, feeling the energy in the room shift. I don’t normally want attention; I hate people looking at me. But now I wonder why I’ve never done this before, let people see me.
“This isn’t good,” I hear someone say behind me. “Look at her.” I think it’s that Ben guy.
He’s hot. I kind of want to let him do things to me.
It’s so weird. So not me . . .
“Just go with it, Ben,” Star says. “Faelan will be here any second.”
I watch her walk past me through the dancers. She’s added wings to her slutty Dorothy costume. They’re silver and sheer and—wow, they almost look real.
I turn and spot Ben. His eyes grow wide as I move to take his wrist, pulling him into the cluster of dancers, urging him closer. “Yeah, Ben. Listen to Dorothy. Just go with it, dance with me.” My voice is soft, so I don’t think he can hear me over the music, but his brow knits together.
“You smell really good,” he says, looking a little dazed and a lot confused as he begins to move with me. His voice is low too, but I can hear him as clear as day over the pounding beat. He’s got these soft brown eyes that are almost copper, and his brown hair is highlighted with red where it falls over his brow. His skin is lovely and tan. The cat ears he had on earlier are gone. As he leans closer, his lips part, and I hesitate.
Are those fangs? I blink at them, confused, but then I realize it must be part of a costume. He’s a vampire for Halloween? Such a cliché, but in a lame way it sort of makes him look even more inviting.
My gut swirls and tightens as I move my gaze back up to his eyes, and those strange urges rise, the ones I always get when I see someone I want to kiss. Warmth soaks my skin. I need something. I’m not sure what. A connection. Touch. Like I haven’t touched anyone in my entire life.
I slide my fingers up the muscles of his arm.
The heat in my skin, in his, grows a little and a vibration moves through my chest.
A small gasp escapes my lips. My head fills with the smell of spice, turmeric and nutmeg, and warmth settles in my throat as if I’ve just taken a bite of something delicious.
I can’t help reaching out to touch him again. My hand grazes the hem of his shirt, and I close my eyes. Then I do something completely insane. I slip my hand underneath the cotton, sliding my palm across his stomach.
Ecstasy becomes a second heartbeat in my skin. The smell of nutmeg turns dull and metallic in my head, and the tang in the back of my throat morphs into the taste of blood. Light and fire flicker behind my eyelids, glowing orange and gold, and I’m cloaked in warmth, as if I just stepped into a sauna. It heats my skin, my insides, and I’m suddenly starving—for what I can’t tell. I only know I want more. More touch, more taste, more fire. I want all of it. All of him.
I press my hands firmly against his chest and start to take in a breath—
I’m shoved, hard. My eyes fly open just in time to see that I’m careening into a trio of Wonder Women. They disperse with squeals of surprise, and I land in a beanbag chair, knocking over a bunch of drinks as I slide along the floor.
Before I can get my bearings, a large guy is parting the crowd, coming at me with a strange metal shackle in his gloved hand. “Hold still,” he says, his voice low and dangerous, the hint of an accent weaving into his words. It registers that I need to get away from him, but I can’t make myself move. There’s a click as he hooks the shackle around my neck. Then he barks over his shoulder, “Who thought it was a grand idea to give her the draft and start waking her up before I got here?”
The two blond guys I met earlier step forward and point at Star. She’s off to the side, her cheeks beet red.
My attacker releases a growl and frowns down at me with a sharp gray-green gaze.
The sight of him stuns me into stillness. He’s just a guy, but I know he’s not just anything as my whole being seems to notice him. The thin scar cutting through his right eyebrow, the odd curve of his ears, the perfection of his bronze skin, the rich dark brown of his hair—half of it tied neatly back with a leather strap, a loose strand tucked behind his ear.
I have an inexplicable urge to pull the strand loose again and watch it slide across his cheek.
Panic rises in a rush. I can’t understand anything I’m thinking or feeling as he looms over me.
Then the heavy shackle tingles against my nape, and all my attention quickly shifts to the strange contraption. I smell cooked meat before I feel the searing pain. The metal collar presses deeper into my skin with an audible hiss.
I gasp in shock and start to choke, reaching up to my neck to try and pull the thing off. My hand starts to sizzle, and I jerk it away as it burns, a squeal escaping my throat.
Three inches of the shackle’s width are now branded into my palm.
Star rushes forward and kneels at my side. “It’s okay, Sage. It won’t be so bad once the spell takes hold and you wake up fully. Just breathe.”
I try to get away, but everything hurts. “What did you do, Star?” I gasp, shaking now—with rage or pain, I can’t tell. The memory of dropping the cup flashes in my head. “The drink. You drugged me.” I gape at her and try again to move away, but she just scoots forward.
My muscles tense, ready to run, to fight, the ache from my burning skin fading as panic takes over. “What is this thing?” I motion to the shackle.
“It’s to protect you, to hold in your power,” she says. “The pain will pass in a second.”
I was such an idiot to trust anyone. This freak of a girl is completely insane. She’s just trussed me up for some creepy kidnapping.
My attacker grabs Star by the arm and yanks her up, shoving her away from me. “Back off, pixie.”
I blink at him through the pain and terror clouding my senses. My vision blurs a little, then clears again. He’s wearing all black, dressed like some sort of bounty hunter in a tight T-shirt, cargo pants, and heavy boots. Something is strapped to his belt: a knife. The hilt is worn—because he uses it a lot. There are green-and-blue tattoos all over his arms and up one side of his neck, curved and swirled Celtic designs and unfamiliar lettering inked onto his copper skin. He has another scar on his jaw. And those metallic green eyes . . . they’re so hard, calculating. A hunter’s eyes.
He’s the kind of guy who would be fine with killing Bambi. Or me.
“Look what she’s capable of with only half her strength,” he says to the thinned crowd around us. He points to something—no, someone—on the floor. It’s Ben. He’s kneeling a few feet away, curled over himself as he grips his head like he’s in pain. His skin is ashen. There are angry burns running a thin trail up his arm . . . where my fingers grazed his muscles.
Oh my god, did I . . . ?
“I just thought this would be faster,” Star says, sounding pitiful. Her silver wings shiver a little. “This way her power’ll be awake once you get her to Master Marius.”
“The Emergence has already started, pixie. I’m not the only one out here tonight sniffing around. Prince Kieran could be aware of her now.”
Star goes pale, and the shivering spreads to her whole body. “Really?”
The guy nods slowly. “His sister would have plans for our little doe.”
Star’s features fill with panic. She turns to the blond guys beside her. “Check to be sure Ben is okay.”
They move to obey, helping Ben to his feet and then dragging him from sight.
That’s when I notice that the music has gone silent; everything has. And the pain that was gripping me has faded to a dull throb. The room is half empty, and all eyes are on me. And still I don’t know why. I only know I need to figure out how to get out of here. I search the figures around us for Ziggy, but I still don’t see her. I hope she ran away, that she caught a whiff of the weird and bolted before these crazy cult freaks could hurt her.
A ringing fills the strained silence, and the tattooed guy pulls a phone from his pocket. He puts it to his ear. “Faelan here,” he says, his accent stronger now. Irish. His hard eyes lock on mine. “Yes. I’ve got her. Brighid’s daughter is ours.”