Nervously, I picked up the coin and put it in my pocket. “You better hope there are chocolate chip cookies down there, or you’ll hear screams in a minute.”
Hayden laughed. “There are cookies down there. I may do a lot of things, but I don’t lie to children.”
I wondered what he meant by that. “What’s behind your back?” He sat down on the bed. “Come here.”
“What?” I sat beside him, smoothing my hands over the denim skirt.
He moved. A pair of cable-knit gloves lay in his hands, heather gray—always a good color. “I swiped them from Phoebe’s room. It’s going to be cold out there. You’re going to need them. And they’ll keep your hands warmer than the ones you normally wear. I just want you to have fun,” he went on quietly, “and not have to worry about anything. You need to have fun tonight.”
My eyes felt weird, like something had gotten stuck in them. I blinked a couple of times and ignored the way my throat felt tight. “Thank you.”
Hayden nodded, not meeting my eyes. “Hold out your hands.”
“I can do…” His eyes did meet mine. He had that look. Sighing, I held out my hands.
A ghost of a smile appeared. Hayden carefully tugged a glove over my right hand. The tips of his fingers just grazed the skin around my wrists, but it felt like a thousand shocks of electricity. The left hand followed next, and his fingers grazed my skin once more. Fine shivers raced up my arms, then down everywhere else.
I couldn’t get over how reckless he was. Nobody in the house would even dare be so casual about accidentally touching my skin, not even Olivia.
Once he was done, his hands lingered a second or two before he dropped them. “Ready?”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
Liz already had Olivia in one of the living rooms with a plate of cookies and milk. I wondered how she thought she’d get her to sleep now. The girl was about to have a wicked sugar high.
Thank God I wouldn’t be here to experience it.
We almost made it out of the house without being stopped, but Hayden wanted to grab a bottle of water for the road. In the kitchen, Cromwell leaned against the counter, arms folded across his chest. At first he appeared alone, but then Hayden stiffened beside me.
Kurt sat at the table. The hairs all over my body bristled. Kurt tipped his head at us, a smug smile on his face.
“Where you guys heading off to?” Cromwell asked.
“A party one of the kids is holding,” Hayden answered.
“Both of you?”
“Is that a problem?” I asked in probably one of my worst tones ever—the kind that used to earn me a stern look from my father.
Cromwell had the same look on his face, except he wasn’t my father. So I didn’t care. After a long stretch of silence, Cromwell spoke to Hayden. “Your curfew is eleven.”
“What?” Hayden’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve never given me a curfew before.”
“You have one now.”
Hayden’s stance changed. His legs were spread, shoulders up. “Eleven is a ridiculous time.”
Cromwell’s gaze briefly flickered to my hands. “Midnight—no later.”
It appeared that Hayden considered pushing the issue, but he just shrugged. He grabbed a bottle of water while I watched Kurt from the corner of my eye. Did he look like someone who’d carve up a rabbit and put a trashed toy car in my locker?
I couldn’t leave the kitchen quickly enough, but the deep, almost amused voice stopped both of us in the hallway.
“Have fun,” Kurt called out. “Don’t do anything you’ll regret. That goes for both of you.”
Sometime later, I sat surrounded by kids who looked familiar from the hallways at school and a few with whom I may’ve exchanged an entire sentence. Someone had shoved a red plastic cup in my hand as we’d arrived—cheap keg beer that tasted as bad as it smelled—but I drank it, anyway. Slowly.
Cory appeared thrilled to see me when he arrived from the dance, dressed in a full-out tux. He looked so silly, dressed so formally among the corn and battered lawn chairs. Thankfully, Hayden had thought ahead and grabbed a blanket. That’s where I stayed, my legs curled under me and a cup of crappy beer in my hand.
And I was having fun.
Once the kids grew bored with the dance, they arrived by truckloads. Girls still wore their pretty dresses, but most of the boys had changed. When I’d downed my first cup of beer, I refused a second. I was such a lightweight, and I was content watching Hayden interact with other people—outsiders. It fascinated me.
He was a natural. Charming and funny, and God, all the half-naked girls flocked to him, just wanting to talk to him, be next to him. The guys, well, that seemed a totally different story. They kept their distance, treating him with the kind of esteem that usually resulted from an innate fear. Even though Hayden mingled, he never roamed too far from where I sat, almost like he’d appointed himself my guardian or something. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel flattered, but I also felt sort of bad. Was I keeping him from his friends?
Apparently, Gabe thought so.
“It’s good to see him out,” He dropped down on my blanket out of nowhere, still wearing his dress shirt, although he’d changed into jeans. A girl with brown hair and a god-awful purple dress that clung to her body waited nearby. “He’s been up your butt since you got here.”
“Not that it’s not a nice butt to be up, but I mean, come on! What’s he getting from spending so much time with you?”
My frown slipped into a scowl.
“Definitely not getting some, so what’s the deal, Ember? What have you guys been up to?”
“Nothing that’s any of your business.”
Gabe tipped his head back and laughed. “You don’t like me, do you?”
I thought that was a stupid question. “You don’t like me.”
“True.” He laughed again, and then stood. A second later, Phoebe stood in his place. I sighed.
“Nice gloves,” she said.
I glanced down at them. “Sorry. Hayden grabbed them.”
“Did he?” She swayed to the left, a plastic cup dangling from her fingertips. “How nice of him, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Phoebe took a step to the right, stopped, and then giggled as she bent at the waist. God only knows what the group of guys saw from their vantage point behind her.
I rolled my eyes, but Phoebe just shrugged. “Anyway, like I was saying. How nice of Hayden. You think he’s like some great white knight, huh? But he’s more like the black knight. Boy got damages. Yeah, he does.”
My brows slowly inched up my forehead, the longer she talked. I wondered how many times she’d refilled her plastic cup.
“I bet he hasn’t told you why he got kicked out of his parent’s house, has he? Of course not,” she slurred. “You don’t know him like I do.”
“Maybe you should stop drinking,” I suggested.
“I have to pee,” she announced to no one in particular.
“Good for you.”
“You’re supposed to come with, Ember. Girls don’t let girls pee in the cornfield alone.” She laughed and pointed the cup at me. I jerked back, narrowly missing a waterfall of beer. “Not that you’d know. I bet you didn’t get invited to a lot of parties.”
I looked around for Hayden, finding him with Gabe and a couple guys I didn’t know. I noted he kept glancing over at us, but I was pretty sure he hadn’t heard Phoebe. And I didn’t want to bother him.
“Are you coming or not?” She hiccupped and covered her mouth. “Ugh, I think I just puked in my mouth a little.”
“Oh, that’s gross.”
She giggled. “Yeah, it is.”
I’d rather run around the party naked than take her to go pee, but a sense of girl-duty rose inside me. I shoved it down. It came back hard. The girl could barely walk straight. There was a good chance she’d get lost.
Not such a bad outcome.
Groaning, I stood. “Let’s go.”
Phoebe stumbled in front of me, but she made it to the edge of the cornfield. The further we ventured, the more the shadows consumed the fiery glow from the bonfire. I looked around, only able to make out the shapes of trees and bushes.
I shivered. “Is this good enough for you?”
“Sure. Whatever.” Phoebe sat back. Well, she fell backwards, but managed to carry it off with the kind of grace I’d never have. Her dress rode up her legs, revealing several thin slices cut across her inner thighs. They were perfect straight lines, three of them, one after the other. Fresh wounds.
I squinted. There were more across her thighs. Some were older—pink fading into thin white lines next to the three angry cuts that bruised around the edges.
Even in her drunken state, she realized I knew. Slowly, she tugged her dress down and smirked. “Judge me. I don’t care.”
“I’m not judging you. Phoebe, you—”
“You don’t know what it’s like to always feel everyone.” She slowly stood. “Being an empath sucks. Maybe not as bad as you, but sometimes I have to stop it. Okay? Pain stops it for a little while, but then it all comes back. Hate. Love. Lust.”
“I thought Cromwell taught you how to control it?”
Phoebe snorted. “Yeah, sure. You know, I used to be able to get away from it at home, but I don’t even have that anymore. Geez, it sucks. Why am I even telling you this? You don’t know anything. You’re not even gifted.”
Whatever sympathy I felt for her started to slip away. “Just use the damn bathroom.”
“You don’t know anything. The accident?” She tossed the thick mane of hair over her shoulder, laughing. “That wasn’t an accident.”
My stomach clenched. A strange buzzing filled my ears. “What?”
“Don’t be so dumb about it. They wanted Olivia. Not you. Not your family. So they went for it. No one knew she’d bring your ass back. I guess that screwed up their plans, huh?”
Her words hung between us. Everything else in the world came to a standstill. I felt hot, then cold. Surely I had misheard her.
She pointed at me. “You should see the look on your face.”
“How do you know this?”
“Come on, it’s obvious. None of our parents wanted us, or any of the other gifted. But yours didn’t want to give her up.” She glanced down at her drink, frowning. “My cup is, like, empty.”
I wanted to shake her. “Phoebe, do you know who caused the accident?”
Phoebe lifted her head slowly. Some of the beer-fog faded from her face. “I really have no clue what I’m talking about. I don’t even have to pee anymore.”
My mouth hit the ground. “Phoebe—”
“I’m done here.” She held up her hand. “Your freaking emotions are choking the crap out of me.”
I started toward her, but she dipped around me. “Please. You can’t tell me something like that and then walk away!”