Cursed - Page 32

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“No way,” I murmured. “Mom and Dad were super-boring and ordinary.”

“Not your parents, but perhaps your grandparents, an aunt, or a cousin?”

My entire family was boring. “No, I don’t think so.”

“I admit I had looked into your family tree a bit when we first brought you here. Mostly for my own curiosity.”

I came closer to where he sat. “Did you find anything?”

He hesitated. “No.”

“Are you sure?” I asked quietly, finding it hard to maintain eye contact with him.

Cromwell smiled evenly. My insides went cold. “I’m a hundred percent sure.”

Beyond a doubt, I knew he’d lied. He’d found something—something he didn’t want to share. Cold crept over my skin, leaving little goose bumps behind.

He stood. “Can you follow me, please?”

I was more willing to walk off a cliff, but I didn’t have much of a choice. “Sure.”

Cromwell gave me a look like he knew what I thought, and I’d swear his lips curved into a real smile for just a second or two.

I ended up following Cromwell to his home office clear on the other side of the house. Located in the right wing, a part of the mansion I rarely ventured to, the study seemed sterile and lifeless.

Cromwell went behind his desk while I hovered in the middle of the room, unwilling to get any closer. I couldn’t help it. When I looked at him, I saw my dad smiling at me before he hit the gas and crossed the intersection. A shudder of revulsion crawled over me.

“Cold?” Cromwell asked as he pulled out a ring of keys. “It’s drafty in this part of the house.”

I didn’t answer.

He turned toward the credenza and plucked a key from the ring. “Your sister is convinced this part of the house is haunted. I’m almost positive that Gabe is behind it. He’s quite the prankster.”

I inched closer as he opened up a drawer and thumbed through several files. Craning my neck, my eyes brushed over the name on the first file: “Kurt Lagos.” It was pretty damn thick. So was the file behind his. At first, I didn’t register who it was because I only knew him as Hayden Cromwell. Not Hayden Gray. And then, files marked with the twins’ names, then Gabe’s, and finally, his nimble fingers skimmed over Olivia’s and mine.

Before he could catch me watching, I whirled around and pretended to study a painting on the wall. With its rolling green hills and pastel colors, it reminded me of something I would’ve drawn before the accident, but I didn’t give it any more thought. My brain focused on why Cromwell had files on all of us, and what could be in those files.

A sudden desire overcame me. I wanted to run over there and knock him over so I could get a look at the file. I had a right to know what was in my file, as well as the others. Okay, maybe not the others, but at least Olivia’s and Kurt’s.

And Hayden’s.


“Yeah?” I turned around.

“I think you might like this.” He held a black album. Resting on top of it was a silver frame.

Coming up next to him, my chest tightened as I saw what was in the frame. It was a picture of my family before the accident, happy and smiling. Dad had his arm around my shoulders and Mom held a squirming three-year-old Olivia in her lap. I reached for them wordlessly, wrapping my fingers around the edge of the album. My eyes remained glued to the picture in the frame. It’d sat beside my bed, and I’d believed that these pictures—these memories—were forever lost.

“Liz went through the boxes we had in storage and gathered up the pictures,” Cromwell explained. “She put them in this photo album for you and Olivia.”

My hands shook as I brought the album and frame to my chest, holding them close. Slowly, I lifted my eyes and met his. Cromwell smiled tightly and looked away. “Thank you,” I whispered, voice hoarse.

Cromwell nodded.

There was nothing else to say. I turned and carried my precious bundle upstairs. I set the picture on the table beside the bed, my fingers lingering on the polished silver for a few seconds. Sitting cross-legged on the bed, I opened up the album and started thumbing through the innocent, joyful years captured in the images.

Some of the pictures made me smile, like the ones of baby Olivia with her face beet-red, lips pulled open in a silent wail. And the ones of Dad and me making funny faces at the camera. Or my mom trying to cook, which always had been a humorous endeavor. But the photos also opened up a raw ache deep within my chest. I came to another picture at the back of the album and a burning rose in my throat. It was just the three of us: my parents and me, sitting in a pile of golden leaves, smiling blissfully.

We’d been a real family once. Sometimes I forgot that.

I slid the picture out of the clear plastic film, running my thumb over my dad’s ruggedly handsome face. The burning in the back of my throat took over and tears spilled down my cheeks. Holding the picture close, I curled onto my side and tried to remember why we’d been so happy in those pictures.

* * *

A few hours later, I dragged myself to the sink and splashed cold water over my face. Tears still lingered in my eyes, but I drew in a deep, steadying breath as I pulled my hoodie on and tugged my hair back into a messy ponytail.

Downstairs, I searched for Olivia. After viewing those pictures, I kind of wanted to spend some time with her. The low hum of the TV drew me to the largest of the recreation rooms in the mansion. My steps were slow and light as I treaded to the archway of the room.

No one saw me from where I stood, and I was relieved. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what my face looked like. Gabe sprawled across one of the recliners. Just the top of his curly head was visible. Parker sat across the room, reading a book, as usual. Curled on one side of the couch was my little sister, sound asleep.

And even though I felt sure that my heart couldn’t sink any lower, it plummeted all the way to my sneakers.

On the other side of the couch were Hayden and Phoebe. Nestled between Hayden’s legs, Phoebe lay still, eyes closed. One side of her face was pressed against his chest, and one of Hayden’s arms was thrown over the back of the couch. The other was wrapped around her slim shoulders, his hand resting against her cheek.

Hayden murmured something against the top of Phoebe’s head, and she smiled slightly.

An icy rush of air went down my throat, stealing my breath and freezing my insides. All of them looked so perfect together. Then, as quickly as the chilly feeling came, a red-hot surge shot through my veins.

Phoebe flinched and opened her eyes. They were glossy, stained with tears.

A frown pulled at Hayden’s lips as he moved his other hand to her forehead. “What is it?” Concern deepened his voice.

I sucked in a sharp gasp, realizing Phoebe was sensing the wild crescendo of emotions inside me. Mortified, I backed up and spun around. I headed for the front door. My stomach twisted into knots as I opened the door.

Cool air eased my burning face as I rushed down the steps and across the driveway. Tears filled my throat, threatening to choke me, but I refused to let them fall. I shoved my hand into the pocket of my jeans, squeezing the coin until it bit into my flesh through the gloves.

I didn’t know where I was going, but I had to get away—far enough that I could put distance between the humiliation of the raw jealousy I felt and its source. Seeing all of them together was like a punch in the face, but worse. It wasn’t just Hayden and Phoebe cuddled together, holding one another like lovers do. That did sting. But it was more like lancing open a wound that had just healed. They’d looked like a family. And my own sister, softly snoring among them, was a kick in the gut.

I wasn’t a part of their mismatched family. Once, Hayden had tried to include me, but he, too, had given up on that. Their bonds—their gifts—linked them all together, while I existed on the outside.

Everything crashed together: the accident, what’d happened to my mom, those two years struggling to keep our heads above the water. And then being brought here, thrust into a world I didn’t really understand, surrounded by people who not only feared me, but possibly wanted to do me real harm.

I walked along the road from the Cromwell mansion, slowly shattering with each heavy step I took. Hugging my elbows close to my chest, I stopped as I reached the end of the private road. I hadn’t realized I’d been walking that long. Tipping my head up, I watched the sun make its descent over the ridge of the Seneca Rocks.

Part of me never wanted to go back to that house, to have to see Hayden and Phoebe like that again. I rubbed the heel of my hand over my chest, taking a deep breath. I hadn’t really thought there was something between them, but they had been spending a lot of time together.

My chest squeezed as I turned around and shuffled off the road. There were trails all through the woods, areas where I imagined Hayden and the others had worn the pathways into the ground over the years. My feet carried me deeper into the woods. The temperature dropped as the sun fell and thick shadows descended under the trees.

Finding a fallen log, I sat on the edge and pulled off my gloves. Gray smudges marred the tips of my fingers. There weren’t as elegant as Phoebe’s or as strong as Hayden’s, but their hands didn’t kill. Although, I guess Hayden’s could, if he held on long enough.

But his hands were beautiful, anyway.

I dragged my fingers over my head, catching the curls that had escaped my ponytail. My heart was doing this weird achy thing that made me question my sanity as I thought about the last night we’d spent in the cabin. If I tried hard enough I could remember how it had felt to be in his embrace, feeling his heart beat under my cheek.

The same thing Phoebe was feeling right now.

Air caught in my throat, and I wiped my hands over my damp cheeks. My watery gaze fell to the log. A weed poked through the bark, springing up with green, spindly leaves.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I dragged in a deep breath and forced my mind to go empty—to let all the hurt wash away, to stamp down the fear that settled in the back of my throat. If I could just touch something and not kill it, then things would change.

They had to.

Slowly, I held my breath, reached and brushed the tips of my fingers over the velvety leaves. The weed shuddered once under my fingers. The soft leaves turned rough and crispy. I squeezed my eyes shut and bit my lip. When I did open my eyes, the weed lay limp against the bark. Dead.

“I really am Death,” I muttered. Then I hiccupped as another salty tear rolled down my face.

A popping sound followed, and then something whizzed by my head, slamming into the tree behind me. Tiny pieces of bark splintered and shot through the air, raking the back of my head.

My heart jumped into my throat as I pivoted, grabbing the edges of the dead tree. An arrow was thrust deep into the tree, still quivering. Vaguely, I realized it was one of those arrows professional hunters used. My dad had owned a set.

“What the he—”

Searing pain lanced through me, stealing my breath. The force of the blow jerked me around and I toppled over the log. The back of my head cracked off a rock. Light burst behind my eyes, and then darkness pulled me under.

Tags: Jennifer L. Armentrout Fantasy