When I opened my eyes, it was dark and there was a raccoon digging at the ground by my face. I drew in a deep breath, whimpering as pain shot down my arm and through my skull.
The raccoon froze, and its ears went back. A heartbeat passed, and then it scuttled off.
Groaning, I sat up slowly and touched the top of my arm. The material was ripped and felt sticky. I pressed harder and yelped. In the dark, my hand and the sleeve of my shirt looked like it had been dipped in oil. A few feet from me, where the raccoon had been, an arrow lay nestled between two rocks and a patch of grass.
I’d been shot by a frikkin’ arrow. My God, I had the worst luck known to man.
I rolled to my feet, swaying as a wave of dizziness nearly brought me to my knees. Placing my hand over the wound, I ignored the bite of pain and pressed down. Blood seeped through my fingers.
Things were foggy as I stumbled back through the woods. Luckily, I’d managed to stay on the trail and reached the road leading to Cromwell’s house. The bad news was that the hike was mostly uphill from here, and I seriously doubted I was going to make it. I forced myself to put one foot in front of the other, stopping every once in a while to wipe the clammy sweat dotting my forehead.
Every few seconds I had a moment of clarity. Had someone shot me on purpose or had it been meant for a deer? But those questions slipped back in the haze. I was exhausted, legs shaking as I climbed the road.
Out of the darkness, a yellow light cut through the night, and then a voice, “Ember!”
I started walking faster, tripping over my own feet. “Hayden…?” My voice came out hoarse, weak. I doubted he heard me.
“Hayden, I can feel her. I think… I think she’s hurt,” I heard Phoebe say. “Her emotions are off, tainted somehow. She’s in the road.”
There was a muffled curse, and then the sound of pounding feet. The light swayed erratically, passed me and then swung back. A few seconds later, Hayden was running out of the darkness and grasping my shoulders.
I cried out as pain shrieked down my arm.
Hayden pulled his hands back. “What happened?” His gaze dropped. “Jesus, you’re bleeding! Are you okay?”
“I was shot… by an arrow.” Those words sounded bizarre even to me.
His response was to move in, sweeping one arm under my legs, and then I was up, my cheek resting against his pounding heart. “Phoebe, run back and tell them to meet us halfway.”
All I heard was her lighter footsteps rushing off. “I can… walk. I’m fine.”
“Being shot with an arrow does not equal fine.” Hayden started back, his long strides eating away at the distance between us and the house. “We’ve been looking for you for the last hour. Do you know what happened?”
Each step jarred the wound in my arm. I wondered how deep it was. Another scar, I realized dully. I told him everything, skipping over the part where I’d seen him cuddled on the couch with Phoebe.
“Jesus, you’ve could’ve been killed,” he said. I opened my eyes, but the hard lines of his face gave nothing away. He looked down, his eyes drifting over me. “Does your head hurt?”
“I’ll survive.” Assuming someone didn’t shoot a rocket at me next.
A car roared down the road, coasting to a stop in front of us. Kurt jumped out of the driver’s seat, spinning around to open the back door. “Put her in here.”
“When… when did he get back?” I asked.
“An hour or so ago,” Hayden replied. “He’s going to take you to the hospital.”
I clenched his arm, not wanting to go anywhere with Kurt. “What about you?”
“I’m coming with you.” He placed me in the back seat. “Don’t worry.”
“No.” Cromwell turned around in the front passenger seat, his eyes coolly assessing everything. “I want you to go back to the house,
“I need you to make sure everyone stays calm, Hayden. I need you here. We can take care of Ember.”
I shuddered as my eyes bounced from Kurt to Hayden’s father. I had a death grip on Hayden’s arm.
Hayden looked reluctant to let me go. He watched as Kurt climbed behind the wheel. Pressing his lips together, he faced me. “It’s going to be okay.” Then he was letting go and closing the door. His pale face filled the window.
Kurt tore off, leaving Hayden behind. I turned to the front of the car, my eyes meeting Cromwell’s as I held my injured arm close to my side. Balls of ice formed in my belly.
“Tell me everything,” he said.
I told him the same thing I’d told Hayden, and the whole time I felt Kurt’s eyes watching me from the rear view mirror. The balls of ice grew, drenching my veins. It sort of struck me then. Nothing in the past had been an accident. Why would the car the night of the bonfire—or this—be an accident?
* * *
I hadn’t been in a hospital since the night of the car crash, but this by far won for the most bizarre hospital visit ever. Cromwell stayed by my side, using his Jedi mind tricks to make sure the nurses and doctors gloved up before ever coming into contact with my skin.
Ripped and soaked with blood, my favorite hoodie was toast. The arrow had caught the upper part of my arm, digging deep enough to require stitches. Watching the blank-faced doctor suture my skin was an event I never wanted to experience again. I kept waiting for his fingers to slip.
The nurse returned halfway through the procedure, wearing the same indifferent mask as the doctor. She handed me a small cup and a couple of pills.
“What’s this?” I asked, glancing at Cromwell.
“It’s for the pain,” she replied. Her slight southern drawl was flat. “The local anesthesia will wear off and you’ll be aching for sure.”
The tugging on my skin stopped and the doctor studied the x-rays they’d taken of my head. “It looks good, Mayor Cromwell. No signs of a concussion or serious injury.”
Cromwell nodded. “That’s a relief to hear.”
Swallowing the pills, I sort of doubted that. I handed the empty cup back to the nurse. The numb part of my arm already tingled pins-and-needles around the edges.
“I’d keep an eye on her for a few days. If she experiences any dizziness, memory loss, abnormal fatigue or behavioral changes, I want you to bring her back in here.” The doctor stood, moving to the trashcan as he peeled off his bloodied gloves. Facing me, he smiled weakly. “The woods this time of year can be dangerous. It’s bowhunting season.”
Unwillingly, my gaze went to the massive man slouched in the corner of the room. I wondered if Kurt did any bowhunting. Could it only be a coincidence that he’d returned at the same time someone had tried to make a shish kabob out of me? And the car that’d almost run me over could’ve been one of the Porsches sitting in the garage.
Kurt arched a blond brow at me.
My lips twisted into a semblance of a smile. I waited until we were in the car before I gave him the third degree. In the back of my mind, I wondered if the pain pills had given me a form of chemical courage. “So, where’ve you been?”
He glanced at Cromwell. “On business.”
I leaned forward, planting myself between the two front seats. “You have a job?”
Cromwell raised his brows at me. “Perhaps you should sit back and rest, Ember.”
“I’m not tired.” I stared at Kurt. “What kind of job do you have?” He looked at Cromwell again, who sighed and shook his head. “I work for Jonathan.”
“Really,” I said. “And what kind of work is that?”
Kurt looked like he was fighting a smile. “Whatever he asks me to do.”
I started to fold my arms, but felt the stitches pull. “So, you’d put stuff in people’s lockers?”
He laughed. “What?”
“How about slicing up bunnies?”
His jaw tightened. “Not lately, princess.”
I made a face. “So, when was the last time you did it?”
“Are you high?” asked Kurt.
“Maybe,” I admitted. “But you didn’t answer my question.”
Cromwell turned in the seat, clearly not amused. “You’ve had a very stressful evening and are probably under the influence of strong narcotics. That’s the only reason why I’m tolerating what is coming out of your mouth at this moment, but please let me make myself clear. One more insinuation and I may do something I’ll regret later.”
My eyes narrowed on him. “Like what?”
He held my stare. “Did I not make myself clear?”
I flung myself against the back seat, wincing at the dull flare of pain. “Yeah, you’re crystal clear, boss.”
Kurt snorted. “I kind of like her like this.”
“Why does that not surprise me?” Cromwell said, sighing.
Thankfully, Kurt drove like he was in NASCAR and we pulled into the garage in record time. Not waiting for them, I yanked open the handle and stumbled out of the car.
“Hey, you might want to take it a bit easy. You’re going to pull your stitches out.” Kurt was a step behind me.
I glanced over my shoulder. “And you’d care? Really? Didn’t you try to tackle me in my house?”
A wry smile pulled at his lips. “Didn’t you hit me over the head with a lamp?”
“And I knocked you out,” I added.
Cromwell pinched the bridge of his nose.
Before Kurt could respond, the door to the garage flew open. Hayden’s dark eyes focused on me. “How are you?”
“Lovely,” Cromwell muttered. “Hayden, could you please get Liz? She can help Ember get cleaned up and ready for bed.”
I brushed past them all, promptly tripping over the raised doorway to the kitchen. Incredibly fast, Hayden snagged me around the waist and set me on my feet. I shrugged his arm off. “I can clean myself up, thank you.”
“What’s wrong with her?” he asked, following me into the kitchen.
“Pain pills.” Kurt laughed. “She’s definitely not a happy pill user.”
I spun around, using my good arm to point at him. “I’m not happy because someone is after me! There are creepy and gross things in my locker!” I stepped to the side, tugging on my ruined hoodie. “And I can clean myself. I don’t want her to help me. I want my mom to help me.”
Hayden’s expression softened as he caught my covered wrists. “Ember, you don’t want to do that.” He moved my hand away from the hem of my hoodie. “Let me take you upstairs.”
I stared into his deep brown eyes. They were so beautiful, so open. It took me a moment to remember why I was angry with him. I pulled away from him. “I saw you,” I whispered.
His brows rose as he whispered back, “Saw what?”
“With her.” I lowered my eyes, letting out a shaky sigh. All my anger suddenly vanished. The cockiness dried up. I just wanted to sit down. And maybe take a bath. Sit first, though.
Confusion faded from his face. “Ember, that’s not—”