“Miss, what is your name?”
“How could you?” My voice sounded eerily calm. “That wasn’t our Mom.”
The woman blinked rapidly, shaking her head in denial. “No. She’s listed in our system, and she signed her out! Who are you?” she demanded. Other people were starting to come out of smaller offices. “Are you a family member?”
I backed up, clenching my hands into tight fists. There was nothing else to say. Spinning around, I took off. I’d go home next. There was a chance—a small chance—that it’d been Mom. I’d have a better chance of waking up and discovering the last twenty-four hours had been a nightmare, but the small sliver of hope was all I had. Desperate, I clung to it. My throat constricted when our house came into view. Mom’s beat-up station wagon was parked in the front of the house. It hadn’t moved since Dad’s funeral. The old wooden swing swayed on the front porch, sending darts of panic shooting through me.
There was no breeze.
Heart pounding, I climbed the steps and flung open the front door. The extra set of keys sat on the table by the door.
“Olivia?” I called out. “Olivia, where are you?” I went into the kitchen, then the living room, and finally rushed upstairs. “Olivia! Answer me now!”
Still, there was no answer.
Her bedroom was empty. “Oh, my God.”
I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea how long I stood there, staring at her empty bed. Nothing seemed real anymore. Only the blood rushing through my veins and slow desperation spiraled inside me. A sob rose in my chest.
I was supposed to take care of Olivia.
A sudden noise, like someone knocking into a piece of heavy furniture, raised the tiny hairs along the nape of my neck. Swallowing down icy fear, I wheeled around and stepped back into the hallway. I pulled off my gloves, clenching them in one hand. Could I kill again—on purpose?
Yes, if Olivia was in danger.
Sunlight spilled out into the hallway through my bedroom door. The room appeared to be safe, inviting even. Had I left my door open this morning? I couldn’t remember. Slowly, I inched toward the open door. For a moment, I thought the room was empty.
He stood in front of the door to my bathroom, wearing the same duster jacket from the night before. A mane of blond hair stuck out from underneath a cowboy hat. The sudden image of a lion crouching, waiting for its prey to stumble into its sight, flashed before me.
I realized a split second later I was the prey.
The lion sprang before I even had the chance to release the scream building in my throat. He didn’t say anything, but the look of fierce determination as he moved toward me, arms outstretched, said it all. Panic quickly turned into something else as I jerked back against the wall. Fury and desperation welled, spinning and bubbling over.
He reached for me.
Instead of touching him, I grabbed the lamp off the bedside table and hurled it at him. The base of the lamp struck his head, making a sickening thud and knocking off the cowboy hat.
The cowboy fell to the floor, unmoving.
“Well… that wasn’t necessary,” drawled a deep voice that tugged at my memory.
I shrieked and spun around.
Standing in my hallway was Hayden Cromwell. He held his hands out in front of him. “I don’t mean you any harm, Ember. I’m here to help you.”
“Help me?” I stepped back, brushing against the man’s leg. My stomach turned over as I looked at him. The cowboy hat lay beside him. Blood matted his blond hair. When had I become so violent? Had I always been this way?
“Don’t look at him, Ember. Look at me.”
It was like being compelled. I had no choice but to look at him. “Where is my sister?”
“Everything is fine. Your sister is safe. We have her—”
All I heard was the last three words. I lunged at him. He didn’t even move out of the way. He simply caught my hand in his and squeezed gently.
The act knocked the air and common sense right out of me. This—this was what I’d been yearning for. A simple touch, a brushing of skin without hurting someone, and it was everything I thought it would be. Strength. Warmth. Humanity.
All in one simple touch.
“I don’t understand,” I whispered hoarsely. My gaze locked on his hands. His fingers were long and graceful-looking. They were strong.
“I’m absorbing your gift,” he said. “I’m like you, Ember. Gifted.”
I lifted my eyes, and saw the proud lines of his face tense. Hayden’s fingers left my hand and slid under the cuff of my sweater. His touch was scalding, and my skin tingled wherever his fingers went.
Dizziness swept through me, and Hayden seemed to sway. The room spun. I blinked, but everything still moved. Panic squeezed my heart as I tried to pull my arm away, but he held on.
“What are you doing to…?” I couldn’t remember what I was saying.
“I’m sorry, but this is the only way,” Hayden said, sounding like he truly was. “We’re going to help you.” He placed his other hand on my cheek. “It’s going to be okay. Trust me, Ember.”
My name was the last thing I heard. The world went black, and then there was nothing.
I knew I needed to wake up, but my eyelids felt like they’d been glued shut. Slowly and with much effort, I peeled them open. Dazzling sunshine flowed in through the lace-covered windows.
There wasn’t a single curtain in my entire house. Not that I had anything against them, but I could never figure out how to get the damn rods up. Woozy, I pushed myself onto my elbows and glanced around. I was in a bed much bigger than the one I was used to. Gilded frames decorated the buttery yellow walls. A flat-screen TV sat on a cherry oak dresser that looked like something hand-carved in the nineteenth century. A matching desk stood beside the dresser, with a slender, expensive-looking laptop perched atop it. French doors led to what appeared to be a balcony and on the other side of the room, another set of doors led to a bathroom… and a walk-in closet.
Okay, this was definitely not my room.
I sat up, biting my lower lip as a rush of dizziness threatened to push me back into the soft comforter. The events leading up to this fuzzed in my brain, but I remembered enough to push down the nausea the headache was causing. I swung my legs off the bed and stood. The room spun for a couple of seconds before righting itself.
The bedroom door opened, revealing a man with neatly trimmed, dark hair and a tailored business suit. I stepped back, bumping into the bed.
“Good. You’re awake. We were getting worried. Hayden’s gift can pack quite a punch,” he said pleasantly. “My name is Jonathan Cromwell. You are in my home.”
“Who… where is my sister?” I asked hoarsely.
He folded his hands behind his back. “Olivia is here, and she’s been asking for you. I can take you to her. Then, you and I must talk.”
I placed a hand to my thumping temple and winced. “Talk about what?”
“I think you should see your sister first, Ember. It would ease her anxiety tremendously to know that you are well.”
Concern for Olivia urged me forward, but suspicion pinged my thoughts. “How do I know this isn’t a trick… or something?”
A patient smile formed on his lips. “I know you have a lot of questions, but you must put them aside. Olivia needs you, Ember.”
Olivia needs you.Those words had always provoked an instantaneous need. I nodded and scrunched my face up in pain. My head felt like it was going to explode.
Mr. Cromwell stepped aside, motioning for me to follow him. I kept a safe distance between us as we made our way down the wide hallway, passing several closed doors. Instead of stopping at the last one like I expected, he went down a winding staircase. Below, I could see two more levels. Everywhere I looked, there were various paintings of Greek and Roman gods on the walls. Anatomically correct marble statues stood in the corners.
We stopped outside a door on the second floor. Childish giggles radiated from the room, pulling me forward like a moth to light. I’d recognize the sound of her laughter anywhere. I stepped around the guy and pushed open the door.
Relief flooded me. Olivia, her hair subdued into two little pigtails, sat in the middle of a large bedroom, surrounded by a ridiculous number of toys, stuffed animals, and… Mom. My mother sat in a chair, wearing an oversized sweater and slippers. Her face was as blank as ever, but she wasn’t in bed.
This had to be a dream.
Olivia twisted around and erupted in high-pitched shrieks. “Em! Em!” She was on her feet, rushing at me like a mini-tornado. “I’ve missed you! Emmie! Em!”
“Olivia,” I choked out.
She wrapped her arms around my legs without hesitation. I wanted nothing more than to pull her into my arms, but my gloves were gone. My hands hovered above her curls as if they had a mind of their own. I squeezed my eyes shut and inhaled sharply.
“Em!” She tugged on my jeans. “Look!”
I opened my eyes. She broke away from me, pointing at the cage atop the dresser. “They let me bring Squeaky. And look! This is Mr. Sniffles!” She rushed toward a large tabby cat I’d thought was a stuffed animal.
“That’s nice.” My eyes fell to Mom. She occupied a rocking chair that I imagined belonged in a nursery room. “Mom? It’s me.” I took a step forward.
She blinked slowly, but it was like a soundproof wall prevented her from hearing me.
“Em, what have you been doing?” Olivia asked, drawing my attention back to her. She’d dropped the cat and moved on to a baby doll. “I wanted to see you, but Mr. Cromwell said you needed to rest.”
I glanced over my shoulder at the dark-haired man. “Yeah, I’ve been sleeping.”
Olivia held the doll by one arm, swinging it around and around. “You’ve been sleeping for days.”
For days? “Um… well, I was really tired.”
Skipping up to me, she seemed to accept my excuse. “I like it here, Emmie.”
“Really?” I felt dizzy, faint. God, was I going to pass out again?
She nodded impishly and then twitched her chubby index finger at me. It was a habit of hers whenever she wanted to tell me a secret, so I bent closer and lowered my head. “What?” I whispered, ignoring the white specks of lights dancing across my vision.
Leaning in, Olivia whispered near my ear. “Mr. Cromwell says I’m gifted.”
“Oh. Okay,” I whispered back, my brain reeling. Olivia jumped away and twirled across the room. “Squeaky likes it here.”
“Ember,” Mr. Cromwell said.
I nodded without looking back. “Olivia, I need to talk to Mr. Cromwell. Are you okay up here?”
“Yep. Mommy and I are playing with my new toys.”
Against my will, I looked at my mom again. She turned her head and smiled down at Olivia. Just seeing her provoked so many emotions. I tried to remember what she’d been like before the accident, but her current state overshadowed those memories.
I shook my head and turned to where Mr. Cromwell waited, a patient expression on his face.