I’d even put my fate—my future—in Cromwell’s hands.
I sat, staring blindly at a blank page. I started with one line—the horizon, but as I continued, the line became ragged and broken by tall elms with points as sharp as needles. I pressed harder, giving the shadows more depth, more secrets. The drawing wasn’t working, but I couldn’t stop. Smudged lines flowed across the page.
“What are you doing?”
I snapped the pad shut and twisted toward the voice. Hayden. In the sun, his hair shone a dozen colors of red and brown.
He took only one step closer, pulling his hands out of the pockets of his jeans. “Ember?”
I jumped to my feet. “Don’t come any closer.”
Hayden stopped. “I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to talk to you.”
“Not going to hurt me?” I backed up, successfully trapping myself against the wall. “You said that right before you knocked me out for three days.”
“I’m really sorry about that.” He looked away, drawing in a deep breath. “I know you, Ember. You’re a fighter—”
“You don’t know me. We only talked for five minutes in the library.”
A lopsided smile pulled at his lips as he turned toward me. “Since the accident, we’ve checked in on you. Sometimes I came with my father. I saw enough.”
A fine shiver coursed through me. I wrapped my arms around me, but it didn’t help. “Saw what?”
He looked away again, staring off at something I couldn’t see. “How hard it was for you. The way those kids at school treated you. How you managed to survive when there was no one there to help you.” The striking lines of his face turned hard. “I know you’re scared, but you don’t have any reason to be now.”
“Really? Because you tell me so, huh? And this is coming from a boy who has been stalking me with his father. Not to mention the fact that you guys have kidnap—”
“I wasn’t stalking you, Ember, and we didn’t kidnap you.” He faced me once again. “We just… relocated you.”
“So Olivia can be among her ‘kind’.” I rolled my eyes. “Are you serious? I don’t have a ‘kind’, and neither does Olivia.”
“But you do.” Hayden moved fast. I flattened myself against the wall as if I could somehow disappear into it. I held the pad between us. It made for a weak, stupid barrier. “Jonathan Cromwell really isn’t my father, did you know that? My parents—my real parents—didn’t want anything to do with me. They were scared of me. When I was young, I couldn’t control it.”
A voice inside my head screamed at me to shut up and run, but I didn’t. “Control what?”
Hayden’s lips twisted. “I’m what they call an ‘enerpath.’ I can drain energy from just about anything there is, including the air around us. With people, I can drain a little of their energy. Or I can take it all. It works the same with people who are gifted.”
“And what did you mean about the air?”
“I could bring this entire house down if I wanted to.”
My mouth dropped open.
“I was in foster homes for several years. If Jonathan hadn’t found me, I don’t know where I’d be now. He told me what I was and taught me how to control it. Never once did he ask for anything in return. I owe him my life, Ember. As does every kid he’s ever saved.” His eyes flicked up. “I’ve scared you, haven’t I?”
“I… that’s…” I shook my head, “freaky?”
Silence stretched out between us while he studied me in a way that made me feel transparent. His brown eyes shifted to a much darker color, almost black. Then he moved away, going back to the railing.
“I’m sorry.” I found myself apologizing without even knowing why. “I didn’t mean—”
Hayden threw up his hand, cutting me off. “It’s okay. Being called a freak by you is sort of a compliment.”
Was that an insult? “What happened when you touched me? I mean, for a few seconds nothing happened. No one—nothing can touch me.”
“I can touch you for a minute or two. It’s like a buffer, Ember. I can handle small portions, but it would overwhelm me if you held on and I didn’t drain your touch.”
“But you knocked me out, like, hard-core.”
Hayden ran the tips of his fingers over the railing. “That’s what happens when I drain your touch. With others, it just stops whatever they are doing. If someone is telekinetic—can move things with their mind—my touch would stop them from doing so. If I drain just a little, it can take the edge off some of their gifts. For some reason, with you, it just knocked you on your butt.” He looked over his shoulder at me. “Maybe it’s because your gift is so tied to your life-force now. I don’t know.”
“So we can touch, but one of us ends up… hurt?”
A slow smile spread across his lips. “If we aren’t careful, yes. Anyway, how did you discover it? I—we never saw that.”
I remembered how I thought he’d looked familiar when I first saw him. I had caught glimpses of him.
“After the accident,” I said finally. “I had a cat named Sushi.”
“And?” He pushed off the railing, coming to stand in front of me again.
“I picked it up.” I took a deep breath and looked away. Part of me didn’t even know why I was sharing this, but it felt liberating telling the truth for once. “It died, right then and there. Then I tried to hug Olivia.”
“Whoa,” Hayden murmured. “Poor kid. Poor kitty.”
“Yeah… well, I told Olivia the cat ran away. That was before I understood what she could do. I mean, really understand.” My cheeks were hot, but I kept going. Diarrhea of the mouth, I supposed. “I quickly learned plants and animals pretty much keel over right away. People are different. My touch hurts at first, then… well, you already know what happens.”
“It was an accident,” he said without hesitation. “And he touched you.”
“Does it really matter how it happened? He’s dead because of me.”
“It’s not the same thing.” He appeared to want to say something else, but shook his head. “Why were you upset earlier? Was it the phone call?”
Lying would be pointless. The lump in my front pocket was obvious. “I had to call my friend and let him know I was okay.”
“Did you tell him where you are?”
A frown tugged at my lips and I lied, sort of. “No.”
Hayden seemed to relax. “We can be ourselves here. Outsiders are rarely trusted. My father wants it to be different. Being the mayor has helped.”
“He’s the mayor?” Cromwell’s words came to back to me. I have all the right. This is my town.
“Not illegally or through manipulation.” He stepped back and leaned across the railing, crossing his long legs at the ankle. “Outsiders just love the man. Everybody does.”
“Great.” I started chewing my lip. “Does he think I’m going to run around and kill people now, because you know, that’s how I roll? Is that why he brought us here?”
Hayden tipped his back and laughed, really laughed. It was a nice sound. Rich. “No. I don’t think he believes you want to kill anyone.”
I zeroed in on his word choice. Want to kill people versus kill people by accident. I sighed again, feeling uncomfortable in my own skin.
His dark eyes flickered over me. “You’re not a freak. None of us are. And maybe I—we can help you get control of it. All you have to do is trust us.”
* * *
Just trust us.
Trust was a two-way street that usually didn’t start with being kidnapped.
I weaseled my way out of dinner even though Olivia threw an epic tantrum. She didn’t understand I needed time alone to think all of this through, to figure out what the next course of action should be.
So I skipped dinner, but still had no idea what to do. Now I was freaking starving. When I was pretty sure I was going to start gnawing on my arm, I sucked it up and tried to find my way back to the kitchen.
The hardwood floors didn’t creak under my sneakers and the paint was an array of soft, welcoming colors. It was nothing like our worn-down home in Allentown. I kind of missed that old place, no matter how sad it had been for the last two years. It felt like us, and this house didn’t.
Eventually, I found the right hallway, but the kitchen wasn’t empty like I’d hoped. I lingered outside the entrance, torn between running back to my room and busting in on the obvious family meeting about… me.
“You can’t be serious? She’s been awake for a couple of hours and she’s already tried to attack you.”
“She’s scared out of her mind, Gabe. She woke up in a complete stranger’s house. Think if we’d done that to you. Or to Parker and Phoebe,” Hayden said, his deep timbre recognizable.
“I’d throw you across the room, not kill you with my touch!”
“Knock it off. She’s staying. For now.” Cromwell sounded like he was accustomed to the two arguing.
Something slammed down. “You’re letting her go to school with us on top of it? What if she hurts someone?” Gabe said.
“She’s not going to run around and touch people on purpose,” Hayden snapped. “She went two years without hurting a single person.”
“She killed a boy!” said Gabe.
“That was an accident,” Hayden responded. “The asshole attacked her! He grabbed her. It wasn’t her fault.”
Nice of him to defend me. Squeezing my eyes shut, I leaned against the wall.
“If she hurts someone, or if I think she will, then I will handle it,” Cromwell said. “I’ll turn her over to the Facility.”
“What?” That was Hayden. “You can’t be serious! You know what they’ll do to her there.”
“Better than what she’d do to us,” Gabe spat.
“You have no idea what it’s like there,” Hayden said. “I do. She doesn’t deserve that. We could try to work with her.”
“Hayden,” Cromwell said, clearly exasperated.
“What? We could try to control her gift.”
“She’s not gifted.”
I didn’t recognize the voice, but his words were cold.
“The damn girl is a freak of nature, and if anyone belongs at the Facility, she does. Her sister is one thing. That little angel has a gift, but Ember doesn’t.” There was a pause, and then the man laughed. “Oh, for the love of God, Hayden, don’t look at me like I just kicked a baby. I’m just stating the truth.”
“Kurt, you’re an ass,” Hayden said. “She should’ve hit you harder.”
My eyes snapped open. The lion man—the one in the cowboy duster—was here.
“Whatever. At least I’m not the one hung up on the Grim Reaper,” Kurt retorted.