I couldn’t move, and everything hurt—my skin felt stretched too tight, muscles burned like they’d been lit on fire, and my bones ached deep into the marrow.
Confusion swamped me. My brain felt like it was full of cobwebs and fog. I tried to lift my arms, but they were weighed down, full of lead.
I thought I heard a steady beeping sound and voices, but all of it seemed far away, as if I was on one end of the tunnel and everything else was on the other.
I couldn’t speak. There...there was something in my throat, in the back of my throat. My arm twitched without warning, and there was a tug at the top of my hand.
Why wouldn’t my eyes open?
Panic started to dig in. Why couldn’t I move?
Something was wrong. Something was really wrong. I just wanted to open my eyes. I wanted—
I love you, Lena.
I love you, too.
The voices echoed in my head, one of them mine. Definitely mine, and the other...
“She’s starting to wake up.” A female voice interrupted my thoughts from somewhere on the other side of the tunnel.
Footsteps neared and a male said, “Getting the propofol in now.”
“This is the second time she’s woken up,” the woman replied. “Hell of a fighter. Her mother is going to be happy to hear that.”
Fighter? I didn’t understand what they were talking about, why they thought my mom would be happy to hear this—
Maybe I should drive?
Warmth hit my veins, starting at the base of my skull and then washing over me, cascading through my body, and then there were no dreams, no thoughts and no voices.
Thursday, August 10
“All I have to say is that you almost had sex with that.”
Scrunching my nose, I stared down at the phone Darynda Jones—Dary for short—had shoved in my face five seconds after walking into Joanna’s.
Joanna’s had been a staple in downtown Clearbrook since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. The restaurant was kind of stuck in the past, weirdly existing somewhere between big-hair bands and the rise of Britney Spears, but it was clean and cozy, and practically everything that came out of the kitchen was fried. Plus it had the best sweet tea in the entire state of Virginia.
“Oh man,” I murmured. “What in the world is he doing?”
“What does it look like?” Dary’s eyes widened behind her white plastic-framed glasses. “He’s basically humping a blow-up dolphin.”
I pressed my lips together, because yep, that was what it looked like.
Whipping her phone out of my face, she cocked her head to the side. “What were you thinking?”
“He’s cute—was cute,” I explained lamely as I glanced over my shoulder. Luckily, no one else was within hearing range. “And I didn’t have sex with him.”
She rolled dark brown eyes. “Your mouth was on his mouth, and his hands—”
“All right.” I threw up my hands, warding off whatever else she was about to say. “I get it. Hooking up with Cody was a mistake. Trust me. I know. I’m trying to erase all of that from my memory and you’re not helping.”
Leaning over the counter I was standing behind, she whispered, “I’ll never let you live that down.” She grinned when my eyes narrowed. “But I understand. He has muscles on top of muscles. He’s kind of dumb but fun.” There was a dramatic pause.
Everything about Dary was dramatic, from the often abhorrently bright clothing she wore to the super-short hair, cropped on the sides and a riot of curls on the top. Right now her hair was black. Last month it was lavender. In two months it would probably be pink.
“And he’s Sebastian’s friend.”
I felt my stomach twist into knots. “That has nothing to do with Sebastian.”
“You’re so lucky I actually like you,” I shot back.
“Whatever. You love me.” She smacked her hands down on the counter. “You’re working this weekend, right?”
“Yeah. Why? Thought you were going to DC with your family this weekend.”
She sighed. “A weekend? I wish. We’re going to DC for the whole week. We leave tomorrow morning. Mom can’t wait. I swear she actually has an itinerary for us, like which museums she wants to visit, the expected time in each one, and when we will have our lunches and dinners.”
My lips twitched. Her mom was ridiculously organized, down to labeled baskets for gloves and scarves. “The museums will be fun.”
“Of course you think that. You’re a nerd.”
“No point in denying that. It’s true.” And I had no problem admitting it. I wanted to go to college and study anthropology. Most people would ask what in the hell would you do with a degree in that, but there were a lot of opportunities, like working in forensics, corporate gigs, teaching and more. What I wanted to do actually involved working in museums, so I would’ve loved a trip to DC.
“Yeah. Yeah.” Dary hopped off the red vinyl bar stool. “I got to go before Mom freaks. If I’m five minutes past my curfew, she’ll call the cops, convinced I’ve been abducted.”
I grinned. “Text me later, okay?”
Waving goodbye, I grabbed the damp rag and ran it along the narrow countertop. Pots clanged together, echoing out from the kitchen, signaling it was close to shutting down for the night.
I could not wait to get home, shower off the scent of fried chicken tenders and burnt tomato soup, and finish reading the latest drama surrounding Feyre and the fae courts. Then I was moving on to that sexy contemporary read I’d seen people talking about in the Facebook book club I lurked in, something about royals and hot brothers. Five of them.
Sign me up for that.
I swore half the money I made waitressing at Joanna’s went to buying books instead of filling my savings account, but I couldn’t help myself.
After wiping around the napkin dispensers, I lifted my chin and blew a strand of brown hair that had escaped my bun out of my face as the bell above the door rang and a slight figure stepped inside.
I dropped the lemony-scented rag with surprise. A breeze could’ve knocked me flat on my face.
For the most part, the only time anyone under the age of sixty came into Joanna’s was on Friday nights after the football games and sometimes Saturday evenings during the summer. Definitely not on Thursday nights.
Joanna’s made its bread and butter off certified AARP members, which was one of the reasons why I started waitressing here during the summer. It was easy and I needed the extra money.
The fact that Skylar Welch was standing just inside Joanna’s, ten minutes before closing, was a shock. She never came in here alone. Never.
Bright headlights pierced the darkness outside. She’d left her BMW running, and I was willing to bet she had a car full of girls just as pretty and perfect as her.
But nowhere near as nice.
I’d spent the last million years harboring a rabid case of bitter jealousy when it came to Skylar. But the worst part was that she was genuinely sweet, which made hating her a crime against humanity, puppies and rainbows.
Tentatively walking forward like she expected the black-and-white linoleum floor to rip open and swallow her whole, she brushed her light brown, blond-at-the-end hair over her shoulder. Even in the horrible fluorescent lights, her summer tan was deep and flawless.
“Hey.” I straightened, hoping she wasn’t going to place an order. If she wanted something to eat, Bobby was going to be pissed, and I was going to have to spend five minutes convincing him to cook whatever she wanted. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing much.” She bit down on her glossy bubblegum-pink lip. Stopping next to the red vinyl bar stools, she took a deep breath. “You’re about to close, aren’t you?”
I nodded slowly. “In about ten minutes.”
“Sorry. I won’t take long. I actually wasn’t planning to stop here.” I silently added a sarcastic Really? “The girls and I were heading out to the lake. Some of the guys are having a party, and we drove past here,” she explained. “I thought I’d stop by and see if...if you knew when Sebastian was coming home.”