After centuries of waiting, Torin’s patience was long dead. The woman he craved was, at last, almost his. For hundreds of years, he’d wandered the far reaches of the globe, a shadow in his woman’s life, always alert for signs of the magic stirring. Now that the long-anticipated moment had come, to have the Awakening strike on a tidy suburban street in Long Beach, California, seemed almost a joke. One he didn’t find amusing.
Across the street from him, a bell rang and hundreds of schoolchildren spilled from a pale green stucco building like ants from a hill. Their bright laughter sounded sharp to a man already on a razor’s edge. His gray eyes narrowed behind his dark glasses as he watched the kids scatter in the sunlight. The last barrier between him and his woman had fallen. His skin felt electrified with the rising of power in the air. His blood hummed and if he’d had a heartbeat, it would have been thundering in his chest.
A woman hurried past him to gather up her child and gave him a quick, appraising glance. Her steps quickened, her gaze shifted from him and she rushed her child away as if they were being chased by demons.
He knew what people saw when they looked at him.
Taller than most men, he had long, dark hair that fell loose to his shoulders. He wore a black T-shirt that clung to the hard muscles of his chest and abs. His black jeans and scuffed shit-kicker boots finished off the dangerous image. His face was lean and hard, sculpted with sharp planes and angles and his pale gray eyes gave away none of his thoughts.
He looked exactly what he was.
An Eternal whose second chance had finally arrived-and this time he would not be denied.
“They took my mom away last night.”
Shea Jameson wanted to lock her classroom door and walk away. It was the only sane thing to do. But the tremor in her student’s voice pulled at her. The day was over at Lincoln Middle School and the hallways should have been emptied. Shea knew because she always waited until everyone else had left the building before she headed home. She made it a point to avoid crowds whenever she could. As a teacher, she was faced with classes filled with kids every day, but they didn’t bother her. It was the parents of those children that worried her.
She looked down at Amanda Hall and sympathy rose up inside her. Shea had heard the rumors, the whispers. She’d watched as the teachers had reluctantly protected Amanda from those who only yesterday had been her friends. And she knew that the girl’s situation was only going to get worse.
“Ms. Jameson, I don’t know what to do.”
Her heart broke for the petite blond girl leaning against a row of closed lockers in the empty, quiet school hallway. The child’s face was streaked with tears, her blue eyes swimming with them. Her arms were crossed over her middle, as if she was trying to console herself, and when she looked up at Shea, stark misery and panic were stamped on her small features.
She wouldn’t be able to turn her back on the girl, despite the risks, Shea thought with an inner sigh. How could she and still live with herself?
“I’m so sorry, Amanda.” She glanced over her shoulder to be sure there was no one near. Not a soul was around, though, and the silence, but for Amanda’s soft sniffling, was deafening. The beige walls were decorated with posters announcing the coming Fall Festival and Shea’s gaze slid away from the drawings of cackling wart-encrusted witches burning at stakes.
The small hairs at the back of her neck stood straight up and she could have sworn that there was someone close by, watching her. A shiver of something icy slid along Shea’s spine, but the halls were still empty. For now.
She shouldn’t have stopped, a voice in her mind whispered. Shouldn’t have spoken to the girl. No one knew better than Shea that there were spies everywhere. That no one was safe anymore. If someone should see her talking to this child now, her own personal nightmarish circus would begin again, and there was no guarantee that this time Shea would survive it.
But how could she walk away from a child in desperate need? Especially when she knew exactly what Amanda was going through? Shifting her books and papers in her arms, Shea dropped her free hand to the girl’s shoulder and tried to think of something comforting to say. But lies wouldn’t do her any good and the truth was far too terrifying.
If Amanda’s mother had really been taken, she wouldn’t be coming back. In fact, it was probably only a matter of time before the authorities came to snatch up Amanda as well. And that realization pushed her to speak.
“Amanda,” Shea asked quietly, “do you have anyone you can stay with?”
The girl nodded. “My grandma. The police took me there last night. Grandma didn’t want me to come to school today, but I did anyway and everyone’s being so mean…” She shook her head and frowned in spite of her tears. A flash of anger dazzled her damp eyes. “My mom’s not evil. I don’t care what they say. She didn’t do anything wrong. I would know.”
Shea wasn’t so sure of that. These days, secrets were all that kept some women alive. But even if Amanda was right and her mother was innocent, there was little chance she’d be released. Still, what was important now was Amanda’s safety. The girl had already learned one harsh lesson today-don’t trust anyone. Her friends had turned on her and soon everyone else would, too. Once word got out about her mother being taken, the girl would be in danger from so many different directions, she’d never find shelter.
“Amanda,” Shea whispered fiercely, “don’t come back to school tomorrow. Go to your grandmother’s and stay there.”
“But I have to help my mom,” the girl argued. “I thought you could go with me to the principal and we could tell her that my mom’s not what they think. Mom’s the president of the PTA!”
Shea winced as the girl’s voice rose. She couldn’t afford for anyone to see them. Couldn’t risk being seen helping the child of a detainee. Leaning down, she caught Amanda’s eye and said, “Your mom would want you to be safe, wouldn’t she?”
“Then that’s the best thing you can do for her.”
“I don’t know…”
“Amanda, listen to me,” Shea said, her words coming faster now as the creeping sensation of being watched flooded back into her system. “There’s nothing we can do to help your mom right now. The best thing for everyone is for you to leave here and go straight to your grandmother’s. Okay? No stops. No talking to anyone.”
A door opened down the hall and Shea glanced toward the sound. Her stomach pitched with nerves as she spotted the school principal coming out of her office. Lindsay Talbot’s eyes narrowed as she noticed Amanda and Shea huddled together, speaking in whispers. Instantly Ms. Talbot darted back into her office.
“Just go, Amanda,” she said, giving the girl’s shoulder a quick squeeze. “Go now.”
The girl picked up on the urgency in Shea’s voice, nodded briefly, then turned and ran down the hall toward the back door. Once she was gone, Shea took a deep breath, steeled herself and walked in the opposite direction. Her heels clicked on the tile floor as she neared the glass wall of the school’s office. The front door was only a few feet away and the sunlit afternoon shone like a beacon of safety. She was leaving, no matter what, she thought, but she had to know what Ms. Talbot was doing.
Shea glanced through the office windows in time to see the principal hang up the phone. Then the woman turned around, met Shea’s gaze and gave her a catabout-to-eat-a-canary smile.
Just like that, she knew it was over.
All of it.
Shea had been happy here. For a while. She enjoyed spending her days with the kids. She had convinced herself over the last year and a half that she’d finally found safety. That her normal behavior, her gift for teaching, was enough to prove to everyone that she was nothing more than she claimed to be. A sixth-grade science teacher.
But as she met Lindsay Talbot’s harsh stare, she felt the old familiar stir of panic. Fear rushed through her, churning her stomach, making her hands damp and drying out her mouth. She had to run.
She let her papers fall to the floor in a soft rustle of sound, then tightened her grip on her shoulder bag and raced for the front door. As her hand pushed the cold steel bar, she heard Lindsay Talbot call out behind her, “You won’t get away. They’re coming.”
“I know,” Shea murmured, but she ran anyway. What else could she do? If she stayed, she would end up with Amanda’s mother. Just one more woman locked away with no hope of ever getting out.
Outside, she squinted at the beam of sunlight that slanted into her eyes, and took the steps down to the sidewalk at a dead run. She dug into her purse as she turned toward the parking lot, blindly fumbling for her keys. Her only hope was to be gone before the MPs arrived. It would take them time to find her and in that time she would disappear. She’d done it before and she could do it again. Dye her hair, change her name, find a new identity and lose herself in some other city.
She wouldn’t go back to her apartment. They’d be expecting her to, but she wasn’t that stupid. Besides, she didn’t need anything from her home. She traveled light these days. A woman constantly on the move couldn’t afford to drag mementos from one place to the next. Instead, she kept a packed suitcase in her car trunk and a stash of emergency cash tucked into her bra at all times, on the off chance that she’d have to leave in a hurry.
A cold wind rushed at her, pulling her long hair free of the knot she kept it in. Slate gray clouds rolled in off the ocean and seagulls wheeled and dipped overhead. She hardly noticed. Parents were still milling around out front, picking up their kids, but Shea ran past them all, ignoring those who spoke to her.
Her car was at the far end of the parking lot, closest to the back exit. She was always prepared to run-to slip away while her pursuers were coming in the front. She was sprinting now, her heart hammering in her chest, breath rattling in her lungs. She held her keys so tightly the jagged edges dug into her palm.
The soles of her shoes slid unsteadily on the gravellaced asphalt, but she kept moving. One thought pulsed through her mind. Run. Run and don’t look back.
Her gaze fixed on her nondescript beige two-door compact, she never saw the man who leapt out at her from behind another car. He pushed her down and her knees hit the asphalt with a grinding slide that tore open her skin and sent pain shooting along her legs.
His hands reached for her as a deep voice muttered, “Gimme the purse and you can go.”
Absently, she heard voices rising in the distance as parents saw the man attacking her. Oh, God, not now, she thought as she turned over and stared up into the wild eyes of a junkie who desperately needed money. She couldn’t deal with this now. There was too much attention on her.
He pulled a knife as if he sensed she was hesitating. “Give me the money now.”
Shea shook her head, and when he reached for her again, she instinctively lifted both hands as if to push him off and away. But she never made contact with him. She didn’t need to. A surge of energy suddenly pulsed through her and shot from her fingertips. As a whoosh of sound erupted, the man in front of her erupted into flames.
Shea stared up at him, horrified by what was happening. By what she’d done. His screams tore through the air as he tried to run from the fire. But it only fed the flames consuming him and as his shrieks rose higher and higher, Shea staggered to her feet, glanced down at her hands and shuddered.
That was when she heard it.
Over the sounds of the dying man’s cries, voices roared together, getting louder and louder as she was surrounded. One word thundered out around her, hammering at her mind and soul, reducing her to a terror she hadn’t known in ten years.
She looked up into the faces of her students’ parents as they circled her. People she knew. People she liked. Now, though, she hardly recognized them. Their features were twisted into masks of hatred and panic and their voices joined together to shout their accusation.
“Witch! Witch! Witch!”
Shea fought for air as the mob tightened around her. There was no way out now. She was going to die. And if the crowd didn’t kill her, then the MPs would take her away when they arrived and she would be as good as dead anyway. It was over. The years of terror and dread, the hiding, the praying, the constant worrying about survival.
“Stop!” she shouted, her voice raw with horror at what she’d done. At what they were about to do to her. “I didn’t do anything!”
A useless argument, since they’d all seen what had happened. But how? How had she done it? She wasn’t a witch. She was just… her. “If I had power, wouldn’t I be using it now?”
Some of the people around her seemed to consider that and their expressions reflected worry. It was not what Shea had been after. If they were worried about their own safety, they’d be just that much more eager to kill her.
Her head whipped from side to side, desperately looking for a way out of this. But she couldn’t find one. In the distance she heard the wail of sirens that signaled the MPs’ imminent arrival. And the Magic Police weren’t going to let her get away. They might save her from the mob. On the other hand, they might stand back and let these everyday, ordinary people solve their problem for them.
Frantic, she stumbled back as the crowd pushed in until she realized they were herding her closer to the burning man stretched out on the asphalt. Heat from the flames reached for her. The stench of burning flesh stained the air. Shea looked from the dead man to the crowd and back again and knew that whatever happened next, she deserved it.
The fire suddenly erupted, growing until hungry licks of orange and red flames leapt and jumped more than six feet high. Someone in the crowd screamed. Shea jolted. Black cars with flashing yellow lights raced into the driveway and then screeched to a stop. Men in black uniforms piled out and pointed guns, but they were the least of her problems now.
Flames reached for Shea. Engulfed her. The roar of the quickening fire deafened her to her surroundings. She screamed and looked up into a pair of pale gray eyes reflecting the shifting colors of the flames. She felt hard, strong arms wrap around her, as a deep voice whispered, “Close your eyes.”
“Good idea,” she answered, then fainted for the first time in her life.
When Shea woke up, it was dark outside. There was a lamp burning on the bedside table and the Tiffanyglass shade threw softly colored patterns on the ceiling. She sat up, bracing her hands against the silky quilt beneath her. Which meant she was on a bed. Whose bed?