Authors: Elizabeth Blair
Copyright © 2016 by Elizabeth Blair
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0692746358 (print)
ISBN-13: 978-0692746356 (print)
“Ariana, do something about your damn phone!”
The hard case bit into my kidneys and I tried to inch away from the noise and responsibility it represented. It would be my mother. It was
“Ariana!” another voice from in the huddle of bodies groaned in annoyance.
“Working on it,” I promised. I rolled over, feeling around in the sand for wherever my phone had landed. I clicked the button, blinking back from the brightness, and tried to focus on the screen. 34 messages. Wait...what? I struggled to sitting, rubbing my face to clear the alcohol and sand that had to be fogging my vision.
“It’s probably about last night.”
I took a sideways glance at Donovan, a tourist who had served as my make-out partner for the evening before. “The bonfire’s an annual thing. It’s not news.”
His hand traced up my bare leg and he gave me a throaty laugh. “Maybe not but that video was pretty spectacular.”
Last night that laugh had pulled me in, made me reckless. In the pre-dawn light, it turned my stomach.
“What video?” I asked, my voice a slow growl.
Instead of answering, he pulled out his phone and pressed a few buttons then held the device out to me.
Bonfire flames flickering across the sand, the ocean black in the background.
Me doing a vodka induced dance number around the fire and chanting about the rum being gone.
28 seconds of embarrassing end of summer revelry.
“Did you post this somewhere?”
“Yeah, everywhere. It had like a thousand views even before we crashed. Pretty awesome, huh?”
I hit the play button again in sheer disbelief. 28 seconds of me in a bikini top and jean shorts. 28 seconds of the birthmark on my shoulder reflecting in the firelight. 28 seconds of me. Online. Viral. For anyone to see.
“Oh. My. God.”
I wrestled out of his grasp, struggling to my feet as my head begin to swim with the leftover alcohol. I grabbed the nearest dock pillar, holding tight and waiting for my balance to come back.
“Ariana?” He was up and beside me before I could breathe.
“He didn’t know.”
Someone, a supposed friend, was defending him from somewhere in the shadows. My fury rose and I shoved Donovan back to the ground.
I ran like a crazy woman, tripping and tumbling across the sand as it sank beneath my feet. I zigzagged to the boardwalk as soon as possible but knew I had already lost precious time. I kicked my heels up, wishing I was more of an athlete than a bookworm. I clipped the corner to our house, barreled up the two tiny cottage stairs, and threw open the doors. “Mom!”
I rushed around the bottom floor, finding no one, and my heart leapt to my throat. I stood still, gasping for breath, and then heard the banging upstairs. I rushed up, skittering to a stop at my door when I saw her.
“It was a mistake, I swear! There was this tourist-” Her blinding look of terror silenced me.
“Help me,” she ordered, yanking clothes out of my drawers and shoveling them into a duffel. “Now, Ariana, now!”
I didn’t understand why or from who but I was smart enough to know we were running. We had been running since I was five and this time was no different…except, for once, I knew it was all my fault. I grabbed her hands, stopping her. “I’ll get my stuff, go get yours.”
Fear paralyzed her and her eyes darted from the clothes, to the door to me. “Five minutes. No more.”
“Mom, I’ve got this.” I gave her a quick hug to reassure her then pushed her toward the door. “Five minutes.”
I zipped up the bag, not caring what was inside and took a last glance around the room. It still looked like a kid’s room even though I’d graduated high school almost four years earlier: music band posters from my brief rocker phase; book quotes from my intellectual phase; instant photos of the friends I’d borrowed in the months we’d managed to stay here. I grabbed a handful of sea glass and tucked it into my pocket...the ocean was the only thing I’d miss anyway.
I stilled, something suddenly out of sync. I did a slow pivot toward the hallway. It was nothing more than a creak of the stairs, a shadow along the wall, but the cold stillness of the once lively place was enough to make me scream. The shadows blurred into a blob, the sounds on the stairway now loud enough to wake the dead...my scream meant they no longer cared about being quiet.
I don’t know why I obeyed the command, but I did. I dropped to the floor, the splintered hardwood biting hard into my bare knees, just as something broke through the second floor glass. A flash of movement caused me to to lift my face. Strong fingers tightened around my throat, launching my backwards and pinning me against the wall. I hung there, in some weird mental suspension of my own making, while I tried to process the things that were happening. I was losing consciousness, I knew, but the trio of men behind my attacker caught my focus. They were strangers but calmer and more confident than the man holding me. Police, I thought, but then somehow knew better: they were too handsome, too strong, too cavalier and enjoying themselves way too fucking much to be heroes.
Tiny little sparks broke into my vision and I knew I was seconds from blacking out. Somewhere, my mother was in danger and I was the only person who could help her. That’s what we did- save each other. I twisted in his hands, trying for his groin but failing. I thrashed wildly and then did the only thing I could think of...I bit the hell out of him. His grip loosened but didn’t break and, just as I had resigned myself to never seeing my mother again, I saw the glint of metal at his waist. I wrenched it free, sticking in under his chin and firing before he could try and get it away. The shot ripped through his skull, splattering blood all over me as we both dropped to the floor.
“She’s a little firecracker, isn’t she?”
An arm was around my waist, pulling me back to standing. Strong… protective ...reassuring.
was our job.” His breath was warm on my neck, his fingers brushing aside my wavy mass of beach blown hair to expose my shoulder. A grazing touch traced the scar on my flesh. When he spoke, his voice was both a threat and caress that sent shivers up my spine. “Ariana Valentine.”
“No, you have the wrong person-”
“You,” he chuckled, “have no idea who you are, and I don’t have time to argue.” He turned to the group of men beside him. “Find Teresa.”
Teresa. My mom. My best friend.
His arms locked around me, holding me in place. I twisted, kicking and thrashing but he only tightened his grip. The cold metal of his gun pressed against my back, searing into my skin, and angry, hysterical tears began to stream down my face.
I lifted my eyes and saw him step into the room: shorter than the others with sandy hair that made him an oddity in their dark brood; rough hands, calloused and weathered; devilish green eyes that were watching me with a smug satisfaction. I stopped moving, breathing, unable to process the terror that enrobed me.
I gulped for air but it didn’t help. Visions of what they might do to my mother mixed with flashes of violent action movies and I felt the vodka from last night rising. “I’m gonna be sick.”
He released me and I dropped to my knees, spewing the contents of my stomach at his feet. He knelt beside me, his hand on my head. “Better?”
I skittered away from him just as my mother rushed into the room, sliding across the floor to pull me into her arms. His gun was already out, pointing somewhere over my head and I twisted her around to be between them.
“Cole, Ariana. Trust only Cole. Promise me.”
“I don’t know a Col-”
But someone was trying to wrench her away and her words cut off. One gunshot. The two staccato ones right after. A barrage of fire, muffled by the walls, reverberating from somewhere in the tiny house. And then silence.
A hand reached around me, touching my mother’s throat but I batted it away. She was dead. I knew it without needing to check. She was half of me, clearly the better half. It had been the two of us against the world and now I was alone.
The monster hovering over me gave some nonverbal response that caused the other men to step into the room.
“Sedate her and then we’ll get her in the car.”
I rocked my mom, divided between wanting to bring her back and wanting to just join her in whatever peaceful place she’d escaped to. A tiny prick drew my attention back to the room and I managed a few curse words.
“Yep, she’s a spitfire alright.”
A soft, warm chuckle. “She always was. Torch this place. I want nothing but rubble.”
“Cole, you want-”
“Just do it,” he ordered and a rush of air signaled their departure.
“Cole,” I murmured. I could feel my body loosening, my arms growing heavy. My hands weakened and I could feel her slipping from my grasp. Strong hands reached to take her, resting her body gently back on the carpet. “Cole.”
His fingers were light on my chin, tipping my head towards him. His other hand reached to my wrist, two fingers pressing into my veins as he counted in a soft hum. “Look at me, Ariana.”
I nodded, obeying. “You have brown eyes.”
“So do you.”
“You smell like balsam and seawater.”
My brain fogged and his laugh came out as a tinkling chime. “You smell like blood and vomit.”
“That’s...unattractive,” I said, struggling for the words.
“She’s not out, yet?”
“Tolerance of a horse, this one,” Cole grumbled. “Give her another shot.”
“Do it! We’ve got to get moving.”
This time I felt nothing but the warmth beginning to spread quicker. I fell back against his chest, and my head bouncing once as if I’d hit stone. He barked more orders I couldn’t understand and then his fingers were on my wrist again. “Ariana-”
“Look at you, I know.” I managed to lift my head but my vision wouldn’t focus. “I’m trying.”
“You’re doing fine. Can you tell me what happened?”
I screwed my face up. “Something bad. Something very bad.”
“My mom,” I whispered. “She’s gone.”
“And I killed someone.”
He chuckled. “Executed more like but, yes, yes you did.”
“But I’m still here. I don’t want to still be here.”