I didn't realize how difficult it would be to say good-bye to these characters who have changed my life. My debt to all the people at Kensington Books for making these books a reality, and for making me a real-life, actual, no-kidding, honest-to-goodness writer can never be repaid. In particular, all gratitude goes to the insightful, supportive Alicia Condon, queen of editors. Additional fountains of thanks to publicist Vida Engstrand and to fellow KTeen authors Jennifer Estep, Brigid Kemmerer, Marni Bates, and Erica O'Rourke.
Thank goodness for the essential support, both emotional and editorial, of my gorgeously talented critique partner, Elisa Nader, and beautifully sharp fellow TV/YA writer Jen Klein.
A special hug of gratitude to my agent, Tamar Rydzinski, the first professional in the business to take a chance on me.
Friendship has been an important theme throughout these books, and I couldn't have written about it without my friends, who not only help me laugh my brains out, but provide endless inspiration and encouragement: John Mark Godocik, Brian Pope, Michael Musa, Valerie Ahern, Ruth Atkinson, Cathleen Alexander, Maria de la Torre, Peter Shultz, Pilar Alessandra, Pat Dodson, Cheri Waterhouse, Naomi Catalano, Paul and Dara Cuoco, Corey and Carrie Elliott, Pam and Scott Paterra, Frank Woodward, Jim Myers, Meriam Harvey, and Maritza Suarez.
Then there's the extraordinary group of buddies that got me through my own insane teen years and beyond: Diane Stengle, Roger Alt, Alden Zecha, Matt Chapman, Cathryn Kleigel, Kat Munchmeyer, Jennifer Frankl, Lisa Moore, and Chris Campbell.
A particular shout-out to Wendy Viellenave, whose friendship and support have never flagged, and whose game company and generous use of her frequent flier miles have made my life infinitely richer and more adventurous.
I'm deeply indebted to all those readers who said kind things about my books, whether at a signing or via Facebook, email, or Twitter. You keep me writing.
Lastly and especially, thanks to my parents, Paul “Doc” Berry and Jacqueline Berry, whose love and respect laid the foundation for all the good things I've been lucky enough to have in life.
I balanced carefully on the first step of the ladder, the folded wallpaper in one hand, and used the other to steady myself as I moved up. My eyes became level with the toes of Lazar's worn brown boots, pointing at me from the other side of the ladder.
“Hey, look,” I said. “You under-pronate more on your left foot than your right.” And I grinned up at him.
From the top of the ladder, his tousled golden head haloed by the skylight above, Lazar smiled down at me. “I love it when you talk dirty.”
My cheeks got hot, and I ducked my head down to stare at my own feet and took another slow step up the ladder. The knees of Lazar's jeans came into view, both blotched with a Rorschach of wallpaper paste.
Even after nearly four weeks of us, well, dating, I guess you could call it, it still surprised me when Lazar said anything risquÃ©. He was normally such a gentleman, one with even less dating experience than I had. His strict father had never allowed him to go out with anyone, so I still couldn't quite believe it whenever he said or did something suggestive.
I moved up again on the ladder, the walls narrowing around me, and my eyes came level with Lazar's thighs. I concentrated on making sure I didn't drop the wallpaper as I put my foot on the next rung.
Hello, Lazar's belt buckle.
“In that case,” I said, staring at the simple brass clasp and brown leather above his fly, “you're going to wish you knew what I'm thinking now.”
His hips shifted slightly. “But I can imagine.”
I took a hasty step up. My stomach had the jitters. It scared me sometimes, that I could feel anything for someone other than my ex-boyfriend, Caleb, gone who-knows-where for six weeks now. Scarier still was that any feeling could push through the overwhelming grief that overwhelmed us all. Siku had been killed six weeks ago today.
Time to change the subject. “It's still hard to believe that wallpaper can block wi-fi signals from getting out and infrared scans from getting in,” I said. After we'd destroyed the particle accelerator built by Lazar's father, Ximon, Ximon and his remaining men had fled. At Lazar's urging, we'd plundered the abandoned facilities, taking whatever equipment we could that remained undamaged. This high-tech wallpaper had been one of our best finds, and once this skylight well was done, the whole school would be shielded.
Lazar's shirt rode up as he lifted his arms to check the primer on the wall beside the skylight, treating me to a glimpse of taut six-pack abs with twin vertical lines gliding alongside his hipbones.
I swayed slightly.
“You think I made it all up just to get you on this ladder with me?” Lazar placed a warm steady hand on my arm to help me to the next rung.
“I wouldn't put it past you.” My head moved past the top of the ladder, eyes now at the level of his chest. When I glimpsed it this way, up close, in a simple blue T-shirt, I couldn't help thinking of Caleb. Although, Caleb's T-shirt would have been black. The half-brothers were so different in many ways, one blond, the other dark. Lazar was polite, reserved, more innocent and yet more wounded than the sophisticated, reckless Caleb, who had been all over the world and hadn't endured life with their abusive, manipulative father, Ximon.
But they did have the same shoulders and strong arms corded with lean muscle, and the same strong chin, high cheekbones, and thick, expressive eyebrows, even if their coloring was different.
And they had the same taste in girls. At least in one girl.
I rose another step, trying not to stare at the cords of muscle on either side of Lazar's long neck, or just above that, his lips, a bit fuller than Caleb's.
Stop comparing him to Caleb all the time. He's his own person.
“Can you blame me?” His eyes, caramel brown where Caleb's were black, sparkled with mischief. Then he bent down and kissed me.
He kissed more softly than Caleb, more gently. I leaned into him, the top of the ladder pressing against my chest, the wallpaper still in one hand.
He put his other hand on my ribs, next to my breast, and lifted me bodily up to stand on the next rung so that we were almost the same height. My lips opened beneath his.
There was something irresistible about Lazar's neck. I put my free palm over the vulnerable spot at the back where his hairline ended and slid my fingers up into his thick, silky hair.
He pulled me closer, his hand sliding up inside my T-shirt, fingers tracing the upper edges of my demi-bra. My nerves sparked, whole body flushed with heat. There was nothing but warm skin under my fingers, the taste of Lazar's sweet mouth, and his hand trailing fire.
The ladder rocked.
“Whoa!” We broke apart. I dropped the folded square of off-white wallpaper. It wafted down to land against a leg of the ladder.
Lazar put one steadying hand on the wall, and reality came rushing back in. When we did that, when he scooped me up and pressed me against him, I forgot about the hole in my heart left by Siku's death, and the achingly painful wound caused by Caleb was anaesthetized.
“My fault,” he said, descending the ladder with light quick steps and stooping to pick up the paper.
“Mine, too.” I mimicked him, flitting down the ladder and jumping down next to him, one hand on his shoulder.
He dropped the wallpaper and grabbed me, something dangerous in his eyes. I gasped, and he stopped my mouth with a kiss more urgent than any other we'd shared. His belt buckle scraped against my abdomen and he pressed my body against the length of his. I could feel every hard muscle on his frame. His hand supporting my lower back skated lower, lingered over my curves there, and then descended more to grip in and around my back inside thigh.
I writhed, held fast. A moan escaped me. He kept his hand there and lifted me up, off the ground, guiding my leg around his waist. The other leg wrapped around, too, my feet locking together behind his back as my hands pulled his T-shirt up so I could slide my hand over his smooth bare back.
My hip pocket buzzed. For a wild minute, I though Lazar was somehow making that happen. Then it buzzed again, and I realized. It was my phone.
“Ignore it,” he said and bit my shoulder lightly. I shuddered.
The phone buzzed again, and through the heated red fog in my brain, I remembered one thing, one reason not to ignore my phone. A reason I couldn't reveal to Lazar.
“I'm sorry,” I said, unwrapping my legs from around him and pulling away reluctantly. “I have to get it if it's my mom.”
He lowered me, but his hand loitered a long moment, caressing, before I tugged myself away. His blond hair was pushed to one side from my hands, his eyes bright and hot.
The phone stopped buzzing. I looked down. It was the alert I'd been waiting for. Why did it have to happen now?
“I have to call her back,” I said. A lie. “I'm so sorry.”
His eyebrows angled in puzzlement. “For being such a good kisser?”
I laughed, more out of unrelieved tension and desire than anything else. “Well, my ability there is kind of criminal.”
He laughed, running a hand through his hair, and nodded.
“Just sorry to, you know . . .” I looked down. “To not be moving things along faster. I want to, but . . .”
“Between us?” He put his hands on my arms, rubbing them lightly. “I know. I'm sorry for pushing.”
“No, no, no.” I leaned my forehead against his chest. He smelled like incense and amber, mixed with a little wallpaper paste. “I like it. Just please keep being patient with me.”
“The past couple of months have been full of troubles,” he said. “The psalms say at such a time to search your heart and be silent.” He smiled, the dimple showing in his cheek. “I haven't allowed you much time for that.”
I shook my head. “You've been great. Sorry, but I really need to . . .”
He exhaled, shaking his head in amused resignation, and waved me away. “Go. I got this.” And he started back up the ladder with the wallpaper strip.
I backed up, checking my phone to confirm. It wasn't a call; it was an alert I'd set up. Amaris had just received a Skype call from an unidentified number. The first time anyone had called her since Caleb had left.
I hadn't been spying on Amaris.
Well, sort of.
I was keeping tabs on her calls because I knew that if Caleb got in touch with anyone, it would be his beloved half-sister.
Okay, so monitoring her phone calls is an invasive violation.
I felt bad about it. But compared to all the other terrible things I'd done recently, this barely registered.
I looked up at Lazar, now back at the top of the ladder, holding up the strip of wallpaper, aligning it just so. He trusted me, and I was about to violate that. I nearly put the phone away then. I wanted to shake the legs of the ladder and bring him back down to finish what we'd started.
I just need to know Caleb's okay. Then I'll be able to move forward.
“See you later,” I said.
He grinned down at me. “Shirker.”
“Workaholic.” I smiled back, not quite as broadly, and left, straightening my T-shirt as I moved with practiced quiet out of the boys' dorm into the hallway. A sliver of light reflected off the whitewashed walls from the half-closed door of the main computer room. We had monitors and wi-fi throughout the school now, thanks to Lazar, but I sensed movement in the computer room. Sliding into the darkest corner of the hall, I stilled and waited.
Within a minute, Amaris darted out of the computer room, completely unaware of me, and dashed up the steps, doing her best to be quiet. She had her heavy winter coat in hand. She was sneaking out of school, and that could only be for one reason: to see Caleb.
It was wrong to secretly follow her. That fact alone should have stopped me, but it didn't.
She'll never know
, I told myself as I padded up the stairs after her. If she did find out about it, Amaris would forgive me.
Caleb wouldn't. But Caleb still hadn't forgiven me for going behind his back to meet up with his hated half-brother, Lazar. Twice.
And because of me, Siku was dead. If I hadn't fallen for Ximon's trap . . .
Stop it! Don't think about that now, or you'll get clumsy and she'll hear you.
Besides, I hadn't seen Caleb in six weeks, and no one else had heard from him since. It was making me more than a little crazy. Any chance to learn more had to be taken. Just a glimpse of him was all I needed, the knowledge that he was alive and well would sustain me through this, the worst time of my life.
I could hear Arnaldo's voice in the dining area, giving his two younger brothers a lesson in shifter historyâthe jaguar-shifter kings of ancient Central Americaâso I avoided that area and went straight to the front door of the school, grabbing my own coat off the hooks there. I slipped out in time to see Amaris zip up her coat and head for the garage.
I lurked behind some trees next to the hill the garage was concealed under until she backed the SUV out and turned it around. Then I walked in myself, ignoring Raynard's red pickup truck, and headed right for the ancient motorcycle.
The SUV was moving away pretty quickly now. The motorcycle's engine sputtered and nearly died before I remembered and put one foot to the ground, focusing on sending all my anxiety down into the earth. Technology had a tendency to stop working around me, particularly when I got emotional. Wearing the Shadow Blade around my waist all the time had helped with that a lot, and I was wearing it now. But I'd also gotten better at directing my feelings into something natural like soil or wood so that my anti-tech vibrations didn't destroy the metal I was touching. I'd also improved at using it to deliberately sabotage technology, but this was not one of those times.
Tonight I was particularly tense. Amaris was sneaking out to see Caleb because he wanted to avoid me. I wasn't sure how it would feel to see him again, knowing he hated me. I couldn't let him see me, or he'd despise me all the more for invading his sister's private life.
I had a nice boyfriend now. True, he reminded me of my first boyfriend because they were half-brothers, but that shouldn't matter. I really should let Caleb go.
The red lights of the SUV got smaller as it disappeared down a hill, leaving only tire tracks in the snow.
And what if Lazar finds out?
I pushed that thought into an imaginary Dumpster and kicked the bike into first gear, carefully coordinating the throttle and clutch. Ice-covered tree branches brushed my face as I lifted my feet from the ground and puttered forward. I couldn't follow too closely, or else even Amaris, with her ordinary human ears, would hear the noisy old machine's engine.
I let the SUV's taillights disappear before I sped up, teeth clenched so I wouldn't bite my tongue as the threadbare tires of the bike clomped and bounced over the unpaved road. I got close enough to see Amaris turn right when she got to the main road, heading south.
Once on the graded asphalt, I could go a little faster. The wind buffeted my ears and forced me to squint into the cold. It was late February up in Nevada's Spring Mountains. Old piles of snow rimed with dirty ice lined the road. In the spare light of the stars, the frosty evergreens spread over the peaks like a chilly green-black cloak.
I'd followed Caleb like this not long ago, when he had sneaked away from the first location of the school to meet Amaris. That was before I'd known they were brother and sister. Perhaps it was fitting that I was making the same trek now behind Amaris to meet Caleb. Maybe this trip would also lead to a life-altering revelation.
Or maybe I was a crazy person with a propensity for stalking people.