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Authors: Lee Nichols

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BOOK: Surrender
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“Let the Sterns find her,” Dad told me. “And Natalie and Lukas.”

“Emma, please,” Mom said. “You should be with us. You're only seventeen, and we—we miss you.”

“I love you,” I told them.

I saw relief etched in their faces, like they hadn't been sure. My mother stopped bouncing her foot long enough to hug me. “We love you, too.”

“But I can't go with you,” I said into my mom's shoulder.

She pulled back and searched my face. “Emma—”

“Nothing can happen to Natalie or Lukas. They're my …” I faltered, suddenly understanding the reason I needed to stay, but afraid I was going to start crying instead of explaining. “You don't know how dangerous Neos is. I'm the only one who can stop him. And Natalie and Lukas don't have anyone else. Their own parents suck—even worse than you—and I can't leave Sara with Coby dead and Harry just out of rehab. They need me. I can't let them down.”

My mom gave my father a look across the top of my head, and I glanced at him for his reaction.

“What?” I asked. “Why are you smiling?”

“Because we don't suck as parents,” my mom said.

I half grinned. “Well …”

“Look at you, Emma,” Dad said, his eyes shining. “We did
something
right. We couldn't be more proud of you.”

And then I did cry. Because even though I pretended to be all tough and in dependent, I loved hearing that from them.

“I can stay here?” I asked, through sniffles.

“You can stay.”

5

Not the Christmas from hell after all, I realized, climbing into bed that night. Not bad, if you didn't count my parents walking in on me and Bennett, or the scene around the breakfast nook.

I reached to turn out the light, and heard a crinkling noise from the hallway. I grabbed my dagger—wondering yet again how I became the kind of girl who slept with a knife—and listened intently. Silence. I crept toward the door, and my toe nudged a piece of paper that had been shoved through the crack.

I smiled, expecting a love note from Bennett. But the handwriting looked shaky and weird, almost spidery.
Meet me in the solarium. Come alone
.

I probed the paper with my reading ability and sensed some ghostly resonance, but no menace. And no mental pictures, either, which was strange. Was it from the ghost that looked like Rachel?

I paused outside Natalie's door on my way downstairs,
wondering if I should wake her. Or Bennett. Or, hell, my parents were here—let them deal with one of these messes for once. But I was afraid that whoever sent the note would disappear if I didn't come alone, and I wanted to know who—or what—it was.

I could protect myself, and tried to comfort myself with that thought as I tiptoed down the grand staircase. But I could feel my heart racing as I crossed the kitchen into the solarium. I stood in the moonlight and silence, smelling the tang of the citrus trees, as I sent out tendrils of summoning power, trying to find a ghost, hoping I wouldn't have another vision of the snaky ghost man.

A deep voice from behind a lemon bush asked, “Have I told you how much I love those pajamas?”

“Bennett!” I dropped my dagger on the table and threw myself at him.

The first time he'd seen me in these pj's, I was dancing like a fool by myself in the ballroom, pretending I had some unseen courtly suitor bowing to me. And then Bennett had appeared. That was before the Asarum, before we were together, and I couldn't believe how gorgeous he was, how nervous and excited he'd made me feel. Then he'd danced with me. It had been romantic and sexy, and now I couldn't believe that I got to kiss him and have him tell me he loved me.

“I didn't know it was you,” I said. “I didn't recognize your writing. I've seen it before, I should've—”

He showed me his hand in the moonlight. Constant
tremors ran through his fingers and goosefleshed his arm. “My handwriting's changed.”

“Oh, Bennett.” I felt helpless to do anything, and worried this wasn't the only way the Asarum was affecting him.

“Yeah, forget my dream of becoming a neurosurgeon.”

I didn't smile. “Any other side effects?”

He glanced away. “Just the jitters.”

“Please don't lie. Not to me. I'm not your parents.”

He exhaled. “You're right. Sorry. What else? Well, I can't sleep, I feel like I'm mainlining cappuccino. And I've got no appetite.”

“That's it?”

He shot me a wicked grin. “I'm also not sure if I'm thinking clearly—or if that's just being next to
you
. I'm going back tonight, Em. I wanted to say good-bye.” He ran a finger along the back of my neck. “And hopefully not be interrupted this time.”

“They wanted me to go with you, you know. To the Knell.”

He nodded. “Simon told me.”

I tried to gauge his reaction. “You don't seem upset that I'm not going.”

“You have a life here. School and friends and—you're happy here. The Knell is a graveyard.”

“You don't want me to come, do you?” I stepped back, and he reluctantly let his arm drop. “I thought you'd be disappointed, but you don't even want me there.”

“Emma.” He took a deep breath. “I want you all the time. To hear your voice and see you smile, to touch you.” He interlaced his fingers with mine and pulled me closer. “But look at me; I can't keep this up much longer. We need to find Neos and finish him. I need to be at the Knell, doing … what I'm doing. And you need to stay here and find that ghost that looks like Rachel.”

“Okay.” I ran a finger along his breastbone, exposed by the open neck of his blue linen shirt. “I'm sorry.”

He grinned down at me. “Don't pretend you were going to go to New York anyway.”

“No,” I admitted. “I just wanted you to want me to.”

“I always want you.”

I smiled, but couldn't shake my fears. What would happen when we finally found Neos? I couldn't help wondering if I was strong enough to beat him. Those visions I was having worried me. What if he was already controlling me somehow, the way he had with the siren? I was beginning to wonder if I could trust myself.

I hugged Bennett, feeling the bones and muscles of his back, knowing he'd help me all he could, that I could trust him no matter what visions Neos sent my way, but I stressed over how much Asarum he was taking and whether or not he'd be able to kick it when this was over.

Outside, fat snowflakes dusted the glass ceiling of the solarium. “It's snowing again,” I said miserably.

“We call that ‘winter,' California girl.”

I made a discontented noise as I laid my head against his chest and closed my eyes.

“You're sleepy,” he said.

I nodded. “But I don't want you to go. Tell me again about summer. And your boat.”

We sat on the wicker couch with the blue and white cushions, and as I curled up next to him, he began to talk in a quiet, lulling tone. That was one of the things I loved most about him, the sound of his low voice. “We'll sail out to this cove I know, just you and me and the wind and the waves. Drop anchor and swim to shore. The beach is sandy, and you can bodysurf or sunbathe. I found a starfish there once, a sort of purple-blue one; I still have it …”

I fell asleep like that, my head in his lap, as he told me about all the places he wanted to take me. How hot the sun was, and cold and blue the water. And how we would finally be free. Together.

When I woke in the morning, I was still there, a pillow under my head and a white down quilt covering me. Bennett was gone, but I still felt like I was bobbing in the boat, watching the sun glint off the crystal-clear water.

“You can still come with us,” my mother said a couple of hours later. “It's not too late.”

We stood in the gravel drive as my dad lugged their bags to the rental car. It reminded me of saying good-bye to them at the airport back in San Francisco, before this whole thing with Neos had begun. Only this time I was dressed warmly enough, because my mother had bought me a coat.

One thing I never gave my mom enough credit for: we may have disagreed about how I should cut my hair, but she totally got what I liked to wear. The jacket was steel-gray wool, cut in a hip-length military style with cool embroidered patches on the sleeve and one shoulder, and lined with thick black sheeplike fleece.

“I'm good.” I kissed her before she got into the car. “Thanks again for the coat. I love it.”

“You should,” Dad said. “She spent long enough shopping for it.”

“You have to get the right thing for Emma.” She nodded toward my favorite black boots, which she'd also picked out for me. “Because she wears it every day.”

My father laid a hand on my shoulder. “I want to tell you to stay out of trouble, but the trouble always finds you, doesn't it?”

“Yeah.”

He pulled me into a bear hug. “Just stay safe. I love you.”

“I love you, too,” I said, and kissed his scruffy beard.

I watched them drive away, feeling sad and alone. I was glad they understood my need to be here, to find Rachel's ghost, to protect my friends, but they never seemed to get that I needed them, too.

I spent the next few days avoiding the Sterns, figuring the best way to stay on good terms with them was to never actually talk to them again. I hadn't figured out my next move, how to find Rachel's ghost, discover Neos's latest
plan, or delve further into why I was having visions and nightmares of the smoky snake man. I needed help, but with Simon and Bennett gone, along with my parents, I wasn't exactly sure where to turn.

So I spent the rest of winter break missing Bennett. When I wasn't devouring all the books on his bookshelf, I plinked at the piano in the ballroom, hoping for the Rake, but he never came, and I didn't like summoning him unless I really needed to. Maybe he was withdrawing a little—I didn't know why, but I was trying not to be too needy. Instead I had spontaneous dance parties with Natalie in her bedroom, and Lukas had dragged his Xbox back from his parents' house—we killed more than our share of hours and mutant zombies.

Then there were the marathon movie sessions in the media room at Harry's house. Sara was into some crazy Rule of Three, so we watched the
Spider-Man
trilogy, made fun of the special effects in the first
Star Wars
series, and sat through over nine hours of
Lord of the Rings
, during which Lukas and Natalie would not stop teasing me about my own “precious”—Emma's ring I wore around my neck. While watching the
Twilight
films, our conversation turned philosophical. If there were ghosts and secret ghostkeepers, was it possible there were vampires and werewolves?

Nah.

One sunny afternoon, after yet another heavy snow, Harry's mom scolded us for watching too many movies and told us to “go outside and play,” as though we were
eight-year-olds. So we built a snow-Gollum in the massive front garden and engaged in a full-on snowball war, vampire girls against Jedi boys. The vampires were winning, of course, when Coby showed up at our flank and started pelting us.

Cheater
! I yelled at him.

What? Boys against girls
, he said.
Just because I'm a ghost doesn't mean I'm not a guy
.

He grabbed an armload of snow and flipped to the top of the high stone wall surrounding the garden. He made a dozen snowballs and blasted us; one big juicy snowball knocked Sara in the side of the head.

“Coby!” she called, and fired a few balls toward the wall. She actually would've hit him, too, if he hadn't been a ghost. “Can't you do something about him, Emma?”

I was amazed by how comfortable she and Harry were with Coby; sure, they couldn't see or hear him, but that didn't seem to faze them much.

“I can, and I will,” I told her. I focused on Coby.
You're going to be sorry you messed with us
.

BOOK: Surrender
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