Read Tainted Online

Authors: A E Rought

Tainted

TAINTED

A E Rought

For Amanda Rutter. This book simply wouldn’t be if you hadn’t wanted it. Thank you for believing in Emma and Alex.

“With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.”

Robert Louis Stevenson,

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Close your sweet eyes

Life doesn’t last long

You’d better go sleeping

Flying through dreams

Close your sweet eyes

Because life is a lie

Find happiness in dreams

Have a good night, my child

Ancient Romanian lullaby

CHAPTER ONE

Shadows lurk in the rafters above our heads. Fingers of black, silent and heavy, creep down into the weak light. The dark can’t touch me. I’ve beaten it before.

Still, I drop a glance at my watch. 3.15am. No wonder I’m so tired. Even with the extra energy running around in my system, I’m close to nodding off.

A groan comes from Jason Weller, my best friend since switching to Shelley High in October. Both of us are bored off our asses and it’s his fault. He’s the one who signed us up for this all-night church lock-in. Friday after school, before the girls’ parents swooped in to pick them up, his girlfriend had waved the invitation flyer. I had more involved,
intimate
plans with Emma, so I shook my head. Jason? He nodded. One yes to damn us both.

There’s no rest for the wicked. Or, rather, guys with nearly inseparable girlfriends who love any excuse to spend time together? Doesn’t matter, this all-night church lock-in – “filled with movies and fun” according to the flyer – is draining my last reserves.

Reflections of some sappy-happy holiday movie bounce from the screen by the pulpit and land on faces scattered throughout the sanctuary. People whisper, some laugh, a few make furtive rustles in the dark corners. All the polite people know what the noise makers are doing. We just keep our mouths shut. I don’t think I’m capable of making
those
noises

at least not here, not now
.

I’m pretty sure I’ve lost feeling from my waist down thanks to where this church pew hits my spine. But seeing Emma’s face, nestled close to my chest while she sleeps, is worth every minute of monotony and physical torture.

The side of the pew digs into my ribs when I shift under her. Her breath penetrates my shirt, she curls the fingers peeking from her cast in the open neck of my sweatshirt. Her fingertips brush my scar and suddenly I’m a touch-activated toy, awake and alive, and wanting to touch her too. Casting a quick glance around for chaperones, I slide my hand along her arm to feel my nerves fire and snap, and then nestle my palm at the dip of her waist.

Past the knees, her legs are pretzeled up with Bree’s. Best friends, blonds, almost identical in height. Emma’s curvier, though, and I like it that way. I skip Bree’s body and jump my gaze to her pillow, also known as her boyfriend, Jason. He has short brown hair with messy spikes in the front although his spikes are drooping, now, just like the rest of him. Jason looks possibly more miserable than me. And his hands are on his cell phone instead of his girl.

Who is he texting at this hour?

My phone vibrates in my back pocket and answers that question.

I arch forward over Emma, inhale her faded perfume, dig my phone out and slide it open.

Dude. My ass is NUMB.

Leave it to Jason.

I type back,
Your ass and my entire lower half!

It takes a minute to get through to Jason’s phone. He snorts, the sound carrying in the lull of a scene change on the screen, then he rockets back a reply. My phone jiggles again. I tap the screen and read:

Why did we do this??

It’s my turn to snort, then respond:
Duh. THE GIRLS.

I give him a slight shake of my head. That was a stupid question and he knows it. We’re equals in the Pushover Department – not quite throwing our jackets over puddles, but close. On Thanksgiving Night, I charged into a burning house to save Emma. Jason throws himself into his relationship with Bree like she’s the only girl for him. Ever.

My phone vibrates again.

You’re just pussy whipped,
Jason’s next message reads.

My first thought? Bastard.

Second thought? Oh really?

If he had any idea just how much Emma tells me about her “girl chats” with Bree, he’d flip out and probably disappear, never to be heard from again. I know more about Jason and Bree than I ever wanted, more than he ever wanted, I’m sure.

And you’re not?
I type back, because I know I’ve heard different.

Dull light flickers over Jason’s face. The pale rainbow gleam can’t match the deep red on his cheeks after he taps the screen and reads those three words. Got him
.
He shoots me an attempt at an indignant glare. I hold it, smile, tip my head a little. He’ll crack, and we both know it.

He might be a good actor on stage, but Jason can’t play the innocent role for long. The first sign I’m winning? A heavy breath. Then his glare fades, the corners of his mouth quirk up, the grin lighting up his blue eyes, and then he snaps his phone shut.

I mouth, “I win.”

His expression never changes as he silently responds, “For now.”

Stroking the exposed skin where Em’s shirt has ridden up sends little zaps dancing across my fingertips. It mixes with the hum of energy coursing my nerves.

Since my father revived me I’ve dreamed of this girl. Emma’s my greatest weakness. I wish I could resist her – it might’ve been easier on us both. I give in, sliding my hand under her T-shirt and onto her ribs. Her warm skin glides beneath my hand as she nestles closer. The shift in pressure on my lap allows me to move. Before I can be thankful for the change, pins and needles tear down my legs with the renewed blood flow.

Focusing on what’s left of the movie is a pipedream. It takes every bit of willpower I have not to move while ghost-like sensations crawl through my legs. Then my phone vibrates again. Thank God for Jason’s distractions. We can text until the tingles and claws stop.

The message is not from him.

Dammit.

The happiness I feel with Emma next to me threatens to disintegrate and plummet into the itchy, I-wish-I-was-still-numb burning. There’re only two people other than Jason who would text me at an hour like this. One still sleeps on my lap. The other, I would be content to never share a zip code with again. Clicking through to the message home screen confirms my dread.

Hailey Westmore.

What the hell does
she
want?

I click on the thread.

Turn around.

Two words, and enough to ruin my night.

I stab the “Delete Message” button, wait while the phone processes the command, and then watch while it shuts down. Anything to avoid seeing her. Facing the pulpit, I offer up a prayer that she’ll just go away. Hailey won’t, I couldn’t get that lucky. The temptation to glance at the train wreck of my junior year is too strong to ignore. Taking care not to jostle Emma awake, I turn my head and shift my shoulders to peer through the sanctuary into the church’s foyer, and see my personal demon.

Espresso dark, razor-straight hair frames a face of ivory skin. Black, narrow-rim glasses outline icy green eyes. A tall, willowy dancer’s body with familiar shallow curves. Somehow she’s too perfect, too present, too
much
.

My father’s brilliant lab assistant, and my ex-girlfriend from hell. Her persistent contact the big secret I’ve kept from Emma these past months. Hailey’s one of the few people to know about my unique resurrected condition, which puts me in the extremely awkward position of having to be nice to her so she’ll keep quiet about what my dad did, about what I really am.

My brain bogs down in memories of her. She’s freakishly intelligent and equally gorgeous, a combination that had me puppy-dogging after her last year, planning for a future. My father killed that when he brought me back to life. Thanks to Daniel’s heart in my chest constantly beating Emma’s name, I can see Hailey for the manipulative, spoiled witch she really is.

She doesn’t see it, though, and refuses to believe we’re over. Since then, Hailey’s texted, called, emailed, showed up at the lab, dangled crucial documents over my head…

She waves once, then gives me a slow smile that says she’s not through with me.

She’s already promised as much.

With Hailey’s IQ, money, and monstrous jealous streak, I’m more and more worried about Emma and her parents. Unconsciously, I tighten my arm around Em, pressing her face closer, hiding her from Hailey.

My blank expression becomes obvious to Jason, who pointedly, loudly, clears his throat. Both girls react. Bree wakes with a start and slides from his lap to land on the floor with an “Oof!” Emma’s blue eyes pop open and she wraps her good hand in my sweatshirt to keep from landing by Bree.

The sanctuary lurches in a sudden attack of vertigo. The sensation of falling rips through me in reverse, like I’m tumbling away from Em instead of her slipping toward the floor. And then I’m gone, locked in the worst memory I inherited in the surgery that brought me back to life: Hurtling over the edge. Em on the balcony above. Thinking
,
I love you
.
Impact. Searing pain…

I’m dying again. Only it’s not me – I know that, now. It’s Daniel, his death, his memories. Now they’re mine, buried so deep they can’t be dug out.

I wrap my arms tight around Emma, to stop the flashback, to keep her butt off the floor.

Jason pins me with a “what-the-fuck” glance. I can’t speak, can hardly reconcile the stolen memory and current moment. Dying and living, falling and sitting here. It’s not me. It wasn’t me. And it’s all mine – a gift and curse. I blink, struggle to focus.

Relief floods me when Emma’s gaze finds mine. She makes everything bad melt away.

“Hey,” I manage, my voice husky even to my ears.

“Hi,” she purrs, in a sleepy voice.

Holding her suspended, I whisper, “Com’ere.”

“What?” She fakes a shocked, scandalized expression. She’ll kiss me regardless, I can read it in the way she clings to me, the hint of a smile in her eyes. “Here in the sanctuary?”

“No place better.” She is my sanctuary.

Emma eases her cast along my jaw, weaves her fingers in my hair. Her breath tastes like sleep and mint gum for a second before someone’s parent whacks me on the shoulder.

“This is a church,” the chaperone hisses.

Yes, and I am giving thanks.

Em, however, is more churchy than me. Her eyebrows scrunch, lips turn down. I could push it. I can win her over and I don’t know the guy with the plaid pants and will probably never see him again. The tension in Emma’s muscles is my cue to let her up.

Giving her a pout that she finds worthy of a laugh, I help Em up onto the bench. She pats my thigh, then turns and tucks into my side where she and Bree can whisper, probably bitching about the rude awakening, depending on Bree’s mood. Using the chaos of hair and arms and purses flying around our pew, I steal a look at the foyer.

Hailey’s gone.

For now.

I may have beaten the dark created when Dad brought me back to life, but its ghost won’t leave me alone.

CHAPTER TWO

6am. The Holly Jolly Lock-In at Bree’s church is over. Dawn hasn’t even touched the sky, as though the darkness from the sanctuary rafters bled through the roof. People slog through fresh fallen snow in twos and threes, some to their parents’ warm, waiting cars, the rest of us heading to our cold, parked vehicles.

Snow cuts through the air, the kind of tiny flakes that fall when it’s frigid outside.

I should be freezing – everyone else is. Cold temperatures don’t affect me the same way anymore. Emma, however, wriggled tight against me, shudders. Waiting while Jason messes around under the Bronco’s hood in the hopes of getting it started only makes Em colder. Shivers run her length, her teeth chattering a little.

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