Isle of Night
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Is life offering fewer and fewer options? Then join the dead.
When Annelise meets dark and seductive Ronan, he promises her a new life-if she has the courage to chance the unknown. Now, she's whisked away to a mysterious island and pitted against other female recruits to become a Watcher-girls who are partnered with vampires and assist them in their missions. To survive and become a Watcher, Annelise has to beat out every other girl, but she's determined to do so, because to fail doesn't mean dishonor-it means death.
I looked around my room for the last time. I was leaving. Finally. For good.
There was only one way I’d ever return to the town of Christmas, Florida, and it involved my dead body. Which meant I needed to make sure I had everything. I fished my iPod out of the front pocket of my old duffel and hit play. Putting in my earbuds, I did a quick inventory of my stuff.
I had my clothes, of course. Not too many of those. Working the evening shift at Fuddruckers didn’t exactly buy someone a passport to fashion. What I did own was mostly cheap and mostly black, though I had managed to accrue a few prized possessions. A vintage Pretenders T-shirt. Fingerless gloves in an awesome plummy-black color. An ancient pair of Converse, broken in just right.
It was my books, though, that made the bag so heavy. I was a little worried the zipper would pop from the strain, but there was no way I’d leave without them.
My French-English dictionary was especially gigantic. It was unabridged, and had cost me weeks of hard-won waitressing tips. But it held such promise, like I might be jetting off to Paris any day, where I’d sit around in bistros, grappling with issues and nibbling Madeleines.
And then there was my biggest treasure of all: a framed picture of my mother. I patted the top of the duffel, feeling for its hard profile, checking for the umpteenth time that I’d packed it.
She’d died when I was only four. For some reason everyone took great pains to assure me there was no way I could possibly remember her. I’d look at the photo in secret, though, and I could still hear her voice and smell the crisp, lemony scent of her. With her blonde hair and wide eyes, she reminded me of Uma Thurman, and I liked to imagine her wearing a tight yellow pantsuit, kicking my dad’s ass, Kill Bill style.
Dad. Ah, the sound of shouting and the stench of warm Coors. Now those were some personal gems I wouldn’t stow away in the old duffel, even if I could.
“Bye-bye Daddy Dearest. I am so out of here. Not that you’ll notice.” I pulled my iPod back out of my pocket and zipped through the playlist to my favorite Radiohead song. Standing up to check my drawers one last time, I bellowed out the lyrics. “I don’t belong here . . .”
“Annelise Drew!” Somebody banged on the door. “Shut the hell up!”
I scowled. It was my stepmother, the Yatch.
So I turned up the volume and sang even louder. “But I’m a creep . . .”
“I’m trying to get some rest,” she screamed from the other side of the door.
“Oh yeah.” I tore the earbuds out. “Because it’s eleven in the morning and you’ve been working since dawn?”
“You think you’re so special,” she shouted. “Genius? You’re a freak. And now you graduate early from high school, and we’re supposed to think you’re so special.”
I smirked at how her words echoed the lyrics, and opened the door to the sight of her pale, haggard face. The Yatch. It was my pet name for her, the progression having gone a little something like Beatrice . . . Bee-yatch . . . Yatch.
“What are you laughing at?” The faint bruise on the side of her cheek had paled to a sickly yellow.
Imagine that. She’d fallen in the shower. Again.
Just ask Daddy.
I shook my head. It was a two-bedroom apartment—there was nothing to hide. I’d “fallen in the shower” before too.
“Don’t give me that holier-than-thou look, young lady.” She shouldered her way in, peering around the room as though I’d been caught trying to steal the family silver. “Have I heard a thank-you for all I’ve done for you, all these years?”
“No,” I said, after a moment of elaborate contemplation. “I don’t imagine you have.”
Her eyes narrowed and skittered nervously from me. She never had been good at standing up for herself. I imagined it was why Daddy kept her around.
She scanned what remained of my belongings, her gaze lingering on the threadbare bedspread I’ve had since I was eight and liked all things lavender. Believe me, nine years is a long time in which to learn to despise the color. “You’re welcome to keep that,” I assured her.
“You better clean this crap up,” she said instead, her voice shrill with disbelief. You’d have thought I’d left her a steaming turd, right there in the middle of the tan shag rug. Her eyes came back to me. “Or were you going to sneak out like a thief?”
A little something like that, yeah. I remained silent.
“Where the hell have you got to go, anyway? It’s not like you’ve got any friends.”
I thought of the crowd at Dale R. Fielding High School. A bunch of half-wits who spent their time going to the mall, or making out, or doing whatever it is kids my age filled their time with.
No, I was going to college, thankyouverymuch. Not that I’d never tell them that. They’d just suspect me of embezzling tuition money from Dad’s vast stores of wealth. Which was a laugh. If there was any money, it came from a disability check he probably drank away long ago.
No, I was going to college tuition-free. It was one of the bennies of having a genius IQ and crazy-high GPA. My preference was to get the hell out of Florida, and though my guidance counselor said I could get a scholarship wherever I wanted, fancy private schools didn’t take “Needs Cases” (gag) like me mid-year. Graduating from high school one semester early was the best I could wrangle, and so it was state school for me.
“I suppose you think you’re taking that car you’ve been driving.” The Yatch crossed her arms, thinking she’d gotten the one-up on me. “But who do you think has been paying your insurance?”
“I’ve been paying my insurance, just like I paid for the car.” I glared, challenging her to just try and argue.
“Bea!” Daddy Dearest crowed from the other room.
My stepmother and I continued our silent stare-off. Finally she snarled, “You think just because you’re smarter than the rest of us . . .”
“Bea! Get in here!”
God forbid the man got up from the Barcalounger to grab his own freshie from the refrigerator. The man had no idea I was leaving, and wouldn’t care if he did. I gave her my best saccharin-sweet smile. “I think Daddy needs another tall boy.”
The Yatch shot me a final scowl and bustled into the living room.
Out. Of. Here. I heaved my duffel onto my shoulder, giving a farewell glance to the Einstein poster on my wall. He was sticking his tongue out at me, and I stuck mine right back. “Ciao for now, Al.”
I snuck out the front door, and was on my way.
Florida is famous for a variety of things:
A fan of neither princesses nor pain, it was number five for me. Gator Nation, God help me. But hey, say what you will—the University of Florida at Gainesville wasn’t exactly Paris, but it was a start.
I drove my Honda carefully, winding through campus, goggling at all the crazy architecture as I went. I was hot and sweaty after three hours of driving with a broken AC and the sun broiling overhead, but still, nervous excitement surged through me. So what that the stately brick buildings were surrounded by spindly palm trees instead of ivy? This was college.
I popped a chocolate Madeleine for courage.
UF had over 50,000 students. Surely there’d be some other misfits like me. Surely there was at least one other girl on campus not sporting a French pedicure (did girls really think we’re fooled by the little white lines painted across their toenails?), who had some black in her wardrobe, and actually thought about things. You know, someone who knew the word “French” could imply more than just a way to kiss.
Surely I’d make a friend, right?
I downshifted my little Civic, pulling into the parking lot off Museum Road. I didn’t need to look at the campus map for directions—I’d already memorized the thing. In fact, the moment the school catalog arrived in the mail, I’d studied every single aspect, inside and out, up to and including the “Bedbug Advisory.”
Walking into the Registrar’s Office, the blast of air conditioning made my skin crawl. That was another thing that really freaked me out about this state: Cooling a room was one thing, but the compulsive need to super-chill every indoor space to a brisk 63 degrees confounded me. It was January, for crissakes.
I shoved my favorite hat further down on my head. It was a beige raffia fedora with a narrow brim, sort of like something you’d see on an old Cuban man. Mostly I wore it to tone down my conspicuously blonde hair. But it wasn’t without its practical applications—I was feeling a little less chilly already.
Once my eyes adjusted, I spotted the bouffy-haired receptionist. She sat in a little glass-fronted kiosk that made her look like one of those old-fashioned carnival fortune-tellers. She was greeting each new student with a forced, coral-lipstick smile.
If you resent teenagers so much, don’t work at a college, lady. She caught my eye, and I returned her stiff smile.
But it froze the moment I saw him.
Tall, dark, and hot leaned against a pillar, watching me as I took my place in line. Tousled dark hair went every which way on his head. His eyes were slitted and intense, like he might need to have sex at any moment. Maybe even with me.
I had to look down, I was so flustered. I felt like I’d been the one caught staring.
But just as my eyes flitted away, I caught a glimpse of the tattoo peeking out from under his T-shirt sleeve. It was a quote.
Something niggled in the back of my mind, and I looked back, feeling my cheeks blaze red with the fear that he still watched me.
The first half of the quote was obscured, but the end bit was clear: “c’est le paradis perdu.”
My breath caught. Goose bumps rippled across my skin, in a way that had nothing to do with the excessive air conditioning. I knew the line well. “Le seul paradis c’est le paradis perdu.”
The only paradise is paradise lost.
Wow. My first college boy, and he liked Proust. I’d found home at last.
Holding my breath, I forced myself to raise my eyes to his. His hair was dark but his eyes were . . . lighter. Green. They locked with mine, and the rest of the world fell away.
The receptionist called my turn, and I stepped forward, a ventriloquist dummy’s grin pasted on my face. I tried not to trip. God, I was such an idiot.
“Hi,” I said to the lady, thrilled that I’d managed to get a word out despite the college boy’s laser-sex stare. “I’m here to . . . I’m here. I need to register.”
Such an idiot.
“Name,” she croaked, bringing me back to the matter at hand.
I gave her my facts, wondering if the college boy was still watching me. Clenching my hands, I forced myself to stop fidgeting.
He was the kind of guy I dreamed about. At least he seemed like my ideal. Smart and worldly. He’d drink espresso with a twist, and do the Sunday crossword, and recite lines of intense and passionate poetry from memory. He’d appreciate a bright and quick-witted companion. He’d see me as a bright and quick-witted companion—not a weirdo with a freaky high IQ. Just a girl who was really good at Jeopardy, and some of the more obscure Germanic languages.
I’d even do the whole French manicure thing if it meant attracting a guy like him. Did sophisticated college guys think that was sexy? I stole a look at my chipped, stubby nails.
I was supposed to have a mom around who could give me advice. I’d always felt like the other girls had been issued some sort of Girl Handbook that I just wasn’t privy to. How had my mother worn her nails? Long press-ons the color of berries, or short and stubby like mine?
“—I’m sorry,” the woman was saying. The smile on her face was almost real, and it alarmed me.
“Sorry?” My fake grin was back up like a photon-shield. “Wait, what did you say?”
“I said, you can’t matriculate until you’ve been issued a diploma.”
Did they need to see a piece of paper or something? I racked my brain, trying to remember if I’d been given an official document among all the other reams of paper I’d received. “What are you talking about?”
“You need to finish high school before you start college.”
“But I did finish high school. I graduated.”
“Not yet you didn’t.” She gave me a condescending smile.
It made me want to smash her little windowpane. I gripped the counter. “I did. In December. I’m registered for the spring semester.”
Tap tap tap. Those fuchsia nails flew over the keyboard.
“I’m afraid the best I can do is defer your enrollment to the fall semester.”
“Wait.” I leaned my forehead against her window. “Are you sure you have the right person? Annelise Drew? Dale R. Fielding High School.”
“Yes.” Behind the glass, her eyes narrowed, making her look like a pinched, angry Muppet in some Office of the Registrar puppet show. “They haven’t issued your diploma. We can’t accept you without a full transcript. Officially, you’re still in high school.”
“No.” Not possible. Not effing possible. I could not still be in high school. I thought I might vomit. “That’s impossible.”
She tapped some more on her computer. Her fake smile crackled into a frosty glare. “You need to pass your swim test.”
“Swim test?” I practically shrieked the words, distantly aware that I was no longer conscious of the cute college guy. My dignity was shot anyhow, if I wasn’t even going to be recognized as a high school graduate. “Is this a joke? There’s no swim test at Fielding.”
“I don’t joke, young lady.” Mrs. Registrar was getting snippy. Tap tap tap. “Dale R. Fielding High School. New procedure.” Tap tap. “A swim test will be administered at the end of each academic year.” Tap tap tap tap tap. “There was an endowment requiring all students to pass a swim test in order to graduate.”
“I’m still in high school,” I mumbled like a zombie. My head buzzed, and my fingers felt icy and thick as I shoved my paperwork back into my messenger bag. Still a high schooler.
“You need to go back to high school, take the test, and return in the fall.”
I could only stare blankly. I’d rather die than go back to Christmas.
Trying to give me the hint, she looked to the person behind me in line. “Just pass the test, Miss Drew.”
Thanks, Sherlock. “But I can’t swim.”
Shock and pity dropped across the woman’s face like a veil. Everyone in Florida could swim. They practically handed out droppers of Swim-Ear to newborns in the hospital. Everyone had a damned pool, every kid was on swim team, every Caucasian face was tanned, every body smelling of chlorine and snack-bar ketchup.
“I’m afraid you need to sort this out with your school. Perhaps we’ll see you in September.” Her gaze went to the line forming behind me, her forced smile already back in place. “Next.”
I mumbled something—who knows what—and stumbled out of the Registrar’s Office. At least the hot college boy was no longer standing there. Maybe he didn’t witness my shame. I emerged from the refrigeration and somehow made it back to the car.
But there he was, in the parking lot. The sight of mister tall/ dark/tousled leaning against a very shiny, very expensive-looking sports car made my eyes burn with tears. As God was my witness, I would not be the high schooler who cried in front of the good-looking college guy.
I snuck another glance his way. Such an adult car. In a green so dark it looked black. Only someone as gorgeous as him could pull it off without irony.
Clumsily unlocking the door to my Civic, I dropped into the bucket seat, its cracked vinyl squeaking with my weight. I slumped close to the steering wheel.
I would get out of there with a modicum of dignity.
I would not cry.
Nor would I hit any person or thing on the way out of the lot.
Buckling my seatbelt, I turned the key. There was a clicking, and then nothing.
“No,” I whispered. No no no. I slapped my hands on the dashboard. “Wake up.”
It’d taken me years to save up for this hunk of junk. I’d endured hours of tutoring meatheaded boys, who thought casting lingering stares at my almost non-existent bosom would make me wilt with desire. I’d sold term papers on eBay. And of course there was Fuddruckers, which, BTW, falls in the same constellation of life experience as setting one’s hair on fire, or enduring an America’s Next Top Model marathon.
My car would not die on me now, in the parking lot, in front of this guy whose half-lidded stare was boring a hole into the side of my head. Witnessing me, at the pinnacle of my loserdom. I beat my hands against the steering wheel for good measure.
Again I turned the key. Again, click-click-click, then nothing. I couldn’t even swear up a storm—my tongue felt paralyzed with him watching me. Crap.
Was it the ignition? How much did it cost to fix something like that? Hundreds? More than that even?
Fan-freaking-tastic. What was I supposed to do now? I was way the hell in the middle of Gainesville. I couldn’t call home. I had a big picture of how that would go. The Yatch would go ballistic, and Dad would just scowl, belch, and then demand the remote. Or would he smack me instead, for spending all that money on gas when he could’ve spent it on beer? I swallowed back the ache in my throat.
I couldn’t go back to that. I wouldn’t go back.
No college, no place to live, no car, not enough money to fix the car . . . Tears of frustration stung my eyes and rolled hot down my cheeks. Why this, why me, why now? Could the universe just please cut me one break, for once in my life?
There was movement in my peripheral vision. He was walking over.
Oh crap. I scrubbed my face, certain I was leaving inky trails of eyeliner all over what were surely splotchy, puffy cheeks.
He came right up to my driver-side window. His eyes were looking really intense now, like he was the Terminator and he needed to scan my body for radioactivity. His key ring was looped on his finger, and he was flipping it deftly, around and around. Tall, dark, hot, and smooth.
My mouth went dry. He gave me a slow, predatory smile. But I was still just a high schooler, with an awkwardly high IQ and a broken-down ’92 Civic.
This was not happening.
"Trouble?” He smiled, and up close I saw he had slightly crooked teeth, but somehow it only made him hotter. Like he’d been too masculine to suffer through something as trivial as braces for something so inconsequential as vanity. “Lift the bonnet for me, aye?”
Oh God . . . he had an accent. I knew custom required a response, but I could only gape.
He smiled again. His snaggle-toothed accent gave the impression that a young Gerard Butler had stepped off a movie screen and stood before me, live and in 3D.
“I said pop the bonnet, love.” He spoke slowly this time, as if I’d fallen too hard off the short bus that morning.
Must respond. Bonnet. WTF is a bonnet?
He just stood there waiting. I clamped my slack-jaw shut. High schooler maybe, but I would not be mistaken for a mouth-breather. I followed the line of his eyes. “Ohh, the hood. Yeah, got it.”
Pop the hood. Check. I got out of the car just as he leaned over to peer at my engine.
As I mentioned before, I’m no dummy. I took the opportunity to assess a tight butt and pair of muscular legs. I love a guy who wore just straight-up jeans. No fancy metrosexual nonsense, just an old worn pair of Levi’s. I wondered if they were button fly.
He stood, and I managed to tear my eyes from his nether parts before he caught me staring. “I think it’s your carb,” he said, clapping the grease from his hands.
“The only carb I know is the bagel I had for breakfast.” My face froze in place, shocked at the idiocy of my own joke. Moron! I am such a moron.
He just stared. Of course he did, since I’d just said the Dumbest Thing Ever. I used to wish I were average, but I took it all back. I wanted to be sparkling and witty and magnetic.
“Kidding,” I mumbled. “I know you meant carburetor. Internal combustion, etcetera.”
He strolled around the car, eyeing it with the indifference one might give a bit of rubbish in a bin. “Shall I arrange a tow?”
Not unless there’s a nearby bank I can rob. “No, thank you,” I told him instead.
He came full circle to lean against the side. He crossed his arms, and I had to pull my gaze from the thickness of his biceps, and from the quote tattooed there. “Is there someone I can ring for you?”
“No.” I cleared my throat, inexplicably sad that our little encounter was quickly drawing to a close. Paradis perdu. I had the feeling he’d forever be my lost paradise. “I’ll make it on my own.”
“Oh dear.” He shook his head, and I thought my heart might pound out of my chest. A man of such gigantic hotness saying “oh dear” was just too unbearably sexy. “A fine woman like you, all alone . . .”
Did he just call me a woman? I bit my lip, trying not to blush like a child. I tried to act flip, but my laugh in response sounded more like a weak puff of air.
What could he mean, like me? If I had a type, I’d be qualified as Surly Valedictorian. Definitely never have I ever been placed in a category even close to Fine Woman.
His eyes roved up and down my body, and I gave a quick tug to my shirt, even though I knew all my bits—modest though they were—languished safely in their appropriate places.
“A nasty predator could come and snatch you up.” He gave me a wicked, narrow-eyed smile, his accent making what was probably just a playful comment sound dangerous. And then he winked.
Jeez, I thought my heart would explode on the spot. The last time a guy winked at me was years ago, and that’d been a creepy mall Santa.
“I’ll be fine,” I managed. “I’ll just go back into the Registrar’s Office and . . .” And what?
He eyed me speculatively. “Aren’t you a bit young for university? What of your parents?”
Okay, that stung. So much for me looking all fine and womanly. I fought the urge to tug on the brim of my hat.
Really, did he have to ask about my parents? I normally liked to give a conversation ten minutes before hashing out the Painful Life Story. He’s lucky something—I swear—softened around his eyes, because that’s the only reason I answered. “Early graduation. I moved out.”
“You can’t be much older than sixteen,” he mused. “You must be very bright.”
I bristled. People see a petite blonde and assume you’re some impressionable schoolgirl. “Eighteen on my next birthday.”
He gave me a wicked smile. The guy was toying with me. So which was it: a bit young or fine woman? I wished I were gutsy enough to ask.
“But you’re not going home?” He pinned me with a steady stare, and suddenly the prospect of discussing ye olde home life wasn’t such a bummer.
“To Christmas?” Taking his raised brows for confusion, I added, “Yeah, some loser named a town ‘Christmas,’ if you can believe it. And no, I don’t think I’ll be going home. It’s just Coors—that’s my dad—and the Yatch.” I could tell he wasn’t following, so I spelled it out. “You know, as in bee-yatch.”
No smile, no response. Then he said, “Is the insipid slang intended to make you sound tough?”
Floored, I stared at him. I’m pretty damned tough already, thanks for asking. Or at least that’s what I wanted to say to him. But his voice had been low and quiet, as though he’d identified some truth about me.
“Never mind that. Come, Annelise.” He stepped toward me, reaching his hand out. “I’ll drive you.”
It took a moment for my brain to register the words, as my hormones sent a million other thoughts (He’s even taller up close!) (We’ll sit all cooped up together in that fancy car!)(We’d talk about Proust and share chocolate Madeleines!) running roughshod over logic and reason.
Finally, a single nugget of good sense hit me: When had I told him my name?
I eyed him. He didn’t seem like a serial killer. But, then again, what did serial killers seem like? Would a cold-blooded killer have been so obviously hanging out at the Registrar for all to see?
What could happen? The car windows were clear glass, and I imagined the doors were fully operational. The trunk was way too tiny to shove a body into.
More importantly, where else was I supposed to go?
“I don’t even know your name,” I said, wanting to trust him.
His arm was outstretched, and it was gallant, not so much let’s shake, as it was an exhilarating take-my-hand. He locked his eyes with mine, and goose bumps shimmered across my flesh, feeling like I might spin into their green depths.
I couldn’t help it. I let my hand slide into his, and he gave it a gentle squeeze. His grip was strong and smooth and warm. “Ronan,” he said simply.
A single touch, and all my concerns dropped away. My skin warmed at his touch, the surface of it buzzing, like electricity arced between us.
He led me to the passenger door. As my hand slid from his, my mind seemed to clear. I watched as he walked around to tuck my duffle in the trunk.
I knew a flicker of doubt, then rubbed my skin, remembering his touch. Here goes nothing. I folded myself into the tiny cockpit, smoothing my hands over the buttery, black leather and pristine cherry wood dash.
Ronan got in and shut the door, and the scent of male wrapped around me like a musky and intoxicating incense.
“Where are you from?” I asked a little dreamily, wondering what the hell this guy’s major could be. “You can’t really be a UF student, can you?”
He pinned me with those intense eyes and inhaled deeply. It felt like he was breathing me in. Did he feel my presence as intensely as I felt his? A shiver rippled across my skin.
“Oh God,” I heard myself murmur.
He gave a husky laugh, and a sensation so overpowering thrummed through me, I was grateful to be sitting down. “God, is it? Do you believe in God, Annelise?”
“Somebody had enough irony to pack 185 IQ points into a blonde head.”
Startlingly, Ronan laughed outright. Deep and loud, like he was at the pub and his team had just scored on the telly.
Honestly, it rocked my world. Usually I felt like I was cracking jokes in a language nobody else understood. Or sometimes I was the punch line—and believe me, it was a really awkward one. He got the joke, though, and the camaraderie of his laughter silenced me. Besides, the low rumble of it was just so effing sexy.
He held my gaze, finally asking, “Where to?”
“I don’t know.” I was riding the buzz of his laughter, elated by the sensation that somebody got me. I let the feeling shine through in the nonchalant tone of my response. “The coast?”
“The coast,” he repeated simply, and the power of it was heady. I was sitting in a car that cost more than anything I’d ever seen, with a guy drop-dead gorgeous enough to be a movie star, who’d not even blinked when the lady mentioned that perhaps she might have a yen for the coast.
Ronan turned onto the interstate headed south. It was your standard-issue hideous stretch of highway. If you’ve ever wondered why Florida produced so many serial killers, take a drive along one of the state roads that cut through its very middle. You could practically see the menace wafting off the tarmac like those heat waves you got on long and desolate road trips.
Finally he broached our destination. “What awaits you on the coast?”
“It’s what doesn’t await me.” Like, a drunk dad, an evil stepmother, and another semester of being a social outcast at my high school.
My shoulders slumped the way they did every time I thought of Christmas, and deliberately I pulled them back, lifting my chin for good measure. “You try living in the boonies outside Orlando.
It sucks. It’s hot. The rest of the state has all kinds of water and
waves, and what do we get?”
He merely raised a brow.
“Gators, that’s what.”
“A hunter like any other.” He shrugged, not seeming very impressed. He popped the car into fifth, and it hummed like a tenor warming up at The Met. “This is what has you so outraged?”
I considered the nature of my outrage, and defaulted to my dear, sweet hometown.
“Come on, the place is called Christmas.” If I’d had sleeves, I’d have rolled them up—I could do my Florida rant in my sleep. “Check out some Christmas fun facts. We’re known for two things. We get lots of mail for Santa—I mean, duh! And we’ve got the largest alligator in the world. Name’s Swampy, he’s two hundred feet long, and there’s a gift shop in his belly where you can buy crap like alligator meat. I tell you,” I said, in my best fly-girl voice, “Santa ain’t been home to Christmas since God-knows-when.”
“Indeed?” He chuckled, and the sound made my belly vibrate in a crazy way.
Who said indeed anymore? “Yeah, indeed.”
“People call me Drew.”
“So I gathered.” He cut me a look over the tops of his designer shades. “Annelise?”
The way his accent rolled out my given name brought the phrase death knell to mind. My chest was practically sore from all the heart thumping going on. “Yes?”
“You don’t need to adopt that . . . attitude. It’s unimaginative, and it’s below you. You’re capable of more.”
His candor threw me. “Not easily impressed, I take it?”
“You impress me. Just not the act.”
The act. He was right, actually. Call it my act, call it my armor, I called it coping. The only trouble was, I didn’t know anymore if I could let my real self shine through. What would I even sound like? Who would I be?
“Wait,” I said, watching as he downshifted, taking a weird turnoff onto a one-lane road. Just my luck, the guy really was a serial killer. “Where are you going?”
“I’m thinking perhaps you’d rather travel to the coast by plane.”
The car whined in low gear. He quickly raked his dark hair from his brow, and then shifted back into third. His arm flexed with the movement, and each glimpse of that tattoo transfixed me.
I hadn’t known guys like this even existed.
This was so not happening.
"Wow . . . I mean . . . just . . . wow.” Ronan had driven us to an airstrip, where he’d parked in front of an airplane. A sleek, shiny, elegantly trim, private jet-looking thing. I craned my neck, looking out the window. I wished I could’ve said something poetic about the smooth black ribbon of tarmac unfurled before us, but the reality of the dingy, grayish brown airstrip was considerably less dramatic. Small puddles spoke to a recent Florida downpour, and moisture blackened fissures along the pavement, making it look like crackle pottery.
The concerns that’d nagged me earlier slammed full force back to the front of my mind. Hopping in a sports car with a mysterious fellow student was one thing, but private jets were a whole other reality. “Who are you, John Travolta?”
“John Travolta?” he asked, studying me. There were flecks of gold in his green eyes.
My mouth went dry, and I cleared my throat. “You know, the movie star? He’s got all those planes? I just mean . . . who are you to own a jet like that?”
“It’s not my jet, precisely.” He crooked his mouth into a half-smile.
I had to look away, back to the plane. The feel of this strong, attractive, huskily accented guy sitting so close was too much to bear.
But was it enough to get into an airplane with him? So, I knew his name. This Ronan was still a stranger. Surviving my father had honed my instincts. And instinct told me, smart girls didn’t get onto planes with strange men. “Well, okay, then who are you to have access to a jet like that?”
“The question is, are you brave enough to find out?” The challenge in his voice brought my head swinging back to face him. He was staring at me with those smoldering eyes that made my breath catch. He reached over and placed his hand on my shoulder, leaning closer. “The question is,” he repeated, “are you ready to embrace a whole new life?”
A new life. Was that even possible?
I looked back at the plane, holding my arms stiffly in my lap, desperate not to fidget. The prospect of stepping onto that tarmac seemed an irreversible thing, like I’d be taking a path from which there’d be no return. But was it a dangerous path, or might I find a pot of gold at the end?
A shadow flickered in the cockpit and then was gone. The pilot, I assumed, readying for takeoff. Almost as though they’d been waiting for us.
I shifted away from him, as much as I could in that tiny sports car. Because, how was it some guy from the Registrar’s office spotted me and decided I was the one for his jet-fueled getaway? “Why me?”
He shifted his hand so it still rested lightly on me. It was a casual gesture, and yet I felt the heat of his touch like a brand. “Why not you, Annelise?”
Why not indeed?
I gave my head a shake. Because normal people—safe, sane people—didn’t whisk seventeen-year old girls off in private jets.
I flinched my leg from his hand, and doubts swamped me. Was he part of some high-tech slavery ring with a penchant for younger girls with high IQs and lame senses of humor? “But, we just met.”
“You’re special,” he said in that husky voice, shifting his hand to my shoulder.
Special. For once in my life, it didn’t sound like an accusation. I narrowed my eyes on him, trying to concentrate on my healthy skepticism, but that touch was burning through the fabric of my shirt.
“Don’t you wish to go?” he pressed. “With me?”
Ronan was waiting for my answer. His expression was tight, and it exaggerated the cleft in his chin. The shadow of a muscle flickered along his jaw. He was fierce and masculine in a way I’d never before encountered. What girl didn’t wish for such a man, and on such a jet?
But this was feeling too unreal, too much like the genie in the bottle had come for me. I struggled to think rationally. “Where would we go, exactly?”
“You wanted the coast, but tell me, Annelise, will any coast do?” He gave me a squeeze then removed his hand, and my shoulder felt chilled from the loss. But then he swept the hair from my neck, and I tingled—no, I burned—where his fingers brushed my bare skin.
Any coast, I had the urge to answer him, as long as it’s with you.
I chafed my arms from the shiver rippling across them. I needed to get a hold of myself. I wanted to flee Florida, flee my family and my life, but was I ready for the point of no return? “Why not drive? Florida’s big, but not that big.”
“Are you saying you don’t want to leave Florida? The Gulf-stream IV can travel over 4,000 nautical miles.”
“Oh, well, that’s a relief then. Particularly as I generally calculate things in terms of nautical miles.”
His answering silence was loud.
What was he thinking about? I spared a glance for him, unable to stop myself. He was watching me with that I-expect-more face I now recognized.
I took a deep breath. Though I felt raw and exposed, I mustered some honesty. “I mean, yes. Of course. I long to leave Florida. My life here . . . it’s been hard. I’ve always dreamt of leaving.”
I’d spoken the truth, but it had come out so quietly. Did my voice always go all hesitant and soft when speaking truly?
All this honesty. And with a total stranger. It was too intense. I felt too defenseless. It was too much.
He was too much.
I looked back at the plane, wondering just who this guy was. I strained my eyes, trying to make sense of the shadowy cockpit.
Ronan touched my chin, and it was a shock. His finger was warm and gentle, and I wanted to shut my eyes. I wanted to lean my cheek into his hand and stop time.
What was happening? Maybe there was such a thing as knights in shining armor, and mine had a black T-shirt, and a tattoo, and liked to hang out at the Registrar.
He turned my face to his. Not that it took any great feat of strength. I’d been longing to clamp an uninterrupted stare on him since I first spotted him.
“I’ll take you someplace very far away.” Ronan’s voice was subdued, and it came out as a rasp. “Far from your father. From the people who don’t understand you.”
He’d touched a nerve. I considered pulling away, but didn’t have the heart. Instead, I let my eyes fall into his, and they were so very green, the color of a deep, dark, haunted forest, and it made some delicious, dangerous sensation shiver across my skin.
He toyed with the hair at the nape of my neck, and again, I felt that buzz of electricity shimmer across my skin. He gave me a little half smile. “But will you have the courage?”
I squinted my eyes shut tight, trying to clear my head. When had I become so susceptible? Something wasn’t right. He was just a guy, and I never had this sort of reaction to guys. Yet every time he touched me, I went all limp and easy. With one brush of his hand, the guy could probably sell me a bridge, much less sweet talk me onto some swank private jet.
“Will you, or won’t you, Annelise?” Heat fanned from his fingers, penetrating deep into my brain, confusing me, making me putty in his touch.
“Yes,” I heard myself whisper. “I will.”
As I opened my eyes, he pulled from me, and cold clarity prickled my brain, like blood returning to a numbed limb.
I watched Ronan as he studied his fisted hands. His muscles were tensed, his eyes looking fierce, making me suddenly uneasy. I was itching inside my skin, anxious to feel his reassuring touch once more. Anxious to break the silence, I asked, “Where are we going?”
He stared blindly out the window, resting his hands on the steering wheel. “Far away. Life as you know it will change utterly.”
I stared hard at his profile, wondering if I’d seen uncertainty shadow his face. Did he regret asking me? Had I heard hesitation in his voice, or was it just my imagination?
He’d pulled his eyes from mine, and that earlier sense of unreality crept back in, clinging in the back of my mind like shadows in corners. His silence unnerved me, and I wanted to normalize the situation. “Far away?” I asked. “Are we going west?”
“No. We’re leaving the country. For an island.”
My brows raised at the word island.
He faced me, his eyes grown hard. “Not that kind of island. It’s far away. Far north. North of Scotland. North of the Shetlands. It’s a dark place. A cold place.”
Why was his voice so flat? Renewed doubt was making me queasy.
“Is that where you’re from?” I asked, desperate to feel that warm feeling again, for this to feel all right. Images of maps flitted through my head—a photographic memory was good for something—and I’d gone through a phase in eighth grade, fascinated by all things Viking. “Is it the Faroe Islands? Iceland?”
“Near there. It’s not a place you’ve heard of.” He looked back at me, and I tried to summon the ease he’d made me feel before. “And, aye. It’s where I’m from.”
He was taking me to see his home? Did that mean he liked me? But what if his people hated me? I wasn’t exactly a crowd pleaser. “How will I get back if . . . if I don’t like it?”
“You won’t want to leave.”
I mulled what he could mean by that, but he seemed to sense my anxiety and the shadows cleared from his eyes. He stroked a finger down my cheek. “I’m taking you to a place where there are other girls like you. Girls with . . . gifts.”
This took me aback. It was looking like this . . . thing with Ronan was less run-away-together than it was some sort of recruiting exercise. Oddly, the prospect reassured me, explaining his presence at a university, and why he’d want someone like me.
“Like a special school?”
“Aye. Like a special school. To train girls.”
“Train them to what?”
“To become women.”
My breath hitched. Oh God, this was a sex-slave thing. He could give me all the mesmerizing looks and lingering touches in the world, and never would I vibe with anything like that.
He rolled his eyes, reading my thoughts. “Not like that. Successful women, with skills, and depth.”
He traced his finger down my arm, resting his hand back on my thigh. Heat plumed up my leg, coursing through my body.
I let out a sigh I hadn’t realized I was holding. Not a girl . . . a woman. With skills and depth. Did that mean I’d finally found a place where I could really learn? Where I’d meet other girls who liked to learn too?
Suddenly all things seemed possible. Could I really get on this plane? Could I finally, for once in my life, begin to realize my true self?
Visions cascaded into my head . . . me goofing on campus with the other girls. We’d wear white anoraks with fur hoods, and have snowball fights. We’d discuss things like Medieval Latin, and rap music of the Asian Diaspora. I’d meet Ronan for coffee after class. I wouldn’t be so different. I wouldn’t have to hold back.
Never again would I have to hold back.
I should’ve been scared. But my father’s opened hand careening toward my face no longer scared me. The dead-eyed stares of the other high school kids had stopped scaring me long ago. But being stuck in the same small town for the rest of my life? That scared me.
Could I be a real woman? Someone self-determined, who hopped onto private jets headed for islands far, far from home. I wanted to be.
“Okay.” I opened the car door. I stepped onto that tarmac, onto the path with no return. I turned to look at him. Those haunted forest eyes were intense on me, and I hoped I was making the right choice, because standing alone on the runway, I felt suddenly isolated and alone. I forced a lightness into my voice I didn’t feel. “So what’s this island called?”
“Those who speak the old tongue call it Eyja næturinnar,” he uttered, and a peculiar melancholy sounded in his voice. “The Isle of Night.”
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