I had always been a magnet for the strange and unusual—and socially disastrous—at my birthday parties. And my Sweet Sixteen was no exception.
Just when I thought my night couldn’t possibly get any stranger…
Pain pulsed across the jagged scar on my forearm. My mark burned, sharp and quick, like it did whenever something dangerous was around. Tremors raked my limbs, and a short scream tore from my lips. My dad and my aunt Lauren, who were standing beside me, instantly became concerned.
Dad rubbed my back. “Honey bunch, are you okay?”
I couldn’t speak, only nod.
“Relax, Shiloh. Just breathe,” Aunt Lauren said. “Do you feel sick?”
The doorbell chimed.
Little pig, little pig, please, let me come in…
I took a step back, bumping an end table. A vase crashed to the floor. The room brimmed with an unnerving expectancy. I felt smothered, as if I was crammed into a dangerous and airless place.
Aunt Lauren bent down to pick up the shards of porcelain from the vase. My mother—Darrah—crossed the room to answer the door.
Oh, god. It was here. Now. Ringing my doorbell.
I wanted to scream, No! Don’t open that door!
Before I could utter a word of warning, Darrah flung it wide. “Oh, it’s you. What do you want?”
The scalding pain finally diminished and my body slowly relaxed. No bogeyman at my door, only another guest.
My witchy senses must’ve been really misfiring tonight. It could’ve just been the shades—little hellhounds—making a quick appearance and all the lights blazing in the house had scared them off.
Dad was still hovering, and I gently brushed his hands off me. “I’m fine, Dad. Just a headache. Give me a second.”
He gestured at the broken vase. “I’ll go get a broom and dustpan to clean up this mess.” He hurried into the kitchen, and Aunt Lauren followed him.
“I’m a friend of your daughter’s, and I’m here for the party.” Trent Donovan said from the doorway, his voice deep and husky.
I completely forgot about the burning ache in my arm once I heard that voice and caught a glimpse of the boy standing on my porch. Artfully mussed light brown, startling green eyes, cocky grin…
My breath sucked in. My heart stuttered hyper-actively.
What was Trent doing here?
I stood frozen in the middle of the room. No one else at my birthday party seemed to notice or care that someone new had arrived. Or that it was him.
Trent held out his hand, but Darrah ignored it. “How do you do, Miss Broussard?”
Darrah was partially blocking my view of the mysterious boy who’d moved to Fallen Oaks a few months ago. But from where I stood, she was staring at Trent like he was some exotic animal she’d never seen before.
Wow. She was being seriously impolite to the guy I was crushing on. Grumbling under my breath, I kicked at the floor. I would deal with her later.
But her cold demeanor didn’t seem to faze Trent, who gave her that heart-stopping, megawatt smile. Most females didn’t stand a chance against its power. Darrah still hadn’t replied.
“I suppose you should come in,” Darrah managed to finally say, and then led him into the living room.
As soon as Trent stepped into the room, a hushed murmur stretched throughout the space. From across the room, I caught my best friend, Ariana Parsons staring intently at Trent, too.
He shrugged off a worn leather jacket and draped it over an armchair, displaying a long-sleeved black shirt. The guy was the epitome of hip. With low-slung jeans, motorcycle boots, and model good looks, just a glimpse of Trent Donovan caused female hormones to rage, teenage girls to swoon, and mouths to drool.
And he was here. At my party.
My heart slammed wildly in my chest. My underarms grew damp. But I had to get it together and stop having a total fangirl moment. I pulled at the sleeve of my blouse, making sure the freakish scar that trailed a jagged line from my elbow to my wrist was covered. The Devil’s Mark, as my mentor Evans had called it. I lifted my sleeve, revealing a sliver of the scar, the peculiar, jagged line that had disfigured the soft underside of my forearm.
Freakin’ brand of a demon.
Ariana moved beside me and softly elbowed me in the ribs, but I jumped like she’d jabbed me with a hot poker. I hated when she did that.
“You’re such a smitten kitten,” she teased.
I roughly yanked my sleeve down. “Shut up.”
Trent advanced with a wave. “Hey, you. Happy belated birthday.” He glanced at Ariana. “And you must be?”
“I am Shiloh’s BFF, Ariana. Nice to meet you, Trent,” she said, wearing a secret little smile.
A prickling sensation thrilled through me. I could face down paranormals, but when confronted with hot guys that newfound courage faltered. Big time.
But I needed to play it cool and not be too obvious. I just prayed my rampant feelings for Trent didn’t show on my face. Too bad there wasn’t a psychic barricade for hiding overactive hormones.
While I stood there, gaping like a moron, Ariana was still holding back a smirk. I was going to kill her later.
Trent’s deep voice interrupted my inner babble. “You look beautiful tonight, Shiloh.”
Now I was glad that I’d taken extra time with my appearance. Guess the slouchy, lace knit-top with a crochet skirt and black, lace-up wedge booties, was a big hit with Trent.
Drawing a deep breath, I said, “Thanks.”
Trent tapped a finger on his chin. “But there’s something different about you…”
My heart gave an awkward lurch. Oh, god. Did he sense that I was a witch? Or that I had a Darkness thrumming inside me? Or that a demon had carved a Devil’s Mark into my wrist? And if he said I was a freak, I might have to kick him in the shins. Hard.
He tilted his head, studying me with those amazing emerald eyes. “It’s your hair.”
I blinked. Whew. Panicked for nothing. Just breathe. Act cool.
He smiled that uneven bad-boy smirk, and my nerves instantly jangled again. So much for acting cool.
“What did you do differently?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Used a flat-iron. No biggie.”
“I like it,” Ariana said, coming to my defense.
“I meant I like it, too,” Trent said, and then winked. “Wicked sexy.”
Ariana tapped my shoulder. “That’s my cue to get some soda.” She left us standing awkwardly in the middle of the room.
Why hadn’t Trent called? Why hadn’t he bothered to get in touch with me after one of my friends had mystically vanished inside his mansion? The police were still baffled by her disappearance. Then again, I had been sorta mean to him that day, and I’d hurt his feelings. And now he was at my party, looking extra smoking hot—
“I hope you’re still going to work for us,” Trent said quietly. “Because I’d be really bummed if you quit. But I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”
Quitting was no longer an option. I needed to stop this nasty demon, Esael to protect my remaining friends.
I had taken a summer job as a restoration expert’s assistant, who also happened to be Trent’s uncle, at the infamous Craven Manor. I’d been fascinated by architecture since I was young, and someday I hoped to be an architect. When Ari had spotted a flyer about the job posted at school, I’d been reluctant to apply until she’d talked me into it. Now I was kind of glad she had. Otherwise, I never would’ve met Trent.
“No worries. I’ll stick around,” I said.
Biting his lip in that nervous yet sexy way of his, he softly said, “And, uh, I’m really sorry about your friend.”
“Uh-huh.” I attempted a smile, but failed miserably. “Have you heard from Paige’s family?”
“No.” He shook his head. “Sheriff Boyd said the investigation is ongoing, but he doesn’t have any real leads yet. And he won’t even tell us if the disappearance is officially considered a crime or just a runaway case.”
I nodded, but couldn’t speak for a moment. I blinked back tears that were slowly leaking out of my heart for my friend. But wherever Paige was, I knew she’d want us to go on with our lives.
“Maybe she’ll turn up.” His voice soft, kind. “People don’t just vanish.”
But they did in this town.
“Yeah…maybe,” I said, my voice cracking.
He nodded, but didn’t respond. I sniffled and wiped my nose with my sleeve. The silence was as tense as a held breath. It grew to epic proportions as we both remained quiet, not knowing what to say next. I lowered my head, hiding in the thickness of my long hair, and stared at the black boots peeking out from his jeans.
Ooooo-kay. So this was getting way awkward.
My head slowly lifted, and my gaze strayed to his full lips. I couldn’t seem to make myself stop staring at his mouth. I had to act normal and not think about kissing. Or those very kissable lips.
Blinking, I asked, “Uh, what are you doing here?”
As he stared down into my face, a slow smile made those kissable lips look even more inviting. He was so freakin’ hot. Smart and sinfully sexy, too. Who could resist him? Who would want to?
The babble in my head totally shut itself up when he spoke. “I heard about your party from your friend Jada and thought I’d drop by. See if you needed any cheering up.” He kept my dad’s recliner between us, his eyes fixed intently on mine. “Is that cool?”
My body tensed up. “Sure. Of course.”
I traveled around the chair, but he shuffled in the opposite direction. His half smile vanished. He had perfect posture, his shoulders back, and his arms crossed. Not the same guy I’d recently hung out with, exchanged flirty emails with, and had kissed. This guy was guarded and distant. That other guy had been sweet and charming.
“You’re acting so strange,” I said.
“No, I’m not.”
Trent glanced around. My eyes followed his about the room. Dad watched us with a worried frown.
More like everybody was watching us. Even my grandparents, Grandma Naomi and Grandpa Samuel Trudell, who were visiting from Castro Valley, my aunt Lauren, and my friend Jada standing beside Ariana were all staring. Talk about scrutiny. The guy sure knew how to bring a party to a standstill.
And something was bugging me concerning his change of attitude. I leaned toward him. “What’s with you tonight? Why the über cool guy act?”
I narrowed my eyes. “So?”
He ran a hand through his hair. His expression grew somber. “My uncle says you’re a fast learner, and doing a great job.”
I stared at him. Talk about a quick change of topic. I gave myself a mental shake before responding to his comment. “Evans is an excellent teacher, er, boss—whatever. Very knowledgeable.”
Trent’s uncle, Anthony Evans—who I called Evans—was my boss, mentor, and friend. More like partner in crime. He was teaching me all about the supernatural, and magick, and demon hunting. Since I’d recently discovered that I was a witch with awesome powers, and Evans was a renowned paranormal investigator, we’d decided to team up to stop the spread of evil. Blah, blah, blah.
But his nephew knew none of this. Trent lived in Denial Land, although he resided in a haunted house. Maybe it was his coping mechanism. Hell, a month ago I would’ve gladly joined him. Before teens started vanishing, including one my best friends—Paige Jones—and shadowy demons and pesky wraiths began stalking me. So, I joined forces with Evans. What else was a girl, who was being terrorized by demons and ghosts supposed to do?
Trent’s stare became flat and unreadable. Eyes that had swallowed too much pain, and where the twinkling of trust had long ago expired. He tugged at the collar of his shirt. “You haven’t said anything to anyone, have you?” he asked, his voice low and urgent. “About Craven Manor supposedly being haunted?”
So that’s why he was acting all weird. Afraid I’d been talking about the paranormal activity going on at his house.
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah. Sure. Because people are sooo believing in that sort of thing.”
“I’d appreciate if you kept it that way, okay?”
Nodding, I said, “Sure. I get it.”
Ariana walked over to us, holding a can of soda.
He hitched forward slightly, breathing sharp. “Anyway, thanks for having me.” The corners of his mouth quirked upward into that cocky grin before he sauntered over to chat with Jada. I was very aware of the swagger in Trent’s walk, the victorious air about him.
How did Trent know Jada? Then I almost smacked my forehead. Duh. Small town.
“What were you guys whispering about?” Ari asked.
“Nothing. Just his stupid house.”
“Puh-lease.” She pinched my arm. “You’ve got lovesick face.”
“I do not—”
“I still don’t trust him. There’s just something about him…” Ariana paused, choosing her next words carefully. Her expression darkened. “That gives off this dangerous vibe. I feel like something’s wrong. Maybe I should consult my tarot cards.”
“You do that. But, Ari, I really like him. So whatever issues you have with him you’re gonna have to bury them, because I don’t want hear it. Okay?”
But there was something deeply wrong with me, too. Demon blood was poisoning me. Tainting my magickal powers. And I could become dangerous if the Darkness ever took root inside me.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But something seems different with him lately and whatever it is, it’s not good.”
I snorted. “Got it. You don’t like Trent—”
“No, no, no. That’s not fair. I’m not saying that.”
“You know what isn’t fair? You being all judgy about a guy you don’t even know. Besides, you have nothing to worry about, he wants us to stay in the friend zone.” And may I add that it totally sucked? Because for once in my life, I wanted to be that girl. You know, the unpopular girl who gets the hunky guy. Sort of Sixteen Candles or She’s All That. Stupid, I know.
“You’re right. I shouldn’t judge him,” Ariana said with a shrug. “I’m just feeling overly protective of my bestie.”
“Good because I like him. Seriously like him, Ariana.”
“Then I’ll keep my opinions to myself, but promise me that you’ll let me do a tarot reading on you later. As a birthday present.”
The room suddenly felt hot and stuffy. The colorful steamers dangling from the ceiling flapped in the air-conditioned breeze. A pink tablecloth covered the dining room table, loaded with yummy snacks and a crystal bowl of red punch. Music flowed from the CD player in the corner. But even with the festive occasion, a somber atmosphere pervaded the room.
This conversation was going nowhere.
“Sure. Whatever. I’ll be back in a sec,” I mumbled.
Needing air, I slipped out the back door. The cool night breeze rushed to greet me and the ceiling of sky flowed with a million stars. I stayed close to the house. Took deep breaths.
A fear of the dark had plagued me since childhood. Even before the shadows started menacing me, I never liked being in total darkness without some source of light, even a small source, like a flashlight or nightlight. The blinking lights on my TV and computer were comforting. Because it was in the deepest recesses of night that most evil things crept from their beds and came out to play. Not really play so much—as grab a midnight snack. And by snack, I mean innocent human cuisine. It wasn’t the darkness itself that creeped me out, but the nocturnal things prowling the streets and nearby woods—and the fact that I could see them—that scared the hell outta me.
And it didn’t help my phobia of the dark that I lived in Fallen Oaks, California located near Madrone Woodlands and neighboring Muir Woods. The township was constantly foggy because it was so close to the Bay, and it seemed remote and isolated from the rest of the world, as if we lived in a creepy snow globe. Minus the snow.
It was eerily dark tonight. What had I been thinking? It wasn’t safe after sundown.
I know, I know! A rookie demon slayer afraid of the dark. Don’t judge.
Shrouded in darkness, nocturnal things slithered through the grass. My shadowy foes were in the garden.
I shuffled backward. Maybe I should go back inside—
The wind started blowing wildly, and a dark shadow moved in front of me.