/ Language: English / Genre:love_sf

Reaping Me Softly

Kate Evangelista

Ever since a near-death-experience on the operating table, seventeen-year-old Arianne Wilson can see dead people. Just as she’s learned to accept her new-found talents, she discovers that the boy she’s had a crush on since freshman year, Niko Clarke, is a Reaper. At last they have something in common, but that doesn’t mean life is getting any easier. All while facing merciless bullying from the most powerful girl in school, Arianne’s world is turned upside down after Niko accidentally reaps the soul of someone she loves. This sends them both into a spiral that threatens to end Arianne’s life. But will Niko break his own Reaper's code to save her? And what would the consequences be if he did?

Kate Evangelista

REAPING ME SOFTLY

To Marilyn, the best momager ever, for loving me unconditionally

Chapter 1

DEAD PEOPLE

DEATH SAT AT HIS DESK wearing on his androgynous face a scowl that could level a whole mountain range. Not many thought of him as breathtaking. Well, not many lived long enough to see his true face: one surrounded by golden locks that reached his chin. If they did, maybe they’d die smiling. But, with the human population swelling to six billion and counting, Death barely had time to think about the triviality of beauty. Keeping his Reapers in line already consumed a majority of his attention.

His voluminous midnight robes spread out around him as if the fabric were alive. With his slate-colored eyes he skimmed the latest status reports. Numbers in neat columns jumped off the page at him. He tossed the yellowing parchment onto the table and leaned into his high-backed chair made of human bones. The numbers added up. People died on a daily basis.

He closed his eyes and longed for the days when he escorted the dead to the afterlife himself. He gripped and released the skulls at the ends of his chair’s armrests, searching in vain for some sort of release from the tension building behind his eyelids. He grimaced. Death—one of the most powerful entities the universe had ever given birth to—experienced migraines. Who would have thought? He wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, but he didn’t.

He gave in to massaging his temples. The wars in the Middle East had reached a fevered pitch as of late. Nothing in terms of genocide yet, but close enough. He should have been happy. Business was booming.

Death sighed, as if the weight of eons rested on his shoulders, and let his hands fall away. He opened his eyes, seeing his baubles spread out before him—scattered over his desk, arranged on shelves along the walls and imprisoned by glass cases. They were a collection of odds and ends from over a millennia of millenniums: an angel’s tear; the hoof of a unicorn; the skull of Genghis Khan that he used as a paperweight; an index finger from Confucius; the tip of a dragon’s tail. Things that tickled his fancy. Even his albino crow, taken from the Ark of Noah himself.

A new stack of Death Certificates—which indicated the name, date, time, and manner of death—appeared on his lava-stone table. He plucked a feather from his pet, eliciting an annoyed squawk from the bird on his shoulder, and sharpened its tip with an ornate dagger he often used as a letter opener. After impaling the dagger in his paperweight skull, he dipped the newly sharpened nib into an inkwell, tapped off the excess, and scrawled his signature on the dotted line. Every time his pen left paper, the sheet vanished—to be delivered to its assigned Reaper.

Balance has to be maintained, Death reminded himself. If he neglected his responsibilities, it would mean chaos.

Arianne gave Ben a sidelong glance as they walked on the grass embankment running parallel to the road. Weeds tugged at his baggy jeans. The setting sun dyed his FOUL BALL T-shirt orange. He’d picked up a stick and some pebbles and played “pitch and hit.” The bill of his Braves baseball cap smiled upside down over his boy-next-door face. Every properly timed whack plucked at Arianne’s nerves. The whole day she’d imagined how her conversation with Ben would go. One scenario ended with her running away in tears. Another involved Ben never speaking to her again. And in the last one, her personal favorite, an asteroid would end the world before she could confess everything.

“Did you change your hair?” he asked after his third imaginary homerun.

Arianne jumped at the sound of his voice.

“Boy, you’re nervous.”

“Mom decided to trim some off the tips.” Arianne twirled a length of the red strands, attempting to act natural and failing when she didn’t notice a protruding root and stumbled over it. She righted herself and said, “Split ends and all that.”

“It looks nice.” Doubt invaded Ben’s grin. He loved to smile. Even when he didn’t feel like it, he smiled. Sometimes, as exampled by this moment, other emotions would creep in and the result looked less than natural. “You sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah.” Arianne laughed away her uncertainty, and failed in that too, managing to come off more awkward than before. She returned to the topic of her hair. “In this heat, I want to chop it all off. My hair, I mean.”

“Don’t!” Ben paused and checked himself. “I mean, you’ll regret it. Remember the time you decided you wanted to look like Marilyn Monroe and your hair turned orange instead of blond?”

She shuddered. “Don’t remind me.”

“What are best friends for if not to warn you away from potentially devastating actions? Remember, you’d have to live with whatever you do to yourself, no one else.”

She considered what Ben said. Maybe telling him isn’t such a good idea.

“So,” he continued, tearing her away from her hesitation, “what are you going to tell me?”

Arianne scratched an itch on her arm that wasn’t there. “Who said I wanted to talk about anything?”

This time, Ben let go of his grin entirely and regarded her with full on skepticism. “I’m insulted. We’ve known each other since kindergarten and you still think I don’t know when you want to tell me something?” He grimaced. “Normally, we’d take the bus, but when you want to talk, you always suggest we walk the three miles home.” Just as Ben emphasized the distance, the school bus carrying their rambunctious classmates passed them, adding to his point. “Not that I mind the exercise.”

“Am I really that transparent?” Arianne shuffled her sneakers and adjusted the strap of the bag on her shoulder.

“I just know you better than anyone else.”

She smiled a small, shy smile. “You’re right. I have to tell you something.” She collected her thoughts like scattered clothes on her bedroom floor then said, “There’s no easy way to tell you this…”

All signs of life drained from Ben’s face. Eyes wild, he grabbed her shoulders. “Is it Carrie? Did something happen to her?”

At the mention of her sister, she held on to his wrists like she was about to fall off a cliff. “What? No! I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you have to chill. No more coffee for you, mister.” She extricated herself from Ben’s death grip. “This has nothing to do with her.”

He took off his cap and ran his fingers through his sandy hair before jamming it back on. “Don’t scare me like that.” He huffed and strode away. “And I don’t drink coffee!”

Arianne pulled on her earlobe before scrambling to catch up. “You’re the one who jumped to conclusions. And if anything happened to Carrie, you’d be the first to know.” She came up to him until her steps matched his. “I’m trying to tell you that I see dead people. Well…technically, I see their souls.”

Ben kept marching on.

“Hey, did you hear me?”

“Happy April Fool’s to you, too,” said Ben.

“It’s September, you ninny.”

“Well, it sure sounds like April to me.”

Arianne grabbed his sleeve. Ben searched her face, and her gaze fell. An afternoon breeze ruffled the leaves of the trees lining both sides of the road. The sunset stabbed shadow knives all around them.

“As in M. Night Shyamalan ‘I see dead people’?”

Reluctantly, Arianne nodded. “It sounds crazy—”

“You bet your ass it sounds crazy.” Ben paused. He heaved a long and weighty sigh. “Look at me when you’re revealing freaky things about yourself.”

She lifted her gaze. “I’m sorry I haven’t—”

“Since when?” he interrupted.

It felt like melted ice dotted her brow. “What?”

“Since when can you ‘see dead people’?”

“A couple of years back.”

“A couple of years.” He took off his cap, ran his hand through his hair again, then replaced it on his head—his helmet against all things freaky. “Jesus, Ari. I thought we promised to tell each other everything.”

“Okay, not the reaction I was looking for.” Disbelief exploded in her head. “You mean to tell me you’re pissed because I took so long to tell you?”

“We’re best friends. That has to count for something. Isn’t listening to each other’s secrets what best friends are supposed to do?”

“So, you’re saying you believe me?”

“Why would you lie about something like that?” He engulfed her with his body, strong arms securely around her waist, his Dial scent coating her lungs. “Ari, you should have told me sooner. I’m sure you were scared the moment you saw the first ghost.”

She giggled. “On the contrary, it wasn’t scary at all. I was visiting Pops at the nursing home when I saw the woman. I pointed her out and Pops told me there was no one there. I did some research—”

“Of course you did.” Ben broke the hug. “So, what are you? Psychic or something?”

“I wouldn’t say that.” Arianne dug her nails into the strap of her bag. “I don’t see the future or anything. My research says I’m more like a Medium, although I can’t speak to the dead. Or I haven’t tried. I don’t think I will, FYI. And I see them only for a second or two. They disappear pretty fast.”

“You’ve put a lot of thought into this.”

“Wouldn’t you?” She rubbed her forehead. “I mean, it doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s like having extra people walking around, you know? Well…they’re naked—”

“Whoa!” Ben surrendered. “Too much information.”

“But it’s true!” she insisted.

“I’ll take your word for it,” he said. Then he crossed his arms. “Why tell me now? Why wait so many years?”

Arianne challenged the tangerine sun to a staring contest until the fading light made her close her eyes. A yellow orb still floated at the center of the darkness. She breathed in the post-summer air and said, “Seeing dead people, you know? I guess I’m just tired of keeping it all to myself.”

Ben wrapped his hand around hers. “Come on, I want to get home some time before dinner starts.”

Arianne thought she must have had an aneurism between the time she’d told Ben her secret and when he’d accepted it as nothing special, because it seemed so surreal that all the scenarios she’d played out hadn’t happened. Especially her favorite one.

“Thanks,” she said as Ben tugged her toward home.

The Reaper brooded like a rebel, sitting on his reading chair with a leg hiked up on an armrest and resting his chin on a fist. He wore tattered jeans and nothing else. His sable hair fell past his knotted eyebrows, messy and still damp from a recent shower. He stared at the flames contained by the fireplace located at one side of his cavernous bedroom. The undulation of red, orange, and white tongues helped clear his mind of the noise and chatter of his thoughts.

His collection of history, mythology, and biographies on the shelves along one wall sang to him, urging him to curl his long, elegant fingers around their spines and pull them out of their confines. He ignored their call—no longer interested in leafing through their pages. Tales of the underworld, accounts of countless deaths, memories of lives gone by couldn’t hold his attention anymore.

Only the snap, pop, and crackle of the burning wood broke the eerie silence. The dark furnishings hugged him, bringing him a measure of comfort and peace. He glanced away from the flames and settled his gaze on the crystal vase filled with white roses on the mantel. It sat below a painting by Kratzenstein of Orpheus trying to grab Eurydice just as she was pulled back into the underworld. The look of disappointment on Eurydice’s face played out as a perfect counterpoint to Orpheus’s dismay at not having the fortitude to maintain facing forward until they reached the outside world. The Reaper snapped his fingers and the roses wilted. Now their dried leaves and desiccated petals matched the emotion the painting portrayed.

He reached out toward the flaming maw of the fireplace, watching shadows dance along his fingers. He lowered his eyelids and waited.

In his periphery, an amorphous figure manifested itself. First as smoke, then as a watermark image.

The Reaper’s solitude diminished with every second it took for his Caretaker to take shape.

“Master?” a gravelly voice said. It filled the room with a chill akin to fog crawling over a grave.

He studied the fire a little longer before he dropped his hand to his side and faced the lanky, pale apparition that floated legless before him. “What is it, Sickleton?”

“Forgive the presumption, but I worry for you, sir.”

“And why is that?”

Sickleton gestured to indicate the room and its dark furnishings, his hand turning to smoke for a second. “This state of ennui has got to end.”

“Ennui?” As if by a system of pulleys, his eyebrow rose. “Good God, stop being so melodramatic.”

“You have been spending more and more time in your room, sir. You have been ignoring your minions and the help they provide. You insist on conducting your duties on your own.”

Planting both feet on the carpeted floor, the Reaper leaned his elbows on his knees and tented his fingers. He narrowed his eyes at his Caretaker. “I appreciate the concern, Sickleton,” he said. “But, I would appreciate it more if you kept out of my business.”

“Sir…”

The Reaper made a fist, and Sickleton’s mouth disappeared. The Caretaker’s eyes bulged. Master and servant stared at one another. Both unmoving. Both silent. A dance that often ended with the servant bowing to his master.

“I’m glad you understand.” The Reaper unclenched his fist, and Sickleton’s lips returned.

“A new batch of Certificates has arrived, sir.”

“This early in the day?”

“I believe so.”

The Reaper of Georgia stood up and cracked his knuckles. “Very well. Fetch my shirt.”

Chapter 2

ACCIDENTS HAPPEN

ARIANNE ENTERED THE KITCHEN one muggy October morning to find her father still sitting at the breakfast table. She stopped by the swinging door and raised her eyebrows until they touched her fiery bangs. He sat there in his suit, reading the sports section, contentment in the set of his shoulders. His brown hair gleamed with touches of gold brought by the sunlight sneaking in from the window.

“You’re still here?” She hid the surprise in her voice well. Or so she had thought when she walked to the fridge.

“Good morning to you too, Daughter,” her father barked, not taking his eyes off the paper.

She flinched before opening the fridge to grab the orange juice. “That’s not what I meant.” The snap of a page being flipped almost made her drop the carton.

“Huge pile-up on I-75. I called work and said I’d be late.”

“What about the 85? I’m sure that’s still free. What are the odds of an accident happening there too?” She took a glass from the dishwasher as if her father’s irritation didn’t poke at her between her shoulder blades.

“Larger than you’d think.”

“There’s an accident on the 85 too?” She smirked.

“No, there isn’t. Why are you intent on spoiling my morning?” he whined.

Arianne poured herself some juice and took a sip before she kissed him on the cheek and plopped down on a chair at his side.

“Lazy bones,” she said in imitation of her mother.

“I’m entitled to a morning off once in a while, aren’t I?” He tugged at a ribbon of her hair.

She rolled her eyes. “Of course you are.”

“Let’s keep this to ourselves, shall we?”

“I take it you’re only this brave because Mom spent the night at Saint Joseph’s again.” She snatched the untouched toast from his plate and bit into it, chewing merrily.

“They’re waiting for news on a possible donor.”

“Still no luck?”

He dropped his gaze like a hot potato.

She stood up and hugged him. “Oh, Daddy, something’ll turn up, you’ll see.”

“Where do you get all this optimism from?” He gave her a squeeze before breaking the contact.

Arianne smiled. “Carrie,” she said.

A sheen of unshed tears surfaced in his eyes. “How did I get so lucky being surrounded by such strong women?”

“You just are.” She glanced at the wall clock. “Gotta go.”

“You visiting this afternoon?” he asked just before she left through the back door.

Arianne glanced at him over her shoulder, a wicked twinkle in her eye. “I’d like to see anyone try and stop me.”

For every step Arianne took to the bus stop, she prayed no lives were lost on I-75. Then, feeling no shame at all, she sent out a prayer for a donor. She blinked away the onset of sadness. As much as anyone in her family, maybe even more, Arianne wanted her sister healthy. “She’ll be fine,” became her daily mantra. If she could have shirts printed out with those words on them, she would, but the printers required at least a hundred pieces per order. Arianne didn’t have that many friends.

She kept her eyes on the sidewalk until she passed the Fletchers’ bungalow. On its freshly watered lawn stood a naked man, facing the house. His ashen pallor made Arianne pause a moment. She rubbed her chest to ease some of the tightness she normally felt when she encountered one of them. The man glanced to the right, as if someone had called to him. When Arianne blinked, he was gone. She said a silent prayer for him and for those he’d left behind.

Resuming her walk, she spotted Ben—in his slacks, button-up shirt, Braves cap, and Converse—using the bus stop sign to keep upright. He had his head bowed and his eyes closed, barely staying vertical. Arianne laughed. When he didn’t need to be fully awake, he stayed in what she thought of as a functioning hibernation mode.

“Hey, sleepy,” she greeted loudly.

Ben groaned. “Too early,” he grumbled.

Arianne cooed, “Oh, I know, I know.” She slipped her arms around his waist. “Bad mornings, bad!”

He snaked his arm around her shoulders and transferred all his weight onto her until her knees buckled.

“I may be sleepy,” he murmured, “but I do know when I’m being patronized.”

Seconds later, the school bus screeched to a stop and the door slid open.

“Come on, you two,” the driver called, waving them up.

“Get on the bus, you big lug.” Arianne yanked Ben as hard as she could. He stumbled forward, eyes shuttered, shoulders slumped. His bag took up the rear.

A typical scene, their schoolmates paid no attention to the proceedings.

They found a seat in the middle, and Arianne slid in by the window. The forward momentum of the vehicle had Ben falling in beside her. A second later, he had his head on her shoulder, already dozing off. Arianne sighed, resting her chin on the heel of her palm. She watched the world pass her by.

Two stops later, Arianne straightened slowly, trying not to jostle Ben. She stared at the front of the bus intently as it made a left onto an all too familiar street. Her heart leapt into her throat, beating there, making it hard to breathe, let alone swallow. She dried her palms on her jean-covered thighs.

And like in those cheesy shampoo commercials, everything stopped the moment Nikolas Clark climbed on the bus, including Arianne’s heart. He made a black T-shirt, ragged Levi’s, and scuffed Docs unintentionally cool. His sable hair, combed to perfection, kissed his brow and nape lightly. What she wouldn’t give to be a single strand among those locks. And those bottomless midnight eyes pierced everything in their path as they scanned for an empty seat. After spotting one toward the back, he glided as sure-footed as any cat.

Restarting her heart with imaginary defibrillators, Arianne had to force herself not to twist around. Ben’s heavy head on her shoulder anchored her. If she moved, he’d wake up and get snippy.

It’s not like I won’t see Niko again in chem, she reminded herself, ignoring the fact that she sounded like a deranged stalker in her head.

Minutes later, heart safely pumping blood again, Arianne waited for the bus to pull into Blackwood High’s parking lot. When it stopped, a blush blanketed her cheeks as her gaze chased Niko from the bus, across the blacktop, all the way to the main entrance where he exchanged pleasantries with a girl who kept her auburn hair in a severe bob. The girl—in her cardigan and pleated skirt—began speaking animatedly. Niko inclined his head and listened, his expression obscured with his back to Arianne.

Frustrated, she nudged Ben harder than usual. “We’re here,” she yelled.

Ben jerked awake and hit his head on the seat in front of him. “Ow! A little warning would have been nice.” He rubbed his forehead.

“I thought the squeal of the bus stopping was the warning.” She grabbed her bag and pushed him off the seat. “Move it before the bell rings.”

“Well, aren’t we bossy this morning?” Ben frowned as he slung the strap of his bag over his shoulder and made his way to the front of the bus.

“I just don’t want to be late, okay?” Arianne trailed after him.

“This mood, by any chance, has nothing to do with Darla Masters, does it?” Ben pointed to the front doors, where Darla and Niko stood—still engaged in conversation.

“Will you stop that,” Arianne said, yanking Ben’s arm down.

“The arm’s attached, you know. Seriously—” Ben adjusted his baseball cap “—it’s not like they’re dating. Why don’t you just ask Niko out and be done with it?”

“Are you crazy?” Arianne glared at her friend. “Do you know what happened to the last person who got in Darla’s way?”

Ben shook his head. To his credit, he didn’t let her glare cow him into submission.

“My point exactly.” She stomped away. Whether in advance or retreat, she couldn’t quite tell.

Books tumbled out of her locker one after the other, making friends with the newly polished floor. Arianne could only stare in disbelief at the situation. Fishing line, almost invisible to the naked eye, was tethered from the inside of her locker to the door. When she punched in the combination and opened it, the line went taut and spilled everything.

Childish, she thought as she bent down, attempting to make sense of the mess.

A pale hand reached for her American history textbook and handed it to Arianne. She glanced sideways and smiled, the line of her lips short and tight. The boy that kneeled by her side rolled his eyes at her from behind thickly-framed glasses.

“The ‘pull and puke,’ huh?” he asked.

Arianne’s sigh finally broke free. “I know, right? It’s so seventh grade.” She stacked her loose notes and tapped them on the floor.

“I guess it never gets old.”

“Thanks, Wes.”

French-manicured nails clamped onto the boy’s ear and pulled hard until Wes was on his feet. He said “ow” repeatedly and grabbed at the hand attempting to separate the appendage from his head.

“What are you doing?” The question, hissed like steam pushing out of a kettle, made Wes stop squirming. What little complexion he had vanished.

Arianne straightened from her crouched position. “Darla, let Wes go. He was just trying to help me clean up the mess you made.”

Darla ignored Arianne, not letting go of the already red ear she pinched. “Do you have friends, Wes?”

The boy tried to nod, but the way Darla clamped onto him prevented that, so he whimpered an affirmative instead. A wet stain spread wider over the front of his pants.

“Darla! Stop this!” Arianne moved to help Wes, but Darla’s Keds connected with her shin, sending her slamming onto the lockers. The crowd paid no attention and kept moving. Even if Arianne asked for help, none of them would. She leaned heavily on the cold metal behind her, refusing to apply pressure to the source of the pulsating pain racing up her leg.

“Wes, how would you feel if your friends stopped being your friends?” Darla continued her interrogation, showing all her whitened teeth only inches from Wes’s cheek.

“Please, Darla,” Wes whispered, “let me go. I was just trying to help her.”

“That’s my point!” She raised her voice a fraction. Then she inhaled and blew out all her frustration on the poor boy’s face. “You don’t help Ari. No one does. Am I making myself clear?” She let his ear go and pushed him until he stumbled away. “As for you—” Darla smiled at Arianne like nothing happened “—better hurry up. First class is about to start.” She walked off, her pleated skirt swishing from side to side.

A scream, one that would make any Oscar winning actress proud, climbed up Arianne’s throat from depths of aggravation caused by the years of abuse Darla meted out. It took all the determination she had to swallow it down and breathe. She’d brought Darla’s wrath on herself. No one else was to blame for the mistakes she’d made years ago.

With shaking fingers, Arianne picked up her scattered books along with her dignity, cut the fishing wire, and shoved everything into the foot-deep upright coffin she called a locker. Her day had only begun, and she refused to let Darla’s immaturity ruin her mood.

Arianne rubbed her hands together as she neared the chemistry lab. She pushed away any stalker-y thoughts and let excitement and anticipation propel her forward. Nothing wrong with wanting to be in the same class as him, right?

At the door, she stopped and scanned the room, catching sight of her lab partner waiting at their table—a lanky girl who hadn’t quite lost the need to part her hair in the middle and braid it on each side of her head. Half the class had settled in already, examining the myriad of materials on their tabletops waiting to be used. No Niko. Arianne shoved the initial disappointment aside and waved at her lab partner, who showed off the braces on her upper teeth.

“New bands, Tammy?” Arianne asked when she reached their table. She unzipped her pack and fished out her lab coat.

“Do you like them?” Tammy smiled again, extra wide this time. “I wanted to go with red, but Mom says it makes my teeth look like I have spaghetti stuck between them.”

“I’d say pink’s your color.”

“It’s a good second choice.” Her mouth formed a pout. “I heard about the ‘pull and puke.’”

“Poor Wes.” Arianne shrugged. “He shouldn’t have helped me.”

Tammy slammed her hand on the table. “Why aren’t you fighting back? Darla’s been bullying you for so long, I’ve lost count of the things she’s done to you.”

“Let it go, Tam. There’s nothing you can do.”

“Oh yeah?”

Arianne stared at her friend until the other girl lost all her false courage. “I thought so.” She allowed a wan grin to cross the planes of her face. “I appreciate the support. Just one more year and I’ll be rid of Darla’s reign of terror.”

“So—” Tammy wiggled her eyebrows “—ready for some learnin’?”

Arianne’s nose crinkled, glad for the change of subject. “Easy for you to say. You’re already a chem goddess.”

“Oh, come on, Ari, it’s not that bad.”

“You weren’t the one who almost passed out from inhaling fumes last week.” She shrugged into her lab coat. Then she fished out a rubber band from the pocket of her jeans and secured her fire-hazard locks with it. “I hate to ask, but…what do we have to look forward to this morning? Anything that could potentially kill me this time around?”

Tammy pointed at the whiteboard. “Physical and chemical changes,” she said.

“Great.” Arianne groaned. “I might end up losing a finger.”

“That’s the spirit! Don’t worry—” Tammy patted her shoulder “—I’ll handle sections of the experiment that need matches and the Bunsen burner. Here’s your copy of the worksheet.”

Arianne pinched the stapled pieces of paper between her thumb and forefinger as if they’d been used to pick up puppy poop. “That makes me feel so much better.” She slumped sideways on her stool, letting her gaze wander.

Niko and his lab partner ambled in with their heads together, in the middle of a conversation. Carl—Niko’s curly haired, freckly faced partner—paled in comparison to the contrasting dark and light beauty of the specimen Nikolas Clark represented. Arianne always thought he was of a different species entirely. Maybe someone of a heavenly persuasion sent to Earth for mortals to worship. Niko pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes, breathing in like he hadn’t used his lungs for a while. He paused, said something to a suddenly hovering Carl, and put on his lab coat. Oh, how she wanted to be that coat. She bit her lower lip while her brows conferred with each other.

In hushed tones, Arianne said, “What do you think is wrong with Niko? He has shadows under his eyes, like he hasn’t slept in, like, a week.”

Tammy discreetly peeked at the last table nearest the back door. “You think he’s coming down with something?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen him tired before. He always looks so healthy.”

“Anyone can have a bad day, Ari.” Tammy perused their worksheet some more, flipping to the last page.

Arianne faced her partner. “Not Niko Clark. Not since he transferred here freshman year from Atlanta.”

“That long ago, huh? And you’re an expert on all things Niko Clark?”

“I—” Her tongue dried up. “I…uh.”

Tammy studied Arianne then snorted. “I smell a crush.”

“You smell watermelon shampoo!”

“All right everyone, settle down,” Mr. Todd said upon entering the lab. His hair had too much product, making him resemble a Ken doll, only without the perfect teeth. He paused until everyone faced him. “As you can see on the board, we’ll be differentiating between physical and chemical changes.”

About halfway through Mr. Todd’s pre-lab discussion, Mrs. Whistle—the school’s secretary—in her usual mumu and horn rimmed glasses, sashayed into the room like a supermodel, handed over a slip of paper, and promptly left without a word.

“Tammy Herald and Carl Thompson, you’re both to report to the principal’s office immediately,” he announced.

“What’s that about?” Arianne asked.

Tammy removed her lab coat and gathered her things. “I don’t know.”

Carl, backpack already in hand, waited for Tammy at the front of the class. He took the paper from Mr. Todd, and once Tammy reached him, they both left through the front door.

“Niko,” Mr. Todd said over the tsunami of whispers, “will you join Arianne, please?”

Arianne inhaled too fast, causing her to sway slightly. Somehow her heart had transformed into a bullet that ricocheted inside her chest. She braced herself on the table’s edge, staring at the test tube rack to keep from looking over her shoulder. Act cool. Just act cool.

Niko settled into Tammy’s stool and flashed Arianne a cordial smile. “Nikolas Clark,” he said.

Arianne tucked an imaginary strand of hair behind her ear, forgetting that the strands were currently tied together for her own safety. “I know,” she breathed out. “Uh, I mean, Arianne Wilson. It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Amusement seemed to make Niko even more handsome. “Finally?”

“I, uh, mean, for the first time.” Arianne returned her attention to Mr. Todd, who resumed his lecture after getting the class to pay attention again. “I mean, since freshman year. We’ve had freshman English together, sophomore geometry, and now chemistry.” Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!

“That many classes together and we’ve only just met?” He shook his head. “Well, I’m glad this chance has presented itself. It’s a pleasure meeting you, Arianne Wilson.”

Her spine went ramrod straight while her stomach flipped five times. When had she gotten on a plummeting rollercoaster?

“Okay, safety goggles on, and begin,” Mr. Todd said. “Remember to record all observations on your data table.”

Niko flipped to the second page of the worksheet. “There are six procedures on here. Care to split the jobs evenly?”

Arianne attempted to respond, but lost the signal between her brain and tongue. He even makes safety goggles look good, she thought. She snapped her jaw shut, eliciting a click. She swallowed, hoping nothing escaped.

“I’ll take odds and you take evens. Sound fair?” he asked cautiously.

“Shhuurrr.” Arianne fumbled as she reached for the insulating square she was supposed to place under the watch glass, according to the instructions.

“Is everything all right?” Niko glanced at her after he’d lit the Bunsen burner.

“I’m fine,” Arianne squeaked. She tore up small bits of paper and burned them on top of the watch glass by lighting a match and placing it on top of the pile she’d made.

Niko shrugged and proceeded to place a cube of wax into a test tube. He held the tube over the blue flame. “I would say this is a physical change, not a chemical one.”

“Okay.” Arianne scribbled his observation on the third page of her worksheet. The pen had a life of its own, wanting to write down “Mrs. Arianne Clark” on every available space, over and over again. Keeping her hand at bay, she said almost like a normal person, “And burning paper is a chemical one.”

Like manna falling from the heavens, he granted her a smile. “I’d say you’re right.” Then he did the unthinkable, he touched her shoulder. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Sparks ignited in the pit of her stomach. She could die and have no regrets. “I’m just a little nervous, I guess.”

“Chemistry not your thing?”

“You can say that. I just don’t get it.” She swallowed the tide of crazy thoughts. Understanding what he said next required a total brain-reboot.

“I think it’s more like a hesitation on your part to open up to the possibilities of what chemistry can teach you.” He leaned in a little closer. “Physics may rule the world, but chemistry is what makes it an interesting place. All the atoms, neurons, protons. They’re in everything. Binding everything together. We wouldn’t exist without chemistry. Worth thinking about, right?”

Oh, you don’t want to know what I’m thinking about, mister. An army of muscles had to help her assemble a smile that wouldn’t end up with her being slapped with a restraining order.

“Shall we start with procedures three and four, then?” he asked.

She absentmindedly reached for the magnesium ribbon and tore it. She placed two fingernail-sized pieces into a test tube and proceeded to fill a dropper with hydrochloric acid. Her attention shifted to Niko as he added sodium chloride to water in a beaker. The deft movements of his hands had her imagining things she shouldn’t be imagining. Things a girl like her shouldn’t be caught doing in public, let alone on top of a chemistry lab table. The dropper missed the mouth of the test tube she held just as she squeezed the black rubber end to release the acid. Droplets met her skin.

Even before she could register the pain, Niko had grabbed her hand and yanked her to the sink. The test tube and dropper clattered to the floor, meeting their imminent demise. He ignored the mess and opened the tap, placing her hand under the steady stream. Arianne yelped as the sudden burn was replaced by ice.

“Mr. Todd, where do you keep the sodium bicarbonate?” Niko asked.

“Brown bottle by the sink,” their teacher said. “Now class, I cannot emphasize strongly enough the need for caution. Please, handle the hydrochloric acid with care.”

Niko twisted the cap off the bottle and splashed some of its contents onto the red welt that rose on Arianne’s hand. “Better?”

“Much.” Arianne blew onto the raw skin. “Doesn’t burn as badly anymore.”

“Oh, we’re not done yet,” Niko said in all seriousness.

We’re not? Saliva flooded her mouth.

The boy of her dreams addressed their teacher. “Mr. Todd, I believe Arianne needs a cold compress. I’m taking her to the nurse’s office.”

Chapter 3

COLLISION COURSE

ON THE WAY FROM THE CHEMISTRY LAB to the nurse’s office, Niko threw discrete, albeit slightly lecherous, sidelong glances at Arianne. The different hues of her hair fascinated him—an angry mob of red, orange, and gold strands. They reminded him of the flames he’d stared into earlier that morning. And her eyes—the ocean on a clear day couldn’t compete. So open and so clear, he could almost see forever in their depths. He asked himself over and over why he’d only met the exquisite creature walking by his side now after all his years living in Blackwood. He hadn’t realized he’d spoken his thoughts aloud like an untested youth until Arianne’s lilting voice had every fiber of his being focused on her.

“Exquisite?” she asked, lips twisted. “I don’t think so. I’m pretty plain.” She indicated her shirt and jeans with a sweep of her hands. “Not exactly someone you’d notice. Not like Darla. All that polish. All that sophistication.”

She’d relaxed around him considerably. Moments earlier, he’d expected her to leap out of her skin if he so much as stared at her too long. She reminded him of a wary doe. And as much as he wouldn’t care to admit it, he represented the hunter. He loosened up his suddenly tense shoulders. Pouncing on her is out of the question, he scolded himself. You’re a gentleman for Christ’s sake!

“I apologize.” He scratched his cheek. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you. In fact, I didn’t mean to ask that question out loud.” He looked at her fully. “Don’t sell yourself short. Exquisite is the proper word. Like fine wine you didn’t know you had in your cellar until years later, after it has aged to perfection.”

“What do you know about wine?”

He studied her until she blushed, ignoring her question and asking one of his own. “What do you mean by ‘not someone you’d notice’? Are you saying everyone in school or just me?”

She hummed a quick syllable that sounded like the letter M. The urge to take her into his arms blindsided him into missing a step. He pretended to search for the imaginary pebble that tripped him when what she said next provided a fitting distraction to patch up his cracked composure.

“You only realized I existed because our partners got called away. That’s what I mean by being someone you wouldn’t notice. But, I’m not surprised since I don’t hang around much, and I’m not part of any groups. I don’t even know half the students in Blackwood High. You probably know all the students since you’re part of the popular group.” She tapped her cheek. “Well, maybe all of them except for me.”

Niko considered the logic of her explanation. Could it really be plausible not to meet someone he’d been classmates with all these years? Even through a quirky twist of fate? The answer slipped from his grasp. He let the matter rest only because he found her utterly charming, in an awkward sort of way. She blushed from head to toe every time their hands brushed against each other as they walked.

“What does Darla have to do with anything?” he followed up, selfishly wanting to keep her talking.

She shrugged—a small movement of her delicate shoulders. “You’re always around her.”

“We’re friends. Naturally, we’d be seen together.”

“Don’t you find her beautiful? Everyone in school does.”

“I thought you didn’t know everyone in this school?”

She laughed. It held such clarity—so sweet to the ear that it took his breath away. His legs refused to move. She captured his gaze completely, and he feared even more that he couldn’t help himself. He knew without a doubt that he needed to make her laugh again. He had to hear that sound.

“Is something wrong?” She stopped and faced him. Worry found a home in the lines of her forehead.

He picked his jaw off the floor, swallowed, and said, “Exquisite. Truly.”

Arianne dropped her gaze and held her hands behind her back as if she hid a gift. “I’m not used to being complimented,” she whispered.

Driven by the impulse to make her feel comfortable again, he came to her side and smiled reassuringly. “Why don’t we keep going then?”

“Right.”

They made a left at the end of the hall. Niko mentally slapped himself in a vain attempt to concentrate on the task at hand: escorting her to the nurse for an ice pack. She needed to cool down her acid burn before it decided to swell. But he soon realized the futility of concentrating on other things like putting one foot in front of the other. His stubborn eyes wouldn’t listen to reason, they kept returning to her. Unexpected warmth suffused his chest when she graced him with one of those shy smiles.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you speak funny,” she said.

Niko’s eyebrows came together. “How so?”

She blushed. “You’re so formal.”

“Oh.” A lightness inflated his chest. He felt his cheeks burn. “I guess it’s how I was brought up,” he said.

“I’m sorry.” She waved both her hands at him. “I didn’t mean to make you feel weird..”

“No.” He laughed. “Desmond teases me about it all the time. I can’t seem to break the habit, I guess.”

“No worries.” She smiled. “I like it actually. Sounds different. A good kind of different.”

Niko scratched his still red cheek. He had no idea how to respond to her words. He’d been complimented countless times, but they all sounded hollow to his ears until today. He liked that she liked the way he spoke. Another strange feeling he added to his already growing collection.

“You don’t have to, you know,” she said after a few more steps.

“Pardon?”

She averted her gaze to the deserted, locker-lined hallway. “Walk me to the nurse’s office. It’s not like I’ll faint. I’m not exactly bleeding or anything.”

Another grin played on his lips. Another unsettling activity since it came so naturally in her presence. The air around her seemed lighter, easier to breathe in, taking him to heights no narcotics could achieve. “As your lab partner for the day, I feel it’s my responsibility to make sure you’re taken care of. What would your friend…what’s her name?”

“Tammy,” she provided.

“Yes, Tammy.” He cleared his throat. “What would Tammy think when she returned to find I’d left you in less than perfect condition?”

The pink tint on her cheeks made him want to trace circles on her skin with his thumb.

“Thanks,” she said. “I should’ve been paying attention to what I was doing. chemistry has the tendency to bring out the klutz in me. Normally, I don’t spaz out, but when the experiments begin, I become an accident waiting to happen.” She poked at the redness of her hand and sighed. “Tammy always handled the more dangerous stuff in class. In terms of the experiments, I mean. Mr. Todd never seemed to mind. One time, I almost passed out from inhaling fumes. She made sure I didn’t. And this other time…oh, I’m sorry. I’m babbling.”

“Not at all. Please keep talking. I like listening to your voice.”

“My voice?”

“It’s like a stream through the forest, clear and refreshing to the ears.”

She studied him with those big, sea-blue eyes. “I don’t know where this is coming from, but can I ask you something personal?”

A red alert sounded. His guards went up automatically. On autopilot, he kept his expression neutral when he replied, “You may.”

She played with the hem of her T-shirt. “It’s just,” she began, “you look tired today. Are you feeling okay?”

His heart fled the country. An urgency bordering on panic filled him. What does she know? What could she know? His chest imploded. He decidedly didn’t like the heat that crawled up from his neck to his face. He had to fight to maintain the illusion of breathing normally. He shoved away his paranoid thoughts. Of course she didn’t know anything. How could she?

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. You just look like you haven’t slept, that’s all. I’ve never seen you look this tired before. Not that I look at you all the time. Far from it.” She huffed. “Again with the babbling. Anyway, are you coming down with something?”

The speed in which she spoke had Niko laughing in seconds. His defenses had gone from severe red alert to low green in record time. The nerves and panic vanished like a plane above the Bermuda triangle. He hugged himself and bent over, laugh after laugh queuing to be heard.

“What’s so funny?” Arianne sounded distinctly disgruntled.

Niko straightened and took a deep, calming breath. Someone must have tied balloons to his shoulders. He felt helium light. “You’re concerned about me when you’re the one with acid burn on your hand?”

Her magenta blush made him want to…what? He caught himself. He wanted to do what exactly? He heard the gentleman in him leave the room. A bomb had exploded in his head, and in the rubble laid shattered pieces of his common sense. What was wrong with him?

“Come on—” he motioned for her to follow “—your hand needs that cold compress.”

And I need a cold shower.

At the cafeteria, during lunch, Niko sat with Darla and her underlings. He’d forgotten the reason why he’d chosen her crowd—certainly not for the riveting conversation of who kissed whom the previous weekend or which sequined top they had to purchase. That day, Darla droned on about an upcoming dance, an activity Niko found tedious and inane. He tuned her out when the word “committee” came out of her mouth. He’d found something better to focus on.

Arianne sat at a corner table with a baseball-capped boy. After making sure Mrs. Preston—the school nurse—had applied a cold compress on Arianne’s hand, Niko had decided to return to class to salvage the rest of their experiment. He rationalized his leaving the clinic as having an A average to maintain. Yet every step he took away from her felt like a rubber band being stretched to its limit—him on one end and her at the other.

Her presence reeled him in once he’d noticed her leaving the lunch line. Nothing else could seem more fascinating than watching her skewer a piece of fruit and place it into her mouth. He had to steer the ship of his adolescent thoughts away from the iceberg that could potentially embarrass him in front of so many people. On second thought, I wouldn’t mind slamming into an iceberg right about now.

The boy to Arianne’s left leaned in and spoke. She laughed and nudged him. He laughed with her. Their smiling faces and the loving glow that surrounded them had Niko making a fist.

“Man, what’re you doing?”

Niko tore his gaze away from Arianne to look at the boy who sat next to him. “Pardon?”

Desmond grinned, his white teeth a startling contrast to his café mocha complexion. His chocolate eyes sparkled with mischief. “I think you just killed your soda.”

The other boys at the table cackled, watching the girls shriek as they pushed their seats back in an attempt get away from the brown, fizzy sea Niko had created.

“Watch it, Niko.” Darla grabbed napkins and dabbed at the spilled soda. “This is a brand new cardigan. Not that you won’t buy me a new one if it got ruined, but still. I’d like to hang on to this one for a while.”

“My apologies.” Niko relaxed the vise grip that held the can and blinked impotently at what he’d done. “I don’t know what came over me.”

The boys being no help at all, the girls tag-teamed the rest of the spill and chucked the soaked napkins into the nearest bin, mumbling something about how chivalry had been dead a long time. When they sat down again, they resumed planning the dance like busy buzzing bees.

“Here.” Desmond handed Niko a fresh napkin. “What’s with you?”

Niko wiped his hand clean then leaned closer to Desmond without removing his gaze from Arianne. “That boy sitting beside Arianne—”

“Ben Freeman,” Desmond cut him off. “He’s been friends with Ari since their sandbox days. Fairly decent guy. Great slugger.”

Niko had to dust off his file on baseball terminology. “So, he and Arianne—”

“That’s the thing, man. No one really knows. They look like they’re together, but their official stance is that they’re just friends. How’s that even possible? A guy and a girl—especially when said guy catches the eyes of the ladies and said girl is a total piece—can never really be ‘just friends.’” Desmond sandwiched the last two words in air quotes. “If you ask me, they’re totally getting it on.”

“Getting it on?” Another phrase he had to recall.

“Doing the nasty. Bumping in the night. Having wild, animalistic—Whoa! Hold on a minute, mister.” Desmond paused to gawk at Niko. “Are you trying to tell me you have the hots for Arianne Wilson?”

Niko slid lower into his seat. “What has you thinking that?”

“Niko, you know I’m your man, right? We’re brothers from another mother. But, dude, sometimes you’re just a little…” Desmond gestured with his hands as if he could pluck out the word from someone else.

“A little what?”

“Thick. Dense. Lead can be seen through better than you.” Again his perfect teeth emerged. “You know, like you have tunnel vision, or something.” He placed his hands on the sides of his eyes in an imitation of blinders. “Your locker was one away from hers last year, and yet, you didn’t notice her. What does that say about you?”

Disbelief clubbed him on the side of the head. Through his virtual concussion, he sifted through his memories from the year before and recalled nothing that had to do with her. “That’s impossible.”

“Niko,” Desmond said his name like a sigh. “In the years I’ve known you, not once have you shown any interest in a girl. Let alone someone like Arianne Wilson.”

“I notice girls.” His defense sounded hollow, even to his own ears.

“Yeah, and Darla’s a horse.”

“Excuse me?”

“I don’t want to be rude,” Darla interrupted, “but is our planning getting in the way of your little chat?” She glared at Niko. A graveyard hush swept over the table. The chill in her voice could freeze lava. “It’s bad enough you tune me out—and don’t even try to deny it—but seriously, you don’t have to be this disinterested.”

Niko narrowed his eyes at Darla for a millisecond before he graced her with a floodlight smile. “I believe a masquerade ball is a wonderful idea. It would bring some class to this little town,” he said with perfectly manufactured enthusiasm, reciting the last thing Darla said word for word before her interruption.

Fourth of July fireworks lit up Darla’s face. “You were actually listening to me?”

“Darla, I always listen to everything you have to say.” Niko reached across the table and gave her hand a quick squeeze.

“So…so, you think we should all go with the Masquerade Ball? Not the Haunted House Party?”

He let go of her hand and winked. “I think we should do anything you want to do. You’re the one with the best ideas.”

“I am?”

All the girls tittered their support. The boys—not dumb enough to contradict—volunteered to do all the heavy lifting.

“Then it’s settled,” Darla said as if she held a gavel in her hand.

Fatigue—the villain he’d been fighting against all day—hung on his shoulders like barbells. By the end of the school day, he could barely keep his eyes open. He stood at the top of the front steps, searching for his train of thought. It had left the station several hours ago. He couldn’t recall what he had to do next.

Kids scurried to and from the school. Some scrambling to attend whatever extra-curricular activity they’d joined at the beginning of year. Niko gave in to the temptation of kneading his eyelids. A slight pulse had begun to throb right in the middle of his forehead. A pillow. He wanted a pillow. And silk sheets. Better yet, his own bed—a four poster king with heavy velvet curtains that blocked out any form of light.

“Arianne, wait up.”

Hearing her name snapped him awake. He scanned the crowd and spotted that boy—Ben—running toward Arianne in his ever present baseball cap. She turned around and beamed.

Elation morphed into instant hatred toward the recipient of that smile. It almost knocked Niko over. He’d never come so close to bloody murder. It scared him, coming out of left field and slapping him in the face.

A target painted itself on Ben’s back after he handed Arianne a stuffed panda. She cuddled it to her chest. She rose on her tiptoes and planted a kiss on the boy’s cheek. Niko caught himself thinking that if he snapped his fingers the panda would disintegrate and Ben would find himself transported to the middle of the Sahara desert. Naked. With no food. Better yet, with man-eating camels after him. What? Man-eating camels?

Master. Sickleton’s voice echoed in his head, interrupting his plans.

What is it, Caretaker? he answered telepathically.

I apologize for the intrusion, but you are needed.

Niko closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, he stood in the foyer of his home. Sickleton waited for him near a marble table with iron legs. His lurid Caretaker greeted him with a frown perfected after years of practice.

“What is it?”

“I would have preferred it if you took the bus,” Sickleton said under his breath. “What if you were seen?” This he said louder.

“Sickleton, I’m tired. I don’t have the time or the patience to explain to you the intricacies of instant teleportation. I would prefer that you cut to the chase so I can begin my duties.”

A black envelope with silver calligraphy appeared, floating above his open palm. “From your wide-eyed expression, I take it you had forgotten what day it is.”

Niko constructed a formidable façade on the outside. Inside, however, he mentally chided himself for forgetting. “Have the minions enforce the Certificates while I’m gone.”

“And the souls, sir?”

“Have them gathered in the basement. I’ll escort them for processing when I return.”

“It would be prudent to rest first after the gathering.”

“Where is this worry coming from? It is most unlike you.” Niko stood tall, shoulders squared. “Shall I put in a request for a change of Caretakers?”

Shaking his head like a child about to be whipped, Sickleton said, “No, sir. Please, sir.”

“See to it you keep your worries to yourself then. I can most certainly handle myself.”

“As you wish, Master.”

Niko made a fist and a scythe materialized. Its icy-blue, transparent blade curved menacingly over his head. Its flat had holes varying in diameter from the largest at the base to the smallest at the tip. Gripping the scythe’s smooth Blackwood staff, he tapped the floor once with the metal stud attached to the end of the shaft. A death bell tolled low and deep—solemn and desolate. Black flames burned away his clothing, replacing them with a coal suit, a silk shirt, a pencil tie, and leather dress shoes. Elevator doors rose from the floor in front of him. They dinged open, and he stepped through.

Chapter 4

MORTALITY RATE

AN ALABASTER CHANDELIER GLEAMED over the longest marble table in existence. It sat twenty-six Reapers on each side, arranged according to the mortality rates of the states they represented. Death sat at the head, his cowl obscuring his beauty from those gathered. If he’d shown his face, nothing would get done. The lesser Reapers—the ones ranked twentieth and up—would end up staring at him the whole time.

Death scanned every punctual, pokerfaced Reaper present. He knew each one like the individual lines on the pad of his thumb. He’d birthed them. Named them. Molded them into the Reapers they grew into.

RUSA, or the Reapers of the United States of America, included a cross-section of his children ranging from ages seven to ten, teens, twenty-somethings, several in their thirties, one in her forties, and the oldest in his sixties. The men sat straight-backed in black suits with crisp shirts and tightly knotted ties. The women posed in resplendent dresses in various designs indicative of their personal taste—lots of lace, taffeta, and silk in a wide black spectrum to create its own rainbow. Not many knew of the different shades of black: onyx, ebony, coal…The list went on and on. When becoming a Reaper, one learned to be creative with the use of this particular hue. Death wouldn’t have it any other way. He thought of it as a challenge for his children. One they passed with—forgive the pun—flying colors.

The assemblage waited for the Reaper of New York—the maverick, the rebel. Death had to heave a muted breath. One joined the bunch every generation. During a previous lifetime, the Reaper of Texas had been the black sheep, if he could be called that among Death’s children. What he wouldn’t give for them to be mindless automatons. He knew all too well what God did to Lucifer when the power hungry angel decided he wanted more than his lot in life. After the incident, God had taken away many privileges his angels held, chief among them: free will. Death could remove his Reapers’ ability to make decisions, but why add another burden like controlling them all to his already heaping trove? He had other matters in need of his attention. Plus, the boredom would drive me insane, he thought. So, he put up with these little slights. The Reaper of New York did her job well, being ranked third among the states. He couldn’t complain.

It didn’t stop his eyebrows from dog-fighting, though.

He stared at the double doors made of the darkest oak. He tapped his finger nails on the armrest of his great chair—a steady rhythm, which he knew made even the Reaper of California—his number one—nervous.

An invisible force slammed the doors open. In unison, the group turned their heads to watch a lanky sixteen-year-old girl stomp in, the click of her stiletto heels a prickly tap, tap, tap on the parquet floors. Her once obsidian locks, now dyed a peroxide blonde, bounced in large curls. Lace fingerless gloves, a black and white polka-dot—silk over tulle—balloon skirt, striped leggings, and a man’s dress shirt opened down the front was her choice of armor. The contours of her breasts, covered by a satin push-up bra, peeked out. A scythe pendant dangled from a silver chain at the valley made by her ample bosom. Black nails, kohl eyeliner, and blood-red lipstick completed the ensemble.

She stretched her arms up as if after a dismount and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the party has arrived.”

“Sit down, Janika,” Death said.

Janika tsked, but didn’t defy the command. She disappeared and reappeared seated on the third chair to Death’s right, propped her boney elbows on the table and her sharp chin on steepled fingers. “I missed you, Master.” She winked.

Death cleared his throat. “Now that we are all present, let us begin. Tomas, please proceed.” He glanced at the Reaper of California whose hair was a salt and pepper mix of layered locks.

The Reaper mentioned made a fist with his right hand and from it grew a scythe with a massive blade. Its face had a series of interlocking circular symbols. Three gnarled ash branches wove into one another to form its shaft. He tapped the onyx stud at the end of the staff on the floor. The death knell sang, echoing into itself before leaving the room via the open doors.

“As the Reaper of California, ranked first among the states,” he said in a reverberating alto, “I hereby call this meeting of the Reapers of the United States of America to order.”

Death’s gaze zoomed in on the Reaper of Georgia. Despite Nikolas’s regal countenance, his shoulders drooped slightly and the dark circles under his eyes were quite troubling. Death considered the young man, leaving a fraction of his attention on the meeting. The Reaper of Georgia troubled him more the most. No matter how rebellious the Reaper of New York could be, she still upheld her duties and the sanctity of her responsibilities. She never allowed herself to be stretched as thinly as what the Reaper of Georgia seemed to be doing. The boy practically had to battle to stay awake.

Worry, an emotion he disliked, yet found necessary to run a smooth business, nagged at him. What could be going on in the Reaper of Georgia’s life that exhausted him so?

Nikolas, Death whispered in the Reaper’s consciousness.

Nikolas sat up, startled by the sudden intrusion. Death rarely used telepathy because of the ferocity of his presence. The Reapers could take it, but it still felt like sticking one’s ear beside a roaring jet engine.

Yes, Master, Nikolas answered, blinking repeatedly.

Once this meeting is adjourned, come and see me, my child.

Nikolas dipped his head to indicate his acquiescence to the request.

“I don’t understand why you don’t have anything to report, Travis,” Janika said.

The Reaper of Texas shrugged—all coiled muscle and raw sexuality in the movement of his broad shoulders. “That’s just it, darlin’. Steady as she goes in the Lone Star state. Heart disease is still the number one killer. If you’re aiming for larger numbers in one go, get back to me during hurricane season. I might have something for you then. Maybe.”

“Well, I have something.” Janika’s lips resembled a Venus flytrap when she smiled. “A serial killer is running around in upstate New York. He’s killed ten already and doesn’t seem to be close to getting caught.”

“It astounds me why you take so much pleasure in murder, Janika,” Tomas said.

Several other Reapers down the table bobbled in agreement, deferring to the oldest and most powerful of them. Since Tomas held California, he had more souls to handle than the rest—the bigger the territory, the higher the population’s mortality rate—hence the greater amount of residual energy he gained.

Death let the argument play out while he contemplated the powers of his Reapers. When they’d been created, he gave them the ability to take energy from the souls they reaped. This way, he didn’t have to feed them energy. Of course, the system could take its toll on a Reaper. If one of them didn’t use the residual energy accumulated, an overload could occur. Forgetting to take in energy activated the Fade—Death’s fail safe system. It prevented Reapers who held large populations from overpowering their master. Not that anyone could.

“You like nothing but attention, don’t you, Janika?” Nikolas challenged.

What do we have here? Death eyed Nikolas like a present he hadn’t expected to arrive.

Janika relocated her jaw and said, “Well, the serious one finally speaks up. You look terrible, by the way.”

“Not as horrible as that outfit you call appropriate for this meeting. What are you? An eighties pop star?”

“Uh!” Janika’s long-nailed fingers crumpled into a fist. An abyss consumed her eyes, a yellow slit opening at the center. Her blond curls trembled. A deadly grimace formed on her youthful visage, betraying her true age. A gust had the women shrieking their displeasure at having their hairdos ruined. Energy crackled, charging the air in the room with static. “When did you become so chatty, Nikolas?”

“Things change, Janika.” Nikolas leaned forward and faced the Reaper of New York, an insolent grin his answer to her show of power.

“Let it go, Janika,” Death interjected, his lifted hand covered by the voluminous bell sleeve of his robes.

“He insulted me, Master.” Janika pouted.

“Your behavior is insulting to this gathering,” Tomas chided, the chill of a grave in his tone. “It is because you are ranked third that you must set an example for the others. Letting the Reaper of Georgia bait you is unbecoming.” He looked away from the cowed youngster and addressed the head of the table. “Master, shall we proceed with this meeting?”

Death tilted his head in assent. “I will see you later, Janika.”

“Yes, Master,” she whispered, her eyes returning to normal.

Seated behind his desk, Death prepared himself for the conversations to come. The meeting had run on like a marathon. Fifty-two states felt like a million. Eternity gave itself a new meaning, and all because of Janika. The Reaper of New York wouldn’t shut her mouth, salivating for another confrontation. Even the saintly Tomas snapped at her.

A whisp—the soul of an unborn child—passed through the door and floated toward him. “Master,” it squeaked. “The Reapers of New York and Georgia are both awaiting your indulgence.”

Death stifled the urge to knead his forehead by dropping his cowl. “You may let Nikolas in, Nim,” he said.

The whisp froze, mesmerized by his beauty.

“Nim!”

It hopped then trembled. “Yes, Master.” It bobbed to the door.

A breath later, Nikolas entered, his gaze cast to the ground. He executed a practiced bow any performer would envy.

“You wished to see me, Master?” he asked after he straightened. His handsomeness lacked its usual fire. Only an ashen pallor remained.

“Would you care to take a seat, Nikolas?”

A chair made of bones materialized in a puff of smoke upon Death’s request.

“Have I displeased you in some way, Master?”

“Please, my dear boy, sit down.”

“Master, I don’t—”

“Sit down!” Death’s voice boomed like Jupiter’s thunderstorms.

Nikolas fell into the chair, his head hung limp for the noose. He inhaled sharply and exhaled slowly. Then he lifted his head and waited.

Disgust embraced Death. No Reaper should be so weak.

“Is something the matter, Master?”

“I’m curious, why did you antagonize Janika earlier? It is most unlike you.”

Nikolas shrugged one shoulder. “She had it coming. I can’t stand her. I never could.”

“And yet you risk making an enemy of her. Cockiness can get you punished.”

“It has nothing to do with being cocky, Master. She means nothing to me.”

“Remember your rank, Reaper.”

“I do, Master. I do.”

A strangled silence passed before Death asked, “How are your duties?”

Nikolas’ brow puckered. “A massive pile up—”

Death forestalled any other explanations with a raised hand. “I didn’t mean for you to repeat your report from the meeting earlier. I already know of that.”

“I fail to understand—”

“What I don’t understand, Nikolas, is your utter disregard for your work,” Death cut in.

“I have never been remiss with my duties, Master. I follow protocol and blend into society, do I not?”

“Yes.”

“And I enforce the Death Certificates in a timely manner?”

“Certainly.”

“And don’t I escort the souls here for processing?”

Death nodded once.

“Then, pardon me, Master, for being confused as to why I am sitting here with you, when I need to return to those duties.”

“Then explain to me why you haven’t replenished yourself with residual energy?” Death tented his fingers. “Do you have a death wish, my child?”

Nikolas leaned forward until his elbows touched his knees and covered his face with his hands. He said nothing for the longest second recorded in history. When he sat up, his features showed only a fraction of the fatigue he’d brought with him. “I must admit to being remiss, Master,” he said in even tones. “I’ve had a lot on my mind of late.”

“What keeps you up at night?” Death pressed.

“Perhaps…” Nikolas paused. “I have lived a long time. I have seen countless sunsets.” His gaze seemed so far away. “I question my purpose, Master.”

“Your purpose?”

“Forgive me. It is not my intention to confuse. Even I find it difficult to understand what I am going through. A crossroads, if you will. But I believe I can find my way again.”

Death took a moment to assess the situation. If Nikolas couldn’t find a way out of the mire of ennui he currently swam in, he’d continue the Fade, and Georgia would need a new Reaper. As much as possible, Death didn’t want that. He’d resort to cruelty if he had to. But if Nikolas found his way out, he’d find himself transformed.

Intrigued by the possibilities, Death said, “Tomas went through your predicament some centuries back. Do you remember?”

Dismay made friends with Nikolas’s fatigue. “He was a pain to live with then.”

“Yes, and look at him now. He went from the Reaper of Wyoming, ranked fiftieth, to the first with California.” Death recalled those growing pains for Tomas. It had been during a different time. “Would you want to speak with him about his experience to gain some clarity?”

“That is gracious of you, Master. But I must decline.”

“Ah, my dear Nikolas, always so independent.”

“If it so pleases you—” he stood “—I must take my leave.”

“Be well, Nikolas.” Death gestured at the door. “Now, if you will please send in Janika. We have matters to discuss regarding her conduct.”

Nikolas had the gall to smirk. “With pleasure.”

Chapter 5

EXPLOSIVE DEVICES

ON THE BUS TO ATLANTA, Arianne did the popcorn bounce in her seat. She still couldn’t believe she’d spoken to Nikolas Clark, let alone that he brought her to the nurse’s office. He’d been charming and too handsome for his own good. Yummy, the tip of her tongue ran over her lower lip. The brooding expression he wore when she’d asked him about his health made her like him even more. And his voice…so smooth, so warm, it wrapped around her like hot fudge on vanilla ice cream. She could listen to him speak all day if she had her way.

Ben hadn’t been too happy with her talking all through lunch and American history about her encounter with Niko. The friendship code had him listening patiently for a while, but when she got to the part where Niko brought her to the nurse, he’d shut down faster than a police checkpoint. She thought back to Ben’s reaction at lunch…

“What’s with the face?” Arianne asked, seated at their usual table. “You’re doing that thing where you want to keep smiling but you’re feeling something else. It makes you look distorted.”

“Who’s making a face?” Ben said. “Not me.” He twisted the top off his water bottle and washed away his lie.

“Spit it out, Ben.”

He brought down the bottle like a gavel, making Arianne twitch. The table looked so interesting right about then. “I take it you heard about the ‘pull and puke,’” she said.

“Why do you keep letting Darla bully you?”

“Be-en,” Arianne whined, pronouncing his name as two syllables instead of one. “You know it’s not that simple. I have to live with what I did.”

“But how long will you have to suffer for something that isn’t even your fault? You have to let me help you.”

Arianne shook her head emphatically. “That’s not part of the bargain. She will leave you alone as long as you don’t interfere.” She took his hand in hers. “Ben, please, I don’t want you getting the brunt of what Darla can do. What she’s putting me through is relatively mild. All she wants is to humiliate me. I can take it.”

The breath he released brought with it a slumping of his shoulders. “Fine, you can go back to gushing about Nikolas Clark.” He cringed.

“I know. I know. I’m getting ahead of myself.” Arianne peeled a banana. “But you should have been there.”

“I’m glad I wasn’t,” Ben mumbled into his pizza.

Arianne’s exhale came from a place in the clouds. “He’s a total gentleman. He waited until Nurse Betty started fussing before he returned to class.”

“I would have stayed,” Ben whispered between bites.

“Okay” she poked his shoulder “don’t think I don’t hear you. Would it hurt for you to give a little support here? I mean, I finally got to talk to Nikolas Clark. The guy no one, not even the great Darla Masters, can pin down. Granted, I must have sounded like a total crazy person…”

“Ari, don’t you think this crush has gone on long enough?” Ben swirled the contents of the bottle he held. “Maybe he bats for the other team.”

“That’s just cruel! And no one could substantiate your claim.”

“Don’t tell me you’ve checked?”

“Of course, I checked!”

“Can anyone say stalker?”

“There’s nothing illegal about satisfying one’s curiosity. But I’ll admit to a few stalker worthy moments,” she said in exasperation. “Today, I got my wish. I was front and center at the Niko Clark experience. The way he smells —”

“Eww.” Ben gagged. “Seriously? You sniffed him?”

“You don’t know how much this means to me.”

He grimaced then leaned in closer. “Oh, yeah? Remember Joey Tarrintino in second grade? Weren’t you supposed to marry him?”

“That was before he bit me. I thought I had rabies for a while.” Arianne laughed out of embarrassment and nudged Ben away.

He’d laughed with her. She’d sneaked a peek at Darla’s table. Everyone seemed preoccupied with cleaning up a spill.

The bus lurching to a stop popped the memory. Arianne left her window seat and scrambled to get off before the driver closed the door. She hopped onto the pavement and gazed up at the massive building of St. Joseph’s Hospital. The green foliage surrounding the structure softened its hard edges and intimidating size. Still, Arianne had to beat with a stick the instinct to run away. Even with the exciting news she wanted to share with Carrie, standing outside the hospital gave her pause.

Just get on with it, Arianne psyched herself up. After a steadying breath, she took the plunge to the entrance one quick step at a time. The stink of antiseptic coupled with an atmosphere of sickness and suffering twisted her stomach the second she passed through the glass doors.

Visiting Carrie at St. Joseph’s rose to the status of complicated when Arianne’s skill sprouted like a toadstool after a rainstorm. Every time she entered the building, she’d see the living and the dead walking past each other in an eerie dance, not noticing one another. Arianne had never liked hospitals from the get go, but now, seeing all the recently deceased made the experience worse. She couldn’t bring herself to think about Carrie…Arianne pushed away the thought with maximum determination. Carrie would keep going. No matter what, she’d beat the odds. The strength of her younger sister as she fought her battles belittled what Arianne went through within the halls of St. Joseph’s. If her sister could wait patiently for a kidney without losing her firework smile, then by God, Arianne could survive witnessing dead, naked people walking around. Mostly, she kept her eyes on the floor as she scurried along. That way, all she really saw were feet. Nothing gut-wrenching about feet.

“Sorry!” Arianne yelped after she slammed into someone.

“Ari? Is something the matter?” a nurse in Winnie the Pooh scrubs asked, concern bringing her caramel eyebrows together. Arianne took her in. Small wisps of hair curled down the nurse’s nape even though she had her wild tresses in a bun. A clipboard shield and stethoscope stole made up her everyday battle uniform.

“Hey, Mila. Didn’t see you there.” Arianne rubbed her battered nose. “What’s up?”

Mila tsked. “Are you worried about Carrie again?”

“Carrie? Who’d be worried about her?”

“You’re right. It’s hard to worry about that one. So, what’s with staring at the floor all serious like?”

“School stuff, you know?”

“Is it about a boy?”

“No!” The hamster in Arianne’s chest got on its wheel and started running. “Yeah, maybe a little.”

“That’s ma’girl.” Mila ruffled her hair. “I’m sure you’re dying to tell Carrie.”

“Totally.”

Mila pointed at the white bandage. “What’s with the hand?”

Lifting her hand to give the nurse a clearer view, Arianne shrugged. “Chemistry.”

With a knowing gaze, Mila shook her head. “Get on with it then. I’m sure Carrie’s waiting for you.”

Arianne gave the grinning nurse a small wave and hurried along. She ignored the naked old man who’d stepped out of the room two doors down from Carrie’s by pretending to shift her school bag to her left shoulder. Five determined strides later, her attempt at a grand entrance into her sister’s private room failed. The trumpets and drums that announced her arrival ceased.

Carrie sat in bed propped up by three pillows when most patients only got two—a testament to her people smooching skills. She devoured the latest Lisa Kleypas novel their mother had bought for her over the weekend. Her hair—once a vibrant red—hung loosely over too-thin shoulders. Now, it was a dull brown and so brittle that combing it resulted in clumps breaking off. No more hospital hair spa days after that. Carrie took her punches like a champ. She had dusted herself off and said, “Who needed hair spas when I can wear mine all loose and sexy?”

Carrie flipped a page, ignoring the dialysis machine that whirred at her bedside. Arianne sent up a silent prayer of thanks for her sister’s continued life and for whoever invented the machine that prolonged it while they waited with bated breath for a miracle. No matter how much she hated hospitals, Arianne had to admit, St. Joseph’s did a great job with Carrie.

Arianne’s gaze landed on an arrangement of sunflowers, their yellow petals brightening up the space. “Where’s mom?” she asked.

“Hey, sis.” Carrie handed out her signature cheeky grin. “Mom is…”

Out of nowhere, wildflowers seemed to blossom around Carrie. Arianne’s love for her sister drowned out anything the girl in bed had to say. A well-spring of tears bubbling up blurred the scene of her sister as the fairy princess among the flowers. Terminally ill thoughts disappeared from Arianne’s mind.

A book flew by, erasing the wonderful tableau. Arianne ducked reflexively. The romantic missile hit the wall, barely missing her head. “What was that for?”

“Stop standing there like a ninny.” The fairy princess pointed. “Are those tears I see?”

“Allergies.” Arianne sniffed. She crossed the room and positioned herself on the bedside chair their mother often slept on. “What was that you were saying about Mom?”

Carrie’s penchant for melodrama resurfaced when she portrayed the perfect lady during a swooning spell. “Oh, what am I to do? No one loves me anymore.”

“My lady,” Arianne played along, “whatever have I done to cause such ire? I only came to inquire about our mother dearest.”

And like a switched channel, Carrie went from classical movie to the news. “She went to work this morning and plans to come back tonight. It’s only you and Dad again, I’m afraid.”

“We manage. You know he took the morning off?”

“Without telling Mom?”

Arianne nodded like a seal being offered a bucket of fish. “Our little secret, he said. And he even griped about being entitled to a morning off once in a while.”

“I’d love to hear him say that to Mom.”

“He wouldn’t dare.”

They shared a giggle.

Moving on to another topic, Arianne said, “What happened last night? Dad said you guys were waiting on news about a possible donor?”

Carrie winced. The pillows seemed to engulf their precious patient, shielding her from harm. It made her look smaller and frailer. The fairy princess wilted.

To the rescue, Arianne jumped out of the chair and gripped the guardrails, ready to banish the source of Carrie’s pain. “Is something wrong? Should I call for Mila? Where does it hurt?”

“Oh, you know,” her highness answered breathlessly, “dialysis day isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Sit, sit, I’m fine.”

“I can call for Mi—”

“Sit down, Ari!”

The sisters had a staring contest until Arianne fell into the chair again. The image of Carrie looking more tired than ever tattooed itself behind her eyelids.

“That pile-up on I-75. There were possible donors from the casualties, but none of them were a match.”

“I talked to Niko Clark today,” Arianne blurted out, unable to take the hint of desolation hiding in the corner of Carrie’s neutral expression.

“Way to bury the lead, sis!” By the power of the sun’s rays, the fairy princess had been revived. “How did that miracle happen? And please don’t tell me you babbled.”

The embarrassment that moved into Arianne’s gut when she’d hit puberty must have been clear because Carrie clucked her tongue several times.

“You babbled. Oh, Ari, I can’t leave you alone for a second. He must have thought you were a total crazy person.”

“Thanks for the support, sis.” Where’s a good foam bat when you need one?

“So, spill, and don’t leave anything out.”

Forgetting the bat, Arianne launched into an animated narration of what had happened: Seeing Niko on the bus, Tammy and Carl getting called away, Mr. Todd asking Niko to be her stand-in lab partner, the acid on the hand accident, which had Carrie in stitches.

“It’s not that funny, you know.” Arianne let the chair give the comfort she needed.

“You’re such a dork,” Carrie said between giggles. “What did you do next?”

“I didn’t do anything. He took me to Nurse Betty’s office. He stayed until I had an ice pack on my hand.” She ran her fingers over her bandaged hand.

“I would have stayed.”

“Ben said the same thing.”

“Great minds.” Carrie’s eyebrows wiggled.

“Oh, but he’s so yummy, sis. I swear, I’d bring home a pint of that any day.”

“Speaking of all things yummy, how’s my fake boyfriend doing?”

“That reminds me…” Arianne disentangled herself from the suddenly touchy-feely chair and rescued her discarded backpack at the other end of the room from the attack of the paperback.

“He wanted me to give you something,” she said, tossing the book aside before unzipping her bag and liberating the plush panda from its depths.

Carrie squealed, her hands stretched out. “He’s so cute! Gimme, gimme, gimme!”

“The panda or Ben?” Arianne handed her the stuffed animal, which her sister proceeded to crush to her chest until girl and animal became one.

“Both.” She gave the panda one more squeeze before subjecting it to a thorough examination. “I name thee Sir Harold.” Carrie’s smile almost made Arianne fall off the chair she’d forgiven and reunited with. “Tell him thanks.”

Regaining some semblance of control over her mental functions, Arianne recited Ben’s message. “He said he couldn’t make it today or the rest of the week. But the weekend he’s free.”

“Coach Simmons having him fill in again?” Carrie plopped Sir Harold on top of her head and balanced him there.

“I don’t know why he refuses to join the team. He’d certainly make it to the regular line up without any trouble.”

“Ben loves baseball, but he can’t abide being on a team for long. He’s more a lone wolf that way.”

“Eww! Will you remove that dreamy, mushy sigh from your voice?” Arianne shuddered. “I keep telling him he should learn to play nice. He could even get a college scholarship the way he plays. Maybe even go pro!”

“Don’t be hard on Fake Boyfriend. He doesn’t need a scholarship. His dad earns enough to send ten kids to any university of their choice. And FB’s an only child.”

“FB?”

“Fake Boyfriend. I’ve decided to abbreviate.”

Arianne chuckled. “I’ll let him know he’s been abbreviated.”

“You do that.” Carrie showed all her teeth. “What’s with the unibrow?”

“Niko.” Arianne took a stab at unraveling the Gordian knot of her brow. “He looked so tired. Like really tired. I’ve never seen him that way before.”

“Worried? Wait.” She lifted an all too fragile hand. “Of course you are. You’d worry if he’d gotten a split end.”

“Carrie!”

“As if I’m not right.”

“Come on, be serious. He really looked like he’s coming down with something.”

“And it’s not even flu season.”

Arianne threw her hands up. Ding, ding, ding. KO! Trying to figure out what was up with Niko would prove to be an exercise in futility anyway. But it didn’t mean she couldn’t torture herself by going over the possible scenarios. He had the flu. He worked several odd jobs at night to survive. Or he helped fight crime as some caped crusader. Hitting a brick wall with the third one, she resolved to ask him again the next day, assuming they’d be chem partners again. Then she remembered the most exciting part of her interaction with Niko said.

“He said I was exquisite,” Arianne said. “What do you think that means?”

“Oh ho!” Carrie clapped her hands. “Maybe he likes you too?”

Ari frowned despite her heart’s fluttering beat. “Carrie, he didn’t even know I existed until today. I think he was just being nice.”

“Don’t be like that.”

“Like what?”

Carrie gestured at her older sister by a year. “I know you don’t look at yourself often, but seriously, sis, you’re gorgeous.”

A blush exploded on Arianne’s face. “I’m nothing like Darla. She wins in the looks department.”

“Stop being so cynical. Just because you don’t think you’re worth looking at doesn’t mean others don’t notice. Niko was right, you are exquisite. Odd word to use though.”

“Right?” Arianne sighed dreamily. “But I love how formal he sounds. So gentlemanly.”

Carrie rolled her eyes. “A gentleman who doesn’t stay with you in the clinic?”

“See! That’s why, no matter what he says about how exquisite I am, I really think he’s just being nice.”

The sisters held down the fort until their mother arrived. Even an expensive power suit couldn’t hide the haggard chic the strawberry blonde embodied when she walked into the room with several grocery bags.

“Mom,” both girls said at the same time.

“Hey, ladies,” she breathed out, dumping her handbag and groceries on a table.

“Mom, you look—”

A warning glare from Carrie cut short the rest of Arianne’s words.

Their mother flipped her hair. “I’ll take nothing less than ravishing.” Her eyes narrowed at Arianne. “What are you still doing here? You’re father’s on his way home as we speak.”

Both girls grinned like twins. “Talking boys,” they answered.

Her face melted into a teary smile. She squeezed both her daughters into a tight hug. “I love you two!” She kissed them on each cheek then returned to mom mode. “Ari, I left lasagna in the fridge and a load in the wash.”

“I’ll take care of it.” She snuggled Sir Harold. “See you tomorrow?”

Carrie opened her mouth to answer, but it was their mom who said, “She has tests.”

Arianne glanced at the woman who managed to combine sophistication and fatigue into a cover-worthy pose. Her heart scrunched up a little more. “The next day?”

“Of course.”

The sisters hugged and giggled one more time before Arianne left. Counting the tiles on the floor, she gripped the strap of her school bag and hurried to the hospital’s main entrance. When the glass sliding doors parted and the balmy early evening Georgian air welcomed her with open arms, she lifted her gaze and halted in her tracks abruptly.

Chapter 6

CHALK OUTLINE

NIKO SHUT THE DOOR to his master’s office and shook away the aftereffects of being in his presence. Sitting alone with Death felt like basking in the noon sun. Not only did it burn, it blinded. Normally, being ranked ninth gave him a certain amount of immunity, but with his power supply dwindling, Niko had to white-knuckle through the whole experience.

He refused to rub his eyelids despite his ever blurring vision, knowing Janika watched him like a predator from her seat on the waiting couch. It was upholstered in polar bear fur. He saw two of her when she spoke.

“Let me say this again—you look horrible,” she said. She crossed her legs and spread her arms wide over the top of the couch.

“As if you can match me in looks on my worst day,” Niko retorted. He tried on a smirk, but his lips trembled. Weakness stood arm in arm with him, whispering into his ear to give up. His legs refused to keep him upright. Only the force of his will kept him standing. Barely.

“Oh, why must you continue to antagonize me so? At least make it a fair fight, Nikolas. If I decided to crush you now, I’d only get a slap on the wrist compared to what I have planned for you. But it wouldn’t be a challenge at all in your state.”

“I’d like to see you try.”

“Despite being as weak as a whisp, you still challenge me?” With preternatural speed, she had him pinned against the wall, her long-nailed fingers digging into his neck. She licked his face from jaw to temple. “I like this suicidal side of you. Make one mistake, just one, and I promise I will be the first to volunteer to make you suffer.”

Niko dug the fingernail of his thumb into his palm, focusing on the pain it caused instead of the roiling rage inviting him to snap. He’d be no match for the alligator that had him in its maw. Mental note: If you survive this, you dolt, gather as much residual energy as you can.

“Janika!” The avalanche of Death’s voice rumbled through the door.

She winced and released Niko. “I’ll see you around, Reaper,” she said then disappeared.

Niko tidied his suit jacket and tie with shaking fingers. He’d reached his limit. The light beside his gas gauge blinked.

He closed his eyes and concentrated. When he opened them, he still found himself outside Death’s office. He rolled his shoulders, stretched his neck until vertebrae popped, then tried teleporting again.

Slumped forward on a bench, arms on knees, Niko contemplated how he’d ended up an hour away from home. He’d concentrated enough on the location he wanted to arrive at, yet here he sat, on a bench shaded by a tree, facing a main road across from a hospital. His internal GPS had conked out on him. He didn’t know whether to be amused or concerned. He’d used up the last of his energy, bringing with it a buoyancy he’d heard associated with the Fade.

A woman walking a poodle gave him a half-hearted version of a concerned citizen.

“Are you all right, young man?” she asked.

Niko glanced up at her and squinted. He couldn’t find the strength to put on his usual mask of mortality. “I’m fine, ma’am,” he whispered, voice an inch away from the grave.

The poodle eyed him suspiciously.

Niko had to resist the urge to flick a ping of energy he couldn’t spare at the canine snob.

“Maybe you should go to the hospital,” the woman suggested. Her face said something along the lines of “I should’ve minded my own business.”

“Look, lady,” Niko said, “it’s obvious that you don’t really want to help me. And you won’t be of any help. Now, move along with your anorexic dog and leave me alone.”

“Well, I—” She sniffed then harrumphed and yanked at her dog’s leash, which caused the animal to yip.

Niko returned to figuring out the logistics of getting home. He needed to siphon residual energy as soon as possible. The hospital provided souls, but he needed to immerse himself fully, and the only place that contained enough souls, stored there by his minions, awaiting transport, was his basement. All he had strength for was to sit without falling over.

“Is this it?” he asked himself, tilting his head up to watch the sky change from pinch pink to bruise purple. “Why have I been so careless?”

The question intrigued him. If only he had time to reflect on it further. Why had he allowed himself to get so weak? Did he really want to fade away? He’d lived many lives. At the beginning, he’d enjoyed what his lives had to offer. He grew into himself, learning what it meant to be a Reaper, the power he accumulated in time to eventually find himself within the top ten—a private club with members that hardly changed. He couldn’t even remember the last time a new Reaper had joined their ranks. Then, and he wasn’t quite sure when, his lives started looking the same. Different lifetimes. Different decades. But everything remained the same. He grew up, went to school, graduated college, found an acceptable, yet modest job that kept him from being discovered as anything but human, then he died of old age to start the cycle all over again. He’d seen countless wars, reaped all those souls. He’d driven the first car. Watched man land on the moon. Observed the bursting of the dot com bubble. He’d seen the world change many times over, become a witness to the evolution of society. He should have been excited, happy, eager to wake up every morning with the knowledge that he did his job well. But as he sat on the increasingly lumpy bench, he found himself asking, “What do I have to live for?”

“Niko?” a voice he’d heard for the first time earlier that day swathed him in comfort. “What’re you doing here? And why are you in a suit like you just came from a funeral? Who died?”

“What does it mean to be alive?” he asked the girl who’d spoken with an urgency he couldn’t quite understand the purpose for.

“To be alive? Niko, you’re not making any sense.”

“Just answer the question.”

A long pause made him think she’d left him to his fate. He’d never thought of himself as suicidal, but there was always a first for everything. Then his salvation came as the words: “To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there.”

He barked a laugh. “You’re giving me a Kofi Annan quote?”

“Off the top of my head, it’s better than nothing!” She stomped her foot and slapped him on the shoulder. “Open your freakin’ eyes!”

At her request, he opened the eyes he hadn’t realized were shut. The strands of her fiery hair had lost none of their luster, even in the fading light. His angel had come to take him away, to save him from the pathetic existence of his own making with Kofi Annan quotes. He reached out a two-ton hand and caressed a lock that dangled off her shoulder while she studied him. His fingers slid effortlessly through the silky tresses.

“You have such beautiful hair,” he whispered.

She flushed.

He sighed. If she’s the last thing I ever see, then I’ve glimpsed heaven.

“Niko…Niko!” She tapped his cheek like a drum, in rapid Samba beats. “Open your eyes. Please. Open your eyes.” When he didn’t respond fast enough, she began pulling him off the bench.

He groaned, the weight of the ages begging him to stay seated. “What are you doing?”

“Taking you to the hospital.” She put his arm over her shoulders and proceeded to tug him across the street.

“No.” He managed to plant his feet firmly on the sidewalk to hamper their progress. “Arianne, no.”

She whirled her head to stare at him skeptically. “You’re gray! I’ve never seen anyone that color before. Don’t shake your head at me. It’s clear you need medical help. You can’t even stand on your own.”

The distress on her face melted his insides. “Please, take me home.”

“I don’t think going to my house—” She paused and thought about it. “Oh, you mean your house.”

“Do you know the way?”

Uncertainty replaced her concern. “Uh, yeah, sure…I do.” She cleared her throat. “But what will going to your house do? You need a hospital!”

“Trust me.” A spasm erupted in his chest, causing him to stumble. Arianne steadied him before he face-planted on the pavement. “We need to hurry,” he gasped out. “Please. I don’t know how much longer I can last.”

The bus out of Atlanta arrived.

“Come on.” She hustled them to the street corner. “We need to catch that bus.”

Niko gathered what little strength he could muster and aided Arianne in getting him on the bus. When they stumbled up the steps, the driver studied them dubiously.

“Shouldn’t you two be heading for the hospital?” he asked.

Arianne paid the fare. “Nah,” she said. “He just needs to sleep it off.” She imitated swigging an imaginary bottle.

Niko would have laughed at Arianne’s attempt at sullying his good-teen reputation, but he could no longer feel his legs.

The driver shook his head and muttered something about “kids these days” while shutting the door with the turn of a lever.

The five other passengers eyed them, some with curiosity, others with dismay. The bus lurched forward before Arianne and Niko could take their seat. Arianne used the momentum to heave Niko into a bench and nudged him closer to the window with her hip.

Along the interstate, Arianne said, “Are you sure about this?”

Niko took a minute to process her words. His head debated whether to stay attached to his neck or take its chances and run. It lolled to the side precariously.

“Yes,” he breathed out. “Thank you.”

“Don’t.” She stared straight ahead. “Don’t thank me yet.”

His head found salvation on her shoulder. He breathed in the sweet watermelon scent of her shampoo: summer in all its goodness. She stiffened for a second before relaxing into the contact.

“Niko?” she asked tentatively.

“Hmm?”

“I don’t want to alarm you or anything,” she continued in a quick whisper, “but your hand just disappeared.”

Niko opened one eye so fast his world spun for a second. He glanced down without moving his head from Arianne’s shoulder. A morbid grin tugged at his lips. His left hand had indeed disappeared.

“Well, isn’t that nice,” he said.

“Nice?” Arianne’s voice climbed an octave.

“Shhh. You don’t want the others to hear.” He used his still present right hand to squeeze her thigh. “Calm down. I’ll be fine. Just get me home.”

“But we’re still forty minutes out of Blackwood. What’s happening to you?”

“I’m fading.”

“I’d say there’s no such thing, but your hand’s gone.” She squirmed.

Niko squeezed her thigh one more time, unsure if he wanted to stop her jarring movement or feel that she still sat beside him. He decided on the latter. “Arianne, I’m having a hard time gathering my thoughts. Please, keep quiet. I’ll close my eyes for a second and rest. Wake me when we’re home.”

By the time Arianne dragged Niko up the steps of his home’s front porch, he’d become half delirious. Shakes and sweat rolled off him. He’d babbled incoherently, in and out of consciousness. Every beat of his heart radiated new pulses of pain through his body. At one point, he heard her ring the doorbell and pound on the antique door.

“Hello,” she yelled. “Is anyone home? Mr. and Mrs. Clark! Help!” She pushed at the doorbell incessantly.

In a moment of clarity, Niko asked, “Who are Mr. and Mrs. Clark?”

“Oh God, your fever’s getting worse.” Arianne tightened her grip around his waist. “You don’t even know you have parents.”

“But, I don’t—”

The door swung open with no one at the other side. Niko cringed. Another wave of gut-twisting agony playing stab-the-tail-on-the-donkey rammed his insides as Arianne dragged him into the foyer. His left arm had completely vanished along with part of his right leg up to the knee and his right arm up to the elbow. Holding on to Arianne and keeping upright at the same time brought the gymnast out in him.

“Hello!” Arianne called out again. The word echoed. “We could really use some help here! Hello!”

Sickleton materialized before them like a picture fading in. “Master,” he said, anxiety marring his usually passive features.

Arianne yelped and stumbled back, almost falling over with Niko in tow. “You only have half your legs! And I can see right through you!”

“Not important right now,” Niko slurred.

“Master, what is this human doing in your domain?” Sickleton hovered closer.

Arianne’s arm trembled as she pointed at his Caretaker. “Stay where you are or I swear…uh, I don’t exactly know what I’ll do. So, please, stay there!”

“Sickleton!” Niko tried for a command, but only came up with a hoarse murmur.

“Come.” The Caretaker motioned then floated away.

“What? Where?” Arianne still sounded spooked.

“Just follow me, child. I will not harm you.” Sickleton waved her forward. “He needs to be brought to the basement.”

After a second’s hesitation, Arianne moved. Niko felt the tremors running over her body, and her touch turned clammy. His angel persevered, and if he could only gain clarity of mind again for a minute, he’d spend those sixty seconds admiring her beauty. Instead, he wanted to puke his soul out. No one had informed him that the Fade wasn’t as painless as it sounded.

“The basement?” Arianne adjusted her hold on him. “Shouldn’t we be bringing him to a doctor?”

“Trust me, child,” Sickleton said over his shoulder. “He needs to be in the basement.”

Arianne frowned, saying nothing else. She followed the apparition before her with quiet intent. Niko groaned and attempted to lift his head, failing like a miserable drunk. They passed a long hallway with portraits of men in varying styles of clothing. Between each portrait were glowing sconces that cast watchful shadows along the floor and opposite wall.

“This way.” Sickleton veered left. “Hurry.”

“I don’t see you trying to help,” Arianne grumbled.

“I would if I could. But I cannot come near or he will suck me dry. The most I can do is get him to the basement.”

“Remind me to ask you to explain what the freak is going on here!” The fear in Arianne’s voice steered Niko.

“Don’t panic,” he said in a small voice.

“Too late for that. You know how the words ‘don’t panic’ never work? Well, this is more than what my weird quotient can handle.”

Sickleton opened a door and moved aside. “Down there.” He pointed at a set of steps that led into blind darkness.

Arianne stood by the door, knees shaking. “You want me to bring him down there?”

“Hurry, if you please.” Sickleton gestured at the stairs.

“But I won’t be able to see after five steps down.”

“I will provide illumination.”

Niko moaned.

“We are losing him. Please, child.”

The abject worry on the floating apparition’s austere face had Arianne steeling herself as best she could with a solemn swallow. She proceeded to climb down the steps. And like a switch being flipped, a ball of white light bobbed over her shoulder.

At the landing, she eased toward the last set of steps to the basement floor and paled. A crowd of the souls from the recently deceased swayed like dead trees in a roaring wind. They all stared into space, oblivious to anyone or anything around them. All naked. All dead.

The scream Arianne had been holding in finally found a hole in her courage to climb out. She dropped Niko on the landing with a sickening thud.

Sickleton appeared beside her and said, “Your help is very much appreciated.” He flicked his hand and unseen guards lifted Arianne up the stairs, down the hall, through the foyer, and out the door.

Chapter 7

CRIME SCENE

THE DOOR SLAMMED IN ARIANNE’S FACE, nearly clipping the tip of her nose. The invisible bouncers that rushed her out of Niko’s house plopped her onto the porch without ceremony or comfort. She moaned in a fetal position from the pain brought on by her posterior making out with the wood planking.

The fear of seeing all those souls had her shaking like she’d stepped out into the middle of winter and she’d forgotten to wear a jacket. She clenched her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering. Breathing hard, she gathered herself up into a seated position, grimacing at the continued ache. Panic elbowed her fear, lobbying for a space in her already crowded chest. She pushed herself off the floor and proceeded to pound on Niko’s front door with an open palm. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam.

“Niko!” she yelled at the top of her lungs. She didn’t care if the neighbors heard. “Niko! Please, someone open up! Niko!”

She kept slapping the wood until her hand ached. Worry spilled over her panic. Even if she didn’t understand what went on in Niko’s house, she still needed to know if he was all right. She moved away from the door, down the porch steps, and around the house, peeking into every window and checking if she could shimmy them open. All locked. All securely refusing her access.

By the time she’d reached the front porch again, the ache on Arianne’s palm dimmed. She stared up at the house, hands on her hips; the inside didn’t match the outside. A typical American Foursquare shouldn’t have a foyer bigger than the actual floor plan. The long hallway they passed to get to the basement belied the fact that there were more rooms than just four on each floor. And that basement. Arianne shivered at the memory. She couldn’t get herself to forget about all those dead people swaying like there was trance music playing in the background.

“Niko,” she whispered, then frowned.

Seeing no other recourse, and as darkness laid claim over the rest of the daylight, Arianne picked up the school bag she’d dropped when she and Niko had arrived, turned around, and trudged home. And you thought you were the weird one for being obsessed with His Delicious Highness.

She wasn’t sure when she’d started running, but the second her feet picked up their pace, she didn’t stop until she’d reached the front door of her house. She dropped her pack and fished out her keys from her pocket with uncooperative fingers. After three frustrated tries without any success of meeting key with hole, Arianne did a one-eighty and slid down to the floor with her back against the door. She thumped her head a couple of times on the wood and closed her eyes. The door opened, sending her sprawling with a squeak.

“Ari?” her father said. His face hovered a few feet above hers.

“Hey, Dad.” Arianne gave him the tiniest wave.

“You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t look okay. And why are you lying there?”

“Leaning, actually.”

He reached out a hand and hauled her up. “How about some lasagna? I have it in the oven already.”

“There’s a load in the wash, too.” She dusted off her jeans to keep from looking at her father for too long, afraid to betray the emotions that continued to whirl inside her. Niko. Niko. Niko. Every beat of her heart said his name. Should she have left? Could she have stayed? What would have happened if she did?

“Already in the drier,” her father said. He grabbed her pack and walked deeper into the house.

Arianne stared at his shoulders, still standing just outside the door. The ding of the oven pulled her inside.

Gasping awake, Arianne searched the gloom for the specters which had danced like kelp in her dreams a moment ago. A cold sweat rose from her skin as she lay in bed, gripping her sheets like a lifeline. Reality tiptoed into her room. What she’d seen defied anything she’d known to be true. Niko had been hoarding souls in his basement. His ghost butler told her to bring him there, but for what reason? And why did the butler not want to touch him? He said something strange like being drained. What could be drained out of a ghost?

She sat up, drinking air in gulps. Too fast. Too hard. All at once. She’d arrived at Hyperventilation City, population: one. Her lungs burned. Her heart attempted to punch a hole through her heaving chest. She snaked her fingers into the tangle of her hair.

She continued to worry, no matter what she’d witnessed. He’d literally faded before her eyes, limb by limb. When she exited St. Joseph’s, the last thing she’d expected was Niko sitting on a bench across the street in an expensive suit. Her first thought: God, he’s so sexy. Her second: What’s he doing here? Alarm infused her third: Why does his skin look gray? She ran to him without thinking twice, crossing traffic as if cars couldn’t kill her.

“It’s just not possible,” she said to her empty room, moonlight her only visitor.

With sleep a forgotten dream, she got out of bed, grabbed her robe, and left, shutting the door behind her as quietly as she could. Her father’s snores down the hall made her pause.

Awkward had joined the two of them for dinner. They’d eaten in silence until her father spoke up.

“You look like you’re either about to cry or run out of the house, honey.” He sprinkled more parmesan onto his lasagna.

“I’m just tired, Dad, that’s all,” came the lie. “School’s been a total pain lately.”

He stared at her. “Is it about Carrie?”

“Carrie? No!” She checked herself. “She’s fine. I left her all smiles.”

“Then what’s really bothering you? And don’t insist it’s school.”

Arianne stared at the ceiling before meeting her father’s steady gaze. “Have you ever been worried about someone?”

His fork hovered above his plate. “Someone?”

She squirmed. “This boy—”

“A boy you like?”

She checked her dinner for habanero peppers. Her neck felt too hot for just lasagna. “No!”

“Honey, it’s fine to like someone. You’re at that age.” He resumed eating, all worry gone from his features. “So, tell me about this boy.”

“No, Dad, it’s not about that. A friend looked sick and I’m worried about him. That’s all.”

“My Ari, always caring for the welfare of others.”

The goofy grin on her father’s face earned a flying chunk of garlic bread that hit him on the chest. Her initial salvo triggered a food fight that had them cleaning the kitchen for the rest of the evening.

Back to the present, her father’s soft snores reminded her of what she needed to do. She hurried down the stairs, shrugging on her robe as she went. After tying the belt tightly around her waist, she slipped into her sneakers and escaped via the back door.

Arianne stared up at the creepy Queen Ann house Ben called home. She’d forgotten to check the time when the impulse to go see him hit her.

Underneath the moonbeams, Ben’s house looked more ominous than it seemed during the day with its turrets and large chimneys. She stood there for a moment longer, debating between going home or climbing up the ladder leaning on the side of the house under Ben’s window.

He won’t be happy, her conscience said.

Who cares? I really need to talk to him.

In the end, her restlessness had her making the climb. She’d been in Ben’s room a thousand times, had witnessed its evolution from toy trucks and comic book superheroes to a baseball fan’s shrine. He had Atlanta Braves posters all over his walls. A bat signed by Dale Murphy lay on a stand at the top shelf of his bookcase. And his most prized possession—a baseball signed by Phil Niekro—sat on his bedside table next to his tomahawk lamp.

Ben slept on his stomach. He’d already kicked his blanket off and his even breathing poured guilt into her gut like liquid fire. Nevertheless, like the good, inconsiderate friend she’d been all these years, she bounced into his bed. Easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Ben yelped, falling off his bed. “What the hell!”

“Shhh!” Arianne crawled to where he sat. “It’s me. Don’t want to wake your dad now, do we?”

“Ari?” He rubbed his eyelids with the heels of his hands. “What time is it?”

She bit her lip to keep the grin from winning. He seemed coherent enough to hear her out, even if he normally needed hours to get his brain pumping on all cylinders.

“I don’t know,” she whispered.

Ben made a whimpering sound akin to a hurt puppy and climbed back into bed, not caring if he edged her to the side. “You’re going to pay for this.” He reached for a pillow and placed it over his head.

“Ben, come on.” She grabbed his shirt and shook him. “I need to talk. It’s really important.”

“What’s so important that—” He sat up so fast, Arianne almost fell off the bed herself. He grabbed her shoulders, eyes wild and hair standing on end. “Is it Carrie? Is she okay?”

“Eh?”

Her reaction deflated his immediate concern. He glanced at the baseball mitt digital clock on his desk and growled like a poked bear. “Jesus, Ari, it’s four thirty. I have to be up in an hour.”

“Coach managed to reel you into morning training?” Arianne’s eyebrows nearly joined her hairline. “That’s impressive.”

“Big game coming up. But seriously, why are you here?”

He sounded so tired that Arianne hesitated for another second.

“Come on, Ari, spit it out. You didn’t wake me up for nothing.” Ben sat cross-legged, hands clutching his ankles.

Arianne scratched her ear. “It has something to do with Niko.”

His groan almost sounded pained. “Ari, this is ridiculous. You woke me up just to gush about Niko Clark? That’s just cruel, even for you.”

“No, no. Ben, listen. When I saw him at St. Joseph’s today—”

“He was at the hospital?” Ben interrupted.

Arianne waved her hands between them. “No, he was sitting on a bench in a suit.”

“A suit? Ari, did you hit your head or something?”

“Something weird’s going on with him. His skin looked gray, and on the bus, he was fading, and then his basement had a horde of dead people in it.”

Ben stared at her with a blank expression. He blinked once then a second time. Then he pouted and said, “Let’s get our ducks in a row, shall we?”

Arianne nodded reluctantly.

“You saw Niko sitting on a bench outside St. Joseph’s.”

“In a suit.”

“Yes. Then you noticed his skin looked gray.”

“Like sickly gray.”

“And somehow you got on a bus with him.”

“He asked me to take him home,” she answered in all seriousness.

“And he was fading,” Ben continued.

“Yeah, like first his hand, then his arm, and leg.”

“And when you got him home, you saw that his basement has a horde of dead bodies.”

“No! Souls. You know? My kind of ‘dead people.’”

Ben sighed and closed his eyes. “Go back to bed, Ari.”

Her jaw dropped. “You don’t believe me?”

“I’m not in the mood to process right now.” Ben hugged his pillow and yawned. “Let me have my last few minutes of sleep and we’ll revisit this again at lunch. Okay?”

As soon as he lay down, Ben had fallen asleep. Arianne sat on his bed, frozen and dumbstruck.

Arianne walked into the kitchen with a tension headache following close behind. Her conversation with Ben a couple of hours ago baffled her as much as what she’d told him about Niko. It didn’t seem like Ben believed her. Or maybe he did and he was more annoyed with the fact that she’d woken him up too early. She chose to believe the former despite her conscience saying, I told you so! She dumped her bag by the table and slumped into a chair.

“Rough night?” her father asked from the stove.

“You’re cooking?” she asked back, surprise dulling the pulse in her head.

“Just some eggs.” He grinned over his shoulder. “Scrambled?”

“With cheese, please.” She reached out for the carton of orange juice and poured herself half a glass.

“Coming right up.” Her father added a fistful of cheddar into the pan before dumping a heaping hill of orange-yellow fluff on Arianne’s plate. “You have to stop partying like you do. It’s not the era of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll anymore, babe.”

“Dad,” Arianne whined before scooping eggs into her mouth. She savored the tangy, cheesy goodness.

“Why were you sneaking out so early anyway?” He sat down and dug into his own egg mountain.

Arianne paused then swallowed. She took a sip of her juice and said, “I had to talk to Ben about something.”

“I bet he didn’t like that.”

“He listened to me though. Then he sent me away without really saying much about what I told him.”

“As your father—”

“Oh God, Dad, you’re not seriously—”

He held up a hand. “As your father, I feel that it’s my manly duty to say that at your age, it’s extremely inappropriate to be climbing into a boy’s room in the middle of the night.” He pointed his fork at her. “No matter how cute said boy is.”

“I don’t know what’s more horrifying, the fact that you’re giving me a version of ‘the talk,’ which Mom already gave, by the way, or that you just said Ben is cute.”

“With your mom at the hospital most of the time, I need to step up to the plate, sweetheart.”

“I know.” Arianne’s heart turned to mush.

“So, no matter what it is, you have to wait till decent hours to talk to Ben about it.” He stirred sugar into his coffee. “And I don’t want you climbing into his room anymore. Am I making myself clear?”

“Love you too.”

“Good.” He nodded his satisfaction and returned to his breakfast. “Now eat up, you don’t want to miss the bus.”

Arianne’s stomach flipped like a tumbler in a three-ring circus. She’d briefly forgotten why she’d spoken to Ben in the first place. Will I see him today?

Tension headache gone, nervous energy prevented her from finishing breakfast. She grabbed her bag, gave her dad a quick kiss good-bye, and ran out of the house with her heart pumping a million miles a minute.

Chapter 8

DEVIL DEALS

NIKO WALKED OUT OF HIS BATHROOM in unbuttoned jeans and nothing else. A long, languorous shower was just what the doctor ordered after the night he’d been through. For fifteen minutes, he had his forehead plastered to the tile in front of him. He let the heavy stream rain down his back to ease the corded muscles before he did anything else. An hour later, he dried his hair with a towel, not acknowledging the figure that stood by his four-poster in a crisp, navy suit.

Even at sixty, the current incarnation of the Reaper of California still looked younger than most men in their early forties. Vitality and power oozed out of him. It befitted Death’s right hand in the United States. The other Reapers of RUSA acknowledged Tomas as their superior. He’d been around longer than any of them—one of the first created by their master.

“How long are you going to ignore me?” Tomas asked.

“For as long as I can. I have a feeling I’m in trouble,” Niko answered. He knew quite well he held the status of favorite younger brother with the Reaper of California. When Niko was created, he’d been assigned to Tomas’s tutelage. Everything he knew, everything he believed in, even his work ethic and sense of duty came from Tomas. He recalled Arianne mentioning something about a Mr. and Mrs. Clark. If he considered anyone his parent, it would have to be Tomas.

“Wipe that loony smile off your face, boy. Of course you’re in trouble!” Tomas shoved his hands into his pockets. “Do you have any idea how much distress your little stunt in the basement caused?”

Niko dropped the towel and draped himself on a bedside chair he used for reading. He covered his face with one hand and peeked at Tomas through his fingers. “I’m guessing that’s why you’re here.”

“Damn right I am! You let yourself get so weak that you pretty much drained all the energy from the souls you had in your basement,” he rumbled like boulders bumping together down a mountain. “It’s called residual energy because you only take enough to replenish what you’ve lost!”

“I did take just enough.”

“I looked at those souls, Nikolas! They were emaciated when you brought them in. Some barely made it through processing. Why did you let yourself get so weak anyway?”

“I don’t know.” He pushed deeper into his chair, unwilling to lift his gaze.

“You don’t know?” Tomas paced in front of him. “What kind of a response is that?”

“I’m a teen, remember?”

Tomas cursed like a dockworker. “Do not give me lip, boy!”

Niko sobered. He’d never seen Tomas so upset. Prickling energy radiated from the old Reaper, stinging everything it touched. Niko eyed the shirt on his bed. Sitting bare-chested near an incensed Reaper was far from comfortable.

“I apologize, Tomas.” He stood and reached for the other Reaper’s right hand and touched its knuckles to his forehead.

“Oh, my boy—” Tomas softened “—you need to be more careful. I’d like to think that I taught you better.” He pulled his hand away from the younger Reaper’s grip and ruffled his wet hair. “Sit down. I want to talk to you.”

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

“Sit down.” Tomas nudged Niko.

He tumbled back into the chair, feet planted firmly on the floor. “I don’t think—”

“How long have you been depressed?” Tomas interrupted. His voice took on a fatherly tone that he rarely used. It caused Niko to gape for a full minute.

Suddenly, Niko found himself feeling like a newborn Reaper again. The way Tomas searched his face for answers always called to bonds of family they only shared in private, and not as of late. He tried to recall the last time Tomas had actually sounded like a father to him. The civil war had still been raging, the North and the South locked in a bare-knuckle battle.

“Since when, Nikolas?” Tomas urged.

Heart melted, composure close to non-existent, Niko choked up when he said, “Three, maybe four lifetimes ago. I can’t really be sure.” His head fell into his hands. He watched dark dots scatter over the carpet directly below. “Everything just seemed the same. No matter how many times I’m reborn. No matter the time I’m born into. Nothing really changed. Yes, the people changed, but everything remained the same. Slowly, so slowly…” His voice hitched. He had to swallow to continue. “I began to lose sight of what I was living for.”

“The job—”

“Yes, I had my job. I reaped souls, escorted them to the Crossroads. But what was I living for?” He laughed, straightening from his position to stare Tomas in the face.

In a blur of movement, the older Reaper wrapped Niko in firm, solid arms. A fatherly embrace. Niko used Tomas’s shoulder to cover his eyes, dried the river that refused to stay inside him. He knew Tomas wouldn’t care if his suit was ruined. He probably had a thousand more just like it hanging in a huge closet in a mansion somewhere in California.

“Tell me the rest,” Tomas said. “Finish your story.”

A deep breath later, Niko said to Tomas’s now soaked jacket, “Without really knowing it, I’d let myself fade. I stopped taking in residual energy. Sickleton saw it, was worried about me, but I ignored him. Played the tough guy. Snapping at Janika gave me an out. If she killed me, I would have the perfect excuse. But the bitch wouldn’t. So, I tried to go home, but the last of my powers took me to a bench by a hospital instead. I didn’t know why until my angel came down from the heavens and saved me.”

Tomas held Niko at arm’s length to lock gazes with him. “Angel?”

“Arianne.” Niko swiped the back of his hand under his nose and sniffed. “Would you believe she quoted Kofi Annan at me?” The facial expression on Tomas told Niko his father-figure didn’t quite get what he meant, so he said with a half-sigh, half-laugh, “To live is to choose. There’s more to it, but that’s the part I like the best. She said, to live is to choose. So, I choose to live.” He stood up, walked to the towel he’d dropped on the floor, and dried his face with it.

Under Tomas’s watchful gaze, he exchanged the towel for the button-down shirt Sickleton had laid out for him and put it on. “Why are you here?” he asked as if he hadn’t shared a moment with Tomas. “I don’t believe the master sent you just to tell me what a mess I’m in.”

Tomas returned his hands to the safety of his pockets. His lips disappeared into a thin line. “I’m sorry, Nikolas, but you’ve been placed under observation.”

Niko ignored the hand of dread that closed around his neck. “What does that entail?”

“That I’ll be watching you.”

“Well, thank you, Big Brother.”

“Nikolas, you know what I mean. And I agree with our master’s decision. You need to be watched.”

“I won’t repeat what happened yesterday. You have my word on it.”

Tomas squeezed his charge’s shoulder. “I believe in your word. But I would also like to see for myself that you’re all right. What happened to me all those years ago is nothing compared to what you did. You let yourself get to the point where you were actually in the process of the Fade. I will not allow that to ever happen again, even if I have to siphon energy for you.”

“You can do that?”

“You won’t believe what I can do.”

“How long are you babysitting?”

“Until the master and I agree it won’t happen again.”

“I have to go.” Niko moved toward the door and picked up his backpack.

“Where?”

“Uh, school?”

Tomas smiled before he disappeared.

At the street corner, Niko shifted his weight from one foot to the other, waiting for the approaching bus to come to a stop. He wanted to see Arianne again. He owed her his life. If she hadn’t held herself together, he wouldn’t be standing in broad daylight. And after admitting to Tomas what he’d been through all those years, the slow decline into nothingness, his chest rose and fell easier. Every breath he took in reminded him how good the act of breathing felt. Like a recharged battery, he zinged with energy and life. No longer did he want to return to that downward spiral.

Once the doors parted, he hopped on with a spring in his step. But before he could move forward, he caught a glimpse of Arianne seated by the window two rows from the back. The morning sun brought out golden highlights in her hair. Even in a plain blue top, jeans, and ratty sneakers, she looked like a movie star. She rested her chin on her palm and the pout she sported made him want to take her bottom lip between his teeth and nibble until she sighed.

The bus’s forward momentum pulled his mind away from racier thoughts as he slid in beside her.

“You’re sitting beside me,” she gasped.

He liked her surprise.

“I see that you don’t have your BF by your side today,” he teased. “What’s his name?”

“Ben. He’s not my boyfriend.”

A pinch of jealousy brought mischief into his eyes. “I didn’t mean boyfriend. I meant best friend. Why is that, by the way? I assume you’ve been friends for years.”

“He’s at baseball practice. Coach Simmons has him filling in again. Important game and all that. And I don’t think of Ben that way. He’s like a brother to me.” Her cheeks moved into a deeper shade of pink with each word. “And, anyway, he likes my sister.”

Niko couldn’t believe how happy that admission made him—like he’d been given a gift he hadn’t expected to get but always wanted.

“You look better,” she said.

“I owe you my life.”

She switched from surprised to guarded. “I haven’t seen anything like that in my life. You were—”

“Shhh,” Niko cut her off. “Lower your voice, please.”

The gifts kept on coming.

Arianne ducked closer to him until their heads were only inches apart. The warmth in his chest smoldered. All he had to do was tilt his head to the side and tip his chin closer toward—

“You have to tell me what happened yesterday,” she insisted in hushed tones, shredding his thoughts like a steak knife.

“Not here, not now.” He caught her gaze in his. “You have to at least understand that.”

“But you’ll tell me.”

“When the time is right.”

“When will that be?”

“You’re a selfish little thing.” A corner of his lips quirked up.

She twisted away from him. “I resent that. I’m just curious. You almost died. Or whatever it was that was happening.”

“Is that concern I hear?” He found himself hopeful. Morbidly so.

She faced him again, losing some of the stubbornness on her chin. “What do you think? I wouldn’t have helped you if I wasn’t worried. Niko, you were gray. Then you started to disappear. And to make matters worse, you have dead people in your basement and a butler that isn’t a ghost. He’s something else.”

His eyes widened. “You knew what was in my basement?”

Arianne paled. “I…uh…I—”

“It seems you have something to tell me as well,” he said, low and deep, eliciting a different kind of flush on her face.

The bus lumbered into the school parking lot. Niko strode to the door along with a line of other students and stepped onto the pavement. Arianne’s admission both confused and frustrated him, which did a good job of bringing up his defenses. He shut her out by leaving. A part of him felt sick to his core because of it. But what could he do? She admitted to having seen the souls.

“Surely, she couldn’t be a threat,” he murmured to himself.

“Hey, man, what are you standing there for?” Desmond called.

Darla, in her usual cardigan and skirt, stood with him, but her attention lay elsewhere.

Niko climbed the steps, but before he could say anything, Darla said, “Why were you seated with Arianne Wilson?” Her eyes narrowed—intent on watching Arianne alight from the bus.

He glanced over his shoulder and his stomach crumpled. Arianne’s expression was one of sad confusion. The culprit? Him.

He returned his attention to Darla and asked, “How’s the dance planning going? Two weeks away, right?”

“Oh man! Why do you have to open the floodgates so early?” Desmond said in mock annoyance.

Darla’s face shone like the noon day sun. “The decorations have been ordered and are coming at the end of the week. We’ve cleared the use of the gym.” She spotted a classmate and waved. “Patty, a moment. Patty!”

Niko and Desmond watched Darla follow the blonde like a bloodhound on a scent.

“What was that all about?” Niko asked, still staring after a quick moving Darla. The crowd seemed to part for her.

Desmond clucked his tongue several times. “I told that girl to do her job. She refuses to listen to Darla about the sound system for the dance. Why won’t anyone listen to me?”

“Maybe because you’re a dog.” Niko adjusted his schoolbag and joined the current.

“A shame, really.” Desmond scrambled to catch up. “I’d hate to be the one to clean up the mess Darla will leave behind after she’s done with Patty.”

“If it means you can score with Patty, I think you’d offer your shoulder to cry on.”

“If only.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Niko approached his locker and fiddled with the combination on his lock.

Leaning on another locker, Desmond tapped a beat on his jean-clad thighs. “Patty’s not interested.”

“In you?” Niko opened the door and proceeded with the book exchange. “Impossible.”

“No, man, I mean, she’s not interested. She’s a muff diver, if you catch my drift.”

More terms he had to get out his dictionary of slang for. “And you know this because…?”

“I’m hurt.” Desmond frowned. “You know I check out potential hook-ups before I move in for the kill.”

Niko closed his locker and regarded Desmond with amusement. “If you ask me, you’re just fielding so you don’t get rejected.”

“Oooo, low blow, dude. Seriously.” He grimaced then swung his arm around Niko’s shoulders. “What were you doing with Arianne on the bus anyway?”

“You saw that too?”

“I should have known. A girl that fine…” He nodded his approval. “Took you long enough.”

“I’m not doing anything.”

“That’s my point. You’ve never done anything you didn’t want to. Sitting with Arianne on the bus isn’t just nothing.” Desmond shook Niko. “You animal! You have to give me details.”

“And that’s your business because?”

“Come on, give a guy a break.”

“Why don’t you go after her then, if you’re so interested?”

“And risk Darla’s wrath?”

The bell rang before Niko could ask Desmond what he’d meant. He stood there somewhat worried and just a little unnerved. What connected Darla to Arianne that even Desmond stayed away?

Chapter 9

ZOMBIE WALKING

ARIANNE LEFT ART CLASS dazed and more than a little bewildered. She hadn’t expected to see Niko that morning. She’d hoped for it, certainly, but to actually see him glowing with health had her heart dancing a jig in her throat. Overnight he’d grown more delicious. It took all her control not to take a bite when he sat beside her on the bus. She never thought she’d be so happy about Ben being drafted into morning practice. Her lungs begged for more breaths of his minty scent. And that smile…it melted her insides to cherry slush.

After the surprise of seeing him with all his limbs intact had lessened, she’d let it slip that she saw the souls. Talk about not thinking. She’d sat in the bus for a couple more minutes after he’d left, staring at nothing until she managed to pull herself together enough to hurry to first period.

The fruit bowl she was supposed to paint in art came out more abstract than she’d wanted. Now, she hobbled into gym almost forgetting she needed to change. Half the class had already found seats on the bleachers. The rest milled about in groups of threes or fours on the basketball/volleyball court. She gave a shy wave to one of her classmates before hurrying to the locker room. Passing a couple of giggling girls, Arianne didn’t notice the figure sitting on the changing bench waiting for her.

“Ari, can we talk?” said a voice that brought the temperature to arctic.

Arianne turned toward the source of the question slowly, so as not to spook the primly attired, no-hair-misplaced, white tennis-shoed predator. “Darla, I didn’t see you there. Have you finally learned to vanish and reappear?”

Darla crossed her legs and placed her hands on top of each other on her knee. “What is Niko Clark to you?”

Oh God, Darla knows.

“Niko?” Arianne’s gaze darted left then right. Suddenly, the locker room seemed deserted. “We just have chemistry together,” she explained quickly. “Class is about to start. You don’t want to be late, do you?”

Narrowing her eyes, Darla asked, “Why are you changing the subject?”

“I’m merely stating the obvious. I’ve never seen you late for class.”

“Coach won’t mind. I asked permission. You know ‘girl talk.’”

Arianne didn’t like the way Darla said “girl talk.” The phrase sounded more like “torture.”

“If Niko only has chemistry with you, why did he sit beside you on the bus?”

“Darla, nothing happened. He just asked me about the experiment we had yesterday.”

“Why would Niko ask you about anything?”

“You’d have to take that up with him.”

“So, you don’t like him in any way?”

“It’s Niko Clark—what’s not to like?”

“I suppose.” She stood up and picked off imaginary lint from her creaseless clothes. Then she looked Arianne in the eye. “You won’t lie to me. Right, Ari?”

Despite shaking knees, Arianne managed to sound calm. “No, Dar. Never again.”

“Good.” She turned to go. “Now, hurry up. Wouldn’t want to be any later than we already are, right?”

Arianne waited to hear the locker room door shut before she allowed herself to breathe again. She sat on the bench and bent down with her head between her knees. “I’m screwed,” she whispered.

The foot deep locker was empty. Arianne stared and stared and stared, but nothing changed. Still empty.

“Where the hell are my books?” Her question seemed to echo within the cavern.

Her heart sank like a submarine with a gaping hole in its hull. For a second, she wanted to shrink into the deepest, darkest corner she could find and never come out. Not even for treats. Darla waiting for her before gym class should have been a sign in and of itself.

Something white made her turn to the locker door. Taped to the metal, a note had a list of names and the words:

Join me on a treasure hunt.

“I don’t have time for this,” Arianne said through her teeth, but she yanked at the treasure map and hurried to the location of the first person on the list.

The school secretary ruled from behind her desk with a froggy frown and claw-like nails in zebra print that she filed constantly. Her overworked swivel chair squeaked every time she moved—a slave beneath the heft of a fire-breathing, mumu-wearing dragon. Instead of a hoard of gold, she had paperwork.

Arianne approached with caution. “Good morning, Mrs. Whistle,” she said softly.

The nail file scratched at Mrs. Whistle’s inch long pinky nail over and over. Shh. Shh. Shh.

“Um, Mrs. Whistle—” Arianne clutched the list in her hand until the paper protested “—you wouldn’t happen to have one of my books with you by any chance, would you?”

The filing stopped. It created a vacuum of silence that had Arianne clenching her thighs together like she had to go to the bathroom but was too shy to have everyone hear her pee. Horn-rimmed glasses focused first on her sneakers, then up to her trembling knees, then to her fisted stomach and stiff shoulders, to finally land just above her eyebrows. Arianne attempted to speak through the glacier that grew between her and Mrs. Whistle, but the heavy thump of a textbook on linoleum had her jumping back. She hadn’t even seen Mrs. Whistle move to pick up anything, much less fling it at Arianne’s feet.

Without waiting for an invitation, Arianne picked up her book, stuffed it into her pack, and ran out of the dragon’s lair. She smoothened out her crumpled map and proceeded to the next person on the list. Coach Simmons handed her a notebook. Nurse Betty gave her some advice on being more conscious about leaving her things along with one more text book. Arianne couldn’t take it. Darla managed to get all the teachers and staff to play along in her “treasure hunt.” How she did it was lost to Arianne. She pushed her humiliation away and focused on getting the stupidity over with.

For the first time, Arianne dreaded walking into chemistry. Darla had come a-sniffing, and it would only be a matter of time until she figured things out. Niko’s continued attention could only cause people to draw the wrong conclusions. Now more than ever, she wanted to take things back. To have him as far away from her as possible. No matter how much I want to take him home with me.

“Oh, who are you kidding? You’ve liked him for years,” she said to herself.

“Liked who?” Tammy asked from behind her.

“Geez, Tam!” Arianne whirled around. “Give a girl a heart attack, why don’t—” She took in the slightly askew braids and wrinkled clothing of the girl behind her. “What’s wrong? Tam?”

The girl’s body drooped as she sighed. Arianne wrapped her arms around her lab partner and guided her to their table. She pulled out a stool and eased Tammy onto it. Her braids hung limp over her shoulders. Lack of sleep showed beneath her eyes. Worry spread through Arianne’s chest like prickly moss. The image of Niko fading resurfaced. She glanced toward the back of the room just as Niko entered.

Satisfied that he wouldn’t be disappearing any time soon, she returned her attention to Tammy, who looked like she had a cloud hovering over her head, drizzling salty rain down her face. Arianne fished out a tissue from her bag’s side pocket and handed it to her lab partner. Tammy blew her nose with gusto.

“Tam, talk to me.” Arianne rubbed circles on the girl’s back.

Tammy balled up the tissue. “It’s my mom. She was caught in that pile-up yesterday.” She could barely get the words out between each labored breath. “She’s in intensive care at St. Joseph’s.”

“Oh God, Tammy. You didn’t have to come to school!”

“I had to.” She sniffed. “With Dad at the hospital, the house is just empty. My aunt is coming to help out tomorrow, but I just couldn’t stay in that house with my mom’s things scattered where she’d left them. I just can’t.”

“Shhh,” Arianne breathed. Everyone in the room had started to stare, but she didn’t care. She continued comforting her friend. “Everything’s going to be fine, you’ll see.”

“What if it isn’t?”

“Tam, you can’t think that way.” Arianne held her friend at arm’s length and gazed into puffy, red eyes. “It’s unfair to your mom. You have to stay hopeful, if not positive.”

Just as Tammy accepted her words, a grief stricken Mr. Todd walked in. He placed his leather case on top of his table and addressed the class solemnly. “Everyone, please settle into your seats.”

Sensing the heaviness Mr. Todd had brought in, the class followed without incident. Arianne continued to hold Tammy’s hand while they sat side by side, facing their chem teacher.

Mr. Todd’s eyebrows came together. “I wish I didn’t have to bring you this news, but as you may notice, Carl Thompson isn’t here today.”

As if on cue, everyone looked toward Niko’s table.

Even with all that attention, Niko managed to stay stone-faced.

“You may have already heard about the accident that occurred on I-75 yesterday,” Mr. Todd continued, causing the class to face him again. “Carl’s father was headed home when the driver of the semi fell asleep.”

Tammy stiffened beside Arianne. Both girls squeezed each other’s hand as tightly as humanly possible.

“Let’s pause for a moment to pay our respects to Mr. Thompson. To those who are friends with Carl, the wake will be held this Saturday.”

Everyone bowed their heads. A heavy-handed sadness settled in the room, pressing on the shoulders of all those present. Even when Mr. Todd began class and explained the day’s experiment, no one seemed in the mood. Arianne watched Tammy intently, ready to play offense if so much as a glimmer of depression entered her friend’s aura. In her periphery, a silent figure had her glancing at the door.

There stood a naked woman, gazing forlornly at their table. Arianne gasped and immediately covered her mouth with both hands. She recognized the slant in the woman’s eyes, all too similar to those of the girl she sat next to.

“Ari, what’s the matter?” Tammy glanced up at her from their experiment.

“Oh, Tam,” she said, her voice muffled by her hands. “I’m so sorry.”

“Ms. Herald?” Mr. Todd interrupted Tammy’s questioning glance. He had come to their table and placed a hand on Tammy’s shoulder. “You’re wanted at the principal’s office again.”

Tammy’s lower lip quivered.

Arianne couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. All she managed was to watch her friend stand and gather her things with flat eyes.

“Ms. Wilson, are you all right?” Mr. Todd asked after Tammy left the room.

“May…” Arianne swallowed the barbed lump in her throat. “May I go to the bathroom?”

Arianne hobbled along on wobbly legs. Classes in session afforded her the luxury of the hallway’s emptiness. She swerved to the right in drunken steps. Then she moved to the left until her shoulder collided with a locker. Just as her knees gave out, a second set of footsteps hurried toward her from behind, and before she slipped to the floor, strong arms wrapped around her. She turned within the protective circle and pressed her face against a chest where the heart it kept within beat so fast that it was all she could hear.

They slid to the floor together until Arianne found herself sprawled between long legs covered in rugged jeans. The dam spilled over, sobs alternating with hiccups and sniffs. Never in her life had she cried so hard. A hand moved to the back of her head, stroking her hair. She continued to sniffle until the shirt she’d fisted felt damp in her hands.

“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry,” she hiccupped. “I’m really, really sorry.”

“What are you apologizing for, angel?”

Shock pushed her back. “Niko?”

“Why are you crying, Ari?” He wiped away the last of her tears with his thumb while keeping his other arm around her waist.

“I…”

“You saw Tammy’s mother, didn’t you?”

Her eyes widened until they hurt. “How…? No. You already know. I was just telling her that everything would be okay. I was just hugging her.” Every word sounded more hysterical than the next. The second deluge had come. “And now—”

“Shhh. Angel, shhh.” Niko gathered her close. “Let me take you somewhere you can rest. Will you let me do that for you?”

Without thinking about what Niko meant, Arianne nodded once, her shoulders shuddering with every rasping breath.

“Keep your eyes closed.”

The hard floor disappeared from underneath them, leaving behind weightlessness akin to the first tug of an elevator going up. Then, just as quickly, the feeling vanished.

“We’re here, Ari,” Niko said.

When she opened her eyes, she found herself still in Niko’s arms, but now sitting on the grassy shore of a placid lake with a dock. Pines worshipped the sun on all sides. Arianne couldn’t see beyond the hilltop that rose from the shore behind them. Fat, fluffy clouds grazed in the sky.

“Where are we?” she asked.

Chapter 10

FLAT LINE

NIKO INHALED THE PINE AIR, its freshness causing his lungs to spontaneously breakout into song. The lake stayed calm despite the breeze that ruffled his hair like a gentle hand. The energy he used to transport Arianne and himself to the lake still tingled over his skin. He tightened his hold on the earthbound angel who’d broken through his composed façade enough that he couldn’t bear witness to her upset. When she’d run out of the chem lab with glistening eyes, he thought his heart would explode.

She’d asked him something, and he returned his attention to her. “Pardon?”

“Where are we?” She met his adoring gaze with questioning wonder, presenting her lips like fruit ripe for the picking. It would be so easy to bend the last few inches and claim the lushness she offered. He mentally slapped the thought away, feeling its sting.

“I brought us to the In Between,” he said, tucking strands of her hair behind her ear then tracing his fingers down her cheek. She rewarded him with a shiver. Her bloodshot eyes still broke his heart.

“Are we still in Georgia?” She looked around. “And how did we get here?”

“As to where… that’s a little difficult to explain. As to how… I willed us here.”

“Explain willed.” She sandwiched the word in air quotes.

“I pictured this place in my mind and brought us here using my will.”

She hummed a long mmmm sound that thrummed in his gut. He hugged her tighter until she squirmed, and then he loosened his grip and let her push away. She stood and explored her surroundings, moving toward the trees then to the dock. He remained seated on the lakeshore, leaning back on his hands.

Arianne studied the water, teetering on her toes. “It’s so clear,” she said. “I can see all the way to the bottom. Are there fish?”

“Be careful,” he warned. “Don’t want you falling in.”

“Don’t worry, I swim. So, are there fish in here?”

Her smile went right through him like a lightning bolt. “Do you want there to be?”

Surprise opened her eyes wider like flowers in bloom. “You mean you can add fish to this lake?”

“Name the kind.”

“Goldfish.”

Niko shut his eyes and imagined her request. Even before he could open them again she squealed like a little girl and clapped her hands excitedly.

“How did you do that?” She bounced toward him and kneeled between his legs, hands on her lap.

“I control this place. Whatever I can think of, shall be. All I have to do is close my eyes.”

Mischief sparked in her lovely features. “A doe.”

He blinked and a dappled doe peeked out of the woods. Arianne beamed and rattled off a list: butterflies, puppies, a unicorn, a circus bear balancing on a ball, a pride of lions, geese. With each blink, Niko materialized whatever Arianne had asked for.

Soon, a veritable zoo covered every surface of the lakeside.

“Wow!” Arianne yelled over the cacophony.

“All we need is an ark.”

“What?” She pointed at her ear.

“I said…” Niko raised his voice then stopped. He blinked away the animals, bringing peace to the area once more. When he spoke again, he modulated his tone. “I said, all we needed was an ark.”

“Not funny.” His angel pouted, then shrugged. “Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. I think the lions would have eaten the gazelle if you didn’t make them all vanish.”

“And then some.”

“But where did they all go?”

Niko tapped his temple. “Back here. Remember, in this place, my will is king.”

Arianne moved from between his legs to lie down on the grass beside him. She stared up at the sky before closing her eyes and sighing. “How long can we stay?”

“For as long as you want.”

“What about school?”

“For every hour we spend here, it’s a second in the real world.”

“Really?” She peeked out of one eye to watch him nod. “How cool is that! You’re definitely not human.”

“What gave it away? The fact that I brought you here or that you saw souls at my house?” Niko meant it as a joke, but the sadness that formed on Arianne’s face silenced his impending mirth.

Leaks escaped the tightly shut floodgates. “Normally, I wouldn’t be so affected.” She covered her eyes with her arm. Her voice had a watery quality. “I’d be sad, sure. Who wouldn’t when you know someone just left loved ones behind to mourn? I’d say a prayer and be on my way. But today, I couldn’t hold it in. Not for Tammy’s mom. When I saw her soul standing outside the chem lab…” Hiccups and sobs overpowered the rest of her words. She rolled to her side—hiding her distress from him—and wept in earnest.

“Ari,” Niko whispered. His heart bled for every hiccup and sniff. He kept reminding himself she needed to cry it all out. He wanted to gather her into the security of his arms again, but something told him it wouldn’t help. He fixed his eyes on the heavens, thankful that Arianne didn’t ask him for privacy. The last thing he wanted was to leave her.

Eyes sore, as though someone had shoved hot pokers in her sockets, Arianne watched fluffy sheep and plump bunnies glide across the never ending blue—an elephant and a whale would join in the parade every so often. The cotton-soft grass beneath her brought warmth and comfort like a shawl on a chilly day. Never before had she cried so much. It left her exhausted. But a part of her floated, weightless and worry-free.

The whole time, Niko remained seated by her side, rubbing the space between her shoulder blades. Her joy knew no bounds, erasing anything obsessive she might have felt for him at the beginning. The collection of emotions inside her went beyond a childish crush. The boy who wasn’t human had stolen her heart utterly, and she was frightened her to think about what would become of her if he played recklessly with it. Enjoy the moment. That’s what I’ll do. He’s here, I’m here. What more can I ask for?

Niko had his arms balanced on his knees, brooding—a dark beatific quality about him. She expected wings to unfurl behind him at any moment, so inhuman was his beauty. She should be freaked out by it; she understood that much. But she couldn’t find it in herself to panic. Not since she’d learned about the existence of dead people walking around like regular people. And certainly not when he sat beside her, so close that her every breath brought with it his minty scent mixed with pine—a new kind of freshness.

“How long have you been able to see the souls of the dead?” Niko asked.

Arianne didn’t startle at the sound of his voice, too relaxed underneath the blanket of sunlight. “A few years, give or take. All I know is, one day I couldn’t see them, and the next, I could. No big d—” She winced, remembering why her crying had nearly filled a bucket with saltwater minutes ago.

“Would you permit me to try something?”

The tentativeness of his request caused Arianne to match his stare with one of her own. “Something like what exactly?”

“I want to check how you’re able to see souls. All I have to do is go into your mind, establish a link, and have a look around.”

“You say it like I’m a circuit box you can open to find the burnt fuse.”

Jutting out his tempting lower lip, he said, “I’ve never heard anyone put it that way, but it works.”

“Will it hurt?”

He touched the middle of her forehead with his index and middle finger. “If you’ll let me, all you’ll feel is my touch on your skin. And I promise not to look into your memories. All I want is to reach the source of your Sight. Humans call it the Third Eye.”

“Just a quick look? Nothing else?” Her stomach tumbled.

“You have my word.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Closing your eyes would help. Focus on the darkness your eyelids bring.”

Arianne followed Niko’s instructions to the letter, prepared to wait. But only a second had passed when he asked that she open her eyes again.

“That’s it?”

He dipped his chin in an affirmative.

“Wow, when you said quick…” She rolled to her side to face him, elbow akimbo. “What did you see?” she asked, inspecting each green blade. Niko’s fingers lifted her chin up, forcing her to meet his gaze.

“Did you go through anything traumatic right before you started seeing souls?” He pulled his hand away. “A near death experience like a car crash or a drowning?”

Arianne sat up and hugged her knees to her chest. The water’s supple undulation soothed pulsing nerves. “Does a major operation count?”

“Only if you died and were brought back.”

He said it so softly that Arianne had to tilt her head to the side in order to hear him. She kept her eyes on the lake.

“My sister, Carrie.” She paused. “She has a smile like the sun. No matter how sad you are, all you have to do is see her smile and everything will be all right. She doesn’t even need to say anything. Just flashing those pearly whites is enough.”

“What does this have to do with a major operation?”

“Carrie and I are really close. Besides Ben, she’s my best friend. We’re a year apart. There was this one time…Carrie wanted to climb up a tree. I told her not to. I said she’d fall. But you know what she said to me?” A corner of her lips quirked upward, and she wiped a stray tear on her shirtsleeve. “She said, ‘don’t worry, I know you’ll catch me.’ All of this with a silly grin on her face. I did catch her, you know. Had my arm in a cast for six months while she walked away without a scratch.”

“I don’t know—”

“Then one day,” Arianne interrupted, “she got sick. Kidney failure. She needed a transplant to stay alive.” She lifted a shirt corner, exposing part of her midriff.

“Ari,” Niko gasped out.

She let him trace the scar before she tugged her shirt down. “I was the only match. I would have given her both my kidneys if Mom and Dad would’ve let me.” Arianne twisted around. “I’m not sure if I’d died on the operating table. Only that a couple of months later, I could see dead people.”

Niko gathered her into a tight embrace so fast that she forgot to breathe. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he whispered into her ear.

“Okay,” she puffed out. “I got my apology a while ago, but what’s with yours?”

He held her at arm’s length. “Seeing you sad…it hurts here.” He touched his chest. “Like I can’t breathe. Like my heart would leap out of my ribcage. I don’t know—”

Arianne interrupted him again—this time, with her lips. A shock, like sticking her fingers in a socket, rushed through her with such speed that she had to struggle not to wobble. Niko gathered her closer until only their clothes provided a barrier between them. It hurt, but Arianne didn’t seem to care. She clung to his neck and tilted her head just as he deepened the kiss. Like the first notes of a love song, a sigh swelled out of her.

Kissing Arianne made Niko’s mind go blank. A clean slate. His heart danced in the heavens among the clouds. He hadn’t expected her to act so impulsively. But her impulse was one he welcomed like sweet mint tea on a balmy day. The pillow of her lips cradled his like no other. He could stay there in her arms until forever came knocking at the door.

Her stomach growled. Arianne covered her gasp with her hand, but the blush on her face went from cotton candy to beet. She dropped her gaze. Niko had to stifle his chuckle with a fist.

“Sorry,” she said.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry.” Niko pointed toward the end of the dock.

Arianne twisted to follow his arm. “Niko!”

A table dressed in cream appeared. Slender tapers reached for the sky, their flames swaying like belly dancers. Folding chairs sat lazily across from each other. White plates with blue enamel beckoned for food to appear on them. Crystal flutes sparkled, capturing the rays of the setting sun. The heavens turned from early afternoon yellow to sunset orange, bathing the lake in golden confetti.

Arianne ran for the dock. Niko picked himself up and dusted off his jeans and ambled after her. Small tremors still rolled through him—aftershocks from her kiss—and a half-moon grin appeared on his face.

“It’s so beautiful.” She picked up a fork with ivy carvings on its handle, counting its tines. “It’s almost like I don’t want to eat from it.”

Niko pulled out a chair for her. “But you want to.”

She returned the fork beside its brothers, sat down, and granted him salvation in her smile. “How long have we been here?”

“A few hours.” He practically levitated onto the folding chair opposite her’s.

“Well, that explains why I’m hungry.” She scanned the area. “Don’t tell me waiters are about to come from somewhere to serve us.”

“Is that what you want?” Niko asked in earnest. “Because I can just will the food here.”

“Right now, I’m too hungry to be waited on.”

“What will the lady be having this evening?”

“Well, kind sir, I believe I would like a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.”

“And for your drinks? We have a wide selection of sodas and sweet teas.” He quirked up an eyebrow. “Unless you prefer something stronger?”

“And get drunk?” She shook her head. “Grape soda is fine. With lots of ice.”

Within milliseconds of her request, a mound of spaghetti with three fist-sized meatballs appeared on her plate and purple fizz with ice clinking in celebration filled her champagne flute. Arianne’s saucer eyes grew wider. She took a whiff of her food and hummed.

“A toast.” Niko raised his glass.

“What’s in there?” Arianne raised her own.

“Root beer.” He winked.

“What shall we toast to?”

“To more than friendship.”

With fire-engine red cheeks, she asked, “What?”

Bumping his glass with hers, Niko took a sip of the sweet, bubbly liquid. He added extra warmth to his smile. Arianne continued to stare.

“You have to drink or it’s bad luck,” he encouraged.

She brought the rim of her glass to her lips and took a tentative swallow of grape soda. She put down the flute as if it would break. “About the kiss…” She picked up her dinner fork and moved a meat ball around the plate. “I’m sorry.”

Niko leaned in. “Why?”

“I didn’t mean to…I mean…actually, I don’t know what I mean. The part of my brain that makes rational decisions switched off, and the next thing I know, I’m kissing you.”

“Are you saying you didn’t want to kiss me?”

“No!” She sat up straighter, almost dropping the fork. “I mean…”

“Ari—” he reached out and closed his hand over hers “—I liked it.”

“You liked it?”

The shock on her face almost made him laugh. He had to bite down on the inside of his cheek to keep from embarrassing her. He squeezed her hand instead.

“Oh.” She studied her plate as if attempting to count every strand of pasta.

The waning sunshine couldn’t mask her happiness. If only Niko could reach out further without disturbing the table setting, he would, just to caress the line of her cheek.

Sensing she didn’t want to say anything more about the subject, he said, “Why don’t we start eating? Wouldn’t want the food to get cold.” He started on his braised pork chops and mashed potatoes.

Niko dissected the merits of his toast. Was I too forward? Don’t girls like that? He sifted through every conversation he’d had with Desmond about what girls wanted. Mostly, the snippets involved Desmond’s latest conquest or how Niko ignored girls. Finding no helpful pieces of advice, and resolving to punch his friend after returning from the In Between, Niko continued to eat in silence.

“I don’t want you to tell me what you are,” Arianne said.

“I beg your pardon?” Niko looked up from his food so fast, his vision doubled for a second.

“You heard me.”

The smirk on her face had him scratching his head mentally. He grabbed his drink before he settled deeper into his chair. “This morning, you wanted to know what I was. What changed your mind?”

“I like research. I like finding things out for myself.” She rolled pasta with deft twists of her fingers.

For a moment, Niko could focus only on that, somewhat turned on.

“Research was how I found out I am a Medium of sorts. Although, I can’t and don’t want to talk to the dead. I want to find out what you are on my own terms. It’s too easy if you tell me.”

Pleasure unfurled inside him like a seed breaking the soil’s surface. “I like where this is going.”

She brought the tightly wound pasta to her mouth and chewed.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone blush so much in all my lives. He twirled the water in his glass. He’d switched drinks after his second root beer.

“You have to give me a few more clues so I know where to start.” She finished her grape soda.

“Want another?”

“Water. Please.” She ignored the sparkling liquid that rose to about an inch below the brim of a crystal goblet. “I already know you can will a different dimension, plane, whatever you want to call the In Between, into existence. And…”

“And what? You can’t leave me hanging, Arianne.”

“And your health has to do with those souls you kept in your basement.”

Niko grimaced. “Not my finest hour, I must admit.”

“All I know is, you were disappearing before my eyes when I dropped you in the basement—sorry about that, by the way.”

“No apologies necessary. You helped me when others would have run away.”

“You coming to school all rosy-cheeked and oozing with health can only mean you did something with those souls. Did you…” She swallowed. “Eat them?”

Peals of laughter burst out of Niko. If he’d been drinking, he’d have spewed water all over Arianne. It took him a couple of minutes to compose himself again. “I didn’t know laughter felt so good. Oh, sorry.” He raised a placating hand, having noticed Arianne’s wonderful scowl. The girl couldn’t be ugly even if she tried. “I didn’t mean to laugh at you.”

Her expression softened. “So, did you eat those souls?”

“Gods, no!”

Bringing a hand to her chest, Arianne sank backward until her chair creaked. Niko thought she’d tip over and fall into the lake.

“I just siphoned some residual energy from them,” he continued.

She motioned for him to keep going.

“We have energy inside, humans and—” he thumbed his jaw “—non-humans. Anyway, when a soul leaves the body, it brings the energy that kept a person alive with it. I can take some of that energy and recharge my own, if you will. When you found me, I was fading. I needed a certain number of souls to get me back in shape.”

“The basement.”

“Yes.”

“What else can you tell me about what you are?”

Niko considered her question. “I can’t get hurt.” He took a knife and sliced his hand open.

Arianne yelped, but seeing no wound and no blood, she breathed out. “Don’t scare me like that. A little warning when you’re about to cut yourself is usually appreciated.”

“I also don’t get sick.”

“Except yesterday.” Her brows furrowed.

“That won’t happen again. I was careless. I should have known better.”

“Okay, you’re impervious to physical injury—”

“Only by the hands of my kind can I get hurt,” he amended.

“…and sickness,” she continued as if he hadn’t interrupted her. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

“Oh, come on!” She sat up. “You can’t tell me you’re just seventeen when you can’t get sick or hurt.”

“Just because I’m impervious doesn’t mean I don’t age.”

“You die?” Awe formed on her face like the rising sun.

“In a manner of speaking.” Niko tented his fingers over his chest. “We get old. But at the end of our life, we are reborn. Our master believes it’s a way for us to blend into society better.”

“You’re saying there’s more of you?”

“Did I?”

“You switched from ‘I’ to ‘we’ a couple of sentences ago. And you mentioned a master.”

“I did?” He tsked. “That particular piece of information wasn’t supposed to slip out. Oops.”

She threw her napkin at him.

Chapter 11

CRIMINAL ELEMENTS

DEATH LOUNGED ON HIS GREAT BONE CHAIR, his chin resting on a fist. He watched the Reapers of California and Texas arrange themselves on two equally grand chairs across from his desk. He’d taken a break from work to meet with two of the most powerful members of RUSA. The skull chandelier hanging from the ceiling over them brightened at a lazy gesture from his almost delicate hand. A part of him didn’t want to resume working. If he could continue chatting the day away, he would. Maybe I should, he considered. But after a fleeting second, he saw no merit in dropping everything, regardless of how he felt.

“Welcome, dearest children,” he said.

“Master,” Thomas and Travis said in unison.

“It’s always good to see the both of you. Work can get dull without these pleasant visits.”

Travis slouched into his chair and stretched out his legs, crossing them at the ankles.

Tomas slapped the other Reaper’s shoulder. “Show some respect, Travis.”

Death raised a hand, stalling Travis’s efforts. “Leave him be, Tomas. Travis is welcome to relax. We may have business to attend to, but this is not at all a formal meeting. Please, follow Travis in his demeanor. You could use a break.”

To his credit, Tomas continued to sit up with shoulders squared. “Thank you, Master. But I prefer to show respect.” He flicked an irritated glance at Travis as he said the last word.

Travis shrugged. “No skin off my back. I removed the hat, didn’t I? Number One,” he drawled.

“And stop calling me that!”

A smile blossomed on Death’s glorious composure. Seeing Tomas ruffled tickled him. The usually stern and serious Reaper had a softer side, one that only manifested during moments like Travis baiting him.

“I regret that I’ve placed you both in this position.” Death’s sigh could bend mighty oaks. “Our younger Reapers don’t seem to have the same common sense as their older siblings. One is too power hungry for her own good and the other allowed himself to get so weak that he practically drained souls down to nothing. What am I to do?”

“Master, please—” Tomas frowned “—don’t put extra worry onto your shoulders. That’s what you have us for.”

“I appreciate your concern, Tomas, Travis—” he nodded at the Texan Reaper who’d lost his relaxed demeanor “—but it is the role of a father to lose sleep over his children. What am I here for if not to fret?”

“But you’re more important than any one of us combined, Master,” Travis said. “You have bigger things on your mind. Please, let us handle Janika and Nikolas. They don’t have to be your burden.”

“Anyway,” Death breathed out. “What do you have to report, Tomas?”

The Reaper of California gathered his thoughts like sheets of paper in a file. “Nikolas is back to peak health. I’ve reprimanded him for draining the souls. He can be an impertinent pup from time to time, but he values his role as Reaper of Georgia.” Pride puffed his chest. “I’ve told him about the probation. He assures me that it won’t happen again.”

“And you trust his word?” Death raised an eyebrow.

“With my life,” Tomas answered as if his words had been set in stone long ago.

“And I trust you, Tomas. Let’s just hope that no one gets hurt in the end.” Death paused, reflecting on his own words. Then he faced his second most powerful Reaper. “Travis, how is Janika? I know she can be a handful.”

Travis coughed into a fist, which suspiciously sounded like a cuss word. “Among other things, Master. But nothing I can’t handle. She’s like a Bronco ripe to be broken. All she needs is an experienced rider with sharp spurs to show her what it means to be obedient.”

Lines rose over the planes of Tomas’s face. “Why does everything that comes out of your mouth sound dirty?”

“Oh, stop looking like you’ve just sucked on a sour lemon, Number One.” Travis entwined his fingers over his stomach. “You’re the one with your head in the gutter.”

“Stop calling me that!”

“Master,” Travis interrupted before Tomas could say anything else, “I believe Janika just wants attention. She has bite, and can certainly put up a fight, but she’s not malicious.”

Death inclined his head. “Is that assessment based on your personal experience?”

Travis flushed. “Aww, Master, you didn’t have to put it that way.”

Roaring laughter rolled out of Tomas. He slapped the armrest of his chair. Both Death and Travis stared at him.

“You seem happier than usual, Tomas? Something I should know?”

The Reaper in question sobered as if he hadn’t laughed at all. “I believe our young Reapers will be fine, Master. Janika can’t possibly get into the kind of trouble Travis cooked up in his day.”

“Can we drop this conversation, please,” Travis said.

“Do you remember the Civil War?” Death smiled affectionately at the Texan who’d managed to turn redder than he already was.

“Nothing like his Old West days,” Thomas finally let himself unwind. “Remember the blue chaps he wore…they looked so ridiculous on him.”

Death’s golden laughter, a gift from the choir of heaven, resonated from his chest to the farthest reaches of his realm.

Chapter 12

TERRORIST THREAT

IN THE LUNCH LINE, Arianne could only gaze with dismay at all the food, each one begging for her attention like a dog at the pound. Tater tots. Meat loaf. Mac-n-cheese. The spaghetti and meatballs she’d had with Niko still partied in her stomach. She grunted.

“What? No appetite?” Ben bumped her hip with his, moving her along. He reached for the plate heaped with tots and a slice of pizza the lunch lady gave to him.

“Good luck at the game, slugger,” the lunch lady said.

Ben gave her a megawatt smile when he noticed the extra helping of pepperoni.

Arianne studied him. “When’s the game?”

“Friday.” Ben grabbed two milk cartons and dumped one on Arianne’s empty tray. “If you’re not going to eat anything, might as well have milk. It’ll keep you going for the rest of the day.”

They swiped their lunch cards at the end of the line and ambled to their table.

“Does your lack of appetite have anything to do with the little book hunt Darla organized for you?” Ben slid into his seat and set his tray on the table like a flying saucer in for a landing.

“You heard about that?” Arianne rolled her eyes. “I suppose you would have. Darla loves letting everyone know about her latest plan to humiliate me. She made me go to Mrs. Whistle first! You know how she freaks me out.”

“That old bat freaks everyone out. Why do you think no one hangs around the office if they don’t have to?”

“Darla actually asked about Niko in gym today. I should have known better than to think she wouldn’t be suspicious.”

Ben whistled. “Blood’s in the water. What did you say?”

“That we didn’t have a real connection except for being new partners in chem.”

“And she bought that?”

“For now.” Arianne waited for Ben to get at least two bites of his pizza in before she said, “About this morning.”

“Don’t remind me,” Ben said between chews. He glanced over her shoulder. “Since he’s in school, I’m assuming that he’s all right.”

She peeked over her shoulder at Niko. He nodded once at her before returning to his conversation with Desmond. Arianne blushed for a second. Then she remembered why she ended up in the In Between with Niko.

“You won’t believe what happened.” Arianne played soccer with her milk carton.

“What’s with the sad face?” Ben leaned forward until she met his gaze.

“I saw Tammy’s mother today.”

“How is that possible when she’s—” Ben stopped mid-sentence and moved his chair closer to Arianne’s. He hooked an arm over her shoulders.

She buried her face into his chest and breathed in his cool scent, winning her battle against a new onslaught of tears. “I ran out of the chem lab after Tammy was called away. Niko followed me. I cried in his arms and he took me to this place.”

“You cried in his arms? And he let you?”

“Oh, shut up!” Arianne smacked his shoulder. “He’s a nice guy. He comforted me. Brought me to the In Between.”

“The what?”

“It’s this place. Like an alternate dimension where he controls everything. You should have seen it. A beautiful lake. A dock. And every time I asked for something, all he had to do was close his eyes and it would appear. He’s not human.”

Ben took his time repositioning his plate in front of him. “This is by far the craziest thing you’ve ever told me.”

“Why can’t you look me in the eye?”

“I’m thinking.”

“Of what?”

“How ridiculous this sounds.”

Arianne tore open the lip of her milk carton and drank several draughts. “I know.” She put the carton down and wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “I was there every step of the way. Short of saying I’m mentally unhinged and took hallucinogens recently, there’s really no way I can ask you to believe me.”

The complete trust in Ben’s eyes when he did look her in the eye almost drowned Arianne. Her best friend continued to believe her, no matter how crazy she sounded. Love, the kind that took years to grow, lifted the roadblocks of doubt.

“What are you going to do now?” he asked.

“Research.”

Knowing the Internet wouldn’t help much, Arianne surrounded herself with all the books she could find on the occult, the history of witchcraft, and a few magazines catering to the supernatural that Blackwood’s librarian ordered for herself on the school’s dime. Not that Arianne minded on this occasion since she had more material to work with when it came to the question of Nikolas Clark’s true identity. She’d commandeered her usual table at the back and spread out all the books she’d pulled off the shelves—some had a layer of dust and smelled cloyingly sweet.

She’d sifted through pages and pages of material, mostly about folklore and superstitions, but nothing that directly matched the clues Niko had given her. So deep in thought, separating possible facts and exaggerated fiction, she hadn’t noticed someone hovering closer and closer until a slender hand splayed over the page she’d been reading.

“I thought you had nothing to do with Niko?” a sickeningly syrupy voice asked.

Arianne flinched at the menace mixed in with all that sugar. “It’s the truth, Darla,” she said, looking up at her unexpected visitor.

The murder of countless dreams flashed in Darla’s eyes before a languid smile smoothed the surface. “Ari, Ari, Ari, why must you continue to lie to me?”

“Dar, you lost the right to call me Ari years ago. So, stop while you’re ahead.”

Darla eased a chair away from the table and sat beside Arianne. She crossed both her arms and legs. “I’ve missed you biting back. Really, Arianne.”

The softness in the way Darla spoke brought buried memories to the surface like a corpse clawing its way out of a grave. “You’re not here to rehash all that hurt, are you? I didn’t peg you to be the sadistic sort.”

“Okay, to the point then.” Darla shrugged a shoulder. “Mickey saw you run out of chemistry upset. Niko leaves the room in a hurry. Then a minute later, you both reenter the room. What am I supposed to make of that?”

“Nothing.”

“Why were you upset, Ari?”

“I told you to stop calling me that.”

Darla grabbed Arianne’s wrist and squeezed. “Why?”

Arianne studied Darla’s pointy knuckles. “Tammy’s mother just died.”

The hand retreated. “I’m sorry, Ari.”

“Are you? Really?”

“In all these years, you still doubt my sincerity?”

“Don’t make things harder than they already are, Dar. Just leave me alone.”

“Why did Niko leave the room right after you did?”

Flipping a page she’d finished reading, Arianne said, “I don’t know. I ran into the bathroom.” The lie rolled off her tongue like the Happy Birthday song.

“So, there’s really nothing going on with you and Niko?” She leaned closer.

The sharpness of Darla’s lavender perfume had Arianne wrinkling her nose. “Why are you so interested?”

“I’m surprised you have to ask.” Darla, so prim and proper, sneered. She clamped her fingers around the back of Arianne’s neck, preventing escape as she traversed the remaining inches between them in a meeting of lips.

Arianne gasped, which allowed Darla access. She deepened the kiss then pulled away. “I don’t appreciate what’s mine being taken from me.” She got up, dusting off her skirt as she did, and left.

Chapter 13

COLLATERAL DAMAGE

NIKO’S FADE AWAY THREE POINTER went in with a swoosh. Nothing but net. An NBA Finals quality shot. All the girls squealed his name as he jogged backward to the opposite side of the court. The cheerleaders in the crowd executed high kicks and clapped their pom-covered hands.

Desmond had the ball, scanning the court and its players. He pointed at his teammates while dribbling, signaling a full court press.

Niko bent his knees and spread his arms wide. He’d never understood the appeal of basketball until he found himself good at it. He spat a jeer at Desmond, who flipped him off. But, before Niko could do anything about the coming offense, a glide of red hair by the gym’s open doors rooted him to the hard court. Arianne had come into his line of sight briefly, but that second of seeing her electrified him.

Like a head-on collision, Desmond slammed into Niko. But instead of Niko falling over, Desmond bounced back and hit the court hard. The crowd gasped, sucking in all the air in the gym.

Coach Simmons—a beefy man with no neck—blew his whistle until he was red. “Clark! What the hell’s wrong with you? Head in the game, boy!”

Niko approached a winded Desmond and extended his hand. “I apologize.”

Desmond shook his head as if he had water in his ears and took Niko’s offered help. He used the momentum of Niko’s pull to jump to his feet. He shook out the last of the impact like a dog drying itself and slapped Niko’s shoulder. “You owe me a slice of pizza,” he said.

“I owe you the whole pie. Your choice of toppings.” Niko grabbed the top of Desmond’s head like a basketball.

The two laughed.

“Clark! Vic!” Coach hollered. “Bleachers, now! Miller! Anderson! Step in.”

Without arguing to stay in the game, Niko and Desmond sat side by side.

A busty brunette handed them towels. “Good game, boys,” she said in a breathy voice, displaying her God-given gifts.

“Thanks, Cindy.” Desmond winked at her before she swished her hips away. He dried his face and head then settled back with his elbows on the second row behind them.

Niko covered his head with his towel in an imitation of a cowl and leaned forward, arms on knees, hands clasped together. “Really, I apologize,” he said. “I should have been paying attention.”

The girls cheered again. The game had resumed.

“Why’d you freeze, anyway?” Desmond asked.

“I got distracted.”

“You? Distracted? Dude, when you’re on the court, you’re lethal. What could have…?” His voice trailed off. “Let me guess, Arianne Wilson?”

Niko glanced at his friend over his shoulder. “How’d you know?”

His smile had more teeth in it than it should have. “Ari has free period right now. She usually spends it in the library instead of study hall. The gym is en route to the library. Am I getting close?”

“All right Sherlock, you win.”

Desmond hooted. “Oh! Oh! Is that frustration I hear? Oh, boy, you got it bad.” He slapped Niko between his shoulder blades hard. “You poor SOB. Should I hand you the gun now or later?”

Niko faked a cough then asked, “You think so?”

“All I’m saying is: you’d better be careful. If Darla finds out—”

“Why should Darla care if I like Arianne or not?”

“And there’s the confirmation, ladies and gentlemen.”

“Des, be serious.”

His friend wiped a hand over his face. “I’m not supposed to say, but bros before woes, so I’ll tell you. If she finds out you heard it from me—”

“She won’t.”

“My pretty ass is on the line. Let’s just get that clear before I say any more.”

Niko growled.

Desmond threw up his hands. “Okay, okay. Chill.” He opened a bottle of Gatorade and drank like there was no tomorrow. He didn’t speak until he screwed the cap back on. “I understand why you don’t know this because you’re you, but Darla’s been head over heels for you since day one, man.”

“She’s what?” Niko’s eyes widened.

“Basically, she’s been signing your name and hers with hearts from the moment you transferred in. Why do you think no one else has made a move on you?”

“Okay, now I feel cheap.”

“Dude, no joke. If Darla finds out you like Ari, who knows what she’ll do?”

Desmond’s grim expression worried Niko. “She wouldn’t.”

“Do you remember Christy Tanner?”

Niko shook his head.

“Exactly.” Desmond ran a hand through his tight curls. “That girl was bullied out of this school just because she decided to stand up to Darla. Most of Blackwood thinks the pep squad owns the school. But Darla owns the squad. And if you have the squad scared…”

“You have the school scared,” Niko finished for him. He didn’t care about what Darla could do, but he understood that she wouldn’t be taking it out on him. He shrugged. “Not that Arianne likes me back,” he said as ineffectually as he could.

“How do you know?”

Niko thought of the toast and how uncomfortable Arianne had been when he hinted at being more than just friends. “She seemed unaffected by our kiss.”

“Whoa! Hold on a sec.” Desmond held onto Niko’s shoulder and pulled until Niko had to twist around and face him. “Are you telling me you kissed Arianne Wilson?”

“Actually, she kissed me.”

“When did this happen?”

“That’s not important—”

“I didn’t think I’d ever say this to you, but dude, you’ve got game.” Desmond beamed like a proud father. “My boy’s growing up.”

Niko’s smirk lasted for about a second. “But I don’t understand. I thought she liked the kiss. She completely shut down on me when I hinted at being more than friends.”

“I take it back. You don’t got game.” Desmond clucked. “Niko, Niko, Niko.” The question mark must have shown on the other boy’s face because Desmond continued, “Ladies need a little romancing before you ask for more from them. You need to ask her out, show her a good time.”

Niko opened his mouth to respond, but Coach’s obnoxious whistle didn’t allow him to. Desmond hopped off the bench and strode to the lockers, announcing his need for a shower and removing his shirt for the benefit of the female population.

Gaze plastered to the floor, Niko entered his bedroom after his soul reaping, still thinking of ways to ask Arianne out. He’d first thought of asking her during chemistry the next day, but the memory of what happened to Tammy’s mother might decrease his chances of getting her to say yes. Her sudden shutdown after their kiss continued to worry him. She’d changed the topic so fast that if they weren’t in the In Between, he would have thought she’d run away.

Niko shed his shirt without noticing the figure stretched out on her side across his bed. He’d unbuttoned his jeans before a soft purring interrupted his distraction. He faced his bed and froze, forgetting about being half-dressed.

Janika licked her lips and grazed her eyes over Niko’s chest and stomach, following the light dusting of hair that began at his navel, leading like a path all the way to Wonderland. “Please, don’t stop on my account,” she said.

Niko regarded her with disdain, but he made no move to fix his current state of undress. “What are you doing here, Janika?”

“I can feel the love already.” She caressed the satin sheets with an open palm. “How are you dealing with being babysat?”

“You too?”

Janika lay on her back, propped up by her elbows. She raised a knee and swiveled it from side to side. “The master gave me Travis,” she moaned. “What a bore. Nothing I do gets under his skin. He’s worse than Tomas.”

Laughter had Niko doubled over.

“It’s not funny!” Janika sat up. “Really, Nikolas! Must you continue to antagonize me?”

Niko laughed so hard, he ended up on the floor. His mirth reached a point where he couldn’t breathe.

“That’s right, suffocate!”

“I—” He gulped in greedily. “I’ve—” A new fit of chuckles rolled over him.

“Well, spit it out!” Janika snapped. Her peroxide ringlets quivered.

Niko breathed in deep, held it for a moment, and then exhaled the rest of his humor. “I never thought I’d get away with what I did so easily. You must have offended the master greatly.”

“I call it favoritism! Leaving you under the care of Tomas. It’s unfair. That old Reaper loves you; everyone knows that.”

“Are you jealous?”

“Yes.” Janika looked away.

Surprise had both of Niko’s eyebrows curving upward. “Really?”

The Reaper of New York stuck her tongue out at him.

“Mature, Janika, very mature.” Niko stood. “What did you do that made the master put you under Travis’s care?”

Janika moved from the bed to the bay window. “I threatened him.”

Goose bumps rose on Niko’s forearms. “With what?”

She stabbed him with a stare. “To kill all the younger Reapers.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“You should see your face right now.” She vanished and reappeared directly in front of him. She ran her hand down his cheek and stopped when she reached his chest. “We could be something. You and I.”

Niko’s muscles prepared for battle.

“I never had anyone challenge me before.” She planted a kiss on his chin. “I find that so sexy.”

“Janika.”

“Hmm?”

“Now I know why the master gave Travis the responsibility of your care.” Niko grabbed her wandering hand before it reached places he didn’t care for her to touch.

“Enlighten me.”

His lips lingered just above hers without them really touching. “You forget…the Reaper of Texas is the most debauched among us. Whatever you can do, he’s done tenfold.” Niko pushed Janika into the figure that materialized behind her.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Travis drawled, taking hold of Janika’s arms with his massive hands. “Now, darlin’, what do we have here? Being naughty, I presume? I like naughty.”

“Screw you!” Janika spat, trying and failing to free herself.

“Sorry for the intrusion, Nikolas.” Travis tipped his head at the Reaper of Georgia.

“You came just in time.” Niko returned the gesture. Then he tipped Janika’s chin up with his index finger so he could meet her belligerent glare with a menacing one of his own. “It was nice seeing you again, Janika.”

She snapped her teeth at him like an alligator. Niko yanked his hand away just in time.

“I always like ’em rough.” Travis strengthened his grip and disappeared with Janika as she cursed a blue streak.

Though autumn hadn’t officially called Georgia home, a fire danced in Niko’s ornate fireplace. He liked keeping the temperature in his bedroom frigid so he could enjoy the shadows a fire brought into a room. He sat cross-legged on his plaid upholstered reading chair, leafing through the pages of A Man of Peace in a World of War, a biography of Kofi Annan. He found the fascination for the man relaxing since it reminded him of Arianne blurting out a quote that saved his life.

“Boy, do I feel popular today,” Niko said. He snapped the book shut and it disappeared. A chair, matching his own, appeared opposite from where he sat. “Might as well sit down while you’re here.”

Tomas strode out of the shadows, removing his suit jacket as he went. He draped it over the chair’s back before settling into its cushions. Niko snapped and a small table with a snifter of the finest brandy materialized by Tomas’s left. His mentor picked up the glass and swirled its contents before taking a sip. He closed his eyes and sighed as the amber liquid made its way down his throat.

“You always know what I like,” Tomas said.

“Only the best for you.” Niko sat back and studied the flames. “I’m assuming you’re here because of the little incident with Janika this afternoon.”

“Travis has that handled. She’s unpredictable at the best of times.” Tomas returned the snifter to the table and mimicked Niko’s pose. “You’re still alive, so I assume she didn’t do any lasting damage.”

“Nothing I can’t handle.”

“Nikolas…”

“Get on with it.” He removed his gaze from the blaze to level it at Tomas. The golden light played over the planes of his face. “You’ve never been one to mince words with me.”

Tomas folded his arms. “Tell me about the girl, then.”

His treacherous eyebrows, a part of his anatomy he’d always been hard-pressed to control, rose. “I won’t even get a chance to play ignorant, will I?”

The older Reaper shook his head from left to right slowly. “You already mentioned her earlier. And you know you can never hide anything from me for long.”

“Oh?”

“Well, almost anything.” The lines at the sides of Tomas’s lips deepened. “I must apologize for not seeing your condition sooner. I would have helped if I’d been more observant of you. But knowing that you are all grown, and that you know what it means to be a Reaper, I assumed you’d be careful. I assume many things.”

Niko didn’t acknowledge the concern he found on the face of his mentor. He preferred to leave his lapse into depression behind him for better, sweeter things. “Have you ever been in love, Tomas?”

Regaining his composure, Tomas unfolded his arms and had them resting at his sides. “Yes. With each lifetime, I’m fortunate to find someone to share my life with. You’ve seen my wives.”

“And you loved all of them?”

Tomas nodded. “Every time I am reborn, I find that women are different. And each of my wives were perfect representatives of her time. Our master may not have given us the ability to have children, but he certainly allows us to build a family.”

Considering his next words, Niko said, “But none of them stood out? Like someone you believe you’d be in love with no matter how many times you’re reborn.”

Taking a large gulp of his brandy at the time, Tomas coughed. “Gracious, no,” he replied when his windpipes permitted. “Are you saying what you feel for this girl is something like that?”

“I don’t know.” Niko rested his chin in an open palm. “This is the first time I’ve ever felt anything for anyone. And what I feel for her frightens me. It’s only been a few days and I already find myself never wanting to part with her. Is that even normal?”

“First loves are always very potent.” A sage air floated around Tomas. “It’s the time when you are impulsive. You want everything and anything you can get from this person. You think that it is forever. Sometimes it is, but more often than not, it’s a fleeting fancy. Then you move on to your next love. You’re inexperienced with these things, Nikolas. Believe me, I was like that once. A naïve pup that lusted for anything I could get my hands on.”

“I don’t think my feelings for Arianne have something to do with lust. I certainly crave her like the sweetest strawberries, but it’s not only her body that I want. When we kissed—”

“You’ve already kissed?” Tomas leaned forward. “Kids these days really do move fast.”

Niko recalled his earlier conversation with Desmond. “She kissed me.”

“With the way you look, I wouldn’t be surprised. All Reapers are blessed with good looks.”

“Let’s not sully the moment with gutter talk, please, Tomas.” His defensive tone surprised them both.

Tomas broke their stunned silence first. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”

“And why is that?”

“Like I said, she is your first love. Let it run its course.” Tomas stood and shrugged on his jacket. “Enjoy yourself with her. Live your life the way humans do. I’m happy that you found someone you can be with. Took you long enough.”

“Why do I have a feeling you’ve been taking bets on me?” Niko grimaced in disgust.

“Because we have. And I just won the pool.” His mentor grinned like the Cheshire Cat. “Just remember that your responsibilities come first.”

Chapter 14

KILLER KINDNESS

BY SATURDAY, ALL OF BLACKWOOD seemed in mourning as Arianne rode the bus into Atlanta. She’d been glad to leave the sad town behind for a couple of hours. The pile-up took more lives than she had thought, and memorials happened one after the other. The service for Tammy’s mother would be on Sunday. An ache still made a home in Arianne’s heart. She knew she needed to attend the service. Even if she wanted to run away, she couldn’t abandon her friend. The bus seat hugged her from all sides, promoting a sense of security she’d recently discovered in the company of a certain delectable boy.

Niko had been attentive yet distant for the rest of the week. Mr. Todd had made them permanent partners in anticipation of the fact that Carl and Tammy might not return to school for a while. Niko had made sure to handle all the more dangerous—at least to Arianne—aspects of the experiments. But he wouldn’t talk to her about anything that steered remotely close to what happened in the In Between. Not that Arianne complained. She couldn’t show more than cordial attention either. Darla had drawn a line in the sand by staking her claim. Who knows what she’d do next?

She’d stepped off the bus without really thinking about her surroundings, missing the Mustang that breezed by. She crossed the street and walked into St. Joseph’s with no regard for the souls taking strolls along the halls. She couldn’t wait to tell Carrie about the kiss—Niko’s, not Darla’s. She’d kept Carrie in the dark about what she’d shared with Darla during a time when she didn’t think of the consequences of what she’d been doing. Making Ben promise never to mention the bullying either, Arianne only told Carrie about the lighter things that happened in her life.

At the door to Carrie’s room, familiar hushed voices stopped her from entering. The wall provided her cover as she peeked in.

“Tell me about the game,” Carrie said. She had a sheet pulled up to her waist while pillows propped her up like a queen.

Ben—without his cap on—reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a baseball. He made his way to Carrie’s bed and handed her the ball. She cradled it in both her hands with care, as if he’d given her a precious object. He lowered the guard rail on his side and sat at the edge of her bed, his hands on his thigh, and looked at Carrie in a way Arianne had never seen, the way you’d watch the sun rise over a mountain ridge. His face held so much awe that it seemed like a miracle was happening before him.

“That’s the winning home run ball I hit,” he said.

His tender tone had Arianne weak at the knees. Her lungs constricted each time she inhaled. Growing up, not once had he used that tone with her or anyone else that she knew of.

The light of a shooting star filled Carrie’s fairy princess features. “Are you giving this to me?”

“I wish I could give you more.”

“You being here is more than enough, you know that.”

He leaned in until their foreheads touched. “I’d give you the world.”

She let the baseball rest on her lap and wrapped her skinny arms around his neck. “I know, Ben. I know.”

“I missed you,” he whispered, twirling a strand of her limp hair between his fingers.

Carrie stroked his cheek, guiding his face closer to hers. “You should,” she answered just before their lips said hello to one another.

Arianne looked away quickly, unsure whether she should be witnessing the pocket of intimacy between her sister and Ben. They hadn’t told anyone, and Arianne didn’t know how to feel about it. On the one hand, happiness brought lightness to her heart. Carrie deserved to be loved by someone like Ben. But also, even if she already had her suspicions about their attraction for one another, hurt still kicked and screamed in her chest. Her best friend and her sister didn’t want anyone to know about their relationship. But I’m not just anyone!

Arianne’s legs moved of their own accord, taking her away from the room. The last thing she wanted was to walk in on them while she was feeling confused. She couldn’t hide the gaping wound, not now. Too busy trying to breathe, she’d neglected to notice the lack of dead people walking around. She hustled until the glass doors of St. Joseph’s slid closed behind her.

She doubled over and breathed as she straightened almost like a mock version of “downward facing dog” without the yoga mat. She put her hands on her hips and continued—in and out, in and out. She didn’t notice the figure sitting on the bench across the street until her gaze zoomed in that direction.

“Niko?” she whispered, a hot flush burning over her cheeks. And as if he’d heard her, he raised a hand in greeting, a lopsided grin on his too-handsome face, like he’d been caught at something. Ah, he’s giving my heart a workout. She couldn’t help but mirror that smile.

Without taking her eyes off the morsel of manhood before her, she crossed the street. She watched surprise then realization then worry flit through his features. He half sat and half stood like he didn’t know whether to wait for her or rescue her from oncoming traffic. When she reached him, he’d slumped onto the bench.

“Do you have a death wish?” he asked.

She crossed her arms and cocked her hip. “What are you doing here?”

He shrugged nonchalantly. “Getting some chores out of the way and enjoying the Georgian sun. You’re early.”

“You say that like you know how long I usually take.”

“Better than saying I just happened to be by, right?”

“Be serious, Niko. What are you doing here?” She joined him on the bench, his calm melting her suspicion. “And don’t say it’s the view. Are you visiting someone?”

Niko regarded the hospital with a seriousness that didn’t seem to match the ease of the atmosphere between them. “How’s Carrie doing? You usually take a while before you leave.”

A shadow devoured her elation. “She’s with Ben.”

“And you’re not with them because…?”

“I don’t think they want to be disturbed right now.”

“But I thought you were okay with Ben liking your sister.” Niko massaged her shoulder. “At least, that’s what I assumed. Am I wrong?”

Arianne stared at her trembling fists resting on her lap. “It’s just they didn’t tell me.”

“Maybe they’re waiting for the right time.”

“From what I’ve seen, they’ve been together for a while.” Her voice slowly morphed into a hiss. “And here I believed Carrie when she told me Ben was just her FB.”

“Pardon?”

“Fake Boyfriend,” Arianne sighed out, attempting to release some of her pent up frustration.

Niko rested his hand on top of her fists. “Why are you so bothered by it? Do you…?” He paused. “Do you have feelings for Ben?”

“What?” She whipped her head up.

“From your surprise, I’m thinking the answer is no. So, why?”

“They didn’t tell me, that’s why. I’m the sister and best friend.” She thumped her hand over her chest. “Don’t I deserve to know?”

Niko gathered Arianne close until her forehead rested against his shoulder. “Ari, I don’t think they meant to hurt you.”

She had a deer in the headlights moment.

“I’m not siding with their secrecy,” Niko amended. “I just want to provide some perspective. They have their reasons.”

“I know that,” she said to his shirt. “But it doesn’t mean I’m okay with it.”

“Why don’t we talk about it more over lunch? I know this place—”

Arianne pushed away from him. “You’re asking me out?”

“I’m sensing your hesitation. Are you still bothered by our kiss?”

Arianne’s blush reached forest fire proportions. “No! Are you?”

“Of course not.” His gaze fell, a slight blush lifting across the bridge of his nose. “It was beautiful.”

“Beau—” Her throat went out of business.

“So, how about that lunch?”

His question helped her out of the sudden happy dance her legs wanted to perform. Like jumping into a cold shower, Arianne sobered. “Don’t get me wrong, I’d love lunch, but can we have it somewhere less public? Like the In Between maybe?”

“Are you afraid to be seen in public with me?” Niko’s brow crumpled like an accordion.

“Yes.” Then she realized what she’d said. “No! It’s not that. I’m just concerned about who might see us.”

“Does this have to do with Darla? There’s nothing between us, Ari.”

“Oh, I know.”

“I don’t care if she finds—” He stopped abruptly, Arianne’s words finally sinking in. “You know?”

“I just don’t want to tempt fate. You don’t know her the way I do.”

Niko’s expression shifted into skeptical. “I don’t understand why everyone is so afraid of her.”

“You’re in her circle of influence, so you don’t get the brunt of what she’s capable of.” Arianne tried not to think of the kiss. Darla had meant business. “So, please, Niko. Can we just hang out somewhere else? The In Between?”

“I’m not sure if bringing you there again so soon would be okay. I’ve never brought anyone human there before, so I don’t know what being there could do to you.”

“You haven’t…” Arianne prevented the urge to fan her overheated face by squeezing her hands together.

Niko stood and reached out for her. Arianne stared at his hand for a second before taking it. He pulled her up until their bodies touched. Then he planted a quick kiss on the tip of her nose before guiding her to a black Mustang parked beside the curb. He opened the passenger door for her. Arianne slipped into the seat and he closed the door, then made his way to the driver’s side.

“Where are you taking me?” Arianne fastened her seatbelt.

“Since you don’t want to go somewhere public and the In Between is out of the question for now—” he started the engine “—I’m taking you to my house.”

Arianne locked away the betrayal that followed her from Carrie’s room, nipping at her heels. She decided nothing would ruin her enjoyment of Niko’s company. She’d face her feelings in time. Carrie and Ben would certainly have to answer for keeping their relationship a secret. But for now, Arianne concentrated on the present.

Traffic stayed moderate on I-75, considering the time of day. Usually, it would be a bumper to bumper mess. Arianne couldn’t believe the highway they were on was the site of so much tragedy. She felt apart from it: concerned for those who’d lost loved ones, but not exactly able to relate with their suffering. Shooing away morbid thoughts, Arianne looked askance at Niko. The interior of his car smelled of lemons, yet she couldn’t tell where he hid the air freshener. The air conditioner blasted welcome coolness, banishing the heavy heat that prevailed even if summer was over. Arianne cursed her choice of a mini-skirt that day. Her thighs stuck to the black leather seat like Velcro. It was all she could do to keep from shifting, embarrassed of the potential sound the movement would make.

“I didn’t know you had a car,” she said.

Niko lowered the volume on the latest Yellowcard single blaring from his dash and said, “I don’t have much use for it. But I do love taking a drive once in a while.”

“Eyes on the road, mister.” When Niko obliged, she continued, “I would think you’d just will yourself anywhere.”

He chuckled. “I would, but I have an image to maintain.”

“Oh right, the whole being human thing.”

“So, any guesses?”

“Warlock.”

“What makes you think that?” Niko gave her a sidelong glance followed by a grin.

“Well—” Arianne fiddled with her fingers “—you certainly have powers, so it seemed like the logical first choice. Not that anything about me trying to guess what you are is logical. Humor me and my research skills.”

“Nope, not a warlock.”

“Okay, that significantly narrows things down. I decided to stay away from vampires and werewolves since you don’t fit the mythology.”

“What if I wanted to suck your blood?” He failed at an imitation of a Transylvanian accent.

Arianne suppressed a laugh by mashing her lips together. “From what you told me about getting energy from souls, you don’t need blood to stay alive. And you can consume human food.”

“Touché.” He took his attention off the road for a moment. “You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?”

“Ever since I started seeing dead people, I’ve always wondered what else could be out there.” She bit her lip. “If everything in books was real.”

Niko tapped at the steering wheel. “Some are real, most are not. What’s your next guess?”

“Some kind of Faerie. Your looks could be glamour and I wouldn’t know what you really looked like unless you showed me.” She reached out and poked his cheek. “For all I know, you could be some tentacled thing.”

“Would it matter to you if I was?”

“Don’t get me wrong, I like looking at you. But the more I get to know you, the more I realize I wouldn’t be in this car with you if you were a jerk, no matter what you looked like. A girl’s got to have standards.”

“Good to know.” Niko eased the Mustang onto the exit ramp that led to Blackwood. “And no, I’m not one of the Fey. No tentacles.”

“Then that leaves some kind of celestial being. An angel, maybe?”

“No dice.”

“Really?” Arianne rubbed her chin. “I could have sworn…but what else is there?”

“Well, you can continue your research. I’m sure you’ll eventually find something.” He shifted gears then squeezed her knee. “Or you can wait for the time when I tell you.”

Arianne turned to the window. Her other limbs sizzled with jealousy while her knee rejoiced. “I think I’ll keep looking.”

“I thought so.”

Chapter 15

SECRET MEETINGS

NIKO’S FINGERS STAGED A MASS PROTEST by spreading a serious case of pins and needles across his palm and over his ten digits. The reason? His refusal to reach out and touch the girl seated beside him like a delectable feast. Just one touch, his fingers begged. He wanted to delay his gratification, which his obstinate fingers didn’t seem to understand. When he’d seen her exit the hospital and cross the road without a second thought to oncoming traffic, a fierce protectiveness almost claimed his composure. His heart flat-lined and only resumed beating when she’d reached his side. He thought about his previous conversation with Tomas. He couldn’t let himself believe that what he felt for Arianne would be in any way fleeting. With each day that he spent in her company, he only grew more enamored by the way she smiled or the animated way she spoke or how much she cared for her sister and best friend.

As he drove through Blackwood, she’d lapsed into stories of her adventures with Carrie and Ben after she’d run out of guesses as to his identity. He wanted to tell her, then and there, but he needed to confer with Tomas first. Bringing a human consort into the fold wasn’t uncommon, but it was a delicate process. The trust level alone…Niko pushed the thought away. He had time, and he knew in his heart of hearts that Arianne would take it well. She could already see the dead. From his perspective, it was only a matter of time until she figured things out. He admired the cool collectiveness she exhibited. She knew he wasn’t human, but she didn’t shun him or feel fear. She’d explained that it stemmed from being able to see souls. That she’d grown used to the unknown. But to Niko, he saw it as an unparalleled open-mindedness. Humans usually feared what they didn’t understand. Arianne endeavored to find answers to her questions instead of being swallowed up by fear.

Listening to her animated chatter, he eased the Mustang into the garage of his home. Her story of Carrie jumping into a river died.

“Your garage is underground?” She’d asked after all the king’s horses and all the king’s men put her slack face back together again.

“I thought it would be practical,” he said as he parked the car beside a black Yamaha.

“You have a motorcycle too?” Arianne didn’t wait for him to open the door for her. She jumped out and walked around his bike, admiring it like someone would a large guard dog. She reached out to touch it, but yanked her hand back as if an invisible electric fence prevented her from making contact with the polished chrome. “Why don’t you ride or drive to school if you have them?”

Niko closed the car door she’d left open. “Sickleton believes it’s more human to ride the bus. The less attention I get, the better I blend in.”

“Tough. You hang out with Darla. And with your looks—” she circled a finger in front of his face “—attention is all you’ll get. You’ve got half the school drooling over you. And you not joining any clubs or teams makes you even more mysterious. If blending in is your goal, I’d say you’re not doing such a good job at it.”

“You think I’m handsome?” He bent forward enough that she flushed.

She pushed him away playfully. “Keep walking, mister. Who’s Sickleton again?”

“My Caretaker. The one who met us at the door the other day.”

“Transparent sour puss? He’s not a ghost, or at least I don’t think he’s like the souls of the dead I see. He has clothes, for one thing. But he said something interesting. He said he couldn’t go near you or you’d drain him.”

Smirking at the term Arianne used for Sickleton, he finally answered the call of his fingers and took her hand. The lunar landing had nothing on how his fingers rejoiced at the contact. A smile brightened his features as he guided her to one end of the garage.

“He’s a guardian spirit. Not human. And he’s pure energy, so if I did get near him that day, I would have taken everything he had.”

“Whoa!” She yanked at his arm. “You have an elevator in your house?”

Niko thumbed the button and the doors parted. They entered, and he pressed another button on the panel. “The elevator is probably one of the few normal things in the house.” He cupped her face with both hands. “You might see or experience some unexplainable things here. It’s technically a different dimension inside. I think you’ll be fine. But—” he kissed her forehead “—if you feel dizzy or lightheaded or anything weird, tell me.”

She nodded.

“Promise me,” he insisted as the doors opened.

“I promise,” she whispered.

They entered a hallway that the elevator funneled into. At the end stood a young boy and girl. They held hands, looking like porcelain dolls in lace and ruffles—black on black, which stood out from their ivory skin and emerald eyes. Niko felt Arianne hesitate.

“Ari, meet Rome and Paris.” He indicated the boy first then the girl with a sweep of his other hand.

“It’s nice to meet you.” Arianne held out a hand for a shake, but both kids bowed instead. She glanced at Niko.

“It’s better if you don’t touch them,” he assured.

“Master, we…” Rome began.

“…weren’t expecting you,” Paris finished.

“Is something the matter?” Niko squatted so he was at eye level with them.

“We were planning…” Paris started.

“…to clean the house,” Rome completed.

Letting go of Arianne, Niko rested a hand on each of their shoulders. “You don’t have to stop that task on our account. We’ll be in the kitchen and then the garden. Please let the Caretaker know we are not to be disturbed. Would that be all right?”

“Yes,” they said in unison. They turned around and skipped away, swaying their clasped hands.

“Master?” Arianne cocked an eyebrow at him as he straightened.

He reunited with her hand, suppressing a grin. “They’re my minions. Well, two of them, anyway. There are a few more running around somewhere in the house.”

“Uh!” She smacked his arm.

“What?”

“That was so insensitive!”

“Ari, they really are called minions. They’re not human even if they look like it. I created them to assist me with my duties.” Niko twirled Arianne around until they touched hip to hip, his hands on either side of her waist.

She put her hands on his chest, an annoyed pout still on her lips. “You created them?”

“Yes. They are a part of me, taking energy from me.”

“You let those children starve!” She smacked him again.

His confusion must have risen to the surface because Arianne quickly reminded him of his Fade.

“Ari, I won’t let that happen again.” He fell into her eyes. “They’re fine. I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Now that you’re here.”

Once in the kitchen—which had high ceilings and granite counter tops and could handle cooking for up to two hundred guests and some to spare—Niko opened one of the fridge doors and assessed its contents. Arianne had taken a seat on a bar stool by the center island. She sipped on a glass of sweet raspberry iced tea and stared at the copper-bottom pots hanging above her.

“Are we ordering in?” she asked like she’d been there all her life.

Images flashed in his mind of waking up to see her in bed beside him, her face soft from slumber, sunlight playing in her hair. To be the first person she saw when she woke up. To have those eyes gazing upon him. To have her deem him worthy of her smile and kiss. He had to pause, relishing the feeling of having her in his domain. Of how right everything seemed.

“What are you in the mood for?” He glanced at her over his shoulder.

“Pizza?”

He reached into the fridge and freed a block of mozzarella, precut pepperoni, bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, and basil from their cold shackles. He balanced them all in his arms and used his heel to shut the door. “Why don’t I make you some? We have a stone oven out in the veranda. It’s a beautiful day for some home-cooked pizza. What do you say?”

With each sentence Niko spoke, Arianne’s eyes grew wider and wider. “You can cook?”

“Comes with living many lives.” He pulled a bag of flour, a can of yeast, a jug of warm water, and a jar of salt from the middle of the granite island and placed them on the counter in front of him.

While he mixed the ingredients to make the dough, Arianne said, “Do you have to be more perfect than you already are?”

“Oh, trust me—” half a smile tugged at one side of his face “—I’m far from perfect. I’m probably more flawed than people think. But I do make a mean pizza.”

“And humble too!”

He flicked some flour her way and she squealed. “What toppings do you want?”

She hopped off the stool and studied the assemblage before them. “I definitely want the pepperoni, mozzarella, and mushrooms. What else do you have?” She strode to the fridge with purpose and opened the door like she’d done it countless times before. Niko thought it was the sexiest thing he’d ever seen. She liberated a few more items and dumped them on the island. “You didn’t tell me you have almost every kind of cheese imaginable in there.” Her grin looked positively cheeky when she bumped her hip against his. “Let’s make it a five-cheese, pepperoni and mushroom pizza.”

“Aren’t you worried about the calories?” He raked his gaze over her.

“Jerk!”

He pulled her into the circle of his arms and took her hands. He proceeded to show her the proper technique of kneading. She rested against him and spread her fingers apart so his could easily guide her hands through the motions of properly tightening and relaxing her grip on the dough. He thought his knees would give out on him.

“I always like active participation when cooking,” she whispered, tilting her head up so she could face him without turning all the way around in his arms. An invitation sparkled in her eyes.

Niko couldn’t resist the temptation. Forget delayed gratification! He bent down and took her offered lips.

On the veranda, Niko checked on the pizza while Arianne set the table. She grabbed the cut-glass vase filled with orange carnations from the kitchen and placed it at the center of the table, adding a bowl of lemons as an accent. Next, she set out the plates, glasses, knives and forks, and the pitcher of iced tea. Napkins over the plates were her final touch. Niko watched her intently, loving how natural and at ease she seemed in his environment. He almost didn’t want to take her home at the end of the day. He wanted to keep her with him for as long as she’d let him.

“I think the pizza’s done,” she said, breaking the spell she’d cast over him.

Niko fumbled with the wooden paddle, which gifted him with a giggle from her. But he regained his poise by twirling the pizza cutter in his hand and slicing the cheesy pizza into eight symmetrically triangular slices. He slid the pie onto the waiting platter and carried it to their table. Large clouds gave them enough cover that they didn’t need an umbrella.

“The table’s beautiful, Ari.” He pulled out her chair for her and she sat down with a proud smile. “Where did you learn to be so creative?”

“Carrie and I played house all the time. And Mom taught me a thing or two.” She poured the both of them some tea, ice dancing in their glasses.

Niko served her. The strings of cheese kept the slice tethered to the pie like a dirigible. But with a flick of his wrist, he placed the perfect triangle on her plate. He served himself before sitting down across from her.

Arianne took a bite of the pizza and hummed. She licked her fingers with audible smacks. “Yup, a mean pizza. What?”

“Pardon?” Niko bit into his slice.

“Do I have something on my face? You were staring.” She gulped down her tea with relish.

He chewed then swallowed. “I just haven’t seen anyone enjoy eating the way you do. Like you’re in a daydream.”

A self-conscious blush flooded her cheeks. She stared at her plate. “Is that a bad thing?”

“It’s something I could watch all day if you didn’t think it’d be creepy.”

“You’re right, it would be creepy.”

He laughed into his next bite.

“And you’re right about some stuff in your house not being normal,” she continued as if they were talking about the weather. “When I dropped you at the basement and I was ushered out of the house—”

Niko tsked. “I have yet to punish Sickleton for that.”

She polished off her first slice and reached for a second one with a shaky hand. “You don’t have to. He was only doing his…” She paused, confusion creased her forehead.

“Ari, are you all right?”

She shook her head. “Yeah, yeah. I’m fine. Anyway, that day, I went around your house and didn’t see this magnificent garden.” She swept a hand to indicate the circus of color performing for them. Arianne swayed, almost tipping out of her chair.

Niko bolted out of his seat and stretched his arms to form a safety net to catch her before she fell over. “I’m taking you home.”

“But the pizza,” she murmured into his chest, eyes heavy lidded.

“I’ll wrap some up to go for you.”

“Good. Good.”

With his arms behind her shoulders and knees, he cradled her to his chest until her head lolled onto his collarbone for support. The blood-rush in his body from his overcompensating heart had his head feeling lighter than air. He couldn’t understand what had happened to Arianne. She’d been fine upon entering his domain. Now, only a couple of hours later, her body seemed so small, so fragile, like the most delicate glass figurines from the Murano glass blowers. Her breathing had become shallow and ragged, as if she fought to keep her lungs working. A chill, like a clammy hand, caressed his spine, bringing with it goose bumps over his arms and legs. He fought against the rising panic. If she withered because of being in his domain, then the simplest answer would be to take her out of it. He prepared to teleport when she spoke in a voice he’d only heard from those in their deathbeds. Her lips had begun to turn an alarming shade of blue, as if she’d been pulled out of frigid waters.

“Oh, before I forget…” She raised a limp finger.

“What is it, angel?” He kissed the top of her head. A spiked ball of worry bounced off the walls of his gut.

“Come with me tomorrow…” She’d fainted before she could finish her sentence.

Niko had just pressed send for a text he’d written to Arianne when Paris and Rome entered his room. He was still shaken from what had happened that afternoon. By the time he’d teleported Arianne and himself into her room and he began settling her into bed, she’d looked marginally better. Her pallor had receded so that her face returned to its cherries-and-cream complexion, and her breathing relaxed. He’d immediately called for Tomas after he’d been sure of Arianne’s recovery. The older Reaper had been detained because of the forest fires ravaging his state, but left word that he’d meet with Niko the next day.

“Master,” Paris and Rome said. They stood a respectful distance from his reading chair.

“Is there something I can do for you?” Niko slid his phone back into his pocket and tried his best to relax by releasing the breath he hadn’t realized he held in. His joints popped as he rolled his shoulders.

“The human…” Rome said.

“Arianne,” Niko corrected.

“Arianne.” Paris nodded her head once. “This is the first time…”

“…you’ve ever brought anyone into…”

“…your domain, Master,” she finished.

Looking from Paris to Rome, Niko asked, “And how do you feel about that?”

Rome cocked his head to the side. “Better.”

“Good.” Paris smiled like a little girl, all sugar and spice.

Niko’s surprise started with the raising of his eyebrows down to his widening eyes and ended with his parted lips. “Why?” Relief and happiness allowed him only that one word.

The twins glanced at each other and shared a silent nod before they regarded their master with a neutral expression.

“If having her here…” Rome began.

“…means you will no longer let yourself fade…” Paris continued.

“…then we can rest easy.”

“Master, your happiness…”

“…is paramount to us.”

Because he couldn’t contain himself any longer, Niko rose from his seat and moved toward the twins. He knelt down and ushered them with his arms into an embrace. An act he’d never done with his minions. He felt them stiffen for a moment before they surrendered to the show of affection.

“Master,” Paris said softly into Niko’s ear.

“Yes, child?” he breathed out.

Rome answered, “New Certificates have arrived for reaping.”

Laughter unfurled out of Niko’s chest. In a single heave, he carried the twins with him when he stood. They hooked their arms around his neck, question marks in their eyes. After the last of his chuckles left the room, he said, “Let’s get to work then.”

Chapter 16

CODE RED

ARIANNE WOKE UP TO THE INCESSANT CHIRPING of her cell phone. A text message pounced on the screen like a dog wanting attention. She groaned, rubbing away what felt like the sand of the Mojave that had settled at the corners of her eyes. She tried to recall the chain of events that ended with her lying in bed. The leftover glow in the dark constellations on her ceiling provided no answers for her—an oracle gone mute years ago. She reached for her phone with jelly limbs and tapped the LCD screen to retrieve the message.

“Pick you up at eight for the memorial. Niko,” she read in a not-so-sexy raspy whisper. The desert sand had invaded her mouth as well. “How’d he get my…what time…” She tapped the screen again and the numbers 5:00 blinded her.

She struggled with the thin blanket that had once offered protection. Overnight, it had transformed into a straightjacket, weighing as much as a whale for all the strength it took Arianne to get the stifling piece of cloth off her. Houdini didn’t have this much trouble! She panted heavily, sweat drenching her T-shirt. An hour passed—according to her digital clock—before she could summon enough strength to tumble out of bed and crawl to her bathroom. And it was another half hour under pummeling hot water before she regained proper mobility.

Dressing had become a chore of epic proportions, one bra strap at a time. She couldn’t remember when she’d bought a pair of lead underwear. And the dress…she almost cried, even though she picked out the lightest fabric in her closet. Carrying a whale might be easier.

With a heave and a ho, she finished dressing. The buckles of her strappy wedges protested for about five minutes, but she managed to beat them into submission. Looking half decent in her black summer dress, she studied her limp hair. A braid.

A spritz of Vanilla Passion later, Arianne prepared herself to tackle the obstacle course that was the stairs.

What happened to me? she kept asking herself as she made her way to the kitchen with marshmallow knees and clammy fingers.

Her mother saw through her makeup disguise, almost dropping a plate when Arianne walked in. “Honey,” her mother said, cradling Arianne’s face in her warm hands, “are you okay? You look like death warmed over.”

“I’ve seen road kill look better,” her father added.

“Not helping, Jim!” The scowl she threw at her husband could have scared an army of barbarians.

He let it slide. “It’s probably just a cold, Helen.”

“We thought Carrie just had a cold!”

Before her father could reply, Arianne interjected. “Relax, Mom. I’m fine, really. Just a little tired. Late nights and all that. I’ve been doing some research…” She hung her white lies to dry in the kitchen for all to see. Then the doorbell rang. “That’s probably Niko,” she said, glancing toward the front door.

“I’ll get it.” Her father strode out of the kitchen with shoulders squared, ready for battle.

“Who’s Niko?”

Arianne stepped out of her mother’s reach with the pretense of grabbing a glass of orange juice. “A classmate of mine. He’s taking me to the wake for Tammy’s mom.” Her voice hitched at the end of the sentence. “Are you coming?”

“I can’t, honey. I have to be at the hospital today.” Her mother returned to preparing breakfast. “I wish you would come with me. Just a couple of tests, nothing major. I want to nip whatever you’re coming down with in the bud.”

“Mom, really, I’m fine.”

“At least promise me that you’ll go to the hospital if you start to feel worse.”

Ears burning from wanting to hear what her father and Niko discussed out front, Arianne inched closer to the kitchen entrance. “No worries. I will,” she said casually.

“Ari, your ride’s here.” Her father reentered the kitchen with Niko in tow.

She stared. In such a resplendent suit, he resembled someone from a time when dressing before leaving the house mattered—handsome and dashing. Who needs breakfast when you can wake up to that? Arianne swallowed to keep her mouth from overflowing. He gave her a quick glance, concern and slight panic flitting through his expression before he bravely faced her mother.

“Good morning, Mrs. Wilson,” he said. “I’ve come to escort Arianne to the memorial.”

If Arianne didn’t know any better, she would have thought Niko was going to reach out and kiss her mother’s hand like in those historical romance novels she’d found stashed away behind all the coats in her mother’s closet. And her mother seemed like she wanted Niko to do just that. He certainly had the aura of a nobleman.

“Guys your age still say ‘escort’?” her mother asked, hand splayed over her chest.

“Only those with an excellent vocabulary,” he answered.

“And you have a car?” She gave Niko an appraising stare.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You should see his Mustang, Helen. Worth drooling over,” her father said.

“Dad!” Arianne wanted to hide.

“Shall we, Ari?” Niko came to her side. “We wouldn’t want to be late.”

Arianne craved his hand, and as if he’d known her thoughts, he laced his fingers with hers.

“Mr. And Mrs. Wilson, it’s a pleasure meeting you,” he said.

“Give Carrie a kiss for me today,” Arianne said over her shoulder, allowing Niko to lead her out of the house.

“You two take care now,” her father called after them.

“Jim!”

Arianne drooped into the passenger seat, dead weight in the water. The moment she heard Niko close the driver’s seat door, she felt his arm reach across her and the seatbelt clicked into place, its fabric secure over her chest. Then his fingers trailed a now familiar path down her face.

“I’m so sorry,” he said.

“For what?” she sighed out.

“I don’t know what happened, but I intend to find out.”

Without opening her eyes, she reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze. “Thank you for coming with me today. I don’t think I could do it by myself.”

He kissed her cheek then started the car. The rumbling vibrations of the engine soothed her granny-knotted muscles. Fatigue refused to release her from its clutches. The gulp of juice she’d swallowed sloshed like the sea in her stomach. She wished she’d taken a bite of toast, but with the threat nausea posed, she doubted the bite would stay down.

After two lefts and a right down Maple, Niko said, “Are you sure you want to do this? I’d prefer that you stay home and rest.”

“Niko, I’m tired, not sick. And Tammy needs her friends with her right now.” Arianne turned her head until her cheek touched leather. The curtains of her eyelids rose, allowing her to study Niko’s profile. She caressed the side of his face, easing the tic on his jaw. “No frowning now. Although…”

“What?”

“Would it go to your head if I said you look really hot all brooding and dark?”

Like a magnet against the fridge, his gaze snapped onto hers. “Definitely.”

“Good.” She shut her eyes again and folded her hands over her lap. “How far away are we?”

“About ten minutes.”

The wheels switched from a steady hum on asphalt to the crunch of gravel. Arianne waited until Niko parked the car and opened her door before blinking. She met his gaze and still saw worry lines on his face. He tried to hide it with a smile as he helped her out of the car. She stumbled into his arms, and from then on, he held her closer than his heart, unwilling to let her go unless he was certain she wouldn’t fall.

They entered the little chapel that was filled to capacity. The Georgian summer that refused to leave kept the air-conditioning working double time. Still, many people fanned themselves. Arianne scanned the crowd and spotted Tammy sitting in the first row of pews. She wore a simple dress and wide sunglasses covered half her face. At the altar sat a black coffin with a spray of white lilies over the lid.

“Walk me up the aisle, will you?” She squeezed Niko’s hand on her waist.

“I won’t let you go unless you ask me to,” he whispered into her ear, sending the touch of feathers down her spine.

They navigated the crowd until they reached Tammy. She’d been sitting alone while her father and aunt mingled, accepting heartfelt condolences from anyone who’d come over to them.

Tammy stood and hugged Arianne the second they reached her. The sadness Arianne managed to hold back finally fell. “I’m so sorry, Tammy.”

“I’m glad you’re here,” Tammy sobbed out.

Both girls sat down without letting go of one another. They’d stayed that way while Niko stood by them like a knight ready to ask anyone who dared disturb them to leave. He was a quiet strength that Arianne drew from, his presence ever solid and real.

When the memorial ended and the casket was taken away, Arianne whispered her good-byes to Tammy and her family. Some of her fatigue had lifted, and she’d handled walking to the entrance of the chapel with the grace of a newborn foal. Niko still hovered close, tense and ready for anything. The poor guy must be exhausted, she thought. Oh, wait, not human.

By the double doors stood Ben, somber in his Sunday suit. For the occasion, he’d favored his hair combed away from his face rather than imprisoning the sandy locks in his signature baseball cap.

“Ari,” he said as he enveloped her with his body. “Niko,” he greeted over her shoulder.

“We haven’t formally met,” Niko said. “Nikolas Clark. It’s nice to meet you.”

Arianne felt Ben shake Niko’s hand more than saw it. She pulled away from Ben to face Niko. “Can Ben take me home? I really want to talk to him about something.” She hoped her eyes did the explaining.

Niko read the silent message she sent him. “Call you later?”

“Thank you.” She gave Niko a kiss on the cheek then turned to a slightly confused Ben. “Brought your truck?”

Arianne did a quick face check on the mirror of the sun visor. No more dark circles and gaunt cheeks. Ben had pulled out of the parking space in a calm-before-the-storm sort of way. Now with helium limbs and oxygenated lungs, Arianne worried the skirt of her dress.

“What’s between you and Niko Clark? He had his hands all over you throughout the memorial,” Ben said tightly.

“Nothing that you and Carrie wouldn’t do,” she fired back.

Ben pulled over to the side of the road and killed the engine. He twisted so he came face to face with Arianne. Shock, then surprise, then understanding flew across his features.

“Yesterday.” He opted out of the staring contest by dropping his gaze. “That’s why you never came by.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Anger, unexpected, rose up from the depths of her heart. Her plans of calmly confronting Ben about his secret relationship with Carrie flew out the window.

“Carrie didn’t want anyone to know.”

“I’m not anyone, Ben!”

“Especially you.”

That hurt. “Why?”

Ben handed her a handkerchief he’d fished out of his jacket pocket. She slapped his offering away then thought better of it. She grabbed the cloth and blew into it with relish. Then she used the clean side to plug the leak that dripped from her eye corners.

Undaunted, Ben soldiered on. “Ari, Carrie didn’t want anyone worrying more about her than they already are. Especially you. If she doesn’t make it—”

“How can you think that?”

“Not my thoughts. It’s Carrie’s.”

Arianne’s eyes hurt before she realized she’d been stretching their lids wide open. “Why would she think that?”

Ben massaged the back of his neck. “She says she’s being realistic. But I don’t buy it for a second.”

“How long have you two been together?”

“I love her, Ari,” he said, barely above a heartrending whisper. “There are days when I tell myself I should savor every moment I have with her, but there are also days when I’m so angry that I want to beat someone up. Then I realized what I’m really angry about is a sickness that’s out of my control.” A muscle on his cheek jumped as he let his tears fall. “I don’t want her to die.”

Arianne gave him the comfort of her arms. “Take me to Saint Joseph’s.”

Throughout the ride, Arianne let her anger seethe. She did her best to comfort Ben, realizing the person she really wanted to confront was Carrie. She didn’t wait for Ben to kill the engine before she rushed out of his truck and ran full tilt to her sister’s room. Several nurses called out to remind her about the no running policy in the hospital, but Arianne didn’t listen. She turned a corner and sped down the hall just as Mila wheeled Carrie out of her room.

“Ari?” Carrie looked up. “What are you doing here?”

Arianne skidded to a stop and addressed Mila. “I need to talk to Carrie for a sec.”

Mila shook her head. “She’s due for her tests. Your mom actually just stepped out to grab lunch.”

“Mila, please.” Arianne grabbed at the wheelchair, prepared not to let go until she had her way.

“Mila—” Carrie reached behind her and squeezed the nurse’s hand “—will you give us a couple of minutes?”

“But you’ll be late for your tests,” Mila insisted.

Carrie brought out the big guns by smiling like a supernova. “Please? You can have whoever is after me go first. I don’t mind waiting.”

The nurse looked from Carrie to Arianne, her eyebrows knitted together in consternation. Her mistake was to return her gaze to Carrie, who’d redoubled her smiling efforts. Mila’s stern expression melted until her lips finally relaxed. She backed up into the room and parked Carrie beside the bed.

“I’ll be back in ten minutes,” she said, followed by a finger wag. “No more.”

“Thank you, Mila,” Carrie said.

Arianne waited for Mila to leave the room before she crossed her arms. Ben finally caught up with her. He bent over and clutched his knees, sucking in large quantities of air.

“For a baseball player, you’re pretty out of shape,” Arianne said.

“I’m not panting because I’m winded,” Ben replied in between breaths. “Give your sister a break, Ari.”

“Ben?” Carrie’s voice sounded so small. Concern took over the calm in her expression.

He moved to her side and lowered himself to his knees. “I’m so sorry, love.”

Carrie touched Ben’s cheek with a trembling hand before she focused her attention on Arianne. “You can’t tell Mom or Dad.”

“And why not?” Arianne felt her ire rise as heat in her throat. “You know it’s not fair to Ben that you’re leading him on this way. Jesus, Carrie!”

“Ari!” Ben stood, a gladiator ready to defend.

Carrie clutched at his suit sleeve before he could move. He looked down at her and she shook her head. “It’s okay,” she said to him. “I can handle this.”

He melted into the bedside chair and waited.

“Of course it’s not okay, Carrie,” Arianne said. “What the hell are you thinking?”

“That I want to live the rest of the life I have left happy,” Carrie said. “I didn’t want anyone to know because I wanted to keep a little something to myself. My life is about being poked and prodded on a daily basis. Countless doctors and nurses have seen every part of me and more. I wanted a secret, a treasure that I could keep close to my chest that would get me through the hard days. The days when hope jumps out the window.” Crystalline tears glistened down the too tight skin of Carrie’s face. “You’re not angry because I didn’t tell you.”

“So you’re saying you know why I’m here like a fire breathing dragon ready to tear heads off?” Of their own volition, Arianne’s legs brought her steps closer to where Carrie and Ben sat.

“I’m your sister. Of course I know why you’re angry.” Carrie raised her arms and spread them wide. “I’m sorry that I can’t be that girl who used to climb trees or jump into the lake with you, Ari.”

Shaky knees buckling, Arianne folded into the arms of her sister. She snaked her own arms around Carrie’s thin waist and sobbed into her hospital gown. “I’m selfish.”

“Of course you are.” Carrie stroked the red strands of Arianne’s hair.

“I wanted you all to myself.”

“Of course you do. But that doesn’t mean we can’t let Ben in, right?”

Arianne looked up at her saint of a sister. Their tears mirrored one another. “But he’s in so much pain,” she said.

Carrie stared into Arianne’s eyes and said, “We all are. But that doesn’t mean we should deprive ourselves of being happy.”

Ben stood up and brought both his girls into the shelter of his wide reach. “Can we stop the waterworks now?” he asked.

Both Carrie and Arianne laughed through the last drops of rain. Like wind blowing through a storm, the heavy clouds in the room parted to let the sunlight in. Arianne smiled as Carrie kissed Ben on the cheek.

That evening, all dry-eyed, Arianne lay beside Ben on his back lawn. They held hands, stargazing. The vastness of the sky blanketed everything around them. Crickets played their Ode to the Stars in B minor.

“When did you and Niko Clark happen?” Ben asked.

“You don’t have to keep calling him by his whole name, you know.” A shooting star of a smile crossed her lips.

“But he’s not human, right?”

“Yup.”

“Do you already know what he is?”

“Still working on that.”

Ben turned to his side and propped his head up with his fist. “And you’re okay that he’s not human?”

“Does it matter?” She kept staring at the stars.

“He might be dangerous.”

“Not to me.”

“How sure are you?”

“Ninety percent.”

“I don’t like those odds.” He resettled onto his back. “But I won’t stop you.”

Arianne sat up to stare down at him. “You won’t?”

“Are you happy with him?”

“Deliriously. I never thought he’d show interest in me. And his kisses—”

“Whoa!” Ben held up his hand. “Again with the too-much-information. As long as you’re happy, I’m down with him being with you. But if he hurts you, I don’t care if he’s not human, I will go all Chainsaw Massacre on his ass.”

Arianne giggled. “I bet you will.”

“Thank you for being cool about Carrie and me.”

The contentment in his voice melted away any other concerns Arianne might have about their relationship. “Carrie deserves to be happy. And you are that for her, so I can’t complain.”

He looked her in the eye. “What are you going to do about Darla? Judging from her face and how fast she ran out of the memorial, she’s not over you.”

She groaned. “I should have known she’d be there. She’d already warned me in the library the other day.”

“She’s going to give Niko hell come Monday, you know that, right?”

“I’m dreading it.”

Chapter 17

CROSSING OVER

DEATH HID HIS BEAUTY beneath the shadow of his massive cowl, Like his personal cave carved out of a pristine mountainside. He’d craved a distraction from work—a need that prompted him to leave the privacy of his office to make his rounds in the different dimensions that made up his domain, which everyone affectionately termed Crossroads, the place where souls met their fate. Death’s domain had no real name. It just was, for eons shifting and morphing, but essentially remaining the same.

He’d visited the nursery first, filled with Caretakers tending to the Reapers reborn. He stood behind the protective glass wall that separated the babes from other parts of his domain. The room had evolved through the years. Now, it resembled a hospital nursery. He smiled at the infants, fed residual energy mixed with milk from bottles.

“Ah, to be young,” he exhaled. He thought of Janika and wished none of the babes snug in their cradles grew into someone like her. He had enough troubles.

Having had enough cute for one day, Death moved toward the processing plant. Whisps bobbed out of his way like buoys in the ocean. Minions of every shape and size, carrying reports from their respective makers, stepped aside and bowed. He stopped to chat with several Reapers from different parts of the world who’d completed escorting their charges. Death reminded some of an upcoming meeting and exchanged idle conversation with others. When he’d reached the plant—a massive steel warehouse—some time later, he spotted the Reaper he’d been eager to have a word with.

“It’s always good to see you, Nikolas,” he greeted, taking up a position beside the Reaper of Georgia as he led his souls into one of the processing chambers. A minion in Armani used a scanning gun to register each soul before he or she entered the room.

“Master.” Nikolas nodded once. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?” He’d moved out of the line of souls and dematerialized his scythe as a sign of respect.

“Come.” Death motioned to one corner of the plant. “We wouldn’t want to get in the way.”

Nikolas followed with his hands shoved inside his pants pockets. His features betrayed no emotion.

Death placed a hand on the young Reaper’s shoulder. “How are you, my boy?”

“Better.”

“And with Tomas watching you?”

“I don’t mind.”

“You don’t have to be so formal with me, Nikolas.” Death pursed his lips. “We’re not in a meeting or at my office. We just happened to bump into each other. Can’t I show my concern?”

“Of course, Master.” Nikolas softened his expression. “I was actually going to ask Tomas for some advice. But since, as you said, we’ve already run into one another—”

“I heard you had a run in with Janika,” Death interrupted him.

“Did she really threaten you?” Niko asked.

“Not in so many words. I think she just wants more attention. Greedy little girl.”

“I think she’s dangerous, Master.”

“You all are.” Death shrugged a shoulder. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way. She won’t bother you again.”

Nikolas inclined his head in appreciation.

“How can I help you today?” Death asked gently. He smiled, even though he knew Nikolas couldn’t see the gesture through the gloom of his cowl.

The young Reaper appeared to consider his next words. His eyebrows bonded together, and Death imagined Nikolas rubbing his chin, even if the boy didn’t. But nonetheless, it tickled Death to see the image in his mind’s eye. He would have chuckled if the boy didn’t look so serious.

“If I were to have a human over in my domain…” he began, a grim note lacing every word. “What would happen?”

“Humans are not designed to withstand the energies that ebb and flow within our domains.” Death made a sweeping motion that encompassed the line of souls waiting to be processed. “A human entering a Reaper’s domain would be sucked drier than a car battery with the headlights left on.”

“I had no idea.”

“That’s because you’ve never asked before. In all the lives you’ve lived, Nikolas, this is the first time I’m hearing you considering bringing a human into your domain.” Death edged closer. “You’re changing, my child.”

Disbelief replaced Nikolas’s previous serious demeanor. “Master, I—”

“No, no. Please.” He held up a hand covered by the voluminous sleeve of his robe. “It’s all right to have humans over to your domain. I believe it’s part of maintaining our pretense of blending in. I’m surprised you hadn’t done it sooner.”

“So, I can have friends over,” Nikolas said, more surprised than curious. “But how do I prevent my domain from as you say ‘sucking them dry’?”

Death laughed, which had everyone in the plant staring in his direction. When he’d regained his composure, he waved. “Carry on.”

And like nothing had happened, work resumed.

“Nikolas—” Death draped an arm over the boy’s shoulder “—all you have to do is issue a formal invitation to anyone entering your domain. In that way, the energies residing there wouldn’t attack the intruder.”

“An invitation? Like in writing?”

“A verbal invite would suffice. Walk with me.” Death steered Nikolas out of the plant. “Think of it as giving someone the alarm codes to your house.”

“It’s really that simple?” Nikolas’s jaw dropped.

“Everything in life is simple, son. It only becomes complicated when you make it so.”

Death summoned Tomas after Nikolas left giddy—like a child during recess that had been given chocolate milk to drink. Death never forbade his Reapers to mingle with humans. He allowed them to have consorts. To live lives like the souls they reaped on a daily basis. Something about seeing Nikolas so happy, even if the boy tried to hide it with a straight face, had Death wondering. Tomas popped into Death’s office just as he sat behind his desk.

“Master?” Tomas came forward.

“Wipe away that concerned expression.” Death lowered his cowl. He snapped and a chair appeared before Tomas, which the Reaper of California took immediately. “I met with Nikolas today,” he said.

“Oh?” The older Reaper unbuttoned his suit jacket then placed his elbows on his chair’s armrests. “You sought him out?”

“We happened to run into each other at the processing plant. In fact, he would have had to look for you if I hadn’t come along.”

“Really? Why is that?”

“Oh stop acting surprised, Tomas. I know you have spies everywhere, and that you were supposed to meet with him today,” Death chided, and Tomas had the decency to show a smidgen of guilt. “Now, what can you tell me about the girl Niko had in his domain?”

Tomas twirled his thumbs. “Can you believe our boy is finally inviting girls over?”

“Took him long enough. I was beginning to worry Nikolas was an anomaly. Not even our most solitary Reapers go long without consorts.”

“If you’re so curious, why don’t you just practice omnipotence on him?”

Death pouted. “You know I don’t do that anymore. Not after Brenna.”

“That massacre should never have happened.”

“Well, I should have minded my own business. I don’t want that to happen to Nikolas.” A dreamy expression crossed his androgynous features. “You know I adore that boy. He’s so serious sometimes, which is why seeing him happy delights me.”

“Master, please don’t say ‘delight.’” Tomas shuddered. “It’s unbecoming of Death.”

A crumpled piece of paper sailed across the room and bounced off Tomas’s chest. “Shut it! I can say ‘delight’ as many times as I want. So, about this girl?”

“She brings a smile to his face.” Tomas mirrored Death’s amusement. “I’d never seen Nikolas so happy. I knew the boy was a late bloomer, and you’re right, he is too serious. I think she’s good for him.”

“Keep watching him.” Death’s sigh came from a happy place of cotton candy and miniature ponies. “I want to know how this relationship develops.”

Tomas chortled before he disappeared.

A new stack of Certificates appeared on Death’s desk, but he ignored them, content to dream about budding romances, first loves, and stolen kisses.

Chapter 18

BLOODY MURDER

NIKO DROVE UP THE STREET where Arianne lived, humming along to Noah and the Whale. After he’d returned from the Crossroads the night before, he’d called her about a ride to school, hoping to formally invite her into his domain.

From the moment he’d woken up to the time he’d started listening to their album L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N. in his car, Niko already had sunshine on his face. He’d reaped souls then eaten his breakfast in such a jolly mood that Sickleton thought he’d fallen and hit his head on the pavement. Even his minions stared at him with consternation, especially the twins. Paris and Rome mumbled to each other while sneaking glances at their master, but Niko had ignored them all, eager to be off.

He eased in front of Arianne’s classic colonial and honked. She flew out like a bat from a cave and into the passenger seat with an irresistible glow, color high on her cheeks. Only the click of her seatbelt being fastened broke the intense attention he paid her every movement.

“Good morning,” he greeted.

She leaned in and said against his lips, “Good morning,” retreating before he could bite on the lure she dangled.

“That’s just cruel.” The corners of his mouth tugged downward, unhappy with the depravation they suffered.

“Don’t worry,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “There’s more where that came from. I’m surprised. What made you want to drive to school today?”

Niko shifted from neutral to first and stepped on the gas. “You convinced me that there’s nothing more human than driving to school.”

“Then as my reward, we need to bring Ben with us.”

Jealousy, a mythical creature he didn’t appreciate, reared its ugly head. He wanted his time alone with her, but Arianne’s pure glee helped Niko vanquish the Gorgon that would have turned him to stone. I could invite her into my domain any time. No big deal.

“As you wish, my lady,” he said. “Where pray tell does Master Benjamin reside?”

“Up the road to the corner bus stop, Jeeves.” She flicked her hand as if she shooed away an annoying pet.

Niko laughed. He’d never felt as lighthearted as he did in Arianne’s company. She brought out a playful side in him he’d not once considered to have possessed in all his lives, not even when he’d been young and in training with Tomas. His playtime had consisted of learning as much as he could about the duties of a Reaper and reading every history and mythology book he could find. But with Arianne, he found he wanted to show her the world, touch her every chance he got, and most of all, he wanted to make her happy. No matter the cost.

He applied pressure to the brakes as they reached the bus stop. Ben dozed on his feet, head down, hands in his pockets, and backpack slung over his shoulder. Niko wondered how the tall teen managed to stay upright. Arianne giggled.

“He’s not a morning person,” she said as she stepped out.

“I can see that.” Niko’s smile came from the inside out, her mirth infectious. “Need help?”

“Nah. I’ve got this.” She snaked her arm around Ben’s and tugged.

The jealous Gorgon returned, causing Niko to grip the steering wheel. He opened the door for her without touching it, and she nudged Ben into the backseat. The boy grunted. Then she slipped into the passenger seat and gave Niko a quick kiss on the cheek. And just like that, Snakes-for-hair died a second death.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “You’re telekinetic too, I see.”

Her teasing tone had him glancing at her. “One of my many talents.”

“Did I mention how humble you are?”

“How can the two of you flirt so early?” Ben grumbled.

“Poor grumpy,” Arianne cooed, twisting in her seat to watch her friend.

“Good morning, Ben.” Niko looked at the barely conscious boy through the rearview mirror.

“I just don’t get why you’re so complacent when we’re about to enter the warzone.” Ben coaxed his eyes awake with a massage.

Niko noticed Arianne stiffen. He reached out and curled his fingers around hers. “What’s the matter?”

“It’s…it’s just…” She trembled. “I don’t want you getting hurt.”

“Why would I get hurt?”

Ben answered, “Darla was at the memorial yesterday. She saw the two of you all touchy-feely.”

“All I have to do is tell Darla that I only see her as a friend.” Niko shrugged as he pulled into the school parking lot. He eased his car into a vacant slot between a pick-up and a Subaru and killed the engine. “Why the silence all of a sudden?” He stared from Arianne, who’d gone mute the rest of the way, to Ben, who’d pulled his cap lower, attempting to disappear. “Des told me Darla’s had a thing for me since I transferred in. I’ve never seen her as more than just a friend. I’m sure she’ll understand.”

“I’m sure she would.” Uncertainty and disdain accompanied Ben’s words. “If you were with someone else, that is.”

Niko twisted in his seat so he could bear witness to what Ben meant.

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell him,” Ben whined, stabbing Arianne with his eyes.

“Arianne?” Niko turned to her. “What haven’t you told me?”

She breathed in the rest of the oxygen in the car and said, “Darla’s going after you because of me.” She raised a hand to stall Niko from saying anything. “When Carrie got sick, I was a lost cause. I didn’t know what I was doing half the time, and I didn’t care.”

“You should have seen her back then,” Ben interjected. “Even I couldn’t get to her.”

“Anyway,” she sighed out in exasperation, “I looked for comfort in all the wrong places. And at my lowest point, I landed in the arms of Darla.”

Niko’s eyebrows rose up a fraction with every detail Arianne divulged of her story. “You’re saying you and Darla…” He made a forward circular motion with his hand to indicate that he’d left the completion of his sentence to her.

“We kissed. Several times. Nothing more.” Arianne’s gaze wondered to the school’s entrance where Darla stood with several other students, including Desmond. “When she wanted more and I told her I’d made a mistake, she vowed that if she couldn’t have me, no one would.”

“That’s a little too extreme, don’t you think?” Niko followed her gaze, unbelieving.

“You don’t know Darla the way we do.” Ben got out of the car and Arianne followed.

Niko gathered his things and joined them, locking the Mustang with a press of a button on his key. The headlights flashed once. “What does this mean for me?” he asked as he sidled up to Arianne.

“We don’t know exactly,” Ben said.

“The usual bullying tactics maybe?” Arianne added.

“Well, whatever it is—” Niko hung his arm over Arianne’s shoulders “—I can handle it.”

“But remember, you’re pretending to be human,” Arianne pointed out, avoiding Darla’s venomous glare.

“Damn,” Niko said.

Reluctantly, Niko parted with Arianne for the sole reason that their lockers were located at opposite sides of the school. He’d given her his reassurance that he’d be fine. How bad could it get? he thought, approaching his locker with his usual confident stride. Desmond came jogging up to him.

“You should’ve stayed home, dude,” he said, clapping Niko on the shoulder before he left.

Niko watched Desmond flee with his tail between his legs. Not that he could blame his supposed best friend in this life. Niko had been warned, and Desmond was only human: literally and figuratively. He’d forgive the guy his sudden disloyalty, even if a couple hundred years ago he would have executed Desmond for it.

With a shrug akin to Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders, Niko faced his locker and punched in his combination. A loud pop followed the door swinging outward. Blue paint splattered inside and on his face and the front of his shirt. Niko coughed, spitting out as much of the rotten-egg-tasting goop as he could, a gag not far behind. He wiped his eyes onto the sleeves of his shirt before opening them. It stung for a second and his vision blurred, but after blinking once, he could see clearly again.

The crowd that ebbed and floated around him stilled. Some laughed. Others whispered. When Niko faced them all, they scattered like a grenade had been thrown into their foxhole.

Not bothering to shut his locker, Niko headed for the bathroom. The assemblage parted in his wake as if a leper walked among them. Just as he reached the swing door marked with a stick figure, someone grabbed his collar from behind and shoved him inside. The tiles were slick under Niko’s boots, refusing him proper traction. The forward momentum sent them into a stall. Whoever had his shirt tripped Niko until his face plunged into the toilet bowl. Water rushed up every available crevice the upper part of his body possessed. Before Niko could react, the toilet flushed.

“This is just the beginning, Clark.” Niko recognized the lisp. It was Carter—a base on the pep squad who worshiped the ground Darla walked upon.

The pressure of being held down eased. Niko sputtered and spat, toilet water dripping all over him. He could have tossed Carter clear across any field if he wanted, but Niko kept in mind Arianne’s words. I have to pretend to be human.

Niko stood up and exited the stall. The mirror reflected a boy who looked more like a sodden dog than anything else. He approached the sink and washed his face. Every time he rubbed at his cheeks, chin, forehead, and wherever else the cursed blue paint remained, he mentally reminded himself that seeking revenge wouldn’t be prudent. It would have been a human thing to do, but… I’m above that.

“I’m above dismembering them and scattering their remains over an active volcano. I’m above having them tickled to death with peacock feathers. I’m definitely above teleporting them to the north pole to be mauled by polar bears,” he said to his reflection, which looked less blue but could still pass as a member of Blue Man Group.

The bell signaled five minutes to first period. Niko took one last glance at his ruined shirt, grieved the fact that he couldn’t blink and be clean, grabbed the backpack he’d dropped, and headed to his class.

By lunch, no one acknowledged Niko’s presence, much less looked his way. But he’d been tripped seven times, bumped on the shoulder at least eight, and sucker-punched twice. Even Mr. Todd refused to answer his questions. Not that Niko needed the answers. He’d been alive when people still referred to chemistry as alchemy, but having Mr. Todd fail to notice him did reinforce the point that Darla owned the school. Arianne wanted to complain, much to Niko’s amusement, but he declined her offer.

Niko didn’t hesitate to sit with Ben and Arianne—they became his solace in the quiet storm that raged around him—after the cafeteria ladies served him a heaping mound of mystery meat. They refused to give him anything he’d asked for.

“Darla’s staring daggers at you,” Ben said without drawing attention to the fact that he checked out Darla’s table.

“I can’t believe even the lunch ladies are on her side!” Arianne pushed away Niko’s plate of brown mush and gave him her fries.

The prickle on Niko’s nape more than proved what Ben said. He felt Darla’s rage radiating clear across the room. “I’ll be fine,” he said.

“We should at least go to the principal about this,” Arianne insisted.

“You saw Mr. Todd. He wouldn’t even look in my direction.” Niko popped a fry into his mouth. “Who’s to say she doesn’t have the principal in her pocket?”

“He’s got a point, Ari.” Ben tapped his hands on the table. “I’m surprised you didn’t change your shirt.”

Brows up, Niko asked, “You know about that?”

Tongue in cheek, Ben said, “If you’re going to be with Ari,” he glanced at his blushing friend, “you need to know that she tells me eve-ry-thing.”

“I’m surprised you’re taking all of this in stride.” Niko folded his arms over his chest.

“Ari would never lie to me. But in all honestly, now that I know you’re not human—” he whispered the last word “—I don’t want her to be with you.”

“Ben!” Arianne sat up.

Niko held onto her hand until the indignation left her face. “Ben’s only thinking of what’s best for you. And I respect him more for it.” He studied Ben. “I know you’re worried about her, but you have my word that I won’t hurt her.”

Ben met him stare for stare. “I don’t know you well enough to trust your word. I’ll have to see it.”

“I can live with that.” Niko let go of Arianne’s hand and reached out to Ben.

They shook hands, each with a firm grip.

“Are you sure you don’t want a new shirt?” Arianne fussed. She held the edge of Niko’s sleeve between two fingers. “You’re going to have to burn this one. Paint bombs are really hell on cotton.”

“Is this from experience?” Niko mentally stomped down the annoyance that pulsed at the mention of what had happened that morning.

Arianne shrugged. “Seen it many times, is all.”

“Let’s not worry about it.” Niko stared at the limp potato fingers, losing his appetite. “It’s high time I experience some human bullying. I’ll be fine.”

“You’ve never been bullied?” Ben immediately took back the question. “Of course you weren’t. With that face and your confidence.”

“Anyway, want to come with me to visit Carrie this afternoon?” Expectation mixed with anticipation surfaced from the depths of Arianne’s eyes. “I really want her to meet you.”

Endearment had his heart soaring on golden wings. “You want me to meet your sister?”

She nodded with a smile tugging at her lips.

Niko brought her into the circle of his arms. “It would be an honor to meet Carrie.”

“You two aren’t going to start making out are you? Because that’s not the wisest idea right now,” Ben said in disgust.

Arianne giggled. “Meet you at the front steps after class?”

Niko answered Arianne and the audience he knew they had by kissing her, uncaring that he sealed his fate.

Chapter 19

ALERT LEVEL

THE MOON-SIZED WALL CLOCK held Arianne’s attention like a three ringed circus since she’d left the cafeteria. She had momentary lapses in her focus when a pesky teacher asked her to answer a question. After giving a perfunctory response, her eyes hurriedly returned to the clock, its second hand ticking away, urging the minute hand forward to complete the final hour of her school day. The bell finally shrieked, plucking at her tension. She bolted upright, gathered her things, and ran for the front doors with fire at her heels.

In her haste, she cared little for the girl she shouldered or the boy she elbowed in the gut. What mattered was the door and the distance between her and being with Niko again. Her mind zeroed in on the task of getting from point A to B with extreme focus. Her heart pumped like it had never pumped before, beating as if in tune with each step that thrust her forward.

The doors sighed with relief as they opened. Arianne rushed outside and breathed in the lingering summer air. It weighed a ton in her lungs, but she didn’t care. To her, the breath represented freedom and life and love. Eyes shut, she smiled up at the sky. The line “I’m the queen of the world” gurgled from her spring of cheesy quotations. She didn’t care if she looked strange to everyone who’d passed by. The need to celebrate tingled all the way to the pads of her feet and her fingertips.

“You know you look weird, right?” Ben said.

She hadn’t heard him approach. She viewed him askance. “Life is good, so sue me.”

“And she bites.”

“Shut up.”

He twirled his forefinger in front of her face. “This doesn’t look like you’re happy.” He yanked his finger away just before she nipped at it.

Her teeth snapped together. “Are you seeing Carrie today?”

His cheeks, nose, and neck turned a charming shade of Rubik’s Cube red. “I have a couple of errands to run first. See you there?”

She gave him a curt nod then watched him catch the bus home.

Slowly, with every car that left the lot, Arianne’s excitement ebbed until only a handful of trucks and cars, including Niko’s Mustang, remained. The hairs on her arms rose as her happiness gave way to panic. A cold block of dread thumped to the bottom of her gut and anchored itself there. She scanned the students lingering in the lot. Some of them she knew, and others only in passing.

Arianne did a quick one-eighty and pushed into the building. Darla couldn’t, she repeated to herself for every empty classroom she’d checked. She zigged, opened a door, peeked inside, then zagged and did the same to the next room, and then the next. She checked supply closets, bathrooms—both girl’s and boy’s. The art room. The admin offices. The library.

No dice.

Frustration transformed her muscles to steel. Arianne only had one more place: the gym. Her lead filled shoes had her thinking either she was in slow motion or the gym double doors kept moving away from her. The echo of the slamming doors magnified the emptiness of the space. Her knees quaked so badly, they threatened to buckle. The custodian had waxed the floors recently, and the wood’s lemon scent almost made her retch.

Instead of taking her previous route, Arianne decided on a side entrance. Sweat beaded her forehead as she used the closed door for support. The balmy air no longer brought her reassurance. Her lungs protested all her attempts at breathing properly.

Where could he be? She thumped the door with her fists.

Darla’s ice-queen voice chilled her heart.

“What happened to you this morning is a parlor trick compared to what I have planned for you right now.”

Arianne inched her way toward the shed behind the gym used for supplies. She mentally castigated herself for forgetting. The shed had become the center for what Darla called “private conversations.” Its out of the way location made it the perfect place. Even Coach Simmons hardly went to the shed. And Mondays meant team meeting days.

She peeked around the corner. Niko knelt on the ground with his arms spread out, held at the wrists by two pep squad tumblers. Darla stood over him, derision clear on her features. The rest of the pep squad fanned out behind her. Some carried bats. Arianne winced. Darla had never resorted to using extreme force before. At least, to her knowledge.

Arianne said a silent prayer before charging forward, getting between them. She faced Darla head on, her back to Niko. A whisper spread through the group as quickly as the surprise on Darla’s face.

“Ari,” she said.

“I told you not to call me that anymore.” Arianne injected spite in her words, even if her spine felt like jelly. “You think I didn’t know about this place? What were you planning on doing to Niko? Huh?”

“Arianne,” Niko whispered behind her.

“Shut up!” she hissed as quietly as she could without taking her attention away from Darla. “Answer me, Darla. Were you planning on clubbing him to death?”

Calm menace replaced Darla’s surprise. “Maybe break his knees, to start.” She crossed her arms.

“Dar, I thought—”

“Shut up, Peter!” Darla interrupted the broad-shouldered base by her side. “My meeting with Niko doesn’t concern you, Ari. If you could just—”

“What?” Arianne barked. “You want me to leave? Good luck with that.”

“Tina, Joyce,” Darla called to two flyers. They flinched and moved forward. “Please escort Ari out of here and make sure she doesn’t come back.”

Arianne crossed her arms and tilted her chin up just as the two girls moved toward her. “Why don’t you tell them the real reason why you’re harassing Niko?”

The girls stopped and looked at each other then at Darla, who now stood slack-jawed.

“You wouldn’t,” Darla said after she’d regained some of her composure. “Ari, don’t!”

“Everyone,” Arianne addressed the whole squad, “I want all of you to know that you can tell as many people as you want after I’m finished speaking.” She glanced at Darla, now visibly pale. “Have you ever wondered why Darla doesn’t have a steady boyfriend when she can have her pick of the lot?”

“Arianne,” Darla pleaded. “Please, don’t do this.”

“Or what? Dar, I’m tired of what you’ve been putting me through all these years. Intimidating guys who so much as looked my way. Bullying those who actually wanted to ask me out. And now, Niko. You actually threatened to physically hurt him. I won’t stand for it.”

“There’s got to be another way.”

Arianne scanned the pom pom team. “You see, Darla thinks she’s in love with me, and that I belong to her.” Her gaze landed on Darla last. “Dar, I wasn’t thinking straight when I came to you. I’m sorry that I made you think otherwise. But this has got to stop. I’ve never seen you as more than a friend. Please, if you really care for me, leave me be. Let me love whomever I want to love.” Arianne did an about-face and hugged Niko. “Let’s get out of here.”

The two tumblers let Niko go so they could pull out their phones and start texting the news. Arm in arm, Arianne and Niko left behind a barrage of questions, a screaming Darla, and rapid keypad clicks.

“You’re going to pay for this, Ari!” Darla yelled at their backs.

Arianne convinced Niko to bring them to the In Between when they got into the Mustang. She’d wanted to talk without wasting any more time.

“But first,” he said, “Arianne Wilson, I formally invite you into my domain.”

“What?” Arianne laughed out. “I was never invited?”

Niko pulled on a lock of her hair. “It’s not funny. What happened to you at the house was because my domain was draining you of energy.”

“You mean the time I fainted?”

He nodded reluctantly. “After consulting with my master, I found out that all it will take to safely bring you into my home is to invite you in.”

“Wow, like vampires!”

“Ha. Ha.” Niko shook his head. “Are we going to the In Between or not?”

Arianne smiled at him, held his hand, and closed her eyes. The next time she opened them, they sat on the dock with their legs dangling over the edge. The water lapped at their soles.

“I can’t believe you outed Darla,” Niko said.

Arianne huffed. “It wasn’t my intention…initially. I wanted to get you out of there any way that I could. I guess I wasn’t thinking straight when she threatened to break your knees.”

“Let’s forget the fact that I’m indestructible to humans for a second. Do you really think she would have done it? Her posse didn’t seem inclined.”

“Oh, you never know with the pep squad. They’ve got some blood-thirsty members. And certainly Darla would have taken that bat and…” Arianne allowed Niko to pull her to his side. She couldn’t hide the weakness in her tone from him.

“If you continue on this way, I would think that you’re falling for me.”

She choked on a laugh. “Niko, I’ve had a crush on you since freshman year.” Her boldness came to the party prepared. She blamed it on the residual adrenaline from telling Darla off. She felt him stiffen beside her, which loaded her heart with uncertainty. “I was too forward, wasn’t I? I’m so sorry. I’m not thinking straight again.” She made an attempt to gain some distance, but Niko tightened his grip on her shoulder.

“No, angel.” He drew circles along her arm. “I’m just so happy.”

Arianne looked at him, her brows practically touching her hairline. “You are?”

“In all my lives, I don’t ever remember being this happy.”

Arianne’s heart sang an aria. She wanted to respond, but the way Niko stared at the lake revealed that he had more to say.

“When I was made by my master, I was sent to live and train with Tomas,” Niko said. “He is as close to a father figure as I can think of. Growing up, my only purpose was to learn. I read everything, made sure to pay attention to all my lessons, and trained, getting stronger and stronger, fighting my way up the ranks until I reached my position now.”

“That’s all you did? What about family? Friends?”

“We are allowed to have consorts, companions, wives, husbands, whatever you want to call it. We’re even allowed to reveal who we are, but I decided to concentrate on my work.”

Sadness tightened Arianne’s throat to the point where she could only whisper, “Didn’t you get lonely?”

“I had my Caretaker and minions and colleagues. I thought, what more could I ask for? Until I met you.” He faced her then, keeping her in place with his gaze alone. “I hadn’t realized I’d been allowing myself to fade until you showed me I needed to live by spouting that Kofi Annan quote like gospel.”

“You’re not going to let me live that down, are you?”

He reached out and caressed her cheek with his free hand. “Meeting you saved me. When you saw me on that bench, I was wondering why I was there when I thought of teleporting home after meeting with my master. It’s just now that I realized my home is with you.” He kissed her with a tenderness that broke her heart.

Arianne clung to him. She felt like reality would cease to exist outside of his arms if she let go. No matter what he was, she knew she wanted to be with him. She put everything she felt, all her intentions, into her kiss. In that moment, she saw Niko for who he was: a boy who could charm anyone, make friends with everyone, but who, at the end of the day, went home lonely. She loved him too much to allow him to continue his solitary existence, and she would protect him. From Darla. From anyone. Even from himself.

In seconds, Niko had lifted Arianne onto his lap. To her, the closer she got the better. His hand traveled in a trail from her neck, to her shoulder, and then just as he ventured lower, something beeped. Niko groaned, unwilling to break the kiss. Arianne giggled, giving him a feather’s touch with her lips on his before making the decision for him.

“Cell phones work here?” she teased.

“Unfortunately, mine does.” He fished out the phone from his back pocket and tapped the screen.

Arianne waited, watching his expression go from dreamy to serious in less than a second. “Something wrong?”

Niko let go of his phone and it disappeared. He stood up, taking Arianne with him.

“Niko, you’re scaring me.”

Her alarm seemed to snap him out of it. He planted a kiss on her forehead then set her down. “I’m just sorry I can’t meet Carrie today.”

“Why?”

“Duty calls.”

If Arianne could have floated into St. Joseph’s, she would. Wings seemed to have sprouted on her heels, carrying her forward. Her high from confronting Darla and sharing an intimate moment with Niko allowed her to move through the halls barely noticing the profusion of souls that walked with her. The happiness inside her became her shield.

Niko had explained as he drove her to the hospital that normally he could have his minions handle the work, but the amount worried him. Arianne rubbed his arm, assuring him that he could meet Carrie any day. They’d parted after a knee-weakening kiss. He said he’d call her in a few hours.

Arianne wanted to run, to share with Carrie what had come to pass that day. Just a few more steps, she thought, turning a corner. A group of doctors and nurses exited Carrie’s room, shoulders slumped, heads weighted down. Arianne kept going, but before she reached Carrie’s room, her sister stepped into the hall. Naked.

Arianne halted in her tracks, eyes wide and unbelieving. Every beat of her heart hurt like a punch. Carrie faced her and began walking. As she neared, Arianne forgot to breathe.

Her sister looked so beautiful.

Luminous.

Her hair no longer looked limp, and her body was at the peak of health.

Carrie walked past. Arianne reached out, whispered her sister’s name, but Carrie didn’t respond. She kept walking, as if pulled by a certain force.

Arianne whirled around and spotted Carrie joining a group of souls. They all headed down the hall like a herd of cattle. Arianne followed, unconcerned by being perceived as acting strange. She kept her steps steady, even if her heart urged her to run. She ignored the stabbing pain in her stomach that threatened to pull her down.

The throng of souls led her to the entrance of St. Joseph’s. Every soul in the building seemed to make its way outside. Arianne could barely keep track of Carrie. Only her sister’s brightness helped, like a lighthouse in the dark of night.

Once outside, Arianne searched for whatever drew the souls like the Pied Piper’s flute. Her gaze shot across the street. By a bench, someone stood, holding a magnificent scythe of blue ice and a black staff.

Subzero temperatures, unlike anything Arianne had ever felt, rushed over her skin, blanketing her like fog on a graveyard. She watched all the souls gravitate toward the figure. She knew his face, knew his name. But she couldn’t believe what she witnessed, like an accident no one could look away from. He didn’t see her standing there, too intent on gathering souls. Her eyes seemed to betray her, for when she blinked, they vanished, including the light of her life.

Arianne dropped to her knees, hugged herself, and screamed her anguish.

Chapter 20

GRAVE SILENCE

NIKO STOOD OUTSIDE ARIANNE’S DRIVEWAY the next morning, eager to take her to school, but the house held emptiness only ghost towns exhibited. Ringing the bell only magnified the hollowness of the home’s insides. He’d called her the night she saved him from Darla’s clutches, but her phone went straight to voicemail. He had thought nothing of it. Calls went to voicemail all the time. Normal. But distress and dread stood beside him now as he stared at the lifeless façade once calling itself a home. What’s going on?

He got into his car and hurried to school, the tires leaving rubber on the pavement. He made it to the parking lot but not into a slot. His need to find Ben had him leaving the Mustang unlocked. He swam the sea of students slamming into him. They might as well have been mosquitoes dying on a windshield. He didn’t feel them, didn’t hear their muffled curses, until someone slapped him on the shoulder.

“Is it true that Arianne outed Darla?” Desmond asked with a cheeky expression.

Niko kept walking, scanning the crowd for someone tall in a baseball cap. “You’re my friend again?”

Desmond matched him step for step. “Ouch! Sorry, man. I didn’t mean to abandon you like that. But Darla’s reign of terror is over. No one has to run scared anymore. It explains a lot though. Her obsession with Arianne and why she dogged Patty all the time. I called that one so wrong. I owe Patty twenty greens. Hey, are you even listening to me?” Desmond grabbed Niko’s shoulder.

Niko flicked his gaze at him. “Have you seen Ben?”

“Nah.” Desmond shrugged. “Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Darla or Arianne either.”

“Thanks, Des.” Niko moved away. “Catch you later?”

“Don’t be a stranger now!” Then Desmond began to sing, “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” at the top of his lungs.

The other students with them joined in the chorus of the song. Their glee reverberated through the halls of Blackwood.

Ignoring the impromptu celebration, Niko passed by the office and found out the reason why Arianne and Ben weren’t in school. Mrs. Whistle, polishing her horn rimmed glasses, gossiped with Mr. Todd.

What Niko heard rooted him in place. Only the bell managed to snap him out of his shock. Instead of heading for class, he ran for the parking lot. He drove home gripping the steering wheel so hard he thought it would come off.

Not bothering to park his car in the garage, Niko rushed into his domain straight for his study.

At his desk, he rummaged through the enforced Death Certificates and found the one that changed everything. On it, printed in bold letters, was a name that robbed him of life sustaining breath. It shredded his insides then twisted the mangled ribbons into tight knots.

In a brief moment of clarity beyond the emotional pain, Niko trashed his study with unmitigated abandon.

The sun wore a gray shawl of clouds around it that day, muted in its brilliance despite the early afternoon. Niko sought solace in the company of a stately oak, about fifty yards from the gathering. Its branches stretched out in all directions, providing shade to anyone who sheltered under her loving embrace. He rested his hand on its bark, feeling its life force like every beat of his heart. Five days had passed since his world shattered, and every hour away from Arianne had been like a red hot poker into his spirit.

Stoic outside yet troubled inside, he watched mourners drop daisies into an open grave. The casket had been lowered not five minutes before. The ceremony had concluded and those gathered were invited to pay their final respects. The family huddled together, a pack united against those who approached to give their sympathy. Arianne hid her face under a wide-brimmed hat and large sunglasses. Despite the distance, Niko noticed that she’d lost weight, the black dress she wore hanging loosely over her shoulders. His fingers dug deep gouges into the rough bark. He wanted to gather her close and never let go. Ben stood behind her, expressionless. Only the redness of his nose betrayed his real emotions.

In minutes, only a few mourners remained with the family. Niko contemplated the prudence of paying his respects. But before he could finish making a decision, he came face to face with a charging Arianne, Ben hot on her trail. The purpose in her steps spoke volumes.

“You took her from me!” she hissed as she lunged toward him, claws out. Ben grabbed her arms from behind and held her back. “And right after I told you that I loved you. I can’t believe I’ve liked you all these years! I can’t believe I wasted my time on you when I could have spent it with Carrie!” The rest of her words came out as keening shrills, agony crumpling her already gaunt face.

“Ari…” Niko took a step forward, which sent Arianne into a cussing frenzy. The viciousness of the words she hurled at him had Niko retreating slightly. It felt like staring at an aggressive dog which was barking incessantly while lunging on its hind legs, only held back by a tight leash, ready and willing to take a chunk of flesh if permitted.

Ben whirled Arianne around and gathered her in the cove of his arms, where his suit jacket soaked up all her torment and sorrow. Niko shoved away the jealousy that threatened to consume him, knowing that to lose his cool meant hurting Arianne even more.

“I didn’t take her from you,” he said in as calm a voice as he could muster.

“How can you say that when she saw you taking Carrie’s…?” Ben choked. Then he rasped out, “You’re Death.”

Each sob that shook Arianne shoulders hollowed out Niko’s insides. “I’m not. But my master is.”

“Then what are you?” Arianne asked Ben’s chest between labored breaths.

“A Reaper.” Without really thinking about it, Niko’s arm reached out, his hand about to make contact with Arianne’s shoulder. Only Ben’s head shake of “no” had Niko dropping his arm. “I didn’t kill Carrie, Ari. You have to believe me.”

“Take me home, Ben.” She looked up at her best friend. “I don’t have anything else to say to someone who no longer exists to me.”

Ben dried her tears with his thumbs before turning around and tucking Arianne under his arm. They walked away in slow yet determined steps. It took all of Niko’s will power not to teleport Arianne and himself to the In Between and make her listen to reason. His fingers curled into tight fists until his hands hurt. He let them go. He had to. But at what price?

From his seat at the table, Niko gave the proceedings less than ten percent of his attention. Earlier, when the summons had arrived, he’d considered skipping the RUSA meeting all together, but Sickleton wouldn’t let him. Not that the Caretaker had any real control over his decision making. Niko just couldn’t stand how fussy the specter had been lately.

“Master, I worry for you,” Sickleton said one day in the newly refurbished study while Niko read in a corner by massive windows. “I had not seen Ms. Ari—”

Niko lifted his hand and wiped away his Caretaker’s lips. “You need to stop mothering me,” he said.

Sickleton dissolved then reappeared, lips intact. “But, Master, you are not performing your duties.”

“I escort the souls—”

“But you let the minions reap them. They are here to assist you only, not do your duties for you.”

“Are you lecturing me?” Niko stood from his reading chair and approached Sickleton.

“I would never presume such a thing, Master.” The coward disappeared.

Niko stared at the empty space his Caretaker had left behind until the sunlight coming into the room changed from yellow to orange.

Now, among his peers, he did the same thing. He picked a corner of a gilded frame hanging on the wall opposite him and stared at it, shutting himself away from everyone else. Arianne’s words of hate echoed through the emptiness inside. He’d watched her from afar since that day at the cemetery. He couldn’t bring himself to leave her alone. He needed to make sure nothing happened to her.

Arianne didn’t come to school. Instead, she’d take long walks around their neighborhood without a real purpose. She wandered aimlessly, the dark crescents under her eyes a stark contrast to her ever paling skin. The tangled nest her hair had become slapped him black and blue. He remembered how soft those strands felt between his fingers.

Some nights, Arianne would sit on a park bench after hours of walking and fall asleep. Niko would then carry her home, using his gifts to keep her from waking. And every time her father or mother opened the door to let them in, their worried expressions eased somewhat.

“Thank you for looking out for her,” her father whispered to him the fifth time Niko brought Arianne home. Tears welled within the older man’s eyes.

Niko nodded at him, not saying a word, and left after settling Arianne in her bed and pulling the sheets around her. Nothing could keep him away from her for long. Not even his duties. She needed him too much, even if she didn’t know it.

“Nikolas,” his master’s cool tone returned his thoughts to the meeting, “have you anything to report?”

They all observed him. Some bored. Some attentive. Others curious. Only Tomas’s face wore concern.

Niko’s sigh came from a place deeper than the Mariana Trench. “Steady as she goes in Georgia. All Certificates have been and will be continually enforced. End of report.”

“Well—” Death tapped a rhythm on his chair’s armrest “—that was certainly…”

“I think the word you’re looking for, Master, is uninspired,” Janika purred, chin on fist. “If you’ve noticed, our dear Reaper of Georgia hasn’t been paying attention to the little gathering we have here.”

“Bite me,” Niko snarled under his breath, which he knew everyone still clearly heard.

“You see what I mean?” Janika shook her head without lifting her chin from her fist. “He doesn’t even have a decent comeback anymore.”

Niko had Janika pinned against the wall with her neck nearly crushed between his fingers before anyone could react. “Has anyone ever told you that you get on their nerves?” he said in a deadly whisper.

Janika presented him with her teeth. “All the time,” she rasped.

Tomas and Travis separated the two and shoved them into their respective seats.

“Do I need to change my very packed, very busy schedule just to scold you two?” Death asked.

No one dared speak. Not even Tomas.

An electric charge pinched every surface of exposed flesh on Niko’s body: his hands, neck, and face. And he had no doubt everyone else felt it too. “I apologize for my lapse in manners, Master. It will not happen again.”

The cowl turned to him, the darkness within complete and limitless. “I just took you off of probation. Today, I wonder if I have been mistaken in my decision.” He regarded Janika as well.

She had her head bowed when she said, “No, Master. We will behave.”

“You do that,” said Death.

As if on cue, the next Reaper began his report.

A hand caught Niko by the collar of his jacket as he filed out of the room with the other Reapers. Before he could spin around to punch the jerk with no manners, the scenery changed to his bedroom. He breathed in through his nose and exhaled through his mouth in an attempt to clear away the nausea that rose from not closing his eyes during the sudden teleportation. The hand that held him in place like an unruly kitten let him go. He turned, fist at the ready. When he recognized the dark suit with a light gray pin-stripe, he stepped back and dropped his hand to his side.

“You could have at least given me some warning, Tomas,” Niko said, his head bowed in shame for ever raising a hand against his mentor.

“What’s happened to you, Nikolas? Are you slipping back into—”

“I’m not depressed!”

Tomas came closer, resting his hand on Niko’s shoulder. “Then what it is?”

Niko shrugged off his touch and moved to the other side of his room. “Arianne hates me.”

“How could she—”

“I reaped her sister without knowing it.”

“You’ve got to stop interrupting me.” Tomas sighed like a father speaking to a troubled teen. “Last time I checked, conversations involve two or more participants.”

Appearing before his mentor, Niko lifted Tomas’s hand and pressed its knuckles to his forehead. “I apologize. I’m more on edge than depressed.” He returned to his previous position across the room. “I should have looked at the Certificates before enforcing them.”

“And what would that have done?” Tomas leaned on one of the posts of Niko’s bed. “Would you have stopped the reaping?”

Frustration manifested as Niko bared his teeth. “I could have prepared her, at least. She didn’t have to find out that I was a Reaper through the death of her sister. She thinks I killed Carrie.” He punched a hole through the wall. Flecks of plaster rained down from the ceiling.

Dusting off his shoulders, Tomas said, “It’s a common misconception that we’re killers since deaths do happen whenever we are near.”

“Are you lecturing me, Tomas?” Niko extricated his fist from the wall he’d injured.

“I am your teacher after all.” He raised both hands in a sign of surrender. “But I wouldn’t be that presumptuous.” He waited until Niko took several calming breaths before he continued. “I told you, first love can be fleeting. I think you’ve just reached the expiration date of yours. Let her go before you do something you would regret.”

Deaf to Tomas’s words, Niko stabbed him with a heated glare before disappearing.

Niko arrived at his destination behind a large shrub across the street just as Arianne pulled the front door shut. The once perfect pair of jeans that hugged her curves now hung baggily over her legs. The gray hoodie she zipped up engulfed the whole upper half of her body. She didn’t bother to look around, just scampered down the five porch steps to the lawn and took off at a brisk pace, hunched over with hands in the front pockets of her jeans.

“What are you doing to yourself, Ari?” Niko asked no one. He pushed away the urge to shake some sense into her by setting his jaw and following Arianne at a stalker’s distance. Not that he worried she’d see him. In his experience, not once did Arianne bother to be aware of her surroundings. She just walked and walked and walked. She only stopped at the park to sit on a random bench and fall asleep.

Niko hadn’t followed Arianne long when a red Honda came careening down the street. He paid no attention to the car until it crossed over to the opposite lane. It sped up as it approached Arianne. Heart at the pit of his stomach, Niko didn’t think.

Chapter 21

SPLIT DECISIONS

THE ALBINO CROW PERCHED on Death’s chair cawed just as he signed the last Death Certificate from the latest batch. The nib he used slid too far on the page, creating a longer tail than usual on his signature. He clucked his tongue at the skewed squiggle, regretting his lack of control over his own actions and figuring out how to muzzle his pet. The beak presented a containment challenge. This contemplation led him to believe he’d been signing Certificates for the better part of a few hours, nonstop. Talk about needing a break. His gaze shot up.

“Something I can do for you, Tomas? As you can see, I’m busy.”

The Reaper of California had emerged from wherever he’d been and bobbed his chin, his concern beaded across his brow. “Master, there’s been a development.”

Death set aside his work and picked up a crystal sphere, which contained a fluttering butterfly with acid pink wings. He squeezed the orb like a stress ball. “Proceed.”

“It seems the connection Niko has built with the mortal Arianne Wilson has crumbled. They no longer seem to be in contact.”

“Do you believe his attitude at the meeting has something to do with their relationship problems?”

“He’s a teen. It is this time in anyone’s life where relationships are often fleeting and tumultuous. I believe he will recover. As do most boys his age. The fact that he’d shown signs of attraction towards another is truly promising.”

Death reflected on the wisdom of Tomas’s words, tongue in cheek. “Continue to…” He paused mid-sentence and brought his fingertips to his temples. The lines on his face dug in. A painful ping resounded behind his eyes.

“Master?” Tomas materialized at Death’s side.

Blankness erased all other expressions. “A Certificate has been defied,” Death said.

Janika landed in the room from a portal she’d created on the ceiling, narrowly missing the chandelier. A layer of dust rippled upon her making contact with the rug composed of actual Persian flesh. She took a knee, resting her arm over it and bowed her head. “Master, Nikolas has defied your will. He has failed to enforce a Certificate,” she said.

Death studied Tomas. “How could you not know of this?”

“It must have just happened, Master.” Tomas thumbed his chin. “I’m sure Nikolas must have a reason.”

“Regardless,” Janika interjected. “Our solemn duty is to enforce Certificates.” She lifted her head. “Master, allow me to be the enforcer for this case.”

“You seem too eager, Janika,” Tomas chided.

“If my willingness to serve can be seen as eagerness, then so be it. I only want what is best for our family.” Janika maintained a level gaze on their master.

Death retreated within himself, into a dark room he reserved within the depths of his mind to think. He reached out for the unenforced Certificate and manifested it before him. His eyes widened at the name printed on it. He considered the complications and possibilities. He summoned the threads of fate—red strings that floated in the darkness, carrying with them scenes of a mortal’s life. Death viewed how each event played out on several strings, all the consequences that could come about according to the decisions he would make. He rarely consulted fate, but occasionally, when a Reaper defied his will, he needed to regain order with minimal disturbance to time, space, and the human realm. He picked the best thread and returned to his consciousness. Tomas and Janika remained where he’d left them.

“I will allow you to go to Georgia, Janika,” Death said. At the young Reaper’s feral grin, he added, “Keep in mind that it is not your territory, so maintain respect as you would demand of any Reaper in your domain. I’m giving you this responsibility to teach you the importance of keeping order among us. Investigate the matter first before you act.”

“You will not be disappointed, Master,” she said then jumped into her portal in a whirl of wind. The hole shrunk, leaving the ceiling in its original state.

“Do you think it’s wise to send Janika? Wouldn’t someone lower be better equipped?” Tomas hid his hands in the pockets of his finely pressed trousers.

The tip of Death’s eyebrow rose. “Are you disagreeing with my decision, Tomas?”

“It’s just…we know Janika’s had it in for Nikolas since he first angered her. There’s a conflict of interest there. I don’t believe she will be fair. In fact, if I were a gambling creature, I would bet on it.”

Death considered his first in command, the air growing frigid around them. Every breath Tomas exhaled swirled like smoke. To his credit, the Reaper of California showed no signs of discomfort at the show of strength by his master. He stood his ground, meeting Death’s gaze head on, lips set in a rigid line.

“I know what I’m doing, Tomas.”

“You’d better,” Tomas said with derision before he evaporated, the icicles that formed on his clothing falling to the floor.

Death studied his cluttered desk, returning the temperature in his office to normal. His crow thanked him for it by flapping its wings then preening itself. He waved a hand and the papers and baubles vanished, leaving the tabletop bare. Snapping his fingers, a shimmering red thread materialized before him. It rose and swayed like a cobra in a basket. It slithered toward Death’s left hand and coiled around his fingers. He questioned himself for a mere instant, cursing Tomas for messing with his head.

Chapter 22

AFTERSHOCK EFFECT

ARIANNE GASPED, TAKING IN THE FRESHNESS of mint into her lungs. The screech of tires and loud crash of crumpling metal followed by hissing steam made her flinch. Her heart seemed to beat everywhere at once while she pressed rewind and play on the scene. She had landed the starring role in a dizzying action sequence. It started with counting the pavement cracks, Arianne walking away from her grief. A flash bomb of headlights, followed by a whirl of glittering stars, then being pulled into a sturdy embrace—one she’d only experienced in her dreams lately. She actually felt her eyes pop out of their sockets when she focused on the here and now.

“Niko?” She looked up at him to see his Adam’s apple bob up and down in recognition of her voice before he met her gaze. She shivered. Oh, I missed those eyes. “I’m a little fuzzy. What happened? Why are you holding me?”

“You…huh…” He glanced over his shoulder. “I think I did something terrible.”

His uncertainty and fear infected her completely, picking up the pace of blood flowing through her veins. “What are you doing here?”

“Following you.”

“You…” Arianne processed the information, causing a total brain reboot. “You’ve been bringing me home, haven’t you?” He dipped his chin once, affirming the answer to her question. She punched his shoulder. “You jerk! Why did you do that? Why can’t you just let me be?”

“Because I love you.”

He said it so confidently, like it had been set in stone long ago, that she couldn’t quite believe him. “Right. How can that be true when you took Carrie away?” The pipes that had burst inside her when Carrie passed, miraculously still held water in them for her eyes to well up. Fury, her newest ally, aided her in blocking the coming deluge.

“I didn’t take her away, Ari.” Remorse filled Niko’s eyes, and despite herself, Arianne wanted to console him. “I don’t decide who goes or stays. I just escort their souls to be processed.”

“Processed?”

“I guess you can call it judgment or the afterlife. It’s above my pay grade to know what happens to a soul when I bring it to the Crossroads.”

“You didn’t kill her?”

The deliberate head shake confirmed the truth of his words. And his gaze, piercing yet tender, never wavered from her face.

Guilt followed Arianne’s understanding of Niko’s words. “Oh Niko, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to judge you.”

“Yet you did. But you didn’t know.” His hold tightened. “And I should have checked the Certificates before I enforced them.” The question on Arianne’s face had him explaining. “My Master, you know him as Death, signs what is called a Death Certificate. It’s indicated there whose time is up. As a Reaper, I enforce them.”

“That’s what you did with Carrie.”

“Yes.”

Arianne’s gaze traveled beyond Niko’s shoulder. A Honda wrapped around a tree came into view. “Oh God, was that…” She pointed at the car. “Was that supposed to hit me?”

Niko paled. His lower lip trembled.

“And you stopped it?”

He nodded.

Her jaw dropped. “Was I supposed to die?”

“I don’t know. But I feel like the answer to that question is most definitely yes.”

Before Arianne could ask her next question, a neighbor came running to them. “Is everybody okay?”

She took in where she stood. Apparently, while she and Niko had been speaking, half the neighborhood had gathered—men and women in various states of undress—robes and pajama bottoms everywhere. A few kept their distance, observers to the event that cut into the monotony of their lives. Others—emboldened by either courage or morbid curiosity—inched toward the wreck.

“We need to call an ambulance,” Niko said.

“They’re on their way,” said the man as he approached the car along with five others.

Arianne disentangled herself from Niko’s arms to follow, but she kept a hold on his hand, tugging him along. He was a security blanket that could whisk her away if anything earth shattering awaited her.

The man moved cautiously to the driver’s side. Smoke rose up from the car’s hood. He reached in and felt for a pulse on the driver who’d been slumped in the seat. “She’s still alive,” he said. “But I don’t think we should move her until the authorities get here.”

Arianne came closer and her world began to break, spreading around her feet in sharp shards. Goose bumps rose all over her arms and legs. The ever immaculate bob, now matted with blood, stuck to an oh-so-familiar face. A long gash ripped across her forehead. Her lips had turned blue.

Horrified, she folded herself into Niko’s arms. “I shouldn’t have outed her,” she whispered into his chest.

“She wanted to kill you,” Niko hissed.

Arianne couldn’t say another word. She barely considered Darla a friend, not after everything the other girl had done over the years, but Arianne never wished harm on her. For Darla to take things beyond a level of reason showed Arianne what Darla had been truly capable of. She’d been so caught up in mourning Carrie that she didn’t think of the consequences of what outing Darla could have been. Everyone in school must have known by now; the efficiency of the Pep Squad at spreading news was legendary. She could have handled things better the afternoon Darla had threatened Niko. But she hadn’t. Even if Niko had saved her, she was supposed to have died by Darla’s hand. What did it mean? What could it spell for Niko and her?

The blare of sirens in the distance filled her chaotic mind. They drowned out any answers she could come up with—a quick fix to her confusion. She didn’t think she wanted to deal with what would happen next. Where’s that getaway car when you need it?

After giving a statement to the police and making sure Darla was on her way to the hospital, Arianne asked Niko to take her home. She refused his offer to teleport them back, wanting to work out her thoughts a step at a time—literally. Well, maybe a few steps at a time.

She walked by his side with streetlamps for chaperones. They didn’t touch, but she stayed close enough for his warmth to provide comfort. It had somehow gotten late. Other than the commotion at the accident site, the rest of the neighborhood pretty much slept. They were the only ones left outside.

“What time is it?” Arianne asked after a block of silence.

Niko glanced up at the sky. “Around twelve thirty, give or take a few minutes.”

“You can tell that just by looking up at the stars?”

He lifted his wrist and pulled down the sleeve of his shirt to show her a digital wristwatch.

Arianne nudged him and he stumbled. She knew he allowed the action as part of the human veneer he maintained. “I can’t believe I didn’t figure out what you were sooner. Granted there’s not much literature on Reapers. Society thinks Death and Reapers are one and the same.”

“God, I missed you.” Niko laughed, but he sobered soon after. “I’m sorry about Carrie. I really am.”

Arianne let the tingle from the sound of his voice wash over her body like an April shower. “Was it really her time?”

He watched the pavement and nodded. “I read the Death Certificate too late. I wish I’d seen it sooner.”

The frustration in his voice reminded her of why she loved him. “What could you have done? Could you have stopped it?”

“I don’t know!” He ran his fingers through his hair. “All my lives I’ve served my master unfailingly. I did my duties with single-minded determination. This is the first time I’ve ever considered defying him.”

“Could you have saved Carrie?” Arianne sidled closer.

“I don’t know. Our job is to enforce the Certificates.” He groaned. “I’ve heard stories of Reapers defying our master, but the stories always end with the Reapers being dealt with. No real details as to how.”

“But you saved me.”

“I did. And now I don’t know what will happen.”

Niko’s tension started rubbing off on Arianne. “Then you should have just let Darla run me over.”

Niko stopped abruptly and gaped at her. “How can you say that?”

“You obviously regret saving me.”

He grabbed her arms and shook her with such force that Arianne stared at him in stunned silence. “Don’t put words into my mouth.” He let her go and began pacing back and forth like a caged animal in front of her. “Saving you was probably the best thing I’ve ever done in this life. Maybe even in all my other lives combined. I don’t like not knowing. Not being prepared. Or in control.”

No matter how agitated Niko seemed, Arianne braved the distance between them and wrapped her arms around his waist. She tightened her hold when he tried to back away. She looked up at him and said, “I don’t know what will happen either. But I love you, and I won’t let you go through this alone.”

Apprehension and surrender mingled on Niko’s features. He bent down until his forehead rested on her shoulder, returning her hug with one of his own.

“How touching,” someone said from behind them.

Arianne felt Niko shudder in her arms, then his muscles coiled as he lifted his head and turned to face whoever had spoken. He eased Arianne behind him. She peeked around his shoulder without leaving the protection he provided. A girl who resembled Madonna in the eighties stood with her feet apart and hands crossed over her chest at the end of the street.

“Janika,” Niko said with such venom that anxiety bloomed in Arianne’s gut.

“I have to say, Nikolas, you’re slipping.” Janika sneered. “I wouldn’t have thought the Reaper with the most anal retentive personality when it comes to reaping would actually defy a Certificate. To think, I would have made you my lover.”

Arianne’s ears prickled at the last word Janika spoke. “I’d like to see you try.”

“Ari—” Niko began, but Janika cut him off.

“Little girl, I’m here to make sure you die today, so if I were you, I wouldn’t be a bitch to me right now. I can make sure you suffer if you annoy me.” Janika moved her hands to her hips.

“As if you’d get past me,” Niko said.

“Niko?” Arianne swallowed in an attempt to push down the fear that came in the form of bile rising up her throat.

Ari, I need you to stay still and not speak. Can you do that for me, angel?

Niko’s voice in her head had her jolting back, but the malicious aura oozing from Janika kept her in the moment. Arianne felt that if she looked away for just a second it would be all over. Stand still, don’t blink, and don’t run. She reached out a shaking hand toward Niko’s bicep. She gave him a squeeze in response to what he’d said.

“So, how would you like to do this?” Janika asked. “Personally, I don’t want to hurt you, Nikolas—”

“Come now, Janika, you don’t have to lie to me,” Niko interrupted.

She shrugged her bony shoulders. “All right, I do want to hurt you. But it’s beneath me.”

Right.”

“All right! Not beneath me.” She sighed like an unconcerned socialite caught stealing a necklace from a store. “So, my In Between or yours? I’ll give you that much.”

Niko grinned. “Mine.”

Janika disappeared.

“What now?” Arianne asked.

He faced her. Their gazes locked.

“I need you to go home,” Niko urged.

“Fat chance.”

He gave her a bright smile that spoke of lazy mornings. “I had a feeling you’d say that.” Then, like a gray cloud covering the sun, he frowned. “But seriously, I don’t know if I can defeat Janika. She’s the Reaper of New York, third strongest among us. I don’t know if I can fully protect you.”

She framed his face with both her hands. “We’re doing this together or not at all.”

Arianne opened her eyes and found herself by a blood-colored lake and stormy skies. The pines had withered to resemble gray skeleton fingers reaching up from the ground like a corpse fighting its way out of a grave. The grass had dried to pus yellow and the air smelled of sulfur.

Janika leaned against one of the pines, filing her fingernails. “A tad overdramatic, don’t you think?” she said without looking up at them.

“I thought it appropriate,” Niko replied nonchalantly. “But if you want green meadows and hopping bunnies, I can oblige.”

“Don’t patronize me, Nikolas.” She glared at him, a rattler ready to strike.

Raising his hands as if she had a gun pointed at him, he shrugged, “I only aim to please, lady Reaper.”

Arianne marveled at how easy-going Niko seemed despite the threat Janika presented to them. They might as well be sitting for tea from the way they addressed each other, but Janika’s toxic aura pushed down on Arianne. She could barely stand. Her knees quaked from the effort.

“I’m bored. Let’s get on with it,” Janika said. She held the nail file aloft and it morphed into a scythe. Its ivory staff resembled a unicorn’s horn. A giant pink bow, its ribbons curling to the ground, joined the staff to a wide, arched blade of midnight metal with blush floral etchings on its surface.

Arianne couldn’t hide her amazement and wonder. She stood there, staring at Janika in abject awe. She half expected Rainbow Brite or a group of My Little Ponies to join the pseudo-eighties pop star. Before she had a chance to point out the observation, she found herself encased in a glass bubble. She fell to her knees as it levitated a foot off the ground.

“Niko?” Her voice echoed within the sphere, sounding hollow to her ears.

“As long as you are in there and I’m alive, she can’t take you,” he said to her.

“Is that an invitation?” Janika twirled her scythe, first in front of her then behind like a majorette at the head of a parade. “Because I’d be happy to oblige.”

Niko made a fist. A shaft of some kind of black wood stretched out. One end had a silver stud, and the other a transparent blue blade that resembled ice, misty wisps rising from it. The flat side of the blade had holes of descending size from base to tip. Arianne couldn’t take her gaze away from its beauty. She’d seen it once before, when he’d gathered souls at St. Joseph’s. At the time, it represented pain. Now, it became a weapon to protect her.

Janika and Niko widened their stance. A tense moment passed between them. Even in the bubble, Arianne felt the static they generated. Then, like a whip crack, they moved. Their collision produced a loud bang, like a firecracker exploding. Their blades rubbed against each other, producing a screech similar to nails on a blackboard. Arianne covered her ears, gritting her teeth.

Niko executed back flips even the pickiest judge would score a ten. Cat-like agility and predatory grace had him dancing circles around Janika. The female Reaper matched each step with countermoves of her own. Close combat never reminded Arianne so much of the tango as it did while watching them. A hint of jealousy, which she found utterly insane, curled up next to the fire in her gut. If they didn’t look like they were killing each other, Arianne would have slapped an R rating on the fight scene unfolding before her. Their grunts and groans alone sounded too intimate, despite the punches and kicks and blood.

In a blink, they were back on opposite sides of the lakeshore. Janika swept the blade of her scythe over the grass and a gust of air hurled itself toward Niko. He countered by leaping over the attack. A second and third followed, which he dodged, not realizing a fourth came in their wake. It hit his hip, sending him falling. He braced himself, but before he touched down, Janika hovered over him, slicing into his chest. A massive shockwave burst outwards like a bomb had been detonated, sending pines toppling to the rippling ground.

Arianne covered her mouth to keep from screaming, certain that Janika had cut Niko in half. The dust hadn’t even settled when Niko—face bloodied, clothes ripped—rushed Janika and landed a solid punch on her jaw, producing a sonic boom as she flew into the hillside. He quickly called upon thunder by raising his scythe, sending electric daggers Janika’s way, further leveling the landscape.

Niko stumbled forward, using his scythe to keep him upright. Arianne suspected the thunder attack he’d used took a lot out of him. She gripped the edges of her sleeves.

Seconds later, Janika walked out of the rubble, dusting off her skirt and top as if she’d slipped and gotten back up. “Is that the best you can do? I’m a little disappointed.” She tossed her scythe from her left hand to her right. “You only succeeded in annoying my dry cleaner.”

“Just getting warmed up.” Niko wiped away the blood streaming over his eyes. He returned all his weight onto his legs.

“Good.” Janika licked her own blood off her bottom lip. “I’d hoped you’d give me a challenge. It’s been a while.” She charged—her blade aimed at Niko’s throat.

Niko somersaulted several times, dodging every advance Janika made. They both had wicked smiles on their faces. Despite fighting to the death, as Arianne saw it, both Reapers clearly enjoyed themselves.

A tug-of-war ensued as their staffs locked. Janika disentangled herself with a kick to Niko’s abdomen. The force sent him slamming into a large pine, splintering the dead tree into toothpicks. Janika tapped the crystal stud of her scythe on the water’s edge and a foghorn blared. Again, Arianne had to cover her ears.

A tornado touched down from the stormy sky and headed toward Niko. In no time, the funnel engulfed him, whirling him around like a rag doll. Arianne whimpered.

“That’s right, girly, be afraid.” Janika poked the bubble with her forefinger. “I’m coming for you next. It shouldn’t be long now.”

Arianne didn’t respond, too stunned by the fact that Janika moved so fast. She appeared out of thin air beside the bubble a second after Arianne’s eyes registered that the psychotic Reaper had been standing by the lake.

Then Janika’s eyes widened as she choked out blood.

Arianne screamed.

Niko pulled on his scythe, which he’d embedded between Janika’s shoulders. It left a gaping hole in her chest, soaking her shirt crimson.

“I thought I told you to stay away from her,” he said in a harsh whisper.

“How?” Disbelief replaced Janika’s previous cocky demeanor.

“I know a thing or two.” He snapped and the tornado Janika summoned subsided. “You forget who my mentor is. My domain, my control.”

“And you forget I’m the Reaper of New York.” Janika plunged her hand into Niko’s stomach and twisted her wrist before yanking back, his blood like a red glove on her hand.

Niko fell to his knees, covering the wound that bled like an angry volcano.

“Niko!” Arianne moved to him, only to collide with the glass she’d forgotten separated them. She got up and pounded on the barrier the bubble provided until her fists hurt.

Ignoring her, Niko drew a square in front of him and it opened a portal that connected to his basement, where Arianne counted dozens of souls.

“How dare you!” Janika yelled.

“I may not be able to beat you, but I’m certainly going to make sure you hurt for a long while.” Niko drew circular symbols in the air and the wind that had been calm picked up again.

“Niko, what are you doing?” Arianne asked, the excitement on Niko’s face scaring her more than if he’d shown desperation.

Janika couldn’t move, fighting against an unseen force. She cussed like a sailor returning from months at sea.

“This is where I bid you farewell.” Niko turned to Arianne, one hand on his wound, the other splayed over the souls, smoky tendrils seeping into his fingers.

Arianne shook her head. “Whatever it is, I can’t let you do it.”

“You don’t have a choice.” He closed his eyes.

One moment Arianne knelt inside the glass bubble, and in the next, she sat on her bed.

Chapter 23

BATTLE ZONE

NIKO COULDN’T HOLD JANIKA in place any longer. Not that he needed to be reminded of his impending death by letting her go. He concentrated on funneling as much energy from the souls in his basement as he dared for what he planned. He severed the hold he had on her. She laughed like a maniac, closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, they were as black as a moonless night with a yellow slit running down the middle where the pupil should be. Niko knew the moment he let go he’d be in trouble. He willingly made that choice.

“You actually thought you could hold me?” She continued to laugh—a cackle that reminded him of a bird in pain.

The advantage Niko had of significantly reducing Janika’s powers because they battled in his domain dwindled. He wondered if adding lightning and thunder in the background as a counterpoint to her laughter would annoy her the way the sound of her voice scratched at his eardrums. It would certainly drown her out. But as tempting as pissing Janika off was, he couldn’t afford to waste any of his energy.

Master, the souls, Sickleton spoke in Niko’s mind. The Caretaker had been in contact with him upon entering the In Between.

He’d asked Sickleton to send the minions out to enforce as many Certificates as they possibly could and bring the souls into his basement. He needed the insurance. The energy they provided him now was invaluable. He gambled his life on slowing Janika down. His own death meant nothing as long as he could buy Arianne some time. She’d die, he knew that much. But at least she could spend her final moments with her family and friends. His sacrifice seemed so small compared to what she had given him.

I am aware, Niko winced at the effort of multitasking. Is she safe?

Yes. Arianne has made it to her room, according to Rome and Paris.

Niko suppressed a sigh of relief from the fear that Janika would notice what he’d been doing. She’d begun her advance again, scythe slashing inches from the ground. He jumped away each time. The staff of his scythe served as a shield for the debris that Janika hurled at him in conjunction with her attack.

Good, he continued his conversation with Sickleton. I thought I sent her somewhere else by accident.

I must say that I disagree with what you are about to do, Master.

It is not for you to care, Sickleton. Niko summoned another thunderbolt and aimed it at Janika. He panted, attempting to regain his elusive breaths. I can’t allow Janika to get to her.

What about the other enforcers Death will send after her? When you die here, who will protect her?

He blocked Janika’s roundhouse kick using the blade of his scythe and countered with a punch to her solar plexus. She doubled back. I can’t focus on that right now, Caretaker.

Sickleton’s presence in his mind receded. Niko ignored the guilt that pretzeled his gut and returned his attention to siphoning energy from the souls and keeping Janika occupied. His heart fell when he realized what he suddenly faced.

Janika stopped fighting. She’d released her scythe. It floated in front of her, a guardian to its master. She spread her arms wide and tilted her face up. Her lips moved rapidly, murmuring in a language that sent chills like an army of spiders down Niko’s spine.

He swallowed and redoubled his efforts at infusing residual energy into his body. At seventy-five percent capacity, it wouldn’t be enough. He needed more. According to his calculations, he needed a hundred and fifty—enough for an overload. The wound Janika had inflicted in his abdomen had healed, but it still left him weaker that he should have felt. He suspected poison, injected through her nails. She wasn’t above playing dirty.

The clouds parted like the Red Sea and beams of light streamed down, igniting the blood lake. A rending, like paper being shredded, pierced Niko’s ears. In seconds, the minion Janika summoned would appear. The top five had enough power to create creatures of unimaginable strength. Ones they used for protection and combat. Niko had attempted to birth one of his own once, but the act of summoning alone had drained him to the point of fading. His weakness frustrated him, but he had to put away his thoughts of inadequacy. He had bigger things to deal with—especially if the monstrosity Janika had created made it all the way into his In Between.

The tips of armored feet had begun to show at the center of the rip Janika had made in the sky. Niko’s heart pumped so hard, it hurt. He severed his link with the souls and clamped his hands together. Not enough. He hadn’t reached his target goal, but it would have to do. If only to damage her enough that she would have to take the time to heal herself. He gathered the energy between his palms and parted them as the sphere he’d created expanded.

Janika opened her eyes, her summoning halted. The descent of her minion ceased. “Nikolas!” she screeched. “How dare you try that on me?”

“Only because I think you’re special.” Niko sneered.

“Don’t be a fool!”

A vortex opened within the ball of energy he accumulated. It sucked in everything in its path, including Janika. Despite her efforts to stand her ground, the force pulling her forward triumphed. She screamed when she finally lost her footing, grabbing at her scythe, but it was too late. The hole swallowed her like quicksand.

An explosion occurred, engulfing Niko in searing light and blinding heat.

Sizzling pain woke Niko from the deepest slumber he’d ever experienced. He gasped like a swimmer surfacing from the water. His heart stuttered then restarted with such ferocity, it tripled his current agony. The scent of burning meat choked him. His vision blurred. The tears that escaped his ducts carved a path down his face like acid on skin.

“I’ve seen burnt meat look better than you do right now,” someone with a heavy Texan drawl said.

Niko made the mistake of swallowing. The knives lining his throat rubbed against each other. He’d rather have a femur shattered with a hammer. He croaked his response.

“What was that?” The tall Reaper bent over Niko, shielding him from the too hot sun.

“Trah…viiss.” His voice came out hoarse, his breathing labored. A prominent gurgle bubbled from his lungs, like he drowned from the inside. “I’m…stt…ill…” He made the mistake of swallowing again. A keening cry left his lips.

“Barely.” Travis squeezed Niko’s shoulder, producing a sickening squelch, like a rag being rung dry.

Niko’s vision tunneled, the feeling of fainting edging closer.

Travis pulled his hand away as if he’d been bitten. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking there.”

“Jah…nee…kah?”

“Worse than you, brother.”

“Goh…ood.” He sighed and closed his eyes.

The next time Niko regained consciousness, he found himself strapped to a board by his wrists and ankles. His makeshift bed floated vertically several inches off the ground. He looked up, but the ceiling seemed an endless black void. He only ached now, even if he still smelled like a grill after the steaks had been removed. From what he could see of himself, most of his body, from his arms and chest, down to the flesh exposed by his tattered jeans, had between second and third degree burns. His back felt molded to the wood supporting him, like the skin had grafted itself onto its surface. Why he wasn’t delirious with pain escaped his considerable reasoning skills. Someone had left him shirtless and barefoot. Not that he needed clothes in his current situation.

The room, if it could be called that, didn’t have walls. It had a cobblestone floor, but nothing else. Not even a door. And despite not having a light source, he could see as if the space had lit lamps scattered everywhere.

While he awaited his fate, Niko attempted to contact Sickleton.

Silence, like a frigid lover, greeted him.

He couldn’t tell if Sickleton ignored him or if something blocked his attempts to communicate telepathically. Eventually, his thoughts wondered to Arianne. Worry for her safety alternated with remorse at having deceived her. He never planned to live beyond Janika’s attack. And now, if he could only find a way out, his first order of business would be to find and protect Arianne. Even if she condemns me for it. He frowned, his hope blinking out for a second.

After what seemed like hours of waiting, Niko attempted to struggle against his restraints, escape foremost on his mind. He gritted his teeth as he left most of his back skin on the board to further examine the cuffs on his wrists. They didn’t seem to have a locking mechanism, just a solid band of metal. He’d tried to teleport without any success. Whatever blocked him from communicating with others seemed to have bound his powers as well. He didn’t go into the Fade, so he must have some residual energy left.

“I do hate seeing you this way,” Death said as he materialized into the room, gliding to a stop a meter away from Niko. His robes flowed around him like the fabric had a life of its own.

“I assume you sent Janika as the first enforcer?” Niko didn’t mean to sound sarcastic, but he couldn’t help himself. Disrespecting his master meant pain. Lots of it.

“I didn’t think you’d go that far, to be honest.” Death snapped his fingers, and Niko’s seared flesh healed instantaneously.

Niko breathed a great sigh, like he’d taken a sip of cold water after returning from the desert. “Thank you, Master.”

“Do not thank me, child.” Death sighed as if he wanted to be elsewhere. “You have defied my orders. Why?”

“I can’t bear to see her die,” he said without thinking about the consequences.

“I don’t take kindly to insubordination.”

“I love her, Master.”

Despite the knot on his brow, Death still looked devastating. “What does love have to do with it?”

“Everything.”

Death’s eyes widened. “I thought she’d make you a good consort for this life. I thought it would do you good to have a lover. Hell, I even thought it was romantic.” He massaged his forehead. “But I didn’t expect you to defy me. For a human. Nikolas.” He shook his head in disgust.

Niko swallowed. “Then why are you keeping me alive?”

“Because I wanted to find out if you’d see reason. Reconsider the importance of your duties. Know that Reapers who’ve taken on consorts had to reap those souls too.”

“Better kill me then.” Niko met his master’s pleading stare with a serious one of his own. “I will not enforce that Certificate on Arianne.”

“Then you have forced me to take more drastic measures.” Death glanced behind him and Travis popped into the room with a long table filled from one end to the other with sharp objects and various torture paraphernalia. Knives so sharp, the edges of their blades gleamed. Corkscrews of varying sizes. Hammers with spikes. Nails. Pikes. Scissors.

It’s handy craft time. Niko breathed in deep then out slowly. He’d been healed only to face another form of pain.

As Travis picked up a silver spike the length of his arm, Niko imagined the first time Arianne had smiled at him.

Chapter 24

DISASTER WARNING

ARIANNE HAD TO BLINK SEVERAL TIMES before she believed she’d been returned to her room. What convinced her were the contents of her desk that had been left untouched for nearly a month—her notes from school scattered about on its surface and pens half in and half out of their tipped over holder. Those picture frames holding painful memories rested face down.

Her window remained shut tight, keeping in the musty smell the space had developed. The drapes sported a coat of light dust. Her sheets: old and wrinkled. Discarded clothes littered the carpeted floor. Her closet doors were left open showcasing clean clothes that were undecided if they wanted to stay on their hangers or not. The periwinkle-painted walls enclosed a time capsule of sorts—neglected and forgotten. It looked more abandoned than lived in.

The last place she wanted to be was in her room.

She could pull out her hair for what Niko did. His selfishness knew no bounds. But instead of losing herself to panic for his safety, she hopped off her bed and kicked a corner of it. He’d tricked her, only planning to have her there with him until the very end. She saw it in his eyes as he shielded them with heavy lids: death.

“Idiot!” she said through her teeth. She opened and closed her hands, her palms moist. Worry and fear and frustration had her heading for the door and down the stairs. She’d barely made it to the front door when her father spoke.

“Ari? You’re back?” His voice still sounded heartsick.

Arianne took a slow breath in and out and turned to face her father. He sat at the kitchen table, nursing a glass of milk. “Where’s Mom?”

“Asleep.”

The way he said it made Arianne’s heart ache. She knew her mother had been spending more time in bed than out of it since the funeral. An orange bottle containing tiny pills stood vigil on her bedside table, next to a glass of water always half empty. Arianne had brought her mother soup some days, but the disheveled mess hidden beneath a mound of sheets and pillows looked less and less like the woman she once was proud to call “Mother.”

“And you?” Arianne’s voice broke.

He shrugged. “Couldn’t sleep. Where are you off to? It’s the middle of the night.”

Unzipping and zipping the hoodie she wore, Arianne focused her gaze on her scuffed sneakers. “I need to go see Ben.”

“Ari.”

“Sorry, Dad.” She quivered. “I just need to go.”

Without waiting for her father to respond, Arianne opened the door behind her and backed out of the house. She hated feeling uncertainty, especially where her parents were concerned. She had a sinking suspicion this would be the last time she’d see her father.

He personified the image of a tired and hunched over man with bags under his eyes and hair slowly surrendering to gray. It wasn’t what Arianne wanted, but she was running out of time.

Arianne swung her leg over Ben’s windowsill and slid into his room. “Ben! You have to wake…” Her words faltered as she stared. His room, similar to hers, now bore a resemblance to a museum, untouched, albeit more organized and less dusty. The bits and pieces of baseball history he’d accumulated through the years remained immaculate.

Ben sat at his desk, head down and scribbling on a piece of paper.

“You’re not writing a suicide letter, are you?” she asked, truly frightened. Since the funeral, Ben had become a shell of his true self. No more smiles that tried to hide what he really felt. He displayed it for all to see: depression, like his soul had been taken from him. And like Arianne, he’d lost a significant amount of weight. The mourning diet. There was nothing like total and utter devastation to remove any form of appetite. His father had watched him carefully, even threatening to send him to a facility in Atlanta.

His shoulders rose slightly with an exasperated breath. “Homework,” he said.

“You’re doing homework at this time of the night? When did you decide to go back to school?”

“What else should I be doing?” Ben twisted around in his seat and faced her. “Killing myself won’t bring her back, Ari. I thought you knew me better than that. And I’m trying home school for a while. I can’t bring myself to walk into Blackwood and see all those faces, knowing they’d want to comfort me.” He shuddered.

Arianne understood all too well what he meant. She’d refused to take calls from Tammy after the funeral. No one could fill the hole Carrie had left behind. She came forward and hugged him. She did know him, and Ben would never bring added grief to those he loved.

Ben returned her hug briefly. “What are you doing here?”

The question brought back Arianne’s sense of urgency. “I need your help.” She launched into the story of what happened that night. She glossed over why she’d been walking around aimlessly and focused on Darla trying to run her over.

“You were supposed to die?” Sadness entered Ben’s eyes when he asked in a whisper.

“But Niko defied Death to save me. God knows what’s happening to him now, especially with that psycho bitch Janika.” She continued her narration by detailing the fight between Niko and Janika and how Niko had teleported her to her room right at the end.

“Smart guy. I respect him more now for saving you.” Ben rubbed his forehead. “I can’t believe Darla tried to run you over.”

“That’s my fault. I shouldn’t have outed her.”

“When did this happen?” Ben’s eyes were wider than the moon. “You’ve been holding out on me.”

Arianne waved her hands frantically. “That’s not what’s important right now. I need to go to Niko’s house and ask his Caretaker to take me to the In Between, where I think he’ll be. If we make it out alive, then I’ll tell you everything you want to know about Darla.”

“I’m coming with you,” he said sternly.

“Why do you think I’m here?” She grabbed his arm and pulled him to the window. “Come on, we can’t waste any more time.”

Ben and Arianne stood on Niko’s lawn, staring at the front porch. Arianne knew she had to climb the four steps, move to the door, and ring the bell. But a heavy aura of foreboding kept her from following her brain’s orders. The house looked empty and more than a little creepy, almost as if it had been abandoned for years. Add some weeds choking the grass, faded and peeling paint, missing shingles, rotting wood here and there, and the look would be complete. The structure itself still looked sound, and very clean, but Arianne couldn’t shake the feeling that it was empty.

Ben, fed up with waiting, strode to the door, each step purposeful and sure.

“Ben, what are you doing?” Arianne followed him, arms stretched out as if she wanted to yank him to her.

“What you seem to be hesitating about,” he said over his shoulder. He rang the doorbell, which produced a grandfather-clock-type chime.

Arianne reached his side and dropped her arms. “You feel that? The house, there’s something so wrong about it.”

“Ari, do you love him or not?” Ben pinned her with a hard gaze.

“I do.”

“Are you willing to do whatever it takes to save him?”

Ben asked all the right questions. She couldn’t understand why she hesitated in the first place. “Thanks.” She gave him a quick smile. “I needed that.”

Arianne pounded at the door with an open palm. “Sickleton, I know you’re in there!”

The door opened suddenly, causing Arianne to stumble inside. Ben steadied her as he crossed the threshold. The darkness that surrounded the outside apparently leaked from the inside. Not pitch black but a heaviness similar to a cemetery after a service.

“Oh, I forgot!” Arianne looked up at Ben. “Niko has to invite you in.”

“What?”

“If you start feeling woozy, tell me right away, okay?”

Ben raised an eyebrow skeptically.

“I don’t have time to explain.” She poked him on the center of his chest. “Just promise me.”

“That won’t be necessary,” a deep yet genteel voice said.

Arianne whirled around so fast, she felt sick for a second. “Who are you?”

A man with the bearing of a king, all confidence and self-assurance, appeared before them. He stood by the elaborate, yet wilting, floral centerpiece in the foyer, his salt and pepper hair combed away from his ageless face. He had his hands tucked into the pockets of his impeccably pressed trousers. His suit screamed luxury, down to the expensive silk tie. “I am Tomas. You are Arianne Wilson and Benjamin Freeman.”

Arianne’s eyes felt like they would leap out of their sockets. “I think asking you why you know who we are would be stupid right now. You’re Niko’s mentor.”

“Clever girl.” Tomas smiled. “I see he’s told you about me. He must really love you.”

The admission had Arianne’s chest all warm and toasty inside, but she pushed away the feeling for now. She kept getting sidetracked. “Do you know where he is?”

Ben must have heard the desperation in her voice because he wrapped an arm around her shoulders. She leaned into him, grateful for the support. She’d brought him for a reason. Not that she couldn’t have done it alone. Oh, who am I kidding? I wouldn’t be standing up right now without him helping me up.

“I take it you’ve come to save him?” Tomas asked in return.

“Yes,” Arianne answered.

“What if I told you he couldn’t be saved?”

“I don’t care. I’m going to try anyway.”

An emotion Arianne couldn’t decipher sparked in Tomas’s eyes. “Then are you willing to enter the Crossroads?”

Without faltering, Arianne said, “Yes.”

“What if you had to die to get there?”

Chapter 25

REACTOR PROBLEM

DEATH HAD NEVER LIKED the concept of torture. Sure, he’d invented it, but only out of necessity as one of the ways to keep unruly Reapers in check. History had proven torture to be an effective tool in changing a person’s mind. During the Roman Empire, one of his first beta testing grounds, he’d perfected some of his techniques. The Romans had been so creative too. They took initiative and thought up so many ways to convince someone of what they’d wanted.

In his room of endless space and time, he stood a few meters away to avoid the blood pool spreading beneath Nikolas like The Flood. It stained the cobblestones dark crimson. The idea of finding a rug of the same shade distracted Death. He weighed the pros and cons of displaying a blood red carpet in his office when Travis’s grunt returned his consciousness fully to the task at hand.

Pride stretched across his face as he watched his protégé perform masterful work. He’d taught the Reaper of Texas well over the centuries. The mosaic of cuts he’d inflicted on Nikolas were so artistic they could make Michelangelo weep for joy. Travis could paint the Mona Lisa on the younger Reaper’s body if he wanted to.

In the countless years of Death’s existence, he could legitimately say he’d seen it all. Yet, the courage Nikolas exhibited had him doubting his actions. No matter how much Travis sliced, poked, shredded, and burned, the Reaper of Georgia looked on serenely. Death knew the Reaper felt pain. He’d made sure of it by entering Nikolas’s mind. Agony trespassed underneath his skin. What surprised Death were the images Nikolas replayed over and over in his head of the girl with fiery hair.

“Travis—” Death touched the Reaper of Texas on the arm just as the Texan lifted a hacksaw “—give us a moment if you please.”

Travis let go of the saw and disappeared. A good soldier never asked questions. He obeyed any order. Death made a mental note to commend Travis. Many of his siblings perceived him as a happy-go-lucky, lazy sort. Only a handful knew the true nature Travis hid within the darkest corners of his mind.

“Why do you refuse to see reason, Nikolas?” Death closed the gap between them until he stood close enough to smell sweat, his robes soaking up the blood he’d taken so much care to avoid. “Surely, one girl isn’t worth this much pain? Granted, she is your first love. One you will never forget of course, but she’s mortal, and will die eventually, even if I hadn’t signed the Certificate today.”

“Ehnd yeth yuh dhith,” Nikolas slurred, his tongue having been pulled out by Travis using hot tongs earlier.

“It’s part of my job, which you so conveniently forget in this case. I sign countless Certificates on a daily basis, Nikolas. I hardly have the time to read them all. You seem to forget who you’re speaking to.”

“Aiy whill noth—” he swallowed “—rhethurn toh an esisthance wiouth er. Yuh’d bether khill me…aiy whill neva rheap ahgen.”

His elbow cradled in the cup of his hand, Death tapped his cheek. “I think I’m going about this the wrong way. You seem to be handling the situation better than I expected.”

Drool dripped from Nikolas’s chin.

“I would have gladly discussed this over lunch, but would you have listened to reason otherwise?”

Nikolas shook his head like a dead man. No hope. No expectations of survival.

“I didn’t think so.” Death’s sigh mirrored that of a parent exasperated with a willful child. What was he to do? He waved his hand and healed Nikolas. “Physical torture isn’t for you. You’ve forced me to resort to other methods. Let’s take a leaf from the Nazis and try mental torture, shall we? We’ll be more high tech, of course.” He snapped his fingers and a large flat screen floated down from the infinite ceiling to hover at eye level.

The invisible lights dimmed, allowing for a theater-like atmosphere. Death held off on the popcorn stand, deeming it inappropriate for the kind of movie on the playlist tonight. Numbers counted down on the screen. At zero, a girl in a delicate white, cotton dress bounced into focus. She waved, a smile that could enthrall a charging barbarian army into submission on her lips.

Death stood beside the screen, but instead of watching the program, he focused his attention on Nikolas. He caught the subtle changes in the boy’s expression. Nikolas could tell a story through his facial features alone. First of elation. Then of confusion.

The story ended with a grimace as Nikolas said, “What does showing Arianne accomplish?”

“Wait for it.”

The girl on the television entered a lush summer garden, her bare feet crunching blades of grass in her wake. She neared an oak tree and climbed it. At the highest branch, she sat and pulled up a rope tied to it. She showed the audience the noose like a circus performer about to execute a daring feat. Never losing her smile, she placed the noose around her neck, pulled it tight, waved one more time, then jumped.

“No!” Nikolas croaked out. He struggled to free himself from his restraints. Only when the girl walked across the screen again, this time in an empty room with peeling yellow paint, did he calm down. She blew a kiss at him before running towards double doors and swan diving off the balcony. Nikolas cried out again, his speech garbled by rage and a steady stream of curses.

“Now you get to see her die in a million different ways. Hopefully, through this exercise, you will learn she’s human and fragile and meant to expire at any time,” explained Death. “That’s just the way it is. The sooner you get it, the faster we can move on and get back to work.”

Chapter 26

CORE MELTDOWN

NIKO’S WRISTS AND ANKLES BLED A RIVER. His back bowed from the effort to escape. He ignored the pain, his mind obsessed with finding a way out of his misery. He could no longer watch Arianne kill herself over and over again. He always knew his master possessed an unrivaled cruelty, but he’d never expected to be at the receiving end of it. There was a huge difference between watching a storm unfold somewhere else and actually being within the gale force winds.

Closing his eyes had been useless. Of course Death prevented him from blocking the images with his eyelids. It wouldn’t be that easy. He couldn’t tell when he’d started sobbing uncontrollably.

Death continued to observe, saying nothing. Showing no emotions on his magnificent face—the Devil disguised as Aphrodite.

“Make it stop,” Niko begged, his breaking point upon him like gray, pregnant clouds ushering in rainfall. At the back of his mind, he’d been ashamed of his weakness. But witnessing Arianne hurting herself while wearing a smile that melted his heart had overpowered his shame.

“Are you willing to resume your duties then?” Death asked. “Enforce the Certificate on Arianne Wilson? I would hate to have to replace you.”

“No.” He bared his teeth.

“Then let the lesson continue.”

“Master…”

“The journey has just begun for you, Nikolas. We’ve only seen a few hundred ways a life could end. I have many more in store.” Death touched the center of his chest. “And surely, you wouldn’t want me to enforce the Certificate for you, right?”

Niko groaned; he couldn’t help it. His strength had shriveled the first hundred times Arianne had taken her last breath on screen. Reminding himself it wasn’t real didn’t work. In fact, it seemed to make the idea of watching her demise worse. Loving her had changed him. Other Reapers, and certainly his master, saw his feelings as a hindrance. But compared to the lives he’d lived, meeting Arianne had given him an actual appreciation for his existence. She’d made him eager to wake in the mornings. She’d made him laugh without trying hard at it. And most of all, she’d shown him what it meant to love someone.

Niko released the tension on his restraints and allowed gravity to take his weight. “Master,” he whispered, “have you ever loved someone?”

The image on the screen froze—Arianne twisting the cap off a bottle of bleach.

“What did you say?” Death approached him cautiously.

“You heard me.”

The ever present silence reigned supreme for what seemed like several lifetimes between master and servant. Niko stared Death straight in the face, pushing away the captivation his beauty brought with it.

“Do you honestly think I have the time for such frivolities as love?” Death said the word like a curse.

The sides of Niko’s mouth moved up of their own volition.

“What are you smiling at?”

“I pity you, Master.” Niko laughed. “To not know what it means to have someone so important in your life that you would defy the fates for her saddens me. Before Arianne, I just was. Performing my duties without any thought to what I did. I even allowed myself to fade away.” He stared at her face on the screen. It wasn’t really his Arianne, but he drew strength from the uncanny similarity. “I wouldn’t have known someone like her existed, if not for the events that brought us together. She saved me, Master. She became every breath, every heartbeat, every waking moment. If that makes me less of a Reaper, then you’d do better to just kill me. I’m of no use to you anymore.”

Chapter 27

LETTING GO

ARIANNE FLOATED LIKE A LEAF on a stream, unafraid, allowing the flow to carry her where it would. She could see and not see all at once. The world looked different. A kind of dullness permeated her vision, everything in black and white with hazy edges. She couldn’t smell, but she could hear. When she’d agreed to the plan, she’d asked Tomas if it would hurt.

“Dying, I mean,” she clarified as they walked into the spacious living room of Niko’s house.

The wide-jawed beast of a fireplace remained cold, ash asleep on its tongue. Two delicate settees faced each other with a squat coffee table separating them. A wooden ceiling-fan with floral lamps watched over the peace in the space. French windows opened to a portico with rose bushes in clay pots and an iron table with four chairs.

The older Reaper shook his head and indicated the large daybed in the corner. “If the both of you would please lie down, we may begin.”

Ben had been adamant about going with her. She’d tried to talk him out of it, but he must have felt her reluctance for him to leave because he ignored her, only listening to Tomas from then on. She had brought him with her after all. And she suspected he stayed mostly out of morbid curiosity. She certainly wanted to know what Carrie went through when she’d been taken away.

“Last chance,” Arianne said, settling her back into the soft cushion. “You don’t have to do this.”

“As if I’d let you have all the fun.” Ben walked to the other side of the daybed and arranged himself beside her.

Tomas spoke in a butter-melting voice. “Everyone experiences death differently, but the process of the soul leaving its body remains the same. Now, if you would close your eyes…that’s right. I will pull your souls out, but they will remain attached to your bodies by your lifeline.”

Arianne allowed herself to be soothed by the way Tomas spoke and the warm presence of Ben beside her. She was eager to get to Niko, and the quickest way there was if she relaxed into what Tomas was about to do.

She felt a quick pinch then a tug. Tomas asked them to open their eyes, and Arianne’s knees wobbled. Before her lay her body, a calm expression on her face.

“It’s like I’m sleeping,” she said.

“An out of body experience rarely leaves the individual in distress.” Tomas handed her a black robe like the hooded ones monks wore. “I’m sure you know what I mean. You’ve been through it before.”

“What?” Ben glared at her. He already had his robe on.

“Can you turn around, please!” she squeaked. “I’m naked here.”

He obliged quickly, as if he’d forgotten the consequence of their current state.

As Arianne pulled on her robe, she rewarded Ben’s question by saying, “Remember when I told you I could see dead people? Niko explained that it came from a near death experience.”

“You’ve never been in a near death experience!”

Ben’s incredulous words made her smile. “When I donated a kidney to Carrie, I did.”

“Oh.”

Arianne wished she had a camera. Ben’s realization was a cross between horror and awe, something she wanted to post on her Facebook page—if they made it back.

“But I’m fine now.” Her gaze returned to her body on the daybed. “All things considered, that is.”

“Come,” Tomas interrupted Ben’s next words. He clapped once and they were transported to a room with no walls. The floor just seemed to stretch like a limitless rubber band.

To her right came Niko’s voice. “…saved me, Master. She became every breath, every heartbeat, every waking moment. If that makes me less of a Reaper, then you’d do better to just kill me. I’m of no use to you anymore.”

The giant wave of love for Niko that she now surfed could already decimate mountains. But when she processed the last part of what he’d said, she flew toward the direction of his voice. Tomas moved in front of her in an instant. His strong hands on her shoulders prevented her from moving any further.

“Let go of me.” She didn’t think she was capable of growling, but she managed it like a cornered pitbull.

Tomas seemed unaffected by her ferocity. “You can’t just charge in.”

“Didn’t you hear what Niko said?”

“Remember, you have a Certificate on you. If our master sees you without me, it’s all over.”

Arianne dropped her tension by sighing, but she saved him the worry. “Hurry.”

Tomas showed her the briefest smile. “I want to save him, too.” He glanced behind her. “Ben, can you keep her close? Wouldn’t want both of you to get lost now.”

An arm, familiar and solid, rested on Arianne’s shoulders. She looked up at Ben and squeezed his hand. His ever present smile, the one that had disappeared after Carrie’s death, made a return appearance. He nodded, and they followed Tomas toward where she’d heard Niko’s voice.

The trek didn’t take long. To Arianne’s surprise, they’d been closer than she expected. But seeing Niko strapped to a piece of wood by his bleeding wrists and ankles locked her legs in place. The beautiful man who stood by him in robes like hers and the LCD TV that floated in the air didn’t matter to her. Ben’s arm edged her closer to his body. He’d felt her apprehension. What he didn’t feel was the rage that roiled within her like a whirlpool. She wanted whoever had hurt Niko to pay. She vibrated from it. Her heart punched her chest and her blood flowed hot. When her gaze met with Niko’s, she watched him reflect her fury. He roared.

“Tomas!” he spit the name out. Then, like a flashbulb going off, sadness replaced his anger. “How can you do this to me?”

“Niko—” Arianne began, but Tomas held an arm out in front of her—a barrier that cut her off.

“Nikolas,” Tomas said, “does she look reaped to you?”

Niko raked his eyes over Arianne. She tried to give him a brave smile.

“But you still shouldn’t have brought her here,” he admonished. “You even brought Ben. What were you thinking?”

“Yes, Tomas.” The beautiful man finally spoke. His voice like harp song. “Explain to me this betrayal.”

When Arianne finally studied him, she found herself spellbound. His delicate features didn’t take away any masculinity from his being. And he had power. He radiated with it, pinching Arianne as it spread all around them. She wondered if Carrie had a chance to see him when she’d crossed-over or whatever it was that happened to souls. Her sister would have stared, maybe even squealed. Arianne tucked her heartache away for another day. She couldn’t save Carrie, but she sure as rain wanted to rescue Niko.

“You misunderstand, Master.” Tomas showed the respect of a humble servant in his deep bow. “I am here to save you.”

“Oh really?” The man, who Arianne assumed was Death, inclined his head. “And how do you propose to do that?”

Tomas indicated Niko and Arianne. “Isn’t it obvious? You’ve tortured him for how long in here, and yet, he would rather die than enforce the Certificate.” Even with Death’s raised eyebrow, he continued, “And even though she has a Certificate on her, she doesn’t hesitate to come and save him from you. Master, they love each other. We may have a job to do, but we are not cruel creatures.”

Death sighed, short and quick. “That may be the case, but I’m still down a soul. Unless you can find me a replacement—”

“Take mine,” Ben said.

“No!” Niko and Arianne barked in unison, glaring at the tall boy with sandy hair.

Death gave Ben a once over and said, “Done!” He snapped once and Ben disappeared.

Arianne screamed.

She screamed until her throat closed. The emptiness of her stomach didn’t matter when she dry heaved. Her knees shook from the effort to keep herself from falling over. She covered her face with her hands.

“Master!”

“Oh, don’t complain, Nikolas.” Death frowned at him. “He gave your girlfriend an out. The Certificate on her has been replaced.”

“Not at the consequence of hurting her,” Niko answered.

“Love hurts, boy,” Tomas said. “Live with it. Don’t make Ben’s sacrifice less than it is.”

“You knew what he would do?” Death couldn’t hide his astonishment.

“You’re not the only one who can read the threads of fate, Master.”

“Hmm, we have to talk about that, Tomas.”

“Yes, Master.” The old Reaper grinned like the Mad Hatter. “Get on with it then.”

“Well, I’d let you go, Nikolas.” Death faced him. “But you can no longer be a Reaper. What am I to do?”

“You’ve taken my sister away from me,” Arianne said through her teeth, dropping her hands to face Death. Tears washed over the lakebed of her cheeks. “And now my best friend is dead. I can’t allow you to take away Niko!”

“Then what do you propose I do?”

“You have all this power. Can’t you turn him human?”

An invisible hand pushed up one corner of Death’s mouth. “Don’t underestimate me, little girl. Of course I can. On two conditions.” He held up two of his fingers. “Are you willing to give them to me?”

“Arianne, no!” Niko pleaded. “Don’t bargain with him.”

Arianne kept all her attention on Death. “Niko, shut up, will you? And you, pretty boy, don’t call me ‘little girl,’” she said.

“Pretty boy?” Death turned aghast to Tomas, who’d failed to suppress his laughter.

“Name your conditions.”

“First—”

“Master! Please, no,” Niko interrupted.

Death closed his hand and Niko lost the ability to speak. He moved his lips, but no words followed.

“What did you do to him?” Arianne rushed to Niko’s side, touching his cheeks with clammy hands.

“Just making sure we don’t get disturbed again,” Death assured sweetly. “He’ll regain his speech soon enough. Now, my first condition. He has to stay here for six months.”

Arianne’s heart wept. But what was six months of separation to sharing the rest of their lives together?

“Okay,” she said. “What’s the other condition?”

Death’s smile rivaled the brilliance of a thousand suns. “You need to give me two things.”

“For Niko? Anything.”

“Watch what you say, Arianne,” Tomas warned, regaining his lost composure.

“I said I’d save Niko, and I’d do anything to accomplish that.” She placed her hand in Niko’s. “So, what can I give you?”

“Admirable courage, human.”

Arianne didn’t quite believe the sincerity in Death’s remark.

“For Nikolas to gain humanity,” Death continued, “you must give me your sight and memory of your love for him.”

She gasped. She couldn’t help it. Her sight? Her memories of Niko? How could she give up the treasure chest of her love for him? Her sight was one thing. She could learn to live without it, but to lose that first chemistry class together, the time she saved him from fading, their first kiss, their second, and third? A vise with sharp teeth squeezed Arianne’s insides until she couldn’t breathe. Would she be able to fall in love with him again without her memories? The thought scared her as much as when the doctors said Carrie’s kidneys had begun to fail again. She had died a little that day, and now, another part of her was slowly losing the battle to stay alive.

Niko squeezed her hand so hard she thought her fingers would break. She took solace in the pain, allowing the contact to anchor her to the present. The warmth of his palm on hers became the bridge for which their love connected. It has to be strong enough, Arianne told herself. Without her memories, it had to be.

“Can you return Niko’s speech for a moment?” Arianne asked Death. “I’d like to talk to him.”

Death drew a line in the air.

“Arianne, you can’t do this,” Niko said urgently.

She turned around and faced him. Despite the presence of Death and Tomas nearby, having her hands on each side of Niko’s face created such intimacy that they might as well have been alone.

“Why do you always call me angel?” she asked, not releasing his gaze for a second.

“Because you’re my savior.”

Arianne saw in Niko’s eyes the implication of his words. She gave him her lips, putting everything she had into that touch. When she broke the contact, she said, “Then let me save you.”

“But your sight and memories—”

“Niko,” she cut him off. “I’ve already memorized everything that’s worth seeing. I’m staring at it now.”

Love and acceptance dawned, starting in Niko’s eyes and racing over the planes of his face. As the last thing she would ever see, it granted Arianne much needed strength.

“I promise,” he said, “I’m going to do everything in my power to make you fall in love with me again. Whatever it takes. We’ll make new memories together.”

“I like the sound of that.” Arianne kissed Niko again—one that had to count for six months of separation and several more of memory loss. When she pulled away she whispered, “I love you.” She turned to Death and nodded. She closed her eyes to the image of Niko’s love painted behind her eyelids, willing herself to remember it.

Unreap My Heart

(TEASER)

ARIANNE SAT AND TRACED THE LETTERS carved on the headstone. The marble played between cold and warm, since the often cheerful sun hadn’t quite made up its mind yet, still holding on to a last few snatches of sleep. The blades of grass that tickled her calves still held moisture from their morning shower. A breeze made friends with her hair, teasing strands out of the loose bun she’d twisted them in. She’d removed her wide-brimmed hat seconds after she’d arrived. It sat content on her lap as she conversed with Carrie.

“It’s weird, really,” Arianne said. “I wish I’d gone to talk to you sooner. Niko kept telling me how I can continue to remember you without being consumed by my grief. A couple of months ago, I didn’t believe him. I didn’t want to let go of the pain I was in. Mom has grown to like him. Dad says we dated before the incident with Darla.” She paused, recalling the events that still made her arm ache when the weather got a little too cold or damp. “I feel sorry for her. I wish things could have turned out differently. Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I should never have led her on the way I did. I thought enduring the bullying she’d put me through was my way of atoning for what I did. But I just couldn’t take it anymore. I snapped. And she lost everything.”

Arianne traced the scar that reminded her never to pretend to have feelings for someone. If she didn’t feel the same, she needed to be honest about it. When she’d sought comfort in Darla’s company, she should have said no the first time they’d kissed. She should have stopped it then.

“There are many things that I wish I hadn’t done,” she continued. “I think we all feel that way.” A deep sigh came from a sad place in her heart. “Darla’s in good hands now. The judge sent her to a facility instead of juvi. I pray for her every night.”

A brown thrasher burst into a medley of songs.

“Visited Ben before you.” She chuckled. “I know, I know, I should have come to you first, but you’re a talker. He, at least, just listens. I’m still mad at him for not being strong enough to stay alive. He’s so selfish sometimes. But we’ll figure things out. He loved you so much. I wish I could find someone who’d love me like that.” Her mood dropped a degree. “I miss you both so much.” A sniff turned into a whimper. Arianne fished out a tissue from her dress pocket and blew her nose. “I know I promised not to cry. So sue me.” She chased away her stray tears.

The scent of Old Spice aftershave passed by.

“Good morning, Mr. Freeman,” Arianne greeted. “Ben’s waiting.”

A callused hand touched her cheek.

Mr. Freeman never spoke when he came around, and Arianne didn’t push him. She waited until his concrete-heavy feet moved away before continuing.

“I wish I could do more for him. But until he wants my help, there’s only so much I can offer.” Arianne breathed in the cusp of spring and summer, tilting her head to receive a kiss from the sun. Niko’s question the night before entered her mind.

“He asked me out last night,” she said. “I’m not sure how to respond. Dad says we dated. Darla went crazy because apparently Niko and I were in love, but I don’t remember any of that, Carrie. Sometimes Niko gets really intense. Even if I can’t see him, I can feel the way he looks at me, like I’m about to vanish into thin air or something. And the way he follows me everywhere…It freaks me out a little. I let him come to the house because he says he wants to help me.” Arianne played with the wadded ball of tissue in her hands. “It’s either talk to him or go to therapy. He’s sweet and he really does help. I wouldn’t be here talking to you if he wasn’t.”

Blades of grass rubbed against each other in the breeze to create a hushed shhh.

“I know.” Arianne nodded once. “I should give him a chance. Darla stabbed him, did I tell you that? Oh, wait, I guess I did. And I know that’s not a good excuse to agree to go on a date with him, right?” She slapped the stone. “Don’t call it a pity date. It’s not like that. I don’t understand how I feel. He makes me laugh. He teaches me how to move on, move forward. And he actually quoted Kofi Annan. Can you believe it? ‘To live is to choose.’” She imitated Niko’s soft yet often serious voice.

Beyond the reach of her senses, a figure stood under the shade of the massive oak that watched over the residents and visitors of Blackwood Cemetery. He studied her a moment longer. Then he replaced the baseball cap he’d removed earlier, covering his sandy locks from view. He made sure he had no curious onlookers before he disappeared.

Acknowledgments

I write this section with much love and great appreciation.

I always begin by thanking my parents. They are the two great pillars that keep my foundation strong. Thank you for planting my feet firmly on the ground and bursting every bubble of hot air that dare inflate. I will love you both always and forever.

Secondly, I would like to thank Lisa for believing in Reaping Me Softly when it was still called Blind. Thank you for saving Arianne and Niko from an existence in obscurity. What you do is so important. You make dreams come true.

I would also like to thank Elizabeth for accepting Reaping into the fold of Omnific and for saying yes to the trilogy. I wouldn’t have found you if it weren’t for a certain Late, Late Night talk show host.

To Traci, publicist ninja, thank you for your constant emails and unfailing support. Promoting Reaping long before it even has a release date is music to my ears. I owe you dinner! *hugs*

To Jennifer, editor/fangirl, thank you for your wonderful insight into the story of Reaping and showing me where to cut it off. Thank you for truly experiencing the story: laughing in all the right places and feeling what the characters were going through. Stay awesome! Book two is on the way.

Angie, super critique partner, thank you for being there with me all the way, especially when my own agent thought this story was pure crap. Thank you for your awesomeness even if you live a million miles away. I promise, one day, we will meet. That acceptance letter is in the mail, sis. I know it is.

To Mel, for being a friend any crazy person would wish for. Thank you for laughing with me and for all the gossip. My life is severely dull without you in it. I will write your story one day. I miss you already.

A special thanks goes to Southville International for their continued support. I wouldn’t have been a writer if I hadn’t walked your halls.

And I cannot end this without thanking you, dear reader. Thank you for sitting in at the RUSA meeting, climbing up the ladder to Ben’s room, seeing dead people with Arianne, and reaping the souls of Georgia with Niko. Tell your friends. See you in book two!

Happy reading!

About the Author

When Kate Evangelista was told she had a knack for writing stories, she did the next best thing: entered medical school. After realizing she wasn’t going to be the next Doogie Howser, M.D., Kate wandered into the Literature department of her university and never looked back. Today, she is in possession of a piece of paper that says to the world she owns a Literature degree. To make matters worse, she took Master’s courses in creative writing. In the end, she realized to be a writer, none of what she had mattered. What really mattered? Writing. Plain and simple, honest to God, sitting in front of her computer, writing. Today, she has four completed young adult novels.

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Copyright Information

Reaping Me Softly, Copyright © 2012 by Kate Evangelista

All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher.

Omnific Publishing

10000 North Central Expressway, Dallas, TX 75231

www.omnificpublishing.com

First Omnific eBook edition, October 2012

First Omnific trade paperback edition, October 2012

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

Evangelista, Kate.

Reaping Me Softly / Kate Evangelista – 1st ed

ISBN: 978-1-62342-912-6

1. Grim Reaper—Fiction. 2. Near-Death-Experience—Fiction. 3. Young Adult—Fiction. 4. Supernatural—Romance. I. Title

Cover Art by Liliana Sanches

Cover Design by Micha Stone and Amy Brokaw

Interior Book Design by Coreen Montagna