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"Let's just hope you don't ever have to find out," Alex says, then turns the doork.n.o.b and shoves the door open.
The room is bigger than the one we just left, but there's a lack of windows. The dark red walls are bordered by bookshelves and there is a long, mahogany table in the middle of the room with eight antique spindle-back chairs around it.
Aislin is in one of the end chairs, texting on her cell phone. When she sees us, she jumps to her feet and meets us in the center of the room. "Oh, good. I was just about to come get you. Did you get everything taken care of?"
Alex looks at me and then back at Aislin; I can sense something is up. "Yeah, I guess. Well, as much as I could."
Aislin sighs, patting her phone against the palm of her hand. "I can't get ahold of Stephan. It goes straight to his voicemail."
"That's odd," Alex mumbles, staring at the spot on the floor in front of his feet with his eyebrows dipped. "Did you try Marco and Sophia?"
"Yeah, they didn't answer, either." Aislin checks her cell phone screen. "Something's not right."
"Why do you need to get ahold of Marco and Sophia?" I intervene.
"Because they might know where Stephan is," Alex replies uncomfortably. "They're pretty close-Sophia, Marco and my father."
"And yet I've never met you before," I say. "Which seems a little bizarre."
"Isolation," Alex counters placidly. "They wanted as little familiarity as possible around you."
I just stare at him. There are no words. No coherent sentences that can explain how he can talk so casually about something so significant, at least to me.
"What?" he wonders. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Because you're so..." I rack my brain for the right word. "Nonchalant about stuff. It's weird."
"And you're emotional about a lot of things, which is weird since a few months ago you couldn't even smile," he retorts, inching toward me. "You want to share any insight to that?"
I stand tall, posture straight, and my feet firmly planted to the floor. "Care to share why you're so calm? Why you can talk about my painful past as if it's a piece of dirt on your shoe."
"I don't share anything with just anyone," he says, again calm, and my hand itches to slap him.
"And vice versa." I clench my hands into fists and hide them behind my back, attempting to keep my own cool.
"But yours is important to share." He takes another step, diminishing more s.p.a.ce between us.
I match his move and get right in his face. A floodgate opens, releasing a waterfall of emotions that severely want to wipe away the last hour or so. "In order for me to want to tell you anything, I have to trust you and, right now, I don't. It's that simple."
His eyes blacken and his voice lowers as he leans in. "You trusted me pretty d.a.m.n well back at the cabin."
My hand starts to rise, to either hit him or shove him-I'm not exactly sure. I never find out, though because Aislin steps up and mediates.
"Maybe we should try calling them again?" she suggests. "It doesn't hurt to try."
Without taking his eyes off me, Alex nods. "Yeah, go ahead and try." He pauses and Aislin begins pressing b.u.t.tons on her phone. "Do you know if Marco and Sophia were going somewhere? Like on a vacation or something."
I'm so stunned, I can't blink. "You do realize that I barely talked to them when I lived with them. After I moved out, we've talked on the phone maybe, like, three times."
"You were over there that day I ran into you." His hand digs around in the pocket of his jeans for his phone. "Did they say anything then?"
"Yeah, they said to get my s.h.i.t out of my room," I state with bitterness seeping thickly from my throat as I gather loose strands of my hair and put them back into place. "And to never ask questions about my parents again. I'm guessing that neither of those things screamed that they were planning a vacation anytime soon."
"Gemma, this isn't a joke." Alex huffs an aggravated breath and puts the receiver up to his ear. "It's important. Your life, the world's life, depends on it."
"Oh, I know it's not." Carefully lifting my arms up, I take the elastic out of my hair and refasten it so my hair is in a secure ponytail. "I was being serious, Alex. The extent of our relationship makes sense to me now since I know," I gesture my hand in front of me and heave a breath, "everything."
He clicks the end b.u.t.ton and stares wordlessly at me. I hold his gaze, unwavering, until the fiery connection becomes too much, then I look away and focus on a small piece of artwork on the wall. It's splattered with blues and reds and there is a grey, stone castle in the background that has a familiar look to it. "I'm sorry, okay? I'm just p.i.s.sed off about... all the bulls.h.i.t."
I hear Aislin's breath catch and Alex shakes his head, looking at her. "What? You knew she was like this when we enrolled in college, it was the reason why we enrolled."
"Yeah, but..." she glances at me with wide eyes. "She's so bad."
"You know I can hear you, right?" I shake my head and turn for the door. "I need some fresh air."
As my hand wraps around the doork.n.o.b, Alex's fingers encircle my elbow. He hauls me backwards until my back is against his chest. "No wandering off alone." His arm snakes around my waist, while the other pins my arms against my chest.
My breathing comes out in silent gasps. "Is that another rule?"
"Of mine? Yes. It's called the rule of not getting yourself killed."
I slant my head back to look him in the eyes. "I just need some fresh air. This is a lot to take in."
"No wandering off by yourself," he repeats, his gaze skimming to my lips.
"I'm not a child," I remind him. "Now, if I want to step outside for two G.o.dd.a.m.n minutes, I will." I take a deep breath and then force my arms forward, hoping he'll yield because there is no way I'm getting away by myself; he is just too strong.
His arms unstiffen and I move out of his hold; his hands sliding down my arms and along the back of my shirt as I step away.
"Stay close," he says softly as he releases the hem of my shirt.
Without looking back, I hurry to the door before he changes his mind and decides to make it difficult. Once I'm out in the hall, I free a tension-filled breath that I've been suppressing for the last few hours as I head for the front door. I'm not sure what my initial plans are other than to get away from Alex and Aislin's bluntness. They have a way of making me feel like I'm not real, like I'm a magical sword, instead of a human. It's not my fault that I'm harboring a star inside me.
When I'm outside, I know I'm not going to run away. Besides the obvious fact that I'm surrounded my limitless desert, and I have no idea which direction will take me home, I'm also scared. I don't want to die like I have in my dreams countless times. Alex and Aislin seem to know stuff that may help me stay alive and I want more answers about my past, my future and who I am. I want to know more.
I sit on the front porch as I take in the events of the last few hours. I have a cut on my side, blood on my shirt and a star inside my body. I glance over my hands and arms, then up each leg. I don't look different or anything, but I feel different. That's a given. Each day I feel different because each day I change inside-I grow emotionally. Sighing, I try to relax and clear my head. The desert air is intoxicatingly warm and the grey sky is ornamented with a few stars. I probably could stay here forever; and pretend nothing exists, besides me and the night sky.
"It's peaceful out here, right?" a deep, sultry voice drifts over my shoulder.
My muscles tense at the unacquainted person's arrival. I rotate my body and scan up his very long legs, his firm chest, all the way to his eyes, which are ocean blue and entrancing to look at. I've seen those eyes before; I've seen and felt all of him before. He's the blond stranger that makes a frequent appearance in my dreams.
His features are more striking in person and he reminds me of a singer in a punk rock band. The tips of his blond hair are dyed blue and sweep across his forehead and down across his ears. A silver ring threads his deep red bottom lip. He has on a black t-shirt, black jeans and black combat boots. Greek-like symbols are tattooed on his forearm, inked in black with thick lines.
He smiles softly as his gaze lands on my eyes. "You know, the last time I saw you, you were maybe four-years-old." He glances down at my chest making all the feelings from my dreams surface and steam across my skin. "You've grown up a lot."
I rise to my feet with my eyes on him. He's taller in person because I'm not very short myself and he makes me feel downright diminutive. "Who are you?"
He laughs. "I take it you don't remember me." He sticks out his hand. "I'm Laylen."
My expression falls and my eyes expand as I step down a couple of stairs, undecided if I should stay or flee. Am I afraid of him? Or curious? "Laylen, as in the owner of this house?"
He lets his hand fall to his side. "Awe, I take it, you do remember me, at least, through what Alex has told you." He says Alex's name with such disdain that there has to be some bad history between them.
I feel bad because he clearly knows me and I can't recall a single detail about him besides my dirty dreams, which never happened. Or have they? I'm beginning to wonder about my dreams and their insightfulness.
I decide I'm not afraid of him and step back up onto the stair above. "I'm sorry, but I don't remember you. I just recognized the name because Alex and Aislin told me the owner of this house was named Laylen."
He moves down so he's on the step right in front of me and I have to kink my neck just to see his eyes. Up close, I note the sadness in them, deep pathways that show the scars conjoined with his heart. I want to hug him, which is strange because I'm not a hugger, but he looks so sad. "And they told you I'm a vampire."
I nod. "They did."
He waits. "And?"
"And..." I'm uncertain what he's waiting for me to say so I stick out my hand cordially. "It's nice to meet you."
He snorts a laugh and it makes me laugh, too. It's the most bizarre moment in a long sequence of bizarre moments because it's normal. I don't even know him, besides the fact that he has a very warm tongue and slightly cold skin, but those facts are solely based on my dreams.
Smiling, he shakes my hand and his skin is like frost on a window. "Well, it's nice to meet you, Gemma, or should I say, meet you again?"
"How do you know me?" I wonder. "Is it because of the Keeper connection?"
His shoulders lift as he shrugs. "Yes and no. We also knew each other when we were young, but it might have been too long ago for you to remember."
I search my brain for a memory of a blond hair, blue-eyed boy, but there's nothing except darkness. But that's a common occurrence whenever I try to remember something from my early past. "I'm sorry, I don't. I wish I did." He seems doubtful. And miserable. It breaks my heart to see. There's no way an evil vampire could carry so much misery in them. "And I mean that."
We smile again and then he squeezes my hand. Why are we still holding hands? It's odd, yet, I don't pull away. I just continue to stand there and grasp onto his long fingers that feel like popsicles. It's mind-boggling, but it makes sense to my body because I want to cling onto him in any way I can. I'm attracted to him. Obviously. I understand that much, but there is also something else; something stronger and compelling.
"You want to sit down and talk?" he asks, looking me in the eyes and I nod.
We release hands and take a seat on the steps next to each other. He leans against the railing and I recline back on my elbows, feeling a sense of comfort. The porch light radiates into the night and casts shadows across the stairs. We gaze at the desert, listening to the crickets chirp. I can make out the constellation of Ca.s.siopeia up in the sky and a revelation hits me. Is that where my fascination with stars comes from? Maybe I subconsciously knew about the star inside me? Perhaps, I knew that a piece of me belongs up in the sky?
"So," Laylen finally breaks the silence and there's acrimony in his tone. "How's life been with Marco and Sophia?"
"It's been okay, I guess," I mutter and fix my gaze on him. "By your tone, I'm guessing, you're not a fan of them."
He laughs as he stares up at the stars. "I'm not a fan of Keepers in general."
I take in his profile; the slight crook in his nose and the firmness of his jawline. "How come?" I crack a smile. "Well, besides the obvious fact that they're liars."
"That they are," he agrees, encountering my gaze. "I'm guessing Alex hasn't told you my story."
"Story?" A bug lands on my arm and I swat at it and then wipe my hand on my jeans.
"The one where I was kicked out of the Keepers circle because I was turned."
"They kicked you out because you're a vampire?" I'm astounded. "Why? You don't seem evil?"
"Don't I?" he questions with a penetrating look. "Because a lot of people sure think the opposite."
"I don't think so," I disagree. "Alex even told me that you have your blood l.u.s.t under control." The word l.u.s.t sounds funny leaving my mouth. He seems to think so too, because he can't seem to take his eyes off my lips.
"Alex is just telling you that to impress you," he says, sucking his lip ring into his mouth. "He doesn't really believe it."
"I doubt that," I say, but it sounds like a lie. "You don't like Alex because he's a Keeper?"
"It's the other way around," he answers. "Alex doesn't like me because of what I am and I choose to return the feeling."
I bite my lip and drum my fingers on my knee. "Yeah, Alex seems like he can be..."
"An a.s.shole," Laylen says and grins when I look at him, but it's a plastic smile. A facade to cover up his real feelings.
"I was going to use the term douche bag," I clarify. "But yeah, a.s.shole works too... Why is he like that? He told me it was because he was moody."
Laylen shakes his head disagreeing. "It's because of his father."
"Yeah, he's put it in Alex's head since we were kids that you have to be unattached and unemotional in order to be a good Keeper," he says and then mutters, "Like he would even know himself."
"You don't like Stephan?" I ask. "Isn't he a Keeper?"
He shrugs. "Being a Keeper doesn't mean anything, Gemma, regardless of what Alex tells you. You'll be able to determine for yourself what you think of Stephan when you meet him, but I'm guessing you won't like him. Most people don't." He leans back on his elbow. "And just because Keepers claim to protect the world, doesn't mean that they're good people."
Silence encircles us along with the warm air as I try to sort through the colossal volume of information I've received. While I dither in my thoughts, Laylen keeps tracing his tongue along his teeth and biting on his lip ring.
Finally, curiosity gets the best of me. "What makes you a vampire exactly?"
He bites at his lip ring again, making these sucking sounds that drive my body into a fitful frenzy and I have to sit on my hands to stop myself from touching him. "What do you mean?"
What is the correct way to ask someone how they are considered a creature of the night? The living undead? A bloodthirsty monster? Albeit, a s.e.xy, undead monster. "I've read a lot of books about vampires," I start. "But nothing factual. So I don't know what to believe about vampires and the things they do."
He rubs his hand along his jaw thoughtfully. "You want to know what makes me a monster? Whether I bite? If I'm a killer, or if I drink blood? If I can run at an inhuman speed or if I have super-human strength?"
"It sounds like such a stupid question when you put it that way." My lips quirk. "But, I guess that's what I'm trying to ask, minus the whole killer thing. Because I don't think that."
He elevates an eyebrow. "You don't think that I'm a killer?"
I shake my head. "You're not putting out the whole 'I'm-a-demon-and-I'm-going-to-kill-you' vibe, so I'm guessing no."
"Well, you're the first to not pa.s.s that judgment on me." He crosses his lean arms and observes me, and it only makes me feel more in tune with him. He isn't going to hurt me. I can feel it in every bone of my body and through the way the sensation of heat unites rhythmically with my pulse. "You're right," he says definitively. "I'm not a killer. I've never killed anyone; at least, that I know of."
A strange answer, but one I decide to tiptoe around, for now. "But other vampires are?"
He nods with his eyes secured on me as if I'm the most fascinating creature in the world. "Other vampires are a lot like what you've read and I'm not talking about the ones who drink blood by killing animals. These ones like to kill people; they get a thrill from it."
A chill crawls down my spine as the image of splattered blood paints the inside of my brain. "I don't get it. If people are dying because their blood was drained, wouldn't the news mention it? Wouldn't everyone in the whole world know vampires exist?"