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by H.M. Ward
BOOK #1 IN THE BESTSELLING DEMON KISSED SERIES
The Valefar boy tricked Ivy Taylor into kissing him, but he took much more than a kiss – he stole her soul and left her within inches of death.
For Ivy, trusting the right person is the difference between love and survival, or a deadly demon kiss.92,327 Words, 3rd Edition. Young Adult Paranormal Romance.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
By H.M. Ward
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“Let me go, Jake. You’re not like this.” Desperation was in my voice.
“Ivy, you have no idea what I’m like.” The moon hung high above the trees. It painted shadows across Jake’s face, highlighting his perfect contours. My arms felt like lead, useless at my sides. I couldn’t tell how he ensnared me. It felt like my wrists and ankles were glued to the ground, but nothing was there. Pulling hard, unable to move, my heart started to race. I hated feeling trapped. Actually being trapped made it worse. Moments ago everything was normal. We were laughing, rolling around on the grass.
“I thought… I thought you wanted a kiss?” I asked.
“I do want a kiss.” Leaning closer, Jake emerged from the patchwork of shadows. The dim moonlight spilled across his face, revealing his eyes. I couldn’t look away. My heart hammered as our gazes locked. An ungodly crimson ring surrounded his normally blue eyes, hugging tightly to his irises. It was like fire and blood, burning together. And they were intently focused on one thing.
Panic shot through my veins. “What’s wrong with your eyes?” I shivered, repressing the fear that crawled up my throat.
He shifted, hovering above me. Jake’s lips spread into a soft grin. “I’m still me. You can trust me, Ivy.
I’ve wanted to kiss you for so long. My timing was perfect.”
“Timing?” I asked. “I wanted you to kiss me since our first date. And you wanted to wait. So we wait, then you bait me out here, and glue me to the ground? What the hell is wrong with you? Let me go!”
He laughed softly, “God Ivy, I wasn’t sure about you at first, but I was right… You’ll get your kiss.”
Terror flooded through me, “What do you want, Jake?”
“I’ll show you,” he leaned closer, grinning. As his lips touched mine, I cried out, unable to contain the agonizing pain. The feeling of razor wire slid inside me, from my lips to my toes. It snaked through my body. Sharpness tore into me like a million little fishing hooks, all snagging my insides at once.
I tried to scream, but Jake’s lips were pressed to mine. His hands clutched my face, holding me still, preventing me from moving and breaking the kiss. Adrenaline pumped into me, making my thoughts splinter off into a dozen different directions, trying to find a way out. The sensation cut deeper, as I writhed beneath him. I desperately tried to think of a way to ease the pain, and did the only thing that would make him stop, without thinking about what would happen next.
Sucking his lip into my mouth, I bit down—hard. Jake pulled away screaming, as tangy warmth filled my mouth. A warm trail spilled over my cheek. I spit out a mouth full of his blood. Swearing, he moved away from me, cradling his lip with his palm, trying to stop the flow of crimson.
Trees creaked, snapping my gaze to their massive trunks. My eyes sifted through the shadows hoping that someone was there. But there was no one. We were alone. No one would save me.
Jake returned fuming. “That was stupid, Ivy. I would have been nice, and made it less painful. But not now.” He lunged at me. Screaming, I tried to break free. Crushing lips met mine. The razor wire sensation snaked down my throat, filling my body. It hooked into every inch of flesh and muscle, spreading deep into my bones. Then he pulled the invisible razors. Hard.
The intense pain tore through me, and I was unable to stop him. My tensed muscles tried to endure the agony, as spots formed and my vision flickered. Frantically, my mind tried to figure out what was happening. Logic didn’t have an answer, but my body knew exactly what was happening. My soul, my very being that was locked deep within me—he was ripping it out. It didn’t slide away, loose like a ribbon, tied in a pretty bow. It was attached to me, in an inseparable kind of way. Inseparable things—I learned—could be separated, but it hurt like hell.
Releasing me from his kiss, Jake paused just before I passed out. Oh God, he wants me awake. Drowsiness pulled at me, making it difficult to think. Pain spindled in my muscles as they twitched uncontrollably. Jake wiped the back of his hand across his bloodstained mouth and smiled down at me, delighted.
I spit out more of his blood onto the ground. It tasted wrong. It had a weird tang that made me gag. I knew his blood covered my lips and washed across my face, but I couldn’t wipe it away.
Hysterical sobs bubbled up from my stomach, but I swallowed them whole, not wanting him to see my terror. Trembling, a single word formed in my mind, and spilled over my bloody lips, “Why?”
His greedy smile vanished and his face contorted. His beautiful features were skewed, showing no trace of the guy I knew. Veins bulging, he spit, just missing my face. He snarled, “You’re one of them. Why else would I hunt you? Following you around for months, listening to you and your insignificant life. Why would I waste my time with someone like you?”
Hatred flashed across my face. “Why’d you wait? Why not just suck out my soul three months ago?” The words felt odd to say, but I knew they were true.
“I had to wait for this to appear.” Flicking a curl away from my face, his fingers touched the skin above my brow. “That’s interesting. Your mark is more….” He paused, sitting back, dabbing at his lip, “It doesn’t matter anyway, because you’re all the same. An angel-kissed, blue bastard. It’s your seventeenth birthday, and this happened. Just like all the others.” He leaned back laughing at me. “The first twenty-four hours are a bitch. You have no idea what you are, what you’re capable of, or why this happened to you.” The corners of his mouth pulled into a tight grin. “It’s the perfect time to kill you. That’s why I waited. And I’m usually kind of nice about it. But you bit me, you little whore. So, I’m going to make sure it hurts much more than usual.” He leered at me with a satanic smile, “I’m going to rip out your soul so fast that it cracks your bones.”
Bloodstained teeth beamed, as he moved toward me. Screaming wildly, I belted the sound through the trees, shattering the still night. Jake’s eyes burned in the darkness as he inched nearer. My roaring heartbeat drowned out all other noises. Stiffening in anticipation, tears ran down my cheeks. I couldn’t bear it. Not again.
Dripping with satisfaction, he hovered over me. “Are you afraid, Ivy?” His face slid toward me, slowly. His lips curled, as he sensed my terror. “Of course you are. I’m your mortal enemy. Well, immortal enemy. You would have been around for a while—if you’d never met me.”
The ring of fire around his eyes flashed and pooled solid crimson with only a single spec of black remaining. A wicked smile pulled at his lips, as his hand slammed the ground next to my head. Jake lowered his body on top of mine, crushing me, as he came closer for the last kiss.
“No! Jake don’t!” Terror shot through me. Bloody lips smashed down on mine. Slicing razors flooded my body, for the third time, searching for my remaining scrap of soul.
The last fragment of my spirit came into contact with his deadly kiss. Tiny hooks snagged it, and started ripping it away from my bones. My body shuddered one last time before it became limp, and my soul loosened. It floated freely, as it traveled from within me toward Jake’s lips.
Inky haze distorted my vision, as I realized death was trying to take me. Barely aware of Jake’s mouth on mine, the pain dulled as my consciousness fought to live, but my body surrendered. Strands of life slowly spilled out of me. I could see them leave my body, and spill onto the ground—like liquid gold. There was one strand left—only one bit of my soul remained.
As the last golden strand of life left me, Jake was violently torn away. My body reacted without my consent, and I shot up gagging. It felt as if the razor wire was ripped from my throat in one sharp pull. My head wobbled on my neck, as my body crumpled, and fell to the ground. Hands caught me before my head smashed into the dirt. It all occurred so fast that I wasn’t sure what happened.
Death was still trying to take me, even though Jake was gone. My chest felt like it was beneath a pile of boulders. My breaths were so shallow that I wanted to stop breathing. Just for a minute. It was so heavy and I was so weak.
As my consciousness was fading, I felt warm arms wrap around me. A voice whispered, but I couldn’t understand the words. My muscles still vividly remembered the pain. I tried to focus on the voice, to allow it pull me away from the blackness that was taking me, but I couldn’t. Everything sounded far away, echoing hollowly in my head. It was impossible to take another breath.
The whispers of the stranger’s voice sounded farther away when I felt warmth spread across my head, with a gentle touch. Softness brushed across my lips. Feeling a surge of life, I sucked in air, and the blackness receded as quickly as it came. The haze lingered, making my body feel like I’d awoken from a dream too quickly. I swallowed, soothing the burning sensation in my throat.
Suddenly aware of the warm arms holding me, my eyes fluttered open. The moon seemed brighter than I remembered, outlining a masculine shape. The trees above me were blurred in jagged shafts of shadows and light. Attempting to focus, I looked up into a hazy face with sorrowful eyes; he said nothing.
Sleep pawed at me, making my eyes flicker, and feel heavier. Staring, I couldn’t make out more than a pair of eyes, and pale flesh. Carefully, his warm fingers pushed my curls back. An unspoken message brushed inside my mind. You’re safe.
A weak smile tugged my lips, as I leaned into his chest, and sleep stole me.
Dread clawed at my stomach, as I realized that I’d passed out. I forced my eyes open.
Crushing fear filled my chest when I realized I was alone. The arms that protected me were gone. Frightened, I jerked upright. I desperately tried to focus on the spinning blur of pines and oaks. Every muscle in my body flexed, waiting. I was wounded, half dead, and alone.
Where is Jake?
A hand settled on my shoulder causing a scream to erupt from my throat. I spun, violently throwing what little strength I had remaining into my assailant’s knees. He staggered back, but did not fall. He reached for me again.
Frantically, I tried to push my lame body off the ground, but it was impossible to rise without feeling like I would slide off the earth. Arms caught me as I fell.
“Easy, Ivy. It’s me,” he said. My heart pounded in my ears, distorting a voice I should have known. Twisting my shoulders, I freed myself from his grip.
“Eric,” I breathed. “What are you doing here?” Nervously, I glanced around for Jake. But we were alone.
Worry creased his brow. “I was nearby. Were you attacked? What happened?” His eyes darted, taking everything in, and then landed back on my face.
With shaking fingers, I pushed a chunk of my hair back. It was a curly mess that framed my face, and constantly fell forward. My skin was damp and cold. “I don’t know. I… don’t remember.” I tried to recall exactly what happened, but I wasn’t sure what happened. It sounded insane.
Looking into Eric’s face, his expression softened. He stared at me, and whispered, “Oh. Wow.” His eyes didn’t stray from my face.
My stomach squirmed under his gaze. I had no idea what was going on, but I was frightened, and didn’t like the look on his face. Swallowing hard, I tried to remember if we’d spoken at all, outside of class—but we didn’t. We were lab partners. I barely knew him.
“We need to get you out of here before they come back.”
Assuming he chased off my attacker, I looked at him wondering how that was possible. His frame was slight, and he wasn’t made of muscles, although he wasn’t scrawny either. He was normal looking. He slid his arms around my back and under my legs, and started to lift me off the ground.
“Eric, you can’t… ” but I was wrong. He could. And he did carry me. I didn’t like it, but I was too weak to walk. The self-consciousness that swept over me didn’t help either. I’m not a vain person, but his arms were around me, feeling the curves of my body and it made me uncomfortable. I expected him to slow under my weight, but he didn’t. Eric walked quickly in long strides. His scent meshed with the night air. It was familiar—something wholesome from childhood that I couldn’t quite remember.
Eric entered the parking lot and put me down against his old blue truck. After opening the door, he slid his hand under my thighs, as he lifted me in. Then, he slid into his seat, turned the engine over, and peeled out of the parking lot.
Tears flowed down my cheeks, although I forbade it. Crying in front of other people was hideous. I tried to stop, but couldn’t. I said nothing and felt nothing, except the deafening pounding of my heart in my ears. I looked at Eric, wondering how he found me.
“Ivy. I need to tell you something. It’s important.” He glanced at me, then back at the road. “I know you’re not alright, but I have to tell you something. It’s going to sound weird. Promise you won’t freak out on me, okay?”
My voice was flat. It felt like I was speaking from a million miles away. “After tonight, nothing you say can shock me.” The old truck’s exhaust rumbled, as we left a stop sign behind. Body aching, I slumped in my seat.
“Well, this might,” the green tint of the dashboard lights reflected off his face. Clutching the wheel tightly, we turned onto my block. He stopped the truck a few doors down from my house. His golden gaze met mine. “Ivy, I need you to listen. You can’t forget. I know you’ve been through a lot… ”
Interrupting, I muttered, “I’m fine.” I wasn’t, but I didn’t want to discuss it. At that point, I just wanted to bury myself under my covers.
Taking a deep breath, he turned toward me with an expressive plea on his face, “Ivy, you have a mark on your head. You’re one of us. This is important. If you forget everything else—remember this. Hide that mark. Do not tell anyone and I mean anyone, that you have it. Do you understand?” His hand slid over mine, patting, as his eyes searched my face. I stared at him. He seemed alarmed, like something was wrong.
I reached for the visor. “What are you talking about? Do I have a gash or something?” Was I scarred? Why was he looking at me like that? My fingers pulled the visor down, and flipped open the mirror. A tiny light turned on.
“Don’t freak out. Ivy, please?” He said.
I expected to see a bruise or a nasty cut. Not this. At first glance, everything was normal: Pale skin, dark hair, wild curls frizzing from rolling in the dirt. That was all there with one glaring difference. Pressing my fingers to my flesh, I stared at the pale blue mark, glittering above my right brow. It looked like someone took a lightening bug, smeared it on my skin, and then stenciled an elaborate blue swirl on top. Prodding it with my fingers, my jaw hung open. It looked like a tattoo. Where did this come from? I removed my fingers from the mark and examined them. There was no blue residue. My fingers slid over the mark. It felt like nothing was there. No paint. No glitter. No bruise. No burn. But it was there—a faint blue shimmering arch with pale snaking vines that formed a sideways S.
“Ivy? Talk to me, Ivy.” Eric’s voice interrupted my wide-eyed stare into the tiny mirror.
Panic crept up my throat, as I asked, “What is this? This is bad, isn’t it?”
Eric spoke to me in the same tone one would when comforting a frightened child, “It’s not bad, not at all. It’s just different. You need to cover it, and don’t tell anyone, okay?”
Swallowing hard I asked, “What is it? Did Jake do this?”
“No, he didn’t. And it’s not bad. But, it’s late. And I bet no one knows you snuck out. You gotta stop doing that, by the way.” He smiled at me. I stared at him blankly, too shocked to react. His face regained its former seriousness, “I’ll tell you everything you need to know. Tomorrow. You’ll be safe in your house tonight. We need to get you inside. In the meantime, stay inside, and don’t tell anyone. Your life depends on it.”
“Eric?” My eyes rested on his face. He was my Biology buddy. He was the other dumb one in a class filled with honor students who made straight A’s. We didn’t. Other than that, I knew little about him. “How did you know?”
“I’ll tell you everything,” he lowered his head to catch my gaze, “I promise. Let me know you’re safe at home tonight. Go to school tomorrow. Don’t mention the park to anyone. And do not sneak out again. Promise?”
Numbly, I reached for the lever to open the door, not agreeing to anything. Eric quickly reached across, putting his hand on my shoulder. “They’ll kill you, Ivy. Promise me.” His voice changed from a command to a plea, “Please.” Our gazes locked.
He never said more than two words to me, outside of class. The newness of it was odd, especially after what just happened. I felt my soul leave my body during the attack, but somehow I didn’t die. I was alive. Eric saved me.
Breaking the gaze, I said, “I promise.” I slid my shoulder out of his grip; my hand lingered on the door for a moment, while I looked back at Eric. “Thank you.”
A soft smile spread across his lips, “No problem.”
Sometimes staring at your reflection does not help you see what you’ve become. This was one of those times. I leaned on the tiled counter, hovering close to the glass. Big brown eyes stared back from a face framed with long, dark curls. I looked normal, except for that mark. The pattern grew more intricate and darkened into a violet hue overnight. My fingers slid over it, and felt nothing but smooth skin. I covered it, like Eric told me.
And Jake. God, I was so stupid. Angry with myself, I started tearing through my memories of him, looking for pieces of the guy who attacked me last night. There had to be some scrap of behavior that would have warned me. There had to be.
Three months ago, I saw him for the first time. My friend, Collin Smith and I, were at a community theatre to see Hamlet. I loved the theatre. It was a place to get lost in someone else’s life, and forget mine for a while.
Swinging red velvet curtains swooshed open, while we sat shrouded in darkness. The stage lights came up spilling softly onto the second row, where we sat. Expecting to snigger at bad acting, I was shocked when I first heard him. Dominating the stage, Jake delivered his lines so beautifully; it felt like he was Hamlet. His flowing voice, rich with honey tones, and his sun-kissed body looked like a Greek god. I was mesmerized. Slate blue eyes complimented his complexion, with hair flowing to his shoulders the same color as winter wheat. Smitten, my finger dragged down the playbill, looking for his name.
“Who are you looking for?” Collin whispered in my ear. Raking the playbill, his eyes darted to the stage to see where I was looking.
“That guy,” I whispered. Finding his name, JAKE PETERSON, I flipped to the back of the playbill to read about him.
Warm breath slid across on my neck when Collin whispered in my ear, “Oh no. Is the great Ivy going to be someone’s groupie? I thought you were above that.” Leaning back into his chair, a satisfied grin tugged at the corners of his mouth, and he folded his arms.
Collin Smith was smug and insanely hot. His shiny dark mocha hair fell to a strong jaw, highlighting lips that were usually curled into a playful smile. Combine his startling sapphire blue eyes with his porcelain complexion, and a chiseled chest—well, it was easy to see why he had groupies. His ego issues were the size of the Titanic, and kept us friends—and only friends. At least that’s what I told myself. While his groupies found extreme arrogance sexy, I didn’t.
Looking smug, Collin knew he said the one thing that would make me feel like a stalker. Closing the paper playbill, I set it on my lap, as Collin stifled a muted snort of triumph.
I pouted through the rest of the performance. After the show, Collin ran off to be fawned over by his groupies. Yuck. I cringed. Lemming hoes. I was 5’5” of pure groupie repellant. They stayed away from Collin when I was around. Sitting alone, I slouched back into my chair, flipping through the playbill. Collin was my ride home, so I was stuck waiting.
When I felt eyes on me, I glanced up. Jake was smiling, and walking in my direction. The house lights were up, but the room was dim. The lights gave his frame an ethereal glow. Drinking in his beautiful body, I watched him approach. He lowered his gaze with one step, and with the next he looked up into my eyes with a coy smile on his face. My breath caught in my throat. His light brown hair and bright blue eyes made him appealing, but add the shy guy thing into the mix, and I was pathetically love-struck.
His hand extended toward me, and he said, “Hey, my name is Jake. I was one of the actors in the play.” Gently, I laid my palm in his grip, staring into his eyes. Excitement flared inside of me, threatening to make me sound like an idiot. He lowered his perfect body into the chair in front of me. Everything about Jake captivated me.
I smiled at him, and slid back into my seat, “I know. I saw you.” A super-smile spread across my face. I couldn’t help it. Managing to fold my arms, I resumed my normal defensive position, while trying to subdue an adoring grin. “I’m Ivy. Ivy Taylor.”
“Ivy, I’ve got to know… Why didn’t you like my performance?” Flipping his hair out of his face, he glanced back up at me, and braced himself to hear my answer.
Confusion made me flinch. Why does he think that? How did he even see me? Seeing the audience from the stage was almost impossible. The spotlights were so glaringly bright that the audience disappeared into shadow beyond the first row. We were sitting in the second row. My arms were folded across my chest as I scowled at Collin. He saw me. My heart climbed into my throat. Awh, crap. Jake thought I was scowling at him. Telling this guy that I was frowning at him because he sucked was a total lie, but it would let me walk away without embarrassing myself. Or I could tell the truth and admit that I was drooling. Those were both crappy options, so I opted for denial.
“No Jake. I thought you were… great.” Shrugging, I picked up my playbill, trying to hide.
He smiled saying, “Sorry, but it looked like you were in pain. If sitting there and listening to me was that bad—I should quit right now. Seriously,” his eyebrows shot up, adding to his plea. “What part sucked that bad? Was it all of it?”
Feeling trapped, I gazed from one end of the room to the other. Where is Collin? This was his fault. Jake was taking this the wrong way.
I have to tell him. This is gonna suck. “When you came on stage, my heart stopped. Your voice. Oh. My. God. And the way you were saying your lines. It was breathtaking. I started to skim this,” I said holding up the playbill, “for your name and bio. My jerk-friend noticed, and teased me about it. I was, umm, scowling at him, not you.” My face felt hot, and my heart was pounding so loudly that I was sure he could hear it. “Well, as much fun as it’s been—I gotta go.”
Normally, I didn’t tell people stuff like that, but breaking an artist’s confidence was sacrilegious—especially someone as talented as Jake. I jumped up to make a hasty retreat, but he smoothed his hand over mine, rising with me. Hesitating, I looked at him.
His hair fell into his eyes. Smiling softly, he asked, “Ivy, would you like to grab a cup of coffee?”
We grabbed coffee several times over the next few weeks. I’d wanted him to kiss me after that first date, but he’d insisted on taking things slow. Stupidly, I thought he seemed like a sweet guy, who cared about me. That made the blindsiding attack that bitch-slapped me much worse.
Last night I flew out of my bed, slid out my window, and ran to the park to meet him. Sneaking out was part of my repertoire over the past year. While I ditched most of my juvenile delinquent behavior, I didn’t stop all of it. Ducking out my window in the middle of the night was still a norm. I couldn’t sleep anyway. My mom had no clue. And no one knew where my dad was. Mom was sweet, but she still thought I was a good girl. She saw the girl I had been, and not the one I’d become. It wasn’t unexpected. She had her own trauma to deal with. Hiding my serious crash and burn from her wasn’t hard. I hid it from everyone. Only a few people saw me go down in flames after my sister’s funeral, even less stayed around to put them out, and help me get on with my life.
Jake encouraged my midnight outings, and was always there to walk and talk. A midnight swing at the park was normal, as my nights became filled with less sleep, and more awake.
Last night played out exactly the way he wanted. He lured me there with the one thing he knew I wanted—a kiss. When I arrived, he’d taken my hand outside the park gate, and we walked for a bit. Leaning against a tree, after we’d walked deeper into the woods than usual, Jake pressed his body into mine. It felt good. His fingers brushed across my face, and gently pushed back a stray curl, causing my pulse to skyrocket.
Moonlight cast a lacey pattern on the ground. His face lingered inches from mine. Warm and welcome, I felt his breath on my chilled skin. Tickling fingers suddenly wiggled against my waist. I retaliated quickly. Falling to the ground, in a tangle of legs and arms, we tickled and laughed. It seemed so sweet, and so normal—until I was glued to the ground. How did he turn into the crimson-eyed monster that attacked me last night? Pain like that was unimaginable. I’d never felt anything like that—ever. And I hoped to God, I never would again.
I clung to the few facts I had, and I sighed. Jake attacked me. Eric saved me. And now I had a mark on my head. Accepting that was all I knew made me nuts, but I knew who had the answers. Eric. My strength returned to me over night, and I was ready to hear whatever it was he had to say.
The clock blinked 7:45am. Grabbing my phone, I threw it in my purse, not bothering to look at the screen, and went to school.
I dragged my feet to school. Kids talked, lockers slammed, and the bell rang. The sounds of my normal day droned on like white noise. Continuing to my locker, I grabbed my books.
Although my mark was covered with a thick coating of make-up, I felt exposed. Not knowing what was happening made me twitchy. I grabbed my books and walked to class as the bell rang. My hand pushed the door open, and the teacher shot me a dirty look. I walked quietly to my seat.
Mr. Tanner was a squat man with stern features. Getting excited made his face turn red and his jowls shake. Sweat stains made his once white shirt dingy, and his Dockers clung on for dear life, under his enormous gut. “Tardy. That makes two,” he waved a sausage sized finger at me. “One more and you’ll be spending the afternoon in detention.” Marking his book, he grunted.
If this happened a year ago, I would have been horrified. But now? I didn’t care. The sniggers would stop in a second, and they’d all forget I was here. Except for Jenna Marie. She was in every freaking class with me. I think it was some divine joke—putting the pink princess next to the Goth girl. Well, I wasn’t really Goth. I just wore solid black a lot. The dark color suited me.
Slouching in class, I watched the clock tick slowly, counting the minutes until the bell. I made the motions as I went through the day, trying not to talk to anyone. I was moderately successful.
Jenna Marie didn’t care that I didn’t want to talk. She talked enough for two people.
“Pink would be a great color on you, Ivy,” her voice was perky. Perky irritated me. Sitting ramrod straight in her seat, she sat across the aisle from my desk.
Starring straight ahead I mumbled, “I like black. Thanks.” Talking about my monochromatic wardrobe was a daily ritual for her. This was what I got for getting to class on time. I’d rather sit in detention. My eyes drifted up to the clock, watching the second hand tick one tock at a time. I prayed for the bell to ring.
“But you have such pretty hair. Those beautiful, hazelnut curls would just pop with pink! And you wear black every day.” She frowned at me. “I haven’t seen you wear another color in over a year. It’s time to think pink!” Looking at her, my eyebrows rose in incredulity into my hairline. The bell rang, and snipped off rude words that had formed on my tongue.
When class ended, I sprang from my chair to avoid more pink talk. Shouldering my way out the door, and into the hallway, I paused when Collin came running up behind me.
“Hey Ive!” he called.
“Hey,” I answered, looking up at him.
We fell in step and navigated the crowds of kids, open lockers, and the nerds that were always running somewhere. “What’s going on?”
Shrugging, he said, “Same old stuff. I just wanted to tell you to wait up for me after school.” Arching an eyebrow, a smile spread across his face. Bouncing on his toes, with his hands behind his back, he said, “I have something for you.”
“Sure,” pausing I added, “You didn’t. Did you?” I cocked my hip as my head automatically slanted. I sighed. “Remember? No birthday presents? Geeze Collin.”
Celebrating didn’t feel right, not this year. My birthday was forever connected to the worst day of my life. And after last night, I just couldn’t.
Her voice filled my ears before I saw her face, “Awh, the little virgin said she doesn’t want your present Collin. I’ll take it.” Nicole Scambotti wrapped herself around Collin. He smiled at her. They dated on and off for the past few years. He seemed to like her as much as any of his other groupies. She was part of his flavor of the month club. At the moment it was ginormous boobs on a blonde bombshell frame, with a snarky mouth.
I sneered at her, as I pulled my books tight to my chest. The “little virgin” nickname was my own fault. Collin took me out one night, and I partied a little too hard. Everyone was there, including Nicole. Collin watched me lose control, as I let the glorious numbness flood me. After dancing, I saddled up with some guy I didn’t know. We had an embarrassing public make-out session that I barely remembered. The part that I did remember was his hand sliding up my shirt. It thrilled me, and it felt so good to feel something, besides pain. I let his hands linger, but when he went for my skirt, I slapped him away. When he didn’t stop, I yelled. Collin pulled him off of me, and Nicole started making virgin jokes every chance she could.
Collin pulled away from her, and spoke softly in my ear, “There are worse nicknames.”
I glared at Nicole, speaking loud enough for her to hear me, “Yeah, skank is way worse.”
The bell drowned out Nicole’s pointed response.
Collin pulled her to class, saying over his shoulder, “See ya later. I’ll meet you at your locker.”
I waved to him, and walked off to class.
Collin liked helping me forget my troubles, and I was always up to my neck in them. Sometimes he would take me to the beach, and we’d sit near the surf. The sea washed the waves in and out, in a hypnotic rhythm that soothed me. Collin would sit next to me, quietly. Something about the sea and the wind made me feel free, like I wasn’t trapped in my life. But when things got really bad, I needed more. I started partying, and Collin was always nearby. He didn’t stop me, but he kept me out of trouble. My other friends didn’t like him for it, but I did. He let me live, and grieve without judgment.
After a while, I noticed that all the things that haunted me melted away around him. And the real Collin, the one no one really saw, was unsure of himself. The uncertainty was alluring. It made me wonder who he really was; the confident guy that walked around like he owned the school, or the shy version that was so deeply hidden that I wasn’t sure if it really existed. Collin never made a pass at me; aside from the first day I met him, which was all right because I didn’t want to date him. The groupies alone were a health hazard.
That was before my life took an unexpected turn, and fell apart. While the virgin title was still accurate, it wasn’t uncommon for me to suck face with some guy I didn’t care about. I threw myself at strangers to ease the hole in my chest. I pushed away the guys I actually liked, too afraid of the pain it might cause.
My pace quickened when I saw Eric in front of me, about to walk into the classroom. “Eric,” I called. “Wait up.” I fell in step with him.
“Hey Ivy. Ready for more biology fun?” he asked as I caught up to him, saying nothing of last night.
“Yup, as always.”
Eric had a way of stating the obvious that made me want to smile. He was simple, but in a good way. He was my tether to normal. At least I thought he was. I sat in bio listening to the directions for the next lab. My mind kept tugging me back to last night. My fingers absentmindedly drifted to the mark on my forehead.
I sighed. Eric glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. I ignored him, knowing we couldn’t talk about it now. Waiting sucks.
I shifted my pencil restlessly, between my thumb and index finger, as a nervous sensation crawled up my throat. I always took notes with a pencil, so I could draw if class got too dull. The yellow stick twirled over each finger with a swift grace before it flung out of my hand, and pegged the kid sitting in front of me in the back of the head.
The jock shifted in his seat and turned to glare at me. I mouthed, Sorry. Eric looked up from his neatly printed notes, and laughed. Two minutes until the bell rang. Thank God. I rolled my eyes, and leaned my head on my hand. Staring at the clock, I watched the black hand jerk, and the bell finally rang. The teacher spewed reminders about assignments. I quickly grabbed my books, and looked at Eric, waiting for him to tell me what we were doing.
He closed his book, and stacked his papers neatly. My books had papers sticking out the sides like bunny ears. Organization wasn’t really my thing. Eric seemed a little too neat to me, but he was the reason I wasn’t failing the class, so I didn’t needle him about it.
Eric turned and reached under the lab table in front of us. He held out my pencil, smiling. I took it. “Thanks. I thought Bret was gonna kill me.”
“It’s only because that was the fifth time you’ve pegged him with a pencil in the past month.” He picked up his books, and I chased him out of the room.
“It has not been five times!” I squeaked, unable to contain my grin. As we rounded the corner, I saw Collin leaning against my locker. I turned to Eric and asked, “When can we talk?” Slowing, I touched his arm, and he stopped.
Eric looked at Collin and then back at me. “I’ll walk you home. Let me grab my stuff.” It felt a little awkward, but I agreed. Collin and Eric glared at each other. Ignoring them both, I went to my locker.
Collin’s arm slid over my shoulder, “Hey Ivy. You ready?” He spoke loud enough for Eric to hear. I watched Eric round the corner, and disappear from sight.
“Uh, sure. I gotta sec. What were you so excited about?” I asked while I fumbled my combination.
His grin was gone, replaced with seriousness that didn’t look right on him. Clearing his throat he asked, “So. New boyfriend?”
The lock clicked open in my hand. “No. He’s just a friend. Don’t go big brother on me and chase him off either.”
Collin folded his arms over his chest. “When have I done that?” The corners of his mouth pulled up into a smirk, and I knew he wasn’t seriously asking.
I arched a single brow at him, until he shrugged, laughing. “So, what’d you want?” I asked, shifting through my stuff, and grabbing what I needed.
“Just wanted to talk to you. And I’ve got something for you.” He leaned his body into the row of lockers, waiting for me.
I fished out my book, and slammed the locker door shut. I hesitated, looking at him.
“Sure. What is it?” I glanced over Collin’s shoulder, seeing Eric walking toward me.
Collin turned to see who I was looking at, and stiffened. I watched the two of them together for a moment. Eric stood a few inches shorter than Collin. Eric was neatly pressed, short hair combed perfectly in place, with his shirt tucked into his jeans, and a pile of books under his arm. Collin had the just-rolled-out-of-bed smoldering look going on. His longer hair went where it wanted, untamed like the rest of him. His dark shirt clung to his body, covered by a black leather jacket, and biker boots. They both looked good, in a different kind of way.
Turning back to Collin, I asked, “Sooo… ?” His blue eyes darted back to my face. Uncertainty flashed across his features, but disappeared so fast that I wasn’t sure that I’d really seen it.
He leaned in close, resting his hand on my shoulder, his lips hidden by my hair, as he whispered in my ear, “I’ll catch up with you later.” He gave Eric a pointed look and walked away. I sighed, watching him leave. He wasn’t sulking, but he wasn’t happy either. Crap.
Eric looked at me, asking, “Are you guys… dating?”
“No,” I shook my head. “We most certainly are not. Let’s just get out of here.” I shoved my book under one arm, pressing through the narrow metal doors that lead out the back of the building, with Eric next to me. Lots of kids walked through an alley behind the school to get to the avenue. It wasn’t dark or creepy, and with the company of other kids, it wasn’t the kind of alley that gave you the willies. People fanned out as we passed through the metal doors, and I sucked in fresh air. Despite my seemingly dark façade, I enjoyed the sensation of sunlight on my skin. Eric watched me out of the corner of his eye, saying nothing until we were out of the earshot of the others.
“So, tell me.” I blurted out when I couldn’t wait any longer. “What is this?” I pointed at my head.
As we walked past storefronts, I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. The conversation was shrouded in the noise of engines and car horns. There was always a lot of traffic at this time of day. Crossing the street, without becoming road kill, was a trick.
Eric shifted his books to his other arm, and his pace slowed. His amber eyes glinted gold in the sunlight. “It’s gonna sound weird. You aren’t going to believe me.”
“Just tell me.” How weird could it be?
Eric smiled slightly and said, “Last night you asked me if Jake did this to you—if he made that mark. The answer is no. He didn’t. The mark on your head makes you his enemy. It shows that you’re a Martis. We usually hide it, but when it first appears, life can be kinda rough. In short—you were claimed to fight for the good guys. You were chosen because of your fierce loyalty and courage. That’s the reason any Martis is chosen.”
“Chosen by who?” I asked.
Eric shrugged. “Angels. They did this to you. When they claim a mortal to fight on their side, that blue mark appears above the right eyebrow—exactly where yours is.”
I stared at him with my mouth hanging open, not really believing what he was saying. We’d stopped walking. My eyebrows were receding in disbelief into my hairline. I managed to blurt out, “Then what is Jake? There’s no way he’s normal.”
Eric’s expression was somber. “He’s a Valefar. They are the only beings that can destroy Martis. You’re immortal, unless one of those takes you out.
“There’s a war that’s been raging forever. The demons were no longer content staying in their realm—the Underworld. They tried to take the angel’s realm as well. They fought long horrific battles intent on destroying anyone who opposed them. At some point both sides were at a stalemate. They were equally matched. But the demons wouldn’t back down. That’s when the demons did something that changed everything—one of them kissed a mortal.
“The demon kiss stripped away the human’s soul, and then they infused the victim’s body with demon blood. That was the birth of the Valefar. Basically, a Valefar is a human puppet that is kept alive with demon blood. They are like animated corpses, but look exactly like real people. You can’t tell the difference unless you catch a glimpse of their mark or their eyes when they are caught in blood lust—they turn blood red. It’s the demon blood that made them what they are.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. My fingers were pinched tightly into fists. When I tried to relax and unfold them, I noticed how slick they were. His words were scaring me. They sounded totally insane, but my gut was telling me it was real. All of it.
Eric’s gaze met mine, “Demons are the only creatures that don’t need a soul to survive. And they made the Valefar just like them—soulless. Demon blood is different. Vile. It gives them life in an unnatural way. The rest of us have souls—humans, Martis, even angels.
“When the demons remained in their own realm, the angels left them alone, but when they attacked and started trying to expand their realm; the angels had to do something to stop them. So, they made the Martis. We nearly lost the war because of the Valefar, Ivy. The angels didn’t want to engage humans, but they were forced to. And it was for the better—the Martis were able to trap the most powerful demon in a pit in the Underworld—Kreturus. He’s still alive down there, waiting for his Valefar to free him. The Martis make sure that doesn’t happen.”
My throat slid into my stomach. “So, an angel picked me to fight in a battle that I can’t see, and my boyfriend was a demon puppet? Is that what you’re saying?”
Eric flicked his eyes up at my face, “What do you want to believe? After last night, I can’t imagine how you could think what happened was normal.”
Shaking my head, I said, “It wasn’t normal.” I shivered, absently rubbing my hands against my arms. “He was kissing the soul out of my body—ripping it away from my bones like it was meat.”
Eric’s hand reached out, and gave my arm a reassuring squeeze. “Ivy, it’s their way. That’s how they make more Valefar. He was stalking you—hoping to catch you before you knew what you were. He was going to bind you—or kill you.”
Eyes wide, I nodded. “He said that. Last night. He said it was the perfect time—because I didn’t know what I was yet.” Closing my eyes, I blinked hard trying to erase the memory. Looking up at Eric, I asked, “He said I was new?”
“Well, you are, right?” Eric answered. “Your mark looked more mature, which threw me off a little bit. But you seem new. When did you first see the mark?”
“Last night. I didn’t see it before then. It wasn’t there,” my fingers absentmindedly touched the make-up covering the mark.
Eric’s eyes flicked to the spot, and then returned to my face. “That’s what they do—their older Valefar hunt us, trying to find us before we’re made. There were hardly any Martis left. When the angels thought we won, when we locked Kreturus in the pit, they allowed the Martis to dwindle. But, when it became clear that the Valefar needed to be addressed, they started adding to our numbers again. It’s not unusual to be seventeen or eighteen when you get marked. And the Valefar know that new Martis are clueless.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean that the Angels don’t shoulder-tap their chosen and give them a welcome packet. It’s not their way. Martis learn what they are on their own. Anyway, the Valefar befriend humans who they think may get marked, waiting to destroy them as soon as the mark appears. We’re easy targets at that point. Maybe that one got lucky?” He glanced at me.
“That was some luck.” I heard the disbelief in my voice. That wasn’t luck. I was played. Jake knew what I was going to be before I did. How? “Eric, how did he know? I had no clue it was happening. I never even heard of any of this before.”
“I don’t know entirely, but we suspect they hunt their prey in ways that are unique to Valefar, using abilities we don’t have. No one is really sure how it works, but when you’re changed to a Martis, it’s a process. You don’t usually wake up with a mature Martis mark on your head. It’s typically a gradual change. First the mark appears like a blue bruise, before it intensifies into a pattern. We assumed the new Martis were being killed because their mark was exposed. But you didn’t have that bruise-like mark. I would have seen it. It just appeared, fully formed.” He shook his head, “Ivy, I don’t know how they hunted you. I didn’t even realize you’d get marked.” His voice was sincere and somber.
Shaking my head in disbelief, I stood looking straight at him, with my eyes wide. I felt the air fill my lungs as my stomach twisted in knots, not knowing what to believe.
“Ivy,” he said, “if you remember anything about the Valefar, remember this. They feel nothing, care for no one, and are only interested in one thing—power. Right now, they are trying to shift the balance of power back in their favor, so they can defeat us.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat, “And if they defeat us?”
Eric’s gaze broke as he turned away from me, “They can release Kreturus.”
A horn blared, making me flinch. Throwing my head back, I looked into the pale blue sky, and wrapped my arms around my waist. I didn’t know what to think. Looking over at him, I asked, “So, what do we do?”
“Keep ourselves hidden, and destroy them before they can kill us off.” He sounded perfectly reasonable, like killing immortals was an everyday thing.
“Hidden? That’s why we hide our mark, right? So the Valefar don’t know if we are human or not?” I asked.
“Yes, it makes it harder for them to find us. If you leave the mark uncovered, it’s like walking around with a bull’s-eye on your forehead—any Valefar can see it, not just their hunters.” He paused, “Why, what’s wrong?”
I felt myself blanch. “Eric, he knows me. The Valefar that attacked me last night—Jake—he knows who I am. He knows where I live. I was seeing him for a while, before all of this happened.”
“Ivy, they can hunt you, once they know who you are. We have to find him, before he finds you, and hope he didn’t tell the others. What’s his name? Tell me everything you know about him.”
I told him what I knew about him, or what I thought I knew.
Eric’s hand rose to my cheek, but he hesitated, and then rested his hand on my shoulder. “I’ll take care of him. Don’t worry about it.” His amber eyes were reassuring, but I didn’t see how he could defeat Jake.
I shook my head, “You can’t go after him. He’ll kill you.”
“I know what he is. And I’ve fought the Demon Kissed before, Ivy.”
Looking up into his face, I stared at him. “What are you? How do you know all this stuff?”
His amber eyes glittered in the afternoon sun. “I would’ve thought it was obvious—I’m a Martis.”
That’s why he saved me. That’s how he overpowered Jake. I felt something stirring within me. I didn’t like being drawn into this, and not having any say in the matter, but there were much worse people to be allies with than Eric. I owed him my life. I didn’t know what to say.
Regret spilled across his face, “Last night—I wish I’d gotten there sooner. I haven’t ever met someone who survived an attack. Getting kissed by a Valefar is supposed to be unbearable.”
I shivered and said, “It was.”
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