CHAPTER 15. THE LIONS' DEN
It had been a long time since Luce had taken a good look in the mirror. She never used to mind her reflection—her clear hazel eyes; small, straight teeth; thick eyelashes; and tumble of dense black hair. That was then. Before last summer.
After her mom had chopped off all her hair, Luce had started avoiding mirrors. It wasn't just because of her short cut; Luce didn't think she liked who she was anymore, so she didn't want to see any evidence. She started looking down at her hands when she washed them in the bathroom. She kept her head forward when walking past tinted windows and eschewed face powder in mirrored compacts.
But twenty minutes before she was supposed to meet Cam, Luce stood before the mirror in the empty girls' bathroom in Augustine. She guessed she looked all right. Her hair was finally growing out, and the weight was starting to loosen some of her curls. She checked her teeth, then squared her shoulders and stared into the mirror as if she were looking Cam in the eye. She had to tell him something, something important, and she wanted to make sure she could muster a look that demanded he take her seriously.
He hadn't been in class today. Neither had Daniel, so Luce assumed Mr. Cole had put them both on some sort of probation. Either that or they were nursing their wounds. But Luce had no doubt Cam would be waiting for her today.
She didn't want to see him. Not at all. Thinking about his fists slamming into Daniel made her stomach lurch. But it was her fault they'd fought in the first place. She'd led Cam on—and whether she'd done it because she'd been confused or flattered or the tiniest bit interested didn't matter anymore. What mattered was that she be direct with him today: There was nothing between them.
She took a deep breath, tugged her shirt down on her hips, and pushed open the bathroom door.
Approaching the gates, she couldn't see him. But then, it was hard to see anything beyond the construction zone in the parking lot. Luce hadn't been back to the school entrance since they'd started the renovations there, and she was surprised at how complicated it was to maneuver across the ripped-up parking lot. She sidestepped potholes and tried to duck under the radar of the construction crew, waving off the asphalt fumes that never seemed to dissipate.
There was no sign of Cam. For a second, she felt foolish, almost like she'd fallen for some kind of prank. The high metal gates were blistered with red rust. Luce looked through them at the dense grove of ancient elm trees across the road. She cracked her knuckles, thinking back to the time when Daniel had told her he hated it when she did that. But he wasn't here to see her do it; no one was. Then she noticed a folded piece of paper with her name on it. It was staked to the thick, gray-trunked magnolia tree next to the broken call box.
I'm saving you from Social tonight. While the rest of our fellow students stage a Civil War reenactment—sad but true—you and I will paint the town red. A black sedan with a gold license plate will bring you to me. Thought we could both use a dose of fresh air. — C
Luce coughed from the fumes. Fresh air was one thing, but a black sedan picking her up from campus? To bring her to him, like he was some sort of monarch who could just arrange on a whim for women to be fetched? Where was he, anyway?
None of this was part of her plan. She'd agreed to meet Cam only to tell him that he was being too forward and she really couldn't see herself getting involved with him. Because—although she'd never tell him—every time his fist had struck Daniel the night before, something inside her had flinched and started to boil. Clearly, she needed to nip this little thing with Cam in the bud. She had the gold serpent necklace in her pocket. It was time to give it back.
Except now she felt stupid for assuming that Cam just wanted to talk. Of course he'd have something more up his sleeve. He was that kind of guy.
The sound of car wheels slowing made Luce turn her head. A black sedan rolled to a stop in front of the gates. The tinted driver's-side window rolled down and a hairy hand came out and picked up the receiver from the call box outside the gates. After a moment, the receiver was slammed back into its cradle and the driver just leaned on his horn.
At last, the great groaning metal gates parted and the car pulled forward, stopping in front of her. The doors softly unlocked. Was she really going to get into that car and drive who-knew-where to meet him?
The last time she'd stood at these gates had been to say goodbye to her parents. Missing them before they'd even pulled away, she'd waved from this very spot, next to the broken call box inside the gates—and, she remembered, she'd noticed one of the more high-tech security cameras. The kind with a motion detector, zooming in on her every move. Cam couldn't have picked a worse spot for the car to pick her up.
All of a sudden, she saw visions of a basement solitary confinement cell. Damp cement walls and cockroaches running up her legs. No real light. The rumors were still spreading through campus about that couple, Jules and Phillip, who hadn't been seen since they'd sneaked out. Did Cam think Luce wanted to see him so badly she'd risk just walking off campus in plain view of the reds?
The car was still humming on the driveway in front of her. After a moment, the driver—a sunglasses-sporting man with a thick neck and thinning hair—extended his hand. In it was a small white envelope. Luce hesitated a second before stepping forward to take it from his fingers.
Cam's stationery. A heavy, creamy ivory card with his name letterpressed in decadent gold at the bottom left-hand corner.
Should have mentioned before, the red's been duct. See for yourself. I took care of it, like I'll take care of you. See you soon, I hope.
Duct? Did he mean—? She dared a glance at the red. He did. A sharply cut black circle of duct tape had been placed cleanly over the lens of the camera. Luce didn't know how these things worked or how long it would take the faculty to find out, but in a weird way, she was relieved that Cam had thought to take care of it. She couldn't imagine Daniel thinking so far ahead.
Both Callie and her parents were expecting phone calls this evening. Luce had read Callie's ten-page letter three times, and she had all the funny details memorized from her friend's weekend trips to Nantucket, but she still wouldn't have known how to answer any of Callie's questions about her life at Sword & Cross. If she turned around and went inside to pick up the phone, she didn't know how she'd begin to catch Callie or her parents up on the strange, dark twist the past few days had taken. Easier not to tell them at all, or not until she'd wrapped things up one way or another.
She slid into the sedan's plush beige leather backseat and buckled up. The driver put the car in gear without a word.
"Where are we going?" she asked him.
"Little backwater place down the river. Mr. Briel likes the local color. Just sit back and relax, honey. You'll see."
Mr. Briel? Who was this guy? Luce never liked being told to relax, especially when it felt like a warning not to ask any more questions. Nonetheless, she crossed her arms over her chest, looked out the window, and tried to forget the driver's tone when he called her "honey."
Through the tinted windows, the trees outside and the gray paved road beneath them all looked brown. At the turning whose westward fork led to Thunderbolt, the black sedan turned east. They were following the river toward the shore. Every now and then, when their path and the river's converged, Luce could see the brackish brown water twisting beside them. Twenty minutes later, the car slowed to a stop in front of a beat-up riverside bar.
It was made of gray, rotting wood, and a swollen, water logged sign over the front door read STYX in jagged red hand-painted letters. A strand of plastic pennants advertising beer had been stapled to the wood beam underneath the tin roof, a mediocre attempt at festivity. Luce studied the images silk-screened onto the plastic triangles—palm trees and tanned, bikini-clad girls with beer bottles at their grinning lips—and wondered when the last time had been when a real live girl had actually set foot in this place.
Two older punk rock guys sat smoking on a bench facing the water. Tired Mohawks drooped over their middle-aged foreheads, and their leather jackets had the ugly, dirty look of something they'd been wearing since punk was new. The blank expressions on their tan, slack faces made the whole scene feel even more desolate.
The swamp edging the two-lane highway had begun to overwhelm the asphalt, and the road just sort of petered out into swamp grass and mud. Luce had never been out this far in the river marshes.
As she sat, unsure what she'd do once she left the car, or whether that was even a good idea, the front door of Styx banged open and Cam sauntered out. He leaned coolly against the screen door, one leg crossed over the other. She knew he couldn't see her through the tinted window of the car, but he raised his hand like he could and beckoned her toward him.
"Here goes nothing," Luce muttered before thanking the driver. She opened the door and was greeted by a blast of salty wind as she climbed the three steps to the bar's wooden porch.
Cam's shaggy hair was loose around his face and he had a calm look in his green eyes. One sleeve of his black T-shirt was pushed up over his shoulder, and Luce could see the smooth cut of his bicep. She fingered the gold chain in her pocket. Remember why you're here.
Cam's face showed no sign of the fight the night before, which made her wonder, immediately, whether Daniel's did.
Cam gave her an inquisitive look, running his tongue along his bottom lip. "I was just calculating how many consolation drinks I'd need if you stood me up today," he said, opening his arms for a hug. Luce stepped into them. Cam was a very hard person to say no to, even when she wasn't totally sure what he was asking.
"I wouldn't stand you up," she said, then immediately felt guilty, knowing that her words came from a sense of duty, not the romance Cam would have preferred. She was there only because she was going to tell him she didn't want to be involved with him. "So what is this place? And since when do you have a car service?"
"Stick with me, kid," he said, seeming to take her questions as compliments, as if she liked being whisked off to bars that smelled like the inside of a sink drain.
She was so bad at this kind of thing. Callie always said Luce was incapable of brutal honesty and that was why she got herself stuck in so many crappy situations with guys whom she should have just told no. Luce was trembling. She had to get this off her chest. She fished in her pocket and pulled out the pendant. "Cam."
"Oh good, you brought it." He took the necklace from her hands and spun her around. "Let me help you put it on."
"There," he said. "It really suits you. Take a look." He steered her along the creaking wooden floorboards to the window of the bar, where a number of bands had posted signs for shows. THE OLD BABIES. DRIPPING WITH HATE. HOUSE CRACKERS. Luce would rather have studied any of them than gaze at her reflection. "See?"
She couldn't really make out her features in the mud-flecked windowpane, but the gold pendant gleamed on her warm skin. She pressed her hand to it. It was lovely. And so distinctive, with its tiny hand-sculpted serpent snaking up the middle. It wasn't like anything you'd see at the boardwalk markets, where locals peddled overpriced crafts for tourists, state of Georgia souvenirs made in the Philippines. Behind her reflection in the window, the sky was a rich orange-Popsicle color, broken up by thin lines of pink cloud.
"About last night…," Cam started to say. She could vaguely see his rosy lips moving in the glass over her shoulder.
"I wanted to talk to you about last night, too," Luce said, standing at his side. She could see the very tips of the sunburst tattoo on the back of his neck.
"Come inside," he said, guiding her back to the half-unhinged screen door. "We can talk in there."
The interior of the bar was wood-paneled, with a few dim orange lamps providing the only light. All sizes and shapes of antlers were mounted on the wall, and a taxidermied cheetah was poised over the bar, looking ready to lunge at any moment. A faded composite picture with the words PULASKI COUNTY MOOSE CLUB OFFICERS 1964-65 was the only other decoration on the wall, showcasing a hundred oval faces, smiling modestly above pastel bow ties. The jukebox was playing Ziggy Stardust, and an older guy with a shaved head and leather pants was humming, dancing alone in the middle of a small raised stage. Besides Luce and Cam, he was the only other person in the place.
Cam pointed to two stools. The worn green leather cushions had split down the middle, the beige foam bursting out like massive pieces of popcorn. There was already a half-empty glass at the seat Cam claimed. The drink in it was light brown and watered down with ice, beaded with sweat.
"What's that?" Luce asked.
"Georgia moonshine," he said, taking a gulp. "I don't recommend it to start." When she squinted at him, he said, "I've been here all day."
"Charming," Luce said, fingering the gold necklace. "What are you, seventy? Sitting in a bar by yourself all day?"
He didn't seem obviously drunk, but she didn't like the idea of coming all the way out here to break things off with him, only to have him be too trashed to understand it. She was also starting to wonder how she'd get back to school. She didn't even know where this place was.
"Ouch." Cam rubbed his heart. "The beauty of being suspended from class, Luce, is that no one misses you during class. I thought I deserved a little recovery time." He cocked his head. "What's really bothering you? Is it this place? Or the fight last night? Or the fact that we're getting no service?" He raised his voice to shout the last words, loud enough to cause a huge, burly bartender to swing in from the kitchen door behind the bar. The barman had long, layered hair with bangs, and tattoos that looked like braided human hair running up and down his arms. He was all muscle and must have weighed three hundred pounds.
Cam turned to her and smiled. "What's your poison?"
"I don't care," Luce said. "I don't really have my own poison."
"You were drinking champagne at my party," Cam said. "See who's paying attention?" He nudged her with his shoulder. "Your finest champagne over here," he told the bartender, who threw back his head and let out a snide hacking laugh.
Making no attempt to card her or even to glance at her long enough to guess at her age, the bartender bent down to a small refrigerator with a sliding glass door. The bottles clinked as he dug and dug. After what seemed like a long time, he reemerged with a tiny bottle of Freixenet. It looked like it had something orange growing around its base.
"I accept no responsibility for this," he said, handing it over.
Cam popped the cork and raised his eyebrows at Luce. He poured the Freixenet ceremoniously into a wineglass.
"I wanted to apologize," he said. "I know I've been coming on a little strong. And last night, what happened with Daniel, I don't feel good about that." He waited for Luce to nod before he went on. "Instead of getting mad, I should have just listened to you. You're the one I care about, not him."
Luce watched the bubbles rise in her wine, thinking that if she were to be honest, she'd say it was Daniel she cared about, not Cam. She had to tell Cam. If he already regretted not having listened to her last night, maybe now he'd start to. She raised her glass to take a sip before she started in.
"Oh, wait." Cam put a hand on her arm. "You can't drink until we've toasted something." He raised his glass and held her eyes. "What should it be? You pick."
The screen door slammed and the guys who had been smoking on the porch came back in. The taller one, with oily black hair, a snub nose, and very dirty fingernails, took one look at Luce and started toward them.
"What are we celebrating?" He leered at her, nudging her raised glass with his tumbler. He leaned close, and she could feel the flesh of his hip pressing into hers through his flannel shirt. "Baby's first night out? What time's curfew?"
"We're celebrating you taking your ass back outside right now," Cam said as pleasantly as if he'd just announced it was Luce's birthday. He fixed his green eyes on the man, who bared his small, pointed teeth and mouthful of gums.
"Outside, huh? Only if I take her with me."
He grabbed for Luce's hand. After the way the fight with Daniel had broken out, Luce expected Cam would need little excuse to fly off the handle again. Especially if he really had been drinking here all day. But Cam stayed remarkably cool.
All he did was swat the guy's hand away with the speed, grace, and brutal force of a lion swatting a mouse.
Cam watched the guy stumble back several steps. Cam shook out his hand with a bored look on his face, then stroked Luce's wrist where the guy had tried to grab it. "Sorry about that. You were saying, about last night?"
"I was saying…" Luce felt the blood drain from her face. Directly over Cam's head, an enormous piece of pitch-dark had yawned open, stretching forth and unfolding from itself until it had become the largest, blackest shadow she had ever seen. An arctic gush of air blasted from its core, and Luce felt the shadow's frost even on Cam's fingers, still tracing her skin.
"Oh. My. God," she whispered.
There was a crash of glass as the guy smashed his tumbler down on Cam's head.
Slowly, Cam stood from his chair and shook some of the shards of glass from his hair. He turned to face the man, who was easily twice his age and several inches taller.
Luce cowered on her bar stool, rearing away from what she sensed was about to happen between Cam and this other guy. And what she feared could happen with the sprawling, dead-of-night black shadow overhead.
"Break it up," the huge bartender said flatly, not even bothering to look up from his Fight magazine.
Immediately, the guy started swinging blindly at Cam, who took the senseless punches as if they were smacks from a child.
Luce wasn't the only one stunned by Cam's composure: The leather-pants-wearing dancer was cowering against the jukebox. And after the oily-haired guy had socked Cam a few times, even he stepped back and hung there, confused.
Meanwhile, the shadow was pooling against the ceiling, dark tendrils growing like weeds and dropping closer and closer to their heads. Luce winced and ducked just as Cam fended off one last punch from the seedy guy.
And then decided to fight back.
It was just a simple flick of his fingers, as if Cam were brushing away a dead leaf. One minute, the guy was all up in Cam's face, but when Cam's fingers connected with his opponent's chest, the dude went flying—knocked off his feet and into the air, discarded beer bottles scattering in his wake, until his back slammed into the opposite wall near the jukebox.
He rubbed his head and, moaning, began to pull himself into a crouch.
"How did you do that?" Luce's eyes were wide.
Cam ignored her, turned toward the guy's shorter, stockier friend, and said, "You next?"
The second guy raised his palms. "Not my fight, man," he said, shrinking away.
Cam shrugged, stepped toward the first guy, and lifted him off the floor by the back of his T-shirt. His limbs dangled helplessly in the air, like a puppet's. Then, with an easy toss of his wrist, Cam threw the guy against the wall. He almost seemed to stick there while Cam cut loose, pounding the guy and saying again and again, "I said go outside!"
"Enough!" Luce shouted, but neither one of them heard her or cared. Luce felt sick. She wanted to tear her eyes away from the bloody nose and gums of the guy pinned against the wall, from Cam's almost superhuman strength. She wanted to tell him to forget it, that she'd find her own way back to school. She wanted, most of all, to get away from the gruesome shadow now coating the ceiling and dripping down the walls. She grabbed her bag and ran out into the night—
And right into someone's arms.
"Are you okay?"
It was Daniel.
"How did you find me here?" she asked, unabashedly burying her face in his shoulder. Tears she didn't want to deal with were welling up inside her.
"Come on," he said. "Let's get you out of here."
Without looking back, she slipped her hand into his. Warmth spread up her arm and through her body. And then the tears began to flow. It wasn't fair to feel so safe when the shadows were still so close.
Even Daniel seemed on edge. He was dragging her across the lot so quickly, she nearly had to sprint to keep up.
She didn't want to glance back when she sensed the shadows spilling out of the door of the bar and brewing in the air. But then, she didn't have to. They flowed in a steady stream over her head, sucking up all light in their path. It was as if the whole world were being torn to pieces right before her eyes. A rotting sulfur stench stuck in her nose, worse than anything she knew.
Daniel glanced up, too, and scowled, only he looked like he was merely trying to remember where he'd parked. But then the strangest thing happened. The shadows flinched backward, boiled away in black splatters that pooled and scattered.
Luce narrowed her eyes in disbelief. How had Daniel done that? He hadn't done that, had he?
"What?" Daniel asked, distracted. He unlocked the passenger-side door of a white Taurus station wagon. "Something wrong?"
"We do not have time for me to list all of the many, many things that are wrong," Luce said, sinking into the car seat. "Look." She pointed toward the entrance to the bar. The screen door had just swung open on Cam. He must have knocked out the other guy, but he didn't look like he was done fighting. His fists were clenched.
Daniel smirked and shook his head. Luce was fruitlessly stabbing her seat belt again and again at the buckle until he reached over and pushed her hands away. She held her breath as his fingers grazed her stomach. "There's a trick," he whispered, fitting the clasp into the base.
He started the car, then backed out slowly, taking his time as they drove past the door to the bar. Luce couldn't think of a single thing to say to Cam, but it felt perfect when Daniel rolled down the window and simply said, "Good night, Cam."
"Luce," Cam said, walking toward the car. "Don't do this. Don't leave with him. It will end badly." She couldn't look at his eyes, which she knew were pleading for her to come back. "I'm sorry."
Daniel ignored Cam entirely and just drove. The swamp looked cloudy in the twilight, and the woods in front of them looked even cloudier.
"You still haven't told me how you found me here," Luce said. "Or how you knew I went to meet Cam. Or where you got this car."
"It's Miss Sophia's," Daniel explained, turning on the brights as the trees grew together overhead and threw the road into dense shadow.
"Miss Sophia let you borrow her car?"
"After years living on skid row in L.A.," he said, shrugging, "you might say I've got a magic touch when it comes to 'borrowing' cars."
"You stole Miss Sophia's car?" Luce scoffed, wondering how the librarian would note this development in her files.
"We'll bring it back," Daniel said. "Besides, she was pretty preoccupied by tonight's Civil War reenactment. Something tells me she won't even notice it's gone."
It was only then that Luce realized what Daniel was wearing. She took in the blue Union soldier's uniform with its ridiculous brown leather strap slung diagonally over his chest. She'd been so terrified of the shadows, of Cam, of the whole creepy scene, that she hadn't even paused to fully take Daniel in.
"Don't you laugh," Daniel said, trying not to laugh himself. "You got out of possibly the worst Social of the year tonight."
Luce couldn't help herself: She reached forward and flicked one of Daniel's buttons. "Shame," she said, putting on a southern drawl. "I just had my belle-of-the-ball gown pressed."
Daniel's lips crept up in a smile, but then he sighed. "Luce. What you did tonight—things could have gotten really bad. Do you know that?"
Luce stared out at the road, annoyed that the mood had shifted so suddenly back to grim. A hoot owl stared back from a tree.
"I didn't mean to come here," she said, which felt true. It was almost like Cam had tricked her. "I wish I hadn't," she added quietly, wondering where the shadow was now.
Daniel banged his fist on the steering wheel, making her jump. He was gritting his teeth, and Luce hated that she was the one who'd made him look so angry.
"I just can't believe you're involved with him," he said.
"I'm not," she insisted. "The only reason I showed up was to tell him…" It was pointless. Involved with Cam! If Daniel only knew that she and Penn spent most of their free time researching his family… well, he would probably be equally annoyed.
"You don't have to explain," Daniel said, waving her off. "It's my fault, anyway."
By then Daniel had turned off the road and brought the car to a stop at the end of a sandy path. He switched the headlights off and they stared out at the ocean. The dusky sky was a deep plum shade, and the crests of the waves looked almost silver, sparkling. The beach grass whipped in the wind, making a high, desolate whistling sound. A flock of ragged seagulls sat in a line along the boardwalk railing, grooming their feathers.
"Are we lost?" she asked.
Daniel ignored her. He got out of the car and shut the door, started walking toward the water. Luce waited ten agonizing seconds, watching his silhouette grow smaller in the purple twilight, before she hopped out of the car to follow him.
The wind whipped her hair against her face. Waves beat the shore, tugging lines of shells and seaweed back in their undertow. The air was cooler by the water. Everything had a fiercely briny scent.
"What's going on, Daniel?" she said, jogging along the dune. She felt heavier walking in the sand. "Where are we? And what do you mean, it's your fault?"
He turned to her. He looked so defeated, his costume uniform all bunched up, his gray eyes drooping. The roar of the waves almost overpowered his voice.
"I just need some time to think."
Luce felt a lump rising in her throat all over again. She'd finally stopped crying, but Daniel was making this all so hard. "Why rescue me, then? Why come all the way out here to pick me up, then yell at me, then ignore me?" She wiped her eyes on the hem of her black T-shirt, and the sea salt on her fingers made them sting. "Not that that's very different from the way you treat me most of the time, but—"
Daniel spun and smacked both his hands to his forehead. "You don't get it, Luce." He shook his head. "That's the thing—you never do."
There was nothing mean about his voice. In fact, it was almost too nice. Like she was too dim to grasp whatever was so obvious to him. Which made her absolutely furious.
"I don't get it?" she asked. "I don't get it? Let me tell you something about what I get. You think you're so smart? I spent three years on a full academic scholarship at the best college-prep school in the country. And when they kicked me out, I had to petition—petition! — to keep them from wiping out my four-point-oh transcript."
Daniel moved away, but Luce pursued him, taking a step forward for every wide-eyed step he took back. Probably freaking him out, but so what? He'd been asking for it every time he condescended to her.
"I know Latin and French, and in middle school, I won the science fair three years in a row."
She had backed him up against the railing of the boardwalk and was trying to restrain herself from poking him in the chest with her finger. She wasn't finished. "I also do the Sunday crossword puzzle, sometimes in under an hour. I have an unerringly good sense of direction… though not always when it comes to guys."
She swallowed and took a moment to catch her breath.
"And someday, I'm going to be a psychiatrist who actually listens to her patients and helps people. Okay? So don't keep talking to me like I'm stupid and don't tell me I don't understand just because I can't decode your erratic, flaky, hot-one-minute-cold-the-next, frankly" — she looked up at him, letting out her breath—"really hurtful behavior." She brushed a tear away, angry with herself for getting so worked up.
"Shut up," Daniel said, but he said it softly and so tenderly that Luce surprised both of them by obeying.
"I don't think you're stupid." He closed his eyes. "I think you're the smartest person I know. And the kindest. And" — he swallowed, opening his eyes to look directly at her— "the most beautiful."
He looked out at the ocean. "I'm just… so tired of this," he said. He did sound exhausted.
He looked over at her, with the saddest expression on his face, as if he had lost something precious. This was the Daniel she knew, though she couldn't explain how or from where. This was the Daniel she… loved.
"You can show me," she whispered.
He shook his head. But his lips were still so close to hers. And the look in his eyes was so alluring. It was almost as if he wanted her to how him first.
Her body quaked with nerves as she stood on her tiptoes and leaned toward him. She put her hand on his cheek and he blinked, but he didn't move. She moved slowly, so slowly, as if she were scared to startle him, every second feeling petrified herself. And then, when they were close enough that her eyes were almost crossing, she closed them and pressed her lips against his.
The softest, featherlight touch of their lips was all that connected them, but a fire Luce had never felt before coursed through her, and she knew she needed more of—all of—Daniel. It would be too much to ask of him to need her the same way, to fold her in his arms like he'd done so many times in her dreams, to return her wishful kiss with one more powerful.
But he did.
His muscled arms circled her waist. He drew her to him, and she could feel the clean line of their two bodies connecting—legs tangled up in legs, hips pressed into hips, chests heaving in time with each other. Daniel backed her up against the boardwalk's railing, pinning her closer to him until she couldn't move, until he had her exactly where she wanted to be. All of this without once breaking the passionate lock of their lips.
Then he started to really kiss her, softly at first, making subtle, lovely pecking noises in her ear. Then long and sweet and tenderly, along her jawline and down her neck, making her moan and tilt back her head. He tugged lightly on her hair and she opened her eyes to glimpse, for a second, the first stars coming out in the night sky. She felt closer to Heaven than she ever had before.
At last, Daniel returned to her lips, kissing her with such intensity—sucking her bottom lip, then edging his soft tongue just past her teeth. She opened her mouth wider, desperate to let more of him in, finally unafraid to show how much she yearned for him. To match the force of his kisses with her own.
She had sand in her mouth and between her toes, the briny wind raising goose bumps on her skin, and the sweetest, spellbound feeling spilling from her heart.
She could, at that moment, have died for him.
He pulled away and stared down at her, as if he wanted her to say something. She smiled up at him and pecked him softly on the lips, letting hers linger on his. She knew no words, no better way to communicate what she was feeling, what she wanted.
"You're still here," he whispered.
"They couldn't drag me away." She laughed.
Daniel took a step back, and with a dark look at her, his smile was gone. He began pacing in front of her, rubbing his forehead with his hand.
"What's wrong?" she asked lightly, pulling his sleeve so he'd come back in for another kiss. He ran his fingers over her face, through her hair, around her neck. Like he was making sure she wasn't a dream.
Was this her first real kiss? She didn't think she was supposed to count Trevor, so technically it was. And everything felt so right, like she had been destined for Daniel, and he for her. He smelled… beautiful. His mouth tasted sweet and rich. He was tall and strong and…
Slipping from her embrace.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
His knees bent and he sank a few inches, leaning up against the wooden railing and looking at the sky. He looked like he was in pain.
"You said nothing could drag you away," he said in a hushed voice. "But they will. Maybe they're just running late."
"They? Who?" Luce asked, looking around at the deserted beach. "Cam? I think we lost him."
"No." Daniel started walking away down the boardwalk. He was shivering. "It's impossible."
"It will come," he whispered.
"You're scaring me." Luce followed behind, trying to keep up. Because suddenly, even though she didn't want to, she had a feeling she knew what he meant. Not Cam, but something else, some other threat.
Luce's mind felt foggy. His words knocked on her.