Still, I return the hug. I even pat her on her back—a little gingerly, but I figure it’s the thought that counts. On the plus side, her soft white curls smell like honey.
“It’s good to see you, too,” I respond as I start to ease back a little, hoping a five-second hug is all that’s necessary in this already bizarre situation.
But Mrs. Haversham is hanging on for the long haul, her arms wrapped around me so tightly that it’s growing a little hard to breathe. Not to mention awkward.
“Finn!” she shouts again, paying no attention to the fact that, thanks to the hug, her red-lipsticked mouth is right next to my ear. “Finn! It’s—”
The door to Uncle Finn’s office flies open. “Gladys, we have an intercom—” He, too, breaks off mid-sentence, his eyes going wide as they find my face.
“Hey, Uncle Finn.” I smile at him as Mrs. Haversham finally releases me from her honeysuckle-scented death grip. “I’m sorry to bother you.”
My uncle doesn’t answer. Instead, he just keeps staring at me, mouth working but absolutely no sound coming out.
And my stomach suddenly feels like it’s full of broken glass.
I may not know what I had for breakfast, but I know one thing for sure… Something is very, very wrong.
So…What Did I Miss?
I’m about to work up the courage to ask Uncle Finn what’s going on—he has a history of not lying to me (at least not when directly confronted)—but before I can force the words out of my absurdly dry throat, he yelps, “Grace!”
And then he’s bounding across the office, straight at me.
“Grace, oh my God! Grace! You’re back.”
Back? Why do people keep saying that to me? Where exactly did I go? And why wouldn’t they expect me to come back?
Again I search my memory, and again I slam right into that giant wall. It doesn’t hurt as much this time as it did the first—maybe because the shock has worn off—but it’s still uncomfortable.
Like Mrs. Haversham, Uncle Finn grabs on to me the second he reaches me, his arms going around my back in a huge bear hug, even as his familiar woodsy scent winds its way around me. It’s more comforting than I expect it to be, and I find myself sagging against him a little as I try to figure out what on earth is happening. And why I can’t remember anything that might cause this kind of reaction in my uncle…or anyone else I’ve run into, for that matter.
I was just walking down the hall to class, the same as every other student in the place.
Eventually Uncle Finn pulls back, but only far enough to look at my face. “Grace. I can’t believe you’ve really come back to us. We’ve missed you so much.”
“Missed me?” I repeat, determined to get answers as I take a couple of steps back. “What does that mean? And why is everyone acting like they’ve seen a ghost?”
For a second, just a second, I see a flash of my own panic in the look Uncle Finn shoots the teacher who brought me here. But then his face smooths out and his eyes go blank (which totally isn’t scary at all), and he wraps an arm around my shoulders and says, “Let’s go into my office and talk about this, shall we, Grace?”
He glances back at Mr. Badar. “Thanks, Raj. I appreciate your bringing Grace to me.”
Mr. Badar nods in silent acknowledgment, his gaze narrowing on me briefly before he heads back into the hallway.
Uncle Finn urges me gently toward his office door—what is it with everyone moving me around today, anyway?—all the while talking to Mrs. Haversham. “Can you message Jaxon Vega and ask him to meet me here as soon as possible? And look up what time my daughter’s”—he glances at me, then back at his assistant—“tests are over as well, please.”
Mrs. Haversham starts to nod, but the door Mr. Badar walked out of swings open so hard and fast that the doorknob actually slams into the stone wall behind it.
My nerve endings go on red alert, and every hair I have suddenly stands straight up. Because, even without turning around, every cell in my body knows exactly who just walked into my uncle’s office.
One quick glance at his face over my shoulder tells me everything I need to know. Including that he’s about to raise all kinds of hell. And we’re definitely not talking about the good kind here.
“Grace.” His voice is hushed, but the ground beneath my feet rumbles as our gazes collide.
“It’s okay, Jaxon. I’m okay,” I reassure him, but my reassurances don’t seem to matter. Not when he’s across the room in little more than a second, pulling me from Uncle Finn’s unresisting grip and into his own muscular arms.
It’s the last thing I expect—PDA in front of my uncle—but the minute our bodies meet, I can’t bring myself to care. Not when all the tension inside me melts at the first brush of his skin against my own. And not when it finally feels like I can breathe for the first time since Mekhi called my name in the hallway. And maybe even a lot longer than that.
This is what I’ve been missing, I realize as I snuggle deeper into his embrace. This is what I didn’t even know I was looking for until the moment his arms went around me.
Jaxon must feel the same way, because he crushes me closer still, even as he blows out a long, slow breath. He’s shaking, shuddering, and though the ground has stopped actively rolling, I can still feel it trembling just a little.
I squeeze Jaxon more tightly. “I’m all right,” I assure him again, though I don’t understand why he’s so upset. Or why Uncle Finn is so shocked to see me. But confusion is giving way to my barely contained panic in a giant way.
“I don’t understand,” I mumble as I lean back to look into Jaxon’s eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“Everything is going to be okay.” The words are crisp, and his gaze—dark, intense, devastating—never wavers from mine.
It’s a lot, especially combined with everything else that’s happened this morning, and suddenly it’s too much. I look away from him, just until I can catch my breath, but that doesn’t feel right, either, so in the end, I bury my face against the hardness of his chest again and just breathe him in.
His heart is beating hard and fast—too fast, really—under my cheek, but he still feels like home. Still smells like home, like oranges and fresh water and warm, spicy cinnamon. Familiar. Sexy.
I sigh again, burrow closer. I’ve missed this, and I don’t even know why. We’ve been practically inseparable since I got out of the infirmary two days ago.
Since he told me he loves me.
“Grace.” He breathes my name like it’s a prayer, unconsciously echoing my own thoughts. “My Grace.”
“Yours,” I agree in a whisper I really hope Uncle Finn can’t hear, even as I tighten my arms around Jaxon’s waist.
And just like that, something comes to life inside me—bold and powerful and all-consuming. It slams through me like an explosion, shaking me to the depths of my soul.
Not with him.
Without thinking, I push Jaxon away and stumble back a few steps.
He makes a noise low in his throat, but he doesn’t try to stop me. Instead, he just looks at me with his gaze as shocked and shaky as I feel inside.
“What was that?” I whisper.
“What was what?” he answers, watching me carefully. That’s when I realize he didn’t hear it, didn’t feel it.
“I don’t know. I’m sorry.” The words come instinctively. “I didn’t mean…”
He shakes his head, even as he, too, takes a definite step back. “Don’t worry about it, Grace. It’s okay. You’ve been through a lot.”
He means what happened with Lia, I tell myself. But he went through a lot with that, too. And it shows, I realize as I look him over. He’s skinnier than I’ve ever seen him, so that his ridiculous cheekbones and cut-glass jaw look even more defined than usual. His dark hair is a little longer, a little shaggier than I’m used to, so his scar is barely visible, and the purple circles under his eyes are so dark, they look like bruises.
He’s still beautiful, but now that beauty is an open wound. One that makes me ache.
The longer I look at him, the deeper the panic takes hold of me. Because these aren’t overnight changes. People’s hair doesn’t grow in a day or two, and they don’t usually lose weight that fast, either. Something happened, something big, and for some reason, I can’t remember what it is.
“What’s going on, Jaxon?” When he doesn’t answer fast enough, I turn to my uncle, a sudden anger burning just under my skin. I’m sick and tired of always being kept in the dark.
“Tell me, Uncle Finn. I know something’s wrong. I can feel it. Plus my memory’s all wonky and—”
“Your memory is wonky?” Uncle Finn repeats, coming close to me for the first time since Jaxon walked into the room. “What does that mean, exactly?”
“It means I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning. Or what Macy and I talked about before bed last night.”
Again, Jaxon and Uncle Finn exchange a long look.
“Don’t do that,” I tell them. “Don’t cut me out.”
“We’re not cutting you out,” Uncle Finn assures me as he holds up a placating hand. “We’re just trying to figure things out, too. Why don’t you guys come into my office, and we’ll talk for a few minutes?” He turns to Mrs. Haversham. “Can you please call Marise for me? Tell her Grace is here and ask her to come by as soon as possible.”
She nods. “Of course. I’ll let her know it’s urgent.”
“Why do we need Marise?” My stomach tightens at the thought of once again being checked over by Katmere’s nurse practitioner—who also happens to be a vampire. The last two times she’s done that, I’ve had to lay on my butt in bed for way longer than I wanted to. “I don’t feel sick.”