Page 13


"I'm really glad you came," he said, putting his hand on the small of her back and bending his head so she could hear him in the loud room. Those lips looked almost tasty, especially when they said things like "I jumped up every time someone knocked, hoping it'd be you."

Whatever had drawn Cam to her so quickly, Luce didn't want to do anything to mess it up. He was popular and unexpectedly thoughtful, and his attention made her feel more than flattered. It made her feel more comfortable in this strange new place. She knew if she tried to respond to his compliment, she'd stumble over the words. So she just laughed, which made him laugh, and then he pulled her in for another hug.

Suddenly there was no place to put her own hands but around his neck. She felt a little light-headed as Cam squeezed her, lifting her feet slightly off the ground.

When he put her back down, Luce turned to the rest of the party, and the first thing she saw was Daniel. But she didn't think he liked Cam. Still, he was sitting cross-legged on the bed, his white T-shirt glowing violet in the black light. As soon as her eyes found him, it was hard to look anywhere else. Which didn't make sense, because a gorgeous and friendly guy was standing right behind her, asking her what she'd like to drink. The other gorgeous, infinitely less friendly guy sitting across from her should not be the one she couldn't stop looking at. And he was staring at her. So intently, with a cryptic, squinting look in his eyes that Luce thought she'd never decode, even if she saw it a thousand times.

All she knew was the effect it had on her. Everyone else in the room went out of focus and she melted. She could have stared back all night if it hadn't been for Arriane, who had climbed on top of the desk and called out to Luce, her glass raised in the air.

"To Luce," she toasted, giving Luce a saintly smile. "Who was obviously zoning and missed my entire welcome speech and who will never know how utterly fabulous it was -  wasn't it fabulous, Ro?" she leaned down to ask Roland, who patted her ankle affirmatively.

Cam slipped a plastic cup of champagne into Luce's hand. She blushed and tried to laugh it off as the whole rest of the party echoed, "To Luce! To Meat Loaf!"

At her side, Molly slithered up and whispered a shorter version in her ear: "To Luce, who will never know."

A few days before, Luce would have flinched away. Tonight, she simply rolled her eyes, then turned her back on Molly. The girl had never said a word that didn't leave Luce feeling bitten, but showing it seemed only to egg her on. So Luce just hunkered down to share the desk chair with Penn, who handed her a rope of black licorice.

"Can you believe it? I think I'm actually having fun," Penn said, chewing happily.

Luce bit down on the licorice and took a tiny sip of the fizzy champagne. Not a very palatable combination. Kind of like her and Molly. "So is Molly that evil to everyone, or am I a special case?"

For a second Penn looked like she was going to give a different answer, but then she patted Luce on the back. "Just her usual charming demeanor, my dear."

Luce looked around the room at all the free-flowing champagne, at Cam's fancy vintage turntable, at the disco ball spinning over their heads, casting stars on everyone's faces.

"Where do they get all this stuff?" she wondered aloud.

"People say Roland can smuggle anything into Sword & Cross," Penn said matter-of-factly. "Not that I've ever asked him."

Maybe this was what Arriane meant when she said Roland knew how to get things. The only off-limits item Luce could imagine wanting badly enough to ask about was a cell phone. But then ... Cam had said not to listen to Arriane about the inner workings of the school. Which would have been fine, except so much of his party seemed to be courtesy of Roland. The more she tried to untangle her questions, the less things added up. She should probably stick to being just "in" enough to get invited to the parties.

"Okay, all you rejects," Roland said loudly to get everyone's attention. The record player had quieted down to the static between songs. "We're going to start the open-mike portion of the night, and I'm taking requests for karaoke."

"Daniel Grigori!" Arriane hooted through her hands.

"No!" Daniel hooted back without missing a beat.

"Aww, the silent Grigori sits another one out," Roland said into the microphone. "You sure you don't want to do your version of 'Hellhound on My Trail'?"

"I believe that's your song, Roland," Daniel said. A faint smile spread across his lips, but Luce got the feeling it was an embarrassed smile, a someone-else-take-the- spotlight-please smile.

"He's got a point, folks." Roland laughed. "Though karaoke-ing Robert Johnson has been known to clear out a room." He plucked an R. L. Burnside album from the stack and cued the record player in the corner. "Let's go down south instead."

As the bass notes of an electric guitar picked up, Roland took center stage, which was really just a few square feet of moonlit empty space in the middle of the room. Everyone else was clapping or stomping their feet in time, but Daniel was looking down at his watch. She kept seeing the image of him nodding at her in the lobby earlier that night, when Cam invited her to the party. Like Daniel wanted her there for some reason. Of course, now that she'd shown up, he made no move to acknowledge her existence.

If only she could get him alone

Roland so monopolized the attention of the guests that only Luce noticed when, midway through the song, Daniel stood up, edged himself around Molly and Cam, and slipped silently out the door.

This was her chance. While everyone around her was applauding, Luce slowly got to her feet.

"Encore!" Arriane called out. Then, noticing Luce rising from her chair, she said, "Oh, snap, is that my girl stepping up to sing?"

"No!" Luce did not want to sing in front of this roomful of people any more than she wanted to admit the real reason why she was standing up. But there she was, standing right in the middle of her first party at Sword & Cross, with Roland thrusting the mike under her chin. Now what?

"I - I just feel bad for, uh, Todd. That he's missing out." Luce's voiced echoed back to her over the speakers. She was already regretting her bad lie, and the fact that there was no turning back now. "I thought I'd run down and see if he's done with Mr. Cole."

None of the other kids seemed to know quite what to do with this. Only Penn called out timidly, "Hurry back!"

Molly was smirking down her nose at Luce. "Geek love," she said, fake-swooning. "So romantic."

Wait, did they think she liked Todd? Oh, who cared - the one person Luce would really not want thinking that was the one person she'd been trying to follow outside.

Ignoring Molly, Luce scooted toward the door, where Cam met her with crossed arms. "Want company?" he asked hopefully.

She shook her head. On any other errand, she probably would have wanted Cam's company. But not right now.

"I'll be right back," she said brightly. Before she could register the disappointment on his face, she slinked out into the hall. After the roar of the party, the quiet rang in her ears. It took a second before she could make out hushed voices just around the corner.

Daniel. She'd recognize his voice anywhere. But she was less certain who he was talking to. A girl.

"Ah'm sorrrry," whoever she was said ... with a distinctive southern twang.

Gabbe? Daniel had been sneaking out to see blond and airbrushed Gabbe?

"It won't happen again," Gabbe continued, "I swear to - "

"It can't happen again," Daniel whispered, but his tone practically screamed lovers' quarrel. "You promised you'd be there, and you weren't."

Where? When? Luce was in agony. She inched along the hallway, trying not to make a sound.

But the two of them had fallen silent. Luce could picture Daniel taking Gabbe's hands in his. Could picture him leaning in to her for a long, deep kiss. A sheet of all-consuming envy spread across Luce's chest. Around the corner, one of them sighed.

"You're going to have to trust me, honey," she heard Gabbe say, in a saccharine voice that made Luce decide once and for all that she hated her. "I'm the only one you've got."

Chapter Six

NO SALVATION

Bright and early Thursday morning, a loudspeaker crackled to life in the hallway outside Luce's room:

"Attention, Sword & Crosstians!"

Luce rolled over with a groan, but as hard as she crammed the pillow around her ears, it did little to block out Randy's bark over the PA.

"You have exactly nine minutes to report to the gymnasium for your annual fitness examination. As you know, we take a dim view of stragglers, so be prompt and be ready for bodily assessment."

Fitness examination? Bodily assessment? At six-thirty in the morning? Luce had already been regretting staying out so late last night ... and staying up so much later lying in bed, stressing.

Right around the time she started imagining Daniel and Gabbe kissing, Luce had begun to feel queasy -

that specific kind of queasiness that came from knowing she'd made a fool of herself. There was no going back to the party. There was only prying herself off the wall and slinking back to her dorm room to second-guess that strange feeling she got around Daniel, the one she'd foolishly taken as some sort of connection. She'd woken up with the bad taste of the party's aftermath still in her mouth. The last thing she wanted to think about now was fitness.

She swung her feet off the bed and onto the cold vinyl floor. Brushing her teeth, she tried to picture what Sword & Cross might mean by "bodily assessment." Intimidating images of her fellow students - Molly doing dozens of mean-faced chin-ups, Gabbe effortlessly ascending a thirty-foot rope toward the sky -

flooded her mind. Her only shot at not making a fool of herself - again - was to try to put Daniel and Gabbe out of her mind.

She crossed the south side of campus to the gymnasium. It was a large Gothic structure with flying buttresses and fieldstone turrets that made it look more like a church than a place where one would go to break a sweat. As Luce approached the building, the layer of kudzu coating its faзade rustled in the morning breeze.

"Penn," Luce called out, spotting her tracksuit-clad friend lacing up her sneakers on a bench. Luce looked down at her regulation black clothes and black boots and suddenly panicked that she'd missed some memo about dress code.

But then, some of the other students were loitering outside the building and none of them looked much different than she did.

Penn's eyes were groggy. "So beat," she moaned. "I karaoke'd way too hard last night. Thought I'd compensate by trying to at least look athletic." Luce laughed as Penn fumbled with the double knot on her shoe.

"What happened to you last night, anyway?" Penn asked. "You never came back to the party."

"Oh," Luce said, stalling. "I decided to - "

"Gaaahh." Penn covered her ears. "Every sound is like a jackhammer in my brain. Tell me later?"

"Yeah," Luce said. "Sure." The double doors to the gym were thrust open. Randy stepped out in heavy rubber clogs, holding her ever-present clipboard. She waved the students forward, and one by one they filed past to be assigned their fitness station.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***