Page 25

Arriane had unlaced her skates and climbed onto the tiny bed next to Luce. She was double-fisting the coconut drinks and laying her head on Luce's shoulder. Gabbe was painting clear nail polish on Luce's coconut-free hand.

"Yeah," Arriane cackled. "Join us, Pennyloafer. We were just about to play Truth or Dare. We'll let you go first."

Gabbe tried to cover up her laugh with a dainty fake sneeze.

Penn put her hands on her hips. Luce felt bad for her, and was also a little scared. Penn looked pretty fierce.

"One of our classmates died last night," Penn carefully enunciated. "And Luce could have been really hurt." She shook her head. "How can you two play around at a time like this?" She sniffed. "Is that alcohol?"

"Ohhh," Arriane said, looking at Penn, her face serious. "You liked him, didn't you?"

Penn picked up a pillow from the chair behind her and chucked it at Arriane. The thing was, Penn was right. It was strange that Arriane and Gabbe were taking Todd's death almost lightly. Like they saw this kind of thing happen all the time. Like it didn't affect them the way it affected Luce. But they couldn't know what Luce knew about Todd's last moments. They couldn't know why she felt so sick right now.

She patted the foot of the bed for Penn and handed her what was left in her frosty coconut.

"We went out the back exit, and then - " Luce couldn't even say the words. "What happened to you and Miss Sophia?"

Penn glanced doubtfully at Arriane and Gabbe, but neither made a move to be obnoxious. Penn gave in and settled on the edge of the bed.

"I just went up there to ask her about - " She glanced at the other two girls again, then gave Luce a knowing look. "This question I had. She didn't know the answer, but she wanted to show me another book."

Luce had forgotten all about her and Penn's quest last night. It seemed so far away, and so beside the point after what had happened.

"We took two steps away from Miss Sophia's desk," Penn continued, "and there was this massive burst of light out of the corner of my eye. I mean, I've read about spontaneous combustion, but this was ..."

All three of the other girls were leaning forward by then. Penn's story was front-page news.

"Something must have started it," Luce said, trying to picture Miss Sophia's desk in her mind. "But I didn't think there was anyone else in the library."

Penn shook her head. "There wasn't. Miss Sophia said a wire must have shorted in a lamp. Whatever happened, that fire had a lot of fuel. All her documents went right up." She snapped her fingers.

"But she's okay?" Luce asked, fingering the papery hem of her hospital gown.

"Distraught, but okay," Penn said. "The sprinklers came on eventually, but I guess she lost a whole lot of her things. When they told her what happened to Todd, it was almost like she was too numb to even understand."

"Maybe we're all too numb to understand," Luce said. This time Gabbe and Arriane nodded on either side of her. "Do - do Todd's parents know?" she asked, wondering how on earth she would explain to her own parents what had happened.

She imagined them filling out paperwork in the lobby. Would they even want to see her? Would they connect Todd's death with Trevor's ... and trace both awful stories back to her?

"I overheard Randy on the phone with Todd's parents," Penn said. "I think they're filing a lawsuit. His body is being sent back to Florida later today." That was it? Luce swallowed.

"Sword & Cross is having a memorial service for him on Thursday," Gabbe said quietly. "Daniel and I are going to help organize it."

"Daniel?" Luce repeated before she could control herself. She glanced at Gabbe, and even in her grief-stricken state, she couldn't help reverting to her initial image of the girl: a pink-lipped, blond seductress.

"He was the one who found the two of you last night," Gabbe said. "He carried you from the library to Randy's office."

Daniel had carried her? As in ... his arms around her body? The dream rushed back and the sensation of flying - no, of floating - overwhelmed her. She felt too tethered down to her bed. She ached for that same sky, that rain, his mouth, his teeth, his tongue melding with hers again. Her face grew hot, first with desire, then with the agonizing impossibility of any of that ever happening while she was awake. Those glorious, blinding wings weren't the only fantastical things about that dream. The real-life Daniel would only carry her to the nurse's station. He would never want her, never take her in his arms, not like that.

"Uh, Luce, are you okay?" Penn asked. She was fanning Luce's flushed cheeks with her drink umbrella.

"Fine," Luce said. It was impossible to push those wings out of her mind. To forget the sensation of his face over hers. "Just still recovering, I guess."

Gabbe patted her hand. "When we heard about what happened, we sweet-talked Randy into letting us come visit," she said, rolling her eyes. "We didn't want you to wake up alone."

There was a knock at the door. Luce waited to see her parents' nervous faces, but no one came in. Gabbe stood and looked at Arriane, who made no move to get up. "You guys stay here. I'll handle this."

Luce was still overcome by what they'd told her about Daniel. Even though it didn't make any sense at all, she wanted it to be him outside that door.

"How is she?" a voice asked in a whisper. But Luce heard it. It was him. Gabbe murmured something back.

"What is all this congregating?" Randy growled from outside the room. Luce knew with a sinking heart that this meant visiting hours were over. "Whoever talked me into letting you hooligans tag along gets a detention. And no, Grigori, I will not accept flowers as bribes. All of you, get in the minivan."

Hearing the attendant's voice, Arriane and Penn cringed, then scrambled to stash the coconut shells under the bed. Penn stuffed the drink umbrellas inside her pencil case and Arriane spritzed the air with some serious vanilla musk perfume. She slipped Luce a piece of spearmint gum.

Penn gagged on a floating cloud of perfume, then leaned quickly into Luce and whispered, "As soon as you're back on your feet,we'llfind the book. I think it'd be good for us both to stay busy, keep our minds off things."

Luce squeezed Penn's hand in thanks and smiled at Arriane, who looked too busy lacing up her roller skates to have heard.

That was when Randy barged through the door. "More congregating!" she cried. "Unbelievable."

"We were just - " Penn started to say.

"Leaving," Randy finished for her. She had a bouquet of wild white peonies in her hand. Strange. They were Luce's favorites. And it was so hard to find them in bloom around here.

Randy opened a cabinet under the sink and rooted around for a minute, then pulled out a small, dusty vase. She filled it with cloudy water from the tap, stuffed the peonies roughly inside, and set them on the table next to Luce. "These are from your friends," she said, "who will all now make their departures."

The door was wide open, and Luce could see Daniel leaning against the frame. His chin was lifted and his gray eyes were shadowed with concern. He met Luce's gaze and gave her a small smile. When he brushed his hair away from his eyes, Luce could see a small, dark red gash on his forehead.

Randy steered Penn, Arriane, and Gabbe out the door. But Luce couldn't take her eyes off Daniel. He raised a hand in the air and mouthed what she thought was I'm sorry, just before Randy shoved them out.

"I hope they didn't wear you out," Randy said, lurking in the doorway with an unsympathetic frown.

"Oh no!" Luce shook her head, realizing how much she'd come to rely on Penn's loyalty and Arriane's quirky way of lightening even the soberest mood. Gabbe, too, had been truly kind to her. And Daniel, though she'd barely seen him, had done more to restore her peace of mind than he could ever know. He'd come by to check on her. He'd been thinking of her.

"Good," Randy said. "Because visiting hours aren't over yet."

Again, Luce's heart picked up as she waited to see her parents. But there was just a brisk clicking on the linoleum floor, and soon Luce saw the tiny frame of Miss Sophia. A colorful autumnal pashmina was draped over her thin shoulders, and her lips were painted deep red to match, Behind her walked a short, bald man in a suit, and two police officers, one chubby and one thin, both with receding hairlines and crossed arms.

The chubby police officer was younger. He took a seat on the chair next to Luce, then - noticing that no one else had moved to sit down - stood back up and re-crossed his arms.

The bald man stepped forward and offered Luce his hand. "I'm Mr. Schultz, Sword & Cross's attorney."

Luce stiffly shook his hand. "These officers are just going to ask you a couple of questions. Nothing to be used in a court, only an effort to corroborate details from the accident - "

"And I insisted on being here during the questioning, Lucinda," Miss Sophia added, coming forward to stroke Luce's hair. "How are you, dear?" she whispered. "In a state of amnesiac shock?"

"I'm okay - "

Luce broke off as she caught sight of two more figures in the doorway. She almost burst into tears when she saw her mother's dark, curly head and her father's big tortoiseshell glasses.

"Mom," she whispered, too low for anyone else to hear. "Dad."

They rushed toward the bed, throwing their arms around her and squeezing her hands. She wanted to hug them so badly, but she felt too weak to do much more than stay still and take in the familiar comfort of their touch. Their eyes looked just as scared as she felt.

"Honey, what happened?" her mom asked.

She couldn't say a word.

"I told them you were innocent," Miss Sophia said, turning to remind the officers. "Eerie similarities be damned."

Of course they had Trevor's accident on record, and of course the cops would find it ... remarkable in light of Todd's death. Luce had enough practice with police officers to know that she was only going to leave them frustrated and annoyed.

The thin cop had long sideburns that were going gray. Her open file in his hand seemed to require his full attention, because not once did he look up at her. "Ms. Price," he said with a slow southern drawl. "Why were you and Mr. Hammond alone in the library at such a late hour when all the other students were at a party?" Luce glanced at her parents. Her mom was chewing off her lipstick. Her father's face was as white as the bed-sheet.

"I wasn't with Todd," she said, not understanding the line of questioning. "I was with Penn, my friend.

And Miss Sophia was there. Todd was reading on his own and when the fire started, I lost Penn, and Todd was the only one I could find."

"The only one you could find ... to do what with?"

"Hold on a minute." Mr. Schultz stepped forward to interrupt the cop. "This was an accident, may I remind you. You're not interrogating a suspect."

"No, I want to answer," Luce said. There were so many people in this tiny room that she didn't know where to look. She eyed the cop. "What do you mean?"

"Are you an angry person, Ms. Price?" He gripped the folder. "Would you call yourself a loner?"


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