Page 27

It was like Cam sensed this, or at least part of this, because he folded her into his arms, pressed her head against his strong, broad chest, and rocked her from side to side.

"It's okay," he said. "It's going to be okay."

And maybe she didn't have to explain anything to him. It was like the more deranged she felt inside, the more available Cam became. What if it was enough just to stand here in the arms of someone who cared about her, to let his simple affection steady her for a little while?

It felt so good just to be held.

Luce didn't know how to pull away from Cam. He had always been so nice. And she did like him, and yet, for reasons that made her feel guilty, he was kind of beginning to annoy her. He was so perfect, and helpful, and exactly what she should have needed right now. It was just ... he wasn't Daniel.

An angel food cupcake appeared over her shoulder. Luce recognized the manicured hand holding it.

"There's punch over there that needs drinking," Gabbe said, handing Cam a cupcake, too. He glared at its frosted top. "You okay?" Gabbe asked Luce.

Luce nodded. For the first time, Gabbe had popped up exactly when Luce wanted saving. They smiled at each other and Luce raised her cupcake in thanks. She took a small, sweet bite.

"Punch sounds great," Cam said through gritted teeth. "Why don't you go get us a few glasses, Gabbe?"

Gabbe rolled her eyes at Luce. "Do a man one favor and he'll start treating you like a slave."

Luce laughed. Cam was a little out of line, but it was obvious to Luce what he was trying to do.

"I'll go get the drinks," Luce said, ready for a breath of air. She headed for the card table and the punch bowl. She was skimming a fly from the surface of the punch when someone whispered in her ear.

"You want to get out of here?"

Luce turned around, ready to invent some excuse for Cam that no, she couldn't duck out - not now, and not with him. But it wasn't Cam who reached out and touched the base of her wrist with his thumb.

It was Daniel.

She melted a little. Her Wednesday phone slot was in ten minutes and she desperately wanted to hear Callie's voice, or her parents' voices. To talk about something going on outside these wrought iron gates, other than the bleakness of her last two days.

But get out of here? With Daniel? She found herself nodding.

Cam was going to hate her if he saw her leave, and he would see. He would be watching her. She could almost feel his green eyes on the back of her head. But of course she had to go. She slipped her hand inside Daniel's. "Please."

All the other times they'd touched, either it had been an accident, or one of them had jerked away - usually Daniel - before the bolt of warmth Luce always felt could evolve into a rising crescendo of heat. Not this time. Luce looked down at Daniel's hand, holding fast to hers, and her whole body wanted more. More of the heat, more of the tingling, more of Daniel, It was almost - not quite - as good as she'd felt in her dream. She could hardly feel her feet moving below her, just the flow of his touch taking over.

It was as if she only blinked, and they had ascended to the gates of the cemetery. Below them, far away, the rest of the memorial service wobbled out of focus as the two of them left it all behind.

Daniel stopped suddenly and, without warning, dropped her hand. She shivered, cold again.

"You and Cam," he said, letting the words hang in the air like a question. "You spend a lot of time together?"

"Sounds like you're not very fond of that idea," she said, feeling instantly stupid for playing coy.

She'd only wanted to tease him for sounding a little jealous, but his face and his tone were so serious.

"He's not - " Daniel started to say. He watched a red-tailed hawk land in an oak tree over their heads. "He's not good enough for you."

Luce had heard people say that line a thousand times before. It was what everyone always said.

Not good enough. But when the words passed Daniel's lips, they sounded important, even somehow true and relevant, not vague and dismissive the way the phrase had always sounded to her in the past.

"Well, then," she said in a quiet voice, "who is?"

Daniel put his hands on his hips. He laughed to himself for a long time. "I don't know," he said finally. "That's a terrific question."

Not exactly the answer Luce was looking for. "It's not like it's that hard," she said, stuffing her hands into her pockets because she wanted to reach out to him. "To be good enough for me."

Daniel's eyes looked like they were falling, all the violet that had been in them a moment before turned a deep, dark gray. "Yes," he said. "Yes, it is."

He rubbed his forehead, and when he did, his hair flipped back for just a second. Long enough.

Luce saw the scab on his forehead. It was healing, but Luce could tell that it was new.

"What happened to your forehead?" she asked, reaching for him.

"I don't know," he snapped, pushing her hand away, hard enough that she stumbled back. "I don't know where it came from."

He seemed more unsettled by it than Luce was, which surprised her. It was just a small scrape.

Footsteps on the gravel behind them. Both of them spun around.

"I told you, I haven't seen her," Molly was saying, shrugging off Cam's hand as they ascended the graveyard's hill,

"Let's go," Daniel said, sensing everything she felt - she was almost certain that he could - even before she shot him a nervous look.

She knew where they were going as soon as she began to follow him. Behind the church-gymnasium and into the woods. Just like she'd expected his jump rope posture before she ever saw him working out. Just like she'd known about that cut before she saw it.

They walked at just the same pace, with steps just the same length. Their feet hit the grass at the same time, every time, until they reached the forest.

"If you come to a place more than once with the same person," Daniel said, almost to himself, "I guess it isn't yours alone anymore."

Luce smiled, honored as she realized what Daniel was saying: that he'd never been to the lake before with anyone else. Only her.

As they trekked through the woods, she felt the coolness of the shade beneath the trees on her bare shoulders. It smelled the same as ever, as most coastal Georgian forests did: an oaky mulch scent that Luce used to associate with the shadows, but that she now connected to Daniel. She shouldn't feel safe anywhere after what had just happened to Todd, but next to Daniel, Luce felt like she was breathing easy for the first time in days.

She had to believe he was bringing her back here because of the way he'd skipped out on her so suddenly the last time. Like they needed a second try to get it right. What had started out feeling like their first kind of almost-date had turned into Luce feeling pitifully stood up. Daniel must have known that and felt bad about his stormy exit.

They reached the magnolia tree that marked the lookout point on the lake. The sun left a golden trail on the water as it edged over the forest to the west. Everything looked so different in the evening. The whole world seemed to glow.

Daniel leaned up against the tree and watched her watch the water. She moved to stand beside him under the waxy leaves and the flowers, which should have been dead and gone by this time of year, but looked as pure and fresh as spring blooms. Luce breathed in the musky scent, and felt closer to Daniel than she had any reason to - and loved that the feeling seemed to come from out of nowhere.

"We're not exactly dressed for a swim this time," he said, pointing at Luce's black dress.

She fingered the delicate eyelet hem at her knees, imagining her mom's shock if she ruined a good dress because she and a boy wanted to pe into a lake. "Maybe we could just stick our feet in?"

Daniel motioned toward the steep red rock path that led down to the water. They climbed over thick, tawny reeds and lake grass and used the twisted stumps of live oak trees to keep their balance, Here, the shore of the lake turned to pebbles. The water looked so still, she felt she almost could have walked on it.

Luce kicked off her black ballet flats and skimmed the lily-padded surface with her toes. The water was cooler than it had been the other day. Daniel picked a strand of lake grass and started braiding its thick stem.

He looked at her. "You ever think about getting out of here - "

"All the time," she said with a groan, assuming he meant that he did, too. Of course, she wanted to get as far away from Sword & Cross as possible. Anyone would. But she tried at least to keep her mind from whirling out of control, toward fantasies of her and Daniel plotting an escape.

"No," Daniel said, "I mean, have you really considered going somewhere else? Asking your parents for a transfer? It's just ... Sword & Cross doesn't seem like the best fit for you."

Luce took a seat on a rock opposite Daniel and hugged her knees. If he was suggesting that she was a reject among a student body full of rejects, she couldn't help feeling a little insulted.

She cleared her throat. "I can't afford the luxury of seriously considering someplace else. Sword & Cross is" - she paused - "pretty much a last-ditch effort for me."

"Come on," Daniel said.

"You wouldn't know - "

"I would." He sighed. "There's always another stop, Luce."

"That's very prophetic, Daniel," she said. She could feel her voice rising. "But if you're so interested in getting rid of me, what are we doing? No one asked you to drag me out here with you."

"No," he said. "You're right. I meant that you're not like people here. There's got to be a better place for you."

Luce's heart was beating quickly, which it usually did around Daniel. But this was different. This whole scene was making her sweat.

"When I came here," she said, "I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't tell anyone about my past, or what I'd done to land myself at this place." Daniel dropped his head into his hands. "What I'm talking about has nothing to do with what happened with that guy - "

"You know about him?" Luce's face crumpled. No. How could Daniel know? "Whatever Molly told you ..."

But she knew it was too late. Daniel had been the one to find her with Todd. If Molly had told him anything about how Luce had also been implicated in another mysterious fiery death, she couldn't begin to imagine explaining it.

"Listen," he said, gripping her hands. "What I'm saying, it has nothing to do with that part of your past."

She found that hard to believe. "Then does it have to do with Todd?"

He shook his head. "It has to do with this place. It has to do with things ..."

Daniel's touch jostled something in her mind. She started thinking about the wild shadows she'd seen that night. The way they'd changed so much since she'd arrived at this school - from a sneaky, unsettling threat to now almost-ubiquitous, full-blown terrors.

She was crazy - that must be what Daniel sensed about her. Maybe he thought she was pretty, but he knew deep down she was seriously disturbed. That was why he wanted her to leave, so he wouldn't be tempted to get involved with someone like her. If that was what Daniel thought, he didn't know the half of it.


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