Crave, p.2
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       Crave, p.2
 

         Part #1 of The Clann series by Melissa Darnell
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CHAPTER 1

 

  Savannah

  The last day I was fully human started off like any other April Monday in East Texas. Oh, sure, there were all kinds of warning signs that my entire world was about to come crashing down around me. But I didn't recognize them until it was too late.

  I should have known something major was wrong when I woke up that morning feeling like utter crap, even though I'd just snagged a full nine hours of sleep. I'd never been sick before, not even with the flu or a cold, so it couldn't be anything like that.

  "Good morning, dear. Your breakfast is on the table," Nanna greeted me as I shuffled into the kitchen. As usual, she was the ultimate in contradictions, her voice and smile a Southern mixture of sweetness and steel. Like your favorite old baby blanket wrapped around a mace. "Eat up. I'm going to go find my shoes. "

  I nodded and plopped down into one of the creaky chairs at the table. When it came to cooking, Nanna rocked. And she made the absolute best oatmeal in the world, maple and brown sugar with a ton of butter just the way I liked it. But it tasted like flavorless mush today. I gave up after two bites and dumped it in the trash can under the sink seconds before she came back.

  "Finished already?" she asked before slurping her tea. The sound grated over my nerves.

  "Um, yeah. " I set the bowl and spoon in the sink, keeping my back turned so she couldn't see the blush burning my cheeks. I was a horrible liar. One look at my face and she'd know I'd just thrown out the breakfast she'd made me.

  "And your tea?"

  Oops. I'd forgotten my daily tea, a blend that Nanna made just for me from the herbs she spent months growing in our backyard. "Sorry, Nanna, there's no time. I still have to fix my hair. "

  "You can do both. " She held out my mug, her cheeks bunched into a bright smile that didn't do much to disguise the snap in her eyes.

  Sighing, I took the cup with me to the bathroom, setting it on the counter so I could have both hands free to do battle with my wild, carrot-colored curls.

  "Drink your tea yet?" she asked ten minutes later as I finished taming my hair into a long ponytail.

  "Nag, nag, nag," I mumbled.

  "I heard that, missy," she called out from the dining room, making me smile.

  I chugged the cold tea, set down the empty mug with a loud thump she'd be sure to hear, then headed for my bedroom to grab my backpack. And nearly fell over while trying to pick it up. Jeez. I must have forgotten to drop off a few books in my locker last week. Using both hands, I hefted a strap onto my shoulder and trudged back down the hall.

  Nanna was at the dining table digging through her mammoth purse for her keys. That would take a while.

  "Meet you at the car?" I said.

  She gave an absentminded wave, which I took for a yes, so I headed through the living room for the front door.

  As usual, Mom had been on the couch for hours already, talking on her cell phone while drowning in stacks of paperwork and pens she'd be sure to lose under the sofa cushions by the end of the day. Why she couldn't work at a desk like every other safety product sales rep was beyond me. But the chaos seemed to make her happy.

  Even as she ended one call, her phone squalled for attention again. I knew better than to wait, so I just waved goodbye to her.

  "Hang on, George. " She hit the phone's mute button then held out her arms. "Hey, what's this? No 'good morning, Mom,' no hug goodbye?"

  Grinning, I crossed the room and bent over to hug her, resisting the urge to cough as her favorite floral perfume flooded my nose and throat. When I straightened up again, my back popped and twinged.

  "Was that your back?" she gasped. "Good grief, you sound worse than your nanna today. "

  "I heard that," Nanna yelled from the dining room.

  Smothering a smile, I shrugged. "Guess I practiced too much this weekend. " My beginner ballet and jazz classes would be performing in Miss Catherine's Dance Studio's annual spring recital soon. As the days ticked down to my latest impending public humiliation, I'd kind of started freaking out about it.

  "I'll say. Why don't you take it a little easier? You've still got two weeks till the recital. "

  "Yeah, well, I need every second of practice I can get. " That is, if I wanted to improve enough to avoid disappointing my father yet again.

  "You know, killing yourself in the backyard isn't going to impress your father, either. "

  I froze, hating that I was so transparent. "Nothing impresses him. " At least, not enough to earn a visit from him more than twice a year. Probably because I was such a screwup at sports. The man moved like a ballroom dancer, always light and graceful on his feet, but I didn't seem to have gotten even a hint of those genes in my DNA. Mom had tried enrolling me in every activity she could think of over the years to help me develop some grace and hand-eye coordination. . . soccer, twirling, gymnastics, basketball. Last year was volleyball. This year it was dance, both at Miss Catherine's Dance Studio and at my high school.

  Apparently my father was fed up with my lack of athletic skill, judging by Mom's argument with him over the phone last September when I began dancing. He really didn't want me to take dance lessons this year. He must have thought they were a waste on someone as uncoordinated as me.

  I was out to prove him wrong. And so far, failing miserably. Mom sighed. "Oh, hon. You really shouldn't worry so much about making him happy. Just dance for yourself, and I'm sure you'll do fine. "

  "Uh-huh. That's what you said last year about volleyball. " And yet, in spite of taking her advice to "just have fun," I'd still ended up hitting a ball through the gym's tile ceiling during a tournament. When the broken pieces had come crashing down, they'd almost wiped out half my team. That had sort of ended the fun of volleyball for me.

  Mom bit her lip, probably to keep from laughing at the same memory.

  "Found 'em!" Nanna sang out in triumph from the dining room. "Ready to rock and roll, kid?"

  Sighing, I pulled up my backpack's slipping strap onto my shoulder again. It scraped at my skin through my shirt, forcing a hiss out of me. Youch. "Maybe I should grab an aspirin before we go. "

  "Absolutely not. " Nanna strode into the room, keys jingling in her hand. "Aspirin's bad for you. "

  Huh? "But you and Mom take it all the t-"

  "But you don't," Nanna snapped. "You've never taken that synthetic crap before, and you won't start polluting yourself with it now. I'll make you more of my special tea instead. Here, take my purse to the car and I'll be right there. "

  Without waiting for a reply, she shoved her forty-pound purse into my hands and headed for the kitchen. Great. I'd be late for sure. Again.

  "Why can't I just take an aspirin like everyone else in the world?"

  Mom smiled and picked up her phone.

  Four very long minutes later, Nanna finally joined me in the car. She thrust a metal thermos into my hand. "There, that ought to fix you right up. Be careful, though. It's hot. I had to nuke it. "

  I bit back a groan. Nanna hated the microwave. The only button she'd learned how to use was the three-minute auto-heat. I'd be lucky if the tea cooled off at all before we reached my school, even if it was a ten-minute drive.

  We lived in a small, somewhat isolated nest of houses five miles outside of town. As I blew on my tea to cool it, I watched the rolling hills pass by, dotted here and there with solitary houses, big round bales of hay, and cows in all shades of red, brown and black. Out here, the thick pine trees that had once covered all of East Texas had been cut back to make room for ranches that were now broken only by rows of fences, mostly of barbed wire, sometimes wide slats of wood turned gray by time and the weather. You could breathe out here.

  But as we neared the city limits, the strips of trees became thicker and showed up more often, until we passed through a section of nothing but pines just before reaching the junior high and intermediate schools. The first traffic-light intersection marked the start o
f downtown Jacksonville, where all of a sudden it became nothing but streets and business after business, mostly single-story shops and a few three-and four-story buildings for the occasional bank, hotel or hospital. And more pines winding around and through every area of housing large and small, even butting up against the edges of the basket factory and near the Tomato Bowl, the brownstone open-air stadium where all the home football and soccer games were held.

  I used to love my hometown with its cute boutiques and shops full of antiques where Nanna sold her crocheted designs. I even used to love the town's ribbons of pines and the way the wind in the trees added a subtle sighing to the air. When the fields of grass and hay turned brown and dead in the winter, you could always count on the pines to keep Jacksonville colorful all year long.

  But the town's founding families, locally referred to as the Clann due to their Irish ancestry, had ruined it for me. Now when I heard the wind in the trees, it sounded like whispering, as if the trees themselves had joined the town's grapevine of gossips. Those gossips had probably produced the long line of famous actors, singers, comedians and models that Jacksonville's relatively small population of thirteen thousand residents was so proud of. Growing up here, where everybody talked about everybody else, either made you want to live here forever or run away and become something special just to prove the gossips and the Clann wrong.

  I wasn't sure I wanted to be famous. But I definitely wanted to run away.

  We made the daily turn through the neighborhoods that led to Jacksonville High School, the drive made shady by still more pines and a few hardwoods that lined the modest streets. And then the blue-and-yellow home of the JHS Indians exploded into view, its perimeter choked by woods thick and shadowed, and I felt my shoulders and neck tense up.

  Welcome to my daytime prison for the next four years, complete with a guard shack and a guard who lowered a heavy metal bar across the driveways on the dot of 8:00 a. m. every weekday, forcing you to accept a tardy slip in order to gain entrance when you were late. Unlike a teacher who might be convinced to let you slide, the guard was notoriously without mercy, ruling our school's entrance as if it were the gates to some medieval castle.

  If JHS were a castle, then its royalty would definitely be the twenty-two equally merciless Clann kids who ruled the rest of the campus.

  The Clann kids had probably learned their bullying tactics from their parents, who ran this town and a good portion of Texas, inserting themselves into every possible leadership role from county and state even to federal government levels. Local rumor had it that the only way the Clann could do this was by using magic, of all things. Which was total bull. There was nothing magical about the Clann's power-hungry methods. I should know. I'd had more than enough of their kids' idea of "magical" fun at school. After graduation, I was so out of here.

  While Nanna pulled up to the curb by the main hall doors, I sucked down a quick slurp of tea, adding a burnt tongue to my list of pains for the day.

  "Better take that with you. " Nanna nodded at the thermos. "You should feel it kick in pretty soon, but you might need more later. "

  "Okay. Hey, don't forget, today's an A day, and I have algebra last period, so-"

  "So pick you up in the front parking lot by the cafeteria. Yeah, yeah. I'm old, not senile. I think I can keep up with your alternating A-B schedule. " Her twinkling green eyes nearly disappeared as her plump cheeks bunched higher into a wry smile.

  The front parking lot was closer to my last class on A days. The first class in five years that I'd shared with Tristan Coleman. . .

  "Savannah?" She shifted the car into Drive then looked at me with raised eyebrows, a silent prod to get moving. I climbed out into the pine-scented warmth of the morning, shut the door and gave her a wave goodbye.

  Tristan. . .

  His name echoed through my head, fuzzing up my mind with old memories and emotions. An answering tingle rippled up the back of my neck and over my scalp. Ignoring it, I stuffed the forbidden thoughts back into their imaginary box and turned to face the main hall doors. The day was sure to be miserable enough without my stewing over backstabbing traitors like him.

  Sure enough, I shoved through the main hall's heavier-than-normal glass front doors and slammed right into the Brat Twins, two of the Clann's worst members. Yep, the perfect start to a fabulous day.

  "Watch where you're going, idiot!" Vanessa Faulkner said, brushing off imaginary dirt from her latest Juicy Couture purse.

  "Yeah, try looking before you just barrel in," Hope, her mirror-image sister, added. She reached up and patted her perfect platinum curls, the tiny mole to the left of her smirk the only difference between the two sisters.

  I glanced around. We already had an audience for my daily humiliation. Great. My hands itched to try and smooth my own wild curls as my stomach twisted into knots. Why did the Brat Twins have to treat me like this? Just because I couldn't get a tan? Because my hair was the wrong color, too frizzy, not shiny enough?

  "Well? Aren't you at least going to say you're sorry?" Vanessa demanded.

  For a moment, the anger drowned out everything else. What would happen if I slapped that smirk off her face? She couldn't go crying to her precious Clann for the usual revenge. Nanna was retired, Mom worked for a Louisiana-based company and my father owned a national historical-home restoration business. The Clann couldn't touch my family.

  Or could they? Several members of the Clann were politicians at the federal level. And Louisiana was within easy reach of East Texas. So maybe they did have enough connections to at least get Mom fired. Crap.

  My backpack's strap bit into my hands as I swallowed down all the things I wanted to say and instead muttered, "Sorry. "

  "Yeah, you are," Vanessa said. She and her sister laughed like hyenas high on helium and turned away.

  I should have just let them go and been grateful to get away from them. But a headache pounded at my temples now, and all I could think about was how different things were when we were kids. Back when these girls were my best friends.

  As soon as my hand touched her shoulder, Vanessa hissed. Both sisters whirled around to face me again. Shocked by the fury on Vanessa's face, I stepped backward until the wall of lockers stopped me. Whoa. This was nuts.

  "Van, why are you being like this?" I made a point of using my old nickname for her. "We used to be friends. Remember Valentine's Day, fourth grade? We held that pretend wedding, and you two were my bridesmaids?" That was the last day we'd all played together, and it was one of my favorite childhood memories. The twins and I had prepared for the ceremony by sitting in a circle on the merry-go-round and braiding flowers into each other's hair. While my first and only boyfriend, Tristan Coleman, had stood beneath the nearby oak tree watching us, waiting for me.

  Waiting to give me my first and only kiss. . .

  Everything about that half hour had seemed so sweet, almost magically perfect. But I must have been the only one who'd thought so. Because the next day, all of the Clann's kids had refused to talk to me, not even long enough to tell me what I'd done to upset them. Including Tristan. Ever since, the only time anyone from the Clann spoke to me was when the Brat Twins called me names or "accidentally" shoved me in the hallways.

  "We braided daisies into each other's hair," Hope whispered, almost smiling.

  She remembered. I nodded, daring a small smile of my own, and eased away from the lockers.

  Vanessa's eyes softened for a few seconds, transforming her into the girl I used to know, like she was remembering our former friendship, too. But then her expression darkened again, twisting with hatred. "That day was a huge mistake. Your mistake, for thinking a freak like you could actually be friends with anyone in the Clann. And especially for thinking you could even pretend to marry someone like Tristan. "

  "Yeah. The Clann does not hang out with freaks like you," Hope added.

  So much for remembering the good old days.
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  I sighed, defeat making me even more tired. "I don't get you two. Or Tristan. You guys used to be my best friends. What did I ever do to-"

  Vanessa closed the distance between us so fast I didn't have time to react, her nose nearly touching mine. "You were born, freak. That's more than enough reason to make every member of the Clann hate you for the rest of our lives. Now get. Out. Of our. Way!" Using both hands, she slammed me against the lockers then stalked off, Hope tagging along in her footsteps.

  I shouldn't have been stunned. I should have known the past was over and done with and there was no going back. But still, it took a few seconds before I could make my feet move again. My throat and eyes burning, I tried to ignore the way everyone was staring at me and headed for my locker at the other end of the hallway, my chin lifted, as if the encounter had been no big deal.

  Three hours later, I flopped into my seat at my friends' table in the cafeteria.

  Carrie Calvin's eyebrows shot up beneath her long blond bangs. "A little early in the day to be so tired, don't you think?" She flicked her shoulder-length hair behind her.

  I managed a grunt and focused on unscrewing the cap of my tea thermos. Time for another dose of homegrown medicine. Hopefully it wouldn't take too long to kick in this time. Or maybe I should open a vein in my arm and pour it in directly.

  As promised, Nanna's special tea had helped during first-period English. But climbing the sports and art building's two flights of stairs to second period pre-drill class, followed by an hour and a half of dancing, had set back my recovery. I felt worse than ever.

  "Oh, she's just worn-out from all that dancing she's taken up," Anne Albright said. "You know, twirling with the froufrou tutus at Miss Catherine's Dance Studio. Kicking it in pre-drill with all those sad Charmer wannabes. " She tightened her thick, chestnut-brown ponytail and grinned, apparently unable to resist stirring up a little excitement for lunch.

  I chucked a French fry at her. She was lucky she was my best friend, or I'd be tempted to dump her soda over her head instead. She knew Carrie and Michelle were still annoyed that I'd picked dance lessons instead of playing volleyball again with them this year. To them, even sucking at volleyball was better than dancing.

  Michelle Wilson turned her big hazel eyes toward me. "Are you going to try out for the Charmers, Sav?"

  It took me a few seconds to understand. Then I remembered. Most students only took pre-drill as a required class so they could audition for the JHS Cherokee Charmers Dance/Drill Team in May.

  "Of course she isn't," Anne jumped in before I could reply. "Pre-drill is just her mom's idea of fulfilling her P. E. credit without embarrassing herself again like last year. "

  "Gee, thanks," I said. But I couldn't really be mad. Anne was only saying the truth, as usual. I had taken pre-drill for the P. E. credit, and because it had no audience or competitions for me to doom a team at. Trying out for the Charmers was the last thing on my mind.

  "Sorry," Anne muttered, both looking and sounding sincere.

  Between desperate gulps of tea, I gave her a half grin to show I wasn't really upset. She'd been my best friend for over two years now, and I'd gotten used to her blunt style. In a way, it was even comforting. At least I could always count on her to be honest, no matter what.

  A new wave of pain rose up to slam into my stomach and chest, wiping the smile right off my face. This was an ache I knew far too well. It hit me every time he came within a hundred yards of me, usually before I even saw or heard him.

  Michelle, who sat across from me, let out a dreamy sigh, confirming what my body already knew.

  "Please let me trip him," Anne muttered once she'd glanced over her shoulder and spotted him, too.

  I kept my gaze on Michelle, though the tiny blonde's moonstruck expression was tough to watch. Anything to keep me facing forward. Tristan had to either walk along the outer wall of the cafeteria or cut across the center by our table on his way to the food lines. Most people cut across. No doubt he would, too.

  Just a few more seconds and he'd pass right behind me. I told myself I didn't care, even as my skin tingled with some secret knowledge all its own that he was drawing closer.

  And then I heard it. . . a low whistling, the notes so quiet I could almost have believed I'd imagined them if not for my sensitive hearing. Sugarplum music, as plain as if he'd whistled the notes right against my ear.

  Ever since he'd seen my ballet slippers fall out of my backpack during algebra earlier this year, Tristan had started whistling The Nutcracker's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" song every time he saw me. I remembered his sense of humor, how his mind worked. This was his wordless way of teasing me about wanting to be a ballerina, without having to actually bother to talk to me. Because of course a klutz like me couldn't ever become a decent dancer, right?

  I felt a blush flood my cheeks and neck with heat, adding to my frustration. I must look like a strawberry. . . red face, red hair, red ears. But no way would I duck my head. I would not give him the satisfaction of any reaction I could control, at least.

  "Oh, I am so gonna trip him," Anne hissed, turning her chair toward him. Apparently she got his sense of humor, too, even if she didn't approve of it.

  "No, you can't!" Michelle reached over the edge of the round table, grabbed Anne's arm and yanked her sideways half out of her seat. By the time Anne recovered, he was past our table.

  "He's a member of the Clann. You know how all those witches treat Savannah," Anne said.

  "Tristan Coleman isn't like them. He's nice," Michelle said. "The whole witchcraft thing is just a rumor. And a stupid one, at that. "

  Carrie, Anne and I all shared a look.

  Michelle sighed. "Tristan is so not a witch! Or warlock, or whatever they're called. His family goes to my church. And he's too nice to sacrifice small animals. Remember how he saved me last summer at that track meet? None of the others would have done that, but he did. "

  Carrie and Anne both groaned out loud. We'd heard this story countless times this year, until Anne had finally threatened to beat Michelle to death if she told it one more time.

  I just groaned inside my head. I was too busy forcing air in and out of my lungs past the tightness in my chest. How did he do this to me?

  "'Saved' is a little much," Carrie said. "And for the record, witches don't sacrifice animals. "

  "Yeah, Michelle," Anne said. "All he did was help you off the track after you got shin splints. "

  "Exactly!" Michelle retorted. "Those shin splints hurt so badly. And he was the only one to come and help me. And he didn't even know me!"

  Carrie sighed and dropped her chin into a propped-up hand.

  "Michelle, get a grip. He just did that to make himself look good for everyone at the track meet. " Anne chugged the rest of her soda then burped. She didn't bother to say excuse me. "He's nothing more than a glorified spoiled rich kid. "

  "That's not true. And he doesn't need to try and make himself look good. He already looks good. Did you see that chest? Those huge shoulders?" Michelle sighed again. "Thank you, God, for growth spurts. I swear he's grown half a foot taller this year. And that new voice. Oh, yum. "

  "Oh, gag me," Anne said. "I'll bet his ego grew right along with the rest of him. He thinks every girl on the planet should be eager to drool over him. And what do you mean, 'that new voice'? You got a class with him or something?"

  It was Michelle's turn to blush. "No. He stops by the front office before first period on A days sometimes to talk to me and the other office aides. "

  "And I'll bet you just love chatting him up, don't you?" Anne glared at her.

  "Well, it. . . it's the least I can do, since he saved me. "

  "Ugh, I'm gonna hurl. " Anne gathered up her books.

  "Me, too. I can't believe you talk to a Clann member," Carrie said, picking up her things despite her still half-full salad bowl. "Especially one who thinks he owns all of East Texas. "<
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  I stared down at my untouched chili cheese fries. My comfort food looked anything but comforting today. "I think I'm done, too. "

  "Aw, guys. Don't be mad. " Michelle jumped up and grabbed her stuff. "Y'all are way too hard on him. He's really very nice once you get to know him. "

  "Puh-lease. " Anne proceeded to explain the difference between being nice and being a total player as we all headed for the trash cans then the rear exit. I followed but tuned them out, tired of hearing about Tristan Coleman's infamous reputation with the girls. But my traitorous gaze still slipped over to the Clann kids' table long enough to see that the prince of Jacksonville needed another haircut. Tristan's golden curls had grown long enough to brush the collar of his polo shirt again.

  Later that afternoon before fourth period, the foot traffic streamed around me like a human river flowing through the main hallway. I sighed, tired and achy and cranky, trying to ignore the claustrophobic feeling from the swarm of people all around me while I squatted in front of my bottom-row locker. I still hadn't gotten used to how many students were packed into this campus every day. The junior high had only three grades and much bigger hallways, so when someone had bumped into me there last year, it had been a personal message. Here, students nudged against me every couple seconds as I struggled to find a pencil inside the chaos of my locker for my last class. Stupid algebra. It was my toughest subject, and the only class that required a pencil.

  It was also the only one I had with any Clann members. And with the worst one of them all, too.

  Thank goodness at least Anne was in the same class. She was a genius at anything to do with numbers.

  She wasn't great at waiting for me, though.

  "Hey, slowpoke, you're gonna be late. As usual. " Anne leaned against the lockers next to mine and gave me a friendly punch on the shoulder, hard enough to make me wobble. I righted myself and winced, guessing I'd probably have a bruise on my shoulder for a day or two.

  "And what does a female jock care about being late to class?" I teased while I wearily continued to dig through books and supplies. Where the heck had that pack of pencils gone? If I had to borrow a pencil from Anne, I'd never hear the end of it. She'd use loaning me a pencil as an excuse to launch yet another tirade about how I needed to get organized.

  She snorted and squatted down beside me. "Obvious answer. If volleyball doesn't pan out for a scholarship, the grades will have to do it for me instead. Harvard costs a butt load, or haven't you heard?"

  "I still don't understand why you need to go to Harvard just to become a CPA. Can't you go to any college to do that?"

  "And I still don't understand why you can't keep a locker clean. " She reached forward as if to start tidying up the pile. I swatted her hand away with a smile.

  Suddenly someone rammed into my back. I threw one hand against the lockers and the other hand to the floor to catch myself as my backpack slid off my shoulder and thudded on the floor at my feet. My entire body vibrated from the impact, as if my bones were hollow and echoing from the hit like metal pipes. Then everything came cascading out of my locker in a mini avalanche, hitting my shoulder on the way down. That was definitely going to leave a bruise.

  I glanced up in time to see Dylan Williams, another member of the Clann and one of my most loyal tormentors, saunter away with his usual braying laugh. Sometimes I had nightmares about that laugh of his. I shuddered.

  "Oh, he did not just do that! I am so gonna kick his-" Anne jumped up, grabbed her chestnut ponytail in two thick handfuls and yanked the halves in opposite directions to tighten her rubber band. The same way she always tightened her ponytail before smacking one of her lethal power serves during a volleyball game. Was she about to smack Dylan a power serve to the head?

  While the image was tempting, I didn't want to know what the consequences would be if she actually did it. I grabbed her ankle and tugged just enough to direct her attention back to me.

  "Anne, don't, he isn't worth it. Some people never change.

  Dylan's been knocking books out of my arms and popping my bra for years. " I started grabbing things off the floor and stuffing them into my locker.

  Grumbling, she bent down to help me. "Why don't you pop him one?"

  "Don't worry, if he gets too bad, I'll handle it. " Somehow. And definitely on a day when I didn't feel so bad. "He's just another spoiled brat from the Clann. Why give him the satisfaction of a reaction?" At least, that's what my mother and grandmother kept telling me. So far, their theory that I should ignore the Clann bullies hadn't been much of a success.

  Anne frowned, but at least she didn't go after the jerk. As we fit the small mountain of papers and books back inside the too-small locker, a bright bit of yellow in the pile caught my eye. I reached beneath the jungle of stuff and snatched out a pack of pencils. "Yes, found them!"

  "Finally. I am so cleaning that locker if you don't. "

  "Ha! Be my guest. " Everything now in its disorganized place, I stood up and shoved the locker door shut, having to use both hands to get it closed enough for the latch to click. "Just don't blame me if something in there bites you. "

  At Anne's furtive glance toward the locker door, I couldn't help but laugh. She wouldn't hesitate to start a fight with a member of the Clann, but my messy locker scared her?

  The laugh died as quickly as it had begun as a strange yet familiar ache welled up in my stomach and chest. I nearly moaned out loud. Not again.

  Even knowing the cause for the weird ache couldn't stop me from turning and looking down the hall. My gaze immediately collided and locked with the sensation's green-eyed source towering over most of the other students.

  Tristan

  Even in the middle of a noisy mass of students, one girl's laugh grabbed my attention.

  I couldn't figure out how she did it. The hallway was loud, with at least a hundred students all talking and yelling in a space only a few yards wide and thirty times as long. But every time Savannah Colbert laughed, the husky sound somehow managed to reach out and twist up everything inside me.

  Part of me wished I never had to see or hear her again. Life would be a lot easier if I didn't. The way I felt about Savannah was all mixed-up. Once, she'd been my best friend. And the first girl I'd ever kissed.

  Then I'd made the mistake of telling my older sister, Emily, about pretending to marry Savannah during recess in the fourth grade. Emily had blabbed to our parents. Mom had blown a gasket and called the school to get me yanked out of Savannah's class. Dad had turned purple in the face and gone all silent and scowling. And I'd known I was in big trouble.

  Ever since, I and all the rest of the descendants of the Clann had been forbidden to have anything to do with Savannah. Supposedly she was a dangerous influence or something. Whatever she was, she was definitely on the Clann's list of social outcasts. And Mom made sure I remembered it, too, constantly pounding it into my head for the past five years to "stay away from that Colbert girl. "

  And yet I couldn't stop myself from turning to look at her now.

  From this distance, I couldn't see Savannah's eyes in detail. But I remembered them way too clearly. Their color changed from gray to slate-blue to blue-green depending on her mood. Wonder what color they are now? I thought, vaguely aware of my hands tightening around my books.

  A heavy arm draped over my shoulder. "Hey, Tristan. Ready to hit the weights after school?"

  My best friend, Dylan Williams, shook me, breaking my focus. I met his usual cocky grin with a frown of my own. "Yeah, sure. Though you might want to try showing up on time today, or Coach Parker is gonna be ticked. "

  He laughed. "We're descendants. What's he gonna do to us?"

  I shot a glance around to see if anyone was listening, then glared at him. "Dude, ever heard of the word 'discretion'?" I lowered my voice, trying to set an example for the dumb blond. "You know we're not supposed to talk about that stuff in public. And Coach Parker isn't a descendan
t, so he's still going to be ticked if you're late again. Or do you actually like running laps?"

  Dylan's smile hardened as his chin rose a notch. "We'll see who runs laps. No one messes with a descendant. Not even a football coach. "

  "Even descendants have to play by the rules, Dylan. We always have, always will. "

  He shook his shaggy bangs out of his eyes. "Maybe, for now. Or maybe we'll be the descendants who make some changes. "

  "Make some changes? Like what?"

  He shrugged. "We founded this town. Don't you think it's past time we were running it the way we should be?"

  I rocked back on my heels. "Oh, yeah? And how should we be running things?"

  "I don't know. . . more out in the open about it?"

  I scowled at him, hoping he was just joking around. But something about the set of his jaw and the dark look in his eyes said otherwise. "You're not suggesting coming out about the Clann's abilities?"

  He shrugged again. "Why not? This is the modern world. All the books and movies say we're cool. Why not own up to it, let everyone know what we can-"

  Sudden and total fear had me grabbing his shoulder at the base of his neck without thinking. I pulled his face close and growled, "Are you out of your freakin' mind? If any other descendant heard you talking like that and told the elders, you'd be history. "

  He stiffened under my grip, his chin hiking up again so he could meet my stare head-on with a glare of his own. He actually opened his mouth like he was going to argue.

  But after a tense moment, he took a deep breath and chuckled. "Hey, man, ease up! I was just messing around. Forget about it. "

  "Dylan-"

  "I said I was just kidding! Man, can't you even take a joke?"

  I stared at him a few seconds longer, trying to figure out what was going on with him lately. Even joking around about stuff like that was dangerous, and he knew it. So why do it?

  The warning bell rang, making me swear under my breath. I had less than a couple minutes now to get all the way across campus to the math and home-ec building. "All right. Are we cool?"

  "Yeah, sure. " He lifted his head and smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "You're just looking out for me, right?" He turned away, yelling "Later" over his shoulder as he headed in the opposite direction.

  I watched the blond as he strutted off like he owned the world. Then I turned and headed for algebra class. Even if he'd been serious, Dylan was just a hothead with a big mouth. Being the star quarterback for the junior varsity team this year despite only being a freshman hadn't improved his ego much, either. Hopefully he would come to his senses soon. . . before the elders had to step in. What he was talking about-the movies, the books-that was Hollywood. People liked the idea of magic. But no way would magical abilities fly in the real world, especially in Jacksonville, Texas. This was a Bible Belt town with conservative, old-school beliefs about religion and magic. Even if descendants held key positions in government and business here, if everyone found out just how powerful most descendants were, they would assume we were a bunch of Satan-worshiping baby murderers or something and run us out of the very town we founded. Dylan needed to remember that the Clann's power came from the secrets we kept.

  Well, one thing was for sure. . . if Dylan kept screwing around and being late all the time for practice, at least Coach Parker would be willing to help him regain his memory. The head coach had zero tolerance for tardy players, Clann or otherwise, on his teams. He'd probably make Dylan run laps after practice as punishment. That ought to take Dylan's ego down a notch or two, and would totally serve the idiot right.

  Sometimes I honestly couldn't remember why I still considered him my best friend.

  I headed down the hall toward the last class of the day. And toward Savannah. Her flame-bright hair and pale skin were easy to spot in the boring sea of tanned brunettes and blondes. A couple girls called out "Hey, Tristan!" to me, and one of the sophomore cheerleaders even touched my arm and grinned up at me. But I didn't have time to stop and talk. I was much more interested in watching that redhead. Something about looking at Savannah calmed me down today.

  I exited the air-conditioned main building and headed through the sticky spring-afternoon heat along the metal-awning-covered cement catwalk that stretched over the lower outer walkways, connecting the main building to the math building on the far side of the campus. Savannah and her friend were several yards ahead of me. Neither looked back. And yet something about the way Savannah's shoulders rose up as soon as I saw her. . . I could almost swear she knew I was watching her. Not for the first time, I wondered if she could somehow sense the focus of my attention. But that was impossible. She wasn't a descendant, and the Clann would know about any outsiders with special abilities like that.

  Except. . . no normal girl had ever stuck in my mind like she did.

  Then again, no girl, normal or otherwise, seemed to mess with my thoughts quite like Savannah did. So maybe I was just desperate to find any reason besides my own weakness to blame for the crazy hold she had on me.

  At least she made algebra interesting.

  Savannah

  "You look like crap," Anne whispered halfway through class, distracting me from the foggy circle my mind kept whirling around in.

  I couldn't even force a smile to reassure her. Nanna's special tea hadn't made a dent in the pain this time. It was all I could do not to bawl like a baby. This was way beyond simple soreness from dancing. Though I'd never been sick before, I was pretty sure I'd finally caught the flu, or something close to it. I had all the symptoms those flu-medicine commercials listed. When I wasn't freezing, I was burning up. I couldn't stop shaking. My skin felt like I had another of my annual summer sunburns everywhere my clothes touched. And my head was pounding so loud I'd missed hearing most of Mr. Chandler's lecture. We were supposed to be working on our homework assignment now. Right, like that was going to happen. Just the idea of grabbing my book from under my desk made the bones in my arms throb. And I sucked at math even on a good day.

  I shifted in my desk, and my legs bumped into Tristan's feet. Crap. I'd forgotten. As usual, the spoiled prince of Jacksonville needed more legroom and had stretched his long legs out at either side of my desk. Turning my seat into a virtual prison, unless I didn't mind our legs and feet touching every time I moved. Which I really did mind.

  Honestly, I could shoot whoever had come up with the evil idea of alphabetical seating. It was alphabetical seating that had first forced Tristan and me to sit beside each other in the fourth grade. And placed him right behind me here in algebra this year.

  I was tempted to slump down in my seat and rest my head on the back of my chair. But then my ponytail would land on Tristan's desk. And then he might start messing with the ends of my hair again, like Anne had caught him doing a few weeks ago. He'd probably been trying to stick gum in it. His best friend from the Clann, Dylan Williams, loved to do that to girls with long hair.

  Forcing myself to stay upright, I bit back a groan, propped my spinning head between my hands and checked the clock on the wall again. If I could just make it through this last class of the day. . .

  "Are you okay?" Anne whispered, leaning forward past Tristan. "I'm serious, Sav. You really look-"

  "Anne, focus on your work," Mr. Chandler said from his desk. "Savannah, come see me please. "

  I almost whimpered. He wanted me to move?

  Gritting my teeth, I pulled myself to my feet, circled around the front of my desk to avoid Tristan's legs and trudged across the room to the teacher's desk, praying I wouldn't barf all over the round little man.

  "Anne's right, you do look sick," Mr. Chandler murmured. "Would you like to go visit the nurse?"

  Great. So everyone thought I looked like crap today. "Um, no, thank you. " I tried not to breathe on him. Wasn't the flu supposed to be highly contagious? "It's the last class of the day. I can make it a little longer. Do you mind if I lay my head down on
my desk, though?"

  "Sure, go ahead. Just be sure to take care of the assignment as soon as you're feeling better. "

  On the way back to my desk, I wrapped my arms around myself as a sudden chill swept over my skin, making me shiver. Then I made the mistake of looking up at the clock again. And missed seeing Tristan's outstretched leg.

  I tripped hard over his foot. My arms wouldn't budge. No way could I catch myself in time. All I could do was close my eyes and brace for a face-plant on my desk. He'd have a real good time laughing about this later with his precious Clann friends.

  Instead, strong hands stopped my fall.

  I pried my eyelids open, knowing even before I did who had caught me.

  Tristan had half risen from his desk and grabbed my shoulders. Too tired and sick to stop myself, I got lost in emerald-green eyes that used to be as familiar as my own. Heat from his hands seeped through my shirt, melting my bones.

  "Sav, are you all right?" he whispered, his eyebrows drawn together.

  The nickname distracted me. He used his old nickname for me so easily, as if we were still in the fourth grade and best friends. As if he hadn't just spent the past five years pretending he didn't know me.

  His normally full lips were thin, grim lines today. He looked. . . furious. For having to catch me? Or because I'd had the nerve to trip over his foot?

  "Sor-ry," I muttered, a hint of anger giving me the strength to regain my balance.

  Once safely in my seat again, I laid down my head on the desk's cold wood surface, shivering and wishing I could just die already. As if having a monster case of the flu for the first time wasn't bad enough, now Tristan had decided to be mad at me because I'd tripped over him. Like I could help it that he was a total Sasquatch.

  But I was too tired to get properly mad about it at the moment. All I wanted was to go home.

  Tristan

  Savannah Colbert had to be the most stubborn girl I'd ever known. I'd watched her shiver, her breathing getting faster and more out of rhythm, for over an hour now. Anyone else would've gone home early. But not Savannah.

  I checked out her red cheeks, the way she never stopped frowning, how her body tried to curl into a ball.

  If she were still my friend, I would've hauled her stubborn butt off to my sister's car and driven her home myself. Never mind that I wouldn't have a driver's license until next year. Or that she was off-limits to everyone in the Clann, and Jacksonville was filled with gossips who watched my every freaking move and reported back to the elders within minutes of anything happening.

  I silently cursed the Clann with every swearword I knew. Bunch of controlling witches. Just because my family had led those power addicts for the past four generations didn't mean I wanted anything to do with their magic or their stupid rules. Every waking minute of the day, I had to focus on keeping my energy levels in check so I didn't accidentally set fire to stuff. It got exhausting sometimes, constantly having to keep the power under control, when all I really wanted was to be normal and play football, hopefully for the NFL someday. But even there, magic was both a help and a pain. It helped me run faster and hit guys harder. But it also meant I had to be careful not to break necks or send guys flying too far when I slammed into them. Anybody not in the Clann would be able to just relax and enjoy the game.

  Unfortunately, my parents had other plans for me that had nothing to do with football at all. They expected me to follow in my dad's footsteps and become the next Clann leader. Because of that, I'd had to practically beg just to be allowed to play. Any other parents in East Texas would have sacrificed an arm and a leg for their kid to play high-school football.

  Not to mention, because of the Clann, I'd had to stop being friends with Savannah. I still had nightmares about the way Savannah had looked at me when I'd had to tell her we couldn't hang out together anymore. The raw hurt in her eyes that day, and every time she'd looked at me since, was all the Clann's fault.

  Someday, somehow, I would find a way to get it through my dad's head that I would never follow in his footsteps. Then I'd be free. Free to be friends with anyone I wanted. Free to date anyone I wanted. . .

  Clenching my jaw, I stared at Savannah's back. Obviously she was sick. She should be seeing a doctor right now, not trying to tough it out in school. She would have passed clean out if I hadn't caught her.

  A foot kicked the side of my leg. What the. . . ? I turned to my left to find Anne Albright glaring at me.

  "Quit staring," she hissed.

  I scowled at her, hoping she'd back off and leave me alone. The last thing I needed was somebody else telling me what to do. Especially today.

  I went back to staring at Savannah. Anne kicked me again, the little wench. The sting spread up the side of my calf. I bit back another curse. That better heal before practice.

  "Anne, keep your feet to yourself please," Mr. Chandler warned from his desk. "Or do I need to put you in time-out?"

  Nice. I grinned.

  "No, sir," Anne muttered, sounding murderous. But at least she didn't kick me anymore.

  When the final bell rang, I jerked in my desk, my nerves strung as tight as if I were on the field at game time. Finally, Savannah could go home. Or even better, to a doctor.

  Anne got up, circled around to Savannah's desk and shook her awake. "Hey, Sav, time to go home. "

  "Ungh," Savannah groaned. She tried to stand, but her legs gave out.

  I jumped to my feet without thinking it through. "Need some help?"

  "Not from you, no. " Anne slung one of Savannah's pale arms over her shoulders so she could pull her up.

  "Stop, this looks ridiculous," Savannah croaked.

  "Oh, who cares, pretty princess?" Anne snapped. "Let's go. Gotta get you to your grandma's car now, and it's a long walk. "

  Yeah, talk about ridiculous. They would take forever to get to the parking lot, and I could carry Savannah there in about five seconds. She probably weighed all of fifty pounds. Only problem was all the witnesses we'd have. The Clann elders-especially my parents-would hear about it through the local grapevine before I could even get home from practice.

  So I stood there and did nothing, grinding my teeth and feeling like a grade A jerk for letting Anne help Savannah out of the classroom all by herself. Then I saw Savannah's backpack and books still under her desk. At least I could do this without attracting Clann attention.

  The girls had made faster progress than I'd figured. They were near the parking lot by the time I caught up with them. Knowing Anne would bite my head off again if I took Savannah's free arm to help, I stayed a few paces back.

  Anne didn't say anything to me as she guided Savannah into the passenger seat of a car waiting at the curb. "Mrs. Evans, she's really sick," Anne told the driver through the open passenger door. "I'm pretty sure she's running a fever. She wasn't feeling good at lunchtime, either, said she was tired and didn't eat anything. "

  "Hmm. Okay, thank you, Anne. I'll get her home and fixed right up," Savannah's grandmother promised. I snuck a peek at her. She looked like a sweet, little old lady, her cheeks round and rosy as she smiled at Anne. Then her gaze darted over to lock onto me, and I jerked upright again. The woman had eyes like a hawk. I'd be willing to bet Savannah got away with nothing at home. That woman wouldn't miss a thing, old or not.

  "Here's her stuff," I told Anne, holding out Savannah's backpack and books.

  Anne's eyes narrowed as she snatched them from me then set them in Savannah's lap.

  Savannah's head never lifted from the seat's headrest.

  I waited until the car exited the parking lot. Then I turned and started for the field house.

  "Hey!" Anne's voice stopped me, but I didn't face her as she caught up with me. "Why'd you do that?"

  Unsure what to say, I settled for a shrug.

  "You know, if you're trying to make people think you're nice, it usually works better to have an audience t
o see it. "

  "Whatever. "

  She muttered something that sounded like "egomaniac. "

  Man, Savannah had the worst taste in friends lately. I rolled my eyes and walked away.

 
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MELISSA DARNELL SERIES:

  • The Clann
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