Bryn yanked down the school bus window. Not that it helped much. The bus still smelled like sweat and nacho cheese. The sweat could be explained by the freshman boys who had gym last hour and considered showering optional. The nacho cheese was a mystery.
When the bus came to her stop, Bryn stood, cringing at the suction-type sound her thighs made as her skin separated from the vinyl seat.
“Hey, Bryn just ripped one,” an idiot yelled from the back of the bus. It was the same stupid joke every time someone’s legs stuck to the seats.
She pretended to scratch the back of her head and flipped him off as she shuffled down the aisle. Laughter followed her out the door into the semi-fresh air. And now it was time for her daily hike.
On a good day, Bryn hated the walk home from her bus stop. The up-and-coming industrial neighborhood where her family lived had ended up down and out. Boarded-up storefronts lined the street, making it look like the set of a low-budget zombie film.
The roar of motorcycle engines reverberated through the air from the crowd gathered outside Joe’s Pawn Shop. People came and went, ducking into vacant buildings for reasons she’d rather not know.
A man standing in the shadows of an abandoned auto shop tracked her progress as she walked past. Her heart kicked up a notch. She glanced over her shoulder just to make sure. Yep. The hot-guy stalker was back. This was sighting number three. She’d spotted him across the street from the high school parking lot yesterday and outside McDonald’s the day before. It’s not like he blended in anywhere.
With his pale skin and dark hair fixed in three-inch spikes, he looked like a demented manga character. The black muscle shirt he wore showed off the elaborate dragon tattoo running the length of his arm. And now he’d caught her staring. One corner of his mouth turned up in a lopsided grin.
Fantastic. It would be just her luck if Tall, Dark, and Tattooed thought she was flirting with him.
The morning news story about a sixteen-year-old girl found dead in a Dumpster just a few blocks away flashed through her mind. Despite the sticky heat of the August afternoon, a chill slithered down her spine. If she wanted to reach her own sixteenth birthday next week, she might not want to give this guy the benefit of the doubt. He could be harmless. Or, he could collect heads and hang them on meat hooks in his freezer.
Her parents’ yoga and martial arts studio sat at the end of the block. The late-afternoon sun glinted off the metal fire escape that led up to their apartment. It was too far. She needed a plan.
Just a quick look to see how close he was. Crap. He’d halved the distance. Less than a dozen feet separated them. He was closing in on her. Time to run.
She took a deep breath, checked for cars, and bolted across the street toward the used bookstore. The shopkeeper’s bell rang out as she crossed the threshold, and the cashier acknowledged her with a smile. Bryn nodded, moved to the section of teen books by the front window, and scanned the street. No manga-haired guy in sight, but he could be lurking nearby. Now what?
She knew what she should do, and she didn’t want to do it. Because of the crappy area they lived in, her dad had just started letting her walk home by herself. If she called him, he’d be back on guard duty. And he seemed to be in her business more than usual lately. Did she really want to encourage that? Then again, it was better than ending up in a Dumpster. She pulled the cell phone from her pocket and dialed home.
The call went straight to voicemail. According to the time on her cell, her parents would be off work in fifteen minutes. Then they’d check for calls.
“I’m in Pennywise Books. I think someone is following me.”
That should do it. Now, she’d sit tight and wait for the cavalry to arrive. Glancing around the store, she felt ridiculous. Had she overreacted?
People sat at tables in the back of the store, reading books, chatting, and drinking herbal tea. The smell of peppermint and bergamot filled the air. A calico cat slept on the windowsill next to a sign that read: Cat not for sale. Everything else is negotiable.
“Hey, kitty.” She stroked his head. He purred, leaning in to her touch. Life seemed normal again. The stupid news story had made her paranoid. She turned away to browse the store and find a new book.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The simple sound made the hair on her neck stand up. It couldn’t be. In slow motion, she turned back to the window. There he was, on the other side of the glass, smirking at her.
She jumped back like he’d given her an electric shock. A weird, tingling sensation ran down her spine as she watched him enter the store.
Amusement shone from his eyes as he approached. When he was close enough, he whispered, “If I wanted to harm you, no one in here could stop me.”
He seemed to be teasing. Instinctively, she knew he spoke the truth. “What do you want?”
“We have important matters to discuss, Bryn.”
Whoa. “How do you know my name?”
“Names are easy to come by. It’s the pictures that are hard to find. I wondered who you’d favor. Apparently, blue and red makes strawberry blond.” He brushed his fingers through her hair.
She jerked away. “Back off.”
Tilting his head, he studied her. “Amazing. They haven’t told you. Have they?”
This guy wasn’t right in the head.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I don’t care. Go stalk someone else.” She turned and headed for the café in the back of the store.
He caught hold of her upper arm, anchoring her in place. “No need to be rude.” He exerted pressure until she turned around. “We need to talk. Have a cup of tea with me.”
“You can take your cup of tea and shove it up—”
Her voice disappeared. She stood frozen in place, unable to make a sound. His pupils dilated and swirled, and it felt like she was falling into their black depths. From far away, she heard herself say, “I’d love a cup of tea.”
“Come with me.” With his hand on her shoulder, he steered her to one of the small tables in the café. “Sit.”
Mentally, she fought him, but she was no longer in control of her own body. She’d turned into a puppet, and he held the strings. Fear turned her stomach, and a metallic taste filled her mouth.
The waitress approached, and her captor ordered two cups of Earl Gray tea.
Bryn glared at him. It was the only act of defiance she could manage.
“Sorry. I know this is rude, but you’re not cooperating.” After their order arrived, he touched her arm. “When I release you, you’ll sit and drink your tea. You’ll speak in a normal tone of voice. You’ll do nothing to attract attention.”
“What in the hell did you do to me?” She meant to yell, but the question came out in the same tone of voice someone would use to discuss the weather. It was beyond infuriating. She told her body, Stand. Run. Instead, her hand reached for the cup of tea.
He placed his fingers under his nose and inhaled. “You smell like smoke and snow.”
The feral quality in his eyes gave her goose bumps.
“You’re insane.” There, at least she could say what she thought.
“It might appear that way to the uninformed.” He stirred sugar into his tea. “Now where were we?”
“You were kidnapping me.”
He leaned forward. One corner of his mouth quirked up in a lopsided grin. “You are entertaining. I’ve heard stories your mother was the same way.”
Why would he know anything about her mother? Was he stalking her family?
“Pay attention.” He snapped his fingers at her like she was a dog. “Soon your life will not be your own. You’re going to be sent away to a special school where the Directorate and the teachers will lecture you about your place in society. They’ll tell you what classes you can take and what jobs you can apply for. But you don’t have to follow the Directorate’s rules.”
What was he talking about? She focused all her mental energy into standing. A headache started at the base of her skull. Nothing happened. She pushed harder. Bam. Bam. Bam. It felt like someone was hitting her in the head with a hammer.
“Stop fighting me. You’ll only hurt yourself.” His gaze shifted to the door. “It appears our time is up.”
Her dad stood in the shop doorway. Face contorted in anger, he strode across the store. She may have imagined it, but she thought she heard him growl. The teacups on the table rattled.
The dark-haired man was on his feet in a flash. His casual stance was betrayed by the way his neck muscles corded against his collar. “Ian McKenna, I presume.”
Eyes locked on the man, her dad said, “Your mom is outside. Go.”
Bryn’s body slumped in the seat as she regained control of her muscles. Pushing to her feet, she backed away from the table. “Dad, be careful. He’s some sort of hypnotist.”
Her father’s face darkened. His shoulders seemed to grow larger and stretch the seams of his shirt. “You pushed my daughter?”
“I thought she was playing dumb. She doesn’t know anything, does she?”
“What my daughter knows is none of your concern.”
The stranger smirked. “Maybe you should’ve warned her about creatures like me.”
The temperature seemed to increase as Bryn backed out of the store. When she reached the doorway, her mom yanked her outside. “Did he hurt you? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. We should call the police. That guy’s crazy.” She pulled out her cell, but the battery was dead.
“Don’t worry. He’s no match for your father. Come on. We’re going home.”
Home sounded like heaven. She followed her mom down the sidewalk toward the fire escape. As always, her mom appeared to float up the metal stairs. Bryn’s tennis shoes made a ringing sound as she bounded up the steps to their apartment. Once they were inside, she grabbed the phone. Her mom may not think that guy was bad news, but Bryn had her own opinion.
“Put the phone down, Bryn. I need help with dinner.”
“Dinner? How can you think about dinner? Dad could be in trouble.”
Lips set in a thin line, her mom said, “The police would bring more problems.”
The back door opened, and Bryn raised the phone like a club.
Her father entered the kitchen. “That’s a poor excuse for a weapon.”
She slammed the phone down on the blue Formica countertop. “How can you joke about this? What’s going on?”
“You’re safe now.” He touched her shoulder. “I don’t think you were ever in any real danger.”
Bryn shrugged away from his touch and pointed at the red mark where the stranger grabbed her arm. “Does this look like I wasn’t in any danger?” The delayed reaction to her situation kicked in. “He talked about how I smelled.” Her adrenaline spiked. Acid roiled in her stomach. “Normal people don’t talk about how you smell.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” He frowned at the mark on her arm. “You did the right thing. You found a well-lit place with people.”
“Who was that guy? How did he know my name?”
Her dad traded a knowing glance with her mother and then cleared his throat. “Help fix dinner while we try to explain.”
Food wasn’t going to cut it. She wanted answers. Acid surged from her stomach and shot up her throat, burning her esophagus. Pressure built in her chest. She coughed. Her lungs constricted. She cleared her throat and opened her mouth to speak.
Flames exploded out of her mouth and shot across the room, setting the kitchen curtains on fire.
She had to be hallucinating, but it seemed so real. She could smell the smoke, taste it in the back of her throat. Her brain spun in circles, searching for a logical explanation, while her mom calmly grabbed the fire extinguisher from under the sink and doused the blaze.
“I never cared for those curtains anyway.” Her dad grinned.
“What’s going on?” Bryn croaked.
Flames shot toward her father’s head. He laughed and dodged to the side. “It’s simple. We’re dragons.”