“You shouldn’t go,” the words were soft.
Ellie Aubrey closed her eyes briefly, then opened them again and resumed her packing.
“I have to,” she answered just as quietly.
She moved from where her half-full suitcase lay on her bed to the old-fashioned wardrobe that held the rest of her clothing. Grabbing another handful, she glanced at her twin brother, Griffin, then immediately wished she hadn’t. He stood rigid in her doorway, his expression tight.
“I believe the people I…saw…are like us,” she said. “How can I walk away from that? We’ve been alone for so long. Don’t you think it’s worth the risk to know if we’re not alone?”
Her argument fell on deaf ears like seeds scattered on asphalt. They’d been fighting about this for the last six months, ever since she’d first had the dream. One where she’d seen that a large family of people like them existed. It had taken her from then to now to search for those people, based on clues in the vision—mountains, certain buildings, a name.
But she had found them.
“It’s dangerous. No one in our family line ever had abilities related to visions or prophesy. There’s no explanation for why you might suddenly develop one. Which means that dream didn’t come from you.”
He crossed his arms, muscles twitching against his shirt. “Then you know that you risk too much. We haven’t stayed hidden, stayed alive on our own for almost a hundred and fifty years, just to blow it on something that could be a trap.”
“I have no choice.” She took a deep breath, then sat on the bed, her hands folded in her lap. “We were raised in a community. We were part of the Darane Svatura.” Pride in her ancient and rare heritage pulsed through her very soul. Didn’t Griffin feel it, as well? “We were a part of the largest gathering of our people in existence, an extraordinary assembly of abilities in one single clan. Hundreds strong—”
“And every single one is dead…except for us.” Bitterness laced her brother’s words.
She ignored the interruption. “As much as I love you, Griffin, I want a larger family again. I need to be able to share who and what I am with others like us.”
Ellie gazed at Griffin—tall and strong, his deep-set eyes and thick brows a reflection of his personality, ever the steadiest part of her life.
Sadness weighted her down as though her limbs were filled with sand. Her brother was her best friend, her only remaining blood relation, and the one person who could help her keep the darkness lurking inside her leashed. She couldn’t imagine doing this without him, but she would if she had to.
He remained silent, which was no wonder. In all of their disagreements about this, she’d never told Griffin she needed others…that she needed more than just him.
Eventually, he sighed, then crouched in front of her and took her hands in his. “Do you remember when we were kids, and we thought that it was normal for everyone to have at least one power?”
Ellie nodded. They’d always assumed abilities like theirs were perfectly ordinary. After all, everyone in their clan had them. Where was he going with this?
“Then we got older and began to realize how unique Svatura were. That it was unusual for anyone to have special abilities at all—let alone an entire people.”
“I believe it was grouping together that way that got everyone we knew and loved…killed.”
The conviction in Griffin’s voice, in his serious gaze trained on her, had Ellie listening more closely. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve been thinking about it. Having that much power in one place was bound to get us noticed sooner or later.”
She gave a frowning nod. “Makes sense. I guess our great-grandfather’s arrogance was in believing that our combined strengths were enough to fend off anything that might come our way.”
But the Svatura hadn’t been strong enough.
Only Ellie and Griffin had survived, and that had been sheer luck. Those murderers who’d attacked their people with such deadly force hadn’t found the two of them that day, or any day since.
Not in over a century.
Could that be because they’d stayed so isolated? Or was Griffin right that their abilities would be more easily found out only when they were part of a larger group?
They’d done their best to blend into society. These days that meant pretending Ellie was in high school, because that was the age she appeared to be. That also meant they had to say Griffin, who couldn’t pass for school age anymore, wasn’t her twin, but instead her older brother and her guardian. Doing so allowed them to remain in one place longer and interact in the community without attracting undue attention. It also had the added benefit of protection. Living as normal humans disguised them from others like them, as well as from their pursuers.
“That’s why this is so dangerous.”
“What do you mean?” Ellie frowned.
“You said that in your dream, this was more than just two or three like us?”
“Yes, although I don’t know how many for sure. A half dozen, maybe more.”
“Exactly!” Griffin stood and began to pace as he made his case. “If these people aren’t setting a trap for you, then they could be the bait. If that’s not the case, then they’re in danger themselves. Their numbers will draw too much attention.”
Ellie recognized his logic. He was probably right, but if anything, his words gave her even more reason to go.
“But don’t you see, Griffin? If they are in danger, maybe I can help them.” She spread her arms wide, an appeal for him to stop thinking with his head and, instead, put his heart into it.
Her twin stopped pacing.
She tried a different tack. “I’ll be careful. I won’t approach them directly or let them know who I am unless and until I’m sure they aren’t the threat or unless I absolutely have to. I promise.”
He shook his head. “I know you, Ellie. That won’t last long.”
“I will be careful.”
“You’ll be dead.” He uttered softly, and so defeated she flinched as though he’d yelled.
“I have to go,” she whispered, pleading for his understanding. She took a step toward him, but he jerked back, a motion that threatened to rip her heart out right along with it.
“Go,” he said. “I can see you’re determined, and I love you. But you’ll go alone.” He turned on his heel and left.
Ellie’s heart withered. She prayed he’d follow her, that he wouldn’t be able to stay away and leave her completely unprotected, but she was going.
An hour later she drove off, her car loaded with her belongings, ready for the two-day journey from central Texas to the small mountain town of Estes Park, Colorado. Griffin was nowhere to be found when she left.
Which meant Ellie was on her own for the first time in her life.
The first day in a new school was always the worst, a balancing act like no other, as Ellie tried to both blend in and not show her true age.
She shifted from foot to foot as she stood at the front desk in the administrative office, as she had too many times before in too many offices, waiting with growing boredom for one of the counselors to give her the usual “new student” spiel.
One last time, she would tolerate it…for what she had to do.
So far, this school was pretty much the same as all the others—similar generic brick buildings, very institutional looking, and obviously not updated in fifty-some-odd years. Teenagers hanging out in random patches around the school, waiting for the starting bell to ring. The same middle-aged secretary wearing a heavily decorated sweater, this one winter-themed in keeping with the season.
Ellie glanced out the window. At least the locale was different than her previous residences. The town was nestled in a valley just outside the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. The beaver-shaped notches of Long’s Peak rose in the distance. Blanketed in white snow, at this time of year Estes Park appeared to be a typical, sleepy mountain town, although come summer, it would likely fill with tourists out to enjoy the many entertainments the beautiful surroundings could offer.
“Ellinore?” a voice asked from the doorway behind her.
“Ellie.” She corrected the counselor automatically, as she turned and offered a polite smile. Her full name was old-fashioned, having not been popular in decades, if not centuries. The counselor, Miss Langston, introduced herself, looking every bit like the usual counselor-type.
As Ellie followed Miss Langston down the hallway to her office, she made sure to keep a pleasant expression on her face while avoiding eye contact with everyone she passed. Teens today seemed strangely unwilling to look at others directly, and she’d discovered the best way to handle the first week in a new school was to try to look confident and generically nice, but not cocky. It also helped to try to blend in as much as possible. A fine line to walk, especially for someone like her.
These students appeared no different than those in all her other schools, carbon copies of each other, even when they tried so hard not to be.
“So, it seems like you’ve just moved here from Texas.” Miss Langston consulted her files after they were seated in her tiny office. She looked up over her black-rimmed glasses at Ellie, who gave her a half-smile. She knew exactly what the folder contained. Academic records were still notoriously easy to fake. “Estes Park High is not as large as your previous school.”
Ellie kept herself from shifting in her seat and nodded at appropriate intervals as Miss Langston droned on. Finally, a half hour later, armed with campus rules, a map, and her schedule, she made her way to her first class.
She resisted the urge to cringe as the gazes of other students followed her down the halls. In smaller schools like this, everyone recognized when a new face appeared among them.
What exactly did they see when they looked at her? A petite, almost pixie-like girl with long, black hair and blue eyes so deep in color they appeared in certain lights to be violet. Not beautiful, exactly. More like “the girl next door,” only with slightly unusual coloring. Freckles across the bridge of her nose put her solidly in the “cute” category.
Ellie had deliberately dressed down, sticking to her tried-and-true rule of blending in, wearing the uniform jeans and a plain-blue top that was flattering, but nothing special. She’d pulled her hair into a ponytail hanging down to the middle of her back. She couldn’t do much to downplay her striking eyes but hadn’t bothered to highlight them either. Experience had taught her if she wanted to make any girlfriends on the first day, the best way was to avoid being seen as competition.
Ellie didn’t necessarily have a problem with being the center of attention. She just didn’t love “new girl” attention—a combination of curious and hostile.
With another inward sigh, Ellie reminded herself that she had an extremely good reason for doing this. With a deep breath, she entered her first-period classroom. She walked up to the teacher’s desk and handed over a slip of paper to be signed.
“Hi, I’m Ellie.”
The blond woman nodded. “I am Mrs. Cavender and this is AP English. Were you in the advanced class in your previous school?”
“Yes.” The counselor had already asked her that.
“What books had you made it through when you’d left?”
“We’d finished Canterbury Tales and Hamlet.”
Mrs. Cavender nodded again as she got up from her desk. Pulling a well-worn book off the shelves behind her, she said, “We’re in the middle of To Kill a Mockingbird, so you’ll have some catching up to do.”
Ellie nodded. She’d read it multiple times, including when it was first published in 1960. But, of course, she couldn’t tell the teacher that.
Mrs. Cavender pointed. “You can sit behind Jill over there.”
“Thanks.” Ellie made her way to her seat, resisting the urge to scan all the faces in the room to see if she recognized anyone from her dream. She slid into the small desk, dropped her backpack on the floor, and gave the girl seated in front of her a shy smile. She received a sweet, curiosity-filled one in return.
English went the way Ellie expected. They had a vocabulary quiz. She aced it. They discussed a few chapters of the book, and she pretended to listen as if she hadn’t already read it. They wrote a timed essay, comparing and contrasting two different marriage proposals from pieces of literature that Ellie already knew well. Good times.
So far so good. No one put themselves out to be particularly nice, but at the same time, no one had been remotely nasty either. If she could get through lunch—the worst part of the first day—she could make it through anything. Then do it all again tomorrow.
“Lather. Rinse. Repeat,” she muttered under her breath.
The bell rang, signaling the end of class and the start of the early lunch period. Ellie held back, trying to time her entry into the lunchroom to be after the bulk of the students were settled, but not so late that her appearance was too obvious. This was a trick she’d learned at previous schools—give most of the students a chance to sit down so that she didn’t make the mistake of sitting at an already-claimed table.
She found a spot in the back, alone and away from prying eyes. Excitement thrummed inside her and she desperately wanted to lift her head and look around for those she’d come here to find. But she couldn’t do that without risking attracting their attention. The curiosity surrounding her arrival in the school would fade. Then she could focus on the true reason she’d moved here.
This moment had been a long time in coming.
“Hi.” The soft voice caused Ellie to jump in her seat.
Glancing up, she almost jumped again—this time in shock. She immediately recognized the girl standing next to her as one of the three people she’d just been thinking about. The three young enough looking to likely be at this school.
“Um, hi,” Ellie said as she took in the girl’s appearance.
She appeared exactly like Ellie had seen in her dream with pretty green eyes and honey-blond hair worn in a short, chin-length bob. She dressed casually, but something about her reminded Ellie of warm hugs and sipping hot chocolate by cozy fires.
She was real. And standing right in front of me…
“You’re new here, right?” At Ellie’s nod, the girl continued, “I’m Adelaide Jenner.”
Adelaide gave Ellie a strangely intent look.
Uh-oh. Ellie’s heart thumped a little harder. Does she know?
At that exact moment, another voice echoed in her mind. “Do you need me to say I told you so?”
“Griffin?” she thought back.
“Now who else would be in your head?” the voice grumped.
Despite the sour puss tone, Ellie couldn’t help the relief that poured through her. Griffin had to be closer than Texas for her to hear him.
“You said you weren’t going to get involved?”
“I’m not,” came the emphatic response. “I’ll see you when you get home.”
“Ok—a—a—y.” New home or old home?
“Oh, and Ellie?”
“She doesn’t know anything. Not yet at least. And don’t even think about using my telepathy on them.”
Holding onto her brother’s last comment, Ellie hid her thoughts and raised her eyebrows at Adelaide, whose expression had scrunched in confusion. “Do I have something in my teeth?” Ellie covered her mouth, feigning embarrassment. She had to do something to cover her momentary blankness.
She breathed a little easier when the other girl seemed to shake herself out of her own reverie. “No, you’re fine…um, would you like somebody to sit with? The first day at a new school can be pretty brutal.”
If one of the people she was tracking wanted to be friendly, that was better than the alternative.
“That would be nice, thanks.” She scooted her lunch things closer to make more room.
“Great! Now”—Adelaide hesitated, her hand resting on the back of a chair—“do you mind if a couple others join us?”
Ellie blinked. There were three people she was here for…could it be that on her first day, she was already going to have lunch with all of them? Tricky situation, since she’d only planned on observing from afar to start with.
“No problem!” she responded brightly. With no idea yet what abilities they possessed, she’d have to be careful.
Adelaide turned and waved the other two over. The girl who walked up to the table looked exactly like Adelaide, except that her hair hung to the middle of her back, and the more wary look in her eyes pegged her as both more confident and more serious. The boy with her was unusually tall and lanky with sandy-brown hair. His dark eyes flashed an engaging twinkle.
Ellie recognized them both from the dream.
“This is Lila. That’s short for Lilianna. We’re—”
“Sisters?” Ellie guessed. “Yeah, I kinda figured that one out.” She grinned at Lila, keeping her hands deliberately under the table, rather than offering to shake. “I’m Ellie.”
“Nate,” the tall boy said, as he pulled out the chair across from her.
Adelaide, Lila, and Nate—could this really be happening? She was really here? Finally here?
The promise she’d made to Griffin rang in her head. She’d pretend to be human and just observe for now, but this was way easier than she’d imagined.
“So, where’re you from?” Lila asked. She sat down and pulled out a sandwich from her lunch bag.
“Texas.” Ellie watched for a reaction. She found it interesting what preconceptions people had about places.
“Oh? Which part?” Adelaide appeared interested.
Ellie gave them the most recent place. “Austin, right in the middle of the state.”
“I’ve read they’ve got a cool music scene, right?” Nate asked around his bite of pizza.
“Yeah, there’s lots of clubs there and some huge festivals. I’ll miss that, but it’s beautiful here.” She gestured to the scenery outside the window behind her.
“If you like it cold.” Lila grimaced and took another bite of her sandwich.
“Why’d you move here?” Nate asked.
Ellie gave a casual shrug. “Um…family stuff.” She’d gotten good at being vague over the years. “Family stuff” covered a whole host of possibilities without being too specific.
“What year are you?” Lila prompted.
“A senior. What about you guys?” Ellie leaned back in her chair and pushed her food away. Nerves made eating lunch impossible at this point.
“Lila’s a junior. Delia and I are seniors,” Nate answered with a nod toward Adelaide.
“Oh! Maybe we have some classes together.” Ellie pulled her schedule from her backpack. “What do you have in the afternoon?”
Adelaide glanced at the list. “Cool, we have French together. Lila, too.”
“You’re in third-level French?” Ellie remarked with surprise, until she reminded herself that these three were like her. Special. No doubt they’d learned the language years ago. That would take some getting used to.
“We tested out of first-level French last year,” Lila explained. “We took a trip to France in junior high, so our parents made us learn it first. Talk about sucking the fun out of a vacation!” She sighed and Adelaide scrunched her nose. Ellie had to laugh at their identical, disgruntled expressions.
They seemed nice—open, easygoing, maybe even naively unaware. Unless they were hiding that they were a threat, which was possible. It would be much easier to figure out with Griffin’s help.
Like that was going to happen.
After lunch Adelaide, Lila, and Nate walked to Ellie’s calculus class with her.
“See ya, baby.” Nate gave Adelaide a quick peck on her cheek before he and Ellie headed into the room.
Their calculus teacher, Mr. Kramer, seated her across the room from Nate, so she didn’t get a chance to find out more. After calculus came more classes she’d had before, and which were as unremarkable as every other iteration. As soon as the end-of-day bell rang, Ellie made her way to the front office, dropped off her signed class slip in the counselor’s office, and headed for the parking lot.
At least the first day was over. Tomorrow she’d be less of a novelty. Tomorrow, she’d have a better chance to learn more about Adelaide, Nate, and Lila.
She walked out of the main building and almost ran right into her three new friends.
“Hey, Ellie, how was your first day?” Adelaide called out.
“Oh, you know, typical.” She grinned as the others fell into step with her.
Adelaide snorted in agreement. “So, we study together a lot. You probably already guessed that. Since you share some classes with us, I thought you might like to join us some time.”
Tempting. So, so tempting. As much as she wanted to, Ellie wasn’t ready to encourage a friendship yet. She needed to know more first. At the same time, she didn’t want to drive them away either. “Sure, that sounds great.”
She’d just have to make sure her schedule was booked any of the times they asked. For now at least. Griffin would kill her if she said yes.
“Okay. So how does Wednesday night sound to you?” Adelaide handed Ellie her cellphone. “Do you want to give me your number, so I can call you about it?”
Nuts. Being new to town, saying she was busy would stand out as an obvious excuse.
“I think that will be all right”—she keyed in her number and handed it back—“but let me check at home. Okay?”
“Sure,” Adelaide agreed.
“Alex!” Lila suddenly let out a squeal of delight and shot across the front courtyard toward the parking lot.
Beside Ellie, Adelaide limited herself to a milder reaction, just smiling widely. Ellie couldn’t quite see the person Lila had greeted with such enthusiasm until she launched herself into his arms.
Then he turned and Ellie got a good look…and her world tilted at a slightly cockeyed angle. One moment she was walking along, trying to think of an excuse to miss out on studying, and the next, she could hardly breathe. Dizziness threatened to sweep her away or knock her over.
She’d never experienced something like that before. Maybe this was some kind of effect from the older boy’s powers?
He was almost in-your-face handsome, tall, broad-shouldered, and with similar coloring to her own—black hair cropped short, slightly longer on the top. Drop-dead hot would be an understatement. She’d seen her fair share of fine-looking guys over her unnaturally long lifetime, but none had ever grabbed her interest so immediately. Despite having an a rather optimistic personality, she’d never believed in love at first sight. But something about this guy got to her in an instant.
“What’s Alex doing home?” Adelaide muttered beside her.
Ellie realized with a spurt of relief that she’d managed to keep walking despite the havoc tumbling through her. He—Alex—hadn’t notice her yet, as he talked first to Lila and then to Nate. She willed him to glance up and yet oddly feared it at the same time.
And then he did.
He looked up and stilled, staring directly into her eyes…into her soul. It could only have been a moment. Seconds. Heartbeats.
Then Adelaide gasped. The sound was sharp enough to make Ellie break eye contact with a jerk. She turned, and without even thinking, put her hand on Adelaide’s arm. “You okay?”
The sizzle of an electric jolt passed between them, and an image hit her mind with the force of a Mack truck. Ellie jerked her hand back and gave it a shake. “You shocked me,” she accused jokingly.
Deliberately. That wasn’t normal. Neither was what she’d seen.
Adelaide gave an off-handed shrug, her gaze still far away, and started walking again. Somehow, Ellie managed to bury the vision that had assailed her when she’d touched the other girl. She’d think about it later. Instead, she kept her eyes lowered as she stepped off the curb and approached the little reunion going on in the parking lot.
“Ellie, this is Alex.” Lila waved a hand in her general direction. “He’s our older brother.”
Ellie stuffed her hands in her pockets, not wanting to risk touching him too, and pasted a pleasant expression on her face. One that usually had the effect of putting people at ease and caused them not to study her any further.
She looked Alex directly in the eyes and offered him a slightly lopsided smile. “Hi.” Her voice sounded a little too breathy to her sensitive ears.
In return, he gave her a long, lazy grin. Her stomach twisted in a gut-level response. All she could do was stare back and try to bring her erratic breathing under control.
Adelaide broke the spell. “She just moved here this week.”
Glancing at the other three, Ellie gratefully realized that they’d seen nothing odd with her.
“I see. I hope you like it here,” he replied, his voice deep and smooth.
Get a grip, girl. She’d read hundreds of books with heroines who swooned at the sight of their true love and had thought them to be incredibly wimpy. Now here she stood, barely able to keep herself upright. Not that she was in love. How could she be? But a girl could appreciate a bona fide hottie when she saw one, right?
“So far, so good.” Ellie managed a nonchalant shrug.
It dawned on her—again—that she needed to keep her distance from this family until she’d figured them out, so she backed up a couple steps. “I guess I’ll see you guys tomorrow.” Throwing another glance Alex’s way, she added, “Nice to meet you.” And with a brief wave to all of them, she turned and headed to her own car, her mind reeling.
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