Authors: Lee Nichols
The Haunting Emma series by Lee Nichols
We all gaped at Harry for a moment, despite the eerie whispering filling the roomâthen someone screamed. The sharp, high-pitched sound cut through the whispers and set my heart racing. Natalie and I exchanged a glance, and Lukas pushed his lunch aside, preparing for the worst.
“Who screamed?” I asked, my voice soft. “Where did it come from?”
“I don't know,” Natalie said.
“Okay, ifâ” I didn't get any further, because the kids at the other tables abruptly rose from their seats. Chairs scraped the floor, and a sudden hush fell. They all stood with blank expressions on their faces, looking almost militaristic in their school uniforms.
“Crap,” I said under my breath. “Crap, crap.”
I've never liked bad boys. On TV shows, when the girl is torn between her sweet best guy friendâwho is not-so-secretly in love with herâand the standoffish bad boy, I always root for the best friend.
But standing in Bennett's attic room, my arms twined around him, I finally saw the appeal. I shouldn't have been there. Shouldn't have let Bennett's drug-stained fingers stroke my neck, shouldn't have lied to Simon about him. And I definitely shouldn't have been kissing him when I was supposed to be downstairs with the rest of the team, trying to figure out Neos's next move.
Yet I barely protested when Bennett nibbled my neck. “IâI shouldâohâ”
He pinned me with his piercing blue eyes. “Yes?”
“Um â¦” I licked my lips. “I forgot what I was going to say.”
“You don't have to say anything. Just keep making those little noises.”
I let out a sound I didn't recognize as he traced my spine with his finger.
“Yeah, like that,” he whispered.
Oh my God
. How could I have been so wrong about bad boys? Forget the best friend, I wanted
âthe unpredictable charm, the danger, the heat. Did anything else matter? I closed my eyes and ran my fingers through his hair in the spinning darknessâthen stopped when I heard a cough from the doorway.
My eyes snapped open and I caught a glimpse of someone standing at the top of the attic stairs. It was Simon, peering inside.
“Simon!” I yelped. “Go away!”
“Emma â¦,” he said. There was something weird in his tone, something more than just
I've caught you with your drug-addled boyfriend who shouldn't be here
“What?” I asked. “What's happened?”
Before he answered, two people stepped into the room. Well-dressed, faintly familiar, and completely unamused.
And Bennett said, “Mom â¦ Dad?”
I've always had moments when I wished I could yell “Freeze!” and the world would stop, giving me a chance to think of a great comeback line, retake a test, or cancel the inane grin I just flashed the guy I was crushing on. This was one of those moments. This was the
of all those moments.
What were Bennett's parents doing here? Well, yes, it was their house, but did they have to show up this very
minute? Why not an hour from now, when I'd be done with Bennett? Okay, I'd never be done with Bennett, but at least I might've been fully dressed. Instead I was wearing a lacy white tank top, which no parent would deem modest.
As I struggled into my sweater, my hand brushed Emma's ring, hanging on its chain around my neck. I considered whipping it on and disappearing in a cloud of ghostly embarrassment. On the plus side, it would end this terrifying encounter; on the minus side, I'd be deserting Bennett, which seemed really cowardly. And maybe turning into a ghost wasn't the best way to impress his parents. I mean, as much as I
impress them, given the whole making-out-with-their-son thing.
“I want you to meet Emma,” he told them, as though there were nothing awkward happening. “You've probably heard a lot about her.”
“Hi,” I squeaked.
“It's all true,” he said, with an easy grin.
His parents didn't smile back. They just stood there, radiating disapproval, which gave me ample time to discover that Bennett got his looks from his mom, who was dark-haired and beautiful. She had on an asymmetrical burgundy sweater over black fitted pants and low boots and wore her long hair slicked back in a ponytail. Carefully made up, her pursed lips caused the only apparent wrinkles. Bennett's eyes, though, came from his dad, who, aside from the blue marbles of brilliance under his furrowed brow, was almost completely gray, from his hair to his dress shirt and pants.
“The Sterns just got back from Europe,” Simon said into the silence. “They arrived late last night.”
Mr. Stern took a step toward Bennett. “What have you done to yourself?”
Mrs. Stern's gaze flicked from Bennett to me and back again. “This is worse than I thought. Much worse.”
“So your flight was good?” Bennett said.
“You look like aâ” His mother made a choking sound. “A ghost.”
,” his father said.
“And these are my parents,” Bennett told me. “John and Alexandra. They're very pleased to meet you.”
Simon took pity on me. He motioned me toward him and said, “Emma, let's give the Sterns a few minutes alone.”
Bennett squeezed me tight before letting go. I crossed the room, and Simon slipped me a twenty. “Go into town and get yourself a chai.”
I turned back toward Bennett, unsure whether I should leave him, but he wouldn't look at me. His body was rigid with anger, and I decided I wasn't helping things by being there. I took the twenty and fled.
I found Natalie sitting by herself in the solarium off the kitchen. In front of her was a mug drained of coffee and a half-empty bowl of soggy cereal. The latest
lay open on the cushion beside her while she texted on Sara's hand-me-down Sidekick.
It was mid-December and the sky was radiant blue.
I knew the air outside would feel subzero, at least to this California girl, but the inside of the solarium was warm and tropical, the heat of the sun mixing with the scent of Anatole's lemon and orange trees.
Natalie glanced at me. “Your sweater's inside out.”
I groaned and reversed my sweater. As I poked my head through the neck hole, I said, “Did you know Bennett's parents are here?”
Natalie stopped texting and frowned. “Really?”