Authors: Lee Nichols
“Have you met them?”
“Only once. They're kind of â¦”
“As frigid as the weather outside?” I suggested. “Even more stern than their son?”
“Yeah. It's weird how their last name fits them so well. It's like Stern is in their blood.”
“So it's not just me? They're cold with everyone?”
“Wait, you were
with them? And your sweater was inside out, andâ” She cackled and started furiously texting again. “You and Bennett were getting all
, and they walked in on you?!”
“âAll dirty'? What does that even mean? And who are you texting?”
“Sara. She wants to meet for deets.”
I sighed. “Fine. Tell her I'm buying. Higher Grounds in twenty minutes.”
Natalie and I walked into the village, bundled in our wool coats and scarves, grumbling that we should've driven. The
sun was shining, but a frozen wind whipped through the streets, stinging any exposed skin. I'd wanted to wear Bennett's sister's down jacket, which I'd been borrowing since the weather dropped below forty, but was afraid his parents would see me. Better to freeze. They already thought I was the slutty girlfriend who turned their son into an addict; I didn't need them thinking I was a petty thief, too.
“Where's Lukas?” I asked Natalie. “We should've invited him.”
“He went home,” she answered softly.
I stared at her. “You mean
home? I thought he was still fighting with his parents.”
She shrugged. “It's three days 'til Christmas. He said he's never spent a Christmas away from them. He's giving it a chance, no matter what they think of him.”
Christmas. I didn't want to think about it. My parents hadn't reappeared since they'd visited me in the hospital after I burned my hands on Coby's ghost. God, that still sounded ridiculous, even to me. Last Christmas, I'd been home in San Francisco with Max and them. We'd opened gifts in the morning, walked in Golden Gate Park, eaten roast beef and scalloped potatoes, played cards while finishing off a chocolate cheesecake, and fallen into bed.
My idea of a perfect Christmas.
This Christmas, I was living three thousand miles across the country, locked in an ongoing battle with an evil wraith master, and freezing my butt off. I didn't even know if my parents were coming.
Well, of course they wereâthat's what families
. But as much as I tried to convince myself they'd show for Christmas, I couldn't get over my doubts. I really needed them to be hereâto make me believe Neos hadn't ruined everything in our lives, including my favorite holiday.
“God, can we walk faster?” I stomped my feet. “I think I've got frostbite.”
“Race you!” Natalie said, knowing she'd win. Not that I cared, as I trailed behind her. It was workingâI could feel my feet again.
We slid on a patch of ice, almost wiped out, and were giggling by the time we opened the door of the coffee shop. There was a comforting blast of warmth and java smells, the sound of the milk steamer, and old movie posters decorating the walls.
Sara wasn't there yet, so we ordered three skinny redeye chais and watched Simon's twenty bucks quickly diminish. The fireplace nook was free, and we lounged in the ragged brown leather chairs, propping our feet on the brass grate next to the flames.
As I took my first sip of chai, I thought about Lukas and his parents. Would they be happy to see him? He deserved thatâfor them to love him, no matter who he was.
I knew my own parents loved me, even though they'd screwed up, first keeping my abilities as a ghostkeeper a secret from me, then disappearing entirely. They'd thought they were protecting me, and maybe they had for a little while. Still, I couldn't help wishing our lives were a
little more normal. That we were worried about what to get each other for Christmas, not about Neos reappearing in a murderous rage.
“Do you miss your parents?” I asked Natalie. “If they lived closer, would you go see them?”
She swirled her chai, silent for a moment. “You don't get it,” she finally said. “You think you do, but you don't. It's not like you and Lukas. They're not just crappy parents, they abused me. You don't miss that.”
“I'm sorry.” I leaned over to hug her. “I shouldn't haveâ”
“It's okay. Christmas just sucks, is all.”
“It so does.” At least this year it did. Aside from worrying my parents weren't coming, I'd accomplished nothing in the gift-giving department but a graphic novel for Lukas and a book of poetry for Simon. I had no idea what to get for Natalie, who was impossible to please, and Bennett, who had everything. And was I supposed to get something for Harry and Sara to stow in their castlelike mansions? “Totally sucks.”
“What sucks?” Sara asked, coming up behind us.
“Christmas,” I said, handing her a chai.
“Obviously,” she said, taking a sip.
don't like Christmas?” Natalie asked.
“What's there to like? It's prefab sentiment, tacky lights, and a day when all your favorite restaurants and stores are closed. Plus your parents never get it right. You ask for the
box set and they get you
High School Musical
. And my sister is visiting with her husbandâI hate him.”
“I knew you were our friend for some reason,” Natalie said.
“It's certainly not for that guy you hang out with.” Sara glanced around the coffee shop. “Where is he, anyway?”
“If you mean Lukas, he went to make things right with his parents,” I said.
Sara smiled softly. “He's kind of sweet.”
“I thought you were still in love with Coby,” Natalie said pointedly.
“And I thought you couldn't be with Lukas because you're both ghostkeepers,” Sara replied, even more pointedly.
I was caught in the middle of all the pointiness. On the one hand, I wanted Sara to hook up with Lukas so she could let go of Coby's ghost. On the other, Natalie was my best friend, and I wanted her to have someone as cool as Lukas. She needed that in her life.
But she didn't need the complications that came with them both being ghostkeepers. Their powers were so different, I wasn't sure which of them would begin to lose their abilities. And I didn't want that to happen to either of them. You shouldn't have to give up something that makes you special just to be in a relationship.
“Life would be so much simpler if one of you fell for Harry,” I said, wishing it were Natalie.
“Maybe he doesn't like either of us,” Natalie said.
“Harry?” I said. “Have you met him? He'd take either of you in aâ”
“Who cares about Harry?” Sara interrupted. “We're
talking about Lukas. And what if
doesn't like either of us? Maybe he's stupid enough to like Emma.”
“Leave me out of this,” I said. “I've got enough problems.”
“He did make you that sheath for your dagger,” Natalie reminded me.
“That's so cute,” Sara cooed.
“Not to mention he's hotter than hot butter.”
,” Sara said, giving a nice impression of Lukas.
I shook my head. “âHotter than hot butter'âis that even a thing?”
“You heard it here first,” Natalie said.
I drained my chai. “Do you think I should go back and see what happened to Bennett? Can your parents still ground you when you're twenty?” There had been serious tension in that room, and I worried about what was being said. Bennett had enough going on; he didn't need to be feuding with his parents.
“Ooh, tell me everything,” Sara said, pulling her chair closer. “And stop hogging the fire.”
“Take my seat.” I stood and tossed my cup into the trash.
“You can't go yet,” Sara protested. “I need details.”
“There are no details,” I told her. “They walked in on us kissing.”
“She was naked,” Natalie said.
“I was not!” I grabbed my coat and headed for the door. “Tell her the truth.”
As I left, I heard Natalie say, “Basically, they hate her.”
“No one hates Emma,” Sara said. “Believe me, I've tried.”
I didn't bother waiting to hear Natalie's answer,
because how could the Sterns
hate me? First I was responsible for their daughter's death, and now for their son's addiction to Asarum. If I were them, I'd hate me, too.
The air felt even chillier on the way home. Maybe it was the wind coming off the ocean, or maybe I was just anticipating the inevitable cold front from Bennett's parents. As I stomped through the pockets of ice on the museum's drive, I wondered why they'd suddenly returned.
Because they knew Bennett was hooked on Asarum? Because I was living in their house and they hated me? If they kicked me out, where would I go? Would Natalie come with me?
Inside, I shed my coat and went straight to Bennett's attic room. “It's me,” I called, climbing the rickety steps.
He met me at the top and took my hand. “Are you all right?”
“I'm fine. I mean, slightly embarrassed, but otherwise â¦” I stopped at the look in his eyes. “What? What happened?”
He dropped my hand and turned away, and I took in the state of the room. His dresser drawers were ajar and a suitcase lay open on the bed. I recognized the pale blues and grays of his wardrobe, messily folded and half stuffed in his bag.
“No,” I said. “
. You can't go.”
He sat on the edge of the bed. “C'mere.”
I crossed the room and stood between Bennett's legs,
looking down at him. I still felt a nervous shiver just being close to him, like the first time a guy you like kisses youâlike the first time
had kissed me. Maybe I'd never get over that feeling, not with Bennett.
He traced a finger down my arm. “It's hard to think when you're this close.”
“Then stop thinking.”
“We need to talk.”
“No, we don't,” I said, and kissed him. I just wanted to go back to before his parents interrupted us, before he'd started packing. I didn't care that we might get caught again, I needed to recapture the feeling that we could be together. That everything would be all right. I'd gotten too used to his being here. I didn't think I could do this without him anymore.
I kissed him and he lay back, shoving his suitcase to the floor, running his hands over my body. He made me feel beautiful, like I was the only thing he ever dreamed about. I wanted to forget everything but the taste of his mouth and the way his hands made me feel. I'd never been this way with anyone else beforeâinsatiably wanting and breathless. But I couldn't stop thinking about that suitcase. I pulled away.
“I'm going to miss that,” he said, with his gorgeous smile. He traced a path along my hip, unwilling to let me go completely.
I leaned back into him, unable to resist. “Then why are you leaving me again?”
“They kicked me out, Em.”
I frowned. “Your parents?”
“They told me to get off Asarum or go.”
“So get off it!” As beautiful as his smile was, it would've been so much better if he stopped taking the herb that stained his fingers and killed his appetite. Plus, I wasn't convinced he ever slept anymore.
“I can't. Not yet. Not until Neos is dead.”
I sat up on the bed. There was nothing to say about that; we'd already had the argument a dozen times. And I'd finally decided I had to trust that Bennett knew what he was doing. “How much do your parents hate me?”
His grin returned. “A lot.”
“Then why are you smiling?”
“They're pissing me off, so I'm happy that you're pissing
“Bennett, I don't want them to hate me.” I didn't want to be left alone here with them, feeling responsible for their daughter's death and the defection of their only remaining child. I couldn't see how we would comfortably coexist.
He rolled over and pressed against me. “They don't know you, Emma. Once they do, they'll fall in loveâlike I did.”
“But until then?”
He laid his head in my lap. “Just let me enjoy it.”