As soon as we dock, I’m off the boat and racing down the pier toward solid land. But I don’t get far before Spencer’s heavy footsteps echo behind me. He’s running, trying to catch me. I pick up my pace.
“Everleigh!” he shouts.
“Leave me alone, Spencer. I hate you!” I scream without turning around to look at him.
Spending the summer on his boat was possibly the single biggest mistake of my life, which is saying a lot considering last summer, on a dare, I jumped off the high-dive in a string bikini—and came up missing a vital piece of my swimsuit as a result. At the public pool no less.
He catches up to me and grabs my hand, stopping my escape. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Let go of me,” I say, my voice tight. But as always, his touch ignites something inside of me, something I still can’t explain, and I stop even though I don’t want to.
Spencer drops my hand and steps back. “Okay fine, but at least slow down and talk to me. What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing. And we have nothing to talk about, either. I never should’ve gotten on that boat with you.” I fidget, refusing to meet his gaze. I know he’ll have that sad, pathetic look in his eyes, and that’s the last thing I can handle right now.
His eyes widen as if I just slapped him or something. “Is that how you really feel?” His voice is soft, pleading.
I hate when he uses that tone. It’s my weakness, and he knows it. I nod, unable to speak. If I try, I’ll end up crying, and I refuse to let him see the effect he has on me, the devastation his words caused to my heart. Not now when things have already drastically changed so much.
“You’re unbelievable, Everleigh.” He throws his hands up in frustration. “You used me to save face with those people you call friends, and somehow I’m the bad guy.” He shakes his head, sighing heavily. “I’ve done everything I could for you this summer, and this is how you thank me? Well, at least we agree on one thing. This summer was a mistake.” He turns on his heel and marches back toward the boat. “I never should’ve chosen you to save,” he mumbles.
My ears ring with his words, and my face heats with both shame and hurt. I chase him. “Spencer!” I grab at his arm, but he jerks away before I can get ahold of him. “Hey! Don’t walk away from me.”
Spencer spins around abruptly, and I bump into him. I stumble back from the force, and he steadies me, his hands warm and strong on my arms. He pulls me closer, and I hold my breath, simultaneously hoping he kisses me and that he doesn’t. I lick my lips, and his eyes darken. My heart is hammering so loud in my chest it drowns out all the other sounds around me. He lowers his head, and I snap out of the trance I’m in. I yank out of his hold, replacing my desire with anger. I can’t lose sight of what I know I have to do.
“I swear to God, Spence, if you tell anyone about what happened this summer, I will—”
“You’ll what?” he snaps. “Look around, Everleigh.” He holds his arms out to his sides and spins in a slow circle. “There’s no one here. Just who am I going to tell, exactly?”
All the fight in me deflates as I glance around. He’s right. Our hometown has been culled, just like all the other lake towns we’ve been to this past week. My heart sinks, and my shoulders droop.
“Oh, God,” I mumble.
Spencer sighs, steps closer, and rests his hands on my shoulders. “I know you’re pissed at me for what I told you last night, but you can’t go running off on your own. It’s not safe.”
I scowl, hating that he’s right yet again. I have no idea if any of the Bittens are still here, but if they are, I can’t risk coming face to face with one alone. I don’t stand a chance against a volatile, rage-fueled vampire.
“I promised you we’d go check to see if your parents are okay, and we will. But then I need you to swear you’ll go to Brookside with me.” He peers into my eyes, his gaze unflinching.
I shift on my feet and avert my gaze, so I don’t have to look at him. I both hate and love him right now—and I’m not sure which emotion is stronger. I’m desperate to know if my parents survived the culling, but I’m equally as desperate to put as much distance between me and Spencer as possible. Problem is I can’t go without him. Not only do I need him for my protection, I need him to take me to Brookside, the Born vampires’ stronghold, where we’ll be safe from the Bittens.
“Fine,” I finally say and cross my arms over my chest.
“Thank you.” He drops his hands from my shoulders, steps back, rakes his hand through his hair. “I’m going to grab some weapons. Don’t move.”
I glower at him as he turns to go back to the boat. On our way home from our summer vacation cut short, we stopped at each town along the lake, checking for survivors and gathering as many supplies as we could carry.
Spencer returns a moment later with a rifle slung over one shoulder, a handgun tucked into the waistband of his jeans, and a knife sticking out of his boot. He looks like something straight out of a badly acted action movie. I raise a brow and fight not to laugh at how silly he looks.
“What did you mean just now when you said you shouldn’t have chosen me to save?”
He doesn’t so much as flinch, yet his gaze drifts ever so slightly. I shift on my feet, waiting for an answer I’m pretty sure I no longer want.
“Brookside can only hold so many people. Every Born in the area will be there, along with their families and whatever human volunteers we could gather.” He glances away momentarily. “The Council held an auction to allow a certain number of families to save others. My family was chosen.” He lets out a heavy breath. “My parents have no family around here, so Dad said I could choose who to save.”
My arms hang limply by my sides, and I stare at him, stunned. “And you picked me?” My voice sounds faraway even to my own ears. “Why?” I whisper.
He pins me with a you-can’t-be-serious look, brow raised, lips turned down in a frown. “Because I like you, and I thought maybe if you were away from those witches you call friends, you’d be… I don’t know. Grateful?” He shrugs. “That maybe we could go back to the way things were between us before popularity became the most important thing in the world to you.”
I narrow my eyes, refusing to speak. Honestly, what can I say? I am grateful he chose to save me, but he’s smart enough to know things will never be the same between us. Too much has changed and happened, and our relationship is different now.
“Let’s go,” he says, then takes off ahead of me. “Stay close, okay?”
“Whatever,” I grumble.
I follow silently, not allowing too much room to grow between us—mostly because I don’t to lose sight of him, and with his vampire speed, he can easily get ahead of me.
My town, while familiar, feels foreign. Every business and house we pass is lit up like normal, but no one is around. Doors are open, some are torn from the hinges. Windows are smashed. Silence wraps around us, and my stomach turns itself inside out.
“Do you hear anything?” I whisper.
“No. I don’t see or smell anything, either.” He tilts his head back and sniffs. “We’re completely alone.”
My breath catches at his words. We’re only halfway through town. My house is a mile outside of the town line—my parents could still be okay. But even as the thought enters my mind, I know it’s a lie. We’re probably wasting our time going to my house, but I have to know for certain.
Spencer shifts the rifle into his hands and holds it out in front of him. I slow my steps to see what he’s going to do. When he continues walking, I jog to catch up. Part of me wants to talk, to fill all this silence, but I’m too afraid. What if someone is around and hears me? What if Spencer refuses to talk back to me?
So, instead of saying anything aloud, I silently rehash our argument from last night. Things had been going so well between us. We’d been snuggled on the bed, Spencer telling me all about vampires—both the Borns and the Bittens. We’d been kissing and, I thought, growing even closer. But then I’d opened my big mouth to ask him what would happen when we got home.
His answer: “I don’t know.”
He didn’t know? How could he not know? I mean, we both knew we needed to get to Brookside as fast as possible, but beyond that… We’d grown so much closer in the short amount of time we’d been on his boat. He even admitted he liked me as more than a friend, that he chose to save me from the culling. How can he declare all of that and then not know what will happen between us? Of course, minutes ago he admitted saving me was a mistake.
I want to demand an answer, something concrete so I know where I stand with him. Especially now when the world and my entire life is so uncertain. But I realize now really isn’t the time to deal with whatever relationship drama we have, so I keep my thoughts to myself.
Spencer grabs me around the waist, spins me out of the road, and then tackles me to the ground behind a large oak tree. I start to yelp with surprise, but Spencer covers my mouth with his hand. He presses his finger to his lips to indicate I need to be quiet.
Heart pounding and eyes wide with fear, I nod my understanding.
He slowly lowers his hand from my mouth.
Seconds later, voices filter from the street where we’d just been. I peek around the base of the tree trunk. Two hulking guys walk side by side, shoulders hunched forward. Their eyebrows are drawn deeply between their eyes in a permanent angry leer, and their lips are parted to accommodate the mouthful of sharp fangs that protrude over their bottom lips.
This time, I slap my own hand over my mouth to stop from making any sound, and I barely breathe for fear of alerting the vampires to our presence. I cautiously move back around the tree trunk so I’m fully hidden from view.
Spencer holds my gaze as if afraid I might do something stupid. Little does he know I’m much too terrified to move let alone do anything else. I focus on remaining calm and perfectly still.
“We got ‘em all,” one of the vampires says. “Boss will be pleased.”
“Think he’ll reward us with a snack?” The other vampire snickers.
My stomach curdles like sour milk, and I have to momentarily close my eyes to block out everything around me. We got ‘em all. That must mean my parents, too. Now I know I’m wasting precious time forcing Spencer to go to my house with me, but we’ve come this far, and I can’t go back now.
Eventually, their voices fade, but I still don’t move. I stay where I am until I feel Spencer’s hand on my arm.
“C’mon, they’re gone,” he whispers.
I nod and push to my feet, though my legs tremble. “You’re sure they don’t know we’re here?” I glance down the street, praying I don’t see the vampires coming back for us.
Spencer shakes his head. “If they did, they wouldn’t have left.” He once again holds the rifle in front of him. “Let’s go. We need to make this trip as quick as possible.”
Nodding, I hug myself and once again fall into step behind Spencer. He appears much more alert now than he did before we saw the Bittens, and that makes me twice as nervous. I keep my eyes peeled, too, just in case.
Thirty minutes later, we arrive at my house, and I hear nothing. No screaming and shouting. No arguing. No insults or curses. And that’s when I know with absolute, undeniable certainty—my parents are gone.
Even though I knew this was the most likely outcome, the truth still lands in my gut like a wrecking ball. My breath expels in a violent whoosh, and I sink to my knees. I can’t believe they’re really gone. Despite how rotten things have been between my parents lately, they’re still my mom and dad, and I love them.
“Ev, honey. I’m so sorry.” Spencer kneels in front of me. “I know this is hard but—” He reaches for me, but I scramble away.
“You don’t know anything,” I snap. “Your parents are alive and waiting for you. Mine are gone. All my friends are gone.” Fury burns in my chest, building until I explode into a raging inferno of anger. “I have no one!”
“You have me,” he says.
I laugh bitterly. “Do I, Spencer?” I stand and brush my palms on my pants. “Because last I heard, you didn’t know. Besides, I’m nothing more than a regret to you, right?” He rises to his full height in one fluid, graceful motion. But he doesn’t say a word, and his lack of response is worse than him telling me—again—that he didn’t know where we stood. Then again, I guess I deserve a little taste of the pain I’ve been inflicting on him for the past couple of years.