Bedeviled, Gage & Nova Book 2

Book 2 in the Gage and Nova Trilogy

Warning: some of the following content is sexually explicit. Read only if you are 18 years old or over.

Chapter 1: Heartbreak

Nova:

Rays from the mid-day sun glared off the fresh snow in a blinding tidal wave of light. The bright, hard, pale blue of the sky formed a cold vault overhead, reminding everyone of winter’s ruthless beauty — just in case we’d forgotten in the few hours since the last brutal snowstorm had broken. All around us rose mountains and hillocks of snow built up from the storm to remake the world, and the parking lot of Joe’s General Store, into its own image.

The accumulated flakes sparkled in the light, mocking and falsely cheerful. Beneath my booted feet, the snow probably squeaked from the extreme cold but I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t hear anything except the whoomp-whoomp of the chopper.

The wind created by the blades of the luxury helicopter which sat in the parking lot like some kind of alien visitation blew my long hair in a thousand different directions. It had to be the coldest, cruelest wind I’d ever felt, the breath of some evil winter spirit. It was taking the man I loved away from me.

The deep-freeze around me crept under the hem of my parka. It battered its way through my zipper and down the neckline of the coat, driven by the chopper blades. The cold bit into my flesh, sinking deeper with every rotation of the blades, until it invaded my bones.

My fingers were numb. My thighs, too. The wind slammed right through my jeans and even the thermal leggings I wore underneath, easily reaching my legs and turning them to ice. Even my fleece-lined boots couldn’t keep my feet warm enough for this encounter.

The inside of the chopper was a mystery to me, but the aircraft was definitely enormous. It looked nothing like the small ones used by local news organizations to watch traffic. It didn’t even resemble the rescue copters sent out by hospitals, and it was way too shiny, with its bright white and cobalt blue design, to look anything like a military chopper.

A craft like that didn’t belong in Subalpine, Oregon. It originated in a world so far from mine it might as well be on another planet.

I thought I knew heartbreak. When I caught my now ex-boyfriend Barry cheating on me with my roommate, I’d thought my heart was broken then. But that had been nothing, just a minor ache, compared to this.

I crossed my arms defensively over my chest. The stench of aviation fuel soiled the pristine winter air. Gage, the man I’d foolishly fallen for, bent over in a running crouch, his brown hair flattened by that same icy wind, and ducked beneath the whirling blades with his usual grace and self-assurance. He’d clearly done that maneuver a hundred times at least.

This was the first time I’d ever been close to any helicopter, let alone one so fancy it looked like it could have transported a president or a king. Gage belonged to another world, a world to which I’d never have access. To him, luxury helicopters were an everyday occurrence. To people like me, they were a crazy intrusion of fantasy into our regular world, almost as weird as if Cinderella’s coach had rolled into the parking lot.

I’d just told Gage I loved him, not that it made any difference in his behavior. He’d still headed right for the chopper without a backward glance. Why had I said that? I should have kept it to myself.

He never looked back at me on his way into the aircraft. Was it that easy for him to leave me? Granted, we hadn’t known each other very long, but it had been a really intense eight days. I could never have walked away from him like that, as if it was just another routine action on a routine day.

I squinted into the brilliance of the sunny winter day. He shut the chopper door behind himself, disappearing from my view. With the door shut, I could no longer see him through the reflective window.

My heart squeezed itself into a tight, hard knot. I ordered the tears threatening to flood my eyes to go the hell away. Crying was out of the question. People — Marcia and Misty, Joe’s wife and daughter — were watching. It was possible Gage was watching, too, and I didn’t want him to see me break down.

He’d made it clear he didn’t want my love, that he had secrets he could never share with me, that his life had no place for me in it. I’d never expected him to commit to a relationship with me — I knew better. That knowledge didn’t spare me the pain of watching him leave, though. Apparently, nothing would.

The blades whirled faster, roaring, throwing snow into the air. I’d saved his life, pulled him from the freezing McKenzie River when he’d fallen in and nearly drowned. Then I’d nursed him through hypothermia and stomach flu. I’d done things for Gage that I’d never done for any other human being. But he was a famous actor whose life lay in Hollywood, not in some Podunk Oregon mountain town, and he could never have stayed with me. Even if he didn’t have a dangerous secret he refused to share.

I turned my back on the chopper as it lifted into the air.

***

Gage:

From the air, the lights of Los Angeles at night seemed to mock me, their sparkling red and green and yellow pretending to a beauty the city didn’t really possess. Darkness and light worked together to cover up the haggard lines of sleeplessness, poverty, and hard living that marred so many of its neighborhoods, the plastic fakery of the suburbs. In the night, and from a distance, the illusion seemed real and welcoming, a comfort after time spent away from home.

The minute I stepped off the plane and onto the boarding ramp, the warmth and stink of L.A. wrapped around me like a filthy old blanket, destroying the illusion of beauty. The air felt wrong — too dry — and smelled wrong — dirty, full of exhaust fumes, smog. The chemical stench of aviation fuel assaulted my nose.

The constriction of the plane gave way to the roomier surroundings of the boarding ramp, yet my team still surrounded me, hemming me in. People talked, laughed, shouted, some of them at my elbows and others too far away to understand what they were babbling about. Behind me, the flight attendants mechanically thanked escaping passengers for flying with the airline and wished them a happy stay in Los Angeles.

My feet, the feet of all the people around me, thumped along the floor of the boarding ramp, making hollow sounds that echoed the hollowness inside of me. That empty feeling had haunted me for a long time. Years. But somehow it had become even more acute, more cutting, than it had ever been before.

Other passengers looked forward, watching for the family members or friends who awaited them, who would greet them and welcome them. A real welcome, not one painted on with fancy lights over the cover of night. My welcome had stayed behind in Oregon.

I hadn’t been out of town very long at all, yet everything had changed, especially inside of me. Somehow, being nearly drowned, then nearly dying of hypothermia, and afterward suffering with a brutal case of stomach flu all while being trapped in a cabin with a stranger had transformed me.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d transformed into; I only knew I’d changed.

Cindy, my personal assistant, and several members of my security team flanked me so the expected crowds of fans couldn’t get too close. The noise of them penetrated the boarding ramp. Somebody had found out when and where I’d be re-entering the city, and people had turned out to view the spectacle.

Let the mindfuck begin.

What would all those fans do, what would they say, if I told them I hadn’t earned their admiration? If I told them my fame and fortune was all due to a deal with the devil, would they hate me? Would they turn around and go home?

Nah, probably not. A deal with the devil has got to be good for a juicy scandal and lots of trophy pix, right? Besides, nobody believes in the devil these days. They’d probably just think I’d fallen into the same drug trap that had killed my best friend and fellow actor Jeremy Lindstrom, that I was hallucinating or delusional or some shit.

If only.

The screaming, the click and flash of a hundred cameras, all hit me like a wall the second we emerged from the boarding ramp into the airport terminal. People — mostly females — yelled my name, questions about where I’d been, why I’d disappeared. I kept my head down and pretended to ignore them, while my security guys pushed their way through the crowd. In my peripheral vision, I saw a sea of the plastic-looking painted faces so common in this city, along with perfectly manicured female hands extending slips of paper for me to sign.

I did not want to be here. It was only professional and personal obligations that had forced me to come back. My heart was still in Oregon with Nova, and I couldn’t even tell her that. She couldn’t know how I felt about her or he might come and take her away forever. I’d rather be lonely and heartbroken than allow him to hurt Nova.

“Mr. Dalton is very tired,” my head security dude said firmly. “He won’t be signing any autographs tonight.”

They hustled me downstairs to my waiting limo, surrounded with more clots of screaming fans and shouting photographers. Somehow, I got myself into the back seat of the car and shut the door on the madness. The tinted glass shielded me from the mob, cutting the noise of their hollering down to a manageable level. I tried to picture Nova in this situation and failed. She was so quiet, so natural and real. She would never fit into this world, and I wouldn’t want her to try. She deserved better than this, and better than me.

God. What was I going to do without her? I’d become helplessly addicted to her in the few days we’d had together. That was not something I would ever have predicted, me falling for a girl so quickly, so completely. In fact, I would have said it was impossible, until it had happened to me. But I’d had to leave for her protection.

I was protecting her from this, from a world I didn’t even want anymore. Nothing looked the same. SoCal was too bright, too warm, too crowded, too full of fucking exhaust fumes and strip malls and people who knew who I was. But I was also protecting her from the ugliness of a deal with the devil, and that was something we couldn’t move away in order to avoid. It would follow us wherever I went.

“Welcome home, Mr. Dalton,” the limo driver said.

“Thanks.” I stared out the window as he pulled away from the curb.

Welcoming me was part of his job. He didn’t mean it. He didn’t not mean it, either. It was just something he said, the way the hostess in a restaurant wishes you a nice day when you leave.

Still, I felt the heavy irony even if he didn’t. The eight days I’d spent snowed in with Nova Pennyman had changed me so much that L.A. didn’t feel like home anymore. A suspicion kept sneaking into my head that my home was now with her, wherever she happened to be.

Unfortunately for both of us, I was not worthy of a relationship with her. Not with anyone, really, but especially not with a girl like Nova Pennyman. She was far better than I would ever deserve.

Home was a luxury condo I’d bought a couple of years earlier. I had no bags. They’d been lost, along with my rental car, when I’d abandoned it and fallen — drunk and high — into the McKenzie. If not for Nova, I’d be dead.

I walked, bagless, upstairs to my dark-gray bedroom. I wasn’t dead, was I? No. Hollow, though. If you tapped my outsides, there’d be an echo inside me. I fell on my bed and stared at the ceiling.

The place felt empty. It was the best I could afford, and that was a lot of luxury condo, but my very breath seemed to echo off the hand-applied Venetian plaster I’d spent a goddamn fortune on. I didn’t give a fuck about Venetian plaster. That was the choice of the designer I’d hired to decorate the place, because you know an A-list star needs an A-list home.

This wasn’t a real home; it was a showcase.

No smell of woodsmoke, just the chemical stink of new paint and carpet. No battered old comfortable furniture, just ultra-modern minimalist sculptures too precious to actually use. No soft sounds of Nova moving around, working in the kitchen or sitting with her sketchbook or even hunched in the bathroom puking.

Fuck. I missed her. I even missed the sound of her being sick.

That was fucked up.

How could I miss someone so much when I barely knew her? We’d only been together a few days. Just a little over a week. Yet I felt connected to her in a way I’d never felt with anyone else.

If it were safe, I’d get on the next plane and go back to her. But I couldn’t.

Leaving her was my way of being noble. Because I had a weight on my shoulders that I couldn’t seem to shift, and I didn’t want it to crush her. She meant too much to me.

The central truth of my life was that my mom made a deal with the devil when I was ten — my soul in return for fame and fortune as an actor. Sounds crazy, I know. But it’s true. I was there and saw the whole thing.

That fucking Deal had both shaped and ruined my whole life. I had indeed become a highly successful actor at a ridiculously young age, and my career was still shooting upward. I had an obscene amount of money. I’d won an Academy Award for playing the role of a heroin-addicted rock star who self-destructs at the height of his fame and success.

All good things, right? Except I hadn’t earned them. I’d been given my success, with my soul in hock. Supposedly, he was going to come for me at the height of my fame. I would die then, kind of like the heroin addict I’d played.

I didn’t want to die. But I was more concerned about the people around me, people like Nova. Because my mom claimed that the devil had informed her he’d come after people close to me, if for some reason he couldn’t get me after all.

Despite my best efforts, I’d fallen hard for Nova Pennyman. I couldn’t stand it if something terrible happened to her and I’d do anything to protect her from my problems. Even if it made me miserable to do it.

Now that I was back in L.A., I was thinking I shouldn’t have left her. I should have stayed with her and fought. I could’ve called in my security team to deal with the media bullshit. I’d run because…well, because it was a habit and because I didn’t want Nova to get hurt because of The Deal.

That shit was going to stop. I would deal with The Deal, as soon as humanly possible. Like right now.

My life had been mostly going with the flow, letting my fate be determined first by my mother — when I was still just a kid — and then by that infernal situation she’d created. I’d let it, and the devil, own me. In fifteen years, I’d made no real attempts to fight, assuming it would be impossible.

No more.

I owed it to Nova to figure this shit out, make it right.

But how do you fight the devil?

Rolling off the bed, I padded over to my desk and my laptop. Powered up the thing. There had to be some kind of information on the Internet, something about supernatural agreements or deals. Right? Everything else was on the Web, so why not deals with the devil?

While I waited for the computer to boot up, I took out the drawing Nova had given me just before I’d left her and set it next to me on the desk top. She’d done it in pencil, making me sit still for a long time while I stared out the window at the falling snow. At the time, I’d thought it was the most boring thing I’d ever done, and now I was glad I’d put up with it.

I had this drawing. The only piece of Nova I’d thought to take with me. We had no photos, no record of any kind of our time together. I’d never been a sentimental guy, but that fucking hurt. I wanted a picture of her to help me remember her.

Hours later I was hungry and tired of scrolling through page after page about Faust and blues guitarists who’d supposedly met the devil at some lonely crossroads. I wasn’t learning anything new here.

See, that’s long-standing folk tradition — if you want to learn some particular skill, especially in music, you go to the crossroads to call up Old Nick and strike a deal. My mom didn’t go for that traditional stuff, though. She was all about convenience. If you’re gonna call up the devil, just go ahead and invite him into your living room. I mean, why go out when you can get delivery?

The thing that repeatedly struck me as I read was that my mom had made The Deal but she’d used my soul as the bargaining chip. I didn’t think she had the authority to do that. It would be like trying to use someone else’s house as collateral when taking out a loan. But if that was true, why had the devil accepted The Deal? You’d think Old Nick would have a pretty good grasp of these matters.

Clearly, this problem was going to take more research than I could do over the Interwebz.

Chapter 2: Avery’s Crossing

Nova:

My new apartment was new only to me. It must have been built sometime in the seventies, judging by the godawful, gigantic Mansard roof that dominated the structure and made it look like some kind of angular, mutant mushroom. Or more accurately, a whole row of mutant mushrooms, since the apartment was part of a single-story development with the units strung together like hideous beads on a long out of fashion string.

I could afford it. That was the irresistible magic of this place.

The door, a flat beaten-down brown, was missing some of its finish around the knob. The unit numbers were the stick-on kind, peeling around the edges. There were metal numbers screwed to the outer wall, as well, just in case I forgot where I was.

The landscaping looked good from a distance, the shrubs neatly trimmed. Up close, though, you could see that they’d been hacked off by someone who had no idea what he was doing, since the dead gray innards of the shrubs were exposed in some places, showing through the decimated green growth like bone exposed by a terrible wound.

The misty January rain, while it cloaked and softened the view, also deadened all the colors. The gray sky seemed to press into the inside of my skull. The rain clung to my face with a chilly, damp caress.

Inside, the place smelled musty, like dry rot, the pungent scent of the hacked-off junipers blocked by walls and window glass. I hoped I could cover that mustiness up with scented candles. Maybe keeping the windows open for a while every day would also help.

Avery’s Crossing hadn’t changed at all since I’d left, but I was a different person. No traitor roommate to steal my non-existent cheater boyfriend. No cabin in the Cascade Mountains as a retreat. Just this rainy, Oregon college town, a part-time job, and a cheap place to live while I took a couple of art classes and tried to figure out who the hell I was.

Funny. That’s what I’d gone up to the mountains to do. I hadn’t figured out a single thing, except that I loved Gage Dalton, an actor who didn’t have a place for me in his fast-paced Hollywood life.

Finding a man floating in a half-frozen river isn’t something that happens every day — or ever, for most people. When that man turns out to be one of the hottest young Hollywood actors, well, it can have a strange effect on your life. I hadn’t even liked him at first, yet within the week I’d fallen in love with him.

And he’d climbed into a helicopter and flown away from me without a backward glance.

My mom followed me with a load of kitchen supplies as I wrestled the last box of books through the door of the apartment and set them on the crappy living room floor. Like I said, the apartment wasn’t really new, just new to me. In fact, it was ancient and nasty-smelling, but it would do. It was cheap and small but in a safe neighborhood, and those things were important to me.

I didn’t need Gage. Maybe I wanted him, but I didn’t need him. I’d do just fine on my own.

“I think you’re making a huge mistake,” my mom said.

“I know you do.” She always did. She’d been telling me this ever since I’d left the cabin to return to Avery’s Crossing.

“You could be going back to Pioneer.”

And finishing my pre-med studies, my degree in biology, rather than fooling around with painting classes at a lowly state university like Central Willamette. But Pioneer — being a doctor like her and my dad — was what she wanted for me, not what I wanted for myself.

“Mom, it’s going to be fine. I just need some time.”

She put her hands on her perfect, skinny hips and shook her head. “You’re giving up a great career, and to do what? Work at a fast-food place? A department store?”

“The Unique Boutique.” I’d already told her the name of the place twice.

She gave me an understated eye-roll. “What a name.”

“They gave me a job. I don’t care what they call their business if they pay me to work there.”

Gage’s personal assistant, Cindy, would have had some choice words about the boutique, its name, its probably — according to her — fashion-challenged merchandise, and me as its new employee. I didn’t care what Cindy thought either. If I wasn’t seeing Gage, I didn’t have to put up with her self-important attitude.

Funny. I’d only met Cindy once, and I thought I knew her opinions about my job, my home, everything. Of course, she’d made her attitude toward me pretty clear from the first minute she’d seen me.

“If you go back to Pioneer,” my mom said in a hopeful tone, “your dad and I will pay for everything.”

“I’m not going back there. I’m not going to be a doctor.”

She stared at me, apparently baffled. “I don’t understand you at all. First the cabin and now this. What are you doing, Nova? Are you okay? Are you in some kind of trouble? You know we’ll help you with whatever it is. No matter what.”

“I’m not in trouble, Mom.”

I hadn’t told her about Gage. First, I didn’t think he’d want anyone to know. People on his end must have done some expensive work keeping the story from getting out, because I hadn’t seen or heard a peep about it except that he’d supposedly rented a hotel room where he’d waited out the storm. In reality, of course, the storm — which had begun just as I discovered him in the river — had snowed us into my cabin after I rescued him and we’d spent those eight days together, getting to know each other in intimate detail.

The other reason I didn’t tell her was because I didn’t think she’d believe me. And besides, I didn’t want to share it. I didn’t want to share him or make the brief time we’d had together into some kind of celebrity sighting on steroids.

Denial can feel pretty good at the time, but when reality finally crashes in, you get even more pain and you get it all at once. I’d been in denial about what would really happen when the storm ended and what Gage would do, how he’d treat me. I’d known we couldn’t stay together, but I hadn’t truly faced it.

And then I’d stood in the snow in front of Joe’s General Store and watched Gage get into that helicopter. He said he wanted to be with me, yet he couldn’t be bothered to try. Supposedly his life was too dangerous for me.

At least he had a unique excuse, right? Instead of coming out and saying he didn’t want to give up banging his fangirls and be exclusive with me, he made it seem like he had some kind of epic enemy waiting around to destroy anyone he cared about. I guess I could take a deep breath of relief, because obviously I wasn’t on Gage’s cared-about list.

After he’d left, I’d gone back to the cabin and packed my things. As soon as the roads were clear enough — which took a few days — I’d driven myself here to Avery’s Crossing, where I’d rented a cheap room at a dive motel and called my parents and told them my new plan.

I was going to work part time, take a class or two, and try to figure out what the hell I wanted out of life. No, I didn’t want to move back in with them. No, I wasn’t going to come home for the holidays. I was living in Avery’s Crossing by myself and I’d visit their house for Thanksgiving dinner. I couldn’t take my mom’s constant concern if I moved back home.

I hadn’t told them that last part, but it was definitely on my mind.

So I’d gone up for Thanksgiving and then again for Christmas. The rest of the past six weeks, I’d been here by myself. Signing up for classes. Looking for a job. Finding this crappy apartment, moving just enough of my stuff in so I could survive while the rest of it sat around in the storage unit I’d rented when I’d moved out of the place I’d had with my ex-roommate, Skylar.

She was another person I hadn’t seen in a long time. We’d roomed together, even though I’d been enrolled at Pioneer and she was going to Central Willamette. We’d gotten along great, until the night she’d screwed my boyfriend, Barry, on our living room couch. Guess she hadn’t planned on me walking in on them. That was when I’d decided to take some time off school.

Some people do that by back-packing across Europe. I went off and lived by myself in my parents’ old mountain cabin.

My dad appeared in the beaten-up wooden door frame. He’d taken a day off from his practice to help me move in here. My mom, too, and she’d let me know all day long what an inconvenience it had been. Canceled appointments. Patients who weren’t getting the care they needed.

The funny part was I hadn’t asked for their help. I’d just informed them what I was doing. They had volunteered to come down from Portland to do this.

“Honey, are you sure this is what you want?” my dad said.

“Yes, I’m sure.” I pushed some stray locks of hair from my eyes and glanced around the room.

Boxes and boxes of my stuff nearly hid the ancient, brown shag carpet. That shag had to be at least thirty years old and probably a lot older. It was worn bare in spots. I hadn’t informed my mom of the carpenter ants I’d spotted on a windowsill. That would not have gone over well.

The bathroom was tiny and had only a shower, no tub. The kitchen cabinets looked like they were made of plastic and fiberboard, and the heat came from a hideous metal contraption in the living room that made a roaring sound and smelled like burning dust whenever I turned it on. But the rent was low and I thought I could afford to stay here a while on my savings.

My mom curled her nose. “You could at least have waited for us to help you pick out a place. This one smells.”

It did smell musty. And like burning dust. “I can afford it.”

She sighed. You know the one. The Sigh, always accompanied by The Significant Glance.

“Hey,” my dad said. “How about we go see a movie and get some dinner before your mom and I go home?”

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

An hour and a half later, I sat in the darkness of the theater, surrounded by the smell of popcorn and fake butter, the crunch and rattle of the audience gobbling their treats, and stared at the opening credits in disbelief. The movie starred Gage Dalton. Really? He’d had a new movie coming out the whole time he’d been with me and he hadn’t said a thing.

I guess I should’ve paid more attention to the posters as we walked through the theater lobby, but I hadn’t cared enough. I really only went to the thing because my dad had suggested it and I wanted him to feel like he was making me feel better.

Now, as I gazed up at the screen, Gage’s image overwhelmed me. The square jaw, the huge blue eyes, the curly brown hair, the dimple in the chin, the graceful swagger of his walk. The muscular, male body that showed clearly through the close cut of his character’s clothes. He was so beautiful he almost didn’t look real, yet at the same time the hugeness of the picture made him seem super-real, ultra-real, more real than real life. Like I said, overwhelming.

It was a crime drama and he played the young, idealistic police detective. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. God, he was good. Like, award-winning good. He gave a character that could have been nothing more than a string of clichés depth of feeling, of meaning, that I’d rarely seen. The subtlety of his expressions, of his voice…

Okay, so I’m not exactly a film critic. I hadn’t seen all that many movies at that point in my life, at least not compared to some people. And I wasn’t exactly unbiased, either. But I could tell good acting, and his was good.

When he was with me, he’d claimed he didn’t deserve his fame and that anyone could do his job as well as he did. I hadn’t understood the guilt and self-loathing I’d heard in his voice then and I didn’t understand it now.

How could he say his work wasn’t art?

If I’d had his number, I would have called him right there and chewed him out.

Then it hit me. I’d made love to that man. The young god up on that giant screen had held me against his naked body, kissed me, come inside me with my legs wrapped around his waist. I’d told him I loved him.

And then he’d climbed into a helicopter and disappeared from my life.

A tidal wave of grief and yearning rose up and swallowed me before I even noticed it coming. I wanted him back, goddamn it. I hadn’t had enough, not nearly enough of him, his passion, his humor, the music he loved to play.

Suddenly I couldn’t bear to look at the screen. I bent my head and propped my hand against my temple, struggling against tears and a crushing weight inside myself.

He was gone. We’d only been together a handful of days, but it felt like more. It felt important and real and he was gone.

I was being silly and I knew it. Gage had been out of my life for six weeks, almost five more weeks than he’d been in it. And my parents were with me. Now was hardly the time to break down and get all weepy over a guy who’d never been meant for me in the first place. But knowing didn’t make the feelings go away.

Maybe what I felt for him wasn’t love at all. Maybe it was only infatuation. But whatever it was, it was strong. So powerful I wasn’t sure I could continue sitting here. Not with his voice, his face, his body all over that screen.

“Nova, are you all right?” my mom said in my ear.

“I’m fine,” I whispered back.

“You don’t look fine.”

I stifled a sigh of frustration. “I’ve just got a headache.”

“Do you want to go back to the apartment?”

“No. I’ll be okay in a few minutes.”

She gave me a lingering stare. I smiled faintly back at her. It was a fake smile and she could probably tell, but it was the best I could do. On screen, Gage was arguing with his partner. No, his character was arguing with his partner.

“All right,” she said, and turned to watch the movie.

His voice flowed over me, deep and smooth and persuasive. All of this had been filmed long before I met him, of course, and had nothing to do with me. Yet a part of me didn’t know that.

A part of me really felt as if he were speaking to me, somehow, through the medium of the screen. Which was flat-out crazy. It almost seemed as if he were there with me, yet at the same time he felt infinitely far away.

I would probably never see him again. All I would have of him was a few memories from our time in the cabin and this — this strange near-connection via a movie screen. It wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.

Sitting here, watching and listening to him, was breaking my heart. It was worse than nothing, to see him this way.

I stood up and squeezed my way out of the row of theater seats. My mom got up too, following me. She’d want an explanation, of course, and I wasn’t sure I could give her one. I certainly wasn’t using Gage’s name.

When I got to the end of the row, I broke free and stumbled down stairs flanking the amphitheater-style seating, making for the door, guided only by the colored bands of light set into the floor. My mom caught my hand, trying to stop me. I shook my head and kept going until I’d gotten all the way down and escaped into the access hallway.

“Nova, what on earth is going on?” she said as we neared the door.

“Nothing. I don’t feel good. I’m sorry. I don’t think I can finish the movie.”

She peered at me through the theater gloom. “You don’t look very good, actually.”

“Gee, thanks, Mom.”

“Do you feel feverish? Neck pain? Sore throat?”

“None of those. I’m just really tired. Exhausted.”

My dad came up behind her, looking worried. “Is everything all right?”

“I’m going back to my apartment,” I said. “You guys can finish the movie if you want.”

“No,” Mom said. “We’ll take you home. I want you to be safe.”

Good grief. I wasn’t ten years old anymore. I almost rolled my eyes at her, but thought better of it at the last moment.

“If you insist,” I said. “But it’s not necessary. I’ll be fine.”

“You’re not fine. You feel sick and you’ve been behaving strangely lately.”

“Mom. I’m fine. Just tired is all.” I forced another smile for her benefit. “I’m not used to all this excitement. I’ve been a hermit for months, remember?”

She pursed her lips. “I told you hiding out in the cabin wasn’t a good idea.”

“Yes, you did and you were right. Feel better now?”

Her lips puckered even more tightly. “Honestly, Nova. I don’t know what to say to you anymore.”

That made two of us. I didn’t know what to say to myself either.

Chapter 3: Quest

Gage:

Smog hung over the city, although the snow-capped San Gabriel mountains were barely visible above the brownish haze. I’d never paid much attention to those peaks before, and now they only reminded me of Nova and her cabin. That was where I wanted to be, not here.

Daylight exposed all the wrinkles and age spots of the city that the night hid. The smell was even worse, the air dead with exhaust and wracked with city noise. Jackhammers, vehicle engines, car alarms, people shouting, a siren in the distance.

Grit and trash washed up in all the crevices and corners of pavement and sidewalks and buildings. A thick coating of garbage. The painted ho from the night had morphed into a shambling extra in a zombie flick.

I’d been searching for a way to get out of The Deal for a few weeks now and coming up empty-handed. No-one seemed to take deals with the devil seriously, at least not on the Internet. Either they thought it was a joke or they advised that a person in that situation should turn to God.

It might sound crazy, but I wasn’t sure I believed in God. Not in the loving, protect his people from all harm sense, anyway. I mean, he hadn’t protected Jeremy, had he?

As far as I was concerned, I was on my own.

There had to be someone who knew something, though. If I couldn’t find knowledgeable people on the Web, maybe I could find some locally. There were all kinds of oddball people in L.A.

Today I had a couple of occult stores to visit. I’d never been to either of them, so it should be interesting.

I’ve never been one to have security following me around everywhere. Yeah, I brought them to that clusterfuck of a house party in Central Oregon, the one that had led me to falling drunk into a storm-swollen river, but on the whole I’d rather be on my own. Which made it a simple thing to drive over to a local occult bookstore to do a little research without my security dudes hanging on and finding out what I was up to.

I had this relatively nondescript car I used for jaunts like this, a gray Ford Fusion. Not flashy. Not a movie star ride, just a boring medium-gray sedan like most of middle America drives every day. That plus baggy clothes, a three-day growth of beard, and a baseball cap pulled low would, if I were lucky, keep anyone from noticing me.

In my wallet, I carried a tiny picture of Nova. I’d found it on-line. Some college friend of hers had posted a pic of her on a social media site and I’d snatched it for myself. A picture she’d given me herself would have been better, but this blurry little image was better than nothing.

When I looked at it, her smiling brown eyes seemed to look right inside of me. Stupid. She hadn’t even known me when the picture was taken.

What was I going to do if I ever got to the place where I could reunite with her? I knew virtually nothing about long-term relationships. I showed more commitment to my mechanic than I ever had to any woman.

Hell, I wasn’t getting anywhere with all this rumination. Just driving myself nuts.

The first store on my list was called Star Light Bookstore and Gifts. It lived in a strip mall, right between a shabby second-hand clothing store and a Mom and Pop bagel-and-coffee place. Funny location for a shop that sold occult supplies. I’d expected something a little more atmospheric, but this was Southern California, land of strip malls, after all.

Inside, the overwhelmingly sweet odor of Nag Champa incense filled my nose, making me want to sneeze. I recognized that smell from all the people I knew who used it to cover the reek of pot smoke. Never really worked, if you asked me.

An Eastern-sounding track full of twangy sitar and some kind of exotic flute played in the background as I wandered along display shelves crammed with wooden Buddhas and Tibetan prayer flags. Okay, so maybe this place was more New Age and less occult than I’d thought.

I turned around to see another shelf full of brightly painted statues of a fat guy with an elephant head. Weird. I’d seen statues like that around, mostly in Indian restaurants, which had given me the vague idea they represented a Hindu god, but I had no idea which one. Krishna, maybe?

“Are you a devotee of Ganesh?” said a dreamy female voice.

I turned. The owner of the voice looked to be about my mom’s age, with close-cropped brown hair and a long, flowing dress with cosmic blue and purple swirls all over it. A huge silver pendant in the form of the om symbol hung on a chain around her neck. You see a lot of these New Age slash Buddhist slash whatever is fashionable at the moment people in the L.A. area, and I’d hung around with a few in the business, but I didn’t know any of them very well.

“Who?” I said, clueless.

“Ganesh.” She pointed to the elephant-headed dude. “In Hinduism, he’s the remover of obstacles.”

“Ah. Uh, no, I’m not a devotee.” She’d probably already figured that out.

“Well, in that case, can I help you with something else?”

“Um…maybe,” I said, suddenly self-conscious. “What do you know about the devil?”

She frowned vaguely. “The devil? Are you serious or in here playing a prank?”

“I’m totally serious.”

The lady stared at me for another moment, her New Age serenity looking a bit frayed at the edges.

“Honestly,” I said. “I can see why you’d think I was playing you, but I’m not.”

“Your aura does look a little muddy,” she said, “but I don’t see anything really dangerous in it.”

“That’s a relief,” I said, wondering briefly if she could detect the dryness in my tone. I was trying to keep it under control, but this place seemed to bring out something in me I didn’t like.

“The devil is just a state of mind,” she said, smiling serenely. “Don’t give it any power over you and it can’t harm you.”

“You really believe that?”

Her smile never wavered. “Yes, I do.”

I didn’t. I’d seen the harm he could do, and if he was just a state of mind then how come he’d fully manifested in my mom’s old living room?

“I don’t know,” I said uneasily. “I’m looking for something more concrete. Some kind of protection.”

“We do have all kinds of crystals, which are powerful protectors against negative energy.” She gestured toward glass display cases near the cash register. “Would you like some help choosing one?”

“Uh…” Crystals, huh? Somehow, a pretty rock didn’t seem like it would be enough to stop the Prince of Darkness.

The lady stood there looking at me hopefully and I figured what the hell, it couldn’t hurt. So I let her sell me a big chunk of smoky quartz and a piece of black tourmaline, which made her happy but didn’t do much for me.

Supposedly, the crystals would absorb or deflect “negative energy” and keep “the devil” from harming me. As she spoke, I could almost see the quotation marks around the words “the devil”, letting me know she didn’t believe he was my real problem. Did she think I was nuts or just misguided? Not that I cared. I was outta here.

I left the rocks in my car when I went into the next place on my list, an establishment called Waning Moon. This one was a lot more like what I’d hoped for, being all dark and mysterious looking and housed in an old building from the twenties. Weird-looking curios crammed its front windows, everything from deer antlers and uncut crystals to exotic carved wooden boxes and an antique Ouija board.

A string of bells tinkled when I opened the door. This place also smelled like incense, but I couldn’t place the exact scent. It wasn’t Nag Champa, that was for sure. It seemed darker somehow.

The air seemed thicker in this place, too. Not ominous, like Jeremy’s apartment had been when I’d found his body, but definitely heavier than normal. There was an odd sense of pressure on my skull, while the hair on the back of my neck prickled.

I glanced around at the displays of merchandise, but didn’t see any clerks. It looked like I was the only person there. I wandered over to some dark wooden bookshelves, which sported titles like Three Books Of Occult Philosophy by Cornelius Agrippa and The Book Of Abramelin The Mage, along with some more contemporary books. None of them seemed to have anything to do with weaseling out of deals with the devil, though. They were more along the lines of achieving tremendous wealth and curing disease, although Abramelin did promise to teach me how to contact my Holy Guardian Angel.

I stared down at the odd little book. Was this for real? Did any of it work?

On flipping through it, I discovered that the process of meeting my angel was supposed to take an entire year and it involved fasting, celibacy, and a whole bunch of prayer. A year. I didn’t know if I could wait that long, and besides there was no mention of the angel helping people get out of ill-advised deals with Lucifer.

A giant needle seemed to be stabbing me in my eye socket. I rubbed the orbital bone, grimacing. The only thing I’d accomplished so far was to give myself a headache. This occult shit was more complicated than I’d realized.

The rest of the store was filled with artifacts I mostly couldn’t identify, let alone figure out how to use. Dried herbs in dusty jars, plastic baggies, and bundled into stick-like arrangements. More crystals, jewelry of all kinds — many pieces featuring dragons, pentacles, and other occult symbols — plus rows and rows of all kinds of strange, carved things. Tiny statues, candles shaped like naked people and human skulls, rows of miniature bottles of oil named neroli, rose geranium, myrrh…Whoa. Myrrh was real? I’d always thought that was some kind of made-up, mythical shit.

“Are you finding what you’re looking for?”

I turned around, but this was no pleasant-faced New Age lady. This guy had one of the longest beards I’d ever seen, along with flat, secretive brown eyes that looked right through me.

“Sure,” I said.

“That’s a long process,” he said.

“Huh?”

He pointed at my hand, where I still held the Abramelin book. “The Holy Guardian Angel operation. Takes over a year.”

“Yeah. I noticed that. Does it work?”

He grinned, a startling expression in contrast with the former flatness of his eyes. “No idea. I’ve never tried it. Don’t have the patience.”

“Hmm.” I stared down at the book for another moment.

“You need an angel?” the guy said.

I glanced at him, not sure if he was making fun or serious. He looked somewhere in the middle.

“It sure wouldn’t hurt,” I said. “But I’m not sure even an angel could help me.”

“Sounds serious.”

I snorted. “Yeah.”

“Can I help?”

He didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would help just out of the goodness of his heart. Those flat eyes made me uneasy. On the other hand, he was a salesperson in an occult supplies shop, so helping was his job.

I reached up with my free hand and tugged at the brim of my cap. “What do you know about deals with the devil?”

The guy rocked back on his heels, looking thoughtful. “The devil. Well, from my perspective, the devil is just a thought form.”

“A thought form? What’s that?”

“It’s basically an entity that was formed and is maintained by the beliefs of humans.”

I frowned. “So you’re saying the devil doesn’t really exist?”

“Oh, he exists. It’s just that people invented him.”

My frown deepened and I shook my head slowly. “That’s the weirdest idea I’ve ever heard. I don’t know if I can get my head around it.”

It didn’t seem very plausible. Could a human-created creature be as badass and powerful as the thing my mom had called up?

“It’s a basic occult concept,” the guy said.

“Can you protect yourself from a thought form?” I said.

“Yeah, sure you can. You just have to believe it’s possible.”

That sounded kind of lightweight, considering we were talking about the devil here. Plus I wasn’t convinced about the thought form thing. He sure hadn’t felt human-created when he appeared in our living room. All in all, what this guy was saying sounded pretty much like what New Age Lady had said, only in slightly different terms.

It’s all in your head, son. Just think yourself happy.

There had to be better information out there somewhere and I was going to find it.

“Okay, well, I’ll keep all that in mind,” I said. “Thanks for your time.”

He narrowed his eyes as he studied me. “You look familiar. Haven’t I seen you somewhere?”

Time to go. When people started thinking they recognized me, they were just one or two steps away from figuring out who I really was.

“Uh, I doubt it,” I said lightly. “I get that all the time. One of those nondescript faces, you know?” I laughed and put the book down on a nearby shelf. “I’ve got an appointment. Gotta run.”

I left without looking back, hoping the guy didn’t figure out who I was and then text everyone he’d ever met with the information.

Of course, if news got out that I’d been seen in an occult bookstore, I’d just pass it off as research for a role. Or something.

The air felt pleasantly warm against my skin as I left the shop. My denim jacket was getting too warm for the weather. This is SoCal in January. You never know whether you’ll get snow or heat, but usually it’s somewhere in the mild and bland category.

I was craving snow.

I shook my head at myself. Who wishes for snow and ice over sunshine and shirt-sleeves? Crazy people, that’s who. People who scour L.A. looking for a way to cheat the devil.

Knots of people strolled the sidewalk outside the store, stopping to look into the window display of the pawn shop next door and the Asian grocery a few doors down. The haze seemed even thicker than when I’d entered the place. It made my eyes sting and itch.

I stepped out from beneath the dusty black awning into the dusty sunlight. Brick, stone, and stucco buildings lined the street. In the distance, a row of coconut palms lifted their heads into the smog.

As I headed back to my car, I noticed a man standing on the corner of the street, the one I planned to turn down on my way back. The only reason I noticed him was because he was staring at me. A fan? Paparazzi? He seemed a little too flashy for a pap.

The dude wore an elegant black suit that looked more like it belonged at the Oscars than a seedy L.A. street in the middle of the day. And he was smoking a cigarette. The ciggy put off a lot more smoke than any other I’d ever seen, yet somehow his gaze — fixed on me — bored right through the clouds. The smoke smelled odd, too, not like regular cigarette smoke. It was sweet and spicy, almost offensively pleasant.

Something about the guy made my skin prickle with uneasiness. He was too focused on me and too out of place in this neighborhood. Old Nick might have sent him.

Should I confront him or avoid contact? If he was a watcher for the devil, then I didn’t relish talking to him. And if he was a paparazzo, I’d only encourage him by initiating a conversation. Besides, I didn’t need the bad press that would result from my punching another pap, even if the bastard had deserved it for getting physical with my date.

Those assholes can get into your personal life, spy on you, follow you around, even get into the intimate personal space of your female companion, and get away with it. But God forbid you should lose your temper and take a swing at one of them, no matter how provocative they’re being.

I glanced around in my peripheral vision for an alternative to taking that corner. On my left was an alley leading between the shop building and the one next to it. My car was parked the next block over, so I turned into the alley as a shortcut.

High brick walls rose on either side of me, casting deep shadow over the alley. The rank smell of garbage fouled the air just a few yards in. Gravel filled the holes in the pitted black-top, crunching under my feet as I negotiated past a couple of stinking trash cans.

Was flashy suit guy going to follow me in here? I glanced over my shoulder, but he was nowhere in sight.

On the other side of the cans, a man sat cross-legged on the filthy pavement. He wore baggy pants that looked like they’d been khaki once, along with at least three shirts layered one over the other, and a sagging blue knit cap. Dirt smeared his craggy face, settling into the lines around his tired brown eyes and bearded mouth. He had a guitar on his lap.

I stared down at him for a moment, surprised by the musical instrument. It was an acoustic, kind of like the one Nova had at the cabin but better, and a whole lot bigger, a dreadnought style. I couldn’t tell how much better it was than hers, since I hadn’t heard it played yet, but there was something about it. When I looked at it — I can’t really explain it. There was something about the lines of it and the way the pale wood of the soundboard gleamed that told me this was an extremely high quality instrument.

“You want a guitar?” he said in a rusty voice.

“Do you play?” I said, wondering where a guy like him would acquire a guitar of any kind, let alone one that looked like serious quality.

“Nah.”

I frowned. “Where’d you get that?”

“Found it yesterday.”

“You found it,” I said, heavy sarcasm in my tone.

His eyes widened. “I didn’t steal it. No way. I’m not a thief. I just found it laying around over there.” He pointed across the alley at a small niche in the brick wall of the building opposite.

“Okay,” I said.

He’d totally stolen it. How else would a guy like him end up with something like that? Or maybe someone else had jacked it and then abandoned it for some reason. Either way, it had to be hot.

The guy held it out to me with both hands. “Here, you have it. I don’t want it.”

I almost reached for it before I thought better of it. “Not a good idea. How do I know it isn’t stolen?”

“It’s not. I told ya.”

“Yeah, but maybe someone else stole it. Maybe that’s why it was laying on the ground.” For all my reluctance, my hands were still partly outstretched. Because I wanted that thing. My fingers itched to feel its strings beneath them.

“Nobody would leave anything really valuable around here,” he said, nodding wisely. “I oughta know. I’ve been hanging here for a long time and this is the first thing I’ve found besides old cigarette butts and a few quarters.”

“Then how did it get here?” I said.

“Don’t know. But I know it isn’t stolen.”

That made zero sense. He was probably high or drunk, making up stories and telling them to me because I was the only person around to listen.

Despite my doubts, my hands reached out a little farther. They wanted the damned thing and they didn’t care if it was hot either.

“Come on, G,” he said. For an instant, his eyes looked blue instead of brown. “It was meant for you. Besides, you’ll play it better than I ever would.”

I started. “What did you call me?”

“G. Is that what I said?” He blinked, looking confused. “Don’t know why I said that. What’s your name, anyway?”

“It doesn’t matter.” I grabbed the guitar. Then I reached into my pocket, pulled out my wallet and got him a stack of twenties. “You look like you could use this.”

“Thanks, man.” He tucked the money into the breast pocket of one of his under-shirts. “Real nice of you.”

“Yeah. Uh, thanks for the guitar.”

Only Jeremy had ever called me G. No-one else. Not our mutual friends, not the girls I banged, nobody. Only Jeremy. And his eyes had been blue.

I shivered as I carried the guitar down the remaining length of the alley, thinking idly that I’d have to buy a case for it.

That had been some freaky shit back there. I didn’t know what to make of it. Maybe I’d imagined the eye-color change. I mean, that couldn’t really happen, so it must have been all in my head. Didn’t feel that way, though.

Was Jeremy trying to get in touch with me? Did he want me to have the guitar, and if so, why? Did it have some kind of esoteric power?

Hah. Right. A magic guitar.

If there were something magical about it, you’d think I would feel it when I touched it, but there was nothing. It just felt smooth and cool, like a normal guitar. The strings were all metal, and they felt exactly like normal guitar strings. Nothing unusual there as far as I could tell.

It’s just a weird coincidence. Homeless guy finds an expensive guitar and tries to give it to the first person he comes across. End of story.

That was the normal, real-world explanation, but for some reason I didn’t believe it.

I drove home, still puzzling over the whole incident. L.A. traffic being what it is, I had plenty of time to puzzle. Didn’t really get anywhere though. I was just running around in circles inside my head.

I took the guitar and the crystals into my living room and sat down with them on my sleek, ultra-modern gray couch. I’d agreed with my decorator that I wanted this condo to have a masculine vibe, and the next thing I knew she’d made everything shades of black and gray. It was like the grayscale fairy had waved her magic wand of dullness over the place. But at least there weren’t any crystal chandeliers.

I knew the guitar would need to be tuned, since it hadn’t been played in a while. I gave the strings an experimental strum anyway, expecting to cringe at the sound.

It was perfect.

Perfectly in tune. How was that possible? The homeless dude hadn’t tuned it. He didn’t even know how to play.

Frowning, I started a melody, just something chosen at random to see what would happen. And damn if that guitar didn’t have the prettiest voice I’d ever heard, full and rich and clear.

Was it really a coincidence that I’d come across this — this gift right after I’d struck out at two occult stores, while looking for a solution to my devil problem? I just couldn’t see how a guitar could help me in that department.

At the moment, though, it was enough to feel and hear the music coming out of it. A sense of profound peace came over me as I finished up the first song and began the second, deeper even than my usual settling-in whenever I played. Maybe it was the pure sound of the thing, or maybe it was some other quality I couldn’t identify, but this guitar felt different.

In movies, magical power is always really obvious. Things glow or jump around or talk directly to the hero or heroine. Or there are lightning bolts. I didn’t have lightning bolts, though. I just had this bone-deep sense that everything would be all right as long as I could keep playing. Of course, nobody can play forever.

I had to break for dinner.

Half a leftover pizza later, I was back with the guitar. It was like a compulsion, this weird drive to play absolutely everything in my repertoire.

When I’d run through all the songs I knew, I started noodling around with a new piece. I had notes, riffs, in my head and they had to find an outlet before my skull exploded.

After some time experimenting with the new tune, I had to get up and find some staff paper before I lost what I’d composed. I’ve never been great at keeping new compositions in my head for more than a few hours.

It was a song for Nova. I didn’t have the words yet, but I knew it was about her. And me. The way she made me feel.

I couldn’t have her; not yet. Not until I’d resolved this devil bullshit. But I could write songs for her, and maybe someday she’d forgive me for walking out on her and not calling. Maybe someday we’d get together again and I could play the songs for her and she’d understand. I wanted that.

I just hoped she’d wait for me.

Chapter 4: Skylar

Nova:

I left Fairchilde Hall, the art building where I had my watercolor painting class, in a blinding glare of sunlight. My portfolio banged against my jeans-clad leg as I bent my head against the sun, carefully navigating the old, warped front steps of the building, which had once been a Victorian house. Even the overhanging giant spruce tree and the overgrown deciduous azaleas surrounding the front entrance couldn’t block all the brilliant light from my eyes.

The sun shone, a rare event in January in Avery’s Crossing, and I was depressed anyway.

The Willamette Valley is notorious for the amount of rain it gets in the winter, and the gray days can get hard to deal with, especially when you’ve had a couple of weeks of nonstop wet. When the sun shines, though, winter can be as beautiful as summer. To me, anyway.

I love the shapes of winter-bare trees, the way their structure is revealed when the leaves are gone. I love the lacy shadow-patterns they make across the emerald-colored grass. I love the pale, hard blue of the sky. There’s something so energizing about a sunny winter day.

So why was I so down on this particular sunny day? I hadn’t seen Gage in weeks. I was over him, right? Sure. Totally over him.

But as I hauled my huge portfolio and tool case full of painting supplies to my bike — it was easier to bike around campus than drive a truck and hassle with parking — I realized I still missed him. Still thought about him. Still drifted off into erotic daydreams about him whenever my attention wandered, and it wandered a great deal. Was I ever going to truly get over him?

He’d never called me. I’d given him my number. He could have called, and he’d chosen not to. Clearly he’d moved on, probably the instant he’d boarded that helicopter. I needed to do the same.

You might think I should take the initiative and do the calling, but I figured he must be bombarded constantly with fans’ attempts to get close to him. His people wouldn’t let me through to speak to him unless he’d given special orders about me. And since he hadn’t come looking, it seemed unlikely he’d left those orders. Once he’d flown away from Subalpine, he was done with me.

I sighed and shifted the awkward weight of my portfolio. It wasn’t especially heavy, just big. I was taking a watercolor painting class, and I had to carry a large drawing board and giant sheets of watercolor paper with me every time I attended.

The portfolio slipped out of my grasp and sprawled on the sidewalk.

“Damn it,” I muttered, bending down to retrieve it.

“Here, let me help.”

I froze at the sound of that so-familiar female voice. I lifted my head and stared at my former roommate as she picked up my portfolio.

“Hi, Skylar,” I said dryly.

“Nova.” Her brown eyes met mine, wide and wary. “How are you?”

“Oh, I’m great. Just great. I didn’t expect to see you today.”

“No, I — well, yeah, I mean —” She blushed. “I didn’t either.”

I held out my hand for the portfolio. “Still majoring in boyfriend theft?”

Her blush deepened and her gaze dropped. “I’m sorry about that. Really sorry, Nova.”

“Don’t be. I’m glad to be rid of him.”

“We’re not together. Barry and me, I mean. It was just that one time.”

Did she expect me to be happy about that? Maybe part of me was, spitefully, happy that whatever they’d had was brief and meaningless. But the rest of me just couldn’t get excited enough to care. Gage had completely supplanted Barry in my heart.

“Yeah,” I said after a long, awkward pause. “Whatever.”

“You don’t care?” Her brow wrinkled. “I thought you and Barry were so good together.”

“Is that why you fucked him?”

She recoiled. “Jeez, Nova!”

“Just wondering,” I said with a shrug. “I honestly couldn’t care less at this point. It was only casual curiosity.”

Her eyes narrowed on me. “You’ve changed. Where have you been, anyway? You never returned any of my texts or emails. What happened to you? It was like you disappeared.”

I’d changed, huh? Did that mean I no longer had “doormat” tattooed on my forehead?

“I took some time off school, that’s all.” I hoisted the portfolio. “Look, this is heavy and I need to go. I’ll talk to you later, ‘kay?”

“Oh.” She looked disappointed, which surprised me. “Do you have to go right this minute? I thought maybe we could go for coffee or something.”

I waffled. I didn’t have a work shift at the boutique today, so I didn’t have that excuse, but I really didn’t know if I could forgive Skylar for what she’d done.

“I guess I could take a half hour or so,” I said.

“Great!” She beamed and held out a hand. “Let me take some of that. We can go to the M.U.”

I handed her my toolbox. As soon as she grasped it, her hand dropped to her side with the weight of the box.

“Wow, this thing really is heavy,” she said. “Are you taking an art class or something?”

“Watercolor painting.”

“Really? I didn’t know you did that.” She gave me another of those piercing looks. “How is it that we were best friends for three years and I never knew you were interested in art?”

“Because I never talked about it,” I said. “It was like my dirty secret.”

“Huh.”

She seemed lost in thought as we made our way from Fairchilde Hall to the Memorial Union. We hadn’t seen each other or spoken since the afternoon I’d found her and Barry together, screwing on our couch. That had been late last year, right before the end of spring term. It had been almost a whole year since I’d seen her.

Skylar was right. I had changed, and not just because my hair was longer. Living on my own on the mountain had changed me, made me more independent. Then Gage had come along, and that … well, I wasn’t sure what exactly it had done to me, just that I felt different inside.

Skylar, on the other hand, looked exactly the same. She still had her light brown hair dyed a brilliant red, still wore the cat-eye make-up she favored and the vintage fifties-style clothing. The only thing different about her was her apparent shame and regret over the Barry Incident.

I figured she ought to be ashamed. A true best friend keeps her mitts off her BFF’s boyfriend, no matter how tempted she is.

We chatted about inconsequential stuff like the weather as we made our way up the huge marble staircase leading up to the mezzanine of the M.U. and took a table at the coffee shop there. It was almost like old times, except for the thin undercurrent of anxiety and resentment I could feel beneath our words. I guess the old times were gone forever.

We sat down with our lattes and I arranged my gear to be as out of the way as possible. Our little table gave us a great view of the upper hall of the M.U., which I always thought of as the promenade. That wasn’t its real name, just how I thought of it. There was a double row of flags lining the hall, from almost every country in the world. Across the way, we could see a big slice of the M.U. lounge, which looked like a nineteen-twenties fantasy of a Medieval great hall.

A man strolled down the hall and took a seat on a bench situated almost directly across from our table. He wore a black suit, which seemed odd. Nobody wore suits on campus, except maybe in administration. Especially not formal-looking suits like that one. He caught me staring at him and smiled, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes.

“So, you’re not at Pioneer anymore?” Skylar said, jerking my attention away from the man in the suit.

“Nope,” I said, toying uneasily with my hair.” I’m taking a few art classes and working at The Unique Boutique.”

“Oh. Wow. What happened to pre-med?”

“It’s not happening anymore. I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor.”

She blinked. “Huh. Okay. Wow, I’m just really surprised. I thought that was what you wanted more than anything.”

“It was what my parents wanted more than anything,” I said. “How about you? Still in the pharmacy program?”

“Yeah. I’m pretty much the same.”

“Seeing anyone?”

She shook her head. “No. Are you?”

I glanced over at the bench. The man in the black suit was gone.

“Nova?”

“Huh?” I blinked at Skylar. “What were you saying?”

“I asked if you were seeing anyone.”

“Nope.” I took a sip of my latte. There was no way I was telling her about Gage. Even if she got me drunk, that story would never pass my lips.

She sighed, turning her paper coffee cup around and around in her hands. “Nova, I’m so sorry about what happened with Barry.”

“Yeah, you already said that.”

“I feel like you don’t believe me.”

I pursed my lips. “I’m not sure what you want me to say. I mean, you screwed my boyfriend.”

“I’d like your forgiveness.” She looked at me hopefully.

“I don’t know if I’m ready for that,” I said.

Skylar bent her head. I could see the line where her light-brown roots were starting to come in. “Okay. I guess I deserve that.”

“I just don’t think we can go back to where we were,” I said. “I mean, what happens with the next guy? When I date someone else, are you going to go after him, too?”

“No.” She looked up at me, her eyes wide and sincere. At least they looked sincere. I wasn’t sure I could believe them.

“How do you know, Sky? I mean, you did Barry. Why did you do Barry, by the way?”

Her lip trembled. “I don’t know,” she said in a miserable tone. “I was lonely. I’d broken up with Pete. Remember Pete? I was feeling sorry for myself. Barry came over looking for you and you weren’t there and we sat down on the couch to watch some TV and things kind of got out of hand.”

“Yeah. Out of hand — that’s one way to put it.”

“I’ll never do anything like that again,” she said firmly.

I wanted to believe her. The problem was I knew how easy it was to say something like that. Following through was the hard part and Skylar had never been great at follow-through.

“You don’t believe me, do you?”

Was I that transparent? I tilted my head, searching for the right words, ones that wouldn’t hurt either of us too much and wouldn’t be a complete lie.

“I want to,” I said stiffly. “But I’m afraid.”

“I guess I’ll just have to prove myself,” she said. Her gaze traveled across the coffee shop and out into the promenade. She brightened. “I have an idea. You’ve got more time now that you’re not doing pre-med, right?”

“Yeah.”

“We could go see a movie! That new Gage Dalton one is playing.”

My face burned and my stomach gave a queasy flip. “My parents already took me to that one.”

“Oh. Really? I thought they didn’t do movies.”

“It was kind of a special occasion. They were helping me move.”

“Oh, I see. Did you like it? Was it any good? God, he’s so hot. I’m totally in love with him.”

I vaguely remembered her saying something to that effect back when we were roomies. “It was pretty good.”

“Yeah? I heard there was a nude scene. Is it true? He’s got the greatest body.” She sighed dramatically. “He’s my secret boyfriend, you know.”

I swallowed hard. She didn’t know my history with him and I couldn’t blame her for prattling on about some guy who was really just a beautiful image and a fantasy to her. At the same time, I couldn’t help bristling with secret jealousy and resentment when she talked that way. At least I hoped it was secret.

“I didn’t feel well and I left early,” I said. “I must have missed the nude scene.”

“Oh. So you didn’t really see it after all. You wanna go?”

“No.” The word came out a lot more sharply than I’d meant it to. “Sorry. I’m just kind of tired and I don’t like crime dramas that much anyway. Not my kind of thing.”

“Oh.” Her shoulders sagged. “Okay. Well, maybe some other time.”

“Yeah. Some other time.”

Chapter 5: Shadow Pattern

Nova:

My apartment building looked almost like a row of small condos or townhouses, all shoulder to shoulder with neatly trimmed shrubs in the front, each door with its own concrete path from the main sidewalk. No parking except on-street, of course, but otherwise respectable-looking and even kinda cute, especially on a sunny day, as long as you could ignore the mutant mushroom effect. That was the outside.

The insides weren’t so nice. And even the exteriors, when you got close, didn’t look so good. The only character the place had was all the wear and tear on it from decades of use and little maintenance. It certainly didn’t have character designed in.

The bike ride back should have flushed all the frustration and resentment of Skylar out of my system, yet when I got home I still felt extremely tense. There seemed to be something dark lurking beneath the sparkling exterior of the day. The air felt almost heavy as I coasted up to my cheap and ugly front door.

Having seen Jeremy’s ghost — he’d been the one to alert me that Gage needed help after falling in the river — I knew there really were unseen things in the world, existing side by side with us. However, I wasn’t going to let that knowledge drive me nuts or make me paranoid. Whatever this feeling was, I wouldn’t let it get to me. I would master it.

I glanced up and down the sidewalk, but it looked just as cheerful as it had moments before when I’d turned onto my street. Bare trees sent lacy shadow patterns across the bright pavement. A flock of chickadees fluttered around in the branches, cheeping at each other in happy voices. Everything looked beautiful.

Yet the creepy sensation remained. For some reason, the image of that man in the black suit popped into my head. He wasn’t anywhere around, though. The street was empty of everything except sunshine.

Whatever it was had to be invisible. I could feel it but not see it. Or maybe it was just my kooky imagination, spitting up images from the horror movie phase I’d gone through in my teens. I’d never told my mom, but she’d been dead right about the horror movies. Bad idea. Apparently, I’m way too suggestible for scary stuff like that.

I stuck my key in the lock. In my peripheral vision, I saw movement. My head snapped around, but nothing was there except a naked red dogwood, its crimson twigs stark against a backdrop of dark-green juniper. Neither shrub so much as waved a branch in the still winter air.

Maybe a bird had flown by. Or it might have been a cat. Cats move quickly and don’t make much noise.

Right. A cat.

I opened the door and went inside, locking myself in with a sigh of relief. Home safe. Winter sun streamed in through my none-too-clean living room window, making the apartment look almost as cheerful as the outdoors. The watercolor painting I’d started, based on one of the drawings I’d made of Gage, lit up in all the sun.

But I still couldn’t shake that eerie feeling of being watched. This was the first time I wished I’d rented a nicer place. It’s pretty standard for students to live in cheap, old apartments, but maybe a better place would have felt less creepy.

I had nothing but my mp3 player to take the edge off or change the atmosphere, and I didn’t want to stick earbuds in my ears. That would cut me off from any noises that might warn me.

I had no idea what I’d need to be warned about. It was just the idea. Thinking that some creature or person could sneak up on me and I wouldn’t hear it coming…well, that was worse than putting up with the ominous silence.

I did have my laptop. The sound on it was crappy, but better than nothing. I logged in to my streaming music service and let the sounds of Linkin Park’s latest fill my living room.

That made me think of Gage and his guitar. Damn. Every time I thought I was getting over him, something would remind me of him and I’d be right back where I started. Take Skylar and her fangirl squeeing today.

For a second, I amused myself with a picture of her discovering I actually knew Gage personally. Oh, the lolz. Unfortunately, I had no photos of him and me together, no proof that I’d been with him.

Hah. I didn’t want or need proof. I knew and that was what counted. I wouldn’t go around blabbing about it anyway, even if I did have proof. It was just that moment of amusement I wanted, picturing Skylar’s face.

The music seemed to banish the creepy feeling and I went into the kitchen to make myself a sandwich. I’d been living on peanut butter and canned soup lately.

I got out the bread and set a couple pieces on a paper towel. In the living room, the music cut off, interrupting Chevelle in the middle of the phrase “seeing red again.”

I jumped. My heart jumped, too, and kept right on banging in a terrified sprint. The living room was utterly silent.

Had I lost my Internet connection? That could explain the music shutting off. No, I didn’t have Wi-Fi here; I used a hard connection. It couldn’t be that.

I inched my way across the tiny kitchen and peered around the dividing wall and into the living room. Empty, except for my floor pillows and the crate that supported my laptop. The tab on which I’d had the music channel was closed and all I could see was Instagram.

Wiring. It had to be the old wiring in this place. I stalked over to my laptop and removed the wall connection, leaving it on battery power.

The creepy, someone-is-watching-you sensation had disappeared. So to speak. The point is, I couldn’t feel it anymore, so whatever had caused my music to shut off couldn’t be supernatural. The creepiness had probably been only my wild imagination anyway.

All is well, Nova.

Right. All is well. I returned to the kitchen and my peanut butter sandwich, but for some reason I couldn’t shake the image of Gage and his dead friend Jeremy.

***

A couple decades back, an artist had painted this pair of gigantic murals on the walls of the grand formal staircase in the Memorial Union. The bright colors and crisp design didn’t really work for me. It seemed to fight with the vintage elegance of the rest of the design, especially with the cool gray marble of the steps themselves.

No-one had consulted me on the design, though. I hadn’t even been talking in full sentences yet when it had been installed.

The domed ceiling rose overhead like an indoor sky. In the center of the dome hung an elaborate lantern with fancy metalwork. It cast equally fancy patterns of light and shadow across the ceiling and upper walls.

The Memorial Union was quickly becoming my favorite place to hang out because there were usually quite a few other people there. I needed crowds around me. If I couldn’t get them on campus, I sometimes drove to the mall in Albany, the next town over, especially on weekends. The mall was almost always busy with shoppers trying to escape the rain.

The creepy just wasn’t letting up. Since that first afternoon, I’d had several other instances of feeling watched. Part of me wanted to believe I was paranoid, because the alternative was believing I really was being watched. But by whom? And why?

It was getting hard to sleep. The only time I really felt safe was when I was around other people, like at work or on campus. Crowds were good. Being alone was not so good.

That was why I lingered on Friday after my art class. My shift at the boutique didn’t start until five o’clock and I had plenty of time to kill, so I wanted to kill it with other people around.

I was dragging my portfolio up the echoing marble M.U. steps on my way to the coffee shop when two familiar figures caught my eye. Skylar, dressed like a weird mash-up of fifties church lady and pin-up girl. And guess whose arm she was hanging on? Yep. Barry.

He looked pretty much exactly the same as he had the last time I saw him. His light-brown hair was in the same short cut, he wore the same kind of workout gear over his lean frame, like he was always on his way to or from the gym. He was very attractive, in a boy next door kind of way. If that boy next door was a jock, anyhow.

And it didn’t hurt me at all to see him, even with Skylar clinging to his arm. Weirdly, I felt almost nothing when I looked at him.

How strange to think I’d dated that guy. I’d actually thought I was in love with him, had accepted his offer of marriage. I’d freaked out and quit school over him and Skylar. Now, looking at them together, it almost felt like it had happened to someone else.

They were here and I was here. Perfect timing. Barry needed to know just how little I gave a damn about them being together. Maybe if I truly didn’t care I wouldn’t have bothered skewering them, but you know what they say about the taste of revenge and all that.

Sky turned almost as red as her hair when she saw I’d noticed them. Hah. Busted. I lifted my hand and gave an extra-cheery wave. Barry and Skylar exchanged an uncomfortable-looking glance.

“Hi, you guys!” I called out. I wasn’t going to give them any quarter.

Skylar lifted an unenthusiastic hand in response to my greeting. Barry just stared at his Nike-clad feet.

I walked over to them. “I thought you weren’t together.”

Now it was Skylar’s turn to stare at the floor. Barry shifted from one foot to the other, still trying to avoid my gaze.

“Hi, Nova,” he said.

“Barry. You look exactly the same.”

“You — uh — you look good.”

Skylar lifted her head and glared at him. Her cat-eye makeup looked particularly harsh today in the unforgiving light of the M.U. steps.

“Thanks,” I said. “Sky, you told me you weren’t seeing Barry. What’s up with that?”

“You told her that?” he said, glaring back at her. “Why would you do that?”

“I’m sorry.” She squirmed. “I didn’t know what else to say.”

“The truth would have been good.” Barry slipped her hand from his arm.

“Oops. I didn’t mean to cause any trouble,” I said. It was true, mostly. I didn’t want to break them up, just make them uncomfortable.

“It’s fine,” Barry said between gritted teeth.

“Is it? You look kind of upset.” I shifted my purse strap.

“That must make you real happy, Nova.” He turned his glare on me.

“Actually, it doesn’t.” My voice sounded so cool and steady it surprised even me. “I don’t give a damn who you see. I’m over you. Have fun together.”

I hauled my gear past them and up the steps. I didn’t know if they were watching me or if they continued down the way they’d been going when I’d first caught sight of them. Skylar had lied to me and I couldn’t say I was all that surprised. It seemed to be a way of life for her.

Maybe she’d thought I would go after her if I knew she was with my ex. I scanned my inner landscape and found no trace of attachment to Barry. I was truly done with him, and that brought a smile to my face.

Mission accomplished, sort of. Barry clearly wasn’t convinced I didn’t care about him anymore. He’d figure it out eventually, though, when I continued to show no sign of giving a damn.

Now if I’d seen Skylar with Gage, I would have hurt her. Him, too. Barry, though, I couldn’t have cared less what he did or with whom.

Maybe someday I’d feel the same way about Gage.

***

On the way to The Unique Boutique, I had to pass a little bookstore called Folkways Books. It had a narrow space in an early twentieth century stucco-covered brick building downtown, with a bay window display area and what looked like the original wooden door. I’d never been inside. It seemed to be the kind of place that carried a lot of odd-ball books, alternative spirituality and back to the land, DIY house building, find your inner Buddha titles. I didn’t normally read that kind of stuff.

It had been there forever, as far as I knew. Since the seventies, anyway. It had a little of that hippie vibe still, with an unusual rotating collection of books in the old-fashioned window display case.

I’d wondered more than once if someone in there would understand about the creepy feelings I’d been having lately. Or maybe they had a book or two that would explain. So far, I hadn’t had the nerve to find out.

Today, I went inside for the first time.

A string of tiny bells on the door tinkled when I entered. The overwhelming, sweetly exotic scent of incense met my nose inside, making the store seem foreign and almost otherworldly to my boring mainstream senses. I glanced around with no idea where to start looking.

The front desk, where the cashier stood, had a glass case full of Tarot decks and other stuff I couldn’t identify. The front of the store held a small music section, and the rest of it was just rows of wooden bookshelves. Soft lighting suffused the whole place. Here and there a potted plant brightened up a shelf.

There was nothing scary about it at all. Counter-cultural, maybe, but not spooky the way I’d half expected. It had a gentle, almost playful air.

I wandered back, glancing at the spines. They didn’t look like esoteric tomes, being brightly colored and glossy trade paperbacks. I’d always pictured books about ghosts and the paranormal to be ancient, leather-bound objects, not ordinary modern books. Some of them sounded interesting — auras, chakras, dream interpretation. Others were just weird. Bigfoot? Really? Alien abduction? I couldn’t get my head around those.

Apparently, though, some people took that stuff seriously.

I was staring at a book that purported to teach astral projection, wondering if it could possibly work, when a small dark-haired woman walked up to me. She wore ordinary-looking jeans and a plain blue jean jacket, with her long hair streaked with silver and tied back in a ponytail. I would have assumed she was there to peruse the astral-projection books, except for the way she was looking so directly at me.

I looked back, a little apprehensively.

She smiled, her eyes crinkling at the corners. “Hi. I know this is going to sound weird, but I’m getting the feeling you have some questions I might be able to answer.”

“Uh …” Was it that obvious that I needed help? I wasn’t comfortable accepting it from a total stranger who took it upon herself to approach me, though.

“I have a lot of experience with all this.” She gestured at the books.

“Astral projection?”

“Psychic matters. Spirits.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Marie. I don’t usually come up to strangers like this, but you look kind of lost.”

“Yeah, I guess I am.” I shook her hand. It was slightly calloused and warm, strong for her small size.

“I’m not trying to pressure you or anything,” she said with a shrug. “If you don’t want to talk, that’s okay.”

“No. I — uh — I do need some help.”

She cocked her head. “Okay. What’s going on?”

I glanced around the store. We were alone on this aisle, thank goodness, because I really didn’t want anyone else listening in on the conversation. It was too bizarre. Part of me felt like an idiot even talking about spirits at all, even though I’d come in here driven by the need to find some answers.

“I feel like I’m being watched,” I said finally. My face flushed. “That sounds totally paranoid, I know. But there’s never anyone there, yet I feel like someone is staring at me.”

“Hmm,” Marie said. “Do you feel it now?”

“No. It’s usually strongest when I’m alone.”

“It could be a spirit of some kind. Do you mind if I do a short reading?”

My brows crimped. “Reading?”

“Yeah. Of your energy. Your aura, if you will.” She smiled again, her eyes warm. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt.”

I let out a nervous chuckle. She seemed harmless, and she was only going to look at me, so it should be fine. “Okay. Sure, why not?”

Her eyes lost their focus as she looked at me. It was like she was gazing not at me but at the air around me. No, that’s not right. I can’t quite describe what it looked like because I’d never seen anything like it before. She was seeing something that was invisible to me.

“There’s something dark attached to you,” she said, her voice soft and low. “Dangerous. I can’t see exactly what it is. It’s hiding its true nature from me.”

Icy fingers seemed to walk their way up my spine. This wasn’t fun anymore. “You’re scaring me.”

Marie blinked and her eyes resumed their normal focus. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “It’s okay. I’m fine.”

“No.” She rested her hand briefly on my forearm. “I was too intense. I should have been more careful.”

“You really think this thing is dangerous?”

Her brow wrinkled and her mouth flattened. “It’s hard to say for sure. I need to know more about the entity before I can give you details. But I’d be careful if I were you.”

I glanced around again, suddenly even more nervous, as if the thing or entity might be sneaking up on me from behind. “How? I have no idea how to fight this thing.”

“Do you believe in any kind of higher power?”

“You mean like God?”

“God, Goddess, yes. A benevolent power in the universe. Ask that power to watch over you. For now, that’s all I can tell you.” She glanced around us, kind of the same way I had. “This store is great, but it’s not the best place to have a conversation like this.”

“Yeah. I guess not.”

“Look, if you want to talk more, I’ll give you my number. You can call me anytime.” She reached into the plain, black leather

purse she carried, looking at me inquiringly as she did.

“Uh … sure. Yeah, that would be good.” I figured it couldn’t hurt. She didn’t seem to be running a scam, asking me for money or anything like that.

She pulled out a scrap of paper and a pen, scribbled something, handed the scrap to me. “I’m serious, now. Anytime. Don’t worry about bothering me. What’s your name, by the way?”

“Nova.”

She grinned at me. “Nova. I like it. Give me a call and we’ll talk.”

Chapter 6: Watched

Nova:

As I biked across the quad early Saturday morning, I could feel someone watching me. The quad is a big square, kind of like a combination park and town square, between the M.U. and Milton, one of the really big lecture halls. It’s mostly grass lawn and concrete sidewalks, with a couple of enormous sequoia trees and some flowering plums and cherries, bare in January, and smaller shrubs.

On weekdays, it’s full of students going to and from classes or heading to the M.U. to hang out and study. At five thirty on a Saturday, it’s usually completely empty. Dark, too, at this time of year. Fog clung to the skirts of the sequoias and hid the rhododendron and azalea banks from me, making them look like old furniture covered in drop cloths in some forgotten and haunted mansion.

Someone was following me. I assumed it was the same someone I’d sensed that other day, when my laptop had freaked out. He — it — had given up merely watching and was actively following me now.

I had no evidence for this assertion, just my intuition. A hunch, plus the fact that, at this very moment, I could feel eyes on me as I biked across the quad before dawn.

Maybe he thought he could intimidate me, force me to hide out in my apartment. Well, that wasn’t going to happen. He couldn’t stop me from living my life. Unfortunately, making me constantly wonder what was happening to me was well within his capabilities.

I had a painting I wanted to work on in the studio because it was a still life and we were supposed to paint from the arrangement the professor had made. I had a shift at the boutique later today, so I’d come in early to get the studio work done. It was a week after I’d bumped into Skylar.

To all appearances, I was the only person on the quad at this hour.

I looked around as my bike glided into the center of the quad. No-one to be seen, although I supposed a perv could be hiding in the banks of rhodies or maybe under one of the giant sequoias on the other side of the huge open space. But why?

Yeah, occasionally female students were attacked on campus. Even male students sometimes had violent encounters. But this wasn’t completely random; this was purposeful and aimed at me in particular. Why me?

I was no-one special. Why would anyone follow me, try to scare me? It didn’t make sense to me.

On Thursday, I’d felt it when I’d left the boutique on my lunch break, and then again when I’d gone home. The sense of being watched had actually followed me all the way back to my apartment, although I couldn’t identify anyone trailing me.

I was paranoid. That was the only explanation for it. Either that or I was being stalked, and I couldn’t think of anyone who would bother stalking somebody like me.

The press? Nah. Why would they care? Gage’s disappearance was months ago and his PR people had already explained it well enough to satisfy the public.

I supposed it could be someone in one of my two classes or someone who’d come into the boutique. Maybe some random stranger had fixated on me for reasons I couldn’t even guess. Whoever it was, and whatever their reasons, it was making me jumpy and irritable and I hated it.

I skirted Fairchilde Hall and locked up my bike on the rack behind the building. The parking lot was nearly empty at this time, with only one car plus my bike. I glanced around nervously, but saw no-one. Just the row of shrubs at the edge of the lot, bathed in a sickly orange glow from the sodium lights, the intramural field beyond the shrubs, and in the distance the security lights of Sackett Hall, one of the dorms.

Not a person in sight.

I went into the art building and shut the door behind me. They normally left it open for students like me who wanted to work on projects at odd hours. But I locked it. Just so no-one could come in behind me and surprise me.

The feeling was weaker inside the building, but I still couldn’t shake it. Even the familiar, comforting smells of linseed oil and turpentine, the reassuring sight of canvases and watercolor paper, the artful tumble of the still life the prof had arranged couldn’t settle my nerves. As I set up my work space, I kept glancing behind myself, half expecting to find some creepy pervert standing there. Except, of course, no-one was.

At one point, I stopped to take a quick break. I walked across the studio and the gray-walled gallery in the front room to the long, Victorian-style windows that marked Fairchilde Hall as the former nineteenth-century mansion it was, and looked outside. I don’t know why I looked. It was just a random sort of glance, but I saw him.

Pale early morning sunlight illuminated a blond guy standing on the sidewalk beneath the huge spruce tree in front of the building. My whole body gave a jolt of shock at the sight of him. He looked just the same. I remembered him well, even after all those months.

He was wearing the same flannel shirt and jeans. Looking straight at me. He could see me; I was sure of it. What did he want? Why was he here?

I dashed for the front door. Outside, no-one stood beneath the spruce tree. The leafless azalea shrubs, their buds fat with coming blooms, could not have hidden a grown man. Jeremy was gone.

Shivering, I went back inside the building. Why would Jeremy come here? Was he trying to warn me of something? Was Gage in trouble? The only time I’d seen him before was when Gage had fallen in the river, and that worried me.

If he was in trouble, if he’d gotten hurt, I wouldn’t find out about it until much later, after it had hit the media. I was no-one special in his life, even if it had felt that way for a short time. No-one would bother informing me.

My worries made focusing on my painting difficult.

Two hours later, I was starving because I hadn’t eaten breakfast. The painting was far from finished, but I could stop and take a break. Besides, it’s important in watercolor to let your work dry between washes or successive layers of paint, something I had a hard time doing. I needed to learn patience, and besides I was tired of the prof telling me I was pulling up the underlying layers of paint and making mud on my paper.

I washed my brushes and my hands, put away all my supplies and left my piece to dry flat. Fairchilde Hall was right across the street from the M.U., which had a few restaurants open even on Saturdays. I’d go there and pick up something quick.

As I gathered my jacket and purse, that sense of something watching me returned, hard and heavy. It was so strong, it almost felt physical, like some unseen creature was breathing on the back of my neck. I shivered and headed out of the studio and through the student gallery in the front room, eager to get somewhere with other people.

They were running an art show of some kind, featuring figure drawings, mostly in pastel. I paused next to one of a voluptuous woman, her curves rendered in flowing red and purple lines.

“Nova.” The whisper was deep and masculine, but not a voice I recognized.

I whirled around, heart pounding. The gallery was empty of everything except me and the collection of life drawings on the dull gray walls. I was alone and letting my imagination run away with me. Big time.

I turned for the front door.

“Nova.” Louder this time.

I whirled again. Still alone. Sweat bloomed all over me.

“What?” I snapped. “Who are you? Quit fucking with me.”

He laughed.

That just pissed me off. What kind of perv — no, sorry, that’s not fair to all the kind and considerate pervs in the world. What kind of flaming asshole follows a woman around, whispering at her, while she’s alone? And won’t even show his face?

“I can tell you think you’re funny,” I said. “I don’t.”

I took another couple of strides toward the door. The old floorboards squeaked beneath my feet. Something grabbed me. Whatever it was spun me around and shoved me toward the nearest wall. I still couldn’t see him.

Light from the windows filled the room, yet I couldn’t see my assailant. He was invisible. I shrieked in startled terror as hard invisible hands pressed me against the plaster. My shoulder bumped against one of the drawings, knocking it off-kilter, its black and ocher swirling in my peripheral vision.

He — it — growled. I mean growled, like a huge dog or maybe a mountain lion. A predator. I could hear the sound vibrating in its throat, even though I couldn’t see the throat.

Throwing up my arms, I tried to pry the thing off me. My arms met no resistance, yet the creature didn’t budge. I mean, I couldn’t feel its arms. Its hands or paws or whatever still shoved me against the wall and it continued to growl ferociously. But I couldn’t feel any other part of its body.

God. What was going on here? What was this thing?

“Tell Gage,” the creature said in an even deeper voice than before, the register so low it barely sounded human. “Tell Gage.”

“W-what?”

“Tell him.”

A door banged somewhere else in the building. The creature let go of me. The pressure on my shoulders ceased and the voice went silent. I stood there, trembling all over, listening to the new arrival’s footfalls on the old wooden floorboards.

Slowly my hands rose again, feeling for whatever had been attacking me, but just as before, I couldn’t feel anything. It seemed to be gone.

The new person didn’t come into the gallery. I could hear footsteps moving toward the offices at the other end of the building, so it was probably a staff member. My hand rose to push back my hair, and it shook so badly I almost stuck myself in the eye.

Holy hell. I’d been attacked by — by what? A demon? A ghost?

I tottered to the front door. My whole body trembled. I needed to run, to work off the adrenaline.

Maybe I’m crazy.

The thought of possible insanity actually comforted me for approximately five seconds. Because madness seemed less scary than whatever that thing was, assuming it was real. But I didn’t think I was truly insane.

Didn’t insane people automatically think their delusions were real? Didn’t the fact that I questioned my experience mean I wasn’t completely out of touch with reality? I didn’t know how true that was, but it sounded reasonable and I was going with it.

My stomach growled almost as fiercely as the monster had. I still had an appetite, even after demon attack.

The M.U. had fewer people in it than on weekdays, but there were enough so I didn’t feel as terrified as when I was alone. And these people seemed happy. It was Saturday, after all, and presumably none of them had just been attacked by an invisible monster. I ran up to the coffee shop on the promenade, got myself a huge latte and a giant scone, and soaked up the happy-normal energy.

It wasn’t enough.

I could swear someone was still watching me. He was still watching me. It would be easy for him to do, after all, since he was invisible. I’m sure that opened up a whole lot of possibilities for him.

What if I was wrong about him not attacking me here? What if he didn’t care who saw? Except he’d stopped as soon as another person had entered the art building, so it seemed like a reasonable assumption.

Maybe nothing would be enough to put me fully at ease, at least for a while. How did you recover from something like that? I wanted to scrub myself head to toe, inside and out. I wanted to run into a church and hide behind the altar, even though I had no idea whether that would do any good.

Maybe I’d go to church tomorrow. It had been a long while, but I suddenly had some motivation.

Crap. I was going to have to go home at some point, and that was the last thing I wanted. To be alone in my apartment, vulnerable to that thing again? Ick. No way. But I couldn’t stay out forever. The M.U. would close for the night, so unless I was prepared to wander the streets until dawn, I had to go home.

Maybe I couldn’t stay out forever, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t put off going home as long as possible. Like all day and part of the night. Hah. Take that, invisible monster.

Tell Gage.

The creature’s words came back to me in a startling rush. It had something to do with Gage, otherwise why would it have said that?

Holy hell. Maybe this was his awful secret. I had no real idea what this was, except it clearly had a supernatural element. An evil one.

And Gage had believed he was protecting me by not telling me the details. Well, that was obviously not true. What would that thing do the second time it came after me?

I could think of all kinds of possibilities, each more gruesome than the last.

If only I had Gage’s number. I’d made no attempt to get it, considering how hard he’d tried to get away from me. If he didn’t want me, I sure wasn’t going after him. But things had changed and I wanted answers. ASAP.

To his handlers, I’d probably be nothing more than another fan if I tried to get through to him, though. Even Cindy, who might remember my name. She obviously hadn’t liked me, so I couldn’t count on help from that quarter.

At the moment, there wasn’t much to do except avoid going home. And the movie theater. I didn’t relish the thought of sitting in a dark room, even one filled with tons of other people.

In the end, I hung around the M.U., making sketches, people watching. I headed up to the lounge to watch some TV for half an hour, then stopped by the store for a couple of paperback novels. There were plenty of nooks and crannies in the M.U. for someone like me to curl up and read. All in all, a pleasant Saturday, except for the ominous cloud that seemed to hang over me the whole time.

Eventually, the M.U. closed down for the night. Gack. Now I had to ride my bike home. Let myself into my empty apartment.

My stomach churned uneasily as I unlocked my bike and started back toward the apartment. The sun had gone down a couple of hours before, so it was dark except for streetlights. People still drove and walked around, though. Not too bad. Yet.

How was I going to sleep knowing that thing could come back at any time? Should I go back to Portland, move in with my parents?

No. Then I’d only bring it down on my family. I had to find some way to fight against it.

Chapter 7: A Twist In My Belly

Gage:

You ever had one of those dreams where you’re just watching the action from the outside, and nothing you do or say makes any difference at all to the outcome?

Yeah. They suck.

In this one, I could see Nova. I could even feel her fear, feel her heart slamming inside her ribcage, feel heavy hands on her shoulders, pushing her against the wall. I could see the creature looming over her, like black mist in a vaguely humanoid shape. But larger. Much larger. The thing had horns and a tail. It looked just like one of those old-time demons or maybe something out of my own hometown.

Only this wasn’t Hollywood.

Nova screamed. Her voice felt like a knife slicing through my innards.

I woke up with a gasp, already sitting upright, staring around the darkness of my bedroom without really seeing it. The darkness hid the emptiness of my room from me. All my eyes could take in was a wall of dark. It looked just like the blackness in my dream.

Dream. It was just a dream. But it felt so damned real, like I was connected to her soul and could see what was happening to her.

I staggered out of bed, sweating, heart pounding ferociously. The floor felt cold and hard beneath my bare feet. I dragged my fingers through my hair, trying to order my thoughts.

Phone. I had to find my phone and call Nova. Make sure she was okay.

I’d sworn I’d stay away from her, but things had changed. If she was hurt…if he had done something to her…

I snagged my jeans off the floor and fished my phone from the back pocket. Hit speed dial on the number she’d given me. I’d entered it the day I’d left her, but never used it until now.

The phone rang and rang and rang.

“Come on,” I muttered under my breath. “Nova, pick up. Come on, pick up.”

I’m sorry. The number you have reached is not in service. Please hang up and dial again.

I’m sorry. The number you have reached is not in service. Please hang up and dial again.

I nearly threw the goddamn thing at the wall. She’d given me her number, but apparently had changed it. Maybe she didn’t want to hear from me. Maybe she wanted me to leave her alone.

I couldn’t blame her, especially after I’d left the way I had.

I had Cindy on speed-dial too. I hit her number, tapping my bare foot on the floor in impatience as I waited for her to answer.

My bedroom window looked out over a canyon. I couldn’t see the sunrise because it faced west, but I could see the sky gradually lightening. Dawn was on its way. Gray light crept into my even grayer bedroom. The world was waking up, so where the fuck was Cindy?

“Um…hello?” she said, her voice fuzzy and half-asleep.

“Cindy. It’s me.”

“Gage? What — why are you calling me at — do you know what time it is?”

“Yeah.” I tapped my fingers against my bare leg. “It’s six o’clock. Time to get up.”

“Jesus.” She groaned. “I never get up before eight. You know that.”

“I need you to find someone for me.”

“What? Who?”

“Nova Pennyman. The number I have for her is out of service. Hire a detective if you have to, but I want a good number for her by this afternoon.”

She gave a pained sigh. “You want me to find that redneck chick?”

“She’s not a redneck, for chrissake. And even if she was, I don’t care. Just find her.”

“Gage, what is going on?” She sounded fully awake now.

“Nothing. I just want to talk to her.” I couldn’t tell Cindy I’d had a bad dream. She’d never understand.

“Couldn’t it have waited until later? In fact, can’t you just look her up on Facebook or Tumblr?”

“No. I need to get hold of her now, not wait for her to friend me.”

I would go to Avery’s Crossing, on the chance she’d returned there after the cabin. If she wasn’t there, at least I’d be in Oregon and I could follow her trail.

Another pained sigh. “All right. I’ll have it to you by, say, three o’clock?”

“Sooner if you can. Cancel my appointment with the shrink and get me on a flight to Avery’s Crossing. Drop everything else. I’m serious.”

“Jesus,” Cindy said. “All right, fine. Drop everything, get you to Oregon, find Nova Pennyman.”

“That’s my girl.”

She hung up, muttering.

I wasn’t going back to sleep, so I took myself downstairs and made some instant coffee. It was crap, but better than nothing. I needed to be alert for whatever was coming next.

My attempts to free myself from The Deal had come to nothing so far. Nobody seemed to know a thing, not even the people at the occult shops. And I hadn’t mentioned it to my shrink, who would have had me on some kind of dire medication if he’d even suspected I thought I was being persecuted by the devil. We’d talked about Jeremy and my using, but I’d left out the supernatural shit.

So far I’d failed to figure out how to free myself. And now Nova might be in imminent danger because of me. I didn’t know how to fight the devil, but I was going to learn. If necessary, I’d put myself in front of her. Offer myself to him. There was no way I’d let him take Nova.

***

Nova:

My neighborhood, which usually seemed so safe in the middle of the day, now looked like the set of a horror movie. The kind that’s set in suburbia, where the houses are built on an old graveyard or something. You know — totally normal except for the evil that lurks beneath the perfectly manicured lawns.

The houses seemed to watch me as I biked along my street, their eyes blank and dark. Even the parked cars seemed to have some sort of primitive consciousness. Everything seemed darker than it should be, the orange halos of light from the streetlights leaving most of the neighborhood unlit and un-see-able.

No other humans livened the place. I was alone.

I coasted onto the sidewalk in front of my unit. The pool of light from the streetlight gave up just before it reached my front stoop, leaving it in black shadow. My wonderful landlord had failed, once again, to replace the bulb in my security light, so my front door looked like the black hole from hell.

Oh, God. That little private joke wasn’t so funny anymore.

In the darkness, an even darker shadow stood waiting. I stopped dead, my heart pounding frantically again. Someone lurked there at my front door. A big someone. Had the watcher taken physical form now? My stomach turned so hard I thought for an instant I would throw up.

The guy had a baseball cap on, pulled low so I couldn’t see much of his face, plus a loose, dark-blue canvas jacket and baggy jeans. He carried a large guitar case. There was something oddly familiar about him, although I couldn’t place him. I stood there astride my bike, staring, afraid to go forward. Not sure how to handle whatever was about to happen.

I had a bike. He was on foot. I could get away — unless he was a demon, anyway.

“Are — what are you doing here?” I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking.

“I would have called but your number is different.”

My mouth went even drier than it already was. “Gage?” I whispered.

Good God, of all the things that could have happened that day…after being attacked in the art building…I could hardly believe he was real. Why today?

He walked out of the shadows and into the light cast by the nearest street lamp. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

He seemed even taller than I remembered. The baggy clothes hid the athletic shape of his body, yet I could still see the lines of him beneath the disguise. Even the cap and the scruffy beard couldn’t hide his identity from me now that I’d realized who he was.

His blue eyes seemed dark and mysterious in the harsh lighting, but the chiseled planes of his cheekbones, the sharp straight nose — it was Gage.

My whole body contracted in longing. He was so close, yet I couldn’t touch him while he remained just out of reach. Had I said I was over him? What a joke. I’d never be over him.

I couldn’t stop staring. “What are you doing here?”

“Do you want me to go?”

“No!” I took a breath. “No, I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just that you surprised me.”

My hands were shaking again. I was a nervous wreck today.

“I have to talk to you,” he said, his voice so even it sounded like he was making an effort to keep it that way. “Can I come in for a while?”

“Of course. You didn’t even have to ask.” I got my keys out of my pocket and dismounted my bike, hoping he couldn’t tell how trembly I was. “How did you find me, though?”

“Cindy hired someone to do a search. Then I flew in, came right over but you weren’t here. I didn’t want to miss you, so I just sat down and waited.”

“Oh, my God.” I stuck the key in the lock and gave him a sidelong glance. I liked the beard. It gave him a raffish, sexy look, but was short enough I could still see the hard, definite line of his jaw. “How long have you been here?”

“I don’t know. A few hours.”

“I’ve been out. I’m sorry. If I’d known you were here, I would’ve come straight home.”

“Not your fault.” He shrugged. “I called your new number, but I kept getting sent to voicemail.”

“Weird. I must have turned off my phone.”

I opened the door, wheeled my bike inside, waited for him to follow me. God, my apartment. It was even more embarrassing than the cabin had been. At least the cabin had charm. This place was just old and worn out. And it smelled funny.

He wasn’t looking at the bare spots and stains in the carpet, the smudges on the dirty beige walls, or at my almost complete lack of furniture, though. He was looking at me. I couldn’t read the expression in his eyes. Hope? Sorrow? Hesitation, maybe. Yeah, there was a lot of hesitation.

“I’m glad to see you,” I said, wishing I could throw my arms around him and fuse my mouth to his. At the same time, anger began to stir. He hadn’t called me in all those weeks. Would it have been so difficult to look me up a month ago?

It was unreal having him in my place again after I’d thought I’d never see him. I couldn’t stop looking at him. Gage was here, with me. My body ached to feel him against me, yet I had the bewildering urge to slap him.

He set down the guitar case, propping it against the wall by the door. Then he took off the cap and stuck it in his jacket pocket. “I’m sorry I didn’t get in touch sooner. I thought I was protecting you,” he said with a grimace.

I folded my arms across my chest. “Were you? I mean, I know you said that, but you could have called.”

He sighed. “I was afraid I’d endanger you.”

For a minute, I just stared at him. He seemed sincere, but he was an actor after all. I didn’t want to give up my indignation. I had a right to be upset, and to an explanation. Yet I didn’t want to fight with him.

“You hurt me.” My throat hurt right now.

He looked at the floor. “I know.”

“You couldn’t even leave a message or text me?”

“I told you. I was protecting you.”

I shook my head. “I still don’t understand why talking to me is so dangerous.”

“I know, and I’m going to explain everything.”

“You promise?”

He pressed a hand to his chest. “I swear it.”

“Because if you don’t, if you just lead me on and leave again, I don’t want you to come back. I’m not the kind of girl who’s willing to take that from a guy.”

He met my eyes squarely, his gaze both calm and sincere. “You’ll know everything before you go to bed tonight.”

“Okay then.” I glanced around my pitiful interior. “Do you want something to drink? To eat? I haven’t got much, but I can get you a peanut-butter sandwich.”

“How about we order in? I have a lot to tell you.”

I stared at him a moment longer. “Okay. Um. Me too. I have a lot to tell you too.” Like that an invisible something had attacked me and asked for him specifically. That ought to get his attention.

We ordered Indian food. Waiting for it felt awkward. There was this gulf between us, and it almost felt like I didn’t know him anymore. I guess that isn’t so strange, since we’d only spent eight days together, but it disappointed me.

I got us a couple of beers and we sat down at my rickety thrift-store table to wait for the food. He was so close to me. I could have reached across the table and touched his hand, but I didn’t. Instead I just sat there, fiddling with my beer while my stomach did back-flips inside my belly.

Gage lifted his beer and glanced at me. “How have you been, Nova?”

“Oh, fine.” Not fine. Not at all.

“I missed you like hell.”

I stared again. I was doing a lot of that tonight. “Really?”

He nodded, sipping the beer. “Really.”

“Oh. Wow. I missed you too.”

He smiled. “Really?”

“Like crazy. I saw that movie you were in and I couldn’t stand it. I had to leave early.”

His smile disappeared. “God, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have left you like that.”

“I understood,” I said with a shrug. “You had to go back. You had people depending on you.”

He gestured with the beer bottle. “Yeah, but it didn’t have to be like that. I was an ass.”

I took a swig of my own beer, trying desperately to cover up my nervousness. “I’m glad you came to see me.”

He looked around the open-plan kitchen and living room combo. “Do you have a couch?”

“Nope. I haven’t gotten around to buying one yet. I do have a couple of big pillows, though.”

“Let’s sit on the floor together.”

We took our beers over to the giant corduroy pillows I’d bought for the place and sank to the old, brown carpet. At least I’d vacuumed yesterday. The light from the cheap brass chandelier over the dinette table cast ugly bars of shadow over the living room.

Gage looked over at me. He put his arm around my shoulders. “Is this okay?”

“I’ve been waiting for you to do that.”

He drew me up against his hard, hot body. God, that felt good. I put my arm across his hard, narrow waist and nestled my head against his chest. He smelled faintly of soap and healthy male skin, a hint of sweat. I remembered that smell, and so did my body. It made my core contract again in longing.

“Did you ever find out what happened to your wallet?” I said.

He’d lost his wallet some time after leaving a house party and falling in the McKenzie River, where I’d later found him and pulled him out. He’d actually accused me of stealing it — one of several things we’d squabbled over when we first met. Eventually, though, we’d settled our differences.

“No, I never did,” he said. “I’m pretty sure someone at the party lifted it.”

“I’m sorry about that.”

“I’m over it.” He rested his cheek on the top of my head. “I missed you so damn much.”

“We really haven’t known each other very long.” Now why had I reminded him of that?

“I know. But it doesn’t seem to matter.”

“No, it doesn’t.” I tipped my face up. “I can hardly believe you’re here. I’m not dreaming, am I?”

He smiled that incredible smile of his. “No. Unless I’m dreaming too.”

Abruptly, a shadow settled over his face. Not just a frown, but a darkening of his whole expression.

“Gage?” I said.

His lips flattened. “I had a nightmare about you. Some really fucked up shit.”

I felt an odd little twist in my belly. It couldn’t be coincidence, not after what had happened to me in Fairchilde. “When?”

“This morning. It’s why I came.” He shook his head with a rueful twist of his beautiful mouth. “I sound crazy, huh? I just had to make sure you’re okay.”

Chapter 8: Confession

Nova:

Gage must have cared about me, or he wouldn’t have bothered coming so far just because of a bad dream. Or maybe he only felt he owed me. I couldn’t forget the way I’d blurted out that I loved him, right before he’d gotten on the helicopter, and I wasn’t going to say it again until I had a better idea of how he felt in return. Besides, even with him here, I wasn’t sure it was true. How could I love someone I’d only known for a week?

“You look great,” he said, gazing down at me, his arm still around me. “Was I worrying over nothing?”

“Well, I’m still in one piece,” I said, thinking of the art gallery incident.

His frown turned to an outright scowl. “One piece? What does that mean?”

He wasn’t going to like hearing about this, but he ought to know, especially since he’d come to see me.

I looked up into his concerned gaze. “Something really weird happened to me this morning.”

I described the events in the art building for him. As I spoke, his face became more and more grim and angry. I couldn’t tell if he was angry with me or someone else, although I had no idea why he’d blame me. It’s not like I could have protected myself against something I never would have guessed was even possible before it happened.

I drew away from his embrace. “You look like you want to break something.”

“I do. God damn it.” He shook his head, his square jaw clenching. “I should have known it wasn’t enough.”

“What wasn’t enough? What’s going on, anyway?”

He didn’t respond. He just stared down at his lap, his arm hanging at his side. It seemed pretty obvious he didn’t want to answer.

“Gage?”

He gave me an embarrassed-looking glance. “Remember at the cabin when I told you I was involved in something dangerous?”

“Yeah. You wouldn’t tell me what it was.” I’d wondered at the time if it had something to do with the drug trade.

“I — uh — “ He closed his eyes, shaking his head again. “Christ. I’ve never told anyone this and it’s really hard to say.”

“I promise not to laugh.”

He opened one eye. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“So tell me.”

An enormous sigh escaped him. “Shit. Okay.” He took a deep breath. “When I was ten, my mom made a deal with the devil.”

I blinked. Had I heard that correctly? I squinted at him and blinked again. “The devil. You mean, like the Devil-devil?”

“Is there some other devil?”

“How the hell would I know?” I put my hand over my mouth. “I didn’t mean to say that.”

His mouth curved, but it wasn’t a real smile. “Yes, it was the devil-devil. The real thing. She traded my soul for success in the movie business.”

Now I really stared, my mouth open. “What? She — hold on. She traded your soul? What kind of deal is that? What kind of mom does that?”

“The kind more interested in her kid making it big in the movies than in raising him,” he said calmly.

“I can’t — I just can’t —” I stopped and stared again. “Are you for real? You’re not pranking me?”

“I’m so not pranking you. I’d never make up something like this.”

“Holy…God.” I shook my head. “I don’t have words. I didn’t even think people did that, like for real. It sounds like something out of a low-budget horror flick.”

“I know, right?” He laughed a little. “I guess you can’t fault her for lack of imagination.”

“I can. I can fault her for a lot of things.” His mom had officially pissed me off, forever, until the end of time. She didn’t deserve a son like Gage. She didn’t deserve a kid at all.

Moms are supposed to love their kids, protect them, teach them how to live. Not barter them like they’re choice cuts of meat. I wanted to tell that awful woman exactly what I thought of her and I would have if she’d been there.

“So you don’t hate me?” he said.

I had to blink again. “Why would I hate you?”

“I brought that thing down on you. I drew its attention to you.”

I didn’t want to give him a glib answer, so I thought about it for a second. I certainly didn’t hate him. Was I mad at him? He’d tried to protect me in the only way he knew how, and it wasn’t his fault that I’d been the one to pull him from the river. I couldn’t see how blaming him would make any sense.

Besides, it wasn’t anger I felt at the moment. It was more like concern, love — er, strong affection — fury at his mom, worry about his safety…not hate.

“No,” I said. “I sure don’t hate you and I’m not mad at you. Only at your mom. She was supposed to take care of you, not trade you.”

He hugged me, bending his head down to press a kiss to the top of my head. I wanted more.

“Thank you, baby,” he said.

“I probably wouldn’t have believed you if I hadn’t had that thing happen today,” I said. “I’d think you were exaggerating or something. Do you think it was the devil who grabbed me?”

“I don’t know,” he said, his eyes troubled again. “Maybe it was some lesser demon. But I’m sure it was because of The Deal, especially since the thing mentioned me.”

I could hear the capital letters when he said “The Deal.” It reminded me of all those talks we’d had at the cabin, about his career, my school.

“Is that why you think you didn’t earn your success?” I said.

“Yeah. Because I didn’t.”

“But, Gage, you’re really good. I don’t think you should beat yourself up about what your mom did. It’s not your fault, and you’re a great actor in spite of her cheating.”

He just stared down at me, a half smile on his lips.

“What?” I said.

“You really believe that?”

“Yes. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it.”

“Did you know there was a joke going around on the Internet for a while that I’d made a deal with the devil for my fame? It’s still knocking around if you look for it.”

I snorted. “That’s bullshit. You’ve got an Academy Award, for crying out loud. People are just jealous. They can’t stand that someone else is famous or successful when they’re not.”

“Yeah, except it’s true.”

“No, it’s not. Your mom made the deal. Not you.”

He stared at me for another minute. His free hand came up to caress the side of my face. “I never thought that made a difference.”

“It does to me.”

His thumb brushed along the edge of my cheekbone. “I’ve always thought of myself as a fraud.”

“No.” I laid my hand over his. “You’re not a fraud. Don’t ever think that about yourself.”

He still looked deeply troubled, with lines between his eyebrows and at the corners of his eyes, his lips tense. “He said he’d take me at the height of my fame. And that if for some reason he couldn’t get me, he’d take all the people I cared about.”

I tried to digest that. “Do you think he was trying to take me?”

“God, I hope not.” He scowled. “My mom is convinced he made Jeremy overdose, though.”

I felt my eyes widen. “Do you believe her?”

“I don’t know. I’ve always laughed off her fears about him, but when I found Jeremy’s body, something was there in the room with me. Something invisible. I’ve felt it other places since then, like it’s following me around. That’s why I was so worried about protecting you. But then I had that dream and I thought —” He swallowed hard, his gaze drawing away as he stared at my blank apartment wall. “I thought he might have come after you, and if I couldn’t protect you by staying away then maybe we should be together after all.”

Blue eyes slid quickly to mine, then away.

“If you want to, that is,” he added.

“I want to.”

“I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t,” he said, talking right over me. “I mean, I’ve brought all this shit into your life, gotten you attacked and everything. And it might not stop here. He might come after you again. What if it gets worse? And even without the supernatural crap, there’s the fame, the lack of privacy, the —”

“Gage.” I nudged him with my elbow.

“Huh?” He stopped talking to look down at me.

“I want to be with you.”

He gazed at me a moment longer. Then his mouth came down on mine, fiercely sensual, hot and wet, and within seconds I was moaning. My arms went around his neck as his hand cupped my face.

In that moment, it was as if we hadn’t been parted at all. Our bodies remembered each other, remembered exactly what to do. He licked me and I opened for him and he moaned as he plunged into me.

God, that sound turned me on.

I turned without breaking the kiss and climbed on his lap, straddling him, one knee on either side of his hips. His hands slid down my back and then up under the shirt I wore, spanning me, hot against my skin. I took his face in my hands, as if he might try to get away from me, and devoured his mouth.

His lips — God, his lips. The lower one, so full and bite-able. I’d missed the sensation of his mouth on mine so much over these last weeks. I took that lower lip between my teeth and pulled.

He dragged me closer, crushing my aching core against the bulge inside his jeans, making me whimper with pleasure. His hands cupped my ass, fingers curving around my cheeks, squeezing. I rocked my hips against him and he groaned.

It was so good to taste him again, to feel him against me, to hear him make those ardent noises. I’d begun to think I’d imagined the passion between us, to think I’d made it up, but here it was all over again. It was real, totally real.

My hands flew to his waistband. I fumbled with the metal button, my fingers clumsy with urgency. Gage took his hands off my ass to help me.

The doorbell rang.

He growled against my mouth. His arms tightened around me as he plunged his tongue desperately into me. I did the same to him, the need I felt for him almost painful in its intensity. Whoever it was outside the door could stuff it.

The doorbell rang again.

He withdrew his mouth from mine with a short, rueful laugh. I blinked up at him, stunned.

“Wha—” I said incoherently.

“The food is here.” He grinned at me.

I’d forgotten the food. “Shit. Damn it.”

He pressed his forefinger against my lower lip, pulling it down slightly. “I’ll get the door. Don’t worry, I’m not done with you.”

I climbed off his lap, pouting. Gage laughed again, ruffling my hair. He stood up, started toward the door.

“Shouldn’t I answer?” I said. “Don’t you want to stay incognito?”

“Yeah, good idea.”

He leaned against the wall next to the door as I opened it, handing me a fifty to pay the delivery girl. She gave me the food and rummaged in her pouch for the change.

“She can keep it,” Gage said softly.

“Keep the change,” I said.

The girl’s eyes widened to circles. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Have a good night.”

She wished me the same with the biggest smile I’d ever seen on a delivery person’s face. I shut the door and turned to Gage, my hands full of white paper bags.

“That was generous.”

He shrugged. “It was nothing. They work hard and don’t make much.”

I just smiled. “Let’s eat.”

We’d ordered a feast, and the containers as I opened them released a marvelous perfume of Indian spices and ghee. Normally, that smell would conquer almost anything else in my mind, it was so intoxicating. I swear Indians can make anything taste good, even concrete. But tonight I wasn’t feeling it.

Oddly, my encounter with an invisible assailant hadn’t managed to kill my appetite, but lust for Gage did. My food tasted delicious. I just wasn’t very interested in it.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” he said.

I poked at my lamb biryani without enthusiasm. “It’s good, but I think I’m going to eat it later.”

“Too worried to eat?” he said softly.

“No. Too horny.”

He choked, snorted, laughed.

“What?” I said innocently.

“You kill me.” He shoved his food away, still chewing. “Let’s come back to this. We’ve got something more important to do.”

Chapter 9: Joy

Nova:

Gage stood up, his hip bumping the table and knocking one of the paper bags to the floor. I jumped out of my chair and went for him, giving a little hop as he grasped my waist. He lifted me and I threw my legs around his waist.

“I don’t know how I made it this long without you,” he said, kissing me again.

The ugly suspicion he’d been with other women nagged at my mind. I put it away. Maybe he had. Maybe he hadn’t. Right now, we were together and I was going to make the most of it.

“Bedroom,” he mumbled against my lips.

I pointed over his shoulder at the truncated hallway that contained my bathroom and bedroom. Gage turned, with me still in his arms, and headed toward the bedroom. Damn, he was strong, especially now he wasn’t sick. He carried me as if I didn’t weigh anything.

He strode into the bedroom and tossed me on the bed. I bounced.

“Take off your clothes,” he said.

If Barry had given me an order like that, it would have pissed me off. When Gage did it, I got excited. I tore at my clothing, throwing garments any which way on the floor.

“You’re overdressed,” I said.

He yanked his T-shirt over his head and shucked off his jeans. Then he stalked to the bed, prowling toward me with the unconscious grace I’d only glimpsed in the cabin. When he got to me, I spread my legs to make room for him and clasped him around the waist, my ankles locking against his back.

“You don’t waste time,” he said with a naughty grin.

“I don’t want you to escape before I have my wicked way with you.”

He lowered himself on top of me, naked male chest to my bare breasts. “What if I don’t want to escape?” He bit me lightly on the side of my neck.

“All the better.” I turned my head and captured his mouth again.

My hands trembled as I buried my fingers in his thick, soft hair. It was a combination of lust, sexual frustration, and … joy, I suppose. Joy. He was back again, at least for a little while.

He groaned. “God, I love the taste of your mouth. I want to taste you everywhere.”

That was all right with me.

“I want to taste you, too.”

He pulled off me, giving himself enough room to cup a breast in his big, calloused hand. “First these.”

His hand kneaded me, thumb brushing over my eager nipple, and I arched my back, pushing myself up into his hand. My body hurt, I wanted him so much. And he gave himself to me, lavishing the attention of his hands and mouth on first one and then the other of my breasts.

Finally I pushed him away, urging him to lay on his back. I bent my head to his chest and licked his skin. He sighed, a hand coming up to stroke my hair as I continued to kiss him.

His skin felt deliciously warm beneath my lips. I smelled a hint of sweat on him and it excited me. I loved the raw smell of his body, no cologne or anything else to distract me from him.

I thought I’d never see him again and now he was here, his bare skin warm and delicious against mine, his big body trembling beneath my kisses. It was almost more than I could bear. I sighed as I pressed my lips to his chest, the soft curling hair, the hard male nipples.

His fingers moved restlessly through my hair. “Nova.”

“Yeah?” I paused in my kissing.

“I need you.”

“You’ve got me.”

He tugged at my upper arms. “Come up here. I need to taste you.”

I let him urge me back up to his mouth. He kissed me voraciously, his hand finding its way back to my breast.

“God, I missed these,” he muttered against my mouth.

I giggled.

“You’re breaking that promise again.” He nipped my lower lip.

I grabbed his head and plunged my tongue into his mouth. My hands stroked and caressed everywhere I could reach — his hair, the back of his neck, his hard shoulders and the flat planes of his back, the long indentation of his spine. My skin was hungry, starving, for the touch of his. He felt so good beneath my palms, against my thighs, his stiff cock shoving against me as if it couldn’t contain itself.

Gage rolled onto his back, taking me with him so I ended up draped across him. “Sit on my face.”

“What?” I laughed a little.

“Ah ah, Miss Pennyman. No laughing. Just do it.” His blue eyes looked almost black in the low light of my bedroom as he pulled me farther up his body.

“You talk dirty, Dalton.”

He gave me a lopsided grin. “And you like it. Turn around.”

I frowned, puzzled.

His grin widened. “Sixty-nine, Pennyman. Ever heard of it?”

Whoa. He wanted me to — while he — I’d never done that before. I blinked down at him.

“Go on.” He smacked my ass.

Bossy man. But okay, I could play along. I turned around, pointing my rear end right at his face. This couldn’t be a good thing. I glanced over my shoulder at him, unsure.

“Yeah,” he growled. “That’s what I’m talking about. Put your knees on either side of me.”

I did as he instructed. His big hands spread me apart, fingers curving around the sides of my hips. He pulled me down toward his face.

A hot, wet tongue slid right up my center. I gasped. He did it again and I moaned.

This position put my face right at his cock. I took it in one hand. Damn, it was hard as steel and it twitched when I touched it.

The musky aroma of aroused male made my sex throb with need. I had a crazy urge to rub myself against him, and he was busy licking me in every conceivable pattern. So I put my face against the tender skin of his inner thigh, rubbing my cheek against him.

Then I used my other cheek to rub his ball sack. He sighed. Apparently, he liked what I was doing, so I did it some more. And then I licked him thoroughly, everywhere I’d already put my face. He was even hotter down here than all those other places I’d kissed him.

His licking was driving me crazy. My pussy ached for him, and every caress of his tongue both satisfied and fed that ache. I had to get him inside me, but first I wanted to make him as insane with desire as I was.

Finally, I took his cock in my mouth, drew my tongue across the velvety tip. He was freaking huge and I couldn’t get his whole length into me. The tip of him hit the back of my throat, making me gag. He groaned loudly at the same time.

He tasted like sex. I withdrew to lick the head of his cock, teasing the tiny slit at the tip, before plunging my mouth over him and taking him as deeply as I could.

“Nova,” he groaned. “Turn around now.”

“Nuh uh.” I sucked on him.

“Jesus. Unhh — no. I wanna come in your pussy, not your mouth.” He groaned again. “Stop.”

Reluctantly I released him.

He lifted and turned me as if I were a doll, as if I weighed nothing, positioning me on top of him and facing forward. “Ride me.”

I rubbed the head of his cock against my dripping wet folds. He moaned, his eyes going even darker than before, his perfect lips swollen and parted. I pushed him into the entrance of my sheath. He grabbed my ass and shoved me down onto him, impaling me with sudden, agonizing pleasure.

My head fell back as I shouted.

“How’s that?” he said between gritted teeth.

“Good.” I ground my hips against him, whimpering at the pleasure of the contact of my pelvic floor with his body. “So good.”

“Yeah?” He lifted me up and dropped me, impaling me all over again.

“Oh, Gage! Yeah!”

I had neighbors now, unlike when we were isolated at the cabin. But I didn’t give a damn who heard me. I had Gage buried deep inside me and it felt so good I couldn’t control the sounds I made. All I could do was rock up and down on top of him, sobbing with the pleasure of it.

He was huge and I was tight. I hadn’t done anything for release since I’d lost him. The pressure and stretching and dragging of his cock against the walls of my sheath felt so intense that my eyes rolled back in my head.

I forgot everything else in my life. There was nothing but me and him and our bodies joined. Nothing but this moment, this pleasure. I shattered in ecstasy with him inside me and I never wanted it to end.

“I can’t —” he gasped. “Can’t —”

His hips slammed upward against mine, his arms worked me up and down on top of him, his face tense with his passion, dark gaze fixed on me. The bed squeaked. My tits bounced rhythmically with the force of his loving.

“Let go,” I said. “It’s all right.”

Just as the words left me, the pleasure inside my body mounted again. I whimpered, rising and falling over him as he groaned and shook beneath me. His mouth opened wide, as if he couldn’t get enough air. His hands pounded my hips down onto him, over and over, our flesh slapping together noisily.

He shouted my name. Flooded me with wet heat. I shuddered and cried out as another, smaller orgasm overtook me.

Then, panting, I collapsed on top of his heaving chest. His arms came around me, holding me so tightly. So tightly. I laid my cheek against his sweaty skin and clasped him to me as his heart thundered beneath my ear.

“You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said. Then he laughed. “God, that’s a lame cliché. But it’s true.”

“I don’t mind clichés if they’re true.” I kissed his throat. “And I feel the same way about you.”

This was safer than talking about love, I guess. Neither of us had to risk using that L-word. I liked hearing that I meant a lot to him, though. It was good. It was something, anyway.

“I want you to know I haven’t been with anyone else since I met you.” He caressed my hair.

That was good, especially since in the heat of the moment I’d forgotten to ask about condoms. In a moment of optimistic insanity, I’d had my birth control patch renewed, so I was covered there. I guess the renewal hadn’t been as crazy as I’d thought.

“Nova?”

“Hmmm?”

“What about you?”

I raised my head to give him a puzzled look. “What about me?”

He licked his lips. “Have you been with anyone?”

“Seriously?”

He gazed at me, his eyes way too somber considering we’d both just come hard and fast. “Seriously. Have you?”

“No. Of course not.”

His brows drew inward and up at the same time, an expression that almost seemed like a trademark of his. “What does that mean?”

I slapped him lightly across his left delt. “It means I lo — care about you. It means I wasn’t over you, even though I tried to be. Of course I wasn’t seeing anyone.”

He studied me, his gaze traveling back and forth across my face as if searching for clues I might be hiding something from him. Then he smiled bashfully, looking both vulnerable and pleased. “Really?”

“Yes, damn it. Did you think I’d forget you the minute you flew off in that stupid helicopter?”

His face fell. “I shouldn’t have left.”

“That’s not what I mean. Well, it is, sort of, but — what I’m trying to say is that other guys don’t interest me.”

The smile reappeared. “Good.”

“You look unbelievably smug right now.”

He just grinned even more widely. “I’m relieved that some local dude didn’t get to you before I could come back and make things right.”

“I see.” I raised my brows. “And you’re absolutely sure you haven’t been with anyone either?”

He sobered as he reached out to touch my face. “Absolutely. I didn’t want anyone else. I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”

“I thought you didn’t want me anymore,” I confessed.

“Baby, that will never happen.” His eyes were so serious, so real, and I wanted to believe him. I really did.

“Never?” I drew my chin back skeptically. “Never is an awful long time.”

“I know. I don’t want to be too intense here, but you mean a lot to me.” He brushed a strand of hair off my cheek. “The only reason I left was because of The Deal. I wanted to protect you.”

He was still inside me, but I leaned up, stretching to press a kiss to his mouth. “We’re in it together now. You and me.”

“Nova —”

“You and me, Gage. I’m not going to let you face this thing alone.”

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