Mary pulled into my shared driveway and lowered her sunglasses. “Wow. Can you say ripped?”
I glanced toward the next door neighbor’s side of the yard. From the passenger’s seat, I had an uninhibited view. The rubber ping of a basketball resounded as Brandon—shirtless and sweaty—bounced it against the cement.
Mary was still ogling.
I rolled my eyes. “You can’t stand him.”
“Yes I can.”
“Candy, there’s a fine line between jealousy and hatred.”
“Oh.” I laughed as I opened the passenger door. “So all this time you’ve been jealous that Brandon and I were such good friends? Because I have a million emails and text messages that say otherwise.”
“That’s what I’m trying to clear up. If you wanted to hang out with me and Brandon at the same time … now I’d be okay with it.”
“Yeah, because now he’s hot.” I slammed the passenger door of her silver Malibu and opened the rear door to collect my bags. How Mary made me spend so much money on frivolity I had no idea, but she was right, I’d look super cute in that black and white checkered pencil skirt tomorrow. “You and Brandon don’t like any of the same things.”
“Candy, don’t doom our relationship before it’s even started.”
I laughed. “And when is this relationship going to start?”
“Set it up for me?”
I leaned in the open window of the passenger side. “No.”
“Why not? It’s not like you want him.”
I glanced over my shoulder. Brandon took another shot, seemingly oblivious to the girls staring at him thirty feet away. “We haven’t exactly been hanging out lately.”
“That’s probably because he’s been throwing himself at you for like five years—he’s tired of the rejection.”
“Rejec—he has not been throwing himself at me. I would have noticed that.”
“So you do like him?”
Mary narrowed her contact-created blue eyes, then pushed her sunglasses back on. “Methinks thou protesteth too much.”
“Half the words in that sentence aren’t even real anymore.”
“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow. Wear the pencil skirt and I guarantee Brandon will have forgotten he’s sworn you off. Just be sure to make good on any advances.” Mary batted her false eyelashes. “You might only have one shot left to snag his heart.”
I waved as my melodramatic friend backed down the driveway. Then I turned to my neighbor. My best friend. Yeah, I could shop with Mary, and talk girl talk, but Brandon and I used to be inseparable. I deposited my shopping evidence just inside the back door and wandered over. “Hey.”
He nodded in my direction. “Candy.”
“How’ve you been?”
His eyes focused on the bouncing ball in front of him. “Busy.”
“With your new friends?”
That comment earned me a quick glance. “I guess.”
“Well if you can schedule some time for your old friend tonight, I was hoping for a couple hour marathon of last season’s supernatural. You know something to take my mind off of the fact that summer officially ends in sixteen hours.”
Brandon smiled—was I supposed to miss a smile that much? “You making popcorn?”
“My dad will.”
“So we’ll actually be able to eat it then?”
I swiped the ball. “Oh, you wanna go there?”
“I already did.”
I shot. Net. I crouched, waiting for his move. “So, you coming?”
Subwoofers blared vibrating the ground between my house and Brandon’s as a black 80’s Stang rushed up the driveway. The Binder brothers—all three of them. Brandon’s new friends. He’d never liked them before. The twins, Luke and Carter, were already in college. Max was our age—a senior this year. None of them really talked to anyone, but for some reason, six weeks ago, they swarmed around Brandon while I was in the bathroom at the movie theater. Now whenever they showed up, he raced out to meet them like some adopted puppy. He was starting to look like them too. Buff, dark circles under his eyes, and that cross ring on his thumb.
“Hey, Brandon. Up for a little last-night-of-summer fun? I heard it’s ladies night at Kit’s end of summer party. We’re invited.”
“Sure. Let me change.”
I tossed the ball onto the grass. “Sounds fun, can I come?”
“Why not?” Carter shot me a smile.
Brandon glared at me. “I thought you had plans tonight, Candy.”
I wasn’t about to let his saying my name through clenched teeth stop me. These wolves in boys clothing were not going to steal my best friend. Not if I could help it. “With you. Since you’re going out …” I shrugged.
Brandon’s eyes darted toward the brothers then back to me. “Okay. Go change.”
“She looks fine.” Carter opened the door, slid out and motioned to the back seat.
Brandon cocked an eyebrow. “Maybe you should let your dad know.”
I walked toward the car and pulled out my phone, fingers flying over my qwerty keyboard. After a quick chirp I flashed my phone at Brandon so he could read Dad’s response. Have fun. Be back before curfew.
He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. I walked past him and slid into the back seat next to Max who bobbed his head at me. “Hey, Candy.”
“Hey.” The interior smelled like spearmint.
Brandon rushed up to Carter, their chests almost touched. The Stang’s roof blocked my view of their faces, but Brandon’s hushed voice traveled. “If she gets hurt—”
“She won’t. Tonight is harmless.”
Whatever that meant. I ventured to look at Max still smiling next to me and Luke who turned around and nodded once. His eyebrow ring glinted in the setting sunlight.
I felt suddenly insecure. “You’re sure it’s okay that I show up uninvited?”
Luke chuckled. “You’re hot enough.”
“Are you sure I shouldn’t change first?”
Brandon finally climbed into the backseat smelling amazing. Since when did he wear cologne?
Strobe lights danced off the walls, and shirts, and couches. I’d heard about Kit Wheeler’s mansion, but it seriously exceeded expectation. A pool in the yard surrounded by statues? Check. I sat on the white leather couch with a perfect view of the backyard—alone. Where had Brandon gone to anyway? They left me with Max who was pretty content to suck face with the girl on his lap. I stood up.
“Leaving so soon?”
I spun on my heel. Whoa. I had never, in all my life, seen anyone as hot as this guy. Dark eyes, golden hair, he didn’t even have a summer tan, but he was rocking the pale face. I pointed toward the patio. “Actually, I was just—” Just what? My cheeks flushed.
“I thought I’d better come over and introduce myself before someone else got brave enough to approach an angel.”
He actually lifted my hand and kissed it. My knees melted.
“Hey, Candy. Wanna dance?”
Brandon? Where had he been? I turned toward him, but his eyes locked on tall, pale and gorgeous.
“Back off, Leo, she’s with us.”
Carter? Where did he get off sounding so … protective? Tension built a wall around us and I wanted out. “You guys know each other?”
Leo stared at Carter and a smile stretched his lips. “We’ve met. In passing.” Leo looked into my eyes again. “I didn’t know you were taken.”
I stepped away from Brandon, casting him a glance over my shoulder. His eyes widened. Before he could speak, I held my hand out for Leo to take. “I’m not. I’m just here with some friends.”
“I told you the checkered skirt was awesome. You look amazing.”
I slammed my locker door and listened to Mary jabber as I walked toward my third hour. My head was pounding. I scanned the halls like some hunted mouse. Leo said he was a new student at Beech High this year, but I hadn’t seen him yet. I nearly tripped in my heels as Mary grabbed my sleeve and yanked me back a step.
“Who. Is. That?”
“Leo.” My voice came out in a whisper.
“You know him?”
“Yup.” I tugged Mary along.
She resisted. “Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
“Candy, why not?”
Someone placed a hand on my shoulder. “Because it’s best to stay away from guys like him.”
Mary stared at Brandon a second before she pointed to her eye and winced. “Nice shiner.”
I pulled her sleeve. This time she let me tow her along.
“What is going on here, Candy? And where were you last night? I must have texted ten times.”
We took our seats just before the bell rang. I turned to Mary when Ms. Kilne’s back was turned. “I think you’re right about Brandon. He got all jealous last night when I was dancing with Leo.”
Mary’s eyebrows raised. “You danced with hot Adonis man? You’re claiming both of them now, aren’t you? Isn’t one enough?”
I shook my head. “Leo is bad news. Brandon’s right, stay away from him.”
“Care to share some details?”
I sighed and my breath came out shaky. “If I could remember them I would.”
Mary sat up and leaned closer. Concern creased her forehead. “Spill.”
“I think he drugged me.”
“Yeah. I went to Kit Wheeler’s party last night with Brandon and the Binder brothers. Leo was there. I danced with him. I remember something about feeling a little scared, then things got really blurry. The next I knew, I was in the backseat of Luke’s car with my head in Brandon’s lap and a bucket of vomit on the floor.”
“Whoa. Did Leo give you a drink?”
I put my head in my hands trying to remember. Mrs. Kilne’s droning voice seemed to pull something to the surface. “The only one who gave me a drink was Max.”
“Max drugged you? You better tell Brandon.”
I sighed. Brandon did not have a black eye when he’d dropped me off last night. That meant despite my warning, he’d gone back out with those brothers. “I don’t think he’ll listen.”
When I reached my fifth hour class my head was throbbing. I had no time for the anal Mr. Peck. He sent me to seat twelve B. I rolled my eyes and counted twelve rows.
Leo. My stomach twisted. “Hey.”
“Are you feeling any better?”
“Last night while we were dancing you got dizzy. You almost collapsed on the floor. Don’t you remember?”
“Oh. Yeah. The details are a little foggy.”
“I trust your friends got you home safe and sound?”
“Odd lot, huh?”
That comment rubbed me the wrong way. “Pardon?”
Leo held up hinds hands. “Calm down. I’m sorry. I just meant they’re the protective type. I mean, a girl can make her own decisions, right?”
My head felt heavy. “Right.”
“You wanted me to drive you home, but they practically pulled you out of my car. Not that I really blame them. But still.”
“Well, I wasn’t feeling myself. I’m sure they were just watching out for me.”
“Right. That’s what friends are for.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying you seemed a little uncomfortable with those guys and I was offering you a way out. Truly, if it weren’t for the way you latched on to that Brayden character—”
“His name is Brandon.”
Leo chuckled. “Okay Brandon. I would have thought they dragged you there without your consent.”
I suppose it could have looked that way to an outsider. The rest of class Leo made it clear that he was nothing but a gentleman. There was no way he was the offender of last night’s dizzying episode. That left a myriad of questions for Brandon.
When I pulled into the driveway he was home and trying to skirt into his house. “Brandon!” I stormed up to him. In the daylight his cheek was purple too. I lifted a hand to his face. He pulled away. Had the Binder brothers done this? “What happened?”
“I got in a fight.”
“Please stay away from Leo.”
“He did this?”
“I accused him of trying to hurt you.”
“Your new friends couldn’t help you out?”
“Leo had friends waiting too.”
He did? “Why did you even go back?”
He just stared at me.
“Well, could we hang out tonight?”
His cell cut me off. He didn’t even apologize, just answered it and walked away. “Yeah, I’ll be ready.”
So I’d lost him. Was it because I’d chosen Leo? Hadn’t Mary warned me not to mess up?
I turned back to Mary and focused on my locker comm.
“Don’t you get enough of that eye candy from your bedroom window?”
“Come on. I’m your only remaining best friend. You can’t expect me to fall for the I-wasn’t-staring-at-Brandon crap.”
“We haven’t hung out in almost two months.”
“Candy, you have to stop. That ship has sailed.”
“All the ships have sailed.”
“Leo? I thought you were okay with him moving on.”
“Yeah. Sort of. When I wanted something else.”
“You’ve got to stop putting off that vibe.”
“Mark says you’ve got this I’m-not-interested vibe. Just let it fall for a minute and I’m sure Leo will be glued to you.” Mary wiggled her eyebrows.
“Speaking of glue, here comes Mark.”
Mary let out a silent squee and turned to face him.
I rolled my eyes, but happily. It was good to see Mary so on cloud nine. I opened my locker door and an envelope fluttered to the floor. I picked it up, peeled it open, and pulled out the card. There was a cute little basset hound puppy in the front. Inside, big droopy ears arranged the letters to spell ‘sorry’. Beneath it, in handwriting I couldn’t identify, read: Candy, I’m sorry I’ve been distant lately. I want to make it up to you. Will you meet me at 1271 Cogdon street tonight at nine?
Hmmm. A Halloween date? Brandon had always wanted to take me out on Halloween.
I looked over my shoulder to see if he was still there. He was, talking to Max and the couple girls who had
flocked their way. At least Brandon didn’t dress like the brothers. He’d kept his button down flannel shirts and brown boots. He glanced my way and sent me a soft, almost rueful, smile. My breath caught. Maybe it was from him. Maybe I had one chance left. I smiled back. Then I plugged the address into my phone and headed out.
Twelve seventy-one Cogdon was an abandoned house. The dark kind. Snow draped the rooftop contrasting the pitch black exterior. No tire tracks dented the snow outside. I made sure it was the place—again—then headed out of my car.
I slammed the door and walked toward the dilapidated iron fence. A thump thump sounded behind me. I froze. My heart sped. Reluctantly I turned back. A black cat sat on the trunk of my car licking her paw. Catching my breath and reminding myself that there’s no such thing as ghosts, I clicked the unlock on my fob. Hearing the noise, kitty hissed and dismounted. I opened the trunk and grabbed my Maglite. It might just be too dark in there.
The iron gate was unlocked. I pushed through it and it squealed. I was going to kill Brandon for this. He was forever begging me to go with him to a haunted house. He better have something truly romantic planned.
Snow crunched under my black heeled boots as I walked up the winding walkway. There were no tracks on the snow-covered steps. The porch light was conveniently out. No doorbell. Dark green paint chipped off the door revealing dry, sepia wood beneath. The handle was an ornate brass piece molded in the shape of a dragon.
Right at my eye level sat a brass door knocker. Its dragon eyes stared at me. I curled my fingers around the ring between its jaws. It was cold even in my gloved hand. The first knock echoed. A click followed the second and the door creaked open. Clutching my Maglite, I stepped over the threshold.
My boot tapped against the wooden floor sending a loud clack into the empty space ahead. I pushed the door open wider to fit through. It groaned. My stomach squeezed. This was not a good idea. I headed backward through the door, pulling it with me. The door protested and the dragon handle slipped through my grip. Strong fingers closed around my left wrist and pulled me aside. A hand cupped over my mouth. Panic seized my chest.
I swung the flashlight behind my head and missed. I stomped with my heeled boot on my captor’s foot as I bit down on the tiny bit of skin I could catch of the rough palm over my mouth. He swore. Released, I fell forward with force. The Maglite thunked down and rolled away from me.
Light flicked on, blinding me. I shook.
“Candy?” The light turned off.
I knew that whisper. “Brandon?”
“Are you okay?” He helped me up.
I latched onto him. “Yeah, you?”
He was close enough for me to make out his features in the dark. The circles under his eyes looked darker, but a smile warmed his face. “I’ll live. Sorry about grabbing you.”
“Didn’t you expect me?”
“Did you follow me or something?” He peered out the front door. “It’s not safe for you to be here.” He took my arm in his hand and guided me toward the rear of the house. I resisted. I had no intention of going any deeper into this house without an explanation. “At least let me get you upstairs.”
I eyed the two staircases flanking the balcony just beyond the entryway. If the chandelier lit this room it was probably beautiful. Right now it looked dangerous and creaky.
I turned to face Brandon and grabbed both of his arms. “What’s going on here?” Something sticky, warm and wet seeped through my glove. I looked down. “You’re bleeding.”
“I know. Listen, Max has a car out back. Let me get you closer and you can make a run for it.”
“You shouldn’t be here.”
So he’d said. “I was invited here.”
“You? I should have known. How stupid—I thought he’d given up on you.”
“You’re not making any sense.” I looked down at the floor and caught sight of something glimmer. A razor blade. “Bran!” I grabbed his arm and shoved up his sleeve. A long, thin cut. “What the hell?”
“It’s not what you think.” He pushed me closer to the staircase and into the darkest corner.
I pushed back against him. “Not what I think?”
“Shhh.” His eyes, scared and wild, implored me to take him seriously. “There’s not time to get you out of here now. Take off your shoes and give me your coat.”
“Please, Candy. You don’t know what you’re up against.”
I pulled my jeans up to my knee and unzipped my boot. When my foot hit the cold floor, I wished I’d worn socks instead of panty hose. “And what am I up against.”
“You wouldn’t believe me.”
I slid out of my coat and handed it to him. “Tell me.”
“Leo is a vampire.”
“You seriously brought me here to play a prank on me?”
Brandon stuck out his bleeding arm. “Does this look like a joke to you?” He squeezed his arm and blood oozed from the long cut and dripped to the floor. He moved behind the staircase and I stared at the liquid on the floor.
My knees trembled. He wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t … “Holy—”
He handed me a super soaker. “Holy water kills them. Squirt anything that moves. If it screams, unload on it. Fast.”
I grabbed the toy. It had been painted black, but seemed otherwise unremarkable. “Where’s yours?”
“I wasn’t expecting company.”
“I’m not taking your weapon.”
“Relax. I’ve got this.” He held up something that resembled a railroad spike.
I reached out to touch it. “A woodchip.”
“Go hide behind the railing and wait. I’ll move your jacket so he thinks you’ve wandered farther into the house. Then I’ll lead him away with this.” He pointed to his bloodied arm.
“What if it doesn’t work?”
“He’s not my first vamp, Candy. I’ve been training with the Binders. It’s kind of a long story and—”
“If they’re so seasoned how come they’re not in here bleeding?”
Brandon put his palm on my arm. Was I supposed to love the warmth of his hand that much? He whispered,
“Leo hates me.”
His smile was crooked. “He thinks I’m competition. He thinks you’re in love with me or something absurd like that.”
Brandon’s eyes rounded. “Your guy’s here.” He towed me back to the stairs. “Stay here. Please.”
I watched him leave. Then I sank onto the third step, super soaker ready to fire, in the absolute quiet. The door creaked. I had to tell myself it was just the wind. It seeped under the threshold and chilled my feet. Another groan upset the floorboards. Did old houses always have to be so creepy?
“His blood smells enticing, but not as sweet as you.”
I shook. In the dark I swore I saw a form move in front of me. An ice cold hand touched my shoulder. I screamed. I aimed. He was too close! The nozzle of the gun wouldn’t fit between us. I struggled to back away, but tripped over the stairs. His thumb found the pressure point at the base of my neck and he squeezed while he extracted the gun from my grip.
He led me into the center of the room, right under the chandelier in front of the balcony. Brandon’s body was placed prostrate between the two staircases. Blood caked his temple. My knees gave out. Leo held me up. “I thought you might like the surprise. He almost had me.” Leo faced me and pointed to a gaping, bloodied hole in his shirt. “Unfortunately, the stake didn’t penetrate deep enough before I pulled it out. Don’t worry. He’s not dead yet. I’m a sucker for romance. Tragedy really. This looks like the perfect place for a little Romeo and Juliet. Don’t you think? I’ve always wanted to rewrite that one.”
My heart thudded against my ribs.
The vampire’s eyes narrowed. He turned around to catch Brandon reaching toward the super soaker. Leo grabbed me in his vice grip and pulled me to him. “Let’s see if you’re fast enough to reach the water gun before I drain your girlfriend’s blood.”
Brandon lunged for the weapon. Leo tossed me aside. I flew backward. A squeal pierced the quiet. The skin of my bare arms shrieked against the wood floor. Leo sat on top of Brandon, pinning his arms down. The vampire kicked the super soaker across the room.
“Any … time …” Brandon choked.
I scrambled to get up and my hand grazed something cold. The Maglite. I sent it spinning at Leo’s head. It clunked off of him. His eyes landed on me. I stood weaponless. He lunged at me. Water sprayed from over the balcony. Leo screamed, falling to the floor at my feet. Steam rose off of him.
“Take that, bastard!” Max unloaded the whole gun.
Leo’s screams resounded off the naked walls until nothing remained of him but a puddle of ash like the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz.
I slumped to the floor, mouth open, and stared at the pile of wet ash.
Max slid down the banister and landed in front of me. He put up his hand for a high five. “You were awesome.”
Brandon pushed Max’s shoulder. “You were a little late. Did you see how close his teeth got to Candy’s neck?”
“Relax, I had to wait until he couldn’t see me. Your plan to move was brilliant.” Max turned toward me again. “And you were awesome! Maglite to the head. I mean bam!”
Brandon took my hands in his and helped me up. “You okay?” He chuckled.
“What are you laughing at?”
“Max is right, the Maglite thing was awesome.”
“You idiot.” I wrapped my arms around him and pulled him close.
Max picked up the flashlight. “You should have seen Leo’s face. Dude, she can come with us anytime.”
Brandon hugged me tight. “No. She can’t.”
I buried my head in his chest and peeked at the mound of black on the floor. “So, my boyfriend is a vampire slayer? How awesome is that?”
He stopped breathing for a moment. “Did you just call me your boyfriend?”
“Are you complaining?”