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  • Tara Gallina - romance author

You Did What?

I did what?


After some additional reads and feedback (at my request) Enchanted Kisses will be published under the new adult category but also could be read by mature young adult.


The content always bordered on this but now it is official.


And because of this change, the cover got an update! Although I adored the previous cover, it was a bit teen-ish. The style is the same but it’s a little more mature now to fit the content of the novel.


If you are a fan of A Court of Thorns and Roses and the Vampire Diaries books or TV series, this is a great fit. It blends the magic, fantasy, beauty, love triangle, and darkness of both.


So yes, I did—approved—this change, and I’m very happy with the results, especially the revamped cover.


To celebrate the changes, I’m posting four chapters as a sneak preview to the novel.


The paperback will be out when the book launches, and you're going to want this beauty on your shelf.


Enjoy and don't forget to pre-order for the rest of the story!


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ENCHANTED KISSES (Sample chapters)

PROLOGUE

CAIDEN’S REMOVAL

Three months ago

Lily had been acting quite strange all week. Perhaps longer. All month. Staring in ways that excited me, which was why I had to leave. Today.


I should have left months ago, but I had to be sure, and now I was. I could see it in her warm eyes—hazel wreaths of green and brown that reminded me of the forest surrounding the manor in the Realm of Life. The place of my youth, soon to be my home again. Both things she knew nothing about.


She stood by my bedroom window, gazing out to the Turtle River. She believed I moved here during my senior year of high school with my father and that he worked for the military. It was how I explained his constant absence and my accent.


“I’ve lived all over the world,” I told Lily when she asked where I was from.

I couldn’t have told her the truth. My accent came from the god who ruled the realm where I must return.


The home I rented in Brunswick, Georgia, and the lie about my upbringing had all been part of the plan to get close to her, until now.


She glanced over her shoulder at me as I walked around the bed to where she stood. Sunlight caught her hair—copper, chestnut, and gold intertwined in long waves that swelled down her back as unruly as the ocean off the coast.


Before I could stop myself, I touched a ringlet and brought it to my nose. Coconut—a scent I had grown to crave as much as her.


I wanted to tell her my secrets, tell her who I really was, but I couldn’t. Not yet. She wouldn’t understand, and she wouldn’t like my true form. Oddly, she preferred the disguise I conjured before I first approached her, which both confused and pleased me. The illusion of a scrawny high school senior was far less intimidating than my true form and necessary at the time.


I hated that I had to leave, especially now. But I couldn’t let my family discover my new plan, the one I’d altered. If they caught on, I’d have no chance of a future with her. Giving in to the hold my realm had on my soul—bound from the moment of my birth—was my only option.


Do it. Tell her the lie and leave before it’s too late.


I could already feel the force of magic pulling my body to its home. But then she smiled up at me. Her big, warm eyes drew me in, stripping me of my façade, of the cold and death that used to fuel me. The sensations were unnerving.


I dropped her hair and stepped back.


She turned all the way around and faced me directly. Tiny and delicate compared to me—to most—yet she had a presence about her that made me feel small and vulnerable—two words foreign to my kind.


She moved closer, her cheeks flushed with what…nervousness?


I needed to send her home before my illusion faltered. I’d worn it for too long, could feel it slipping from my skin.


I didn’t. Couldn’t.


“Caiden?” Her voice was as sweet as the stargazer lily she was named after. “I-I’ve been thinking about us. About our friendship.” Her gaze fell away, and her cheeks darkened to a crimson shade. “This is hard.” She cleared her throat and lifted her eyes to mine again. “Lately, things have been different between us. Better. We’re closer. I like it. I’d like to be more if you… if you felt the same.”


More than anything, I wanted to pull her to me and confess that I did feel the same. That I had for some time now. But I couldn’t leave her with false hope. I’d made too many mistakes already. Leaving now was the right thing to do—the only thing to do. If my father discovered her, she’d be enslaved and hate me—the word hate holding a meaning I never expected, as with the word life.


“I’m sorry,” I murmured and forced myself to step away from her warmth. Instantly, I chilled and moved near her again. Mistake one hundred and ninety-nine.


“You’re sorry about what?” She touched my chest.


I froze. No, I heated. Many times she’d touched me, but never like this. This touch had meaning, motive.


Her hand slid to my neck, and she pushed up on her toes, moving her face closer. Her eyes locked on mine and her lips parted.


Push her away, I thought, feeling my illusion slip. But suddenly, I was helpless to her. She smelled like the beach, the trees, the flowers, the earth. My new favorite scents. She was intoxicating.


Failing to resist my desires, I tilted my head down to her.

Her gaze widened with hopeful surprise and dropped to my lips. She closed her eyes and pushed higher up on her toes, or perhaps, I was leaning closer.


Her lips brushed mine with the lightest contact.


Heat exploded inside me like a guided missile seeking out the cold, the dark, the death, and devouring it.


With a flicker of sanity, I jerked away and caught sight of my changing skin. No! It was too late. I’d let my guard down, and now I had no choice but to leave her.


Her eyes shot open. Hurt and confusion filled them before her exquisite features fell into a frown that zeroed in on my increasingly warmer heart.


Light swirled around my arms, drawing her gaze. Her breath caught.


Instead of backing away in fear like I thought she would, she asked, “What’s happening to you?”


“I can’t tell you. I’m sorry. It wasn’t supposed to end this way.”

The words hit her like a blast of cold air, and her skin paled. But there was nothing I could do. All sentries were forbidden to speak the truth to humans. She wasn’t all human, but she didn’t know that half of her lineage yet. I would like to be the one to tell her about her mother and her true origins. My only hope was if I survived my new plan and returned, she would forgive me and allow me the chance.


Her features crinkled with worry as she struggled to understand what was happening. I knew her well enough to know what was going on in her head. She wondered if she was hallucinating like her father.


I reached for her, wanting to ease her fears, wishing I could tell her this was real and not a hallucination. I opened my mouth, desperate to explain. My throat enclosed the words before they could leave my lips, the spell preventing me from divulging anything.

I wanted to blast the room to pieces. Never had I been this frustrated in all my life.


She stepped farther away, her wide stare following the twister of silver and gold rays wrapping my body. Each color represented my dark and light halves—two opposites that encompassed my life now more than ever.


One last look into those hazel eyes and then she was gone. All of it was. The fake life. The lies. The light. The hope.


Death greeted me.

1

LILY AND THE DARK STRANGER

I parked my car in the crowded lot. The only spot available was in the back, far from the entrance to Olson’s Pool and Sports Bar.


I checked my phone for the hundredth time to make sure the text was real. For three months, I’d worried I had inherited my father’s hallucination disorder.


How could I not? I thought Caiden evaporated into a swirl of gold and silver light when I tried to kiss him. I told my best friend Raysa that was what had happened.

She assured me I wasn’t crazy and believed the stress of the moment—hearing Caiden was leaving when I realized I was falling for him—caused me to imagine his vanishing act.

It made sense. People didn’t just vanish. But I couldn’t remember any good-bye or any mention of him leaving, only the part where he went ka-poof.


Since then, I hadn’t heard a peep from him…until today.


On my way home from the nursery where my dad works, I got a text from Caiden that nearly sent me crashing into a tree.


Meet me at Olson’s. 10 p.m. Come alone. I’ll explain everything.


If Caiden’s name and number weren’t still programmed in my phone, I wouldn’t have known the message was from him.


That was the only reason I came. I needed to see for myself that he was alive. I wanted to know where he was, and why he never contacted me or replied to the many texts and voice messages I had sent.


When I got the answers to those questions, I could leave him in the same way he left me. Well, not the way I remembered him disappearing, but I could walk away from him forever.

A weaker side of me feared I would strangle him in a bear hug and never let go. That side needed to stay hidden.


The clock on the dashboard showed I was five minutes early.


Could I be any more pathetic?

I turned off the engine and opened the door. A gust of cool air blew into my car. My long hair twisted about my face and something caught in my eye.


I blinked and shoved the brown strands away, with no relief.

I tried to force tears. When that didn’t work, I tore down the visor and searched for the cause. Pale-blue eyes similar to a White Walker from Game of Thrones stared back at me.

I gasped and grabbed my chest. Geez. You’d think I’d be used to the color by now. I’d lived with it for over two months.


In my defense, I’d had hazel eyes my entire life. On my Nineteenth birthday—two weeks after Caiden disappeared—I woke up to this startling shade and have been lying about it ever since.


“They’re colored contacts I ordered for a Halloween costume and fell in love with,” I told people who questioned why my eyes were suddenly pale blue.


Nobody doubted the story, although a few people told me I should embrace my natural color. If only they knew I was.


I would have told my dad the same lie, but he took one look at my eyes and said, “Now you really look like your mother.”


Dad wasn’t reliable when it came to memories of my mom, and we never talked about it again. However, the lilac flecks that appeared around my pupils a few days ago had me thinking the topic would come up if the color changed to purple.

The only comfort I had regarding the strange anomaly came from Raysa. She said it was genetic and claimed to know a girl back in England—where she was from—whose eyes changed from blue to brown overnight.

What would Caiden think when he saw me? Should I tell him the truth or give him the same lie? Did he deserve to know my secrets anymore?

I closed the visor and glanced at Olson’s in the distance. Was he inside waiting for me at our table or was he outside by the door?

I’d never met him here. We always came together. Before he moved to Brunswick a year ago, I hadn’t known this place existed. Why would I? The restaurant catered to bikers and was thirty minutes out of town. Caiden liked the privacy it offered from the locals, and he loved to play pool.

I could remember the first time he brought me here like it was yesterday.

“We won’t be bothered by the bikers,” he’d said right here from the passenger seat of my car in this very parking lot. “They won’t even notice us. I’ll make sure of it. I have a pool table on reserve. We’ll be invisible. I promise.”

Even though the dusty, rugged place looked dangerous and unappealing, I believed him. That was the thing about Caiden. He could charm you into anything and deliver on his promises. I had no idea how a scrawny eighteen-year-old had any sway over adults, let alone Harley-riding biker dudes who looked lethal, but he did.


As if we were truly invisible, Caiden led me by the hand to an empty pool table around a corner in a private room.

“Ready to play one of the best games ever invented?” he’d asked and racked the balls on the table.

“I guess.” I’d shrugged and glanced around, baffled. The pub was crowded, smokey, and loud, but it was as if an unseen barrier kept all that away from our little corner.

“Eyes on me, Lily.” Caiden caught my gaze and winked. For a second, it looked as if his vivid turquoise eyes glowed. But then, they were bright in all lights, as if the sun shined in them twenty-four-seven.

My hart sputtered in a way it never had for this guy who, after only three months, had become one of my best friends.


At a glance, Caiden was average looking. His features weren’t chiseled and freckles dotted his skin, but he had four things going for him: Caramel-colored, grown-out strands that appeared windswept from a day at the beach. Eyes that were near-fluorescent. A sexy accent that sounded a bit British. And the confidence of a celebrity or billionaire who could command the world and the people in it to do as he wished.


“Watch and learn, sweet Lily,” Caiden murmured, and my heart sputtered again.

He chalked up a stick, brushed his wavy hair from his eyes, and lined up the shot. Instead of looking at the table, he stared at me as he thrust the stick forward and crushed the white ball.

Thumping and crashing sounded from the pool table, but I couldn’t pull my gaze from Caiden’s to see what had happened.

Without glancing at the table, he straightened and held the stick out to me. “Your turn.”

When I finally examined what was left from his shot, my mouth opened in utter shock.

Every one of his balls hugged the edge of the table, whereas all of mine aligned with the pockets. The white ball sat in the center and in the perfect position for me to sink any shot.

I shook my head, unable to keep from smiling. It was so Caiden. He could do anything with the ease of a pro and when he showed off, somehow it always benefited me.

My phone chimed with a text, startling me from the memory.

I grabbed it and read the screen. It was from Raysa.


Hey. Just checking on you. I had a weird feeling something might be wrong. You okay?

I’m good. Nothing to worry about. I texted and debated whether or not to tell her where I was and who I was meeting.


Raysa was like an nineteen-year-old going on thirty. By nature, she was protective and motherly. At times, she seemed downright psychic, like now. But I couldn’t involve her in this. For far too long, I’d relied on her to help me through tough times. I needed to do this on my own.


Another blast of cold air whirled through my car, cutting under my cropped tee. I shivered. Earlier it had been nice out, the perfect spring day. What happened?

I searched the backseat for my hoodie I kept in the car for times like this. Nothing was there except for a plastic liner on the seat. I’d placed it there yesterday so I could take home three woodland sages from the nursery.


They were dying and had been left by the dumpster. It broke my heart to see any flowers or plants left for dead. I’d always had a natural green thumb and made it my duty to nurse them back to health.


I got out of the car and opened the trunk of my Volkswagen Beetle. Inside was my green hoodie. I pulled it on, wishing I’d fixed myself up a little—at least put on cute jeans instead of this old baggy pair. Not that Caiden deserved to see me done up, but I would have felt better.


Ready or not, I was doing this.

I stuffed my phone into one pocket and my keys in the other but missed. They landed on the pavement with a clink.


When I bent to pick up the keys, someone got them first.

I snapped upright and locked eyes with a tall guy.

He looked around my age, maybe a bit older, and stood way too close. For a moment, I was mesmerized by his milky skin—so stark compared to his black chin-length hair, and black shirt and pants. Even his eyes looked black. He was gorgeous, in a creepy way.


The streetlight flickered off, casting us in near darkness.


Concern tore through me. I was alone in the back of a parking lot of a restaurant/pool hall in the middle of nowhere.


The full moon emerged from behind a cloud, brightening the area. The guy’s skin shimmered in the light, as if covered with silver dust.


I gasped and stumbled back a step.


The air turned colder and carried a strong scent. Cloves?


I clutched my hoodie tighter and dug into my pocket for my keys. Empty. Right. Because he had them. I shivered.


“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” the guy said with a grin that suggested otherwise.


My bottom lip fell. Not because his voice was as haunting as his appearance, but because his accent was familiar. I’d only known one other person with that same inflection. Caiden.


“Wh-who are you?” I asked.


His grin widened. “Don’t fret, Lily. I’m not interested in you, only what my brother wants with you.”


“How do you know my name?” I stepped back again, but my feet felt stuck in place, as if they were glued to the pavement.


“I know many things.” He circled me, sizing me up like a predator learning his prey.


“However, my brother’s attraction to you has left me as baffled as his recent actions. I won’t deny that, for a mortal, you are enchanting. But what could he possibly want with someone of your kind?”


Mortal? My kind? This guy was insane. I tried to move to get away, but my feet remained locked in place. Panic sent a surge of adrenaline to my heart. I opened my mouth to scream, but my throat closed so tightly I couldn’t breathe.


The guy leaned near my face. “Relax. I won’t hurt you…provided you cooperate.”


His clove breath assaulted my nose, and I teetered, tipsy all of a sudden.


The warning bells blasting in my head quieted, replaced with a light melody.


The guy tilted his head close enough to kiss me. “Your eyes are most unique. I’ve never seen anything like them. Tell me, which parent did you inherit the color from?”


“They’re contacts,” I blurted the lie I always told, surprised I could speak and breathe.

“I don’t think they are, but I’m curious why you’re lying about them. Now tell me the truth.”

“I don’t know who.” I shrugged. “My mom maybe? She died when I was born.” Why was I telling him any of this?

“I’m compelling you.”


How did he…? “I didn’t think I said that out loud.”


“You didn’t.” He straightened, putting almost a foot difference between us in height. “I read your mind.”


“That’s not possible.”


“You have no idea what’s possible.” He slid an icy finger down my cheek, so cold my skin burned.


I cried out in pain.


“Uh-uh.” He wagged a finger and waved his hand at my face.

My mouth clamped shut against my will.


“That’ll be enough of that,” he said.

Fear erupted inside me like a shaken bottle of soda. Again, I tried to run but my legs wouldn’t move.


The guy rested his back against the trunk of my car and crossed his arms. “Now, where were we…? Oh, yes. Your mother is dead, and your father is…?”

I didn’t respond, afraid to open my mouth. This guy wasn’t normal. What was he? A vampire? No, they weren’t real. He could pass for one, though, with that all-black outfit and shimmering skin.


“Like what you see, pet?” He smirked with arrogance.

It hit me then. The truth of what was happening. I’d been worried I’d hallucinated Caiden’s disappearing act, even though I’d convinced myself otherwise. Now I knew I had because I was doing it again, only with this stranger.


I needed help. The professional kind, like the hypnotherapist Dad used, but I couldn’t tell him what was happening to me. He’d blame himself, which I couldn’t allow. He’d been doing so well lately. No hallucinations in almost a year, which was a record. I couldn’t do anything to jeopardize his progress. But I also couldn’t live like this. What if these hallucinations got worse or happened in public?


Dizziness swarmed my head, making me aware I was tense and holding my breath.

The guy—the hallucination—let out a frustrated sigh.


My gaze snapped to him.

“I’ll never get anything out of you if you don’t calm down and quiet that mind.” He stepped in front of me and placed his fingers on my temples, his touch as frigid as before.

I winced at the burning sensation and tried to jerk my head away. Like my feet, I couldn’t move my upper body. Soon, warmth replaced the cold. Oddly, I shivered before my entire body relaxed. I had no thoughts, no fear, no tension—just the hum of a gentle melody in my head and the sudden urge to sway.


“Better?” He lowered his hands and his chiseled features softened with a satisfied expression.


“Yes. Thank you.” I swayed to the whimsical tune playing in my mind. “This is a strange hallucination. So real.”


“Not a hallucination, pet.”


“Whatever you say.” I shrugged and continued to sway. I should have worn a dress. They were the best for twirling.


“Yes.” The guy snapped his fingers. “Whatever I say, so listen closely. Tell me about your father.”


“My father.” I sighed with a smile. “Where to start... He’s a landscape architect and the manager of a local nursery. He loves nature as much as I do, but people in town think he’s crazy.”


“Why is that?”


“He hallucinates, seeing my mom, and chases after the vision, but only because he misses her so much. At least, that’s what his hypnotherapist tells me.” I smiled at the guy.

He didn’t smile back. “Who is Daddy’s hypnotherapist?”


“Dr. Eve. She’s nice. Her style is a little out there, colorful, but her techniques seem to work, with only a few drawbacks.”


“Like?”


“My dad forgets details from his past, but he can function and he’s happy, so it’s worth the loss. Do you want to dance? I feel like twirling.”


“I have a better idea.” He stood. “How about you call Caiden for me.”

“You know Caiden? Are you meeting him here, too?” I should be bothered that he invited someone else to our reunion, but I was too relaxed to care.

The guy studied me for a moment, a wicked grin curving his lips. “I can’t decide if it’s sweet or pathetic that you believe that text was from him.”

“What?” I frowned and stopped swaying, the melody fading from my mind. “What do you mean?”

“He didn’t text you.”


“Yes, he did. It came from his number.”


“I know. I sent it.”


“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t need to understand. You only need to help me. Now, be a good pet and call for him.” He blew in my face, sending a blast of cloves my way.


My body responded with a deep inhale, and an intense need to shout Caiden’s name built inside me.


“Do it,” the guy urged, his eyes aglow with silver flecks. “Picture him standing before you in your mind and call his name like your life depends on it.”


Confusion warred with my desire to obey.

He blew in my face again.


I swayed, entranced by his scent, and my eyes closed. I imagined my former best friend. The exchange student who asked me to help him find his class during the spring of our senior year of high school. The guy who ended up having all the same classes as me, except for one. The guy who listened to me ramble about the nursery and my favorite flowers. The guy who helped me close the business at night when my father had one of his hallucinations. Who treated my dad like a normal person, even had dinner with us twice a week. Who loved mythical tales he learned when he was a child and shared the stories with me while we laid side-by-side in my backyard, staring up at the stars. Who had the confidence of the school star quarterback but the puny physique of the water guy.


I pictured his face, his hair, his eyes—and the way he stared at me like I was the most fascinating person in the world.

God, I missed him. My heart ached at the memories and tears burned behind my closed lids. Why did he leave me when we were at our best and becoming more? Why didn’t he return my texts or messages, or have the decency to let me know he was alive?


Anger, desperation, sadness, and hurt collided inside me. With a clear image of Caiden in my mind, I cupped my mouth and shouted his name, as if screaming it loud enough would force him to appear.


Emotions clogged my throat and my voice shook, but I kept calling for him, kept yelling his name until tears soaked my cheeks and my lungs had no air.


Exhausted, I slumped with my eyes still closed and worked to catch my breath. On my third inhale, I smelled him—oak and nutmeg.


What if it was another hallucination and he wasn’t really here? Hesitant, I lifted my head in search of Caiden.


My gaze fell upon the car-filled parking lot. My Volkswagen. The creepy stranger. But Caiden was nowhere in sight.

Pain filled my head with the onset of a migraine. I winced and rubbed my temples.


“Here, let me, pet.” The guy stepped closer and touched my head.

I let him, too weary and confused to resist. Warmth flowed from his fingers to my skin, lessening the pain.

“You served me well. You did as I asked and delivered.” He smirked, but he wasn’t looking at me. He spoke over my head. “I had a feeling you wouldn’t refuse her call. Nice glamour, by the way. It has a geek-meets-grunge air about it. Makes me even more curious about the game you’re playing. Tell me, brother,” the guy’s night eyes shifted to mine, “what’s so special about her?”


Who was he talking to?


The guy’s hands lowered from my head, the pain gone.

Again, I caught a whiff of Caiden’s unique scent. I turned, and my jaw dropped.

He stood several feet away, looking exactly as I remembered him. Was he real or was my mind lost in a delusion I couldn’t escape?


My gaze locked with his turquoise blues, and my chest ached. More tears pooled and my vision blurred, but I refused to blink. What if he disappeared?


“Is it really you?” My voice was faint.

Caiden gave a tense nod, his gaze jumping from me to the guy behind me.


Unable to resist, I stepped toward him. My knees felt wobbly and weak. I lifted my arm, my fingers reaching…to what? Slap him? Poke him? Grab him and pull him close?


Halfway to Caiden, my legs locked in place and the air chilled.


Fingers as cold as ice pressed against my temples.


I squeezed my eyelids and winced in pain.


“Not so fast, pet,” the guy said in his accented voice. “I gave you permission to call him. I didn’t say you could do more.”


Burning devoured the coldness in my head and spread down my neck to my shoulders. I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound emerged.


“No!” Caiden lurched toward me, his eyes wild with fear.


Darkness engulfed me.

2

BEST DREAM EVER

My body shook with small tremors as I woke.


Slowly, I blinked my eyes open. Orange lights glowed from a familiar dashboard. I was in my car, slumped in the passenger seat, with my head resting on the center console.

I tried to sit up, but my body wouldn’t cooperate. The scent of oak and nutmeg stirred sensations inside me.


“Caiden?” I croaked.


“I’m here, Lily.” Gentle fingers brushed the hair from my face. “Don’t try to move. Not yet.”

His familiar voice and accent were like music to my ears—the sweetest lullaby. I melted into the leather seat and let my eyelids close, a smile easing across my face.


******

“Wake up, Lilypad.” Caiden caressed my cheek. “We’re here.”

“Just a little longer.” I wasn’t ready to wake from this wonderful dream.

“Is your father home? I don’t see his truck.”


“I don’t want to talk about my dad. I want to talk about you.” I didn’t know whether I was speaking aloud or in my head; I only knew I was content.

“Right then.” A door clicked open and then closed. Another one opened, followed by a soft chuckle. “You look adorable curled up like that. I almost don’t want to move you.”

“Then don’t.” My voice held no punch.

Hands slid under my body and lifted me from the seat. With my eyes still closed, my head lolled against something warm, cottony, and delicious. Caiden. I nestled more into his chest.


“Mmm.” Best dream ever. Never want to wake up… “Why did you leave me?” I asked the same question in every dream because I never got an answer.


“I had to,” he said. “But it was never you I was leaving. And now that I’m back, I can stay.”

I laughed weakly into his shirt. “You’re not Caiden. He would never say that. He’d just give me a look.”


“I’ve missed you…more than you know.” His voice was gentle and filled with pain. He kissed my forehead—also something he’d never done before. “I’ve half a mind to keep you under this spell. As soon as I lift it, you’ll go back to being angry with me.”


“What are you talking about?” I fluttered my eyelids open and tried to lift my head but lacked the strength. My nose brushed Caiden’s neck. His delicious scent infused my senses. For a dream, this seemed very real.


I tried to lift my head again but only managed to slide it to his shoulder. Emotions stirred within me—anger, surprise, hurt, and fear. Something smothered them.

“What’s going on?”

“Sorry about this.” Caiden pressed his hand to my forehead.


A jolt of electricity rocked my body and light flashed behind my eyes. As if I’d been underwater and had broken through the surface, the world around me burst to life.

Crickets and frogs buzzed in the nearby woods. Wind chimes sounded in the distance. A cool breeze carried the scent of the ocean. Sprinklers pulsed around us. Streetlights danced above, and my father’s house came into view. I was home. How?

I lifted my head and looked into familiar turquoise eyes, bright even in the dim moonlight.

Caiden. He was real, alive, and holding me in his arms.


I didn’t like that.

I scrambled to get down. As soon as I was on my feet and steady, I backed away. “How are you here?”


I glanced from him to my car parked halfway up the driveway. A memory tugged at the back of my mind, only I couldn’t draw it forth.

“Lily?” Caiden stepped to me.


“Wait.” I held up a hand, trying not to freak out. My pulse climbed as images flashed in my mind—a pale-skinned guy, Olson’s parking lot, a soft melody, the desire to twirl, the urge to shout Caiden’s name into the night, and an icy pain that chilled me to the bone.

I shivered and closed my eyes, focused on calming down. Just breathe.

“Yes. Breathe,” Caiden said.


My head snapped up. Did he hear my thoughts?

“It’s all right,” he said. “You are all right. I can explain everything. Well, most of it.” He glanced away. “Some will have to wait, but there’s a lot I can tell you. Once I decide where to begin, that is.”

He ran his fingers through his wavy hair. Grown-out strands, the color like melted caramel, fell into a perfect, disheveled mess. I remembered how much I loved it when he did that with his hair. He’d done it so often out of habit.

His gaze swung to mine, his eyes filling with hope. “I’ll run my fingers through my hair all night if it’ll keep you looking at me that way.”


He was flirting? Now? Did he think that would soften me to him? I grimaced.


“And there it is, the anger I’d hoped to avoid.” He sighed. “If you only knew—”


“Knew what?” I snapped. “Where you’ve been? Why you never called? Why you didn’t come back? Why you never answered your phone? I thought I was crazy, that I’d imagined seeing you disappear. Sometimes I questioned if you were even real. If it weren’t for Raysa, I would have believed that I made you up. And when you never responded to a single text or message I left, I wondered if you were dead. Because why else would you ignore me—” My voice broke on a sob.

In an instant, he stood in front of me and cupped my cheeks before I could object. “I’m sorry. I never meant to be gone for so long. Things went wrong but—your eyes! They’ve finally turned. Winter’s blue is fading, and spring is in bloom. Do you know what this means?” He sounded in awe.

I shook my head, comforted by his warm hands on my cheeks but angry with myself for it.

“You’re ready.”


“For what?”


“Everything I couldn’t give you before.”


My thoughts circled back to our near kiss. Was that why he came back? To finish what we started? Did I want that? And what’s to say he wouldn’t reject me again?


“I didn’t reject you. I couldn’t kiss you without you seeing what you ended up seeing anyway.”


My breath caught. “I didn’t say any of that out loud.” The guy from the parking lot flashed in my mind. Hadn’t I said something similar to him?


I reached for my head, inadvertently knocking Caiden’s hands from my face. Something was wrong. I touched my temples. “Did I meet you at Olson’s tonight?”


“Yes.” He eyed me with caution. “Let me try to explain.”

“Try?” I laughed without humor. “Try isn’t good enough, Caiden. I deserve the truth.”


He nodded. “You do.”

“How do I know I can trust you? You’re already clouding my mind with your presence.” And his familiar scent and warm hands. “I can’t think when you’re this close.” I backed up a few steps.


He followed me, crowding my space. “Lily?”

I threw out my hand. “Don’t. Please. I can’t do this tonight. I thought I could, but I can’t.” I wasn’t even sure I could trust myself, which scared me most of all. “Please just go and I’ll call you tomorrow. It’s been a long night,” I added, to soften my dismissal of him.

Guess he was better at rejecting me than I was at rejecting him.


I walked to the front porch, surprised when he didn’t try to stop me, and maybe a little disappointed that he hadn’t. Since when did he give up so easily?


When I turned to see if he was still here, I found him in the same spot on the driveway.

“What’s wrong?”

“Your keys.” He pulled them from his pocket. “I still have them.”


“Oh.” I’d forgotten he drove me home. “Wait. Where’s your car?”


“I don’t have it.”

“How did you plan to get home?”

“I’ll figure something out.” He lifted the keys. “Should I toss them to you?”

“Don’t be silly. You can take my car home and return it in the morning.” Which would assure that I’d see him again.


He nodded, his gaze anxious. I knew that look—he didn’t want to go. In the past, when it got late, I’d invite him to stay the night. Dad never cared if Caiden slept in the guest room as long as he stayed in the guest room. He never did but Dad never knew because Caiden snuck back down to his room before Dad woke up. Not that my father had anything to worry about. Caiden and I were friends, nothing more. I hated how that made me sad.


“Where are you staying?” I asked when he turned to leave. “A new family rented your old house.”


The place sat vacant for a long time after he disappeared. I used to drive by, hoping to catch a glimpse of his dad, even though I’d never met him. Last month, a woman and her young son moved into the house. I knew because I stopped by and asked if she knew Caiden or his dad, Sergeant Griffith. The lady had never heard of them.


He swung back to face me. “I’m at a hotel.”


“Which one?” Brunswick didn’t have many hotels. St. Simon Island had better options, but it was farther from here.


“Um...I forgot the name.”


My brows went up with suspicion. “You forgot the name of your hotel?”


“I haven’t been to it yet.”


I wasn’t sure I believed him. “Is your dad with you?” Maybe he chose the hotel and Caiden was meeting up with him.


“I’m alone.”


That didn’t bring me comfort. Maybe I should offer the guest room to him.

“Are you going to disappear again?” I blurted. “If you are, just tell me. I’d rather know than never hear from you again like last time.”


His eyes locked on mine. “I’m not going anywhere without you.”


I wasn’t sure what the without you part meant. I wasn’t going anywhere. I didn’t want to ask, though. It would open up a conversation, and I really needed to rest. My head was killing me. I couldn’t remember when I’d ever had a headache this bad.


“We’ll see…”


He opened his mouth as if to defend himself but closed it.

We stared at each other for a few moments.


Emotions stirred in his eyes—indecision, heartache, sadness.


The longer we stared, the harder it was to walk away. Again, I considered inviting him to stay for my own peace of mind. When I woke in the morning with my brain refreshed, I could get all the answers I needed, and we could go from there.


“Good night, Lily.” He walked toward my car.

I didn’t stop him. Exhaustion weighed on me like a bag of sand, making it hard to hold up my head. I yawned so big my eyes squeezed closed. When I looked at the driveway to Caiden, he and my car were gone.


How? A full minute hadn’t even passed, and I didn’t hear him leave. He couldn’t have had time to drive away without me seeing or hearing him.


I glanced down the street. No taillights in either direction. Nerves wound through me. I couldn’t have hallucinated him. If I had, my car would be here. Right?


Geez. I didn’t know anymore.


“Sleep can work magic,” Dr. Eve told me once after a session with Dad.

I had to believe a good night’s sleep would fix me, too.

I dug in my pocket for my house key. Crap. It was with my car key, which Caiden had. Should I text him and tell him to come back?

I tried the door handle first. To my surprise, it turned, unlocked. Finally, a break tonight.

The house was quiet and dark. Wood floors creaked under my steps as I made my way inside. The back porch light filtered through the glass doors, casting a soft glow over our family room and adjoining kitchen.


I loved this house with the original porches and farmhouse charm—before HGTV made the style popular.

Dad bought the house for my mother. She loved the gardens and woods that surrounded the three-acre property. On a bright day, the Intracoastal Waterway could be seen from the back porch through a clearing in the woods.


When I was a child, Dad and I used to sit on the bench swing out there and share a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He’d tell me stories about my mom. How, like me, she had a green thumb. He also said flowers would grow from her hair. It should have been a sign he was losing his mind, but I was too young to understand.


I shrugged out of my jacket and hung it on the back of a barstool in the kitchen. I got a glass and filled it with water from the refrigerator. After a long sip, I wiped a drop from my chin and glanced toward the master bedroom. The TV light flickered through the slightly opened door. Dad always fell asleep with the TV on, and I always turned it off.


He liked the distraction of the TV. Said it kept his mind busy so his thoughts didn’t go to places where they didn’t belong. I wished he didn’t have to worry like he did. I wished his mind didn’t fight him.

It was why I still lived at home and attended the local community college to get my A.A. before I transferred to a university to pursue a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture. If and only if Dad remained doing well.


I left the water on the counter and checked on Dad.


Silver moonlight spilled in from a set of sliders to the left of his bed. Beyond was a private garden where a low fence enclosed jasmine and roses. Mom had planted the garden. In the evening, Dad liked to open the door and let the fragrant flowers fill his room.


I stepped inside to make sure he’d locked the door before going to sleep.


All was good.


As I turned to leave, Dad rolled onto his side.


I froze mid-step. Had I awakened him?


His eyes remained closed as he nestled his head into his pillow, his thick, salt-and-pepper hair fluffy above his head. I smiled at his peaceful expression, praying the hallucination and depression that followed wouldn’t start again.


“Sweet dreams,” I whispered before leaving.


In the kitchen, I got my phone out of my jacket pocket. I wanted to see if Caiden texted me. He used to wish me sweet dreams after he left my house on nights when he didn’t stay over.


No messages.


My muscles clenched. I didn’t know if my anger was valid. I had sent him away. I had refused to let him explain. Maybe he was still driving to his hotel, though Brunswick wasn’t that big.

Ugh. I hated how quickly he could dominate my thoughts and charge my emotions. I rubbed my temples in an attempt to ease the pain.


Maybe I needed some fresh air. It always helped me when I felt sick. I snatched my jacket from the barstool and detoured to the backyard.


On the porch, I paused to slide my arms through the sleeves before exiting through the screen door. I stomped to the middle of the lawn, closed my eyes, and inhaled deep breaths through my nose.


A cool breeze carried salty air from the Intracoastal Waterway beyond the woods. It blended nicely with the lupine and marigolds in my butterfly garden a few steps away.

Last summer, the flowers and milkweed doubled in size, and now they tangled with the shrubs and trees bordering the property. I couldn’t wait to see the number of butterflies it would attract this spring.

With my eyes still closed, I focused on the cacophony of buzzing crickets. My muscles relaxed and peace fell over me…until the woods went silent, and the air turned glacial.

I shivered and my eyes went wide.


A dark stranger exited the woods and walked toward me. “Hello, pet.”

I stumbled back, my chest tight with fear. “Who are you?”

Didn’t I know?

“Dagan. I’m Dagan, and you are Lily.”

“How do you know my name?”


“We’ve met.”


I searched my brain for the memory. Like before, flashes of Olson’s parking lot, a silver-skinned guy, and icy pain filled my mind. The headache from earlier returned with migraine force.

I grabbed my temples and moaned.


“The pain is a side effect.” Dagan stood a foot from me. “It happens when we mess with a mortal’s brain. I would apologize, but tonight’s been a load of fun.”


I squinted in the dark. That was how badly my head hurt. “You did this to me?” If I were thinking clearly, I’d have run for the safety of my house by now.

“We. My brother and I did.”

“Your brother?”

We’d had this conversation before…

“Yes.” He answered my thoughts.


I gasped. Adrenaline kicked in and my legs carried me toward the porch before I consciously decided to run.

Dagan laughed, and in an instant, he stood before me.


I crashed into his hard body and bounced off, landing on my butt.


“Not so fast, pet. I have more games to play with you. I do love how harassing you provokes my brother.” He gripped my arms and yanked me to my feet. His icy fingers dug into my jacket sleeves, penetrating through to my skin.


I yelped and tried to wrench free.

A thunderous noise came from deep in the woods, as if an elephant pounded our way.

“Come to save her?” Dagan spoke to the trees, taunting whatever was in them. “Your timing is impeccable, but if you want her, you’ll have to catch her.”


The next thing I knew, I was flying into the night sky. Cold air blasted my skin as I shot like a rocket, higher than the roof of my two-story home, and then, I was falling. A strangled scream ripped from my throat and my stomach dropped as I whirled toward the ground.


Gold light burst from the dark trees and folded around me like a warm bubble. The sensation of falling instantly stopped. The scents of lavender, rose, and gardenia perfumed the golden orb, reminding me of the nursery. I smiled as a peaceful feeling settled over me. I hadn’t even realized I was near the ground until my feet softly touched the lawn.


The gold light released me.

Woozy, I stood in place to catch my balance and surveyed the backyard. I was alone.

More thunder sounded in the woods. Silver rays flew out from the trees and collided with the gold light. The blast sent me flying backward. I hit something hard and fell onto the patio near the back porch.


Hot pain, or maybe liquid, slithered down the side of my face. I smelled copper and passed out.


3

IS HE REALLY BACK?

When I woke up the next morning, Raysa lay beside me on my bed, her long legs stretched toward the end. She combed her fingers through her strawberry locks, looking lost in thought.

I stirred beneath the covers.

Her sea-green eyes met mine with a smile. “Morning, sunshine.” Her soft voice made her English accent sound even prettier.


I looked at her, confused. “What are you doing here?”


“I tried to wake you. Your father did, too. How do you feel?”


I attempted to sit up. A wave of dizziness had me collapsing back onto the pillow. I reached to my hair and ran fingers over a huge lump on the side of my head. “Whoa. I don’t remember getting that.”


“Do you remember Caiden driving you home? He still has your car and wants to bring it back later when you’re feeling better.”


I sucked in a gasp. “He’s really here? I thought it was all a dream.”

“Should I wait to say I told you so?” Raysa teased.

“You always thought he’d come back. How did you know?”

“You.” She shrugged. “I always believed he’d return for you.”

“But the way he left…”

“He was wrong to disappear the way he did, but I assumed he had his reasons.”


“So now what? Are we supposed to forgive him, like nothing ever happened? What if he takes off again?”

Raysa let out a slow, unsure sigh. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with him. But I’m hopeful. I don’t think you should stress over it. Not now. You should have some juice.” She pointed to the nightstand. “I made it fresh.”


I glanced to a tall glass of green liquid beside the lamp. “Thanks, Raysa.”

Her homemade juice was like magic—it cured everything.

Slowly, I sat up, resting my back against my pillow and headboard, and reached for the glass, eager to get the sweet mixture into my belly. Without taking a breath, I gulped the entire drink.


“I love this juice.” Feeling better, I set the glass on the nightstand and licked my lips, savoring the flavor. “Seriously, you should bottle and sell it. People are obsessed with the health benefits of green drinks, and none that I’ve tasted are as good as this. You’d make a fortune.” The comment drew a snicker from me, because Raysa was already loaded. “Never mind.”


Smiling with me, Raysa walked to my side of the bed and took the glass from the nightstand. “I’ll drop this in the sink on my way out. I’ve got a test in physics that I can’t miss.”


What time is it? Sunlight like this didn’t filter into my room until the afternoon, which couldn’t be right.


I sought the Tinkerbell clock on my nightstand that Dad gave me for my seventh birthday. I couldn’t bring myself to part with it. What started as a favorite childhood character had become my trademark. I was fairy-sized, after all.

My eyes nearly popped from their sockets when I read the time. 1:00 PM.

“I can’t believe I slept so late. I never do that. I never miss my classes, either.” I scrambled from the bed and grabbed my robe, wrestling my arms through the sleeves. “If I hurry and dress, we can go together.”


Raysa’s brows went up. “Lil, it’s fine to miss a class here and there. You treat college like high school, but it’s not the same. No one cares if you show up or not. And you weren’t feeling well. Your dad and I—”


“Oh my gosh! Dad!” My heart drummed. “How was he? Was he worried?” Stress of any kind could set him off. It was why I’d always kept a form of order to my life and his.


“He was fine. Everything is fine. Relax.” Her tone was slow and calm. “I’ll go to your professors, see what you missed and bring any assignments by later. There’s no reason to panic.”


“Right.” I nodded and slowed my breathing. I hadn’t meant to get so worked up. “It’s just…I don’t remember last night—Caiden bringing me home, going to bed, getting this bump.”


I rubbed my head. The lump was gone, and my hair smelled like strawberries instead of my usual coconut-scented shampoo.


“Maybe some rest will help you to remember. I’m dying to hear all the details.” Raysa winked and fake-kissed each of my cheeks. “I’ll call you later.” She stopped at the mirror to straighten her yellow dress, which matched the natural highlights in her hair.


“Hey, Rays? What should I do about Caiden? I don’t know if I can forgive him as easily as you have.”


“Let him apologize and explain himself. You might feel differently after you hear him out.”


Her advice always seemed so simple. But could I follow it? If I let Caiden back in, I risked being hurt by him again.


“Good luck on your test,” I said as she exited my room.


She waved and disappeared down the hallway.


I stared blankly at my lime-colored walls for a while, trying to recall last night’s events. The only thing I could remember were swirls of gold that smelled like flowers and a bubble of warmth, which made no sense at all.


I let out an exhausted breath. Raysa was right. I needed to rest. I also needed a shower. I felt like I’d rolled around in the grass, and if Caiden stopped by, I didn’t want to be in my pajamas. Not that he hadn’t seen me in them plenty of times before, but that was when we were close. I didn’t know what we were now.


One coconut-scented lather and rinse later, I searched my closet for something to wear. Nothing too fixed up, but nothing sloppy. Although no outfit would make my wavy hair look any less bedhead—it really had a mind of its own.


I’d narrowed my choices down to two outfits—a sundress that was sexy but sweet, or a white eyelet blouse and my favorite cut-off jeans shorts. Choosing the shorts and blouse, I finished my look with mascara and lip gloss before I headed outside.


In the backyard, the bright sun heated my skin. Blue skies stretched as far as I could see, and a cool breeze carried the scent of the trees and nearby ocean.


Last night had been so cold—that I could remember. How was today so beautiful?


I gazed at the woods and imagined myself immersed in the trees. Nature always did more for me than lying in bed. I could go to the tree fort that Caiden and I had found one day while strolling along a trail on the property.


The decrepit structure wasn’t safe to use but I was in awe. I’d always wanted a tree fort when I was a child. The next day we went back with tools and reinforced the fort so I could use it as a nature retreat. I didn’t care that it might be silly for someone my age to have a tree fort and Caiden didn’t seem to mind, either.


A platform with no walls, the fort was nothing elaborate like I’d seen on the TV series Treehouse Masters, but it was the most peaceful place to me—a private place where I could get away from the chaos of my life and clear my head.


I hadn’t been there since Caiden disappeared. Maybe it was the perfect neutral territory for us to hash things out.


I texted him where I’d be in case he came by soon. He should be on his way, given he had my car. The thought of seeing him sent a thrill to my heart. I pushed the feeling down, hating how my body reacted when my mind was set on making him earn my forgiveness—starting with having him trek through the woods to get to me. Not that it would be a challenge unless he couldn’t find his way, although I doubted he could forget.

We’d spent so much time at the fort—doing homework, watching the stars in the winter when the trees lost most of their leaves. We’d snuggle under a blanket together and Caiden would tell fables he’d heard from his youth. Tales about mythical beings called sentries and the two realms they guarded. His stories were always so extraordinary, albeit a bit dark when he’d describe the Realm of Death. I’d listen with my eyes closed and lost myself in his words, watching the narrative play in my mind like a movie.

Before entering the woods, I stopped at the butterfly garden and watched a few plump caterpillars eat their way up a milkweed plant. Soon, they’d form chrysalises and reemerge as butterflies. The transformation was almost magical.

“Eat up, little caterpillars,” I told them before entering the woods.

The trail leading to the fort was overgrown but passable. I meandered around saw palmetto and pine trees, crunching mounds of dead leaves beneath my low-top Converse sneakers.


The pine and oak incensing the air had me breathing deeper. Birds chirped and a squirrel climbed the branches of a nearby tree. Ahead, a bunny nibbled on a leaf until it spotted me and hopped away.


When I reached the end of the trail, I pushed a palm frond aside and stepped into the clearing. A tall oak stood proud in the center, even though part of its strong branches had been covered with boards. From this vantage point, the eight-foot-wide square platform looked small.

Gripping familiar wooden steps nailed into the tree as a makeshift ladder, I climbed the thick trunk. Don’t look down. Heights freaked me out, but the view from the fort was worth pushing through my fear.


At the platform, I brushed aside debris and crawled onto uneven wood planks. Once I had a space cleaned off, I laid on my back and stared up at the flowing branches. Sunlight peeked through the fluttering leaves. The effect was soothing. I closed my eyes and listened to the nature around me.

Birds continued to chirp, leaves fluttered, and my name sounded in the pine-scented breeze.


“Lily?” it hummed. “Lily?”

Huh?

4

A CAGE OF VINES

A shadow crossed above. I blinked open my eyes.

A handsome guy leaned over me. “Nice to see you again.”

I shot upright and scrambled backward until I hit the tree trunk.

Unfazed by my panic, the guy sat across from me, resting his back against a branch that jutted through the planks. He looked all wrong here with his pale skin, black hair and eyes, and all-black outfit.

A name flashed across my mind. “Dagan,” I whispered.

His lips curved into a fiendish grin. “You remembered. It’s about time.”


Olson’s. I’d met him in the parking lot, but the details of that night were still too fuzzy to make sense. “How did you know to find me here?”


Other than Raysa and Caiden, no one else knew about this place.


“Lucky guess.” He picked up a green leaf and twirled it in his fingers.


“I don’t think that’s it.” I also didn’t think I trusted him. Warning bells sounded in my gut.

He blew on the leaf in his hand, which turned brown and brittle.

“You killed it,” I squealed in disbelief. “How? Why?”


He tossed the dead leaf over his shoulder and brushed his hands clean. “You ask a lot of questions. Anyone ever tell you that?”


Caiden used to tell me that all the time, although he seemed to like my inquisitive nature.


“Did he now?” Dagan raised a dark brow.


I shot him a confused look. “What?”

“Caiden.”

“What about him? How do you know him?”


He rolled his night eyes. “I feel like a broken record around you. Always repeating myself. I didn’t tamper with your brain the last time. This must be Caiden’s doing.”


“What’s Caiden’s doing?” How well did this guy know my former best friend? Was that how I met him, through Caiden?


In a flash, he appeared beside me. He sat with his legs dangling over the edge of the planks.

I flinched at his sudden nearness. Part of me wanted to leap away, climb down the tree, and run, while another part of me wanted answers.


“Join me.” He patted the planks.


I drew my legs in and sat cross-legged. “No, thanks. I don’t like heights.”


He grinned in a way that made me wish I hadn’t shared that weakness with him. “Come now. There’s nothing to be afraid of...unless you think I’ll push you off.”


I stiffened and gave a shaky laugh. He was joking, right?


What if I couldn’t remember this person other than his name because he was a creep, and my mind was blocking him from my memory out of protection? Or...what if I was imagining him? Both were plausible. If the first were true, I should leave. Right now. If the second were true, I should still leave and then call Dr. Eve.


“Sorry.” Why was I apologizing? “I have to go. I’m meeting someone.”

I slid to the spot where the platform met the steps. Leaves stuck to the back of my thighs and clammy palms, but I didn’t dare brush them away or take my eyes off the guy.

“No need to dash off, pet. I have even more fun planned for us today. And Caiden won’t be here for a while.”

I froze. “How do you know he won’t be here for a while?” Did Caiden send this…friend of his to smooth things over? A worse thought popped into my head. “Did Caiden leave again?” I’d never forgive him. Never.


The guy let out a dramatic sigh. “Caiden, Caiden, Caiden. Don’t you get sick of hearing his name? I know I do. Let me see if I can help you with those lost memories.”


“How do you know about my memories?”

In response, he grabbed my wrist, jerking me to my feet, and then twirled me around until my ankles hung off the edge of the platform.


I clutched his shoulders. “Don’t,” was all I could get out. I wasn’t even sure where that sentence was headed. Don’t push me? Don’t let go?


“Don’t drop you?” he asked, his breath a haunting scent of cloves. He shoved me backward.


I screamed and reached for him, for anything, to no avail. I was falling. My hair blew over my face and my arms flailed as I dropped at a speed that coiled my stomach. Terror shot through me and then it was over.


I didn’t smash onto the hard ground, but I did land on something solid and cold. The impact knocked the air from my lungs. It took me a moment to comprehend that Dagan had caught me.


“Fun, right?” He bounced his dark brows. When I didn’t respond, his features scrunched. “What’s the matter? Can’t handle a little fall? I have a secret for you. It’s not your first.”

Can’t breathe, I mouthed.


“Oh!” Fear flickered across his face. He pressed his palm to my chest.


A shock of electricity blasted my upper body.

I gasped and struggled to breathe normally as much-needed air filled my lungs. When my head fell back, Dagan cradled me so his arm supported my neck. I didn’t want to be near him, but I was too weak and shaken to protest. Tears threatened to spill but I held them back, not wanting to give him the satisfaction.

Dagan set me on my feet after a few moments, steadying me before letting go.

I drew in my arms and hugged my quivering body.

Dagan backed away, his features twisting with disappointment—or was it worry? “You’re ruining the fun.”


Anger met my fear. “This is not fun,” I ground out in a weak voice.


“Because you can’t remember me. If you did, you’d know how hard I’ve been working to recreate our past scenarios. You’d laugh.”


“I doubt that.” I hugged myself tighter. “Whoever you are or whatever you are”—a hallucination? An alien? A cruel magician?—“I don’t want to see you ever again. Do you understand me?” I turned and walked away, not yet trusting my legs to support me if I were to run.

“You can’t actually believe I’ll allow you to leave,” he called. “We have unfinished business.”

I kept walking. I was almost to the trail when a wall of leaves formed at the entrance. I turned. Another wall appeared, and another, until a box made of tightly woven leaves closed around me. The walls fused together, trapping me inside. I clawed at them, trying to escape. Thorns sliced my hands and wrists. Cuts burned and oozed blood.

I don’t know why I screamed Caiden’s name—as if he could hear me or save me—but I did.

“Caiden!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. “Caiden, help!”


Loud bangs of thunder clattered in the woods. I flinched with each boom and used my sneaker to kick at the thorny vines holding me hostage.


Have to escape.


I panted and continued kicking, even as cuts burned my ankles and the wall of leaves showed no sign of penetration.

The thunderous roars grew louder, near deafening, as if the sounds would obliterate the forest.


I covered my ears and prepared for the worst. Tears fell from my eyes and dampened my cheeks, but I couldn’t hear myself cry.


Boom. Boom.


The earth shook. I fell and stayed on the ground, my hands pressed against my ears.

Was this how I would die?


I didn’t know how long I stayed like that. Minutes? Hours? But suddenly, the ruckus stopped.


Afraid to move, I held still and waited, listening. Would the thunder start again? Would the awful Dagan reappear? Would he toy with me? Was he real? What was happening to me, and how would I stop it?


Silence filled the air. I didn’t trust it. I didn’t trust myself, but I couldn’t stay here. I had to gather my nerves and try to get home.

Slowly, I stood. My muscles ached and burned with my movements. Something scraped my back, snagging my shirt. I whirled around, surprised that I didn’t lose my balance. The leafy walls were retreating into the earth.


“Don’t freak out,” I murmured to myself, praying I had enough strength to run home, because the moment these walls were gone, I was out of here.


I wiped the tears from my eyes so I could see and waited until the walls were low enough to leap over. I jumped and landed on solid feet, but I couldn’t find the opening to the trail.


Why couldn’t I find the entrance? Had I been moved?

Panicked, I spun and searched for any area that looked passable. A slight part between two tall shrubs caught my gaze. I charged it, using my hands to break through. Sticky leaves brushed my fingers, arms, and hair. I made it through to a dirt trail and followed it, my gaze darting everywhere. Would Dagan jump out and grab me? Could I fight him off? Did I have the energy? I was running on empty as it was.


I felt my legs would give out at any second and my lungs would explode.


The ground softened, squishing beneath my sneakers. I stopped. Dammit! I’d been running the wrong way—toward the Intracoastal. The marshy ground and the salty bite of the air—which was much stronger now—was all the proof I needed.


Throat dry, I forced air down to my lungs and pushed my tired legs to move in the other direction. Relief hit me when I spotted a rooftop in the near distance.

Home!


Somehow, I ran faster.

Out of nowhere, a person grabbed me. Hands curled around my waist and yanked me backward against a hard chest.

I tried to scream, but my sandpaper throat made it impossible. I wriggled and kicked, but my attempts were too weak to free me.


“Shh,” the person said, his voice soft, familiar, and not Dagan’s. A warm, gentle hand brushed hair from my face.


Caiden?


“Relax. You’re safe,” he whispered.

My breathing slowed, and I softened beneath his touch. I let my head fall back against his chest and closed my eyes. I needed a minute, and despite my anger toward Caiden, I knew he was safe.


“I’ll let you go if you promise not to run.”


Run? I could barely stand.


He brushed my cheek again, then loosened his hands around my waist and slid them away.

I fought the urge to pull them back around me. With my feet firmly on the ground, I faced him and gasped.


Not Caiden. Not Dagan, either. This guy was tall and heart-achingly gorgeous.


“Who are you?” I asked in a hoarse voice.

His skin was as unique as Dagan’s, only it shimmered as if dusted with gold. His fitted blue tee and low-waisted jeans were ordinary enough—even though the lean-cut body beneath was anything but. His chiseled features were Burberry model-worthy.


I’d never seen anyone like him, unless you counted Dagan. Although this guy seemed the polar opposite, right down to his warm hair, highlighted with what looked like threads of gold. He raked his fingers through it, in a sexy, familiar way that reminded me of Caiden. When his gaze finally lifted to mine, turquoise eyes I’d know anywhere glowed at me.


I didn’t understand.

I stepped back with a frightening thought. What if this was Dagan somehow disguised? He’d proved he could do unbelievable things—magical things. Maybe he pulled Caiden from my thoughts and tried to replicate him so I wouldn’t run. Or maybe I was crazy-stupid and needed to be locked up in a mental institution.


“Why are you looking at me like that?” Confusion showed on his face.


I turned and ran for my house.

“Lily, wait!” he yelled, sounding exactly like Caiden. He chased after me.

I glanced back to see how close he was.

He abruptly stopped, his gaze caught on his arms. He stared at his golden shimmery skin with surprise. “Dammit, no wonder.” He glanced at me where I now stood still, watching him. “I can explain.”


I couldn’t chance that. I didn’t trust anyone, least of all my own sanity. Sprinting away, I was almost to my house when hands snagged my waist and pulled me back.


“Enough.” I writhed to get free. “Let go.”


“Not until you look at me,” Caiden said.

I swung my arms and tried to hit him.

“Stop already and look at me.”


I froze at Caiden’s stronger tone.


Without letting me go, he turned my body so I faced him.


Messy hair tangled over my eyes, blocking most of my view, but what I could see of the guy resembled Caiden. My Caiden—freckles, bigger nose, and scrawny build—not the Burberry model imposter with golden skin.


I shoved my hair back. It was my Caiden. “What’s going on?” I asked, out of breath and beyond confused.

Caiden nestled me against his shirt.


Mentally and physically drained, I couldn’t do more than collapse. I buried my face in his soft cotton tee. Tears filled my eyes, and I didn’t hold them back.


Caiden repositioned me so that I was cradled in his arms. He touched my temple and murmured in a hypnotic tone, “Sleep.”


My anxiety receded and my mind blanked.

“Let’s get you home….” was the last thing I heard him say.


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