“Jumpy?” he asked, dipping his head toward my neck. I darted to the side before he could complete whatever he was trying to accomplish. He looked up, frowning. “What? Don’t you want to talk?”
“Uh . . .”
His almost sleepy stare crawled down the front of me once more. “I like the dress. Is it new?”
Actually, it was. I’d gotten the yellow strapless sundress just for this party. My mom said yellow was best for my fair skin and dark hair, and for once, she was right. Forcing a smile, I took a step back. “It is.”
“It’s nice. You look hot in it.”
“Thank you,” I murmured, backing into the flat wall of the pool house.
Brock stepped forward, the bottle of beer dangling from his fingers. “You’re so hot.”
My eyes widened as he planted his hand next to my head. I darted under his arm. He spun around, frowning again, in a confused way.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I’ve got to get home. Curfew and all,” I lied. It had been many moons since I worried about a curfew, but if he said hot one more time I might vomit. “But it’s been fun. Got to go. Bye!”
Brock started toward me, then his gaze darted to the right and his brows slammed down. “Hey!” he shouted. “Who the hell let you all in here?”
I looked over, spying three skinny underclassmen that looked like they also had no idea what they were doing here. The three boys huddled together, throwing panicky looks at one another. Something about the sight of them pierced my chest, reminding me of—I shook my head, clearing my thoughts.
Brock tossed his beer bottle to the side, where it bounced off a shrub and then shattered on the walkway. “Charlie!” he yelled, grinning in a way that caused my stomach to dip. He looked like a lion about to pounce on a three-legged gazelle. “Look what we have here.”
I had no idea where Charlie was, but I took full use of the distraction and spun around, hurrying back to the cluster of dancing bodies, dropping my almost full beer bottle in the trash. My eyes searched for Linds, but she and Mason were nowhere to be found.
Deciding it was way past time for me to make an exit so I didn’t end up hanging around and doing something stupid, I dipped inside and grabbed my keys from where I’d left them near an unused breadbox. I figured when I got home, I could pick up the last Black Dagger Brotherhood book that was patiently waiting for me on my pillow. I don’t know what it was about bad-mouthing vampires that made me about seven different kinds of happy, but it did. The only other books to do that were the Kristen Ashley romance books I stole from Mom when she wasn’t paying attention.
They made me want to move to Colorado.
Linds liked to give me a hard time about having my nose stuck in a book, but sometimes I needed to get my head out of real life, and reading was the best and quickest way to do it.
Back outside, I headed toward the gate leading to the front of the house. As I crossed the lawn, the sounds of the party faded into the background.
I needed to text Linds to let her know I’d left, but my cell was in my car. Telling myself not to forget, I passed the tall hedges blocking the yard from the dark road in front of Brock’s house.
His house was the only one for at least a mile on an isolated stretch of road, but tonight the sides of the street were packed with cars, and I had to park what felt like a million miles away from the house.
Wrapping my arms around my waist, I picked up my pace. My sandals smacked off the cracked asphalt, echoing around me. As dark as it was, with no street lamps and only thin slivers of moonlight stretching across the road, it was an eerie, too long walk.
I kept waiting for Big Foot to barrel out of the thick stand of trees crowding the road. Or maybe Mothman; after all, I did live in West Virginia.
A shiver coursed down my spine as I pictured a giant winged creature flying out of the trees, and then I cursed my imagination. This was not what I needed to be thinking about when there was no one around.
When I spotted my car, a wide smile broke out across my face. Almost there. My fingers tightened on the keys as I stopped at the driver’s side door, pushing my finger down on the unlock button.
My car chirped a hello.
My sandals still smacked off the asphalt.
No. Wait. Another shiver tiptoed down my spine. I wasn’t walking, so those footsteps . . . they weren’t mine.
Tiny hairs rose along the back of my neck and I whirled around, quickly scanning the dark road around me. A breath caught in my throat as I squinted into the thick shadows between the cars.
I saw nothing.
Seconds passed and I didn’t dare move or breathe too loudly. My ears strained to hear the footsteps, but there was nothing but the low hum of insects that came out at night. What if there really was a Big Foot? Or a chupacabra?
Or a giant, flesh eating stinkbug?
Now I was just being stupid.
No one was out there. It was just another case of Ella’s overactive imagination. Instead of planning on attending college for a law degree, I should major in creative writing. The way I could creep myself out over something so harmless, I could be the low-rent version of Stephen King or something.
Laughing softly, I turned back to my car and reached for the door handle. The tips of my fingers brushed over the metal just as a rush of warm air stirred the hair next to my temple.
That was the only warning.
Every instinct in my body flared alive, screaming out a warning, but it was too late. A hand smacked down on my mouth. Jerking back suddenly, my keys slipped from my fingers, clanging off the road.
My brain ground to a halt, unable to process what was happening. In the next second, my feet were off the ground and space was increasing between my car and me. I was being hauled away—carried backward.
Horror seized my insides in an icy grip, snapping me out of my shock-induced immobility. Instinct roared back online. My heart pounding, I struggled against the hold, throwing my weight forward and then back again, trying to dislodge the arm that felt like a steel band under my chest.
The attacker grunted, but held on. Panic rose inside me like a great wave crashing over a beach. I clawed at the hand over my mouth, but my fingernails only scratched rough gloves. Air puffed out from my nose in short, wheezy wisps.
This isn’t happening. Oh my God, this isn’t happening.
I swung my arm back, desperately trying to make purchase, but I hit nothing, only air. My car was several feet away from me now, the woods close at our backs. Deep down, in a part of my brain that was still functioning beyond the terror, I knew that if he got me in the woods, it would be bad—really bad on a stranger-danger kind of level.
Not knowing how to fight or defend myself, the panic took over. I kicked out my legs, losing my sandals, but the sudden movement caused the attacker to stumble. I kicked my legs out again, and his footing slipped on the embankment.
We went down in a tangle of legs and arms. I hit the ground hard, knocking the air out of my lungs. My survival instinct had taken hold of me. Ignoring the spark of pain in my ribs, I rolled onto my knees and scrambled up the small slope. I dug my feet into the damp earth, kicking up grass and soil.
A scream burst out of my mouth, breaking the silence. Birds took flight, their wings beating together as they rattled the thick tree limbs above me. My feet hit the warm asphalt as another scream tore out of me.
“Help!” I shrieked into the empty road. “Someone, help—”
Weight crashed into my back, forcing me down. My knees and palms skidded across the coarse road, tearing open my skin. The pain was overshadowed by my growing terror.
My cries ended in a grunt as something slammed into my lower back, stunning me. My cheek smashed against the pavement. Flipped roughly onto my back, I found myself staring up into a face shadowed by a dark hood. The glint of a zipper reflected briefly, but there was nothing under the hood but darkness.
A gloved hand slid over my cheek, the touch almost tender, almost loving, and that punched a whole new wave of terror through me.
I immediately flailed under his weight, bucking my hips and trying to force him off, but his strong legs pressed down on either side of mine, trapping them together. His hands wrapped around my throat, cutting off my scream. I lost my next breath before I even realized I’d taken my last.