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Authors: Tara Fuller

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Inbetween

Blurred

a Kissed by Death novel

Tara Fuller

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright © 2012 by Tara Fuller. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.

Entangled Publishing, LLC

2614 South Timberline Road

Suite 109

Fort Collins, CO 80525

Visit our website at www.entangledpublishing.com.

Edited by Heather Howland and Kaleen Harding

Cover design by Heather Howland

Print ISBN
978-1-62061-085-5

Ebook ISBN
978-1-62061-086-2

Manufactured in the United States of America

First Edition July 2013

The author acknowledges the copyrighted or trademarked status and trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned in this work of fiction: Mr. Rogers; iPod; Bronco; Tupperware;
Goosebumps
; Harvard;
People
; Pine-Sol; Kool-Aid;
Guitar Hero
; Tilt-A-Whirl; WebMD; Wikipedia; Jägermeister; BMW, Yoda, Gandalf the Grey,
Seinfeld
, Converse, Coke, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Sherlock Holmes.

Table of Contents

For Jared, Colten, and Caden.

You are the reason my heart beats. You are the reason I have stories to tell.

I love you.

Prologue

Anaya

The flames closed in, each lick of heat a tick of the clock. My scythe pulsed at my side and warmth spread down my arms and into my fingertips. Six seconds. I could have his soul out in six seconds. Just one swipe of my blade and he could have peace.

Not this one, Anaya. This one is special. No matter what, you will ensure that he stays in his flesh.

Balthazar’s words echoed in my mind and my palms shook, just inches above his chest. His soul was already seeping through. Almighty…if only the rest of them weren’t here. Finn, Scout…they were going to see.

“She made it!” Finn’s voice was nothing but static. A distraction I didn’t need. His human was safe, but I wasn’t here for her. I was here for Cash.

Heat exploded in my chest. The glittering soul was so ready to escape its flesh that it wasn’t even waiting for my blade. Oh, God. This felt wrong.

“I can’t do this,” I said to no one.

You will
.

Balthazar’s whispered voice extinguished the heat, the doubt, the reason. All that existed was this moment. This boy. This baffling connection silently blooming between us. I placed my palms over his chest. His soul pushed against my hands and his body shuddered, fighting what I was trying to give back to him.

“Shhh…” I leaned over him, my braids brushing his pale cheeks. “It’s not over for you, Cash. Not yet.” I settled my weight over my palms and pressed the last bit of his soul back into his flesh.

“Anaya!” I flinched at the sound of Scout’s voice. “What in God’s name are you doing? Take him already.”

I didn’t possess one, but in that moment it felt like my heart was in my throat, refusing to let me breathe or speak. I realized that I was giving something back to this boy, but it didn’t feel like it. It felt like I was taking everything away. I tucked a braid behind my ear and watched Cash’s face like it was the last one I’d ever see. He was so beautiful, so still.

A shadow hissed behind me, closing in, looking at the boy beneath me as if he were nothing more than another meal. I leaned in closer to protect him, to lend him my warmth.

“Breathe,” I whispered. “Please, breathe.”

Smoke swirled between us, but even through the darkness
I
could see the color bleeding back into his lips. His skin. A sliver of breath and smoke slipped through his mouth, and his face contorted in pain. I felt that pain. I felt it to the depths of my soul. He didn’t have to be feeling this. He could be at peace. Instead he was alive. He was…
alive
. Guilt rushed through me, mixing with the selfish relief I felt at seeing him breathe.

I smoothed the wet hair back from his forehead and leaned down until my lips grazed his ear. Sparks danced across my lips. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered.

“Aren’t you going to take him?” Finn asked from behind me.

Fire crackled around us and I reached out to touch the tip of Cash’s nose. “No. Not this time.”

Before Finn could question me, a fireman rushed in from the hall and scooped Cash up into his arms.

In an instant a flash of cold and light consumed me. I closed my eyes and let it pull me into the sky. Balthazar was calling. When the world went still, I caught myself before I accidentally stumbled over the edge of a valley.

What had I done? My hands shook with the force of my decision. My
mistake.
The driving force in my existence as a reaper was to take, to reap, to end. For a thousand years, it had come as easy as breathing, and now…I’d denied it. I could still feel his soul on my palms, warm and vibrant. I could smell him all over me, clinging to me like a dream. My scythe burned angrily at my side, wanting the soul we’d been dispatched to take.

“I trust everything went well.”

Balthazar emerged from a shadow and stepped into the muted gray light. I couldn’t look at him. If I looked at him, I’d feel the enormity of what I’d done. Instead, I focused my gaze on the empty gray riverbank of the Inbetween below us, where souls searched for something they’d never find. Home. Their pale faces tilted toward the sky, eyes swirling with impending darkness as they wandered through the forever frozen twilight. Most would soon be shadow-bound, never to see Heaven or the second life they sought.

“Why didn’t you allow me to take him?” My voice trembled. “He earned the peace that waited for him. I…I just stole that from him.”

“Because he has a purpose. You cannot comprehend how valuable he is,” Balthazar said, turning to me. “That human…that soul has been a thousand years in the making, Anaya. I did what was necessary.”

His cold eyes raked over me once before settling on my face with the weight of a decision. “And now I’m going to ask
you
to do what is necessary. One
last
task.”

Hope flared to life inside me. I’d been waiting a thousand years to hear those words. “Last task?”

“I need your help securing that soul. If he is who I think he is, I can’t risk him falling into the hands of our enemies.” Balthazar’s jaw clenched and a breeze ruffled the edge of his robe. “You guard him, deliver him to me when the time comes, and I’ll give you what I promised.”

I attempted to organize my thoughts enough to reply. This was unheard of. Souls bound for Hell were sometimes intercepted to be recruited as reapers, yes, but a Heaven-bound? Never. “Deliver him to
you
? Not the Almighty? Not to the place of peace that he has worked lifetimes to earn?” My insides burned with the force of how wrong this felt. After shoving that vibrant soul back into its wilting body, I wasn’t sure anything would ever feel right again. “You are asking me to deny his eternal happiness in exchange for my own?”

In response, Balthazar swept his hand through the air, clearing the mist around us. An image rippled out in front of me. The sea lapped up onto the sand, pulling layers of it back out with the tide. The sky was so bright and blue that the image burned my eyes. My head rested in Tarik’s lap. He took one of my braids, dipped it in the surf, and tickled my nose with the tip. I laughed and he leaned down to capture the sound with his lips. His dark hair was wet from our swim and dripped onto my closed eyelids.

I gasped, overwhelmed by the pain and longing that swept through me. Even now, a thousand years later, I could taste him. Feel the water, cool and perfect against my skin. Balthazar had chosen the memory well. It had been the day I’d fallen in love. The day that altered the course of my existence forever. Old wounds fractured inside my chest and the loss scorched my throat, fresh and fiery. I reached out to touch the image, but it swirled away like smoke.

“I am offering you salvation, Anaya,” he said. “A chance to cross over. All I ask in return is that you succeed in the task I have provided for you. You wouldn’t throw away the chance to be with the ones you love again, would you?”

I shut my eyes, trying to cling to the image of Tarik. In that moment, I would have done anything. Even if it was as awful as denying a soul as beautiful as Cash’s the eternal home he deserved. If the path led me back to my family, back into Tarik’s arms and away from the call of the dead, I would take it.

Balthazar touched my shoulder and cold seeped through my pores, warring with the warmth inside me. I opened my eyes, clutching the scythe at my hip to calm it.

“Tell me what I have to do.”

Chapter 1

Cash

There isn’t a handbook for cheating death.

It would have been nice if there was one. Anything would have been more helpful than these fluffy stories about white tunnels of light, angels, and perfect peace. I didn’t get any of that. What I got was this. Not life. Not death. A freaking nightmare.

“Smile!” The flash popped and flames sparked behind my eyes. I was back in that house again, being swallowed by smoke and heat and panic
.
Sunset-gold eyes blinked down at me.
I’m so sorry
. Crap.

I rubbed my eyes and refocused on the big black shadow dripping from the gym rafters. There was only one for now, but it wouldn’t stay that way. More would come. They always did. They’d creep in through the cracks and corners until darkness consumed every square inch of this gym. Until all I could feel was cold filling up my insides and fear throbbing behind my ribs. The shadow above me hissed and I watched as it swirled like smoke around the big silver ductwork, coming closer with every pass. The air around me felt like cold venom, crawling across my mouth, trying to find a way in. I pressed my lips together and closed my eyes.

“Cash?” The photographer with curly saffron hair piled on top of her head peeked around her camera and frowned. “You weren’t smiling, hun. You weren’t even looking at the lens. Let’s try one more.”

I scrubbed my palms over my face and someone behind me adjusted my cap. This was so stupid. They could paste a picture of Mr. Rogers in my place in the yearbook for all I cared. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be here for this. I didn’t really want to be here for anything anymore. What I
wanted
was my life back.

I forced my mouth into a fake grin, but a second shadow slithered over the shoulder of the photographer, and the smile disintegrated on my lips. The shadow’s tar-like tongue reached out to taste the silver bangles on the photographer’s wrist. I stumbled backward off the stool at the same moment the camera flashed, and my back hit the ground hard, forcing the air from my lungs. After living off an inhaler the past week, that shit hurt. I winced and sat up, trying to catch my breath and failing.

“Oh my God, are you okay?” The photographer stood up, holding the camera at arm’s length. Students piled up behind her, whispering and trying to see what had happened. Great. More fuel for the gossip queens. Just what I needed.

Ms. Moyer tried to help me to my feet, but I waved her off. I had to get the hell out of here. Not just away from the way they were all looking at me like I was a nut job. Away from the shadows. Senior pictures were the least of my worries. Besides, the longer I stayed here, the worse my chances got of avoiding Em. And I wasn’t ready to face her. Not yet.

I tore off the cheesy blue graduation gown and picked up my cap. “Can I do this later? I need to get my inhaler out of my locker.”

The photographer nodded and Ms. Moyer looked me over with sympathy in her eyes. “Come right back. We need to get these done today.”

“Okay.” I grabbed my bag and the crowd of seniors split down the middle to let me through. It didn’t take much to be kicked off the popularity podium at Lone Pine High, and the look in each person’s eyes said they were watching my hellacious fall. As if I cared. I wasn’t coming back. I was going home. It’s not like Ms. Moyer wasn’t expecting it. They should have been used to my disappearing acts by now.

I got halfway down the hall and skidded to a stop. Shadows seeped out of the air vents on the ceiling, melting down the sky-blue lockers like sludge. They pooled across the tile until the darkness closed around my boots, and my heart thundered in my ears.

I shoved my hands into my hair and pulled until my eyes watered. Anything to take this shit away. They were freaking
everywhere
. Dark and cold like a nightmare come to life.

My head snapped up at the sound of someone laughing. A guy about my age wearing a gray wool coat stood across the hall, a chunk of pale blond hair falling over one eye. In a town a small as Lone Pine, it wasn’t hard to pick out someone who didn’t belong. And this guy didn’t belong. As if to prove my point, he eyed the shadows around me with interest, his mouth twisting into a grin as one swirled around the base of my boot and up my pant leg. Other than the tremor rolling down my spine, I stood completely still, afraid to breathe.

“Back off!”

I flinched at the unexpected sound of his voice splitting the silence and stared in awe as the shadows around my legs parted. They didn’t leave, but even the few feet of space gave me room to breathe again. When I looked up, the guy was still watching me. As if he were waiting to see how I’d react.

“Who are you?” I asked. He didn’t answer. Just winked and backed around the corner, disappearing behind a row of lockers. The second he was out of sight, the shadows closed back in. I pulled my boots out of their darkness and barreled though the hall.

“Hey!” I patted my jeans for my inhaler, my lungs burning with the want for air. “Stop!” I braced myself on the edge of the lockers where he’d been standing and the metal seared my hand with cold.

What the hell?

I spun in a circle, searching the empty halls. He was gone.

I backed down the hall toward the exit. I was fucking losing it. Had he even been real? Did the things circling my ankles even exist or was I just my own brand of crazy now? I wasn’t ready to answer that, so I turned around and ran until my feet hit the gravel parking lot. The sunshine felt good against the frosty sting of my skin, so I kept going until I was in my Bronco, speeding down Main Street. I prayed to God I didn’t get pulled over. If I had to stop, they’d catch me. What happened if they did? I stepped on the pedal a little harder. I didn’t want to find out.

I didn’t know how long I’d been home. Long enough for the light in the windows to fade and the neighbor’s dog to stop barking. Long enough for me to hear Dad’s little silver BMW cruise up the drive about four minutes before he marched into my studio, armed and ready to make my ears bleed.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Dad growled before the door to my studio had even slammed shut. “I didn’t raise you to act like this.”

I stared at the half-painted canvas in front of me and pressed my bare feet against the cold, concrete floor to wake me up. He was either pissed about me skipping again, or he found the half-empty bottle of bourbon I had taken from his desk. “You didn’t raise me to act any way. You would have actually had to be around to do that.”

I picked up a brush, dipped it into bloodred paint, and slashed a wound across the white canvas. Dad’s well-polished oxfords clicked across the concrete floor until he was standing next to my canvas, blocking my light. He hadn’t changed yet, which meant he was still in lawyer mode.
Damn it.

Out of habit, my gaze wandered to the window where Emma’s house once stood. It was just a clean foundation now, waiting for some stranger to build a new house and move in. The fire hadn’t left anything more than memories and a crap-ton of hospital bills. Escape wasn’t as simple as walking across the yard anymore.

Who was I kidding? Escape didn’t exist anymore. It used to be so easy to find. In the bottom of a bottle. In the backseat of my Bronco with a girl who was just as needy and fucked-up as me. Or my favorite way, curled up in Em’s bed, letting the soft sounds she made as she slept drag me under with her. But none of those things could help me escape from the hell I was living in now.

I sighed, dropped my brush back into the bucket, and retrieved a clean one.

“Look…I’m sorry, okay? Whatever you’re pissed about, I’m sorry. But I can’t do this right now, Dad. Can you just yell at me tomorrow?” I pinched the bridge of my nose to fend off the throbbing inside my skull, dipped the clean brush into a dark, unforgiving black, and swiped it down the canvas, blotting two thick smudges for eyes. It still wasn’t dark enough.

Dad leaned around the canvas to see what I was working on. “What’s this one supposed to be?”

I narrowed my gaze on the canvas, at the shadow eating up the fiery sunset behind it. Its hungry, hollow eyes watched me. Its gaping mouth, a cavern of bloody darkness, drooled. A chill ran down my spine.

“I haven’t figured that part out yet,” I said. God, I wish I knew. If I knew, maybe I could find a way to make them stop.

“Have you eaten dinner yet?”

I shook my head.

“How long have you been out here?”

I dropped my brush into a bucket and stared at the ceiling. “Do you need something?”

He took a step back and frowned. “Your principal called.”

I slid my gaze his way, careful not to make eye contact.

“He said you’ve been skipping school again.”

“I told you, I haven’t been feeling good.”

He crossed his arms over his burly chest. “You never feel good anymore. Haven’t you been using the inhaler they gave you? Taking the breathing treatments?”

I’d been cramming my body full of meds for a little more than a week since the fire. None of it worked. Whatever was wrong with me, whatever it was that was stripping my insides away a little each day, wasn’t anything modern medicine could cure. I needed a freaking witch doctor. A priest. Or better yet, a miracle.

I picked up a clean brush and started again. The eyes still weren’t right. Could you even call them eyes? They looked more like black holes when they watched me at night from the corners of my room. The edge of my bed. I squeezed my eyes shut and shuddered.

“Cash?”

“Hmm?” I opened my eyes and flicked my wrist. Another violent stroke of black. Another shadow driving ice through my veins.

“Are you doing drugs?”

I laughed. “Not lately.”

Dad made a sound in the back of his throat like he did when a case didn’t go his way. “It’s not funny. I’m being serious.”

“So am I.” I spun around on my stool to face him. His blue button-down had a coffee stain under the breast pocket. His salt-and-pepper hair wasn’t quite as neat as usual, and the lines bracketing the corners of his mouth were a little deeper than they’d been this morning. He’d had a bad day and I wasn’t in the mood for one of his stress-induced lectures. If only he’d get laid. Maybe then I’d get some peace.

“I think you should talk to someone about what’s going on with you,” he said. “If you don’t want to talk to me, then there are people we could pay—”

“You think I need a shrink?” I laughed.

Dad pulled a business card from his front pocket and chose to look at the fancy font on the front instead of me. “Dan’s nephew saw this therapist. He’s supposed to be good.”

“You talked to your snob coworkers about me?” I was about to explode. I could feel the anger boiling under my skin. If anybody in this house needed a shrink, it was him. The guy was married to his work and hadn’t been on a date in like eight years.

He threw his hands up. “What do you expect me to do, Cash? Pretend this isn’t happening? Pretend everything is fine?”

“Look, I don’t need a father-son talk right now,” I said. “And I sure as hell don’t need your shrink.”

“Then what do you need?”

I tensed as a dark-as-death shadow slithered across the ceiling
.

Not now. Not now. Not now.

Tearing my eyes away from the shadow, I took a deep breath. The smell of death and decay tainted the air. It felt like a cold rattle in my lungs. I coughed into my fist, trying to get the cold out, and something electric buzzed under my skin. I flexed my fingers as the tingling sensation raced throughout my hand until it felt like it might explode out of my fingertips. What the hell? I shook my hand until the feeling dulled.

“I need to finish this.” I nodded toward the half-painted canvas, still flexing my hand. “That’s what I need.”

Dad’s gray eyes watched me. Waiting. For what, I didn’t know. Just like those damned shadows. He finally nodded and turned on his heel to leave, but stopped in the open doorway.

“You left your phone inside,” he said. “Emma called. Five times. And she left that for you on the front porch.”

He nodded to the container he’d tossed on the table when he’d walked in. A bright-pink label with “zucchini bread” scribbled in familiar bubbly writing was stuck to the lid.
Emma
. My best friend. At least the girl I thought was my best friend. The fact that she thought she could buy me off with food just twisted the knife in my gut even further.

“You two have a fight?”

Fight? As in she’d been living a double life, blowing me off so she could date some dead guy, and then letting said shiny new boyfriend be the one to tell me about it? Not to mention somehow getting me caught in the middle. Why else would these…these…whatever the hell they were, be following me around, looking at me like I was lunch? It was the only explanation. Her dead boyfriend gets a brand-new life and mine goes to shit.

I wouldn’t call it a fight.

More like a total betrayal.

“Her mom told me she had a new boyfriend,” he said, almost hesitantly. “Got anything to do with that?”

“No.”
Yes.
“We’re fine, Dad. Leave it alone.”

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