Authors: Abigail Drake
“Where are you going?” I asked, terrified to be left alone.
He took my hand off his arm, giving it an awkward pat meant as reassuring, but he was obviously distracted. “I have to speak with Tad’s mother. I’ll be back shortly.”
As soon as he left, I pulled out my journal and curled up on his couch, pushing aside the curtain to glance out the window. A group of people huddled around a bonfire, holding each other and swaying. When they saw Michael, they drew him into their circle. A woman wailed, and tears pricked the backs of my eyes. Someone had lost a child tonight. I’d been so preoccupied with my own shock and horror I hadn’t really absorbed that fact. And Michael had spent the night taking care of me instead of mourning the loss of his friend.
I’m a stranger in a strange land.
I put down my pen, too overwhelmed to write. I was at a point somewhere just beyond exhaustion fueled purely by adrenaline.
Unable to sit any longer, I looked around the caravan, feeling very nosy and not really caring. Behind a closet door was an extremely well organized collection of knifes, swords, and several other weapons. I closed the door, turning away. Normally, I liked looking at weapons, but I’d seen enough of that side of Michael’s life already.
The caravan was rather Spartan. The only photo was of Michael’s father as a much younger man standing next to a beautiful and delicate-looking woman with dark hair and eyes. She held a baby and beamed with pride.
“That was my Ma.”
Michael stood in the doorway, looking completely shattered, both physically and emotionally. He must have changed out of his bloodied clothes in someone else’s caravan and now wore a pair of sweats and a long sleeved blue t-shirt that stretched tightly across his chest. I’d never seen him in any color but black.
“Is the baby you?” He nodded, and I smiled at him. “How sweet.”
He held up the photo and stared at it like he saw something in it I couldn’t. “The Moktar…they got her a few days after this photo was taken. I can’t remember her at all.”
“Oh. I get it. I understand.” He gave me a look that told me he thought my statement highly doubtful. “Not the Moktar part, but the loss. My mama died when I was two.”
“How?” Michael’s voice was soft.
I swallowed hard, unable to look at him. “She committed suicide.”
“Thank you. That’s part of the reason I came to England. I hoped to find her family, or someone who knew her.” I yawned, swaying on my feet.
“You’re exhausted, Emerson. You should go to bed.”
exhausted and didn’t want to talk about his mother or my mother anymore. I wanted to shut my eyes and experience a few hours of mindless oblivion.
As I climbed into his bed, he watched me from the doorway. “I’ll be at my Da’s. It’s only a few doors down.”
I shook my head, panic setting in. “Don’t you dare leave me here alone, Michael.”
He glanced at the narrow couch in his front room. “I’ll stay, if that’s what you want. I’ll sleep out there.”
“You can’t possibly fit on that couch.”
He rested his head against the wall, like it was too heavy for him to hold it up anymore, his shoulders slouching in exhaustion. “Then I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“That’s ridiculous. Just come to bed.”
I thought he would continue to argue, but common sense won out. He nearly fell into bed next to me, on top of the covers. I reached for a blanket folded on the bottom of the bed and covered him with it.
“Thanks,” he murmured. “You were brave tonight, Emerson.”
I turned on my side to face him, and unrolled my hair from its bun. It was still damp, and spread over his pillow like a big curly fan. “I’m pretty good at making the best of things.”
He snorted. “That’s an understatement. I don’t think there are many beauty queens from Kentucky who could face a Moktar without swooning, let alone fight one off.”
“How did you know I was a beauty queen?”
He yawned. “Mrs. Burke, it turns out, was quite the wealth of information.”
In spite of everything, in spite of the horror and the death and the fear, a little bubble of joy sprang to life in my chest. Michael had been interested enough to ask Mrs. Burke about me. Maybe this obsession hadn’t been so one sided after all.
Michael’s eyelids grew heavy. “You’re an unusual girl, Emerson Jane Shaw.”
“Are you calling me weird?” I asked, but he didn’t answer. He just pulled me into the curve of his arms and held me close, like he wanted to protect me even in his sleep.
I woke up feeling completely and absolutely warm for the first time since I’d arrived in England. Michael must have climbed under the covers at some point during the night and now he spooned me, holding me close against his big warm body and covering me like a blanket. It was bliss, until I realized we’d just slept half the day away.
“Oh, crap.” I tried to sit up, but Michael pulled me back.
“Don’t,” he said, his eyes still closed.
I froze, seeing things a bit differently in the light of day. “Yesterday you didn’t even like me, and now you want to snuggle?”
He took a deep breath. “It had nothing to do with
you. It was about safety. You had no idea monsters existed, or gypsies, and I preferred to keep it that way. Until yesterday, you were just an innocent student.”
Hearing the word “student,” I made a noise that sounded like a squeak. “I have to get up. I’m missing class.”
Michael yawned. “It’s Saturday.”
I turned toward him, his face only inches from mine. He really was beautiful, and a sleepy, cuddly Michael Nightingale was almost more than I could handle. He made me nervous, and chatty.
“Oh, thank goodness. I have a test coming up in my Shakespeare class, and my teacher wouldn’t have accepted getting attacked by Moktar and spending the night with gypsies as a valid excuse for missing it. No siree.”
“Good morning.” His voice was even deeper than usual as he snuggled my neck. “You smell wonderful.”
“Oh, crap,” I said again.
“Is that your usual morning greeting?” He pressed against me, and I realized he wasn’t just being friendly and hospitable to a stranger who’d wandered into his bed. He was turned on. Evidence of that now pressed right against my leg.
I didn’t know how to deal with this. I had very little practical experience, and my feelings hovered somewhere between fear and curiosity. Fear won out, and I jumped out of Michael’s cozy bed like someone had lit a fire under my bottom. He watched me, a sad shadow crossing over his eyes like a dark cloud on a clear, blue day.
“I expected this to happen. As soon as you realized what I am…how I live…”
“That isn’t it at all…” I began, but he silenced me with the wave of a hand.
“I don’t want your pity.”
I swallowed hard. “The last thing I feel for you is pity.”
He climbed out of bed and walked across the room slowly, like a panther moving in for the kill. Standing as close as possible without touching, his eyes locked on mine. “You were frightened. I sensed it.”
“The…uh…situation made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t scared of you.”
His gaze held mine a moment longer. “You should be.”
I rolled my eyes. “Spare me the theatrics. You aren’t that scary.”
He blinked. “You’re so
. I can never quite predict what you’re going to say next.”
“I get that a lot.”
Digging through my backpack, I found my cell phone and turned it on. It went off with a series of angry sounding beeps indicating quite a large number of missed texts and voice mails.
“Crap, crap, crapity, crap.”
“Watch your language.” I heard the laughter in Michael’s voice, but this wasn’t funny.
“Oh, sugar beets and dates.”
“Now you’re just getting dirty.”
I glared at him. “My friends have been trying to reach me for hours, but my phone was off. I’d better call them before they go to the police and file a missing person’s report.” That wasn’t an exaggeration. Poppy and Lucinda were freaking out.
Michael slipped his shoes on. “Call them. I’ll get some breakfast.”
I sat on his couch and allowed myself a moment to drool over the way his bottom looked in low hanging sweats as he walked out the door. I’d slept with Michael Nightingale. Maybe not in the biblical sense, but I’d been in his actual bed, with him in it.
I sighed and dialed Lucinda’s number. I was a pathetic excuse of a woman if forcing Michael to sleep in the same bed with me felt like an accomplishment.
Lucinda answered in the middle of the very first ring. “Emerson?”
I tried to inject as much cheerfulness and enthusiasm as possible into my voice, but it didn’t help. She let out a string of curse words so bad a sailor would have blushed. I couldn’t even understand most of them. It took her a few minutes to finish, and then Poppy took a turn. They must have been sitting together, waiting for me to call, and had me on speakerphone. I waited for Poppy’s tirade to come to a close, and then jumped in and tried to talk.
“I’m really sorry. I turned off my phone, and forgot to turn it back on. I left you a note, Lucinda.”
“A very vague and extremely strange note telling me you were spending the night with
What the hell happened?”
Michael came back into the caravan carrying a tray of food and what looked like a carafe full of coffee. He set down the tray, and I got another glimpse of his very delectable bottom. His sweats were just right, not too loose and not too tight.
I bit my lip as I ogled him. “I’ll be home soon. Can we talk then?”
An exasperated moan sounded on the other end. I couldn’t tell if it was Poppy or Lucinda.
Lucinda finally spoke. “We were very worried, but as long as you’re okay, that’s all that matters. We will expect a full report, however.”
“With all of the gory details,” shouted Poppy.
“I promise,” I said, and then hung up the phone with a sigh. Poppy had no idea how gory the details actually were.
Michael handed me a cup of hot coffee. “I know you usually drink tea, but I thought you’d like coffee, too, since you’re American.”
I stared at him. “Who are you and what have you done with Michael Nightingale?”
He gave me a puzzled look. “Whatever do you mean?”
I put down my cup and folded my hands on my lap. “For weeks, you’ve acted like I was someone with a particularly nasty communicable disease.”
Michael grabbed a plate piled high with eggs, bacon, toast, and the ever-present English staple, the grilled tomato, from the tray of food. He handed it to me, and got another plate for himself.
“As I explained already, I wanted to keep you safe.”
“From what?” I asked between bites. The food was delicious.
Michael gave me a disbelieving look. “Uh, the Moktar, the Travellers, the whole bloody mess.”
“Yes, that.” Michael leaned back on the couch. “And when you stumbled onto our little problem last night, it was probably the worst case scenario.”
I shook my head. “No. Not exactly the worst case scenario. That would have involved me being a late night snack for a hungry Moktar. I think things actually turned out rather well.” I patted my mouth primly with a napkin, and Michael shook his head, smiling.
“Rather well indeed.” He looked at his watch. “Shall we go? Your friends wish to speak with you, and we have to be back before sunset.”
I moaned. “What am I going to tell them?”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
I wrinkled my nose at him. “Yes. No. Maybe. I don’t know what would be worse.”
“I’ll come,” he said, and I could tell by the firm set of his jaw he’d made the decision for both of us.
“Fine,” I said, “but remember what you told me last night?”
Michael frowned and shook his head.
“I apologize in advance for what is about to happen.”
You’ll go to hell for lying just as fast as for stealing chickens.
In chapter seven of
The Art of War
, Sun Tzu talked about the dangers of direct conflict, and was he ever right. Facing a firing squad at dawn might have been preferable to facing Poppy and Lucinda that afternoon. Mr. Sun Tzu himself would have run away waving a white flag of surrender. They’d spent a good five or six hours sick with worry, and I deserved to be yelled at, but I felt kind of bad for Michael.
Perched next to me on the edge of the couch, he looked perfectly comfortable, but I could tell by the tight set of his jaw this wasn’t easy for him. Poppy and Lucinda faced us, wearing almost identically angry expressions. Neither of them said a word, but they were definitely not happy.
“Don’t try that southern sweetness on us this morning, Emerson Jane. It will not work.”
Lucinda wore a black, loose fitting turtleneck sweater. She had no makeup on, her hair pulled back into a severe bun. I’d never seen her look so pale, or so completely unlike herself. Heck, I didn’t even know she owned a turtleneck.
“Lucinda is absolutely right.” Poppy nodded her approval. She pursed her sweet little bow-shaped lips, and I knew what was coming. Poppy was about to go on a weeping rampage. Her face crumbled as she started to cry. “How could you not check your phone for twelve solid hours?”
“Was it that long? I’m sorry. Here’s what happened…” I froze, not sure where to start. I’d gone over this in my head, but it felt completely different sitting right in front of my friends. I wasn’t a natural born liar.
“It was my fault.” Poppy and Lucinda’s heads swiveled to Michael so fast, they might have gotten whiplash. He cleared his throat. “I was trying to fix my motorbike in front of the library, and cut my hand. Emerson gave me a bandage.”
“What kind of bandage?” asked Poppy. Clearly, they weren’t buying his story.
“‘Hello, Kitty!’ and it had pink sparkles on it.”
Lucinda relaxed ever so slightly. “That sounds accurate.”
“Emerson offered to let me clean up here. We decided to meet with my mates, and I told her she could crash at my place.”
“And we didn’t want to wake you.”