I JERKED awake on the first note of the bell in the east tower. The metallic clang of the chorus of the school song reverberated in my gut, causing a burst of panic to explode in my chest. Oh shit! The tolls yanked me to my feet from my seated position.
I scrambled between floor-to-ceiling bookshelves toward the entrance of the massive library, which resembled catacombs in the dying light, each shelf a final resting place for books long forgotten. The setting sun spread sharp shadows through narrow, ten-foot windows. I sprinted, skirting long study tables, which looked like autopsy slabs by the growing dimness.
The choking dread in my chest grew. Braylin Academy had one real rule kids followed: everyone off campus by sundown. The consequence? Immediate expulsion, no questions asked.
It was the easiest rule to follow in the history of rules. It looked like I’d be the first student kicked out in the academy’s illustrious five-hundred-year history. Obviously, it’s just a threat, and they’re not really going to expel me. Right? Yet at the back of my mind, a tiny voice, getting louder with each second, said otherwise.
I muttered several choice expletives under my breath.
In an attempt to distract myself from dire thoughts, I focused on my predicament. After the initial melodic tolling of the school bells that announced the top of the hour, the countdown began.
One. I reached the library’s double doors and pulled the handles. The heavy doors protested.
Two. My fingers slipped. I wiped my sweat-slick hands on my pants and tried again. The doors creaked and opened. Finally.
Three. I squeezed through, not knowing which hurt more, the burning of my lungs or my heart hammering a hole through my chest.
Four. I raced down the west hall that ran alongside the garden. My wallet chain slapped against the outside of my thigh.
I quickened my pace and reached the school’s front doors by the sixth chime. I stopped. An overwhelming sense of hopelessness flooded my insides. My hands trembled and my knees fought to keep my body upright. I rested my forehead against the door. The wood might as well have been metal; it was so cold. Bile climbed up my throat. I coughed several times before I covered my mouth and swallowed down the sourness. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t bring enough air into my struggling lungs.
This can’t be happening.
I slapped the door several times.
This can’t be happening!
Not to me.
Especially not to me!
But the bell had stopped. Its silence sealed my fate. I groaned like a dying animal, wanting nothing more than to wake up from this nightmare. Six tolls meant classes had ended two hours ago. The last bus always left an hour after the last class, taking all the students back to the dorms at the foot of the mountain.
“Cam, you idiot,” I whispered through my teeth and pushed my way outside.
Untouched snow covered the empty courtyard. I whistled a slow, sad exhalation. The chill in the air sank its teeth deep into me. Smokey puffs of breath escaped my lips. Abject disappointment replaced my dread. Of all the stupid things I’d done in my life, getting left behind after curfew was probably the worst.
Defeated, I slumped down to sit on the top step and cradled my chin in my hands, elbows on my knees. For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to get kicked out of school and sent home. Not to a father who had stopped talking to me exactly eighteen months ago today. I smacked my forehead as the last rays of light disappeared behind the Caucasus Mountain Range.
I sighed, deep and heavy. Then I shrugged. Not like I could invent a time machine just so I could shake myself awake before curfew. As my hot tennis instructor used to say about my worthless serve, “C’est la vie.” I stood up, shook out my now snow-dampened pants, and assessed the situation.
It took thirty minutes by bus to get to the dorms. I wasn’t about to risk breaking my neck by trudging down a slick mountain road in the dark. If I was going to get expelled anyway, I might as well get a ride, which meant making my way to the administration office. The million-dollar question: who would I call first?
My father? My head hurt at the thought.
The headmaster? I didn’t have Kiev’s number. In fact, I only saw him on Assembly Day.
The dorms? A ride back was my first priority, so yeah, the dorms seemed like the best option.
I whirled to face the medieval castle. It loomed in the pre-evening gloom, like most creepy castles did. I strode to the front doors and reentered the hall. The decorative sconces—all lit as if by magic—cast eerie shadows on the floor. I picked my jaw up off the floor and twisted my lips. My job just got easier. If I found the person responsible for turning on the lights, I could hitch a ride. A custodian, maybe?
Voices at the end of the hall pulled my attention away from my internal drama. Maybe I could still salvage the situation and avoid expulsion by coaxing whoever gave me a ride home to pretend he or she never saw me. My eyebrows rose as I got a closer look at the group that rounded the corner. None of them looked like the custodian.
The guys wore baggy pants tucked into knee-high leather boots. Their jackets were cut above the waist, unlike the regulation blazer I wore. The white shirts underneath had the sheen of silk rather than the flatness of cotton. And they wore cravats instead of neckties. Not the typical Braylin uniform.
The girls glided in floor-length skirts. Corsets cinched in long-sleeved blouses. Unlike the short, pleated skirt, thick leggings and boots, a blazer over a white shirt, and a ribbon at the collar that my best friend Riya wore on a daily basis.
What made the whole scenario weirder was the fact that they all looked extremely attractive. I felt like I’d walked into a Twilight Zone version of New York Fashion Week. All of them were tall, elegant, with porcelain skin and black hair. No one told me Braylin had students on campus after curfew. Did that mean I wasn’t going to be expelled? Or maybe I wasn’t the only one?
I mentally stomped down the intimidation their perfection brought with them and said, “Excuse me.”
The group froze. The girls had their brows raised, and the boys stopped midspeech, mouths agape. They stared at me with eyes the shade of onyx stones.
I put on my most charming smile and gave them a little wave.
The boy a step ahead of the rest recovered first. His stunning features went from shocked surprise to intense interest. He reminded me of a hawk eyeing its prey. My smile froze.
“Cattle,” he said, his eyes excited.
Something about the way he spoke made my stomach flip. “Are you new here? I haven’t seen you before.”
They snickered. The boys looked at each other while the girls continued to stare, muffling their laughter with delicate hands. I seemed to be the butt of some joke.
“You broke the rule.” The boy’s grin turned predatory.
The students formed a loose semicircle in front of me. My gaze darted from face to face. Hunger filled their eyes. The image of lions about to chase down a gazelle came to mind. I mentally shook my head. I was in the mountains, not the Serengeti.
I took a small step back and cleared my throat. “Hi, I’m Camron Masters. I lost track of time. You know how it is. Can any of you give me a ride back to the dorms?”
The boy wagged his forefinger like a metronome. “Ah, that’s unfortunate for you.”
One of the girls pinched the bridge of her nose. “Eli, you can’t possibly—”
“It’s forbidden, Eli,” another boy interrupted, pronouncing the word “forbidden” like a curse.
“None of the students are supposed to be on campus,” I said. The nervous murmur at the pit of my stomach grew louder. Then, realizing my mistake, I added, “Okay, I know I’m not supposed to be here either. If one of you gives me a ride, I won’t say anything about all this. Let’s pretend this never happened. I didn’t see you, you didn’t see me.”
Eli smiled with just one side of his mouth and said to the group, “Camron’s right, no one will have to know. We’re the only ones here. And it’s been so long, don’t you agree?”
The rest of them nodded reluctantly.
“What’s been so long?” I asked.
“For fresh meat to come along,” Eli said. He came forward and took a whiff of me.
I cringed. “Meat?”
“Yes,” he said. “And yours smells so fresh.”
Someone grabbed my shoulders from behind and yanked me back before I could wrap my mind around the meaning behind Eli’s words. In a blink, I found myself behind someone tall. Someone really tall. And quite broad. And very male.
I realized he wore the same clothes Eli and the other boys did. Not good. He was one of them. Although… I tilted my head to the side, raking my gaze over him. He seemed born to wear the uniform. Like he was the pattern everyone else was cut from. My eyes wandered to long layered blue-black hair tied at the nape by a silk ribbon. Even in dim light, each strand shone like mercury.
I looked down. The boy’s long fingers were wrapped around my wrist like a cuff. His fevered touch felt hot enough to make me sweat like I was standing too close to a radiator.
“I must be mistaken, Eli,” the boy who held my arm said in a monotone. “Correct me. Did you just threaten this student?”
A hush descended on us. It had the hairs on the back of my neck rising. How was it possible for the atmosphere to switch from threatening to dangerous? Unable to help myself, I peeked around the new guy’s bulk. Eli and his friends bowed. They all had their right hands on their chests.
“Troyan, I’m sure you misheard me,” Eli said.
I liked the sound of his name. Troyan. Strong syllables, yet they rolled off the tongue. With a definite yum factor.
“You imply I made a mistake?” Troyan demanded.
“No!” Eli lifted his gaze. “I did no such thing. I simply wanted to show him the consequences of breaking curfew.”
“So, you did threaten him.” His fingers tightened their grip around my wrist. “In the interest of investigating this matter further, I invoke the Silence.”
All six students gasped, passing surprised glances at one another.
Before I could do anything more than blink, Troyan yanked me down the hall toward the library. But why there? Oh, maybe we were getting my things. No, wait, he couldn’t have known about that. I was so confused.
Eli and the others didn’t try to stop us when we passed them. Troyan’s cold command must have carried power. Handsome and powerful—never a bad combination in my book.
We reached the heavy double doors in seconds. He jerked one open effortlessly. I needed all my strength just to squeeze through that same door earlier. To him, the thick wood might as well have been cardboard. I raised an eyebrow and mentally listed the benefits of going to gym class.
“Why are we here?” I asked after my curiosity overpowered my confusion. I wasn’t above accepting help from strangers. Especially from gorgeous dark-haired strangers with hot hands and wide shoulders.
Troyan kept going, tugging me along, snaking his way deeper into the library. I tried to stay directly behind him, praying we didn’t slam into anything. Then, without warning, he stopped. I collided with his back. It felt like slamming into a wall.
“Ow!” I said, momentarily stunned.
He faced me. His eyes resembled a starless night, deep and endless. Their intensity drilled through me without pity, seeming to expose all my secrets. I felt naked and flustered beneath his gaze.
“You could have died back there,” he warned.
A lump of panic built itself in my throat. I forced myself to speak through tightened vocal cords. “I don’t even understand half of what happened back there.” I gestured toward the library entrance with my free hand.
He grimaced and pulled me forward again. I tugged at my wrist but to no avail. His touch was getting too hot for comfort. Sweat dripped down my wrist to pool in my palm. But Troyan didn’t seem to mind. He set a merciless pace, and it was clear we weren’t about to stop until we reached our destination.
Troyan paused in front of a shelf. He glanced over his shoulder at me and said in answer to my previous question, “We need to use the library to get to the Chem Lab.”
“The lab’s on the second floor.”
He tugged at a large book on the fifth shelf up from the floor. A section of the shelves slid to the right, exposing a dimly lit, upwardly spiraling staircase.
“I will not risk having others see you. The danger is too great.”
I followed him to the top of the stairs; a light fixture like the ones along the west hallway illuminated a dead end. I gave the center of his broad shoulders my best scowl. I was about to give Troyan a piece of my mind when he yanked the sconce and a concealed panel swung open.
“Whoa” tumbled out of my mouth.
Sure enough, the Chem lab sprawled out before us. I had to blink several times to adjust my vision. The dimness of the staircase couldn’t compare to the brightness of the lab.
After the black spots in my eyes receded, I took in the room. My jaw dropped. The lab was always left clean at the end of the day, but beakers, test tubes, funnels, and other lab equipment filled every table. Liquids of different colors bubbled and gurgled in each one.
We came to a stop at the end of the room where a guy in a lab coat sat bent over a microscope. He had short midnight hair that stuck out in messy spikes.
“Gaige, I need anima,” Troyan said.
The stranger didn’t move or speak.
He jumped, barely staying seated. “Damn it, Troyan! Don’t surprise me when—who is that? And what’s that smell?” His pale complexion turned ashen while his penetrating eyes studied me. Then he pointed a shaky finger at me. “Is that—”
Troyan blocked me from view. “The anima,” he said.
I leaned around in time to see Gaige flick something the size and color of a pearl at us.
Troyan caught it and immediately popped it into his mouth. He chewed, producing a quick crunch like breaking candy. After he swallowed, he said to Gaige, “I trust you to keep quiet about this.”
Wide-eyed, Gaige nodded.
“Good. And I expect you to be in class when I return.” Troyan turned around and led the way back to the staircase.
“You don’t have to keep holding on to me,” I said as we descended back down. “It’s obvious I’m not going anywhere.”
At the bottom of the stairs, Troyan let my wrist go and turned around to face me. I was a couple of steps above him, so we were at eye level for the first time. I dropped my gaze and busied myself with wiping my slick wrist against my side.
“I cannot risk anyone else getting to you,” Troyan said. He closed his fingers around my wrist and ran his thumb over the red welts. I shivered despite the heat of his touch. “I can see that I have made you uncomfortable.”
Among other things. I managed to hold my tongue.
He let go of my wrist again. “If you promise to stay close—”
“Where else will I go?” I interrupted. “It’s obvious I’m not supposed to be here.”
The memory of my expulsion crumpled my heart. I’d just started liking it at Braylin.
Troyan tilted his head from side to side until vertebrae on his neck popped. Then he shook his head. “Stay close,” he said before he whirled around and exited the passageway. He waited until I joined him before he pushed back the book he had pulled out. The shelves slid into place.
I whistled. “That’s so cool. I spend hours in this library and never thought there’d be secret stairs to the lab.”
“This is the only one here,” Troyan said as if he wanted to discourage me from further exploration. “Come on, I have to get you back to the dorms.”
Not even half an hour later, and after I insisted we pick up my stuff, I found myself inside a black Aston Martin, Troyan at the wheel, and headed home.
On the steep mountain road, Troyan pushed the car over the speed limit. I said a silent prayer that he wouldn’t send us over the mountainside.
The purr of the car’s engine reminded me of the time I “borrowed” a car just like it for fun. A secret smile curled the corners of my lips. Having all that horsepower in my hands was freeing. Until, of course, I ran it straight into a fountain.
My father had been presiding over a board meeting when I’d been nabbed by the Italian polizia. When I made my allotted call to Dad, he refused to leave his meeting and instead sent his secretary to bail me out. Even with everything written about me in the Italian and international papers the next day, he never came to my hotel suite to reprimand me. Never even grounded me. He hadn’t expressed anger—just indifference. It was the incident that landed me in Braylin, the school farthest away from him.
My smile faded.
I flicked on the overhead light switch. Even in the dimness, compared to Eli and Gaige, Troyan embodied Adonis. A straight nose. Lush lips. Long lashes that framed intense eyes. A jawline that could cut. Too good. Too perfect. It was like he wasn’t even real.
“Who are you?” I blurted.
His lips twisted. “Why were you on campus past curfew?”
Despite his monotone, softness laced his words. I flicked the switch off, more comfortable sitting in darkness if I had to confess my sins.
“I fell asleep in the library, okay?” No sense in lying about it. “I sat down at my favorite spot—between mystery and mythology—with my e-reader. Unfortunately, somewhere between WWI and WWII, I dozed off. When I woke up, I was alone.” I paused, taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly. The next thing I said would make my situation real. “I’m going to get expelled, aren’t I?”
“Your name, what is it?” Troyan asked.
“Camron.” I rubbed the back of my neck. “Masters.”
“If you promise never to miss curfew again and that you forget what you have seen tonight, then Alek will never have to know, Camron Masters.”
“Alek? Alek.” The name sounded vaguely familiar. When the memory clicked, I said, “You’re on a first-name basis with the headmaster?”
Troyan shifted slightly.
“What about the group I ran into?” I continued. “I assume you’re one of them. Why is Braylin hiding the fact that other kids go to school there? Night school is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“You do not want to know the answer to that question.”
Because of the way he said it, all final and without any argument, the more I wanted to know. But I kept the rest of my questions to myself. If what he said was true, then I wasn’t getting expelled, which meant I could find answers. For now, I needed to figure out a way to sneak into the dorms without getting caught, and Troyan dropping me off at the front gate where the guard would surely see me wouldn’t be the wisest choice.
As imposing stone walls neared, I pointed. “Can you drop me off by the corner there?”
Troyan obliged, easing the car to a stop.
“Have you been to all these places?” He pointed at my e-reader filled with travel stickers.
“This one’s my favorite.” I tapped the Eiffel Tower.
“It must be nice to see what the world has to offer.”
“Are you telling me you’ve never traveled?”
“Not in the way you think.” Troyan pressed the Unlock button. “You better get going.”