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In the demon-hybrid world, several rules must be obeyed if you enjoyed the luxury of breathing. Never kill a Cambion’s mate. Respect and submit to the Cambion authorities. Stay away from olive oil at all costs. Notify the local chapter of the Cambion Murder-Death-Kill Squad if you suspect someone converting into a full incubi or succubae. Only your mate and immediate family can know what you are. Don’t bring attention to your abilities, but by all means, reap the many benefits that come with manipulating people.
It’s pretty cut-and-dry, and yet I managed to break every rule in the span of eight months. How I wasn’t burned at the stake had involved a mix of luck and powerful allies. Though not of the supernatural variety, my worst transgression to date happened Monday morning: Avoid over-sharing, especially with best friends.
“You’re having a what?” Mia erupted, her whiskey brown eyes bugging out of her head.
I froze mid-step and did a sweep of our surroundings. The upper commons was packed with kids and teachers milling about before first bell. To my horror, Jason Lao had just exited the boys’ bathroom, and the last thing we needed was my Cambion status posted on his gossip blog.
“You wanna talk a little louder, Mia? I don’t think the surfers in Malibu heard you,” I hissed.
“Oh! Sorry.” She tossed a glance over her shoulder then leaned closer. “But what’s a Cambion debut? Is it like a Quinceañera? Will there be an open bar? Or maybe it’s like a sorority-gang initiation? Is there a ritual with robes and chanting? It might be a bit late for the virgin sacrifice.” She sniggered and poked her tongue out between her teeth.
“Whatever. It’s not like that. It’s just a ritzy party where I’m paraded around like a prized thoroughbred.” I headed in the direction of my locker with my eyes glued to the scratch lotto ticket in my hand.
I’d bought five of them on the way to school this morning as a birthday rite of passage. I’d gone through two of them since Mia and I met up in the parking lot and I hadn’t won jack. But it kept me busy until I could think of a proper response to her long list of questions. Yes, a list.
Mia and I had a serious rough patch, and she only agreed to reconcile if I answered everything she asked. It was against the Cambion rules, but she’d earned a seat at the grown-ups table after surviving a showdown with an incubus who hijacked her boyfriend’s body. Few females could say the same.
Mia seemed satisfied with my answer; though I could tell the meter was still running in her brain. “Is Caleb going?” she asked as we stopped in front of my locker.
“Yep. Called him last night and he said he’ll be back in time for the party. He has to come. He’s my mate and we have to announce our union publicly.” With a binder tucked under my arm, I dumped my back pack inside then slammed the door. Leaning against my locker, I used one of Caleb’s “love quarters” to work on lotto ticket number three.
Unfazed by my new gambling habit, Mia moved out of range of the foil crumbs flying in the air. “That’s some birthday gift.”
“Yeah, one that I didn’t ask for,” I mumbled and took a mental account of my morning so far.
As was tradition, Mom busted through my bedroom door armed with pancakes, well-wishes and a retelling of her seventeen hours of childbirth. But Caleb had her beat with a 1AM video chat and a creepy rendition of Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy birthday, Mr. President.” It took me an hour to fall asleep after that disturbing serenade. Dad and the twins called me before school, and Dad practically double-dared me to request a birthday gift. I wasn’t stupid enough to press my luck. He already copped two cars for me last year, so I was content with a free dinner and a hug.
As hyped as I was about turning eighteen, the events of the past eight months seemed to mellow me out. All I really wanted was a stress-free year and for Mia to pick a new topic of discussion. The novelty of having a supernatural bestie hadn’t worn off for her yet and it was all we seemed to talk about anymore. Hopefully, these Q&A sessions will speed up the process so we could go back to just being Mia and Sam. I missed those two crazy gals something terrible.
“I still don’t understand that bond mate thing,” she began while finger combing the dark beach waves on her shoulder. “I mean, you can actually feel each other, like some weird twin connection?” When I nodded, she asked, “What’s Caleb doing right now?”
I closed my eyes and entertained her curiosity, and admittedly my own. I’d spoken to Caleb last night, but I felt this maternal, and dare I say, needy impulse to check in on him. Our bond had amped the clinginess level to a billion percent, and the current separation intensified my loneliness and paranoia.
With only the sense of touch as my guide, temperature, texture, body position, heartbeat and breathing told a story. When the pieces lined up, it formed a picture and an educated guess. I was a fast learner and with Caleb’s practice drills, my abilities would soon equal his.
In a matter of seconds, a sudden urge to curl over made my body rocked back and forth. Slowly, my arms lifted and crossed over my chest. Air rushed into my lungs and my stomach muscles burned.
My eyes flew open and the rocking motion had stopped, but the stomach burn remained. Blinking away the trance, I looked up at the wall clock. Caleb’s habits, his sitting position and the two hour time difference added up to one conclusion.
“He’s working out. He has a weird morning routine where he does crunches and pushups before he runs. There’s something soft under him, like a mat. The air around him is cool, but no breeze, so he’s indoors. I think his hotel has a gym,” I reported then continued scratching. “Hey look! I won a dollar!” I showed her my winnings with glee.
Mia made a face at me and cocked a sculpted brow, clearly unimpressed. “But if Caleb works out, does it mean you’ll get that six-pack like he has?” she asked.
“I wish.” My laugh ended on a bitter whimper as I pushed off my locker. “Nope. I just get to feel the muscles cramping when he works too hard. I get tired when he does, I get angry when he does, I feel pain when he does, but I don’t have any lasting physical effects.”
“Well, that sucks.” Mia continued her inquisition on our way to government class. She’d compiled a list of questions on her phone, but today she was just winging it. “What about bathroom stuff?”
I leaned away from her in horror. “Mia!”
“Inquiring minds want to know. If you two can feel everything, does that mean everything? Does he get cramps? What if he needs to pee real bad? Would you have to go too? Ooh, better yet—what about that little problem guys have when they wake up in the morning.”
My skin was too dark to visibly blush, but I felt my cheeks burn. I lowered my head, hiding a wicked smirk.
“Ohmigod!” Mia covered her eyes as if that would block the picture I painted in her head. “I can’t even…Ugh! So gross!”
“Shut up, Mia.” I bumped her arm. “You set the theme of this interrogation, not me.”
“Not just that—I mean the whole thing. You guys have different parts. How does that even work? You’re basically a guy in a girl’s body, Sam,” she exclaimed.
I was about to respond when the hall intercom chimed with a loud BING. “Samara Marshall, please come to the main office. Samara Marshall, please come to the main office.”
Hands on narrow hips, Mia pursed her glossy lips together and glared at me. “What did you do now?”
“Nothing. I just got here!” I shoulder through the crowd toward the main office with Mia fast behind me.
I pushed through the glass door and was bombarded with the sound of ringing phones and shuffling papers. Much like the halls, the office was riddled with green streamers and four leaf clovers on the walls. I marched passed kids standing in the attendance line until I reached the front desk. “Hi. Did you call for me?”
“Are you Samara Marshall?” A deep voice spoke to my right.
I turned and saw a man in a tan delivery uniform holding a giant bundle of balloons. “I’m Samara,” I answered with caution.
The man handed me an electric tablet and stylus. “I need you to sign this.”
A quick scribble and a “thank you” later, a carnival’s worth of balloons were placed in my hands.
Mia let out a whistle. “Wow. Somebody went all out for you. Is there a card?”
I dipped my finger through the web of ribbons and plucked out the white card. I knew who they came from before I saw the name of the sender, but I smiled all the same. “Caleb.”
“Oh, that’s so sweet. You’ve got an admirer, Sophia.” The voice of Cortney B. drifted from the attendance line like a foul stench.
Mia and I turned at the same time to the cranky redhead smirking at us with pinched lips. After getting rejected by Caleb at her own party, you’d think Courtney would’ve found her chill by now. But instead she expressed her butt-hurt with daily taunts and butchering my name. “Too bad Valentine’s Day was last month. But better late than never, right, Sangria?” she said.
Having no time to throw shade all morning, I delivered a parting jab. “Yes, and I don’t recall you getting gifts then either, none that you didn’t buy yourself.” With a flip of the head and flying curls, I walked away, leaving onlookers murmuring, “Ooh! Burn!” in my wake.
Unfortunately, it was hard to conduct a proper storm-off while pushing a parade float of balloons through the door. Once I managed to squeeze into the hallway, Mia offered to lighten the load. Caleb had bought eighteen balloons in my honor, but I had to do away with at least half of them to navigate the halls. When I turned to pass Mia her share, I was standing alone.
Girlish squeals and giggles led me to the bottom of the handicap ramp where Dougie stood with crutches under his arms. Some said he was caught in a rap battle that turned violent; others said he was jumped by gang members. Both stories proved unlikely since Williamsburg was the preppiest town ever and Dougie’s lyrical bars were on the level with Vanilla Ice than Eminem. Only Mia, Caleb and I knew the truth behind Dougie’s injuries, and the rumors seemed to up his street cred. He had been talking to a tall boy who was holding his books when Mia leapt into his arms.
“Hey, babe.” Dougie reached out to her with a free hand.
“Hey sweetie,” Mia said between kisses and ruined Dougie’s gel-spiked hairdo with her fingers. After all that had happened, the wannabe thug and his Filipino princess were still going strong. There was no soul tie or supernatural bond holding them together. It was pure and organic with years of growth under their belt. A part of me missed that dynamic with Caleb, where he was just my boyfriend. My main squeeze.
While the two swapped tonsils, I sized up the tall boy who backed away from the scene upon my approach. I’d seen him around in the hallway a few times. He had a strong build, broad shoulders and a deep honey brown complexion. But much like now, I never got a good look at his face. He was either facing the other way or had a cap or hoodie on his head that covered his eyes. Yet, he seemed familiar somehow.
“Uh, sup, Samara,” Dougie said, his hazel eyes looking in every direction but mine.
Samara. Not SNM. Not Sam. That was cold. Even colder was the shifty, eyes-to-the-floor routine. Caleb’s brother, Michael had the same habit, but he did so to protect women from his Cambion allure. Dougie did it now out of fear of my Cambion allure, and I hated it.
When I first told Mia and Dougie what I was, I’d expected some pushback, particularly from Dougie. Being possessed by an incubus and having Caleb beat the ever-living crap out of him gave Dougie a crash course in demonology that he hadn’t signed up for. The recent removal of his upper body cast showed signs of a fast recovery, but only the physical kind. I could only guess what was going on in that head of his, because he barely spoke to me when Mia wasn’t around. But I could tell he was trying. We all were.
Again, my eyes wandered to the dark-haired boy who stood in the cut, trying hard to go unnoticed. It might’ve worked if he’d stop pacing in front of the drinking fountain. He was obviously waiting for Dougie, so why didn’t he come over and talk with us? Was he shy?
“Who is that guy? He looks new.” I tipped my head toward the stranger’s back.
“Brand new and fresh out the box. He just transferred here a couple weeks ago,” Mia supplied. “Haven’t had a chance to talk to him. I heard he’s from up north, Boston or New York.”
“New York?” Something was definitely off. And who the hell transferred schools close to the end of the year? And he appeared entirely too old and too ripped to be in high school. Maybe one on TV, but not around here.
“Yeah, X was talking about joining the wrestling team. He seems cool,” Dougie said.
“X? As in Professor X? Like the X chromosome?” I asked.
“As in Xander with an X,” Dougie explained.
Xander with an X? Oh, please. He was just asking to be a super villain. I studied the boy under my floating cloud of nylon and ribbons, trying to get a good look at his face. It was like a faceless man in a dream and no matter how hard you tried you couldn’t get him to turn around. I’d dealt with enough mystery men to last a lifetime. And there was something about him that was sending my spidey senses on high alert.
I must have spaced out for a second, because Mia waved a hand in front of my face then asked, “You okay, Sam? What’s wrong?”
After a blink, I found both Mia and Dougie giving me the side-eye. “What? Nothing.”
“Don’t even try it. You got that ‘up to no good’ look. Does it have anything to do with that thing?” Dougie asked, no doubt referring to all things Cambion related.
“No. But while we’re on the topic of ‘that thing’,” I began with air quotes. “I can’t stress enough how you can’t talk to anyone about it. Especially your new buddy.”
Dougie looked at me like I was crazy. “You must be on that stuff. There’s no way I could tell anyone about what happened to us. Not everyone’s a bad guy, Sam.”
“Well, we both know looks can be deceiving,” I replied, which shut him up. Sure, I could be overreacting, but I’d learned from experience that anyone new in town was declared evil until proven decent. “Look, you guys need to be careful what you say and who you say it around. I’m going against the rules for just telling you what I am.”
Even if what you are almost killed us,” Dougie fired back, and that shut me up. Yep, he was still raw about the whole demon possession thing, but it wasn’t like it was my fault. Well, it was, but indirectly.
“No snitching, no binging, no olive oil. What’s with all these rules anyway, Sam. It’s like you’re a Mogwai or something. Are you allowed to eat after midnight?” Mia teased.
“Please. I would’ve turned into one of those ugly gremlins on my first day,” I joked, but my heart wasn’t in it. I knew Mia meant no harm, but the comparison struck a nerve. On the outside, I was a brown, big-eyed munchkin that people found cute and wanted to cuddle. On the inside lurked an erratic demon spirit who required diet restrictions, or else wreak havoc on my town.
As self-awareness hit me with full force, the bell rang. Kids scattered around us as the power couple locked lips again and held up traffic with their drawn-out farewell.
Dougie was first to come up for air with pink lipstick covering his tan face. “I’m good, baby. I promise. Catch you later.” He limped away on his crutches toward the faceless boy. Mr. X sidled beside him, poised to catch Dougie in case he stumbled.
“Happy Birthday, Gizmo!” I heard Dougie call out as the two vanished into the crowd.
But I was too distracted by what I just saw: a strong jaw, a straight nose, and a semi-profile of a man I saw more times than I wanted to. If I’d blinked, I would’ve missed it, but that sneak peek was all that was needed to get my blood boiling.
The hand that landed on my shoulder startled me.
“Stop being so paranoid, Sam. He’s just a new kid trying to make friends. Relax and enjoy your big day,” Mia assured as we walked to our first period class.
I wanted to take her advice. I wanted to bask in my leap into adulthood, but the damage was done. When I caught a split-second glimpse of Xander with an X, my day was officially ruined. There was family resemblance, and then there was copy and paste, which was a common trait among Cambions within the same bloodline. All three of Caleb’s brothers shared the doppelganger gene and it was hard to tell them apart when they were together.
So, if the Santiagos wanted to spy on me, it would’ve been smart not to send an exact replica of my mom’s boyfriend. It was just sloppy. That family and their stupid rules had been the reason for Caleb and I completing our bond so quickly. Unless Caleb and I moved cross-country, we would forever be under the Santiagos’ thumb, jumping at their command, and attending a party that no one asked them to throw. And now Ruiz’s teenage clone has come to town to insure we abided by their stupid rules. Wonderful.
But then, why wasn’t Xander shadowing me? I was the black sheep of the Cambion world, the reprobate in need of twenty-four hour surveillance. They only sent spies like Ruiz to those who posed a threat or sparked their interest. For reasons that terrified me, Dougie had somehow gotten the Santiagos’ attention. And from what I knew about that family, that was never a good thing.