Prologue and Chapter 1

Prologue

My dress billowed in the wind as I balanced on the edge of the wrought-iron balcony. I heard laughter booming from the heart of the home. I imagined Quintin dazzling the crowd with his wit, stalling for my grand entrance.

A wedding themed as a masquerade ball. What a terrible idea.

“You can do this,” I coached myself, trembling.

Pain shot down my spine. I cringed at the rust-colored stain seeping through my stark-white gown.

I was terrified.

This event, thrown in my honor, paraded as a celebration. In truth, it was no more than a trap—a social net cast to reel in St. Augustine’s wealthy.

“Potential clients,” Quintin would chide.

This was all a game to them: another ostentatious wedding robbed of sincerity to one-up the neighbors.

The crackling of laughter and a taunting knock on the door grounded me in a reality I wanted no part of. The blood, still warm, steadily trickled from the gash in my back and down my thighs. I watched in horror as the polished doorknob began to turn. What had I done?

As the door opened behind me, I skyrocketed off the balcony, landing in the murky lagoon pool below.

You have to be faster! I told myself.

The dress clung to my body, dragging me toward the dark pit of the pool. I resisted. As I heaved myself onto dry land, I heard the graceful plunge of my pursuer.

He was toying with me now—attempting to draw something out of me that did not exist.

Ignoring the pain that threatened to overtake me, I dove through the hedges onto the street and raced as fast as my legs would carry me.

I had to make the time for him to reach me, to save me. But just thinking of him, my heart faltered. Concentrate!

I knew the unbearable pain I’d caused him because it haunted me too. My stomach lurched in despair.

The cobblestone streets beneath my feet began to blur, each turn another dead end. When my legs finally gave way I found myself in an empty alley. When my time ran out, I would be completely alone. It was a strange feeling, wanting to die. It gave me a new appreciation for life, a cruel sense of gratitude that no longer made any difference to me.

I was broken, immune to the danger I knew lurked around the corner to destroy me. So when that monster stepped from the shadows and smiled at me, my eyes betrayed no fear. I simply gazed into his hateful stare, his knife the only object shining in the deadly night.

My hopes, my desires, my very will to live . . . all destroyed. I was bare, the vacant shell of a person. I knew I deserved to die when he couldn’t save me. I deserved much worse.

Somewhere, a scream shattered the silence.

Chapter 1

The bathroom mirror was coated in a thick layer of grime that muddled my features. I turned the tarnished faucet handle, allowing its cool water to trickle through my fingers. Splashing the excess water across the mirror, I used a cardboard-grade paper towel to clear my reflection. My cheeks were flushed from running.

Observing myself in the mirror, I sighed. People called me beautiful, but I never felt the part. I had the wavy blonde hair, the honeyed eyes, the full lips, the sun-kissed skin, even the hourglass figure. Ironically, nothing made me feel less sure of myself than my appearance. Being labeled beautiful meant that I fought to be taken seriously and doubted the merit of every success.

“Be confident,” I commanded my reflection in the mirror. Still, I felt out of sorts. I had a ten o’clock presentation in Creative Writing and I was late.

The previous night, I’d dreamt of flying. Again.

I’d slept through my alarm that morning and exited my apartment in record time, sans make-up with my hair pulled back in a messy pony. I wore flip-flops, jeans, and a t-shirt with the inscription “Reading is Sexy.” I was poorly dressed for a college presentation and I knew it. I cursed myself for failing to pick out a respectable outfit last night.

I’d pit-stopped at the nearest bathroom once I got to Flagler College to collect my thoughts. Now, leaning over a dingy sink in a non-descript bathroom stall, I took a deep swallow of air. It’d have to do—I had no time to spare. I grabbed my purse and hustled from the stall.

Racing across campus, I couldn’t help but notice the naval oranges hanging heavily from a nearby tree or the aroma of freshly baked bread wafting from the student lounge. Even the fluffy white clouds above me seemed to suggest a giant vanilla cupcake teeming with frosting.

Damn, I thought. I was starving. I should have taken the time to grab a breakfast bar. Instead, I willed my legs to move faster. I sped so fast that when I reached Kenan Hall I had to skid to a halt to avoid barreling into students arriving for ten o’clock classes. By taking the steps two at a time, I finally reached Professor Vanessi’s class, my forehead glistening with sweat.

Walking through the large wooden doorframe, I snuck a final peek at my watch to assess the damage.

“Nine fifty-eight? Not bad,” I said to myself.

I stole a glance around the room to see students chatting around their seats. Behind me, others walked through the door, filling up the empty space. I felt like I’d run a marathon, so I wasted no time finding my seat. My cell phone blinked angrily from my bag; I’d missed two calls: one from my boyfriend, Quintin, and another from my best friend, Lina. Before I had time to check the messages, however, I glimpsed Professor Vanessi from the corner of my eye. She walked briskly through the door, silencing the empty chatter of the class. The wall clock displayed ten o’clock on the dot.

“Good morning,” she began.

Susan Vanessi was a tall, slender woman in her mid-forties. Her brown hair was cut carelessly at her shoulders, as if it were an encumbrance, and her slender fingers did not bear the presence of a ring. She dressed in a no-nonsense tailored navy suit and she spoke precisely. Sparing no time for excess, Professor Vanessi had the confident air of a woman with nothing to prove. The youngest and only faculty member of Flagler College with a critically acclaimed novel, she exuded an authority both staff and students respected.

“Aldous Huxley wrote that ‘Every man who knows how to read has it in his power to magnify himself, to multiply the ways in which he exists, to make his life full, significant, and interesting,’” she began. All in the audience were captivated. “Another famous novelist, C.S. Lewis, more simply wrote that ‘we read to know we are not alone.’ I asked this class to prepare a brief presentation on why reading is of importance to you. This is a junior-level course and most of you are English majors. Whether your goal is to pen novels, to work as journalists in a high-paced city, or simply to have a greater appreciation for literature, it’s imperative to mete out why reading is a fundamental part of your life. After all, you never know when you’ll have to defend your passion for books to a Finance major down the hall,” she said, her stern mouth curving into a smile.

“Delilah Volaro?” She gestured to the front of the classroom. Stealing a quick glance at Professor Vanessi, I saw my choice of attire hadn’t caught her attention, much less her disapproval, and felt an instant surge of relief.

I chose to stand in front of the podium overlooking the class. As a small liberal arts school, Flagler College had an average class size of twenty. Most of the rooms centered on a single round table, designed to encourage discussion between class members and faculty. Teachers referred to themselves as “facilitators,” a distinction emphasizing the equal merit of individual perspectives, regardless of age or rank.

This course was the exception to the rule.

Professor Vanessi taught Creative Writing once a year within Flagler’s only lecture hall. A required course for any junior majoring in English, the hall brimmed with five times the normal number of students.

Gazing at the audience, a strange calm overtook me. Usually, I stuttered and stumbled over my words, but in front of a large crowd my thoughts became collected, flowing smoothly and coherently from my mouth. I couldn’t begin to understand this uncanny talent, but I was thankful for it.

Gathering my breath, I began to speak. Immediately, I felt surprised by the tenacity in my voice. “I once came across a quote by Victor Hugo: ‘To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable spelled out is a spark.’ For me, reading is like falling in love, as fundamental as breathing fresh air. The first pages of a novel inevitably spark a fire within me, drawing me deeper and deeper until my life and the lives of the characters are so entwined that we become one and the same. Every book I have ever read is a part of me. I believe that to read is to grow, to experience all avenues of life—to learn about the world and yourself. As with love, the final pages of any book I truly connect with are impending heartbreak. I might will a book to continue with all my heart, but that won’t change the number of pages that remain. Often, the conclusion of a great book leaves me so heartbroken—so greedy for more—that I seek out stories of a similar kind, only to meet with disappointment. At other times, a novel leaves me so empty, so drained by its finish, that I’m unable to pick up a new book for weeks, afraid to feel the loss again . . . ”

I continued to speak as I met the gaze of my audience. Looking from face to face, I saw that each of my classmates wore the same vacant expression. It appeared like the class was under hypnosis; even Professor Vanessi’s head was tilted slightly up, her glassy stare out of focus.

Immediately, I felt my insecurities surfacing. Was my intelligence really so hard to believe? Or was the class simply bored by my presentation? This was my problem with being labeled pretty: it boxed me in. No one expected me to have a brain. Society set the bar low for “attractive” women, which made it impossible for me to gauge my accomplishments on their intrinsic value.

Just then, in my peripheral vision, I saw the outline of a man leaning forward in his seat. It seemed he was straining to hear my every word. Immediately, I knew he was the only one truly listening. Relief washed over me. Someone was listening! Suddenly afraid that meeting his gaze would wreck my train of thought, I focused on the myriad of blank faces surrounding him. As I closed my presentation, I shot him a quick glance.

It was a colossal mistake. I wasn’t prepared to meet his gaze.

Though a complete stranger, his expression was inviting, as if he’d known our eyes would meet. I felt my heart thud from deep within my chest as I studied his every feature. His tousled hair had streaks of gold woven through it. He was slim, but muscular, and by the way his legs rested on the seat in front of him I guessed he stood six feet tall.

My heart beat faster as I sought his gaze once more. I was surprised by my greed to reach his stare, and the gasp I let out when I found it was audible. His eyes, encased by thick brown lashes, were a pale green rimmed with amber. They possessed a fierce intensity coupled with deep warmth. I felt like I knew him. My breath quickened as the tingling in my fingers spread throughout my body. I was powerless to feel anything but his warmth, to see anything but his face. The world darkened around me. I felt a strange and powerful fear, as though I might lose him forever. Somewhere in the distance, I could hear the class applauding. I heard a murmured compliment from Professor Vanessi.

But he was all I saw.

From his expression, I knew the black void encased us both. He extended his arm. I tried to reach him, but I couldn’t move. Silently, we searched one another, the passing time as interminable as the darkness surrounding us.

Then, without warning, he vanished.

Everything faded to black.

“Delilah?”

I opened my eyes. Professor Vanessi kneeled over me, her face drained of color. Worry lines creased her forehead. She was slightly out of focus. Behind her, the classroom lights blared abrasively.

My head spun.

“Delilah, are you all right?” she repeated. “The nurse is on her way. You hit the podium on your way down.” Her voice was dulled by the throbbing pain at my temple.

Tentatively, I reached up to feel a giant lump at the base of my skull. The spot was so tender that I winced. Carefully, I raised myself into a seated position.

“What happened?” I asked. The cloud floating over my vision began to clear. Dozens of classmates crowded around me, their faces riddled with concern. I couldn’t tell whether my ears burned from pain or embarrassment.

I eyed the nearest person, a guy named Mark, with an expectant expression.

“Well,” he began, clearly excited I’d asked him to recount the story. “Your presentation was great. Seriously, the comparison between reading and falling in love—”

“Mark, what happened?” I interrupted, but internally pleased that he’d been listening to my presentation.

“Let’s see . . . when you finished speaking you got a weird look on your face. You were focusing on that empty chair a couple of rows back like you’d seen a ghost. Well, not a ghost, ‘cause you didn’t look scared. You looked beautiful,” he said bashfully.

I smiled to acknowledge his compliment.

“Anyway,” he continued, his cheeks a little rosier than before, “the strangest thing happened. Your eyes darkened and you fell straight back, like a deadweight, but you hit the podium on your way down.”

At that instant, the image of the man in the darkness flooded back to me, triggering a tidal wave of emotion. The intensity of his gaze had struck me with unusual clarity. The feeling was impossible to explain, as if in that wrinkle of time, my entire sense of being had been redefined. The range of emotion left me drained and dizzy. Forcing myself to stay alert, I focused on Mark’s voice.

“Delilah?” He sounded strained.

“Don’t worry Mark, I’m fine. Really. I don’t need the nurse. It’s just a little bump. I forgot to eat breakfast this morning, that’s all.” As I spoke I eyed as many people as possible, presenting them my most reassuring smile.

“Delilah, the thing is, I was sitting right in front of you. I was right here,” he said, pointing to a seat an arm’s length away. “I knew you were gonna pass out. There was plenty of time . . . I should have been able to help you. I tried to help you, but I couldn’t move! I’m so sorry,” he looked ashamed, and the rest of the class mirrored his befuddlement. Even Professor Vanessi bore a confused frown.

Slowly I stood, placing my hand on Mark’s shoulder. “Don’t be silly,” I said. “I’m fine, see? I must have fallen faster than you imagined.” I kept my voice upbeat and watched the faces around the room relax.

Professor Vanessi was the first to collect herself. “That was quite a scare, Delilah. Are you sure you don’t need to see the nurse?” she asked, adding, “You could have a concussion.”

“I’m positive. I can’t feel a thing,” I lied, grateful that my hair covered the large lump throbbing beneath it. “I’m sorry to take up class time. I’d love to hear what everyone else has to say.” I reclaimed my seat as I spoke,.

Professor Vanessi gave me an appraising look. “I agree,” she said finally.

I sighed in relief. Crisis averted. Only one person in the room, a shy redheaded girl named Lacey, remained tense. I’d bet money she was the next speaker.

“Lacey Blanchard, you’re next to present.”

Lacey paled, trembling as she walked behind the podium. She leaned against it heavily, beads of sweat rolling down her forehead, her knuckles white from clenching the wooden frame. The nurse, called on my behalf, walked through the door just in time for Lacey to pass out.

It was going to be a long day.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2