Eternal Bond & Brimstone
My heart pounded, and I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans. My deep blue eyes were reflected in the window of the door. They were too wide, like a terrified little rabbit staring down a big bad wolf. And that wolf was waiting on the other side.
Stop procrastinating and get your ass in that cafeteria.
My words of encouragement didn’t work. I’d be lucky not to bust my rear end the moment I stepped over the threshold.
Butterflies swarmed my stomach as I pushed open the heavy cafeteria doors, the weight of them groaning through the loud room. Stripes of gray and maroon stretched across the white cinderblock walls. Mystic Hollow High’s mascot, a red devil holding a pitchfork, was painted above the opposite wall, welcoming me with a grin.
So fracken creepy.
Thankfully most people were too engaged in their own conversations at round, faux wood tables to notice me.
That’s right. Nothing to see here. New girl just minding her own business, moseying on toward the food line.
I grabbed a tray and quickly dropped some chicken fingers and fries on it before scurrying toward the register. The bored lunch lady took my money and yawned as she handed me the change.
And then it happened. One guy elbowed his friend and pointed in my direction. He nudged the person next to him and then the next. Soon, the entire cafeteria was staring at me, new girl being whispered through the room.
Heat crept into my cheeks. Ah, hell. Now I was forced to do the new kid walk of shame to find a spot while everyone witnessed my humiliation.
I’d never been a new kid before except kindergarten, sixth grade, and ninth grade, but those didn’t count. Everyone in your class was a new kid. Now? It was just me and my scuffed boots walking the green mile to my social execution.
“Hey, over here.”
My head snapped in the direction of the voice. Was someone taking mercy on me? With my luck, it was the obligatory mean girl ready to shame me with the full attention of Mystic Hollow High’s entire student body.
A waifish girl was waving at me, her messy chestnut ponytail swinging. When her glasses began sliding down her nose, the guy next to her pushed them back up with his finger. He winked one of his light-green eyes at her and turned around, creasing the emblem on his Star Wars t-shirt—the OG movies before Hayden Christiansen played a wimpy Darth Vader and before Disney threw their mouse ears into the pot. Strangely enough, I did find Ben Solo kind of hot even though he was totally evil.
No wonder I still couldn’t shake tall, hot, and crazy from my mind.
The two students sat alone at the table, and no bags or books were holding the other seats. They seemed a bit like outcasts.
Be still my heart. I recognized my people when I saw them.
I hightailed my ass over to their table and eased into a chair, dipping low to hide from prying eyes.
“Thanks,” I muttered. “I thought I was going to die out there.”
“The caf can be a brutal place even in our humble little high school.” The boy grabbed a fry off my tray, popping it into his mouth.
Make yourself at home with my lunch.
The girl slapped his arm. “Sebastian! Are you five? You don’t even know the girl, and you’re stealing her food.”
Sebastian rolled his eyes. “Relax. It’s just payment for a good deed.” He flashed me a grin, crinkling the smattering of freckles across his nose. “She would have given me one anyway, right?”
I shrugged. “Now you’ll never know.”
The girl snorted and adjusted the glasses framing her tawny eyes. “I’m Jessica Appleby, and this idiot is Sebastian Radcliffe. You’re welcome to our table free of charge.”
A smile crossed my face. “Thanks. I’m Lena Raven. It’s nice to meet you guys.”
“I haven’t seen you until now,” Sebastian pointed out as he helped himself to another fry. “Did you miss the first half of school?”
“Long story short, I overslept.” They didn’t need to know all the details like me slipping in the shower or any of the other mishaps on the way.
“Hey, Seb! You’re a genius. I got a B on my math test.” A tall guy stopped at the table, the lean muscles in his arms bouncing as he tossed a football between his hands. “Coach will probably kiss you when he finds out he doesn’t have to bench me for the game this Friday.”
Sebastian tapped his fist. “I’m glad I could help, but tell Coach Morris he can keep his kisses.”
Mr. Football shook his shaggy coffee-colored hair out of his face. “Hey, Jess. You nailed that presentation in English. You’re so smart. You make me look like I should be back in elementary school.”
Jessica giggled and waved her hand, her cheeks flushing. “Thanks, Austin, but I’m above average. You can consider yourself at least middle school level.”
He chuckled at her joke, and then his eyes landed on me. His head tilted. “I’ve never seen you before. You must be new. I’m A—”
“Austin, I’ve been waiting for you at our table.” A petite blonde wrapped herself around the football player, batting her mascara-thickened lashes at him.
Austin glanced between the girl draped over him and me, his expression torn. Her sharp gray eyes peered at me over his shoulder, narrowing.
Oh, boy. Someone must have called in the reigning mean girl. She started pulling him away, her gaze burning a hole through me.
“I’ll see you guys later.” Austin waved before the she-devil dragged him off to her crowd of worshippers to sacrifice.
I turned back around. “Geez. Who peed in her bottle of FIJI water?”
Sebastian choked on his soda. “I wish you would have asked her that.”
I shot him an incredulous expression as I dragged a fry through ketchup. “I’m not trying to get my hair pulled out today.”
Jessica whacked Sebastian on the back a few good times to help clear his airways. “Melinda Mickens has it out for every girl Austin barely looks at.”
Austin was pretty darn yummy. “I’m guessing she’s his super jealous girlfriend?”
“They used to be a couple,” Jessica said, using her straw to stir her soda. “And then Melinda broke up with him over the summer for some college guy.”
“Another football player I heard.” Sebastian fake giggled. “He’s sooo dreamy.”
Jessica threw a chip at him, smacking him in the forehead. A few crumbs lingered in his white-blond spikes. “Now that the college boy went back to chasing sorority girls, Melinda is dying to get back with her hunky high school jock.”
“I see.” I couldn’t really blame her. He was a tasty piece of eye candy.
“Austin is pretty much over her.” A broad smile curled Jessica’s lip. “He’s a catch too. He’s the starting quarterback and only a junior. And he’s actually really nice.”
My brow arched. “Are those hearts in your eyes, Jess?”
She waved a dismissive hand in the air. “He’s cute and all but not really my type. I doubt we’d have much to talk about. Nothing in common.”
I nodded, my eyes flicking toward Sebastian as he stuffed a piece of roast beef back into his sandwich. Were these two more than friends?
“Where are you from?” Jessica asked, interrupting my thoughts.
I examined a chicken nugget. It was no doubt the cheap frozen kind made from a mesh of chicken parts. I dropped it, deciding to stay safe with the French fries. “Charleston, South Carolina.”
Sebastian instantly perked up. “I heard that place is totally haunted.”
I shrugged. “I’ve had an experience or two. Nothing unusual.” There had to be an afterlife. People had to go somewhere when they died.
Sebastian gave Jessica a covert look.
She groaned. “No way, Seb. You’re going to scare her off.”
“She’s from a haunted town. This won’t scare her.” Sebastian turned to me, his eyes a little wild. “How would you like to join our ghost investigation team?”
My head tilted. Was he making fun of me? “Seriously?”
He held his hands in the air. “I know what you’re thinking. Totally lame, and it would be if we didn’t have some very high tech, sophisticated gear the real professionals use.”
I glanced between them, waiting on the punchline. One never came. “You’re not joking.”
“Not even a little.” Jessica jerked her thumb at Sebastian. “His uncle is this famous investigator in New Orleans, and Sebastian is set on following in his footsteps.” She gave a noncommittal shrug. “I’m just along for the ride and to make sure he doesn’t get hurt or possessed by an evil entity.”
Maybe she was doing it because she had the hots for the geeky—in a cool way—dude with a cute smile.
“Are you in?” Sebastian asked, his grin so wide his lips threatened to split.
“Sure.” Why the hell not? I needed to make friends, and these two were the obvious choice. And I wasn’t scared of a couple ghosties.
The glee on Sebastian’s face was worth it. “This is going to be so great. We can go over some of the tech tonight at my house—if you can come.”
“Sure.” My dad never had a problem with me hanging out on school nights. He was going to bust a gut when I told him what we’d be doing though.
Sebastian began to rattle on about ghost hunting shows and the best strategies for catching evidence. I wasn’t paying attention. I couldn’t pay attention. A hot tingle zipped down my back. I tried to ignore it, but a heavy gaze was searing me.
Ugh. It was probably the petite blonde, Melinda, trying to murder me with her mind.
I shifted in my seat, glancing over my shoulder. Every ounce of moisture evaporated from my mouth. It was not Melinda giving me the stare down.
Mr. Tall, Hot, and Crazy was sitting at a table across the cafeteria, those hazel eyes piercing mine. Holy McHottness.
Heat spread over my skin, burning my face. He dwarfed the orange plastic chair he sat on, his arms crossed against his chest and body rigid. His expression was unreadable. I couldn’t tell if he wanted to lay one on me or rip me to pieces with those big hands. Either way, he exuded an intensity that made me tremble.
“Woah. Why is Jayson Casteel staring at you?” Jessica whispered.
Should I be worried he shared the name with a fictitious serial killer that had spawned a million movies?
Sebastian coughed. “That’s an understatement. What’s Casteel trying to do? Read your mind?”
I hoped not. Right on cue, naughty images of him shirtless danced through my brain. The heat in my cheeks climbed a few more degrees.
What was this guy’s deal? First, he stopped me from face-planting on the hard tile, and then he invited himself into my personal bubble to ask weird, paranoid questions. “I spoke to him in the hall a few minutes ago.” And now he was trying to kill me with a steely glare.
“He spoke to you?” Jessica’s voice rose an octave.
I finally tore my gaze from his and turned around. “You say that like he’s a mute or something.”
She shrugged. “He speaks but usually just to his friends. He’s kind of a mysterious loner type.”
“What did he say?” Sebastian leaned forward.
No way was I telling them every detail about my encounter with Jayson. It was too odd to even explain. “Nothing really. He stopped me from falling. He said he’d see me around.” He’d also known my name.
Jessica and Sebastian traded glances.
“He’s definitely seeing you now,” she mumbled.
I glanced over my shoulder, his gaze still locked on me. What. The. Hell?
His friend elbowed him, and Jayson finally pulled his eyes away. A rush of air exited my lungs. I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath. His friend jerked his chin in my direction, a smirk curling his lips. Jayson scowled and shook his head.
Four students were at Jayson’s table. All of them were beautiful but so different.
“The guy next to him is Kale,” Sebastian supplied.
As if he heard his name from across the room, his cinnamon brown eyes lifted. His hair, the color of coconut shells, drifted into his face as he laughed.
“The tall, leggy blonde next to Kale is Emily, his girlfriend.” Sebastian pointed with the end of his sandwich before taking a bite, muffling his words. “I’m pretty sure they’ve been together since the womb.”
A tiny line creased between my brows. That girl had no business being in high school. She looked like a swimsuit model.
Jessica scoffed. “They’re actually really sweet. I’ve never even seen them fight.”
Sebastian stuck his finger in his mouth. “They’re fairytale lovers, the kind that make us real people want to puke.”
“Whatever,” Jessica said. “It’s not like they make out in public… a lot.”
“The other two are the Fitzpatrick twins,” Sebastian continued. “Seth and Brenna.”
The guy’s bottle-green irises lowered to the sketchpad his fingers were delicately moving across. Fluorescent lights winked on the silver stud piercing one of his dark eyebrows. The slender girl next to him neatly smoothed her cashmere sweater and sat straighter in the chair. They shared the same eyes, sharp features, raven hair, and pale skin.
“The twins are from Ireland,” Jessica said, stabbing a piece of lettuce with her fork. “They have really cool accents.”
“I’d have to agree with you there,” Sebastian said. “Listening to those two argue, which they’re constantly doing, is better than television.”
Sebastian’s words faded as Jayson’s hazel eyes landed on me again. Even from this distance, the force of his stare was a palpable sensation spreading over my skin. I could feel it as certain as I’d felt his fingers brush the hair off my forehead.
This was going to be one long lunch period. I couldn’t imagine how the rest of my day would go if we shared any classes.