Salem, Massachusetts, 1692
Racing through the dense woodland, a heavy cloud of smoke billowed upwards, cresting above the herbaceous border and confirming his soundless fears. Still miles away, he could already smell the pungent curdling of her blood as it began to boil, and the vile stench of searing flesh. Undeniably, the firestorm was spreading, and he struggled to drive out the image of the flames reaching up her body.
He cursed his heightened senses, wishing he could block out the ruthless chanting, “Burn the Witch!” The unyielding voices only helped his psyche run wild, and the graphic image of her tied to a post and set ablaze etched itself in his vision.
Her fear consumed him, rupturing their bond like a sudden cloudburst, and his body threatened to surrender to the inevitable fate marked for his soul. Regardless, the chain around his heart yanked him forwards. You need to save her, he told himself over and over, battling his body’s attempts to give up and abandon the rescue. He pushed on, raw adrenaline propelling him forward. But even with the unparalleled velocity and power of a vampire, his limbs would not move fast enough.
The smoke cloud rose mercilessly, thick and black and punctuated by the sparks of glowing embers as he broke into the clearing at Salem Commons. A mob of several hundred onlookers cheered for her execution. He watched in horror as they tossed books, chairs, and brush onto the fire that was licking up her dress.
Their eyes met, and the look of pure hatred that contorted her face was agonizing. His knees buckled, and he plunged to the ground. He focused all of his energy on pulling her spirit to him but it was futile: no matter what he tried, she would not let him ease her pain.
The congregation’s savage chanting became deafening. The flames licked at her cheeks, and her long, curly locks were set ablaze, melting and sparking, but she did not howl from the pain. Silently, her gray-blue eyes remained fixed on his, and flared with accusation. At that moment, he knew without a doubt that she blamed him, solely and entirely, for her cold-blooded death sentence.
His tortured wails were scarcely heard over the fevered roars of the mob. He watched, powerless, as one of the very few things that could kill him—the blazing inferno—devoured her body and his soul, turning her into nothing more than ash.
The Greyhound bus pulled into the Willowberg station with a sucking pneumatic hiss. Amelia Caldwell shuddered as the driver announced the arrival and wondered if she could just stay on the bus. She hated moving. And she really hated change. It seemed as if that was all she had ever done.
On the ten-hour ride, she had almost convinced herself that this time would be different. This time she would make friends. She would not be the sad girl who lost her parents or the girl that no one wanted. No one would know her story; she could just start over. A clean slate. But now that the doors clicked open and she was actually here, her resolve was fading fast.
Amelia wrapped her arms around herself and looked down at her lap, hugging tightly and trying to stop the trembles that vibrated through her. She could feel the other passengers staring at her as they retrieved their belongings and made their way off the bus. People always seemed to stare.
She never really understood why she couldn’t just blend into the crowd. At five foot four, she wasn’t tall. With a slim figure, curly brown hair and blue-gray eyes, she felt average. Definitely not eye-catching. But there was just something about her, something she did not understand that made people notice her. It was like they just couldn’t help but stare.
Amelia kept her head down, waiting for the other passengers to leave. It’s not fair, a voice in her head bellowed. It was supposed to be different this time, better somehow. Her eyes burned, she was shaking, and she knew she was going to cry.
Willowberg was supposed to be her new start at life. Despite all her fears of moving, she’d been so sure that she was making the right decision. It seemed like a dream come true. A full scholarship, housing arranged and paid for, and the University of Willowberg was even providing a basic living allowance so that she wouldn’t have to work.
Amelia sighed, scrubbing furiously at her puffy, pink eyes. Gulping down a few breaths, she wondered why she had accepted the scholarship. Especially after she found out she would be living off campus, in a house with roommates. If they didn’t like her, just as she knew they wouldn’t, she would be alone. Completely alone. There wouldn’t be dorm advisors that would have to be nice to her or other nerdy girls to study with. It would just be her and the roommates who thought she was a freak.
You can do this, Amelia told herself sternly, swallowing the prickly lump in her throat and stretching her cheeks into a forced—and she hoped—realistic smile. She picked up her backpack and padded her way off the bus.
Amelia had just stepped onto the platform, into the bright sun, when a clear, musical voice called her name.
“Amelia? Amelia Caldwell?”
She looked up to see a stunningly beautiful girl walking towards her. Nearly six feet tall, with silky auburn hair and big brown eyes, highlighted with a touch of liner and mascara. She looked a bit older, maybe twenty, Amelia guessed. And she was all legs, eyes and pouty lips: the perfect supermodel body.
Completely dumbfounded, Amelia just stood and stared at this gorgeous girl, who was smiling at her, talking to her. She looked friendly and, though Amelia could not be sure, almost appeared as if she was genuinely happy to see her.
“I was getting worried you didn’t catch the bus on time,” the girl said, her big, childlike brown eyes wide with concern. She rushed over, throwing her arms around Amelia, crushing her in a big bear hug. “I’m so glad you’re finally here.”
Amelia dropped her bag, landing with a thud on the ground and stood stiff and rigid, not returning the embrace. Affection was foreign to her. People didn’t usually touch her, not like this. It took her a moment, but once the initial shock passed, she wiggled her way out of the girl’s arms and took a step back.
“My, where are my manners. You must think I’m crazy!” the musical voice sang out and the girl extended her hand to Amelia. “I’m Angelle O’Connor, your new roommate.”
With a shaky, unsure hand, Amelia accepted the shake, pumping it twice in a quick, fluid motion, cleared her throat and said, “Um… Hi. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Oh honey, you look as scared as a deer caught in headlights. Are you okay?” Angelle asked, giving Amelia a concerned look.
Amelia hadn’t noticed how scared she truly was until Angelle said it. She could feel her body shaking and the all too familiar prickly feeling in her eyes warned her she was about to cry again. She sucked in a deep breath, straightened her shoulders and attempted to smile, trying to conceal how much she wanted to run away and hide, and then she lied, “I’m okay. I’m just tired. It was a really long trip.”
“Well then, let’s get you home,” Angelle said. Her big brown eyes glanced around, settling on Amelia’s backpack. Surprised, she asked, “Is this all you brought?”
Amelia bit her lip for a scared second and a nervous knot emerged deep in her gut. She remembered the last time she had moved and the reaction from the other kids. They had teased her and called her names, treating her like a bum, an outcast. And for some reason, which she just did not understand, Amelia knew she would just die if Angelle treated her the same way. She dropped her head, shuffling her feet, because she really could not stand it if the girl looked at her the way others had. Kids could be just so… mean. Hesitantly, she nodded.
Angelle let out a little squeal and Amelia snapped her eyes up. “That’s wonderful,” she said, clapping her hands and doing a little hop. “I need a shopping trip and I’ve always wanted a little sister to dress up.” She scooped up Amelia’s backpack, “Are you coming?”
Little sister? Amelia wondered. She watched Angelle for just a second before she returned the smile and nodded shyly. Angelle seemed so excited. That was a good thing, right? But even if it was good it seemed… odd… and it made her feel crazy with a whole lot of uncertainty.
Angelle put a secure arm around Amelia’s shoulders and steered her towards the parking lot.
Angelle had a black Hummer. In the car, all Amelia could do was gawk at her new roommate. There was something almost hypnotic about the girl. It was as if Amelia couldn’t help but be drawn into her beauty. Her skin, pale and milky, seemed to glow with perfection. Her shiny hair cascading down her shoulders looked so soft, like silk.
Entranced, Amelia wanted to reach out and touch it. She could see her hand reaching out but somehow, with great restraint, she stopped herself. Instead, she forced her eyes away, looking out the window and tried to listen to what Angelle was saying. She was saying something important, something about books?
“You don’t mind, do you?” Angelle asked.
Amelia racked her brain, trying to piece together the few words that popped out to her, but she was just drawing a blank. Something about books, that was it. That was all she could figure out.
She realized they were stopped at a red light when Angelle snapped her fingers in front of Amelia’s eyes. “Earth to Amelia! Gosh, have you been listening to anything I just said?”
Amelia flushed, frustrated and embarrassed. She really hoped that Angelle didn’t know she’d missed the whole conversation because she’d been marveling at her hair. God, she really hoped not. “Sorry.”
When the light turned green, Angelle made a left onto a street filled with cute little cafes and overly expensive looking boutiques. Everything looked clean, almost too clean. There was no garbage floating around, the grassy areas lining the sidewalk were manicured to perfection, even the small trees were trimmed and pruned.
“No need to be sorry. How long were you on that horrid bus anyways?”
“Ten hours,” Amelia groaned.
Angelle gave her a sideways look. “Wow, that’s nuts. Anyways, I was saying that I picked up your textbooks and computer so at least you won’t have to worry about that. It’s all part of your scholarship. I know I should have waited for you but I kinda have a teeny, tiny shopping problem.” She rambled on so fast and with such a high, cheery energy, that Amelia struggled to follow it all. “I just couldn’t resist the chance to spend some money.” She giggled.
Angelle made a quick right, heading away from the beautiful area. “Okay, I’m completely lost. Why did you buy my books and computer? How do you even know what I need?”
“It’s my job to know,” Angelle replied, waving a dismissive hand. “Didn’t the school tell you anything? They should have mailed you all the information last month. Oh, and speaking of the school, there it is.” She pointed off to the right, but Amelia barely noticed the large buildings.
She was just so confused. “Um, I didn’t get anything in the mail,” Amelia stammered. “Just a phone call telling me that I won a scholarship. All they told me was that it included tuition, housing and a basic living allowance. Then there was an email a couple days ago with the bus details.”
Amelia felt a rush of pure adrenaline and her heart rate picked up, pounding loudly in her ears. Oh God, she panicked. Why am I telling her all this? And why does she already know so much? She had so desperately wanted to keep everything quiet. No one needed to know about her past or that she was poor. All she wanted was to just move on, start a new life, be… happy.
“Seriously?” Angelle said. “That’s all they told you? That’s ridiculous. I’m going to have to have a little chat with the administration office about that. Oh well, it will all just be a big surprise then. That’s even better.”
Amelia wanted to grill her with questions but suddenly, Angelle was making another right and pulling the car up to a gate. She rolled down her window and smiled at a portly, balding guard in full uniform. “Good afternoon, Ms. O’Conner,” he said with an easy smile.
“Hi, Joe,” Angelle said, smiling at him, and then she gestured towards Amelia. “This is Amelia, she’s moving in with us today. I’ll come by tomorrow with a picture you can post until everyone gets to know her.”
Amelia gave Joe an awkward wave and said, “Hi.” An uneasy feeling grew in the pit of her stomach as she realized this was her street. The school had told her she would be staying on Bankdale Ridge, a gated complex, but she had assumed that meant a new housing development, like the ones that seemed to be popping up everywhere with the little stone fences that surrounded a dozen or so normal houses. She had never imagined it was a gated complex, the kind with security guards and an actual gate.
“Nice to meet you, Amelia,” Joe said, nodding towards her. He had a nice voice, Amelia thought. Not quite deep but not high—a comforting kind of timbre.
“Have Eric and Luke been in yet?” Angelle asked, as the big iron gate clanked open.
Joe’s smile widened. “Mr. Carter came in about twenty minutes ago,” he chuckled. “He was looking unusually green today.”
“Green?” Angelle questioned, as she raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow.
“Oh you’ll see. Trust me, it’s hard to miss,” he replied, shaking his head and laughing. “You ladies have a nice day.”
“Thanks, Joe. You, too.” Angelle rolled up her window and thrust the car forward through the gate, climbing up the hilly street. Trees lined either side, immaculately groomed, and Amelia could just barely see the tops of the houses past them. Obviously, people here really liked their privacy.
As soon as they were clear of the gate, Amelia said, “Sorry if I sound really stupid but…” she paused and took a deep, calming breath, “What do you mean it’s your job to know? Aren’t you a student?”
“Don’t be silly. You don’t sound stupid at all. That’s actually a very good question. None of us are in school. We all work for Mr. Lang managing different parts of his businesses. I manage the Dreams Come True Scholarship that you won. Out of all the applications, you definitely deserve this more than anyone I’ve ever seen. I just can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like for you after your parents passed away, and to be there when it happened, to see them murdered.” Angelle made a sad tsk sound and then a long sigh.
Tiny beads of sweat popped up on Amelia’s forehead and a sudden flash of her parents ripped through her mind. Her mouth opened, and then closed, not sure of what to say. So many thoughts swirled through her brain. No one was supposed to know. She didn’t want the sad looks and the comfort any more. All she wanted was to move on. Amelia swallowed hard, trying to loosen the orange-sized lump that was lodged in her throat. She wiped at her sweaty forehead, turned to Angelle, and said in a small voice, “You know about my parents and the foster homes?”
“I know everything, honey,” Angelle replied warily, glancing over quickly, eyes red and glassy with unshed tears. She reached over, giving Amelia’s knee a little reassuring pat.
Amelia leaned against the cool window, exhausted and unhappy and tried to get her head together. It was all happening. Everything she had wanted to hide from. Everything she had wanted to leave behind. Was she ever going to be able to move on? A thick, tense silence fell over the car, giving an ominous feeling, as if a storm was brewing, rolling in and surrounding her with darkened clouds.
“But things are going to change for you now,” Angelle continued, breaking the silence and sending Amelia a dazzling smile. “We’re so excited to have you staying with us. You really are something special. How in the world did you manage to get such good grades and stay so focused?”
Amelia didn’t want to talk. She just wanted to sit there, silent and miserable. But she also didn’t want to be rude. She knew that would just make it all a whole lot worse, so she took a couple of deep breaths and said, “I guess I just really love to learn. Well, that and running. They’re sorta my… escape.” She looked at Angelle for a prolonged second, and then asked hesitantly, “Um, how many people live at the house?”
“There’s Eric and Luke. You’ll meet them today. They handle all the businesses Mr. Lang owns here in town. There’s also Lola and sometimes Mr. Lang. They both should be back in a few weeks. I’m sure you’ll just love them. You’re going to fit in wonderfully. I just know it.”
“Wait a minute,” Amelia said, a panicked knot wrenching tighter in her stomach. “You guys all live with your boss and he’s moving me into his own house? That’s crazy. Why would he do that?”
“Hmmm. I guess that does sound a bit strange.” Angelle paused, bringing a pink polished fingernail to her lips and then gave Amelia a thoughtful glance before turning her eyes back to the road. “I never really thought about it before. The five of us grew up together here in Willowberg so when we started working together it just made sense to all be in the same place and since it’s where it all started we made it the base of operations. But really, he isn’t around that much anymore. He stops by every few months for a quick visit and then he’s off again. For you though, it’s all part of the Dreams Come True experience. You’ll understand when you see the place.” Angelle turned off the street onto a hidden driveway lined on both sides by weeping willows swaying gently in the breeze. “We’re here!” she announced.
When they passed through the trees Amelia’s jaw actually dropped. The house was not so much a house as a mansion, but it reminded her more of a castle from one of those childhood fairy tales her mom used to read her. It was all arches, turrets and balconies, with a brown tiled roof and gray stone walls. And it exuded a magical elegance.
Amelia blinked a few times, licked her lips and swallowed the nerves that were jumping around like grasshoppers. “You can’t be serious,” she blurted out, awe-struck.
“Pretty amazing, right?” Angelle chirped with a sparkle in her eyes. She maneuvered the big SUV around the west side of the house and into a motor court with large carports on both sides and parked in between a green Corvette and a mud-caked Jeep.
“That’s the understatement of the year,” Amelia mumbled under her breath.
Angelle turned off the car and hopped out. When Amelia didn’t move, she peeked her head back in. “Are you coming in or did you just want to stay in the garage?”
Still gaping, Amelia struggled to unbuckle her seat belt, which took a few tries and when it finally clicked open, she snagged her backpack and got out.
Amelia’s legs felt like rubber as she walked back out to the motor court where Angelle was waiting, looking like a glossy magazine photo in her low-riding jeans and white empire-cut long-sleeved top. She looked completely in her element standing in the expansive court.
“What do you…?” Angelle started, but was cut off abruptly by the sound of a shrill scream coming from the house. There was a clattering of pots and pans crashing onto the floor.
Angelle stiffened, and her light bubbly smile vanished. She whirled around quickly and gracefully, which Amelia would have thought was impossible in her six inch stiletto heels, and she moved in front of Amelia, taking on a protective stance, as if blocking her from some unseen danger that was about to drop.
The shrill screaming continued, relentlessly, like a banshee, and it cut through Amelia like a knife, chilling her to the bone. There was another voice, a man’s voice, hollering from inside the house. Amelia couldn’t make out what he was saying, but the tone definitely wasn’t good. Then another clatter pierced the air, like glass breaking into a million sharp-edged shards.