Nightstruck

Becket is an ordinary teenage girl, wrestling with the upheaval of her parents’ divorce. A studious high school senior, her biggest problems to date have been choosing which colleges to apply to, living up to her parents’ ambitious expectations for her, and fighting her secret crush on her best friend’s boyfriend. But that all changes on the night she tries to save an innocent life and everything goes horribly wrong.

Unbeknownst to her, Becket has been tricked into opening a door between worlds, allowing a dark magic into the mortal world. As the magic trickles in, the city begins to change at night. Strange creatures roam the streets, and inanimate objects come to life, all of them bloodthirsty and terrifying. Venturing out of one’s house at night has become a dangerous proposition, and the moment the sun sets, most of the citizens of the city shut themselves up in their houses and stay there even in the case of dire emergencies. But there are some individuals the magic seems to covet, trying to lure them out into the night. While Becket struggles to protect her friends and family from predatory creatures of the night, she is constantly tempted to shrug off all her responsibilities and join them. Joining the night world means being free of not just responsibility, but conscience, and it means no longer caring about the fate of others…

Nightstruck, the first installment in a dark paranormal horror series from author Jenna Black, is available April 5th from Tor Teen.

 

 

Chapter One

Walking the dog when it’s twenty degrees outside isn’t my favorite thing in the world, but, as usual, my dad was working late, and if I didn’t take Bob Barker (don’t blame me; my dad named him) out for a walk, I’d have an even more unpleasant chore in front of me. Bob is a seventy-five-pound German shepherd, and I know from experience he can make one hell of a big mess.

I bundled up in my down coat, pulling on a wool hat even though it would make my hair into an electrified puffball. Bob waited impatiently, eyes focused on me with the unnerving intensity only a dog can manage, his tail wagging in anticipation. He’d be just as eager to go out if it were minus twenty.

“Don’t say I never do anything for you,” I muttered at him as I clipped on his leash and stepped outside into the arctic blast.

My dad and I live on a narrow side street in Center City, Philadelphia. As Center City neighborhoods go, it’s pretty good, but I was always glad to have Bob at my side when I had to go out at night. He wasn’t a police dog, but he’d had some of the same training, and no one remotely sane would mess with him. I walked him down to Walnut Street, shivering and cursing the icy wind as Bob went through his usual routine of sniffing everything in the neighborhood to confirm that it smelled the same as it did six hours ago.

“Hurry up!” I ordered him, but he was having too much fun sniffing to pay much attention to me. My dad, with his deep, stern voice, could probably get Bob to stand on his head with nothing but a simple voice command, but me, not so much.

We made our torturous way around the block, Bob squirting a drop or two of pee on every immovable object we passed. The moment he finally took care of business, I made a beeline for home. We were on Chestnut Street, and the fastest way back to my front door was to cut down an alley that I would ordinarily avoid. Even so close to home and in a safe neighborhood, my city-girl instincts balked at walking down a narrow, deserted alley at night. But I was freezing, and I had Bob, so I made an exception just this once.

There was nothing in the alley except for the back side of a few businesses, all of which were closed for the night, their windows dark. There was a church at the far end, but its windows were dark too, and as Bob and I walked away from the busy street, I felt like I was somehow leaving civilization behind. It didn’t help that one of the streetlamps had burned out, creating pockets of shadow around recessed doorways and hulking Dumpsters.

A strange shiver ran down my spine, and my footsteps slowed.

It’s not strange to shiver when it’s twenty degrees out, I told myself.

But something felt… off. I looked all around, searching for a logical explanation for why I was suddenly creeped out. I saw nothing, though there were a couple of shadowy areas that were probably big enough to hide the maniacal serial killer my lizard brain seemed to think was lurking.

I was chilled to the bone and could no longer feel my nose. If I stopped being a wuss about the alley, I could be home in less than five minutes. I wanted a giant mug of hot cocoa and my electric blanket.

But then I noticed that the hair on the back of Bob’s neck had risen, and his ears had gone flat. I wasn’t the only one who sensed danger in the darkness. Bob was staring intently at the pool of shadow at the base of the stone steps leading up to the church, and his lips peeled away from his teeth. The shadow wasn’t big enough to hide a knife-wielding psycho, and I wondered if maybe Bob had spotted a cat. Or maybe even a rat.

Whatever it was, I wanted no part of it. One of the selfdefense lessons my dad the police commissioner had taught me was to always listen to my instincts, and they were telling me in no uncertain terms that it was time to get out of that alley. I felt a little silly being spooked when there was no visible threat, like a little girl who was afraid of the dark, but there are worse things in life than feeling silly.

That was when I heard the wailing cry that turned my blood to ice and set my heart racing. Bob let out a furious bark and lunged toward the shadow, practically yanking my arm out of its socket. He was seventy-five pounds of pure muscle, and in a tug of war, I was bound to come out the loser.

“Bob, heel!” I yelled at him in my most commanding tone.

I must have sounded like I meant it, because Bob stopped straining against the leash, although he was still snarling, and his every muscle was quivering with his desire to attack. I didn’t know what had made that bloodcurdling noise, but it wasn’t a rat or a cat.

“Come on,” I urged Bob, giving his leash a little tug. At that point, I’d have happily walked a mile out of my way, if that’s what I needed to do to avoid that pool of shadow.

The cry came again, sounding as unearthly, as alien as before. I felt like I should cross myself, or maybe make a sign to ward off the evil eye. The sound was utterly and completely wrong. I took a step backward, tugging on Bob’s leash. Every instinct was screaming at me to run, but I couldn’t make myself turn my back on that shadow.

I don’t know if it was a trick of acoustics or if my imagination had been running wild with me, but the sound seemed to change. The unearthly wail became something much more ordinary, and I realized what it was: a baby crying.

The hair on the back of my neck and arms prickled, and I froze. I wanted the safety of my house, the security of a closed and locked door. Finally identifying the sound as a crying baby rather than a bloodthirsty monster didn’t chase away the sense of wrongness that gripped me. It didn’t seem to be calming Bob down any, either. My instincts were still telling me to get the hell out of there, and I kept hearing my dad’s voice in my head, telling me to listen to my instincts.

But what kind of person hears the cries of an abandoned infant—on a subfreezing night, no less—and runs away? It was a baby, for God’s sake! There was nothing to be scared of, and leaving a helpless baby to freeze to death in an alley just wasn’t an option.

The problem was Bob. He’d obeyed my command to heel, but he was still bristling and snarling. There was no way I could get close to that baby with him on the end of the leash. He was well trained and usually pretty obedient, but I’d never had to control him when he went into attack-dog mode, and I was afraid he was too strong for me.

I looked around, hoping to spot someone else running to the rescue, but there was no one in sight. It was all up to me.

I tied Bob’s leash to a lamppost, making three knots in the leather and praying it would hold. He barely seemed aware of my presence, his entire attention focused on the baby and his overwhelming desire to attack it.

“What is the matter with you?” I asked him, wishing he could actually answer. I’d been creeped out the moment I stepped into the alley. I could tell myself I’d watched too many horror movies and it was all in my mind, but that didn’t explain how Bob was acting.

“Bob, stay,” I ordered him firmly, but the moment I stepped away, he was straining against his leash, unconcerned with the fact that he was strangling himself in the process. I shook my head at him and hoped the knots in the leash would hold.

The baby’s cries were growing weaker, to the point where Bob’s snarls almost drowned them out. I began walking toward the church, trying to act sure and confident, as if I could somehow convince myself to shake off the weirdness. I still couldn’t pick out the baby’s shape in the pool of darkness, but there was a sense of movement, as if maybe the baby was kicking its arms and legs in its desperate attempt to get help.

How could anyone leave a baby out in the cold? I knew churches were popular spots for abandoning unwanted babies, but anyone with half a brain would know that this particular church was closed for the night. Which made me think whoever had left the baby had intended for it to die. Thanks to my dad’s job, I was more aware than most of how much evil there is in the world, and how cruel human beings can be. And how important it is for ordinary people—like me—to show compassion and responsibility.

Even knowing all that, I found my feet reluctant to move me forward. Maybe, if I just called 9-1-1, they’d get here in time to save the poor kid without me having to get any closer.

And if an innocent baby died because I was too chickenshit to help it, how would I ever live with myself? How could I ever look my dad—who’d risked his life countless times as a police officer—in the face? I was already something of a family disappointment, and I couldn’t bear to make it worse.

Calling 9-1-1 seemed like a good idea anyway, so I got out my phone and made the call as I continued to force myself forward. Behind me, Bob was still barking and snarling, but the baby’s cries had faded to weak-sounding whimpers.

“Nine-one-one. What’s your emergency?”

I had reached the edge of the pool of shadow, and I could finally make out the baby’s shape, though it was still hard to see. It seemed to be wrapped in a black blanket, as if whoever had left it there had put extra effort into making sure no one would find it and rescue it.

“My name is Becket Walker,” I said, hoping the dispatcher would be extra attentive to a call coming from the commissioner’s daughter. “I’ve found an abandoned baby.”

I squatted in the darkness beside the bundled baby, who was no longer even whimpering. The blanket was tucked so firmly around it that all I could see was a baby-shaped lump. A fold of the blanket was draped over its face. I stammered out the address to the dispatcher, then decided the only sensible, humane thing to do was to pick up the baby and share what body heat I could. The dispatcher was asking me questions and trying to give me instructions, but I wasn’t listening.

“Hold on a moment,” I said. I put the phone down on the church steps, then gently picked up the black-wrapped bundle with both hands.

I almost dropped it, because it didn’t feel like I expected it to. The body within the blanket felt strangely loose and pliable. My stomach turned over, the sense of wrongness once again coming back full force.

The 9-1-1 dispatcher was still talking to me, but I had no attention to spare. Something within me rebelled at the feeling of that body in my arms, but I fought my revulsion. Maybe the baby had some kind of birth defect and that was why it had been abandoned. That didn’t make it any less worth saving.

I cradled the baby against my body with one arm, then reached for the fold of blanket that covered its face. Maybe when I looked into the baby’s innocent eyes, I’d finally stop feeling so… weird.

There was a pin sticking out of the section of blanket over the baby’s face. Thanks to the pressing darkness, I didn’t see it until I pricked my finger on it. I cursed as a drop of blood welled on the tip of my finger. I still couldn’t see the baby’s face, though I had a vague notion of eyes watching me from the blanket’s interior. I reached for the edge of the blanket again, this time being careful to avoid the pin, and brushed it away from the baby’s face.

There was a face in there somewhere—I could see a pair of green eyes staring out at me—but I couldn’t make out a single feature. It was if the baby had somehow absorbed all the light, leaving nothing but a black hole where its face should have been.

My chest tightened, making it hard to breathe, and the air around me suddenly seemed even colder. Once again, I was struck by the sense that something was very, very wrong, though my conscious mind couldn’t seem to figure out what.

Maybe it was the expression in those eyes. I’d never seen a baby stare at anyone with such intensity, especially not a baby who’d recently been bawling.

I froze, my hand still hovering near the baby’s face, unable to look away, unable to move, as I tried to focus my gaze enough to pick out a nose or lips or chin. The drop of blood on the tip of my finger dripped down onto the baby’s face—or at least onto where the baby’s face should be.

Something flared in those green eyes, and the baby smiled at me. I let out a little scream and dropped it, scrambling back away from it on my butt. I didn’t know what it was, but it was not human. That smile had revealed double rows of razor-sharp teeth.

My heart was pounding, and my body was suddenly drenched in sweat. I could hear Bob barking and snarling in the distance, and the dispatcher’s voice was an indecipherable hum from my phone on the steps.

The baby—or whatever it was—moved out of the shadow, the black-wrapped bundle undulating like an inchworm. It rose up and looked at me, showing me those malevolent green eyes and the neat little rows of fangs around its smile.

And then the whole thing, baby, blanket, and all, broke apart like it was made of ash, crumbling and then being caught on a sudden burst of wind. The wind carried a cloud of what looked like dust toward me. I ducked and held my breath, but not fast enough to totally avoid the cloud. The wind swirled, then gusted again, blowing the cloud away and dispersing it into the night.

* * *

I was still shaking when I finally got home, and though I was freezing, my case of the shakes had nothing to do with the cold. I wrapped myself up in a blanket and curled up on the couch, trying to process what had just happened. Bob seemed as freaked out as I felt, jumping onto the couch beside me and putting his head in my lap. He wasn’t allowed on the couch, but house rules were the least of my concerns. Besides, he was a warm body, and he made me feel safe. Well, safer, at least.

What the hell had happened out there?

I shuddered and clutched the blanket more tightly around me. I heard again that first sound, the inhuman wail that had triggered some primal instinct to run. And then the cry of an innocent baby, terrified and alone in the cold.

Had either one of them been real? Had I somehow imagined the whole thing? Because what I thought I saw was impossible.

If I’d been even a little less freaked out, I wouldn’t have been surprised when the police showed up on my doorstep. I’d made that 9-1-1 call, and I’d identified myself quite clearly. There was no way telling the dispatcher to “forget it” was going to work.

The patrolmen who stopped by to talk to me were perfectly nice, going out of their way to be polite, no doubt because they knew who I was. I was glad I couldn’t read minds, because I don’t think I would have liked what I saw in theirs.

Naturally, I couldn’t tell them the truth about what had happened. They’d either lock me in a nuthouse or assume I was on drugs. So I told them that what I’d thought was a baby had turned out to be an alley cat. Cats can sound kind of like babies sometimes, right? And it was dark out. I’d called the police before investigating because I thought the baby might need immediate care, and then I hung up on the dispatcher in abject embarrassment when the “baby” had jumped out of a pile of rags and turned out to be a cat.

It made me sound like an airhead, but that was better than psycho or druggie. I don’t know if the cops bought it, but they didn’t call me a liar. Not to my face, at least.

If only I could make myself believe my own story. But my mind insisted on reliving those last few moments, when the baby had inched out of the shadow and bared those awful teeth at me. And when it had vaporized—for want of a better word—right in front of my eyes.

Which reminded me suddenly that the cloud of… whatever had passed right over my head. I ran a shaking hand through my hair and practically threw up when I saw the oily black streak that was left on my palm. It wasn’t much. Not so much a streak as a smudge. And there were probably a million things it could be, other than baby residue. I’d been wearing a hat, after all. But I bolted for the bathroom anyway.

I washed my hair about eighteen times, my skin crawling. The mark came off my hand easily enough, and if there was any more of it in my hair, I didn’t see it amid the suds I rinsed off. Yet I felt sure I was tainted somehow. I didn’t know what that “baby” had been, couldn’t even think of some convenient folkloric label to pin on it, but I was convinced, body and soul, that it had been evil. And I wished I’d listened to my instincts instead of being a Good Samaritan.

My night went from bad to worse a couple hours later, when my dad got home. He’d heard about the 9-1-1 call, of course, and he didn’t buy my story of mistaken identity.

“I can’t believe you would do something so selfish and childish!” he said. He didn’t yell, but with that deep, commanding voice of his, he didn’t have to. He glared down at me with steely eyes, so furious his cheeks flushed.

“It was an honest mistake,” I replied, making my eyes go big and wounded. When he and Mom were still together, doe eyes had often worked on him, but ever since the divorce this past summer, he was in a perpetual state of pissed off, and he seemed to like it there.

“Not another word!” he snapped. “You didn’t call the police because you saw a damn cat. What was this supposed to be? A protest about me working so late?” His scowl deepened. “Did that friend of yours put you up to this?”

This was just what I needed after my already traumatic, terrifying, and embarrassing night. How could my dad think I would make a crank call to the police? And why would he suddenly drag Piper into this just because he didn’t like her?

“No one put me up to anything,” I said, my own pulse quickening with anger. Sure, I’d gotten in trouble a few times lately, and most of the time it had been with Piper by my side, but I’d given Dad no reason to think I’d call 9-1-1 just for shits and giggles. It stung pretty hard to think he gave me that little credit. “This wasn’t a prank, and it wasn’t some stupid cry for attention. It was an honest mistake, like I said.”

“Don’t make it worse by lying.”

I crossed my arms over my chest and tried to look defiant instead of hurt. “So what you’re telling me is that you’ve already decided what happened and why, and you don’t give a shit about my side of the story.”

For a fraction of a second I thought I’d scored a point, that Dad finally realized how unfair he was being. His eyes briefly softened, and there was a hint of doubt in them. But he hadn’t gotten where he was today by allowing himself to feel uncertain of anything. And getting him to change his mind was like trying to turn the Titanic.

“You are grounded for two weeks,” he told me. “You will not leave this house except to go to school and run errands. No Internet, and no phone.”

He held out his hand in a silent demand that I hand over my phone. When my dad says I’m grounded, he doesn’t fool around. I guess he was used to dealing with scumbags who made taking advantage of loopholes into an art form. I’d be lucky if he didn’t periodically toss my room just to make sure I hadn’t borrowed a phone from anyone.

“This isn’t fair,” I told him with a hitch in my voice. “I’ve done nothing wrong.” That, at least, was perfectly true.

He just stood there with his hand extended, his face cold and devoid of anything resembling fatherly compassion.

He didn’t used to be this way. He’d never exactly been warm and fuzzy, but he’d been fair, and he had a soft side that only my mother, my older sister, and I saw. There had never been any doubt in my mind that he loved me. But he’d been a different man since the divorce went through, harder and angrier and unyielding. I wanted my pre-divorce father back, but I didn’t think that was going to happen, at least not until after I graduated high school and left home.

When they’d split up, my parents had let me choose who I wanted to live with, and I’d chosen Dad because Mom was moving to Boston and I didn’t want to start a new school for my senior year. Right now, that wasn’t looking like the world’s greatest decision.

“I should have gone with Mom,” I told him as I slapped my phone into his hand.

 

Chapter Two

There’s a part of me that’s always been jealous of Piper Grant, even though she’s my best friend. For one thing, she’s beautiful, whereas the most flattering way I can describe myself is “somewhat attractive,” and that’s only on my good days. She’s tall and lean, with lustrous red-gold hair that never seems to get frizzy or oily or tangled. As far as I can tell, she’s never had a zit in her life, and if we didn’t go to an all-girls school, she’d surely have every straight boy in school trailing after her in adoration.

Someone who looked like she did could easily become a bitchy mean girl, but Piper wasn’t like that. I’d had enough of bitchy mean girls in middle school, thank you very much. Piper was popular, but she never let it go to her head. She seemed to like just about everyone, and just about everyone liked her right back. Except my dad, who thought she was a spoiled, entitled rich kid who got off on manipulating her “worshipers,” which is what he said I was.

Although Piper and I went to the same school, we weren’t in any of the same classes. She wasn’t stupid—the Edith Goldman School for Girls doesn’t admit stupid people—but she wasn’t bound for academic glory, either. I’m in A.P. everything, and she was just scraping by “normal” classes with indifferent grades. We didn’t even have the same lunch break, so the only time I got to talk to her was when we passed each other in the hall, or after school.

I’d been thinking all day about what I was going to tell her about last night’s nightmare encounter. On the one hand, she was my best friend, and if I couldn’t tell her the truth about what happened, then I couldn’t tell anyone. On the other hand, why should she believe my crazy story when I barely believed it myself?

Every time I passed her in the hall, I expected her to stop and ask me what was wrong. I wasn’t trying to act all weird, but I’d barely gotten any sleep, and I was so distracted by my own thoughts that twice I almost walked by without seeing her. Two of my teachers had taken me aside and asked if everything was okay, so I knew I was being pretty obvious. But Piper isn’t the most observant person I’ve ever met—my dad would say because she’s too self-absorbed to notice other people—and if she thought I was acting funny, she didn’t say anything about it.

I was packing up my backpack after school when Piper suddenly appeared at my side, leaning against the bank of lockers and frowning. I jumped a little when I saw her, and her frown deepened.

“I’ve been standing here for like five minutes,” she said. “I was beginning to think I had to do a backflip to get your attention.”

I forced a grin that felt awkward as I hoisted my backpack and closed my locker. “Sorry. I’m a little preoccupied.”

“No kidding?”

I gave her a dirty look, thinking now she would surely ask me what was wrong. I still hadn’t decided what to tell her, though I was leaning toward the same cat story I’d told the police and my dad. She’d talked me through some pretty awful times as my parents’ marriage had broken up. I started lots of those conversations in tears, and they mostly ended with me calm and smiling. Even laughing sometimes. I could have used a good dose of her sunny outlook right now, but I didn’t have the guts to tell her the truth. She had always been very accepting of me, but I didn’t know how any sane person could accept this particular story.

“I’m going to head over to Rare Vintage and do a little shopping before I go home,” she said. “Wanna come with?”

Rare Vintage is a vintage clothing store Piper was in love with. It was within walking distance of our school—not that it mattered, since Piper’s parents had given her a Volvo for her sixteenth birthday. My parents, on the other hand, had told me in no uncertain terms that if I wanted my own car I had to earn the money to buy it myself. They both grew up poor and made huge successes of themselves—my mom is a corporate lawyer and my dad the youngest police commissioner in Philly’s history—and they thought giving me things they couldn’t have afforded at my age would spoil me. Never mind that, without a car, my commute to school was pure hell, involving a couple of long walks to and from the train station as well as a thirtyminute train ride.

“I can’t,” I told her, making a regretful face even though Rare Vintage is not my favorite place. Maybe Piper has enough extra cash lying around to drop on fancy beaded flapper dresses she’ll never wear, but I don’t. “I’m grounded.”

Except for my dad confiscating my phone and not letting me use the Internet, being grounded wasn’t that big a deal for me. Most of my schoolmates lived out in the suburbs, and with me not having a car, it was really hard for me to hang out with them outside of school. On most days, I went straight home, and being grounded wasn’t going to change that. Though if I weren’t grounded, I’d have gone to Rare Vintage just as a chance to spend more time with Piper. She had about a bazillion friends, and getting a spot on her social calendar was something of a challenge.

Piper raised her eyebrows in surprise. “You’ve been getting into trouble without me?” she asked with mock incredulity. “How could you?” She lowered her head and put a hand to her sternum as if heartsick.

I laughed and let a little of the tension ease out of my shoulders. Even if I couldn’t get myself to confide what had happened last night, maybe spending time with her—even if it was only a few stolen minutes—was the best thing for me.

Piper glanced at her watch. “What time is your train?” she asked.

“Three thirty,” I told her, not looking forward to the long, cold wait on the platform. It was still in the twenties out, and the train platform was open and windy. The colder and more miserable the weather, the less likely the damn train would come on time.

“Hmm. I bet if I give you a ride home, I can get you there with time to spare.”

I bit my lip, thinking about it. I knew my dad. He would still be at work when I got home, but since I was grounded, he would definitely call and make sure I was at home when I was supposed to be. And Piper was a little fuzzy on the meaning of punctuality. Chances were that, if I went with her, I’d be home late even with the ride.

“If we don’t beat the train home,” she wheedled, “you can always tell your dad it was late. It’s not like it’s never delayed or anything.”

“True,” I said. My dad would never have to know I’d defied him. And it would feel good to give this unfair punishment the respect it deserved.

Piper didn’t wait for my answer, just slipped her arm through mine and gave me a tug toward the parking lot.

* * *

We weren’t in the store more than about five minutes before Piper’s phone rang, and I knew immediately by the goofy look on her face that the call was from her current boyfriend, Luke. I hadn’t managed to have a single boyfriend yet, myself—going to an all-girls school and not having a car combined to make meeting boys really tough—but Piper went through them like popcorn, one moment head over heels in love, the next bored and looking for a new adventure.

Piper gave me an apologetic smile before retreating to one of the changing rooms so she could have a private conversation with Luke, leaving me browsing the racks aimlessly.

I was the one who introduced Piper to Luke, though I kind of regretted it. There’s a gated courtyard behind my house, and Luke lives in the house across the courtyard from me. I’d had a crush on him for forever, but he never showed any sign of being interested in me in that way. For my seventeenth birthday, my dad had hosted a cookout in the courtyard. Piper was there, of course, but I’d also scraped up the courage to ask Luke. When he’d said yes, I thought maybe there was some glimmer of interest after all. But then he’d come to the party, and he’d met Piper, and that was that.

I’d never told Piper about my crush, so it wasn’t like she intentionally stole the boy I was interested in. But I couldn’t help a little twinge of jealousy every time I saw them together. I kept waiting for them to break up—they’d been together almost four months already, which was a record for Piper—but so far they were going strong. So strong that she was on that phone with him forever. I could hear her giggling from the back room as I kept glancing at my watch. Time was ticking away, and even if we left right that moment, I was going to have to lie to my dad and tell him my train was late.

I finally grew impatient and stomped back to the dressing room, pulling the curtain open and giving Piper a meaningful look before tapping my watch. She lowered the phone from her face for a second to glance at the time, and her eyes went wide.

“Oh, shit!” she said, raising the phone once more. “Sorry. I lost track of time. I’ve gotta go.”

I couldn’t hear whatever it was Luke said to her on the other end of the line, but it made her blush and smile. “I love you, too,” she said.

I turned my back to her so she wouldn’t see the sour face I made. There’s nothing quite like hearing your best friend saying “I love you” to the boy you’ve had a secret crush on for years. Maybe I shouldn’t have kept it secret. Piper had certainly made no secret about her attraction when she’d met him. She’d flirted with him from the moment I introduced them, and he’d lapped it up.

But then, Piper was beautiful, and witty, and brimming with self-confidence. How could Luke not have fallen for her? And why would he settle for an ordinary, socially awkward shy girl like me when he could have Piper? Even if I’d had the guts to tell him I liked him, and even if he liked me back, Piper would have dazzled him.

Maybe if you’d told Piper you wanted him, she wouldn’t have made a play for him, I reminded myself. Hell, if I’d told her, she’d most likely have thrown herself into a quest to hook me up with him.

Maybe that’s what I’d been afraid of. If she’d tried to play matchmaker and it didn’t work, I’d have been utterly humiliated. And with Luke living so close, I’d have my nose rubbed in that humiliation practically every day.

No. Better for him to be with Piper, even if it did make me jealous. Jealous was better than humiliated.

Piper finally got off the phone, and we hurried to her car. “I’m so sorry,” she said as we piled in. “You should have come and interrupted me sooner. You know how I am with time.”

I snapped my seat belt closed while she started the car. She was right, of course. I should have interrupted her sooner. But I hadn’t, and it was too late to change that.

“It’s okay,” I told her, insisting to myself that it was. I’d let her talk me into missing the train because I wanted to spend time with her. Instead, I’d spent my time browsing alone through a store I had no interest in while she talked on the phone. The cold, hard truth was that although Piper was my best friend, I wasn’t hers. If she were to disappear from my life, I’d be devastated; if I were to disappear from hers, she’d be sad for a while, then get over it. When you make friends as easily as she does, you just don’t get as attached.

“No, it’s not okay,” she said, surprising me. “I was being rude and inconsiderate, and I’m sorry.”

I sighed. Sometimes Piper annoyed the hell out of me, but she was still a nice person and a good friend. I’d just have to learn to be more assertive with her. She’d gotten off the phone the minute I’d pointed out how late it was. If I’d done that fifteen minutes earlier, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

“Hey, I know you forget the rest of the world exists when you’re talking to Luke,” I told her with a smile. “It’s my job to remind you.”

Mentioning Luke brought the smile right back to her face, as I’d known it would. “Well, he is a little distracting,” she admitted. “Somehow, we’ve got to find a boy for you. It would be so cool if we could go on a double date.”

Yeah, right. Because I would so enjoy seeing Piper and Luke make out. “What do you mean, ‘somehow’?” I asked, belatedly. “Is it that hard to imagine a boy liking me?”

Her eyebrows rose, and she turned to look at me. “No, dummy. It’s just hard to find a way for you to meet them.”

You never seem to have any trouble,” I muttered. “And watch the road, please. My dad would kill us both if you got in an accident.”

She laughed, but thankfully turned her attention back to the road. “I don’t have trouble because my parents let me have a social life. If your dad would loosen up a bit, meeting boys would be a whole lot easier.”

Yes, it would. Thanks to being part of Piper’s social circle, I was often invited to parties, but my dad would never let me go. I had to be able to prove to him that there would be no drugs or underage drinking at these parties, and I never could. Probably because there would be drugs and underage drinking. It was pretty frustrating to have a friend who was so popular and not be able to take advantage of the situation. I’d spent a lot of time in middle school longing to be part of the in crowd, and now, with Piper, I could have that—if only my dad would let me.

“Maybe,” I said. “But I don’t see that happening anytime soon, do you?”

She made a face. She wasn’t any more fond of my dad than he was of her. “Doesn’t he realize that by this time next year you’ll be in college and making these decisions for yourself?”

I shrugged. “Yeah, but that’s the excuse he uses for why it’s perfectly fair for him to keep me under lock and key now. If he says ‘A year isn’t as long as you think’ one more time, I’m going to scream.”

We stopped at a red light, and Piper turned to me. “He does realize that just because there may be other people around doing drugs and drinking, that doesn’t mean you’ll be doing it, right?”

I winced, because it sure would be nice if my dad did realize that. I’ve never been the type to give in to peer pressure, even back when I was in middle school and those peers were making me miserable. I’m no angel, but I may be a teensy bit of a control freak, and the prospect of getting drunk or high when surrounded by strangers at a party held no appeal.

Piper rolled her eyes. “Jeez, does he even know you? I’d probably die of shock if you turned into a lampshade-wearing party animal just because people around you were drinking.”

“He’s a cop. They don’t, as a general rule, have a lot of respect for teenagers.”

She waved her hand in dismissal. “But we’re not talking about some generic teenager. We’re talking about you.” The look she gave me held more than a hint of pity. “It kinda sucks if he doesn’t get the difference.”

She was right. It did. But I didn’t see much chance of it changing.

The expression on Piper’s face changed from one of pity to one of calculation. “Maybe this is a case of what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

Uh-oh. I knew that look. “Whatever you’re thinking, the answer is no. I’m in enough trouble with my dad already.”

The light turned green, and Piper faced front, but I could still see the little smirk on her lips. That girl’s a bad influence, my dad whispered in my head. He wasn’t entirely wrong, but I couldn’t swear that wasn’t one of the reasons I liked her so much.

“You can’t spend your whole life trying to make your dad happy,” Piper said. “You have the right to have some fun. You’re coming out with me Saturday night.”

“Even my dad won’t be working on a Saturday night. I don’t see myself sneaking out with him in the house.” But the thought of going out with Piper on Saturday night kicked my pulse up a notch. I didn’t know what she had planned, but I was sure it would be exciting. An adventure.

“So we’ll tell him you’re coming to spend the night at my place,” Piper said easily. “He can’t object to a sleepover, can he?” I snorted. If the sleepover was at Piper’s, yes, he could. He didn’t trust her as far as he could throw her. “I’m grounded,” I reminded her.

She wrinkled her nose. “True. Hmm. Give me a couple of days, I’ll come up with a better excuse.”

“A better lie, you mean.”

She grinned at me. “Your point being… ?”

I sank a little lower in my seat and crossed my arms. It wasn’t like I had any problem with lying to my dad. If he had his way, my entire life would consist of doing chores, going to school, and studying. If I had a dollar for every time I’d told him I was studying when I was actually reading a romance novel or messing around online, I’d have enough to buy that car I wanted so badly. But this was a whole different level of lying—and there was more risk I’d get caught at it.

“Seriously, Becket, what’s the worst that can happen? Your dad can yell at you and ground you for longer, but is that such a terrible risk to take?”

Once again, she had a point. One problem with my dad’s No Privileges policy was that he didn’t have much in the way of privileges to take away for punishment.

“What the hell,” I decided. “You only live once, right? If you can come up with a cover my dad can swallow, then you’re on.”

Piper grinned and offered me an awkward high five, thankfully keeping her eyes on the road and one hand on the steering wheel. “I love a good challenge,” she said. “Now, tell me how you managed to get yourself grounded.”

Thinking about what had happened last night put a damper on my momentary defiance high. I wished I could just convince myself it was some kind of nightmare, but every time I tried to sell myself a logical explanation, I kept getting stuck on Bob. All well and good to come up with reasons why I might have been seeing things or misinterpreted what I saw, but there was no question that Bob had seen something freaky, too.

I told Piper the cat story. She laughed her ass off, and I knew she was going to give me a hard time about it for the foreseeable future. But at least she didn’t think I was crazy.

Excerpted from Nightstruck © Jenna Black, 2016

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