Taken at Dusk (Shadow Falls, #3) by C. C. Hunter
They were here. Really here.
Kylie Galen stepped out of the crowded dining hall into the bright sunlight. She looked over at the Shadow Falls office. Gone was the chatter of the other campers. Birds chirped in the distance and a rush of wind rustled the trees. Mostly she heard the sound of her own heart thudding in her chest.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
They were here.
Her pulse raced at the thought of meeting the Brightens, the couple who had adopted and raised her real father. A father she'd never known in life but had grown to love in his short visits from the afterlife.
She took one step and then another, unsure of the emotional storm brewing inside her.
Fear. Yes, a lot of fear.
But of what?
A drip of sweat, more from nerves than Texas's mid-August heat index, rolled down her brow.
Go and uncover your past so you may discover your destiny. The death angels' mystical words replayed in her head. She took another step forward, then stopped. Even as her heart ached to solve the mystery of who her father was-of who she was and, hopefully, what she was-her instincts screamed for her to run and hide.
Was this what she feared? Learning the truth?
Before coming to Shadow Falls a few months ago, she'd been certain she was just a confused teen, that her feelings of being different were normal. Now she knew better.
She wasn't normal.
She wasn't even human. At least not all human.
And figuring out her nonhuman side was a puzzle.
A puzzle the Brightens could help her solve.
She took another step. The wind, as if it were as eager to escape as she was, whisked past. It picked up a few wayward strands of her blond hair and scattered them across her face.
She blinked, and when she opened her eyes, the brightness of the sun had evaporated. Glancing up, she saw a huge, angry-looking cloud hanging directly overhead. It cast a shadow around her and the woodsy terrain. Unsure if this was an omen or just a summer storm, she froze, her heart dancing faster. Taking a deep breath that smelled of rain, she was poised to move when a hand clasped her elbow. Memories of another hand grabbing her sent panic shooting through her veins.
She swung around.
"Whoa. You okay?" Lucas lightened his clasp around her arm.
Kylie caught her breath and stared up at the werewolf's blue eyes. "Yeah. You just ... surprised me. You always surprise me. You need to whistle when you come up on me." She shoved down the memories of Mario and his rogue vampire grandson, Red.
"Sorry." He grinned and his thumb moved in soft little circles over the crease in her elbow. Somehow that light brush of his thumb felt ... intimate. How did he make a simple touch feel like a sweet sin? A gust of wind, now smelling like a storm, stirred his black hair and tossed it over his brow.
He continued to stare at her, his blue eyes warming her and chasing away her darkest fears. "You don't look okay. What's wrong?" He reached up and tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her right ear.
She looked away from him to the cabin that housed the office. "My grandparents ... the adopted parents of my real dad are here."
He must have picked up on her reluctance to be here. "I thought you wanted to meet them. That's why you asked them to come, right?"
"I do. I'm just..."
"Scared?" he finished for her.
She didn't like admitting it, but since werewolves could smell fear, lying was pointless. "Yeah." She looked back at Lucas and saw humor in his eyes. "What's so funny?"
"You," he said. "I'm still trying to figure you out. When you were kidnapped by a rogue vampire, you weren't this scared. In fact, you were ... amazing."
Kylie smiled. No, Lucas had been the amazing one. He'd risked his life to save her from Mario and Red, and she'd never forget that.
"Seriously, Kylie, if this is the same couple I saw walking in here a few minutes ago, then they're old and just humans. I think you can take them with both hands tied behind your back."
"I'm not scared like that. I just..." She closed her eyes, unsure how to explain something she wasn't clear on herself. Then the words just came. "What am I going to say to them? 'I know you never told my father he was adopted, but he figured it out after he died. And he came to see me. Oh, yeah, he wasn't human. So could you please tell me who his real parents are? So I can figure out what I am?'"
He must have heard the angst in her voice because his smile vanished. "You'll find a way."
"Yeah." But she wasn't that confident. She started walking, feeling his presence, his warmth, as he accompanied her up the steps to the cabin. The walk was easier with him beside her.
He stopped at the door and brushed a hand down her arm. "You want me to come inside with you?"
She almost told him yes, but this was one thing she needed to do on her own.
She thought she heard voices and glanced back at the door. Well, she wouldn't exactly be alone. No doubt Holiday, the camp leader, waited for her inside, prepared to offer moral support and a calming touch. Normally, Kylie objected to her emotions being manipulated, but right now might be an exception.
"Thanks, but I'm sure Holiday is in there."
He nodded. His gaze moved to her mouth, and his lips came dangerously close to hers. But before his mouth claimed hers, that bone-cold chill that came with the dead descended on her. She pressed two fingers to his lips. Kissing was something she preferred to do without an audience-even one from the other side.
Or maybe it wasn't just the audience. Was she totally ready to give herself over to his kisses? It was a good question, and one she needed to answer, but one problem at a time. Right now she had the Brightens to worry about.
"I should go." She motioned to the door. The cold washed over her again. Okay, she had the Brightens and a ghost to worry about.
Disappointment flashed in Lucas's eyes. Then he shifted uncomfortably and looked around as if he sensed they weren't alone.
"Good luck." He hesitated and then walked away.
She watched him leave and then looked around for the spirit. Goose bumps danced up her spine. Her ability to see ghosts had been the first clue that she wasn't normal.
"Can this wait until later?" she whispered.
A cloud of condensation appeared beside the white rocking chairs on the edge of the porch. The spirit obviously lacked the power or the knowledge to complete the manifestation. But it was enough to send the chairs rocking back and forth. The creaking of wood on wood sounded haunted ... which it was.
She waited, thinking it was the female spirit who had appeared earlier today in her mother's car as they drove past the Fallen Cemetery on their way to camp. Who was she? What did she need Kylie to do? There were never any easy answers when dealing with ghosts.
"Now's not a good time." Not that saying so would do any good. Spirits believed in the open door policy.
The smear of fog took on more form, and Kylie's chest swelled with emotion.
It wasn't the woman she'd seen earlier.
"Daniel?" Kylie reached out. The tips of her fingers entered the icy mist as it took on a more familiar form. Hot emotion-a mixture of love and regret-coursed up her arm. She yanked her hand back, but tears filled her eyes.
"Daniel?" She almost called him Daddy. But it still felt awkward. She watched as he struggled to manifest.
He'd once explained that his time to linger on earth was limited. More tears filled her eyes as she realized how limited. Her sense of loss tripled when she considered how hard this must be for him. He wanted to be here when she met his parents. And she needed him here, too-wished he'd told her more about the Brightens-and wished more than anything that he'd never died.
"No." His one word, briskly spoken, sounded urgent.
"No, what?" He didn't-or couldn't-answer. "No, I shouldn't ask them about your real parents? But I have to, Daniel, that's the only way I'll ever find the truth."
"It's not-" His voice broke.
"Not what? Not important?" She waited for his answer, but his weak apparition grew paler and his spiritual cold began to ebb. The white chairs slowed their rocking and silence rained down on her.
"It's important to me," Kylie said. "I need..." The Texas heat chased away the lingering chill.
He was gone. The thought hit that he might never come back. "Not fair." She swatted at the few tears she'd let fall onto her cheeks.
The need to run and hide hit again. But she'd procrastinated long enough. She grasped the doorknob, still cold from Daniel's spirit, and went to face the Brightens.
* * *
Inside, Kylie heard light murmurs coming from one of the back conference rooms. She tried to tune her ear to hear the words. Nothing.
In the last few weeks, she'd unexpectedly been gifted with sensitive hearing. But it came and went. What good was a power if one didn't know how to use it? It only added to the feeling of everything in her life being out of her control.
Biting her lip, she eased down the hall and tried to focus on her main goal: getting answers. Who were Daniel's real parents? What was she?
She heard Holiday say, "I'm sure you're going to love her."
Kylie's footsteps slowed. Love?
Wasn't that a little strong? They could just like her. That would be fine. Loving someone was ... complicated. Even liking someone a whole lot came with a downside, such as a certain good-looking half-fae deciding that being close to her was too hard ... so he left.
Yup, Derek was definitely an example of the downside of liking someone too much. And he probably was the reason she hesitated to accept Lucas's kisses.
One problem at a time. She pushed that thought away as she stepped into the open door of the conference room.
The elderly man sitting at the table rested his clasped hands on the large oak table. "What kind of trouble did she get into?"
"What do you mean?" Holiday cut her green gaze to the door, and she pushed her long red hair over her shoulder.
The old man continued, "We researched Shadow Falls on the Internet and it has a reputation for being a place for troubled teens."
Freaking great! Daniel's parents thought she was a juvenile delinquent.
"You shouldn't believe everything you read online." Only the slightest hint of annoyance sounded in Holiday's tone. "Actually, we're a school for very gifted teens who are trying to find themselves."
"Please tell me it's not drugs," said the silver-haired woman sitting beside the man. "I'm not sure I could deal with that."
"I'm not a druggie," Kylie said, sympathizing with Della, her vampire roommate, who had to deal with this suspicion from her parents. All heads turned toward Kylie, and feeling put on the spot, she held her breath.
"Oh, my," the woman said. "I didn't mean to offend."
Kylie eased into the room. "I'm not offended. I just wanted that cleared up." She met the woman's faded gray eyes and shifted her focus to the old man, searching ... but for what? A resemblance, perhaps. Why? She knew they weren't Daniel's real parents. But they had raised him, had probably instilled in him their mannerisms and qualities.
Kylie thought of Tom Galen, her stepdad, the man who'd raised her, the man who until recently she'd believed was her real father. Though Kylie had yet to come to terms with his abandonment of his seventeen-year marriage to her mom, she couldn't deny she'd taken on some of his mannerisms. Not that she didn't see more of Daniel in herself-from her supernatural DNA to her physical features.
"We read this was a home for troubled teens." An apology rang in the old man's voice.
She recalled Daniel telling her that his adoptive parents had loved him and would have loved her if they'd known her.
Love. Emotion crowded her chest. Trying to decipher the sensation, Kylie remembered Nana-her mom's mother-and how much she'd adored her, how much she'd missed her when she died. Was it knowing the Brightens were old-that their time was short-that made Kylie want to pull back?
As if the thought of death had somehow caused it, a ghostly chill filled the room. Daniel? She called to him with her mind, but the coldness prickling her skin was different.
As frigid air entered Kylie's lungs, the spirit materialized behind Mrs. Brighten. While the apparition appeared feminine, her bald head reflected the light above. Raw-looking stitches ran across her bare scalp and caused Kylie to flinch.
"We're just concerned," said Mr. Brighten. "We didn't know you existed."
"I ... understand," Kylie answered, unable to look away from the spirit that stared at the elderly couple in puzzlement.
Seeing the spirit's face again, Kylie realized it was the same woman from earlier today. Obviously, her shaved head and stitches were a clue. But a clue to what?
The spirit looked at Kylie. "I'm so confused."
Me too, Kylie thought, unsure if the spirit could read her mind the way the others had.
"So many people want me to tell you something."
"Who?" Realizing she'd whispered the word out loud, she bit her lip. Was it Daniel? Nana? What do they want you to tell me?
The spirit met Kylie's gaze as if she understood. "Someone lives. Someone dies."
More puzzles, Kylie thought, and looked away from the ghost. She saw Holiday glance around, sensing the spirit. Mrs. Brighten looked at the ceiling as if searching for an AC vent to blame for the chill. Luckily the spirit faded, taking the cold with her.
Pushing the ghost from her mind, Kylie looked back at the Brightens. Her gaze took in the mop of thick gray hair on the elderly man. His pale complexion told her that he'd been a redhead in his younger years.
For some reason, Kylie felt compelled to wiggle her eyebrows and check the couple's brain patterns. It was a little supernatural trick she'd only recently learned, one that mostly allowed supernaturals to recognize one another and humans. Mr. and Mrs. Brighten were human.
Normals and probably decent people. So why did Kylie feel so jittery?
She studied the couple as they studied her. She waited for them to make some declaration of how much she looked like Daniel. But it didn't come.
Instead, Mrs. Brighten said, "We're really excited to meet you."
"Me too," Kylie said. As well as scared to death. She sat in the chair beside Holiday, opposite the Brightens. Reaching under the table, she sought out Holiday's hand and gave it a squeeze. A welcome calm flowed from the camp leader's touch.
"Can you tell me about my father?" Kylie asked.
"Of course." Mrs. Brighten's expression softened. "He was a very charismatic child. Popular. Smart. Outgoing."
Kylie rested her free hand on the table. "Not like me, then." She bit her lip, not meaning to say it out loud.
Mrs. Brighten frowned. "I wouldn't say that. Your camp leader was just telling us how wonderful you are." She reached across the table to rest her warm hand on Kylie's. "I can't believe we have a granddaughter."
There was something about the woman's touch that stirred Kylie's emotions. Not just the heat of the woman's skin-it was the thinness, the slight tremble of the fingers, and the defined bones that time and arthritis had changed. Kylie remembered Nana-remembered how her grandmother's gentle touch had grown more fragile before she died. Without warning, grief swelled in Kylie's chest. Grief for Nana, and maybe even the forewarning of what she would feel for Daniel's parents when their time came. Considering their age, that time would come too soon.
"When did you learn Daniel was your father?" Mrs. Brighten's hand still rested on Kylie's wrist. It felt oddly comforting.
"Just recently," she said through a knot of emotion. "My parents are divorcing and the truth sort of came out." That wasn't altogether a lie.
"A divorce? You poor child."
The old man nodded in agreement, and Kylie noticed his eyes were blue-like her dad's and hers. "We're glad you chose to find us."
"So very glad." Mrs. Brighten's voice trembled. "We've never stopped missing our son. He died so young." A quiet sensation of loss, of shared grief, entered the room.
Kylie bit her tongue to keep from telling them how she'd come to love Daniel herself. From assuring them that he had loved them. So many things she longed to ask them, to tell them, but couldn't.
"We brought pictures," Mrs. Brighten said.
"Of my dad?" Kylie leaned forward.
Mrs. Brighten nodded and shifted in her chair. Moving with old bones, she pulled a brown envelope from her big white old-lady purse. Kylie's heart raced with eagerness to see the pictures of Daniel. Had he looked like her when he was young?
The woman passed the envelope to Kylie, and she opened it as quickly as she could.
Her throat tightened when she saw the first image-a young Daniel, maybe six, without his front teeth. She could remember the images of her own toothless school pictures, and she could swear the resemblance was amazing.
The photos took her through Daniel's life-from when he was a young teen with long hair and frayed jeans to when he was an adult. In the adult photo, he was with a group of people. Kylie's throat tightened even more when she realized who was standing beside him. Her mother.
Her gaze shot up. "That's my mom."
Mrs. Brighten nodded. "Yes, we know."
"You do?" Kylie asked, confused. "I didn't think you ever met her."
"We suspected," Mr. Brighten spoke up. "After we learned about you, we suspected that she might have been the one who was in the picture."
"Oh." Kylie looked back down at the images and wondered how they could have gotten all that from one photo. Not that it matttered. "Can I keep these?"
"Of course you may," Mrs. Brighten said. "I made copies. Daniel would have wanted you to have them."
Yes, he would. Kylie recalled him trying to materialize as if he had something important to tell her. "My mom loved him," Kylie added, recalling her mom's concerns that the Brightens might resent her for not attempting to find them earlier. But they didn't seem to harbor any negative feelings.
"I'm sure she did." Mrs. Brighten leaned in and touched Kylie's hand again. Warmth and genuine emotion flowed from the touch. It almost ... almost felt magical.
A sudden beep of Kylie's phone shattered the fragile silence. She ignored the incoming text, feeling almost mesmerized by Mrs. Brighten's eyes. Then, for reasons Kylie didn't understand, her heart opened up.
Maybe she did want them to love her. Maybe she wanted to love them as well. It didn't matter how little time they had left. Or that they weren't her biological grandparents. They had loved her father and lost him. Just as she had. It only seemed right that they love each other.
Was that what Daniel had wanted to tell her? Kylie glanced down at the photographs one more time and then slipped them back into the envelope, knowing she would spend hours studying them later.
Kylie's phone rang. She moved to shut it off and saw Derek's name on the screen. Her heart missed a beat. Was he calling to apologize for leaving? Did she want him to apologize?
Another phone rang. This time it was Holiday's cell.
"Excuse me." Holiday rose and started to leave the room as she took the call. She came to an abrupt stop at the door. "Slow down," she said into the phone. The tightness in the camp leader's voice changed the mood in the room. Holiday swung back around and stepped closer to Kylie.
"What is it?" Kylie muttered.
Holiday pressed a hand on Kylie's shoulder, then snapped her phone shut and focused on the Brightens. "There's been an emergency. We'll have to reschedule this meeting."
"What's wrong?" Kylie asked.
Holiday didn't answer. Kylie glanced back at the Brightens' disappointed faces and she felt that same emotion weaving its way through her chest. "Can't we-"
"No," Holiday said. "I'm going to have to ask you folks to leave. Now."
The camp leader's tone was punctuated by the jarring sound of the cabin's front door opening and slamming against the wall. Both of the elderly Brightens flinched and then stared at the door as the sound of thundering footsteps raced toward the conference room.