Someone banging on the door pulled me awake from a dream about cat-shaped snowflakes.
"Zoey! Stevie Rae! You're gonna be late!" Shaunee's voice sounded muffled but urgent through the door, like an annoying alarm covered up by a towel.
"Okay, okay, I'm coming," I called as I tried to struggle out of my covers while Nala complained loudly. I glanced at my alarm clock, which I hadn't bothered to set. I mean, it wasn't like it was a school day and I usually didn't sleep more than eight or nine hours at a time and—
"Hell!" I blinked. Sure enough, the time was 9:59 P.M. I'd slept more than twelve hours? I stumbled to the door, pausing to shake Stevie Rae's leg.
"Mumph," she muttered sleepily.
I cracked the door. Shaunee was glaring at me.
"Please with the sleeping all damn day! You two have got to stop staying up late if you can't get up. Erik's going to be performing in half an hour."
"Ah, hell!" I rubbed my face, trying to force myself awake. "I forgot all about that."
Shaunee rolled her eyes. "You better hurry up and get dressed. And slap some serious makeup on that pale face and do something about your nappy hair. Boyfriend's been looking all over for you."
"Okay, okay. Crap! I'm coming. Will you and Erin—"
Shaunee put up her hand, cutting me off. "Please. We've already got you covered. Erin's in the auditorium saving front row seats as we speak."
"Is that you, Mamma? I don't wanna go to school today ..." Stevie Rae mumbled, clearly not awake.
"We'll hurry. You guys just save those seats for us." I slammed the door shut and hurried over to Stevie Rae. "Wake up!" I shook her shoulder. She squinted and frowned up at me.
"Stevie Rae, it's ten o'clock. P.M. We slept forever and now we're so late it's ridiculous."
"Just wake the hell up!" I snapped, taking out my frustration that I'd overslept on her.
"Wha—" She looked blearily at the clock, and that seemed to finally get through to her. "Ohmygoodness! We're late."
I rolled my eyes. "That's what I've been trying to tell you. I'm gonna throw on something and work on my hair and makeup. You better jump in the shower. You look terrible."
"'Kay." She staggered into the bathroom.
I yanked on a pair of jeans and a black sweater, and then got to work on my hair and makeup. I could not believe I'd totally blown off the fact that Erik was performing the Shakespearian monologue he'd taken to the competition. Actually, I hadn't even worried about how he'd placed, which was definitely not good girlfriend etiquette. Of course it wasn't like I didn't have other things on my mind, but still. Everyone thought I was the lucky girl who had caught Erik after he'd escaped from Aphrodite's nasty spiderweb (and by web I mean crotch). Hell, I thought I was lucky to have him, something that had been hard to remember when I was sucking Heath's blood and flirting with Loren.
"Sorry about oversleeping, Z." Stevie Rae came out of the bathroom in a gush of steamy air, towel-drying her short, blond curls. She was dressed a lot like I was, and she must still be half asleep because she looked pale and tired. She gave a huge yawn and stretched like a cat.
"No, it's my fault." I felt bad for the way I'd jumped on her before. "I should have known with how little I've been sleeping that I needed to set my alarm." I guess it shouldn't have been a surprise that Stevie Rae hadn't gotten much sleep lately, either. We are best friends and she definitely knows when I'm over-stressed. We probably both needed a good, long, comalike sleep.
"I'll be ready in just a sec. I'm just gonna put on some mascara and gloss. My hair will dry in like two minutes anyway," Stevie Rae said.
We were out of there in five minutes. No time for breakfast, we bolted out of the dorm and practically ran to the auditorium. We made it to seats Erin had saved for us just as the lights flicked on and off, announcing that there were two minutes before the program began, and for people to take their seats.
"Erik stayed out here waiting for you until just a second ago," Damien said. I was glad to see he was sitting beside Jack. The two really did make a cute couple.
"Is he mad?" I asked.
"I'd say confused is a better description," Shaunee said.
"Or worried. He looked worried, too," Erin added.
I sighed. "Did you not tell him that I'd overslept?"
"Hence the reason my Twin said he looked worried," Shaunee said.
"I filled him in on the deaths of the two friends of yours. Erik understands it's been hard on you, and that's why he looked worried," Damien said, frowning at Shaunee and Erin.
"I'm just sayin; Z, Erik is too hot to be stood up," Erin said. "Ditto, Twin," Shaunee said.
"I did not—" I sputtered, but the lights going out cut me off.
The drama teacher, Professor Nolan, came out onstage and spent a while explaining the importance of actors being trained in the classics, and talking about how prestigious the Shakespeare monologue contest is for vamps around the world. She reminded us that each of the twenty-five House of Night campuses worldwide send their five strongest competitors, which meant there were a total of 125 talented fledglings who competed against one another.
"Jeesh, I had no idea Erik had to go up against so many kids," I whispered to Stevie Rae.
"Erik probably kicked butt. He's awesome," Stevie Rae whispered back. Then she yawned again and coughed.
I frowned at her. She looked like crap. How could she still be tired?
"Sorry." She smiled sheepishly. "I gotta frog in my throat."
"Shhh!" the Twins hissed together.
I turned my attention back to Prof. Nolan.
"The results of the competition have been sealed until today, when all of the students have returned to their home schools. I will announce the placings of each of our five finalists as I introduce them. Each will perform their competition monologue. I cannot begin to tell you how proud we are of our team. Every one of them did an exceptional job." Prof. Nolan beamed. Then she went on to introduce the first performer, who was a kid named Kaci Crump. She was a fourth former who I didn't know very well because around the dorm she was kinda shy and quiet, even though she seemed nice. I didn't think she was a member of the Dark Daughters, and I made a mental note to send her an invitation to join. Prof. Nolan announced that Kaci had placed fifty-second in the competition with her rendition of Beatrice's monologue from Much Ado About Nothing.
I thought she was good, but was blown away by the next kid, Cassie Kramme, a fifth former who'd placed twenty-fifth overall. She performed Portia's famous speech from The Merchant of Venice that begins, "The quality of mercy is not strained ..." I recognized it because I'd chosen it as the monologue I memorized my freshman year at SIHS. Uh, Cassie's acting definitely would have kicked my ass. I didn't think she was a member of the Dark Daughters, either. Huh. Seems Aphrodite hadn't wanted much competition in the way of other drama queens. Big surprise.
The next performer was a kid I knew because he was a friend of Erik's. Cole Clifton was tall, blond, and totally cute. He'd finished twenty-second with his rendition of Romeo's "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks ..." speech. Okay, he was good. Really, really good. I heard Shaunee and Erin (especially Shaunee) making lots of appreciative noises, and the clapping was furious from them when he finished. Hmm... I'd have to talk to Erik about fixing Shaunee up with Cole. In my opinion more white boys should date women of color. It was good for expanding their horizons (especially true in Oklahoma white boys).
Speaking of women of color—the next performer was Deino. She was a drop-dead mixed girl with to-die-for hair and skin the color of vanilla latte. She was also one of Aphrodite's inner circle, or she used to be. I'd been introduced to her at Aphrodite's Full Moon Ritual. Deino was one of Aphrodite's three best friends. They'd renamed themselves after the mythological sisters of the Gorgon and Scylla: Deino, Enyo, Pemphredo. Translated, the names mean Terrible, Warlike, and Wasp.
The names definitely fit. They were three hateful, selfish bitches who had run out on Aphrodite during the Samhain Ritual and, as far as I could tell, hadn't spoken to her since. Okay, Aphrodite had messed up, and she was definitely haggish, but I could mess up and be a total hag and I don't think Stevie Rae, the Twins, or Damien would turn their backs on me. Get pissed at me—yep, definitely. Tell me I'd lost my mind—of course. But run out on me —no way.
Professor Nolan introduced Deino, saying that she'd finished an amazing eleventh overall, and then Deino began Cleopatra's death scene monologue. I had to admit that she was good. Really good. Watching her I was so dazzled by her talent that I started to wonder how much of her hateful haggishness had been because of Aphrodite's influence. Since I'd taken over the Dark Daughters none of Aphrodite's close friends had caused any kind of problems. Actually, now that I thought about it, I realized that Terrible, Warlike, and Wasp had been keeping a pretty low profile. Huh. Well, I'd said that I wanted to include one of Aphrodite's old inner circle in my new Prefect Council. Maybe Deino would be the right choice. I could ask Erik about her. With Aphrodite out of power I could give Deino a chance (as well as sincerely wish her name wasn't so disturbing).
I was still considering how to go about telling my friends (who were also my fellow Prefects) that I was thinking about asking Terrible to join our Council when Professor Nolan returned to the stage and waited for the audience to quiet down. When she started speaking her eyes were shining with excitement and she seemed ready to burst. I felt a little thrill run through me. Erik had finished in the top ten!
"Erik Night is our final performer. He has been an incredible talent since the day he was Marked three years ago. I am proud to be his teacher and his mentor," she said, beaming. "Please give him the hero's welcome he deserves for placing first in the International Shakespearian Monologue Competition!"
The auditorium exploded as Erik strode, smiling, onto the stage. I could hardly breathe. How could I have forgotten how utterly gorgeous he is? Tall— taller than Cole even—he had black hair that did that adorable Superman curl thing, and eyes so brilliant blue they were like staring into the summer sky. Like the other performers, he was dressed all in black, with the fifth former insignia of Nyx's golden chariot pulling a trail of stars over his left breast as the only break in the dark color scheme. And, let me tell you, he made black look good.
He walked to center stage, stopped, smiled directly (and obviously) into my eyes, and winked at me. He was so damn hot I thought I would die. Then he bowed his head and when he raised it he wasn't eighteen-year-old Erik Night, vampyre fledgling, fifth former at the House of Night, anymore. Somehow, right in front of our eyes, he had become a Moorish warrior who was trying to explain to a room full of doubters how a Venetian princess had fallen in love with him, and he with her.
"Her father lov'd me; oft invited me;
Still question'd me the story of my life
From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes
That I have pass 'd. "
I couldn't take my eyes from him, and neither could anyone else in the room as he transformed into Othello. I also couldn't help but compare him to Heath. In his own way, Heath was as successful and talented as Erik. He was Broken Arrow's star quarterback, with a bright collegiate and maybe even pro football career in front of him. Heath was a leader. Erik was a leader. I'd grown up watching Heath play ball, had been proud of him, and had cheered for him. But I had never been awed by his talent like I was awed by Erik. And the only time Heath had ever made me feel like I couldn't breathe was when he sliced into his skin and offered his blood to me.
Erik paused in his monologue, and moved forward until he was standing at the edge of the stage, so close that if I stood I could reach up and touch him. Then he looked into my eyes and completed Othello's speech to me, as though I was the absent Desdemona he spoke of:
"She wish'd she had not heard it, yet she wish'd
That heaven had made her such a man; she thank'd me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that lov'd her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her.
Upon this hint I spake:
She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd,
And I lov'd her that she did pity them. "
Erik touched his fingers to his lips, then held his hand out to me as if to offer me his formal kiss, and then pressed those fingers over his heart and bowed his head. The audience erupted into cheers and a standing ovation. Stevie Rae stood cheering next to me, wiping her eyes and laughing.
"That was so romantic I almost peed my pants," she yelled.
"Me, too!" I laughed.
And then Professor Nolan was back onstage, closing the performance and directing everyone to the wine and cheese reception set up in the lobby.
"Come on, Z," Erin said, grabbing one of my hands.
"Yeah, we're staying with you 'cause that friend of Erik's that played Romeo is insanely hot," Shaunee said as she grabbed my other hand. The Twins started hauling me through the crowd, shouldering us past the slow- moving kids like mini-tugboats. I looked helplessly back at Damien and Stevie Rae. Clearly they were going to have to catch up on their own. The Twins were a force beyond even my control.
We popped from the bottled-up crowd trying to exit the auditorium like three corks coming to the surface. And suddenly there Erik was, just entering the lobby from the side actors' entrance. Our eyes met and he instantly stopped talking to Cole and headed straight to me.
"Mmm, mmm, mmm. He is so totally fiiiiine, " Shaunee murmured.
"As usual, we're in complete agreement, Twin," Erin sighed dreamily.
I couldn't do anything but stand there and smile like a moron as Erik reached us. With a very naughty sparkle in his eyes he took my hand, kissed it, and then made a sweeping bow and proclaimed in his actor's voice that carried all around the room, "Hello, my sweet Desdemona."
I felt my cheeks getting really hot, and I actually giggled. He was just pulling me into a warm, but very proper-for-public-consumption hug when I heard a familiar hateful laugh. Aphrodite, looking amazing in a short black skirt, stiletto boots, and a slinky sweater, was laughing as she walked (actually, she twitched more than she walked—I mean, the girl could seriously shake her butt) past us. Over Erik's shoulder I met her eyes and, in a silky voice that would have sounded friendly had it not been coming from her mouth, said, "If he's calling you Desdemona, then I suggest you be careful. If it even looked like you're cheating on him he'll strangle you in your bed. But you'd never cheat on him, would you?" Then she flipped her long, blond, perfect hair and twitched away.
No one said anything for a second, then the Twins, at the same time, said, "Issues. She has issues," and everyone laughed.
Everyone but me. All I could think about was the fact that she'd seen Loren and me in the media center, and that it definitely could have looked like I was cheating on Erik. Was she warning me that she was going to tell Erik? Okay, I wasn't worried about him strangling me in my bed, but would he believe her?
Also, Aphrodite's all-too-perfect appearance reminded me that I was wearing wrinkled jeans and a hastily thrown-on sweater. My hair and makeup had definitely looked better. Actually, I think I still might have pillow marks on my cheek.
"Don't let her get to you," Erik said gently.
I looked up at him. He was holding my hand and smiling down at me. I mentally shook myself. "Don't worry, she's not," I said brightly. "Anyway, who cares about her? You won the competition! That's amazing, Erik. I'm so proud of you!" I hugged him again, loving his clean smell and how his height made me feel small and delicate. Then our little pocket of privacy was gone as more and more people poured out of the auditorium.
"Erik, it's so cool you won!" Erin said. "But it's not like we're surprised. You definitely kick ass onstage."
"Totally. And so does boyfriend over there." Shaunee jerked her chin in Cole's direction. "He is one fine Romeo."
Erik grinned. "I'll tell him you said so."
"You can also tell him that if he wants a little brown sugar in his Juliet he need look no farther than right here." She pointed at herself and shimmied her hips.
"Twin, if Juliet had been black I do not believe things would have come to such a shitty end between her and Romeo. I mean, we would have shown more sense than drinking that sleeping potion crap and going through all that drama just because of some unfortunate parental issues."
"Exactly," Shaunee said.
None of us stated the obvious—that Erin, with her blond hair and blue eyes, was definitely NOT BLACK. We were too used to her and Shaunee being twinlike to question the weirdness of it.
"Erik, you were amazing!" Damien rushed up with Jack following close behind.
"Congratulations," Jack said shyly, but with definite enthusiasm.
Erik smiled at them. "Thanks, guys. Hey, Jack. I was too nervous before the performance to say that I'm glad you're here. It'll be nice to have a roommate."
Jack's cute face lit up, and I squeezed Erik's hand. This was one reason why I liked him so much. Besides being gorgeous and talented, Erik was an authentically nice guy. There were a lot of guys in his position (ridiculously popular) who would have either ignored this little third former roommate or, worse, been visibly pissed that they'd have to share a room with a "fag." Erik wasn't like that at all, and I couldn't help but compare him to Heath, who would probably have been freaked that he had to room with a gay kid. Not that Heath was hateful or anything like that, but he was a typical teenage Okie boy, which tended to mean narrow-minded homophobe. Which made me realize that I'd never asked Erik where he was from. Jeesh, I was a crappy girlfriend.
"Did you hear me, Zoey?"
"Huh?" Damien's question shut off my inner babbling, but no, I hadn't heard him.
"Hello! Earth to Zoey! I asked if you realized what time it was. And are you remembering the Full Moon Ritual starts at midnight?"
I looked at the wall clock. "Ah, hell!" It was 11:05. I still needed to change my clothes and then get to the rec hall, light the circle candles, make sure the five candles for the elements were in place, and check on the Goddess's table. "Erik, I'm so sorry, but I have to leave. There are a million things to do before the ritual starts." I made eye contact with each of my four friends. "You guys have to come with me." They nodded like bobble-headed dolls. I turned back to Erik. "You're coming to the ritual, aren't you?"
"Yeah. And that reminds me. I got you something in New York. Hang on for just a sec, and I'll go get it."
He hurried back through the actors' entrance to the auditorium.
"I swear he is too damn good to be true," Erin said.
"Let's hope his friend is just like him," Shaunee said, sending Cole a flirty smile from across the room, which I noticed he returned.
"Damien, did you get the eucalyptus and sage for me?" I was already feeling nervous. Hell! I should have eaten. My stomach was an empty cavern just waiting to clench up on me.
"Don't worry, Z. I got the eucalyptus and I even braided it together with the sage for you," Damien said.
"Everything will be perfect, you'll see," Stevie Rae said. "Yeah, you don't need to be nervous," Shaunee said.
"We'll be right there with you," Erin finished.
I smiled at them, incredibly glad they were my friends. And then Erik was back. He handed me the big white box he was carrying. I hesitated before tearing into it and Shaunee said, "Z, if you don't open it I will."
"Damn right," Erin said.
Eagerly, I slid off the decorative string that held it shut, opened the lid, and gasped (along with everyone else who was standing close enough to see). Inside the box pooled the most beautiful dress I'd ever seen. It was black, but woven into the material were metallic specks of silver, so that wherever the light touched, it glittered and sparkled like shooting stars against the night sky.
"Erik, this is beautiful." I sounded choked because I was trying really hard not to make a fool out of myself and burst into happy tears.
"I wanted you to have something special for your first ritual as leader of the Dark Daughters," he said.
We hugged again before my friends and I had to rush out and head to the rec hall. I clutched the dress to my chest and tried not to think about the fact that while Erik was buying me an amazingly cool present I had been either sucking Heath's blood or flirting with Loren. And while I tried not to think about that, I also tried to ignore the guilty voice inside my head that kept saying, over and over, You don 't deserve him ... you don't deserve him ... you don't deserve him
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