I’d volunteered for that night’s shift at the carnival to let everyone else get some actual rest. Not like I was liable to sleep well, anyway. Never did at home, and it certainly wasn’t going to happen when I was out and about.
There wasn’t much to Pryor, but the college traffic combined with a reputation for big festivals gave the city…plenty of money to put on festivals. And they did it well. A massive pine tree grew in the middle of the big downtown courtyard, and they always decorated it to be on theme. But Christmas was the best one. The color scheme that year was blue and gold, and a thousand ornaments hung between the needles, glinting and gleaming. Booths filled the courtyard, too, and stretched way out into the streets, and Santa Claus sat on his throne at the top of the makeshift hill. Complete with Missy Daniels. I snickered a bit at that. I was working her coveted spot right at the entrance to the courtyard.
The line had slowed down a lot, and I served myself a little cocoa from the smallest of the three vats simmering behind me. Even the little insulated cardboard cups were on theme. Blue with little gold sleeves that didn’t do much to keep you from burning your hands. A spray of whipped cream—who was I trying to stay fit for? I’d burn it off before swimsuit season—and I sank into it. The chocolate was rich and smooth. One thing they always got right. And one thing I always got right after I snatched the recipe out of Rick Glover’s head freshman year of high school.
I watched the people going past, not stopping at the booth with the handmade wreaths but crowding around the mountain of homemade cookies and candies. When they weren’t directly interacting with me, it was easy to think of them as regular people who didn’t hate that freaky psychic family on Balsam Avenue. I even had actual pleasant conversations with a few of them.
Until they figured out who I was. They’d ask if I was just in town visiting, I’d say yes, or they’d say I looked familiar. Either way, it led to the same answer: Casey Bridge. People knew the Bridge boys and our mom. And no matter how much the city mothers and fathers tried to pretend everything was nice and cordial with us, the rest of the people showed exactly what the truth was.
I sighed and sat down on the padded stool the city provided. I was wearing Garrett’s winter coat. A little baggy, but it kept me a lot warmer than the thin piece of crap I‘d come with. Hot chocolate helped too. And sitting next to all those camp stoves. I turned on the stool and gave each of the pots a quick stir just to keep the milk from scalding.
Which is of course when someone decided to come up. “You out of stock?”
“Nope. Sorry. Just stirring.” I turned, and my breath caught in my chest. I could have blamed the cold, but like hell that was honest. It was him. A slender, gaunt face, wide, deep-set eyes, and a sweep of dark chocolate hair. He was thin and fit, but his clothes… I mean, he looked like he must have been freezing by the way it all kind of hugged
him. No insulation at all. He was a massive bolt of lightning straight to the belly. I knew right away that warmth wasn’t from the hot chocolate. It spread through me, digging out from his eyes.
I shook my head. “Sorry. Getting a little bit late. Not quite with it.” I ladled some of the thick, cinnamon-scented cocoa into a cup. “Whipped cream?”
“Wouldn’t be proper without it.”
I sprayed on a quick little cloud and pulled myself together. Of course, I wasn’t looking at him. Lord only knew what another peek would do. Not that I was going to jump his bones, but it had been a while. I hadn’t seen a guy that dug in quite like this guy in a long time. Or ever, maybe.
Just like I suspected, a ball of something hard lodged in my chest when I tried to talk to him. I cleared my throat and tried again. “Hope it lives up to your expectations.”
“Well, I’m expecting chocolate.” He grinned. Why was I feeling like this? He wasn’t some model. Although I’d buy what he was wearing. Buy it right off his back and take him home to warm him up.
You’re acting like a fucking horny teenager.
And I felt like one. As soon as I caught sight of him, there was an immediate flash of fire and a slow burn that crept through my veins. And it was definitely down below too. Thank God for the damned booth. It wasn’t like I expected him to be checking out my crotch—not that I’d complain—but the jeans I’d worn were a little tighter than necessary. So no hiding the dick.
“It’s pretty popular. Secret town recipe.” My words had finally come back, so he didn’t think I was a complete idiot. “Of course, you probably already know that.”
“Nope. Never been. I just came into town for the holidays.” He sipped at his cup, and in the silence, I felt the itch in my skull. It wasn’t familiar, but it was damned strong. I promised I wouldn’t
. And I didn’t intend to. I didn’t need to hear whatever these people were thinking about me.
Wouldn’t mind hearing what he’s thinking, though.
“So, you here to see family, then?”
The itch grew a hundred times worse. His eyes went darker than dark when he answered, but no other response was on his face. “Yeah.” He took another drink. “I’m Noel.”
“And I’m sure you get tired of the Christmas carol jokes.” It was even a struggle to speak. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold out not opening up my brain. At least not if I wanted to seem like the moderately normal person I was supposed to pretend to be.
Noel smiled, but it wasn’t nearly as wide as before. “Well, it comes with the territory. My parents didn’t think it through, I guess.”
This was getting fucking annoying. I had to give in if I was going to keep up the conversation. And I definitely wanted to. He was the most interesting person who’d come up so far. And he wouldn’t have any preformed opinions of me or the rest of the family. Plus my head was seconds from flat-out exploding.
I finally let it go, and I heard Noel’s voice. It filled my head and took out all the warmth that had come from seeing him.
“Hot cocoa’s my last meal. Not exactly how I imagined it.”
It was so vivid I caught myself staring at Noel just to see if he’d said it out loud. But no one would say that out loud and definitely not to a stranger. No, I’d heard it. Fuck, fuck, shit, God damn it.
It didn’t happen often, but it was hardly the first time I’d heard something I didn’t want to. Happened all the time at work. The things some of those kids had in their thoughts kept me up at night.
But this wasn’t work, and this wasn’t something I had any kind of legal path to fix. The only tools I had for this were a nosy streak I’d gotten from my mother and knowledge that there was no way I should have.
“So, how’s your night?” Is my voice normal?
I did my best, but I couldn’t tell for sure if this was right.
“Cold.” He chuckled. “Snow’s supposed to keep falling until nine or ten tonight. Is this thing staying open the whole time?” “I wonder when everyone’s going to be gone.”
“Pretty much all night.” I leaned closer. I didn’t want to touch him because totally awkward stranger groping, but he needed something. Some kind of interaction. Or maybe he didn’t, as far as he was concerned. But there was no way I was going to up and leave him to his own devices. “And then people tend to hang around anyway.”
He took another drink. “Of course it didn’t work out. Couldn’t even kill myself right.”
There had to be something I could do. It had to be subtle, or he’d go away and no one would be able to help him.
“So, who’s your family? I grew up around here. Maybe I know them?”
“Iris Skala’s my mother.”
Hell. No wonder he was feeling down. Meth-head whore and an unpleasant one. But she had a son? How had that particular secret escaped everyone
in town? I didn’t question it. Just wanted to keep him talking.
“You should go get some cookies before they’re all gone.” I pointed to the slowly dwindling pile next to the tree. “And bring me back one of those little balls with the powdered sugar on it. If you’re not running straight off.”
“Not just yet.”
“I’ll be back.”
I watched him anyway, made sure he got over there, and was heading back. He was out of range of my telepathy, which was a bit of a relief. Not that I could really complain about it. I was in some of his thoughts for maybe a couple of minutes. Noel was living with all that and whatever had gotten him there.
He was back within a minute, carrying two napkins full of cookies. He laid one out in front of me loaded with six little powdery white balls. “Russian tea cookies delivered.”
“I’ll be damned. Most people don’t know what they are.”
“Love them.” He pulled one out of his own napkin and bit into it, raining powder across his hands. “So good. I tried to make them once. Burned them to black balls and set off every smoke detector in my apartment.”
I chuckled but kept probing around his mind. It was oddly closed off. I didn’t take an active role very often, but it was always pretty easy. Almost always. Not with Noel, though. I couldn’t get into any kind of depth with his thoughts. If Mom had come down, I would have been able to prod her into checking out his emotions. And then she would have been obliged to help, knowing her. Would have been a good load off me.
Noel sighed and tipped back his cup. The brightness had come back to his eyes. Did that mean anything? I was trying to avoid staring at him, but I wanted to get something out of his expression. His cheeks and nose were red with the cold, and a few snowflakes caught in his hair and rested on the shoulders of his coat. They took their time melting, leaving a dusting of white on him.
“Probably couldn’t hurt to get another cup.”
I ladled him out a fresh one. “You looked like you were ready for more.” I handed it over, then sprayed the whipped cream on top. “And there’s plenty.”
“Impressive. You must be psychic.”
“Only on Fridays.”
“Pretty sure it is Friday.”
I shrugged. Hadn’t realized that, but it worked. “Guess I’m psychic, then.”
Raven de Hart