Today I bring to you the book of my heart! Bright is the third book I ever attempted to write. It’s a fairytale; a retelling of a story about how stars are born.
This story was inspired by the movie “Stardust,” which is based off a book written by Neil Gaiman. In the story, a star accidentally falls to Earth and then falls in love with a young man. Spoiler Alert: at the end of the film, after growing old as humans, the lovers ascend into the Heavens as a star. I wanted the story to continue. So, I started writing, and Bright was born.
I hope you’ll give it a chance!
You can purchase this book now.
Click to Read Chapter One!
He’d always known how he’d die: the manner in which he’d go; the date of his demise; and the precise time, down to the minute.
He crouched in the darkness, alone with his thoughts, like he had done every night of his life. But tonight was different. Night had fallen the day before. The sun wouldn’t be up until the next day. That was the way of things at the top of the world. This place where it was easy to hide what you didn’t want others to see.
He glanced up at the night sky and saw a streak of light. A star fell. People wished on the death of stars, seeking glory in the demise of a celestial body.
He didn’t bother. He knew the night didn’t fall. The darkness was permanent. The light was temporary.
Stars rose at birth. They fell at death. While they shined bright, all living things were drawn to their deadly bodies. Plants, animals, even chemicals were all compelled to seek the light. All moths to a flame.
Even this planet he stood upon was no match for the sun. The Earth spiraled towards the star at the center of its universe. The planet and its inhabitants were unaware or uncaring that once they reached their destination, all would be consumed in a fiery death.
He knew all too well that things that were bright were dangerous. He knew better than to become mesmerized by the death traps of light. Look too long and the brightness would blind you. Go too far away from its warmth and its absence would freeze you to death. Get too close and its rays would lash out and disintegrate you.
The moth didn’t know the consequences of its devotion. The fool didn’t know that what drew it would ultimately kill it in an instant, without ever noticing the sacrifice. That was why he kept to the shadows.
From his perch on high, he tipped back his head and looked up at the dark sky. The stars were waking. They twinkled at him as though rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.
In a blink, they were bright. Watching him. Waiting for him. Beckoning him to come closer. Whispering that his time was nearly up.
He moved from his perch in the shadows and crossed the short distance to the ledge. It was the highest structure in the small town where he’d lived all his life. The small town he had never stepped foot out of. The town he would never have the chance to leave. Not as long as she was here.
He felt the pull of her; the heady rush of desire to be near her. He sensed the warmth of her presence from this height. It called to him, beckoned him to look in on her, to seek her warmth, to get closer.
To protect her. Always to protect her. Her life above his.
He’d never been taught this. He’d been born knowing it to be true. He’d been born with the ache to serve her. It was almost too much to resist.
He stepped up onto the ledge and peered over the side. From this height, and in this darkness, he saw the manicured lawns, the night flowers in bloom. The flowers were abundant in this land of little sunlight. Defiant against the mistress who commanded that all living things revolve around it, receive sustenance from it. He smiled down at the white blooms unfurling in the darkness.
The wind blew a strong gust of cold air and he teetered. The ground was a long way down. He was high enough that the impact would kill him instantly. His heart didn’t pick up an extra beat as he regained his footing. It couldn’t. This wasn’t the way he would go, falling off a high roof.
He was the moth. She was the flame. He was destined to give his life for hers. The time of his sacrifice was fast approaching. He’d revolved around her for the last seventeen years and 364 days.
It was his duty. The voices from above insisted the proper name for it was love. His lips curled at the word. His heart turned colder than the air of the snowcapped mountain. He’d rejected that notion at an early age and replaced it with the truth. He was a sacrifice. A lamb being led to slaughter. A moth preparing to burn.
He lifted a toe in the air, tempted to make the choice of his demise for himself. It would only take one step, and it would be over. On his terms.
Then she’d be alone.
He told himself that he didn’t care. He hadn’t chosen this life. It had been chosen for him.
Eighteen years. That was all he’d been given to live his life the way he saw fit.
Eighteen years, with strings attached. Strings that all led back to her. He would never escape her. Not until she killed him. Which she would do very soon.
The night was frigid. Through the thin t-shirt he wore, warmth rushed up his spine and arrowed into his chest. His fingers clenched at the unwelcome warmth. She’d stirred below.
Even through the layers of concrete and steel, he felt her. She was restless tonight. He knew why. The stars twinkled at him in confirmation.
It was beginning. She would wake soon. Wake up and remember who she was, remember what she was meant to do to him.
He put his foot down. The gravel of the roof crunched under his heel, the sound loud enough to be fireworks.
For any other person, this occasion would be a cause for celebration. Turning eighteen—it should mean he was his own man. He’d never been his own man, and he never would be. In a matter of minutes, he would be eighteen and his life would end with the dawn.
He turned around and walked away, ignoring the hollow pain that awoke in his chest every time he separated from her. There was something to be thankful for: once she’d killed him, he would no longer feel the hypocritical pull to protect his murderer.
A chill gust accompanied him as he descended from the rooftop. He glanced once more at his watch.
He took his final breath and, with the last of his free will, disappeared into the receding darkness.
I opened my eyes. Then I rolled them. There wasn’t much distinction between sleeping and waking. It was dark. It was always dark here. A person might think that living at the top of the world would afford them ample amounts of sunshine. They’d be wrong most of the time.
Except during the summer.
In the summer months, my little town of Solstice, Alaska, received twenty-four hours a day of straight sunshine for weeks. It all began on the first official day of summer: the solstice. My favorite day of the year: June 21st.
I felt the first prickles of sunlight creeping in through the blinds. My ears pricked as one solitary ray climbed over the windowsill and crept across the floor. My nostrils flared as the beam grew longer, wider. I tasted its fervor as it scaled my bed and planted itself on my chest, spreading its warmth into my heart.
The ray of sunshine brushed my lips, coaxing a smile. It warmed the center of my head, my heart, my shoulders: a benediction that today would be better. Today would be different. And like every day of my life for the last eighteen years, I believed the lie.
I sat up and swung my bare legs out of the four-poster bed. My feet hit the ice-cold floor. Like always, the bottoms of my feet heated the wood. The thermostat’s needle struggled to crest sixty degrees, but the moment I neared it, it leaped into the seventies.
I stepped into my walk-in closet. It was large, bright, and full of color. The last vestiges of the spring’s long night faded as I surveyed the array of colors lining the walls in skirts, pants, sweaters, and the organized shoes starting at the beginning of the spectrum with red and ending with violet.
I continued past the few pastels on hangers. Today would be a vibrantly loud day. An orange Victoria’s Secret cami with a built-in push-up bra to hint at the outline of my girls. On top of the cami I donned an off-the-shoulder yellow cashmere sweater that hinted at my curves. Bright red fitted jeans with an expensive designer label covered my shapely butt. To complete the outfit I pulled out my birthday gift to myself: sparkly golden Manolo Blahniks that crisscrossed my trim ankles in a bow.
It was an eye-catching outfit, to be sure. But I wasn’t done.
I took a seat before my large vanity. The twenty-four bulbs arched around the mirror and reflected my honey-golden skin. I ran a brush through the rage of spirals atop my head. There were more strands of yellow and red in my golden-brown locks today than usual. My hair changed color with the seasons. Every year during the summer months, hints of orange arrived to overshadow the red.
With my locks tamed, I focused on my eyes. The color of my irises did a seasonal shift as well. During the dark winter months, my eyes tended towards a dusky brown. But in the summer months, they brightened to a color that was almost golden. Today they were bright hazel. At the center of my eyes, where most people had dark pupils, mine were a twinkling yellow.
I selected a deep red to paint my eyelids. I’d learned years ago when I first began painting my face that lush fall colors warmed my sepia skin tones. Next I selected a darker shade of red to outline my crescent-shaped eyelids. The lush colors made my tiger-colored eyes even more startling. I finished the look off with golden sparkles at the inner and outer corners of my eyes. The look was what I called a sunny eye, to rival the smoky eye.
My outfit set to dazzle, my face set to stun, I took one more look at myself in the mirror. Surely this would get his attention. If not, then I would have no other choice but to enact plan B.
I left my room and sauntered down the spiral staircase of the mansion that was my home. Priceless art lined the walls of my descent. A chandelier dripped crystals in the foyer. This wasn’t a house for children. It was part museum, part bachelor pad. Only the bachelor was never around. The Honorable Dwight Shepard spent most of his time in the District of Columbia, where he represented the great state of Alaska in the House of Representatives.
His house in Alaska was largely empty. Had been since just before my sixteenth birthday. Housekeepers came by weekly to clean. Groceries were delivered and stored. The house ran like clockwork.
I looked to the grandfather clock in the hallway. It was a family heirloom. Years ago, before I came to live in the house, someone had disabled the gong so that it did not ring at any hour. Someone, I wasn’t sure who, always made sure it was powered and that its hands displayed the correct time. The clock had everything it needed to do what it was meant to. Other than its role of keeping the time, it was largely ignored.
I walked in step with the quiet tick and tock and headed for the garage door. Inside was my birthday gift from my father, from back when I turned fifteen. He’d gotten my age wrong that year, but at least he’d remembered the date that time. The sleek BMW convertible was tricked out with every gadget imaginable. My favorite feature was the heated bucket seats. I spent hours in my warm car, safe in a cocoon of solitude.
I didn’t wait for the car to heat up this morning. I didn’t need to. The sun was out and my mood was bright. I turned over the ignition and headed out onto the salted streets.
It was a short drive to school. The roads were in good shape, with the sun melting the last heaps of the late-May snowfall. I pulled into the school’s parking lot and found a space amongst the ancient pickup trucks and rusted American cars. There were no foreign imports in the lot other than mine. It was too expensive to ship cars to this remote town, and mine was the only family that could afford it.
I saw girls getting out of beat-up cars in groups, laughing and giggling. Today, Ashlyn Huntsman was dressed in a tragic shade of brown that did nothing for her skin tone. I would have put her in navy blue to bring out the hints of blue in her eyes. Her BFF, Josie Myer, wore a shade of burgundy that highlighted the splotches on her face. Five minutes with me and I would’ve covered all of her imperfections with a strong foundation. Neither girl had ever asked my opinion. Neither girl had ever spent five minutes even thinking about me.
It was no matter. I’d gotten over the need for female companionship when I was twelve. That was the year I’d spent most of my afternoons sitting atop the heater in the girls’ bathroom. That’s when I’d learned the meaning of the phrase gossip girl and knew I was better off for not having any real friends. Technically, I didn’t have any friends.
Though I didn’t hunger for girl time, I’d remained admittedly boy crazy all of my life. My heart skipped two beats when I saw his royal-blue pickup pull into the parking lot. He parked across from my car today.
He took a moment to admire the Beamer like he did every morning. His green eyes traced the lines and curves of the car. He tugged at his lower lip as he looked at my headlights. He pressed his lips together as he stared hard at the hood of my car, like he wanted to pop it open and have a look. If only he’d ask, I’d pop the clutch and let him look his fill.
I’d been drawn to Cal Costanza since the start of junior year. Before that it had been Ben Franklin, no relation. But Ben was always wrapped around Jenny Lisle, who always wore pastels. I’d tried wearing lilac and pink, to no avail. Ben had gotten Jenny pregnant at fifteen and they’d both dropped out to marry and take care of their kid. I’d heard, from the bathroom stalls, that Jenny was pregnant with number two now.
Cal liked cars. Fast, expensive cars that his family could never afford on his father’s fisherman salary. Cal noticed my car every day. He never noticed me. Today, that was going to change.
I’d sat quietly my whole life. I’d stood in the shadows waiting for someone to notice me. But today I’d dressed loudly. Today, my voice would match my outfit. Today, I was going to make Cal Costanza notice me. I stepped out of my car.
Cal rounded to the passenger side of his car, picking up the conversation he’d been having inside the car with his best friend, Rogen Foster.
My Blahniks tapped on the ice as I made my way to him. My voice creaked from disuse. “Cal.”
I saw the backs of his ears perk up like those of a dog who sensed something in the distance. I was a few paces behind him, negotiating the puddles in my heels.
“Cal.” I reached out to him and grabbed his elbow. I was looking up at him, which was why I missed the small patch of black ice.
Cal jerked at my touch. He turned just in time to catch me before I hit the ground. He brought my body flush with his. I stared into his pale green eyes and fell.
Metaphorically speaking. Not actually. Not when I gripped his strong biceps like they were a lifeline. Now that I had him, there was no way I was letting go.
Cal lifted me up into the air and set me down on my feet. His hands hovered at my shoulders, a loose cage which I made no move to flee. His eyes never left mine. A small smile played at his lips. It was how everyone looked at me—whenever they had occasion to actually notice me.
Like always, I saw the wheels of recognition crank and sputter in their heads. Their lips would quirk in a breathless kind of smile as their eyes met the yellow sparkles in mine. Their gazes would narrow and they’d fight for focus. But no matter how many times I had a conversation with someone, no matter how recently we’d chatted, no one seemed able to hold on to a single memory of me.
“Ellie,” I said. “My name is Ellie.”
“Right, Ellie. You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
I smiled up at him. He smiled down at me. His gaze traveled down to my lips and widened with interest.
“Cal,” barked Rogen, who stood impatiently on the sidewalk. “You coming?”
Cal blinked at the terse words. My hand fluttered and lost its grip on his elbow. Once the contact broke, his eyes skated away from me. Cal blinked at his friend, confused. He began to turn his body and set his feet to walking towards the sidewalk.
I had to act fast. I reached out and grabbed his sleeve again.
Cal jumped and turned back to me as though he’d forgotten I was there. Because he had.
He looked down at me. First in puzzlement, and then his face screwed up as though he was trying to remember something. I could see him reaching for it, but like countless times before with every person I’d met, Cal’s mind wouldn’t give it up.
“It’s Ellie.” I couldn’t keep the desperation out of my voice. “Remember?”
“I just wanted—”
The first bell rang out loudly. I glanced down at my hand on his arm. I knew I couldn’t hold on to him forever. I don’t know why I thought it would work this time. No matter what I did, he’d forget me. Unless I was right up in his face—making me the definition of clingy.
At least for a few seconds, Cal had noticed me. That was what I had wanted, right? That was more than I’d ever had from any one of my crushes.
“I just wanted to tell you…that it’s my birthday.”
“Oh? Happy birthday, Ellie.”
“Thank you, Cal.” I uncurled my fingers from his jacket, slowly, prolonging the contact and the moment for as long as I could. Finally, I released him. My hands rested quietly at the sides of my loud pants.
Cal stared at me for one moment longer. My heart fluttered as I hoped against hope. Hoped that maybe this time—
“Cal?” shouted Rogen. “You coming to school or what?”
Cal turned back to face me. His gaze went hazy. He squinted into my eyes.
I held my breath. Maybe. Just maybe…
But he blinked, his gaze unfocused. Cal shook his head and turned to Rogen, who stood off to the side brooding in his black jeans, black leather jacket, black motorcycle boots, and dark sunglasses.
“Hey, did you do the chemistry homework?” Cal asked Rogen. “I completely blanked on the last two questions.”
Rogen didn’t answer Cal immediately. Rogen’s face was set in an angry line. His arms were crossed at his chest and his nostrils flared, glaring at his friend. Cal took a few steps past him, but Rogen held his place.
It was just one second. Maybe two? But it felt like behind Rogen’s dark shades, he was glaring at me. Which was unlikely. Which was impossible. I’d never once had a conversation with Rogen Foster. He wouldn’t have a single memory of me. He couldn’t even see me without me touching him. Could he?
“No.” Rogen turned on his heel and stormed up to the school’s entrance alongside Cal. “I did not do my homework last night. Because I have a life.”
And with that, the two continued on into the school building along with all the other students. I alone remained in the school parking lot. By myself. Just like every other birthday of my life. Just like every day of my life.
Well, plan B it was. I was tired of this town, with its ignorant adults and its oblivious youth. All my life everyone had been wrapped up in themselves or others. I had never been noticed. I had never fit in. Today, I was done trying. I was a legal adult now.
I pulled out my car keys. I’d already packed a suitcase in the trunk. I had a purse full of credit cards—thanks, absentee dad. I hadn’t even bothered to withdraw cash from the account my father had set aside for my expenses. I’d learned long ago that it was an automatic deposit from his congressional paychecks. I could live off that money for years. I doubted anyone would come looking for me once I’d gone. No one looked for me while I was here.
I jumped. The voice behind me was loud, as though it had been speaking for a while without an answer. I turned and before me stood a boy. Young man, really.
His dark curly hair fell in huge locks down onto his forehead. His skin was deeply tanned, more olive than brown. His eyes were dark brown, nearly black. And then there was his smile. It was one part mischievous, another part curious, with a dash of something that looked like hunger. And it beamed at me.
“I fear I’m lost. Can you help me?”
I squinted at him. “Me?”
The grin spread across his face like the Cheshire Cat. He looked around conspiratorially. “I don’t see anybody else around.” His smile slipped infinitesimally. “That is, unless you can’t help me.”
He studied me some more. In the chilly morning air, he glanced down at my coatless body that revealed my outrageous sweater and tight jeans.
“Jealous boyfriend?” he asked.
My eyes widened in surprise, and then delight. “You can see me?”
He had to be new in town. I’d never seen him before. He looked at me with uncertainty.
I had to cover. I let out a trill of laughter like I’d seen Josie Myer do in the girls’ bathroom when she’d learned her BFF had agreed to a date with the boy she liked. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
His smile returned. “I find that incredibly hard to believe. What’s your name?”
“Ellie. My name is Ellie.”
“That’s a beautiful name. Ellie. It’s old. A relative’s?”
“It came with me.”
He quirked an eyebrow.
“I was left on my father’s doorstep. The note inside said my name was Ellie.”
He smiled again. It was a slow smile and it warmed me as it grew. “I’m very glad to meet you, Ellie.”
I detected a slight accent as he spoke, but I couldn’t place it. He didn’t sound like he was from another country. He sounded like he was from another time.
“My name is Kwan.”
“I’m so happy to meet you, Kwan.” I stuck out my hand. It was a weapon aimed at his chest. He jerked back but then took it in his own. A shiver went through me at the contact.
Kwan’s dark eyes lightened. At their center I thought I saw something spark.
“You’re cold,” he said.
He took off his coat and placed it around my shoulders. I was instantly overheated, but I didn’t care. His face screwed up in concentration as he worked to button me up to the last fastener. It wasn’t until he’d buttoned me up to my neck that he seemed to realize he’d taken liberties. His wolfish smile turned sheepish, but he didn’t apologize for taking the liberties.
Kwan stuck out his arm. I stared at it a full five seconds before realizing he meant for me to take it. Then it took me another few seconds for my hand to reach out to him.
As my fingers skated over his coated arm, I felt a dull thrum of energy. Another second and it grew into a warm coursing.
I looked up at him. He was staring at the spot on his arm where my fingers rested. I saw his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed.
Then he looked up at me and smiled. “Let’s get you out of the cold, shall we?”
The piece of coal in his hand streaked his fingers as much as it streaked onto the white of his sketchpad. It turned the beige of his palms and fingertips black just as it covered the paper. The white canvas became night—or what most people considered night. There was no night or day in space. It was always black.
The splashes of color came from the planets, stars, asteroids and moons. A golden comet with a streaking orange tail. A pale red crab nebula with lightning streaks of yellow. They were a crazy combination of colors, but they worked. With those celestial bodies complete, he took out his white pencil to begin the difficult part. He began to plot the constellations.
Drawing the stars wasn’t the hard part. A splash of yellow here, a point of gold there. But he was never satisfied. It was never quite right. He could never get them to twinkle in the way he saw them mocking him each night.
“So, when you add oxygen and carbon you get…” Cal rubbed the eraser end of his nub of a pencil against his temple as though it would shake the answer loose. “…OC?”
“Wrong,” Rogen said.
“Man, Rogen. I don’t get this.” Cal threw his pencil down.
The point of it bounced off Rogen’s canvas before rolling to his curled fingers. The black lead made a mark on one of his stars. The darkness at the edge improved the pale body. Rogen typically used yellow to add the twinkle. Maybe this was what he’d been missing all along to make them twinkle like they did in real life, a little touch of darkness.
“Are you gonna help me with this?”
Rogen’s gaze shifted to Cal. Not for the first time, Rogen had the thought that his friend had sat down at the wrong table. He and Cal were complete, polar opposites.
Cal was the typical all-American boy. His sunny mane of hair fell into his eyes whenever he cocked his head one way or the other. His square chin said don’t fuck with me. His lazy grin softened the threat. Cal was on the football team, but not the quarterback. He was well liked by everyone but didn’t hang out in the typical packs someone of his ilk would be expected to travel in. Girls didn’t swarm Cal, but they did flip their hair and arch their backs when he cocked his head, let a lock fall, and turned that grin on them. Cal was smart too, but he had to work at it.
In short, Cal was a safe bet: good enough to bring home to Mom, with just a bit of danger to keep a girl interested. The problem was, Cal wasn’t interested in girls. Cal liked cougars. He was currently playing pool boy to Mrs. Addison, the quarterback’s mother.
“The answer is CO2,” Rogen said and then looked back down at his canvas. When he bowed his head, no locks of hair fell in front of his shades. Rogen’s hair was cut short. He didn’t like anything getting in the way of his eyes.
“I don’t understand,” said Cal. “You know Mr. Gaither is gonna ask me why. Can you explain it?”
“It’s a chemical reaction. Two or more things that come together to make something new.”
The look of puzzlement remained on Cal’s face.
Rogen tossed his pencil down and reached for a simpler explanation. “You ever make a volcano when you were a kid?”
“Yeah,” Cal chuckled. “Third-grade science experiment. That thing shot up so high it left a stain on the dining room ceiling. Mom still gets pissed every Thanksgiving when we’re all in there.”
“The baking soda and the vinegar came together. When the powder and liquid touched, they changed. They exploded into something new. It’s the same thing.”
Realization dawned on his friend’s face. Rogen picked up his yellow pencil, thought better of it, then picked up a black one.
“How do you understand all of this stuff?” Cal asked. “I never see you studying. You only ever scribble and doodle.”
“What are you? Five? Who the hell says ‘doodle’?”
“I still don’t understand why you didn’t apply to college. You need to get out of this backwards-ass town as much as anybody.”
Rogen pressed the black lead into the white. It was still too bright. He darkened the edge more, and then some more, until the star was snuffed out.
“It’s our last few days of high school,” Cal continued. “What are you going to do after this? Go work at the art supply store? Be another Buddy Lawson, working at the movie theater for the next twenty years and still living with his mother in his childhood bedroom?”
“I don’t have a mother,” said Rogen. “And I made five hundred dollars on the last scribbled doodle that I sold.”
Cal’s hand paused midway to putting a hash brown in his mouth. “Seriously? Do people actually make a living drawing?”
Not in this small town. Most people made a living fishing the waters or working in the oil fields. For a short while, money had been made mining the minerals from a meteorite that had fallen at the edges of town eighteen years ago. That crater had been stripped bare and only dust and dirt remained.
Out there, in the rest of the world, some people did make a living as artists. One or two of those people on the mainland thought Rogen had the talent to make a living at it, if only he could take the reins of his life in his own hands.
Rogen glanced over at the table in the corner of the town hall—the common area allotted to seniors to hang between classes. It was the table nearest the large picture windows that faced the parking lot. More importantly, it was the location of the area’s heater. When the sun was up, it was the spot that always received the most rays. When the heat was on, it was the space that received its fullest blast. Its usual occupant was unusually absent.
Rogen tapped his foot on the linoleum, annoyed that he noticed her absence. A streak of brown hemp cloth crossed before his vision, jerking him back to the present scene.
“Happy birthday, Ro.”
Rogen watched the sway of Ashlyn’s hips as she sauntered over to him. The fibrous skirt she wore would’ve looked like a sack on anyone else, but it worked on her tall length.
Ashlyn leaned down and planted a wet kiss on Rogen’s lips. Then she lowered herself into his lap. “How’s the birthday boy?”
“Hey, wait a minute,” Cal mumbled past a mouth full of greasy drive-thru potatoes. “Isn’t it someone else’s birthday today?”
Cal wiped the ketchup off his mouth with the back of his hand and frowned in concentration. Ashlyn cocked her head to the side, also thinking. Rogen held his breath in a tense silence.
“Nobody shares Rogen’s birthday,” Ashlyn said at last. “It’s a small town. We’d know.”
Cal shrugged and bit into his breakfast sandwich.
“So,” Ashlyn continued, “what time am I coming over tonight?”
“I wasn’t aware we had plans.” Rogen looked up at her thin lips. Through his shades, he couldn’t tell exactly what shade of lip gloss she wore today. It was likely pale to complement her fair skin.
Nearly every girl in this town had pale skin. The local drugstore didn’t bother with darker shades of lip gloss; they never sold. Anyone who wanted to go a few shades darker than pink had to order their makeup online and have it shipped—a costly prospect for this working-class town, one that only a few girls could afford and only one girl could pull off.
“It’s a half day.” Ashlyn ticked off one finger. “It’s your birthday.” A second finger. “And my grandparents won’t be home until late.” She ran the third finger down his chest.
“I have to work,” said Rogen. A lie, but no one had ever asked him what he did to keep his own apartment as a teenager with no adult supervision. Not when he was seventeen, not when he was seven-years-old.
“You’re working on your birthday?” It was more of a whine than a comment. “I made plans.”
A sliver of cold rushed down Rogen’s spine. His throat constricted. Ashlyn’s lush chest that pressed into his side felt smotheringly close.
He shifted in the chair, signaling Ashlyn to grab a different seat than his lap. She obliged, moving her flat ass into the seat next to him. She leaned into him, running her hands through his hair. Rogen turned away and leaned over his canvas, but not before seeing “the look” in her eyes.
He blamed himself. He’d spent too much time with her. And he knew why. Ashlyn was going to be his last. The last girlfriend he’d have before—
From beneath his eyelashes, he cast another glance at the space by the heater. Still empty. He didn’t panic. He’d seen her this morning, looking dejected after she’d tried and failed to capture Cal’s attention.
It had almost worked. Especially when Cal noticed that ridiculous outfit she’d worn. A tight sweater that begged all to look at her palm-perfect breasts. Those jeans that had hugged her heart-shaped ass, leaving no detail to the imagination.
Rogen had nearly lost his cool and marched her back to her car to send her home until she put a sack on. Luckily, he hadn’t needed to. She’d given up her attempts to attract attention. Hopefully for good this time. But he didn’t hold his breath. She woke up every morning, bright and sunny, with renewed determination. That was the way of her kind: perpetually sunny and optimistic.
“I’ll come over tonight after you get off work.”
Rogen realized belatedly that Ashlyn was still talking to him, trying to plan his evening. He didn’t actually work anywhere, but it was always a convenient excuse when he wanted solitude.
“We’ll have a party of our own,” she purred.
He shaded one of the stars with his black pencil. This time, with the smudge of darkness, it twinkled back at him. “Why don’t you give me a call, and we’ll see.”
Ashlyn was undaunted at the noncommittal response. She considered herself a prize. And in truth she was a prize here at Solstice High School. She’d only had two other boyfriends: last year’s quarterback, and the student government president before that. Both had gone off to college. Having done the popular jock and the stellar future politician, Ashlyn had turned her sights on the town’s orphaned, bad boy, misunderstood artist. She thought she’d ensnared him. Rogen let her believe that.
“Oh! Before I forget.” Ashlyn bent down to dig in her bag and come up with a flyer. “We’re having a rally for Endangered Species Day.”
Ashlyn was the product of two hippie grandparents who’d escaped to the wilderness of Alaska in the seventies. Their only daughter had run back to the mainland at the first possible chance. To their great disappointment, she was gainfully employed as a high-powered corporate lawyer. Mom had sent Ashlyn to Alaska at some point during her climb up the corporate ladder. The combination made Ashlyn into a free spirit and an activist.
“This year we’re focusing on the praying mantis.”
Cal perked up. “Isn’t that the lady bug that bites off the head of the dude bug after…bow-chicka-wow-wow?”
Ashlyn lifted a shoulder. “It certainly gives new meaning to mating for life.”
“Imagine that.” Cal’s look was dreamy. “Sex so good you’d die for it.”
“Maybe it’s love and devotion,” countered Ashlyn. “His sacrifice sustains her for motherhood.”
Cal cocked his head, the lock falling into his eyes with a windshield-wiping motion as he shook his head. “I can’t imagine dying for love like bug-man. You, Rogen?”
Rogen didn’t look up from his twinkling stars. “In the Sanskrit, love means to enslave. So yeah”—Rogen swapped out his lead pencil for a yellow one—“the praying mantis makes perfect sense.”
“You can’t mean that about love,” Ashlyn insisted. “Love is mutual.”
“Love is tyrannical,” Rogen countered. “You demand someone give over their heart—which is impossible. You demand that they desire only you. People talk about love possessing them body, mind, and soul, which is dictatorial.”
“You’ve obviously never been in love before,” Ashlyn said, throwing down the gauntlet.
“Because it’s a fairy tale people tell themselves when they’re scared of being alone.” Rogen left the gauntlet on the ground. “They think if they bind someone else to their loneliness, they’ll make it all better, when the truth is someone always gets burnt.”
It was at that moment that Rogen felt warm all over. Ashlyn must’ve seen the flare of desire crash through him, because she broke into a grin. But Rogen had stopped paying attention to her long ago. His fingers gripped the table. His knuckles went white.
She was near.
She was still outside in the cold morning air. Out of the large picture window, he saw her from the corner of his eye. Her back was to him and he got a perfect view of her perfect ass. Her legs went on for days and years, ending in those ridiculously high heels she insisted on wearing.
She was wearing a coat now. But it wasn’t hers. He would know. He knew every piece of clothing in her closet. What she wore now…it looked wrong on her. She swiped her thick honeyed locks over her shoulder, exposing her neck. Rogen forgot about the coat and focused on that hint of brown skin.
His pants grew uncomfortably tight. He had to look away. He needed to remind himself of who she was, of what she was. What she would do to him any moment now. That his feelings weren’t real.
Rogen’s head snapped to Cal, a growl nearly escaping his clenched teeth.
“It’s her birthday too,” Cal said. “Ellen? No, that’s not right. It’s…”
Rogen turned to see Ashlyn staring too. A slow pan around the town hall revealed that every pair of eyes was fixed on the exact same spot. Everyone was looking out the window at her.
Something was wrong. They should be ignoring her like always. She should be huddled in the shadows where he’d left her so that she couldn’t hurt anyone. But she didn’t notice any of them staring. Her attention was focused somewhere else.
And then a miraculous thing happened. Her face broke into a grin. It was like dawn. It stole Rogen’s breath away.
In that moment, he knew that he’d been exactly right to take the precautions he had for these last thirteen years. He knew that he’d been right to stay away from her and to keep everyone else away. If she had ever smiled at him like that before, he would have been at her feet. If ever anyone else had witnessed the miracle currently displayed on her face, they would have been under her power too.
It wasn’t as though he’d never seen Ellie smile before. She smiled all the time, even though she had no one to aim it at. Her smile was always full of hope.
Not this smile. This smile was full of happiness. Rogen had never seen the like before.
He rose from the table, powerless as his greatest fear came to fruition. His will had fled him—gone. He could no longer be apart from her. He had to get closer. Her brightness blinded him and he was ready to burn for a single touch of her brilliance.
Before he could take a step toward her, she reached up her hand and gave a tentative, shy wave. Warning bells sounded in Rogen’s head, first dull, and then blazingly loud as he saw the recipient of her wave and the beneficiary of her smile.
A dark-haired man strolled up to her. His gait sure, he aimed straight for Ellie. His eyes roamed her face in hungry anticipation. As Ellie turned, the man put his hand on the small of her back.
Rogen saw red.
The young man, as though sensing someone watching him, as though sensing danger, looked up. His eyes locked with Rogen’s.
Rogen lowered his sunglasses. In the window’s reflection, he caught the gleam of his golden-yellow eyes. Reflected back at him, Rogen saw light brown eyes. But like his own, there was a hint of yellow twinkling at the center.
The other man’s eyes narrowed as they assessed him in a question, as though he hadn’t expected to see Rogen. And then his lips curled, accusing, challenging. The man turned from Rogen and gave Ellie his full attention.
Once the two were out of sight, the hum of conversation slowly rose in the town hall. Every conversation centered around trying to figure out who these two new students were; few tried to coalesce their vague memories of Ellie.
Rogen was torn between marching outside and snatching Ellie away, thus drawing more unwanted attention to her, and leaving, running far away from the pull of her that, for the first time in his life, was too much for him to resist.
He knew he wouldn’t leave. Knew he couldn’t ever leave her. They were tied together with a bond that would only be broken when she woke up from her slumber and killed him.
It took forever for his legs to bend and return to his chair. One thing he knew unequivocally was that this newcomer was bad news. There was something wrong about him, and he had to get him away from Ellie. He had to save his murderer from the danger of that man.
If you’ve ever wished upon a star, if you’ve felt the glow of finding where you belong, if you know the brilliance of first love, then you’ll fall for Bright. Buy this new adult romance touched by fantasy, mixed with science fiction, and a dash of the paranormal today!