Because she knew she’d come too close to death, Nessa didn’t leave the school the minute she had the strength to climb out of her bed.
She should have felt at home here. After all, she’d taught in this school for many, many years . . . back in that other life. That other life. She smiled without humor. She could break her life into two parts now . . . no, three.
Life with Elias. Life after Elias. And now . . . life after death.
Nessa didn’t want to be here. She didn’t want to be around another soul—not a friend, not a student. Nobody. She couldn’t risk it. Another loss would destroy her.
Where’s your strength now, you stupid old bitch?
The sly, insulting whisper of Morgan’s voice stirred something inside her, the first embers of anger, self-disgust. Something. But she couldn’t very well get angry, now could she?
After all, the girl wasn’t wrong.
Nessa’s strength was gone. She couldn’t find that strength again, and she didn’t want to.
She just wanted oblivion and if she couldn’t have that, then she wanted peace and solitude.
If she was alone, then she wouldn’t come to care about anybody again and if she didn’t come to care, she wouldn’t be shattered by another loss.
“Too many losses,” she murmured to herself. Far too many.
As her strength slowly returned, so did lucidity. Clear thoughts weren’t particularly welcome, but she had to face the facts. She couldn’t keep doing this to herself. Even if she didn’t particularly want to live, she didn’t want her friends to pay the price, and sooner or later, that would happen if she kept to this road.
Kelsey visited often, using books, movies and bribes of French chocolate and plum wine to draw Nessa out of her shell. As fond as Nessa was of her shell, though, she let her friend coax her outside.
As little as she cared for her own neck, for her own life, she did still care for her friends and she was tired of making them worry.
Within a week, her energy was back.
Thanks to the food they’d been pushing on her, she’d put on a few pounds.
And her mind was all too clear. That was the bothersome part about taking care of herself. It was harder to avoid thinking about things.
Memories taunted her, and the ever-present Morgan renewed her assault with glee.
She was tempted—for the first time since she’d realized that the bitch had taken to haunting her—to tell somebody else about her hitchhiker, see if anybody might have a clue how to get rid of the annoying ghost.
But she didn’t. If she seriously put her mind to it, she could probably think of a way to rid herself of Morgan.
It’s a sad thing in life when one hesitates to rid oneself of an enemy. But if nothing else, Morgan was a constant in Nessa’s life.
“How low I’ve sunk,” she whispered, staring off into nothingness. She tolerated the presence of a murdering ghost, just because it meant she wasn’t alone inside her head.
The irony wasn’t lost on her.
She came awake to hear the high-pitched chatter of laughter and she groaned, rolling onto her stomach. She tugged the pillow over her head and tried to block out the sound of the students, but to no avail. She’d left the blasted window open the night before, forgetting that the students resumed their studies today.
For the past week, it had been relatively quiet. The students had been on spring break, but now the time for quiet was over. School was back in session.
Kicking her legs over the edge of the bed, she rose and stormed to the window, half tempted to mutter a spell that would darken the room again. She could pretend it was still nightfall.
Staring out the window, she watched them. They were laughing amongst themselves. A few were griping about an assignment they’d failed to do over the break. Others were loitering here and there, with that feigned air of apathy teenagers had long since perfected.
Across the broad expanse of green grass, Nessa could see the front steps of the school. Kelsey was there, along with some of the other instructors. They spoke to the children, answered questions and waved the students on when they lingered too long.
On the surface, it looked like most any other school. That was exactly what the mortal world saw—a school for the gifted and troubled. Gifted meaning highly capable, though, since naturally the mortal world didn’t tend to think in terms of witches, shapeshifters or vampires.
And Excelsior was a damn fine school—it provided a top-notch education, one of the finest private educations money could buy. It provided that . . . and a lot more. Many, though not all, of the students had no family to guide them through the training needed to attain control of their gifts.
Once the sun set, a new set of students would emerge from the secured, safe rooms under the school—the newly Changed vampires—there to learn control over their bloodthirst.
Excelsior was small. No fewer than two hundred minor students and maybe half as many adult students. A little world, isolated from the rest of mankind.
Nessa closed the window and jerked the heavy curtains into place. Turning, she stared at her room. She dismissed the bed without even looking at it. There was no way she could rest now. A headache pounded behind her eyes.
There was a neat stack of books on the little table near the window. Yet another offering from Kelsey. Depressed and tired, Nessa moved to the chair and sank down. She blew out a breath and glanced at the paperback on top. A pretty girl, dressed all in black. She flipped it open and saw another image just inside. The same girl, this time with a man. They stood close, not quite embracing.
Blood roared in Nessa’s ears as she stared at the man. Black coat, worn open over a bare chest, the long ends of it flapping about his legs.
Nessa’s hands trembled. Her heart began to slam against her ribs.
Dark hair . . . a strong jaw. She couldn’t see his face well, but her imagination was quite content to fill in the void. In her mind’s eye, she could see him.
Her dream lover . . .
The book fell from her slack hands, but she didn’t notice.