EXCERPT from Dark Territory (the first book in The Tracks YA series, from HCI Books)

 

The rest of the day passed with excruciating slowness. Aimee didn’t hear a word her teachers said. Her mind, instead, returned again and again to Raphael’s note. It was so bad she was pretty sure she bombed a quiz in French class. And between classes, she couldn’t refrain from looking for him in the halls, or repress the thrill she felt when she caught a glimpse of him.

            With the end-of-class bell still echoing in her ears, she was on her feet, her history book tucked under one arm. She was the first one to get through the door. Rushing across the polished terrazzo, she moved as fast as she could without breaking into a run . . . She fled down the nearest stairwell, weaving her way through another crowded hallway toward a quiet wing across from the art room, where the back entrance to the theater was located.

            Raphael had chosen their meeting place well. There were no lockers down here, and . . .  the hall quickly emptied. Aimee glanced over her shoulder, then pulled on the heavy steel door and went inside.

            With the soft thud of the door closing behind her, all the clamor of departing students abruptly ceased. It was silent save for a faint, electronic buzzing—probably from the stage lighting system. The only illumination came from an exit sign above the door.

            She took a few tentative steps into the darkened room, suddenly wondering why she had agreed to meet Raphael here. After all the graffiti, the vandalism and the horrible word he had scrawled on the wall of her house—what on earth could he have to talk to her about? She didn’t think he would do anything to her with Mr. Brighton and the other students around. Still, she thought, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

            A row of taut ropes and pulleys stood to her left—Aimee guessed they were for moving curtains and hanging set pieces. A movement near them caught her eye and a figure stepped out of the shadows.

            At first, Aimee’s breath caught in her throat.

            “Hello?” she managed.

            “Aimee,” he said. She would know his voice anywhere.

“Raphael?”

“Yeah. I’m glad you made it.”

He moved further into the light. He was looking down at her, as handsome, as magnetic as she remembered him.

“Look, I’ll make it quick. I guess you know I’m not your brother’s favorite person right now. Or ever. I didn’t want to take a chance he would see you talking to me. That would be bad for you, probably.”

            Aimee nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “It probably would.” She took a steadying breath and then added, “I should be really mad at you.”

            In the dim red light, she saw him nod. “I know.”

            “All I want to know is—why did you do that to my house?” There was an edge to her voice that she hated because it was usually followed by tears. But she was determined not to cry in front of him.

            “I’m sorry,” he said, and it sounded like he really meant it. “I don’t have anything against you. My fight is with your dad and Rick, not you.”

            “But that word you wrote—murderer. That was . . .  about me.”

            “What?” Raphael was stunned. “No—of course not!” he said.

She studied him for a moment. He was telling the truth. The flash of surprise in his eyes proved that he was truly astonished at her accusation.

“Why would you think that?” he asked, and then a look of sudden comprehension swept across his face. “Oh, man—I didn’t mean you. I’m sorry—really. Aimee, I never meant you.”

            “Who else could you have meant?” She didn’t try to hide the hurt she still felt. “You know about Tyler—he was my boyfriend, and he died. You heard about that, right? I thought everyone in this town had heard about that.”

            Raphael took a step forward as if to comfort her, then stopped. He was a few inches taller than she, and his shoulders were broad. He was lean and solid, muscular but not muscle bound like her brother. And his scent was as enticing as she remembered it. The fragrance that still clung to the hoodie she had hidden under her bed was real. She would have liked for him to move even closer.

            “I heard about it. But I swear—it wasn’t about you.”

            “No? Then who?”

            For a moment he didn’t speak. Then he said, “My dad died in your father’s factory. He worked there most of his life, and died there because of an accident that could—should—have been prevented. He died slowly—painfully—and we had to watch the whole thing.”

He lowered his face and turned it away from the red glow of the exit sign. She saw his shoulders rise and fall in a deep sigh and for some strange reason, she wanted to comfort him.

            “I didn’t tell anyone,” she said suddenly.

            He looked around, coming back into the light a little, and his eyes met hers.       

“When I saw you outside my window that night, my dad asked me if I saw anything,” she went on. “I told him I didn’t.”

            “Why?” Raphael asked. His question hung in the silence. Suddenly, the backstage lights burst into glaring brightness with a loud click. Gently he took her arm and pulled her with him into the cool darkness of the curtains.

            Being near him in the shadows felt incredible. Delicious and comforting, heavenly and unreal. She looked up into his eyes at the same time he looked down, into hers, and she realized how close their lips were . . . almost touching.  His breath was warm and sweet and he smelled like cinnamon.  She wondered if he would kiss her.  She wanted him to—but then what?