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Daughters of Darkness (Chapter 1)

Rowan, Kestrel, and Jade," Mary-Lynnette said as she and Mark passed the old Victorian farmhouse.

"Huh?"

"Rowan. And Kestrel. And Jade. The names of thegirls who're moving in." Mary-Lynnette tilted herhead toward the farmhouse-her hands were full of lawn chair. "They're Mrs. Burdock's nieces. Don't you remember I told you they were coming to live with her?"

"Vaguely," Mark said, readjusting the weight of the telescope he was carrying as they trudged up the manzanita-covered hill. He spoke shortly, which Mary-Lynnette knew meant he was feeling shy.

"They're pretty names," she said. "And they must be sweet girls, because Mrs. Burdock said so."

"Mrs. Burdock is crazy."

"She's just eccentric. And yesterday she told meher nieces are all beautiful. I mean, I'm sure she's prejudiced and everything, but she was pretty definite. Each one of them gorgeous, each one a completely different type."

"So they should be going to California," Mark saidin an almost-inaudible mutter. "They should be posing for Vogue.Where do you want this thing?" he added as they reached the top of the hill.

"Right here." Mary-Lynnette put the lawn chairdown. She scraped some dirt away with her foot so the telescope would sit evenly. Then she said casually, "You know, I thought maybe we could go over there tomorrow and introduce ourselves-sort of welcome them, you know…."

"Will you cut itout?"Mark said tersely. "I can organize my own life. If I want to meet a girl, I'll meet a girl. I don't need help."

"Okay, okay. You don't need help. Be careful withthat focuser tube-"

"And besides, what are we going to say?" Mark said, on a roll now. "'Welcome to Briar Creek, where nothing ever happens. Where there are more coyotes than people. Where if you really want some excitement you can ride into town and watch theSaturday night mouse racing at the Gold Creek Bar….'"

"Okay. Okay." Mary-Lynnette sighed. She-looked at her younger brother, who just at the moment was illuminated by the last rays of sunset. To see him now, you'd think he'd never been sick a day in hislife.

His hair was as dark and shiny as Mary Lynnette's, his eyes were as blue and clear and snapping. He had the same healthy tan as she did; thesame glow of color in his cheeks.

But when he'd been a baby, he'd been thin andscrawny and every breath had been a challenge.His asthma had been so bad he'd spent most of his second year in an oxygen tent, fighting to stay alive.

Mary-Lynnette, a year and a half older, had won dered every day if her baby brother would ever come home.

It had changed him, being alone in that tent whereeven their mother couldn't touch him. When hecame out he was shy and clingy-holding on to theirmother's arm all the time. And for years he hadn'tbeen able to go out for sports like the other kids. That was all a long time ago-Mark was going to bea junior in high school this year-but he was still shy. And when he got defensive, he bit people's heads off.

Mary-Lynnette wished one of the new girls would be right for him, draw him out a bit, give him confidence. Maybe she could arrange it somehow….

"What are you thinking about?" Mark asked suspiciously.

Mary-Lynnette realized he was staring at her.

"About how the seeing's going to be really good tonight," she said blandly. "August's the best month for starwatching; the air's so warm and still. Hey,there's the first star-you can make a wish."

She pointed to a bright point of light above the southern horizon. It worked; Mark was distracted and looked, too.

Mary-Lynnette stared at the back of his dark head.If it would do any good, I'd wish for romance for you, she thought. I'd wish it for myself, too-but what would be the point? There's nobody around here to be romantic with.

None of the guys at school–except maybe JeremyLovett-understood why she was interested in as tronomy, or what she felt about the stars. Most ofthe time Mary-Lynnette didn't care-but occasionally she felt a vague ache in her chest. A longing to … share. If she hadwished, it would have been for that, for someone to share the night with.

Oh, well. It didn't help to dwell on it. And besides,although she didn't want to tell Mark, what they were wishing on was the planet Jupiter, and not a star at all.

Mark shook his head as he tramped down the path that wound through buckbrush and poison hemlock.

He should have apologized to Mary-Lynnette beforeleaving-he didn't like being nasty to her. In fact, she was the one person he usually tried to be decent to.

But why was she always trying to fix him? To the point of wishing on stars. And Mark hadn't really made a wish, anyway. He'd thought, if I was making a wish, which I'm not because it's hokey and stupid, it would be for some excitement around here.

Something wild, mark thought-and felt an innershiver as he hiked downhill in the gathering darkness.

Jade stared at the steady, brilliant point of lightabove the southern horizon. It was a planet, she knew.

For the last two nights she'd seen it moving across the sky, accompanied by tiny pinpricks of light that must be its moons. Where she came from, nobody was in the habit of wishing on stars, but this planet seemed like a friend-a traveler, just like her. As Jade watched it tonight, she felt a sort of concentration of hope rise inside her. Almost awish.

Jade had to admit that they weren't off to a very promising start. The night air was too quiet; there wasn't the faintest sound of a car coming. She wastired and worried and beginning to be very, very hungry.

Jade turned to look at her sisters.

"Well, where is she?"

"I don't know," Rowan said in her most doggedly gentle voice. "Be patient."

"Well, maybe we should scan for her.

"No," Rowan said. "Absolutely not. Remember what we decided."

"She's probably forgotten we were coming," Kestrel said. "I told you she was getting senile."

"Don't saythings like that. It's not polite," Rowan said, still gentle, but through her teeth.

Rowan was always gentle when she could manageit. She was nineteen, tall, slim, and stately. She had cinnamon-brown eyes and warm brown hair that cascaded down her back in waves.

Kestrel was seventeen and had hair the color of old gold sweeping back from her face like a bird's wings. Her eyes were amber and hawklike, and she was never gentle.

Jade was the youngest, just turned sixteen, and she didn't look like either of her sisters. She had white-blond hair that she used as a veil to hide behind, and green eyes. People said she looked serene, but she almost never felt serene. Usually she was either madly excited or madly anxious and confused.

Right now it was anxious. She was worried about her battered, half-century-old Morocco leather suitcase. She couldn't hear a thing from inside it.

00 "Hey, why don't you two go down the road a little way and see if she's coming?"

Her sisters looked back at her. There were few things that Rowan and Kestrel agreed on, but Jade was one of them. She could see that they were about to team up against her.

"Now what?" Kestrel said, her teeth showing just briefly.

And Rowan said, "You're up to something. What are you up to, Jade?"

Jade smoothed her thoughts and her face out and just looked at them artlessly. She hoped.

They stared back for a few minutes, then looked at each other, giving up. "We're going to have to walk, you know," Kestrel said to Rowan.

"There are worse things than walking," Rowansaid. She pushed a stray wisp of chestnut-colored hair off her forehead and looked around the bus stationwhich consisted of a three-sided, glass-walled cubicle,and the splintering wooden bench. "I wish there was a telephone."

"Well, there isn't. And it's twenty miles to BriarCreek," Kestrel said, golden eyes glinting with a kind of grim enjoyment. "We should probably leave our bags here."

Alarm tingled through Jade. "No, no. I've got allmy–all my clothes in there. Come on, twenty milesisn't so far." With one hand she picked up her cat carrier-it was homemade, just boards and wiresand with the other she picked up the suitcase. She got quite a distance down the road before she heard the crunch of gravel behind her. They were following: Rowan sighing patiently, Kestrel chuckling softly, her hair shining like old gold in the starlight.

The one-lane road was dark and deserted. But notentirely silent there were dozens of tiny night sounds, all adding up to one intricate, harmonizing night stillness. It would have been pleasant, except that Jade's suitcase seemed to get heavier with everystep, and she was hungrier than she had ever beenbefore. She knew better than to mention it to Rowan, but it made her feel confused and weak.

Just when she was beginning tothink she would have to put the suitcase down and rest, she heard a new sound.

It was a car, coming from behind them. The engine was so loud that it seemed to take a long time to get close to them, but when it passed, Jade saw that itwas actually going very fast. Then there was a rattling of gravel and the car stopped. It backed up and Jade saw a boy looking through the window at her.

There was another boy in the passenger seat. Jade looked at them curiously.

They seemed to be about Rowan's age, and theywere both deeply tanned. The one in the driver's seat had blond hair and looked as if he hadn't washed ina while. The other one had brown hair. He was wear ing a vest with no shirt underneath. He had a toothpick in his mouth.

They both looked back at Jade, seeming just as curious as she was. Then the driver's window slid down. Jade was fascinated by how quickly it went.

"Need a ride?" the driver said, with an oddly bright smile. His teeth shone in contrast to his dingy face.

Jade looked at Rowan and Kestrel, who were just catching up. Kestrel said nothing, but looked at the car through narrow, heavy-lashed amber eyes. Rowan's brown eyes were very warm.

"We sure would," she said, smiling. Then, doubtfully, "But we're going to Burdock Farm. It may be out of your way…."

"Oh, hey, I know that place. It's not far," the onein the vest said around his toothpick. "Anyway, anything for a lady," he said, with what seemed to be an attempt at gallantry. He opened his door and got out of the car. "One of you can sit up front, and I can sit in back with the other two. Lucky me, huh?" he said to the driver.

"Lucky you," the driver said, smiling largely again. He opened his door, too. "You go on and put that cat carrier in front, and the suitcases can go in the trunk," he said.

Rowan smiled at Jade, and Jade knew what she was thinking. Iwonder if everybody out here is so friendly? They distributed their belongings and thenpiled in the car, Jade in the front with the driver, Rowan and Kestrel in the back on either side of the vested guy. A minute later they were flying downthe road at what Jade found a delightful speed, gravel crunching beneath the tires.

"I'm Vic," the driver said.

"I'm Todd," the vested guy said.

Rowan said, "I'm Rowan, and this is Kestrel. That'sJade up there."

"You girls friends?"

"We're sisters," Jade said.

"You don't look like sisters."

"Everybody says that." Jade meant everybody theyhad met since they'd run away. Back home, everybodyknew they were sisters, so nobody said it.

"What are you doing out here so late?" Vic asked. "It's not the place for nice girls."

"We're not nice girls," Kestrel explained absently.

"We're trying to be," Rowan said reprovingly through her teeth. To Vic, she said, "We were waiting for our great-aunt Opal to pick us up at the bus stop, but she didn't come. We're going to live at Burdock Farm."

"Old lady Burdock is your aunt?" Todd said, removing his toothpick. "That crazy old bat?" Vic turned around to look at him, and they both laughed and shook their heads.

Jade looked away from Vic. She stared down at the cat carrier, listening for the little squeaking noises that meant Tiggy was awake.

She felt just slightly … uneasy. She sensed something. Even though these guys seemed friendly, there was something beneath the surface. But she was toosleepy-and too light-headed from hunger-to figure out exactly what it was.

Rowan was still looking polite and puzzled, but Kestrel looked at the car door on her side thoughtfully. Jade knew what she was looking for-a handle.There wasn't one.

"Too bad," Vic said. "This car's a real junkheap; you can't even open the back doors from inside."

He grabbed Jade's upper arm so hard she could feel pressure on the bone. "Now, you girls just be nice and nobody's going to get hurt."

They seemed to drive a long time beforeVic spoke again.

"You girls ever been to Oregon before?"

Jade blinked and murmured a negative.

"It's got some pretty lonely places," Vic said. "Outhere, for example. Briar Creek was a gold rush town, but when the gold ran out and the railroad passed it by, it just died. Now the wilderness is taking it back."

His tone was significant, but Jade didn't understand what he was trying to convey.

"It does seem peaceful;" Rowan said politely from the backseat.

Vic made a brief snorting sound. "Yeah, well, peaceful wasn't exactly what I meant. I meant, take this road. These farmhouses are miles apart, right? Ifyou screamed, there wouldn't be anyone to hearyou."

Jade blinked. What a strange thing to say. Rowan, still politely making conversation, said, "Well, you and Todd would."

"I mean, nobody else," Vic said, and Jade could feel his impatience. He had been driving more and more slowly. Now he pulled the car off to the side of the road and stopped. Parked.

"Nobody outthere is going to hear," he clarified,turning around to look into the backseat. Jade looked, too, and saw Todd grinning, a wide bright grin with teeth clenched on his toothpick.

"That's right," Todd said. "You're out here alone with us, so maybe you'd better listen to us, huh?"

Jade saw that he was gripping Rowan's arm with one hand and Kestrel's wrist with the other.

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