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Prom Nights from Hell (Chapter One)

Madison Avery and the Dim Reaper

Kim Harrison

Chapter One

If British general, a damsel in a dress, and a pirate walk into a gym, I thought as I gazed over the bodies moving in a mind-numbing chaos of pent-up, inexperienced, teenage lust. Leave it to Covington High to turn prom into a joke. Not to mention my seventeenth birthday. What was I doing here?

Prom was supposed to be real dresses with a live band, not rented costumes with canned music and streamers. And my birthday was supposed to be… anything but this.

"You sure you don't want to dance?" Josh yelled in my ear, sending his sugary breath over me. I tried not to grimace, keeping my gaze fixed on the clock beside the gym's Scoreboard and wondering if an hour was long enough to stay and not get the third degree from my dad. The music was dull-the same rhythmic thump over, and over, and over. Nothing new in the last forty minutes. And the bass was way too loud.

"Yep," I said, edging away in time with the music when his hand tried to creep to my waist. "Still don't want to dance."

"Something to drink?" he tried again, and I cocked my hip, crossing my arms to hide my cleavage. I was still waiting for the boob fairy to show up, but the dress's corset shoved everything up and together to make it look like I had more than I did, making me self-conscious.

"No, thanks," I said with a sigh. He probably didn't hear me, but he got the gist, seeing as he looked away, watching everyone move. Long ballroom gowns and skimpy barmaid costumes mixed with swashbuckling pirates and sailors. That was the theme of the prom. Pirates. God! I had worked for two months on the prom committee at my old school. It was going to have been freaking fantastic, with a moonlit barge and a real band, but no-o-o-o. Mom had said Dad needed to spend time with me. That he was going through a midlife crisis and had to reconnect with something from his past that didn't involve arguing. I think she just got scared when she caught me sneaking out for a late cappuccino and shipped me back to Dad and Dullsville USA knowing I listened to him more than her. Okay, so it had been after midnight. And I might have been after more than caffeine. And yeah, I'd already been grounded from staying out too late the previous weekend, but that's why I had to sneak out.

Running the stiff lace of my colonial dress between my fingers, I wondered if any of these people had a clue what a real party looked like. Maybe they didn't care.

Josh was standing a little in front of me, bobbing his head in time with the music and clearly wanting to dance. Nearby at the food table was the guy who had skulked in after us. He was looking my way, and I gave him a stare, wondering if he was after me or Josh. Seeing my attention on him, the guy turned away.

My gaze fell back on Josh, who had begun to almost dance halfway between me and the moving people. Actually, I mused as he shifted and bobbed his head to the music, his costume made his thin, awkward height work for him-a traditional British general's red and white, complete with fake sword and epaulets. His father's idea, probably, since he was the VIP of VIPs at the research facility that had kept everyone employed when the military base moved to Arizona, but it did go with the overdone lace-and-corset thing I had on.

"Come on. Everyone else is dancing," he coaxed when he saw me look at him, and I shook my head, almost feeling sorry for him. He reminded me of the guys in the photography club pretending the darkroom door had locked to try to get a little action. It just wasn't fair. I had spent three years learning how to fit in with the cool chicks, and now I was right back with the nice but unpopular guys, mowing down cupcakes in the gym. And on my birthday, too.

"No," I said flatly. Translation: Sorry, I'm not interested. You may as well give up.

Even thick-headed, awkward, broken-glasses Josh got that one, and he stopped his almost-dancing to fix his blue eyes on me. "Jesus, you're a bitch, you know that? I only asked you out because my dad made me. If you want to dance, I'll be over there."

My breath caught, and I gaped at him as if he had punched me in the gut. He cockily raised his eyebrows and walked away with his hands in his pockets and his chin raised. Two girls parted so he could walk between them, and they hunched into each other in his wake, gossiping as they glanced at me.

Oh my God. I'm a pity date. Blinking fast, I held my breath as I fought to keep the room from going blurry. Crap, not only was I the new girl, but I was a freaking pity date! My dad had made nice to his boss, and he made his son ask me out.

"Son of a dead puppy," I whispered, wondering if everyone was looking at me or if it was just my imagination. I tucked my short blond hair behind my ear and backed to the wall. Leaning against it with my arms crossed, I tried to pretend Josh had gone to get some pop. Inside, I was dying. I had been dumped. No, I had been dumped by a geek.

"Way to go, Madison," I said sourly, just imagining the gossip on Monday. I spotted Josh at the food table, pretending to ignore me without being obvious about it. The guy in the sailor outfit who had followed us in was talking to him. I still didn't think he was one of Josh's friends, even though he was jostling his elbow and pointing at the girls dancing in dresses cut too low for the gyrating they were doing. That I didn't recognize him wasn't surprising since I'd been avoiding everyone for the simple reason I wasn't happy being here and I didn't mind anyone knowing it.

I wasn't a jock or a nerd-though I had belonged to the photography club back home. Despite my efforts, I apparently didn't fit with the Barbie dolls. And I wasn't a goth, brain, druggie, or one of the kids who wanted to play scientist like their mommies or daddies at the research facility. I didn't fit anywhere.

Correction, I thought as Josh and the sailor laughed. I fit with the bitches.

The guy followed Josh's attention to another group of girls, who were now giggling at something Josh had said. His brown hair was frizzed out under his sailor's cap, and his crisp white outfit made him look like all the other guys who'd chosen sailor over pirate. He was tall, and there was a smooth grace to his movements that said he'd quit growing. He looked older than me, but he couldn't be too much older. It was the prom.

And I don't have to be here, I thought suddenly, shoving myself away from the wall with my elbows. Josh was my ride home, but my dad would pick me up if I called.

My motion to weave through the crowd to the double doors slowed in worry. He'd ask why Josh wasn't bringing me home. It would all come out. The lecture to be nice and fit in I could deal with, but the embarrassment…

Josh was watching me when I glanced up. The guy with him was trying to get his attention, but Josh's eyes were on mine. Mocking me.

That did it. No way was I going to call my dad. And I wasn't getting into a car with Josh, either. I'd walk it. All five miles. In heels. And a long cotton dress. On a damp April night. With my boobs scrunched together. What was the worst that could happen? A runaway cow incident? Crap, I really missed my car.

"Way to go, girl," I muttered, gathering my resolution along with my dress, head down as my shoulders bumped into dancers on my way to the door. I was so out of here. People were talking, but I didn't care. I didn't need friends. Friends were overrated.

The music melted into something fast, and I brought my attention up when the crowd seemed to shift, awkwardly changing rhythm. I jerked to a stop when I realized I was a step away from running into someone. "Sorry!" I shouted over the music, then froze, staring. Holy crap, Mr. Sexy Pirate Captain. Where had he been the last three weeks, and were there more where he came from?

I'd never seen him before. Not in the entire time I'd been stuck in this town. I would have remembered. Maybe exerted myself a little more. Flushing, I dropped my skirt to move my hand to cover my cleavage. God, I felt like a British tart with everything shoved up like that. The guy was dressed in a clingy black pirate costume, a pendant of gray stone lying on his chest. I could see it where the collar parted. A Zorro-style mask hid his upper face. The wide silk tails of it trailed down his back to mix with his luscious wavy black hair. He stood taller than me by about five inches, and as I ran my gaze over his tight figure, I wondered where he'd been keeping himself.

Certainly not the band room or Mrs. Fairel's U.S. Government class, I thought as the spinning lights played over him.

"My apologies," he said, taking my hand, and my breath caught, not because he was touching me, but because his accent wasn't Midwestern. Sort of a slow, soft exhalation laced with a crisp preciseness that told of taste and sophistication. I could almost hear the clink of crystal and soft laughter in it, the comforting sounds that more often than not had lulled me to sleep as the waves pushed on the beach.

"You aren't from around here," I blurted as I leaned to hear him better.

A smile grew, his dusky skin and dark hair almost a balm, so familiar amid the pale faces and light hair of the Midwestern prison I was in. "I'm here temporarily," he said. "An exchange student, in a manner of speaking. Same as you." He glanced disdainfully at the people moving around us with little rhythm and even less originality. "There are too many cows here, don't you think?"

I laughed, praying I didn't sound like a brainless flake. "Yes!" I almost shouted, pulling him down to talk into his ear over the noise. "But I'm not an exchange student. I moved here from Florida. My mom lives out there on the inner coastal, but now I'm stuck here with my dad. I agree. You're right, it's awful. At least you get to go home."

And where is home, Mr. Sexy Pirate?

A hint of low tide and canal water drifted to me, rising from him like a memory. And though some might find it unpleasant, tears pricked at my eyes. I missed my old school. I missed my car. I missed my friends. Why had Mom gone so ballistic?

"Home, yes," he said, and an intoxicating smile showed a hint of tongue when he licked his lips and straightened. "We should leave the floor. We're in the way of their… dancing."

My heart pounded harder. I didn't want to move. He might go away, or worse, someone might slip their arm into his, claiming him. "Do you want to dance?" I said, nervous. "It's not what I'm used to, but it has a good beat."

His smile widened, and relief sent my pulse faster. Oh God. I think he likes me. Letting go of my hand, he nodded, and then dropped back a step and started to move.

For a moment, I forgot to follow and just watched him. He wasn't flamboyant. No, he went the other way-his slow movements making far more of an impact than if he had cleared the floor by spinning me around it.

Seeing me watching, he smiled from behind his mysterious mask and blue-gray eyes as he held out a hand for me to join him. I took a breath, my fingers slipping into his warm ones, and let him pull me into motion.

The music was the framework he moved within, and I lost myself trying to match the pattern of it. Almost swaying, we shifted at every second beat. I let myself relax and just dance, finding it easier if I didn't think about it. I could feel every shift of my hips and roll of my shoulders-and a thrill of something began to grow inside me.

While everyone around us continued with sharp, fast motions, we danced slow, the space between us narrowing, our gazes fixing more and more on each other as I became increasingly sure of myself. I let him guide me as the music pulsed and my heart pounded with it.

"Most everyone here calls me Seth," he said, almost ruining the moment, but then his hand curved lightly about my waist, and I leaned into him. Oh yeah. This was better.

"Madison," I said, liking how I felt, dancing slower than everyone else. But the music was fast, thumping to make my blood race. The two extremes made it seem all the more daring. "I haven't seen you around. Are you a senior?"

Seth's fingers tightened on the light cotton of my dress, or perhaps he was just drawing me closer. "I'm top of my class," he said, leaning so he wouldn't have to shout.

The colored lights played upon him, and I felt airy. Josh could suck an egg for all I cared. This was what my prom should be. "That would explain it," I said, tilting my head to see his eyes and try to place him. "I'm a junior."

He smiled with his lips closed, and I felt small and protected. My own smile grew. I could feel people starting to watch us, their dancing slowing as they turned. I hoped Josh was getting a good look. Call me a bitch, would he?

I lifted my chin, daring to reach out and pull Seth near, our bodies touching, then moving apart. My heart hammered at what I was doing, but I wanted to hurt Josh. I wanted the gossip tomorrow to be what an idiot he had been to walk away from me. I wanted… something.

Seth's hands slid smoothly at my waist, neither imprisoning nor demanding, freeing me to dance as I wanted, and I let myself go, motions turning more sultry than these backwoods bumpkins had seen anywhere but on their TV. My lips twitched when I saw Josh and that sailor kid he'd been talking with all this time. Josh's face was white with anger, and I simpered back.

"You want him to know you aren't with him?" Seth said wistfully, and my gaze jerked to his. "He hurt you," Seth said, and his dark hand left tingles where it touched my chin. "You should show him what he lost."

The moment balanced, and though I knew it was spiteful, I found myself nodding.

Seth eased to a halt, pulling me into him with a smooth, unbroken gesture. He was going to kiss me. I knew it. It was in every motion he made. My pulse hammered, and I tilted my head up to meet his lips with my own, feeling my knees lock. Around us, people slowed to watch, some laughing, some envious. My eyes closed, and I shifted my weight so that we were still dancing as we kissed.

It was everything I wanted. Heat washed into me where we touched, spilling down through me like layers, each flaring up as his touch grew closer. Never had I been kissed like this, and I couldn't breathe, afraid I'd ruin it. My hands were at his waist, and they held him tighter as he cupped my jaw, holding me as if I might break. He tasted like wood smoke. I wanted more-but boy, did I know better.

A low sound lifted from him, softer than distant thunder. His hands tightened, and adrenaline spiked through me. The kiss had shifted.

Alarmed, I jerked back, breathless but feeling bright-eyed and exhilarated. Seth's moody eyes were fixed on mine with a light amusement that I had pulled away.

"It's only a game," he said. "He's wiser, now. So are you. He's not worth pain."

I blinked as the lights spun madly and the music continued, loud and untouched by our kiss. Everything was different, but only I had changed. I tore my gaze from Seth, my hand still on his waist for balance. There were spots of color on Josh's cheeks, and he looked angry.

I raised my eyebrows at him. "Let's go," I said, linking my arm with Seth's. I didn't think anyone would show up to challenge my position. Not after that kiss.

Confident, I stepped forward with Seth beside me. A path opened, and I felt like a queen. Though the music thumped and blared, everyone watched us make our way unimpeded to the double doors with their brown-paper wrappings decorated to look like the oak doors of a castle.

Plebeians, I thought when Seth pushed open the door and the cooler air of the hallway hit me. The door closed behind us, and the music dulled. I slowed to a stop, low heels scuffing on the tile. There was a paper-cloth-covered table against the wall with a tired-looking woman checking tickets. Farther down the hall three kids loitered at the main door. The memory of our kiss rose back through me, making me suddenly nervous. This guy was gorgeous. Why was he with me?

"Thank you," I mumbled, glancing up and away, then warmed as I wondered if he might think I was talking about the kiss. "I mean, for getting me out of there with my pride intact," I added, flushing deeper.

"I saw what he did." Seth rocked us into motion down the hallway away from everyone and to the parking lot. "It was either that or you dumping punch on his clothes. And you…" He hesitated until I looked at him. "You want your revenge more subtle than that."

A sloppy grin came over me, but I couldn't help it. "You think?"

He inclined his head, acting far older than he should. "Do you have a ride home?"

I jerked to a stop, and he continued a step before turning, his blue-gray eyes wide in alarm. It was cool out here, and I told myself that was why I had a sudden chill.

"I'm… sorry," he said, blinking and holding himself still. "I didn't mean… I'll stay with you while you arrange for someone to come. You don't know me from Adam."

"No, it's not that," I rushed, embarrassed for my sudden mistrust. I glanced back at the woman by the gym door who was watching us with an idle interest. "I should call my dad, is all. Let him know what's going on."

Seth smiled, his white teeth showing strongly. "Of course."

I fumbled for the purse that this dress had come with. He moved away a few feet as I dug out my phone and fidgeted, trying to remember the house's number. There was no answer, and we both turned at the noise of the gym door opening. Josh came out, and my jaw tightened.

The answering machine picked up, and in a rush, I blurted, "Hi, Dad. It's Madison." Duh. "I'm getting a ride home with Seth…" I looked at him in question for a last name.

"Adamson," he said softly, his eyes behind his mask fixed on Josh. Damn, he had beautiful eyes. And long, luscious eyelashes.

"Seth Adamson," I said. "Josh turned out to be a jerk. I'll be home in a few minutes, okay?" But since no one was really there, there wasn't much my dad could say. I waited as if listening for a moment, then added, "I'm fi-i-i-ine. He was a jerk, is all. I'll see you in a minute."

Satisfied, I closed the phone and tucked it away, linking my arm through Seth's and turning us to the back doors as Josh caught up, his dress shoes clacking on the tile.

"Madison…" He was annoyed, and my satisfaction grew.

"Hi, Josh!" I said brightly, my tension rising as he fell into step on my other side. I didn't look at him, and I felt myself go hot. "I got a ride home. Thanks." For nothing, I added in my thoughts, still mad at him. Or my dad, maybe, for setting this up.

"Madison, wait."

He caught my elbow, and I spun to a halt. Josh froze, pulling back and letting go. "You're a jerk," I said, eyeing his costume and thinking it looked lame now. "And I'm no one's pity date. You can just… flip off," I adlibbed, not wanting Seth to think I swore like a sailor.

Reaching, Josh grabbed my wrist and yanked me away. "Listen to me," he said, and the fear in his eyes stopped my protest. "I've never seen this guy before. Don't be stupid. Let me take you home. You can tell your friends whatever you want. I'll go along with it."

I tried to take an insulted breath, but the corset wouldn't let me, so I lifted my chin instead. He knew I didn't have any friends. "I called my dad. I'll be fine," I said, glancing over his shoulder to the tall kid in that sailor outfit who had followed Josh out.

Still Josh wouldn't let go. Ticked, I twisted my arm, and when I reached to grab his wrist in a self-defense hold, he let go as if knowing it. Eyes wide, he backed up a step. "I'm going to follow you home then," he said, eyes flicking to Seth.

"Whatever," I said as I tossed my hair, secretly glad and wondering if maybe Josh wasn't so bad after all. "Seth, are you in the back lot?"

Seth came forward, a softly moving figure of grace and refinement next to Josh's commonality. "This way, Madison." I thought I saw a hint of victory in his eyes as his arm slipped through mine. No wonder. He'd obviously come to the prom by himself, and now Josh would be the one leaving alone.

I made sure my heels snapped smartly in a show of confident femininity as we went down the hall to the far set of doors. The dress made me feel elegant, and Seth looked fantastic. Josh and his silent buddy trailed behind like extras in a Hollywood film.

Seth held the door open for me, leaving the two guys to handle the swinging door by themselves. The air was chilly, and I wished I'd begged for an extra fifty from my dad to get the matching shawl for this outfit. I wondered if Seth would offer me his coat if I complained.

The moon was a hazy smear behind the clouds, and as Seth escorted me down the stairs, I could hear Josh behind me, talking softly to his friend in a low, derisive tone. My jaw clenched, and I followed Seth to a sleek black car parked illegally at the curb. It was a convertible, its top open to the cloudy skies, and I couldn't help but smile even wider. Maybe we could go for a drive before he took me home. Cold or not, I wanted to be seen in this car, sitting next to Seth, the wind in my hair and the music cranked. I bet he had great taste in music.

"Madison…" Seth said in invitation, opening the door for me.

Feeling awkward and special all at the same time, I eased into the low front seat, my dress sliding on smooth leather. Seth waited while I got the rest of the skirt inside before gently shutting the door. I put on my belt as he crossed behind the car. The black paint glistened in the low glow of the security lights, and I ran my fingers over the smoothness, smug when I saw Josh jogging to his car.

Seth startled me when he slid in behind the wheel; I hadn't even heard the door open. He cranked the engine, and I liked the solid rumble of it. The stereo came on with something aggressive. The vocals weren't English, but that only added to it all. Josh's car's lights flashed on, and we pulled forward, Seth driving with one hand.

My pulse quickened as I looked at him across the dull light. The cool air felt thick against my skin, and as we picked up speed, the wind worked its way through my hair.

"I live to the south," I said when we reached the main road, and he turned the proper way. Josh's headlamps swung in behind us, and I settled myself in the seat, wishing Seth had offered me his coat. But he hadn't said a word or looked at me since I'd gotten in the car. Earlier, he'd been all sly confidence. Now it was… anticipation? And though I didn't know why, a slow feeling of alarm took root.

As if sensing it, Seth turned, driving the black road without looking. "Too late," he said softly, and I felt my face blank. "Easy. I told them it would be easy when you were young and stupid. Almost not worth the effort. Certainly not any enjoyment."

My mouth went dry. "Excuse me?"

Seth glanced at the road and back at me. The car started to go faster, and I gripped the door handle, pressing away from him. "Nothing personal, Madison. You're a name on a list. Or should I say, a soul to be culled. An important name, but a name nonetheless. They said it couldn't be done, and now, you'll be my admission to a higher court, you and your little life that will now not happen."

What the hell? "Josh," I said, turning to the lights going distant as Seth picked up speed. "He's following. My dad knows where I am."

Seth smiled, and I shivered at the moonlight glinting on his teeth. Everything else was lost in hazy moon shadow and the shriek of the wind. "Like that will make a difference?"

Oh my God. I was deep in it. My gut tightened. "Stop the car," I said forcefully, one hand on the door, the other holding my whipping hair out of my eyes. "Stop the car and let me out. You can't do this. People know where I am! Stop the car!"

"Stop the car?" he said, smirking. "I'll stop the car."

Seth shifted his leg, stomping on the brake and turning the wheel. I screamed, grabbing anything. The world spun. My breath left me in a shriek as the odd feeling of too much noise mixed with the cessation of jostling. We had left the road. Gravity pulled from the wrong way. Panic struck when I realized the car was flipping over.

Shit. I was in a convertible.

I ducked, hands clasped over the back of my neck, praying. A hard thump shook me and everything went black. My breath was crushed from me by the force of the hit. I think I was upside down. Then I was yanked another way. The sky brightened to gray, and I sucked in the air when the car flipped once more as it rolled down the embankment.

Again, the sky went black and the top of the car hit the ground. "No!" I shrieked, helpless, then groaned when the car slammed to a stop, upright. I was flung against the seat belt, agony stabbing through my back as I was thrown forward.

It was quiet. Breathing hurt. Oh God, I hurt all over, and I stared at the shattered windshield as I panted. The new edges of the window glinted dully in the moonlight, and I followed the broken line down the dash to find Seth gone. My insides hurt. I didn't see blood, but I think I broke something inside. I was alive?

"Madison!" came distant over my rasping breath. "Madison!"

It was Josh, and I forced my eyes up to the twin balls of light at the top of the embankment. A shadowy figure was sliding down. Josh.

I took a breath to call to him, groaning when someone took my head and turned me away.

"Seth?" I whispered. He looked untouched, standing outside the ruined car at my door in his costume of black pirate silk. The moon caught his eyes and pendant, giving them both a gray sheen.

"Still alive," he said flatly, and tears started to slip from me. I couldn't move, but everything was a massive ache so I didn't think I was paralyzed. Damn it, this was a sucky birthday. Dad was going to kill me.

"I hurt," I said, my voice small, then thought, What a stupid thing to say.

"I don't have time for this," Seth said, clearly bothered.

My eyes widened, but I didn't move when he pulled from the folds of his costume a short blade. I tried to cry out, but my breath left me when he pulled his arm back as if to strike me. Moonlight glinted on the blade, red with someone else's blood. Fantabulous. He's a psycho. I left the prom with a knife-wielding psycho. Can I pick 'em, or what?

"No!" I shrieked, managing to get my arms up, but the blade was a whisper of ice passing through me, leaving me unhurt. I stared at my middle, not believing I was uncut. My dress wasn't torn and blood wasn't flowing, but I knew that blade had gone through me. It had gone through me and the car both.

Not understanding, I gaped up at Seth, now standing with the blade at rest and watching me. "What…" I tried to say when I realized nothing hurt anymore. But my voice was utterly absent. He arched his eyebrows in a show of scorn. My expression left me when I felt the first brush of utter nothing, both new and familiar, like a memory long lost.

The terrifying absence of everything crept through me, stilling each thought it rolled over. Soft and muzzy, a blanket of nothing started at the edges of my world and moved inward, taking first the moon, then the night, then my body, and finally the car. Josh's cries were swallowed up in a low hush of a thrum, leaving only Seth's silver eyes.

And then Seth turned and walked away.

"Madison!" I heard faintly, followed by the briefest touch on my cheek. Then even that melted and there was nothing.

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