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Covet (Crave #3)
Author: Tracy Wolff





Life After Death



   This isn’t how it was supposed to happen.

   This isn’t how anything was supposed to happen. Then again, when has my life gone according to plan this year? From the moment I first got to Katmere Academy, so much has been out of my control. Why should today, why should this moment, be any different?

   I finish pulling up my tights and straighten my skirt. Then I slide my feet into my favorite pair of black boots and grab my black uniform blazer from the closet.

   My hands are shaking a little—to be honest, my whole body is shaking a little—as I ease my arms into the sleeves. But I feel like that’s fair. This is the third funeral I’ve gone to in twelve months. And it hasn’t gotten any easier. Nothing has.

   It’s been five days since I beat the challenge.

   Five days since Cole broke the mating bond between Jaxon and me and almost destroyed us both.

   Five days since I nearly died…and five days since Xavier actually did.

   My stomach pitches and rolls and for a second, I feel like I’m going to throw up.

   I take several deep breaths—in through my nose, out through my mouth—to quell the nausea and the panic rising inside me. It takes a minute or three, but eventually both feelings subside enough that it’s no longer like I’ve got a fully loaded 18-wheeler parked on my chest.

   It’s a small victory, but I’ll take it.

   I pull in one more deep breath as I fasten the brass buttons on the front of my blazer, then glance in the mirror to make sure I look presentable. I do…as long as you play fast and loose with the definition of “presentable.”

   My brown eyes are dull, my skin sallow. And my ridiculous curls are fighting the bun I’ve wrestled them into. Of course, grief has never been my best look.

   At least the bruises from the Ludares challenge have started to fade, turning from their original violent black and purple into that mottled yellow/lavender color that happens just before they disappear completely. And it helps slightly to know that Cole finally hit my uncle’s too-many-strikes-and-you’re-out limit and got expelled. Part of me wishes that he’ll meet an even bigger bully at that school for paranormal delinquents and misfits he was sent to in Texas…just to see how it feels for once.

   The bathroom door opens, and my cousin, Macy, walks out, robe on and towel wrapped around her head. I want to hurry her along—we’ve only got twenty minutes before we’re supposed to be in the assembly hall for the memorial—but I can’t. Not when she looks like her every breath is an agony.

   I know, too well, how that feels.

   Instead, I wait for Macy to say something, anything, but she doesn’t make a sound as she heads toward her bed and the dress uniform I’ve laid out for her. It hurts to see her like this, her bruises no less painful than mine for being on the inside.

   From my first day at Katmere, Macy has been this irrepressible presence. Light to Jaxon’s dark, enthusiasm to Hudson’s sarcasm, joy to my sorrow. But now…now it’s like every single speck of glitter has disappeared from her life. And from mine.

   “Do you need help?” I finally ask as she continues to stare down at her uniform like she’s never seen it before.

   The blue eyes she turns my way are haunted, empty. “I don’t know why I’m being so…” Her voice drifts off as she clears her throat in an attempt to force away the hoarseness of misuse—and the sadness that is causing it. “I barely knew—”

   This time she stops, because her voice breaks completely. Her fists clench, and tears swim in her eyes.

   “Don’t,” I say, moving to hug her, because I know what it’s like to beat yourself up over something you can’t change. Over surviving when someone you love hasn’t. “Don’t discount your feelings for him just because you didn’t know him forever. It’s about how you know a person, not how long.”

   She shudders a little, a sob catching in her chest, so I just hug her harder, trying to take away a little bit of her pain and sadness. Trying to do for her what she did for me when I first got to Katmere.

   She holds me just as tightly, tears rolling down her face for so many tortured seconds. “I miss him,” she finally chokes out. “I just miss him so much.”

   “I know,” I soothe, rubbing her back in slow circles. “I know.”

   She cries in earnest now, shoulders shuddering, body shaking, breath breaking, for minutes that seem to last forever. My heart crumbles in my chest—for Macy, for Xavier, for everything that’s brought us to this moment—and it’s all I can do not to cry with her. But it’s Macy’s turn right now…and my turn to take care of her.

   Eventually, she pulls away. Wipes her wet cheeks. Gives me a fragile smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. “We need to go,” she whispers with one last pass of her hands over her face. “I don’t want to be late to the memorial.”

   “Okay.” I return her smile with one of my own, then walk away to give her some privacy to get dressed.

   When I turn back a few minutes later, I can’t help but gasp. Not because Macy has done a glamour to dry and style her hair—I’m used to that—but because her hot-pink hair is now pitch-black.

   “It didn’t feel right,” she murmurs as she combs her fingers through a few strands. “Hot pink isn’t exactly a mourning color.”

   I know she’s right, and still I mourn for the last vestiges of my bright and shiny cousin. We’ve all lost so much recently, and I’m not sure how much more we can take.

   “It looks good,” I tell her, because it does. But that’s no surprise—Macy would look good bald or with her hair on fire, and this is a far cry from either of those. It does make her look even more delicate, though. Even more fragile.

   “It doesn’t feel good,” she answers. But she’s sliding her feet into a stylish pair of flats, adding earrings to the myriad holes in her ears. Doing another glamour—this one to get rid of her red and puffy eyes.

   Her shoulders back, her jaw locked, her eyes are sad but clear as they meet mine. “Let’s do this.” Even her voice is resolved, steely, and it’s that determination that gets me moving toward the door.

   I grab my phone to text the others that we’re on our way, but the second I pull open the door, I figure out it’s unnecessary. Because they’re all right here in the hall, waiting for us. Flint, Eden, Mekhi, Luca. Jaxon…and Hudson. Some are more banged up than others, but they’re all a little worse for wear—just like Macy and me—and my heart swells as I look them over.

   Things are a mess right now—oh my God, are they a mess—but one thing hasn’t changed. These seven people have my back and I have theirs…and I always will.

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