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Aftershocks Excerpt

Prologue

Zoe Smith huddled against the wall of the tiny, dingy room, arms wrapped around her legs. Not in the corner, which was a trap, but next to the room’s door, so she’d have a few seconds before anyone coming in saw her.
She’d learned a few things in the past year.

Like how to pretend to take pills and then act like they’d worked. How to pay attention to what was around her. How to never assume that the way things looked was the way they really were.

She sniffed and rubbed at the dry, tight skin next to her eye. She hadn’t been able to wash since last night, after what they’d done to Jordie. The tears had run into her hair and made it stick out funny. Freddie had squawked about it. She hated when Zoe’s hair wasn’t perfect—by her crazy, messed-up definition, anyway. But Pat hadn’t let her brush it before they left. He’d been in too much of a hurry.

The guy standing guard outside her door coughed and shifted, his foot scraping on the floor. Zoe didn’t move, but her insides jolted and flipped, her heart racing until she knew he wasn’t coming inside. Not yet.

Someone would be coming in, she knew that. The odd leather bag on the floor several feet away guaranteed it would be sooner rather than later. She watched the bag, a lump of shadows in the room’s dimness, as screams echoed in her head.

No. She pressed her forehead to her knees and held her breath, forcing the horrors back. She was thirteen now. Closer to an adult than to a child. Her birthday had passed without her even knowing it, but they’d mentioned the date last night, a shock to her after so many months of just surviving. Drifting. Allowing.

But after whatever they’d done to Jordie, Zoe knew she couldn’t keep going like that. Things were about to get worse, she knew it, and if she was going to escape, this was her only chance.

A voice echoed from somewhere else in the building. She froze, straining to listen, so mad at herself for locking up in that tiny ball against the wall. Do it.

Her gaze darted from the bag to the file cabinets crowded against the side wall, blocking the frosted windows. She could just make out a faint crack along the wall between two of them. It was too straight to be damage. But there wasn’t much space over there, and if she made noise, the guy guarding the door would hear.

She didn’t know his name. He was new to Pat and Freddie’s family, but he had the coldest eyes. They were almost worse than Freddie’s crazy ones. He wouldn’t care how much he hurt her to keep her from getting away.

In a few minutes, Pat and Freddie would have what they wanted and there would be no more delay. Zoe had worked very hard at not imagining what was coming next. There was no choice here. This was it.

So just go!

She lurched to her bare feet and raced across the small room, swallowing a grunt at the weight of the bag she grabbed on her way by. The totems inside were metal, but wrapped in cloth so they didn’t clink. They were heavier than they’d looked last night, when Pat was lovingly examining them and talking about what he believed they could do. She squeezed between the cabinets and slid her fingertips along the crack. It went all the way to the floor and up a few feet, and yes, there was another one at the top, running sideways. Flattening her hand, she swept it across the plaster, looking for a latch. Please don’t need a key. Please don’t need a key.

Her fingers crumpled against a square of metal and she almost yelped. She couldn’t see it. The room had darkened even more. The sun must have set. That was good, but she needed to figure out how to open… She contorted her face as she fumbled, trying to keep listening for voices or movement outside the tiny room.

And then there was a click. She pulled at the square latch, and the door rasped open a few inches. Cool air swept in, bringing with it the slow chunka-chugga-chunk of train wheels turning and the sting of metal and smoke in her nose. From somewhere on the other side of the train yard, brakes squealed.

Zoe carefully pried the door open as far as it would go. She had no idea what this little access door was used for, back in the olden days of the train station. But now it was her salvation.

Thank God Pat and Freddie practically starved her. A year ago, she’d never have gotten through the narrow gap. But now she squeezed through easily, barely noticing the way the rough wood scraped her arm and the back of her head, yanking hair out of her scalp. A breeze brushed over her face, opening her lungs. But her shoulders hunched and burned. Someone was about to grab her, she knew it. She wrestled the heavy bag through the panel. She couldn’t leave it here. Not after all the things Pat had said about “rituals” and power. If he didn’t have them, he wouldn’t have a reason to have her or any other girl. She had to make them disappear.

And then she was free.

She hadn’t forgotten how to run, all those months tied to a bed frame or table leg, all the days when she could move no more than a few feet. Gravel dug into her soles, but who cared about bruises and cuts? Concentrate on breathing—too loud, and they’d hear her—and the slow-moving train several yards away. One of the car doors was open. Only a couple of feet, but it was enough. She ran straight for it, eyes locked on the dark interior, arm cocked. The light over her shoulder illuminated the interior as it zoomed past, searing the image into her brain. She flung the hateful bag and it went right through the gap.

The heavy thud was the best sound she’d ever heard. No, the train whistle was, as the train took those things far away from her, where Pat could never find them.

But her exhilaration didn’t last. The totems were gone, but she wasn’t yet. They could see her if they looked, even in the shadows. Panic seized her muscles and made her stumble. She got her balance back, then pushed herself to run harder, along the length of the train, begging it to go faster so she could get across the tracks and away from the station house.

After forever, the train passed, iron creaking and rattling. Zoe leaped over the tracks and around a single car sitting by itself. Then down an aisle between trains. But it wasn’t far enough. They could still find her. She ran up and down, climbing over couplings—oh, god, don’t move, don’t crush me—and counting sets of tracks—four…seven…eight—until she reached a train that had just released its brakes with a hiss. She halted, swaying, and looked to the left. The engine was so far down she couldn’t see it. To the right, dozens more cars stretched as far as she could see. The train lurched, and she could tell it was going to go the other way—in the opposite direction as the way the totems were going.

She had to get on that train.

She ran again, telling herself it wasn’t much further as her sides blazed with pain and her legs grew heavier and weaker. Her head spun, and she sucked in air, no longer able to keep quiet. But there. Another open door. The metal step just below it chilled her foot for the second before she grabbed the handle and swung herself inside.

She lay on the floor, panting, waiting for the train to move. One one thousand, two one thousand, three… She counted four hundred and twenty-two seconds before the train lurched, then eased into motion. Held her breath until the rail yard slid out of sight, and all she could see now was dark fields and the occasional farmhouse or road with a pickup truck driving down it.

It’s over.

No, it wasn’t. She had to get to a town, a real town, and get off the train without getting hurt. Then find someone safe to help her. They could do it. They were smart. And crazy. And if they found her…

A sob spasmed in her chest and she fingered her earlobe, remembering what they’d done to Jordie’s brother to make Jordie do what they wanted. And then they’d killed Jordie anyway. His screams and the others’ laughter echoed in her head again. She shuddered. No, she wasn’t out of danger.

The clackity-clack of the train’s wheels lulled her, though, and soon her breathing had steadied, her heart no longer slamming against her chest bone. How many miles had they traveled? The train seemed really fast, the little bit visible outside speeding by. They wouldn’t know which train she got on, right? They wouldn’t know where to look. Maybe it was okay to start thinking about what came next.

She stretched out on her stomach, chin balanced on her stacked hands, and thought about going home. Her parents would be happy—wouldn’t they? Her mother had to have freaked when Zoe disappeared, and she’d freak again when she had her back. Probably she’d never let Zoe out of her sight. That would be awesome in a way, but part of her felt dread, too. She didn’t want to be a prisoner again. And it wasn’t like they’d let her make her own choices. She was only thirteen.

She smiled a little. Thirteen. Maybe they’d let her have a party. For sure her mother would make a cake. Freddie never baked, so it wouldn’t be creepy and awful. Zoe could handle that.

Maybe Jordie’s brother would come. What was his name? She closed her eyes, remembering how he’d cried in her arms after they’d cut him and thrown him into her room. She’d helped him stop the bleeding and hugged him, rocking him the way her mom used to rock her when she had a nightmare. They hadn’t talked much, but she’d asked his name. Grant. That was it. She’d resented him for a long time, because Jordie had been able to sneak him out. Pat hadn’t cared. He didn’t need Grant for anything. He’d just been a tool to get Jordie to do what Pat wanted. But that wasn’t Grant’s fault. Zoe hoped she’d get to see him again. She had to tell him…well, not what had happened, but that Jordie had loved him. Yeah, that was all she had to say. Jordie loved you. Grant would get it.

The train whistle sounded, faint, and the clacking slowed. Zoe pushed herself to her feet and leaned out the door, looking to see what was ahead. Bright lights reflected off the clouds, and a red glow suddenly flashed to green. Her heart rate picked up again. This was it. This was where she would get off. Find some help. Try to explain who she was and where she’d been.

The thought made her want to cry. She could just stay on the train. Go miles and miles, hundreds of miles, where Pat and Freddie could never find her.

But then no one would find Pat and Freddie. Jordie needed justice. So did Grant. And Zoe needed them to be in jail, so there was no chance they’d come after her again. If she went too far away, the police would never find them. And she’d never be safe.

The brakes squealed, piercing Zoe’s eardrums and burying the reassuring rhythm of the wheels on the rails. The whistle sounded again. She watched the ground, and when the train slowed enough that she could make out individual ties, she braced herself, said a quick prayer, and jumped.

Chapter One

Sixteen Years Later

Zoe Ardmore was about to step into the grand ballroom when her purse buzzed. She hesitated, the faint chamber music and low murmur of voices calling to her, but she knew Kell wasn’t here yet, so she moved aside to check the call. It could be the office, or one of the charity’s committee members needing her somewhere behind the scenes.

But when she slipped the phone out of the clutch enough to check the screen, she frowned. The number wasn’t in her contacts, coming up as “unknown.” But it had an Ohio area code.

She shivered and dropped the phone back beside her tiny wallet and hairbrush. Ignoring the call wouldn’t hurt anything. They’d leave a message if they were legit.

Laughter drew her to the main room’s entrance again, and she smiled. Not too many years ago, she would have been one of the tuxedo-uniformed wait staff offering around trays of champagne. She wouldn’t have even entertained the idea of arriving here as a guest.

“Kellen Stone!” a voice boomed behind her. She glanced over her shoulder to see Kell shaking hands with a state senator. He stood tall and graceful in his tux, his curly dark hair tamed and gleaming under the chandelier. The image of sleek success. But anyone really looking would see the interest in his eyes as he listened to the senator’s story, take notice of the sincere friendliness with which he greeted the senator’s wife as she emerged from the anteroom. People mattered to Kell, and it was one of the things Zoe loved most about him.

He said a few more words and then strode across the plush carpet to her side.

Zoe smiled up at him. “Looks gorgeous, doesn’t it?” She doubted he cared about the light shimmering on the silky ribbons adorning the tables, or the lace cloths and curtains draped everywhere. He’d grown up in this world, and he was a guy. But she’d earned her way here, had worked hard to make the money that had paid for her ticket to this benefit. She reveled in every detail.

“The committee did a nice job,” he acknowledged, his gaze sweeping the room in a second but resting longer on her face. “But this is the real beauty.” He bent and kissed her softly.

Zoe leaned into the kiss, as happy to be with him as she was to be here at all.

Her purse vibrated again. Ohio.

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