Ever so gently, Freddie reached up and touched Theo’s face. Exactly as she’d wanted to do at the hospital. Exactly as she’d wanted to do all morning.
He did not pull away. He simply watched her, breath held and lips parted.
Behind them, the car alarm kept blaring. The crickets hummed and crooned.
Freddie brushed her fingers above his stitches—careful not to caress them directly. One, two, three, four. Someone had punched him there.
Davis, she thought, recalling what Theo had said only a few moments ago. Did Davis put you up to this? Theo had also said his life was a fucking mess, meaning something must have happened to him since their kiss on Sunday.
Something awful. Something he needed distraction from.
And something worth kissing her for.
Ever so slowly, Freddie moved her fingers away from his eyebrow and down the sides of his jaw. With each inch, Theo sucked in air—just a fraction of a breath, his lungs and ribs expanding. His pupils dilating.
Then Freddie’s fingers reached Theo’s lips, and he went completely still.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” she murmured, running her thumb over the cut bisecting his upper lip.
Even broken like it was, the skin was soft.
“You won’t,” he replied, a warm whisper of air against her fingertips.
“Oh.” It was the only word she could summon. She wanted to kiss him so badly it hurt. Like a python constricting around her chest. But now that she was standing here, now that she’d caressed his face and he hadn’t pulled away—now that she had her fingertips on his lips and his permission to take this further, she found she couldn’t move.
She was still so new at all of this. At kissing boys and having them want to kiss her back.
So Freddie simply stared up at Theo, and he simply stared down. Blue, blue, intense blue.
And somewhere, a million miles away, crickets and car alarms still sang.
Theo was the first to finally move. With barely any shift at all, he twisted his head and kissed the tips of Freddie’s fingers.
It was like lighting another sparkler. The feel of his lips against the sensitive skin on her fingertips—it sent Freddie’s entire stomach rocketing into her eyeballs.
One kiss became two, Theo’s gaze never breaking from hers, and Freddie thought she might faint from that stare alone. Then his own fingers slid up, laced gently around her wrist, and he guided her hand to his lips.
He kissed the inside of her fingers. He kissed her palm. He kissed her pulse point. And if it hurt him to do any of that, he gave no sign. He just kept staring and kissing and, Freddie supposed, waiting for her to offer some kind of reaction.
But Freddie didn’t know what reaction to give. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. Everything had gone so blurry around the edges, and all she seemed capable of doing was standing there while her chest wound tighter and tighter.
Until at last, her ribs were so tight that her lungs snapped in two.
A soft sigh rustled from her throat.
And that seemed to be what Theo had been waiting for.
In a fluid, hungry movement, he pulled Freddie to him, knocked off her baseball cap, and kissed her.
But where she’d expected ferocity, she found only gentleness.
It was the softest kiss Freddie had ever received. Softer than she’d even known was possible. Just a slight brushing of Theo’s lips, while his eyes—still open—held hers.
Haunting, those eyes were.
For several frozen heartbeats, she held his gaze. It felt so intimate, lip to broken lip and eye to swollen eye. More intimate than their kissing or their touching or their flirting had ever been.
Then it was just too much. The wanting that swelled inside Freddie. The need she felt around Theo—it was just too goddamned much, and she couldn’t hold back any longer.
Her eyes closed and she pressed into him, deepening the kiss. Her tongue flicked out, ever so slightly, and oh, there was that soft sound in his throat, the one she remembered from the picnic tables. The one he’d made in her dream.
She couldn’t help but match it, and without realizing what she did, her fingers curled into his blazer, and she tugged him closer. Closer. Not close enough.
Today, he tasted like spearmint. Like toothpaste and mouthwash and clean, clean boy.
Theo’s hands moved to Freddie’s hips. To her back. And suddenly they were on her butt…below her butt and lifting her.
She had never straddled a boy before, and she’d certainly never been lifted by one. But the next thing she knew, Theo was carrying her across the archives.
It was easily the hottest thing she had ever experienced—and also mildly terrifying. She was not a particularly small girl, but suddenly she felt very small indeed.
Then her butt landed on the desk, and Theo was kissing her with all the ferocity of the picnic tables. Of Freddie’s dream too.
Her fingers wove into his hair. She cupped his face. Dug into his back. She couldn’t seem to keep her hands in one place, and she couldn’t seem to grab enough of him. Especially when he moaned—like he was doing now—and pushed his body, his whole perfect body, against hers.
Then Theo was kissing Freddie’s neck, and she thought she might actually pass out from all the wanting.
Before she could tell him that, though—before she could tell Theo that he made everything inside her spin out of control—someone cleared their throat.
Someone who wasn’t Freddie or Theo.
“Alright,” the voice said. Decidedly male, decidedly older. “That is quite enough, you two.”
Freddie and Theo lurched apart.
It was like they’d suddenly caught fire. They heard that voice; they sprang apart two feet. Stop, drop, and roll. Except that the fire wasn’t going out. Freddie was dizzy like she’d inhaled too much smoke, and it took a solid two seconds for her brain to finally, finally process who was standing before her.
And it was like being doused in flame all over again—but the bad kind. The mortified kind. Her jaw fell open. “Dr. Born?”
“Freddie?” He sounded even more shocked than she was. He also looked mildly appalled.
More heat charged over Freddie’s body. She smoothed at her shirt. Glanced at Theo—who was clearly as thrown off course as she was.
He also looked excruciatingly handsome, with his ruffled hair, busted face, and bright pink lips and cheeks.
Do NOT look at him, Gellar. Theo was dangerous, dangerous, dangerous. Freddie forced her gaze back to the Unwelcome Counselor. “Why are you here, Dr. Born?” she gritted out.
“Because Theo was supposed to meet me thirty minutes ago.” He shot a stern frown at Theo. “And I was told he had come down here. But what are you doing here, Freddie?”
Theo choked. Then covered his mouth with his hands, stifling a laugh.
“Yes, I can see that.” Dr. Born rubbed his temples. “And honestly, I don’t care what the two of you do—except when you do it during school hours. Freddie, this isn’t even your school. Are you skipping right now?”
“So that means yes.” Dr. Born rubbed his temples twice as hard. Then he glared in the direction of another aisle. “By god, what in tarnation is that sound?”
Oh shit, the crickets. New shame swooped through Freddie. The insects were screeching in full force now, and honestly, it was a wonder she hadn’t noticed just how loud they were before now.
She and Theo were too good at this whole distraction thing.
Of course, now that Freddie was paying attention, she also realized the car alarm had turned off. Oh, shit, shit, shit. How long had she and Theo been making out?
Freddie slipped Sabrina from her back pocket. Seven missed calls.
Oh boy, she was in trouble now. “I should probably go,” Freddie murmured, more to Theo than to Dr. Born. “Thanks for your help.”
“Wait.” Theo glanced briefly at Dr. Born before turning the full wattage of his blue eyes onto Freddie. “When can I see you again?”
Yargh. Freddie’s brain inverted, and she desperately wished he hadn’t asked that question—and also that the question wasn’t making her chest swell like a happy balloon.
Not only had she broken her vow to Divya, but now she was going to make plans to do so again. She was a terrible Threadsister.
Despite her utter self-hatred, though, Freddie still couldn’t keep her mouth from saying, “Will you be at your aunt’s for dinner?”
“Cool.” She smiled shyly. “I could meet you after that.”
“Okay,” was Theo’s reply, and he offered a tiny smile of his own. Then, before Freddie could turn to go, he added, “Enemies?”
And Freddie couldn’t keep from grinning wide. “Always,” she replied. Then she yanked her cap off the floor, and after scooping up the green duffle bag—which instantly silenced the crickets—she scurried past The Unwelcome Counselor Who Had The Worst Timing Ever.
“Bye, Dr. Born,” she muttered, firmly avoiding eye contact and hoping he wouldn’t say anything.
But of course he did. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you avoiding me yesterday,” he called after her. “We still have one more session, you know.”
“I know,” she trilled, kicking into jog. “And there is nothing I look forward to more!”
Freddie bolted into the stairwell, and soon Dr. Born and Theo were well out of sight. While Freddie ran, she punched Kyle’s phone number into Sabrina. God, she hoped he and Cat hadn’t left yet.
“I got sidetracked,” she panted into the phone as soon as Kyle picked up. “But I’m about to dump crickets in the hall outside the library. Where are you?”
“We had to leave, but we’ll circle back. Meet us on the main road?”
“Got it,” Freddie said. Then she hung up, just in time to wave at the librarian, who was shouting about the school’s hat and phone policy. “Sure thing, Mr. Kowalski,” she called while she broke her own rule about running in libraries. “I’ll see you in detention too!”
Freddie floated euphorically on a euphoric cloud of euphoria.
She was a Criminal Mastermind, dumping crickets into empty hallways and making out with Montagues in dark corners. And though she wasn’t happy that there was a murderer on the loose who had systematically stolen papers from every local archive, it was undeniably exhilarating for an inquiring mind like hers.
Cat and Kyle were as hyped as Freddie, and when she scrambled into Kyle’s backseat, Blur’s “Song 2” blasted over her at maximum volume. Though she typically preferred pop, she had to admit this tune hit the mood perfectly.
They sped toward Berm, the stone sign of RH vanishing in an instant and the county park streaking past.
This time, Freddie didn’t find the forest creepy. This time, adrenaline pumped too strongly in her veins and the words “Woohoo!” thundered through her in time to the song. She didn’t even care when Kyle hit the back button on his CD player and the same song started all over again.
She. Was. Invincible.
Freddie even found herself banging her head along with Kyle and Cat (who held the Official Log gripped tightly to her chest) and screaming with them too: “I got my head checked! By a jumbo jet! It wasn’t easy—but nothing is, no!”
Right as the song’s second playthrough came to an end, Kyle revved his jeep into the Berm High parking lot. A wave for the security guard, who didn’t look up from his romance novel, and then Kyle zoomed into a spot near the back of the school (every other spot having been taken).
It was, right as he cut the engine, that a cop car pulled in too.
“Oh shit.” Kyle dropped low in his seat. “It’s the Sheriff.”
“Oh shit,” Cat agreed, dropping down with him.
Freddie also ducked low, although she wasn’t sure there was much point. Either Bowman was there to deal with skipping students or she wasn’t. And judging by the way she was pulling her car to a stop in front of the school, Freddie had to guess her business was unrelated to their Ferris Bueller-ing.
Still, just to play it safe, Freddie said, “If we sneak behind the cars, we can get to the picnic tables. Then it’s not far to the loading dock that goes into the auditorium. We should be able to get into the school unseen.”
“Good call,” Cat agreed, and in a flurry of stealthy speed, everyone scuttled out of the car. They convened beside the still warm engine—and Freddie hunkered close to it’s clicking, steaming heat.
It was freezing outside, doubly so because they’d all had to remove their blazers.
“Follow me,” Freddie said, once Kyle had locked up the jeep with his fancy key fob. Then, breath pluming, Freddie crept toward the picnic tables.
“What took you so long?” Cat asked as they scampered forward. It had been too loud in the car for conversation. “And why didn’t you answer your phone?”
“Uh, a student cornered me,” Freddie said (not a total lie). “Then a grumpy librarian. But hey—I got the crickets out and you got the prank book.”
“That we did!” Kyle cheered, scooting in close to Freddie. He whipped his arm around her and squeezed, an awkward half-jogging embrace. “All thanks to you, Prank Wizard.”
Freddie beamed. She really liked being called that, and though she wasn’t entirely sure she liked having Kyle’s arm around her, she did appreciate the look of admiration in his eyes.
When they arrived at the picnic tables, Freddie risked a peek at the front of the school—just to see where Sheriff Bowman might have gone.
And what Freddie found was Sheriff Bowman standing at the school’s corner and looking right at her. As soon as their eyes met, Bowman brought a walkie talkie to her mouth. Her lips moved, and her legs started stalking Freddie’s way.
Oh, shit. It would seem Bowman was there for their Ferris Bueller-ing.
“Go,” Freddie hissed with a frantic wave at the loading dock. “Get inside, and I’ll hold off Bowman.”
As one, Cat and Kyle spotted the Sheriff—and as one, they swore.
“Hurry,” Freddie insisted. “If you go to those dumpsters there, you can circle all the way around without being seen.”
“But what about you?” Kyle shook his head, green eyes wide. “Why would you stay?”
“I can distract her,” Freddie said, her voice holding more confidence than she felt. “I’ve known her a long time.”
“But why is she even looking for us?” Cat’s voice came out panicked and shrill. “People cut school all the time, and no one cares!”
“I don’t know.” And Freddie didn’t know—though her gut was starting to curdle within. A sickening sense that things were about to get real bad, real fast. “Just go, okay? There’s not much time.”
“Right,” Cat exhaled. “Thank you, Freddie. You’re a real friend.” She shot of toward the nearest dumpster.
Kyle, though, didn’t move. He simply looked at Freddie. Swallowed once, Adam’s apple bobbing, before finally leaning in.
And Freddie realized half a second too late that he was going to kiss her—and half a second too late, she realized that she didn’t want that at all.
She snapped her head sideways. Kyle’s lips connected with her cheek.
“Oof,” he mumbled.
“Eep,” she replied.
And it was all just too much. Fiery shame took hold of Freddie’s muscles (and cheeks), and in a graceless burst of speed, she sprinted away from Kyle—no goodbyes, no looking back—and ran straight for Sheriff Bowman.
Bowman was halfway across the parking lot when Freddie finally cut into her path, and Freddie realized the instant she caught sight of Bowman’s face up close that she had made a huge mistake.
Because Bowman was wearing murder in her eyes.
Freddie couldn’t stop now, though. She had offered to sacrifice herself for Cat and Kyle, and she couldn’t back down. She just had to trust the d20 dice would fall in her favor.
Freddie came to a stumbling stop beside a turquoise Ford Ranger, and two booming heartbeats later, Sheriff Bowman reached her. “Where the hell have you been, Gellar?” Bowman began.
It was not a promising introduction, and one by one, Freddie felt all of her organs squeeze to a pulp.
Oh—there were her secrets too. All of them, just bubbling to the surface and desperate for release.
“I come to the school,” Bowman continued, voice lifting, “and what do I learn? You haven’t come in today. Does your mother know you were skipping?”
“No, ma’am,” Freddie tried to say, but Bowman was only just getting started.
“I have half a mind to arrest you. In fact, the only thing keeping me from doing so is your mom—she doesn’t deserve that. Not after Frank. But if this happens again, Gellar, I will put you in handcuffs. Do you understand?”
“Not really,” Freddie murmured—because she didn’t. What did Frank have to do with anything? And since when was skipping school illegal?
Bowman still wasn’t finished, though. Her blue eyes were ablaze, her cheeks pink with cold and fury. “I told you not to mess around, Gellar. I told you to stay out of trouble. Was I not clear enough on Saturday? No, wait.” She shook her head, a sideways snapping movement. “I know I was clear enough, but you didn’t listen. Well, you know what? There is a line, and you have now crossed it.”
Freddie recoiled. There was only one thing Bowman could be talking about, and it did not deserve a reaction like this. “It was just a prank, Sheriff. No one can get hurt from—”
“A prank?” Bowman spat. “Frederica Gellar, don’t you dare give me that shit.”
Freddie’s jaw went slack. She felt like she’d been slapped. Sheriff Bowman never said her first name. Not once in her entire life had she heard it fall from Bowman’s tongue.
Nor had she ever seen this much anger marring the lines of Bowman’s face.
It was legitimately terrifying.
“You lied to me.” Bowman jabbed a pointed finger in the direction of town. “You sent me and my deputies on a wild goose chase and then you had the nerve to give me fake film.” Her finger slung forward, wagging in Freddie’s face. “You knew I would catch you! You knew I would walk into that forest and find nothing, and you knew I would get those photos developed and find them empty—”
“—but you still pranked me anyway. Did you think it would be funny, Gellar? Or are you just really that starved for attention?”
Freddie’s hands shot up defensively. “Sheriff, I don’t know what you’re talking about. What do you mean the photos were empty?”
“You know damned well what I mean!” Bowman was shouting now, and even though none of this made sense, shame welled behind Freddie’s eyeballs.
Shame and outrage and something prickly she didn’t like.
“You took photos of an empty forest!” Bowman bellowed. “And if you thought I wouldn’t notice, then you’re stupider than I realized.”
“But I didn’t!” Freddie cried. “I took photos of a water bottle, exactly like I told you—”
“Stop the bull shit, Gellar.”
“No!” Freddie was practically screeching now. None of this made any sense. “Ask Divya! She was with me!”
Bowman scoffed, a visceral sound. Just like that, her rage transformed into cold disgust. “Come on, Gellar.” She folded her arms over her chest. “Don’t bring your best friend into this.”
“But Divya saw it too! She did.”
“No she didn’t.” Bowman’s thumb tapped. “I already spoke to her, and unlike you, she told me straight: she did not see a goddamned thing.”
Freddie’s breath cut off. She rocked back, her eyelids screwing shut. This couldn’t be happening. Divya wouldn’t betray her like that.
No, no. Freddie dug her knuckles into her eyes and tried to think back to the woods. To what she’d seen and where the bike had been parked and where Divya had been standing…
“Shit,” she breathed, horror gathering in her gut. It was 100% possible that Divya hadn’t seen anything. And Divya couldn’t lie—Freddie knew that and didn’t blame her for it.
“Shit is right.” Bowman’s face sank into a sneer. “I have put up with you for years, Gellar. I’ve fucking nurtured you, for god’s sake, because I thought I owed that to Frank. But now you pull this stunt?”
“I haven’t pulled anything,” Freddie tried to say, but Bowman wasn’t listening.
“The worst is,” she went on, thumb tapping harder and harder by the second, “I can’t tell if you’re really just being a stupid kid or if you’re actually turning into him. Either option is bad.”
“Sheriff,” Freddie begged, hands rising. “I didn’t do anything. I swear. I didn’t prank you and I’m not…I’m not my dad.” Freddie didn’t know why she had to say that, but it suddenly seemed very important that she be nothing like Frank Carter.
“There really was a water bottle in the woods, Sheriff. I swear to you. On my life, on my mom’s life—on Divya’s! And there really were photos on Buffy. And,” she added, words tumbling out, “there were photos of that dead deer too, and Kyle Friedman’s basement. Did you find any of those? If they weren’t on there, then it wasn’t my film!”
“Just stop, Gellar.”
“But I mean it, Sheriff! I swear! Someone must have changed the film!”
Bowman wagged her head, disbelieving and disappointed. “Sure they did.” She snorted. “Someone broke into the police department and switched out the film. Do you even hear yourself, kid? You sound worse than Frank did.”
There was that reference to her dad again, and Freddie wanted to scream. What did her dad, dead for twelve years, have to do with a murderer on the loose in the present day? Because someone had changed the film and moved the water bottle—just as someone had taken all the articles from 1978.
And there was only one person out there who would have a motive to do it.
But Sheriff Bowman wasn’t going to believe Freddie if she started talking about serial killers. Not right now. Not without proof.
“Get into school,” Bowman snapped. She planted her hands on her hips. “And do not fuck with me again, Gellar. If I see you anywhere near City-on-the-Berm County Park—or my police station—I will not hesitate to arrest you for giving false evidence. Do. You. Understand?”
Oh, Freddie understood. Loud and clear. She was in deep shit, and there wasn’t a damned thing she could do about it.
Not right now, anyway, and not right here.
“Yes, ma’am,” she ground out, glaring at Bowman with all her might. “I understand.” Then, without another word, Freddie pushed past the Sheriff and strode toward the school’s front entrance.
As she walked, a fledgling plan unfurled. She didn’t need her gut to recognize a murderer at large. Two bells had rung. Two people had been killed.
A third bell, a third murder—they were on the way.
And since Freddie Gellar was the only one around who seemed to realize or care about what was going on, then it fell to her to save the day.
She would prove there was a killer at large.
She would clear her name.
And then she would stop this murderer before it was too late.