Startled, I flailed backward. Losing my grip on all six bottles. With a sickening crash they toppled to the stone floor, exploding on impact. The crisp smell of alcohol punctured the dank air.
My heart was still thundering, but I saw no one. “Who’s there?” I demanded.
A figure came into view. Not like he stepped out of the shadows…more like he materialized in front of me. Tall. Powerfully built. With short brown hair and a lean angular face covered in bruises and bloody scrapes. I could have drawn that rugged face, and all its battle scars, from memory.
I forced myself to look into his dark, knowing eyes. The eyes that I’d once allowed to see into my deepest grief. “Matt?” My voice came out higher, younger than I expected. “I didn’t think you were ever coming back.”
“Alexandra…kid, we need to talk.” Matt’s gravelly voice—a voice I hadn’t heard since I was fourteen years old—was low and serious. “I’ve waited over a year for you to come down here. Don’t know how much longer I can hold this form. So listen and don’t interrupt.”
I’d almost forgotten how bossy Matt could be for a ghost. Well, ethereal being anyway. Despite his torn T-shirt and jeans, he had a palpable air of authority, like some kind of rogue commando. The impatient blaze in his eyes would be intimidating, if I didn’t know him. Actually, it still was. But as blown away as I was to see him again, my life had changed since the last time he’d paid me an astral visit. Since then, I’d learned that I had no business interacting with supernatural beings.
“I’m not a kid anymore, Matt,” I said, as firmly as I could. “And I’m not part of your world. Look…you helped me back then, I’ll always be grateful. But I think it would be best if you left now.”
“That’s because you don’t have all the information yet.” He folded his muscular arms, which looked so real and powerful I had to remind myself that they, like the rest of his strapping body, weren’t physically here in the room but in another realm entirely. “Once you’re up to speed on the magical dangers facing our city—”
“Thanks, but I have enough problems to deal with. You know, in the real world.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell Matt that I’d been officially declared magically deficient. Not when he’d always referred to me as “the next coven leader,” after my mother. Instead, I glanced at the shards at my feet and shook my head in despair. Randy was definitely going to make me pay for these broken vodka bottles. Just add it to my tab. “Sorry, but you need to leave me alone, so I can deal with this, okay?”
I started upstairs to get the broom…but didn’t make it past the third step before his form appeared again on the next highest step. Inches between us.
“You have no idea what your real problems are, Alexandra.”
Walk right through him, I told myself. You’ve done it before. But Matt’s chiseled face, swathed in desperation, held my full attention. Something had changed there since I last saw him—startling, given that he was incorporeal. In the last ten years, he hadn’t aged one hour. Funny, how I used to think of him as an older guy. Now he looked about my age. The dark purple bruises flowering along his square jaw hadn’t healed. Nor had the bloody gash down his pillowy lower lip—the one part of him that looked incongruously boyish. It was his eyes that had changed.
“I need your help, Alexandra.” His dark eyes, once warm and charming, burned with an urgency that put fear into my heart. “Please.”