The temptation, p.1
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       The Temptation, p.1

         Part #6 of The Secret Circle series by L. J. Smith  
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The Temptation
Page 1

  Chapter 1

  It was a cool, purple night, and the candles continued to burn, flickering orange and yellow against the cave walls. But the hunters no longer mumbled their soft chant. They’d fallen silent. Their hardened bodies littered the ground, with their faces frozen in a soundless eternal scream.

  Cassie looked at her hands, dirty and shaking. What had she done?

  She glanced at Adam. He appeared pale and sickened, unsteady on his feet like he might faint.

  Diana seemed a little dazed, unable to figure out what had just occurred.

  The smell of death was thick in the air. As Cassie breathed it in, her mouth filled with the heady, metallic taste of guilt.

  Then Max’s voice boomed. “You just killed my father. He’s dead! Do you understand that?”

  Slowly, Cassie’s friends surrounded her, but they were no longer themselves—their faces had altered into distorted and ugly shapes. Adam sneered with narrowed blackened eyes and spoke in a voice that wasn’t his own. “Give us the book, dear one,” he said. “Or die. ”

  Diana curled her fingers and twitched. “Better yet,” she said, “give us the book and then die. ”

  So much death, Cassie thought. When will it stop? Fear coursed through her.

  She tried to back away, but she found herself pinned against the rocky wall of the cave. There was nowhere to run.

  Melanie reached out and grabbed Cassie by the neck. She squeezed her long fingers tight around Cassie’s throat, cutting off her breath.

  Laurel clapped and cheered in a piercing, morbid singsong: “Die, die, die!”

  I’m not ready to die! Cassie tried to scream.

  But she couldn’t find her voice, and she couldn’t breathe, and soon the flickering cave walls went black—

  She startled awake, gasping for air.

  Cassie looked around her dark bedroom, confused about where she was. She mentally rifled through the last twenty-four hours, separating what was real from what she’d just imagined. The truth gradually snaked itself around her guts.

  Her nightmare was her reality.

  That evening at the caves, after performing the curse that destroyed the witch-hunters, the boy she loved and all her closest friends had turned into monsters before her eyes. The truth of it pierced her chest like a slick blade and remained there, stuck—there was no release.

  The alarm clock on her nightstand told her it was almost morning, but the sky through her window was clouded over in charcoal gray. A storm must be coming. She reached over to the lamp’s hanging beaded cord and tugged it to life. Scattered around her bedroom floor, Cassie saw pages and pages of her handwriting—translations, notes, doodles—all scribbled the previous night while she worked through Black John’s Book of Shadows. She’d fallen asleep trying to figure out a way to save her possessed friends.

  Now, beneath the soft yellow glow of her lamp, Cassie reexamined what she’d written on each page. She’d translated reams of dark magic spells and incantations, but, so far, she’d had no luck finding a single word referring to demon possession.

  Cassie picked up her father’s Book of Shadows from where it lay on the floor. She rested it upon her lap and stared at its aged cover. It looked like any old book, but she knew the power contained in its pages. Opening it didn’t burn her fingers anymore, the way it once did. Because it was a part of her now, and she was a part of it—for better or worse.

  A crack of thunder caused Cassie to flinch. Then the sky opened, unleashing a violent rain against the glass of her windows.

  She blushed at her own jumpiness. Her spell had trapped her friends in the cave, Cassie reminded herself, so at least for now, she was safe. However, running her fingers through the book’s tattered pages, Cassie reflected that safe was hardly how she’d describe what she felt at the moment. Determined was more like it.

  Cassie awoke for the second time that morning to a room that was sunny and bright. She climbed out of bed, thankful the storm had passed, and went to her window to greet the ocean. Admiring the way it rolled and sparkled never ceased to calm her—but today the beach struck her as lonesome, abandoned. No person could be seen for miles.

  Cassie dressed quickly and went downstairs to find her mom making enough pancakes to feed an army.

  “Oh, no,” she said aloud.

  Her mother looked up from the sizzling butter in her frying pan. “What’s wrong?”

  “Everything,” Cassie said. “But for the moment, there’s the small problem that no one’s here to eat these. ”

  Cassie picked a pancake from the top of a pile, rolled it in her hands, and bit into it like a piece of licorice. Sitting down at the kitchen table, she tried to figure out the best way to explain the events of last night to her mother. But there was no best way. She just had to come out with it straight: They’d gone to the caves, performed the hunter curse, and Scarlett betrayed them.

  “The hunters died,” Cassie said, still hardly able to believe it herself. “The spell killed them all, even Max’s dad. ”

  Her mother’s naturally pale skin appeared to whiten. She pitched forward, ignoring the pancake currently sizzling and smoking in the pan, and motioned Cassie to continue.

  “Now the whole Circle is possessed. To perform the curse, we had to call upon Black John’s ancestors, and they’ve taken hold of everyone and won’t let go. I’ve been poring through Black John’s book trying to find a way to save them, but I haven’t been able to find anything remotely helpful. ”

  “I told you to leave that book alone. ” Her mother’s voice sounded severe, like a scolding. She turned off the stove and abandoned her pancake batter, then reached for a dish towel and wiped off her hands. She was quiet for a few seconds, twisting the towel sorrowfully in her fingers.

  Cassie knew she should have listened about not touching her father’s book. Maybe her mother thought she’d gotten what she deserved.

  But when she finally looked up, the only emotion on her mother’s face was concern. “Is it awful that all I can think right now is how happy I am that you’re okay?” she said. Her long dark hair framed her face like a shroud.

  “That’s one way of looking at it,” Cassie said, but the look she gave her mom betrayed her true concern.

  “Possession is serious, Cassie. If there’s a way to save your friends, it won’t come easy, and you surely can’t do it alone. ”

  Cassie’s heart sank like a heavy stone.

  An odd expression crossed her mother’s face, a flash of discomfort, of pain. “There’s a man,” she said. “On the mainland. In Concord. He used to live in New Salem a long time ago. ”

  Cassie waited for her mother to say more, but she didn’t.

  “Who is he?” As far as Cassie knew, her mother had broken ties with everyone from her past days in New Salem.

  “Last I heard, he was the head librarian at a research institute that specializes in the occult. ” Her mother began cleaning up—something she always did when she was ill at ease. “He may know something. ”

  “Why haven’t you ever mentioned him before?” Cassie asked.

  Her mother averted her eyes. “We didn’t exactly part on the best of terms. ”

  “But you think he can help?”

  “If there’s a man alive who knows how to perform an exorcism, it’s him. ”

  Exorcism, Cassie thought. Just the word brought a shiver to her spine. She imagined heads whirling around like spinning tops, projectile vomiting. Was that what was in store for the people she loved most?

  “He’s a scholar, an academic,” her mother said. “Not a priest or anything like that. His name is Timothy Dent. ”

  She focused on the task of collecti
ng the broken eggshells from the countertop and dropping them into the trash. “We should go see him right away. The more time that passes, the worse it’ll be for your friends. ”

  Cassie took a sip of her mother’s cup of coffee and found that it had already become cold.

  “Have a little more to eat. ” Her mother placed a plate of pancakes and a bottle of maple syrup on the table in front of Cassie and handed her a fork and knife. “You can’t help anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself first. ”

  Cassie nodded, but the last person she was thinking of right now was herself.

  Chapter 2

  Cassie’s mother waited in the car while Cassie ran inside the Cup for two to-go cappuccinos and some biscotti for the road. She opened the door to the coffee shop with a shakiness she couldn’t name—part exhaustion, part dread. Why was her mother so tight-lipped about this man they were going to see? Her stomach felt too queasy for biscotti.

  Once inside the shop, she inhaled a deep breath of coffee-scented air and tried to steer her feelings toward hope. The Cup was crowded as usual, which gave her a few minutes to collect herself. She observed the line of people waiting at the counter: a twenty-something girl yapping on her cell phone, a taller, older woman deliberating over apple or strawberry rhubarb pie. Then Cassie spotted broad shoulders beneath a black T-shirt that she recognized instantly—Max. Her breath caught in her throat.

  With everything that had happened, it was hard for Cassie to believe that only a few hours before she’d seen Max at the caves, where he’d watched his fellow hunters fall dead at the hands of the Circle. Cassie knew she would never be able to forget the way Max passed his eyes over each member of the Circle as his father breathed his last breath in his arms. How he’d glared at Diana, threatening her not to follow him, before running from the cave and disappearing into the night.

  As if sensing her gaze, Max turned around and locked eyes with Cassie. He froze, his face reddened, and then he quickly ducked off line and headed for the exit.

  “Max, wait,” Cassie called out, chasing after him without knowing what she would actually say if she caught him.

  Max stormed through the bodies obstructing his way toward the door, trying to make a quick escape. In his haste, he bumped into a double-seat baby carriage. It was just the holdup Cassie needed. She reached out and caught him by the bicep.

  “Please,” she said, hoping Max would see how sorry she was.

  He aggressively shook off her hold, drawing the attention of everyone on line. “You’re the last person I want to see,” he said.

  “I know that. ” Cassie took a step back and lowered her voice to a whisper. The whole coffee shop seemed to fall silent. “None of us knew that was going to happen. I know that doesn’t change anything, but . . . ”

  Max scowled and looked away. Through clenched teeth he said, “My father’s body isn’t even cold yet. Have a little respect. ” His eyes welled up.

  Cassie registered the intense look of pain on Max’s face and felt it as her own. It must have been what her face looked like after Suzan died—that unmovable mask that Cassie thought was strong but still betrayed her true feelings.

  There was nothing Cassie could say to ease Max’s pain. None of what had happened could be undone.

  “I trusted Diana,” Max said. “And I trusted you, too. Now my dad’s gone. Please, just don’t make it any worse. ”

  He broke from Cassie’s hold, and she knew he was right. Trying to explain away what the Circle had done, or to bring Max further into the drama, wasn’t fair. This was his opportunity for a clean break, to not be part of this life anymore.

  Cassie nodded to Max, an almost imperceptible agreement to everything he’d said. He rushed for the exit, shoulder and hip checking everyone and everything standing in his way, but when he reached the door he turned back around. His eyes locked with Cassie’s.

  Was he having second thoughts? Did he consider hearing Cassie out? She waited for him to say something, anything.

  He hesitated for only a few seconds before breaking his gaze and continuing through the door.

  Cassie watched him go. She’d felt alone before, but now she felt . . . There weren’t even words for it.

  “Are you okay, miss?” the manager behind the counter asked. He frowned sympathetically at Cassie, as if she was the victim of a hot-tempered boyfriend.

  “I’m fine, thank you,” Cassie said, though she wasn’t fine at all. She rushed to order and escape the customers’ pitying stares. She couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

  Cassie and her mother’s road trip destination was Concord, Massachusetts, a town made famous by some of Cassie’s favorite authors—Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau.

  “It’s so pretty here,” Cassie said. “I wish we could actually explore it. ” She soaked in the flowering oaks, leafy elms, and red and black maples. It was no wonder all those writers found inspiration here.

  “We’re getting close. Hopefully we’ll have some good news soon,” her mother replied. Her thumb had begun rubbing back and forth upon the leather of the steering wheel as she drove—a telling nervous tic. She wasn’t offering much in the way of conversation.

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