Omens (Cainsville)

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9780142181065: Omens (Cainsville)

#1 New York Times bestselling author Kelley Armstrong introduces a chilling new world

Kelley Armstrong has been a dominant presence on the New York Times bestseller lists for more than a decade. And while her devoted fans flock to each new book, the Cainsville series is sure to attract an even broader readership. In Omens, Olivia Taylor-Jones is shattered to learn that she’s adopted. Her biological parents? Notorious serial killers. On a quest to learn more about her past, Olivia lands in the small town of Cainsville, Illinois. As she draws on long-hidden abilities, Olivia begins to realize that there are dark secrets in Cainsville—and powers lurking in the shadows.

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About the Author:

Kelley Armstrong lives in rural Ontario, Canada.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER ONE

I waited in the shelter drop-in center for my next appointment. The murmur of children’s voices wafted in from the play area. Low murmurs, hesitant, fractured. Guilty giggles, cut short, as if the children weren’t sure they had anything to giggle about.

The faint smell of bleach from the toys, washed nightly, was almost overpowered by the sickly sweet smell of lilies. Vases on every table. A hundred dollars’ worth of flowers. Money better spent on shampoo and baby wipes. But the donor meant well. They always did.

People say that volunteer work is rewarding in ways no paid job can match. I wouldn’t know about the paid part. Barely a year out of college, I’ve never held a paying position. I know what I get out of volunteering, though, and it isn’t the usual sanctimonious thrill of helping the less fortunate. It’s the mirror they provide, reflecting me in ways that aren’t always comfortable.

My 2:15 appointment was Cathy, who apologized for being late even as I assured her she wasn’t. She’d slid into the room with her head down, prodding her two-year-old ahead of her.

“Hey, Joey,” I said. “Are those new boots? Spider-Man, huh? Very cool.”

A furtive glance my way. A quick nod. I like kids. Can’t say they feel the same about me. I think they can sense I was an only child, only grandchild, too, growing up in a world of adults.

Cathy headed for a rickety wooden chair, but I patted the spot beside me on the sofa. She perched on the edge of the worn red vinyl. Not the prettiest piece of furniture, but it was bright and cheery and washable. Did the clients look at all the vinyl and wood and plastic, and imagine us after hours, bleaching down everything in sight, cleaning off the contagion of their desperate lives?

“Did you leave Amy in the playroom?” I asked.

Cathy stiffened. “Yes. The lady said it was okay—”

“I was just asking. They’re doing crafts at two thirty and I know she loves crafts.”

She relaxed and nodded. She had two children under the age of four. Another on the way. And she was three months younger than me. Not that she looked it. If I saw her on the street, I’d have added ten years. She certainly had that extra decade of life experience. Kicked out of the house at sixteen. Married by eighteen and divorced by twenty-one. A dozen jobs on her résumé, often more than one at a time.

Nothing could be further removed from my own experience. I live with my mother in a house bigger than the entire shelter. I have a master’s degree from Yale. I work as a volunteer, and I don’t even need to do that. Do I appreciate it? No. On good days, it chafes, like a dress with a scratchy tag. On bad ones, I feel like a bobcat caught in a trap, ready to gnaw my foot off to escape. Then I look at someone like Cathy, and a wave of guilt and shame stifles the restlessness.

“Thank you for seeing me, Miss Jones,” she said.

“Olivia, please. And I’m here whenever you need me. You know that.”

Cathy nodded and wound a lock of hair around her finger. Hair dyed blond almost a year ago, dark roots now to her ears; she’d refused to color it again because the dye job had been his idea. The guy who’d left her with those blond ends, a missing tooth, and another baby in her belly.

“So, Melanie has been helping you look for a job,” I said. “How’s that going?”

“Fine.”

Her gaze stayed fixed on my chin. It always did, unless she got worked up enough, like when she’d declared unbidden that she wasn’t fixing her hair. Brief shows of defiance. Achingly brief. Frustratingly brief.

There was more in that lowered gaze than deference, though. I could sense it. Feel it, thrumming through the air between us.

“Did—?” I began.

Joey raced past wearing a tattered backpack in the shape of an owl. It reminded me of the one that hooted outside my window that morning. A bad omen. If you believed in omens.

“Joey!” Cathy said. “Stop running and sit down.” Then, to me, “Sorry, Miss Jones.”

“No, he’s fine. I was just admiring his backpack.” I tore my gaze away. “Did the bakery ever give you that reference?”

She shook her head. I cursed under my breath. Cathy’s last job had been at a bakery. Owned by the cousin of the man who’d left her pregnant. Her old boss now couldn’t seem to recall how good an employee she’d been and thus sadly could not give a reference.

I had the name of the bakery in my wallet. More than once, I’d been tempted to help the woman remember Cathy. I had a few ideas for how to accomplish that. It’s a satisfying image to contemplate, and it would be so much more feasible if I wasn’t Olivia Taylor-Jones, daughter of Lena Taylor, renowned Chicago philanthropist, and Arthur Jones, owner of the iconic Mills & Jones department store. But I am, and as such, I have other avenues of attack, equally effective, if somewhat lacking in drama.

“Let’s leave that for now. I’m sure she’ll change her mind.” Very sure. “We’ll grab a coffee and have a look through job postings.”

· · ·

After Cathy left, I flipped through the stack of job printouts. I told myself I was making sure I hadn’t missed a suitable one for Cathy, but I was really looking for myself. Pointless, of course. In so many ways.

My mother had always expected me to follow her example. Marry well and devote myself to volunteerism and philanthropy. Leave paid work for those who need it. Dad had been more amenable to the idea that a young woman in my position could have a career beyond organizing fund-raisers. My mother came from money—she was the daughter of minor nobility, raised in English society. Dad had been brought up in the business world, where you were expected to work until you couldn’t. Or until you had a fatal heart attack at the age of sixty-one, leaving behind a daughter who, ten months later, couldn’t look at your picture without missing you so desperately it hurt.

I always thought I’d work for Dad someday. Take over the family business eventually. It didn’t matter if the store bored me to tears. I’d be working with him and that would make him so happy. Except now he was gone, and I couldn’t bear to step through the store’s front doors.

For now, I intended to go back to school in the fall and get my doctorate in Victorian lit. No idea what I’d use that for in the real world, but it would give me time to figure out what I wanted.

I hadn’t told my mother my plans. No use stressing her out when her dream was about to come true—her only child married, and married well. As for my fiancé, James . . . I hadn’t told him, either. First I was checking out my options for local schools. Once that was set—and before the wedding—I’d tell him. He’d be fine with it. He didn’t expect me to sit home and keep house for him. Not unless I wanted to. I most certainly did not want to.

· · ·

When I finished tidying up, I stepped outside the front doors, and the city hit me. The screech of tires and growl of engines. The stink of exhaust and the tang of roast pork. The flash of colors—bright shirts, neon signs, blinding blue sky.

Our family doctor used to blame my hypersensitivity on my upbringing, raised in a quiet house in the suburbs. But years of city exposure didn’t seem to help. I’d walk onto a busy street and every sight, sound, and smell assaulted me, my brain whirring as if trying to make sense of it all. I’d learned to adjust—it was part of my life. Usually it passed in a moment, as it did now. I took a deep breath and headed to the gym.

· · ·

The photographer stepped back into the shadowy doorway as the young woman approached. Once she was abreast of him, he lifted his camera and held down the shutter button, silently snapping photos.

Amazing how much she looked like her mother.

CHAPTER TWO

“You’re lucky I love you,” I whispered as I leaned over. “Or I would be so out of here.”

He smiled, a blazing grin that had every woman at the table swooning. CEO of Chicago’s fastest growing tech firm, and son of a former senator, James Morgan isn’t gorgeous, but that grin had landed him a spot on the city’s most eligible bachelors list for three years running. Sadly, he wouldn’t be eligible next year. Well, sadly for everyone else.

“Another hour,” he whispered. “Then Penny has instructions to phone me with an urgent message.”

Good. As charity dinners went, this one ranked about average, which meant somewhere between uncomfortable and excruciating. The cause was excellent—New Orleans reconstruction. The food was just as good—Creole by someone who obviously knew how to cook it, which meant it was heavy on the spices and not nearly as appreciated by the older crowd. Most of it got left on the plates, which had me looking around the sea of tables, mentally calculating how far that wasted food would go in some Chicago neighborhoods. But they’d paid handsomely for it, eaten or not, and that was the point.

James’s father had been asked to give a speech tonight. James was doing it in his stead. That happened a lot lately, as his father aged, to the point where the organizers would be surprised—and probably disappointed—if James Senior showed up instead.

So James was a guest of honor, which meant everyone at this table wanted to make his acquaintance, and he couldn’t spend the meal chatting with his fiancée. While he conversed with everyone in turn, I entertained the others. Every few minutes, his hand would brush my leg, sometimes a flirtatious tickle but usually just a pat or squeeze, a reminder that he appreciated me being there.

Finally dessert was served: Doberge cake, a New Orleans specialty, a half-dozen layers of chocolate cake with lemon and chocolate pudding between them. The meal was coming to an end, and conversation was hitting the stage of desperation.

“So how did you two meet?” asked the woman on my left.

“Their families know each other.” A man across the table answered before we could. “Mills & Jones department stores. James Mills Morgan and Olivia Taylor-Jones.” He sat back, looking smug, as if he’d just uncovered a secret—and somewhat shady—connection.

“Our grandfathers founded the company,” James said. “Mine sold our shares to Liv’s dad before I was born, but our families still get together a few times a year. Liv was always there. Usually getting into trouble.”

A round of obliging laughter.

The woman on my left patted my arm. “I bet you had a secret crush on him.”

“Er, no,” James said. “She was seventeen before she remembered my name.”

“Only because you look like your cousin,” I said.

“Who’s a half foot shorter than me and fifty pounds heavier.” James turned to the others. “Let’s just say Liv’s complete lack of interest kept my ego in check.”

“You were older,” I said. Then hurried to add, “Out of my league.”

“Nice save, darling. Truth is, by the time she was old enough to notice me, I’d gone from a gawky teenager to a boring businessman. Liv prefers fighter pilots.”

I sputtered a laugh. “He was a computer tech in the air force.”

“Close enough. The point is, she was not easily wooed. I’ve launched hostile takeovers that were easier.”

· · ·

James spoke after dinner, making an impassioned plea for donations. I would say it was a lovely speech, but that would be arrogant, considering I wrote it. I could point out that a master’s degree in Victorian literature hardly qualifies me to write speeches about contemporary disasters, but I never did. If James was going to be my husband, I was going to be more than a bauble on his arm.

I hadn’t planned to marry so young. I’m not sure if I planned to marry at all. My parents had a great relationship but, well, it lacked what is to me an essential component of a partnership. Namely the partnership. Dad ran the business, Mum did her charity work. Never the twain shall meet. James has let me into the business side of his life from the start, and I appreciate that. So if he asks me to write him a speech, I do.

I will say, then, only that the speech was successful. Checkbooks opened. As they did, James made his way through the crowd, with me at his side. Then, so deftly that even I hardly noticed, we ended up in the back hall.

“I think the party is that way,” I said.

“Which is why we’re going this way. You looked like you needed a break.” He swung me into an alcove. “And I wanted to thank you for the speech. Perfect, as always.”

He pressed me back against the wall, lips coming to mine in the kind of deep, hungry kiss that had, a year ago, made me decide James Morgan was a lot more interesting than he looked.

When I finally needed oxygen, I pulled back and whispered in his ear, “If you want to thank me properly, I noticed the east wing was cordoned off.”

He chuckled. “Dare I ask how you noticed that when we came in the west doors?”

“I wander.”

The chuckle deepened, and he lowered his hands to my rear, pulling me against him as he kissed my neck.

“But it should probably wait,” I said. “You are a guest of honor, and it would be most improper—”

“I like improper.”

He let me down and we zipped along the hall toward the east wing.

· · ·

I leaned against the wall, skirt hiked up my hips, legs still wrapped around him.

“I definitely need to write you more speeches,” I said.

A rough laugh. “I definitely need to find more occasions for you to write me speeches.”

We rested there. It was peaceful—the white walls, the distant voices blending into a monotone murmur, the stomach-churning mix of perfume and cologne reduced to the spicy scent of his aftershave. I buried my face against his neck, inhaled, and relaxed.

He kissed my hair. “Speaking of speeches . . .”

I lifted my head. He adjusted his stance, lowering me to the ground.

“I need to ask you something.” He cleared his throat. “This isn’t quite how I planned it. I was going to take you to a fancy dinner and pop the question . . .”

“Uh-huh. While I’m flattered that the sex was so good it caused temporary amnesia, we’re already engaged.”

He smiled. “Yes, I know. This is a proposal of another sort. Equally terrifying in its own way. Neil Leacock came to see me today. My dad’s former campaign manager. He—they—the team and its supporters—would like me to consider running.”

A moment passed before I could find my voice. “For junior senator?”

“Yes, but not right away. They want to wait until I’m thirty-five. For now, they’d just like me to start heading in that direction. Grooming me.” He took my face in his hands. “I don’t want to hit you with this after the wedding, Liv. I know you might not want a life of endless speeches and endless dinners.”

A senator’s wife? I swore I could hear the trap snap shut on my leg. I leaned against James, hiding my reaction.

Just relax. Don’t say anything. You need time to think this through. Play along for now.

It took a moment, but I found a smile that would fool James. I’d minored in drama in my undergrad years. My instructors always said I was a natural. No big surprise there. Sometimes I felt as if I’d spent my life faking it.

I smiled up at him. “In other words, no more sex in the back hall?”

“Er, no . . . Actually, I was hoping that if I promised more se...

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