READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Playing Cupid (The Mythical Creatures Collection, #1) by S.C. Alban
For the past five years, seventeen-year-old Megan Cooper has built a wall around her heart with little room to experience true feelings. Her mother's passing left her family fractured, driving a wedge between her and her father as they try to live without the glue that held them together.
With one final left until she graduates early and starts afresh at college, Megan is paired with a Home Economics partner that constantly bails at the last minute, oftentimes with cryptic excuses that just don't hold up.
However, her entire world shifts the moment she hits Cupid with her car. Now that his shooting arm is significantly injured, she has no choice but to take his place. As she races to find Cupid’s final three love matches in order to meet his quota by the start of the new year, she comes face to face with the very emotions she’s been pushing away for so long.
Caught between what her head is saying and what her heart longs for, Megan must face old wounds, find forgiveness, and track down the perfect match for the one boy who almost cost her early graduation.
Dive deep into the first installment of The Mythical Creatures Collection, PLAYING CUPID by S.C. Alban—out next Tuesday, February twenty-third. Pre-order your copy NOW!
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The moment Mom said her final goodbye, my young heart shattered into a million jagged pieces. In my childhood imaginings, I’d pictured death taking her as an old woman. She’d be nearing a hundred years, maybe older, her white hair wispy and wild, her warm smile wrinkled deep and spilling over her cheeks as she passed peacefully in her sleep.
But it wasn’t like that at all.
Fate caught me off-guard, plunging its silver-tipped sword deep into my heart and twisting before I could parry.
Those last days at the hospital were the worst. She’d just been through another round of chemotherapy and radiation. The treatments had taken a toll on her body, grey skin sagging from her bones like torn, dusty sails on a pirate ship. She was barely able to eat—no more than a few bites at a time—without fearing it might all come back up.
She motioned for me to sit on the bed. Not wanting to hurt her with the strength and awkwardness of my pudgy eleven year-old arms and legs, I was afraid to get too close.
With a voice long since faded, she insisted I lie next to her. I crawled up onto the bed, moving carefully around the crinkles in the blankets, not knowing if it was her legs creating the thin, hard lumps underneath, or if it was just the folds of the stiff, over-bleached fabric.
Her immune system was so worn down, Dad and I had to wear masks to keep our germs contained.
That day, she’d removed her oxygen tubes.
“What are you doing, Beth?” Dad reached forward to put the nasal cannula back on, his fingers like giant pink sausages against her ashen complexion.
She waved away his hand. “I want to kiss my daughter.” Her scratchy, dry voice was barely audible. “I want to give her a real kiss, Steve. I want to feel my lips on her forehead. I want to taste her skin.” She drew a labored breath. “I want to kiss my husband. A real kiss, babe. Not around pieces of plastic.” She closed her eyes and struggled to reopen them. “I need…some‐ thing, Steve. Something I can remember and take with me…
“Bethy, no. Please, don’t give—” Dad’s voice cut off, cracked through the center like the time a rock hit the windshield of our car. It fragmented and shot out into the corners of the room as he stood and stared out the window.
I had listened as my parents spoke.
I knew what they were saying. It was time for goodbye. “Come here, Meggo.” Mom reached out for me, her arm no bigger than the skeleton model from Mrs. Turner’s science class. Pulling me close, she removed the mask covering my mouth. She smelled strange, not like the vanilla and orange scents she used to wear around the house. It was unnatural…a mixture of plastic and peroxide. My nose crinkled at the unfamiliar scent. I was afraid to do what she asked.
I was more afraid not to do it. She sucked in a labored breath as she lifted her hand to my cheek, wiping tears from my eyes with her thumbs. Her fingers were cold and poked at my flesh awkwardly. Long gone were the soft, skilled fingers that had tickled me breathless so many times before.
“I’m sorry, peanut,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s gonna work out like we want.”
She held me close in her weak embrace and nuzzled my forehead. She kissed my tears away. I still remember how her lips felt on my skin. They were soft, not dry and crusty like I’d expected. Rose petals pressed against my cheeks.
“Take care of Dad. He needs you, Meggo. Don’t forget, you’ll still have each other.”
If I’d known my mother would be taken from me before I was a teenager, I’d have hugged her more, listened to the music of her voice more, spent every spare moment with her.
I’d have soaked up her memory like a sponge and never wrung it out.
In those early days following her passing, each sunrise tormented me. Dad would be downstairs, pacing a track in the woven wool carpet that lay before the hearth as if he were searching for something, his feet shuffling against the fabric. Round and round and round, and never up the stairs to find me. The track was sometimes the only evidence he was alive.
The once-warm house was emptied of laughter and smiles, hollowed like the tree trunk out back where rats and skunks nested in the winter. I thought I would surely die, my heart ripped open from the inside out, its blood spilling and pooling into my feet, making each step heavier than it’d ever been.
It wasn’t long before I understood my presence had become a burden to Dad. It was evident in each twist of his lip when he became short with me, every time he turned his head away, how he kept his eyes downcast to avoid seeing my face—the with‐ holding of affection.
Dad loved me before Mom died. But Mom’s death changed him as much as it changed me. Like it mattered. What good was love if I couldn’t hold onto it forever? If it couldn’t keep me safe? What value was a hug if the warmth it brought would never again touch my skin? Those times were gone.
If I dig into the past, dive deep into its muddled center, I still remember my mother’s embrace. So warm. So perfect. My eyes sting with tears. She can’t hug me anymore.
She can’t, and Dad won’t.
I’m torn, stuck between what was and what cannot be, two sides of a coin that will never land in my favor. Love, with its promise of joy and happiness and completeness, has left me full of sorrow and sadness and a big, dark, empty space where my soul used to live.
And now? Well, now there’s nothing. No more smiles. No more hugs. No more unfulfilled promises.
Losing your mom is like losing a part of yourself. Except it’s the part that already knows the answers, that comforts you, picks you up when you fall, wipes your tears when you’re sad, and cheers you on when you succeed. It’s the really good part. A mother is supposed to be there.
But mine wasn’t.
One final, and I could finally blow out of this school. One simple passing grade, and goodbye Mountain Valley High. So long. Peace out. I shifted my weight while standing in line and tugged on the bottom of my cotton t-shirt, every nerve in my body a tight bundle as I waited to pull the name of the partner who would help me with my escape.
When I signed up for Home Economics last spring, I thought it’d be a no-brainer. After all, it was just an easy elective for the jocks to pass in order to keep up their G.P.A. Who knew students would be expected to do actual work?
I bit my lip, rehashing how horribly I did on the sewing midterm. My cheeks grew hot as I recalled sewing a skirt to my pant leg during the hemming demonstration. Thank God the semester was ending with cooking. I’d been mastering the culinary arts since I was twelve. And by mastering, I mean making my own dinner and leaving leftovers for Dad. If I had any chance at all of passing this class—any chance of graduating early—this final was the key. It was my exit ticket out of high school. I just hoped chance favored me with a good partner.
My foot tapped double-time on the linoleum as I stood behind Eleanor Davis. My stomach twisted. Not only did we all have to suffer Ms. O’Dowd’s romanticized, and unhealthy, obsession with the 1950s and be partnered up in boy-girl fashion, but the woman also chose to go in reverse alphabetical order. Instead of having one of the first picks, I was second to last. My fate lay in the hands of my classmates. And I really hated waiting.
I glanced back at Sasha Abbott as she picked her nails. Poor girl. At least I got a fighting chance—a slim one, but still, at least I got to pick a name. She’d be stuck with whoever was left.
Ms. O’Dowd held the golden colander high above her head, ensuring no one could peek inside. The gleam in her eye hinted that she was enjoying the process a little too much.
Why did it seem like teachers enjoyed torturing their students? Because that’s what this was. Torture. Why couldn’t she have just assigned our partners beforehand? Why all the fanfare? I crossed my arms over my middle and blew out a breath, looking out over the rest of the class as they waited in their kitchenettes with smiles and laughter. Apparently, I was the only one that thought this ridiculous ritual was archaic and, well, dumb. But I knew better than to question Ms. O’Dowd, and her ancient beliefs, again. Especially after our little… disagreement about male and female salary inequality during the budgeting unit. Nope. Not going there again. It wasn’t my job to catapult her into present day thinking. Not when her grade was the only thing standing between me and freedom. I could be stubborn, but I wasn't stupid.
“Okay, ladies, let’s keep the line moving.” She shook the container as Ella Stratford reached in.
Ella rummaged around the colander longer than necessary, stretching her time in the spotlight out for what felt like at least a freaking hour. Just pick a name! Typical drama queen.
Finally, after a prompt from Ms. O’Dowd to hurry up, Ella yanked out a slip of paper, waving it in the air like a flag, and then read the name as if she was a contestant on a TV game show. Ugh. Ridiculous attention-seeking brat.
“Jesse Dawes.” She brought her hand to her heart and fluttered her eyelashes before writing his name on the board next to hers. The rest of the class hooted and hollered. Everyone knew Jesse had a massive crush on Ella, including Ella. She’d probably use it to her advantage, too. His cheeks flushed red when she joined him in kitchen four.
I shoved my hands deeper in my pockets to keep from fidgeting as the line shortened at a sloth’s pace. Three more and it would be my turn. Who hadn’t been picked yet? I scanned the available kitchenettes, my eyes darting like a falcon searching for prey. Kyle Peterson, Stuart Kwong, Hugo Herrera, Chris Barnes, and…
My heart stopped, the blood in my arteries freezing midpump as my gaze landed on the last kitchen without a partner.
Holy hell. A stone sank in my gut. Great. Of all the potential partners. Not that there were many options, but why did the laziest one have to be one of mine?
“Chris Barnes.” Brandi Jackson belted out the name and pranced to the back of the room to join her new partner.
No, no, no, no, my brain repeated, panicked. Anyone but Jay. I can’t be stuck with him.
Two more girls ahead of me. My lungs froze as Stacey Dyer pulled Kyle and Eleanor was matched with Hugo. There were only two names left in the colander Ms. O’Dowd dangled above our heads. My breathing became heavy, my heart pounding as I approached the colander like the gallows. Please God help me.