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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PROLOGUE


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…


“…it’s time.”


“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.



CHAPTER ONE


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.


Jay Michaels.


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.


Looking back at Sasha, I searched for any indication she was as nervous as I was. She continued to pick at her nails.


“Okay, Megan, your turn.” Ms. O’Dowd smiled.


I glanced around the classroom. All eyes were on me. Two names left and I definitely knew which one would be a better choice…and his initials were not J.M. I snuck a peek at Jay, who sat on a stool in his kitchen area flipping through his phone. Apparently, he was too busy to worry about who his partner would be. Typical. Jay was always too busy to give anyone other than his phone attention. My eyes darted back to Ms. O’Dowd.


“Let’s go, Ms. Cooper. I still need to explain the final project before class is dismissed.” She put her free hand on her hip. Oh, sure, now you’re in a hurry.


I swallowed hard. Inhaling deeply, I raised my hand and placed it into the colander.


Stuart Kwong. Stuart Kwong. Please be Stuart Kwong. I willed the universe to guide my fingers in choosing the partner I wanted.


Finding a paper, I removed it from the colander and held it tightly in my grasp.


“Well, Ms. Cooper…who’s the lucky gentleman?”


It was the moment of truth. I closed my eyes, opening them slowly as I lifted the slip to my line of sight.


I opened my mouth to say the name, but nothing came out.


“Well…” Ms. O’Dowd’s voice rose an octave.


“It’s um…it’s…” The class was silent. I released a long breath and looked at the floor. “Jay Michaels,” I muttered, tossing the scrap of paper into the trash bin before writing his name on the board next to mine.


“Okay then, Sasha, that just leaves you and Stuart.” Ms. O’Dowd handed the last name in the colander to Sasha. “All right, everyone. Now that you have your partners, time for a warm-up.”


I quietly groaned as I made my way to where Jay sat. Did he even know I’d chosen his name? His eyes were still focused on his phone. Great. The one person I didn’t want was the one I was now stuck with. It was common knowledge that Jay was always passing his work off on others, and always getting away with it. And now that honor would be bestowed upon me. Super. I looked him up and down as I approached. And why wouldn’t he? I was pretty sure he was actually the main jock character in a cheesy high school flick who’d somehow stumbled off the screen and into reality. What a massive cliché.


A strong, beautiful cliché with perfect teeth, my inner voice chimed in, and I halted. My stomach clenched, and my pulse quickened.


Shut up! I scolded back. That makes no difference.


“Okay, class, I’d like you to take the next five minutes discussing with your partner what your favorite meal is and why. Ready? Go.” Ms. O’Dowd set her egg timer. Tick. Tick. Tick. The stupid thing mocked me as it counted down my horror.


I stood at the edge of kitchen seven, arms folded, and waited for Prince Jay to acknowledge my presence. Tick. Tick. Tick. He didn’t look up.


Oh my Lord, what the hell? I’m freaking standing right here! The vein in my temple pulsed as I ground my teeth. Jay continued to study his phone. After what had to be a million years, I cleared my throat.


“If you’re getting sick, maybe you should keep your space. I really can’t afford to catch anything.” He slipped his phone into his back pants pocket and looked up at me for the first time.


My eyes widened. “Oh, this is going to be just great. I can already tell.” I pulled a chair over from a nearby desk and sat as close to him as I dared. My heart flew like a hummingbird in my chest, and I met his gaze.


“Not trying to be rude or anything. Geez, Megan, lighten up.” His lips parted in a smile. “I just really can’t get sick, that’s all.”


“I’m not sick,” I snapped. I looked down at my skin to make sure it wasn’t turning green and I wouldn’t Hulk out in two point two seconds. I clenched my fists and silently counted to three. “I was just clear—you know what? Never mind. Let’s just try to make the best of this, okay?”


Jay’s eyebrows drew together a split second before visibly relaxing. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to this.” He wants you as his partner, the voice chimed in.


“Working with me?” Blood swooshed through my body.


“I was actually going to say cooking, but sure, working with you, too. I guess.” His warm hazel eyes twinkled, and a smile revealed those perfect straight teeth.


A raging river of heat burned my cheeks, a ball of embarrassment—and irritation—lodging in my throat. Closing my eyes, I willed myself to melt into my chair. It was Ms. O’Dowd who saved me. Never had I been more eager to hear her voice.


“Okay, class, time’s up. Here are the instructions for the final. Take one and pass it down.” She split the pile of papers she held in two and handed each stack to the first kitchen on either side of the classroom. My gaze followed the packets as they made their way down to Jay and me. “Please read through them carefully, especially the paragraph explaining participation points. This is a partner project, class. You both need to contribute an equal amount of work in order to receive a passing grade, or you both will be penalized. Work together, people. I don’t want to hear about one person doing all the work, or any other excuses for that matter. Handle your business. Get it done. Are we clear?”


I shot Jay a pointed glance. He avoided my eyes, choosing to busy himself with reading over his packet, holding the other one out to me. Snatching it from his fingers, I reviewed the requirements.


“If there are any questions, please ask me, and no, Mr. Barnes,” Ms. O’Dowd shook her head, “you may not use any alcohol in the recipe.” The class snickered as Chris Barnes lowered his hand.


“All right. If there isn’t anything else, you may use the remaining time planning what you and your partner will present to me on the day of the final.”


Chatter peppered the classroom and I glanced around. Stacey and Kyle were already taking notes. Sasha laughed at something Stuart said. Everyone was engaged and ready to work. Taking a steady breath, I twisted my body and reluctantly faced Jay. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.


“So, what do you suggest we should—”


Jay raised his hand. “Ms. O’Dowd? I have a pass for the office.” He waved the tiny blue slip of paper for her to see.


Ms. O’Dowd approached and took the pass. She gave it a quick glance and signed it. “This is not the best time, Mr. Michaels. The rest of class time was meant for you and Ms. Cooper to work together on your final.”


Jay pasted a silky smile on his face. My stomach tightened. “I know, Ms. O’Dowd, but don’t worry. Megan and I will meet on our own to make sure our meal is top shelf. You won’t be disappointed.”


She raised her eyebrows at me. “And you’re fine with this?” she asked.


I nodded, keeping my face as relaxed as possible. Liar—me and Jay. At least we were already working together. Too bad there weren’t points for pulling one over on your teacher. I glanced down at the packet on my lap just to be sure. Nope, lying definitely wasn’t getting us any closer to passing. But there was no reason Ms. O’Dowd needed to know we were already having conflicts. And there was absolutely no way I’d let that idiot make me fail. I would graduate early. My insides shook in anticipation at the prospect of leaving everything all behind. No more whispers in the hallway. No more awkward conversations with teachers. No more being that girl anymore. No, I would graduate early. Even if it meant lying through my teeth.


Apparently satisfied, Ms. O’Dowd made a small “hmph” sound and waddled off to another kitchen. I spun around to face my partner.


“What the hell, Jay?” I hissed. “We haven’t even started the project, and already you’re blowing me off.” The temperature of my blood rose even higher.


“Relax, okay? I have every intention of doing my part. It’s just I really have to be somewhere right now.”


“Uh, yeah. School.”


Jay’s mouth tightened, his lips forming a straight line. He gestured toward me, his hazel eyes meeting mine. “Here, let me have your phone.”


“What? My phone? What do you…why do you…?” My tongue fumbled, unable to form complete sentences. Still, I reached into my back pocket and produced the requested device. My fingers grazed his as I placed it on his waiting palm.


He sucked in his breath at the slight touch, his head whip‐ ping up, and our eyes met again, this time with more intensity. Electricity zapped from his body to mine, and I inhaled sharply as I returned his gaze. What in the holy heck? It only took a second for him to recover, the feeling gone, and his eyes drawing down to my phone as he cleared his throat.


“This is my number.” He quickly input his digits into my contacts.


Wow, he’s even cool when he’s blowing you off.


I cursed my inner voice to shut up.


“Text me and we’ll make plans to meet up, okay?”


I nodded, speechless. He handed back my phone and unzipped his backpack. He shoved his binder in the bag, pushing aside a basketball jersey and a neon orange laminated nametag on a lanyard. Curiosity snagged my focus. What was that for? Everyone on campus knew him. Everyone in town, too, if I had to bet on it. I tilted my head to the side to read the words on the top of the badge but was interrupted when he quickly zipped it shut.


“Well, see ya.” He turned to leave.


“Wait,” I said. “What are we even going to make?” Jay shrugged.


“Whatever you want. Ladies’ choice, Meggo. It doesn’t matter to me.”


My stomach dive-bombed at the nickname. “Don’t call me that. We aren’t in middle school anymore. My name is Megan,” I shot at him.


“Okay then, Megan. Whatever you want, just pick something. I really gotta go, see you around,” he said, walking away.


I watched as he left, my hands clasping my phone. Sitting alone in kitchen seven, my jaw dropped and heat swirled in my center. I tossed my phone onto my bag. I couldn’t believe it. Five minutes into the project, and I’d already been Jay Michael’d. I rubbed circles along my temples, the minor beating inside my head now a major thumping. Classic.


“Partner, my ass,” I scoffed as I dug through my backpack, retrieving a pen. I tore a piece of paper out of my notebook and began writing a list of possible meals we…no, I could do. After all, it appeared I was on my own.


“Whatever you want…it doesn’t matter to me,” I mumbled under my breath.


When the final bell rang at three o’clock, I could barely keep the angry tears at bay, and my wrist ached from pressing too hard on the paper. How dare he leave me to do everything on my own. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Hadn’t Dad done the same? What else should I have expected?


Well, not this time, Jay. You can’t take me for granted.


I shoved my notebook and pen deep into my bag and stormed out of class. If Jay thought he’d be able to push me around, to do his homework, well then, he’d lost his mind.

It was just after four by the time I pulled into the driveway. I could only loiter so long in the library before campus security shooed me out and I had to suck it up and go home. I sat in my car a few minutes before the temperature noticeably began to fall. Rallying for what was most likely to be another uncomfortable exchange with Dad, I stepped out into the late afternoon, cold air biting at my cheeks. As I approached the side door, I faltered at the sight of his silhouette through the kitchen curtain and braced myself as I turned the door handle and entered.


Dad stood at the sink drying the dishes. He didn’t look up as I placed my backpack on the closest kitchen chair. I shivered. Forty-four degrees outside, and I didn’t get the chills until I was inside. Typical.


“Hey, Dad.”


Dad faced me and winced. His mouth twisted before he could force a smile. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “For just a moment, I thought”—he released a shaky breath— “you look like her.” He turned around, his attention back on his task.


Silence.


It wasn’t the first time my face had stopped our conversations, though it happened more frequently as I grew older. I bit the inside of my lip for a few seconds before drawing in a breath and trying again. “So…I…um…school was fine today. I have to do this proj—”


“Megan, I’m sorry.” He placed the last plate on the counter and hung the towel on the bar across the oven. “I told the Pattersons I’d help them with their fencing tonight. I’m literally out the door.”


“Yeah, sure. I get it.”


Dark circles pressed under his eyes, and he rubbed the back of his neck before running his fingers through his greying brown hair. Time and loss had taken their toll. Wrinkles edged their way out from his eyes and along the downturn of his mouth. They looked deeper than normal in the yellow glow of the kitchen light. His broad shoulders slumped as he shoved his hand in his pocket, the front of his green flannel unbuttoned and hanging open. His white undershirt was stained.


Huh. Just like us. Stained.


“I...I gotta go,” he said. He found his keys and headed out. “Food’s in the fridge.” His voice was muffled as he exited.


I stood in the kitchen, solitude vibrating in my head.


“I mean, why would you want to listen to stupid high school stuff anyway? I don’t care about it either.” My voice echoed in the cold, empty room. I shuffled to the fridge in search of dinner.


A casserole dish covered in foil sat on the shelf with a note affixed to the top:


M, The chicken potpie is from Mrs. Patterson. Microwave on high for a few minutes. -D


“Well, at least Mrs. Patterson cares if I eat or not,” I said, though I knew it wasn’t true. The older woman frequently sent meals over to the house in exchange for Dad’s help around their property. I tore the note off the foil and crumpled it into a tiny ball before tossing it across the room toward the trash bin. It hit the rim and bounced under the cabinet.


“Whatever. I won’t be around much longer anyhow.” The fire in my veins was gone now, squelched by the deep flood of sadness that took over as I helped myself to the potpie, adding a generous mound to my plate, and setting it in the microwave.


I sat at the table, my head in my hands, and stared at the plate of food, a shapeless lump spinning on the glass tray under the muted light. I leaned further in, my head heavy, and zoned out to the steady buzz of the machine.


I blinked hard, pushing the tears away, and focused on my dinner’s repeated circular path over and over and over, always the same, until it was eventually scorched.


Ironic how my life seemed no different.

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