Sarah Cross Sarah Cross

Kill Me Softly book cover

Excerpt from Kill Me Softly

Available now in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio book formats.

Copyright © 2012 by Sarah Cross

All Rights Reserved

Kill Me Softly by Sarah Cross (Prologue & Chapter One)

Birthdays were wretched, delicious things when you lived in Beau Rivage. The clock struck midnight, and presents gave way to magic.

Curses bloomed.

Girls bit into sharp apples instead of birthday cake, choked on the ruby-and-white slivers, and collapsed into enchanted sleep. Unconscious beneath cobweb canopies, frozen in coffins of glass, they waited for their princes to come. Or they tricked ogres, traded their voices for love, danced until their glass slippers cracked.

A prince would awaken, roused by the promise of true love, and find he had a witch to destroy. A heart to steal. To tear from the ribcage, where it was cushioned by bloody velvet, and deliver it to the queen who demanded the princess’s death.

Girls became victims and heroines.

Boys became lovers and murderers.

And sometimes . . . they became both.

Chapter One

“Sweet sixteen coming up, Mira,” Elsa said with a grin, licking a stripe of sky blue frosting from her finger. “I’m taking your cake for a test run.”

“Great,” Mira said, forcing a smile. Her godmother had been wreaking havoc on the kitchen for the last hour or so, scattering measuring cups and batter-sticky bowls across every inch of counter space. Flour powdered Elsa’s cheeks, and rainbow splotches of food dye stained her jeans. The kitchen was a disaster area—definitely not the place to sit at the table reading a nerve-wracking play like Wait Until Dark—but Mira had managed to block out the baking chaos going on around her. She had other things on her mind.

Mira’s shoulders were hunched, as if to hide her guilt. Her hair kept spilling onto the book in front of her, obscuring the words. But it hardly mattered; she was too distracted by her plan—the culmination of eight months of deception—to concentrate on the story. The open book was her decoy. She could mumble one-word answers, and no one would worry that something was wrong—so long as she remembered to turn the pages once in a while.

Mira’s other godmother, Bliss, darted in, her wide skirt swaying like a bell. Bliss was Mira’s girly godmother: always dressed in frills, her hair in perfect blond ringlets touched with a few strands of silver. “Elsa, you’re ruining the surprise!” Bliss scolded. “You can’t make Mira’s cake right in front of her! Besides—we agreed on pink frosting.”

“No,” Elsa said, “you suggested pink frosting. I chose to ignore your suggestion.”

Bliss brought her fingers to her throat in a be-still-my-heart gesture. “That cake is going to make me ill before I taste it.”

“We’ll let Mirabelle decide,” Elsa said. “Belle, what color frosting do you want?”

Mira shrugged. She wouldn’t be around to celebrate. “Any color’s fine.”

Earlier, she’d crumpled the last of the love letters, the one that came out of the printer with the ink smeared, and stuffed it into her pocket. Her fingers went to it now for reassurance—like it was a charm from Bliss’s shop.

You can do this. You have to go or you’ll always regret it.

“Mira’s distracted,” Bliss announced, tapping a glass knitting needle against her palm. Bliss never knitted; she just carried the needle around, using it like a baton when she was making a point. Bliss was a little . . . eccentric.

Elsa, too. Her godmothers were unusual women: two friends who’d found themselves coparenting Mira when there was no one else to take care of her. Bliss ran a New Agey charm shop stocked with crystals, incense, and unicorn paraphernalia. Elsa was a literature professor at the local university. Apart from a fine wrinkle and a new gray hair every year, they barely seemed to age.

Their lives revolved around Mira. Which made her impending betrayal even more despicable.

“Mira’s always distracted,” Elsa said, shooting Mira an affectionate look.

It was true—her godmothers were used to her daydreaming by now. But today she wasn’t lost in fantasy. Today she just felt guilty, and was nervous about being found out, and struggling not to let it show on her face.

“If she wasn’t distracted, she would no doubt choose pink,” Bliss said, banging open the cupboards and peering inside. “Did you hide the red food coloring?”

“Maybe,” Elsa said, before moving on to a more sensitive subject. Mira could sense the question before her godmother even asked. “You sure you don’t want to have a party, Belle?”

They’d been over this before, and Mira’s refusal to celebrate her sixteenth birthday was like a big sign stating I Am Depressed. She’d always spent more time alone than with friends, but she did have them, and she’d always had parties in the past. Bliss and Elsa were big on birthdays. They said every year was a gift, not a guarantee, and ought to be celebrated accordingly.

Mira always felt that, under those words, they were talking about her parents’ deaths. Two lives that had ended when Mira was three months old.

And maybe they were talking about her life, too.

Because Mira could have died that night. At her christening party, in the ballroom that had caught fire, the blaze swallowing everything—including the life she’d been meant to have.

“Belle? Mirabelle? You listening?”

“Um, yes,” she said, snapping back to reality. “Sorry. I was just thinking. . . .”

“You sure you don’t want a party?” Elsa leaned against the counter, wiping her hands with a dish towel. “We could do something quiet at the house. Invite a few friends . . .”

Mira hated disappointing her godmothers. It would have been a lot easier to agree. Elsa and Bliss would have relaxed, stopped giving her those concerned looks. But she didn’t have the heart to get their hopes up and let them plan a party she wouldn’t be there to attend.

“You’re breaking our hearts,” Bliss teased, bending to kiss the top of Mira’s head.

Mira took a deep breath—then exhaled slowly so it wouldn’t sound like she was upset. One more day of lying. One more day until she ran away—to the one place her godmothers had forbidden her to go—and broke their hearts for real.

She’d have to get used to disappointing them.

* * *

The night she left, Mira scribbled her email password on a Post-it note and stuck it to her desk—the final touch. Then she counted her money, crammed the wad of bills in her pocket, and tiptoed into the hall, closing her bedroom door behind her.

It was after eleven and Bliss and Elsa were in their rooms, asleep. Other than the occasional tinkle of wind chimes outside, the house was silent.

Mira crept down the hall, barefoot and empty-handed, doing her best to look innocent. If one of her godmothers woke up, she’d say she was going out to look at the stars—some dreamy excuse they’d believe.

But she hoped she wouldn’t have to. If she lost her chance tonight . . . she might not be brave enough to try again.

Carefully, Mira unlocked the back door. She pushed open the screen door, which didn’t creak because she’d oiled it two weeks ago when no one was home. Then she stepped out into the yard, like a thief in reverse: breaking and exiting. Stealing herself.

The air was damp, cool for June. It was drizzling, and the wet grass tickled her feet as she ran deeper into the yard, where the doghouse was. The doghouse had been there when they moved in, and stayed uninhabited since they didn’t have a dog. Bliss had painted it Easter egg colors so it looked more like a dollhouse, and Mira had kept toys inside it when she was little.

Now Mira knelt in front of the doghouse and stuck her arm all the way in, feeling around until her fingers brushed the bulging nylon exterior of her duffel bag. Seizing the straps, she wrestled it through the opening, grunting a little as she jerked it free. It wasn’t a large bag, but she’d packed it with as much as it could hold—even her shoes were inside. She’d hidden it that morning while Elsa was out running errands and Bliss was at her charm shop—then spent the day terrified one of them would find it.

Shivering as the rain pricked her arms, Mira got to her feet. She threw the bag’s longest strap over her shoulder, took a deep breath—and dashed through the yard to the street. She ran until she got to the corner, bare feet slapping the pavement, then slowed to a quick walk. She kept her head down—and prayed that a police car wouldn’t skim by on patrol.

She walked like that until she got to Rachel’s house. Rachel was a girl she knew from drama class. They’d done scenes together, but Rachel was more of an acquaintance than a friend. She didn’t like Mira enough to try to talk her out of this, didn’t even care where she was going.

In other words: she was the perfect accomplice.

Rachel was waiting in her garage with her boyfriend, Matt, the two of them looking like twins in their dark jeans and T-shirts. Mira hurried up the driveway, a weight lifting off her now that she was one step closer.

“Hey,” she said, out of breath and smiling. Her clothes were spotted all over with rain.

Rachel squinted; flicked her long bangs out of her eyes. “Mira, don’t you need shoes?”

“They’re in my bag,” Mira said. “I was in a hurry.”

“Prison break,” Matt said, nodding like he understood.

It wasn’t far from the truth. Not that her godmothers kept her locked up—they were just insanely strict. They protected her from everything—even things no normal person needed protection from.

Mira wasn’t supposed to ride in a car unless an adult was driving, had to use a noxious-smelling depilatory because they wouldn’t let her shave her legs, wasn’t allowed to date, had to be home by ten on weekends, couldn’t pierce her ears or wear makeup or have a cell phone. . . . The list went on and on.

She didn’t like her godmothers’ rules, but she followed them. Partly out of respect—she felt she owed it to Elsa and Bliss to be obedient, after all they’d done for her. And they were so sweet, even when they were strict—she hated upsetting them.

But there was one restriction she couldn’t accept: her godmothers refused to let her visit the city where she’d been born. After the fire, they’d taken her away and moved north to a college town in Indiana—and they had no intention of letting her go back. Mira pestered them about it a few times a year—and always on her birthday—and every time, they said no. Not “when you’re older,” not “maybe one day”—just a solid, unwavering no.

Too many bad memories, they argued. It would be hard on you.

But the only “memories” Mira had were their carefully chosen stories. How her parents had dressed her in lace and a dainty rosebud crown for her christening. How they’d danced together at their wedding, as if on air. Elsa and Bliss never told her anything new. It was as if they’d long ago decided on a handful of safe answers, and everything else was going to stay a mystery.

“Ready?” Rachel asked.

Mira nodded; handed over the money so Rachel wouldn’t have to ask for it. “Cab fare,” she said, per their agreement.

“And hush money,” Rachel said with a grin. Not that she would tell Mira’s godmothers. Rachel didn’t care about rules—only her gas tank, and being compensated for her time.

“Man. I never would’ve guessed you were a bad girl,” Matt said.

“I try to keep that a secret,” Mira said, yanking her flip-flops out of her bag and stepping into them.

Rachel rolled her eyes. “You’re both sooo bad. Get in the car.”

They took their seats, Rachel started the engine—and they were off.

There were a lot of things Mira kept secret. Like how much she missed her parents.

It was embarrassing to admit she still missed them—so she didn’t talk about it. It was easier to withdraw into daydreams when the loss hit her hardest, and imagine what her life would be like if her parents were alive. She’d re-create them from things her godmothers had told her, and she filled in the blank spots using characters from old movies, pieces of her own personality and the person she wished she could be—the person she might have been if she’d known them.

Rationally, she knew she should have gotten over their deaths a long time ago. She’d been lucky to survive, and she should focus on that, and be grateful. But the pain of losing her parents, of never knowing them, was always at the forefront of her heart.

She wanted to visit their graves. To tell their ghosts who she’d become. To see the city they’d called home, and get some closure. So she could—maybe—be normal.

She couldn’t keep living like this.

Rachel drove with the radio tuned to a rock station, singing along whenever a song she liked came on. Matt turned around to loop his arms across the back of the passenger seat, his overgrown hair falling in his face.

“So where’re you going?” he asked.

“San Francisco. To meet a guy,” Mira lied, not caring about the rumors that would be circulating by the time she got back. They’d be better than whatever people already thought about her: a girl who was an orphan, who didn’t date, who lived with two eccentric godmothers, and spent a ton of time in her own head. “It’s been a long-distance thing,” she said, filling out the lie.

“That’s cool,” Matt said, nodding.

“More like weird,” Rachel weighed in. “That’s a really long bus ride. This guy better be cute.”

Mira shrugged. If Rachel thought long-distance romance was weird, she’d think the truth—a fake long-distance romance, complete with eight months’ worth of love letters that Mira had written to cover her tracks—was a whole lot weirder.

Outside, dark houses in neat, quiet neighborhoods skipped by; and then they were on the highway, and Rachel was telling Matt to remind her when their exit was coming up, and Mira drifted and let them talk. She closed her eyes and saw the last line of the last letter she’d written:

I’ll see you soon. I love you. . . .

Mira knew her godmothers pretty well—and she’d known that if she suddenly disappeared, Bliss and Elsa would assume she’d gone to the one place she was always pestering them about.

So she had to leave them chasing a false trail.

From November to June, Mira had written love letters to herself, and to a boy she invented, who supposedly lived in San Francisco. It had been a game at first—a plot that could be abandoned if she changed her mind. But the closer she came to leaving, the more determined she was to go through with it.

She’d sent the letters back and forth from two email accounts; and yesterday, she’d printed out a few prime examples—I can’t believe we’re doing this! I can’t wait to meet you!—and planted them in her desk drawer.

She knew Elsa and Bliss would ransack her room once she disappeared, find the not-very-well-hidden letters detailing her plans to run off to San Francisco to visit “David,” and decide that was where she’d gone. But even if they suspected the printed letters were a trick . . . once they broke into her email account (with the help of the password she’d written on the Post-it on her desk), and saw eight months’ worth of progressively more impassioned messages . . . they’d be convinced.

Her godmothers hadn’t raised her to be devious—and she usually wasn’t. They’d never suspect she was deceitful enough, or crazy enough, to carry out such an elaborate plan. But turning sixteen was supposed to be special. She was willing to break the rules to ensure that it would be.

“Crap, I have to parallel park,” Rachel muttered. Mira blinked her eyes open. Rachel had lowered the radio volume and was clutching the steering wheel tightly with both hands. The wet black road gleamed under the streetlights. Mira could see the bus station up ahead.

“Pull over; I’ll do it,” Matt said.

“I can do it, Matt, god!”

Mira leaned forward between the seats, eager to just go now that her destination was in sight. “You don’t have to park. Just drop me off.”

“You sure?” Rachel asked.

“Positive.”

A moment later, the car jerked to a stop across from the station—and Mira got out, hauling her bag after her.

It was raining harder now. The drizzle had turned to a steady patter, fat drops splashing her face, her shoulders. She waved good-bye to Rachel and Matt, then waited until the street was clear and ran across, tightening her toes so she didn’t lose a flip-flop in the process.

“Good luck!” Matt yelled out the window.

“Be careful!” Rachel shouted.

“Thanks!” she yelled back.

Mira shoved through the bus station’s grimy glass doors and went to the ticket counter, where she bought a one-way ticket with a handful of damp bills. She was shaking with excitement when she dumped her bag on the floor behind the last person in line, and sank down on top of it to wait.

She watched the clock tick by for almost an hour—until she heard the announcement that her bus was boarding, and the line started shuffling sleepily forward.

Mira wasn’t usually a person who broke rules, who did things she wasn’t supposed to, who lived dangerously, who took risks.

But a week before her birthday, she boarded a bus to Beau Rivage—the city where she’d been born, the city where they’d buried her parents.

The one place her godmothers had forbidden.

Return to Top