“I can’t believe you talked me into getting up this early,” Raquel complained.
She stared blearily around the mall, her blond hair falling in disorder from its clip. She blinked twice, then reached up to secure it more firmly at the back of her head. The fine strands held for a moment, but it was soon back in its former state. She gave up with a sigh of defeat.
Raising an eyebrow, she waited expectantly for some statement of reparation from Tierney, who was staring down the mall and trying to remember where she’d seen the dress she wanted.
“Eleven o’clock in the morning isn’t exactly early,” Tierney pointed out dryly, finally dragging her attention back to her friend. “You’re the one who set the alarm clock last night.”
Raquel didn’t feel obligated to respond to that statement nor did she bother to acknowledge it. “I hate the mall,” she said instead.
“No, I hate the mall,” Tierney corrected. “You would set up residence here if you could.”
Grinning, Raquel didn’t deny it. “Oh, look! There’s Jihn.”
Tierney’s mouth fell open as Raquel shot from her chair in the food court -- where she’d insisted on an extra strong dose of coffee before she could even think about shopping -- to flag down Jihn from amidst the crowded shoppers. The two of them were getting surprisingly chummy, not even Jihn’s cold demeanor fazing her friend.
Miracles really do happen, she thought, watching Raquel grab Jihn’s arm and drag her toward the table. Jihn didn’t even break her hand for the familiar treatment. She closed her mouth abruptly, knowing she shouldn’t have doubted Jihn or her determination to “get close” to Raquel. When Jihn said she was going to do something, she damn well did it.
She smiled at Jihn when they came close, murmuring a brief hello. Jihn nodded in reply.
“Ready to shop?” Raquel asked brightly.
Both Jihn and Tierney nodded, trailing behind Raquel as she bounded in the direction of the most expensive and most exclusive boutique in the mall. She disappeared once in a crowd of people, but Jihn threaded away around them and quickly caught up, Tierney hurrying behind.
Raquel was positively beaming. “I can’t wait to try on dresses. I always feel like a princess when I’m wearing a gown. Oh, I hope they have something I like.” Momentarily dismayed as she realized they might not, her expression quickly cleared. “It’ll be fun trying them on anyway, won’t it?”
Jihn and Tierney exchanged a tolerant look. “*Don’t* let her go into a shoe store,” Jihn whispered. Even though her face was devoid of emotion, her features somehow managed to look strained.
“I’ve been there,” Tierney commiserated, laughing. “It’s a nightmare. Who are you going to the prom with?”
“Steve Kissinger,” Jihn answered, meeting Tierney’s eyes triumphantly. And even though Tierney knew it didn’t matter to her who her date was, she completely understood why Jihn seemed so proud of herself.
Her date didn’t have the looks to compare to Julien or Adrien and he wasn’t at all equal in popularity. He was on the soccer team with Julien and on the football team with Adrien, however, and they included him in their inner circle of friends. That association made Jihn’s accomplishment a coup, because it gave Raquel even more of a reason to accept her.
Plus, Tierney had known him for years and he was a decent guy, even if he did have his moments. She mainly chalked that up to his being male.
Raquel, who thankfully had missed the comment about shopping for shoes, managed to catch the last bit of the conversation. “She and Jordy and Adrien and Steve are all getting a limo. Are you and Julien riding with them, Tier?”
Tierney shrugged. “Julien didn’t mention anything about it.”
“You probably are. I think it was Jordana’s idea.” Raquel shoved her way around a large group of girls wistfully eyeing the display in front of the boutique.
Tierney murmured an apology to one of the girls Raquel had just elbowed, grinning when they backed away from Jihn, and then said, “Are you and your date riding with them, too?”
Her friend blushed. “No, I think he’s driving,” she answered vaguely.
“Who is your date?” Jihn questioned casually.
They stopped with Raquel in front of a rhinestone-encrusted satin gown. She fingered the skirt instead of answering, then looked at the price tag and sighed. “It’s a long story,” she hedged.
Jihn raised one elegantly arched eyebrow.
When Raquel didn’t say anything, Tierney hastened to explain, “She doesn’t want to tell me, for some ridiculous reason. I think she’s embarrassed.”
“I’m not embarrassed,” Raquel snapped defensively. “I just gave up sharing in kindergarten, and now doesn’t feel like the time to start again.”
Exchanging yet another look with Tierney, Jihn said calmly, “I don’t think you have any reason to be embarrassed.”
Something in Jihn’s voice led Tierney to believe that Jihn knew exactly who Raquel was going to the prom with, and something about the way Raquel was acting told Tierney that she hadn’t told her. Whatever this “Guardien” thing meant, it had made her privy to quite a bit of information. She didn’t know if she should be jealous or not.
Thoughtful, she watched Jihn frown at a slim burgundy dress, the soft sheen of the light filtering over the dark velvet. Unless she missed her guess, Raquel was about to exclaim -- quite horrified, of course -- about what the color would do to Jihn’s coloring.
She was right.
“Green,” Raquel said faintly. “Jihn, please pick out a dress that’s *green*.”
She quickly turned her back on the gown, pulling Jihn to a different section of the store. Silently, she held up a sea green dress that looked far too frilly to come anywhere close to Jihn’s tastes. “What’s wrong with red?” Jihn asked. Staring at the dress impassively, she took it from Raquel and hung it unceremoniously back on the rack. When Raquel started to protest, she shook her head once and said archly, “Not a chance.”
Rolling her eyes, Raquel said, “Okay, fine, maybe not that one.”
“Definitely not that one,” Tierney confirmed, giggling once she realized it was accompanied by a feather boa. Even though she’d compared Jihn to a boa constrictor in the past, she couldn’t see her in that dress. The descriptor “ludicrous” came to mind.
Raquel heaved a sigh of disgust and wandered to another part of the store, snagging more than a few dresses on her way. Tierney knew she couldn’t really afford anything here, but it wouldn’t hurt her to try a few on. Reaching for a stunning gold dress she knew she wasn’t going to buy anyway, Tierney smiled at Jihn. The vampire was grudgingly selecting a variety of green dresses to pacify Raquel.
She grabbed another dress, then headed for the front of the store, only to stop short when she saw the three girls blocking her path. She groaned silently.
The Collective raked sneering eyes over Tierney’s outfit, which consisted of jeans and a simple yellow sweater, then in unison made an awful face. Tierney was tempted to tell them to freeze their faces like that, since it showed their true personalities more aptly than anything she’d ever seen. Not wanting to stoop to their level, she kept her mouth shut and started sorting through a different rack.
They weren’t going to let her get away with that. Surging forward, each of the girls assumed a different position around her, effectively trapping her between them.
“This store is for people who have taste,” Teresa informed her spitefully, snatching one of the dresses from Tierney’s arm, “so why don’t you leave?”
Tierney took the dress out of her hands, saying coolly, “I have as much right to be here as you do.”
“Only because they forgot to drown you at birth,” Lindsey answered, her voice so sweet Tierney thought she was going to be sick.
She had to bite her lip to keep from spitting back a nasty -- and somewhat immature -- response. “Excuse me,” she said instead, ignoring Lindsey’s comment and trying to move away from them.
Teresa laughed, flipping her hair over her shoulder and narrowing her eyes. She quickly blocked her path. “For what? Being so pathetic? Or stealing my date?”
Tierney swiveled so she was facing the girls surrounding her like a pack of rabid ‘wolves, disbelief shining on her face. Stealing her date? Is that what Teresa was telling herself? She took a deep breath, then forced herself to calmly repeat, “Excuse me?”
Except this time it was a question, not a polite way of telling them to get the hell out of her way.
“You heard her the first time,” Meera stated. She reached out to place her hand on one of the shelves, further preventing Tierney’s intended escape. “Thief.”
Don’t react to them, she told herself. That’s exactly what they want. As she watched them woodenly, Teresa reached out to touch the gold dress, the shimmering material spilling over Tierney’s arm. She clenched her fingers and tugged, the fabric splitting at the seams. Despite what she’d told herself, Tierney couldn’t suppress a gasp.
“Oops,” Teresa said. “I guess you’ll have to pay for that.”
By this time, Jihn and Raquel had made their way to where the girls were crowded. Jihn stood far enough behind them that they couldn’t see her frowning in their direction. They did, however, notice Raquel, who was making little shrieking noises of outrage.
Tierney shook her head at her friend, warning her to stay out of it. “Why don’t you put it on Daddy’s credit card? Then you can have all sorts of fun explaining why you can’t wear a,” she paused long enough to look at the price tag, “six hundred dollar dress.”
Teresa’s skin lost all color, turning a pasty white, but before she could protest or acquiesce, Meera leveled her gaze on Raquel and said, “Why don’t you put it on *your* daddy’s credit card, Raquel?” She paused a moment, then continued, “Oh, wait, that’s right. Your dad’s dead and your mom can’t afford it.” The last was accompanied by a taunting smile.
Hurt washed over Raquel’s features before she could stop it. Her mouth opened, but no sound came out, her cheeks washing a rosy shade of suffering. Tears welled up in her eyes. Raquel’s family life was an extremely touchy subject, and the one that wounded her the most.
Her jaw tightening, Tierney felt outrage sweep over her. It was one thing for them to insult her -- she was used to their jibes -- but stabbing at Raquel was something different altogether. “I think you should leave now,” she said coldly, the simmering rage barely controlled in her voice.
“We have as much of a right to be here as you do,” Lindsey parroted back Tierney’s earlier words, enjoying Raquel’s distress. Teresa and Meera smirked in agreement.
That derision lasted for only another few seconds.
“Excuse me,” one of the clerks interrupted, stepping between Teresa and Lindsey. “My manager was wondering if you were going to pay for the gown you destroyed.”
Teresa looked at Tierney, blinking innocently at her, her blue eyes triumphant. “Yeah, *Tier*, how are you going to pay for that dress?”
Gaping, Tierney couldn’t believe her audacity, but before she could say anything, the clerk smiled sweetly at Teresa. “Actually, I was talking to you,” she said, losing the smile. Her face was cold.
With an expression of wide-eyed disbelief, Teresa replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t rip it.” She shrugged helplessly and stepped back, only to bump into Jihn, who was standing behind her.
“I saw her rip it,” she said flatly, her green eyes daring Teresa to lie. Teresa flinched.
“So did the manager,” the clerk said, her voice dry. She started to reach for the dress, then paused. “You don’t mind if I take that, do you?” she asked Tierney.
Tierney shook her head and handed the clerk the slinky gold dress. Slinging it over her arm, she smiled brightly at the Collective, who looked merely shocked, too stunned to even protest. “Will that be cash or charge?”
“You broke it, you bought it, sweetie.” The clerk carried the dress over to the register without another word, while Tierney and Raquel tried to control their mirth. Jihn watched impassively.
Some of the shock starting to fade, Teresa’s face flushed angrily. “Now, wait a second,” she snapped, stomping over to face the clerk. The other two girls followed dutifully. “You can’t make me pay for that!”
Rolling her eyes, Tierney handed the lavender gown she was holding to Raquel. “Could you hang this up for me? I’m going to that store where we saw the dress I wanted. Do you remember where that was?”
Raquel nodded, still laughing. “I’m going to finish trying these on... *after* I finish watching the show.” Her grin widened when Teresa started to yell, unconcerned about the scene she was making. “I can’t wait to see how she explains this one to ‘Daddy.’”
A quick glance at Jihn told her the vampire was going to stay right here with Raquel, though her expression hadn’t changed. Raquel waved vaguely at her, then turned her full attention to the scene at the cash register, while Jihn went back to looking at dresses.
Taking that as her cue to leave, Tierney shrugged and walked out of the store. The other store was somewhere at the opposite end of the mall, nestled between the record store and a shoe outlet. She walked slowly, threading her way through the bustle of shoppers.
Well, at least she knew what she wanted. Shopping with Raquel was a lesson in torture, usually lasting for an extended period of time. Even if she had to spend forty minutes in the store waiting for them to show up, at least she didn’t have to pacify Raquel by telling her how wonderful everything looked. Thank the goddess for small favors.
She entered the store and looked around for the dress she’d seen. Where had it been? She frowned at the racks of dresses. Then, spotting it, she walked toward it purposefully.
“Miss, can I help you with something?”
Her eyes on the gown, she shook her head mutely. Then, realizing how rude that was, she turned toward the clerk. “Not yet, thanks.”
“If you need anything, let me know.”
She nodded and smiled in gratitude. Stopping in front of the flowing white gown, she chewed her lower lip thoughtfully. It was exactly what she wanted.
Running her finger down the tiny rhinestone strap, she turned away. Maybe she *should* try on a few other dresses first, just in case that one didn’t fit the way she wanted. She’d save it for last. Wandering around the store, she selected a heavily beaded jade gown and an elegant black dress to try on as well. Then she went back for the white dress she’d had her eye on all along.
She headed for the dressing room, careful not to let the dresses trail along the floor, and entered one of the open rooms. Large and spacey, the enclosed dressing room boasted a large wooden bench and soft lighting. A mirror covered one wall. Hanging the dresses on one of the hooks, she avoided looking at her reflection.
Quickly shedding her clothes, she donned the simple black gown. Made from a heavy satin, it clung tightly to each of her curves and draped from the snug waist. Satin spaghetti straps connected to a straight cut bodice, the edge bordered with two thin rows of beads, divided by a wavering pattern of beaded flowers. It was pretty, but...
... not what she was looking for. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to look at it in the angled mirrors outside, would it? She swung open the door and glided out of the dressing room, stopping in front of the mirrors. Her eyes swept critically over her reflection. The gown *was* gorgeous.
But it wasn’t the white one, either.
“You look beautiful,” the clerk complimented, moving toward her. The girl was a teenager around her own age, but Tierney didn’t recognize her. She smiled at Tierney and handed her a pair of elbow-length black gloves. “Here, put these on. They’d go perfectly.”
Tierney hesitated, but put on the gloves. The clerk was right. The gloves were a flawless complement to the dress’s elegant simplicity. But something about the white dress called to her, and she shook her head.
“I don’t know,” she said doubtfully. She frowned at her reflection, twisting her body so she could see the gown from different angles. “I just...” Letting her voice trail off, she wrinkled her nose, fiddling with one of the straps.
A strange prickling sensation slammed against the back of her neck, almost as if she were being watched. She tensed, her muscles freezing in their half-turned position, and she met a pair of furious gold eyes in the mirror. Without a second thought, she spun around to face him.
He stood just outside the entrance of the store, poised as if to pounce. But instead of moving, he simply stared, his eyes dipping into the center of her soul, drawing on the emotional turmoil raging inside her. Adrenaline rushed through her veins like poison and she suddenly faced the decision of fight or flight.
Broken from her trance by his first step forward, she bolted for the dressing rooms. Catching the skirt up in her hands, she didn’t waste any time disappearing through the arched doorway. She burst into her dressing room and hurriedly shut the door, her heart pounding so loudly she couldn’t hear anything above its frantic throbbing.
She shut her eyes and pleaded with every god known to humanity, as well as some that weren’t.
One of them must have heard her, because no one hammered on the door. In fact, the dressing rooms were suspiciously silent. Her nerves blistered and stretched so taut they were ready to snap, she unzipped the dress and stepped out of it, sliding her arms out of the straps. Maybe if she stalled, he would be gone by the time she went outside.
The door flung open.
Gasping, Tierney hugged the heavy dress to her chest and took a reflexive step back as Dare pushed his way inside. His eyes darkened to sunlit amber when he saw her, firmly shutting the door behind him. When he took a step forward, she took another step back, only to find herself with nowhere to go. Realizing her dilemma, he smiled, the predatory sharpness swimming in his once sharp cheekbones.
He was so close she could reach out to touch him, could feel the whisper of his breath against her cheek. Fear accelerated her heartbeat to an impossible pace.
“My imagination didn’t do you justice,” he said silkily, trailing his fingertip lightly down her collarbone. “It’s a shame you don’t have the face to match.”
Anger hit her like a battering ram. “Shouldn’t I be saying that to you now, instead of the other way around?”
His face tightened almost imperceptibly, but enough for her to know she’d struck a nerve. “What did you do to me?” he demanded viciously, shoving her back against the wall. Her knees struck the wooden seat and she crumbled. He bent down until his face was only inches from hers, grasping her arm cruelly as if she might get away. “Well?”
She clutched the dress tighter to her chest, trying not to show her weaknesses. Being practically naked didn’t make it any easier. Her eyes slid closed. “I--“
The door swung open. “Are you okay? I heard a -- *what *are* *you* *doing* *in* *there*?” The clerk gaped at him, apparently unaware of how to deal with this unprecedented situation. She threw the door the rest of the way open and started to point toward the front of the store. “Get out!”
Perched over Tierney’s trembling body as he was, it was no effort for him to spin, rising fluidly until he towered over the clerk’s much smaller frame. Her pallor faded to a sickly white. While Dare was distracted, Tierney scrambled up from the floor and backed against the wall. Then, realizing she was trapping herself, she tried to move into a less vulnerable position, but there was nowhere else to go.
The lady, who was probably in her mid-forties, was making little keening sounds of distress and backing away from him. Tierney couldn’t see his face, but she didn’t blame the lady for her reaction. She was still pointing to the front of the store, her eyes wide, the whites showing all the way around. When Dare snarled, even Tierney flinched.
The clerk fainted.
Scowling, Dare slammed the door shut and faced Tierney once again. “Now, where were we?” he demanded softly, his voice spinning with the beauty of a spider’s web and just as dangerous.
She shivered, wrapping her arms tightly around herself. “What animal are you?” she asked, staring at the hollow of his throat, which looked so disturbingly like any normal human’s. Those moments when she had been thrown inside his mind, shifting through shadows and emptiness, hadn’t given her an inkling of what he was or hinted at his danger.
But something about the way he growled told her she should be frightened.
He stalked toward her, only a few steps, but each one stabbing its way through her and augmenting her fear. When he was so close she could feel the shudder of his heart against her own, he stopped. He flicked the pad of his thumb softly over her jaw and murmured, “Can’t you guess?”
“A lion,” she whispered, her eyes trained on his shadowed gold eyes and on that mouth that she could still see for what it was, even under the deformity. And as she involuntarily clutched at his muscled forearm, she realized it was true while wondering how she’d missed it.
“A lion,” he confirmed, his voice hardening from its hushed whisper.
He towered over her even though she was tall for a girl, using his advantage to incite her uncertainty. Even though she knew what he was doing, she couldn’t stop the wave of desperation washing over her. For just a moment, they stared at each other without speaking, their silence saying what words could not.
Choking back the lump rising in her throat, she said softly and somewhat bitterly, “I should have known you’d be a predator.”
Before he had a chance to respond to that, the door opened a second time. Furious, he whirled to slam it shut -- and maybe to get rid of the clerk once and for all -- only to see Jihn’s fist flying towards his face. He didn’t dodge quickly enough. Her hand slammed squarely against his nose. He was distracted long enough for Jihn to grab his wrist and twist his arm behind his back, his muscles straining to accommodate the new position.
“I thought you might like some privacy,” she stated, the expression in her green eyes never changing. When Dare jerked his body in an effort to throw her off, she idly smashed an elbow against his head, amusement finally blossoming. “You might want to finish changing.”
Stunned, Tierney glanced down at herself and realized that her hands had dropped so that the dress just barely covered her. She blushed and yanked it up. As the shock started to fade away, she watched Jihn drag him out into the main part of the store. He should have overpowered the vampire, but the way his arm bent had to burn like acid in his nerves and the confined space inhibited his movements. They disappeared around the corner. Shutting the door for the fourth and last time, she finally slipped the lock. There. If he tried to get back in, he’d have to break down the damned door.
She took a deep breath to calm herself, then hung the heavy black dress on its hanger. It was a little wrinkled, but otherwise fine. She slipped her jeans on and then yanked the pale yellow sweater over her head. The white dress was the one she wanted, anyway, and even if she hadn’t tried it on, she could always bring it back if she hated it. Leaving the other two gowns hanging on the hook, she removed the white one and unlocked the door.
Before she opened it, she paused a moment and prepared herself, just in case Dare was standing outside. The door groaned on its hinges, scraping against her already raw nerves. But the hall was empty. With a sigh of relief, she walked outside, where at least there would be people when she faced him.
He was nowhere to be found. Jihn and Raquel stood by the cash register, waiting patiently. Raquel looked positively thrilled, while Jihn was her usual deadpan self. She walked over to join them, keeping her eyes open for her soulmate. She wouldn’t put it past him to grab her from behind a clothes rack.
“Where’s Dare?” she asked warily.
Jihn shrugged. “I broke his arm.”
“And his nose,” Raquel grinned, “but you saw that. Byron dragged him out of here before he could do anything else.”
Tierney didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t say anything. She silently stepped up to the cash register, handing the gown to the clerk who’d given her the black gloves to try on. The girl smiled wanly at her, obviously deciding it was a better idea not to mention what had just happened. Another associate started smoothing a long plastic bag over the dress. “Will that be all today?” she asked, fake cheerfulness suffusing her voice.
Suddenly tired, Tierney nodded. “I’m sorry about what happened,” she apologized sincerely.
“Not your fault,” the girl answered, still determinedly smiling. She accepted Tierney’s money and punched the amount into the cash register. “Do you want the receipt in the bag?” When Tierney shook her head negatively, she handed her the slip of paper, her change, and the dress. “Thanks for shopping!”
Bestowing the girl with a polite smile, she rejoined Raquel and Jihn. “Ready?”
“Yeah,” Raquel affirmed, falling into step beside her. Hesitantly, she said, “I’m sick of shopping. How do you feel about ice cream?”
Tierney nearly sighed in relief. Any excuse to get her out of the mall -- and anyway from any potential run-ins with Dare -- was perfectly fine with her. “That sounds wonderful.”
“My treat,” her friend chirped, beaming at her.
The three girls walked toward the exit quietly and unintentionally quickly, before they walked outside to find their cars, Tierney turned toward Jihn. “Thank you,” she said, knowing she couldn’t say more with Raquel standing there, but also knowing Jihn would comprehend the meaning behind those words.
Grim understanding played in the vampire’s eyes. “You’re welcome,” she said, her voice more sincere than Tierney had ever heard it.
And maybe it wasn’t the sincerity that touched her. Maybe it was the realization that somewhere, deep, down inside, Jihn wasn’t nearly as cold as she looked.