She woke with Julien’s face still imprinted on her mind.
Those clear gray eyes, so full of hope, stared from a face that poured his soul into her hands to crush or cherish as she wanted. All she could remember was how he’d looked that instant before Raquel interrupted, how the determination to bare himself had wrapped its steel fingers across his face. How--
With a frustrated sigh, she flopped onto her stomach. It was a wonder she had fallen asleep at all last night, with thoughts like that running through her head. And worse, they’d been intermingled with thoughts of Dare.
It would be so much easier if she could simply step away and focus solely on her soulmate. The belief that they were destined for each other was ingrained firmly in her mind. But she felt something else for Julien entirely.
Now if she could just figure out what it was.
Burying her face in her fluffy pillow, she tried to stop thinking. To just clear her mind and go back to sleep. Unfortunately, she’d already slept until nearly eleven in the morning, and she was too wide awake.
She sat up, finally realizing she might as well just get out of bed. Resigned, she snagged a hair tie from her nightstand and gathered her long, silky hair, plaiting it into a rough satin rope that draped over her shoulder when she was done. Then, stretching, she slid out of bed.
Walking over to the mirror, she looked into the one thing that would never lie. Her former visage stared back at her, the illusion of beauty falling over it like an exquisitely wrought mask, but still peeking through to remind her of what had been. A horror she and her soulmate could still see if they looked close enough -- just as Dare’s handsomeness flamed beneath his grotesque features -- while others were denied the truth. They didn’t remember her as anything but beautiful now.
Julien had liked her regardless of her looks.
The thought ate at her as she stared into the mirror’s candid surface. While her soulmate had shuddered away in revulsion, Julien had been drawn to her for something more important. For days she’d been telling herself that he couldn’t like her. That she was reading the signs incorrectly.
And maybe she was. But even then, Julien had been -- was -- her friend. Thinking of him as anything else scared her, because maybe it was just an illusion. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and sighed. What wasn’t an illusion anymore?
/Illusoire/. The French word jumped into her head and rooted itself in her thoughts. Illusory. Her life was certainly based on something unreal these days. While she wasn’t entirely sure she minded, she knew that nothing truly important had changed. If only Dare would--
A soft rapping on her door interrupted her thoughts. It swung open and her mother ducked her head inside. “Tierney?”
“Mom!” She turned away from the mirror, hurrying to give her mother a fierce hug. “When did you and Dad get back? How was Japan?”
Returning the hug, her mother pulled back, her perfectly made up face smiling back at her, and said, “We came back this morning and it was lovely. While your father was in meetings, I toured Tokyo and ran errands for Lord Descoudres. Do you want breakfast?”
Tierney glanced at the clock again, grimacing. “Maybe lunch.”
“Get dressed and we’ll go to that restaurant your father likes so much. He’s dying to eat American food again.” Her mother patted her on the shoulder. “Just come down when you’re ready.”
Nodding, Tierney watched her leave the room as quietly as she had come in. After the door closed, she looked to the closet with resignation. Back to skirts and tailored blouses, suits and dress clothes, at least until school tomorrow. Her mother didn’t believe in jeans.
She caught the edge of her braid, slipping the tie from the end. The silky strands immediately began to unravel, brushing against her hip as she walked to her closet’s white doors. They opened smoothly. A few moments of contemplation later, she selected a pair of silk camel-colored slacks and a soft white sleeveless sweater.
Laying them carefully on her bed, she finished undoing her braid. She picked up a brush from her dresser and quickly twisted her hair into a neat chignon. How different from before, when she couldn’t get it into a ponytail without a frustrating amount of effort. She secured it with bobby pins and turned back to the clothes, sighing again just for good measure.
This was her life.
The next day at school, she had every intention of avoiding the cafeteria just as she’d done the Friday before, but Raquel had other ideas. Tierney hadn’t seen Dare at all, for which she was immensely grateful. A perfect ending to a nearly perfect day would be if she didn’t see him at all. The guidance counselor was here today, so she even had a way to miss Calculus without getting in trouble.
But lunch had suddenly become an issue.
“What are you looking for?” Raquel demanded. “I’m starving.”
Tierney continued rummaging for the one green pen she owned, because finding it was suddenly a necessity. Anything to stall. “Why don’t you just go without me? I wanted to go to the library anyway.”
Her friend’s face set in its usual stubborn lines. “Oh, no. You’re not going to the library today. It’s full of books, Tierney. Trust me, you’d much rather be with us.” Then she grinned slyly. “Besides, Julien will miss you if you’re not there.”
Pausing, Tierney realized she couldn’t even refute that statement properly. And her stalling was over, because the green pen was lying in plain sight on top of her English book. “I wish you would stop that,” she said instead.
Raquel blinked innocently at her. “Stop what?”
“You know what.”
Shrugging, Raquel changed the subject, “Did your parents bring you back anything cool from Japan?”
“They brought me a kimono,” Tierney answered, picking up the pen and stepping back.
Without missing a beat, Raquel slammed the locker shut, barely missing Tierney’s face. “I’m so jealous,” she sighed, grabbing Tierney’s arm and dragging her toward the cafeteria. “No library,” she said firmly, cutting off Tierney’s protests. “You need to eat.”
“I have crackers.”
The look Raquel sent her was positively scathing. “Crackers? Please tell me you did not just say that.”
“I did,” Tierney confirmed unrepentantly. She shook Raquel’s hand off her arm and continued walking beside her. It was a losing battle anyway. Now all she could do was pray that Dare had skipped lunch -- or better yet, school -- and that she wouldn’t see him anyway.
Raquel rolled her eyes. “If you insist on having them, then you can have them with us, but I’m hoping you get real food.”
They continued down the hallway, pushing through the double doors to the cafeteria. Tierney scanned over the crowds of people quickly, hoping to find luck on her side, but instead finding herself disappointed. Dare had already noticed her, and he didn’t look happy. Julien, Adrien, Jordana, and a few other people were sitting at the table parallel to his.
She couldn’t do this.
Stopping abruptly, she laid a hand on Raquel’s arm to halt her. “I forgot my money. I’ll be right back.”
“I have money you can borrow,” her friend frowned.
Tierney shook her head, watching Dare out of the corner of her eye. After saying something to Byron, he stood, his eyes never drifting away from her. Oh, goddess. “I’ll just be a minute,” she replied, and her voice sounded odd even to her.
“If you’re sure--“
But Tierney was already gone.
She could feel him following behind her, his mind clinging to hers like a shipwrecked person might cling to a life preserver. Where could she go that he wouldn’t follow? The first thing that popped in her mind was the girls’ bathroom, but the first thing she saw was the locker room. Darting toward it, she caught a glimpse of Dare out of the corner of her eye. If she hurried, maybe he wouldn’t see her.
She ducked through the door.
The locker room was empty.
Bags lay strewn across the floor, their contents haphazardly spilling from within. The girls’ gym class was outside playing softball for the next forty-five minutes. She was safe.
Then the door swung open behind her. She whirled, knowing exactly who had just walked through that door. It might have been some sixth sense, it might have been the presence pushing into the room, but Tierney knew better. It was simply her luck.
She met his eyes and tried to mask her fear.
He flipped the bolt with a sharp click, the sound echoing like a death knell. He didn't say anything to her, stalking to the other door, the one that led outside, and locking that one, too.
Fear held her petrified in the center of the room.
"Fix it," he said flatly. He stalked toward her with predatory grace and, finally able to move, she backed away, eyes wide and afraid. The wall slammed against her back without warning, and with it, her last hope of escape dwindled into ceaseless oblivion. He placed a sleekly muscled arm on either side of her head.
She was trapped.
He met her eyes mercilessly, noticing suddenly that they weren't the flat, murky brown he'd first thought they were. With the pupils narrowed to dot-like pinpricks, he could see the cool green flecks interwoven with the amber, tinting them the color of sunlit jade. Thick, heavy lashes surrounded them, framing that uncommon color with shadows and mist.
He realized uncomfortably that her eyes might even be pretty. He relentlessly shoved that thought aside and glared.
She stumbled over the words hesitantly. "I don't know how."
"Of course not. You're a lousy witch. You never know how to fix your spells, but that doesn't stop you from casting them, does it?" The words blew silkily against her throat and she shivered. His spiky lashes lowered seductively, but she knew better than to think he meant to seduce her. "Maybe you should find out."
"Why?" she asked, suddenly angry. "I don't owe you anything!"
He laughed. "Of course, you do, little half-breed witch."
His laughter startled her. How easy for him to say she owed him something, to give up what she'd gained... And then she had to wonder what exactly she *had* gained by doing the spell. Dare still hated her, her friends still remained her friends, and the Collective still acted like she didn't exist, except as a form of personal amusement.
Not that their opinions held any value with her. The point was still the same. Nothing had changed. Oh, there had been the external effects, the ones that didn't matter. Boys she didn't know and didn't care about pursued her in the halls, but she knew damned well what they wanted, and they weren't going to get it. Anyone who placed that much importance on looks wasn't worth her time. She felt mildly hypocritical, as she had changed her looks to please her soulmate.
But that wasn't why you did it! her mind screamed. And that was the truth. She hadn't changed her looks thinking that maybe he would want her if she was beautiful. Oh, it might have seemed that way, but the real reason she'd done it... That was something else entirely. She'd just thought that maybe if she were beautiful, he would give her a chance. Maybe that he would get to know her.
And then what? They'd live happily ever after? She wasn't sure what she'd wanted, other than that opportunity. Of course, she hadn't gotten it. Happily ever after existed only in fairy tales and even then it was sometimes elusive.
"I owe you nothing," she repeated stubbornly.
"Keep telling yourself that," he suggested. "Maybe one day I'll start to believe it."
She looked away. "Well, you're certainly not going to convince me I do."
"I'll just try harder then." He shifted, his body sliding sinuously against hers. "I'm sure there's some way to change your mind."
She flinched, unable to stop herself even though she knew he felt every emotional shiver running through her. "I think it would be a much better idea if you just gave up."
He laughed again, no humor filling that sound. "We both know I won't. Why don't you fix everything and we can end this now?"
Finally meeting his eyes again, she searched those depths for some sign of caring. Anything indicating she might have a chance to come through this with a semi-happy ending.
But happily ever after only existed in fairy tales. Real life struck much more cruelly.
Wanting to deny him this solution, she tried to look away and tell him no, but she couldn't do it. She couldn't take her eyes away from his.
She found herself trapped in a burning, unholy yellow, flames flickering below the surface and licking at the empty black void of his wide pupils. The pitiless black holes were somehow oddly attractive. Drawing her in...
A sharp, wrenching motion shuddered through her body, although she knew neither of them had moved, and suddenly she was sinking into that emotionless space where not even the stars bestowed her with a measure of warmth. Only coldness, slipping along her skin like oily snakes, curling and coiling around her body. The velvety darkness was deafening and heart-wrenchingly silent.
Still she fell, wondering every moment when she would crash to the lowest recesses of this sordid emptiness. But instead of plummeting to a sickening halt, something caught and clung and carried her away from this vast hole.
She could feel again, and what she felt flared into wondering shock. Dare's mouth moved softly over hers, demanding promises she never thought he wanted from her and promises she never thought she would be able to give.
The kiss should have been more. A connection linking them with stardust and secrets. But his mouth was far too calculating, concentrating not on what they were sharing, but on how he could hurt her the most. Too cold and clinical. He did it far too well and she had no illusions that he offered anything but heartbreak.
Glittering sparks sprang up quickly and with a distinct lack of warning. His mouth skimmed over her bottom lip, brushing warm and showing that however buried and however unapparent, he did indeed have a soul, even if he kept it hidden far from her prying eyes.
If she let him, he would shatter her into a thousand desolated fragments of what she was.
She tore her mouth away. "If you're going to touch me, do it because you care."
He smiled cruelly. "I don't think that's something we'll ever have to worry about."
"I--" The words caught in her throat and she realized suddenly what she'd been about to say. I hate you. The exact thing he wanted to hear. It took her a moment to recover. "With your scintillating personality in mind, I'd have to agree with you."
"I have a wonderful personality," he corrected, his words biting like only those that rip out your soul can. "I just see no reason to waste it on you."
A lowering of those surprisingly lush lashes. "Which is exactly what makes it so suited to that of an asp," she said softly. "Sleek and beautiful on the outside, but poisonous and deadly within. When you get right down to it, about as worthless as a pile of shit."
"Even shit has its uses," he reminded her.
"Just as I'm about to have mine."
He shrugged, ignoring the bitterness in her voice. "Everyone has to pay for their mistakes sometime. I think I'm being rather lenient."
"And what's that supposed to mean?" Acid dripped from each word, carving its spiteful path into her soul, and she was burned by it.
She pressed her back against the wall, shrinking away from him, wishing futilely that the wall would melt behind her back. Then she would have a chance to escape. "Figure it out," she snapped, sick of dealing with this, with him.
He shook his head. "I have the advantage here, Tierney. Answer the question."
"Oh, but we've already agreed I don't like those." The words slipped away from her, gone before she realized, and she couldn't help but wonder what was making her so reckless. Why couldn't she answer him? She had to run her mouth and make him even angrier.
The way his eyes narrowed told her this probably wasn't a good idea.
One hand moved to brush over the soft silk of her hair, then his fingers tangled in the smooth strands. "You're right," he murmured softly, that mouth hovering just inches away, and all she could remember was how it had felt on hers, how it had burned something deep inside her soul, how it had promised to fracture her into a broken, tumultuous mess. "It's not a good idea."
The implication of that statement swam over her. "Get out of my mind!" she bit out. And this time she shoved him away from her.
He didn't budge so much as a millimeter. "Nice try."
A sharp sound of frustration escaped her lips. "I'm not finding the counter spell."
"Yes, you are," he said, tightening his grip on her hair. "You don't have a choice, my lovely Daybreak witch."
How ironic that he should use the word lovely now, when shame crept over her for what she had done. For the first time since she'd done the spell, she thought perhaps it had been wrong. She wasn't beautiful inside; she was only a scheming, dreaming mass of confusion. But then she looked at Dare, and remembered that comparatively, she was a diamond to his raw carbon shell, and the illusion didn't seem so wrong.
"You can't hurt me more than you already have."
Oh, goddess, had she really said that? The first rule of battle was to *never* show your weakness and she'd just bared herself for a full-frontal assault. Which, considering that he had her trapped against the wall, felt rather apt. Why was it that every encounter with Dare felt more like war?
"You don't think?" he asked. His grip on her hair loosened, those strands whispering through his fingers, then he flattened his hand against the wall again. "I disagree."
She forced herself to relax, because every moment she spent pressed hard into the wall, she showed that same weakness. "What could you possibly do to me?"
He thought for a moment, leaning his weight back so their bodies no longer touched. "Any number of things," he said finally.
"I don't even want to know." She looked away fleetingly, even more conscious of the long length of his body now that he had given her some space. He was close, too close, this illusion of distance somehow more intimate than when there had been none. "Why should I do what you want?"
"Because I asked you to," he shrugged.
She laughed, derision echoing hollowly. "No, you demanded," she corrected. "You never ask. That would imply compromise or some kind of giving. All you do is take. You'll have to give me a better reason than that."
"Fine. Are your parents reason enough?"
Fear fluttered through her veins and she tensed. "What about my parents?"
"You know," he said.
And unfortunately, she did. Her mother had broken the most important Nightworld law: never fall in love with a human. She had given up her name, her life, and her heritage for him. Regardless of whether she'd told him about the Nightworld, her parents were as good as dead. More than that, they'd had a child, a half-breed, an abomination. He threatened her very existence.
"If you turn them in, you turn me in, too," she whispered, so softly he shouldn't have been able to hear her. "They'll kill them and they'll kill me and you'll still be ugly. Do you really want that?"
"Some other witch can fix it." So much certainty for someone who had no link to witchcraft and knew nothing about it.
She didn't have to lie to him to refute his statement, but she opted not to tell him that just yet. "Are you so sure about that?" she questioned.
He paused a moment, then he surprised her. "No."
"Well, you shouldn't be."
The pad of his thumb skimmed over her cheekbone. "That won't stop me, Tierney. I'll find a way to kill them but keep you alive. And you'll have to kill *me* to prevent that. Think you can?"
"Only if you draw a target across your chest first. I'd hate to miss."
"Oh, that's so very clever of you," he purred. She shivered, remembering that Dare really wasn't a eighteen-year-old male trapping her here, but an eighteen-year-old lion trapped in a human's body. The resonating timbre of his voice sent shuddering shakes through her spine and froze her blood. "Even with a target I don't think you could do it."
She finally met his eyes. "You don't know me very well, do you?"
"Better than I'd like to, unfortunately. Why do you ask?"
He was staring at her mouth again, those charring golden orbs sweeping over her features, so much hidden and so much spilling from their depths. She couldn't stop herself from remembering how much she wanted to taste him again and to feel that mouth moving lightly over hers.
"If you knew me at all, you wouldn't threaten my parents." She managed, though her brain wanted nothing more than to sink into him, to forget his failings and his threats, and it was hard to string coherent thoughts together.
He pressed against her, one arm sliding to curl around her waist. "Can you think of a better way to get your cooperation?"
"You could try being honest."
That gave him pause. "When haven't I been honest?"
"When have you been?" she countered. "When you kissed me? No? Well, what about outside of Calc? No, weren't honest then, either. You only threatened numerous retributions. Hmm." She pretended to think a moment. "Maybe I should get back to you on that."
"At least I've never lied about wanting you," he defended.
"What about the kiss?"
"Simply a way to shut you up, Tierney." A quick grin flashed over his face. "You talk too much and don't agree enough."
Silence stretched taut between them for a moment. "You lied when you said becoming beautiful might change the way you treat me."
His fingers tightened briefly on her waist, then he relaxed, shrugging. "I gave you no guarantees. And it might have, if you hadn't done a spell that affected my looks, too. Then it might have changed something."
"Do you think I meant to make you ugly?" she snapped. "I didn't know the spell would do that!"
"Didn't anyone ever tell you to always read the fine print?" he asked, skepticism flying through his voice. He slid his hand to rest just below her ribcage, his fingers digging painfully into her flesh.
"You're hurting me," she said calmly. How many times had she said that now? Probably as many times as she'd worn his bruises like a testament of his hatred. She was surprised when he let go.
"You don't deserve an apology, so I'm not going to give you one."
She hadn't thought his voice could get colder, but apparently, it could. She glared. "You're such a romantic, Dare."
Wry amusement stretched across his face. "Only when it's necessary." The humor faded. "You owe me, Tierney Anderson, and if it comes down to it, you'll pay in blood."
Uncertain how to respond to that, she stared, her emotions battered and broken, shards clinging hotly to shattered nerves, at his fierce, proud face. At a face that had lost its beauty to anyone but her, which was overlaid with a shimmering sheen of hopeless deformity. Her eyes stung hot with tears, realizing that of all the guises she had seen him wear, this shadowed ugliness was the most fitting, because it matched his twisted soul.
Air flooded through her lungs, escaping in a hot rush of breath. His body pressed lean and hard against her front, tense muscles coiled in avid wariness; the wall pressed against her back. And still they stood immobile while their breath mingled and their gazes clashed.
She was swept away in drowning waves of loss.
/You are my soul/, she pleaded silently. Nothing flickered in his flaring golden eyes. Empty voids reflecting nothing, pupils narrowed to equally blank pinpricks. No emotion, no thoughts, and no unspoken words. Not even apathy.
/You are a part of me that I cannot live without/. Desperation washed over her features like a riptide, inescapable and as deadly as sin. And in his face, disgust and hatred spoke volumes, but his mouth spoke no words at all.
/I will never be whole without you/, her heart screamed frantically and, utterly disillusioned, she accepted suddenly and completely that she had lost.
"I'll find the spell."