She woke up slowly, her pillow soft beneath her cheek, comfort soaring into her bones almost securely. Nuzzling down into the downy softness, she let her lax limbs stretch in the cheery morning light. What a perfect morning...
That thought crashed down on her like a shrine crumbling during an earthquake. No, not a perfect morning. Not even close. She could feel the tenseness creep into her body. Its spidery limbs crawled through her blood. It was such a shame that last night hadn’t been a dream...
The temptation to stay buried beneath her thick covers was almost overwhelming. The sun was too hot and too bright, the sky too blue. She didn’t want to ruin it with bitterness. She wanted to laze under its heady warmth and bask in the freedom to soar... but she wasn’t a shape shifter and her feet would remain planted firmly on the ground.
So firmly, hopefully, that Julien wouldn’t bowl her over with his refusal to listen in the next few hours. Her eyes opened fully, gold smeared lazily through the hazel, and she sighed. She needed to face her fears instead of putting them off.
Yeah, so she’d tried to do it last night, but no one else had been conducive to that idea. Today she wasn’t going to let him refuse, even if she had to break every bone in his body to keep him there. The consideration was almost tempting.
She sat up in bed, stretching languidly as she yawned. Might as well get up and head over to Julien’s. He’d definitely be home by now... A quick glance at the clock revealed it was eleven in the morning. She rubbed at the goose bumps breaking over her arms. It might look beautiful outside, but the interior of her house was chilly.
Hurrying over to her closet, she pulled out a sweatshirt -- just until she could escape the air-conditioning -- and shoved her body into it as quickly as she could. Her hair she tugged out of its ponytail, then deftly refastened it at the back of her head, the gold swinging through the darker strands like silky tassels.
Breakfast and then Julien’s house? It sounded like an excellent plan, if not one to which she was looking forward. She glided to the door, tugging it open. Her mother’s voice rang clearly through the cavernous space about the staircase while she talked to the maid.
“Bring me coffee and a bagel -- *no* cream cheese or butter -- in the breakfast room, Cindy. If Tierney comes downstairs, have her join me.”
Tierney nearly groaned. Skip the breakfast idea. She had more important things to do than attend her own court marshalling. She closed the door, moving to her closet, where she pulled out the first matching thing she saw. Slipping out of her pajamas, she quickly donned the pale green top and the flat-front khaki shorts, then pulled the sweatshirt back over her head. She glanced critically in the mirror long enough to determine that her hair was fine and her face as good as it was going to get -- at least until she fixed it later tonight.
Then, determination singing through her, she snuck out of her door, down the stairs, and through her front door before anyone noticed she’d come and gone. With a sigh of resigned relief at having been able to escape her mother, she crossed the lawn. The grass was damp from the sprinkler system and she was careful not to slip. Once she reached her car, she pulled open the door and hopped inside.
While she was pulling out of the driveway, she saw the front door open and the maid frantically try to wave her down out of the corner of her eye, but she pretended she didn’t see her. Stepping on the gas pedal, she sped down the street. Lucky no cars had been coming at that exact moment.
She tried not to think on the way to Julien’s house. It was on the same side of town and not that far away at all. She probably could have walked, but she never would have been able to escape. Besides, walking would have given her ages longer to imagine what was going to happen... and she certainly didn’t need that.
Her finger trembled when she rang the doorbell, but she didn’t let that stop her. If anything, it only made her more determined. Only no one answered.
After standing in front of the door while several cars passed and stared curiously at her, she realized no one was coming. She got angry. Taking a few steps back, she stared up to the location she knew Julien’s window was in. “I know you’re up there!” she called waspishly. “And I’m not leaving until you talk to me!”
In response, one of the windows slammed shut, followed by a second. Her temper almost exploded the window right along with it, but she managed to contain herself.
A quick peek into the garage showed both of his parents’ cars were gone. Perfect. Let him play his avoidance games. They’d work really well when he was trapped inside his room. Confidence restored to her step, she flung the door open dramatically.
Okay, so maybe that had been a little overdone. No one else was there to see it, after all. Still, she hoped the sound made him flinch. With a quick flick of her wrist, she cut all the phone lines in his house, just in case he was feeling vindictive enough to call the police.
She *was* breaking and entering.
Luckily, she knew where she was going, thanks to several “gatherings” planned by Adrien and he in the past year. It was a quick trip upstairs and down the heavily carpeted hall to his room. Even less time to knock.
No sound vibrated inside his walls. She could imagining him holding his breath and wishing her away. If only it were that easy for him, but unfortunately... if you wished on a star, it never worked the way you wanted.
When she tried the handle, she found the door locked. Not a shock. Well, then, let this be her first demonstration as a witch. One finger swiped over the keyhole, leaving a shimmering residue of green fire in its wake. The lock clicked open.
Walking into the room, Tierney saw Julien standing by the window with headphones over his ears, staring into the curtains. He didn’t notice her right away, but when he did, his eyes filled with shock and he yanked the headphones off his ears. “But--“
“The door was locked?” Tierney finished calmly, kicking it closed behind her.
Julien nodded, then sullenly remembered he was angry, scowling darkly at her. The skin was drawn tightly over his cheekbones, a gorgeous flush rising on those heights, and his eyes darkened like storm clouds roiling in the sky. “What do you want?”
You. Staring calmly, she took a step into the room and ignored his question. “Do you believe in soulmates?” she asked instead, focusing all her attention on a picture of a group of them tossed haphazardly on the dresser.
He seemed floored by that question. She knew he’d been expecting begging and pleading from her -- or at least *something* where she sobbed that he should take her back -- but that wasn’t going to happen. She would not grovel, only explain. If he didn’t accept that... then it was both their losses.
Ignoring the panic she felt at his continued silence, she forced herself to wait for his response. She squinted at the picture. Goddess, how long ago was that thing taken? Too long to remember how she’d felt at the time, but not long ago at all. Funny how things worked that way.
“If I answer, will you leave?”
She sighed. “No, but I won’t leave if you don’t answer, either.”
Mumbling something under his breath -- almost certainly something uncomplimentary -- he strode toward her, his six-foot plus height almost intimidating when coupled with that expression. Or it might have been if Tierney was a human. She didn’t shrink back.
Rather, she held her ground until he was exactly where she wanted him, then she snatched a stone out of her pocket. The stone melted under the witch fire she called up, dripping like molten silver between her fingers, and she threw it at him with a word uttered in a guttural language she knew he’d never heard.
When he stopped abruptly, she smiled. “Hessonite,” she confided conspiratorially. “Great for causing delays, and if you know how to do it, slowing time.”
He glared angrily at her from his frozen position, but he couldn’t move. And unless she let him, he couldn’t talk, either. He wasn’t happy about it -- that much was obvious -- though at the moment, that detail was the least of her concerns.
“I want to talk to you. Not argue with you, but talk to you.” She paused for a minute, her hazel eyes contemplating him emotionlessly. Emotionless maybe in theory, but not in truth. It was just easier to pretend she was being objective. “If you promise me you won’t yell, I’ll let you talk. Blink once if you agree with that.”
At her words, his eyes were free to move. It took him a minute, but finally, he blinked.
She nodded approvingly. “Good, then you can talk.”
The muscles in his jaw visibly loosened. “What do you want to talk about?” His voice was guarded and not accepting at all. “Do you have excuses to make?”
Her mouth pursed and she moved to sit on the chair in front of his desk, where she was still facing him. “I think I asked you a question,” she said, willing herself not to break under his heavy tone. “Do you believe in soulmates?”
She sighed. “You should. So many myths about them exist that they have to be based on *something*. Doesn’t it ever make you wonder?” The question was rhetorical and they both knew it. He declined to answer. “I have a soulmate,” she said softly, when he didn’t respond.
At that, he rolled his eyes. “Why are you telling me? Won’t that mess up the part where you try to string me along?”
Now it was her turn to glare. “I’m not here because I want to string you along. I’m here because I want you to understand.” Her eyes swept over that chiseled face, contorted in its angry lines. Nothing she didn’t deserve... “I’m trying to explain to you why I did what I did.”
“You left me,” he accused. “You walked out of prom with another guy the *same night* I told you how much I care about you. I think the explanation’s pretty obvious.” The bitterness bubbled in his voice. “You don’t do that to people, Tierney. Especially not people you care about.”
His words sank in coldly, but she hadn’t expected this to be easy. Swallowing, she admitted, “I know. I was wrong.” How nauseating admitting you were wrong could feel, even if you felt the truth of the admission. “I wanted to tell you where I was going, but I let Dare bully me into doing what he wanted. I should have stopped him.”
“You left with him instead.”
“I did.” She twisted a strand of molten auburn hair between her fingers. “I needed to talk to him. No, I needed to prove to myself just what kind of person he is.” She looked down, unable to meet those hurt slate eyes. “I should have known it from the beginning.”
Knowledge dawned in his voice. “Dare Drache is your soulmate.”
“Ten points for the frozen boy on the left,” she mumbled. She looked up and dropped the strand of hair she’d been fidgeting with, twisting and wringing her hands. “Yeah, he is.”
“How long have you known you have a soulmate?” he demanded, a new sort of betrayal wafting from him. “And how do I know this soulmate thing is real?”
“You don’t,” she replied hesitantly. “You just have to trust me.”
He laughed, the harsh sound rolling from his throat. “That’s definitely the wrong thing to say after last night.”
She acknowledged that with a small nod of her head. He had a point, even if she didn’t like it. “I’ll give you that. But if it helps you believe at all, I wouldn’t be telling this to the guy I’m half in love with if it weren’t true.”
Drawing in a sharp breath, his eyes widened fractionally. He looked so incongruous standing there, frozen in time in a position that couldn’t be comfortable. But time was stopped and he wouldn’t notice anyway. “Lying won’t get you anywhere.”
“Maybe I should explain.” She rubbed a hand over her face, took a deep breath, and then she finally said the words she knew should never be spoken to a human. “I know this is going to sound a little strange to you, but... well, I’m a witch.”
“You think you’re a witch,” he corrected coldly. “Witches don’t exist.”
She was tempted to get up and kick him, though he wouldn’t feel it anyway. Oh, but it would be so satisfying... Raising an eyebrow smugly, she asked, “Then why can’t you move?”
Startled, he didn’t seem to have an answer to that. His glare intensified. Finally, he said, “Maybe you fed me some weird drug.”
“Right. In the food you had this morning that I didn’t touch. Do you want more proof?” Without waiting for him to answer, she rose out of the seat. Striding until she was directly in front of him, she conjured up a ball of white-hot witch fire, holding it so close to his face that his eyelashes started to smolder. “Humans can’t do that.”
He flinched as far away from the heat as he could without actually moving. She was sure he would have cringed back if she allowed it, but she wanted him to feel the reality of the power she held in her two hands. She abruptly cut the power flowing through her until the glow disappeared.
His face reflected something akin to shock, the blood draining from beneath his skin. “How did you do that?”
“I told you,” she replied calmly. “I’m a witch. But don’t feel bad. Raquel didn’t believe me, either.”
Stunned, his mouth worked with no noise for a few seconds, then his expression hardened. “I don’t see how that changes what you did.”
She turned away from him, resuming her former position on the swiveling chair. Taking a moment to cross her legs and arrange her tee shirt, she shrugged. “It doesn’t. I’m not done explaining yet anyway. Witches... have soulmates.” She wondered if she could avoid telling him about the Night World just yet, maybe just give enough information to make him see, breaking the rest of it to him later. “Dare is mine, as was previously noted.”
His mouth pursed, but his eyes encouraged her to continue. So she would let him go, if nothing else.
Biting her lip, she stared at the wall. The shadows were frozen perfectly sharp on the white surface. “He’s not a good person,” she sighed. “The soulmate principle -- and it actually exists -- says that one person out there is perfect for you. That you’re made for each other.” She shook her head sadly, but she wasn’t thinking about Julien anymore. “It forges a connection between you. Sometimes it’s so strong you can read the other person’s mind -- you’re *in* his thoughts -- and everything he thinks or feels is imprinted on your mind...”
She swallowed convulsively. “It’s the real thing, Jules. Fire and sparks and the whole packaged deal, whether you want it or not.”
Julien’s face was troubled. “Well, don’t let me keep you from him.”
“I don’t want him!” she snapped. A self-derisive laugh escaped her, and she was horrified to realize she sounded like a bitter divorcee. More calmly, she continued, “I’m just trying to make you understand how it works.” Goddess, please don’t let me cry. “It’s supposed to be perfect.”
Then, more bitterly, she corrected, “It should have been perfect.” Her heart felt like it was about to burst, but she choked back her sorrow. “I saw inside him, Jules. I saw what he could have been... and what he didn’t become. I saw how Fate gave him all we needed to be right together and I saw how easily he was crushed under the N-- his parents’ influence. In a different world, we would be inseparable, but life decided against that. Oh, he’s everything I’d ever want, but he doesn’t want to be. All he wants to do is hurt me.” Julien’s face might have softened a little at her last statement, but she was too distraught to tell. “He hates me for something I can’t even control.”
She took another deep breath. “I had this idealistic hope that maybe Fate was right and I clung to it like a life preserver. But you know what I realized? Fate was wrong. She gave us everything we needed and put us in the wrong situations. The soulmate connection should overcome that, but only if the people involved actually want it. Dare doesn’t.”
The flatness in her voice roused some reaction inside him. “I still don’t see how this makes what you did any better. If he hates you so much, why did you leave with him?”
“I needed to prove to myself once and for all that it would never work.” Her voice sounded curiously emotionless. “Even though my heart told me you were the one I wanted, my brain didn’t want to listen.”
“What? Your first didn’t option didn’t work out and I’m your back up? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Are you not listening?”
Frustration was evident in her voice. Dammit, why did the guys she wanted always have to be so *stubborn*? Did he not hear a word she said?
“Maybe you should listen to yourself first,” he said quietly. She was surprised at the censure in his tone. “If you heard what I’m hearing, maybe you’d come to that conclusion, too. All I’ve heard is that your perfect soulmate rejected you, *then* you realized I was the one you wanted. Let’s face it, Tierney. You didn’t have too many other options at that point and when he called, you jumped.”
“I did,” she agreed evenly, standing in front of him before she realized she’d moved. His pupils nearly swallowed the gray out of his eyes, wide and vulnerable, and then she realized just how much her words pained him. “I was raised thinking soulmates were a myth. Something my mom told me those few days out of the year she was home to put me to sleep. When I realized Dare was mine...”
“You jumped for joy?”
Her hand lifted, hovering next to the sharp plane of his cheek, but she dropped it without touching him. “The sarcasm’s getting a little old, Julien.” A pause. “No, when I realized Dare was my soulmate, I made him promise to stay away from me. He just doesn’t listen very well.”
“Let me guess. He made it his personal mission to make your life miserable.”
She smiled sorrowfully. “Something like that. Do you remember the day on the beach?” The way he drew in his breath told her he did. “I wanted you to kiss me that day, but I couldn’t understand how I could want you when Dare was my soulmate. It didn’t make sense to me.”
Some of the hardness faded out of his eyes. “Apparently you found a way.”
Looking away from him, she laughed, but no humor sounded in her voice. “No, I lied to myself. I told myself you didn’t want me and Raquel was wrong and any number of other things, but those all fell somewhere short of the truth. I couldn’t get past the axiom that soulmates are meant to be together long enough to realize I wanted something different.” She let her voice trail off there, knowing more derision would spill from his lips, but too overwhelmed to continue herself.
“You can let me go now,” he said instead. She glanced up at him, surprised, but no bitterness lingered in those stone cold eyes. Emptiness, maybe, but that only echoed what she felt. “I promise not to bite.”
“Yeah,” she agreed softly, “you can move.”
He caught himself from falling as time suddenly soared into motion. “Thank you.”
She nodded, hovering in front of him because she didn’t know where to go. In a perfect world, he’d tell her he saw her point of view, then they’d kiss and make up. But if she had learned one thing from this experience, it was that life was far from perfect.
Obviously he didn’t have the same problem she did. He stumbled toward the bed, draping his lanky body across it. She didn’t expect him to pat the space beside him and silently indicate that she should sit. Maybe her words were having a deeper impression than she thought.
After a brief hesitation, she walked to join him. It was a little weird to be so close to him after the words flung between them, as though the distance should be physical as well as mental. And now, after spilling everything she wanted to say to him, she didn’t know where to begin again.
Tucking his hands behind his head, he made himself comfortable. In reality, she knew it was a ploy so that he didn’t have to look at her, his head propped so he stared blankly at the ceiling. Something about his earlier words had struck her and now, in his silence, she savored them. /The same night I told you how much I care about you./ Care, not cared.
In those two words lay a wealth of difference.
“What do you want from me?” he finally asked, still gazing above him, where the plaster swirled in a mesmerizing circular pattern. “Do you want me to say everything’s okay? Because it’s not. I’m still angry.”
She chose her words carefully, trying not to let his reaction sting. “Do you understand why I did what I did?”
Solemnly, his gray eyes met hers as he reached down to tug at his shirt. “I think so.”
“That’s all I wanted.”
Silence fell between them. It was a lie, of course, but she would disappear from his life before she ever let him know that. Pride kept her from begging him to forgive her, but she knew it wouldn’t have helped anyway. When you made a mistake this big, you paid the price. She felt guilty enough to serve whatever penance that might be.
He tugged at her until she eased herself down next to him, feeling oddly exposed. When he linked his fingers with hers, her heartbeat raced wildly. What was he doing? she wondered. His thumb stroked rhythmically across the sensitive skin of her palm, but he avoided her eyes.
“As angry as I am, I still can’t pretend I don’t care about you anymore.”
The tears that had been threatening fell like a breaking thunderstorm in an old motion picture. No sound accompanied them. She welcomed them slipping down her face, because they expressed what she felt when words would not. He couldn’t know how much she regretted what she’d done, but maybe he could see it.
“You shouldn’t,” she said. “I’m a horrible person.”
“I don’t know if I’d agree with that.”
His words just made her feel worse. She wanted to slip her hand out of his so she could wrap her arms around herself. One of those defensive gestures you never noticed until after you’d done them. And they never really protected you from anything anyway. “Call it what you want. The result is still the same.”
Propping himself up on one elbow, he shifted until he stared down at her, but he didn’t let go of her hand. “I don’t know what to do with you,” he admitted. She felt apprehension creep through her. “On one hand, I feel completely betrayed. On the other, I really want to kiss you right now.”
It suddenly occurred to her that she was alone with him, lying draped across his bed. She scrambled into a sitting position. “I think you should work through any conflicting emotions before you do something you’ll regret,” she said slowly. “You say you care about me, but you don’t trust me. And I--“
“Trust is something that happens with time, but you’re right,” he interrupted.
He met her eyes levelly, tipping her chin until her mouth was level with his. “I’m willing to give you another chance.”
Whatever protests she had prepared stalled in her throat. He was willing to give her another chance? Even though those words were everything she ever hoped for, she had to wonder what was wrong with him. He was being too... nice.
She didn’t like it.
But before she had a chance to tell him that, he was talking again. “I’m willing to give you another chance, but I’m not going to date you right now.” Her hopes plummeted and crashed. So much for that. “I don’t trust you. I can’t deal with being rejected a second time around.”
“I promise--“ she started.
He shook his head. “No, don’t make promises. We can still hang out and do things together,” his cheeks flushed innocently, “and whatever, but I can’t make a commitment to you. Not yet. Not until I’m sure.”
Her body deflated onto the bed. “I have something else to tell you.”
A wary light crept into his eyes and his mouth tightened, but he steeled himself for whatever it was. “Okay.”
“I just want to make sure everything’s clear between us,” she said hurriedly, hoping to forestall whatever doubts were crashing through his mind. “I don’t want you to think I’m hiding anything from you. I -- this isn’t easy for me.”
“Go ahead.” His voice was neutral and his face expressionless.
Still, she took that as a good sign. At least he wasn’t refusing to listen. “The situation with Dare is just a bit more complicated.” She took a deep breath and tried not to chide herself for her stupid mistakes. “I left with him last night because I messed up a spell that effected him. A spell I still have to fix. It’s the only way I’ll ever be free of him.”
He stared at her intently. “So do the spell.”
“I’m going to,” she assured him, “but I wanted you to know about it.”
“What kind of spell was it?” he asked, more out of genuine curiosity than anything else. She was relieved to hear jealousy absent from his voice.
She looked down at her hands. “The spell I meant to do would have reflected his beauty onto me... So our looks would have been equal. The one I actually did ended up reflecting our inner beauty to our outside appearances. Needless to say, Dare isn’t very happy with his appearance right now.”
“You tried to change yourself for him?”
It would have been hard to miss the outrage flying in those words. She shook her head, still refusing to look at him. “Not exactly... I changed my outer appearance so that he might take the time to get to know the real me. You know, what I was like inside, not what I look like.”
A soft sigh sounded somewhere near her left ear. She bit her lower lip, letting her eyes slide shut. When he tried to tilt her head up, she tensed in place, a gesture he ignored to pry her chin to where she had to meet his eyes. “Tierney, you’ve always been beautiful. I’m not going to say looks don’t matter. They do, at least a little bit. But if some guy can’t look inside and see what a great person you are, he doesn’t deserve you.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” she laughed miserably. “I’m practically falling at your feet.”
He shrugged. “I’ve always thought that about you.”
“Well, you’re rare, especially for a guy. Most of them don’t think beyond getting a piece of ass.” She twined her free hand with his. “And either you’re applying for sainthood or you have a really bad memory. Last night definitely disqualified me from the ‘great person’ category.”
“Everyone makes mistakes.” His mouth tightened seriously, one hand reaching to brush over the soft skin at her jaw. “You lost my trust last night. It’s going to take a lot more than that to get it back. But you made a good start by telling me that.”
“I wish I could take it all back,” she sighed.
He sat up, pulling her with him. “Well, you can’t, but you can work on fixing it.”
She nodded and wrapped her arms around her drawn up knees, somehow managing to look overwhelmed and lost, like a child during a thunderstorm. Leaning closer to her, he looked into her eyes, his expression so distant she wondered if he was reading her soul. Wondered what he’d find.
Whatever it was, it must have satisfied him, because just before he sealed his mouth against hers, he whispered, “I’m willing to start now.”
So was she.