“We’re not dating,” he reminded her when he finally pulled away for breath.


She was glad he’d taken the initiative to move back, because if he hadn’t, she might have swooned. Not because she was so overwhelmed from his kiss -- though it was rather nice -- but because she was honestly lacking a large enough air supply.


Too busy trying to breathe, it took a moment for his words to sink in. Disappointment engulfed her, but she shoved it back. Careful to keep her voice casual, she asked, “So what are we?”


"Friends," he said firmly. Regret lurked somewhere in those damaged gray eyes, but the determination almost overshadowed it.

While his answer didn't surprise her, she found herself strangely hurt. The emotion wasn't rational -- after all, she had been the one to mess everything up -- but her heart ached anyway. She stared down at her hands. "Then why did you kiss me?"

He hesitated a moment. "I meant we can't date exclusively. We can still do things together..."

"And we can date other people?" she asked evenly. The thought of dating someone else made her stomach twist, but she had a point to prove. "Isn't that what got us in trouble in the first place?"

A devastated cast spun over his features, his horrified eyes flying to her face before dropping to the ground. "I don't want to think about you with anyone else," he mumbled.

She didn’t want to think about him with anyone else, either. After everything she’d been through with Dare, Julien was everything she wanted. “I can’t do this half-way,” she murmured. “It’s all or nothing.”


He traced a finger down her jaw, then trailed it down the sensitive skin of her neck. She wanted to melt under his touch. “I don’t trust you,” he reminded her.


“Then it has to be nothing,” she said. The words were hard to get out, but she somehow managed. And the feel of his finger against her skin made her want to do things that were certainly not appropriate. “We’ll just have to be--“


“Friends,” he finished, and sighed.

Cautiously, she reached to where his hand stroked over her back, his fingers playing with the hem of her shirt. Then she unceremoniously removed it from anywhere in her near vicinity. “Friends,” she echoed. She tried not to let how much she hated the idea suffuse her voice. “That means you can’t touch me.”


“Right.” His mouth turned down at the corners, his gray eyes darkening like bad lighting in a black and white movie. “I don’t like that idea very much.” His hand slid toward her again and she tensed, but it was only to lace his fingers through hers. “I guess it’s my own fault, though.”


She shook her head. “No, it’s mine. I screwed everything up and now I have to fix it.”


He ran an agitated hand through his spiky blond hair. “You know, in the past I probably would have pretended I didn’t care what happened. I would have used you for what I wanted and dumped you when I got tired of you. Especially after something like this.”


“In other words, you would have treated me like one of the Collective,” she said quietly.


Nodding miserably, he laid back on the bed, tapping his fingers against his flat stomach. With as tall as he was, his head hung half off the bed. “Yeah, I probably would have.”


“Is this a warning?”


“Not at all.”


Something in his voice alluded to disappointment at her response. As if she should have known him better than that. And any other time, she wouldn’t have asked, but now she was steeling herself for the worst. What other choice did she have? Like he’d said so many times now, he didn’t trust her.


He rolled onto his side and propped his head on his hand. “I think I’ve been more honest with you in the last few days than I’ve ever been in my life.” He grimaced, while she slid down until she could look him in the eyes. “Not to say that I usually lie to girls. It’s more like... evading the truth.” The expression his face tightened seriously. “I can’t do that with you.”


Her heartbeat, almost louder than the blood rushing through her ears, resumed its normal pace. “Honesty is good,” she replied neutrally.


Acknowledging that with a short, wry nod of his head, he continued, “Tier, I like you too much to pretend like what you did doesn’t matter just to get some play. I can’t use you and dump you, because however stupid this is, I don’t want to lose you. But I don’t know if I can just be friends with you, either.”


“So where does that leave us?”


He shook his head. “I don’t know.”


The warmth curling through her froze in its whispery tendrils. “Maybe you should make up your mind.”


Smiling softly, he looked somehow sad. The dimple in his cheeks peeked at her endearingly. She wanted to run her fingers over it, savoring the feel of his skin beneath her touch, but she knew better. “I know what I want,” he said, “but my conscience won’t let me have it until I trust you again.”


She understood that, even if she wanted to deny it. Pushing herself up off the bed, she stared down at him, wondering how this could be right when it felt so hard. “I respect that,” she murmured. She leaned over and picked her keys up off the bed. “I think it would be better if I go now. It’s too tempting otherwise.”


During the few seconds it took her to cross the room and open the door, he didn’t say anything. It wasn’t goodbye -- far from it -- but for some reason, she didn’t want to leave. It felt so perfect -- so right -- being here with him. The next time she saw him, they would only be friends. Here, it was simply him and her. No right or wrong, no maybes. And maybe their minds were screaming this was wrong, but their hearts were being true.


At the doorway, she hesitated, turning back to look at him. Something pleading must have shone in her eyes, because the pain on his face deepened. It shouldn’t hurt this much. It shouldn’t feel like she’d lost something precious, because she hadn’t really lost it. Only put it on hold for a while.


When she still didn’t move, resolution washed over his face. He stood quickly, and before she could protest, he was standing in front of her, his fingers wound through the thick fall of her hair. “I don’t think the friends thing is going to last very long,” he said, then lowered his mouth to hers.


She welcomed his kiss, poured every emotion running through her into that subtle meshing of lips. Tried to tell him through the kiss how sorry she was and how much she cared, even if she couldn’t put it into words. Her fingers clutched at his neck, sealing him to her, and something desperate sang between them. He pulled away from her and rested his forehead against hers, crystalline eyes closed.


“I hope not,” she said with a brave smile. Then, cheered by the realization that everything would be okay, she quickly disentangled herself from his arms and hurried out of the room.


Halfway down the stairs, she paused to wipe the idiotic grin off her face. So maybe things weren’t perfect, but they were well on their way to getting there. He’d actually taken the time to listen to her... well, with a little encouragement. He didn’t even hate her.


Bounding the rest of the way down the stairs, a new sort of hopefulness infused her steps. In a few hours, the spell would be done and Dare would be out of her life for good. She could concentrate fully on Julien and their developing relationship.


She unlocked her car, sliding into the front seat. After putting the car in drive and backing out of his driveway, she pushed the volume on her stereo until the car filled with the strains of one of her long-time favorite bands.


/Laying in the summer grass, You told me not to talk so fast as I told you how I feel, You made me feel right at home, You told me I was not alone and you knew just how I feel./


/And I want to fall in love tonight, And I remember when you said, “Everything is gonna be alright.”/


She rolled down the windows, letting the music and the March air wash over her, and let herself fill with euphoria. The song was right.


Everything was going to be all right.






The rest of the day flew by in a blur.


She returned home to find her parents in a surprisingly good mood and wanting to take her out for dinner so she could regale them with stories of prom. She’d had to lie a little bit, obviously, but she told them about getting prom queen and Raquel’s dress and how she’d felt sick, so she hadn’t been able to go to the after-prom party. Which, of course, was why she’d had to stop by Raquel’s when she’d felt better.


They’d taken her to some fancy restaurant on the south side of town.


The maître d’ knew them from repeated visits, apparently, though they were visits Tierney had never been included in. Business meetings and such, on those rare occasions they had business here instead of in a different country.


The menu was in French, so at least she could read it, unlike the last restaurant to which they’d taken her. Thinking back, though, she was glad she hadn’t been able to read it. She’d rather not know what she’d eaten. Dinner had been a long, drawn-out affair, as always when she was with her parents. When they finally returned home, they had smiled patronizingly at her and disappeared for wine with some important people her dad needed to see.


And now she was sitting here alone, waiting for it to get dark out so she could go to the beach and reverse this horrible spell. She was tempted to call Julien, just to hear the sound of his voice, but she was afraid that would be overkill. She tried reading, which didn’t work, so she flipped on the television. Nothing interesting was on. Simply too excited to concentrate, she finally ended up staring at the ceiling and simply thinking.


She was just getting into a pathetic daydream about Julien -- she was way too old to be playing pretend -- when the doorbell rang. Frowning, she rose off the bed, walking to the window, and tried to see who was standing at the front door.


The damned azalea bush blocked her view.


Tempted not to answer the door, she changed her mind when it rang three successive times with no sign of stopping. Whoever was there wasn’t going away until someone answered the door. Usually it would be the maid, but her mother had sent Cindy home already. That left... her.


Scrambling out of the room, she vowed to give whoever it was quite a lecture on the polite uses of doorbells. Those uses did not include abusing the button. She took the stairs two at a time -- once almost falling in her haste -- her anger giving her speed. When she reached the bottom, she strode across the room and flung open the door.


Her mouth opened to start yelling, but when she saw who it was, she closed it abruptly. That lasted for about three seconds before she thought better of it. “What do you want?” she snapped.


Dare raised one amused golden eyebrow over one disgustingly alert golden eye. Instead of answering her, he pushed past her to step inside, the soulmate connection flaring briefly before she jerked away. He paused in the middle of the foyer, smiling infuriatingly at her. “Now, now, Tierney. Is that anyway to treat your soulmate?” he chided.


She leaned back against the door, her expression cool. “You’ve never seemed to have a problem with it.” Instead of closing the door, she pushed it wider in what she hoped was a clear indication that he was welcome to leave.


It didn’t take a genius to know he was going to ignore it. But even she was surprised when his golden eyes darkened possessively. “What if I do now?”


Hiding her shock at his response, she sighed, but she didn’t try to pretend she wasn’t annoyed. “What do you want, Dare? I told you I’d do the spell. I’m going to do it. Now will you please leave?”


His jaw tightened, clenching like a steel chain around his mouth. He stalked toward her until he was standing in front of her, not touching, not threatening. Only demanding. The gold flared like an old coin in the dying amber light. “I don’t trust you,” he said.


She let her head fall back against the edge of the open door. How many times had she heard that tonight? She was getting more than a little sick of the phrase, not to mention the sentiment behind it. Only a few steps away, he exuded heat that should have burned her, but she was oblivious to it.


Let him play his games. She was done with this.


“Whether you trust me or not, it’s not going to change the fact that I’m going to do the spell.”


There, she thought. If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will. And finally, it was actually true. For once, she didn’t care what he thought about her or how he treated her. He was... nothing. They might share some special connection, but it ended there. He could delve into her brain all he wanted; he wasn’t the one who would walk away with her soul.


He shrugged at her words, dismissing them as if they had little importance. To him, they probably did. “I’m coming with you when you do the spell, just to make sure.” The flatness in his voice said any arguments would be ignored, as irrelevant as dust on an old gravestone. “I don’t have to wonder, then.”


“You won’t have to wonder when you look in the mirror,” she countered.


She was tired of arguing with him. Tired of the constant contest of wills between them and the endless battle of words. All she wanted was to be left alone, which, of course, meant he would do the exact opposite. He would never give into her for the one, simple fact that she had bested him at something he couldn’t control.


Those golden eyes narrowed on her face as if he realized what she was thinking. Maybe he did. But instead of contradicting that statement like she expected him to do, he let calculation flood his eyes and coldness saturate his features. “Why did you leave me last night?”


The sudden change of subject stole any response she’d had prepared to whatever challenge he could have thrown at her. Blinking, she asked, “What?”


Surprisingly, he didn’t crowd her, didn’t trap her against the door or come so close she could feel his heart beat against her own. If he had a heart. She had her doubts. Still, it was refreshingly different to watch him shift back and look subtly uncertain.


“Last night,” he said confidently, his words belying what she read written in every line of his body, “you left me on the beach. Why?”


“Do you need to ask?”


His answering glare was cool. “Apparently.”


She didn’t know how to react to that, too stunned at his stupidity to even form a response. Why had she left? Oh, the reasons were too numerous to name. “Maybe someday I’ll make you a list.”


That made his eyes smolder hotly under his thick, sunny lashes and his full mouth tighten into a sharp line. Then the expression smoothed. “You can’t tell me you didn’t enjoy yourself,” he said silkily, old habits rising stridently to the surface. He stepped closer, knowing how much she hated his closeness, and touched the pad of his thumb to her lower lip. Not a muscle moved when she jerked away. “I was there to hear you--“


“That’s enough,” she interrupted, panicking at the words she knew would come from his mouth. “I’m not going to let you do this to me.”


A seductive smile slid across his face like oil dripping across metal. “Do what?”


She hated the innocence tainting his words. That he could take something meant to push space between them -- mental if not physical -- and twist it until it had no meaning made her sick. He manipulated her so easily that she felt like a malleable lump of clay. She wasn’t going to let him win.


“Don’t pretend like it mattered to you,” she answered bitterly.


His breath blew softly across her ear, he was so close, but he didn’t touch her. Uncertainty was just another weapon for him to use as she waited for that startling drift of fingers across her flesh, when the soulmate connection tried to bind them in a nuclear fusion she wasn’t sure she could handle. He used space like he used his poisoned words -- the wait was almost as painful as the experience.


She thought she might weep from relief when his hands finally settled on her waist. No contact came from skin against skin, but the result was nearly the same. Her battered nerves screamed a cry of thankful respite. At least now she didn’t have to wonder where his hands would wander next.


“What if it did?”


His words had the same effect as falling into a glacier pool. “Let me make this very clear to you,” she said, her voice just as icy as the feelings rushing through her. “I don’t want you. I don’t want anything to do with you. I’m sick of how you change your mind at the slightest provocation.” She shifted her weight away from the door, taking a moment to kick it closed. It gave her quite a bit of satisfaction to feel it slam against his foot. “Just give it up already.”


He shrugged, backing away from her. “Are you sure you don’t want a repeat of last night?” He glanced at the stairs. “I know you’re the only one here right now. We wouldn’t have to worry about interruptions.”


Itching to slap him, she reined in her anger, because she knew he was only trying to incite her fury. “I think you have a better chance of jumping out of an airplane without a parachute and surviving.”


And instead of reacting to her words like a normal person, he laughed. “Just a suggestion, Tierney. Can you think of a better way to spend the time until it’s completely dark?”


“We could try shooting you full of silver,” she responded spitefully.


Still amused, he raised an eyebrow. “It’s nice to know I can still get under your skin.” He moved away from her completely this time, letting the cool evening air rush against her skin. “So how are things with you and Julien? Everything peachy again?”


Trust Dare to move from one sore spot to another. She glared at him. “No thanks to you.”


He slunk into the middle of the room, his movements so stealthy she expected to see a tail swishing in the semi-darkness. Even though the lighting left much to be desired, she could read the smugness in his movements. “I aim to please,” he said.


Utterly infuriated with him, she tried to think of a way to get him out of her house and away from her. A way to keep him from following her when she left to do the spell. No methods sprang to mind. She didn’t want to mention it in hopes that he’d forgotten.


She shrugged. “You didn’t do as devastating a job as you thought. He’s still talking to me.”


“I must be losing my touch.”


“I don’t see where that would be a bad thing,” she responded sweetly. “Why don’t you lose an arm or two while you’re at it?”


His eyes darkened this time, no longer amused or playing. A sudden shot of fear laced through her as she wondered if this time maybe she’d gone too far. He must have realized she knew she’d gotten to him, because he simply stared neutrally at her. “You’re not winning any bonus points by being mean,” he informed her. “I think I’ll definitely have to be there while you do the spell.”


“You’ll break my concentration,” she said quickly. “You don’t want me to mess this one up, too.”


Shoving his hands in the pockets of his baggy jeans, he grinned at her from the middle of the foyer. “From what I heard, you didn’t mess it up. You just got the wrong one.”


“Who told you that?” She knew she certainly hadn’t. When he’d accused her of screwing something up, she’d simply let him believe that was what had happened. It was easier than convincing him of her capabilities or explaining how she’d gotten the spell she’d done.


He stared at her, contemplating the sudden reserve radiating from her. “I have my sources.”


“I’m not surprised.” She couldn’t quite keep the scathing tones out of her voice, even though she knew he was right. Being mean to him was not getting her anywhere. Softening her voice, she said, “You should really let me do this on my own. The spell’s complicated.”


He shook his head resolutely. “Not going to happen, Tierney. The sooner you stop protesting my presence, the sooner you can get this done. Besides,” he grinned charmingly, but it was the same charm a cobra had before it bit, “you won’t even know I’m there.”


Throwing up her hands, she snapped, “You’re about as unnoticeable as a blizzard in July. I *promise* I’m going to do the spell!”


Glancing at the clock on the wall, he smiled faintly. She could just see the edges of it in the bludgeoning dark. “Then you should go get what you need now, because you’re not leaving without me.”


Why wouldn’t he listen to her? Annoyance bubbled inside her, but instead of protesting further, she nodded slowly. Why not let him think he’d convinced her? “Okay,” she said, careful not to make herself too agreeable, “I’ll do that. But you’d better be gone when I come back downstairs.”


They both knew it wouldn’t happen. Hopefully, though, Dare didn’t realize she wouldn’t be coming back downstairs, at least not the way she’d gone up. With light steps, she crossed the room, mounted the stairs. Her shoulders tingled under that watchful golden gaze, but she didn’t let that faze her. In a few seconds, she wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore.


She took her time walking to her room, where she’d already gathered most of what she’d need. Pushing her way inside, she flipped on the light and looked at the haphazard pile. Why had she been so productive a few hours ago? Searching for ingredients would be the perfect excuse to delay.


That, obviously, was not an option. So instead, she would just disappear. Personally, she found this to be an even better solution. It only took a few moments to shove what she had into a bag and only a few more to find the rest of what she needed. Then she took a deep breath and prepared to sneak away. Ironic, wasn’t it, that she was sneaking out of her own house, and not even to avoid her parents?


Quietly, moving as stealthily as she possibly could, she crept across the room and placed a hand lightly on the handle, praying it wouldn’t creak to give her away. Luckily, the well-greased doorknob twisted without so much as a whisper.


Relaxing, she swung the door open and stepped into the hall. She should have stepped into the darkness and disappeared, but instead slammed directly into a solid, lithely muscled chest. All her hopes about escaping unscathed melted into the darkness like she’d been unable to do.


“I said I didn’t trust you,” he reminded her.


Yeah, like she could forget. The words were practically his mantra at this point. Despite all attempts to remain calm, she beat a frustrated hand against his chest and emitted a rather unattractive shriek. “Can’t you listen for once?”


He took the bag from her hands, slinging it over his shoulder easily. “Not when you so obviously plan on finding another way out of the house.”


She sulked. It hadn’t been that obvious, had it? She’d thought she’d at least made it look good... Now she was trapped, with no chance of stealing away. All because he had to be lurking in the damned hallway, waiting for her. She was definitely going to have to work on her deception skills.


He grinned at her, well aware that he’d won. “You didn’t really think I’d fall for it, did you?”


Well, yes, she actually had. It shouldn’t be any surprise that she was wrong. For just a few seconds, she stared at him, wondering if it was even worth arguing with him. It wasn’t. She gritted her teeth and shoved him ahead of her toward the stairs. “You’d better not say or touch anything while I’m doing this,” she muttered.


“I’ll be as quiet as a ghost,” he promised solemnly, but she knew he was mocking her.


Quickening her pace until she was leading the way, she sent him an appraising glare. “Those wreak havoc, too,” she said coolly, “so you might want to find a better thing to be if I let you stay there for the spell.”


After all, it wasn’t like she had much choice.





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