She woke up in her room, utterly uncertain as to how she'd gotten there, still wearing her khaki shorts and the forest green tank top that brought out the jade in her eyes. They were crinkly where they had dried, sand flaking onto her bed. She noticed this almost absently, still hazy from sleep.
Pushing herself up, muscles groaning in agony, the stabbing pain in her wrist really didn't register until her arm collapsed beneath her. She fell back against the sandy sheets.
When she looked down, the reason was obvious. Last night flooded back in glittering detail.
Long bruises stretched vividly from her wrist and blossomed nearly to her elbow, peppered by deeper and darker bruises the size of fingerprints. Almost like she’d tried to close her arm in the trunk of her car, the skin on both the front and the back was a mottled purple. Just looking at them made her arm ache.
He had *hurt* her.
Then she groaned, remembering what she'd done. This was just fabulous. If his hand was cut from that lamp when she walked into school, she would sign herself straight into the looney bin.
School. Oh, Goddess.
Full consciousness washed over her like a bucket of icy water. She shot out of bed, the spiky agony fading from her mind, and rushed to the mirror. Staring, full of disbelief, her breath sucked in.
The spell had worked.
She pushed a handful of now silky and straight hair behind her ear. The color wasn’t any different, but when straight, instead of being simply startling, it was stunning. The varying shades of blond mingled with the russet and the black, in stark contrast. Different, dramatic, and oddly, attractive. Her skin tone had smoothed, her eyebrows thinned, and her features sculpted themselves into perfect proportions. She now looked delicate, like a freshly blossoming flower. Except for the thickening of her eyelashes, her eyes were the only things that hadn’t changed.
They’d retained their hazel color, a tawny gold that often looked to be a misty green from the melding specks that flecked the irises. Large and wide set, they would draw guys like bees to the metaphorical honey.
Taking a deep breath, she tried to contain her excitement. She almost couldn’t wait to go to school, just to see Dare’s reaction to the change in her. She looked away from the mirror, letting anticipation roll over her. Finally, the Collective and the rest of the student body wouldn’t have a reason to make fun of her.
A twinge of guilt siphoned through her. Was it worth it? What kind of shallow person did something like this anyway?
You, her brain answered helpfully.
Rolling her eyes, she forced her mind to a more pleasant topic, and one that was much more important. What should she wear today? It had to be something special. No one else was going to notice anything different, but it was important to her. Something chic and, well, sexy. She ambled to her closet, pulling open the doors and peering at the clothes inside.
A skirt, she thought. Definitely a skirt. Digging into the mass of clothes -- she had a serious shopping complex -- she found a short black skirt, with a deep slit up the right side. Finding an appropriate shirt was a little more difficult. She finally settled on a finely knit sweater. The material clung to her curves, the deep, scooping neckline showing an appropriate amount of skin without being obscene. As with most of her clothes, it was a beautiful sea foam green.
Then she realized sand clung her skin. A shower might be a good idea. If nothing else, she could get rid of this disgusting gritty feeling. Glancing down at her arms, she saw flaky white patches where salt had dried when the ocean water dissolved overnight.
And, a little further down, the testament of Dare’s cruelty blazed against her skin’s light pallor. Upon closer inspection, it was even uglier. She briefly considered trying to hide it before she discarded the thought.
She just had to figure out how to explain the bruises away. Then she sighed. Why not tell the truth, or at least a variation of it? Adrien constantly told her to stay off the rocks, constantly told her she would fall and get hurt. Why not let him think she'd proved him right?
Picking up her robe, she moved across the room, practically dancing into the pristine white bathroom. A shower sounded wonderful, now that she thought about it. She smiled as she twisted the taps. Water rushed into the tub and splashed against the ceramic walls.
She hummed to herself, waiting for the water to reach the perfect temperature. Once it had, she shed her sand-covered clothes and climbed in.
Her shower was over quickly; she wasn’t in the mood to linger under the hot water this morning. Too much excitement coursed through her veins. All her thoughts focused on getting ready, on getting to school. On seeing Dare’s reaction and hopefully his approval. As she toweled herself off, she wondered whether this would change anything.
All she wanted was a chance.
Draping the towel haphazardly over the bar, she slipped into her arms into her robe, pulling the belt tightly closed. The towel fell to the floor unnoticed. She leaned over the white marble countertop, her breath fogging the spotless mirror, and stared at the perfection of her face just once more.
It was amazing how well the spell had worked, even better than she had hoped. She hadn’t been sure that her features would even turn out feminine, let alone as delicate and well-proportioned as they had. The spell was supposed to reflect back the beauty of her soulmate. She’d briefly worried that she’d turn into Dare’s clone, which, apparently, was not an issue.
Though, the thought was rather funny. For a moment, she wondered how Dare would react to finding out his soulmate had become male. Considering his lack of appreciation for anything other than beautiful, vapid girls, she’d hazard a guess and say it wouldn’t be pleasant.
Well, she might not be vapid, but she was certainly beautiful now. The thought gave her courage. It was a shame it had taken something as drastic and superficial as this to get that effect. Then she shrugged those thoughts away. This was *her* day to be special, and she was going to enjoy every moment of it. She wouldn’t let her feelings of guilt and continued inadequacy get in her way.
She straightened determinedly, her attention focusing on where she could find a hairdryer in the house. Never having needed one before, she didn’t own one, which was something she would promptly have to rectify. After school, maybe. Raquel could probably be convinced to stop at the mall.
And on second thought, that probably wasn’t such a good idea, considering that Raquel and Jihn had ventured to the mall last night before...
Before Tierney had done the spell. Oh, Goddess, she hoped they hadn’t killed each other. That would completely ruin her day. She let herself have that self-centered thought only because she was praying that hadn’t happened, and also because she knew it was unlikely.
And what was the matter with her, anyway? All this morbidity on a day that was going to be *wonderful*. She could feel it all the way down to the tingling nerves in her fingertips. Whirling on the balls of her feet, she danced out of the bathroom, through her room, all the way to the bathroom down the hall where her mother kept those torture instruments she called toiletries.
Finding the hairdryer took only a few seconds, since Tierney knew her mother kept it in one of the drawers to the left of the sink. She snatched it up triumphantly, then skipped back to her own bathroom. A few minutes later, her hair was dry, straight, and stunning, the silky smoothness a marvel after the riotous curls that had graced her head only hours before.
A surprised giggle escaped her. Funny how such a small thing could make such a big difference. She shook her head, just to feel that smooth hair slide over her shoulders. Then, shoving it out of her face, she glided out of the bathroom back into her room, where she quickly donned the clothes she’d picked out.
The only thing left was her makeup.
And she really didn’t even need that anymore, so a coat of mascara and a smear of lip-gloss later, she was ready to go. Oh, except for shoes, which would be a remarkably good thing. Bouncing to her closet, she found a pair of knee high boots she’d nearly forgotten she owned. She sat carefully on the edge of her unmade bed, zipping them over her calves, then jumped to her feet.
For the first time in her life, she couldn’t *wait* to go to school.
Now where had she left her keys?
Occasionally, she wished for one of those locator things, where you pushed a button and your keys started beeping from wherever they were. On the down side, she’d probably lose both halves instead of just the one. She was forever misplacing things.
She glanced at the clock. About half an hour before she needed to head to school. That should be plenty of time to find those keys, shouldn’t it?
Fifteen minutes and several frustrated expletives later, she found them sitting innocuously by the phone, which she had passed a variety of times during her search. Lovely. With a sigh, she walked over to the table and picked them up, noticing the flashing light that indicated they had messages blinking like an overactive firefly.
And then she remembered -- rather belatedly -- her plans with Julien. Oh, *shit*. She’d completely forgotten he was supposed to come over last night. Probably a message from him, and maybe one from her parents. Groaning in resignation, she picked up the phone to scroll through the caller ID. Sure, enough, Julien had tried to call not one, but three times. Feeling awful that she’d forgotten, she also realized it was too late to think about that now. Her parents had also called, the small icon on the LCD display indicating they had left a message.
She’d check that later.
Right now... She had other things to worry about. It was time for school.
She pulled into the parking lot next to Julien’s old red convertible, which might have seen its better days in the age of flower children and tie-dyed shirts. Maybe. The leather seats boasted gaping slashes from incidents that had occurred long before Julien was born and stains they’d futilely tried to remove last summer. The paint was chipped, flaking over the concrete, and the chrome tarnished.
Despite those dubious features, the car was Julien’s pride and joy. He was restoring it a piece at a time, having taken it upon himself to fix it instead of having it done professionally. Saying something about how it would mean more if he did it himself.
They’d all let the subject go at that.
Currently, Julien sat in the front seat, gathering his stuff for school and looking resigned. She knew exactly how he felt, and would have shared his sentiments if yesterday hadn’t changed everything. But it had. Ready or not, it was time to face the music, so to speak.
Taking a deep breath, she slid onto the concrete, dragging her book bag across the seat behind her, and slammed the door shut. She walked around the front of the car, then leaned down to peer through Julien’s window. He was pointedly ignoring her.
Guys. Sighing, she tapped on the window. He couldn’t be that mad about last night, could he? Maybe. He usually wasn’t this difficult. Well, except for that time she and Raquel had caught him making out with Marissa Tomasek on the porch steps. Or the time they’d “accidentally” caught his homework on fire. Or the time they’d freed his goldfish into ocean (years and years ago, before they realized goldfish didn’t live in salt water). Okay, maybe he was usually this difficult.
But *this* time he had no reason to be.
He squinted at her through the glass. She had a moment of self-doubt, during which she wondered whether maybe he hadn’t seen her because of the sun’s glare, something she hadn’t thought about. Then she noticed the scowl playing at the corners of his mouth.
Impatiently, she motioned for him to roll down the window. The glower deepened for just a moment, then he reached for the handle. It hadn’t turned easily since he’d gotten the car, something not even a full can of oil had fixed. It creaked and squealed in protest.
Take it in stride, Tierney, she told herself silently, keeping a grin plastered on her face. “Hi, Jules.”
His face darkened. Her grin widened. If he was going to be stupid and come to a conclusion before he even heard her excuse, she was going to get her own digs in, too. He *hated* when they called him that. “What’s up?” he responded noncommittally.
Oh, lovely. He was upset. She wasn’t exactly getting the silent treatment, but this was not the Julien she knew. For Goddess’ sake, he was acting like a sulky five-year-old. Perhaps she should recommend a good babysitter and send him to sit in the corner until his temper cooled. On the other hand, she knew that wouldn’t solve anything, either.
“Sorry, I missed your calls yesterday,” she said softly instead. “I wasn’t feeling well when I got back from the coffee shop. I laid down and didn’t wake up until this morning.”
He chewed on his lower lip in silence, obviously trying to decide whether to cling to his anger or look contrite. He chose neither. “I was worried about you,” he admitted finally. Glancing down at his strong hands, he grimaced, then he reached to remove the keys from the ignition. “You weren’t answering the phone, Raquel didn’t know where you were, and the lights were off at your house.” He blushed. “I stopped by when I couldn’t find you to make sure you were okay.”
Remorse bubbled through her for the second time that morning, over the exact same thing. “I pretty much passed out as soon as I got home,” she lied, her voice begging forgiveness and promising repentance. She tugged at the door, silently encouraging him to get out and walk with her into the school.
“Come on,” she said, when he hesitated.
She stepped back long enough for him to roll up the window, which made the muscles in his arm strain attractively -- it really did take a lot of effort to fight with that handle -- and get out of the car. He towered over her, even though she was tall for a girl. Damn basketball players.
Slamming the door shut, he checked the locks, not that anyone in their right mind would steal his car. He pocketed the keys, the patch pockets on his khakis swallowing them whole. Then he slung his book bag over his shoulder. Once his hands were free, he reached for Tierney’s, apparently intending to carry it for her.
Startled, she tugged it back. “Oh, no, you don’t have--“ Helplessly, she watched as he raised an eyebrow, refusing to relinquish her bag. Julien took being a gentleman very seriously at times. This must be one of those times. She gave it one last yank, just for obstinacy’s sake, then let her hand fall to her side.
It didn’t stay there for long. He grasped her wrist gently, raising it to the bright morning light instead of squinting at it through the shadows created by her skirt. The three-quarter length sleeves didn’t do much to cover her bruises. “What happened?” he asked, protectiveness blowing through his voice like a frigid March wind.
In contrast, the emotion warmed her. She didn’t realize that her eyes softened, their color fading to a muted hazel, or that a faint flush rose to her cheeks. But she did know that she had to come up with an excuse fast. The rocks were out of the question, since she’d supposedly passed out last night. Hmm.
Inspiration struck. “Feeding the neighbor’s dog,” she explained, wincing as if in memory. “They’re out of town, too. He’s a huge black Lab. Very playful. He got a little too rough last night and forgot I wasn’t a chew toy.”
“You should get it checked by a doctor, just in case.”
“I will,” she promised, starting to walk toward the main doors. He fell into step beside her. “He really didn’t mean anything by it. He’s a sweet dog.”
The look Julien gave her said he disagreed, but out loud, he changed the subject. “I actually did have a question for you.”
She tilted her head and waited expectantly, watching the ground out of the corner of her eye. Tripping would be a beautiful end to this conversation. “Yeah?”
Shoving his hands deeper in his pockets, he grinned sheepishly at her, his eyes skating to her face before flickering away. Then his gaze snapped back to her head, so startled she wondered if she’d sprouted antlers or something equally abnormal. "Did you do something to your hair?" he frowned, absent confusion clouding his pulsing gray eyes.
Tierney relaxed, and even managed to keep a straight face. "Not a thing."
"Oh," he shrugged, after a moment's puzzled pause. Then his face cleared and brightened. "Anyway, I wanted to ask you what kind of flowers you wanted. Any special requests?"
Considering, she ran a list of flowers through her head. Not roses. Those were too trite. If he got her lilies, she'd look like Ophelia floating to her watery grave, especially with the dress she planned to buy. "Ghost orchids," she said suddenly, then she blushed.
Julien merely looked perplexed. "Do those come in different colors?" he asked. "I'm the first to admit I don't know anything about flowers."
She shook her head, grinning. "No, they're white. You're safe."
He grinned back and bounded up the stairs to the door. “No, *you* are. This way I don’t have to leave it up to the florist’s discretion. You never know what you’re going to get when you do that.”
They shared a quiet laugh over that comment, both remembering Adrien’s faux pas with the florist from the previous month. The florist had mistakenly gotten the impression he needed flowers for a funeral, not for Raquel’s birthday, which hadn’t exactly worked out for the best. Tierney had to give him credit for trying. After all, what normal brother thought of something like that?
Pushing open the glass door, he gallantly waited for Tierney to slip through, then followed. “I’ll walk you to your locker.”
Amused, she shook her head. “Will you give me my book bag once we get there or are you holding it ransom?” She grinned and tucked her hand into his elbow. “I might have to let you keep it.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” he countered playfully, his gray eyes sparkling like silver streaks of mercury. “I was looking forward to fighting you for it.”
“Oh, that’s all you wanted?”
She narrowed her eyes at him curiously, but he stared down the hall, his attention occupied by other things, the smooth lines of his face crafted into vague blankness. A shivering undercurrent of something Tierney couldn’t identify. Opening her mouth to ask him what was wrong, anything to avoid the uncertainty suddenly quivering through her, she couldn’t find the words.
Her mouth snapped shut. Oh, whatever. It probably didn’t mean anything anyway. They walked in silence. It was too early for the halls to be crowded yet; school wouldn’t officially start for another twenty minutes. Tierney suddenly wondered why she’d gotten there so early.
Now she had to lurk until classes started, which wouldn’t be so bad if she weren’t suddenly feeling so self-conscious or if Julien were being less ambiguous. Biting her lower lip in thought as they walked, she let her attention focus on what was going on around her.
Noticing the knowing smirk on one student’s face, she hastily removed her hand from Julien’s arm. She didn’t want it to look like they were a couple or anything. After all, no matter what Raquel said or insinuated, they were just friends. She glanced suspiciously around the hall.
With some surprise, she realized people were staring at her. *Guys* were staring at her, to be more exact. Not in derision or horror, but with something that looked vaguely like... longing. The ones who weren’t concentrating on her were glaring at Julien... in jealousy?
Oh, this was way too weird, like some lost episode of the Twilight Zone. She’d not thought beyond what effect the spell would have on Dare, at least in relation to guys. Yeah, she’d figured people would stop making fun of her, but this was something else entirely. Something she’d not even considered.
She hadn’t expected to be *wanted*.
Maybe that explained some things. But before she could verify her suspicions, they arrived at her locker. He smiled vaguely at her, handing her book bag over without even a wink, let alone any of the flirty comments she was used to, and said, “I’ll see you at lunch. I need to talk to Mrs. Kerts about my Spanish homework before homeroom.” He walked off before she could do anything but call a hasty goodbye, thoughtfulness playing subdued around his mouth and at the corners of his eyes.
How odd today was turning out to be. A self-decrepitating laugh escaped her. Whatever she’d expected, this hadn’t been it.
Turning to her locker, she spun the combination on her lock, then wrested it open. She emptied her backpack quickly. It hung neatly on a hook at the top. She removed her first book, wondering where Raquel was, and paused to look down the hall.
And, sure enough, Raquel walked slowly down the corridor, her feet dragging as if she didn’t want to make it to class, which was probably the case. Tierney expected that behavior from her. What she didn’t expect walked at her right side, looking attractive and clean-cut, while at the same time managing to look vaguely... rebellious. Kind of like a stainless steel American Eagle, or like Abercrombie with an eyebrow ring. And they looked far friendlier than she ever would have thought possible.
Tierney’s jaw dropped.
As she watched, the two separated with easy smiles and a brief nod. Tierney stood with her chemistry book forgotten in her hand, watching as Raquel sauntered over, completely unaware that Tierney was looking at her.
“Please tell me I imagined that,” Tierney pleaded, once her friend was in earshot.
Raquel actually blushed, stepping to her own locker and mumbling something incomprehensible, all the while staring at the floor.
“What was that?” Tierney asked archly.
Sighing, Raquel adopted an expression of exasperation, and then eyed her friend stubbornly. “We were commiserating,” she explained, the slight flush betraying her despite her attempts to stay nonchalant.
“His mother,” she answered defensively. “She was yelling at him when I walked in, so I offered my condolences. You know what a witch she is!”
Raquel? “Commiserating” with Elliot Harington? Maybe this really *was* the Twilight Zone. “Um, Raquel, hasn’t anyone ever warned you about fraternizing with the enemy?”
Looking momentarily stumped by this question, her friend quickly recovered. She finally managed to wrangle her locker open. “I don’t know what they’re supposed to warn me about, but you know I don’t like frats anyway. You remember what happened when my cousin Emily invited us up last summer.”
“No, that’s not--“
“Frats suck,” Raquel interrupted. She sent Tierney a knowing look. “Boys like *that* join frats.”
Somewhat stunned by the vehemence in Raquel’s voice, she followed the direction of her friend’s gaze. The writhing mass of people obscured her vision and blocked anything Tierney might see. “Boys like what?” she asked finally.
“You know, the ones who think they’re so cool, when really they’re just gross. I hate guys like that.”
She waited expectantly for Tierney to agree with her, her violet eyes serious and candid. They had heard Raquel’s frat rant multiple times, along with her definition of the “stereotypical” frat boy. Tierney personally had no problem with frats, but then again, she hadn’t had the same experiences Raquel had. Maybe her opinion would change in a few years...
“I *still* don’t know who you’re talking about,” she pointed out, hoping Raquel would take the time to clarify.
Raquel finished pulling her books out of her locker before she answered. “The new guy, Tier. The one you met the other day... I think you said at lunch.” Her nose wrinkled. “That couldn’t have been good for your digestion, now that I think about it.”
“Dare Drache?” Tierney asked, her brow furrowed. What the hell was Raquel talking about? Yesterday she’d been sighing over him just like every other female in the school. Had she had a run-in with him, too? Not that it would take a rocket scientist to realize he had the personality of a lab rat.
Her friend nodded. “Yeah, I think that’s his name.” She stopped talking for just a moment, and then the throng of students parted in a way highly reminiscent of the Red Sea. Tierney suddenly had an unobstructed view of Dare.
Her first thought was that something had gone horribly wrong.