LISTENING TO: Someone Like You — Adele
CURRENTLY READING: Clockwork Prince, by Cassandra Clare
T W O
D A Y O N E
36 HOURS EARLIER
Nathaniel had been the first one to arrive. I’d barely made it in time to the house in Zorilor Street, and was in the middle of feeding, when I heard his voice.
“Grigore,” he addressed the man who has tended to my Romanian property for over sixty years, “what’s wrong with Julian?”
“I do not know, sir,” the other answered in a tone that betrayed deep alarm.
In more than six decades, Grigore has changed little. Every year I feed him a drop of my blood as a reward for his loyalty, and he remains almost the same; not an immortal, but withering much slower than a human. And in more than six decades, not once has he seen me in the state in which I arrived at the house. Weak from hunger. Almost burned by the rising sun. Still crazed by her pull, and barely coherent.
He’d gone to collect a Feeder right away and almost forced me to drink. It didn’t help. Yes, ordinarily, feeding brings both power and pleasure; it whisks the world away and seals me, and the girl in my arms, inside a bubble where nothing but the taste of her and the power surging in her blood, survives. But yesterday, as my teeth pierced the Feeder’s throat, the bubble that should’ve taken two, was really holding three. The girl with blue eyes was there too, just shy of my reach, taunting me. Inevitably, there was little satisfaction, or power, to be drawn from it.
After Grigore had taken the Feeder home, Nathaniel and I simply looked at each other for a few heartbeats. My Sentry’s beauty is the beauty of forever, the beauty of divine—so perfect, it seems almost cruel. And even though it’d been a while, maybe ten years, I wasn’t surprised to find him unchanged.
I opened my arms for him. “Thank you for coming.”
He returned the embrace. “Julian, what’s the matter? What do you need?”
I explained everything. “I almost killed her,” I admitted at the end, a shiver skewering through me. “Her presence is overpowering. It invades every atom until there’s nothing left, no reason, no right and wrong, no more of yourself. Just a need to melt into her,” I groaned.
But he just shook his head, calmly. “No, you never hurt a human.”
“Ah, but she dragged me here, all the way from Ireland, Nathaniel. This is no ordinary girl. She and that blighted pull of hers wrecked my self-control.”
He frowned. “Past tense? How do you feel now?”
I paused with my mouth half-open. “Now that you mention it,” I drawled, processing the surprise, “somewhat better. I can stand the distance between us. And obviously, I’m coherent, and not as crazed anymore.”
“So what changed?”
“Nothing,” I frowned. “I feel her. She still calls out to me. It’s just more … tolerable.”
“Maybe she toned it down on purpose? You almost hurt her; maybe she got scared?”
I waved that away. “She was asleep, not even aware I was in her room. And I’m not sure she’s the one pulling the strings here, Nathaniel. It was sheer luck that she survived our encounter. But provoking every oldblood in the world? Only someone with a death wish would chance that. And even so, there are much easier ways to die.”
Before he could answer, Alexander had called me back. I hesitated, dreading the truth. Because I’d risked taking her under my protection, whatever the lawyer had uncovered about her could crush me.
“Talk to me, Alexander.”
“Congratulations, you’ve acquired another house. Paperwork should be finalized in a day or two, but the former owners have nothing against you moving in tonight.”
He paused awkwardly, before adding, “Probably in light of me grossly overpaying for their property, which wasn’t up for sale to begin with.”
“Alexander,” I grunted unhappily. “You can discuss the particulars with Nathaniel. He joined me, and I’ll send him to the house later today.”
“All right. But Julian, please be advised this will cost you. To have the property ready by tonight, a team of one-hundred-and-fifty people will need to work around the clock—”
My patience failed. “Save it for Nathaniel. What about the girl?”
Predictably, the lawyer faltered, because in thirty years of service, not once had I taken a similar tone with him. “I apologize. We’re in a bind here, and time is of the essence.”
“Of course. The girl isn’t a local.”
My fingers contorted around the phone and my fingernails followed suit, extending on a reflex, as if my body was readying itself to do battle.
“She’s American. Born May 28th, in Los Angeles. She’ll be seventeen soon.”
I knew she’d be young, but it didn’t lessen the shock. She was simply too young—to pull us to her, to pique my interest, to die. Altogether too young.
“Her father is an executive at P & G, a certain Mitchell Carr. He does a high-profile job, so once I found him it was easy to track her down. Her name is Ashleigh Lynn Carr.”
It was weirdly satisfying to have one little piece of the puzzle that was her clicking into place at last. I had a name for her.
“No siblings, likely as a result of the nomadic life the family leads. Because of her father’s job, they relocate very often. By following his career I could determine that Romania is the ninth country they’ve lived in. They’ve been there a little over two years. Other places include South America, Italy, Czech Republic, Spain, Greece. I’ll email the exact details.”
“Please do,” I said flatly, trying to adjust to the notion that, despite her youth, she had traveled the world, seen places, met people, learned things. It was an unpredicted twist.
“Her mother was sick. Breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy a few years back, though her medical records show she’s been on the mend since.” He hesitated. “I don’t know if this is relevant.”
It could’ve been. Maybe not. I had no idea, so I kept quiet.
“I’m not sure what you’re looking for, but there’s nothing unusual about this girl.”
The relief was so violent it crushed the remnants of my control. My fingers jerked, blowing the phone in my hand to smithereens. A black powder and bits of metal floated to the floor beside me.
Nathaniel handed me his phone, which was ringing already, and then dropped to his knees to retrieve the SIM card from the pile of delicate rubble. “I’ll bring another one.”
Alexander resumed. “As I was saying, there’s nothing extraordinary about her. No criminal record, no association with any occult societies, nothing in her lineage that would endow her with powers beyond what a mortal should possess.”
“And you’re certain about this?” I asked tensely, still cautious about believing him.
“I’ll send the documents so you can see for yourself.” He paused. “Look, she’s just a kid from a middle-class background, who attends expensive private schools and will go on to reinforce the Ivy League ranks. In all likelihood, a music career, because she plays the piano and she is very good. She’s won several grand prizes; you’ll see it in the file. Her academic records show she’s an excellent student, with an aptitude for arts. And in an interview, her father praised her self-discipline in that she likes to run, apparently, every morning.”
“She plays the piano?” I repeated, suddenly assaulted by an image of her delicate fingers, curled over the sheets. “Find a grand Steinway,” I said through gritted teeth. Through the very same teeth I was lying to myself, by claiming the piano was really for me. That I might like to play it. “Have it sent to the house with the furnishings.”
“Consider it done.”
For some reason, imagining her playing the piano was doing bad things to my body, and across the room, Nathaniel’s nostrils had flared delicately, as he scented the air.
“You want her.”
“Don’t be absurd.” I laughed hoarsely. “How could I want someone I hardly even know? In any case, I don’t want, I take. And … never a mortal, you know that. It’s unnatural.”
But he stayed silent, either knowing better, or possibly engrossed in chewing over the info provided by Alexander. With his angelic hearing he was sure to not have missed a word.
“At least we can eliminate the possibility that she’s guilty for what’s happening,” he voiced my own thoughts. “And that leaves only one other option.”
I grimaced. “Someone else is doing this to her. And me. She’s a pawn.”
He agreed. “Yes, she’s being used, but to what end?”
“If we answer that, I suspect we find the culprit.” A low growl writhed in my throat. “And then we deal with it.”
“And in the meantime?”
“We watch the girl. Keep her safe. Whoever is pulling her strings is bound to make an appearance sooner or later.”
He stared at me, almost uncomprehending. “Keep her safe? From other oldbloods?”
A little too casually, considering, I shrugged off his concern. “I’m not too worried at the moment. I sprinkled her with essence of fairy blood. She’ll be practically invisible to any oldblood, except for me. It should give us time to watch and learn.”
His jaw had clicked shut then. “I know what the essence of fairy blood does. I also know fairies are almost extinct. Why would you waste what could well be the last vial of elixir in the world on—”
“I don’t need it,” I cut in. “She does.”
“You might need it. Especially now, that you’re gearing up to challenge others of your kind over her. You never know when you may need to evade them.”
He was right; it pays to be prepared. Oldbloods are territorial, vicious, and at times, quite mad. But that only bolstered my reasons to protect her. She wouldn’t survive another oldblood encounter. They’d rip her apart.
Nathaniel passed a hand through his wavy blond hair, keeping his eyes on me.
“And how are you going to handle it?” he asked softly. “What if you slip and hurt her? You know that something like that would haunt you forever.”
“I won’t,” I rasped. “Adèle and the others will arrive soon. And you’re here. I’m feeling confident.”
“This is crazy,” he whispered, shaking his head. “I’m bound to you, Julian. I can feel what you feel, I can smell it. This can’t possibly work. You said it yourself; you’ve noticed this girl. Her pull aside, you’re involved now. It’s a dangerous gamble.”
“A gamble that wasn’t initiated by me. Someone is planning something, using her to strike at oldbloods. I can’t ignore it. Just as I can’t ignore that she’s an innocent caught in the crossfire. You know me better than to assume I can walk away.”
He hesitated before asking, very quietly, “Is she beautiful?”
Pictures of her—odd snapshots of blond hair, sleepy blue eyes, and thick lashes—had fallen on my mind all at once. I shivered, willing them away.
“It’s irrelevant,” I said flatly. “She’s human. I’ll look after her until this situation is resolved. I don’t intend to do more.”
His eyes, green as a spring meadow, flashed with doubt. Doubt, which I didn’t want to confront, or even ponder, because he was right to be doubtful. So I changed the subject.
“Can you smell her on me?” I asked. “Follow her scent to where she is now? She’s probably in the city, at school.”
“Is that what you want me to do? I only ask because it seems unnecessary. Even if the essence of fairy blood fails, which is impossible, it’s daytime. No oldblood can get to her.”
“The others have Sentries, too,” I pointed out.
Fluidly, like water rippling, he stood up. “I have her scent. I’ll go. Should I visit the new house while I’m out? Take care of details?”
“That’d be great.”
For a second, the tightness in his face let up. “Feed again, Julian. You look like hell.”
I smiled wryly. “Thanks.”
In every house I own there’s a room laid out in the cellar where not even the slightest ray of sun can ever penetrate. They’re practical, these tombs of mine, because their reinforced steel walls can even withstand an attack from my own kind. The house in Zorilor Street has one too, and it was behind its cold metal walls that I’d stowed away to wait out the daylight.
There is a second purpose to these rooms. I’ve always had an irrational phobia that the world might cease to be during my absence from it, that one night, as I come up onto the surface again, I’ll find it all gone. To cope with it, I outfitted each steel room with monitors, computers, and technical gizmos, so I can keep up with what happens in the world during my exile from it.
But yesterday, the need for breaking news reports and managing my financial investments was replaced by that of learning about Ashleigh Lynn Carr.
I pored over the documents detailing her life, for hours. At intervals, Grigore brought me a Feeder, all young and healthy, with pretty faces that I barely saw.
By the time Nathaniel came back, I was frustrated, and pacing furiously. The files sent by Alexander were nothing but a means to verify his earlier summary of the facts.
“Unbelievable,” Nathaniel breathed quietly, watching me. “You’re the Fourth. If she has so much sway over the Tessera, what about the Deka? The Eikosi?”
I’d wondered, too. There are forty-three oldbloods in the world, each wielding various degrees of power. The strongest of us is the Ena, our Alpha, the one that was born First. And as I’m the Fourth, thirty-nine others rank below me; given her effect on me, I was reluctant to consider what she’d do to any of them.
“This has to be the objective,” I said. “To have us fight among ourselves. Because that would’ve happened if, instead of me, a group of us had found her first.”
I shuddered, recalling how narrowly she escaped my own bloodlust. Picturing even as little as a handful of oldbloods, intoxicated as I was with her pull, getting to her before me …
It would’ve ended in carnage. And she’d be long gone.
“But why?” Nathaniel wondered. “You’re immortal. The worst you can do to one another is cause pain, or temporary damage.”
There was that. “True. So the question is, who in the mortal plane would want us to fight amongst ourselves, apparently for fun? And who’d have the power to play this game?”
“And yet it’s happening.” I glared at a monitor, rising frustration scalding my veins. “This isn’t working!” I hissed. “She has to be watched during the day, too. And I have to find a way to get closer. These documents are useless,” I grunted, pushing the keyboard away in disgust. “I learned nothing from them. I’m in no way closer to finding who’s behind this.”
“I could pose as a student at her school. It only takes a light compulsion from a vampire and I could start as early as tomorrow.”
I flinched, because the thought had occurred to me too. But I was wary of making it happen. “She’s wanted by my kind. You’d be putting yourself in harm’s way. In case of an attack, you would be on your own.”
“Unlikely. During the day, only a Sentry could strike, and I can handle my kind,” he said, unyieldingly calm. “I say we try it out. I’ll go to her school starting tomorrow.” Softly, he added, “I hate seeing you like this. You need to find some peace of mind.”
The look in his eye was painfully familiar; that steadfast stubbornness, the conviction, the ability to endure. The same unblinking eyes that gazed into mine, devoid of doubt, the day our kinship began. ‘I accept thee, Tessera, as my Lord. From this day forth, I bind myself to thee; I shall obey, love, and protect thee until the end of time.’ His oath, followed by the savage cry that had pierced through my heart like a red-hot poker. And in the blink of an eye, his wings—his snowy-white, magnificent wings—turned pitch-black, contorting, as the rest of him, with the blazing torment of falling from Grace.
Countless centuries later and he still looks at me with the same unwavering devotion. If he ever felt regret for choosing me over Heaven, he never breathed a word of it to me. My Sentry lives to serve me, and more, to serve me well. He wasn’t going to relent.
I blew out a heavy breath. “Okay, Nathaniel, you can go. But don’t take any risks, please. Remember, there’s no statute of limitation on your vow to me. Until the end of time.”
He bowed his head, repeating quietly, “Until the end of time. My Lord Julian.”
The slightest vibration, subtle like an aftertaste, clung to his answer. It throbbed, like a fresh wound.
We drove to the new house, even though it’s slow and I resent it. Like the steel rooms where I hide from the sun, cars, even the fastest ones, are just another kind of tomb. But we’re pretending to be human, and so we drove: me, behind the wheel, Nathaniel at my side, and Grigore, quiet in the back. The city lights were slowly coming on along the wide avenues fringed by ancient chestnut trees and oaks. Summer was early this year; the parks we passed were already in bloom and I could smell the heat of the waning day, still lingering in the air.
Sensing my unease, Nathaniel tried to draw me into conversation. He told me about Adèle’s Feeder, Jacques LeBlanc and how, thanks to his involvement, we’d have unrestricted access to Ash’s school. “After sundown, you can go and watch her. And I start classes in the morning, so I’ll be looking after her during the day. Between us, her every step will be known. Hopefully, we’ll learn something soon.”
“Hopefully,” I echoed.
“She’ll be safe, Julian.”
“We’re on our way,” Hunter had whispered in my mind.
“Are the others with you?”
“Just Blake. Adèle was in Paris. She’s also on the move.”
Ash’s house was bright and filled with the weeping of fingers stroking the piano keys. Musical notes that mixed with the sound of her heartbeat to forge an invisible claw and grip me by the throat. Soft, caressing like a silk ribbon, and deadly.
My hands clutched the steering wheel until I heard a crack.
“Easy, Julian,” Nathaniel whispered.
“Can you hear it? Sense her?” I hissed, like a madman fighting unseen demons.
“Chains … around my throat … and she pulls… I hate this, Nathaniel.”
“She’s just a mortal, Julian,” he said softly. “Remember who you are.”
I laughed, strange and hollow, like a cawing of crows. Who I was… It seemed there were consequences to who I was. She didn’t affect humans the way she did my kind, and the irony wasn’t lost on me. Who I was had always given me absolute control over this world, and now, the same identity that ordained me a god was exposing my throat to the axeman. Being an oldblood put me at the mercy of a mortal, whose pull was slowly tearing me apart.
“I think you’ll like the place,” Nathaniel said, unlocking the door to our new home.
Compared with other properties, the house was cozy, the ground floor split between the kitchen, an office, and a large open-plan family room. The furnishings, attentively restored old pieces, were adequate, but I only cared about the piano by the window. Glossy black, blending naturally into the dark hardwood floor that smelled of pine and wax polish.
“It’s a Bösendorfer,” Nathaniel unnecessarily clarified. “It’s the best Alexander could find in Bucharest on such short notice.”
I nodded, moving on to examining the windows. Hidden by ivory damask drapes, sheets of steel were buried in the walls above each frame; they’d be lowered during the day, so I could move freely through the place. So my cage would seem a little more spacious.
The cellar was what it always is. Steel walls, and soft textures and colors that can never hide the steel. Monitors, computers, a massive desk, and lavish sofas. Soft lighting that hardly ever gets switched on. Upstairs, there were six bedrooms, two of which looked out over her house; I smelled my clothes inside one. Nathaniel, I nodded to myself. Ever so good with details.
The window became a living organism, it grew claws and sunk them in me until, one step at a time, I was compelled to creep near it. Two walls and a scatter of trees between my body and her room, where her bed sat, laden with sheets that smelled of her. Two walls, and I felt envious of every stone and every grain of sand. Every leaf, every blade of grass, every bit of bark. Because everything else was closer to her.
An angry growl stirred in my throat. I bared my teeth at the window, at my absurd, infuriating thoughts, and turned away. Shedding clothes as I walked, I flung myself under the ice-cold shower spray. Even the water smelled of her. So noisily it lashed at my body, but still couldn’t conceal the sound of her heartbeat. For once, I wished my senses were ordinary.
I laughed, and my laughter bounced off the tiled walls strangely. Hollow and bloody.
When we rang her doorbell, I was holding a large bouquet of calla lilies and their stems felt awkward in my hand. I focused on the odd sensation. I focused on the door before me, glossy white, and on the woven mat at my feet that spelled ‘welcome’ in colorful capital letters. I focused on everything but the tongues of flames that were licking at my insides.
“Hello,” the woman who opened the door said. “May I help you?”
She was wearing a man’s button-up shirt, artfully arranged but unable to mask the flatness of her chest. She was unnaturally flat and, in an instant, I smelled the remnants of the sickness inside her, and I remembered that under that loose-fitting shirt, she was spoiled. Not whole anymore. And maybe it was the proof of her ephemerality that calmed me. She, her daughter, everyone in their world, were temporary. They ended. The bind we were in would too, soon enough.
Nathaniel is right, I told myself. I am the Tessera. The Delta. I am a child of Lilith. I can do this.
“Hello,” I said with a smile. “I’m your new neighbor, Julian Tessera, and this is my brother, Nathaniel. We wanted to come by, introduce ourselves, and apologize for the inconvenience we caused you with the renovations to our property.”
I handed her the flowers, which she accepted with a dazed smile, taken aback, maybe by being visited by another foreigner. She was lovely to look at, and I could certainly see her daughter in her. Same honey hair, though in her case cut short, and the same long eyelashes.
“Oh. Thank you, but you shouldn’t have. I’m Beatrice Carr. Please, come in.”
She stepped aside, holding the door open, and I went through, Nathaniel at my heels.
“I’m afraid my husband is working late, but my daughter and I were just about to have dinner. Would you care to join us?”
We stalked her into the brightly lit kitchen from where an array of food aromas enveloped us.
“Actually, we just ate,” Nathaniel declined, even though he does eat and could’ve well enjoyed the woman’s cooking. “And we wouldn’t want to impose.”
“Nonsense,” she waved him off. “Please, have a seat.” She pointed at the chairs around the kitchen island and walked to the door. “Ash,” she called. “Come down, please.”
Ash. Even her name was a diminutive, reinforcing her slightness. It was a good name for her, I rambled on, pretending that my chest wasn’t on fire. Pretending that her presence, the anticipation of her arrival hadn’t clouded my vision in a blood-red haze. Pretending to listen to Beatrice talk, and smiling, as Nathaniel chatted on. Pretending, endlessly pretending.
Until she appeared. And I could pretend no more.
I gripped the edges of the chair, hard, and Nathaniel coiled like a spring. Because she was much more, and somehow much less, than I thought. Much smaller. More beautiful.
Silently, I wondered, Who would throw her in the middle of a pack of wolves like us? What kind of creature would put an enchantment on her to provoke us into tearing her apart?
“Oh,” she said, self-consciously pulling at the hem of her oversized T-shirt. In the loose sweatpants and that T-shirt, the front of which displayed the picture of a cocky Tweety Bird and the words LITTLE BIT SASSY, she could’ve been mistaken for a child. “I didn’t know we had company. Um, hi.” She gave an awkward wave.
“Ash, these are the Tesseras, our new neighbors,” her mother said. “Julian, and his brother, Nathaniel. They just dropped by to introduce themselves.”
“Cool,” she said, in an attempt to appear more at ease than she actually was.
Her heartbeat picked up, and continued to speed away, and I clenched my jaw and stared at my hands rather than her face, tinged a soft pink shade. Underneath, she still smelled of honeysuckle, and I clung on to that scent. It made it easier to abide that part of her that yanked at me with the force of a tropical storm.
Navigating the floor, she sat down across from us.
“So you’re Americans, too? What are you doing in Bucharest? And here,” she gestured vaguely, “in the middle of nowhere?”
“Ashleigh,” the mother protested. “Don’t pry.”
I felt the woman’s tone physically, like a slap to my face. Protectiveness flared inside me, and Nathaniel’s hand quickly clamped on my wrist. I barely stifled the snarl that rushed to my throat. That she should take that tone with her daughter! I wanted to rip her throat out.
No, I don’t, I argued with myself. The mother is no threat to her. What am I thinking?
But I wasn’t. Thinking. I was both enraged and aroused. It was utterly illogical—wanting to punish the mother for talking down to her when, at the same time, my teeth twitched and extended in my mouth, aching to pierce the daughter’s throat.
“What? I’m just curious,” Ash defended herself, blushing harder.
The scent of her blood running fast under that peach skin wrested a strangled noise from my throat. My hand flew to cover my mouth and I pretended to cough. “Excuse me.”
My perception is so sharp that I can break a moment into individual milliseconds, and scrutinize them separately. And that was all it took, a moment, but I identified each of the subtle stages in it. She noticed my fingers first. From them, her eyes moved up to meet mine. A nanosecond of unbroken eye contact followed. And then it was over, and she looked away.
I forced a smile. “Nathaniel, don’t let the ladies wonder. Explain our circumstances.”
“We’re from Kennebunkport, Maine. Our parents still live there,” he fibbed. Only in part; I really do own a house there.
She nodded, apparently listening to Nathaniel, when it happened again: her lapis lazuli eyes slid over to me. It was scarcely another moment, she quickly caught herself and looked back at my Sentry, but it was enough. The scent of hormones reacting, of the chemical process that happens in a mortal when she, or he, responds to another, was unequivocal.
She was reacting to me.
For a second, I only smelled that and honeysuckle, and in that short second, I was free. For the first time since I’d heard her call, I felt like myself again. Not chained to her anymore.
And so, I thought, What if this is the key? What if, instead of focusing on her pull, I focused on her? The honeysuckle scent. And her. What would that do to my self-control?
The air was still pregnant with the notes of her reaction to me, and Nathaniel knew it too, because his body was stretched taut. But his voice never failed.
“…and Julian works for Jacques LeBlanc, the theater director.”
“Oh, really!” Beatrice exclaimed, bringing a tray with soft drinks and cookies. “That’s fantastic. Ash, didn’t you say Mr. LeBlanc was going to hold a seminar at your school?”
She was biting into a cookie but her mother’s question caused her to pause with her mouth half open. Her surprise bordered on shock, which was strange and got my attention.
The woman laughed awkwardly. “What? Occasionally, I do hear what you’re saying, you know.” And then she simply returned to the previous topic, “We’ve seen Mr. LeBlanc’s Hamlet in Rome. What an amazing performance. So Julian, you’re an actor?”
I smiled. “A bad one, actually. No, I design the electronic mechanisms on which the scenery and set furniture are built. There’s nothing glamorous about my job.”
“And I travel with him for kicks. Mostly,” Nathaniel added. “But also because I get to go to really good schools, all over the world.”
Ash’s eyes had darkened, and every time she glanced at me, her scent flared brighter than a bonfire. It was strong. Strong enough to turn the tables on her. She smelled too much like a girl who liked a boy, and her magic pull was almost entirely eclipsed by the changes happening inside her body, as a result. I drank the moments in, savoring my newfound freedom. It had been many hours since my muscles last unclenched.
“That’s pretty much my life’s story. So where do you go here?” she asked Nathaniel.
“The Anglo-American Academy,” he answered casually. “Starting tomorrow.”
“Oh my,” Beatrice chimed in. “What a coincidence. That’s where Ash goes too.”
“Really?” My Sentry feigned shock. “I guess there aren’t that many international schools in Bucharest. I hear it’s the best one, though?” he asked Ash.
“Definitely. So we’ll be schoolmates, huh? Cool.”
She smiled at him, but her eyes slipped to me. To me, always to me.
“And you, Julian?” Beatrice asked. “You look like you could still be in college.”
My fake brother stepped in. “Early graduate. From everything: high school, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology … he’s a master at his craft,” he finished, punching my arm playfully.
“Please, don’t embarrass me,” I warned in an undertone. Chagrined by the many lies, so casually being tossed around.
“He’s also very modest,” Nathaniel went on, “as you can probably— Aw!” he grunted in reaction to the slap I administered between his broad shoulders.
Mother and daughter exchanged amused glances, and smiled. Finally, taking the hint, my Sentry initiated a new topic. “So Ash, what about this Anglo-American Academy? Got any tips to aid my survival?”
From then on, the conversation drifted to school and, as I had little to add, it offered me the chance to observe her.
The sound of her laughter was a chiming of bells, crystalline and childlike. The way she continuously toyed with her long braid betrayed her nervousness. And every now and again, her eyes sought mine—always no more than a moment, but long enough so that her scent exploded again.
I watched and pondered. My control returned, by fits and starts, only to fail again if my focus slipped away from her. If I got caught in the snare of her peculiar pull.
I watched and learned. Adapted. By degrees, I built some resistance to the way she drew me to her. It was fragile, barely there at all, but maybe it could’ve been developed. Humans have constantly demonstrated an ability to adjust to the hardest conditions and circumstances; surely I could find a way to do it too. I am, after all, much more than a human.
“So, I’ll see you tomorrow then?” Nathaniel asked, standing.
She nodded enthusiastically. “Sure.”
He pretended to check his watch, before adding, “We have to go. We’re Skypeing with Mom and Dad in ten minutes.”
This seemed to please Beatrice, who smiled approvingly, unlike Ash, who looked like she hadn’t even heard him. Her attention was all for me.
I knew she was going to say something to me as she walked us to the door, because her pulse was thudding like a storm. I’m not sure why I shut her down so categorically. Maybe because keeping her safe was going to be enough of a pain without having to worry about additional complications—of the romantic kind. Maybe it was my kind’s old taboo against getting involved with mortals. Also possible is that I wanted to provoke another strong reaction in her, some emotion that would rise above her pull for another few moments. I was desperate for the freedom of those few moments.
But she’d said, “I guess I’ll see you around?”
And I smirked, and dismissed her, “Whatever gave you that idea?”
No wonder she was mad at me this morning when I turned up wanting to run with her.
“She likes you,” Nathaniel said as soon as she closed the door behind us.
I snarled at him. “She’s human.”
“There is that,” he agreed. “How are you holding up? I sensed you relaxing in there.”
“Her scent helped. It kept changing.”
“I noticed,” he drawled, and I knew he was alluding to her body responding to me. “It’s bizarre, though. There are moments when she almost feels like an oldblood. Actually, like all of you, and something more.”
“Like home,” I said longingly. “I think it’s all part of her pull. Bait, to draw us, oldbloods, to her. This whole thing… Her so-called power over us is obviously magically contrived. They’ve used magics to make her desirable to us. Some very powerful magics.”
“I don’t know of any witch who could do it. No human has that kind of power.”
“I agree. I don’t think we’re dealing with a human.”
He hissed. “Lucifer?”
“Maybe. Though I couldn’t sense his presence around her. In fact, I sensed nothing magical. Did you?”
“No. But the pull is there. I sensed that, working on you.”
“She doesn’t affect you at all?”
He shrugged. “To me, she’s just a girl.”
“Maybe that can work in our favor,” I mused.
“What do you mean?”
“Like you said, she is human. They made her into a magnet for my kind, but they didn’t change that. Her natural state of being. She’s still human. What’s the one thing that can effectively rewrite a human’s whole system? Change her scent. Alter her heartbeat. Even stimulate different cells or tissues into action?”
He grinned. “Lust. Falling for someone.”
“I wonder if the magics they used on her could also be affected by it. Maybe not blocked, but at least … toned down.”
“Could be. She’s young. If stimulated, her hormones could become a weapon of mass destruction,” he quipped. “And you’re right. If the magics they worked on her are in any way dependent on the fact that she’s human, then yes. Lust could interfere with them.” He paused. “What made you think of it?”
“Her response to me was…” I sighed. “What makes her so irresistible to me is that she appeals to all my senses. Her scent. Her looks. The tempo of her pulse. Her touch—when she touched my wrist, it was searing. I assume the taste of her blood would also…” I didn’t finish.
“And you think her reacting to you changes things?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. There were moments when her body’s response to me was so strong it almost blocked out the magic. And it seemed that the more I focused on those human reactions, and on her per se, the more tolerable her magic pull seemed to be. Question is—”
“What caused it,” he finished, nodding slowly. “Her, reacting to you, or—”
“Me, reacting to her. Focusing on her without being magically compelled to.”
He stayed silent after that, but I could guess his thoughts.
There is such a thing as going from bad to worse and I was gearing up to demonstrate.