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MS. TERWILLIGER REFUSED to say much more after that. She drove us back to Amberwood and hardly seemed to know I was there. She just kept muttering things to herself like, “Not enough time” and “Need more proof.” When she finally dropped me off, I tried pressing her for more information.
“What was all that about protecting myself?” I asked. “Protection from what?”
We were parked in the fire lane again, and she still wore that distracted look. “I’ll explain later, in our session tomorrow.”
“I can’t,” I reminded her. “I’m leaving right after my regular classes. Remember? I have a flight to catch. I told you about it last week. And yesterday. And earlier today.”
That brought her back to attention. “Did you? Well, then. I suppose we’ll make do with what we must. I’ll see what I can have for you in the morning.”
I left her for my bed after that, not that I could get much sleep. And when I showed up to her history class the next morning, she was true to her word. Before the bell rang, she walked up to my desk and handed me an old book with a cracked red leather cover. The title was in Latin and translated to Elements of Battle, which sent a chill down my spine. Spells to create light and invisibility were one thing. There was a practicality to them that I could almost rationalize. But battle spells? Something told me I might have a little trouble with those.
“Reading material for the plane,” she said. She spoke in her usual, addled scholar voice, but I could see a glint of that anxiety from last night in her eyes. “Focus only on the first section. I trust you’ll do your usual thorough job – and then some.”
None of the other arriving students paid any attention to us. My last class of the day was an independent study session on late-antique history, which she served as my mentor for. More often than not, she used the session as a passive-aggressive way to teach me magic. So, her giving me books like this was nothing out of the ordinary.
“And,” she added, “if you could find out where that neighborhood is, it would be extremely useful.”
I was speechless for a few moments. Locate one neighborhood in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area? “That’s . . . a very large area to cover,” I said at last, choosing my words carefully with witnesses around.
She nodded and pushed her glasses up her nose. “I know. Most people probably couldn’t do it.” And on that semi-complimentary note, she returned to her desk at the front of the classroom.
“What neighborhood?” asked a new voice.
Eddie Castile had just arrived and slid into a neighboring desk. Eddie was a dhampir – possessing a mix of human and vampire DNA that had been passed down from days when the two races mixed. For all intents and purposes, though, he was indistinguishable from an ordinary human. With his sandy-colored hair and brown eyes, he also bore enough resemblance to me to support our cover story that we were twins. In reality, Eddie was here at Amberwood as a bodyguard for Jill. Dissidents among her own kind, the Moroi, were hunting her, and even though we’d seen no sign of them since coming to Palm Springs, Eddie was always vigilant and ready to pounce.
I slipped the red leather book into my messenger bag. “Don’t ask. Another of her wacky assignments.” None of my friends – save Adrian – knew about my involvement with Ms. Terwilliger’s magic use. Well, and Jill by default. All Moroi possessed some sort of elemental magic. Adrian’s was a rare and powerful one called spirit, which could work miracles of healing. He’d used that magic to bring Jill back from the dead when assassins had killed her. Doing so had made Jill “shadow-kissed” – that is, it created a psychic bond between them, one that allowed Jill to feel his emotions and sometimes see through his eyes. As a result, Jill knew more about what went on between Adrian and me than I liked.
I took my car keys out of my bag and reluctantly handed them over to Eddie. He was the only one I trusted to drive my car, and I always let him borrow it when I left town, in case he needed to run errands for our group. “Here you go. I better get it back in one piece. Do not let Angeline near the driver’s seat.”
He grinned. “Do I look suicidal? I probably won’t even use it. Are you sure you don’t want me to drive you to the airport later?”
“You’d miss class,” I said. The only reason I was able to cut school early was because of the unusual nature of my independent study.
“I wouldn’t mind, believe me. I’ve got a science test.” He grimaced and lowered his voice. “I hated physics the first time, you know.”
I couldn’t help a smile. Both Eddie and I were eighteen and had graduated high school, me through homeschooling and him through an elite Moroi and dhampir academy. We couldn’t pose as students without going through the motions of class, however. While I didn’t mind the extra work, Eddie wasn’t as taken with a love of learning as I was.
“No thanks,” I told him. “A cab will be fine.”
The bell rang, and Eddie straightened up in his desk. As Ms. Terwilliger called the class to order, he whispered to me, “Jill’s really bummed she can’t go.”
“I know,” I murmured back. “But we all know why she can’t.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “What I don’t know is why she’s mad at you.”
I turned toward the front of the classroom and pointedly ignored him. Jill was the only one who knew about Adrian’s declaration of love, thanks to that bond. It was another one of those things I wished hadn’t been shared, but Adrian couldn’t help it. Although Jill knew vampire-human romances were wrong, she couldn’t forgive me for hurting Adrian so badly. To make things worse, she was probably personally experiencing some of his pain.
Even if our other friends didn’t know what had occurred, it was obvious that something wasn’t right with Jill and me. Eddie had picked up on it right away and immediately interrogated me. I’d given him a vague excuse about Jill not liking some rules I’d instated for her here at school. Eddie hadn’t bought that, but Jill had been just as close-mouthed on the matter, leaving him clueless and frustrated.
The school day zipped by, and before long, I was in a taxi and on my way to the airport. I’d packed light and only had one small suitcase and my messenger bag, both of which could be carried on. For what seemed like the hundredth time, I took out a small silver and white gift bag and examined its contents. Inside was an expensive crystal sun catcher, the kind meant to be hung on a porch or in a window. It depicted two doves in flight, facing each other. Wrapping it back in its tissue paper, I returned it to its gift bag and then my own bag. I hoped it would be an acceptable gift for the upcoming event.
I was going to a vampire wedding.
I’d never been to one before. Probably no Alchemist had. Although we worked with the Moroi to protect their existence, the Alchemists made it clear they wanted no involvement that went beyond business contact. After recent events, however, both groups had decided it would be good to improve our professional relations. Since this wedding was a big deal, a few other Alchemists and I had been invited.
I knew the couple, and in theory, I was excited to see them married. It was the rest of the event that made me nervous: a huge social gathering of Moroi and dhampirs. Even with other Alchemists there, we’d be hopelessly outnumbered. Being in Palm Springs with Eddie, Jill, and the others had gone a long way in improving my feelings toward their kind. I got along with that little group well and now considered them friends. But even as liberal as I was in such matters, I still possessed a lot of the anxiety other Alchemists had inside the vampiric world. Maybe Moroi and dhampirs weren’t creatures of evil, like I’d once believed, but they certainly weren’t human.
I kind of wished my Palm Springs friends were coming with me, but that had been out of the question. The whole point of Jill and the rest of us being in Palm Springs was to hide her away and keep her safe from those trying to kill her. Both Moroi and Strigoi tended to avoid sunny, desert regions. If she suddenly showed up at a major Moroi function, it would defeat the whole purpose. Eddie and Angeline, another dhampir protecting her at Amberwood, had to stay behind as well. Only Adrian and I had been invited to the wedding, and we were thankfully on separate flights. If anyone had noticed that he and I were traveling together, it could attract attention back in Palm Springs, which could then expose Jill. Adrian’s flight wasn’t even leaving from Palm Springs. He was flying out by way of Los Angeles, two hours west, just to make sure we weren’t linked together.
I had to connect through a different flight in Los Angeles, which reminded me of Ms. Terwilliger’s task. Find one neighborhood in all of Los Angeles’s greater metropolitan area. Sure, no problem. The only thing I had going for me was that the Victorian houses were so distinct. If I could find some historical society, there was a good chance they could direct me toward areas matching that description. It would narrow my search considerably.
I reached my gate at LAX an hour before the scheduled flight. I’d just gotten cozy with Ms. Terwilliger’s book when an overhead announcement declared, “Paging passenger Melrose. Please come see a customer service agent.”
I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Gathering up my things, I approached the desk and was greeted by a cheery airline representative.
“I’m sad to tell you this flight has been overbooked,” she said. From her peppy voice and big smile, she didn’t seem sad at all.
“What’s that mean for me, exactly?” I asked, my dread growing. “I have a confirmed seat.” I dealt with bureaucracy and red tape all the time, but overbooking flights was something I’d never understood. How did that even happen? It wasn’t like the number of seats was a surprise to them.
“It means that you’re no longer on the flight,” she explained. “You and a couple other volunteers gave up your seats to accommodate that family. Otherwise, they would’ve had to be split up.”
“Volunteers?” I repeated, following her gesture. Off to the side of the seating area, a family with seven children smiled back at me. The children were tiny and adorable, with big eyes and the kind of cuteness you saw in musicals about orphans finding new homes. Outraged, I turned back toward the agent. “How can you do that? I checked in way ahead of time! I have a wedding to get to. I can’t miss it.”
The woman produced a boarding pass. “We’ve more than made up for it. We’ve booked you on another flight, to Philadelphia – one that’s leaving sooner. And you’ve even been upgraded to first class for your inconvenience.”
“That’s something,” I said. I was still annoyed at this, simply out of principle. I liked order and procedure. Altering those threw off my world. I looked down at the boarding pass and then did a double take. “It’s leaving now!”
She nodded. “Like I said, sooner. I’d hurry up if I were you.”
Then, on cue, I heard a last-call announcement for my new flight, saying all passengers need to be on board now, as they were about to shut the cabin doors. I wasn’t the swearing type, but I almost was then – especially when I saw that my new gate was on the opposite side of the terminal. Without another word, I grabbed my things and sprinted toward the gate as quickly as I could, making a mental note to write a letter of complaint to the airline. Through some miracle, I made it just before my new flight was closed to passengers, though the agent working that gate sternly told me that next time, I should plan ahead and allow more time.
I ignored her and headed into the airplane, where I was greeted by a much nicer flight attendant – especially when she saw my first class ticket. “You’re right here, Miss Melrose,” she said, pointing to the third row of the cabin. “We’re so glad you could join us.”
She helped me put my suitcase in the overhead bin, which proved to be pretty difficult since other, earlier passengers had taken up most of the space. It required some creative knowledge of spatial relations, and when we finally managed it, I practically passed out into my seat, exhausted from this unexpected flurry of excitement. So much for a relaxing trip. I had just enough time to fasten my seat belt before the plane began backing up. Feeling a little steadier, I plucked the safety card from its pocket so that I could follow along with the attendant’s presentation. No matter how many times I flew, I always thought it was important to be up to speed on procedures. I was watching the attendant fasten an oxygen mask when a familiar and intoxicating scent washed over me. In all of the chaos of making this flight, I hadn’t even bothered to pay attention to my seatmate.
I stared in disbelief. He was watching me with amusement and had no doubt been waiting to see how long it would take me to notice him. I didn’t even bother asking what he was doing here. I’d known he was flying out of LAX, and through some wacky twist of happenstance, I’d been bumped to his flight.
“This is impossible,” I exclaimed. The scientist in me was too amazed to fully realize the uncomfortable nature of the situation I now found myself in. “It’s one thing for me to get moved to a new flight. But to end up next to you? Do you know what the odds of that are? It’s incredible.”
“Some might call it fate,” he said. “Or maybe there just aren’t that many flights to Philadelphia.” He raised a glass of clear liquid to me in a toast. Since I’d never seen Adrian drink water, I had to assume it was vodka. “Nice to see you, by the way.”
“Um, you too.”
The engines roared to life around us, momentarily sparing me from conversation. Reality began sinking in. I was trapped on a five-hour flight with Adrian Ivashkov. Five hours. Five hours sitting only a few inches from him, smelling his overpriced cologne and looking into those knowing eyes. What was I going to do? Nothing, of course. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to escape since even first-class passengers weren’t allowed parachutes. My heart began to race as I frantically groped for something to say. He was watching me in silence, still with that small smirk, waiting for me to lead the conversation.
“So,” I said at last, staring at my hands. “How’s, uh, your car?”
“I left it out on the street. Figured it’ll be fine there while I’m gone.”
I jerked my head up, jaw dropping. “You did what? They’ll tow it if it’s left there overnight!”
Adrian was laughing before I even finished. “So that’s what it takes to get a passionate reaction, huh?” He shook his head. “Don’t worry, Sage. I was just kidding. It’s tucked away safely in my building’s parking lot.”
I felt my cheeks burn. I hated that I’d fallen into his joke and was even a little embarrassed that I’d just flipped out over a car. Admittedly, it wasn’t just any car. It was a beautiful, classic Mustang that Adrian had recently purchased. In fact, he’d bought it to impress me, pretending he couldn’t drive manual transmission in order to spend more time with me while I taught him. I thought the car was amazing, but it still astonished me that he would have gone to that much trouble for us to be together.
We reached our cruising altitude, and the flight attendant returned to get Adrian another drink. “Anything for you, miss?” she asked.
“Diet Coke,” I said automatically.
Adrian tsked once she was gone. “You could’ve gotten that for free back in coach.”
I rolled my eyes. “Do I have to spend the next five hours being harassed? If so, I’ll go back in coach and let some lucky person ‘upgrade’ to my seat.”
Adrian held up his hands in a placating gesture. “No, no. Carry on. I’ll entertain myself.”
Entertaining himself turned out to be doing a crossword puzzle in one of the in-flight magazines. I took out Ms. Terwilliger’s book and tried to read, but it was hard to focus with him beside me. I kept sneaking glances out of the corner of my eye, partly to see if he was looking at me and partly just to study his features. He was the same Adrian as ever, annoyingly good looking with his tousled brown hair and sculpted face. I vowed I wouldn’t speak to him, but when I noticed he hadn’t written anything in a while and was tapping his pen loudly on the tray, I couldn’t help myself.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Seven-letter word for ‘cotton gin pioneer.’”
“Whitney,” I replied.
He leaned over and wrote in the letters. “‘Dominates the Mohs’ scale.’ Also seven letters.”
Five words later, I realized what was happening. “Hey,” I told him. “I am not doing this.”
He looked up at me with angelic eyes. “Doing what?”
“You know what. You’re luring me in. You know I can’t resist – “
“Me?” he suggested.
I pointed at the magazine. “Random trivia.” I angled my body away from him and made a big show of opening my book. “I have work to do.”
I felt Adrian look over my shoulder, and I tried to ignore how aware of his proximity I was. “Looks like Jackie’s still got you working hard in her class.” Adrian had met Ms. Terwilliger recently and had somehow charmed his way into a first-name basis.
“This one’s more like an extracurricular activity,” I explained.
“Really? I thought you were pretty against doing any more with this stuff than you had to.”
I shut the book in frustration. “I am! But then she said – ” I bit off the words, reminding myself that I shouldn’t engage with Adrian any more than I had to. It was just too easy to slip back into old, friendly behaviors with him. It felt right when, obviously, it was wrong.
“Then what?” he prompted, voice gentle.
I looked up at him and saw no smugness or mockery. I didn’t even see any of the burning hurt that had plagued me these last few weeks. He actually looked concerned, which momentarily distracted me from Ms. Terwilliger’s task. Seeing him this way contrasted drastically with what had followed in the wake of our kiss. I’d been so nervous at the thought of sitting with him on this flight, and yet, here he was, ready to support me. Why the change?
I hesitated, unsure what to do. Since last night, I’d been turning her words and the vision over and over in my head, trying to figure out what they meant. Adrian was the only person who knew about my involvement with her and magic (aside from Jill), and until this moment, I hadn’t realized how badly I was dying to discuss this with someone. So, I cracked and told him the whole story of my desert adventure.
When I finished, I was surprised to see how dark his expression had become. “It’s one thing for her to try to get you to learn spells here and there. But it’s a totally different thing for her to drag you into something dangerous.”
His ardent concern surprised me a little – but maybe it shouldn’t have. “From the way she talked, though, it wasn’t like it was her doing. She seemed pretty upset about . . . well, whatever all this means.”
Adrian pointed at the book. “And that’ll help somehow?”
“I guess.” I ran my fingers over the cover and embossed Latin words. “It has protection and attack spells – things that are a bit more hard core than what I’ve ever done. I don’t like it, and these aren’t even the really advanced ones. She told me to skip those.”
“You don’t like magic, period,” he reminded me. “But if these can keep you safe, then maybe you shouldn’t ignore them.”
I hated admitting when he was right. It only encouraged him. “Yeah, but I just wish I knew what I was trying to stay safe from – no. No. We can’t do this.”
Without even realizing it, I’d slipped into the way things used to be, talking to Adrian in that easy, comfortable way we had. In fact, I’d even been confiding in him. He looked startled.
“Do what? I stopped asking you for crossword help, didn’t I?”
I took a deep breath, bracing myself. I’d known this moment was coming, no matter how much I wanted to put it off. I just hadn’t expected it to come while on a plane ride.
“Adrian, we have to talk about what happened. Between you and me,” I declared.
He took a moment to consider my words. “Well . . . last I knew, nothing was happening between you and me.”
I dared a look at him. “Exactly. I’m sorry for what happened . . . what I said, but it was all true. We have to move past this and go on with our lives in a normal way. It’s for the good of our group in Palm Springs.”
“Funny, I have moved past it,” he said. “You’re the one bringing it up.”
I blushed again. “But it’s because of you! You’ve spent the last few weeks all moody and sulking, hardly ever talking to me. And when you do, there’s usually some nasty barb in it.” While recently having dinner at Clarence Donahue’s, I’d seen one of the most terrifying spiders ever come crawling into the living room. Mustering all my courage, I’d caught the creepy little beast and set him free. Adrian’s comment on my brave act had been, “Wow, I didn’t know you actually faced down things that scared you. I thought your normal response was to run kicking and screaming from them and pretend they don’t exist.”
“You’re right about the attitude,” he said now, nodding along with my words. Once again, he looked remarkably serious. “And I’m sorry.”
“You . . . are?” I could only stare. “So . . . you’re done with all of that . . . stuff? Done with, uh, feeling that way?” I couldn’t bring myself to elaborate. Done with being in love with me.
“Oh, no,” he said cheerfully. “Not at all.”
“But you just said – “
“I’m done with the pouting,” he said. “Done with being moody – well, I mean, I’m always a little moody. That’s what Adrian Ivashkov’s all about. But I’m done with the excessive stuff. That didn’t get me anywhere with Rose. It won’t get me anywhere with you.”
“Nothing will get you anywhere with me,” I exclaimed.
“I don’t know about that.” He put on an introspective look that was both unexpected and intriguing. “You’re not as much of a lost cause as she was. I mean, with her, I had to overcome her deep, epic love with a Russian warlord. You and I just have to overcome hundreds of years’ worth of deeply ingrained prejudice and taboo between our two races. Easy.”
“Adrian!” I felt my temper beginning to flare. “This isn’t a joke.”
“I know. It’s certainly not to me. And that’s why I’m not going to give you a hard time.” He paused dramatically. “I’ll just love you whether you want me to or not.”
The attendant came by with hot towels, putting our conversation on hold and allowing his slightly disturbing words to hang in the air between us. I was dumbfounded and couldn’t muster a response until after she came back to collect the cloths.
“Whether I want you to or not? What on earth does that mean?”
Adrian grimaced. “Sorry. That came off creepier than I intended. I just mean, I don’t care if you say we can’t be together. I don’t care if you think I’m the most evil, unnatural creature walking the earth.”
For the briefest of moments, his choice of words threw me back in time, to when he’d told me I was the most beautiful creature walking the earth. Those words haunted me now, just as they had then. We’d been sitting in a dark, candlelit room, and he’d looked at me in a way that no one ever had –
Stop it, Sydney. Focus.
“You can think whatever you want, do whatever you want,” Adrian continued, unaware of my traitorous thoughts. There was a remarkable calm about him. “I’m going to just go on loving you, even if it’s hopeless.”
I don’t know why that shocked me as much as it did. I glanced around to make sure no one was listening. “I . . . what? No. You can’t!”
He tilted his head to the side as he regarded me carefully. “Why? It doesn’t hurt you or anything. I told you I won’t bother you if you don’t want me to. And if you do, well, I’m all about that. So what’s it matter if I just love you from afar?”
I didn’t entirely know. “Because . . . because you can’t!”
“You . . . you need to move on,” I managed. Yes, that was a sound reason. “You need to find someone else. You know I don’t – that I can’t. Well, you know. You’re wasting your time with me.”
He remained firm. “It’s my time to waste.”
“But it’s crazy! Why would you do that?”
“Because I can’t help doing it,” he said with a shrug. “And hey, if I keep loving you, maybe you’ll eventually crack and love me too. Hell, I’m pretty sure you’re already half in love with me.”
“I am not! And everything you just said is ridiculous. That’s terrible logic.”
Adrian returned to his crossword puzzle. “Well, you can think what you want, so long as you remember – no matter how ordinary things seem between us – I’m still here, still in love with you, and care about you more than any other guy, evil or otherwise, ever will.”
“I don’t think you’re evil.”
“See? Things are already looking promising.” He tapped the magazine with his pen again. “‘Romantic Victorian poetess.’ Eight letters.”
I didn’t answer. I had been rendered speechless. Adrian never mentioned that dangerous topic again for the rest of the flight. Most of the time, he kept to himself, and when he did speak, it was about perfectly safe topics, like our dinner and the upcoming wedding. Anyone sitting with us would never have known there was anything weird between us.
But I knew.
That knowledge ate me up. It was all-consuming. And as the flight progressed, and eventually landed, I could no longer look at Adrian the same way. Each time we made eye contact, I just kept thinking of his words: I’m still here, still in love with you, and care about you more than any other guy ever will. Part of me felt offended. How dare he? How dare he love me whether I wanted him to or not? I had told him not to! He had no right to.
And the rest of me? The rest of me was scared.
If I keep loving you, maybe you’ll eventually crack and love me too.
It was ludicrous. You couldn’t make someone love you just by loving them. It didn’t matter how charming he was, how good looking, or how funny. An Alchemist and a Moroi could never be together. It was impossible.
I’m pretty sure you’re already half in love with me.
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