The Founder

The Founder

Book Two in the Shifter Extraordinaire Series

Chapter 1 

I’d relived this scene so many times in my mind, especially during my lonely first days at the Institute for Dimensional Studies. IDS had receded into a distant memory—an idyllic construct of my imagination—and a brutal new reality had taken its place: this was a world in which bad things happened, and I was one of those bad things.

As I took the long walk from my seat on the plane to the baggage claim, frustrated by everyone who got in my way—slow, bumbling people who clearly had nowhere to be—I wondered how my parents would react when they saw me again. Would they run to me, extend their arms, beam at me with unabashed pride, stare misty-eyed at their prodigal child?

As it turned out, my parents did none of those things.

When I saw them, the thing that shocked me was how little they’d changed. I guess I’d expected them to look different, probably because my perspective of them was so different; in my mind, they weren’t the same people I’d left.

I smiled broadly, but they, still straining their necks as they looked around, didn’t see me. In fact, they didn’t notice me until I was standing right in front of them. My mom’s eyes widened, and her jaw unhinged. She stared at me like I’d forgotten to wear clothes.

“Faedra?”

Yes, she honestly said it.

“Well … you … I barely recognize you. You look so good,” she said.

And that was my mom: the woman who could turn any well-intentioned compliment into something derogatory.

“Thanks,” I said. “You look good, too.”

I gave her a hug, and she returned it, but without her usual ease. Instead, she pushed me away and examined me from head to toe.

“What happened to you?” she asked. “You look so … good.”

“And smart,” my father said, wrapping his arm around me.

“How did you …?” my mom continued. “That outfit looks wonderful on you.”

I pursed my lips. These weren’t comments I could really respond to, and I hated any fuss made over my looks. It didn’t matter whether the attention was positive or negative or, as in my mom’s case, a combination of both.

“You’re so thin,” she said. “I just can’t believe it.”

My father coughed his amusement.

We made our way to the luggage carousel and waited for my dark brown suitcase to vomit from the gaping metal mouth.

“I was so worried at first,” my mom said. “I was worried about what you must’ve been going through—alone, unable to talk to us. Naomi visited regularly and assured us you were okay. But … I just can’t get over the change. And your hair.”

“It was difficult,” I said.

“It was.” A dark shadow fell across her features. “It never should’ve been that way.”

“What way?”

“We should have told you about Brighton,” she said. “We should have talked about it and let you decide. We should have said goodbye. I shouldn’t have gone along with it all.”

I shrugged, not because I didn’t understand the anger and guilt behind the words but because I didn’t know what else to do. Brighton was the school my parents thought I attended—a school for the gifted, offering the best, fully funded education in the country.

“There was no other way,” I said. “I wouldn’t have gone, and I needed to.”

My dad grabbed the suitcase as it came around.

“Maybe,” she said and then forced a smile onto her face. “At least you made some friends.”

I tried to take the case from my dad, but he shooed my hand away.

“Good ones,” I said.

“And a boyfriend.”

A chuckle-cough combination escaped my throat. “Um, no.”

“You talk about him all the time,” she said. “Dominic Archer.”

“He’s just a friend.”

“But you talk about him all the time,” she said.

“Because he was around all the time.”

“I’ve read the emails, Faedra. You care about him.”

“I do,” I said. “I care about all of my friends.”

She arched a brow but decided to let it rest.

I rode to my parents’ new home in the back seat and watched them debate the entire time. Where should we eat? What should we do first? How much coddling did I really need? That last part wasn’t overtly stated, but it was the definite gist.

As I listened to them talk about things that no longer mattered to me, I felt as alien in that car as I had my first few days at IDS. These people were strangers to me, and I didn’t understand a thing they said. Somehow, their words had lost meaning, like a language I hadn’t yet learned or had long since forgotten. I wouldn’t know how to let myself be coddled if my life depended on it.

They hadn’t changed at all since I’d been gone, still caring about which lane we should be in, the best way back to the house, or the fact that the garage-door repairperson was coming during my first week back home. It was an odd sense of synergism—of different realities layered together to create something unreal.

Because I had changed. A lot.

“Tell me about your friends,” my mother said suddenly.

“I’ve already told you about them.”

Sending my parents the emails I’d previously written at IDS had been a journey. I’d watched my own drama unfold before me. The tone of my letters had morphed from blatant dislike into reluctant tolerance into grateful enjoyment. I loved my friends; it was threaded into the fabric of each electronic page.

“I want to hear it from you,” she said. “You’ve never had any sort of social life; I’ve been waiting for you to have a friend since you were two.”

“I don’t know. They’re smart … funny,” I said. “You’d like Lucy. She’s outgoing and comfortable in her own skin. She can talk to anyone about anything. Emma’s quiet but really thoughtful. I think she sees more in people than anyone else can. Adrian is the most honest person I’ve ever met. I don’t think he’s ever cheated or lied. Not once. Adam’s just hilarious. He says whatever pops into his head, no matter how inappropriate it is. And Nic is … he’s … indecipherable. Wonderful. Annoying.”

“Cute?” she asked.

I scoffed. “Definitely not cute.”

Her face fell, and she turned forward again. “That’s too bad. But there are more important things in life.”

“There are,” I said.

“I told you,” my father said, glancing at my mom. “She doesn’t need a boy in her life to be happy. Good for you, Faedra.”

 

Chapter 2

“You’re not as talkative as you used to be.”

My parents’ new house was large, much nicer than anything we’d had before. My mom was proud to show it off, and my dad had claimed his own little corner of it. We spent many hours in his office, with him in his recliner, which already molded to fit him despite the brief ownership, and me sprawled out on the floor.

I sat up against the loveseat and stared at his desk. It was covered in a strategic array of scattered papers, the organization of which only he could decipher. When I was young, I’d periodically clean his desk for him, consolidating the chaos into two neat piles. I was proud to be so helpful, and my father would muster up a smile and thank me behind gritted teeth, and then spend the next several months frustrated because he couldn’t find a thing.

“It’s been a year of adjustment,” he said.

I nodded.

“For the first time since you were born, your mother and I, we only had each other. It was an adjustment figuring out how to get along without you. We didn’t stop getting along; that’s not what I meant. But I don’t think either of us realized how important you were to us.”

I said nothing, and I didn’t know if that was due to my desire to be a good listener or because I couldn’t believe my own ears. A sacred oath existed between my father an me: personal talk and conversation that included feelings of any kind were off limits.

“You’re our daughter, and we love you. But I don’t think we understood what you meant to us. Your mother had no one to do things with. No one to take to art galleries or to the theater. I tried to take your place, but it just wasn’t the same. She told me how inadequate I was on a regular basis.

“And I had no one to debate with. Math, physics, religion, literature. I didn’t realize how much I relied on you for a good intellectual argument until you were gone. Your mother doesn’t see cutthroat competition as an enjoyable pastime. Apparently, when I try to initiate a spirited conversation, I’m just being ‘argumentative’.”

I still said nothing.

“I never let you know how much you challenged me to think,” he said. “You gave me new ideas, even when you were young. I guess you filled a substantial void in both of our lives. When you left, there was something empty.”

He picked up his journal and adjusted his reading glasses back to the appropriate position.

“You’re a completely different person now,” he said. “You know that, don’t you?”

This time, I looked at him.

He let the journal fall back in his lap. “Solid, calm,” he said. “Almost the polar opposite of the person who left. Have you already seen enough of life that it’s robbed your enthusiasm?”

I didn’t defend myself, even though his assumption wasn’t true. I supposed there was a certain amount of solidity creeping into my demeanor, but I wasn’t calm. I was numb.

Life hadn’t robbed my enthusiasm. Theft meant my internal zeal was still out there, waiting to be reclaimed. But it wasn’t stolen; it was dead.

It’s impossible to anesthetize one part of the mind and keep the numbing agent from permeating the rest. Emotions don’t work that way. They stick together like a band of hopelessly overpowered soldiers in a cliché war movie. If you want to kill him, you have to go through us. Unlike in the movie, however, the emotions don’t win. They’re gunned down, effortlessly slaughtered, left in a bloody pile of unrecognizable remains. They’re never rescued by the resilient, ultra-resourceful, conveniently timed hero who everyone “thought” was dead.

“I’ve never been a particularly happy person,” I told him.

“I seem to remember a few happy moments.”

“It’s overrated,” I said.

“Happiness?”

I sighed. “It’s like the hot guy … or girl, I guess. You know, the one that everybody wants. No matter how much you chase him, think about him, plot how you’re going to make him notice you, you’ll never catch him. He’ll never think about you like you think about him. Your fantasies will always be fantasies. Happiness will never love you back.”

“Spoken from one with experience?” my dad said.

“Spoken from one who knows that the surest way to chase happiness away is to pursue it.”

My dad raised his brows and studied me for a while.

“Maybe you haven’t changed,” he said. “Maybe you’ve just grown up.”

“Maybe.”

“Although, I think there are those who would argue that happiness is something attainable.”

“How is that?” I said.

“They say that if you learn to be content with what you have, you’ll be happy.”

“That’s not happiness,” I said. “That’s delusion.”

He chuckled.

“Seriously, Dad,” I said. “Have you looked around at the world we live in? Because if you have, you shouldn’t be content. The world is totally messed up. Nothing great ever came from people being content with the way things are. Good things happen because people want change. Because they aren’t content. The last thing we should want is for everyone to be content.”

My dad watched me.

“Everybody who fights for something worthwhile isn’t content … can’t be content. Wanting to change things, that fuels us. And it should fuel us. I mean, think about it. Every invention, every work of art, every humanitarian effort, they’re all birthed from discontent. We should never be satisfied; we should never be content with things when they can be better.”

“Don’t you think there should be some balance, though?” he said. “If we can’t see the good in what we’ve already achieved, what’s the point of fighting for something better? Perfection isn’t a goal; it’s a direction.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know where the balance is. It seems like a contradiction.”

“What about empowerment?”

“What about it?”

“Maybe contentment isn’t found in the way things are but in our ability to do something about it.”

I stared at him.

“Combine a passion to make things better with the power to do it, and you have something really special,” he said. “There should be some amount of purpose to be found in that. Purpose can feed the soul like nothing else can. It can almost bring a certain amount of happiness.”

My brow furrowed as I examined my dad, wondering if he knew more about my last year than he let on.

He smiled a self-satisfactory smile and picked up the journal again.

“Why are you so happy?” I asked, a little snappily.

“Because you haven’t changed,” he said. “You’re still the same girl who left a year ago. You’re just better at hiding it now.”

I scoffed. “Well, you haven’t changed either. You’re still as irrational as you used to be.”

“Irrational?”

“Yeah, you just spent the last five minutes telling a fifteen-year-old girl to be balanced and content. I think that’s the textbook definition of ‘irrational’.”

“I just spent the last five minutes rekindling my daughter’s passion and purpose in life,” he said. “I think that’s the textbook definition of ‘excellent father’.”

 

Chapter 3

I went everywhere with my mom—let her take me to all those places she’d been dying to show someone. Driving with her wasn’t the harrowing experience it used to be. There was comfort in the fact that I could shift us if need be. I didn’t freak out even once when she went the wrong direction down one-way streets, nor did I let the bump-thump of the median bother me as we rode over the elevated cement in order to correct our wrong by changing direction.

“I’m still not used to Boston,” she told me. “It’s lovely, though. Your father has wanted to teach here since I can remember.”

“Then why didn’t he?” I asked. I may not have known everything about the world of academia, but I did know my father was successful enough to teach at any university he chose, at least as a visiting professor.

“It just never panned out,” she said. “He always seemed hesitant to pursue that dream. Oh, here we are.”

“Here” was a local art museum. My mom found a place to park, and we walked the rest of the way over a mixture of cobblestone and cement.

“I haven’t been to this exhibit yet,” she said. “I hope you’ll enjoy it.”

“I will,” I told her, and I meant it. “Do you have anything on exhibit?”

“Not yet. We’ve only been here for a few months. I’m still making the rounds.”

“It must’ve been tough for Dad to find a job midyear.”

“You would think so, but everything just seemed to open up for us,” she said. “It was like the job was waiting for him. And the house. Well, you’ve seen it. We’ve never been able to afford such a beautiful place before. But the owner was desperate to move and just wanted to be rid of the thing. I guarantee you, we paid less than half of its value.”

My mom would know. She could estimate the value of anything, even a house, just by looking at it. Of course, she didn’t know the real reason she’d gotten such a deal on the house. Neither did she know why there just happened to be a job waiting for my dad at this esteemed university. It was my government at work for me—a little gratitude for saving its President.

Sometimes I wondered if the President even knew. Did he know about the fourth dimension? Was it part of his briefings? Did he realize there was a girl called Faedra Madison Mae and a god-boy called Dominic Sinclair Archer who just happened to save his life? Somehow, I doubted it.

“I don’t like going to these things alone,” Mom said, and by “these things” she meant pretty well all things.

We walked up the whitewashed steps of slightly peeling paint. The door squeaked as it opened, like it didn’t quite fit the doorframe. A blast of cold met us from inside the building, much more air conditioning than was necessary for comfort.

My mother dropped a few dollars in the donation box and stuffed her wallet back in her handbag. I followed her into the first room, and we immediately walked in different directions. We’d always done that—went opposite ways—but today it felt weird. I did it out of habit, of course, even if it was a habit I hadn’t exercised in a long time.

My mother and I never spent the same amount of time on any piece of art. Overall, we averaged out to the same amount for any given room, but the way we individually distributed that time was different. So instead of making each other feel rushed, we went our separate ways and reunited at the end to discuss our impressions.

That’s what we did this time too, but it felt odd. I wasn’t used to going my separate way at an art museum anymore. Nic was usually right by my side, and we talked about each piece as we went.

The reminder caused my stomach to clench. I missed him more than I would ever admit to myself. Whatever stance I took on a painting, he’d take the other just to irritate me. Just to make sure we’d have a heated conversation that would last all day. But what I really wanted was someone to talk to—more specifically, someone who would make me talk. I hadn’t had anyone to talk to since I’d last seen him over five months ago.

“Are you all right?”

“What?”

“Are you feeling okay?” my mother asked.

I cleared my throat. “Sure. Why?”

“You look like you’re in pain,” she told me. “Are you sure you’re all right.”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” I said, but she looked unconvinced. “I guess I just miss my friends.”

“Oh. Come here.”

I leaned over to hug her. She stroked my hair and held me tight—tighter than I remembered her doing before. We stood there for a long time, and I was glad no one else was in the building, much less in the room.

“Uh oh,” she said.

“What?”

“Well … my earring is caught in your hair.”

I tried to pull back. My head didn’t move far, and the scalp on the left side of my head let me know that I was, indeed, stuck to something.

“Just don’t move,” she said. “Let me …”

With limited mobility, my mom fumbled around trying to free the gold hoop from her ear.

“I think I’m only making it worse,” she said.

I reached up to help but didn’t do much better. Somehow, a wad of my hair had wrapped itself around the gold ring, and it was difficult to slide the gold hoop apart with just one hand. My mom started to giggle.

“Don’t move,” I said.

But my words only made the situation worse, and my mom erupted into another wave of giggling.

“Okay, okay,” I said. “I’ve got it.”

Unfortunately, the hoop slipped out of my fingers and snapped shut again. My mom giggled, laughing in a way that was both hysterical and silent at the same time.

“Oh, no,” she said in a choked sort of way and then giggled again. “I need to pee.”

Great. My mom had the smallest bladder on the planet. Anytime she laughed, she tinkled. And she laughed a lot.

Awkwardly, we stumbled to the restroom, attached by the sides of our heads. While she did what she needed to do, I leaned over and looked at the small blue tiles covering the wall, more out of necessity by our weird conjoining than out of any sense of privacy for my mom. She couldn’t stop giggling.

A smile began to creep onto my face. This was the way my life had been before IDS: a string of daily impossible situations, the harmless sort. This was life with my mom, and I missed it. At IDS, the only source of ridiculousness had been me.

I began to laugh with her. It was the first time I’d laughed since the Inauguration. And there we were, laughing uncontrollably together like old times, me leaning over my mom in an art museum bathroom, her snorting and tinkling, which inevitably made her snort and tinkle some more.

Once our stomachs were too sore to keep laughing, I simply grabbed her earring and phased it through her ear and my hair. In retrospect, I should’ve done that first, but I was rather glad I hadn’t thought of it. Besides the fact that dimensional activity was something I tried to avoid, I missed these moments of insanity my mom provided.

When we finally left the restroom, my mom was atypically somber. Usually, she had little giggle fits for a while after one of these incidents.

Silently, we looked at the art on the first floor and then made our way to the second. A few other patrons entered the building.

“I haven’t laughed like that since you left,” my mom said suddenly.

“I haven’t laughed like that in a while either.”

She stroked my back. “I’m trying hard not to think about you leaving again. The last thing I want to do is ruin the time I do have with you.”

“I know.”

“And I guess it’s a pretty good school,” she said. “You sound like you’ve matured 20 years while you’ve been gone. Although I wasn’t expecting you to come back as a mechanic.”

“We had an electric circuits unit in physics,” I reminded her.

“It was still weird to see you rewire a garage-door opener.”

I shrugged dismissively. It was weird, and I shouldn’t have done it. Although I’d been fairly well trained to blend in and hide what I knew, it was much more difficult with my family. The pain of watching my parents bumble around for what seemed like days and listening to them bicker about the potential cost of the electrician was palpable. I finally caved and offered to take a look. They’d looked at me as though I’d sprouted wings and watched in awe while I fixed the simple short circuit. It was nothing compared to the wiring I’d had to do on my airplane in the last term of engineering physics.

“It was a simple parallel circuit,” I said, again. “It’s not as hard as it looks.”

My mother examined me skeptically for a moment. “You talk funny,” she said. “I’d forgotten how much.”

She turned and walked to one side of the room. Resigned, I went to the other side.

 

Chapter 4

“Ouch.”

“What’s wrong?” my mother asked.

The watch the DIO had given me—similar to the ones we had at IDS, minus the incessant rambling—zapped me again. I jerked my hand back as though the movement could really distance myself from the thing strapped to my wrist.

I looked at my parents and pretended I wasn’t in pain.

“My watch pinched my skin,” I said. “I’m going to wash my arm in the bathroom. I think it’s bleeding.”

“Okay,” my mom said, obviously trying to figure out how a watch can spontaneously make you bleed.

I hurried to the restroom and locked the door behind me. Luckily, it was one of those single-stall restrooms.

“What?” I snapped into the phone.

“You need to leave.” Rita’s voice sounded over the watch as clear and crisp as if she were standing there.

“Why?”

“Get out of there,” she said. “I don’t care how. And run for your life. I’m sending you directions.”

“What’s going on?”

“I don’t know, but what I’m sensing is huge. Get out of town.”

“I’m in the middle of—”

“Now,” she yelled, and I glanced at the door, wondering if the entire restaurant had heard her. “Run for your life.”

“How do I—”

“Run, you idiot. Just go.”

I didn’t respond. My heart began racing as I realized that the situation, whatever it was, wasn’t getting any better by trying to talk it out. My eyes began darting about as if there was something in the bathroom that could save me from another shifter … or group of them.

I looked in the mirror; my reflection was the same pale brown as the wall behind me. What could I do?

With more composure than I felt, I left the restroom.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” my mom asked the moment she saw me.

“I’m feeling a little sick,” I told her. “I think I left some antacids in the car.”

I held out my hand for the keys, which my dad dutifully gave me. As calmly as possible, I walked to the door, trembling and hoping it wasn’t noticeable. After I reached our car, parked perfectly on the side of the street because my dad had been driving instead of my mom, I unlocked the doors, got in, and took off.

I had no idea where to go, so I just headed out of town along the fastest route I could think of.

“Not fast enough,” my watch yelled at me.

“I’m already speeding.”

“Forget the speed limit,” Rita said. “We’ll take care of that. Follow the GPS on your watch to its destination. When you get there, a white car will be waiting for you. Ditch your watch, and use the phone in the car.”

I looked down at the map my watch was projecting.

“I’m going the wrong way.”

“Oh, my God,” Rita mumbled. “Why couldn’t I get one of the smart shifters? Just, whatever you do, do it fast. I’m serious. Dead serious.”

Not far in front of me a sign showed that the highway would be splitting. The GPS wanted me to turn around, to go back the way I’d come.

“And don’t shift,” Rita said. Her voice made the afterthought sound like it should’ve come first. “Don’t shift. Ride below the radar. If you shift, you’re traceable. I’m telling you, I’ve never felt anything like this before.”

“Okay, I get it.”

With gritted teeth, I made my decision before it was too late. Up ahead the median was blocked by a cement barricade. Now, however, there was just dirt and a plastic orange fence.

I stomped down on the emergency break so hard it made the car spin. Once it slid to a relatively stable position, I was in the median facing the opposite direction. I released the emergency break, slammed the accelerator all the way to the floor, and bullied my way back into traffic.

Just as Rita told me to, I sped. Twenty … 30 … 50 miles over the speed limit. Weaving in and out of traffic as though it were standing still. When I couldn’t get around vehicles in a lane, I zoomed past them on the shoulder. Part of me—the part not fearing for my life—enjoyed it entirely too much.

It wasn’t long until I grabbed the attention of the police.

“Just keep going,” Rita said. “They won’t shoot you, I promise. That only happens in movies.”

I did as she said, avoiding every collision with reaction times heightened by adrenaline. But I didn’t shift. Neither did I look in my rearview mirror. Every time I did, all I could see were the red and blue whirs of police lights.

“If someone’s out to get me, I sure am attracting a lot of attention,” I told Rita.

“Yes, you are.”

“Can’t you call the cops off or something?”

“I’m working on it.”

As I was trying to think of another solution, I crossed a bridge. And that’s when the pain hit me.

I growled in agony. “What is that?”

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Rita told me. “Don’t give in to it.”

Everything in the mirror went blurry. My eyes couldn’t focus, and it took a while to realize that it was due to my own shaking and not from any vibration of the mirror. With senses momentarily dampened, I almost sideswiped a pickup truck and then narrowly missed another collision while trying to avoid the truck.

“I can’t,” I said. “I can’t.”

“What’s going on?”

“I’m being ripped apart.”

“You aren’t,” she said. “That’s only what it feels like. Don’t give in to it. Don’t shift. Just concentrate on driving.”

“It’s getting stronger.”

“Drive faster.”

“I can’t do this.”

“Stay in this dimension,” Rita said. “If you shift, you’re lost. Focus on driving your car in this dimension. You will make it out.”

I kept blinking my eyes, trying to follow her directions. Focus on the road. Focus on the flashing lights behind me, three sets now. Focus on the density of the pavement, the reality of the earth beneath. Focus.

“Is it following you?” Rita asked.

“What?”

“The presence? Is it following you?”

“How would I know?”

“You’ll know.”

I shook my head. The last thing I needed was to concentrate on the dimensional pull that threatened to rip my bones out of my skin. But I let a small part of me venture while my eyes stayed firmly fixed on the road, my ears on the din around me, my hands on the feel of the leather steering wheel.

There it was. The presence. So pointed it was like I was dangling from its string.

“Yeah.” I exhaled heavily. “It’s following me.”

“Shit,” Rita said, and I heard panic in her voice for the first time. Before she’d just seemed angry. “You have to go faster.”

“I’m trying,” I told her. “Nobody wants me to get farther away from that thing than me.”

We sere silent. Me as I focused on not giving in to the thing and avoiding a succession of near-death experiences, and her as she let me.

The farther I got from the city, the easier it became to maneuver my car. But the presence didn’t diminish. If anything, its force was stronger.

I sped so fast that the car threatened to fall apart. I could hear clunking as things jarred loose.

“Almost there,” Rita said. “The car is only a few more miles away.”

The idea of somehow stopping my own vehicle while three cop cars and a multidimensional presence were in hot pursuit struck me as impossible. How could I will myself to pull over, happily walk over to another vehicle, and begin the chase anew?

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. A mile ahead. White Ferrari. And it was phased from view. Brilliant.

This was my one permission to shift.

“I see the car,” I told Rita.

“You’ll need to shift.”

“I know.”

“Tell me when—the exact moment,” she said. “We’ve got five shifters spread around the area. They’re listening. They’ll shift when you do and cause as much confusion as possible.”

“Okay.”

Half a mile. A quarter mile. There. Again, I stomped down on the emergency break. The car veered off the shoulder and went careening through the air.

“Now,” I shouted into the watch.

I shifted and let my parents’ car fly through my body. Then I phased into the Ferrari and threw my watch through the roof.

I drove the Ferrari over some brush and uneven dirt to the outer road. After disappearing behind some trees, I shifted the car back into view and got on the highway at the next onramp.

I sped. And in this thing, that meant something.

The phone was so small that I almost overlooked it—a flat, metal wire, essentially. I kept waiting for Rita to call, but she never did, and I half wondered if she had the right number. Although the car was equipped with a GPS, I followed the one on the phone. I still had another 200 miles to go. Of course, 200 miles in a racing Ferrari wasn’t all that much.

Rita must’ve finally gotten word out to the local authorities to leave me alone because I never saw another police car, even though I was going at least 50 miles over the speed limit. The world was a blur.

The presence grew feint until it vanished altogether. After my pulse slowed a bit, I let the car decelerate as well. It seemed that the immediate threat was over.

I turned on the satellite radio. Somebody had already set it to a pop station, and I didn’t feel like changing it. So I just drove, listening to songs about nothing, waiting for my physiology to return to normal.

I looked out the window. Two college-aged boys in a nice, but unimpressive, sports car gawked shamelessly at me as I flew past them, and that’s when it hit me. There I was: a fifteen-year-old girl driving a Ferrari, outrunning cops, and fumbling around in all the compartments looking for a gun. Who was I?

 

Chapter 5

About thirty miles from my intended destination, my phone finally decided to be useful.

“Are you there?”

“What? Nic?”

“No names; you know that,” he said. “Are you close to the destination?”

“Um, yeah. Kind of. How do you—”

“Don’t talk,” he said. “Just drive.”

“But why are you—”

The line went dead.

As much as I wanted to, I didn’t return Nic’s call. About a mile away from the destination, it rang again.

“Can you see me?” Nic asked. “On the side of the road. Black Nissan.”

“No, I … oh, wait. Yeah, I see you.”

“Pull over and get in.”

He hung up again, and I slowed the Ferrari and pulled off the side of the road. Half in excitement to see him and half in fear, I tripped over myself as I got out of the Ferrari and scraped my knees. In my own defense, it was rather low to the ground. The door to his car opened as I ran to it. I slid in and lunged at him.

He stopped me with a forceful hand. “Later.”

Then he got out and tried to flag down a car. It didn’t take long for someone to stop. Another car of boys, not the one from before, pulled over, anxious for a look at the Ferrari. I watched Nic curiously.

“You like it?” he asked the boys, motioning to the Ferrari.

“Hell, yeah,” one of them said.

“Then why don’t you keep it for a while,” Nic told him. “The fob’s already in it.”

Without another word, Nic got back in the car with me and took off.

“Why are there so many college boys on the road today?” I said.

Nic arched a brow and looked at me for the first time. “It’s the end of summer. College is starting again.”

“Oh.”

“How are you?”

“Fine now,” I said. “How did you know?”

“Know what?”

“I mean, what are you doing here?”

“You told Rita that if you were ever in trouble again, she should get me. You were in trouble; she got me. I raced here just like you did. I beat you by ten minutes max.”

I nodded. Nic took the next exit.

“Wait,” I said. “That’s not the destination point. You’re going the wrong way.”

Nic shook his head. “Your GPS was just to get you to here. Now we go to the actual hideout.”

I watched Nic drive for a while, happy just to be able to see him in the flesh again. I’d forgotten how perfect that flesh was.

But I wasn’t able to enjoy the sight for long. I grabbed his arm, hard. He looked at my hand and then up at me.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I feel it again.”

“Feel what?”

“The presence. That thing,” I said. “It followed me. I thought it hadn’t, but it has.”

“It’ll be okay,” Nic said. “We’re not that far. Just hold on.”

But we were far away; at least that’s what it felt like. Nic drove as fast as he could without attracting attention. I writhed in pain in the seat next to him, clawing at my skin to try to keep my insides from ripping straight through my skin.

“You can do it. You will make it,” Nic told me over and over, but I could tell by the slight tremor in his voice that he wasn’t sure.

“It’s too close. It’s too close.”

I couldn’t stop screaming, and finally Nic slammed the palm of his hand into the steering wheel. “Damn it.”

The car screeched to a halt, and he yanked me out.

“Hold on,” he told me.

I heard the words in the back of my mind as though they held no relevance for me. My conscious and subconscious had traded places, and my four-dimensional faculties became the dominant ones. I was being sucked away, away from this dimension. I was fading—being expelled from my reality by the mere presence of another.

Firm fingers held my face; I looked up. Nic’s intense eyes were boring into mine, and I was shocked that the world still existed somehow. Words formed.

“No,” I said. “It’s getting stronger. Even stronger. Let go of me.”

Nic enveloped me in his arms and hurled us both into the sky. I let myself go with him. My strength was draining. All I wanted was to be free from this dimension; I didn’t really care where we were in it.

“It’s getting stronger.”

“I know,” he said.

“It’s going to pull me apart. I have to let go.”

“Fight it.”

We landed, but Nic didn’t let go of me. I wanted him to. I wanted to give into this force that was tearing me apart at a molecular level. I must’ve said something because Nic grabbed my face in one of his hands and forced me to look at him.

“I know that’s what it seems like, but it isn’t going to happen,” he said. “The important thing is that no matter how you feel, don’t go to it. Do you hear me, Faedra? Don’t go to it.”

He grabbed my hand and held our entangled fists up for me to see.

“I won’t let go,” he told me. “No matter how much you want me to.”

Pain tore through my head, and I couldn’t even manage a nod.

“Get the lift,” Nic yelled to someone, although it was difficult to hear his voice over the screaming in my head. “We need to get her down there. Now.”

I braved one glimpse at the befuddled man standing in the little barn, hurriedly punching buttons and speaking into an intercom system. Nic carried me into a glass tube. Periodically, I glimpsed layers of earth as we plummeted down what had to be a hundred feet.

The piercing scream in my head intensified with each second, and I tried to bore holes into my temples with my knuckles. A desperate feeling of suffocation encased me: my lungs wouldn’t expand.

My feet hit the sides of the narrow halls as Nic carried me down them. We entered a tiny room with a bed and table. Nic rested me on the bed but stayed plastered to my side. The heels of my hands dug into my forehead as though I could push back the pain. I screamed along with the screaming in my head, trying to drown it out. Even though my lungs failed to fill with air, my throat told me I was making sound.

Nic’s voice was at my ear, surprisingly loud against the din in my head.

“I know it hurts, but you have to resist,” he said. “You can do it, Faedra. I’ve seen you. I know what you’re capable of, and you can do this.”

My body jerked violently. Nic held me down, grabbing my wrists so that I didn’t gauge my face any worse than I already had. Someone else wrestled an arm from him, and I could feel my vital signs being taken. I looked over at my arm and saw veins protruding. I was locked in a full-body contraction.

Brain screaming, body convulsing, Nic restraining, doctor examining. For spells, my body succumbed to exhaustion and refused to move or tense. During those times, I lay in seeming calm while the fourth dimension threatened to strip away every atom of my being one by one. My mind was tearing apart. The temptation to go with it—to be whole again and free from pain—was overwhelming. Nic’s constant admonition was the only thing that kept me there.

I had no idea how much time passed. All I knew was that Nic never left. Not once.

 

Chapter 6

As suddenly as it had appeared, the four-dimensional presence finally vanished, and I felt the instant it was gone. The screaming stopped, and the throbbing that replaced it was soon drowned out by intense …

Jolting upright in the bed, I threw back my head and laughed. Nic tightened his grip on my arm, sitting up beside me.

I shook him off to run my hands through my hair. “I feel so good.”

My lips were tingly, strangely numb, and I ran my fingers over them to see if they felt as different on the outside as they did on the inside. They were soft.

When I looked at him, Nic backed off the bed and stood by the door, watching me.

My senses were beyond confused: thrilled, petrified, transfixed, bewildered. I hadn’t seen him since February—hadn’t spoken to him—and I wanted to jump on him in surprise, in relief, in appreciation, in something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

If possible, he was taller and broader since the last time I saw him. More beautiful than I remembered. His golden skin was bronzed to a perfect hue by the sun. Skin so smooth it was nearly impossible to distinguish an actual outline. Fierce, brilliant eyes the color of aged pewter were set far apart and made more captivating by the expressive, clever brows above. The ideal combination of elegant and masculine. Full lips the color of innocence and the shape of sensuality poured a sweet taste into my mouth just from the sight of them. Straight nose, defined jaw—the contours of wicked. Obsidian hair, soft and straight, playfully tussled. The broad planes of his chest and abdomen tapered into a trim waist. Jeans hung from him, down his long, powerful legs.

He was everything and nothing at the same time. Absolute presence, complete apparition. Corded muscles extended from hands so strong and graceful they could’ve belonged to a concert pianist or a gladiator. They rose to meet dense, rounded biceps and shoulders so defined I could see the indentations beneath his shirt. Tall, muscular, intimidating, sophisticated, Dominic Archer was the culmination of creation’s gifts. A sublime piecing together of rightness.

“You look good,” I told him. “Even better than I remember.”

“Dr. Payton,” he yelled to the door.

The doctor ran into the room, but I ignored him, letting my eyes rake over the fantastic façade before me. I licked my lip, as if the taste of him was already on it.

“What’s wrong with her?” Nic asked. His eyes shined with trepidation, a look so foreign on his usually controlled face.

The doctor shook his head. “Faedra,” he said. “Can you still feel the presence?”

The presence? I’d forgotten all about it. The thought made me laugh—a bit hysterically.

“No.” I shook my head, realized the pain was gone, and shook it some more, exaggerating the movement until hair flew into my face. “It feels so good.”

“Do you think it’s really gone?” Nic asked.

“Appears to be,” the doctor said.

Nic motioned to me. “Then what is this?”

It was like I could feel my own body for the first time. My neck was long, my skin was soft, my chest was fuller than I remembered, my abdomen tighter. I probably shouldn’t have touched myself like that in front of them, but I didn’t really care.

The doctor cleared his throat. “I can’t be sure. Faedra’s mind works differently than most shifters.”

“Faedra’s mind works differently than most everything.”

And if my skin felt this good, I could only imagine what his skin felt like. I rose from the bed to move my hands to Nic’s bare forearm. Perfectly formed, strong, beautiful. He looked at my hands, and I took a step back to get a better view of him.

Nice.

“I believe what’s happened is this,” the doctor said. “While Faedra was in pain for so long, endorphins—our bodies’ natural chemical reaction to pain—were being produced. Unfortunately, because most of Faedra’s mind wasn’t in the dimension necessary to receive those endorphins, she’s getting them all at once. Right now.”

“Just the endorphins?” Nic said. “What about the other hormones?”

“For all I know she wasn’t getting any of it, which would explain the intense pain,” Dr. Payton said. “And that can only add to the … hormonal imbalance she’s experiencing right now.”

“I missed you,” I told Nic. Why wouldn’t he stop talking? It was annoying. I didn’t care why I felt good; I was just glad I did.

He looked at me again with that same look of dread. “Will it damage her?”

“If it hasn’t done anything by this point, I’m sure she’ll be fine,” the doctor said. “I’ve never heard of an overdose of endorphins before.”

“What do I do?”

“Wait it out,” Dr. Payton said. “She’ll process through them eventually.”

The buttons needed to be the first things to go. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I realized I didn’t have the right to undo somebody else’s buttons, but who cared? Not me. Nic was distracted, distracted enough to let me undo half of the buttons on his shirt before he caught me. He squeezed my wrist before throwing away my hand.

“Will she be safe in here alone?” he asked the doctor.

“No,” Dr. Payton replied. “She’s not thinking clearly. It’s like she’s extremely intoxicated right now. I can only imagine what two days’ worth would do to someone. She’s not able to make rational decisions, and it would be dangerous to let her shift alone.”

Nic furrowed his brow. “Can you stay with her then?”

“No,” the doctor said quickly. “I’m a married man.”

“You’re a doctor,” Nic reminded him.

“Regardless,” Dr. Payton said, turning to the door of the small room, “I think you’re better equipped to handle this job.”

With that, he left.

Nic turned to me again. Two more buttons undone. I just had to touch that perfect skin underneath. See its perfect hue. My senses longed for the flawlessness of him.

He grabbed my hands again, but I yanked them away. Just two more buttons. One gone. Evade the hands. Two gone. I smiled broadly. Definitely worth it.

“Stop,” he said, but I pretended he wasn’t talking. He was boring, anyway.

The plains of his abdomen had a chord on either side that disappeared in a V into his pants. “What does that feel like?” I asked, reaching for them.

He maneuvered faster than I remembered he could, backing to the bed. I don’t know why he did that; I could easily catch him. So I did, grabbing his shirt in both hands and yanking him to me.

“Does it go all the way down?” I asked.

I had to touch that chord, see where it went, see what it became. When my hand dipped below the rim of his pants, every muscle in his chest, stomach, and neck contracted. I could feel my eyes dilate rapidly in response, drinking in that exquisite sight.

He grabbed my arm furiously with both of his hands. “Stop.”

I didn’t remember ever using dimensional strength on Nic before, but I had no qualms now. I pushed him back so harshly that he sprawled across the bed. His face showed shock, and I bit my lip in expectation. Having the upper hand on Dominic Archer was a heady feeling.

“Loosen up,” I said. “I won’t hurt you.”

“You’re not thinking straight.”

“I know.” And I did. I got that this wasn’t how I usually acted. But that didn’t really matter because this was how I felt right now.

When he tried to get up, I shoved him back down and fell on top of him. So funny. I had to laugh. He tried to push me away, but I didn’t let him move. I was stronger; I was faster. I stilled his uncooperative arms and pinned them out to his sides. Once he was immobilized, I lunged for him, licked his neck like I’d seemingly wanted to do forever.

I let my lips rest against that golden silk. “You do taste good.”

Nic began the struggle anew. He couldn’t go anywhere unless I let him, and the way he wrestled against me was exactly the drug my senses craved. I let him struggle, feeling the friction of his bare skin against me. Finally, I let him out from under me, and I don’t know if it was because I wanted him to leave or because I liked the idea of a cat and mouse game—let him escape so I could catch him again.

He strode to the door. “I can’t do this,” he said.

His lack of enthusiasm irritated me. I was feeling better than I’d ever felt in my entire life and needed to do something about it. Why didn’t he understand that?

“You’re such a buzz-kill,” I told him.

“Good.”

I rose from the bed and took a step toward him. He retreated in response. “I’m never like this,” I said. “Let me be free just this once.”

“I don’t know how you want to do that, but it doesn’t sound good.”

“Who cares?” I said. “This is the first time I’ve never cared about anything. Isn’t that great?”

“No, it’s not. In a little while you’ll be back to normal and hate yourself for the way you’ve acted.”

With one swift lunge, I had Nic’s shirt in my fists again. He pulled back, into the door, and I smiled at him in a way that felt so unusual.

“I … don’t … care,” I told him.

Before he could say anything else to spoil my mood, I attacked his neck again. Mmm. I bit it.

“Ow.” He covered the spot with his hand. “That hurt.”

“You’re such a baby.”

A fire flashed in his eyes right before he returned the favor, lunging for my neck and biting down … hard.

“Ow.”

That did not feel good.

I pushed his shoulder, but he grabbed my arm and bit my wrist.

“Ow. What was that for?”

“For this,” Nic said, pointing to his neck.

His neck looked fine. I hadn’t really hurt him, not like he did me. Deep impressions created arcs on both sides of my wrist. The skin wasn’t punctured, but purple indentations were already forming.

“Okay, I won’t do it again,” I said. “But I didn’t get you that hard.”

Nic studied me for a moment. I examined my wrist with a scowl and was caught completely blindsided by the sharp smack. My jaw dropped, and I looked at him. He’d slapped me.

Then he slapped me again.

“Quit it, Nic.”

“So, you remember who I am now?” he said, shoving me so hard I fell back on the bed.

It didn’t take him any time to follow up, and I soon found myself being straddled by him. He lifted his arm again, and I shielded my face instinctively.

“Stop.”

“I’ll stop when you stop,” he said.

“I’ve stopped already. I just started feeling better. Did you really need to go and ruin it?”

His expression immediately softened, and he let his arm fall to his side. His face was so distraught that it almost made me feel like I was the guilty party.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know what else to do.”

“Couldn’t you’ve just let me enjoy myself for a while? It wouldn’t have lasted.”

“No, I couldn’t.”

Lying on the bed, staring up at him in confusion, the exhaustion hit me—a raging torrent of weariness—and I let my eyes close to rest them … just for a moment.

 

Chapter 7

“How do you feel?”

My mouth wouldn’t form the word, but I replied in my head. Disoriented. I couldn’t remember the last several hours of my life. I had no idea where I was or how I’d gotten there.

Something stroked my arm, and I looked at it. Nic’s hand. I sat up suddenly and then moaned at the exertion. My head was on fire.

Nic followed suit, sitting up next to me. He’d been holding me … for quite some time, I was sure. I’d been sleeping in his arms, completely encased in him, even resting my head on the thick padding provided by his bicep.

I scooted to the edge of the bed to put some distance between us. When I chanced a glance back at him, he was smiling that knowing smile of his.

“Back to normal?” he asked.

“A little achy,” I said. “My head hurts; my throat hurts.”

“I’ll bet.”

He got off the bed, walked to the door, and turned around to examine me. He ran his fingers through his hair—hair more unkempt than I’d seen before.

“I’m sorry I hit you,” he said.

The memories came flooding back. The sprint down here. Screaming through the agony. Nic right there the whole time. And then. Oh yeah.

Heat rushed to my face, which made the burning in my head even worse. I felt a bit lightheaded and braced myself against the bed. I’d licked him. Actually licked him.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I deserved it.”

“I didn’t know what else to do. I’ve never seen you like that before.”

“Thank goodness. Hopefully, you never will again. Sorry.”

He shook his head before I finished the words. “There’s no need to apologize. I should’ve tried harder to figure something else out.”

“But it’s—”

“Really,” he said. “My fault, not yours.”

I didn’t argue further, and we waited in silence until the doctor returned to assess my condition.

*******

We took the lift up the long glass tube again. It looked completely different when my molecules weren’t ripping themselves to pieces. Fascinating layers of brown and black and red encased us in a psychedelic cloak of natural fabric.

“Nic,” I said. “How did you know about this place?”

He turned to study his reflection in the glass. “Safety net. They showed it to me when they thought I might be the one saving your ass. And look how it turned out.”

The lift stopped at the summit and opened; we stepped out into the sultry dusk air. Nic gave his thanks to the attendant, who retook his position as a guard in the barn.

“It’s similar to the training facilities in Europe,” Nic said. “Buried deep underground and surrounded by layers of fractals.”

“What do you think I experienced?”

“I really don’t know. They wouldn’t tell me anything other than to keep you away from it. I don’t think they know either.”

We were in the middle of nowhere. In the middle of trees and tall grass. Not really questioning Nic’s judgment, I followed him into a barely perceptible clearing through the brush.

As we walked back along the small, vegetation-covered path, I reached hesitantly for his hand. My vision was a bit foggy, and I was having more difficulty keeping my balance than usual. He looked down at my hand with such an intense expression that I tried to withdraw it. But he wouldn’t let me and laced his fingers through mine instead.

“Thank you for staying with me,” I said. “It must’ve been awful for you.”

“It was nothing compared to what you went through.”

“Thank you anyway.”

“I’m your friend,” he said. “It’s what I do.”

We were silent for a while, walking hand in hand down the path, which was difficult given the overgrowth.

“Actually, this needs to be said,” he said, stopping. “Because I know you’re going to freak out the more you think about what you did.”

He turned to face me.

“You’re important to me,” he said. “These months apart from you have been absolute hell. When I … when I think about what you are to me it’s …”

He ran his free hand through his hair.

“It’s just that a friend is its own entity. A friend can come and go,” he said. “I see you more as an extension of myself.” He held up our entwined hands for me to see. “When I touch you, I can’t tell where I end and you begin. It’s like we’re one person in my eyes, inseparable.”

I gaped at him.

“But you can’t ever try to lick me or bite me or take off my clothes again,” he said. “No matter how much you want to.”

“Oh, my God,” I said, yanking my hand back. Heat rushed to my face, most of it from anger. “That had nothing to do with—“

“I’m joking,” he said.

“It’s not funny.”

“It is a bit.”

He fought to get my hand back and only won because I was having trouble concentrating.

“We need to be able to laugh about this,” he said.

When I wouldn’t look at him, he flicked my shoulder.

“Ouch.”

You need to be able to laugh about this,” he said.

“I need to be able to do a lot of things,” I told him. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”

“I’ve been drunk lots of times before,” he said. “And I’ve been high more times than I care to admit. I get it. I’m not reading anything into it.”

“Really? When was this?”

He shook his head at my sudden attention shift, and I realized there was no way he was going to tell me right then. His lack of response only fanned the flames of my indignation.

“I’m not an extension of you,” I told him. “You don’t get to say what I am or how I think. I’m my own person. Stop thinking you know what’s best for me. You don’t know anything.”

“Did you listen to me at all?” he said. “For five months I couldn’t wait to fight with you like again. I remembered it as this thrilling … invigorating thing. But, you know what, it sucks. I forgot how completely stupid you can be. I was talking about what you are to me, not what I am to you. I need you, genius.”

About to return fire, I stopped myself. “Are you joking?”

He let go of my hand and stepped back. “Do I look like I’m joking?”

“No, but … that’s just the most unbelievable thing ever.”

“Why do you think I’m so incapable of friendship?” He was actually mad. “I am a real person, and I have real thoughts. I’m not just this.” He motioned up and down his body. “You, of all people, should know that. You’re the only one who—”

“I know, I know,” I said loudly. “I know how amazing you are. I don’t have trouble fathoming your friendship because of your inadequacies, but because of mine. You, of all people, should know that.”

His breathing evened out, his chest fell into a gentle rhythm of motion, and the ire drained from his silver gaze.

“I missed you,” he finally said.

“Same here.”

We stared at each other in some sort of inconclusive stupor before Nic jerked his head in the direction of the path. “If we don’t keep walking, we’ll have to use dimensional travel to make it to the car before dark.”

We resumed the trek.

“You woke up just in time to shield us from the bright of day but to allow us enough light to make it back without flashlights,” he told me, sounding every bit his old self, the composed one I knew so well, the one I felt comfortable with.

“A brilliant strategy on my part,” I said.

 

Chapter 8

As it turned out, I didn’t remember much of our travels after I’d felt the presence. Somehow, Nic had hidden the car in an old barn next to a farmhouse. The car was still there. Instead of taking it, though, Nic opted for a trade. It seemed as though he liked to do that—constantly switch cars to throw people off our trail.

“In that whole facility, there wasn’t one car we can take?” I asked. “That seems like poor planning somehow.”

“There are several we can take, just none we’re going to take?”

“Why not?”

Nic flipped up the cover for the keypad with his knuckle. “If someone wants to provide something for me, chances are I’m not going to want to use it.”

I didn’t respond because I couldn’t tell if he was being paranoid or just exceedingly insightful.

Although the barn was in disrepair, the farmhouse was fairly well kept. I crowded Nic as he entered the code to open the garage door, again with his knuckle. The black lights on IDS watches weren’t strong enough for large areas, but for something simple like a keypad, they worked just fine. The lights revealed oils left on four buttons. Four different buttons meant twenty-four combinations for the typical four-digit code. Worst-case scenario: a two-minute experiment. Nic hit it on the thirteenth try.

Keys were sitting in the cup holder of the SUV that sat unaware inside the garage. We left, and I wondered if anybody saw or heard us. If so, they didn’t follow.

“Where are we going now?” I asked.

“New York City.”

“Really? I’ve never been, but I’ve always wanted to.”

“Never? You’ve lived in Boston all summer and still haven’t visited New York?”

I shook my head. It was odd that, as much as my family traveled, I’d never been there. Of course, my father wasn’t a fan of large cities and avoided them whenever possible. Because New York City pretty well topped that chart, I guess it wasn’t much of a surprise that we’d skipped it. Still, I thought my mom, with her love of all things artsy, would’ve pushed more for it. And Boston just wasn’t that far away. We were far away now, of course. I’d driven over two hundred miles and then Nic had added an additional … who knows how much.

“Do you want me to drive?” I asked. “You probably didn’t get much sleep.”

“I’m fine.”

I pursed my lips. “Is it a control thing? You never let me drive.”

He glanced at me with a hint of irritation. “It’s a license thing,” he said. “Some of us have semi-legal documentation with us.”

“I just outran three police cars, and you’re still worried about legal?”

“It’s always nice to be legal when possible.”

“Says the guy driving the stolen car.”

Darkness fell, and we drove for a while afterwards. The gas gauge slowly dropped, and I wondered if Nic was ever going to stop. I glanced up at his face to see if I could read his thoughts. I couldn’t, of course, but was struck by the look of him, nonetheless. After five months without him, the sight of Nic was enough to take your breath away. Of course, after only two minutes without him, the sight of Nic was enough to take your breath away.

I watched him—the impossible gloriousness of him. His face reflected the lights outside, and I wondered if those lights knew how lucky they were to touch such a face.

He repositioned himself, raising his right arm to rest it on the wheel and give his other arm a break. The amount of definition that small movement provided in that ridiculously sculpted arm just wasn’t right. Phenomenal.

“Quite the view, huh?” he said suddenly.

I turned away in a knee-jerk reaction and felt my face warm.

“Each time you open your mouth I remember more things about you I didn’t miss at all,” I said.

“Are you saying you didn’t miss my mind-blowing good looks?”

“Oh, geez.” I scoffed. “It’s your complete awareness of the mind-blowing good looks that I didn’t miss.”

“It’s kind of hard not to be aware when you can’t stop staring.”

“I wasn’t staring.”

“Just don’t bite me.”

“That’s still not funny.”

He chuckled. “Try to convince me that you didn’t miss the harassment a little,” he said.

“A very little.”

Nic glanced at me. “Yeah, me too.”

*******

Not long after, Nic pulled over to the side of the road, and my heart began pounding.

“Why are you stopping?” I asked, and my voice sounded a lot more worried than inquisitive.

“You want to drive, and I’m getting tired,” he said. “Here’s your chance. I relinquish control.”

He got out of the car and walked around to my side. After he opened my door, I got out and walked to the driver’s side. His seat belt was already fastened by the time I got in. I looked at the dashboard.

“Just in time to get gas,” I drawled.

He shrugged. “You wanted to drive.”

Without another word, Nic let his head lean away from me to rest on the window. He was asleep within minutes.

 

Chapter 9

When we got to New York City, Nic drove again. We found the address with little difficulty because the streets of New York are laid out in a grid. The building was enormous. Maybe not by New York standards, but definitely by mine. Over thirty stories, it loomed over us like a giant ice sculpture.

The entrance to a parking garage was at the base of the skyscraper. A few yards in, after our eyes had adjusted to the fluorescent lights, a security guard came out of his booth and asked for our identification.

Nic handed his over wordlessly. The guard studied Nic’s picture for a while and then scrutinized the boy himself. I couldn’t tell if the guard was being overly thorough or just wondered if someone who looked that good could really exist.

The guard finally gave Nic back his identification. “To the left,” he said and stepped back into his booth to raise the huge metal prongs that blocked us from entering.

The entrance branched off into two tunnels, one going down at a steeper slope than the other. We followed the corkscrew parking lot as it descended farther and farther into the earth. After several loops, another barrier met us, this one a solid wall, and we stopped and waited. Moments later, four heavily armed guards approached us, motioning for us to get out of the car.

Nic slid out easily, so I followed suit. We went through the same identification process as we had in Europe: retina, fingerprint, blood test.

“Welcome, Agent Archer, Agent Mae,” one of them said. “Please, park in space 26 and follow the lights to the entrance.”

The guards stood by as we reentered the SUV.

“Agent Archer?” I asked Nic.

“What?” he said. “You think you’re the only one?”

The wall parted, half into the ceiling, half into the floor, and we drove past. Along the two-car driveway was a row of parking spaces. The parking lot spun in a large arc down and down, like a giant screw plunging into the earth. Because the parking spaces were numbered in ascending order, 26 was easy to find. The spaces next to it were empty.

We got out and followed the lit path to the next entrance. Once inside, we went through another, more stringent, stage of identification verification. Even our voice inflections and gross motor functions were analyzed for authenticity.

Director Leary appeared the moment we finished our last test.

“Welcome to the Core,” he said.

“The what?”

“The Core,” he said. “Aptly named. The building you saw as you approached is just a façade. Real businesses, of course, but the important work goes on beneath. The Core is exactly that: the core of this building, rising ten stories and delving into the earth another five. Entirely encased in fractals.”

Director Leary handed me another watch.

“And it’s yours,” he said.

“No, it’s not,” I said. “My watch was silver with—”

“I meant the Core,” he said. “It’s yours. Your headquarters.”

I blinked several times. He did not.

“I’m fifteen,” I reminded him.

“And a shifter extraordinaire,” he said.

“And fifteen.”

Director Leary turned his attention from me to Nic.

“Were you followed?” he asked.

“No,” Nic replied. “I saw nothing, and Faedra would’ve sensed dimensional activity.”

“Good,” the director said, and he donned something that resembled a smile.

Director Leary turned and began walking away with the implication that we should follow.

“The Core currently has five hundred and forty-two employees, all hired, screened, and trained by the DIO,” he said, and I walked faster so I could hear him. “Many floors, many departments. You, being a field agent, need a wealth of support. The lower levels are reserved for storage, training, and research and development. Then your offices are housed in the operations floors. Above you are acquisitions, technical support, accounting, legal, public relations, that sort of thing.”

“Public relations?” I scoffed. “I thought you didn’t want people to know about the DIO.”

Director Leary spared me a glance. “That’s what public relations does here. Since nobody knows about us, I’d say they’re doing their job very well.”

We followed Director Leary to the operations floor. He led us down a meandering path of hallways, until it opened out into a large atrium. In this particular place, it took a while to realize that there were no exterior windows because the foliage and unnaturally generated natural light compensated for it. A meeting area of tables and couches were arranged in the middle, and multiple offices shot off from the large round room like spokes.

“Your office,” he said, motioning to a door on the far side.

It was an office, sure, with many of the elements and accessories of my old study room at IDS—large brainstorming screens, babbling waterfall—but it was also a little living area. Noting my interest, Leary pressed a button, and a double bed descended from the ceiling.

“Am I supposed to live here?” I asked.

“No,” Leary said. “This is for emergencies only, or when you’re just really tired, I suppose. We recommend all our staff find other living arrangements. Variety feeds the imagination. Employees who stay here too long grow stagnant in their thinking.”

“Interesting.”

Leary turned to Nic. “If you’ll follow me.”

I tailed Nic down another little labyrinth until we arrived at a second atrium, with a different color scheme but the same general layout.

“There are three offices on this floor,” Leary told us. “The third belongs to Hayden Miller.”

My eyes darted to Nic just in time to see a muscle tighten in his jaw.

“That one is your office,” Leary told Nic, pointing to our right.

Nic’s office was similar to mine. I found myself regretting that Nic was so far away from me. In fact, if I had my way, we’d share an office.

“These are all the same design,” Leary said, referring to the atriums. “A shifter and an immediate support staff. Tomorrow you’ll meet your assistant and begin learning the ropes from Dr. Miller.”

“There really is no getting away from him, is there?” I said.

Both Leary and Nic eyed me, Leary quizzically and Nic disapprovingly.

Saving me from the unwanted attention, a woman approached us. Leary turned and nodded to her.

“Assistant Director Liu,” he said.

We shook hands. Seeing as she already seemed to know who we were, I felt no need to introduce myself.

“I operate out of Washington,” Leary said. “The only permanent DIO presence there. Lydia oversees the Cave.”

“The Cave?”

“You’ll get to visit soon enough,” Leary said.

“It’s similar to the Core,” Liu told me. “Only underground and in the middle of nowhere. Strategic operations headquarters.”

I nodded like I understood.

“I need to return to Langley,” Leary told us. “Lydia will continue the tour for me.”

He didn’t wait for me to say goodbye, and, in retrospect, I guess it wasn’t the thing that agents did anyway.

 

“You’ll continue your schooling,” Assistant Director Liu said. “Every other weekend you’ll fly to IDS and stay there until your necessary training unit is complete.”

“What about the others?” I said. “Lucy, Emma—”

“Your roommates and Adrian and Adam Jay will be joining you here,” she told me. “In two weeks.”

After the tour was finished, we followed Lydia Liu through another series of security stations in order to exit the building and finally return to the parking garage. She sat in back of the “company car” with us while one of her bodyguards drove.

“I don’t suppose you know the woman in charge of my protective … something-or-other,” I said. “Her name was Rita.”

“Rita Moreno,” Liu said. “Yes, I helped train her. She was a excellent senser.”

“Oh, good. Well, I don’t know quite how to ask, but is there any way I could contact her? I was rude to her before, but I know she saved my life. I’d like to thank her.”

“I’m afraid there’s no way to contact her,” Liu said matter-of-factly.

“Maybe not directly, but could I send her a message or something?”

“No. Rita Moreno is dead.”

Stunned into silence, I simply looked at Lydia Liu’s profile. Finally, she turned to me, and sympathy exuded from her otherwise stolid face.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I knew Rita well. I understand how you feel.”

No, she didn’t.

“And the others,” I said. “Her—”

“Dead. It’s the price one pays for protecting a shifter,” she told me. “While Rita was with us, she had a good life. Sensers are compensated heavily for the risk they take.”

“I’m sure that’s quite a comfort to her now,” I said and then immediately regretted saying it. I could tell Lydia Liu had been her friend.

“Rita believed in the greater good,” Liu told me, seemingly unaffected by my crassness. “She was happy to be part of something bigger than herself. Saving you gave her life purpose. She would tell you so herself if she could.”

I doubted that. I’d never been anything but rude to the woman, and she’d never seemed to think much of me either.

“Here it is,” Liu said suddenly, looking out the window.

“What?”

“Your apartment.”

 

Chapter 10

I walked up the steps to apartment 1402 with numb legs. Another six people were dead because of me. Nic hadn’t said anything the entire ride over. Craving the reassurance that only Nic could provide, I tried to touch his arm. Without even sparing me a glance, he stepped away from me, throwing off a powerfully cold vibe. My chest clenched at the rejection.

Assistant Director Liu didn’t stay to show us around. I guess she assumed that two people with our noted intelligence would be able to figure it out.

She left, without saying goodbye either, leaving me with the chunk of ice that used to be my friend. Nic walked to the large picture window that overlooked the street, and I could tell he was watching her leave. I couldn’t even begin to figure out what I’d done wrong to make him so angry.

His face lifted as the car disappeared from view, and he turned to face me.

“Check the apartment,” he said.

“For what?”

“Bugs, cameras, anything that doesn’t belong.”

I slowly made my way through the place. Using vision to sweep such a broad area wasn’t as easy as Nic seemed to think. It took me forever. Although I didn’t find any cameras, I did find bugs wired into the walls in every room. After what had to be hours, I returned to Nic, who was waiting in the kitchen, with 14 bugs in my extended hands and a massive headache.

Without a word, Nic grabbed them from me and dropped them into the garbage disposal one at a time. Once they’d all been properly butchered, he turned to me.

“I hope they heard that,” he said. “Are you sure these were all?”

“No.”

Nic gave me a sad sort of smile, and then he walked to me and swallowed me in a hug.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

With a shove, I broke free from the embrace.

“Of course,” I said. “Now you are. Now that Lydia Liu is gone.”

He grabbed me in a hug again. This one wasn’t friendly. His mouth descended to my ear, and he whispered as firmly yet quietly as he could. “You don’t understand. We can’t just touch whenever we want anymore. It’s unprofessional.”

“I just found out six people are dead because of me, and you’re saying it’s unprofessional to touch your arm for a little bit of comfort.” It was a whisper, but he squeezed me in warning anyway.

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“Right,” I said. “I don’t like it when you’re cold toward me.”

“You don’t have to like it, but you’d better learn to deal with it somehow.”

My fists curled. I wanted out of this hug that wasn’t a hug. I hated the feel of him.

“If you can’t get over it long enough to take advantage of the time we do have, then you’re going to be miserable,” he said. “And drag everyone else down with you.”

Inside my ears, I heard the squeaking of my teeth as they grinded together.

Nic stepped back and looked at me—really looked at me.

“It is how it is,” he said. “How it needs to be. Take me or leave me.”

I turned around and walked off in the direction of the bedroom farthest from Nic. It took everything I had not to punch my fist through the wall. I paced for a while, flexing and releasing my hands, trying to work the adrenaline out of my system, and Nic let me be while I did it.

A full hour later, I left the room to find him. I scoured the apartment, but he wasn’t anywhere to be found. I hadn’t heard him leave.

By the time he returned I’d had my full night’s rest and showered, and I wasn’t quite so angry. I searched for some clue as to where he’d been but couldn’t find one. It seemed beneath me to ask.

“You found your room, I take it,” he said, not bothering to acknowledge my presence except for the question.

“Yeah. Emma and Lucy hate sharing a room with me. I’m awake all night.”

He nodded briefly.

“The Jay brothers will probably want to share one, too,” I said.

“Probably.”

We were silent for a while as Nic went to the kitchen to pour himself some water. Because the kitchen was open to the living area, I could still see him.

I wanted to leave him but knew that our separation would hurt me a million times worse than it would him. I bit my lower lip as the things I wanted to say raced through my head.

“Okay,” I finally said. “So when you can act like my friend, you’d better be the best darn friend that ever was.”

A smile slowly spread across that fantastic mouth of his. “Fair enough.”

“You need to sleep. But when you wake up, you need to take me somewhere wonderful for my first meal in New York City. And you need to talk me out of all my guilt. I expect some major comforting here.”

“Okay.”

Then he walked to the only other bedroom with a single bed in it and disappeared.

Nine hours later, Nic woke up and made good on his promise.

 

Chapter 11

The first call home was painful. How do you explain to your parents that you ran off with their car, subsequently totaled it, and decided you weren’t coming back before “school” started? They’d been through my first abduction, but this was worse because it came from me. But I didn’t want to leave my parents that early. We were supposed to have another two weeks together.

“I’ve just about had it with this school,” my mom said. “Why do they keep taking you away like that?”

“They didn’t take me,” I said. “I left.”

“You’re only fifteen,” she said. “You don’t even know how to drive. You could’ve died.”

“I do know—”

“You scared the living daylights out of me. Do you know what it’s like when your daughter doesn’t come back for the rest of her lunch? To walk outside and realize both your daughter and your car are gone. Do you know the horrible thoughts that ran through my mind? And then to find your car completely smashed up 100 miles out of town with no sign of you.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I told you that I don’t feel like I know you anymore,” she said. “Now I realize I never knew you to begin with.”

Tears clung together in my throat, blocking both speech and breath.

“I hate what this school has done to you,” she said. “I don’t care what you or your father think. It hasn’t been good.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry is what you say when you accidentally step on someone’s foot,” she said. “There is no word for what you did to me. There is no sorry.”

We were silent for a while.

“Well, I hope you’re having a wonderful time,” she finally said. “Why don’t you call me in another month or so to let me know you’re still alive.”

She hung up.

I was glad when I heard noise at the door and looked up.

My assistant, Raven James, or Jamie as he liked to be called, walked into my office. As soon as I’d met him, I knew Jamie was going to be fantastic. He was meticulous, driven, enthusiastic, and smart. Even the way he spoke betrayed his internal organization and attention to detail. The above-his-pay-scale suit catered to his urbane appeal.

He didn’t seem to mind that I was only fifteen. Of course, maybe he didn’t know. I was young, that much was obvious, but given my height and years of experience and education at IDS, I probably didn’t seem like it.

Jamie had gone through a stringent training process to be a viable DIO candidate and, by his own admission, loved being surrounded by adventure but loathed the thought of ever being in real danger.

Nic walked in a few moments later, and I introduced him to Jamie. Nic shook Jamie’s hand with the air of innate superiority he gave off to everyone. Jamie was awed and more than a little flustered by Nic’s appearance, but not in the way of most men who simply admired or felt threatened. Jamie was decidedly attracted. There was no doubt that he thought Nic was much older than he was. Even I had to remind myself how young Nic was; he just didn’t seem like it.

“You can’t file things away uncategorized,” Nic told me, ignoring Jamie completely after the introduction.

“But sometimes there aren’t categories that fit or there are too many,” I said.

“Then you create a new category or you file in several different categories. If you leave it uncategorized, you might as well label it as irrelevant.”

“Okay, fine,” I said. “Is that all you wanted?”

Nic glanced at Jamie and his jaw tensed. “For now,” he said. Then he left with a brief nod to Jamie and no acknowledgment to me whatsoever.

Jamie watched Nic leave with blatant appreciation and then looked back at me.

“That is a specimen,” he said. I nodded. “Is he—”

“Straight, sorry.”

“Unfortunate.”

I scoffed. “Do you understand what Nic was saying about the cataloguing?”

“It doesn’t take a genius.”

“Good, then guess what you’ll be doing this afternoon.”

I grabbed a memory drive from my desk and tossed it to him. “You can start with that.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, receiving it not happily but … professionally, as though his real feelings about the assignment were irrelevant.

“And don’t call me ma’am,” I told him as he left.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, closing the door in my face.

 

Chapter 12

“Are you okay?”

It took a moment for Nic to notice me. He was staring at his phone, stewing over something, like the phone was a major obstacle he needed to overcome.

“Yes, thank you,” he said in that new, formal tone of his. I hated that tone.

I closed the door.

“What did you think of Jaime, my assistant?” I asked.

Nic straightened and sent me a condescending look. “From the two seconds I spoke with him, he seems very capable.”

“Did you know that he’s—”

“Yes, it wasn’t that hard to discern.”

“Did you see the way he looked at you?”

“Yes.”

“Didn’t that bother you?”

Nic shrugged. “Why should it? People always look at me.”

“I suppose,” I said and was suddenly unsure why I thought it would’ve bothered him in the first place.

“Is this why you’re here?” Nic asked. “To talk about your assistant?”

I scowled. “I came to discuss the cataloguing … or whatever it is you really want to talk about.”

“I don’t have time right now.”

“What’s wrong? You’re acting like I did something wrong. Is there something you need to tell me?”

“When there’s something I need to tell you, I’ll tell you,” he said.

“Fine,” I said stiffly and left in a much worse mood than I’d come in.

It wasn’t more than a few seconds after his office door closed behind me that it opened again.

“Faedra,” he called.

I stopped and looked at him, along with everyone else within hearing distance. He strode to me in a few long steps but kept walking, forcing me to follow him down the hall.

His eyes stared straight ahead of him as he spoke. “I am concerned about something,” he said in a low voice. “It’s not something I care to discuss right now, but I’m sorry I came across like such a jerk.”

“Thanks,” I said.

He nodded, still not looking at me, and walked back to his office.

 

Chapter 13

It wasn’t long after I returned to my own office that Jamie burst through the door.

“I’m sorry I didn’t knock,” he said. “But Washington is on the phone. And Leary’s quite perturbed that I was the one who answered rather than you.”

“He’ll get over it,” I said, taking the phone from him—my office’s secure line. I wasn’t allowed to make calls on my personal device. In fact, I had to turn in all personal devices every time I entered the Core.

Jamie hovered over me, waiting for information. It was his first call from DIO headquarters, and he had trouble containing his enthusiasm

“Faedra Mae.”

“Robert Leary,” the voice on the other end clipped. “How fast can you get here?”

“A couple of hours,” I said.

The line went instantly dead without even the briefest of farewells from Leary. I examined the phone for a moment before returning my attention to my eager assistant.

“I’m heading to Langley,” I said. “I may not be back in time for my two o’clock. Also, don’t forget to check with acquisitions on the status of the new image processing software.”

“Yes, sir,” he replied.

There was no doubt that Jamie took this job for its potential excitement. I almost felt sorry for him given the fact that he’d be trapped in an office that was dull 97% of the time and even then having no real role in the excitement. Like now. While I was off to a potentially (albeit unlikely) exciting encounter, he was stuck at the office doing mundane chores like filing and dry cleaning.

That reminded me.

“I have an order waiting for me at City Launderers, and I want some hydrangea for my apartment if you can find them.” I was going to milk this assistant thing for all it was worth.

“Yes, sir.”

“Purple or blue ones.”

“Yes, sir.”

I put on my shoes and grabbed my bag. “And don’t call me sir.”

“Yes, sir.”

Security always took at least ten minutes or so while I was searched in every way possible and retrieved my things. Once out of New York, I made the unsettling trip to Langley in my phased form through buildings, people, and other environmental obstacles. Washington DC and New York City aren’t exactly next-door neighbors.

Robert Leary was in the middle of a chin rub when I saw him. His hand was on his hip, causing his suit jacket to flip out like a wing. He’d obviously been pacing before I made the dimensional leap. His bladder was quite full, and he’d consumed some sort of chips for lunch.

“The main artery in your leg has some build-up,” I told him, startling him with my sudden appearance.

“What?”

“You may want to have someone look at it for you,” I said.

Leary looked at me as though I were an alien speaking a bizarre language. “You can’t just shift into the Pentagon.”

I looked behind me. “I think I just did.”

“Security will spend the rest of the day looking for you.”

I shrugged. “At least they’ll have something to do.”

As if on cue, four men in sleek shifting gear surrounded me, directly shifting into a perimeter around me. They couldn’t have been that good because it took them several seconds to find me.

Losing his patience, Leary propped his hands on his hips. “She’s fine. I called her here.”

“Next time she should go through the proper channels,” one of the guards said.

“Next time she will,” Leary told them, glaring at me.

“Identification,” the guard said, holding out his hand.

I sighed as I fished around in my bag. “Darn it, I left it in New York.”

The guards, as if trained for the exact moment when a fifteen-year-old girl “claimed” she left her identification in New York, lifted their weapons as one.

“Oh, for goodness sake, I’m here with him.” I waved my hand toward Leary.

“She’s here with me,” Leary repeated.

“Come with us,” the guard said.

I took a deep breath.

“What the hell?” the guard blurted.

Four confused guards desperately glanced around, looking for the rifles now missing from their hands.

I pointed to the ceiling, and their gazes followed. Hanging from the wall like pencils in a middle school math classroom were four oversized, shiny, black automatic rifles.

“What is this?” the guard asked me and then turned the same questioning expression to Leary.

Leary shrugged, sliding his hands into his pockets. “Her identification?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll give them back when I’m done,” I told the guards.

“That won’t be necessary,” the guard said, and all four guards ascended to the ceiling, basing, in order to retrieve their weapons. They left without another word but with four very disgruntled expressions.

“It really doesn’t take long to make everyone hate you, does it?” Leary asked. “And the repairs to my ceiling are coming directly out of your next pay check.”

I pursed my lips. “So, what’s the crisis? Why did you call me here anyway?”

“I need to show you something,” he said, walking to his desk.

I followed him and stood in front, but he motioned for me to come around the back of the desk with him. I did. He turned the screen to face me and pushed play.

The screen focused quickly on a group of people tied to chairs with multiple metal rods sticking out of their legs. I recognized Rita instantly, and bile surged up my throat. Their faces showed a mixture of both panic and extreme pain. Behind them, in the shadows, stood a man so still that next to the jerking bodies of the frightened sensers he almost looked dead. Until he spoke.

“You know, Faedra, you figured out this trick sooner than I did: pain as an inhibitor for dimensional activity. Then again, I didn’t start out as a fighter like you did.”

A memory erupted from my brain. Paris. At night. The Seine. A talk with a strange man. A compelling man. An unforgettable man. I could never expel the raw silk of his voice from my memory.

I grabbed Leary’s desk to steady myself.

“I can’t believe you would use such people as guards, Robert,” the man from the river said. “It’s like sending pigs to the slaughter.”

The man removed himself from the shadows and walked closer to the camera. There he was: ancient eyes, intriguing face, that smile I’d found so endearing. I wanted to scream.

“By all means, send me more,” he continued. “That way I can rid the world of them all, and my troubles will be over.”

He pulled up a chair and sat down in front of the camera.

“The fact is, Faedra,” he said, “they can’t keep you from me forever. Sooner or later, we’re going to meet again.”

Leary’s eyes darted to mine. I grabbed the back of his chair so hard that a chunk of it snapped off.

No. No. This was my serendipitous encounter in life. This man was supposed to be idyllic, not deranged.

“I thought to hurry our impending relationship by sending this phone,” he said. “Just pick it up and give me a call sometime. I’m sure we have much to discuss.”

Looking behind him at the six sensers, he rose and pushed back the chair.

“Until then,” he said, “Here’s a reminder of what happens to people who underestimate me … us actually. You know you possess this same power, Faedra.”

Instantly, the duct tape vanished from all their mouths. They cried out and then started gasping—heaving for air. Blood spewed from their mouths as their wide eyes realized the fact that death was inevitable. Only a matter of seconds.

The man reappeared before us.

“What a thing to drown in your own blood,” he said. “What a power to be able to do this to people while they remain unaware that anything is happening. Now they know, of course, but it’s too late.”

He looked back at Rita and the others as they sputtered and spat the blood, trying to discharge it from their lungs. Slowly, painfully slowly, one by one the six sensers stopped moving altogether. Rita was the last to fall motionless.

Looking at the screen, the man’s face was calm and content.

“Remember the phone,” he said before the screen went completely blank.

I vomited violently into Leary’s garbage can. Only after all my stomach’s contents had been ejected did I grab a tissue and wipe my mouth.

“Where’s the phone?” I asked.

Leary inclined his head to the top of his desk. I lunged for it, but he stopped me, leaving purple bruises on my wrist. I wanted to smash that disgusting little device to smithereens.

“Not yet,” Leary said. “Let us examine it first.”

“What a sick … evil … sick … lunatic,” I said, sweating and shaking from head to toe. “We need to find out who he is.”

“We know who he is,” Leary said shortly. “That’s Peter Justice.”

 

Chapter 14

“Peter Justice?” I said. “The Peter Justice? The founder of IDS?”

“Yes.”

Leary called in his aide to have the trashcan removed and cleaned. I waited for the woman to leave before continuing.

“I don’t understand. What happened to him? I thought IDS was founded decades ago.”

“It was,” Leary said, motioning to the chair behind me. I sank into it, realizing that my knees were too shaky to stand on anyway.

Leary settled into his own chair. “Peter Justice founded IDS in 1942, as you’ve learned. He was an amazing shifter—unique. There hasn’t been another like him. Not until now.”  

Leary studied me.  

“We had hoped it wouldn’t be necessary to tell you these things, but I guess it’s too late now,” he said.

“Peter Justice had several friends in those times. It was World War II, and we had great hopes that his ability could change the tide of the war. He wasn’t as advanced then as he is now in his dimensional ability, but he was still a force to be reckoned with and really the only one of his kind. Until then, dimensional movement hadn’t been explored. It had been theorized by the mathematicians of the centuries, of course, but true movement didn’t become plausible until quantum mechanics made it so. Suddenly, four-dimensional travel and existence was a fact. Time, distance, and mass were no longer set constants, and the nature of the universe altered drastically in the minds of men.”

“1942?” I said. “He still looks so young.”

“And so he is. Time travel can do funny things to a person.”

“That was the time of Einstein and Turing and …,” I said. “Did he know—”
“Yes. He was a brilliant mathematical mind, much like yourself, and he conferred with the giants of the day in math and physics.

“Years after he’d founded IDS, his friends, if you can call them that, told us that he had several visions. He’d found some way of actually looking into the future. Since most of the things he saw have already come to pass, it seems only natural to take these visions quite seriously. What he saw was … well, he saw you. We weren’t 100 percent sure that you were the one, mind you, because he only predicted a shifter with abilities to match his own—a girl—one that would bring about his own destruction. But that video rather clinches it, I think. It’s hard to deny the fact that you’re the one when Peter himself thinks you are. He’s already seen you.”

Leary got up as though he wished he didn’t have to, walked to me, and gave my shoulder a brief pat.  

“We’ve all tried to protect you, Faedra,” he said. “Perhaps it was to your detriment not to let you bear the brunt of who you are and what your life means. We’ve cushioned you and … spoiled you like a precious child when we should have been toughening you up so that you’d be prepared for the atrocities that are coming your way.”

In all my time spent under the “care” of the government, not once had I felt coddled. In fact, it had been quite the opposite. Any luxury I’d acquired had been my own doing.

I held out my hand. “May I have the phone now?”

“No, we’re going to decipher the origin of the data first.”

“It doesn’t matter where it came from,” I said. “He could’ve used equipment from anywhere in the world; it doesn’t mean a thing.”

“Nevertheless, we’d like to take a look at it.”

“If any part of that phone or the information on it actually leads to him,” I said, “then it has nothing to do with your superior intelligence and everything to do with the fact that you’ve been set up.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Leary said with a curt nod, and I could tell he wasn’t heeding a word of my warning.

“This isn’t a good idea,” I told Leary. “He sent me the phone for a reason.”

“And what are you going to do with it? Call him?”

I pursed my lips, and the director of the DIO and I had a remarkable nonverbal exchange.

Finally, I left. I wasn’t going to win with reason, so I’d just have to find another avenue.

 

Chapter 15

“Wow, the apartment is by no means lacking in flowers,” Nic said after walking in.

Rather than returning to the Core, I went straight back to the apartment. It was close to the end of the day, and I didn’t want to go through all the security rigmarole. More importantly, however, I didn’t want to face what it was I did for a living. I killed people: friends, enemies. Purposefully, inadvertently. Apparently, that’s what I did.

“Do you know?” I asked him.

Nic was silent for a moment as he tossed his wallet onto the table by the front door. He didn’t monitor our conversations anymore. After day upon day spent searching the place for more bugs and cameras and finding none, he finally felt comfortable.

“Yes,” he said.

“That’s what you were so upset about earlier today.”

“Sorry you had to see it.”

“Did you see it?”

Nic walked to the kitchen. “Yes.”

I looked around at all the hydrangea artistically arranged about the place. How could I have thought that hydrangea were even the slightest bit important in life? And my new clothes were hanging on the front of my closet. Sometimes my priorities were seriously out of whack. I grabbed a throw pillow.

After Nic made tea, he joined me on the sofa with two steaming cups. I took one.

“Want to talk about it?” he asked.

“No.”

We sat in silence with our tea. Nic watched my every movement, which both consoled and unnerved me.

Once my tea was gone, I didn’t have an excuse to keep cradling the cup in my hands, other than it soothed me somehow. I set it on the table, and Nic did the same. Then he touched my shoulder. When I looked up at him, I could tell that he hadn’t really meant to do it. He seemed uncomfortable: torn between the options of removing his hand or trying to salvage his winsome indifference.

He left his hand there. As disconcerting as it was, I was grateful for his comfort. I let my head fall to the back of the sofa, and he stroked the side of my face gingerly with his thumb.

“I’m sorry you have to go through all this,” he said.

I looked at him again and, after a long time of staring, let my forehead fall onto his chest.

“I just wish I could sleep,” I said. “That I could forget everything. Just once. I don’t want to live through another long, lonely night.”

With my head still pressed firmly against Nic’s chest, I studied his flat stomach through the thin shirt and the muscles of his thighs easily defined beneath his jeans. And all I knew at that moment was that I wanted to feel better

I raised my face to his; he was looking down at me. I moved minutely toward him—hardly perceptible—compelled by some external force. It was enough to scare him off, however. He vacated the couch in record time with the excuse that we needed more tea.

I kicked off my shoes and stood to remove my suit jacket. A lace camisole was underneath. I frowned, trying to figure out what I’d been attempting to do with Nic on the couch. Now I was distraught and embarrassed.

I didn’t wait to start changing until I was in my room. Admittedly, it was a bad habit—undressing out in the open. Sometimes I caught myself in time; sometimes I didn’t.

When I returned, I was wearing a cotton dress. Nic didn’t look at me, and I flopped down on the couch with an angry sigh. Why? Why did I always make a horrible situation that much worse?

The throw cushion next to me would probably be my only source of comfort that evening, so I hugged it to myself and fell back on the couch. I lifted my legs to let them dangle over the back as I studied the ceiling. Water damage. Correction: repaired water damage. Only I could see it, and I willed the dimensional vision from my eyes.

“Are you trying to start something?” Nic asked suddenly.

With a little sit-up I looked past my legs at him. “What?”

“You’re acting weird.”

“Peter Justice, the founder of IDS, who is somehow still alive, just killed six people to get my attention,” I said. “But I’m acting weird.”

“You’re just—I don’t know—stripping all over the place. You do realize you’re wearing a dress, don’t you?”

“I always do that,” I told him.

“I know,” Nic said, running his fingers through his hair. “It’s always annoying, but it just feels weird today.”

The cushion was doing nothing to comfort me, so I decided it could entertain me instead. I threw it up in the air multiple times in a game of catch with myself.

Until Nic snatched it away. After placing the tea on the coffee table, he ended my little game.

“Stop ignoring me,” he said.

“I’m not.”

“Don’t pretend there isn’t something to talk about.”

“Geez, Nic,” I said. “Stop being so needy.”

I reached for the cushion, but he yanked it away before I could grab it.

“Then stop being so distant,” he said. “Why won’t you talk to me?”

“I talk to you all the time.”

“Not about this,” he said. “Not about us.”

I couldn’t believe he was doing this to me. Was he really so self-absorbed that he couldn’t let it rest for one night so that I could grieve properly?

“There is no us,” I told him.

The cushion irrationally seemed to grow in importance, and I lunged for it again. He pulled it away and stepped back.

“We’ve been friends for a long time,” he said. “Without a doubt, there’s an us.”

“Until we have to work together, you mean.”

I lifted my eyes to him in challenge, and he returned the glare with equal loathing.

“We’re still an us,” he said. “There’s a time and a place for certain behavior. Work just changes the dynamics.”

“Yes, thank you for reminding me,” I said. “Thank you for being the one who always knows best, who always tells me exactly how it’s going to be.”

“Maybe if you bothered to think every once in awhile, I wouldn’t need to tell you.”

I swung my legs off the back of the couch and surged to my feet.

“Why are we friends then?” I said. “If you’re so much better than me, so much smarter, why do you hang around? How can you stand it?”

Leaning his head back, he moaned in frustration. “Enough with the hyperbole. It’s like I’m talking to a three-year-old.”

“Three-year-old?” I said. “And you think I talk in hyperbole.”

“That’s a simile, not hyperbole.”

I reached for the cushion. He pulled it away, but just barely, and I managed to whack my shin on the coffee table in the process.

“What is so important about this stupid cushion?” he asked.

“I want it, and you won’t let me have it,” I said. “Just give it to me.”

I could see the violent thoughts racing behind his eyes. He bit his lower lip, enough to distract me by averting my gaze to his phenomenal mouth.

Darkness encased my face, and I toppled over the couch. Nic fell on top of me, stuffing that ridiculous pillow in my face. Instead of reaching for the source of my suffocation as my instincts demanded, I grabbed his shirt with both hands and thrust outward. I could hear the tearing of cloth and popping of buttons. Nic let go instantly. His reflex to protect his precious wardrobe far outweighed any concern he had for my ability to breathe.

In that moment of weakness, I grabbed the cushion from him, wrapped both legs around his torso, and pelted his head with furious whacks from it. He rammed me farther into the couch. Breath rushed out of my lungs, weakening my wrists. Nic yanked the cushion from my hands and threw it across the room. It ricocheted off the wall and took down a vase full of blue hydrangea, which shattered on the floor. Flowers spread everywhere.

We looked at each other, breathless, blood pumping.

“Are you trying to make me mad?” I asked. “To take my mind off my problems?”

The question caught him off guard, and he smiled. “Is it working?”

I glowered. “A little.”

He looked down at himself.

“You ruined my shirt,” he told me.

Stupidly, I followed his gaze to his bare chest. Try as I might, I couldn’t focus on the shirt. Almost guiltily, I looked back up at him. He was so close.

“There it is again,” he said, his voice suddenly deep and gravelly.

“What?”

“That thing,” he said. “Really, are you trying to start something?”

“No.” I pushed back from him as much as the tiny space would allow.

“Stop,” he said. “Don’t run. Don’t fight. Just talk. Talk to me.”

“I don’t want to talk to you.”

“I know,” he said. “That’s why I make you. If you did it on your own, I wouldn’t have to drag it from you.”

We were silent for a poignant moment.

“Tell me what’s going on in your head,” he said.

“Nothing.”

He arched a brow. “Do I look stupid?”

I threw him one of my polished glares, but he didn’t flinch. He wasn’t letting up. And something deep inside was churning in response, pushing to be free.

“It was a momentary impulse,” I said, and my voice sounded void of emotion, even to me. “I wanted to stop feeling miserable. I wanted to stop seeing the images flash in my mind every time I blink. I just wanted to stop thinking.”

Nic was silent as he waited, his gray eyes scaring me with their intensity. Scaring me as much as they exhilarated me.

I swallowed. “And only one thing has ever made me stop thinking before.”

He continued to scrutinize me, his expression unreadable.

“It wouldn’t fix anything,” he finally said. The words were soft.

“I know. I understand that. All I said was that I wanted to feel better.”

“You wouldn’t feel better,” he told me. “In fact, there’s no doubt you’d feel a whole lot worse after—”

“I know, Nic. It was a fleeting impulse. My brain was hurting; I wanted to stop the hurt. That’s it.”

He studied me for a while longer, and I couldn’t tell what he was looking for.

“Do you want me to stop the hurt?” he asked, and I half thought he was serious. “I can, you know.”

I scoffed. “No. Do I look stupid?”

“A bit,” he said, and I was amazed by how fast he could lose that sincere, intense edge of his.

***********

The next morning, after a night of mindless games and puzzles and whatever else Nic could concoct to keep my mind off my issues, I sat on the side of his bed and watched him sleep, watched his face. His beautiful, peaceful face. The face that lost all cynicism in the free land of dreams.

Because he was so at peace when he slept, it was peace to watch him, and I couldn’t help but smile.

He stirred, but I didn’t move. When he rolled over, his hand fell onto my lap. The contact was enough to wake him.

He looked at me and then closed his eyes again, running his hand through his hair—which still looked perfect, I might add.

“What time is it?” he asked.

“Nine.”

He arched his back in a stretch. “You know I hate it when you watch me.”

“I know.”

“It’s creepy.”

“It is.”

After making sure he was clothed, Nic got up and walked to the restroom. “Are you going to work out with me this morning?”

“I guess.”

I headed to my own restroom and studied the poor girl in the mirror as I did every morning. The stress wasn’t doing me any good. I looked awful, older somehow. It was like I’d aged fifty years in the course of one night. My cheeks were sallow, and I swore I saw wrinkles. As I continued to study myself, the image regained some of its normalcy. My appearance began to live up to my expectations. My face still looked awful but not quite as old. I changed clothes and tied my hair back in a ponytail.

Nic was on the couch tying his shoes when I made it back out to the living room.

“Do I look horrible this morning?” I asked him.

He spared me a brief glance. “No more than usual.”

 

Chapter 16

“It’s the Super Bowl,” Hayden said. “Still months away. You’ll have time to prepare.”

“A lifetime wouldn’t be enough,” I told him.

Standing beside Hayden, Nic put his hands in his pockets and stretched his neck from side to side. He knew the routine. He knew I’d lose in the end, but he also knew I’d go through the motions of resistance anyway. The waste of time and energy frustrated him, which was probably one of the main reasons I did it.

“You’re better at this than you realize,” Hayden said.

“You’ve told me that already, and it doesn’t change the truth of the matter.”

“I thought this would be right up your alley,” he said. “You care about this kind of thing. It’s your personal passion.”

“That’s exactly the problem. I care about it. People could get hurt. Innocent people this time.”

“They’re already hurting. We’ve never been able to dig in deep enough to pull this weed out by its roots.”

I leaned back in my chair, giving up on the analysis I’d been running. I couldn’t multitask to save my life, and Hayden wasn’t going anywhere for a while. “Since when does the DIO care about these people anyway?”

Hayden furrowed his brow in question.

“They’re nothing,” I said. “They’re trafficking victims. They don’t have money; they don’t have power. In fact, they’re probably good for the economy.”

Hayden scoffed, and Nic continued to stare at me with placid eyes.

“You have changed,” Hayden said.

I sighed. “I’m not talking about my perspective. What interest could the government have in a bunch of powerless people?”

“Because 15,000 people are being trafficked into this country every year,” he said. “Right under our noses.”

I shrugged.

“The majority of them are children.”

“I’m a child,” I reminded him.

“But they’re helpless children.”

I averted my gaze, studying the bookshelf to my right instead.

“This is a billion dollar industry,” he said. I waited. “And many of these criminals rarely stick to just one specialty.”

I looked back at him. “Now we’re getting closer to the truth.”

“It doesn’t matter what the real motivation is,” he said. “You could potentially help thousands. How can you turn your back on them?”

“Because I could potentially damage thousands,” I said. “You’re always telling me what a screw up I am. I mess up all the time. All the time. I say the wrong things. I do the wrong things. I suck at life, and you know it.”

Hayden opened his mouth to respond but didn’t get the chance.

“Floor eleven is freaking out,” Jamie said as he rushed in. He stopped when he saw Hayden and Nic and cleared his throat. “Sorry if this is bad timing.”

I reached for the plasma paper in his hand. “It’s not.”

Hayden grunted.

Jamie gave me the plasma paper and then circled around the desk to watch.

“There’s a time crunch,” he said. “I don’t know the details, but they can’t crack the code, and they’ve only got another eight hours.”

“Until what?” I asked.

Jamie shrugged. “I told you I don’t know the details.”

With a sigh, I scanned the numbers on the screen. Thousands of decimals streamed past. “Do they even know if this is a code yet?” I asked him. “It could just be a bunch of numbers.”

“What?”

“If these are random numbers between zero and one, then their average should be 0.5,” I said, typing in the function. “Hmm, not 0.5. Not even close. Okay, let’s look at the average between the minimum and maximum.”

The three of them stood still and quiet as I entered the few lines of code necessary to decipher the average. “Nope,” I said. “Maybe this is a code.”

I stared at the screen, furrowing my brow. If this was a code, it was more than a simple cipher, or it wouldn’t have ended up on my desk.

“How long have they been working on this?” I asked Jamie.

“About three days.”

I laced my fingers together and leaned forward to rest my chin on them. That ruled out a lot of simple options: recurring digits, simple ciphers, skip codes, recognizable patterns based on arithmetic operations.

“You know what’s interesting,” I said to no one in particular. “See that digit—the number one that seems to appear within the first four digits of every number. It’s the only digit to consistently appear in the first four decimal places. It could be binary, maybe the numeric representation of the ASCII alphabet.”

I could do this one in my head. “No, too few options, unless the ‘1’ is actually ‘0’ and all the other digits represent ‘1.’ No, that’s not it either. It could be more complicated, but … you know what’s interesting, if the ‘1’ were a ‘such that’ symbol, like in set theory, this would follow the pattern for the set builder notation of the dihedral group and … oh.”

I began to type a string of code.

“Yeah, see here,” I said. “This group is equivalent to the subgroup of this one, and if we can organize them into classes by normalizing their …”

I couldn’t speak coherently and type at the same time. After setting the parameters for what constituted equivalent classes, I waited for the results to be processed. I glanced up briefly. Both Hayden and Nic stared at me with ineffable expressions. I furrowed my brow and looked back at the screen.

“Okay, there it is,” I said. “Thirty-three different classes. If we assume this is now a simple cipher, which I’m pretty sure it is, we look at an alphabet with 33 letters. Russian would be my first bet. So if we separate these classes by group order we get …” Russian that formed words and plenty of them, given my limited knowledge of the language. “Yep, that’s it. Here you go.”

I handed the plasma paper back to Jamie. He took it as if I’d just handed him a pair of dentures, staring at it for a long while before silently leaving the room.

Having forgotten they were still there, I looked up at Nic and Hayden expectantly.

Nic scoffed and shook his head.

I scowled. “What?”

Hayden glanced at his watch. “That just took you seven minutes.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” I said. “Forgive me for wasting your precious time.”

“No,” Hayden drawled. “I’m referring to the fact that you just deciphered an intensely complex code that the best minds in the country have been working on for three days.”

I blushed a little in frustration. “It was a lucky guess.”

“Right,” Hayden said, and he and Nic exchanged knowing looks. They turned to leave.

“This doesn’t negate the fact that I still suck at life,” I told them.

They disappeared through the door.

“In fact, it rather reinforces it,” I called to the empty doorway.

But they were gone, and I was just wasting my breath. “Fine. I’ve always wanted to go to the Super Bowl anyway.”

 

Chapter 15 

I hadn’t returned to my analysis for two minutes before Emma walked in. At first disturbed by the interruption, I was happy to see her when I looked up. Although my platonic pining for Nic in his absence had usurped all else, I had missed these four ridiculous friends of mine.

Emma was wearing a lab coat. The sight made me smile.

“I just spent all morning with the medical research team,” she told me. “Get this, I can choose which project I want to work on. I’m only fifteen, and I get to choose which ground-breaking piece of medical history I want to be a part of.”

“That’s wonderful,” I said. “What did you choose?”

“I think I want to study cellular decomposition,” she said. “Aging.”

“Sounds fun.” No, it didn’t.

“It does to me,” she said, walking up to my desk so she could sit on the edge. She stroked her lab coat again, still clearly enthralled with the legitimacy of it all. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For giving me this opportunity,” she said. “If it weren’t for you, none of us would be here. We know that.”

I hadn’t thought of that before.

“First you … you know,” she said. “Me and my sister. And then you give me this. Not just a future, but a future way more perfect than anything I could’ve picked for myself.”

I felt my face heating.

“You’re such a … gift,” she told me.

That was one word for it.

Emma leaned over the desk to cover my hand with hers before I could run away in discomfort.

“So, are you about to kiss, or did I already miss that part?” Adam asked from the doorway.

“We were about to, but you interrupted,” I told him. “Now the moment’s gone.”

“Aw, man. I was just so excited.”

“I know, right,” Emma said. “It’s the lab coat.”

When I first met her, any reference to her appearance or anything romantic made her shut down. Now she was flirting back. It was a glimpse of her as the carefree, happy person she was—was always meant to be—rather than the withdrawn, haunted one who still lived in my head.

“Yeah, two smarties,” he said. “Lab coat girl and nerd with glasses—”

“I don’t wear glasses,” I told him.

“Just go with it,” he said. “And on a desk, no less. That’s the stuff of fantasies. But that’s not why I’m excited.”

I rested my forehead on my hand. “I really don’t think I can listen to this.”

“No, it’s way better,” he told me. “Astrophysics, quantum mechanics. Instead of watching the dream, I’m living the dream.”

“Or the nightmare,” Emma said.

Adam sat on the other end of my desk, facing Emma. “Listen here, lab coat girl. If you want to spend your life memorizing stupid Latin-based terms instead of—”

“Will they stop treating me like a kid already,” Lucy said, storming in. “I’m not a kid.”

“Yes, you are,” I told her.

“Well, technically, okay,” she said. “But they wouldn’t have us here if we were really kids. So stop treating me like one.”

“They’ll warm up to you once you prove your worth,” I said.

“At least my supervisor’s great,” Lucy said. “She has nice eyebrows.”

“Um, okay.”

“It’s the men,” she said. “They feel the need to take care of me like I don’t really count or like I can’t really think for myself.”

“I’m sure they’ll come around,” Emma said.

“No, that’s just it,” Lucy said. “I think that’s who they are: Neanderthals who think they’re looking out for you when their mentality is what’s keeping you down in life.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I’d never take care of you,” Adam said.

“So what are you doing?” Emma asked her. “I mean jobwise.”

“Intelligence,” Lucy said, and the angry edge evaporated just like that. “Information gathering. The world’s top secrets at my fingertips.”

“At your fingertips? That sounds dangerous,” Adam said. “You’re just a kid, and a girl at that. They should do a better job of protecting you. I mean, can you even think for yourself yet?”

“That’s hilarious, Cupcake. Really, it is.”

Adam turned to me. “So, Faedra, … this may be a stupid question but—”

“There are no stupid questions,” I told him.

A serious expression consumed his features. He straightened, propped his fists on his hips, and stared off into the distance like some comic book superhero. “Challenge accepted.”

“Oh, geez,” I mumbled.

“What if you woke up one morning and your left was really your right, and your right was really your left?” he said. “And do you think flies get annoyed by their own buzzing? I mean, do you think they even realize that they’re the ones buzzing? And do you ever feel bad for parallel lines? They have so much in common, but they’ll never get to meet. And would you still be in a play if you were cast as Tree Number Seven? Especially if Trees One through Six really were just trees—”

“Okay, okay, I concede,” I said, waving my hands. “You’ve proven me wrong, yet again. The amount of stupid you possess knows no bounds.”

Adam smiled at the other two and winked at me.

“So what was your question?” I asked him.

“I forget now,” he said with a scowl. “Thanks for that.”

He left. Emma squeezed my shoulder and followed him out the door. She barely avoided a collision with Jamie as he walked in.

“You’re a hit,” Jamie told me. “A goddess in the eyes of floor 11.”

“It was a lucky guess.”

Jamie smiled and nodded at Lucy before he left. Lucy released a loud, reverent sigh once he was out of view.

“Would you believe he’s still gay?” I said, returning my attention to the screen in front of me.

“I don’t need a relationship with every guy I see,” she said. “It’s just … so unfair. You get to look at that every day. My assistant is … well, let’s just say that all the hair on his head decided to migrate to his back and ears.”

“Ew.”

“Yeah.”

“But really, Lucy, you need to give your team a chance. Once you prove how good you are, they’ll come around.”

“That’s just it. You don’t know what it’s like. You can beat up anyone, and everyone’s afraid of you. They don’t even see you as a girl. I’m always treated with a lot less respect than you are.”

“I’m going to ignore that unintentional slam and stick to my guns. You’re really good. They’ll see it, too, and be forced to acknowledge it.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she said. “You are a girl.”

“Good to know,” I said, not taking my eyes off the screen. “But any issues they have are theirs. These attitudes are still a part of our society. Just be good at what you do; it’s part of the process of changing their attitudes. Instead of wishing their attitudes were different, take pride in the fact that you’re helping change them.”

Lucy grabbed a plasma paper off my desk and rolled it around in her hands. “That was actually somewhat helpful.”

“Good.”

“In a preachy, condescending sort of way.”

I pursed my lips as I sat back.

Lucy plopped down on my lap and gave my neck a squeeze.

“It took me a long time to appreciate how different we are and how okay that is,” she said.

“Me too.”

“Please, tell me I didn’t miss it this time,” Adam said from the door, his voice a bit desperate.

“You did,” I told him.

“Yeah, it was hot and steamy, and there was a lot of grinding,” Lucy added.

Adam covered his ears. “That’s not playing fair.”

Lucy gave me another hug around the neck before getting up and walking to the door.

Adam dropped his hands, and she turned to face me. “We’ll finish this later, won’t we?” She licked her lip and gave me an air kiss that only Lucy could make sexy. Then she left.

“What do you need?” I asked Adam.

“Huh?” He stared at me for a while. “Oh, yeah. I remembered my question.”

I waited for him to ask it, but he never did. “What is it then?”

“Well, I can’t remember now,” he said, throwing his arms up, and he left again.

 

Chapter 16

“You should have listened to her,” Peter Justice said before his surroundings came into focus.

Another video. I’d been dreading the call from Langley for nine days. I knew it was coming, but Leary wouldn’t give me the phone no matter how much I annoyed, reasoned with, or begged him. And now we were there, in his office, watching the next video.

“I know she warned you, Robert. I know she told you it was a trap—that you’d never be able to find me any other way. She was right, and now look at what you’ve done.”

The camera swung to show four people, three men and one woman bound and gagged in a similar manner as the six had been before them.

“She’s the only one who truly knows what I’m capable of doing,” Peter said, turning the camera on himself again. “Because she can do it herself. She’s the only one who can even begin to understand me. I’d listen to her if I were you instead of sending these loyal, yet painfully naïve, individuals to their deaths.”

The camera swung to face the four again.

“I know what you like, Faedra,” he said. I could only hear his voice; it was too close to the recording device. The warbling, deep static gave him an extra element of odiousness, which was probably his intention. “I know how your mind craves a good puzzle. I know you spent hours as a child putting jigsaw puzzles together. Your mind needs it, so here’s one for you.”

His hands appeared. The latex gloves snapped as he meticulously put them on, deliberately slowing the process to increase the dread.

“No,” I yelled at the screen. “No!”

It was useless to scream, I knew. Still, I couldn’t help myself. I averted my eyes; I didn’t need to watch to know what was happening. Peter Justice was taking parts of their bodies and rearranging them into the others’ while they were still alive. Their eyes, livers, spleens, intestines, everything was all jumbled like a bloody bunch of Mr. Potato Heads until, at last, he put them out of their misery with the removal of a heart or brain. As if just to confirm it to myself, I looked up briefly to see the mismatched lifeless bodies lying on the floor. Peter stepped back into view, removing his bloody gloves.

“This is all your fault, Faedra,” he said like a chastising parent. “Had you returned my call when I asked, none of this would have happened. Pick up the phone and give me a call.”

My body was possessed by a violent tremor. I turned on Robert Leary.

“It’s not your fault,” Leary told me.

“Of course it’s not my fault,” I yelled. “How could you do this? How could you be so stupid? You and all your intelligence: you’re incompetent. Look at what you’ve done.”

“We’re as upset as you are,” he said.

“But I told you. I told you this would happen.”

“That’s why you’re here,” Leary said. “You were right; we need you. Peter Justice is right. You are the only person who can understand him.”

“I can’t understand him at all. He’s evil to the very core of his being.”

“I was referring to his dimensional ability, not his character,” Leary said. “I think it’s very clear to us that we have no chance of getting him without you. Those were four of our best.”

“Why didn’t you talk to me first?” I asked. “Why did you send them in there ignorant of what he would do?”

“We thought it best if you didn’t know. You’re fifteen. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve learned our lesson on the matter. Like I said, we feel as bad as you do. You can stop accusing me.”

A knock sounded at the door.

“Dominic Archer,” Leary told me. “Come in,” he called to the door.

Nic opened the door and stepped inside.

“He did it again,” I said, pointing at the computer. My hand was shaking. “He took—”

“I know,” Nic said. “I don’t need the play by play.”

“You showed him first?” I asked Leary.

“To prepare him,” Leary said.

“For what?”

“For you.”

Nic came up beside me. I could tell something was wrong in his stance, but my muddled mind couldn’t figure out the discrepancy.

“Dominic and Hayden are key components of your support team,” Leary said. “In time you’ll see how it works. We prepare the other members of your team when something particularly traumatic occurs. You will probably be in the same position, supporting one of them, someday.”

“Great.”

“Just because you have the capacity to be a superior assassin doesn’t mean you have the emotional fortitude,” he said. “Shifters break all the rules. So we break the rules for them.”

There was a lull in the conversation, enough to let the anger subside and extreme regret to usurp it. In my anger, I didn’t feel responsible for the four deaths at all. In my remorse, I did.

I started to cry. I knew Leary wouldn’t appreciate it, but I wasn’t in the state of mind to care enough to stop. I turned to Nic, a knee jerk reaction to pain. He stepped back, almost imperceptibly, but enough to give me a clear message. The minor movement let anger trump all other emotions, and my fury absorbed my tears again.

“We didn’t know how far Peter’s intelligence goes,” Leary finally said. “We know his network is deep, extensive, and spans the globe. He must have his fingertips in every cookie jar in the world. The list of people we can trust grows shorter every day.”

I shook my head resignedly. “You don’t understand a thing. You have no idea how much bigger Peter Justice is than anything you can dream. You keep thinking like a person, not like a shifter.”

Leary didn’t respond, and I regarded him for a long time.

“Do you still have the phone?” I asked.

Leary glanced at Nic and then nodded slowly. I could tell they’d already had this conversation. I reached out my hand. After hesitating for a few moments, Leary retrieved the phone from his desk.

“You know how we feel about this,” he said before placing the tiny device on my palm.

I jerked my head toward his screen, the same screen that had just guaranteed I’d have nightmares for years to come.

“It couldn’t possibly be worse than the way I feel about that,” I said.

“Not alone,” Leary told me. “You need to call him with a team of specialists listening.”

“Wrong.”

 

Chapter 17

It took everything I had not to speed the entire way back to New York in the “company car,” or to shift. After the first video, I’d been trying not to shift unless I had to.

Nic tried to call … repeatedly. I turned off my phone.

While my own phone sat alone in the seat next to me, Peter Justice’s phone was snuggly encased in my palm. It was warm from the heat of my hand. The idea that things could get worse if I called rather than better traipsed through my mind over and over. But what choice did I have? None. Just like Peter Justice wanted.

The problem was that I seemed to be the only person who could truly fathom exactly how far Peter could take things. I understood where my own abilities could take me, young and untrained as I was. Given the founder’s vast years of experience and dimensional genius, he could crush the world. Crush it. No one would be able to stop him. Not even me.

Which led to the next question. Why? Why was I still alive? Why hadn’t Peter Justice killed me when he had the chance? He knew exactly where I was in Paris. He knew who I was; of that I was certain. He’d probably been keeping tabs on me longer than IDS had.

He could’ve snuffed me out without even trying. I was helpless and unaware, completely unprotected. Yet I was supposedly his only competition. Why was I still alive?

***********

Apparently, Nic sped on the way back from Langley, too, because he was waiting at our apartment when I got there. He rose from the couch as I stormed through the front door. Instead of acknowledging him in any way, I went straight to my room and slammed the door so hard a splinter flew off of the frame.

Nic rapped on the abused door half a minute later.

“Go away,” I told him.

“Don’t call Peter Justice yet.”

Protectively, I clenched my hand even tighter around the phone.

“I have to. You saw what happens if I don’t.”

“He wants you to call him,” Nic said, his voice deeper behind the wood. “He’ll give you time. He’ll wait for you. Make sure you’re in the right frame of mind for it.”

“How can anyone be in the right frame of mind for something like this?”

“May I come in?”

“Why?” I snapped. “If you weren’t there for me when I needed you, why would you be here for me now?”

In the silence I could tell that Nic was deciding whether he should reopen the argument or just let it be. He knew that I understood the reasoning behind his actions, whether I agreed with it or not. I was just being a baby, albeit very rightfully so, and we both knew that too.

“Okay, Faedra,” he said. “If you tell me to leave, I will. But you better mean it. If you can honestly convince yourself that you want me to leave, then just say it.”

My teeth clenched as I tried to get my tongue to lie for me. But it wouldn’t. After several long moments of no response, Nic opened the door, gently.

I turned fierce eyes on him, but he simply opened his arms. And I ran to him, weak fop that I was.

As it turned out, I would get a lot of time to prepare for that phone call. Our education resumed, and the next day, we flew to IDS.

 

Chapter 18

“Do you think there’s going to be any demand for journalists in the future?” Lucy asked.

“What?” The atypically substantial question threw me a bit, especially in the eighteenth century.

“Journalism,” Lucy said. “Do you think it’s going to be obsolete soon? I mean, with every person in the world producing their own media.”

“Um, I don’t know, Luce,” I said. “What brings this on?”

Lucy picked up her skirt so she could ascend the steps to the ballroom. I remembered to pick up mine only after tripping on the first step.

“I love dance and music and theater so much,” she said, “but I seriously doubt my ability to make a career out of it.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

“As nice as that is, I still feel I need a more dependable option.”

“You have the DIO. That’s a pretty lucrative career path.”

“Yeah, but I can’t talk about any of the stuff I do,” she said. “That drives me rip-roaring crazy.”

Yeah, it would.

“I think there will always be a need for excellent researchers,” I said. “I’m sure you could do a lot of things with that. Who knows what journalism will look like in ten years.”

“Excuse me, ladies,” a deep voice said. Two men approached us and smiled in a way that seemed entirely too eager. “We were just talking about—”

“We were talking, too,” I said and waved my hand at them. “Off you go.”

Confused and disgruntled, the men examined me before they left, or something that attempted to mimic examination.

“Balls, Faedra,” Lucy scoffed. “Just because they’re computer programs doesn’t mean you can be rude.”

“They interrupted. They were the rude ones.”

“They were flattering us with their attention,” she said, “and they were definitely two of the hottest ones here.”

With a deep exhalation, I looked around. The virtual realty rooms, the history rooms at IDS, were designed for training purposes. But Lucy didn’t see it that way. The opportunity for playing dress-up and attending balls and having … flirtations was just too much to resist. And IDS didn’t seem to mind, either. Apparently, a lot of people took advantage of the rooms for recreational purposes. Keeping on top of upper-level students like us wasn’t something IDS needed to do. Only the most motivated people made it this far, and we could manage our play along with our work—needed play, in fact, to be effective.

Several groups of people created a perimeter around the ornately decorated ballroom. About twenty couples stood in two lines down the length of the room, ready to start the next dance.

“Look. There she is,” Lucy said, pointing to a dark-haired woman on the far side of the room.

“Sorry, I took so long,” Emma said, a little breathless as she caught up to us.

I felt bad for Emma. It was irritating to realize you had to go to the bathroom after donning all the virtual reality gear. We weren’t ten minutes into the session when Emma had to go back and take off her gear, only to don it all again.

“I think I drank five glasses of water at lunch,” she said.

Emma looked like she was made for this period’s fashion: long dresses with empire waists, perfectly coifed up-dos, pale fabrics, and long gloves. She was stunning.

Lucy stood on her toes, trying to get a better look at the writer across the room.

“Are you going to talk to her?” I asked.

Even though it was pretend, the idea of talking to your idol is still intimidating.

“That’s why I’m here,” Lucy said.

“I thought you were here for all the gentlemen,” I told her. The word made my innards giggle every time I said it.

She scoffed. “As if. Nothing can compete with Jane Austen.”

“You reprogrammed this session so that every guy in here is named Mr. Darcy,” I reminded her.

“Hey,” she snapped. “Pride and Prejudice is the best book ever written. You should read it.”

“I have read it.”

“Oh,” Lucy said, deflating a bit. She waved her gloved hand. “Of course you wouldn’t like it. It’s a romance. And not just any romance, but the best romance ever written.”

“I liked it,” I said. “That doesn’t mean I need to rename every guy I meet Mr. Darcy.”

Emma rested a hand on my shoulder in an attempt, I now knew, to stop me from talking. “I haven’t read it,” she said. “Tell me what you like about it, Lucy.”

“Here’s what I like, Emma,” Lucy said. “I like the fact that Elizabeth Bennett is the most brilliant rebel that ever was. Not only was she sarcastic as all get out, but she also found a way to work within a system while actually undermining it, and no one was the wiser.

“I love the fact that Mr. Darcy’s and her relationship is one of contention. Their disdain frees them from pretense, and they can simply bare their souls. Their mutual loathing ensures their relationship is one of complete honesty, based solely on the quality of their characters and a meeting of their minds. Their respect is free from the prejudices of physical attraction and social stigmatism. It is the truest sort of love.”

Lucy pulled up her skirt a bit so that she could turn around.

“Maybe even your overdeveloped brain can appreciate that,” she told me. “If you could lower yourself long enough to see that there might be some value in a love story or in anything I have to say, for that matter.”

Lucy walked away without another word. Sometimes I thought her theatrical exposure wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

“That was eloquent,” I said.

“Mm.” Emma stayed beside me. “A well-developed argument.”

“I think it was rehearsed.”

“Sounded like it.”

“She used some … impressive words.”

“Yes, I think her vocabulary has increased.”

“I hope she doesn’t really believe I think I’m so much better than everyone.”

Emma said nothing.

“I mean, she doesn’t really think that. That’s just stupid.”

Emma remained silent.

“Right, Emma?” I said. “She doesn’t think that, does she?”

Inclining her head slightly, Emma pursed her lips.

“Emma?”

“Okay. Just because people think it doesn’t mean it’s true.”

People? Who else thinks that?”

Emma’s eyes darted about. “Well, given your … um.” She hesitated. “You’re really good at things—everything you try. That can bother people.”

“I’m not.”

“You are,” Emma said. “People get tired of seeing you be so good at everything you do.”

“But I’m not. You know how hard I work at just being functional, at mastering basic life skills.”

“It looks different from the outside,” she said. “We don’t see your internal struggle. It kind of looks like you’re arrogant and asocial on purpose.”

“Why would anyone do that on purpose?”

Four men approached us with happy, expectant faces, and I blew out a frustrated breath at the timing.

“Good evening, ladies,” one of them said.

The four men bowed, and Emma curtsied. With an eye roll, I followed suit and gave a brusque bob.

“Let me introduce Mr. Darcy to you,” he said. “And this is Mr. Darcy.” Each man nodded a bow when his name was said. “And this is—”

“Mr. Darcy?” I said for him.

The man’s eyes widened, and he looked at me with an eager expression of self-gratification.

“Have we met before?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Your reputation precedes you.”

Emma stifled a laugh beside me.

The dance ended, and applause was heard as couples either left the floor or readied themselves for the next number.

“If you are not otherwise engaged, would you do me the honor?” he asked.

Broodingly, I went with him. Although I was seriously happy to have Emma and Lucy back in my life, I couldn’t understand what my roommates had done to me. I was dancing for no good reason, and it wasn’t even required training.

Emma and one of the other men fell in line beside us.

“Why do I let Lucy talk me into these things?” I asked her.

“Compromise. As a dedicated friend, you’re sharing her interests.”

“I’m not sharing her interests,” I said in a loud whisper. “She’s over there talking to Jane Austen, and I’m here dancing with some guy in tights.”

“They’re called trousers,” Mr. Darcy told me. “They’re not that tight.”

 

Chapter 19

Look at your row.

What?

Your row, Lucy said. Look at it.

My back screamed when I stood. I’d been hunched over planting beans seemingly forever. I looked at the line I’d left behind me, which resembled nothing like a line.

Weren’t you paying attention at all? she asked.

I guess not.

Dr. Maize will probably mark you down for that, she said. What were you thinking about anyway?

Probability theory, I said. I’m working with this distribution I came up with to model … I don’t know the word in Japanese, and finding the area under the curve has proved to be quite tricky.

Seriously?

I nodded.

Lucy began hoeing next to me, and I tried to pay more attention to my line.

That’s wrong, she told me. Who voluntarily spends time thinking about that sort of stuff?

I scoffed. It’s not wrong, I told her. Weird maybe, but not wrong.

Whatever.

We worked in silence for a while longer. Lucy was good at this sort of thing and was five holes ahead of me in less than a minute. I stood to stretch my back and saw Emma walking toward us, rubbing moisture off her brow and stomping her hoe into the ground to shake off the clumps of dirt.

I smiled at her, and she fell in line beside us.

Lucy’s pace began to slow so as not to lose us.

Have you ever thought about who you’ll marry? Lucy asked suddenly.

What?

Do you know who you want to marry? she said. I mean, the kind of guy, not the actual person.

Are you serious? I said. Lucy, you’re fifteen.

Which is about when girls used to get married, she said. It’s not ridiculous. It’s in our genetic makeup to start thinking about it now.

I straightened again and rolled my neck in a circle. I couldn’t say why my back was hurting so much. Dr. Maize had worked us way worse than this before. Maybe it was all the tunnel tennis … ball brawl … running, dance, martial arts, and gymnastics after six months of relative inactivity. I was sore all over.

You may as well start thinking about it so that you know what you want when the time comes, Lucy said.

I know what kind of person I don’t want, Emma said.

It’s not that I didn’t care about the conversation, although that was partially the case, but something caught my attention. Movement in the corner of my eye. I waited and let my senses clue into the oddity around me.

What? Lucy asked.

She and Emma began looking around.

Emma gasped. Samurai.

We stood motionless for a little longer as we verified the warriors’ presence to ourselves.

Not just Samurai, I said. Look, a Shogun.

Shogun, Lucy breathed. This far from the coast? We’re not even on the trade route.

Sound the alarm, I said. Neither of them moved. Sound the alarm! I yelled, running in the opposite direction. I didn’t stay to see if they listened.

As I ran, I scanned the horizon to see just how surrounded we were. My hoe was stubborn, and I had trouble breaking off the head. Beneath was a point that let me transform my hoe into a spear.

In the distance, toward town, I heard the gong sound. On the outskirts of our village was a little storage shack, seemingly made of sticks and a thatch roof. Harmless in appearance, it was actually created by stabbing finely crafted spears into the ground. Commoners weren’t permitted weapons, so we hid them any which way we could. It was never a good thing to be at the mercy of any master, especially a nonexistent one. Our village was too small to command any real protective presence. Oftentimes, marauders (or worse) vandalized our crops, abused the villagers, and stole our goods. We had to be smart in how we housed our weapons: close but undetectable.

It wasn’t long before a group of villagers met me at the storage shack. Nic and the Jay brothers were among them.

Plan? Nic asked me.

I shook my head. I don’t have one, I said. But they’ll stick to the high ground. Our only chance is to come up behind them.

That sounds like a plan, Adrian said.

I yanked another spear out of the ground. A vague, highly weak plan.

The trembling sound of thunder drew our attention, and we looked up as one.

They know we’ve seen them, Nic said. No time for a plan anymore. We just need to get to them before they get to the village.

Only they’re on horseback, Adam said.

We worked together to jerk as many spears free from the ground as possible. Then we ran—sprinted for the village as fast as the uneven ground would allow. Even though I could run fairly fast now without dimensional help, the boys were still faster, and I was forbidden from using any dimensional ability while in history class.

We were closing in, but the boys were still a whole field in front of me. Two Samurai on horseback veered off from the others and ran straight for the boys. I hollered when I saw them. I tried to run faster but was already pushing myself to the limit.

Having heard me, Nic stopped, and the others followed suit. I was closing in but couldn’t tell if I’d make it to them before the Samurai did. Then Nic and Adam dropped their spears to the ground and just stood there—like sitting ducks.

What are you doing? I shrieked, surprised by my own volume given the absence of air in my lungs.

Nic looked back at me; instantly, I knew what he wanted me to do. I ran toward them.

The horses raced, one in front of the other, and the warriors brandished swords so finely crafted they looked like sculpted water, not metal. Those things would slice through anything.

I was only meters away. I’d beat the horses but not by much. And then I was there. In one sure movement Nic and Adam crouched down and grabbed onto each other’s forearms. I leapt onto the sturdy platform they’d created with their interlocking arms in one second and was airborne the next—thrust upward by our combined strength.

I pulled back my spear. Had the rider simply traveled straight into me, he might’ve had a chance. But he didn’t. He reacted, and in that one moment of indecision, he pulled back on the reigns of his warhorse. I loosed my spear. Straight into his eye socket.

The rider fell off his horse in a limp pile, and I crashed to the ground with a roll to ease the impact. The other horse swerved to avoid a collision. Its rider paused for the briefest of moments in order to take in the scene and then sped off, presumably to tell the others about our military preparedness.

Adrian managed to grab the reigns of the spooked horse, and he and Adam jumped on its back. Nic was at my side within seconds.

You okay? he asked.

Yeah, I said breathlessly.

Then let’s go.

We ran toward the village. I saw the Samurai sword gleaming at Nic’s side and was instantly jealous. He tossed me his spear.

Yours was stuck in some guy’s skull, he said. I didn’t have time to wrestle it free.

We weren’t in time, at least not in time to save everybody. The slaughter had begun. Several villagers lay lifeless on the ground in pools of their own blood. Although these warriors had no loyalty to us or our Shogun, they might’ve let us live had we not fought them. But now it was certain they’d wipe us out given the chance.

Which one? I asked.

The Shogun, Nic said. Always work from the top down if at all possible.

And if they’re noble, the other Samurai will be forced to kill themselves for failing to protect their master, Adam said.

The Shogun wasn’t difficult to distinguish. Still atop his horse, he was the most ornately attired and had that certain something about him: the look of a seasoned warrior and a tried ruler.

The rope? I asked. That wasn’t the technical term for the reed-constructed device, but it was a good functional word.

We ran to the far side of the village. One of the Samurai saw us and gave chase. Luckily, he was no longer on his horse.

You get the rope, Nic said. I’ll keep him busy.

Although it was the strategic thing to do, I hated that Nic got all the fun jobs. I dove through the small glass-less window but shouldn’t have. My robe snagged on the uneven ledge and ripped, drawing my lunge up short so that I fell at a steeper angle than anticipated. My wrists hurt from bracing myself, which was frustrating because I knew better than to ever break a fall with my wrists.

Dismissing the pain, I tore the lid off one of the wicker baskets. There it was: that long snake-like thing we’d woven just for an event such as this.

Not risking the window method again, I ran out the door. Right into a Samurai. His sword came down before I could even think about a strategy. With rope in one hand and a spear in the other, I raised the spear instinctively. His sword just missed my hand as it sliced through the wood of my rod instead, leaving an impressively tapered tip in the process.

I dropped the rope. This guy was good, much faster than I was used to, and I had to pick up my game while still fighting the shift that would give me the edge.

Somewhere along the way my movements had become natural. I no longer needed to think about what I did. I saw what I had to do and simply did it. I slashed at the Samurai with my two-ended spear with such precision and rapidity that he was actually forced to step backward. He was a good swordsman, however, and I was in a constant state of dodge and block. And then I did it—let him get so close to me that he couldn’t pull his sword away in time. My spear slid down his blade and into his hand. It broke his grip, and the sword fell with a clang to the ground.

But I didn’t thrust my spear into his body. He turned to run, and I rammed it into one of his ears and out the other. Then I picked up his sword without another thought and turned toward the center of the village before his corpse had time to hit the ground. Broken bodies scattered the dirt: children, women, farmers.

With the rope and our plans forgotten, I took off. Like a barbarian, I ran right into the midst of the fighting. Slicing and flaying any warrior that got in my way. I took down one then two then three. If I lost a sword in the shuffle, I merely took another from the next man I slaughtered.

I wasn’t afraid of them. I had no fear of decapitating them or slicing off a hand or shoving a sword into their face. Blood and intestines splattered me as it sprayed from my victims.

My classmates retreated, probably to avoid being run through, and it was eerily silent as the Shogun and I stared at each other, he still atop his horse and me brandishing two swords and breathing like a rabid wolf.

History class is now over, our watches said in unison. Please, proceed to your next class.

The groan heard around the place was deafening. Everything turned white, the floor began to smooth out, and the walls and columns disappeared into the ceiling again.

I looked down at myself. The gore was gone, but I was still breathing hard. When I took my helmet off, I found I was sweating pretty hard too.

The grumbling continued as Dr. Maize walked over to me. I looked up at him.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Excuse me.”

“Who on God’s green earth are you?” he said. “What happened to you?”

I was silent.

“You rushed into those Samurai like a berserker,” he said. “You even had a bone-chilling battle cry.”

“Really?”

He nodded. “And you kept going for the face. Fearless. Do you know how hard that is to do?”

“It’s only a reenactment,” I told him. “I wasn’t in any real danger, and those weren’t real people I was killing.”

“No, but psychological profiling tells us people can’t do that,” he said, “Even if it’s just pretend. We aren’t wired to kill people, much less by impaling them in the face.”

“Sorry.”

I couldn’t tell if Dr. Maize wanted to scold or praise me. As it turned out, he did neither, walking away, instead, with a confused expression.

I finished stripping off my gear and hung it in its place and then joined the other five, none of whom really looked at me except for Nic. He noted my wet hair and the dark stain on my shirt caused by perspiration.

“You’re disgusting,” he said, and I hoped he was referring to the sweat and not my murderous new attitude.

 

Chapter 20

The idea of returning to Italy sent a shiver of morbid anticipation through my body. Italy was where I’d first encountered shifters, where I’d first almost gotten caught, where I’d first … well, there were a lot of firsts in Italy.

It made sense that I was Spanish. I looked Spanish. Of course, I looked a little bit of everything. It wasn’t too difficult to take me from one ethnic extreme to another. All I needed to do was add or detract a little color. Almost anything was possible. It was one of the things Vespa had commented on (impolitely, I might add) and one of the reasons Hayden thought I was such a natural. Even at fifteen I could blend in well in almost every racial context.

Hayden drilled me constantly.

“Who are you?”

“Selena Marquez.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-five. But I don’t look twenty-five.”

“You look older than you think,” Hayden said.

“Ten years older?”

“Experience ages you in a way that time never could,” he said. “If you believe you’re twenty-five, nobody will question you.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“You’d better believe it before you leave,” he told me. “Moretti can sense a fake a mile away.”

“He’s an art dealer,” I said. “It’s his job.”

Luciano Moretti was an Italian art dealer. Forty-eight years old. Twice divorced. Currently, a rich playboy. The DIO believed he’d been involved in dimensional activity, but they couldn’t—or wouldn’t—tell me what that activity might be.

That seemed odd to me. Everything I’d seen of movies about the CIA or some other espionage situation, the assassin (that would be me in this situation) knew everything about their target. They knew his daily routine, his quirks and passions, his deepest desires and hidden weaknesses. But not me. I wasn’t privy to any information that my character wouldn’t have.

Of course, I was only fifteen. The chances of me messing up were pretty good. The only thing I’d deduced for myself was the dimensional activity. That one was obvious, though. It had to be dimensional in nature, otherwise the DIO wouldn’t be involved. At least I wouldn’t be involved.

Lesser shifters, as Leary called them, were the true assassins. They carried out mandates to eradicate threats at the individual level. But not shifters extraordinaire. We were above that. We were reserved entirely for dimensional espionage—espionage in which enemy shifters were involved. It was a small, but crucial, function of the DIO. These shifters were based out of New York City, out of the Core. These shifters, meaning me. I was the only one.

The Core housed three floors of advanced shifters, all arranged like mine. Three shifters in a team—a support structure. We rarely saw the other groups.

“Yes, he’s a harmless art dealer,” Hayden said. “Which is exactly the reason we’re investigating him. Why would a harmless art dealer have dimensional dealings?”

I sighed.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Selena Marquez.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-five and proud of it.”

Hayden arched an un-amused brow. “You’re Spanish.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Then why aren’t you speaking in Spanish?” he asked.

“Because you aren’t.”

“I’m not Spanish,” he told me. “You are. You eat, sleep, and breathe Spain. Do you understand?”

Yes.

He smiled. “Who are you?”

Selena Marquez.

“How old are you?”

Old enough to know what I’m doing.

Both of Hayden’s brows shot up. “Where did that come from?”

I have no idea.

“You just flirted,” he told me, obviously unable to believe I actually understood what I’d just done.

I know.

We both stared at each other in a dazed stupor.

“Okay,” Hayden finally said with a loud exhalation. “Who are you?”

Doctor Selena Marquez.

“Doctor? Where did you get your degree?”

Madrid.

“You don’t look old enough to have an advanced degree,” he said.

And you look too old to care about my education.

Again, Hayden froze momentarily. “I don’t know who you are right now,” he told me, “but I like it.”

I’m Selena Marquez.

***********

For the next several weeks, I ate, slept, and breathed Spain just like I was supposed to. I only spoke in Spanish, donning my Spanish persona well before we actually left. I dressed differently. I walked differently. I wore heals.

My skin lightened a little more under the treatments, and my hair was died black. I read Spanish novels, listened to Spanish pop music, and perused Spanish magazines. I looked and sounded like I’d just gotten off the plane from Spain.

Luckily, the others were somewhat entertained by my transformation and enjoyed the roleplaying. I was grateful for it; I needed a distraction. Of course, I couldn’t really say what I wanted a distraction for. It made sense that I was worried about Peter Justice and what he’d do next, and I tried to convince myself that was all there was. But, deep down, I knew it wasn’t. There was something going on in my subconscious that my conscious mind wasn’t willing to share with me.

“Can I go with you to get your clothes for the trip?” Lucy asked.

My wardrobe is being sent from Spain, I told her. To be completely authentic. Luciano Moretti knows fashion.

“Oh.”

But we can still go shopping, I told her.

“Really?”

I nodded. Shopping in New York City was the paramount of Lucy’s daydreaming. With her DIO salary, which she regularly referred to, she could do some damage there too.

Late at night, I would lounge with Emma and Lucy in their room, sharing stories and memories. That’s when Emma would show us her most recent pictures of Stephanie. She never showed the boys, and neither Lucy nor I thought that was odd. It was Emma.

When Lucy and Emma had originally arrived in New York, I’d regretted taking the single room. Although they both agreed that I needed it, I missed them. But I always tucked them in at night. Lucy usually fell asleep midsentence in some awkward position, so I adjusted her before leaving. I just tucked Emma in because it felt like I was doing something good. She hadn’t been tucked in since her mother left when she was four. It was my little way of righting a wrong that could never be righted.

***********

Five nights into the Spanish transformation, I couldn’t take it anymore. I called Peter Justice.

In the dead of night, when everybody was asleep, I retrieved the little phone from Nic’s safe. It wasn’t a fractal-encased safe because we didn’t want any dimensional evidence in the apartment.

It was cold in my hand, much colder than I remembered. I hadn’t touched it since I’d first put it there. It had been overly warm then from holding it too tightly for too long. I looked at it. Such a harmless device.

My finger moved to press ‘call’ to the only contact listed. Then it pulled back. I could see my hand trembling as I tried to call again. I didn’t know how many times I did that—crept toward the button and then retreated—but finally I pushed the tip of my finger onto the smooth screen.

The ringtone. My stomach surged into my throat, and I almost hung up.

“Hello, Faedra,” that same deep, smooth—and, I now knew, demented—voice said.

“I have to go out of town for work,” I said. “I’ll call you when I get back.”

I almost hung up right away. Should I? Shouldn’t I? It was the worst sort of internal debate. Every little action I had at this point could have major consequences.

“Okay, I’ll wait for your call,” he said. “Thank you for telling me.”

I hung up and stared at the little device. What now? Did I wait? Was he going to call back? Or was he just going to get me back in some other way?

One day passed, and there was no call from Leary. Two days. Three days. By the fourth day, I actually began to think Peter Justice would wait for me. By the fifth, I believed he would. By the sixth, I was getting so nervous for my trip to Italy that I wasn’t spending much energy thinking about Peter Justice. By the seventh, my shoulders relaxed enough to allow me to rotate my head.

 

Chapter 21

“There’s a little hitch in the operation,” Hayden told me.

I didn’t need to hear that. At this point, the best thing everyone could do for me was keep me in the dark. The more I learned about Moretti and his operations, the more apprehensive I grew.

“We’ve been talking to Interpol about Moretti’s latest money movement, and they’re claiming jurisdiction,” he said.

“Dimensional operations usurp everything else,” I said.

“Not legally,” Hayden said, inclining his head. “And definitely not at an international level. Just because we can do things doesn’t mean we have the legal right to do them. Of course, it’s possible they don’t understand our department, but I want you to try to work with them. Just because we’re shifters doesn’t mean we don’t need allies. Let’s not burn any bridges until we have to.”

“Fine,” I said. “What do you want me to do?”

“Your contact will be waiting in Venice,” he said. “His name’s Jensen. I hope you’ll be able to talk some sense into him.”

I scoffed. “If he won’t listen to you, he’s not going to listen to a couple of kids.”

“Oh, come on,” Nic said, and I hadn’t even realized he was behind me. “Just logic him to death like you do the rest of the world. He won’t know what hit him.”

Hayden’s phone rang, and he turned back to his desk and picked it up. After listening for a few seconds, he shooed us out of his office.

“Should we set up a meeting with Jensen?” Nic asked. We walked together down the angular halls of the Pentagon.

“Yeah,” I said, glancing at him. “You do much better in person.”

“If you’re referring to my breathtaking good looks,” Nic said, “I doubt they’ll do much for the guy.”

 

 

Chapter 22

“The important thing is that you don’t act like someone else,” Nic told me. “I know you like this new persona you’ve got, but don’t take it too far. Be yourself.”

Be myself? I scoffed. It’s like you’re my mother prepping me for my first date.

Nic shrugged. “You need to get his attention, and I’m telling you how to get it.”

By being myself? That’s the worst advice ever.

We were on our way to Spain, sitting together on the plane, nondescript … as nondescript as Nic could ever be. He’d darkened his skin a few notches. His hair was already black. But with his grey eyes, an unlikely contrast against his other coloring, his looks were even more exotic than usual.

“As soon as you flip that Faedra switch on,” Nic said, “he won’t help but be interested. Trust me; you’re irresistible in a very nontraditional, emotionally unbalanced sort of way. Be you, and he’ll be interested.”

I turned away, half confused, half insulted, half … flattered. Too many halves.

***********

Nic and I took different flights from Madrid to Venice. Although we’d reserved rooms in the same hotel, it didn’t look like we’d come together or knew each other in any capacity.

It was a mild day in Venice when I got there, and I felt a bit conspicuous in my business suit. Was I really fooling anyone? Was there a soul who’d believe I wasn’t just some fifteen-year-old girl playing dress up?

Nic left for the meeting before I did, but I wasn’t far behind. Apparently my gondolier was more experienced than his, however, because I arrived at the designated restaurant several minutes before Nic did. I pretended to admire the view while I waited, which wasn’t that hard to do.

After arriving, Nic climbed out of the gondola. He didn’t see me at first, and I benefitted from his ignorance. Rarely did I get to see what he acted like when I wasn’t around. And it was an act. This wasn’t the Nic I knew. He suavely slipped his hand into his pocket and watched a group of women walk down the street past him. At first, the women, caught off-guard by his appearance, looked down and flushed, but then they recovered and looked back at him. One of them turned and clasped her hands behind her back. Her dress spun out in a flirtatious spiral.

Nic smiled back—that stupid, earth-shattering smile of his. But he didn’t follow through. He flashed his perfect white teeth at them and then averted his face, like he was actually shy or something. Man, did that little stunt work. It even worked a bit on me, from this far away, and I knew better.

He looked around for me and was mildly surprised when he saw me. He bit his lower lip as we walked to each other. He was about to say something, but I beat him to it.

Go in first, I told him. I want to watch.

He knew I needed to use vision to see the things he could intuitively pick up on. Whereas I depended on my four-dimensional talents to tell me things about other people, Nic could sum them up with one glance.

Do you sense anything? he asked.

I shook my head, and he went directly in, leaving me to watch the show in slow motion and agonizing detail. I spotted Jensen and his partner almost immediately. They stood as Nic walked to them.

The partner’s eyes dilated instantly and his pulse quickened. To the man’s credit, however, he maintained absolute control over his motor skills, and I never would’ve observed the interest had I not been using dimensional vision. Nic caught it somehow, naturally, and smiled to himself in the way he did when he knew what people were thinking. How he did it, I’d never know.

Jensen’s reaction to Nic was absolute wariness. His eyes never wavered, not giving away any telltale ulterior motives with even the slightest flicker or eyelid twitch. His anterior lobe was unusually small, which indicated that he was honest and straightforward.

He didn’t buy Nic’s excuse for why we didn’t show up together, which furthermore credited him with insight. Also, the way he interacted with Nic led me to believe that he was fundamentally decent, if feeling somewhat challenged by our interference. This was a man I could trust; the knowledge relieved me.

Smiling at them as I walked in, I extended my arm. All three stood again.

“Faedra Mae,” I said.

“Miles Jensen,” he said, giving my hand a firm jerk. “This is my partner, Harry Miran.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” I said.  

Jensen said nothing in response. We sat down, and the waiter came with water and bread.

“I expected someone older,” Jensen said when we were alone again.

“It’s the moisturizer,” I said. “Wonderful stuff.”

Nic smiled amusedly beside me.

Jensen nodded to Nic. “I suppose he uses it too?”

“I’m having difficulty understanding why the agency wouldn’t send out someone more experienced for a—” Detective Miran began.

“Experienced or old?” I said, setting down my menu. “They’re entirely different things.”

“They usually come together,” Jensen said.

“Like love and marriage?” I said. “That’s the way of the world, isn’t it?”

Jensen looked at Nic for some explanation, but Nic simply studied his menu, ignoring Jensen’s confusion.

“How much experience could someone so young have?” Miran asked.

“Enough.”

Lowering his voice, Jensen leaned into me. “I know a few things about you,” he told me. “I know you’re only eighteen.” Nic tensed imperceptibly at my side. “I know that you somehow managed to graduate from the top university in your country with three degrees in only two years. Very impressive. I’m not debating your obvious intelligence; I’m questioning your ability to handle a target of this magnitude.”

I stared at him. Eighteen? “Are you trying to convince me that I need to back down because I lack your experience?” I asked. “Because I’ll bet I could learn more about our target in one hour than you’ve learned in years.”

Jensen looked at his partner and smiled disbelievingly. “What could you possibly learn in one hour?”

I grabbed a disposable plasma paper from my handbag and passed it to him.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“Well, that first screen is every bank account he currently has,” I said. “The next screen is every piece of art he has a present interest in obtaining. And the third is a list of every hotspot he’s planning on visiting in the next year. I could go on, but you can read it for yourself.”

“How did you get this, and why are you giving it to me?”

“I thought you’d find it useful,” I told him. “I assumed you’d know what to do with it better than I would.”  

Jensen studied me skeptically, wariness hardly veiled on his features.  

“The thing is,” I continued, “we have different types of experience. I might have experience that lets me obtain the information, but you have the experience required to decipher it. We complement each other.”

Detective Miran grabbed the plasma paper and studied it while Jensen studied me, contemplating his options.

“An international black market dealer of this sort is clearly a matter for Interpol,” he said at last.

I nodded. “Agreed.”

“Then why does the agency care about it?” he asked. “Why did they send their own agents?”

“We’re a department of the agency that acts a little differently than the rest,” I said quietly. “Although our bureaucracy recognizes us as a link in the chain, we’re our own entity.”

“How so?”

“We work in conjunction with the agency, but we don’t take our orders from anyone there,” I said. “We use their intelligence and work with the military and the NRO to combine our efforts—even the FBI at times—but we don’t answer to them.”

“Who do you answer to?” Jensen asked.

“Ourselves. The department consists of autonomous teams. We work with everyone but ultimately make our own decisions.”

“I’ve never heard of it,” Miran said, and I looked at him.

“Very few have,” I said. “And it would take a long time to explain what we do. Suffice it to say that we specialize in working with other entities such as yours.”

The three of us—Jensen, Miran, and I—stared at each other for a long while. Nic simply sat there, scanning the wine menu. Finally, Jensen broke the gaze by looking first at Nic and then at his own partner.

“I’m not in the habit of trusting people I haven’t known for at least ten years,” he said. “Especially agents. And, to be honest, I’ve never been given such a proposition.”

The waiter returned to take our orders. Jensen ordered lamb. Nic ordered some fancy seafood dish that I didn’t recognize. Detective Miran ordered the same thing as Nic, much to his partner’s dismay, and I ordered pasta, obviously.

When the waiter was out of earshot again, I returned my attention to Jensen.  

“Just tell me what you want,” I said. “Any piece of information, and I’ll get it for you.”

Jensen and Miran regarded each other. “In return for what?” Jensen asked.

“As a show of good faith,” I said. “I have everything to gain by using your knowledge. It can only make my job easier.”

“What is your job?”

I wondered that myself. Nothing I’d been told about Moretti yet suggested that he required the DIO’s involvement.

“That’s a good question,” I said.

Jensen arched a brow, and Miran quickly darted his eyes back to me, having just caught himself staring at the silent black-haired boy across from him again.

“We tend to look for things that are a little … unusual—not the average modus operandum—something inexplicable,” I told him.

Jensen leaned back and stretched his arms, grasping his hands behind his head. He and Miran had another silent conversation.  

“Not the usual MO,” he said. “Something inexplicable? I think I can give you that.”

This time Nic and I shared the nonverbal conversation.

“It’s no secret that exceptionally rare things—art, artifacts, weapons, documents, what not—end up in his possession,” Jensen said. “Not in his actual possession, mind you, but in the possession of someone who will ultimately benefit him in some way. His own collection is squeaky clean. His business is hard to follow and took us years to finally catch up with. People die when these … things go missing. But they’re never killed. There are never any weapons or chemicals involved. Every single time, they die of completely natural causes—different natural causes—and whoever’s involved gets off scot-free. The only way we can trace any of this back to him is because he’s the only one who benefits from every instance in some way or another.”

Nic and I looked at each other again, and I could tell we were both thinking the same thing.

“You can explain it?” Jensen asked.

“Yes,” I said.

I could also finally explain why the DIO had gotten involved in the first place. I wasn’t after Luciano Moretti; I was after the shifter he had in his employ.

 

Chapter 23

Our encounter with Luciano Moretti would be at a charity auction at the Galleria Borghese. The closer the event grew, the more nervous I became. Nic was stolid. Nothing ever unnerved him, and I wished I could be more like him. But that was impossible, like red becoming blue when those colors are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Two hours before we were supposed to leave for the auction there was a knock on my door. I put down the notes for my last-minute cram session—information about the various galleries I should know in Spain—and answered it.

Nic walked in, not bothering to greet me in any way. In one hand, he held a light blue bag and an orange bag in the other.

Do I want to know what’s in there? I asked him.

“Whether you want to or not, you’re going to find out,” he said.

I followed him to the restroom where he plunked the bags on the counter and began removing their contents.

Is that for me?

“For your hair,” he said.

How many people’s hair are you going to be doing?

“This bag has hair products,” he said, referring to the blue one from which he was removing contents. “The other one has cosmetics.”

I looked at the orange bag skeptically. And you bought this?

He nodded. “For my girlfriend,” he said. “The women at the boutique were quite taken with my consideration.”

I’ll bet they were.

I watched him arrange the contents of both bags in some intentional order, indecipherable by me.

There’s something very wrong with you, I told him.

“Maybe,” he said, “but fashion sense is not it.”

Pushing his sleeves up his sculpted forearms, he faced me. “Are you ready?”

No.

“Okay then, let’s get started.” He walked to the bath and began a flow of water.  “You need to put on a button-up shirt.”

I did and then returned to Nic, who was sitting at the side of the tub feeling the water’s temperature. It was such a weird way to see him. So … domestic. The sight made my stomach churn more than it already was.

“Kneel,” he ordered, pointing to the side of the tub where he sat. Awkwardly, I sank to my knees and leaned my head over the edge so that my hair fell to the bottom.

Nic spent entirely too long washing and applying multiple layers of goo and then rinsing them out. His hands moved expertly, like he’d been doing people’s hair forever. After finishing, he carefully towel-dried my hair and sat me on a chair facing the mirror. He put more goo in and then sprayed it with yet another layer. When he turned on the dryer, my head was bombarded with a blast of noisy heat.

As weird as it was having Nic wash and fix my hair, I realized I could get used to that sort of thing. Sitting still, I watched his focused expression as he moved around me, plotting his creation.

“I was going to put it up, but maybe we should leave it down,” he said.

Uh huh.

With a few strategically placed gentle waves by the curling iron, I felt more and more like the twenty-five-year-old senorita I was trying to be.

Nic must’ve been thinking along the same lines because he said, “Wow, you look older.”

We both stared a bit dazedly at my reflection. As uncomfortable as that had been, what followed was much worse. First, Nic applied and removed a cleanser. Then he coated me with a series of different moisturizers: one for my face, one for my eyes, one for my lips, one for my neck and shoulders. He found the right shade of base and covered my skin with a very fine layer.

“You have nice skin,” he said.

Thanks.

“I mean it. Such a smooth, natural glow.”

Thanks.

Next came the powder, then the blush, then the eye shadow, then the eyeliner.

“Hold still.”

I couldn’t stop blinking.

I’m sorry, but it feels weird, I said. I’ve never had anyone so close to my eyeball before.

“Just concentrate on not moving.”

Unfortunately, I had trouble focusing on much of anything. Instead, my thoughts drifted to how increasingly uncomfortable I felt under Nic’s close scrutiny. It’d been weird enough when he’d rubbed my entire face and throat and shoulders, but when he examined my every pore, I felt exposed to his ridicule to a degree I hadn’t yet experienced.

Have I mentioned how totally freaked out I am that you can do this? I asked in a less-than-subtle attempt to shift the focus from my inadequacies to his.

“Why deny what you know? You can’t help but learn a thing or two when your older sisters are always dragging you places.”

I laughed, drawing out a sharp look of disapproval from Nic.

“You can’t move like that,” he said.

I tried to hold still again.

“My father would’ve blown a gasket had he ever found out,” Nic said, smiling mournfully to himself. “He has very defined guidelines on behavior for young men.”

That doesn’t sound like much fun.

“He isn’t much on fun,” Nic said. “Neither is my mother. And someday I’m sure my sisters won’t be fun either. Sam’s almost there already.”

He reached for the mascara on the counter. “Don’t move.”

As he dragged the mascara across my lashes, my eyes burned slightly, and I fought the urge to rub them. Every time the mascara brush approached me, I struggled not to blink. I lost the fight several times. Nic got upset, but we finally made it through the eyes.

“Almost finished,” he said and then began coloring my lips with a pencil.

The act of watching Nic study my lips so intimately was unnerving, and when he rubbed them with his finger, it was even worse. As he was applying some gloss with his forefinger, I actually pulled away from him.

“Am I hurting you?” he asked.

No, I squeaked. Stupidly, I pointed to my throat and cleared it. I need to swallow.

Given the constricting in my throat, it took all my strength to do just that.

As soon as he finished, Nic stepped back and looked at me appreciatively, like he’d created something decidedly important.

“Wow,” he said. “I’m good.”

I scowled at him, but when I turned to see my reflection in the mirror all ire drained. I was stunned by what I saw. Honestly, it would’ve been harder to convince someone I was fifteen than twenty-five. Furthermore, because I looked so unlike me, I was able to see myself more objectively.

Wow, I muttered.

Nic picked up his mess of stuff.  “I’m going to get ready,” he said. “Don’t ruin anything.”

Once he was gone, I grabbed the gold dress from its hanger and slid it on. Even I had to admit I looked good. I didn’t just look twenty-five; I was beginning to feel it.

Nic returned about thirty minutes later. He knocked on my door, and I opened it for him and then hid a smirk at his reaction.

“Wow,” he said. That did seem to be my word for the evening.

I can’t get the zipper, I told him.

He motioned for me to turn around, which I did, raising my hair to clear it from the path of the zipper.

“Twenty minutes,” Nic said, his voice gravelly, as he zipped me up in one easy movement. I let my hair fall back down then nodded slowly. “Get yourself a gondola. I’ll meet you there.”

I nodded again; we’d already been over all of this.

“No communication,” he said, and his voice sounded … weird. I turned to look at him. He averted his gaze.

I scoffed. Are you nervous?  

“Not nervous,” he said, and I believed him. He ran a hand through his hair and then looked back at me. “I know Hayden has been telling you to play a role, but I’m telling you not to. You need to be Selena Marquez, but other than that you need to be as much of you as you can.”

Moretti won’t give—

“Moretti will be instantly interested if you’re yourself,” Nic said forcefully. “If you play the part, you’ll be just another pretty face. Maybe worth his time, maybe not.”

I laughed. Pretty? Coming from Nic, a funnier word had never been spoken. Nic wasn’t remotely amused, however, and his no nonsense attitude and stern look shut me up fairly quickly.

“The thing that sets you apart is you,” he said. “It’s this.” He tapped my head. “You have my word that Moretti will hunt you down if you walk into that place as much you as you can possibly be.”

But the real me wouldn’t even notice Moretti, I reminded Nic. I wouldn’t give him the time of day.

“Exactly.”

 

Chapter 24

As many years of experience as Hayden had on him, I couldn’t help but believe Nic. He always knew. He was always right. Even if I couldn’t see it myself, he didn’t say things without knowing exactly what he was talking about. And he’d been so forceful, which was always a sign of his heightened conviction.

On the ride over I decided to undo all the work I’d been doing for the past several weeks. Of course, I’d still be Dr. Marquez, but I resolved to be me. I was going to walk into that gallery not for Luciano Moretti but for the sheer love of art.

The entrance to the gallery was crowded when I got there—more of a showcase for the rich and powerful than for lovers of art. I was momentarily awed by the spectacle and almost told the gondolier to keep going. But I didn’t.

When a man in white gloves helped me out of the gondola with a polite bow, I told myself I belonged there. I belonged there as much as any of the others because I loved art. That gave me the right to be there.

With my gaze directly ahead, I walked up the stairs to the gallery’s entrance. I smiled at the hostess as I handed her my invitation. She welcomed me and pointed toward the main gallery.

Even had I not been trying, I think I would’ve slid back into myself anyway. One look at all the art that could actually be mine with the right bid had me giddy. I started plotting, poring over each piece with shuddering reverence.

He’s already looked at you multiple times. I jumped at Nic’s sudden presence behind me.

Who?

Who do you think?

Oh, I said stupidly.

The bidding will begin soon, Nic said. He’s catching up. He’ll be next to you soon if you don’t move.

Okay.

Now shake your head like you just rejected me, Nic said.

I did, and he left.

I moved on to the next piece after another minute or so. And Nic was right: Moretti was by my side shortly thereafter, although I didn’t realize it was him at first.

What do you think of it? Moretti asked me.

I glanced at him and felt my brows rise. He’d come to me. He’d spoken first. I hadn’t seen that coming.

It’s a shoddy work of restoration, I said. Well, that was definitely something I’d say. No act there.

Being me also let me focus on my accent. The difficulty was in speaking Italian, which I knew fluently, only using Spanish and the sparser amount of Italian that Selena would know. It was tricky remembering exactly where to slip up.

Truly? he asked. Why do you say that?

This area is oil, not tempera, I told him. The difference between the two textures is staggering.

Moretti wrinkled his brow as he examined it and motioned for an assistant to step forward. Silently, the assistant produced a loupe, which Moretti then used to examine the indicated region.

You have a good eye, Moretti said, handing the glass back to his assistant and turning to face me.

Very good. Dimensional vision let me peel away layers in such a way that I could distinguish between coats of different time periods.

I don’t remember ever meeting you, he said. And I’m certain I would remember. You are Spanish.

Yes, and I haven’t been around that long, I told him. I just finished my schooling. Now I work for a small gallery in the north of Spain. Dr. Selena Marquez.

I extended my hand to him.

Luciano Moretti, he said and then took my hand and gently kissed it. How quaint. Your gallery is fortunate to have such a talented employee. He had switched to Spanish for my benefit, which definitely made things a little easier.

Thank you, I said. Could I get that in writing for my next review?

Luciano laughed, and I grimaced internally. What an unsophisticated thing to say.

How refreshing, he said. To find someone confident enough to say what she’s thinking.

Oh great!  Not only was I a social moron, but I was a woman who said what she thought. Could I make myself any more unattractive to a man like him?

There are enough airs in this room to make a zeppelin fly, he said softly, leaning closer to me. He smiled, causing the creases around his eyes to accentuate.

Are you staying in Venice? he asked.

Yes.

Then you must let me show you some of the city’s finer points. Such as the dining. Exquisite. Would you let me show you?

I couldn’t believe it. Not only had Luciano Moretti come to me, but he was actually inviting me on a date.

He raised his hand and ran it down the lapel of his expensive suit. This evening, he said. After the auction.

The motion drew my attention to the light reflecting off the ring on his finger.

You’re married, I told him. Why didn’t I know that?

Yes, I am.

Don’t you think your wife might mind?

Mind an innocent dinner?

Nothing about you strikes me as innocent.

He raised his brows and smiled. Yes, yes, he said. Why don’t we call her lover then? If he doesn’t mind, surely she won’t.

Just because you have an agreement doesn’t negate the fact that it’s against my moral code, I said haughtily before catching myself. The real me would just walk away, but that wasn’t an option for the agent me. But if you haven’t guessed by now, I know exactly who you are. And I’m entirely willing to compromise my integrity in order to get ahead in my career. I could play a stupid game with you, but we both know you’d win. Why waste the time?

Luciano laughed. It’s so true, he said. I’ve been spoiled in life by getting my own way more than is fair.

Or decent.

Luciano was about to respond when the hostess interrupted us with an announcement.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in the main gallery, she said. The auction will commence in five minutes.

Bending slightly, Luciano motioned that he would follow me. I made my way with the crowd through the large entrance and immediately found a lone seat in the middle of the left grouping. As planned, Luciano couldn’t follow me with his large entourage of assistants. It gave me the reprieve I needed to regroup and consider a new strategy.

During the bidding, I was amazed by how Luciano controlled everything through the public’s subconscious. His authority on all things art related was so renowned that his interest or disinterest in any given object added or detracted from the group’s enthusiasm.  

If he displayed a heightened intrigue, the price was much higher than those pieces he didn’t concern himself over. The painting we’d talked about earlier came up for bid. Luciano showed no interest, and the bidding was low and slow.

I waited until there were only two bidders left and then threw in one of my own. Not only did I end up winning the piece for much less than it was worth, but the Bosch hidden beneath it was a thousand times more valuable. I knew about the painting beneath the other paintings, two to be precise, because I’d seen it. In the past, artists running low on funds used old canvases or wooden boards of their or other artists’ works to create masterpieces or even for practice. This happened to be one of them, and only I could see it with bare eyes. It really wasn’t fair.

After the auction, having sought me out with deliberate focus, Luciano confronted me. His tone had turned businesslike.

I was surprised to see you bidding on such a shoddy work of restoration, he said. I was going to bid on that one until you pointed out its obvious flaws.

It still is a horrendous work of restoration, I told him. I have a hunch about this one, though. And my gallery has limited funds.

Luciano eyed me skeptically. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you just played me rather well.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I played everyone rather well, I said.

Luciano didn’t miss the reference. He knew the influence he carried, and he knew that my convincing him the painting was worthless would ensure the other patrons would think the same. Of course, only in retrospect did I see the brilliance of that plan. I’d just been honest earlier, but I let him think I really was that good. He needed to be outsmarted every once in awhile, even if it was accidental.

I suppose even I don’t get my way all the time, he said. Now, I can only hope your guilt will motivate you to take pity on me and join me for dinner.

I won it fair and square, I told him.

Agreed, he said. I happily relinquish the painting. You deserve it.

I watched him for a while. Would Nic or any of the others forgive me if I didn’t go with him? The way he looked at me made me immeasurably uncomfortable.

Sure.

Then let me give my regards to some colleagues, and I will return for you, he said. If you don’t mind waiting for a spell.

Can I meet you at the restaurant instead? I asked. I’d like to deposit my painting in the hotel safe first.

No, I don’t think so, Luciano said. I have no guarantee that I’ll see you again. You strike me as the sort of woman who might not remember. Let the curator handle your painting’s delivery. It’s by far the safest method.

I considered my options, terrified that I wouldn’t be able to talk to Nic first.

Where should I wait for you? I asked.

Anywhere you like, he said. I’ll find you.

That was creepy. His words seemed more threat than promise. After he left, I found the curator. It didn’t take long to find her because of the horde of patrons surrounding her, but it did take a while to finally talk to her.

Act like you don’t know me, Nic said, close behind me.

Okay.

I’m hitting on you, nothing more.

Okay.

What’s happening with him? Nic asked, referring, of course, to Moretti.

I have a date, I said. Right after.

I turned to face Nic. He crowded me, and I stepped back into the wall. With eyes closed, he ran his hand through his hair.

That was fast, he said. Here’s the thing: if you can’t get the information from him discretely, you’ll have to bring him in, and I’m not sure that’s doable. You can’t coerce him and leave. Otherwise, he’ll send his 4-D Doberman after you. But don’t … don’t risk anything. If he tries to lay a finger on you, snap it off. Use everything you have to in order to keep yourself safe. That is the most important thing.

Where will you be? I asked.

As close as possible, Nic said. Be careful.

I will.

He smiled arrogantly. Good, then shake your head and turn me down again.

I did as instructed with a belittling huff and then walked away to wait for Luciano by the entrance. It wasn’t much longer before he joined me.

If I may, he said politely, motioning me to a small room off the main gallery. I followed him. He closed the door behind us and turned on the lights. Two large men in black suits and bad hairdos were waiting inside. One of them walked directly to me and grabbed my handbag.

At first terrified for my safety … and his, I relaxed slightly when I realized he was just looking through my things.

What are you doing? I asked as the man rummaged through the few belongings contained inside.

You’re a beautiful woman, Luciano said.

It’s the dress, I told him.

He laughed. My father always taught me never to trust a beautiful woman.

But the not beautiful ones are trustworthy?

I pulled away instinctively as the other bodyguard began patting me down.

Luciano laughed again. No, he said. He warned me against them all. I was trying to pay you a compliment.

I don’t do well with compliments, backhanded or otherwise, I said.

My violator stood up and shook his head with his small, black eyes fixed on Luciano.

It seems I was worried for naught, Luciano said. Just answer one more question. Who was that young man you were speaking with?

Which man?

Tall, dark, and handsome, he said. The young man who approached you after you talked to the curator. The young man you were afraid to look at.

My mind wanted to hurl insults that I would never forgive myself for saying, but luckily my mouth didn’t obey.

Oh, him, I said. He’s from Spain, as well. Paolo something-or-other. He said he’d been watching me from across the room.

He had, Luciano said.

Oh. My face instantly heated. I’d meant it as a joke. Although I knew it was Nic’s job to keep an eye on me, the idea that he was watching me when I was unaware of the fact left me feeling exposed.

Shaking his head, Luciano walked to me. How can someone like you be so alarmed by her own appeal?

My cheeks flared again, in anger not embarrassment. I wasn’t buying any of his smooth lies, and it infuriated me that he thought I was.

He smiled kindly at my frustration.

I hope we can forget this little incident and enjoy our evening, he said.

I suppose that depends on how expensive the restaurant is. I grabbed my handbag from the Italian muscleman who was still holding it.

I have become an important man over the years, Luciano said. The collection of people I can trust narrows daily. I expect I’ve become a bit paranoid.

Well, as understandable as that is, I hope you’re able to put that aside for one night because I don’t need a meal that badly.

He smiled at my abrasiveness. Originally, I assumed you were quite young. Now, I believe you are older than I thought.

Does that disappoint you?

Quite the contrary. Typically, I don’t respond to advances from women your age.

Any advancing that happened was not coming from me, I told him. You’re the dirty, old man. I’m simply young and impressionable.

Luciano laughed heartily. Then he offered his arm, which I took.

Tonight I will pretend I have no enemies, only beautiful, young friends, he said.

***********

As we were walking down the marble steps of the museum, Nic approached us. His blatant interference made me apprehensive, but he didn’t talk to me. The two men stared each other down, and I wondered who’d be the first to pee on me to claim the territory.

Turning to face me, Nic smiled smoothly—the smile that made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. I hated that smile.

I hope you’ll reconsider, Dr. Marquez, he said.

He kissed my hand, sliding a piece of paper into it. Then he left without looking back. Instantly, I felt a small metal disk and knew I needed to hide it. Seeing, however, that Nic had made no valid attempt to hide the paper, I lifted it for both Moretti and me to read. Nic had written his cover name and telephone number on it in a graceful swirl.

Hmm, I mumbled. Then I crumpled it up and threw it into the nearest trashcan. Of course, I’d memorized the number just in case it had significance. Luciano raised his brows and smiled at me appreciatively.

 

Chapter 25

The small, metallic disk that Nic had given me attached easily to the back of my earring. It acted as both a homing device and an audio transceiver.

Luciano Moretti’s personal gondola was much more luxurious than the one I’d taken to the auction. The velvet-covered benches were so soft that it was difficult to make myself leave when we arrived at the restaurant.

But Luciano helped me up, and I rested my hand on his forearm as he escorted me into the place.

I don’t sense anything, I said for Nic’s benefit. Although I couldn’t hear him through the device, he could hear everything I said.

Luciano turned his face and examined me quizzically. What can’t you sense?

The money, I said. I thought I’d be able to physically feel it.

He laughed elegantly, probably more out of shock at my impolite statement than any sort of true humor.

That’s because you haven’t eaten anything yet, he told me.

And he was right. Money dripped off of every scrumptious morsel. It took all of my self-control not to comment on the ecstasy of each bite.

Throughout the meal, we talked about a variety of topics from art to science to philosophy. Luciano was a great conversationalist, intelligent and witty, and I found myself drawn into his charm more than I cared to admit. I’d had equally stimulating conversations before, but Luciano added the compelling element of a suave, rich, foreign playboy.

At forty-eight, his hair was graying at the temples and his skin showed his age. It was apparent, however, that he was in excellent shape, and when he smiled, his face seemed to change into someone else’s—someone happy. The lines at his eyes accentuated his enjoyment.

After the meal, which left me simultaneously satisfied and hungry, Luciano led me back to his gondola.

Where are you staying? he asked me.

I told him, and he relayed the information to the gondolier. I wished I’d known Venice better—or that I’d been paying attention, at least—instead of hanging onto every one of Luciano’s stylish words.

I didn’t realize we’d been heading in the wrong direction, and my chest tightened when I first noticed the discrepancy.

Where are we?

My villa, he said, standing to help me to my feet.

It was well lit, and the lights reflected off the water, disguising the waterway’s true composition by cloaking it in a thousand rippling stars.

What are we doing here?

I wanted to show it to you, he said. It has a nice collection. I knew you’d want to see it.

I’m sure it does, I said, but you should have asked me.

I was enjoying your company too much, he said. I thought you might deny me the visit.

That’s because I would have.

See? he said. You’ve just proven me right. It has been such a rare night for me. Not only do I love watching your mouth, I enjoy listening to everything that comes out of it, as well. Beautiful, intelligent, and sincere. You are a unique find.

Ew. But as apprehensive as I felt, I was still able to recognize my good fortune. After all, this whole reconnaissance mission was about getting the dirt on Luciano Moretti. And I was definitely closer to the dirt in his personal villa than anywhere else.

I clenched my teeth in frustration before extending my hand to him so that he could help me out of the gondola. He smiled broadly at my reluctant change of heart.

Tell me, Dr. Marquez, he said. Exactly how old are you?

Twenty-eight.

He arched a brow. I sighed.

Twenty-five, I said resignedly. Sometimes it’s difficult to be taken seriously when people know how old I actually am.

One conversation, he said. After that it’s impossible not to take you seriously. And twenty-eight is still quite young in my eyes.

The foyer was dim, illuminating the texture of the tile and stone artistically. I turned to comment on the beauty of his villa but couldn’t. It’s difficult to speak with someone else’s mouth pressed against yours.

My mind immediately recognized that there were several things wrong with the situation. One: I hadn’t been expecting that at all. Two: contrary to what Hayden claimed, I had not been trained for this. Three: the man was old enough to be my father … or my grandfather. Ew.

Unable to decide on the proper action, I did nothing but take the kiss. What else could I do? Participate? Incapacitate the guy?

He pulled back just before I’d have to push him away in order to draw a breath.

Forgive me, he said. It’s been so long since I’ve felt this.

Part of me wanted to tell him I was only fifteen just to see the look on his face. Part of me wanted to run away crying. And part of me wanted to yank his tongue right out of his face. So I just breathed until I was certain I wouldn’t do any of those things.

You were going to show me your collection, I reminded him.

He nodded and then led me farther into the villa past a series of art galleries. In fact, his entire villa was one big museum. He had masterpieces everywhere—even in the bathrooms. The artist in me actually thought the tour was worth the admission fee. The fifteen-year-old girl in me thought I’d never recover from the ick factor.

But that’s when my real stupidity kicked in. Admiring a Boucher, I honestly didn’t realize I was standing next to a large, king-sized bed. Until he touched me again. This time with restrained gentleness, caressing my arms. My body quaked. The Boucher was quickly forgotten.

What are you doing? I asked. Selena Marquez would never ask that, and I closed my eyes in order to pull myself back together.

You haven’t felt the connection tonight? he said.

Not like you have, apparently.

How has someone so beautiful lived for so long untouched? he asked.

School. I said. I’ve been busy. It was the best thing I could come up with.

He stroked my hair as if to acknowledge the mind that lay beneath. Time well spent, he said.

I’m just not comfortable with your … speed, I said. Perhaps if you slowed down a bit.

Luciano smiled at me, a real smile. I’ve been uncharacteristically clumsy, he said. Inconsiderate of me. I never thought you’d be an innocent.

His affection became sweet and seductive, and I was confused by the sensation. On one hand, it was revolting. On the other hand, it … wasn’t. He was an expert, and I was finding myself in exceedingly more compromising positions without even realizing how I’d gotten there.

The kisses grew longer and deeper, and my barriers—so rigid beforehand—were crumpling. He cupped my breast and kneaded, like he was searching it for something. I’d never been touched like that before, and I whimpered and tried to pull away from the disconcerting sensation. But my response only seemed to increase his ardor.

I was losing, and the only advantage I had anymore was dimensional.

You need to stop, I told him. He kissed my neck.

In the most compromised position of my life, I couldn’t believe I’d let him maneuver me so effortlessly onto the bed.

It’s too late for that, he said.

I need to breathe.

He kissed me again. Sometimes breathing is inconsequential.

I was losing. My age was finally becoming painfully obvious. He knew things I did not. He understood how this whole thing worked. I didn’t even truly understand what this whole thing was, much less a way to avoid it.

The only thing I grasped was that I wasn’t good enough at this game to outplay him. He would eventually win, probably sooner rather than later, leaving me to pick up the remains of my self-respect and wondering how it had all happened. How it had gotten so out of hand.

The fact of the matter was that I only had one gift, and that left only one thing to do.

He pulled back violently, his face panicked. He grabbed his throat and clawed at the air, rolling off of me as a result.

I let him writhe like that for a full half minute before finally removing the obstruction from his windpipe.

Inconsequential? I asked him.

He wheezed in response.

I placed the little glass ball back in his esophagus and watched him flail around for a bit longer. When I removed it again, he fell off the bed to his knees.

I know you think I’m the naive one, but I’m not, I told him. I’m actually the one with the ulterior motive, with less-than-honorable intentions.

He raised pained eyes to me, pained and terrified. You’re one of them.

I was momentarily stunned. One of them?

The ones who can be inside.

The ones? I asked. How many have you met?

Just one, he told me, but she said there are more.

What does she look like? Does she work for you?

Work for me? His bewilderment was so convincing that I had to believe him. It’s not like he thought the idea that a shifter could work for him was unfounded; he thought it was impossible.

Luciano shook his head. I’ve never seen her. I’ve only … heard her and felt her. Do they all look like people?

They are people.

Are they all women?

No.

You aren’t with them? he asked, a heart-wrenching degree of hope in his eyes.

I shook my head, and he sighed gratefully and then raised himself back onto the bed.

You don’t know who she is? I asked.

He shook his head

How long has she been contacting you?

Four years, he said quickly. My life has never been the same.

I sat back down on the bed beside him, and he leaned away from me almost imperceptibly.

Who have you told? I asked.

No one.

Then why are you telling me?

He eyed me cautiously. Because you’ll believe me. And because you can kill me the moment you feel like it.

Well, that’s true.

He searched my face for something.

You’ve been working in conjunction with this woman for four years? I asked him.

Not in conjunction. Believe it or not, I used to be a legitimate art dealer.

I raised my brow and knew my expression revealed my doubt.

Mostly legitimate, he said. I always felt you knew more than you let on.

I said nothing, waiting to see if a confession would be forthcoming instead. It was.

I heard the voice, he said. It sounded like it was coming from inside my head. I thought I was going crazy. At first, I ignored it. Only lunatics obey the voices in their heads. But then it became physical in nature. The pain was unlike anything I’d experienced before, and I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t see her coming. I didn’t know when the pain would begin.

I was petrified. And soon all choice was taken from me. There were no other options. I confess that I have not always been perfectly judicious. I have done things I regret both in business and in …, he eyed me speculatively, … pleasure. But I was never a crime seeker, and I never would have become involved with weapons of any sort. I’m an art enthusiast, not a warlord.

You’ve always had a taste for money, I reminded him.

I have, he said. But until then, I was able to gain my wealth without all the fraud, thievery, and … at first …

His expression grew terrified as his mind overpowered him. The fear that either the woman was already there about to attack, or I was, if not the woman herself, working for her.

I’m not here to hurt you, I told him. And I can sense the others. There’s no one here but us, I promise.

Luciano studied me for a while. Are you here to help me then?

I’m here to get to the bottom of things, I said. If you’re innocent, then I can help you.

I’m not innocent. He shook his head. I’m guilty as hell. But I didn’t do it of my own volition. I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for her.

Then tell me about her.

Luciano hesitated before he continued. At first, it looked like she was going to keep my name clear. Nothing ever traced back to me, just like she said. I grew wealthier by the day. As long as I did what she asked, she didn’t hurt me. But … people were dying. Even if they weren’t the noblest people on the planet, they were dying. I didn’t do any of it, of course. But I knew who did. I understood the way she could get inside a body and … take over it and … hurt it and … humiliate it. I knew, and I did nothing to stop it.

What could you do?

He nodded. I argued with myself daily. The authorities would never believe me. I had blood on my hands and dirty money lining my wallet. Who could I turn to?

I couldn’t help empathizing with the dirty old man. There’d been a time when I felt very much in the same boat. Now I had Nic. Nic.

Paolo, I said entirely too loudly. Get in here.

Luciano examined me curiously, and it wasn’t long before Nic walked through the bedroom door. He was not happy.

Now he knows we’re both involved, Nic told me in Russian.

He’s not our enemy.

You don’t know that. Just because you shared tonsils for a while doesn’t mean you’re an expert on his character.

That shut me up pretty quickly. With an expression so disgusted it seemed bored, Nic turned his sharp silver eyes from me to Luciano.

Are you willing to turn yourself in to Interpol? he asked, this time in Italian.

Interpol has been after me all year, Moretti said. They’ll eat me alive.

If we can guarantee their cooperation, would you be willing?

How can you guarantee—?

We could incapacitate you and take you in right now, Nic reminded him shortly. The idea is to work together toward a common goal.

Moretti considered his words. Then it seems that, once again, I don’t have a choice.

That’s how I see it, Nic said.

 

Chapter 26

I don’t know why I thought it would be easy. Simply walk in and then walk back out with Moretti in hand. We did just that, of course. Perhaps we should’ve shifted from view. After all, he already knew what we were. But Nic reminded me of the physical consequences of it, namely the projectile vomiting, and we decided not to leave a dimensional trail, especially one that included puke.

As we made our way down the hall of Moretti’s villa, I saw two men passed out, propped uncomfortably against the walls. Darts protruded from their necks. I eyed Nic as he retrieved his used darts, but his face remained impassive. Moretti followed us without coaxing.

Nic picked up the pace when we left the house, his eyes constantly darting around for cameras and other threats. Moretti and I followed suit. When we got to the waiting motorboat, I sent Nic another questioning look. How had he gotten a boat so fast?

But Nic ignored me and shoved Moretti into the boat instead.

The manhandling wasn’t necessary. I don’t think—

Rather than acknowledge my point, Nic just shoved me in, too. I slipped on the wet step and banged my shin. Nic stepped over me and went to the helm.

Unprofessional, I told him in Russian. That was completely unprofessional.

Nic didn’t bother to look back at me as I scrambled into the seat next to Moretti.

You have an interesting definition of the word ‘unprofessional,’ Nic said.

Moretti fidgeted with his hands next to me. Once the motor started and we were cruising down the canal, he faced me.

At the risk of sounding pathetic, he said, was it all for show? Did you feel nothing?

I looked at him.

You made me feel something I thought I’d lost the ability to feel, he said.

I don’t feel those things … ever, I told him. It’s part of my job.

Sounds like you need a different job, he said. You’re missing out on the best part of life.

Heartache and rejection?

Connection, he said resolutely. Oneness with another person. There’s nothing so fulfilling in this lifetime.

The oneness you intended sounds less than ideal.

Moretti nodded his head regretfully. I hoped more than believed it was what you wanted. You are so young.

You have no idea, I said wryly. What kind of connection could you hope to achieve after only one night?

Try as he might, there was no romanticizing his libido.

I know you don’t approve of me, he said. And I don’t blame you. You aren’t a romantic like me; you will never know what you’re missing or what drives me.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Beside me sat a man who’d been tormented for the last four years of his life and was on his way to prison, and he was feeling sorry for me.

I looked away. Did even criminals know me better than I knew myself?

People didn’t travel quickly down the waterways of Venice, so anything more than a low hum was unusual, much less several engines louder than a hum.

My head snapped around. Quite some distance behind us were three motorboats with two passengers each. And they were armed. And they were gaining on us.

The boat lurched as Nic took off, and both Moretti and I fell back, Moretti on top of me. He smiled.

I ripped the wedding ring off his finger and threw it into the water.

I had to try, he said with a shrug, and I knew he was talking about alerting his personal guards using the beacon in the wedding band, not about the fact that he was groping me.

You didn’t even scan him? Nic growled, not bothering to disguise the comment with another language.

Details were never my strong point.

Just make sure he doesn’t go anywhere, Nic said. And don’t get shot.

We swerved to the right, and Moretti and I rolled over the floor to the other row of seats. He tried to scramble off me.

I grabbed his neck, wrapped my legs around his waist, and flipped us over. He tried to push me off; I jabbed his throat with my fingers. The pain and momentary panic induced by my precise aim was enough to still him for a second.

I braced myself as the boat jolted in the opposite direction this time. My handbag flew into my arm and then landed on the floor beside me. I glanced at it in irritation. Its strap, made of interlocking metal chains, had stung me on impact. The strap made of sturdy interlocking metal chains.

I phased the chain off the handbag. Moretti bucked against me, so I shifted and wrapped his knees snugly, securing the chain by phasing one enclosed link into another. A perfect vice. I shifted back.

Don’t shift, if you can help it, Nic yelled, and I could barely hear him over the roar of the engine.

I looked out the back again. The boats were gaining only because they were made for speed and narrow enough to maneuver easily.

Ni … Paolo, I called. They’re gaining.

You think I don’t know that?

The traffic thickened, and the boat began jolting left and right. I had to squeeze my thighs around Moretti in order not to fall off him. I was confused by the guards’ behavior. Before they had clean, if somewhat long, shots. Now that we were fairly surrounded by people, I heard the first shot fire and chink into the back of the boat. Followed by many more.

I fell on top of Moretti but kept my face from him. I knew the dangers of teeth. As the bullets whizzed by, I couldn’t make sense of them. Didn’t the gunmen know there were innocent people all around? Didn’t they … oh.

They’re doing it on purpose, I called to Nic. They mean to hit someone.

Would you stop stating the obvious, he shouted. You’re not helping.

I felt the boat make a sudden turn and realized Nic had spun us to face our pursuers. He was actually going to take them on, all six of them.

Heads up, he yelled.

I turned just in time to catch a rifle. I caught it with one hand, something I could never do when I thought about it.

I can’t, I told him.

Nic looked like he was about to say something but closed his mouth and stared at me.

Then get up here so I can, he said.

I scrambled off Moretti and ran to the front of the boat, which rocked in the substantial current. I fell into Nic as I passed him. He pushed me off and then restrained Moretti with a knee in the abdomen. Moretti involuntarily curled up in pain, and Nic rammed the butt of his rifle into Moretti’s temple. The thrashing was hard but not hard enough to knock the art dealer out.

Unnecessary. Nic and I needed to talk about that later.

I grabbed the wheel and shoved up on the throttle. I had to get us as far from people as possible. But the three sleek boats weren’t too far in front of us. They were closing in, creating a barricade. I either had to turn around or run into them, and in a collision situation—our boat against theirs—it was pretty obvious which would win.

But still I surged forward. We accelerated so fast that the boat kept hydroplaning, and I was constantly jarred when it slammed down into the water.

I looked back. Using only his legs, Nic had Moretti in one of his torturous holds. Moretti wasn’t going anywhere, and Nic still had complete use of his arms. The boat sailed into the air again.

And the next physical jarring jarred something loose in my head as well. I could shift and still make it look completely natural. All I had to do was defy gravity—the most basic and untraceable shifting ability.

You might think about slowing down now, Nic yelled. His rifle was poised in his arms, and even his substantial strength had trouble holding the thing still.

Hold on, I called back.

I felt the rhythm of our flying and landing. It wasn’t regular, but it still followed a pattern. A complex wave that only my nerdy brain would find interesting … or recognizable. I could predict each flight with increasing accuracy. Not only that, but I could make each flight more effective with the timing of the throttle and direction of the wheel. We were getting higher and higher without any dimensional aid at all.

What are you doing? Nic shouted.

Are you ready? Just get ready.

I could feel his indecision, and I could tell the moment he understood. The shots from ahead stopped, worried as the gunmen were that they might accidentally hit the man they meant to protect.

Higher, higher with each leap. The three boats were completely blocking our exit. The guards began to fire again. I could dodge, and Nic was still low enough to be safe. Up … down … up … down … up … and over.

The last flight took us just high enough, with only the slightest dimensional aid, to clear the bows of the barricading boats. Boards broke and splintered. Polished wood grinded together, creating an eerie whining noise. Our boat slid violently over theirs. Nic fired, and I counted. One, two, three. Nic never took a shot unless it would hit the target exactly where he wanted it to, and I knew each blast was a kill. Four, five.

We slammed back into the canal again, and water washed over the bow, flooding the boat. I fell into the wheel.

Do we need to go back? I called to Nic once I’d righted myself.

No.

But there were only five—

No, he repeated, this time more forcefully.

I navigated in silence as the implication of his answer sank in. That meant that one of them was dead because of some other method. Because of my method. Because of me.

The engine returned to a hum, but the boat was leaking badly.

Do you know where you’re going? Nic asked after a while.

I shook my head.

Pull over, he said. Right there.

I looked back to see where he was pointing and then pulled the boat to an idle beside a vacant gondola. I understood what Nic wanted me to do.

I phased the gondola free from its lock and Moretti free from his bindings. Nic hauled Moretti into the confiscated gondola and silently began rowing. He looked sort of perfect doing it. Like he belonged there—the romantic Italian guy … who was anything but Italian … or romantic.

Substantially subdued, Moretti looked more than defeated as I took my place next to him. We didn’t talk for the rest of the ride to Jensen’s office.

 

Chapter 27

Moretti looked a little more beaten up than I would’ve liked by the time we met up with Jensen and Miran. Nic didn’t hold much back after our scuffle and manhandled Moretti like I’d never seen him do before.

Held in a local prison, Moretti sat, staring absently at the wall. His hands were bound to the table by manacles. With his mussed hair, bandaged head, and wet, torn suit, he looked more pathetic criminal than urbane playboy. But he cooperated.

Nic played the conversation he’d recorded between Moretti and me for the detectives. He’d recorded the whole thing, which was procedure. What wasn’t procedure was making sure he started at a point when it was obvious exactly what I’d been doing with Moretti until then.

My face exploded with heat as I heard the sounds. My own sounds. Moretti’s sounds. Both detectives looked at me as realization sank in but then turned away again to provide me as much privacy as possible. The three of us pretended nothing uncomfortable was happening. It didn’t work.

I glared up at Nic, but he was already glaring down at me. Whereas my look was fueled by heat, his was ice. Cold, unfeeling, brutally disappointed. He was getting me back for what I’d done, and it was working. I’d already felt bad. Now I felt less than worthless. His cold bested my fire, and I sank down into myself.

Not saying much for the remainder of the interrogation, I let Nic and the detectives ask questions, debate options, and discuss legal implications. It went without saying that both detectives were amazed by Moretti’s confession and willingness to cooperate. Nic promised them a full report the next day.

After my evening of public … and private humiliation, Nic steered us back to our hotel in our boat, one I now knew had been provided by the DIO, complete with rifle. They always told him more than me. His brooding silence was worse than any amount of yelling, and I hopped out of the oppressive gondola at my first opportunity.

It didn’t take long for him to catch up to me.

“What part of ‘break his finger off if he touches you’ didn’t you understand?” Nic asked.

I glanced around to see who else was in the lobby before heading to the elevator. It was late, and the hotel was nearly deserted.

“Don’t lecture me right now,” I said. “I’m not in the mood.”

“Not in the mood? I sat through half an hour listening to a steamy make-out session with you and some old … creep. Don’t talk to me about moods. I was … and you didn’t once think to communicate anything to me. I had nothing to act on. What were you doing? What were you thinking?”

The elevator door opened, letting out a middle-aged couple, and I walked in. Nic followed. The door closed, but Nic wouldn’t let me push the button to our floor, blocking the way with his body.

“As you already said, it was obvious what I was doing,” I told him. I might as well get the inevitable conversation over with. Maybe then the glacier of his condemnation would recede enough for me to recuperate. “Don’t belittle me for it,” I said. “You do much more for much less. I don’t think international safety and the avoidance of one cold shower are even in the same galaxy, much less the same ballpark.”

“You’re not allowed to justify this with the excuse of world peace,” he said, pointing his finger in my face. “You’re not running for Miss America. Don’t let anyone compromise you. I don’t care what the reason is.”

I swatted his hand away.

“I was caught off guard,” I said. “I had no idea what to do, and there was no one to help me. Despite what everyone seems to think, I haven’t been trained in how to deal with these types of things. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I did the best I could.”

“Yeah, I heard you doing the best you could.”

“I’m not proud of it,” I said. “Don’t make me feel cheap for doing what everyone, including you, expected from me. Did any of you honestly think that he’d hand over all his deep, dark secrets because I was wearing high heels and a dress? I’m the stupid one, and even I know it doesn’t work that way. I tried doing it your way—the way you told me to. You told me not to coerce him. You told me not to use my dimensional abilities. What did you leave me with? What?”  

I crossed my arms stiffly. He’d put me in an impossible situation and was angry at me for it. Our heightened breathing was all I heard for a few moments.

“Did he touch you?” Nic asked, his voice so soft it could be mistaken for tender.

I flushed.

“Where?”

I looked down and pulled my crossed arms in tighter as if they could shield the exploited area.

“Don’t put this back on me,” I said. “If you want me to know what to do, then teach it to me. Don’t expect me to figure things out on my own. I’ve never been able to figure this stuff out on my own.”

Nic was the only person in the world who could make me feel so miserable.

“You want me to teach you?” he asked in that calm, cool tone that belied his true intensity, the shards of ice in his voice scraping against my skin. “You want to know what to do? You push him away; that’s what you do. You push us all away.”

“But I can’t.”

“You can,” Nic said and then gave me a rough shove. “See how easy it is?”

I pulled up the strap that had fallen off my shoulder. “Physically, I can. It’s the mind games I don’t get.”

“There’s no game. If someone touches you, and you don’t want him to, push him away.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“It is. Especially for you.” Nic leaned into me. “Push me.”

I did.

He leaned in again. “Harder. Make me get the message.”

I pushed more aggressively, and he had to step back in order to keep from falling.

“Good,” he said. “You understand that you’re allowed to beat the shit out of me if I ever give you good reason to, right? I’ll stand there and take it. I won’t fight back.”

“What?”

“You want a lesson,” he said. “I’m willing to give you one.”

“What?”

“Do you promise to punch me if I ever try to touch you?”

“What kind of promise is that?”

“Do you?”

Definitely in my current emotional state. I scoffed. “Yeah.”

“Then you give me permission, too?”

I scoffed again. “Yeah.”

He was talking like a crazy person.

He turned around so that his back was facing me, and I stared at the side of the elevator—at my own alarming reflection in the mirror. I looked so much older than I was. Maybe that’s why everyone expected more from me. Gazing at my own scowl, I mentally ran through all the things I hated about Nic. It was a long list.

He pushed the fifth floor button, and we began our ascent.

I felt trapped in the elevator and couldn’t wait to get out—away from him, away from the suffocating presence of his tall, broad body, even more intimidating in its sophisticated black suit. I breathed deeply a few times to calm myself. The elevator door pinged open.

Then it happened: an impossible thing.

Nic turned and stepped into me so abruptly that it sent me off balance. He grabbed me before I could even think about falling back, and there it was. Perfect lips covering mine. Molding into me, forcing my lips to part. Ardency so overwhelming I thought my mind and body had truly separated. And he wouldn’t stop, and I didn’t want him to.

My emotional turmoil left me receptive to the outlet he offered and open to any sort of acceptance he could give, even if it was physical. I let myself be trapped against the wall of that little cage, let myself be mauled by a perfect mouth. Overwhelmed. Invaded. Occupied. Furious hands fisted in my hair, forcing my mouth against his with fervid pressure on the back of my head.

Then his hand, so gentle at times, slid down my neck, across my collarbone, and grabbed me exactly where Moretti had. But not like Moretti at all. This was … I didn’t know. I made desperate sounds into that perfect mouth. Feelings I couldn’t understand. The sensation of the cold elevator wall against my palms and splayed fingers was the only thing that let me know this was somehow real.

It wasn’t until he heard himself groan that Nic broke free from his possessed mind and drew back with a harsh shove.  

“And you haven’t learned a thing.” He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “I repulse you, but look what you let me do.”

“You don’t repulse me.”

“You feel nothing for me.”

“That’s not the same thing.”

“You stood there and took it,” he said. “Again. You did nothing to stop me. Five seconds was all it took to lose your resolve. You’re so weak, and it’s going to break you one day.”

The tears that threatened to rain finally sprang forward. “Why are you being so mean?”

I sounded so young to my own ears, like the fifteen-year-old I actually was.

He didn’t answer. Instead he turned around and pushed the button for the fifth floor again. The door pinged open, and he got out. I followed ten paces behind. Watching his stiff back, my mortification evolved into rage. The still-present sensation of his mouth on mine, his hand grabbing me, reminded me how very untouchable he was, and my steps lent the rhythm to my mantra of hatred for him.  

***********

That night dragged on more than usual. If only I could sleep like normal people—escape like normal people. If only I didn’t have to go through one more agonizingly lonely night. I wanted to forget what I could do and the burden of responsibility my ability brought with it. And how, with all that ability, I still seemed to mess it up. Every. Single. Time.

But those were fruitless wishes, and I needed to stop thinking them. Even when I was so confused about life that I couldn’t walk straight. Even when Nic turned on me like a rabid wolf. Even when Luciano Moretti was found a week later dead in his jail cell … killed by “natural causes.”

 

Chapter 28

I’d gone through this once before. When I’d unexpectedly killed a man at the presidential inauguration, I was left with the decision: how far was I willing to go? It was then that I meticulously defined my outlook on the nature of murder and established exactly where my limits were. Not only that, but I’d spent the following months fortifying my resolve. Now I was back in the same boat. I needed to set my limits and barricade them.

Although I didn’t really see kissing as the end of the world—and that’s really all I’d done—I recognized the truth in Nic’s words. I hadn’t been trained for that kind of … coercion, nor was it a natural talent. In the end, I’d resorted to using my dimensional skills anyway. Therefore, I decided that using my gender to secure information was a misuse of my assets, regardless of the further fact that it made me feel cheap and compromised.

After spending the long, lonely hours of the night writing my report and analyzing my own resolve, I was emotionally exhausted when I heard the knock late the next morning. I knew it was Nic, of course. I didn’t answer. He knocked again, but I didn’t move a muscle or say a word.

The phone on my desk came alive, and I could hear him through the speaker.  

Open the door, he said. I didn’t. Open it. I may not be able to phase through, but I can still break it down.

I got up with a pained sigh, opened the door, and stepped aside for him to walk through. I just stood there with my arms crossed, staring at the floor. The next thing I knew, Nic’s arms were around me.

“I’m sorry,” he said. And I started crying. Again.

I let him hold my convulsing body but refused to unlock my arms to hold him back.

“I want you to be strong,” he said softly once my sobbing had waned. “But I shouldn’t have touched you.”

I stopped sniffling and pulled back from him.

“That’s what you’re apologizing for?”

He nodded. “I shouldn’t have done it. It was a line I shouldn’t have crossed.”

“Of all the things you could apologize for. That was nothing.”

Nic’s brow furrowed. “What do you think I should be sorry for?”

“For all the mean things you said.”

“I meant every word,” he told me. “I’m not going to apologize for them.”

With an aggravated exhalation, I walked to the couch and grabbed the back of it.  “Well, I meant every word too.”

“You always do.”

“You really are a self-serving … flibbertigibbet,” I blurted.

“Did you just call me a flibbertigibbet?”

“I did.”

“Do you know what it means?”

“Yes.”

“It means a silly, flighty person.”

“I know.”

Nic removed his hands from his pockets to run them through his hair. “Of anyone I’ve ever met, you are the person most suited to that word, and you’re using it on me?”

“I was trying to explain that you take whatever position suits you at the time,” I told him. “You’re inconsistent.”

“Then a better word might’ve been hypocrite or opportunist or—”

“I have a good word. I just can’t say it out loud.”

Nic raised a brow.

“Anyway,” I said, “this isn’t about vocabulary. It’s about you expecting things from me that you don’t even do yourself. You offer no apologies or regrets for what you do with your … girl people, but I’m supposed to be riddled with guilt for one innocent flirtation.”

“It was more than a flirtation.”

“Not much more.”

“Here’s the thing, Faedra,” Nic said. “When we get back, I’ll bet you’ll go straight to work on yourself. You’ll figure out exactly what you did and why you did it. You’ll establish a detailed list of acceptable behavior for yourself in the future. And then you’ll change. You’ll implement your plan and never waiver from it.”

Pursing my lips, I looked down at the white flowers peppering the otherwise navy blue couch.

“If I didn’t know any better,” he said slowly, “I’d say you’ve already done it … in one night.”

I moved around the couch so I could sit back down. “What’s wrong with that?”

“It’s not wrong.” Nic said with a defeated shoulder shrug. “That’s my point. You’re so phenomenally strong that you can be in an uncomfortable, frightening situation, be ridiculed and … attacked by your partner, and still go back to your room and use those experiences to better yourself.”

“You do that, too,” I said. “I just have way more that needs to change. It’s not because I’m strong; I’m not. It’s because I desperately need to change. You should know that better than anyone. You even said so last night.”

Nic chuckled vacantly. “I recognized the truth in your words, too, but do you know what I did last night.”

“Do I want to?”

“I spent all night thinking about how weak I am compared to you. I use my weakness as an excuse, and I justify my behavior with it. I know when we get home I’m going straight back to my old ways. I know it, and I know I can’t change … or won’t. Unlike you. When people push you, you get better. When people push me, I push back.”

I’d never really thought about it before, but it was news to me that Nic honestly thought he wasn’t perfect. I couldn’t tell if that’s because he acted like he was or I just saw him that way.

“Your file said that you have exceptionally strong emotional control,” he told me.

I laughed humorlessly. “Yeah, I’ve heard that one, but I’ve never met somebody with less emotional control than me.”

“I used to think so. It’s taken me this long to fully realize what that means. You laugh louder than anybody I know, and you cry. You can get lost in any situation. You get angry at the drop of a hat.”

“Only at you.”

“I couldn’t understand how someone so emotional could be considered strong. I’ve always tried to be strong by not having any emotions. Then you came along as this unstoppable whirlwind of feeling and strength. It’s addictive. I can’t get enough.”

I glanced warily at him. Was he trying to be funny?

“It seemed like a contradiction to me: strength and feeling. How could you pull it off? Last night I finally figured it out.”

I said nothing.

“When you were with Moretti, you didn’t feel a thing.”

“I did too.”

“Not like you’re supposed to,” Nic said. “Sure you were apprehensive, offended by his aggression, maybe even a little embarrassed that you didn’t know what to do.”

Boy, did Nic have me pegged. Of course, that shouldn’t have surprised me.

“But the thing is, you didn’t feel anything for him.”

“Why would I?” I asked. “It was one date, and he’s our target.”

“That’s my point,” Nic said. “As much as you say you aren’t capable of this type of espionage, the truth is: you’re a natural. That’s what set me off last night—that and spending half an hour of my life scared out of my mind while listening to you …”

He ran his hand through his hair again, and I half expected him to just yank it out.

“That’s ridiculous.” I scoffed. After all, Nic had told me himself how awful I was at it. I was anything but a natural.

“It’s the most sane thing in the world. The reason he was able to fall for you so quickly is because you’re so openly yourself. People want to trust you and know you. But they don’t actually know you; they just think they do.”

“You aren’t making any sense.”

With a bit of a frenzied look on his face, Nic adjusted himself on the couch to face me. Knees spread, leaning forward, arms tense with his own insight.

”You have this core being,” he said, creating a circle with his hands to demonstrate, “that nobody ever sees or touches. It has the toughest barrier in the world. Nothing goes in and nothing goes out.”

“And then you have the rest of you that acts as an encasement of that core being,” he continued. This time he encircled his arms to show how much larger that part of me was than the core. “Everybody has this to some extent. But their core is usually only concealed within a thin layer and surfaces regularly. It bubbles up to the top and is easy to see and touch and hurt.

“Not yours. Your core is securely fastened inside that thick outer shell. It never moves. It never surfaces. So when people see this outer shell of yours and nothing else, they think the outer shell is your core. They think that you expose who you are with such abandon and confidence that they’re immediately drawn to you. And you do to an extent. There’s a lot of substance in that outer shell of yours.

“But what makes you so strong is that you never let that core be touched by anyone. Nobody can ever hurt it because it’s so well protected. Everything that you let your core absorb goes through a very stringent filtering process as it seeps in through your outer layers. By the time it reaches your core, it’s all truth without anything left to damage or hurt you. Your emotional strength comes from the fact that nobody can truly devastate you, yet you can still be touched by your experiences. It’s amazing.”

I just stared at him.

“Of course,” he said, dropping his hands onto the couch next to me, completely underwhelmed by his own insight, “that also means that nobody can truly know you. Moretti was right when he said you’ll never connect with anybody. People only connect when their cores meet. Because nobody will ever have access to yours, you’ll never know that connection. What you did to Moretti, what you did with him was all a matter of abstract morality for you. Semantics. Ethics. I don’t know, but it had nothing to do with him. It had nothing to do with me. It didn’t even have anything to do with you.”

As crazy as Nic sounded, it was true. My entire life summed up with that. My lack of friends throughout my childhood had nothing to do with me being ugly or brainy or annoying. It had everything to do with my inability to connect. Even to my current group of friends. I loved them. Somehow, they loved me back. But there was something keeping us together besides our relationship. Something was helping me connect to them.  

My eyes shot up to Nic’s profile as the realization flooded my awareness. Nic was the glue. Nic was the only one in the universe who’d had brief access to the real me, and my friends were connected to me through him—because he relayed my being to them so effectively. He was my personal interpreter.

“You’ve seen me,” I said. “How?”

Nic adjusted himself on the couch, still not looking at me. He smiled dryly.  

“Dimensional vision maybe,” he said. “It’s like my own four-dimensional ability. Your core is like a sphere within a sphere, and I’m one of the few people who can see inside that inner sphere. But I have to leave the dimension everybody else lives in to do it.”

I nodded. He did have a way of explaining things so they made sense to my mathematical mind.

“And every once in awhile I even get to touch it,” he said, clearly uncomfortable with his own words.

It was true that Nic was the only person I’d ever connected with. In fact, I could feel my inner self begging me to let him touch it right then and there. I wanted to make myself that vulnerable to him and see how it felt—to receive strength from someone else instead of just from myself. I ran to Nic for comfort all the time, but I never got it from him. Not because he didn’t want to give it, but because I couldn’t receive comfort from anyone except myself. In truth, he created the environment that allowed me to find my own comfort.

Unfortunately, that stupid, hardened, highly experienced outer shell took over again, and I felt my core being surrounded, withdrawing from him—hidden before it even had the chance to surface.  

Nic watched me, and I could tell by his expression that he knew what was happening—that I was pulling away again.

“Yeah, like I said,” he remarked wryly, “not very often.”

Guiltily, I looked down again, saddened by my dilemma.

“It’s nothing to feel bad about,” he said as much to himself as to me. “It’s a wonderful thing to be so impervious, especially in this line of work.”

“You’re like that, too,” I told him. “No emotion. Nothing to destroy.”

Nic stared at me for a while before shaking his head. “No, I’m your exact opposite,” he finally said. “You have all your emotion in that outer shell and nothing in the inner core. I’ve imprisoned all my feelings, stuffed them deep inside myself. There’s nothing left for the world to know, nothing left to experience. But that inner part of me can be wounded like nothing else. I can suffer at a fundamental level … I’m completely fragile.”

Although I couldn’t say if I realized it until then, I’d relied on Nic’s superhuman stability. He was impervious and impenetrable, a mooring ball that I could anchor my wayward ship of chaos to. My mind wouldn’t give credence to his confession—wouldn’t allow me to accept his weakness—and I couldn’t understand why he’d want me to anyway. Why would he share such a thing with anyone, let alone me?

I was a bit awestruck in a way I’d never been before. Nic wasn’t perfect. He really wasn’t, and for some reason he wanted me to know it.

Without another word, he rose from the couch and disappeared into the restroom. The sound of running water hit my ears, but I didn’t really pay attention to it. I was still scrutinizing the place he’d just vacated.

“Here’s the thing,” he said, returning from the restroom, “Jensen needs that report. We have responsibilities. I need you to get ready so we can go meet him at the station. A bath of relaxing, warm water awaits you.”

I let him pull me up and readied myself for a therapeutic hug. Instead, I was heaved over his shoulder and carried unceremoniously into the restroom. Nic dropped me into the tub with a loud splunk—clothes and all.

I blew water out of my mouth as I wiped wet hair from my face.  

“Twenty minutes,” Nic said before leaving, and I knew he was really giving me a timeframe in which to pull myself together, not necessarily to finish getting ready.

 

Chapter 29

When I emerged from the restroom, I was a pillar of stability. I’d show him how strong I was, even though he’d been the one saying that and not me. It was a weird sort of rebellion, and illogical as it may be, Nic still found a way to make it work to his advantage.

He had food and coffee waiting for me, which I downed before we rode to the station.  

Detective Jensen met us. “Moretti’s very willing to work with us, but I can’t understand what he’s saying. He keeps talking about the ones who can go inside.”

Nic and I glanced at each other.  

“Those are the people our department deals with,” I told Jensen. “Here’s a copy of the report I’m filing with the DIO. It should help you understand a little better.”

Jensen studied us skeptically. “Are you X-file agents or something?” he asked, trying to be sarcastic but meaning his words more than he’d like to admit. “Do you deal with the paranormal?”

Again, Nic and I looked at each other.  

“Sort of,” I said. “But it’s highly consistent ‘paranormal’ activity. We know exactly what it is and how it works. You should read the report. It will help you.”

“I will,” Jensen nodded, clearly wanting to read it right then and there. “We’ve gotten a lot of names, but he won’t tell us the name of his alleged coercer.”

“He never will because he can’t,” I told him. “He doesn’t know who she is. Neither do we.”

Jensen nodded. “He wants to talk to you.”

The statement was so pointed that there was no denying Jensen meant only me. When I glanced at Nic, his jaw clenched, even though he nodded his agreement. Jensen’s brow furrowed as he looked at Nic, then at me, and then back at Nic again.

Luciano Moretti was seated in a metal chair at a metal desk with his hands cuffed together on the table. Although I didn’t much care for the things he’d done, it was sad to see such an icon of the art community so humbled. He smiled an honest smile at me when I walked in.

I thought of some things that might help you, Moretti said immediately. Although I can’t tell you who she is, I can tell you a few things about her.

Such as?

Her Italian was flawless and her voice was moderately pitched, he told me. Not high or low in range. The first time she approached me, I was in France. Although she’s visited me elsewhere, France has definitely been where she’s made her most frequent appearances.

I nodded. Although four-dimensional people could theoretically avoid appearing in the country of their activity, it was quite unlikely. Therefore, Moretti had actually given me something to work with: a woman of middle tonal quality who spoke perfect Italian and was in France four years ago. Well, that narrowed it down.

Do you remember the precise date? I asked.

He nodded. January thirtieth, he said. It happened the night of the Christie’s auction in Paris.

Has she ever told you anything even remotely personal?

No, I’ve been trying to rummage through my head for something, but I can’t remember anything incriminating other than the contacts. I’ve given Detective Jensen a list of those.

After waiting a few moments to see if Moretti would say anything more, I rose. The chair made a painful screeching noise as metal rubbed against concrete.  

If you think of anything else, let me know, I said.

Are you …, he said but then thought better of it. Are you staying in Venice?

Not much longer, I said, hesitant to give him any sort of personal information.

Moretti looked down, forlorn, and I once again found myself feeling sorry for him.

No one can stop her, Moretti said. Except you.

He raised his eyes, and we stared at each other for a while before I turned and left without another word. Once outside the questioning room, I let my heart clench. Resting a hand on the cold, marble wall, I calmed myself with several deep breaths.

The observation room was next door, and I walked into it. I didn’t look at Moretti through the one-way window—couldn’t stand the sight—and kept my attention on Nic instead.

Jensen was already devouring my report. Nic and Detective Miran were watching Moretti.

“Do we need anything else here?” I asked.

Jensen looked up and shook his head. “I have your contact info. I’ll let you know if anything breaks.”

“We’ll get you a copy of our report as well,” Detective Miran said, talking to me but looking at Nic.

“Thank you,” Nic said, and we left.

***********

Once back at the hotel, Nic followed me silently to my room.

“I think I should stay in Venice,” I said as soon as the door closed behind him. “In fact, I think I should stay at the jail where Moretti is. Nobody can protect him. Those jail walls can’t keep out someone like us. He’s as good as dead if I leave.”

Nic nodded his understanding with a regretful expression. “As happy as I am that Moretti is giving up so much information, and as much as I understand your concern, you can’t stay here. It won’t help anything.”

“It will keep him alive,” I said.

Nic’s chest rose and then sank as he took a deep breath, sliding his hands back into his pockets. “Here are our two options, and I’m not saying this just because I want to kill Moretti myself,” he said. “Either this shifter is more powerful than you, and you’re as good as dead. Or she’s not and won’t show up until you’ve left. Whether you stay a day or a year, he’s a goner. Don’t waste your time; it’s too valuable. The DIO needs you for other operations.”

After sinking onto the floor in front of the couch, I propped my knees up and hugged them.

“I thought I could do it differently,” I said. “I thought that if I didn’t kill, people wouldn’t die because of me.”

“I guess you were wrong,” Nic said plainly.

“How am I supposed to live with this? How am I supposed to go through this every time?”

“I guess you’ll have to find a way.”

“You’re not being helpful,” I said. “Go away.”

And he did.

 

Chapter 30

The Cave was the official headquarters for the Department of Interdimensional Operations. It was out in the middle of the middle of nowhere encased in multiple layers of intricate fractals. Similar to the bunker in which I’d suffered for days when the dimensional pull had assaulted me, it was deep underground and surrounded by some of the most advanced defense technology available. Getting in required several stages of security procedures, just like the ones at the Core. Once inside there were many locations that couldn’t be reached except through dimensional travel. Those without multidimensional ability needed to rely on a shifter. Air tanks were also utilized for the non-dimensional breathers. Oxygen is in endless supply for shifters—much like light. Nothing can be exhausted while free from time, given the infinite number of dimensions available to a shifter.

It was my first official briefing. Although I’d been in front of people before, even scholars, I’d never addressed such a formal-looking group of government leaders. I should’ve been nervous, but I wasn’t. One glance at Nic let me know that he wasn’t worried either. Of course, I couldn’t remember actually seeing him nervous before.

Nic’s calm, however, came from his absolute confidence. Mine came from desensitization. It’s not that I thought I wouldn’t mess up. Actually, I was quite certain I would. But life would go on.

***********

“Do you want to ride with us?” I’d asked Hayden two days ago, much to Nic’s chagrin, only minutes after learning about the impending meeting. People didn’t fly to the Cave, unless it was by private jet. Apparently, flights were too easy to track, and it was just simpler from a logistics standpoint to have people drive in.

Hayden had shaken his head with an amused smile. “I’ll just shift there.”

“All the way to the desert?” I asked.

“Not all at once,” he said.

So Nic and I had driven together. Because I was able to sleep outside of time and he wasn’t, I ended up doing most of the driving. I veered off the road a couple of times; I always did love watching him sleep.

Interjected with odd rock formations, the scenery grew less sparse as we neared the Cave. Nic returned his seat upright and stared out the window.

“Have you been going 90 this whole time?” he asked.

“Mostly.”

We didn’t say much for a while. By then I was so lost in my thoughts, stringing together a plan for how I could dimensionally make this trip next time, that I didn’t feel the need for conversation.

“So, I was wondering,” he said suddenly. But he didn’t continue.

“What?”

“It’s only three weeks until Thanksgiving.”

“Sure, I guess.”

“My family is expecting me.”

“Okay.”

“I hate my family.”

“I know.”

“You haven’t seen your parents in a while,” he told me.

“I know, Nic. Where are you going with this?”

“Would you be willing to spend Thanksgiving with me?” he asked. “And my family.”

Well, that was unexpected.

“I understand it’s asking a lot,” he added quickly. “You haven’t seen your parents in a long time. I know you miss them. They miss you.”

I said nothing.

“And my family sucks,” he said. “It’s a big favor to ask.”

Still nothing.

“Do you need me to drive?” he asked. “Are you falling asleep?”

Mentally, I shook myself from the stupor—a stupor induced by the existence of yet another impossibility in my world.

“No, I’m good,” I said.

Nic was asking me to meet his parents, and I knew him well enough to realize just how much that meant. It was a favor loaded with deeper meaning. Nic wasn’t just telling me I was his best friend; he was showing me.

Being the insanely private boy he was, the revelation of his family, in the flesh, to any outsider was forbidden. Giving me that intimate, personal knowledge of his family was like shedding layers of his own self-protection. It was taking me deeper inside his own psyche—a risk, a vulnerability.

“I can’t visit my parents,” I said. “Not after the dimensional pull. I’ll bet Peter Justice is just waiting for me to return to Philadelphia. Or someone is.”

Now it was his turn to be silent. I felt like blubbering all over the place—telling him how grateful I was for the invitation, how much it meant to me—but I knew he’d hate that. Actually, I’d hate that, too.

I plastered as neutral an expression on my face as I could muster. “Sure, I’ll go.”

“You won’t like my family,” Nic told me.

“Are you trying to talk me out of it?”

“No, I just want you to know what you’re getting yourself into.”

I slowed the car, looking for the entrance of the Cave facilities.

“Even if I can’t stand them,” I said, “I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to meet the people capable of spawning something like you. It’ll be a great intellectual investigation.”

“I just hope they don’t ruin you.”

“They’re not going to ruin me in a couple of days.”

“You’d be surprised.”

Chapter 31

Once the series of security procedures had been passed, Nic and I were led down a series of institutional-looking hallways into a large conference room with stadium seating. Although the room would only hold about thirty people, the seats still sat on raised tiers.

Hayden was already there when we arrived, sitting next to some important-looking man and laughing like they were best friends. Because Hayden didn’t know how to have fun, much less laugh, it was a jarring sight.

As directed, I sat next to Hayden, and Nic sat next to me. We waited for the other attendees to fill in the rest of the seats. Once we were all there, the man next to Hayden stood and walked to the front of the room.

“Good afternoon,” he said. There was a murmur of response from the others. “Thank you for making the trip out.”

Hayden leaned into me. “Clay Vogle,” he whispered. “One of the most powerful men alive. And so good at what he does that very few know it.”

I glanced at Nic to see if he’d heard, but he didn’t return my gaze and remained distant, a stolid look on his face.

“I know you’ve heard of her, and I know you’re dying to meet her,” Vogle said. “So let’s just get to it. Faedra Mae is the youngest shifter ever to be employed by the Department of Interdimensional Operations. She is currently the only active shifter extraordinaire working with the American government. She holds a doctorate of philosophy in dimensional studies from the Advanced Dimensional Studies Institute, which she will begin attending next summer.”

That was news to me. A few in the group chuckled.

“Dr. Mae has published a total of four peer-reviewed papers on the topic of dimensional studies and has paved the way for physicists, engineers, and mathematicians to utilize interdimensional understanding and technology. To date, there are eight award-winning inventions based solely on her research. She is recognized worldwide as a leader in her field.

“In addition to her academic pursuits, Dr. Mae is the youngest student to earn the Ferris Shifting Certification and the youngest female to pass the Duncan-Williams Agent Readiness Training.”

It was a good thing I’d attended. There was no doubt I was learning more about myself than anyone else was.

“Already, Dr. Mae has several successful operations under her belt,” he continued. “Including the capture of three enemy shifters, the assassination of a terrorist, the location and assassination of a rogue agent, and the protection of our own President and thousands of citizens attending this year’s Inauguration.”

I never assassinated anyone! Nic shook his head almost imperceptibly, his face rigid with warning, but it was enough to draw my attention. With clenched teeth, I relaxed my posture.

“Let me introduce Dr. Faedra Mae to you,” Clay Vogle said. “Shifter extraordinaire. If you’re wondering what she looks like, you won’t be disappointed. But don’t get too excited because she’s only fifteen.”

Both Nic and Hayden tensed at my sides. They’d caught it. Not only were Vogle’s end remarks unprofessional, they were intentionally meant to degrade me. To paint me at best as a punk kid, at worst as a sex object. But definitely not as a colleague and nowhere near an equal.

I rose and glared at the man. The other attendees, almost all male, clapped as Vogle and I walked past each other. I supposed coming from anyone else, the accolades would’ve been complimentary. Coming from Clay Vogle, however, they were meant to demean the system—to point out a ridiculous flaw: a fifteen-year-old girl was among them.

These guys were good. I don’t know what I was expecting: a group of military jocks yelling battle cries, maybe. But these men were smart. They were insightful and knew how to ask tough questions. Unlike Vogle, they maintained professional attitudes, asking only questions relevant to my operations. If something tended to the personal side, such as my emotional maturity or my ability to handle the stress of my situation, they were approached from a purely analytical standpoint.

With all personal content removed, I felt much more comfortable.They were essentially speaking my mother tongue. In fact, Hayden could barely suppress his self-gratification. Others might construe it as pride, but I knew better. He claimed all of my success as his own and all of his failure as someone else’s.

“How do you interpret your ability?” a man from the other side of the room asked, drawing my attention away from Hayden’s haughty grin. “Do you believe that this level of unchallenged power has the capacity to corrupt?”

“The day I lose sight of the danger I am to myself is the day I lose sight of myself,” I replied. “I used to think that power corrupts, but now I believe that it amplifies. More power means more ability to abuse. But more power also means more ability to serve. Like electricity, the higher the voltage, the greater the possibilities … and the threat. Power simply intensifies what’s already there.”

Not only did I sound better on paper than I was in real life, apparently I sounded better in a briefing than I did in real life, too. Whether it was the extra adrenaline that sparked my brain to work more efficiently or whether lecturing a roomful of the country’s top leaders was simply my cup of tea, I couldn’t say. Maybe it was a bit of both.

After I finished, Nic didn’t wait to be introduced and took his place at the front, hands dangling casually in his pockets. Whereas I commanded attention with my charged intensity and passion, Nic did it with his mere presence. Every eye turned to him and every ear waited for something to come out of his mouth. Even hardened military men weren’t immune to him.

 

Chapter 32

It was a long trip for just one meeting. The tour of the facilities had been nice, necessary even, but still.

“I’m going to call Peter Justice,” I announced about an hour outside of New York.

Nic furrowed his brow. “The phone is at the apartment.”

“Yeah, I’m just letting you know.”

“Okay.” He readjusted his hold on the wheel. “You did great back there.”

“Thanks, so did you.”

“No, I mean it, Faedra. I’ve never seen anyone put Vogle in his place like that before.”

“I meant it, too,” I told him. “But I didn’t do anything to Vogle. I ignored him.”

“And you did it perfectly,” he said. “Nobody doubted you belonged up there. You owned that room, and that made Vogle look like a spiteful idiot.”

“Oh.” I watched the trees zoom past us. “Wait, when have you seen Vogle before?”

Nic averted his face.

“Why? Why do they trust you so much more than me? It’s not fair. You already know way more than me.”

“It’s not a competition,” he said.

“Not for you, maybe,” I said.

When it was clear that Nic was finished talking, I rehearsed my conversation with the founder of IDS over and over again in my head. Of course, I didn’t actually rehearse anything I could say, just things I wanted to say. The rest of the drive didn’t take nearly as long as I hoped it would.

Nic trailed me into the apartment and then immediately walked to his room. He returned with the phone and extended it to me. I took it.

It was difficult to hold my hand steady as I went to the contact list.

“I can’t do this,” I said more to myself than to Nic.

He grabbed my free hand and squeezed it. A couple of deep breaths later, I placed the call. It rang twice.

“So you did call back,” the calm, frighteningly pleasant voice said. “I thought it might take another video.”  

He waited for a response, but I couldn’t give him one.

“I know what you think of me,” he said. “I hope someday we’ll be able to get past that.”  

Again, I said nothing.

“I don’t want this to be uncomfortable for you,” he said, and I could hear a smile. It made me nauseous. “So I’m going to help you with our first conversation. I want you to repeat after me. Can you do that?”

Nothing.  

“I’m sure you can,” he answered for me. “I want you to say: Hello, Peter, I’m Faedra.”

He waited.

I swallowed past the bile in my throat and surprised myself with the sound of my own voice. “Hello, Peter. I’m Faedra.”  

The tension in Nic’s body beside me was a tangible thing.

“Excellent,” Peter said. “I’ve been looking forward to talking with you again. It’s been a while.” We were both silent for another moment. “Now you can ask: How did you know about me? Because I’m sure you’re dying to find out.”

“How did you know about me?”

“Someday you’ll be able to do the same,” he said. “When you can detach from time so fully that you can see people and events as they are.”

“I know what you saw,” I told him.

“Now that’s progress. You are catching on to this whole conversation thing, aren’t you?”  

“Why didn’t you just kill me when you had the chance?”

He chuckled. “Once you find the words, you don’t mince them, do you?” he said, but I simply waited for the answer. “I came for you in Philadelphia. I’m sure you felt me, but you resisted admirably. I was testing your limits. Until then, I had underestimated you. One of my talents is that I always learn from my mistakes, and I never plan on underestimating you again. I thought I could twist fate.” He stopped for a moment, and I waited for the explanation he still hadn’t given. “But, the fact of the matter is, I don’t want you dead.”

“Why not? What do you want from me?”

“Faedra, I’m going to tell you the truth, and I want you to listen to my words,” he said slowly, as if enunciating more than usual. “All I want from you is this—a conversation once a week.”

I stared at the wall, not really seeing anything, more frightened now than before I’d called. I was expecting threats or ultimatums, but I definitely wasn’t expecting this.

“Good then,” he said, and I could hear the smile again. “If you’ll just call me in about a week, we can avoid any further dilemmas. You call me when you get the time. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.”

When I didn’t respond, Peter Justice lowered his voice, making the tone far too intimate, and said, “Good bye, Faedra. Thank you for calling.”

I hung up.

Exhaling so loudly it sounded like a combined moan and exasperated laugh, I fell onto the couch. Nic sat beside me, and I looked at him, almost forgetting he’d been there the whole time.

“How are you?” he asked.

“That was intense. I thought he’d have something specific for me to do, but all he wants to do is talk to me.”

“About what?”

“About nothing.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“I know.”

I transcribed the conversation on my plasma paper and then sat back, reliving the conversation again and again—the disconcerting tone in his voice. His rich, dulcet baritone. The sound of a breeze. The voice a panther would have if panthers could speak. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have defined it as kind.

 

Chapter 33

The beach house owned by the Sinclair-Archers was, in fact, a Victorian-style mansion built on a small peninsula in Martha’s Vineyard. From my bedroom window, I could see a lighthouse standing quaintly on a slab of rock.

Nic complained almost incessantly about his parents as we drove to the house, but they were waiting eagerly on the front porch when we arrived. I was simply anxious for a little insight into the boy I called my best friend.

“Dominic didn’t tell us how pretty you are, Faedra,” Nic’s mother said, and I could tell she was just being polite. I could tell from the way Violet said that one statement that this was a woman who breathed, ate, and slept lies. It was impressive.

“Dominic has to look at his own reflection every day,” I said. “ Could anyone measure up?”

Nic’s father, Liam, laughed unexpectedly at the remark, catching us all off guard.

Samantha, Nic’s oldest sister, looked exactly like Nic only female. She was the ideal eldest child—constantly trying to live up to her parents’ expectations. Her fiancé was a brown-haired bore. The only things he had going for him were his money and family name. Although Liam was clearly pleased with the match, he showed no further interest in a relationship with his future son-in-law.

Josephine was the middle sister. She had vibrant auburn hair and Nic’s dry sense of humor. She also had her share of his rebellious nature, and I felt instantly disliked by her. Her haughty manners were made even more dangerous by the fact that she held herself above every sect of society, rich and poor alike. She looked up to no one, no one except Nic, that is. She doted on him.

That evening, for a meal more formal than I’d ever had before, we sat around an oversized table that was polished so brilliantly it could’ve been made of glass and not wood. Nic’s mother was at one end, his father at the other. Neighbors had joined us just to fill all the seats, or so it seemed. Nic sat on my left, closest to his mother, and the nephew of a family friend sat on my right. At least Vespa’s training in the finer points of etiquette wasn’t going to waste any longer.

“What does your father do?” Liam interrupted the conversation in that authoritative way of his. He came first. That was the way it was. Obediently, I stopped my conversation with the nephew on my right.

“He’s a mathematician.”

“Really?” Violet said with false interest. “How fascinating.”

“Have I heard of him?” Liam asked.

“It’s doubtful.”

“Why is that?”

“How many mathematicians have you heard of?” I said.

Liam chuckled. Vespa rule number two-hundred and something-something: modesty and recognition of inferiority are always appreciated by old money. I could elevate myself mentally in this world, but never should I presume to be a social equal. Equally as important, it was never permissible to talk about money—at any time. However, it was always acceptable to give them ample reason to refer to their immense wealth.

“Mr. Archer … Liam,” I said. Another trick: forget to address them informally. That way you aren’t disobeying them, but you aren’t forgetting how much you respect them. “Nic never told me what the family business is.”

“Didn’t he?” Liam flashed a knowing look to his son. “Steel. Originally.”

I smiled, mapping the conversation out in my head. “Like Carnegie,” I said. “A good investment at the time. A good international investment these days as well.”

Liam’s face looked shocked that I knew anything about the steel business or Carnegie. Truth be told, I knew very little. I think I went to the opera with him or something like that back at IDS. I remembered him espousing humanistic views with much enthusiasm.

“I like to model myself after that great man,” he said.

“His humanitarian efforts or his business endeavors?”

“Both, I suppose,” Liam said. “What do you think of him … of Carnegie?”

I shrugged.  “Whatever his motivation, he certainly did many good things for society.”

The table grew even more silent than it already was as breaths were held.

“What do you mean about his motivation?” Liam asked. “He was a great philanthropist.”

“For many,” I said. “But along with his humanist contemporaries of the Gilded Age, he seemed to believe that, given the opportunity, the truly worthwhile would always prosper. Although he acknowledged the role of good luck, he downplayed the role of bad luck. His altruism had limits.”

“God helps those who help themselves,” Liam quoted. “Do you disagree?”

“Sometimes I think the world needs the hopeless,” I said. “We need the poor and the stupid and the weak. It’s only in those situations that our best can come forward. Otherwise, as a society, we become too arrogant. Suffering is the language of humanity. It creates empathy and humility. Pride in our own ability is a cancer that brings us down.”

“Are you saying we should keep the helpless that way because we need them? That sounds sadistic,” Liam said.

“What I’m saying is that we’re all needy and helpless,” I told him. “At some point in our lives none of us can help ourselves—none of us can give back to society. If nothing else, we were all infants once. So if helping ourselves requires the ability to contribute positively to our own condition or to society as a whole, then none of us can help ourselves at some point. It becomes a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if.’ Time becomes the defining factor of worthiness and not character.”

Liam raised his brows. “Well,” he said, “ It’s nice to see a young person who can support her opinions. We’ll have to discuss this further.”

The rest of the group visibly relaxed.

Smiling, Liam picked up his fork and pointed it at me.  “We’ll be watching your future to see what time brings you.”

The group laughed awkwardly and returned to their previous conversations. I glanced over in time to see Nic rub his brow.

“Oh, come on,” I whispered to him. “You don’t think I’d just walk into the lion’s den, do you?”

“I wasn’t sure,” he said. “My father doesn’t meet his match every day, and I venture to say he’d never met it in a fifteen-year-old girl before.”

Afterwards, the nephew on my right was less anxious to talk to me than before, and I found myself somewhat isolated for the remainder of the meal.

 

Chapter 34

After dinner the men left to go into one room and the women to another, like in one of Lucy’s historical reenactments. The women gossiped and talked of trends: trends in fashion, trends in decor, trends in society—their society. All of these topics excluded me. Josephine, who was leaning against the fireplace playing with some freshly cut flowers, looked as uninterested in the conversation as I was. I had learned, however, that Joe was not open to any friendly gestures. The first time I’d tried talking to her, she held up a hand with the implication that she needed to concentrate on her text message. Then she’d left. And that had been the sum total of our interaction.

I returned to my study of the painting beside me.

“It’s not very good, is it?”

I looked to my side to see Josephine standing close to me. Not waiting for a response, she continued. “My family has notoriously bad taste in art. My grandfather commissioned this work of the beach, believing that the artist would one day be famous. It’s been sixty years, and nobody’s heard of the guy.”

I looked at the painting. “It’s not bad,” I said, “but it’s an everyday talent.”

Joe smiled slightly. “I have a friend who I know is going to be famous someday, but nobody in this family can see his talent—at least no one with money to invest.”

“A friend?”

“His name is Edgar. Hideous name, isn’t it?”

“Like Dégas,” I said.

“Dégas was a misogynist.”

“Sure. But he was talented and now he’s famous.”

Joe privileged me with another of her half-smiles. “I used to catch Dominic behind the pool house all the time making out with some girl or another,” she said. “Since he was twelve.”

I blinked from the sudden switch in the conversation. “I believe it.”

“He never remembered their names. You could ask him ten minutes later who it was, and he couldn’t tell you.”

“That sounds about right.”

“He’s left a trail of broken hearts a mile long—quite an accomplishment for someone so young.” I studied her expression, wondering what she was really trying to say. “They were stupid girls, so it didn’t matter that they were so careless with their feelings … as long as Dominic didn’t get hurt.”

“That sounds like quite a double standard,” I said. “But I wouldn’t worry about Nic. I’ve never seen anyone more capable of protecting his emotions. And you really don’t need to worry about me at all. Nic and I find each other mutually repulsive.”

“Repulsive?” Josephine laughed, drawing the attention of several other women. She smiled at them over-sweetly until they looked away again. “That’s a word I’ve never heard used to describe Dominic before.”

“It’s just the way it is,” I told her. “Ask him.”

“I have.”

“Really? What did he say?”

Josephine tapped her chin while she thought. “What were his exact words? Something to the effect that he’d rather be rubbed to death by sandpaper with country music playing in the background.”

I laughed and then cut myself short. “That was harsh.”

“Harsher than repulsive?”

“I think a painful death is a little harsher than mere aversion.”

“You two are funny,” Josephine told me. “He said you’re smart, but I think you’re crazy. He’s the catch of the century.”

“I agree. He is pretty well perfect.”

“Why? What has he told you?” she asked. “I never said perfect, believe me.”

My first true insight. I couldn’t wait, was near giddy with anticipation, but our conversation was cut short as the men joined us again. Nic shot me an apologetic look, clearly concerned about leaving me unprotected for so long. His brow arched when he saw Joe by my side. It was weird to see Nic act so unsure and … protective. And around his family, of all people.

Some of the guests left to go home. Several of the older men stayed to debate politics while their wives debated other wives. The younger group drummed up a semi-exciting game of Texas Hold ’Em. Although I wasn’t much of a bluffer, I did have the advantage of being able to compute probabilities quickly in my head. As long as I bet based on the probability of winning, I won almost every hand I played.

“What rotten luck,” Samantha’s fiancé whined as he threw his cards down. He had just gone out of the game, and I was glad it hadn’t been because of me.

“It’s just a game,” Samantha told him.

“I always lose when I play with people who don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “We need to get some real poker players in here. Then you’ll see what I can do.”  

With that, he crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, sulking. It wasn’t long before he left to go discuss politics with the older men. Samantha kept her eyes down, and I could see she was embarrassed but unable to do anything about her situation. It was obvious that Samantha didn’t really like the man she was about to marry. I turned a questioning look to Nic, but he just shrugged.

 

Chapter 35

I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow and was awake ten minutes later. I stayed in bed for another hour, staring at the ceiling as I analyzed each member of Nic’s family in excruciating detail. Finally, with a heavy sigh, I shifted from my room to Nic’s.

His slumbering face was calm and smooth, and it took me to a peaceful place—a place that only Nic could take me. I crawled into bed with him, accidentally touching his leg with my foot. He jumped.

After turning on the light, he looked at me.

“You scared the hell out of me,” he said, his voice still raw.

His tousled hair was a reminder that he wasn’t always so perfect. In fact, he was cute—more approachable, more like a carefree boy than a sophisticated man.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I was bored,” I whispered, although there was no need to lower my voice. If his family hadn’t heard him cursing at me, they wouldn’t hear me talking quietly.

Tension gripped Nic’s body, and he looked down. Keeping himself covered by the sheets, he groped the floor next to his bed. After finding what he was looking for, he slid the boxers on beneath the covers and then exhaled his relief.  

“You really need to be more careful,” he said. “I don’t always wear something when I sleep. I thought I’d be safe here.”

He sat up, striped boxers resting dangerously low on his hips.

“I have four-dimensional vision, remember?” I said. “If I wanted to see something, I could just look.”

Nic’s eyes widened. “Have you?”

“Of course not. Now, stop worrying. I brought you something.”

“What time is it?”

“About two.”

The something I brought was more of a treat for me than for him. One of the first things I did with my ample budget for research materials was subscribe to several math journals. Many of them were electronic, but some preferred a more archaic method of publication. My first archaic journal arrived the day before we left. I set it in his lap.

He smiled at the glossy cover. “You expect me to wake out of a dead sleep and be able to do this?”

We stayed in his bed for hours working together until Nic fell asleep again. I let him be, piling the papers on a table before I left to go back to my lonely room and read.

True to form, I had another ten-minute, full night’s sleep around six the next morning. I got up, showered, and readied myself for the day. When I went downstairs, nobody else, except for the staff, was up yet, and I took advantage of my solitude to explore the house. There were a few more paintings of interest and some books that I thumbed through.

“Aren’t you an early riser?” Josephine’s voice sounded from the stairs.

“It’s annoying,” I said. “Sometimes I wish I could just sleep in.”

Joe half-smiled when I looked at her. “Me too.”

She grabbed an apple from the counter and pulled out her phone.

“They’ll lay out breakfast soon,” she told me. Then she left.

Breakfast was elaborate, mostly made of cold foods: fruit and cheese, cold meat and spread. I watched a stout woman run oranges through a machine, producing about one glass of pulp-free orange juice for every three or four oranges. I helped myself to some freshly cut pineapple as well as a fruit salad. I also grabbed a few slices of cheese and spread some Camembert over a warm baguette.

“If we can get you anything else, just let us know,” a staff member told me.

“Thank you.”

The woman brought me a cup of coffee, and I sat by myself, eating and watching the waves crash over the rugged rocks.

“I do like the view here,” Nic said behind me, “but it’s the only thing.”

“You’re up early.”

“Especially since someone felt the need to keep me awake half the night.” He grabbed a strawberry off my plate.

“There’s a whole bowl of strawberries right behind you,” I told him.

“Yes, but it wouldn’t make you mad if I took one of those.”

The stout woman brought Nic a cup of coffee.  

“I’ll need something a little stronger this morning,” he told her. She left with his untouched coffee.

Nic hadn’t bothered to put on a shirt, and the cup rattled against the saucer as the woman returned to the kitchen. The coffee cup she’d brought me sure hadn’t done that.

“So, what do you usually do for Thanksgiving?” I asked Nic. We both hated uninspired conversations, and I silently chastised myself for the bit of small talk. It just seemed the thing to do in that house.

“Food, football,” he replied absently. “Same as anybody else.”

I said nothing more and nursed my coffee instead. Nic grabbed another one of my strawberries.

“I think we’re going sailing on Saturday; it’s supposed to be nice,” he said before heading back upstairs to get ready. The woman returned with his espresso after he’d left, clearly disappointed.

“He’ll be back soon,” I told her.

She nodded.

I took my coffee out to the front porch and sat on one of the oversized wooden rocking chairs. They were unexpectedly comfortable, and I propped up a knee as a makeshift table for my coffee. The front door squeaked again.

I was expecting Nic, but it was his father who found me this time.

Liam walked to the chair beside me and sat down. “The sea is always different,” he said. “I don’t know how that can be, but it always is. I never get tired of it.”

“It’s beautiful. I lived close to the beach for a while. I miss it. I miss falling asleep to the sound of the surf.”

Liam took out a cigar, and I eyed him. It seemed too early for such an activity.

He rolled it between his fingers. “Want one?”

“Sure,” I said, surprising us both.

With an amused smile, quite similar to his son’s, Liam extended the cigar box to me, and I took one.

He grabbed the cigar out of my hand with a chuckle, clipped off the end, and handed it back to me. I put it in my mouth.

“Breathe in,” he told me as he lit the end. I did, but it took several attempts to light.

“You know you’re not supposed to inhale?” he said. “Just puff.”

I nodded because my mouth was too puckered to speak. One drag on the thing seemed to drain every bit of moisture from my face, and it took everything I had not to cough. After a few more inhalations, I began to get the hang of it.

Liam watched me with an amused expression.

Once I got used to it, I recognized how nicely the heat and aroma rolled over my tongue, like a gentle fog rather than the electric storm I was expecting.

“It’s smooth,” I said.

He nodded. “Do you like it?”

“I do,” I said, as shocked by the revelation as he was.

We rocked for awhile in silence, puffing on cigars.

“Liam is short for William?” I asked him, although I already knew the answer. “Is that an Archer family tradition—to shorten your names with the ending rather than the beginning?”

“No.” He shook his head contemplatively as if confronted with the odd coincidence for the first time. “It just happened that way. Dominic is named after his grandfather on the Sinclair side. Dominic Sinclair came from one of the most prominent families in England. He married a French actress, much against his family’s wishes. Dominic gets his looks from her. She was beautiful. Violet was raised in France by her mother. Her father died when she was twelve.”

“That’s tragic.”

“That’s life,” Liam said. “I’m just glad for her sake that Dominic is who he is. He has the brilliance and presence of his grandfather and the looks and charisma of his grandmother. I knew them both, even if I was just a boy.”

We sat in contemplation, enjoying the music created by the rhythmic squeaks and moans of our rockers. Insights into Nic’s life were invaluable, even if they only made him seem more like an otherworldly Victorian novel character and less like my best friend. I puffed my cigar.

“You’re a pretty moral person, aren’t you?” Liam said suddenly. “Very straightforward.”

I didn’t know how to answer, especially seeing that a cigar was resting between my lips, so I decided that the best thing to do was to make the question impersonal.

“I have to be,” I said. “Middle-class morality.”

Liam laughed loudly. “You’re referring to Pygmalion?”

I nodded. “I’m right there in the middle. Not too low to be beneath it and not too high to be above it.”

“True, true,” Liam said. “So what does that make me?”

“Unhappy.” It was out of my mouth before I knew it was coming.

Liam stopped rocking and stared at me.

The front door opened again, and Nic came out. After seeing his father and me sitting together smoking cigars, he walked right past us without a word.

That broke the uncomfortable moment, and Liam and I shared an amused grin.

“You know, Faedra, truer words were never spoken.”

I stared at Nic’s distant form as he walked barefoot in the sand.

“The worst thing is that we do it to our children,” Liam said. “We force it on them. It’s twisted for a parent to want his child to be unhappy.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Why do you think we do it?”

“I guess it’s because you don’t know anything else,” I said. “An unhappy reality is usually more appealing than an unknown reality.”

I could still feel Liam’s gaze on me as I stared at the beach, watching Nic pace nervously and sling sand with his foot.

“You act like you don’t care about money,” Liam said. “Like you don’t want Dominic’s money.”

That was unexpected. It had never occurred to me that Nic’s father would be the one to ignore all the social protocols.

“Dominic doesn’t have any money.”

Chuckling, Liam examined his cigar.

“There’s no chance for anything between the two of you?” he asked. “No chance of talking you into loving him for my money … or his looks?”

“No chance.”

“Pity.”

He took the cigar from me with a friendly smile.

“You can finish this later,” he said. “Dominic’s waiting for you, and he’s probably worried to death.”

***********

“What was that all about?” Nic asked me the moment I was within earshot.

“Your father was telling me how I’m not good enough for you,” I said. Nic raised a skeptical brow. “We were just talking about your family tree.”

Nic looked back down to the sand, to the strange pattern he’d created with his feet.

“How did your family take the news about IDS?” I asked.

He smiled to himself. “Not well. My father argued about Eton tradition until he was blue in the face. They don’t know anything about the true nature of IDS.”

“Josephine is in love with an artist,” I told him.

“I know.” He smiled again. “Father’s going to love that.”

“Why is Samantha marrying a man she doesn’t even like?”

“I don’t think she realizes she has a choice,” Nic said. “She doesn’t know what it’s like to be happy or in love and she’s never seen it, so she has nothing to compare it to.”

“How do you know?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re happy,” I said. “Sort of. And you definitely aren’t going to settle for anyone. Why are you so different than your family?”

He stopped drawing designs in the sand with his foot and looked over my head, toward the beach house.

“I wasn’t so different before I met you,” he said. “I wasn’t different at all.”

I stared at his face, searching for the mockery that simply wasn’t there. He motioned farther down the beach with a jerk of his head. We walked in silence.

The private beach ended, so we found a good look-off point and sat down in the sand. I leaned back against a dune, and Nic slumped next to me. After a few minutes, he moved, and it was a disjointed movement that struck me as uncharacteristic, out of place for such an innocent motion. Then he curled his arm under his side and rested his head in my lap. He held his breath, clearly uncomfortable with his own choice.

At first I didn’t know what to do. In all the time I’d known him, I’d never seen such a childlike gesture from him. It was all trust and innocence. Not Nic at all. Stupidly, I stared at his profile as the reality trickled into my understanding.

After a while of marveling at his closeness, it felt wrong not to reciprocate in some way. Tentatively, I raised my hand and let it drift to his head, slowly, gently. I touched his hair—the feel of a thousand silk scarfs gliding over my fingers.

He didn’t stop me. He didn’t yell at me. He didn’t tease me. So I continued. I stroked his hair with eager fingers—fingers longing to enmesh themselves in the feel of perfection.

 It wasn’t long before he fell asleep, and seeing that I was the one who’d kept him up the night before, I let him sleep there as long as he liked. It was two hours before he moved again. Two hours of gentle waves, the occasional squawk of a gull, and the kind of happiness that only exists in the presence of a best friend.

 

Chapter 36

Thanksgiving meal was weird. Nic’s family didn’t feel entirely comfortable with itself, much less with the guests, and it wasn’t the loud, boisterous occasion it should’ve been. The men drifted into the media room, which looked out of place in an old Victorian mansion, to watch the game after the meal. The women retired to a large white and pink room, which was peppered with chairs. Nobody overate. If they tried, Violet would stare them down until they relinquished all utensils.

It felt odd not helping clean after the meal. Every time I glimpsed a staff member hard at work, I felt a pang of guilt. They’d been there all day cooking and cleaning instead of at home with their own families. Nobody else seemed to notice the injustice, and when I offered to help, I was gruffly denied by two women whose eyes darted around nervously as I talked to them.

Thanks to Nic and the Jay brothers, I liked football and wondered if it would be acceptable to go watch the football game with the men.

Joe came up beside me and handed me a drink. She half-smiled knowingly like she could read my thoughts. That talent must run in the family.

“I’m not a big fan of football,” she said, “but I’d rather watch that than sit here and talk about nothing. You can come if you’d like.”

“I won’t seem rude?”

She shrugged. “No ruder than me.”

“But you’re family. It’s your prerogative to be rude.”

She laughed. “I promise, no one will think you’re rude. They’ll probably thank you for taking me off their hands. I’m a downer in groups like this.”

I followed her.

“I’m taking Faedra with me to watch the game,” Joe announced to her mother and the women in her mother’s elite little group. Seriously, it was a “by invitation only” group. As socially unaware as I was, even I could pick up on that.

Her mother consented unhappily.

Joe and I ran to the other end of the house like we were about to do something forbidden. Deep male voices bellowed over one thing or another.

Nic came to us the minute we walked through the door, and the three of us found a spot on a couch. Joe immediately curled up next to him and grabbed her cell phone to text someone, presumably the artist.

He wrapped an arm around each of us and pulled us both to him. His sister and me. Like I was one of his sisters. Like he was pretending or stating to me that I was his sister. I couldn’t help but pretend back.

Unlike Joe, I actually wanted to watch the game. The men, however, didn’t seem overly interested. They watched for a while in relative silence, and then one of them said something that caused a heated discussion for minutes to follow. The behavior was repeated in a cyclical pattern, like clockwork.

***********

Late that evening, after most of the company had left, Violet approached me with an expectant look. She never spoke to me unless we had witnesses and felt the need to be polite. I stiffened in response, like my commanding officer had just walked in the room.

“Are you having a nice time?” she asked.

“Very much. Thank you.”

Joe and Sam joined us at the table. “We have a little Thanksgiving tradition,” Violet said. “We usually spend Friday at the spa.”

“The spa? For Thanksgiving?”

I glanced at Joe to see if her mother was serious, and Joe hid a smirk under her wrist.

Violet smiled. “It’s such a lovely tradition. Such a fun time for us girls. The men have their football today and sailing on Saturday. We need a day too.”

“That sounds very nice.”

“I know you’re here to spend time with Dominic,” Violet said, “but we were hoping you’d join us tomorrow.”

“Of course, I’d love to,” I lied. “Thank you for the invitation.”

***********

When I snuck into Nic’s room that night, I was more careful not to surprise him. Unfortunately, he still jumped and grabbed my arm after I whispered his name.

“Stop doing that,” he said.

“I’m not trying to scare you. I don’t know a better way to wake you.”

I crawled over him, slid under the blankets, and warmed my feet under his leg.

“Why are you so cold?” he asked.

“I’ve been out of bed for a while.”

Nic rolled over and reached into his side table. I watched his shirtless body, his bare muscles tightening and stretching. I swallowed. He pulled out a chess set and began to set it up on the bed.

Three hours later, Nic fell asleep, even though the game wasn’t finished yet, and I watched him sleep for a while. Several books were lying around, and I grabbed one. I stayed in his room all night and fell asleep again just as the sky began to lighten. I roused before he did and remained in bed with him until he woke up. I was almost finished the book.

“What time is it?” he asked.

“Eight-thirty.”

“What are you still doing here?”

“Reading,” I said. “I’m almost done.”

He twisted my hand around so that he could see the title and then covered his eyes with his arm and fell back against his pillow. A knock sounded at the door.

“Dominic,” Joe’s voice came from behind the door. “Have you seen Faedra? She’s not in her room, and we were hoping to leave by nine.”

The handle turned and the door began to open. I phased from view. Tempted as I was to stay and observe the ensuing conversation between Nic and his sister, I returned to my room, dressed, and headed to the library.

A few minutes following, I heard two pairs of footsteps coming down the main staircase.

“There you are,” Joe said. “We’ve been looking all over for you. What are you doing?”

Holding up the book in my hand, I pointed to it. “Reading.”

“Oh.” She seemed disappointed. “Will you be ready to go soon?”

“Sure.”

“Good. I’ll go tell Mother.”

As soon as they left, I returned to Nic’s room.  

“What happened?” I asked him.

He smiled to himself.  “Let’s just say that a chess board set up in the middle of my bed and a scrunched pillow and wrinkled sheets on the other side were really hard to talk my way out of.”

“Uh oh. Did I get you in trouble?”

“No.”

 

Chapter 37

Spa day with the Archer women was an experience. “With” was a relative term, however, because most of our time was spent separately—spending the day together without actually spending the day together. I had a mud bath, a seaweed wrap, a steam tent, a massage, a hair treatment, a facial, a manicure, and a pedicure. I felt like I’d run a marathon and was too tired to initiate conversation in the car on the way home.

“How did you like your day?” Violet asked me.

“It was very nice, thank you. I’m exhausted.”

Violet elegantly fake-laughed, and the car grew silent again. Joe was fixated by her phone, and Sam was fixated by her own somber reflection in the car window.

“Do you love my son?” Violet asked suddenly.

“Excuse me?”

“Dominic,” she said. “Do you love him?”

“Yes.”

Violet scrutinized me for a second before rephrasing her question.

“Are you in love with him?”

I felt my face redden. “No.”

“Why ever not?”

“Mother, you’re making Faedra uncomfortable,” Joe said.

“I’m only fifteen,” I reminded them.

Violet waved away the excuse. “I’ve never been in love again like I was at fifteen.”

Although intrigued by Violet’s statement, I had no idea how to answer the question.

“Dominic is happy around you.” Violet said. “He’s a different person.”

“He’s not in love with me either,” I said.

Violet adjusted the position of her gloved hands in her lap and sighed a very feminine sigh.

“She’s right, Mother,” Josephine said. “I’ve talked to Dominic about it myself.”

Violet cleared her throat. “I suppose that’s acceptable. Although I’m still curious why you don’t love him.”

The woman was relentless. Unfortunately, I couldn’t satisfactorily explain it either: it didn’t make sense.

“The first time I saw Nic I was speechless,” I said. “He was the most beautiful thing I’d ever laid eyes on.”  

A self-satisfied expression consumed Violet’s face.  

“He was surrounded by girls. Adrian and Adam were there, too. What a sight that was. Nic asked to sit with me the next time I saw him, and I was … offended. I was a loner and frumpy looking, and I couldn’t believe that a guy like Nic would actually spend time with me without an ulterior motive. I assumed he wanted to make fun of me or use me to do his homework or something.  

“So I got upset, and he interpreted my anger as dislike. This, in turn, made him angry. We ran into each other multiple times afterwards and were antagonistic. Nic’s rude behavior confirmed my suspicion that he wanted to make me feel bad. My insolence led him to believe that I was a snob and unjustly mean.  

“But our roommates hit it off and wanted to be together all the time. At that point, I still wanted to avoid Nic like the plague because he made me feel inadequate … entirely inadequate. But we were forced to spend time together because of our roommates, and we developed a tolerance for each other’s company. The more we were together, the more we realized how much we had in common. It went from there, but we never got past our original hostility; it’s a hard habit to break.”

I waited nervously for a response and caught myself fidgeting with my perfect nails. I made myself stop trying to peel off the polish.

“Let me get this straight,” Violet said. “You think Dominic is too good for you. That’s why you don’t love him?”

“Sort of.”

“Still?” Joe asked.

I nodded.

“I suppose, as a mother, I can live with that explanation,” Violet said. “Even if it is highly unreasonable.”

A woman like Violet wouldn’t be able to empathize with me, but at least she showed signs of accepting my inane excuse. I thought the interrogation was over. I was wrong.

“Has he made love to you?” Violet demanded abruptly.

Sam and Joe gasped in unison. “Mother.”

“No!” My voice was much louder than the enclosed vehicle required.

Violet tilted her head in a minor show of acquiescence. “Has he kissed you then?”

“Mother.” Sam scoffed again.

Joe didn’t interfere that time since my lack of an immediate denial obviously incensed her curiosity.

“Well … yes, but there was a very good reason for it,” I said. “It was an act, a performance for … I know it doesn’t make any sense.”

“How many times?” Violet asked, ignoring everyone’s discomfort.

“Four.”

“Did you enjoy it?”

“Mother.”

How did I answer that one? I knew I had to, of course. There was no derailing the woman.

“Yes, he’s quite good,” I said plainly. “Probably from all the practice.”

Joe scoffed.

“Did you spend last night with him?” Violet asked.

“Yes, we played chess.”

“You snuck into his room to play chess?” Joe asked, clearly not knowing which was more ridiculous: the fact that we actually played chess together in the middle of the night or the fact that I expected anyone to believe it.

“Like I said, our relationship is very bizarre,” I told them. “I mean, he picks out my clothes for me. He never misses an opportunity to insult me, but he never misses an opportunity to spend time with me either. We’d rather research quantum physics together than go see a movie. Sure, he’s kissed me a couple of times just to prove a point, but he dates a new girl every week and does way more with them.

“He’s the only person in the universe I can talk to about anything. He’s my biggest supporter and my most avid critic. I’d be the first to humiliate him if he ever messed up and the first to fight for him if he was ever in trouble. And I don’t understand why everyone, especially you all, wants us to be anything other than what we are. We’re friends. That’s it. I know I’m young, but I’m old enough to know that friends like this only come around once in a lifetime. Please, don’t take that away from me.”

I was breathless from my passionate tirade, but Violet looked smugly satisfied.  

“I apologize for pestering you with my questions,” she said. “I only want Dominic to be happy.”

“Wow,” Joe muttered.

Sam’s melancholy grew stronger still, and the expression disfigured her otherwise beautiful face.

For lack of something better to do or say, I crossed my arms and reclined farther into the seat, praying that this was the end of the cross-examination and that I hadn’t botched things up too badly. To my great relief, that was the end of it.

***********

Saturday, as promised, was spent on the sea in a sailboat the size of a small building. From a distance, it was shiny white with violet stripes running parallel to the deck and colorful sails. Liam had named it Violet in his, I assumed, one and only act of affection for his wife.  

The deck of the boat, although clean, wasn’t as glamorous as I’d expected. It wasn’t until I was given a tour of the cabin below that the true luxury of the vessel revealed itself. Nic was an excellent sailor, which did not come as a surprise, and loved rubbing my face in how little I knew about sailing.

Until then, my only experience with anything other than a motorboat had been my physics project when I’d sailed the IDS coast. I couldn’t even figure out which side was port and which was starboard, and he kept using all the sailing terms for things instead of just calling the ropes “the ropes.”

Joe never tired of watching our pointless bickering and fueled the fire whenever possible.

The sea was beautiful, however, and as long as I avoided the spray, it was particularly temperate. Wrapped in a thick tartan blanket, I allowed myself to rock with the sway of the boat.

Liam had invited some of his acquaintances so that he wouldn’t be entirely bored with only the company of his family. Violet never boarded the Violet, and Sam never did anything without the express approval of her fiancée. Apparently, her fiancée didn’t approve of the Saturday sail.

“I’m sorry about yesterday,” Nic said, looking out to sea.

“Yesterday?”

“My mother,” he said. “Joe told me about it.”

I nearly choked on the repressed laugh—a laugh not born of humor.

“Yes, that was … uncomfortable.”

He still didn’t look at me. “I told you they’d do their best to ruin you.”

“I hardly think I’m ruined.”

“I wish I could’ve been there. According to Joe you said some pretty nice things about me.”

“Maybe. But I wouldn’t have said them had you been there.”

Nic finally looked at me.

“We like being mean to each other,” he said.

I searched his face. Was that a question? Was it a statement?

“I guess I should tell you more often how much I …” he started but couldn’t finish. “You are my best friend. I’ll appreciate you until the day I die, no matter what happens.”

“Wow.” I paused. “That was atypically nice of you.”

“Don’t get used to it.”