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The Golden Lily Chapter 7

I SPENT MOST OF THE NEXT DAY wrestling with my refusal to help Sonya, ruminating over the decision as I went from class to class.There was a part of me that felt bad about not giving blood for the experiments.After all, I knew what they were doing was useful.

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If there was a way to protect Moroi from becoming Strigoi, then that could theoretically be applied to humans too. That could revolutionize the way the Alchemists operated. People like that creepy guy Liam being held at the bunker would no longer be a threat. He could be “sterilized” and released, with no fear of him falling prey to the corruption of Strigoi. I knew also that Sonya and the others were running into walls with their research. They couldn’t find any reason for what had made Lee impervious to turning Strigoi.

At the same time, despite the worthiness of the cause, I still felt staunchly opposed to giving up my own blood. I really was afraid that doing so would subject me to more and more experiments.

And I just couldn’t face that. There was nothing special about me. I hadn’t undergone a massive transformation via spirit. Lee and I hadn’t had anything in common. I was the same as any other human, any other Alchemist. I just apparently had bad tasting blood, which was fine by me.

“Tell me about the charm spell,” Ms. Terwilliger said one afternoon. It was a few days after Clarence’s, and I was still mulling over those events even while ostensibly doing work in her independent study.

I looked up from the book in front of me. “Which variant? The charisma one or the meta one?”

She was sitting at her desk and smiled at me. “For someone so against all of this, you certainly learn well. The meta one.”

That had been a recent spell I’d had to learn. It was fresh in my mind, but I made sure to sigh heavily and let her know in a passive aggressive way how inconvenient this was for me.

“It allows the caster to have short-term control of someone. The caster has to create a physical amulet that he or she wears…” I frowned as I considered that part of the spell. “And then recite a short incantation on the person being controlled.” Ms. Terwilliger pushed her glasses up her nose. “Why the hesitation?” She noticed every slip. I didn’t want to engage in this, but she was my teacher, and this was part of my assignment so long as I was stuck in this miserable session. “It doesn’t make sense. Well, none of it makes sense, of course. But logically, I’d think you need something tangible to use on the vict – subject. Maybe they’d have to wear an amulet. Or drink something. It’s hard for me to believe the caster is the only one who needs enhancement. I feel like they would need to connect with the subject.”

“You touched on the key word,” she said. “‘Enhancement.’ The amulet enhances the spell caster’s will, as does the incantation. If that’s been done correctly – and the caster is advanced and strong enough – that’ll push the power of command on to the subject. Perhaps it doesn’t seem tangible, but the mind is a powerful tool.”

“Power of command,” I muttered. Without thinking about it, I made the Alchemist sign against evil. “That doesn’t seem right.”

“Is it any different from the kind of compulsion your vampire friends do?” I froze. Ms. Terwilliger had long since admitted to knowing about the world of Moroi and Strigoi, but it was still a topic I avoided with her. My tattoo’s magic wouldn’t stop me from discussing the vampire world with those who knew about it, but I didn’t want to accidentally reveal any details about my specific mission with Jill. Nonetheless, her words were startling.

This spell was very much like compulsion, very much like what I’d seen Sonya do to soothe Clarence. Vampires could simply wield it unaided. This spell required a physical component, but Ms. Terwilliger had told me that was normal for humans. She said magic was inborn for Moroi but that we had to wrest it from the world. To me, that just seemed like more reason why humans had no business dabbling in such affairs.

“What they do isn’t right either,” I said, in a rare acknowledgment of the Moroi with her. I didn’t like that the abilities I found so twisted and wrong were allegedly within human reach too. “No one should have that kind of power over another.” Her lips quirked. “You’re very haughty about something you have no experience with.”

“You don’t always need experience. I’ve never killed anyone, but I know murder is wrong.”

“Don’t discount these spells. They could be a useful defense,” she said with a shrug.

“Perhaps it depends on who’s using it – much like a gun or other weapon.” I grimaced. “I don’t really like guns either.”

“Then you may find magical means to be a better option.” She made a small, graceful motion with her hands, and a clay pot on the windowsill suddenly exploded. Sharp fragments fell to the floor. I jumped out of my desk and backed up a few feet. Was that something she’d been able to do this whole time? It had seemed effortless. What kind of damage could she do if she really tried? She smiled. “See? Very efficient.” Efficient and simple, as easy as a vampire wielding elemental magic with a thought. After all the painstaking spells I’d seen in these books, I was stunned to see such “easy” magic. It kicked what Ms. Terwilliger had been advocating up to a whole new – and dangerous – level.

My whole body tensed as I waited for some other horrific act, but judging from the serene look on her face, that was the only show of power she had in mind – for now. Feeling a little foolish at my reaction, I sat back down.

I took a deep breath and chose my words carefully, keeping my anger – and fear – pushed down.

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It wouldn’t do to have an outburst in front of a teacher. “Ma’am, why do you keep doing this?”

Ms. Terwilliger tilted her head like a bird. “Doing what, dear?”

“This.” I jabbed the book in front of me. “Why do you keep making me work on this against my will? I hate this, and you know it. I don’t want anything to do with it! Why do you want me to learn it at all? What do you get out of it? Is there some witch club where you get a finder’s fee if you bring in a new recruit?”

That quirky smile of hers returned. “We prefer the term coven, not witch club. Though that does have a nice ring. But, to answer your question, I don’t get anything out of it – at least, not in the way you’re thinking. My coven can always use strong members, and you have the potential for greatness. It’s bigger than that, however. Your perennial argument is that it’s wrong for humans to have this kind of power, right?”

“Right,” I said through gritted teeth. I’d made that argument a million times.

“Well, that’s absolutely true – for some humans. You worry this power will be abused?

You’re right. It happens all the time, which is why we need good, moral people who can counter those who would use the magic for selfish and nefarious reasons.” The bell rang, freeing me. I stood up and gathered my things together. “Sorry, Ms. Terwilliger.

I’m flattered that you think I’m such an upstanding person, but I’m already caught up in one epic battle of good versus evil. I don’t need another.” I left our session feeling both troubled and angry and hoped the next two months of this semester would speed by. If this Alchemist mission continued into next year, then creative writing or some other elective would become a very viable choice for my schedule. It was a shame too because I’d really loved Ms. Terwilliger when I first met her. She was brilliant and knew her subject area – history, not magic – and had encouraged me in that. If she’d shown the same enthusiasm for teaching me history as she did magic, we wouldn’t have ended up in this mess.

My dinners were usually spent with Julia and Kristin or “the family.” Tonight was a family night. I found Eddie and Angeline already at a table when I entered East’s cafeteria, and as usual, he seemed grateful for my presence.

“Well, why not?” Angeline was saying as I sat down with my tray. It was Chinese food night, and she held chopsticks, which seemed like a bad idea. I’d tried to teach her how to use them once, with no luck. She’d gotten angry and stabbed an eggroll so hard that the sticks had broken.

“I just… well, it’s not my thing,” Eddie said, clearly groping for an answer to whatever her question was about. “I’m not going at all. With anyone.”

“Jill will be there with Micah,” pointed out Angeline slyly. “Won’t you need to come keep an eye on her since it’s not at the school?”

Eddie’s answer was a pained look.

“What are you talking about?” I finally asked.

“The Halloween Dance,” said Angeline.

That was news to me. “There’s a Halloween Dance?”

Eddie dragged himself from his misery to give me a surprised look. “How do you not know? There are signs everywhere.”

I stirred around my steamed vegetables. “They must not be anywhere I’ve been.” Eddie gestured with his fork to something behind me. Turning, I looked back toward the food line I’d just been in. There, hanging above it on the wall, was an enormous banner that read HALLOWEEN DANCE. It listed the date and time and was decorated with badly drawn pumpkins.

“Huh,” I said.

“How can you memorize entire books but miss something like that?” asked Angeline.

“Because Sydney’s brain only records ‘useful’ information,” Eddie said with a smile. I didn’t deny it.

“Don’t you think Eddie should go?” pushed Angeline. “He needs to watch out for Jill. And if he goes, we might as well go together.”

Eddie shot me a desperate look, and I tried to find him a way out of this. “Well, yeah, of course he’ll go… especially if it’s off-site.” The banner mentioned some venue I’d never heard of. We’d seen no sign of the Moroi who were after Jill, but an unknown place presented new dangers. Inspiration hit. “But that’s the thing. He’ll be on-duty. He’ll spend the whole time checking the place out, watching for mysterious people. It’d be a waste for him to, uh, go with you. You probably wouldn’t have much fun. Better to go with someone else.”

“But I should be protecting Jill too,” she argued. “Isn’t that why I’m here? I need to learn what to do.”

“Well, yeah,” he said, obviously trapped by her logic. “You’ll have to go with me in order to look after her.”

Angeline brightened. “Really? Then we can go together!” Eddie’s look of pain returned. “No. We’re going together. Not together.” Angeline didn’t seem to be fazed by the nuances. “I’ve never been to a dance,” she admitted.

“Well, I mean, back home, we have them all the time. But I don’t think they’ll be like the ones here.”

That I agreed with. I’d seen the types of social events the Keepers had. They involved raucous music and dancing around bonfires, along with some kind of toxic homemade alcohol that probably even Adrian wouldn’t touch. The Keepers also didn’t think a social event was a success if at least one fight didn’t break out. It was actually kind of amazing that Angeline hadn’t gotten into one yet here at Amberwood. I should have counted myself lucky that her only transgressions were dress code violations and talking back to teachers.

“Probably not,” I said neutrally. “I don’t know. I’ve never been to a dance either.”

“You’re going to this one, aren’t you?” asked Eddie. “With Brody?”

“Brayden. And I don’t know. We haven’t even had our second date. I don’t want things to move too fast.”

“Right,” Eddie said. “Because there’s no bigger sign of commitment than a Halloween dance.”

I was about to get him back by suggesting maybe he and Angeline should go together after all when Jill and Micah joined us. Both were laughing and had a hard time settling down to explain what was so funny.

“Janna Hall finished a men’s suit in sewing club tonight,” said Jill between giggles. Once again, I felt a rush of joy at seeing her so happy. “Miss Yamani said it’s the only guy’s outfit she’s seen in there in five years. Of course, Janna needed a model, and there’s only one guy in there…”

Micah attempted a tormented look but was quickly smiling again. “Yeah, yeah. I did the manly thing and stepped up. That suit was awful.”

“Aw,” said Jill. “It wasn’t that awful – okay, it really was. Janna didn’t try to go by any size guidelines, so the pants were huge. Like, tents. And since she didn’t make any belt loops, he had to hold it all up with a sash.”

“Which barely held when they made me do a runway walk,” said Micah, shaking his head.

Jill gave him a playful nudge. “Everyone probably would’ve loved if it hadn’t held.”

“Remind me to never ever sign up for an all-girls club again,” said Micah. “Next semester, I’m taking something like shop or karate.”

“You won’t do it again? Not even for me?” Jill managed a look that was amazingly both pouty and alluring. That, I realized, was more effective than any charm spell or compulsion.

Micah groaned. “I’m helpless.”

I didn’t consider myself particularly sentimental – and still disapproved of their timid romance –

but even I smiled at their antics. At least, I did until I caught sight of Eddie’s face. He wasn’t giving away much, to be fair. Maybe hanging around Dimitri had provided some tips on the guardian poker face. But Eddie wasn’t Dimitri yet, and I could see the faintest signs of pain and longing.

Why did he do this to himself? He’d refused to tell Jill how he felt. He took the noble stance that he was her protector and nothing more. Some part of me could understand that.

What I couldn’t understand was why he kept torturing himself by endorsing her going out with his roommate, of all people. Even with his hang-up over Micah and Mason, Eddie was forcing himself to constantly watch the girl he wanted with someone else. I had no relatable experience, but it had to be agonizing.

Eddie caught my eye and gave a small shake of his head. Let it go, he seemed to be saying.

Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.

Angeline soon piped in with more talk about the dance, interrogating Jill and Micah about whether they’d be going. She also brought up her plans to go “with” Eddie. That pulled him out of his melancholy mood, and although I knew she annoyed him, I wondered if that was better than continually being tormented by Jill and Micah’s relationship.

Of course, the conversation came to a halt – as did Eddie’s problem – when Micah frowned and pointed out what the rest of us had missed. “Why would you go to the dance together?

Aren’t you guys cousins?”

Eddie, Jill, and I froze. Another cover story mess-up. I couldn’t believe this had now slipped past me twice. I should have mentioned this as soon as Angeline brought up the dance. In the school’s eyes, we were all related.

“So?” asked Angeline, missing the point.

Eddie cleared his throat. “Um, third cousins. But still. We’re not really going together. It’s more of a joke.”

That effectively killed the topic, and he couldn’t help smiling triumphantly.

Brayden picked me up immediately after school the next day so that we could make the windmill tour on time. Ms. Terwilliger had even let me go a few minutes early, after promising I’d get her a cappuccino on our way back to Amberwood. I was excited to see Brayden and the tour, yet as I got into his car, I felt a brief pang of doubt. Did I have any business doing these sorts of fun, personal activities? Especially now that the cover story had slipped a couple of times. Maybe I was spending too much time on me and not enough on the mission.

Brayden had lots to tell me about the debate competition he’d attended over the weekend.

We analyzed some of the more difficult topics he’d come across and laughed at the easy ones that had stumped the opposing team. I’d feared dating for years but was again pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to talk to him. It was a lot like the Shakespearean outing: an endless source of topics that we both knew lots about. It was the rest of the experience that still left me unsettled – the “date” stuff. The dating books I’d read since our last outing mostly advised on when to have sex, which was completely useless since I had yet to figure out holding hands.

The giant windmills were pretty impressive. They didn’t have the sleek beauty of cars that I loved, but I felt the same awe at the engineering they represented. Some of the windmills were over a hundred feet tall, with blades half the size of a football field. Moments like these made me marvel at human ingenuity. Who needed magic when we could create these kinds of wonders?

Our tour guide was a cheery girl in her mid-twenties who clearly loved her job and all that wind energy represented. She knew all sorts of trivia about it – but not quite enough to satisfy Brayden.

“How do you address the energy inefficiency that comes from the turbines needing wind speeds that fall into such a narrow range?”

Then: “What’s your response to studies showing that simply improving the filters in the conversion of fossil fuels would result in less carbon dioxide emissions than this sort of energy production?”

And later: “Can wind power really be treated as a viable option when – after considering the cost of construction and other maintenance – consumers end up paying more than they would for traditional forms of electricity?”

I couldn’t be certain, but I think our guide wrapped up the tour early. She encouraged some of the other tourists to come back anytime but said nothing as Brayden and I walked past her.

“That woman was sadly uninformed,” he told me, once we were back on the highway.

“She knew plenty about the windmills and their facility,” I pointed out. “I’m guessing the latest controversies just don’t get brought up much on these tours. Or,” I paused, smiling,

“how to deal with, um, forceful tourists.”

“I was forceful?” he asked, seeming legitimately surprised. He had gotten so caught up in his ideas that he didn’t even realize it. It was endearing.

I tried not to laugh. “You came on strong, that’s all. I don’t think they were prepared for someone like you.”

“They should be. Wind power’s got promise, true, but for now, there are all sorts of expenses and efficiency problems that need to be addressed. It’s useless otherwise.” I sat there for several moments, trying to decide how best I should respond. None of the advice I’d gotten from the books or my friends really prepared me for how to handle discussions about alternative energy sources. One of the books – one I’d chosen not to finish – had a decidedly male-centric view that said women should always make men feel important on dates. I suspected that Kristin and Julia’s advice right now would have been to laugh and toss my hair – and not let the discussion progress.

But I just couldn’t do that.

“You’re wrong,” I said.

Brayden – who was a big advocate of safe driving – actually took his eyes off the road for a few seconds to stare at me. “What did you say?”

Aside from learning that he had a vast store of extensive and random knowledge like I did, I’d also picked up on something else central to Brayden’s personality. He didn’t like to be wrong. This was no surprise. I didn’t either, and we had a lot in common that way. And, from the way he’d discussed school and even his debate competition, I’d also deduced people never told him he was wrong – even if by chance he was.

Maybe it wasn’t too late to do the hair-tossing thing. Instead, I just rushed on.

“You’re wrong. Maybe wind isn’t as efficient as it could be, but the fact that it’s even being developed is a vast improvement over the outdated, archaic energy sources our society’s been dependent on. Expecting it to be as cost-efficient as something that’s been around much, much longer is naive.”

“But – “

“We can’t deny that the cost is worth the benefits. Climate change is increasingly becoming a problem, and wind’s reduced carbon dioxide emissions could have a significant impact.

Furthermore – and most importantly – wind is renewable. It doesn’t matter if other sources are cheap if they’re going to run out on us.”

“But – “

“We need to be progressive and look towards what’s going to save us later. To focus strictly on what’s cost-efficient now – while ignoring the consequences – is short-sighted and will ultimately lead to the downfall of the human race. Those who think otherwise are only perpetuating the problem, unless they can come up with other solutions. Most don’t. They just complain. That’s why you’re wrong.”

I paused to catch my breath and then dared a glance at Brayden. He was watching the road, but his eyes were impossibly wide. I don’t think he could have been more shocked if I’d slapped him. Immediately, I berated myself for what I’d said. Sydney, why didn’t you just bat your eyelashes?

“Brayden?” I asked tentatively when almost a minute passed with no response. More stunned silence met me.

Suddenly, without warning, he pulled the car sharply off the highway and onto the shoulder. Dust and gravel kicked up around us. In that moment, I was absolutely certain he was going to demand I get out and walk back to Palm Springs. And we were still miles from the city.

Instead, he caught hold of my hands and leaned toward me. “You,” he said breathlessly.

“Are amazing. Absolutely, positively, exquisitely amazing.” And then he kissed me.

I was so surprised, I couldn’t even move. My heart raced, but it was more from anxiety than anything else. Was I doing it right? I tried to relax into the kiss, letting my lips part slightly, but my body stayed rigid. Brayden didn’t pull back in revulsion, so that was a good sign. I’d never kissed anyone before and had been worrying a lot about what it’d be like. The mechanics of it turned out not to be so difficult. When he did finally pull away, he was smiling.

A good sign, I guessed. I smiled back tentatively because I knew it was expected. Honestly, a secret part of me was a little disappointed. That was it? That’s what the big deal was? It hadn’t been terrible, but it hadn’t sent me soaring to new heights either. It had been exactly what it seemed like, lips on lips.

With a great sigh of happiness, he turned and began driving again. I could only watch him with wonder and confusion, unable to form any response. What had just happened? That was my first kiss?

“Spencer’s, right?” Brayden asked when we exited to downtown shortly thereafter.

I was still so baffled by the kiss that it took me a moment to remember I’d promised Ms.

Terwilliger a cappuccino. “Right.”

Just before we turned the corner toward the street Spencer’s was on, Brayden suddenly made an unexpected stop at a florist shop. “Be right back,” he said.

I nodded wordlessly, and five minutes later, he returned and handed me a large bouquet of delicate, pale pink roses. “Thank you?” I said, making it more of a question. Now, in addition to the kiss and “amazing” declaration, I’d somehow earned flowers too.

“They’re not adequate,” he admitted. “In traditional floral symbolism, orange or red would have been more appropriate. But it was either these or some lavender ones, and you just don’t seem like a purple person.”

“Thank you,” I said, more firmly this time. As I breathed in the roses’ sweet scent on the way to Spencer’s, I realized that no one had ever given me flowers before.

We reached the coffee shop soon thereafter. I got out of the car, and in a flash, Brayden was right by my side so that he could shut the door for me. We went inside, and I was almost relieved to see Trey working. His teasing would be a nice return to normality, seeing as my life had just detoured into Crazyland.

Trey didn’t even notice us at first. He was speaking intently to someone on the other side of the counter, a guy a little older than us. The guy’s tanned skin, black hair, and similar facial features tipped me off pretty quickly that he and Trey were related. Brayden and I waited discreetly behind the guy, and Trey finally looked up, an astonishingly grim expression on his face that was pretty out of character. He looked surprised when he saw us, but then seemed to relax a little.

“Melbourne, Cartwright. Here for a little post-windmill caffeine?”

“You know I never drink caffeine after four,” said Brayden. “But Sydney needs something for her teacher.”

“Ah,” said Trey. “The usual for you and Ms. T?”

“Yeah, but make mine iced this time.”

Trey gave me a knowing look. “Need to cool down a little, huh?” I rolled my eyes.

The guy ahead of us was still standing around, and Trey nodded toward him while grabbing two cups. “This is my cousin Chris. Chris, this is Sydney and Brayden.” This must have been Trey’s “perfect” cousin. At a glance, I saw little that marked him as better than Trey, except maybe his height. Chris was pretty tall. Not Dimitri-tall, but still tall.

Otherwise, they both had similar good looks and an athletic build. Chris even had some of the same bruises and scrapes Trey often sported, making me wonder if there was a family connection to sports as well. Regardless, Chris hardly seemed like anyone Trey should be intimidated by, but then, I was biased by our friendship.

“Where are you here from?” I asked.

“San Francisco,” said Chris.

“How long are you in town?” asked Brayden.

Chris gave Brayden a wary look. “Why do you want to know?” Brayden looked surprised, and I didn’t blame him. Before either of us could figure out the next move in the small-talk handbook, Trey hurried back over. “Relax, C. They’re just being nice. It’s not like they work for some spy agency.”

Well, Brayden didn’t.

“Sorry,” said Chris, not actually sounding that sorry. That was a difference between the cousins, I realized. Trey would’ve laughed off his mistake. He never actually would have made the mistake. There were definitely different levels of friendliness in this family. “A couple weeks.”

Neither Brayden nor I dared say anything after that, and mercifully, Chris chose that opportunity to leave, with a promise to call Trey later. When he was gone, Trey shook his head apologetically and set the completed coffees on the counter. I reached for my wallet, but Brayden waved me away and paid.

Trey handed Brayden back his change. “Next week’s schedule’s already up.”

“It is?” Brayden glanced over at me. “Mind if I go in the back room for a second? Figuratively, of course.”

“Go ahead,” I said. As soon as he was gone, I turned frantically to Trey. “I need your help.” Trey’s eyebrows rose. “Words I never thought I’d hear from you.” That made two of us, but I was at a loss, and Trey was my only source of help right now.

“Brayden got me flowers,” I declared. I wasn’t going to mention the kiss.

“And?”

“And, why’d he do it?”

“Because he likes you, Melbourne. That’s what guys do. They buy dinner and gifts, hoping that in return you’ll – um, like them back.”

“But I argued with him,” I hissed, glancing anxiously at the door Brayden had gone through. “Like, just before he got me the flowers, I gave him this big lecture about how he was wrong about alternative sources of energy.”

“Wait, wait,” said Trey. “You told… you told Brayden Cartwright he was wrong?” I nodded. “So why’d he react like he did?”

Trey laughed, a big, full laugh that I was certain would draw Brayden back. “People don’t tell him he’s wrong.”

“Yeah, I figured.”

“And girls especially don’t tell him he’s wrong. You’re probably the only girl who’s ever done it. You’re probably the only girl smart enough to do it.” I was getting impatient. “I get that. So why the flowers? Why the compliments?” Trey shook his head and looked like he was about to start laughing again. “Melbourne, if you don’t know, then I’m not going to tell you.”

I was too worried about Brayden returning to comment further on Trey’s useless “advice.” Instead, I said, “Is Chris the perfect cousin you were talking about?” Trey’s smirk faded. “That’s the one. Anything I can do, he can do better.” I immediately regretted asking. Trey, like Adrian, was one of those people I didn’t like seeing troubled. “Well. He didn’t seem so perfect to me. Probably I’m biased from being around you all the time. You set the standard for perfection.” That brought Trey’s smile back. “Sorry about his attitude. He’s always been like that. Not the most charming branch of the Juarez family tree. That’s me, of course.”

“Of course,” I agreed.

He was still smiling when Brayden returned, but when I cast a glance backward as I was leaving the coffee shop, Trey’s expression had darkened again. His thoughts were turned inward, and I wished I knew how to help.

On the drive back to Amberwood, Brayden said shyly, “Well. Now I know my schedule for the next two weeks.”

“That’s… good,” I said.

He hesitated. “So… I know when I can go out again. If, that is, I mean. If you want to go out again.”

That would’ve surprised me, if I wasn’t already stumped by everything else that had happened today. Brayden wanted to go out with me again? Why? Girls especially don’t tell him he’s wrong. You’re probably the only girl who’s ever done it. You’re probably the only girl smart enough to do it. More importantly, did I want to go out with him again? I glanced over at him and then down at the roses. I thought about his eyes when he’d gazed at me in the stopped car. I realized then the odds of me ever finding a guy who thought Shakespeare and wind farms were fun were pretty infinitesimal.

“Okay,” I said.

His narrowed his eyes in thought. “Isn’t there some kind of dance your school’s having?

Do you want to go to that? People go to those, right?”

“That’s what I keep hearing. How’d you know about it?”

“The sign,” he said. Then, as if on cue, he pulled into the driveway in front of my dorm.

Hanging over the main door was a sign decorated with cobwebs and bats. GET YOUR

SCARE ON AT THE HALLOWEEN DANCE.

“Oh,” I said. “That sign.” Eddie was right. I really did have selective data storage. “I guess we can go. If you want to.”

“Sure. I mean, if you want to.”

Silence. We both laughed.

“Well, then,” I said. “I guess we’re going.”

Brayden leaned toward me, and I panicked until I saw that he was trying to get a better look at the sign. “A week and a half away.”

“Enough time to get costumes, I suppose.”

“I suppose. Although…”

And that’s when the next crazy thing happened. He held my hand.

I admit, I hadn’t been expecting much, especially after my mixed reaction to the roadside kiss. Still, as he laid his hand over mine, I was surprised to feel that it was again just like…

well, like touching someone’s hand. I’d at least thought there might be goose bumps or a little heart fluttering. My biggest emotional reaction was worry over what to do with my hand. Lace fingers? Squeeze his hand back?

“I’d like to go out sooner,” he said. That hesitancy returned. “If you want to.” I looked down at our hands and tried to figure out how I felt. He had nice hands. Smooth, warm. I could get used to holding those hands. And of course, he smelled like coffee. Was that enough to build love on? Again, that uncertainty nagged me. What right did I have to any of this? I wasn’t in Palm Springs for my own entertainment. There was no “me” in Alchemy.

Well, phonetically there was, but that wasn’t the point. I knew my superiors wouldn’t approve of any of this.

And yet, when would I get this chance again? When would I ever get flowers? When would someone look at me with this kind of fervor? I decided to take the plunge.

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s go out again.”

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