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Authors: Ann Aguirre

Forbidden fruit

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Forbidden FruitCorine Solomon [3.50]Ann Aguirre(2013)Tags:Romance, ghosts, Ann Aguirre, Urban Fantasy

I see dead people. Okay, that’s a lie. I hear dead people—on an antique radio…

So far, that talent hasn’t brought Shannon Cheney fame or fortune. Since the world remains unaware that magick is real, being Gifted largely sucks. Her boss is an asshole, she makes minimum wage, and she’s got a serious case of forbidden lust for a sexy cop named Jesse Saldana. He’s part Mexican heat, all Texas charm, and enough of a dirty cowboy to curl her toes. Too bad he’s set on resisting her wiles.

To make matters worse, there’s this weird amnesia thing happening. She might think she’s going crazy, except Jesse’s got it too, and memory loss isn’t contagious like the flu. When Shannon pokes around, trying to put the missing pieces together, demonic retaliation is swift and potentially deadly. Jesse’s too much of a white knight to let her face danger alone, and she’s hoping he can’t resist the white-hot chemistry blazing between them…

This is a spin-off from the Corine Solomon series. In terms of continuity, this is 3.5 and it fits in between Shady Lady and Devil's Punch. It's written in first-person in Shannon's POV and it's hotter than the Corine series.

FORBIDDEN FRUIT

By

Ann Aguirre

 

 

Published by Ann AguirreVisit Ann Aguirre’s official website atwww.annaguirre.comfor the latest news, book details, and other informationCopyright © Ann Aguirre, 2013Edited by Sasha KnightProofed by Fedora ChenCover art byJesus Garcia LopezCover design by Bree BridgeseBook formatting byGuido HenkelThis book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

For Maja.An ocean isn’t enough to impedetrue sisterhood of the soul.

Acknowledgments

 

First, thanks to my editor, Sasha Knight, who was a joy to work with on this novella;Forbidden Fruitis much shinier for her input. I wish her talent, expertise, and enthusiasm could be bottled, as it’s invaluable.

Thanks to my wonderful friends who led by example, including Bree Bridges, Donna J. Herren, Lauren Dane, and Courtney Milan. I also thank the rest of the Peeners for supporting me. The only reason I had the nerve to try this is because I’ve watched my mates blaze the trail so expertly. In other words, I’m lucky to know so many gifted women, who give me the courage to spread my wings.

Much love to my amazing proofreader, Fedora Chen. If this story is fabulous and polished, it’s because she took it to the next level.

I also appreciate my family for putting up with me. I love you all, and I’m so proud of your achievements, even when I seem distracted. I’m listening, really!

Finally, thanks to my readers. I hope you enjoy reading about how Jesse and Shannon hooked up. You can get in touch with me at[email protected].

One

The first thing you need to know about me is—I see dead people. Okay, that’s a lie. Iheardead people—on an antique radio of all things. I know, right? But I didn’t make the rules. If I had, I certainly wouldn’t be working at Pretzel Pirate. The uniform is unrelenting polyester, and I can’t pull off white lace or a swashbuckler hat. I’m into striped tights, combat boots, cosmetics, piercings, and tattoos.

I’ve also got an amnesia thing going on. Don’t ask me to explain it, but my head’s foggy. I used to live in Kilmer, Georgia, and for reasons I can’t recall—I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time—I split with a cop from Texas…and some other guy. I haven’t seen the second dude for a while, but the cop brought me to Laredo. It was weird in Kilmer, and my mom’s…gone. I should be sad about that, but that part of my life is misty. Which makes me wonder if I used to do hardcore drugs. It would explain a lot, huh? I should be grateful it was a cop who pulled me out of that death spiral and not some perv who’d chain me up in his basement.

So I’m in Laredo now. The cop who saved me—and I’m sure whatever he hauled me out of in Kilmer, it was ugly—then deposited me with some family friends. They’re a married couple, nice enough, but I felt like I was cramping their style. They just had a baby, and I’m not au pair material. To make matters worse, their house burned down, and we were all out of luck for a while.

They went to stay with relatives, and I didn’t feel right about going along. So this guy, Chuch, found me a roommate, his cousin, Maria. She’s a nice girl, but not home a lot. We both work, and I’m trying to get into community college. Things being what they were in Kilmer, I got my GED here.

So anyway, it’s five thirty p.m. on a Thursday, and I’m stuck at Pretzel Pirate. The food court is hell. Each afternoon, I stare across at the same dorky kid selling burgers. Sometimes he makes a pirate hat out of a paper placemat and puts it on to mock me. I give him my middle finger as a special prize.Good times.This job pays minimum wage; it also siphons off a portion of my soul each time I say, “Arrr, matey, want to try a Buccaneer special pretzel with extra cheese?” FML.

Unlike charlatans who use a crystal ball, I can tune into dead people on my radio—and not random ones, either—so considering that I’ve learned to control the ability, I should be raking in the cash. But due to snafus like the Salem Witch Trials, the Gifted community frowns on us using our talents in the open, so any medium listed in the Yellow Pages is a fake. I wish I could figure out a way around this restriction, but for now, I’m working at the mall to make ends meet.

The only bright side is that I’m sober, apparently, and the guy who rescued me cares enough to check in on a regular basis. At least, Ithinkthat’s why he’s coming toward me. Here’s something I didn’t mention. The cop’s smoking hot. Jesse Saldana, that’s his name. I’ve never written it all over my notebooks or drawn hearts around it, but sometimes IdowhisperJessein a certain way.

I have zero shot, but since the moment I saw him, I’ve beenon fire.He’s got tawny hair and dark eyes, a hint of Mexican heritage in his tan skin. Plus, with a day or two of golden scruff, he always looks like he could use a shave. I see him and I just want to take a bite; he’s the ultimate forbidden fruit. I’m not sure exactly how old he is, but I’m guessing twenty-eight or twenty-nine.

Did I mention I’m not quite nineteen?

Ten years might not seem like such a big difference down the road, but right now, it’s insurmountable. Because he sees me as a project—I’m the girl he’s saving. And unless you’re crazy, you don’t kiss the crap out of damsels in distress. Christ, I hate that label. I wish I could prove that I’m not anat-riskyouth, but I have no idea how to make it happen.

He cuts through the tables, making a beeline for Pretzel Pirate. Let me point out, there are way better places to eat. If he’s after actual food, the court has sushi, sandwiches, pasta, pizza, and burgers. Some of it even tastes decent.

God, Jesse Saldana’s smiling at me.

“Hey,” he says, as he reaches the counter.

“Arr,” I answer. “Prepare to be boarded.”

Oh, God, why?I have no idea why I said that. It’s not even an official Pretzel Pirate greeting. Mark, my manager, would vehemently disapprove. He’s all about corporate policy and reminds me of that movie where Jennifer Aniston works at a terrible restaurant and they give her shit for not wearing enough buttons.

Fortunately, Jesse laughs. He’s got a great smile, white teeth—and dimples. How am I supposed to cope?Dimples.It’s absurd.

“How’s the pretzel business?”

“It’s horrible. I have no dignity. On the plus side, I’ll be able to make rent.” When his brow furrows, I realize I’ve reinforced his impression of me as vulnerable, someone who needs looking after.

“If you ever needanything, Shan, let me know. I’m here for you.”

“You’ve been sentenced to community service? What’d you do?”

“Funny. Can I get a lemonade and an order of toasted pretzel bites?”

“Tell me this isn’t your dinner.”

“What?” Now he looks defensive. “It’s food.”

“Debatable.” But Mark would not be amused to hear me talking this way about our fine products.

Glumly, I put together Jesse’s order, mentally counting the seconds before he walks away. “So what’re you doing here?”

“Would you believe I was craving pretzel bites?”

“Not even on my dumbest day.”

“Car charger for my phone.” He lifts a small plastic bag. “I’m always forgetting to plug it in at night.”

Take me home with you. I’ll remind you. Oh, God. Why does he have to be so…day-um? And so oblivious to the fact that I’m female.He treats me like a little sister, maybe one he adopted through a charitable organization. I suppose I’m lucky he doesn’t offer to take me out for ice cream or to play skeeball once a week.

“Yeah, it’s hard to save the day when people can’t reach you.”

“Do I detect sarcasm, Shannon Cheney?” Jesse props himself on the counter, giving me a look that melts my knees.

“Only always.”

“You’re too young to be this cynical.”

“And you’re too old to be this hot.” Shit. I said it out loud.

To my relief, he laughs. “Thanks. That made my day.”

Wow. So I’m the waitress who flatters him despite being undateable. If he ruffles my hair, I’ll bite his hand. No joke, Iwilldraw blood. When he gets a tetanus shot, he can think of me. I shove the pretzel bites at him, set the lemonade on the counter, and mumble the total. He pays in exact change, and I pretend it’s because he’s trying to make my life easier.

“That’s why I’m here—to provide excellent customer service. And pretzels.”

And to want things I can’t have. As he waves and turns, I can’t help checking out his lean, muscled back and the fit of his jeans. I’ve done my share of screwing around, but I could ridethiscowboy until the break of dawn. I’m actually chagrined by the rush of heat that accompanies the thought. And then the unthinkable happens. Jesse Saldana whirls to face me.

See, this is the other thing I haven’t mentioned. Jesse Saldana isn’t simply a smoking-hot cop. He’s also an empath. Dunno if he’s been trying not to read me, or if I’ve done a good job keeping it locked down until now. Color touches his cheeks, and he hesitates, like he’s not sure if he should acknowledge what he just felt.

I raise a brow at him, the one with the piercing. “Something on your mind?”

It seems best to brazen it out; I refuse to pretend I don’t feel as I do. He can think it’s ill-advised or that I’m too young, or a bad bet in other ways. God knows that’s all true. But it doesn’t mean I don’t want him, more than anything.

“Seems like there’s something on yours.” He summons a gentle,let her down easysmile. “While I’m flattered, I’m not the one for you, Shan.”

I shrug. “Too bad. You’re missing out.”

“I know.” Jesse sounds like he means that.

My ego poofs a little.

This isn’t easy when you’re wearing the polyester Pretzel Pirate uniform. But he’s seen me in my street clothes; he knows I can rock a look. I’m the kind of girl who scares males my own age and attracts those old enough to know better. Apparently Jesse thinks he falls into the latter category, but I don’t see it that way. A guy needs to be on the wrong side of forty-five for me to dub him a creeper for wanting to date me. To put it another way, my dad’s forty-two. I’m never going out with anyone older than my father; that’s the rule.


Page 2

Because I’m curious—and there will never be a better time to find out—I ask, “Is this the first time you’ve noticed how I feel?”

Jesse shakes his head. “Only the most potent flash. I knew you were nursing a crush, but I figured you’d get over it without me needing to say anything.”

“Is this where you warn me off?”

“It would be wrong to take advantage while you’re feeling grateful. I extracted you from a bad situation and—”

“The way you visit me, I could take it for encouragement,” I interrupt, unable to listen to more bullshit about my alleged emotions. “You’ve found reasons to stop by three times in the last week. And the mall’s nowhere near the station.”

“I’m looking out for you,” he mutters.

“Then stop. I can take it from here.”

“Are you cutting me off?” He tries to say it lightly, but I can tell that this feels like a breakup to him, too. A weird one, certainly, but there’s a bond between us, one I can’t explain and didn’t ask for.

“It’s for the best,” I say quietly.

I’m never gonna smother these feelings as long as he’s coming round, fanning the flames. Though I played the role once, I refuse to be Jesse Saldana’s permanent damsel in distress, always yelling for help from a tower. I can make a rope out of bedsheets and climb down my own damn self. So he can take his white-knight complex and go tilt at somebody else’s windmill.

“Shan… I just want…” In the end, he trails off, unable to express whatever it is. “Look, can’t we be friends?”

“Not when I want to kiss you so bad that it’s all I think about.” There’s no point in playing coy. He knows.

For a few seconds, his gaze locks on mine, and there’s a swirl of superheated awareness in his eyes.Holy shit. He feels it too.I have no idea if it’s an echo of what I’m offering, or if he’s been suppressing this because he feels like a dirty old man. Before, I didn’t chase him because I thought he saw me as a kid. But if he can look at me, right here, right now, and find anything desirable? Then he wants me.

I just have to decide what I’m going to do about it.

Two

Jesse’s the first to look away. “There’re so many reasons why we shouldn’t—”

“But we only need one why we should.” I’m smiling now, confident that I know where this is going.

“And what’s that?”

“Because wewantto. Pick me up tomorrow night at eight. You know where I live.” He helped me move in, after all.

“We can have dinner,” he decides. “But it’snota date.”

Yeah, like a label’s gonna stop me. I merely smile. “You’ve got my number, right?”

In answer, he taps out a quickheyand my phone pings. I shouldn’t find this so endearing. “See you tomorrow, cowboy.”

After he leaves, the rest of my shift is…bearable. I shut the place down at nine, and by fifteen past, everything is sparkling clean. I take the bus home, wishing I had a car. Maria’s out with her boyfriend, no surprise there, so I strip off the Pretzel Pirate get-up and take a shower. It’s not even ten thirty, and I’m bored as hell. I have the sense that I used to have somebody to hang out with—but maybe I left her in Kilmer. My head hurts when I poke at this half-formed memory, so I switch on the TV and numb my brain.

While some stupid show plays, I waver, tempted by an unwise idea. I’ve thought about doing this before, but I always decided against it. For obvious reasons, I can’t raise the dead when Maria’s around. Since she’s an Ortiz, I’m sure she knows about the Gifted population, but it seems best not to rub her nose in the fact that I can talk to dead people. Before I can think better of this, I head into my small bedroom. It didn’t come furnished, so right now there’s a futon in it, and I’m storing my personal stuff in the closet and in milk crates I stole from behind a convenience store.

Pulling the antique radio out of my closet, I sit cross-legged on the floor for a few seconds, holding it. Nobody else can feel this—I’ve tested it—but to me, this old gizmo radiates cold energy that tingles in my fingertips. There’s not much left from my Kilmer days since I bolted in a hurry, but I do have an old ring that belonged to my mother. Actually, I stole it from her jewelry box before she died. I used to be kind of a klepto, though I control the impulse these days. They’re serious about loss prevention at the mall, and I’d look horrible in an orange jumpsuit.

I dig it out of the small, satin-lined box that houses my jewelry. I don’t have much, and I wear most of my bracelets at the same time; I’ve grown accustomed to the weight and jingle on my wrists. If I ever went into the sun, I’d probably have tan lines from my bracelets. But I’ve been cultivating this pallor for years, mostly to irritate my mother. Now, however, the results are permanent. I’m pretty sure I’d burst into flames if I tried to tan.

Clutching the ring in my left hand, I focus on recalling how my mother looked and sounded, before the mental fog set in and my memory got weird. I just simply can’t recollect certain things anymore. My exodus from Kilmer is wreathed in shadows, which makes me think it must be bad. Either someone doesn’t want me to remember, or I’ve forced myself to forget. And you don’t usually block out the happy times.

Nervous, I fiddle with the dials of the radio as I whisper, “Restless dead, blood of my blood, I summon you to this place.”

The room immediately chills, raising goose bumps on my arms. Hissing static crackles from old speakers as I scan various stations by adjusting the dials. I’m into the AM side, down on the low end, when the white noise resolves into intelligible words, spoken in a familiar voice.

“You shouldn’t have called me, Shannon.”

That’s my mom all right. She finds reason to bitch at me even from beyond the grave. “Why not? I have questions.”

“Most of them, I’m not permitted to answer.” The display glows when she speaks, something I’ve never seen. This analog device doesn’t have a backlight.

The cold intensifies, so I can actually see my breath. “Not about the afterlife. I’m wondering whathappenedin Kilmer. I can’t remember how I ended up in Laredo or why Jesse Saldana was there in the first place.”

I mean, he’s from Texas for fuck’s sake, and it’s not like a creepy, haunted little town in Georgia is a tourist hot spot. When I ask him, Jesse smiles and says in his super-hot drawl, “Chalk it up to fate, sugar. I was destined to save you.”

Which is sweet, but it’s also bullshit. I want—Ineed—answers, but when I push too hard, it feels like my brain is about to pop out of my skull. Most people would heed that warning, I guess, but you can tell by looking at me that I’m not normal. That’s partly what my style’s about, honestly. It seems wrong to go around in jeans and hoodies. Then a guy who asks me out might expect an average girl, not one who talks to dead people. This way, I feel like he’s been forewarned, and if he still wants to date me, he shouldn’t be surprised that there’s a spooky surprise in this box. I mean, the package was wrapped appropriately, after all.

“There’s a reason you can’t remember,” my mom tells me.

Well, duh.Sadly, this is the most civil exchange I’ve had with her in years. Most of our discussions ended with me screamingyou don’t understand anythingand slamming into my room. In life, my mother was a pearl-clutching Southern belle, and I suspect she used to prowl our house, searching for proof that I’m a changeling. So in that respect, death eased the tension between us—yep, oblivion’s the ultimate icebreaker.

“I was hoping you could clue me in.”

“The pain you experience when you try to rememberisa clue, Shannon. You can’t circumvent a spell before its time through sheer willpower or mental force. There could be…repercussions.”

A spell? So somebodymademe forget?What the hell.There are so many questions I should ask, but my energy is limited. The power to communicate with her is pulled directly from me in the form of life energy, and I suspect if I stretch my reserves too far, it might be lethal. Tonight’s not the time to find out.

So I settle on asking, “Do you know who did this to me? Or why?”

But the radio crackles, and I feel woozy. My mom’s gone. I desperately need a sugar rush or I’ll pass out. On hands and knees, I crawl over to the crate I keep stuffed full of chocolate. I’m pretty sure Maria thinks I’m bulimic. With trembling hands, I tear open a candy bar and cram it in my face. In a few minutes, I feel better. The black spots are gone, and my hands aren’t shaking anymore. Five years down the road, I’ll have rotten teeth and probably diabetes as well. They don’t warn you about this shit when you first start talking to dead people.

I try to picture what it’s like on the other side; I’ve never queried a spirit on how it feels when I summon them. Is it a painful tug or more of a warm, delicious rush? I highly suspect I’m feeding them.Ew.I close my eyes for a few seconds, then turn off my radio, killing the chaotic snake hiss.

The conversation with my mother told me enough to get started. If it’s a spell, it can be broken, right? Magick wears off on its own, unless it’s powered by some natural source, a ley line for instance. But I’m not attached to anything like that. Time will probably dissipate it, but I need to recover the missing pieces of my life; the hole’s bothering me, as if I’ve forgotten something super important.

The room is still freezing when Maria comes home a little later. She pops her head in and shivers. “Did you leave the window open?”

“Just closed it.” The lie seems better than an actual explanation.

“Fresh air is good if it doesn’t kill you,” she says dubiously.

She’s a nice girl, two years older than me, but sometimes I feel ancient by comparison. So far as I can tell, despite having an oddball family, she’s totally normal. Maria works at a jewelry store and goes to night school, learning to do hair. Which is cool and she’s good at it. She’s already volunteered to help me freshen up the blue streaks in mine; I have to do that often or the vivid color dies away to a sickly mermaid seafoam. She looks somewhat like Chuch, Jesse’s family friend, but not enough to be alarming in a girl. I just mean she has dark hair and eyes, plus a stocky build.

“That’s pretty much the way I feel.”

We make a little more awkward small talk because we’re roomies, not friends. She tells me about her date and the movie she saw. I joke about the kid who makes paper pirate hats in the food court. She seems to think this suffices for polite interaction and says something about a shower. I’m relieved, as I don’t know anything about dealing with regular people. I’m like one of those kids from Hogwarts, dodging through the train station and muttering, “Muggles.”

Once Maria leaves, I shut my bedroom door. I’ll scrub off my makeup later, after she goes to bed, like I always do. This is a quirk, but I don’t enjoy people seeing me without it. It’s armor in a way. For me to let someone see my skin? It’s major. Like, I’ve slept with guys who never did—and it’s probably why we broke up, too.

I pop my laptop, planning to watch some TV on the ‘net, but my mail client dings. No lie, my heart skips a beat when I see the name. Jesse Saldana. I got a couple of emails from him while we were moving me into this apartment, and he insisted on helping. But since then, there have just been his casual visits to the mall.

Which are definitely increasing in frequency.

Opening the message, I read:

Hey, Shan.I’ve been thinking about you since I got home, and I just want to make sure we’re okay. It was a little awkward before I left. Or did I imagine it? I’m trying really hard not to be a jackass here.Jesse

I skim the words twice. Most of it, I don’t care about, but for obvious reasons, I fixate onI’ve been thinking about you.Since I wake up with Jesse Saldana on my mind, I spend the workday daydreaming about him while making pretzels and pouring drinks for people, and then I come home to obsess about him some more, this seems like the least the universe can do to level the field. I hate the wordcrush, but it so totally applies here. And I don’t want to be that girl; I kind of hate myself for it, actually.

So I decide to make him sweat. Deliberately, I close the program and find some free TV online; there are sites that let you watch if you’re willing to put up with their stupid ads. It’s on my to-do list to get a monthly subscription to Netflix, but you need a credit card for that, and I’m not exactly flush with cash. So I watch this sitcom until I’m tired enough to sleep, and it makes me happy to imagine Jesse wondering why I haven’t replied.

In this single matter, I agree with my mother.

It’s best to leave a man hungry.

Three


Page 3

I’m looking hot tonight. Maybe it’s immodest to say so, but I know what suits me and I’m good with hair and makeup. I suspect Jesse’s never dated a girl who looks like me, though. I could be wrong. Maybe he’s all about bad girls deep down…and if so, he’s knocking on the right door.

Before answering, I count to ten, then answer his hesitant tap, relishing his stunned expression when he takes in my platform boots, striped tights, short leather skirt and black corset top. His gaze doesn’t reach my face for a full ten seconds, and then he jerks his eyes upward, looking so guilty that I could shove him against the wall and take a bite. He cherishes a mistaken image of me as a helpless flower, and I want to scratch it off like a one-dollar lottery ticket.

“I’m ready,” I say, smiling.

He looks like he’s torn between a compliment and telling me to go put on some pants. Instead, he only nods and ushers me downstairs, where his green Forester is parked. I notice his ride has seen better days and is in the process of being repaired, a little at a time.

“What happened here?”

He frowns, seeming not to want to talk about it. “I… Car chase. Any thoughts on where you’d like to eat?”

“Isn’t that your job?” I ask, teasing him. “To read my mood and figure it out?”

“I can’t tell if you want tacos or Chinese, just based on—” The words cut off as he registers what I really want. And he stumbles from the intensity.

Here’s a hint—it’snotfood. I can’t tell you what it is about him; I’ve known hotter guys and I didn’t spend my time thinking about them naked.I cop to being obsessed, Officer. You should definitely cuff me now.Part of me wonders if this attraction springs from the spell my mother mentioned. Maybe the magick tampered with my memoryandmade me crazy for Jesse Saldana. If so, it’ll be awkward when the mojo wears off. But I still wouldn’t regret any bedroom action between us because he moves like he knows how to show a lady a good time.

Jesse opens the door for me, the consummate gentleman, and I flash him some thigh as I climb into his SUV. “Thanks.”

He narrows his eyes, dark and shadowed beneath the streetlights. “I care about you, Shan, but you shouldn’t push me.”

“Too bad, because that’s exactly what I plan to do,” I mutter.

Circling around the truck, he doesn’t catch that, and it’s just as well. After thinking aloud, he decides to take me to a dive his folks like. It’s apparently a family place, noisy and crowded, one of those tiny neighborhood joints that you’d be afraid to try if you didn’t already know the food was delicious. I can surmise why he’s chosen such a venue; I’m supposed to be a good girl if there are children running around and not allude to the fact that I want to end the night on top of him.

We’ll see.

He tells me about his day as he drives. Apparently it’s not always thrilling to be a cop, and I hear about the extensive interviewing he did. His partner died a while back, and they just assigned him a new one. Her name is Stella, and Jesse likes her. He’s also grateful that she’s ten years older than he is and happily married. This carries us all the way to the small, adobe restaurant with hand-painted lettering on the front that reads TITO’S. There are lots of cars parked on the street too, always a good sign.

Deliberately, I sit in the car until he comes around and opens my door. He may not want to think of this as a date, but it definitely qualifies in my mind. I hop down and take two steps toward Tito’s. People are sitting out front, eating tacos from Styrofoam trays. Rising up on tiptoes, I can see there are no tables open indoors, but there are picnic tables out here. This is the opposite of romantic, exactly what he was going for.

“It smells great,” I tell him.

He was expecting me to object, but they’ve got proper pork roasting on a spit behind the counter, which means these tacos will taste right. There’s nothing like tacos al pastor, loaded up with cilantro, green sauce, chopped onion, and fresh pineapple. I pull up short, frowning. Why do Iknowthat? For a few seconds, there was a voice in my head, making me think I’m an expert on Mexican food.

“Have I ever been to Mexico?” I ask Jesse.

It’s a stupid question…because how the hell wouldheknow? He’s frowning, though, and he puts a hand to his head, like thinking about it hurts.

“Maybe,” he finally offers.

“Are you all right?”

“Just hungry, I think. I skipped lunch.”

“Then go get some food. I’ll grab a table.”

“Right away.” He pretends to be irked that I’m coming across bossy, but I see the smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

You can’t fool me, Jesse Saldana. You think I’m pretty.

It doesn’t take long for him to come back with drinks in paper cups and two trays piled with tacos of varying types. But they’re all made right, none of that crunchy shell nonsense, stuffed full of ground beef.Damn.I have no idea where this attitude came from, but I’m apparently awash in scorn for Mexican fast food.

“This is great,” I say, digging in.

“Most women don’t like it. No ambiance.” He stills, seeming to realize what he’s implying there.

Too late. You said it. You can’t unsay it.

“I’m not exactly the poster girl for normal.”

“Normal’s overrated.”

“You saying you like what I’ve got to offer?” I smile at him, holding his gaze for several heartbeats.

“Shannon, stop.”

I widen my eyes. “What?”

“Flirting.”

“Flirting never hurt anyone. You’re a big, strong man. You can take it.”

He swallows. “Seriously. Quit trying to make me want things I can’t have.”

“But…I’m pretty sure youcan.” I make a show of checking my phone for prior engagements. “Yep. I can pencil you in. But it’d be better if we go to your place. Maria might eavesdrop on our moaning and banging around. Do you break things during sex? I always wanted to knock over a lamp.”

“You’re incorrigible.”

“So corrige me, all night long. I’mpositiveI could be reformed by hands-on attention.”

“Eat your dinner,” he says in a suffocated voice.

“Will I get candy after? Just so you know, I’m not getting in your panel van.”

He swears softly. “I’d think you were screwing with me, if not for—”

“The way I feel to you?” I whisper.

“Yeah.”

I swear, you could scoop up the atmosphere with a spoon. He’s still, but I notice him breathing faster. This is dirty pool, but I’m not trying to suppress how much I want him. I spackle it with levity, but this longing is a tidal wave. I can’t get enough oxygen. There are people all around us, but I have the crazy feeling we’re inside a bubble; the world recedes like a hitchhiker in the rearview mirror.

“I’m not going to lie,” I tell him. “Or pretend. It’s up to you how to respond.”

He clenches a hand on the table, apparently on edge. Then his voice drops deep and low, so I lean in to catch it. “I don’t break things. I go gentle and slow.”

“That’s a shame. I want you to be wild.”

“You know I’m not a bad boy, right? I’m the one mothers love to meet and their daughters love to fuck over.” Jesse sounds slightly bitter.

For a few seconds, I consider sending the dead to traumatize Jesse’s exes. Then I choose sanity instead. But I can’t decide if his penchant for crazy girls makes his refusal to explore the chemistry between us better or worse. Does his reluctance mean I’m too batshit to date him or not nuttyenough?

“Being a sweet guy doesn’t mean you have to repress your desires.”

“What makes you think I am?” He scowls at me, devouring half a taco in one angry bite.

“Every guy has fantasies he’s afraid to share. And if you’re slow and gentleallthe time, it’s because you’re trying to make a woman feel loved. But what men don’t understand is—sometimes we just want to be fucked. We need a sexy beast, not Prince Charming.” I watch his reaction to that, then add, “If you’re doing well, you make us feel cherishedoutof bed, and then we have rough, dirty sex.”

He groans, scrubbing a palm across his face. “I’m starting to suspect you’re a demon, a Luren, maybe.”

“What’s that?”

“Look it up,” he mutters.

Smart ass.I’ll be on Area 51, searching that word, right after I get home. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure Jesse means to drop me off untouched. But he looks pained now; I hope it’s because his pants are too tight. Unfortunately, the picnic table doesn’t offer a subtle way to check.

“You know what your problem is?” I ask.

“I’m sure you plan to tell me.”

I beam. “Yousoget me. Here’s what I see, cowboy. You put women on a pedestal. You worry about looking after them. Then they get sick of being handled with kid gloves and they bail on you.”

Jesse seems honestly astonished. “Did Eva tell you to say that?”

“No. I haven’t seen her since I moved, though I get the occasional email.”

“How can you possiblyknowthat? We haven’t been friends that long.” But I hear the doubt in his voice. He’s not sure when we met, either.

“Someone roofied us,” I say. “Magical roofies. It’s the only explanation.”

But this seems like a good time to elaborate on what my mom told me, so I do. Maybe Jesse will have some idea who might’ve wanted us to forget. I have an awful suspicion that I did something horrible, and this was done to protect me. I imagine setting my ghosts on a human being and shiver, staring at my fingers.

Are these the hands of a killer?

I’d get away with it, too. If the dead suck all the energy out of a person, they fall down and don’t get up. It would look like a heart attack. At length, I fall silent, waiting for his response.

“You’re sure about this?” He’s got his cop face on now, simultaneously alert and alarmed. “Your mother’s reliable?”

“Not in life, but maybe death has improved her.” I suck it up and ask the hardest question ever. “Do you think I’m a good person?”

“Yeah,” he answers without hesitation. “You dress dark, but you feel like sunshine to me, Shan. Pure light.”

Nobody’s ever said that to me before. I’m sure, no matter what else I’ve forgotten. I’d remember if a man had ever made me feel like the witch Dorothy threw water on, melting from head to toe. Naturally, I can’t let a moment so touching pass unremarked.

“I would bang you like a gong,” I tell him.

“You’re too young to talk like that,” he snaps.

“I just did, so clearly that proves your hypothesis false. I suppose if you added a Mormon control group, you might find that some females my age don’t communicate in such a way, but—”

“I’m starting to understand why men kiss women to shut them up.”

“Feel free. I wouldn’t find it disrespectful.”

He shoves to his feet, goaded. Jesse hovers on the brink of grabbing me, but instead he clutches the tatters of his self-control and clears the remnants of our meal. But no joke, he slams the rubbish into the bin like he’s punching a wall. I love the fact that I’ve riled him. He’s usually so sweet and calm.

“I better take you home. I’ll ask around, regarding the spell, and I’ll let you know what I find out.”

Balls.Round one to Jesse Saldana, but I’m in it to win it.

Four

Since I have Saturday off, I hop a bus that takes me partway to Chuch and Eva’s house. They live outside of town, so it’s still a fair walk. I could call instead, but if you’ve ever tried talking to new parents on the phone, then you know why I’m making the trip. Along the way, I turn down a couple of guys who slow with suggestive looks. Yeah, they’re offering more than a ride…or rather, it’s not transportation they’re thinking about.

As with so many other facts, I’m fuzzy on the details, but I get the impression that Chuch used to be a badass before he settled down. He hasn’t told me as much, but I suspect their old house burned as a result of his shady past. On the plus side, the insurance paid, so they got a new house out of the deal, bigger and better than the old one, mostly because Chuch and his cousins did most of the actual labor, so the money stretched.

The new place is beautiful. It’s weird that I can remember what their old place looked like but not how long I’ve been in Laredo. Or how we met, exactly. But I’m used to that kind of thing—fucking magick, man. Anyway, the architectural style borrows from a couple of schools, Colonial and Mediterranean, which maybe doesn’t sound like it would work, but together, they create an amalgam of Texan charm, warm with stucco and mosaic tiles.

I walk up to the front door and ring the bell. Eva answers a few minutes later, looking harried. Baby Camille is propped on her hip. “Hey, Shannon. How are you? I’ve been meaning to call, but these days, it seems like I stumble from nap to nap.”

“It’s not a problem. Can I come in for a few minutes?”

“Absolutely. Just be warned, the house is a mess.”

Sometimes when people say that, they’re being disingenuous and you step inside to find tidy décor worthy of Martha Stewart. This isnotthe case with Casa Ortiz. It kind of looks like a baby store exploded in here. There are blankets and afghans everywhere, toys strewn on the floor. A fine layer of dust coats everything, and I couldn’t tell you how long it’s been since the floor was mopped.


Page 4

And there are frogs everywhere. Not live ones, but little ceramic or china knickknacks. Chuch collects them, apparently. He says they’re good luck.

“You want something to drink?” Eva looks so tired.

“Just water for me. Sit down… I’ll get it. What doyouwant?”

“I want coffee, but I can’t have it. I’m breastfeeding. So water for me too.”

From my stay with them before, I’m familiar with how she organizes her cupboards, so I fill two glasses with ice and pour from the filtered pitcher Eva keeps in the fridge. Then we both sit down at the kitchen table. I feel guilty for bothering her, but I really need to know.

“So I talked to my mom,” I start.

Both her brows shoot up. “I thought she was dead.”

The weird thing is, I don’t remember telling her that…but clearly she knows. This is kind of like me knowing things about Jesse that he can’t recall sharing. Something super weird is going on here.

“She is,” I answer, my expression reminding her that for me, death’s not a barrier to conversation.

“Right. You were saying?” She jogs Camille on her knee, which makes the baby smile, all pink gums and chubby cheeks.

“I learned something interesting from her. It appears that this brain fog comes from a spell. Do you know anything about that?”

For a split second, she freezes. But I read the answer in her eyes. Shedoesknow. Maybe not everything, but there are definitely secrets hidden in Eva Ortiz’s dark eyes. Yet she shakes her head.

“That’s strange. But it explains a lot.”

“Would you tell me if I pissed off a witch?” I ask.

“As far as I know, you haven’t irked anyone. I mean, you haven’t been living in Laredo that long, relatively speaking.” She shrugs. “But I wouldn’t worry about it. Spells don’t last forever. I’m sure if you’re patient, your memories will return on their own.”

“Easy for you to say,” I mutter. “You’re not the one with a hole in your head. Figuratively speaking.”

“I know.” Her look becomes sympathetic. “It must be frustrating.”

Then why are you lying to me?

But before I can press the point, Chuch comes in the back door. “Shan! You missed us, huh?”

Chuch is a thick, short guy just starting to get a paunch. Considering how classically gorgeous Eva is, they make a bit of an odd couple since his face can best be described as…battered. He’s also a hugger. He demonstrates the latter by yanking me out of my chair and squashing me against his chest. Since he smells like motor oil, I guess he was working in the garage. That’s how he makes his living, restoring old cars.

“How’s it going,prima?” Chuch calls me “coz” like we’re related. I’m told it’s affectionate, meant to acknowledge me as family even though I’m really not.

“Not great.”

“What’s wrong?”

Eva shoots him a sharp look, but Camille interrupts with a loud noise, then the smell that permeates the kitchen is truly horrific. If I were eating, I might hurl.

“I need to take care of this,” Eva says.

“Before it eats through her skin,” I mumble.

I’m not sorry to see her go, however. Based on past experience, I know Chuch is susceptible to big eyes and feminine pleading. This means his daughter has him wrapped him around her pinkie. Maybe I can do the same. I lean forward, elbows on the table, watching him as he fixes a glass of sweet tea.

“So what’s on your mind?”

“The amnesia spell somebody dropped on me.”

He offers an assessing look, and his expression turns cagey. “You know about that?”

“Yep.” Maybe I can make him think I know more than I do, trick him into revealing something crucial. Eva will be pissed, but I can live with that.

“Then you know it was done with the best of intentions.”

I didn’t, actually. But that dovetails with my fear that I’ve done something terrible, so bad it had to be wiped from my brain for me to cope. A shiver rolls through me, and it’s not hard at all to aim an anguished look at Chuch.

“Just tell me what happened,please.”

“Shan, if I remind you of what the spell’s blocking too soon, the feedback could seriously hurt you.”

“So people keep telling me.”

“Then you should listen. We’re not keeping quiet to be assholes.”

“Could’ve fooled me.” But being rude will just annoy the few friends I have, so I shove to my feet. “Thanks for the drink. I should get home.”

“Did Maria drop you off?”

“Nah. For me, it’s the bus, then the pedestrian shuffle.” I should’ve lied because now he’s on his feet.

“Let me run you back. It’s two miles to the nearest bus stop.”

“I’m aware. But you don’t need to—”

“Eva!” Chuch calls. “I’ll be back in half an hour. I’m taking Shannon home.”

“Pick up toilet paper and baby wipes!”

He sighs but he’s smiling. “I swear she thinks of something for me to buy anytime I leave the house. It’s like she’s proving I’m properly trained.”

“You love it.”

“It’s true. Come on.”

Chuch owns six cars in various stages of restoration, and he chooses the sportiest, a black Charger. I climb in, listening to him ramble about marriage and fatherhood. This monologue would constitute complaining from any other guy, but Chuch loves Eva so much that he’s happy she’s there, organizing his life and telling him what to do. I’ve noticed that he doesn’t always listen, however. Sometimes he nods at whatever she says and then does something else.

He’s a fast driver, but safe, so it doesn’t take long to reach my neighborhood, much quicker than the bus. I convince Chuch to drop me off at the mom-and-pop store five blocks from my apartment, and through some miracle I persuade him to let me walk home afterward. He comes in long enough to grab Eva’s requested items, but he hurries off, officially relieved of responsibility. I’m grateful that people care what happens to me, but I need to take care of my own business.

In the market, I take my time since I’m on a budget and it’s an exercise in humiliation if I bring more to the register than I can afford. In my shopping basket, I’ve got bread, cereal, milk, turkey, lettuce, noodles, tuna, tomatoes, and good cheese. Hopefully these groceries will last until my next payday.

At first, I don’t notice my shadow. I mean, the guy’s not memorable: thin, middle-aged, wispy brown hair, and a sallow face. He’s just another shopper in the small store, browsing among the pasta. But when I turn down the next aisle, I see him move in the round, silver mirror hung at the back of the store.

A chill goes down my spine.

Without my radio, I’m as helpless as the next girl, and I don’t like the feeling. As I shop, I watch the way he keeps pace. I can’t decide if this is regular pervert stalking or if he’s observing me for some other, possibly more alarming, reason.

It’s fine. There are other people around.

I’m a little nervous about walking home, but there are no back streets. One of the reasons my half of the rent is so cheap is because the apartment’s on a main road, noisy, but there’s a bus stop nearby and shopping within walking distance. It’s not upscale, but most of Laredo has seen better days. On the positive side, it only costs three hundred a month to live here, plus my share of the utilities.

The creeper’s still following me.

There’s only one cash register, so he waits for a few more people to get in line behind me, while he pretends to study a display. Then he joins the queue. My heart beats faster as I wait my turn. After check out, I have two dollars and forty-six cents left.Could be worse.I already gave Maria the rent money, and the other bills aren’t due until later. I might need to take a second job in order to afford tuition, but that leaves the excellent question of when I’ll find the time to attend classes.

Whatever.Ihurry out of the store, wondering if he’ll drop his items and follow. When he does, it feels like ice freezing at the base of my spine. Instead of leaving the parking lot, I set my bags down and get out my phone. When Mr. Nondescript pops out of the market, I snap a picture.

“I’m sending this to my boyfriend, who’s a cop.” Jesse isn’t, but this asshole doesn’t know that. “If I catch you tailing me again, I’m sure he’ll find something to charge you with.”

The man stills, scanning me head to toe at a leisurely pace, and I feel like I need a hot shower. Or maybe I need to sit in the shower to rock and weep…because I’ve never felt tainted by alookbefore. In the afternoon sunlight, his eyes glint strangely, first yellow, and then red, like blood’s flowing inside his sclera.

“Well-played, Ms. Cheney. I assure you, you won’t spot me next time. Not until it’s too late.”

“What does that even mean?” It sounded like a threat.

But he’s already striding away, crossing the busy street with a speed and agility entirely foreign to his build. Belatedly I realize,that bastard knew my name.At that point, my flight instinct kicks in. I grab my stuff and sprint all the way home.

Maria’s at work, so she doesn’t witness my collapse against the front door. All my natural intuition tells me that guy wasn’t normal. I feel like such a dipshit since I’ve been full of big ideas about taking care of myself, but this is weightier than dinner or the phone bill. So I type a succinct message to Jesse about my creeper and then send him the photo.

I’m surprised when he calls me five minutes later. I figured he’d be tied up in interviews today, but he might have the day off. I haven’t memorized his work schedule or anything.

“You all right, sugar?” His voice is buttery sweet, warm with concern, and my toes actually curl.

“Yeah, he just freaked me out.”

“Tell me what happened, exactly what he said.”

So I repeat the encounter, word for word. He sounds troubled when he replies. “Sounds like you’ve drawn somebody’s eye.”

“Not a normal perv, right?”

“I’d say no. Be careful, okay?”

“Do you think this has to do with the spell?”

He hesitates. I so wish I could see his face right now. “Hard to say. Maybe.”

“Chuch and Eva know something, by the way. But they’re not talking. Did you find anything out?”

“Sort of. There’s no relevant chatter on Area 51, but…today, my boss asked me if I was still dating that sweet redheaded girl.”

He’s seeing someone? What thehell.Somehow I keep my voice from trembling. “Well, are you?”

“That’s the strange thing, Shan. To the best of my recollection, I’venevergone out with anyone like that.”

“Just how big is this spell?” I wonder.

“No idea. But we need to get to the bottom of it.” His voice deepens, softens. “You’ll stay safe for me, right?”

“Anything for you,” I answer breezily, and I guarantee he has no idea how much I mean it.

Five

Sunday is laundry day. I use two bucks to wash my work uniforms, which is almost all I wear during the week, so I’m set when Monday rolls around.

The next morning, I take the bus to work, as usual, and I’m jumpy, watching for the spooky dude, but I don’t spot him. There’s just the usual bunch of commuters who can’t afford a car or insurance or both. They nod at me as I board; I lift my chin in response.

I sit next to an older woman who clutches her bag as if I’m likely to mug her. People often respond that way to the piercings and my general style. It’s not personal, though. I’ve watched folks with similar looks receive the same treatment.

It’s a decent day, bright enough and unlikely to rain. Most of us hop off at the mall and I traipse inside, ignoring the kid from the hamburger stand who’s puffing away near the ashtrays; he looks like he isn’t even old enough tobuysmokes. I give him a wide berth. Despite my cold shoulder, he falls into step beside me.

“Shouldn’t you be in school?” I ask.

That makes him scowl. “I graduated last year.”

“And you’ve come so far. Your mother must be so proud.”

“I don’t know why I bother trying to be nice to you.”

So maybe he’s attempting humor when he makes the paper pirate hat? Or possibly it’s a nerd courtship ritual. “It’s a mystery to us all.”

He follows me to the food court. During this interminable walk, I learn his name is Felix and he wants to be an optometrist but his grades weren’t good enough to get into the university of his choice, so he’s taking a year off to figure out his next step. I’m puzzled why he thinks I care enough to merit this vomitous outpouring of personal information.

“Now you,” he prompts as we cross through the tables. “That’s how conversation works.”

“My name’s Shannon. I was born in the Deep South in a cursed little town, one full of witches, demons, and shit. Then some horrible things happened, and I probably killed my mother, but because I have partial amnesia, I can’t be sure. Now I’m working at Pretzel Pirate, which might literally be an annex in hell. Who says there’s no such thing as karma?”

To my surprise, he cracks up. “Okay, I get it, I’m pushy. Talk to you later, Shannon…if thatisyour real name.”


Page 5

Huh. Telling the truth is fun, boys and girls.

Bemused, I head toward my penance for the bad deeds I don’t clearly remember. Opening at Pretzel Pirate has become second nature; I could do it in my sleep. I set the dough in the machines, put pretzels in the oven, and turn on various gadgets. Work passes with routine issues, like people bitching that their pretzel is too soft, not crispy enough, or I didn’t top it with enough jalapeño cheese.

The hamburger stand closes an hour before Pretzel Pirate, so I get to chat with Felix before he gets too hungry to wait any longer. This is good because if he’s still here when I close, he’ll ask me to dinner. I can read the signs, but there’s no way in hell that would ever happen. We may be the same age, but he looks like a toddler to me. He’s barely pubescent, let alone interesting in a sexual fashion.

As I’m locking up, I get a text from Jesse.Come out the west doors. I’m taking you home.If I didn’t have the dude from yesterday fresh in my mind, I’d bitch at him. It’s only nine fifteen, and I’ve been taking the bus for weeks. Yet tonight, the mall seems silent and faintly ominous as I pass through the food court; I don’t see any security guards and the stores have all shut down. Metal gates cover the shops, and the fountains aren’t flowing. Maybe I’ve seen too many zombie movies. Despite my best intentions, I quicken my steps.

It’s probably my imagination, but the faster I move, the surer I feel that someone’s watching me. I mean, there’s a night watchman on the security cameras. Maybe that’s what I’m sensing. Goose bumps rise on my arms. I feel…hunted. Darkness flashes to my right, but when I turn, there’s nothing, just a residual chill.

Bullshit to this.I take off toward the western exit, easier in my Pretzel Pirate shoes than it would be in combat boots. To my astonishment, Jesse comes tearing at me, his strides ringing on the tile floor. He stops when he sees nobody’s chasing me. That’s when I realize he’s drawn his weapon.

“What happened?”

“That’s what I’d like to know,” he snaps.

“But…” I don’t even know what to ask. He was running like he thought my life was actively in danger. Now, I figure I probably overreacted. I’ve got a vivid imagination.

“You were scared to death,” he says softly.

My eyes widen. “You could tell?”

He ignores the implicit question. “Did you see the guy again?”

“No, I just…” It sounds dumb. “I felt like I wasn’t alone, as if somebody was watching me.”

“It’s possible. Show me where.”

“Why?”

“Humor me.”

So I lead him back to the spot where the impression was strongest, just past the dark water in the silent fountain. Jesse pulls a pewter keychain out of his pocket, but there are no keys attached. He cradles it between his palms and walks a slow circuit around the area. Finally he stops, his gaze level and somber.

“You didn’t imagine it. Scrying magick’s been used here recently. The water is a natural conductor for those kinds of spells.”

“Maybe it was the weirdo from yesterday. He did say I won’t see him again until it’s too late.” I sound calmer than I feel.

This makes no sense. Why would the Gifted hunt me? If they need me to contact a dead relative, I’ll do it for twenty bucks, a six-pack, and a pizza.

Jesse pulls out his phone. “You see the odd shadings on his skin?”

It’s the photo I sent him. “Yeah, I figured it was my crappy camera.”

Absently, he shakes his head, reaching for me. Speechless, I let him lace our fingers together. It’s a protective gesture, not a romantic one, but I’m fucking holding hands with Jesse Saldana, so I’d be crazy to complain. His fingers are lean and long, callused in the right places, and his palm is hard against mine.

“Let’s walk and talk. I showed this to someone on my lunch hour today.”

“Oh?”

“She said the discolorations are consistent with long-term demonic possession.”

“What?” I know demons are real…and they usually don’t have enough power to traverse the gate between our worlds physically. It requires less juice to send mental energy, which results in a person being driven like a meat wagon. That’s not news, but I’m startled to hear my stalker is most likely extra-dimensional.

Mustering some presence of mind, I add, “So can your thingie tell if witch or demon magick was used to spy on me?”

“Unfortunately, no. But I’ll feel better once we get out of here.”

“They might still be watching?Why?”

“I wish I knew, Shan. Let’s go.” He tugs gently on my hand, and we hurry back toward the exit.

The air’s still cold inside the mall, a chill deeper and more disturbing than what comes from good air conditioning. There’s a faint smell too, sickly sweet, like death drizzled in honey. I don’t look back as Jesse shoves the door open. He’s left his Forester parked at the yellow curb, and the engine is running. In fact, the driver-side door’s open, too.

“You were pretty worried about me, huh?” I imagine him getting a wash of my emotional state and coming at a dead run.

Oh, Jesse.Somany ways I’d love you, if you’d let me.

“For good reason, as it turns out.” He opens my door and waits until I’m settled to shut it behind me.

I could get used to being treated like a princess, as long as he brings the dirty cowboy to bed. Of course, I’m still working on that development, but it’s a good sign that the idea of me in danger scared the shit out of him. He starts the SUV and pulls out of the mall parking lot. For a few seconds, I watch as he eyes his rearview mirror, but nobody seems to be following. They don’t have to; they can use standing water to watch me. Note to self—showers only until we resolve this shit.

Jesse drives to my place, but he doesn’t drop me off. Instead he escorts me to the door. “I’ll wait here. Pack a few things.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m not leaving you here alone when we have no idea what’s going on.”

“I have a roommate and I know how to dial 911.”

“So you’re willing to endanger Maria?”

“That’s a low blow, but I’m not going home with you, Jesse. Not unless you’re taking me there for better reasons.”

“Shan—”

“G’night. Thanks for the ride.”

I don’t think he expects me to close the door in his face. When I turn, I spot Maria in the hall, just stepping out of the bathroom. “Did I hear voices?”

I squelch the urge to reply,I dunno, but if so, you should check your medication.“Yeah, I bummed a lift from a friend.”

“The hot cop? Are you guys a thing?” She skims me up and down, not meant to be insulting, but I suspect she can’t picture Jesse and me together.

Dammit.Neither can he.

“Nope. He’s just overprotective. Apparently the public transportation system is fraught with many and myriad dangers.”

“You should go for it,” she advises.

“I’m trying,” I mumble.

“I’d offer to lend you some sexy undies, but I don’t think they would fit.”

That’s not a slam. Maria’s butt is bigger than mine, plus who wants to borrow sexy panties? Pass.

“Thanks. I appreciate the thought, though.”

Maria heads to her room after that. We don’t talk extensively, but she’s a decent roomie, here enough that I don’t feel totally alone, but she’s not always in my business, either.

First I wash the Pretzel Pirate smell off, then I make a salad. Along with some tuna and buttered noodles, this is dinner. I’m not much of a cook, but I’ve gotten good at putting healthy meals together from fairly little. Maria goes to bed while I’m still eating, so I turn on the TV for company.

I’m almost ready to turn in when my phone vibrates with a text from Jesse.You drive me crazy. Why won’t you let me protect you?

I reply,That’s not your job. You’re my friend, not my lover or my bodyguard.

There’s a pause between messages. I picture him on the couch, like I am, frowning at his phone.If we WERE together, would you fight me this much?

Elation surges through me. He might not realize it, but that reveals how much his thinking has changed in a relatively short time. Even if it’s a hypothetical question born of aggravation, it also means he’s wondering what we’d be like as a couple. So obviously, I flirt with him.

That depends,I answer.How much do you like it?

A whole lot…and not at all.

Look, J, I’m never gonna sit on a pedestal and wait. I’m not that kind of princess. I’ll insist you take me with you to storm the castle and I’ll carry my own sword.

You won’t let me slay your dragons?I imagine him saying it in a soft, teasing tone.

Without hesitation, I type,there’s only one circumstance where I would.

What’s that?He responds so fast; there’s no way he’s doing anything but talking to me. That makes me ridiculously happy. His dinner might be cooling on the table beside him, the TV playing unnoticed.

If you want me to say yes to you, you have to say yes to me.

Blackmail’s illegal. But damned if you don’t make it tempting.

That’s the idea. Night, cowboy.

Six

All through the week, Jesse sends me texts and emails.

Those messages are the high point of my day, no matter what he says. Sometimes he writes about how work’s going, though nothing specific about his cases. Other times, he talks about his partner, and then rarely, his family. I wonder if he realizes how much he’s sharing, how much he’s opening up. I keep teasing him, and soon he’s flirting back. It’s easier to get him to respond this way, possibly because he’s not looking at me and thinking how young I am.

Wednesday, Maria and I have a Chris Pine movie marathon by connecting my laptop to the TV; she has a Netflix account—or rather, she knows a cousin’s password. So we’re all set. As we’re watching Mr. Pine use psychic powers, I try not to think about the weirdo who was watching me. I haven’t sensed anything out of place since then, but that doesn’t mean I’m clear. It’s hard to feel safe when somebody could be staring up at you from your dishwater.

A text comes in from Jesse as the last movie ends.What’re you doing?

Admiring Chris Pine’s hotness.

He’s older than I am!

Like I care. Or as if age would stop me.What’s your point?

Mentally, I hear him sighing.Never mind. I wish you were here. Texts and emails are fine, but I want to talk.

About what?

I just miss you, that’s all.

This feels like ahugeadmission. So I stand up and say to Maria, who’s been watching me text, “I’m gonna call it a night.”

“Sure. It was fun. We should do it again.”

“Chris Evans next time?” I suggest.

“Deal.”

Once I’m in my room with the door shut behind me, I dial Jesse’s number. I’m not a phone talker, you understand, but I’ll make an exception to capitalize on this emotional confession. It rings twice before he answers. I’m already snuggled down on my futon. Low-level arousal percolates through me as I picture him doing the same. In my head, he’s in bed and shirtless, listening to my voice.

Mmm, yeah.

“Here I am,” I say.

“Shan…” His voice is rich, the drawl pronounced, and he imbues my name with a kind of longing I’ve never heard before. “You can’t make me feel this way.”

“Are you sure it’s me and not you?” I ask.

“That’s the problem. I’m never sure.”

“You would be with me.”

Silently, I replay his words in my head.Is he picking up how I feel, from all the way across town?I don’t know much about empathy, but that’s an enormous range.

“How do you keep from drowning in other people’s emotions?” I ask, before I can think better of it.

“It doesn’t work like that. The distance is more of a gauge,” he mutters. From his tone, it’s clear he doesn’t care to elaborate.

And that makes me even more determined to get an answer. “Of what?”

“How much I care.”

“So you care…a Laredo-sized amount about me?”

“Shan,” he whispers. “I doubt you could goanywherethat I wouldn’t feel you.”

Oh. My. God.

He goes on, “I haven’t felt like this since high school. You’re burning me alive.”

“That’s not a bad thing.”

“Said the flame to the moth.”

He must be wondering how he’d explain me to his friends and family, his work colleagues. I won’tchangefor him. If he wants me, I come with Gothic splendor. He has to love me enough not to care what other people think or how they feel about us together. I don’t know if Jesse has that much of a lawless streak in him.

I sure hope so.

And it’s not like I’m jailbait. I’m just not the girl anybody would pick for him.

“You seem to think I’m bent on your destruction.”

“Sometimes it feels that way. No matter how many times I tell myself it’s a bad idea, I close my eyes and see your face.”

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