The trials passed in a blur.
Treachery from House Shaffer, Nevada burning so much power she nearly passed out, the horrible terror that had gripped her when it looked like Arabella was going to fail at basic math— by the time she’d gotten home, all Catalina wanted to do was collapse into bed and sleep for a year.
Instead, while Nevada ran off to have “thank god we’re all okay” sex with Mad Rogan, she stayed behind to make sure everything was taken care of. Arabella settled on the couch with cocoa and a movie, exhausted from her transformation and the stress of doing “stupid logic puzzles” in front of an unforgiving audience. Leon dissuaded from pestering Rogan’s men about his dark horse status. Mom and Grandma Frida huddled together at the kitchen table, voices low as they discussed how being a House would change things. By the time she was able to retreat to her bedroom, she was as tired as she could ever remember being.
It wasn’t the expenditure of magic: she hadn’t held back, unwilling to even contemplate what would happen if she failed to qualify as a Prime, but she hadn’t drained her batteries dry the way Nevada had. She had plenty of juice left. No, her fatigue was born of fear. Terror that she’d use too little magic and leave House Baylor vulnerable with only Nevada as a sure bet, terror that she’d use too much magic and wreck the trials that way.
The arbiters had assured that there was no way for her magic to leak out and affect anyone else, but how could she trust that? They’d as good as admitted her magic was new to them; they couldn’t guarantee anything.
She’d spent years being afraid of her power, but it was a manageable sort of fear. No one knew, except family, and they were all immune. All she had to do was keep it tightly leashed, and she was home free. No one had to worry that she was using her magic to force them to care for her, to be friends with her, to love her. She was the only one who had to carry that burden. Now that her magic was out in the open, making waves in the Assembly newsletter, spawning reams of fanfiction on Herald, she felt like the weight of her power had doubled.
Tripled, quadrupled. More than that.
There was no way to calculate how much stress your own magic could cause you. If there were, she’d have memorized the formula ages ago.
All she had as she burrowed into her comforter were hazy memories, as though the trials happened years ago instead of just a few hours earlier.
The young lady is a Prime.
She’d expected Alessandro to be— exactly what he looked like on Instagram. Handsome, aloof, a Prime with all the confidence and overblown self-importance to match. A jackass.
His Insta feed hadn’t oversold him, at least not as far as looks went. He was as breathtaking as all the pictures made him seem, maybe even more so in person. Messy curls, strong jaw, muscles visible beneath whatever designer suit he’d been wearing. The full HD impact of Alessandro Sagredo, antistasi Prime was enough to make her wobble a little bit as she approached him.
Standing there in a suit, a casual smile playing on his lips, he’d made some quip, do your worst, and she was positive she’d judged him correctly. Handsome jackass through and through, overconfident, her magic was going to tear him apart—
But it hadn’t. He’d been caught in the grip of it, sure, her nonsense babble about beaches and storms wrapping him in the song of her power, and he’d crossed the white line, intent on getting to her, but then he’d just stopped. Shrugged off her power like it was nothing more than an annoyance. She still didn’t know how he’d done it, gone from struggling and furious to fully composed in the blink of an eye. It was like watching someone break a wave in half with their bare hands, incomprehensible, almost surreal. Something that couldn’t happen.
She tried to picture his face in that moment, the instant he switched from compelled to autonomous. Maybe her memory was as fuzzy as her head, but in her mind’s eye, he didn’t look one bit frustrated. Shown up by a seventeen-year-old nobody with a brand new designation, and he’d handled it all with aplomb. He wasn’t mad.
He wasn’t scared.
She grabbed her phone off the nightstand and snuggled deeper under the covers, halfway tempted to open up the app and just look at him again. There had to be more to him than just the slick facade of a Prime.
She’d forgotten that in her panic after he’d followed her, she hadn’t just deleted her account but the app itself as well. She tapped sleepily at the screen until it started to download. Bern must have been doing something online because the connection was appallingly slow. Her eyes started slipping shut as it spooled, downloading, downloading.
Catalina was asleep before it finished, exhausted, falling into dreams of oceans and magic she wouldn’t remember when she woke up.
Do you have storms in Italy?
Three years after the trials, a lot of things had changed.
Rogan and Nevada were married. They’d moved out of the warehouse and into a fancy new compound near Rogan’s house, close enough to keep Nevada from worrying. It was as heavily fortified as the warehouse, with the added bonus of being further out of the city center. Easier to defend.
Rogan and Nevada had a ridiculous fight about it, but shortly after their marriage they’d used some of Rogan’s money to buy back Baylor Investigative Agency from House Montgomery, and the business had slowly but steadily expanded. They were nipping at MII’s heels these days, and the staff was more than just Cornelius and whichever one of the kids had the least amount of homework to do.
They had more money, more security, more fame than they’d ever expected. House life hadn’t changed everything, though. Catalina remembered thinking her magic had grown heavier back when everything first went public, but she’d been painfully naive. Being certified as a Prime had made everything exponentially worse. People who’d been friendly with her before the truth of her power made headlines abruptly stopped speaking to her. Friends were wary around her, flinching when she spoke too loudly or smiled too brightly. Others tried to push through the fear, but she could always tell.
The last few months of high school had been absolute hell.
Arabella, at least, was a known monster. Catalina was something new, something insidious and terrible. Her magic was something out of myth; it said so right in her designation.
Three years after the fact, she’d had time to parse her memories of the trials more fully, and beyond the blur of panic and fear, what she’d found was a deep, simmering anger.
She didn’t know why she’d chosen to talk about storms, but it was a fitting question. I’m angry, the topic sang. I’m so angry. Try and fight free of the ocean before you drown. Tell me about the fury of the wind and the sky and the sea.
Siren. Not in so many words, of course, but that was her official designation. Siren, as though it were clever. As though there were anything funny about it at all. Ask Odysseus. Ask the German battalions lying at the bottom of the sea beyond the cliffs of Greece. Ask that nameless siren’s bones, as dead from her magic as all the soldiers she drowned.
Ask Catalina herself, scared to death of her own powers, shunned and hated and afraid to go out on even a single date now that people knew.
Even Arabella had dated a few people since the news of her magic got out. They were mostly daredevils, boys who wanted to prove they weren’t afraid of her, but she seemed to enjoy it. Catalina had had a few similar offers, but she’d never been able to make herself accept any of them.
Her magic had grown since the trials. At twenty, it was even more vast and vicious than it had been at seventeen. Her control was better, too, but it didn’t matter. She’d had control of her powers since she was old enough to understand the kind of brutal, deadly magic that hummed and sang inside her. As a child, it was a sledgehammer. Now, with access to House resources and time to practice, it was a scalpel, more precise than she’d ever imagined it could be. She was still terrified.
It wasn’t about the physical danger of her power. Arabella was her shadow when she wasn’t off toying with her daredevil boys. The waters of House politics had taught them to stick together like glue even when they annoyed the shit out of each other, and if her sister wasn’t around, well. Rogan had taken her aside shortly after the trials and quietly made sure she knew how to defend herself. If anyone save House Madero tried to grab her, she’d have a better than even shot at breaking free, and Nevada had already put the fear of God into them.
No, it wasn’t the physical danger. If she didn’t keep every drop of magic locked away tight under her skin, she couldn’t trust anyone. She couldn’t trust herself. She would always wonder if she’d influenced them, coerced them, turned herself into a monster because she was lonely.
She had a vague circle of friends, smaller than it was before the formation of House Baylor. Nevada, Arabella, Matilda. One or two high school friends who’d stuck around, determined not to let her power change anything. They’d gotten better about flinching.
That was it, though. She didn’t date.
She hadn’t been on a date since she was sixteen, hadn’t kissed anyone since just after she turned seventeen.
Rogan and Nevada were stupidly happy. Arabella had her daredevil boys, and Bern had a girlfriend. Even Leon had managed to go on a couple dates recently, conjuring up a boy who seemed to find his hyperbole endearing.
She wasn’t jealous. She was just— lonely. If she thought about Alessandro sometimes, if she occasionally looked at his Instagram, it didn’t mean anything. The idea of him was interesting, but whatever flash of substance she’d seen during the trials seemed to be just that: a flash. She’d made the truly horrible mistake of following him on Snapchat one day — from a new, anonymous account, nothing that could lead to a repeat of the Instagram incident — and it had been more of the same. Cars, suits, women, more cars, more women, product placement. Handsome jackass through and through. She’d unfollowed him after only a few days, and thanked her lucky stars Arabella had no idea she’d ever taken a look at it in the first place.
If she dreamed sometimes about someone who could throw off her power, who could meet her as an equal, someone she could kiss and touch and hold without fear, if that person looked like Alessandro Sagredo, antistasi Prime and apparent model, well. He was gorgeous. That was all it was.
In the end, what it came down to was time.
Nevada called a family meeting and sat at the head of the ridiculously large kitchen table with a worried frown on her face.
“It’s been three years,” she said, “and we still have no idea who Caesar is.”
Rogan was a looming presence at her side. He was always quiet during Baylor family meetings, but Nevada insisted that he be there. He’d long since given up arguing with her about it. Still, his expression spoke volumes. His frown matched hers.
“Victoria still hasn’t cracked?” That was Mom, her voice icy and intentionally controlled.
Nevada’s frown deepened. “No,” she said. “I’ve made strides since the last time I talked to her, but I’m still so far behind her that it’s laughable. There’s no way I can force my way into her mind without damaging both of us. She’s still holding on to all her secrets.”
“We have allies now, though,” Bern said. “If Caesar orchestrates anything else, it won’t be like the last two times. Rogan, House Harrison, even House Montgomery. We’re better prepared, and we’re not alone.”
“It’s not enough,” Nevada countered. “Rogan is— everything to me, but he brings his share of enemies. House Harrison is small, and Augustine may be a reluctant ally, but it’s hard to fully commit to someone who’s a direct business competitor.” The ghost of a smile flashed across her face before her expression hardened once more. “We’ve spent so much time shoring up the business and playing catch up with our magic. Those were the right choices, but we only have a few months before our three year protection period expires, and we need more alliances than we have.”
“Six months,” Grandma Frida said. “Surely we scrounge up an ally or two in half a year’s time.”
“That’s not as much time as you think it is, Grandma,” Arabella said. “It takes Houses five minutes to file paperwork, but first they have to spend ages dancing around the point, assessing the situation and trying to ferret out weak spots. Remember the whole ‘wait and see’ thing with Sturm, even though everyone knew he was nuts and ready to drop a goddamn tornado on us?”
“She’s right,” Nevada said. “And we don’t have a lot of options. This is my fault. I knew we were being too insular, but trying to bring our magic up to speed seemed like the right thing to do—”
Rogan covered her hand with his, lacing their fingers together. “I come with enemies, but I have my fair share of allies, too. We’ll figure something out.”
The conversation continued on from there, but Catalina was stuck thinking about the time limit. Six months until the protection period ended and it was open season on House Baylor.
“It isn’t just Caesar,” she said, breaking up some exchange between Rogan and her mother. “It’s the other Houses in general. We have a few friends, but we’re more vulnerable than other emerging Houses because we’re so damn weird.” She gestured at Nevada, then Arabella, and finally herself. “An errant Tremaine Truthseeker, a Beast of Cologne, and a siren. The Houses that are afraid of us will either back off entirely or form alliances against us, and the ones who aren’t afraid will try and flex their muscle as soon as they can.”
No one said anything.
She turned to pin Rogan with a direct stare. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
He nodded. “You’re right.”
“So we have a bigger target on our backs than we should, and we have six months to acquire some armor.”
“That about sums it up.”
“I have an idea.” Catalina had plenty of practice keeping her voice steady. It didn’t waver at all. “I think we should consider arranging a genetic match with another House. A marriage contract would guarantee at least one powerful, committed ally.”
Nevada paled. “No,” she said. “I’m not going to force anyone to get married just because I screwed up.”
Penelope chimed in immediately. “Absolutely not. Your dad refused to play that game— that’s part of why he left. He wanted control over his life. I may not have been able to keep you out of House business in the end, but I won’t stand by and watch any of you barter away your freedom because you think it’s the only move left.”
Bern and Leon exchanged uneasy glances. Arabella stayed silent, her gaze fixed on Catalina.
“Mom, that’s not what I’m suggesting.”
“A marriage contract for a guaranteed ally sounds a hell of a lot like freedom for security.”
Her magic shivered inside her veins, as frustrated as she was. “What freedom, Mom? I haven’t been on a date since before we first applied to become a House. I can’t— I can’t just date someone, not when they know. Not when they can’t protect themselves.”
“It’s fine. I’m twenty, I’m single, and I’m a Prime. We already know the other Houses are fascinated by my power. We’ll have no trouble finding a match.”
Nevada’s frown looked like it had been carved into her face. “You’re serious about this?”
“Yeah,” Catalina said. “I am.”
Her sister was silent for a long moment. Penelope kept glancing back and forth between them like she couldn’t decide which daughter to glare at.
“You’ll have to think about it,” Nevada said. “We can tell Scroll to make your sample available for potential matches, have Rogan reach out to some of his contacts, but you have to think about this first. Hard, Catalina. You won’t be able to take this back if you change your mind halfway through.”
“I will,” she promised.
There wasn’t much to say after that. Penelope stalked away from the table, clearly upset. Grandma Frida followed her, her face somber as she went after her daughter.
Nevada and Rogan stayed at the table, their hands still tangled together. She wanted that. They loved each other so much it hurt; that was clear from a single glance. Catalina would be lying if she said she didn’t picture that kind of love when she thought about her ideal future, but more than that, she wanted someone who could stand as her equal. If she could protect her family in the same stroke, they both came out winners.
She was just being practical.
“What the hell was that?” Arabella asked, cornering her in her room as soon as she left the kitchen.
“What do you mean?”
“That whole, thing back there,” she said, gesturing explosively, arms nearly hitting the doorframe. “That ‘I’m twenty and I never date and I should totally arrange a marriage because reasons!’ thing!” She narrowed her eyes just like she had during the meeting. “I should have known this was coming when you went and creeped on his Snapchat.”
“Oh, don’t play dumb, Lina. Of course I know about that. It was months ago, but you were even more mopey than usual.”
“And mopey adds up to Snapchat? I know you’re bad at math, Arabella, but that’s insane—”
“You’re my sister, I’m always going to ace whatever math you throw at me. And don’t try to deflect: you were thinking about Alessandro when you threw that grenade back there.”
Catalina swallowed. It was one thing to keep her voice steady during a family meeting, and another thing entirely to try and lie to Arabella.
“Not really. I promise,” she added when it looked like Arabella was going to interrupt. “I think about him sometimes, but it’s mostly in the context of an equal. Someone who won’t be secretly terrified of my power.”
“I thought you said he was nothing but shine.”
Okay, so clearly she’d talked about Alessandro more than she’d realized. That was vaguely embarrassing.
“I did,” she said, “but even if there’s isn’t anything more to him than expensive cars and fancy suits, he still threw off my power. I wasn’t as strong then, but I hit him hard, and it took him what, thirty seconds to come back to himself? Less?”
She twisted her hands through her hair, an old nervous habit. Her power was roiling in her chest, as unsettled as she was.
“I want that, Arabella. I want someone who doesn’t have to contend with siren. My best chance of finding that is with another Prime.”
Arabella had always been all motion and now was no exception. She surged forward out of the doorway and wrapped her up in a fierce hug.
“Okay Lina,” she said. “I’d tell you to think about it, like Nevada said, but it sounds like this has been brewing for a while.”
“Then I’m behind you. But I reserve the right to laugh at you if Mr. Handsome Jackass is first in line at Scroll.”
She could feel her cheeks turning a furious pink. “No laughing.”
“Yep, all the laughing.” Arabella’s arms were still around her, tight and sure.
“Fine. Some laughing.”
She didn’t change her mind.
They told Scroll about her decision, and potential offers started rolling in. Arabella wasn’t quite on the money, but close enough so as not to matter. House Sagredo requested her basic profile and then a more detailed sequencing within three days.
Arabella was unbearably smug. It made up for the lingering disappointment Nevada tried her best to hide, and the frustration her mother was doing an equally bad job disguising.
Her initial plan had been to wait until all the matches came in before she started trying to make a decision. That was the smart thing to do, the tactical way to go about it. Instead, she stared at the notices from House Sagredo, flagged as important and sitting at the top of her inbox.
They mocked her for nearly a week, offers still rolling in, before she finally caved.
Getting in touch with Alessandro was stupidly easy. She was halfway tempted to follow him from her new Instagram account, but instead she requested his email address from Scroll and sent him a polite, professional message.
He responded in the same manner.
Well, she couldn’t fault his etiquette.
They corresponded like that for a few weeks, sending each other excruciatingly polite emails, talking about DNA and children and the potential pitfalls of mixing their magic, given that hers was new and relatively unstudied.
It stayed boring and professional, purely business, until one day out of the blue he asked her why she deleted her account.
She could feel herself flushing as she tried to think of an answer more sophisticated than you scared the shit out of me.
It was overwhelming, she finally typed. I was in high school, and my magic had been a secret all my life. Then suddenly it was out in the open, and this gorgeous, incredibly popular man was following me on Instagram as he got ready to help the arbiters tear my life apart. I woke up with six thousand followers. I panicked.
She hit send before she could second guess her honesty.
The response came back just a few hours later, time zones be damned.
I didn’t mean to intimidate you, it read. They said you were powerful, and that your magic was new. I wanted to see what you were like. I wanted to know who you were, beyond your designation. Instagram seemed like an easy way to do that. I still want to know you.
God, she really had to get the blushing under control. Her magic rolled and hummed, uncurling in her veins, restless and hungry.
Maybe we could Skype, she sent back. Or FaceTime? This has all been so formal, and— I want to know you, too.
She sent the email, magic humming and humming, and she didn’t even try to quiet it the way she usually did. It couldn’t hurt anyone in the house. It couldn’t hurt Alessandro.
Looking at him through a camera wasn’t quite the same as seeing him in person, but he was still stupidly hot. Three years had added a little bit of character to his face, harder and harsher than it was at the trials. He looked like he’d weathered a storm or two.
He said he wanted to know her, and he meant it. Slowly, piece by piece, hour by hour, he coaxed stories out of her. What her magic felt like to her, how life outside the House system compared to life inside it. Her favorite things to bake.
The more she told him, the more she saw the veneer of a Prime fall away from him in turn. Alessandro became real; more than just exotic cars and thousand dollar suits, more than a memory she’d spent three years hanging on to even when she insisted otherwise. He had a sly sense of humor and he loved to read. He liked driving fast, always had, but the kind of car didn’t matter.
His real smile didn’t match the one on his Instagram at all. It peeked out at her in flashes. She wanted desperately to see it in person.
Nevada and her mother both still had reservations about the idea, but three months had passed, and the deadline was looming. Arabella had been true to her word, and she’d backed Catalina all the way. When she announced to the family that she was inviting Alessandro to visit Texas, Arabella grinned, clearly waging some internal battle with herself as she tried not to laugh.
Eventually, she gave up.
“You didn’t even give anyone else a chance, did you?” she asked. “I totally called this.”
The night before she was supposed to pick him up from the airport, she went scrolling through his Instagram feed, just because she could.
It was so different from the way it had been before the trials, back when all she could see was Prime and danger and shit why is this happening.
She knew him now. Most of the feed was still handsome jackass, beautiful women and fancy suits and expensive cars, but she could see hints of Alessandro hidden beneath all the glamor. If she’d known what to look for back then, she would have focused on the two photos that didn’t fit.
The first was of a young boy perched on his shoulders, laughing, melted ice cream dripping down into Alessandro’s perfect hair, outright messy instead of artfully tousled. It looked candid, real. It was his little brother, Luca, the picture taken right before he got sick. Cancer, though Alessandro hadn’t told her what kind. She hadn’t asked. Some details of grief were too hard to share. Too raw.
The other picture was a landscape, empty, almost bleak. It was a windswept beach that made something in her think of winter, even though it was clearly in Italy, high summer in the Mediterranean. It was evening, clouds sweeping low over the horizon, something about the light touching everything with melancholy.
It wasn’t Homer’s wine-dark sea, but it could be. Full of monsters, full of heartache, ten loveless years striving for home. The kind of sea that called to you and drew you in, even though it promised storms.
That was the one thing she hadn’t asked him about during their talks.
She didn’t know whether he remembered her question at the trials but she fell asleep dreaming of his voice, whispering in her ears as she stood on that lonely beach, the sound of it low and rich as he told her about the storms in Italy.
She dreamed of the song of her magic unspooling, the ache in her chest disappearing. She dreamed of storms on dark water, and the way he’d looked at her in the trials room.
She dreamed of kissing him, mapping the planes and contours of his face and his body, heat twisting through her as she learned him the way she hadn’t been able to learn anyone else—
And then it was morning, and he would be close enough to touch in only a few hours.
He was waiting for her with a grin on his face, not quite the social media smile but not quite the real one she wanted to see either.
“Hello Catalina,” he said. “It’s good to see you again.”
She thought she was prepared for the sight of him, for the sound of his voice, but it still made her wobble a little bit as she stepped forward to greet him.
Her magic was straining against her skin, frantic, and she pushed it down as hard as she could.
"I don't know if you want to head straight to your family, or if we should talk for a bit first. I have a hotel room, but—" His smile flickered. “You’re tamping down your magic,” he said.
“There are too many people here. I can’t let it loose.”
“But you want to.” There was no judgment in his voice.
“Yes,” she said.
She managed to wait until they were in her car, not a Ferrari or a Maserati, but something Rogan had given them. He whistled as he got in, but all his attention fell on her as soon as she locked the doors. The arrivals parking lot was empty. It was safe enough.
“I trust you,” she said, “but I have to be sure. Can— can I?
There was the smile, real, beautiful.
She let her magic rise, the song flooding through her veins, rising, rising—
He shivered, and then his magic surged out to meet hers. His eyes stayed clear. Siren song defeated. No clever trick, no wax needed.
“Why don’t you come to me this time?” he said quietly.
It was awkward, a first kiss in the front seat of a car, steering wheel and gearshift and center console all in the way. It was perfect.
Her magic trilled and sang, pushing and pulling the tide of his power, the two of them solidly in synch.
He let her lead, opened his mouth beneath hers when she pressed, turned his head obligingly when she moved to feather kisses along his jaw, stubble prickling at her, a sharp, unexpected delight until she came back to his mouth. They kissed until she was dizzy with it, lush and deep, again and again, joy fizzing through her bloodstream in counterpoint to her magic.
When she finally pulled away, he looked so familiar and so happy it made her want to sing.
I didn’t think I could have this. God, I’m so glad I was wrong.
“So,” he said. “Italy for the honeymoon? I have to show you the storms, after all.”
They drove aimlessly for a while, whizzing down the I-69, engine climbing to a throaty roar before throttling back to something more polite as they exited and made their way through residential streets. They drove past the old warehouse, now a satellite base for some of Rogan’s men, and then took a winding route out to the house.
She spent the whole ride shutting down the urge to reach for the hand he had resting casually on the gearshift. She couldn’t tell if it was all the longing she’d held back, years of it finally surging forward like the tide, or just the regular nonsense Alessandro had always inspired in her, but she wanted to be touching him. She felt silly, like a kindergartener sitting on her hands so she wouldn’t reach for a forbidden sweet.
I’m a twenty-year-old Prime, and we’re engaged, she tried telling herself. We just spent nearly an hour making out. I can hold his damn hand if I want to.
By the time they reached the house, she still hadn’t worked up the courage to reach for him. He pulled into the driveway and shut the engine down, but made no move to get out of the car.
He flashed her a grin, but it was small and crooked, a sliver of his real smile instead of a social media expression.
“I’m nervous,” he admitted. “We talked for months, long enough that I feel like I know you, but your family…” he trailed off. “You all made quite the splash at the trials, and you’ve done things so differently than we expected you to. I don’t know what your relatives will think of me. Your sisters, especially.”
She reached for his hand without thinking this time, all her hesitation fallen away in the face of his honesty.
“It’s Grandma Frida you have to watch out for,” she told him. “She’s quite the connoisseur of bad jokes.”
“I think I can handle that,” he said, giving her hand a gentle squeeze.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” she replied. “Also, my mother is a retired sniper. If Grandma Frida doesn’t terrify you, she will.”
“Well then,” he said. “I don’t suppose hiding in the car will win me any points.”
“You’ll survive,” she promised him. “I can’t make any guarantees you’ll escape without a dose of Baylor family crazy, but I’ll keep you safe.”
He grinned at her again, the same small, crooked smile, and it solidified something in her chest. Nevada and her mother were worried, and they had every right to be, but this wasn’t a mistake. She knew it in her bones. She’d caught a glimpse of the man behind the slick Prime image three years ago, and she’d been right about him.
When they walked into the house though, it was emptier than she’d expected. No Nevada, no Rogan, no sign of her mother. Arabella was the only person in sight, waiting for them in the kitchen with a Cheshire grin.
“So,” she said, eyes trained on Alessandro’s hand, resting carefully on the small of her back. “Anything you two lovebirds want to share with the class?”
“Honestly, Arabella. We’ve both agreed to the terms we set out, I think that’s obvious.”
“So you’re engaged.”
Catalina suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. “Yes, we’re engaged. We’ll take care of the paperwork tomorrow, but for all intents and purposes, House Baylor and House Sagredo are officially allies.”
“Fuck yes!” Arabella yelled, pumping her fist in the air. She leaped out of her seat and turned to bellow out into the living room, “I win, suckers! Day one and they’re engaged!”
“Oh my god,” Catalina groaned, Alessandro’s arm tightening around her as he struggled not to laugh. “I expected the bet, but would it have killed you to keep it quiet and pretend that we’re a normal family for five minutes?”
Arabella snorted. “You’re telling me you didn’t warn him?”
“Oh,” Alessandro cut in, “she did warn me. She said Grandma Frida was my biggest concern though.”
Grandma Frida poked her head into the kitchen as if she’d been summoned. “What slander has my granddaughter been spreading now?”
“I believe the phrase was ‘connoisseur of terrible jokes.”
“Nonsense,” Grandma Frida shot back. “My jokes are wonderful.”
“Wonderful,” Arabella agreed. “Delightful, even. Now someone please call HR and tell him I’ve won.”
“Nevada’s already on it,” Grandma Frida cackled, “has been for a couple hours, I think.” She and Arabella exchanged an extremely unsubtle high five.
“I hate you both,” Catalina said.
“HR?” Alessandro asked.
Arabella opened her mouth to answer, but Catalina beat her to it. “Hurricane Rogan. Nevada says we can’t call him Mad, but we all mutually agreed it was way too weird to call him Connor. It’s a family compromise.”
“The Butcher of Merida goes by Hurricane Rogan among family.” Alessandro’s voice was admirably even, the faintest bit of his own sly humor at play. “Does NOAA know about this?”
“Oh don’t worry,” Leon piped up, bouncing in from the living room. “He said both Rogan and Connor have been officially stricken from the lists.”
“Wonderful.” He looked vaguely faint.
“Welcome to the family, young man,” Grandma Frida said. “I’m sure Nevada will be back to greet you herself as soon as she’s done...riding out the weather.”
“Oh my god, Grandma!” Arabella shrieked. “I can’t believe you beat me to that joke!”
Alessandro ignored the histrionics. “Thank you,” he said, the picture of cultured politeness. Grandma Frida beamed.
Calm expression never leaving his face, he bent down to stage whisper to Catalina, “Yeah, we’re definitely going to Italy for the honeymoon.”
She couldn’t hold back the bubble of laughter that burst in her chest, warm and bright. “You might be sick of storms by the time we get there.”
“Oh no, no, don’t you start.”
“Too late,” she laughed. “I warned you, we’re all crazy. You’re in for it now.”
His hand was warm against her lower back, as warm as the gentle thrum of his magic, holding the song of her power in check. “I suppose I’ll just have to batten the hatches, then.”
She was still laughing when he kissed her. It was a messy kiss, real, unscripted. Her mouth was open, her eyes crinkled shut in mirth. Her power hummed gently in her chest, quiescent, happy.
When she opened her eyes again, she felt lighter than she had in years, the world soft and bright to match, or maybe that was just the glare reflecting off the dusting of snow outside. She heard the click of a camera app, but ignored it. She’d deal with her sister later, with the inevitable awkwardness around Rogan, the teasing from Grandma Frida and the boys, with her mother and Nevada and the lingering worries around the end of the three year protection period.
For now, she’d focus on this, on the gentle, insistent pressure of Alessandro’s mouth on hers, on the warmth curling in her veins, promising wonderful things as soon as they weren’t in a room filled with her insane family. Maybe they could escape and head to that hotel room after all.
Alessandro finally pulled back, the camera still clicking away.
That’s alright, Catalina thought. I want to remember this.
Arabella put the picture on Instagram.