All their attempts at subterfuge had been in vain.
With ice in his heart, Taylor watched Jake prepare to defend him. His intense concentration betrayed no hint of doubt, though he was outnumbered. Taylor knew that they could expect no help; at this moment, Jake’s family was fighting for their lives just as surely as he was for theirs.
Would Taylor ever learn the outcome of that other fight? Find out who the winners and the losers were? Would he live long enough for that?
The odds of that didn't look so great.
Black eyes, wild with their fierce craving for Taylor’s death, watched for the moment when his protector's attention would be diverted. The moment when, Taylor would surely die.
Somewhere, far, far away in the cold forest, a wolf howled.
Dude, it’s been almost like, three months of making Scott carry notes to Ricardo... it’s like we're in second grade or something; it’s beyond gay.
I mean, you know I wanna talk to you;
but I’m not sure I can handle this level of... oh god, it’s insane even trying to put it into words anymore. We’re trading notes about episodes of a stupid tv show✹ dude; come on! Even you can’t pretend you don’t know that’s just... it’s gay. Okay? And not the fun kind of gay where we get to look at hot guys walking shirtless down the damn street.
Look. You made a choice Taylor; and I get it, you know I do. Best friend support here, one hundred percent
✹but what the hell else do you want me to try here? I mean, I came over under the guise that it was just to see Scott; and look how that turned out! ✹
What part of 'mortal enemies' is too complicated here, dude? I’m trying, you know I am! But the guys, but there's just no way around-
Sean says we can't be friends anymore, because you've chosen them over us. That we can't when you're spending all your time with a bunch of
bloodsu I mean... well, you know what I mean ✹
I’m sorry. I have to go.
I miss you, too, buddy. A lot. Don’t call tonight man, it’s just painful for both of us.
I ran my fingers across the page, feeling the dents where he had pressed the pen to the paper so hard when crossing out errors, at the ink stains, that it had nearly broken through. I could picture him writing this... scrawling the frustrated letters in his still unfairly neat handwriting, growling at himself when he perceived the words came out wrong, maybe even snapping the pen in his too-big hand; which would explain the ink splatters. I could imagine the frustration pulling his black eyebrows together and crumpling his forehead. If it'd been there, I might have laughed.
Don't give yourself a brain hemorrhage, Diego , I would have told him. Just spit it out already, assbutt.
Laughing was the last thing I felt like doing now as I reread the words I'd already memorized. His answer to yet another note passed from Scott to Ricardo to him, just like second grade, as he'd pointed out was no surprise. I'd known the essence of what it would say before I'd opened it.
What was surprising was how much each word wounded me; as if the points of the letters had cutting edges. More than that, behind each sentence lurked a vast pool of hurt; Diego's pain cut me deeper than my own.
The letters had seemed like a cheat at first; the pair of us giddy and excited to be able to cheat the gag order that Sean had enforced upon us. Now though... the relief of being able to trade messages was slowly smothered by the simmering frustration once again. This should not be happening; it was unfair, it was cruel. Who the hell did Sean think he was?
He’d even told Diego not to reply to my text messages when he'd discovered we were in touch by phone; he was that goddamn petty. I bet he got a kick out of the one sided phone calls we had; where Diego would answer and listen to all the empty promises I would make about fixing things. I felt like a complete failure as a best friend. I supposed I should really be used to that by now.
While I was pondering this, I caught the unmistakable scent of a smoking burner rising from the kitchen. In another house, the fact that someone besides myself was cooking might not be a cause for panicking.
I shoved the wrinkled paper into my back pocket and ran. I made it downstairs in the nick of time. The jar of spaghetti sauce Scott had stuck in the microwave was only on its first revolution when I yanked the door open and pulled it out.
"What did I do wrong?" Scott demanded.
"You're supposed to take the lid off first, Dad. Metal bad for microwaves; make go boom boom." I drawled sarcastically as I rolled my eyes, swiftly removed the lid as I spoke.
I poured half the sauce into a bowl, and then put the bowl inside the microwave and the jar back in the fridge; I fixed the time and pressed start.
Scott watched my adjustments with pursed lips. "Did I get the noodle's right?"
I looked in the pan on the stove; the source of the smell that had alerted me. "Stirring helps," I said mildly. I found a spoon and tried to unclump the mushy hunk that was scalded at the bottom.
"So what's all this about?" I asked him stiffly.
Things had not been great between Scott and I since Sean’s, oh so helpful, intervention. Scott was of the mind that I was acting out because of Jake; while I was of the mind that I was a grown ass adult, who didn’t actually need to stay in like some grounded college boy, but was doing just that anyway to try and appease him because he was my dad and I loved him.
Needless to say; neither of us had been particularly happy while we were in the house.
Scott folded his arms across his chest and glared out the back windows into the sheeting rain. "Don't know what you're talking about," he grumbled.
I was mystified. Scott cooking? And what was with the surly attitude? Jake wasn't here yet; usually my dad reserved this kind of behaviour for my boyfriend's benefit, doing his best to illustrate the theme of "unwelcome" with every word and posture. Scott's efforts were unnecessary. Jake knew exactly what my dad was thinking without the theatrical show.
The word boyfriend had me chewing on the inside of my cheek with familiar amusement while I stirred. It wasn't the right word, not at all. I needed something more expressive of eternal commitment? But words like destiny and fate sounded puke inducing when you used them in casual conversation.
Jake had another word in mind, and that word was the source of the amusement I felt. It made me grin and snort just to think it to myself.
Fiancé. Julia would go into total destroyer mode if she knew just how much I liked the sound of that... that I sometimes dreamed of my surname changing to McKenzie in the far too near future, well, in her opinion anyway. I shuddered with warmth and snickered quietly, shaking my head as I forced myself away from the ridiculous thought. Me, marriage material. Ha! Nobody in their right mind would ever seriously propose to me.
"Did I miss something? Since when do you make dinner?" I asked Scott by way of distraction, returning myself to the present with a small jolt. The pasta lump bobbed in the boiling water as I poked it dubiously. "Or try to make dinner, uh, in this case."
Scott shrugged. "There's no law that says I can't cook in my own house."
"You would know," I replied, snorting as I eyed the badge pinned to his leather jacket.
"Ha. Good one." He huffed with a small flicker of a smile.
But the humour soon faded, and he shrugged out of the jacket as if my glance had reminded him he still had it on, moving away to hang it on the peg reserved for his gear. His gun belt was already slung in place. He hadn't felt the need to wear that to the station for the past weeks since I’d been found in the woods and the rangers had gone back to their previous stations, when the mysterious giant wolves had... well, mysteriously disappeared. There had been no more disturbing disappearances to trouble the small town of Cedar Cove, or it’s ever-rainy wood.
I prodded the noodles in silence, guessing that Scott would get around to talking about whatever was bothering him in his own time. My dad was not a man of many words, and the effort he had put into trying to orchestrate a sit-down dinner with me made it clear there were an unusual characteristic number of words on his mind.
I glanced at the clock routinely; something I did every few minutes around this time. The countdown generally began as soon as I walked in the door, if I was entirely honest. There was less than a half hour to go now. A thrill of excitement tickled my spine.
Afternoons were the hardest part of my day. Ever since my best friend and werewolf, Diego Soto, had been forced to tattle on me about the motorcycle I'd been riding on the sly; a betrayal his Alpha, Sean Gayle, had devised in order to get me in trouble so that I couldn't spend time with my boyfriend and vampire, Jake McKenzie... Jake had been reduced to seeing me only from seven till nine-thirty in the evening. Always inside the confines of my home and under the supervision of Scott’s unfailingly crabby glare.
True, I could have been an ass and just gone out anyway to do whatever the hell I wished, but if I had, it would have ultimately meant more arguing, then having to move out and finally; severing whatever relationship Scott and I actually had... something I really didn’t want to have to do. The compromise seemed fair; given that I cheated quite regularly.
The whole thing was a stupid escalation from the previous, slightly less stringent, self inflicted ‘grounding’ that I'd decided to endure; due to my still sort of unexplained three-day disappearance and one episode of cliff diving.
Of course, I still saw Jake at college, because there wasn't anything Scott could do about that. And, naturally, Jake spent almost every night in my room, too... but Scott wasn't precisely aware of that. Jake's ability to climb easily and silently through my second-story window was almost as useful as his ability to read Scott's mind.
Though the afternoon was the only time I spent away from Jake, it was enough to make me restless, and the hours always dragged. Still, I endured my punishment without complaining because, for one thing; I knew I'd earned it. For another, it was because I really didn’t want to miss out on any time with my dad, however strained it was, by moving out now ; when a much more permanent separation hovered, invisible to Scott, so close on my horizon.
My dad sat down at the table with a grunt and unfolded the damp newspaper there; within seconds he was clucking his tongue in disapproval.
"I don't know why you read the paper, Dad. It only pi—“ I paused, biting my tongue briefly as I remembered not to swear in front of Scott if I could avoid it. “It just ticks you off."
He ignored me, grumbling at the paper in his hands. "This is why everyone wants to live in a small town! Ridiculous."
"What have big cities done wrong now?" I sighed, rolling my eyes expectantly.
"Seattle's making a run for murder capitol of the country. Five unsolved homicides in the last two weeks. Can you imagine living like that?"
"I think Sunset Beach is actually higher up in the homicide list, Dad. I have lived like that." And I'd never come close to being a murder victim until after I moved to his safe little town. In fact, I was still on several hit lists...
The spoon twitched momentarily in my hands, making the water tremble.
"Well, you couldn't pay me enough," Scott said.
I gave up on saving dinner and settled for serving it; I had to use a steak knife to cut a portion of spaghetti for Scott and then myself, while he watched with a sheepish expression. Scott coated his helping with sauce and dug in. I disguised my own clump as well as I could and followed his example without much enthusiasm. We ate in silence for a moment. Scott was still scanning the news, so I picked up my much-abused copy of Wuthering Heights from where I'd left it this morning at breakfast, and tried to lose myself in the turn-of-the-century England while I waited for him to start talking.
I was just to the part where Heathcliff returns when Scott cleared his throat and threw the paper to the floor.
"You're right," Scott said. "I did have a reason for doing this." He waved his fork at the gluey spread. "I wanted to talk to you."
I laid the book aside; the binding was so destroyed that it slumped flat to the table. "You could have just asked."
He nodded, his eyebrows pulling together. "Yeah... I'll remember that next time. I thought taking dinner off your hands would soften you up."
I laughed. "It worked… your cooking skills have me soft as a marshmallow. What do you need, Dad?"
"Well, it's about Diego."
I felt my face harden. "What about him?" I asked through stiff lips. Why did he always have to press the topic which hurt the most? Didn’t he know I was already trying to work out a way to see my best friend myself anyway? Well, I mean of course he didn't... but did he have to keep prying about it?
"Easy, Tay-Bear. I know you're still upset that he told on you, but it was the right thing. He was being responsible."
"Responsible," I repeated scathingly, rolling my eyes. Ha, Diego would never have told on me by his own choice. "Right. So what about Diego?"
The careless question repeated inside my head, anything but trivial. What about Diego? What was I going to do about him? My former best friend who was now… what? My enforced enemy? I cringed.
Scott's face was suddenly wary. "Don't get mad at me, okay?"
"Well, it's about Jake, too."
My eyes narrowed.
Scott's voice got gruffer. "I let him in the house, don't I?"
"You do," I admitted. "For brief periods of time. Of course, I could be going out of the house for brief periods of time now and then, too… but I choose not to, out of respect." I continued, only half jokingly; I knew I was on lock down for the duration of the remaining college year. "I'd like to see you get that kind of behaviour from Jordan."
Scott grimaced at the reminder of my twin brother’s distinctly differing personality to mine, knowing only too well he had the more obedient twin making compromises for him. "Well, that's kind of where I was heading with this?" And then Scott's face stretched into an unexpected eye-crinkling grin; for a second he looked twenty years younger.
I saw a dim glimmer of possibility in that smile, but I proceeded slowly. "I'm confused, Dad. Are we talking about Diego, Jake, or me being self-grounded?"
The grin flashed again. "Sort of all three."
"And how do they relate?" I asked, cautious.
"Okay." He sighed, raising his hands as if in surrender. "So I'm thinking maybe you deserve a parole... for good behavior. Considering your age, you're surprisingly non-whiney… and I do admit, I wouldn’t have got even the offer of self imposed grounding from Jor-Bull."
My voice and eyebrows shot up. "Seriously? I'm free?"
Where was this coming from? I'd been positive I would be under house arrest until I actually moved out; and Jake hadn't picked up any wavering in Scott's thoughts, unless he’d been particularly slow in picking them up. Or just hadn't told me, but I was fairly confident he wouldn't be that much of an ass to me.
Scott held up one finger. "Conditionally."
The enthusiasm vanished. "Fantastic," I groaned.
"Taylor, this is more of a request than a demand, okay? You're free. But I'm hoping you'll use that freedom… judiciously."
"What does that mean?"
He sighed again. "I know you're satisfied to spend all your time with Jake—"
"I spend time with Quinn, too," I interjected. Jake's sister had no hours of visitation; she came and went as she pleased. Scott was putty in her capable hands.
"That's true," he said. "But you have other friends besides the Darwin’s or McKenzie’s, Taylor. Or you used to." We stared at each other for a long moment. "When was the last time you spoke to Cameron Levy?" He threw at me.
"Friday at lunch," I answered immediately.
Before Jake's return, my college friends had polarized into two groups. I liked to think of those groups as good vs. evil. Us and them worked, just as well though. The good guys were Cameron, their steady boyfriend Aiden Cheney, and Caleb Mitchell; these three had all very generously forgiven me for going crazy when Jake left. Kara Sinclair was the evil core of the them side, and almost everyone else, including my first friend in Cedar Cove, Zoe Leon, seemed content to go along with her anti-Taylor agenda. I wasn't really as cut up about that as I probably should have been.
With Jake back at college, the dividing line had become even more distinct. Jake's return had taken its toll on Caleb's friendship, but Cameron was unfailingly loyal; and Aiden followed their lead. Despite the natural aversion most humans felt toward the Darwin’s, Cameron sat dutifully beside Quinn every day at lunch. After a few weeks, Cameron even looked comfortable there. It was difficult not to be charmed by the Darwin’s, once one gave them the chance to be charming.
"Outside of college?" Scott asked, calling my attention back.
"I haven't seen anyone outside of college, Dad. Respectful self grounding, remember? And Cameron has a boyfriend, too. They’re always with Aiden... If I'm really free," I added, heavy on the skepticism, "maybe we could double."
"Okay. But then?" He hesitated. "You and Diego used to be joined at the hip, and now?"
I cut him off. "Can you get to the point, Dad? Like, before I reach thirty." I scowled, remembering Jake's previous offhand comment about me reaching such a ridiculous age. "What's your condition, exactly?"
"I don't think you should dump all your other friends for your boyfriend, Taylor," he said in a stern voice. "It's not nice, and I think your life would be better balanced if you kept some other people in it. What happened after your birthday?" I flinched. "Well," he said defensively. "If you'd had more of a life outside of Jake McKenzie, it might not have been like that."
"It would have been exactly like that," I muttered instantly. It didn’t matter how many other people were in my life, without Jake; the world was barren, colourless and empty to me.
"Maybe, maybe not."
"The point?" I reminded him.
"Use your new freedom to see your other friends, too. Keep it balanced."
I nodded slowly. "Balance is good. Do I have specific time quotas to fill, though?"
He made a face, but shook his head. "I don't want to make this complicated. Just don't forget about your friends... particularly Diego."
It took me a moment to find the right words. "Diego might be… difficult."
"The Soto’s are practically family, Taylor" he said, stern and fatherly again. "And Diego has been a very, very good friend to you."
"I know that." I snapped.
"Don't you miss him at all?" Scott asked, frustrated.
My throat suddenly felt swollen; I had to clear it twice before I answered. "You took messages for me, dad; you know I miss him," I snarked, still looking down. "I miss him a lot."
"Then why is it difficult?"
It wasn't something I was at liberty to explain. It was against the rules for normal people, human people like me and Scott, to know about the clandestine world full of myths and monsters that existed secretly around us. I knew all about that world; and I was in no small amount of trouble as a result. I wasn't about to get Scott in the same trouble.
"With Diego there is… a conflict," I said slowly. "A conflict that’s more to do with Sean, to be honest… he doesn’t want Diego and I to talk right now."
I wound my excuse out of details that were true but insignificant, hardly crucial compared to the fact that Diego's werewolf pack bitterly hated Jake's vampire family; and therefore me, too, as I fully intended to join that family. It just wasn't something I could work out with him in a note, and he couldn't say anything whenever I called... But my plan to deal with the Sean problem in person; had definitely not gone over well with the vampires.
"What’s Sean got to do with your friendship with Diego?" Scott's voice was confused now, he seemed genuinely interested in this unknown development in my strained friendship with Diego.
I leveled a dark look at him. "It's complicated ." I said pointedly, narrowing my eyes at him irritably.
"You're hurting Diego's feelings, avoiding him like this. He'd rather be just friends than nothing." Scott sighed a moment later, seemingly brushing aside my comment about Sean.
I almost laughed. I was avoiding him? Next time I saw Sean Gayle I was gonna kick him in the damn jewels.
"Diego and I are quite capable of sorting ourselves out, dad… we're not schoolboys arguing on the playing field. But, right now, Sean doesn't want us to be friends at all." I looked over at him in exasperation. "Where'd you even get that idea, anyway?"
Scott looked embarrassed now. "The subject might have come up today with Ricardo."
"You and Ricardo gossip like old women," I complained, stabbing my fork viciously into the congealed spaghetti on my plate.
"Ricardo's worried about Diego," Scott defended. "Diego's having a hard time right now. He's depressed."
I winced, but kept my eyes on the blob. Diego wasn't exactly the only one… but at least I could talk to him. He couldn't even say hi to me.
"And then you were always so happy after spending the day with Diego." Scott said, trying to maintain his parental authority awhile longer, as my patience clearly wore thinner.
"I'm happy now ," I growled fiercely through my teeth.
The contrast between my words and tone broke through the tension. Scott burst into laughter, and I had to join in.
"Okay, okay," I agreed. "Balance."
"And Diego," he insisted.
"Good. Find that balance, Tay-Bear. And, oh, yeah, you've got some mail," Scott said, closing the subject with no attempt at subtlety. "It's by the stove."
I didn't move, my thoughts twisting into snarls around Diego's name; wondering how the hell could I break an Alpha wolf's order to one of its subordinates? It was most likely junk mail, anyway; I'd just gotten a package from my mom yesterday and I wasn't expecting anything else.
Scott shoved his chair away from the table stretched as he got to his feet. He took his plate to the sink, but before he turned the water on to rinse it, he paused to toss a thick envelope at me. The letter skidded across the table and thunked into my elbow.
"Er, thanks," I muttered, puzzled by his pushiness. Then I saw the return address; the letter was from the University of Alaska Southeast. "That was quick. I guess I missed the deadline on that one, too."
I flipped the envelope over and then glared up at him. "It's open."
"I was curious."
"I'm shocked, Sheriff. That's a federal crime."
"Oh, just read it."
I pulled out the letter, and a folded schedule of courses.
"Congratulations," he said before I could read anything. "Your first acceptance."
"We should talk about tuition. I've got some money saved up..."
"Hey, hey, none of that. I'm not touching your retirement, Dad. I've got my university fund." What was left of it; and there hadn't been much to begin with even before fixing up the bikes with Diego.
Scott frowned. "Some of these places are pretty pricey, Tay-Bear. I want to help at least one of my boys, and Jor-Bull already has his career." He said, almost whining as he looked at me pathetically. "You don't have to go all the way to Alaska just because it's cheaper."
It wasn't cheaper, not at all. But it was far away, and Juneau had an average of three hundred twenty-one overcast days per year. The first was my prerequisite, the second was Jake's.
"I've got it covered. Besides, there's lots of financial aid out there. It's easy to get loans." I hoped my bluff wasn't too obvious. I hadn't actually done a lot of research on the subject.
"So?" Scott began, and then pursed his lips and looked away.
"Nothing. I was just?" He frowned. "Just wondering what… Jake's plans are for next year?"
Three quick raps on the door saved me. Scott rolled his eyes and I jumped up.
"Coming!" I called while Scott mumbled something that sounded an awful lot like, 'Go away.' I ignored him and went to let Jake in.
I wrenched the door out of my way, ridiculously eager as always; and there he was, my personal miracle.
Time had not made me immune to the perfection of his face, and I was sure that I would never take any aspect of him for granted. My eyes traced over his pale white features; the hard square of his stubble dusted jaw, the softer curve of his full lips, twisted up into my favourite lopsided grin now. The straight line of his nose, the sharp angle of his cheekbones, the smooth marble span of his forehead; partially obscured by a shaggy mane of rain-darkened sandy hair?
I saved his eyes for last, knowing that when I looked into them I was likely to lose my train of thought. They were wide, warm with liquid cyan, and framed by a thick fringe of black lashes. Staring into his eyes always made me feel extraordinary; sort of like my bones were turning spongy. I was also a little lightheaded, but that could have been because I'd forgotten to keep breathing.
It was a face any male model in the world would trade his soul for. Of course, that might be exactly the asking price: one soul.
No. I didn't believe that. I felt guilty for even thinking it, and was glad; as I was often glad, that I was the one person whose thoughts were a mystery to Jake.
I reached for his hand, and sighed when his cold fingers found mine. His touch brought with it the strangest sense of relief; as if I'd been in pain and that pain had suddenly ceased.
"Hey." I smiled a little at my anticlimactic greeting.
He raised our interlaced fingers to brush my cheek with the back of his hand. "How's ya afternoon?"
"For me'n all, Boy Scout."
He pulled my wrist up to his face, our hands still twisted together. His eyes closed as his nose skimmed along the skin there, and he grinned without opening them. Enjoying the bouquet while resisting the wine, as he'd once put it.
I knew that the scent of my blood; so much sweeter to him than any other person's blood, truly like a vintage wine beside water to an alcoholic, caused him actual pain from the burning thirst it engendered. But he didn't seem to shy away from it as much as he once had. I could only dimly imagine the Herculean effort behind this simple gesture.
It made me sad that he had to try so hard. I comforted myself with the knowledge that I wouldn't be causing him pain much longer.
I heard Scott approaching then, stamping his feet on the way to express his customary displeasure with our guest. Jake's eyes snapped open and let our hands fall, keeping them twined.
"Evenin', Scott." Jake was always flawlessly polite, though Scott didn't deserve it.
Scott grunted at him, and then stood there with his arms crossed over his chest. He was taking the idea of parental supervision to extremes lately.
"Brought some more applications for ya," Jake told me then, holding up a stuffed manila envelope. He was wearing a roll of stamps like a ring around his littlest finger.
I groaned. How were there any university's left that he hadn't forced me to apply to already? And how did he keep finding these loophole openings? It was so late in the year.
He smiled as if he could read my thoughts; they must have been very obvious on my face. "There're still a few with open deadlines. And a few more places willin' to make... exceptions."
I rolled my eyes. I could just imagine the motivations behind such exceptions. And the dollar amounts involved.
Jake laughed at my expression. "Shall we?" He asked, towing me toward the kitchen table.
Scott huffed and followed behind, though he could hardly complain about the activity on tonight's agenda. He'd been pestering me to make a decision about university on a daily basis.
I cleared the table quickly while Jake organized the intimidating stack of forms. When I moved Wuthering Heights to the counter, Jake raised one eyebrow. I knew what he was thinking, but Scott interrupted before Jake could comment.
"Speaking of university applications, Jacob," Scott said, his tone even more sullen; he tried to avoid addressing Jake directly and when he had to, it exacerbated his bad mood, so he always addressed him as Jacob just to be extra petty. "Taylor and I were just talking about next year. Have you decided where you're going to university?"
Jake smiled up at Scott and his voice was friendly. "Not yet, nah. I got a few acceptance letters, but I'm still weighin' me options."
"Where have you been accepted?" Scott pressed.
"Columbia, Harvard, Oxford and I just got accepted to the University of Alaska Southeast today." Jake turned his face slightly to the side so that he could wink at me.
I stifled a giggle.
"Harvard? Oxford?" Scott mumbled, unable to conceal his awe. "Well that's pretty… that's something. Yeah, but the University of Alaska? You wouldn't really consider that , when you could go Ivy League. I mean, wouldn't your brother would want you to..?"
"Mike's always fine with whatever I choose," Jake told him serenely. "He helped me out when I got injured in the line of duty durin' my Navy years. Ain't ever healed right, and sadly they said I couldn't fly no more." He said dejectedly, watching me slyly, as I tried not to laugh. "So... figured it was best to go back to school an' see what else took my fancy."
"Guess what, Jake?" I asked in a bright voice, playing along.
I pointed to the thick envelope on the counter. "I just got my acceptance to the University of Alaska!"
"Nice one… congratulations, Boy Scout." He grinned.
"What a coincidence." Scott's eyes narrowed and he glared back and forth between the two of us. "Fine," he muttered after a minute. "I'm going to watch the trains, Taylor. Nine-thirty." That was his usual parting command.
"Er, Dad? Remember the very recent discussion about my freedom?"
He sighed. "Right. Okay, just… not too late. You still have a college, so don't get uh, too carried away." He said, frowning faintly as he looked away.
"Taylor ain't grounded?" Jake asked.
Though I knew he wasn't really surprised, I couldn't detect any false note to the sudden excitement in his voice.
"I'm twenty one !" I sighed in exasperation nonetheless, pouting between them for seeming to forget that the punishment was self inflicted .
"Conditionally," Scott corrected through his teeth. "What's it to you?" I frowned at my dad, but he didn't see.
"'S just good to know," Jake said. "Quinn's been itchin' for a shoppin' partner, and I figured Taylor'd like seein' some city lights." He smiled at me. "Plus; it saves me havin' to go… all those dresses gimme a headache just thinkin' 'bout 'em." He snickered, as I rolled my eyes.
A dash of charming, followed by a large splash of bastard. Typical Jake.
But Scott interrupted my moment of amusement and affection, as he growled, "No!" and his face turned pale.
"Dad! What the hell's the problem?" I demanded, as he made an effort to unclench his teeth.
"I don't want you going to Seattle right now."
"Huh?" I frowned, trying to understand why he was being so stubborn and unusually aggressive. Even toward Jake, he wasn't usually this bad.
"I told you about that story in the paper… there's some kind of gang on a killing spree in Seattle and I want you to steer clear, okay?" I rolled my eyes.
"Dad, please, there's a better chance that I'll get struck by lightning than happen to stumble onto a murderous gang the one day I'm in Seattle..." I snorted as I rolled my eyes dismissively, though Jake didn't seem to share my amusement.
"Nah, ya right, Scott," Jake said, ignoring me. "I didn't mean Seattle. Was thinkin' Tacoma, bein' honest. I wouldn't have Taylor in Seattle, either. 'Course not."
I looked at him in disbelief, but he had Scott's newspaper in his hands and he was reading the front page intently. He must have been trying to placate my dad. The idea of being in danger from even the most deadly of humans while I was with Quinn or Jake was downright hilarious.
It worked. Scott stared at Jake for one second more, and then shrugged. "Fine." He stalked off toward the living room, in a bit of a hurry now; probably not wanting to miss the start of his train show. I waited till the TV was on, so that Scott wouldn't be able to hear me.
"What—?" I started to ask.
"Hang on," Jake said without looking up from the paper. His eyes stayed focused on the page as he pushed the first application toward me across the table. "Think ya can recycle ya essays on this'un. Same questions."
I frowned at him, but then assumed Scott must still be listening. I sighed and started to fill out the repetitive information: name, address, social. After a few minutes I glanced up, but Jake was now staring pensively out the window. As I bent my head back to my work, I noticed for the first time the name of the university. I snorted and shoved the papers aside.
"Be serious, Jake. Dartmouth ?" I shook my head. "I don't even want to think about the tuition that'd cost me..."
"Ya know I'm happy to help..." Jake lifted the discarded application and laid it gently in front of me again. "I think ya'd like New Hampshire," he said. "There's a full complement of night courses for me; and the forests are conveniently located for the avid hiker. Plentiful wildlife'n all." He pulled out that crooked smile he knew I couldn't resist.
I took a deep breath through my nose and tried to remember what I was annoyed about.
"I'll let ya pay me back, if that makes ya happy," he promised. "If ya want, I can even charge ya interest."
"Like I could even get in without some enormous bribe. Or was that part of the loan?" I demanded haughtily, shaking my head. "The new Darwin wing of the library? Ugh. Why are we even having this discussion again?"
"Would ya just fill out the damn application, Taylor? It ain't gonna bloody well hurt ya to apply."
My jaw flexed. "You know what? I don't think I will."
I reached for the papers, planning to crumple them into a suitable shape for lobbing at the trash can, but they were already gone. I stared at the empty table for a moment, and then at Jake. He didn't appear to have moved, but the application was probably already tucked away in his jacket.
"What are you doing?" I demanded.
"I sign ya name better than ya do yaself. Ya already wrote the essays."
"You're going way overboard with this, you know." I whispered on the off chance that Scott wasn't completely lost in his show. "I really don't need to apply anywhere else. I've been accepted in Alaska. I can almost afford the first semester's tuition. It's as good an alibi as any. There's no need to throw away a bunch of money, no matter whose it is."
A pained look tightened his face. "Taylor?"
" Don't start. I agree that I need to go through the motions for Scott's sake, but we both know that I'm not going to be in any condition to go to university next fall. To be anywhere near people."
My knowledge of those first few years as a new vampire was sketchy. Jake had never gone into details, as it wasn't his favorite subject; but I knew it wasn't pretty. Self-control was apparently an acquired skill. Anything more than correspondence university was out of the question.
"I thought the timin' was still undecided," Jake reminded me softly. "Ya might enjoy a semester or two of uni. There're a lotta human experiences ya ain't never had."
"I'll get to those afterward."
Jake rolled his eyes at me. "They ain't gonna be human experiences afterward. Ya don't get a second chance at humanity, Taylor."
I sighed. "You've got to be reasonable about the timing, Jake. It's just too dangerous to mess around with."
"There ain't no danger yet," he insisted.
I glared at him. No danger? Sure. I only had a sadistic vampire trying to avenge her mate's death with my own, preferably through some slow and tortuous method. Who was worried about Jeanine? And, oh yeah, the Volturi? The vampire royal family with their small army of vampire warriors; who insisted that my heart stop beating one way or another in the very near future, because humans weren't allowed to know they existed?
Right. No reason at all to be concerned about timing.
Even with Quinn keeping watch; Jake was relying on her uncannily accurate visions of the future to give us advance warning, it was insane to take chances. Besides, I'd already won this argument. The date for my transformation was tentatively set for shortly after my graduation from college, only a handful of weeks away.
A sharp jolt of unease pierced my stomach as I realized how short the time really was. Of course this change was necessary; and the key to what I wanted more than everything else in the world put together, but I was deeply conscious of Scott sitting in the other room enjoying his show, just like every other night. And my mother, Julia, far away in sunny New York, still pleading with me to spend the summer with her, her new husband, Jim; who Quinn and I had recently discovered was a relative of hers. Not to mention my brother, Jordan; and his long term boyfriend, Michael.
And then there was Diego, who, unlike my parents, would know exactly what was going on when I disappeared to some distant university. Even if my parents didn't grow suspicious for a long time, even if I could put off visits with excuses about travel expenses or sturdy loads or illnesses, Diego would know the truth.
For a moment, the idea of Diego's certain revulsion overshadowed every other pain. Sean would have separated us so long by then, it would be impossible for him to be anything but revolted by me.
"Taylor," Jake murmured, his face twisting when he read the distress in mine. "There ain't no hurry. I won't let anyone hurt ya. Ya can take all the time ya need."
"I want to hurry," I whispered, smiling weakly, trying to make a joke of it. "I want to be a monster, too."
His teeth clenched; he spoke through them. "Ya got no idea what ya sayin'."
Abruptly, he flung the damp newspaper onto the table between us. His finger stabbed the headline on the front page:
DEATH TOLL ON THE RISE, POLICE FEAR GANG ACTIVITY
"What does that have to do with anything?" I asked curiously, raising a brow at his reaction.
"Monsters ain't a joke, Taylor." I stared at the headline again, and then up to his hard expression.
"A… a vampire is doing this?" I whispered.
He smiled without humor. His voice was low and cold. "Ya'd be surprised, Taylor... how often my kind are the source behind the horrors in ya human news. It's easy to recognize, when ya know what ya lookin' for. The intel here points to a newborn vampire runnin' loose in Seattle. Bloodthirsty, wild, out of control. The way we all were."
I let my gaze drop to the paper again, avoiding his eyes.
"We've been monitorin' the situation for a couple weeks. All the signs are there… unlikely disappearances, always at night, poorly hidden corpses, the lack of other evidence. Yeah, someone brand-new. And no one seems to be takin' responsibility for the dumbass." He took a deep breath. "Well, it ain't our problem. We wouldn't even pay attention to it, if it weren't goin' on so close to home. Like I said, happens all the time. The existence of monsters, results in monstrous consequences."
I tried not to see the names on the page, but they jumped out from the rest of the print like they were in bold. The five people whose lives were over, whose families were mourning now. It was different from considering murder in the abstract, reading those names. Vera Thompson, Nikos Anastopoulos, Madison Eckhart, James Ashton, Edgar Tripp. People who'd had parents and children and friends and pets and jobs and hopes and plans and memories and futures.
"It won't be the same for me," I whispered, half to myself. "You won't let me be like that. We'll live in Antarctica."
Jake snorted, breaking the tension. "Penguins. Joy."
I laughed a shaky laugh and knocked the paper off the table so I wouldn't have to see those names; it hit the linoleum with a thud. Of course Jake would consider the hunting possibilities. He and his "vegetarian" family, all committed to protecting human life, preferred the flavor of large predators for satisfying their dietary needs.
"Alaska, then, as planned. Only somewhere much more remote than Juneau… somewhere with grizzlies galore."
"Better," he allowed. "There're polar bears'n all... Very fierce. The wol—" Jake coughed as if he'd swallowed something the wrong way, his eyes cutting away from me as he left his comment unfinished.
I lowered my eyes and sighed quietly, his thoughtfulness warming me more than the unfinished comment gnawed at me. After all, I'd known what Jake preferred to eat long before my best friend had begun turning into one. "You know… you don't have to change your diet, just for me?" I asked.
"Taylor, ya'd hate me for it." He scoffed, rolling his eyes toward me briefly, before looking away again.
"I admit it will take some getting used to… I mean, he is my best friend, Jake," I murmured, reaching over to trace my fingers over his gently. "But… you are what you are and you eat what you eat. So long as you never eat him , I think I can cope."
"Still," he said, oddly formal. "I never should've thought of suggestin' that."
"Don't worry about it." I said, sighing and staring at my hand as I drew it back from his, when my attempt at comfort seemed unwelcome.
We were both silent for a moment, and then his cool finger was under my chin, coaxing my face up. His expression was much softer, his eyes melting as he traced my cheek with his hard fingertip. "Sorry. I keep tryin' to remember and I get pissed at myself when I forget… I didn't mean to snub ya."
"I know. Just as I know it's not the same thing. It's just that… well, I was already thinking about Diego before you came over." I hesitated. His cerulean eyes seemed to get a little bit darker whenever I said Diego's name. My voice turned pleading in response. "Scott says Diego is having a hard time. He's hurting right now, and… it's my fault."
"Ya ain't done nothin' wrong, Taylor." Jake reassured me, his eyes darkening further; his pain growing at my pain.
I took a deep breath. "I need to make it better, Jake. I owe him that. And it's one of Scott's conditions, anyway?"
His face changed while I spoke, turning hard, statue-like. "Ya know it's outta the question for ya to be 'round a werewolf unprotected, Taylor. Not," he added quickly, raising a finger when I made to protest. "'Cause I think ya buddy would hurt ya… but under a gag order, he might not have a choice 'bout it… 'sides it'd break the treaty if any of us came over onto their land to rescue ya pretty 'lil ass. D'ya want us to start a war?"
"Of course not!"
"Then there really ain't a point discussin' it further just now… I promised ya we'd find a way Taylor, but not at the expense of ya safety." He dropped his hand and looked away, searching for a subject change. His eyes paused on something behind me, though his eyes stayed wary. "I'm glad Scott's decided to let ya out… ya sorely in need of a visit to the bookstore. Can't believe ya readin' bloody Wutherin' Heights again . Don't ya know it by heart, yet?"
"Not all of us have photographic memories," I said curtly.
"Photographic memory or not, I don't get why ya like it. The characters are ghastly people who don't do nothin' but ruin each others' lives. I dunno how Heathcliff and Cathy ended up being ranked with couples like Romeo and Juliet or Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. It ain't a love story, 's a hate story."
"You have some serious issues with the classics," I snapped. I hated it when he picked on my books.
"Per'aps 's 'cause I ain't impressed by antiquity." He smiled, satisfied that he'd distracted me for the time being. "Honestly though, why d'ya read it over'n over?" His eyes were vivid with real interest now, trying, again, to unravel the convoluted workings of my mind. He reached across the table to cradle my face in his hand. "What is it appeals to ya?"
His sincere curiosity disarmed me. "I-I'm not sure," I said, scrambling for coherency while his startlingly blue gaze unintentionally scattered my thoughts. "I think it's... s-something about the inevitability? How nothing can keep them apart… not her selfishness, or his evil, or—or even death... in the end?"
His face was thoughtful as he considered my words. After a moment he smiled a teasing grin. "I still think it'd be better if one of 'em had at least one redeemin' quality."
"I think that's… kind of the point," I disagreed. "Their love is their only redeeming quality."
"I hope ya got better sense'n that." Jake snorted fondly. "To fall in love with someone so… malignant."
"It's a bit late for me to worry about who I fall in love with," I pointed out, tilting my cheek into his left palm as his right hand drifted to toy with my too long fringe. He was ridiculously attached to my longer hair and refused to let me cut it. "But even without the warning, I seem to have managed fairly well."
He laughed quietly. "Heh, glad ya think so."
"Well, I hope you're smart enough to stay away from someone so selfish. Catherine is really the source of all the trouble, you know, not Heathcliff."
"I'll be on me guard," he promised. I sighed. He was so good at distractions. I put my hand over his to hold it to my face.
"I need to see Diego." I said quietly.
His eyes closed. "Not yet."
"It's truly not dangerous at all," I said, pleading again. "I used to spend all day in Hartfeld with the whole lot of them, and nothing ever happened, Jake..."
But I made a slip; my voice faltered at the end because I realized as I was saying the words that they were a lie. It was not true that nothing had ever happened. A brief flash of memory; an enormous gray wolf crouched to spring, baring his dagger-like teeth at me, made me pause for that fraction of a second too long with the echo of the memory. I might not have been scared, in fact I'd been pissed off at the time; but the memory sprang to meet me nonetheless.
Jake heard my heart accelerate and nodded as if I'd acknowledged the lie aloud. "Werewolves are unstable at the best of times, Boy Scout… but their leader weren't set on barkin' out orders at the time. Sometimes the people near 'em get hurt by accident... sometimes, they get killed." He said, pleading himself. "Try'n understand Taylor… I can't take that risk, that the order might change at a whim; from ignore… to kill."
I wanted to deny it, but another image slowed my rebuttal. I saw in my head the beautiful face of Estela Montoya, now marred by a slither of a scar which dragged across her eye and stole half her sight. He waited, grimly triumphant, for me to find my voice.
"You don't know them," I whispered.
"I know 'em better'n ya think, Taylor. I was here the last time."
"The last time?"
"We started crossing paths with the wolves about seventy years ago... We'd just settled near Redfield river. 'S before Quinn and Kele found us. We outnumbered 'em, but that wouldn't have stopped it from turnin' into a bloodbath, if not for Mike. He managed to convince Ortiz Soto co-existin' was possible; and eventually we made the truce."
Diego's great-grandfather's name startled me.
"We thought the line died out with Ortiz," Jake muttered; it sounded like he was talking to himself now, as much as to me. "That the genetic quirk that allowed transmutation’d been lost." He broke off and stared at me accusingly. "Ya bad luck’s gettin’ more potent every bloody day. D’ya realize, ya insatiable pull for all things deadly, was strong enough to recover a pack of mutant mutts from extinction? If we could bottle ya luck, we'd have a weapon of mass destruction… ya’d be rich, sellin’ it off to the highest goddamn bidder." He snorted and rolled his eyes with only mild amusement.
I ignored the ribbing, my attention caught by his assumption. Was he seriously blaming me for the wolves returning? Ha, the cheek.
"But I didn't bring them back. Don't you know?"
"Know what?" He asked, immediately tense. He never liked when I had some way to counter to something he’d said.
"My bad luck has nothing to do with it. The werewolves came back... because the vampires did." Jake stared at me, his body motionless with surprise. "Diego told me that your family being here set things in motion. I thought you would already know that?" I said innocently, grinning as I shrugged nonchalantly. “Being the big, sneaky mind reader like you are and all…”
His eyes narrowed. "Is that what they think?"
"Jake, look at the facts.” I said, rolling my eyes at his stubbornness. “Seventy years ago, you came here; and the werewolves showed up. You come back now ; and the werewolves pop up again. Did you really think that was a coincidence?"
He blinked and his glare relaxed. "Mike’ll be real interested in that theory."
"Theory," I scoffed.
He was silent for a moment, staring out the window into the rain; I imagined he was contemplating the fact that his family's presence was turning the locals into giant dogs.
"Interesting, but it ain’t exactly relevant," he murmured after a moment, shaking his head as he rolled his head back toward me. "Situation remains the same, Taylor." I could translate that easily enough: no solo trips to visit currently mind controlled, werewolf best friends.
I knew I needed to be patient with Jake. That he had promised to help me fix things at all was a huge feat, considering the mutual animosity he was overlooking just to be polite to Diego the few times they’d met. Plus, it wasn't that he was even being unreasonable; he was right that with the order hanging over Diego’s head, there was no telling what might happen. But, he didn't understand. He had no idea how very much I owed Diego Soto; my life many times over, and let’s be honest, my sanity, too.
I didn't like to talk about that barren time with anyone, and especially not Jake. He had only been trying to save me when he'd left, trying to save my stupid, human soul. I didn't hold him responsible for all the stupid things I'd done in his absence, or the pain I had suffered.
So I would have to word my explanation very carefully. I got up and walked around the table. He opened his arms for me and I sat on his lap, nestling into his cool stone embrace as my legs hugged the sides of the chair around him. I ignored the warmth in my cheeks and looked at his hands while I spoke.
"Please just listen for a minute. This is so much more important than some whim to drop in on an old friend. Diego is in pain ." My voice distorted around the word. "I can't not try to help him. I can't give up on him now, when he needs me. Just because he's not human all the time. Well, he was there for me when I was not so human myself. You don't know what that was like; and I hope, you never do..." I hesitated. Jake's arms were rigid around me; his hands were in fists now, the tendons standing out. "If Diego hadn't helped me? I'm not sure that you would have come home to find me still here, Jake, let alone in... almost one piece. I have to try and make this better. I owe him better than this, Top Gun… please, understand."
I looked up at his face warily. His eyes were closed, and his jaw was strained. "I ain’t ever gonna forgive myself for leavin’ ya," he whispered. "Not if I live another millenia." I put my hand against his cold face and waited until he sighed and opened his eyes.
"You were just trying to do the right thing.” I whispered, nuzzling his hairline with my nose and inhaling deeply. “And I'm sure it would have worked with anyone… you know, less mental than me. Besides, you're here now. That's the part that matters."
"If I hadn’t ever left, ya wouldn't feel the need to go risk ya life to comfort a dog." He muttered with a sigh, immediately wincing at his word choice.
I flinched. I was used to Diego and all his derogatory slurs; bloodsucker, leech, parasite. Somehow it sounded harsher in Jake's velvet voice.
"I dunno how to phrase this properly," Jake said, and his tone was bleak. "It's gonna sound cruel, I s’pose. But I got too close to losin’ ya in the past. I know what it feels like to think I have... I ain’t gonna tolerate anythin’ dangerous."
"You have to trust me on this. I'll be fine." I promised.
His face was pained again. "Please , Taylor," he whispered.
I stared into his suddenly burning liquid cyan eyes. "Please what?"
"Please, for me. Please make a conscious effort to keep yaself safe. I'll do everything I can, but I’d ‘preciate a little help here." He sighed, burying his face in the side of my neck.
"I'll work on it," I murmured, trying to pretend I didn’t notice my own heart trying to break out of my chest as his breath ghosted over my collarbone, my hands curling around the back of his neck and toying gently with his hair.
"D’ya really have any idea how important ya are to me? Any concept at all of how much I love ya?" He pulled me tighter against his hard chest, pulling his face free of my neck and instead tucking my head under his chin.
I pressed my lips against his snow-cold neck. "I know how much I love you," I answered.
"Ya comparin’ one tiny tree to the entire damn forest."
I rolled my eyes, but he couldn't see; so I swatted his shoulder instead. "Impossible." He kissed the top of my head and sighed.
"No werewolves… yet."
"I'm not going along with that. I have to see Diego."
"Then I'll have to stop ya for now." He sounded utterly confident that this wouldn't be a problem. I was sure he was right.
"We'll see about that," I bluffed anyway. "He's still my friend… even with the order."
“Taylor… have ya considered how much ya hurtin’ him, tryin’ to force yaself on him?” He asked quietly, startling my thoughts to a brief standstill. “He’s been told not to have any contact with ya, and if he does actually see ya; like that glimpse when he came under the dumbass pretense of seein’ ya Pa… well, as ya now know; it hurts him.” He pressed, sensing my weakness. “Taylor, I promise ya; we will fix things for ya ‘lil buddy… and the pair of ya can go gallivantin’ to ya hearts content. Just, gimme some time to work somethin’ out, yeah? Trust me, please.”
I sighed. On the one hand, I knew Jake was right; seeing me caused Diego pain so long as the order hung over us… but on the other, I could feel Diego's note in my pocket, like it suddenly weighed ten pounds. I could hear the words in his voice, and he seemed to be agreeing with Jake; something that I was sure would never happen in reality.
Don’t call tonight, man… it’s just painful for both of us.