It seems like a valid question, because clearly I’m in a nightmare. Only, the thing is, whenever I typically black out—be it from the fucking Connection I have or from the vast quantities of alcohol it takes to try to forget said fucking Connection—it’s just that: black
. To be honest, I like it, because blacking out equals peace.
This is clearly not peaceful. So that leaves a standard nightmare. Or, worse yet, reality.
Chloe is standing next to the table where I’m sitting with Sophie. Worse yet, she’s grinning with her, and I use this word with the full extent of sarcasm associated with it, cheerleader
smile that I used to tease her mercilessly about. It’s super wide and utterly fake and the ultimate in red flags when I need a visual cue for how she’s feeling. This is not Chloe’s smile. Not by a long shot.
“Hi! Funny running into you here!” She’s talking fast. Too fast.
Wake up, wake up, WAKE UP, Kellan. I discreetly pinch myself under the table. Damn
. I am awake, and this is real, and I am clearly in hell. I bite back the urge to vomit. “What are you doing here?” Well, don’t I sound like a psychotic asshole. So I clarify, “I mean, over here?”
Chloe sits down and looks right at Sophie, who is staring at my girl like she’s the most fascinating thing she’s ever seen. Which, Chloe is—don’t get me wrong on that point—but I don’t like where this is going. Because not only is Sophie staring at Chloe in utter fascination, she’s also wildly curious about her. Like she’s somehow just gotten the best gift she’s ever received, perfectly gift wrapped and deposited with a flourish in front of her.
So far, I’ve kept them apart. Sophie has tried too many times to convince me to, and I quote, “double date” with Chloe and Jonah. To which I politely found a zillion excuses as to why we couldn’t, when all I really wanted to say was, “Fuck buddies don’t get to hang with the people I love the most.”
Me = bastard. I know this.
“My class was cancelled,” Chloe says, and it hits me that I can’t sense anything from her. Not one goddamn thing.
Sophie, though, is a wide-open book. So are the people near us. So is the waitress. The people across the street. Hell, the people inside the building across the street. But not Chloe . . .
Sophie kicks me from under the table. Jesus. What are we, twelve? I don’t care how fantastic this girl is in bed, or how long she facilitates my highs, I’m not going to put up with this kind of shit from anybody. I’m just about to say something when I notice the pointed look she’s throwing at me. What the hell does she want now? Oh
. The nightmare intensifies. I clear my throat and mutter, “Sophie, this is Chloe Lilywhite.” I have to clear my throat again before I add the next part. “Jonah’s fiancée.” I can’t believe she just made me say the fucking F word. The urge to vomit intensifies. “Chloe, this is Sophie Greenfield.”
I ignore what Sophie is saying—why can’t I sense Chloe?—and instead ask my girl, “Class was cancelled?”
Which, yes, I realize has already been addressed.
She won’t even look at me. She’d rather pick at—what is that? Some spot on the tablecloth? Why won’t she look at me? “So says the note on the door.”
Sophie babbles some more before I cut her off again. “So, you were . . . heading home?” I ask Chloe.
Still nothing. WHAT IS GOING ON?
“You should eat with us!” Sophie’s narcissist tendencies roar to life. This girl just can’t deal without being the center of attention at any given moment, and right now, her curiosity toward Chloe is shifting to annoyance, too. She’s got the whole Alpha dog vibe going, which is completely unattractive. “We just ordered. I’m sure we could get the waiter back quickly.”
Finally, I get to see some kind of emotion on Chloe’s face other than that horrid cheerleader smile. I only wish I could feel it, instead. “Oh, no, really, I—”
“I won’t take no for an answer,” Sophie practically simpers. “I’m quite tenacious, you see. Here, let me go get someone.”
And then, thank the gods, she gets up and goes away. I wish she’d stay away.
“Chloe,” I say, and I’m amazed to hear my voice tremble, like I’m in grade school or something, “I . . . what are you . . .” Jesus. I’m stumbling over words. This is unreal. “I can’t sense any of your emotions right now.”
She picks at the tablecloth, refusing to meet my eyes. “Oh?”
What is she even thinking right now? Gods, she’s smart—too smart—she probably knows that I’ve been screwing Sophie. The only thing that could be worse for me in the moment is had she actually found us in bed. But this here . . . Well, let’s just say if there’d been a gun present, I wouldn’t have minded a bullet through my brain.
She gets up, saying she needs to leave, and panic fills me until my ears ring. “Wait,” I tell her. I can’t let her go yet, not like this. So I grab her, and all of the things I always feel when we touch, every little piece of forbidden ecstasy, crashes through me, making me the mess I always am with her.
For the briefest of flashes, I get my first feelings from her for the day: anger, shock and jealousy are at the top of the list. And they cut me deeply, because they’re so close to what I feel every single time I see her with my goddamn brother. But then they’re gone, hidden behind some kind of wall I can’t get through the moment Sophie comes back.
I literally have to bite my tongue to not tell her to get the hell away from me. Because then Sophie’s talking about who the fuck knows, and Chloe’s face goes vacant, sort of like mine and Jonah’s do. She’s clearly been around us too long, because her face has always been so beautifully expressive. But this one here, it’s carefully neutral to the point that it’s like somebody stole her body. Or made a robot of her.
It’s scaring the crap out of me.
When she hides herself behind a menu, I allow myself to legitimately begin to freak the fuck out.
Thankfully Sophie didn’t kick me under the table this time. No, she jabbed me with one of her fingers ,which, until this particular moment, I would’ve conceded belonged to a pretty talented hand. And now the thought of that hand touching me makes my skin crawl.
I honestly have no idea what she’s talking about, so I sort of make a random noise to get her off my back. This goes on for a few more excruciating minutes—me focusing on Chloe, Chloe hiding behind her menu, and Sophie talking about whatever the hell she’s talking about—until a waiter appears and takes Chloe’s order. He has to physically wrench the menu out of her hand, which makes me want to break his hands.
She gets a salad, which only amps up the alerts in my body. This is not a salad girl. This is a hot dog and churro kind of girl.
Jesus. Wake up, Kellan. WAKE UP.
“So!” Sophie’s misplayed senses of possessiveness and superiority are off the charts, “you and Jonah, huh?”
I bend the fork in my hands, I’m gripping it so hard. Because in the next moment, Sophie goes and talks about the absolutely worst thing she ever could around me.
She asks Chloe about her upcoming wedding to my brother.
Over the last year, I’ve basically come see this hellish event between my brother and my Connection as the impending apocalypse. It will, in essence, be the end of life as I know it. I keep telling myself that there will be some way to prepare myself for it, some trick I can perform to make it through it and every day after, but the sad, plain truth is, I’ve yet to come up with anything.
I’ll tell you what, though, I’ll be shitfaced the day before, the day of—hell, probably the entire month of the fucking event. I will also be as far away as possible, preferably holed up on an entirely different plane. J was smart enough to not even contemplate asking me to stand up for him, because that would’ve only led to a resounding hell no, are you an idiot, let me beat the crap out of you
response. I’ll probably end up sleeping with too many girls I’ll never learn the names of, jump off cliffs or sky-dive or do anything, ANYTHING at all that will give me a momentary high when all I’ll want to do is die.
It’s maudlin and ridiculously immature, and I’m aware of it. If I’m lucky, I’ll break a bunch of bones or get myself into another coma so I’ll just be able to surf past the entire event in limbo.
She will never, ever, EVER be my sister.
There are days (who am I kidding—every single day) I wonder if I should’ve tried harder to hold onto her, if I gave up too quickly or easily to Jonah. And that’s, right there, a huge crux of this, because that’s what I tend to do. I’ve always taken care of Jonah, always. I’ve cleaned up after him, I’ve covered for him, I’ve bent myself over backwards and into pretzels to keep him safe and happy. All our lives, I’ve always been the fuck-up. He’s been the good boy. And I’ve liked it that way, because more often than not, it seemed like he’s got it way harder. Our family, the Council . . . everyone has huge expectations of him, ones he drowns in while putting on a brave face. And for all the ones I’ve suffered through, they’ve never come close to the shit he has to carry around with him. So, I’ve tried to take care of him the best way that I knew how.
I mean, I ripped my heart out of my chest for him and handed it over on a silver platter.
You’d think that would count for something, right? Yet, while I’ll admit he takes care of me, too, it’s not like J never would have let go of Chloe for me. He fucking punished me every single second I was together with her in high school. He STILL punishes me for perceived slights—like when he forced me to come over and stay with Chloe during one of his meetings, and she and I went to Hawaii. I suppose I was lucky she was in the house at the time of our argument, because he was willing to beat me into a bloody pulp. I was willing to give as good as I got, but . . .
But that’s just how it is. Jonah gets his way. I get to get out of his way.
So he’s going to marry my girl, and I don’t know how I’m going to be able to live with that.
“You must be so excited about this,” Sophie says to me, but what she’s really doing is sending out big time vibes that this is what she wants, too. Because in her delusional mind this means . . . what? That she thinks we’ll be one happy family together?!
If I’d thought I’d wanted to vomit earlier, it was nothing compared to this. Sophie’s time has officially expired.
Thankfully, Zthane calls and gets me the hell away from that table before I go and do something I’ll regret even more than what’s already happening. “Kellan, sorry to disturb your lunch—”
“If you were in front of me right now,” I say, scratching the back of my neck, “I just might kiss you.”
He roars in laughter. I’ve been getting such shit from the Guard over dating Sophie. Everyone knows she’s a black widow, and they’ve delighted in seeing how it all goes down. I think there are bets going on, over who is going to be the top dog when it comes to dumping the other. Fools. Don’t they know me well enough by now? “Well, nobody ever said I wasn’t useful at times. I wanted to let you know that Paavo scheduled a meeting tonight at HQ and expects everyone in Annar to come to it.”
“Seriously?” That’s like, what . . . twenty Guard?
“I know. He wants to do a roll call and go over procedures, like we’re some kind of bloody idiots who have been wandering aimlessly around for our entire careers. Pompous blowhard.”
Zthane and Paavo Battletracker get along as well as oil and water. I blame this mostly on Paavo, who is a supreme asshat who can’t see past all the shit on his face from brown-nosing Jens all these years.
“Expect paperwork.” Zthane sighs. “He’s had his secretary photocopying for the better part of two hours now. I am envying Karl for being off on mission right now.”
I look over at Chloe—Sophie is sitting so close. She’s practically gleeful. What in the fuck are they talking about?
“Sorry,” I mumble. “Obviously I’ll be there.”
No. But how can I tell him this?
“Afterwards, I’d like to go over the specs on the next two missions.”
“That’s fine,” I say at the same time Maccon Lightningriver crosses the street to where Chloe is.
What the hell is that shmarmy bastard doing here?
“There’ve been some changes,” Zthane is saying, “and I want to make sure that things go down perfectly. Paavo is riding my ass to get these things flawless. The Council is all over him lately, especially in light of his ties to Jens.”
“I won’t let you down.” I swear to all the gods, Maccon Lightningriver must have a larger death wish than normal because he is far too close to Chloe right now.
“I know you won’t.” Zthane pauses. “I know I don’t say it enough, but, I’m really proud of you, Kellan. You have exceeded everyone’s expectations. Someday, I can see us all working under you.”
What the FUCK. Did Mac just put his arm around Chloe?
“Don’t be ridiculous.” I force myself to sound calm, even though all I want to do is punch my fish through a wall. “The reverse is going to be true. The Council will wise up about how useless Paavo is and will put you in charge in time.”
My mentor takes compliments about as well as I do.
Just as he’s about to hang up, I say, guilty that I haven’t been listening more carefully (another thing I can hold against Mac), “Zthane, wait. Thank you. For . . . you know . . . believing in me. I couldn’t have asked for a better friend and mentor.”
“Now you sound like you’re the greeting card.” He sounds annoyed, but I know, even across the phone line, that what I’ve just said means a lot to him.
When I get back to the table, I can’t figure out if I should just straight out punch Mac or wait until Chloe leaves and then do it, because I’ve really had it with him. He knows this crush of his on Chloe bugs the shit out of me. I warned him before to back off her, because—even though he doesn’t know about me and her—he sure as hell knows about her relationship with my brother. What does he think is going to happen? That she’ll just wake up one day and think, “Oh, hey, I think I’ll have sex with Mac today?” Because that day is not coming, bro, so you better wipe that smug-as-fuck smile off your pretty boy face.
“Chloe says she has to go,” Sophie says. “I guess she and Mac have some sort of date?”
My fingers curl inward. Okay, hit him immediately it is.
Just as I’m about to swing, the asshole adds, “Dinner date,” practically winking at me. “A work dinner date.”
As they’ve hooked up in the past, Sophie has a bit of a soft spot for Mac, so the idea of him and Chloe hanging out is just about as attractive to her as it is to me. So she says, pretending to be super-cheery when she’s really just wanting to find a way to shut this down, “We should all go together! And then maybe we can all go to the party afterwards?”
Well, for the first time in the last half hour, I’m actually appreciative of the girl, even though there’s no way I will ever spend another evening watching Mac put his manwhore paws all over Chloe again.
“Work stuff. Boring!” Chloe’s got that stupid cheerleading smile on again. “You’d be bored. Right Mac?”
The fucker actually winks at me and lets me purposely feel, nice and loud, just how attracted he is to Chloe and much it’s turning him on to be holding her like he is.
I’m going to kill him. Just fucking rip his head right off and beat him down.
“Right,” he says, making sure his body presses just a little bit closer to Chloe’s. He knows he’s pissing me off. Knows it
Before I can get to work on kicking his ass, Sophie goes and makes the situation ten thousand times worse, because she decides to mimic Mac and put her arm around me and snuggle in. And while I’ve found her body extremely tempting and enjoyable under other circumstances, right now? I need her to get the hell away from me. Like, forever get away.
Silverware rattles on the table.
Chloe is . . . is she upset? I zone in on her more, purposely ignoring every other emotion in the vicinity, but there is nothing. Not one single hint of what’s going on in her mind.
Why? Why can’t I sense her??
“You Muses don’t deal well with boring,” Mac practically purrs to Sophie. “Am I right or what, Kellan?”
Sophie laughs, though. For some reason, she thinks this dick is charming. “You Council members are so cruel towards us poor Muses. We’re like second-class citizens to you all, or worse yet, the butt of your jokes.”
Not gonna have Sophie slam Chloe, via the Council, right in front of me. So I say, feeling like a robot, “Lizzie Pinkston and Chloe are tight, Sophie.”
And then Sophie goes and basically lets Chloe know that I’ve been (shoot me for even saying it) double dating with one of her best friends.
Mac is loving this. Chloe’s eyes go wide and the motion takes that heart shaped shell leftover in my chest and rips it clean in two.
“Seriously, you two,” Sophie’s saying. “Let’s all go out tonight and—”
That shit-eating grin of his slides over Mac’s face. “Sorry, Soph. Like I said before, Chloe and I have business. See you two later?”
No, no, no. They are not leaving together. Not like this. “Wait,” I says to Chloe, but there is a gulf between us, one a million miles across, because she decides to set the pieces that were been ripped apart from my chest on fire until they’re nothing but ash.
She tells me she enjoyed meeting my girlfriend. And then she leaves with that bastard’s arm around her shoulders.
Jesus. Sophie is here. SOPHIE IS STILL HERE.
I can barely even look at her. I need to go. I need to get the hell out of here and get away from her, THIS, and I need to do it ASAP.
“I liked Chloe,” the person next to me is saying. “She’s really sweet. You must be so happy that your brother is marrying such a nice girl.”
It takes everything in me not to snap. Or destroy everything within the vicinity. The girls I hook up with and Chloe . . . they have nothing to do with one another. Nothing. I have never, ever let Chloe see any of these girls. They don’t know about her—why the fuck would they? She’s the most important thing in the worlds to me. They’re nothing. They’re distractions. I’m a total dick for thinking this, and am well aware of it, but they only serve the role of supplying a high to me.
And Sophie thinks I ought to be happy that Jonah and Chloe are getting married?
And Chloe left with Maccon Lightningriver?
OH. HELLS. NO. To all of it.
“I gotta go,” I say, and Sophie starts freaking out, wondering what just happened, but I don’t give two shits about this. I just need to leave.
So I do without another word.
Things are going to change. And they’re going to change right now.