Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Answer The Question

I tilted my head back against the pastel green wall of the day spa, relaxing just enough that I could feel every ache and pain in my body. Man, I was looking forward to this massage. 
The doorhandle on one of the client rooms twisted, and a fraction of a second before the door opened, I stiffened. Heat sang through my body and, furious, I stuffed it away, stifling a groan. Not Ty. For a brief moment I panicked, wondering if Bianca had mixed things up and booked my massage with Ty—something I’d asked never to happen again after that first time—but I forced myself to breathe and relax, keeping my eyes closed. Bianca ran her day spa with a golden heart and an iron fist; she wouldn’t do that to me. 
Still, as Ty exited the client room and crossed the waiting area, footsteps soft on the rugged floor. I felt more than heard him pause in front of me, every sense in my body standing to rigid attention. 
Steady breath in, steady breath out. Steady breath in, steady breath out. I’d managed to successfully ignore him through all of our infrequent encounters since that first massage, and today would be no different. 
In front of me, he sniffed. “I clearly need to have a word with Bianca,” he muttered, and I couldn’t tell if he was including me in his audience or not. “That lounge needs replacing, and some things around here are getting downright old and worn.”
I managed to avoid choking on my disbelief until he left the room, though I could still see the back of his head disappearing down the stairs, so doubtless he heard me. Whatever. I didn’t even care. Stupid, arrogant, jerk-faced twat. Just because he was so pretty that girls fell over themselves to be near him, he’d decided he was God’s gift to humanity. Well, I wasn’t falling for it, even if it had been the best bloody massage of my life. I was not some stupid, vapid piece of arm-candy for him to play with. Urgh. 
I slammed my head back against the wall just a little too hard, and winced. Moron! Imbecile! Arrogant peacocky slimeball!
“Ellie?” Bianca’s soothing voice halted my litany and I sighed, forcing away the negative energy encounters with Ty always left. “Your turn, honey.”
Damn him. I was going to enjoy my massage. He was not going to ruin this perfect moment of relaxation. Firmly shoving thoughts of stunningly gorgeous manwhores from mind, I followed Bianca into a treatment room. 

* * *

I slid into my regular seat at Felici’s just as Nana and Lydia, my older sister, were handing their menus to the waitress. “I’ll have the usual,” I said as the waitress raised an eyebrow at me. 
She nodded and swept away, leaving behind a cobalt blue bottle that sparkled and dripped with condensation. 
“So,” I said, pouring water for everyone, “What’s new?”
Lydia shrugged. “Nothing much. I was just moaning about how much working retail during the holiday season sucks. Though at least Ty is on this afternoon, so things won’t get deadly boring until he finishes up at six.”
The glass I was reaching for slipped, tipped, and sailed towards the floor. Nana, with characteristic lightning reflexes, caught it before it had barely left the table, deftly setting it upright and relieving me of my water-pouring duties.
“Ty works at the boutique as well?” I said, aiming for nonchalant. 
Nana smirked, and I pointedly ignored her. 
Lydia nodded. “Oh yeah. He does mornings in the spa and afternoons downstairs in the storefront.”
I made a careful mental note to avoid the boutique in the afternoons. Not that I needed much help with that; Dusk Alley was a designer boutique selling women’s clothing, jewellery and cosmetics that was at least four times out of my price range. I’d known they were affiliated with the day spa, but I hadn’t realised they shared staff. I guess it made sense, especially for the cosmetics and beauty product sales. Whatever. Irrelevant. 
I shoved the whole issue aside and turned to Nana. “So, I was thinking of hitting up the department store this afternoon. I need some clothes for work. Do you want to come?” Not only did Nana have impeccable taste, she also had an almost bottomless bank account that she had no qualms sharing with her only two surviving family members. 
She nodded decisively. “Yes,” she said. “It will be illuminating.”
My eyebrows knitted in puzzlement, but I let it pass. Nana was well known for her bizarre comments and apparently unconnected observations. “Sure,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Swing by Alley when you’re done,” Lydia said. I’m stuck there till eleven tonight. I’ll take my break when you come.”
Nana was already agreeing enthusiastically, and I groaned. So much for avoiding the place. 
Never mind. We’d go in, find Lydia, and drag her out for a break. The chances of running into Ty were entirely minimal. Everything would be fine. 

* * *
“I’ll just be a second,” I assured Nana as I ducked into the bathrooms. We’d spend a good couple of hour clothes hunting, and all of the resulting outfits were nicer than what I had on now. If we were going to stop past the boutique to collect Lydia, my chances of running into Ty were absolutely minimal, thank heavens—but I wasn’t about to give him more fodder for insults if I could avoid it. Old and tired. Prat. 
Locked safely in a stall, I surveyed my options. The navy was too formal; the silver too attention seeking. I settled on a neutral-toned skirt that showed off my butt and a red silk blouse with fluttery cap sleeves that managed to actually make me look like I had cleavage for a change. The whole outfit was sophisticated and chic yet effortless, the neutral skirt enriching the light brown of my hair and the red blouse the best possible colour for my skin tone. 
I pulled it all on, slipped on one of the many pairs of gorgeous new shoes—it was so shallow, but I did love Nana’s bank account—fluffed my hair, and headed back out. 
Nana whistled. “Don’t you look special,” she said.
I smiled distractedly, running my fingers along the blouse’s neckline. “It’s missing something,” I said. “I need something around my neck.”
Nana shrugged. “If you say so.”
I loaded my bags back into the trolley and marched off with it determinedly. Three times Nana tried to draw my attention to jewellery stores that we passed, but I knew exactly the one I was after. 
We rounded the corner: Dusk Alley. Chewing the inside of my lip and narrowing my eyes, I made a beeline for the back of the store, where their jewellery display was located. 
Nana caught up after a few moments, and eyed the dazzling array of entirely over-the-top necklaces, the lightest of which looking like it had to weigh at least a pound. “These aren’t really what you’re looking for, dear,” she observed candidly.
I shrugged, stifling my irritation at the truth of her words. “I thought they’d have a bigger range. This one’s okay,” I added, pointing out a silver-filigreed piece with a floral motif. 
Voices erupted around the end of the aisle and I froze. I will not turn around. I will not turn around. I realised I was checking myself out in the mirror to make sure the outfit was sitting right, and jerked my gaze away. “Or this one.” I reached for another necklace to my left, conveniently allowing me to turn my back on the approaching Prince of Twathood. 
Nana, of course, turned towards him. “Oh, I see. Of course.”
Was it permissible to hit grandmothers for being smug? If it had been Lydia I’d have whacked her for sure. 
“I’ll just go wait out the front, I think,” Nana continued, oblivious to my glares. “My feet, you know. And my hips. And my back.” She hobbled away to the tables out the front, looking every day of her age—which I’d never seen her do when she wasn’t up to mischief. Urgh. 
I was too busy fuming at her retreating back to realise that Ty had gotten within range. 
“Can I help you?” he said, eyes dancing. 
No. I was not looking at his stupid eyeballs. I whirled back to the jewellery display. “That one,” I said primly. “I’d like to try it on please.”
He reached for the necklace that hung just out of my reach, brushing past my shoulder in the process. I jolted at the energy his touch sent through me and ended up three feet away down the aisle. My stupid reflexes were always a little unpredictable, but they always seemed worse when he was around. This had been an utterly stupid idea. So what if he thought I looked old and tired? Why did I care what he thought? 
I turned back to him, expecting to see the silver filigree. Instead, he held a ropey, glimmering creation I could have sworn wasn’t on the shelves a moment ago. It was a single necklace, but made up of tens or maybe even hundreds of strands; I couldn’t quite get a fix on it to figure it out, and the threads it was woven from seemed unnaturally fine and soft, like spider’s silk, the beads tiny and delicate as dewdrops. It glimmered gently in the fluorescent lights of the store, and I stood motionless, transfixed. 
“Do you like it?” There was a depth of emotion to Ty’s voice that I’d never heard before, and my heart skipped a beat in response. 
“Yes,” I breathed, awkwardness and irritation forgotten.
Ty beamed and my pulse skipped again. Saints, he was beautiful. Too beautiful, like a dangerous snake, but as he moved towards me with the necklace in hand, I was powerless to break the spell. 
He reached for me and I turned to face the mirror, back to him so he could fasten the jewellery around my neck. Instead, he laid one end of it across my forehead and directed me to hold it in place while he arranged the rest of the multitude of strands through the back of my hair, half catching it up in a style that seemed at once impossibly complex and incredibly simple. 
He fastened the catch on the jewellery just above my left ear and dropped a strand of hair to cover it. I stared at myself in the mirror, lost for words. The necklace—headpiece—whatever it was—had glimmered before, but in my hair it fairly shone. I felt like I was wearing a headdress made of moonlight that seemed to pulse gently in time with my breaths. 
I glanced up at Ty in the mirror, surprised to see his eyes shining wetly. That instant was enough to break the spell, though, and I turned. “Let me show Nana,” I said. “I mean, let me see what she thinks.”
He stepped back, deferential. “Of course.”
Out the front of the store I found Lydia engaged in vibrant conversation with Nana, who sat with her back to me. Lydia’s eyes widened as she spotted me and paused midsentence. Nana twisted in her chair to see what Lydia had seen—and her hand flew to her mouth. 
“Oh,” she said as I drew close. “Oh, Elyena. You have it in your hair.”
I shrugged, suddenly embarrassed. “Oh, well,” I said, tugging on the strands across my forehead. “Ty thought he’d try something different.”
“Ty did this?” Nana asked. She turned back to her table and busied herself in her copious handbag before I could reply. 
Irritated, I snagged the necklace and tugged it down over my face. I shook my hair free from it and twisted it around to hang around my neck. There. Much better. Stupid Ty and his stupid ideas. What was he playing at, anyway? 
“There,” I snapped at the table, Lydia already engrossed in a new conversation with Ty and Nana still rummaging in her bag. Seriously, would it kill them to focus on me for more than a second? “Is that better?” I twitched the luminous white strands that trailed down my chest, still beautiful, but lacking the glorious beauty they’d had in the mirror just before. 
He narrowed his eyes critically at me. “The shirt does alluring things to your cleavage, I’ll give you that, even if it does emphasise your wide shoulders. I still wish you’d let me trim your hair, your forehead’s getting completely lost…” He trailed off under my glare. “No?”
“I meant about the necklace.” I thought my voice was remarkably calm for someone struggling against the impulse to commit homicide. 
Beside him, Lydia laughed. “I’m sorry. I’ve been training him for months, and he’s still barely housebroken.” She turned to him. “Ty, what’s our mantra? Answer the question…”
“Nothing else.” He nodded. “Answer the question, nothing else.”
They repeated it again together before dissolving into giggles. Ty reached across the table and tugged at Lydia’s hair, and she shrieked with mock outrage. Before I knew it, a chase was in flight—though I wasn’t actually sure who was chasing whom as they ducked back into the store and circled around racks and clothes stands. 
Ty caught Lydia for an instant, and I frowned in sudden realisation. This whole pantomime was starkly familiar: ten or fifteen years ago, it had been me and Lydia. My frown deepened and I watched closely for tell-tale glances or stray caresses, but as far as I could see, it was true: this wasn’t flirting, it was sibling horseplay. 
“Everything okay?” Nana’s voice cut through my thoughts and I turned, startled. 
“Hmm? Oh. Yes.” I glanced back at the two idiots still causing chaos in the store. “Everything’s… fine.” 
Nana’s eyes twinkled with something unreadable that tugged at my stomach, and I shook my head. “I’ll just, uh, go put the necklace back.”
“Yes, dear,” she said. “You can try to do that if you like.”
I rolled my eyes at her theatrics and headed for the back of the store. I tuned out Lydia and Ty’s ridiculous noise and hunted the display shelf for a place to hang the necklace. Oddly, there didn’t seem to be any empty hooks. I ran the necklace through my fingers, glancing down at where it hung limply around my neck. It was pretty—magically so—but it lacked the sparkle, the mysterious something else I’d thought it had when Ty had first put it on me. 
On a whim, I faced the mirror and tugged the necklace back up into my hair, trying to mimic the style Ty had created. Soft strands fell over my forehead and caught my hair partially up; it wasn’t quite how he’d done it, but… I tilted my head at the mirror and my heart skipped a beat. 
Slowly, tentatively, I reached up to touch the gossamer strands where they glimmered and glowed like a slipped halo.
Something solid hit me between and across the backs of my thighs. I flailed wildly for balance and found myself clinging to—his head, as he pranced wildly around the store with me on his shoulders, shouting, “Answer the question, nothing more! Answer the question, nothing more!”
Oh saints, my stomach’s showing. I tugged awkwardly at my shirt, caught between momentary embarrassment and his wildly infectious enthusiasm. “But what’s the question?” I shouted over the din. 
He laughed. “The necklace! It works!”
I laughed back, even though I had no clue what he was talking about. “Yay?”
Ty performed some complicated sort of movement that removed me from his shoulders and ended up with me in his arms. “Yay?” he said, eyes oddly serious in contrast to the frivolity of the situation.
“Well,” I said, waving my hands as vaguely as I felt, “It works, right? So yay?” I still had no idea what ‘working’ entailed, but whatever it was, apparently this was Christmas for Ty. He hugged me tightly to him and where our skin touched fire rippled through me. Saints. I’d forgotten what it felt like to have actual proper skin contact with him, not just accidental brushes I did my best to avoid. 
It was like drowning, and it was addictive, and it was probably just my imagination that my necklace halo was glowing like it might go nova and Ty was holding me, touching me, and my hands wrapped around the back of his neck and up through his hair and the air around us burst into flame with perfect, glorious pleasure. Skin. I needed his skin. 
My stomach flipped as something happened to gravity and I had a brief impression of broken plasterboard and a flash of darkness before Ty lay me down somewhere soft, and all I cared about was the touch of his skin, because it was beautiful, and perfect, and I nearly sobbed as heat soaked through me, lighting up every fibre of my being and chasing out fear and doubt and darkness—except just there, the very seat of my logic and rationality; it remained unmoved, a cold stone trying to catch my attention in the wave of heat.
“Wait,” I gasped. I needed a moment to process this. 
He ignored me, hands rubbing at my shoulders just like they had that first time in—I took in the plush-rugged floor, the pastel green walls, the ivory couches around the perimeter of the room. We were in the day spa. I struggled semi-upright. “Wait! How on earth did we…” 
He paused, and I found the gaping hole in the floor. Vague memories of a surge of power, of Ty springing upwards ten metres or more to the roof – through the roof – through the floor… I stared at him, wide-eyed, the magma flow of heat suddenly halted. “What are you?”
“Happy,” he mumbled against my shoulder.
I whacked him gently on the back of the neck. “Answer the question,” I said.
“Nothing more,” he murmured, nuzzling my neck. My skin fizzed where his lips touched, and I had to concentrate to rap him on the back of the head. 
“Yes,” I said. “Nothing more.”
He sat back, eyes clouded with lust slowly clearing. “I am what you are, love: a child of the gods. Well, I am closer than you: my mother was a true goddess. Your grandmother is the actual godling in your family.”
My heart stalled. Child of the gods? Me? Nana?
Actually, I had to admit that made a hell of a lot of sense. Nana’s bizarre observations, her uncanny sense of timing, her ridiculous physical abilities for someone her age… I blinked, unsure what was more unsettling: that my grandmother was a godling, or that it was dead easy to believe it. 
“Hold on, wait,” I said, wriggling further out from underneath Ty. “If you’re a godling, then…” I hesitated, not sure how to phrase my question, and not sure I wanted to know the answer. A godling. No wonder girls of all ages threw themselves at him. How many women had he loved in his lifetime? Ten? Twenty? A hundred? 
Cold logic was almost as good as a cold shower. “No,” I said. “No.”
“No what?”
“No I am not going to be the latest in a long line of floozies no. Not interested. I don’t care what you are, I’m not available.”
His eyes widened, body and face alike drooping in disappointment. “But Love, you feel it, I know you do.”
“Feel what?” I snapped, arms wrapped tightly around my torso. I felt nothing that he didn’t manipulate me to feel with his stupid godly powers.
“This,” he whispered, and reached out. His fingertip connected softly with the corner of my jaw, and I swallowed at the melting heat that consumed me. His finger trailed down my neck, tracing a blissful line across the hollow of my clavicle, lighting fire oh-so-carefully down my sternum. 
He pulled away and I remembered how to breathe. 
“See?” he said, still whispering. “How can you deny it?”
I shook my head, tears burning my eyes. I don’t want this, I don’t want this, I reminded myself frantically. “It isn’t real.” My nails dug into my palms as I stared into his sea green eyes, so full of sadness they seemed a mirror of my own. “Tell me…” I drew in a shaky breath. “Answer the question.”
He nodded, gaze darting across my face as though trying to unlock an enigma. 
“How many other girls?”
He frowned, and sadness turned to confusion. 
I rolled my eyes, flicking away tears with a quick finger. “Don’t give me that. How many other girls have you played this game with, made… feel like this?” I wasn’t holding my breath for his answer. I wasn’t. 
His confusion deepened. “But Love, I couldn’t.”
It was my turn to be confused. “What do you mean?”
He shook his head. “I couldn’t make someone feel like this. When I touch you, I feel what you feel. I felt it that first time, do you remember? The massage?”
Saints, how I had tried to forget. His touches had been perfectly innocent, utterly professional, but the fire they’d awoken in me had left me reeling in terror; I’d never felt anything that strong in my life. 
A tiny smile played at the corners of his mouth. “That’s when I knew.”
My heart pounded in my head, my chest—and everywhere else. “Knew what?”
He was leaning closer, lips a mere breath away, and I didn’t want to be a conquest, but Lydia hadn’t been flirting with him after all, and now that I thought about it—really and truly thought about it, without the filter of frustration and jealousy—could it be? Was I really the only girl actually losing her head over this man, the only one struggling not to throw herself at his feet?
“I knew,” he whispered against my ear, and I almost couldn’t hear him through the ecstasy echoing through my body, “that you were the one.”
“I don’t believe in soulmates,” I whispered back, eyes closed, every sense in my body standing to attention as his cheek tickled against mine.
“You don’t have to.” His lips traced my jaw and I shivered. “Your heart recognises me, Love, whether your believe in it or not.”
“Love,” I whispered, fingers tightening in his hair. “Is that what this is?”
“It could be,” he said. “If you wanted it to be.”
I luxuriated in the thought for just a moment, before another one hit me. I bolted upright, narrowly avoiding a collision with his nose. “Wait just one second here, buddy. Old? You think I look tired and old?” His words from that morning rang in my ear. “Not to mention, oh, I don’t know, my too-broad shoulders and my totally lost forehead.” I glared at him, wishing that godling powers included the ability to set someone literally on fire. 
Ty laughed, a soft, throaty chuckle that sounded far too appealing. “I knew you’d take it like that, and I confess, I half hoped you’d be provoked into responding. But if you recall, I said that some things around here were getting downright old and worn. I meant, Love, your constant indifference. Not you.”
He tracked a finger over my hairline, leaving tingling fireworks in its wake.
“That’s nice,” I said, pushing his hand away, “But what about my shoulders? And my forehead?”
He frowned, confusion plain again. “What about them?”
“You…” I squirmed, uncertain how to voice my fears aloud without sounding insecure and needy. “They’re not ‘too broad’, and, well, you know…?”
“Look at me, Love,” he said. “Am I perfect?”
YES, my heart screamed. YES YOU ARE BLOODY PERFECT. But I shoved the scrambling emotions away and forced myself to look. Cold logic; cold shower; I could do this. And true, now he mentioned it, his nose leaned a bit to one side, and one eye was slightly larger than the other, and if I was going to be utterly picky then his forehead was probably a fraction too large, and… “Oh.”
Ty softened into a smile. “Answer the question, Love.”
“Lydia’s wrong,” I said.
His eyebrows quirked. “What?”
I grinned, eyes dancing. “The answer. It’s not nothing more.”
Understanding lit his features. “Oh? Then what is it?” He whisked a finger against the tip of my nose, and my eyes rolled closed in pleasure. 
“Everything,” I said. “Everything more.”

He leaned down and kissed me, and this time, I kissed him back. 

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