Monday, April 27, 2015

The Game

Andrea stood at the edge of the clearing studying the opposing force. She counted three hundred and seven killerbots loaded with every armament the engineers could think of. They stood there, a lethal wall of AI menace separating her from her goal.

The bushes behind her shook.

With a puzzled expression she watched a man roll into view.

Lasers seared the bush, setting it on fire.

The man stood up and brushed the dirt away. He looked… wholesome.

Andrea tried to find another word. Crazy, maybe, he only had a small destabilizer, no armor, no vanguard of cohorts.

“Hello.” He smiled.

Andrea smiled back. “All alone?”

“No one else could play today. You?”

“Flying solo,” Andrea confirmed.

“Can’t figure out how to get past?” the man asked.

“I can’t figure out how to get past without cheating,” she corrected. “This is only level seven, I’ve gone past a dozen times. But I always cheat.”

“You can’t cheat the game.”

“You can,” Andrea said. “You aren’t supposed to, but you can.”

“How?” He looked over the massed infantry of death in confusion.

She knew what he was thinking. The gate leading to level eight was plain to see. All you had to do was charge in, kill all of the killerbots in your way, and run through the level gate.

“If you’re very fast…” he began.

“No. Just lazy. Watch.” Andrea lifted a small stone; she weighed it in her hand. “Watch.” She threw the rock, arcing it into the center of the killerbots.

As a unit the droids turned and opened fire on each other. Within seconds there was nothing left of the wall of death but the hiss of cooling metal.

“Impossible. It must be a system glitch. They are programmed so they can’t attack each other.”

“They each attack the rock and most of them miss,” Andrea said. “If the rock shatters it gets even better. Then they start shooting at the fragments.”

“And they don’t reset?” Intrigue and respect were written on the man’s face.

“No,” Andrea said. “It really is cheating though. I feel guilty just walking past their charred corpses.”

“Is a melted droid really a corpse?” he asked.

Andrea punched a code into the controller at her wrist and the level reset.

The bushes shook again.

This time an entire band of warriors rushed in, armed to the teeth and yelling.

“You need to go through?” one the adrenaline junkies asked.

Andrea looked at the first stranger; he shook his head. “We just reset the level to try a different tactic, not enough challenge the first time,” she said.

“Mind if we charge through?” one of the heavily-armed men asked.

“Go for it.” Andrea and the wholesome man with the charming smile watched as the band of berserkers rushed the killerbots.

“We could try that,” he suggested.

“They lost two people.”

“Ah, good point, the odds aren’t in our favor.”

“Any suggestions?” Andrea asked as the level reset again.

The man picked up a rock.

They stepped through the level eight gate casually, almost to casually. Andrea had to grab the man by his shirt to keep him from making a fatal mistake.

“Trip wires under the leaves on the path,” she explained.

“Ah,” he looked down at the jungle path in front of them. “How do we avoid the trip wires?”
“See the wood planks outlining the path?”

He looked at the narrow span of wood. “Yes.”

“Stay on that until we hit the clearing.” Andrea balanced easily on the beam and waited for him to follow before she began moving. “The wires trigger the killerbots and skydroids on the other end. If you don’t trigger the wires the ‘bots don’t come out.”

“I thought the rules said you had to stay on the path,” the man said.

“The rules were written by the same people who designed the killerbots. Think about it.”

“Good point. I suppose they aren’t rooting for the gamers.”

“If they are, I’ve never noticed.”

They moved through the artificial jungle, listening to the sounds ahead. A battle raged and fell suddenly silent.

“Do you think the berserkers died?”

“This isn’t a level that charging works on. I’ve seen lots of groups try that and it never works. Level seven is the last one you can survive on just charging. By eight you need tactics.”

“Do you play a lot?” the man asked politely.

Andrea looked at him, weighing her possible responses. “I play when I can but it isn’t often.”

“Do you always come alone?”

“Do you?”

The man laughed. “I’m not trying to pry. I’m harmless. Really. And yes, I usually play alone.”
“But you pick up the odd damsel in distress if you happen on them?”

“Nope. Never met one. Although I don’t mind picking up beautiful women who know how to cheat two levels in a row.”

“Do you meet many?” Andrea asked.

“Nope. But after I met you, who else could I need?”

Andrea snorted. “Nice line. But what you’re going to want is someone who knows how to get past level nine, because I don’t.”

They stepped into an empty clearing with monumental buildings on each side. The doors to the building were closed, locking in the hordes of death.

The level gate loomed ahead of them.

“Suggestions?” the man asked.

“Level nine is dark, pitch black. Outside light sources don’t work. The level gate is to the left but there’s a cliff and a river between you and the gate. I’ve died in each of them. And there’s a couple of killerbots. It never seems like a huge number but there are enough.”

“Maybe we should try splitting up? One go left the other go right?” he suggested.

“Bad plan. There are synergy bombs. If you and your buddy stand on the corresponding demolition plants at the same time everyone in the level dies.”

“Great.” He checked his charge. “So, want to try again if we die?”

Andrea blinked at the thought. “I’ve got to get to work soon.”

“Maybe we can meet up later this weekend. Where are you at?”

“Tetraterren, Alpha Side,” Andrea said. “You?”

“Homely,” he named a planet on the far side of the system.

“Thank goodness for faster than light relays, right?”

“Right.”

“Our best bet is to try not to die,” Andrea said. “Failing that, remember every detail you can so you can map the level when you die.”

“When are you coming to play next?” the man asked.

Andrea shrugged. “I don’t know.” She stepped into the darkness of level nine.

Five minutes later, simulated leg broken, a killerbots honed in on Andrea. She shot out its sensors, trying to buy herself a few more seconds in the game.

Light flashed, a fire flare. “I’ll find you!” the stranger shouted as he died.

The killerbots fired.

Andrea died.

The black and green grid of the ten by ten game room replaced the encircling dark of level nine.
Andrea checked her watch. “Flippers!” Her shuttle for the space station took off in ten minutes.
She raced out the door stripping her game suit as she went. She tossed the controls to the tech outside with a smile and grabbed her raincoat from the hangar.

“Good game?” the tech asked as she pushed herself out the door.

“The best!”

Andrea looked away from her computer screen to finish her sketch. It showed level seven in detail, with one minor new addition, a handsome man crouched and smiling. He looked predator, devilish, intelligent.

“How were the lectures?”

Andrea slammed her notebook closed. She looked up into the round, banal, face of Dave Sumners with a smile.

“The lectures? I enjoyed them very much,” she lied. “I especially enjoyed the series on Intrinsic Energies and Met Forces.”

“I knew you would.” Dave always knew what people liked. “Did you get to listen to Doctor Carores lecture on Forward Math’s?”

“No,” Andrea said regretfully, “that lecture was all sold out.”

“He usually is. I told you to buy the tickets earlier.”

“I know. I was really upset I had to miss his lecture. Everyone was talking about his ideas. I understand his new formula for to replace the Commonplace Theorem is quite revolutionary.”

“He just published a journal article on it, I’m expecting my copy to arrive any day now. Once I’ve read it I’d be happy to lend you my copy.”

“Would you really? That’s so sweet of you, Dave.”

Dave blushed.

Andrea looked at her desk, rolling her eyes. Her computer monitor pinged to get her attention. “Oh!” She looked at Dave with what she hoped was a regret-laced smile. “My equations are done running. I better get back to work. Being away for three days, well, I feel like I’m so behind in everything.”

“I know just how you feel,” Dave said. “I can’t stand vacation myself. All the free time? Ugh. I’d rather be doing something productive.”

Andrea made an appreciative noise. “There just aren’t many men like you anymore, Dave. You’re a rare breed.”

Dave laughed. “Rare breed? Ha! And I’m not even a biologist. Ha! Funny!” He walked away chortling.

Andrea assessed the readout from her computer and sent it to run another set of complicated variables. The number twelve solar array wasn’t getting optimal efficiency and she was trying to find the perfect angle for efficiency. The array would adjust to one one-hundredth of a nanometer, that gave her lots of variables to run, and lots of time to sketch game levels.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Wasporcist

I'm cheating a little today and posting this story because @lianabrooks and @clareswords were talking about it on Twitter last week, and agreed that it's one of my creepiest stories. A couple of people asked about it, so I figured I'd go ahead and post it for you, because why not. If you're keen, it's actually one of the stories in my anthology To Dust and Other Stories; you can find a blurb over on my website :) 

Amazon | Book DepositoryB&N | iBooks | Kobo | Scribd

Anyway. Sans further ado, The Wasporcist.





Today.


My ears won’t stop ringing. It’s been a week now—ever since Halloween, actually. That party was insane. I prob’ly shouldn’t have let that guy pour me a drink, even if he did compliment my outfit.
But anyway, the ringing. Every noise echoes in my left ear with a weird, computerized-voice-over effect. It’s especially bad in a crowd, since the echoes get so loud I can’t understand what anyone is saying.
I went to the doctor today. She says nothing’s wrong. I think she thinks I’m making it up.


Nov 8.


Ear ringing persists. It’s like the electricity in my brain is going mad, buzzing so loud I can hear it.
Will my brain explode, I wonder?


Day after yesterday.


The buzzing is so loud now I have trouble hearing anything else. At least it means I can’t hear things echoing.


First day of the rest of forever, in which I never hear again.


Have determined that my brain has been replaced with a wasp, and it’s mad at being trapped in my pitiful skull, hence continuous buzzing. Must see an insectologist or whatever they’re called to get it out.


Nov 13.


It’s Friday. I should have known that was a bad start. Insectologist, who is apparently actually called an entomologist, tells me that wasps don’t live in people’s heads. I told him I’m always an exception. He told me to call a shrink.
Had shrink. Didn’t work. Besides, I don’t need a shrink, I need a waspinator. I wonder what they’re called. Let me check.
Internet says exterminator. How dull. I vote in favour of waspinator. Let me go call one.


Nov 13, later.


Called. Booked. Didn’t tell the guy where the wasp was; just said ‘up there’ when he asked. Hope he comes prepared.


Another day.


Waspinator should be coming today, wootwoo. I am so SICK of this buzzing. I swear, the thing is driving me insane. Even Josh thinks I’m acting weird, and he’d know, he’s the King of Weird.
Oh, knock at the door. That’ll be the Waspinator. I’ll report back in a minute.


Later.


The guy looked at me like I was mad when I told him the wasp was in my head. “Too right it is,” he said. I think that was a little uncalled for. Still, I made him check, just to be sure. He shone a light in through my ear and said he couldn’t see anything that wasn’t supposed to be there.
Personally, I’m suspicious. I think if I looked in his ear I wouldn’t see anything at all. Ha. Idiot.
But seriously, what am I going to now? Who am I going to call?
…Who you gonna call? Ghost! Busters! Dun da-dun dun-dun.
HEY! That’s actually not a bad idea! What if it’s not a wasp? What if it’s, like, a demon who’s just pretending to be a wasp?
That’s so awesome I’m practically bouncing in my seat. Who do you call for demons, again? Exercise-thingies. What are they called? Oh yeah, exorcists. Right.
Snigger. Wasporcists. That’s what I need: a wasporcist. But I doubt that’ll be in the phone book. I supposed I’ll just try for a generic exorcist first.
I’ll let you know how it goes, diary-m’dear.


Even later.


I love coincidence. Got this mad phone call earlier that Josh took. Sounded like it was one of those sales calls, you know? The ones where they try to sell you a trip to Hawaii or insurance for your fish or something? Yeah. Those. But anyway, I was listening, and so I heard when Josh told the guy we didn’t need an exorcist.
I practically snatched the phone out of his hand, I was so excited. I mean, seriously? What are the odds?! So awesome. So anyway, exorcist—his name is Brad—agreed to come out. Says it sounds like it could be a demon. He gets situations like this all the time, he said.
Hmm. I wonder if there’s, like, a conspiracy of demons, all invading people’s heads as wasps? I wonder if Josh has heard buzzing lately?
I just ran out into the hall and asked him. He said he hasn’t. Bummer. No conspiracy after all. Oh well. I guess I’ll just wait for the exorcist.


Nov 20.


Exorcist is coming, exorcist is coming! I’m so excited. I hope he’s cute.
He should be here any minute now—oh, look, see? A knock at the door. I wonder if he knew I was writing about him coming, and that’s why he knocked now? I wonder if he’s been waiting at the door for, like, half an hour, just waiting for me to sit down and start writing so he could knock just as I wrote about—
I’m COMING, Josh. Sheesh. Let a person finish their sentence, will ya?
Urgh, better go before he comes in here and see this. No one’s supposed to know I’m keeping a journal. I’m only doing it ‘cause the shrink last year said I should. Not that I ever have anything interesting to write about.
Well, until the wasp-invading-my-brain thing.
Bloody hell, Josh, COMING. Right. See me go…


Tonight.


OHMIGOSH! The Wasporcist is totally that guy from the party, you know, the random one who poured me a drink? And he’s CUTE.
But yeah, ha, I told you it was a wasp-demon. Brad took one look and agreed. Said it was a pretty potent demon, though, so he’d have to come back a couple of times and have at it in bits—too strong to tackle all at once. Good thing I sold the car, exorcists aren’t cheap.
Mind you, why would they? With the work they have to do? No, thanks. Makes me shudder. I’m more than happy to pay someone else to do the dirty work. Especially if it means this infernal buzzing will stop.


Dec 2.


Sorry I haven’t written in ages, diary-dearest. I’ve been… occupied. Don’t tell Josh, but I think Brad—he’s the exorcist I wrote about last time, remember? —I think he has a crush on me. He’s come over every single day this week, usually while Josh’s at work. He brought me flowers, yesterday. Daisies. My favourite, not that anyone but you knows that.
Josh says he’s creepy. I dunno. He’s pretty cute. And I think the buzzing isn’t as bad when he’s around.
*scowl* Josh still thinks I’m making it all up. Idiot. I bet he wouldn’t even know what colours I like. (Green and purple, for the record.)
Anyway. Bed.


Dec 3.


I don’t have long, I’m going out to dinner in a minute with—oh, better not say, just in case. I’m sure you can guess. We arranged it this morning when he came over. And guess what he brought with him? Earrings, purple and green ones. He’s only known me for two weeks and already he knows more about me than stupid Josh.


Dec 6.


Brad is right. Josh is a dickhead. He’s been totally unsympathetic about this whole wasp-demon head-invasion thing, and keeps on ragging at me for the money missing from our bank account. It’s not like it’s that much; Brad is charging me less than half price, since the demon’s proving so hard to get rid of. And he told me at dinner the other night that he’s barely had any clients this month, and he had to negotiate with his landlord to pay double rent for December because he couldn’t afford to cover November.
…Maybe I should run away. I don’t mind being poor. And I know what it’s like to be so lonely…
But where can we go?


December nine, three nineteen pm. The moment of my momentous decision.


I’m doing it. Tonight. I’m going to sneak out of the house and I’ll meet Brad and he’ll take me away from here, away from all of this nonsense. The healing is almost complete, and he’ll take me away, and then I’ll be totally fixed, and he’ll never be lonely again, and everything will be wonderful.
It’s not like Josh will even care; he’s barely spoken to me since he found me sitting in the corner the other day doodling hearts around Brad’s name.
Okay, so that was a tactical mistake, but seriously, if he wasn’t such a jerk I wouldn’t be thinking of leaving.
No, not thinking, I am leaving. Tonight.
Oh, gosh, it gives me shivers just thinking about it. I’m so excited I can hardly wait! I wonder if Brad will mind if I’m early?
I’m going to go pack now, just in case. Can’t wait can’t wait can’t WAIT!!!!

 * * * 

Josh closed the document, throat burning, chest tight. “Yes,” he told the police officer standing behind him. “That’s her diary.”
“Well, you won’t mind if we take the laptop up to the station as evidence then?”
Josh shook his head. What difference did it make?
The officer gave him a sympathetic look. “I’m truly sorry. But your helpwell, it might just make the difference between finding the killer and not.”
Josh nodded. Sure. Let them think he was a hero, if that’s what they wanted. He knew the truth. He’d lost her long before some psycho had torn her body apart in the woods behind the house, and even long before she’d gotten that stupid idea about the wasp in her head.
The psychiatrist had warned him she might never come back. He’d been stupid to hope.
And now his ear wouldn’t stop ringing.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Perfect Match

Set in the Deep South in a little town where fairy godmothers (and godfathers) go to high school, play football, and sometimes make people fall in love...



Magic rushed up his arm, the wand in his hand glowed for a moment as he focused, and then it all fizzled out. Limp as a wet football game.

Bran shook the wooden stick and tried to figure out what went wrong. The set up was perfect. Ellis Holladay was the ultimate loser. Under appreciated, unnoticed in his new town, and with a ton of potential if he was just aimed in the right direction. Being a fairy godparent for Ellis was almost too easy.

Especially with Tawnya Brickle in the mix. Perfect smile, perfect curves, perfect social situation. She was everything Ellis needed. All the spell was going to do was make Tawnya look at him for long enough for natural attraction and destiny to step in.

Instead it looked like Tawnya was on a head on collision course with the school quarterback. She was going to cruise right on past Ellis instead of turning into the book store and finding him holding the last copy of the book she wanted to buy.

Attraction spells were never this hard in class.

Bran pulled his notebook from his back pocket and looked over the spell components for a Perfect Match spell again. Boy – check. Girl – double check. Mutual Meeting Place – the mall, triple check. All the spell did was bring them together.

He looked around at the early morning shoppers. No one else seemed to be running into waves of destiny and bliss. Maybe it back fired. He bit his lip. Hopefully the spell wouldn’t send Tawnya his way. That could prove awkward.

With a sigh, he turned and headed for the steps for the upper plaza. Maybe he could salvage the spell before lunchtime.

The mall music changed from the standard jogging music oldies to the latest hit single from the band Love Me. Sunlight split a cloud outside and sent a ray of light to illuminate Her.

The perfect Her.

The spell had backfired, a part of his mind screamed. But all the rest of his seventeen year old mind was focused on Her.

Tall, leggy, brown hair surrounding her like an aura of deep gold. Blue jeans, white shirt. Curves.
In the fey worlds where all the woman were ephemeral, dainty blondes she was the ultimate exotic prize. Maybe she would have a mind to match. They could hit the movies, maybe catch a basketball game at the school gym. Maybe she was in college.
The perfect woman moved down the stairs. Her smile snapped to a scowl, and then she moved with a vengeance.
Magic came cascading down around him. His head pounded with the fall out of something gone hideously wrong.

“What are you doing?” Perfect demanded.

Bran looked up, a little surprised she wasn’t yelling at him. He recognized the recipient though, Trisha Ellens, and her older sister Trista pushing her new born son in a stroller.

The Ellens sisters, that explained a lot. Magic happy harpies is what his dad called them. Fairy godmothers who liked the wand just a little too much. Trish was on target to graduate with him. He only knew Trista by reputation, but she was like her sister, times ten.

“We were just making some poor cinderella’s day,” Trisha said. When she shrugged her shoulders sparkles of fairy dust fell around her.

Perfect glared down the mall at Tawnya Brickle. “What were you going to do to her?”

“I was just gift-wrapping the school quarterback. She’ll thank me later.”

“No she won’t! That’s a terrible match up!”

Trisha shrugged again and smiled at her sister.

“It’s meant to be,” Trista said.

“True love,” Trisha added.

“They have nothing in common. He’s a man whore with a new ride every week. Tawnya is headed for college in two years. Why would she throw that away for a guy whose only accomplishment is the ability to catch a ball?”

“Throw a ball,” Trista corrected. “Don’t you ever pay attention?”

“Whatever.” Perfect folded her arms. “Undo it.”

“To late,” Trisha said. “My spells never break. This is true love.”

“Is not.”

“Is now.”

Bran felt the pull of magic. Not the warm wash of the spell he’d done, but the heavy, cloying, almost suffocating blanket of old dark magic welling up. Something bad was going to happen. He leaned against a wall, bracing for a storm, and then it washed away. Everything snapped back.

He opened an eye to see two mothers with strollers watching him.

“I told you, it’s a new dance move,” one said to the other as they walked by.

He ran up the stairs to the balcony and searched the crowd for Ellis, Tawnya, the Ellens sisters, or Perfect.

Ellis was easy to find, he was sitting on a bench engrossed in a book. Tawnya was flirting shamelessly with the quarterback who looked a little bit puzzled at why he was out of bed before noon, but game if there was a pretty girl involved. The Ellens sisters were MIA, but he saw Perfect making a bee-line for Ellis.

No good at all.

Magic got him within five feet of his target, but She was already there.

“Ellis?”

The boy pulled ear phones out and looked at her with a polite “Do I know you?” smile.

“How are you?”

“Good. I didn’t know you hit the mall.”

Ellis knew her? Bran wondered if it was against the fey law to pump a Cinderella for information.
“Eventually, even I have to go shopping.”

“Yeah.” Ellis’s eyes strayed back to the book.

“Good reading?”

“Yeah.”

Not one of the conversational greats. Ellis was officially an idiot.

“You know who else likes that series?” Perfect asked.

“Um?” Ellis’s foot tapped in time to the music he was listening to with one ear.

Perfect gave up and grabbed his arm. “Come on. Hey, Tawnya! Come here real quick.”

Tawnya Brickle turned, a half-scowl on her face. Seeing Perfect, she smiled. “Hey, Tracy.”

Perfect had a name. It didn’t fit her. Bran followed, drifting with the crowd so he could listen.

“Tawnya, this is Ellis.” Tracy held out the book Ellis was trying to read. “You two need to talk.”

“But, hey!” The quarterback made a grab for Tawnya as she started to drift after Ellis.

Tracy swatted his hand back. “You need to go home, shower, clean up, do your science homework, and get your head in gear before you become the biggest has-been since your father. If your grades drop any lower you won’t be playing next year. Remember?”

“Um…” He chuckled. “Hey, Trace. How’s it going?”

She really was tall, Bran realized. Tracy was glaring down at the football player. Without heels. That meant she was at least six foot tall, either that or the quarterback lied about his height. Maybe both.

“I don’t suppose you want to help me with my homework, do you?” he was asking.

Tracy shook her head. “Hard work never killed anyone.”

“But it might.”

“Nice try. Get going.”

The quarterback shook it off and wandered away, probably headed home, but at least not chasing Tawnya.

“See?” Tracy demanded of no one in particular.

Glitter filled the air, the mortals stilled, and the Ellens sisters reappeared.

“No magic,” Tracy said. “Very little effort. Work. It’s amazing how often standing up and doing something actually works. So much better than magic.”

“Why you little-“ Trisha cut her sentence off with a squeak.

Trista materialized a wand out of the flurry of magic holding time hostage. “Ungrateful little girl! That was my best true love spell! Now you’ll-“

“What?” Tracy demanded. “See the light? Learn my lesson?” She grabbed the wand. “I don’t think so.”

The wand burst into flames, and the magic cracked. Actually froze around him and shattered. Blasting through the fey minds at the mall and probably for a good few miles out. He wasn’t sure. By the time Bran woke up he was at home and the sun was setting.

It didn’t matter. He thought he’d lost Tracy Perfect but all he had to do was look. She was at school on Monday, wearing a white t-shirt with the rest of the freshmen. Fourteen years old, magic hating, Tracy Ellens. Her sister Trista gave her a ride and stomped past her in the hall.

Maybe it wasn’t a perfect match after all.

Monday, April 6, 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? 
“Here.” 
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. 
“Stunning.” 
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.