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The Faerie Queen


Jea Hawkins writing as

LUCY TRUE



Copyright © 2018

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is completely coincidental (and pretty darn weird!).

Cover by Rebel X Designs

www.lucytruebooks.com

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CHAPTER ONE



As soon as her last student left, Chiara locked the door and drew the curtains, blocking out the growing darkness beyond her windows. She knew everyone in her little town thought it was eccentric of her.

“It’s safe here in Northampton,” they’d gently admonished her since she was a teenager. But she’d done it for nine years and old habits, even those everyone knew and didn’t quite understand, died hard.

So the knock at the door made her jump. No one should be here after she’d gone through her nightly routine. She peered through the window and released a breath. It was just one of the students. He must have forgotten something. She opened the door and smiled. “Hey, Russ.”

“Hey. That was a great class, Chiara. Thanks for taking the time to explain the difference between pathworking and meditation.” He rubbed his finger along the painted door frame, but said nothing more.

Chiara dimpled at the compliment, her hazel eyes crinkling at the corners. Before the silence got awkward, she nodded. “Thanks. Is there something I can help you with?” The breeze lifted her honey blonde hair, but it carried something else. A scent Chiara recognized as something other than that of the early blooms that signaled spring.

Russ seemed hesitant to speak as he drummed his fingers against the siding. “I was wondering if you… It’s so nice tonight, like actually warm, and…” He reached up and twisted the collar of his jacket. As if he’d flipped a switch, his next words came out in a rush. “Would you like to come downtown for ice cream with me?”

“Oh, I thought everyone knew I didn’t date,” she answered with a shake of her head, a rueful note in her voice. “I’m sorry.”

“Of course. It makes sense. I’m your student, you’re the teacher. It wouldn’t be ethical or something like that.” The young man fiddled with the deadbolt as he babbled and Chiara sighed.

“It’s not a teacher/student thing, Russ. It’s that I don’t date anyone.” By now, at the age of twenty-five, she was accustomed to giving the same excuses, the same apologies. “Between running the shop and teaching classes, there just aren’t enough hours in the day, but thank you very much for thinking of me.”

He blew out a breath and blinked. “Is it because I’m a guy? I mean, everyone in town is saying you just don’t date guys, because of that girl back in high school or something.”

Chiara compressed her lips. Everyone in town also knows I don’t care for personal questions, but it seems like Russ hasn’t gotten the memo.

“It’s okay, of course,” he hastened to add, finally lifting his gaze to her. “I mean, I’m not saying it’s not. Being gay is fine. It’s just…”

“I’m sorry, but I’m very tired. It’s been a long day. Why don’t you go enjoy that ice cream?” Chiara looked for a way to soften the blow. “Mandy would love your company. She’s downtown tonight.”

“She… she is?” Russ took a step back from the door, the same reaction Chiara got from most people when they found out her talents extended far beyond what they expected. “Okay. Thanks. Have a good night.”

“Anytime and you too,” she said and watched as Russ finally made his way down the driveway, turned onto the sidewalk, and headed in the direction of downtown. While his expression still didn’t betray his disappointment, Chiara could almost see him making an effort to appear as nonchalant as possible. While she didn’t like letting people down, sometimes it couldn’t be helped. She finally shut the door, locked it again, and backed into the living room.

As soon as a long moment of silence passed, Chiara turned back to the mantle, propped her elbows against it, and bowed her head against her forearms.

Dear gods, how much longer could she go on like this? It wasn’t that people misconstrued her kindness, her easygoing attitude, or her smiles as flirtation. It was simply some sort of cosmic joke that whenever someone liked her, she just couldn’t like them back. And, lately, every eligible person within a twenty mile radius couldn’t seem to stop asking her out on dates.

“This has been going on since I was sixteen and it’s just getting worse,” she muttered against her arms. “Is this the way it’s always going to be?”

There was no answer but the flicker of the candles on her mantle. Rather than ponder her frustration, Chiara snuffed out the rose-scented candles and backed away from the fireplace. She turned away to finish putting the room back in order – books on shelves, tools back in their appropriate places, and a final check that all the doors and windows were closed and locked.

Russ was right, though, when he’d said it was a nice night. So, while she left the downstairs doors and windows locked tight, she trudged upstairs and opened the windows in her bedroom. Sweet, floral smells from the shop downstairs mingled with the fresh air upstairs, diffusing the odors throughout the house. They were the smells that, for better or for worse, reminded Chiara she was home.

She passed through her bedroom, pulling her t-shirt off as she went, then tossed the article of clothing into the hamper in her bathroom. Soon she was enveloped in the warmth of steam as hot water pulsated down on her from the showerhead.

The Carone residence in downtown Northampton might have been an historic Victorian home, but her nana had modernized it when they converted the dining room and den into their little magick shop. Those renovations included Chiara’s favorite luxury – a tankless water heater, installed five years ago, just before her nana died.

Nana remained on her mind as Chiara completed her bedtime routine. When she finally turned back the comforter and slid under the sheets, she remembered one of her nana’s favorite bits of wisdom: “Listen to the wind. Its voice will tell you what is coming.”

Chiara closed her eyes and waited for the next zephyr. The initial rustling of new leaves just beyond her window gave way to a whisper, the same whisper she’d heard ever since her sixteenth birthday.

I am coming for you.

****

Sixteen. Like every girl, she’d dreamed of what her sixteenth birthday would mean to her. And now here she was, alone with the beautiful girl who’d come to her school as a new student earlier that year.

A shiver flowed through Chiara, and she wrapped her arms around herself for warmth.

Chiara,” the girl whispered, “I’m your birthday present.” Her fingers came up and brushed Chiara’s hair back off her shoulder.

This elicited yet another shudder, and she compressed her lips in a hard line as she shook her head. The strange new girl moved closer, placing her fingers beneath Chiara’s chin, since Chiara had tilted it down against her own shoulder.

I need you,” the girl said, her voice as dry as the pages of an old book. “Our people need you.”

No,” Chiara answered, her voice low, uncertain. Her instincts warred with her sense of trust as the girl said something else to her, something coaxing and sweet. “No,” Chiara said again, this time louder.

We will die without you. You don’t want that, do you? We are your people and you must come back to us, where you belong.”

The girl’s cold fingers curled over Chiara’s shoulder and she flinched away from the contact. “I can’t do it,” Chiara said, her voice catching. “Please, don’t make me.”

I’m sorry, Chiara, but I have no choice. Your mother failed our world when she left you here among the mortals. I will not make the same mistake.”

The girl’s grip tightened, while Chiara’s entire body tensed as panic flared within her.

****

She awoke with a vague recollection of the dream that had left the events of the past far too fresh in her mind. With a shake of her head, Chiara rubbed her hands over her face and groaned. “It’s been almost nine years. Why the hell is it coming back to me now?”

Of course, her nana would have something to say about the power of numbers or perhaps age. Maybe something about how nine was the completion of a cycle. Then there would be the lecture about how she had to face her destiny. If her nana were still there.

Chiara was far too mindful of all of this as she began to prepare for her day. “The past belongs right where it is,” she grumbled into her hands. “Dead and buried, with everyone I ever loved, and not in my dreams, thank you very much, universe.”

Mentally shrugging off the thoughts and emotions that the dream had triggered wasn’t easy as Chiara immersed herself in her daily routine. Somehow, though, she put the dream far behind her as she dressed, made tea, and pored over emails and social media. By the time she had sipped the last of her chai, both her personal and business accounts were balanced, and she had placed an order with her wholesaler for some new merchandise. Before she knew it, it was time to open shop.

She unlocked the door of The Charm Shoppe, opened it, leaned against the doorjamb, and gazed out at Main Street. The mid-March morning was sunny and comfortable, even though a slight chill lingered in the air. It wouldn’t be long before the infamous New England humidity that accompanied summer would settle over the region until September. For now, however, Chiara embraced the fullness of spring and the coming of summer.

“Good morning, el witcho italiano,” trilled a familiar voice. A heavy-set woman with curly brown hair barely contained in two braids walked along the flagstone path toward the door.

Chiara winced and said, “You realize you’re not actually speaking Italian, right Erin?”

“You realize I barely speak English, right Chiara?” Erin held a take-out drink carrier laden with Dunkin Donuts cups in front of her. “I come bearing caffeine.”

“That’s music to my ears.” Chiara accepted a cup of coffee and stepped aside so Erin could enter the shop. Her friend’s long skirt flowed with her movements, as did her loose peasant blouse. In Chiara’s mind, everything about Erin flowed. If someone could personify any of the natural elements, then Erin was water in human form – graceful, lovely when calm, and potentially dangerous when roiled.

Humans were uncomplicated creatures, something Chiara respected. Some days, she wished she could be one. Other days, she found it easy to forget she wasn’t one of them.

Erin set her messenger bag down on the stool behind the counter, and hummed as she fiddled with various displays around the store. Chiara followed and watched. The other woman’s eyes – one brown, one blue – focused on anything but her as she moved from one shelf or table to another.

“So… What’s his name?” Chiara asked with a half-smile, before sipping the ice coffee. Oh yes, humans were far too transparent. All one had to do was observe their mannerisms to understand their ways. Not that Chiara normally thought of humans in an “us versus them” way, but the differences felt more apparent lately.

“What makes you think there’s a name?” Erin asked in a high, sugary-sweet voice.

Chiara lifted her eyebrows. Erin’s exaggerated winsomeness was a dead giveaway. “When you go from screeching death metal one day to humming pop music the next, there is, without a doubt, a name.”

“There could be a name.” Erin turned and grinned.

“I knew it.”

“His name,” she said, pausing until Chiara prompted her with a frantic whirl of her hand, “is Barden.”

“Seriously?” Chiara spluttered, putting her hand to her mouth partially in amusement and partially to keep herself from dribbling coffee as she tried not to laugh.

“Your name is seriously ‘Key-ara’?” Erin retorted, narrowing her eyes and waving her hands around in front of her.

“It’s Italian and a family name.” The lies about her supposed human heritage rolled off her tongue easily before she added, “As you damn well know, you brat.”

“You’re a smart-ass hand-talker, as I damn well know,” Erin said as she walked over to the cash register to open it for the day. “And, yes, that really is his name, so please don’t mock it. I like this guy.”

Chiara didn’t want to point out something she’d known about Erin ever since they’d been friends, but… “You like every guy you meet.”

Erin lowered her chin and glared at her.

“Fine, fine. No need to give me the death stare. I’ll give you the proper opening for girl-talk.” Chiara leaned on the glass jewelry counter, holding her cup between her hands. She cleared her throat and said, “Tell me all about him and spare no detail. Where did you meet? What does he look like? When will the wedding be?”

“Well, he’s tall, shaves his head, and he has these big, dark eyes.”

“Sounds like your type so far.” Chiara sipped her coffee. “I mean, you can’t go wrong with a guy who has eyes.”

“Very funny.” Erin made a finger gun and pointed it at her. “But, seriously, he really is my type. Not only that, but he’s very smart and chivalrous. He’s into Shakespeare.” Erin hesitated and said, “That’s the Romeo and Juliet guy, right?”

Chiara rolled her eyes. “Yes, Shakespeare would be that guy. Hence the name Barden is completely appropriate.”

Now Erin’s lips twisted in a frown. “I’m confused.”

“Don’t be. Shakespeare was known as ‘The Bard’. Simple enough.”

“Oh.” Erin’s chest rose and fell with a sigh. “Well, I guess I’m not as well-educated as you are. Actually, that’s one of the problems I have – the Shakespeare thing, I mean.”

Chiara couldn’t fathom what Erin meant by that. “Since when is Shakespeare a problem? He always championed love.”

“Well…” Erin fiddled with the plastic lid of her cup. “I’ve never read any Shakespeare. Barden’s probably going to want to talk about it when we go out to dinner tonight, but I seriously have no clue. So I need your help.”

Chiara tried not to choke on her coffee as she lowered the cup from her lips. After she forced the mouthful of liquid down the appropriate pipe in her throat, she said, “You’ve never read Shakespeare? Not even in high school?” She remembered reading at least one of his plays each year of high school, as well as his poems. In fact, she had taken the time to completely memorize Sonnet 116, and it remained her favorite to this day.

“This is me we’re talking about, remember?” Erin shook her head, her eyes wide with apprehension over her possibility of failing the Shakespearean portion of her date. “Not one word of it. I was in remedial English. Gosh, Chiara, I can’t even spell Shakespeare.”

“Well, have you ever seen any of the movies based on the stories?” Chiara asked, placing her finger against her chin as she considered the possibilities. “Like either of the most popular versions of Romeo and Juliet or Much Ado About Nothing? Maybe Love’s Labour Lost – there’s a musical version. What about A Midsummer Night’s Dream? That’s my personal favorite.”

As soon as she mentioned the story, she bit her lip. There it was again, a reminder of everything she’d tried to escape from ever since her birthday. The very world she wanted to shut out of her life, not invite into it.

“Nope.”

“Not even Hamlet with Mel Gibson?” Chiara quelled the chill that threatened to spread from between her shoulders, along the rest of her body. She wouldn’t let it come back. She just wouldn’t. Instead, she stared at her best friend and asked, “How is that even possible?”

“Help me,” Erin whined. “I won’t know what to say if he asks me which play I like best, or what I think of some poem or something. Please, please help me!” She laced her fingers together in a token gesture of begging.

Chiara laughed and the icy sensation at her back receded. “I’ll help you, I’ll help you. That’s what friends are for, after all.” She went into the living room and selected a huge, green book off one of the bookshelves built into the wall. When she returned to the cash register, she placed the tome in Erin’s hands and said, “This will get you started.”

“You’re kidding me.” The other girl looked at Chiara with wide eyes before dropping her gaze back down to the book.

“This is his collected works,” Chiara answered, opening the book to the table of contents and running her finger down the page of text. “It includes all of his plays and sonnets, literally everything you need to brush up on your Shakespeare.”

“I… I…” Erin gaped at her. “I can’t read all of this.” She set her coffee cup on the counter and flipped through the book. “This is over a thousand pages of ‘brushing up,’ Chiara.”

Chiara smiled. Erin’s reaction did not surprise her and she finally took pity on her friend. “I do have a couple movies you can watch. That might help you. Go upstairs and watch Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The cold crept along her shoulders once again and this time made her shiver, but she continued. “I’ll handle the shop today while you prepare for your big date with the perfect man.”

“Thanks!” Erin grabbed her coffee in one hand and her bag in the other, and ran upstairs.

Chiara turned and pitched her cup into the small trash can behind the counter. The sensation was prickling at her relentlessly now, frigid barbs diffusing up along the back of her neck, out along her arms, down her back…

Fists clenched, Chiara turned and hissed, “Dead you are, dead you stay. Find another or you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of an iron blade.”

In the still, silent moment that followed, she felt hesitation. Then, after another breath, the thorny sensation receded. Chiara exhaled and her entire body relaxed. Using her fingertips to dab the wetness away from the corners of her eyes, she walked back into the living room. Bypassing the wall of bookshelves to the right, she approached the altar beneath the bay window. She withdrew a skeleton key from the pocket of her jeans and inserted it into the keyhole just below the tabletop. With a turn of her hand, the front of the altar opened and she looked inside.

The shop door creaked open as Chiara’s fingers curled around a ceremonial bell. She locked the altar and strode back to the shop with a smile. All morning she greeted one customer after another. Even as she answered questions, helped customers find books and CDs, and served up herbal teas, she kept the bell close at hand.

During the lunchtime lull, she lit a stick of patchouli incense and went from room to room, ringing the bell and murmuring words of protection. Erin came downstairs to make sandwiches and looked at her askance. “What are you doing?” she asked as she squeezed mustard onto a slice of wheat bread.

“It just felt like time to renew the house blessing,” Chiara answered and tried to force a smile. What a mundane human like Erin thought of as a ritual and moving energy here and there, Chiara had to treat as a serious defense. “How was the first movie?” She tossed the spent incense stick in the trash and sat at the kitchen table while Erin served the sandwiches.

“Well, I didn’t understand half of what they were saying, but I got the basic gist of things.” Erin set two plates on the table and took the chair across from Chiara. “Are you okay?”

“Of course I am. Why do you ask?”

Erin shrugged and said, “You just seem jumpy today. Is this some kind of anniversary I don’t know about?”

“I’m fine.” Chiara bit into the ham sandwich and met her friend’s gaze. The very thing that wouldn’t leave her alone could have chosen any time to return. It didn’t have to be a special day, like the anniversary of her mother’s disappearance or her nana’s death, or even Chiara’s own birthday. She knew it would come for her when it felt ready. Apparently nine years was the magic number in this case.

“You were walking around ringing a bell.”

Chiara picked up the small instrument and said, “Oh, this old thing? Didn’t we talk about bells when you were in the first degree classes?”

“Yeah. I remember. They ward an area from faeries.”

“That’s right.” Chiara nodded, and found that she couldn’t stop. Before her impression of a bobblehead doll alarmed Erin further, she propped her elbow on the table and rested her chin on her hand. “The solstice is in two months and that means faerie mischief.”

“Does that have anything to do with that other movie you told me to watch?”

“Kinda-sorta.” Chiara was finally able to smile. Sometimes, Erin could be very slow to catch on. Other times, she saw deeper than most people expected. “You don’t want one of those little critters to turn you into a donkey, do you?”

“A donkey?”

“Trust me – go watch the movie.”

Erin nodded and they finished their lunch in companionable silence. As soon as they cleared the dishes and Erin went back upstairs, Chiara returned the cash register, bell in hand. To her relief, it was a busy afternoon, and the constant comings and goings of her customers kept her from dwelling on history.

As Chiara closed the shop at three o’clock and tallied the receipts, Erin came downstairs and announced, “I am completely and utterly screwed.”

“It’s not that bad, is it?” Chiara asked, setting the roll of paper down on the countertop.

“No, and I see now that I’ve been missing a lot. There’s some pretty cool stuff in those movies – faeries and elves and love triangles and evil princes. Hot stuff, but…”

“But?” Chiara prompted, and raised her eyebrows.

“But they still speak ye olde English, while I am a girl most modern and fair.”

“Yeah, I understand. Still….” With a smile, Chiara reached for the book and handed it to Erin. “If this Barden guy wants a second date, why don’t you try reading the prose itself sometime this weekend? No matter what you do, don’t stress about the language. Oh, and for goodness sake, please don’t lie to Barden tonight. Admit that you didn’t know anything about Shakespeare until you met him.”

“What good will that do me?” Erin asked, still looking at the book as though it were somehow dangerous.

“You can stroke his ego a bit by telling him, quite honestly, that he inspired you to learn more about Shakespeare,” Chiara pointed out. “He’s much more likely to appreciate that you took the time to learn about something that interests him, than he is to appreciate a lie told just to impress him.”

“Why do you always know just how to handle things with people? You’re so damn reasonable.” Erin shoved the book into her bag and said, “And you’re still giving me homework, even though I’m a third degree student.”

Erin’s voice faded as dizziness swept over Chiara. She felt behind her for the stool and backed onto it.

“Well, I had better get ready for tonight.” Erin continued to chatter on blithely, her excitement at meeting a new guy having not faded at all in the light of day. “I’ll give you a call tomorrow and let you know how the date went.” With that, she left, taking her exuberance with her.

Chiara suddenly felt very isolated, and even though it wasn’t even dinnertime, the shop seemed darker than it should. She hunched over the counter, took a deep breath, and told herself, “She can’t come in here. She can’t hurt me. She can’t take me.”

For almost nine years, she had done her best to forget about that terrible night. She had tried so hard to flee from it completely, to start a new life. But every instinct tingling inside her told her the one, ominous phrase her nana had stated time and again when she’d felt them gathering nearby.

“Blood will out.”

Yes, it would and, normally, her nana had been able to protect Chiara. Now, though, every heart-wrenching aspect of that frightening experience she’d had on her sixteenth birthday seemed to be closing in on her.

And if they wanted Chiara, she knew they would never stop until they had her.



CHAPTER TWO



Chiara ran upstairs as quickly as she could, desperate for physical activity. There was one more opportunity to salvage this day – game night. Once she undressed and stepped into the shower, she found her equilibrium returning with the resumption of her usual routine. It didn’t take long to change into jeans and a fresh t-shirt, and grab her messenger bag to shove her Player’s Handbook, character sheet, and dice into it.

The beauty of roleplaying was that it took her to another world where she could pretend to be a completely different person without ever leaving the real world. She’d never felt quite like she belonged in this world, and the game allowed her to escape it, in a manner of speaking. And to escape it on her terms, not theirs.

It was a creative way to release stress. There was always laughter, which Chiara considered to be an essential part of a healthy life. She’d had so little in hers.

She glanced at the photograph of the gaming group on the corkboard on her bedroom wall. In it she was laughing at something someone had said, while Jordan, her best friend regarded the camera with a mix of amusement and exasperation.

Jordan with her short, dark wavy hair, and blue eyes full of mischief. She had a touch of the Otherworld about her, not that Chiara would ever point it out. Her friends thought she was weird enough without knowing the full truth.

Her heart quickened for a moment as she looked into those beautiful, blue eyes, and then she shook her head. “Never going to happen,” Chiara reminded herself. Not that it made looking at her best friend any easier or kept her from catching her breath every so often in Jordan’s presence.

She spun on her heel, hoisted the strap of her messenger bag over her shoulder, and strode out the door.

The evening was cool, but inviting. Despite the strangeness of the past twenty-four hours, she dawdled the entire way, taking slow steps so she could breathe in the smell of early spring. The sun lingered on the horizon, casting a warm, golden glow over the town. Chiara closed her eyes and breathed deeply, inhaling the heady scent of wet earth and new greenery. For a brief moment, she entertained romantic thoughts, like the idea of going out for a treat with a certain long-time female friend. It was the perfect night for a cone of vanilla ice cream with someone who laughed at the same things she did.

Someone like Jordan.

“Cut it out,” she muttered to herself. “She’s never going to be anything but a friend.”

When she reached Jordan’s small cottage, she walked up the brick path, did her best to check her mental baggage at the door, opened the front door, and walked right inside.

The group was already there, a mix of young men and women, sitting around the dining room table and laughing uproariously over some remark that Chiara was sure was related to something fairly juvenile. Maybe someone had farted. Anything was possible with her goofy friends. Hot pizza replaced the scent of the outdoors and her stomach grumbled.

Chiara walked into the dining room, said “Hello,” dropped her bag into a chair, and kept on walking to the kitchen to grab a can of soda.

“Hi, Josh,” she said to one of the guys standing at the refrigerator.

“Hey, Chiara.” He turned look at her, his gaze raking her from head to toe.

It wasn’t often that the guys looked at her like that. By now, most of them knew she had no interest in them. Of course, they still tried, like Russ had last night. Tried and failed.

As soon as Josh stepped out of her way, she angled herself away from him and smoothed her t-shirt over her slim waist. Pressing one hand to her stomach, she reached for a can of ginger ale with the other. She leaned back just enough to make sure Josh had gone back to the table, then exhaled.

That was the first time any of the guys in her gaming group had looked at her like that. It seemed she was two for two over the last day. She lifted her arm and sniffed surreptitiously at herself. What had changed? Was she giving off some kind of “Check me out” pheromones? And, if so, why weren’t the ladies having the same reaction? Maybe Jordan would give her the look she’d just got gotten from Josh. That would certainly improve her day. Maybe her entire life.

She rarely got to spend time with Jordan, though, since they’d grown up and graduated high school so many years ago. Ever since junior year of high school, hanging out alone with Jordan had meant Jordan showing off her drawings, and Chiara always voiced her admiration of her friend’s talent. But Jordan had certainly never looked at her in a frankly appraising way that meant she considered other possibilities for their relationship.

Chiara shut the refrigerator door and leaned against it, head cocked to one side as she watched everyone in the dining room. She must have gotten lost in her thoughts longer than she realized, because a familiar voice asked, “Are you going to join us or just take up permanent residence here?”

“Huh?” Chiara jerked back to awareness and blinked when she realized Jordan was standing in front of her, waving her hands only inches from her face.

“Hey girl, the game?”

“Right. Sorry.” Chiara pushed away from the refrigerator and tapped her fingernail against the top of the soda can. Looking away from Jordan’s perfect blue eyes kept her from drowning in their depths. “How are you?”

“Thirsty. Do you think you could move?” That was Jordan, blunt to a fault and just as likely as their male friends to make some sort of tasteless joke. But to Chiara, Jordan was beautiful.

“Oh, right.” Chiara furrowed her brow and stepped aside. When Jordan opened the refrigerator, Chiara tried to think of something to say, but it felt like a thick fog clouded her mind. Not just a fog, but something prevented her from sharing her feelings. She released a sigh, turned, and walked to the dining room to get settled into her place at the table.

When it came to Jordan, Chiara’s own feelings about her friend annoyed her. They seemed especially persistent today. She had to admit that while she didn’t want to be “one of the gang” for her entire life, the thought of being more than friends felt foreign to her.

I have everything – an amazing house, a business I love, lots of friends. What is wrong with me? When the hell am I going to give up the ghost of this hopeless crush? Even her own inner monologue annoyed her, and she just pressed her hands to her face, muttering, “Oh my gods.”

“Okay, is everyone ready to die?” Jordan asked as she took her place at the head of the table.

“I swear, if you farted again…” one of the players said.

“Well, when we last left our heroes, they were fighting a lich, so if you’d like him to cast Stinking Cloud, I can make it happen.”

Chiara laughed along with everyone else, even as she realized this was becoming a problem for her. Her crush on Jordan was as old as their friendship. She had to either admit her feelings to Jordan or stop spending so much time with her. Otherwise, she might girl up their gaming in a very embarrassing way.

And, really, there was no point in talking to Jordan about her feelings. Jordan had to know how Chiara felt. It was a topic they had danced around at least a few times in high school. And college. And after college.

“I would hate to ruin our friendship with sex,” Jordan said each time. “You’re more than a hot girl to me.”

Never once had Jordan said no outright to Chiara. Never once had she reacted with horror that Chiara had romantic feelings for her. It’d just been the same statement over and over again – a desire not to ruin their friendship. A statement that their relationship was more meaningful to Jordan than sex.

Chiara hated herself for wanting Jordan to say once, just once, “Hey, nice rack, Chiara.”

Between last night’s dream and now this, I am a hot mess, she told herself. What the hell happened in the last twenty-four hours that my emotions decided it was a good time to implode?

Despite Chiara’s wayward thoughts, she managed to focus on the game. Jordan was running an adventure that allowed for more variety than usual, and everyone was having fun with the custom races they had created. After several slices of pizza and many rolls of the dice, Chiara mostly managed to put her thoughts about Jordan in the background. There was no need, she decided, to let her friend’s blue eyes, tousled dark hair, or husky voice distract her.

I want to smack myself, Chiara thought, letting her head droop onto the table. I need to stop mooning over Jordan like a teenager. We’re twenty-five years old. This is ridiculous. Maybe I should leave town for a while. With all the weirdness going on, I might be better off taking a vacation.

The night felt interminable and by the time the group dispersed at eleven o'clock, Chiara couldn’t wait to go home. As she picked up her belongings, Jordan approached her. Chiara tried not to let her gaze follow the lines of her friend’s slim, almost boyish form.

“Did you walk here?” Jordan asked while Chiara gathered her dice and put them in their small pouch.

“Yeah. It was too nice outside not to. Besides, it would be a waste of gas to drive, even in the winter.” She finished packing her books and dice in her bag, and smiled up at Jordan. Jordan wasn’t much taller than her, maybe only five foot eight, so their gazes were almost level. “Well, I’ll see you next week. I’m having fun with this campaign. You’ve done some great stuff with it. I like playing a race I created myself.”

“Why don’t I walk you home?” This wasn’t an offer Jordan usually made, and Chiara dropped her gaze to the table.

Why don’t you not, because I might develop some serious word vomit if you do, she thought. “I don’t think so…” she finally answered.

“Why not? Is there something wrong with me walking with you?” Jordan pressed her thumb against an indent in the table and continued. “Chiara, have you noticed that we don’t hang out as much as we used to?”

Her head snapped up and she answered, “I come here every week. All of us hang out together, just like we did in high school. Nothing’s changed.” She winced at how strident her voice sounded, but she gave a shrug and smiled. “It’s not like I dropped off the face of the earth.”

“Yeah, I know we hang out every Friday, but you don’t talk to me as much online, and you don’t come by the comic book store anymore.” Jordan dug her hands into the pockets of her jeans and looked at her, those blues eyes unblinking. “I mean, I’ve worked there since we were kids and you used to stop in every Wednesday afternoon to see the new shipments and talk to me.”

“I’ve been busy with…” She searched her mind for an excuse and found nothing plausible.

“Come on. I want to talk to you.” Jordan grabbed her by the arm and propelled her out the front door. As they set their feet on the sidewalk, Chiara felt that sense of misleading hope that always seemed to pervade her heart, mind, and soul when they were together without their other friends. There was a false sense of anticipation that maybe, just maybe, Jordan wanted to be alone with her because she would declare her feelings for Chiara, hug her, kiss her… Somehow fulfill the hope that Jordan would finally do something that said that she wanted them to be more than just friends.

The eternal dilemma of anyone with a friend they like as more than a friend, especially when they’re the same gender, Chiara thought, rolling her eyes to the night sky. Why me?

“You seemed distracted during the game tonight. Is everything okay with you?” Jordan asked.

“Wonderful,” Chiara responded too quickly.

“You call spending half the night with your head against the table ‘wonderful’?” Her friend’s voice was full of disbelief. “What about last week?”

“What happened last week?” She looked at Jordan, even though she realized her friend probably couldn’t see her quizzical expression since the streetlight was at their backs.

“You spilled a can of soda all over the floor. You’re not usually clumsy.”

Chiara wracked her mind for a believable response. “I was having my period.”

“Okay, well, I guess I can relate to that,” Jordan answered and took a step away from her.

“I’m not in a bad mood or anything, though.” Chiara bowed her head. Fiddling with the strap of her bag, she said, “Um, but you do know there are things that we can’t always control, like, we can’t control when or how or with whom we fall in love.”

“Sure.” Jordan nodded.

Chiara took a deep breath and added, “With people like our best friends, even though we know we shouldn’t love them, and that those kinds of feelings are more likely to mess up the friendship than move it along. But we do it anyway. Sometimes we feel that way for a long time and don’t admit it fully, just so we don’t screw things up. And sometimes we say it anyhow, because we can’t seem to filter a damn thing that comes out of our mouths.”

She realized they had stopped walking and were standing in front of her house, Jordan looking at her with a frown.

Oh no she thought. Here it comes.

“Chiara…”

She felt tears pricking at the corners of her eyes. Blinking faster didn’t alleviate the sensation. The rejection was coming at her like a freight train and, as always, she was powerless to stop it. She heard it in Jordan’s voice, that tone of regret that came with the realization that someone was about to get hurt, mixed with certainty that Chiara was not what Jordan wanted.

I should have never said anything. It would be fine just to stay friends. That’s all I needed, but now I’ve gone and screwed it up.

“I think we are great friends and I know we flirt sometimes. I love the banter. But let me put this as clearly as possible. We’re better off as friends.” Jordan was trying to be nice – Chiara could hear it in her voice – and Jordan even reached out to take her hand, but she pulled away far more forcefully than she had intended.

This was too much like that first time she developed a crush during summer camp in her freshman year of high school. That girl had attempted to be just as nice, but no amount of kindness could soothe the sting of rejection.

“That doesn’t tell me how you feel, though,” Chiara pointed out. Why she pushed the matter, she didn’t know. Maybe to find a way to get some closure on it.

Jordan’s lips pressed together and her eyes narrowed. “We just need to stay friends. Can’t that be enough of an explanation? I can’t say more than that and I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

Chiara tightened her jaw, trying to hold back the tears in her voice and aware that she was failing. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting anything. We were alone together and I couldn’t help it.”

“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I want to, but...” Once again, Jordan dug her hands into her pockets. It was a gesture with which Chiara was very familiar. Sometimes it seemed to be the only way Jordan knew how to respond to an awkward situation.

“I know, I know.” She felt heat rush up from her stomach to her chest and sit there in a heavy ball. “You don’t want to tell me I’m not your type, is that it? What do you like, hmm? The leggy brunettes in goth clothes and stiletto shoes or dumb blondes? Or just anyone except the football-watching girl-pal who rolls twenty-sided dice, and cosplays at anime and comic-cons. Not the girl who shares all of your interests and tastes in books, music, and movies. Not the girl who can laugh at the same things as you, because she genuinely appreciates the same humor. You can tell me it’s just a matter of looks and all. I get that and I know I’m not a model. I’m not a tall, powerful Amazon woman. I’m just me, the boring girl next door.”

Chiara knew she was babbling, but she hardly cared. She reached up to dash the tears out of her eyes with her fingertips as she rambled on, powerless to stop.

“I definitely understand. You probably have a standard that I don’t meet. Every girl I’ve ever had a crush on seems to have that issue. And I know you’ll tell me that I’m intelligent and you have never sexualized me – you don’t see me like that. You respect me for my mind and my personality. I really do appreciate that.”

She backed up the walkway, fumbling for the house key in her bag.

“It’s all good, Jordan. We’ve known each other for a long time. Sure, I haven’t dated anyone, because it’s not often that I’m interested in people. But I probably should just try finding someone else, huh? Like, maybe go to a gay club and stop being so isolated here. It would be more productive than wanting something I can’t have.” She turned and inserted the key, then turned it in the lock. “Good night. I’ll see you next week, and I’ll be my nice, boring, normal self by then.”

Before Jordan could respond, Chiara rushed into the house, shut, and locked the door behind her, and then stomped upstairs to her room. Ignoring the insistent knocks at the door, she tossed her bag to the floor, flung herself on the bed and buried her face in her arms. Real mature, high priestess, she berated herself.

****

The dreams brought her to that night, when she had realized that what she was dealing with was far beyond her knowledge and abilities. The strange girl was stronger than her, and her only choice was to defend herself. The only way to do that was to use her athame. It was not meant for cutting something, and certainly not intended for causing harm to another person, but the  girl wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

So Chiara reached for the only iron she had, a gift from her nana. Now she knew why her nana insisted she take the iron blade.

You need to come with me. You don’t belong in this place,” the girl said, still trying to convince her. “I need you. We all need you. Your mother came home. Why won’t you?”

I don’t want to leave.” Chiara struggled as the girl tried to pull her along. There was a spark of energy just a few feet in front of them and she watched it expand. That was it – the portal. Once the girl pulled her through, there would be no return.

Just as there had been no return for Chiara’s mother.

Don’t think of it as an end,” the girl said. “It’s a beginning for both of us.”

It was no use fighting her. The girl’s magick was far stronger than any Chiara possessed. As much as Chiara hated to use a weapon, she did the only thing she could do – she slid the blade between them, pressing it into the creature’s flesh.

The girl’s breathing hitched. Then she coughed and let go of Chiara. Her sputtered “What have you done to me?” nearly broke Chiara’s heart.

But Chiara backed away and lifted her chin. “You won’t take me,” she declared.

Iron,” the girl choked, reaching for her. “Why would you do that to one of your own?” Her fierce gaze changed, sadness filling her silvery eyes. “I was going to give you everything, Chiara,” she whispered as she faded from view. “Everything…”

The moment she disappeared from sight, Chiara did the only thing she could do.

She fled.



CHAPTER THREE



She sat upright in bed, squinting in the shaft of sunlight that filtered through the curtains. This was the second night in a row she had dreamed about the horrific events of that night all those years ago.

Even though she had been trying to ignore the dreams, Chiara reached for the journal that she kept on the bedside table and wrote down the details. It usually didn’t take long for her to identify clairvoyant dreams. Even though these were dreams of the past, they raised red flags for her. They felt far too real and she wasn’t sure if she was simply remembering things all too vividly, or if they were a warning of some sort.

Of course they’re a warning. Just like people suddenly noticing me. I’m… changing and I can’t stop it this time.

She reminded herself once again that it had been almost nine years to the day. The circle had turned and that meant the time had come to complete it. A shudder wracked her body as she realized something beyond her control was stirring both within her and in the human world.

Could she possibly come back here? Chiara asked herself, her hand pausing and pressing the pen against the pages of her journal as she gripped it. Swallowing her fear, she completed her journaling and threw back the covers. She wouldn’t allow this dread to keep her from living her life. Or what was left of it, while the days, hours, minutes – however long she had remaining in this world – ticked away.

Between customers, Chiara was alone with her jumble of thoughts. The dreams of the past two nights weighed on her mind, pushed aside at times with reminders of her embarrassment from the previous night. It wasn’t a good combination. She felt like a complete fool every time she thought about her conversation with Jordan. The impulse to play the events of the evening over and over again in her head, to berate herself about what she had done wrong, overwhelmed her almost as much as the realization that she probably wouldn’t be around long enough for it to matter.

I did everything wrong, but I won’t have time to get over it at this rate.

When the shop phone rang at lunchtime, Chiara glanced at the caller ID only to see that it was Jordan. She ignored it. She wasn’t ready to deal with her own feelings, let alone deal with her friend just yet.

She closed shop at two o'clock as usual for a Saturday. This was her day for visiting the library, and she hoped she might find a distraction there. With her messenger bag slung over her shoulder, filled with books to return, she locked the door and turned down the path. I could use some laughs, she thought with a sigh. Maybe I’ll check out a movie for a change.

As she walked down the sidewalk, she felt that cold, prickly feeling between her shoulders once more. Her steps faltered and she glanced around, surprised to see that nobody else was out walking, and confirming that nobody was behind her. With a slow look around the area, she kept moving in the direction of the public library.

As soon as she returned the books and checked out a small pile of DVDs, Chiara stepped outdoors again and scanned the street. The icy feeling had not subsided, and now it came back stronger than before, causing a shudder to ripple through her. The fine hairs on the backs of her arms stood on end, even though she tried to shrug off the sensation. As she stared at the familiar surroundings, she saw Jordan’s teal blue car pass her, heading toward downtown.

Chiara shook her head, turned on her heel, and strode in the opposite direction. She was not willing to chance a meeting with Jordan. The last thing she needed was to run into her when last night’s humiliation was so fresh in both their minds, not to mention the dreams wreaking havoc on her emotional state.

Once she was back at the house, she resolved to put everything that had been bothering her behind her for the rest of the weekend. Both the disturbing dreams and the mortifying Friday night were keeping her from functioning like a normal person.

Chiara dumped the pile of DVDs on the sofa in the family room, then curled up on the cushions and sorted through the movies. Maybe it’s a side effect of stress. I’m not going to work at all for the rest of the weekend. Everything will be better on Monday. Even if my time in this world is ticking away from me.

****

The quiet weekend of watching comedies led to a blissfully uneventful week, during which she immersed herself in work and teaching. By Friday, the universe – both the human and inhuman aspects of it – seemed to have gotten the memo to back off, but…

Chiara glanced up from her calculator to glare at the calendar. It was another Friday night. The last one seemed so long ago and yet far too clear in her mind. She had to admit to herself that she dreaded the inevitability of facing Jordan tonight.

“Why do you look so worried?” Erin asked as she shelved books. “You’ve been quiet all week, and I gave you the space you needed to do your work. But today you look downright nauseated.”

“I... told Jordan,” Chiara groaned as she let her head smack against the counter.

“Told Jordan what?”

“That I have a crush on her,” she mumbled against the glass.

Erin stopped what she was doing, the latest popular Wicca 101 book dangling from her fingers. “You didn’t.”

“I did.” Chiara straightened and rubbed at her forehead.

“Oh, wow.” She put the book in its proper place and hurried to pull a stool up to the front counter, facing Chiara. “Why didn’t you tell me about it this week? What did she say when you told her?”

“Um, let me take these questions one at a time. I was too angry at myself to really say anything to anybody, even you. I did it last Friday night. She offered to walk me home and…” Chiara shrugged as she shook her head, exhaling through pursed lips. “I couldn’t help it. It was a beautiful night and we were alone together in the dark. Part of me hoped she would say that was just the moment she was waiting for, like maybe she would realize she felt the same, and then grab me and kiss me.”

“How very Some Kind of Wonderful of you,” Erin teased without a trace of humor in her voice.

Chiara sighed and said, “And then the logical, intelligent, not-insane part of me told me that I was just setting myself up for a huge letdown. But I just blathered on anyhow, telling her how I’ve been in love with her for a few years now.”

Erin canted her head to one side at her friend’s words. “Well, since you pretty much always listen to that not-insane part of you, I don’t think it’s so bad that you gave in to the emotional side for once. You’re only human.”

Chiara wanted to let out a laugh at the last statement, but she managed to hold it back. “Sure, and she rejected me for certain, but I can’t stop thinking about her!” Chiara cried, letting the calculator clatter to the counter. “I want her so much, I’m not sure I can be in the same room as her. I thought saying something last week and getting rejected would actually help me start to get over Jordan. I knew that I couldn’t have her, and I thought that if she confirmed it, my feelings would start to change.”

“Well, sweetie, it takes more than a week to get over somebody.” It was one of those rare moments of clarity that the usually mischievous Erin had and Chiara nodded.

“Yes, and I know that. It also takes more than a week to stop feeling like such a complete fool.” Chiara picked up the calculator and shoved it in a drawer, which she slammed shut. “Do I avoid gaming tonight and leave more questions than answers, or just get back on the horse?”

“Go to Jordan’s tonight. Face your emotions now and get it over with,” Erin advised. “Otherwise, you’ll wallow in the whole thing and draw it out longer than necessary. The not-insane part of you already knows that.”

“Yes, it does.” Chiara bent her head to the counter once more. “But the humiliated part of me says that it would be easier to just stay home and pretend Jordan doesn’t exist, especially after ignoring her calls and texts this week.”

“It would be easier,” Erin agreed. “And the following week, it would be easier to stay home, rather than face first the question of whether or not you’re doing okay after admitting that you’re in love with her and the question of why you’re avoiding her. And every week you hide out will just make it more difficult for you to face Jordan, and for your friendship to continue as normal. You’re always the mature one, Chiara. Remember that and act like it.”

“I know, I know.” Chiara could not seem to stop herself from groaning every time she spoke.

“Besides, it’s not like she went out on one date with you and never called you again, unlike Barden.” Erin walked back to the bookshelf.

“What?” Chiara responded incredulously, lifting her gaze to her friend. “After all that stressing out over whether or not you were intelligent enough for him?”

“That’s right. I thought we had a great time together, and then he never called me. Can you believe it?” Erin shrugged and finished shelving the books. “I should have known he was too good to be true. He was everything I ever wanted in a man. It almost felt like someone had created him just for me. But that’s life, and life goes on, regardless of whether or not the man or woman of our dreams is a part of it. Understand?”

Chiara tried not to get caught up in Erin’s statement about someone being created just for her. The words were just a coincidence. They had to be. Instead, she nodded and said, “Yes, you’re right. Well, I’m going to get ready to go now.”

Erin’s smile brightened. “Good. Try to have fun and just focus on the game, and everything will be fine.”

“I’ll try.” Chiara rose from behind the counter to give one of her rare hugs to Erin. “Thank you for being right,” she said as she flashed her first real smile in a week.

“No problem. I don’t mind being right every so often, but only for my best friends.” Erin went back to the bookshelves to finish her task, while Chiara ran upstairs to freshen up for the evening.

After a shower, Chiara went to the closet to pull out a fresh outfit. She didn’t want to do anything that was too far a departure from her usual jeans and t-shirts, but she felt like she needed something more. Like a long, comfortable cardigan she could burrow inside when things got awkward. She knew it was a bit over the top, but the sweater felt like emotional armor.

“That is how you get back on the horse,” she told her reflection in the mirror as she ran her brush through her smooth blonde hair one last time. “Just move on like nothing ever happened.”

With a toss of her head and a half-smile, she grabbed her messenger bag and walked downstairs. Erin had already finished her work of tidying the shop and departed for the weekend. Chiara double-checked that the shop and the house were clean, and then headed out the front door.

As she walked down the street, she felt the sinister chill blossom between her shoulders, then scuttle down her spine. After a week of magickal silence, it made her shiver and backtrack.

“Oh no, no, no,” she whispered, spinning on her heel to look around the area. “This can’t happen tonight!”

Chiara’s senses told her she was getting more than the random supernatural ogle. Her skin tingled with a sense of remembered, and all-too-familiar, danger. Her apprehension about seeing Jordan again felt miniscule in comparison to the fear now radiating through her.


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