Chapter Twenty-Four

There was no way they could avoid an awkward moment. After a long uncomfortable period of silence, Tristan turned to restack the cardboard boxes they'd left strewn all over the place. He slammed the side of his fist against the edge of one, trying to bang it back into shape. "Adel, can you see if I broke something in that box labeled 'wineglasses' over there?"

Without a word, she crossed the room to his side and picked up one of the boxes they'd knocked down. It jangled and she winced. "Um, I'm pretty sure whatever's inside, it's dead."

Tristan took a look and grimaced when he realized that it was labeled "China Plates". Quickly, he took it from Adel's hands and set it back in the pile, stacking another box on top of it. "If Rosie asks, we'll tell her we couldn't find any plates."

Adel rubbed the back of her neck, skeptical. "I'm pretty sure she'll know."

His expression didn't change, but the look in his eyes was distinctly roguish. "If she doesn't call us on it, we were never here."

Adel slipped him a sideways look. "So we wipe our memory clear of all that's happened here then?"

Tristan headed to the other side of the room, taking a moment to linger just inches behind her. She didn't turn around, but feeling him behind her made her stomach flip flop. His hand settled gently on the top of her head, ruffling her messy hair that had slipped out of her ponytail during their tussle. "Not quite everything," he murmured in her ear before he breezed past her to pick up another discarded box.

Adel stiffened, but she couldn't quite keep the pleasant shivers that ran up and down her spine. A stupid grin flitted across her lips and she had to resist the urge to slap herself before she turned into another one of Tristan's sighing admirers.

The door opened and the maid Adel had bumped into before popped her head into view at the steps. To the girl's credit, her stiff, polite expression barely registered a reaction to the sudden disarray in the attic and the mussed up appearances of the two occupants. "You have a phone call, Miss Adeline." The girl held out a black cordless phone.

Instantly, Adel's good mood vanished and a leaden weight settled in the pit of her stomach. She had a pretty good idea who it was and it reminded her again that life was no fairy tale and a kiss didn't solve all problems, didn't automatically mean happily ever after.

She could only stare at the maid and after a moment, Tristan crossed the room to accept the phone for her. "Thank you, Hannah," he said, watching the girl nod and stammer before leaving the attic.

He turned to Adel and watched her with darkened eyes. She lifted her wide eyes to his face and his expression went taut, turning grave. "Take it," he said softly, holding out the phone.

Mutedly, she crossed the room and as her fingers enclosed around the receiver, he didn't let go at once. His hand curled around hers, tightening briefly around her hand, and he waited until she looked up at him. "Don't worry," he commanded roughly.

She stared back at him unblinkingly and his hand remained wrapped around hers until a faint, wry smile touched the corners of her lips. "Easy for you to say," she retorted without any bite, turning away from him as she pulled her hand free from his and lifted the phone to her ear. She clicked the talk button. "Hello?"

"So you are there." Even though she'd been expecting it, she couldn't stop herself from flinching at her father's harsh tone. The disapproval in his voice sounded so absolute, she wanted to immediately apologize and beg for forgiveness.

Instead, she murmured, "I had no place to go and Tristan offered to put me up for the night –"

"Really?" Her father said sardonically. "Because from what I heard, you abandoned Calhoun and ran off with Tristan during the party."

She went cold, fingers frigid around the phone. "That – that's not true –"

"Did you or did you not run off with Tristan during the party?" he barked.

The back of her neck flushed hot as anger started to sweep over her even though she still felt so very cold within the core of her body. "Did Calhoun tell you this? He -"

"Did you?" His voice rose and this time, she knew her father was furious.

Her teeth gritted and with a sigh, she assented, "Yes. But it wasn't like that – he ran off with another girl and left me without a word –"

"Why would he bother to look for you when you're with another guy, Adeline? Why shouldn't he leave with another girl?" her father snapped. "Not all men are idiots. Not everyone is like -" He cut himself off.

"Father –" she started desperately.

"How could you be so much like your mother, Adeline?" His tone was quiet, but his words cut her deeper than anything he had ever said.

"Dad," she let out a gasp, but tears blurred her eyes and she couldn't continue. "Dad, please –" Her breaths were harsh and shallow and she choked.

"If this is what you really want, you can stay at the Harlands as long as you want." His tone sounded so finite, panic overwhelmed her and she scrambled for words.

"I'll go home. I'll go home as soon as possible – just don't – don't -" Tears clung to her lashes and as she blinked, they fell down her cheeks, unchecked.

Alarmed, Tristan immediately stepped close and pulled the phone from her hand. "Mr. Bradbury, this is Tristan Harland. I –" He stopped, jaw clenched, and he brought the phone away from his ear. Curtly, he said, "He hung up."

But Adel had already stumbled for the stairs and in a flash, she bolted down the steps, out of the attic. She didn't know where she was running to, but she knew that she was having difficulty breathing in the attic. Her heartbeat raced as Tristan cried after her, but she couldn't stop. Her steps quickened, bare feet slapping against the cold marble ground of the hallway. She had to get out of there.

She heard footsteps pounding behind her and in the back of her mind, she registered that Tristan must be chasing after her, but she'd always been faster than him. She could always outrun him. No longer knowing where she was or where she was running to, she turned right and headed down a random corridor that looked like the path to her room.

All the doors looked the same to her and as her breath caught in her throat, she yanked blindly at the doorknob to a door that looked somewhat familiar and ran in, pulling it close behind her.

Everything went dark and she barely took three steps in before she bumped her shin against something. Realizing that it wasn't her room, she dissolved into tears, backing up until she could feel the door against her back.

In the dark, her head dropped forward as tears dropped one after another. She didn't know how long she stood there, but she let everything go, letting the shadows wash over her. It seemed like a long while before she regained control over her breathing. She just stood there in silence, eyes swollen and mouth dry.

A light, shuffling sound came from outside the door and she turned her head. Her head felt hazy and she mumbled thickly, "Tristan?"

Tristan released a sigh, shifting his position against the door. He pressed a hand against the wooden frame and asked, "You okay?"

Adel's voice was low and subdued and if there had been any doubts that the girl had been crying, they all disappeared now. Still sniffling slightly, she didn't answer directly, "Have you been standing out there all this time?"

"Kinda," he admitted.

There was another pause before she said, "Why?"

"Because I'm pretty sure Will has a built in sensor to track the two of us down whenever we don't want to be found."

"Oh," was all she said, but he imagined her smile.

"I'm going to open the door." Now that he'd given her ample time to recollect herself, Tristan suddenly wanted to see her face to ascertain for himself that she was alright.

She didn't make a sound and unhurriedly, he drew open the door. Her eyes crinkled in the sudden light and she blinked owlishly at him, licking her dry lips. She looked pale with red-rimmed eyes and hair all over her face.

Pained at the sight of her looking so serious and distraught, he cocked his head, seeking a lighter mood as he commented, "Did you just … run into a closet?"

She swept a surreptitious glance around her, taking note of the vacuum cleaners, the brooms, and the three shelves of linen. Mortified, she managed a glare anyway. "I'm standing in a closet, aren't I?"

"Hmm." He walked in, backing her up, and closed the door behind him.

Shrouded in shadows, Adel's heart thudded wildly. Darkness once again surrounded her and she couldn't see more than a hand's length away. But he was so close to her, she could catch his distinct smell, a blend of soap and spicy cologne that reminded her of a late autumn day.

"What are you doing?" she stammered.

"I'm standing in a closet, aren't I?" He mimicked her tone from before.

She made a face and waved a hand, accidentally swatting him. "This is my closet. Go find your own."

"Well, this is my house so technically, all closets here belong to me," he challenged.

"Fine. Be stingy." She didn't make a move to leave though and when he reached out, fingers grazing along her arms, she went to him willingly.

She couldn't stop the tears from spilling over again and with a sigh, he stepped closer to her, his arms wrapping tight around her and she leaned against him, pressing her cheek against his shoulder. A breath hiccupped out of her and she pressed her lips together, stifling her sobs.

"For a minute there, I thought you were going to run away," he murmured into her hair.

"For a minute there, I was," she mumbled. "Then I got lost."

"So if you managed to find the door, you'd run down the street in Carrie's pajamas without shoes?"

"Well, I was planning to find my room first to get my stuff. I'm not completely crazy."

He was quiet. "And you were really going to go back to China? Just like that?"

She had no answer for him, but in her heart, she knew what she wanted to do.

His voice was urgent. "Don't leave. Just – just give it some time. It'll be okay." He held her so tightly, she thought she could feel the steady rhythm of his heart. "Your father has to come to reason again. If you leave now and go back to him, you'll just be indulging his obsession. He'll never be able to get over your mother, don't you see?" When she didn't respond, his voice of reason turned hesitant, apprehensive. "And if - if you leave now, I don't believe you'd ever return." The darkness closed around them as he murmured, "I might never see you again." He pressed the side of his face against her hair and his thumbs drew circles along the back of her neck soothingly. "Don't go. At least not now. Give me this holiday break and then we'll face your father together. Just don't leave."

She gave in, settling against him, slipping her arms around his waist. "I won't." She hugged him tighter, holding onto him. It seemed like he was her only source of security these days, his warmth comforting her more than she could ever imagine. "I probably have nowhere to go now anyway. My father's most likely written me out of his will by now."

"It's okay." His words were low and teasing, full of relief. "I'll hire you on. You can join my harem of maids."

She tried to pull away from him and he grabbed hold of her arms, holding her to him as he chuckled, "Kidding. Kidding. You probably can't clean for your life anyway."

"I'm really good at household chores! I can vacuum like no other," she protested grumpily.

"Too bad I just need a girlfriend and not a housekeeper then," he quipped.

That startled her so much, she fell silent for lack of words. Her pulse raced and she pressed against him, going completely limp as if she could somehow drape herself over him and let him support her totally, absorb her into him so that maybe she could gain a bit of his strength, his constancy, his resourcefulness. Tristan always knew what to do. He wouldn't ever be a disappointment to his parents. Without a word, his embrace constricted, hands coming up to rub her back, sliding over her shoulder blades.

"It'll be okay." His words were quiet, but so certain.

"What if he really doesn't want to see me again?" She said slowly, the sickening feeling in her stomach returning.

"He's your father," he said simply. "Everything will work out." His arms tightened around her. "We'll find a way to make him understand."

She clung to him and for once, she didn't hate herself for appearing so weak. He'd already seen her cry, heard her beg her father like she was some lost little girl. He'd seen her at her worst, through and through, and she suddenly realized that she no longer cared as much about putting up a front for him. She wanted him to see her as she is.

She can trust him.

Then he murmured, "Ever play Seven Minutes in Heaven?"

"What?" Thrown off slightly, she furrowed her brows. It did sound a tad familiar, but it was still too dark for her to properly see his expression so she could get some hint. "Um. Oh. Wait. Yes, I heard of this. Kids strangling themselves until they black out."


"Supposedly, they get high off of that feeling when they lose consciousness," she explained matter-of-factly, glad that she knew quite a lot about American culture. Yes, she distinctly remembered her uncle mentioning about this game before too – although in what circumstances again? "It was on this news special I saw," she said triumphantly.

There was a long pause. "No, not quite."

She faltered. His tone had been light and at the same time, controlled, as if he was trying hard to suppress a laugh. Embarrassed, she cleared her throat. "Really? Are you sure? I mean, I remember distinctly –"

"I'm sure," he cut her off firmly.

"Well. What do they call the blacking out game then?"

An exasperated sigh escaped him. "I don't know, Stupid Kids Too Bored For Their Own Good maybe?"

"Are you sure that's not Seven Minutes in Heaven?" she pressed on. "I'm certain that's what –"

"Listen, if someone strangles himself for seven minutes, I'm pretty sure that's not called heavenly," he remarked.

"No no, they just get high off of that feeling of blacking out - so maybe they don't strangle each other for seven minutes, but they black out for seven minutes and then they wake up. What else could be Seven Minutes in –"

His mouth covered hers and she shut up immediately. As his arms tightened around her, she reached up in turn to thread her arms around his neck. He twisted her around until she was pushed up against the door and his hands slipped around her, fingers grazing the bare skin of her back that was exposed by Carrie's small shirt. Her fingers caressed the back of his neck, petting the soft, short hair just next to his ear, as he sucked on her bottom lip. Her whole body quaked.

Gently, he broke away, voice ragged and hoarse. "That's Seven Minutes in Heaven."

Still shaken, she blurted out without thinking, "Wasn't seven minutes." Almost immediately, her cheeks kicked up the flush factor and thankfully, it was still too dark for her to see the expression on his face as well.

But she could imagine when he responded with what sounded like a mixture of strangled laughter and a low growl and she was lifted clear off her feet, shoved back against the door. He arched his head and she dipped her face, lips meeting his. Her fingers carded through his hair, grabbing tufts of it when he tightened his grip on her and kissed her so hard, her lips felt bruised.

The door flung open and they stumbled. She would have topple backward had Tristan not have such a firm hold on her. Tristan cursed. "Damn it, what do we have to do to get some privacy here?"

Mortified, Hannah squeaked from behind Adel, "I'm sorry!"

The door slammed close. With their breaths still heaving, Tristan loosened his arms and Adel slipped back down to her feet, sliding against his body. He shivered. They stood in silence, Adel's hands still on his shoulders. She didn't have to see Tristan's face to know that he was wincing. He grumbled, "I thought it was Will again."

"Sure, you did." A laugh bubbled out of her.

The door opened and a victorious laugh rifted the air.

"Ah, there you are," Tristan remarked dryly. "You're kinda slow today."

"Yeah, I saw Hannah sprinting for the other side of the house so I figured it was either because you molested her or she caught you molesting someone else …" Will waggled his brows at them, eyes darting back and forth between them, and then he whipped his face away, covering his lips with his fingers as he let out a somehow cheekily bashful giggle.

Tristan looked distinctly green even with the wan orange light slipping through the doorway. He sighed. "Seriously though, what can we do for privacy?"

Caine peered over the shoulder of the triumphant Will. "Find a closet with a lock?"

Will shoved Caine in and followed in, squeezing in tight. "So what are we playing?"

Tristan didn't answer him, letting out another hopeless sigh. "When are you going back to Vincent's place?"

In the end, they decided to go over to the Grenfords later that evening after dinner. Caine had suggested that Adel should borrow some clothes from Danielle since the other girl was about her height.

"So what I'm wondering is if Adel is the one who needs clothes from Danielle, why do you feel the need to tag along?" Will gave Caine a pointed look as they stood on the front porch of the grand mansion, waiting for the butler to open the door.

Caine coughed and drew his shoulders up, pulling the collars of his grey wool jacket. He adjusted the dark aviators he was sporting. "Why are you going then?"

"Because Danielle isn't going to kick my ass."

"Whatever," Caine spat out, stuffing his hands into his pockets as he kicked at a pebble.

Tristan didn't pay them any attention, tugging Adel along as they filed through the open door. Adel had worn her jacket from last night, but she had to borrow a large white button down shirt from Tristan and a pair of his drawstring sweatpants. Though she was as tall as he was, his clothes hung loose over her thinner frame and she felt dwarfed by his long sleeves. The Grenfords' butler, Sterns, merely nodded at them. "Master Vincent is in the basement recreation room."

"And Danielle?" Tristan prompted.

"Here." A tall girl with a dark, sleek graduated bob that framed her face just to her chin came sauntering down the steps. Dressed in a crimson turtleneck and a black pencil skirt with a beaded ornamental necklace and a pair of knee-high suede boots, she looked simplistically stylish. Adel couldn't make a connection between this girl and her vision of the WWF wrestler who had decked Caine last night.

Then Danielle caught sight of Caine and the expression on her face turned black. For a moment, Adel was half afraid the girl was going to launch herself at the boy.

But Vincent's older sister merely ignored him, turning to give Tristan a peck on the cheek. "Hey, haven't seen you in a while. The only glimpse I caught of you last night was while you were chasing this girl down."

At this, her grey eyes settled on Adel, scanning her up and down. Adel offered a tentative smile.

"Sorry, Dani. This is Adel." Tristan touched Adel's elbow. "Adel, this is Danielle, Vincent's sister."

Danielle crossed her arms and then smiled broadly. Holding up a hand, she greeted Adel. "Hi, it's finally nice to meet you."

Adel scrunched up her forehead. "Um –"

"I've heard story after story about you from these guys –" She faltered when her eyes fell on Caine again and then her attention breezed past him, settling on Will. He beamed while Caine grew steadily grimmer. "It's about time Tristan took you over here."

Tristan looked uncomfortable and he switched topics. "Dani, I have a favor to ask of you. I'm going to take Adel shopping soon –"

Adel interrupted, "You don't have to. I can get my stuff from Calhoun's place. I need to track him down and take his life anyway for tattling on me."

Tristan continued as if he hadn't heard her, "But for now, she needs some clothes."

"I really can just –"

"I know. And you don't have to see him again. I'll send people over there to take care of it." His voice was so dark and ominous, she stared at him, but his features didn't give anything away. He noticed her scrutiny though and a gentle smile curved his lips. She didn't buy it. "Don't worry. They'll get all your stuff for you."

She still watched him suspiciously, but … eh. Whatever. Not her problem.

Danielle clapped her hands together and their attention flitted back to the girl. "No problem. I can have someone show you to my wardrobe and you can pick out anything you want."

"Why don't you show her yourself?" Caine piped in then.

Danielle's eyes were ice chips, but her tone was ever so sweet. "Because, unfortunately, I have a date right now. Sorry."

Caine sneered. "What? The guy from last night? He didn't run back home to his mommy yet?"

"Nope. But I'd thought you'd be back home now too, crying in the arms of some bimbo about your black eye," Danielle said airily.

"Oh, how can I when the only bimbo I want in my bed is you?" Caine sniped back.

Danielle's hands balled up into fists even though her smile was unruffled, serene even. "You really want another black eye, don't you?"

"Well, you know how I always like things in pairs." He pulled off his sunglasses and his eyes dropped down to the girl's chest pointedly.

Will leaped between them before Danielle could unsheathe her claws. "Stop! Stop! Blood stains!"

Danielle snorted, flicking her wrist. "As if I could care less about what the idiot says. If you'd all excuse me, I have a date to go on." She glanced at Adel. "It was very nice to meet you. Sammy's here somewhere and you can ask her to show you my closet. Let's talk again soon."

She took her coat from Sterns and shrugged it on before heading for the door, head held up high and hips swaying, as Caine watched her. He snarled after her, "Have fun!"

"I will!" She called back pleasantly, flapping a hand back at them before ducking out the door.

"Yah, you're an idiot," Will remarked.

Caine sulked, shoving his aviators back on. "Shut up."

Tristan raised an eyebrow. "It was never this … violent between you two before. What got into you?"

Caine looked away, grumbling, "It's nothing. Never mind."

"Probably because Danielle was never this serious about a guy before," Will suggested.

Caine snapped, "I said it's nothing! Can we stop talking about her now and focus on what we're here for?"

"What? Clothes?" Will said.

Sammy walked in then from the door opposite the foyer entrance and her green eyes widened before she let out a sharp squeal. "Adel!" She hurried over to them and threw her arms around Adel, babbling, "Oh my god, you're here. You're back!"

Adel laughed, but she felt touched by the girl's response. While they had been friends, she'd always thought that she was still on the perimeters, looking in on Sammy's close-knit circle. She hadn't thought she'd be missed.

Sammy pulled back and beamed at her. "You were so pretty yesterday, but I nearly choked when Calhoun asked you to marry him. For a minute there, I was worried that you'd leave again and Tristan will –"

"Sammy," Tristan cut her off gently.

The redhead gave him a sheepish smile and turned back to Adel. "You're here to stay, aren't you? You're coming back to school with us, right?"

"I –"

Tristan unbuttoned his peacoat and handed it to Sterns. "Sammy, do you mind showing Danielle's closet to Adel? Dani just went out and she said that you could help Adel out. She needs to borrow some clothes."

"Oh, sure –"

"What's going on?" Vincent ambled in, stifling a yawn. He stopped short when he caught sight of Adel. Casting his eyes at Tristan, he said, "You kidnapped her?"

"Something like that," Tristan responded without missing a beat.

Vincent arched a brow, scratching his jaw. "Need the cops?" he asked Adel.

"No thanks," she answered with a faint smile and the boy shrugged, crossing the room to sling his arm around Sammy's shoulders. He glanced between Tristan and Adel. "Not fighting anymore?"

Tristan's eyes slanted over to Adel and she looked down, playing with her sleeve, pulling it over her knuckles. "We made progress."

"They mauled each other in the attic!" Will crowed. "AND the closet! I know because I totally caught them going at it. It made my heart go aflutter!"

Tristan focused a leveling glare at Will while Adel, with her eyes averted in embarrassment, cracked her knuckles menacingly.

"What? What did I do?" Will exclaimed. "It was seriously all boomshackalacka. If you saw yourselves, your hearts be apounding too. No joke."

Caine scowled, yanking off his jacket. "Who's up for basketball?"

"They built up your sexual tension, didn't they?" Will nodded knowingly. His eyes veered over to Sammy. "Do tell me if you want to jump someone besides Vincent. Variety is good for your diet –"

Both Vincent and Caine slapped Will upside down the head.

"Vincent has an indoor court. Two on two." Caine clapped his hands. "Come on."

Will rolled his eyes, rubbing his face mournfully. "Stop acting all macho just because Danielle's got you all riled up."

"That's it. You're on Vincent's team. I'm going to cream you!" Caine barked, jabbing a finger in Will's face. Will swatted him away and shook his head. "Nope, I'd prefer to spend time with my girls. You can go find Jack –"

"Jack took Carrie out. You have to play," Vincent ordered, but with the way he glanced at Sammy first, Adel figured it was more likely due to the fact that he didn't want the boy anywhere near his girlfriend alone.

"Oh, bother," Will sighed.

"Let's go!" Caine stretched his arms exuberantly and then took off in the direction of the door to the side of the staircase. Vincent leaned down to mutter in Sammy's ear, "I'll try to throw the game. See you soon."

Will sulked his way out of the door. "Your sister should just sleep with him already."

Disgusted, a grimace twisted Vincent's lips. "Shut the hell up. I could care less about who the hell she sleeps with, so long as I don't hear about it."

Tristan paused, turning to Adel and Sammy. He smiled at the redhead before letting his eyes settle on Adel. Hesitating briefly, his hand darted out to squeeze hers before he followed the others out. "I'll see you later."

When all the boys were gone, Sammy turned to Adel with wide, expectant eyes. "You and Tristan …"

"He wrestled me to the ground," Adel explained in a hurry and when Sammy's mouth dropped open, too late did she realize that it was the wrong thing to say.

Danielle's clothes were actually kept in a separate room attached to the girl's bedroom. The walls were white with glass cases and drawers full of ornamental jewelry and make-up stash. Organized neatly into rows of hangers and stacks of shelves, all the clothes and shoes appeared to be coordinated by colors, illuminated by small white light fixtures. Sammy glanced around, a bit dazed, "I still can't get over the size of her closet."

They sat on the floor before the blacks, whites, and greys, where Adel ruffled through the stacks for a simple white T-shirt. She'd already pulled out a dark pair of skinny jeans from the thirty pairs lined up in one of the drawers in the far off corner but she still felt anxious, fearful of disrupting the order in the room.

Sammy crossed her legs beneath her, pointing at a dark sequined shirt hanging up above where Adel was searching. "That looks nice."

"I just want a T-shirt," Adel replied, pulling out a loose cream-colored blouse with a scoop neck collar. Shrugging, Adel turned to unbutton Tristan's shirt. Her fingers stilled when she noticed that her ruby necklace had caught around one of the buttons.

She shifted out of the shirt and shimmied into Danielle's shirt before folding Tristan's shirt and setting it on top of his sweatpants, tucking the clothes into a pink Victoria's Secret shopping bag she'd found discarded in the closet.

Adel slipped her feet into a pair of silver flats and crossed the room to take a seat next to Sammy. Pulling her hair up into a loose ponytail, she murmured, "There's something that's bothered me for a while."

Sammy looked up from the bottle of burgundy nail polish she'd picked up. "What is it?"

"Um …" Gnawing on her bottom lip, she reached up to unclasp the necklace. "Here. I think this belongs to you."

Sammy didn't make a move to take it, staring at Adel in confusion. "Why would that be mine?"

"Tristan had originally planned to buy it for you in China, but I – I sorta … got my hands on it." Adel thrust the necklace out again, the stone dangling free in the light. "Here. He wanted you to have it."

Bemused, Sammy shook her head. "No. He already got me another necklace, Adel." Gently, she continued, "It's yours."

"It's meant for you," Adel persisted.

"Was it?" Sammy leaned her head back against a drawer that held velvet boxes of rings and earrings. "What happened to finders keepers?"

"Sammy." Adel gave her a look.

"Adel," Sammy mimicked her tone. "It's yours. If you really want to give it back, then give it to Tristan. I really don't think he's going to be happy with you trying to shove off his necklace to someone else."

Adel looked down, dropping the necklace in her lap. She pushed the silver chain around, making random shapes against her jeans. "He didn't want to give it to me in the first place. He'd thought I stole it from him. If he hadn't been so slow back then, he'd probably have wrestled me to the ground for it." Her lips pulled up in a sardonic smile.

Sammy's shoulders jerked up and the girl rolled the nail polish bottle between her fingers, keeping her legs splayed out before her. "Well, things always happen for a reason."

They stayed in silence, watching the carpeted floor before them. It was a dark plush green, like wet moss in the darkest part of the woodlands. "I feel strange," Adel said at last. "I feel like I suddenly have … so many things that I never used to have before." She looked away, wrapping her arms around her legs and resting her cheek against her kneecap. "After years of fighting for my dad's attention, for his affection … I'm not so certain on how to react to having friends, to having support and …" She trailed off.

Sammy uncapped the bottle, flicking the brush against the rim and watching the crimson liquid pool. "Just let it go. Don't try to fight things, Adel. Just relax and be yourself, trite as that sounds. No one expects you to be perfect." Sammy's eyes crinkled. "Believe me, I was far from perfect when I first met them. All I wanted to do was just to get by unnoticed and to graduate from school. I had this image of my future self as this incredibly confident, successful woman and I saw her as my solution to everything, as if as long as I can graduate from school and get into the real world, I will be happy. Never once did I think of being happy with myself. I hated my life. I hated everything I was."

Adel nodded mutedly, plucking at the carpet.

"It was like I expected to wake up the day I turn into a legal adult, magically transformed with my past erased. All I had to do was just get through high school without drawing attention to myself." Sammy smiled. "But it felt like I got bombarded almost immediately at Crestan High by Vincent and the others and somehow after that, I just couldn't stay by myself any longer." The redhead twisted the cap close again and looked down, exhaling. "It still feels unreal sometimes."

Adel looked over at the other girl and Sammy gave her lopsided grin. "No worries. Just enjoy this break and we can face whatever you have to deal with later on. Trust us." She flicked a finger in the direction of the necklace. "Now put that back on before Tristan tackles you again."

Adel played the ruby red stone before pulling it around her neck again, letting the cool chain slide against her flesh. With just a few days left before Christmas and then New Years', could she really just relax and –

She froze. Choking, she turned to Sammy. "Oh my god, what are you getting Vincent?"

Bewildered, Sammy blinked at her. "What?"


"Oh. I knitted him a scarf."

Adel panicked. "I have no presents! I have nothing for Tristan!" She scrambled up to her feet and bounced on her heels, hands fluttering. "Should I buy him something? What does he like? I can't get him Big Bird again!"

Sammy watched Adel owlishly and then the beginnings of a smile formed on her lips. "Maybe you could make him something then."

"Can you teach me how to knit?" Adel whirled around, hands clasped before her pleadingly. "How long did it take you to make a scarf?"

"Oh, I was a bit slow with it so it took me five days."

"Five days?" Adel dropped her hands to her sides in disbelief. Shaking her head wildly, she swallowed hard. "No, it's okay. I can do this. I'll just pull all-nighters and – yeah, it'll be fine. So fine. No problem!"

She still paced around the room though, forehead creasing as she pondered, and Sammy hid her smile. Adel wondered out loud, "But what do we get for the others?"

Sammy chuckled, waving a hand. "It's okay, Adel. We had a Secret Santa thing going on. You can just focus all your charms on Tristan."

"Secret Santa?" Adel stopped short.

"Yeah, we were all a bit busy with our college applications so we didn't do too much shopping … except our Secret Santa isn't too secretive." Sammy grinned sheepishly. "It was more like all the couples paired off and then Will and Caine got each other."

"What about Tristan? Who did he get?" Adel's expression darkened. "Victoria?"

Sammy swallowed, biting back her smile. "Victoria wasn't part of it. We gave him Danielle, but I bet Caine took over for him. Tristan was still moody back then so he wasn't too into it."

Adel arched a brow. "Moody?"

"Yeah, he spent most of his time riding a bicycle outside or sitting in the park, watching kites fly." Sammy couldn't stop her grin when she saw the wondering smile light up on Adel's face. "You were horrible to just leave him like that, by the way."

"Sorry," Adel mumbled, still trying to halt the foolish grin from spreading across her lips.

"Don't apologize to me," Sammy teased. "You're the one who has to make it up to him."

The back of Adel's neck felt warm and she threw open a random drawer, fumbling inside it as she perused the tins of lip glosses. "I – I –" Resigned, she mumbled, "Okay."

Sammy clapped a hand over her mouth as she erupted in giggles. "You two are adorable!"

Adel threw her a pained look. "Must you use the word adorable? It makes me think of babies and puppies with cotton candy." She grimaced, crossing her arms before her. "And whatever, like you and Vincent aren't tooth-decayingly sweet."

Sammy stopped short, narrowing her eyes at Adel. Her index finger jabbed at the girl. "Did he kiss you yet?"

Adel choked, dismayed. "You've been around Will too much, haven't you?"

"Stop talking about kissing, assholes!" Caine hurled the basketball at Will's head.

Will twisted around to catch it, chucking it back at the other boy as he made a face. "Would you stop throwing your hissy fits! Just because Dani doesn't want to kiss you, doesn't mean the rest of us should suffer –"

Caine flung the ball at Will's face again.

Vincent stood at the opposite end of the court in a sweat-stained black wifebeater, hand rubbing the back of his neck wearily. "If we're not playing, I'm leaving."

Tristan covered up a yawn, folding his arms before his grey T-shirt. "I'm with you. I need a shower."

"For your sexy times later tonight with Adel?" Will called out with a wolf whistle. He hugged the ball to his stomach, refusing to relinquish it to Caine.

Tristan's eyes narrowed chillingly and he informed Caine, "There's another ball in the storage room."

There was a mad rush to the gated room with Will trying to trip Caine all the way. The two remaining boys crossed the court to the sidelines without any comment. While Vincent took a long drag from a bottle of water, he slipped Tristan a questioning look. "So you two are good now?"

"Yeah," Tristan said. "We're good."

"You're going to bring her to our Christmas party, right?"

"Probably." Tristan picked up a bottle and uncapped it, throat working as he downed the water. "She'll be staying with us until the break is over anyway."

"And after the break?"

Tristan picked up a thin white towel from the floor. Wiping the back of his neck, he straightened up. "We'll see."

In a small village along the perimeters of Nice, Lee hauled his backpack over his shoulder as he stepped out of the train station. He'd spent nearly a month crisscrossing the country from Bordeaux to Avignon. Exhausted beyond limits now, he wiped his brow with the back of his hand and set off on foot toward the markets.

For the first few days in his journey, he'd enjoyed the intricate Baroque architecture of the many cathedrals and chateaus he'd come across, with the expansive, symmetrical vistas and elaborate edifices. Now, everything looked the same to him and he yearned to find a small hotel for some much-needed rest.

But first … He paused in front of a small café with brick walls and a well worn wooden placard. He took a step back, tipping his head back to read the menu board that was set outside by several small round tables. The place seemed to have been in establishment for decades and with weary satisfaction, he stepped through the door to the sound of a bell jangling above his head. It was the exact sort of place that would appeal to her, all rustic and cozy.

Heading up to the counter that was manned by a stout, ruddy cheeked woman in a green apron, he rummaged through his backpack for his English-French dictionary even though he'd long memorized what he wanted to ask.

"Excusez-moi, reconnaissez-vous cette femme?" He slowly enunciated, holding out a wrinkled picture of a woman with dark hair and an infectious smile. "Do you recognize this woman?" Grimly, Lee watched the woman as she peered at the photo. One way or another, he was going to track down his sister once and for all.

Author's Note

Thanks for reading and reviewing, all! I've been super busy these days and I have a miniboard exam coming up. I want to magically pull my epi paper out of existence.

Anyway, further developments ahead and things should pick up again next chapter so stay tuned! This chapter was finished up really quickly so there may be some errors floating around that I didn't catch. For other news, please check the blog to learn more about my incredibly mundane life and for more character pics sent by various readers.

By the way, this chapter is dedicated to my darling cousin for her birthday. Sorry about the lateness, dear! You're the best.

- Maeven

© Copyright 11/16/2008 Maeven (FictionPress ID:349779). All rights reserved. Distribution of any kind is prohibited without the written consent of Maeven.