"For someone who put together a successful night, you look pretty . . . well, gloomy."
Dante looked up from his intense observation of the glass. It was hard to pinpoint his expression, but it definitely wasn't one of triumph or satisfaction. A small smile graced his lips and I saw his arm lift to reach for me, but I caught his hand instead.
"Parents are watching," I said in undertones. It was true. All night Aunt Claire had been trying to catch me alone. The morning she saw us, I forewent breakfast with the Anderson's and beat it home. It wasn't entirely graceful, and I only slightly regretted it, but knew I would regret it more if we explained what changed between us. Dante managed to avoid direct affirmation by asking his mother not to rush whatever it was, and if they were really curious, to ask me instead. Humph.
"Oh really," he said disinterestedly as he tried to draw me closer.
"You and I both know that your mother would not hesitate to pull the 'but it's my birthday' card given the opportunity," I said as I stepped away from reach. This time he let me, but the light in his eyes seemed to dim despite the present smile on his face. "What's wrong?" I asked.
I rolled my eyes. "Haven't we danced to this tune more times than we can count?"
"Well, I figured you'd get tired of hearing me tell you that I love you today," he said calmly, "mostly because you think our parents have supersonic hearing."
True to his words, my eyes darted around our immediate surroundings almost automatically. He sported a pointed look when my eyes returned to his face.
"I'll never get tired of hearing it." I wanted to scold him, but all I did was smirk. "But unless you want to deal with both our mothers today . . ." We'd been on our feet since seven that morning, but it was worth it to see the gob smacked look on Aunt Claire's face when she stepped into the hall after Uncle Ale told her to open her eyes.
"I was also thinking of the senior trip."
We stared at each other, but I didn't know what to say. I've said everything I wanted to say about myself then, and in the morning after Kari's party. Dante never said it out loud, but the guilt was hard to miss. Having something to say about this, though, was different.
The ugly scene with Laurita crossed my mind for what seemed like the hundredth time. I saw them speaking to each other earlier, and judging by her body language, it was clear that she didn't intend on letting down. Her determination was admirable, and my respect would have been higher if I didn't know what I did about her.
"I know, I know, save it for later," Dante said with a slight smirk, even though we both knew there was nothing amusing about what we went through.
I sighed but didn't bother giving into my paranoia as I said, "I love you."
He got that unreadable, steely look on his face again that made it difficult to hold his gaze for more than a few seconds without visibly growing flustered. "I love you, too," he murmured.
Silence stretched between us and I glanced around the hall, but at the moment, there wasn't anything to attend to. The dance floor held the majority of the guests and the rest were either going for thirds at the buffet or socializing with other guests. I saw Aunt Claire speaking animatedly to a few older looking adults, and smiled.
"I'm so glad you decided to do this," I said. "Aunt Claire looked so stressed the last time I saw her."
"You don't give yourself enough credit."
"It was your idea," I said dismissively. "But I do suppose you needed the help."
He grinned, tugging on my hair at the same moment I saw Laurita walk towards Dante.
As she approached in a cloud of a fresh smelling fragrance, she gave me a little smile, but directed her words at Dante. "I've been looking for you. I know how much you love to dance."
I looked at him in amusement. "You dance?"
Laurita smiled. "He does. He is amazing."
"He has rhythm?"
"Hey, I do, too. If anyone doesn't have rhythm, it's you."
"Oh, I can easily admit that," I agreed. "But I've never seen you dance seriously before."
He looked at me then, his eyes holding mine and a wordless conversation passed between us. It was unfamiliar, but not unwelcome. My eyebrows rose and I gave a little shrug, as if to say, 'What can you do?' and he smiled, tucking my hair behind my ear.
"Try not to get cornered," he said as he turned towards the dance floor.
"You underestimate my abilities," I said and as Dante turned his back towards me, I met Laurita's eyes and smiled pleasantly. "He's not drunk yet, but the night is young."
Her eyes widened and only narrowed ever so slightly. "I did not tell you what I did for you to react immaturely about this."
I thought about her words for a moment and nodded. "You're right, that was a bit catty. But then again, I'm beyond pissed off. Or would you like for all of us to react maturely about this and own up to all our mistakes?" Her lips pressed together and I saw anger spark in her eyes. Good. "On a hierarchy of immaturity, I'm barely kicking off the ground," I said lowly when I saw Dante turn around to look at us quizzically. "It's your call."
Laurita gave a heated stare, but said nothing and walked to Dante. It was difficult not to roll my eyes, but even more so to ignore the twinge of guilt.
How was what I did last summer any different from what Laurita was doing?
"Remember when we would greet the morning dancing?" Laurita said fondly. "You never wanted to go home, and it was hard to say no to you."
"Best nights," he agreed as his body moved with hers in effortless familiarity. "It's not as if you were as enthusiastic to go home yourself."
"Well, that was because I was crazy about you."
Dante smiled slightly but said nothing, merely holding her close and breathing in the scent that brought him comfort when he felt like nothing in his world was making sense.
From over her head, he watched Cassidy stride towards her table, only to be stopped by Nicoletta. How peculiar. Ever since they were children, Nicoletta made it no secret that she wasn't overly fond of her cousin, and like he experienced first-hand, Cassidy didn't hesitate to defend herself.
He learned just recently how controlled Cassidy was on her expressions, and he watched her face slip into practiced nonchalance.
"I spoke with your mother earlier. She is absolutely stunned by this. But I think you knew that."
"She didn't know whether to hug me or smack me for tricking her." Dante smiled at the memory of earlier that night. "Luckily, Cassidy distracted her and I managed to . . . slip away."
"It is still strange for me to see her," Laurita admitted almost hesitantly. "I've always associated her with your past, and even though I've seen her before . . . your accident, she was still somehow faceless . . . to me."
Dante smirked slightly as Cassidy caught his eye and stuck her tongue out, easing the gesture with a quick smile, just as their fathers managed to catch her alone. Dante muffled his laugh.
"She is in my past," he said as he twirled her once as a softer melody drifted between them. "But I never saw it the way she did; like we were forced to be together because it was predestined—as if she never had a choice." The words stung, but in a way where antiseptic would on a cut. It was a relief to hear those words knowing that, in the end, she felt the same about him as he did about her. "But I always saw it as my choice."
Laurita was tense in his arms and he felt his own chest start to tighten.
"So . . ." she said, voice barely audible. "In . . . the end, you chose her."
He said nothing.
"How?" she asked lowly, but her voice never wavered. "How do you know that this is the right choice?" Her wide eyes beseeched his, and he hated that this was happening. "I was there for you, Dante. Not Cassidy! Cassidy ran away when you needed her the most, but me—I never left your side."
He felt the familiar twinge at the reminder of their mistakes, and he took a deep breath to keep his emotions in check. "We both ran away," Dante said lowly. "You don't know what it was like."
"Because you never told me," Laurita said tightly.
Dante held her to him firmly, feeling her resistance melt away as she leaned her head against his shoulder.
"But you were there for me when I needed you. I do love you, Laurita."
"Just not as much as you love her," she said bitterly.
He swallowed hard but said nothing, because it was true.
"How do you even decide this?" she whispered. "If you love someone after, does it not mean that you were never truly in love with her in the first place?"
Dante felt pained. "Laurita, I don't think—"
Her grip tightened around his bicep. "I want to know."
Dante inhaled and exhaled sharply. He started to look at Laurita, but he knew he would lose all nerve if he saw the pain he was inflicting. There was no easy way to do this, not when he at least owed her the explanation she wanted.
The song shifted into a faster, upbeat tempo, and silently, he led her away from the dance floor and towards the exit of the hall. Halfway across the large room, she stopped him and directed him to a more secluded area where there were few people milling around. A father and his two twin daughters. A lady speaking on her cell phone. He understood that she couldn't be in complete silence as he did this to her.
Laurita gazed at him, eyes right into his, and he saw the stubborn cinch in her jaw. He didn't know whether to smile or cry.
After a long silence, Dante finally spoke. "What do you think about Cassidy?"
A strange look flickered across her face, but her stubborn look didn't disappear. "I don't really know her, so I cannot say. You've never really spoken of her, either, besides the occasional slip."
There were reasons for that, too. He didn't want to remember. Or he wanted to remember too much. And when he would slip, it was because keeping it to himself was making him crazy, where he'd repress his feelings for her so much that, ironically, they fought harder to come out. He'd moved on, alright, but he never stopped loving her.
"That's because I wouldn't do her justice," he said. "I could say, 'she's smart,' or 'she's beautiful,' or 'she's amazing,' and they'd all be true, but it would never really touch on how much she means to me." Dante glanced at Laurita to see her staring resolutely far at the other side of the room. Laurita wasn't a masochist, but her only insecurity was Cassidy Summers. There was no way for him to reassure her either. How could he, of all people, look at Laurita straight in the eye as he was falling in love with her and tell her that he would never get over his first love? His jaw clinched and he released a sigh. "I want to show her off to everyone, but at the same time, I want to keep her to myself. I didn't want to talk about Cassidy to anyone back then because I— if I didn't speak about her, then— it was like keeping the memories closer to me, untouched." He shut his eyes, forcing himself to speak, trying to get her to understand, but at the same time, hoping like hell she didn't.
Dante opened his eyes to see Laurita gazing at him with bright eyes and trembling lips. Even then, she was beautiful. God, she was so beautiful. The first time he met her, he remembered staring at her, and blurting that she looked like live art, a masterpiece that he could have stared at for hours.
Even when she was still, she was a statue that belonged only in the finest of museums; her beauty gazed upon, eliciting the desire to be near, to feel if she was real.
But he was never once tempted.
"Once anyone gets to know her the way I do . . ." He grappled for words, but he knew he would never find ones that could perfectly explain who she was, to him. Growing up with her, watching life play across her face and being a part of who she is, and vice versa—they were feelings that could never be described. Or replaced. "They'd fall in love with her strength, her spirit . . . her generosity. Looking at her is like . . ." How did one put into words the simultaneous feelings of having your chest implode, the feeling of endless solace, the feeling of coming home? ". . . is like looking into my future. And that's . . . how it is."
He couldn't bear to look at Laurita. He felt like he just bared a piece of his soul to the one person who didn't deserve to see just how deeply he felt about Cassidy Summers. Because knowing just how deeply he felt would only bring her pain.
"Even now?" she said inaudibly.
Laurita gave a choked laugh. "Sounds more like fate than choice."
But despite her words, he knew she understood. If it were their fate to be together, he would choose Cassidy.
If they weren't, then he would still choose her. There was no coercion, nor was there a divine intervention: just pure autonomy, a choice that came as easily as breathing.
She turned to him, taking a deep breath, and released the air with words, only trembling the slightest, "There is something I need to tell you."
He found her staring listlessly at the band playing.
"Why don't you dance?" he said, stepping right in front of her, and without waiting for a reply, tugged her to her feet. He reveled in her startled eyes and took the opportunity to sneak a kiss on her forehead. "I'll save everyone the trouble of dancing with you."
"Hey, Jared never complained."
"Jared was humouring you."
"Like you're doing now?" she replied swiftly, but didn't resist as he pulled her close enough for the tip of their noses to touch. "Have you ever heard of personal space?" she demanded as she attempted to draw back.
"Oh, I have heard of it," he said, but loosened his grip anyway, though noticed how she tightened her hold to keep him in place. "I saw our dads corner you. I'm starting to think that you're overestimating your abilities."
She scowled like he expected her to, and he bit back a grin.
"This whole time I was expecting our moms to be the persistent ones," she grumbled.
"What did you tell them?"
Dante was skeptical. "Oh, really?"
Cassidy sighed. "Yeah. But I said not to make a big deal out of it. I mean, I'm still getting used to it."
"Not as hard to ease into though," he said.
She smiled but didn't meet his eyes. "Nicoletta talked to me," she said eventually.
"She asked me how I could stand letting you talk to Laurita. And the usual comments where she tells me she doesn't like me between her words."
Dante was silent for a moment, but decided it was as good as any time to let her know. "She talked to me too, a few weeks after school started."
Cassidy made a face. "Of course she did."
"Not about what you think though," he chuckled, resting his chin over her head. "She more or less told me to stay away from you. That I did enough damage, and she didn't need any more upset in the family."
Cassidy went still in his arms, but suddenly jerked back to look at him. "You're not serious," she said, sounding as if she's on the verge of a rage-filled rant. Fire was dancing in her eyes, and it seemed as if it took all her self-control of staying rooted in her spot. "That's unbelievable," she hissed instead. "Nicoletta? Right."
"I wouldn't lie," he said, amused by her reaction, especially because he expected it. "She tortured you all your childhood, yeah, but she does love you. Or like you, at least."
She snorted loudly. Okay, maybe throwing the love part was a bit far fetched. But family love was complicated, difficult, and plain messy. There was no real malice in their relationship, only misunderstanding. But Dante knew it was a matter that had to be resolved on their own terms, so even now he kept quiet.
"Then why is she always a bitch?"
"That," he said, twirling her back into his arms, "is her story to tell."
Her mouth was currently pressed against his shoulder, but she managed to grumble a vague "whatever" in response. More silence, and then . . .
To hell with it, he thought, and bit the bullet. "Laurita told me what she told you. At Kari's party, when she wanted to talk to you alone."
Cassidy immediately stiffened in his arms. He stilled as well, pulling back far enough to see the rigid shocked look on her face. She was scarcely speechless, but she seemed to gape at him for a long time.
"To be honest, I thought she would take it to the grave," she said eventually. A troubled look replaced her widened gaze, and she glanced around the area. Dante kept his eyes on her, feeling his nerves slowly build as the silence stretched. Cassidy's face didn't give anything away, and even though he didn't know what to expect, he didn't know how to process the moment either.
"Please tell me what you're thinking," he said quietly, unable to stand it any longer.
"I don't know."
"Yes, you do."
"What do you want me to say?" Her arms dropped to her side, and she looked at him seriously. "This isn't even about me. How are you?"
Out of all the things she could have said . . . He laughed, albeit forcedly. "It's weird how knowing this tiny piece of information can tilt your world." But his face said everything he didn't want to say. The betrayal, the shock, the shame. But also the relentless love for the girl who pulled him out of the grave—he knew this would never change.
"Yet it doesn't really change anything," Cassidy said. Muscles he didn't know were tense relaxed at her words.
"I don't know," he said aloud. That was also true. He felt violated, and he didn't know if he could trust Laurita again. And how could Cassidy still look at him without turning away in disgust?
This time Cassidy wound her arms around him, pulling his body close. He almost held his breath, because he didn't want to miss a moment. But time seemed to stand still every time he found himself in her arms. The loud music faded into the background, and their surrounding blurred. Again, he found his face pressed against her neck, the gesture only reminding him of the horrifying moment he discovered just how close he came to losing her for the second time.
"No more secrets, and no more lies," she said, her usual amused lilt lifting the serious moment. But still, her words resonated between them chillingly. He could still feel the fear from so long ago, staring in horror at her lifeless face in the aftermath. And then what happened afterwards.
She was right. Dante's lips curled, in distaste or a humourless smile, he didn't know. But the fact was, right now, all he cared about was the present—mistakes were meant to be learned from, not repeated.
They also taught him not to take anything for granted . . . which was why he would never get tired of telling her exactly what he thought.
"That's not exactly a secret," she said, the grin clear in her voice.
He smiled against her skin. No. It wasn't.
"Not anymore, anyway."
And it never had to be one again.
Author's note: Yes there will be an epilogue.
Questions? I have an ask . fm, and user is xoxluurve as well. (It's also on my profile, which I update once a month or so.) Or PM me! Or tweet/dm me. WHICHEVER OK EITHER WAY I LOOK FORWARD TO IT
I am so sorry for the long wait.