Chapter One: Paradise on Earth
The desert was desolate and ugly, and above all, it was brown. Even the trees - the pitiful ones that grew thin and ragged on mountains - were a constipated brown. The only color found was in the gleaming Sky Harbor airport a few miles ahead. Just thinking about it made Adrian Blake want to scream.
Next to her, Nicky was crying. The four-hour plane ride from Chicago to Phoenix had been punctuated by Nicky's steady sobs and hiccups. Five flight attendants had already stopped by her seat to offer water, juice, tissues, and even chocolate they reserved only for the first class. Seventeen passengers had offered help.
Adrian's other sister Meg was sulking in her seat. She'd punched their father in the eye twice, but it hadn't changed anything. It was with some resentment Adrian saw that her father was the only happy one in the group, humming quietly to himself, no doubt dreaming about his fiancee who'd conned him into uprooting his family and dragging them off to Arizona.
Barely two minutes after their plane landed, Mr. Blake threw off his seatbelt and charged up the aisle. Or at least, he would have tried, if Meg hadn't held him back forcibly, tugging on his shirt.
"Just relax, Dad," she muttered. "Breathe."
"But we've got to go!" he said, bouncing up and down on his toes. "Come on, girls. Come on, get your things!"
Adrian bit back a scathing retort. She'd already pointed out that the Wicked Succubus (Karen Montgomery) would understand if they took a few minutes getting off the plane, but her father had practically decapitated her. He seemed convinced that if they didn't arrive on time, Karen would cancel the wedding.
As if, Adrian thought bitterly. She gathered her light jacket and handbag and then followed her family off the plane. Her father was far in the lead, a running and bobbing figure that weaved through the crowd.
Security regulations prohibited people from meeting the passengers at their gates, but there were common checkpoints that allowed them to meet. And from the crowd, a screeching feminine voice soared above the others.
The crowd magically parted and created a path for Karen. A light shone down on Adrian's father, casting a halo above his head. Dramatic music swelled and tears welled up in everyone's eyes. He gazed soulfully at Karen, his only love and sweetheart. He had his arms full of long-stemmed red roses still misty with water drops.
No. What really happened was this:
"Sugar pie!" Karen screeched.
"Pumpkin!" he cried.
Karen dropped her purse. She leapt into his arms and wrapped her legs around him. With an urgency that was found only in teenagers in a car's backseat, they swapped saliva. Adrian didn't know which was more disgusting: her father licking Karen's throat or Karen's pelvis rubbing against him.
"Aren't they cute?" Nicky squealed, momentarily forgetting the thick wad of tissues in her hand. "Oh my God, that's so romantic."
"And they're why we're moving here," Meg said pointedly. She glared at Karen, smacking her open hand with her fist. "Bitch."
Karen's hands slipped under Mr. Blake's shirt. The sight seared Adrian's retinas, and she half-turned. Wasn't there a law against watching your parent getting some? In a public place, no less?
"I'm gonna be sick," Adrian mumbled.
Karen's sons stood behind the adults. The first one made a retching sound, and the second one coughed. They made no move to approach, but Adrian didn't blame them. Their parents were still groping each other.
Meg's sneer intensified. "Are they our new stepbrothers?" she said, jerking her chin at Karen's sons. "Four-Eyes and Geek Boy... I bet I could take both of them."
Adrian believed her. Meg was only eleven years old, but she'd already beaten up all the neighborhood bullies by the time she'd turned nine. For a moment, Adrian was tempted just to sic Meg on all the Montgomerys.
Karen's older son stepped forward. His glasses slipped down his nose, a very red nose because he was blushing. "Hi. I'm Isaac." He pushed his glasses with a finger. "Isaac Montgomery. And you must be..."
Adrian took pity on him. It wasn't fair to hate a kid just because his mother was a conniving witch. "I'm Adrian Blake," she said, putting a hand on her sister's shoulder. "This is Meg."
"Hi Meg," Isaac said politely.
"Four-Eyes," Meg muttered almost under her breath.
Isaac's smile vanished, and Adrian stepped on the back of Meg's heel. "And that's Nicky," she said, pointing at her other sister.
Nicky sighed mistily. She had tears in her eyes, as she gazed at Mr. Blake and Karen, but somehow Adrian didn't think her tears sprang from embarrassment. When Meg hissed her name, she came to life.
"Oh! I'm Nicky," she said, even though Adrian had already introduced her. "And you'd be, um, I forgot your name."
Isaac's younger brother thrust his chest out. He had to be only eight or nine, but he flexed his muscles. "My real name is Xiron Darkstar Fury. I've escaped from Planet Xilithium," he informed them in a tone that indicated he was telling a great secret. "They're trying to take me prisoner, but I'll die before I go back."
Such an announcement made Adrian grin. At least the kid had an imagination.
Nicky blinked. "Xiron, is it? Your mother really named you that?"
"I was wrong," Meg announced abruptly, looking up at Adrian. "He's not a geek boy; he's a stupid geek boy."
Isaac Montgomery's eyes narrowed. "His real name is Owen," he said between gritted teeth. "And he's not stupid. You take that back."
"Or you'll do what?" Meg smirked. "I bet you can't throw a decent punch."
Adrian looked towards her father and Karen. No dice. They were still sucking each other's faces off, and she knew she wouldn't get any help from them. Hell, at this rate, they'd get arrested for indecent exposure.
She pinched the bridge of her nose hard. She was coasting on three hours of sleep because she'd had to say goodbye to her boyfriend, and now she had to break up an impending fight between Meg and her stepbrothers. God! Starting her senior year in Bumfuck, Arizona wasn't punishment enough?
"Yeah?" she heard Isaac spit. "Go ahead, punch me, and you'll be sorry-"
"Well, isn't this cozy?"
The deep, masculine voice opened Adrian's eyes. The guy had a trim, athletic physique that his T-shirt hugged. A soccer player, maybe? His hair was somewhere between brown and black, and when he glanced in her direction, she caught a glimpse of a straight nose and hollowed out cheekbones.
Nicky was a goner before his light green eyes even landed on her. "And who are you?" she said breathlessly, as if she'd just run five miles at a gallop. Her eyes were shining, but not from tears this time. "Are you Isaac's older brother?"
A piece fell into place. Karen had mentioned she'd had three sons, and even shown off many pictures of them, but secure in the knowledge Karen was just a temporary girlfriend who lived in another state, Adrian hadn't bothered to memorize their faces or names.
Isaac shrugged a shoulder irritably. "Yes, that's Alex," he answered. "Where were you?" he demanded of his brother. "Mom asked you not to be late-"
Nicky interrupted him. "Oh, so if you're Alex, then that makes a second A in the family because of Adrian. Isn't that exciting?" Her eyes still shining, she clasped her hands together. "I've always wanted an older brother."
Alex smiled. It wasn't a proper smile because he didn't show teeth. His lips remained closed, his eyes curiously hard.
"Yeah, I'm Alex," he said. "You must be... Nicky?"
That deliberate pause made Adrian bristle. She could guess what he was thinking. Even if Nicky wasn't a blonde, she was the epitome of a dumb blonde sometimes. More than sometimes, actually, but that wasn't any excuse to make fun of her.
"Is Nicky a nickname?" Isaac asked, his voice kinder. Now Adrian had the feeling he agreed with Alex about Nicky, though he was nicer about it.
"Oh yes, it's short for Nicola."
Adrian tuned out her sister's chatter. She kept a wary eye on Meg, but at least Meg had contented herself with fierce glares at the Montgomery boys. Maybe they'd get out of the airport without a fistfight.
Her skin tingled. She turned her head, only to find Alex studying her. His gaze traveled up from her legs to her breasts then to her face. Then he gave her another look-over. It was such a crass inspection that her ire leapt.
"Are you done?" she said coolly, meeting his gaze square-on. "Or should I just strip naked for your viewing satisfaction?"
A corner of his mouth tipped, but Adrian saw no guilt. "What makes you think it'd be to my satisfaction?"
"You don't seem like the choosy type."
Whatever Alex would have said, Adrian never knew because their parents finally broke apart. They were flushed, their faces red and their clothes askew. And they appeared absolutely happy about it.
"Whoops!" Karen said with a laugh. "Guess we got a little carried away."
"A little more carried away and we'd get a sex show for free," Alex murmured almost under his breath, but just loud enough for Adrian to overhear him.
Karen frowned at him. "That's enough," she said sharply. "Come on, let's get the bags."
They went over to the baggage claim. With so many suitcases, carry-ons, backpacks, and laptops, they straggled to the parking lot. The Blake girls and the Montgomery boys kept the parents in the middle, walking far apart from each other.
Heat swamped Adrian the moment she stepped out of the airport. It gripped her lungs in a vise, and when she drew in a breath, her mouth dried. She'd dealt with heat in Chicago, but holy fuck, this was something else. Bumfuck, Arizona had just turned into the gaping mouth of Hell.
As if sensing her distress, Karen tittered. "Don't worry, it's only one hundred ten degrees today. Make sure you drink a lot of water and wear sunscreen, girls. We don't want you getting sunstroke, do we?"
"Drop dead, bitch," Meg muttered.
Since there were eight of them now, it required some finesse to load all the luggage and figure out the driving arrangements. Karen had a four-runner, so they put the luggage there. Mr. Blake and Nicky went with her while everyone else rode in Alex's car.
Alex drove a black Eclipse. From the look and smell of it, it was brand-new. Of course, Adrian thought, with a roll of her eyes. Mommy's boy - although she didn't think he was too close to Karen, based on what she'd seen - or maybe daddy's boy.
Desert and more desert. They were on the highway now, passing the airport and some towns, but the color brown didn't change. Pressure swelled up in Adrian's throat, and she bit hard on her lower lip. She would not embarrass herself by crying. Not in front of Alex, not with him around.
"Funny, I thought you'd drive a red one," she said aloud.
Alex glanced at her sideways. There was that closed-lipped smile once again. "Why?" he said, the first word he'd said to her since they'd left the airport.
"Well, you're already compensating, so why not advertise it?"
That got a laugh from him. A nice one, Adrian had to admit, but tinged with smugness. "Baby, if you want a demonstration, why didn't you just say so?"
Her lip curled. "Baby?" she mocked. "Is that what you use when you can't remember the girl's name?"
Alex took his eyes off the road. "Well, why should I?" he said with that slight smile. "Not when I have so many of them."
His arrogance took her breath away. She'd met so many guys like him, so sure that girls would trip over themselves, panting to rip off their clothes. Adrian could only be thankful that Jason wasn't like these guys. He'd been her boyfriend for three years, and it hurt to leave him behind in Chicago.
Alex was waiting for her response, however, and she answered. "I guess we should add self-delusion to the list..."
His response was just as quick. "What? You fancy yourself an amateur psychologist? Baby, I'll lay on your couch anytime."
There it was again, the 'baby' nickname she now suddenly hated with a passion. "Reverting to sexual double entendres again?" she said coolly. "Is that all you're good for?"
"I did offer you a practical demonstration." Another smile. "You scared? All talk, but no action?"
"Discriminating," she corrected. "I've got standards."
Isaac's calmly modulated voice (with just a tinge of panic) floated from the backseat. "And we've got a crisis back here," he said. "So if you guys could cut it out..."
Adrian immediately saw the reason for his panic. Meg had Owen in a headlock, her jacket stuffed into his mouth, so he couldn't scream for help. His face was turning a dull red while muffled sounds issued from him.
"Meg!" Adrian said. "Let him go!"
Apparently confident that her order would do the trick, Isaac pushed his glasses up his nose. "Violence is never the right solution," he lectured at Meg. "It's just an inefficient method that bullies use to intimidate people, and inevitably it propagates another fresh wave of violence-"
Both Adrian and Meg did an identical double take. Isaac had threatened to punch Meg in the airport, but now Adrian saw he would never have done it. He just wasn't that type, and she knew Meg had filed that away.
Adrian raised her eyebrows. "How old are you?"
"Thirteen," Isaac said.
"What are you, a freak?" Meg said with her usual tact.
"No, he's just our resident Socrates," Alex said from his driver's seat. He'd tilted the rearview mirror, so he could check out the situation. "Isaac's our little philosopher."
Meg rolled her eyes and let Owen go. He spat out a section of Meg's jacket, and Adrian braced herself for a fistfight, but it never came. Well, hell. The two younger Montgomery boys were lambs, and Adrian could practically sense Meg's contempt. Meg had no use for a person who wouldn't fight back.
"And Alex is our resident Casanova," Isaac snapped. "Our little philanderer." He sulked in silence, staring outside his window.
No one said anything until they pulled up in front of a huge house. Back in Chicago, it would have been a mansion, but here, it was just an ordinary size. Adrian's father had extolled the delights of Arizona's real estate, saying that houses were bigger, even at cheaper prices.
"Home sweet home," Alex said, killing the engine.
Mouth tight, Adrian got out of the car. She barely stopped herself from gawking at the palm trees edging the lawn. Finally, some green grass here, but it was so artificially green that Adrian knew it was imported. In lieu of flowers, stones dotted the ground in a decorative fashion, leading the pathway to the front door.
Once inside the house with her bags, Adrian looked up at the ceiling. It soared many feet above her head where a glass chandelier hung. The white walls and the open blinds cast the house into a perpetual state of sunshine. When she ventured further, she glimpsed a swimming pool in the backyard.
"Well, we're home!" Karen said, clapping her hands. Mr. Blake had his arm around her waist, and she leaned against him. "What do you guys think?"
"It's big," Nicky said brightly. It was with some bemusement Adrian noted how quickly her sister's tears had dried up the very minute she'd laid her eyes on Alex. "So where are we sleeping?"
"There are five bedrooms..." Karen launched into a monologue about how she'd drawn up the sleeping arrangements, and Adrian's father just kept nodding in admiration. "I've decided Isaac and Owen will share a bedroom because girls need more privacy, isn't that right, Lincoln?"
Adrian did quick mental calculations. The gist of it was that her father and Karen would take the master bedroom upstairs. Her sisters would get their own rooms and the younger boys would share a room. That still left her and Alex and only one room. Surely Karen didn't expect them...
"So we've decided Alex will take the bedroom this floor, and Adrian will have the office as her room. Does anyone object?"
Her head whipped around, as she stepped backwards, glancing down the hallway. The office Karen had pointed out was right next to Alex's bedroom. She opened her mouth to complain, but Karen plowed ahead.
"Great, that's settled! All right, guys, the moving van came yesterday, so you can just unpack right after dinner. We'll have steak, but we won't eat outside because it's too hot." Here, Karen tittered, as if expecting some laughter. "Dinner's in an hour, so you can rest or swim or whatever."
Adrian went down the hallway. It didn't escape her notice how quickly her father and Karen hoofed it upstairs. Yeah, that was subtle.
She managed to hold it together until she got to her room. The closet took up an entire wall, much to her pleasure, but there was a built-in L-shaped desk bolted to the wall and a few office cabinets that she couldn't move. No space for her furniture other than her bed. What the hell was she going to do with her books and other things? The movers had thrown them around in a haphazard heap.
When she yanked open the blinds, she was staring directly at a very dusty and brown section of the backyard. And hell, that was the garbage and recycling bins, wasn't it? That was her grand view?
A fist closed around her heart. This was reality now. She'd packed her possessions and shipped them to Arizona, said goodbye to her boyfriend and friends, and gotten on a plane, but until she had stood in this too-small room, it'd seemed only like an awful joke. Now she was stuck in the fucking desert.
A distant part of her brain pointed out the advantages of having a huge house and a swimming pool, and pointed out the rather pretty blue sky, but the moaning and scraping sounds from upstairs burst into her consciousness. Oh hell, her room was almost right under the master bedroom.
"Lincoln! Oh, oh, there, just there..."
Adrian's face burned. Or at least it would have, but she had never blushed easily. People had often remarked on her amazing self-composure.
She backed out of the room with haste, only to bump into Alex standing in the hallway. His room was right next to hers, she remembered with a fresh annoyance. How was she supposed to have some privacy?
"Your mother's loud," she said snidely. "Does it run in the family?"
Alex leaned his shoulder against the wall. He didn't even look embarrassed or irritated, and that only increased her annoyance. "Piece of advice, baby?" he said, without a special emphasis on the last word, but just the same, Adrian clearly heard it. "You might want to invest in a pair of earplugs."
"Because of them?" she said, nodding towards the ceiling.
"Yes, but also because..." Alex rapped on his door and smiled at her. "I have a very busy social life."
Words failed her. She hadn't even considered that aspect, but holy hell, it was practically guaranteed, wasn't it?
Now his eyes were laughing. "Feel free to listen in, anytime."
Adrian found her tongue at last. "Listen to what? Some pathetic drunken groping in the dark? Nothing to lose sleep over." But she mentally resolved to buy some earplugs anyway. Oh God. Her car wasn't here yet because it had to be shipped from Chicago. She was entirely reliant on Karen and Alex for rides.
Dinner was indeed served in an hour, but only because Alex cooked the steaks. He was surprisingly good, but Adrian refused to let him know that. And when the adults joined them for dinner, it became more of an ordeal. When they weren't gazing at each other, lost in their world, Karen kept concentrating on Adrian and her sisters.
"I know you girls will have to face a period of adjustment, but Lincoln and I will bend absolutely backwards to make it easier on you..."
God, she was certifiable! How could anyone be that ridiculously perky all the time? Maybe Karen had a chemical fixer every now and then.
"Alex will show you around," Karen said, bestowing a beaming smile on Adrian as if granting her a favor. "He has a lot of friends, and they'll all make you feel welcome. Isn't that right, Alex?"
"Mm," he said.
"See?" she said, satisfied. "You have nothing to worry about, Adrian."
Yeah right, Adrian thought. She'd vaguely hoped for new friends, when she'd first heard of her stepbrothers, but two minutes with Alex had trashed that hope. So that was yet another loss. She'd lived in Chicago for seventeen years, always growing up with the same group of kids, and of course she'd known Jason from kindergarten. Jason-and-Adrian, people had jokingly called them.
Her thoughts turned to school. Karen had enrolled her and Nicky at Alex's school, and even picked up their schedules. Adrian would have to check out the list of school activities - find some promising clubs. She'd been a cheerleader back home, but the tryouts here probably had concluded. Well, fuck that. She only had to last here a year until graduation and then she'd sprint out of Arizona, leaving it in dust.
The only highlight of the long night was when Karen asked Meg how she liked Arizona, clearly expecting a sparkling answer like Nicky's.
"This is a fascist podunkville," Meg said, her lip peeling back to reveal bared teeth. "And I reject your propaganda."
Karen blinked. "Oh, well, I'm very sorry to hear that..."
That night, when Adrian slept in her awkwardly positioned bed, she expected the tears to come, but they never did. Her chest was tight and her throat swollen, but still, nothing. Then when her eyes landed on Jason's picture she'd put up on the L-shaped desk, she finally cried herself to sleep.
AUTHOR NOTE: This is a massive rewrite of my completed story "Reason and Romance" that I posted earlier on Fictionpress. Now I know you're probably wondering why I'm doing this. The truth is, I'm a strong believer in rewrites and revisions. In this case, I really feel that the original version needs a lot of work. Just like my other stories.
I won't bore you with details, but essentially, I feel like I made some poor authorial decisions for "Reason and Romance." Mind you, I enjoyed writing the original version, but there are some flaws that bother me. So that's why I'm here with a new version with significant changes. And when I say that, I do mean it. Some old characters are gone, some characters have changed, and some new characters are here. New plot events and all of that. At the same time, there are some sections from the original version that you will recognize.
I promise I will not remove the old version. I'm aware that you guys might prefer that one better, and in any case, it might be fun to compare the old and new versions since they'll be quite different. I do hope that some of you guys will come to appreciate this new version. As always, I am deeply appreciative of you guys. You have made my time here memorable, and I hope you will join me for this new-ish ride.