It took two hours to secure the house. The cops had found the body of Marie Williams in the basement, the elderly woman who lived in the house before Lilynn killed her and took over. Even if my recording of her confession didn't hold up in court, I was sure Marie Williams' body would.
The medic had cleaned and bandaged my arm, grinning as he told me about a prank he was planning against his roommate. I had only half-listened, watching the police go in and out of the front door from where I sat on the edge of a van. Lilynn, the two guards, and the merc in charge of following me were all put in separate squad cars and driven away.
The Lieutenant had showed up once he heard that Callum Knightley was involved. Moustache twitching, he had listened to the recording when Lilynn had admitted to planting the bombs at Callum's birthday party location. He had been curious to find out where I fit into all this, and almost nervously, I told him the relative truth: Callum had hired me for extra protection.
His face had twitched and he had looked at me with a disconcerting look. He had flicked his thumb in the direction of the house and asked with a smoker's rasp, "You take out those four by yourself?"
I had met his eyes, silently daring him to say something about me being a female, and replied, "Yes."
After a pause, he had given me a curt nod and walked off.
Bell had run a trace on Brian Randall in his squad car. I had watched as a mugshot popped up on the small computer screen with a list of previous offenses. He seemed to be a sniper-for-hire and wanted in five states. Bell sent out an All Points Bulletin to all California and Nevada police in order to catch him.
I was now sitting at an empty desk in the San Francisco Police Department, spinning around in the chair with a disgusting cup of coffee in hand. Bell was at the desk beside me, typing furiously on his keyboard. We were waiting for news on Randall. Every time the phone rang, Bell picked it up immediately and I stood up to listen, eyes wide. There had been no updates for the past hour and the dread in the pit of my stomach was painful. Ayden Montgomery had called to make sure I was set to go to "Mr. Knightley's function". I told him I was, feeling guilty that it wasn't a real job, that the "function" was a birthday party, and that Mr. Knightley was not the client, but my sort-of boyfriend. Or at least had been last night.
"Stop spinning around," Bell barked at me. He was tense, too. An impending sniper attack was hard on him, as well.
I stopped. "Sorry," I said, setting the coffee down on the desk and playing with the Styrofoam cup. Lilynn had said that Randall had been running late, which meant he wasn't in San Francisco yet. Or so we hoped. The cops were checking out hotels, motels, and well-known organized crime bars and hideouts.
We believed that Randall was hired to take out people at Callum's party. Of course, the police had been trying to contact Callum, but he was nowhere to be found. I knew it was because it was daylight, but they seemed worried something had happened to him. Callum's daytime staff had reassured the police that Callum was fine, just out of town. I think the cops only half-believed them.
I was told Lilynn wasn't cooperating. The three other men who were arrested didn't know anything about the plan. So, here we were, just waiting.
Bell looked sideways at me. "You never told me you were stabbed," he said, typing another sentence of his report.
"Yeah, well," I said sheepishly. "What was I supposed to do? Call you up and say, 'Hi, Bell, just wanted to let you know I was stabbed today'?"
He shook his head. "No, I guess not," he answered. He was quiet as he clicked around on the computer. "Seems you've been through a bit these past few weeks."
I took a sip of the coffee that had gone cold a long time ago. "Yeah, you could say that," I said lightly. He had no idea. "It'll be nice to get back to normal. I mean, if this all works out with Randall."
"We'll get him," Bell assured me.
A phone rang. Bell and I jumped and automatically looked at his phone, but realized it was actually my cellphone that was ringing. Fumbling in my sweater pocket, I told it out and looked at the screen. It was Liam.
I frowned. Had the sun set already? We were set so far back in the building that I couldn't see anything but florescent light. The clock on my cell phone told me that it was half past five.
"Liam," I answered.
"Sunshine," came Liam's familiar voice. He sounded uncharacteristically worried. "Where are you?"
"The useless bodyguard told me you were still in your apartment," he started.
The "useless bodyguard" must have been Mike. I suddenly felt sorry for him being on the receiving end of Liam's vicious comments. "Well, I—"
"But let me tell you, sunshine," he said, voice hard, "I am standing in your apartment and you're not here."
"What?" I sat up in the chair. Liam had a special gift for being able to enter people's houses without invitation. I didn't like that he could just stroll into my apartment whenever he wanted. "Liam, get out of my apartment."
"Where are you?" he asked me, this time louder and angrier.
"At the police station," I answered.
"Liam, I need you to listen to me," I interrupted, leaning forward to put my elbows on the desk. "Callum's party – I need you to make sure people do not enter that house. The police are there now but –"
"What's going on?" he cut me off. "Our humans told us something happened but they –"
"Lilynn hired a sniper," I said. "We're pretty sure it's to pick people off at the party. I'm sure he's prepared to take out both you and the guests." I tried to make the distinction between the two so he knew vampires were in danger, too.
"I understand." He fell silent on the other end for a moment. "Blaise," he hissed. "I am going to rip her throat out."
I glanced at Bell, glad he couldn't hear Liam. "About her," I said. "She's been dealt with. I—"
"What do you mean?"
"She's been arrested."
"Good," he said, and then added, "But arrested isn't dead."
I fought the urge to roll my eyes. "Look, Liam, I took care of it. She's going to prison for a long time."
"You took care of it?" he repeated incredulously.
"Yeah, I – I had to finish it," I said, putting my head in my hands.
"You had to finish it?" he echoed disbelievingly. I could just see his dark eyes flashing. "What did you do?"
"I can't explain it all now. We'll talk later," I said. "I'll call you if—when we find the sniper, okay?"
Now angry at me, he snapped, "I'm supposed to pick you up."
"Well, I'm staying here until we catch this guy," I said with as much patience as I could muster. "Go home."
"I'm not –"
"Liam, I'm not going to be home for hours," I said. "And I don't want you to be in my apartment in the meantime."
"Get out of my apartment," I sang into the receiver before hanging up.
Bell raised his eyebrows at me. "Who is Liam?" he asked.
I leaned back in the chair, causing it to creak loudly. "One of Callum Knightley's bodyguards," I replied.
"And he broke into your apartment?"
I laughed and waved a dismissing hand. "Yeah, don't ask."
"Okay," he replied doubtfully. "And what is going on with you and Mr. Knightley? You're on a first-name basis?"
I shrugged but stopped because it hurt to move my left arm so much. "He hired me to do some protection."
"Which requires a first-name basis?"
I started feeling a bit awkward. "What's with all the questions?"
He widened his eyes innocently. "No reason, just curious."
"We've become friends," I said, narrowing my eyes slightly. "That's all."
A phone rang again and this time it was Bell's. Our eyes connected and he picked it up as my heart started to beat faster.
"Bell," he barked. Someone started talking on the other side but I couldn't make out what they were saying. "Yeah. Uh-huh. For how long? Okay, thanks. Yeah, man, talk to you later."
He hung up and I looked at him expectantly.
"It's not what we were hoping for," he said.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Lilynn Blaise has been transferred to the psychiatric ward."
I blinked. "Why?"
"She was apparently spouting some shit about vampires and supernatural 'powers' and got violent with the guards at the jail. They transferred her an hour ago."
I nodded slowly, biting my tongue. "Huh," was my answer.
"Weird shit, right?" he commented.
"Yeah," I agreed vehemently. "Weird shit."
At seven, I went to find food. I came back to Bell's desk with an armful of Pop-Tarts, packaged cookies, and every kind of chip that was in the vending machine. Bell looked up at me from his computer.
"I call the Doritos," he said before returning to work.
I was on my third cookie when the phone rang. Stopping mid-bite to watch Bell pick it up, I waited with bated breath to find out what the call was about.
All I heard was: "Yeah. Where? With what? Shit, okay. Later."
He hung up and turned to me.
"What?" I asked impatiently.
"SFPD got him," he said.
I gave a small whoop and stood up. "Where?"
"Gas station outside of the city," he replied. "He had driven all the way from Vegas and stopped for gas. There was a squad car parked at the station."
"Oh, thank God," I said, putting a hand to my chest.
"He had military-grade weapons on him," Bell said. "Like armour-piercing rounds. He even had a high-powered assault rifle with –get this—silver-tipped bullets."
I closed my eyes. Yes, those would have been for Callum and his vampires. Relief made my skin warm. "Jesus."
"I have no idea what that was about, but they got him," Bell said, giving me a smile. "He had seven arrest warrants out on him."
I took out my phone and dialed Liam. He picked up on the first ring.
"What?" he snapped.
"They caught the sniper," I said, the relief apparent in my voice.
Liam had obviously been prepared to say something snippy, and said, "You – they did?"
"Yeah," I said.
I sighed. "It's over."
"Ah, well, it's never really over, sunshine," he said. "But this is good news."
"I'll see you at the party, then," I told him. "Wait. Are you still in my apartment?"
He gave a dark laugh. "No, I'm not. Mr. Knightley needed extra protection."
My heart skipped a beat thinking about Callum. "Is he around? Can I talk to him?" I asked.
"He's indisposed at the moment," Liam replied. "Talking to some police officers who insisted on barging their way into the house."
"Oh, okay," I said, disappointed.
"So, I'll send a car over at eight."
"It's okay," I said. "I'm not going to be ready at eight. I'll drive myself. Send me a text with the address?"
"You're going to drive my car?" he asked unpleasantly, adding, "Which you stole, by the way."
"Borrowed," I corrected.
He grunted. "Fine, just don't scratch it up." He added worriedly, "You haven't scratched it up, did you?"
"Well, I've been meaning to talk to you…" I teased, feeling lighthearted for first time in a while.
He didn't get that I was joking and started saying some nasty things about me. I took the opportunity to hang up the phone.
Bell was rearranging papers on his desk. Turning to face me, he said, "Need a ride?"
He drove me home, obeying every speed limit despite my light urging to speed it up just a tiny bit. He came up to my apartment with me in order to bag the photos of my friends and family as evidence against Lilynn. Giving me a pat on the back, he told me he would see me later and if I did manage to get stabbed again, to at least give him a call this time.
It was eight o'clock by the time he left. I felt rushed because Callum's party had already started. I couldn't wait to see him. I just wanted to see that one dimple, that scar above his eyebrow, and those green, green eyes. Well, at least I hoped that would be green. I didn't know how angry he was going to be at me.
Ignoring that thought, I hopped in the shower and took longer than I had time for. Shards of glass fell out of my hair and the steaming water stung the bullet wound on my left arm. I had a lot more scars and injuries than before all this started. I was healing nicely, though, but the scar tissue was still raised and white. Since I was going to wear a dress, I forced myself to shave my legs, which was quite an ordeal when I realized how sore I was.
I actually blow-dried my hair. It took a few tries, but I loosely braided it to the side so it fell over my shoulder with a few wisps around my face. After I wrapped my arm in a white bandage, I went to my closet and took out the dress I had bought. It was fire-engine red cut in an almost Grecian style with small beads around the neckline, which was rather plunging. It was so long that it brushed the floor, so I wore a pair of black heels. I was a bit worried about my stability, but I couldn't show up to this party in flats.
It had been awhile since I had really looked at myself in the mirror. There was a big blue bruise on my cheekbone from Lilynn's bodyguard. It was tender as I tried to put concealer on it. My eyes looked sunken as well, so I dotted concealer there too. There were a few small cuts, too, but I didn't bother putting makeup on them.
As I was applying some gold eye shadow, I realized how ironic it was that the person who had caused me the most trouble these past few weeks was a human. Even in the midst of all the supernatural happenings, a human had been my biggest pain in the ass. And it wasn't even because of me being the Flora, but because of jealousy. As much as I hated her, I was glad she had been arrested; everything didn't need to end in death. She was probably in a padded room right now, right where she belonged.
Damien and his people were dead, Lilynn was gone…I heaved a sigh. It was finally over.
I still had a faint tingling of fear of the unknown Letalis Flora-wise. According to Lilynn, Thanatos was supposedly out there, convincing other vampires of my existence and gathering support to kill me. He had it in for me; I had burned down his house and killed his vampires. I knew that he was scared of me, though, ever since that incident when I burned his hand. I dreaded more attacks on my life, but I now had a reputation and Mr. Callum Knightley on my side.
Putting the cap on my eyeliner, I bit my lip. I didn't know where Callum and I stood. These past few weeks had been crazy and extraordinary, but what would happen when we resumed our normal lives and normal schedules, if that was even possible? I worked during the day and slept at night, and he worked during the night and slept during the day. I remember he had once offered to give me a job long-term, but I knew I couldn't do that. I had worked long and hard to be a good PI and I loved my job at Montgomery Investigations.
I shook myself. We didn't have to figure everything out now.
I shrugged on a light jacket, grabbed a small beaded clutch, and stuffed my keys, phone, and lipstick into it. My heart dropped for a moment when I realized I didn't have the Firestar anymore. I felt naked without it. I debated slipping a kitchen knife into the clutch, but decided against it. I wanted to feel normal tonight. Well, as normal as I could at a vampire's 300th birthday party.
My palms were sweating as I shut the door of Liam's BMW. I was late, so I had to park the car a good ways down the road from the house. Chatter and thuds of music from the party echoed down to me. Cars were lined along the street, all very flashy and expensive.
I didn't know why I was so nervous. I wrapped my jacket lightly around me and walked towards the house. It was enormous and modern with lots of windows and outside lights that washed it in a shade of yellow. There was someone standing at the front door and I saw people milling around inside, but I guessed that the real party was happening in the back yard.
My heels clicked on the stone path up to the door. A woman in a purple satin dress looked up at me, raising a clipboard and smiling pleasantly. Her eyes darted to the bruise on my cheekbone. I guess I hadn't put enough makeup on it.
"Your name, sweetheart?" she asked lightly, gazing down at her clipboard.
"Dahlia Simon," I said.
She flipped the page and frowned. "I'm sorry," she said, looking up. "I don't see you on here."
My brow furrowed slightly. "Oh," I said. "I should be."
She was now looking at me with less warmth. "Yes, well, I'm afraid you have to be on this list," she said.
A man walked up to stand next to the woman. She looked at him, smiling, and said, "Ah, Mike, would you kindly –"
I met his eyes and smiled guiltily. "Hey, Mike," I said.
Mike didn't look happy to see me. I didn't blame him. I had snuck away from him when he was supposed to be guarding me, probably making him look inept. "Ma'am," he grunted.
"I told you to call me Dahlia," I said.
The woman looked between us, confused. "You two know each other?"
"Yes," he said, eyes boring holes into me.
Alarmed, she said, "Should – should we escort this young woman out? I –". Her eyes found my bruise again.
"No need, Carol," Mike said, resting a calming hand on her shoulder. "This young woman is actually Mr. Knightley's date."
Baffled and insultingly disbelieving, she let Mike pull me into the house. He led me to a large dining room that had a tower of stacked champagne glasses, sparkling in the dim lighting of the room. Clusters of people were chatting and sipping on their flutes. Mike took my jacket and folded it over his arm.
I turned to face him, the bottom of my dress tickling my feet. "So, I'm sorry about today," I said sheepishly.
Face set, he said, "I have to ask: how did you get out of the building?"
"I climbed out of the vent in the laundry room," I said, trying to judge his reaction.
He breathed a reluctant laugh and shook his head. "I didn't even know you were gone until Liam went to check on you."
"Sorry," I said again. "I didn't mean to get you in trouble. I'm sure Liam was a treat."
"I can handle Liam," he said.
I laughed, quite impressed with Mike.
"I know you must have had your reasons," he continued.
Giving a half-shrug, I answered, "You know, the impending death of friends and family." The photo of my mother smiling in her garden flashed in front of my eyes.
"Of course," he replied. "Things work out?"
"Yeah." I smiled slowly, nodding. "Yeah, they did."
"I'm glad," he said. "Just don't do that to me again."
I hoped I never would have to. "I promise."
Giving me a nod, he pointed to the back of the house. "The party's out there," he said.
"Thanks," I said.
"Enjoy yourself. I'll see you around."
I gave him a salute and he walked back towards the front of the house. I saw him hang my jacket up on a coat rack and head over to Carol, who was darting glances in my direction and speaking to him in a low voice.
Taking a glass of champagne, I wiped my palms on my dress as I headed towards the back of the house. The sound of music got louder and once I cleared the dining room, I saw the backyard. I stepped through the big glass doors, and standing on top of the steps, took it all in.
A big open tent had been set up that extended to the right side of the house. Towards the back of it, there was a floor for dancing. A long table had a buffet of the most delicious food I had ever seen. Closer to me, there were round tables and wicker chairs. The seating seemed to continue around to the right. The table settings were stunning – a bouquet of flowers with small tea candles encircling them. I didn't fail to notice that each bouquet held a single dahlia.
I smiled to myself. "Nice touch," I said under my breath.
There were a lot of people under the tent, but it didn't look crowded. Some were milling about on the lawn, some were eating at the tables, some were dancing. A group near the base of the stairs erupted in laughter. I recognized quite a few people from their pictures in newspapers and magazines. I wasn't surprised that Callum knew famous people. Everyone was dressed ten times better than me, too.
There was a faint tingling in my veins, and I knew it was the Letalis Flora gently warning me about the presence of vampires. I scanned the faces of the people and quite a few stuck out to me. Something about their presence and the way their eyes glinted in the candlelight told me that they were vampires. I saw Ophelia, Lester, and Raven, who gave me a wave from where they sat. There were several vampires I didn't know, as well. Their eyes flicked to meet mine, sensing me, too. I didn't feel threatened though, and the Letalis Flora remained a calming hum beneath my skin. That confirmed the hypothesis that it only acted up when I felt threatened by them.
"I can't decide whether to rip your throat out or throw you into a burning pit of fire," a voice said behind me.
Without turning around, I smiled and took a sip of champagne. "I'd prefer neither," I replied.
Liam came to stand beside me. Looking slightly uncomfortable in his tux, his hair wasn't slicked back tonight, falling loose around his ears. The deep purple tie at his neck had been loosened and hung at a slight angle. A man brushed past him to walk down the stairs and Liam glared at his back. "I'm leaning towards the burning pit of fire," he said.
I laughed lightly and looked at my feet. "Okay," I said. "So, I guess you heard?"
"I heard," he said, voice hard.
We didn't say anything for a few moments. I looked back up and we watched a group of women get up to dance to a song.
"I'm glad you're alive," Liam said tersely. I was sort of touched until he added, "At least now I can kill you myself."
I laughed again. "In a burning pit of fire?"
"Yeah," he confirmed. His eyes flashed to meet mine. They were that almost-black colour, slightly narrowed, and seemed to be judging me.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I know it was reckless and I honestly didn't mean to make anyone worry, but Lilynn – she threatened to kill my mom, my dad, my friends, and I just got…well, I just got pissed off."
Surprised, he raised a single eyebrow. "Pissed off?"
"Yeah, and I didn't want to just wait around, waiting for her to come to me, and I knew she had something planned for tonight, so I…went there…" I finished weakly.
"I heard you hijacked a car," he said.
Grimacing a bit, I replied, "I did. It was the only way I could think of to find her."
"You do know that we've been trying to track her down for a while now?" he asked. "I guess we should have thought about hijacking a guard's car."
"I was just improvising," I admitted. "I didn't really have a plan at all."
"That's just stupid," he said starkly.
"This coming from one of the most impulsive people I know," I said, trying to be light.
Voice low, he said, "Well, I'm a vampire." He looked pointedly at my bandaged arm. "You're just a human."
I touched my arm absently. "Well, it was worth it," I said. "She's in the mental ward now, you know?"
He pursed his lips into a thin line. "Why didn't you kill her?"
Two women swept past us, talking loudly about getting another glass of champagne. I let them pass before looking up at Liam and saying, "I could have. I had the knife to her throat. I won't say that I didn't want to kill her after everything she's done, but…I don't know." I took a swig out of my glass. "I'm not a killer. I knew the police were there and if I had killed her, it wouldn't have been self-defense. And I'm – I'm not sure I could handle killing someone like that. A human being."
"That's because you're a good person," he said, unexpectedly serious. The statement actually warmed me. I was glad someone thought I was; I didn't always feel like it. He didn't say anything else for a long moment. He eventually said, "I wish I could've seen that fight."
"Well, I don't know," I grinned. "Lilynn was winning the majority of the time."
"Regardless," he said, shrugging, hair blowing back as a breeze swept past us and into the house. "I like a good cat fight."
I laughed despite myself. There was a glint in his eye that was reassuring. Running a hand down my braid, I gestured at the party in front of us. "Sorry I'm late, by the way."
"I guess you had more important things to do," he replied grudgingly. "Thanks for taking care of the sniper."
"No problem," I said, taking another sip of champagne.
A group of four men dressed in suits came around the corner into the main tent. They stopped near a table, absorbed in conversation. One of them was the mayor of San Francisco. He was shaking his head and laughing, slapping the back of a tall man. I immediately recognized the man's back with its broad shoulders and slightly unruly hair. As if he could feel my eyes, he slowly turned around.
"Oh, Jesus bloody Christ," Liam muttered from beside me.
He had been able to hear my heart skip a beat. I held Callum's gaze and fought the urge to run over there and wrap myself around him. We were in a public setting and he was talking to the mayor, for Christ's sake. I'm not sure I could even touch him without people talking about it. His face was smooth and blank as he said something to the mayor but looked at me.
Liam stuck his hand out in front of me, palm up. "Give me the keys to the BMW," he ordered. "I want to check for damages. Besides, I can't stand here and watch this."
I fumbled to get the keys out of my small clutch. As I looked back up, Liam was standing in front of me, palm still extended, blocking my view of Callum. I dropped the keys in his hands and his long, pale fingers curled around them.
He used his other hand to put a finger under my chin, gently lifting my head to look up at him. He flashed a wicked grin and said, "Save a dance for me, sunshine?"
A bit startled, I managed to recover quickly and narrowed my eyes. "Fine," I replied.
His grin spread, flashing fang. Satisfied, he stepped to the side and disappeared into the house. The moment he moved, I saw Callum excuse himself from the group and weave his way towards me. Several people stopped him, obviously wishing him happy birthday and trying to make conversation. He smiled politely at all of them, charming and sophisticated in his tuxedo. It fit him perfectly through the shoulders, moving with him as he shook hands. The black tie was impeccably placed and I even saw the flash of an expensive-looking watch. He looked like James Bond.
Gripping my clutch tight, I thought that I had never seen him more handsome. His thick dark hair accentuated the high cheekbones and brought out those eyes. As he came closer, my heart beat even harder. I don't know what it was about this man, but I wondered if I would ever stop responding to him like a 12 year-old girl.
When he reached the bottom of the stairs, he just slipped his hands into the pockets of his pants and held my gaze from there. I couldn't judge the expression on his face. I walked down the steps slowly, careful not to trip on the hem of my dress. I stopped a step above him so that I was about two inches higher than him.
"Hi," I breathed more than said.
Those eyes swept over my cheek and the bandage on my arm. His jaw tensed before he replied, "Hi." It was too polite.
"Happy birthday," I said, even though I had already wished him happy birthday when it had turned midnight about twenty-three hours ago. We had been lying naked on the floor, my head on his chest, looking at his watch. I had counted down the seconds until he turned 300 and when I hit zero, he had lifted me up and kissed me, long and hard. Now, he didn't look like he wanted to kiss me at all.
"Thank you," he replied, his English accent quite strong. The civility of it nearly broke my heart. I knew he wouldn't be happy about the recklessness of what I had done. He always seemed to feel responsible or guilty if I got hurt.
I inhaled deeply. "Did I miss the cake?" I asked. My stomach was tied in knots. I hated this feeling.
Hands still in his pockets, he was the picture of composure. "No," he replied.
Not bothering with any more small talk, I stated, "You want to throw me into a burning pit of fire."
An older man came up to Callum and wished him a happy birthday. Callum thanked him and met my eyes once the man continued up the steps. "Liam and I did discuss it," he said seriously.
I closed my eyes for a moment. "I'm sorry," I said softly.
"Are you?" he asked, his tone more curious than accusing.
My eyes flew open and I replied, "Yes." I shifted my stance. "I'm sorry for worrying you and I'm sorry for tricking Mike –which, by the way, please don't blame him for that."
"Oh, don't worry, I won't," Callum said lightly, but it sounded like a threat towards me.
"And I'm sorry for not calling to check in," I said. "And I'm sorry for being late."
He didn't say anything and just looked at me. It was unnerving. I knew he wanted more.
"But Callum—" I was forced to cut off because two girls coming down the stairs had thrown me a sharp look at the use of his first name. "But Mr. Knightley," I emphasized, meeting his eyes and ignoring the girls, "I'm not sorry for going after Lilynn, for confronting her, or for trying to end it. I know it was risky and probably really stupid to go alone, but I had to finish it. I didn't want anyone else to get hurt. And I wasn't about to wait for her to come to me. I know – I know you might not agree with that…well, I know you don't…but—" I frowned slightly and finished, "—But that's just the way I am. You're going to have to deal with it."
Something flickered across his face. "Oh?" he questioned.
"Yeah," I said, feeling the colour rising in my cheeks. "I don't know what you were expecting, but – but I'm not a damsel in distress."
"I am well aware," he said. I couldn't figure out his tone.
I added earnestly, "But please don't get me wrong. I appreciate everything you've done for me and all the times you've saved my life and for choosing not to kill me or turn me and well…just everything." I tucked some hair that had escaped the braid behind my ear. "But I am just not the type to sit around and wait if I have the chance to solve the problem."
The song changed and a light wind brushed past us. He slid his hands out of his pockets and absently touched the middle button of his tuxedo jacket. I was beginning to get frustrated at his lack of emotion.
"Well?" I prodded. He blinked twice and I tried to launch into another explanation, "You don't understand, Lilynn left these threatening—"
"You know how I feel about you, correct?" he interrupted, face still impassive but his eyes belying the emotion that was underneath.
Taken aback, I answered hesitantly, "I think so."
He stiffened for a moment. "Follow me," he ordered suddenly, turning his back on me and walking to the left.
Hesitating for a second, I had to walk quickly to catch up with him. I paused to leave the champagne flute on one of the tables. He walked out from underneath the tent and onto the lawn, continuing until he reached the curve of the house. Testing the grass cautiously, I was proud of myself for not letting my heels sink into it.
The wind was colder out here, away from the heat of the house and the candles. Goosebumps spread across my exposed arms. The house was set far enough from the city that the stars blanketed the sky, twinkling beside the waning moon. I followed Callum as he disappeared into the shadows of the side of the house. I rounded the corner, squinting slightly because my eyes hadn't adjusted to the darkness yet. I made out his form waiting for me.
"Well, since you are so unsure, let me clarify for you," he said gruffly. His eyes flashed in the reflection of the moon's light.
I folded my arms for the sake of warmth and frowned. "Okay," I said uncertainly.
"I love you," he said abruptly. He took a sharp breath and a step forward. "I love you, Dahlia. And, like you, I do not say those words lightly. It is not easy. It is not easy for me to love someone like you, Dahlia—"
I had been warmed all over by his declaration, but I was now affronted. "What do you mean 'someone like me'—?" I questioned.
"What I mean—" he interrupted, eyebrows raised, "—what I mean is that there is not a second that passes that I do not worry about you. Every time we are apart, I have this knot in my chest. I worry that you are hurt or in trouble or dead and – and it is not easy to live like that."
I bit my lip, unsure of what I was feeling. I felt guilty and happy and I had a ridiculous urge to cry. I said nothing as I stared at his tie because I couldn't meet his eyes.
He continued, "So, when I say someone like you, I mean someone who confronts a psychotic killer by herself and tells me to 'deal with it' when she doesn't even know what it does to me."
Looking down at the grass, I grimaced, regretting my word choice.
"When I found out –" he shook his head in frustration. "When I found out what you had done today, I—"
"I know," I said softly. He had wanted to kill me.
"Yes, well." He paused. The music coming from the tent made a distant thudding sound. "I also realized something else."
"What's that?" I asked, not expecting a positive answer.
"That I do not want to be someone who holds you back. And as much as it worries me, your independence and your courage are the two qualities that I like most about you." He came closer, slowly extending a hand towards my face. His fingers hovered over my bruised cheekbone and my breath caught. "So, as hard as it is, I will 'deal with it'. I cannot guarantee anything, but I will do the best I can."
I let out a shaky laugh. I was beyond touched, the lightest I had felt in a long time, and relieved that he accepted who I was. I suppose I had to accept who he was, too.
"Does that clarify things?" he asked.
Nodding, I took his cool hand in both of mine. "Yes," I exhaled, looking up at him. "I should probably clarify something, too."
"What?" he said gently.
I took a deep breath. "I love you, too," I told him.
His expression was no longer hard to read. I saw his one dimple come out before he swept down and kissed me. I nearly lost my footing but one of his hands skimmed up my arm and gripped me tight on my shoulder while the other slid to cup my face. I wrapped my arms around him, and not realizing how much I wanted to, collapsed into him. He felt so good and smelled so familiar and even though we were both cold, my skin quickly warmed from head to toe. The fabric of his tux underneath my fingers was soft and I gripped it tight.
Despite its perfection, I tried to break the kiss. "People are going to notice that you're missing –"
He didn't let me finish. "It's my birthday," he said, voice deep. He reached for me. "I can do whatever I want." He pulled me back into him and kissed me as I laughed.
We danced until my feet hurt so much that I had to take my heels off. As I walked back onto the dance floor, barefoot and smiling, Callum had plucked a red dahlia out of one of the table settings and tucked it behind my ear.
During a particularly slow song, Liam had taken the opportune moment to cut in. It was considerably awkward as we held each other at a distance like two freshmen at the homecoming dance. When he made fun of the way I danced, though, I threatened him with knock-knock jokes, and we quickly settled back into our comfortable habit of insulting each other.
The cake had indeed survived the bombs. It was ten tiers high, impeccable with cream cheese frosting and twenty-nine candles. Only a handful of people knew Callum was turning a great deal older than twenty-nine. After we sang 'happy birthday' and the cake was cut, no one noticed Callum slip me his piece. No one noticed when we slipped away to make out in the pantry, either. Well, no one except for Liam, Lester, Ophelia, Raven, and the rest of the security personnel, but I was okay with that.
I went back to work on Monday. It felt good to be back to normal. My arm was healing nicely and the bruise on my cheek had faded. I even welcomed the paperwork and the gruffness of Ayden Montgomery who told me I had used up all my sick days and gave me an assignment no one else wanted. Alexander and Veronica told me that I seemed different, but couldn't come up with an explanation as to why.
Will was discharged from the hospital on Thursday. I almost knocked on his door, but decided to obey his wishes and left him alone. We ran into each other in the cereal aisle at the supermarket and he gave me a nod, his left eye still unable to open all the way. I smiled back. I think we were both reassured to see the other alive.
There had been no news of Thanatos. Word was that he was still in Europe. We were exceptionally careful, constantly on the lookout, and Callum, Liam, and the others were taking turns with me to test the Letalis Flora. I pushed its limits, experimented with how much power I actually had over it, and slowly, I began to understand it better. It finally felt like a part of me. I had barely touched the surface of it, but that was better than nothing.
I saw Callum every night once the sun set. Sometimes he cooked dinner for me in my kitchen as I watched, happy and relaxed and quite in awe of him. He told me stories of his past; hesitantly at first, but opened up when he saw I was listening intently and without judgment. We would fall into bed – sometimes in a heated frenzy, sometimes in a slow, deliberate way – and he would hold me tight against his chest as I fell asleep. He always stayed until the sky started to lighten, unwrapping himself from me and kissing my forehead before he gently closed the door and disappeared into the remainder of the night.
The call came just as I had settled down on the couch with my feet up, a cup of Earl Grey tea in my hand as I opened a new book to its first crisp page. It was Liam.
"Bad news, sunshine," he said.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Thanatos is back."
I sat up and snapped the book shut. So much for that.
A/N: The first thing I'm going to say is: yes, I am planning a sequel! There was no way to finish every plot-line in just this one story, and I never meant to. I always envisioned this as a series.
Second, I'll be concentrating on my other story Vertigo now, which will unfortunately put the sequel to this on the back burner. But I hope the ending had enough closure in the meantime!
And third, I can't believe this took nearly six years. This was my first story ever, started on a whim when I was 15. Honestly, truly, this wouldn't have been completed without your guys' support and encouragement. You pushed me when I needed to be pushed. So, this is completely dedicated to you. Thank you so much for every review/favourite/follow/PM. You're all amazing.
Ah! I'm getting a little sentimental realizing that this is the last chapter. I really hope you guys enjoyed it! Please let me know what you thought.
Thanks for everything :)