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After my unsuccessful talk with Bridget, I returned home rather downtrodden. I didn't have the energy to pick up my bow again so I trooped back inside and shut myself in my room.
I didn't see anything of Bridget or Cade the next couple of days, not that I was surprised. And I spent a good deal of my time torn in half. Part of me wanted to storm down to their house and demand that one of them tell me what was going on while the other warned me against sticking my nose in where it didn't belong. Again. I couldn't even bring myself to enjoy my last few Ashley-free hours.
It was with an unexplained stomachache that I watched the black BMW crest the hill of my drive-way, bearing towards me the absolute last person I wanted to see right now. I stepped back a bit from my window so that the gauzy material of my curtains hid my face even though I knew she couldn't have seen me. Yet, her face seemed tilted toward my window as though she could sense the animosity that was being directed at her. Of course with the giant sunglasses it was difficult to tell.
My cousin and I were as alike in looks as we were different in personality. She was tall and thin with the inability to tan, though you would never know with the amount of tanning-lotion she applied. The only thing different was our hair. Unsurprisingly, she sported the stereotypical high-lighted blonde hair of her breed. Her lack of a dominate red-hair gene only convinced me further that we were not related.
I watched expressionless as she retrieved her purse from the car and waltzed along the walkway to the front-door, an iced-latte clutched in her manicured hand. Her luggage was left to her dad.
Downstairs, the front door was opened and I heard my mom greet her with calls of welcome, using all the usual greetings of "look how tall and grown-up you are!" I assumed Ashley answered with the politeness and warmth she showed everyone else in my family though her voice was issuing too softly for me to hear.
I wondered briefly how long my mom would allow my absence. My question was quickly answered by my mother's shout of, "Claire! Come down and say hello!"
Still I dawdled, my stomachache becoming increasingly more unbearable. Pacing around my room, I debated if it was worth my mom's anger to not go downstairs at all. After all, it wasn't like refusing to greet her would change the fact I would have to spend the next month with Ashley anyway.
But then my mom called again and this time I could detect a clear warning in her command, the one that hinted at a grounding in my future. "Claire! Get down here now!"
With a resigned sigh I made my way down the stairs and into the kitchen where Ashley had made herself comfortable on a stool by the counter, chatting animatedly with my sister. My mom was putting the finishing touches on a cheese and fruit platter that she set down in front of my cousin, a very parental look on her face as she watched me slip through the doorway.
While I fully intended to let my presence go unknown for as long as possible, my uncle clearly had a different idea. Sneaking up behind me and encasing my shoulders with one arm, he ground his knuckles into my head with a loud and boisterous, "Hey, kiddo!"
Ducking out of his welcome, I fixed my hair and managed a disgruntled smile. "Hello, Uncle Mike."
My Uncle Mike was a big man with the appearance of someone who had gone slightly to seed, particularly in the abdomen area. He had thinning brown hair, glasses and the lingering demeanor of a class-clown.
"Good to see you, Claire. Good to see you. How've you been?"
"Just fine," I answered politely.
It wasn't too much of a lie. I couldn't exactly tell my uncle that I was currently having problems with my werewolf friends while dreading the arrival of his daughter.
"Fine! Fine! That's all I ever get from you kids," he boomed good-naturedly. "Would it kill you to actually tell us how you're doing?" He reached out to muss my hair again and I ducked expertly out of the way.
He turned instead to my mother.
"Theresa! Looking lovelier than ever! Now, maybe I can get more out of you. How have you been?"
My mom kissed his cheek, pressed a drink into his hand, and proceeded to give him a detailed account of everything that had happened since they had last had contact. I kept my eyes on the pair of them as along as possible, hoping for an in on the conversation, but something so incredible happened that it had me frozen to the spot.
"Claire-bear!" was shouted from behind me. It was unmistakably Ashley's voice. And she was happy. And speaking directly to me.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked around in wonder to see Ashley smiling radiantly at me, sunglasses pushed up onto her head and her arms opened wide in an invitation for a hug. I reacted more out of shock than anything and briefly wrapped my arms around her. They dropped lifelessly back to my side.
She continued to look at me and it was several minutes before I realized that she was waiting for me to say something back. But what had just happened had seemed to render me speechless and so she took the reins.
"C'mon, don't you remember? When we were little I always called you Claire-bear and you would call me Ashy," she prompted, poking my playfully in the side.
I heard my mom clear her throat unnecessarily loud behind me.
"Um…right," I said, still confused.
"Sill, you can't have forgotten," laughed Ashley.
"Uh…" I responded because I didn't have anything else to say.
"Claire's just in that lazy summer mode," interjected my mom "wakes up not know what day it is – can't be bothered to remember anything. Right, Claire?"
"Er…right," I replied.
"Teenagers," finished my mom, turning to my uncle with a knowing look.
"Useless," he conceded. He gave me a wink.
"Well, dinner is almost ready," said my dad, sticking his head around the sliding glass door. "Everybody grab a seat."
"C'mon, Claire! You can sit next to me," said Ashley enthusiastically.
I blinked stupidly at her, not quite believing my ears. It was one thing to be nice and polite in front of my family, but it was another to actually request I sit next to her when she could have easily avoided it. Numbly, I chose the seat next to her at the table on the back porch where more surprises lay hidden between the courses. Ashley kept up a steady stream of conversation and seemed genuinely interested in the most mundane aspects of my life though I never gave her more than a sentence answer. Our conversation was monitored by my mother who caught me eye every so often.
It was none too soon that my mom stood up and asked me to help her clear away the dishes.
"Let me help, Aunt Theresa," offered Ashley.
I almost dropped my plate in shock. Ashley absolutely hated doing the dishes.
"Oh, don't be silly Ashley. You've had a long drive today. Just relax; I think Claire and I can manage."
"No, really," insisted Ashley, standing up.
Then, I saw it. The explanation for the change in attitude. As she continually offered to help, there was the smallest of glances toward her dad. Both of us had been read the same Right Act.
Well, two could play that game.
"No, Ashley, its fine," I said. I looked directly at her. "Trust me."
"If you're sure," she said with a small nod.
My mom gave the both of us an approving smile.
Later that evening, as night was beginning to fall and my mom was trying to press a third cup of coffee on my uncle, Ashley asked me if I could help move her luggage upstairs. I agreed without a single stutter – the surprise of her addressing me like a member of the family had finally worn off – and followed her upstairs, bearing the greater part of her baggage. When we reached the guest room, I dumped everything unceremoniously on her bed, glad to drop my act as well.
"Caught on finally, have you?" she wondered sarcastically, watching one of her suitcases roll to the floor.
"What gave it away?" I asked, nudging the bag off my foot but not making a move to retrieve it.
"I didn't want to stay here, you know –" began Ashley without prelude.
"Yeah, well I wasn't exactly jumping for joy when I heard you were coming either," I interrupted.
"– But after a lot of arguing all I got was a threat that if I didn't behave myself then I wouldn't get a car – " she continued.
"Oh darn," I muttered.
"So, here's how it is going to work," she said loudly. "When we are with family, we will act like the best of friends. You laugh at all my jokes, I'll pretend to compliment you, you offer to include me in all your summer activities and I'll offer to help you around the house…"
"And when we are alone," I cut across her, keen to get my own opinion heard, "we pretend that the other doesn't exist."
Ashley's eyes narrowed but a sly smile played about her lips. She stuck out her hand.
"Then we have a deal."
"We have a deal," I agreed. And we shook on it.
* * * *
The first part of our agreement wasn't as difficult to pull off as I had thought. For those who didn't know, we could have been nest friends for our whole lives. Of course, the first couple of days we had to spend in each other's company so we joked and complimented and giggled like a pair of school girls under the eye of my mom—who no doubt had secondary instructions from my aunt and uncle as well. Our encounters even came out natural most of the time, like we were falling back instep with our younger selves.
Connor came around on the third day to give me a break from all the family time.
The reintroduction of Ashley and Connor had me slightly nervous. They had met years ago, when Ashley and I were still on good terms, but after we had fallen out, I had taken great care to protect Connor from her. Ashley had always had a thing for Connor as well, and I wasn't sure if the fact that we were now dating was going to change it for the better or worse.
When the doorbell rang on that third morning it was like coming up for air after a long dive. Here was finally someone I could vent to, someone who would understand and offer me support rather than reprimands.
"Thank God you're here," I said as soon as the door swung open.
"Hello to you too," he chuckled, drawing me into a hug and kissing my forehead.
"I'm sorry, but you don't know what it's been like," I explained.
"I think I've got a pretty good idea," he muttered, something of a shadow briefly crossing his face.
"What do you mean?" I asked confused.
"Never mind," he said, brightening, "I want to hear about you."
I grabbed his hand and pulled him through the house and out onto the back porch where we sank down on the hammock, telling him in undertones all about Ashley and our deal.
"It can't be that bad if you've both agreed on it," reasoned Connor.
"It doesn't feel right," I said, "We're supposed to hate each other, but all this acting…"
"Excuse me?" interrupted Connor, laughing. "Supposed to hate each other?"
"You know what I mean," I dismissed, "but all this acting is confusing. It feels just like old times and sometimes I even catch myself wishing for them, but when my family's not around we got right back to the present and she drives me nuts!" I took a deep breath.
Connor dropped my hand so he could wrap both arms around me and pull me back to lean against his chest.
"You never know," he said, "Ashley could be feeling the same way."
"Feeling what way?" came the question from the sliding glass door. My cousin stepped out, eyeing us on the hammock and fanning herself absently with one hand. "Who's your friend, Claire? He looks familiar." She smile and I knew that she knew who he was.
"This is Connor, my boyfriend," I said, "I think you guys met awhile ago."
"Nice to meet you again," greeted Connor, offering his hand, but still holding onto me.
"Back at ya," retuned Ashley, accepting his hand, scrutinizing him up and down with a look I knew well.
"You didn't tell me you had a boyfriend, Claire," scolded Ashley, turning on me.
"I forgot I guess," I shrugged. Connor mussed my hair playfully.
"How could you forget to mention such a good-looking boyfriend?" wondered Ashley sarcastically, fluttering her eyelashes.
Connor shifted uncomfortably and I put my hand on his knee.
"You're right. I'm really lucky, aren't I?" I asked, grinning. And I planted a kiss right on his mouth.
"You should use me more often," murmured Connor.
My grin broadened and I looked back at Ashley. She gave a jerky nod and waltzed back into the house. I had won this round.
* * * * *
We drove back to Connor's house where we were going to have dinner with his parents before going to see a movie. All the windows were open in his Jeep and my hair was whipping around my face. He had the music blasting and was singing off-key to the latest summer hit. I laughed and sang along with him, feeling all my troubles carried away by the wind.
What did it matter if Ashley liked Connor? Why should I care if she was here for three days or three weeks? What should I be worried about Bridget when she made it clear that she didn't want my help? All that mattered was that it was the summer and I would be spending it with Connor.
We pulled up to his house, a large two-story colonial with a neat little rose-garden out front, which I knew his mother prized. He opened my door for me and I hopped out. He took my hand and we meandered slowly through the rose bushes.
"Claire?" he asked.
"I've got something to tell you," said Connor, his tone gentle but serious.
"What?" I said, stopping and turning to him.
We both turned towards the shout from the front door where a tanned, brunette boy of about of own age was waving cheerfully at us.
"I'm having my own house guest for the summer," finished Connor, although it sounded more like he had switched ideas at the last minute.
I looked back to the boy who had stepped into the sun so that his true features where thrown into sharp relief.
"His name is Trevor," answered Connor to my unasked question.
"Oh—oh," I said my voice off as I continued to study the newcomer.
"Don't worry," whispered Connor. "He's a good guy, and he won't be here that long. Besides, he already promised to stay out of sight whenever we're together."
He said the last bit so that Trevor could hear. He grinned sheepishly in response, but Connor beckoned him over and introduced me.
"Nice to meet you," said Trevor, shaking my hand.
"Likewise," I said a bit faintly.
"Dinner is almost ready," he informed us.
"We'll be there in a minute," amended Connor, turning back to me.
"Don't worry," said Connor again.
"I'm not," I lied. I trailed behind him, horror creeping along my spine. I was worried, but not for the reason Connor imagined.
Trevor seemed nice enough, but that didn't erase the knowledge that he was shape-shifter. The same shape-shifter, in fact, who had been with Matt the first time I had encountered him at the movie theater last year.