Under the Magnolia: Daughter of Fire Prequel Novella, page 3
“Okay, well, she was the ice-queen to me just now. Does that mean you’re remotely interested in me?”
He stopped walking, and his mouth fell agape in fake surprise. “How could you think that? Maybe you’re just one of the lucky few she dislikes for absolutely no reason at all.”
“So you don’t like me?” I stuck out my bottom lip in an over-emphasized pout.
“Definitely not,” he said, without one iota of sincerity. “It’s a struggle even being near you.”
I gave a loud, fake sigh. “And here I thought we’d be together forever.”
“I don’t know about forever, but how about tonight?” He glanced at me sideways as he suddenly turned serious. “I can show you some of the local highlights.”
My stomach fluttered with delight as I considered the implications of his question. For a moment the flood of bodies that surrounded us, rushing about their days, all disappeared. It was just him and me, and an impossible question stuck to my lips. I swallowed down the concern that I’d misinterpreted his words, and just let the words fall from me. “Are you asking me on a date?”
He sucked his bottom lip between his teeth and the tips of his ears pinked. “Maybe?”
I thought about what Dad’s reaction to me going on a date with a boy I’d only just met might be. It wasn’t hard to guess what he’d say. He would react badly to me going out for the evening at all, much preferring that I run home and stay in all night like I usually did. I could only imagine the questions it would raise—ones that I didn’t even want to think about, let alone try to find answers for.
“I don’t think I can,” I said, as much to my own disappointment as his. I started walking again, unable to stand the injured look he wore the instant my rebuff was free. I ducked my head and closed my eyes as I walked, wishing I didn’t have to hurt the one person I regarded as a friend—the one person I wanted more than anything to say yes to.
Clay fell into step beside me. He was silent for a moment before he spoke again. “I guess you’re still settling in at home, huh? Still unpacking?” His voice was a little cheerier than his expression had indicated it should be. I hoped it meant he understood that I wanted to say yes, but that I just couldn’t.
“No, we’ve already unpacked.” I didn’t feel the need to mention that with the meager possessions we owned it didn’t take long. We’d buy furniture only after Dad decided that we were staying long enough to warrant it. I wouldn’t have a bed beyond a camp cot for at least a week or two.
“Oh.” Clay’s surprise was evident in both his expression and his voice.
I realized a moment too late why he’d asked whether I was still unpacking. “It’s not that I don’t want to go out,” I explained, stopping again before turning to him. “It’s just—”
He chuckled mirthlessly. When he spoke, the words were forced through clenched teeth. “It’s not you, it’s me?”
“No, I just—”
He held up his hand to silence me. “It’s cool, Evie. I get it. I just thought . . . well, I don’t know. I just thought that you might like to go out.” He shrugged and walked away.
His steps were so long that I had to rush to catch up with him again. I grabbed his arm. “I’d love to go out.”
“Just not with me?”
“No. I mean, yes. With you.”
“But?” His gaze was intense while he waited for an answer, his almost-black eyes boring into me.
I sighed, genuinely this time. “But, well, it’s a long story. My dad can be a bit difficult when it comes to me. If I’m a minute late getting home, he’ll call 911.”
Clay laughed, the sound positively carefree compared to the previous sound. “I’m sure you’re exaggerating.”
I wished I was.
“Not really. He knows how long it should take me to get home. If it takes any longer than that, I get the call.”
“It is what it is,” I said, with a shrug. It was a part of my life that I’d accepted long ago. Dad was who he was, and it was usually easier to just go along with his crazy.
“Why don’t you fight harder? Demand a little freedom. You’re a senior after all.”
“He’s all I’ve got. I might not agree with his decisions, but he is doing what he thinks is best for me.” I kicked the ground as I walked.
“You’ve got to live a little too.”
My stomach twisted around his words. Could I live with the guilt of causing Dad pain? I wasn’t sure any amount of fun was worth that.
We arrived at the cafeteria, and Clay paused for a moment before a slow grin spread across his lips. “So if I asked you to have lunch with me?”
“That, I’d say yes to.”
His grin widened. “Good to know. I’ll keep that in mind.”
My mouth snapped shut as I turned to watch him. Was he really going to leave it like that? “I’d say yes right now if you asked,” I prompted.
A laugh left him. “Someone’s eager.”
“What can I say? You’re the only interesting person I’ve spoken to today.”
“The only interesting one?” He looked off to one side of the cafeteria.
I followed his gaze to where his sister sat by herself with two trays in front of her. “The only interesting one who isn’t an evil harpy.”
An odd frown flickered over his face before his smile came back in force. “Lou can be a bit of a bitch, but she’s not a harpy. And she isn’t evil. You can trust me on that.”
“Sorry. I keep forgetting she’s your sister. I still can’t believe it.”
“Well, she’s so blonde, and you’re so . . . not.”
He laughed. “Why does blonde sound like a bad thing when you say it like that?”
“It’s not. I mean not really, it’s just—” I cut off when I found his espresso eyes assessing me. My breath left my body in a rush when I stared into the depthless darkness. It would have been so easy to fall into them and get lost forever.
With a shake of my head, I dropped my gaze to the floor and attempted to gather my concentration. I’d never desired a guy before, not this way, and definitely not someone I’d only just met. When I was ready to try again, he’d turned his attention from me, focusing on the cell phone in his hand instead.
“Crap. I’ve got to go.” He gave a whistle and then a hand signal that sent his sister to her feet. Then he rushed back out the door. “I’ll talk to you later!” He didn’t even turn around as he said the words while sprinting away.
Before I could process why he was leaving so fast, Louise rushed up to me. “Leave my brother alone. He’s too nice to tell you that he’s not here to pick up easy girls.”
My jaw clenched at her words. How dare she call me easy? And it wasn’t as if I’d been the one who’d asked for Clay’s number. My anger gave my feet a speed I used to my advantage, propelling myself in the direction I’d seen Clay run in.
I made it to outside when Clay and Louise climbed into a black sedan. They were barely inside the car before it sped off.
For a moment, I stood blinking after the car. Then I spun in a slow circle, watching everyone near me to see if anyone else thought the behavior was odd.
As it became apparent they weren’t coming back anytime soon, I retreated back into the school and headed for my next class. I wasn’t particularly hungry anymore.
For the rest of the day, I kept an eye out for Clay’s return. The longer he was away, the more I worried that something serious had happened. Maybe a family member had died, or there’d been some other emergency at home.
I only hoped he hadn’t left town.
To anyone else, that mightn’t have even been a consideration, but I’d had my school day interrupted often enough by Dad’s need to leave a town.
It wasn’t normal though. At least, not for people with ordinary parents who weren’t beyond paranoid.
And apparently, the paranoia was catching.
“HUH?” I snapped to attention, and my focus fell on Dad.
He sat across the table from me with a plate of food in front of him, and his fork held halfway to his mouth. “I asked how your first day at your new school was.”
“Oh,” I said, giving a small shake of my head to clear my thoughts. “It was okay, I guess.”
“Meet anyone interesting?”
It was something he asked me each time I changed schools, but it was the first time I might’ve been able to answer it. I just didn’t want to. “No one memorable.”
“You should try to make friends.”
I clenched my jaw and stared at him as the statement rubbed against the instructions he’d given me in the past. “But not get too friendly, right?”
“Not so friendly that they can look in my eyes, or discover the real color of my hair, or figure out whatever forces us to run all the time even though I don’t know what it is.” Each word I said sent my voice rising until I was nearly screaming.
“Evie, you need to calm down.”
I threw my fork onto the table. It clattered against my plate as I turned my back and left the dining room. When I hit my bedroom, I slammed my door shut behind me.
Crossing my arms over my chest, I plonked myself onto the end of the bed. I sat steaming at the unfairness of my life. I’d finally met someone I might want to get to know a little better, and it could be over in an instant on one of Dad’s whims.
Less than ten minutes had passed before there was a knock on the door. “Evie? Can I come in?”
Although I wanted to mutter something to get him to go away, I couldn’t. “Sure.”
He stepped just far enough into the room to lean against the door frame. His folded his arms over his chest and just stared at me for a few seconds.
I stared right back until I couldn’t take it a moment longer. “What?”
With a sigh, he crossed the room and sat beside me on the bed. “This isn’t easy on me either.”
I rolled my eyes but didn’t respond verbally.
“Do you think I like moving every few months? Uprooting our entire lives just to keep—”
Before he cut himself off, I sat a little taller. Maybe I was finally going to learn more.
“I don’t like having to do this either. But trust me when I say it’s important.”
“Why though? Why is this important? Who do you think is right behind us? What on earth would make us so interesting that anyone would want to track us down?”
“It’s too hard to get into right now. But I promised this would be our last move, didn’t I? At least until you’ve finished school.”
I scoffed. Of course, there was a limitation on his whole “last move” promise.
“You’re all I’ve got left in this world,” Dad said. “I won’t risk losing you. But we’ve got to stick together, kid. We’ve got to be on the same team.”
It was a lecture I’d heard before. “Sure. We’re so much of a team that you won’t tell me the truth about why you’re running.”
“It’s just not that simple.”
“Whatever, Dad. I’ll try to make friends if it’ll make you happy.”
“I just want you to be happy.”
Clay’s invitation ran through my head. “So do you think I could stay out a little longer tomorrow night then? In the interest of making friends, of course.”
His lip curled downward and his brows furrowed. His answer was clear long before he voiced it. “I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
“Do you know how socially stunted it leaves me to not be able to hang out with anyone after school?”
“You’re safe at school, though.”
“I wasn’t in Fredericksburg. At least, that’s what you said as you ripped me from the classroom.”
“The point was I knew exactly where you were, so I could come and get you easily.”
“No, the point is that you’re suffocating me. I’m nearly eighteen, Dad. I’m going to be an adult soon. Then you won’t be able to tell me that I can’t go out.”
“Evie, will you please just trust me?” He stroked his hand through my hair. “I’ve only got your best interests at heart.”
The argument was tracking ground that we’d covered so many times the grass had to be completely dead. It was going to be easier just to pretend to understand so we could move on without going over it all once again.
“Sorry, Dad. It’s just new school jitters I guess. I’m a little tired though, so I might just call it a night.”
After saying goodnight, Dad left me alone to my thoughts of my day, although only one particular thing stood out in every one. Near-black hair, a lovely pout, and depthless eyes full of warmth and humor.
WHEN I arrived at school the next morning, Clay was waiting by my locker.
“How’d the rest of your first day go?”
“Where’d you disappear to?”
He waved me off. “Just a family emergency. My dad had a little . . . hunting accident.” He grinned to himself as he said the words.
I didn’t see anything humorous in the situation though. “Oh my god. I hope he’s okay?”
“He’s fine. It’s was nothing, really. His pride was the only thing that was really injured.”
He reached for the books I slid from my locker, taking them from me before I could refuse. “So I don’t know if you’re aware, but apparently there’s a Valentine’s dance this Friday.”
I laughed because posters for the dance practically coated every available surface of the walls between the lockers. “I think I might’ve seen something about that.”
“Well, I don’t suppose that’s your sort of scene?” He scrubbed the back of his neck with his palm.
“I wouldn’t actually know.”
He stopped rubbing and tipped his head to the side in question. “What does that mean?”
I tried not to blush as I shrugged. “I don’t know what goes on at a dance like that. I’ve never been to one.”
The hand that had been on his neck swung forward to grab my shoulder, stopping me mid-step. “What?”
“What do you mean what?”
“How can you have reached your senior year without going to a single dance?”
My cheeks burned under his steady gaze. “I’ve just never had the opportunity.”
“I don’t believe that someone as pretty as you wouldn’t be able to get a date for a dance.”
I tried to ignore the heat brewing deep in my stomach as he called me pretty. “It’s not for lack of interest. I told you, my dad’s really strict. I’ve never been allowed before.”
“So strict you can’t even go to a school-sanctioned event?”
“Are you kidding? That many bodies squeezed into a tiny gym where it’s dark, and there are hidden corners everywhere. It’s practically Dad’s worst nightmare.” I sighed, wishing I was exaggerating even though I was using Dad’s own words. “Anything could happen. It’s a fire trap for starters.”
Clay’s gaze traveled to his hand, and the motion reminded me his fingers still rested on my shoulder. “So if someone was to ask you to go with him . . .” He stared at the ground, unwilling or unable to meet my eye.
“I’d have to say no. It’s impossible with the way Dad is.”
Clay nodded. “That’s twice now though, you know?”
“Twice you’ve turned down an invitation from me.”
I arched one brow. “Technically that wasn’t an invitation.”
He met my eyes for a fraction of a second. As I turned away, his hand slipped into mine so he could walk me to class. “Come with me?”
“When you put it that way . . .” I took a breath as I tried to think of the easiest way to end that sentence. “You make it really hard to say no.”
“You really work fast, don’t you?”
Someone pushed through between us, forcing Clay to drop my hand. A flash of blonde proved what I’d suspected—his sister was the one who’d broken through our joined hands.
Ignoring the interruption, Clay chuckled. “If you think I’m fast, you should see my brother. Eth has gone from strangers to lovers in fifteen minutes flat before.”
I lifted one brow, trying to disguise the interest I was certain was evident on my features. “Lovers?”
Clay’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he hummed. “Yeah. Eth likes to share the love around.”
“And the clap too, I bet.”
“And you know this because . . .?” I trailed off, waiting for an answer.
“I’ve had enough lectures from him to last a lifetime. He was the one who gave me the talk.”
“At least you had the talk. I learned everything I know from books and the internet.”
His breath caught, and he stepped closer to me. “And what exactly do you know?”
I blushed as our conversation stepped further down a sordid path. “Enough.”
“You’ll have to show me sometime.” The words were so quiet, I almost thought I misheard them. Before I could ask him to confirm what he said, he spoke again, “So, you, me, and the Valentine’s dance. How about it?”
“We’re going to be late for class.” I turned away from him, moving to the seat in the classroom to try to avoid the conversation. Somehow it seemed easier to discuss our sex education—or lack of—than to turn him down.
“Is that a negative then?” Clay asked as he slid into the seat beside me.
“I can’t, Clay. I’m sorry.”
From her space in front of his, his sister whispered something to her neighbor, and then they both spun to look at me before laughing. I rolled my eyes and ignored them.
“You know what? Maybe I will go after all.”
Clay’s eyes lit up, and he grinned at me. “Really?”
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- Seal of FateIgniting the Spark (Daughter of Fire Book 4)
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