"You need to get out of this house!" Virginia scolded Sara profusely as she stood in the doorway to her borrowed bedroom. "You have been cooped up ever since the family party when Jessie officially introduced Jon to everyone! That was a week ago. In fact, you've all but turned into a hermit, and it's starting to piss me off."
Michael, being the intelligent adult that he was, had pointedly stayed out of the fight. Sara half envied him. She wouldn't have minded staying out of the fight herself. "Nica," she said on a sigh. "It's just . . . painful."
"Because you're now the only Cultivator who is single?" Virginia asked shrewdly. When Sara grimaced, she snorted. "Please. I've been telling you your emotions since I was able to talk in my first life. Hazards of being an empath. Don't think you'll ever be able to hide how you really feel from me. Hell, not even Shana or Edgar try that anymore! The only person who can hide their emotions from me is my soul mate, as is normal of an empath's mate, but he also doesn't try. So, allow me to point out one really salient fact: do you honestly think that, in all of existence, you'd be the only Cultivator without a Caretaker? Clara had more reason to think that than you, and yeah, didn't happen."
Sara winced. "I know, I know! But I don't think I have to tell you how scared I am. Five thousand years is a long damn time to wait, and even before I gave up, by the time you were born, I had been burned more than once by failed dates—to say I understand Juliet would be an understatement! I got accused of trying to lead people on or bewitch them because I just didn't have interest beyond the first date."
"Well, that's normal." Virginia shrugged one shoulder. "We do bewitch people, however unintentionally. Especially those of us from Carnation. Our flower literally embodies pride and beauty and love, so . . . we do tend to be a little, hmm, enchanting?"
"I've always been bewitched by you," Michael called absently.
"You're not helping." Virginia couldn't help but smile though. It was a mutual bewitchment. "Come on, Sara. You can't honestly let that be affecting you by now. You know how things work. You're at least mildly empathic yourself, though that may well be part of the issue. We do tend to be a bit more fragile. Ironic for Glass elements maybe." She grinned. "Besides, just give up on hiding. With the way things have run lately, you'd either end up opening the door and meeting the delivery guy, or the place would catch fire and you'd be rescued by a fire guardian!"
Sara had to laugh. "The saddest part is that you're right!" She sighed and got to her feet to walk over to the window. "Unless I fall for someone from the Realm," she murmured, "I'd have to endure his dying to be with me, and I'm not sure I'm strong enough."
"Is that a possibility?" Virginia asked curiously. "I mean, can people of the Realm decide to just live on the living plane for a while?"
"Yes, but under some very specific caveats: their immediate family—brothers and sisters—have surpassed at least ten generations or ended, and they themselves cannot have a lineage or be a Guardian of something. The former is not that hard to obtain, but the latter two definitely are! As we said, there are definitely extenuating circumstances right now. I think there are maybe two or three people of the Realm living on this plane, and I'm not even sure which worlds they are on."
"So," Virginia said reasonably, "your odds are looking good for being safe from your own destiny for a while, right, since I don't think Destiny would risk breaking you by giving you a mortal. Statistically speaking, you have a really small chance of running into an immortal. So you should be perfectly safe to get out of this house and come with me to a photo shoot today with Shana."
"Shana?" Sara quirked a brow.
"Sure. She's in finals week right now and finishing up her portfolio to turn in. She graduates next week. I volunteered since she's doing fashion things, and I will always jump at a chance to pad my own modeling portfolio with her work. She's probably the best in the world, really. We both get a great deal from it!" She leaned in conspiratorially. "Besides. I could use your help to convince Mike to pose. Wouldn't he be absolutely gorgeous as a model? I want to see him in black and white images. His nigh black and white coloring with no color to distract from it? Oh gosh." She sighed gustily. "Okay, I'm getting flushed."
Sara burst into laughter. "You're so terrible! Okay, you win. Let's go meet up with our beloved photographer and see what she's got lined up." It shouldn't be too bad. If it was just Virginia, Michael, and Shana, how bad could it be?
* * * * *
In the Dragonsbane base, Linx was staring broodingly into the crystal orb when Talla walked into the room. He was able to ignore her at first, but when she stopped beside him and leaned forward to look into the orb as well, he was caught by the sight of her thick gray hair tumbling forward to frame her lovely body. The scent of her curled up into his nose, more potent than ever, and sharp claws of desire tore at him. "Dear goddess," he managed to say. "What did you do?"
She straightened and looked at him in surprise. "I walked over here," she said. She had been intending to brush against him, and to try the flirty looks thing, but hadn't decided her first move yet. Had perfume alone done the trick?
He ran his eyes over her swiftly. He had known that Jaslyn had very gleefully dragged her out for clothes, but he hadn't noticed the results until then. The snug denims clung to every curve of her outrageously long legs and the soft white shirt she wore accented her figure. The top few buttons had been left undone, and he had a direct view of the tempting line of her bust. Until that moment, he hadn't realized he might actually find such a thing so very appealing. He closed his eyes to remove temptation from sight. "Do me a favor," he said roughly. "Go put a very big coat on so I can't see you."
Her smile spread as she turned in a saucy circle. "What? You don't like it? I even got my nails painted." She wiggled her fingers under his nose teasingly.
His eyes shot open as he realized her game. "You little tease!" He leapt forward and snatched her up into his arms. She gave a startled squeak and then clutched at him tightly as his head swooped down and he took the kiss he had been craving for days.
The taste of her exploded on his tongue and the feel of her, while oddly alien in some ways, was at the same time completely familiar. The scent of her seemed to be seared into his lungs. His head jerked up and he stared down at her with burning eyes. "This isn't the first time I've wanted you," he said roughly. "I know it. Why can't I remember it?"
She couldn't figure out how to explain. All she could do was stare at him longingly. She loved him so terribly. "Linx . . ."
He very carefully released her and put her down. "I need to think," he said quietly. He bent his head to kiss her again, but this time tenderly. Again, the taste of her was achingly familiar. "I know there's something wrong. I need to figure it out."
She pressed her lips tightly together as he walked away. She could still feel him, still taste him. The next time he touched her, she had a strong feeling that neither of them would be able to stop. Hopefully, Shana might have more advice she could spare.
The softly warning voice brought her head around, and the scale marks on her skin burned in recognition of danger. Irimara stood just inside the door to her inner areas. Objectively, Talla found her to be quite lovely in human form with her gray colored hair and eyes and plump figure, but there was some sort of innate nastiness in her eyes that she had always despised. "Yes?" she asked quietly.
"If you leave," Irimara warned her softly, "I will kill Linx."
"As you've said before. I would never have joined you if you hadn't made that threat to begin with." Her eyes narrowed slightly. "I never vowed to stop loving him. Just as I never said I wouldn't try to make him love me again. If even through your machinations he still loves me, how can you stop it?"
Irimara snarled softly yet there was nothing she could say. Talla was right. "Get out of my sight."
"Gladly." Talla turned on her heel and stalked from the room. Partway down the hall, she found Jaslyn. "Do me a favor," she said, "and start targeting the next human. The sooner this is done, the sooner we can leave."
Her door shut behind her, and Jaslyn frowned as she looked to where the twins stood. Talla hadn't looked angry. She had looked heartbroken. It was an expression not unlike what had been on Linx's face when he had gone past earlier. Neither of the other three liked it. Anger was okay. Heartbreak? Not at all.
* * * * *
Professor David Myosotis taught history classes at the university in Lux that covered both Harmonic and Royal Eras, though some often thought half of what he said may be a myth. He let that slide. He had a giving personality, loved to always meet people, and many suspected he could literally befriend anyone. He also happened to be ridiculously handsome, a fact that had had him stalked for nearly an entire year of school by one very stubborn photographer.
"Shana," he said as she stood in front of his desk with her hands on her hips, "I'm very flattered, but I know nothing about modeling."
"So?" She had made up her mind and would not be swayed. David had rich brown hair and piercing red-violet eyes that would be a perfect foil to Virginia's red hair and glass-gold eyes. He was also taller than average—roughly her father's height—and broad shouldered. He had a clear Light core, too, so he smiled very easily, and a Nature Flower Element. He all but oozed charm as that combination might imply. He also had other quirks to him that she had pegged, but she kept her mouth shut on them since they seemed irrelevant. "I'll tell you what you need to do. If anything, not being a professional is good for me. If I can make you look professional, then my skill is proven."
"You don't need to prove it at this time," he reminded her dryly. "You've proven it again and again over the last year or so. You're already working in the field, and your images have appeared in just about every sort of periodical I can imagine.
It was time for dirty measures. She so rarely had to pull out the most terrible of tactics, but she knew how to get what she wanted. "Please?" Her eyes began to shimmer with a threat of tears, and her lower lip quivered. "Please?"
"Oh, you are dangerous," he murmured. With a sigh, he gave in and got to his feet. "Alright. You win. Will now work for you? I have two hours until the next class." He snorted softly. "I assume you planned for your win and have clothes already laid aside."
Her grin came quick and cheerful. "Of course I did!" She grabbed his wrist and began to tow him out into the hall. "We're just going next door to the studio in this building. Not only were the others booked, but I figured the shorter the walk, the less chance you could chicken out on me."
He said nothing as she hauled him down the hall with utter ease; her strength had become somewhat legendary, so he knew he could not escape. "You are both terrifying and yet entirely comforting and trustworthy. I am not sure how you manage that."
"It's a gift." She opened the studio door and walked inside. "My other model will be arriving shortly, but I want to get some of you solo first." She pointed at a clothes rack with neatly labeled outfits. "They're in numerical order."
"Shana, are you in here?" Desiree called as she entered.
"I am! Professor, meet my best friend and artistic co-conspirator Desiree Rikavet. Ree, meet Professor David Myosotis. Desiree's going to be our makeup and hair specialist." She was also there as a bodyguard while Uwe hung around outside as the same. Barely two weeks remained to Shana's birthday; the Defenders and Commanders alike had closed tighter ranks around her and Edgar.
Desiree smiled. "It's nice to meet you, professor."
"David," he corrected. "Under the circumstances, formality is hard."
"Shana's good at that." Desiree smiled as she said it, thinking of the near irony of a High Queen so disdaining formality.
Shana beamed. "I do my best." Letting them be, she walked over and began to adjust the lights and settings. Her lack of formality or being non-picky only extended so far. When it came to her art, she became picky as hell.
David could only sigh as he stepped behind the curtain that had been raised for privacy. He had been teaching for a decade, and in all those years he had never once been tackled by a photographer. Though, really, he should have seen it coming. She had been eyeing him all year, and she did not seem the type to not run with her ideas.
The first set of clothes resembled a high quality business suit, but he could not button the shirt entirely closed, and the ascot could not be tied. It had to hang open around his neck. Everything fit perfectly otherwise, which bemused him. "Do I dare ask how you knew what size I wore?" he called.
"I have sneaky allies who are very talented costumers, and she checked you out in passing. She has yet to be wrong, so I'm not surprised everything fits." She studied him as he came around the curtain. "Perfect. Ree, light hand on the makeup. Just barely over a natural look. Hair should be on the messy side as if he's coming home from work. We're aiming for a feel that if you have the right clothes, you don't have to work to look good."
"Yes ma'am." Desiree gestured to the seat beside the table where she had set herself up. As soon as he had sat down, she got to work. "You may need one or two adjustments as we go, but the foundation work will already be laid. I'm glad you didn't wear any today, actually. Saves some time."
"I must have good instincts."
Thirty minutes later, he had to admit he may have underestimated Shana's skill. She issued direction and advice in a no-nonsense manner that made it easy for him to understand what she wanted. He walked over to the PCM after the first few rounds to see how the photos had turned out. Like most photographers in a studio setting, she used her digital plate camera hooked up to her PCM so that she could near instantly see how the photos had turned out. "Hey, these are great," he said in surprise. "I don't recognize myself."
"Watch out that the studio doesn't recruit you," she teased. She deleted the ones she didn't intend to keep and moved the rest to a more permanent location. "These are just what I wanted, and Virginia should be here any minute."
His brows shot up as he recognized the name. "Seriously?"
"Sure! She and I have been friends for, damn, almost two decades? We met when I was six." She grinned up at him. "Now don't get flustered. Virginia knows her stuff. She'll be able to help you even better than me." She heard the door and swiveled around on her chair. "Speaking of whom, the High Artist has arrived."
Virginia sauntered into the studio. "Make way, please. You may adore me on your own time later." She grinned as she saw David. "So you're the other test subject. I mean victim. I mean . . ." She laughed as Shana threw a towel at her. "Sorry, couldn't resist." She offered a hand palm up to David, and as he placed the back of his hand lightly on her palm, her eyes narrowed ever so briefly before the look faded. "Virginia Tungsten. Nice to meet you."
"David Myosotis. A pleasure."
"This is my fiancé, Michael Donohue." Virginia gestured to Michael who had very pointedly sat out of the way. He didn't trust Shana with a camera, and rightfully so. "And my aunt, Sara Sukio." She waved a hand toward where Sara stood warily near the door. "Get in here. You don't have a shy bone in your body and pretending otherwise isn't going to be believed at this point."
Sara sighed and walked forward. "You are an incorrigible brat." She turned toward David with a smile, but the sudden thud of her heart took it away. She knew from an objective standpoint that there were more attractive men, but she was hard pressed to remember any right then. She could barely remember Lycander's face, and he was the Guardian of Desire. "Hi." It was the best she could manage, and it came out a bit breathless.
"Whoops," Virginia murmured.
David barely noticed anyone else was still present. The woman in front of him may well have emerged from his deepest fantasies. He could believe she and Virginia were related for they bore a striking resemblance especially in their identical coloring, but it was Sara's enchanting features just shy of perfect and her both trim and strong body that had his attention. Deeper still, he felt a nearly magnetic draw to her, and his urge to hold her in his arms and hold away all that would hurt her could almost not be fought. "Hi, indeed," he said softly.
Shana cleared her throat and watched both of them jump in surprise. She had not known Sara would be present, yet she felt unsurprised by the events. "So, shall we make some magic? Gin, Ree is your cosmetic designer for the day."
"Well, as if that is new." Virginia knew the drill and grabbed her first set of clothes off the rack. She normally changed wherever was being worked, but out of deference for possible modesty from David—rare, but still possible in the populace as a whole—she ducked behind the changing curtain. "Hmm. Interesting length on this skirt. If I walked into any office wearing this, I'd distract half the people in it."
"It's all about the sex appeal for selling a lifestyle as much as an outfit," Shana snickered. "Which is why David is almost half naked too." And, as Virginia walked around the curtain, she firmly reached over to close Michael's mouth. "Stop drooling, Mike." Pleased, she observed as Desiree did Virginia's hair and makeup, and interjected on occasion with an opinion based on her intent.
David was the only one surprised when he observed the solo shoot with Virginia. He had seen Shana's efficiency with him, but her skill showed even more when she worked with a professional. She almost didn't have to give any direction because Virginia knew exactly what Shana wanted. "So that's why being friends with your model is handy," he murmured. "I think they're reading each other's mind."
"Possibly. They are very much alike." Sara smiled up at him. Her initial shock at his beauty had ebbed, so she could keep her heartbeat under control until he turned another of those smiles from violet eyes on her. Telling herself she didn't want to be involved with a mortal did nothing to tame her growing need to keep him close. Covering it as best she could, she said, "Shana can make even amateurs look professional."
Much to David's delight, Virginia truly did know what she was doing. He didn't feel at all awkward as she helped him move and pose to Shana's specifications. He even began to enjoy himself. "I didn't expect to have fun," he laughed. "I guess I owe you a thanks."
"You should take a photo with Sara," Virginia offered innocently. "Maybe if she's not the only amateur, she won't feel so bad. She thinks she looks terrible on film."
Shana's head shot up from her study of her recently taken photos. "Beg pardon? Who dared say that in my presence?" Fingers pointed, and she narrowed her eyes on Sara. "I'll be the judge of that! Get your butt in the lights."
Sara gaped at her. "I'm hardly dressed for modeling!"
"You're wearing a cute sweater-dress and boots I wish I could steal. Close enough." She slowly lifted a brow. "You do remember my . . . position, right?"
"Opportunist," Sara muttered as she got to her feet. Her only consolation was that Shana was Genevieve's child and not Hannah's. Hannah was her twin and therefore Sara tended to be especially weak to Rocky and Siobhan. She had never been able to tell them 'no' about anything. "Fine."
David cleared his throat and walked over to join her. "I tried arguing too," he told her in an aside. "She played dirty and threatened me with tears."
"Did she do the lip thing?"
She winced. "At least I was spared that." She turned toward Virginia. "So what do I do?"
"Move like you're going to do a three-note dance," Virginia decided. They obligingly went into the proper stance for the old romantic dance, and she walked over to nudge the back of Sara's knee. She started to fall but David caught her quickly. It changed the pose to one of deeper intimacy. "There we are."
David chuckled softly as Sara glared over her shoulder. "Don't worry. I can easily hold you up." He shifted his grip slightly to have her more securely, and her eyes swung up to meet his. He immediately found himself drowning in their depths. Something powerful tugged at his soul. Magic. He could almost taste it inside her. The hot yet cool touch of Glass. It took all of his willpower to resist the urge to take the kiss he had been craving from the moment she smiled at him.
She could feel Nature magic teasing her senses, tugging deep at her soul. Magic with an odd sensation of being cemented; mark of an immortal life. Strangely familiar magic somehow, though she could not determine where she might know it. Trouble. She was in so much trouble. Just being that close wreaked havoc on her self-control. The urge to lean up and kiss him was sharp and compelling. Desire. She had never imagined she could feel it so powerfully until that moment. He had to be her soul mate.
"There we go!" Shana set her camera down and moved to her PCM. She began to grin. "Hey, this looks like the cover of a romantic book. I'm keeping these for future use! You never know what sort of jobs you'll get working at the studio. I like stock!"
David released Sara with more reluctance than speed, and both walked over to see. Sara could only gape at the images. Every other time she had ever seen herself in paint or in photo, she had never looked right. But she looked . . . really good. Sexy. Certainly she had felt that way, but she had thought it might just be David's effect on her. "You really can make miracles," she told Shana.
"These are my favorite kinds, too."
Not quite two hours later, Sara found herself alone with her friends. David had needed to take his leave to head for his next class. She instantly found herself the recipient of fascinated stares, and her color rose. "It was nothing."
"She did not say that," Virginia complained to Michael. "She did not say that to me of all people!" She whirled on her former mentor. "Sara. You do realize that the two of you were putting off so much heat it's a miracle Shana's lenses did not melt, and that I got a hot flash just watching?"
Sara felt her cheeks turn pink. "I knew I should've stayed home." She crossed her arms tightly. "He's immortal. Talk about rolling the odds in your favor. And he has Nature magic, which, if he is my Caretaker, seems fairly logical. There's a deeper problem than my possible love life, though. When I sensed his power, I could sense something else. He's ridiculously strong, even for a Caretaker. He could very easily become a target of Dragonsbane."
"I sensed his power too, actually," Michael admitted. "And there's something about him that I can't put my finger on. He even looks familiar. Maybe we knew someone in his family once."
"So then what we'll do is this." Shana began to clean up the space. "Sara will keep an eye on him. She has the perfect excuse, right? Since it was plain that he felt the heat as well, she can take the opportunity to get to know him and protect him at the same time. Maybe she can figure out why he seemed familiar to me as well. I think I know what sort of power he has, just not from where."
Sara tucked her hands in her pockets and gave up. She had taken her odds, and she had lost. Or won, depending on the perspective. She would talk to him, maybe see how he felt about things or if he even knew her, and then she would know where to go. If she fell in love, then she would accept the gift as given. Goddess knows she had not expected to get it at all. "Alright. Let's clear out of here."
Desiree had already packed up her things. "I'll be right outside waiting for you," she assured Shana as she stepped outside with the others. "Rocky should be along shortly to give us a ride." They really did try their best to not make her or Edgar feel smothered until the danger had gone by.
Shana just shook her head as she continued the cleanup. After a moment, she said, "You know I know you're there, right?" She looked over with a smile as Talla stepped out of a darkened corner with another peace flag in her hands. "So? How did the flirting go? Do tell the details!"
"It worked but . . ." Talla took a quick breath. "You can say no to this next question but . . . I don't know what happens next."
Her brows shot upward. "Damn. You were more successful than I expected, at least that fast. Why ask, though? It works roughly the same for all mammals, hon. Instinct sure as hell has ways of making you figure it out. Are you without any experience at all?"
Talla rubbed the back of her neck, torn between sheepishness and embarrassment. Of all the conversations to have with an enemy! "Depends on how you look at it. In a human body, yes. In general, no."
"Then when I say you already know what you need to know, trust I mean it," Shana told her dryly. "There are a few different mechanics, sure, but pretty much just listen to what your body tells you it wants, and don't be afraid to put Linx's hands where you want 'em. He'll do the same thing, and if he doesn't, just start exploring. You'll know when you're on the right track, trust me."
Talla frowned thoughtfully. "It's really that simple?"
"Hey, humans have been at this sort of shenanigans since the beginning of Time. Sure, there's always some shyness and hesitation if you've never practiced in reality what your practical mind knows, but it's not like you can fail at it." She squinted an eye closed. "Well, some people kinda can, but there are medications for that, and soul mates never have that problem anyway." She smiled. "Talla, let me tell you the same thing I will tell my daughter: desire is beautiful gift, and it burns immortally where soul's love lives. If you have been given the gift of love and desire, and the one you want feels the same, then reach out for every pleasure and be happy. And if you have been given not just love, but a love all through your soul, then you can't not fight for it. There will never be anything else like it."
Talla hesitated, then nodded. "Thank you, again." She swiftly turned and hurried away, and she disappeared mid-step.
"That was," came Rocky's voice softly behind Shana, "one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard."
She turned and found him the doorway to the studio, and she smiled as he walked over to slide his arms around her waist. "Practice for someday when I am High Goddess myself and have to impart all manner of odd wisdom."
"I'd say you'll do just fine at it." He glanced toward where Talla had been. "Out of curiosity, though, are any of the Cat's Eye other than Irimara evil?"
"Damn good question," she murmured in return.