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The Unseen Kingdoms - Chapter 5

Just a week later, Clara found herself deeply ensconced in a more normal library as she used her Personal Computation Machine to access the spider that held all manner of information across the world and cross-reference using it to the information she could get out of the library itself. PCMs did just about anything and everything imaginable that could be possibly electronically related, and they had helped create the culture of the last two centuries by introducing the ability to store data electronically. People affectionately called that data storage the 'spider' since the hubs that maintained it tended to made a spider-web shape when viewed from above.

The spider allowed for people to communicate, share, and connect with others across the world. People maintained mini-webs of all sorts of kinds that had everything from art to information about theatrical stars to whatever genealogy information people had been able to assemble. The latter was of most interest to Clara. She had even gotten Rocky to do some interesting things to her PCM to allow her to access the Hall itself. She hadn't asked how he had done it; some things she preferred not to know. As long as he used his power for good, they all let him do as he liked with the skills he had honed from his degree.

She studied the graph currently drawing itself out in the form of a family lineage tree. She already knew some of the things on it. She knew that her father, Horatio, was one of two twins born to Time and Eternity. The other twin was of course Moira. She knew she had a full-blooded brother named Pallas who served as Archon of the Immortal Fields within the Ephemeral Plane. She also knew that she and Pallas had a half-brother born from an affair Horatio had with Destiny before meeting the demi-goddess Mortality. That half-brother was Orion himself, the Guardian of Destiny who had married the first Protean Ruler Cultivator, Shanta, and produced the bloodline that had eventually led to the current strong willed High Queen of Protea.

She had never really known much about Moira or whether she had found a mate and produced children, but as she watched her PCM gather information from the Hall, she began to see the lines forming. Moira had mated to another demi-god named Gravity, and they had produced a single child. That child had had one child, who had one child, continuing down through the millions of years until finally the power of Memory in the lineage had once more been embraced by Statice and produced Rachel.

Rachel's power and birth had happened exactly like Clara's own had. She had not been born of Statice like the other first Rulers or Defenders. She had been born to Horatio and Mortality rather normally, but when she had walked upon the barren world of Statice, the world had taken her first breath and breathed it through Claret's own lungs. Rachel had been born of Moira's lineage, and somehow, despite being still frozen, Statice had breathed her first breath for her, marking her as both Ruler and Defender. Perhaps Statice being frozen at the time of Rachel's birth had also lent itself to freezing her Seed. And then again, it may still lay in Destiny's plans.

Clara sighed as she leaned back in her chair. Everything had begun to make sense. How she and Rachel could look so similar and be so similar, and share their power without being blood related. How Clara had felt so confident in her decision to emerge from the Hall and give herself a future form because Rachel would be there to take over. The Resurrection Era needed not someone to defend Time, but to fight for it. It needed a Statice Cultivator willing to effect events. The thought made Clara smile. Rachel had certainly proven primed and ready for that duty.

Still, Rachel's lack of Activation did give concern, as did her reference to being the only Defender Cultivator of her generation to be found other than the two High Princesses. Perhaps the Pivot underway would fix the latter, if not the former. Clara had determined not to worry about the problems of the future Era for she would surely do enough of that when that time rolled around. It had never been her job to fix the future until the future became the present.

A draft from the window had her frowning suddenly. She didn't remember opening the window. Almost as soon as she'd had the thought, she became aware that she was no longer alone in the room. She whirled around sharply. "Who's there?" she demanded.

"Don't attack; I'm unarmed!" Sam said in amusement from where he sat on the windowsill. As she stared at him, he got to his feet and grinned. "The door was locked."

"We're on the third floor!" She rushed to the window and looked down toward the street. The wall was nearly a straight drop. The roof sat not far overhead, but just thinking that he had scaled down from that high was enough to terrify her. "You could have fallen, you idiot!" she snapped as him as she turned around.

"You've been ignoring me, Clara," he countered gently. He negligently leaned one shoulder against a bookcase. "Every time I try to call your house's communal phone code, you either suddenly have to be somewhere or I can hear you in the background insisting you're not home. If Alexandria and Kellie hadn't decided to take my side, I don't think you'd even let them answer the phone if it was me."

"Maybe I'm not interested." She raked a hand through her hair. "Samuel, please. This is awkward enough. Your brother is dating my daughter." To cover her nerves, she walked over to the PCM and closed the lid.

"I don't think they're dating," he decided after a moment. "It's a bit more serious than that. Rocky and I took Aldan out ring shopping yesterday. You'll like what he picked for them to wear on their thumbs as an engagement sign." He grinned. "So one could say your daughter will be my sister-in-law as soon as it is legal."

That was no surprise. "Did you ever think that perhaps I have no need or desire for a husband of my own?" she asked politely.

"It crossed my mind," he said amiably, "but then I decided you just didn't know what you were missing. I'm housebroken, and I'm lots of fun."

"You're insane." She started to go past him toward the door, but his arm shot in front of her and blocked her from moving. She turned to glare at him, and the look in his green eyes had her breath catching. She backed up sharply instead and found herself backing into a bookshelf. He countered and leaned in so close that rest of the room went away.

"You're right," he said in a soft voice that vibrated with frustration and longing. "I am insane. I've been going insane since the day I saw you. Physically, emotionally, mentally . . . I'm mad, Clara. I've gone past the point of no return. I can't sleep. I can't eat. There's only you inside me. And you wouldn't so scared if it wasn't mutual. If you didn't want me and need me as terribly as I want and need you. Do you want me to beg? I will. I'll do anything."

Shaken, she could say nothing. The scent of him was a hauntingly familiar lure. The body pressing close was hot and hard, the feel of him somehow imprinted inside her very soul. Her entire body had begun to ache and throb with desperate desire. It wasn't a new feeling. Somehow it was a familiar feeling. What didn't she remember?!

The fear in her lavender eyes twisted his heart. He framed her face with a tender hand, and his thumb rubbed over her cheek. "Give me a chance," he pleaded softly.

"I . . ." There was nothing she could say. Nothing she could find in her mind. She was falling in love with him. Everything about him perfectly matched to her. Even this fierce stubbornness was something she needed, and she knew it. She needed a Caretaker who would not let her hide when her emotions scared her. "Let me go." It was all she could manage.

"No." His hand slid under the weight of her hair to curl around the back of her neck. "I'm in love with you."

"Don't!" She shook her head as much as she could. "Don't say that! It's not possible. This . . . this can't be love at first sight!" He couldn't be her soul mate. He just couldn't.

Her Dark core could all too often blind her almost as often as it blinded the two Protean heirs. Some things had never changed, and déjà vu made him a bit disoriented equally. Well, what had worked back then would surely work again! "And you're supposed to be the one who knows everything," he muttered. "Shut up and kiss me. Don't think for once. Just feel."

She found her hands sliding up around his neck and her face lifting toward his as if she had always done so. As if she knew how he would kiss her. Even before his lips claimed hers, she knew. She craved the knowledge. He was there inside her already. Imprinted in her heart. Imprinted in her soul. Imprinted in her body. Those three things remembered him where her mind could not.

He kissed her with the same knowledge. He was untamed and hungry, nearly devouring her as if he hadn't kissed her in millennia. When he jerked her body against his, the feel of him tormented her with things she shouldn't have. He released her lips and pressed a hot kiss to her neck. "Are you thinking still?" he asked roughly.

She scrambled for a single coherent thought amidst the jumble inside her brain. She couldn't breathe let alone think. "I'm too old for you!" she blurted. He lifted his head to stare at her, and she sighed. "I can't think." She shoved at her hair with a trembling hand. His impact was positively devastating to her senses. Maybe she owed an apology to Shana for not fully sympathizing in the Royal Era.

"That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me. And as far as your age . . . you could be as old as Time and I'd still love you." He nearly smiled when she looked at him warily, somehow sensing he had said it deliberately. He carefully forced himself to release her. "Let's back up before I tumble you onto the floor."

"Good idea!"

"You wouldn't argue if I did." He blew out a breath. "Go out with me. A date. The semi-year round festival is still in town. We can go to it tomorrow, keep it easy."

"Well . . ."

"I promise I'll try to keep my hands to myself. It won't be easy, but I'll try." His eyes met hers. "You have to know how much I want you. And you also have to know that I would never take something from you that you did not give willingly. I push you because I know that only fear holds you back."

"I do know." She took a steady, calming breath. Was she really that much a coward? And it was cowardice, as he had said. She of all people knew that she could not stop events if they were meant to happen. She stood on the cusp of possible eternal happiness, and she just had to be brave enough to reach out. "Alright," she said softly. "Now go away."

"If my ego wasn't healthy, I'd be in trouble." He stole a brief but hungry kiss and then unlocked the door and left.

The door shut behind him, and she thought again about how complicated her life had become by meeting first Shana and then Rachel. She had made changes so very significant and different compared to her long existence prior. A tiny part of her almost wanted to go back to what had once been normal.

Or did it? Did she really want to go back to her solitary existence? She shook it off fiercely and went back to her PCM. She didn't want to think about it anymore. If she let herself dwell on the 'what-might-bes' then she would begin dwelling on the 'what-had-beens' and possibly be even more unnerved by a pair of uncanny green eyes than she already was.

* * * * *

Shana's PPS rang with a rather specific tone just as they had sat down to breakfast. She handed the platter with pancakes to Rachel to have her put it on the table, and then picked up her PPS and braced it between her ear and shoulder as she turned the bacon. Since she had assigned sounds or songs to all those who had her code, she knew who called even before answering. Unknown codes calling via her business card had a tone of their own, too. "Good morning, Kel."

"She's driving us insane!"

The near wail made Shana grin. She had wondered how long it would take until Sam got tough with Clara. "What's she doing?" She put the bacon on the table and then sat down after removing the pan from the stove and turning it off. Multitasking was never hard for her.

"I'm fairly sure she's aiming to have a heart attack, and I doubt either Siobhan or Octavia would want to treat her for it. I don't!" Kellie huffed out a breath. "She just went into a spin at realizing she has never bothered to get anything date-appropriate since she never expected to go on a date. We've tried to tell her it's just the festival so casual will work, but, uhm."

"She's still learning 'casual' to begin with!" Shana smacked Rocky's hands when he tried to steal bacon off her plate. "Well, this was overdue. Sam's good for her in more ways than you'd expect, really." She sighed. "Do you need my help? When are she and Sam going out?"

"He's going to pick her up at the eleventh hour, which gives us three hours to get her ready. Desiree is ready to go after her hair and makeup if she would just settle down."

"Rachel is the same height as her mother, and despite being much more slender, likely still has a few items we can grab, especially for the bottom. I'll also peruse my own closet. I'm taller and curvier, but some things are actually cuter when worn loose. Also, I'd be willing to bet Clara has more options than she thinks. Sherry made her some things, right?"

"And has been enjoying the process!"

"As usual. Let me finish breakfast and I'll come over with Rachel. Just try to hold down the drama until then, okay?"

"I'll try," was the muttered response.

Shana just laughed as she hung up the phone. "Your mother," she told Rachel gravely, "has discovered puberty at her late advanced age."

"Uh-oh." Rocky snickered into his coffee.

"I know she said she gave in and was going out with Sam. Is she panicking?" Rachel asked curiously.

"Apparently. I'm going to go over after breakfast and take control of things."

"It serves her right." Rachel took a big bite of pancake. "She's meddled with everyone else so it's about time she got meddled with in return. And she needs Sam. She needs a great soul mate to love her. I won't mind having him for a strange combination of adopted father/father-in-law/brother-in-law. The latter is really almost negligible." She smiled. "Cultivators don't choose inferior mates, right?"

"Mm." Shana's eyes met Rocky's and both of them smiled. "That's what they say."

They finished breakfast quickly and prepared to split up for the day. It was a Saturday, so no classes for Shana, and Rocky had work at the ranch. He wouldn't know the outcome of the Date until the evening, sadly. Edgar would be working with him that day, though, so they could speculate outrageously together. They had proven to work as well together in a professional setting as anywhere else, and Rocky still held suspicions over the future. Edgar had, so very casually, mentioned that if ever he had the chance to hire Rocky himself, he would.

Rocky turned his gaze toward a very tall building in the distance. The tallest in Lux, in fact. A beautiful work of stone and glass and metal that seemed almost like a protective tower over the city. Anyone knew it on sight: the building that housed and operated the Chivanti Corporation, the business that oversaw not just operations in Lux, but the landmass as a whole. It happened often enough, that each large city had a single very large company that effectively coordinated all aspects of business and reported back to the world leaders on such things. They worked a bit like parents over nearly-adult children, letting the cities and people within have the freedom to do just about whatever they want while retaining the right to pull back if there were dangers or problems.

Up until just shy of twenty years earlier, the Chivanti Corporation had been run by Randall Chivanti. He and his wife had died in a terrible EC accident, and the company had fallen into the hands of the board of trustees who had normally just coordinated activities and then reported to the actual owner for his or her final say. The Corporation had been passed down through the Chivanti family for a few centuries now, with every generation of future owners graduating from the university the Corporation owned with a degree in at least Business and then picking up the reins of the company personally shortly after adulthood.

It seemed far, far, far too convenient that Shana and Edgar Chivanti would have lost their parents just shy of twenty years before in an EC accident, be so utterly mum on how they were connected to the company, and both be graduating with Business Operations degrees shortly after or before their twenty-fifth birthdays.

Rocky and Siobhan had both been deeply suspicious for years, and they only grew more so as time passed. Their mother, Octavia, had adopted Shana and Edgar from the hospital, so they had all grown up together, but anything she knew about the situation she also kept quiet about. Clara was involved, she who was a legal advisor, and that upped the odds toward there being a future hostile takeover of the company by the two rightful heirs.

If that was their intent, Rocky fully intended to do anything within his power to help. He had something of a personal interest in the outcome since it affected his lover and best friend's happiness. In fact, he might even be of assistance early on, so perhaps it was time he sat Edgar down and forced his brother to talk. Chivanti Corporation had lately become something of a ruthless beast, provoking less appreciation from the people than distrust and fear. Rumors of computational virus attacks had spread, implying that perhaps their sensitive information might not be so secure, and losing that might hurt thousands of people. Rocky's own skills might be able to determine who, how, and why, and maybe even get some information Edgar or Shana could use.

A smile tugged at his lips as he headed for his carriage. He and Edgar weren't the heirs to the thrones of their kingdoms, but that didn't make them any less of High Princes. Planning a hostile takeover of a land that rightfully belonged to the Protea Royal House would be an interesting endeavor. He looked forward to the challenge.

With too much to carry and a second person with her on top of it, Shana balked at using her electric bike. Rachel instead made a quick run to the apartment that Edgar and Siobhan shared—it really was only a block or two away—to borrow the latter's carriage. Luckily, Siobhan didn't need it, and she was utterly bemused at the scenario anyway. Rachel thusly drove the carriage with its driving-spooked passenger and the bags they had assembled over to the house that the four Dark Defenders had rented together.

The carriage had barely stopped before the front door opened and Alexandria stepped into the doorway. She had such a look of utter exasperation on her face that Shana nearly laughed. She hopped out of the carriage, leaving Rachel and Alexandria to follow with the bags, and headed with determined strides right into the house. She stalked past Kellie and Desiree and opened Clara's bedroom door to find a disaster zone.

Clothes had been strewn everywhere as if a particularly mad designer had been through. Clara was pacing around the room in nothing except a robe, and she was chewing her thumbnail into nonexistence. Keeping her voice calm, Shana asked, "Clara?"

"Shana, I don't know what to do. I can't go through with this, I can't. I only have a few professional things for when I do work, and the lounging stuff I wear around the house. I don't have date clothes. I'll look ridiculous being too formal or too casual. Why are there so many layers of casual?"

"Sit down, Clara."

"How do I tell him everything, Shana? I never . . . I didn't contemplate how hard it might be to consider explaining this sort of thing to someone. It never was an issue for anyone else in the past because everyone knew who the Defenders and Rulers were, although maybe even then there was doubt about me being both up until your generation, but how do you just dump on someone the idea of being a Caretaker?"

"Clara, sit down now."

"He's so familiar to me, I can't get him out of my head. It's really starting to scare me. Why do I know him? Is there something I don't remember?"

"Claret, sit down!"

The bite of royal command echoed so powerfully and cut so sharply through the anxiety that Clara shut up and sat down on the chair in her room before even being cognizant of it. Rachel's eyes widened slightly from where she stood in the doorway. Not even in the future had she ever seen Shanae get quite so forceful with a command; she rarely ever had to, actually, since people usually leapt to do as asked. It was one thing to know that the Defender Cultivators had been all but genetically conditioned to take her commands, and it was another entirely to see that in action. "Whoa."

"Yeah," Kellie said a bit wryly behind her, "it's a pretty potent skill in High Rulers. It's so rarely ever used by any of them because they try very hard to be our equals, but they're guiltless about using it if needed. And, before you ask, Shana never uses this on Gin because she truly has deep respect for Gin's role as Lead Cultivator, even if the role rightfully belongs to Shana as our strongest. They just bang their heads together until they reach an accord. I think it would take something terribly dramatic to make Shana override Virginia in this manner and go full High Queen."

The High Queen was still in effect as Shana stepped forward and looked down at Clara with crossed arms. "Let's start at the top. Stop fussing about your clothes. It's a learning curve, and you only have to look at Yvonne to realize it doesn't matter anyway. She has no style, by her own admission, and she often looks haphazardly put together, but it's so her that she looks great, right? We're going to skip over the Caretaker thing because we both know damn well that he's likely to figure it out before you ever have to tell him anyway, and really, since when has any Caretaker ever not thoroughly enjoyed their role?" She pondered that. "In fact, he's really on track as a Caretaker anyway, because it sort of seems to be a Caretaker's given duty to seduce their Cultivator at first opportunity after hormones kick in. You're both over twenty-five by varying degrees, so you're both on the full dose rather than the starter one like Rachel and Aldan."

"Which is daunting enough," Rachel grumbled, and made Desiree pat her shoulder in affectionate sympathy.

Shana ignored them as she continued to stare at Clara. "You're in love with him. In love with your soul mate. I even know the moment you fell. I got to see it happen, and it was beautiful. This time it was love at first sight." Second love at second sight, maybe? Still applied. "I know you, Clara. You're shy. You're often anxious. You're of the Dark, so strong emotions scare you. They scare me too. That's why we have Caretakers like we do, why we have our friends around us. They know when to take our hands and pull us past our fear." She held out her hand. "You have guided me for two lives. Let me guide you. Trust me not as your queen, but as your friend who loves you and knows best."

Clara took a long breath and clasped Shana's hand. The taller woman immediately turned to the doorway. "Okay, Ree, you're on hair and makeup. Nothing super fancy, of course. Just enough to show she made an effort because she wants to look extra good. That's what it's really for anyway, to make us look and feel extra good." She looked to Kellie instead. "Paw through the bags, as well as the mess in here. I'm thinking some denims on bottom and maybe that big off-shoulder shirt of mine that has lots of stars and sparkles on it." She turned instead to Alexandria. "Shoes. Find 'em. Comfy ones because of all the walking. The scruffier the better because it'll make a fun contrast to the effort otherwise."

Rachel held up a hand. "What's my command, Your Majesty?"

It made Shana smile. "Jewelry, of course! That's always been your specialty, right? You used to make all manner of pretty things when I was tutoring you. Are you still pursuing it?"

"I in fact got a degree in it," Rachel agreed on a grin. "Special private university for princesses type tutoring, sure, but I got the degree either way. I'll see what Mom has on hand, and then peek into Desiree's stash if she doesn't mind."

"I don't," the woman in question said as she returned with the large box holding all of her makeup items. "I keep it in that pretty metal box Kellie made me for a birthday gift. Sits on my dresser." She started pulling out the colors best suited for Clara's beautiful bronze skin and pastel hair and eyes.

Clara felt a little as if she had been caught inside a machine, but at the same time, she felt comforted. Not thinking and therefore not worrying came as a blessed relief. She put on the denims and shirt once they were found, and then she smiled wryly as Shana securely pinned the shirt to her bra with strategic sparkling pins since the shirt indeed hung a bit looser on her than her bustier queen, and therefore it had more risk of falling off.

Jewelry turned out to be equally sparkly earrings and bracelet; no necklace because of the neckline of the shirt. Desiree plaited Clara's hair into a loose braid and then used just enough makeup to make it count. Looking in a mirror, Clara felt torn. "I . . . am not sure if I've never seen myself like this before, or if maybe I'm seeing a me I didn't know I could be? You made me look my age." She had stopped aging at forty, forever preserving her at that perfect peak. She had always felt older, though, had always thought she could see her millennia in her face and eyes each time she looked in a mirror, no matter how her friends assured her otherwise. Maybe it had been her eyes that had been wrong. She suddenly smiled. "Maybe Sam was right. I don't look old enough to be Rachel's mother."

Rachel grinned at her. "It's fair. He sure doesn't look and literally isn't old enough to be my father—in this time. That'll be negligible once I return to the Resurrection Era, and then while he probably still won't look old enough even at forty, he will at least be old enough." Blithely, she continued, "Aldan is already making plans to go with me. It seems he sort of figured it out without any help, and as he doesn't feel like he belongs here either, he's for sure going with me. He also says that'll work better since Sam is so much more like a father than a brother, and in the future, he'll be old enough for that, too!"

Kellie snickered. "The hazards of telepathic soul mates."

"Well, actually, we need to work on Lex. She needs better shields. But definitely the other for sure. Like I'm not supposed to know that Aldan has already decided his second name, and he plans to propose soon with matching rings for our thumbs. Curiously, even not supposing to know that, he didn't block his thoughts from me. He was also quite happy when I didn't block him from learning that being of Statice means we don't have to have the same big marriage ceremony as a normal Crown Princess. We can elope once I'm legal." She intoned, "It shall befall another of my generation to be the first royal marriage of the Resurrection Era."

Shana shot a grin at Clara. "Lucky for Clara, the same applies. Sam will probably kidnap her for a marriage on the spot the moment she agrees to it." Her grin turned wicked. "And you shouldn't look so happy about that, Clara, lest you convince us all more that you're really just scared and would rather kidnap him personally!"

Clara just sighed. Shana may not be telepathic, but being the Apex of Dark meant that she in fact had powerful mental skills of her own. She and Siobhan alike did. They could enter any mind that they chose, and communicate with one another across any distance. What kept them from being actually considered telepathic was that they had to actively look, rather than people like Aldan and Rachel who heard everything anyway. "Yes, dear."

Sam rang the doorbell at the eleventh hour, not sure what to expect. He knew from talking to Rocky that no one except the four High Rulers remembered the Commanders at all. He also knew full well that Alexandria had been suspicious of Shana's matchmaking, and that neither she nor Desiree or Kellie had made any attempt to keep him from pursuing Clara. So, when the door opened to show a familiar brown skinned woman with peach hair and copper eyes, he started with, "Tell me you're on my side."

Kellie grinned. "Much to Clara's dismay, yes. We all are. To be honest, she's not even on her side. I'm Kellie Yu, by the way."

"Samuel Castlera, but Sam to everyone." He glanced over her head to see Alexandria. He lifted a brow at her, and he got a thumbs-up in response. Since that made it two in a row, he felt safe assuming that Desiree would be the same. He followed Kellie into the house to the sitting room and then stopped in his tracks as he saw Clara. She looked a bit nervous, but at the same time, she looked . . . comfortable. More than he had seen in a long while.

It made him feel as if he was finally doing something good for her. Finally giving her the freedom to be herself. She was so solitary! Always slightly aloof and withheld because of her duties. She had never known how to play, even in his last life. He'd had to teach her then and now he had to teach her again.

He slowly crossed the room toward her and lifted his hand to smooth her bangs out of her face. "See?" he told her softly. "Nothing dramatic today. I'm wearing denims and a shirt, too. I told you it was just a festival." He glanced down, then up. "Were you trying to distract me though?" he asked huskily. "Because I keep wondering what's under that loose shirt and thinking of how conveniently I could find out if you'd let me."

The oddest urge to giggle rose inside her and she clamped down on it. "Behave yourself," she said just as softly. Having him that close wreaked havoc on her control and her senses. He smelled of wicked, wild romance. He was hot and strong, the perfect size for her to pull his arms around her and be sheltered from the world. The mate of a Cultivator? The mate of the Lonely Cultivator?

"Are you ready to go?" He forced himself to release her and step back.

"Oh. Yes. I'm ready." She found herself letting him take her hand and lead her from the house. As the door shut behind them, they could both hear loud cheering. Cheeks red, she admitted, "I was bit . . . trying this morning. They called Shana in as reinforcements."

He hid a smile. "She is very spectacular at taking charge of things. According to Rocky, of course." He opened the passenger door to his carriage for her and then got into the driver side to start the engine. "Why were you being trouble this morning?"

"Well . . ." She sighed. "I got myself into a fine anxiety attack." She absently fingered the dangling earrings Rachel had put on her. "I'll be blunt. You scare me."

"Good." He started the carriage and backed out of the driveway. He didn't say anything else until they were on the road headed for the empty lot near the edge of town where the large festival was being held. "If you're afraid of me, it means that I'm getting somewhere. I don't want you to be afraid of me, but at least I'm getting to you."

She looked out the windshield, refusing to admit just how much he was getting to her. She kept trying to ignore the voice of her heart, but it grew louder the longer she was around him. If it got much louder, she would tell him the truth and see where things went from there. She could not ignore the signs for much longer. He had to be her soul mate.

He smiled wryly at her stubborn silence and parked the carriage in the first empty space they found near the festival. After turning off the engine, he turned to look at her intently. "We don't have to go out, you know."

"We don't?"

"We can always stay in the carriage and get intimately acquainted." He laughed outright as she unfastened her seatbelt and almost flew out her door. Still chuckling, he got out of the carriage and then locked it and pocketed his keys. "Your face, I swear. I can't decide if it was flattering or insulting."

Since she knew damn well the racing of her heart was from wanting to stay in the carriage with him, she thought he ought to be flattered. She had never been affected like this by anyone before. Or had she? That damned familiarity and blank spot in her memory kept driving her mad and nothing seemed to break through to tell her what she had forgotten.

He offered a hand that she automatically grasped and then tried to let go. He held tight instead and swung their hands cheerfully between them as they walked. She tried to tell herself she wasn't charmed, but she knew it was a lie. Everything about him was charming. If anything, this first date of theirs would certainly be interesting.

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