I was relieved to find the bookstore still ablaze with light. I didn’t know it yet, but I’d just crossed another of those lines of demarcation in my life. I used to need my bedroom completely dark in order to sleep, with no trickles of light stealing in through the blinds, no neon-blue glow cast by my stereo or laptop. I would never sleep in full dark again.
Barrons wasn’t there, but Fiona was. She took one look at me past the queue of customers at her counter, and said brightly, “Well, hello again, dear. Just look at what the rain’s done to you! Wouldn’t you like to freshen up? Be back with you in a jiffy,” she told her customers. Smiling fixedly, she took me by the elbow and practically dragged me to a bathroom in the back of the store.
When I saw my reflection in the mirror above the sink, I understood her reaction. I would have gotten me out of there, too. I looked awful. My eyes were huge, my expression shell-shocked. My mascara and liner had pooled into dark raccoon circles around my eyes. I was white as a sheet, had chewed off all my lipstick but for a streak at each corner of my mouth, and there was a big smear of ketchup down my right cheek. I was soaking wet, and the high ponytail I’d clipped my hair up in this morning was listing sadly behind my left ear. I was a mess.
I took my time freshening up. I stripped off my T-shirt and wrung it out in the sink, then paper-towel-dried my bra as best I could before putting my shirt on again. The bruises on my ribs were still dark but much less painful. I fixed my hair, then dampened more paper towels and dabbed at my face, gently removing the smudges from the delicate skin around my eyes. I dug out my on-the-go cosmetic pack from my purse—a sewing-kit-size collection of tiny amounts of the basics no proper southern belle should ever be without that Mom had bought for Alina and me this past Christmas. I moisturized and powdered, smoothed on a bit of blush and a touch of liner, then glossed my lips Moon-Silvered Pink again.
I opened the door, stepped out, walked right into Jericho Barrons’ chest, and screamed. I couldn’t help it. It was the scream I’d been holding down since I’d seen the hideous thing in the pub, and it had stayed inside me as long as it could.
He grabbed me by my shoulders—I think to steady me—and I punched him. I have no idea why. Maybe I was hysterical. Or maybe I was just mad because I’d begun to understand that something was very wrong with me and I didn’t want it to be. When insane things start to arrange themselves in sane patterns around you, you know you’ve got problems. It was his fault. He was the one who’d told me impossible things to begin with. I hammered him with my fists. He just stood and took it, his hands clamped on my shoulders, his dark eyes fixed on my face. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t suffer graciously, he looked pissed off to no end. But he let me hit him. And he didn’t hit me back. Which was, I suspected, a pretty major concession from Jericho Barrons.
“What did you see?” he demanded when I finally stopped. I didn’t bother asking how he knew. We both knew I would have come back to him only if I needed something I couldn’t get anywhere else—like the answers I’d refused the last time I was there. And that meant something had happened to change my mind.
His hands were still on my shoulders. Tonight, proximity to him was different but no less disturbing. I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten out of your car near downed electric lines in the road during a storm, but I have. You can feel the energy sizzling and crackling in the air as the lines flop and twist on the ground, and you know you’re standing next to raw power that could turn your way with killing force at any second. I shrugged in his grip. “Get off me.”
He removed his hands. “You came to me. Remember that.”
He never did let me forget it. You chose, he would remind me later. You could have gone home. “I think I’m going to be sick,” I said.
“No, you won’t. You want to be, but you won’t. In time, you’ll get used to the feeling.”
He was right. I didn’t throw up that night, but I never stopped feeling like I might hurl ketchup-soaked fries at any moment.
“Come.” He led me back into the main part of the store and escorted me to the same camel-colored sofa I’d occupied a few nights ago. He spread a blanket over the leather to protect it from my wet jeans. Down south, a sofa is never more important than the person sitting on it; it’s a little thing we call hospitality. It was impossible to miss how badly I was shivering and there was the small matter of the wet T-shirt, cold nipple problem I was having. I shot him a dark look and wrapped myself up in the blanket instead. With those lightning reflexes of his, he grabbed another wool throw and managed to toss it beneath my butt before it hit the sofa. He took a chair opposite me. Fiona was gone and the sign in the window was off. Barrons Books and Baubles was battened down for the night. “Tell me,” he said.