“So you are staying for me?” Thea asked, as he stepped close to her.
“You are one of the reasons I am staying,” he admitted, smiling again.
He wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her easily from the floor. With one smooth move, he tossed her lightly on the bed. Then he climbed onto it. With an arm on either side of her, he held himself up, then leaned down to kiss her passionately on the mouth.
Thea allowed him to kiss her for a moment, causing heat to burn all the way through her, then she put her hand on his chest and pushed him back.
“Do you love me?”
His smile faltered. “‘Love’ is not a word that I will easily throw around.”
“Bastian. Please.” She stared up at him, searching his blue eyes. “Every time I lay with you, I am risking my life. She will certainly kill us both if she finds us together.”
“So I am risking my life the same as you. If that’s not a show of affection, I don’t know what is.”
“Will you not say it? Will you not declare your love to me?”
“No.” Bastian’s voice was heavy with regret. “I cannot.”
“Why?” Thea swallowed back her tears, trying not to let him see how badly that hurt her. “You said you were capable.”
“You are sweeter, fairer, and in all ways more delectable than your sister.” He brushed the red hair back from her forehead. “But you share equally in her bloodlust.”
“Because I am a monster, that I must feed? You refuse to love me?” Thea asked.
“Come, Thea. We only have a short time until we both must be ready for the day. Can’t we put these matters to bed?”
She wanted to argue more, and maybe she should have. But around Bastian, her will was weak. Within moments he was kissing her again, and all her worries were lost in his embrace.
The car ride to Briar Ridge had never felt so long. The air-conditioning was out in Brian’s F-150, and even though the windows were open, that only seemed to succeed in blowing more hot air into the truck. Gemma sat in the middle, wedged between her dad and Harper, and none of them said anything.
The only sound was the classic rock station, and Brian unironically sang along with “I’m on Fire” by Springsteen. But that was all.
Harper had told Gemma earlier in the week that Brian wanted to come along on their usual Saturday visit, but neither of them completely understood why. On one hand, Gemma knew she should be excited. She’d been all but begging her dad to see Nathalie since Christmas two years ago. That was the last time Brian had had any contact with their mom, not that he’d had that much before then.
When Harper learned how to drive and could make the trip to visit Nathalie on her own, that was when Brian had officially checked out. But in the years leading up to that, he’d had minimal interaction with her. It was little more than a Hello, how are you? when he picked up the girls or dropped them off to visit.
So it had Gemma a little freaked out that he actually wanted to do something with Nathalie, especially without any prodding from Gemma or Harper.
Brian pulled into the driveway of Nathalie’s group home, and all her worries about surviving the sirens’ curse were changed to simply surviving this afternoon.
“Did you call and let them know I was coming with you today?” Brian asked as he turned off the truck.
“No,” Harper said. She leaned forward, her gray eyes worried. “Should I have?”
Brian sat for a minute. “No, I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“We should go in,” Gemma suggested, since it seemed like her dad would be content to swelter in the truck all afternoon.
“Yeah, let’s go in.” He nodded but didn’t move.
He was tan from working outside so much, but his skin was ashen today. His blue eyes were wide and frantic, scanning the gauges of the truck like they would hold some clue about how to deal with this situation.
This was the most scared that Gemma had ever seen him look. That wasn’t saying much, since he rarely showed any fear, but he was obviously terrified.
“Dad?” Harper had climbed out of the truck, but she leaned against the door, watching him. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“No, yeah.” He nodded again and licked his lips. “I need to do this. I need to see her.”
Gemma reached over and took Brian’s hand, his huge leathery one consuming hers, and she squeezed it gently.
“You can do this, Dad,” Gemma told him.
He smiled at her, but he still appeared sick. “You’re right. Let’s do this.”
Brian finally opened the truck door and got out. Gemma climbed out more slowly after him. Her decision to wear shorts had been a bad one. Her legs were stuck to the plastic interior, and she had to carefully peel herself off before she got out.
Harper and Brian were waiting for her, and Gemma went to knock on the door, letting the two of them stay a few steps behind her. In all the times she’d visited her mom before, she’d never felt so unnerved. This could all easily turn into a horrible disaster.
Before the door even opened, Gemma could hear Nathalie yelling on the other side, “It’s for me! I got it!”
Nathalie threw open the door, already smiling exuberantly, and shouted, “My girls!”
The hardest thing about seeing Nathalie was that while the accident left her mentally impaired, she didn’t look any different. She was tall and elegant, appearing more like a model than a mother, let alone someone with brain damage. Her eyes were the same shade of golden honey as Gemma’s, and her smile was radiant.
The only signs were subtle, like the Harry Potter T-shirt she wore, or the bright pink streak she had running down her long brown hair, or the temporary Lisa Frank tattoos of puppies and kittens she had up and down her arm.
But to someone like Brian, who hadn’t seen her in years, it had to be a shock to see her looking exactly as he remembered her. It would be easier to accept that she’d become a different person if she looked different, but she didn’t.
“Hi, Mom,” Gemma said.
“Oh, you look so beautiful today.” Nathalie threw her arms around her, hugging her fiercely. Then she noticed Harper and reached out to squeeze her arm. “And so do you.”
“Hey, Mom,” Harper said. It was a few octaves higher than she usually spoke, so Gemma knew she was freaking out a little bit.
“We brought someone with us today,” Gemma said once Nathalie had finally released her. She stepped to the side so her mom could get a better look at Brian. “Do you recognize him?”