The Fiery Heart(The Bloodlines Series)
Author:Richelle Mead
Synopsis:

The Bloodlines Series 4

    CHAPTER 9


    ADRIAN



    I WAS BEING AN ASSHOLE AND DIDN’T CARE.

    The thing was, no one else seemed to care either. Maybe they already understood what was at stake. Maybe they could just sense my urgency. Whatever it was, time was slipping away before my eyes, and I’d be damned if I was going to let anyone here screw this up.

    “Get a doctor here,” I ordered. “Or a nurse. Hell, anyone who can safely draw blood.” I didn’t need to specify a Moroi doctor. That was understood, and it was a wild card. Moroi sometimes clung together in isolated communities. Some tried to hide from Strigoi by mixing in heavily populated human areas. The key would be finding someone in the latter category with medical training—who was relatively close by.

    Dimitri immediately walked out of the room, already dialing on his cell phone, and for once, I appreciated his do-gooder efficiency.

    Nina and Olive exchanged startled looks. “What’s going on?” Nina demanded. “Why are you taking her blood?”

    “Because you’d better have a good reason,” snapped Olive, coming to life. “Or I’m going to walk right out of here.” She shuddered. “I’ve seen enough blood for a lifetime these last three months.”

    I smiled, and a little of my tension faded. There was a fire in both sisters that I liked, and I was also amused at Olive’s certainty that she could walk out. Aside from the fact that restoration took a huge physical toll, she’d never get past even one of the guardians.

    “Your blood may save lives.” I reconsidered my word choice. A Strigoi, discovering he or she couldn’t turn a victim, might simply kill. “Or, well, souls. No Strigoi can ever turn you again.”

    Some of Olive’s bravado wavered. “Really . . . you mean it? Because . . . I really would rather be dead than go through that again.” She squeezed her eyes shut, but it didn’t stop the tears from leaking out. “It was awful . . .”

    “I know,” I said, watching as Nina sat down and gathered Olive into a hug. I actually didn’t know, of course. I had no clue what that hell must have been like. “But you’re immune now. And we’re trying to see if we can use what Nina did to you to help others.”

    Nina lifted her head from her sister’s chest. “Can I do something to help you now?”

    “I think your part’s over, though another spirit user’s input can’t hurt. When you’re able to grasp it again,” I added.

    Those unusual gray eyes met mine. “I grasped enough to see how much you were wielding earlier. I couldn’t use that much.”

    I brushed her comment off and ignored the curious look Rose gave me. “Not true. Saving her would’ve required at least that much.”

    Dimitri returned a few moments later. “There’s a nurse on her way. It’ll probably be an hour.” For the first time in our acquaintance, he looked at me deferentially. “Is that enough time?”

    “It has to be,” I said, tuning back in to the spirit radiating around Olive. We’d lose some of it, but I was pretty sure we’d still have a little left.

    Meanwhile, I had to plan ahead. Sonya had always hoped that by studying the magic in the blood, we might be able to replicate that spell. I didn’t know if that was possible. Looking at the way it shone around Olive now, I couldn’t see anything definable about it that would’ve allowed me to cast it in the same way. Maybe I didn’t have the skill. I wondered if perhaps it was as straightforward as Nina casting spirit in the same way she had to restore Olive. If that was the key, we had a few problems. One was that the spell required a silver stake through the heart. The other was that even doing it once wiped out a spirit user. We were hardly in a position to mass-produce some magical vaccine.

    Speaking of vaccines . . . I wondered if it was as simple as that. Could we just inject her blood into someone else? Or tattoo it? The biology side of this wasn’t my thing. That required someone like Sydney.

    Thinking of her made me wish she were here. I checked my cell phone and found a message about poetry that made me smile. I tried to think of something witty to send back and ended up going with the naked truth: I need you. In all senses of the word.

    It was true. Crises like these were her specialty, not mine. I slipped the phone back into my pocket and tried to ignore the pang of her absence. If she were here, she’d stick to business. I could do no less. I believe in you.

    “I need some silver,” I said, not really directing my words to anyone in particular. “A case that’s perfectly forged to hold a vial of blood would be ideal, but since I’m guessing none of you are metalsmiths, I’ll take what I can get.”

    Unfortunately, there was none in the house. Not even the girls had any jewelry on. Rose dispatched one of the other guardians as though she were a general on the battlefield. “Find a store that sells jewelry,” she told him. “And bring us some silver.”

    “Large men’s rings, if you can find them,” I added. “Five or six will probably work for a vial.”

    “Just one vial?” asked Olive. That earlier fierceness returned. “You can take as much as you need from me. I’ll do whatever it takes to stop this.”

    “Easy there, champ,” I told her. “We’re not going to drain you when you’re still recovering from literally having your life changed. Besides, I don’t even know yet if your blood will keep holding the magic once it’s out of you.” Seeing everyone’s blank looks, I realized I hadn’t shared my idea with them. “Her body’s brimming with spirit. I don’t know if that’s what creates the immunity, but it’s the best lead we’ve had. But it’s leaking out fast, which is why we need to hurry.”

    Rose’s errand boy scurried away. With nothing to do but wait, Rose leaned against Dimitri and sighed. Neil, surprisingly, began lauding Olive for her determination and bravery. I was too restless to simply stand around, so I wandered out to the porch, wishing for the first time in a while that I had a cigarette, both because it was a nervous habit and because it could take the edge off spirit. Instead, I contented myself with pacing and obsessively checking for messages from Sydney.

    “Expecting a call?” Nina appeared in the doorway, wrapped in the blanket again.

    I put the phone away. “Just hoping I might hear from someone.”

    “Girlfriend?”

    “A friend who’s a girl,” I said smugly. “I have a few ‘friends’ like that.”

    She leaned against the porch’s wall, the inside lights illuminating her in the night’s darkness. “So I’ve heard. I didn’t realize who you were at first.”

    “Should you have?”

    She shrugged. “You and your family are kind of well known.”

    I didn’t ask her to elaborate. She could’ve been talking about Aunt Tatiana—or my mom, who was locked away in prison somewhere. No one would tell me where, and when I had tried to dream visit, she’d ordered me away with such vehemence that I had uncharacteristically obeyed. I wasn’t sure if she was freaked out about spirit dreams or just embarrassed at me seeing her in that state. I held on to the hope that I’d get a better reception if I showed up in person, but that didn’t seem to be a possibility anytime soon. With all the other complications in my life, I kept her on the far edges of my mind and contented myself with writing letters to her that were never sent. Not even Sydney knew that.

    “Well,” I said, putting on the arrogant role everyone expected of me, “I’m not surprised about that. My charm and good looks are legendary—especially with women.”

    “I’m sure,” Nina said with a rueful smile. “But you aren’t what I expected. Thank you . . . for helping Olive.”

    “Thank yourself for that. I’m not doing anything.”

    “You’re helping her get over this—mentally. I mean, we haven’t had a chance to talk much, but I can tell. I know her and realize how traumatic this was for her.”

    I shook my head. “I don’t know her, and even I can see how traumatic it was. That, and I know enough people who’ve gone through it.”

    Nina was silent for a long time. “Do they ever get over it?” she asked quietly.

    I thought about the haunted look I still sometimes saw in Dimitri’s and Sonya’s eyes. “No. But they learn to go on with their lives. Olive will too.”

    “Do you know how it happened?” Nina wrapped the blanket around her more tightly as a cool breeze ruffled her curly hair. “She was protecting our dad. He never even considered not letting us grow up together, you know. He and my mom split up, and then he married Olive’s mom. She’s a dhampir, obviously. Or was. She passed away a few years ago.”

    “Brave guy,” I said. Moroi men usually kept their dhampir mistresses in the shadows.

    “Amazing guy. But not royal. When Olive was in school, she found out there’d never be any way she could protect him when she was a guardian. They told her she’d have to go wherever she was assigned when she graduated—which would be some royal.” Nina chuckled at the memory. “She didn’t take that quietly.”

    I thought back to Olive’s face, determined even in her weakened state. “I can see that.”

    “So she left the school and made herself Dad’s unofficial guardian. He wasn’t happy about that—dropping out of school. But he respected the reasons and let her do it, so long as she took human GED classes. Everything was great, until . . .” Her words choked off.

    “Strigoi?” I guessed.

    “He was attacked on a business trip. She threw herself in their path, so Dad could get away. He did. She didn’t. I thought she was dead for a long time, and when I found out she wasn’t, I read everything I could about Dimitri Belikov and Sonya Karp. I got my friend James to help me . . . and here we are.”

    “It was very brave,” I said. It was also incredibly dangerous, but who was I to fault her? I knew without a doubt I’d do something equally risky to save someone I loved. Hell, I’d brought Jill back from the dead.

    The silver-seeking guardian arrived later, just before the nurse. No one bothered telling the nurse what was going on, mostly because we were all too keyed up. She glanced around nervously as she entered Olive’s bedroom and silently set to work. For all the fuss, it was pretty simple. Less than a minute to draw the blood, and it was all done. She put a stopper on the vial and held it out uncertainly. I took it from her and peered at it intently. There it was, spirit still humming inside—but also still gradually fading.

    I swore and quickly took hold of the silver rings. Our courier had done a good job. The rings were thick and plain and large enough to go around the vial. But I’d never charmed silver and had only a vague understanding of it, based on Lissa’s explanations. Feeling everyone’s eyes on me only made things worse. The metal was cool against my skin, and the rush of spirit filled me as I tried to send it into the ring. My plan was to create a type of compulsion that would trap the spirit within the blood. It would require making the two variants of magic butt heads, something I wasn’t even sure was possible. I glanced up at the nurse.

    “You aren’t an earth user, are you?”

    “No,” she said. “Air.”

    Pretty much the opposite of what I needed. Spirit users exceled at compulsion more than other kinds of Moroi, but earth users had an affinity to metals and other things that dwelt in the ground. Silver readily accepted magic, but I wouldn’t have minded an edge and wished I’d thought to have them rustle up an earth user. Too late now.

    “Here.” Nina walked up beside me and rested her hand over the ring in my palm. I felt her magic rise—only a trickle compared with mine—and help guide my spell into the ring. My hold faltered as I stared at her in surprise.

    “You’ve made charms before.”

    “A few.”

    Once I saw how she did it, I was able to successfully meld spirit into the silver. I did it four more times with the other rings, and although I kept repeating to myself how Sydney believed in me, I also had a brief reminder of that concern in her eyes, her warnings about how continuing to use spirit would harm my mind. And I wasn’t just using spirit today. I was drowning in it. Between using it to “peer” into Olive’s blood and now this charm making, I felt as though I were made of spirit. It was overwhelming, but what I could do? Everyone was counting on me, and by the time I finished, I could barely stand. I rested my hand on the back of a chair to steady myself and handed the rings to Dimitri. “Put them around the vial.”

    The rings were a little larger around, and so he ended up setting the vial in a small box stuffed with cotton so that the rings wouldn’t slip off. Palpable silence filled the room, and he handed the box back to me. I used the last of my strength to study the spirit in the blood. The magic was still in there, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t trickling out. I glanced at Nina for confirmation, but she shook her head.

    “I can’t see what you see.”

    “Then this is as good as it gets.” I gave the box back to Dimitri. “Get it back to Court for Sonya as soon as possible. She’s your best bet for figuring it out now. I think I’ve got it stabilized, but I don’t know for how long.” As the others scurried to make travel plans, I felt the room sway. I needed to get out of here but couldn’t stand to show weakness in front of these people who’d placed so many hopes on me. I finally sought help from the person least likely to judge me and touched Nina’s arm. “Can we talk in private about, uh, spirit stuff?”

    “Sure.” She gave Olive a few soothing words and then left Neil to keep the younger girl company. Nina walked out of the room with me and looked up in concern. “What’d you want to talk about?”

    “Nothing,” I said through gritted teeth. “I actually just need you to find me some place to lie down because I’ll be damned if I faint in front of Rose and Belikov.”

    Her eyes widened, but she wasted no time and took me to her room. Under other circumstances, I might have had the nobility to tell her I couldn’t take her bed away from her. But exhaustion trumped chivalry. I collapsed onto the narrow bed, and for once in my life, I had no trouble falling asleep.

    I awoke to morning sunlight pouring through the window. Jerking upright, I looked around, not sure where I was. Then, everything came back to me. Some of my strength had returned, but I still felt tired. Nearby, Rose sat with a human woman who bore the neck bites and telltale daze of a feeder.

    “Breakfast,” said Rose.

    I wasted no time on pleasantries and sank my teeth into the woman’s neck. The rush it gave me caught me by surprise. I’d been so sated on Dorothy recently that I’d almost come to take blood in stride, the way I would a glass of milk. Now, burned out and weak, I was hit with the full impact of how much my body needed the blood of others. It was as essential as air and water for Moroi, and as I drank greedily, I was certain I’d never tasted anything so sweet and pure.

    The feeder relaxed happily into her chair when I finished, lost in a world of endorphins. “Glad it was good for you too,” I told her, settling back against the pillows. I exhaled in satisfaction as the blood’s energy continued working its way through me. “So what’s the word, little dhampir?”

    Rose’s dark eyes regarded me with amusement. “You slept for ten hours. Dimitri left with Nina and Olive and the other guardians. Sonya’s on her way back to Court, so hopefully they’ll all meet up soon. It’s just you, me, and Neil.”

    “You think Nina and Olive are ready to travel?” I asked.

    “They were a lot better this morning too. And we didn’t want to waste any time getting them back, just in case Sonya’s still able to see something.”

    I swung my legs over the bed’s edge and stood up, pleased to see the world was stable again. “I don’t want to waste time either. I need to get back to Palm Springs.” Back to Sydney. “Thanks for sticking around.”

    Rose nodded and stood as well. “Thanks for all you did. I don’t understand a lot of it, but Nina did, and she was pretty impressed.”

    “All in a day’s work,” I said, hoping she believed me. I was fully aware that the spirit I’d used was off the charts. And I was also fully aware that there’d be a price.

    A sly smile crossed Rose’s lips. “I think Nina likes you. Maybe you could look her up the next time you’re at Court. Would do you good to settle down.” It was a dangerous comment, considering our past, but it no longer bothered me.

    “What, and disappoint all the women of the world? How cruel do you think I am?”

    She caught hold of my arm as I was about to go into the living room and join Neil. “Adrian, in all seriousness . . . I mean it, thank you for this. I’m sorry for what I said last night. You have changed. And . . . it looks good on you.”

    “Most things do,” I told her.

    That broke her serious mien. “Always a joke with you. I guess I shouldn’t expect that to go away.”

    Then, astonishingly, she hugged me. Again, I was floored at how immune I was to it. That wasn’t to say I felt nothing, but it wasn’t the pain or longing for an ex. The hug was just a kind gesture from a friend.

    We all went to the airport together; Rose was off to Pennsylvania, while Neil and I headed back to Palm Springs. A check of my cell phone at the gate found a number of messages from Sydney, excited that she’d made a breakthrough in her charm. Warmth flooded me as I imagined her face and that glint that shone in her eyes when she made some sort of intellectual discovery.

    I wrote: I never doubted. Would you believe I made a breakthrough with charms too?

    Her response came fast. Of course I believe it. When do you get back?

    Early evening. Can you come over?

    I’ll try. We need to celebrate.

    Should I get champagne and cake ready?

    Get your bed ready.

    Wear the black bra.

    I didn’t plan on wearing one.

    “God help me,” I murmured, earning a surprised glance from Neil.

    I sincerely doubted we would cross the line into sex during a furtive visit like this, but just the hint of her touch made everything else in the world fade to unimportance. I felt my pulse quicken as I thought of that look she got in her eyes sometimes, the animal one that had no interest in books and was usually followed by the urgency of her lips against mine and her hands tightening against my back. Everyone thought Sydney had passion only for intellectual pursuits. That was their loss.

    Daydreams of Sydney kept me on a high for the flight home, even making Neil’s conversation bearable. He’d become uncharacteristically chatty, wanting to talk about how to help with the “Strigoi vaccine.” He also kept going on and on about how brave the Sinclair sisters were—especially Olive. I could spot infatuation a mile away and put on my gravest look for him. “I’ve never seen courage like hers. I can’t even begin to relate to it. You’re probably the only one who understands that sort of awesome bravery. She can tell too. It was obvious from the way she was talking to you.”

    Neil’s breath caught. “You think so?”

    “Absolutely. It was in her eyes. You should keep in touch. I’ll get her contact info when we’re back home. It’d probably help her, having someone else to talk to.”

    That, at least, kept him dazed and happy. I was going to get in trouble with Jill for this, but I was still subscribing to the idea that she’d eventually thank me when she ran off with some Moroi prince. Or Eddie. I’d take either one.

    When we landed in Palm Springs, I kind of hoped Sydney might be there to give us a ride from the airport, but we instead received messages to catch cabs to our respective homes. I also had a text from Jill waiting: I know what you’re doing with Neil. You’re mean. How will I ever have a healthy relationship?

    By being with someone else, I wrote back.

    Once I’d dropped off my suitcase and was in control of my own car, I headed out to a nearby grocery store. I felt like I was walking on air, buzzed with what I’d accomplished in Dallas and excited to see Sydney again. Being with her was about more than bras (or lack thereof). I also just wanted to be near her. I felt lonely inside my own head. Even with Jill or countless other friends, there was no one except Sydney that I truly felt comfortable with. She was the only one who truly saw me or heard me.

    Inspiration hit, and I decided to make something for her tonight. Why wait for her birthday? Like she’d said, this was a special occasion. We were both celebrating our triumphs. Somehow, I became obsessed with the idea of making crème brûlée, even though I never had before. In fact, I’d never really made any sort of dessert, short of opening a carton of ice cream. But crème brûlée sounded classy, I was in love, and I felt unstoppable after doing what few others could do with spirit. How hard could one dessert be?

    Before I could even answer that question, an internet search on my phone told me I needed a lot more equipment than my sparse kitchen had. By the time I hit the checkout line with my mini-blowtorch, ramekins, cream, egg separator, double boiler, and organic vanilla beans, I’d racked up a surprisingly high bill—more than my bank account held. Or my credit card permitted, for that matter.

    “Sorry,” said the cashier, handing it back to me. “Declined.”

    An uneasy feeling welled up in my stomach. “Can we try it again?”

    She shrugged and ran it once more, only to get the same result. “Declined,” she repeated.

    I nearly asked again but knew in my gut that nothing would change. Feeling like a total idiot, I abandoned my goods and left the store, unsure what I was going to do now. Panic began to rise up within me. I kept telling myself that neither my bank account nor my credit card were actually at zero. They just didn’t have enough to cover a crème brûlée cooking kit. But just how much was left? That was something I needed to go find out. I only had to survive two weeks until my next payday, and as I made the agonizing drive home, I tried to add up what expenses I had to juggle. Gas. Groceries—unless I could get Dorothy to feed me. Had I paid electricity yet? I couldn’t remember, but I knew cable was taken care of—not that it’d do me much good if they turned the power off.

    Relax, Adrian, I told myself. You’ve still got money. And they won’t cut the electricity if you’re a little late on a bill.

    But when I got home and checked my balances, I saw that even though I wasn’t at empty yet, I was pretty damned close. What was I going to do? I could barely scrape by with my living expenses, let alone the ever-looming task of Sydney’s birthday. I sank down on the floor near the still-packed boxes of records and glared at them.

    “Stupid, stupid,” I muttered. “I am so stupid.”

    The high I’d been riding from my triumph in Texas crashed to the ground. Despair settled around me, its dark tendrils slowly creeping under my skin. After what I’d done yesterday, it was expected that I’d be susceptible to the magic’s ups and downs. I’d had the up earlier today . . . now the down would try to come, seizing on annoyances like this and making them bigger than they were. And then, on cue, I heard her voice.

    Why are you so sad? You aren’t stupid. You’re my brilliant, beautiful boy. You’ll figure a way out of this.

    I could hear Aunt Tatiana’s voice as clearly as if she stood beside me. I buried my face in my hands. “Go away, Aunt Tatiana. I don’t need to add hallucinations to my growing list of problems.”

    Since when was I problem?

    “Since you died and I started imagining I could hear you.”

    Are you saying you can’t, sweetling?

    “Yes! I mean, no. This is a trick. This is all in my head.” It was another secret I’d kept from Sydney, how in my darkest moments lately, I imagined conversations with my dead aunt. It was one of the most terrifying things that had ever happened to me because while certain actions might be jokingly called crazy, there was no question that ghostly imaginings actually were crazy. “I don’t want to talk to you.”

    Why? Haven’t I always been there for you? Didn’t I always look after you?

    “Yes,” I said through gritted teeth. “But you’re dead now, and I have to help my—”

    I suddenly jerked my head up as an idea hit me. I sprang to my feet and hurried over to my dresser, where Aunt Tatiana’s cuff links glittered up at me. Sydney had said I’d have a fortune if I sold them—but I didn’t need to sell them. Not technically. I could take them to a pawnshop and get a loan. In two weeks, I’d go buy them out. Thrilled at my revelation, I scooped them up and started to turn away—then halted. Some inner voice of wisdom made me reconsider the logistics. After a moment’s thought, I set one of them down and sought out a pair of tweezers in the jumble of various other items piled nearby. After a little maneuvering, I plucked out one of the rubies and held it up to the light. No need to risk the others. This was all I needed. More than enough to get me through the next two weeks. Inside my head, Aunt Tatiana’s laughter echoed.

    See? I always look after you.

    “You aren’t real,” I said, striding toward the front door. “You’re just part of spirit messing with my head. All of this is a mental rebound after everything I did with Olive.”

    If I’m not real, then how come you answer me out loud?

    I’d known it would happen, that I couldn’t walk away unscathed from all that spirit. I just hadn’t expected it to bounce around these highs and lows or to escalate to this long of a conversation with my dead aunt. I had to nix this right now. I didn’t want Aunt Tatiana talking to me while I was negotiating with a pawnbroker, and I certainly didn’t want her around while Sydney was here. A check of the time told me I had a while before she showed up, giving me ample opportunity to fix my finances and blot out my aunt.

    I hadn’t had my daily drink and decided it was worth doing it early in order to get a grip. The agreement’s terms referred only to “a drink,” with no qualifiers on strength. So, when I found an old bottle of Bacardi 151—the strongest stuff I owned—I didn’t really feel like I was cheating, even though it had enough kick for two drinks. After a shot of that, I was out the door. And once again, a bolt of wisdom struck me. The shot hadn’t hit me yet, but I prudently chose to walk downtown rather than drive. It was less than fifteen minutes, and by the time I reached the pawnshop I’d passed a dozen times in the past, I was happily buzzed from the rum. The store owner’s assessment soon put a damper on that, though.

    “Two hundred,” he said.

    “That’s bullshit,” I said, taking the ruby back. “It’s worth at least twice that.” It occurred to me then that if I hadn’t had the rum, I’d have full spirit to try to compel a higher price. Immediately, I regretted the thought. Even I had some morals. There was a reason the Moroi forbade the use of compulsion.

    The guy shrugged. “Then run an ad. Sell it on the internet. You want fast cash? This is what you get.”

    I nearly walked out the door, but desperation made me stay. Two hundred was less to pay back, and really, did I need much more than that to get by in the next two weeks?

    “You won’t sell it?” I asked.

    “Not if you can keep paying interest or come pay off the loan.” There was a look in his eyes that told me most people never came back to pay those loans. In some of my darker moments, I would wallow in self-pity over how hard my life was. But just then, I couldn’t help but think it must be pretty depressing to see the desperate dregs of the world coming in to sell off their prized possessions.

    “I’ll pay it back,” I told him. “I’ll be back in two weeks, so take good care of it.”

    “Whatever you say,” he said.

    I gave him the ruby and filled out some paperwork. He gave me the cash. And like that, I was out the door, suddenly feeling a weight lifted off my chest. I’d dealt with the problem. I was in control of my life again. Thinking of Aunt Tatiana’s ruby in that grubby man’s hands did give me a moment’s pause, and I half expected her to protest. But the rum kept her quiet, and I told myself again that there was no harm done.

    I made no attempts to repeat the crème brûlée experiment, but I did pick up some pain au chocolat on the walk home so that I’d have something nice for when Sydney came over. We could eat it by candlelight and catch up on what had happened over the last day or so. It cost me only seven dollars, so no one could question my fiscal responsibility.

    My phone rang when I was nearly to my door, and to my surprise, the display showed Rowena’s name.

    “Hey, Prince Charming! A bunch of us are going to the Matchbox tonight. Eighteen and over, so you can bring your fictitious girlfriend.”

    “I’m bringing her to my apartment tonight for some very not-fictitious activities,” I said. “I haven’t seen her in almost two days.”

    “Boo-hoo. It’s a wonder you haven’t fallen to pieces. You know where we are if you change your mind.”

    My energy was running strong, and I started off doing some rapid-fire painting. After a while, I lost interest and decided to spend the rest of the day cleaning my apartment from top to bottom. I felt a burning need to prove myself, not just to Sydney, but to me. I didn’t want to feel like I was drifting through life. I wanted to be responsible and in control. I wanted to be a worthy partner to her and threw myself into my cleaning more than I had in . . . well, I really couldn’t remember the last time, seeing as I hated cleaning. But tonight, I was fired up. I was unstoppable, even going so far as to scrub my kitchen backsplash with a toothbrush. I was high and excited, and the earlier glum mood was banished to the winds . . . at least until I was dusting my dresser and I saw the cuff links with the missing ruby. My dust rag faltered, and I stared at the gaping hole in the platinum setting. I suddenly felt like I had a matching hole in my soul.

    “No,” I told Hopper, who was sitting on the bed, undoubtedly weirded out by my frenetic activity. “It’s not gone. I’ll get it back.”

    I could’ve sworn I heard Aunt Tatiana laughing again, and I rushed to the liquor cabinet, intending to take another shot. Sure, it was violating the agreement, but these were unusual circumstances. I was entitled to some leeway to fight against this spirit backlash . . . right?

    No. That was just an excuse, and I’d hold true to Sydney. I wouldn’t lose control. I couldn’t. Everything was fine. I’d told her I’d be strong, that I wouldn’t lapse again. In fact, to prove it to myself, I seized on an impulsive and questionably noble idea: I began emptying my liquor collection down the drain. Part of me winced at the waste, but the rest of me was proud. Now there’d be no temptation.

    Sydney called when I was nearly finished. “Good timing, Sage. I’m just taking care of some housecleaning.”

    She sighed. “I can’t come over. Zoe’s got it into her head that she wants me to help her with this Alchemist database, and she overheard Ms. Terwilliger mention a date—with Wolfe, if you can believe it—so I can’t use her as an excuse. I’m sorry.”

    I was glad she couldn’t see my face. “No need to. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. And hey, this just gives me extra time to think of more ways to celebrate.”

    Her laughter was tinged with relief. “How many ways have you thought of already?”

    “Who can count the number of stars in the sky or grains of sand upon the beach? It’s futile.”

    “Oh, Adrian.” The warmth in her voice stirred both my blood and my heart—and made the pain of her absence that much worse. “Tomorrow I’ll come over. I promise.”

    “I’d say I’d count the seconds, but that’s a pretty big number for me.”

    “I’ll count for both of us. I love you.”

    The words were a dagger to my heart, sweet and cruel at the same time. We disconnected, and I stared around at my immaculate apartment with its latest freestyle paintings. On the kitchen counter, Hopper seemed to watch me judgmentally with his golden eyes. What was I going to do with myself now? It was embarrassing that I even had to ask that kind of question, like I was some child who required others to entertain him. But the canvas held no more interest for me, and I suddenly felt awake and wired. I had another night of insomnia ahead of me.

    I put Supertramp on the record player and flounced onto my bed to read The Great Gatsby. I couldn’t focus, though. I was too restless, too keyed up over Sydney and the usual questions about where my life was going. She and I were caught up in this dangerous game that had no end in sight. There was no clear direction on anything else either. What would happen after Jill left Palm Springs? Would I follow her? Would I stay to finish my art degree? And then what? Rowena always joked about limited career options, but she wasn’t that far off from the truth. Tossing aside the book, I draped a hand over my eyes and tried to still the hamster wheel in my mind. Aunt Tatiana returned.

    Why are you worrying about such things? It doesn’t suit you. Just live in the moment.

    “Go away,” I said aloud. “You’re not here, and I’m not engaging with a figment of my imagination. I’m not that far gone. Besides . . . I have a future to think about with Sydney. I have my own future to think about.”

    You’ll get by, that damned voice said. You always do. Your smile and charm will get you out of any situation. Forget all this brooding.

    Some reasonable part reminded me that this conversation was only imagined, brought on by a rebound of spirit. And yet, I found myself arguing back. “No. I’m not going to keep going moment to moment without any regard for the consequences. No more impulsive decisions. I’m done with that phase in my life.”

    Then why did you sell my ruby?

    I opened my eyes. Undefinable emotions churned within me, and I didn’t know what I was going to do, only that I had to do something or else I’d explode. I had to get out of my own head. I had to get out of here. “No more. I’m done with this. I’m done with you.”

    Scrambling out of bed, I went back to the living room to find where I’d discarded my cell phone. It was lying next to my uncapped oil paints. I scooped it up and dialed Rowena back.

    “Yo,” I said. “You guys still there?”