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Under the Rose

“Lena, quit moving!” Autumn pulled back the hairbrush. “I’m gonna take your ear off!”

Lena shivered. They sat on the edge of Autumn’s white bed, Lena’s toes curling restlessly in the plush, pale yellow carpet.

“Sorry, I can’t help it!” she groaned and squirmed again. “I’m just too nervous!”

Autumn scoffed in frustration and grabbed her shoulders, trying to hold the girl still.

“What’s there to be nervous about?” she asked. “We’re just going to a party!”

Lena shook her head.

“A party full of super judgy rich people, Autumn,” she argued. “And my date is the hottest guy in school!”

Autumn huffed, carefully running the brush through Lena’s soft brown waves.

“I don’t care how hot Jason is,” she snapped in annoyance. “We’ll never get anywhere if you don’t keep still!”

They’d spent the last two hours getting ready; she smoothed a wrinkle in her gown—strapless, pale pink and floor-length, the matching faux-fur stole draped over her footboard. Lena had helped put her hair in an elegant waterfall twist, then had insisted on the same ponytail she wore nearly every day, though she was squirming so much that Autumn was ready to give up.

“Okay, okay,” Lena took a deep breath and let it slowly out. “He’s not even why I’m nervous, it’s Stephanie.”

Autumn rolled her eyes.

“I don’t know why you keep letting her get to you,” she left a lock of long bangs to frame either side of Lena’s face, brushed the rest of her hair into a high hold and twisted in a plain black band. She tied a white satin ribbon around it and let the ends hang freely. “She’s just jealous, and she hasn’t really pulled anything since those posters.”

Lena sighed, reaching for her backpack as Autumn slid off the bed and went to her baby pink vanity.

“I know, but I can’t stop thinking that she has something else planned,” she pulled out a pair of high-heeled white sandals and brushed some stray fuzz from her toes, the nails painted pearl like her fingers. It was easy to see why Lena had become a model, Autumn thought. Even her feet were perfect. “She’s probably just waiting for the best time to humiliate me again.”

Autumn drew a third line of lipstick on her wrist, wondering how she had ended up with so many shades of rose, then glanced at her in the mirror.

“Why’d you want me to put that thing in your hair? It’s the choker that goes with the dress, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but it made me itch too much,” Lena did the clasp on her necklace, turning it carefully around to reveal seven small, round gems hanging from the lower of two delicate silver chains. “And I wanted to wear mine, anyway.”

“It’s gorgeous,” she commented. “Is it special?”

Lena nodded.

“It was my mom’s gift for their tenth anniversary,” she touched the first jewel, a brilliant white diamond. “This one’s my dad’s, the emerald is Michael’s, the ruby’s mine and the sapphires are for Kyle, Zach and Brianna.”

Each hung from its own chain, longer the closer it was to the center. Her fingers shook as she touched the deep purple amethyst on the far right.

“And this is my mom’s…”

Autumn’s heart lurched as she remembered the tragic story Lena had told her—her mother’s brutal murder, her own poisoning and the subsequent fire that had been set to try and conceal the rest of her family’s deaths, all of which remained unsolved. She set down her chosen lipstick, went back to the bed and hugged her tightly.

“You really miss them, don’t you?” she asked gently. Lena nodded, then breathed a low sigh.

“The worst part is I know who—” she swallowed hard. “Who killed them…”

Autumn pulled back, knowing she didn’t like being touched for long.

“That’s what I don’t get,” she said. “If you know, why weren’t they ever arrested?”

Lena’s jaw tightened, like her fists on her shimmering white skirt.

“They ‘couldn’t find any proof’,” she spat bitterly. “The only gun there was locked up and didn’t have any prints, and no one could figure out how the house started burning so quickly. The oil they found was just in the driveway.”

Autumn had no clue what she could say now, but it didn’t stop her from trying.

“I know it’s hard, but you have to remember that they’re still looking out for you,” she turned to the window, a circle of stars shining more brightly than the rest in the clear night sky. “They’re alive as long as you don’t forget them.”

Lena sniffled for a moment, then wiped her eyes.

“I know you’re right,” she said. “It’s just…I still miss them…”

“And you’re always going to,” Autumn touched her shoulders briefly, pulling back when they heard a car pull to a stop in the driveway outside. “But you and I both know they wouldn’t want you crying over them the rest of your life, they’d want you to be happy.”

Lena sighed again, drying the last of her tears. Autumn returned her small smile, then got up and grabbed her stole.

“I’ll see if I can make the guys wait a few minutes,” she finished her lipstick and spritzed on some perfume. “You know how impatient they can get.”

Lena nodded, digging in the front pocket of her backpack again. Autumn’s smile faded as she shut the door, as she thought about everything the younger girl had been through. Losing her family like that, forced to live with her vicious, abusive drunk of a stepmother. It was the last thing she deserved!

There’s gotta be a way to get her out of there, she thought. But how?

“There has to be something we can do…”

“Do about what?”

She stopped, looking up to see Ty gazing curiously at her, as he tucked the spare key she’d given him in the pocket of his crisp charcoal suit.

“I’m trying to think how we could get Lena away from Kara,” she clarified. “The last thing she needs is to be stuck there any longer.”

“Yeah, but what can we do?” he turned to Jason, the other boy standing by the front window. He could certainly pull off a three-piece, but there was just something about him that had always bugged her, and worse was the fact she still couldn’t put her finger on it. “Hey, any ideas?”

Jason kept staring at the street, then shoved out a breath.

“I don’t think there’s anything we can do,” he turned to them. “I mean, there’s…”

He trailed off, his mouth going slack. Lena had just stepped out of the hallway, blushing under the powder on her cheeks. Her eyes were brighter than ever under smokey dark eye shadow, ringed by thick black lashes. She played with the clasp of her white silk bolero, giggling shyly as Jason kept staring, then shook it off and walked over to her. Autumn snickered as she tugged Ty out on the porch, wishing she’d gotten a picture of that starry-eyed look on Jason’s face; she was sure even Lena would realize he liked her after tonight.

“I wish Lena had moved here when I did,” Ty straightened his jacket. “Who knows how much crap we could’ve avoided.”

“I know,” Autumn walked to the other end of the porch, so she wouldn’t be tempted to keep watching. “And it looks like Chad was right after all.”

Ty snorted.

“That’s one thing I never thought I’d hear, but I wish he’d told us about that stupid ‘plan’ of his sooner.”

“You know him,” she leaned against the railing. “He has to do everything on his own, no matter how bad it makes him look.”

He chuckled a bit.

“Jason does the same thing,” he shrugged. “Guess they’re more alike than we thought.”

She giggled.

“Yeah, guess so.”

Lena’s heart jumped when Jason took her hand, her blush getting deeper as he bowed to brush a kiss across her knuckles. She felt like a princess in the old stories her mother had loved reading as much as she’d loved hearing.

“You look amazing,” he breathed, letting his fingers tangle with hers. She took in his pressed, fitted black suit, sharp white shirt and deep blue tie, his black dress shoes clean and polished. It was the first time she’d seen him clean-shaven, and she had to admit he looked better with his usual scruff; she also wondered what story was behind the small scar on his chin.

“Didn’t you say you were donating your hair today?” she noted the low, sleek ponytail slung over his shoulder. He shrugged.

“My uncle kept me late at the garage,” he rubbed the back of his neck, actually flushed in embarrassment. “I barely had time to get ready.”

She giggled a bit, then stood on her toes to kiss his cheek, her eyes widening when she felt how hard his heart was beating. He put a hand over hers on his chest, the other resting lightly on her back as he nudged her closer. She gasped when she gazed in his eyes, glinting in a way only one other pair had before—a sweet, excitable blue that had never stopped laughing. So unlike the dark, serious gaze that hypnotized her now. Her breath caught in her throat as he leaned in, his fingers tightening around hers, a tender warmth spreading through her veins as he pressed a light, sweet kiss to her forehead.

“We should get going,” he nodded toward the front door, standing slightly ajar. “Can’t let those two have all the fun, can we?”

She giggled again, taking his arm when he offered it, using the opportunity to cop a feel.

“Now that would just be wrong.”

The Vetra family estate was nearly two hundred years old, the grand manor crowning a large, low hill and backed by the naked, sweeping forest. The shaped trees lining the driveway had withered from the cold, like the conical shrubs standing guard around the house. The lawn was dusted with fresh frost, the yellowed grass cut close as a billiards table. Lena stepped carefully out from the backseat of Ty’s white Honda, the neat vehicle easily the cheapest on the property. She took Jason’s arm as the four of them made their way up an intricately cut gray stone path to the wide front steps, the medium wood worn smooth by the constant passage of feet. A silver plaque engraved with vines shone beside the ornate doors, set in a tall, imposing archway, ‘Isola’ etched proudly in the center.

“What’s that mean?” she asked quietly as they passed. Jason chuckled.

“It means ‘island’,” he answered softly. “This side of my family’s Italian, and they made sure all of us grew up bilingual, since half of us still live there.”

She smiled.

“That’s pretty cool. I’ve always wanted to go to Europe,” she went on dreamily. “Every country sounds gorgeous!”

He laughed again, sweeping out a hand in a grand gesture as they crossed the threshold.

“Then, welcome to Isola.”

She gasped. The front hall was stunning—heavy scarlet drapes drawn back from the large windows on three walls, framing a stunning view of the star-filled evening sky. Two deep green marble pillars supported the upper hall, a grand staircase curving along the right wall, the floor a swirled, shining sea of pearly white and stately black. An elaborate runner glided down the two halls between the pillars, a large gold and crystal chandelier hanging proudly at the apex of the tall ceiling.

All the wood she could see was dark, lacquered and polished to a shine, a short, stout pillar standing guard at the head and foot of the stairs. Wrapped in a carved vine with a simple crest etched lightly into the orb at the top—a blooming rose with a slim scroll wrapped loosely around the thorny stem—amare è sacrifico. To love is to sacrifice, Jason whispered to her.

Several couples swayed elegantly to the classical music drifting from hidden speakers, a carved stone vase overflowing with mixed roses standing in each corner of the spacious room, the floor around them littered with petals—purple, blue, orange, red. Lena’s enchantment lasted until her gaze circled back to the front doors, and she glowered at the familiar figure draped in a shimmering golden gown.

“Looks like Stephanie’s here,” she hissed in his ear. He couldn’t quite hide his scowl when he looked.

“I like that nonna always invites Lance’s family,” he whispered back. “But she thinks Stephanie and I should be together because they’re as rich as we are.”

“That’s not much to go on, especially since, well…” she shrugged, then glanced back at Stephanie, the girl talking to an attractive older couple who were likely Jason’s grandparents. The man was tall, lightly tanned with a full head of wavy white hair and bright, charming blue eyes. His fitted off-white suit, paired with a patterned cream silk tie and pale blue shirt, was a statement of gentility from a bygone era. The woman at his side was much shorter, her gray-streaked brown hair tied tightly in a braided bun.

She caught Lena’s gaze when she looked over, then turned back to apologize for cutting the conversation short. Lena felt Jason stiffen as the couple walked toward them, the woman’s deep green velvet skirt whispering across the floor, her dark eyes filled with thinly veiled disgust.

“Jason,” she stopped in front of them, hardly giving Lena a cursory glance. Her accent was smooth, a contrast to her sharp movements. “Who is this?”

“She’s a friend, nonna,” he slipped a hand over Lena’s, still tucked in the crook of his arm. “Una cara amica.

“M-My name’s Lena,” she was relieved her nerves hid her irritation. Who did this woman think she was? “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. And Mrs. Vetra.”

Mrs. Vetra sniffed, her husband wearing a kind, apologetic smile.

“And just how do you know my grandson?” her voice held no signs of softening. Lena cleared her throat.

“He’s the teacher’s aide in my chemistry class.”

The old woman huffed, then looked to Jason.

Non capirò mai perchè ti ostini a far parte della classe operaia,” she snapped impatiently.

Noi non siamo al di sopra di nessuno,” he returned sharply, glaring back at her. “Perciò basta stronzate!

His grandfather interjected, “Bada a come parli!

Jason flashed a sardonic smile.

Allora non avrebbe dovuto insultare Lena.

The old man stared at him, visibly unnerved by his cold glower, then cleared his throat.

“I think it’s best we go, dear,” he said to his wife. His accent was a bit thicker than hers, but just as dignified. He patted her hand, then led her away. “Just let the boy do what he wants.”

Lena waited until they were distracted before turning to Jason.

“You weren’t kidding about the bilingual stuff,” she commented. “What was that all about?”

He groaned.

“Just an old argument,” he sounded exhausted. “It’s not worth worrying about.”

They watched as his grandmother resumed chatting with Stephanie, his grandfather eventually excusing himself to speak with someone else. She noted how eager he seemed to get away.

“So, it’s cold, but it’s still a nice night,” Jason said eventually, smiling awkwardly. “Come on, I’ll show you the garden.”

The back terrace was as ornate as the rest of the manor, paved with the same light gray stone as the front walkway. Soft white lights were strung along a beautiful awning, spiraling down slender stone pillars. A light mist hung over the bare garden, lending it a mystic charm. A white marble fountain stood in the center, clear water spilling from conch shells held by two tall, slender nymphs.

Their heads were bowed, their eyes closed, lips parted as though in song. Lena gasped in delight, hurrying ahead to get a closer look. The level of detail was incredible—the long, flowing locks of the nymphs’ hair, the matching shells in their delicate hands, the drapes and folds in their simple, sleeveless robes. She sat on the edge of the large, round basin, reaching down to grab a flower that had fallen in the gently rippling water; a half-opened snowdrop, the white petals tinted silver by the full moon overhead. Jason sat next to her, turning to stare at the fountain himself.

“Mom and I designed it, one of the only things I really got to do with her,” he explained, his voice wistful. “Won an art contest in third grade with that picture.”

She twirled the bud slowly in her fingers, her other hand tucked into her bolero.

“It’s kind of scary,” she said after a while. “How alike we are—we were both close to our moms, and we both had the chance for a normal life ripped out from under us.”

“Yeah, but who’s to say what’s normal?” he stretched his arms over his head, then draped one across her shoulders. Giving her that same sweet smile, he took the snowdrop from where she’d dropped it in her lap, carefully tucking the stem in her hair; his hand slipped to her cheek, his eyes never leaving hers. He leaned closer, and she put a hand on his chest, gasping softly at the quick pace of his heart. The arm around her shoulders drifted down to hug her waist, their lips less than an inch apart…

“There you are, Jason!” Stephanie ran toward them, her heels clicking on the path, grabbed his arm and yanked him to his feet. “Nonna’s been looking everywhere for you!”

He scowled at her, then tore his arm away.

“Don’t give me that shit,” he snapped at her. “If she wanted me, she would have found me her—”

“Don’t worry about it, Jason,” Lena touched his hand, smiling up at him. “And you really should be in there, it’s—”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Stephanie waved her off, dragging him inside with her; he stared back until they vanished in the crowd, the black latticed doors pulled shut to keep out the chill. Lena sat there, fisting her skirt, biting her tongue to keep the tears at bay, the tiny smile she’d given him still plastered on her trembling lips.

Autumn’s fingers tightened on her glass of sparkling cider. Stephanie had just sailed past them, making a circus of the fact Jason was with her, her beaming smile wide enough to split her face.

“Just when I thought she couldn’t get any worse,” Ty muttered beside her. He pried the mostly empty glass from her grip, setting it and his on a tray carried by one of the servers striding through the crowd. “She pulls this crap.”

“I’m actually surprised she didn’t try it sooner,” Chad stopped next to them, his hands in his pockets. His suit did an amazing job of setting off his eyes. “But I’m sure she was just waiting for the right moment.”

Ty looked at him.

“What do you mean?”

Chad nodded toward the doors that led to the back garden.

“She watched Jason take Lena out there, then five minutes later, she’s dragging him back in.”

Autumn’s glare shifted to Mrs. Vetra, all too happy to see Jason dancing with Stephanie, though his grandfather was looking anywhere but them. He eventually turned to speak with the group of men behind him, his posture noticeably stiff.

“How much longer do you think she’ll keep this up?”

Chad shrugged.

“Who knows? But she doesn’t seem to know when to give up.”

Ty put an arm around Autumn’s tense shoulders.

“How’s Lance doing?” he asked. Chad shook his head.

“He started puking his guts out as we were getting ready to leave. I actually feel bad for coming,” he went on. “But he said it’d be better if I helped keep an eye on things here; his mom’s with him, though.”

Ty glanced back at the terrace doors.

“I don’t think Lena’s come in yet, why don’t you go check on her?”

Chad nodded.

“And you guys find a way to get J away from that bitch, she’s gotta be put in her place.”


Autumn pulled away from Ty as Chad headed outside, stopped behind Jason and tapped his shoulder. Stephanie glowered at her.

“Ugh, excuse me,” she huffed. “We’re in the middle of a dance here!”

Autumn plastered on a huge, insincere grin.

“Oh, I know,” her voice oozed false sweetness. “But Ty and I have to talk to Jason, it’s really important!”

Stephanie pouted at him, but he stepped back, barely hiding his relief.

“I…better go see what they want.”

He followed her to where Ty still waited by the far wall, toying with the black buttons of his open suit jacket.

“That was easier than I thought,” he commented. “I didn’t think she’d give in that fast.”

“Yeah, but it won’t be long before she comes looking for me again,” Jason scanned the room. “Where’s Chad?”

“In the garden with Lena,” Autumn told him. “We sent him out there in case it took us a while to get you.”

“Right,” Jason rubbed the back of his neck, then pushed out a breath. “It was a such bad idea to bring her here…”

Ty chuckled.

“Yeah, it wasn’t one of your best plans.”

Jason shot him a glare with no real heat.

“Gee, thanks. Any other smartass remarks you want to—”


They all jumped at his grandmother’s voice, somehow sharper and more impatient than usual.

“There you are,” she trotted over and grabbed his collar, tugging him down to her level. She muttered quickly in Italian, barely giving him time to answer before going on again. He groaned.

“All right, all right, fine,” he shoved her hand away, straightened and fixed his clothes. Autumn and Ty snickered.

“I’ll see you guys later,” he glanced sidelong at his grandmother. “Got ‘official business’ to take care of with some geezers.”

His grandmother huffed indignantly, and they laughed harder. She grabbed his wrist, quietly snapping at him again before pulling him along with her.

“He actually looked kind of scared there,” Autumn noted when they were gone. “I was starting to think he couldn’t get scared.”

Ty just laughed again.

“Hey, you okay?”

Lena looked up to see Chad, dashing in his navy suit. A thin, dark crescent shone next to his eye, the remnants of the blow Jason had dealt him.

“Stephanie’s pulled a lot of shit before,” he went on. “But I don’t think she’s ever been this obvious about it.”

He bowed slightly, offering his hand with a small smirk.

“And I know I’m not Jason,” he said. “But want to dance with me, anyway?”

She giggled, took his hand and let him help her to her feet.

“Guess I can’t spend the whole night moping.”

He led her inside, a new piece of music filling the air as they stopped on the dance floor. He pulled her close, put his other hand on her waist, and led her in a simple waltz. Since when could he dance like that?

“I don’t usually come to these,” he said softly, his breath warm against her cheek. “Not really my thing.”

“What made you come this time?” her voice was wispy, her fingers tightening on his shoulder. Why was she suddenly feeling like this? He shrugged.

“Figured I should, since you and Stephanie were bound to cross paths.”

“Yeah…” she glanced around, trying to catch a glimpse of dark red hair. “Is Lance here? I haven’t seen him yet.”

Mr. Carter, head of the town’s biggest hospital, had arrived with Stephanie, while his ex-wife and son were nowhere to be found. Chad grimaced.

“He’s still at his mom’s place,” he said. “Started puking his guts out just before we were supposed to leave.”

“It was probably something he ate,” she spotted Stephanie in the crowd, flirting with an older man. Another turn let her find Jason, perfectly at ease with his grandfather and several other men, like he’d been talking business his whole life. “Starting to wonder why he hangs out with us.”

Chad shrugged again.

“He’s not like his folks. Hell, he’d probably deny he was related to them, if he had a choice.”

He shuddered, like he knew something she didn’t.

“If I’d had to go through what he did, I doubt I’d keep it together,” he blew out a breath. “Forget being able to move past it.”

The music faded into another piece, and she stepped back from him.

“Thanks, Chad,” she said quietly. “But I really need to find Autumn, I have to talk to her.”

She threw a muttered apology over her shoulder, the stares of several women cutting into her as she made her way through the crowd. She could hear them whispering about the posters they had seen in town—what was a girl like that doing here? Who would have invited her? She tried to ignore the rest of the comments, staring at the floor to hide the tears that filled her eyes. She knocked into a man, his drink spilling on them both, and she shrank away, waiting for him to explode, to throw the glass at her like Kara always did. But instead, he laughed.

“Hey, it’s okay,” he moved to touch her wrist, but she flinched, barely glancing at him before running off again. “H-Hey, wait!”

The fountain outside felt like ice when she collapsed against it, but she didn’t care. It helped cool her burning cheeks, the sounds of falling water and sobs nearly muting the voice and footsteps behind her. Someone knelt next to her, putting an arm around her shaking shoulders.

“It was just Sprite,” he told her. “Nothing to freak about.”

She sniffled, feeling the streaks of makeup on her cheeks as she lifted her head, seeing the black and rosy splotches on the sleeves of her bolero.

“I-I’m such a screw-up,” she muttered, then coughed. The person beside her tilted her chin toward him, and she froze when her eyes met Jason’s. She saw the wet spot on his chest, wishing more than ever that she could just disappear.

“No, you’re not,” he was almost angry. “Don’t you ever think like that.”

“But I am,” she argued, then sniffed again. “I-I’m just—”

“The most amazing girl I’ve ever met,” he gripped her shoulders, staring at her so intently that she couldn’t look away. “I swear I’m not lying when I say that.”

He hugged her, letting her cry into his jacket. This close, she couldn’t miss the enticing smell of his cologne, mixed with the easy pine of his body wash. She hiccuped, and he stroked her wet cheek as she pulled back from him, seeing him glare at the lit manor from the corner of his eye.

“Chad just left, and Autumn and Ty are sick of it, so I think it’s time we got out of here, too,” he smiled at her, his eyes so gentle and warm. “How about you?”

She nodded weakly, halfheartedly drying her face with her ruined sleeve.

“I think that’s a great idea,” she got up with him. “Let’s go.”

Ty pulled into Autumn’s driveway and cut the engine, then sat back with a hard sigh.

“Okay, remind me to never go to one of those again.”

“Same here,” Autumn rubbed her forehead. “I don’t know how I keep forgetting Stephanie’s always there.”

Jason scoffed. He’d spent most of the ride staring out the window, putting an arm around Lena when she slumped sleepily against his side.

“So you guys are just gonna make me suffer through them on my own again?”

Ty looked at him in the rearview mirror.

“You’re the one who keeps putting yourself through it,” he said simply. Jason turned back to the window; Lena yawned, rubbing her eyes.

“What’s going on?”

“We’re back at my house,” Autumn opened the door and got out. “About time, too.”

“You’re the one who was ‘so excited’ to go in the first place,” Lena reminded her before climbing out herself. She followed them to the house, stopping when Jason leaned back against the railing, watching the dark sky with his arms tightly crossed.

“You really like staring into space, don’t you?” she asked as the front door clicked shut. He sighed.

“I’m sorry about the way nonna treated you,” he said. “She’s just dead-set on me being with Stephanie.”

Lena shrugged and moved next to him.

“Don’t be, I’m actually pretty used to people talking to me like that,” she looked at him. “But, why does she want you to be with Stephanie so badly? It can’t just be money.”

He snorted.

“Our families worked together to found this place,” he explained as he undid his tie. “For some reason, she started thinking that me marrying Stephanie is the only way to keep that history going. She even tried arranging it when we were kids, but at least everyone thought she was crazy for bringing it up.”

“Are you serious?” she sat in one of the chairs in front of the living room window. “How old were you?”

“I’d just started kindergarten, and Stephanie was a second grader who still pissed herself,” he rolled his eyes. Lena laughed.

“Is that why she’s so…possessive of you?”

He sighed again.

“Yeah, she just can’t let go of it,” he put his hands in his pockets. “She actually used to be pretty cool.”

She hummed thoughtfully, then shivered.

“I somehow don’t find that hard to believe,” she stood, her teeth chattering a bit. “But we should get inside, it’s freezing out here!”

“You go ahead,” he turned, resting his hands on the railing. “I’m gonna stay out a bit longer.”

He could feel her eyes on his back, letting out a low breath when the door clicked shut. The air was still lightly scented with apples and orchids, and he remembered how she’d cried in his arms at the manor. He hated Stephanie and his grandmother for driving her to that, but couldn’t help the small flame that had sparked in his heart. It was two years since he’d let himself get close to a girl, but even Lena couldn’t stop the dark thoughts whirling through his mind.

I should’ve done it weeks ago; a tiny cloud of mist drifted from his lips. Why’d I let things happen like this?

The wind picked up, blowing dead leaves and forgotten trash down the silent, empty street. The moon seemed to stare at him, questioning him. Why was he acting like this? Why wouldn’t those feelings leave him alone?

I have to go through with it, he choked; there was no going back, there couldn’t be. It’s for the best.

He stood there a while longer, then headed inside. The faint noises down the hall told him exactly what Autumn and Ty were up to, as he spotted Lena curled up on the living room couch. She’d left her shoes by the door, her jewelry in a small pile on the coffee table. She’d cleaned off the last of her makeup and let her hair down, the unruly mane falling however it wanted to.

She still looks amazing. He brushed some dark strands from her cheek, pulling back when her eyelids fluttered. She turned her back to him and stretched her legs out, and he couldn’t miss how her dress clung to every curve of her slim, toned body. He tore his gaze away and grabbed the blanket thrown over the recliner, his fingers ghosting along her side after he draped it over her. Even without the others telling him, it was clear she liked him as much as he did her, though the feeling soured quickly if he thought too long about it.

It wasn’t the fact he knew she could do better than him; it was the knowledge he wouldn’t be around for much longer. He fled back outside and leaned heavily against the door, wishing his life could have taken any other path.

I shouldn’t let it control me…

He covered his mouth when he coughed, his second fit that day. It terrified him, seeing the dark blood on his fingers, but it was nothing compared to some other spells; though for once, it seemed this would be it.

What the hell is wrong with me?

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