Hleo

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Chapter 31

The day of the Masks Gala arrived. Ethan left me alone so that I could keep my mind off of destiny related things and just enjoy the day. We’d been working on and off since making up from our fight. So far, Ethan had confirmed over sixty of my images were protecteds, spanning from over three centuries ago to as recently as two years back, although no discernible string had come through to link them together. It was equally fascinating and frustrating work. I wanted to know how I was going to contribute in the great scheme of life, but the more we found out, the more confusing it all seemed to become and I was glad for the break.

The doorbell rang. Katie had arrived to primp and prepare for the dance. It was only the middle of the afternoon, but Katie wanted to give us lots of time so we wouldn’t be rushed.

“Hi Kate, did you bring enough stuff?” I teased as I held the door open for her. She had her backpack on, a purse over her shoulder, a garment bag slung over her arm, and she held a pair of heels in one hand. In the other hand she balanced two cups of coffee from The Beanery, and she was biting a bag from the coffee shop between her teeth.

“Ha, ha, funny,” she responded between clenched teeth. I took the goodie bag and coffees from her before she could drop anything.

I held up the coffee. “Thanks for this.” It smelled delicious, and I looked forward to whatever Katie had brought in the bag too. It turned out to be doughnuts, her favorite.

“No problem. So let me see this dress.” Katie threw her stuff onto my living room couch and clapped her hands together. I’d tried to describe the dress Ethan had given me, but she wasn’t satisfied with that. “Okay, hold on a second.” I ran upstairs to grab the garment. I had hung it on the door of my closet. I’d told Ethan it was to let it breathe but really it was so I could admire it. I lifted the hanger from the door and headed slowly down the stairs so I wouldn’t do something typical of me and go tumbling head over heels. The last thing I wanted to do was rip Ethan’s sister’s dress.

When I entered the room, Katie’s eyes went wide. “Hanns,” she exclaimed breathlessly.

“I know. It’s amazing, isn’t it?” I held it up for Katie to examine. It weighed a ton with all its layers, but I didn’t care.

“Man, can that boy apologize. The best Luke’s ever done was buy me a bouquet of flowers. I mean, it looks like it belongs in a museum. How old is it?” Katie walked over to admire the dress close up. She let the material of the skirt slide gently between her fingers.

“Old; I think it’s been in his family for over a hundred years or something.” I laid the dress gingerly over the back of the couch.

“Are you serious? Should you be wearing it? What if it falls apart when you put it on?” Katie’s brow furrowed as she looked from the dress to me.

“I think it’s okay. Ethan told me his family took really good care of it, and I tried it on earlier this week to see if it fit. It felt pretty secure.”

“That is amazing. If you ever doubted his feelings, I think giving you a priceless family heirloom clinches it. You are so lucky. Luke might get me a corsage that matches, if he was listening when I told him my dress was chocolate brown. I’m hoping he at least heard the chocolate part.” Katie wriggled her eyebrows.

We had our coffees and a doughnut each, and then went up to my room to do each other’s hair. I pulled Katie’s up in a twist, as tight as I could get her crazy curls to go, with a few stray tendrils free to frame her face. Then she curled my hair with the curling iron, and pinned the top half up loosely. It turned out exactly as I’d hoped, with an old-fashioned quality to it.

“Okay, let’s get you in that dress.” Katie rubbed her hands

together. She strode across the room to grab it.

I glanced at the clock and raised an eyebrow. “We still have over an hour before Ethan and Luke are supposed to pick us up.”

“I know, but I’m dying to see you in it, plus with the corset thing here, it could take a while.” Katie slid her fingers across the bodice part of the dress.

“I guess you’re right.” Joining her by my closet, I carefully pulled the dress down and loosened its ties. After a little tugging I had it on and done up.

Katie put a hand to her mouth and then motioned for me to do a spin. “Hannah, you look positively amazing. This is going to work. Ethan’s not going to be able to resist you when he sees you in that dress.”

“I hope so.” I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the mirror on my dresser and smiled. Katie was right; I did look pretty good. Hopefully Ethan thinks so too.

It was my turn to help Katie get her dress on. As she started unzipping the garment bag, the zipper got stuck in the material.

“Katie, stop,” I cried out, but it was too late. I closed my eyes at the terrible sound of cloth ripping.

“Please tell me I didn’t just do what I think I did.” Katie groaned and held out the bag. “You check. I can’t look.”

“Um, well,” I stammered as I looked her dress over. A two-inch tear ran along the seam.

“It’s ruined, isn’t it?” Katie covered her eyes with her hand, and shook her head in despair.

“Not ruined, the seam just needs a quick repair job. Unfortunately I don’t have a sewing machine, or even a needle and thread.” I handed the dress back to Katie and showed her where the rip was.

She examined it, biting her thumb. “Okay, here’s what we’ll do. I’ll go home and my mom can fix it. This will be a breeze for her. There won’t be enough time for me to get ready and get back here though so I’ll call Luke and tell him to pick me up at home.”

“Do you want me to come too? I’m sure Ethan can just meet us at your house.” I picked my cell phone up off the dresser.

“It’s okay. You don’t need to be traipsing all over in that dress. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to it, right?” Katie pointed at the flowing layers of the skirt. She’d already begun to gather her stuff up.

“Are you sure?” A pang of disappointment shot through me. I’d been looking forward to the four of us going to the gala together.

“Yeah, it’ll be okay. It’s not exactly the fabulous entrance we were hoping for, but we’ll meet up at the dance and still have the best time ever.”

“I guess you’re right.” I helped her get her backpack on. I had planned to walk her down to the door, but she held up a hand to stop me.

“Don’t take any chances. I would only try doing the stairs in that dress once if I were you. It’s okay, I know the way out. I’ll see you at the dance. Good-bye darling.” Like a whirlwind, Katie was gone. I laughed and crossed over to the dresser to do my makeup. Ethan would arrive soon, and I wanted to be ready.

When I was finished, I checked myself out in the mirror, pleased with the results. The delicate pink of the dress actually made my skin look a little more tanned than normal and the soft curls Katie had put in my dark hair fell down my back and around my shoulders nicely. The doorbell rang and I held my breath, knowing that Ethan would let himself in as he had done before.

“Hello?” I heard his voice as the door opened and closed.

“I’ll be right down,” I called back, and adjusted the dress one more time. It fit beautifully, but I wasn’t used to wearing such an elegant article of clothing, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to shift on me during the evening.

I got to the top of the stairs and lifted the flowing skirt up a little so I wouldn’t step on it as I started down. Ethan stood at the bottom of the steps, and my heart pounded in my chest at the sight of him. He wore a gorgeous, charcoal-colored tuxedo that looked old-fashioned, and yet was cut as though it had been tailored to fit him. It had large lapels, and tails in the back that were the perfect length, stopping mid-thigh, not like the exaggerated ones that I’d always thought looked silly. He had a creamy white shirt on with a black cummerbund around his waist and he’d brushed his dark hair to the side and back, in a style fitting for some time long in the past.

Ethan was taking me in, in a similar fashion, his eyes drifting from the dress to my face. He looked like a man completely captivated by what he saw. My breath caught in my throat. A force like magnets pulled me towards him. “Hi,” I managed to say shyly.

He smiled. “There are no words to describe how beautiful you look.”

Heat rushed to my cheeks. “You look amazing too.” I met him at the bottom step. He held out his hand and I took it. His pulse raced beneath my fingers. Was this the moment I’d been hoping for? We stayed in that position for a few seconds, frozen, eyes locked with each other.

“Hannah.” He moved closer. It was all I could do to keep breathing.

The doorbell rang and he dropped my hand quickly.

“Who could that be?” I couldn’t conceal my disappointment at our interrupted almost moment. Ethan turned and pulled the door open to reveal Evelyn on the other side.

“Hi, I’m sorry to interrupt. I know you have to take Hannah to that dance thing tonight but …” Evelyn stopped short when she noticed the dress I wore. I glanced down to see if anything was wrong or out of place, but it looked fine to me. This was the first time I’d seen her since she drove me to meet up with Ryan and then caused my fight with Ethan, and I wasn’t sure how I should react to her.

“What’s going on?” Ethan’s tone became professional.

Evelyn turned her attention away from me and back to him. “I just got a tip that Paige has been spotted in the area.”

“When? Where?” Ethan demanded, now fully in protector mode.

“All my source could tell me was that she’s been seen around the university where Hannah’s father works. Here’s a picture my informant got off the security system of her walking across the campus.” Evelyn pulled a file folder out of her bag and handed it to Ethan.

He grabbed it and flipped it open. The cover blocked my view of the photo, but I didn’t need to see it. A sick feeling churned in my stomach.

“Why does Paige matter?” My voice was just above a whisper. Both Ethan and Evelyn’s heads snapped up to look at me.

“How do you know Paige?” Ethan questioned.

“I don’t. I mean, she’s my dad’s teaching assistant. I only met her once when she dropped something off at the house, and I don’t even know if you’re talking about the same Paige.”

“Is this her?” Ethan turned the photo towards me. I studied it for a moment. The woman’s head was down; she looked like she was walking with a mission. I couldn’t see her face or distinctive silver eyes clearly, but I was positive it was the same girl Dad had chosen for his replacement teaching assistant.

“That’s her. Dad’s other assistant got some study grant or something and left Dad in the lurch. She started working for him a little over a month ago.” From the severe look on Ethan’s face, he and this girl had had some sort of run-in in the past.

“Well, the crossbow makes sense now,” Ethan murmured.

“That is her weapon of choice. So, what’s our next move?” Evelyn asked.

His eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t really want Hannah going to the gala tonight.” He pursed his lips. “But there’s no way I’m letting her stay here by herself, and we’re not taking her anywhere near Paige.”

I hated when he talked about me as though I wasn’t in the room, or part of the conversation, but he was on high alert. I clenched my jaw and tried to let it go.

“Okay.” Ethan nodded like he’d just come to a decision and turned to Evelyn. “I’ll drop Hannah off at the dance, and then I will meet you at the university. Try to track down as much information about what Paige has been up to as you can before I get there.” He turned to me abruptly. “Are you ready to go?”

“I forgot my purse upstairs. I just need to grab it and then we can leave.” I scrambled up the stairs back my room, trying not to feel juvenile. This wasn’t how the evening was supposed to go, but what could I do? My survival trumped potential romance.

As I rummaged through the towels, clothes and other items strewn across my bed, searching for the little clutch purse I’d chosen to match the dress, I couldn’t help but worry. If this Paige person could become part of my dad’s world so easily, what did that mean for me? Who should I trust? And was my dad safe? I hated the

thought that all this destiny stuff could be putting him at risk.

I was about to head back down the stairs when I caught snatches of the conversation going on below and paused.

“Ethan, I have to tell you something. I should have told you when I found out but I … well … he’s escaped,” Evelyn said.

“What? When?” Ethan’s voice erupted, and I took a step back, startled by the force of it.

“I got the report on it a few weeks ago and—”

“Weeks ago? Why didn’t you tell me right away? What were you thinking?”

“They don’t know exactly when he got free, but it looks like he’s been out for a while.”

“If he’s out, he’s obviously going to come after me. I can’t believe you would do something like this.” Ethan’s voice was strained, like he was fighting the urge to yell at her.

“I don’t know why I hesitated, I just …” For a moment I didn’t hear anything, then she added, “Your sister’s dress, why her?” Her voice had lost its usual cold tone. I blinked at her sudden change in topic. She must have surprised Ethan too, because there was silence for a moment.

“What do you mean?” Ethan responded with a strange quality in his voice.

All I could hear was mumbling in response to his question so I took a step closer and strained to hear. Finally I picked up Evelyn’s voice. “It’s different and you know it. You’ve been sloppy about letting her find out who you are. You’re the best at staying in the shadows, so how is it that this teenage girl caught on to your presence?”

“She’s not just some teenage girl, she’s unique. Have you ever seen anyone do what she can?”

“I guess not, but Ethan, you’ve practically told her everything.”

“Trust me Evelyn, I haven’t told her everything.”

“Still, it’s completely unprofessional, and it’s completely unlike you. It could get us in a lot of trouble. Why would you do that unless …” My heart raced as I tried to process what this conversation meant.

When Ethan spoke, his voice was cold. “Evelyn, come on, she’s a job, same as every other job. We’re here, we protect her, we move on to the next one, like we always do.”

I drew in a sharp breath and leaned against the wall. I felt like I’d just been slapped in the face. Now that the truth had finally come out, he had finally spoken the words out loud, I felt as though I were being suffocated. I struggled to take another breath as I tried to force my mind to accept Ethan’s declaration.

I was a job, nothing more. Whatever feelings I’d been wishing for and imagining just minutes before were simply fantasy. He was only here to make sure I lived to fulfill whatever destiny the mysterious forces that control the world seemed to have for me—a destiny I still had no idea about—and then he would be on his way, on to his next ‘job.’

Tears stung my eyes but I blinked them back. I would never let Evelyn or Ethan see that I had overheard their conversation. I am not some silly schoolgirl, following him around with a puppy-love crush, like Charlotte Dubeau. I needed to be stronger than that, but I definitely needed a moment to swallow my emotions and my pride before I walked back downstairs.

I gripped the railing when Ethan spoke again. “Evelyn, get out of here. Report back to Veridan. I won’t tell them that you withheld vital information from the assignment, I know what your fate would be if I did and I owe you too much for that, but our partnership is over. Now get out of here.” The catch in his voice told me he was as hurt by her betrayal as he was angry.

“I can help you find them. It’s obvious they’re working together and you can’t go up against them by yourself, it’s too dangerous. Let me help you,” Evelyn pleaded. “I can fix this, then you never have to see me again.”

I pursed my lips, what would Ethan say? “Fine. We’ll stick to the original plan. You go to the university, and I’ll meet up with you there. But after we’ve disposed of those two, you and I are going to part ways.”

“Ethan, I—” Whatever sort of look he was giving her, she stopped abruptly. The door opened and shut quietly. I counted to forty-five before starting down the stairs.

“Ready to go?” Ethan tried to sound pleasant, but I could tell there were a hundred different thoughts whirling around in his head, all of them stressful.

As I studied him, the words danced around in my mind: she’s a job, same as every other job. I had to swallow the lump in my throat before answering him. “Yes, let’s go.”

I allowed him to hold the door for me as we left the house. It was a warm evening for the end of October. Stars were just appearing in the sky. Under different circumstances they would have added to the romance of the evening, but Ethan and I were too distracted by our own thoughts to focus on the weather or each other.

We drove in silence. I assumed he was strategizing, while I replayed the last month over in my head. Every conversation, every look, every touch, they were all just part of his job. Anger burned within me. How could he not know what his behavior would do to me? He had as good as led me on. Of course I was just a stupid job to him. There was no way someone like Ethan could ever see me the way I saw him, it would be like a lion and a rabbit getting together, just ridiculous.

“Hannah,” Ethan said quietly, snapping me out of my inner rant.

I whipped my head toward him. “What?”

If Ethan was surprised by my tone, he didn’t let on. “It’s going to be okay. Are you worried?”

“No, I’m not worried. I know you’re good at your job, or I wouldn’t still be here, would I?” Deliberately throwing his own word back at him, I betrayed the fact that I’d eavesdropped, but I didn’t care.

Ethan looked at me, understanding filling his eyes. We had pulled up to the entrance of The East Halton Country Club where a valet stood, poised and ready to open my door for me.

“Hannah—”

I held up my hand. I didn’t want to hear it. I knew the truth, but I couldn’t have him say it to me directly, not yet, it would hurt too much. “I should get going. You need to find your bad guy, or girl, I suppose.” The valet pulled the Jeep door open and I jumped out.

“Hannah, wait,” Ethan called out behind me. I hesitated, but tears pricked my eyes that I couldn’t let him see, so I didn’t turn around when he spoke again. “I can explain; please stay with your friends and I’ll be back as soon as I can.” His voice held a hint of desperation. The valet looked uncomfortably from Ethan to me, but I didn’t care. I waved to show that I had heard him, and quickly walked away.

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