If I thought that now Gunner and I were best-buddies, I was very, very wrong.
Since the heart-to-heart we had, I saw only a little of him. Our trainings in the mornings and afternoons were passed to Danger, who was now teaching me all that. Gunner didn’t pick me up or drove me to school, and he didn’t show up to meals when I did.
In fact, he was avoiding me. Again. Only now I had a more concrete reasoning for that, even if it wasn’t acceptable. He probably felt too ripped-open after he told me his life-story and wanted to avoid the one who knew it all at all costs. It was almost cowardly of him, actually, but I could understand. He wasn’t as open as I was. He used to be closed-up tightly, and the moment that control of his closeness was slipping a little and he let someone – anyone – in, he then closed-up again, even tighter than before.
But still, if he didn’t want to tell me anything then why push himself to? Why do it to himself? Was he a masochist? I had no idea what’d made him tell me all of his life story. I had no idea why he wanted to. It’s not like I’d beat it out of him. He told me out of his own consent.
But it mattered little, really. That he was avoiding me was what really hurt me. Because he now was a distant-Gunner once more, like any progress we made didn’t matter, now that we were back to square one.
So for the next two weeks after the heart-to-heart, I forced Operation Chase to continue. I was sick of Gunner’s change-of-hearts every day anew. It was infuriating and frankly, I was sick of throwing myself at him. He already knew how I felt about him and made it clear that nothing would happen. Furthermore, he pushed me away every time he’d let me in just a little. And now I was mad. Screw him.
Sure, moving on was still problematic because it seemed like my body chose him as the One. But I had to force myself to have any kind of romantic affection to Chase, if nothing else. Besides, he seemed willing to have something with me, too, considering what’d happened.
And Gunner could shove his “stay away from him” up his uptight ass and then fuck himself.
It was now a week into December and everyone was excited for Christmas and the vacation that came with it. The mansion was filled with excitement as well and Henry announced that Maddox and his wife, Evelyn, would come to celebrate with us the holiday.
Which reminded me of something that I wanted to request. While all the servants worked hard on decorating the mansion with Christmas ornaments and Danger and Ryder worked on bringing a big Christmas tree inside, I went to Henry’s office. Rose, his secretary, smiled at me when I entered the small waiting room and said, “He’ll be available in a few.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled and took a seat. I pulled my knees to my chest and leaned my head on them.
After about ten minutes, Rose’s hand touched my shoulder. “You can come in,” she said with kindness. I smiled briefly at her – nowadays I found it hard to smile – and entered Henry’s office.
He smiled warmly when he saw me. After I took a seat in front of him, he regarded me with gray eyes and asked, “What can I do for you today, Rae?”
I looked at him unblinkingly, strengthening myself. “I ask for permission to spend the holiday with my grandmother.”
Henry’s look turned thoughtful. “And why would you want that?”
I decided to be honest with him. After all, he was nothing but kind to me since I came here. Sure, he wasn’t perfect and he still took me away from Gran, but I understood his motives so he deserved me to be as honest as I could with him. “Christmas is when my parents got killed in a car accident,” I told him, “I can’t let Gran spend it all alone. I need to be with her – for myself, too.”
Henry nodded in understanding. “I see,” he said, “and I guess you plan on visiting their graves?”
I shook my head no. “My parents’ bodies were burnt to ashes. There was nothing left of them to bury. No, we just spend it together in the company of each other...”
“Ah,” Henry said, “So why won’t she come over? She can celebrate Christmas Eve with us.”
“That could be awesome, but I’d really appreciate some alone-time with her,” I said, trying to make him understand again. “It’d hurt when you took me from her custody. At least give me this time with her.”
“I’m sorry, Rae,” he said apologetically, a sad smile on his slightly wrinkled face. “I can’t let you be just you and her. I understand your needs, but unfortunately I can’t let you out of the Prestons’ sight. I hope you understand.”
“You’ve let me already, remember?” I insisted. “With Chase, when he took me to Starbucks. Jez convinced you I could go, right? So what’s the difference now?”
“The difference is that the holiday means vacation also for my children and me,” Henry didn’t budge. “We can’t keep an eye on you because it’s part of the job, and we’re free for at least Christmas. And of course I can’t let you go alone with Maureen. I’m truly sorry, Rae, but the only option I can suggest is that she’ll come and celebrate with us at Christmas Eve.”
Disappointment filled my heart and I knew his words were final. So I sighed, and took what I could get. Arguing with him would be moot, after all. Henry gave me his phone and told me to call her and invite her. I did just that and talked to her in Gaelic again, and it was agreed she’d come and celebrate with us at Christmas Eve.
Now I, too, was excited. Because I was going to see my precious grandmother.
“Hey, have you heard of the New Year’s party my friend Leo throws?” Chase asked me and Jez at lunch break the day after Henry gave me the OK to bring Gran for Christmas.
“I’ve heard some girl at class talking about it,” Jez said while checking her perfect nails. “She sounded as if it’s a big deal or something.”
“Well, it is,” Chase beamed at us. “And it would be great if you both can come!”
Jez and I exchanged glances and then I turned back to Chase. “I’m not sure I’m all for it,” I said wearily. “Taryn probably will be there, right? I have no intention on spending New Year’s with her.”
“Marcus said he and Isobel are coming too,” Chase arched an eyebrow. “And sure, Taryn and the cheerleading squad will be there, but still, also a lot of other people will come too. Like the football team, and I heard Michaela Goldberg saying she’d come with her twin brother, Zachariah, and also the computer-nerd Silas too, and maybe even Imogen and Gemma - “
“Okay, we got it,” Jez cut him. “So a lot of people will come. But how can it be fun with so many? Besides, won’t it be a mess for all the cliques to come to one party?”
Chase shrugged. “I don’t really care as long as they come,” he said in his good-natured way. “And of course if you two come I’ll be the happiest person alive.”
I rolled my eyes. “Stop exaggerating, Chase,” I chastised. “And the people is not why I’m hesitating. First of all, Taryn will be there. That’s all I need to want out of this. Secondly, I need to see if I can go whether I decide to come.”
“Agreed,” Jez said and grinned at me. “You are learning, redling.” She mocked.
I flushed slightly. “I’ll kill Danger for inventing such a ludicrous nickname - “
“Redling?” Chase seemed surprised and looked at me. “That’s how you’re called nowadays?”
“Oh God please don’t use it,” I begged. “It’s embarrassing.”
“Actually it’s cute, redling,” he winked and I flushed in mollification. “But if you want me not to use it...”
“Thanks a lot, Jez,” I said dryly. “Now you gave him something to blackmail me with.”
“Don’t be like that, O’Reilly,” Jez smirked. “You love it when Danger calls you that.”
“I’m used to him calling me that, and besides he does that only when we’re not near hateful people,” I sent a pointed look at Taryn, who like every lunch ever since Chase joined Jez and me, sat with her minions cheerleaders not too far and glared at us.
“You’re so touchy,” Chase smirked now too. “Come to the Leo’s party and I promise I’ll stop.”
I glared at him. “I hate you right now.”
“We’ll think about it,” Jez ignored me and sent a smile toward him. “I’ll let you know before the party if we’re going or not.”
Chase thought about it, and then nodded. “Good enough for me,” he grinned and then looked at me, lowering his voice so only I could hear. “But please try and come. For me.”
I blinked in surprise. “What do you mean?” I asked, just as quietly.
He leaned closer to me, his mouth at my ear. “It means,” he whispered in a husky voice, “that I want you to come for another reason other than your very acceptable presence.”
Anticipation and anxiousness warred inside me. Was he... was he asking me out? Was it possible he wanted the New Year’s Eve to be a... date? “F-For what r-reason?” I stuttered stupidly, anxiousness winning. Did I want it to be a date? Was I ready for a date? Did I make a mistake, pursuing Operation Chase to such a degree? Was it possible Chase Montgomery, the school’s hottest guy and Golden Boy wanted me as a date for New Year’s Eve? Was I dreaming?
He chuckled huskily. “Think about it, Rae,” he leaned back and smirked at me sexily. It made me blush. Oh yeah, he was playing with me now. Or at least, he wanted to play with me. I hated hints and needed straightforwardness and now he was being too vague about all of this.
Jez, who watched us, grinned slyly at me. “It’s not like you to act coy,” she murmured to me and I just glared at her. Some help she was.
I had a hard time focusing in classes for the rest of the day and when classes ended, I was relieved. Danger was waiting for me at the gate when I arrived, and like every time I saw it wasn’t Gunner there, waiting for me instead, my heart fluttered in disappointment. Goddamn crush. Why couldn’t I avert my feelings to Chase, like they’d been before Gunner Murray stormed into my life?
“There’s nothing left for me in the ordinary, killing-free world... once a killer, always a killer...”
Gunner’s words from the heart-to-heart we had had what seemed like ages ago swarmed in my mind while Danger and I were driving home. Those words were so sad, said with so much pain... yet Gunner didn’t want to let me in again, to see his pain, his agony. He refused to let me in. Refused to give in to me.
He rejected me, in one way or another. Like he always did.
“You’re quiet, redling,” Danger noted in a low voice, snapping me out of thoughts. “Did something happen at school?”
Actually something did, but although I felt close to Danger, I didn’t want to talk about Chase. Or Gunner. “Nothing,” I lied with a shrug. “Just tired.”
He eyed me suspiciously, his green eyes scanning my face. He sighed then and moved his hand on his shaved head. “You can talk to me, you know,” he said suddenly, “we’re not strangers anymore. We’re friends. I trust you, and I want you to trust me, too.”
My heart clenched. “I do trust you,” I told him, “but there’s nothing to talk about - “
“I know when you’re bullshitting, Rae,” he said, using my name for what seemed like the first time ever. “It’s obvious even to Ryder, who’s oblivious most of the time to everything, that something’s wrong with you. Everyone knows it, Jez updates us on your moods, and you’re sad. Really sad. I won’t force you to tell me anything, but don’t make an idiot out of me. We all know. I just offer you a shoulder to cry on, someone to rely on.”
I flinched at his word but said nonetheless, “I know. Thank you.”
He sighed again. “So... will you talk about it? To someone?”
I felt smaller than I already was. “I’m not ready to talk about it,” I twitted. Will I ever be ready to talk about it? I wondered. Probably not until my crush on Gunner would be gone – and it would disappear if I had any say in that. It was hopeless to begin with, and stupider even to let it continue for so long.
“I see,” Danger sighed again. I wondered if he was nervous talking about feelings and stuff like that with me. “When you are ready, however, talk to me, redling. I’m worried about you.”
I nodded and knew that for now, he would just have to stay in the dark.
We arrived the mansion eventually and Danger parked his silver Honda. We got out and went inside the entrance hall when Gunner appeared all of a sudden out of nowhere. I froze in my place, and Danger stopped and looked at Gunner oddly. “Is there something wrong?” He asked his fellow step-brother.
Gunner didn’t answer and his face was even more unfathomable than ever. He looked at me with those luminous eyes of his and said, “Change into sparring clothes. I’ll train you today.”
Danger arched an eyebrow but for my surprise didn’t say anything. After all, he was supposed to train me, since Gunner decided I was not worthy of his attention. But he said nothing, only grinned a little, and said he’ll see us later. Gunner, who was dressed in jeans, manly boots and tee, leaned on the wall with folded arms. When he said nothing, just looked at me flatly, his words sank entirely and with a gasp I took the elevator to my room.
I changed hastily, putting on my white, knee-length tights, white tee and black boots, that I would take off anyway since we always sparred without shoes. While I was dressing, thousands of thoughts ran in my head. Why was Gunner here? Why did he suddenly stop avoiding me? Did he have some cunning plan or something? Was it to test my feelings for him?
When I finished changing, I pulled my frizzly flaming-red hair into a sloppy ponytail and then went back to the entrance hall, where Gunner didn’t change his position since I’d gone changing. Without saying a word he turned around and exited the hall outside. Figuring I should follow him, I did just that, confused more than ever. Weren’t we just going to the gym like always?
I didn’t dare asking anyway. He looked intimidating today, like a word could make him snap my neck just for shutting me up. He was close more than ever, with “Do Not Enter” signs everywhere. All I could do was appreciate his godly good-looks. Tousled jet-black hair. Mesmerizing greenish-blue eyes. Tall and muscular. Sexy. Handsome. Perfection in its finest. Hotness incarnate. He was mouth-watering, drooling-worthy and seemed like he was from another galaxy. That much unapproachable. Even beauties like Taryn and Jezebel couldn’t compliment him enough by being by his side. I doubted any girl was beautiful enough for him. Least of all me.
Not that that was an option.
I realized we were walking in the woods toward the meadowy-valley, where we had the goodbye-picnic from Maddox, only it was another side of the wide meadow, and we were still on the hill. In this part, a slim, trickling stream split the small valley into two. There were a few fireflies, starting to come out as the sun set in the horizon.
It could’ve been a very romantic spot had Gunner and I been a couple. But we weren’t, so this place was only ethereally beautiful, and nothing more.
“Shoes off,” Gunner ordered all of a sudden and I jumped a little and looked at him. He was in a defensive stance and still had his own shoes on, which meant I was the one on the offensive. Good. I needed to beat the shit out of him – okay, try to beat the shit out of him – so my feelings would quiet down already. I’d never known unrequited crush could be this much of a pain in the ass.
Taking a deep breath, I took the boots off and grimaced as the cold grass brushed my bare feet. It was almost sadistic of him to make me stand there with clothes made of thin fabric and no shoes. But that’s what he did and I had to deal.
“In three,” he said in a clipped voice that rubbed me the wrong way, and I readied myself.
Oh God, this tone. It was enraging, seriously.
Why did have to look so sexy? Why was he so infuriating? Why couldn’t I shove the rage away?
I attacked him with the kicks and punches he and Danger taught me so well to throw without even thinking. I was so furious with him and his attitude that I couldn’t keep it inside anymore. So I put everything I had in the sparring... but it wasn’t enough. My rage was fueled by the fact he blocked every punch and every kick using his hands alone and without even moving an inch.
I was fighting angry, which made me sloppy, and that was the reason behind his success and my failure. But I couldn’t be calmed down. I was sick and tired and worn-out with his games and attitudes and mood-swings. And now, when he suddenly decided he wanted to spar with me after he avoided me for two fucking weeks... it was too much.
I didn’t listen to the warning in his voice. I was blinded by rage, and all I could see was red. I needed to hit him. I craved landing at least one punch on this infuriatingly handsome face. I needed to put some imperfection in his perfection. I needed to just beat the crap out of him.
“Rae, stop - “
No, I will not. I’ll rip this handsome face and kick your fucking balls to your throat -
I could’ve never seen it coming with the rage that took over me. One second I was sending a punch to the direction of his nose, and the next my wrists were grabbed by his bigger, stronger, warmer hands. And before neither he nor I could stop, I lost balance and he lost his too in response, and onto the grass we fell. I struggled and wriggled in his hold but he held strong, and my wriggles only made us roll down the hill, toward the valley and the trickling stream.
It had probably looked ridiculous from the side, like we were two little kids rolling one on the top of the other down the hill for fun only. But it wasn’t that way. We were rolling and battling at the same time. I tried to make him let go of my wrists and he tried to hold me down to submission. But I wasn’t ready to submit, to let him have all the power over me.
And so, I found myself pinned on my back to the stream and grass, my clothes getting wet, and he was looming over me, caging my body between his legs, his knees holding my legs down so I wouldn’t kick him and his hands holding down my own above my head. The position made me vulnerable, unable to attack, and I could wriggle my waist and head only. My other parts were dominated by Gunner’s big, muscular, strong body.
I was a mess, physically and mentally. My hair was wild and unruly, my clothes wet, my breathing heavy and my heart filled with rage and pain, while my muscles protested. I felt like I was a thread away from losing it completely.
Gunner, though, looked perfectly fine. He was looking severely down at me, like nothing of this was his concern yet he needed to educate an unruly student, and he wasn’t breathing as heavy as I did. He looked just as sexy, as hot, as ever, and I was stormy and raging like some frizzly-haired beast.
“Rae,” Gunner’s voice was just as severe as his expression. “Listen to me.”
I wanted nothing more than disobey him but I couldn’t work out any words. Instead I tried to wriggle again, but his hold was unbreakable.
“Calm the fuck down,” he suddenly growled, and I saw the moment his severeness disappeared and he was pissed off.
“No!” I yelled in rage mingled with agony. It was all because of him that I felt like that. All his fault.
“Rae!” After all this time, he finally snapped. I would’ve felt such a delightful smugness had the situation been different. “What the fuck is wrong with you?!”
“You, you shithead!” I screamed. “You and your entire fucking being!”
He said nothing and glowered at me. I said nothing and glowered right back at him. And then, it was a glare-to-submission competition, and we both were determined to win, no matter what. We both couldn’t let the other win the dominance in this situation.
And so we glared.