Firelight, p.18
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       Firelight, p.18

         Part #1 of Firelight series by Sophie Jordan
 
Page 18

  Author: Sophie Jordan

  She looks at me then. Faces me with disappointment in her eyes. “Can’t you understand, Jacinda? This is the right thing to do. ”

  Her steady calm is exasperating…makes me feel even more alone. Sad. Wrong. Like I should be a better daughter. One who understands she’s only trying to help me.

  But I’m not. I don’t. I can’t ever be that daughter no matter how hard I try. Not as long as she’s trying to kill a part of my soul.

  17

  The next evening, Mom doesn’t bring up selling a gem again, and neither do I. Silly, but I feel like maybe not mentioning it will help her forget that she wants to sell one of them.

  While she and Tamra wait on our pizza at Chubby’s, reputedly the best pizzeria in Chaparral, I walk three doors down to pick out a movie for the night. Preferably a comedy. Anything to distract me.

  It happens on the way back.

  Movie in hand, I’m crossing the mouth of the alley right before Chubby’s when I’m yanked off my feet and dragged inside the narrow enclosure, hauled between twin walls of concrete, the odor of the nearby Dumpster ripe in my nostrils.

  I fight, hissing and spitting steam, fire eating up my windpipe. Twisting my head, I try to spin around and face my attacker, turn him into a crackling pile of bones and ash.

  “Stop!”

  I recognize the smoky voice instantly and feel no real surprise. In the back of my mind, I knew if the pride ever tracked me down, found me…he would be the one leading the charge.

  He gives me a little shake. “Are you done? I’m not going to turn you around until you promise not to incinerate me. ”

  I laugh brokenly. “Not sure I can promise you that. ”

  After a long moment, the large hands on my shoulders relax. I stagger free and spin around.

  “Hello, Jacinda,” he says like our meeting here is the most natural thing in the world.

  My eyes are slower to process, to accept, what I already know. I stare up at him. The immensity of him, a looming wall. Well over six feet. I forgot about his size. His sheer presence. Somehow, with time and distance, here in the human world, he had shrunk in my mind. Now I get all over again why he’s the leading onyx of my pride. Second only to his father.

  “How’d you find us, Cassian?”

  He cocks his head. Purply black strands stroke his shoulders. “Did you think I wouldn’t?” he asks.

  “I don’t know why you had to try. ”

  “Don’t you?”

  “Why couldn’t you just forget—”

  “I can’t do that. ”

  “Because your daddy said so,” I hiss, thinking of his father.

  Charcoal black flashes beneath the olive hue of Cassian’s skin, his draki flesh ready to burst free. “I’m not here for my father or the pride. ”

  As his purple-black eyes bore into me, I feel this truth. Know what he’s really saying. He’s here for himself.

  I cock my head. “News flash, Cassian. I’m not looking to go home. ” At least not like this. Not with him dragging me back.

  He responds to this in typical male draki fashion. His face tightens into stark lines, his nose broadening with several sharp ridges, his skin flashing, blurring in and out. Black dragon skin one moment, human flesh the next.

  I brace myself, flex my toes inside my shoes. Steam puffs from my nose like warm breath on a wintry day. “Your macho display doesn’t intimidate me. ” A lie. “I’ll fight you,” I warn.

  He may be stronger, but I’m not defenseless. He knows that, of course. That’s why he’s here. He wants me for what I can do after all.

  He studies me, considering.

  “Are you up for that?” I challenge.

  “Are you?” he counters.

  Am I ready to incinerate him with a single breath? For all his glowering looks, he’s a part of my past, one of my kind, the legacy Mom would pack away and sell like old baby clothes.

  After a moment, he answers. “You can’t fight the entire pride. ”

  I arch a brow with a mildness I don’t feel. “Oh, you’re bringing the pride into this? I thought you were here on your own behalf. ”

  “I am, but they were going to send someone after you. I volunteered, but if I go back empty-handed, they’ll just send someone else. Probably Corbin. ”

  I try not to shiver. Corbin. Jabel’s son and Cassian’s cousin. He and Cassian never got along. They didn’t even bother trying.

  “Come home with me, Jacinda. It’s inevitable. ”

  My hands curl into a fist, nails slicing into my palms. “Is that what you want? For me to go with you and hate you for the rest of my days because you gave me no choice?”

  “You’ll get over—”

  “No, I won’t. ”

  He looks surprised for a moment, then a little sad. His eyes narrow as though seeing me for the first time. Or a new side of me, anyway. “You could return,” I say, seizing the opening. “Plant false leads. Tell them you couldn’t find—”

  “I can’t do that. ”

  “You think I’ll just wake up one day and think, gee, I want to be property of the pride again, a tool to be used for breeding. ” I cross my arms. “I won’t go back. ”

  He stares at me for a long moment. My belly quivers beneath that stare and for an instant I totally get the effect he has on so many girls. On my sister and every other female of the pride. “Very well. You can’t like it here. You can’t want to stay. You’re not bred for this misery. No matter what you say, what you think now, you’ll tire of the human world. This heat must be hell on your draki. Really blistering it. I’ll wait. Check back in on you in about—” He tilts his head back as though calculating just how long I could make it here. “Five weeks,” he announces.

  Five weeks, huh. I’m almost surprised he would grant me that much time.

  “Oh, my mother will just love you popping in. She’ll probably cook a pot roast. ”

  “She doesn’t need to know I’ve found you…or that I’ll be around. ” His lips twist. “Don’t want her to take you and run again. ” And she would. He was right about that.

  His eyes bore inside me and I feel a surge of the familiar unease. But something else, too. Something I never felt before with Cassian. A strange sense of longing. I tell myself it’s just for my pride, my own kind. That makes sense. It’s not him specifically. It’s what he is. What he represents. I can almost smell the mountains and mists rolling off him. It takes every bit of will not to step forward and inhale, press my nose against his warm, fragrant flesh.

  “I can be patient,” he adds.

  I don’t say anything. Simply return his gaze, feeling a little dizzy as I look into the flat pools of purple-black and refrain from stepping closer.

  I would never have described him as patient before. He was the kind of guy that took without asking because it was his birthright. The great draki prince. Like any other draki female, I’m supposed to fall at his feet in blissful subjugation. What could have changed him?

  I prop a hand on my hip. “Patient? You? Really?”

  He sighs and steps closer. I move, back up until I can go no farther, the hard alley wall at my back.

  “I’m not going to deny that I hope for something more between us, Jacinda. Something real and lasting. ” He must see something on my face, for he quickly stresses, “Hope. Never force. ”

  “And if I don’t want that? Ever?”

  He presses his lips into a firm line, like he’s rolling the taste of that around in his mouth. And not liking it.

  “Then I would respect your wishes. ” He spits the words out, like it hurts to keep them inside. His expression of distaste is almost laughable. The notion that I wouldn’t ever bond with him, mate, and produce a slew of little fire-breathers doesn’t sit well. Whether he sees it or not, he already looks at things like an alpha. King of the pride, looking out for the future of our
race. At the expense of any one soul. He claimed he was here for himself. Only he doesn’t realize that the pride is part of him. He can never separate the needs and wants of the pride from his own. Therein, lies the danger.

  “I need your word. Your promise. You won’t interfere while I’m here, you won’t force me to go back. ” Because if he says this, then I’ll believe him. He’s many things to me, but he’s never been a liar.

  His gaze locks hard on mine. “I promise. ”

  “Okay,” I finally agree, moving past him. “I’ll trust you. ” There’s something in his eyes, his face, that makes me believe him. And really, how much of a choice do I have?

  “You should,” he murmurs. “You can always trust me. ”

  Stepping from the alley, I spot Mom and Tamra leaving Chubby’s. A quick glance over my shoulder reveals Cassian gone. A sudden breeze casts my gaze up, to the dark shadow on the air, twisting higher, vanishing into the black night as quickly as fading mist. Only his voice lingers, whispering through me. You can always trust me.

  I hope he’s right.

  I jerk as an unexpected bell rings shortly after fifth period begins. Confused, I look around as the entire class vaults from their desks, leaving their belongings behind.

  “What’s going on?” I ask a girl next to me.

  She rolls her eyes. “Where’ve you been? Haven’t you heard the announcements? Today? All week?”

  I shake my head. I’m aware of the principal’s voice ringing out over the intercom every morning with school news, but even now, one month in, it’s not something I pay close attention to.

  One month in. I think like a prisoner. An inmate counting down time served.

  The memory of Cassian washes over me. I’ve hardly slept a wink with the image of him as he was in that alley. It’s tempting to think he might be close, nearby, ready to take me home should it all become too much. More than I can bear. It feels good to have an exit strategy.

  “We have a pep rally,” the girl explains.

  “Oh. ” I stare down at my desk, wondering if I could stay in the room.

  “Attendance is mandatory,” she snaps.

  “Oh,” I repeat.

  She shoots me a disgusted look. “A little school spirit wouldn’t hurt. Our baseball team made the playoffs. ”

  I nod, as if I know this. And care that it’s a big deal. Already I’m thinking ahead. Bracing myself for the pep rally. Hopefully it will be outdoors.

  My skin shivers at the thought of being stuck indoors, crammed into one space with more than six hundred students. It can’t happen. I couldn’t handle that. PE inside the gym with sixty students has been bad enough. Standing, I follow the students pouring into the halls.

  Nothing ever goes my way, I think as the entire school population descends into a gym designed for the smaller student body of seventy years ago.

  The deep beating of a drum vibrates along the old wood floor and travels up my legs to the center of my chest, an unwelcome reverberating pulse there.

  I clear the double doors and my stomach pitches, twists at the sight of overstimulated teenagers packed tightly into bleachers. The band is assembled at the far end of the gym. Its members wear dark red uniforms with stiff-looking collars. They play their instruments, swaying as if they enjoy it. Their puffy red faces, shining with perspiration, tell another story.

  Sweat trickles down my spine. It’s hotter in here than outside. My pores open wide, grasping, searching for cooler air, mist, and condensation. But there’s only the cloying scent of too many humans crammed together. Students shove past me.

  “Move already,” one girl grunts as she bumps me.

  I’m swept forward on a sea of bodies, deeper into the gym than I want to be. Turning, I strain, looking behind me for the door or something. Someone, anyone in the sweaty press of humans to cling to. Tamra. Catherine or Brendan. Even Nathan would be okay. Someone to distract me and help me get through this.
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