Bound by duty, p.3
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       Bound by Duty, p.3

           Stormy Smith
 

  Chapter 2

  I was lying in bed the next morning, my arm thrown across my eyes, my hair tangled and spread across the pillow. I probably shouldn’t call it a bed. Really, it was a twin mattress thrown in the corner of my room, but it was there and I was trying to convince myself I could still sleep. Last night’s dream hovered on the edges of my mind, but I was used to being able to block out the hazy ones. Hazy nights were the best nights because it meant I actually slept. This morning’s problem was that every time I closed my eyes all I could see was him. Aidan.

  I had a hundred questions I wanted to ask him but had no idea why. More than anything, I wanted to know how he was the first boy I’d ever met to make me feel like this; like I’d been lit on fire from the inside out. Even though I’ve never had a real boyfriend, I have had crushes before, but no one had ever stopped me in my tracks like he did. My curiosity about him almost outweighed how hot he was. Almost.

  Finally, I gave up, forcing myself out of the bed and into the bathroom. The hot water would soothe out the tension and the coffee pot in the kitchen would do the rest. Of course, as I padded into the kitchen after my shower, Bethany was already holding my mug out toward me as she stood at the counter stirring her own. She was an early riser and already cheery at this ungodly hour, even though she’d been out late last night and had been dropped off by none other than Micah himself. I had heard their futile attempts at whispering as I stared at the ceiling hoping for sleep.

  “Ame, you know I was right, right? That party was exactly what we needed. Girl, you’ve got to get out more. Meet a guy like Micah!” She bumped me with her hip and tried to hide her Cheshire smile behind her coffee mug.

  I harrumphed a little and rolled my eyes.

  “Oh, no you don’t, honey. You aren’t raining on my parade today. I’m riding high and I have his number to prove it!” Bethany sauntered into the living room like she was walking a pageant floor. She had a box full of trophies claiming her title of Miss Sweet Pea, Miss Rankin County, and a host of other things, so she strutted like a superstar. As she settled into the couch, I was met with a perfectly-sculpted arched eyebrow and the question I dreaded most. “So, where exactly did you run off to last night? Did you meet a guy? You’re holding out on me, aren’t you?”

  I hated how excited she looked at the prospect and how well she could already read me. But, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t tell her about Aidan. I didn’t know exactly what to say; how to describe the oddest encounter I’d ever had with a guy. How to explain that someone who initially seemed so dangerous didn’t feel that way at all. I just knew I would sound like an idiot.

  “You know me. I wandered around for a while, got bored, walked the beach, and then headed home. I wasn’t actually feeling the greatest and I didn’t want to bust up your moment with Micah.” I hated lying. I hated how necessary lying was.

  “Really? Another migraine? Well, that sucks. Next time I won’t bail on you. Pinky swear. We’ll make the rounds together and see if we can find you a matching cutie so we can do doubles!” Bethany dropped back into the couch with a wide grin.

  I could only shake my head and laugh as I headed back to my room, leaving her to reminisce about last night. Curled into my beloved chocolate brown papasan chair, I tried to relax as my fingers slipped and slid across the satin edges of the blanket that hung over the side. Even after months spent with Bethany and realizing that she was the first real friend I’ve ever had, my first true best friend on top of that, I was afraid of her judgment. There was so much I wanted to share with her, but it just wasn’t possible.

  Early on, I had tried to explain some of my background and why I am the way that I am, but it wasn’t like I could explain my powers and where I really came from. I told her about my mom and tried to explain to her that my relationship with my father was rocky at best, and basically non-existent at worst. That my only real friend growing up was my nanny Rynna, who had been my mom’s best friend.

  It wasn’t always this way. At least, that’s what my brother, Cole, would tell me before he left me to handle my Dad and his paranoia on my own when I was ten. There was apparently a time when my family was whole and my dad wasn’t crazy, but that was before my mom died, which also happened to be the day I was born.

   

   

  Moving to Brighton had never felt like a choice to me. It was where Cole finally settled after traveling the US for years. When he left, we had made a promise to be together again, and I had clung to that promise every day. It was what kept me going. Cole had opened a MMA gym a few years ago and, between the college kids and the locals, it was doing really well. He also had an amazing apartment and said he would help me out with anything the scholarships wouldn't cover. So, when I turned eighteen the summer after I graduated high school, I told my father I was leaving.

  “What do you mean you’re going to live with your brother? Just out there, for the whole world to see you? Haven’t you listened to me at all?” my father said, his arms an animated swirl around him, gestures punctuating every question.

  We were sitting at the kitchen table in a rare moment where my father had left his study and seemed lucid, and I couldn’t stop fidgeting with my coffee cup as I tried to hold his gaze and be the adult I thought I already was. It would have helped if the questions he asked were rational, or if his too-long dark hair wasn’t sticking up in every direction. If the glasses he shouldn’t need weren’t smudged and his eyes weren’t wide and looking a little too wild. I knew this look and where our conversation was headed before I even answered, but I also knew it was time. I had played my part. I made sure he ate, I got good enough grades to get scholarships, and more than anything, suffered through his endless rants about how it didn’t matter what he’d said eighteen years ago, I wasn’t going to marry the prince and “they could never have me”.

  I tried to speak softly, but firmly. It was as if I were the one talking to their child, instead of the other way around. “Dad, I did listen to you. I’ve heard everything you’ve said. But, I have to do this. No matter what happens, I know that I have this time — just three years — to myself. The queen has kept the prince as far from me as you’ve kept me from him. You won’t even tell me his name. I can’t keep watching the years waste away, Dad. I’ve got to have some of my own life before this betrothal goes into full effect. And, I’m going to be near Cole, I’ll still have family close.”

  I winced as he slammed his palm on the wooden tabletop. “Don’t you talk to me about him! You know that I regret that moment. If I could take it all back, I would. You shouldn’t do this, Amelia.”

  I sighed and tried to put my hand over his, cursing myself for bringing up Cole and aggravating the situation further.

  “I know, Dad. It’s just…well, I’m not asking. I’m telling you that I’m doing this.” I tried to hold his confused stare but couldn’t. “I just want you to know that I won’t be alone, Dad. I’ll be okay. I’ll make friends — human friends. It will be everything you ever wanted for me.”

  “No, Amelia,” he said, sounding defeated. “This is nothing that I wanted for you. I wanted to go away from here. I wanted to take you far, far away, but I…I just…couldn’t.” I watched his pupils dilate and the flash of green that meant he was losing control again.

  “They are watching, Amelia. They are always watching. They can’t believe it; they can’t believe you have what they want,” he said.

  He was looking around the room as if Queen Julia’s Hunters were right there, listening behind the pantry door. I couldn’t take it when he got like this. “They’ll leave you alone, you know that, right? You just have to try a little harder to convince them. You have to stay in control, Amelia.”

  I had grown to hate the word “control” more than anything in the world. I was a constant failure at it, and that one word was the source of almost every argument my father and I had ever had. Taking a deep breath, I tried to placate him, to stop his hands from shaking as his emotions s
welled and the pressure in the room grew. It was a struggle to maintain my own power as it fed off of his, my emotions rising in reaction to the despair I heard in my father’s voice. I had long-accepted his eccentricities but it wasn’t often that his anger gave way to fear, as it was doing now.

  “It’s okay, Dad. I’m going to be okay. I’ll do everything you taught me. I won’t use my power. I’ll stay under the radar. I’m going to be fine, Dad, do you believe me?” His fingers tightened on mine as he nodded a little too frantically. Standing, he yanked me in for a rare hug. “Just watch for them, Amelia. They are everywhere. Watch for them and stay in control.”

  The weight of my lies were a stone on my chest as I tried to relish our short embrace, nodding into his shoulder at the appropriate times. I was going to Brighton to experience a normal life — that part was true — but I was also going to try to figure out exactly who I was. I never believed I could get out of the betrothal, but at least I could go in prepared — something my father refused to do for me. There had to be someone out there that could explain what being an Elder meant and how to control the power that was growing faster than I knew how to handle.

   

   

  I moved through the morning in a bit of a haze. I went to class and took my notes, but never really contributed. With everything my father had ingrained into me, I still didn’t like to draw attention to myself even though my almost-black hair, hazel eyes, and slim figure would always make me more noticeable. Realizing that I would likely run into Aidan today, I had put in a little more effort than my normal thrown together outfit. It shouldn’t matter — he shouldn’t matter — but I was still a girl and he was still gorgeous. I don’t know how I’d never really noticed him before, but a lot of our classes were seminars with tons of people in them and I never made efforts to seek out new friends.

  Before I stepped a foot in the door of Composition, I knew Aidan was there. From outside the room, I could feel my internal reaction. It was as if we were back on that beach and the pads of his fingers were burning their marks into my skin. It was uncomfortable and exhilarating, my body reacting to just the nearness of him. As I walked into the room trying to reconcile myself with the heat in my veins, there he was, the guy setting the fire, sitting right there in my normal back row seat.

  I stood awkwardly for a minute staring at the back of his head, not sure what to do. He was fully immersed in conversation with a guy one seat over, fist-bumping and laughing over some story being told. I caught just the slightest stiffening of his back as I moved through the doorway. He knew I was there too, but didn’t even acknowledge me as I walked past him and sat a few rows up and to the left. My annoyed stare could have bored holes in the back of his head as I walked past, even though I realized that he very well could have chosen my seat without realizing it. It was ridiculous that I was so irritated, and just the fact that he could get me worked up was making it worse. I couldn’t stand how much I wanted to know more about him.

  I got myself settled, already hating my middle seat but pulling out my notebook and our poetry assignment for today’s class anyway. As I was leaning up from my backpack on the floor, I stole a glance in Aidan’s direction through the hair that had fallen in my face, only to find myself locking eyes with him. He was staring right at me — his chin in his hand and a slow smile creeping across his face, not even remotely trying to be subtle. I couldn’t move. As if in slow motion, I saw his right eyebrow raise and humor shine through his eyes. It was no coincidence that he had taken my seat today. He was issuing a direct challenge and I was having a hard time backing down. I narrowed my eyes as if to ask him what he wanted, and he did the damnedest thing — he winked at me.

  That tiny motion brought me back to myself. I whipped back around and started straightening my papers, fidgeting in my seat. I heard a low chuckle from behind me and just knew it was him. It reverberated through me and sent a burst of heat to my cheeks. Apparently, the good-guy act from last night was just that. This guy was a player. Great. Just what I need.

  The classroom door slammed and we all turned in surprise to find a man standing just inside the room. He looked uncomfortable in his wool cardigan, dress slacks, and Buddy Holly glasses. I couldn’t tell if he was going for Mr. Rogers or a failed attempt at hipster, but thankfully he broke the silence as he surveyed the class. “Ms. Brown is ill, so today’s class is canceled.” I was disturbed by how his eyes seemed to linger on me, but he finally turned on his heel and left.

  I quickly gathered my things and bolted out the door. The hallway was empty since the other classes were already in session, making it a quick jaunt out into the commons and toward my car. I was just cutting across the last patch of grass when I heard footsteps clearly running to catch up.

  “What’s your hurry, doll? We never got to finish our conversation last night.” Aidan fell in step with me, the dry grass crunching under his flip-flops. With all of the contempt that I could muster, I glanced his way only to find him giving me a cocky half-smile. I stopped short, finally noticing the eyes I found so intriguing last night were actually gray. It was like staring into smoke and I was caught off guard by the flecks of bright blue scattered throughout his iris.

  “W-we weren’t having a conversation last night,” I stuttered. “You surprised me, and then I realized I had somewhere to be.” I tried my best to sound distant, pulling my posture up to at least pretend I could look down at him as if he didn’t have me by at least a few inches. I finished with, “I’ve got no real interest in knowing you. I’ve seen your type.” I don’t know why I said that. It sounded weak and silly and I didn’t even mean it, but Aidan was just unnerving.

  That eyebrow rose again but he didn’t comment on my ridiculous statement. “You had somewhere to be? At midnight on a Thursday? In the middle of a party you were clearly trying to escape?” I could feel him holding in his laughter. Damn it, this guy irritated me.

  “Yes,” I snapped. “And, what I do or don’t do is absolutely none of your business.” With that, I hit the key-less entry, tossed my backpack and purse in my car, and climbed in. I gave a fake wave, complete with a roll of my eyes, and backed out of the spot. In my rear view mirror, Aidan stood in the grass looking confused and mildly amused with his hands in his shorts pockets and head cocked to one side. I had to force myself to pull my eyes away and put the car into drive, but that didn’t stop me from glancing up a few more times as I pulled away.

 
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