The Indie Lights Book Parade is wrapping up with the close of February just around the corner. Thanks to the many great authors who provided me articles and interviews to post throughout the month and who spotlighted my work on their blogs. I hope the parade was as successful at raising readership awareness for y’all as it was for me. A special shout-out goes to the coordinator of this event—Cheri Roman—for putting the schedule together and organizing all the posts that we sent her. You were a proper Grand Marshall, you were!
As the final float to post on my site, I’m offering my readers the first TWO chapters of my new novel, BLUR, to read. Oh, and don’t forget to enter to win one of three fantastic prize packs from our ILBP authors. Use the link in the top right corner to enter.
A grunt escaped my lips as my palm slammed into my attacker’s nose. Instinctively, my left arm swung in a high arc, sweeping aside the hands that tried to grab me. I stomped hard on the center of my assailant’s foot. The large man doubled over and I screamed “No!” as I brought my knee up, smashing it into his masked nose. I turned to run, but was caught short by a gruff laugh behind me.
The massive figure, now on the ground with his hands covering his head, coughed out another dry laugh. “Enough,” he cried, pulling the mask from his face. He sat up and grinned. “Good job, Tara. I think you’re ready for rolls and throws next.” Davey rose from the floor and slapped my shoulder.
Sweat trickled down my temple as I made my way to the benches to let the next group have the mats. I wiped my face with a towel as the smell of perspiration and disinfectant crinkled my nose. The thuds of bodies falling to the floor had me imagining next week’s class. I took a long swig from my water bottle before rising to hit the showers.
As I towel-dried my hair and changed into a pair of yoga pants and a tee shirt, the fractured images of the night I was kidnapped and nearly raped popped through my mind. Wes Priester, a senior at UT, had drugged my drink in a club and taken me to an apartment to finish the assault. If it hadn’t been for my sister, Hannah, and my boyfriend, Derek, Wes might have gotten away with it. I took a last sip of my water and rolled my shoulders, pushing away the memory of that night.
I shoved my sweaty clothes in my gym bag and unlocked my phone as a text message from my sister scrolled across the screen.
Can’t make it this weekend. Plans with Drew.
I huffed in annoyance. It was her idea for us to spend more time practicing our magic and now she was ditching me. Her telepathy, along with Derek’s ability to sense my spirit, was what saved me from Wes. Though I’d been working solo on strengthening my own gift, Hannah and I both thought our abilities were stronger when we were together.
Have fun, I typed back before tucking my phone in the bag’s outer pocket.
“Later, Tara,” Carlos, one of the other self-defense instructors, called as I crossed the gym to the exit. I smiled and waved as I shoved through the swinging door into a cool October evening. The breeze from an exiting cold front whipped my hair around my face as the first street lights flickered on.
I hurried across the lot, scanning for anything unusual, then paused at my car. I eyed the minivan and pickup parked on either side of me as the hairs on my arm stood up. I shrugged off the suspicion as I reached for the daisy charm hanging at my throat and thought of Derek—my soul mate, my élan—and mumbled my centering chant.
“God, Tara,” I muttered, “get a grip. Nobody’s out to get you.” I unlocked my car door and climbed in, giving the engine a minute to warm up before pulling onto North Broadway. The drive home was short, and as I turned into the Willow Grove Apartment complex, my phone rang.
“Hello?” I lugged my bag from the back seat and hurried up the stairs to my third floor apartment.
“Hey, Sugar.” Derek’s smooth tenor floated through the line. “We still on for tonight?”
“You know you don’t have to do this,” I said, unlocking my door and kicking off my shoes in the corner. I dropped my bag by the door and went to the kitchen for a drink.
“But I’m already on my way and I want to see you.”
“I want to see you too, baby.” I pictured Derek in his blue Camaro, driving way beyond the speed limit on Highway 11E from Strawberry Plains—his gray eyes shadowed by thick eyebrows, his scruffy chin and full lips, punctuated by a pair of deep dimples. With his image came the rush of love and specks of rainbow colors at the edges of my vision, the remnants of our joining. The Quickening we experienced together in May was the beginning of this new visual and emotional acuity. Derek was my spirit’s other half, both my anchor and my sail. Without him, I felt like a snuffed out candle.
“Sugar, did you hear me?” His question broke me from my thoughts.
“Sorry. What was that?”
“I said how about we have dinner at Sunspot?”
“If that’s what you want, baby.” I stripped out of the workout clothes and stood in my closet scrutinizing each piece of clothing. “I just walked in the door so I need to go get ready. Let yourself in when you get here. Love you.”
“Love you, too.” The connection went dead and I laid a coral three-quarter sleeve top and a floral cotton skirt on my bed before going to the bathroom to do my hair and makeup.
Derek picked me up at six o’clock. The hum in my body that always erupted whenever he was near started the minute he climbed from the driver’s seat. My skin tingled from the vibration and, as he scooped me up for a kiss, the colors of our link blazed behind my eyelids.
“Damn!” he said once he released me. “Do you think it’ll always be like this?” His arms stayed wrapped around my waist.
“What? An emotional explosion every time we touch?” I looked up at him, his gray eyes a shade lighter. “I hope so.” I pressed my mouth to his again, my tongue tracing the edge of his lip, before pulling away and letting him open my car door. I tossed my bag in the back and slid into the front seat.
“Where to for dinner?” He started the car and took my hand in his to kiss my fingertips. His burgundy tee shirt made his eyes look the color of granite. As if the hum of our élans wasn’t intoxicating enough, Derek’s signature scent of peppermint and clean cotton caused a tingle in me that spread throughout my body.
“I thought we were going to Sunspot.” I ran my fingers up his forearm and watched as his muscles tensed under my touch.
“You don’t want to go to Maryville or Louden?” He backed out of the spot and aimed the car left.
“Nah. We can stay in Knoxville. What’s the likelihood that anybody from school will be that far south?” The only reason we went out of town was to avoid anyone who might see us. “Besides, we’ll still be in the city and the drive back to my place won’t be so far as it would if we went further south.”
“Is that all you can think about?” Derek teased, merging into I-40 traffic.
I smacked his arm, a flush creeping up my face. “That’s not all I think about. I mean, I think about more stuff than just that.” My cheeks burned hotter the more I tried to explain. “Ugh. See what you do to me?”
“It’s okay, Sugar,” he said, following the flow of traffic. “I know you well enough by now. You’re more worried about us getting caught than us getting caught up in sex.” His perfectly dimpled mouth stretched into a devilish smile, and I turned to look out the window to avoid his gaze.
“Let’s try someplace different,” he said. “Let’s go toward the West Town Mall. There’s a Thai restaurant Jesse and I went to when I first started coming to stay with him.”
“I love Thai food,” I said, turning to face him. “Back home whenever Mom and Dad would take us out, I always begged to go to Basil’s.”
As he kept up with traffic on I-40 South, I described dinner out with my parents. His hand rested on my thigh, his thumb making little circles on my leg as waves of love lapped at me. “I want you to come home with me soon and meet my parents.”
His thumb stopped its orbit and his hand tightened on my knee. “Don’t you want to wait, at least until I graduate?”
“What? Are you scared to meet my parents?” I noticed his jaw clench with my question, his teeth grinding.
“It’s not that,” he said, gripping the steering wheel with both hands. “You don’t think they’d want to know how we met and ask me a million questions about my life? We’d have to do a hell of a lot of lying to keep them from finding out that you’re my teacher.”
“Not really,” I said. “You do work at your uncle’s garage. And you do help support your family. We tell them we met at a sorority party and have been dating off and on ever since. That’s all they need to know for now. Once you graduate, we’ll see if we need to tell them more.”
His jaw relaxed, but his grip remained tight. I reached over and ran my hand down his thigh, resting it on his knee. “Derek, it’s okay. We’ll go when you’re ready, but I’m sure they already know about you.”
His eyes, narrow slits under a furrowed brow, darted toward me before staring back at the road. “What makes you say that?”
“Well,” I said, choosing my words carefully, “my parents are friends with Aaron’s parents and if they talked to him at all about he and I dating, then he probably told them I already have a boyfriend.” I felt a shift in the air as Derek’s controlled anger curled from him. “Reel that in, baby,” I said, removing my hand from his leg. “There’s no need to be upset.”
“I’m not upset,” he said, but the anger intensified. “I’m freakin’ pissed.” He turned into the parking lot in front of Surin and cut the engine. “I can’t get the image of him with his tongue down your throat on your birthday a few weeks ago.”
“Sugar, that’s in the past,” I said. I placed my hand on his cheek. “I didn’t think you and I would ever be together. Aaron knows now that I’m absolutely yours.”
His jaw softened as his eyes searched mine. “I wouldn’t blame you, after all I’ve put you through, if you thought you’d be better off without me.” He took my hand from his cheek and kissed my fingertips. “I know I’m hard to be around sometimes. And this empathy gift doesn’t help, especially since I can pick up on every emotion anybody is feeling and project it. But I love you, Sugar. I’d do anything for you except give you up.”
I smiled softly at him before lacing my fingers in his hair and pulling him to me for a kiss. I let the love I had for him swell to near bursting, and imagined it filtering through my lips to him. A spark, like static electricity, traveled between us and he pulled me over the center console, closer to him. His tongue ran over the contour of my lips before diving into my mouth for a deep taste. The erratic hues of our élans, like lightening during a tornado, flashed behind my closed lids for the second time that night.
“I think our link is getting stronger,” I said through ragged breaths. Shifting my hips, I wiggled myself more securely into his lap, my legs stretched over the console to my seat. “How do we always end up like this?” Our faces were inches apart, and I studied every line, every freckle, still in awe that I had first dreamed of him three months before I met him.
“You can’t resist me,” he said, lifting his head to kiss my chin. “And I am addicted to you.” His hand, resting on my knee, glided up between my bare legs to the hem of my skirt.
I clamped my legs together, stopping him. “Not here. Not now,” I said, and climbed back over the console. “It’s just tacky to get felt up in the front seat of a car.” I tugged at my skirt, straightening it and checking my reflection in the visor mirror before turning to Derek.
He leveled a wry smile at me before grabbing his crotch and adjusting himself. “Sorry, Sugar. It’s uncomfortable. Besides, I can’t walk in there with a woody.” He nodded toward Surin’s as I turned to face the window, giving him some privacy. “That’s better,” he said. He climbed from the car and came to open my door.
We waited for thirty minutes for a table, but once seated, our server arrived quickly as did our food. Though our desire had cooled a little, his leg brushing against mine made me that much more aware that we’d be alone again at my apartment.
“Whatcha thinking, Sugar?” Derek grabbed the check and dug in his wallet for money, tossing a few bills on the table.
“Just that we still need to be careful.” I took a final sip of my drink and set it away.
Derek glanced around the restaurant. “Babe, that’s why we came so far south, so we don’t have to be so careful.”
“I’m talking about us,” I said. I felt my forehead pull into a scowl and forced myself to relax. “Just because we’ve agreed to keep seeing each other doesn’t mean we should have sex yet.” I whispered the last part. The memory of earlier in the front seat of his car caused a blush to heat up my cheeks.
He leaned back in his chair and blew out a frustrated breath. “Sugar, I told you. That’s not what I want.”
I raised my eyebrow, my lips pursing in a smirk.
“Well, that’s not all I want,” he amended. “I love you, Tara. I can wait until you’re ready.” He took my hand in his and kissed my fingertips, bringing a smile to my lips. Then he leaned in close, his voice dropping low. “Still, you have to admit, us getting half-naked on your couch is a turn-on for you, too.” He pulled me up and pushed our chairs under, resting his hand on my lower back to guide me to the exit.
I tugged my sweater closer as the wind whipped at my hair. Derek took my hand as we crossed the lot.
“Hey, Williams. Long time no see.” A man who looked like he’d just stepped out of a J. Crew ad blocked our way. Nauseating cologne assaulted me, wrinkling my nose and prickling the hairs on the back of my neck. Something about him put me on edge. The memory of the dark apartment I’d been taken to in September flashed in my mind, and the fear from that night tweaked my nerves. An image of Wes Priester’s face hovering over me as I lay on a stripped mattress, unable to move as he groped me made me gag.
Derek stiffened, moving me a step behind him. “That’s the way I like it, Mike.” His fingers tightened on my wrist and I twisted my arm to free myself, placing a hand on his shoulder. His anger tinged with apprehension seeped under my skin and we both struggled to control our emotions.
Forcing down the pukiness, I took a calming breath and focused on sending that peace to Derek. Nothing was going to happen here in a public parking lot. He just had to not let his anger push him to fight.
“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your girl?” Mike nodded toward me, extending his hand. “I’m Mike Parker. What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“You don’t need to know her name,” Derek said, biting his words. He dropped his gaze to Mike’s open palm then leveled a steely stare at his face.
I squeezed Derek’s arm, his bicep flexing under my fingers. “Let’s just go, baby.”
“No, come on. Let me buy you a drink.” Mike motioned toward the restaurant. “We can catch up. I know you want to know how Wes and the rest of the Lambdas are doing.”
At the mention of his name, I lost it. I pushed past Derek and shoved Mike backward. “Don’t you stand there pretending that you give a shit about how we’ve been, you asshole.” My hands swung at his face as Derek grabbed my waist and pulled me back. “You know damn well what your frat brother did to me. I hope he never gets his mind back. He can rot in that psych ward for all I care!”
“Tara, baby,” Derek’s voice drew me out of my rage as serenity encircled me. “It’s okay.”
“You need to keep her on a leash, Williams,” Mike said, tugging at the bottom of his sweater to straighten it. “You’re lucky I don’t sue.” His anger subsided as his mouth curled into a smile as if nothing had happened.
“Oh, yeah?” Derek released me and grabbed Mike by the collar. He shoved Mike against the closest car, then called over his shoulder, “Tara, step back.” The anger he was projecting morphed into fear as I scooted around the car behind me. I kept my eyes on them both but did as Derek said. I moved three rows away and still the fear reached for me. I glanced around the parking lot, paranoid that someone might see. Mike’s eyes narrowed threateningly then widened as he cowered under Derek’s grip.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Surin’s manager called from the door. “I’m calling the cops,” he said and turned back toward the door. A few patrons were standing at the open door, a couple with camera phones ready to get it all.
“No need,” Derek said as he came to my side. “He was just being rude to my girl here. Had to teach him some manners.”
The manager glanced over at Mike, who cautiously crept from between the rows. At seeing the crowd of people staring at him, he hurried to his car and fled.
“We’re leaving, too,” I said, taking Derek’s hand in my shaking one. “No need to get the police involved.”
The manager nodded and turned back to the restaurant as Derek and I found his Camaro.
“You okay, Sugar?” He reached across the console and ran his thumb under my eye, wiping away tears I didn’t know were falling.
“God, what’s wrong with me?” I grabbed a grease rag from the back seat, finding the cleanest corner I could, and dabbed my eyes. “You’d think after just attacking a two-hundred pound man I wouldn’t be crying like a baby.”
“It’s all the emotions,” Derek said, stroking the back of my neck. Love and serenity pulsed from his fingertips and I didn’t push him away. “But you proved that those ass-kicking classes are at least making you more aggressive.”
“That’s not the point of them. They’re for defense.”
“Still, I don’t have to worry as much about you being able to take care of yourself when I’m not around.” He started the car and pulled out onto the highway heading north. “And not that you’ll ever see the Lambdas anymore now that you’ve graduated, but you won’t have to worry about them either.”
“What did you say to Mike?”
“I told him that if I ever catch him or the others near you, threatening you again, the same thing that happened to Wes would happen to him.”
“Oh, Derek, he’s going to tell somebody!” My hands twisted around each other in my lap as I watched the city lights blur past us.
“Don’t worry, baby.” He covered my hands with his free one. “I also tagged him, not as much as I did Wes, but enough that he will be so scared he’ll think he’s losing his mind. Paranoia is a strong watchdog. It’ll keep him from doing something stupid.”
“I hope so.” I offered him a weak smile, but fought to control the anxiety that gripped me.
I stayed the night with Tara, and though I was satisfied with the kissing and the touching, a hedge of caution had built up between us. All night, I felt like Tara was holding back. After sleeping in and a late lunch, I decided to go to Jesse’s for a little while to give Tara some space. Plus I had to pick up a suit he was loaning me for some dumb costume thing at the movies tonight.
Jesse was mixing cooked noodles and spaghetti sauce in a pot when I let myself in his apartment. He offered me a plate and we took it to the living room.
“What’d you do to Mike?” he asked me as he made himself comfortable on the couch.
“What’re you talking about?” I shoved a spoonful of spaghetti in my mouth, avoiding his question.
“He said he saw you and Tara at Surin’s last night and felt like shit about upsetting Tara. He said to tell you again, he’s sorry.”
I smiled as I chewed, but Jesse’s scowl leveled my pride. “He mentioned Wes’s name,” I explained, “and Tara flew into him like a spider monkey. He threatened to sue, so I handled it.”
“How?” Jesse sat his fork on his plate and stared at me, waiting for a response.
“You know, you look just like Daddy when you’re angry. Your nose twitches like his used to.”
“You’re avoiding the question.”
“How do you think I handled it?” I set my empty plate on the coffee table and gulped down my beer. “I tagged him. Not to where he can’t function. Just so he won’t be such a dick.”
“Dammit, DJ! You can’t go fucking with people’s lives.”
“What’d you want me to do? Tara was scared. She overreacted and pushed him. He said he was going to call the cops. I couldn’t let him just get away with it.”
Jesse sighed and picked his plate back up. “I guess not, but you’ve got to control it. You don’t know what kind of long-term effects tagging can have.” He took another bite of his dinner, then said, “You know Wes was released from the hospital.”
“I didn’t expect them to keep him forever.”
“But his parents came and got him a couple of weeks ago to take him back to Atlanta. He stopped going to classes and Beau said he found him hanging pictures of Saint Michael around his bed wearing the same wrinkled clothes he’d had on for three days.”
I bit my lip, guilt squeezing my chest, then shook it off. “Serves him right. He’s the one who can’t fuck with people’s lives and think he can get away with it.”
“But to mess him up so bad he can’t function?” Jesse stared up at me and the guilt returned.
“I didn’t mean for it to be that bad,” I said, leaning forward, my hands dangling between my knees. “That night was the first time anything like that had happened.” Tara’s helpless form, lying limp on a bed with Wes’s hand up her skirt stabbed at my gut. The rage I’d felt that night flooded me and I slammed my fist into my palm.
“Pull back some, bro,” Jesse said, waving a hand at my chest.
I set up my block and centered myself. Tara was safe, Wes was out of commission, and if Mike knew what was good for him, he’d stay far away. “I’ve gotta go get ready,” I said, carrying my plate to the dishwasher. “Did you find that suit I asked you about? The one you wore to the UT President’s dinner?”
“Yeah, it’s hanging on the inside of my closet door. Clark Kent? Really?”
I rolled my eyes and grabbed my duffle bag. “It was Tara’s idea. And I want to keep my woman happy.” I smiled at him, waggling my eyebrows, then made my way to the bathroom to shower and change before picking Tara up.
The line at the concession counter hadn’t moved, adding to my frustration. Why the hell I let Tara talk me into coming to the Creep Shows and Costumes night at the Miracle 7 Theatres was something I was still trying to figure out. “This dressing up bullshit ain’t me,” I said, pulling the mask from my face.
“No, don’t take it off,” Tara said. “The secret identity is the best part.” She took the mask from me and tried to stretch it back over my head. “You get to be someone else.”
“It doesn’t even go with my costume.” I dodged her hand as I glanced down at the dress pants and white long-sleeved shirt I’d borrowed from Jesse. The shirt was unbuttoned to my waist so that a blue tee shirt with the giant red S could be seen.
“Neither does mine,” she said, stepping back and waving her hands up and down to indicate her Wonder Woman costume. “But we have to wear them in case anyone we know is here.” The anxiety she’d ditched once we slid into a darkened row near the door crept back in as we stood in line to get popcorn and drinks.
“You should have stayed in the theater.” I stepped forward as the line moved up.
“You can’t carry all of this back by yourself.” Her soft smile beaming up at me was replaced by empty, distant eyes as her hand latched onto me.
I hooked my arm around her waist and whispered in her ear, “What is it, baby?”
“Cheyenne and Eli,” she said. “They’re here. In theater…six.” Her eyes refocused as she glanced over my shoulder at the corridor. “They’re coming out now.” She wiggled out of my grip and stepped back. “I’ll…be right back,” she said and hurried toward the bathroom.
“Hey, bro.” Eli stepped behind me in line and slapped me on the shoulder as Cheyenne’s arms wrapped around my waist. “Who’s that you’re with?”
“Huh?” I unhooked Chey and stepped back. “Who?”
“That fine chick dressed in that little red-white-and-blue bathing suit. She was just here.” He pointed toward the west hall of the theater.
“Oh, her.” I moved with the line again. “Just some girl I met at one of Jesse’s frat parties.”
“Must be serious,” Cheyenne said. “You never brought me to the movies.” She leaned into me, curving her hand around my elbow. Eli stiffened and he reached for Chey.
“You’re here with me, Cheyenne,” he said, drawing her to his side. “So act like it.”
Cheyenne jerked her arm from his grip. “I’m just saying, DJ’s been acting different these last few weeks. And now he’s got himself a girl we don’t know.”
“It’s not any of your business.” I pushed a sense of disinterest at her and glanced over my shoulder for Tara. Both Eli and Cheyenne turned toward the counter and ordered snacks.
“Well, you and your girl should come sit with us,” Eli said, dropping a twenty on the counter. “We’re in Screamers, then I think we’re staying for Deadly Dreams at midnight.”
“Maybe,” I said, wondering what was taking Tara so long. The cashier handed Cheyenne the change as Eli balanced the two sodas and a massive bag of popcorn.
Cheyenne turned to me, licked her lips and smiled. “Yeah, DJ, you and your little girlfriend come on and sit with us.” She followed Eli down the hall but turned back to blow a kiss at me.
I raised my hand with every intention of sending her PMS-level depression, but they disappeared into the theater.
“Don’t worry with her, baby,” Tara said, her hand resting on my arm. “She’s just jealous.”
“That’s not the emo she’s putting out.” I breathed deep, trying to rid myself of the grimy feel of Chey’s lust.
“You don’t have to be an empath to know she still wants you.” Tara ran her hand up my back as her love for me seeped through my shirt.
“What took you so long?” I waved away the cashier and steered Tara toward a recess.
“I was waiting until they were gone,” she said, dropping her gaze to the floor. “No one can see us together Derek. You know that.”
“I thought that’s what these costumes were for.” I tugged at the front of the tee shirt, a bead of sweat trickling down my chest.
“They help some,” she said, “but don’t you think they would have recognized me the minute I opened my mouth to say something?”
I hadn’t thought of that.
“Besides,” she continued, “they’ve been acting suspicious in class ever since…” She didn’t finish the sentence, but I knew she was talking about the night last month that still had her skittish in crowds, and especially at parties. “…so I don’t think we need to tempt fate,” she said, drawing me from my thoughts.
“You’re right,” I said. “It’s just so hard when I want to show you off and let everybody know you’re mine.” I drew her to me and pressed my lips to her temple. The scent of lemons drifted from her as the skin-deep buzz bounced between us.
“You keep this up,” she said, as she tried to catch her breath, “and we aren’t going to make the second movie.” Her hands slid up my back as I dropped my mouth to hers.
“Fine by me,” I whispered, catching her lips in a kiss that had the fireworks of our Quickening dancing in my mind. “Let’s get out of here.” I took her hand and led her from the lobby without protest.
We spent the rest of Saturday night on her couch, barely dressed and completely attached. It was all we could do to not end up naked in her bed, but with her pregnancy issue we didn’t want to risk it.
Sunday afternoon was harder than usual on both of us. Being around Tara fed my élan so much that when we were apart I felt like a part of my soul had been sliced out. I didn’t know if she was affected like that since she wasn’t an Actuary, but her emotions were always unraveled and raw when I kissed her goodbye.
“I can’t wait two more weeks,” she said as we stood by my car in her apartment’s parking lot. The breeze played in her dark hair brushing the curls across my face. She rested her head against my chest, her sadness licking at my shield.
“We’ll see each other at school,” I said. I knew it wasn’t the same—I couldn’t touch her, kiss her—but at least our élans could mingle.
“I know,” she sighed. “Still, we can’t be like this.” She waved her hand between us. “And I like this. I want this all the time.”
“Me, too, Sugar.” I rested my chin on her head wishing I could be with her more, but I had my brothers and sister at home to take care of. “Hey, why don’t you come out to Strawberry Plains this weekend for Sunday dinner?” I looked down at her, excited that I’d get to see her again so soon. “You can meet my family, my mom. And we could spend the day together.”
“You want me to meet your mom?” She backed out of my embrace, her hands fidgeting in front of her. “That’s a major step, even for a normal couple. Does she know about us? I mean about our Quickening? What about our age difference? Does she know, you know,” she paused, struggling to finish the statement, “that you’re my student?”
“Whoa, Sugar.” I held up my hand to calm the panic seeping out of her. “One at a time. She knows I’ve found my élan, and that you’re older than me.” It was my turn to stall. I hadn’t told my mom that Tara was the co-teacher in my English class. And I don’t think Dori or Jesse had told her either.
“But she has no idea about school.” Panic broke the dam of Tara’s control and flooded the space between us. She sat down hard on the curb, her head falling into her hands. “She’s gonna have me brought up on charges, Derek. I’ll be fired, or worse.”
“No, she won’t. She knows how important you are to me.” I knelt in front of her rubbing her leg. I thought about projecting to her, but Tara had made it clear that unless it was absolutely necessary, she didn’t want me to alter her emotions without her say so. “She might not be thrilled with the whole student-teacher thing. Who would? But she’ll learn to love you just like Dori did.”
“Your sister doesn’t love me,” she said, hard eyes staring up at me. “She tolerates me for your sake.”
“No, baby. Really, she’s coming around.” I took a seat beside her on the curb and draped my arm over her shoulder. “She asked me just the other day if I was ever going to invite you home for Sunday dinner.”
Her panic lessened and she gazed out toward the pool. “You really think it’ll be okay?”
“Yeah. I mean, if you can handle a house full of screaming banshees.” I nudged her knee with mine and she looked up at me, her face golden in the afternoon sun. “Seriously, I love you and I want you to meet my family. I’ll pick you up if you want, be all adult about it.”
“Nah,” she said, a slight half-laugh escaping her lips. “I’ll meet you up there. Just send me directions and I’ll map it.” She rested her head on my shoulder. “Screaming banshees. Really?”
We talked for a few more minutes before I finally rose to leave. I kissed her goodbye, promising her I’d call her before bed and send her directions by the end of the week. Her nervousness was barely registering as I watched her in the rear-view mirror climb the stairs to her apartment. My anxiety, however, was high enough to float a bowling ball.
The following Sunday we stood beside her car in my driveway, and I wondered what the two-story shotgun house looked like from her perspective. I’d always just thought of it as home. Everyone I knew in Strawberry Plains lived in a house older than God. We felt lucky just having a roof over our heads.
“It’s quaint. But it’s hard to imagine ten of you living here.” Tara’s eyes squinted up at the peaked roof with the weather vane. The rooster turned in the wind.
“Well, there are five bedrooms,” I said, glancing at the row of second-story windows. Four heads pressed against the two glass panes in one of the bedrooms stared down at us. “And the oldest three don’t live here full time anymore. It’s just Momma, me and the younger five.”
“Speaking of,” she said, running a hand down her dress. “Are you sure she’s okay with this? I mean, you said she knows all about élans and such, but still.” Her unasked question about our age difference hovered in the air like an annoying gnat.
“I told you, she knows you’re older than me.” I knew from her anxiety pushing at me that is was more than that. Ever since we’d made the choice to keep seeing each other, we never really talked about school.
“But what about—” Tara was interrupted by a slamming screen door and Darla squealing.
“DJ, you’re here!” My littlest sister threw herself at me as I grabbed her under the arms and slung her high in the air. Though she was seven, she was built like Doraleigh, tiny and light. Her long brown hair flowed behind her as she dropped back into my hands. I set her on the ground and she turned to Tara.
“Hey, I’m Darla.” She waved and smiled before taking Tara’s hand to lead her inside. “You’re my brother’s girlfriend, aren’t you?”
“I certainly hope so,” Tara said as she followed my sister into the kitchen. Momma was standing at the sink, rinsing vegetables. and dried her hands when we came in.
“Momma, this is DJ’s girlfriend.” Darla released Tara to look through a cabinet. “What’s your name?” she asked, coming out empty-handed before snatching a pear from the counter.
“Darla,” Momma said. “Let your brother make introductions.” She frowned at my sister, who ducked her head and climbed silently onto a stool to watch. Momma turned back to us and waited for me to speak. I dropped Tara’s hand under Momma’s stare and took a step back.
“Momma, this is Tara.” I dug my hands in my pockets and offered a weak smile to both women, the anxiety pinging around the room a product of both of them.
“Nice to finally meet you, Tara.” Momma held out her arms, a soft smile camouflaging her curiosity, and embraced Tara warmly.
“You, too, Mrs. Williams,” Tara said, relief replacing her nervousness.
“Derek, where’s your manners?” Momma asked, taking a pitcher from the refrigerator. “Get Tara something to drink. She looks parched.”
I busied myself with getting ice and filling glasses with sweet tea as Momma and Tara sat at the kitchen table.
“Darla, run upstairs and wash up for dinner.” Momma nodded her head toward the door. Darla began to argue, but she was cut off by a hard stare. “And tell your brothers to do the same.”
“Yes ma’am.” My sister scurried from the kitchen.
“So, Tara,” Momma said, taking the glass I handed her. “I’ve never been one to meddle in my grown children’s lives, but seeing as how Derek hasn’t graduated yet I guess I can be a little nosy.”
I pulled a chair out next to Tara and took her hand under the table. My touch was more for physical comfort than a projection. Tara laced her fingers through mine, then said, “Yes, ma’am. What do you want to know?”
“Well, Doraleigh said you were older than my son,” Momma said, shifting in her seat. “But that you two have also experienced the Quickening.”
“Yes,” Tara said. “I am older than Derek, but that makes no difference in how I feel about him. As you said, we bonded, and I can’t imagine ever not having him in my life.” She smiled nervously up at me, yet her love coursed through my body.
“So, this is serious then?” Momma leaned toward us. Her folded hands clenched tighter as she awaited an answer.
“Momma,” I said, covering her hands with my free one. “Yeah, it’s serious but it’s not like we’re ready to get married or anything. I’ve got to graduate first and there’s work to help you out around here—”
“Don’t you worry about that, son,” she said, straightening, drawing her arms into her lap. “We’re doing alright now. I know you’ve got your own life to live.” Her pale, dim eyes brightened and she offered a forced smile. “So, Tara, do you work? Or are you still in college?”
Tara’s anxiety swelled to the size of a hot air balloon, her wide eyes darting from Momma to me and back before answering. “Doraleigh didn’t tell you?” When Momma responded with a shrug and a shake of her head, Tara cautiously continued, “I work with her at Carter High.”
“Oh.” Momma took a sip of her tea before the realization of Tara’s words sank in. “Oh! You teach there?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Tara shifted in her seat, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “I teach English and…” she paused, lifting her eyes to look at Momma before continuing, “…Derek’s in my class.”
The stifling silence was broken by my siblings thudding down the stairs. The noise cut through the tension as the five of them stopped in unison to look at the three of us.
“What’s going on?” Joey asked as the rest slipped silently into their seats
“Nothing, son,” Momma said. She stood and went to the stove to retrieve pots of vegetables. “Can you put the plates on the table, Joey? Josh, get the silverware. Derek, get the baked chicken from the warmer.” She busied herself with digging serving spoons from drawers and setting glasses on the counter for the younger ones to get their drinks.
“Can I help with something?” Tara offered. Seeing Darla struggle with the books in her chair, Tara straightened them and then lifted my sister to sit her on top of the pile.
“No, honey,” Momma said not looking at her. “You just have a seat.”
My brothers’ and sister’s confusion and Tara’s sadness floated around me and were easily remedied by a push. But Momma was harder to read and it worried me.
Supper was the usual Williams mealtime chaos. Darla asked Tara questions that had my momma tapping on the table in front of my sister to quiet her. Jake and Jax got into an argument over which Nascar driver was the greatest ever. It ended with both of them being sent from the table after they shoved each other one too many times and spilt their drinks. Joey was surprisingly quiet as he spent the majority of the time watching Tara, his emotions shifting between jealousy and lust, typical for a fifteen-year-old.
After dinner, Jake and Jax were tasked with clean-up and Momma directed Joey to oversee Darla drawing her bath. Josh attempted to follow us onto the porch but Momma turned him around.
“I want to talk to your brother and Tara before she leaves,” she said, opening the screen door. “I’ll be in shortly.”
We followed her out and took a seat on the porch swing. The setting sun coated the sky what Darla liked to call “cotton candy color.” Lightning bugs dotted the edge of the yard where the brush was thickest and whippoorwills called from a distance. It didn’t take Momma long to get to the point.
“I don’t particularly agree with how y’all are going about this,” she said, lowering herself into a rocker and staring out at the field across our driveway. “I’m afraid that this is going to end up costing you both more than you can imagine.”
“Momma—“ I began, but she cut me off.
“No, son. Let me finish.” She turned to face us. “Tara, I’m going to tell you the same thing I told Derek. This is your life and y’all are capable of making your own decisions and mistakes. Y’all might think this is it for you—you’ve found your soul mate—but you do have a choice. You can choose to stick this out, regardless of the consequences or you can choose to end it. Dianne and Doraleigh know enough and are skilled enough to perform the Severing ritual if that’s what you two want. Just don’t think that you have no say in how your lives will play out, that you’re helpless in all this.”
She ended on an odd note and we waited, expecting her to say more. When she didn’t, Tara stopped the swing with her toe, her eyes locked with my mom’s.
“Mrs. Williams,” she said. “I appreciate your honesty. Believe me, I’ve thought about cutting ties with your son. It’d be so much easier if I didn’t have to worry every day about going to jail.” Tara paused, swallowing her nervousness, then rushed on. “And had I known how much younger he was when we first started dating, I’d have probably ended it then. But I love him now and I can’t be without him. It’s like when the Quickening joined us, I became whole.”
I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding as Momma rose from her seat. She stepped in front of us as we both stood.
“Then make sure you don’t break my boy’s heart.” She pulled Tara to her in a strong hug. “Be safe driving home,” she said, then left us standing there on the porch in the fading light.
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