Our dining area resembled that of a McDonald’s restaurant. Okay, so it basically was a McDonald’s restaurant tightly ensconced within a Super Wal-Mart.
I’d gone straight for the fruit bowl and a container of nuts in the produce section, while my two companions did the same. Nuallan had refused to say anything to me during our four block sojourn to the store. Instead, he’d repeatedly said things about me as if I wasn’t walking a few feet ahead of them. After he’d accused me of being a witch and the worst kind of threat to their harmonious empire, Jareth threatened to cut his tongue out if he didn’t shut up.
A little harsh in my opinion, but the silence was most welcome.
Now that we were sitting at a tiny table in McDonald’s, stuffing our faces with fruits, nuts and tofu—the direct antithesis of all that McDonald’s stood for—Jareth seemed ready to discuss the elephant in the room.
“You were sent to kill Crysta even though I had not reported on my progress,” he said.
Nuallan chewed his food for a moment and then swallowed. I studied the tense lines around his mouth and jaw. He was just as well-muscled and intimidating as Jareth. His long, white hair and strange green tunic looked completely foreign in my world.
They both did.
“With all due respect, Your Majesty, you failed to report your progress in the time allotted, and the chancellor feared the worst.”
Jareth barked a scoffing laugh. “You all surmised that a simple human had the power to overcome me? Kill me?”
“Hey, this simple human knows some sweet karate moves from several months of self-defense classes,” I said. “I’m like a ninja when I want to be.”
Jareth turned to me and laid a warm hand over mine. “Yes, you’re quite intimidating, Crysta. The most challenging assignment I’ve ever been given.” He winked at me and I shook my head, fighting the smile that teased the corners of my mouth.
“You’ve been a real pain in the arse ever since you showed up in my apartment yesterday. You know that?”
He laughed. “I’m assuming that’s another of your lovely human expressions?”
“I can think of an even lovelier one if you’d like to hear it.”
Nuallan dropped his food and stared at us in amazement. “You’ve befriended the mark. You…you actually like her. The threat to our monarchy…to the king himself, is seated before us and you have become besotted with her rather than do your duty and protect your king. My Lord, I fail to understand the reasoning behind this.”
Jareth cast an annoyed glance at his assassin friend. “She may be a threat to the monarchy, but not in the way you might think.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but since we were all crazy freaks in our own unique way, I waited to see what his explanation might be. I also took careful note of the fact that he hadn’t bothered to deny that he was besotted with me. I couldn’t help but hope that might be the case.
“Pay attention to what happens when I take down her glamour,” Jareth said.
“Glamour? You’ve been masking my presence?”
“Just toning it down a bit. There haven’t been any men following you around over the last hour or so, right?”
“Well, I haven’t made eye-contact with any of them.”
“Do so with the young man at the register.” He pointed to a red-headed kid about my age, scrubbing down the counter before him.
I narrowed my brows, my mouth drawing into a thin line. “I don’t need another stalker, Jareth. You and this idiot you have here is all I can handle at the moment.”
Nuallan stiffened his posture, but Jareth laid a hand on his shoulder, barely stifling the laughter at my comment.
“Just make eye-contact with him, Crysta.”
I shook my head, knowing this was a bad idea, but did what he asked anyway. I stood up and walked over to the register, flashing what I hoped was a killer smile, something that felt completely foreign to me considering the situation.
“Hey, there. Do you think I could get some ketchup packets, please?” The young man looked up and immediately froze. The moment his eyes met mine, his pupils dilated and the color in his face heightened.
Here we go.
“Oh…y-y-yes. Of course you can.” He rushed to the side and ducked under, grabbing several ketchup packets and reaching across the counter to hand them to me. I allowed his fingertips to gently make contact with my hand, and his color heightened even further.
Thanking him, I accepted the packets and turned around, taking note of Nuallan’s amazed expression and Jareth’s self-satisfied grin. They didn’t understand what I’d just done. What events I had just put in motion. It wouldn’t be long before the young man did something absolutely…
A soft tug on my arm alerted me to the worker’s presence. I turned to face him, recognizing the strange, obsessive glint in his eye.
“If you’re not doing anything after I get off work, I’d like to take you out to dinner.”
I swallowed hard, feeling sick to my stomach. “I’m sorry, but I have other plans for the evening. Thank you anyway.”
My attempt to move around him was thwarted. He blocked my way, placing a possessive hand at my waist. “I’ll take you out to eat now, then. I can leave whenever I want.”
Just as I was about to use those mad ninja skills I’d only recently bragged about, Jareth stepped forward and gently pulled me out of the guy’s arms.
“She’s taken, friend.” He then said a few words that sounded more like gibberish, and the most amazing thing happened. The young man’s fevered look became normal again and he took a step back. He looked a little confused for a moment, but then shook his head and walked back to his station behind the counter.
I looked at Jareth in stunned surprise.
“How in the world did you do that?”
“I put your glamour back on.”
“What exactly does this glamour do, and why would I need it?”
“By King Moridan’s golden crown, she’s Fae,” Nuallan whispered.
My eyes widened in shock, but I immediately disregarded that ridiculous notion.
“Nope. I’m definitely not Fae. I was born human to two very human parents who died in a very stupid car crash, and then I spent the next fifteen years in and out of very human foster homes. So, nope. Not Fae,” I said.
“Of course you are!” Nuallan stated, still sounding shocked at what I considered to be a flawed assumption. “Only our female faeries have that kind of effect on human men.”
“Not Fae,” I repeated stubbornly. There were about a half dozen explanations as to why I had the effect I did on the human male species—like pheromones, or a very unfortunate case of bad luck—but being a faerie wasn’t a possibility I was willing to entertain. Totally ludicrous.
I walked over to our table, sat down, and threw some nuts into my mouth.
“And her name is Crysta,” Jareth continued, seating himself again. He and Nuallan shared an annoyingly significant look. I didn’t like it one bit.
“That’s very interesting,” Nuallan said.
I slapped my hand on the table. “I keep hearing that. Why is everything about me so interesting?”
“Crysta, don’t you see the similarities between us?”
I gave him a blank look. I didn’t want to accept what he and his friend were getting at. I didn’t want to believe that my parents weren’t really my parents or that I was quite possibly more of a freak than I’d ever before considered.
“If your suspicions are correct, Jareth, then there are dark forces at work among the ruling classes, and Crysta won’t be safe until we discover who ordered her death both now and seventeen years ago.”
“You guys put a hit out on me when I was a baby?” I looked at them both in disgust. “You people are sick.”
“No, Crysta. This is more complicated than you can imagine. This is a mystery that has plagued the Fae realm for many years,” Nuallan explained.
Jareth placed a calming hand on mine, but kept his focus on Nuallan.
“I need you to return and report that you accomplished your mission and murdered the mark. You mustn’t tell anyone, not even my father, what is truly going on. I’m not sure how far this treachery reaches, but I don’t want my father’s life endangered by revealing to him what could be explosive information.”
“Explosive indeed,” Nuallan said, staring at the hand Jareth left resting upon mine. I looked down and noticed the effervescent light created with our skin-to-skin contact.
“Do you have any idea what that light means?” Nuallan asked.
“It’s a curiosity I’ve started looking into.”
“Allow me to save you the trouble. I have two words for you. Fated mates. And a possible winter faerie if our suspicions are correct. Has it occurred to you that this may be why the family was murdered?”
Jareth’s jaw clenched in anger while I sat there like an ignoramus waiting for someone to shed some light on whatever the hell it was they were getting at.
“If it is, there will be serious repercussions for those who were and apparently still are involved,” Jareth said. The steely flint of his voice gave me the shivers. It was one of the few times I saw the cold, calculating warrior lurking beneath.
“Okay, since neither one of you intends to fill me in on what’s happening, I’m going to go grab some hair-dye and then we can get going.”
“Hair-dye? Is that what you’ve been using to cover your hair?” Jareth asked, refusing to release my hand. He had a bad habit of doing that.
“Oh, you noticed my roots, huh?” I hated how self-conscious I sounded.
“Of course, I did. They’re white, like mine. Why have you been covering your hair up with this strange honey color?” Surprisingly, he released my hand and reached toward the back of my head, pulling out the scrunchie binding my hair.
“Hey. Could you please get on board with the concept of personal space?”
“She may be Fae, but she talks in riddles,” Nuallan muttered, eying my hair as Jareth ran his soft fingers through it.
“Once again, I am not Fae. I’m human. And the color of my hair is a freaky birth defect I have gone to great lengths to cover up.”
“It’s definitely something you were born with, but I’d hardly call it a defect. It’s exactly the same color as mine and Nuallan’s.”
I don’t know why his statement was such a shocking revelation. I had already taken note of their unnatural hair color, but I hadn’t considered our hair being alike for several reasons.
One, it had been some time since I’d actually taken a look at my real hair color. The minute the dye washed out, I hurried to apply more color.
Two, no one on this planet looked like me, and believe me, I’d searched for distinctive features and similarities—anything that might explain my own origins and strange birth defects, i.e., albino skin, overly large, slanted blue eyes, ears that came to a soft point. I felt ugly, to say the least.
Three, no matter how delusional Jareth was, he was also beautifully built. Every line and angle of his face, all the curves and edges of his body must have been constructed for the pure enjoyment of the female species. I would never have considered any feature of mine to be comparable to his.
“It’s not the same,” I said, swallowing hard and folding my arms against my chest.
“It is.” He placed his hands upon mine again. My eyes locked with his, but in my peripheral vision, I could see white light rising just beneath the contact of our skin.
“Your hair is like mine, your eyes are like mine, you smell of pine and wintergreen.”
I shook my head in stubborn denial, angry to have him point out all the reasons I’d been a less-than-desirable addition to any and all families everywhere.
“Fascinating, Jareth.” I gave those two words as much sarcasm as I could muster. “Now if you two will excuse me, I’ve got a date with a bottle of dye.”
For once, Jareth released me. No doubt the panicked look on my face led him to realize that I was starting to lose it.
“How do you understand the creature?” Nuallan asked as I turned to leave.
I quickly put distance between us and hurried toward the cosmetics area of the store, finding the right box in a matter of seconds—I’d been at it for several years now—and paying for it as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to return to Jareth and his opinionated comrade. I didn’t want to analyze what all of these experiments and revelations might mean for my own future or my own identity.
I was human. I was just like everyone else. I belonged here and I’d fought hard to carve out a place in this world for myself. No freaky hallucination or opinionated, self-important faerie prince was going to ruin my peace of mind. Not if I had anything to say about it.
After hovering near the checkout line, I decided I was going to assert my independence right then and there. I wasn’t Jareth’s lackey, servant, or subject, and I certainly wasn’t his prisoner. I was an independent woman who had the right to return home on her own if she wanted to. And that is exactly what I determined to do. I turned toward the opposite exit, walked through the doors, and headed out into the light afternoon sunshine, grateful for the charm Jareth had placed upon me since I hadn’t had the chance to put sunscreen on before we left.
I then made the short trek home, completely unconcerned with what Jareth might think once I failed to return.