I’d barely walked through the door before an infuriated Jareth materialized right inside my living room.
“Seriously? I totally forgot you could do that. I thought I’d have at least a few minutes of peace before you came to find me.”
Jareth strode across the room and grabbed my shoulders. I nearly dropped my bag of precious hair-dye.
“Do you have any idea how dangerous and reckless it was for you to wander off like that?”
My mouth dropped open in surprise.
“Wander off? Are you really going to stand there and talk to me like I’m three years old? According to the state of California, I’m considered an adult, and I’ve been coming and going without having to report to anyone for a really long time now.”
He bit the bottom of his lip, quite possibly to stave off some angry words, but it was super distracting.
“It’s dangerous for you to be alone right now.”
“I don’t see why. You put a glamour on me. I haven’t picked up any new stalker friends, and Nuallan is off to report my death to your Fae monarch, whom I’m assuming is your father. How about that family dynamic? Right?”
Jareth wasn’t even remotely amused.
“There’s a contract out on your life. We can’t know for certain how long Nuallan’s story will hold up. We also have no idea if Nuallan was the only assassin the monarchy sent. You could have been killed walking home on your own.”
“Once again you doubt my mad ninja skills and it’s really starting to hurt my feelings.”
“Crysta,” Jareth warned.
I pushed away from him. I needed space and clarity and less disapproval from a guy who I no longer believed to be a hallucination. Which meant all of this was real. I didn’t feel equipped to embrace this new reality.
“Anything could happen to me any day of the week, Jareth. My life hasn’t exactly been all honey and roses. I understand danger, and I’m fairly good at avoiding it.”
“But you weren’t prepared for me or Nuallan, and you won’t be prepared for the next assassin they send.” He came up behind me and placed his hands upon my shoulders with a little more gentleness this time. He eased me back to lean against his chest where I easily succumbed to the security his embrace offered me.
“Please, Crysta, I don’t mean to treat you as if you are incompetent, but when you didn’t return it frightened me. An awful foreboding took root deep within me. I don’t normally fear anything, but I’m terrified of losing you.”
My breath hitched in my throat. I had not expected that kind of admission from the prince of the Fae. Granted, I’d never seen him in his element, but I could only imagine how many faerie women were vying for his attentions. The thought quite literally sickened me.
That was a bad sign.
Then I considered how ludicrous it was to take his meaning as anything other than concern for a friend and someone he had sworn to protect. I’d never been anything special to anyone, and there was no need to assume that my status would change anytime soon. Especially with a prince.
Geez, he really was a prince. No wonder the dude was so bossy.
“It’s fine.” I took in a deep breath and forced myself to step out of his embrace. No sense in getting used to something that couldn’t last for long. As soon as Jareth believed the threat to my safety had been dealt with, he’d probably take off to destinations foreign and unimaginable. A world I’d only ever heard of in fairy tales.
He was a fairy tale, and I needed someone in my life who didn’t have the power to disapparate whenever he felt like it.
“Look, I really need to go cover up my hair and start filling out more job applications.”
I turned around to face him, wondering which part of that sentence he had just vetoed. He had his arms folded across his chest and his lips had thinned into a displeased grimace.
“What’s the problem now?”
“You can’t color your hair. It isn’t right. Changing the natural color of your hair is like dismissing who you are and where you come from.”
I was too emotionally drained to have this conversation.
“I know who I am. My name is Crysta Jensen. I was born June 7, 1999 to Leslie and Carter Jensen. When I was six months old they died in a car accident and thus began my illustrious career in foster care. Several months ago, by some crazy miracle, I became emancipated and moved into a shelter until I found a roommate—”
“You moved into a shelter?” His eyebrows drew together in puzzlement.
“Yeees. Is that a problem for you? You were expecting me to have gone straight to a palace as majestic and lovely as yours most likely is?”
“I’ve studied your court system extensively over the years, and there is absolutely no way a judge would have ruled emancipation in your favor unless you had an actual home and some proof of income that demonstrated your ability to provide for yourself. From what I’ve seen over the last two days, you are woefully incapable of even paying for your rent, let alone your food. And a shelter? That’s the only home you had to offer the court as proof of your stability?”
“I’m getting super tired of being treated like an incapable ignoramus—”
“Crysta, you’re missing my point. A normal judge who intended to abide by these strict laws would never have allowed you to take care of yourself.”
“Why not?” I cried out. “I’ve been taking care of myself all these years anyway. My foster families didn’t love me, they didn’t provide for me, and in some situations they didn’t even provide a room or a bed for me. Sleeping in the cellar was a real treat, Jareth.”
He held up his hands in a placating gesture as I took in deep breaths to try and calm the angry storm that threatened to erupt from within me.
“What I am trying to impress upon you is this, the judge who ruled in your favor did so to make you more vulnerable. It’s much easier to assassinate your mark when they are on their own rather than surrounded by family. Who would take notice if a recently emancipated orphan suddenly disappeared?”
My eyes widened at the implications of this revelation.
“You’ve been marked for death for quite some time, Crysta. It makes me wonder how long these people have been planning this.”
“Well, according to you and Nuallan, seventeen years.”
“Yes, but seventeen years ago someone actually succeeded in killing you.”
“That makes absolutely no sense.”
He ran a frustrated hand through his long, white hair.
“They killed someone they thought was you. All this time you’ve been alive and somehow they recently discovered their mistake and wished to correct it. And the disturbing part of this entire debacle is that it came from the highest levels of our kingdom.”
“Why am I such a threat, Jareth? Why? I am nobody. I’m nothing special.”
Jareth’s eyes zeroed in on me and then softened as he took in my anguished expression. He reached forward and brushed some hair away from my face.
“If only you realized just how special you are. Even if you were only human you would be extraordinary, but being what you are—and who I suspect you really are—makes you that much more unique and precious, especially to me.”
“So we’re back to who I am, huh?” My half-hearted attempt at easing the seriousness of the moment failed miserably. He didn’t even crack a smile. He just inched his way closer and took my free hand in his.
His dark blue eyes drew me in and promised me all sorts of things I’d always desired and knew could never be mine. A girl could easily lose herself in promises like that, but my experiences had proved to me that promises were easily made and even more easily broken. I stepped away and took in a deep breath. A clear head was the only thing preventing me from begging Jareth to care for me as more than just his self-appointed charge.
“There’s a few DVDs and basic cable you can watch while I’m in the bathroom.”
“While you’re in the bathroom covering your hair?”
I swallowed hard. Why did this bother him so badly? Why did I actually care whether he disapproved or not?
For heaven’s sake, it was my hair, my life, and my choice. I wanted to fit in, not stand out. I wanted to blend into the crowd and just be normal. I jutted out my chin and squared my shoulders.
He gave me a resigned smile and nodded. Then he stepped forward and bent low to give me a gentle kiss on my forehead.
“Either way, you’ll still look beautiful,” he whispered. His warm breath and calming scent nearly wrecked my resolve.
Then he turned around and walked over to the coffee table. I watched in wonder as the faerie prince sat himself down on my grungy sofa and picked up the remote control.
He studied it for a few moments and pushed the red button at the top. The TV came on and his eyes widened in surprise as a football game unfolded on the screen.
“Humans may be primitive barbarians, but I do enjoy many of their technological discoveries. I read about this sport during my studies. What is this violent activity called again?”
“Why? They rarely touch the ball with their feet. The more appropriate term would be handball.”
“You, Europe, and South America share that same grievance.”
I let out a chuckle as I headed down the hallway. I tried not to think about the sad look in Jareth’s eyes as I entered the bathroom.