Once my hair had been dyed and dried to perfection, I walked back into the living room and stood in shock at the sight of Jareth sitting on the floor in front of the TV watching the New York ballet’s production of Swan Lake on PBS.
“You like ballet too?”
Jareth jumped at the sound of my voice and swiveled around. He took in my newly dyed roots for a moment, but refrained from saying anything for which I was grateful.
Instead he said, “I have found many human forms of dance truly magnificent, but your ballets remind me very much of the way our Fae women dance in our realm. Our people have even gone so far as to incorporate ballet choreography in our dance festivals.”
I sat down next to him and we watched the graceful leaps and lifts of the corps de ballet. A flood of recognition hit me when the principal dancer came leaping onto the stage with her partner.
“Oh, look. It’s Monique,” I squealed.
Jareth turned to me in surprise.
“You know this particular dancer?”
I nodded, never taking my eyes off her perfect lines and flawless technique.
“Well, we’re more acquaintances than anything else. I met her at a dance festival here in San Diego. All of the ballet companies in the USA came together and took turns performing. I’ve been taking ballet for years and know about all of the different principal dancers in many different companies. Monique has been my favorite for a while.”
“I didn’t know you danced,” Jareth said with interest. “How appropriate that you chose ballet when you could have chosen any other form of dance, wouldn’t you say?”
His not so subtle hint irritated me.
“So when I heard about the festival,” I continued, “I saved my money for tickets and went to every show I could.”
“And that’s how you met this Monique?”
I finally peeled my eyes from the TV and looked at his amused expression.
“Nothing. It’s just that this person has brought more color and excitement to your face than I’ve seen since my arrival.”
“When you broke in, you mean?”
“Technically, I apparated.”
“Without permission, but since you’ve saved my life twice now, I’m going to let it slide.”
“Let what slide? In which direction?”
“It’s slang, Jareth.” I rolled my eyes heavenward. “I really need you to assimilate here. Anyway, I sneaked backstage after the last performance. I wanted to meet Monique so badly, but I guess she never went out after the performances to sign autographs or mingle with the guests. Not a fan of the crowds, maybe.” I could so relate. I studied her movements as her partner lifted her into a graceful leap. “I found her dressing room and totally barged in. I think my youth and star-struck expression got me out of trouble because she laughed at the intrusion and gave me a big hug. I remember it so well because her embrace felt like coming home. It wasn’t a feeling I was used to.”
“That’s interesting. So out of all the humans you’ve ever come in contact with, this particular human made you feel as if you belonged?”
I startled at how perfectly Jareth had nailed it.
“Yep. She felt like home. She felt like you.”
I clenched my jaw, furious with myself for having let that little admission slip.
He was gracious enough to not comment on it.
“You had that one meeting with her, and that was the end of your time together?”
“No. She invited me to go eat lunch with her the following day before her company left for New York. I couldn’t believe it. We had fruit salads and talked for hours about her career as a dancer and the amazing places she’d traveled to. I was sorry to see her go.”
“Do you keep in touch?”
“We email each other sometimes, but she’s pretty busy, and I’m always working.”
Jareth stared at the screen, but his look was more analytical than anything else.
“What?” I asked.
“The more I watch her dance, the more otherworldly she seems to me. Don’t you think it’s possible that she isn’t human?”
“I know you hate humans, but you need to quit turning humans into faeries, Jareth. She’s perfectly normal.”
“And yet she dances like she’s Fae.”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“You said she felt like home. Like me. There’s a reason for that. You feel a sense of kinship with your own people.”
“Nuallan didn’t make me feel that way.”
Jareth laughed hard at that.
“No. I suppose the threat of your death prevented you from relaxing in his presence.”
I quirked a smile and continued to watch Monique as she glided and leaped across the floor, twirling in her partner’s arms one minute and then lightly dancing upon her toes the next. All that movement appeared so easy for her, but I understood the dedication and hard work it took to achieve something that looked so effortless. My insides ached for Monday to arrive and my ballet class to begin. I seriously hated the weekends. I took my regular ballet classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, and company classes were Tuesdays and Thursdays. Thoughts of my auditions coming up made my insides quake with anticipation. Thoughts of how I was going to pay for everything if I actually succeeded in joining the San Diego Ballet brought me back to reality.
I sighed and stood, heading for my room to fill out more job applications.
“You don’t have to work, you know.”
Geez. It was like he could read my mind.
I turned to him as he lifted himself from the floor and walked toward me.
“Of course I do. How am I going to pay the rent?”
“I’m paying for it. Remember? I’m your new co-habitor now.”
“Co-habitor?” I smiled. “Yeah. We’ll see what Jami has to say about it.”
“Jamie has already been taken care of.”
He must have noticed my alarmed expression because he was quick to reassure me that he hadn’t killed her—just spelled her to move back in with her mother.
“Haven’t you noticed all her things are gone?”
“First of all, I haven’t even been in her room. So no. I didn’t notice. Plus, this TV and coffee table are hers. You weren’t planning on returning them?”
“How was I supposed to know they were hers?” he shrugged.
“When did you have time to spell my roommate and move her out?”
“Last night. I left some protective wards around you and took care of business. Now we have the apartment all to ourselves. Just the two of us.” He took a step closer and gave me a wide grin. Heaven help me, but it was the sexiest grin a Fae assassin had ever given.
Pretty sure, anyway.
I swallowed hard. “Cozy.”
He closed the distance between us but didn’t immediately reach for my hair like he usually did.
“Very,” he whispered.
Dang it. Did this stupid faerie have to reduce me to an inarticulate puddle of goo with his sophisticated charm and yummy masculinity?
“I need you to put your own glamour back on,” I said in a tight voice.
“Faeries don’t need glamours when they are in each other’s presence. We only have that overpowering effect on humans.”
“We won’t argue that point again, but maybe you should begin to entertain the idea that the pull you feel toward me is completely organic rather than some unnatural compulsion.”
“Why would I want to admit something like that?”
“Because then I would know I’m not the only one feeling like this.”
“Like holding you in my arms and kissing you is the only thing that makes sense right now.”
I swear my heart was beating right out of my chest at that moment, but any romantic inclinations his words produced were easily squelched when I considered how awful it was going to be to say good-bye to him. Any physical bond we created would only make our good-byes a million times worse.
“I think that’s a very bad idea.”
“Because I’m not really someone you can have a relationship with. You can’t exactly bring me home to dear old dad, especially with this threat hanging over my head. Plus, you’re a prince. Isn’t there some type of dating protocol you have to follow or an arranged marriage you’re supposed to willingly jump into?”
He shook his head and folded his arms across his chest in disapproval.
“You are the only person I can have a relationship with. Don’t you see it, Crysta? Every particle of my being recognizes yours.”
I panicked at the hope his words produced. I did not need this eventual devastating level of disappointment.
“That’s some line, Jareth. What else did you watch while I was dyeing my hair?”
He grunted and stepped forward, enfolding my hands in his.
“Once again, I have no idea what you’re talking about, but from your tone of voice it would seem you don’t believe me, or at the very least you completely mistake my meaning.” He held our connected hands up, allowing the glow from our contact to brighten the space between us.
“When we touch, our essence heats and connects, fracturing light from our cells and distributing it on the surface, creating an otherworldly glow.”
“Okay, thanks for that entirely unromantic scientific explanation.”
“Yes, I must admit that at first this particular phenomenon completely puzzled me.”
“Just this one, huh? I’ve been beyond puzzled for like, two days now. Why has this issue caught your attention?”
He slid his hands down the length of my arms, trailing hot, white light as he went. Then he placed them both at the small of my back, drawing me closer and forcing me to position my hands against his sturdy chest. So far, denial had been a fairly effective emotional move, but all of this supernatural, otherworldly stuff had worn me down.
“It caught my attention due to its significance. It’s the reason I changed my mind about killing you.”
“For which I’m eternally grateful.”
His yummy lips lifted into an adorable smile.
“I’m not doing this right. I treated you like the enemy, threatened to kill you, and then moved in uninvited. I’m not exactly wooing you successfully, am I?”
“I didn’t know you were trying.”
He chuckled. “Then you’ve confirmed my worst fears. The females in my previous relationships weren’t nearly as feisty, outspoken, or as unimpressed with me as you seem to be.”
“Please refrain from talking about other relationships in my presence. It’s nauseating.”
“I’m very glad to hear that.”
I glared at him and the self-satisfied smirk that spread across his face.
“How about you explain to me what this,” I grabbed his hands from my waist and lifted them in front of his face where the glow illuminated his perfect features, “means for you and me.”
He nodded, focusing again on our previous conversation.
“Members of the Seely Court, more specifically, royalty, will have this kind of physical reaction to their fated mate until the time they are united through an important ceremony, though this doesn’t happen very often. A prince of the Seely Court hasn’t found a fated mate in close to a thousand years, and yet, here I am, having this reaction with you.”
“Prince of the Seely Court, eh? Why are you an assassin if you’re supposed to rule the Fae realm someday?”
“It’s part of my training. I won’t be ready to lead my people for another five hundred years. The current king, my father, still has much to teach me.” He shook his head, “My being a prince isn’t really the issue at the moment. The fact of the matter is this: from the first moment we touched and produced this physical and chemical reaction with one another, I knew you couldn’t be human, but I didn’t know for certain what you were or how we could be reacting to one another in such a magnificent way. It simply isn’t possible since there are no available females within the Seely Court who also bear the mark of royalty.”
“So what race did you believe me to be?”
“A witch, perhaps, but based on all of my other observations and experiments, it’s clear to me that you have to be a member of the Fae.”
“Oh, yes. Crystal clear.” There was nothing clear about it. All my life, I’d never fit in with my fellow man, but I’d always assumed I was one of them. I felt an identity crisis of epic proportions coming on.
“But on that score, there are a few more things that are troubling me. A few more details that don’t add up.”
“I’m all ears.”
He smiled. “That’s it exactly. I’m almost positive you’re Fae, but your ears are blunted and round, not pointed like mine. You see?” He used one hand to pull his hair back. I nearly did a double take when I saw his beautifully pointed ears.
“Mine used to be pointed like that, but I had them filed down,” I stated.
Jareth looked at me in horror. “Filed down? You mean, you had someone surgically round your ears on purpose? By the gods, why would you do something so degrading to yourself?”
I pulled my hand out of his and moved past him toward the center of the room. His disapproval was hard to handle head on.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but it was another birth defect preventing me from being adopted by warm, fuzzy families willing to love their children unconditionally…so long as their ears looked normal.”
I’d wanted plastic surgery for most of my life and had spent years saving up enough money to get rid of the pointed tips. I thought that by changing my appearance, I would change the way prospective parents viewed me. I thought it might make them love me. It had been two years since I’d had the surgery, and nothing had changed, not even my poor self-esteem.
“You removed your most beautiful, defining features so humans would love you?”
The thunderous look in Jareth’s eyes made me wonder why I’d bothered to explain myself. I doubted he’d ever been hard-pressed to find love and acceptance.
“No one wanted me. Don’t you get that? I needed to be just like everyone else.”
He walked over and reached for the tip of my right ear, running his finger along the curved portion of it. It sent a delicious chill down my spine.
“And conforming to other people’s definitions of what normal is…of what beauty is—essentially deforming yourself—was the only solution you could come up with?”
I sighed and steered the discussion in a different direction.
“You said there were several things puzzling you.”
It took a moment for Jareth to respond. He was still rubbing the tip of my ear with his thumb and forefinger, no doubt trying to get the point to grow back.
It was nice.
Nice and crazy!
“This entire situation is one large puzzle due to the type of faerie you actually are,” he said, finally aborting his attempts to fix my ear. “You’re not a member of the Seely Court. You’re a winter faerie.”
I let out a tired moan. My head was spinning with every new delusional revelation.
“You know, I really should be in my room filling out job applications, but I’ll stay here and humor you a little while longer. If I’m a winter faerie, what are you exactly?”
“I’m Jareth, prince of the Seely Court and ruler of the summer faeries. Take away the titles and accolades, and I’m merely a summer faerie. That’s why this whole situation is so perplexing. Finding one’s mate is rare enough, but a mating between a summer and a winter faerie—and both of them royalty at that—is unprecedented. I’ve never read nor heard any instance of this in the centuries I’ve studied our history.”
“That’s because all of this is absolutely crazy, Jareth! I can barely wrap my head around the fact that you’re a faerie prince, and now you’re telling me I’m faerie royalty as well? I’m not a faerie. I’m not a member of the Fae. We’re not fated to be together. In fact, I’d much rather believe that you’re just a crazy person who managed to find his way into my apartment, sucking me into one insane delusion after another.” I took in a deep breath and let it out slowly when Jareth gave me an exasperated look.
“Then how do you explain the light we create and the pull we feel toward one another?”
“What pull? I don’t feel a pull!” The lie felt ugly and wrong the minute it left my lips.
Jareth gave me a small smirk. “You’re just as taken with me as I am with you.”
“That’s really why you decided to spare me, isn’t it? You think I’m hot!”
His look was quizzical. “Hot? Of course not. You’re a winter faerie. You’re cold-blooded by nature.”
I wearily rested my head against his chest and felt heat blossom within me from the contact. “There has to be a slang dictionary somewhere on Amazon. Just so you know, I plan on using your money to purchase it for you.” He placed a hand against the back of my neck and began to massage the millions of stress-induced knots. Neck massages from a gorgeous faerie prince assassin.
Yeah. Just par for the course at this point.
“What makes you think I’m a winter faerie?” I asked in a strained voice.
“Crysta, you blasted me with ice and froze my arms the first night I was here. It is a common defensive move that most winter faeries learn in their infancy. Then there’s your skin. It’s pure white and it burns and blisters within a few minutes of exposure to intense sunlight. It’s the kind of reaction a faerie with strong ties to the seasonal elements of winter produces. And only royals are so strongly tied to the elements.”
I lifted my head quickly and stepped back a little, though the movement did nothing to loosen his hold on me. “Yes, but I can handle the sun in less intense climates.”
“Most winter faeries can as well. Your body temperature is ice cold. I’m guessing you rarely feel the cold in winter.”
“I usually try not to feel anything, Jareth.” He was dead right, though, and it made me super nervous.
“Your emotions are directly tied to your powers. Whenever you feel threatened, you are capable of freezing your attacker’s heart momentarily, giving you enough time to flee.”
I swallowed hard at this. I’d never really understood what it was I did when protecting myself from some of my slime ball foster fathers. I’d merely push them away and they would freeze up while grasping their chests. I think I’d spent most of my life blaming their reactions on high cholesterol and blocked arteries instead of accepting the fact that I was different in more ways than just my physical appearance.
I looked to where my hands were resting against his chest, against his heart. I worded my next sentence carefully. “If what you say is true, why hasn’t your heart frozen beneath my touch?”
“You don’t consider me a threat.”
“You were here to kill me. You’ve been ordered to. Technically, I might still consider you a threat.”
He applied pressure with his palms to the small of my back and drew me in. I’d never felt such intense heat without being scalded, but this heat could only be good for me. I was certain of that, which was exactly why I wanted nothing more than to run away. If only I knew how to disapparate like Jareth did.
“I’m here to love you. Any threat you feel has nothing to do with the safety of your life, but the safety of your heart.”
I shook my head vehemently and tried to push away while heated tears stung my frosty cheeks.
I knew it was a useless gesture, but I couldn’t handle this intense exchange any longer. I’d spent all my life wishing for someone to love me. I would have settled for someone to simply like me, but the most emotion I’d ever managed to evoke was pained tolerance from women and a lusty, possessive need from men. Love, protection, consideration…even friendship were never part of the equation.
I’d come to the conclusion long ago that I was totally unlovable.
“I’m not a winter faerie, and I’m not your mate, and none of this is really happening.” I choked on a sob and pounded his chest with my fists.
He captured my face with his hands and forced me to look him in the eye.
“Crysta, you are Fae. Why do you continue to deny the obvious?”
“Because it means I belong absolutely nowhere and with absolutely no one,” I shouted, pushing him from me. “Do you think it’s been easy to look like such a freak all of these years? Do you think it’s been fun to be the only one capable of the things I am capable of? To be laughed at, made fun of, and bullied to the point where I literally woke up every morning wishing I was dead or at the very least someone else?” I scrubbed away the unwanted tears running unchecked down my cheeks. “I have fought so hard to be human, to be accepted, to find my place in this unfeeling world, and I’ve managed to discover moments of beauty, to carve out a special place for myself where no one can hurt me or belittle me ever again. I have to be human. I absolutely have to be what I’ve always believed myself to be. It’s the only life I understand.”
The pain in Jareth’s eyes broke my heart a little because I knew it was for me, and I didn’t want or need his pity.
He studied me for a few more moments before taking a tentative step forward. When I moved away from him his shoulders slumped in defeat.
“Whether you’re human or Fae shouldn’t matter to you at this point, Crysta. The simple fact that you’re alive, that you’re kind and decent, that you’re strong and brave and funny and selfless…these are the things that make up the core of who you are. It’s what drew me to you from the very beginning, even when I thought you were human. Our different races…well…they are just varied forms of existence. And if you need to believe that you’re human in order to find your place in this world then I won’t push the subject any further. Not tonight, anyway.”
I sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
We stood facing one another for several seconds before I finally steadied my voice enough to speak again.
“I think it’s been a very long day, and I need to get some sleep so I can—”
“Fill out those job applications tomorrow.”
“May I go with you when you return them to their various owners?”
My eyes widened at this. I was grateful that Jareth understood my intense need to remain independent even though I struggled financially. I knew he had no intention of allowing me to pay my own rent, but I was grateful that he understood my driving compulsion to continue on as usual. To make my own way in this world.
“Yes. I’d like your company very much.”
“Good. Then I wish you a good night, and I shall see you in the morning.”
I nodded and turned to leave, but hesitated before heading down the hall to my room. Before I could talk myself out of it, I swiveled around and quickly moved toward him, throwing my arms around him and giving him a huge hug.
His response was immediate and intense, pulling me close to his chest until I was flush against him and breathing in his scent of summer rain and freshly cut grass. He held me tightly before placing a soft kiss at my temple and then slowly released me.
“Good night, Crysta,” he said in a hoarse whisper.
“Good night, Jareth.”