Authors: Melissa Francis
For my mother:
the strongest woman I know.
My mother's wedding day.
The old black wall phone rang as Bridget walked intoâ¦
“I'm glad we're finally hooking up,” Noah whispered into myâ¦
The sound of feet pounding down the stairs echoed throughâ¦
Retail therapy was so good that I didn't even mindâ¦
After Advanced Anatomy, I headed to AP Lit. I thoughtâ¦
Noah was dead?
“Why didn't you tell us that we were Serpentines?” Iâ¦
Octavia had left and I was finishing off a hemoshakeâ¦
What else could go wrong?
That wasn't a pop quiz. That was a massacre. Theâ¦
It wasn't my guilt and I wasn't out of myâ¦
The next morning was another day at Camp Chaos. Theâ¦
Of course it could get worse. Why hadn't I learnedâ¦
I sat in the parking lot of Pot and Kettleâ¦
“Where to?” Malia asked as she spit gravel with theâ¦
I jumped back, but I guess I didn't need toâ¦
I wrapped myself inside my warm terry cloth robe andâ¦
She was right. It was totally interesting. So much soâ¦
Mr. Charles pulled into the parking lot about five seconds afterâ¦
“Hello,” I answered tentatively when I didn't recognize the phoneâ¦
Malia was off making a phone call and Bridget wasâ¦
“Um,” I said, stumbling backward. “Hi, Mr. Charles.” Stay strong, AJâ¦
I felt hung over. Okay, I felt what I imaginedâ¦
A loud knock on the door was followed by Codyâ¦
I would say that I fell asleep fast, but honestly,â¦
“Wait a minute,” Ryan said. “Chosen what? You don't evenâ¦
y mother's wedding day.
I should be thrilled she's getting hitched to the man of her dreams. And don't get me wrong; part of me is truly happy for her. Mr. FraserâI mean, Rickâis a great guy. I like him. A lot.
But I like his oldest son, Ryan, even more.
In twenty minutes I was supposed to walk down the aisle, but I couldn't pull myself out of the old tree house. This was
spot. Every day for five months Ryan and I had met here after school. We'd do homework, watch the sunset, and look at the stars through the hole in the ceiling. It was the first place we kissed.
And now we wouldn't be kissing anymore. Because he
was going to be my brother.
I glanced down at my watch to gauge my time.
In theory, we now had nineteen minutes left before our parents did the deed. It would probably take me five minutes to track him down, which would give us approximately fourteen minutes for one last make-out session.
Of course, that equation didn't factor in travel time to and from the tree house. Which would probably only give us about three minutes of actual face time.
Would it be worth it?
The rope ladder creaked and Ryan called out, “AJ? Are you up here? They're looking for you in the house.”
My heart dipped. Of course he would know where to find me. I smiled.
“Hey,” I said. “I was just saying good-bye to an old friend.”
And daydreaming about playing one more round of tongue twister with you.
“We don't have to say good-bye,” Ryan said. He held out his hand and I accepted it. He pulled me into his arms and wrapped me up in a hug.
I could hear his heart racing. Or was that mine?
He framed my face with his hands and pulled me closer to him.
I sighed into Ryan as our lips met. It startled me when a tear slipped free and trailed down my cheek.
My heart and head were fighting. I had wanted this, but now the kiss made my chest hurt even more. “No.” I forced myself to push him away.
Hurt shimmered in Ryan's eyes.
“I'm sorry,” I said as I headed toward the door.
I climbed down the ladder, and Ryan followed just as the band began to play. We walked silently toward the outdoor wedding. I guiltily scanned the small crowd of people to see if anyone knew we had just been kissing in the tree house. Only one person seemed even remotely interested in where we had been, and that was Lindsey Rockport.
She shot me a look and then gazed adoringly at Ryan.
Well, he was free now. She could have him.
My chest ached at that thought, but really, what could I do?
I glanced at Ryan one last time before I took my place next to my mom. The look on his face broke my heart.
Maybe that kiss hadn't been worth it after all.
It was a fairly cool evening for August in Mississippi as I stood next to Mom trying to concentrate on the ceremony.
I took in the details of her pale pink dress, trying my hardest not to look at Ryan while our parents spoke of love and forever.
Her gown was a simple slip that sparkled in the sunlight. Unfussy and elegant. Just like the woman who wore it. Unfortunately, there was nothing else simple about this wedding. At least not for Ryan and me.
I wasn't mad at Mom for marrying Rickâhow could I be mad at her for finding the love of her lifeâbut I was heartbroken. And while today may be her happiest day, it was one of my worst. How could she expect me to just switch the
I love Ryan? Did she think changing her name would be like waving a wand that would magically help me change my feelings for him from boyfriend to brother? Especially now that we'll be under the same roof?
I felt Ryan's dark brown eyes burning into me, and I tried to be discreet as I glanced over to where he and his brothers were standing up for their dad. I hoped he wouldn't catch me.
But I was busted.
My face warmed under his scrutiny and my heart skipped a beat.
Totally unfair. This time last week we were cuddled up in our tree house, getting our groove on. Okay, not really. But finally, after five months of dating, I had let Ryan have a little boob action. And we even toyed with the idea of some under the zipper action, until his stupid younger brother, Rayden, poured a metaphorical bucket of cold water on that idea when he barged in to tell us our parents were getting married.
“Oh my God! You're feelin' up our sister!” he'd said with a cackle. “We are officially a Mississippi clichÃ©. Awesome.”
“Get out, Raytard!” Ryan had yelled, chucking a pillow at the fourteen-year-old's head.
It had been hard finding out that we were being yanked apart as a couple but would be glued together as a family. I had always imagined Ryan in my future. But I had thought we would grow old together, not grow
So here I stood with my two sisters in the backyard of the antebellum mansion our melting-pot family would call home, wearing my pretty dark pink sundress and staring across at my new “brothers” (the oldest of whom I still wanted to jump, by the way) while our parents vowed to love each other for eternity.
I wonder if Mr. Fraserâer, Rickârealized that eternity was not just a metaphor in our case.
After all, vampires tend to live for centuries.
“God, AJ, you look good enough to eat,” Ryan whispered in my ear as we passed through the buffet line.
The hair on my nape stood at attention. As always, my senses were in constant overdrive when it came to Ryan Fraser. It was bad enough that I couldn't just turn around, bite him, and make him mine the way we undead used to do. No, we were
now. No more barbaric pillaging.
Which was a shame. Sometimes that boy's neck just needed a nibble.
The thought of not being able to kiss Ryan every day from this point forward was pure hell. Too bad I couldn't rewind time and get those nineteen minutes before the wedding back.
“I'm dying. How are we gonna be in the same house without touching?” he said, picking up a roll. “Do you realize our rooms are across the hall from each other? I don't think I can do this. We could meet in the tree house every day just like beforeâ”
Tempting. So very tempting.
“Nobody said it would be easy.” I sighed as he lightly stroked the backward S-shaped birthmark on my neck, sending chills down my spine. “But we don't have much of a choice. Our parents have already threatened us within an inch of our lives.”
Actually, Momma's exact words to me were, “Ariel Jane, if you so much as look at that boy with fangs in your eyes again, I'll bite you myself. He's your brother now. Besides, you haven't learned to control your instincts, and they can't know the truth about us yet.”
Ryan and I had started dating in the spring of our junior yearâmore than a month before our parents did. So it was totally unfair that we had to take a backseat to them. Especially with so little warning. Even now, looking at Ryan, my insides did this weird molten goo thing, and my heart fluttered like hummingbird wings.
But Momma was right about the whole control thing. I almost blew it last week when Ryan took my bra off. I was kissing his neck when he brushed his palm against my breast. My fangs popped out, nicking his skin. I nearly went old school on him when the scent of his blood hit me.
Then he groanedâ¦and let's just say that up until
that moment, I'd never really understood the term “bloodlust.”
“We could risk it,” he whispered.
I grabbed a glass of ginger ale punch and turned to face Ryan, my cheeks warm with the memory of his touch. I hated this. Especially since I was so tempted to give in and go for it. But I couldn't. Momma depended on me, and sneaking around behind her back would be disrespectful to the family. Family first, she always said. And now Ryan was a part of that family.
My mind drifted back to the tree house. As much as I wanted those nineteen minutes back, I knew the moment had passed and we had to move on.
The air whooshed from my lungs. “No matter how tempting it is, we can't. And that's the end of it,” I said.
said so?” Ryan asked.
Oof! Nice punch below the belt, bubba. I spun around to face him, heat blazing my cheeks. “You want to do this?” I asked. “You want to be together no matter what?”
His eyes lit up. “More than anything,” he answered, a little breathless.
“Fine. Let's do it. But we're not going to sneak around like we're doing something wrong. We're not going to start off by lying. After the honeymoon we'll just tell them
straight up we can't do the sib thing. We won't be allowed to stay here anymore, I'm sure, so we can move out. I'll get a job waiting tables somewhere. Maybe your dad will let you work for him. If you want us to be together, then we'll be together. I'm all in. Are you?”
Ryan paled and stepped back a little. “Um,” he stammered.
My heart cracked. Sure, I was bluffing, but part of me had hoped he would say “Yes!” and that we could start making plans toward the growing old together part of my dream. I sighed. “Yeah. That's what I thought. This hurts me, too, Ryan, but I don't see that we have a choice.”
And boy did that suck. No pun intended.
“There's always a choice, AJ. You just always
to be the good girl,” Ryan said bitterly.
“Then let's tell our parents and run away. And there's nothing âgood girl' about that option,” I snapped. I hated being labeled the good girl.
What I hated even more? He was right.
I had spent my entire seventeen years doing my best to be a normal kid. Good attitude, great grades, super sportsmanship, never missing curfew, and winning all the Miss Congeniality awards on earth. Okay, not really,
but if there was a Miss Congeniality award here in Valley Springs, I'd totally win it.
Overcompensating for being a vampire was hard work.
I hated knowing that if I grew too angry, too frustrated, or too emotional in any way, my fangs might just pop out. I drank blood disguised as vegetable juice at every meal. What other teenager did that? And honestly, I was doing more than hidingâI was denying. I hated everything about being different, so I did anything I could to appear normal.
Now I needed to be resolved in my decision to put family first and give Ryan a little shove away. I swallowed, trying to dislodge the lump in my throat. The very thought of pushing Ryan away had tears burning my eyes. But maybe if Ryan were mad at me, he would leave me alone.
And then maybe it would be a little bit easier for
to get over him.
“You need to move on,” I said, regretting the words the moment I uttered them. “Look, there's Lindsey Rockport. She's been giving you cow eyes all night long. I know she's had a crush on you since last year. Should be easy pickings.”
“Fine. You want me to move on? I'll move on,” he said as if accepting a challenge.
Smooth move, Metamucil.
I found my seat at the family table and watched my thirteen-year-old twin sisters, Ana and Ainsley, practice their cheerleading routine for a group of very interested preteen boys. Ryan sulked his way over to sit next to his brothers, Rayden and Oz. At ten, Oz was now the youngest of both families.
Wow. Three blond-haired sisters and three dark-haired brothers. Throw in a housekeeper and we'd be the goddamned Brady Bunch.
Of course, I don't think Marcia, Marcia, Marcia ever let Greg feel her up.
And I'm pretty certain they weren't bloodsuckers.
But what do I know?
“Let me help you with that,” I said to the stout little redheaded woman carrying a tray of dirty dishes to the kitchen.
She smiled. “Thank ye, dearie, but I have been cleanin' up after this family for a long time now. But you're sweet to ask,” she said in her thick Scottish accent.
I recognized her then. “You're Aunt Doreen, right?
Ryan's great-aunt?” I picked up another tray of dishes off the table and hoisted it to my shoulder with a grunt. It was a lot heavier than I thought. Or maybe Doreen was a lot stronger than she looked.
“I am,” she said, pointing to a table in the carport. “Just leave that tray there. I'll get to those in just a few minutes. Rick has always said the nicest things about you. I can see he wasna foolin'. Those lads are good boys, but it takes a cattle prod to get them to help with anything.”
“Well, I'm the oldest in the family, and with Mom being a single parent and a doctor, I learned early on to help out. Just easier that way.”
“Such a sweet child. Go back out there and enjoy the rest of the party. Leave the mess for the adults to clean up.”
I made my way around to the backyard and found the band was packing up. A few guests lingered in the garden, but the party was pretty much over. Lindsey and her best friend, Meredith Taylor, were putting away their instruments. I watched as Ryan approached them mumbling something under his breath. Meredith blushed like he was a celebrity, while Lindsey shot me a suspicious glance over her French horn.
I moved a little closer to pick up a napkin that had
blown off the table. The fact that I could hear their conversation just happened to be a bonus.
Ryan plucked a daisy from the centerpiece on the table and tucked it behind Lindsey's ear.
“You going to O'Reily's party tonight?” he asked her.
Lindsey shrugged and said, “Why would I go to a bonfire in the summer?”
Meredith rolled her eyes. “Because they're fun.”
“I guess. If you call standing around a fire in ninety-degree heat fun.” Lindsey shrugged again. And, just like she always did, with one statement she sucked the conversation dry. She was so clueless.
“Aren't you going with Peppermint Perfect over there?” she asked.