Chapter 15

 

Fifteen

I WAS TRYING TO PAINT my toenails the next morning- not easy with such a god-awful hangover- when I heard a knock at the door. Lissa had been gone when I woke up, so I staggered across the room, trying not to ruin my wet nail polish. Opening up the door, I saw one of the hotel staff standing outside with a large box in both arms. He shifted it slightly so that he could peer around and look at me.

"I'm looking for Rose Hathaway."

"That's me."

I took the box from him. It was big but not all that heavy. With a quick thank-you, I shut the door, wondering if I should have tipped him. Oh well.

I sat on the floor with the box. It had no markings on it and was sealed with packing tape. I found a pen and stabbed at the tape. Once I'd hacked off enough, I opened the box and peered inside.

It was filled with perfume.

There had to be at least thirty little bottles of perfume packed into the box. Some I'd heard of, some I hadn't. They ranged from crazy expensive, movie-star caliber to cheap kinds I'd seen in drugstores. Eternity. Angel. Vanilla Fields. Jade Blossom. Michael Kors. Poison. Hypnotic Poison. Pure Poison. Happy. Light Blue. J?van Musk. Pink Sugar. Vera Wang. One by one, I picked up the boxes, read the descriptions, and then pulled out the bottles for a sniff.

I was about halfway through when reality hit. These had to be from Adrian.

I didn't know how he'd managed to get all of these delivered to the hotel in such a short amount of time, but money can make almost anything happen. Still, I didn't need the attention of a rich, spoiled Moroi; apparently he hadn't picked up on my signals. Regretfully, I started to place the perfumes back in the box- then stopped. Of course I'd return them...but there was no harm in sniffing the rest before I did.

Once more, I started pulling out bottle after bottle. Some I just sniffed the cap of; others I sprayed in the air. Serendipity. Dolce & Gabbana. Shalimar. Daisy. Note after note hit me: rose, violet, sandalwood, orange, vanilla, orchid ...

By the time I was finished, my nose barely worked anymore. All of these had been designed for humans. They had a weaker sense of smell than vampires and even dhampirs, so these scents were extra strong. I had a new appreciation for what Adrian had meant about only a splash of perfume being necessary. If all these bottles were making me dizzy, I could only imagine what a Moroi would smell. The sensory overload wasn't really helping the headache I'd woken up with either.

I packed up the perfume for real this time, stopping only when I came to a certain kind that I really liked. I hesitated, holding the little box in my hand. Then, I took the red bottle out and re-sniffed it. It was a crisp, sweet fragrance. There was some kind of fruit- but not a candied or sugary fruit. I racked my brain for a scent I'd once smelled on a girl I knew in my dorm. She'd told me the name. It was like a cherry...but sharper. Currant, that's what it was. And here it was in this perfume, mixed with some florals: lily of the valley and others I couldn't identify. Whatever the blend, something about it appealed to me. Sweet- but not too sweet. I read the box, looking for the name. Amor Amor.

"Fitting," I muttered, seeing how many love problems I seemed to have lately. But I kept the perfume anyway and repacked the rest.

Hoisting the box up in my arms, I took it down to the front desk and acquired some packing tape to reseal it. I also got directions to Adrian's room. Apparently, the Ivashkovs practically had their own wing. It wasn't too far from Tasha's room.

Feeling like a delivery girl, I walked down the hall and stopped in front of his door. Before I could manage to knock, it opened up, and Adrian stood before me. He looked as surprised as I felt.

"Little dhampir," he said cordially. "Didn't expect to see you here."

"I'm returning these." I hoisted the box toward him before he could protest. Clumsily, he caught it, staggering a bit in surprise. Once he had a good grip, he took a few steps back and set it on the floor.

"Didn't you like any of them?" he asked. "You want me to get you some more?"

"Don't send me any more gifts."

"It isn't a gift. It's a public service. What woman doesn't own perfume?"

"Don't do it again," I said firmly.

Suddenly, a voice behind him asked, "Rose? Is that you?"

I peered beyond him. Lissa.

"What are you doing here?"

Between my headache and what I had assumed was some interlude with Christian, I'd blocked her out as best I could this morning. Normally I would have known the instant I approached that she was inside the room. I opened myself up again, letting her shock run into me. She hadn't expected me to show up here.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

"Ladies, ladies," he said teasingly. "No need to fight over me."

I glared. "We're not. I just want to know what's going on here."

A breath of aftershave hit me, and then I heard a voice behind me: "Me too."

I jumped. Spinning around, I saw Dimitri standing in the hallway. I had no clue what he was doing in the Ivashkov wing.

On his way to Tasha's room, a voice inside me suggested.

Dimitri no doubt always expected me to get into all sorts of trouble, but I think seeing Lissa there caught him off guard. He stepped past me and came into the room, looking between the three of us.

"Male and female students aren't supposed to be in each other's rooms."

I knew pointing out that Adrian wasn't technically a student wasn't going to get us out of trouble here. We weren't supposed to be in any guy's room.

"How do you keep doing this?" I asked Adrian, frustrated.

"Do what?"

"Keep making us look bad!"

He chuckled. "You guys are the ones who came here."

"You shouldn't have let them in," scolded Dimitri. "I'm sure you know the rules at St. Vladimir's."

Adrian shrugged. "Yeah, but I don't have to follow any school's stupid rules."

"Perhaps not," said Dimitri coldly. "But I would have thought you'd still respect those rules."

Adrian rolled his eyes. "I'm kind of surprised to find you lecturing about underage girls."

I saw the anger kindle in Dimitri's eyes, and for a moment, I thought I might have seen the loss of control I'd teased him about. But he stayed composed, and only his clenched fists showed how angry he was.

"Besides," continued Adrian, "nothing sordid was going on. We were just hanging out."

"If you want to 'hang out' with young girls, do it at one of the public areas."

I didn't really like Dimitri calling us 'young girls,' and I kind of felt like he was overreacting here. I also suspected part of his reaction had to do with the fact that I was here.

Adrian laughed just then, a weird kind of laugh that made my skin crawl. "Young girls? Young girls? Sure. Young and old at the same time. They've barely seen anything in life, yet they've already seen too much. One's marked with life, and one's marked with death...but they're the ones you're worried about? Worry about yourself, dhampir. Worry about you, and worry about me. We're the ones who are young."

The rest of us just sort of stared. I don't think anyone had expected Adrian to suddenly take an abrupt trip to Crazyville.

Adrian was calm and looked perfectly normal again. He turned away and strolled toward the window, glancing casually back at the rest of us as he pulled out his cigarettes.

"You ladies should probably go. He's right. I am a bad influence."

I exchanged looks with Lissa. Hurriedly, we both left and followed Dimitri down the hall toward the lobby.

"That was...strange," I said a couple of minutes later. It was stating the obvious, but, well, someone had to.

"Very," said Dimitri. He didn't sound angry so much as puzzled.

When we reached the lobby, I started to follow Lissa back toward our room, but Dimitri called to me.

"Rose," he said. "Can I talk to you?"

I felt a sympathetic rush of feeling from Lissa. I turned toward Dimitri and stepped off to the side of the room, out of the way of those passing through. A party of Moroi in diamonds and fur swept past us, anxious looks on their faces. Bellhops followed with luggage. People were still leaving in search of safer places. The Strigoi paranoia was far from over.

Dimitri's voice snapped my attention back to him. "That's Adrian Ivashkov." He said the name the same way everyone else did.

"Yeah, I know."

"This is the second time I've seen you with him."

"Yeah," I replied glibly. "We hang out sometimes."

Dimitri arched an eyebrow, then jerked his head back toward where we'd come from. "You hang out in his room a lot?"

Several retorts popped into my head, and then a golden one took precedence. "What happens between him and me is none of your business." I managed a tone very similar to the one he'd used on me when making a similar comment about him and Tasha.

"Actually, as long as you're at the Academy, what you do is my business."

"Not my personal life. You don't have any say in that."

"You're not an adult yet."

"I'm close enough. Besides, it's not like I'll magically become an adult on my eighteenth birthday."

"Clearly," he said.

I blushed. "That's not what I meant. I meant- "

"I know what you meant. And the technicalities don't matter right now. You're an Academy student. I'm your instructor. It's my job to help you and to keep you safe. Being in the bedroom of someone like him ... well, that's not safe."

"I can handle Adrian Ivashkov," I muttered. "He's weird-  really weird, apparently- but harmless."

I secretly wondered if Dimitri's problem might be that he was jealous. He hadn't pulled Lissa aside to yell at her. The thought made me slightly happy, but then I remembered my earlier curiosity about why Dimitri had even wandered by.

"Speaking of personal lives ... I suppose you were off visiting Tasha, huh?"

I knew it was petty, and I expected a "none of your business" response. Instead he replied, "Actually, I was visiting your mother."

"You going to hook up with her too?" I knew of course that he wasn't, but the quip seemed too good to pass up.

He seemed to know that too and merely gave me a weary glance. "No, we were looking over some new data about the Strigoi in the Drozdov attack."

My anger and snarkiness dried up. The Drozdovs. The Badicas. Suddenly, everything that had happened this morning seemed incredibly trivial. How could I have stood there arguing with Dimitri about romances that might or might not be happening when he and the other guardians were trying to protect us?

"What'd you find out?" I asked quietly.

"We've managed to track some of the Strigoi," he said. "Or at least the humans with them. There were witnesses who lived nearby who spotted a few of the cars the group used. The plates were all from different states- the group appears to have split up, probably to make it harder for us. But one of the witnesses did catch one plate number. It's registered to an address in Spokane."

"Spokane?" I asked incredulously. "Spokane, Washington? Who makes Spokane their hideout?" I'd been there once. It was about as boring as every other backwoods northwest city.

"Strigoi, apparently," he said, deadpan. "The address was fake, but other evidence shows they really are there. There's a kind of shopping plaza that has some underground tunnels. There've been Strigoi sightings around that area."

"Then ..." I frowned. "Are you going to go after them? Is somebody going to? I mean, this is what Tasha's been saying all along.... If we know where they are ..."

He shook his head. "The guardians can't do anything without permission from higher up. That's not going to happen anytime soon."

I sighed. "Because the Moroi talk too much."

"They're being cautious," he said.

I felt myself getting worked up again. "Come on. Even you can't want to be careful on this one. You actually know where Strigoi are hiding out. Strigoi who massacred children. Don't you want to go after them when they don't expect it?" I sounded like Mason now.

"It's not that easy," he said. "We answer to the Guardian Council and the Moroi government. We can't just run off and act on impulse. And anyway, we don't know everything yet. You should never walk into any situation without knowing all the details."

"Zen life lessons again," I sighed. I ran a hand through my hair, tucking it behind my ears. "Why'd you tell me this, anyway? This is guardian stuff. Not the kind of thing you let novices in on."

He considered his words, and his expression softened. He always looked amazing, but I liked him best like this. "I've said a few things...the other day and today...that I shouldn't have. Things that insulted your age. You're seventeen...but you're capable of handling and processing the same things those much older than you do."

My chest grew light and fluttery. "Really?"

He nodded. "You're still really young in a lot of ways-  and act young- but the only way to really change that is to treat you like an adult. I need to do that more. I know you'll take this information and understand how important it is and keep it to yourself."

I didn't love being told I acted young, but I liked the idea that he would talk to me like an equal.

"Dimka," came a voice. Tasha Ozera walked up to us. She smiled when she saw me. "Hello, Rose."

There went my mood. "Hey," I said flatly.

She placed a hand on Dimitri's forearm, sliding her fingers over the leather of his coat. I eyed those fingers angrily. How dare they touch him?

"You've got that look," she told him.

"What look?" he asked. The stern look he'd worn with me vanished. There was a small, knowing smile on his lips. Almost a playful one.

"That look that says you're going to be on duty all day."

"Really? I have a look like that?" There was a teasing, mocking tone to his voice.

She nodded. "When does your shift technically end?"

Dimitri actually looked- I swear- sheepish. "An hour ago."

"You can't keep doing this," she groaned. "You need a break."

"Well ... if you consider that I'm always Lissa's guardian..."

"For now," she said knowingly. I felt sicker than I had last night. "There's a big pool tournament going on upstairs."

"I can't," he said, but the smile was still on his face. "Even though I haven't played in a long time ..."

What the- ? Dimitri played pool?

Suddenly, it didn't matter that we'd just had a discussion about him treating me like an adult. Some small part of me did know what a compliment that was- but the rest of me wanted him to treat me like he did Tasha. Playful. Teasing. Casual. They were so familiar with each other, so completely at ease.

"Come on, then," she begged. "Just one round! We could take them all."

"I can't," he repeated. He sounded regretful. "Not with everything going on."

She sobered a little. "No. I suppose not." Glancing at me, she said teasingly, "I hope you realize what a hard-core role model you have here. He's never off duty."

"Well," I said, copying her lilting tone from earlier, "for now, at least."

Tasha looked puzzled. I don't think it occurred to her I'd be making fun of her. Dimitri's dark look told me he knew exactly what I was doing. I immediately realized I'd just killed whatever progress I'd made as an adult.

"We're finished here, Rose. Remember what I said."

"Yeah," I said, turning away. I suddenly wanted to go to my room and veg for a while. This day was making me tired already. "Definitely."

I hadn't gotten far when I ran into Mason. Good God. Men everywhere.

"You're mad," he said as soon as he looked at my face. He had a knack for discovering my moods. "What happened?"

"Some ... authority problems. It's been a weird morning."

I sighed, unable to get Dimitri off the brain. Looking at Mason, I remembered how I'd been convinced I wanted to get serious with him last night. I was a head case. I couldn't make up my mind about anyone. Deciding the best way to banish one guy was to pay attention to another, I grabbed Mason's hand and steered him away.

"Come on. Wasn't the deal to go somewhere...um, private today?"

"I figured you weren't drunk anymore," he joked. But his eyes looked very, very serious. And interested. "I assumed it was all off."

"Hey, I stand by my claims, no matter what." Opening my mind, I searched for Lissa. She was no longer in our room. She'd gone off to some other royal event, no doubt still practicing for Priscilla Voda's big dinner. "Come on," I told Mason. "We'll go to my room."

Aside from when Dimitri inconveniently happened to be passing by someone's room, nobody was really enforcing the mixed-gender rule. It was practically like being back in my Academy dorms. As Mason and I went upstairs, I related to him what Dimitri had told me about the Strigoi in Spokane. Dimitri had told me to keep it to myself, but I was mad at him again, and I didn't see any harm in telling Mason. I knew he'd be interested in this.

I was right. Mason got really worked up.

"What?" he exclaimed as we walked into my room. "They're not doing anything?"

I shrugged and sat on my bed. "Dimitri said- "

"I know, I know ... I heard you. About being careful and all that." Mason paced around my room angrily. "But if those Strigoi go after another Moroi...another family...damn it! They're going to wish they weren't so careful then."

"Forget about it," I said. I felt kind of miffed that me on a bed wasn't enough to deter him from crazy battle plans. "There's nothing we can do."

He stopped walking. "We could go."

"Go where?" I asked stupidly.

"To Spokane. There are buses you can catch in town."

"I ... wait. You want us to go to Spokane and take on Strigoi?"

"Sure. Eddie'd do it too ... we could go to that mall. They wouldn't be organized or anything, so we could wait and pick them off one by one ..."

I could only stare. "When did you get so dumb?"

"Oh, I see. Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"It's not about confidence," I argued, standing up and approaching him. "You kick major ass. I've seen it. But this ... this isn't the way. We can't go get Eddie and take on Strigoi. We need more people. More planning. More information."

I rested my hands on his chest. He placed his over them and smiled. The fire of battle was still in his eyes, but I could tell his mind was shifting to more immediate concerns. Like me.

"I didn't mean to call you dumb," I told him. "I'm sorry."

"You're just saying that now because you want to have your way with me."

"Of course I am," I laughed, happy to see him relax. The nature of this conversation reminded me a little of the one Christian and Lissa had had in the chapel.

"Well," he said, "I don't think I'm going to be too hard to take advantage of."

"Good. Because there are lots of things I want to do."

I slid my hands up and around his neck. His skin was warm beneath my fingers, and I remembered how much I'd enjoyed kissing him last night.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, he said, "You really are his student."

"Whose?"

"Belikov's. I was just thinking about when you mentioned needing more information and stuff. You act just like him. You've gotten all serious since you've been hanging out with him."

"No, I haven't."

Mason had pulled me closer, but now I suddenly didn't feel so romantic. I'd wanted to make out and forget Dimitri for a while, not have a conversation about him. Where had this come from? Mason was supposed to be distracting me.

He didn't notice anything was wrong. "You've just changed, that's all. It's not bad ... just different."

Something about that made me angry, but before I could snap back, his mouth met mine in a kiss. Reasonable discussions sort of vanished. A bit of that dark temper started to rise in me, but I simply channeled that intensity into physicality as Mason and I fell on top of each other. I yanked him down on the bed, managing to do so without stopping the kissing. I was nothing if not a multitasker. I dug my nails into his back while his hands slid up the back of my neck and released the ponytail I'd just made minutes ago. Running his fingers through the unbound hair, he shifted his mouth down and kissed my neck.

"You are ... amazing," he told me. And I could tell that he meant it. His whole face glowed with affection for me.

I arched upward, letting his lips press harder against my skin while his hands slipped under the bottom of my shirt. They trailed upward along my stomach, just barely tracing the edge of my bra.

Considering we'd just been having an argument a minute ago, I was surprised to see things escalating so quickly. Honestly, though ... I didn't mind. This was the way I lived my life. Everything was always fast and intense with me. The night Dimitri and I had fallen victim to Victor Dashkov's lust charm, there'd been some pretty furious passion going on too. Dimitri had controlled it, though, so sometimes we'd taken things slowly...and that had been wonderful in its own way. But most of the time, we hadn't been able to hold ourselves back. I could feel it all over again. The ways his hands had run over my body. The deep, powerful kisses.

It was then that I realized something.

I was kissing Mason, but in my head, I was with Dimitri. And it wasn't like I was simply remembering either. I was actually imagining I was with Dimitri- right now- reliving that night all over again. With my eyes closed, it was easy to pretend.

But when I opened them and saw Mason's eyes, I knew he was with me. He adored me and had wanted me for a long time. For me to do this ... to be with him and pretend I was with someone else ...

It wasn't right.

I wiggled out of his reach. "No ... don't."

Mason stopped immediately because that's the kind of guy he was.

"Too much?" he asked. I nodded. "That's okay. We don't have to do that."

He reached for me again, and I moved farther away. "No, I just don't... I don't know. Let's call it quits, okay?"

"I..." He was speechless for a moment. "What happened to the 'lots of things' you wanted to do?"

Yeah ... it looked pretty bad, but what could I say? I can't get physical with you because when I do, I just think about the other guy I actually want. You're just a stand-in.

I swallowed, feeling stupid. "I'm sorry, Mase. I just can't."

He sat up and ran a hand over his hair. "Okay. All right."

I could hear the hardness in his voice. "You're mad."

He glanced over at me, a stormy expression on his face. "I'm just confused. I can't read your signals. One moment you're hot, the next you're cold. You tell me you want me, you tell me you don't. If you picked one, that'd be fine, but you keep making me think one thing and then you end up going in a completely different direction. Not just now- all the time."

It was true. I had gone back and forth with him. Sometimes I was flirty, other times I completely ignored him.

"Is there something you want me to do?" he asked when I didn't say anything. "Something that'll... I don't know. Make you feel better about me?"

"I don't know," I said weakly.

He sighed. "Then what do you want in general?"

Dimitri, I thought. Instead, I repeated myself. "I don't know."

With a groan, he stood up and headed for the door. "Rose, for someone who claims she wants to gather as much information as possible, you really have a lot to learn about yourself."

The door slammed behind him. The noise made me flinch, and as I stared at where Mason had just stood, I realized he was right. I did have a lot to learn.

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