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“Regardless,” Tristan shrugged. “I don’t see her kissing anyone else, do you? And being asked on a date is common human practice, so there’s no reason she should refuse. Eventually, she’ll invite you inside, and then we’ll be in business. Plant a few bugs around the house, and boom…we’ll have them.”

“And if she’s not our target?”

“Then she’s not our target. We cut her loose and move on. What’s the problem?”

I didn’t answer right away. I didn’t want to tell him that the thought terrified me, scared me in a way a twelve-ton raging dragon never could. I’d never been on a date; I didn’t know what was required.

But most of all, I didn’t know if I could control myself around her anymore. The feelings she stirred in me—the heat, the desire, the urge to touch her—that was all new. I’d never felt anything like this before.

“Nothing,” I said finally. “No problems. I understand.”

“Good.” Tristan smirked and threw back a scallop. “Because you have a party to attend tomorrow night.”

Nearly an hour after seven, the first guests—besides me, anyway—

finally started to show. With beer. Several kinds, including a large keg, which they carted around back and placed next to the hot tub on the deck. Soon there was a steady line of teenagers coming up the drive to the house, and the living room quickly became crowded, as did the deck and the swimming pool out back. Music started from somewhere, cranked up until the bass vibrated the walls, and groups of teens danced and surged against each other in the center of the open room. I had moved to one end of the sofa, watching the chaos and occasionally taking sips from the plastic cup in my hand. The beer tasted cheap and lukewarm and, frankly, unpleasant, but as Tristan had said, everyone else seemed to be drinking and I didn’t want to look even more out of place than I already was. When in Rome…“Hey, Garret! It is you!”

Lexi Thompson emerged from the swirling crowd, grinning down at me. I smiled and nodded, but flicked a casual glance behind her, looking to see if she was following.

“Fancy meeting you here, stranger,” Lexi continued, raising her voice to be heard over the music. “We just keep running into each other, it seems.” The smile grew wider, as if she had just proven a point I wasn’t aware of. “Or are you here for someone else?”

I ignored that question. If anyone knew Ember’s whereabouts or state of mind, it would be Lexi, but I didn’t want to be that obvious.

“Lexi,” I greeted calmly. “Did you come here alone?”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine, then. I’ll pretend not to know who you’re talking about and just tell you that Ember is supposed to be here tonight, though I haven’t seen her yet. But…” She fixed me with a surprisingly fierce glare. “This is a warning for you. Ember is my friend, and I’ve seen too many jerkwads blow through town, thinking they can have a fun little fling and be gone the next day.

If that’s what you’re after, then you should leave right now and not come back. Ember doesn’t want that, and she deserves better. If you hurt her, you’ll have me to deal with.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, secretly thinking that one teenage girl wasn’t nearly the threat a twelve-ton raging dragon was, or even a single Talon servant with a gun, but she sounded serious, and I admired that she would stand up for her friend. Also, hearing her threats, irrational as they were, gave me a bit of hope. She wasn’t warning me away from Ember, she was telling me not to hurt her friend if I did pursue her. Which meant that Ember hadn’t written me off just yet.

At least, that’s what I hoped it meant.

Lexi nodded.

“Good. Just remember that. Now, one last important thing.” she glanced around, then tossed me something small. I caught it; a tiny square of blue plastic that crinkled when I held it up. My face felt suddenly warm, and Lexi grinned. “Just in case.”

“Alexis Thompson!” snapped a voice behind us, making my heart leap. And Ember emerged from the crowd, giving the other girl a murderous glare as she stalked around the sofa. Lexi eep ed and fled, vanishing back into the mob, as I quickly stuffed the item between the layers of the couch.

“You are in so much trouble, Lex!” Ember called, scowling at the other girl’s retreating back. “And you can forget about that deal we made—I am not telling you anything, now! Hey, Garret.” Ember shook her head and looked down at me, her expression caught somewhere between a smile and a grimace. “Tell me my psychotic, soonto-be-dead friend didn’t just give you what I thought she did.”

I forced a somewhat pained smile. “I don’t think I can answer that without crawling into a dark hole the rest of the evening.”

She laughed, and suddenly, everything was okay between us.

“Come on.” Without hesitation, she reached down, grabbed my hand, and pulled me to my feet. “Let’s go dance.”

Dance? I felt a twinge of panic as she tugged me forward, but I forced it down. I’d never done this before; dancing, drinking, letting others touch me. I would just have to adapt. Ember dragged me through a mass of writhing, twisting bodies to the center of the floor, but just as she stopped and let me go, the song faded, and the DJ’s voice cracked over the speakers.

“All right, let’s slow it down,” he crooned, and another song began, slower and much less frantic than the last. Around us, the wild bouncing and twisting calmed, as couples wrapped their arms around each other and began swaying to the music.


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