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I gave so many damns at once that it actually hurt.
It was impossible to understand the truth of the moment.
For starters, because Cole St. Clair was like the Christina, in that he generally appeared famous and not true and not really present in any given moment. There was always a dissonance between him and his surroundings, as if he were being smoothly and handsomely projected from a distant location.
And second: Cole was a wolf.
I didn’t know if I was glad to see him or scared to see him.
I had seen him laid out on the floor with a needle in his arm; I’d seen him shift into a wolf right in front of me; I’d seen him begging me to help him die.
And third: He had seen me cry. I didn’t know if I could live with that.
Why are you here? Are you here for me?
“Heya,” he said. He was still smiling that slow, easy smile at me. He had the best smile in the world, and lots of people had told him about it. His awareness of the smile’s charms should have diminished its power, but that casual arrogance was part of its glory.
But I had been inoculated several months before, and since then, I’d been building up resistance. I was now immune.
We stood two feet apart. There was a buffer of history between us, and everything else pulling us together.
“You could have called,” I said stupidly.
He grinned wider. He gestured grandly at himself, narrowly avoiding knocking over a rack of filmy shirts. “That would’ve ruined this.”
The entire store looked different with him standing there.
Like he’d pulled the afternoon sun in the door with him.
“What is this?” I asked.
“Ta-da.” He was trying really hard to keep his Cole St. Clair smile on instead of his real one. Every time the real one came close to breaking through, my heart crashed.
I was aware that we had an audience. Not full-on staring — they were trying to be polite about it — but soft-focus curiosity.
I wanted to take this out onto the sidewalk, or into the back, or at least look at my hands to make sure they weren’t shaking like they felt they were, but I couldn’t quite put it all together.
Here was the thing: I was in love with Cole.
Or had been. Or was going to be. I couldn’t tell the difference.
I didn’t know if he was here for me, though, and I couldn’t take it if he wasn’t. There was no way, actually, that he’d come all this way from Minnesota for me. Probably he just stopped by to say hi after moving here for something else. That was why he hadn’t called first.
“Come on,” I snapped. “Out back. You have time?”
He idled after me as if time was all he had. On the way through the opening into the back room, he raised his eyebrow at Sierra as if he was used to my tone.
Was this really happening?
I led him through the back room, which was cluttered with neonatal leggings and aborted tunics in every shade of khaki.
Then we were out in the blue-washed alley. There was a trash bin, but it didn’t smell — it was full of cardboard and dead plants. There was Sierra’s old Beetle, but it didn’t run — it was also full of cardboard and dead plants.
As I led him out beside the car, I talked myself down, explaining to myself all of the ways that his being here changed nothing, meant nothing, was nothing. Nothing, nothing.
I turned around, my mouth open to say something else scathing about him not calling me before showing up in my state, in my work, in my life.
But then he wrapped his arms around me.
My breath stopped as if he’d slapped a hand over my mouth.
I didn’t hug him back right away, because I didn’t have enough information to know how to hug him back.
He smelled like strange airport hand soap and felt like a hole to fall into.
Cole stepped back. I couldn’t tell from his face what was going on.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“Hello, too,” he replied.
“Hello is what you say when you first call someone.”
He was completely unoffended. “You don’t call someone before ta-da.”
“Maybe I don’t like ta-das.”
Honestly, I had no idea what I liked. I only knew that my heart was galloping so fast that my fingers were numb. Logically, I knew it was just from surprise, but I didn’t know if it was like Surprise, here is a cake or Surprise, you’ve had a stroke.
In front of me, Cole’s smile had emptied. His eyes were going blank, which was what happened to Cole when you hurt him. The real Cole vacated the situation and left his body standing by itself.
Cruelly, I was grateful for it, as grateful as I’d been for the brief glimpse of his true smile earlier. Because this reaction was real. It meant he really cared how I felt about this reunion. A smile I couldn’t trust, but pain — I knew what the genuine article looked like.
“Look,” I said. “You can’t just show up and expect me to scream and giggle, because I’m not that person. So don’t look all hurt because I’m not doing that.”
His expression poured back into his face. This new one was hungry and restless. “Come somewhere with me. Let’s go somewhere.
Where is there to go around here? Let’s go there.”
“I have to work until six.” Six? Seven? I couldn’t even remember when my workday ended at the moment. Where were we? The alley behind .blush. The ocean breeze finding my skin, the starling overhead singing dreamily on a telephone wire, a dry palm leaf drifting down to rest on the concrete. This was real. This was happening.
He jumped from foot to foot — I had almost forgotten how he only stopped moving when things went badly for him. “What’s the next meal? Lunch? Dinner? Yes. Have dinner with me.”
“Dinner?” To this point, my evening plan had involved battling my way back to Glendale to the House of Divorce and Separation for an evening of estrogen and laughs that were the same as tears and vice versa. “Then what?”
He grabbed one of my hands. “Dessert. Sex. Life.” He kissed my palm — not a sweet kiss. A kiss that made my skin twist with sudden, furious desire. His mouth.
Now I thought I was having a stroke. “Cole, stop, wait.”