Steadfast

Page 67

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“At least you know. Right now, I get that it hurts like hell—but at least you got your answers.”

Nadia propped herself on one elbow. The firelight behind her painted her black hair nearly auburn. Her wind-chapped cheeks were pink, her eyes swollen from crying, and yet to him she had never been more beautiful. “You thought I loved you less.”

Mateo shook his head. “I listened to Asa, and I shouldn’t have.”

“Demons mess with humans’ heads. It’s what they do. But it’s not the lies others say to us that destroy us. It’s the lies we tell ourselves.” Nadia’s hand brushed along his cheek, trembling and tentative. “Never believe that I don’t love you completely. I love you more than any power. Any secret. Anything else in the world I could ever hope to gain. I’d give it all up for you if I had to, to keep you safe—”

“You don’t have to give up anything for me.” He folded her close against his chest, willing her to hear his heartbeat and know it only belonged to her. “And I’ll never doubt you again.”

They began to kiss, first tenderly, then more passionately. Mateo closed his eyes, felt the softness of her in his arms, and the warmth of the fire.

His hands found the cradle of her waist and hips; his lips brushed against the line of her collarbone. Nadia’s fingers slipped beneath his sweater, tracing the lines of every muscle. He felt as though she were learning him by heart.

“Do you have to be anywhere?” she whispered against his cheek. Her words were hardly any louder than her trembling breath.

“No.” Mateo pressed his lips to the soft triangle of skin exposed by the deep V of her sweater. “Nowhere but here. Nowhere but with you.”

For now, the evil they faced, the entire rest of the screwed-up world, seemed very far away.

Outside the Perez home, an unearthly wind whipped through the trees, shearing away the final leaves of autumn. Some people swore they saw heat lightning crackle through the clouds—even though the night was so cold that frost masked the windows and covered the ground. Sinkholes still unfilled after the strange events of autumn crumbled and quaked, filling in with new, soft earth, as though attempting to erase the town’s scars. And the crows swirled up into the air, dark, shining wings glittering in the moonlight, disturbed by a force they could not recognize.

There were other rules about witches and Steadfasts, rules Nadia herself did not know. Rules her mother had never thought to teach her.

They would reveal themselves in time.

23

IT FELT LIKE A MILLION YEARS SINCE NADIA HAD BEEN home, not just two days. The windows glowed with light and warmth, welcoming her back.

As she came in, her dad called from the living room, “Nadia?”

“Yeah.” He didn’t sound surprised—then again, so far as he knew, she’d just been across town at Verlaine’s. She smoothed down her hair, hoping he wouldn’t notice that her lips were swollen and flushed; her entire body still hummed with excitement from Mateo’s touch. Straighten the sweater, double-check the belt: okay. “I’m back.”

“Is everything good with the Laughtons?” Dad appeared, a tape measure around his neck. “You know, we could have Verjane here for a couple days. Might give Dave a break.”

Her mother’s voice echoed in her memory: Your father’s stronger than I thought. Nadia struggled to act natural. “I think she wants to stick close to home.”

Her father nodded, like, That makes sense. From the living room, Cole called, “Nadia, you have to see me! Come see me!”

She stashed her backpack and went into the living room, where Cole stood with his arms outstretched, beaming proudly. He was wearing—what was it? Some kind of white sack, padded lumpily from the inside, and a white fluffy hat—

Mashed potatoes.

“We get to have the Thanksgiving pageant, and then there’s no more school until the doctors leave!” Cole was beside himself with excitement. “That might not be until after Christmas! I look awesome.”

Dad crossed his arms as he surveyed his handiwork. “Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.”

“It’s great,” Nadia said. She thought about how her mom had always been the one who put together their Halloween costumes, or helped them with school projects. She’d meant to make this costume herself, but Dad had managed on his own. He’d come through. Cole was coming through. Both of them were getting over the worst abandonment of their lives, even though they could never know the real reason it had happened.

Cole frowned. “Are you crying?”

“No,” Nadia said as she wiped at her cheeks. “But it’s beautiful, you know? It’s the most amazing costume I’ve ever seen.”

“It’s not that good.” Dad chuckled as he pulled her into his embrace. More softly he said, “You’ve had a rough couple of days, huh, kid?”

Normally Nadia hated being called kid, but she’d let it go this time. “Yeah.”

He ruffled her hair. “I think we all have. Did you eat?”

Mateo had given her the last food he had at the house. She nodded. “Did you guys?”

“Yeah. But we’ve still got flour and sugar and a little butter. Who thinks we need to make some cookies?”

Cole began dancing in celebration, which looked so goofy in the mashed-potato costume that Nadia had to laugh.

Just being with her family and loving them, weird as they were—she took it for granted sometimes. Or she had, before seeing what had become of Mom after all the love had been torn from her heart. Never again, Nadia swore. She’d never forget again. From now on, she could love her dad, and her brother, and Mateo the way they deserved to be loved. Black magic or no, she’d remember to love Verlaine, too.

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