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After Leo finished speaking, Addie took the podium again to thank everyone for coming and listening to what we had to say. As she stepped down, she was approached by several people, as were David and Leo, and I couldn’t help but smile. We may have lost over half of our speakers, but that didn’t make those who did speak any less effective or moving. Despite all the roadblocks thrown in our way, I was proud of what we’d accomplished here today.
The room began to clear, somewhat, and David and Leo made their way over to where Maddock and I stood, as did Peyton and Brent. Addie, though, was still was deep in conversation.
“We’ll probably head out to lunch, soon,” I murmured, turning towards Maddock. “As soon as Addie is done…”
I trailed off as man approached, his gaze intent on Maddock. I recognized him immediately. Professor Brackenridge—the younger prof who made all the girls swoon with his unruly ginger curls that refused to be completely tamed, the scruff that graced his face more often than not, his piercing blue eyes, and the way he filled out the jeans he habitually wore paired with his white button-ups and blazers. If that didn’t do the trick, the brogue that thickened when he spoke passionately about the subjects he taught brought most to their knees. There was a reason his courses filled up quickly—and it wasn’t love of history.
“Mr. Roberts, I certainly didn’t expect to see you here today,” he said, narrowing his eyes slightly as he stopped in front of us.
“I believe every side should be heard and examined. I’m not entirely closed-minded,” Maddock said quietly, and a bit stiffly. “Though, I wouldn’t have expected to see faculty at any event, on either side of the issue.”
Brackenridge gave a lazy shrug and ran his palm over the stubble darkening his face. “The university wanted some staff members on hand today. Just in case. I was just one of the lucky blokes available.”
He nodded toward two other men who stood near the doors—scanning the room, shifting on their feet uneasily, clearly anxious to leave.
“Just in case what, exactly?” I asked sharply. “What did they expect would happen here that they didn’t at a much larger event like the one Maddock spoke at weeks ago?”
“I couldn’t begin to fathom a guess. I’m simply following orders.”
I fought not to squirm under his intense stare. Unease prickled across my skin, skittered along my nerves, and my magic pulsed in response.
Shoving it down, demanding it behave, I lifted my chin defiantly. “And on which side of the magic debate do you fall, Professor Brackenridge?”
His lips curved then parted in a wide smile. “You know better than that, Ms. Lancaster. My personal views and beliefs have no place here.”
I snorted. “Of course not. You have to toe the university line of not discriminating, don’t you? Every group is afforded equal opportunities, right? Even though everything is done to fuck up what we work for—but those are just mistakes, unfortunate things that just happened. Oh, so sorry.” I shook my head. “I don’t know why I even asked. I wouldn’t expect anyone in this place to actually support what we were doing. I’m certain the university is quite careful in who they hire.”
Several gasps sounded to my right, as well as Peyton’s very recognizable squeak.
“Delia,” Maddock murmured, reaching out and grasping my hand.
I struggled to rein in my anger and annoyance, not even sure why it was surging so strongly at this moment. Perhaps, it was because there was a face to the university, now, right in front of me.
“It’s quite all right, Mr. Roberts,” Brackenridge assured. “Everyone is entitled to their thoughts and beliefs and has the right to speak to those. Though, I advise a little caution, in future, Ms. Lancaster. Not everyone on this campus is as…tolerant as I am.”
With that, he turned and walked toward the exit. I held my breath until he and the other professors were out of sight then released it in a harsh burst.
“Tolerant, my ass.” I glanced to the side at my friends, who all stared at me, saying nothing. “What?”
“You need to dial it back when you’re talking to people, especially profs and stuff, Dee.” Peyton cringed slightly. “Not that what you said wasn’t true or valid, but…”
“It’s fine. What’s he going to do? Fail me if I ever take one of his classes?” I shrugged, even as the uneasiness I’d felt earlier under Brackenridge’s gaze surged up again. “Looks like Addie is done. Let’s go get some lunch. I’m starving.”
Maddock squeezed my hand as we left the room and made our way outside. We decided on a small local restaurant just off campus, and as we walked the short distance, with Addie and Peyton leading the way, I pulled free and fell behind the group. Not really interested in the sports talk the guys were already embroiled in. And, I just needed to calm down. Even now, my power thrummed through me, an insistent throb fueled by my emotions, and I needed to get it under control.
David glanced back then slowed down, falling into step beside me.
“Peyton’s right,” he said, voice low and quiet. “You’re going to draw the wrong kind of attention, get yourself in trouble. You, especially, can’t let that happen, Delia. It’s too dangerous.”
“How did you know?” I blurted out the question that had been plaguing me since I’d felt the rush of his magic. “Can you sense…people like us?”
“Normally, no. But,” he sighed, “you were worked up, and it was coming off of you in waves. And mine responded.”
“Oh, so you didn’t mean to…” I clamped my mouth shut as disappointment settled heavily over me. He hadn’t meant to let me know he had magic, too.
He laughed and bumped shoulders with me. “I did it on purpose, Delia. I could have held it back, but I let it out, let it meet yours.”
“You have more control than me, apparently,” I said self-depreciatingly, thinking of all the lectures I’d received on being calm and not letting my emotions get the better of me. On how important it was that I govern my magic, hold it close, keep it secret. Voices past echoed in my head—Dad’s, Mom’s, Kyle’s…
“Control takes practice.” David shrugged then grinned. “And reining in the emotions.”
“I’ve practiced,” I said quickly. “Done nothing but practice not using it.”
He sobered, pressing his lips together a moment. “Not using your…” His eyes flicked to the group ahead of us, and he lowered his voice. “Not using it, hiding it, isn’t the same as practicing control.”
I thought about that, about the times Kyle had spent trying to get me to focus and control the power I had—all in secret, of course. And it hadn’t happened often. For all Mom was without magic, she had a near supernatural ability to sense when we were planning to meet and practice. And those times, she’d suddenly find something incredibly important and pressing for me to do.
Not that she ever stopped me from seeing Kyle or anything like that, though I think she was tempted. But she understood the bond we had—had had since we were in diapers—which had only grown when our dads were gone. She didn’t like it, though, and didn’t exactly make a secret of that. Kyle had been on the receiving end of some of Mom’s fiercest and scariest mother looks on a regular basis.
So, even though Kyle had tried to help me, any actual practice with my magic was sporadic and rushed, at best. Then, several weeks before I’d left for college, even that stopped. He seemed to get fully on board with Mom’s hide-it, keep-it-secret-and-keep-your-mouth-shut plan, complete with lectures and warnings—the whole nine yards.
I snapped out of my thoughts and glanced at David, who watched me with a concerned frown.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I…” I took a deep breath then, in a rush, said, “I’ve never really been able to use it, you know? Other than a few stolen moments here and there with…with a friend. It’s just always been about hiding it because it was dangerous.”
“Well, you can always talk to me about it,” he offered, reaching out and grasping my wrist. His magic teased up my arm, dancing and tickling along my skin. “And we can practice, if you want. I can show you what my parents taught me.”
“Really? Is that really safe around here?” I slowed my pace as we came up on the restaurant where the the rest of our group was already stopped and waiting near the entrance.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t put you in danger, Delia. It’d be safe. Though, I may not be, right now. Your boyfriend’s glaring daggers at me.” He gave my wrist a slight squeeze then let go with a laugh.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I protested, my voice squeaking slightly when my gaze landed on Maddock, who was, indeed, staring rather ominously in our direction.
David snorted and muttered, under his breath, “Does he know that?”
I didn’t bother answering the question as we approached the group. David chuckled and clapped a hand on Maddock’s shoulder as he passed him to enter the restaurant with the others.
My stomach clenched hotly when Maddock turned his intense gaze on me, and lips curving, he reached for one of my hands. My magic spiked in response, taking my breath away, clouding my senses until I could practically taste it. I didn’t get. I honestly didn’t. Why did it react like this to him? It had never done that with anyone before, not even other magic users. Even when I’d felt David’s power… Mine definitely responded, but it was more of a hey-look-at-that kinda thing. Like responding to like. With Maddock? It was like my magic wanted to grab hold of him, bring him closer, embrace him. It was overwhelming, exciting…and frightening as hell.
“Delia,” he murmured, fingers tightening around mine.
“Maddock,” I replied, face heating, not only from the pulsating power I struggled to tamp down but hearing the breathlessness of my voice. Damn it.
He lifted his other hand and brushed the hair back from my face, tucking the wind-blown strands behind my ear.
“You sure you’re okay with me being here?” he asked quietly.
I frowned at the uncertainty in his voice. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
Tilting my head, I searched his face for any clue to why he was so hesitant now. Maybe he was having second thoughts about being around us, around me. Wouldn’t be all that surprising, I supposed. For all his talk about hearing both sides and everything, maybe he’d decided it just wasn’t worth it, which was exactly why I’d wanted us to keep our distance. Because every minute I was with him would make it that much harder if and when everything fell apart.
“Are you okay being here? I mean, with the enemy so to speak?”
“Thought we already established that I don’t consider you the enemy.” His thumb dragged over my bottom lip. He sighed and dropped his hands to his side as he cleared his throat. “And we’ve also established that I like you, Delia. A lot.”
“I like you, too.” I wet my lips, and when his gaze dropped to watch the movement, a tug of arousal nearly knocked me over. “A lot,” I breathed.
He closed his eyes a moment and took a deep breath. When he opened them again, he smiled widely, all signs of doubt vanished. “You know I am going to convince you to give us a chance, right? That’s going to happen.”
Before I could respond—and I didn’t even know how to, for fuck’s sake—the door of the restaurant opened and Addie popped her head out.
“Could you two quit flirting and get in here so we can order? Some of us are hungry! You can gaze into each other eyes and make out all you want later!”
Maddock laughed and putting his hand at the small of my back, led me inside. He brought his mouth to my ear, lips and breath tickling, and whispered. “See? Even the one who would be most against us sees what’s meant to happen.”
“Gazing and making out? That’s the end game?” I teased as we made our way to the large table.
“Oh, that’s just the beginning, sweetheart.”
Another tug of desire threatened to pull my feet out from under me at the promise in his voice. I actually stumbled, and he chuckled under his breath as he helped steady me. I tried to glare up at him, my flaming cheeks and stupid smile I couldn’t quite wipe completely away completely ruining the effect.
As we sat, Peyton gave me a big grin and thumbs up. I glanced at Maddock, and thank God, he was already looking down at his menu. I’d just picked mine up and started glancing at my options when my phone buzzed in my pocket. I dug it out, wondering who it was—pretty much anyone who called me was at this table. When I saw the screen, I sighed. Mom. I knew if I let it go to voicemail, she’d just worry and keep calling, convinced something horrible had happened.
I leaned toward Maddock and whispered, “I have to take this.” I held up my phone. “Could you order me the club sandwich and fries? And a Coke?”
He reached over and gave my thigh a light squeeze. “Sure.”
I hit “accept” as I stood and brought the phone to my ear.
“Hi, Mom,” I said brightly as I headed outside for some privacy.
“What were you thinking?”
I flinched at the shout filling my ear and shoved opened the door quickly.
“A Sympathizer rally? Are you out of your mind? How is that being careful, Delia? Are you wanting to be found out?”
“I…” I swallowed heavily. “I am being careful. It wasn’t like I announced…anything. I wasn’t even going to speak, I swear. I was just going to be helping out behind the scenes.”
“Really?” Her disbelief was palpable. “And how did you end up talking about magic users and how magic is a tool that could be used for good? Because that’s not behind the scenes, Delia. That is painting a target on yourself!”
“Some things got messed up,” I explained. “And…and it just happened.”
“It just happened?” she practically snarled. “And I suppose you seeing that Roberts boy—the poster child of the anti-magic movement—just happened as well?”
“No, we—” I stumbled over to a nearby bench and sat with a thud. “How did you know about Maddock? About the rally?”
My mind raced in the seemingly endless silence that followed. How had she found out all of that, and so damned quickly?
“Are you…” I shook my head even as the thought occurred to me. “You’re having me followed? Watched?”
“Delia.” The furious tone morphed into the placating, let’s-be-reasonable tone I loathed. “You need to come home. If you weren’t on a watch list before, you certainly are now. It’s not safe there for you.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” I bit out, then laughed harshly. “Which is the answer in and of itself, isn’t it? Who is it? Who do you have spying on me?”
“You need to—”
“Who the fuck is it?” I shouted, drawing stares from passersby.
“Don’t you dare use that language when you speak to me,” she snapped. “There will be a ticket waiting for you at the bus station; we’ll arrange to pick up your things later.”
“I said no. You don’t get to tell me what to do.” I choked slightly on the tears and bitterness clogging my throat. “You don’t get to do that anymore. You don’t get to have people watching my every move and reporting back to you. Who is it,” I asked again. “Kyle?”
“Kyle? Please.” She snorted. “That boy is nearly as much trouble as the one you’re mooning after. As if I’d trust him to do the right thing. I know full well what Kyle is up to—neck deep into the same business that took your father from us. But at least when he was around, he cared about you and wanted to keep you safe, which is a hell of a lot more than could be said for Maddock Roberts. Do you think he’d be so sweet on you if he knew? If he knew what you were?”
I doubled over as pain swept through me, an ache so deep I didn’t know if I could ever get rid of it. I’d never heard her like this before. Scared, yeah. But this—the contempt that coated her words? How had she ever hidden this from me?
“You hate it, don’t you?” I whispered, gripping the phone until my fingers hurt. “Hate me, hate what I am. Well, I’ll do you a favor,” I slowly sat up, free hand pressed to my roiling stomach, “and make sure you don’t ever have to be around something so disgusting ever again.”
“That’s not what I meant!” she protested. “That’s how he would see it, Delia. He wouldn’t accept you if he knew the truth. I don’t want you hurt.”
“Too late.” Then, more loudly, more firmly, I added, “Call off your spy, whoever it is.”
I didn’t wait for an answer before ending the call. Struggling to draw in air, I squeezed my eyes shut. My phone slipped from numb fingers, clattering against the pavement at my feet, but I didn’t reach for it. Completely frozen, lost in betrayal and hurt and anger, the only thing I could do was fight not to completely break down. And that was a battle I was losing.