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Illusions


To Gwendolyn, who was with me for every minute of revisions. Every. Minute.


Chapter One

THE HALLS OF DEL NORTE HIGH BUZZED WITH FIRST-day-of-school chaos as Laurel wedged herself through a crowd of sophomores and spotted David’s broad shoulders. She twined her arms around his waist and pressed her face against his soft T-shirt.

“Hey,” David said, returning her embrace. Laurel had just closed her eyes, prepared to savor the moment, when Chelsea caught them both in an exuberant squeeze.

“Can you believe it? We’re finally seniors!”

Laurel laughed as Chelsea let them go. Coming from her, the question wasn’t exactly rhetorical; there had been times Laurel doubted they’d make it through junior year alive.

As David turned to his locker, Chelsea produced Mrs. Cain’s summer reading list from her backpack. Laurel suppressed a smile; Chelsea had been fretting over the optional books all summer. Probably longer.

“I’m starting to think everyone read Pride and Prejudice,” she said, tilting the paper toward Laurel. “I knew I should have gone with Persuasion.”

I didn’t read Pride and Prejudice,” Laurel countered.

“Yeah, well, you were a little busy reading Common Uses of Ferns or something like that.” Chelsea leaned in so she could whisper. “Or, Seven Habits of Highly Effective Mixers,” she added with a snort of laughter.

How to Win Fronds and Influence Poplars,” David suggested, raising his eyebrows. He straightened abruptly, his smile widening and his voice getting just a touch louder. “Hey, Ryan,” he said, extending a fist.

Ryan bumped him and turned to run his hands down Chelsea’s arms. “How’s the hottest senior at Del Norte?” he asked, making Chelsea giggle as she went onto her toes for a kiss.

Sighing contentedly, Laurel reached out for David’s hand and leaned against him. She’d been back from the Academy in Avalon for only a week, and she’d missed her friends — more even than last year, though her instructor, Yeardley, had usually kept her too busy to dwell on that. She’d mastered several potions and was closing in on more. The mixings were coming more naturally too; she was getting a feel for different herbs and essences and how they should work together. Certainly not enough to strike out on her own like her friend Katya, who was researching new potions, but Laurel took pride in her progress.

Still, it was a relief to be back in Crescent City, where everything was normal and she didn’t feel so lonely. She smiled up at David as he swung his locker shut and pulled her close. It seemed monumentally unfair that she and David had only one class together this year, and despite having spent the past week with him, Laurel found herself clinging to these last few minutes before the bell rang.

She almost didn’t notice the strange tingle that made her want to turn and look behind her.

Was she being watched?

More curious than afraid, Laurel disguised the glance over her shoulder as a toss of her long blond hair. But her watcher was immediately apparent, and Laurel’s breath caught in her throat as her gaze locked with a pair of pale green eyes.

Those eyes weren’t supposed to be light green. They were supposed to be the rich, emerald green that once matched his hair — hair that was now a uniform black, cut short and gelled into a deceptively casual mop. Instead of a hand-woven tunic and breeches, he was dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt that, no matter how good they looked on him, had to be terribly stifling.

And he was wearing shoes. She’d hardly ever seen Tamani wearing shoes.

But light or dark, she knew his eyes — eyes that featured prominently in her dreams, as familiar to her as her own, or her parents’. Or David’s.

As soon as their eyes locked, the months since she’d last seen Tamani shrank from an eternity to an instant. Last winter, in a moment of anger, she’d told him to go away, and he had. She hadn’t known where, or for how long, or if she’d ever see him again. After nearly a year she had almost gotten used to the ache she felt in her chest every time she thought about him. But suddenly he was here, almost close enough to touch.

Laurel looked up at David, but he wasn’t looking at her. He, too, had noticed Tamani.

“Wow,” Chelsea said from behind Laurel’s shoulder, breaking her reverie. “Who’s the hot new guy?” Her boyfriend, Ryan, scoffed. “Well, he is; I’m not blind,” Chelsea added matter-of-factly.

Laurel still couldn’t speak as Tamani’s gaze flitted from her to David and back again. A million thoughts spun through her head. Why is he here? Why is he dressed like that? Why didn’t he tell me he was coming? She hardly felt David pry her hands from his shirt, lacing his warm fingers through her own, which were suddenly cold as ice.

“Foreign exchange, I bet,” Ryan said. “Look at Mr. Robison parading them all around.”

“Maybe,” Chelsea said noncommittally.

Mr. Robison said something to the three students who were following him through the hallway, and Tamani’s head swung so that even his profile was no longer visible. As if released from a spell, Laurel dropped her gaze to the floor.

David squeezed her hand and she looked up at him. “Is that who I think it is?”

Laurel nodded, unable to find her voice; though David and Tamani had met only twice before, both events had been… memorable. When David looked back toward Tamani, so did Laurel.

The other boy in the group looked embarrassed, and the girl was explaining something to him in a language that was clearly not English. Mr. Robison nodded approvingly.

Ryan crossed his arms over his chest and grinned. “See? Told you. Foreign exchange.”

Tamani was shifting the weight of a black backpack from shoulder to shoulder, looking bored. Looking human. That by itself was almost as jarring as his being here in the first place. And then he was looking at her again, less openly now, his glance veiled beneath dark eyelashes.

Laurel fought to breathe evenly. She didn’t know what to think. Avalon wouldn’t send him here without reason, and Laurel couldn’t imagine Tamani abandoning his post.

“You okay?” Chelsea asked, stepping up beside Laurel. “You look kinda freaked.”

Before she could stop herself, Laurel flicked her eyes in Tamani’s direction — a move Chelsea tracked instantly. “It’s Tamani,” she said, hoping she didn’t sound as relieved — or terrified — as she felt.

She must have succeeded, because Chelsea only stared in disbelief. “The hot one?” she whispered.

Laurel nodded.

“Seriously?” Chelsea squealed, only to be cut off by a sharp gesture from Laurel. Laurel glanced covertly over at Tamani to see if she’d been caught. The tick of a smile at one corner of his mouth told her she had.

Then the foreign exchange students were following Mr. Robison down the hallway, away from Laurel. Just before Tamani disappeared around the corner, he looked back at Laurel and winked. Not for the first time, she was supremely grateful she couldn’t blush.

She turned to David. He was staring down at her, his eyes full of questions.

Laurel sighed and held her hands up in front of her. “I had nothing to do with this.”


“It’s a good thing, right?” David said after they’d managed to detangle themselves from Chelsea and Ryan and stood together in front of Laurel’s first class. Laurel couldn’t remember the last time the one-minute warning bell had made her feel so anxious. “I mean, you thought you were never going to see him again, and now he’s here.”

“It is good to see him,” Laurel said softly, leaning forward to wrap both arms around David’s waist, “but I’m also scared of what it means. For us. Not us,” Laurel corrected, fighting the unfamiliar awkwardness that seemed to be worming its way between them. “But it has to mean we’re in danger, right?”

David nodded. “I’m trying not to think about that. He’ll tell us eventually, right?”

Laurel looked up with one eyebrow cocked and after a moment they both burst out laughing.

“I guess we can’t count on it, can we?” David took her right hand in his, pressing it to his lips and examining the silver-and-crystal bracelet he had given her almost two years ago, when they first got together. “I’m glad you still wear this.”

“Every day,” Laurel said. Wishing they had more time to talk, she pulled David close for one last kiss before hurrying into her Government class and grabbing the last seat next to the wall full of windows. Small windows, but she would take whatever natural sunlight she could get.

Her mind wandered as Mrs. Harms handed out the syllabus and talked about class requirements; it was easy to tune her out, especially in light of Tamani’s sudden reappearance. Why was he here? If she was in some kind of danger, what could it be? She hadn’t seen a single troll since leaving Barnes at the lighthouse. Could this have something to do with Klea, the mysterious troll hunter who killed him? No one had seen her lately, either; as far as Laurel could tell, Klea had moved on to other hunting grounds. Maybe this was some other crisis entirely?

Regardless, David was right — Laurel was happy to see Tamani. More than happy. She felt somehow comforted by his presence. And he had winked at her! As if the last eight months had never happened. As if he had never walked away. As if she had never come to tell him good-bye. Her thoughts drifted to the brief moments spent in his arms, the soft feel of his lips on hers in those few times when self-control had slipped through her fingers. The memories were so vivid that Laurel found herself lightly touching her mouth.

The classroom door swung open suddenly, startling Laurel from her thoughts. Mr. Robison entered, Tamani following close behind.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Mr. Robison said. “Boys and girls?” Laurel hated how adults could combine two perfectly serviceable words into such a condescending phrase. “You might have heard that we have some foreign exchange students from Japan this year. Tam”—Laurel blanched at the counselor’s use of her pet name for Tamani—“isn’t technically in the foreign exchange program, but he just moved here from Scotland. I hope you will treat him with the same courtesy you have always shown our other exchange guests. Tam? Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself.”

Mr. Robison clapped one hand against Tamani’s shoulder. Tamani’s eyes darted briefly to the school counselor and Laurel could only imagine how Tamani would have preferred to respond. But irritation showed on his face for less than a second, and Laurel doubted anyone else noticed. He grinned lopsidedly and shrugged. “I’m Tam Collins.”

Half the girls in the class sighed softly at Tamani’s lilting brogue.

“I’m from Scotland. A little outside of Perth — not the Australia one — and…” He paused, as if searching for anything else about himself that the students might find interesting.

Laurel could think of a few things.

“I live with my uncle. Have since I was a kid.” He turned and smiled at the teacher. “And I know nothing about Government,” he said, laughter in his voice. “Not this one, anyway.”

The entire classroom was won over. The guys were nodding their heads a little, the girls were twittering, and even Mrs. Harms was smiling. And he wasn’t even Enticing them. Laurel almost groaned aloud at the trouble that could lead to.

“Well, pick a seat, then,” Mrs. Harms said, handing Tamani a textbook. “We’ve only just gotten started.”

There were three empty seats in the classroom and almost everyone near them launched into a silent campaign for Tamani’s favor. Nadia, one of the prettier girls in the class, was the boldest. She uncrossed and recrossed her legs, tossed her wavy brown hair over her shoulder, and leaned forward to not-so-subtly pat the backrest in front of her. Tamani grinned, almost apologetically, and continued past her to claim a seat in front of a girl who had scarcely looked up from her book since he’d walked into the classroom.

The seat beside Laurel.

As Mrs. Harms droned on about daily reading assignments, Laurel sat back and stared at Tamani. She didn’t bother to hide it; just about every other girl in the classroom was doing the exact same thing. It was maddening to silently sit just two feet away while a million questions whizzed through her mind. Some were rational. Many were not.

Laurel’s head was spinning by the time the bell rang. This was her chance. She wanted to do so many things: yell at him, slap him, kiss him, grab his shoulders and shake him. But more than anything else, she wanted to wrap her arms around him — to hold herself to his chest and confess how much she’d missed him. She could do that with a friend, couldn’t she?

But then, wasn’t that why she’d gotten angry enough to send him away in the first place? For Tamani, it was never just a friendly hug. He always wanted more. And as flattering as his persistence — and passion — could be, the way he treated David as an enemy to be crushed was less endearing. It had broken her heart to send Tamani away, and Laurel wasn’t sure she could go through that again.

She stood slowly and looked at him, her lips suddenly dry. As soon as his backpack was slung over one strong shoulder, he turned and met her eyes. Laurel opened her mouth to say something when he grinned and reached out his hand.

“Hey there,” he said, almost too brightly. “Looks like we’ll be desk-mates. Wanted to introduce myself — I’m Tam.”

Their clasped hands were moving up and down, but it was all Tamani’s doing; Laurel’s arm had gone limp. She stood silently for several seconds until Tamani’s meaningful look intensified and became almost a glare. “Oh!” she said belatedly. “I’m Laurel. Laurel Sewell. Pleasure.” Pleasure? Since when did she say “Pleasure”? And why was he shaking her hand like a stodgy salesperson?

Tamani pulled a class schedule from his back pocket. “I have English next, with Mrs. Cain. Would you mind showing me where the classroom is?”

Was the feeling that rushed over her relief that they didn’t share their second-hour class, or disappointment? “Sure,” she said cheerily. “It’s just down the hall.” Laurel gathered her things slowly, stalling while the classroom emptied. Then she leaned close to Tamani. “What are you doing here?”

“Are you glad to see me?”

She nodded, letting herself smile.

He grinned back, unconcealed relief brightening his expression. It made Laurel feel on more even ground to know he had been unsure too.

“Why—”

Tamani shook his head slightly and gestured toward the hall. When she was almost at the door, Tamani took hold of her elbow and stopped her. “Meet me in the woods behind your house after school?” he asked softly. “I’ll explain everything.” He paused, and with an unnatural quickness he lifted one hand to stroke her cheek. The feeling scarcely had time to register before his hands were back in his pockets and he was strolling out the door.