Chapter Thirty-Four

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"Where are we?" I look out the passenger window. A white feather drifts by, carried by the evening breeze. I'm sure it's another message for me, if I could only figure out what it means.

"Welcome to my family's cottage," Riley says, pulling my attention away from the feather. I stop looking out the window, turning my head back to him. "There's a meteor shower tonight, and the night sky out here is incredible. It's so dark that you can see stard—"

"Stardust," I finish with him. He gives me a surprised smile. "I love stardust."

His smile grows wider. "Just let me grab a few things from the trunk so we can go star watch." He reaches for the door handle.

"I'll help." I unbuckle my seat belt and get out of the car.

He pops open the trunk and I see a few bags inside of it. I peek into one of them and see pillar candles and plastic champagne flutes. There are blankets in the bag beside it, and a lantern and a cooler in the corner of the trunk. Riley grabs the lantern.

"What's in there?" I reach for the cooler. He doesn't say a word as I slide it closer and open the lid. There's a bottle of sparkling grape juice inside, submerged among melting ice cubes. He reaches across my arm to pluck the bottle out from the cooler and puts it inside of a bag.

"You planned this?" I ask. Even in the growing darkness, I see color rising to his cheeks.

"Shhh," he says, but he looks proud of himself. I want to grab him by the ears and kiss him until I can't breathe. I might do it, too, when his hands aren't full. No one has ever planned a night like this for me. Not in this life, and not in my life as Anna.

He turns on the lantern and shines it ahead of us. "Can you hold this for a second?" he asks, holding the lantern out to me.

I take it from him, and he reaches inside of the trunk to lift out the two bags. With a bag on either arm, he closes the trunk again and reaches out a hand for the lantern.

"You have your hands a little full," I point out. "I've got this."

I aim the lantern's beam in front of us and let him the lead the way. He looks ahead to where it lights up our path, careful to guide us over the tree roots sticking out above the ground and holding back branches for me. He stops when we get to a clearing and sets the bags down.

"Can you shine that over here?" He points at a spot in front of him. I swing the lantern beam over to it.

He pulls a blanket out from one of the bags and spreads it over the ground, careful not to let it pick up any leaves or dirt. The champagne flutes are next, and then the bottle of sparkling grape juice. A second blanket appears from the same bag as the first. He leaves it folded up and puts it on top of the blanket that's already on the ground. The candles are put into glass jars and placed on the ground, close to the blanket. Removing a lighter from his pocket, he kneels down beside the candles to light each one. Then he stands up and walks back over to me, taking the lantern from my hands and setting it down beside the blanket.

He moves closer to me until our foreheads touch. His mouth grazes mine and I suck in my breath, holding it while his tongue runs across my lower lip. Then both of his lips are crushed against mine, my tongue finding his. I hold onto him, my hands grabbing onto his shirt at first and then somehow finding their way underneath it to press against his skin.

"This is dangerous," he murmurs, his lips still touching mine. "I shouldn't kiss you."

I know what he means. Being alone together in the middle of nowhere without any light but the lantern, the candles, and the stars makes this seem like a fairy tale. If he keeps kissing me like this, we might never stop.

"Then don't," I whisper. I feel him smile.

"Is that a challenge?" His moves his head so his mouth is just barely above mine.

"If it is, I'll bet you fail." My hands are still under his shirt, holding him close to me.

"Hmm." His lips move down to my jawline. I want to sink down onto the blankets, but his hands come to my elbows, steadying me. "Funny how failing feels like winning."

He raises his head, moving it a few inches away from mine. I can hear how quick his breathing is and realize my breath sounds the same. He closes his eyes.

"You can see the stars now," he says after a minute, opening his eyes again. He sits down on the blanket and pats the spot beside him. I sit, too.

He reaches for the bottle of juice and opens it. I hand him the champagne flutes and he pours each of us a glass, then hands one to me.

"To meteor showers and stardust," he says, raising his glass to mine.

"To the best night ever," I reply, clinking his glass. I mean it, too. This is the happiest I can ever remember feeling in my time here as Cassidy or as Anna. I take a sip of the juice, letting the bubbles slide down my throat. Riley reaches for my hand and we both lie back, looking up at the sky.

"I can never get over how beautiful it is," I murmur, looking up at the millions of tiny lights against the growing darkness.

"More than beautiful." Riley's voice is husky. I turn my head to him and see that he's not watching the sky. He's staring at me. His eyes lock with mine and there's a pull between us that grows until our bodies are curled together, my hips pressed against his.

It starts with a kiss on my earlobe and his thumb stroking my cheek. Then I'm below him, his lips tracing my collarbone and leaving a trail of kisses up my neck and chin. I don't realize I'm holding my breath until he pauses, hovering above me. I trace his mouth with my finger and he captures the tip of it between his lips, holding my eyes with his. I let my hand fall to the ground and his lips finally meet mine.

Maybe it's because I'm too caught up in a feeling that's more blissful than anything I've felt in The Before, or maybe part of me just intentionally forgets, but I don't connect with The Life-After when Riley takes me home late that night. When I remember the next morning, I still don't connect.

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