Chapter Twenty-Two

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"It was actually a lot of fun!" I lounged across Rochelle's bed that afternoon, watching her paint her fingernails. She was experimenting with designs, but I couldn't tell if she was trying to paint splotches or spiders. I didn't say anything, though.

"Sounds like hell to me." With a deft flick, she finished her nails and held her hands out, eyeing the results.

"I know." I laughed. "It should have been awful. But the movie was sort of sweet, and it felt really nice to know that I had made those kids have a good first date."

Rochelle screwed the cap back onto the polish. "Oh, goody. You're all warm and fuzzy. Darlena, get a clue. Aphrodite didn't teach you anything today. She just had you play Cupid."

I tossed a pillow at her, which she dodged. "But I didn't know I could do anything like that. Even if it's nothing major, at least I'm still learning magic."

She snorted. "I don't think getting two horny teenagers to snuggle during a movie counts as anything magical."

I frowned, feeling the doubt of the previous night creep back into my mind. "What would you have done in my place?"

"First," she snapped, "I would never have sworn to such a pathetic goddess!"

"Pretend you did." My voice was tight with anger, but if Rochelle noticed, she gave no sign.

"Well, then, pretending I was as dumb as you, if I were stuck with Aphrodite and love magic, I'd at least do something interesting."

"Like what?"

She thought for a moment. "I don't know. Ruin the date somehow and make the girl cause a scene?"

I looked at her, feeling a little guilty. For just a moment, I'd had the same thought in the theater. "Why would anyone want to do that?"

She looked at me with pity. "Anger is more powerful than love. What good is it to make two people have a fairy-tale first date? That's such a waste of magical energy. You raised all that power, and then you let it fizzle out."

"But this is the first time I've used Red magic and not done harm." I tried to keep my voice level, but I was upset. "Can't you at least acknowledge that it's good to know I can stick to the Rede?"

She turned away from me and began putting on eyeliner. "If I were a Red Witch, I'd never waste my power on stupid little love affairs."

***

I was in a sour mood when I left Rochelle's house, and she didn't try to get me to stay for dinner. It was still light out, and I dawdled as I walked, taking my time and looking around at the brilliant colors of the trees. Fall had really decided to show herself, and the branches looked like they were dipped in gold and lit on fire. I drew a deep breath and struggled to push thoughts of Rochelle from my mind. I slowed down, lingering so I could enjoy the crisp air. Even if I did prefer Samhain, I found myself looking forward to Mabon more than usual. Although it might be awkward if red sparks started shooting off my hands—my parents wouldn't know what to think—I was ready to celebrate the true arrival of fall.

Fall is sneaky in North Carolina, because summer likes to linger. But I can always tell when fall has really arrived. I'm not quite sure how to explain it, but I guess there's a certain smell in the air that I recognize. I took another deep breath through my nose and frowned.

The crisp scent of fall was still there, but underneath was a smell like burned food. I noticed a thick, gray cloud to my right. Acting on impulse, I turned the corner and cut across a side street. The closer I walked to the smoke, the stronger the smell became, and my heart hammered in my throat as I realized what it was. I prayed I was wrong, but the sight that met my eyes proved that my prayer came a little too late.

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