Chapter Twenty-Six

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Justin and I spent the afternoon walking hand in hand through the neighborhoods surrounding Trinity. The fall sunshine cast a golden light on everything, and I felt like I had when I'd snuck a cocktail at my cousin's wedding the previous spring. It was wonderful.

"I have an idea." Justin's eyes sparkled, and I smiled up at him.

"What?"

He shook his head. "It's a secret. You'll find out soon enough."

Turning, he led me through a labyrinth of streets lined with charming World War II–era homes. After a few twists and turns, I was hopelessly lost, but then we came around the bend and I spotted a brontosaurus through the trees.

"Seriously?" I laughed and squeezed his hand.

"Why not?"

"Because I haven't been here since my tenth birthday." We had stopped walking, but I was smiling.

"So? It's high time you went back."

I laughed and let him lead me through the entrance to the science museum. It had been one of my favorite places as a child, but I'd outgrown it a long time ago.

"We're the only people here without kids!" I whispered self-consciously, glancing around.

He slipped his arm over my shoulders. "Aren't we lucky? We can do whatever we want."

I relaxed and started to enjoy myself. We wandered past rocks and fossils, space mission equipment and X-ray machines. I was heading for the animals; the museum kept bears, wolves, and lemurs in outdoor habitats on the land surrounding the building, and even though I hadn't been there in years, I still remembered where my favorite exhibits were. Laughing, Justin grabbed my hand and ran with me to the first habitat.

"I love the bears." I was breathless from rushing toward the cage.

"They are pretty cute."

We pressed against the railing at the viewing area, wedging our way in between children and their parents. Shoulder to shoulder, we stood in silence while we watched the three brown bears sleep, eat, and splash in the water. I sighed in contentment. I would have been perfectly willing to stay right there for the rest of the day, but Justin wanted to see the wolves, so I reluctantly pulled myself away to follow him.

The keepers were just finishing laying out food when we reached the second large fence. I watched, fascinated, as two red wolves slunk along the top of their enclosure, stalking the tray of raw meat. Justin turned away after a second.

"I don't really want to watch them eat."

But I was mesmerized. The first wolf had reached the meal and was sniffing it cautiously. Then, with a low growl, it began to tear at the flesh. The kids beside me let out a collective "Eeeew!" before their parents pulled them away. My ears started to ring, but my eyes were fixed on the feeding wolves. It was like I was entering a trance. My hands started to tingle, and I knew that at any second, I'd start shooting red sparks into the air. Just then, Justin leaned down and kissed me quickly.

I looked at him, my reverie broken. He smiled at me, and my heart flipped.

"Let's keep walking."

I nodded, and let him lead me back to the path. I glanced over my shoulder toward the wolves once, but after that I kept my attention on Justin. It was amazing to be with him, and I whispered a silent thank you to Aphrodite for teaching me the importance of love magic.

***

When Justin left me at the door of my house, the sky was already turning the purple of twilight. He kissed my cheek gently, and I reached up to draw him close for a real kiss. After a long moment, he pulled away.

"I should get home." He didn't move.

I nodded and kissed him again.

When I finally broke away, I glanced at the house. The lights were on, but the front curtains were drawn. I giggled nervously. "I wonder if my parents are watching us." For a second, I thought I saw the curtain move, but it must have been my imagination. Still, I pictured my dad standing there with his eye pressed to the sliver of light, trying to see what we were doing. Just to be silly, I waved.

Justin glanced up at the window and smiled. "If they are, they must know how much I love you."

My throat tightened. "What did you say?"

"That I love you, Darlena." He said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world. There was a pause while I smiled up at him like an idiot, but then he playfully flicked my hair and said, "Well?"

I blinked, confused. "Well?"

His eyes looked troubled, but he didn't say anything.

"Oh!" I exclaimed. "Oh, of course. I love you, too." I'd thought the words often enough, but I'd never imagined I'd get the chance to say them.

He kissed me again, and a traitorous thought flickered through my mind: did he really love me, or was it just the spell talking?

"I'll call you tonight." He lifted my hand up to his lips, and gently brushed my fingertips against them. I shivered in delight.

"I know you will." I blew him a kiss as he turned and walked down the street. When he had rounded the corner, I looked up at the rapidly darkening sky. I put my arms out and started to spin giddily.

"That was even better than I expected!" I whispered when I staggered to a stop. I started to laugh, realizing that I was standing there, in the dark, talking to the clouds like a crazy person. It was a good thing Justin had already left! Even as I thought it, I knew it wouldn't matter. He loved me, and that wouldn't change because I was acting a little crazy. But would it change if he knew about the spell? I tried to ignore that niggling thought as I went inside.

***

That night, my dreams were filled with the heavy perfume of roses and summer, despite the autumn wind that blew outside my window. I didn't hear the pelting rain, nor did I notice the wind. I dreamt of fields of flowers and sunshine and had no idea that, as I slept, a late-season hurricane was inching closer to the Atlantic coast.

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