The final version of chapter 23 is here. Sorry it took so long. While I was writing this chapter, I realized there were some plot holes in the story that didn't make sense. So I went back and fixed them. Hope you love it! The final version is double the word count of the last sneak peek ;) Happy Holidays everyone! I might do an edit of this version, but not much should change. Can't wait to finish and Share Ch.24 with you all. I should be posting a new sneak peek of it soon. (12/25/17)
Per usual, I'm up before the rest of the world stirs. That is until I notice there's an empty bed in our room. However, my gut tells me that Zoey isn't awake yet. I take a quick shower, throw on a pair of black yoga capris pants, slip on a purple V-neck, put my wet hair up in a quick bun, and then tiptoe out the door so that I don't wake up Stevie Rae.
While getting ready, I couldn't help but notice the ugly dark circles under my eyes. Thanks to restless sleep, with bags like these, Logan was bound to ask more questions.
To avoid another round of Logan Jeopardy, reluctantly I send a text to the Twins. Since it's way too early for them to be up, of course they don't respond immediately like want them to. As I head to their room, I'm positive I'll be forgiven once they realize what I need.
I make a quick knock against their door.
I can hear Erin through the other side. "Who in the hell is knocking this… Jane?" Her blue eyes widen in shock with me standing in front of her.
Huffing, I try to avoid as much eye contact as possible. I mumble and get the words out as quickly as I can. "I'm in need of your expertise."
I let myself into their room, not bothering to wait for an answer. Taking a seat in the chair closest to me, that's placed in front of a big desk-like setup, there's an enormous mirror that's resting on top of the table portion. I look around at all the girly make-up stuff they have laying on top, but it doesn't give me a clue as to where the Twins would even start.
Sleepily, Shaunee questions my presence. "Is Jane asking what I think she's asking?"
"Can you even believe it Twin?"
"It's practically a Christmas miracle." I can hear the smirk in their voices. I should have known they'd milk this for all they could.
Swiveling the chair around to meet their gaze, I roll my eyes. For a second I consider just heading out. They're lucky I need them. Not in the mood for their sarcasm, I get the ball rolling. "Are you two going to help me or not?"
"Simmer down Jane. We'll take care of it." Erin pulls out a large turquoise box from under their set up. As she unlatches it little tiered shelves automatically rise out of it.
Becoming paranoid simply by the sight of the box, I can't help but add my two cents in. "I just need you to get rid of the bags under my eyes. They look gross."
Unconvinced, I eye them both. "But just that."
Shaunee looks unimpressed. "If you insist."
Still skeptical, I eye them questioningly. I'm determine to get a real answer out of them. "Just don't make it all cakey."
Simultaneously their jaws basically drop at how undignified my response must be.
Shaunee rolls her eyes. "You insult us Jane."
Right on step, Erin speaks, "As if we ever would."
I smirk, but shrug with the hope that I look at least somewhat sorry. I'm not a complete monster.
They both roll their eyes at me.
Shaunee starts on my face. Like a figured, despite irritating them, I'm easily forgiven because the Twins can't resist doing makeovers on people. Especially since that person is me.
Just as I'm about to relax, Erin starts working with my hair. "Erin? What do you think you're doing?"
"Making it prettier. Obviously. Besides, it's not like we would actually let you out in public with this bird's nest you call hair. I mean, did you even brush it?"
Instead of answering Erin's question, I sigh. I don't stop her since it means I won't have to do anything to it later. "This counts as your Christmas gift. For the both of you."
"You do know that's not how Secret Santa works right?"
Seeing as how letting them do a makeover was always my intention for their Secret Santa gift, I shrug with a smirk that she can't see. "It does now."
Despite being intently focused on whatever it is that she's doing to my face, Shaunee doesn't miss a beat in the conversation. "Not unless we get to pick out something amazing to go along with our work."
"And-we-claim-creative-liberty." It came out in a rush, as if Erin figured the faster she said it, the less likely I would disagree.
To her credit, she isn't wrong. And I'm not really in much of a mood to argue. "Fine. But nothing too girly. And no heels."
Shaunee smirks. "Uh-uhh. We have creative liberty."
It was way too early to deal-and-wheel with the Twins. "Whatever. Are you two done yet?"
"You can't rush perfection Jane."
"Trust us. You're in great hands."
When the Twins are done, they swivel the chair around so that I'm facing the mirror again.
"Whoa…" I'm legitimately impressed. "How did you get my hair to look like this?"
With a satisfied smirk, Shaunee looked over to Erin before bringing her gaze back to me. "It's pretty simple actually."
"All you have to do is add a dab of this after you get out of the shower and blow dry your hair on the lowest setting with a diffuser." Erin tosses a bottle in my lap. "Which should only add five to seven minutes to your normal routine."
Erin might as well be speaking in a foreign langue because most of what comes out of her mouth doesn't makes sense. "Diffuser?"
"Yeah. It's this cone attachment that you clip onto the part that air comes out of." Oddly enough, there's a lack of sarcasm that I expected to hear while Erin simplified her instruction.
Shaunee brings the hair dryer in my view. "See…" Clipping on the diffuser, she turns the dryer on and off, before placing it back down on the desk. "It diffuses the pressure of the air and concentrates the heat, leaving you with your natural, soft waves."
With an understanding nod, I pick up the bottle that's in my lap and read the back to see what they've given me. "So, what's the catch?"
"There's no catch."
"And you can keep it if you swear that you're actually going to use it."
Skeptical, I look at both of them to make sure that I actually heard them correctly. "So, your saying you're willing to part with what I'm assuming is expensive hair stuff…"
Ignoring Erin's corrections, I continue on with my question. "…Expensive hair stuff, as long as I use it?"
"Then why does it feel like I'm selling my soul for hair products?"
Packing stuff back into their make-up box, Shaunee gives me an annoyed look. "Really Jane?"
Erin steps around the chair to help Shaunee. "We're trying to make an effort to be somewhat nicer."
"And you're ruining it," they say simultaneously.
I smirk at their logic. "Well it's basically Christmas. And miracles are said to happen."
"Jane, seriously you have so much potential to look good, yet you waste it on yoga pants, ugly tank tops, and, ponytails."
"Or lame buns."
If I cared about opinions, I would almost be offended by their accusations. Almost.
Instead, I shrug. "Nothing wrong with being comfortable. And yoga pants are life. You two should try them some time."
Standing next to each other with their arms crossed, they practically look perfect despite just waking up. I fight back a grin while considering how Erin and Shaunee are more twin-like in comparison to me and my own brother.
Knowingly, Erin smirks. "You know Jane, being a badass doesn't mean you can't look great while doing bad-assery things."
I roll my eyes. "Function beats pretty in my book."
Shaunee spares me an eyeroll. In her most common-sense tone, she simply states, "It's not like you have to pick one or the other."
"Despite hanging around a bunch of hot guys 24/7 in your warrior classes, I think their jock-like tendencies have clouded your judgement."
"It's seriously not like that. It's…" I can't even finish my sentence because I don't really have a good come back.
"Aside from what we're assuming is laziness, it seriously wouldn't take much effort for you to look good. Again. You're annoyingly naturally pretty. It's not like you need make-up. Make-up is just the fun part."
Grumbling under my breath, I comment, "If you say so."
Provoked by my remark, Shaunee gives me a dirty look. "All we would have to do is just focus on your hair and wardrobe." It's easy to tell that she's doing her best to not let my amazing use of sarcasm get completely under her skin.
"And maybe some lipstick." Eyeing Erin, she amends her statement. "Or bit of lip gloss. Just saying."
I honestly want to be annoyed at all the exaggerated gibes the Twins have for my appearance, but they do make a solid point. They had been shamelessly trying to get me to "upgrade my look" for months. I guess, if it didn't take too much time away from me, it wasn't going to kill me to try and listen to their fashion advice. At the very least. With one last look at the hair goop in the bottle, I groan in defeat. "Fine. We start with my hair."
"Of course, Jane. Baby steps, right?"
Sighing, I look back at my reflection. To my surprise, the twins basically gave me a natural look with certain feature appearing more prominent than usual. My brown eyes don't seem as boring as they normally do. Not to mention my unruly sandy-blonde mop is tamed. Examining my face, I take a second to actually look at myself. I've gotten so use to the blue outline of my Mark that I don't seem to really notice it anymore. Which is weird since I usually have my hair tied back and out of the way. Even with my hair all silky and lose around my face, and flowy around my shoulders, whatever the Twins did, my crescent is now a focal point. And I love it.
Even better, I can't tell that there are bags under my eyes. Nor is the make-up all cakey like I imagined it would be.
Turning back to face the Twins I say what's on my mind, "I hate to admit it, but you both did a pretty amazing job. Thank you. For real."
Instead of them gloating or using a sarcastic retort, in unison the Twins say, "Jane, you're glowing pink again," and completely throw me off.
I glace at my arms, hands, and legs. My body is outlined in faint, shimmering pink glow. I didn't notice my shield was active since I could barely register the pull it had on me. Immediately, I mentally rein in my shield, leaving me looking normal again.
Rolling my eyes, I remind myself that it's Christmas Eve. That I don't need to be a Grinch just because any progress with my affinity seems to backfire. I don't need to be frustrated at the fact that after all this time, my shield still takes me off guard. Yeah right!
"You know… you never did tell us why your shield does that?"
Instead of avoiding their prodding gaze, I look them straight on. However, I answer their question with as much vagueness as possible. "Same reason why you glow red and blue. I have an affinity. Duh."
Lucky for me, as I get up, they don't bother to question me further.
"Just stop by my room once you two are ready. You can examine my closet for something you approve of."
With victorious grins from the Twins, I don't bother to say anything else and head out.
For a moment, when my eyes snapped open, I thought it had all been a dream. That Zoey was still lost and I failed her; however, that overwhelming sense of failure is easily squashed by her presence as she laid peacefully next to me, despite the crazy night that she had the other day. Before I went to sleep last morning, I had sent up a quite prayer to Nyx, asking for her to help me keep Zoey safe. I wanted to make sure that Zoey never had to go through the suffering she endured during all that time she spent hating herself because of that guy's untimely death.
Waking up next to Zoey feels practically unreal. Almost immediately, I'm overcome with blissfulness, but it's a different kind of bliss compared to the time when Zoey had Spirit help me and Jane. This time, it's just Zoey that leaves me feeling like this. I take comfort in the warmth that radiates from her. It's the calmest and most at peace I've ever felt. I never thought I could feel this way while living here at the House of Night. Today I give myself a break from the never-ending sense of being on high alert. Today I welcome this unquestionable pull that Zoey has on me with open arms.
Thanks to a slight movement in her sleep, as her bare forearms peaked out from under the covers, I'm easily reminded that there's still a battle worth fighting for. I'm truly grateful to our Goddess. By taking away her physical scars, Nyx was helping me give Zoey the life she deserved. It was up to me to figure out how to help combat the internal scars. Yesterday was only the beginning.
Looking over to my right, I notice that Logan's bed is still empty. It's another thing I'd have to add onto my list of things I needed to repay him for. I wouldn't be where I was today without him.
As I look to the clock on my night stand, just like that, I'm reminded that today's a special day with a lot to do and only a little time to do it. I crack open the top drawer to see a tiny box wrapped in light blue, shiny paper that I had a feeling Zoey would love. Like usual, I knew I could count on Logan to put Zoey's gift where I needed it. Hopefully, everything else planned today would go just as smoothly.
Gently, I get out of bed without waking Zoey up. I quickly go through my drawers to get the clothes I need and head to the bathroom for a much-needed shower.
When I finally wake up, the grogginess is still there. I close my eyes again for a moment and take in the warmth radiating behind me. It's so comforting. Smiling, I turn to give Stark a hug, but I'm immediately taken back by who it is instead. My initial shock at finding Duchess laying in Stark's place gives her enough timed to raise her head while sniffing the air and then panting next to me with her tail happily wagging behind her.
As I can feel a smile spread, the surprise I have is quickly replaced by this gushy feeling of having the big golden bear beside me as she licks my cheek. I give her head a good ruffle. "Good morning to you too, Duchess." Resting her head on my arm that's closest to her, I do the only thing I can, and pull her towards me to give her a big hug.
She gives my face another lick of approval as Stark opens the door and walks out of the bathroom freshly cleaned. In a simple pair of well warn black jeans and a fitted red t-shirt, he towels his hair and couldn't be any hotter if he tried. With my favorite smirk spread across his amazing face, he laughs. "Two of my favorite ladies."
Tossing his towel over the desk chair, as Stark comes to sit with me, Duchess moves to lay at the foot of the bed. "Duch, you know better girl." With guilty, puppy dog eyes, she hops off and goes back to her pouch.
As he looks from her and then to me, I now have Stark's full attention. "Happy birthday Zo."
I'm left a bit dumbstruck by the fact that he's here sitting in front of me, with such a loving gaze in his rich brown eyes, when only days ago we barely even knew each other. Before I would have thought that soulmates were impossible, but I can't ignore how right it feels to be with him. Unable to describe it, I know there's something inside of me that just clicks with Stark.
The way he looks back at me, I know he recognizes the look that must be written all over my face, because I know he feels it too. "Zoey…" His face is so close to mine that it's easy to smell the mint on his breath and it snaps me out of the romantic daze I'm in.
Just as he's about to go in for kiss, I realize I haven't even had time to freshen up. Quickly I scoot away from him and out of the bed.
With a knowing smirk, Stark asks, "You okay there?"
Covering my mouth, I shake my head and go straight to the bathroom. Laughing, Stark comments as I shut the door. "Z, you're being ridiculous. Can you get back here, please?"
Quickly, I run my fingers through my hair a couple of times to straighten it and get as many of the tangles out as possible. Hoping I didn't ruin the moment, I rummage through the cabinet attached under the sink, but it gets me nowhere. Rushed, I yell out, "I'll be out in a sec…"
Just as I'm about to go for the mirror Stark calls out instructions for me. "If you're looking for the mouthwash, it's behind the mirror cabinet."
Taking care of business, I take a deep breath and open the door to head back to Stark, feeling way more confident than I should.
As I walk out he asks, "Better?" while adding a knowing grin to go along with his question.
"Much better." I take a seat next to him.
Not wasting any time, I ask, "Want to pick up from where we left off?"
With a small curious tilt of his head, smirking at my unexpected forwardness, he doesn't need much encouragement to pull me into a kiss. It's sweet and perfect and over more quickly than I want to be. I try not to pout that his lips are too far away from my reach. "Is that all I get for being the birthday girl today?"
With a sly look in his eyes he replies, "I'm glad you asked." He reaches over to his nightstand. Opening the drawer, he pulls out a small box covered in metallic sky-blue wrapping paper.
Even though I know I said I didn't want gifts, as I unwrap and open the box, what I see inside leaves me grateful that Stark thought otherwise. A perfect silver, antique, little bracelet shines against the black material in the box. Four heart locket charms and three smaller matching filigree charms inset with crystal, hang evenly around the chain. The lockets are delicately engraved with heart motifs on the front. Once I open the first locket, my eyes start to tear up even before I can try to do anything about it.
My reaction must have taken Stark by surprise because the words he says are unexpected. "Zo, I'm sorry…" Immediately, I see some of the excitement he has leave his features. "I wasn't trying to make you sad. I can take it back. And we can forget it and…"
With a defeated huff he runs his hand through his hair.
I wipe my tears, trying to figure how to explain exactly how I feel, but the words don't come.
Stark doesn't make eye contact at first, but after a sad version of his smirk shows face, I see all the disappointment in his eyes. "We can pretend my stupid attempt to get you something nice never happened."
Simply amazed, I can only get out a few words, "Stark, it's perfect."
With a sniffle, I let out a deep breath. Gently, I take my bracelet out of its box. As I open every heart, each picture means more than the next.
The first is a beautiful landscape shot of our tree near the wall. Paired with it, is a photo of the House of Night with the sun setting in background. The next set is one that has me with everyone, while casting my first circle. The other one is with the whole group posing that Jane initially refused to be a part of. It's hard not to smile at the fact that the picture came out amazing.
The next one is my favorite. It's the photo that Jane managed to get with just me and Stark looking at each other, while perfectly timed right. It's as if she was able to capture all the feelings Stark and I have in that instant. The next photo is paired with one that's a picture of Stark with Duchess. The goofy grin he has, along with Duchess being a dog the size of a puppy, it's easy to tell that this was when he was younger. Plus, there is a skyline of skyscrapers in the background that I can only assume is from Chicago.
Before I could get to the fourth locket and open it Stark takes my hands in his. Grabbing a hold of the bracelet in his, he claps it on around my wrist and then closes all the lockets for me.
"I left the last locket empty. With our future ahead of us…" His eyes look up at me, while his hand still holds mine. "…I'm sure we'll have all kinds of new stuff you can add."
I pull him into a hug. "This means the world to me, Stark."
He gives me a smile of relief. "Your birthday gift is meant to capture all the people that will care for you or already do. I never want you to feel alone again. I know you've lost a lot in the past. But I like to think you're gaining a lot more for your future. You're home now."
Still holding onto him, I say in disbelief, "You did this all for me."
"I had a little help." It's now dawns on me that Jane's randomness these past few days wasn't so random after all.
"Both Jane and Jack."
"Well since you've given me my gift, you're going to laugh when you see what I got you." While I reach into my front pocket I warn him. "I didn't get the chance to wrap yours." I can see that I've peeked his curiosity. "So actually, you're going to have to close your eyes."
He chuckles, but does what he's told. "Stick your hand out and keep it open." Once again, he does what he's told, but this time without questions. I place the bracelet that I picked up from Madame Cheri's shop in the palm of his stretched-out hands.
"Can I open my eyes now?"
With a smirk, I say, "I don't know... Can you?"
He responds by opening his eyes and gives me a smirk. Looking down to his hand, his sarcastic smirk turns into a genuine grin. "You got me a bracelet?"
"I wonder what are the odds…" Suspicious, he eyes me jokingly. "Jane didn't clue you in on your birthday gift, did she?"
"Nope. Not a clue."
"If you say so…" He smirks at me as if he's in on some secret that I must have.
I plant a kiss on his cheek, while he hooks the claps of the metal ends. "I love my birthday gift, but you're not planning any more surprises for today, right?"
"Me, plan? Never." He lets my hand slide out of his as I walk towards the door. I stop for a quick moment up build up my courage. "Stark?"
I glance over my shoulder and can feel a bit of heat rise to my face. "I love you."
His eyes light up even brighter to go with his beaming smile. "I love you too, Zo."
As Stark sits on the bed, there's a bit of a dreamy mix with pride kind of look. Guess it's my turn to leave him stunned in amazement.
A small, content smile spreads across my face, as I close the door behind me and head out.