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Totally Starcross'd

 

Totally Starcross’d

A Novella

 

S.D. Wasley

Copyright © 2016 S.D. Wasley

 

Cover Art: Simply Defined Art

Editor: Dominion Editing

 

 

 

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.

 

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

An Invitation

Join the S.D. Wasley VIP Readers’ Club for a bonus loveletter from Julian to Romilly.

Dedication

To my high school English Literature teachers, for introducing me to the wonders of Shakespeare.

Romilly

I hated these political events. They were always interminably dull and there was something demeaning about being paraded around in front of campaign donors by your parents. I felt like a prize spaniel on display.

My mother seemed born to it and could small-talk for hours without a break. Despite multiple training sessions with my father’s media and publicity coach, I still felt horribly awkward. I dreaded being caught by reporters the most. I’d become good at lying and glossing over anything controversial but the one question that always threw me was the very unoriginal, “So, what’s it like to be the daughter of a top running contender for Governor of Verona?”

The answer I always had to suppress was: “It kinda sucks, actually.”

Tonight it was a debate. Half an hour into the proceedings and I seriously wanted to skip out of the rest the show. I loathed the conservative candidate and couldn’t bear listening to the hostile back-and-forthing between my father and that dumbass Todd Capulet on topics like gay marriage and the coal industry. The crowd was howling like badly trained circus animals now things were in full swing.

I looked around for an escape route. Tonight’s debate was being held in the conference room at the Museum of Fine Art. I’d been here recently on a school excursion and knew the corridor containing the bathrooms led straight into the main foyer where a bunch of comfortable lounges were dotted about. Perfect for hiding.

“Going to the ladies’ room,” I mouthed to my mother.

She gave a flappy wave that probably meant something like, “Take one of the security guards with you!”

I pretended not to understand. This debate was a closed event, ticketed only, so I was pretty safe. And I doubted anyone would miss me during the rest of the debate. I slipped away from our group with relative ease, letting myself into the corridor and shutting the door on the ruckus behind me. There might be some fallout later for disappearing. Worth it, I decided.

Out here, the museum was practically abandoned. Much better. A woman wearing a Montague for Governor! button emerged from the bathroom and clacked by on heels. She gave me a quick smile and went back into the debate room. Now I really was alone. I wandered down the dim corridor and edged cautiously into the gallery foyer. There was an attendant at the desk and she glanced up at my arrival but went straight back to her magazine. Evidently she didn’t consider me a threat to the collection. There was nothing I could steal here even if I wanted to, with all the artworks enclosed in Perspex cases. Anyway I was so straight-looking in my garden tea-party dress, picked by my mom.

I browsed aimlessly. To entice visitors to cough up the few bucks they needed to go through into the main gallery, they had a few big-name pieces on display in the foyer. A Degas. A Picasso. I hovered before the Picasso. It wasn’t one of his famous cubist works. It was quite a sad painting of a woman with a child.

“I wonder what made him start experimenting like he did,” came a voice beside me.

“Not sure,” I said, glancing around. A young man was standing a short distance away, gazing at the painting. I made a brief assessment: neat clothes—jeans but dressed up with a jacket. Top knot in his golden-brown hair. I dropped my gaze. Uh, flip-flops? Hmmm, hipster styling, knew about Picasso. Montague supporter for sure.

“You’re missing the debate,” I said.

He gave me a quick smile. “Am I? That’s a shame.”

I laughed. “Dragged here by your parents as well?”

He nodded, losing interest in the Picasso and coming closer. “I was only ever in it for the caviar-topped blinis.” He said this with just the right amount of irony so I knew he meant it but he was also laughing at himself. Cute and smart.

“They certainly know how to cater these political things, huh?”

“Conservatives always cater well. Making a good impression is of prime importance. Campaigning 101.”

I cocked my head. “And the other guy?”

“The other guy should know that the caviar isn’t dolphin safe and the wait staff are underpaid.”

I burst out laughing this time. “I hope you’re joking. I don’t want to be eating something that hurts dolphins, or accepting service from exploited workers.”

He shrugged. “I may have made up the dolphin thing. But you should probably tip the waiter generously.”

I appraised him again. This guy was intriguing. He couldn’t have been much older than my sixteen years but he conversed like a much older man. And now he was closer I saw how cute he was. Dark blue eyes, tanned skin and gorgeous angular cheeks. He investigated my face with similar interest.

“What’s your name?” he asked me unexpectedly.

I didn’t particularly want him to know I was Alan Montague’s daughter after his snappy political commentary of a few moments before. I snatched at the first thing that came into my head. “I am the girl who wanders galleries at night.”

He cracked up laughing this time. “Mysterious, indeed.” He stuck out a hand for me to shake. “Hello, Girl Who Wanders Galleries at Night.”

“Girl Who, to my friends,” I said. “Nice to meet you, Guy Who Came for the Caviar Blinis.”

“Guy Who,” he said, nodding gravely. Then we shared a grin.

Through the glass foyer walls I saw a sight that made me roll my eyes. A leggy blonde was climbing out of a sleek car in front of the gallery. “Oh, god. It’s her.”

He followed my gaze. “Her?”

“Paris Addison. In the Capulet camp,” I explained. “Her dad owns half the coal mines in the state and when she’s not tweeting about her dog or Instagramming her nail art, she’s schmoozing with the conservatives on her father’s behalf. Her dad’s trying to get a major new mine through environmental planning so the Addisons are being pretty friendly with the party most likely to help them out.” I made a face.

I’d meant it as a joke but his face fell slightly. Perhaps he was more serious about politics than I’d realized.

“Hopefully Capulet keeps his ethics in check long enough to get through the election,” he said.

I gave him a dubious glance. “Uh-huh. Let’s see how that works out.”

Julian

Right. So just how bad does it feel to hear someone you’ve just met accuse your father of political corruption? And, as unreasonable as it is, how much worse does it feel when the person is a pretty, funny, smart girl you’re wildly attracted to?

What ‘Girl Who’ didn’t know was that I’d unwisely let Mom talk me into something tonight before we headed out to the debate—and that something involved Paris Addison.

“Jules,” she’d said, coming into my room, “what do you say to the idea of having a steady girlfriend?”

I nearly spat my soda. “What?”

“Well, you’re eighteen now, off to college in the fall.”

“Uh, yeah. So what?”

“You know Paris Addison?”

“Of course.”

“She’s a cousin, twice removed, of Vice President Escher.” I’d raised an eyebrow, wondering where this was heading. “She noticed you at the party fundraiser last month.”

“Yeah?” I could see my mother’s eyes sparkling like they always did when she had some ambitious scheme lined up for me.

“She asked your father about you.” She waggled her eyebrows.

“Good for her. Not interested.” I returned to my soda and my book.

She pouted, sitting on my bed. “Julian Capulet. By the time your father and I were your age we were engaged to be married.”

“Yeah, things have moved on since then,” I informed her, slurping soda. “There’s this thing called having a life. Lots of kids are doing it these days. I was thinking of giving it a shot.”

“Don’t be snide,” she said, becoming stern. “Paris Addison is coming to the debate. I want you to chat with her and I want you to be nice to her.”

I shrugged. “Sure, whatever. And I’m always nice, by the way.”

“Hmm.” She sounded dubious.

So here I was at the debate, waiting to entertain Paris Addison at the after-party … like a chump. But there would be plenty of time for that later. Right now, I had a beautiful dark-eyed girl to try to charm.

“Tell me, Girl Who,” I said as we moved onto the Matisse display. “Which bet did you lose to end up here tonight?”

“I have parents who like to drag their kids to dull political events, too,” she said.

Her parents were Montague supporters, I guessed. She’d made her position pretty clear. Unless she was a rebel like me, pretending to support the Capulet campaign while secretly rooting for the other guy. Except this was a massive betrayal on my behalf because Todd Capulet was my dad. An uproar arose from the debate room—cheering and boos.

“Sounds like it’s heating up in there,” I said.

She tucked a loose bit of dark hair behind one ear and gave me a sideways look. “All the more reason to avoid.”

“I’m with you,” I said, totally earnest.

She gave me a more concentrated stare. Wow. She was really pretty. Beautiful, in fact. I noticed a simple pendant hanging on a silver chain around her neck: smiling and crying theatrical masks.

“You live local?” she asked, sounding a little shyer this time.

“Yeah. I’m going to college in the fall though.”

“Oh, cool. I’ll be a senior then. You going far—for college, I mean?”

As far as I can go without leaving the country, I was about to say but, irrationally, I decided not to reveal that plan. For one thing, it would prompt her to ask why I wanted to get so far away. For another, it might put her off me to think I’ll be gone far away in the fall. And no matter what the truth was, I didn’t particularly want to put her off me.

“Haven’t made any decisions yet,” I shrugged. That was sort of true.

“I’d like to travel before college,” she said, gazing at the Matisse. “Europe, maybe. I could do a working holiday.”

Lucky girl. If only I had the freedom to make choices like that. My wildest independent decision in the past year had been to grow my hair long. And I only got away with it because Dad’s PR team approved my look, saying it might be useful in reaching a new demographic.

We moved onto the Cezanne. “So not a fan of Todd Capulet?” I asked it casually but I was keen to hear how much my father was ruining my chances with a girl like this.

She wrinkled her nose. “Uh, right. 1950s morals for a new millennium world? No, thanks.”

“Maybe it’s a utopian ideal,” I suggested. “Maybe the guy is nostalgic for a more innocent time of wholesome values and simpler roles.”

She quirked an eyebrow. “Maybe so. But he can get his wholesome values off my best friend Merrick, who’s gay … and extract his simpler gender roles from my own career aspirations, thanks.”

Oh, wow. She was so smart. And so hot. Crap! I knew I needed to get back inside the debate room soon and then this whole charade would be over because she’d work out who I was and hate my guts. And then I could spend the rest of the evening entertaining the airheaded Paris Addison. Was there any chance I could get Girl Who’s number first? Make contact after the debate and try to convince her I’m not like my father?

“Hey, Girl Who,” I said impulsively. “I’ve gotta get back to the bun fight but … do you want to maybe go for a coffee this week?”

She was startled but her cheeks went pink and I detected a small smile playing around her lips. My spirits rose.

“Sure. I know a good coffee shop in the East Quarter. They don’t quite do caviar blinis but their latte art is da bomb.”

Did she actually just say that? I think I’m in love. I grinned like I’d won the party fundraiser raffle and whipped out my phone. “Can I have your number?” She recited it and I saved it in my phone. “Girl Who, with a W?” I asked and it made her laugh again.

Down the hall a door opened and a woman emerged, standing in the shadows. She stared at us for a moment before calling out, “Romilly! Come on!”

The girl shot me an apologetic look. “Catch you later, Guy Who.” She ran down the hall in her white flats and cute dress. Looking adorable.

Romilly, huh? I updated the new contact in my phone to ‘Girl Who (Romilly)’ and trailed after them. Was her mom taking her home already? That was promising. Maybe there was a chance she wouldn’t realize who I was tonight and then I’d have more of a chance to get to know her before she rejected me on the basis of my political parentage.

Inside, the debate was winding down. The host was making some final remarks and people were laughing at his lame jokes. Waiters hovered at the edges of the room with trays full of food and drinks.

“But before we move on to the social part of the evening,” the host was saying, “let’s take a moment to thank our esteemed candidates for their efforts in tonight’s debate. Come back up here, guys—and bring your families. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Alan Montague and Todd Capulet.”

Mom caught my eye and tipped her head to say ‘get up there!’ I complied, meeting her on stage with Dad and Ty while the crowd applauded. I scoured the crowd for Girl Who. In the sea of faces I picked out Paris Addison in a tight black dress and five-inch heels, giving me a gigantic smile and a wave. I couldn’t see the adorable Romilly in her green-and-white dress anywhere. She must have gone already. I relaxed.

But then I glanced across the stage to where Alan Montague stood with his wife and daughter—and my heart dropped.

Romilly

“You’re lonely. You should totally date again, Romy.” Merrick stared at me expectantly, pausing with a handful of peanuts halfway to his mouth, while Benita nodded energetically beside him.

“Oh, great idea, guys!” I said, not even hiding the snark. “Because that went so well last time.”

Benita groaned. “Ross was bad news from the start. Obviously we don’t want you to get all unrequited with a self-absorbed jerk like him again. You know, I saw him at the mall the other day―Ross and that Ty Capulet thug he hangs with. I gave him a triple strength death glare and he flipped me the bird. The guys at school are all douchebags, Romy.”

“Hey!” Merrick protested.

She pulled an apologetic face. “Present company excluded, of course.”

“But seriously,” Merrick went on, forgiving her immediately, “there must be loads of hot young guys on your dad’s campaign trail, right? Interns and idealists? Guys just waiting to have their dreams made and hearts broken?” Merrick gave me a beguiling grin.

My thoughts flew to the debate night. “The only guys on the campaign trail are creeps.” Including the fascinating, hot … but deceptive Julian Capulet. He’d actually had the nerve to send me a message on my phone the next morning:

Figures, huh? Maybe that latte artist can do a representation of ‘totally awkward’ for us?

Uh, if he thought I was still going for that coffee with him after I found out he was Capulet’s kid, he couldn’t be more wrong. I didn’t reply, and just hoped he wouldn’t rat me out to the press for the stuff I said about his dad and the Addison coal mining family.

“Where can we introduce Romy to some nice guys?” Benita was asking Merrick, completely ignoring my protests.

“There’s a party on the beach tonight,” he said. “Some older people, a good mix.”

“Ross will be there,” I objected.

“Seriously, girl. Once you’ve seen some of the other guys at the party you won’t even know Ross exists.”

“Ross will look like the swamp thing next to some of these guys,” Benita added.

I shrugged glumly but several hours later found myself being dragged toward a strip of beach beyond some old warehouses by my two well-meaning friends.

“Wait, guys,” I said, coming to a sudden stop as I saw where the party was being held. “Do you realize we’re on Addison property?”

“Huh?” Merrick was baffled.

“The Addisons. Coal miners. They’ve got the Capulets in their back pockets. If I get seen here it might end up in the news and my parents will go ballistic.”

Benita rolled her eyes. “Romy, you’re not that famous yet. No one will even know who you are.”

I allowed myself to be pulled along to the party, not wanting them to think I had delusions about my own importance, but I had a growing feeling of anxiety in my stomach.

Julian

“Hey, Jules. You coming to this thing tonight?” My younger brother lay sprawled across the couch killing things on his video game.

“Nope.” Secretly, I’d rather stay home and mope over the Romilly Montague incident from Debate Night. I’d sent her a phone message the next morning, trying to be witty and ironic. No reply.

“What thing are you going to, Ty?” Mom piped up from the next room.

“Paris Addison’s party at the beach,” he told her. On his game, he asked for advice from a witch and then slayed her for no reason other than that was what Ty did.

Mom appeared. “Will Paris be there?”

“Well, she organized it,” was Ty’s scornful reply.

Mom’s focus instantly switched to me. “Julian, you can go, too.”

“No, thanks.”

She glared at me, eyebrows knitting. “Julian. You will go. You can keep an eye on your brother.”

“I don’t need him to keep an eye on me,” Ty scowled.

“Seriously, Mom. I don’t want to go, either to socialize or to keep an eye on Mr. Punch-first-Talk-later.” I shot Ty a look and he gave a proud smirk.

“You should totally come, Jules,” he said. “Paris is hot for you.”

I gave him a glare. “Thanks, Ty.” Mom stared at me expectantly and I heaved a sigh. “Fine. Whatever.”

“You make sure you’re really nice to Paris tonight, Julian,” she said, returning to the kitchen with an air of grim satisfaction. “You didn’t seem at all interested on Debate Night, young man.” She banged around with a pot or two, muttering that she didn’t know what was wrong with the men of today.

“I think I should get a say in who I’m interested in, Mom,” I called after her, aggrieved.

“What’s not to be interested in when it comes to Paris, man?” Ty remarked. “I’ve heard she’s a wild chick, if you know what I mean.” He made a disgusting gesture.

“I’m embarrassed to be your brother,” I said and Ty laughed.

“So, what’s your problem?” he said.

Oh god, that torturous conversation with Paris after Debate Night, punctuated by her high-pitched giggles while Romilly stood across the room with her parents, refusing to look my way. “Have you ever tried talking to Paris? She really doesn’t have much to say.”

“Who wants to talk to Paris Addison?”

I walked away. Ty and I could not be more different and I hated the thought of spending the whole evening with him. It wasn’t the first time Mom had made me babysit him at a party. Well, I’d be staying as far as possible away from my brother and leaving this party as soon as I could drag him away.

Almost as soon as we arrived, Ty got into an argument with a random kid as they stood at the makeshift bar. He caught my attention, shouting aggressively at his bemused adversary.

“You touched my ass!”

“In your dreams,” the young man drawled back at him. “Rednecks aren’t my thing, girlfriend.”

Ty clenched his fists at his sides. “Keep your filthy hands to yourself, faggot,” he growled.

I went to grab my brother and tell him to shut his stupid mouth, but Paris Addison appeared and they both stepped back.

“Hey, guys!” she said brightly, “What’s going on?”

Ty fought to control his anger but the other guy gave a carefree grin and explained. “All good, Paris. Capulet here flatters himself that I was fondling his derriere, but I assure you he’s mistaken. It must have been one of the girls in the line. She was probably deranged from thirst and mistook him for an attractive male specimen.”

I had to conceal a smile but Paris took Ty’s arm and, with a haughty look, left the other guy at the bar. “Ignore him, Ty,” she advised. “That’s the problem with these open invitation parties. Anyone could turn up.” My brother muttered about faggots again but Paris had noticed me by now, her eyes lighting up.

“Jules!” she cooed. “You came!”

“Hi, Paris. Great venue.” I attempted a polite, friendly attitude. Not too friendly.

Ty headed back toward the bar. Great. Ty and alcohol were never a good combination. Paris evidently agreed. “Don’t get drunk, Ty-bae!” she called after him. “And no fighting at my party!”

Paris looked like she was trying to find us somewhere to sit and get cozy but my saving grace was a bunch of girls who rushed up to air-kiss her and squeal about the blue pocket-handkerchief masquerading as a dress that she was wearing for her party. She shot me an apologetic look and I gave her what I hoped was an understanding wave.

“Julian!” came a familiar voice from behind me.

Ahhh—rescue! Laurence was here.

Romilly

“Thanks, girls.” Merrick’s voice was full of sarcasm. “I nearly got into fisticuffs with Ty Dumb-as-a-Brick Capulet and you’re over here clinking margaritas.”

“This is a mocktail,” I corrected him quickly. “And what are you talking about?”

“That halfwit Ty thought I was touching him up and I swear I didn’t do it. He was ready to deck me. He said some rather unflattering things about those of my particular sexual persuasion.”

“Ugh. Creep.” Benita said, peering around for Ty. “There he is at the bar. And there’s his brother.”

My heart almost stopped. I followed her gaze to the bar and saw Julian Capulet, who stood watching his younger brother order a beer at the pop-up bar. Suddenly all my worries about seeing Ross here tonight dissipated out of my head. I turned away, flustered.

“The brother’s rather luscious,” Merrick observed. “I wonder why he’s talking with Laurence Fry.”

That made me peep back over my shoulder. Laurence wasn’t exactly a Montague supporter but he openly hated the Capulets’ party. The whisper was that Laurence was a full-on underground environmental terrorist. What the hell was he doing here—at an Addison event? Casing out the enemy? Carrying out a mission?

No, it appeared he was chatting with Julian Capulet in a friendly manner.

I pushed my mocktail into Benita’s hand. “I’m going to get a water.”

I headed for Laurence and Julian. Halfway there I lost courage and hesitated. What the hell would I say to Julian after what had happened? After our meeting, my agreement to go on a date with him, and then our bizarre moment on stage, gazing at one another from opposing political camps? I tucked myself into a group of people close to my target and eavesdropped as best I could.

“It was my worst nightmare.” I caught Julian’s sentence semi-shouted to beat the general party noise. “The girl of my dreams. Gorgeous. Smart. Funny. I’m standing there on stage with Dad and I can’t see her anywhere in the crowd so I’m thinking I’m safe and I still have a chance. And then I look over and she’s standing on stage too … with Alan and Caroline Montague.”

I ducked lower behind the crowd, going hot and cold. He was talking about … me?

Laurence paused and then burst into laughter. “Are you referring to Romilly Montague?”

Julian laughed too but his voice was bitter. “You got it. Romilly Montague.” He said something I couldn’t quite hear. I strained my ears. A guy in the random circle I’d joined seemed to be staring at me so I faked a bleary drunken grin and stared vaguely into space. He focused back on his friends.

“What did you do?” Laurence asked.

“What could I do? I stood there like a good Capulet boy and smiled at the crowd.”

Laurence still had a laugh in his voice. “Pop goes the potential relationship.”

“Know what stinks? If she was anyone else … a cousin, a friend of the family. A freakin’ employee of the Montagues … it could have worked. But she’s Romilly, Alan Montague’s daughter, dammit. Why does she have to be Romilly Montague? Any other name on the planet. I mean, couldn’t she be … I don’t know, Agnes Smithbutt? Cornelia McClinker? She’d be just as pretty and cute and clever—just as perfect—but she wouldn’t be Romilly Montague. Then I’d have a chance with her.”

Was I actually hearing this? My heart pounded. This lovely, hot, special guy … felt like that about me?

“You need to see the humor in this, Jules,” Laurence said. My logic fought for my attention over the noise of my thumping heart―why did the radical Laurence Fry have time for the son of Todd Capulet, that corrupt conservative who would raze a rainforest to build a coal mine as soon as look at it? “I mean, kismet,” Laurence continued. “It was either meant to be—or meant to be a damn good laugh.”

“Not funny.” Julian’s voice was flat. “I really connected with her. I’m totally bummed about it. I can’t stop thinking about her.”

“And Paris?”

“What about Paris?”

“Word is, you and Paris are a thing.”

“Jesus, Laurence. Don’t you know me better that that?”

“Chill, man. You know I do.” There was a silence. Laurence Fry and Julian Capulet are buddies? I thought, stunned. “Hey, you still coming to the meeting Sunday?”

“Yeah, of course. You sure no one knows?”

“They all think you’re a working class ne’er-do-well who was raised on the streets. They’d never suspect you’re the son of a conservative politician who wants to take down the system from within.”

Julian was laughing. “Shut up, asshole.”

I slunk back to Benita and Merrick, who stared at me. I was too stunned to explain. Julian Capulet was an underground rebel. And he was smitten with me.

All I knew was that I needed to somehow shake my friends. I had to talk to Julian alone.

Julian

I steered Ty toward the parking lot. We only had to stop for him to take a pee once.

“Get in the car.” Ty obeyed, spilling into the backseat. When he was this drunk, he was more compliant than usual. I went around the car to get in the driver’s side. Ty already appeared to be asleep.

“Hey.”

I turned and had to pretend I wasn’t utterly freaked out when I saw who it was. Romilly Montague.

“Oh. Hey.”

She was silent, watching me.

“You were at the party?” She nodded. “By yourself?”

She glanced around. “I had friends here. But I wanted to talk to you.” Her voice sounded different. More serious than I expected.

“Did you give them the slip?” I half-joked but she nodded seriously. I realized this was not the time to joke. Her intense dark eyes were on mine. Maybe something was wrong. I stepped closer. “Do you need a lift somewhere?”

“Could you drive me home?”

I so wanted to drive her home. I had to stop myself from scrambling in a very uncool manner to the passenger side so I could open the car door for her. She approached the open door but instead of climbing in, she stopped and faced me, eyes boring into mine.

“Any other name?” she said. I stared at her blankly. “You want me to have any other name? Agnes Smithbutt?”

What. The. Hell. For a moment I imagined Laurence had caught Romilly and told her everything I said tonight. No, he wouldn’t do that to me. She must have overheard me somehow. I deflated against the side of the car.

“That’s not fair. I didn’t say that to you. I never intended for you to hear it.”

“Yeah, but I did anyway.”

Why was she here? Why wasn’t she running a mile after hearing my way over-the-top confession? “Romilly …”

“No.” She smiled suddenly. “Any other name, right?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’d prefer me to have any other name. So don’t call me Romilly. I don’t particularly want to be Agnes Smithbutt, but I’ll be Girl Who.”

I couldn’t help a soft laugh. Damn, she looked gorgeous. Was this really happening? “Girl Who. It’s not very fair that you got to hear how I feel without me even knowing you were there. I think you should do the right thing and tell me how you feel.”

“I’m far too shy to do that.”

Oh, my god. She was flirting with me. I caught her hand and pulled it toward my mouth, dropping an impulsive kiss on it. “You’re not shy.”

“That was a very old-fashioned kiss.”

“Maybe. Doesn’t mean I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy. Just means you deserve someone who will woo you.”

“Woo?” She laughed. “You want to woo me?”

She’d moved even closer by now. “You know I want to woo you. But I told you, it’s your turn. You heard me say how I feel. Now you tell me how you feel. Or are you just doing this for a bit of fun?”

The smile dropped from her lips immediately. “That’s not me.”

“So?”

It was a challenge. Romilly licked her lips nervously. I couldn’t stop myself from staring at those lips. Her eyes were deep and dark in the dim lighting of the empty parking lot. My god, she was beautiful.

“I like you, too,” she admitted at last, voice trembling. “And I want to go for coffee with you.”

My head swam. “Can I really be this lucky?”

She pushed me. “Stop it.”

“I mean it. I swear on…” I looked around desperately, “… on my Ford Luna!”

“Don’t swear on a Luna,” she said with a smirk. “They’re notoriously unreliable.”

“You’re funny,” I said, but I wasn’t laughing anymore. Her tongue darted out to lick her lower lip again. Okay. Now I was fixated on that mouth. “Girl Who,” I said, taking her other hand. “Can I kiss you?”

“Guy Who,” she said. “You’d better.”

Romilly

“Where the hell did you go?” Merrick had his face so close to the screen I could see that mole he called his beauty spot in 10x magnification.

“Sorry, what was that? You’re breaking up.” I pretended to mess with the settings on our video chat.

“Stop it, Romilly, this is important. We were panicking. Benita almost called the cops!” He gave me a narrow-eyed stare. “Did you sneak out and meet Ross?”

“Ross!” I laughed. “God, no. It wasn’t Ross.”

“So it was someone?”

“Bad connection,” I said hastily. “Can’t hear you.”

“Stop that, Romilly. Who is he?”

I sighed. “Okay, Merrick. But if you tell anyone I will personally destroy your entire Beanie Bear collection. Even the ultra-rares.”

He looked impressed. “This has gotta be juicy.”

“Do you know a guy called Julian?”

He frowned for a minute. “No. Well, only Julian Capulet and I’m guessing it’s not him.” I maintained a guilty silence and Merrick’s shriek nearly split my eardrums, even through the tinny computer speakers.

“Shut up!” I hissed.

“But …” He went from screeching to silent, a deep frown on his forehead. “But he’s a Capulet.”

“Yeah, but he’s not like his dad or Ty! He’s really sweet. He like, cares about the environment and stuff. And he knows about art. And he’s absolutely gorgeous.” I was gushing. I forced myself to shut up.

Merrick looked unconvinced. “Romy, he sounds nice but you’re not exactly known for your discerning taste in men.”

“Hey!” I thought about Ross and had to concede. “Yeah, okay, I don’t always get it right, but this one’s different.”

“I don’t know Julian personally. He was never at Verona East High. I think he was at some kind of specialist art school, or something, and he’s just graduated. I mean, he’s a hot looking guy—but he’s Ty Capulet’s brother and I don’t see how they could honestly be that different.”

“He’s friends with Laurence Fry.”

What?” Merrick gave this some thought. “Hmm. Okay. Maybe he is quite different from Ty … who, by the way, informed me as we were leaving that he would beat the shit out of me if I ever came anywhere near him again.”

“Jeez, Merrick,” I breathed. “That guy’s a psycho.”

“Yeah. And I’m highly insulted he thinks his ass is worth my notice.”

I couldn’t restrain my glee any longer. I bounced on my bed. “I’m going for coffee with him this afternoon. Julian.”

“Where are you going?”

“Leopard Blue in the East Quarter.”

“Oooooh, funky. I like, I like.” Merrick peered at me though the screen. “Well, Romy, I can’t help but be astounded that, out of all the guys in the City of Verona, you go and choose a Capulet. But you honestly look and sound super happy. Who knows, maybe it could work!”

“Yeah, but I’m not telling anyone at the moment, okay? For example, my parents.”

“Uh, yes. I’m with you.”

I ended the video chat, wanting to spend a little time getting ready for my date. Then I caught a bus to the East Quarter, thankful both my parents were at work so I didn’t have to lie to anyone about where I was going.

I saw his little Ford Luna parked in the alley next to Leopard Blue as I approached and my heart started jumping around. There he was … sitting in a corner, fidgeting with a menu. Damn, he was a fine-looking guy. He had cargo pants rolled up mid-shin and his usual flip-flops. While I watched, he fumbled the menu and dropped it on the floor. Nervous? How adorable.

I joined him. “Hi.”

His face lit up when he saw me and he jumped to his feet. He leaned in to kiss me briefly on the cheek. I was glad he didn’t go for the full passionate kiss in public but I certainly hoped we’d find somewhere more private today to allow for a repeat of our parking lot session from the other night. His kisses … I wrenched my mind back to the here and now.

“How you been, Girl Who?”

“Good. I love being on vacation.” Awkward pause followed by shy smiles. “Did your brother say anything after you dropped me off the other night? Like, did he realize who I was?”

“He said something about being the next Wolverine but aside from that, no. He didn’t mention you so I’m guessing he remained unconscious for the whole ride. But he didn’t vomit in the Luna this time, so that’s a bonus.”

“Ew.”

“Yeah, he’s a gem, my baby brother.”

“He tried to beat up my best friend, you know.”

“What?”

“Yep. He thought Merrick tried to feel him up. Yeah, Merrick’s gay, but he’s not a molesting creep.”

“That was your friend?” Julian looked genuinely distressed. “God, I’m so sorry. Ty is a loser sometimes. Well, a lot of the time, I guess.”

A waitress swung by our table and asked for our order. We both ordered lattes―for the art―but she hesitated, giving me a quizzical look. After a moment her brow cleared and she grinned. “Oh, hey. I’m voting for your dad.”

“Oh! Thanks.” I gave her a bright, fake smile and she switched her gaze onto Julian with interest before departing. I looked at him, panicking.

He understood immediately. “You want to leave?”

“Please.”

“Come on. We can sneak out the side exit. I know somewhere we can go.”

Julian

I took Romilly to Laurence’s place. He lived in a renovated warehouse in the East Quarter, so it was only a couple of minutes by car. Laurence’s place must have been worth a bit of money but I’d heard it was owned by his grandmother and she let him live there rent-free. We waited at the door, Romilly checking over her shoulder every few moments like she thought the paparazzi might be on our trail. Fortunately Laurence was home. He opened his eyes wide when he saw us but let us in without question.

“Well, well, well,” he said. “Julian Capulet. And little Romilly Montague.” He looked pointedly at our hands clasped together between us.

I couldn’t help laughing at his pseudo-scandalized amusement. “Leave it alone. We needed somewhere to go where the wait staff wouldn’t stare.”

“Poor kids.” He was probably teasing but there was some genuine sympathy in there, too.

“Any chance of a coffee?”

“Sure, I’ll make you both one but then I need to get back to what I’m doing.”

“Suits us. Maybe we could just chill here for a while? We won’t get in your way.” He grunted acquiescence as he led us to the kitchen. “Any progress on the research project?” I added.

Laurence shot me a swift glance that said, shut the hell up in front of the newb. I shrugged at him. I knew we could trust Romilly. Her dad was opposed to the new coal mine anyway, as far as I knew.

He sat us at the table while he made coffee but halfway through the grinding process I remembered how messy his living room normally was. Could I go and do a sneaky clean up before bringing Romilly in there? Most people could handle a bit of mess but maybe not the toxic waste dump of half-eaten pizzas and cereal bowls Laurence liked to live in. I excused myself and headed for the living room to reconnoiter the scope of the problem. Hmm. I’d seen worse but it was still pretty bad. I shoved the food scraps and rubbish into a couple of shopping bags hanging on the door handle and gathered up the used crockery into a stack. Then I shoved the lot into the coat closet. Lastly I shook the crumbs and dried up pepperoni slices off the throw rug lying on the sofa and kicked the bigger scraps underneath. Better.

When I got back Romilly was looking at me strangely and her cheeks seemed slightly pink. Maybe this situation was more awkward for her than I thought it would be. Laurence gave us our coffees and disappeared into his study.

“Are you close with Laurence Fry?” Romilly asked when we were settled on the sofa.

“Yeah, I consider him a good friend.”

“Does your family know that?”

“Uh, not really.”

“So you’re consorting with him and me against the wishes of your parents?”

“Consorting?” I couldn’t help a chuckle. “I’m not sure I’d call it that.”

“Are you trying to rebel, or something?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so. With Laurence, I met him at art school. He got me involved with … his work.”

“What does he do, specifically?”

I tried to tell her without betraying Laurence’s trust.

“He looks into environmental stuff. You know … reports generated by big companies, stuff like that. He tries to expose cover ups.”

“I heard he’s a vigilante. Sabotages machinery out on construction sites and stuff like that.”

Crap. She knew about that? How many more people knew? “What he does—the research he does—it’s important,” I tried. “It matters.”

She nodded. “He seems kind of worried about … this. You and me.”

I loved the way that sounded: ‘you and me.’ She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “He does?” I asked, getting lost again in how gorgeous she was.

“Yeah. He gave me the third degree.”

That got my attention. “Huh? What about?”

“He’d heard I was dating someone else for a … very short while. Recently. Someone who turned out to be a bit of a jerk. I think Laurence is worried I’ll play you.”

Well, that was embarrassing. I’d need to have a word to my friend about this interrogation.

“You don’t strike me as a player,” I assured her.

“I’m not. Not like … Paris Addison, for instance.”

I rolled my eyes. “So you’ve heard about her, too?”

“Just that you two were a bit of an item.”

“According to my mom, yeah. But me? Nope. No way. Ohhhhh, no.”

Romilly laughed. “You don’t fit the Capulet mold, Guy Who.”

“Because I don’t want to date Plastic Paris?”

“For lots of reasons. Take your brother, for example. He’s acting out—underage drinking, getting into fights and stuff. But he’s still playing out your dad’s politics. You know?” Her dark, intelligent eyes looked right into mine, searching for answers. “Your dad’s opposed to gay marriage, your brother’s homophobic. Makes sense.”

My eyes dropped. “Yeah, you can’t choose your family, huh?”

She took my hand. “You seem different.”

“I’m not homophobic. I don’t think women should stay at home and look after the kids if they don’t want to. I think taxpayer funding should be provided for public schools. I don’t think it’s fair that jobs traditionally held by men pay more highly than those held by women. I don’t want to see the Balthasar Forest Reserve cleared for another Addison coal mine. Does that cover everything?”

“You forgot to tell me your stance on refugees.”

I laughed but Romilly kept her eyes on me. “How does all that go down with your parents?”

“Not well,” I admitted. “I try not to talk about it with them too much. I’m just biding my time until college.”

She had a funny look on her face. “You’ve got to stand up for what you believe in, though. Right?”

“Uh, yeah. So long as you don’t have to spend Christmas with the people you’re standing up to.”

A smile appeared on her lips. “Okay, I guess that complicates things. It must be weird living in that family situation. How did you even escape the Capulet genes to start with?”

“It isn’t my whole family that’s like that,” I protested. “I’ve got an aunty who’s, like, a vagrant artist who lives in a beach shack with her lesbian lover and they worship the moon goddess. That’s pretty liberal, even by Montague standards.”

“Huh. And I’ve got a grandma who runs her church’s baking collective and thinks gay people belong in jail or a psych ward … she’s pretty conservative even by Capulet standards.” Romilly grinned and drank her coffee. And licked the foam off her lip. Okay, move over coffee. My turn. I took the cup out of her hand.

“You, Girl Who, are far too smart and sexy for your own good.”

She went red again. “Even if I’m not Plastic Paris?”

“Don’t even say her name. You’re the only girl I’m interested in.” She responded to my soft kiss, her eyelids fluttering closed. “And you’re the only girl I’ve been this interested in for … well, for a very long time.” I didn’t say ever because I didn’t want to freak her out. But I definitely thought it.

“That other guy—the one Laurence was asking me about,” she breathed into my cheek, “whatever his name was. I didn’t like him really. Not like this.”

I caught her face in my hands and we sank into a kiss. It got more heated as we pulled each other closer and kissed harder, tongues entwining as I moved my mouth against her impossibly soft lips. When we broke the kiss, Romilly’s cheeks were pink and her dark eyes shone. We both breathed heavily, gazing into one another’s eyes at close range, wanting more.

I really did want more. Not just of the physical stuff―more of her. More of Romilly Montague in my heart and my life. I wanted to hear her talk about herself, describe her friends and what she was interested in. I wanted to take her out and explore the city with her. I wanted to paint her portrait. My head was spinning with the impact she had on me.

Sometime … soon, I guess, I’d need to work out how I was going to tell Mom and Dad about this.

Romilly

Julian drove me almost all the way home, parking around the corner so no one would see us together.

“Well, that was fun,” he said. “If a little weird.”

I nodded. “Weirdest date ever. This whole thing we have is weird.”

“Good weird, though.” He caught me in his blue-eyed gaze again. “The weirdest thing is how fast it’s happening and how right it feels, despite all the obstacles in our way.”

I went hot and kind of melty inside. And even though I didn’t say anything, I was silently agreeing with every word he said. His eyes landed on the pendant hanging around my neck.

“That’s pretty,” he remarked. “Are you into acting? Drama?”

“Oh, uh …” I hesitated, not really wanting to tell the lame story connected with the necklace―the story Mom thought was so adorable. I tried to skim over it. “I saw it in a shop when I was just a kid. I didn’t know what it represented but I wanted it anyway. I called it the happy-sad faces and said I wanted it because that was exactly how I felt.”

Julian smiled. “That’s gorgeous. But why are you happy-sad?”

I shrugged. “I was a kid. I don’t know what I meant.”

“I know what you meant,” he said. “All the best things in life hurt as well as making you feel good. Happy-sad.”

He kissed me and I knew he was absolutely right. Even the sweetness of his kiss was touched with the sadness of knowing we were parting. The more we kissed, the harder it was to say goodbye. We’d kiss and I’d say something like, okay, I’m going now. And then I’d catch sight of his amazing eyes and I couldn’t help myself. I’d go in for another kiss. Or I’d actually make a move to get out of the car and he’d catch my hand and pull me back again while I giggled like a preteen. The sun dropped and streetlights blinked on as the goodbye-kiss minutes stretched into hours.

“At this rate we’ll still be saying goodnight tomorrow morning,” he laughed, stroking my hair back from my face.

That made me focus on my surroundings and realize the time. “Oh, crap! Dad’s gonna kill me.” I jumped out and leaned back in for the last kiss. Okay, the second last kiss. “See you soon!”

I ran all the way home and scrambled through the front door. “Where have you been?” Dad demanded as soon as I got inside.

“I’m so sorry!” I puffed. “I was with Benita and Merrick and time totally got away from us.”

He went into mute thundercloud mode while Mom took up the rant duties. “Romilly Montague. You know the rules about getting in touch if you’re going to be late. We’ve been calling and messaging you since we got home from work and you haven’t even bothered to reply.”

“Oh, god.” I checked my phone and flicked it back to sound-on. I’d had it on silent since I met Julian at Leopard Blue. There were loads of messages and some missed calls—mostly from Benita but also a few from Mom. “I had the sound down,” I moaned. “We were watching a movie … and …”

“Rules are rules,” Dad said grimly. “No outings for the rest of the week.”

I cursed myself inwardly. For the sake of a few extra kisses with Julian I’d just screwed up my chances of seeing him again this week. My phone buzzed in my hand and I glanced at it impatiently. Benita again. I caught the message preview and it contained the words ‘CALL ME … as soon as … worried.’ Her, too? Jeez, wasn’t a girl allowed a bit of time to herself anymore?

“Okay,” I said to my parents with a sigh. “Do you want help with dinner?”

Mom’s face softened a tiny bit. “No, it’s all under control. Just don’t scare us like that, Romy. The further your father gets in politics, the more of a target you’ll become for weirdos. We don’t expect you to be a hermit―all we ask is that you let us know if you’re going to be late or get caught up somewhere.”

“Yeah, I get it. I’ll go wash up.”

I checked my messages from Benita on the way. They started out frantic and got worse from there. I sank onto my bed, reading them all with growing alarm. Finally I stopped and went into the call log so I could try to put her messages and calls in order.

Romy, you around? Merrick and I are heading downtown. Want to meet up?

Romy, M told me you’re on a date. OMG who is he? Meet afterwards for debrief? We’re at The Globe.

Hey Romy. We’ve decided to leave. The vibe here is weird. It’s too hot inside The Globe and lots of jerks around, including that asshat Ty Capulet.

Shit Romy. Shit shit shit. Merrick’s hurt. I’m on my way to hospital with him.

Next there was a photo of what appeared to be Merrick’s face. My stomach rolled as I gazed at the misshapen bloody mess with swollen eyes and a smashed nose under an oxygen mask. His eyes were closed and in the background I could see the arm of a paramedic extended up to a mobile IV unit.

The next message hit just as hard.

It was Ty. He beat the hell out of Merrick out the front of The Globe. No one would help. I was so scared.

Romy we’re at St Peter’s in emergency. Can you come?

Merrick’s Mom and Dad have arrived now. My dad said he’s going to pick me up. The police want to talk to me.

Romy, I need you. Please call.

Next was a voicemail message. Benita spoke through sobs. “Romy, Merrick’s in intensive care. They’ve put him into a coma. I’m so … so scared.” She said something else I couldn’t make out and then a man’s voice could be heard in the background. “I’ve gotta go and give a statement about Ty Capulet. I’ll talk to you soon, Romilly.”

Then the text messages resumed:

I’m waiting at the police station. I’m scared.

The policewoman took my statement. They won’t let me leave yet.

They want me to do a line-up to ID Ty! His mom says he was with his brother all afternoon and it couldn’t have been him. The police think maybe I was mistaken and it wasn’t Ty. I can’t believe this.

Oh god, Romy, that was horrible. All these thugs and Ty standing there looking like he wouldn’t hurt a fly. I identified him but Mrs. Capulet’s still howling down the station.

I just saw Ty’s brother arrive. I hope he tells the truth but he IS a Capulet I guess.

Of course, Benita would have no idea about me and Julian yet. Merrick wouldn’t have told her who I was dating: he always let people tell their own news. Nausea rose again. Was Merrick okay? Would Julian tell the truth about his brother?

Romy, they’ve let me go home. I don’t know what Ty’s brother said. Please CALL ME as soon as you get this message. I’m really worried about Merrick.

I phoned and Benita answered with a sob. “Where the hell were you, Romy?” she demanded through her tears.

“I’m sorry!” I wailed. “I switched the sound off and then I forgot about my phone altogether. How’s Merrick?”

“He’s still unconscious. They want to keep him that way while they treat him and do some scans. They’re worried about—” another sob—“brain damage. He hit the ground hard when he fell.”

“Oh, god.” I clutched my stomach to try to settle it. “What the hell happened?”

“It was insane. We saw Ty in The Globe and decided to leave. He kept posturing at Merrick. We were standing outside trying to decide whether to take a cab or a bus and Ty just attacked Merrick from the back, screaming horrible things at him about being gay. Merrick fell down and then Ty was kicking him, in his face and head …” Benita broke down and I couldn’t speak either, tears dripping off my cheeks into my lap.

“Should I go to the hospital?” I managed.

“No, they won’t let you see him. They wouldn’t let me see him anymore as soon as his parents arrived.”

“I don’t know what to do!” I said.

“Could you come stay with me?” Benita asked in a small voice. “I need someone to talk to. I don’t want to be alone.”

“Of course,” I said instantly―and then remembered I was grounded. “Oh, crap. Uh. Let me check. I was late home and my parents banned me from going anywhere for the rest of the week, but maybe they’ll make an exception under the circumstances. I’ll call you back.”

I raced back to where Mom was serving dinner. I could hear Dad on a call in the front room. I gave her a breathless explanation and she gasped in utter disgust at the behavior of Ty Capulet, saying she knew that family were a bunch of bigots but this was beyond anything. I threw myself on her mercy, begging for permission to stay with Benita.

“Wait,” she said, frowning. “When did this all happen? I thought you were with Merrick and Benita this afternoon?”

I froze. She waited. “Um, it happened after I left them …” I was digging myself in deeper every moment and my mom’s face indicated she didn’t believe a word I was saying. Dad finished his call and came in.

“What’s going on?” he asked, recognizing the tense silence between us.

Mom gave him a look that seemed to hold a lot of significance. “Alan, could you phone St Peter’s and see if they’ll tell you anything about the condition of Romilly’s friend Merrick? I’m calling Benita’s parents to get the full story.”

Julian

Mom sounded like a hissing viper when she was this mad, her S’s spat at me in a rapid succession of cold sibilance.

“Julian Capulet. You will do as I say. He is your brother.

I shook my head. “I’m not saving his ass this time, Mom. He needs to wear this. He beat a guy into unconsciousness just because he’s gay. That’s a hate crime, for chrissake.”

She abandoned hissy and went to shrieky. “How could you betray him like this? He’s your baby brother! And the young man he fought with was harassing him.”

“Is that what he told you?”

“Ty wouldn’t lie to me.”

I watched Mom sadly. She was deluded about my brother. But no matter what she threatened me with, I sure wasn’t about to lie to the cops and say Ty was with me that afternoon. “There’s probably CCTV footage, Mom. He’s not going to get away with this.”

“The police haven’t mentioned any CCTV and there’s only one girl who says it was Ty. And she happens to be a close friend of Alan Montague’s daughter. It’s probably a smear campaign against your dad.”

My jaw dropped. So that was who Ty had beaten up? The same guy from Paris’s party―Romilly’s best friend? I felt sick. For a moment I wished Ty wasn’t my brother.

“Is he okay?” I asked.

“He’s upset, obviously. Panicking. That’s why he needs his brother right now. Stand up for Ty, Jules. Please. It’s the right thing to do.”

“Mom.” I gazed at her evenly. “I wasn’t asking about Ty. I was asking if the guy he bashed was okay.”

Mom looked like she was going to lose her shit right there in the police station waiting room. “Julian. This is not a joke. If you don’t do the right thing by your brother right now, he could lose all his opportunities for college, jobs and more.” A sob broke from her, which tugged at my heart.

I didn’t even get a chance to say I hadn’t been joking and I really did want to know if Romilly’s friend was okay because at that moment the cop came back into the room and asked me to go with her. Mom gave me the ‘do as I say!’ face and I felt even sicker.

The cop sat me down and pushed a glass of water toward me. She asked me a few questions … my name, date of birth, what I do. Then she remarked that I had no history of being in trouble with the law. That was unsettling. I nodded, trying to work out what she was getting at.

“How do you get along with Ty?” she asked unexpectedly.

“Uh … we get along okay.”

“Are you aware he claims he was with you this afternoon even though he’s been identified as the lone perpetrator of a bashing outside The Globe entertainment precinct?”

An image of Mom’s face twisted in grief and fear for my idiot brother flashed into my mind. I didn’t speak. The cop watched me for a few moments with a somewhat blank expression, like she’d been well-trained in how to hide what she was thinking.

“Julian, I’m going to level with you,” she said at last. “Your brother has been accused of a pretty horrific crime and if he’s convicted, he will probably serve time.” My jaw tightened. Maybe that would be good for Ty. It might teach him you can’t go around beating the crap out of someone just because you don’t like his sexual persuasion … or opinions … or face. “What’s more, with your dad being in such a public position and the election in a month or so, Ty’s actions could really damage the campaign.” She leaned a little closer as though this next bit was just between her and me. Yeah right, officer. “I don’t believe you and Ty were together. I think he bashed that young man who’s lying in intensive care at St Peter’s. Tell me, Julian, is your brother trying to create an alibi? Did your mother ask you to say Ty was with you?”

This threw up a new question: who was going to get into more trouble if I told the truth? Ty? Or would my mom go down for trying to cover for him? As much as I disagreed with her methods, I didn’t want to throw Mom under a bus, as well as my brother. Either way, Dad’s campaign looked screwed.

It was on the tip of my tongue to ask for a lawyer. Then I remembered Romilly’s remark: sometimes you’ve got to stand up for what you believe.

The police officer watched me, waiting for a reply.

Romilly

They didn’t let me go stay the night with Benita. Dad and Mom were fuming that I’d lied about being with my friends and when I refused to tell them where I really was, they stepped the disciplinary volcano up a notch: they confiscated my phone.

I went straight back to my room and got on my laptop. I checked out the news on social networks. Unbelievably, no one had caught the attack on phone camera, but it was still big news in our social circles and beyond. Benita tweeted that she’d witnessed a cold-blooded act of violence against an innocent person and wouldn’t stand for homophobia in her town. I was proud of her. Her words went a little viral, too. I retweeted to show my support … then that bimbo Paris Addison weighed in. She tweeted that people should check their facts before assuming the worst. She even replied to me directly, using the hashtags #TruthNotLies and #TakesTwoToTango. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. I sent some angry replies before my dad suddenly appeared in my bedroom and removed my laptop. He told me to stay in my room to await their punishment plan.

I moped around, swinging between desperate worry about Merrick, feeling like a heel for abandoning Benita in her hour of need, and wondering what the hell Julian would say when the police asked him whether he would vouch for his brother’s whereabouts. More selfish worries crept in, as well. How could Julian and I realistically be together after what had happened? His brother had bashed my best friend senseless and then his family had lied to protect Ty Capulet. Julian himself may have lied to save his brother’s ass. If his mother had succeeded in pressuring Julian into lying, then that was us, over, almost before we even began. And despite loathing the thought of him lying to protect that violent creep Ty, my heart felt like it was splitting in two when I contemplated not seeing Julian anymore. Stupid brain. Stupid heart. What was the point of worrying about any of this? It was pretty clear my parents were unlikely even to let me see my friends, let alone a guy, ever again.

When it got to midnight I couldn’t stand it any longer. I marched into my parents’ room and glared at them sitting in bed together. Mom was frowning at her phone in her nightgown and Dad was on his laptop.

“I can’t sleep until I know how Merrick is.”

Mom glanced at Dad. “There’s no news yet, Romilly. The doctors have placed him in an induced coma while they do testing and treat his injuries.”

“I spoke to the staff at St Peter’s,” Dad added. “They said they’ll let me know if there’s any change.”

“And Benita? Is she okay?”

“Her dad says she’s shaken up but she’ll be okay. I’ll let you talk to her tomorrow,” Mom said.

That was something. “What’s happening with Ty?” I asked stiffly. In other words, what did Julian say to the police?

“He’s been charged with assault and will stay in custody for the night. Benita identified him in a line-up―”

“I know,” I interrupted, “but Mrs. Capulet said he wasn’t even at The Globe.”

My father looked at me keenly. “That’s right. She said he was with his brother, Julian. The police are investigating the matter.”

“Weren’t there cameras around?”

“Yes, there’s some security camera footage. They’re examining it.”

So that was it? No answers yet? My shoulders slumped and I wanted to cry.

“Romy.” Mom extended her hand and I came closer. “Will you please tell us where you were tonight?”

Should I just tell them the truth? Well, Dad, I was in a parked car getting hot and heavy with the son of your biggest political opponent. God, I couldn’t tell them that. And what if it turned out Julian did back up Ty’s story? Not only would I have to admit I’d been with Julian Capulet, but I’d have to admit I’d been with lying, selfish Julian Capulet who had zero integrity. My throat got so tight I wouldn’t have been able to speak if I’d wanted to.

Mom sighed. “I hope you’ll change your mind by morning, Romilly. It’s impossible for us to trust you if you won’t even tell us where you were today.”

****

I got barely any sleep overnight and as a result woke after nine with a thumping headache. I ventured downstairs to ask if I could speak to Benita yet but Mom was nowhere to be found and Dad was in the study with the door shut. He was talking to someone―or maybe on the phone. I conducted a brief search and found my laptop up the top of the kitchen shelf, but not my phone. I didn’t dare pull it down and logon in case Dad caught me. I wasn’t sure how many punishments they could pile on top of one another if I kept doing things wrong, and I didn’t particularly want to find out.

Finally Dad emerged from the study and saw his guest to the door. I nearly fell over in shock when I saw who it was: Laurence Fry. Dad didn’t see me but Laurence caught sight of me and gave me a brief nod. Dad closed the front door and returned to his study while I went straight out the back door and dashed across the garden in my pajamas and bare feet. Over the side fence I saw Laurence, still standing out the front of our house, looking undecided.

“Laurence!” I called as softly as I could.

He heard me and crossed quickly to where I had just my nose and eyes over the top of the wooden palings.

“Hi,” he said. “Julian asked me to speak to you. Apparently you’re not responding to his messages.”

I stared. “Is that why you’re here?”

“Yes and no. I had to give your dad some information and when Julian found out where I was going he begged me to pass on a message.”

“Yes?”

“He said he’s sorry.”

My heart seemed to hit the bottom of my stomach. “About what?”

Laurence shrugged. “What Ty did, I guess. Jules is getting reamed by his parents for refusing to lie for the little bastard.”

My heart got up and flew right back to where it should be. “Oh, thank god! I wasn’t sure what he would do.”

Laurence frowned. “Jules would never let Ty get away with something like this just because his mom put the pressure on. He’s got some ethics, you know, despite his family.”

I got flustered. “I didn’t mean it like that. I was just worried his parents would force the issue.”

“They tried.” Laurence gave me a hard stare. “You look tired.”

I dropped my gaze. “I didn’t get much sleep last night. Worried about Merrick … and Julian.”

Laurence’s suspicion appeared to slide away slightly. “Look, Romilly, you seem like a cool chick but you really should watch yourself. Jules’ family is bad news. I’ve just given your dad some information that could take down the whole Capulet for Governor Campaign. If you’re seen to be hanging around with Julian, you could get tarred with the same brush. It’s gonna be ugly.”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I can’t say more than that.”

“But that isn’t fair on Julian,” I said. “He’s a good person. He wouldn’t do anything bad and now he’s going to get labeled as one of them?”

“I’ve asked your dad to be careful with the information―to try to protect the innocent. I don’t want Julian involved, either. But it probably won’t help much. When the media get hold of this, it’s going to be a bloodbath for the Capulets … and hopefully the Addisons, too.”

“Oh, no.” Tears sprang to my eyes and to hide them I looked down at my feet. When I dared look at Laurence again he was watching me with a mixture of sympathy and caution.

“Look, I know you guys like each other. I’m just saying you should maybe hang back for a while. Let the fur fly and the dust settle before you try to hook up again.”

I nodded unhappily. “Laurence, will you please tell Julian I’m not ignoring his messages? My parents confiscated my phone. They’re pissed at me because I lied about being with Merrick and Benita yesterday. When Merrick got bashed, they realized I couldn’t have been with them and now I’m in big trouble because I can’t tell them where I really was.”

Laurence swore softly. “What a mess. Yeah, I’ll tell him. I’ve gotta go now. I don’t want anyone to see me here.”

“Wait.” Impulsively I seized the catch of my necklace and whipped it off. “Can you give this to him?”

Laurence didn’t roll his eyes or judge me. He just shoved my necklace into his pocket and took off. I went back inside. I knew I had to do whatever I could to protect Julian, even if it meant totally freaking my dad out. If I told him who I was with yesterday, and that Julian hadn’t lied to protect Ty, he would know there was a reason to be careful with whatever top secret information Laurence had given him. He might take pity on Julian if he knew there was even one good Capulet. It was time to take my own advice to Julian and stand up for what I believed. If he could do it―and if Benita could do it―so could I. I pushed open the study door and found Dad staring at some papers on his desk.

“Dad?”

“Hi, Romy.” He looked distracted. “I’m kind of busy.”

“I know. I know what it’s about. I have to tell you something.”

His eyebrows tugged together. “What do you mean, you know what it’s about?”

“Laurence Fry and the Capulets.”

Dad’s eyes nearly popped out of his skull. “How the hell would you know anything about that, Romilly?”

“I know Laurence. He’s discovered something about the Addisons and Mr. Capulet, right? Something bad?” Dad just watched me. “Can you tell me what it is?”

He glanced down at his papers again before shuffling them together and closing the folder. “I need to verify the information before I talk about it but it’s bad, yes.”

“Will it hurt the whole family? The Capulets?”

Dad’s forehead creased. “It could harm their reputation. Why, Romilly?”

“Because … I just want you to know that they’re not all the same. One of the sons, he’s not like them. The older brother. His mom wanted him to lie to protect Ty―to say he was with him yesterday. But he wouldn’t lie. He told the truth about not being with Ty while he was beating up Merrick, even though he’s his brother. Julian stood up for what he believed. He’s not a bigot or corrupt.”

Dad’s confusion evolved into suspicion. “And how do you know all this, Romilly Montague?”

I took a breath and prepared to tell him the truth.

Julian

Despite the fact that the CCTV footage from outside The Globe clearly showed Ty beating the crap out of Merrick Utz, my mom couldn’t forgive me for failing to lie for him. It resulted in a major bust up, Dad attempting to adjudicate and calm us both down. She told me I was ungrateful, pathetic, selfish, ridiculous, and had no idea about how the real world worked. In return, I told her I couldn’t wait to get out of this house and would be applying to a college six hours’ drive from Verona. It wasn’t exactly part of my plan to tell them that way. I’d been intending to find some obscure course only run at a distant college and then pretend I had a burning passion to take that course. Now my reasons were laid bare before her: I wanted to go to college a long way away so I could avoid being a Capulet. Mom was stunned. She gaped at me.

“Wait, what?” my dad said. “Why would you do that, Jules? Why so far away?”

I glanced at him, regretting my words. Mom’s mouth tightened. “So he can get away from us, Todd, you idiot,” she snapped at him.

I couldn’t look at Dad. Mom marched across the kitchen to collect her coat and handbag. She shot me a hard stare. “I’m going to collect Ty from the station,” she said. “Julian, you might want to consider how you’re going to attend college at that distance without the support of your parents’ money. And by the way, this Thursday, you’re escorting Paris Addison to the Fundraiser Ball.”

It was a rough parting shot. She had to know I would rather poke my own eyes out than go to the Fundraiser Ball with Paris. Mom departed and Dad and I sagged into kitchen chairs at the same moment. He stared at me. “Really, Jules? You really want to get away from us?”

I shrugged. “Mom makes it hard for me,” I said. “I’m a disappointment to her. I can’t live up to what she wants from a son. And … sorry Dad … but I don’t share your politics.”

He gave a weak smile. “Yes, I had already worked that out, Julian. And what’s all this about Paris Addison? Are you dating her?”

“No! I can’t stand her. Mom’s been trying to set us up but she’s completely not my thing.”

Dad frowned with the effort of understanding. “She seems like a nice, bubbly, pretty sort of girl. Why don’t you like her? She reminds me a little of your mother at that age.”

I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from saying, ‘Yep, and that right there is precisely why I don’t like her.’ I tried to explain it in a way he might understand. “Dad, I like smart girls. Paris is not smart. Plus … sorry, I know they’re your friends, but I don’t like the Addisons. There’s something dodgy about them.”

“Dodgy?”

I was evasive. “Yeah. They’re only ever in anything for a buck.”

Dad couldn’t argue with that. He changed tack. “It would break your mother’s heart if you moved a long way away from us, Jules.”

“I seriously doubt that, Dad. She doesn’t understand me at all and all I seem to do is piss her off.”

“Language, son.” He paused. “Your mother means well. She’s a driving force in my campaign.”

“She wants to be a driving force in my life.”

He sagged further. “I know, Jules. I know. I’ve tried to talk to her. She just wants everything to be …” Words failed him.

“Perfect?”

Dad nodded helplessly. “I think she’ll relax a bit after the election.”

I didn’t share his confidence. My phone buzzed and I checked it hastily, hoping for a reply from Romilly. No such luck. It was Laurence.

Jules, shit’s going down. Can you meet me at my place? Delete this message. Don’t be seen.

What now? I didn’t think I could handle one of Laurence’s enviro-political crises in the midst of my own personal crisis. Nevertheless, it gave me an escape so I grabbed my stuff and made for the door.

“Where are you going, Julian?” Dad called. “We need to sort this out.”

I stopped. Romilly’s words came back to me again. Stand up for what you believe. “Dad, I have nothing to sort out. Mom needs to sort out what she wants from me. If she won’t let me access my college fund unless I go to her choice of college, so be it. I’ll move away and get a job. Either way, I can’t stay here while she’s trying to control what I say, do, believe―and even who I date, for chrissake.”

I got out of there.

****

Laurence opened his door and pulled me inside by the arm. “Jesus, man. I told you not to be seen.”

I stared. “No one saw me.”

“Just, I don’t know, you could’ve worn a baseball cap or something.”

“I’ll come in full drag next time, if it’s easier for you. I just need to find the right shoes to match my purse.”

He didn’t appreciate my sarcasm. “Did you delete my message?”

“Yes.”

“Good. This is going to be the last time we see each other for a while, Jules.”

“What?”

“Don’t come here anymore.”

“Why? What about the meetings?”

“The meetings are on hold until further notice. I’m going to be lying low for a while and you have to keep your distance.”

“Laurence.” I was annoyed by now. “What the hell’s going on?”

“It’s about to get busted wide open,” he said, “so I’ll give you the heads up. I’ve already handed the information onto someone who’s going to act on it.” He ran a hand through his short black hair. “The coal mine Addison wants to put in Balthasar Forest Reserve? You know it got provisionally approved after that last enviro report confirmed it wouldn’t be a danger to the raptor habitat?” I nodded, puzzled. “Turns out the report didn’t confirm that after all. Addison paid off the enviro department pen-pushers to change the report. Fact is, if that coal mine goes ahead it will end up in virtual extinction for a species of falcon, not to mention threatening a bunch of other species and skyrocketing the risk of wildfire across huge tracts of land. Jules.” He grabbed my arms and looked me in the eye. “Your dad knew about this. That’s why Addison’s been so friendly. They’re in it together.”

My head spun. “No,” I said. “No, my dad wouldn’t sink that low.”

“He did. There’s this environmental scientist I’ve been talking to. He was the whistle-blower. He saw the report that went to Addison Mining and he saw the report that got released to the public. He says they’re different. And he says Addison met with the Capulet office to talk about the approvals.”

I still couldn’t believe it. Yes, this coal mine was significant in my dad’s campaign. He was for it, saying the state needed the jobs the mine would create. Lots of people had changed sides from Montague to Capulet purely because they wanted those jobs, and Montague was reluctant for the mine to go ahead until more reports were done. So, yeah, Dad wanted the mine, but he wouldn’t stoop to this. He might have some old-fashioned beliefs and sometimes be intolerant of difference, but he wasn’t corrupt. I shook Laurence’s hands off my arms.

“You’re wrong!” I spat. “Your source is bullshitting you.”

“Jules, for real …?” His hands dropped to his sides and he gazed at me in disappointment. He dug in his pocket and pulled out something shiny. “I’m sorry, man. I’m really sorry I had to be the one to break it to you. Here. Romilly asked me to give this to you.” I recognized Romilly’s happy-sad necklace and stared at it dumbly. He shoved it into my hand.

My mind seemed disembodied … floating around while my mouth spoke. “You saw her?”

“Yeah. Her parents took her phone off her.” Laurence was still looking at me with sorrow. He rubbed his hand over his face. “Jules, I know you really like her. But things are gonna get messy between the Montagues and the Capulets. Can I make a suggestion? Just chill things out between you and Romilly for a while, huh? If people see you with her, they’ll figure she’s in with the Capulets. And you don’t want her to get dragged down into the Addison shit-storm that’s about to hit.”

Another reason to be pissed at him. I pocketed Romilly’s necklace and shoved past Laurence without another word. I had to speak to Dad.

Romilly

Merrick was okay.

Benita’s dad phoned my mom and broke the good news. They’d brought him out of the induced coma and he was weak, but appeared to have all his usual mental faculties. There would be some scarring on his nose and near his eye but the doctors thought it would be minimal. Merrick seemed quite pleased about the scars.

“They’ll make me look badass,” he told Benita and me when we video-chatted with him.

Ty Capulet was formally charged and Benita would need to appear in court as a witness with Merrick so they could both testify against the guy. Mrs. Capulet lost the plot when she saw Benita at the police station again. She screamed at her, calling her a lying little … well, you can imagine what. That made even the softly-spoken Benita so mad she retorted that the woman should go home and bake a pie for her homophobic devil spawn.

Then my father’s office broke the story about the Balthasar Forest Reserve environmental report. The following few days were insane. The one glimmer of relief was that, in the craziness of media interviews and phones ringing off the hook, my parents seemed to forget I’d confessed to dating Julian. They still didn’t give me back my phone but I hoped Laurence had passed on my message and necklace to Julian so he knew I wasn’t ignoring him deliberately. Todd Capulet withdrew his nomination for Governor and his wife spent half her days giving television interviews in which she attempted to deny her husband’s role in the fake report scandal. The interviews didn’t seem to go very well. No one believed her. Simultaneously, the Addison Empire went into damage control, trying to pin the whole thing on the Capulets. Paris Addison sent out some seriously poorly-planned tweets claiming her father was innocent and the media were bloodthirsty animals―and then her account went suddenly silent. I guess her dad’s PR team got hold of her and made her stop. A federal investigation commenced … the peak environmental body, the FBI, as well as some anti-corruption watchdogs. My dad’s popularity as prospective Governor skyrocketed.

Then my parents called me into their room one morning and dropped a bombshell.

“Romy, sweetheart. We’ve made a decision that might surprise you a little but it needs to be done and we think you’ll realize what a great opportunity it is as soon as you think about it a little.”

Uh-oh. They were trying to sell it to me before they even told me what it was? This couldn’t be good. “What decision?” I asked cautiously.

“We’ve found a really great academy we’re going to enroll you in for your last year or so of high school. It’s an exclusive private school with outstanding facilities and the most amazing academic programs.”

I didn’t know what to say. My first thoughts were of Benita and Merrick. I’d been at school with them since kindergarten.

“I don’t want to change schools. I’m doing well at Verona East.”

Mom changed tack. “Your dad’s about to become Governor, Romy. Things are changing. You’re at risk.”

“How am I at risk?”

“There are people who hate your father and his political views. His values. They might take that out on you.”

Her words unsettled me but I was still unhappy about the prospect of changing schools. “What is this school?”

“Mantua Ladies College.”

It took a moment to register. “Mantua? That’s in the next county!”

“It’s an exclusive boarding school, sweetie,” Mom said as though she thought that would convince me.

“In Mantua?”

“Well, yes. But that’s less than an hour by plane and we would fly you home every―”

“You want me to live in the next county?”

“Romilly―”

She didn’t get the chance to continue. My flip-out over the Mantua boarding school proposal was big. I ranted, cried and shouted. The horrible thing was, by the end of it, I felt like I’d got nowhere. Mom and Dad still seemed convinced Mantua Ladies’ College was the best place for me.

“Why?” I asked at last, devastated.

“Romilly,” Mom said, holding me by the arms and looking straight into my face, “we love you. You’re our most important treasure. We have to keep you safe. It’s only for a couple of years and then you can come back and live full time in Verona city again. Things should have settled down by then. You’ll be an adult and better equipped to deal with the challenges associated with Dad’s career.”

“You are ruining my life!” I sobbed.

I wrenched my arms out of her hold and ran downstairs. That was it. I needed to get out of here.

****

I knocked on Laurence Fry’s front door with a trembling hand. He opened the door and swore when he saw me, tugging me inside and slamming the door behind us.

“What the hell are you doing here, Romilly?”

“I need to see Julian.”

“So?”

“So, I can’t exactly go to his house, can I? Could you ask him to come here so I can see him?”

Laurence sank down on an old sofa and scratched at his head fitfully. “I told you not to make contact with him for a while. It’s a bad time for you two to be seen together.”

“I know but something’s come up and I really need to talk to him.”

“Like what?”

I fought to control my tears. “My parents are sending me away. To a boarding school in Mantua.”

He was surprised and I saw sympathy in his expression but Laurence shook his head. “That stinks, Romilly. But there’s nothing Julian can do to help you.”

I got mad. “I know that! I just need to talk to him. I … I miss him,” I admitted awkwardly. “Please help me.”

“Look, I know you guys have a thing, but think about this. If you go along with your parents’ plan―maybe even for a few months or one year―that might be enough time for your parents to reconsider. You might be able to talk them into letting you come back.”

I stared. A few months? A year? Laurence really didn’t get it. I tried again. “Please, Laurence. Please could you just phone him and ask him to come over so I can talk to him? You’re my only chance.”

He groaned. “I told him to stay away from me for a while. Romilly, he’s pissed at me. You know I’m the one who told your dad about the faked report. I dropped his father right in the middle of it.”

“But Julian wouldn’t have wanted you to cover it up, would he? Even if his dad was implicated?”

“I don’t think he believes his dad was involved.”

I thought about that. It didn’t change the fact that I wanted to see Julian as soon as possible. “Please, Laurence. Just send him a message and ask him to meet me.”

“I’ll do it, but not here,” he said. “I can’t have him seen here. It’s bad enough that you’re here. I’ve worked hard to keep my name out of this mess. If it goes public that I was involved, it will make my job much harder in future.”

I thought fast. “Okay. Ask him to meet me at the Urban Orchard in Hathaway Street.”

He sighed and sent the message. It was only moments before a reply buzzed through on Laurence’s phone. He checked it. “Okay, he says he can be there in half an hour.”

I hugged Laurence impulsively. “Thank you!”

He gave a surprised chuckle. “You crazy, impatient kids.” Laurence wagged a finger at me like a much older man. “Make sure you don’t end up regretting what you’re doing.”

I ran for the next tram to the city center, my spirits rising for the first time in days. I couldn’t wait to see Julian.

Julian

She was already waiting under one of the blossoming ornamental plum trees when I arrived. She was breathtaking. She wore jeans and a plain sweater but she couldn’t have looked more beautiful if she was in a ball gown. She jumped up when she saw me and ran straight into my arms.

“God, I’ve missed you,” I whispered in her ear and then kissed that gorgeous mouth.

But when she pulled me over to sit on the bench under the plum tree I saw how unhappy she looked.

“I’m so sorry about the Addison Coal Mine stuff,” she said in a low voice. “It must be horrible.”

I shook my head. “Yeah, it’s been a nightmare. But I’m still pretty sure my dad wasn’t directly involved. I’ve spoken to him and he tells me he had no idea the report had been falsified. I think he’s telling the truth. Addison was schmoozing him, sure, but he figured it was just the usual corporate lobbying. If anyone knew about the faked report,” I added, disguising the pang it gave me to say this, “it was my mom.”

“Laurence thinks we should avoid seeing each other,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.

I scowled. “Laurence can get his nose out of our business.”

“Julian.” She chewed her lip nervously. “I had to tell my parents about you. They realized I was lying about being with my friends when Merrick got bashed. I admitted I was with you. And now―now they want to send me away.”

I frowned. “Send you away? For school vacation? Where?”

“No, for good. To Mantua Ladies’ College. To finish high school.”

A tear spilled over onto her cheek and I felt like my heart turned to cold stone. “Mantua?” I pulled her close, bewildered by what she’d said. “Oh, no. This is because of me?”

“Partly, I guess. They say it’s for my safety. The stuff that happened with Merrick and Ty―the bashing―it freaked them out and then hearing that I was seeing you, it just seemed to tip them over the edge. They want me to leave my school, my friends … everything I know and love.”

I hugged Romilly, unable to stand the sorrow in her eyes. “I came clean with my parents, too―I told them I want to go away for college,” I said. “Like, away away. A long way. I’d been planning it for years … but to be honest, I’m not even sure about it myself anymore. Not since meeting you.”

“You might as well, now,” she said. “I won’t be here anyway.”

I hated hearing the bitter sadness in her voice almost as much as I hated the thought of her being taken away. “They can’t do this to us.”

“They can. I’m sixteen. I have to do what they say.”

“Romilly.” I took her face in my hands and waited until she lifted her dark eyes and looked into mine. “This might sound insane but I’ve been hit hard with feelings for you. I know we haven’t known each other long but it feels like I’ve known you forever.” She nodded in eager agreement. “I can’t stand the thought of being away from you. We can’t let them do this.”

“But what can we do?” she cried.

I dropped my hands. “I don’t know. I need to think of something.”

She caught my hand in hers. “When are you leaving?”

“What?”

“Leaving home.”

I was confused. “I hadn’t made plans yet … but I guess it will have to be sooner than later. Mom’s getting angrier every day. It’s almost intolerable. I was thinking of going to visit my grandfather on the west coast―just to take myself out of the firing line for a couple of weeks.”

Her face brightened. “Take me with you.”

My mouth fell open. “What? No, Romilly.”

“Why not? We could be together.”

“Yes, but―”

“Julian, help me. I can’t go to Mantua. Would your grandfather tell anyone?”

“I don’t think so but―”

“Please, Julian. It’s the only thing I can think of.”

“But even if you came with me, it wouldn’t solve anything. You’d still be leaving behind everything you love,” I reminded her.

“Not everything.”

I blinked. Whoa. Did she just say that? She couldn’t meet my eyes and I desperately needed her to because even though we’d known each other less than a fortnight and everything was against us, and it was impossible that we could already be in love, something about what she’d just said sounded exactly right. I’d never been the kind to claim to be in love right at the start of a relationship, but when I thought about how my heart responded to Romilly’s voice and face, it sure felt like love. People could say what they liked about real love taking time and normally I’d agree, but this time I’d plummeted headfirst into it, on a gravity-powered collision course.

In the end, all I could do was kiss her. She put her slender arms around my neck and kissed me back with every bit of passion in her soul. If I wasn’t lost before that kiss, I sure was by the end of it.

“Let’s do it,” I said. “Let’s get out of Verona City.”

Her eyes glowed and she wiped tears off her cheek with the back of her hand. “How do we do it?”

“We’ll go see Laurence. He’ll help us.”

****

Laurence listened while I outlined the plan, his frown deepening every moment. Romilly sat beside me on the sofa, clutching my hand and staring unseeingly at the pile of pizza boxes on the floor. When I’d finished, Laurence sat back and gazed at the ceiling for a few minutes.

“What exactly are you asking of me?” he said at last.

Romilly and I exchanged looks. “Advice, I guess,” I said. “How can we get out of Verona and to the west coast without getting stranded because my Ford Luna is an unreliable piece of crap? How do we travel without being traced?”

Laurence heaved an enormous sigh and fixed me with a stare. “You want my advice? Really?”

I nodded. Romilly clutched my hand harder.

“Well, Julian, my advice is this. Give up your elopement plans.”

“We’re not eloping!” Romilly exclaimed.

He gave her a cynical look. “You want to run off together, right? Same thing.” Laurence turned back to me. “Dude, there’s this little thing called the law, right? And taking a sixteen-year-old girl from the care of her parents without their consent is against it. It’s called abduction.”

I landed back on earth with a crash. What the hell had I been thinking? Romilly looked incensed with Laurence and I squeezed her hand. “God, he’s right. If you disappear, your parents will get the cops straight onto us and they’ll catch us before we even cross state lines. And knowing my luck, they’ll press charges no matter what you say to defend me. And I’d deserve it. I must have been insane to think we could do this.” Romilly’s mouth went tight and she pulled her hand from mine, gazing down at her fingers twisting together in her lap. “Romilly,” I attempted, “I’m not giving up on us. But running away together―it’s not going to work.”

“Seriously,” Laurence put in, “you two need your heads read. I tried to tell you to have a bit of patience. Let the dust settle after this Addison thing and the election. Keep things quiet―no meetings, just emails and phone calls, maybe. Is it really that hard? Time is the only thing that will get your parents off your backs.”

“We don’t have time,” I said. “Romilly’s parents want to send her to Mantua Ladies’ College for the start of the next school term.”

Laurence still looked frustrated but I saw some sympathy creep back in. He went back to staring at the ceiling and I turned my attention back to Romilly. She looked really distressed now. I could see her just barely holding it together, taking deep breaths.

“Hey, Girl Who,” I said gently, trying to distract her, “look. I’ve got your necklace. I pulled her happy-sad pendant out from under my shirt. I’d hung it on a piece of black cord. Romilly fixed her eyes on it, still taking breaths. I scrounged in my pocket. “And I got you something, too.” I pulled out her chain, on which I’d hung a silver pendant my radical artist aunt had sent me when I started high school. Mom always discouraged me from wearing it but I’d kept it anyway.

“What is it?” she gulped with an effort. “It looks like a bottle … of poison, or something?”

I laughed. “Not exactly. It’s supposed to be a paint pot. Artist’s paint. You know, because I’m into art.” I felt stupid suddenly but Romilly accepted it with a trembling smile and put it on, holding the pendant in her hand like it was something precious.

“Thanks, Guy Who.”

We didn’t kiss. That would have been weird with Laurence sitting right by us on the sofa. But she gave me her hand again.

“I’m having an idea,” Laurence said. “I’d appreciate some hush.”

“What sort of idea?” I asked.

“It’s pure evil genius,” he said, still staring at the ceiling. He pulled his head forward and fixed his gaze on us. “I don’t usually use my powers of political disruption for purposes such as this. But if it means I can save my friend from going down for kidnapping―and maybe also that you two will stop turning up here with your star-crossed lover problems―then I’m willing to bend my own rules.”

Romilly

I had no idea what Laurence was planning and he said it would probably have a better chance of succeeding if I didn’t know. Whatever he did, he did it fast. By the next morning my parents were muttering together and going quiet every time I walked into the room. They hadn’t punished me for my disappearing act of the day before―yet. And mid-morning Mom said I could go visit Merrick at his place with Benita.

“What did you beg, borrow or steal to get out of the house today, Romy?” Merrick asked me.

I shrugged, finding a perch at the end of the chaise longue on which Merrick was currently reclining. He flicked the blaring television to mute. “Not sure why they let me out.” I wasn’t ready to talk about Mantua Ladies’ College with my friends yet.

“Have they given you back your phone?” Benita wanted to know.

“No.” I rolled my eyes. “A week, they say. But at least I’m back online.”

Merrick shook his head in disbelief. “You’re amazing, Romilly. You have the patience of a saint. I would have been pitching a fit until my parents gave me back my phone in desperation for me to just stop whining.”

I grimaced. “Mine don’t work that way.”

“What’s that?” Benita asked, peering at the pendant on my necklace. “Is that new?”

I felt my cheeks heat up and tried to push it back under my shirt. Merrick cackled and then winced in pain. “Ow. My ribs. Romy, is that a present from Julian Capulet?”

“Shut up,” I mumbled.

“How can you―” Benita started and then cut herself short, looking down at the carpet.

My resentment flared. “Don’t judge him.”

“It’s kinda hard not to,” she responded in a quiet voice.

“He’s not like his brother. He refused to cover for Ty.”

“It’s just, he’s a Capulet,” Merrick said, his tone slightly apologetic. “And they all seem like … like warts on the big toe of humanity.”

“He’s not a wart. He cares about stuff. He knew nothing about the Addison Mining thing, either. He stands up for what he believes and what he believes is pretty similar to what I believe.” I sensed my friends exchanging significant looks while I kept my eyes on the silent television, jaw set.

“Okay,” Benita said at last, “I don’t know the guy but I’m sure you wouldn’t get involved with someone who would do the stuff Todd and Ty Capulet are going down for.” It was a peace offering. I gave her a weak smile.

Merrick hmphed. “Whatever he’s like, I hope he’s worth all the trouble, Romy.”

****

It was late at night when my parents finally called me into the kitchen.

“Romilly,” said Mom, “do you still feel very strongly that you don’t want to go to Mantua Ladies’ College?”

Great. Another brainwashing session? Another oh-they-have-such-great-programs-and-facilities-there marketing campaign?

“Yes,” I said clearly. “I would like to stay at Verona East.”

They exchanged glances and Dad cleared his throat. “You do understand why we wanted you to go there? It’s a great concern to us that you’ve been mixing with people behind our backs. And then when Merrick was attacked and you seemed insistent on involving yourself in the online discussion of the bashing … well, it scared us. We’ve been worried about your safety.”

I made a supreme effort and managed not to roll my eyes. “I know, but you brought me up to speak my mind. That’s exactly what you do, right Dad? That’s why you’re about to become the next Governor of Verona.”

Dad looked awkwardly proud for a moment before giving me a hard stare. “And the sneaking around with boys? Did we teach you that, too?”

I dropped my eyes. “Yeah, that was probably a mistake. But I just knew Julian was a good person and I thought if I told you about him, you might tell me I couldn’t see him.” I gave them my most beseeching look. “Please, Mom, Dad. Please don’t make me go to Mantua. I’ll disable all my social profiles. I’ll keep my mouth shut about controversial stuff. I’ll only go out in public with one of your security guards. I’ll―I’ll―” I stopped. I couldn’t think of anything else I could offer them and I sure wasn’t going to promise not to see Julian anymore.

Dad seemed shocked. He and Mom exchanged looks of consternation. “Romilly, we don’t expect anything like that!”

“We don’t want you to change who you are,” Mom said. “And anyway, we’ve been thinking. We’ve realized how hypocritical it would look if we were to send our daughter to an exclusive private school after your father has made such strong statements in favor of public education.” My hope rose and I nodded eagerly. “Perhaps sending you to Mantua Ladies’ College wasn’t such a well-thought-out idea after all.”

A grin broke on my face. “I don’t have to go?”

Dad shook his head. “No. You can stay at Verona East. But Romy, I want you to promise me something.” He looked at me seriously. “I want you to have some briefing sessions with my security people so they can make you fully aware of the risks and how to avoid dangerous situations. You’re too trusting. I would feel better if you fully appreciated what some strange-minded people out there can do and how to keep yourself safe.”

By this stage I was so relieved I would have promised Dad I’d shave my head or give up chocolate for a year. I nodded fervently.

“No more lying or sneaking around,” he finished with a stern look. “We’ve never asked anything unreasonable of you, Romilly. All we want is your honesty and a bit of communication.”

“And you can date,” Mom added. “We’ve never stopped you from dating. But you need to tell us who, when and where you’ll be. And we want to meet whomever it is before you go out with him—every single time you date a new boy.”

I grinned. There was only going to be one boy, as far as I could see. And I was more than ready for them to meet him.

Julian

“How the hell did you do it, man?”

I heard the triumph in Laurence’s voice at the other end of the call. “I couldn’t help but think it was a bit at-odds with Montague politics to line the pockets of a wealthy private school. Alan Montague is set to address the Educators’ Association dinner this week and I believe his topic is the importance of supporting free public education. I had a word to someone I know in his office―just to remind the Montague camp that putting their money where their mouth is should be a priority, especially in the wake of the disastrous Capulet campaign.”

“Laurence. You are one scary dude. Remind me never to go into battle with you.”

“No, I’m a pacifist,” he protested. “Romilly gave me the idea. She thought you’d given her a little bottle of poison, remember? Your weird pendant? That’s what I did. I gave Montague a little bottle of poison―not a big enough dose to really hurt anyone. Just enough to help things along.” His grin was audible. “Now, stay the hell away from my place for a while, okay? Jules? And make sure your forbidden lover gets the memo, as well.”

I told him he was an asshole and he laughed before we said a final goodbye―at least for a couple of months. I took off. I was meeting Romilly at Leopard Blue. Finally we were going to experience the awesome latte art she’d promised me. Our parents knew we were meeting. I’d been forced to endure the mortification of being presented by Romilly to the Montagues as the illicit―if repentant―lover. They were actually really cool. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t awkward.

I wished I could do the same with my parents but when Mom found out I was dating Romilly Montague she hit the roof. Again. Dad had to spend hours talking to her privately before she could even bring herself to look me in the eye. But that night she came to my bedroom and said stiffly, “Julian, I respect your choice to date whom you wish.”

My jaw sagged and I nearly fell off my bed. She gave me a look halfway between a bitter glare and helplessness. “If Ty’s going to have to go to a detention center after the court case, then I don’t want to lose you, too. I won’t withhold your college fund if you decide to attend a more … distant school. But I’d appreciate it if you were to consider choosing somewhere within an hour’s drive.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

Nope, still nowhere near ready to meet Romilly. But it would happen. Eventually.

I got to Leopard Blue and sat at the same table where I’d met up with her last time. I thought about the gallery where I first saw that beautiful, dark-haired girl staring at an early Picasso. That had been it, I guess. The moment fate seared itself across my heart like a burning meteorite. Then in the Urban Orchard, under a cloud of pink plum blossom, she told me she felt the same. My excitement grew as I thought about all the places we could explore together. Galleries, museums, plays, shows. Now Romilly was staying in Verona City, there wasn’t a chance in hell of me attending college anywhere else. I’d already downloaded the Verona College application form.

I looked up and she was walking toward me. My breath caught. Goddamn. She was amazing. Just blue jeans and a white top, her dark hair spilling over her shoulders and her red lips parted in a joyful smile … but she was amazing. I jumped up and she landed right in my arms for a tight hug.

“Hi, Girl Who,” I whispered. “I’m officially renaming you … Girl Who has my Heart.”

She kissed me briefly. “But you can call me Romilly, now. Or even Agnes Smithbutt.” She gave me a cheeky grin.

I laughed. “What’s in a name, anyway?”

 

The End

 

 

Read on for a bonus: the first chapter of Downfall, S.D. Wasley’s new adult paranormal romance.

 

Pssst … want to read a loveletter?

 

 

Join the free VIP Readers’ Club for exclusive content: a love letter from Julian to Romilly.

 

 

Guide to the retelling

Starcross’d: This word describes a relationship between lovers that is derailed by forces beyond their control. It was most famously used in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet.

Verona: This is a real city in Italy and was the setting for Romeo and Juliet. It is used in this story as the name of the fictional state of Verona, the capital of which is Verona City.

The Debate: The debate represents the conflict between the Montague and Capulet families and also provides the setting for Romilly and Julian’s first meeting. In the play, Romeo and Juliet did not at first realize they were both from the feuding families.

Paris: Paris was the man in the play that the Capulets wanted Juliet to marry. He was a powerful figure with his own large estate, and a cousin of Prince Escalot (represented by Vice President Escher in this story). Juliet’s mother pushes her to allow Paris to ‘woo’ her.

Romilly’s pendant: She wears happy-sad theatre masks. I included this as a reference to theatre and plays.

Ty: Julian’s younger brother represents the play’s hotheaded Capulet clan member, Tybalt, who goes on to murder Mercutio in a duel.

Merrick: Merrick Utz is Romilly’s best friend. He represents Romeo’s quick-witted best friend Mercutio, who is murdered by Tybalt.

Benita: Benita represents Benvolio, Romeo’s other best friend, who tells Prince Escalot that Tybalt killed Mercutio.

Ross: Ross represents Rosaline, a Capulet; the girl Romeo was smitten with before he met Juliet. His passion was unrequited but he quickly forgot about her after he met Juliet, anyway!

The Beach Party: In the play, Mercutio and Benvolio convince Romeo to come check out the pretty girls at a big party being thrown by the Capulets. Rosaline will be there but they tell him he’ll forget about her when he sees the other girls. Tybalt recognizes the Montague clan members and gets aggressive but the senior Capulet tells him not to ruin the party with violence. In this story, the party is hosted by Paris Addison.

Laurence Fry: Laurence represents the play’s character of Friar Laurence, the clergyman who helps Juliet and Romeo marry in secret and then later attempts to help them run away together. He is a voice of reason in the play, but also a bit of a subversive as he believes Romeo and Juliet getting married might heal the feud between the Capulets and Montagues.

Romilly overhearing Julian: Romilly eavesdrops on Julian while he confesses how he feels to Laurence, echoing the memorable moment in the play when Juliet is on her balcony, wishing that Romeo was anyone but a Montague. She yearns for him to have any other name, saying a ‘rose by any other name’ would smell as sweet. She’s mortified when she realizes he has overheard her and demands he tell her the truth about his own feelings.

Romilly gives Benita and Merrick the slip: In the play, Romeo takes off to meet Juliet after the party. His friends Mercutio and Benvolio think he might be seeing Rosaline.

Kissing the hand: In the play, Romeo kisses Juliet and she tells him he kisses ‘by the book’, meaning in a traditional, typical manner.

Swearing on the Ford Luna: In the play, Romeo swears on the moon that he loves Juliet. She tells him not to swear on the moon because it’s inconstant and always changing. I’ve used the imaginary car model of ‘Ford Luna’—Luna meaning moon.

Consorting: In the play Tybalt asks Mercutio if he and Benvolio ‘consort’ with Romeo and there is some word play on the word ‘consort.’

Balthasar Forest Reserve: I used the name Balthasar as he was one of the servants in the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet.

Happy-sad: This conversation between Romilly and Julian is a reference to the scene where Juliet says goodbye to Romeo for the night, calling parting a ‘sweet sorrow.’ She says she would rather say goodbye all night and through to the next day than part from him.

Benita’s phone messages: In the play, Benvolio must break the bad news to Romeo about Mercutio’s death. In this story, Benita tells Romilly Merrick has been the victim of gay-bashing.

The Globe Entertainment Precinct: I have used the name ‘The Globe’ for the mall/arcade where Benita and Merrick are hanging out. The Globe was the theatre in London where many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed.

St Peter’s: I named the hospital St Peter’s after Peter, the Capulet servant in the play.

Benita’s testimony: In the play, Mrs. Capulet screams at Benvolio that he is a liar when he identifies Tybalt as the murderer of Mercutio.

Giving the pendant: This is done differently in the play. Juliet sends her ring to Romeo via her Nurse. In my story, Romilly sends her pendant to Julian via Laurence.

The Capulet family bust-up: In my story, Julian’s mother calls him ungrateful when he won’t do what she wants. In the play, Juliet is called ungrateful when she begs her parents to delay the wedding with Paris.

The Fundraiser Ball: In the play, Juliet’s wedding date with Paris is set by her parents as Thursday. In this story, Julian’s mother tells him he has to go to the Fundraiser Ball with Paris Addison on Thursday.

The faked environmental report: In the play, Romeo kills Paris. Paris doesn’t actually die in my story but the scandal about the coal mine and the faked report is a symbolic death of the Addison family’s success―at the hands of the Montagues.

Mantua Ladies’ College: In the play, Romeo is banished to Mantua for murdering Tybalt (a revenge killing for Mercutio’s death). He rushes to Friar Laurence, who reminds him not to panic. He tells Romeo that if he goes away to Mantua for a while, he will probably be allowed back to Verona within a couple of years. This is similar to the advice Laurence gives Romilly about boarding school.

The Urban Orchard on Hathaway Street: In the play, Juliet and Romeo’s last meeting is in an orchard. I’ve used ‘Urban Orchard’ because there is a real Urban Orchard in my hometown. Hathaway Street is a reference to Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway.

Romilly’s admission of love: It went against the grain for me to have Romilly and Julian to declare their love so early in the relationship! But the fact is, Romeo and Juliet were insta-lovers. They got married after meeting for one night.

The plan to escape from Verona: In my story, Romilly and Julian plan to run away together. In the play, Friar Laurence helps Juliet escape marriage to Paris by giving her a poison that sends her into a death-like state. The plan is for Romeo to come and smuggle her out of her tomb so they can escape from Verona together.

The vial of poison: Romilly thinks Julian’s pendant is a vial of poison. He explains it is a paint pot. However, in the play, the vial of poison is relevant twice: once when Juliet takes the trance-inducing drug and again when Romeo buys poison in case he needs to kill himself if he finds Juliet dead (he’s a prepared kind of guy). In my story, Laurence uses the vial of poison as a metaphor for injecting some ‘poison’ (doubt) into the Montague for Governor campaign when he reminds the Montagues not to be hypocritical about their stance on public education.

What’s in a name? One of the most famous lines from the play, referring to a rose. The idea is that names mean nothing―the true essence of a thing or person won’t change if you change its name.

 

 

Bonus: Chapter 1 of Downfall

 

Book 1 of The Incorruptibles, a new adult paranormal romance series by S.D. Wasley.

 

****

Omen

Six words.

Six words led me to this moment. Led me here to a cold, dark field where I am to die.

Odd how the brain works. I don’t see my life flashing before my eyes. I see something more like a game of Tetris: seemingly irreconcilable blocks slotting together to form a whole. And the only thing that flashes before my eyes is that banal moment in which six words started it all.

I touch the wound in my left shoulder and feel gushing blood and torn flesh. I close my hand over it, knowing I have to somehow stop the bleeding. My heart is thudding hard so I will the beats to slow, feeling the way each one pumps blood out past my fingers. Kicking off my sandshoe I yank a sock from my foot and press it hard against the wound. Immediately the cotton soaks through with warm blood. Its smell is nauseating. I need something more substantial than a sock to stem the flow but I can’t get my jeans off with this useless arm hanging like a hunk of raw meat. It will have to be my T-shirt. I tug and twist but simply cannot get out of it without the help of the left hand.

A strange little whimper escapes me as I struggle to my feet. Blood is running right through the sock and down my arm. I head for the track but I need to make a choice: should I turn for the beach or the highway? Which is closest? Will Owen drive back this way soon? I choose. Hopefully I will meet Owen on the track back to the highway. I wobble down the slope toward the fence.

I make it about half a dozen steps before my legs buckle under me and I hit the ground again. I must have stumbled over something. I try to get back to my feet but it’s like they aren’t my own anymore. My legs react in slow motion, weak flinches in response to my mental command that they straighten up and lift me off the ground. After a couple more attempts I stop trying. I’m still a good twenty yards from the track, slumped behind a clump of dry grass.

I’m cold. Terribly cold, through and through, as if all my warmth is pouring out of my arm with my blood. At least the pain is easing. The world seems darker than I’ve ever seen it. I can’t even see where the embers glowed in the paddock a few moments before. I think about an eagle landing near me in tomorrow’s daylight, hopping over to inspect my stone-cold, blood-soaked body. Plucking my eyes out of the open sockets. Carrion. The thought prompts another effort to heave myself upwards. Nothing. No physical response. I’m like a dead body with a living girl stuck inside. I groan thickly and the sound goes on and on.

After a moment I realise the sound is not my groaning. It’s something else … an engine? I try to raise my head. I think I can hear a vehicle. Owen? He won’t see me over here, off the road and hidden in the dark. Or it could be the farmer coming back to pick up his quarry. I clutch my arm harder, surprised anew by the constant pouring. Do I really have this much blood in my body? I’m not sure but there might be footsteps coming toward me. A cloud moves to reveal a waxing moon, its cold white light coming through the distant trees. It’s quiet now but for the irregular beat of my pulse in my ears. I attempt a call but my voice makes no sound, just a wheeze of air. I’m going to die here, voiceless, weak and alone.

Six words.

You could argue it didn’t start there. Perhaps it started when I decided to return to Gaunt House ruins, or when I saw Cain’s face. But my addled, blood-starved brain has decided it was the moment when I heard those six words: Hey Frankie, come for a ride?

Chapter 1: Reckoning

“Hey Frankie, come for a ride?”

I gave Jude’s car a doubtful glance. “In that?”

“Hey, shut up! It runs like a dream.”

“What about the party?”

“I’m over it. And I’m not sure you were ever even into it.”

Was it that obvious? I adjusted my expression. “It’s fun, but I’m tired. I moved my things into Alby’s place today.”

“I’m going to hang with a couple of friends someplace quiet. Want to join us?”

I could claim it was too late. I checked my watch, but it wasn’t even eight o’clock. “Uhh …”

“Come on! I think you’ll like these people. They’re not like Olivia.”

Oh, so Jude had noticed my reaction to her? He was more perceptive than he looked.

“Okay,” I said, mainly to avoid the Olivia conversation. “I’ll just tell Alby I’m going.”

My cousin was in the thick of the party. Albion was popular, with his cosmopolitan panache. Some of the other eighteen to twenty-fives in Augur’s Well tried to sport citified hairstyles but only Albion totally nailed it. His years in a city boarding school had served him well.

“Alby.”

His face lit up when he saw me. He took a long drag on some kind of roll-your-own cigarette I hoped wasn’t pot. “Frankie! Where have you been? Hanging with Jude?” His eyebrows twitched and I knew why. Ever since I got back to Augur’s Well Albion had been hinting about how much Jude had changed and how ‘hot’ he was now.

“Yeah.” Noticing Olivia’s sour face behind him I added, “And a few others.”

Albion slung an arm around my neck. “Who hasn’t met my beautiful cousin yet?” he asked the crowd generally. “This is Francesca, Frankie to her friends, daughter of the saint-whisperer, but let me tell you, she’s no saint—” I elbowed Albion to shut him up and he giggled into my hair.

“I’m going for a drive,” I said in his ear, taking advantage of his closeness to communicate in private.

He smoothly turned the half-hug into ushering me away from the group a few steps. “With Jude?”

“Yes, but—”

“What? For real?”

I frowned. “Alby. It’s a drive. Nothing else.”

He took a thoughtful drag on his smoke. “Uh-huh.”

I beckoned Jude over. “Jude, we’re just going for a drive, right? To meet some of your friends. Nothing more.”

Jude looked awkward. “Of course.”

“Who you meeting?” Albion wanted to know.

“You don’t know them.”

“Don’t be pulling any touchy-feelies on Frankie, y’hear?” Albion drawled with a wink. “Unless she invites you to, I mean.”

I gave Albion the look that meant shut the hell up, disguising it with a quick squeeze.

“I’ll be back in a couple of hours to take you home.”

“If I’m ready,” he countered. “If you’re gonna live with me this year, little Frankie, you’re gonna have to loosen up and have some fun.”

“In Augur’s Well?” Jude gave a cynical laugh.

“There’s fun wherever you make it, Jude McBride,” said Albion, poking Jude in his broad chest with a sparkling-nailed finger. “Even in Augur’s Well.”

Jude shot me an amused look as Albion returned to his circle. Olivia was still watching Jude, I noticed. We headed for the car but Albion’s suspicions stuck with me.

“Uh, Jude, you are taking me to meet your friends, right?”

“Of course!”

“And …” I hesitated. “Are there going to be other girls there?”

“Shit, Frankie.” Jude sounded hurt. “Like I’d ever put you in danger! I’ve known you since kindergarten.”

“Yeah, but … I’ve been away so I haven’t really known you for a few years now …” Uncomfortable silence. I hadn’t meant to offend him.

Jude had unlocked my side and pulled it open for me and was now around at the driver’s side, turning the key in the ignition. The engine chugged an irregular rhythm under the wailing radio.

“These friends we’re meeting,” I said, “not people from school then?”

“Nope. You don’t know them, I don’t think.”

Jude focused on reversing out of the parking area and I wound the window down to feel the humid night air.

“So, why are you really staying in town this time, Frankie? You and your sister, right?”

I tensed. “Yeah, me and Vanessa. You already know why. I flunked my senior year on tour with Dad. I’m repeating it at Community College.” I didn’t want him knowing the other reasons so I babbled to distract him. “Turns out the tutor Dad hired wasn’t as strict about me doing my homework as he needed to be. I didn’t even take the exams in the end. I knew I’d fail. So we decided a year staying in one place was best.” Was I convincing him? I shut my heart to the sting when I thought about staying in one place for a year.

Jude turned onto the highway. “So Vanessa and you both gonna be living at Albion’s place?”

“No, she’s at Dad’s house.”

Jude looked surprised. “All by herself?”

“Antonia’s there. The housekeeper.”

“Huh. I thought she was your uncle’s housekeeper.”

I didn’t like all these questions. “She lives at Dad’s house but Dad and Uncle Max share her housekeeping services. They’ve got some kind of formal contract with her.” I tried to sound vague and disinterested.

“Okay. Hey, I’m glad you’re coming with me tonight, Frankie. This is gonna blow your mind.”

I laughed. “Whatever!”

We drove in silence for a while. We passed the Church of the Holy Ascension, the Church of Saint Peter, the Anglican Parish of Meadowvale, and the Blackrock Rise Baptist Union. Augur’s Well didn’t earn its nickname of the Town of Churches for nothing. It was about the only drawcard the town had to offer. Other than that it was all wheat fields, cattle and sheep, grain silos, the meatworks, and the tannery. Nothing exotic about this town. But the proliferation of churches had a weird attraction for certain types of tourists. It had certainly been what attracted my ultra-religious father to settle here. Even the rank-smelling tanning plant was regularly mistaken for a church. Its brick smoke stack featured a metal bar at just the right height, transforming it into a giant cross. Tonight, cloth protest banners had been wired to the fences around the tannery. Save Our Works … Augur’s Well Unite … Developers OUT.

The buildings melted away and I leaned my head on the open window. The lack of houses and streetlights made the lights of the milky-way particularly vivid. I let the warm wind turn my hair into a nest as I watched the sky blaze. Jude pulled off the road, bringing the car to a stop in a gravel clearing. A huge electrical tower hummed in front of us, white-blue sparks firing occasionally into the evening air. Next to the clearing, the pale ruins of an old building were just discernable. A stone house? Another church? The headlights reflected off a motorbike before Jude cut the engine.

“Whose bike?”

“Cain’s bike. Come on.”

Jude went to the back of his car so I crossed to the bike and ran my fingers over its black metal. It looked out of place parked beside the old ruin.

“I haven’t seen this place before. Where are we?”

“Gaunt House ruins,” he said, voice muffled as he fossicked in the trunk of his car.

I’d never been on a motorbike. Dad had often said he wanted me to keep it that way. Since the mysterious Cain was nowhere in sight, I slid my leg across the bike to sit on the saddle. It was only when Jude closed the trunk, a box of soda cans and some chip bags tucked under his arm, that he noticed what I was doing and opened his mouth in dismay. Instead of speaking, he strode over and pulled me off the bike by my arm. He wasn’t technically rough but it was done with disapproval. He handed me a bag of chips at the same time, maybe to cover up his reaction.

“I wasn’t going to scratch it.”

He nodded. “Come on. This way.”

“This is weird,” I said. “I don’t see any of your friends. Where are they? What’s going on?”

In answer, Jude headed for the ruin, straight past a sign that read No entry—unsafe structure. Just inside the doorframe he leaned down to grasp what looked like a tarnished iron ring lying on the floor and gave a heave. With heart-stopping suddenness a trapdoor swung open. It made me jump back in shock, dusty air from the square hole in the ground billowing into my face.

“What’s down there?” I breathed, trying to recover my composure. Jude indicated for me to go first in the descent and I gave a nervous laugh. “Uh, no way.”

“But I need to close the door after us.”

“I’ll do it.”

“It’s heavy,” he said.

I still didn’t move so he huffed a sigh and made the descent, vanishing down the hole using metal rungs in the wall. I sat on the edge of the opening, stretching a leg out to find a foothold. Only when I was secure in the rungs did I follow him down, the corner of the chip bag held between my teeth. At the bottom Jude gave me his food cargo and climbed back up to tug the trapdoor shut above our heads. Total blackness.

“Jude!” I said, panic bubbling up.

A moment later he was breathing at my side. “It’s okay. We’re in a little tunnel. Here, grab my hand.”

I didn’t like that but obeyed, finding his sweaty hand in the dark. There was a suggestion of light somewhere in the tunnel but I couldn’t identify where it came from, so I stumbled along behind Jude. Ah, my phone! I could use it as a flashlight. Before I could grab it Jude stopped so abruptly I almost fell over him. A moment later I was squinting into brilliant light in front of us. He’d opened a door. He pushed me through and, as my eyes settled down, I realised the light was not brilliant after all; merely the flickering of candles.

I stared around myself. Candles in cast iron brackets lit the sandstone walls of a curved chamber. Directly across from us, flanked by two sconces, the words Adsero nos had been carved into the stone. It would have been beautiful if it were not for the piles of old mattresses, beanbags and cushions spread all over the floor. They were littered with half-filled cans, empty chip packets and overflowing ashtrays.

“Wow,” I whispered. “This is … cool. How did you find this? When did you find it?”

“I’ve known about it for a while.” Jude’s voice was tight.

“Where are your friends?” He nodded toward the wall with the carven words. Somehow I’d missed it on my first look around the room, but now I saw a man stretched out asleep on a ragged sofa. “Who’s that?”

“Cain.” Jude took the chip bag out of my hands. “I’ll just put these cans in the cooler. You wake him up.”

Me?”

Jude went down a dim corridor. I looked back at Cain, who still slumbered peacefully. Screw that. I wasn’t waking up this guy I’d never met. Jude could do it when he got back from his cooler mission. But an odd feeling of recognition came over me and I drew closer. Was it possible I knew this man? From school? No way. He was older than me by at least a few years. From Dad’s church? Seemed unlikely. I knelt beside the sofa, looking up and down the length of his body, from his tangled brown hair to his bare feet, lying one on top of the other. His left arm was exposed, palm up, and tiny scars peppered its crook. When I worked my examination back up to Cain’s face I found his eyes open, mirroring the shock and fascination I felt. We gazed at one another for a long, tense moment.

Finally his eyes flicked upwards, above and behind me. “Who is she?”

I hadn’t noticed Jude standing skittishly at my back because I couldn’t take my eyes off Cain. His face now he was awake was … well, there was no word for it but stunning. It wasn’t even something identifiable, like striking eyes or sensual lips. Just a face that could make you forget to blink until your eyeballs dried out. A face that could, and was, making my body react—despite my efforts to control it.

“Frankie. Francesca Caravaggio,” Jude stammered in reply. “An old school friend.”

“What is she doing here?” Cain’s voice was calm, a still body of water against Jude’s nerviness.

“I thought you might think she’s, uh … okay …”

Cain nodded. I felt a rush of air from Jude as he turned away, heading down that dark corridor again. Cain sat up and lit a cigarette, rubbing the back of his head. He offered me one and I shook my head in wordless distaste, although these cigarettes didn’t seem as bad as most. In fact, I couldn’t really smell it at all. He drew on it deeply and gave me a smile, fixing his eyes on my face.

“Hello, Francesca Caravaggio. I’m Cain. Cain Aleister.”

“Frankie.” My reply sounded lame, helpless, because I was seriously disturbed by that smile. It wasn’t fair how he kept climbing degrees of stunning like that. “Everyone calls me Frankie.”

He puffed on his cigarette. “The others will be here soon.” His voice. It was soothing, comforting, and intimately warm.

“Who are they?” I asked, more for the sake of talking than from actual curiosity.

“There’s Liz. She’s a nurse I met in the hospital when I came off my bike.”

“How old is she?”

“About thirty, I think.” Thirty? Jude was hanging out with thirty-year-old women now? “Then there’s Owen Zheng,” Cain went on. “He’s a university student.”

“What does he study?”

“History.”

“Who else?”

“You already know Jude.”

“Yeah, from school.”

“You were at high school together?”

“Yeah. Well, no. I haven’t always been in town. Not for the last few years.”

“Why’s that?”

Okay, here it went. This was the bit where I admitted to this guy who was incredible in a way I had nevernot in forty-five cities over three years—seen before, that I was Don Carver’s daughter. If I could have closed my eyes to get it over with, I would have.

“My father’s a well-known author,” I said in a rush. “He made it big in the last few years and I’ve been touring with him. It takes me out of town for most of each year. Took,” I corrected myself, the new reality coming back to me like a slap. “It took me out of town for most of the year, but not this year. I’m staying in Augur’s Well now. To study.”

“Oh.”

He played with his cigarette for a moment before lying back on his sofa, positioning himself so he could still observe me. That’s it? I watched him, suspicious. He wasn’t going to ask why? He wasn’t going to ask my dad’s name? He wasn’t going to tell me he’d heard of my dad’s Saints Among Us book series and live shows and thought they were a load of bullshit?

“Have you lived in Augur’s Well long?”

“Yeah, but I was born in Land’s End. That’s where my mum comes from. Dad had a job managing the fruit market so we lived there till I started school.”

“Did you like that? Living on the coast?”

“I loved it.”

He waited, but I hesitated to give him any more information about myself. I was already at a major disadvantage in this situation. I seized the questioner’s role.

“So … you’re not at school, I guess?”

Cain gave a small smile. “Not for a few years now.”

“Been in Augur’s Well long?”

“No. Just a year. I lived in Revel City before that.”

“Did you get a job here or something?” I couldn’t think of any other reason someone would move from vibrant Revel City to this flat, anonymous town.

“Just knew I had to live here.” As he spoke he watched me closely. Was he trying to detect a particular reaction?

I didn’t give him one. “Okay.”

I wanted to ask how old he was but wasn’t sure that was something you asked a man you’d just met. It had never come up as an etiquette issue for me before. Cain reached for an opened soda can and shook it to see if any drink remained, and then dropped his cigarette into the can. It hissed as he turned his head back and smiled at me again, that terrifyingly beautiful smile. My whole body responded to it. I looked away, telling myself to get it together. Where the heck is Jude?

“You can meet them now.”

“Who?”

“Liz and Owen. They’re here. Can you hear them?”

I inclined one ear upwards and listened. A couple of faint creaks and snaps sounded above us.

“Is that them?” When I turned to look at him Cain was nearer than expected, having also leaned in to listen. I took a nervous breath. He smelt as summery and clean as the beach. I scrambled backwards to put more distance between us, and then stood, brushing off my shorts. I crossed my arms over my chest. I’d been in on sessions with Dad’s public speaking coach and knew how defensive that looked but kept them crossed anyway.

“What does that mean?” I asked, jerking my head toward the carving of the words Adsero nos on the wall. Cain glanced up at the writing on the wall above his sofa and shrugged. “Well … I’m going to find Jude.”

I went down the dim corridor, the way I’d seen Jude go. I’d assumed he must be organising drinks or something so it startled me to find him sitting in an empty candlelit room. Knees up, ankles crossed in front of him, Jude studied my face momentarily and shot me a grin.

“You meditating or something?” I said. “Come on. I don’t know your friends. Come introduce me.”

“Okay. Sorry, Frankie.”

Back in the main chamber two new faces turned to look at me with expressions of amazement.

“Francesca Caravaggio,” Cain supplied quickly.

“Frankie,” Jude added. “A friend from school.”

Instantly their faces were bathed in welcoming smiles. “Owen,” said the guy.

“Liz.” She folded her long skirt beneath her as she sank onto a mattress. “Nice to meet you, Frankie.”

Cain stayed on his sofa as they all got settled and I stood where I was, unsure what to do next.

“Sit down, Frankie,” Jude said.

“So, where did Cain find you?” Liz asked.

“Uh … I met him here.”

There was a long silence. “Jude brought you?” Owen said, his face blank.

“Yeah.”

“But Cain must have asked Jude to bring her,” Liz murmured.

I was puzzled. “How could he? Cain hadn’t even met me till five minutes ago.”

They both went silent and looked at Jude. Liz’s brow had creased. “Did Cain ask you to bring her, Jude?”

He grinned uncertainly. “I decided to bring Frankie. I thought he would think she was okay.”

“Jude!” Owen exclaimed at the same time as Liz wailed, “Jude!”

“It’s okay.” Cain’s voice washed calm over them. “It’s okay. She’s fine.”

I looked from face to face, waiting for an explanation, but none came. Cain distracted me with another of those smiles. The other three settled into their chips and cushions but the silence felt edgy. Sulky. My mind raced, trying to understand what had just happened. How could Jude put me through that? And it was simply humiliating that Cain had granted his approval.

“Jude,” I said. “I think I should go.”

“Please don’t.” Cain’s eyes held mine until I grew warm. I attempted a casual shrug.

“Poker?” Liz offered awkwardly.

“Deal ’em out,” Owen said.

She set up the game and Cain went to fetch more drinks. I perched on the edge of the sofa, watching as Jude brought a candle over to illuminate the card game. “Maybe you should bring a gas or battery lamp for better light.”

Jude laughed but neither of the other two did. It was like I’d missed some important point, or made a faux pas. All three of them looked up to check Cain’s reaction when he came back. Were they checking what he thought of me sitting here? This must be his sofa. I shifted to give him some room, alarmed once again by the way my skin prickled in response to his proximity.

“We like the candles,” he said.

I caught a look of adoration in Liz’s eyes as she glanced his way. Not exactly passion or lust, just adoration. It triggered a tiny flicker of jealousy inside me. I jumped up and paced the chamber, peering up at the ceiling.

“How do we even breathe in here?”

“There are ventilation pipes,” Jude said. “Don’t worry, Frankie. There’s plenty of air.”

“Caravaggio … so your family is Italian?” Liz asked.

I nodded. “Italian heritage, anyway.”

Owen glanced over. “You live in Augur’s Well? Permanently?”

I hoped not. I evaded the question, pretending to be engrossed in an examination of a wall sconce, so Jude offered an explanation on my behalf.

“Frankie’s dad’s a big name author so she normally tours around with him and gets private tutoring. But she’s staying in town with her uncle this year. She wants to finish her senior year at college, isn’t that right, Frankie?”

Wants is a very strong word,” I said, and regretted it straight away. What was wrong with me? I didn’t need anyone knowing about the conflict with my dad. Especially this peculiar bunch of misfits.

“You’d rather not be in Augur’s Well?” Liz asked.

“No, it’s fine. It’s a nice town.”

Owen hadn’t taken his eyes off me. “Would we know your father’s books? What’s his name?”

“I need to go to the bathroom,” I said.

Liz laughed. “I’ll take you, Frankie. I need to go, too.”

It seemed we were obliged to leave the underground chamber altogether so I groped my way through the tunnel again behind Liz, secretly scared of the blackness outside the candlelit room. “This is screwy,” I muttered. “Why don’t you get some lighting set up in here?”

Liz, already halfway up the ladder, gave a ghostly chuckle. It made my hair stand on end. I scrambled after her and when she opened the trapdoor, I felt like I was sucking in air after drowning.

“Off you go.” Liz handed me some tissues and I stared at them dumbly. “Into the trees. No bathrooms out here except open-air ones.”

Lovely. I accepted the tissues and went a short way into the scrubby woods to crouch behind a tree. Liz emerged from behind her own tree a minute later, picking her way back toward the ruin. I paused to watch her put her head right back so her long plait swung behind her. Liz stared at the night sky like that, hands on hips, until she lost her balance. She had to whip her head forward to stop herself falling.

Outside, my visit to the underground chamber felt wrong, somehow. Like a transgression. “Uh, listen, Liz,” I said as I joined her in the clearing. “Do you think you could tell Jude to come up? I’m kind of tired and I’d like to go home.”

“Oh, no, you’ve got to come in and say goodbye,” she began but I shook my head. I did not want to go back down there and subject myself to Cain Aleister’s extraordinary face again.

“Sometimes I freak out in enclosed spaces.” It was a bald-faced lie. “Tell them goodbye for me. Just send Jude up. Please, Liz?”

“Oh … all right.” Liz seemed perturbed by my decision. “Well, take care of yourself, Frankie. I’ll see you again soon, okay?”

She hurried away and, a minute or so later, Jude emerged from the ruin. I felt a confusing mixture of gratification and dismay to see Cain was with him.

“See you round,” I called, hoping that would suffice.

But Cain approached. I stood on the passenger side of Jude’s car, holding onto the handle to quell my trembling while I waited for him to unlock my door.

Cain stopped in front of me. “Will you come back tomorrow night? We’re all going to be here again.”

“Um, maybe.” I jiggled the door handle. “Jude, my door’s locked.”

“Did you like them?” He tipped his head, indicating the ruin.

“Yeah, they seem nice.”

“You will come back, won’t you? Jude said he’ll bring you again.”

I looked at Jude, sitting there behind the steering wheel. Why wouldn’t he unlock my door? “Yeah, I’ll try. Jude, open my door please.”

“Great! I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Cain gave me that smile and the last of my composure failed me. Fascinated, I followed him with my gaze as he headed back into the ruin. Jude finally unlocked my door.

 

****

View Downfall on S.D. Wasley’s website.

More books by S.D. Wasley

The Seventh Series

A young adult paranormal/urban fantasy series.

16-year-old Mimi Alston is the girl who sees ghosts. However, when she changes schools, she quickly realizes she’s not the only one with an unusual talent. Under the care of a spiritual guardian, Mimi befriends a Prophet, an Empath, a Beast Master, an Emissary, a Healer, and a Conjurer. Together, they are the gifted seven.

The seven are under constant threat from rogue members of a secret cult who believe these gifted kids can be slain for their powers. Danger grows just as their powers do, and soon Mimi and her friends can’t be sure who to trust anymore. Available on Amazon, iBooks and other outlets.

Summer Crush

The Summer Crush young adult contemporary romance anthology features ‘Exquisite Torture,’ a short story by S.D. Wasley. Available on Amazon, iBooks and other outlets.

The Incorruptibles

This new adult paranormal romance series centers on a group of apparently mismatched people who share a strange secret. Led by Cain Aleister, the group is meeting nightly in a forgotten underground chamber, safe from the prying eyes of the public until Francesca Caravaggio explodes into their lives. Frankie has a chip on her shoulder and a dogged determination to find out what the big secret is. But could that determination be her downfall?

The Incorruptibles novels feature the stunning artwork of Finnmacc Artography as several pen and ink illustrations throughout each novel. Exclusive to Amazon.

 

Visit sdwasley.com for more.

 

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Totally Starcross'd

"Why does she have to be Romilly Montague? Any other name on the planet. She’d be just as pretty and cute and clever—just as perfect—but she wouldn’t be Romilly Montague. Then I’d have a chance with her.” Romilly longs for the freedom to live her own life ... but her dad is Alan Montague, hot contender for the job of Governor. And the bigger he gets, the more protective of Romilly her parents become. Could Julian Capulet’s luck be worse? As if being born into the most conservative family in Verona wasn't bad enough, the girl of his dreams is the daughter of his father's biggest adversary in the upcoming election. His embarrassing family—especially his troublemaking younger brother—seem set to totally ruin his chances with Romilly. For Romilly and Julian it’s never been truer that you can choose your friends but not your family. Will this story end in woe—or can there be a happily ever after for this modern-day Juliet and Romeo? From Amazon bestselling author S.D. Wasley comes a retelling of the timeless tale of Romeo & Juliet.

  • ISBN: 9781370966592
  • Author: S.D. Wasley
  • Published: 2016-07-19 05:35:11
  • Words: 24455
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