Seth Cavanaugh had been too long at the fair. He'd known it after the first ten minutes, but still he'd stayed for the whole two days of the festival. Even now, as Oberon's Midsummer Faire wound slowly down around him, melting gradually into the warm, mellow gold of a perfect, summer, Sunday afternoon, he made no move toward the exit. Where was the sense in leaving, when he couldn't go home?
He was drunk. But not so drunk that he'd reached the point where he thought he could pass for sober. Or, had he got that backwards? Had he managed to drink himself past the point of delusion? He wasn't sure. And, anyway, what did it matter? Drunk was drunk, after all. And he was drunk enough, and tired enough, to be disoriented by the swirl of noise and color that surrounded him. Even if he tried to go home, he probably couldn't find his way.
He cast a jaded eye around at the booths selling food, handcrafts and herbs, and at others that offered a variety of readings--cards, tea leaves, auras, past lives. He had no interest in any of it. It took a moment longer for it to register in his drink-fogged brain that he was alone in the crowd. He'd lost track of his friends. The group he'd been hanging with since yesterday morning had disappeared from sight.
Good. He breathed a sigh of relief. He wasn't in the mood for company, anyhow. He didn't want to party anymore. He didn't want to laugh, or drink, or play around. He was far too disgusted with himself to socialize.
A year and six months. That's how long it had been since he'd had a drink. One year. Six months. And he'd really thought he had it beat. But that was before the night last April when he'd come home to find that one of his best friends had just bled to death on his bedroom floor.
Today would have been Ray's eighteenth birthday. Considering that it was at least partly Seth's fault that his friend was dead, there was no way he could have refused to come here this weekend or to join with the others as they said their last good-byes, as they mourned Ray's passing. Or, as they toasted his memory again. And again. And again.
They were all eighteen years old now, most of them, just out of high school and finally able to legally gain entrance to most of the fair's restricted areas, to enjoy most--if not all--that the festival had to offer. They'd stayed awake and partied hard, all day, all night, and on through the next day. All the old crowd. Friends since grade school. Together for what might be the very last time in who knew how long. It was what Ray would have wanted. What he'd planned for his birthday weekend. What he'd have been doing with them--had he lived.
"Wish you were here, dog," Seth murmured sadly. "Wish it was you above ground now, instead of me."
Why couldn't he have been the one to die? How the fuck had things gone so far wrong? He was tired of living. He was sick of the grief and the guilt and the sorrow that marked each moment. Weary from dragging his sorry ass through one day and into the next. It was one of life's really bad jokes, that Ray should die--that he should be killed in Seth's place--and that Seth should be left behind to deal with the aftermath. It was ugly and wrong and incredibly unfair. But, it was nothing more than what he should have expected from life.
"Seth? Is that you?"
A girl's soft voice pierced through the angry haze of his thoughts, startling them into flight. His mind wiped blank, Seth was surprised to notice that his wandering feet had come to a halt. When had he stopped walking? Why had he stopped? And what was causing his heart to pound so fiercely in his chest?
"Seth?" That voice again. Warm. Worried. Familiar. His heart twisted in pain as he recognized the sound.
"Deirdre?" He turned his head to stare in appalled disbelief at the face that had haunted his dreams for two years. At shiny brown hair and bright blue eyes--things he'd told himself he despised. At a smile more hesitant than he'd remembered, but just as sweet. At a bod that he'd claimed in a thousand horny fantasies. "Oh, Jesus." Fuck, this could not be happening. "What are you doing back in Oberon?"
Red flags appeared on Deirdre's cheeks. "I-I live here now," she said, sounding confused as she stumbled into speech. "In Abraxas, actually. I'm going to school there. I don't know why you're so surprised to see me, I mean, you knew I'd be back, right? I-I told you about my plan, didn't I?"
"You told me?" When might that have been?
Deirdre blinked in surprise. "Well, yeah. Didn't I? It's all I've ever wanted to do, ever since I was a little girl. To go to UC Abraxas and become a journalist. Just like my mother did. I'm sure we talked about it. Don't you remember?"
"You think I'm gonna remember some bullshit idea you told me about two fucking years ago?" But, oh, hell, of course he remembered. He remembered everything about her; every moment they'd spent together, every word she'd spoken. Every look. Every kiss. How much easier would his life have been these past two years if he could have only forgotten some of it?
But he hadn't been that lucky. He remembered it all perfectly. The night they'd met, the clothes she'd worn, her laughter, her scent. He'd thought she was the prettiest girl he'd ever seen. But, she'd lied right from the start, giving him a fake name and a fake story about why she was in town.
He remembered how he figured out her secret, piecing together clues until he arrived at the truth. She was a runaway. And even though he'd been willing to run away with her; willing to leave his home, his family; willing to turn himself into a liar and a thief and a fugitive--all for her sake--she'd betrayed him. She threw him over the very first chance she got. For a thug. A would be gangster. A would be murderer.
Still, he'd been in love and she'd been in danger. So even though she'd betrayed him, he'd tried to save her from herself. He'd been beaten and drugged and nearly killed for his trouble. He'd lost the respect of his family and his reputation with the whole town. He'd emerged from his ordeal with an addiction he was still struggling to overcome. But that had not been the worst of it.
No, the worst had been the hours he'd spent in the dark; lying on a cold, stone floor; tied up and wracked with pain; forced to listen while, oblivious to his heartache, she made love with his captor in the next room.
Deirdre. Deirdre of the sorrows. In the two years since he'd seen her, he'd done a little reading. She'd been well named. His Deirdre might not be quite as innocent as her namesake, but she was no less skilled at wrecking a guy's life.
"It's been two years," he reminded her again. Two years. And for each time he remembered her and cursed the day they met, there'd been at least that many times he'd prayed that she'd come back to him.
Until the night Ray died and life became a twisted joke. Now, she was the last thing he needed. The last thing he wanted. The last person he ever wanted to see.
He met her eyes, intending to tell her just that, when his attention was snagged by a shimmer of silver. Two slender teardrop earrings--earrings he'd bought for her--hung in her ears. He remembered the joy he'd taken in their purchase, his boyish eagerness to see her wear them.
How dare she wear them now. How dare she mock his pain.
"Let's see how much you remember," he said as he reached out and grabbed hold of her arm. He hauled her against him and captured her mouth, moving his other hand to the back of her head and burying his fingers in her hair, determined to hold her where she was until he was done with her.
It didn't take more than a moment to realize that it wouldn't be necessary. She melted against him almost instantly, just like always. Opening her mouth to him. Feeling so right. Tasting exactly as he remembered.
He'd thought he could embarrass her. Or, even better, that he could bring her to her knees, filled with remorse, with sorrow, with regret for what they might have had. Instead, in another instant he'd be the one on his knees, begging her to take him back.
Anger filled him as he realized what was happening. He slid his hand out of her hair and brought it down to palm her breast. She shuddered, but made no protest. He squeezed and groped with no finesse and very little tenderness, until at last he felt her grow restive. Then he pushed her away.
He smirked, pleased with the flush on her cheeks, the confusion in her eyes. "Wow, you're easy. I'd almost forgotten that."
Deirdre gasped. More color flooded her face. The confusion left her eyes, to be replaced by fury. She raised her arm to slap his face, but he caught her wrist before the blow could land.
"Don't even try it," he warned.
Eyes flashing, she pulled her arm from his grasp. He watched in satisfaction as she stormed away. For an instant, the urge to go after her was nearly overwhelming. But what would he do when he caught her? It was not knowing the answer that kept him rooted where he stood.
"Well, you really fucked that up." Once again a girl's soft voice penetrated his thoughts. Not quite so warm. Not even worried. All too familiar. "So, it's not just me you're trying to piss off these days? It's all girls now? That's good to know."
Seth closed his eyes and groaned. "Cara." Just perfect. Of course he'd have a witness to his behavior. And, of course, it would be her. He opened his eyes and turned to find Cara smiling at him. It was her new lopsided grin, which he had yet to get used to. But, on the other hand, maybe he never would. Maybe the scars that marked her face and neck, her sightless eye, her ruined smile, would seem forever strange. His gaze softened. He smiled ruefully. "How're you doin'?"