Luce was about to step fully from the shadowed alley when she heard a voice and saw a figure approach her past self.
“There you are.”
Lucinda released the rose, which snapped back into the garden, losing its blossom on the thorns as it crossed. The red teardrop-shaped petals showered down on her shoulders as she turned to face the voice.
Luce watched Lucinda’s posture change, a smile stretching across her face at the sight of Daniel. And Luce felt that same smile on her own face. Their bodies might be different, their daily lives looked nothing alike, but when it came to Daniel, their shared soul aligned completely.
He wore a full suit of armor, though his helmet was off and his golden hair was lank with sweat and dirt. He’d clearly come from the road; the speckled white mare beside him looked weary. Luce had to fight every urge in her body not to run into his arms. He was breathtaking: a knight in shining armor to outshine any fairy-tale knight.
But this Daniel wasn’t her Daniel. This Daniel belonged to another girl.
“You came back!” Lucinda broke into a run, her tresses streaming in the wind.
Her past self’s arms stretched out, inches from Daniel—
But the image of her valiant knight wavered in the wind.
And then it was gone. Disgust crept into Luce’s stomach as she watched Daniel’s horse and armor vanish into thin air and Lucinda—who could not stop herself in time—crash headfirst into a belching stone gargoyle.
“Fumble!” Bill cackled, spinning in a loop-the-loop.
Lucinda screamed, tripped over her gown, and landed in the mud on her hands and knees. Bill’s craggy laughter echoed off the façade of the castle. He flitted higher in the air and then eyed Luce glaring at him from across the street.
“There you are!” he said, cartwheeling toward her.
“I told you never to do that again!”
“My acrobatics?” Bill hopped onto her shoulder. “But if I do not practice, I win no medals,” he said in a Russian accent.
She swatted him off. “I meant changing into Daniel.”
“I didn’t do it to you, I did it to her. Maybe your past self thinks it’s funny.”
“That’s not my fault. Besides, I’m not a mind reader. You expect me to realize you’re speaking on behalf of all Lucindas ever, every time you talk. You never said anything about not razzing your past lives. It’s all in good fun. For me, anyway.”
“If you insist on splitting hairs, fine, she’s all yours. I suppose you don’t need me pointing out that what you do with ’em ain’t exactly humane!”
“You’re the one who taught me how to go three-D.”
“My point exactly,” he said with an eerie cackle that sent goose bumps running up Luce’s arms.
Bill’s eyes fell on a diminutive stone gargoyle capping one of the columns of the garden gates. He banked in the air, circled back to the column, and slung his arm around the gargoyle’s shoulder as if he’d finally found a true companion. “Mortals! Can’t live with ’em, can’t consign them to the fiery depths of Hell. Am I right or am I right?” He looked back at Luce. “Not a big talker.”
Luce could no longer stand it. She ran forward, hurrying to help Lucinda up from the ground. Her past self’s dress was torn at the knees and her face was sickly pale.
“Are you all right?” Luce asked. She expected the girl to be thankful, but instead, she recoiled.
“Who—What are you?” Lucinda gaped at Luce. “And what kind of devil is that thing?” She flung her hand in Bill’s direction.
Luce sighed. “He’s just—Don’t worry about him.”
Bill probably did look like a devil to this medieval incarnation. Luce most likely didn’t look much better—some mental girl running up to her dressed in a futuristic ball gown that reeked of smoke?
“I’m sorry,” Luce said, glancing over the girl’s shoulder at Bill, who seemed amused.
“Thinking about going three-D?” Bill asked.
Luce cracked her knuckles. Fine. She knew she had to cleave to this past body if she was going to move forward on her quest, but there was something in her past self’s face—bewilderment and a hint of inexplicable betrayal—that made her hesitate. “This, uh, this will just take a moment.”
Her past self’s eyes widened, but as she was about to pull away, Luce seized her past self’s hand and squeezed.
The solid stones beneath her feet shifted and the world before Luce swirled like a kaleidoscope. Her stomach lurched up toward her throat, and as the world flattened back out, she was left with the distinctive nausea of cleaving. She blinked and, for that one unsettling instant, saw the disembodied view of both girls. There was medieval Lucinda—innocent, captive, and terrified; and there, beside her, was Luce—guilty, exhausted, obsessed.
There was no time to regret it. On the other side of the blink—
A single body, one conflicted soul.
And Bill’s fat-lipped smirk taking it all in.
Luce clutched her heart through the rough linen dress Lucinda had been wearing. It hurt. Her whole body had become a heartache.
She was channeling Lucinda now, feeling what Lucinda had been feeling before Luce inhabited her body. It was a move that had become second nature to her—from Russia to Tahiti to Tibet—but no matter how many times she did it, Luce didn’t think she’d ever get used to suddenly feeling so keenly the landscape of her past emotions.
Right now it was the kind of raw pain Luce hadn’t experienced since her early days at Sword & Cross, when she loved Daniel so much she thought it might split her in two.
“You’re looking a little green around the gills.” Bill floated before her face, sounding more satisfied than concerned.
“It’s my past. She’s—”
“Panicked? Sick at heart with love for that worthless oaf of a knight? Yeah, the Daniel of this era jerked you around like a slot-machine pull on Seniors’ Day at the casino.” He crossed his arms broodingly over his chest and did something Luce had never seen before: He made his eyes flash violet. “Maybe I’ll be at the Valentine’s Faire,” he said in a husky, affected tone, a grossly oversimplified impersonation of Daniel. “Or maybe I have better things to do, like slash losers with my humungous sword—”
“Don’t do that, Bill.” Luce shook her head, annoyed. “Besides, if Daniel doesn’t show at this Valentine’s thing, he’s got a good reason—I’m sure of it.”
“Yeah.” The croak returned to Bill’s voice. “You always are.”
“He’s trying to protect me,” she argued, but her voice was weak.
“Or himself …”
Luce rolled her eyes. “Okay, Bill, what is it I’m supposed to learn in this lifetime? That you think Daniel’s a jerk? Got it. Can we move on?”
Bill flew to the ground and sat beside her. “Actually, we’re taking a holiday from your education in this life,” he said. “Based on your snippiness and the bags under my eyes”—he stretched out and displayed a wrinkly fold of saggy skin, which made a sound like a shaken bag of marbles—“I’d say we both need a day off.
“So here’s the deal: It’s Valentine’s Day—or an early form of it, anyway. Daniel is a knight, which means he’s got his pick of the parties. He can grace the endless church-sanctioned nobleman’s feast in the castle of his lord.” Bill jerked his head toward the towering white turrets behind them. “Sure, there’ll be a nice roast stag, maybe even a sprinkle of salt, but you’ve got to hang with the clergy, and whose idea of a party is that?”
Luce glanced back at the fairy-tale castle. That was where Daniel lived? Was he inside those walls now?
“Or,” Bill continued, “he can slum it at the real party out on the green tonight for that less-respectable sort of folk, where the ale flows like wine and the wine flows like ale. There’ll be dancing, dining, and most importantly, wenching.”
Bill waved one tiny hand in the air. “Nothing you have to worry about, darlin’. Daniel only has eyes for one wench in all of creation. I mean you.”
“Wench,” Luce said, looking down at her rough-spun cotton garments.
“There’s a certain lost wench”—Bill elbowed Luce—“who will be there at the Faire, scanning the crowd through the eyeholes of her painted mask for her hunky dreamboat.” He patted her cheek. “Doesn’t that sound like a great time, little sister?”
“I’m not here to have fun, Bill.”
“Try it out for one night—who knows, you might enjoy it. Most people do.”
Luce swallowed. “But what will happen when he finds me? What am I supposed to learn before I burn up, before—”
“Whoa there!” Bill cried. “Slow down, hothead. I told you—tonight’s just about fun. A little bit of romance. A night off”—he winked—“for both of us.”
“What about the curse? How can I drop everything and celebrate Valentine’s Day?”
Bill didn’t respond immediately. Instead, he paused thoughtfully, then said, “What if I told you that this—tonight—is the only Valentine’s Day you kids ever got to spend together?”
The words struck Luce immediately. “Ever? We … never got to celebrate Valentine’s Day?”
Bill shook his head. “After today? No.”
Luce thought back to her days at Dover, how she and Callie would watch some of the other girls get chocolate hearts and roses on Valentine’s Day. They’d made a tradition of lamenting how very, very single they were over strawberry milk shakes at the local diner. They’d spent hours conjecturing on the slim odds of ever having a date on Valentine’s Day.
She laughed. She hadn’t been far off: Luce had never had a Valentine’s Day with Daniel.
Now Bill was telling her that she only ever had tonight.
Luce’s quest through the Announcers, all her efforts to break the curse and discover what lay behind all of her reincarnations, finding an end to this endless cycle—yes, those were important. Of course they were.
But would the world end if she enjoyed this one time with Daniel?
She cocked her head at Bill. “Why are you doing this for me?” she asked.
Bill shrugged. “I have a heart, a soft spot for—”
“What? Valentine’s Day? Why don’t I buy that?”
“Even I once loved and lost.” And for the briefest of moments, it seemed the gargoyle looked wistful and sad. He stared right at her and sniffled.
Luce gave a laugh. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll stay. Just for tonight.”
“Good.” Bill popped up and pointed a crooked claw down the alley. “Now go, make merry.” He squinted. “Actually, change your dress. Then make merry.”