What would Stanton say if she knew about that? I was a sham, reaping glory I didn't deserve.

If I was truly a dedicated Alchemist, I'd change my life here. I'd stop all extraneous activities with Jill and the others. I wouldn't even attend Amberwood - I'd accept the offer of outside accommodations.

I'd only come here and see the gang when I absolutely was required to.

If I could do those things, then I'd truly be a good Alchemist.

And, I realized, I'd also be terribly, awfully lonely.

"Thank you, ma'am," I said.

It was the only response I could give.

Chapter 18

JILL DIDN'T GIVE ME any starry-eyed looks at breakfast the next morning, which was kind of a relief. Micah had surfaced again, and while they weren't as flirty as they'd been in the past, the two were chatting animatedly away about a science project she had. Eddie and Angeline were equally engrossed in conversation, making plans for when she was free of her suspension.

Her blues eyes were alight with happiness as they talked, and I realized that she had legitimate feelings for him. She hadn't just been throwing herself at him for the sake of conquest.

I wondered if he knew.

It would've been easy to feel like a fifth wheel here, but instead, I was pleased and content to see my little cohort getting along so well. Stanton's conversation had still left me conflicted, but there was nothing wrong with appreciating the peace around here. I would've been happier still if Trey's behavior had also normalized, but when I reached my history class later, he was absent yet again. I had no doubt he'd claim he had family stuff, but my earlier suspicions were returning, about whether his family might be responsible for his injuries. Should I report my worries to someone? Who? I didn't want to jump to conclusions either, which left me in a bind.

Eddie and I always sat near each other in that class, and I leaned toward him before the bell rang, pitching my voice low to address another concern. "Hey, have you noticed that Jill's been kind of acting weirdly around me?"

"She's got a lot going on," he said, ever quick to defend her.

"Yeah, I know, but you had to have noticed her last night. In the library? I mean - keeping in mind I'm terrible at figuring this stuff out - it was like she had a crush on me or something." He laughed at that. "She was kind of laying it on thick, but I don't think you have to worry about some romantic complication. She just looks up to you a lot, that's all. Part of her still wants to be a brave fighter who rushes out fearlessly..." He paused as he savored that idea, a mix of pride and rapture on his face before he tuned back into me. "But at the same time, you're starting to show her there all sorts of ways to be powerful."

"Thanks," I said. "I think. But speaking of her being a brave fighter..." I studied him curiously.

"Why don't you train her anymore? Don't you want her to hone her skills?"

"Oh, yeah. That. Well... there are a few reasons for it. One is I need to focus on Angeline.

Another is that I just don't want Jill worried about that. I'll do the protecting." Those were exactly the reasons I'd guessed. The next one was not. "And I guess... the other thing is that I don't feel right being in contact with her like that. I mean, I know it means nothing to her... but it means something to me."

Again, my social skills took a moment to kick in. "You mean, you don't like that you have to touch her?"

Eddie actually blushed. "It doesn't bother me, that's the problem. Better for us to spend time together in a hands-off way."

I hadn't expected that, but I could understand it. Leaving Eddie to his own inner demons, I soon got caught up in the day and wondering what had happened to Trey. I'd hoped he'd come into class late, but he didn't. In fact, he didn't surface for the rest of the day, not even when I was finishing up my independent study. I'd thought he might come by again for homework.

"You look troubled," said Ms. Terwilliger, watching me pack up when the bell rang.

"Worried about getting your project in on time?"

"No." I'd actually finished two of the charms, but I certainly wasn't going to tell her that.

"I'm worried about Trey. He keeps missing school. Do you know why he's out? I mean, if you can tell me?"

"The office notifies us if a student will be out for the day, but they don't tell us the reason. If it makes you feel better, Mr. Juarez's absence was called in this morning. He hasn't disappeared." I almost mentioned my fears about his home but held off. I still needed more evidence.

Between worrying about Trey, Ms. Terwilliger's work, the Warriors, Brayden, and all my other myriad complications, I knew I couldn't waste any of my free time. Nonetheless, I went to Adrian's after school on a mission I couldn't refuse. On our way to Wolfe's class earlier this week, Adrian had mentioned offhandedly that he hadn't had the Mustang looked at by a mechanic before purchasing it. Although my own novice assessment hadn't found anything wrong with the car, I pushed for Adrian to get the car examined - which, of course, meant I had to look up a specialist and make the appointment. It was just before my textile museum date, but I was certain I had time to make it all work.

"The guy I bought it from seemed pretty trustworthy," Adrian told me, after we'd dropped the car off with the mechanic. He'd told us he'd look at it right away and that we could hang around and wait. His shop was on the outskirts of a suburban area, so Adrian suggested we go for a walk through the neighborhoods. "And it ran just fine when I did the test drive, so I figured everything was okay."

"That doesn't mean there aren't problems you can't see. It's best to be safe," I said, knowing I sounded preachy. "Bad enough you got a car you can't drive." Glancing over, I saw a small, half smile on his face.

"With your help, I'll be a pro in no time. Of course, if you don't want to help anymore, I'll just wing it and figure it out on my own."

I groaned. "You already know what I'd say about - wow."

The neighborhood we were in was pretty affluent. In fact, I'd say the houses bordered on being bona fide mansions. We stopped in front of one that looked like a cross between a hacienda and a southern plantation, large and sprawling with a pillared porch and pink stucco siding. The front yard was a mix of climates, green grass with palm trees lining the path to the house. The trees were like tropical sentries.

"Gorgeous," I said. "I love architecture. In another life, I'd have studied that - not chemicals and vampires." As we continued on, we saw more of the same, each house trying to outdo the others. All of them had high fences and hedges blocking their backyards. "I wonder what's back there. Pools, probably."

Tags: Richelle Mead Bloodlines Fantasy
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