Chapter 17

The only person that was home was Jake. Brad and David were still running errands, and my mom and Andy wouldn't be home until late (Mom had told me when she dropped me off in the morning). So I was little surprised when I heard voices coming from upstairs.

Curious, I walked up the steps and paused at the landing. The voices were coming from Jake's room – they were hushed, so I couldn't tell who was talking. I hurried toward my room, because the furry four-legged creature was beginning to get restless. I really had to let the cat out of the bag (har-har).

I had disregarded the voices as ghosts, thinking I could just ignore them and hoped they went away. I unzipped my bag so the cat could get out. He emerged in a streak of black fur and hid under the bed. I also took the cat food out and set it by the window seat.

I could still hear the hushed voices, so I figured I better investigate. I shut my door after me as I went into the hallway, creeping toward Jake's room. But I came to a screeching halt in the doorway of Jake's bedroom when I noticed the voices were actually coming from Jake and Jesse.

They both turned to look at me simultaneously. Neither of them looked happy, and I could instantly tell they had been arguing about me. Jake's bedroom window overlooked the street, and I winced when I realized Jesse must have seen Paul kiss me. Definitely not what I wanted to deal with right now.

"Hi," I said lamely, unsure of how to proceed.

Jesse said nothing. Jake glanced at him and then at me. He could obviously feel the tension building in the room, because he said, "I'll, uh, just…go."

I stuck my palm out in a halt gesture before he could go anymore. "No. Jesse and I will talk in my room." And then I walked out and into my room before anyone could disagree with me.

It took Jesse about five minutes to arrive in my room. I was beginning to think he'd just left. I stood up when he walked in, shutting the door softly behind him. He walked over to the window seat and sat down. He glanced briefly at the cat food, but thankfully didn't ask anything. I wasn't up to going through the whole ridiculous story with him right then. I sat down beside him, but left a little distance between us.

"I thought a lot about what you said," he said softly. "I actually came over here to apologize and ask your forgiveness."

I almost winced, because I could see where this was going.

He turned to look at me, his chocolate brown eyes meeting mine steadily. "I saw you with him just before… I saw him kiss you."

I nodded. It was true, I couldn't deny it. Not looking away, I replied, "But did you see me push him away?"

He nodded. "Yes. That's why I'm still here right now." He sighed heavily, looking down at his hands as he spoke. "I almost didn't see it. When I saw him kiss you, Dios, I was so angry. I turned away immediately to go confront him. But Jake stopped me. He knew you'd push Slater away, and he made me watch that happen. I'm glad he did."

I bit my lip, unsure of what to say. "So…what happens now? Are you still angry?"

He let out a sharp burst of laughter, but it wasn't as if something was funny. "Of course I'm still angry, Susannah, but not at you. You're right, I need to trust you. This past week I've thought a lot about it, about my past, about us."

He looked up, our gazes meeting and holding. "I realized I was being stupid, querida." He scooted a little closer to me and took my hand in his. "I love you, and like you said, there is no love without trust. I know in my heart that I love you, so I know that I trust you."

I smiled at him, my gaze steady on his. "I love you too, Jesse," I replied. It was the complete utter truth; I knew I always would love him. However, I'd recently realized that love, while strong and hopeful, wasn't always enough. It was easy enough to love someone, but to make a relationship successful was hard work. It required trust and honesty, among other things. And while he claimed to trust me, I wasn't sure if he was being completely honest with himself and with me. I also had a few lies up my sleeve; the fact that they were by omission was inconsequential. And, I added mentally, I still have to figure out this mess with Paul.

Jesse's gentle callused fingers caressed my cheek as he said, "You're a beautiful woman, Susannah, and there are always going to be men admiring you. I have to learn to deal with that."

I brought my hand up and settled it softly over his, warm and comforting.

Then I remembered something he had just said. "When you said you were thinking about your past, what exactly did you mean?"

He sighed, his gaze and hand dropping from me. He seemed hesitant to say anything, which only made me want to know even more. Just when he was about to say something, a streak of black flew from under the bed and into Jesse's lap.

Damn. I had totally forgotten about the cat.

Jesse stared down at the cat, clearly surprised. The cat blinked its amber-green eyes up at him, all innocent. Jesse lifted his hand and raised it over the cat's head as if to pet it. He paused, and in that instant of hesitation, the cat lifted its head to Jesse's hand and pretty much pet itself.

When Jesse got over his shock at having a cat fly into his lap, he looked at me and shook his head, a smile on his face. He raised an eyebrow in question. Double damn, I thought, why can't I do that?

And then I told him the whole ridiculous story. Well, leaving out the part where I had agreed to a shifter lesson with Paul. That would just be adding fuel to the fire, and I wanted to keep this fire under control for now.

When I was finished with my story, Jesse didn't look particularly happy. His lips were pressed together in a frown, and he was absently petting the cat while he stared at me.

I knew he was still upset with me being around Paul, his kissing me aside. Jesse might have said he trusted me, and I know he wanted to, but trust wasn't instant. Trust was only good when it trickled slowly, like coffee. Instant coffee was yucky.

His trust issues stemmed from something in his past, and I had to wait until I could figure out what that was and fix it. Besides, I had some thinking to do about the situation with Paul. As much as I hated to admit it to myself, I had liked it when he'd kissed me. It was wrong, it was so wrong on so many levels, but it was there. If I didn't figure out what was going on, like a wound it would fester, and I knew it would ruin what I had with Jesse.

I could see Jesse's desire to curse Paul verbally. But he must have done that enough in his head, because he said to me, "I want you to show me this place."

I blinked. Okay, that was definitely not what I had been expecting. "What?" I blurted.

He lifted the cat up gently and set it beside him on the window seat. He turned to face me, taking my hands in his big warm ones.

"Susannah, I want to see this place," he said earnestly, his eyes alight with what looked like excitement. Damn, I thought in surprise, he was just like Paul. Then I silently reprimanded myself. Jesse was nothing like Paul.

I bit my lip. "Why?" I asked. Okay, so I could only ask one-word questions. I was just so surprised that he wanted to see this place.

He pursed his lips, and I could practically see him deciding what to tell me. Trust, my ass.

Before he could respond, I ripped my hands from his and said coldly, "Forget it. If you're not going to tell me the truth, then it's not worth hearing."

And I stood up to leave. I wasn't sure where I was going, but it had to be away from him. God, men were so frustrating.

"Susannah," he said, his hand resting lightly on my shoulder before I could get to my bedroom door. "Forgive me. I'm sorry, I just…"

I didn't turn around. I was so upset, and maybe I was overreacting but I couldn't help myself.

Instead of spinning me around to face him, Jesse walked around me to face me, putting his back to my bedroom door. "Querida, look at me," he said softly.

So I did. I don't know, it was something in his voice that had me curious.

"I was going to tell you that I was curious about this place. I did not want to tell you the real reason, because it is obvious you do not like this place. I was afraid if I told you the real reason, it would just push you that much farther away from me. But that was my initial reaction, querida, not what I was actually going to do. Okay?"

I searched his face, his eyes, for clues. He was telling the truth. I couldn't fault him anymore for it, because I knew exactly what he was talking about. There were things I didn't want to tell him, for fear he'd run far away from me.

He took my hand in his tentatively. "Can we sit back down, please?"

I nodded, and he guided me back over to the window seat. He sat down first, and before I could sit down beside him, he yanked me into his lap. I was slightly surprised, but then I eased back into him as he put his arms around me.

Jesse intertwined his fingers with mine, making the connection between us stronger. He took a deep breath before he spoke, as if grounding himself. "Have you heard of my cousin Maria?"

I nodded. "Marta mentioned her once, but she didn't say much. I got the impression she wasn't liked."

I twisted myself in his lap so I could see his face as he spoke. "Your impression is correct." He tightened his hold on me, almost unconsciously. A look of disgust passed over his face so briefly that I thought I might have imagined it. "Maria is my second cousin. Her parents are, shall we say, very old-fashioned. They wanted me to marry her when we were both of age."

I started, practically jumping out of his lap. If not for Jesse's arms around me, I probably would have fallen on my ass on the floor. "What?" I exclaimed. "Is that even legal?"

He grimaced, almost as if the thought of marrying Maria was painful. Well, she was his cousin. "Yes, it is. Barely." He shook his head. "My parents, of course, refused. I knew Maria didn't want anything to do with me, just as I had wanted nothing to do with her. We didn't get along, even as children. A marriage would have been disastrous."

Jesse sighed, leaning back against the window. "It didn't matter what we felt for each other. Maria thought I would have accepted what her parents were offering, so she was offended when I refused. I guess she wanted the chance to reject me, but I beat her to the punch. At least that's how she saw it."

I snorted. "Let me guess. She's beautiful and knows it. She's always gotten everything she's ever wanted, courtesy of her parents, and she throws a fit when she doesn't get what she wants."

Jesse chuckled softly, a light relief that I was taking this so well. "Yes to all of the above."

God, I hate this woman and I haven't even met her. Not that I wanted to ever meet her. She sounded like a hag.

Sensing more to the story, I relaxed a little in Jesse's arms and let him continue. "Maria is a year younger than me," he continued. "Of course, she looks much older and she acts like she's five. Last year, when she turned sixteen, she ran away with a man she met. Someone named Felix Diego. He's much older than her – I think he's 25. I doubt he realizes she's only sixteen, but if he did I wouldn't be surprised. Some men have no honor or boundaries."

"So she's still gone?" I asked. Okay, so I had a tinge of hope in my voice. I hoped that bitch would stay gone.

He nodded. "She's still alive. She writes her parents every now and then. Of course, it's just to get them to wire her money, which they do immediately."

Remembering why he had started this story in the first place, I asked tentatively, "What does Maria have to do with that witch-y room?"

He sighed, shaking his head slightly. "Ever since she ran away with Diego, it's been believed that she turned to witchcraft. Not the light, mostly harmless witchcraft of mainstream society. The witchcraft she's dealing in is dark. I have to see if that room was hers. Or still is hers."

"You believe she's been practicing dark witchcraft." It wasn't really a question. I could tell Maria had done something to Jesse with her new-found hobby. And I wanted to beat her head in the ground for it. I wanted to ask him what it was, but seeing the deep hurt lingering in the depth of his eyes, I didn't press it. He would tell me when he was ready. I just had to be patient and wait. Definitely not one of my strong suits.

"Yes," he said. "I believe Diego is the one who started her on it. He's the real threat with it, but I know he's been indulging her, letting her twist her own curses to keep her happy. Maria has always been unhappy – it was really only the misery of others that kept her going."

Damn, she must be really bad if Jesse was saying something like that.

Then a thought popped into my head, one I didn't really want to voice, but I figured I had to get it out there. "Jesse," I said tentatively.

He met my eyes and seeing I had something pretty significant to say, his gaze sharpened. "What is it?" he asked, his voice harsh. I could tell it was from the emotions swirling through him, not directed at me.

"Do you think… I mean, could she have…done something to that poor old woman? You know, to use her house as a lab?"

He blinked, then he clenched his jaw. "It's possible," he said, but what I heard was, "Most likely."

"We have to stop them, Jesse, before they hurt anyone else." My voice was soft, but judging by the hurt that reappeared in his eyes, it would have seemed like I said something really mean.

"I know," he said, his voice tinged with guilt. "I should have stopped them when I first found out. I guess I just didn't realize how bad they could be. I thought Maria was just filling her fancy, and this guy Diego was just throwing unrealistic things at her to keep her happy."

"It's okay," I said soothingly, sliding my hand up his arm to his shoulder and squeezing lightly. "We'll get them, okay? I'll go over with you tomorrow after school."

He shook his head, almost violently. "No," he said roughly. "Susannah, you are not coming with me. I can't risk you getting hurt, because I was an idiot and didn't stop them when I had the chance."

His words were so harsh and filled with self-recrimination that I shrunk back, almost falling off his lap and onto the rug. It was borderline self-hatred. Oh, my God, what happened to him? I wondered.

And then I realized this was what was causing him so much pain, what was causing so many problems in our relationship. Maria had done something horrible to someone close to him, and he couldn't stop it.

The sudden realization made me hate Maria more than ever. I didn't think it was possible to hate someone so much without even meeting them. The hurt she'd caused Jesse was so potent that I knew I had to stop her if it was the last thing I did.

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