On January first, just days after they are confirmed as a House, House Baylor receives an official offer of mutual support from House Sagredo.
It is addressed to Nevada, as the Head of House. However, it concerns Catalina.
“A what?” Penelope asks, voice low and terrifying.
Catalina shifts in her chair, willing herself to remain calm. She is the steady one. She does not shake in the face of intimidation and danger. There is no person or animal she fears (not with Arabella as a sibling).
(But then, of course, she thinks of Alessandro, of how he shook off her magic and she just want to cradle his face in her hands, Siren or no, and she feels a shiver deep in her belly –)
“An offer of mutual support through marriage,” Rogan says evenly.
Catalina, Penelope, Nevada, and Rogan sit at Rogan’s kitchen table. Nevada has been holed up here with him ever since the trials. While it’s great to see her happy, it’s sort of gross to see how happy. Catalina is excited for wedding dress shopping, but the idea of a spectacular House wedding makes her queasy.
“An arranged marriage,” Penelope says, as if she can’t fathom the practice. As if Rogan almost hadn’t had one himself, once upon a time.
Nevada fixes her even gaze on Catalina. “Has he tried to contact you since the trials?”
Shaking her head, Catalina curls her fingers together in her lap. She resists the urge to play with the loose ends of her dark hair.
Penelope’s mouth tightens into a hard line. “Absolutely not.”
“Mom, it’s not your decision,” Nevada says wearily.
“Is it yours?” Penelope retorts.
Wetting her lips, Nevada glances at Rogan before she looks back at Catalina and Penelope. In the winter afternoon light, she looks firm; like the Head of House. “Technically, as Head, I can veto this.”
“Not force me?” Catalina pipes up.
Nevada’s eyes widen in her tan face. “Of course not,” she says fervently. “I would never – “
“Okay, okay,” Catalina murmurs. “I know.”
Her mother reaches over to touch Catalina’s hand as it rests on her lap. “What now?”
Nevada looks at Rogan. He does not speak as if Catalina isn’t in the room. He speaks right to her.
“Because of the selective nature of the Siren gene, it’s understandable that House Sagredo would want to match their strongest Prime with you,” he says quietly, gaze bright and intent on Catalina. “The genetic possibilities are too appealing. The offer is good for four years.”
“Why four?” Penelope asks, voice taut.
Rogan’s eyes glance over to her. “In the three years House Baylor is immune from intra-House warfare, they would be able to use their own connections and power to strengthen your position. This would reduce the likelihood of attacks once the three years is up. If you do not respond in three years, the fourth year is an opportunity for them to see how House Baylor stands on its own. They have a clause in the offer that notes that within the span of the fourth year, they may retract the offer of their own volition without cause.”
“Logical,” Catalina murmurs.
He smiles slightly; the smile of a Prime. “Eminently.”
The four of them sit in silence, looking not at each other, but at the contract on the kitchen table. Catalina inhales deeply and tries very hard not to think of how his presence at the trials made her fingers tingle, how using her abilities to convince him towards her had taken the least effort of all. How it had seemed that he wanted to come near her.
Finally, Nevada clears her throat, and puts on what Arabella calls her Prime Face; serious and official. “Catalina, what would you like to do?”
Biting the inside of her bottom lip, Catalina tries to will the flush away from her cheeks. “I don’t want to say yes or no,” she says quietly. “I would like the opportunity to think about their offer.”
Penelope stiffens but says nothing. Nevada nods shortly. “Then that’s what we’ll tell them.”
If Catalina dreams that night once more of Alessandro’s fine eyes and artist hands, she keeps it to herself. A teenage girl can have dreams.
Alessandro sees Catalina from the opposite side of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. As he will tell her later, he could feel her through the crowds of tourists and was transfixed on the spot by her.
It’s spring break for Catalina, her junior year of university. It is the third year of the offer from House Sagredo. In that time, she has seen Alessandro at large House gatherings, but has never spoken to him alone. It is a combination of nerves and desire; she still finds him the most handsome man she’s ever seen, and she feels so strange concerning how much she wants him, given that she has no idea what he’s like. Rogan, as any helpful former military older brother-in-law would, provided a detailed dossier on House Sagredo and Alessandro once prompted, but that doesn’t tell Catalina about the man.
When he bumps into her outside a jewelry store on the Ponte, she immediately feels her stomach swoop.
“Imagine this,” he says, voice warm.
She blinks, tucking her hair behind her ears. “Hi,” she says at last, struck dumb by how the golden sunset reflects in his hair. He’s truly devastating, and he’s smiling at her like she’s the only woman in the world.
“Hi, she says,” he murmurs. “The woman pulling at my heart strings.”
A flush rises across her chest and up her throat. “That’s dramatic,” she says, reminded strangely of Arabella.
Alessandro takes her elbow in his capable warm hand. “I wait for your final answer.”
“You can retract in eight months,” she retorts, oddly emboldened. He won’t like her just because she makes him through magic. He can’t make her like him. They are evenly matched, if the trials are anything to go from, and she’s only gotten stronger. She can play here, and trust him.
His smile deepens and he tucks her close into the frame of his body, away from the press of tourists. She can smell salt and olives on his skin, at the open collar of his shirt. “I don’t quit so easily.”
“Neither do I,” she says, neck craned back to look up at him.
He tilts his head, watching her. “Have dinner with me, Catalina,” he murmurs.
“Is this a House Sagredo-sanctioned date?” she asks archly.
Shaking his head no, he rubs his fingertips over the curve of her elbow. Goosebumps rise over her honeyed skin. She suddenly feels quite light-headed. “Just you and me, Catalina.”
Back at university, during her history course, she will daydream and remember the warmth of his gaze, the curve of his mouth, the vibration and comfortable collision of his magic against hers. It isn’t manipulation or seduction; it is finding one’s match.
“Yes,” she says, standing in the shelter of his chest in the middle of the Ponte Vecchio.
They eat pasta and tiramisu at an outdoor trattoria. She tells him of her double-major in engineering and linguistics; he relays stories of House drama, of harmless pranks he likes to pull on his extended family, of the pressure as the future Head of House. It’s a comfortable conversation like she’s never had on a date before. She explains why she’s on spring break alone; she is naturally reticent, despite the magic buried within.
“You’re shy,” he murmurs.
“I’m not,” she protests.
“I could tell at the trials.”
She wrinkles her nose. “Nervousness is not shyness. And I bested you, didn’t I?”
A lock of hair falls over his brow as he watches her over the candlelit table. “You did,” he says evenly.
Sipping her sparkling water, she meets his gaze. “I’m always afraid that people will not like me for me,” she says bravely. Her heart beats so fast, it feels as if it might fly out of her chest. “That my magic is so prevalent that I forget when it’s happening.”
He watches her, blinking those ridiculously long lashes. “It’s a danger. It makes it hard to trust.”
“I am naturally better on my own. I can make friends – I have friends – but I like making my own way,” she adds.
Her hand rests on the well-worn cream tablecloth. Slowly, Alessandro reaches over and covers her hand with his, their fingers fitting together like a puzzle. Something in her middle clicks and begins to whirl, making her head spin.
“You naturally understand the world that we live within,” he says quietly. “You deserve someone who can be a partner in that world.”
She smiles slightly. “And you’re that partner?”
He shrugs easily, his broad shoulders moving under his shirt in a way that catches her breath to watch. “If you decide.”
“You won’t retract the offer once this year is up?”
His mouth curls into a smile that makes her toes curl. “It will be your decision at all times.”
Her heart skips a beat. She presses her fingers against his on the table impulsively.
He kisses her at the end of the night, on the lit street corner near her hotel. With his lips on hers, his arms around her waist and the scent of his skin in her nose, she feels aflame. All of her skin turns to gooseflesh. She carries the memory of that kiss with her for months and years to come.
Nevada has this way of looking at her sisters like every choice they make will be the end of the family as they know it. Four years after becoming a House and establishing themselves as a force in the magical world, the Baylors still always seems on the precipice of doom.
Today, a week before Catalina’s twenty-second birthday, it’s no different.
“They’ll expect an answer by January first” Catalina hears Rogan say from his place leaning against the kitchen island. His and Nevada’s house is a second home to the Baylors; Catalina has made Christmas cookies and Arabella’s quinceañera cake in this kitchen.
Nevada, face flushed with frustration, watches Catalina. They sit together at the kitchen table. A formal letter from House Sagredo lays between them, the corners crinkled from reading. Catalina has kept it in her room at the Baylors’ house down the road almost as a talisman. In this, the fourth year, Alessandro has never rescinded the offer. His words eighteen months ago in Florence remain true. It is in her hands.
Their brief interlude in Florence was not the last time she saw him. They have seen each other at House events, exchanged greetings. The potential of their engagement is public knowledge to those in magic high society by now. There are men that wait in the wings to pursue her if she refuses; there are many requests for profile access through the Scroll. Of course, there are women (and men) interested in him. Neither of them are optionless.
She thinks of Florence, and doesn’t want to let go.
“Yes,” she says.
Nevada’s mouth drops open in surprise. Even Rogan looks taken aback.
“Yes… what?” he asks slowly, gaze flaring. By now, she can tell when he’s going all Prime.
“Yes, I will accept Alessandro Sagredo’s proposal,” she says calmly. So rarely does she get a chance to shock her family. Usually, that’s Arabella’s job.
Nevada and Rogan are silent, staring at her.
“Why?” Nevada asks at last, blinking rapidly.
Heat colors Catalina’s cheeks. “I – Are you exercising your veto power?”
Brow wrinkling, Nevada leans forward, her elbows on the table. “No. Unless you’re being coerced.”
“I’m not,” she says. Nevada’s mouth twitches with the truth of it. “I want to marry him.”
“Why?” Rogan asks quietly. Concern darkens his words. He sees all the Baylors as family now. He has spilled blood for them.
Catalina takes a deep, centering breath. “He is the only man I have ever felt wholly myself with. And by this point, I’ve met a bunch.”
Shaking her head, Nevada rests her chin on her hands and rubs her temples. “Well, you can’t lie. So. Okay then. I didn’t realize the trial left that much of an impression,” she murmurs.
Catalina bites her lips and says nothing. Her heart flutters in her chest, her fingers tingling in anticipation. The decision now made feels right.
Later that night, she receives a text from Alessandro (a number she has memorized despite never using or saving).
I think a small wedding, don’t you?
In the darkness of her bedroom, she smiles.