Jude had made a grave mistake.
It was the only way she could explain the dread coiling in the pit of her stomach, making her shoulders curve in. She was in a situation of disastrous proportions, her only weapon of defence against the onslaught, a red solo cup.
The grave mistake was allowing her boyfriend to throw her a birthday party. The disastrous situation: people in her apartment.
Quite a few people, actually. Upwards of eighty, if she had to guess. Many of whom she did not know and most of whom were either drunk or horny or some terrible combination of the two.
Out of the handful she did know, only a few were people she could tolerate for any considerable amount of time.
Jude was standing in the corner, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot, letting the thrum of the music roll through her. She nursed an atrocious cocktail Cardan had handed her before flitting off somewhere.
Usually, she didn’t drink at parties— could never stomach the way it made her feel. But after ten excruciating minutes of not knowing what to do with her hands, she’d accepted the drink gladly.
That’s how she’d found herself in one of the strangest circles of people she’d ever encountered.
To her left, Cardan’s sister, Rhyia, and the captain of Jude’s high school fencing team, Fand, chatted animatedly about hunting techniques. Though she’d always been fond of both women, she knew neither of them well.
Beside them, her younger brother, Oak,—who really should not have been there considering the fact that he was only fifteen—occasionally contributed to their conversation.
Mostly, Oak just asked the women questions about weapons that could only come from the mind of a teenage boy. They indulged him with unfettered enthusiasm, which did not do much to relieve Jude’s tension.
If there was one thing Jude could be thankful for, however, it was that her brother had the sanctity of mind to not ruin her birthday by getting plastered and throwing up in the kitchen sink.
Someone had definitely already done that, but at least that person was neither underage, nor someone Jude herself was responsible for.
To her right, was Jude’s twin sister, Taryn, who she only sometimes liked. Taryn stood, drink in hand and mouth tinged a faint blue. Her appearance at this party seemed to be a peace offering from their most recent spat about Taryn’s live-in douchebag.
Or, ex-live-in douchebag now, Jude supposed.
Taryn had kicked Locke out at Jude’s behest, on account of him being a cheating piece of shit. Plus, he always drank their orange juice right out of the carton, which sucked.
Jude had been relieved to have him out of her apartment. And utterly furious when she’d found him in their kitchen one morning last week, chugging their orange juice like a camel at a watering hole.
That cheating piece of shit was now hovering over her twin’s shoulder, giving off a weird vibe, as per usual, as Taryn held an amiable conversation with Nicasia.
That was another strange thing; Nicasia, a veritable goddess with her mile-long legs and mote of blue-green hair, had been the most popular girl at their school and Locke’s high school sweetheart.
The Duarte twins had most certainly not been part of Nicasia’s crowd. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Whenever she could tear herself away from her official occupation as Insmire High’s Most Incorrigible Flirt, Nicasia Van Der Zee had been Taryn and Jude’s intermittent bully.
Jude had bore the brunt of it, really. But Taryn, whom Jude was sure had been a loyal sister at one point or another, had hated Nicasia almost as much as she did.
Jude hadn’t thought Nicasia had an amiable bone in her body until very recently.
About a month ago, when Jude had begun to suspect Locke’s wayward affairs, Nicasia had helped her with her brief dip into private investigation. It was more like amateur sleuthing, but between the stake outs and online stalking sessions, they’d become tentative acquaintances on the basis that they wouldn’t have to interact much after their investigation was over.
Now, however, Locke was very much kicked to the curb (at least as far as Jude was concerned), and Nicasia was at Jude’s birthday party, chatting. Amiably. With Taryn.
It was all too much for Jude to handle.
She sipped her drink idly to avoid joining the conversation and grimaced. Whatever Cardan had put in here, it truly was awful.
“Oh but Sorrel Underwood,” Taryn giggled, her free hand waving through the air with a dramatic flourish, the movement making the blue drink in her cup slosh dangerously close to the lip, “She held a grudge against you ever since you kicked her off the cheer squad.”
“Really?” Nicasia frowned, cocking her head to the side.
Taryn nodded vigorously, sipping from her cup.
“She told me she understood,” the blue-haired beauty said, her bottom lip drooping into a pout. “She did drop one of our main flyers. Twice.”
“Yeah, but Sorrel was always very non-confrontational,” Taryn said. “She’d never tell you straight to your face she hated you.”
“Huh. Interesting,” Nicasia said. “Who else hates me?”
“Well there’s Pernicia Marsh,” Taryn said, threading the ends of her long hair between her fingers absentmindedly. “You bested her in the Academic Decathlon once and she talked shit about you behind your back for the rest of the year.”
“Oh?” Nicasia arced a brow in mild amusement. “What’d she say?”
“That you cheated or some petty bullshit like that,” Taryn said, taking a long pull of her drink. “Then there was Violet Darrow—”
“Oh, Violet’s hatred of me was not a secret. I handed her ass to her numerous times during Debate Team.” Nicasia gave Taryn a Cheshire cat’s smile. “Also, she’s my ex.”
Taryn coughed. “Well, that I did not know,” she said meekly. “Did you know that, Jude?”
Jude, as it happened, didn’t appreciate her sister dragging her into this. Taryn’s eyes were pleading, Nicasia’s were just short of indifferent, and Locke’s seemed intent on boring a hole through her head.
With three sets of eyes pinning her to the spot, Jude wanted to melt into the wallpaper.
Instead, she shook her head and said, “Nope. I didn’t.”
Nicasia chuckled, swirling the dregs of her drink. “Well, I’ll be damned. Never thought I’d surprise Taryn Duarte with a bit of gossip.”
Taryn snorted, then said, “Wren Douglas.”
Nicasia’s brows rose high on her forehead. “My cousin, Wren Douglas?”
“Hates you,” Taryn said with a shrug of her shoulder.
“Huh,” Nicasia said again. “I should keep you around, Duarte.”
Taryn only downed the rest of her drink. There was a flush of red creeping up her sister’s neck. Jude wondered briefly if she should slow Taryn down.
But before she could, Taryn snatched Nicasia’s empty cup in the same hand as her own and shoved them over her shoulder towards Locke, who was still breathing down her neck.
“Locke, would you be a dear and grab us refills?” she asked, her words slurring together slightly.
Locke grunted, but took the cups and made a beeline for the kitchen.
Taryn rolled her eyes, making a sound of disgust. “Thank god he’s gone. Territorial psychopath.”
Nicasia sputtered, and suddenly the two girls were in fits of riotous cackles.
Jude was about to make some excuse to go find Cardan when a song with a heavy baseline came on, and people on the makeshift dance floor of their living room started cheering.
Taryn perked up. “I love this song!” She gasped.
Then she was joining the throng of writhing bodies, not seeming to care if either of them came along.
Nicasia’s eyes followed her sister. She couldn’t tell if Nicasia wanted to dance or not, but Jude herself was rather content with this wall she now leaned against. She wasn’t drunk enough to dance. Certainly not drunk enough to dance with such questionable company.
“Uh-oh,” Nicasia breathed.
“What?” Jude asked warily, her eyes sliding to the girl beside her. Nicasia’s gaze was still locked on the dance floor.
“Big uh-oh,” was the woman’s only response before she grabbed Jude’s wrist. Nicasia pulled her across the living room, down the hall, and straight to the bathroom.
She didn’t bother knocking—Nicasia barreled right through the door.
A couple making out rather aggressively against the sink jumped at the intrusion. They froze, hazy-eyed and half-way to states of indecency.
“The bathroom? Really?” Nicasia hissed at them. “Gross. Get out.”
The couple fled, wisely, pulling clothes back on and barely containing their laughs.
Nicasia closed the door and locked it. She opened the small window near the toilet. The night air was a chilled breath against Jude’s skin. She could finally hear herself think.
“Are you going to be sick?” she asked Nicasia uneasily. “Because if you are, I’m not sure you need me to do that.”
Nicasia scowled, leaning against the back wall. “I’m not going to be sick.” Then, she grumbled, “I think I have… feelings.”
Jude snorted. “Well, I’d certainly hope so. Most people feel things.”
“No, Jude,” Nicasia huffed an exasperated sigh, crossing her arms. “I think I have feelings for someone.”
Jude blinked. “Oh.”
She set her half-empty cup on the sink top and leaned against the cool surface. Which was maybe a questionable decision, considering what’d been taking place not a moment ago. Jude, however, was verging on tipsy now and unable to dredge up a care.
Then, because Nicasia seemed reticent to reveal who, Jude guessed, “For Locke?”
They used to date, after all. It wouldn’t surprise Jude in the slightest if, after long hours spent digging through the grimy bowels of Locke’s personal life, certain feelings she’d once felt hadn’t been rehashed.
Nicasia scrunched her nose as if she’d smelled something foul (not unlikely for their current location, but the context was clear enough). “Ew,” she said. “Not Locke.”
Suddenly, a loud pounding rattled the door, and both girls nearly jumped out of their skin.
“Jude, darling?” Cardan’s voice sounded through the wood. “Everything okay in there?”
Jude rolled her eyes and ripped open the door.
Her boyfriend was leaning against the frame, all tall and dark with sharp angles that still made her heart skitter to a halt, even when she was annoyed at him for abandoning her in her time of need.
He wore a look of worry that he did little to conceal until Jude was staring up at him with her usual fire. Only then did a smile curl the corners of his mouth, his eyes sliding over Jude’s shoulders to Nicasia.
“Hey, Nicasia,” Cardan said with a wave of his fingers.
“What do you want, Cardan?” Jude asked.
His oil slick eyes glided back to hers. “I was coming to check on you,” he said. “In case you were… sick.”
“Bullshit,” Jude said with a wry smile. “You know I’ve only had one drink.”
“You’re a lightweight.” He gave a half-shrug.
“And you’re a terrible liar.”
“Fine,” he sighed. “I saw you two come in here and just wanted to make sure you weren’t at each other’s throats.” Cardan traced a knuckle softly down her jaw. Jude shivered involuntarily.
“Who said we weren’t?” Nicasia drawled, examining her cuticles, looking bored and not at all as if she’d been about to confess her feelings for someone to her once-arch-nemesis. “Jude doesn’t mind a bit of teeth, does she Cardan?”
Jude shot her an incredulous look.
But her boyfriend, the traitorous bastard, smirked and said, “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Nicasia shrugged. “Perhaps I would.”
“Everything is fine, Cardan,” Jude said through gritted teeth, turning to face him again. She wanted this interaction to end. Immediately. “Nicasia and I are perfectly capable of being civil.”
Now it was Cardan’s turn to look incredulous. “You’re two of the most disagreeable people I’ve ever met.”
“Yeah, well, we made a truce.”
“A truce, huh?” He purred, his words harking back to a distant memory that shimmered before them like a mirage.
We should have called a truce long before this.
Heat blossomed on Jude’s cheeks, unspooling deep in her core.
“It’s more of a blood pact,” Nicasia said, yanking the couple from their reverie. Her smile was sharp as a tangle of thorns.
“And you’re feeling alright?” Cardan asked, ignoring her. He dragged his moon pale fingers down Jude’s bare arm, leaving gooseflesh in his wake. Jude’s breath caught in her throat.
“Right as rain,” she said a little too loudly, then shoved at his chest. “We’re having girl talk.”
“Okay, okay,” Cardan said, raising his arms in surrender as he conceded a step into the hall. “I’ll just be… around.” He pointed vaguely over his shoulder.
Jude gave him a final pointed look, then shut the door.
“Sorry about that.” She gave Nicasia an apologetic wince and hoisted herself up onto the sink, settling on a relatively clean spot.
“It’s fine,” Nicasia simpered. “Cute, actually.”
“So,” she said, eager to steer the conversation away from whatever made Nicasia’s grin so vicious. “You like someone.”
“And it isn’t Locke?”
“Then why are you upset about it?”
“Because I think…” Nicasia drew in a deep breath. “I like your sister.”
Jude blinked. She was wholly unprepared for this conversation.
It was really all she could offer at the moment, all that went through her mind. The rest was just… blank.
Nicasia flinched. “You already said that.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Anything!” Her voice tightened. “Give me advice. Tell me to pursue her. Tell me to not pursue her. Just say… something.”
Jude raked a hand through her hair and blew out a breath. “I don’t think I’m the best person to give you advice on that subject.”
Nicasia’s turquoise eyes snapped to hers, a sharp plea. “Why not? You’re the soberest person here besides your fifteen-year-old brother. And you know Taryn better than anyone.”
“While that might be true,” Jude said gingerly, “It took me years to sort out for myself what I felt for Cardan. To finally see that he didn’t hate me as I thought he did.”
“So I’m not exactly good with feelings,” Jude sighed. “Others’ or my own.”
Nicasia groaned. “Can you tell me someone who is?”
Jude glanced at the door. Then back at Nicasia, who arched a disbelieving brow.
Jude just shrugged. “He’s better at them than I am,” she reasoned. “Plus, the man predicts the outcome of the Bachelorette every single time he watches it.”
Nicasia rubbed a hand down her face. “Fine,” she said begrudgingly.
And because there was no doubt in Jude’s mind that her boyfriend was lurking close by, she shouted, “Cardan!”
Just as Jude suspected, Cardan whipped through the door. Panic creased his brow, eyes darting back and forth between the two women.
“You called?” he said, doing a piss poor job of acting like he hadn’t been listening for the first sign of commotion.
“Shut the door,” Jude instructed.
“Sit.” She pointed to the edge of the bathtub.
He complied, albeit warily. “What’s going on?”
“Cardan, I’m going to tell you something, and I need you to promise me you won’t tell anyone,” Jude started. “Or freak out.”
Cardan’s face immediately turned ashen. “Are you… pregnant?” He bolted to his feet as if he’d scoop her up right then and run her to the hospital himself.
Jude scoffed, kicking his leg with the toe of her black boot. “No. I’m drinking, you idiot.”
His shoulders visibly sagged, and he rubbed the back of his neck. “Right. Okay, that’s… that’s good. I mean, not that I won’t be thrilled when the time comes… if it comes. I just—”
“Yeah, this isn’t about us, Cardan,” Jude smirked at her flustered mess of a boyfriend. His eyes flicked to Nicasia, who was still leaning against the wall near the window.
“Are you pregnant, then?” Cardan’s brows knitted together.
“Not last I checked,” Nicasia said. She picked at a loose thread on her sequined shirt, the portrait of indifference.
“No one’s pregnant, Cardan,” Jude told him. “Nicasia here needs your help sorting out her… feelings for someone.”
Recognition sparked in his eyes and Cardan nodded slowly. “And you called me in here because you’re as emotionally inept as a garden snail.”
Jude’s face twisted into affronted disapproval. Even though it was tragically true, and he knew she knew it.
Cardan simply looked at her with the kind of endearment that swathed the clever edges of his face in softness like flower petals. He took up her hand in his, kissing her palm right over the raised scar there.
“So,” he said, dropping Jude’s hand and sharpening his gaze into something wolfish as he rounded on Nicasia, “Who’s the poor, unfortunate soul?”
Nicasia shot him a sardonic smile. “Nevermind. I don’t want your help.”
“Oh, come on, Cas,” Cardan crooned. “I won’t tell. Promise.”
Jude tried to give the other woman a look of encouragement, but Nicasia just stared down at her hands.
Right as Nicasia opened her mouth to speak, the door flung open, and in stumbled a very dishevelled looking Locke.
The whole bathroom collectively groaned.
“Oh. Am I interrupting something?” Locke grinned in a way that made it clear he didn’t actually need to take a whiz, and that he was likely only being nosy when he made the decision to burst in here.
“Yes,” Jude snapped at him, hopping off the sink. “Get out.”
“Yeah, Locke. This is girl talk,” Cardan said. “So leave.”
Locke snorted. “I suppose I should start calling you Miss Greenbriar, then.”
Cardan raised a rude finger and Locke’s smirk turned barbed.
“It’s an honorary title, you pig-nosed git,” Jude said, “Now, get. Out.”
She punctuated each word with a hard shove to Locke’s shoulders. Once he was over the threshold, she slammed the door, nearly hitting him on his way out, and locked it.
“Fine,” Locke’s muffled voice sounded through the wood, “Didn’t wanna be part of your girl’s club anyway.”
“Maybe I should tell her,” Nicasia mused, “If only to piss him off.”
There was a beat. Then, Cardan blurted, “Taryn. You like Taryn.”
“Say it louder, why don’t you?” Nicasia’s eyes rolled to the ceiling and back.
Cardan looked a furtive question at Jude, but Jude simply shrugged, climbing back up to her perch on the sink.
“So what do you need my help for?” Cardan asked, crossing his arms. “Sounds like you got it all sorted.”
“Sorted?” Nicasia scoffed. “I haven’t got it sorted. I don’t even know what to do with… whatever it is I feel.”
“Well, she’s clearly into you,” he said as if it were that simple.
“H-How could you know that?” Nicasia stammered her face slackening.
“I saw you two chatting it up earlier,” he said, standing up on the tub’s ledge and walking it like a balance beam. “One look at you two and Vivienne and I were making bets.”
Jude’s jaw dropped in disbelief. “You made bets on my sister? With my other sister?”
“Heather did, too,” Cardan muttered in his defence.
“I’m going to kill Vivi,” she fumed.
“Don’t be mad, Jude,” Cardan said. “We’ll let you in on it.”
“You most certainly won’t,” Jude bit back. “Because I’m going to kill you, too.”
“What were the bets?” Nicasia interrupted, chin inclined in something like interest.
“I said it would happen tonight. But only as a one-time thing,” Cardan said, smiling apologetically. “Granted, I had no idea you actually had feelings for her.”
Nicasia’s lips pulled into a tight line. “And the others?”
“Vivienne said something would happen tonight, but that it would turn into something more,” Cardan informed her. “And Heather said nothing would happen tonight, but something would eventually.”
Nicasia swallowed, nodding once, taking the bets to heart.
Cardan was still balancing on the ledge of the bathtub. His arms raised over his head, gripping the curtain rod. He turned to face Nicasia, giving her an assessing look.
“If you want to know my opinion,” Cardan said, “She likes you, too. She was flirting with you, actually.”
“What?” the two women said in unison.
“I would’ve noticed that,” Jude said, shaking her head. “I was standing right there.”
Cardan arched an amused brow at her. “Jude, my love,” he said, “I flirted with you for two years before you noticed.”
“That’s because I thought you hated me!”
“Regardless,” he shrugged, “You wouldn’t know flirtation if it hit you over the head.”
Jude scowled. Even though she knew he was right. She was rather oblivious when it came to such things.
“Flirting with someone is different from having feelings for them,” Nicasia pointed out. “How are you so sure she likes me?”
“I pay attention,” he said, nonchalantly. “Plus she told me as much at the punch bowl before I came in here. Think she was a little drunk already, but it was obvious enough who she was talking about.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t Locke?”
Cardan snorted. “It wasn’t Locke.” He hopped off the side of the bath, landing silently on his feet. “Look, if you don’t believe me, Taryn has a tell.”
Jude gaped at Cardan. She didn’t even know Taryn had a tell. How did her boyfriend know? Much less, what it was.
“And what might that be?” Nicasia looked just as doubtful as Jude felt.
Cardan walked over to where Jude sat on the sink glaring at him. He pressed his torso against her knees, and she had to clench her jaw against the heat that rippled through her.
“She fiddles with the ends of her hair,” Cardan said, taking a tendril of Jude’s between his long fingers and weaving it between them like a snake coiled around a branch. Jude swatted his hand away and he grinned at her. “Did it constantly around Locke for the first few months.”
“Didn’t know you were paying so much attention to my sister,” Jude glowered. “Maybe you two should duel for the honour of her company.”
“Taryn’s not my type,” Cardan said. He placed his hands flat on the counter on either side of her thighs, caging her in.
Jude’s heart flew to her throat. He was so close, she could feel the heat emanating off his skin, could smell the sweet, woodsy scent of him.
She swallowed, still and unblinking. “We’re twins,” she countered, hoarsely.
Cardan’s crow dark eyes sparked with mischief. They flitted to the thrum of her pulse on her throat, to her lips, slightly parted in anticipation. He was a hand’s breadth away.
“I’ve always been able to tell the difference,” he murmured, lips ghosting against her own as if in question.
Jude knew if she didn’t make a move towards him, he would back off. Annoyed as she still was with him—for leaving her earlier, for making bets about her sister—right now, her heart was hammering a wild beat in her chest, and the world was sliding away.
Jude let it. She was tipsy enough to not give a care about the other people in the apartment—the other person in this bathroom who was probably giving them the evil eye.
She took a fistful of Cardan’s shirt and closed the rest of the distance.
He tasted like spiced rum and something citrus. Jude was sure, as their mouths slid together in a hot and heady waltz, that the dizziness she felt had nothing to do with anything she’d had to drink that night.
Nicasia made a sound of disgust, and Jude was vaguely aware of the other woman making for the door. “I’m too sober for this.”
Cardan broke the kiss long enough to say, “Go get a drink, then.” He kept his eyes on Jude. “Maybe try talking to Taryn while you’re at it.”
Nicasia needed no further excuse. She left, leaving the door wide open.
Jude’s skin was tight and warm under Cardan’s gaze. Too warm for a small bathroom and an apartment full of people.
She wished they’d all go away.
She parted her knees and Cardan took the invitation to slot himself between them. She hooked her heels around the backs of his thighs, trapping him in just as surely as he was trapping her.
“Are you still going to kill me?” he asked softly, lips pouted. His lashes were a dark trellis under which his coal bright eyes danced. A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
“I’m debating it,” she teased. “Just in case, what’s your preferred method?”
“Like you’d give me a choice,” he breathed, leaning in to nuzzle her neck. His teeth grazed her earlobe, pulling gently.
Jude’s breath hitched in her throat. “I dunno,” she said as evenly as she could, voice low and languid from want. “Might make you beg for it.”
He pulled back to grin at her. “Oh, I’d gladly do that.”
“Then maybe," she said, gaze dropping to the thrumming pulse on his neck, "I would indeed oblige your final wish.”
“Blade to the throat."
Well, she thought. That was quick.
But then she frowned and asked, “So I’d have to look you in the eye when I did it?”
He shook his head. “So I’d get to see yours one last time before I went.”
Jude crinkled her nose. “Are you always this morbid when you drink?”
Cardan just laughed. “Only for you, my sweet villain.”
“Oh, how lucky I am,” Jude drawled, looping her arms his neck. She pulled delicately at the curls there and felt a shudder run through him, to no small amount of satisfaction on her part.
He sighed, his hands slipping to her waist. Then she was sliding across the sink top, Cardan pulling her ever closer until their bodies were flush against each other.
Jude smirked, angling her head to meet his stare.
“Enjoying playing matchmaker?” she asked, after a moment.
“Immensely,” he said, a gentle smile playing at his lips.
“Even if you’re going to lose the bet because of it?”
“My reward will be seeing two more people as happy as I am with you,” he said, kissing the tip of her nose. “That’s worth more than any bet.”