Double or Nothing. 46

Chapter 46: Confusion

Nighttime shadows crisscrossed the bedroom as slivers of moonlight shone through the window blinds and the curtains layering them.

Flickering with red light, the digital numbers of the clock-radio noted each passing minute while the slumbering brunette thrashed restlessly in the huge bed.

Cordelia heard the quiet tick of doom as the nightmare held her in its tight grip. It came as a whispering of unintelligible sounds too distant to make out in detail. Just loud enough to spark her curiosity and instantaneous fear.

Again, déjà vu struck with a fury and she knew she had been to this place before. Wherever it was, the truth lay beyond those hidden mists ahead and while the fear and confusion might have held her at bay, an irrepressible determination kept her moving closer and closer.

Halfway there, Cordelia’s point of origin was now lost in that gray mist leaving her isolated from the world around her. Its bleakness folded over her, wrapping her up in a gloomy shroud of forlorn feelings. Though her heart sounded its staccato in her ears urging her on, she could no longer move. She was trapped with nowhere to go.

Someone was watching. Waiting. Somewhere in the distance.

Then the mist thinned to reveal a lone figure stepping out of the shadows— Angel. She caught only a glimpse of his face before he moved toward that distant spot she could not reach. It came to her with sudden certainty that he was the reason she was here. Holding out her hand, Cordelia called out to him to wait for her to follow, but her plea was swallowed up by thunder as the lightning flashed overhead.

As the blue-green lightning dimmed, the vampire’s frame was cloaked in darkness as the mists thickened in the ever-growing space between them.

Screaming out his name, Cordelia shot into a sitting position on the bed, her hand automatically reaching out to the empty surface of the mattress where Angel slept. Only it was empty. The clock glowed the hour of 2:17am as Cordelia realized that he was still out on patrol. As she hugged her arms around her knees, she knew that if he’d been in the mansion there was no doubt at all Angel would already have been at her side.

“Damn nightmare,” she muttered wiping at the tears on her cheeks. This time she remembered bits and pieces whereas before it had been only the fear. And now it was Angel. There was something about Angel that she couldn’t quite place leaving her with chills and the taste of fear in her mouth.

“Don’t blubber about it Chase,” Cordelia admonished herself. “Get over it.”

The longer she sat in the bed staring into the darkness, the more it felt like her dream— full of loneliness and despair. Grabbing for the bedside phone, Cordelia keyed in the numbers of Angel’s cell phone. Moments later she heard the cheerful ringing coming from the charger on the opposite side of the bed.

“Can’t that manpire of mine learn to carry his cell phone once in a while? Sheesh! You’d think I was asking him to keep a live grenade in his pocket.”

With a bang, she returned the cordless telephone to its base. Angel was obviously not used to carrying it with him. Though Angelus had finally made a habit of picking it up on his way out of the mansion, his brother never carried one. As for the new champion, remembering that he owned a cell phone was apparently not on Mister I-Am-Angelus-D’Aurelius’ priority list.

Hmm…Cordelia Chase D’Aurelius, the errant thought popped into her head causing her to hold her breath at the impact it left behind. Whoa! Not gonna go there.

No wonder she was having nightmares, Cordelia concluded, trying to shake off the lingering sense of weirdness. After her mother sprung The Plan on them when she popped into the kitchen to help them with the pumpkin pie, be a little rattled was a natural reaction. Even if it did happen a week ago.

“I can see you’ve already made a start on dessert,” Emelia Chase commented wryly as she strolled across the tile floor and leaned against the island countertop. Angel had Cordelia pinned up against the refrigerator, their fingers interlocked beside her head as they kissed tenderly. “Will there be whipped cream with that?”

“Mother!” Cordelia sucked in a gasp of air, her eyes wide as they peered around the vampire’s shoulder to view Emelia’s amused expression. After all, she’d caught the full effect of seeing her daughter draped in leather and whipped cream the night they returned to Sunnydale. Why did I ever imagine she’d let that one go?

Angel had made a crack about understanding why Cordelia had no chance in the tact department. Between Daniel and Emelia, the two of them certainly said what was on their minds. His words only acted as a cue for her mother who decided to inform the two of them that she would be hosting their engagement party during the upcoming Christmas holidays.

“Our WHAT?” Staring at her mother as if she’d grown a second head, Cordelia looked as flabbergasted as she sounded. She doubted it was on Miss Manner’s list of polite dinner conversation to tell your parent she had lost her mind, but it was so obviously necessary considering The Plan that Emelia Chase divulged to them.

“Say something,” Cordelia hissed as she elbowed Angel in the ribs.

The vampire had been listening to Emelia prattle on about her plans for engagement parties, photo shoots and wedding consultants while a fascinated smile teased the corners of his mouth. Cordelia’s mother suddenly had him thinking thoughts he never imagined were possible— until Cordy’s little slip at the table about being his mate gave him a smidgeon of hope that she might want the same thing.

Her fury and embarrassment over Emelia’s plan seemed to crush that hope quickly enough. “I’m not sure you’ll want me to comment on this one, Cor.”

Hazel eyes blazed at his refusal to tell her mother she was certifiable. “Grmph! This is ridiculous. Hello! I’m seventeen. Not in a hurry here.”

Emelia rolled her eyes. “Cordelia, from what I understand, you two are already in a permanent relationship. Considering what Angelus told us about the ties binding you to the Order of Aurelius and your obvious—um—intimacy, it never occurred to me to believe you might want time to shop around for other options.”

Feeling the weight of Angel’s stare on her, Cordelia couldn’t believe that her mother was barging right into the middle of this. It was so not any of her mom’s business. Just look at what she was saying— other options.

“I-I— I don’t!”

Her mother didn’t let her say anything more, just nodded in satisfaction before she commented, “You’re mature for your age, which I suppose is my fault for forcing you into being responsible for yourself. You’ll be eighteen in May. Your boyfriend is— not exactly a boy.”

For a second, Cordelia thought Angel was blushing as her mother’s eyes raked over him. Not possible. Vampires didn’t blush.

“Why wait?” Emelia continued on, “It only makes sense that you let the non-vampire half of the family celebrate a little.”

“I won’t be railroaded into this by either one of you,” Cordelia returned determinedly. She was just getting used to the idea of Angel and the ties that bound them together as lovers.

Accepting the fact that they belonged to each other as mates came across easily in sharp contrast to this wild idea. Even with Angelus, she had never really considered such a thing and neither had he. The human ritual of marriage was so far removed from what the formerly-evil vampire believed in that Cordelia doubted the thought ever crossed his mind.

With Angel, she could see a spark of interest in his soulful eyes. The idea had some appeal for him even if he remained silent on the subject. He was too busy getting lost in his own thoughts to notice her rising panic.

Flashing a smile, Emelia shared an indulgent look with Angel instantly reminding him of a certain brunette. “Just think about it, darling,” she urged Cordelia while picking up the stack of dessert plates to carry into the dining room. “Besides, I’ve already invited your friends to the party next month.”

Once Emelia had disappeared, Angel finally let out the laughter he’d been holding back. “God help me, but your mother is just like you. I bet she always gets what she wants.”

“Laugh it up, Dorkula!” Cordelia grumbled using one of her less flattering nicknames for the vampire that signaled her irritation with the subject. “How are we gonna get out of this?”

After a short pause, Angel answered seriously, “Maybe we shouldn’t.”

“It’s ridi—WHAT?”

“You heard me.”

Cordelia turned ten shades of red. Spluttering, “That’s— I’ve never heard anything so— dammit, Angel, she’s not planning a little soiree. The wedding bells are already chiming in my mother’s head. Get it?”

Oh, he got it. Emelia Chase was nothing if not forthcoming.

Then Cordelia pointed out, “Marriage is for lovers.”

“We’re lovers,” Angel countered swiftly, finding a lot of appeal in Emelia Chase’s idea despite the fact that he was a vampire.

He had a soul, after all. What was marriage if not a binding of two souls? Was it so awful to want that with Cordelia— forever?

Grabbing for the pumpkin pie, Cordelia knew there was only one way of getting out of this conversation. Escape. No, make that two ways. The second being reminding Angel of the only fact he didn’t want to hear. It came spilling from her mouth before Cordelia’s feet could carry her to the door.

Stopping halfway across the room, Cordelia turned to look him in the eye. “Marriage is for people in love. We don’t qualify.”

Silence settled after the lash of her verbal whip. A sinking feeling came over her as Cordelia met Angel’s gaze realizing that her words just took them two steps back from any forward progress made during the past week. Inwardly, Angel struggled to get hold of his sudden rage, leaving a cold glare in his eyes and a tight expression on his face.

Cordelia only felt the impact of the shock induced by her mother’s plan, Angel’s open interest and her own hurtful response. Fine tremors tingled with an electric charge as her thoughts finally caught up with her mouth.

Bitch, bitch, bitch. Was there any other word that seemed so fitting? Cordelia had to admit that her response was a defensive attack. Her mother’s eager planning quickly backed Cordelia into a corner until the response was instinctual.

First-strike weapons of the verbal kind were her specialty and she could hit a target with bull’s-eye precision. Once deployed, the devastating impact of those weapons was impossible to take back.

Turning back toward the kitchen door, Cordelia knew she’d just made a huge error. Not in thinking her mother’s idea was insane, she determined, but in breaking down any positive strides in her relationship with Angel.

No doubt he would think that her opinion was a betrayal and her words unforgivable. Well, she wasn’t going to let the Scoobies or her parents know that on the inside she was just one big ball of hurt.

The remainder of Thanksgiving Dinner was reigned over by Queen C and neither her parents nor her friends and guests quite knew what hit them. Angel’s open candor and witty charm had disappeared behind a dark cloud of stoicism, but they hardly had time to notice as Cordelia’s banter kept them distracted during the rest of the evening.

Over the following week Cordelia noticed that Angel was doing everything he could to live up or down to his original promise to bind her to him as his mistress. Though she accidentally admitted during dinner that she saw herself as his mate, her response to her mother’s ideas on marriage kept her in that tawdry category.

Fate, disguised as her mother’s ill-timed whim, had given her yet another chance to claim Angel’s heart— and she’d flubbed it. Would it have been so bad to accept the fact that they were meant to be together? That there was something more than just hot, wild, mind-bogglingly delicious sex between them?

Not that I think it’s true. , Cordelia grumbled silently as she toyed with the bedcovers. Not at all. Mind made up there. Really. Love— that just hurts.

The surrounding darkness seemed to have a thousand hidden eyes staring back at her with doubt. Pfft! Who’re you trying to convince?

Physically there was no issue. Vamp nibbles and all. Cordelia now knew what Angelus had been missing out on during their time together thanks to the Moirae’s mystical restraints. Tasting her blood brought another level of pleasure for Angel, something primal and passionate. No complaints on her part as long as there were no lasting scars. The mark on her neck obviously wasn’t going away, especially considering that her throat seemed to be Angel’s favorite spot. The intimacy of it amazed her, not to mention the added zing the added penetration gave.

So the sex— that was great. Even when Angel decided to test her limits and her willingness to play along with the arrangement of their relationship by ignoring all propriety. Not that such a thing had ever been a key factor in Cordelia’s mind when it came to her vampire. Though somehow, her sexy stint with Angelus in the movie theater somehow seemed boringly safe.

Not that Cordelia could deny she enjoyed the thrill of danger. It was the getting caught that wasn’t quite as orgasmic. And it wasn’t as if she hadn’t gotten touchy-feely with Angelus in public places like the Bronze. Only now it just seemed a little forbidden and it didn’t always stop.

It was as if he couldn’t get enough of her. Sometimes she would just look at him and that’s all it would take.

But it’s not just the sex, Cordelia told herself while hugging Angel’s pillow to her chest. Not just the fact that he makes love to me anytime and anywhere the urge seems to take him. That’s actually kinda thrilling.

Cordelia’s heart thumped at the mere thought of his touch. Except that now he’s sometimes picky about letting me touch him.

It was as if she didn’t have equal rights where he was concerned— or if he suddenly found it impossible to give her the same freedom she enjoyed with Angelus. Cordelia figured that was part of the deal.

“A part that sucks, mind you,” she voiced to the shadows.

Touching him…she couldn’t help it. There was a constant need to be in his personal bubble, something she used to harp at him about when he tried to get too close. It just happened and it hurt whenever he pulled away or told her no.

Lately, it’s as if she didn’t know quite what to expect from him. He was the same, yet different with moments where he would remind her of them. Since their little ‘talk’ about love and commitment, he seemed bent upon evoking all kinds of emotions in the people around him. Most of them negative.

Buffy confronted her at school earlier in the week.

“That vampire is giving me the wiggins,” Buffy shuddered visibly. She had taken to calling him ‘That Vampire’ rather than using his name just to distance herself a little. “Giles makes me patrol with him just to keep an eye on his behavior. You know what the Moirae said— he has the potential for Good or Evil in him and lately he’s acting like the Big Bad Wolf.”

“Maybe it’s just you, Red Riding Hood,” Cordelia swiftly defended him. “Angel seems more sensitive to the fact that you’re the Slayer. Maybe you just bring out the fight in him.”

Buffy reacted with an instant rebuttal, “It’s not like you’re there, Cor. When was the last time you went on patrol?”

Closing her locker rather forcefully, Cordelia snapped, “That’s not my choice. Angel won’t let me.”

“Since when did that ever stop you?” The question actually hit home as Cordelia took in Buffy’s cross-armed stance. “Angel is prowling around Sunnydale stalking the bad guys like he’s on a mission.”

“Hello! Champion.” Maybe Buffy was the Chosen One with a stodgy old mission as a Vampire Slayer, but that didn’t give her exclusive rights to the Hellmouth. Did it? “He may not know what his mission is yet, but he has one. The Moirae didn’t wake up one morning and decide— hey, let’s screw with that vampire— he’ll make a great lapdog for the Slayer.”

Buffy’s eyes narrowed as she tried to reel in the familiar urge to strangle Cordelia. It was a fortunate thing that the halls were deserted.

Apparently, Cordelia wasn’t done with her little rant because she kept on going, “I guess they did screw with him— metaphorically speaking— even if it looked a whole helluva lot more literal than that.” Thinking about what Klotho revealed to them all, Cordelia mumbled, “Skanky ho.”

“Excuse me?” Buffy caught the last bit an thought the brunette was talking about her.

“Not you!” Rolling her eyes, Cordelia wondered if the Slayer ever considered the fact that not everything was about her. “The bimbo in charge of birthing destiny. Y’know, the slutty tour guide of Angel’s past.”

“Oh, her.” A scowl appeared on Buffy’s face at the memory. She was not too happy about Cordelia inferring that her relationship with Angel had been about leading him around on a leash. “What’s your point?”

“That the Moirae have plans for Angel,” Cordelia told her. “He’s not in Sunnydale just to answer to you.”

Riled up by the cheerleader’s words, Buffy decided she’d heard enough. “Would you just listen to me for a second? Angel is getting dangerous again.”

That caught Cordelia’s attention immediately. No matter that Buffy had the ability to irritate her, they had never lied to each other. Thoughts of psycho-Angel came to mind as she asked for clarification, “Dangerous?”

“He’s enjoying patrol a little too much,” Buffy revealed. “He lets his demon out all of the time. There is no hiding either the vamp face or his killer instincts. He fights with a blind passion that scares me.”

Concern filled her voice as she added, “It’s as if he’s got nothing to lose.”

Now sitting in her bedroom in the dark, she realized that Buffy was just trying to be a friend. To both of them. “Good going, Cor.”

Even if let out his most savage urges on patrol, Cordelia hadn’t seen it. Though he often let out that dominant streak in bed, there were times he forgot to play the part of the stern, in-control lover and simply interacted with her on a personal level that always drew them closer. Except for the change of pace around the Thanksgiving Day preparations, Cordelia and Angel spent most of their time together at home— in bed.

If there was something to worry about, Cordelia hadn’t been there to see it. Knowing that caused her stomach to twist into a sick knot. Was there really a danger that he could leave the Good Fight behind? Would it be her fault as the Moirae suggested her influence would be the key to which path he followed?

“Buddy, when you get home, we’re gonna have a longgggg talk about—,” Cordelia’s head turned in the direction of the ajar bedroom door as she heard noises below.

The heavy front door opened and closed. Realizing that Angel was home and while still reeling from the nightmare, she threw aside the covers and darted barefoot for the stairs. After thinking about her conversation with Buffy and the aftereffects of the dream in which Angel played a part, she wanted to assure that the vampire was still in one piece coming back from tonight’s long patrol.

By the time Cordelia reached the second floor landing, Angel had only made it to the bottom of the steps. His slow pace came with a limp and a wince as he moved along drawing her concern like a moth to a flame. Descending the stairs, dressed only in her short coral nightgown having left her robe and slippers behind, Cordelia caught his attention, demanding to know, “What happened?”

She was beside him in a flash, her hands brushing over the dark signs of bruising along his jaw and pulling away the lapels of his coat to reveal the crusting blood on his shirt. The look of horror on her face made her thoughts apparent.

“It’s nothing.” Angel took her by the shoulders and put her at arms length. Not that she stayed there.

“Pfft!” Cordelia glared at him while moving back into his personal space. “You look like someone has been playing Tic Tac Toe on your chest with sharp objects.”

Her trembling fingers were at the buttons on his shirt before Angel could begin to explain about the beast he found and fought to the death. No Slayer in sight. Angel knew for a fact that she was home, but not alone, so had chosen to patrol tonight without her.

While the fact that Xander was up there in her bedroom gave him a few mixed feelings, strangely enough he felt the same sort of satisfaction Cordelia had crowed about after seating Rupert and Joyce together at Thanksgiving dinner. Wondering whether Xander had found the guts to make a move or if the Slayer had finally seen the light, he decided against issuing an invitation to patrol.

Truthfully, Angel liked it better this way. He didn’t have to listen to the Slayer as she whined about him being too violent or not letting her take the lead in a fight the way he used to do. Maybe his tactics had changed a bit since the reconstitution of his two personalities. His instincts were as sharp as ever and Angel wasn’t about to shy away from a little violence when it came to tracking down a lead.

“I’m fine,” he assured Cordelia, once again moving her aside. “After a shower, I will probably feel a lot better.”

“Some demon got his claws into you and you think a shower will fix it?” Cordelia was following him up the stairs barely resisting the urge to undress him on the way up. If his chest looked this way, she wondered what other injuries he’d acquired.

They argued the rest of the way up the stairs. She helped him out of his clothes and into the shower despite all protestations that came her way. While he was in there she ran back down to the first floor kitchen to fix him two mugs of blood knowing that Angel looked even paler than usual. He was still in the shower letting the hot water pelt his sore muscles when Cordelia returned.

“Don’t stay in there forever,” she warned him that coming in just to check on him wasn’t out of the question. “I need to see what that demon did to you.”

Tending to Angelus— and to a minor extent Angel— after their patrols together had significantly diminished the Eew Factor when it came to fussing over injuries. It was something she hadn’t really done for her new mate. Not because he never had an injury, but because it never occurred to her that she cared enough to personally assure herself that he would be okay.

That afternoon she was home from school as fast as her shiny red Corvette would take her. Fortunately, the Sunnydale traffic police were otherwise occupied having pulled over a random speeder as Cordelia zipped past on her way to Crawford Street.

Though the mansion was quiet, Cordelia instinctively sought Angel out upon her arrival, finding him in the living room with his feet propped up on the coffee table while reading a book. Either he ignored her approach or he was so into the book that he didn’t hear her soft footsteps.

For a few moments, Cordelia paused her forward motion long enough to stare openly at his handsome profile. She did so until the urge to touch him interfered and drove her forward again.

“Hello, Cordelia,” Angel startled her just before her hand reached out to touch his shoulder. “What happened to cheerleading practice? I didn’t expect you for hours.”

“Oh, that. Pfft! I blew it off,” she told him like it was nothing. Head cheerleaders did not blow off practice for the heck of it. She had responsibilities— right here. “How’s the demon game-board doing?”

Cordelia tried to sound casual about inquiring over his injuries when she was really thinking about ripping open his shirt to check them out herself. She sauntered over to his side of the couch taking a seat on the coffee table so that she faced him.

“Healing,” Angel answered truthfully. “Hardly noticeable now.”

“Let me see.” She was halfway to a standing position when he barked, “It’s fine.”

Jerking her hand back, Cordelia sat back down and reminded herself that she never had that little chat with Angel. His injuries had taken priority over arguing about the fact that he wouldn’t let her patrol with him and she was too concerned and too tired to bring up Buffy’s observations.

Angel looked a little sorry for snapping at her. “How was school today?”

Raising an eyebrow, Cordelia noted the attempt at safe conversation. Okay, buddy, I can play along with that.

“The usual,” she sighed and told him about her classes. Not that she’d paid too much attention today. Thoughts of Angel had distracted her all day long. “I think lunch was the most exciting part. Jonathan and Xander started a food fight and Harmony ended up covered in spaghetti.”

“I’m sure Snyder loved that one.”

Nodding, Cordelia explained, “Oh, he did. I’ve never seen anyone cackle that way over tomato-stained designer-wear. Poor Harm! That dress was an original. Then he hauled Xander and Jonathan off to his office. Major detention, I’m guessing.”

“Just when I start thinking of Xander as acting more mature than he used to be,” Angel grinned, “he does something to prove me wrong.”

Cordelia smiled in response, “That’s Xander Harris for you. It just comes naturally.”
Then changing the subject, she asked, “So have you been recuperating all day? What are you reading?”

Angelus preferred real life activities or television to books— unless he was using Lord Byron’s poems to seduce her. His brother was more into dark, angsty turn-of-the-previous-century novels or the latest demonology book Giles had procured. So when Angel held up the book for her perusal, Cordelia was genuinely surprised to find that he was reading the latest John Grisham thriller.

A hasty explanation followed, “Your mother recommended it.”

“You’ve been talking to my mother?” Cordelia asked with a feeling of dread.

With a shrug, Angel admitted, “Once or twice.”

More plotting, Cordelia realized ruefully. Sheesh! Would that woman never give up? Just because she gave birth to her and now felt she needed to make up for ignoring her for the past few years did not give her the right to interfere with her relationship with Angel.

“How nice,” Cordelia flashed a false grin. She was seriously going to have to have a talk with her mother. Not now though. Her knee brushed Angel’s and the contact was enough to wipe away any trace of irritation and leave her body humming at Angel’s closeness. “I tried to phone you during my free period.”

Her fingers, itching to touch him, finally found their way to his knee where one of them moved in a little spiral pattern that crept higher up his leg.

The move did not go unnoticed, but Angel chose not to respond to it. Instead, he commented about her attempted call, “I didn’t hear it. I spent most of the day in the basement. Training. Then I took a shower and came down here to read.”

Finding the opening she’d been looking for, Cordelia jumped on the chance to ask him about training her. “I want to patrol with you.”

“No, it’s too dangerous.”

“Let me rephrase,” Cordelia set her jaw determinedly. “I’m going to patrol with you. Train me up if that will make you feel better, but I’m going one way or the other.”

Angel tossed his book aside, leaning forward so that there were only inches between them. “Do we have to revisit the discussion about chaining you to the bed?”

“We can,” Cordelia considered with a grin, “but it won’t make a bit of difference. I can make sure Buffy and Giles know I plan to go and they’ll make sure I’m there to keep your ass in line.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” growled Angel standing up and stalking over to the fish tank where he startled the small school of colorful bettas that darted to the other side of the aquarium.

Rising to her feet, Cordelia turned, standing with her hands on her hips. “Take a wild guess, Rambo.”

“Has Rupert been giving you that song and dance about the Moirae?” Angel would have to have a word with the Watcher about causing Cordelia to worry for no reason.

“No. It was Buffy telling me straight up that you’ve been taking risks and behaving like—”

Angel whirled around to face her, “A vampire?”

“Don’t you dare pull that one on me,” she stormed up to him.

“Does the truth bother you?”

“Not that truth, you dumbass!” Cordelia snapped now standing only inches away. “I do have a problem with you trying to play superhero. You may be a champion, but you’re not invulnerable— just stupid, apparently.”

He took the smallest step forward crowding into what was left of the space between them. “Stupid.”

“As a doorknob,” Cordelia could care less if her metaphors were mixed up. It got the point across. “What are you trying to do out there? Get yourself killed?”

“It’s not as if you really care, sweetheart.” His words were the antithesis of only a few days ago. How quickly their relationship returned to rocky waters after sailing through a brief calm. Now, the tension between them was a palpable force until it exploded, “I’m little more than your favorite fuck toy.”

Cordelia felt as if he’d slapped her across the face. Did he really think that? Duh! He meant it enough to say it. She glared at him in silence until it became too much to bear. Then arching one slim eyebrow, she clipped coldly, “WHAT?”

“Convenient, aren’t I? Someone to give you pleasure day and night. To keep it up as long as you want it.” Angel’s face was full of fury and he let her have it without any hint of regret. It infuriated him that he found himself comparing his relationship with Cordelia to his failed romance with Buffy.

Hell, even his bitter accusation sounded familiar. “Forget the fact that I love you. What use does a vampire have for feelings if his own mate can’t open up her heart enough to let him in?”

Angel’s words slammed into her like a battering ram. For all intents and purposes, he had just called her an unfeeling bitch who used him for sex. It hurt to hear it, but his utter belief in what he’d said incensed her even more. Now Angel was gearing up for more as he towered above her, those dark eyes boring into hers.

Although Cordelia had the urge to make a fist and show the vampire just how insane she thought that accusation really was, she couldn’t follow through with it. There were tears burning at her eyes and she’d be damned before she’d let them fall in front of him.

“Don’t you ever touch me again,” she snapped with an audible tremor.

With a look that conveyed hurt and anger, Cordelia darted out of the living room and took the stairs two at a time. She had no idea the amount of control it took for Angel to let her go. His hands were balled tightly at his sides, his unneeded breath heaving in harsh reaction to the instinctive urge to stop her escape. To snatch her back into his arms.

Finding herself in the bedroom, Cordelia looked around for something— anything— that would take her mind off of what Angel had just said to her. The open bathroom door provided her only solace. She slammed it shut behind her just as Angel’s voice sounded in the hallway calling out her name.

“Cordelia?” He was on the other side of the bathroom door now, knocking gently. He had been unable to resist the urge to follow her and make amends.

I treat him like a— like a—, Cordelia couldn’t believe he actually said that to her. “Go away, you bastard!”

Angel let out a frustrated growl. Apologies were not something he had very much experience with. “Baby, I’m sorry if I made it sound like—”

“Like I was a major slutbag?” Cordelia grumped loudly. “Maybe Santa will bring me a little something for Christmas and I won’t have to bother you anymore!”

That caused Angel to pause in thought. He attempted a joke, “I’m not sure Santa’s elves make those kinds of toys.”

Biting down on her lip, Cordelia refused to laugh even if some part of her rebelled against her own anger and found it funny. Laughing was out of the question right now. She wasn’t gonna do it. “Go away.”

“Cor…de…lia!”

Just pull out all the stops, why dontcha? That tone always went with the puppy dog eyes. She could feel the weight of that stare despite the inch and a half of wood separating them.

It was unfair that her manpire knew exactly what strings to pull to create a physical reaction. Only this time he managed to do something that only her nightmares had wrought, Cordelia realized as she felt the hot tears blurring her vision. He’d made her cry.

“I said…GO AWAY!” She yelled through the barrier as she turned the tap on full force letting the splashing of the filling bathtub drown out her intermittent sobs.

Cordelia pressed her forehead against the door, one hand lifted to its flat surface as if trying to feel Angel’s presence on the other side. She waited for his next attempt to get her to open up to him– literally with the door and figuratively with her heart—wondering what her response would be even as her fingers drifted toward the lock.

Was he so blind that he thought she didn’t care?

Pfft! I care. Even in her own mind that thought sounded as a whisper.

“Angel?” The quiet that answered her soft query was deafening.

She’d told him to go away. Maybe he’d done it, Cordelia suddenly thought. Then she recalled her nightmares again where he disappeared into the darkness. Where he left her alone— lost in the mist. “Angel?”

Throwing open the door, Cordelia found Angel standing immediately on the other side. Poker face firmly in place, there was no hint of emotion crossing his face in the first moments until his eye caught the trail of a single tear as it glistened on her cheek. In the next second, two muscular arms pulled her into an embrace that defied their strength holding her like a porcelain doll that might break if he squeezed too tight.

Pressing a kiss into her silken hair, Angel closed his eyes and begged for forgiveness. “I didn’t mean it.”

Cordelia wrapped her arms around his waist and rubbed her cheek against his chest. “Yes you did.”

“Not the way it sounded,” Angel admitted. His voice sounded thick with emotion, “I just want you to feel the same way I do. I’m jealous of my own memories. How more screwed up can we get! Knowing your love— I want that back.”

Tears soaked his shirt beneath her cheek. He’d said it before and she’d told him that love wasn’t like a light switch. Promising, “I’m trying.”

Separating her from their embrace, Angel cupped her face and brushed his thumb over the path her tears had taken. She was trying, but he wondered just how long that would be enough. “Your bath is about to run over.”

Cordelia gasped and moved away long enough to turn off the taps. Bubbles mounded up above the rim of the tub. Upon whirling back around again, she found that Angel had already moved off into the bedroom with the obvious intent of going downstairs.

He paused at the door for a moment as if expecting her to call out and plead for him to stay. As if he knew the words were already forming on her lips. Clamping them shut, Cordelia pressed her lips into a tight line knowing that asking him to remain would be an invitation to trouble.

Staying meant sharing her bubble bath. It meant getting naked together. Ending this argument with skin to skin contact would only serve to prove his point. Even if Angel was damn good at wielding a loofah.

***

“ANGEL!” Cordelia’s scream startled the vampire out of the dream that wrapped him up in its warm embrace. Images of his beautiful mate on constant re-run in his head made for restful sleep despite their argument hours earlier.

Only it appeared that Cordelia wasn’t caught up in such blissful dreaming, but the throws of another nightmare. Awakening instantly, Angel reached for her pulling her into the safe comfort of his arms. Rocking her against him, “Shh! Sweetheart, you’re okay. I’m here. Tell me.”

Clinging to him like a lifeline, Cordelia finally realized where she was and whose arms she was in. “Angel. Oh, God! It was there— reaching out for me. It whispered things. It wanted—”

“You’re safe. It was just a nightmare.” Angel tried not to look scared at the terror on her face. He hated seeing Cordelia this way. A nightmare wasn’t something he could fight and destroy. All he could do was try to provide a little comfort and attempt not to feel helpless while doing it.

“Stupid dream,” she mumbled against his chest. With a groan, adding, “What time is it? I have school this morning.”

Glancing at the clock, Angel answered, “Two seventeen. Way too early. Try to sleep.”

“Can’t,” Cordelia told him. She remembered more this time.

The fear and confusion was there. So too the sense of loneliness and despair that settled into her system as she walked through the dreamscape. She’d connected that to Angel, but didn’t know why. Those things had no part in their relationship. At least not until their argument today and the hours she’d spent alone thinking about it and wondering if he was coming back.

Finding him here melted some of her tension away. Cordelia couldn’t completely relax because the nightmare still echoed its secrets. There was more than just fear. There was a reason for it. Some danger that she could not name. Palpable danger. A sense that they were not alone. Something watched her from the depths of the mist shrouding her destination; it whispered to her in tones beyond her understanding.

Whether it followed her or it lay ahead, Cordelia could not tell, but she found herself telling Angel, “I’m trying to get to somewhere. Only I can’t. Something is blocking my way.”

“What is it?” Concern and curiosity suffused his hushed tones. They settled around her like a warm blanket and encouraged her to continue.

“It’s storming,” Cordelia told him with a concentrated frown, “and there is lightning everywhere, but I’m not afraid of the storm. For some reason it comforts me. The lightning is the only thing that saves me from the darkness.”

As she tried to recall the details of the dream even as it faded from her conscious mind, the only thing left that she recognized was Angel’s face.

“I saw you,” Cordelia snuggled closer into his embrace holding onto him, hating the fact that she was quaking in fear. “It was your face staring out at me from the mist. Then you were gone.”

Dread multiplied exponentially at the thought that he was a part of her nightmare. It meant something and Angel knew that he didn’t like what that implied.

Cordelia sighed deeply against his chest as his fingers threaded through the chestnut waves of her hair. “Why, Angel? Why does this keep happening?”

“I don’t know.” Honesty was his only answer.

Cloaked by darkness and silence, Angel held her until Cordelia fell asleep. She drifted off much faster than he figured. Although he released her from the enclosure of his arms when her breathing became slow and rhythmic, the vampire continued to lay awake watching her through the night.

***

The clock-radio alarmed and Cordelia protested the cheerful music that awakened her. Alert, she opened her eyes to find Angel staring down at her from a side-lying position next to her on the bed. So close, but not touching like usual. Most mornings their entwined bodies fit together like tangled vines.

This was also when she usually got her first kiss of the day. Normally, Angel would be kissing her awake even before she could recognize the song that played on the radio. Her mouth felt strangely lonely as her gaze focused on his.

Vaguely, Cordelia recalled her nightmare and the fact that Angel was beside her when the screaming started. She had no idea when he came to bed. After her bubble bath, she’d gone downstairs only to find the house deserted. Angel had gone out on one of his daytime jaunts through the Sunnydale sewer tunnels.

While it irked her to be at home brooding about their argument when Angel was off having a rip-roaring time with whatever demon was unlucky enough to get in his way, Cordelia had spent the rest of the evening thinking about what he’d said to her. Defending herself only went so far when even she found a grain of truth in it.

Maybe it hurt to have a constant physical reminder of Angelus, but the thought of Angel not being there at all hurt more. Was she using him? Not purposefully. She did not want that. She felt— something. Even if it was something that she could not name.

So Angel thought she was using him for sex? Not like it was all her idea. Not like he didn’t enjoy it.

Pfft! New motto, Cordelia. Just say NO. See how my favorite Vamp Toy likes that.

Staring at the temptation of his firm male mouth, Cordelia had doubts about that plan of action. Could she really resist her growing addiction to Angel’s touch? Inching closer, she leaned in to claim the kiss only to stop before bridging the gap between them.

Seeing the hesitation, Angel wondered if it resulted from yesterday’s argument or if Cordelia was simply trying to entice him. Possibly both. Did she have any idea what a temptress she was? Like Odysseus responding to the sirens’ call, he risked being dashed upon the rocks every time he touched her.

Loving her and wanting her went hand in hand. Resisting the urge to take what he wanted had been impossible and he’d pushed Cordelia to the point of daring him to do it. She was just as obsessed with his touch as he was with hers. Just as powerless to ignore the frenzied lust that rose up between them.

The only difference was that Angel knew he loved her. What Cordelia actually felt for him was anyone’s guess.

So he’d fucked up by yelling at her yesterday. Then made it worse by trying to take back what they both knew lay too close to the truth. At least he’d resisted the urge to follow her into that bathroom. There was zero chance of escaping once inside. Angel knew precisely what would have happened.

They’d have been naked, covered in bubbles and any actual bathing would’ve been minimal.

So he’d left. Just to prove to himself that he could walk away. But the downstairs living room wasn’t far enough, he found. Angel grabbed his leather jacket and an axe heading down into the tunnels looking for a fight. Clearing out the nest of a three-headed Gora demon and destroying the creature, he found a few other unlucky beasts along the way.

Finally, Angel’s self-directed anger diminished. He headed home finding Cordelia curled into a ball in the middle of their bed fast asleep. After showering and dragging on a pair of boxers, something he never wore to sleep in, Angel climbed into bed. Cordelia instinctively turned in her sleep curling up against him.

Despite all the angst and brooding of the night, Angel had pleasant dreams until Cordelia awakened screaming his name. Guilt tore him up inside. These nightmares, especially this one coming after their argument, had to be his fault.

Was it any wonder that she screamed in her sleep? He’d accused his own mate of using him for her convenience even though he had been the one on the receiving end of her discarded inhibitions. Whose fault was that? Not like he hadn’t encouraged it. Not like he hadn’t enjoyed every second in her arms buried deep inside her.

He wanted that fiery sensual response. Only he wanted it with her heart in her eyes. Angel knew it and felt the crush of feeling that weighted his chest. He was so fucking addicted to her. It ripped him apart to know that she didn’t love him the way that she loved Angelus. Not even the way she loved Angel whose friendship was key to everything.

Was it just his body that did it for her? Angel didn’t think so. She knew the difference between them. Always had. Still, it dredged up that familiar wave of jealousy and possessiveness.

Maybe he’d pushed things too fast— gone after what he wanted and settled for a physical relationship assuming Cordelia’s heart would jump on board— instead of waiting as the Watcher suggested. He never gave her the time she asked for, the time to know him as an individual. Now they were caught up in this cycle of need that demanded fulfillment, but left him wanting more.

Too damn much of a good thing, Angel figured ruefully as he stared down at the curve of Cordelia’s parted lips.

What they needed was a little distance. That thought stung like a fist full of barbed wire, but it was the only thing Angel could think to do to fix this. A little distance and a little less of the marathon sex where he did everything but climb inside her heart and soul to reach her. A little distance, less sex and a little more of— more of what?

Angel wasn’t certain what it would take, only that this needed to start here and now.

Then those rosy, sleep-swollen lips formed a husky-voiced greeting, “Good morning, Angel.”

A mocking smile lifted the corners of Angel’s mouth as she spoke, one that was self-directed and completely subconscious. Not that Cordelia realized the direction of his thoughts or that her simple words translated into something blatantly tempting.

Misinterpreting the look on Angel’s face, Cordelia sucked in the tiniest gasp of air and flipped over to sit on the side of the bed tossing the covers aside in the same move. Her legs dangled over the side as she stared at the floor trying to get it together, her feelings contrary and confusing.

No kiss? Well— good. She wouldn’t make a fool of herself that way. Relief at that prospect was welcome. Only the respite left her feeling bereft. Lost without his touch. Their little morning ritual went beyond the familiar; it meant something even she couldn’t deny to herself.

Cordelia craved that morning kiss. Hadn’t he already proved that he wanted it just as much as she did?

Stepping off of the bed, she stood for a moment to stretch out the tension, shaking out her long mane of hair like a skittish mare at the approach of a stallion. She froze upon hearing the bedcovers rustle behind her and found that it was already too late to make any attempt at an escape to the bathroom.

In a fleeting touch, the back of his fingers trailed over her arm. That was all it took to break down any resolve. Whirling around, Cordelia caught a glimpse of the hunger in those chocolate brown eyes just before their arms wrapped around each other, their bodies closed in and the world disappeared.

***

“Angel,” sounded Rupert Giles’ surprised voice. “Another midday visit. Let me guess. You want to see Cordelia.”

The vampire could hardly fault him for the thread of sarcasm creeping into his British accent. “Actually, I’m here to see you.”

“Me?”

“What do you know about recurring dreams?” asked Angel getting down to business. “Nightmares, actually.”

“You’re having recurring nightmares?” Giles could only imagine the endless fodder that Angel’s past might provide in dredging up old memories.

Shaking his head, Angel walked closer to the counter where the Watcher had been processing returned library books. “It’s Cordelia.”

“Cordelia?” Giles instantly put down the book he held and started to pay attention. “Oh, dear.”

“What’s that mean?”

Giles rubbed the back of his neck and let out a long sigh. “I was worried about this. Not nightmares, precisely, but something.”

Angel didn’t like being in the dark when it came to Cordelia. “Worried about what?”

“Stress,” he explained. “She has been under inordinate stress of late and now it is obviously showing.”

“So these nightmares are my fault,” Angel’s expression darkened.

Attempting to provide a bit of consolation, “Not directly. It’s not as if you planned for her to lose sleep. Though the dealings with the Moirae, the loss of her mate Angelus and also Angel, along with learning to adjust to a relationship with you must have taken a toll that her subconscious mind is now trying to deal with.”

“My fault,” repeated Angel as he glowered with guilt. Then another thought occurred to him. “Unless this isn’t about me at all. It may be my name she’s calling out in the night, but the face in her dreams— it could be Angelus.”

Giles was flying blind on this one, but the suggestion made sense to him. “Cordelia is still experiencing a sense of loss.”

That didn’t help him in the guilt department nor in figuring out a solution. He would have preferred Giles to determine that it was a nightmare-inducing demon. At least he could fight that.

“What can I do?”

He didn’t like it in the least when Giles answered, “Nothing. Nothing except to give her a little space.”

So the Watcher had come to the same conclusion, except that Giles went on to point out, “The kind of behavior you’ve been up to recently— right here for example— is certainly inappropriate.”

Angel had the feeling it would be a long, cold day in hell before Giles forgave him for tainting his sanctum sanctorum. Just one more black mark to rack up on the list of his unforgivable actions. Leaving, the vampire made his way back to the mansion through the tunnels crisscrossing Sunnydale, his thoughts focused on Giles’ theory about the nightmares.

I need to back off for a while, Angel concluded, even though the thought of touching Cordelia any less seems impossible.

Hell, he certainly hadn’t maintained his infamous control this morning. Sometime between the first smoldering touch of her warm lips under his and the moment he let her up for a breath of air, they had migrated back to the bed.

Cordelia’s silken hair was spread across the mattress and its askew covers, her arms and legs locked around him. One bared breast filled his roving hand while his cock, granite hard and straining against the thin barrier of his boxers, pressed up against the moist cleft of heat that called to him like a silent siren song.

Pressing their foreheads together, they breathed in harsh pants, both trying to gain a semblance of control. Both painfully aware of the impact of their words last night and what going any further might mean. That’s when Cordelia cupped his face in both hands, her thumbs lightly grazing his cheekbones as she voiced the one thing that brought reality back into sharp focus.

“School.”

As Angel watched the natural sway of her hips beneath the short nightgown as she moved into the bathroom to get ready for the day ahead, he recognized the strength she exuded. Stubborn determination, maybe. Control. The same inner force she used in holding back her emotions.

The demon in him raged at its own weak comparison. Where the hell was his own sense of control when it came to her? Non-existent. That part of him wanted to haul her back to bed and keep her there until she admitted to feeling something for him— anything.

Tamping down that rash idea, Angel knew the answer was to be found somewhere else. Not in tying her to him physically, but in opening up to her in ways that he was not certain he had in him. Maybe then, he could find a way to reach her.

Angel growled at the idea of making himself so vulnerable, but he’d already done that in declaring his love to her. What the hell would it take? He had no clue where to begin.

Chapter 47

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