He went motionless. "Of a lost crown..." In a derisive tone, he said, "I can put any king on a throne, 'cept for the one I lost."
"What throne did you lose?"
He exhaled a long breath. "Rydstrom's."
Her eyes went wide. "How?"
His voice grew hoarse and even his accent changed when he murmured, "My fault. Mine own doing."
"How could it be your fault?"
"Mistake. The one who controls the castle..."
"What does that mean?"
"They all died."
"Who, Cadeon?" No response. "Does Rydstrom blame you for losing his throne?"
"He does...always has. He should."
Anger flared within her. Had his older brother - the king - been making Cadeon's life miserable for nine hundred years? "Why do you still talk to him? Why live on his property? Why be half of the Woede?"
"Guard the king."
"Yes, yes, but you don't have to forever!"
"...be easier if I just could hate him."
Her previous ire gave way under the weight of sympathy she felt for this male. "You want to hate him?"
"Can't manage to."
"He's m'brother. If he gets hit...I feel it, too. Weird." He tried to give a shrug, then gritted his teeth in pain as his new skin pulled tight. "Holly?"
"I'm right here."
"Proud tonight...my female's brave," he murmured, his breathing deepening.
Holly had been brave - she'd proven her mettle, getting Cadeon and herself to safety.
That didn't mean she ever wanted to have to prove herself like that again. There had been so many close calls. At any given point in that battle, her life could have ended....
He slept now, his broad chest rising and falling steadily. She bit her lip, her gaze falling on his horns.
The temptation proved too great to resist, and she tentatively felt one. It was smooth, and her fingers glided over its length.
When had her wariness over this part of him turned to fascination? She felt a clenching in her stomach when she gazed at him. Want...
No! No want. She didn't trust her emotions or even her thoughts.
She finally dragged herself away to take a shower, but once she was clean and dressed for bed, she was still wide awake. So she straightened the room, then fired up her laptop to map the next checkpoint.
When she was online, she saw Tim was connected as well, though it was midnight in California. She was surprised by how much she longed to talk to him, to have a taste of the normal. I need a fix of normal.
Should she call him this late at conference? As she debated, she thought to herself how lucky she was to have him. Never would she have to worry about hearing another woman in the background or Tim's voice slurring from drunkenness.
That certainty was comforting.
Holly liked certainty. She liked living her life in predictable, regimented hours, backed up by the campus class times. Just thinking about her old life soothed her now.
So far, in the Lore, the only thing certain was that nothing was ever certain. Why would someone like her ever want to join this chaotic, violent world? Much less having to worry about what her child might be like, or if she'd be attacked by demons....
Need - fix. She reached for her cell phone and rang him.
"Holly?" Tim quickly answered. "Is something wrong? I saw you were up, and it's two in Memphis. Is everything all right with your family?"
"Um, good." Liar. Liar. "Everything's working out. How's the conference?"
"It'd be better if you were here."
"Maybe I'll go next time." How difficult could a conference be compared to what she'd done tonight? She'd evaded fire bombs. She'd killed....
"I'd love for you to come with me," he said. "Will you be back in New Orleans by the time I return?"
That depended on where the next checkpoint was. The one based on the coordinates that a ghost had given her. Holly felt like giving a hysterical laugh. Instead, she said, "I'm not sure, but I'll know more tomorrow."
"I noticed that you haven't uploaded anything to the storage drive. Are you blocked?"
She sighed. "Yes. And it's miserable."
"I'm sorry, Holly," Tim said. "I'm here if you need an ear."
"I know. You're always there for me." Reliable, steady Tim.
"You sound...different. Are you sure everything's okay? It seems like something's on your mind."
Actually... "Tim, what would you say if I wanted to work off campus? Maybe get a corporate job after graduation?"
"You know that I'd support you in anything you wanted to do." He hesitated. "It's just that..."
"What?" she asked.
"Sometimes, you don't...do so well, um, off campus."
A nice way of saying that she'd occasionally been incapacitated. "What if I could do better?"
"I'm sure you can do anything you put your mind to. But I also thought you wanted to have kids."
"Well, lots of women work in the corporate world and have kids."
"That's true," he agreed, but for some reason, her ear twitched.
"Do you not think they should?"
"Of course, I do." He sighed. "Holly, it almost sounds like you're spoiling for a fight. Did I do something wrong?"
She pinched her forehead. She was the guilty party here, the one who'd been unfaithful on top of a sports car, and yet she was feeling aggressive and irritable with him.
Even though she recognized this within herself, she still couldn't stop from asking, "Why have you never pushed for us to have sex?" When he began to sputter, she knew her unusual bluntness was throwing him.
Finally, he answered, "Because you were so staunchly against it."
"But you do want to make love to me?"
"Of course I do, sweetheart." There was that endearment again. Did it sound insincere? Cadeon only called women that if he didn't want them.
Tim continued, "You're beautiful and desirable."
Then why haven't you locked that up?
Where were these thoughts coming from? She'd made a commitment to Tim, and now she was rethinking it only because her life was in such upheaval.
Decide nothing until back to normal. Keep the constants constant.
Tim was a good man. Any girl would be lucky to have him. Even her parents had liked him.
Or had they merely been delighted that she had a boyfriend?
"I'm sorry, Tim. I don't know what's wrong with me. Maybe I can call you tomorrow?"
"It's okay. We all have days like this."
Tim never did.
Once they'd hung up, she gazed vacantly at her computer screen.
Even if she did decide to break up with Tim, the alternative was not Cadeon. The demon might be thrilling and sexy and...fun, but a relationship with him would never work. He was too implusive, his moods too mercurial. She didn't know if Cadeon was even capable of a deep and lasting love.
And Holly wanted a love like the abiding one her parents enjoyed. She'd always hoped that something approaching that could grow between her and Tim.
Then why hasn't it in two years? You're clinging because you're afraid.
Shut up, dark side!
Holly wanted steady and normal. She would not succumb.
Which meant she had to get to Groot. Her mind back on the prize, she opened Google Earth. After determining that the longitude was just around the tip of Idaho, she eased the pointer north, frowning that she wasn't near the latitude yet.
When the pointer rested on their destination, her lips parted on a stunned breath.
Cade shot up in bed, drenched in sweat, heart thundering.
He'd dreamed of the blustery night mere weeks ago when he'd killed the mortal N®¶omi. The night he'd ruined their chances with the vampire.
Cade took his dreams very seriously, and he'd had this one before. He must be feeling more guilt about this than he'd thought. Yes, the death had been an accident, but it had been caused by him - not by Rydstrom or even Rök, who'd both been there.
He shuddered, recalling the sickening feeling as his sword had sunk into her. Her pale face had looked as shocked as he felt. Blood had bubbled from her lips as she'd tried to scream.
When she'd slipped from his sword to the ground, Cade had caught his brother's gaze. Through the rain, Cade had seen that same look Rydstrom had given him nine hundred years ago - pity mingled with contempt....
Cade blinked down, surprised to find Holly in the bed with him, though she was on the outside of the cover, dressed in her robe and curled under a blanket. Her pink lips were parted, her lashes thick against her cheeks. Shining against the pillow was a riot of red-blond curls.
He leaned over and plucked up a strand, rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger. As he gazed down at her, memories from the night began to arise. He remembered how brave she'd been with the fire demons, and how she'd refused to leave him, instead managing to drive them out of danger.
She'd talked to him the entire way to this motel, seeming to know how much he'd needed to hear her voice. All night she'd cared for him.
Cade remembered being so damned proud of her, of the way she'd taken everything in stride, rising to the fore.
He'd also realized that what he felt for her was more than the pull of fate....
Releasing her hair, he eased from the bed, then he scuffed into the bathroom. He checked his face in the mirror. Healed.
Even after he'd finished showering and dressing, she still slept. She must be exhausted from the night.
He saw her laptop was open and on. She'd already researched their next direction, mapping it. Where would they be going...?
"Bugger all," he muttered. The Northwest Territories. Just under the Arctic Circle.
They would have to cross the border, then travel nearly the entire length of Canada while heading ever northward. She'd determined sixty-seven hours of driving time - if the weather was perfect.
As usual, her cell phone was lying parallel to the laptop. He frowned, vaguely recalling her voice lowered, as if in conversation. Had she made a call? He checked the log. Son of a - "Holly!" he bellowed.
She shot up in bed, shoving her curling hair from her face. "Whaa? I'm up!"
"You called the tosser last night?"
"You checked my phone?" she cried, scrambling to her feet. "How dare you!"
"Even after what I told you at the bridge?"
"I needed someone to talk to." When she saw he was about to crush her phone, she snatched it from him.
Wait... More memories emerged. She'd questioned him! Cade cast his mind back, trying to recall everything he'd told her. "Seems like you talked to me quite a bit! Interrogating me!"
"Now you know how it feels to be taken advantage of. Turnabout's fair play."
"It's hardly the same! You were drunk, while I was poisoned and burned."
"And drunk," she added.
"You called him even when I was hurt? While I was lying unconscious, you talked to him?"
"Yes, Cadeon, after I tirelessly saw to your healing, and then determined that you were going to be fine, I did make a call."
Cade's eyes widened. "To break up with him?"
"No! Just because you told me I'm your female doesn't make the corollary true. We still don't have a relationship."
"In other words, the square root of fuckall is fuckall."
"You don't want me to be with Tim, but you're not offering anything else."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You told me I'm your female, but you have no plans to ask me for any kind of commitment."
He ground his teeth. Because I can't! "Would you say yes if I did?" he asked, noting that he'd gone still, awaiting her answer.
"No, Cadeon," she finally said. "I wouldn't."
A fear skittered up his spine - something he'd considered, but dismissed. "Are you in love with that human?"
With an unflinching gaze, she said, "He's what I want."
They'd made the cab ride from the motel to the closest car dealership in stony silence.
Now, as a bemused salesman escorted them about the lot, they bickered over what to buy for the rest of the trip. She wanted a new, smaller SUV, and Cade wanted a used "gas-guzzling behemoth," as she put it. Though he'd calmly pointed out the various merits of his choice, she refused to see reason.
He kept his cool until she said, "But that manufacturer doesn't have environmentally conscious policies."
Enough. "Oh, like I give a shite! I just want to get a truck and get the hell out of here."
At that, the wide-eyed salesman excused himself.
Clearly grappling with her own temper, she said, "But a new one will be less likely to break down."
He shook his head. "Trucks today aren't made as well."
"I don't agree," she said. "And I think we'll be more comfortable and safer with the options offered in newer models."
"More options means more things that can break. Now, there's not a damn thing wrong with that white Bronco - "
"Oh, please," she snapped. "O.J. called, wants his car back."
"Were you even born in time to see that car chase? Or did you have to catch it on YouTube?"
"I saw it live. I was already twelve, cradle-robber! Now what's wrong with the little Range Rover?"
"The dealer might frown on me paying for an eighty-thousand-dollar car with cash. Besides, after you offed our seven-figure ride last night, you'd think your mind would be on economizing."
"You know whose car I offed last night? Not - mine. Is this the gratitude I get for saving your life? Don't count on me to come rescue you again. I'll let you fricassee the next time you're on fire!"
Cade's sat-phone rang then, like a ring-side bell. "I'm taking this call. Hey, I've got an idea. While I'm gone, why don't you try to see reason? If you can recognize it."
He stormed across the parking lot. "What?" he barked in answer.
"You sound like hell," Rök said.
"Any word on Rydstrom?"
"My spies in Tornin are almost certain he's being kept there."
Cade said, "And no one escapes from Tornin." The thought of that sent his foul mood plummeting.
It was time for Cade, the master of blocking out unwanted realities, to analyze some pretty grim fucking realities.
His brother: being used by an evil sorceress for impregnation.
His female: stubbornly clinging to her relationship with the fuckwit, and approximately two weeks away from hating Cade bitterly anyway.
Himself: in full-on identity crisis. The killer for hire with no conscience was finding that lies to Holly tasted like soot in his mouth. The big, bad mercenary was having nightmares about an accidental death....
"But I do have some news," Rök said. "You know that mortal you skewered?"
Speak of the devil. Cade scowled. "N®¶omi. What about her?"
"I just saw her singing karaoke at the Cat's Meow."
Cade's jaw slackened. "Singing?"
"Yeah. There were a few pitch problems in the beginning, but in the end she really worked it out - "
"Rök! Are you saying she survived?"