But then, five nights ago, he'd stopped coming....
Now that Holly had time to think things over, she'd recalled all of Cadeon's tireless training. She'd begun to suspect that he really did have feelings for her and had been counting on Holly to free herself when he turned her over.
His "pressing needs" had consumed him. He'd had to make a choice, and she'd lost out.
Holly could almost understand that. But what she couldn't understand was how he'd given her the kiss-off at Groot's. Holly had been terrified, numb with shock, and he'd been cruel, callously indifferent.
He'd sure fooled her. She'd never forget the look on his face when he said, "Never trust a demon...." The ease with which he deceived still stunned her. She couldn't even count how many times he'd lied to her over the course of their journey.
Holly couldn't look back over their relationship and know if anything was real. How could he have left me behind -
When Nïx cleared her throat, Holly realized that she'd spaced as badly as her aunt usually did.
"Something on your mind, dearling?"
"Um...no, everything's great. Thanks for checking on me."
"I'm really glad you like it here." Nix smiled blankly. "But now you have to move."
He was nervous as he pulled into Rydstrom's estate. Why hadn't his brother called anyone to let them know he'd escaped? Cade's mind ran riot with theories.
Had Rydstrom been tortured? Had they done something to him so horrific that he was unable to face others?
Cade parked his old truck - which still chugged along despite water damage and bullet holes. With a glower, he collected the sword. He despised it, and was happy for the chance to get it away from him.
As he approached the main house, he noticed that all the shades were drawn. But as soon as Cade went to unlock the side door, Rydstrom cracked it open. He wore no shirt or shoes and was buttoning up his jeans as if he'd just slung them on.
Cade's brows rose at the sight of him. "Rydstrom?"
His brother was...changed.
There was a mean set to his clenched jaw that had never been there before. The rigid muscles in his neck and shoulders were bunched with tension. His eyes were narrowed, and they looked crazed.
Four thin lines of blood ran down his chest and across his scarred cheek - as if someone had raked nails over his skin.
What the hell was going on? And what was done to him to make him like this?
"Are you going to make me stand out here all afternoon? Open the door."
His brother made no move to, only glanced back over his shoulder into the house.
"Rydstrom, you're worrying me, man. Let me in, and tell me what happened. The last I heard was that you'd been captured by Sabine."
"Were you taken to Tornin? Did you fight Omort to escape?"
Rydstrom finally shook his head.
"Then how the hell did you get free? No one escapes Tornin."
"I had an ace in my pocket," he said, his voice rough.
"You don't sound good. Are you all right?"
"I will be." Rydstrom looked back over his shoulder again. "Soon."
"I got the sword," Cade said, offering it to him. "Killed Groot, too."
Rydstrom nodded, accepting the weapon without interest, barely sparing it a glance.
Cade was confounded, saying slowly, "That's the sword that will defeat Omort."
"We go to war in the spring," Rydstrom grated. "Be ready."
"That's all you've got to say? So much for abject gratitude, or even a pat on the back." Cade's temper spiked. "If you knew what I went through to get to that goddamned thing, what I put my female through...Oh, and if you haven't noticed, your Veyron's missing, and it's never fucking coming home - "
"Is someone out there?" a woman suddenly screamed from inside. "Oh, God, help me!"
Cade distinctly heard a mattress squeaking.
And the rattling of chains.
"I'm being held against my will!"
His jaw dropped. "Is that...Sabine?" Had Rydstrom used his captor to escape? "Was she your ace?"
"Please help me!" she shrieked at the top of her lungs.
Rydstrom peered at him hard with those crazed eyes, as if he dared Cade to do something.
Striving for a casual tone, Cade said, "So, you've got an evil sorceress chained up in your bed, then?"
And he'd had no clothes on earlier.
"She's mine," Rydstrom seethed. "I'll do whatever the fuck I want to her. And it's nothing that wasn't done to me." His massive fists clenched.
"Hey, hey, no need to slug me, brother. To each his own, yeah?" Had Sabine done such a number on the noble-minded, kingly Rydstrom that he considered this a good idea? If so, then maybe a little tit for tat was in order.
"Once I'm done with her, I'll contact you." When Rydstrom shut the door, Cade stared at it for long moments.
At length, he turned for the steps. "Fuckall," he said on a stunned breath. Does this mean I'm no longer the bad brother...?
"You're really kicking me out?" Holly asked Nïx.
They were on their way to look at a home for sale, one that would be "perfect for Holly and the vamon."
"You can't raise a kid at Val Hall," Nïx said. "The lightning danger alone would make it mortally prohibitive."
Holly had gone along with her, too wearied to put up a fight. She'd even agreed to ride in Nïx's Bentley, which was still a mess. Though the clutter still affected her, it didn't bother Holly quite as much as before. "You got rid of the C-4?"
"Oh, gods, yes. That same night, too." She sighed. "Good times."
"How much farther is it?" Holly asked. It was late afternoon, and the winter sun would set in an hour. "We're already twenty minutes out of the parish."
"And we're already here," Nix said, turning into a gated entrance that opened at her approach.
Lined with oaks and magnolias, the drive was winding - and long. "How many acres is this?"
"I dunno. I'm thinking plus-or-minus lots and lots." When the drive opened up, Holly's lips parted. The estate was breathtaking.
Rich landscaping surrounded a three-story, cream-colored mansion. Built in the French Colonial style with steeply pitched slate roofs and arched dormers, it had galleries that ran along the front and sides, with ornate wrought iron rails in glossy black. Three-story-high Doric columns flanked the front entrance.
"It's called Nine Oaks." On each side of the mansion were three ancient oaks, with presumably three in the back. "It's got twelve rooms. Several potential nurseries."
It was weird to talk about things like nurseries. Weirder still: the fact that Holly actually needed one. Meh.
"What do you think?" Nïx asked, as she parked in front of the entry walk.
"It's amazing," Holly said honestly. A crisp breeze was blowing, fanning the damp banana trees and palms. "But don't you think it's a bit grand for me and one kid? The loft would be better."
"This feels like a great place to raise a vamon, no? Well, we're here, we might as well look around."
With a shrug, Holly followed her up the bricked walkway. It split, curving around a fountain - that had nine sprays of water.
They climbed up the six stairs to the porch and found the door was unlocked. "We can just walk in?" Holly asked.
The furnished interior was just as appealing to Holly as the exterior. It seemed everywhere she looked, things were in threes or multiples of.
Six bar stools, three track lights per strip. Twelve rooms and three stories...All the numbers were working for Holly.
But the office upstairs sealed the deal. The room was spacious and airy and had a huge window that overlooked a pool.
As usual, her attention was drawn to the computer, and she wondered what the owner of this place was packing. It was fired up, with the specs pulled up onscreen. Holly's brows drew together. "This platform isn't due out for another year. No civvie has a system like this. Whose is it?"
From behind her, she heard a rumbling voice: "It's yours, halfling. Because codes don't write themselves."
"Oh, come on, Nïx!" Holly glared. "You set me up again? I can't believe you told him!"
"I told him nothing about that."
"About what?" Cadeon asked cautiously.
"None of your business!" Holly snapped. "What do you want?"
"Play nice, kids," Nïx said. "I'll be in the car. Which may or may not remain here." Then she abandoned Holly.
Holly gave him a bitter smile. "You working with Nïx to trick me - why, that's original!"
"You wouldn't have seen me otherwise, and I have to talk to you."
She noticed then that he'd lost weight. His face was leaner, and he looked weary. Like I care! "I think anything that needed to be said was. I believe it went along these lines: 'You were part of a transaction.'"
"I had to do that. I had to act like I didn't give a damn, or Groot wouldn't have given me the sword."
She grew still. "You have a lot of nerve mentioning that sword to me."
"I came back for you to get you away from him - "
"Really? You see, I wouldn't know that because I only stuck around for Groot's first attempt to hammer a railroad spike in my temple!"
"What did he do to you?" Cadeon strode forward, reaching for her arm.
But she jerked back with a hiss. "Don't you dare touch me! I got myself away before Groot made me his unthinking sex slave and brood mare - no thanks to you."
"I know. I saw you jump."
He truly had returned for her.
"I was diving in right behind you when Groot skewered me with flying swords. I would've been there even sooner, but he poisoned the hilt of the sword, drugging me when I grasped it."
"Why did the castle blow?"
"I threw Groot into his own forge. Unfortunately, I got caught in the blast as well, or I would have been by your side in the village against the Wendigo. Not that you needed my help."
"So had you always planned to come for me? Or did you have a change of heart over bartering me?"
"The plan was to get the sword, kill Groot with it, then get you the hell out of there as quickly as possible."
"Then why didn't you tell me about it?"
"I couldn't. Groot is a mind reader. Demons have blocks, but he would have read you like a book. And I tried to teach you to fight to prepare you in case something went wrong."
"How about not taking me there at all? How about not betraying me? You lied to me the entire time, telling me that I could change back."
"I did, Holly. I lied through my teeth. But I didn't feel like I had a choice. Look, you knew why I needed that sword, but you don't know how badly."
"Oh, but I do. You'd searched for nine centuries for a way to kill Omort, you think it was your fault that the entire kingdom of Rothkalina fell, and you blame yourself for your foster family's death." As she listed these things out loud, it struck her anew how monumental each truly was.
"And there's even more to it. That first night my brother didn't show, it was because he'd been taken by Omort's sister. Tricked by her sorcery and trapped in her dungeon for her to...use."
"What do you mean?"
"Sabine wanted to have Rydstrom's child to take over our kingdom forever. The idea of him in that situation..." Cadeon ran a hand over his face. "For Rydstrom that would have been a fate worse than death. And I thought the only way to free him would be the sword."
"Thought? Past tense?"
"He somehow escaped and got back here. But he's...different. I'm worried about him."
When Holly tilted her head, Cade said, "Will you walk with me?" He was surprised he was able to speak so evenly.
His female was lovelier than he'd ever seen her. Her long blond hair was loose, curling about her shoulders. Her skin was glowing, her eyes bright.
Seeming as if her curiosity got the better of her, she walked beside him.
"I understand why you would feel like you had to do anything for the sword," she said. "I get that, Cadeon - I really do. But understanding your motives doesn't make me feel better that I was the collateral damage. How can I believe in anything that happened between us when you were bent on betraying me the entire time?"
"Not the entire time! I'd had another plan. And then when that fell through, I ordered my men to meet me in the Territories. I'd planned to storm Groot's fortress."
"On the day before the deal expired, I found out that they couldn't reach us. The ice road was blown, and they couldn't chopper in because of the weather."
"The storms to the south..."
He nodded. "That's why I was always on the phone with him. I was scrambling to do anything besides what I ended up doing. But I didn't see another way out. In my situation, what would you have done?"
When she nibbled her lip and glanced away, he knew she was thinking she'd do the same.
"You don't know how hard it was to act like I cared nothing for you. Or what it's done to me since."
"What's it done to you?" she asked.
"Made me gut-sick from wanting you." Cadeon eased closer. "From missing my Holly."
She could feel his heat, and his addictive scent tickled her nose. Want. God, she'd missed him.
"What was Nïx talking about earlier? What didn't you want me to know?"
Why not tell him? He'd find out soon enough anyway. "You're going to be...a father."
He seemed to choke on a sharp inhalation. "A father? Me? We..." Then after a moment, he laughed, swinging her up in his arms.
She was stunned by his reaction. "I didn't think you'd be this happy." Had she never realized how momentous this was until she saw Cadeon's utter delight? His excitement began sparking her own. Not so meh.
"Are you kidding me? I've got an ally on the inside now, who'll be wearing down your defenses against me. It ups my chances of getting you back." Then he stilled. "Are you not happy?"
"I...could be. It's been hard to come to grips with." She quirked a brow. "You're not worried about your ally being the ultimate evil?"
He tenderly brushed a curl behind her ear. "If I were evil, I couldn't love you this much."
"If you give me another chance, I'll never lie to you again."
"But how can I trust you? Tell me. Because you've just waltzed back into my life with more words, more promises...." She trailed off with a frown. "Cadeon, where are your horns?"
He shrugged. "Ditched them. You need normal. And I need to give you everything you've ever wanted. Like this house. It's got a pool in the back. And it's freakishly neat and everything's in threes. I searched high and low for it."
So that's where he's been. "But your horns," she cried. He'd once told her how excruciating losing one was. And they were part of his identity, part of what made him a demon.
Yet Cadeon had cut them off for her.
"If you don't mind them, I can regrow them in a couple of weeks."
"Were you just going to keep cutting them?" she asked, thinking of the pain.
"If that's what it took to make you happy, then of course I would."
At that, her defenses crumbled. Want! She'd missed him too much, needed him too badly.
"You're folding, aren't you?" He gave her one of his heart-stopping grins. "You can't stay mad at me because you know I'm going to get it right this time. Plus, you need someone to go with you to see some ghosties."
For some reason, she did believe he would get it right, believed it with all her heart. "I might be folding a tiny bit. But only because I need a ride to Michigan."
"Gods, I've missed you, halfling." He cupped her face. "But Holly, I have to tell you - I'm leaving for Rothkalina in the spring. We go to war."
She drew back. "If you want us to be together, then we stay together. None of this the male goes off to battle crap."
"You think I'll take my pregnant female into a war-torn plain?"
"You will if you want to keep her. My mother went to battle while carrying me."
He exhaled. "I never want to put more lies between us, so I'm saying at the outset that I will do everything in my power to dissuade you from this."
"And I'll fight hard to be by your side. Looks like it's on."
His lips curled. "Oh, it's on." But then, he grew serious once more. "Did you hear me when I said I was in love with you?" His voice was hoarse, laden with feeling.
"I heard you."
He brought his mouth down to hers for a searing kiss that left her knees weak. When they broke away, catching their breath, he said, "You're in love with me, too?"
"I might be," she murmured. "Are you going to use sex to try to seal this deal with me?"
"Oh, yeah." With a growl, he trailed his lips down her neck.
She smiled up at the ceiling, her eyes sliding closed in pleasure. "Because I'm okay with that...."