I 've been taking my knocks, Carrow mused, staring at the peeling ceiling above her bed. While Ruby snored from the other bed, she thought back over the last three days on the island.
Malkom had been so kind to the girl, but he'd been icy to Carrow, barely speaking to her, barely looking at her. He refused to sleep inside, preferring to camp out between the neck of the sandy peninsula and the cabin. She liked to think he did this solely to protect them, instead of to distance himself from Carrow.
With Ruby, he was all patience and kindness. And the girl was fascinated with her "stepdemon." Apparently, she'd explained the term to him - and he hadn't denied the title.
Ruby had fun with him, following him everywhere, and he didn't seem to mind. Several times a day, Carrow saw the big demon on his way to some task with a tiny witch huffing after his long-legged strides. He'd taught the girl how to tie special knots, and together they brought back fish and berries.
Carrow could tell he even enjoyed it when Ruby sang "Particle Man." But it made sense. He'd been alone so long, the sound of a child singing must be pleasing, no matter the tune.
Last night, Ruby had asked for Malkom to hold her hand at bedtime. Carrow had stood at the doorway, watching as he'd patiently waited for Ruby to fall asleep. He'd gruffly told her, "Dream well, deela." Demonish for doll.
With each second he'd remained at that bedside, Carrow had become even more convinced that Malkom was the one....
Sometimes Ruby would report in on things they'd done.
"I'm teaching him to read," she'd said yesterday, her tone filled with importance. "Because I read waaaaay better than him."
"You didn't tell him that, did you?"
Ruby continually pressured Carrow to leave, reminding her several times a day, "You promised me you'd take me home."
"I know, baby, but it's complicated."
"I miss my friends. I miss Elianna."
Elianna, Carrow's mentor and substitute mother, was a half immortal who aged but never died. The old witch always wore an apron with pockets full of mysterious spellcasting powders, and every time Carrow hugged her, those scents wafted up. To this day, Carrow associated the smells with warm hugs and unconditional love. "I miss Elianna, too. And Mariketa. But we'll see them soon."
In turn, Carrow was pressuring Malkom to help them escape this place, but he kept blowing her off. She thought he feared that she'd leave him once they'd returned home. When in truth, if he treated her half as well as he had in the mine, then she'd be stuck to him like epoxy.
She didn't see that forthcoming. After they'd made love the first time, Carrow had awakened with her body well pleasured, even as her heart had still hurt. She'd been so stung that she hadn't sought him out for any more of his attentions.
But last night as she'd lain awake during a storm, he'd appeared in the doorway, limned by the flashing lightning. "Come."
She'd missed him like an ache, finding it impossible to deny him. Filled with excitement, she'd followed him out. As the rain fell, he'd taken her against a tree, then from behind, then with her writhing in his lap. She'd lost count after that, but each time he'd taken pains never to come inside her - or to bite her.
This morning, Carrow had been cross-eyed with exhaustion and pleasantly surprised when he'd come to the cabin early, getting Ruby fed and taking her out - as if he'd wanted to let Carrow sleep late.
Such a thoughtful gesture, a husbandly gesture. But later, when she'd thanked him, he'd coldly denied that he'd done it for her.
Yes, she'd been taking her knocks, singing "Tub - thumping" to herself as she'd held her tongue and plastered on smiles. I get knocked down, but I get up again....
She'd first started falling for him because she'd felt cherished. Now this disdain was killing her. It constantly reminded her of her childhood.
When she was young, she'd thought if she was good and made her parents proud, they would thaw toward her and give her love. Now she'd begun to accept that they never would.
Yet his behavior had made her realize something. She'd done wrong by him, and if his treating her like this for a time would help them get past her betrayal, then she could endure it.
However, there was no reason for her to endure it from her parents. She'd gazed at her emerald ring, the one tie she had with them. What if she just admitted defeat? Relin"uished all hope?
Then she'd wondered, What if Malkom never gets past my betrayal?
That would be a problem, she thought as she rose to go find him.
Since Carrow had already fallen in love with Malkom Slaine.
Two witches were making Malkom rethink everything he'd known. For a demon of his age, this was an uncomfortable process.
They'd settled into a routine of sorts. During the day he fished and checked the perimeter traps with Ruby tagging along. Once done, the girl would teach him to write a few words in the sand. At night, he dreamed.
Memories from Carrow had begun suppressing his own nightmares from his past. And not all of her memories were filled with loneliness, carousing, or wars.
He'd witnessed much more from her life - visions of cars, great bridges, and boats as big as mountains. He'd seen her home, a manor called Andoain, the place she'd spoken to her parents about. It was filled with other witches and surrounded by unusual creatures.
But Malkom had also begun to suffer a recurring nightmare about journeying with her to her lands. As soon as he got there, she whispered, "I'm so sorry, Malkom." Or, in another version, she didn't apologize; she laughed at him just as those demonesses had when he'd been starving as a boy.
Carrow had admitted that she'd been well on her way to wanting a future with him, even before they'd journeyed through that portal. You were well on your way, witch, but I was there. He'd cared about her when he'd blindly followed her. And he hurt all the worse for it -
He heard Carrow approaching.
"Why don't you ever stay inside with us?" she asked from behind him.
"Do you mind if I sit?"
Sit. Talk to me. Say the one thing that will ease my mistrust. Malkom didn't want to feel like this, but four hundred years of misery couldn't be cured by a few days with her. Old fears died hard.
Sensing she was about to leave, he grated, "Sit."
She settled next to him on the sand. "I need to know when you're going into the interior to search."
He wouldn't be. Because Malkom would not be returning her to her old home. If he did go off to "search," he'd just return with word that there was no way to escape.
This place was paradise. For the first time ever, he was utterly satisfied with all that belonged to him.
Though he'd had no choice about coming to this island, he would choose to stay, seizing another territory to guard, one with ample room to run, water, and food.
Food from the sea. Fishing for his mate and their young one was satisfying.
More importantly, 'twas a place without the screeching sounds and blinding lights of her home. Without the wars.
"Why are you so eager to return?" he asked her. "Is it so bad here?"
"I have to get home. That's where my life is."
"You are my female. Your life is with me."
"Then let's spend our lives together. In New Orleans," she said brightly. "Malkom, you would be happy there with us. But you'll have to trust me."
Just accept what she offers, a part of him commanded. If she betrayed him again, he would survive. Yet then he pictured how she'd looked today, smiling down at Ruby as they'd collected shells.
No. No, I would not.
If he let himself love Carrow and she forsook him again, he would not go on. So to trust her in this would be to trust her with his very life.
Now the situation was even more complicated. He was growing to care for the witch's adopted one, too. If Carrow forsook him, she'd take the child with her.
Which was unacceptable. He'd already decided that if Carrow could adopt Ruby, then he could as well. If the girl needed a mother to love her, then she also needed a father to protect her.
Father. A new purpose for him, a new name. Something to take the place of bastard, slave, murderer. A whore's get...
When he didn't respond, she asked, "And what about Ruby? Her friends and school are back home."
"The girl will adjust. Just as I've had to do again and again."
"I want more for her. I thought you would, too."
"Tell me how I can trust this next world you want me to go to. The last time I trusted you to take me to a new place, I did not fare well."
"But you're better off now, aren't you?"
"If I am, I've certainly earned my good fortune," he said, recalling his capture and Chase's torture. Reminded of that man's disgust, Malkom said, "In your world, would your people accept what I am?"
She gazed away. "Your kind isn't ... well, there are those who'll want to make you an enemy just because of what you are. But we won't know if they can be made to see differently, not until we try it."
"Your home cannot possibly be better than this." The blinding lights, the sounds, her behavior...
"Maybe not better, but different. We belong to a coven there, and Ruby needs to learn from them. Malkom, she could grow up to be dangerous. The Sorceri showed a disturbing interest in her," she said. "And I have a bad feeling about this place. A sense of something coming. More mortals will return here. And the dangers on this island are greater than there could ever be at home."
"Ah, you have a sense, then?"
"So you're not going to believe that either?" Her cheeks flushed with anger. "If you think I'd lie about a potential danger, then I'm beginning to wonder if we truly can come back from this."
" 'Tis convenient. Your sense."
"La Dorada could still be out here. Remember her? That ghastly woman who crept through the ward, wreaking havoc?"
"She did not bother me. Aided me, in fact. She is not a concern."
Carrow narrowed her eyes. "You seem utterly convinced that this island is better than my home. Have you dreamed my memories?"
"Yes," he answered shamelessly.
Her lips parted, but she "uickly collected herself. "What have you seen?"
You, dancing upon tables. "Glimpses of your world. Cars and gadgets. Enough to know I'd prefer it here."
"What have you seen of my life?"
Why not tell her? "I saw your wars. Saw you fighting recklessly."
"There aren't that many wars, Malkom."
"I saw you disrobing for strangers."
She didn't even have the grace to flush. "Have you seen me with another man?"
Malkom dreaded that possibility. "No, I have not. But what I have seen is damning enough. Why would you behave like that?"
She shrugged casually. "A lot of reasons. I was single - unbound - and it was exciting. I'm not shy, and our culture is fun-loving and free. Plus, I get power from it."
Now it was his turn to be shocked. "That is your source?"
She nodded. "Happiness. Revelry. They give me power." She tilted her head at him, her green eyes appraising. "Malkom, I'm not going to apologize for that, or for anything I've done."
When his scowl deepened, she said, "You're four hundred years old. I'm not yet fifty. So don't judge me for having fun when I was young and single. And don't judge me for securing power that's there for the taking."
Don't judge her? Who the hell was he to ever judge another? "Would you intend to continue doing that?"
"Only the week directly before Ash Wednesday." At his frown, she explained, "It's a citywide celebration. Wild revelry. And I'd hope you'd be right there with me." She eased in closer to him. "If you've seen my memories, then it's only fair that you tell me about yours." She traced her fingers over the scars on his wrists.
When he recoiled, she drew her hand away. "You will never learn to trust me, will you?" Her expression grew saddened. "So it's not that you assume this island is a better place to live - it's because you're afraid I'll betray you once we get back? You had no intention of ever going to search, did you? No intention of ever helping us off this island?"
"No. I did not."
She gasped. "Do you expect me to keep this tor"ue on forever? To live helpless and vulnerable without any magic? I am a witch, Malkom!"
"Vulnerable? You have my protection - I pledged it. And no matter what, you would be in less danger here than in your world, amidst your wars."
"Will you ever move past this anger?"
"Damn it, demon, tell me. Will you ever trust me again?"
"I do not know."
"Just answer me!" she cried. "Yes or no?"
Old fears died hard. "No."
Her hand flitted to her forehead. "Then you're going to continue to freeze me out? Distance yourself? You're treating me like my parents did." She gave a bitter laugh. "At least I've given you reason to."
So that's how she viewed his behavior? Likening it to her cold and haughty parents? His first impulse was to deny being anything like them. But hadn't he been cold?
At least I've given you reason to. ... He was treating her as they had. How could he, when he knew firsthand how heartsick their neglect had made her?
What was his neglect doing to her now?
She'd done nothing wrong with them, nor was she truly culpable for what she'd done to Malkom. She'd sought only to save an innocent child, the little girl he too wanted to call his own.
"We can't be trapped here because you fear I'll leave you once we return home," she said. "Did you never think I could leave you here?"
His body tensed, and he bared his fangs. "Try it, witch. Always I will come for you. For you both. Nothing will stop me!"
She dropped her face into her hands. "What is wrong with me?" He barely heard her mutter, "Falling for someone who can't love me back."
"Love?" he spat. "You want that from me?" His heart seemed to stop.
Maybe he should tell her everything. If he dreaded her reaction, then he should just get this out of the way. She was going to forsake him eventually. And I will not care because she has already betrayed my trust.
She raised her head. In a deadened tone, she said, "Yes, Malkom, I want you to love me."
"You know nothing about me! But you will." He would reveal his sordid past, sparing no detail, so she could understand the male she'd wed. "After tonight, you will know everything."