“I don’t think trolls have lairs,” Pandora said.
“Caves,” Nick added.
“You know what I mean.” Willa put her hands on her hips. “You two seem to think this is no big deal.”
Nick laced his fingers through hers. “Willa, whatever we set up, I’m going to be there. Close by.”
“How are you going to manage that?”
He grinned. “I have a plan. Now we just need Burnside to contact you.”
Willa thought for a moment. “You’re sure you can keep control of this situation?”
She reached over and hit the power button on her computer. “Then we don’t need to wait for him to contact me.”
Twelve minutes. That’s how long it had taken Martin Burnside to respond to Willa’s email agreeing to meet him.
Now it was the other side of midnight, and she stood in the middle of the park, waiting on him. Pacing. Going over every possibility in her head. And trying not to freak out.
Sheriff Merrow and one of his deputies, Jenna Blythe, watched from the roof of the sundries shop across the street. Hugh and Julian Ellingham lurked in the shadows of the trees at the farthest edge of the park. And Nick was right behind her, on the fountain stage, looking just the way he had when she’d first unknowingly met him. Like a statue of a gargoyle.
“Maybe he’s not coming,” she whispered.
“He’ll show,” Nick answered, his soft growl a darker shade of his usual voice thanks to the granite confines of his current form.
She responded with a short, jerky nod and went back to pacing, her eyes scanning both directions for her stalker. Minutes passed with no sign of the troll.
She jumped and turned at the sound of her name. A dark, hulky shape stood just outside the edge of the soft glow of the closest street lamp. Somehow Burnside had gone unnoticed as he’d approached her. Her heart thumped in her chest. “M-Martin?”
He nodded and stepped into the light. “Pretty, pretty Willa. I’m so happy you agreed to meet me.”
The light shone off his scalp, his thinning gray hair doing little to camouflage his impending baldness despite his attempts to comb it into a style that said otherwise. His nose and lips were bulbous, a typical troll trait, but his small black eyes were surprisingly kind. Willa nodded. “I just thought…we should talk.”
“I agree.” He smiled, revealing a row of small, square teeth. He wore dark denim overalls with a sport coat, an interesting look to say the least. He reached into the jacket pocket. “I brought you a gift.”
She swallowed and backed up toward Nick.
Martin held out a small package wrapped in a man’s handkerchief. Hopefully not used. The platinum ring she’d made for him gleamed on his finger.
She took the gift and untied the knot. Inside was a snail shell carved with flowers and vines. It was actually quite lovely. “Did you make this?”
He nodded shyly. “Hobby of mine. You like it?”
“It’s very pretty. Thank you.” She hoped that was enough small talk, because she was ready to get this conversation moving toward something useful. “I didn’t bring you anything, but—”
He thrust his hand out, making her jerk back. “You made me this ring. That’s good enough.”
If only she could snatch it and be done with this whole thing. “If we’re going to get to know each other better, I feel like I should know your name.”
His brow wrinkled in uncertainty. “Martin.”
Okay, that wasn’t going to work. She was going to have to apply herself to the task, make him believe she really liked him. Not only was it a lie, but it was…icky. She forced herself to smile, but she couldn’t imagine what it looked like to him because it sure didn’t feel real.
He smiled back.
Maybe the dim lighting was on her side.
She sidled closer, going for coy as best she could. It was like trying to flirt with one of the old men who hung around outside of the hardware store. “No, Martin, I mean your real name. You know…” She brushed her fingers over his arm. “Your true name.”
His smile faltered. “I, uh…I’m not sure I should…”
She stomped her foot in a show of the most juvenile upset she could muster. “I knew you didn’t really like me. You’re just pretending, aren’t you?” Ugh. This was so not her.
He clutched at the air, his thick stubby fingers clenching nothing. “No, I love you. I do. You’re the only woman I can think about.”
She crossed her arms and gave him a stern glare, something that took little effort. “And I suppose you still want to marry me.”
“I do. Very much.” He looked like he might cry.
She touched his arm again. “How can I marry a man when I don’t even know his real name?”
Martin took a deep breath, his weepy eyes squeezing shut for a moment, then he whispered something unintelligible.
She leaned forward, tightening her grip on him a little. “What was that?”
He gulped. “Brindlesticks.”
The name came out on a whisper and a whirl of magic, sending a trail of luminescent sparks through the air that winked out as quickly as they’d appeared.
He’d given her his true name. And by doing so, the power to control him. She let go of him.
In that moment, she realized Nick was watching her do exactly what she’d told him she never would. Force someone to do something against their will.