Since she had, it must mean — he was pretty sure that it did mean — that she preferred Nick. And if she really did…
Mae’s eyebrows had come up. She was smiling a bit.
“Oh really,” she said, her voice amused and incredulous. “A complete innocent, are you?”
“Definitely,” Nick assured her, letting his voice slide low. “You can try corrupting me if you like.”
Mae dimpled. “It’s no fun if you’re asking for it.”
“No, no,” Nick drawled. “Release me, you monster. Your wicked ways shock me to my soul. And yet I find you strangely attractive.”
The boat purred into life, lurching away from the dock and swaying between one wave and the next. Nick shut his eyes in a brief flash of nausea.
“I feel I should warn you,” he said after a moment. “I may be about to get sick or pass out.”
“Uh,” said Mae. “Sexy.”
Funnily enough, it was this exciting news that peeled her off the door Nick had been starting to think she was glued to. She came to stand by the bed, pulling her iPod out of her pocket and fiddling with it, unwinding the earphones coiled around it.
“Maybe what you need is a distraction,” she began.
On impulse Nick reached up and pulled her down to the bed. Mae made a startled sound, half breath and half laugh, and he rolled her over and under him easily, using his strength the way girls sometimes liked him to.
He looked down at her, then leaned in close, feeling her shiver at his breath on her ear, and murmured, “Maybe.”
The morning sunlight was turning the cotton sheets into hot gold; he saw the flash in her eyes under suddenly heavy eyelids and smiled down at her. He was braced over her, his arms supporting his weight, and a sway of the ship and a breath lifted her h*ps against his. Her breath turned into a shiver, traveling slowly along the length of her body, and she lifted her hands and ran her palms along the tense swell of his arms.
He probably shouldn’t be doing this. Alan liked her, and he might be angry with Alan now but he wouldn’t be angry forever. Alan was his brother, and he shouldn’t be doing this, but Alan had let him get sick and Mae preferred him.
It was all warm, white and gold and that absurd pink, the curves of her and the rumpled lines of the sheets, all blending and blurring together because he was starting to slip out of consciousness.
Mae pushed him gently backward onto the pillows, and he went, throwing an arm over his eyes.
“I’d hate for you to get the wrong idea about me,” he said. “Under normal circumstances, I swear, I would have copped a feel.”
“I was about to suggest that some music might be in order anyway,” said Mae, valiantly pretending that she was not out of breath, her voice warm and trembling as she had been under him a moment ago.
She put one of the iPod earpieces in his ear, and the other presumably in her own, and settled back down on the pillows. The boat rocked them gently back and forth in a way that Nick might have found soothing if he hadn’t felt so ill, and he fought to stay awake as he heard music that sounded in a faint faraway fashion like the drums of the Goblin Market.
“That’s kind of nice.”
“Maybe we can go listen to them sometime,” Mae murmured.
“Maybe,” said Nick.
Mae was a warm weight that tilted him slightly to her side of the bed, possibly less because of her weight than because that was where he wanted to be. The sunlight painted dusty gold streaks against the blackness before Nick’s closed eyes, and the drums beat in a rhythm with his heart. Mae had one foot tucked under his leg, and as he finally lost consciousness he felt her hand lightly pushing back a strand of his hair. It was pointless, but like the music, it was kind of nice.
The last thing he wondered was whether this counted as her asking him out.
THE STREET IN DURHAM WHERE MARIE’S SISTER LIVED felt familiar to Nick. He was aware that he’d never been to Durham before. He didn’t recognize the city, but as he pulled his battered car in line with the shining clean vehicles at the pavement edge, it occurred to him that he knew the street.
It reminded him of Mae and Jamie’s house, of the houses belonging to school friends or girlfriends whose names Nick did not now recall. There were neatly tended gardens, fresh paint on the doors, and a general sense of well-being about the whole area. Here, suggested the blooming flowerbeds, people were comfortable, families were secure, and above all, children were sheltered.
Nick knew it was an illusion. These people hurt each other as much as all families did, and if magic ever invaded their lives, they would be helpless.
Maybe it was an illusion Alan wanted, though. This place was certainly a contrast to the shabby house Merris had found for them yesterday, close to their old house so they could hunt any magicians whom Gerald might direct there. It was squeezed between a Chinese takeaway, bearing a broken sign with letters that sizzled and flickered, and a derelict house, its boarded windows staring and blank as dead eyes.
Alan must have wanted more than the girl. He must have wanted a home like this. Nick looked at the house in the same way that he would have sized up an enemy. Then, instead of attacking, he went up to that brightly painted door and leaned heavily on the bell.
If it had not been for her anxious eyes, Nick would not have thought this was the right woman. Natasha Walsh was blond, thin in an attenuated way, and much older than he had expected her to be.
“Are you — who are you?” she asked.
Nick said curtly, “Nicholas Ryves,” and was amazed to see this slim, pastel-cardiganed housewife blossom into a tentative welcome.
“Oh, you’re one of Daniel’s family! Do come in. Please.”
Nick stepped into a hall, carpeted brown with great pink flowers, and wondered what Alan had told this woman about Dad.
“So you — you said you knew something about Alan,” the stranger said, twisting her hands together.
“You said you saw him last Christmas.”
She pushed open a door and led him into a little sitting room, with cream silk fittings and picture frames glinting brightly on every surface. Nick hovered in the middle of the room, feeling like a clumsy animal who should not be allowed in here, and who would break something in a moment.
“Yes,” she answered. “He spent Christmas here with us. It was so lovely — we were so happy to have him. He played with the kids. They loved him.” She tilted up her chin, almost defiantly, as if to face pain. “We all loved him, and then he stopped answering my letters.”
He did not stop answering your letters, Nick thought. I threw them away. He thought you had stopped caring.
Alan had come away to this place. He’d left him. He’d wanted to leave him.
Nick didn’t even know how to feel about this. It was like the fact that Alan had made him sick. His mind kept shying violently away from the idea and the unfocused pain it promised. It was better to be angry. He hated this woman, hated this whole family. They were weak and stupid and they couldn’t have his brother and that was all there was to it. He didn’t need to feel anything else.
He felt a treacherous twinge at the thought of Alan with kids. Alan loved kids. He’d pick them up and a soft, wondering expression would come over his face. No wonder Marie had been such a temptation, with a home like this.
Natasha turned a beseeching face to his. “Do you know Alan?”
“Yeah,” Nick said curtly. “He’s my brother.”
She stared at him for a long moment and then said, quite simply, as if anybody should know it was the truth, “Alan doesn’t have a brother.”
The little room felt suddenly cold, frozen in its horrible cream and silver, like a wedding cake left in the freezer. Nick found his voice, and it sounded a long way away.
“He may not have mentioned me,” he answered, putting a stone wall of denial between himself and the possibility that Alan had lied about him, had wished him out of existence, “but I’ve been his brother all my life.”
“Do you mean you’re his stepbrother?” Natasha Walsh offered, looking perplexed.
People doubting his relationship to Alan was nothing new, but on top of everything else it seemed like an insult he could not bear.
“No, his real brother,” Nick growled.
She frowned, her expression reminding him of a dozen mothers who’d looked as if they wanted to call the police on him for daring to touch their daughters.
“If this is some kind of joke—”
“I’m not laughing. I’m his brother.”
“You can’t possibly be his brother,” Mrs. Walsh snapped. “My sister Marie only had one child. I think I should know.”
Nick stared at her silently, unable to find words. He could only see images, running together in his mind like a slide show. Of Alan’s face. Of the face of that smiling girl in the picture, and the mad, cold face of the woman he’d always thought — he’d always known — was their mother.
Something about his own face made the woman stop frowning and pick up a picture to display to Nick. It was one of the photographs in silver frames. It showed Dad, big and smiling and wearing a ridiculous mustache, standing next to Marie, who was small, smiling, and wearing a wedding dress. They were holding hands, and Nick, who was used to jealously scanning people for signs of a family resemblance, was held by the sight.
Dad’s hands were big, the knuckles large and square, the backs dusted with hair. The girl Marie had hands that were smaller, more feminine, but unmistakably Alan’s thin sensitive hands.
It was an enormous relief.
No wonder she’d been wearing old-fashioned clothes in the hidden picture. No wonder Alan had lied. He would not have wanted Nick to know they had different mothers. He would have been afraid Nick would be hurt. He’d been looking out for Nick.
Nick didn’t like it, but he understood. Alan had always called Mum Olivia. It made sense that Alan had nothing to do with her really, that he was not tainted by her madness in the least.
“You know who you do look like,” Mrs. Walsh said suddenly. “You look like Olivia. Daniel’s first wife. She—” The woman hesitated. “I think they married very young. They were childhood sweethearts and — I didn’t know her very well, but she always seemed restless. She ran away with someone else, and after a few years, Daniel and Marie got married. Is — is something wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” he snarled. “Everything’s fine.”
Nick looked at the picture in Mrs. Walsh’s hands and thought of the wedding picture Alan kept by his bedside. Mum and Dad looked so young in that picture, he remembered. They looked younger than Dad in this picture.
Furious panic fragmented the images in Nick’s head for a moment. He tried to piece together all this new information until it made sense. It felt like fitting the shards of a broken glass together with his bare hands, but he didn’t care if it hurt as long as he could force the world into a pattern he could understand.
So Mum and Dad had been married and separated. That didn’t mean anything. Mum had come back to Dad, then, and he’d taken her in because he’d loved her once. That explained why he’d protected a magician. That made sense. It did not mean that anything in Nick’s life had changed.
“She came back,” he said, trying to sound calm. “Olivia. She and Dad had me—”
“Marie died fifteen years ago,” Mrs. Walsh blurted out. “I was with her. I was with Alan and Daniel the whole time. You must be about seventeen! I don’t know who you are, but I know you’re not Daniel Ryves’s son.”
She looked upset and suspicious at once as she threw the words in his face, but Nick abruptly ceased to care. She’d told him everything she knew now. She didn’t matter anymore. Dad used to keep a lot of pictures, but he’d never seen a picture of Alan when he was younger than four, or of himself when he was younger than one. Mum had returned to Dad — to Daniel Ryves — traumatized, scared, carrying an amulet and a baby.