The Problem with Promises
By Leigh Evans
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2014 Leigh Evans
All rights reserved.
Trowbridge's belly button was kind of amazing — the tip of my baby finger fit perfectly in its shallow divot. Underneath it, the muscle was a hard slab. I stroked it again, marveling how two opposites could be such a good fit.
For instance, if you're talking navels, I have to admit mine is deep. Only my Goddess knows exactly how deep. I've never stuck my finger in it to check, possibly because you don't do that sort thing when you have an inner-bitch taking a snooze by your spine. She might bite it. Or worse — my Fae might grab it because she's the type of ride-along persona given to doing "gotcha" crap like that.
Shortly after Biggs had drained the bottle of Coke, Trowbridge and I had come upstairs to our personal sanctuary to catch a couple of hours of sleep before "the Sisters" — what the pack calls a certain coven of witches who practice dark arts — arrived at eleven.
To be honest, I'd anticipated lust — after all, he'd given me a slightly worn wink as we'd stumbled up the stairs, and let's face it, Weres are randy as hell — but by the time I'd come back out of the washroom from my presleep tinkle, he'd crashed into a sleep that bordered on coma.
I knew he was exhausted but how does a person do that? Close their eyes and fall instantly asleep? I wish I could do that. But sleep was an avenue for dream-walking, and that activity was a potential doorway to Threall. Unfortunately — given that most of us mystwalkers found the realm of souls kind of fascinating — every trip to the land of myst was akin to playing roulette with a loaded weapon. Why? Because every time a mystwalker traveled to that realm, she reduced her chances of remembering how to return to her own.
Goddess, this feeling I keep smothering — a touch of self-hatred melded to worry and fear — better not be the new normal.
"Trowbridge?" I whispered to my mate. "Will it get better?"
No answer. The bed hog lay flat on his back, one arm folded over his head, the other loosely wrapped around me. He's pretty, my Trowbridge. Though, in my opinion, he was too thin, even if he was sporting some new and disturbingly magnificent muscles.
I wrote "Move over, Stud-muffin" on his chest. With my nail. Very lightly. Because there's such a thing as poking a stick at a sleeping bear. And because he had a thatch of hair between his nipples. Not terribly dense. Just enough to say "Here be a manly man," and I enjoyed the feeling of the curve of my nail sliding through it.
I glanced at the clock, wishing someone had reset it. How much longer before the witches flew in on their brooms? Neither Trowbridge nor I had any love for women who practice dark arts but we required their services. Tomorrow at sunset, we planned to summon the Gates of Merenwyn. Ideally, we wanted to do that without the pack noticing because the return of the portal would prompt awkward questions, like "Hey, are they breaking the treaty again?" Or "By golly, have they brought back her brother? I thought he was dead?"
Either topic is a line of inquiry we'd like to avoid.
However, keeping our trip to Merenwyn on the down low was going to be difficult without some help. The portal has a distinctive floral scent that even a Were with a head cold could detect. And then there are the pink-white lights and the chime of bells.
No. We needed another illusion ward, set precisely where Mannus had ordered one cast six months ago — right over the entire fairy pond. That way we could go to and fro without anyone being the wiser.
Though for the record, there was an additional and far less optimistic reason that we required a sheet of magic pulled over the pond like a piece of plastic wrap — failure. What if our seminoble quest ended in disaster? What if we couldn't rescue my brother and destroy the Book of Spells? Bad things could drip into this world through the Fae portal. Trowbridge worried that the lives of his wolves would be threatened. I couldn't quite muster the same level of concern.
It would require more saintly qualities than I possessed to forgive people who'd tied me to the old oak tree. The scent of their blood lust had filled my nose.
Enough. I need to move. If only to get up and trot around to the other side to restart the whole roll-over game.
Merry was hanging from the lampshade, right where I'd placed her before turning the light out. I hadn't wanted to put her on the bedside table because the wooden surface hadn't been wiped down with Pine-Sol (the cleaning-product choice among Weres), and there was still a touch of the fugly Mannus scent to it. An oversight on the part of the cleaning team who'd karate-chopped the throw pillows?
I think not.
Score another point for the League of Extraordinary Bitches.
Ralph, the amulet beside Merry, hung unmoving beside her on the parchment shade, either asleep or pretending to be.
Trowbridge said something like "Mrrrph" as I squirmed over him to reach for her.
My amulet gave me a little wink of light as I pulled her chain over my head. In another life, Merry would have done well as a mime. She can't talk, as she's imprisoned inside a hunk of amber that's been set into a pendant fashioned from a nest of Fae gold, but she manages to express herself very well through movement and color shows.
She hadn't interacted much with Ralph since she'd returned from the Fae realm. Which was interesting as her amber stone used to pinken at the sight of him. Understandable, to an extent. The Royal Amulet was astonishingly pretty, what with his brilliantly cut jewel and his manly Celtic setting. Though, in my opinion, even the artistry of his setting couldn't make up for the fact that personalitywise, he was a pain in the butt.
Evidently, she no longer considered him the rock star among her people.
I wish I knew why. One day, maybe she would tell me in her own way. I hope so, because I count her as my friend. Matter of fact, I don't like going anywhere without her. Even if all I needed to do was pace the threadbare carpet that still carried the faint scent tones of the master bedroom's former occupant.
Put that on the list: replace all soft furnishings and strip the wallpaper.
* * *
The second I rolled off Trowbridge and swung a leg over the side of the bed, he woke up — fast. None of this bleary-eyed stuff for my guy. He went straight from limp to warrior. Lunging for me as if someone had snatched me right out of his arms, at the same time blindly reaching for something beside him. Which wasn't there. With a downright feral snarl he turned to check for the weapon that he'd obviously grown used to sleeping with. The one he'd evidently left in Merenwyn. What was it? A blade? An axe? A wooden staff?
His gaze did a lightning sweep of the room, taking in all the doors — the bedroom, the closet, the bathroom — then the window, and finally, me and Merry.
"Go back to sleep," I told him. "The witches aren't here yet."
But that was as pointless as expecting a Jack in the Box to fold up and close his own lid. He was awake. Tired blue eyes studied me.
I tugged my arm free with a wince. I had a bite wound that I'd received in Threall and it was throbbing again. "I'm going downstairs."
"Stay," he said.
"That's got to be your favorite word."
"Second favorite word," I said, walking to the window.
"That's two words." He swung his feet over the side of the bed and scrubbed his hands over the stiff bristles of his hair. "I'm awake."
But you shouldn't be — not with those purple smudges under your eyes.
"Come back to bed," he said, his tone all butter and temptation.
I eyed his body in all its near-perfection. The few scars he'd kept looked good on him. "If I get in that bed, you're going to make love to me."
Even in the half dark of the room, I could see his decidedly naughty grin. "And that would be a bad thing?"
Normally, all I had to do was inhale the clean scent of him, and I was a goner. And if he'd been awake when I'd sashayed out of the ladies', we'd have enjoyed each other. But I'd had time to brood. Guilt asked, in a withering voice, "Hedi, do you have any right to enjoy being held and loved, after you sent your twin to hell?"
My face must have reflected my answer to that puzzler.
"Oh," he said.
"Oh," I echoed, a tad sadly.
Trowbridge's wistful gaze dipped toward the girls and I turned back to the window before all parts of him woke up. "Do you know what time it is?"
The mattress protested as Trowbridge got up. He came up behind me to wrap an arm — muscled, hard, warm — around my ribs. He eased me against his hard body as his hand slipped upward to cup my boob. He lifted it, so that it plumped in his palm, as he considered the night sky. "Around eleven."
"Does the sky look the same there?" I asked him.
"In Merenwyn?" His chest rose and fell. "No, the stars are different. There's no Big Dipper or North Star."
"What does it have instead?"
"The moon is lower and bigger." He studied the sky silently, perhaps lost in his memories. "There's a cluster of smaller stars called Caitlin's Daughters. People make wishes on them."
"Do their dreams come true?"
"Not that I can see." His palm slid along my skin until it encountered the chain I wore low around my hips. That sent the soft leather pouch hanging from the end of the bride belt, swinging. Inside the little bag were seven stones, clear as diamonds but far more valuable. "Why can't you sleep?"
I gave him a mute shrug.
"The first obstacle has been passed, Tink," he said softly. "The Old Mage must have succeeded in merging his soul with your brother's." His thumb absently brushed my nipple. It hardened.
Hedi, the mouse-hearted.
Hedi, the betrayer.
"What makes you so sure of that?" I asked.
"We're not dead," he said with his usual bluntness.
Trowbridge rubbed his chin against my shoulder. "You're worrying about him."
"Did you get any sleep?"
I shook my head. "I can't stop thinking."
His exhale spoke volumes. "We're going to have to work on that." Then he leaned back a bit, so that he could gather my hair and draw it over my right shoulder. He set to gently untangling the knots in my rat's nest. Immediately, my nipples beaded — the backs of his knuckles were warm on the slope of my breast.
I let out a sigh, part pleasure, part sadness.
"Tell me what's bothering you most," he said, working on a difficult snare.
I swallowed. "I spent ten minutes as the Old Mage's nalera ... and it almost drove me insane. You're naked. Every secret, every weakness, everything you like to hide from others, it's there. Accessible for your mage's interest and use." I waited for him to say, "Don't feel bad," or maybe, "Clearly, love of my life, you had no choice."
Instead Gorgeous finished with the knot, then said gruffly, "Go on."
The stars blurred.
"Lexi's the Old Mage's bitch now," I said in an anguished rush. "Every single thought he has is being examined —"
"Hedi," Trowbridge cut in. "You have to remember that your brother lived a long time in the Fae's Royal court. He's had lots of practice shielding his thoughts."
I slumped against him, thinking how we'd waited until Lexi was so weak that he couldn't stand, couldn't talk, couldn't walk.
"Sweetheart," he said, moving his leg so that I could be cradled closer. "One day you will be required to become a leader, and there are going to be things you'll need to do that will leave you awake at night. It will harden you. And eventually you'll wonder if you have any humanity left inside you. But you'll have to push past that. You'll have to force yourself to grab sleep when you can. To eat when you must. To keep going, no matter what."
"What are you talking about, Trowbridge?" I turned, lifting a shoulder. "I have as much interest in leading people as I do in sitting for a group sing. I'm not a leader. I'll never be one."
He said something under his breath that sounded a whole lot like "Not yet, anyhow."
I pushed away and leaned against the window frame. The glass was cold. I covered Merry with my palm and she sent me a throb of heat.
"Sweetheart, look at me."
I considered that, and didn't resist when he turned me gently to face him. Gravely, he cupped my face. For the longest moment, he studied me, with an intensity that made me feel like he was memorizing my features.
"What is it?"
"If I could keep you like this," he said fiercely, "untouched and safe from everything harmful, I swear to God I would. You are perfect, just like this." Mouth set in a flat line, he stroked my jaw. "But I can't keep you out of trouble, no matter how much I want to, Hedi Peacock."
He was freaking me out.
I gave him a weak smile. "If we live through all this, I'm going to turn into the most boring person in the world. I'm going to take up knitting. And baking." Then I tipped my head toward the window. "Also, I'm going to fix your front yard. It needs flowers, Trowbridge." One corner of his mouth lifted, so I added, "After that? Maybe Tai Chi."
"Good luck with that." My lover tucked a strand of my hair behind my pointed ear. "Tink. You're attracted to danger."
"I am not. Whenever I see it, I run like hell."
"No you don't. You run right into trouble."
Real amusement softened his tone. "Let's see what you've done in the last twelve hours. You bargained with a mage and stared Cordelia down. Of the two I don't know which is the bigger deal." His gaze went to my mouth, clung there. "Sweetheart, you defy me every chance you get. You wrote 'Stud-muffin' on my chest."
"I thought you were asleep."
"I was concentrating with my eyes closed." A ghost of a grin flitted across his face. "You came close to losing me with the double f's." He gazed at me, face somber. "We're heading for a shit-storm, Tink."
"I know," I whispered.
Blue eyes turned predator cold. "Remember this. Whatever happens — whatever it takes — we can't allow the Black Mage to walk through worlds. That bastard has no place in ours."
Unsettled, I dragged my gaze from him. Searched for something calming, and found it in the blue flower sprigs peppered across the wallpaper. Very small, very sweet. Oh Goddess, let me be wrong. "You're going to Merenwyn to kill him, aren't you?"
"There will be no peace for the Raha'ells until I do."
I closed my eyes briefly. Them again. "The Black Mage has magic. And guards. While you'll be armed with nothing more than hatred and the notion that his death will right a wrong that's based on prejudice and fear. I know you miss your Merenwyn pack and feel responsible for them. But risking your life —"
"That's what an Alpha does for his pack."
I'll never think that way. "Would killing the Black Mage change the Fae court's opinion that wolves are a lower order? Would it stop the trapping, or the —"
"It will buy them some time." His fingers soothed my tense jaw.
"Until I find the safe passage."
I'd sent a rogue across the gates six months ago. In some ways, he'd been easier to deal with than the "Son of Lukynae." Never in a million years would rogue wolf Robson Trowbridge have lifted a clenched fist in the air and cried, "Freedom for all!"
"Trowbridge." I paused to pick my words carefully. "If there really was a portal keyed to recognize and accept Were blood, wouldn't someone have used it by now?"
"Are you saying there is no Safe Passage for the wolves of Merenwyn?"
"I'm saying that ..." The Raha'ells are no longer yours to lead. "My wish list is a lot shorter than yours. I'm not trying to save the world. I just want the seven of us safe," I said. "That's all I want, Trowbridge. You and me, Lexi and Anu, Cordelia and Harry ... even Biggs. Everything I do is for that, and because of that." I bit my lip. "You're confident you can take on everything that comes your way. While I ... What if I haven't got what it takes?"
Knuckles brushed my cheek. Callused. Heated with blood. Smelled like forests and the wild. "Stop worrying," he said softly. "We can do this. And you have everything you need inside you to finish this."
"How can you be so sure?" I whispered.
"I just am."
I forced my lids open and lifted my chin to gaze at Gorgeous. I love you — that's what I tried to telegraph.
He frowned. "You look really tired." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Problem with Promises by Leigh Evans. Copyright © 2014 Leigh Evans. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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