Matilda Case never thought of herself as a hero. But because she is galvanized—and nearly immortal in her stitched, endlessly healing body—she doesn’t have much of a choice. Even if she doesn’t want to save the world, she’s the only one capable of traveling in time to do so.
But her rescue attempt hasn’t gone as planned. She’s stuck in an alternate universe, and her world is in danger of disappearing. Worst of all, an unfathomably powerful man who can also travel through history doesn’t want her to put things to rights. He’s willing to wage bloody war to stop Matilda, unless she surrenders control of time to him.
Now, with the minutes ticking, Matilda must make impossible decisions, knowing that one wrong choice will destroy her—and any chance of saving everything she loves. . . .
*A Book Obsession
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I’m not one to write my thoughts down. But the doctors say a journal is good for my mental state. So from this ruined and dying body, I cast my hello. If you’re out there, Matilda, I’ll find you.
“This is a bad idea, Evelyn. A bad idea.” My brother, Quinten Case, paced the dirt patch just outside our farmhouse door, one hand stuck stiff-fingered in his dark, curled hair. His other hand kept drifting toward the gun holstered on his thigh, while his gaze flicked constantly toward the kitchen window. The flannel shirt and work boots he wore didn’t disguise who I knew he really was: a restless genius and a brilliant stitcher of living things.
I should know. After all, I was one of the living things he’d stitched together.
“Matilda,” I corrected him gently. I was sitting on the top edge of a rain barrel, thunking my bootheels absently against the hollow side of it, and wondering what else about my farm and my world had changed since the Wings of Mercury experiment had broken and then mended time. “I’m not Evelyn anymore, Quinten.”
He pulled his fingers out of his hair and waved impatiently at me. I guess he was still trying to get used to the changes in his world too.
I understood why he was calling me Evelyn.
I was born his sister, and named Matilda Case. But when I was a little girl, I’d become deathly ill. Quinten and his genius mind had found a way to transfer my thoughts, my personality, my mind into the comatose body of a girl named Evelyn. A girl who had been asleep for more than three hundred years.
He stitched everything that made me me into her. It had been a desperate, risky thing to try. But he had succeeded. In my world, in my time, I’d woken up in her body as Matilda, and lived until I was twenty-six.
That was when we’d done something even more desperate: Quinten had sent me back in time to change the Wings of Mercury experiment. We didn’t have much choice, really. If I hadn’t gone back in time, billions of people would have died.
That was how I remembered it. That was what had happened in my time.
But in this world, in this time line, Evelyn had been the one who had woken up when my brother had tried to transfer my mind into her body.
She’d lived until today, just a few minutes ago when I’d found myself standing in the kitchen. I’d felt Evelyn in my mind with me for a moment. Then she had lifted, all her memories and thoughts fading like smoke on the wind.
My going back in time was supposed to save the world. And it had.
But it had also changed it in massive, chaotic ways.
So far, I’d been told there was a war going on between the Houses who ruled the resources in the world. House Brown, or House Earth, as Quinten had told me it was referred to now, was the house that used to be made up of a loosely connected network of people, each living on their own piece of land. Those people had rejected servitude to the other Houses to live free, and were now living in several walled strongholds scattered across the world.
Another huge change I was still trying to wrap my mind around was that the galvanized, people like me who had survived the original Wings of Mercury experiment and whose brains and bodies were more than three hundred years old and stitched, were some kind of wanted criminals.
Back in my time, the galvanized had done a lot of good for the world, and for people and human rights.
“You have a price on your head,” Quinten said, back to pulling at his hair again. “They—those killers in our kitchen—shouldn’t even be here.”
“I know.” In my time, I’d had a price on my head too. That, unfortunately, hadn’t changed. One of these days I’d figure out how to avoid such trouble in my life.
“How can that even be possible?” he demanded. “No one, except Neds and Grandma, knows you exist.”
“Someone knows,” I said, waiting for him to turn and start pacing back the other way.
“No. You can’t be a wanted criminal if no one knows you’re alive.”
“I take it you registered my death when I was young?” It was a weird thing to ask, but, then, I’d led a weird life.
He nodded, his palm resting on the top of his head so his elbow jutted out. “We never registered Evelyn as alive, since she wasn’t technically or medically supposed to be alive. She was just a forgotten medical experiment Dad got his hands on before things really went to hell. There is no Matilda Case alive on record.”
“Still, you couldn’t have kept Evelyn in the basement all her life,” I said, hoping to lighten things up a bit. “We must have neighbors or friends who saw her and maybe thought she was me.”
“Yes, we have friends. But they think Matilda died. And we told them Evelyn was a child our parents took in after the One-three plague killed her parents.”
He stopped, lowering his hand finally. Stared at me, his eyes flicking across my face as if looking for a lie there. “It’s . . . eerie,” he said. “Knowing you’re not you.”
“I am me,” I said softly. “I’m just not her.”
He nodded, and sorrow darkened his eyes. “For the past fifty years, we’ve had a plague hit each decade. One-three spread widely enough, it wiped out millions.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh.” There had been no widespread plague in my time. I was still reeling with the changes of this world, and I knew Quinten had his own things to get his brain around.
But in my time, Quinten had died from a terrible explosion. We had been hunted by the Houses who chased us to our farmhouse. The House soldiers had killed Quinten; our farmhand, Neds Harris; and the galvanized Abraham and Foster. They’d killed the others who had helped us too—Welton, who was head of House Yellow, and House Brown’s doctor, Gloria.
Even though this news of plague wasn’t exactly welcome, so far I preferred this time and this world, in which my brother and the people I loved were alive.
Whatever else was wrong here, we’d make right. This was the only world left to us. That time-travel trick had been a one-shot deal.
“Could it be the stitching?” I asked. “If someone had seen my stitching, they’d know I was galvanized, right? And galvanized are . . . criminals?”
He pulled up the sleeve of his flannel, his eyes locked on mine.
I glanced down at his tanned forearm. Muscular, a few lines of scars that had healed too white against his tanned skin. A row of neat, small stitches ran at an angle below his elbow.
Everything in me chilled.
“Everyone is stitched, Ev— Matilda,” he said. “At most times, anyway.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off that tidy row of thin gray thread piercing my brother’s arm. “Why?”
“The One-one plague made healing slower and more difficult. Things go necrotic more often than not. Especially open wounds. If you want a cut to heal, you need to stitch and keep it as clean as possible.”
“So those stitches aren’t permanent?”
He shook his head and rolled his sleeve back down. “I’ll take them out at the end of the month if everything looks okay.”
“Are mine permanent?” I asked, a small hope catching in my heart.
“Yes. You are galvanized. But since nearly everyone goes around with stitches, spotting a galvanized isn’t easy. And no one I know thinks you are a galvanized.”
“So people just assume I’m recovering from injuries,” I said.
He nodded. “You— I mean, Evelyn keeps her stitches covered when anyone from House Earth stops by.”
“I thought you said no one knew I was alive.”
“No one except the people in House Earth whom I trust implicitly. Well, and the Grubens.”
I shook my head. “The what?”
“Family down a ways. Closest we Cases have to relatives. They’re an . . . energetic bunch, but loyal to the grave.”
“So stitches aren’t rare, and my being galvanized isn’t why someone wants me dead. That’s different.”
“Are the galvanized the only stitched where— I mean, when you came from?” he asked.
“Yes. Twelve of them, plus me. They were owned by the Houses. They were celebrities, in a way. World changers. Heroes. They did a lot of good, Quinten. We did a lot of good. I knew Abraham. I knew Foster.” I pointed toward our house, where both Abraham and Foster were drinking tea at our kitchen table, probably at gunpoint. “We trusted them then with our lives, and they died trying to protect us.”
“What’s your point, Ev?” he asked.
“Matilda,” I said. “We should trust them now.”
“That would be suicide.”
“Because they’re galvanized?”
“Because they are here to collect on that price on your head,” he said.
“Abraham said he came to warn us that there was a price on our heads.”
The crease between his lowered eyebrows deepened. “They’re mercenaries, Matilda. All galvanized are mercenaries. Guns for hire. No loyalties to anything other than money. No loyalties to Houses, people, or each other. It’s what they do.”
“Well, that’s not what they’re going to do here. We should at least get as much information out of them as we can, don’t you think?”
“There’s nothing they know that I want or will pay for,” he said flatly. “I do not do business with galvanized.”
“Well, I do.” I hopped down off the water barrel, my boots landing with a crunchy thud in the dirt and gravel. I dusted my hands.
“They came to our farm looking for me and for you,” I said. “I’m not the only one someone wants dead. We don’t know why someone wants me dead, since no one should know I’m alive. But from the way you’re acting all nervous and hair-pully, I think you know exactly why your head is worth hunting.”
“It’s a mistake,” he scoffed.
“No, I don’t think it is. What did you do that has made someone want to kill you, Quinten?”
He pulled his shoulders back and tipped his head up, as if I’d just punched him in the chest. It took him a moment or two before he answered.
“You are not at all like Evelyn,” he said slowly. “Do you know that? She was kind. Trusting. She was the sweetest girl I’d ever known. And she would never have accused me of doing something worth being killed over.”
His words stung. Quinten and I had been close. Hell, I practically worshiped the ground his boots trod upon. It hurt to hear him tell me I wasn’t as good as the sister he loved more than me. A girl I could never live up to. A girl I could never be.
But I knew him. He had a habit of striking out when people got too close to the things he didn’t want to talk about. I refused to back down on this.
I lifted my chin and stared him in the eyes. “I’m sorry I’m not her. Really, I am. I’m sorry you’ve lost her. I’m sorry she’s gone. But you haven’t answered the question I asked,” I said calmly. “Tell me what you did, Quinten. If I don’t know why someone wants to kill you, I can’t help you stay alive.”
It was my turn to study him, looking for clues. His body language said he wasn’t going to budge on his silence. His eyes had gone all sharp and judgy. Closed off.
Fine. He wasn’t the only person on the property who had information.
There were three mercenaries at my kitchen table. They must know who had put the hit out on us. Someone had to be paying them. Maybe they’d have a clue as to why we had suddenly become such hot property.
“I may not be as sweet as Evelyn,” I said, unable to be angry at him. “But you, brother, haven’t changed a bit. You are just as stubborn, smart, and insufferably righteous as you’ve always been. And I wouldn’t want you any other way.” I took a few steps and dropped a quick kiss on his cheek. “I missed you.” I patted his arm. “But you’re being an idiot.”
I strode off toward the corner of the house, and the kitchen door beyond.
* * *
The twisting sensation of an elevator suddenly plunging down flights of a building hit me. I stumbled, but caught myself before I fell. The sharp scent of roses filled my nose and mouth as I gasped, and my ears rang with the distance echo of a bell.
My vision blurred, and I blinked hard to clear it. The house in front of me dissolved into nothing but a pile of rubble, as if an explosion had reduced it to smoldering dirt and timbers. Men in black uniforms milled around it.
My heart raced. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. I looked behind me, and Quinten was no longer there. But it wasn’t just Quinten that was missing. This world had changed.
No. The world had shifted. This world, this property with the broken, burning house, was the property and world from my original time.
But I didn’t want to be in my time. In my time, my brother was dead.
I must have made a sound.
One of the men looked over at me. “Hey. What are you doing? This location is under House Black lockdown. There’s been an explosion. It isn’t safe to be here.”
I heard him—honestly I did. But all I could see was the destroyed farmhouse on the very familiar land where I had grown up. All of it exactly as I remembered, and not the different world I’d woken up in recently.
If this was the time I remembered and had grown up in, that meant my brother was currently dead, buried under that pile of rubble that used to be our home.
I turned to that familiar voice. John Black, head of House Black, wore a black uniform like the other men, but carried himself with a manner of authority and bulldog strength. He had just come around the corner of the rubble field and looked as startled as I felt.
“Were you in the explosion?” he asked striding my way. “Were there any other survivors? Welton Yellow, or your brother, Quinten? Have you seen Abraham?”
I shook my head and pressed my hand over my mouth, words stuck somewhere in the clot of panicked silence filling my brain.
He stopped in front of me. “You’re shaking,” he said, not unkindly for a man who had been sent to bring me in as a fugitive accused of murder. “Matilda, tell me what happened here.”
And then the world twisted again, filling with that dizzy rose scent. John Black reached out for me. I reached back. I felt the warm pressure of his fingers on my wrist, and then he was gone—whisked away as if he were a curtain that had been pushed aside to show the open window behind it.
* * *
I was holding my breath, my hand cupped over my mouth.
The house was standing in front of me, whole. The day was quiet and still. In the distance, I heard a bird warble, and a sleepy lizard answer with a rumble.
“Ev— Matilda?” Quinten said from behind me.
Relief washed over me, and I finally exhaled. He was alive. Quinten was alive, and I was back in the time where I belonged.
I turned and dropped my hand from my mouth. The faint ringing in my ears was gone, the flower scent faded.
A very alive Quinten strode my way, wearing flannel, jeans, and boots, an irritated scowl on his face. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Did you feel that?” I asked. “Just now, did you get dizzy or smell roses or see . . . anything?”
He paused and gave me a look. “No. Why, did you?”
I took in the scenery behind him. This was still the property I’d always known, but the familiar pear orchard wasn’t in sight, and a flock of six pocket-sized sheep of various pastel shades shambled along a fence line, stopping to nibble on weeds there.
We had only three pocket-sized sheep in the time I was from.
I must have been back to the time where Evelyn had grown up.
“I felt something. I . . . saw someone,” I said. “Do you know John Black?”
He shook his head. “Matilda . . .”
“He must have been an echo,” I said. “No, it was more than that. I saw what this place used to be. What I knew it as. He was real. He felt real.”
“You’re telling me you saw something from your own time?”
“Or I somehow stepped into my time. Is that possible? Did I just disappear and reappear?”
He camped back on one foot and stuck his hands in his pockets. “No. You were walking toward the house, and I was walking after you.”
“Maybe it was just a second for you, but longer for me. Why would that happen? What would make that happen?”
“Don’t look at me,” he said. “Until today, I would have told you time travel—of any kind—was impossible, and now you’re telling me you’ve experienced it twice. Maybe you’re just tired, and your brain can’t sort through what’s happened. Maybe it’s old memories surfacing. Some glitch in the switch between what Evelyn knew and remembered and what you know and remember.”
It wasn’t a hallucination. That had been John Black. That had been his touch. And that had been our demolished house. I was sure of it. But I had no way to prove it to Quinten.
“Okay.” I swallowed and nodded. “Okay. Maybe it’s just a onetime thing. I can deal with that.” I set my shoulders and turned back toward the house. Sometimes experiments had unintended consequences. Maybe seeing into my old time stream was that consequence.
Or maybe it was a fluke of the Wings of Mercury mending time. A wrinkle that hadn’t been ironed out yet.
Whatever it was, I would handle it if it came up again. Right now, here in this time—the real time—I needed to save our lives.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To get the information I need to save both our heads.”
I heard the sound of his boots as he did a short jog to catch up with me. “Does no mean something else in your time?” he asked.
That, finally, got a chuckle out of him. “Just— Please. Listen to me on this. Trust me on this. I know the way the world works, with or without time travel.”
“I am listening. I am also going to get us some information.”
“We do not do business with mercenaries.”
“Is that the family motto?”
“It is now.”
“Well, I’m still following the other family motto: do whatever necessary to keep the people you love alive.”
Quinten swore softly.
We’d rounded the house. The big barn was behind us now, a worn wooden structure two stories high with odd creatures slipping or winging in and out of the windows, doors, and other cracks of it. I hadn’t had time to get acquainted with the stitched beasties my brother was keeping, but from the glimpses I’d caught, Quinten had a full-blown menagerie here.
However, I had not missed the half-dozen winged lizards of various impressive sizes that skulked a little farther out by the trees and filled up the dirt road, belly-flat soaking up the sun.
“Sure are a lot of dragons around the place,” I noted.
“Lizards,” he automatically corrected me, just like I corrected everyone else who had met our single stitched, winged monstrosity back in my time.
“Do you use them for scale jelly?”
“Of course. Other than stitching, it’s the jelly that keeps this place running,” he said. “But mostly the lizards patrol the property and make sure the things and people we don’t want here never make it to the house.”
“How many do you have?”
I shot him a grin. “We had only one. Big as a barn.”
“Still do,” he said. “And, well, a lot of others, the size of other buildings.”
“As soon as I get the three killers in our kitchen sorted away, I want to see all the critters. We had a unicorn. Well, sort of a unicorn.”
Quinten picked up the pace enough that he reached the door at the same time I did. He straight-armed it, his palm smacking flat in the middle of the wood. “Listen to me, Matilda.”
I stopped, folded my arms over my chest. Waited.
His face was a little sweaty from the jog, but also pale. “We are not on their side. They are not on ours. They want us dead, and they plan to make a profit on our deaths. Anything they say, any information they give us, is suspect.”
“I don’t see that we have a choice,” I said. “Good idea, bad idea—doesn’t matter. We need to know who wants us dead and why. They can tell us.”
The door opened, swinging inward.
Quinten moved back and took hold of one of the guns under his overshirt so quick, you’d think he was on fire.
I stood my ground but didn’t draw the gun strapped to my thigh.
In that doorway, filling most of it with all six foot six of his height and muscle, was the galvanized Abraham Seventh. The man I’d loved.
In a different world.
In a time that I didn’t think existed.
The man who was now a stranger to me.
The only problem with dying is it takes so damn long. Of course, the same could be said of living.
Abraham was powerfully built in my time. But here everything about him was harder, carved, chiseled, as if there had never been a day of easy living to soften him. His hair was long, pulled back off his tanned face with a band, revealing grim scars on his face and thick black threads tacking a line down one cheek to the edge of his mouth. Another row of stitches slashed up away from the opposite eyebrow to his hairline.
His eyes were still his: hazel flecked with red. The red was a result of him either being angry or in pain, though all galvanized were numb to physical sensation, including pain.
And he was handsome—gods, he was good-looking.
His wide forehead, lined with too much worry, held eyebrows that were darker than his brown hair. His nose was arrow straight, giving his angled cheeks a hard edge, even though scruff covered cheeks and jaw.
I knew that face was capable of great joy and laughter. I’d seen him laugh so hard, his entire body radiated joy. I knew his eyes softened with kindness, compassion, and human goodness.
Or, at least, those were the things he had been. Now he was all edges and intensity.
A hammer looking for an anvil to strike.
I couldn’t see the muscles under his layers of clothing, but his movements had a tension and fluidity that made it clear he had often, and would at any moment, fight.
My stomach tightened with electric tingles that made it hard to keep a needful gasp from escaping my mouth. I wanted him to be mine again.
I had loved him. I still loved him.
I searched for some recognition of that connection in his stern expression.
“Decided to kill us yet?” he asked, his voice low.
“We’re keeping our options open,” I said.
He didn’t smile. I guess he hadn’t been joking.
Abraham wore sturdy, loose leather pants, a layering of cotton and wool shirts under his jacket, and an arsenal of weapons. Over his shoulder jutted the butt of a long gun and an ax. A bandolier of bullets crossed his chest, giving me just a hint on the hard muscles beneath his shirts and making me wish I could see more. Handguns were holstered at both hips.
That was a lot of weapons for a galvanized to carry, considering he didn’t need weapons to kill a man dead. A galvanized is so strong, all we need is our bare hands to end a life, bloody and quick.
And while Quinten and Abraham hadn’t drawn weapons on each other, they were doing that man thing: squared off and glaring, just waiting for an excuse to start a fight.
So I stepped up between them to make it clear that neither of them had time for this.
“Back it up, stud,” I said, pointing toward the kitchen behind Abraham.
Quinten choked on the inhale of whatever he’d been about to say.
Abraham’s mouth twitched upward on the unstitched side for a second, and that familiar flash of wicked humor flickered in his eyes, then was gone.
“Stud?” he repeated, tipping his head down and narrowing his gaze.
I stepped toward him, as if I were going to walk right through him. “You heard me. Move it back, good-looking.”
Abraham paced backward, still squared off to me as I strolled into my kitchen, the look on his face a mix of curiosity and caution.
It was like a dance, his movements and mine, and we were in perfect sync. Memories, hot and suddenly intense, flashed through me. My body tingled with the sensation of his wide hands against my skin, his mouth pressed to mine, his tongue exploring me.
We had been good together.
Back in my time, I’d regretted waiting to sleep with him. I’d promised if I had a chance to do it all over again, I’d put sex with Abraham as number one on my to-do list.
But now? I didn’t think he wanted anything to do with me. I found myself wanting to move forward with some caution. Just because he had been a man I loved before didn’t mean I would love him now.
“Problem?” Abraham asked.
I realized I’d lost a few seconds to my thoughts. My hand was raised toward him midreach, the other pressed against my stomach. He hadn’t moved, but Quinten had stepped into the room and closed the door.
Everyone in the kitchen was looking at me.
This was not the time to appear crazier than they already thought I was.
“Matilda?” Quinten said.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Move away from her, stitch,” Left Ned said, breaking the mood and scrambling up a new one.
I glanced over to where he was standing near the icebox, a sawed-off shotgun tucked against his shoulder.
Neds Harris was our farmhand. He was all one body, with extra width to his shoulders so his two blond-and-blue-eyed heads could rest side by side in a pleasing, if unusual, arrangement of parts. In my time, Right Ned was always the kinder, more thoughtful of the two, while his brother, Left Ned, had a more suspicious, blunt nature.
Looked like they weren’t any different in this time. They’d told me once that Right Ned controlled the left side of their body, and Left Ned controlled the other. So that meant Left Ned was the one ready to do the shooting.
“Neds Harris,” I said. “I said I was fine, and these are our guests.”
“So?” Left Ned said.
“So we do not bring guns to the kitchen table. Set it aside. We all know we can kill each other if we’re of the mind to. Waving it around isn’t making a point. It’s just being rude.”
Sallyo, a woman whom I’d only met once, chuckled. She sat at the table, a cup of tea in one hand, and looked as relaxed as could be. Sallyo was pale and pretty, her eyes snake-pupiled, which indicated she was born a bit like Neds: mutated. Her dark hair was shaved off above her ears, leaving the rest pulled into a heavy braid down her back. Hard and lean, the sleek and deadly woman had run the biggest, most feared smuggling ring in the world.
I knew zilch about her in this time, though. Well, I knew she had just showed up on my doorstep with Abraham and Foster First, the latter of whom was also galvanized, and albino pale, white-haired, huge, and silent.
Sallyo lifted her fingers. “I wouldn’t say no to food, if you have any.”
“Tea’s customary,” Left Ned said. “But you’ll pay for food.”
“You know I’m good for it, Harris,” she said.
“I know you’re good for nothing, Sallyo.” That was the coldest, hardest thing I’d ever heard out of Right Ned’s mouth.
“I’m sure we have plenty to share,” I said into the weighted silence. “Foster?” I asked the seven-foot-tall gravedigger, who stood next to Abraham, silently scanning the people in the room. “Would you like some tea? Or cocoa?”
His red eyes lit up. “Cocoa?” His voice was low and gravelly, as if left unused for so long, it had gone to dust.
“Let me see what we have.” I pointed at the table. “Go ahead and sit down. Make yourself comfortable.” I gave Abraham a look. “You too.”
Abraham waited to see what Quinten was going to do.
Quinten stared at me a moment longer, then holstered the gun he’d drawn.
Abraham strolled over to the table and sat down, his long legs taking up a lot of space.
“You too, Quinten,” I said as I turned to the cupboards. “We’ll all feel better after a bit to eat. So,” I said, “there’s a price for killing my brother and me?” I opened the cupboard where we usually kept baking goods and was tearfully relieved to find the cocoa there.
I’m not going to lie. Coming back to a world that was not quite the same world I’d lived in all my life was spooky on so many levels, it was overwhelming. If I thought about it for too long, if I lingered on the consequences of having both gained and lost everything I loved, I was going to be asking for a panic attack.
And that little time twitch outside I’d just experienced wasn’t helping my nerves any.
Better to stay busy, keep everyone talking, and find out how to remove myself and my brother from the wanted list.
“There is a reward for finding you,” Abraham said. “But that is not why we came here.”
“Now, now,” Quinten said. “No need to lie. We know what you do. We know what you are.”
“Tell me, Mr. Case,” Abraham said. “What are we?”
“Mercenaries. Bounty hunters. Galvanized,” Quinten said.
“Not to mention murderous, thieving bastards,” Left Ned muttered.
Foster growled softly.
“The only reason you are here is to collect on that price,” Quinten said.
“Well, that’s good news!” I said.
“The price on our heads?” Quinten asked.
I turned with a jar in my hand. “No. We have cocoa.”
Left Ned sucked a little air between his teeth with a snick sound. Right Ned shook his head as if he still hadn’t gotten used to words coming out of my mouth.
“Anyone else want some?” I shook the jar. “We have plenty.”
“We came,” Abraham said, completely ignoring me and instead leaning forward toward Quinten, his legs pulled back so he was in a better position to spring into a fight, if need be, “to warn you. To warn her.” He nodded toward me. “Nothing more.”
Sallyo shifted a bit too, and I noticed one of her hands had disappeared under the table. Probably to draw her gun.
Damn it. We did not need a shoot-out.
“Good,” I said. “Great. Then my brother, Neds, and I will take you at your word, Abraham.”
“You don’t speak for me,” Left Ned said.
“Matilda,” Quinten admonished, as if I were a child who had interrupted while the adults were handling business.
“We welcomed them into our home,” I said. “No one gets shot. Understand?”
The tension in Abraham, the coil of anger, shifted to a hard sort of caution. It was like watching someone close all the shutters on a glass house. Everything about him went dark, flat, but there was still a lot of emotion leaking through his walls.
“Also?” I pointed at the gun Left Ned still had in his hand. “I asked you once to please put that down. This is the last time I’m going to ask you. Next up, I’ll make you put it down.”
He looked over at Quinten, and to my surprise, my brother nodded.
“Might as well,” he said to Neds. “She has questions she isn’t going to let go unanswered. And, frankly, so do I.” Quinten took the time to make eye contact with each of the strangers in the room. “You are welcome to a meal. But I would advise you not to pick a fight. This is our land, and that makes us the law here. We don’t have to stand up in any court and tell them where we buried the bodies. Do we have an understanding?”
“We have an understanding,” Sallyo said, placing both hands on the table. “And you have my curiosity. Ask your questions.”
Abraham still hadn’t moved. His eyes flicked and dismissed Neds, then settled on me, tracking my every movement as if I were the dangerous one here.
That was interesting.
“Hold on. Let me get cocoa for Foster, because I promised.” I put some milk on the stove to warm, then opened a few cupboards and checked the bread box and icebox for food. “It looks like we’ll be having a cold lunch.” I pulled out cheese, pickled eggs, meat, and rolls.
Quinten paced over to the table, and Abraham’s attention switched to him.
“There are some sauces on the lower shelf,” Quinten said as he pulled out a chair and sat, purposely putting his back to Foster. It was a very clear sign that he was in the mood to be trusting.
Thank you, brother.
Foster First locked gazes with Abraham. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they could read each other’s thoughts. But galvanized weren’t telekinetic or magical. At least, they weren’t in my time.
Abraham nodded, and Foster walked across the kitchen, his steps betraying just how heavy of a creature he was.
Sallyo used her foot to scoot out a chair for Foster to sit next to her.
“Shee-it,” Left Ned said. Then he finally pushed away from the wall and took a seat at the table, resting the shotgun at his knee.
A genius, a smuggler, a two-headed man, and three stitched monsters sit down for tea, I thought to myself.
“So, who wants us dead?” I asked as I pulled out the jars of sauces, then the meat and cheese, and set them all on the table. I added an empty plate for each person.
“We don’t have details,” Sallyo said.
Okay, so she was the boss of this party. Good to know.
“Are you sure about that?” Left Ned asked. “It’s not like you to take a job without them.”
She shrugged. “I have a contact. Who has a contact. Who has a contact. It goes back to House Fire. I know that much.”
I poured the warmed milk, cocoa, and sugar into a big mug. “What’s House Fire?”
Quinten cleared his throat into the silence. “You know House Fire, Matilda,” he said slowly. “Half of all the Houses that rule the world joined under that name. The other half joined under House Water, remember?”
“Right,” I lied. I did not remember that, because it was not how things were in my time. “Fire, Water. Must be all the excitement has my mind slipping. Sorry.” I dug through our pantry for marshmallows, but couldn’t find any, so I dropped a stick of cinnamon candy into the mug.
“Here we go.” I handed the mug to Foster.
His face lit up like a kid at a fair, and he very carefully took the cup into both his huge hands. “Thank you, Matilda,” he said in that rolling rumble of his.
“You are very welcome.”
He closed his eyes and inhaled the steam rising off the cocoa. When he opened his eyes, he took a sip and savored it like fine wine.
I sat between Quinten and Neds, and put some cheese, bread, and sauces on my plate because, seriously? Time travel and being a wanted criminal were hungry business.
The room filled with the scents of a picnic lunch, rich chocolate wafting through the air mixing with the tang of pickling spices and the buttery warmth of bread, invoking—for me, at least—warm, safe feelings.
Quinten spoke up. “So, you’re working for House Fire, but don’t intend to collect the ransom money? I haven’t met any mercenaries who go out of their way for free.”
“Especially you, Sallyo,” Right Ned added. I noted neither of the Harris boys were eating. They were watching Sallyo like she was a snake ready to strike.
“Oh, I’ll get paid. Even mercenaries go out of their way if the job is worth it. And since this job is half finding you and half delivering something to you, I’ll make out just fine.”
He scowled, but didn’t say anything more.
“What delivery?” Quinten asked, his hands away from his plate so he could draw his gun quickly if he needed to.
Yeah, I’d stopped eating too. For all I knew, they had bombs strapped to their chests, and their answer to Quinten’s question would be explosions.
Please don’t let it be explosions.
“A letter,” Sallyo said.
“Takes three killers to deliver a letter?” Left Ned asked.
“It does when the price for delivering it is so . . . generous. No one pays top credit for the safe jobs.” She reached toward her jacket, and I heard the clack of hammers jacking back as both Quinten and Right Ned pulled guns under the table.
Sallyo stilled, but she was still smiling. It was almost like she enjoyed her line of work. “And I believe I’ve just made my point. The letter is in my jacket. I’m going to pull it out now.”
“Slowly,” Quinten said.
Sallyo slipped her long fingers into the fold in her jacket, her eyes on Neds alone. There was something heated in the way she looked at him. Something almost sensual and daring.
Had they been lovers in this time too?
She drew out an envelope and placed it in the center of the table, turned so the red wax seal that was intact across the back of it was clear to see.
Pressed into that red wax was the symbol of a sun.
“House Fire,” Quinten said, probably for my benefit.
“I was told to deliver it to you, Quinten Case, and if not you, to Matilda Case,” Sallyo said, settling back in her chair and watching my brother’s expression. “I was also told I would make a lot more money if I could drag you back with me.”
Quinten had not moved. His eyes were focused on that letter. “Who sent you?”
She shook her head. “All I know is a contact had a contact who had a contact who wanted this letter delivered.”
Quinten’s gaze flicked up off the envelope to me. I probably looked as tense and sweaty as he did. No one should know Matilda Case was alive. And certainly no one in House Fire.
Foster slurped the last of his cocoa and set the mug down with a satisfied sigh. He plucked the candy out of the cup and slipped it into his mouth.
“Open the letter,” Abraham said.
I reached for it, but Quinten pulled it toward himself. He already had a pocket knife open in his hand and sliced through the top edge of the brittle paper.
Yes, we were all terribly curious about what the letter contained. But I knew Quinten; he wasn’t going to let anyone see it until he’d had a chance to read it first.
True to form, he stood and paced across the room, far enough away that none of us could see anything that was written on the single piece of paper he unfolded.
I couldn’t look away from him. But I felt someone watching me. I glanced over and into Abraham’s hazel gaze.
“Why did you want me to find you?” he asked.
I took a few seconds to sort through all the things that had happened and all the things that he knew had happened, and finally realized what he was asking. “You mean all those years ago when you were in jail?”
Right Ned frowned my way. He didn’t know I’d gone back in time, riding this body to when she was really only eight years old, and sharing the body and mind with Evelyn. He didn’t know I had to do it to save the world, to mend time.
“Yes,” Abraham said. “You knew the Wings of Mercury experiment was about to happen, didn’t you?”
He sat back, as if giving me room to prove my statement was true. “You told me if I didn’t find you, the world would end.”
“Maybe it already did,” I said softly, “and we just didn’t notice.”
He bit his bottom lip, his eyes narrowing. “I searched the world for you, Matilda Case.”
“You searched the world?” That was probably the most romantic thing I’d ever heard in my life. “For me?” And that was probably the dumbest thing I’d ever said in my life.
“Son of a bitch,” Quinten said, interrupting my stupidity.
He pulled his handgun in a smooth, swift motion and aimed it at Sallyo’s head.
Abraham turned his gun on me under the table and grabbed my wrist above the table.
He jerked his hand back as if he’d just touched fire. He fisted and unfisted his hand, a scowl darkening his face.
I gave him a steady look. I knew what had happened. When he touched me, his ability to feel, to have full sensation, returned.
I could make him feel. Pleasure or pain.
Quinten didn’t notice our little exchange, since he was too busy threatening to blow Sallyo’s brains out. Or if he did notice, he didn’t care. “Who is Slater Orange?” he demanded.
That name shot ice through my veins. My heart started beating too hard, and a wash of heat raced over my skin so quick, I was left shivering after it.
“I don’t know him,” Sallyo said, avoiding a direct answer. “That isn’t the name of any of my contacts.”
“You have five seconds to tell me the truth,” Quinten said.
“He’s the head of House Fire,” Sallyo said.
“Bullshit,” Left Ned said.
“Rumors say he took over last month when Ina died of the One-five plague.”
“Sure are a lot of heads of sub-Houses specifically dying of the newest plague,” Left Ned said.
Quinten shot him a “shut up” look.
“Rumors?” Quinten demanded of Sallyo. “What else do you know?”
“Nothing else.” She shrugged. “Although I’m interested in what you know about those deaths, Neds Harris.”
“No,” Quinten said. “We’re asking the questions. Who is Slater Orange?”
“I told you I don’t know him.”
“Slater Orange is a galvanized,” I said. “Like us. Like me.”
“Not even close,” Abraham said. “He is nothing like us.”
“Quinten,” I said, “you really need to listen to me. I know him. I’ve always known Slater Orange.”
That seemed to sink down through his anger and reach the parts of his mind that were still capable of reason.
“How long is always?” he said to me, even though he hadn’t moved the gun away from Sallyo’s head.
“All my life,” I said, hoping he understood what that meant. “And he is a very, very dangerous man.”
Quinten took a breath, then lowered his gun.
Abraham still had the gun pointed at me under the table, but I didn’t care. I’d been shot before and survived it. We galvanized could really be killed only by several bullets through our brains.
“What does the letter say?” I asked.
“That if we don’t turn ourselves in—you and me, Matilda—with the cure for the plague, Slater Orange will begin bombing one House Earth compound a day, starting ten days from now. He was certainly confident you’d find us in time,” he said to Sallyo, his voice low with anger.
“I am the best at what I do,” she said.
“Can he do that?” I asked. “Can a head of a House bomb House Brown—I mean, House Earth? He has the um . . . technology, weaponry, and resources?”
“Yes,” Right Ned said.
“All right. Then we need to warn them,” I said. “We need to warn House Earth. Now.”
“Is it true?” Abraham asked Quinten.
“Do you have the cure for the plague?”
Good God. Quinten was lying. I’d known him long enough to catch the subtle hints of when he wasn’t telling the truth.
“Then why would House Fire think you did?” Sallyo asked. “Accusing someone of hiding the cure for the plague is a rather specific charge, don’t you think?”
Quinten still hadn’t holstered his gun. “I have no idea what the Houses think. Nor do I care.”
“It appears they care about you. Expensively so,” she said.
Quinten stiffened, his head high, and looked down his nose at all of us still sitting at the table. I knew that brilliant mind of his was sifting through possibilities, connections, solutions. I just didn’t know which problem he was trying to solve, since he seemed to have gathered a kitchen full of them.
“We need to warn House Earth,” I said again. That was the most important problem we needed to solve, and fast. I stood. Abraham stood with me, his gun still aimed at me.
That got Neds on his feet. Sallyo too.
“There are people out there,” I said, “a lot of people who are going to be killed if we don’t figure out why Slater thinks Quinten has the cure. We need to warn House Earth about the bombings. We need a plan for them to escape or survive the attacks. And right now we need to either trust each other or go our separate directions. This isn’t just about the prices on our heads or the money we can make. This is about the loss of innocent human lives.”
“Lives won’t need to be lost if you turn yourself in,” Sallyo said.
“That’s not happening,” Right Ned said flatly. “We’re not coming with you to whomever you’re really working for in House Fire. So you’ll just have to hope that Slater fellow believes you delivered the letter, and get on out of here.”
“Put the gun down, Abraham,” Quinten said.
I’d forgotten Abraham’s gun was still aimed at me. I raised one eyebrow. “Do you really think I’m afraid of a gun?”
He bit at the inside of his lip.
“Would you be?” I asked.
He twitched one eyebrow and tipped his head in a sort of shrug.
Then a strange growl rose outside. All the hair on my arms stood up as that guttural hum rattled through the air. I knew that sound. That was the sound Lizard made right before it started killing things.
The single growl was joined by another higher growl and a lower growl, echoed in the distance by more and more lizards, until the air was a painful clash of vibrating snarls.
Cutting through it all was a man’s scream.
Good news: I’ve found a reason for living: revenge. I plan to destroy him before he destroys everything and everyone who is left. I’m still looking for you, Matilda.
“Who’s out there?” I said.
“No one important.” Quinten didn’t seem at all worried, even though the screaming suddenly stopped.
“There were other bounty hunters headed this way,” Abraham said.
“You didn’t want to mention that before now?” I asked.
He shrugged his right shoulder and holstered his gun. “We killed three on the way here. I assumed you knew they were out there.”
Everyone else was handling this like screaming bounty hunters and howling lizards were normal.
I hurried to the window over the kitchen sink and looked out.
I could see four lizards, the smallest about the size of a German shepherd, and the largest bigger than a rhino. They were made up of an oddly sleek hodgepodge of different animal parts—all reptilian—some with heavy bodies, some stretched out longer and more snakelike, and others bunched up and armored like a crocodile. Two of the lizards had enormous bat wings tipped with wicked hooked claws. The wings lifted and dropped in a predatory rhythm.
The lizards all surrounded one man. He wasn’t screaming. He had a gun in his hand and looked like he’d been on the road for a bit, dressed in worn but sturdy pants, jacket, and boots. The gun in his hand was a huge lump of a thing. He eyed the lizards slowly closing in on him.
At his feet was a lot of blood. Since I didn’t see anyone else out there screaming and he wasn’t bloody, I could only guess that the puddle was all that remained of his companion.
Lizards were uncommonly fast when they got going, so I saw the crux of his situation. If he shot at one lizard, the rest would take him out in a snap. And that gun in his hand wasn’t enough firepower to destroy one stitched lizard, much less four.
The largest lizard saved him the trouble of wasting bullets. It whipped its head forward and bit right through the middle of him like a hot knife through pudding. The gun fired once, uselessly, from his dead hand. And then he was gone, scooped up in big chunks and sent down the lizard’s gullet. Eaten, so whole and completely, that between two blinks, it was as if there’d never been a man standing there at all.
“The lizards ate him,” I said.
Yes, I’d seen the one huge lizard in my time do some terrible damage—tear down trees, destroy our barn, throw cars around like they were toys. And that lizard had done its fair share of eating people and things with the same quick scoops.
But these four had swallowed two men—or so I assumed—in the matter of a minute.
“Are we sure he was a bounty hunter?” I asked.
“People know not to come knocking around our place if they haven’t contacted us first,” Quinten said. “Which makes the three of you a question. How did you get past the lizards?”
Abraham shrugged. “They liked Foster.”
All eyes turned to Foster.
“I like them too,” he said as if that explained it all.
“How many mercs are after us, Sallyo?” Left Ned asked.
“Us? No one’s after you, Harris,” she said.
“How many are headed to this property?”
She looked up at the ceiling as if working out a list. “Just to be safe, I’d assume everyone. It was a very generous reward.”
“Shit,” Right Ned breathed. “If we have every damn merc in the country looking for us . . .”
“You’re screwed,” Abraham said.
“Better to turn yourselves in. Come with us,” Sallyo said. “That will shut down the mercs. Shut down the bombing of House Earth. And we have a decent chance of keeping you alive until we reach House Fire.”
“Or Slater will just bomb House Earth anyway,” I said.
“We don’t know if he’s serious about that,” Quinten said.
“Slater is serious about everything he threatens,” I said. “She’s right, Quinten. The best move would be to turn ourselves in.”
“No. You just pointed out that there would be nothing to keep him from bombing the compounds,” he said. “House Fire and House Water have been looking for a reason to wipe out House Earth for years. But when Slater finds out I don’t have the cure, he’ll kill us and blame House Earth, and we’ll all be dead.”
“I think he’ll just kill us to kill us,” I said, “cure or not.”
“How much history do you have with Slater?” Abraham asked.
“Too much,” I said. “He’s tried to kill me. A lot.”
He frowned. “When? We galvanized knew each other from our reawakenings, and I’ve never met you after my reawakening, Matilda Case.”
“I’ve just recently awakened.”
“Then how exactly do you know Slater?” His voice was low and measured. “How could you have spent time with him, enough that he would try to kill you?”
I glanced at Quinten. The only way to explain it all was to tell the truth. Which I was pretty sure no one would believe.
Quinten shook his head just slightly. He didn’t want them to know what I was. I didn’t blame him. Finding out that Quinten could transfer a modern person’s thoughts, memories, and personality into a galvanized body was exactly how Slater had ended up taking over the galvanized body he was currently inhabiting.
“Let me ask you a question,” I said. “Why are you here, Abraham? I thought Sallyo was the one who took the delivery job.”
“I was looking for you.”
“Right. Searching the whole world. So you could turn me in to Slater?”
He tipped his head down just a bit, and the stitches at the corner of his mouth pulled hard against his scowl, stretching the skin there into white creases.
“I will never help that vile, soul-rotted filth of a man,” he said.
Good to know we had similar opinions of him.
“Why did you come out here with Sallyo?”
“When I heard she was looking for Matilda Case, I volunteered.”
“For a cut of her fee?”
“Volunteered, Matilda,” he said very plainly.
“You aren’t intending to take us in to Slater?”
“So you’re on our side.”
“I am on my own side.”
“But you’re not on Sallyo’s side?”
“Not exactly. No,” he said.
I looked over at Sallyo. She was staring at her nails like she might want to get them done soon. “Do you really think you can drag both my brother and me in on your own?” I asked.
My long-sleeved shirt did not hide the stitches across the back of my hands, nor the line of thread tracing the edge of my neck like a grim necklace.
I was galvanized, and I was not hiding it.
Sallyo had made herself a person to be feared in my time. Her name was whispered amid furtive glances over shoulders. She hadn’t been a smuggler, she had been the smuggler, the queen of all black-market deals who had undermined the Houses to establish her own underground rules of commerce.
But as proven by the Neds and my brother, it didn’t look like the personalities of the people I’d known from my time had changed much in this time. If Sallyo had been a ruthless, clever, brutal woman in my time, she was all those things here too.
But she would be sorely wrong to underestimate me.
“I, of course, didn’t have full information on the Case family,” she said. “Dragging you all in would take more effort than anyone’s paying me for. Letter’s delivered. I made my dime.”
“Will your contact believe you delivered the letter?” I asked.
“My contact doesn’t have to believe anything. I know how to stand aside until the bullets are spent.”
“Then you should leave,” Quinten said. “Now. Night’s only a few hours off.”
I thought the night thing was an odd detail to bring up, but Sallyo pursed her lips. “I suppose. I suppose I should. You coming, Bram?” she asked Abraham.
“No, I don’t think I am.”
That surprised me. I think it surprised Sallyo too.
Quinten shifted the barrel of his gun toward Abraham.
These people sure did seem comfortable standing around a kitchen table, waving loaded firearms at each other.
“Foster will also stay with me,” Abraham added.
“I didn’t invite either of you to stay, as I recall,” Quinten said.
“Then consider this an offer of my services.” Abraham held his wide hands out to either side of him. “I was not hired to bring you in. I came here looking for Matilda. And now that I’ve found her, and you, I offer—I volunteer—my services.”
“For what?” Left Ned said. “We don’t need a farmhand.”
Abraham ignored him. “I will help you warn House Earth. If you travel, I offer protection.”
“Still not seeing your play in this,” Quinten said. “What do you want?”
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Good srory all three books could have been written as one. But overall a pleasant read
Loved this books unique storyline. Great character great read!!
I am not a fan of romance novels because of the repetitive nature of the writing, ie, every time we, as readers, read about the love interest we have to read about what the lead finds attractive again. It's like filler to make the book big enough. Devon Monk has fallen into this style of writing in her three series of stories and I find it monotonous and frustrating. Thankfully, her overlong stories actually have endings though. I love Monk's imagination and creativity in writing stories with themes that haven't been overused. It's nice to have . strong female lead character as well. What has kept me reading Monk's books is her use of current language and realistic dialogue. Her characters are more true-to-life because they talk realistically.