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Mikhail Day was rather enjoying the sound of the rain on the metal roof as he read by the warmth of the crackling red-and-orange fire. Rain was one of the things he liked about this side of the doorway; it never rained in the Otherworld, although there was always plenty of moisture to balance the heat of eternal sunless summers.
He'd always taken pleasure in the time he spent in the Otherworld, that enchanted land where the paranormal folks had gone to live permanently after retreating from the encroachment of Humans. But after six months spent there healing from the horrific wounds he and his fellow Riders had suffered at the hands of the deranged former Baba Yaga Brenna, he'd grown tired of the perfect weather and the pitying looks and had retreated to the anonymity and imperfection of the mundane world.
The Queen's generous parting gift of a sack full of gold coins (almost certainly not the kind that disappeared the day after you used them) had purchased him a year's rent in this rustic cabin deep in the woods of the Adirondack Mountains. Built to provide an austere but comfortable writing space for an author who'd then discovered he couldn't create amid that much quiet, the cabin was miles from the nearest road and as private as Day could wish. The coins had bought him plenty of supplies, but most of all, they'd gotten him what he truly wanted: nobody else around.
Much had changed in his life in the last year. Brenna had stolen more than his immortality with her torture; she'd stolen his abiding self-confidence, and his identity as a Rider. He couldn't bear to be around his brothers, his fellow Riders, who had lost all that and more because of his error in judgment. Mikhail had no idea what he was going to do with the rest of his now-limited life, with the exception of one vow: he was never, ever going to help a damsel in distress again. The last time had cost him too much.
A piece of wood snapped and sparked in the fireplace just as thunder crashed overhead. May in the Adirondacks could be chilly and volatile, but it was still better than being out in the world. Mikhail gave a small sigh of satisfaction as he turned the page of his book, an amusing mystery he'd picked up in his travels that took place in the imaginary town of Caerphilly, Virginia, a setting as far removed from witches and faeries and magical mayhem as was Humanly possible, and where all the murders happened to people he didn't care about.
Let the rain fall and the wind blow, he thought, taking a sip from a glass of deep red merlot. He might not know what he was going to do with the rest of his life, but for now, doing nothing was just fine with him.
Jenna Quinlan stared down at the inert mass that a few minutes before had been her beloved if ancient Dodge Colt and said a rude word. Then said a couple more, just in case the gods hadnÕt heard her the first time.
Not that they seemed to have been listening lately. It hadn't been a good few weeks.
First there had been the shocking, impossible news from her doctor. Then the fight with her now-ex-boyfriend, followed rapidly by being fired by her now-ex-boss.
She'd gone into work a couple of days after her talk with Stu to find her belongings in a box on the top of her desk and Mitchell standing next to it with his arms crossed and a miserable expression on his face.
"Sorry, Jenna," was all he'd said. "Stu and me, we go way back. And his father's company sends us a lot of business." He'd handed her a pathetic severance check and the box with her Hello Kitty coffee mug perched on top, and that had been that. It wasn't as though she'd loved the job; being a personal assistant wasn't as glamorous as it sounded. But after the first two blows, the third one practically knocked her off her feet.
She'd spent days calling around town looking for work, only to find that Stu's influence had preceded her there in every instance. Then she started feeling as though she was being watched.
It was subtle, at first. A glimpse of the same unfamiliar face at the store, an anonymous figure lurking in the shadows across the street from her apartment. One day she came home to find scratches around the edges of her locks and signs that someone had been inside, rifling through her belongings. She had no idea what on earth anyone thought they were going to find, but she suspected Stu's less-than-delicate hand there too.
Jenna hoped it was Stu. The alternative was a lot more frightening.
In the middle of the night, she'd woken up with the memory of her grandmother's voice ringing in her ears. "When it happens," the older woman had said, holding on to Jenna's hand with surprising strength for someone with one foot in the grave, "and it will, don't stay in the cities. She can find you in the city. Too many eyes and whispering tongues that no one can see. Run to the woods, far away from everything and everyone you ever knew. Run, girl, run as far and as fast as you can."
The next morning, Jenna had taken what little money she had in savings, grabbed the go bag she always kept on hand more from paranoia than any true belief that sheÕd ever need to use it, and taken off toward upstate New York. There was a cabin deep in the woods there that belonged to a distant cousin. Jenna's grandmother had inherited it long ago, and passed it on to Jenna when she died. Jenna had never even been to the place. But under the current circumstances, that was a good thing, since no one would think to look for her there . . . assuming she could actually find it. In theory, all Jenna had to do was follow the handwritten map the cousin had given her grandmother, hike in with her bag of supplies (including her grandmother's journals, which contained everything the older woman had known or guessed or researched), and hole up until she could figure out the answers she needed.
Her world might have been rocked on its axis, but Jenna Quinlan wasn't just going to curl up in a corner and give in to fate. She was going to run and hide, yes, but only so she could fight another day. Of course, that plan would have worked better if her transmission hadn't seized on this back road in the middle of nowhere. One minute she'd been driving along, watching the rampant green underbrush for errant deer and other unexpected hazards, and the next, her poor car had given one last agonized thunk grind whine and then slid lightly into a gully on the side of the road, its steering completely frozen and the engine as dead as the life she'd left behind.
Jenna banged her head gently against the steering wheel a few times, but not surprisingly, that neither fixed the car nor improved her general attitude. Wind whispered in through the open driver's-side window, bringing with it the luxuriant scents of late spring in the mountains, barely touched by the intrusive burnt-rubber aroma of technology self-destructing. Birds flew by, singing their coquettish flirtations in alternating keys. Jenna had never felt so alone in her life.
And yet she wasn't truly alone, was she? Not anymore. And that fact meant she didn't have the luxury of sitting in her car and crying, as much as she might feel like it. Doing nothing was no longer an option.
"There's no mistake, Ms. Quinlan. You're eight weeks pregnant. These things happen," the doctor had said, not unsympathetically. She supposed he'd used those words with other bewildered and slightly indignant twenty-nine-year-old women, all of whom said much the same things as she had.
"But I am so careful," Jenna had protested anyway, knowing there was no point but needing to say it out loud. "I'm on the pill, and I use condoms, and I watch the calendar. Plus my current boyfriend has a vasectomy, for God's sake! It's not possible."
The doctor leaned back on his stool, his golf tan dark against the pristine white of his coat. Brown hair starting to go gray at the sideburns added to the professional air he projected. Jenna had never seen him before she'd gone into the clinic that day, so she had no idea if he was as competent as he seemed. It didn't matter, since the test results couldn't be argued away.
"No form of birth control is one hundred percent effective," he said, looking at the clock on the wall and not at her. "Vasectomies do fail, although not often. Yes, the odds were against it, but as I said, these things do happen." He finally met her eyes and gave her a tentative smile. "I understand that you hadn't intended to get pregnant, but at your age, you might want to consider that it will only become more difficult to do so later on, should you decide you want to have children. Perhaps you could look at this as a miracle, rather than a disaster?"
Jenna had swallowed down bitter irony and just shaken her head instead. The doctor could utter any platitudes he liked, but she knew what really lay at the heart of this so-called miracle: curses simply couldn't be thwarted.
And as curses went, this one was a doozy.
She sat in the car for a moment or two more, remembering that day when everything changed. Then she squared her shoulders, grabbed her duffel bag out of the trunk, slung her purse across her chest, and set off. According to the map, she couldn't be more than ten or twelve miles away from the cabin. A manageable hike in decent weather.
When the rain started falling an hour later, she almost laughed.
At first, Day mistook the pounding on the door for a part of the storm. After all, there was no reason for him to expect visitors, not out here in the middle of nowhere. But when he finally got up to answer the persistent knocks, he got the sinking feeling that the storm had come to him.
A bedraggled woman stood on his doorstep in the pouring rain, and his first impulse was to slam the door in her face.
But she had clearly come as far as she could; her pale face was twisted in pain, and she shivered convulsively beneath a denim jacket that was as soaking wet as the rest of her. Long black strands of hair hung down in twisted ribbons like seaweed in the vanishing daylight, reminding him of a sea creature he'd once dated briefly in his more adventurous youth.
Mostly, though, it was her eyes that captured and held him: a strange shade of icy blue, large and wide and luminous with trepidation, surrounded by long dark lashes decorated by tiny droplets of rain. A duffel bag dragged in the mud behind her and an incongruously cheerful Hello Kitty purse was slung over one drooping shoulder.
He couldn't send her back out into the storm. But that didn't mean he had to be nice about it; Mikhail Day, the charming Rider, was dead and gone. He was someone completely different now, and happy to be so.
"Lost?" he asked briskly, his own voice sounding strange in his ears after months of silence.
The woman blinked water out of her eyes. "Not at all," she said. "This is the Holiday Inn, right?"
"Very funny." Mikhail reluctantly held the door open a little wider. "No holidays here. No inn either. But I suppose you can come in until the storm passes."
The woman looked justifiably unimpressed by his less-than-gracious welcome, but she walked through the door anyway, parking her duffel bag on the mat next to it along with her soggy sneakers, and gazing around with a mixture of caution and curiosity.
Day knew what she saw: a simple one-room cabin built with clean lines and simple elegance, but no frills. The large double-sided fireplace heated the kitchen space on one side and the bigger living area on the other, its warmth barely reaching to the neatly made double bed in the loft space overhead. Almost everything was crafted out of wood, the floors and ceiling, walls and cabinets. The only color came from the royal blue comforter on the bed and the subtler blues and greens of the couch and recliner. All of it had come with the cabin when he rented it; only a few treasured keepsakes belonged to him, arrayed atop the fireplace mantle, or tucked away out of sight in a small ebony chest.
"Um, are you here by yourself?" the woman asked. One hand hovered over a pocket of her purse, and he wondered idly if she had some kind of weapon in there. Not that he cared.
Day sighed. "Not anymore. Look, you're perfectly safe here, if that's what you're worried about. Why don't you take off your jacket and hang it over the kitchen chair nearest the fire so it can dry. I'll go fetch you a towel." He looked at her again. "Or two."
She did as he suggested, limping noticeably as she crossed the floor to reach the other section of the room. After she placed her jacket on the chair, she turned to stand in front of the fire, holding her hands out gratefully to the warmth.
"Did you hurt yourself?" Day asked, not bothering to try and sound like he cared.
The woman nodded, spattering rainwater over the polished wood floor. "I was doing okay, but then a couple of miles back I slipped on some wet leaves and twisted my ankle. It's swelling up pretty nicely, or I would have kept going. I'm sorry to bother you. I'll wrap it in something and warm up a little, and then I'll be on my way again."
Right. Day might not be charming anymore, but even he wasn't going to send a woman out into the pouring rain as night fell. For one thing, he rather liked the bears that lived in the neighborhood, and he'd prefer not to give them a temptation they might regret later.
"We'll see" was all he said, tossing her the towels and letting her use them to dry her long hair and the worst of the wetness on her clothes. Finally he relented and fetched a pair of loose linen pants with a drawstring waist and a long-sleeved cotton shirt-both of them a dark green, not white. Never white. Not anymore.