“Trust me, I wish this had happened differently. I wish you’d asked. I wish it had been my choice.”
Of course. Of course this had Lucas’s name written all over it.
“He thinks I’m going to leave again.”
“He says it’s because he worries your work with the council puts you at risk. But, it’s more than that.” He measured the look on my face and answered my question with, “Yes. He thinks you’re a flight risk.”
I turned and looked at him over my shoulder. His face was impassive, and trying to read his eyes was like trying to find a right angle in a Pollock painting.
“And what do you think?”
His cheek was against the frame of the door. “Lucas wants—”
“I don’t care what Lucas wants right now. I asked what you thought.”
Desmond’s jaw tightened. This was hard for him. He was being torn between the duty he was bound to do for his king and yielding to my will.
“You won’t leave again.”
“Why not?” I was all the way around in the chair now, watching him.
“Because it would kill me.”
The frankness of his words cut me right to the core. I got up and pushed the door back open, standing in front of him and looking up at his eyes. There was a thin film of emotion shining there, threatening to cheat him of his masculine posturing.
“So you’re moving in?”
“And Lucas ordered you to do this?”
“He didn’t have to break fingers or anything, but it’s by his decree. Officially I’m your bodyguard. The Queen’s Guard, if we’re being titular about it.”
“Queen’s Guard,” I repeated, taking one of his hands in mine so our fingers twined together. “That sounds serious.”
“Very serious.” He pushed my hair off my shoulder and stepped across the threshold of the room so only a sliver of summer-hot air separated us. He trailed his fingers down my arm so slowly I thought they might be beaded sweat. I shivered.
“You’ll have to stay close to me.”
“Yes.” He dipped his head and kissed the space where my neck met my collarbone. Once, a vampire had bitten through that same bone, and though it had long since healed I still felt a cold chill whenever anyone touched me there. A visceral reminder of how close I could come to death.
No one was untouchable.
I took his hand and placed it on the small of my back as we moved together towards my bed. The hard, muscular curve of his pelvis pressed against my stomach.
He was kissing his way down my chest, his lips dangerously close to my left nipple and the point of no return. I grabbed a fistful of his hair and forced him to stop.
“Did Lucas ask you to move in before or after our dinner?” I didn’t know why, but a lot rested on his answer. Perhaps all my hopes for saving my relationship with the wolf king. It seemed like a funny thing to worry about at the moment, but then again, when was a good time to worry about it? If Lucas had asked before, it meant nothing I said at dinner factored in at all and he’d never intended to trust me. If he’d made his request after our fight, I could understand why he’d worry about me bolting.
“After,” Desmond mumbled, taking no time to think up a lie.
It was the answer I’d needed to hear. I released his head, and immediately his mouth latched in to place and my eyes fluttered shut. There would be no more questions tonight.
It was snowing.
I walked down the sloped paths of the Ramble barefoot and in step with Sig, and felt each cool flake melt beneath my warm soles. I was wearing a thin cotton slip for pajamas, but in spite of the chill in the air I wasn’t bothered by the cold.
We came to a footbridge overlooking the lake. The reflection of sleeping giants glittered over the still surface, not yet frozen over, and huge feathery flakes of snow dropped like precious gems in the light.
I was dreaming.
“I was in bed,” I said to Sig.
“You still are.”
I took the words at face value. It was winter here, of that there was no doubt. I asked something more pressing instead. “Why don’t you ever wear shoes?” I sounded petulant.
Sig smirked and looked down at our equally naked feet.
“I’ve learned to watch my step.”
The night was still, as though my imagination could remember only fragments of what winter was and couldn’t quite conjure up the rest. Sig handed me a wrapped, rectangular package tied with a silver ribbon. He hadn’t been carrying it before.
“Happy birthday, Secret.”
I awoke, sucking back words not meant to be spoken out loud. In the dark confines of my room I was able to register that everything still looked the same and I was back in the real world. All was as it had been, with one exception.
Across my chest, a masculine arm was laying and a broad hand was possessively cupping one of my breasts. Even at rest, Desmond was staking claims. He was sleeping on his stomach, his other arm tucked under him and his face angled towards me. A fresh crop of stubble had shown itself during our rest, giving him a darker appearance than usual.
What caught me most off guard, though, was how peaceful he looked. His lips were parted, and he had given himself over to sleep. Shifting while away from the pack, twice in one night, must have taken a toll on him. Otherwise he never would have slept through the whole day with me.
I rolled over and placed my hand on his backside, giving him a playful squeeze. I’d have done something a little more provocative, but the wily man was sleeping downwards, so he wasn’t providing me the necessary access.
He groaned, still half asleep, but a smile played on his lips.
“You can’t want more already.”
“Rent is due,” I teased.
His eyes opened and his face lit up with a grin. “Is that how this works, then?” Lightning quick, he jerked me against him for a languid, sweetly familiar kiss.
A girl could get used to waking up this way.
I moved to wrap my leg over him, but instead I kicked something hard at the end of the bed. Startled, I broke away from him mid-kiss and reached down to collect the offending object. Funny, the size and weight of it felt precisely like the thing Sig had given me in my dream.
I flicked on the bedside lamp, wanting to see the finer details of it better than I could in the dark. It was a book, old and worn looking, but not smelling of must or decay. I thumbed through the stiff, cream-colored pages while Desmond watched me with passive interest.
When I passed a page in the middle, a sheaf of white paper fell out. I recognized the handwriting, and in fact, the whole book was filled with the familiar scrawl. Every page was written in Holden’s strong, demanding hand. I picked up the note, which appeared to be recently written and was addressed to me.
You will be awake soon enough. It did not seem necessary to wake you or the wolf, as time for explanations grows short.
Be sure Sig reads this. I believe you will understand the relevance.
I handed the letter to Desmond so he wouldn’t think I was hiding anything from him, and opened the book to the page where the letter had been.
December 7, 2008
Any hopes I have of advancing beyond the position of warden were dealt a blow this past evening. Ever diligent in her mission to infuriate and exhaust my patience, the young Miss McQueen may now be legitimately planning to be my undoing. In the four years I have been entrusted with her guardianship, I have never seen such reckless abandon used by a ward of the council.
She would think me remiss if I did not begin by stating for the record, yesterday was her birthday. For those of us who have long since put to rest our Lives Before, the idea of a birthday, let alone the idea of celebrating one, has died along with the memories of who we once were. It is, admittedly, difficult for me sometimes to recognize that Secret still maintains many human attachments, owing to her unusual heritage. Apparently, by her approximation, the desire to celebrate her twentieth year of living required some sort of festivities.
I scanned the pages, trying to see if Holden would come to a point where he wasn’t bitching about my foolish human traits, and how silly it was for a twenty-year-old girl to want to celebrate her birthday. Having a bicentennial gave him the right to be dismissive of my own life milestones, it seemed. Better yet, I doubted he would even understand why reading this would irritate me.
Skipping ahead, I found the part of the entry that finally hit home.
Upon our exit from the theatre, Secret caught the scent of blood. I don’t know how I missed it, whether it was the crush of smells from the theatre patrons, or my own foolishness, letting my guard down in public, but regardless of the reasons, she smelled it before I did. Enough of it she refused to brush it off as a passing incident. We followed the smell to a vacant storefront, and in the basement discovered…
But I didn’t need to read more to know what we’d discovered. I remembered it perfectly. I remembered Holden agreeing to take me to see The Lion King on Broadway for my birthday, and how he’d actually enjoyed himself no matter how hard he’d tried to fake a grumpy scowl. I remembered smelling the blood and going down the rusted metal ladder into that basement, which was colder than the streets outside, the walls slick with melting ice.
And the cots.
Threadbare mattresses on crumbling old military frames. Six on each side of the room, and each one had a body on it. I remember them as bodies, because even though they were alive it was hard to think of them as people. They were hollowed-out husks of their former selves, with slack mouths, gaunt skin and eyes wide and dry with a frozen look of horror.
The air had reeked of human discard and the sticky-sweet smell of blood.
That was the night I had hunted down and killed my first rogues without sanction of the council. I had found them and done things to them no warrant would have ever allowed for. If I’d thought they could be made to live on, forever wincing in remembrance of that night and frightened of their own shadows, I would have found a way.