Authors: Denise Tompkins
For you, my readers, whose faith in Maddy made her first story a success and enabled me to continue the series. You have my most humble, heartfelt gratitude. Thank you.
Dreams can be cruel things, those nighttime reflections of the choices we make. Bitterly sweet, they are most harsh when you awake to find what you held in sleep was only a glimpse of what life could someday be or, worse,
worse, what it might have been. How do you live with regret that is by its very nature terminally deep, aching within your heart like a fatal wound? I don’t know. I wonder how long I can live with it before I’m done for. It seems that at every turn I look up expecting the Reaper to be standing there to usher me on. Why him and not Saint Peter? Because I don’t believe the choices I’ve made—the most important ones— have earned me an angelic escort.
Women have died. They’ve suffered unspeakable violence because they were born with a specific physical build, a familiar face, even styling choices in hair and clothes. To whom were they all similar? Me. They were similar to me. Maybe if I’d been faster, smarter, more qualified, made better choices—left instead of right, look up instead of down—they wouldn’t have died. I couldn’t stop their murders, and I can’t bring them back.
I have also been the direct cause of broken hearts. Plural. I have hurt the two men in my life by not knowing with whom my heart truly lies. Resentment flavors every conversation, taints every look and hangs on every touch. And the prophecy—that damned prophecy. It may be the death of me. Or worse, one of them.
The choices we make…
The trip from the bathroom back to the small twin bed had never looked longer. Torn muscles ached and screamed as I commanded my legs to shuffle forward, my bruised kidneys eliciting groans and curses with every tender step. Uncontrollable laughter tickled the back of my throat as I had a Hollywood moment, the distance to the bed stretching out tunnel-like, voices whispering through my head. Flashes of the brutal fight I’d been in three weeks ago threatened to bring on another blackout. I scrambled for a handhold on the wall, the dresser’s edge, anything and anywhere that would help me stay upright. Bahlin might be here, capable of offering help, but
were two different things. I’d have to make the trip on my own.
The bed. I needed to make it to the bed. I pushed off the wall only to fall—literally—several feet short of my goal.
At least the oriental rugs are thick
, I thought.
An involuntary shiver wracked my body, and the memories came faster. I couldn’t shut them off now any more than I could yesterday or any day before or, truthfully, any more than I expected to be able to tomorrow. I could almost taste again the bitter smoke made by burning hair and flesh, smell the coppery, metallic scent of spilled blood and feel the blows as they landed on me with unstoppable fury. I unconsciously rubbed the mark on my chest, left where the curse that nearly ended my life had landed. Then there was the voice that hung in the air as Bahlin had spirited me away…
“Game on, Niteclif! Game on!” Hellion’s angry words had echoed in my bleeding ears as I fled the apocalyptic battlefield where the supernatural had converged to take down Tarrek, the First Prince of Faerie and one of their very own. I could still see Hellion standing in the midst of the windstorm that was the thoughtless byproduct of his fury. Dark blond hair had whipped around his head like Medusa’s own headdress, and his eyes blazed with wrath as I was rescued by my lover, Bahlin. A member of the Supernatural High Council and, arguably, one of the good guys, Hellion demanded reparation in the way of an eye for an eye for his lover’s death. I had killed her. A strong proponent of justice, I still couldn’t get behind his demand when it involved ending my life. It had been a legitimate fight, but he still felt compelled to challenge my version of events. Nothing I’d been able to say or do had convinced him otherwise.
It should probably be noted that Bahlin had rescued me by flying away with my person held firmly in his arms. He’s a dragon. No, I’m not into bestiality. Yes, they really do shift into human form. I’m learning to look beyond the monster to see the man, though I still have moments when I struggle. It doesn’t help that he has taken every opportunity to remind me he’s a dragon first and a man second. Always. Watching your lover sprout a wicked tail from his literal tailbone, to see wings unfold from his shoulder blades as if they’d been hiding there just out of sight, and to watch his jaw elongate and realize he’s lost the functions of speech and higher thought? It’s a little rough. I’ve learned Bahlin and his dragon are two separate entities within his brain, two creatures of independent thought, though I’ll only ever voluntarily wake up naked with one of them. The man is impulsive and passionate, driven by ardent lusts and his professed love. The dragon is equally impulsive and passionate, but he’s a creature whose behavior is dictated almost entirely by animalistic instincts, primarily to defend his life and the lives of those he recognizes his man-half loves. His first means of defense is to kill the threat. It’s effective. I can’t help but wonder, though, what Bahlin’s dragon sees when he looks at me. Sometimes I feel cherished. Other times I feel like an hors d’ oeuvre. Uncomfortable, that.
Bahlin walked into the room while I was contemplating the flavor of cream cheese his dragon would probably spread all over me like a human cracker before devouring me. Pain medication does strange things to my mind. But I’d become a firm believer in better life through chemistry, so I’d take the stuff. Bahlin had used some of his own dragon’s magic to help me heal the worst of the injuries, but he hadn’t been able to cure the damage caused by the curse the desperate faerie had lobbed at me. The results of that curse had left me teetering on the edge of death and only my infinitely-great-grandfather, the Norse god Tyr, had been able to save me. One of the fae’s healers had spent some time countering the physical effects, but the remnants of the dark magic were the equivalent of badly bruised internal organs. The eons-old magic of the curse was lingering, and nothing seemed to be able to fully and wholly heal me. Not even time. I hoped if I spent a couple more days recuperating I’d be recovered enough to start living again. One of us, either Bahlin or I, was going to have to put some effort into it, and Bahlin didn’t seem interested—not in recovery, not in life and definitely not in me.
While I’d received help for my physical injuries, Bahlin was still emotionally broken. No healer of any species, no sympathizers in any quantity or level of sincerity, and no amount of compassion from any source could absolve him of his debilitating burden of guilt. He’d been forced to kill his own father and sister in order to save my life, and his split-second decision to choose my life over theirs had driven an undeniable wedge between us. I wasn’t sure how to fix it. All I knew was that our fledgling relationship was fragmenting in front of me, breaking into so many pieces I couldn’t hold it together.
I knew all about losing loved ones. My parents had been killed almost a year ago in a freak train derailment while on vacation. My heart hurt every time I thought about them. But whereas Fate had taken them from me, they hadn’t died by my own hand.
,” Bahlin said, jarring me back into the moment.
I reached for him and he hesitated to touch me. “Just help me up, Bahlin,” I sighed. “Get me back in bed and you can…” The final word,
, hung between us.
Bahlin closed his eyes, breathing slow and deep. “Maddy, I…can’t—”
“Forget I asked.” I rolled over and pushed, pulled and grunted my way halfway up the bedside. Hesitant hands settled on my hips and he picked me up, setting me on the covers as if I were combustible.
Bahlin settled himself on the edge of the bed to watch me tuck the blankets around my hips and shuffle pillows until all was as right as I could make it.
My heart hurt, and it had little to do with the curse.
As if nothing had happened, Bahlin asked, “How are you this morning?” The words were right, but his voice was flatter than a southern Arizona horizon, and his eyes were haunted.
I reached out a drug-heavy hand and stroked his face. He let me caress his cheek briefly before he turned away. That was the first time he’d let me touch him since we’d arrived at his flat.
I dropped my hand, and it made a muffled thump on the dense bedding. “I’m okay,” I rasped. “You?” My voice was still hoarse from all the screaming I’d done first in rage during battle and, later, in pain while my wounds were being treated.
“I just got off the phone with my mum,” he whispered.
“She’s still distraught, though she claims she doesn’t blame me.”
“How could she blame you, Bay?” I asked. “You did…” I had started to say
you did what you had to do,
but that would have been a lie, and we both knew it. He’d chosen me, and he hadn’t had to. I sighed, unsure what to say or do to make this any better. “Have you talked to Aiden?”
He nodded but remained mute, refusing to meet my eyes.
“How is he?” I prodded gently, reaching over to touch Bahlin’s arm.
He flinched but didn’t move away. Progress? Or was it just my own desperate need to reconnect with the man I’d agreed to marry? I wasn’t programmed to stay in a loveless relationship or, at the very least, one that was as seriously broken as ours.
“He’s okay. He’s torn up about Brylanna’s death.” Emotion choked his normally deep voice and made his speech sound forced and painful. “No one knew she was involved with that damned faerie until it was too late.” Bahlin’s sister and father had both defected to the dark side of mythology, the first for love promised by the First Prince of the Fae and the second for power promised by the same. None of us had known they’d switched teams until that fateful night. Their mutual desertion had cost lives on both sides, and the mythological world was still reeling from the near miss of all-out war. Tarrek’s supporters were still being identified and hunted down.
“Bahlin, do you think it would help to see someone?” I had hesitated to broach the topic for the last two days to ask but felt I needed to know.
He looked at me, confused, then his eyes became impossibly cold and his lips thinned into a hard line. “I do not need some bloody shrink helping me dissect my feelings about killing my da and sister, Maddy. I know
how I feel.” Standing, he pushed his hands through his shoulder-length, mahogany hair and fisted it at the back of his neck. I knew he was pulling it tight enough to hurt but I didn’t say anything to him about stopping. In fact, I didn’t say anything at all.
He looked over at me, a range of emotions racing across his face. “I’m sorry, Maddy.” Then he left the room before I could ask what he was apologizing for.
“Bahlin? Bay,” I shouted. No answer. I tossed the covers off, intent on getting up, but every time I twisted my torso there was a terrible, burning pain in my stomach. I eased back down and angrily flipped the covers back over my legs. Grabbing the remote, I turned on the television just in time to partially catch a breaking news story.
“…body was found this morning in the park near her home, the victim of a violent and murderous assault. Experts believe she was attacked from behind and her throat cut as she walked home following an evening out with friends. Both friends and family say that Annie Mendhel was a well-liked young woman with plenty to look forward to at age twenty-eight.”
“I just don’t understand it,” said a weeping man, identified in the caption as Annie’s fiancé. “Everyone loved her. It has to be random,” he sobbed, turning to a maternal-looking woman at his side. The screen flashed to a smiling, pre-mortem picture of the victim, and I felt a rush of prickly heat up and down my spine. She looked an awful lot like me—tall, brown-black hair cut short, pale skin—but her eyes were brown instead of green.
Of course, the killer wouldn’t have known that in the dark when attacking from the back
The park she’d been found at was right around the corner from the apartment.
Coincidence, Niteclif. Stop being overly dramatic. The whole world isn’t out to get you. Besides, she was a mundane.
I closed my eyes to offer up a quick prayer for her family and must have dozed in the process. It seemed like it had been ages since I’d had a solid night’s sleep. I dreamt of a soft-voiced man rubbing my head and speaking to me, though what he said was unintelligible.
My private nurse, Clay, knocked on the doorframe before walking into the room. Clay had been hired to come in and help me mend, and I adored him for the easy friendship that had developed in the wake of the multiple tragedies. As ridiculously handsome as the rest of the dragons, Clay didn’t treat me with the same creepy deference other members of his weyr and, to some extent, the rest of the supernatural world did. Instead, this charming, witty dragon had coaxed me into opening up to him by using humor, sarcasm and general good will whereas my only other visitor and housemate, Bahlin, had been terse, cranky and morose. I’d clung to the kindness Clay offered as some type of unspoken validation that Bahlin’s steady decline wasn’t my fault.