TWELVE

MY DOORBELL RINGS. They’re early. Great.

I run a brush through my hair, wondering yet again why I let Paige talk me into a double date. I should be studying or sleeping or doing any number of things other than going to dinner and some dance club with a guy I don’t know. Besides, I’m not feeling quite . . . right.

I try to shake the fog from my mind as I toss my brush on the couch and walk to the door.

“Hey!” Paige says when I open the door. She bounces on her toes, causing her beach-blond hair to swing just above her shoulders. It’s shorter than usual because she’s twisted small tendrils into thin braids, braids that are pulled and twisted in a dozen different directions. On me, the style would look like one gigantic rat’s nest. On Paige, it’s some kind of organized chaos—edgy and sublime.

“Hey,” I return, just as an electric thrum tingles across my skin. It takes everything in me not to turn around to see who’s fissuring into my living room. My guess is it’s Kyol. Fabulous timing.

“This is Ben,” Paige says, nodding to one of the two guys on my porch. “And you know John.”

I don’t know John. The boyfriend I met last month was called Mark or Matt or something like that.

“I’m McKenzie.” I shake Ben’s hand. He has a strong grip, a nice tan, and, as promised, a killer smile.

“I told you he’s hot,” Paige says at the same time a voice behind me says, “I’ll come back later.”

I give a little shake of my head to answer Kyol. The world moves more than it should. Weird. It takes a few seconds for it to settle. That’s when I notice Ben’s raised eyebrow and Paige’s frown.

“I mean, yeah. I was just . . . remembering I forgot something.”

“No problem, psycho,” Paige says, dragging her date inside. “I forgot to call ahead to the restaurant.”

“Um.” I look over my shoulder, see Kyol standing at the far end of my couch. His edarratae flicker a little more than usual—nothing too serious—but it’s hard not to reach out and turn off the living room lights.

“I’ll come back later,” he says again.

I motion Ben inside. “I need to run to the restroom.”

“Hurry,” Paige says as she picks up my phone.

Kyol’s gaze lingers on Ben before he follows me to the bathroom. When I close the door behind us, it’s dark. Too dark. I rub my eyes until my vision clears. I almost wish it didn’t. A jagged bolt of lightning flashes across an expressionless face. He’s never this closed off when we’re alone.

“I just met him,” I say. “Paige talked me into a double date and . . .”

His eyes soften. “No, it’s okay. You should see your own kind.”

“That doesn’t mean I want to.”

“Neither do I,” he says quietly.

“But you should, too?” It’s a stupid question. Of course he should. We both know this can’t go on forever. The king will find out. Some other fae will be assigned to escort me when I read the shadows. Kyol assured me the worst that will happen to him is that he’ll lose his position as Atroth’s sword-master, but I think there’s more to it than that, more he doesn’t want me to know about.

“There are reasons I should,” he says. “And a reason I shouldn’t.”

The way he’s looking at me makes my stomach flip. I wonder if there’s any way I can get out of this date. I can tell Paige I’m sick. It wouldn’t be a complete lie—I do feel disoriented.

“I’ll tell Radath you’re busy,” Kyol says.

I sigh. Never mind. Kyol won’t let me out of it. “Radath won’t like that.”

“No,” he agrees.

The lord general expects me to be at his beck and call, go where he wants, when he wants, no matter how dangerous it might be. Sometimes I wonder how much hell Kyol gets when he makes excuses for me.

He opens a fissure. The bright light makes me squint, and a sharp lance of pain strikes behind my eyes. I rub my forehead until it goes away.

“Hey,” I say to stop Kyol before he disappears.

He turns away from his fissure.

“I’m not interested in that guy.”

He smiles down at me. “You just met him, kaesha.”

The smile and the kaesha undo me. I throw my arms around his neck. He wraps his around my waist. Some days we’re better at staying away from each other than others. This isn’t one of those days.

His kiss burns through me. I run my fingers through his dark hair, then let them linger on the sensitive spot just below his left ear. I want my lips there, but I’m too absorbed by what he’s doing with his tongue. His chaos lusters rush into my hands, into my mouth, into every place we touch.

I must forget to breathe. I’m light-headed, but I don’t want to stop. I press my body into Kyol’s, pull his bottom lip gently between my teeth, and do everything I can to break his self-control. It’s become a game, teasing and testing him. It’s one I always lose, but one I never grow tired of playing.

He grips my shoulders and smiles against my mouth.

“Try to have a good time,” he says, ending this game way too soon.

I rest my head against his chest. I don’t want to have a good time. I want to stay right here in his arms, sleep forever in them.

“No. Don’t sleep, McKenzie.”

“I’m not.” I close my eyes. He’s warm. Hot, really.

“You need to wake up.”

“Mmm,” I murmur against his heartbeat.

“McKenzie. Please.”

He sounds worried. That’s strange. He hardly ever worries. Always so in control. More in control than I want him to be. But that’s okay. It’s comfortable here. Quiet. Peaceful and . . .

I’M dropped into a vat of scalding water. I lurch up, trying to evade the blistering heat, but my shoulders are held submerged beneath the surface.

“Easy, McKenzie. You need this.”

The room spins and blurs as I awaken. Focus, I order. I need to focus.

Chaos lusters slither from a fae’s hands into my skin. “Kyol?”

After an eternal pause, the voice says, “Aren.”

“Aren?” I repeat, confused. I squeeze my eyes shut once, twice. Ah, yes. Aren, the Butcher of Brykeld, my captor. Of course it’s him. Kyol would never hurt me like this.

I struggle to get out of the vat—no, the tub—again. “It’s too hot.”

“It’s fine, McKenzie. You’re too cold. Stay still.”

His hands don’t unlock from my shoulders. My bare shoulders. His edarratae flow unhindered into me. I glance down as a bolt flashes from his fingers to my skin. It zigzags below the water’s surface, disappears briefly beneath my bra, then reappears before it skirts along my hip.

My attention snaps back to Aren. “I’m naked.”

“Not completely,” he says, and some of the tension leaves his face. His grip loosens. I try to sit up, to get out of as much of the water as I can, but he won’t let me. When the room spins again, I stop struggling. It feels like I’m waking up from a bad hangover. I swear to God, I’m never letting Aren take me through another gate.

I open my eyes and take a quick inventory of my surroundings. I’m sitting just high enough in a Jacuzzi to see the rest of the bathroom. There’s a separate, glass-encased shower on the other side of twin sinks. The white countertop is bare except for a magically lit mason jar. There are no bath mats, no towels that I can see. There’s a vent for central air and heating, though, which makes me hope we might be somewhere in the U.S. Maybe this is some kind of rebel safe house? I want to part the blinds of the window over my left shoulder and peek outside, but turning doesn’t seem like a good idea just yet. My equilibrium is still off.

“What happened?” I ask.

Aren’s focus drops to the water rippling above my bare stomach. “I . . . You took more of the drain than I intended. I couldn’t wake you.”

I hug my knees to my chest, partly to hide my body and partly because I’m suddenly numb. Cold, but sweating. I clench my hands into fists, trying to squeeze away the prickling sensation in my fingertips.

“The In-Between’s made you sick,” he says. He reaches down to his side of the tub, then brings up a bottle filled with some deep red liquid. “Drink this.”

“What is it?”

“It will make you feel better.” He raises the bottle to my lips.

As soon as I take the first sip, I try to spit it out. He grasps my chin and tilts my head back. “Swallow.”

His fingers dig into my jaw. The bitter drink floods my mouth and I can either choke or do as he says. The first gulp burns down my throat, sinks and sizzles in my belly. I grab his wrist, try to force him and the bottle away, but he doesn’t budge, not until he’s satisfied I’ve choked down enough of the liquid. When he finally lets me breathe again, I sit up in the tub, coughing and spluttering. I scoop a handful of water to my mouth and try to rinse the taste away.

“Are you finally trying to poison me?”

The faintest smile appears on Aren’s lips. My stomach burns with something hotter than the flames of the concoction he forced down my throat. Damn him for being so attractive. Damn him for keeping me with him, and damn him for gazing at me with that stupid, sardonic grin.

“We’ve already discussed this,” he says, setting the bottle aside. “Poisoning you would be inefficient, my nalkin-shom.”

“You shouldn’t have taken me through the gate.”

He shrugs. The motion draws my attention to his chest, to the scar beneath his collarbone. That’s where the bullet hole was. The stitches are gone now. There’s not even a scab anymore. The wound looks like it’s been healed for weeks.

Holy crap. “How long was I out?”

“Only a half hour or so,” he assures me. “Lena healed me.”

“Lena.” Her name puts a bad taste—one worse than that horrible drink—in my mouth. “She’s a healer, too?”

Aren nods. “She’s a stronger one than I am.”

And she locked me in a room with a broken arm when she could have fixed it. Bitch.

“So the rebellion has at least two healers,” I say. “I guess those endangered magics aren’t so endangered, are they?”

“Ah, you’ve bought the Court’s propaganda.” He rests his forearms on the edge of the tub. “Atroth wants the Realm to believe anything human-made is destroying our magic. He likes to pretend it spreads like a disease, following carts of human goods through the Realm. If fae are afraid, they don’t mind their king regulating the gates. They even think it’s necessary for their welfare, but it’s not.”

“How do you explain the increase in tor’um, then?”

He hesitates just long enough to be noticeable and then he goes for a not-so-subtle subject change. “Here.” He retrieves the bottle of poison and holds it in front of me. “Another sip.”

I bat it away. “No.” No way in hell. “Tell me about the tor’um.”

“Just one, McKenzie.” He grabs the back of my neck and an edarratae tickles down my spine. That pleasant heat explodes inside of me again. It’s ripe and stirring and so completely wrong.

My frustration with him, with me, with us, boils over. Before he forces the horrible concoction down my throat, I grab it from his hand and chuck it against the far wall. It shatters in a satisfying spray of glass and crimson. “I said no, Aren.”

He stares at the stained wall, then back at me. I swear he looks amused. “Your color’s returning. And your spark.” His hand grazes my calf when he reaches into the water to unstop the drain.

“Sorry,” he says with a grin.

He’s not sorry. He’s deliberately messing with me, teasing me even.

“A towel would be nice,” I snap.

He dips his head in a shallow bow. “Of course, nalkin-shom .”

He steps over my dirty clothes. They’re stained with his blood. I hope I don’t have to wear them again. I hope Kelia’s stolen something new. I hope—

My heart stutters when my eyes lock on my jeans. The vigilante’s cell phone. Could it still be in my pocket? I can’t tell by the way the jeans have been thrown to the floor, but wouldn’t Aren have said something if he found it?

He returns before the last of the water gurgles out of the tub. I make every effort not to look at my discarded clothes as he hands me a towel, which I wrap around myself as I stand.

“Where are we?” I ask innocently.

Aren crosses his arms, watching me. “Somewhere safe. You’ll have to wear your old clothes until we get you new ones.”

“Okay,” I say, still not looking at the jeans. I’ll have to find out where we are another way. It shouldn’t be too difficult. I just need Aren to get out of here. My skin feels the touch of his gaze. Self-conscious, I pull my towel tighter around me.

Aren’s hand at my elbow keeps me balanced when I sway. “You should have drunk more of the cabus.”

“I’m fine,” I force myself to lie. “Can you give me a few minutes to get dressed? Please?”

The “please” is almost too much. His eyes narrow.

He glances at the window behind me. “We’re on the second floor,” he says. “Can I trust you not to jump out?”

“This towel won’t reach all the way to the ground.”

My quip dispels his suspicion. He laughs. “I’m glad you’re feeling better, my nalkin-shom.”

“I’m not yours,” I fire back, but he’s already left the bathroom.

“Jerk,” I mutter, but as I wring the water from my hair, I realize I’m smiling. Not good. Not good at all. You can’t have feelings for him. He’s manipulating me, twisting my emotions around and around so that whenever they stop spinning, I’ll be malleable in his hands. I have to get away from him. Now. Before I start believing everything he says.

I frown. Am I believing some of the things he says? I’ve stopped thinking of him as the false-blood. I don’t even know if I think Sethan is one. If Aren’s telling the truth about that, it’s possible some of the other things he’s said aren’t lies.

Like Kyol’s life-bond.

My dream comes back to me. It’s fuzzy. It would be even fuzzier if Paige didn’t really talk me into that blind double date. I almost forgot Kyol encouraged me to see other people, other humans. Maybe he did so because he was seeing Jacia? But surely he’d tell me if he’d agreed to a life-bond. I mean, I’d tell him if I was getting married. The life-bond is similar to that, but much rarer because it’s permanent. A bond-weaver ties the magics of two fae together, linking them for life. There aren’t any divorces in the fae world; I’m fairly certain death is the only way to break the bond.

My head pounds behind my eyes. I don’t know if Aren’s lying, or if I’m lying to myself. I hate this doubt. I need to talk to Kyol.

I step out of the tub and, holding my breath, I scoop up my jeans. The cell phone is there in the back pocket right where I left it. I hold down the On button. When the screen lights up, I let out a breath. Hallelujah, it works.

I need to leave a message with Paige. Problem is, I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know how long it’ll take my message to get to the Court. Will Kyol check with her daily? Does he have someone shadowing her?

I grip the phone and stare at the window. A dim light glows behind the blinds. I walk over and peek outside. The light is from a streetlamp. I check the time on the cell, see that it says it’s midnight, but I have no idea what time zone I’m in. Paige always keeps a crazy schedule. She could be out partying or she could be home dead asleep.

Okay. We’ll start with Plan B. I turn on the sink for some background noise and then dial the cops.

“Nine-one-one, please state your emergency.”

“My name’s McKenzie Lewis,” I tell the woman as I step into my jeans. “I’m being held by . . . some people. Against my will. I need help.”

“Can you tell me where you are, ma’am?”

I pull my damp jeans up over my undies. “Uh, no. I’m sorry. Can you tell me? Can you trace this call?”

“We’ll have your location in a few minutes. You said people are holding you against your will? How many people?” She’s calm and, I think, more than a little skeptical.

I grab my satin slip off the floor. I wish I had a T-shirt. “I’m not sure.”

“Do you know any of their names?”

I glance back at the door. “No, I don’t. Can you tell me what city I’m in?”

“You’ve called Cleveland nine-one-one dispatch.”

“Ohio?”

“Cleveland, Georgia, ma’am. Are you being threatened? Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m . . . Just send someone here. Please.” I hang up, hoping they had time to trace the call.

I dial Paige’s number as I pull the slip over my head, hold my breath when I hear a click.

“Yeah?” a groggy voice answers.

“Paige, it’s McKenzie. You awake?”

“McKenzie?” She sounds confused. Great.

“I need you to wake up, Paige. I’m in Georgia.”

“What?”

“Has Kyol come to see you?” Silence greets my question, and for a moment, I’m afraid she’s hung up.

“McKenzie, is that you?”

Finally. “Yes, have you seen—”

“Where the hell have you been? You promised you’d be at Amy’s bachelorette party.”

I grimace. “I know. I’m really sorry, but this is important. Have you—”

“You’re coming to the wedding,” she says, her tone daring me to say otherwise. “I swear, McKenzie, if you abandon me—”

“I’ll be there!” I whisper-shout into the phone. “I’ll be at the wedding if you’ll just listen for a second. I need you to tell Kyol that I’m in Cleveland, Georg—”

The phone is ripped from my hand. I whip around to grab it back, but Aren launches it against the wall, hitting the center of the red stain I made earlier as if it’s a target.

His hands latch around my arms. “I can’t leave you alone for one minute, can I? Who did you call?” His fingers dig into my shoulders. “Who?”

“Aren, you’re—”

“Naito!” he shouts.

“You’re hurting me,” I say. His grip doesn’t loosen.

“What’s wrong?” Naito demands, running into the room. Kelia and Sethan are right on his heels.

Aren nods toward the cell phone, but his eyes remain locked on me. I want to shrivel up and disappear. This is the expression he wore when he tortured Tom, and—and oh, crap—what if he does the same thing to me? What if he demands I tell him where the Sidhe Tol is? If he truly threatens me, will I give in?

“Aren, please.”

“She called nine-one-one,” Naito says, scrolling through the calls on the phone. “And another number.”

“Every time I think I’m making progress with you . . .” Aren closes his eyes and lowers his head. I feel him shake, trying to control whatever’s raging inside him. His hands are bruising my arms. Even the chaos lusters seeping into my skin seem angry.

“Aren,” I try one last time.

Cold silver eyes meet mine. I don’t dare breathe. He’s not Aren right now. He’s someone else, a fae capable of being the Butcher of Brykeld.

“This ends now,” Sethan says from the doorway. “We’re taking her to Lorn.”

A muscle twitches in Aren’s cheek, then he nods once, accepting Sethan’s pronouncement. That’s what it sounds like, a formal proclamation deciding my fate.

“We don’t need to go to Lorn.” Naito drops the cell phone and then slams his heel into it. “We can make her talk.”

“She’ll lie,” Aren says. He pushes me into the wall.

“We’ll take her to Lorn,” Sethan says again. He walks to the sink and turns off the water. “I won’t risk her sending us into a trap.”

Naito’s jaw clenches. “Lorn won’t help without something in return.”

Kelia rests her hand on his arm. “It’ll be fine.”

“I’m going with you.”

“Naito—”

He pins her with a glare. “You’re not going without me.”

Kelia’s lips thin, but she doesn’t protest again.

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