Not out of pain. But out of hatred.
More importantly, there was no Willa here. I should have fought harder. She’d been the one to tell me she loved me. I hadn’t said the words back to her. Because I hadn’t been able to. Saying those words sounded like a promise, and I wasn’t good at keeping promises. I was a Lawton, after all. Blood or not, the other men that I knew that had the same last name didn’t have a moral bone in their body. Why would I be different? If I had been able to say those words, would she have opened that door Saturday? Would she have gone against the rules for me then? Had I even fucking thought about that? No. Growling in frustration, I pounded my fists on the bed. This wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to be . . . hell, I wanted to be a Brady Higgens or a West Ashby. A guy who Willa could trust and love without fear. A guy who could tell her he loved her back like she deserved. Why did I have to be so goddamn messed up? Willa was the best thing that ever happened to me. When I was a little boy and now. Both times she walked into my life and gave me a reason to smile. A reason to hope for more. Running away was throwing that away. I knew there would never be another Willa. Never another chance for the way she made me feel. But going back meant facing the demons in my house. Conquering them and learning how to live with the changes. Convincing myself I wasn’t that little boy anymore who they could mistreat was tough. I still saw them as being powerful and in control. Sitting up, I reached for my phone and dialed the only number I could right now. It rang twice before he answered. Hello. Brady’s voice was comforting. Simply because it was a part of home. A part of Lawton. A place I thought I hated, yet my chest warmed at the idea of it. My parents weren’t the town. The town was Brady and his family, West and his mom, Asa and his family, Nash and Ryker. It was all those people I’d grown up around, and it was Ms. Ames . . . and Willa. It’s Gunner, I said. Where are you, man? Coach about shit when you missed yesterday. I went by your house and no one answered. Even went by Willa’s and nothing there, too. She’s not at school either. Willa is fine. She’s being homeschooled. I’m coming back. I thought I wanted to run, but I’m coming back. I need your help with something though. He paused. You ran? Like in away from home? Figures Brady was going to get hung up on all the details. I needed him to focus on what I was going to ask him. Not the play-by-play of my taking off. Yeah, shit got bad at home, so I just left— Where are you? He cut me off, sounding panicked now. I smiled. I was missed. Brady missed me. I hadn’t given credit to Brady for caring when he’d tried to show me more than once he was there if I needed him. I’d just felt safe with Willa. Knowing he cared . . . that felt good. I’m about five hundred miles away, but I’m coming home. Now would you listen to me and do something for me? When did you leave? Jesus, Gunner, I tried to be a friend and listen to you on Saturday. You sent me packing. If you needed to talk, I was available. You didn’t have to take off. If Mr. Do-Gooder didn’t shut the hell up and listen to me, I was going to lose my shit. Brady, could you focus please? I’m focused. What do you want? I’m going to need a good excuse for why you aren’t at practice again. We need you on the field Friday night. Coach won’t let you play if you don’t have a good excuse. A good excuse was the last thing on my mind. Tell Willa to tell Ms. Ames everything. Explain it all. And that I’m coming home. I almost added to tell her that I loved her, but I wanted to say those words myself. To her. It was for both of us. A part of my moving on and letting go of the bitterness that controlled me. Okay . . . he replied slowly, then added, Is this gonna get her in trouble? Because she’s on probation. She can’t get in trouble. Or is she already? Why is she homeschooled? All this can be answered later. Just do it. Please. I’ll try. Now come home. Gunner Didn’t Even Have That CHAPTER 50 WILLA A knock on the door broke into my studies, and I was grateful. I’d been sitting here for over four hours. This was boring. But it wasn’t Catholic school. I got up, went to the kitchen, and peeked through the window first. My mother’s silver BMW was parked outside. I paused, unsure that was who I was seeing. Why would my mother be here . . . in her car? Dropping the curtain back into place, I walked to the door slowly, trying my hardest not to panic. She had no reason to be here unannounced. I glanced at the phone and thought about calling Nonna. I wanted her here. My mother knocked again. I had nothing to be scared of. This wasn’t my mother’s house. She couldn’t throw me out of here. If anything, she’d get thrown out. Unlocking the door, I turned the brass knob with a sick knot in my stomach. I pulled it open and tried to breathe normally, but it was hard. I hadn’t seen her since the day she kicked me out. I hadn’t spoken to her either. Hello, Mom, I said simply. Willa. Is Mother here? was her businesslike response. She’s at the big house. I almost offered to call her but decided that my mother could do that herself. Can I come in? she asked, and I really wanted to say No, you can’t. Leave. But I stepped back so she could walk inside. Mother looked around the kitchen as if expecting to find something. It’s the same. She never changes anything, Mom said, almost annoyed with that. I loved that Nonna’s never changed. It was safe and familiar.Why are you here? I asked, not waiting for her to get to the point. I didn’t like her looking down her nose at Nonna’s house. It was my home. To see you, Mother finally replied. She put her hand on her stomach, and I glanced down for the first time to see the small bump starting to show. Chance told me you were expecting another one. Congrats on that. She smiled. Thank you. I hadn’t actually been sincere, but she didn’t catch that. Whatever. I came to tell you that myself and to discuss your future. I can’t expect Mother to continue to take care of you. I hadn’t planned on staying here after senior year. Senior year is almost half over. I’ll be going to college after that. Mom nodded. About that . . . She motioned toward the living room. Why don’t we sit down. My feet are tired, and my lower back is killing me. I wasn’t surprised she was a dramatic pregnant woman. I doubted she had gotten to be that dramatic with me at fifteen. Now she had a husband to dote on her. She had to be eating that up. I felt sorry for Chance having to witness that daily. I followed her into the living room, and we each took a place at opposite ends of the sofa. I tucked one leg underneath me as I turned toward her. Okay. Talk, I said, wanting to get on with this. Suddenly my schoolwork was looking promising. I know you are expecting the savings account that Nonna helped me set up when you were born for your college. However, that’s not going to be available. Times got tight over the years, and I wasn’t always able to put money away. Then, with the new baby, I need extra money for a nursery. You’re almost eighteen, Willa. It’s time you make a life on your own without my help or your nonna’s. Get a job and pay bills. We can’t be expected to let you freeload. That won’t make you a hard worker. Nonna had put twenty thousand dollars from my grandfather’s life insurance settlement into a savings account when I was born, for my college. It was supposed to have been accruing interest over the years. My mother had claimed a few times to be adding money to it, but I hadn’t heard her say anything about it in years. I hadn’t expected money from her, but that money Nonna had saved was going to get me through my first year while I worked and saved up for my next year. I was also going to apply for financial aid. I had this all figured out. Nonna put twenty grand into that account, I said, not sure what she was saying. Mother straightened her shoulders. That was my father’s life insurance money. You needed things over the years, and money was tight often. Wait? What? Are you saying you spent my money? She glared at me. It wasn’t your money. It was my father’s. He’d have wanted me to use it if I needed it. He didn’t even know you. She had spent my college money. I sat there and repeated that over and over in my head. If this was a nightmare, I’d really like to wake up now. Thank you very much. You need to stop living off my mother and get a real job. Make money and find your own two feet. Mom has coddled you. You’ve had it too easy with her, and you were spoiled and selfish and made stupid decisions that lost a little girl her life. If she had taken a knife from the kitchen and shoved it through my chest, it wouldn’t have hurt any worse right now. Being accused of Quinn’s death was the most painful thing I’d ever face. Especially from my mother. I’d have never touched a drink or taken one smoke if I’d known Quinn was upstairs. That’s not fair, I managed to choke out through the tightness in my throat. Making it hard to breathe. Tell that to Quinn and Poppy’s parents. To that town. Tell them it’s not fair, Willa. What isn’t fair is that since you came into this world you’ve been a problem. Just like your father. Useless. She stood up and again placed her hand on her stomach, as if protecting herself. I’m just glad I’m not like you, I said as she walked toward the door. You never were, she spit. You even look like him. Anger was slowly replacing my pain, and I stood up with my gaze locked on hers. Good. Guess I got lucky then, I retorted. She jerked her head back like I’d slapped her. Don’t you dare talk to me in such a way. I’m going to tell Mother to pack you up and send you on your way. Figure out what the real world is like. It’s time you grew up, Willa. The only person leaving this house will be you. Nonna’s voice filled the room in a loud commanding tone, and I had never been happier to hear anything in my life. Momma, my mother began, but Nonna held up her hand to stop her. Get out of my house with that evil heart and mouth of yours. That girl don’t deserve this from you. Go spew your venom elsewhere. If you come back, I’ll call the cops. You hear me? Leave! Nonna pointed to the door, just in case my mother wasn’t sure on the exit. She opened her mouth to speak again, and Nonna shook her head. I’ve heard enough. I’m pregnant! I came to tell you! she yelled. I can see that. And you want money from me to support that baby. I know that, too. Leave my house now! My mother balled her hands into fists and stormed out of the house. Nonna slammed the door behind her. I watched as she touched the door with one hand and took a deep breath. That had to be hard on her. Nonna loved my mother. She wasn’t a mother like mine was. She was loving. She wanted the best.
I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner, Nonna finally said as she turned around to face me. That girl is mean. Always has been. Can’t for the life of me figure out where her meanness comes from. Her daddy was a good man. She used all my college money, I told her. That was the one thing that was said I couldn’t shake loose. It affected everything. Nonna nodded. I know. I checked on it over the years and saw she was taking some a little at a time. I began to do the same. I ended up saving about seven thousand of it. I added it to my savings account that has the rest of your grandfather’s life insurance money in it, and that is more than enough to get you through college. You’ll need a job of course to pay for your food and extras, but the classes will be paid for and the dorm. She doesn’t know you took some? I asked, still in a daze going from being told I had no college money to being told I had enough for all of my college. Your mother isn’t smart with money. She can’t afford a new baby, yet she’s driving around in a flashy foreign car. I figured I needed to take care of your future, because she’s only worried about hers. Tears filled my eyes, and I didn’t hold them back. I let them freely roll down my face as I closed the distance between me and my nonna. Having a mother like mine was hard. But I had my nonna. Gunner didn’t even have that. Nonna pulled me into her arms and held me tightly. I sobbed against her chest for the mother I didn’t have, the grandmother I did have, and the life Gunner had been given. The Good Lord Wasn’t Going to Swoop down and Change Anything CHAPTER 51 GUNNER I walked back into my house after several hours on the road with a plan. This was my home, and I was making it somewhere I wanted to come back to. I headed to the office, where I’d last spoken to the man who wasn’t my father. Without knocking, I walked inside and faced him. I didn’t give him time to speak. Next month after my birthday, you’ll need to find another house to live in. You can take Mother with you. Your allowance will end. Prepare to get a job. I turned and started to walk out of the office. You can’t do that! You have no idea how to run the Lawton holdings. You’ve not been trained. I’ll hire help. I don’t need you. You can’t do this! You have no Lawton blood. Yes, I can, I reminded him. Now go quietly, or I’ll make sure the town knows exactly how fucked-up this family tree is. You would have to tell them that you’re a bastard too! It would ruin your name as much as mine. I laughed then because he seriously thought that mattered. They already think I’m a bastard. I’m not worried about giving them proof. Your mother thinks she can tell you all this and get away with it. I’ll fight you on this. I won’t go down easy. Don’t really care, I replied, then walked out on his ranting. I was going to turn his office into a gym. I’d like having a good gym in the house. We should really already have had one of those. My mother was walking inside with her designer clothes and new hairstyle as I came back down the stairs. Hello, son. How have things been since I’ve been gone? Fantastic, Mother, I replied, just as haughty as her. Ms. Ames left a message for me at the spa. Something about you not coming home. My flight was this morning so I didn’t bother calling back. I would be here soon enough. I nodded as if that was completely understandable. Of course. One doesn’t need to be bothered by a missing child. If you’ll excuse me. She gave me a confused look, and I realized she was just that shallow. I wasn’t sure she had even been raped. It sounded more like a story to make her look better. She’d have slept with whoever she needed to in order to live this Lawton lifestyle. Has Rhett left? she called after me. If there is a God, I replied. Then I walked into the hallway leading to the kitchen. The smells of dinner were wafting from the door, and I was ready for real food. My fast-food lifestyle the past two days had been rough. Ms. Ames, I’m home, I said as I entered the kitchen. Her head snapped up, and a relieved smile touched her lips as if she was truly glad to see me. Thank the good Lord. I’ve been worried sick about you. I heard you called to tell Mother, but she couldn’t be bothered calling back. She told me as much out in the entryway just now. She’s home too, I explained, trying to sound as casual about the whole thing as possible. Ms. Ames’s immediate frown made me feel even more cared about. She didn’t want me to feel unwanted by my parents. Is Willa home? I asked. She continued to frown. She is. But she’s homeschooling right now and can’t take visitors. Visitors? Or just me? I pushed. Ms. Ames put the knife down that she’d been using to chop the vegetables. Willa is much like you. Her mother isn’t a mother to her. She’s been hurt just like you have. Teenage girls go looking for love in places that end badly for them. She has a future ahead of her and getting stuck in Lawton as a single mom is not in those plans. I’ll protect her from that even if I have to send her off to an all-girls Catholic school to do it. Whoa. Whoa. Wait up. No sending her off. I know that. I’d never do anything to hurt her. I love her. The words had come out so easily I had surprised myself.Sex and love ain’t the same thing, Gunner Lawton, she said to me, wagging her finger. I nodded. I agree. Seeing as how I’ve never had sex with Willa. Friday night she was at the tree house with me because my mother had just told me not only am I my grandfather’s son but he raped her and my pretend father was a bastard kid too and wasn’t even a damn Lawton. I had a lot unloaded on me and needed someone I could trust to listen to me. That was why I asked Willa to sneak out and go to the tree house with me. Ms. Ames’s face went slightly pale. Mr. Lawton ain’t a Lawton? Good Lord. That’s not stuff a boy needs to hear. It was obvious Brady had never told Ms. Ames what I’d asked him to. She was just now hearing all this for the first time. I disagreed. I’ll be eighteen next month, and this will all be mine. He and my mother will be moving out and finding a place of their own. Things are changing. But more importantly . . . Willa. I need to see her. Ms. Ames sat down in the chair closest to her. Good Lord, good Lord, she repeated, shaking her head. The good Lord wasn’t going to swoop down and change anything. The sex had been had and the babies had been made many years ago. It was all a done deal. Can I see Willa? Finally she lifted her gaze to mine. Her mother was here. Upset her and she’s resting. Give her some time before you go looking for her. She needs to make up her own mind what’s good for her. I guess I can’t save her from everyone. Not if she don’t need saving. I could accept that. As much as I wanted to run over there and make sure she was okay, I would give her some time. But not too much. Willa had saved me. She showed me how to love and took me from the self-destructive path I was on. Without her in my life, I’d be a wreck right now. In life you face obstacles, and you have to fight through them. If you’re lucky enough, you find someone to fight for you, too. I was lucky. Meet Me at the Tree House CHAPTER 52 WILLA I had just walked out of the kitchen when something hit the floor. It wasn’t loud, but it still made a noise. Stopping, I turned and looked back. There was a letter by the door. Walking over to it, I set my plate of food down on the table, then bent to pick up the envelope. My name was written on the outside. It was Gunner’s handwriting. I didn’t open it but jerked open the door to see if it was him. But there was no sign of anyone. I was barefoot and in my pajama pants and tank top, but I didn’t care. I ran outside, still holding the letter and scanning for any sign of Gunner. Nonna had told me she would let me know the moment she heard something about him. Gunner! I called out his name, but there was no one. Frustrated, I opened the letter while standing out in the grass alone. Willa, Running isn’t as fun without you. It’s lonely. I missed home because home was where you were. When you told me you loved me, I already knew how I felt about you. I’m pretty sure I felt it when we were kids. I just didn’t understand it. The whole emotion was foreign to me. I’m home. Where I belong. With you. Meet me at the tree house. Gunner I didn’t put the letter back in the envelope, and I didn’t think about the Catholic school. All I could think about was getting to Gunner. Seeing him and knowing he was okay. So I ran. Sticks bit into the bottoms of my feet, but I didn’t seem to notice. I just had to get to that tree house. I tucked the letter in my pants and climbed the ladder to the top, anxious to see him. To tell him I was sorry. I shouldn’t have just given him a letter. He deserved more. His eyes were the first thing I saw when I stepped inside, and a small smile stretched across his face. You look beautiful. I especially like the messy hair, he said, taking in my outfit. Homeschooling didn’t require I brush my hair or put on decent clothing. You’re back was all I could say. He nodded. I am. I’m sorry, I blurted out. I love you was his response. I have forever. I just didn’t understand it until you came back into my life and completed me again. Oh. I wanted to say more, but I hadn’t been expecting him to say that. He caught me off guard. Yeah, oh, he agreed with a chuckle, then closed the space between us and pulled me against him. He held my face in his hands. My life is fucked up, but I have one thing to promise you, and it’s that you’ll have my heart until the day I die. That might sound cliché and silly, but I mean it. I can’t be happy without you. You are my happy. You’re mine too. He leaned in to kiss me, and I held on to his arms to keep from falling. A kiss from Gunner Lawton made me weak in the knees. And that was something I knew would never change. Six years ago . . . GUNNER It made my chest get sharp pains and my stomach feel funny when Willa cried. I’d do anything to make her stop. I hated her tears. I just wanted her happy. I didn’t know her momma, but I hated her. She was making Willa cry, and I didn’t know why. I put my arm around her small shoulders. I always felt so big compared to her little body. We were the same age, but she wasn’t a big girl. She was the shortest girl in our sixth-grade class. She was also the prettiest. Don’t cry, Willa. Just tell me what’s wrong, and I’ll fix it. I wasn’t sure I could fix anything, but I wanted to and I’d do my best to try.She shook her head and leaned into me. That felt good. She trusted me, and I liked that. You can’t. No one can, she sobbed. This had to be really bad. If her nonna couldn’t fix it, then what was it? Was her nonna sick? Was she fired and no one had told me? I can try, I said gently. She turned her face into my chest and cried harder. No . . . you can’t. My momma is coming to get me, she said between sobs. I haveto move away. I was a boy and boys weren’t supposed to cry, but hearing those words, I felt like crying too. Willa couldn’t leave me. She was my best friend. We did everything together. She was the first person I thought of when I woke up every day. You can’t leave, I said with more force than intended. She pulled back and wiped at her wet face. I have to. Nonna said my momma wants me and it’s time we were a family. No. No. Nonononono. I shook my head. You’ve got a family here. With your nonna and me. She nodded her head in agreement and continued wiping at her face. I know. I told her that, and Nonna hugged me and told me she loved me but that my momma needed me now and Chance needs me. Chance was her little brother she never got to see. I felt guilty for not wanting her to get to live with him. I had my brother in my house, and it was great. She missed Chance, and when she talked with him on the phone, she always cried when they hung up. I would spend hours telling her jokes to make her smile again. Chance can move here, I said, thinking that sounded like a good plan. Willa sniffled, but her sobs were slowly calming down. He can’t. His dad and my mom got married. They want to bring me there to be part of their family. In Arkansas? She nodded. That’s so far away, I said, letting my own sorrow start to take over. She began sobbing again, and I realized I was making it worse, not better. I didn’t want to lose Willa, but if there was no choice and she had to go, I didn’t want her to be sad, either. I could cry alone in my room after she was gone. But I wanted to know she was smiling and happy. You’ll still get to visit your nonna and me. It won’t be forever. And when you’re older, you can come stay the whole summer here. I bet they’d let you do that if you just ask them. Willa stopped sobbing and looked at me with hopeful eyes. Do you think so? she asked. I nodded. Sure! Your nonna will be missing you, and you’ll get to come whenever you want. It’s not forever. She gave a smile then. It was still a sad one, but it was better than tears. We’ll always be here for each other. You can come back and watch me play football at the high school on the big field under the lights. That was my dream, and Willa knew it. To play under the lights at the big stadium with Brady, West, Asa, Ryker, and Nash. We would win State, and Willa would be there cheering me on. We had snuck off a few times and walked to the high school just to stand there under the lights. All of us. We made our plans and built our dreams. In all those dreams, Willa was there. I wouldn’t miss it. I’ll be back. I won’t even be gone long before I visit. We will be fine. I wasn’t sure my heart agreed. It was hurting while I was smiling. Willa was my favorite part about life. She made things better by just smiling. Her laugh could completely fix my bad mood. When no one else was around to understand, Willa did. The day I caught her playing in my tree house had been the luckiest day of my life. What would I do without her?
Chapter One Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, monarch of the Winter Court of the Sidhe, has unique ideas regarding physical therapy. I woke up in softness. What I probably should say was that I woke up in a soft bed. But . . . that just doesn't convey how soft this bed was. You know those old cartoons where people sleep on fluffy clouds? Those guys would wake up screaming in pain if they got suckered into taking one of those clouds after they'd been in Mab's bed. The fire in my chest had finally begun to die away. The heavy wool lining coating my thoughts seemed to have lightened up. When I blinked my eyes open, they felt gummy, but I was able to lift my arm, slowly, and wipe them clear. I'd gone jogging on beaches with less sand than was in my eyes. Man. Being mostly dead is hard on a guy. I was in a bed. A bed the size of my old apartment. The sheets were all perfectly white and smooth. The bed was shrouded in drapes of more pure white, drifting on gentle currents of cool air. The temperature was cold enough that when I exhaled, my breath condensed, but I was comfortable beneath the bed's covering. The curtains around the bed parted and a girl appeared. She was probably too young to drink legally and she was one of the lovelier women I'd ever seen in person. High cheekbones, exotic almond-shaped eyes. Her skin was a medium olive tone, her eyes an almost eerie shade of pale green-gold. Her hair was pulled back into a simple tail, she wore pale blue hospital scrubs, and she had no makeup at all. Wow. Any woman who could wear that and still look that good was a freaking goddess. "Hello," she said, and smiled at me. Maybe it was just the bed talking, but the smile and her voice were even better than the rest of her. "Hi," I said. My voice came out in a croak that hardly sounded human. I started coughing. She placed a covered tray on a little stand beside the bed and sat down on the edge of it. She took the cover off the tray and picked up a white china cup. She passed it to me, and it proved to be filled with not quite scalding chicken noodle soup. "You do that every day. Talk before you've gotten anything down your throat. Drink." I did. Campbell's. And it was awesome. I flashed on a sudden memory of being sick when I was very young. I couldn't remember where we'd been, but my dad had made me chicken noodle soup. It was the same. "I think . . . I remember some of it," I said, after several sips. "Your name is . . . Sarah?" She frowned, but I shook my head before she could speak. "No, wait. Sarissa. Your name is Sarissa." She lifted both eyebrows and smiled. "That's a first. It looks like you're finally coming back into focus." My stomach gurgled and at the same time a roaring hunger went through me. I blinked at the sudden sensation and started gurgling down more soup. Sarissa laughed at me. It made the room feel brighter. "Don't drown yourself. There's no rush." I finished the cup, spilling only a little on my chin, and then murmured, "The hell there isn't. I'm starving. What else is there?" "Tell you what," she said. "Before you do that, let's shoot for another first." "Eh?" I said. "Can you tell me your name?" "What, you don't know?" Sarissa smiled again. "Do you?" "Harry Dresden," I said. Her eyes sparkled and it made me feel good all the way to my toes. More so when she produced a plate that was piled with chicken and mashed potatoes and some other vegetables that I had little use for but which were probably good for me. I thought I was going to start drooling onto the floor, that food looked so good. "What do you do, Harry?" "Professional wizard," I said. "I'm a PI in Chicago." I frowned, suddenly remembering something else. "Oh. And I'm the Winter Knight, I guess." She stared at me like a statue for several seconds, absolutely nothing on her face. "Um," I said. "Food?" She shivered and looked away from me. Then she took a quick breath and picked up an odd little fork, the kind they give to kids with motor control issues-it had lots of rounded edges-and pressed it into my hand. "If you're willing to go for three, we'll have had a really good day." The fork felt weird and heavy in my fingers. I remembered using forks. I remembered how they felt, the slender weight of them, the precision with which I could get food from the plate to my mouth. This fork felt heavy and clumsy. I fumbled with it for a few seconds, and then managed, on the second try, to thrust it into the mashed potatoes. Then it was another chore to get the stupid thing to my mouth. The potatoes were perfect. Just warm enough, barely salted, with a faint hint of rich butter. "Ohmmgdd," I muttered around the mouthful. Then I went for more. The second forkful was easier, and the third easier than that, and before I knew it the plate was empty and I was scraping the last of the remains into my mouth. I felt exhausted and stuffed, though it hadn't been all that much food. Sarissa was watching me with a pleased smile. "Got it all over my face, don't I?" I asked her. "It means you enjoyed the food," she said. She lifted a napkin to my face and wiped at it. "It's nice to know your name, finally, Harry." There was the sound of light, steady footsteps coming closer. Sarissa rose immediately, turned, and then knelt gracefully on the floor with her head bowed. "Well?" said a woman's velvet voice. My whole body shuddered in response to that voice, like a guitar's string quivering when the proper note is played near it. "He's lucid, Your Majesty, and remembered my name and his. He fed himself." "Excellent," said the voice. "You are dismissed for today." "Thank you, Your Majesty," said Sarissa. She rose, glanced at me, and said, "I'm glad to see you feeling better, Sir Knight." I tried to come up with something charming or witty and said, "Call me." She huffed out a surprised little breath that might have been the beginning of a laugh, but shot a fearful glance the other way and then retreated. The sound of her sneakers scuffing on the hard floor faded into the distance outside the curtained bed. A shadow moved across the curtains at the end of the bed. I knew whose it was. "You have passed your nadir," she said in a decidedly pleased tone. "You are waxing rather than waning, my Knight." I suddenly had difficulty thinking clearly enough to speak, but I managed. "Well. You know. Wax on, wax off." She didn't open the curtain around the bed as much as she simply glided through, letting the sheer cloth press against her, outlining her form. She exhaled slowly as she reached my side, looking down at me, her eyes flickering through shades of green in dizzying cycles.Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, was too terrifying to be beautiful. Though every cell in my body suddenly surged with mindless desire and my eyes blurred with tears to see her beauty, I did not want to come an inch closer. She was a tall woman, well over six feet, and every inch was radiance. Pale skin, soft lips the color of frozen raspberries, long silver-white hair that shone with opalescent highlights. She was dressed in a silk gown of deep frozen green that left her strong white shoulders bare. And she was about six inches away from being in bed with me. "You look great," I croaked. Something smoldered in those almond-shaped eyes. "I am great, my Knight," she murmured. She reached out a hand, and her nails were all dark blues and greens, the colors shimmering and changing like deep opals. She touched my naked shoulder with those nails. And I suddenly felt like a fifteen-year-old about to kiss a girl for the first time-excitement and wild expectation and fluttering anxiety. Her nails, even just the very tips, were icy cold. She trailed them down over one side of my chest and rested them over my heart. "Um," I said into what was, for me, an incredibly awkward silence. "How are you?" She tilted her head and stared at me. "Sarissa seems nice," I ventured. "A changeling," Mab said. "Who once sought of me a favor. She saw Lloyd Slate's tenure as my Knight." I licked my lips. "Um. Where are we?" "Arctis Tor," she said. "My stronghold. In the Knight's suite. You will find every mortal amenity here." "That's nice," I said. "What with my apartment burned to the ground and all. Is there a security deposit?" A slow smile oozed over Mab's mouth and she leaned even closer to me. "It is well that you heal," she whispered. "Your spirit wandered far from your body while you slept." "Free spirit," I said. "That's me." "Not anymore," Mab murmured, and leaned down toward me. "You are shaking." "Yeah." Her eyes filled my vision. "Are you frightened of me, Harry?" "I'm sane," I said. "Do you think I am going to hurt you?" she breathed, her lips a fraction of an inch from mine. My heart beat so hard that it actually hurt. "I think . . . you are who you are." "Surely you have no reason to fear," she whispered, her breath tickling my lips. "You are mine now. If you are not well, I cannot use you to work my will." I tried to force myself to relax. "That's . . . that's true," I said. I hadn't seen her picking up the thick, fluffy pillow beside me while she held my eyes. So I was totally unprepared when she struck, as fast as any snake, and slammed the pillow down over my face. I froze for half a second, and the pillow pressed down harder, shutting off my air, clogging my nose and mouth. Then the fear took over. I struggled, but my arms and legs felt as if they'd been coated in inches of lead. I tried to push Mab away, but she was simply too heavy, my arms too weak. Her hands and forearms were frozen steel, slender and immovable. My vision went from red to black. Sensation began to recede. Mab was cool. Unrelenting. Merciless. She was Mab. If I did not stop her, she would kill me. Mab couldn't kill a mortal, but to her I was no longer one of them. I was her vassal, a member of her court, and as far as she was concerned, she had every right to take my life if she saw fit. That cold knowledge galvanized me. I locked my hands around one of her arms and twisted, straining my entire body. My hips arched up off the bed with the effort, and I wasn't even trying to push her away. There was no opposing the absolute force of her. But I did manage to direct her strength just a little to one side, and in so doing managed to push her hands and the smothering pillow past me, freeing my face enough to suck in a gasp of sweet, cold air. Mab lay with her upper body across mine, and made no effort at all to move. I could feel her eyes on me, feel the empty intensity of her gaze as I panted, my head swimming with the sudden rush of blessed oxygen. Mab moved very slowly, very gracefully. There was something serpentine about the way she slithered up my body and lay with her chest against mine. She was a cold, ephemeral weight, an incredibly feminine softness, and her silken hair glided over my cheeks and lips and neck. Mab made a low, hungry sound in her throat as she leaned down, until her lips were almost touching my ear. "I have no use for weakness, wizard." She shivered in a kind of slow, alien ecstasy. "Rest. Heal. Sleep. I shall most likely kill you on the morrow." "You? A Princess Bride quote?" I croaked. "What is that?" she asked. Then she was gone. Just gone. And that was day one of my physical therapy. * * * I could describe the next few weeks in detail, but as bad as they were, they did have a certain routine to them. Besides, in my head, they're a music video montage set to the Foo Fighters' "Walk." I would wake in the morning and find Sarissa waiting for me, keeping a polite and professional distance between us. She would help me take care of the needs of my weakened body, which was rarely dignified, but she never spoke about herself. At some point after that, Mab would try to kill me in increasingly unexpected and inventive ways. In the video in my head, there's a shot of me eating my own meal again-until, just as I finish, the giant bed bursts into flames. I awkwardly flop out of it and crawl away before I roast. Then, obviously the next day, Sarissa is helping me walk to the bathroom and back. Just as I relax back into bed, a poisonous serpent, a freaking Indian cobra, falls from the bed's canopy onto my shoulders. I scream like a girl and throw it on the floor. The next day, I'm fumbling my way into new clothes with Sarissa's help-until a small swarm of stinging ants comes boiling out of them onto my flesh, and I have to literally rip the clothes off of me. It goes on like that. Sarissa and me on waist-high parallel bars, me struggling to remember how to keep my balance, interrupted by a tidal flood of red-eyed rats that forces us to hop up onto the bars before our feet get eaten off. Sarissa spotting me on a bench press, and then Mab bringing a great big old fireman's ax whistling down at my head at the end of my third set so that I have to block with the stupid straight bar. Me slogging my exhausted way into a hot shower, only to have the door slam shut and the thing start to fill with water. Into which freaking piranha begin to plop. On and on. Seventy-seven days. Seventy-seven attempted murders. Use your imagination. Mab sure as hell did. There was even a ticking crocodile.
* * * I had just gotten back from the small gym, where'd I'd hiked about four miles up and I don't know how many miles forward on the elliptical machine. I was sweaty and exhausted and thinking about a shower and then bed again. I opened the door to my quarters, and when I did, Mab opened fire with a freaking shotgun. I didn't have time to think or calculate before she pulled the trigger. All I could do was react. I flung myself back, slammed my will out into the air ahead of me, coalescing it into a barrier of pure energy. The gun roared, deafening in the enclosed space. Buckshot slammed against the barrier and bounced, scattering everywhere, landing with pops and rattles. I hit the floor, keeping the barrier up, and Mab advanced, her eyes glittering through every shade of opal, wild and ecstatic and incongruous against her otherwise calm expression. It was one of those Russian-designed shotguns with the big drum magazine, and she poured all of it into me, aiming for my face. The second the gun went click instead of boom, I flung myself to one side in a swift roll, just in time to avoid the pounce of a silver-grey malk-a feline creature about the size of a bobcat with wicked claws and the strength of a small bear. It landed where my head had been, its claws gouging chips from the stone floor. I kicked the malk with my heel and sent him flying across the hall and into the stone wall. He hit it with a yowl of protest. I whirled my attention back to Mab as she dropped one drum magazine on the floor and produced another. Before she could seat it in the weapon, I slashed at the air with my hand and shouted, "Forzare!" Unseen force lashed out and ripped the magazine and the shotgun alike from her hands. I made a yanking motion, and the bouncing shotgun abruptly shot across the empty space between us. I grabbed it by the barrel (which was freaking hot) just as the malk recovered and leapt at me again. I swung the empty shotgun two-handed and slammed the malk in the skull, hard enough to knock it from the air and leave it senseless on the floor. Mab let out a delighted silvery laugh and clapped her hands like a little girl who has just been told she's getting a pony. "Yes!" she said. "Lovely. Brutal, vicious, and lovely." I held on to the shotgun until the stunned malk recovered and began slinking sullenly away, and only after it was out of sight around the corner did I turn to face Mab again. "This is getting old," I said. "Don't you have anything better to do with your time than to play Grimtooth games with me?" "Indeed, I do," she replied. "But why play games if not to prepare for challenges that lie ahead?" I rolled my eyes. "Fun?" I suggested. The delight faded from her face, replaced by the usual icy calm. It was a scary transformation, and I found myself hoping that I had not provoked her with my wiseassery. "The fun begins when the games end, my Knight." I frowned at her. "What is that supposed to mean?" "That appropriate attire awaits you in your chambers, and that you are to get dressed for the evening." She turned to walk after the departed malk, her gown whispering on the stone of the floor. "Tonight, my wizard, shall be . . . fun." Chapter Two Back in my room, I found my clothes waiting for me: a tux in dark silver and pearl. The first of two small paper envelopes proved to contain a pair of jeweled cuff links, the stones too blue and too brilliant to be sapphires. The other one held my mother's amulet. It was a simple silver pentacle, a battered five-pointed star bound within a circle, on a simple silver chain. The pentacle's center was filled with a small red stone, cut to size. I'd once fastened the gem into place with hot glue. Apparently Mab had sent it to a genuine jeweler to attach it with something more solid. I touched the stone gingerly, and could instantly sense the energy within it, the psychic journal of my late mother's travels. I slipped the amulet on over my head and felt a sudden and profound sense of relief. I had thought it lost when my bullet-riddled self had fallen into the waters of Lake Michigan. I stood there with my hand over it for a moment, just feeling the cool metal press against my palm. Then I got dressed in the tux and examined myself in a mirror the size of a pool table. "Just a gigolo," I sang, off-key, trying to enjoy myself. "Everywhere I go, people know the part I'm playing." The guy looking at me out of the mirror looked raw and hard. My cheekbones stood out starkly. I'd lost a lot of weight while I was in what amounted to a coma, and my rehabilitation had added only lean muscle back onto me. You could see veins tight against my skin. My brown hair hung down past my jawline, clean but shaggy. I hadn't cut it or asked for a barber. Things that know magic can do awful stuff to you if they get hold of a lock of your hair, so I'd decided to hang on to mine. I'd ditched the beard, though. Beards grow out so fast that if you shave every day, there isn't much of a window for anyone to use them against you-and shaved stubble is too diffuse to make a decent channel anyway. I looked a little more like my brother with the long hair. Go figure. Long, lean face, dark eyes, a vertical line of a scar under the left one. My skin was absolutely pasty-pale. I hadn't seen the sun in months. Lots of months. As I looked, the song just sort of faded out. I didn't have the heart for it. I closed my eyes. "What the hell are you doing, Dresden?" I whispered. "You're being kept locked up like a goddamned pet. Like she owns you." "Does she not?" growled a malk's voice. Didn't I mention it? Those things can talk. They don't pronounce words too well, and the inhuman sound of it makes the hairs on the back of my everything stand up, but they talk. I spun, lifting my hand in a defensive gesture again, but I needn't have bothered. A malk I didn't think I'd seen before sat on the floor of my chambers, just inside the door. His too-long tail curled all the way around his front feet and overlapped itself in the back. He was a huge specimen of the breed, maybe eighty or ninety pounds, the size of a young adult mountain lion. His fur was pitch-black, apart from a white spot on his chest. One thing I'd learned about malks was that you didn't show them weakness. Ever. "These are my chambers," I said. "Get out." The malk bowed its head. "I cannot, Sir Knight. I am under orders from the Queen herself." "Get out before I get you out." The very tip of the big malk's tail twitched once. "Were you not the bond servant of my Queen, and were I not obliged to show you courtesy, I should like to see you try it, mortal." I squinted at him. That was very unmalklike behavior. Apart from one, every malk I'd met had been a bloodthirsty little killing machine, primarily interested in what it could tear apart and devour next. They weren't much for small talk. They also weren't terribly brave, especially when alone. A malk might jump you in a dark alley, but you'd never see him coming.
This one . . . looked like it might like to see me put a chip on my shoulder. I extended my senses cautiously and suddenly felt the nearly silent thrum of the malk's aura. Whoa. The thing had power. Like, lots of power. You couldn't usually feel a wizard's aura unless you were close enough to touch it, but I could feel his from across the room. Whatever that thing was, it only looked like one of the other furry, terminally ADD homicidal maniacs. I reeled in on the attitude. "Who are you?" The malk bowed his head once. "A faithful servant of the Queen of Air and Darkness. I am most often called Sith." "Heh," I said. "Where's your red lightsaber?" Sith's golden eyes narrowed. "When first your kind began scrawling knowledge upon stone and clay, my name was ancient. Walk carefully around it." "Just trying to brighten the conversation with humor, Sithy. You need to cheer up." Sith's tail twitched again. "Slicing your spine into coasters would cheer me. May I?" "Gotta go with 'no' on that one," I said. Then I blinked. "Wait. You're . . . Cat Sith. The Cat Sith?" The malk inclined its head again. "I am he." Hell's bells. Cat Sith was a major figure in faerie folklore. This thing wasn't just a malk. It was the freaking monarch of the malks, their progenitor, their Optimus Prime. I'd taken on an ancient faerie creature like this one a few years back. It hadn't been pretty. When Cat Sith had offered to slice my spine into coasters, he wasn't kidding. If he was anything like the ancient phobophage, he could do it. "I see," I said. "Um. What are you doing here?" "I am your batman." "My . . ." "Not the notional hero," Sith said, a bit of a growl in his voice. "Your batman. Your orderly." "Orderly . . ." I frowned. "Wait. You work for me?" "I prefer to think of it as managing your incompetence," Sith replied. "I will answer your questions. I will be your guide while you are here. I will see to it that your needs are met." I folded my arms. "And you work for me?" Sith's tail twitched again. "I serve my Queen." Aha. Evasion. There was something he was avoiding. "You are to answer my questions, are you not?" "Yes." "Did Mab order you to obey my commands?" Twitch, twitch, twitch went the tail. Sith stared at me and said nothing. Silence could generally be taken as assent, but I just couldn't resist. "Get me a Coke." Sith stared at me. Then he vanished. I blinked and looked around, but he was gone. Then, maybe a second and a half later, there was the snap-hiss of a beverage can being opened. I turned and found Cat Sith sitting on one of the room's dressers. An opened can of Coke sat beside him. "Whoa," I said. "How did . . . You don't even have thumbs." Sith stared at me. I crossed to the dresser and picked up the can. Sith's eyes tracked me the whole time, his expression enigmatic and definitely not friendly. I sipped at the drink and grimaced. "Warm?" "You did not tell me otherwise," he said. "I shall be happy to similarly fulfill any such command you give me, Sir Knight, but for those that contravene the orders of my Queen." Translation: I don't want to be here. I don't like you. Give me commands and I will give you hell for it. I nodded at the malk. "I hear you." I sipped at the Coke. Warm or not, it was still Coke. "So why the tux? What's the occasion?" "Tonight is a celebration of birth." "Birthday party, huh?" I said. "Whose?" Sith said absolutely nothing for several seconds. Then he rose and leapt down to the floor, landing without a sound. He flowed past me to the door. "You cannot possibly be that stupid. Follow me." My hair was still pretty messy. I slopped some water on it and combed it back, which was as close to neat as it was going to get, and then walked after Sith, my patent leather formal shoes gleaming and clicking on the stone floor. "Who's going to be at this party?" I asked Sith when I caught up to him. I hadn't left my chambers in a while. My entire life had been eating, sleeping, and getting myself put back together. Besides, I hadn't wanted to go sightseeing around Arctis Tor. The last time I'd been there, I'd pissed off the faeries. Like, all of them. I hadn't fancied the idea of bumping into some hostile bogeyman looking for payback in a dark corridor. The door leading from my chambers opened by itself, and Sith walked through it with me behind him. "The high and mighty among the Winter Sidhe," Sith said. "Important figures from the Wyld. There may even be a delegation from Summer there." As we emerged into the capital of Winter, the corridors changed from what looked more or less like smooth, poured concrete to crystalline ice in every hue of glacial blue and green, the bands of color merging, intertwining. Flickers of light danced through the depths of the ice like lazy fireflies of violet and crimson and cold sky blue. My eyes wanted to follow the lights, but I didn't let them. I couldn't tell you why, but my instincts told me that would be dangerous, and I listened to them. "Kind of a big event, huh?" I said. "Think there'll be a problem with the paparazzi?" "One may hope," Sith said. "Dispatching the perpetrators of such an intrusion would be gratifying." The air was arctic cold. I could feel the biting depth of the chill, but its fangs couldn't seem to break my skin. It wasn't exactly comfortable, but it didn't matter. I didn't shiver. I didn't shake. I chalked it up to the power Mab had given me. Sith led me down a much dimmer corridor, and we passed in and out of patches of deep darkness and cold, sullen light. As we did, our shadows danced and stretched. After a few seconds, I noticed that Cat Sith's shadow was larger than mine. Like, seven or eight times larger than mine. I gulped. "The last time I was at a supernatural shindig, I got poisoned and then everything there tried to kill me. So I burned the whole place to the ground," I said. "An appropriate way to deal with one's enemies," Sith said. "Perhaps you will find Arctis Tor less flammable." "I've never met a place I couldn't blow up, burn down, or knock over with enough motivation," I said. "Think anyone at the party wants to kill me?" "Yes. I want to kill you." "Because I annoy you?" "Because I enjoy it." Sith glanced up at me for a moment. His billboard-size shadow on the wall mirrored the motion. "And you also annoy me.""It wouldn't hurt. I'll call about it tomorrow."
I narrowed my eyes, wondering what had brought on the sudden change of heart. Does it really matter? Don't look a gift horse in the mouth."Thank you," I said finally. "That means a lot to me."
Maybe he'd changed his mind because of the sex—but so what if he had? He was right. I'd been treating him like he was made of porcelain ever since the night of the Molotov, and that couldn't feel good.But at least I'd managed to coax him out of his shell, and for now, even something that small felt like a victory. There was no way for me to know how long it would last, but I did know one thing—I would keep doing whatever it took to make him well again.