I shivered as I picked my way up crumbling, dusty stone stairs. During a hasty meal of cheese and bread, Christian had told me a bit more about Sean, concluding with directions on how to find him. He felt it best I approach alone, as Sean could feel Christian as he drew near and grew even angrier. Then the bloody clouds consume the entire castle, inside and out, he’d told me. It’s not pleasant.
As I’d wandered the eccentric keep, crammed with towering stacks of ancient books and manuscripts, chests and bottles, Ryodan had texted repeatedly and I texted back, answering his questions about Dani, wanting desperately to call him and find out what was going on. But I had my own battle here, and from what Christian had told me, it was going to be a difficult if not terrifying one.
I paused to catch my breath before topping the last few rounds of the spiraling stone staircase. Sean had retreated to the ruined part of the castle, the far tower where, Christian told me, he was wont to loom, a brooding dark shadow, staring out over the sea.
Unlike the rest of the castle, which Christian kept toasty warm somehow, it was freezing here. I tugged the woolen throw Christian had given me more snugly around my shoulders as I finished my climb.
Then only a door remained between me and Sean.
Two long years plus change had passed since I’d last seen him.
I paused again and closed my eyes as Ryodan’s words from long ago floated up in my mind. Words I hadn’t heeded, and suddenly I was back in his office of glass, staring down at Sean, and Ryodan was saying, If you don’t tell Sean that Cruce is fucking you while you sleep, it will destroy what you have with him more certainly than any job in my club could. That, down there, he’d pointed to Sean serving a drink to a pretty, nearly naked Seelie, is a bump in the road, a test of temptation and fidelity. If your Sean loves you, he will pass it with flying colors. Cruce is a test of your fucking soul.
He’d also said: Your god may love soul mates but man does not. Such a couple is vulnerable, particularly if they are fool enough to let the world see how shiny and happy they are. Their risk rises tenfold during times of war. There are two courses a couple in such circumstances can chart: Go deep into the country and hide as far from humanity as possible, hoping like hell nobody finds them. Because the world will tear them apart. Or sink up to their necks in the stench and filth and corruption of their war-torn existence. See things for what they are. Drop your blinders and raise the sewer to eye level; admit you’re swimming in shit. If you don’t acknowledge the turd hurtling down the drain toward you, you can’t dodge it. You have to face every challenge together. Because the world will tear you apart.
Right on both counts, Ryodan, I thought with a sad smile. I should have listened. But I’d been ashamed. Afraid. It had been utterly against my will, but I’d enjoyed it. What does a woman do with that? I’d told myself over the years that it wasn’t my fault. I’d been used at the hands of the most powerful Fae prince in existence, who could make me think I was feeling anything. Still…the shame. I’d never wanted another man inside me but Sean. Yet I’d hungered for Cruce in a way I’d never hungered for Sean. Even if that was an illusion he’d forced upon me, I could still taste the memory of it. And I hated Cruce for that!
I knew why Sean was angry. I knew why he was bitter. We know each other’s every gesture, every twitch, pain, fear, hope, and dream. A deception lived and breathed between us, and it had taken on a dark, rapacious life of its own. If I was to have any hope at all of helping him become the man I believed he could be, he wasn’t the only one that needed to face his demons today.
Inhaling sharply, I squared my shoulders and pushed open the door, praying there was validity to the adage “and the truth will set you free.”
* * *
“Why have you come, Kat?” Sean said in a low, angry voice, without turning.
He stood on the far side of the circular stone chamber, framed in a tall, narrow opening cut into the stone, the wind gusting waist-length black hair around his body, ruffling the feathers of enormous raven wings. “Leave. Now. There’s nothing for you here.”
If I’d not seen Christian first, and felt his heart, Sean would have terrified me. My love was once a handsome, rugged fisherman, toiling on the ocean, having turned his muscled-from-pulling-nets-all-day back on the mighty, deadly O’Bannion clan. With his black hair, dark eyes, and quick, easy smiles, I’d learned to trust him in that frightened, wide-open state in which I’d spent my earliest years. Of all the people I’d met, his had been the only heart that rang true to me, void of complicity.
Despite his appearance, nearly identical to Christian and Cruce, he didn’t frighten me now. I could feel him, I was close enough. He was lost within, drifting in a land far more barren and wasted than what spread, so ugly and black, beyond these castle walls. His sociopathic cousin Rocky O’Bannion’s credo, inscribed on the back of a watch of gold and diamonds he always wore, had been: Isolate the mark. He’d sworn that every man and woman, regardless of education, pedigree, or wealth, would ultimately fall prey to it; that we couldn’t stand alone. Yet Sean had been perched in dangerous isolation for two years and hadn’t succumbed. That gave me hope. “I disagree,” I said, moving farther into the icy room. “You’re here.”
“I may be. But Sean is not,” he said bitterly. “He’s been gone a long time.”
“I don’t believe you.”
When he whirled in a storm of dark feathers and flashing, alien eyes, I inhaled sharply but stood my ground.
My love, I thought. Oh, my love, I’m so sorry.
Both born into powerful Irish crime families, we’d spent our entire lives running from the darkness of our own blood.
But the darkness had found him.
I hazed the vision of my eyes, the better to focus the gaze of my heart.
“Get out, Kat. I don’t want you here. You’re nothing to me,” he said coldly. “Less than nothing. And don’t bloody do that to me. You don’t want to feel it. Leave now and I’ll let you live.”
If I was nothing, why then was the image frozen in his heart, of the day I’d insisted he accept me and my child without knowing? The day I’d erected an impenetrable wall between us and shut him out.
I blurted in a swift rush of words because I knew I’d never get it out otherwise that truth, that terrible, divisive truth that had been eating me alive inside, and cut the ties that bound us: “I lied, Sean. I lied to you. Cruce came to me while I slept. He raped me in my dreams. Rae might be his.” I began to weep the instant it was out, I felt as if an enormous pressure, constantly crushing me, had vanished from my soul. I wept with relief, I wept with sorrow. I wept with confliction because I love Rae. I love her with all my heart and she might be my enemy’s child. What do you do with that?
Sean jerked violently, shuddering from head to toe with the intensity of his emotion. Raven-veined ice exploded in the room, sheeting the floor, climbing the stone walls, dripping from the ceiling in dark crystal stalactites. His voice was deafening when he exploded, “Cruce raped—” He broke off, unable to finish the sentence, jerking violently, hands fisting. “That sonofabitch. That son of a fucking…” He trailed off, snarling, body straining from the effort to control himself.
With a mere emotion he’d turned the room into a cave of dark ice. I shivered, crying silently, but stood my ground. He wouldn’t ice me. Not my Sean.
“Fuck, Kat!” he cried then. “Fuck! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, voice breaking. “I wanted to tell you but I was so ashamed. And the longer I didn’t tell you, the longer it went on, the less possible it became.” I didn’t say that I felt complicit. I couldn’t begin to explain how trapped it had made me feel, not without telling him why. That I’d also felt pleasure from it. “You hadn’t begun to change. You were a man, he was a prince. How could you have battled Cruce? What if he’d killed you?”
“I thought she was Kasteo’s!” His voice broke. “I thought you cheated on me with one of the Nine!”
“Och, no, Sean! I was pregnant before that. Didn’t you do the math?”
“She could have been early!”
“She wasn’t. Kasteo taught me to shut out the pain of the world, he taught me to become strong but never—” I broke off, shaking my head violently. “Kasteo’s heart belongs to someone else. Not me. Never me. And my heart has always belonged to you. I love you, Sean, it’s always been you. Don’t you remember what we promised each other?”