Authors: Rhenna Morgan
He sucked in a lungful of air. “Your mother’s homestead’s in Runa?”
Reese rubbed his forearm and stared almost defiantly at Eryx. “Close to Cush’s border, halfway through Big Valley on the east side.”
Good. Far enough to keep him away from Galena until tomorrow.
Eryx motioned to Ludan and Ramsay to step back, but kept his focus on Reese. “You’ve got twenty-four hours. We meet on the ridge across from Maxis’ rat hole at ten AM. You’re so much as a minute late, I’ll make the burn you just experienced feel nice in comparison.” He spun for the door. “It’ll last a good, long time before I kill you.”
* * * *
Reese touched down in front of his mother’s homestead. Crosswinds whipped his bare torso and cheeks, easing the noonday sun’s heat. Compared to the rest of Eden, Runa paled in terms of beauty and its sweeping winds were hellacious on a tame day, but no other region beat its fertile soil.
The stretch of land in front of him was no exception. Waist-high wheat stretched twenty acres wide and five deep, the color more a rose gold than what grew in Evad. The puffy topped stalks bobbed a happy greeting and their familiar honey-cinnamon scent grounded him in a way no other place could.
Praise The Great One, he’d missed this place. More than he’d realized. Life had been simple, he and his mother farming a tiny section of their acreage and renting the rest to farmers just starting out. She’d joked about how Maxis’ father would hemorrhage if he ever learned the jewels she’d smuggled in her escape went to finance something as sensible as agriculture.
Their modest cypress cabin stood more weathered than when he’d seen it last. The windows were clean, the porch tidy, and pretty little ferns he’d probably kill in three days sat perched on the porch rail. The nearby couple he’d hired to tend the place after his mother’s passing had done their job well. Still, the years had taken their toll. The ivory-hued wood now glowed a deep honey gold, the cherry slate roof more carnelian.
His footsteps rang hollow on the porch planks. No activity bristled against his senses for at least a good hundred feet out, nor had he scouted movement from the skies on his way in, but he couldn’t afford to be complacent. Not with Maxis on the run and undoubtedly eager to slit Reese’s throat.
Reese buried the thought and triggered the door’s hidden lock with his mind. He’d have more than enough time to ponder all things related to Maxis after he’d eaten and found some decent clothes.
The above-ground level was a simple, wide-open space split into quarters with the kitchen and living area up front, and a bed and bathroom at the back. More a bachelor’s dwelling than a hideout for a woman with a small child on her own, which was exactly what his mother had intended.
She’d always feared Maxis’ father would find them, and had built in as many warning and escape features as her jewels had allowed. The single inhabitant guise was one, the escape tunnels below ground another. Probably smart to make sure the latter were still operational
The pantry sat mostly empty, long lasting staples lined neatly on the middle shelf and lined with dust. Pretty depressing as last meals went, but enough to keep him alive until morning.
He snatched a spoon and a jar of drishen preserves, and ambled toward the poor excuse for a bedroom at the back of the cabin. Second best to food was a shower. A long, scalding shower to drown his time in zeolite, and maybe a set of clothes clean enough they couldn’t stand on their own. Then he’d think. And pray.
With a flick of his mind, the oversized bookcase slid open to show the hidden staircase, and candles flickered to life. How many times had he raced these steps to find his mother as a child, or handle chores as he’d grown older?
Long-forgotten memories poured over him, steady and cleansing as the shower waters, heavy as the musty scent permeating every room. It felt right to swim in them. To ground himself in the past before he faced his end.
He finished his shower in a haze, and rummaged through what clothes he’d left behind. Jeans he’d tucked away from an old trip to Evad and a well-worn green T-shirt sat folded at the back of a drawer. Not the best pick for tomorrow’s outing, but they’d do fine tonight.
Histus, who was he kidding? They’d be fine for tomorrow too. Not like there would be much of a fight. He’d either pull off a miracle with Maxis, or end up dead, neither of which required a warrior’s getup.
He checked the escape tunnels off his room and the main corridor. Caked in dust and thick with heady earth scents, the two were still fully functional.
One more to check.
He hesitated in the hallway and stared at the closed door to his mother’s room, palms damp and breath shallow. It was a door, nothing more. Decent logic, but his emotions didn’t give a shit. All they sensed was the looming judgment crouched on the opposite side.
The knob twisted without a sound.
He nudged the door open, and the breath he’d been holding rushed free.
Sunshine bathed every surface, piped from the ground above to highlight the vibrant styles and colors his mother had favored. Blackwood furniture, bold impressionist paintings, and purple and cobalt fabrics.
“Not purple, periwinkle
,” his mother would have said. Such a damned girly word, but his mother had loved it.
Draped across the large bed was the coverlet she’d fashioned in the rich hue, her family symbol embroidered at the center. She’d toiled for months on the image
Artemis perched at the tip of a crescent moon, her bow stretched taught and aimed at the heavens.
He strolled through the room, pausing here, touching there, every item a testament to her personality, alive and in tune with Mother Earth.
Much like Galena.
His stomach clenched. Galena was the last thing he needed to think about right now. Especially after the glower Eryx had pierced him with after scanning his memories. No doubt about it. Eryx had seen the kiss. How Reese had made it out of the dungeon alive was a mystery he’d never solve.
He stopped at his mother’s bookcase and traced the leather jewel-toned spines. Classics from Evad and Eden, fiction from little-known authors she’d met in Cush, and her journals. He pulled the first in the series free and opened it, the spine crackling in protest. All the emotion he’d felt reading them after her death rushed forward. The fear as she’d escaped, the pride at watching Reese grow, the agonizing guilt for leaving one son behind. It was all here. One entry a day until the day before her death.
Maybe the spiritu was right. Maybe there was some value for what he was about to attempt. Maybe he could atone for the wrong steps he’d made.
Wood groaned from the ground level, roughly in line with the front porch.
Reese froze and fanned his senses wide. He snapped the journal shut. Whoever was at his front door had come alone.
His reflexes pushed to check for Maxis’ location via link, but he reined the urge in at the last minute. Even a tiny mental brush could alert Maxis. That left the escape tunnels, or facing his unexpected guest head on.
He slid the book back in place, hesitated a moment, then strode toward the door. He’d had enough hiding. His lifespan might only stretch to tomorrow, but he’d damn sure live what was left head on.
Galena stole across the cottage’s raised porch toward Reese’s front door, her heartbeat droning loud enough to overpower the constant whirr of Runa’s unforgiving wind. Farmland stretched out behind her, not a soul in sight to witness her arrival.
She tossed her head and squared her shoulders. No, she wasn’t doing anything wrong. She had absolutely nothing to feel guilty about.
Except slinking off behind her brothers’ backs to visit a traitor.
She still couldn’t believe she’d gotten away with spying on her brothers with Reese. The strength of the Shantos line might run through her veins, but her masking and detection skills were nowhere near her brother’s and Ludan’s.
Then again, Eryx had seemed pretty pissed off. Whatever was under his skin must have made him too preoccupied to check and allowed her to catch Reese’s directions to his homestead.
One thing was certain. If she wanted to see Reese, she’d need to take action and knock on the damned door, not waste what was left of his time waffling on the front porch. It wasn’t like he could read her mind to answer the door
assuming he was even here.
Only one way to find out. She huffed out a breath and lifted her hand to knock.
The door swung wide before her knuckles made contact.
Galena gasped and jerked her hand to her throat. “Reese.” She cringed a bit at the startled quaver in her voice. Who had she expected to find behind the weathered door?
Reese stared at her, locked in place. His emerald eyes shone with an intensity that made her want to fidget, and the matching color of his T-shirt only made their impact more pronounced.
The cotton stretched enticingly across his warrior body and her palms tingled with a need for touch. She pressed a hand to her belly instead, and remembered her own attire. Compared to his casual appearance, her simple gown seemed foolishly out of place. “I know it’s rude to stop in unannounced, but—
“How did you find me?” Brusque. Bordering on rude.
What should she say? Confess she’d eavesdropped? She licked her lip and tried again. “I—
“Did Ramsay send you? Or Eryx?”
Well, histus. It would seem that way from his angle. “No.” She cleared her throat and lifted her chin. “I came on my own. I masked myself when Eryx came for you and overheard where you lived.”
He relaxed a little, but kept his wary focus.
Damn, but this was difficult. Challenging situations weren’t exactly a stretch for her, and she’d tangled with some crazy personalities, but this? Awkward.
The wind swept around her, whipping escaped tendrils from her single braid. She was tempted to swat at the wisps, or at least try to smooth them into place, but didn’t want to come off any more foolish than she probably already did.
Praise the Great One, she could never match the woman in his thoughts. She’d primped and worn her favorite dress, a deep evergreen with inlaid black velvet swirls, and she still didn’t measure up.
So far, the encounter wasn’t playing out anywhere near how she’d hoped. “I’m sorry I bothered you. I’ll go.”
She turned to leave.
Reese caught her by the wrist. “I never thought I’d see you at my door.” His words might have been simple, but the humility in them rocked her to the core. He gently urged her to face him. “Please stay.”
Stay. Yes, she could do that. Assuming she could find a way to put herself in motion. Or at least manage a nod of acknowledgment. With her blood rushing as furious as the wind behind her, she stepped forward.
He adjusted his grip and held her hand, the warmth of his palm scattering most of her reasonable thoughts. The memory of his touch at the small of her back blazed bright. What would it feel like lower, pulling her tight against him?
“I’d offer you something, but the cabin’s not very well stocked.”
Praise the Great One, she needed to get ahold of herself. He was offering something to drink while her daydreams hosted sexually decadent ideas. She’d come here to spend time with him, not use him to scratch an itch.
“I’m fine. I just.” Just what? Wanted to spend time with you? Maybe see if I was imagining things between us? “I wasn’t sure if you’d be alone and thought you might like some company.”
“Do your brothers know where you are?”
The hairs along her nape and arms lifted and the blood in her head felt as though it plummeted to her toes. She’d put him in a dangerous position coming here. The least she could do is share the truth. She ambled toward the empty fireplace and the comfortable mango colored chairs cozied around it. “No. I don’t often disagree with my brothers, but when I do it’s difficult.”
“Why did you come?”
She stroked the back of one chair, the softly woven fabric tickling her palm and fingertips. “I told you, I thought you might like—”
“Galena.” He prowled toward her. Not a predator about to pounce so much as one unsure of the creature before him. “You came to a confessed traitor’s house without your brothers’ knowledge. You expect me to believe you risked making them angry for a social call? I’ve got roughly twenty hours left before my existence gets shaky. Whatever brought you here, whatever it is you want or need, you need to say it.”
She clenched the cushion, and her heart high-jumped into her throat.
Reese stopped just out of reach, but his heat filled the distance. It lulled her. Tugged and crooned for surrender.
“Talk to me, Galena.” His smooth voice moved over her, warm as the press of his palm had felt. “Whatever it is stays between us. Tell me what you need.”
She swallowed and licked her lips. She’d told herself the visit was for Reese, that she wanted time to talk with him and would walk away and return to the castle after a few hours. Now, hearing his honest request, not admitting the truth seemed an insult.
She met his steady stare and sucked in a shaky breath. “I need you.”
* * * *
Reese’s heart stumbled then took off at a pounding gallop. Of all the reasons he might have rationalized to explain Galena’s visit, a personal request hadn’t been one of them.
She needed him. Not wanted, but needed. His cock stirred, and a rush of something dark and primitive swamped his reason. He shifted to ease the hard press behind his jeans, caution the only thing that kept him locked in place. Surely he’d misinterpreted things. Yesterday’s kiss had just been a gift, a sendoff from a generous woman before he met his death. Hadn’t it?
“Say something.” Galena whispered, the rasped request so vulnerable it raked inside his chest.
Maybe he hadn’t misunderstood.
She ducked her head, gripped the chair at her side for a beat, and turned away. “I should go.” Chin high, she strode toward the door.
“No.” He burst across the room with Myren speed and slammed his palm against the door to block her escape.