The Middleworld forest whipped by as Eddie Drake hit his stride. He could feel tension from the past days flowing out of his burning muscles. Plants blurred along the trail at his feet as he concentrated on making the miles fly by.
Most Sidhe didn’t exercise for exercise sake – so maybe it was that small human part of him that enjoyed it. He felt his best after a long run, his mind as clear as his body was fatigued.
His head down, he hit a cloud of pixie dust and heard the offended pixie shout, “Hey! Watch yourself!”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m sure there’s more where that came from,” he shouted back without even looking. Pixies were a dime a dozen. You could hardly shake a leg without, well, running straight into a cloud of pixie dust. He sneezed.
Too soon, he saw home ahead. A little escape, that’s what he’d needed. For a few minutes, the burning of his muscles had distracted him from the oddities his life had taken on of late.
Eddie Drake was no nursemaid. He’d never been the patient, caring type.
He was a playboy, and it used to be pure and simple. He liked the ladies, and they liked him. Maybe he overindulged, that he could cop to. Maybe he’d been with too many ladies, too many times. That sort of behavior certainly couldn’t be seen as a precursor to this. No, his current predicament was more likely a punishment for prior bad behavior. Of course, it was a punishment he was choosing, which made it all the more odd.
To satisfy whatever part of him was so worried, he ducked through the back door and sauntered into the third bedroom, the one that had recently been Alise’s room.
Her condition unchanged, Alise rested, still as stone, under a white and cream quilt that had been his mother’s.
Drake frowned. He’d stopped counting the days; there had been many. Maybe two weeks had passed as Alise lay unmoving. Okay, she wasn’t still all the time. A few nights she’d thrashed and moaned.
He’d been so concerned the first time that happened that he’d stayed with her, holding her on the narrow bed until she calmed and seemed to rest. Relieved, he’d drifted off holding her, and been embarrassed to be found in that compromising position when Aunt Nectar came in to check on Alise.
Cuddling with the unconscious.
Not a good sign.
If only he hadn’t gotten her into this mess. That’s what had him all tied up in doubt and fear. She wouldn’t be in that bed, unaware of her surroundings but drowning in the music and magic of Tir Nan Og, if it weren’t for him. He’d made the choice to ask for her help when her best friend had been in trouble. She’d gladly given her help, not realizing it would cost her.
So he owed her. At the very least, he owed her a trip back beyond the veil to where she came from, where her family and her world waited. He’d tried to give her that, but she thrashed as they approached the portal and wouldn’t calm until he retreated. He couldn’t figure that out. In her condition, how did she know when he threatened to take her home? Regardless, his attempts hadn’t worked, and neither had anything the local healer tried. Alise didn’t get worse, but she hadn’t come back to herself either. That’s what kept his stomach tied in knots, he told himself as he stood in the doorway, watching the raven-haired beauty sleep.
Footsteps on the path outside brought Drake out of his thoughts. Maybe Aunt Nectar was home early. That would be good, because he had to go to the human world for at least a while tonight. His job waited for him, and some things he couldn’t let go for an undetermined period while Alise lay in that bed.
It wasn’t Aunt Nectar darkening the path.
Bertran stood, apparently evaluating his next step, outside the cottage, surrounded by the bright sights and sounds of a Middleworld day. The weather was perfect, but that didn’t help the storm clouds covering the countenance of this particular thorn in Drake’s side.
“May I come in?” his old enemy asked.
“Not in this lifetime.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Eddie. I must see how the witch fares.”
“You’ve heard how she fares. I wouldn’t put a fox in the same room with sleeping chicks, or a sleeping chick, rather.”
“Don’t grow fond of her. You know her kind do not belong in Tir Nan Og. Isn’t it obvious?” Bertran snickered.
“You presume too far. Your orders carry no weight with me. I’ll answer to Kester or to Ian if he asks it of me. Until then, it is no one’s business how fond I grow.”
“What is it about this witch that’s turned practical, selfish Eddie Drake into the pile of mush I see today? I have to know.” Bertran’s gaze returned to the cottage, as though he was wondering which room she was in and whether he could sneak a quick peek.
Drake just glared and wished he had the magic to cast the smug bastard out of his line of sight. Bertran had always bullied Drake, starting when they were children. He’d been just as untouchable then as he was now as one of the youngest, and strongest, Sidhe Authority delegates. Drake didn’t have that sort of power. He was a grunt doing the Authority’s bidding beyond the veil, in the human world. Still, he knew in this topic Ian – soon to be leader of the Sidhe – would back him.
Ian awaited Alise’s revival just as Drake did. His beloved, Hazel, would not wed until her best friend could stand with her.
“You will tell me when she awakes,” Bertran said imperiously.
“What do you care? I know Alise. What is your interest in her?”
Bertran ignored the question. “You’ve made your choices, Drake. One like you, choosing to live beyond the veil, you’ll never belong in Tir Nan Og. You’re hardly Sidhe at all.” Bertran stalked off and Drake watched him go until he was out of sight, his shoulders tense.
No good would come of Bertran’s fascination with keeping the blood pure. By his definition, Drake had to agree; he was hardly Sidhe at all. And he was glad of it. Smug, overbearing bastards like Bertran were why he’d chosen life beyond the veil to begin with. He’d never been accepted in Tir Nan Og. Well, that was fine with him. He hadn’t needed Bertran’s approval to make a life for himself.
Drake’s exiled father had sent him to Tir Nan Og to live with Aunt Nectar after his mother’s death when he was seven. He’d known nothing of Otherworld at that age. His half-human mother had never entered Tir Nan Og.
He’d been accepted in Aunt Nectar’s home, and loved. But even that foundation hadn’t been enough to protect him from the taunts of the other young Sidhe, over his dark coloring and his complete lack of magical gifts.
As a kid Drake mostly kept to himself. He occasionally got into scrapes, and learned to hold his own. He didn’t have their magic, but he did have brute strength. Every time he got rough with one of them, there were fewer willing to mess with him later. He learned enough about independence and quick thinking to make a great agent for the Authority Guard when he came of age. Now they paid him to live beyond the veil, taking care of their business as needed. An enchanted pendant gave him defensive power, so Sidhe magic couldn’t harm him in the course of business. Other than that, he used his muscles. He liked using his muscles, something he felt most Sidhe didn’t appreciate enough.
Drake wouldn’t have chosen to subject himself to Bertran’s presence, not to mention an exchange of words. He had about as little control over that as anything in his life at the moment.
With that thought, he returned to Alise’s bedside. Maybe she would wake today and they could both get back beyond the veil, sooner rather than later.
The dark room flickered with the light of a single candle. A veil lay soft against her skin. She knew the room for her tomb, and the knowledge was a comfort.
Then flashes, scenes passing rapidly. This must be what they meant when they said your life flashes before your eyes.
A fair man with dark eyes and golden hair, his jawline too strong to be attractive. Instead he was cartoonish, and seething with barely suppressed rage. He held a knife by its hilt as though ready to throw it.
Rage burned through her as well. Vengeance swelled in her blood. She would smite him to the ground. He would die writhing in agony; such was the punishment for disobeying her will.
A swarm of ravens, the man’s eyes wide with fear, his lips stretching in a scream.
The voice, not her own, “As I willed it, so is it done.”
Struggling from under an ocean of dreams, Alise Rodgers surfaced briefly, or she thought she surfaced. But she saw a face that couldn’t be hovering over her own. Quickly she succumbed again to the immense weight that clouded her mind and confused her senses.
When next she surfaced, Alise focused with all her might on her surroundings. She could feel the song, or maybe hear it, just as she remembered, reverberating through the land that was Tir Nan Og. So she was in Otherworld, as she barely remembered. Forcing herself, she locked that music, that magic, into a small compartment of her mind, where it could tease her, but it would not overwhelm her senses. It took some time, and energy she didn’t have. Finally, she’d erected enough mental barriers, locked that part of her so easily seduced by Tir Nan Og so far inside, that she felt she might be able to function.
She opened her eyes, blinking slowly to grow accustomed to the light.
Drake held her hand, sitting concerned at her bedside. She shook off his fingers and frowned at him.
“Yes! Now I know you’re coming out of it. That’s the antagonistic Alise I know.” His teasing words did nothing to improve her state of confusion. What the hell was her best friend’s ex doing sitting vigil for her? She’d been out of it for gods only knew how long – from the sawdust taste in her mouth it had likely been weeks – and this was the company she’d been left with?
“What?” she croaked.
Drake handed her a glass of water, the condensation cool between their brushing fingertips. She drank thankfully. While she did she thought about the fact that he was just as handsome as usual in that devilish way he had, and she was pretty sure she looked like something the cat would drag back out. At least it was Drake, and there was a less than zero chance they’d ever hook up, so what was she worried about?
“You’ve been out of it.” Drake stated matter-of-factly. He stretched and flexed his muscular shoulders as though he’d been in one position too long.
“You don’t say.” Her glare returned. “How long?”
“About two weeks.”
“You’re kidding.” She sat up in a rush, and fell back when her head swam dangerously. She needed to get herself under control. But last she could recall there had been so much on the line. She had to know how the battle had ended. Was that why Drake was here? “Hazel? The Fomorii tribute crap? You better start talking.”
“Calm down. Seriously, you’re pushing it, even for you.” His look fierce, he leaned in until she resumed her position stretched out on…Oh, gods. This wasn’t his bed, was it? That cut it, she couldn’t relax. She sat up again, meeting his glare with her own. She was more careful this time, steeling her stomach against an ugly wave of nausea.
“Okay. I’ll say it again. Start talking.”
Alise’s instant interrogation was no less than Drake had expected from her. She’d never been meek, and he’d never seen her quiet. Feistier than most, she even had a small streak of downright mean. He could dig it, he thought with a smile. At least she put his concerns to rest by living up to expectations.
He answered her questions as well as he could. The battle with the Fomorii had proven short, and successful. None of the enemy had survived, and they’d suffered no casualties. That’s how smart it was of the Fomorii to invade Underworld.
He got down to the news he knew would thrill her. “Hazel is in Underworld. She moved in with Ian and they’re talking marriage. Soon. Like as soon as you woke up, the last I heard.”
Alise smiled. “That’s big news.” Her brow furrowed, as she got lost in her thoughts for a moment.
“Hazel was here every day. Between us we about wore out this chair.” He kicked a leg of the strangely carved wooden monstrosity.
“Why were you here so much?” She asked the question with her brows raised in a way that both mocked him and conveyed her intense interest in his answer.
“I don’t know. I guess I felt responsible for you being in Otherworld to begin with. And we couldn’t figure out what was going on with you. What if you’d never woken up?” He couldn’t believe he’d said that. How cruel to point out how dire her situation had been right after she woke up.
“Was Hazel as worried as you were?”
“She just kept saying how strong you were. If you weren’t getting worse, you were sure to get better soon. All that hopeful crap.”
Alise snorted a laugh.
As though talking about her had brought her instantly to his door, Hazel walked in the front door, calling, “Hello?”
He didn’t mind the intrusion. Though they’d only broken up about six months before, they’d somehow made a transition into an easy friendship. Maybe it was her new relationship with Ian, and with the Sidhe in general. Hazel hadn’t been interested in the Sidhe way of life, until she met Ian and he convinced her to give him a try. He was no playboy, no Eddie Drake.
“She’s awake,” he said as Hazel peered into the small bedroom. His aunt’s cottage wasn’t large. She lived here alone now. When he was younger the place felt cozy. His aunt had only to start a soup in the kitchen and the savory scents would waft over the entire place. Bread was a whole other story; out of this world, or the one beyond the veil. Once he reached full size – which for him was six foot two and a couple of bills – the house felt snug, but he wasn’t here much.
“Oh, thank the gods, each and every one of them.” Hazel pulled Alise into a tight hug and then pushed her back so she could look her over like a mother cat. “How you feeling, sweetie?” she purred.
“Not particularly sweet. Haven’t bathed in – what did you say it was? Two weeks?” Alise regarded Drake with a sardonic smile.
“Well, I wouldn’t say you didn’t bathe. You had several sponge baths,” he told her.
“You fiend. You didn’t dare.” Her eyes narrowed in a look that told him she was thinking up the worst punishments she had in her arsenal.
He laughed. “No. You’re right, I wouldn’t dare. You’re a hot head, and a powerful witch to boot, and I’d be pretty stupid to cross you, Alise. Hazel bathed you. I even left the room. Might have peeked a time or two, though.”
Hazel socked him in the arm. “You did not. I shut the door, you big brute. Quit torturing her. Is that why you’re still here?”
“Fine, I’ll take the not-so-subtle hint and mosey on so you two can talk.” He picked himself up off the chair, suddenly intensely grateful to be seeing the end of this vigil. He wasn’t used to sitting still so much.
Before he reached the door Alise said, “Drake? Thanks.”
Her smile was the prize. What the hell was the matter with him?
“I hear we have a wedding to plan,” Alise took in her best friend as she reclined back among the pillows on the bed. She couldn’t believe how tired she was already.
“Crazy, huh?” Hazel shook her head, and Alise understood what she was feeling. A lot had changed. A month ago Hazel hadn’t even met Ian, and now she was living with him. To top it off, here she was talking to her best friend in Otherworld, a place she’d never dared hope to tread. Sure, she knew Sidhe aplenty from having grown up next door to Hazel. Many of them were scary, some were downright dangerous, and they were all selfish and arrogant.
Hazel turned the conversation around. “You look different. Are you sure you feel okay?”
“As good as can be expected. I slept for ages. Strange dreams, too. I don’t feel like myself, but does that surprise you?”
“No. It’s just…” Hazel searched her eyes, and Alise didn’t know what she was looking for. “Never mind. I’m sure you’re right, you just need to get more rest.”
“Ugh. More rest?” She snuggled down under the blanket, knowing she’d be asleep again before long despite her objections. “Let’s talk more about this wedding. Do you have a dress yet?”
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***Series intended for an adult audience due to some smokin' hot scenes.***