hearts of fire Page 12

“No.” Meresin paused, feeling awkward. “I can handle this myself. But…thank you, though. For the offer.” What was he supposed to say? People didn’t just offer to do things for him. Especially not other demons. It was odd to think that one of his brothers might not hate him. He wasn’t sure how to deal with that possibility. Or if he even wanted to.

To his credit, Murmur didn’t argue, though he didn’t look all that pleased, either. “All right,” he said, rising. “I understand wanting to do it alone, brother. Just know that help is here if you need it.”

Meresin gave a curt nod, then watched as the fallen angel who had been the feared Questioner of Souls took the pilfered fire sword and walked away. Before Murmur leaped off the ledge and into darkness, he turned his head enough for Meresin to see the demon’s knowing smile.

“Good luck. With everything.” Then he vanished with a single beat of his wings.

Meresin watched him go, unsure of how he was to react, or to feel. His heartbeat was uneven, his head still full of the pain he’d had to come through to make it even this far. But…it wasn’t quite as oppressive as it had been, and he didn’t know why. He was suddenly bone-achingly weary. He hadn’t expected to sleep, but right now that was the only choice. The nightmares would work themselves out of his system first, he knew, dreading it. But then, there would be a little peace, a little rest.

A little peace. He looked at Dru’s sleeping form, the sinuous S her body made beneath his blankets. All he could really see of her was a pale tuft of hair. Her breathing was deep and even. He bet she had no nightmares. No dark things to haunt her and make her cry out in the night. She didn’t need anyone or anything, every inch the fierce warrior queen. And here he was, needing things he couldn’t even put a name to. Just for a little while he wanted the pain to stop.

He wanted to feel normal.

Meresin hesitated. But as his eyes drooped and sleep threatened to knock him over where he sat, he made his decision. He crawled onto his mattress, sinking into the featherbed as he made his way up alongside Dru. He didn’t get beneath the blanket, instead just laying his head down and fitting himself against the length of her, draping one arm over her and extending his wings so that he could share the warmth of them.

From the moment he touched her, he was at peace, the storm within him quelled…if only for a little while.

Chapter Nine

It was strange, after two thousand years of relative sameness, to wake up one night and have everything be different. It might not feel quite so alien to her if Meresin, at some point, remembered how to talk. But as of right now, Mr. Personality was just stalking along beside her, ready to scare animals and small children with his obvious wit and charm.

At this point, all Dru knew was that they were going somewhere, to do something dangerous, in order to not die. A nebulous quest for glory. She hadn’t done this sort of thing in at least a thousand years, probably more. But it didn’t deter her, even if she’d long ago gotten over wishing for wild adventure. She’d fought her share of battles. She could fight this one. Still she found herself worrying over Meresin. She felt like he’d finally let her see him last night—a whole person instead of a brooding, breathing Taser.

And now she wanted more. With him, that was almost certainly a dangerous thing.

They walked past restaurants and trinket shops bustling with life, he carrying his small duffel bag and she with a backpack containing a few essentials. Dru breathed deeply, glad for a chance to try to clear her mind for whatever lay ahead. He’d wanted to fly, but to his credit, he hadn’t argued much after she’d offered a detailed description of her last bout with airsickness. Besides, the beach was a quick enough trip. Though she had no doubt that it was only their first stop.

With angels and demons alike, nothing was ever as simple as it seemed.

Her phone vibrated in her back pocket. Dru rolled her eyes, pulled out the phone, and shot off a quick text.

Not dead. Stop freaking out. Love you.

Justin, of course. Sometimes she missed the days when none of them had been quite so easy to get hold of.

The phone buzzed again, and she powered it off. “I didn’t crawl up his butt when he went on vacation,” she muttered.

Meresin made a soft noise that might have been a laugh, startling her. At her curious glance, he said, “You’ve got some strange ideas about what a vacation looks like if you think this is one.”

She smiled. “I’m a vampire. Most vacations are at least a little life threatening.”

He grumbled what she assumed was agreement, or at least acknowledgement before lapsing back into silence. This time, though, it didn’t bother her as much. That small flash of Meresin’s sense of humor would keep her going for a while. Sad, maybe, but given the situation, she’d take what she could get.

“I wish you hadn’t let Gadreel pack for me,” she said, hitching her backpack higher on her shoulder. The pack had been waiting for her when she’d awakened for the night, along with a typically cheeky note tucked inside indicating that the big, blond, womanizing Fallen had thoroughly enjoyed going through her underwear drawer. “I could have run back and done this myself.”

That got his attention. “Murmur was the one who brought back your things.”

She raised her eyebrows at this information. “Uh, unless Murmur signs his notes ‘Gadreel’ and has an underwear fixation I don’t know about, your buddy outsourced the job.”

Meresin muttered something unintelligible, and she saw a muscle in his cheek twitch.

When he lapsed back into silence, she prodded again. “Gadreel also seems to think I should dress like Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island. I’m not sure where he found the gingham shirt, but he’s probably laughing somewhere. Are we going someplace warm, or was he just guessing?”

“He wasn’t guessing.”

“That makes one of us, then.” She blew out a breath and shot him an exasperated look.

“So,” she said, determined to keep trying to engage him. “This trip. Are we driving?”

“No.”

“Flying? I was serious when I told you that grabbing me under the arms and dragging me through the sky is just going to make me throw up. You don’t want to see a vampire get sick. I mean it.”

That earned her a side-eye. “I’ll try to keep that to a minimum, then,” he said.

She tried not to be too obvious about her sigh of relief. “Thanks. So…hitchhiking?”

“No.”

She glared at him. “I’ll assume we’re traveling by empty boxcar, then.”

“N—”

“Don’t say it,” she warned, cutting him off. She thought she saw a ghost of a smile before he focused on something across the street. Not only was his sense of humor well hidden, it was twisted. Finally, he relented, though only a little.

“We’re walking,” he said. “But it’s not what you think.”

She didn’t bother asking this time.

They traveled on in uncomfortable silence. At least, she was uncomfortable. She had the sneaking suspicion that Meresin was most comfortable when he wasn’t saying anything.

His voice surprised her.

“You look like you’re plotting something.”

“I am plotting. Why?”

He raised his brows, and there was no missing the keen interest that glittered in his violet eyes before his expression went carefully blank again.

“What do you need to plot?” he asked. “You don’t even know where we’re going.”

She found herself darkly amused by the fact that he was withholding information just to twist her tail. Did the man have a setting besides “adversarial”?

“No kidding. I’ve got lots of things to plot, for your information. Business opportunities for the city. Fostering diplomatic relations between the night races. Meetings that need to happen, meetings that shouldn’t have happened and need to be rectified. My social calendar. Oh, and world domination. That answer your question?”

“I suppose.” He frowned into the distance. “You should make Justin do some of that, you know. Since he gets the title and you don’t.”

Dru’s eyebrows shot up at the bitterness she heard in his comment. “Uh, where have you been living the past two years? Mars? Justin does plenty. And I didn’t want a title. I never did, and I still don’t.”

She quickly saw that whatever ideas he’d had about her situation, the truth didn’t match up.

“I don’t understand. A queen has power. I assumed—”

She sighed. “You assumed what a lot of people do at first,” she interjected smoothly. “You thought Justin pushed me out, and that I just put up with playing second fiddle because I have to. But here’s the thing…I was a noblewoman when I was mortal. I had the lineage, the trappings, the rules and responsibilities. I still had no say in my own life, and that was really all I wanted. My freedom. No titles, no expectations. Justin was willing to be the face of the kingdom, and his temperament is better suited to it anyway. We’re still a unit…I just get to move a little more freely than he can, and that suits me better. Justin may be king, but I built Terra Noctem right alongside him. If I was unhappy, we’d rearrange things. But I’m not.”

He didn’t argue with her, but she wasn’t sure he understood. That was confirmed when he spoke.

“But you get no credit. You could be celebrated, but you choose to hide your accomplishments away—”

“Meresin,” she interrupted, not sure whether to be flattered that he cared about her getting recognition, or worried about where his priorities were. Maybe both. “People know I do a lot for the city. I get enough appreciation to feed my ego. I don’t care about the notoriety.”

He snorted. “Everyone wants to be appreciated. Even you.”

She watched him curiously, sensing that his own issues had a lot to do with his attitude about this. “Yes, of course I want to be appreciated. I feel like I am. I don’t need a damn statue erected in my honor, though. I told you, I enjoy being a little more low-key. I like my freedom.”

“Freedom without power isn’t worth much,” Meresin muttered. “Your brother could betray you, and you’d have nothing.”

“Power without freedom is worth even less,” she replied, exasperated. “I have plenty of power. I just know enough to throw it around sparingly. You can carry a lot of responsibility and still maintain a sense of humor, you know. Have interests. A life. Terra Noctem isn’t the kind of place that would tolerate a Queen of Hearts anyway. Everyone seems to know that but you. But then, you don’t make much effort to be plugged into what’s going on in the city. Why is that, anyway?” she asked.

He hunched his shoulders, and she narrowed her eyes. Grabbing his arm, she forced him to a stop. He gave her hand wrapped around his forearm a very ugly look.

“Uh-uh,” she said, quietly enjoying the heat flowing up her arm from the point where their skin touched. “Turnabout is fair play. I gave you an honest answer and got an insult. You owe me something more than a grumble and a frown. Your brothers have made an effort to know the city. But not you. It’s not a hard question to answer.”

He rolled his shoulders uncomfortably. “I guess I just don’t like people very much.”

Dru couldn’t help her startled laugh at that bit of honesty. “That may be the understatement of the year,” she said. “It’s your home now. Try getting interested, and maybe you wouldn’t be so pissed off all the time. It has to be better than Hell. Isn’t everything technically better than Hell?”

A shadow passed over his eyes, and she knew she’d stumbled into the vast territory of things he didn’t want to discuss. Sure enough, his jaw tightened, and he lengthened his stride. So much for conversation.

Meresin veered toward a large parking area for the beach. This time of night, the cars there were mainly left by people who were eating at the restaurants on the strip, though there was enough light cast onto certain parts of the beach that it still attracted those interested in a peaceful stroll. Particularly tonight, with a full moon hanging low in the sky and bathing everything in a silvery glow.

Dru followed Meresin down a long flight of wooden steps, then onto the sand, keeping pace with him as he headed left and continued moving away from downtown. There was no sound but the soft hiss of their feet through the sand, the waves’ rhythmic rush as they lapped the shore, and the occasional cry of a seagull. The light from town dimmed and fell behind them until only the moonlight illuminated their way. They’d long ago passed the last human wanderers when Meresin finally stopped. Dru swallowed the torrent of questions she wanted to ask. He wouldn’t answer them anyway.

He took his time scenting the wind before finally facing her. His eyes glowed bright in the darkness.

“Last chance to go home,” he said. “This is a good place to make the jump.”

Whatever she might have expected him to say, that wasn’t it. “The…jump?” she repeated.

He looked at her so long and hard that she had to fight to keep her gaze locked with his. Though she sometimes forgot just how different they were, right now, alone on the beach, Meresin looked every bit the powerful and ancient demon lord.

“Yes, the jump. The move from one plane of existence to the next. This is your last chance to go home, Dru. If you decide to come with me from here, understand that you may not get to come back.”

She blinked as his wings unfolded like dark shadows rising over his shoulders. His task, serious though it was, had seemed…just a little unreal. Until now. And it was clear that Meresin doubted she would go any further than this point. His lack of faith stung. But it made her even more determined to see this through.