"Her father?" The witch rubbed her forehead. "He's dead. I believe he died before Ruby was born."
"You believe?" She didn't even know where the sire was?
Her eyes widened. "Oh, wait. Malkom, there's something I need to tell you. Though Ruby is related to me, I'm not her mother."
He tensed. "Another lie?"
"I never said she was. But it doesn't matter, she's mine now. I'm adopting her. And what's more, I love that little girl like she was my own."
"Where's her mother?"
"She died three weeks ago, killed by the Order."
"You have no other children?"
Her brows drew together. "No."
"Is there a male? That you are bound to?"
She stood, meeting his eyes, so direct. "That depends."
"On how angry you are with me." She sidled closer to him, her movements graceful.
He hated how she still affected him so effortlessly. He crossed the rest of the distance to her. Cupping her nape, he gazed down at the face that had bewitched him, the eyes that haunted him. His voice hoarse, he said, "What do you want of me?"
"I want to earn your forgiveness." Her breaths had shallowed, pink tingeing her high cheekbones.
"You have it. I understand why you behaved as you did."
"Then I want a chance to earn back your trust."
Not so easily done. He released her, turning to peer out the window. With his finger against the glass, he followed a stream of water outside. Amazing. Water everywhere, and glass even in this modest structure. "I thought things were a certain way. With us. They were not. Now I do not know."
"I care for you. That hasn't changed," she said. "If anything, my feelings have grown stronger."
"How much was ... real?"
He knew she'd understood what he was really asking when she answered, "Malkom, I've never known more pleasure with another man."
How badly he wanted to believe her. But he was inexperienced, and she could have feigned that pleasure, with him none the wiser. She could be lying right now.
"What do you want of me?" she asked.
"You are my female. Fate has bound you to me. So I need to protect you."
"And claim me?"
Lust shot through him, and he hardened with a swift heat.
"Or drink me?"
He hissed in a breath, his mind fixed on that last day they'd spent in the mine. Seared into his memory was that vision of her - fresh from her orgasm with beads of crimson slowly slipping past her nipple. His bite mark had been like a brand on her flesh. "And you would let me take your blood? When you would not before?" He tried to recall his taste of her tonight, but only saw a haze.
"Now I understand why you do it." She was just behind him. "It's to feel close to me, isn't it? I will never deny you that again."
Never deny them....
"Malkom, I would give anything to feel that close to you. I've needed you." When she laid her palm on his back, then her cheek, he stiffened. "Haven't you needed me?"
She wanted him, wanted him to possess her at last. So why did he feel such foreboding? Such fury?
Ignore it. Take her, bury yourself in her body. But she could deceive him again, as easily as before. Only this time, if he claimed her, she could be carrying his babe.
He'd rather not have a child than have one out in the world, vulnerable, without him there to guard it, providing for it. He wouldn't be like his own father, who'd left Malkom to the whims of a whore, to be bought and sold.
Though he might understand why Carrow had done as she had, he couldn't merely forget the pain of the last week, the mistrust of the last four centuries. "I spent these days hating you. I imagined doing things to you ..."
"That would make my skin crawl?" she finished.
He turned to face her. "Yes." He'd been anticipating them right when his collar had fallen off.
"What would you have done in my situation?"
"The same. But I also would not expect to be forgiven. I would not expect to be trusted," he said, thinking of another "uestion he wanted her to answer. "Why did you come to Ash? Did you intend to rescue me from the Trothans only to hand me over to the mortals?"
"No. I would have come for you no matter what. I felt awful about hurting you - "
"Yet you decided to do worse to me?" He ran his hand through his hair, still unused to his regenerating horns. Another pain that I endured for her. "Do you know what the armorer said just before I killed him? He told me that I would lose you."
"I'm not lost, Malkom. I'm right here."
He exhaled. "And I am weary, witch. Go tend to your young and leave me be."
She drew back her head as though slapped. "Very well. But I will win back your trust. If it's the last thing I do." She returned to the back room. He heard the ropes tighten as she joined the girl in the bed.
He stared at the rain on the window for long moments, waiting for her to fall asleep. As usual, his eyes were greedy for the sight of her.
Once he heard her breathing was deep and even, he returned to watch them in slumber. Carrow had her arms wrapped tight around the little one.
The witch would do - had done - anything to protect that child.
When he'd been Ruby's age, he would've killed for someone to take an interest in his well-being, much less vow to protect him - no matter what the conse"uences.
I would have thought her an angel.
If Carrow had been the heartless female he'd supposed her to be, then she would never have taken that mission to lure Malkom here.
Maybe 'twas not over yet.
The knot in his gut remained. And maybe you are a fool.
In what looks like an abandoned city, the witch and her army face off against a horde of centaurs, fire demons, and Invidia.
She is confident of her abilities, knows that they'll have a victory - or go down in history.
"Wait for my signal!" she orders over her shoulder as she advances. Though flames light the night and explode all around her, she marches forward. She knows fear, yet she continues in the face of it.
Foolhardy witch. Even in sleep, Malkom began to sweat, heart racing for her.
In her hand, she pulls up concentrated magic. It sparks, but is cool to her, a welcome pressure above her palm.
"Now!" she screams, hurling the magic. An arc flares from her hand toward a distant structure. In a heartbeat's time, the blast renders the building to rubble.
But her enemies have focused on her. Fire demons trace around her, a dozen of them with flames ready. Before she can retreat, they strike, fire streaming toward her -
Malkom woke, shooting upright from his spot against the cabin's outer door.
He ran his hand over his face, gazing out into the stormy night. 'Twas only a dream. And obviously she'd recovered. So why was he filled with apprehension for her?
He had no one but himself to blame for witnessing that battle, had welcomed her memories. Though dreading the nightmares from his past, he'd sought dreams, needing to know more about her.
With his latest taste of her blood, he'd been rewarded with new memories, dozens of scenes. That battle in particular.
He leaned back against the door, piecing together what he'd learned. Carrow was a commander of the Wiccae, heading an entire contingent of witches. She was both reckless and victorious in war.
When fully powered, she was able to pitch building-crushing bombs from her hands.
And that is the life she wants to return to?
A life he wasn't a part of.
He glanced back in Carrow's direction. So close. Yet loneliness weighed on him, worse than any of his nights in that infernal mine.
Because now I know what I am missing....