“It will all work itself out in the end. You’ll see.”
She nodded mutely. But even as he held her close and told her everything was going to be all right, she couldn’t shake the feeling that a storm was coming, and if they couldn’t fight it together, it was going to tear them apart.
“You’re impossible to leave behind,” Sarah whispered, laying a hand on his chest. “But you’re the one in my heart, and nothing on this earth could replace you.” She searched his eyes, needing him to understand. “When it comes to the two of you, I choose you, no matter what may come of it.”
“Halt!” Will yelled, raising the bow as he splashed into the freezing ankle-deep water after him. “I have you in my sights!” The man jerked to a stop, turning around slowly to face him. Will squinted into the near darkness. “Now remove the hood.”
The man ignored his command and advanced on him slowly, hands raised in surrender. There was something familiar about the way he walked. . . . Will drew the string back, letting him know he meant business. “I said stop!” The imposter obeyed, though still he did not reveal his identity. “The hood,” he growled, angling the bow.
The man reached up and flipped his hood back without hesitation. “You wouldn’t shoot a woman, would you, darling?”
He felt Jade’s cocky grin across the feet that separated them and ground his teeth in irritation. Lowering the weapon, he glowered at her. “You’re the one who has been masquerading as the Shadow? You murdered someone, Jade! This isn’t one of your little games.”
She sauntered toward him, her eyes narrowing in that catlike way that let him know she was pleased with herself. “I’ve never killed anyone, William.” Pressing a hand to her heart in a move meant to distract him, she cocked her head to the side and turned her lips down in a pout. “It hurts that you think I could do such a thing.”
“Well, then what is this?” He shook the bow in front of her face. “I could have killed you!”
“I had to get your attention somehow.” Jade flipped her braid over her shoulder. Shooting him a seductive smile, she placed a hand on his shoulder and leaned toward his ear. He tightened his grip on the bow, but didn’t give her the satisfaction of pulling away.
“I was not the one who killed that woman, and you know that,” she whispered, her mouth brushing his ear. Will pursed his lips and thought he heard one of his knuckles pop. “But I know who did.”
That caught his attention.
Gripping her shoulders, he pushed her back to see her face. “You know who broke into the castle?”
She grinned coyly and ran a finger playfully down his chest. “I know a lot of things.”
He grabbed her wrists and held them tight, though she didn’t pull away. “Cut the charade,” he said sternly, giving her a little shake to knock some sense into her. “Now who killed that woman?”
Her voice turned husky, a habit she couldn’t seem to break. “And what will you do for me if I tell you?”
Will released her abruptly and took a step back, suddenly disgusted with this woman he had once called a friend. “Good God, Jade, what is wrong with you? You can be so exasperating!”
The façade chipped away for a moment, and he could see his words had hurt before the indifferent mask veiled her features once more. “Aren’t you curious?” Her voice had lost its purposefully alluring tone.
Though he was terribly curious, he knew that Jade would never divulge the secret; she loved them too much to lose one so intriguing. Will turned around without another word, tromping back through the shallow water.
“I know your secret, too,” she blurted loudly to be heard over the falls. He hesitated, and she cried out a little desperately at his retreating form, “How else would I know that you would follow me in this costume?”
Swallowing tightly, he turned back to her, feigning ignorance, though his heart was beating wildly in his chest. “What are you talking about? I have no secrets.”
Jade straightened the front of her shirt, tucking it back into her pants where it had come loose. She smoothed her braid, a nervous movement meant to regain her composure. “I recently discovered your alter-ego, and I must say that I’m surprised I hadn’t thought of it before. You had me fooled along with everyone else.”
Dropping the guise, he sloshed over to her. “Who else knows?” She grinned, lording it over him. He leaned down and enunciated each word. “Who. Else. Knows?”
A delicate brow arched in defiance.
“Who did you tell, Jade?”
“I’m not the one you should concern yourself with!” she snapped. Blinking, she seemed to realize how harsh her tone had been, and her expression turned suddenly sad. She retreated a few steps. “You foolishly trusted her with your secret, but I won’t tell a soul, William, if that’s what concerns you—I promise. I shall remain silent if you just answer one question.”
He narrowed his eyes suspiciously, wondering how she knew about Sarah’s awareness of his secret. Jade was still backing towards the falls, and his eyes widened as he realized her intent. “Jade stop!”
She did. Tilting her head to the side, she watched him intently from the knee-deep water. The cold didn’t seem to affect her. “Why not me? Just answer me that. She doesn’t deserve you, you know,” she added quietly.
Will took a few tentative steps toward her, eyes darting to the frothing water that spilled over the falls. She would never survive that drop. “Come back from the edge and I’ll discus this with you.”
“And that shall garner your attention?” Shaking her head, Jade stepped onto a large rock that jetted out over the edge of the water. She didn’t possess the nerve, did she? Will swallowed.
“You never wanted me,” she went on. “I see now that deceiving that girl could never bring you into my arms.” Her face looked tormented. “Just say my name. My real name—the name you gave me when we were children, when I wished to forget my past.”
Will was suddenly aware of how deep her obsession for him went and searched his mind for a solution to get the both of them out of this alive. He took a few more steps, having to pick up his knees as the water deepened. He kept his eyes focused on hers as he sloshed along, and his thighs went numb. “Don’t do this. Please.”
A lone tear spilled down her cheek. “Why not? I spend my life being used and controlled by men and receive nothing in return. What do I have here but emptiness and loss—of my home, my parents, of your affection?”
Seeing she refused to be talked down, Will suddenly raised the bow in a last ditch effort. “Get down from there or I’ll shoot.” He realized that it was foolish to threaten to kill someone on the brink of suicide, but it was all he could think of.
“You won’t shoot me.” She seemed so certain of it, and he knew it was true; he couldn’t do it.
Tossing the bow into the water, it swirled through the bubbling water and dropped over the falls. He kept his eyes focused on Jade as he advanced cautiously, trying not to startle her as he rose up on the rock before her. The sun had set, and it was difficult to make out her features in the pale moonlight. “You’re right. I can’t shoot you.”
She wrapped her arms around his middle, startling him. Jade sighed, pressing her body hard against his own, as though he would evaporate if she lessened her hold. “It feels so good to be in your arms.” She paused, arms freezing. “But I can never really have you, can I?”
Will hesitated, barely returning her embrace. He knew he couldn’t lie to her, even under such dire circumstances. “I’m sorry, no. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want you in my life. You deserve more than this.”
She released him, and he caught a flash of teeth as she smiled sadly. “Thank you for that. I will always love you, William, and your secret is safe with me.” Something in her eyes shifted, and his own widened in alarm as he realized she was done speaking. Then she took a step back, and her body tumbled over the falls.
“Marian!” he cried thoughtlessly, lunging for her. His breath was forced from his lungs as he landed on the rock, hard, but he managed to grab ahold of her slick wrist before he lost her completely.
Will grunted, struggling to hang on as the falls pulled at her from below. “Hang on,” he yelled, reaching down with his other hand. His stomach slipped over the rock, and he caught sight of her face. She looked vaguely frightened, yet her mind seemed intent on something other than their plight.
“Say my name again,” she cried.
He ground his teeth, trying to get a better grip on her. His chest slowly inched over the edge of the slick rock, further over the churning water far below.
“Say it!” Jade screamed desperately when he remained silent. She seemed more concerned in hearing him affirm her existence than she was in helping him pull her to safety.
Muscles straining, he managed through clenched teeth, “Don’t let go, Marian!” The words were lost in the roar of the water, but she smiled anyway, knowing he had said what she wanted to hear. Will felt her hand relax, no longer returning his hold.
He arched his back as he struggled to hold on, trying to turn his body to take some of the strain off his arms, but his sudden weight shift caused his body to jerk across the wet surface of the rock. Eyes widening, his free hand searched frantically for some handhold as Jade’s weight pulled him over the edge.
His hand slipped over an exposed tree root, and he made a desperate grab for it. Their bodies jerked to a stop as he closed his fingers around the end of the root, and their weight nearly yanked it from the sodden earth. Groaning in pain, he tightened his hold around Jade’s wrist. He knew that there was no air in the spray of the falls where her body dangled, but he couldn’t let her go.
“Hold on!” he yelled. But she had already gone limp. Just hold on, he told himself, closing his lids tightly as he focused on doing just that. His fingers had gone numb, and they loosened against his will, slipping from around the exposed root. He closed his eyes and his last thought as they both fell toward the rocks at the base of Glenborough Falls was that he would get his wish: He would die attempting to save someone.
Up until now, Cadius had only been a name to her, a murderous ghost that she had been hunting for weeks. And now she was a stranger about to meet the man who had been able to end his own brother’s life, and possibly more lives than that.
For a brief moment, she wondered if it was best to let sleeping giants lie. But the guards had already reached out to open the doors for them, and she forced herself to take a deep breath as Damien guided her into the lion’s den.
Sarah swallowed convulsively when she looked back at Cadius, barely maintaining eye contact with his piercing gaze. “I guess I’m just naturally curious.” Her voice squeaked on the end. She tried to shrug innocently, a dumb smile on her lips as she backed down. Her pulse thumped rapidly as Cadius’ calculated gaze weighed the truth of her statement. It appeared he thought curiosity more a fault than a virtue.
Her smile faded, and she shrank back a little. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset anyone.”
“What an inquisitive companion you’ve found in your company,” Cadius observed, his thin lips barely curving in a smile of amusement as he swung his stormy eyes to Damien. There was something dangerous in his gaze, and his smile reeked of court-trained charm. “How delightful to discover one so free with her thoughts?” His lowly spoken compliment came out sounding more like a question. A test, Sarah realized. She looked up at Damien, gut twisting.
“Yes.” He smiled at her, but it looked strained. He looked back at Cadius, and his eyes changed, flickering with an emotion Sarah couldn’t decipher. “She is very smart, as well.”
Cadius leaned back against his chair, looking faintly pleased, though his eyes remained narrowed. He raised his glass and said lowly, “How fortunate for the pair of you.”
Not wanting to look into his eyes or at the dead creature hanging from the limb, she focused her gaze on a distant tree just past the doe. “Dinner?” she managed to ask nonchalantly.
“It is now.” Cadius took a step forward, and his elbow nearly brushed hers. Chest clenching with the effort not to shrink away, she bit the inside of her cheek, knowing that revealing her fear would only give him reason to suspect. “You see,” he went on conversationally, “it was caught nibbling the garden, snooping where it shouldn’t be.”
Sarah felt a pang of anxiety shoot through her, though she told herself she was being jumpy. “It’s awfully small. Could it really do much damage?”
For some reason, his eyes sparked to life, and he seemed to take pleasure in her words. “On the contrary,” he drawled in his low, cultured voice, “if left unchecked, a creature so seemingly harmless can destroy many months of harvesting.”
Cadius smiled indulgently at her, and then his eyes focused on something over her head. She turned and saw Damien speaking with one of the livery boys, his back to them. Gray eyes were again fixed on the animal when she looked back at Cadius. “Even worse is the knowledge that she has been spotted in the forest with a large buck in weeks past, and he would do great devastation,” he intoned.
Her hands balled into fists at her sides, toes curling as a chill caught her spine. Sarah sensed an underlying meaning to his words and resisted the urge to glance back at Damien. Swallowing, she asked, barely above a whisper, “How is that?”
Cadius stroked his short beard. “Usually, the deer tend to keep to the thicket—more foliage and the like—but this doe discovered a way into the garden and seemed to take a liking to the ease of the meal. Naturally, the buck followed.” His hand dropped to his side, and his beard twitched in dark humor. Voice amused, he added, “And like any male, he would continue to risk exposure to please her. We cannot have that.”
Is he threatening me? Sarah felt some of the color drain from her face. Her neck tingled with the instinctive desire to see if Damien had spotted them yet, and she forced her eyes to the sagging body of the doe to keep from being so obvious. Now she was sure Cadius was threatening not only her, but Damien too. He had been right; don’t mess with a man in power. And Sarah had practically thrown the king’s “death” in Cadius’ face last night! She had been too overt in her questioning, and now he was suspicious. His conversational nonchalance as he watched her with the same poorly masked, cold intensity as he did the doe had her pulse jumping.
Swallowing her fear, she replied, “Why not just build a trap as a warning? I’m sure it would back off. It seems like a waste to kill it.” It felt strange to pretend they were still speaking of the animal, but if she could convince Cadius that she wasn’t a threat . . .
“On the contrary, it is far more useful dead than it is alive.”
A knot of dread formed in her middle. “Because you can use it for food,” she managed past a tight throat.
His cold eyes met hers, and she thought his thin lips might have curved, like a cat having caught a mouse. “Because it is no longer a nuisance, and the smell of its blood will serve as a warning to the buck.” He sighed as if greatly troubled, murmuring, “If only it had been a little wiser and kept out of the garden. Such a shame.”
His words dropped into Sarah’s gut with a dull thud, and her jaw spasmed in panic when he picked up her hand with his ice-cold gloves and dipped his head over it, pausing mid-bow. “What an interesting mark,” he murmured, eyes on her scar. His short lashes twitched as something caught his eye to the left, and Sarah turned wide, frightened eyes on Damien.
He had just spotted them, and his own gaze registered alarm as he froze for a split second. The stable boy was still speaking with him, but without any excuses, Damien moved toward Sarah with his concerned gaze flickering between her and the older man. Cadius released her hand with painful slowness, and Sarah nearly sighed aloud.
Damien pasted on a smile, and she couldn’t ever remember seeing it look so cracked. “I should escort you inside, my lady, before the hour becomes too late.” His voice was strained, and his eyes were worried, looking like they wanted to drag over her features to make sure she was all right.
Sarah couldn’t even manage to nod in agreement as Damien took her arm. Cadius looked pointedly at him before turning his smile on Sarah, and that tight pulling of his lips into a thin light made her skin crawl. “I look forward to the time when we meet again, milady.” Then Damien was dragging her back into the castle, his face ashen.
Sarah swallowed at the man’s tone, what she felt was a mixture of twisted pleasure and menace, though she hoped she was reading into it. But no matter how she imagined it, it seemed that Cadius truly was looking forward to watching her suffer.
The weight of her partner’s arms left her for a brief moment as he spun her freely, and Sarah nearly lost her balance at the surprising move. But his hands quickly settled on her waist to steady her, pulling her close. She glanced up sharply, ready to question his friendliness, and felt her heart stop for several beats before restarting in overdrive.
Her former partner’s disgruntled face was somewhere in the crowd, but he soon faded from her line of sight. Sarah stared up in utter shock at the man holding her, feeling like she was seeing a ghost. This wasn’t right—why was he dancing with her? Her knees buckled under the weight of her surprise, and she had to grip his sleeves to keep from collapsing. His hold on her waist tightened to keep her upright.
“Easy,” Will murmured, pulling her against him.
She shook her head in a daze. “What are—You can’t—” Her eyes darted nervously about the enormous room, scanning the faces for any sign of recognition, but not one seemed to have noticed Will’s sudden presence or the fact that he was underdressed in his boots and crisp white shirt. He’d had plenty of practice in disappearing, and he seemed to take advantage of that skill now. Swallowing, she turned back to him and managed to croak, “I thought you were dead.”
His expression was grim. “I did, too.” Blue eyes roved her face. He looked tired, his features appearing paler than usual against the dark shadow of stubble on his cheeks, and there was a nick on his temple that hadn’t been there before.
Will shook his head abruptly, setting that stubborn lock of hair in motion across his forehead. Bending down so that his lips brushed her ear when he spoke, he whispered, “Follow me when it is safe.” Then he was suddenly gone, disappearing into the crowd.
Sarah staggered in the absence of his steadying arms. She rooted her feet to the ground so she could keep track of him, a full head taller than most, as he moved lithely through the throng of guests. He stopped just outside the dark passage, one she remembered well from the last ball they had attended together. His eyes met hers meaningfully before he ducked inside.
The air was suddenly suffocating in the wake of her shock over seeing Will again. Had his arms really been around her a moment ago? He was alive? The dancers twirled around her unmoving form, and her stillness was drawing the attention of a few nearby. Had they seen Will, too? But even if they hadn’t, she knew he’d been there.
Sarah blinked. He was alive!
She looked over her shoulder at Damien, whose back was to her at that moment as he conversed with a small group of gentlemen. Slowly breathing out the numbers until she reached ten, she told her feet to move and followed Will’s ghost.
Time hung over her head like a dark cloud, the thousand years that separated them serving as a constant reminder that she wouldn’t be here much longer. But there was always the question of whether now was all they had. Sarah knew that if she walked away now, she would look back on this moment, this opportunity to be close to him, and regret never taking the chance to hope.
She refused to be afraid to fall anymore.
Waving his arms, Will motioned for her to come back to him. She had never seen him so terrified, and his fear was contagious, rooting her to the spot. “Sarah, no!” he shouted, running toward her.
Her mouth opened in confusion, and then it hit her. The lake! Her body reacted before she could think, and Sarah lurched forward a step, knowing she had to reach the other side. She froze at the deadening crack that filled her ears, realizing her mistake too late.
The ice she had thought was solid ground splintered and shattered beneath her weight. She screamed as her right foot slipped through the sheet of frost too thin to hold her weight. Needles of pain shot up her leg as her foot slid into the freezing water below, and icy fingers below seemed to grab hold of her foot and pulled her further down. Up to her thigh in river water, she tried to jerk herself free, but her frantic movements only caused the surrounding ice to crack and splinter further.
Sarah froze, panic slicing through her as she realized that there was no way out—her thrashing was only forcing her deeper into the water. Her eyes snapped to Will in desperation, but he was still running toward her, toward the shattering lake. She locked onto his panicked gaze, screaming out his name just as the fragile sheets of glass shattered beneath her weight, plunging her into the dark, icy abyss.
“Will!” Her frightened cry tore through him, ringing in his ears and landing in his stomach with a sickening thud of finality. He knew he was too late even as he forced his legs to move faster.
“No!” he yelled when her eyes disappeared from view, heedless of their pursuers as his shout echoed across the snow-capped hills.
His heart stopped for several beats until she reemerged, choking and gasping and slapping the surface of the water in desperation. “Hold on!” His shout was breathless from terror and exertion.
He cried out to her again even after her head went under and it was only the tips of her fingers flailing for a handhold before they vanished, as well. Her dress was pulling her under! Will felt paralyzed by fear even as his stride lengthened.
Will’s panic faded, replaced by an onslaught of sudden, intense relief. “I thought I’d lost you,” he rasped.
The corner of her mouth twitched, hinting at the barest of smiles. “But you found me.” The words sparked an ember in his chest that smoldered there, filling his freezing body with warmth, cracking the glass walls surrounding his heart until they shattered into a million pieces at her feet. Staring into her eyes, Will drank in the sight of her until he could stand the distance no longer.
He leaned down and pressed his lips to hers, harder than he had intended, every ounce of fear and elation pouring out in this moment. The sudden floodtide of emotion made him feel light-headed, and he kissed her in the way he had wanted to last night, forgetting every courting convention ingrained in him since childhood.
Sarah shuddered in surprise, and then she clung to him, seeming to fully comprehend that she had just evaded death. Making a low sound in the back of his throat, he slid his hand to the side of her neck, pulling her closer. Her pulse was beating faster than a frightened rabbits, threatening to break through her skin. Beating for him, he realized.
The ember burst into a flame, each rapid beat of his own heart spreading fire into every limb. Will kissed her in reckless, joyful abandon as the flames enveloped them both. His skin thawed, prickling with life as each nerve ending succumbed to the fire. He couldn’t recall ever feeling so alive as when she returned his kiss, hungering for the life she might have lost. Tears pressed between their cheeks, but who had shed them, he couldn’t say.
When the fire threatened to burn the forest around them, he pulled back abruptly, breathing hard. Sarah’s chest was rising and falling rapidly as she sucked in air, her breaths matching his own. Unable to break away completely, Will pressed his lips to her temple and released a shuddering gust of air. “I’m never letting you out of my sight,” he growled against her skin. He could remain like this for an eternity, holding her in his arms and mirroring each beat of her heart.
His shoulders slumped in exhaustion, but not yet defeat. It would be impossible to stop what was currently happening before their very eyes, even if they didn’t yet recognize it. He knew that it was only just beginning, and if Sarah tried to stop it, she would find herself caught in the crossfire.
He stared through the bars at the hazy sky beyond, imagining that she was out there, somewhere. Had they already found her? Had his months of infuriating seclusion made him too late?
He ground his teeth in vexation, fetters jangling as he rubbed the mark over his heart—a ghastly T. The symbol had been burned into his skin the second night of his imprisonment. Months had passed and still the mark ached, recalling to mind the feel of the hot iron as it branded him as the traitor he knew himself to be.
He tightened his grip on the key, feeling the rough steel bite into his palm, feeling anger course through him. No, it was far from over.