- Paula Altenburg
Chapter One, Part Three
Bastien shrugged off a stab of pain he hadn’t anticipated he’d feel. She’d once sworn she would never forgive him, and that she would hate him forever for what he’d done to her, and it seemed she intended to keep that promise. Not that it mattered. Now that the shadow around her memories had begun to unweave, he needed her loyalty more than her forgiveness. She was his wife, with a duty to their people, and he intended to see that she fulfilled it.
The clock ticked its impatience. While Bastien had no concrete proof that Salvatore was behind the murder of her parents, he was taking no chances. He owed Giselle’s father her safety, and Hebert, an old man in ill health, was in no position to protect her now that Shadowsworn hunted her again. The assassins would show her no mercy.
A book dropped from a shelf. Then another. They lifted into the air, about six inches off the floor, and slowly, began to spin. Bastien grasped a corner of shadow and swept it around the two books, capturing them in a hastily woven net, bringing their slow spin to a halt. “Ten seconds.”
Giselle ceased struggling. He released her, disengaging from her warmth and the crisp, sweet fragrance of moonflower, a perfume she’d worn for as long as he’d known her—which was forever.
“Time’s up.” He looked around the store at the floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with carefully arranged books. It came as no surprise that an Aramandez would surround herself with knowledge. “Do you have a back door? An emergency exit?”
She was lying. The building that housed her store might be old, but there had to be some sort of fire escape.
“Then we’ll go out the front,” he said.
“Let me get my coat and purse.”
There it was—the reason she’d lied. She thought she could grab her belongings and run out the back while he waited for her.
Or she could be telling the truth and he’d simply grown jaded.
“I’ll come with you,” he said, unwilling to take that chance.
The storm outside was nothing compared to the one brewing in her eyes. He fought off a smile. The child Giselle might have been docile, but this woman was not. She’d changed. Five years had passed and she’d grown into the beauty she’d promised to be. Barely twenty-two when they married, she’d been a slight girl with brilliant blue eyes, too large for her face, and long, rich brown hair, with all of the light her clan was famous for buried in its depths. She’d been filled with innocence and trust, and she’d looked at him as if he were the moon and the stars. Although only five years her senior, he’d felt like such an old man by comparison.
She wasn’t innocent anymore, and now when she looked at him, he saw the same level of hatred she’d shown the day he’d had her memories enshrouded in shadow and banished her from Overland. Back then, she’d wanted to remember. He wondered if that were still true.
Whether she did or not, Bastien didn’t see that she had a choice anymore. The moment Hebert had fallen, she’d been exposed. Salvatore would know she was alive and soon uncover her whereabouts—if he hadn’t already. Although his connection to Giselle wasn’t as strong as Bastien’s, it remained between them—a fact that secretly chafed.
Her gaze pressed its nose to the window, fixating on the darkening night, and he lost all desire to smile.
“This way.” She led him to the back of the store. Behind one of the overladen shelves was a tiny room with a desk and computer, but no windows. There was no door here, either. She’d told him the truth.
She grabbed her coat from a brass hook on the wall behind the door. He held it for her as she shrugged into the sleeves. Then he turned her around, brushed her fingers aside, and did up the zipper. He couldn’t resist running his knuckles along the smooth line of her jaw. Lush-lashed blue eyes filled with suspicion met his. He read more emotions. Raw, simmering anger. Awareness. But no fear. Perhaps Hebert was correct. She really didn’t wish to remember.
Or perhaps it was only Bastien she’d allowed to be permanently wiped from her thoughts. She’d once loved him. In return, he’d used her feelings to get what he wanted. He had no idea what she saw when she looked at him now.
He followed her to the front of the store. She activated an alarm system, shut off the overhead lights, and together, they stepped through the front door into the bleak gray dusk and wind. He positioned himself between her and the icy pellets, shielding her from the brunt of the storm, as she locked the door behind them with her key.
He looked up and down the street, searching for movement in the shadows, and saw nothing unusual. The few people on the street had their heads down, going about their own business, too worried about the storm to pay attention to anyone but themselves. He reached for Giselle’s hand, an instinctive attempt to keep her safe.
She shook him off. “Whoever you are, no, I don’t trust you. I’m going to the hospital to visit my... a friend,” she shouted over the howl of the wind. Ice collected on the black hood of the parka she’d drawn over her head. “If you try to force me to go anywhere else with you, I’ll scream bloody murder and make a scene. If you try to follow me past the front doors of the hospital, I’ll have you arrested for harassment. Do you understand me?”
“I don’t believe it would be considered harassment for me to visit Hebert. He’s an old friend who’s sick.”
Surprise filled her eyes. “You know my grandfather?”
Hebert was no relation to her. He was a Leonetti—a clansman of the St. Johns and a member of their family’s inner council—tasked with keeping Overland’s queen safe. The heart attack meant he could no longer fulfill that duty.
No matter. Bastien had come to take her home. It had been five years since the murders. Giselle was approaching her twenty-eighth birthday, soon to come into her birthright. With Bastien crowned king, and about to be officially instated as head of the St. John clan as well, he was better situated to protect her.
Until she trusted and accepted him, however, he had to be careful not to push her too hard or he’d drive her away. Overland needed this alliance between their two families. Once their marriage became a true merging of shadow and light, the Shadowsworn would have failed and Giselle would be safe.
“Which way is the hospital?” he asked.
She turned to the left and walked up the street. Bastien shortened his longer stride to match hers. She remained skittish, glancing into the dark recesses between buildings.
A man, leaning against a high stone wall that butted an embankment of forlorn, yellowed grass, waited for a bus. His head went up as they passed him. He spun to stare after Bastien and Giselle.
Giselle’s gloved fingers reached for Bastien’s sleeve. She was too frightened now to refuse any protection he offered. He positioned himself so that he was between her and the man at the bus stop, throwing quick glances over his shoulder to keep an eye out for any other possible threats. The icy cold burned his cheeks and he narrowed his eyelids to slits.
A long shadow, stretching across the base of the embankment where it joined the sidewalk at a right angle, blanketed the waiting man’s feet. He took a jerky step toward Bastien and Giselle, then another, this one with more certainty. The bus he’d been waiting for trundled up the street toward him but didn’t cause his attention to waver.
Shadowsworn. They could command shadow.
But not as well as Bastien.
His gut clenched. He summoned a ribbon of shadow to him, gripping it in one hand the way he’d handle a whip. In his palm it became solid, gaining substance and weight. He had no desire to harm an innocent, which this man might well be, but Bastien would do what he had to in order to protect Giselle. Something—some danger—had called him to her.
The bus, grinding its gears, lumbered to a stop. The double doors hissed open. The man paused. Bastien read the confusion crossing his face.
Then, he turned and climbed onto the bus.
Bastien released his hold on shadow, allowing it to slip back into the corners and crevices, and urged Giselle on.
“How far to the hospital?” he asked.
She pointed and Bastien saw the pale white glow of the EMERGENCY sign. A concrete path, slick with salt crystals and slush, led to another entrance with OUTPATIENTS spelled out over its doors. The path between them held too many shadows. Bastien steered Giselle toward the closer emergency entrance, hoping there’d be some connection between the two departments.
The waiting room inside was noisy, packed solid with the sick and suffering, but at least it was brightly lit, dispelling shadow.
Giselle didn’t protest Bastien’s continued presence by her side, nor did she shout for help as she’d threatened, although she did shake off his hand. He followed her through the maze of corridors to several sets of elevators. She pushed a call button.
There were two orderlies already on board. They nodded as Giselle and Bastien joined them. The elevator lurched as it began to climb upward, then jerked to a stop on the fifth floor. Giselle stepped into the intensive care unit, Bastien one step behind her. A woman in a pink uniform looked up from her seat behind the counter at the nursing station. She was middle-aged, with short, gray-streaked brown curls, and a plump figure. She obviously recognized Giselle, but the look she cast him was more assessing.
“Only immediate family members, and only one visitor at a time,” she said.
“He’ll wait in the visitors’ room,” Giselle answered for him.
The nurses’ station was softly lit. Under the low counter, which served as a desk, shadow twitched to life at Bastien’s silent command. It swirled around the nurse’s feet. She wore pink clogs made of shiny rubber. They were a shade darker than her uniform.
The nurse’s expression changed. It brightened, became conspiratorial. “There’s no need for him to wait.” She tapped her finger on the file in front of her. “Your grandfather’s showing significant improvement. As long as you’re quiet and don’t agitate him, I’m sure the doctor won’t object to an extra visitor.”
“Thank you,” Bastien said. He placed a hand on Giselle’s back, gently propelling her in the direction of the patients’ rooms.
“What you just did was wrong.”
Giselle’s eyes and tone reproached him. The Aramandez clan were Overland’s keepers of knowledge—its educators—which included administering its laws. Then she blinked, her face reflecting a sudden confusion. Her confusion morphed to panic. She’d retrieved another snippet of memory.
Her chest rose and fell as she struggled for air. Bastien wrapped his arms around her, tucking her close so that anyone happening by would believe he was offering comfort, which in a way he was. Her memory would return, despite her resistance, at its own convenience. When it did, she’d have five years of repressed grief to deal with.
She’d never been strong. She’d need someone to help her.
“I did what was necessary,” he whispered into her ear. The words had a double meaning. He hoped she’d believe them when her memories were fully restored. Her cheek was still cold, her exposed skin and outer clothing damp from the storm. “I need to speak with Hebert. I promise you, I did no harm to her.”
He’d said the wrong thing.
She pushed out of his arms. “You can promise no such thing.”
She spun away, leaving him to trail behind her.