Excerpt

Theater of Redemption

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There’s nowhere easier to lose yourself than New York. No better place to hide in plain sight. I had enough cash to stay at least some days in the city if I was careful. Dominic would already be tracking my credit cards. So, I played it smart. I stayed in a bland chain hotel near Times Square. I ate from food trucks or ordered from room service. I bought books, thick biographies that kept my mind occupied. I went to a salon and got my hair restored to its natural color then experimented with magic until it grew close to its original length. My tablet had been in my purse, so I played online. I watched TV, catching up on two years’ worth of movies I’d never ever heard of.

And I blacked myself out, shielding against every psychic call from everyone I loved.

I threw my cell phone against a brick wall after the first fifty times it went off. Alistair, smarter than the rest, was calling and texting me desperately. Out of everyone, he was the most dangerous to my need for solitude because he knew mortal women were trained to instantly answer a ringing cell phone. If anyone could find me, it’d be Alistair, and I really didn’t want that to happen and shake my resolve.

Not only because of what he’d say, but what he’d do. He was clever enough to bring Lucienne with him, and she was the only person who could possibly convince me to come back before I’d settled things in my mind.

I wanted to be left alone.

I picked up the shattered remains of my phone and threw the pieces into five different dumpsters as I walked the streets, alone and grieving.

The nights were the worst. I yearned for the babies, anguished over what I was missing. I missed Spawn’s unconditional affection and Demon’s unswerving loyalty. I alternated between mourning my father as if he was dead and imagining ways to kill him, too confused and devastated to decide which I’d prefer. Hatred? Or sorrow?

Both?

I couldn’t get comfortable in the big bed. Pillows were too soft, accustomed as I was to sleeping on a man’s chest. And when sleep did come, so did the nightmares, rousing me from my sleep with images I’d never be able to not see ever again. Nightmares of rape, abuse, and death splintered my sleep, nightmares in which I was started a helpless witness but without warning became the victim, feeling every horror inflicted upon me.

I’d throw up, wash the sweat from my face, turn on all the lights, and lose myself once more in the pages of a book.

On the fifth night, I finished a massive biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and rummaged through the books for something I hadn’t read yet. I pulled out an embossed paperback, the cover slick under my fingers.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

What could possibly be more sleep-inducing than the biography of a Victorian poet, right? I opened a new soda—distressingly warm, but the ice in the bucket was long melted and I didn’t feel like going for more—and began to read.

Funny, isn’t it? How one can find a kindred soul in the life of someone long dead? Something about her story resonated with me. The invalid, hampered by what passed as medicine during the mid-nineteenth century, had one consolation in her shut in world…writing in her bower. Under the thumb of a cruel and, frankly, incestuously possessive father—at least we had that in common—she’d managed to summon the courage to leave the only life she knew for Robert Browning.

What steel that must have taken! How in the world had she ever found the resolve to defy her father and abandon her siblings, to literally teach herself to walk again so she could make her escape to the man she loved? At thirty-seven, risking everything on a man she knew only through brief visits and correspondence was gutsy. Then for love of him, she destroyed her fragile health through pregnancy and childbirth and was happy to have done so.

She had a lot more courage than I did.

Up until that point, I hadn’t considered how cowardly running away from everything was. But let’s be honest while we’re at it too. That wasn’t entirely me being too chicken shit to face them either. No, I was hiding in that hotel room out of confusion and anger more than cowardice.

I was very angry because not everything Cruelty had said to weaken me had been a lie. I’d suspected the Harlequin was keeping a lot of information from me. I just hadn’t expected it to be that personal, that soul-shattering. Once Dominic ascended to dominion over Desire, he would have known instantly what that information was.

To be fair, neither of them had any idea Cruelty had forced Wrath into a mortal form for over thirty years. If they had learned that Matthew Brighton was the true immortal ruler of Wrath before that horrible scene in Cruelty’s disintegrating dominion, my father would have been obliterated about two seconds after Dominic found out.

I know how my husband thinks.

But the Harlequin knew that Cruelty had been imposing his influence on my paternal family for generations, that he or his disgusting sons had inseminated each mortal woman who’d borne new Brighton mages to make sure his line led to me. So Dominic, too, would have known once he assumed dominion over Desire. They both knew that my power was as much Cruelty as Time.

And neither of them had told me.

That explained the Harlequin’s anger at the thought of me exploring how Time worked on my own. If for some reason I’d turned to the family of my heritage, then Time would have been vulnerable, laid exposed at Cruelty’s feet. No wonder Dominic and the Harlequin had agreed to Alistair’s suggestion that they keep me unconscious while I was pregnant. The combination of a dangerous pregnancy and a war with my blood relations was bad enough. Throw in the ability to tap into any immortal’s elemental power and some seriously wacked out pregnancy hormones?

Too big of a risk.

So, they’d both been aware of my ties to Cruelty, and concerned that I would start to demonstrate the traits of that particular magical line.

And yet…

Neither of them acted like I was some sort of three-headed Cruelty monster. No, they’d both insisted I was better than they were, kinder and more compassionate and not subject to the same violent impulses that drove them. So it wasn’t like they’d been waiting for the Cruelty DNA to warp my character.

Hiding from them was really hiding from myself, a psychological form of staring at my face in the mirror and wondering who the hell I really was. I wouldn’t be able to hide from them forever. Eventually, I would have to face my cruel-edged reality. I would have to go home to the twins. My babies needed me. I would be the one to steer them between the extremes of their heritages.

I sighed and went back to my book. Perhaps two hours had passed when I read something that stopped me dead in my tracks. I sat up cross-legged, my back to the big window overlooking the hushed busyness of the streets below, and read the passage from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Vision of Poets again.

...Then said the lady—and her word

Came distant, as wide waves were stirred

Between her and the ear that heard,

‘World's use is cold, world's love is vain,

World's cruelty is bitter bane,

But pain is not the fruit of pain.'

Pain is not the fruit of pain.

True. Pain didn’t result from pain. Pain resulted from other things, like grief or loss…or cruelty. The pain I’d been feeling since I’d first heard my father’s voice in the sanctuary of Cruelty had stemmed from my shock that this was the big secret everyone had been keeping from me all along. My parentage or heritage or whatever you wanted to call it had stunned and disturbed me, to be honest.

But did it really affect who I was? Who I wanted to be?

Or what I wanted the twins brought up to be?

I needed to be there for them as they grew up. They, too, bore the same magical legacy I did, but enhanced. Alex was the son of Desire; Cami, the daughter of Time. They, too, could be exploited as inroads for some unscrupulous immortal to gain access to two of the most powerful dominions in existence if we weren’t very careful.

After all, I was the product of a diluted bloodline on both sides and look how much all those immortals had wanted me. Just trying to imagine what Cami would go through as a young woman ruling her own dominion was so horrifying that I could barely stand it.

No, I had to be there for them until they were comfortable enough with their heritage and dominions to take care of themselves. I didn’t have to worry about them being protected. Neither Dominic nor Tristiano would ever permit the twins to come to harm. That wasn’t my concern.

While their fathers were far more powerful than I was or would be for quite some time, I had abilities that no one else did—magic that no one else seemed to understand. My magic might, in some respects, be even more powerful than either dominion because I could access the strengths of multiple domains.

And since I was the only person in existence who could do that, no one else would be able to teach the twins if they, too, bore some similar abilities.

“Catherine?”

Goddamnit.

I’d been so busy trying to think my way through this thing that I’d let my shields slip, allowing the last true immortal in the universe I wanted to track me down to find me. Typical.