Evelyn’s father was indeed at home.
He was a huge bear of a man. Despite the initial shock at three hundred pounds of six-foot-five blonde bearded viking bounding down the estate’s front steps, I warmed to him instantly.
“Evelyn!” He boomed, arms wide, ruddy face lighting up in a huge smile beneath a squashed boxer’s nose. “You should have called! I had no idea.”
“Yes, well.” Evelyn gave him a very level look. “Here I am.”
He laughed, a jolly, rolling sound. “Here, give your old man a hug!”
He strode up to us and lifted Evelyn right off her feet. I had to suppress a flinch. That would have been terribly rude of me – this man was no monster, just uncommonly large, in every direction. I contented myself with a small step backward, though I needn’t have bothered; he was completely absorbed in embracing his daughter.
“Don’t pick me up, you oaf!” Evelyn spat. “Put me down!”
He weathered his daughter’s outrage with more jolly laughter, and set her down very gently.
I couldn’t help but notice he held onto Evelyn for a moment longer than necessary, to help her find her unsteady feet and brace her walking stick firmly against the ground. He’d swept her into that hug many, many times before. I wondered if he’d dropped her once, how often she’d stumbled and fallen over as a child, unused to her prosthetic leg and the chronic pain.
“Here, let me get a good look at you, I haven’t seen your face for months,” he said, hands on her shoulders. He pulled a theatrical expression of careful scrutiny, bunching up his bushy eyebrows. “Mmm, yes, I suspected so.”
“Suspected what?” Evelyn snapped.
“That you are as fantastic as the last time I saw you, my dear.”
“You’ve been drinking.”
“Two glasses of wine with dinner, that’s all. No harm in a little lubrication now and then.” He chuckled through Evelyn’s very unimpressed look.
“A little,” she growled.
“Oh, Evelyn, Evelyn, you really should have called ahead, I would have put something in the oven for you and your friends. You’re lucky I was even here, I spent yesterday night in the city. We just won a big case, and I went out drinking with the judge afterwards – all a bit hush hush on that though.” He winked broadly and put a stubby finger to his lips for a moment. “So, tell me, how long are you and your friends planning on staying? The university term is just ending, isn’t it?” He cast a cursory glance over myself, Raine, and Praem, didn’t seem to take us in before he looked back to his daughter. “All the way ‘till Christmas? I was supposed to be taking Christmas dinner with Angeline, but I can change plans, we could have your aunt and uncle over. It’ll be wonderful, the house will be full up for once!”
When Evelyn had opened up about her past, she’d called her father a ‘weak fool’. No description seemed less apt for this animated giant of a man, the wide sweeping gestures of his ham hock hands, the weight of muscle beneath his gut. He should be striding across some ancient battlefield in a Norse Saga, hefting a war axe – not squeezed into suit trousers and a neat shirt with the sleeves rolled up, in 21st century rural England.
Father and daughter shared little resemblance – except for the glorious golden blonde hair. Evelyn had inherited that from him, just as wild and thick, though her father was going grey from the temples upward.
Everything else must have come from her mother.
“I’m not staying long,” Evelyn grunted.
Her father did a poor job of concealing his puppy-like disappointment, though he did try, and I believe in that moment I came to completely understand the man.
“Well! Well, however long you’re planning to stay, first off you should probably all come inside and get out of this dammed cold!” He laughed at his own simple wit, playing the gregarious host, making big gestures with his hands as he looked around at the friends who had brought his daughter home.
“Bloody right,” Evelyn muttered, but she made no move toward the front door.
He wasn’t exaggerating. A biting cold was creeping up on us. Even sheltered by the bulwark of the house and the density of the trees, the December night’s chill cut through my pink hoodie and sapped my strength, leeching away the lingering heat from the car ride. I seemed to feel the cold more acutely these days, as if the repeated use of hyperdimensional mathematics had turned me partially cold-blooded. I did rather desperately want to get indoors.
One of my greatest flaws, I was too polite to make a move before our host did. I scrunched up the ends of my sleeves around my hands. At least my teeth weren’t chattering, yet.
“Have you eaten on the road?” Evelyn’s father was asking, as he gestured at the house. “I’ve got leftovers, all sorts. Some cold lasagna in the fridge, probably some part-baked garlic bread to spare too. I’ve got some, um … ” He nodded recognition to Raine, who smiled back at him. “Raine, yes, uh, glad to see you’re well.”
“Always doing great, thank you.” She hefted our bags in one hand and closed the car’s boot. “And how have you been?”
“Oh, fine, fine, yes, quite.” He swallowed, purging himself of a nasty taste. he turned his smile on Praem and I. “And who are you two young ladies? You must introduce us, Evelyn.”
“This is Heather,” said Evelyn. “She’s my … friend.”
“A friend? An actual friend? Well, blow me down with a feather.” His eyebrows climbed like a pair of fat caterpillars and he grinned with genuine delight as stuck out a hand toward me. “Very pleased to meet you then, Heather. You have no idea how much of a relief it is that she’s finally making some friends at university.”
He presented a strange sight, this giant of a man framed by the bulk of the spider-servitor behind him, that he couldn’t see. What was it like, living in this house, in the unseen wreckage of his dead wife’s work? Two minutes earlier I would have found him intimidating, but now I felt sorry for him. I gave him my best smile and shook his hand.
“Heather Morell,” I said. “That’s me, I mean. Mister Saye?”
“Do call me Lewis, please.”
“She’s one of us,” Evelyn added.
“Ah.” Lewis Saye’s smile froze for a fraction of a second; another fumbled attempt to suppress his gut emotional reaction, and this time it made me feel awful. For an eye blink, so short I would have missed it if I hadn’t been shaking his hand, this viking throwback was wary of me.
Then the moment passed, and he was all welcoming and big smiles again.
“Ah, well.” He shrugged, then burst into a good natured belly chuckle. “I shan’t hold it against you.”
I was gripped by the most bizarre urge to apologise. Instead, for once in my life, I managed to say the right thing. “Evelyn’s a great friend to me. She really is.”
“Ahhh, I expect no less of my girl.” He beamed at me, though in my peripheral vision I saw Evelyn roll her eyes. “That’s wonderful, wonderful. And who might this be?” Before anyone could stop him, Lewis Saye turned to Praem and stuck out his hand. “Delighted to meet you as well, I’m sure … I … oh.”
Praem stared back.
That little ‘oh’ was so small and defeated. His bluff and bluster fell at the hurdle of Praem’s eyes. Lewis Saye’s smile died, leaving only numb shock. He retracted his proffered hand and took an uncertain half step back from the doll-demon. Praem just stared, a few strands of her long blonde hair loose in the wind.
Lewis looked to his daughter for help, tried to form a question, managed only to swallow.
“Oh for God’s sake, yes.” Evelyn scowled. “It’s exactly what you think it is. Deal with it.”
“She,” I corrected softly. Evelyn let out a huff.
Lewis was absolutely lost. He blinked at Praem with a shadow of the expression I had imagined for my mother’s face when I presented her with Raine, but tainted with equal parts fear and surrender. The look of a man who knows he is powerless to avoid certain horror.
“She’s made of wood,” Raine said quickly, stepping up to fill the gap with her effortless confidence – and literally, stepping forward and handing Praem one of the bags, looping the strap over the demon’s shoulder. Praem adjusted to the weight, tilting slightly. “A life size doll, you know, like a shop mannequin. We’ve had her for weeks, she’s perfectly safe. Not that bright, either.”
“Her name is Praem,” I added.
Lewis blinked at me. “Na- name?”
“Y-yes. Yes,” I said, and felt especially lame.
He turned back to Evelyn. “In- in the house? You want it … to come in?”
In the tremor of his voice I heard an echo of how he must have been with her mother; this was what Evelyn had called weak. My heart went out to them both.
“No, I thought we’d station her out here to stand around and scare off the birds,” Evelyn said. “Of course in the house, what’s the point of having her otherwise? You lived most of your life with far worse under your feet.” She shouldered past her father’s wavering hand and trudged up toward the house’s front door, leaning heavily on her walking stick.
“Have things-” he turned to Raine, a distraught frown on his face. “Have things gotten that bad in Sharrowford?”
Raine smiled that endless confidence and shrugged her shoulders. “Nothing major. We had to deal with a couple of problems, that’s all. Praem’s just insurance.”
“Nothing major?” I couldn’t stop myself. Raine had the good grace to look a little sheepish as she shot me an apologetic smile.
“I-I thought … ” Evelyn’s father shook his head, casting his eyes across the semi-circle of tarmac and the thin grass beyond as if searching for help. “I- I should- she can come to me about anything. She- … ”
“About our kind of stuff?” Raine asked.
Lewis Saye stared at her blankly. Then he swallowed and turned away, to follow his daughter up the steps to the front door, underneath the overhanging bulk of a giant pneuma-somatic spider he couldn’t even see.
When he was beyond earshot, I let out a huge sigh. “That went less than well.”
“Give him about twenty minutes, he’ll be right back to normal,” Raine murmured. “Hey, he’s a hell of a bloke, he spent twenty years dealing with her mum. You don’t marry a mage for two decades without a pretty thick skin.”
“Raine, that is a deeply traumatised man,” I muttered under my breath. “How much does he even know?”
“Oh, he’s totally clued in. Sort of.” She shrugged. “He doesn’t like it. Seriously, twenty minutes, he’ll be cracking bad jokes again. Even if Evee starts an argument with him. Hell, especially if she starts an argument with him, that’ll perk him right up.”
I shook my head, watching as Evelyn stepped inside the house with her father at her heels. The last dregs of sunlight drained from the sky, orange sunset snagged on the very tips of the distant trees. Darkness closed in in tight behind us – rural darkness, no streetlights or urban light pollution out here. The windows of the great house cast the only illumination. Darker shapes scuttled and scurried in the deepening night beyond. When I looked up, I could see so many more stars than I usually would.
“Feed me a strawberry,” Praem intoned.
“Someone’s hungry,” Raine said. “Where’s Evee keeping the zombie food?”
“In her bag, I think. Later,” I added, glancing at Praem’s impassive face.
Raine gently touched the back of her hand to my cheek. Her fingers were so warm. “Hey, Heather, you’re freezing. Let’s get you inside, yeah? You know, the house has a couple of actual fireplaces, we could get some wood, light one of them up. I bet you’d love that.” She smiled and took my hand in hers, moved to lead me up the steps.
“As long as there’s no madwoman in the attic.” I let out a little sigh. “I suppose I don’t have a choice now, do I?”
Raine cocked an eyebrow at me. “You always have a choice, Heather. Always. You could tell me – right now, right here – to get back in the car, get Evee in with you, and drive out of here. And I’d do it, through the night. I would. If you feel unsafe, you feel wrong here, I’d do it. I swear.”
“Raine, don’t be ridiculous.”
“You think I’m exaggerating?” she asked, dead serious, and stopped two steps higher than me.
The addition to her already considerable height advantage intimidated me in an obscurely pleasurable way – I ached to tell her her so, and stumbled over a response.
“Of course you’re not exaggerating, but it’s still ridiculous. Why don’t you tell me what to do for a change?”
I hoped the darkness would hide the blush in my cheeks. I hadn’t meant to say that, and I didn’t entirely know what I meant by it.
On the steps of Evelyn’s house, beneath a giant pneuma-somatic spider, was not the place to have this particular conversation. I eyed the giant servitor hanging above us, attached to the side of the house. The size of the thing sent a little animal tremor through my chest, but somehow I couldn’t summon any deeper fear of the battered, ancient creature.
This place was done, a long time ago.
“Heather?” A curious grin broke across Raine’s face. “Should I be-”
“Besides,” I spoke a little too fast, a touch too loud. “This place isn’t scary. Not really. Like you said, it’s got beautiful architecture.”
“Mmmhmm, mmhmm, sure,” Raine nodded and eyed me with a quirk to her lips. “Come on, we should get inside. You need to eat something before you conk out, at least.”
I nodded, but turned to look behind me one last time, still hand-in-hand with Raine.
Praem had remained unresponsive amid all this drama, staring out into the darkening garden. At first I thought she was locked in silent communion with the night, and I was going to call for her to follow us, but then I realised something was staring back at her.
That fox again, barely twenty feet away.
It caught wind of my attention, huge vulpine ears swivelling to listen to all the little sounds of the night. It was beautiful, far more beautiful than the house; that sleek pointed face and deep russet fur, the way it locked eyes with me for a skittish heartbeat.
Then it bounded away. Praem turned her head to look at me.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” I said, talking about the fox.
“Beautiful,” she echoed, her icicle voice lingering on the air.
We didn’t last two hours until Evelyn went missing.
Raine was correct, Lewis Saye did perk up in record time. His transformation back to gregarious mirth was so fast and so complete that I would have suspected him of sneaking off to pop some pills, but he was around us the whole time for that first hour, not so much as five minutes in the toilet to fortify himself. Evelyn had forged ahead alone, but her father bustled back to the entryway all small talk and big laughter once more, to usher us deeper into his grand echoing shell of a home.
In the short walk from the front door to the main kitchen, the house revealed precious little of itself; from the white plaster and old tile of the entryway nook, we crossed the house’s main corridor, a kinked spine with a partial skeleton of exposed dark beams. Shadows lingered in the unlit depths to our left and right. Thick carpets soaked up the sound of our footsteps.
Lewis Saye was true to his word, he had a wealth of leftovers in his well-stocked fridge. He plied us with pasta reheated in an expensive microwave, fresh crusty bread and newly opened packets of fancy chocolate biscuits.
There was something wrong with that kitchen. Something out of place.
My mind chewed on the problem, as Evelyn brewed in sullen silence at the far end of the wooden table, as Raine dumped our bags on the floor and set about assisting Lewis with the food, much to his obvious discomfort.
“Please, please, do sit down, it won’t be a moment, won’t be a moment. Neither of you are allergic to anything, are you?” He boomed about, clattering plates and cutlery to fill the silences. “Never can tell these days. No? Healthy young women all of you, then. Double helpings!”
“I’ll drink to that,” said Raine.
The kitchen didn’t feel real – none of this did.
All faux-rustic brick and shiny chrome fittings, thick slab shelves and tan slate flooring. None of it could disguise the tilted set of the walls, the cramped ceiling, the tiny windows. A modern skin over a reality far older and far less grand. Nothing in here looked really used, like the kitchen in a holiday house.. Even the food in the fridge was too neatly wrapped in cling film, no half empty packets of sandwich meat or forgotten bags of cheese.
I sat down at the table, distracted, and Evelyn met my confused look with a dark frown.
“Why do you look so gormless?” she muttered.
“I … don’t feel like we’re really here.” I shrugged.
Her tone could have etched steel.
A few minutes later Lewis was in full swing again, once he’d sat down at the table and I’d worked out the best way to politely phrase my real question, between mouthfuls of lasagna sauce.
“Oh no, I don’t do the cleaning myself,” he boomed with a grin. “You’re quite right, it’s far too much house for that. Even if I wasn’t such an old brute! Ha! Yes, I have a cleaner in twice a week. Though, of course, there’s places she can’t go. Of course, you all understand all that. Of course.” He waved a hand and smiled with boyish guilt. “The whole east wing is mothballed, in fact, pipes drained, furniture covered. Must keep the property price up, you know? Can’t be having it go to seed.”
Evelyn snorted at that, picking at her food.
Her father glanced at her fondly and allowed himself an indulgent chuckle. Perhaps complete tolerance was the only coping mechanism he knew. Had he learnt that from dealing with her mother?
The man did love to talk. I discovered he barely lived here, gathered he was a lawyer by profession, spent more time in London than out here in the ancestral pile – though he’d been the one to marry into it rather than the other way around. He punted easy question after easy question at his daughter. How was university going? How was the Sharrowford house faring? Was she getting any exercise? Did her leg need a replacement yet? All surface level. He didn’t even ask how she’d met me.
Evelyn fielded the conversation with monosyllabic disinterest, so Lewis made the effort to include Raine and I, asked what I was studying, where I was from, what my parents did.
What did any of those things matter?
“It’s a pity Angeline wasn’t down here with me this weekend,” he said. “I’m sure she would have loved to see you again, Evelyn. I know, I know, it’s a little strange for you, and she can never … um … well, you know. Family and all that.”
He blinked. I froze up. It was the first time she’d used that word.
“I don’t even remember who she is,” Evelyn growled.
“Oh, oh no, that can’t be right. You met her, when I came up to Sharrowford last year.” He grinned awkwardly and turned to Raine and I. “My lady friend. She was from another city firm. Rather a bit of drama about all that. A long story.”
“I remember her face,” Raine said. “Twenty years younger than you, right?”
“No, no! Certainly not!” Lewis blustered and harrumphed, then burst out laughing. “Ten years. I know, I know, I’m a lucky man.”
“You old dog,” said Raine.
I kept hoping he would launch into questions about goings on in Sharrowford, ask why we were towing a demon around, question how exactly I was ‘one of us’ – but he didn’t. He never asked a single real thing. He dealt with Praem by completely ignoring her.
Pretending we were all normal people.
Your daughter and I spent a night in a pocket dimension full of soul-eating monsters, where we killed an evil wizard. Why is this not important to you?
The sense of unreality grew worse, and I realised it had been lurking there in the back of my head for two weeks. This inane conversation over a bizarre meal was a mere catalyst. Why did I feel like I wasn’t really there, in that too-clean kitchen, surrounded by hollow talk?
I should have paid attention to Evelyn, small and shrunken in her seat, staring at nothing. She was hurting. But I didn’t belong here.
I belonged Outside, didn’t I? With Lozzie.
“We shouldn’t be here,” I said.
After the meal, Lewis had bustled about finding us a spare room suitably near Evelyn’s old bedroom. Not that the house lacked for spare rooms. By that point I was flagging hard, dragged down by a belly full of food and a need to curl up and shut the world out. Perhaps if I slept then this feeling would go away.
Up a staircase with two small inset landings, through more corridor of bone-white plaster and dark brown beams. I glimpsed a servitor or two lurking down the hallways of the great house – a spider the same size as the ones back in Sharrowford, and some kind of monitor lizard in a cold fireplace, but they paid me no attention beyond a passing look.
Once Raine and I were alone – Lewis having bustled off somewhere down the corridor – I’d sat, then flopped backward onto a clean white bedspread. We had a double bed in a high-ceilinged room, panelled in dark wood, dim wall lights sculpted as fake candles. Like a room from an early twentieth century detective novel.
Raine had rummaged in our bags for a toothbrush and a change of pajamas, said something inane about how I must be sleepy.
I’d pulled myself back into a sitting position, hunched inside my hoodie with my arms folded, and spoken.
“We shouldn’t be here.”
Raine raised an eyebrow. There was something dark and smoky about her in the low light, in this antique room. “I meant what I said earlier. The moment you feel unsafe, we can be out of here.”
“No, no,” I shook my head and squeezed my eyes shut, partly to clear my mind and summon what scraps of focus I could. “It’s not that. Where’s Evee gone?”
“Ahh? Her old bedroom, I think. It’s just down the end of the corridor.” Raine gestured over her shoulder at the half open door, then pulled a sheepish, toothy grin. “Didn’t you notice? I tried to go with her, but … ” she shrugged.
I gave her the best hard look I could manage.
I sighed, then set about struggling out of my hoodie. Suddenly it felt constricting. I got it halfway off my head before I felt Raine’s hands on my arms, helping me take it off. I shook myself out and smoothed my hair down.
“I know, Evee’s having a rough time of it,” Raine was saying. “Give her five minutes alone and we should go on a charm offensive, cheer her up a bit, get-”
“A ‘rough time of it’?” I echoed – exactly as sharply as I’d intended, puffed up with indignation as I hunched on the bed. “She hates this place. It’s hurting her. I can’t believe you bullied her into coming here.”
Raine laughed it off, my pink hoodie limp in her hands. “Bully Evee? I don’t think either of us could bully her into anything.”
“You did, Raine. How can’t you see it? It’s like forcing me to go back to Cygnet hospital for a scenic weekend.”
“She … ” Raine glanced away from me, her smile flickering. “She needs to face it. It’s therapeutic.”
“Raine! That’s not your decision to make!”
“Ahh … I mean … yeah. I … ”
It hit me the split-second before Raine crumpled, before she let out a huge sigh and slid down with her back against the wall until she was sitting on the floor, face in her hands – I’d never seen her so conflicted, never seen her struggle like this. I could barely believe the impact of my own words.
“Ahhhhh shit. I’ve been a right fucking dick, haven’t I? I’ve really fucking messed up this time.”
“Raine? It’s okay, it’s not the end of the world, we can- A-are you okay?”
She looked up with a sad smile, defeated but not broken, and raised both hands in surrender. “I’m fine, I’m fine. You’re completely right. It wasn’t my decision to make, and I’ve … really hurt Evee this time. And now you think I’m a nasty bitch too,” she gestured at me and puffed out a mirthless laugh. “Bang up job, Raine old girl. Well fucking done. Can’t even pull off protecting you two without screwing up.”
She sighed and ran a hand through her hair, that rich chestnut hair, a few errant locks standing up in bold loops.
I’d never seen Raine vulnerable before, not really; with the strange alchemy that lay in the junction between emotional distress and sexual attraction, I suddenly wanted to get up and go over to her.
She wasn’t doing it intentionally. I don’t believe she was aware of the effect.
I shook my head, trying to concentrate. “Raine, I don’t follow. Protecting … ?”
Raine gestured vaguely, at the house around us. “An old magical fortress. One of the safest places in the whole country.”
“Not for Evee, it isn’t. Raine, you … you … ” Realisation dawned with a sudden click. “Wait, is that why we’re here?”
Raine dipped her head, an instinctive bob of pleading for forgiveness.
“That’s why we’re here,” I said. “Oh my God. Raine.”
“I may have been economical with the truth,” she said.
“You thought the Sharrowford Cult was going to attack the house!”
I stared at her in disbelief.
“If I’m right,” she continued, “then the house gets hit, the spiders deal with it, and none of us get hurt – not you, not Evee. Maybe she has to spend a few hundred pounds on a new front door, but that would be the worst of it. If I’m wrong, then hey, we needed to do this trip sooner or later anyway. You have to see that map if we’re ever going to rescue your sister. We can leave tomorrow, I promise.”
“Why … ” I swallowed, my throat dry, but Raine already knew the question. Why lie?
“I never would have gotten Evee out of Sharrowford. If I’d said I thought the cult might come for the house, she’d have boarded the windows and barricaded the door. You know how she is. Hell, I get the feeling you know her better than I do, these days. We both love her for it, don’t get me wrong, but she’s stubborn as a ox.”
“You- you didn’t have to-”
“I’m sorry,” she said, and I saw a tightness around her eyes. “I know, I’m a shit, but I have to keep you safe. Both of you. And I’m not doing a very good job of it lately.”
“What? Of course you are. Raine, I’m angry because you lied, not because I think you make a poor protector. For pity’s sake, I watched you shoot in a man in the head for us.”
“That doesn’t count for much.”
“Of course it does, don’t be absurd,” I hissed.
“After that woman in the library … all I could think about is how I wasn’t there. She could have done anything to you, and I wasn’t there. Blind luck that she wanted to talk. I wasn’t there, Heather, I wasn’t at your side. I wasn’t there for you in that castle. We got separated, and you were alone. I wasn’t there for you when that bitch of a zombie tried to snatch you again. I wasn’t there. I had to lie to get you two out of the house, out of Sharrowford, just for a few days. And I would do it again. I’m sorry. This is me.” She shrugged.
The intensity in her words, the passion, the iron-hot conviction; I felt myself shiver, and not in a bad way.
My lover had lied by omission. I should have felt hurt, betrayed, insecure – instead I was turned on by her justifications. This was vastly unhealthy, and I couldn’t make myself care, because I wanted to feel turned on.
Vastly unhealthy. Story of my life.
“You … ” I stumbled over a response. My words felt limp. “You could have told me the real reason, at least.”
Raine shook her head gently. “I would have been asking you to lie to Evee, and I can’t make you do that. This fuck up is my responsibility.”
“No, it’s not,” I hissed. “Killing for me – fine. Lying for me? No, never.”
Raine blinked in surprise, as if she hadn’t expected that. Truth be told, neither had I, and I was too caught between irritation and arousal to consider the implications of my words. Raine nodded, puffed out a humourless laugh and smiled at me.
“I’m sorry, Heather. You’ve been so stressed, ever since we came back from that weird castle place. Like you’ve been ill, or at one remove from everything. I didn’t want to stress you out any more than you already-”
“Is this why you haven’t been screwing me?”
Raine slammed to a halt.
The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. We had more important things to think about – not least, whatever pit Evelyn was stewing in, all alone – but I couldn’t help myself. A hot blush rose in my cheeks. I forced myself to stare at Raine.
“I- Heather?” Her distress lifted just a fraction, a grin edging back onto her lips.
“Oh God, it felt good to say that. That’s the most real thing I’ve said in days.” Suddenly I hiccuped. “So? “You’ve been handling me like I’m a dying swan.” Another hiccup.
“We’ve … I mean … we have-” Now she couldn’t keep the grin off her face.
“Not in the good way.” Hiccup.
“The ‘good way’?”
I rolled my eyes. “You know exactly what I mean. Don’t pretend otherwise.”
She spread her hands in a shrug. “You want me to pin you to that bed and hold you there for an hour?”
Oh, damn her, that grin made my stomach flutter – that was more like it, that’s what I’d needed for weeks. This was real. With every second that passed, the bubble of unreality deflated further, and I felt more human again, less cold-blooded.
I gave her a bit of a look – more to cover up the pressure of my volcanic arousal than to tell her off for flirting.
“Come on, Heather. Yes or no?”
“Yes, obviously yes. You know that.” I shook my head in a vain effort to clear the pink mist, and hiccuped again. “Raine, I haven’t … haven’t felt completely human since whatever I did to kill Alexander. Since Lozzie left. Like I’m still there in that castle, in that moment I killed him. It’s always there. And I’m always cold.”
Raine wiped the teasing sexual mirth off her face instantly. She got up from the floor and crossed to the bed, sitting next to me without a trace of her former distress. She reached out, a silent question in her eyes. I answered with a little nod, and she stroked my head.
“You’re right here, Heather. You feel that way because it was a traumatic night, and you made a difficult decision. You’re right here. I promise.”
“Then why haven’t you been … ” I averted my eyes, blushing again. Courage had fled me.
Raine smiled. “I got it wrong. I misjudged all your signals. I thought you were feeling fragile, needed a gentle touch. You need the opposite?”
I nodded, deeply embarrassed, biting my lower lip.
“It’ll make me feel more human,” I said in a tiny voice.
“Sure thing,” Raine purred.
“Not right now though,” I managed, then swallowed. “We need to talk to Evee, tell her the truth.”
“That’s gonna sting.” Raine winced and sat back. “No less than I deserve, I suppose. It’ll have to be a proper apology. I’ll have to fetch my genuflection mat, flatten my forehead a bit.”
“We could have left her in Sharrowford with Twil for three days. That might have been therapeutic for her.”
Raine smirked – back to normal. “What, getting her laid?”
“I still think you’re off the mark there. Twil’s not into her.”
I held out a hand for my hoodie. “Here, give me that back, please. I feel cold without it.”
Raine did one better than that, she helped me wriggle back into the fuzzy enclosing warmth of the hoodie, pulling it down over my body and sneaking her hands up inside. I squeaked and squirmed and felt myself flush. The little physical rituals of disarmament after a brush with conflict escalated too quickly. Raine got one knee between my thighs and suddenly I was on my back on the bed and-
Praem chose that exact moment to push the door open and step into the room.
Raine and I sat up and parted, brushing hair back into place, like guilty teenagers caught necking. As if Praem cared. I hadn’t realised how close we’d gotten, how flushed my face was, how we’d been inches away from grabbing at each other.
“Hey there, doll-face, what’s up?” Raine asked, including me in a curious look. I shrugged.
Praem stopped two steps into the room, facing us. To my surprise she actually made eye contact – or what passed for eye contact when one didn’t posses pupils.
“I have lost Evelyn,” she announced, voice like a tone struck from a wall of ice.
“What? What does that mean?” I blurted out.
“It just means Evee’s wandered off,” Raine said, frowning at the demon as she stood up. “I’ll go find her.”
“We’ll both go find her. I could do with a little walk.”
“Walked for fifteen minutes,” Praem interrupted. Her head adjusted to regard me. “I have lost Evelyn.”
Raine and I shared another look.
“Praem just doesn’t know the house, that’s all,” Raine said slowly. Her frown gave the lie to her words. “She’s like a dog in a building that used to have lots of bigger dogs living in it, so many strange lingering smells everywhere that scream ‘threat’ – but no actual threats.”
“Implying I am afraid,” Praem intoned.
She did not sound impressed.