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Loved, Page 2

P. C. Cast

“And yet here you are.”

  “Yes, here I am. I wanted you to be forewarned and prepared,” Kalona said. “After what you’ve been through—what we’ve all been through—I decided to err on the side of being a worrier.”

  He looked so uncomfortable, vulnerable even, that I realized this was probably difficult for him. He and I definitely had a past, and since he’d died and then been reconciled with Nyx almost a year ago, I could imagine that it would be super awkward for him to step outside his comfort zone and come to me with a warning his consort and goddess believed wasn’t necessary. Of course, that probably meant that his warning wasn’t necessary since Nyx knows her stuff—but still. I had to give him some credit for having his heart in the right place.

  “Okay, well, that’s nice of you. So, I’ll keep my eyes open for trouble. And I’ll tell Stark, too. Thanks for the heads up.”

  “There’s something else you can do,” he said. “You can read Neferet’s childhood journal.”

  My body suddenly went cold. “Whoa, wait! Neferet has something to do with this feeling of yours?”

  “Yes. No. I’m just not sure. And because I’m not sure, you need to be prepared for anything. That is why I want you to read her journal.”

  “I don’t understand. What is this journal you’re talking about?”

  “When Neferet was a child—before she was Marked, she was a human named Emily Wheiler.”

  “Yeah, yeah, I know that. She lived in Chicago and when she was young, before she was Marked, her father raped her.”

  “Yes, and she kept a journal—a diary of sorts—wherein she recounted all that happened to her. She buried that journal in Oklahoma more than one hundred years ago. I think it would be wise if you read it. If the danger that is coming is from Neferet, you’re going to need every piece of information available to defeat her.”

  My mind was spinning and my stomach felt sick. “Don’t you mean defeat her again? And why the hell didn’t you mention this journal last year when she declared herself a goddess and tried to take over the world?”

  He shuffled his feet and looked down. “I was embarrassed. It was through the energy that seeped from Neferet’s journal that I first began to influence her. I used her to free myself from imprisonment with A-ya. I made a terrible mistake and I feel great remorse, and embarrassment, because of it. When I joined you against Neferet I simply did not want to give you a reason to mistrust me again.”

  I blew out a long, frustrated breath. “Okay, I get that. But you still should have told us about the journal.”

  “I’m telling you now, even though I know it brings up the Darkness in my past. I hope that shows you how serious I am about the impending sense of danger I feel.”

  I nodded. “Yeah, it definitely does that. So, where is this old journal?”

  “She buried it at the base of the ancient Oklahoma rune stone in 1893.”

  I blinked in surprise. “You mean the Heavener Runestone? I went there on a field trip in eighth grade. Ugh. Ticks.”


  “Yeah, I remember picking like a zillion ticks off of my legs after we got back on the bus. Not important, just gross. At least it’s winter, so ticks won’t be an issue. There’ll be mud, though. It’s been raining like crazy, but I’ll take mud over ticks any day. Uh, 1893 was a long time ago. What if it’s all disintegrated and whatnot?”

  “The journal is in delicate condition, but you won’t have to search through mud to find it. Neferet dug it up decades ago when she first came to be High Priestess at the Tulsa House of Night. She hid it under the floorboards beneath the bed in her chamber.”

  “What? You mean it’s still there? Under my bed in my chamber?” It made me feel vaguely nauseous to think that Stark and I were at that very moment happily snoozing away just above Neferet’s crazy journal—almost like we were sleeping over her grave—if she wasn’t immortal and was actually dead, that is.

  “Ah, of course. You took the High Priestess’ chamber.”

  “Yeah, ’cause I’m the High Priestess,” I spoke confidently. Almost one year ago, I’d become the first High Priestess of the New North American High Council—a position and title I’d only recently begun to feel comfortable with. Well, I was fairly comfortable when I wasn’t dealing with the grumpy old High Council that still liked to try to rule North America from Italy. Like it was still the dark ages. Or at the very least the out of date, pre-Internet ages.

  Kalona was looking at me oddly. “What?” I asked.

  “It is just difficult for me to imagine you in Neferet’s bedchamber.”

  “I redecorated.” My voice sounded bitchy, but only because I didn’t want to remember that he had, of course, been in Neferet’s bedroom—and bed—many times when he was still a bad guy and they’d been plotting to take over the world. “You wouldn’t recognize it.”

  He shrugged. “The chamber is of no importance to me. The journal isn’t even of any importance to me. I have never read it. Neferet told me about it, though. She named it a recounting of what made her strong. She used to liken herself to a sword forged in fire. One night she told me that she’d dug up the journal and put it to rest under the floorboards beneath her bed.”

  “I wonder why she dug it up,” I heard myself asking.

  “She said it was there lest she forget,” he said.

  “Hum, well, okay. I’ll have Stark help me move the bed and find it. Good thing I decided against wall-to-wall carpet when I redecorated.”

  “You truly will read it?” He seemed genuinely relieved.

  “Well, yeah. Like you said, if what you sense has anything to do with Neferet, I’ll need all the help I can get.” I paused and added, more to myself than to him, “I wonder if I should tell the rest of my circle. I mean, they’re scattered all around the country right now, but maybe they should be prewarned, too.”

  “Do what you believe is best, Zoey. Your circle is strong, even though you are not still together. Perhaps I give them more credit than does Nyx because of the time I spent with all of you, but I believe you and your circle can handle the worry.” He grinned a little sheepishly, lessening what I could have taken as his being critical of Nyx.

  “Alright, I’ll get the journal and put my circle on prealert.”

  “Excellent,” he said.

  “Good,” I said. We just stood there and I finally blurted, “So, how’s your brother doing?”

  “Erebus is well,” he said.

  “And Nyx? The goddess is good, too?”

  “Nyx is spectacular.”

  “Good to hear it. Tell her I said hi.”

  “I would rather not,” Kalona said, looking super awkward. Again.


  “She asked that I not worry you,” he said.

  “Oh, right. I get it. Okay, so, have you talked to Rephaim lately?” I continued to try to make small talk with him, wishing Shaunee were with me. She was a lot better at talking normally to Kalona than me.

  He opened his mouth to answer and then his words broke off as he tilted his head like he was listening to a voice on the wind only he could hear. “Forgive me, Zoey Redbird, but I must return to the Other World. The goddess calls. And I do apologize, again, if I went about this in the wrong way. I hope we part as friends.”

  “Friends? Sure. And no problem about all of this.” I gestured out at the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea. “I do like it here. Thanks for the warning. I’ll be sure I—” It was about then that I realized Kalona had gone. “Well, that’s typical. He’s not on the Dark Side anymore, but he can still be weird as hell.” Shaking my head, I stared out at the moonlit sea, trying to process the decidedly bad news he’d just delivered.

  Preoccupied by the moon and the message, Zoey didn’t notice that as Kalona departed, his shadow wavered, shivered, and changed, morphing from the familiar winged immortal into swirling smo
ke—white smoke that formed the outline of an enormous bull before disappearing completely.




  I opened my eyes to find Nala so close to my face that she was just a fat orange and white blur.

  “Good morning,” I whispered, trying not to wake the warm body pressed against my side.

  Nala promptly sneezed directly in my face and then climbed over my chest (how can such a fat cat have such little, tiny, sharp paws?) to circle three times and curl in donut form against my hip, where she turned her purr machine on high.

  “Why does she sneeze so much? Do you think she’s allergic to people?”

  I turned my head to look into Stark’s gentle brown eyes. “Sorry,” I was still whispering. “I didn’t mean to wake you up. And I’m pretty sure Nala sneezes so much because she likes to sneeze on people—not because she allergic to people. I mean, how often do you hear her sneezing randomly when she’s not near someone’s face?”

  “Good point. Why are you whispering?”

  “Because I didn’t want to wake you up,” I said in a normal voice.

  “Too late. You started mumbling and twitching in your sleep a little while ago. I could feel something going on with you. Bad dream? But wait. Before we get into that—come here, my High Priestess. My Queen.” With one hand Stark lifted the covers he’d cocooned around himself, showing me a lovely amount of his bare, muscly chest, while his other hand slipped under my shoulders, drawing me against him.

  I snuggled close eagerly, putting off the bad news Kalona had delivered for at least a few more minutes. I kissed his neck and then let my hand trace the broken arrow–shaped scar that had been burned into the flesh over his heart. I kissed him again, this time lingering. His lips were warm and eager, and when his hands slid down my back, kneading the tension Kalona had brought on, I felt like Nala and wished I could purr.

  Instead I explored his body, which never got old. His chest was the right amount of muscle. And I loved his scent. He was sexy man mixed with red cherry licorice, his current snack obsession. He was smooth in all the right places and hard in all the right places—and we fit together perfectly.

  Soon the dream was temporarily forgotten as I lost myself in the heat and passion that was Stark.

  “My beautiful Queen,” he murmured as he kissed my ear as we eventually came back to the present.

  “I love it when you call me your Queen.”

  “Because you like to pretend you’re British?”

  I grinned up at him. “Oh, kind sir, you know me so well,” I said in my best bad British accent.

  “Sssh,” he pressed a finger against my lips. “Don’t speak. Or at least don’t speak in that awful accent.”

  “Hey! I’ve been working on that accent. Someday soon I’m going to be victorious in my quest to get tickets to the Harry Potter play in London. I’m preparing.” I muttered against his finger, which he refused to move.

  “Sssh again. I want to pretend like you’re not going to try to use a British accent while we’re over there.”

  “I thought it would be polite.”

  “If by polite you mean disaster of monumental proportions, then yes. Polite.”

  “Good sir, my accent is simply not that ba—” I tried to speak through his finger in said awesome accent, but he covered my entire mouth with his hand.

  “Trust me. It could start an international event. It’s that bad.”

  I scowled at him and bit his palm. Stark yelped and pulled his hand back.

  “Aphrodite said my accent is good.”

  His brows shot up. “And you never considered that she might be setting you up?”

  I opened my mouth and then closed it. Sighed. “She’s setting me up.”

  “Absolutely. Now, how about good morning round two, my Queen?”

  “Certainly, kind sir.”

  This time Stark used his lips to stop my unfortunate accent. And all I’ll say is that his lips had a decidedly positive effect.

  Several minutes of kissing later, it was Stark who—uncharacteristically—pulled back and, brushing a stray strand of dark hair from my cheek, reminded me of what he temporarily had me forgetting.

  “So, bad dream? You haven’t had a scary Neferet nightmare in months.”

  “It wasn’t a Neferet nightmare. Or at least not exactly. It was Kalona.”

  “You had a Kalona nightmare? That’s weird.”

  “Well, it wasn’t a nightmare. It was a visit. Or at least I’m pretty sure it was.” Stark’s look darkened with the same memories that had made me snap at Kalona, and I hurried on to explain. “But not a creeper visit, like he used to do.”

  “That’s good. Did Nyx send him to you?”

  “No. Actually, he said Nyx doesn’t know. He came to warn me. Apparently, Nyx thinks he’s being, I don’t know—overly cautious, I guess, which he admitted was a possibility.”

  Stark sat up and grabbed his T-shirt from the bedside table, pulling it on. He ran his hand through his adorable bed-headed hair and sat across from me looking very Warrior-like and alert. “Explain, please.”

  I sat and rearranged the pillows behind me, causing Nala to grumble. “Kalona said he felt that danger was coming. Here. To the House of Night. He wanted to warn me and recommend some reading material.”

  “I don’t get why Nyx didn’t want him to do that.”

  “I think it has something to do with the recommended reading material,” I said.

  “Which is what?”

  “Neferet’s old journal. And by old, I mean really old—as in written when she was still Emily Wheiler.”

  Stark’s face paled. “Shit. Neferet again? That’s bad. Really bad.”

  “Well, Kalona couldn’t say for sure that he thought the danger had to do with Neferet. But he also couldn’t say for sure that it didn’t have to do with her. So, he thought he’d warn me and tell me about the journal.”

  “His reasoning?”

  “That if something was going on with Neferet—again—we’d need to know everything we possibly can about her.” I raised my hand to stop him as he started to mumble something about that being too little too late. “Yeah, I know. I asked him why he was just now telling me about the journal. He made a semilame excuse.”

  “Sounds like him. He’s not a bad guy anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still a pain in the ass,” Stark said.

  “Exactly. So, I’m supposed to read the journal and put our circle on a big trouble alert, even though they’re scattered all over the US right now. Or, I think most of them are still in the US. Last time I talked to Damien he was going on and on about needing to open a new House of Night.” I waggled my eyebrows at Stark. “In the Caribbean on Grand Cayman Island.”

  Stark grinned through his worry. “That couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that it’s December and New York City is having record cold temps, could it?”

  “Um, yes. I think, as Damien would say, there is a direct correlation.” I swung my legs over the side of the bed and put on my cushy slippers. “But he’s still reachable. I’ll text him and Stevie Rae, Shaunee and Shaylin—just to put them on alert. You know, it’s weird. I usually hear from all of them at least once a day, but lately they’ve been pretty quiet.” I froze and met Stark’s eyes, feeling my first wave of foreboding. “Oh, Goddess! Could something have happened to them? Hell! I didn’t even think about that when Kalona was warning me.” I started to reach for my cell phone, which was turned off but charging on my night table. “I’m such an idiot. If they’re in danger and I didn’t—”

  Stark intercepted my hand. “They’re fine. Nothing’s happened to them.”

  I realized my hand was shaking when he took it in both of his. “You can’t know that,” I said, feeling frantic. “I’m calling them. All of them. Now.”
/>   Stark blew out a long breath and then reluctantly said, “You can’t. They’re in the air.”

  “Huh? What do you mean? What’s going on?”

  “Z, what’s today’s date?”

  I frowned at him. “I don’t know. Um. The twenty-third. Of December. I think.”

  “Yeah. It’s the twenty-third. What’s tomorrow?”

  “The twenty-fourth.” And then I knew what was going on. “OMG, are they surprising me for my birthmas?”

  “Well, they were surprising you. And I kept the damn thing secret for months.” He shook his head. “Aphrodite’s gonna kill me.”

  “Wait, for real? They’re coming here for my birthday?” Even Kalona’s weird visit and ominous message couldn’t dampen the flutter of happiness that lifted inside me. “All of them?”

  “All of them.”

  I jumped up and down, giggling. “Seriously?”

  “Seriously. You didn’t think your circle was going to ignore your eighteenth birthday, did you?”

  I lifted my shoulders. “I’m pretty used to my birthmas being a disaster of smooshed holidays, so yeah—I did.”

  “I hate that your birthday has always been so crappy,” he said. “I really wanted to change that for your eighteenth.”

  “Hey, there were little bits of good with the crappy. Grandma always gave me something cool, and my little brother, Kevin, used to sneak me silly little things he made or got from the Dollar Store because my mom’s awful husband, the step-loser, used to only give me Jesus-themed gifts because, you know, the baby Jesus’ birthday is the only one that should be celebrated in December.”

  “Oh, right, of course,” Stark said sarcastically.

  “But it’s awesomesauce that my friends are surprising me! And well-timed awesomesauce, at that. I can give Neferet’s stupid journal to Damien. He’ll love studying it, and I can already hear him lecturing us about making it required reading and such for all House of Night students—a cautionary tale or whatever.”

  “That’s probably a good idea. So, where is it?”

  “You’re not gonna like this part.”