Bound by duty, p.23
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       Bound by Duty, p.23

           Stormy Smith
 
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  Chapter 22

  I woke up on the couch in the living room of my apartment. As I squinted my eyes open, sending a little jet through me to dull the pain in my head and the aches in my body, I saw Cole and Bethany sitting at the kitchen table. I looked around and Micah was gone. Or Prince Mikail, I suppose.

  As soon as Bethany saw my partially-opened eyes she was next to me, helping me sit up. “Hey there, girl. What can I get you? Tea?” I nodded weakly and she disappeared into the kitchen. I turned myself so that I wasn’t taking up the entire couch and found myself eye-to-eye with my very irritated brother.

  “Would you like to explain what the hell just happened, Amelia?” His anger was at new heights, but I didn’t have the energy for the argument.

  I laughed a broken laugh. “Only if I knew where to start, Cole. I wish I could.”

  “Well, honey, why don’t you start with what you’ve been hiding from your best friend?” Bethany stood in the kitchen, filling my mug with water and refusing to look at me. “Then, you can tell me what in goodness gracious I just witnessed out there, and you can end with why you were trying to kill my boyfriend! After that, we can get to why he brought you in here comatose before he disappeared. Those are really the high points we need, isn’t that right, Cole?” Her sarcasm was tinged with hurt and it killed me to know that I had done that.

  I stood up from the couch and took a few steps toward Bethany, taking the tea mugs from her and then yanking her in for a hug. I held on for dear life, for my sanity, and to try to show my friend in some small way that none of this was to hurt her. The realization that I had done exactly what had been done to me — lied to protect her — was a bitter taste in my mouth.

  I finally let go, picking up our mugs and taking them to the couch.

  “This is the short version, B, because it would take days to explain the long version. It’s probably pretty clear that we have some…uh, different abilities than you do.”

  She snorted, “Really, Ame? Abilities? Your crazy magic business pretty much takes the cake.”

  I laughed at little. “Well, you seem to be rolling with it pretty well. Yes, we have some crazy magic business. Both Cole and I. Mine is a little different from his. I’m…uh, special. And I have some power other people don’t. The people who took you are AniMages. They are a kind of Mage that has less power, but the ability to shift into animals. You saw what they can do.”

  “And they want your help? Who forced them out? Why? That Elias man seemed decent enough, but I’ll tell you what, you scared the beejesus out of me when you went blank out there. What was that?” She was tapping her nail against the ceramic cup, the tiny ping-ping in rhythm with her foot tapping on floor. I was so impressed that she hadn’t had her own meltdown. I could only imagine that there weren’t many humans who could walk away from this ordeal without losing it.

  I put my hand on her leg to stop the bouncing. “Too much, B. I’m going to skip some questions for now. The AniMages do want my help, and Elias showed me a very painful memory of his past.” I looked up at Cole, whose concern was etched in the furrow of his brow, his lips pursed, and worry lines around his eyes. At my mention of sharing memories, sadness filled his eyes. Yet another dark piece of a limitless puzzle we now shared.

  “And Micah? What happened between you two?” she asked.

  I couldn’t explain that to her without Cole going ballistic, so I didn’t. “I won’t lie to you again, B, but I can’t tell you that yet. I will, but Cole and I need to talk first.” She pulled back from me, hurt again.

  “Oh. Well, then.” She stood up and I grabbed her hand, stopping her exit. “Hey, look at me.” She stared straight ahead for a moment but finally looked down at me.

  “This is a lot, B. It’s a lot for me. So much has happened in the last day that I don’t even know how to talk about it. I don’t know what it means or what’s going to happen. But, they’ve come for you once. I don’t want them to do it again. Just give me time, okay? Pinky swear, you’ll get the full story. I just need time.” I held out my hand, pinky extended.

  She sighed in acceptance. “Okay, girl. But, you hear me now. In the last twenty-four hours I’ve been snatched from a parking lot, stared down a wolf that I watched turn into a demon woman, had my hair burnt, watched my best friend light up like a damn glow stick, and my boyfriend spit red fire from his hands. I won’t say I haven’t cried, but all in all, I’ve kept my shit together pretty well. No more holding out on me. Got it? We are best friends and I’m in this for better or for worse. I deserve the truth.” With her hands on her hips and scowl on her face, I’d never loved my best friend more.

  I got up and hugged her again. “Deal. Now, go pack a bag. We’ve got to get to Cole’s. It’s safer there.”

  She looked down at herself and wrinkled her nose. Her dress looked like it had been dunked in a mud puddle and her hair was in knots. “Can I at least shower? This is just unacceptable.” I laughed and looked up at Cole for confirmation.

  “Twenty minutes, princess, and we’re out the door. Make it happen.” She rolled her eyes and sauntered toward her room. “Oh ye of little faith, I only need ten.”

  As soon as the water started, Cole was next to me.

  “What aren’t you telling her?” His words were hushed, but I wasn’t sure they would stay that way. I gave him the short version of what happened with Elias. He nodded and asked a few questions, but didn’t seem overly shocked.

  “I knew there were AniMages out there, I just don’t know how they found you. Or knew about all of this? You know we need to talk to them, don’t you?” He was rubbing his face, the last few days wearing on him as well.

  “I know, Cole, but we have bigger problems. Elias also told me that Micah is the prince. Prince Mikail, to be accurate. I passed out because when we were arguing, Rhi showed up. His Hunter. The Hunter. The one who killed mom.”

  That sent fire into my brother’s eyes. They lit up like bar neon, glowing green. “Prince? You’re telling me the guy we’ve been trusting, the one who has been helping us and dating your best friend, is the prince? As in, the one you are betrothed to?”

  This time, it was me putting my hand on his. “You’ve got to calm down, Cole. I don’t know how to explain this to Bethany. I don’t even know what it means.” I wasn’t sure how I had become the voice of reason, but I couldn’t stop myself. “He says he was here to help me, to protect me. I think we have to hear him out. I don’t understand how that Hunter fits into all of this, but there are too many players in the game. I don’t know who to trust. I don’t know what to think. So, we just have to hear them all out and make a choice. Don’t you think?”

  He huffed in response. “How did you become the rational one?”

  I smiled. “Trust me, I’ve made enough impulsive decisions lately to last a lifetime. I just don’t see another option.” It occurred to me I still hadn’t seen our uncle. “Hey, where’s Derreck? Shouldn’t he be here? It’d be really nice to hear his take on all of this.”

  Cole shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ve called and called. He’s not answering, so I told him just to meet us at my place in my last voicemail. Speaking of, her ten minutes is—”

  At that second, Bethany emerged from her room, toting an overnight bag. “Looking for me, honey?” Her smile was syrupy-sweet and victory shone in her eyes. I couldn’t stop the laughter that bubbled over as my brother stared open-mouthed at her perfect hair and make-up, shaking his head in disbelief.

  He snapped his mouth shut. “Let’s go. In the car, everybody. Now.”

  He went first and I gave B a silent high five as I grabbed my own bag and headed out the door.

  I crashed hard once we got to Cole’s. I was planning to eat and take a shower once we got there, but as I laid down to close my eyes for a few minutes, I was out cold. Then, the howling started again.

  I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say that I knew I wasn’t in my own body. Everything was sharper; more crisp. I could
smell the soil beneath my feet, the different plants and animals, even the ocean air — all of it taking on a different taste than anything I’d ever experienced. I ran and ran, trees whipping by and barely glancing off of me. The howling varied. Sometimes long, eerie wailing and then furious-sounding baying.

  It took a long time for me to realize those noises were coming from me.

  I awoke with a start, once again sitting straight up in bed. I was covered in sweat, my hair matted and sticking to the back of my neck. I kept looking left and right, expecting to be surrounded by trees. It didn’t make sense. Why would I be howling? Why would I be dreaming about being something that could howl? Had Elias done something to me when we merged?

  As I laid back, I groaned at the realization that it was another day that likely held more questions than answers.

   

   

  I rubbed my eyes, feeling the film of yesterday’s events still on my skin, and decided it was time for my shower. I could see light through the shades. Why not get the next potentially life-threatening day going already?

  I mean, really, there’s positivity and then there’s realism.

  After my shower, I found myself alone in the kitchen. Charlie lumbered in, his gigantic paws landing in my lap as I sat at the bar counter. He nuzzled and whimpered, licking my hands and diving his head into the crook of my arm. I tried to send him reassuring thoughts but instead was assailed with all of his worry from last night. He was not pleased to have been left at home and was trying to show me how he could have patrolled and helped me. He also showed me how he had slept outside my door all night and heard my dream. Apparently, I was making quite a bit of noise as the lone wolf was howling its way around the woods. I dropped my head to Charlie’s and scratched behind his ears. All I could do was tell him I was okay. He dropped down and plopped a few feet away on his humongous dog bed, letting out an indignant woof.

  I couldn’t blame him. I didn’t even believe myself when I said I was okay. I was nowhere near the continent of being alright. As I tried to mentally rewind through the last few days and weeks, it was exhausting to even try to think of everything I’d been through. I felt like one of those investigative reporters that had an entire wall filled with post-its and strings tying the various pieces together. Except, it was all a jumbled mess inside of my head.

  Bethany found me sitting at that kitchen counter with my arms crossed and my head down. “It’s too early, honey. You can’t be trying to solve the world’s problems until you’ve been properly caffeinated. Don’t make life any harder than it already is.”

  I snorted, trying to keep quiet as her words struck me as utterly hilarious. Only a half-asleep Bethany, wearing Cole’s XXL Matchbox Twenty T-shirt and my too-tall yoga pants, could throw out that kind of wisdom at 7:00 a.m. the day after she’d been held captive by a group of rebellious, crazy town Immortals.

  I couldn’t stop myself from getting up and wrapping her in a hug. I told her I loved her between a laugh and a cry, as I realized how lucky we’d been that Elias had never truly wanted to hurt her.

  “Alright, lady,” she said with a pat to the back of my head. “It’s especially too early for tears. We don’t cry before breakfast. Mamma’s rules.” In a small whisper, she added, “I’m okay, Ame. You got me. They didn’t hurt me. I’m okay.”

  I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding and nodded into her hair. I turned and starting pulling coffee supplies from the cupboard. There was still one piece of information I didn’t know how to share, but I needed to do it soon.

   

   

  Bethany and I were facing each other, with our backs against each arm of the couch. We were sharing a blanket and sipping our coffee as we talked. I was doing most of the talking, actually, and as I’d promised, I started at the beginning. I explained everything from the circumstances of my birth up through the events of last night. I tried to give background on our races and how I came to be betrothed to a prince I’d never met — conveniently leaving out that I now knew that prince was Micah. I just wasn’t ready for that part yet.

  I tried not to talk about Aidan, but that seemed to be where Bethany wanted to focus. The memory of our break-up seemed like a lifetime ago but she kept peppering me with questions about how I felt about him and how I could just walk away. That I needed to fight the betrothal because I deserved something in my life to make me happy given everything else. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore.

  “This isn’t a movie, B. There is no happy ending for me and Aidan. Don’t you get it?” I tore the blankets away from my legs and with very little grace, scrambled over her to get off the couch.

  Once I found my footing, I turned back to her glowering. “I. Don’t. Have. A. Choice. If I don’t marry this prince, there’s a solid chance the queen will kill my family and everyone I love. That’s what she does. If I don’t let this bitch use me and my power, everyone who’s ever even known me is at risk. But, there’s also a whole group of Immortals who need my help. Who think I can stop her and make everything right again…whatever that means. And, then, to top the whole damn cake off, apparently I also have a mate wandering around out there. Someone I’m actually meant to be with. So, no, it doesn’t matter how I feel about Aidan.”

  I wanted to keep being angry, but saying those words out loud and hearing them in my own mind caused my strong walls to crumble. I stood in the center of Cole’s gorgeous living room completely rigid, trying to compel myself to regain control. The sobs started deep in my chest as I squeezed my eyes shut as tight as I could and begged myself to get a grip. Arms encircled me, the smell of vanilla and brown sugar filling my nostrils. She hadn’t made a sound, but Bethany had come over and wrapped me in a hug.

  “I don’t understand what you’re going through, Ame, but I know heartbreak when I see it. It’s okay to miss him. It’s okay for all of this to be too much. It’s just me, honey.”

  I felt her sincerity to the bottom of my soul and I let go. Part of me was so sick of crying, but the rest knew that if I didn’t, there was a good chance I’d end up blowing something up. I couldn’t really be expected to handle all of this well, right? I was standing at a fork in the road that had a lot more than two options and none of them looked appealing. There were lives at stake. A power struggle not only within me, but using me. Oh yeah, I deserved a good cry.

  Eventually, the crying stopped and Bethany and I pulled ourselves together. It took a minute to realize it was Monday and we had both missed class. Bethany did some damage control at work and explained away her absences. Cole showed back up at the house looking pretty beat down early in the afternoon. He’d spent the day out looking for Uncle Derreck, but had still not heard anything from him.

  “I think I’m going to head back out to his place tomorrow,” he explained. “There’s no way he’d leave Onyx to fend for himself. If nothing else, I’ll bring him back with me. But, hopefully I’ll catch him there, or at least get some kind of clue as to what his game plan was.”

   

   

  Cole and I were sitting at the kitchen island, both eating in an amicable silence while Bethany was napping. I was lost in my own thoughts when I realized he was staring at me.

  “What,” I grumbled, my mouth half-full. I thought he would roll his eyes at my less-than-ladylike behavior, but his stony look remained.

  “We need to talk about all of this,” he said. “We need a plan. Do you think we should try to find Dad and Rynna?”

  I was shocked that he brought up our father. I had been trying to decide how to bring him up. “I was thinking that, too. Let me grab my phone.”

  I dialed Rynna and was shocked to hear it ring. It had been going straight to voicemail for days. On the fourth ring, she finally picked up.

  “Amelia?” she asked.

  “Rynna? What’s wrong?” The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I knew something wasn’t right.

  Rynna was quiet for a moment. “We’ve been traveli
ng for days, hiking and driving and searching. I know your uncle told you what we’ve been doing and, Amelia, I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you myself. Your father made us all swear an oath that we wouldn’t tell you. He didn’t annul it until we saw your uncle last week. We finally found the man Derreck sent us to, hoping he could break the spell, but nothing works. He tried everything. Your father isn’t doing well. He’s been through too much. We’re going home, Amelia. I have to go, he’s calling out again, but we’ll be home soon. I’m sorry.”

  She disconnected and it took me a moment to comprehend what had just happened. I relayed the message to Cole and his shoulders sagged. We both had held out a silent hope that we might get our father back.

  I sat across from Cole, my breathing rapid and my frustration growing. I needed out of this apartment, but there was so much we needed to talk about and decide on.

  We needed to decide if Cole was going to Uncle Derreck’s. We needed to talk about whether I should go back and talk to Elias. We needed to probably have a screaming match about whether we should talk to Micah and how we were going to explain this latest wrinkle to Bethany. But, none of that was anything I could handle at this particular moment with all of my childhood insecurities running rampant in my head. The bottom line was that we were alone in this. Technically, it was all on me.

  So, instead, I shoved away from the island and called for Charlie. “I’m taking Charlie down to the beach. I need some air.”

  Cole was looking dejectedly at me, a deep sadness in his eyes. Charlie bounded up and gave a happy woof when I grabbed his leash and the handle to the front door. I turned back to my brother, understanding exactly how deep the pain went. “We have each other, Cole. At least we have that.”

  He nodded and gave me a small smile. “Don’t go far, and keep Charlie with you. Got it?”

  I gave a mini-salute, trying to lighten the mood. “Aye aye, captain.”

  Cole rolled his eyes and chuckled as I was yanked out the door by one overly-excited Great Dane.

 
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