Bound by duty, p.25
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       Bound by Duty, p.25
 

           Stormy Smith

  Chapter 24

  I crashed into the apartment, hollering for Cole. Bethany came out from the spare bedroom instead. “Where’s the fire, Ame? Cole isn’t here. He told me to tell you he was going to Derreck’s to get Onyx and see if there were any clues. He’ll be back tomorrow and we’re supposed to stay close to the apartment.”

  I hadn’t put Charlie back on his leash, so he ambled off into the other room. I was standing in the middle of the entry way, getting sand everywhere, trying to process all of that at once. With a shake, I realized that I didn’t care about any of it.

  “B, do you want to help me get my happy-ever-after, and yours, too?” I was wearing an ear-to-ear grin and I couldn’t stop it.

  With a cock of her hip and a raise of her eyebrow, Bethany replied, “Oh, honey, I’m from the south. Every girl grows up knowing about Prince Charming. You just tell me what I can do to get you and Mr. Beautiful Smoky Eyes back together so I can get back to my own prince.” I swept her up in a huge hug and then pulled her to the counter. She had no idea how true her words were. I was still holding her hand as I started in on what was going to be difficult information for her to understand, but a plan that could give us both what we wanted.

  “Okay, B, I’m just going to lay it all out there,” I said. “You wanted full disclosure. Well, last night I learned something I hadn’t known before and I wasn’t sure how to tell you. The night I was born, which I told you about, the only way my father was able to stop the Hunter from killing me was to betroth me to the queen’s son.”

  “The bitchy queen? The one we don’t like? I can’t believe your dad was such a moron. How could he possibly—”

  “B. Stay focused,” I interrupted as her face took on the exasperated look that meant she was building up to a full-on tirade. “The guy was going to kill me.”

  She nodded and shrugged, acquiescing to the logic. “Okay, so the agreement was that I would have until I was twenty-one and then I would have to move to the palace and marry the prince. By marrying him, the queen hoped to use my power to solidify her family’s ability to hold the throne and continue to terrorize my people. But, here’s the tricky part, I need you to stay calm and remember when I tell you this part that I have a plan. Okay?”

  Again, she nodded, looking a little less enthusiastic.

  “No, B. Out loud,” I said. “Pinky swear you’re going to hear me out, okay?” I held up my pinky and though it was obvious she didn’t like the blind agreement, she did the same. We linked up and I spoke, hoping she wasn’t going to completely lose it.

  “So, what I found out from Elias last night is that the Hunter who killed my mother and betrothed me to the prince works for Micah. Micah is the prince. Micah is the one I’m betrothed to.”

  “YOU’RE WHAT?” The stool toppled as Bethany jumped to her feet, shrieking at the top of her lungs. I quickly started doing damage control.

  “B. Calm down. Pinky swear, right? Just listen.” I couldn’t talk fast enough. “I didn’t know. I had no idea who Micah was. I told you how he was helping me with my abilities, but I didn’t know. What matters is that I have a plan for you to keep your guy and me to keep mine. Are you in?” I had to keep yelling over her as she let out a very un-southernly string of curse words.

  Finally, she stopped pacing and was standing in the kitchen looking shell-shocked. I couldn’t blame her, but I wasn’t sure really how much time we were going to have.

  “B? If we’re going to do this, we need to move. This is in no way a Cole-approved exercise.” I was impatient myself and afraid I would lose the gumption if this didn’t happen soon.

  She sighed, clenching and unclenching her fists at her sides. “Let me get this straight. You’re almost-kinda-sorta in love with Aidan but are currently betrothed to my magical actual prince of a boyfriend that I might also almost-kinda-sorta love, and you have a plan that’s going to get his wretched queen mother to let us all have what we want?” I nodded enthusiastically, still smiling.

  “Huh,” she snorted, “well, when you put it like that, how’s a girl supposed to say no?” I lunged in and gave her another huge hug. “Here’s what I’m thinking,” I started to fill her in on the details and we solidified the plan.

  I had no idea if this was going to work, but it was the best I could come up with and knowing I could have a future with Aidan was enough to make it not a choice at all.

   

   

  At this point, the queen knew I was here. She knew I had met Micah and was likely going to want me to accept the betrothal early. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that much out. Knowing that Rhi had shown up and seen me fighting with Micah, I was sure the queen would be here soon if she weren’t already. Bethany didn’t love my plan, but I was going to set a meeting with Micah and try to get him on board to help me convince his mother to give me more time. It was out in the open now. I knew who I was. She knew who I was. Just let me have until my twenty-first birthday like everyone had agreed. In that time, I could go back to Elias and find out how to control my Keeper power and truly fight Queen Julia. I could also help Aidan acclimate to his new abilities and hopefully repair the damage I’d done.

  It was a long shot. It was probably a really stupid plan. But, after seeing Aidan on that beach, after my reactions to him in heart, mind, and soul, I had to try. I just had to.

  I called Micah. He answered on the first ring.

  “I need to see you,” I said. “Soon.”

  “That is fantastic, Amelia. We need to talk. I want to explain.” He sounded way more relieved than I wanted him to. I was still burned by his lies, but I wanted to believe he was a good guy. I had to. For this plan to work, I needed his help.

  “Where are you?” I asked.

  “I’m at Esmerelda’s, but—”

  “Micah, I need your help,” I interrupted. “I need you to help me convince your mother that I need time. That she needs to honor the terms of the betrothal. I’m coming to you. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

  He tried to say something but I was already losing my nerve so I hung up. We’d figure it out when I got there.

   

   

  I was in the parking lot in ten minutes. Bethany sat next to me and, for the fifth time, asked if I was sure that she shouldn’t come in.

  “B, thank you. I really appreciate the offer, but I need to do this on my own,” I said. “I need to talk to Micah and figure out what to do. Honestly, I’m not even sure exactly what I’m walking into here. I don’t want you to get hurt again.”

  “Okay, girl, but I’m waiting right here. I’m not moving this Jeep until you’re sitting next to me again. And, you make sure he knows that this is going to take a hell of a lot of making up.” We laughed together. It was strained, both of us obviously scared, but it was welcome.

  I blew out a breath and shook the tremble out of my hands. “Here I go. I’ll be back out in no time. Don’t you worry. It’s just Micah.” She nodded, looking past me to the bleak exterior of Esmerelda’s. “I know, girl. This place just creeps me out,” she said grimly.

  I reached over, gave her a quick hug, and then jumped down out of the Jeep. As I mounted the steps and walked through the doors of Esmerelda’s, my inner alarm bells went crazy. You’re just nervous. Calm down, I reprimanded myself and approached the host stand. The same small, pinched-face woman stood at the desk, glancing at me with complete disinterest.

  “Yes?” she asked in an annoyingly clipped tone.

  “I’m here to see Micah…um, Prince Mikail, he’s expecting me. Please take me to him.” She didn’t respond, instead she picked up the phone and queried the person on the other end. With a surprising smile, she nodded and led me to an elevator.

  She rode down with me, saying nothing until the doors opened again. “Follow the hallway. Third set of doors on your right.” I was struggling to maintain my power, feeling her agitated and antsy in the back of my mind. I had already had about ten mental conversations wh
ere I tried to explain why she had to stay quiet. To stay hidden. It was a strange thing, talking to yourself, but the more I embraced the fact that the Keeper power was its own being within me, the easier things seemed to go.

  I wasn’t sure exactly how to enter, so instead of knocking, I decided to make a statement and just open the door myself. I was shocked at how light the large wooden doors were, it flew open and slammed against the wall, making a loud thud. I shocked myself with the sound, thinking the door was going to be much heavier. Once I had gotten my bearings and turned back to the room in front of me, I found myself staring directly into the eyes of Queen Julia. Well, her and about twenty Hunters who seemed only too happy to display their bouncing balls of crackling orange magic and wicked stares.

  It took me a second to absorb the scene. The queen was sitting on a large throne. Next to her was a smaller ornate chair that Micah held. I refused to show them my fear, so I straightened my posture and strode into the room as if the eyes and magic that followed me didn’t exist. I imagined the pressure of Aidan’s hand against my lower back, giving me the feeling of safety I’d never known until him. Aidan was the reason I was here. Even though this wasn’t the meeting I had signed up for, it was what I had to do.

  The Hunters had started out in a single group in front of Queen Julia and Micah, but they separated into two groups and allowed me to walk through their ranks. I stopped about ten feet from the upraised platform that held their chairs and met Micah’s eyes. I could see the apologies already. This was absolutely not going to go well.

  I urged my own power to slowly creep through me; building and rising to the surface, while reminding her to stay silent but ready. I looked straight into Micah’s eyes and sent a very clear thought his way: Traitor.

  He winced. That brought me a small smile.

  As I shifted my focus back to the queen, I couldn’t believe how much Micah resembled her. Julia had thick, blond hair that was tied back severely at her nape. Her crown dripped with diamonds and her dress was black lace over black silk. I expected her to be older, but her skin was porcelain and she looked beautiful. Her features were softer than Micah’s and it wasn’t until I reached her eyes that I truly saw the difference. This woman was pure evil. Her eyes were cold and empty.

  I was staggering under the weight of her stare when the queen finally spoke. “So, the Keeper has finally come home. You didn’t tell me she was also beautiful, son. It may not be so terrible to have this one on your arm. Though, we will have a discussion later on how exactly it is you came to know each other.” Julia quirked a thin, angular eyebrow at Micah and I watched him shrink in his seat. Apparently it was intentioned by both of our parents that we not be exposed to each other.

  I couldn’t stop my visible, shocked response and the words came tumbling from my mouth. “Um. Excuse me? First, I’m right here and my name is Amelia. Second, the whole reason I’m here is because there were terms to this betrothal. Terms you have to honor. I thought I was going to be having a conversation with Micah, who has clearly been keeping us all in the dark, but I suppose since you’re here, we can all just do this together.”

  Somehow, the queen’s stare actually became frostier and the smirk she’d held flattened. Her words were quiet but her barbs were sharp. “Have you no respect, little girl? How dare you address me and my son so casually? Though, your father hasn't been himself in years and I suppose you didn’t have your mother to instill in you proper respect for the crown, did you, dear?”

  I immediately opened my mouth to respond when Micah jumped in and cut me off. “Mother, please. That’s not necessary. Amelia is to be my wife. You need not poke at her immediately. You know she grew up in a remote area. We need to acclimate her to the court — to our ways.”

  I could hear Micah in my head as he spoke to his mother.

  Amelia, you must watch yourself. I don’t know what you think you’re doing here, but you can’t do it like this.

  I wanted to talk to you, you know, like friends. But, it’s clear you have your own agenda.

  With that, I slammed the door closed on our connection and saw a second wince that again brought me a measure of pleasure. There was no way I was allowing that jerk in my head now.

  “That is a fair point, son. Exactly what is it you would like to discuss, child?” She was patronizing me, but it gave me an opening to speak. This time, I tried to formulate my sentences in my head before I just let them spew from my mouth.

  “Thank you, your…highness.” I had no idea what the proper terminology was. “It’s clear to me that Mi — Prince Mikail and I were not supposed to know each other yet. But, we do, and that’s okay. I just want to confirm that you will abide by the terms set by the betrothal you demanded. I will have until I’m twenty-one. Those were the terms and I believe they should hold true.”

  I tried my best to sound confident in my words but deferential in my tone. I thought I might have succeeded as Julia sat and tapped her long red nails on the armrest of her throne. Then, she spoke.

  “You have come into my court, interrupted my day, insulted my son, and believe you can tell me what I will and will not do?” The queen somehow sat even straighter in her chair, pointing her finger at me while her shrill voice grew louder. “Do you expect me to believe that after everything I know of your mother and her devious ways, that her little plan didn’t succeed? That the prophecy I have spent years waiting for is a lie? Do you honestly think you can tell a queen what rules she will abide by?”

  “No. No…um, your highness.” I had to back pedal, quickly. “I didn’t say anything about the prophecy. I don’t even understand the prophecy. I just want the time that was promised to me.” I didn’t have to lie, the prophecy made zero sense to me.

  Her eyes narrowed as they blazed red. “I believe there is more to you than it seems, Amelia. And, from what I understand, you just need a little incentive.” The bitterness in her voice sent fear racing through me. I looked to Micah and he wouldn’t meet my gaze. Cursing myself, I realized that I was stupid. This was stupid. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was just lucky I was more valuable alive than dead.

 
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