Pink light streamed through the window, casting the kitchen in a peaceful, hazy glow. The scent of warm pine mingled with cinnamon and nutmeg, floating around me. A well-loved copy of Tennyson’s Poetical Works lay open on the counter as I scanned the rhythmic prose of The Talking Oak.
And when my marriage morn may fall,
She, Dryad-like, shall wear
Alternate leaf and acorn-ball
In wreath about her hair...
My gaze fell to the round table in the corner of the room, and a familiar emblem etched into the center caught my eye: the Hawthorne insignia. My heart sputtered as I covered my face with my hands.
This is a dream. It has to be. Why on earth would I be back in The Valley? Allie and Gabe rescued me. Just open your eyes. Everything will go back to normal.
I counted to three, trying to force myself into consciousness, but when I lowered my hands, nothing changed.
Why can’t I wake up? Why am I wearing the Dryad’s clothing? Why am I baking in the kitchen of my house in The Valley?
I chewed my lip, my nails anxiously drumming against the wood. Looking down, my breath caught. A translucent gold ring hugged the third finger on my left hand—a band that looked a lot like the one I’d found in the attic of Charlie’s lake house.
Turning my palm over, the distinct mark of two vines winding toward my wrist appeared, etched in my skin just like Kevin and Kyle’s mother, Ilana. That was the mark of joining souls in Dryads, a tradition performed strictly among royals. How…
Distant footsteps pattered from the hall. I turned to see two dark haired children running toward me.
“Hi, Mama!” they called together, both wearing perfect smiles and gray eyes. To my surprise, I pulled them in without hesitation. A sullied cap, like the one Gabe wore the day we met, followed close behind. I paused an arm’s length away and stood on my tiptoes to greet him with a kiss.
“Beautiful as ever, Lady Hawthorne,” Kyle whispered against my lips and lifted the brim of his hat as he backed away.
My gasp woke me as I jerked upright in a cold sweat. The muted warmth of the kitchen suddenly turned to a steady glow of the fireplace in the living room of our hideaway cabin. Warm, soft leather met my fingertips as I rolled to my side, trying to get a grip on reality.
The worn sofa cushion crinkled near my head. “Ashton?”
“Kyle?” I spoke unthinkingly through the haze.
The snap of teeth coming together sounded above me followed by a tense sigh.
“Not so much,” Gabe grumbled, shifting his weight to the far side of the couch.
I sat up. The soles of my feet met the faux-fur rug, and I dropped my head into my hands. “No, I-I didn’t … I just had a bad dream.”
“Sounded like it,” he said dryly before letting out a slow breath. “Sorry. It’s not your fault, love.”
The cabin sat quiet, less the crackling of the fire and the uncomfortable tension. Gabe’s words, while perfectly polite, seemed to be an attempt at convincing himself more than me. Taking his hand, I nudged his shoulder. He hesitated but lifted an arm, allowing me to curl against his side. I twisted a loose thread on the sleeve of his gray thermal I was wearing. Allie had rescued it the same day she’d rescued me. And for the last half-year, we’d all been in a holding pattern.
It’d been almost six months since Gabe and Allie staged my escape from The Valley. Six months that we’d been hiding from the Dryads in the middle of nowhere. Six months since I’d abandoned my best friend, Kyle. Six months since learning my grandparents had passed away, and I was officially next in line to become vasílissa—the Naiad equivalent of queen. And finally, six months since Gabe had told me he loved me for the first, and subsequently only, time.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t bring myself to speak the words aloud. Putting it out there made it too real for me, like I was just asking for an earth-shattering betrayal—one I knew I couldn’t handle twice.
Now, Gabe and I just waltzed around the idea of a relationship, only we didn’t seem to hear the same music. It was more of an awkward tempo that kept us circling an overcrowded ballroom, waiting for the other to ask for the first dance. Gabe was trying to do his best by me, I knew that, but things between us were still uncomfortable. Kyle haunting my dreams most nights left me guilt-ridden and exhausted more often than not. It didn’t help that Gabe saw him as a threat to my dance card.
I sighed again, trying to shut out any thoughts that didn’t consist of Gabe’s arm around me. After so long fighting his memory, opening up to him again had been a challenge. While my heart sang when he so much as smiled, my mind constantly reminded me of just how much pain I could survive.
“Are you still awake?” Gabe whispered.
I hesitated. “Yeah.”
His breathing hitched like he wanted to speak, but he kept quiet, his foot tapping a restless beat.
“Were you just wondering?” I asked, wanting to talk but dreading the conversation at the same time.
He stilled. “You miss him, don’t you?”
And there it was, the million dollar question.
“Not like you’re thinking,” I answered honestly.
Gabe pulled his arm away, coldness taking his place, and made his way to the hearth. He chose an iron poker from the rack and stoked the ebbing fire. A surge of light flickered over his face, illuminating the hurt and confusion.
I followed the warm trail left by the fire as I closed the distance between us. I stood at Gabe’s side, my gaze on his white-knuckle grip. Sliding my palm down his arm, I encouraged him to loosen his hold.
“Gabe, I do miss Kyle,” I began, and he immediately tensed. “But I don’t miss him in that way.”
“Don’t you?” Doubt seeped through his voice.
“How can you even ask that?” The moment I spoke the words I regretted them. I’d already admitted to Gabe that I loved Kyle. Even though that love was innocent, it likely didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Hindsight, my confession might’ve been a mistake, but I’d been so hurt when I said it.
“Sorry.” I shoved my hair from my forehead. “What I mean is, I don’t feel that way about Kyle. He’s my friend—nothing more. Like Allie.”
“You don’t dream about Allie,” he said, his tone flat.
“No, but I also didn’t run out on her. I hate having bailed on Kyle after he risked so much to save me. It’s just wrong. I’d feel as guilty for abandoning her that way, too.”
Gabe’s eyes sparked. “Allie isn’t in love with you.”
“I can’t help the way Kyle feels, but those are his feelings, not mine.”
Gabe crossed his arms though his expression remained unreadable. “So, that’s what these nightmares are about? You leaving him?”
“What else would they be about?” I turned away, biting my lip as I picked at the flecking paint of the mantle. How was I supposed to tell him that Kyle was far from being left behind in my dream?
Gabe growled under his breath.
“Don’t worry about all of this,” I said, knowing he had every reason to wonder. “It’s just a silly manifestation of my own guilt. I can’t control what I dream anymore than you can.”
He let out a disbelieving scoff, but I didn’t know what to make of it.
“Look, I have no right to be jealous. I know that. I left you in the worst situation imaginable. The plan was to keep you safe, but I wasn’t the one to protect you. You formed a bond with Kyle that runs deeper than attraction or compulsion. Any part of your heart is infinitely more than I’ve earned, but the thought of you wanting someone else…”
“Kyle’s feelings don’t influence mine. He’s only a friend. I know I didn’t paint our friendship in the best light when I was in The Valley, but I was lost, and he just happened to help me find my way out. I know you’re upset with me, and I get it, but I’m not—”
“That’s not it, Ash. I’m not angry … with you.”
“Nothing’s changed. I’m here, where I should be.” My palm rested over his heart.
Warmth softened his eyes, but I knew he was still holding back.
“Do you regret having feelings for me after everything that’s happened?” I asked, my gaze falling.
He lifted my chin to look me in the eyes. “Not for one moment.”
“I never meant to hurt you. Things have been different between us, but you’ve been great these few months. I just want you to know I appreciate all you’re doing.” I pulled him forward and wrapped my arms around his waist.
Floorboards creaked as a mop of messy blond curls appeared in the hallway.
“Could you please keep the lovers’ quarrel down until sunrise?” Allie slurred, her voice thick with sleep. “Some of us are trying to rest before the big meeting tomorrow.”
“Sorry,” I whispered dramatically. “We’ll try to keep it down.”
Allie rolled her eyes and stalked back to our room.
“She’s right,” Gabe said, backing away. “You should get some sleep before tomorrow. It’s already a risk going to speak with Charlie’s partners about the companies and assets. We need to be sharp. This other stuff can wait.”
“Yeah. You’re right,” I said, my voice sounding sadder than I meant it to. I hated the distance between us, but I understood it, too.
The floor cooled as I moved away from the fireplace. I paused in the hall, my hand against the jamb. “Gabe?”
He lifted his head. “Yes?”
“Thanks for everything,” I offered sincerely.
He gave a half smile. “Anytime. Goodnight.”
Allie watched me like I was balancing on a tightrope as I tiptoed into the bedroom and closed the door. I pulled back the queen-sized duvet and slipped in beside her, staring through the glass at the night. A pair of owls conversed outside the window. Shadows scratched across the floor, reaching like bony fingers in search of something they couldn’t find. I tried to shut down my mind, but I couldn’t shake the dream or Gabe’s reaction to it.
I felt Allie’s gaze boring into the side of my head. “Don’t start.”
She hopped over me and switched on the rattling box fan before climbing back onto the mattress. I steeled myself, recognizing the action was meant to drown out anything Gabe might overhear.
“Dreaming again?” she whispered.
I grudgingly flopped onto my side. “Why does this crap keep happening? I don’t get it.”
“Maybe you have something in your life you need to address.”
I propped my hand against my temple. “Like what?”
Allie gave a look that said, You know exactly what I’m talking about.
My irritation kicked up a notch. “You think it actually has something to do with me having feelings for Kyle?”
“There are a lot of areas where you need closure.” Allie shrugged. “Kyle’s one of them.
Your feelings for Gabe are another. Not to mention your parents, your past, and a slightly more urgent thing called your future.”
The sheets crinkled as I sat up and crossed my legs beneath me, guilt daggering my conscience. “You believe me, though, right? Even though Gabe and I are in a weird place, you know I don’t have feelings for Kyle.”
Allie scooted closer and wound her arm through mine. “Look, you need time to sort through the chaos in your life. A lot has changed these past few months. Let’s just deal with everything one day at a time, starting with this meeting tomorrow.”
“Fine,” I said with a yawn. “As painful as it is to admit, you’re right.”
“Look at you, all growing and stuff,” Allie teased. “I’m proud of you, chick.”
Lacing my fingers through hers, I rested the back of my head against the wall and closed my eyes. “I guess I’ve changed. A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to handle this at all.”
“Maybe. But some things never change,” she whispered so quietly I wasn’t sure she’d even spoken.
Buzzing fluorescent lights crackled overhead. The eerie parking garage fell quiet as the engine of our blacked-out sedan shut off. I’d been dreading this moment for months. Tension hummed through the car as my fingers tapped a restless beat against the door. My not-so-human nature didn’t relieve me from my obligations to Charlie’s Last Will and Testament, and we were here to deal with everything once and for all.
Gabe’s hand came to rest on my thigh. “Everything is going to be all right, Ashton. This will be a quick trip in and out. Having the attorneys meet us at this location on such short notice means less chance anyone else will track us here. I’ve swept this building twice since yesterday, and nothing’s indicated a problem.” His smile turned tentative. “But if anything happens, if you suspect anything is wrong, or I give you the signal, we fall back to plan B.”
We’d been over the building plans, alternate routes of escape, and rendezvous points a dozen times. After I escaped The Valley, we agreed to limit the knowledge of my whereabouts to just the three of us. The Naiads were struggling to maintain cultural stability. As it stood, we weren’t sure who we could count on anymore. Still, somehow our little trio of misfits didn’t make the situation less stressful. If anything, it made it worse.
“Allie, you’re at the helm.” Gabe stepped out of the car, pulling me from my musing.
“Right. I’ve got the garage covered.” She clambered over the backseat and slipped behind the wheel.
Stifling exhaust fumes floated on the air. I wrapped a scarf around my hair, and slid on a pair of sunglasses, attempting to disguise myself as much as possible. Gabe met me at the back of the car. He turned up the collar of his trench coat as a stale gust of wind howled through the structure.
“You look very handsome as Mr. Garrett, but I think I prefer you in Gabe jeans and a t-shirt,” I said, my voice shaking a little. Because we didn’t know who was in cahoots with the Dryads, we’d agreed to hide Gabe’s identity.
“That makes two of us.” He looked down at his three-piece suit and raised an eyebrow. An errant curl fell across his forehead, and I swept it back into place, my hand trembling.
Gabe brushed a kiss across my knuckles then linked his fingers with mine. “Here we go.”
Adrenaline hummed as we hurried toward a bank of elevators. Gabe’s eyes darted back and forth, our footsteps echoing off the concrete floor. I kept my gaze fixed on the white lines that formed the parking spaces, knowing I’d make every tiny movement into something dangerous and freak myself out even more if I let my imagination get the better of me. The chances of Kevin or anyone else finding us here versus Charlie’s offices in New York were slim to none. We’d stayed under the radar, but given the fact three mythological beings were hiding out in a remote cabin in the woods, nothing seemed impossible anymore.
Gabe hit the up button on the cinder block wall then we stepped into an elevator. He claimed the back corner to keep an eye out as I pressed the circle marked sixty-seven and held my breath as the box jarred to life.
People in suits climbed on and off every few stops, crowding together like too many crayons in one box. Sweat beaded across my upper lip, and I slipped out of my jacket. The smell of day-old coffee and too much cologne soaked the air and turned my stomach. I obsessively scanned one person to the next, searching out anyone familiar or suspicious. Elevator music droned on in the background, and I shut my eyes. The space was too small, cramped. Anxiety swelled into a tsunami of panic, threatening to wash me overboard.
Just when I thought I’d lose it, a ding sounded. The double doors slid open to reveal a bustling office, packed by cubicles and upper-middle management. Gabe wrapped an arm around my waist as suit after suit filed from the confines of the suffocating space.
We followed the madness through a short entryway. A portly man in a too-tight dress shirt and no jacket waited by the receptionist’s desk. Sweat glistened at his receding hairline as he stepped toward me. “Miss Blake?”
I nodded once.
“I’m Terrell Sherman, your father’s accountant.” He offered a welcoming hand. A faint, hollow echo drummed through my head as our palms met. His grip loosened, and I discreetly rubbed my ear.
“It’s nice to see you,” he said.
“Thank you for meeting us, Mr. Sherman. I’m sorry for the sudden change in plans.”
“It’s no trouble at all. I’m happy to do it.” He offering me a stack of folders and a business card.
“This is Michael Garrett, my financial advisor.” I gestured to Gabe who lingered behind me, his palm still brushing the small of my back.
The men shook hands then Gabe gave a quick glance around the room.
“Right this way, and we’ll get started.” Sherman gestured. He smoothed his thin mustache as we walked. “Your father’s secretary passed along that you couldn’t travel to his primary office in the city, but she didn’t mention why,” he hinted, leaning closer to me as if I were privy to some secret.
I immediately grew apprehensive.
“We had other business in the area.” Gabe fixed himself between Sherman and me, firmly squashing the attorney’s curiosity. “We appreciate your willingness to accommodate us.”
“Of course.” Sherman held open a large door and motioned us through. An oversized desk sat in the center with a dozen chairs situated around it. We stepped further into the conference room to find we weren’t the only ones there.
A slender woman stood, her dark suit matching the silky sheen of her tightly-confined hair, and offered her hand. I fumbled with my belongings, trying to receive the gesture. She quickly smiled and waved me off.
“Miss Blake, I’m Daniela Mendoza, the company attorney. We requested Harry Waterford be here,” she continued, and my stomach dropped, “but I received an email stating that he was taking a sabbatical until further notice. I’m sure you know more about that than we do.”
I swallowed hard. “My father’s death has been hard on all of us.”
They each gave sympathetic nods as I settled my things onto the desk.
A curvy middle-aged woman with auburn hair and freckles moved to my side. Her citrusy perfume tickled my memory as she pulled me into an unexpected hug, pinning my arms to my sides.
“I’m so sorry about your dad, Ashton. To say we were shocked by his passing is an understatement. I still can’t believe Charlie’s gone.” She cleared her throat, tears welling, and I found myself at a loss for words. “Listen to me, babbling away. You probably don’t even remember me. You weren’t more than seven the last time I saw you. I’m Caroline, your dad’s former secretary.”
The name struck a chord, and my eyes widened. “Of course, Ms. Caroline. I used to hide under your desk and draw when I came to the office. You taught me to make paperclip—”
“Bracelets,” she said at the same time I did.
“It’s nice to see a familiar face.” I smiled and vaguely recalled seeing her at the funeral as well.
Gabe touched my waist, reminding me that we needed to stay on task. Everyone took a seat and began shuffling papers back and forth. Sherman passed me another folder containing some financial documents and explained what we’d need to do with them.
Mendoza opened a manila envelope and turned the sheets to face me, her expression solemn. “Now for my part. This is all your father owned.” She gestured to a long list containing everything from his beloved copy of the Odyssey to a beach house in the south pacific. “If you’ll just sign on the line then initial and date the places I’ve marked.”
I spent the next several minutes signing documents and taking note of her instructions.
Finally, Ms. Mendoza pulled out a small sealed envelope with the words Confidential stamped on both sides. Red tape secured all corners, and each strip held Charlie’s signature. I frowned, worried by the extensive security measures.
“There is one other matter,” she said. “In Mr. Blake’s personal vault is a safety deposit box.” She flipped the package over and tapped the front. “Harry drafted the original documents, but for whatever reason, Mr. Blake had me redo everything just days before he passed. This envelope was added to the mix with his strict order it be given to you and only you.”
Gabe and I exchanged glances, and concern grew between us. My eyes narrowed as I pulled the envelope toward me. Something solid lay inside. I assumed by Ms. Mendoza’s words it must’ve been the key to Charlie’s box, but something about it felt like much more. I lowered the package to my lap, my fingers locked around its mysterious contents. “Is his vault in this building?”
The attorneys looked at each other before Mr. Sherman answered almost apologetically, “We don’t actually know where it’s located.”
My brows rose. “How am I supposed to find it then?”
“I’m sure Charlie left you directions in one capacity or another,” Caroline spoke up. “You know how he loved riddles.”
No, actually I didn’t. Bitterness welled, but I beat it down behind a forced smile. “You’re probably right.”
Gabe and I stood, and he shook hands with Mr. Sherman and Ms. Mendoza. Caroline walked around the desk, her brown eyes holding mine.
“Ashton, sweetheart, if you need anything at all, you call me,” she insisted. “I know we haven’t seen each other in a long while, but after fifteen years, Charlie was like family, and so are you. You’ll keep in touch, won’t you? And let us know if and when you hear from Harry…”
She grasped my hand between hers, and a hollow drone filled my ears. It felt like my head was in a barrel, drowning out everything around me. Tingles crawled across my skin where it touched hers, like the prickle you felt after your arm went numb. I held my breath, straining to listen though no one spoke. Muted laughter and water splashing echoed from somewhere in the distance, but it was distorted, like one of those old record players in the movies. Blood throbbed at my temples as the noise continued, but no one else seemed to hear it.
I’ll see you soon, a familiar voice broke through.
I snatched my hand away and stumbled back in blind panic.
“Harry?” I gasped.