Book: Led Astray: The Best of Kelley Armstrong

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A Cainsville Universe Story

As a wine glass whipped past Patrick’s head, he reflected that he might enjoy breakups more than he should. It wasn’t that he took pleasure in inflicting pain on a woman he’d come to know. No, what he appreciated was the efficiency of it. No protracted dance of relationship disintegration. Just a sharp, clean break. One minute he was enjoying a post-coital glass of wine with Tracey, and the next he was being forcibly ejected, amidst curses and broken glass, and there was no chance she’d grieve the loss of him. No chance she’d try to win him back and suffer the ego blow of his refusal. That was the beauty of his breakup ploy, one that had served him well for over a hundred years. Tell a woman that your wife is pregnant—when she never even knew you were married—and you guarantee a swift parting.

Of course, he wasn’t married. That would be wrong. And very inconvenient, he thought, as he jogged down the apartment stairwell. His was not a life conducive to long-term relationships. He had too many secrets, too many facets of himself he couldn’t share with a lover. Also, it would bore him to tears. Boinne-fala had their place. Rather like those plastic puzzle boxes that seemed all the rage, the ones with the colored squares. Fascinating for a time, until you figured them out and then . . . well, then the challenge was gone, the shine worn off.

“You look pleased with yourself today, bogan,” a voice said as he swung through the building’s back door. “Causing trouble, I presume?”

He glanced up sharply to see the face of a stranger—an old woman with long graying hair drawn back in a braid. Just because he didn’t recognize her didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t acquainted. Fae affected glamours to pass for human, and while their disguises were based on their true selves, immutable in features and form, they could age it anywhere from eighteen to a hundred-and-two. He peered into the old woman’s eyes.

“No, bogan,” she said. “You do not know me.”

Bogan. One of many names for his kind: Bogan, bòcan, hobgoblin, puck . . . She was another kind of fae—he could see the glimmering fae light behind her glamour. He tried to focus on that light enough to see her properly and determine her type.

“The polite way to do this is simply to ask,” she said.

He snorted. “You’ve been among the boinne-fala too long.”

Boinne-fala?” She arched her brows. “Ah, that’s right. You’re Tylwyth Teg. Welsh. Boinne-fala meaning a drop of blood. An insult for humans who are no more than a drop of fae. You Tylwyth Teg still think yourselves above mere mortals. You refuse to admit exactly how far we have fallen.”

“One only falls if one allows oneself to stumble. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have—”

“—things to do. Many, many things to do, which ultimately amount to nothing except pleasing yourself.”

“Which is all that matters.” He gave a mock bow. “Now, my lady, I take my leave.”

“Aren’t you even going to ask what I am?”

“Why bother? A true fae wouldn’t tell me. It quite spoils the game.”

“I don’t play games.”

“Then you aren’t a true fae.” He headed for the sidewalk. She seemed to stay where she was, but a moment later, her voice sounded at his ear.

“There is one type that does not dabble in petty bargains and mischiefs. One that deals in truth.”

“Mmm, sorry. Not ringing a bell.”

“Liar,” she said. “You know all the types, Patrick of Cainsville, the legendary scholar with the legendary library.”

“Scholar?” He snorted. “I’m a writer. A dime-store novelist. Your sources flatter me, but they’re wildly mistaken.”

“My sources are never mistaken. As you well know because you’ve figured out that I must be a korrigan.”

“Never heard of it.”

Her laughter rippled along the silent street, the laughter of a much younger woman.

“A korrigan has the power to see the future. But you know that.”

“Fortune telling? Excellent. Perhaps you can use your scrying ball and tell me when I’ll rid myself of your company.”

“In about two minutes. First, though, make a mental note of this address. You’ll need it.” She rattled off an apartment in the city and then said, “Now, I have one minute left. One minute to warn that your future is about to take a most unwelcome turn. A fate that is, for a bogan, worse than death.”

“Boredom?”

She gave him a pat-on-the-head sort of smile. “No, my dear Patrick. Worse still. You’re about to find yourself in a position of responsibility.”

He laughed. “I’ve managed to avoid that particular fate for many, many years. I believe I’m something of an expert.”

“You were,” she said. “Until now.” She touched his forehead, so briefly that he didn’t have time to pull away. Then, with one final unsettling smile, she walked away. He hesitated, and then walked to the corner, but she was gone.

Patrick didn’t get home until late that night. His phone was ringing when he unlocked the door to his apartment. He considered ignoring it but, while he was indeed an expert at shirking responsibility, there was a difference between ducking it and merely postponing the inevitable.

He barely had time to say hello before Tracey said, “It’s not going to work, you son of a bitch.”

“I know,” he said. “But I will always remember you fondly.”

“I mean the money. I just got a call notifying me that my post-divorce credit card debt has been paid off. If you think you can buy me back—”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Maybe your ex finally stepped up. I’m happy to hear that, Trace, but it wasn’t me.”

“Bullshit. You paid it in case you want to screw around with me again on your poor pregnant wife. The answer is no. If you want your money back, just tell me and I’ll take out a loan, because there is no way in hell you’re getting in my bed again. You wouldn’t have gotten there in the first place if I had any clue you were married.”

“You have my word that I won’t bother you again. I’m glad someone paid that debt, and I wish you all the best—”

Click. He looked down at the receiver and smiled. Good girl. You deserve better.

She also deserved to get out from under that divorce debt. Which was not why he’d done it. Not at all. It was simply a matter of balancing the books. All fae understood the concept of give and take, but none more than the bòcan. Treat them well, and they’d return the favor. Treat them poorly, and expect trouble, which was only fair, after all. As for Tracey, he owed her for the pain of their parting, and a bòcan always paid his debts.

After the phone call, Patrick went to bed. Like most modern fae, he’d adapted to human life centuries ago. While fae wouldn’t die without regular food and drink or go mad without sleep, sustenance did give them energy and rest kept them mentally sharp. They did not require as much as the boinne-fala, but they conformed to the social norms of meal and sleep schedules all the same.

What Patrick did not share with humans was the phenomenon of dreams. His sleeping mind would occasionally tug out a forgotten memory in answer to some nagging question. But it did not mangle memory and anxiety and fantasy, as human dreams did. Which was why, when he found himself standing on the balcony of a fairy castle, it was, to say the least, disconcerting.

There was no doubt this wasn’t a memory. Patrick hadn’t lived in the time of fairy kingdoms. Having spent centuries enduring his elders’ reminiscences on those past glory days, he was glad to have missed them. It was as bad as when humans over-imbibed and waxed nostalgic about high school. From what he knew of high school, if those were the best days of their lives, he didn’t begrudge them one drop of that alcohol. Likewise, when he heard the ancient fae prattle on about castles of gold and fairy kings, he could only roll his eyes and opine that while he liked a good feast as much as anyone, he rather preferred ones that came with cutlery, well-seasoned food, and easy access to indoor plumbing.

In human folktales, fae lived in another dimension. As usual, the boinne-fala had no idea what they were talking about. Fae had always inhabited the same plane as humans. In the early days, the world had been big enough for both races, and the fae made their homes in the wild places where humans rarely ventured, and if they did, charms and compulsions could make them forget what they’d seen.

Humans, though, bred like rabbits. At least compared to the long-lived fae. They were also an adventuresome and curious race. This was, perhaps, the aspect that made Patrick feel quite at home living among them. Between the questing and the breeding, human culture spread. Soon they’d encroached on the borders of the fae kingdoms, and the seers warned this was no temporary crisis. They’d foretold a day when humans would map every inch of the earth, when there would be no place to hide. So the fae, ironically, embraced the method that human populations often used when threatened by a dominant culture—they adapted and they interbred and they kept their own culture in hidden enclaves.

That night, in the vision—because he’d not call it a dream—he stood on the balcony of a golden castle. A young fae man leaned over the railing, his hands gripping the edge as if to keep himself from vaulting over it.

“Of course she chose him,” the man whispered in Welsh. “Did I truly expect anything else?”

Patrick looked down from the balcony to see a woman running across the moor, toward the forest, where riders waited, men on black steeds that breathed fire.

Cŵn Annwn. The Hounds of the Otherworld. The Wild Hunt.

One of the huntsmen broke from the pack and rode toward the woman. And with that, Patrick knew exactly what he was seeing, who he was seeing.

The story of Mallt-y-Nos. Matilda of the Night. It was one of the most important stories in Tylwyth Teg history, so pervasive that a warped version of it could even be found in human folklore.

On the night of her wedding to the fae prince Gwynn ap Nudd, Matilda had wanted one last ride with their childhood friend, Arawn, prince of the Otherworld. One last hunt. What she didn’t realize was that the two young men had made a pact that if Matilda went to Arawn before her wedding day, she was his and the world of the fae would close to her forever. A preposterous agreement, exactly the sort of jealous romantic nonsense one would expect from two arrogant princes.

“You’re an idiot, you know that?” Patrick said to Gwynn. “If you and Arawn were characters in one of my books, you’d both come to horribly tragic ends, in just punishment for your stupidity. And Matilda would live very happily ever after without you two clods.”

Even as he said it, he couldn’t quite muster the proper level of disdain. He saw the anguish on Gwynn’s face, and remembered what it was like to be young and foolish and madly in love and thoroughly convinced you were not good enough to hold onto your beloved.

Patrick knew what came next, and he didn’t care to witness it. Didn’t care to stand at Gwynn’s side and see him endure it, because as moronic as these boys had been, they did not deserve this next part. So Patrick turned to walk into the castle—and hit an invisible barrier.

“No!” Gwynn whispered. Then louder, “No!” Then the young man did indeed vault over the railing, grabbing it with both hands and dropping to the ground below and somehow, in a blink, Patrick was right there with him as he ran across the palace grounds.

“No!” Gwynn shouted. “I made a mistake. Forget the pact. She can go to him. If that’s what she wants, he can have her. Just don’t—”

Patrick heard a distant scream, and he could make out Matilda, on the back of Arawn’s horse, scrambling off as she saw the kingdom of the fae disappearing behind her. Disappearing in fire.

As Gwynn ran for Matilda, he shouted that he was coming, just stay there, please stay there. But she couldn’t hear him and Patrick doubted she would have stopped running even if she could. This was the worst, because this was the moment when Gwynn realized his mistake, that she hadn’t left him for Arawn, that he’d been too blinded by jealousy to see the obvious: that she’d gone to her old friend for one last hunt and nothing more.

Patrick could hear Arawn shouting too, as he rode for Matilda, upon realizing his own mistake, that he’d never stood a chance, that she loved Gwynn and he’d been willing to condemn her to misery because he couldn’t face that.

Patrick supposed Arawn’s situation was as much a tragedy as Gwynn’s, but he barely paid it more than a flicker of notice. His attention was fixed on Gwynn, and everything he felt was Gwynn’s, and when the fire between the kingdoms consumed Matilda, the pain he felt was Gwynn’s, an agony unlike anything he’d experienced, unlike anything he ever cared to experience, and he bolted up in bed, gulping air, his body trembling, sweat pouring off him.

He hung there, between sleeping and waking, and then he ran his hands through his hair and took a slow look around the room. With a sharp shake, he pushed from bed, yanked on his clothes and headed out to find whatever might banish the vision.

Patrick was unsettled. And it was really starting to piss him off.

It’d been a week since the vision. A week of trying to get the damned thing out of his head. Day and night it was there, cropping up at the most inconvenient times. It was not the images that bothered him; it was the emotions.

Patrick made his living exploiting human emotions. A teller of stories, a merchant of fantasies, but mostly, a dealer in the drug of secondhand emotions. Finding just the right twists of tragedy and heartache to keep readers turning the pages, sinking ever deeper into the characters’ despair until . . . victory. Redemption, love, joy. Happily ever after. Sigh. Close the book and smile, and when life sends you swirling into tragedy of your own, pick up the book again and relive that ride, knowing it will all work out in the end, as real life rarely does.

The best stories—the ones he strove to tell—were the ones that lingered after that last page was turned. The ones that kept readers thinking and, more importantly, feeling.

Which was all very fine for the humans on the other end of the process, the ones who filled his bank account and let him lead his devil-may-care life, unsaddled with such petty inconveniences as having to drink cheap wine in order to afford the rent. He’d been there; he never intended to return.

What he did not appreciate was being on the receiving end of a story he could not banish from his brain. For him emotions were as inconvenient and annoying as forgoing good wine. Emotions were messy. He did not do messy. Not anymore.

The situation had become dire. He was at a nightclub, charming two lovely young women, his biggest concern how he’d choose which one to take home . . . and then getting those subtle hints that suggested he wouldn’t need to choose at all. He’d been on the brink of closing the deal when he’d forgotten what he was saying. Not a momentary lapse, but a dead stop mid-sentence, all because he’d caught a glimpse of a man passing by and thought, “He looks like Gwynn.” Except the man didn’t, not beyond the most superficial way. It was proof of his distraction that his brain snagged on such a vague resemblance and then stayed there, spinning off into thoughts of the vision.

“Patrick?” one of the girls said. He wasn’t even sure which, the blonde or the brunette, which wasn’t like him at all. Whatever else one might accuse him of, he was attentive in his seductions.

“I . . .” he began.

Focus, Patrick. You’ve got this. They’re hooked. Now reel them in and enjoy.

He looked from one very attractive young woman to the other, practically smelling the pheromones pouring off them, and all he could think was . . .

“There’s something I need to do,” he said, sliding from the barstool. “I’m sorry. I hope you have a lovely evening, ladies.”

He couldn’t even come up with a more charming way to break off the seduction. His mind was racing down another track, and he could barely remember to give an apologetic nod before he was out the door.

Enough of this. He needed answers. Even if the best place to get them was the last place he wanted to go.

Cainsville.

The thing Patrick loved most about Cainsville was the warm greeting he got after being away for months.

“What are you doing here?” Ida asked when he came face to face with her and Walter on the Main Street sidewalk.

“I live here,” Patrick said.

She grumbled, as if she sorely wished she could change that. Which meant she must have been in a good mood, because normally she’d tell him how much she wished she could change that.

Ida, her consort Walter, and the other elders had founded Cainsville about two hundred years before. Patrick hadn’t been there—founding a town, particularly when Chicago itself had been little more than an offal-filled shit hole, was not his idea of a pleasant way to enjoy the New World. He’d been in San Francisco, reveling in the chaos of the gold rush. But when he wandered east—for a reason he’d rather forget—he stumbled onto Cainsville at a time when they were in dire need of a fae with a few tricks up his sleeve. So he’d cut a deal with them. He would solve their problem and earn himself permanent residency. An iron-clad deal . . . the only kind he made.

Patrick continued past Ida and Walter, which was easy enough, given that the other elders all followed the practice of using glamours to make them appear well beyond the age to start collecting Social Security. Which didn’t mean they were actually saddled with the physical disadvantages of senior citizenry. But the problem with looking old? You had to act your age, at least on Main Street in full view of the boinne-fala.

Patrick zipped past them into the grocery store and made straight for the wine aisle. No trip to Cainsville could be endured without a stop here first. He took his selections to the register, where a solemn young woman rang through the customer ahead of him. When she turned his way, he got one look at her bright blue eyes, smiled, and said, “Rose.”

She fixed him with a cool, assessing gaze. She didn’t remember him, of course. The last few times he’d been in town, she’d been off seeing the world and then, if rumors were correct, spending some time as a guest of the state penal system. The latter was to be expected for a Walsh. The family had been in Cainsville for generations, and there was more than a sprinkle of fairy dust in their veins. A family with the sort of special fae talents that did not encourage a life on the proper side of the law.

Rose had one of the rarest gifts: the second sight. Which explained that careful stare as she looked him over. His face tweaked a buried memory that overcame the compulsion that made most humans forget Patrick when he left Cainsville.

“It’s good to see you,” he said, still smiling.

“It’s been a while,” she said, in a way that hunted for a hint to help her place him.

“You were just out of high school the last time I was in town.”

She nodded, as if that was good enough. As she rang through his wine, she said, “Glad to be back?”

He chuckled. “I wouldn’t exactly say that. You?”

She paused, as if this was a question she hadn’t considered. Then she nodded. “Yes, I am.”

“Good.” Which it was. If Rose Walsh was happy here, this was the best place for her, where no one would judge her for her talents or her past.

Outside, he found Ida and Walter waiting.

“How long are you staying?” Walter asked, in a tone that prayed for a short visit.

“Don’t worry, old chap,” Patrick said, clapping him on the shoulder. “I’m only popping in for a day or two.”

Ida sniffed. “Just come and go as you please. Leave all the work of running this town to us.”

“You do it so much better,” he said, and then bid them a fair day and left.

And here was the root of their issue with him. Oh, they certainly didn’t like the fact that he refused to hide under the glamour of age. Or that he made his living in such a public way. Yet their real issue was this paradox. They did not want a bòcan around, particularly him, but if he did not stay, he could claim all the benefits of Cainsville’s sanctuary while taking on none of the responsibilities.

The greater problem was that Ida had no interest in resolving the paradox. Patrick did alter his appearance, sometimes leaving as a forty-year-old and returning at twenty or reversing the process. If anyone thought he looked familiar, he’d say his father used to live here. Or his cousin or nephew. As for the writing career, he used pseudonyms and cultivated the personae of the reclusive author.

He also made it clear that he would carry the weight of his responsibilities as an elder. Just not the boring ones, like sitting on the housing committee, deciding whether newcomers should be allowed in. The tedium would kill him. But there were many ways a bòcan could be an asset to a community. He was, despite what he’d told the korrigan, something of a scholar. He could play a trick or broker a bargain or answer a question, and would do so quite happily. But Ida and the others preferred to grumble. And that, he’d realized long ago, was a problem best handled with a few glasses of fine Bordeaux.

As he approached his house, he felt what might be called a tremor of pleasure. His house. His home. The one place that was truly his own, where he could retreat and close the door, and the world could not follow. That feeling didn’t last much past the porch. One step into that house—dark and silent and heavy with the stink of dust and disuse—and he confronted a problem of his own making. The house was his, but he refused to make it his own.

His home was—for want of a more descriptive term—ugly. Not outside. He’d had it built exactly as he wanted it. But inside? There had been a time when he’d done that right too, selecting every furnishing with care, building a nest. A true refuge from the world. But then when he left Cainsville, he ached for home, and every other place he stayed made him feel like Goldilocks, endlessly seeking exactly the right bed, unable to sleep until he found it. Except in his case, he knew exactly where the right bed was: at home in Cainsville. He didn’t want to be in Cainsville. Hence the conundrum, which led to this new version of his home, where as furniture aged and rotted, he replaced it with whatever was cheap and available.

He moved quickly through the front rooms, heading for the one that was still his, still exactly as he wanted it. Or exactly as he’d wanted it a hundred years ago. It might not quite match his tastes now, but it retained a familiar comfort.

He stepped into his library and flicked on the light. However much it showed his age, he still felt a mild wonder each time he did that. To come home, after months away, hit a switch and have light? For one who’d lived most of his life with candles and lanterns it was a small miracle.

The room looked like a library straight out of a Victorian novel. Or it would, if one ignored the word processor in the corner. The hulking beige box might ruin the ambiance, but to be able to type out a story and edit it as often as he liked? That was yet another miracle, at least for a writer.

The room was small. He’d often thought of taking out a wall to expand the library, but that moved too far into making this his ideal writing place, which would only make leaving more difficult.

Patrick walked to a bookshelf and ran his fingers over the spines of the old and worn tomes. He selected two. As he pulled them out, the books repaired themselves, the gilt fonts shining, the leather bindings gleaming, rips and tears disappearing.

He sat in his overstuffed chair, the one piece in the house left from the original decor, reupholstered and repaired throughout the decades, because when one found the perfect reading chair, one really could not relinquish it to the trash heap. He settled in, opened the first book and flipped through pages of Welsh until . . .

Mallt-y-Nos. Gwynn ap Nudd. Arawn.

He ran his fingers over the words and whispered to the book as if she were a reluctant lover. “Come now. Open for me. Show me your secrets, you beautiful—”

The words swirled, and he tumbled through the page, into the story, landing on a golden balcony, with a fair-haired young man gripping the railing, watching his betrothed run into the night.

“No!” Patrick snarled, and forcibly wrenched himself back into the present, throwing the book across the room.

He rubbed his palms against his eyelids. Not that. He’d seen quite enough of that already.

He opened the other book, this one handwritten, and proceeded more carefully until he found what seemed to be what he wanted. Once again, he fell through into a castle, but a human one. Perhaps only a few hundred years old. English. He looked around to see an Edwardian Christmas ball in progress.

“Who is she?” asked a voice beside him, and he turned to see a dark-haired man, perhaps forty. He’d been coming in, his overcoat half-off, bringing the chill of the night air with him. There was a woman on his arm, young and beautiful. The man’s gaze, however, was fixed across the room. Patrick followed it to see a raven-haired woman, no longer young, no longer beautiful, but shining as bright as the North Star while she laughed and danced with a man, handsome as he grinned at her, his own face lighting up.

Patrick turned to the man beside him, staring entranced at the woman. He did not look like the fairy prince on the balcony, but Patrick could see past that. No, he could feel past that. While his connection to this man wasn’t as strong as it’d been to Gwynn, it was still there. He glanced at the couple on the dance floor.

“Matilda and Arawn,” he murmured.

Not them exactly. Not reborn. Not even reincarnated. Not exactly.

The legend of Matilda, Gwynn and Arawn. A cycle endlessly repeating. Humans with fae blood taking the place of the originals, spending their lives seeking one another, seeking answers to questions they could not even fathom.

“Who is she?” the man asked again.

“Lady Fairfax,” said the footman taking his overcoat. The servant added, “With her husband, Lord Fairfax.”

“They look very happy,” said the young woman with them.

“They are,” a matron said as she came up behind them. “I’ve known them for many years, and I’ve never seen a couple more deeply in love.”

“Then you ought not to be staring at them, my dear,” his companion said softly. “Particularly not in front of your wife.”

The man mumbled an apology and tore his gaze away.

The scene faded and returned on a dark summer night, to a woman sobbing as if her heart would break. When the fog of the vision cleared, Patrick saw Lady Fairfax bent over the body of her husband, lying dead on the grass, a sword still clutched in his hand. The dark-haired man stood a few feet away, his own sword hanging at his side, bloodied. He stared at the man on the ground as if he didn’t know how he’d come to be there.

“Why?” Lady Fairfax shouted, staggering up as she wheeled on him.

“For you,” the man whispered.

“Me?” Her voice rose. “Me? I barely know you. Why would you do such a thing?”

“I . . . I do not know.”

Lady Fairfax flew at him, hands out, fingers curved into claws as the men’s seconds rushed in to hold her back.

The scene went dark, and Patrick drifted back to his chair, still clutching the book. He flipped more pages, only reading now, sifting through accounts of the trio through the ages.

The legend of Matilda, Gwynn and Arawn. Or, as it should be called, the tragedy of Matilda, Gwynn and Arawn. That’s how it usually ended—in death or madness. Or abject loneliness, never finding one another, and endlessly feeling like they’d missed something crucial in their lives.

For the fae, the story was more than a sad legend, and the humans more than tragic actors. In the original version, Matilda, Arawn and Gwynn had been the best of friends. The Tylwyth Teg and the Cŵn Annwn, living in harmony, two sides of the same coin, light and dark, meadow and forest, day and night, the fae and the Wild Hunt. But on Matilda’s death, lost in their grief, Gwynn and Arawn blamed each other. The princes became kings, and the two sides became enemies. In their old age, they tried to repair the damage, but it was too late. Today, the Tylwyth Teg and the Cŵn Annwn still lived somewhere between allies and enemies, forced to stand together to survive in an increasingly human world with share ever-dwindling resources.

That was where the legend came into play, for it said that when Matilda returned, if one side could win her over, their survival would be ensured. It was not a matter of which man she chose—that was romantic melodrama. Yet if she did prefer one, either as a lover or a friend, it would naturally sway her toward whichever side he represented.

That, then, was the legend. An interesting piece of fae lore. But what the hell did it have to do with Patrick? That was the question, and the books weren’t answering it.

Patrick read a few more books, drank a full bottle of wine, and then ventured onto the nighttime streets. It was quiet enough that he’d hear the other elders coming before they spoiled his stroll. When one walked up behind him, though, he made no move to escape. He even slowed his pace until an arm hooked through his.

“Hello, Patrick.”

He looked down at the elderly form beside him. “Hello, Veronica. Let me guess. You heard I was in town and remembered you needed something from me.”

“But of course. Why else would I seek your company, bòcan?”

She smiled at him, and he returned it with genuine affection.

“Your timing is perfect,” he said. “Because I need something from you.”

“Excellent. We’ll walk to the park, and you can tell me what trouble you’ve been up to, and I can properly chastise you for it.”

It wasn’t far to the park, giving him time only for a single story, one of his more outlandish adventures. Veronica did not, of course, chastise him. She laughed and teased, and before he knew it, they were opening the gate.

A wrought-iron fence bordered Cainsville’s tiny park, because even the best parents might turn their heads for a moment. Every child here was treasured as a symbol of the elders’ success, that the town they’d built lived forever in these children, who’d grow and leave and then return to have little ones of their own.

The park was a monument to that love—from the play equipment to that fence, the posts topped with chimera, shiny from generations of children kissing them and rubbing them for luck. There was a bench inside, but Veronica settled onto one of the swings. Patrick joined her.

Her question involved research, as usual. Veronica was the unofficial town historian. She also managed the festivals—open to all—and the rituals—open to none but the fae, and sometimes not even them. He answered her as best he could and promised to seek out more on the subject.

“And you need. . . ?” she said.

“Just a settling of curiosity.”

“Is that possible?” she asked. “For your curiosity to ever be settled?”

He smiled. “Hopefully on this one matter. I . . . heard something about Mallt-y-Dos.” Her folklore name was Mallt-y-Nos—Matilda of the Night—because that had been her initial choice, however unwittingly. To the Tylwyth Teg, she was Matilda of the Day, signifying the choice they hoped her human descendant would make.

As soon as he said the name, Veronica’s head shot up and her glamour rippled, revealing her true form, a black-haired fae with bright green eyes. A much more attractive form, and one Patrick had seen in its entirety on a few occasions. Romping with humans had a definite allure, but every so often it was nice to return to your own kind.

“Mallt-y-Dos?” Veronica said, and it took a moment for his wandering mind to recall what had prompted that glamour-affecting surprise. “You’ve heard something of her? Here?”

“Actually, that’s what I was going to ask you. Whether there’s any scuttlebutt rippling around these parts. A boggart in the city mentioned her name, and I wondered if it portended anything.”

“I’ve heard nothing. Is there any way you can pursue it?”

The hope in her eyes made him genuinely regret having mentioned it. Being so close to the third-most-populous city in America, Cainsville was in dire need of a Matilda. The elders pretended all was well, but Patrick no longer felt the same surge of natural energy when he returned from his wanderings.

“It really was just a chance eavesdropping,” Patrick said. “I couldn’t even pursue the fellow to ask what he meant.”

“But if there is any way, any at all, to get more details . . .”

Veronica watched him, her glamour all but gone now, her fae form pulsing. The one elder who welcomed him here, who treated him as if he wasn’t a pariah, was asking him for a favor.

Cach.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said.

The korrigan was at home and far too pleased to find him on her doorstep.

“I don’t appreciate games,” Patrick said as he walked into her house.

“You love games. Just not when they’re foisted on you. We could have avoided that if you’d spoken to me sooner. I presume you got my message.” The vision, she meant, her lips curving in a satisfied smile.

“Matilda is returning,” he said. “Here.”

“Yes.”

“Has she been born?”

“Not yet.”

“When?”

“Eventually. That is all I know of her, bogan, so do not press me for more.”

“On her. But you know more about Gwynn, don’t you. That’s who I saw.” Who I felt. “What’s my connection to him?”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ve figured it out.”

“I have no idea.”

“You lie so well, bogan. All right. Let me spell it out for you. Gwynn is returning, and you will be his sire.”

“Me?” Patrick snorted. “I know your kind see truth mixed with falsehood and you cannot tell one from the other. So I’ll help. I cannot sire the new Gwynn, because I am fae. He has fae blood, at least some from the line of the original, but his parents are human.”

“No, he is human. Even a drop of mortal blood makes a child mortal.”

He knew that, of course. He’d just thought—hoped—that the legend implied both parents were human.

“You will sire the new Gwynn,” the korrigan said. “The mother will have fae blood, including the line of the original. She is a daughter of your town.”

“Cainsville?”

“Yes, and again, that’s all I know.”

“Then this new Matilda will be forever lacking a Gwynn,” Patrick said, getting to his feet. “You just told me the mother is from Cainsville, which is going to make it very easy for me to stop this prediction from coming true.”

Part one of avoiding the korrigan’s prophesy? Get his ass back to Cainsville. That might seem counterintuitive, but avoiding the town was just asking for trouble. The solution to this problem was education and preparation. Return to Cainsville and make a list of every woman who might someday serve as baby-mama.

Compiling that list was not easy. It’d been years since he’d done more than pop into Cainsville to use his library or annoy the elders with his presence. He could speak to Veronica—he’d need to at some point—but he hadn’t yet decided what he’d say about Mallt-y-Dos, and asking her to list eligible young women so he could avoid them would be . . . problematic under the circumstances. Even if there didn’t need to be a Gwynn to win the new Matilda, it would certainly help Cainsville’s cause if there was. If Patrick refused to play daddy, even Veronica might turn her back on him.

He sat in the coffee shop with his notebook, pretending to work while he watched the Saturday foot traffic. In two hours, four women fit the criteria. Three he recognized from old Cainsville families and made a mental note of their features. He asked the kid behind the counter about the fourth, and learned she’d recently moved to town, no familial connection, which meant no fae blood. Rose also strode past on her way to work. While she definitely fit the list, Rose Walsh was not a fun weekend romp. He respected her family enough to steer clear.

When the coffee shop door opened, he glanced up to see a possible addition to his list . . . in about ten years. A gangly teenage girl, maybe fourteen, but already showing signs of beauty, with long dark hair and rich brown eyes. She had fae blood, too, because he recognized the older woman who followed her in. Daere Carew, from another very old Cainsville family.

“How about a hot chocolate, Pams?” Daere said to the girl.

Pamela. Yes, Pamela Bowen. Daere had left Cainsville after her marriage to a Bowen, but she returned to visit family. Her grandmother had been one of their success stories, having unique powers with none of the negative side effects that often accompanied fae blood.

Daere asked her daughter about the hot chocolate again.

“What I’d really like is to get out of this town,” Pamela muttered.

Her mother sighed, and the girl said, “Sorry, Mom. It’s just . . . creepy. All the gargoyles and the old people.” Her mother gave a deeper sigh.

Patrick chuckled. Pamela Bowen, I do believe I like you. I’m almost sorry I’ll have to add you to my do-not-touch list. I bet you’ll be something else in another ten years.

He looked at the girl again, to commit her face to memory, but when he did, the vision flashed. He saw the girl, Matilda, leaping onto the back of Arawn’s horse. Then Lady Fairfax, laughing as she danced.

Could Pamela Bowen be Matilda? No, the korrigan said the new Mallt-y-Nos had not been born.

Not Matilda herself. Mallt-y-Dos’s mother.

Patrick shook the thought from his head. Save the romantic fancies for his books. Young Ms. Bowen would not appreciate that one.

After Daere ordered the hot chocolates, she leaned over and whispered to Pamela, “Well, there aren’t any gargoyles in here. Or senior citizens.”

Pamela glanced around. Her gaze fell on him, and she went still. If she’d been a dog, her hackles would have risen. Even the hairs on his own neck rose under her stare.

You see me. You know what I am.

A rare power, to see a fae’s true form and know they were not human. Most times, those with the gift gaped in wonder, as if gazing upon angels. This girl’s stare, though . . . He’d never seen such hate in a child’s eyes.

She saw him, and she hated him. Had she had some negative experience with fae? Whether she had or not, no one with fae blood was going to woo this girl. So how could she be Matilda’s mother?

Wait. The original Matilda had been half Tylwyth Teg and half Cŵn Annwn. That meant her human representative needed the blood of both, like the original. Pamela, then, would find a boy with Cŵn Annwn heritage . . .

Another sharp shake of his head. Really, Patrick? Stick to novels.

He looked at Pamela, still staring with the look that dared him to comment, to react, to reveal himself. When he did nothing, she sniffed and turned away.

“Can we drink in the park instead?” she asked her mother.

“It’s rather cool out . . .”

“But we have hot chocolate.”

Daere smiled. “So we do. To the park then.”

Pamela took her drink and walked past him without a backward glance.

Patrick made his list, checked it twice, and then got the hell out of Cainsville before he was either naughty or nice. Christmas came shortly after that, and he carried on with his life. He wrote. He caused a little trouble. He balanced the scale by doing some decent things in return—slide a hundred-dollar bill into a homeless man’s pocket, break into a run-down apartment and leave gifts for the kids. Easy enough to do good at holiday time. Also easy to find women to share his bed, those feeling a little lonely this time of year . . . or just sick of hanging out with their families. The only difference was that he now insisted on using his own condoms, rather than relying on the ones they’d kept in their purse for who-knows-how-long.

Did he feel a little guilty that he’d ducked Veronica during his Cainsville visit, to avoid having to tell her anything? Yes, he was capable of guilt, at least when friends were involved. He’d figure out what to tell her before he returned, which would not be soon if he could help it.

Before he knew it, spring had arrived. He was heading home in the early hours, having spent the night with a young woman who dreamed of being a porn star and studiously practiced her craft. If she’d made extra effort for him because of a few cagey comments that may have led her to believe he was involved in the adult entertainment industry, well, he’d never said that outright and practice makes perfect. He’d just been helping her reach her goal.

He was currently providing yet another community service. Housesitting, in a beautiful Victorian manor, the owners of which were in the south of France for the month. Their house was on the border of one of the sketchier Chicago neighborhoods, and they’d forgotten to hire someone to watch it. Patrick had come to their rescue and taken up residence. He’d already protected the home from two raccoons, a marauding tomcat and an infestation of mice.

The future porn star lived only a few miles from his temporary residence, and it was a lovely morning for a walk, the sun just beginning to rise, the air clean and sharp. Yes, it was another sign of his age that he’d never grown accustomed to motor vehicles. He owned one, of course, but he kept it in storage unless traveling to Cainsville. Otherwise, if he needed a car, he could always liberate one from the curbside. When he could, he preferred to walk.

Heading through that unsavory neighborhood never bothered him. He was a three-hundred-year-old bòcan. Petty criminals were hardly a match for him, and he emanated an aura that said as much—they’d glance his way, only to look off again with a snort, as if telling themselves he wasn’t worth their time.

Patrick was heading down a side road when he heard a cry from one of the alleys. A young woman who hadn’t been quite as successful in scaring off the local predators. He slowed to listen. Had it seemed like a sexual assault, he’d have gotten involved, but what he overheard sounded like a simple mugging. He supposed the victim would not appreciate him calling it “simple,” but if you walk through these streets alone, you’d best leave your valuables behind, lest you be forcibly parted from them.

Still, he had not yet decided against helping. He weighed the current balance. While he could—and did—argue that sex with an aspiring porn star and squatting in an empty manor were acts of community service, he would allow that they did not quite equal sneaking holiday gifts to needy children. One might even consider them zero-sum acts, neither contributing to his debt nor relieving it. And a few recent indiscretions may have tipped the balance more to the debt side of his personal ledger. He’d take a closer look at the situation and see if the trouble warranted the reward.

He crept to the mouth of the alley and peered down it to see a teenage boy with an equally young girl pinned to the wall. The girl’s face was battered and bruised, and she wheezed, as if she’d been struck in the ribs, too.

“Where’s the dope, Seanna?”

“I don’t do that no more.”

“Bullshit. You must have lightened some dude’s stash at that party. I know how you operate. Been your victim myself a few times. Flash those big blue eyes while you slide your fingers into my pocket.”

“I was at the party for a friend. Not to score. I need to stay clean or my aunt will kick me out.”

“Boo-hoo. And bullshit.”

“I’m serious. You already got all my money and my necklace. Go ahead and pat me down. There’s nothing else.”

“Oh, I’ll do more than pat you down, Seanna. We’re going to have some fun. And then you’ll show me where you hid the stash.”

“Uh-uh.” Patrick walked over. “You don’t want to do that.”

The boy turned, his broad face scrunching up. “Who the hell are you? Her father?”

Well, that was a little insulting. Not biologically impossible, of course, but still . . .

“Just a concerned citizen strolling past,” Patrick said.

“Keep strolling, pops. This is none of your business.”

“The safety of the streets is everyone’s business. I’ve already called the police from a pay phone. If you want to entertain yourself while we wait, I’d suggest taking a swing at me.”

The boy sneered. “Not much entertainment when I could knock you over with one hand behind my back.”

“Let’s not overdo it. You can use both. And while we’re at it, how about a wager on the outcome?” Patrick removed a crisp hundred from his wallet. “Will this do?”

The boy dropped Seanna and bore down on Patrick. “Oh, I think your entire wallet will do.”

“We’ll start with this.” Patrick let the breeze catch the bill, and he released it, sending the boy scrambling. He was about to tackle the distracted teen when distant sirens sounded. The boy caught the bill and looked up, following the sound.

“I’d say they’re about thirty seconds out,” Patrick said. “Perhaps you just want to take that hundred—”

The boy was already running. Seanna turned to bolt, too, but Patrick caught her by the shoulder, saying, “I don’t think you want to go with him.”

“The police—”

“First thing you need to learn if you like picking pockets? The difference between a police siren and an ambulance. Second? Don’t carry drugs while you’re lightening wallets, because the sentence for that will be much harsher.”

“I don’t have—” she began.

“Then you wouldn’t be in such a hurry to get out of here.”

“I’m holding it for a friend.”

“Yes, yes. Now, as there are no actual police coming, Seanna—”

“How do you know my name?”

“Because your friend there used it.”

Which was true. Yet he also knew her surname: Walsh. Seanna Walsh, niece of Rose, the aunt she’d undoubtedly referred to.

As bruised and bloodied as the girl’s face was, he had only to see those bright blue eyes, put them together with her black hair and fair skin and unusual name, and he knew this was Rose’s niece. He’d last seen her in Cainsville before she ran away from home, which made her about eighteen now.

Eighteen years old. Growing into a young woman. An attractive one, with plenty of fae blood and a penchant for trouble. Yes, Seanna was definitely on his do-not-touch list. And now he’d just happened to rescue her from a mugging? He’d written enough romances to know that’s what fate was scripting in this scene. They’d meet now, under these circumstances, and then when she was a more palatable age to him, they’d meet again in Cainsville and he’d look at her very differently.

Forewarned was forearmed. And now he was forewarned.

“You should get yourself to a doctor,” he said as he started to walk away. “You sound as if you cracked a rib.”

“I don’t have any money.”

He should shrug, keep going, and leave her bleeding in an alley. Prove he wasn’t her knight in shining armor, so when they did meet again, her memories of him would be less than rose-tinged.

And yet . . . Well, the sort of romances he wrote were not the sweet kind. He was particularly partial to gothics, and in those, the hero could indeed be an ass. The allure of the bad boy. One look at Seanna—and the former friend who’d just fled—and he suspected she understood that allure all too well.

“You mentioned an aunt,” he said. “I’m sure she’ll take you to a doctor.”

“Then I have to explain how I got beaten up, when she thinks I was working at an all-night coffee shop.”

“Tell her you got mugged leaving work.”

Seanna shook her head. “She won’t buy it, and then she’ll start asking questions about where I work, and she’ll know I lied about the job.”

True. Rose was a sharp one. Having the second sight didn’t help.

He took three twenties from his wallet. “This will cover a visit and antibiotics. Now scram, kiddo.”

She took the money without a word of thanks, no more than she’d thanked him for rescuing her. A girl who thought the world owed her. Which was unfortunate, because it was going to prove her wrong, time and again.

Patrick let Seanna walk on ahead to the mouth of the alley. Whichever way she turned, he’d go the other. She was about to step from the alley when she staggered and grabbed a trashcan, pulling it over with a clatter as she collapsed. She lay on the sidewalk, taking deep and pained breaths. She tried to rise, only to whimper and double over.

Another moment passed, and she glanced at Patrick. “Aren’t you even going to help me?”

Not if he could help it. At least he hadn’t been rude enough to walk straight past her.

“I think I broke that rib,” she said.

“Possibly,” he said.

Another minute of silence. Then, “Could you help me up? Please?”

It was the please that did it. A tough little girl who was, in all likelihood, not nearly as tough as she thought. Or as she’d like.

He walked over and helped her stand.

“Can you just hail me a cab?” she asked. “I can take it from there.”

“I thought you didn’t have any money.”

“I have enough to get me to a doctor.”

At least she didn’t try to squeeze cab fare out of him. He supported her over to a wall and then looked around for a taxi before realizing the impossibility of hailing one at this hour, in this neighborhood. He told her he’d need to call from the pay phone and got about five paces before she let out a yelp, and he turned to see her on the ground again.

He sighed, went back and helped her to her feet.

“On second thought,” she said. “A doctor can’t do much for a broken rib. All I really need is a place to rest and clean up.” She looked up at him, biting her lip and widening her eyes. “You wouldn’t happen to live around here, would you?”

He had to bite his own lip to keep from laughing. Her attempts to look seductive would work so much better without that calculating gleam in her eye. This was her new plan then—to get him to tend her wounds so she could pocket his sixty dollars.

“I do live nearby,” he said. “But I’ll warn you that my wife isn’t at home this week.”

She gave a sly smile. “Good. Then we won’t disturb her.”

“That wasn’t a hint, Seanna. I was letting you know that I’m married. Which means I’m doing this out of the kindness of my heart, and I don’t want anything in return. Anything.”

It may have just been his ego, but he swore disappointment flickered across her face.

“Under those circumstances,” he continued, “do you still want to recuperate at my house?”

“Yes, please.”

Seanna Walsh was a mess. And not just because of the beating. That hadn’t been particularly severe. The blood came from her lip, where she’d bitten it, and once she washed up, the facial bruising appeared to be from a single blow. She did seem to have cracked a rib but was breathing fine now. The damage she’d done to herself over the past few years was worse. Far worse.

When Seanna had argued with the boy about drugs, Patrick thought it was probably marijuana. Or perhaps that new drug circulating at parties, the one amusingly called ecstasy. Yet he’d only needed one look at her in a post-bath oversized T-shirt, and he knew the problem ran much deeper. He didn’t dare try recreational pharmaceuticals himself—the effects on fae were unpredictable—but he partied enough to understand the culture and realize that the needle marks on Seanna didn’t come from a medical condition.

Fae blood made humans more susceptible to addiction. Perhaps they sensed something missing in their lives, a mystery about themselves they couldn’t solve, and they took comfort in alcohol and drugs. Or maybe the booze and dope stilled an inner voice that said they were different, that they didn’t quite belong with the boinne-fala. Or perhaps it was simply a facet of being fae, like that part of his own self that he overindulged in his fondness for wine, women and song.

Whatever the reason, it did not mean that every human with fae blood was a roaring drunk or stuck needles in her arm. Some, like the Carews, seemed to have avoided that lifestyle altogether. Those like Rose had a wild side, but it didn’t run to addiction. Or perhaps with the Walshes that predilection was always there, and they fought it by indulging their wild side in pickpocketing and con artistry. The Walshes were a tough bunch. Seanna, though . . . Seanna was different. Not yet out of her teens, she’d already tumbled down the rabbit hole of addiction and lost herself there.

As he tended to her and let her rest in the guest bedroom, he discovered that he felt something for her plight. Not sympathy, because that presumed he understood how she could have fallen so far so fast. No, it was closer to pity, an emotion that always seemed to carry a thin thread of contempt, as if recognizing that the recipient was in a very bad place, but not entirely free of the blame for it. Whatever their faults, the Walshes had strong family ties, and no one could say Seanna had a difficult childhood, particularly not in Cainsville, where no child was as special as those with the old blood. So her situation smacked of—while he hated to be so cruel—weakness.

The more time he spent with her, the more he wondered if he was being too harsh. Perhaps the addiction-prone properties of her fae blood were simply stronger. She did not resume her awkward attempts at seduction, which made him suspect she’d simply presumed he’d expect sex, and rather than wait until he demanded it, she’d taken control and offered. That did speak to strength. An almost animal cunning and strong survival instinct, which he admired.

As he wrote in the back room, listening to Seanna sighing and whimpering in her sleep, he found himself putting fewer and fewer words on the page and instead staring out the window, immersed in his thoughts. Immersed in thoughts of Gwynn.

Seanna was the one. He was certain of it. She fit the profile—or she would in a few years—and the way they’d met suggested the meddling hand of a cosmic matchmaker.

He’d avoided Veronica because he didn’t dare admit he was supposed to father the new Gwynn and had no intention of doing so. Because that made him feel . . .

Guilty, damn it. It made him feel guilty.

He knew Cainsville was in trouble. While extinction didn’t lurk right around the corner, they saw it coming. Fae were not like humans, hearing scientists talk of the dangers of ozone depletion and thinking, “I’ll be dead by then, so who cares?” The fae would not be dead when trouble hit.

If a new Matilda was coming, having a Gwynn would help. Without one, it would be like with Lady Fairfax—Arawn would swoop in and snatch her up. Patrick knew the local Cŵn Annwn well enough to predict that.

The elders wouldn’t understand why Patrick was so resistant to the idea of siring Gwynn. It wasn’t as if he’d be expected to raise the boy. There could be a financial obligation, if the mother knew who’d fathered the boy, but Patrick certainly had the funds to support a child.

The korrigan was right—he didn’t want the responsibility. That was all there was to it. Responsibilities came with attachments, and attachments, as Patrick well knew, only led to pain.

But did he have the right to say he wouldn’t even lend his seed to the cause of saving his people? Yes, he had the right to refuse. But should he? Putting Cainsville and the Tylwyth Teg aside, weren’t his own survival instincts better honed than that? True, if Cainsville fell, he could move on—he had before. But even if he wasn’t particularly fond of living in the town, he appreciated having it there, for sanctuary and an energy recharge when he needed it.

By the time Seanna awoke, it was the dinner hour. He picked up takeout, and they ate, and she talked, opening up a little about her hopes and dreams. They were silly hopes and dreams, not unlike the ones he’d heard from so many young women. Rather underwhelming, and there was a part of him that wanted to shake her and say, “You can do more.” You can be more. She wanted an apartment. She wanted a puppy. She wanted a job. Someday, she might even finish high school, because it would make her aunt happy. They were the dreams of a child, covering the basic needs of a human—shelter, food and love, if only from a pet. Sad and pathetic fantasies, and as she talked he realized . . .

Did he even dare put it into words? Hardly. It was too far outside the realm of his experience. No, that was a lie. It was too far outside the realm of his current personae, of the life he’d crafted for himself.

What if he accepted that she would be the mother of Gwynn, of his child, at some future—hopefully distant future—point in time? While she was in no way a suitable parent, she could be, and he could help with that. Tackle the addiction. Get her a job and an apartment. Buy her a damned puppy if that helped. He was sure Rose had done her best, but she wasn’t much older herself. Perhaps what Seanna needed was a fairy godfather.

He sputtered a laugh at the thought, making Seanna ask what was so funny, a guarded look in her eyes that said she suspected mockery. He talked her hackles down and then brought wine up from the cellar. Fae wine, very hard to come by in the modern world, which was why he usually made do with decent boinne-fala vintages. Yet he always kept a couple of bottles with him. He poured her barely a shot, teasing that was enough, given she was underage. It would be enough. Not to intoxicate her but, well, there were different sorts of intoxication, and fae wine heightened the senses, better connected one with the surrounding world. It might satisfy a need in Seanna and ease her addiction. Which meant, he supposed, that he’d already made up his mind on the matter.

Seanna would be his new project. The Eliza to his Henry Higgins. She ought to be at least seven years older before she attempted motherhood, which left plenty of time for gradual changes. He’d do this right, from start to finish, no rushing through it, no half measures, no wandering off when he tired of the hobby.

They drank the fairy wine, and they talked, and he lit the fireplace, which seemed to please her in a childlike way. Then he wrote for a while as she listened to music on her Walkman. He’d already agreed to let her spend the night—in the guest room—and he’d drive her back to her aunt’s in the morning.

Near midnight, he relented on the alcohol and allowed her to select wine from the basement, hiding his amusement when she brought up the bottle with the fanciest label . . . the cheapest in the collection. She opened it in the kitchen and poured them each half a glass, as per his instructions. Then they talked some more, as he sought to get a sense of his first step: concentrate solely on the addiction or get her back into school while she battled those demons.

This would not be a small project, but it was the right one. And he was the right person to tackle it.

That night, Patrick slept even more poorly than he had with the Gwynn-vision. At least then he’d managed to yank himself out of the nightmare. That night, the visions from both the korrigan and his book looped endlessly in scattered and frenzied fragments.

When he finally did wake, sunlight streamed through the window and he stared at it, wondering why he hadn’t drawn the blinds the night before. He was very careful about that—a basic security measure, particularly when the bed was not your own. But all the blinds were open and . . .

And his head hurt. That gave him pause, wondering if he’d struck it and forgotten. Every movement sent stabbing pain through his skull, and the sunlight was so bright, so damnably bright.

I’m hung over.

That wasn’t possible. The closest he’d ever come to it was after drinking nearly four bottles of fae wine back in the days before that cost a small fortune.

Last night, he’d had half a glass of fae wine and half a glass of human. Nothing more.

He looked down at himself, saw he still wore his clothing from the day before, and realized he didn’t remember coming to bed. He’d been talking to Seanna, regaling her with some wild tale from his life, telling her it was a plot from one of his books. She’d been laughing, and then she’d . . .

Brought him more wine? Yes.

“Only for you,” she said. “I know I’ve had enough.”

Cach. She’d dosed the wine. Mixed in some human drug. Combine that with the fairy wine, and it had sent him . . .

He had no idea where it’d sent him. He didn’t dare guess . . .

Oh, no.

He spun to look at the other side of the bed, but it was empty. He was lying atop the bedspread.

Also, you’re fully dressed.

He exhaled in shuddering relief. All right. So if not seduction . . . He blinked harder and looked around the room. Then he let out a deep sigh. He may have collapsed in bed fully dressed, but he’d apparently had the forethought to remove his watch and wallet. Or, more likely, it had been done for him. His Swiss watch was gone and his wallet flopped open on the nightstand, emptied of all cash and credit cards. She’d even taken his new ATM card, which would be useless without the code. Unless she’d managed to get that from him while he was under the influence.

Cach,” he muttered and rolled out of bed, cursing again as pain stabbed through his skull. He had to call the bank and put a stop on everything before she did too much damage. Unfortunately, given this wasn’t his house, making a call meant getting to a pay phone. He really needed to invest in one of those new mobile ones.

He lurched into the living room and stopped to spew a volley of far more eloquent curses. Every item of furniture had been pulled from the wall, books strewn across the floor, pictures yanked down as Seanna had searched for wall safes. A quick survey of the house revealed similar disarray in every room, along with the theft of every portable item of value. She must have left with pillowcases of loot over her shoulders.

There was no way he could hide this damage. Time to collect his things and flee the scene.

And thus Patrick’s plan to rescue Seanna Walsh died within hours of its birth. Oh, he did attempt to find her, though part of that search was so he could teach her that stealing from a bòcan was a very bad idea. That didn’t bother him nearly as much as the fact she’d stolen from someone who’d done nothing except help her.

If such a scenario had been put to him before this, he’d have laughed at the suggestion that he might be offended—and even a little hurt—by such a thing. He understood tricks better than anyone, and he would have bowed to Seanna and said, “Well played, miss.” Yet that was not how he felt. Not at all.

It was one thing to stuff a bill in the pocket of a homeless man or leave gifts for underprivileged children. Those involved no actual contact with the recipient. Do his good deed and leave, and the scale returned to balance. With Seanna, he’d gone well beyond anything he’d done in many, many decades. He’d let her into his life for a few hours and shown her every kindness. How did she repay him? Robbed him blind.

Anyone with basic self-awareness realized it was wrong to hurt someone who’d helped you. But it also violated her family’s code. For the Walshes, the world was full of marks, to be conned and robbed and cheated. But you didn’t do that to family, and you didn’t do it to friends, and you didn’t do it to people who’d been good to you.

He’d heard rumors that Seanna had stolen from her family before she ran away. Yesterday, he’d dismissed them as just rumors. The Walshes had never complained, so the stories must be false. But they wouldn’t complain, would they? Seanna’s betrayal would be a private matter, a private shame, their failure to indoctrinate her in the code.

Patrick did hunt for Seanna. He even swung through Cainsville a month later, tracking down Rose and subtly asking after her niece. The girl had not been seen. And so, it seemed, his plan was, at the very least, on hold.

Five months after Seanna’s betrayal, Veronica sent a note to his post office box. Had it come a half-year before, he’d have ignored it, presuming she was annoyed that he’d left Cainsville without speaking to her about his Matilda findings. To be honest, he’d have been surprised if she did. Complaining wasn’t Veronica’s way. She would be disappointed in not getting more answers but would not chase him for them. She respected his privacy, which was why she was the only elder with his postal box number.

The note was simple and to the point, which was also very unlike Veronica. Enough so that he didn’t even take the time to hot-wire a car. He hailed a cab for the hour-long trip and told the driver not to spare any rubber getting him to his destination.

Once settled in the taxi, he looked at the message again. Five words.

Get to Cainsville, Patrick. Now.

He did have the driver make a stop along the way. At a pay phone so he could call Veronica and see if she was at home, rather than arriving and being forced to run pell-mell through town searching for her, which would hardly befit his image. She was there, and she wouldn’t tell him over the phone what the summons was about, just said to meet her at his house.

When he got there, he hurried through the front door and caught a glimpse through the entryway of Veronica in the living room. He slowed and added a little jaunt to his stride as he walked in, saying, “All right, where’s the fire?”

Veronica pointed to a young woman seated across from her. Seanna Walsh. A very pregnant Seanna Walsh.

“She was looking for you rather desperately,” Veronica said. “I can’t imagine why.” She cast a pointed look at the girl’s protruding stomach.

“No, that’s—It can’t . . .” He trailed off as he flashed back to the night he’d been drugged. The night he couldn’t remember. While the fact he’d woken fully dressed had suggested he hadn’t done anything to Seanna, it did not mean she hadn’t done anything to him.

“It’s not like that,” he said weakly, and Veronica tilted her head, her expression severe, but her cool gaze thawing slightly, as if willing to grant him the benefit of the doubt.

“I’ll leave you two to chat,” she said, rising. “You’ll come talk to me afterward?”

He nodded, and she left. Patrick stayed standing just inside the doorway.

“What’s this about?” he said to Seanna.

She put her hands on her belly. “I think that’s obvious. Even the old bat knew.”

He shot her a glare. “She has a name. I’m sure you know it.”

A shrug, as if she did but didn’t care. She leaned back, her arms stretching across the top of the sofa, possessive in a way that set his teeth on edge. He forced himself to relax and walked to the chair Veronica had vacated.

“How did you find me?” he asked.

“Magic.”

That gave him pause, but one look at her smug expression said she was only being sarcastic.

“I’ve seen you around,” she said. “I know what you are.”

Again he had to struggle not to outwardly tense. “And what am I?”

“A writer. A rich one. Someone pointed you out at the coffee shop once and said you were a famous novelist. I didn’t remember seeing you before, but he said you’d been living here for years. The most famous person in Cainsville. And the richest. Even if you don’t look it.” A pointed stare at his clothing. Then she glanced around. “You don’t spend your money here either, do you? This place is a dump.”

“No, it’s just old.”

“Same thing.” She shifted to put her feet—complete with dirty sneakers—on his sofa. “But you have the fancy house in Chicago. Or you did—I went there and someone else lives in the place now. I guess you didn’t want me coming back and cleaning out the rest, huh?” Before he could comment, she continued, “A fancy house in Chicago and this dump in Cainsville, so no one knows you’re rich.”

“I’m not rich, Seanna.”

“Of course you are. You’re a novelist.”

He had to laugh at that. “Which is definitely not a path to fame and fortune.”

“Don’t bullshit me. I pawned your watch for almost five hundred, to a guy who usually gives me twenty bucks. And I got the balance on your bank card before you shut me out. Nearly a quarter-million. In your checking account.”

“So you knew me from Cainsville. And then you bumped into me in Chicago—”

She snorted and rolled her eyes.

“You didn’t bump into me,” he said, slowly, as he worked it out. “You set me up. You even staged the attack. You spotted me in Chicago and planned out how to take down a rich mark.”

“Oh, I’m just getting started with that.” She smiled and rubbed her belly. “And you just started paying the price for being a Good Samaritan.”

Her smile grew, so very pleased with herself and not the least bit ashamed.

“That’s not my baby,” he said.

The smugness faded from her eyes, just a little. “What?”

“Perhaps you missed that class on the birds and the bees. Probably shooting up behind the school, if you were still bothering to attend. But conception requires sex. I am quite certain I didn’t have sex with you.” He curled his lip. “Quite certain I wouldn’t have sex with you, little girl.”

She blinked, straightening. Then her eyes narrowed. “Well, you did, and I can prove it.”

“How? Did you take photos? I’m sure you didn’t. They’d hardly be flattering. Given that I woke up fully dressed, I know anything between us wasn’t consensual. As a lover, I’m much more involved. I can’t imagine how much work you needed to do to get me where you needed me.”

“Oh, not much at all. You were willing. You just didn’t know it.”

Fury burned through him. Fury and outrage, and he wanted to walk over there, grab her and tell her what she’d done—exactly what he’d thought he saved her from in that alley. But she wouldn’t see it that way at all. Never would; never could. That would require intelligence and the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, and Seanna Walsh had not a drop of either.

“You are the father,” she said. “There are ways to prove that now.”

He reined in his anger and only said, “Are you sure?”

Her expression said she wasn’t, not entirely. She’d probably heard about DNA tests but not enough to know if it was even feasible to get one.

“Well,” he said, getting to his feet. “You do have a point. You’re pregnant and in need of help.” He took a twenty from his wallet and tossed it at her. “Buy yourself a few cartons of milk. I hear that’s good for pregnant women. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have someone I need to set straight on this misunderstanding.” He stepped toward Seanna. “I’ll escort you out. And don’t think of coming back. I think you’ll find I protect this place a little more carefully than my one in Chicago. They say booby-traps are illegal but no one tramples on my right to protect my property.”

Patrick did not actually turn Seanna out on the streets to fend for herself, pregnant with his child. He needed to deny paternity to her—he wouldn’t put it past Seanna to have brought a hidden tape recorder to catch an admission. But he knew the child was his, and his son would not suffer for the sins of his mother.

He spoke to Veronica first. He told the truth, that the girl had decided a “rich author” was the perfect baby-daddy, the perfect sucker to be fleeced. Veronica clearly knew the girl, because she only said, “I wondered if it was something like that. She’s a troubled child.”

“That’s an understatement.”

She nodded, but her look held only sympathy for Seanna, perhaps touched with guilt. If a child of Cainsville had gone so wrong, then they were all to blame. Which wasn’t true. Patrick suspected nothing had broken in Seanna Walsh. It simply hadn’t formed. The worst possible consequence of fae blood: sociopathy, taking a fae’s underdeveloped conscience and annihilating it entirely. However, to be perfectly honest about it, that too was their fault, was it not?

“What does this have to do with Matilda?” Veronica asked.

“Matilda? Nothing.”

“Let me rephrase that. Obviously since the Walshes have no Cŵn Annwn blood, the child cannot be Matilda. But there is a connection. Is she . . .” She trailed off as if struggling to keep the hope from her voice. “Is Matilda coming?”

“Yes, but can we not discuss this further? Please?”

A few moments of silence. Then, “All right. But if the birth is significant, that girl is in no shape to be a mother. Or even to carry a baby to term. If she hasn’t already done irreparable damage with drugs or alcohol, that is.”

He was trying not to think of that. Trying very hard.

“I’ll look after it,” he said.

Which he did. As best he could. He’d hoped Seanna would stay in Cainsville. From what he heard later, Rose had tried—desperately—to take the girl in when she realized she was pregnant, but she’d been unable to convince her to stay.

Seanna fled to Chicago. Patrick followed. He found ways to get money to her, secretly. He even called in a sizable favor from another fae to impersonate an outreach worker offering free medical care and healthy food and prenatal vitamins and whatever Seanna needed. He’d half-expected the girl to demand cash instead, but to his surprise, she’d accepted the help. Happily accepted it even. She went to the appointments and she ate the food and she took the vitamins.

From what Patrick could tell, she’d been clean since the pregnancy began. Well, as clean as she could get—still sneaking the occasional cigarette and beer. But she was taking care of herself and, more importantly, the baby in her belly, and that gave him hope. Seanna might be little more than a wild animal but, like an animal, she seemed to extend that self-interest and well-tuned sense of survival to her child, and the pregnancy proceeded without a hitch.

Patrick was even there the day his son was born. He knew Seanna’s time was close, and he’d had her apartment bugged since the “outreach worker” helped her get it. He heard Seanna call for the ambulance, and he’d followed it to the hospital, affecting an older glamour, putting him in his seventies. Then he’d charmed the nurses into thinking he was someone’s grandfather, and they left him alone, there in the hall to hear his son’s first squall.

A big, strapping, healthy boy—that’s what the doctor said. The next day, Patrick returned to the maternity ward in his old man guise, and “wandered” into Seanna’s room. She was reading a magazine, the baby sleeping in a basinet. She didn’t recognize Patrick—one glance at his gray hair and wrinkles and she stopped looking. He apologized for being in the wrong room and asked what the child’s name was. Seanna took at least five seconds to look up from her magazine, pointedly letting him know he was interrupting her rest time.

“Gabriel,” she said.

A nurse walked in, bathing supplies in hand, and overheard. “Oh, that’s lovely, dear. Is it a family name? Or is it after the archangel?”

Seanna turned a level gaze on the woman. “No, it’s from my favorite childhood story. About the Wild Hunt, riders from hell that stalk the living. They’re also known as Gabriel’s Hounds.”

Patrick coughed to hide his snort of laughter at the nurse’s expression. And he had to laugh, too, at the irony of naming the Tylwyth Teg’s future champion after the opposing team.

“Actually,” he said. “The Wild Hunt sends souls of the damned into the afterlife, not the Christian hell. It’s an old Celtic legend.”

The nurse’s expression said that wasn’t much better. “It’s time for the baby’s bath. No visitors allowed.”

“I understand. But may I . . .” He looked at the sleeping child. “May I hold him for a moment before I go?”

He expected Seanna to protest, but she only shrugged. It was the nurse who gave his aged body a dubious look.

“He’s big for a newborn,” she said. “You’ll want to sit down.”

He took a seat in the visitor’s chair, and the nurse brought the baby from the bassinet.

“He’s been sleeping, so he might fuss,” the nurse said.

The child—Gabriel—did not fuss. He opened his blue eyes, and Patrick would not say the child looked pleased to find himself in the arms of a stranger, but he did seem resigned to it.

There was little of Patrick in the child, at least in outward appearance. That was common with fae epil—offspring. Gabriel was a Walsh through and through, from the thatch of black hair to the pale skin to the blue eyes, already brighter than most. His solemn expression reminded Patrick of Rose, as did the keen gaze that traveled about the room and then rested on Patrick’s face, as if assessing him.

“He’s a bright one,” the nurse said. “Inquisitive.”

“Babies can’t see much past their noses at birth,” Seanna said. “I did my homework.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Patrick said. “You’ll make a good mother.”

She turned to the nurse as if he hadn’t spoken. “Show me how to bathe him.”

The nurse took Gabriel, and if Patrick felt a twinge of reluctance to let him go, it was balanced by the reassurance that all would be well. Whatever kind of person Seanna was, she would be a good mother. Their child was safe with her.

A few days later, Patrick was again summoned to Cainsville. The note came from Veronica, but clearly at the behest of the other elders, and included the line, “I’ve said nothing to them,” which told him he would not enjoy this visit. He’d go, though. He might avoid Cainsville, but he didn’t hide from it.

They met at Ida and Walter’s house. Veronica was there, along with a few of the other elders. The silent majority, as he called them. Non-entities who could be counted on only for one thing: to follow Ida’s lead.

“I hear Seanna Walsh had a son,” Ida said before he could even settle in. “Congratulations, Patrick.”

He glanced at Veronica, who reiterated her earlier message, mouthing it.

“We heard she stopped by while she was pregnant and was rather desperately looking for you, Patrick. We’d hoped we were mistaken about the obvious conclusion. But when a source brought us the news that she’d given birth, I went to see the child myself. He’s half fae. Half bòcan.”

“I—”

“You impregnated a drug-addicted child?”

He could tell the truth. Tell them how he’d been tricked. Which would lay him open to their mockery yet not exonerate him from the accusation, because they wouldn’t believe him. Oh, they’d accept that he’d been tricked—that was too rich an irony to ignore. But they’d think he’d gone along with it in the end, that Seanna drugged him and that lowered his inhibitions, but he’d still been an active participant in the process of conception.

“She wasn’t on drugs at the time,” he said. “That would hardly be a worthy conquest. And the age of consent in Illinois is seventeen. So . . .” A careless shrug, coupled with a faint smile. “I didn’t mean to knock the kid up, but condoms don’t always hold under rigorous conditions.” His smile grew as he leaned back against the couch. “With me, it’s always rigorous.”

He got the full contempt-dripping glare from Ida for that. Veronica shook her head, but the look she gave him said she understood his choice. Embrace misbehavior rather than suffer humiliation. He was a bòcan. Misbehavior was expected.

“If that’s all . . .” he said, starting to rise.

“We’re going to switch the child,” Ida said.

Patrick stopped. “Switch . . .”

“You know what we mean.”

He did. Human legends told of changelings, fae stealing a human child and replacing it with one of their own. Like most lore, it had arisen to explain the inexplicable in ancient times. How could two perfectly healthy humans give birth to a child who grew up disabled or mentally deficient? There was only one answer: that the child wasn’t human, that a fae child had been swapped for their own. But within that nonsense there was a shred of truth, perhaps from parents who’d instinctively realized that while their child might resemble them, the resemblance was only superficial, and he or she was not truly theirs. That their child was, indeed, a changeling.

Fae did not leave full-blood offspring with humans. Fae had enough difficulty conceiving that they’d never part with a child. Beyond that, they had no magics that would disguise a fae child permanently. No, true changelings were a very different thing.

Fae were well aware of the problems that could come with their blood, and sometimes, the cycle needed to be broken. If a child was born to a fae-blood family deemed too damaged to care for it, they’d find a human child with the same basic appearance—and far superior parents—and swap the infants, using compulsions and charms to hide the switch until the parents grew attached to the new child.

That’s what the elders wanted to do with Gabriel. Find him a new family. Which meant Patrick would lose him. They would lose him. Their new Gwynn, gone before they even realized he existed. Patrick might be able to keep tabs on the child, but there was no reason for the swap here.

“Seanna will be a fine mother,” he said.

Ida laughed at that. “You have met the girl, haven’t you? Presumably had a few minutes of conversation before taking advantage of her? She’s a high school dropout with a juvenile record. Addicted to drugs since she was fifteen—”

“She’s clean,” he said. “If you saw the child, you know he’s fine. She gave up drinking, drugs and even cigarettes for the pregnancy. She ate well. She found an apartment. She’s making plans to get her high school diploma.” He straightened, finding a smug smile for her. “One could even say I did her a favor. Helped her turn her life around.”

Ida fixed him with a cool look. “You did nothing of the sort, bòcan. If Seanna seems to be a good mother, then she’s plotting something. That’s the kind of girl she is. She won’t change.”

“Now that’s a little harsh, Ida,” Veronica said. “If Patrick is right—and we can easily check that—then while he certainly didn’t do her a favor, the child may have given her a purpose. Perhaps that’s all she needed.”

Ida opened her mouth to protest, but Veronica silenced her with, “Let’s just go see. We’ll ‘bump’ into Seanna in the city, check the baby, talk to her. If she’s properly caring for the child, then taking him away would be unnecessary, even cruel.”

“Veronica is right,” Walter said. “We lose nothing by checking. We all know Patrick is almost certainly stretching the truth. If so, then we proceed with the switch.”

Ida and Veronica did “bump” into Seanna and the baby in Chicago. They took mother and child to lunch, and even Ida had to agree that the baby had made an immense difference in Seanna. She’d cleaned up—both figuratively and literally, her hair sleeked back in a ponytail, face scrubbed clean, dressed in a peasant blouse and long skirt. Gabriel was just as clean and well dressed, pushed in a fancy new stroller, courtesy of a mysterious benefactor.

When the baby spit up at lunch, Seanna whipped out a fresh jumper from her diaper bag. When he fussed, she had rattles to amuse him. Ida grumbled that she wasn’t thrilled that Seanna had chosen formula over mother’s milk, but as Veronica said, she had to find some fault and if that was the best she could do, then the answer was clear: mother and child were fine and would stay together.

Over the next week, Patrick periodically checked in on Seanna and Gabriel. He had to be completely certain this change wasn’t a whim, abandoned after a few too many sleepless nights. But Seanna kept it up, and their son made it easy—he rarely cried or fussed.

One day, when Patrick swung by their neighborhood, he saw Seanna come out of the apartment building looking even better than usual. She was dressed almost like a schoolgirl, in a modest skirt, white blouse, flats and a sweater. Her hair left free and brushed until it gleamed. Going to meet someone, it seemed. Normally, he’d have contented himself with that few minutes of watching, but this made him nervous. It wouldn’t be a job interview so soon after the birth. A young man? That’s what he was afraid of, that a new lover would distract Seanna from their child. So he followed.

She took Gabriel to a nearly empty park. Patrick wore his old-man glamour, knowing she hadn’t paid enough attention at the hospital to recognize him again. But approaching them would seem odd when there was no one else within fifty feet. He stayed back while she sat on a bench and took Gabriel from his stroller and dandled him on her knee and cooed at him. The perfect picture of an adoring young mother.

A few minutes later, a couple approached, seemingly to ooh and ahh at the baby. They were in their thirties, dressed in business wear, as if taking a stroll through the park on their coffee break. Except there were no office buildings within a mile radius. And when the woman sat on the bench, she perched on the edge, as if not quite committed to staying. The man stayed standing, casting anxious glances around. Seanna held the baby out for the woman to hold. The woman pulled back, shaking her head, but the look in her eyes, the longing in her eyes . . .

No. No, no, no.

Patrick darted from one tree cluster to another, getting as close as he dared.

“The doctor says he’s the healthiest baby he’s seen,” Seanna was saying.

“I . . . I can see that,” the woman said haltingly. “He’s . . . he’s beautiful.”

“Smart, too. Everyone says so. He has to look at everything. His dad is super-smart. He’s a writer.”

The woman nodded, unable to tear her gaze from Gabriel.

“And he’s a really good baby,” Seanna continued. “Sometimes, if I didn’t get him up for feedings, he’d sleep right through the night. If he cries at all, it means he’s hungry or he’s wet. Oh, and about feedings, while I would have loved to breastfeed, I knew that wouldn’t be right, under the circumstances. He’s on formula. The best kind. I don’t have a lot of money, but I made sure he got the best of everything. He deserves it. I . . .” Seanna’s voice broke. “I wish I could keep him. I really do. But this is for the best. I’m only sixteen. I’m not ready for parenthood. I need to finish school and then go to college. That’s what the money is for: college. Otherwise, I’d give him to you for free. I . . . I never thought I’d be able to go to college. My parents . . .” She swallowed. “They were really young when they had me, and I saw how hard it was, as much as they tried. I want to do better. For him. Because it’s all about him.”

“We can see that,” the woman said. “You’ve taken such good care of him. It’s just . . .”

“It’s not an easy thing,” her husband said. “We’ve talked to people, and they’ve warned us of all the things that can go wrong. Falsifying adoption records is expensive, and someone could blackmail us later. Or you might change your mind and want him back.”

“Never,” Seanna spat out, before she seemed to remember her role and softened her voice. “As much as I love him, I know this is best, and I’d never interfere with his new life.”

“We’ll think about it, but we really aren’t convinced it’s as easy as—”

“No,” Patrick called out, strolling from his hiding place, his usual glamour back in place. “Buying babies isn’t easy, shockingly. It’s also very, very illegal.” He flashed the inside of his wallet. “Detective Jones, CPD. You aren’t the first couple this girl has tried selling her baby to.”

“Sell?” the man said, backing up. “You think we were trying to buy. . . ?”

His wife was on her feet. “Never. We just stopped to tell her how beautiful her son is.”

“All right then. On your way. I need to have a chat with this young lady.”

They fled at a near-run.

“You bastard,” Seanna hissed.

He met her gaze. “You stone-cold bitch.”

She all but threw Gabriel back into the stroller. Patrick snatched him out, and she grabbed for him, but Patrick backed up, holding his son tight as the boy peered at him.

“This is what you planned all along, isn’t it?” he said.

“No, it’s what I planned after you refused to help me out.”

“I did help you out, you little—” Patrick stopped himself. This was the mother of his child, and while he might not feel one iota of regard for her, after what she’d done to him and nearly done to Gabriel, she had the power here. Legally, the child was hers. All hers, since he could not come forward and claim paternity.

“I did help,” he said. “Or did you really think social services would subsidize your apartment and buy you designer baby equipment?”

Her sullen expression didn’t change. He didn’t expect it to. He understood her now, as only Ida—damn her—had really understood her. Seanna Walsh was incapable of caring for anyone but herself. She’d played the role of perfect mother for the sake of the prospective parents. Gone clean during the pregnancy and cared for the child to ensure the viability of the product. That’s all Gabriel was to her. A product. A means to an end. That had been the reason for his conception, and it was the reason for his continued existence. To handle that, Patrick had to handle Seanna on her own terms, the only ones she understood. The ones he understood, too.

“I have a deal for you,” he said.

“Unless it involves marrying me—”

“It won’t. It can’t. That isn’t legally possible, and besides, we both know it wouldn’t last. I’m no more a father than you are a mother, Seanna. What I have is money. What you want is money. So here’s the deal. You will take Gabriel to Cainsville and move in with Rose. You will stay clean. You will care for our child with her help. In return, I will provide whatever you need.”

“How much?”

“When I said money, I meant it figuratively. I will pay your bills. I will buy what you need.”

“I need money. Now.”

He leaned back, cradling Gabriel as the child fussed at his mother’s sharp tone.

“I’m sure you do, Seanna, but—”

“No, I need it. I was counting on that deal you just fucked up.”

“Those people weren’t going to buy him. You’ve watched too much TV if you really think it’s that easy.”

“I owe money.”

He sighed. “How much?”

“They were paying me twenty grand.”

“Then I’ll give you ten, because I’m sure you aren’t that deeply in debt. I’ll take Gabriel to Rose while you settle—”

“He’s a newborn baby. You don’t have any idea how to care for him.”

“Then you’ll have to tell me. I’m taking him to Cainsville.”

“Fine. But not to Rose. She’s my aunt and he’s my son. I’ll take him to her. You’ll keep him overnight at your place. I’ll settle my debts and come get him tomorrow.” She handed him the bag. “Bottles, formula and diapers in there. Figure it out, same as I had to. Now let’s go get my money.”

Patrick had indeed “figured it out”—with a stop at the nearest library and a book on basic baby care tucked under his jacket when he left. If he did anything wrong, Gabriel didn’t complain. He snuck the baby into Cainsville, and they spent the rest of the day and the night together, with no more than a few whimpers, easily fixed with food and diaper changes.

Seanna came for Gabriel the next morning. Was it hard to let her carry him out that door? Yes. Harder than he would have imagined. But it was how it had to be.

That afternoon, Patrick was in the grocery store, picking up supplies. He’d stay in town for a week or so, be sure Gabriel settled in.

Rose was at the till.

“So,” he said. “I hear you have a new addition to the family. Congratulations.”

She frowned at him. Then her eyes clouded as she dipped her chin in a nod and murmured, “My niece had a baby. Yes. I haven’t seen him yet.”

Patrick went still, and it took a moment for him to say, “Haven’t seen. . . ? Wasn’t she in town today?”

Rose looked up sharply. “What?”

“I thought I heard Seanna and the baby were here.”

“Not as far as I know.” Hope flickered in her blue eyes. “Did you see them?”

Patrick extricated himself from that conversation as fast as he could. He went to the coffee shop and the restaurant and asked around. No one had seen Seanna and the baby, though one person recalled seeing “a girl” dropped off by a cab, which had then waited for her as she’d walked up Patrick’s street.

By evening he was standing in the entryway of her empty apartment. Completely empty, only trash left on the floor.

“You know her?” asked a voice behind him.

Patrick turned to see a short, overweight man with a permanent scowl, and he decided that the proper answer was no, and then added, “I was given this address to pick up some stuff, but there doesn’t seem to be anything here.”

The man snorted. “Neighbors said she had a couple guys come by and clean it out in the middle of the night. The guys gave her cash. Some of the stuff wasn’t hers. I rented this place partly furnished.” He peered up at Patrick. “You sure you don’t know her?”

“No, but a friend of mine does.” He took out his wallet and handed the man five hundred dollars. “This should cover whatever she took. If you can get a forwarding address, I’ll quadruple that.”

The man’s rheumy eyes gleamed. “For that much, I’ll find the kid myself.”

Patrick gave his home phone number. “I’ll pay for any information. Just leave a message on the machine.” He peeled off another hundred. “Please.”

Seanna was gone. Patrick spent a month looking for her. Paid two separate investigators to look for her. Had Veronica speak to Rose, saying she was worried about the baby and if she heard anything, anything at all . . .

Finally, he returned to the korrigan, and found her at home, in a younger glamour. She motioned toward the living room, but he stayed in the front hall.

“There’s a child,” he said.

Her brows lifted. “So soon? I thought you’d decided against it. Or was the choice not yours to make, in the end?”

When he glared at her, she said, “It’s not going well, I take it. Yes, I did foresee that.”

“And you didn’t bother to tell me?”

“You were already resistant. I was hardly going to say anything to discourage you. We need this child, Patrick. He may primarily serve the Cainsville Tylwyth Teg, but he will help all of us.”

“His mother took him. I don’t trust her to care for him, and I need your help to find him.”

She shook her head. “I can’t demand glimpses of the future. They are presented to me. If I get one of the boy, I’ll tell you. Otherwise, I have seen far enough to know he’ll be fine.” She paused and pursed her lips. “Well, fine might be an exaggeration. One cannot grow up like that and be truly fine. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It will make him stronger. Like tempering steel.”

Patrick bristled. “My son is not a weapon.”

“Oh, but he is. Whether you want that or not. Whether he wants that or not.” She eased closer and draped her hands around his waist. “I know that doesn’t please you. You’re angry and frustrated. May I offer a temporary respite?” Her fingers slid to his rear. “I believe I can distract you for a few hours.”

Patrick pulled her hand away, turned and walked out. And with that, he had to admit he’d run out of options. He’d been thoroughly and repeatedly duped. By a drug-addicted high school dropout. The irony of that . . . The humiliation of that . . . It should have been unbearable, but what he felt wasn’t humiliation. That would make this all about him, and for once in a very long time, it wasn’t all about him. It was about a child he’d left with a sociopathic addict who couldn’t be trusted not to sell him for her next hit.

Except she could, in her way, be trusted not to do that. He’d miscalculated paying Seanna the money, but she had still come back for Gabriel. That didn’t mean she gave a damn about him; it meant she didn’t want to lose the one thing of value she had in her pathetic life. The one thing of monetary value. As long as she had Gabriel—and kept him healthy enough that social services wouldn’t come for him—he was worth something. Not to strangers—she’d seen that wouldn’t work. No, she had a more reliable nest egg now. One that would last for as long as she had the child. She had Patrick.

When the money dried up, she’d be back. That might be a couple of months. It might be a couple of years, while she ran her petty scams and robbed her marks and made Patrick worry and stew until he was ready to hand her whatever she wanted to guarantee his child’s continued safety.

That meant that he had to be ready for her return. He had to be where she could find him. Whether it was a month from now or five years.

Patrick stood on his porch, his hand on the doorknob, fighting every instinct that screamed for him to run, to get the hell out, to forget the child, because it was just a child and hardly his first. But Gabriel wasn’t just a child. He wasn’t even just a special child. He was a child that Patrick had inadvertently condemned to this life. To that mother. Patrick had made mistake after mistake, and this was how he’d pay.

He opened the front door, walked in and put down his suitcases.

Home, sweet home. For as long as it took.

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