"We're expected."

The furnished interior was just as appealing to Holly as the exterior. It seemed everywhere she looked, things were in threes or multiples of.

Six bar stools, three track lights per strip. Twelve rooms and three stories...All the numbers were working for Holly.

But the office upstairs sealed the deal. The room was spacious and airy and had a huge window that overlooked a pool.

As usual, her attention was drawn to the computer, and she wondered what the owner of this place was packing. It was fired up, with the specs pulled up onscreen. Holly's brows drew together. "This platform isn't due out for another year. No civvie has a system like this. Whose is it?"

From behind her, she heard a rumbling voice: "It's yours, halfling. Because codes don't write themselves."

50

"Oh, come on, Nïx!" Holly glared. "You set me up again? I can't believe you told him!"

"I told him nothing about that."

"About what?" Cadeon asked cautiously.

"None of your business!" Holly snapped. "What do you want?"

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"You."

"Play nice, kids," Nïx said. "I'll be in the car. Which may or may not remain here." Then she abandoned Holly.

Holly gave him a bitter smile. "You working with Nïx to trick me - why, that's original!"

"You wouldn't have seen me otherwise, and I have to talk to you."

She noticed then that he'd lost weight. His face was leaner, and he looked weary. Like I care! "I think anything that needed to be said was. I believe it went along these lines: 'You were part of a transaction.'"

"I had to do that. I had to act like I didn't give a damn, or Groot wouldn't have given me the sword."

She grew still. "You have a lot of nerve mentioning that sword to me."

"I came back for you to get you away from him - "

"Really? You see, I wouldn't know that because I only stuck around for Groot's first attempt to hammer a railroad spike in my temple!"

"What did he do to you?" Cadeon strode forward, reaching for her arm.

But she jerked back with a hiss. "Don't you dare touch me! I got myself away before Groot made me his unthinking sex slave and brood mare - no thanks to you."

"I know. I saw you jump."

He truly had returned for her.

"I was diving in right behind you when Groot skewered me with flying swords. I would've been there even sooner, but he poisoned the hilt of the sword, drugging me when I grasped it."

"Why did the castle blow?"

"I threw Groot into his own forge. Unfortunately, I got caught in the blast as well, or I would have been by your side in the village against the Wendigo. Not that you needed my help."

"So had you always planned to come for me? Or did you have a change of heart over bartering me?"

"The plan was to get the sword, kill Groot with it, then get you the hell out of there as quickly as possible."

"Then why didn't you tell me about it?"

"I couldn't. Groot is a mind reader. Demons have blocks, but he would have read you like a book. And I tried to teach you to fight to prepare you in case something went wrong."

"How about not taking me there at all? How about not betraying me? You lied to me the entire time, telling me that I could change back."

"I did, Holly. I lied through my teeth. But I didn't feel like I had a choice. Look, you knew why I needed that sword, but you don't know how badly."

"Oh, but I do. You'd searched for nine centuries for a way to kill Omort, you think it was your fault that the entire kingdom of Rothkalina fell, and you blame yourself for your foster family's death." As she listed these things out loud, it struck her anew how monumental each truly was.

"And there's even more to it. That first night my brother didn't show, it was because he'd been taken by Omort's sister. Tricked by her sorcery and trapped in her dungeon for her to...use."

"What do you mean?"

"Sabine wanted to have Rydstrom's child to take over our kingdom forever. The idea of him in that situation..." Cadeon ran a hand over his face. "For Rydstrom that would have been a fate worse than death. And I thought the only way to free him would be the sword."

"Thought? Past tense?"

"He somehow escaped and got back here. But he's...different. I'm worried about him."

When Holly tilted her head, Cade said, "Will you walk with me?" He was surprised he was able to speak so evenly.

His female was lovelier than he'd ever seen her. Her long blond hair was loose, curling about her shoulders. Her skin was glowing, her eyes bright.

Seeming as if her curiosity got the better of her, she walked beside him.

"I understand why you would feel like you had to do anything for the sword," she said. "I get that, Cadeon - I really do. But understanding your motives doesn't make me feel better that I was the collateral damage. How can I believe in anything that happened between us when you were bent on betraying me the entire time?"

"Not the entire time! I'd had another plan. And then when that fell through, I ordered my men to meet me in the Territories. I'd planned to storm Groot's fortress."

"What happened?"

"On the day before the deal expired, I found out that they couldn't reach us. The ice road was blown, and they couldn't chopper in because of the weather."

"The storms to the south..."

He nodded. "That's why I was always on the phone with him. I was scrambling to do anything besides what I ended up doing. But I didn't see another way out. In my situation, what would you have done?"

When she nibbled her lip and glanced away, he knew she was thinking she'd do the same.

"You don't know how hard it was to act like I cared nothing for you. Or what it's done to me since."

"What's it done to you?" she asked.

"Made me gut-sick from wanting you." Cadeon eased closer. "From missing my Holly."

She could feel his heat, and his addictive scent tickled her nose. Want. God, she'd missed him.

"What was Nïx talking about earlier? What didn't you want me to know?"

Why not tell him? He'd find out soon enough anyway. "You're going to be...a father."

He seemed to choke on a sharp inhalation. "A father? Me? We..." Then after a moment, he laughed, swinging her up in his arms.

She was stunned by his reaction. "I didn't think you'd be this happy." Had she never realized how momentous this was until she saw Cadeon's utter delight? His excitement began sparking her own. Not so meh.