Under the Moon (Goddesses Rising), page 23
“I don’t, either. But I can’t—”
Nick didn’t look at her. “How about we deal with the concrete stuff first? She still has a lot of questions to answer. Like, why did she say he is her fiancé, not was?”
“That one’s easy.” Quinn snorted. “She loves him and doesn’t want him to be a bad guy. And if he is the leech—which he’s got to be, no matter how deep her denial—then it’s a subtle way of accepting responsibility.”
“If she gave this guy his power, why hasn’t she told anyone?”
“Maybe she has,” Quinn countered, aware Nick was putting her in a position to defend her sister. “I mean, Alana knew something. Maybe that’s why they didn’t want me to be part of it.”
“Okay, if they know, why don’t they have her in custody or anything?”
“They’re not the FBI. They may have someone watching her, either to make sure she’s not in cahoots with Anson or to use her as bait. But he’s probably done with her. He’s obviously been elsewhere.”
“He’s here now though.” Nick shifted his leg.
“We think. And the Society wouldn’t know that.”
“Unless they’re tracking your movements and think he’s coming after you at the full moon. Using you as bait.”
Quinn stared at him, another shocking possibility filling her head. Her skin flushed. Nick stared back. Then, obviously reading her, he made a “what the hell?” face. “You think they’re tracking you through me?”
“No. Not exactly.”
“I called John,” she admitted. “Maybe that triggered— He didn’t know about the rogue thing.”
Nick groaned. “What the hell did you do that for?”
“I was worried. I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Seems clear to me. This tornado guy—”
“Whatever. He knows I’m your protector, and he made Hollinger send out that accusation hoping I’d be recalled. Leaving you vulnerable.”
“I’m not vulnerable right now, so it didn’t work.”
“And I wanted to keep it that way. If John knew, he would recall me. So, what?” He returned to Quinn’s concern. “You think Tournado’s got John’s phone tapped or something?”
“I don’t know.” She thought about Jennifer. “You know, we were wondering why that e-mail didn’t get out. It was on the group mail. But if Jennifer hadn’t been leeched yet, maybe she ensured it only came to me, instead of to the whole Society. You know, protecting you. Us.”
“Goddess voodoo,” he said. “You blew me off when I suggested it. Could she do that?”
“Not voodoo,” Quinn insisted. “Hacking. Or something like that. She could have coded her e-mail so Anson wouldn’t know what she was doing.”
Nick’s frown cleared. “That could explain why it stayed quiet. So when Tournado’s attempt to discredit me or get me away from you didn’t work, he came here and shot me. Trying to take me out or, what, lure you up here?” He shook his head, unconvinced. “How did he know I was coming?”
Quinn didn’t have the answers, and she could tell they were about to go in circles again. She needed a break. “Let’s get the food.” She got out and went around the car, but Nick stood without her help and limped into the restaurant. The scent of spicy tomato sauce and toasting bread filled the air. Her stomach growled again, and Nick grinned.
“You always were a stress eater.”
She smacked him on the arm. “I didn’t finish breakfast.” He smiled and rubbed the back of her neck, and both the muscles and inner tension loosened. How did he do that so effortlessly?
They sat at a tiny table while they waited for the food they’d ordered.
“Back to Marley,” Nick said, leaning on his arms and putting his face inches from hers so they wouldn’t be overheard.
It was too close, because in easing her tension, he’d attracted her body’s attention. “Hang on.” They’d been gone twenty minutes, and she wanted to check in. Get her equilibrium back somehow. And get a little distance from Nick. She pulled out her phone and dialed Sam, who answered right away.
“Everything’s fine here.”
“Okay.” She let out a long breath and finally felt normal. “The food should be ready in ten. Then we’ll be back.”
“See anyone else?”
“I met Fran. She’s as protective as Nick. Doesn’t like me.”
Quinn drew in a quick breath at the word. “Do you think she’s a real protector?”
“Could be. Ask Nick.”
“I will. See you soon.” She closed the phone.
“Does he think who’s a real protector?”
“Fran, Marley’s assistant manager. Sam said she’s very protective. It would be a good cover, right?”
Nick looked disgusted. “If she is, she’s not a very good one. Marley was alone with us for way too long while Fran was doing laundry.”
“Good point. Maybe she’s not. We’ll ask when we get back.” She glanced up when the guy behind the counter rang a bell, but the number he called wasn’t theirs.
The important question had to be asked. “Do you think Marley’s still working with Anson? That all this was deliberate?”
“If she is, she’s a good actress. I don’t get a lying vibe off her.”
“Me, neither. But my judgment is clouded.”
Nick’s face softened. “I didn’t think you’d admit that.”
“I thought I’d made it kind of obvious.”
“Yeah, but your judgment is clouded.” He smiled, and her heart rolled.
He picked up her hand and held it between both of his. Her skin warmed, the sensation spreading up her arm and into her body, filling her. Natural attraction fed into her hunger, and she closed her eyes, trying to keep it at bay.
“Quinn, no one’s judgment is less clouded than yours. You want her to be cool. That’s normal. But you’re not blind to the possibility that she’s not. You’re asking the question.”
“You were scared.”
“And mad.” She grimaced. “I sent your car into a ditch.”
“Yeah, that pissed me off.” He smiled again. She wished he’d stop doing that. This time she felt like he’d sprinkled glitter in her chest. That was hardly compatible with her anger and suspicion.
“But you were doing what you felt you had to do,” he continued. “You only slowed us down, and you knew it. I’m pretty commanding. You were tired of fighting me. I get that.”
Her lips curved. “Fighting you? Rescuing you, maybe.”
“About that.” He turned serious. His eyes lightened to a golden green, and her heart panged.
“What you did last night.”
“Oh.” She looked down at the table, but only for a moment. His soft words, spoken intently, compelled her to meet his eyes again.
“I’ve never felt pain like that, Quinn. I thought I was going to die.”
She whispered his name, her hand convulsing around his.
“You were amazing. Whatever you did, you kept me grounded. I didn’t think until later that you probably hurt just as much.”
“No, only a little,” she lied. “It doesn’t matter. I’d sacrifice anything for you.” Afraid she’d ventured too far into off-limits territory, and afraid he’d push her away from it again, she sat back and glanced away.
The bell dinged again, and the Italian behind the counter called their number. She went up to take the bag, and a minute later they were heading back toward the inn.
“So how do you want to play the rest of this?” Nick asked.
Quinn forced herself to think unemotionally. “Let’s find out what she can tell us about Anson. Then we’ll get Sam set up with his laptop and he can try to match her story or find more that she doesn’t know or doesn’t want to tell us. I need to talk to her about our family some more,
“We need to prepare for tomorrow, Quinn.”
For the leech. “I know. But we don’t know how.”
“Hell we don’t. We pull the Charger out of the ditch and get the hell out of there, hole up somewhere he won’t have allies.”
“Even if your sister isn’t in cahoots with him, her so-called ‘misfits’ could be on his side. It’s not safe to stay there.”
“Cahoots?” She couldn’t stop a giggle, which diffused Nick’s intensity in turn.
“C’mon, give me a break. I’m trying to save your life here.”
She sobered. “You’re trying to save my lifestyle. He doesn’t kill. Having my powers taken away doesn’t change who I am, it only changes how I live.”
Like, if she were no longer a goddess, she wouldn’t need Nick’s protection anymore.
“Do you want him to leech you?” His tone was exasperated.
She didn’t even need to think about it. “No.”
“Then we get the hell outta here.”
“My safety isn’t important anymore.”
“The hell it’s not!”
“There are more important things.”
She pulled up next to the Charger, which looked forlorn in its forward cant. “You could have died. I’d rather lose my abilities than lose you.” Before the weight of her words could settle, she continued. “Marley may be working with him, or she could just be incredibly stupid. And she’s my sister.” Quinn held up a hand and closed her eyes for a second, the truth of the relationship coming home to her. “I don’t have to like her or condone anything she’s done. But I would never forgive myself if we left her and something happened.”
Nick took a deep breath. Quinn knew he understood. Family was what drove him, wasn’t it? And he’d dedicated his life to keeping others safe. He had to get that this was what she was trying to do now.
“All right. I’ll consider it. After we hear the rest of what she has to say, we’ll discuss our next move.”
“Thank you.” She nodded toward his car. “If I get that out of there, will you be able to drive it up?”
“Yeah, sure. Leg’s fine now.”
In three seconds, the car had risen up a few feet, spun on its rear wheels, and settled onto the gravel at the end of the drive. “I’ll see you there.”
Nick growled at her, but he switched cars and followed her up the drive to the house. Sam came out as they climbed the steps, and he stopped them on the porch.
“I’ve talked to Marley a little. All her guests have left except the one couple we met earlier. They’re going on an overnight trip and will be gone within the hour.”
“So she’s been preparing for this,” Quinn observed. “That woman said the inn was booked, but this means she hasn’t been taking new guests.”
Sam scowled. “So is she part of it, or did this guy manipulate her into getting you here? You know, let her know her sister was his main target. Those kidnappers were hers. She said they were under orders to keep you safe but not tell you anything.” He peered into the bag and sniffed. “You got sausage?”
“With peppers.” Quinn nudged Sam with her elbow. “What else did you find out?”
“Not much. She wanted to wait for you. Says she’s worried about what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
“It’s best if I meet him at my peak power. I know that’s his best time to leech me,” she said before Nick could open his mouth, “but it’s also when I’m strongest, and he’s not taking me by surprise like he did the others. I’m going to be a bitch to leech, and he might be cocky after the first ones were so easy. Plus, if Marley’s telling the truth, she’s vulnerable. If he comes here and I’m gone, he might do something major.”
“Like what, killing Marley in rage?” Sam asked.
She nodded and repeated to him what she’d told Nick. “If she’s part of this, we’re better off keeping her with us, where we can see her. If she’s not, she has all her power sources here, arranged for effectiveness. She knows the house and property, and if she’s sorry for what she’s done, she’ll be an asset in a fight.”
Nick clenched his jaw and tapped the foot of his bad leg. “I’ll go for it. But I’m front line, and there are no arguments about that.”
“Of course. Let’s go eat.”
But the goddess didn’t believe her grandmother. The man was handsome and charming, and he’d even saved the goddess from falling into the pond. The first time he whispered her name and kissed her fingers, she fell in love. When he lamented that they could never be together because of her gifts and his lack, she eagerly bestowed upon him a portion of her ability. Thus began their tragedy.
—“The Goddess and the Leech,” from Tales of the Descendants of Asgard
They carried the food inside, where an older woman was now helping Marley form cinnamon rolls from the dough she’d worked with earlier.
“You’re back!” Marley cried. “Quinn, this is my assistant manager, Fran. Fran, my sister.”
Quinn stepped forward and shook the woman’s hand, then had to wipe sticky dough off her fingers with a towel. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Same, I suppose.”
“Fran,” Marley scolded.
“It’s okay.” Quinn studied her. “I’ve been told she’s protective.”
Fran glared at Sam, who held his hands up at his sides in an innocent gesture.
“Are you in the business?” Nick asked, moving next to Quinn and snitching a bit of dough.
“What business?” Fran lifted her chin and looked down her nose at Nick, though he was a good six inches taller than she was. With her salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a clipped loop at the back of her neck and silver half-spectacles sitting on her nose, their chain dangling, she looked like a librarian. But something in her demeanor said she could kick all of their asses.
“None of yours.” She went back to rolling out the dough.
Nick mouthed, “She’s in the business,” to Quinn and filched another bit of dough.
“The food’s getting cold.” Quinn returned to the table and set out the grinders. Marley carried sealed bottles of water to the table and passed them around.
“You don’t trust me yet,” she said in response to Quinn’s inquiring glance. “I know this is a minor thing…”
“It’s fine. Thank you.”
Nick didn’t look convinced, but by now, Quinn was too tired of the strain of suspicion to care.
“Okay, Marley. Spill.”
Marley swallowed hard, her eyes darting everywhere but at Quinn. “I have to go back a ways.”
“Yes.” She grimaced at her sandwich and set it on the paper wrapper with only a few bites gone. “You met our father, right?”
“He told you I collect misfits or something like that?”
Fran grunted, and Marley patted her hand almost absently.
“I don’t consider them misfits. But there’s something about all of us that doesn’t fit into society. Or the Society. A few years ago, I got tired of the politics and attitude of the goddesses in charge.”
Quinn hid her annoyance and automatic need to defend her peers.
Marley continued. “Someone somewhere told someone else that I’d started this inn way up here, a getaway, and she came to work for me as a maid. She said she couldn’t find a job anywhere else because of a felony conviction when she was seventeen and tried as an adult. She was an excellent employee, and she worked here for years before she decided to head south for college. She told some friends about me, who told other people, and soon I had a steady stream of workers and friends who were quirky in some way.” She glanced at Fran. “The Protectorate didn’t like the idea of so much in and out and sent Fran up here. She quit the official Protectorate a while ago but does the job anyway.”
“Anson?” Sam prompted.
“He came here three years ago, wanting to be my assistant.”
Sam flinched. He looked at Quinn out of the corner of his eye, then back at Marley as if nothing had happened. Quinn wondered if he was reacting to the job title or something else.
“At the time I had a lull in active business but was going crazy trying to take and organize bookings, as well as the people who wanted appointments for goddess work. So I hired him. He was like a sponge, soaking up everything I taught him. He learned all he could about goddess history and ability, and he was whiz on the computer.”
“How old is he?” Sam asked, his voice rough.
Sam closed his eyes, then pushed his chair back and walked out of the room. Quinn started to get up, but Nick put his hand on her thigh. “I’ll go.” He gave a chin-jerk to Marley. “You listen.”
“So he’s younger than you are,” Quinn said. “But you guys fell in love?”
Marley seemed to shrink down into her shoulders. “We did. Or, I thought we did. We were having very passionate sex because I get so…you know, whenever I use a lot of power.”
Boy, did she know. This was the first time she’d heard of anyone else suffering from it and wondered if it was a family trait. The similarities to Sam and herself creeped her out. She was glad that Sam had left the room, almost gladder that Nick had, though they hadn’t gone far. Low voices drifted to her from down the hall.
“It grew from there. Last spring he proposed, and in July—” Marley swallowed hard. “In July, I did the stupidest thing in the world. I wanted him to be like me. We shared everything but that, and I knew he felt inferior because of it. I had to even the field or I was afraid that over time, it would kill our relationship.”
How could she be so stupid? “So you just ignored everything we’ve been taught about leeches?”
Tears filled Marley’s oddly pale eyes. “He said it wasn’t true, that he’d done research and it was lies told to keep men from taking power from us. He told me how to focus power through a big quartz geode into him. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. He sucked it right up and started moving things around. He found a rash on someone’s leg and healed it in seconds. He was giddy with his abilities. That was the happiest night of my life.” She swiped her fingers across her cheeks. “The next day, he was gone, and so was my geode.”
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