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Casey Winter could deal with bloodthirsty fairies. It was her ex-husband she had issues with.
“I think it’s time that we should talk,” Jackson Winter drawled, and Casey clutched the phone tighter. A bizarre combination of butterflies and acid gnawed at her gut. This just wasn’t fair. Not after the week she’d just had. A mermaid tried to kill her, a crazy, overpowered Faerie huntress blackmailed her into chasing a man-eating Phooka, and just last night she’d stopped a Boggart from turning the Lexington Museum into God’s Own Slaughterhouse. She hadn’t even gotten to sleep since that last one.
The universe owed her a break after a week like that.
How the hell, she thought, as she slid down to the cold kitchen floor, did my ex husband even get this number?
“I’m going to say you agree,” Jack drawled. She could hear his smile, could almost see his shiny, laminated teeth.
She rolled her eyes. Jack had been born and raised in Nebraska. He didn’t have a southern accent any more than she did. A Texas accent, maybe, but that Southern Drawl was from Virginia, or the Carolinas, or Georgia. And the voice crawling out of the phone was sticky sweet like deep fried Georgia peaches. An affectation. He preached to the masses of Atlanta in their native tongue. Otherwise it was yet another aberration of a cancer-damaged brain. If he could get a whole new personality thanks to that last stroke, why not a new accent to go with?
“What do you want?” She asked.
“Well, sunshine, I wanted to hear from you. It’s been a little while. I was hoping that maybe it’s been long enough. You and I could get some water under that bridge.” A pause, and a sound of paper rustling. “Besides, you’ve met a few interesting new people these days. I want to make sure you’re okay.”
It was amazing. Only Jack could creep her out in ten seconds flat. The only new people in her life since she’d left Jack were the Faerie Exiles of Corpus Christi. And him knowing about them? That was a very bad thing.
But did he really know about them? Or was he just fishing. If it was the latter…well, she’d be able to fish him out, too. She racked her brain for good bait. Well, she’d heard through the grapevine that Jack wasn’t getting along with her church. His preaching was very hellfire and hard line, and he’d had a couple spectacular showdowns with other churches. She gripped the phone tighter and gave a thin, tight smile.
“Jack,” she said, steadily. “I’ve been going to Laguna Fellowship for years.” So had he. The old him. The gentle, sweet, kind man she’d known, before cancer and stroke and medical nastiness took him away.
This man wasn’t him.
“Don’t bullshit me, sunshine. You know who I mean.”
“No,” she said. “I don’t. I don’t know you at all.”
The last time she’d seen her ex husband, he’d been standing over her hospital bed, apologizing profoundly for hurting her. Next to last time: Jack standing over her, a blood-soaked rolling pin slipping from between his fingers. What he’d done read like the aftermath of a car wreck. Shattered skull, right eye socket, cheekbone, and jaw. Broken collar bone, three broken ribs on right side, one punctured lung. Multiple compound fractures to right knee, which was the medical way to say “he turned the bones into marbles”. The problem with the last year of her marriage had not been that her husband was a bad man, she’d decided. It was that for the first few years, he’d been a good one. You’re told to stand by your lover when they become ill. That it is good, and brave, and loyal. They don’t tell you what to do when your virtues turn lethal. She’d had to make it up on the go.
“This is a violation of the no-contact order, Jack,” She said. Her heart was pounding like a bongo drum, her mouth was dry, her hands were shaking. Her voice was dead calm. “I’m hanging up and calling the judge.”
“That’s fine,” Jack said. “You go right on ahead and do that. I don’t want to trouble you too much. I just wanted to make sure you were alright.”
“That’s not your job anymore.” She paused. “And why wouldn’t I be alright?”
“People talk.” He said. She could hear the shrug on the other end of the line. “Some more than most. There’s a lot of rumors coming in from your part of the world. Makes for interesting listening.” A long pause. “Has that dwarf gotten his kid yet?”
Doug Green and Tim Anderson were both members of Marco Creed’s little group. Doug was human. Tim was a literal dwarf. They were openly gay in South Texas and trying to adopt a kid. Sometimes Casey thought they deserved a medal. She liked them both a lot…and Jack’s church wasn’t known for being a hotbed of tolerance and fellow-feeling.
She pressed her lips together and didn’t say a word.
“It’s a scandal up here, you know. Our Good Folk aren’t too much happier about gays adopting than the rest of us. And that Merrow girl, the one that tried to kill you? I only found out about it after the fact, but it damn near stopped my heart when I did hear. Thank God you’re hard to kill,” there was a sad little hurt laugh.
“Well, you should know,” she said. It was a struggle to keep her breathing steady now.
Jack knew about the Exiles. A lot about them. Fan-freaking-tastic. She took a deep breath. Hell, they probably contacted him for the same reason they’d contacted her.
Her Jack, the real Jack, had been a fantasy artist. They’d both been Christians, albeit of the “Pass the Harry Potter and the D&D manuals while I open another beer” variety. God was God, and he was powerful enough for airy-fairy nonsense to be clean and safe. God wasn’t in the things you wanted; he was behind them, the Thing above all things you didn’t dare admit to yourself you wanted. Once you did that, well, the plot was lost and all Earth and reality would be spent looking and seeking for the lovely echo of that one, true Thing. And if you wanted Fairies and magic and pretty glowing unicorns, you were really wanting that part of God best expressed as glitter and power and wildness. Throw in a little Romans 14 philosophy, and it wasn’t odd for the Winters to spend Sunday mornings attending church, and Sunday evenings attending Laguna Fellowship’s underground Dungeons and Dragons game, 3.5 rules only.
It went without saying, they’d also been huge nerds.
But that was before the cancer. The New Jack had lost that quality completely. There’d been a child-like neediness to the new him that Casey had felt driven to take care of. He’d had to relearn reading and writing, and as for artwork…well, where the real Jack had been hyper-realistic, the New Jack didn’t know ham from hemispheres. Up until the final night, he’d used words, not fists. Two months into his new life, he’d become obsessed with a Houston mega-church. When he begun studying the Bible and reading sermons fanatically, Casey had hoped that maybe he’d found some kind of solice and could begin to heal—and by extension, stop calling her fat, plain, stupid and lazy just because she’d rather earn a paycheck than attend his massive ego. When he’d landed a job as assistant pastor to massive Georgia based Hill Fellowship, she’d believed that, finally, it would all iron out.
She’d made herself into the good little pastor’s wife, had even begun discussing a Christian line of books with her agent, Emma Parker. Neither of them had been very enthusiastic. And for a brief period, it really did look like life was finally sane again. That changing herself to fit him really had bought her peace.
And then Jack had gone to town on her with a rolling pin.
Since she’d left, he’d become full pastor and owner-in-all-but-name of The Hill. He’d built a new building for it and had a congregation of almost one hundred thousand people a Sunday. Three satellite campuses, a television program every Monday at nine p.m. And, rumors said, Pastor Jack could perform miracles. He’d downplayed these rumors something fierce, otherwise several thousand watchdogs would have reported him for fraud, but the rumors were still there.
She’d gotten nothing. Not a dime for her medical bills, not a cent of alimony. She’d even had to send him all of his artwork. She’d kept one lone canvas, her earliest novel cover, but that was it. He’d been very insistent. She didn’t think that he’d actually wanted the artwork. The New Jack’s attitude towards fantasy was very hard line: Burn Harry Potter. Beware the dangers of role playing games. Don’t fraternize with anything remotely resembling evil, as defined by Jackson Winter. All his old art had been of fairies and elves and soft green unicorn glens. The only reason he’d wanted them, she supposed, was to burn them.
And this was the guy who knew about Exiles.
Jack would call them demons. Not because he actually believed in demons, but because that was one of the words that tended to turn people’s brains off. Like “witch” or “gay” or “abortion.” Shout enough of those words at the right people, and they’d set fire to the world. Probably the reason a manipulative little shit like the New Jack had wanted a church in the first place. Burn, baby. Burn.
The whole idea made her cringe.
“What do you want?” She asked, her voice going colder.
“I’m worried. I know you and I had our issues, but my world feels a lot better knowing that you are around. I want to make sure you’re keeping a safe distance from these people..”
“What I do with my life isn’t your business,” Casey said. She was getting angry now. Angrier still, because an unwelcome little voice told her that Jack was sort of right.
It was national news that she’d been targeted by the Corpus Christi Sniper. Her books had even seen a teeny, tiny upsurge in sales, thanks to her name being plastered on every murderabilia site in the country. But the shooter had been Faerie, and no way was that common knowledge. Marco Creed had taken the bullet for her, but he’d also put her in danger twice since. And with the exception of Doug Green and Leslie Fielding, every member of Marco’s gang could kill Casey twice, maybe three times over without breaking a sweat.
But I trust them not to. She thought. The difference between a good man and a bad one isn’t their gun collection or their power level. It is that, when given a situation and the power to take advantage of it, a good person won’t. Ever. Marco Creed, Abbey McShay, Tim, Doug, Leslie…they were all good people.
But you didn’t put Ero the Phooka or Raziel on that good-guy list, either. And you’ll listen to them. She shivered.
Jack was still talking.
“Maybe I can make it my business.” He said. “Some of the chatter I’ve heard says it’d be bad if the wrong people found out you were the one with the gun that day.”
“Are you threatening me?” She asked.
His voice softened. “I just want you to know, people down there are talking. I’m not the trouble here.”
Oh, yes you damn well are. “Spit it out, or I’m hanging up.”
“That gray bitch who runs things down there, she been real up front with you?”
The casual misogyny put Casey’s teeth on edge. He still had a point. Good manipulators never move without one. Casey didn’t know Raziel well, or, if she thought about it, the other Faerie. Apparently, Jack did.
And he definately knew about Lyrene McHally.
The McHally clan was, apparently, blood-thirsty as hell. They wanted a life for a life. Their daughter died, someone else should go with her. But that was all based on what Raziel had said. She had promised Casey protection only as long as she did Raziel’s favors. If Raziel was lying, she didn’t have a hold on Casey anymore.
If she was telling the truth, Jack had one, too.
Her skin crawled at the idea. If Jack decided he wanted her dead, all he had to do was jump on a plane to Scotland and whisper in a little fish’s ear. Raziel could do the same thing. A rock and a hard place, she thought. Trapped between a blackmailer and her abuser.
Screw it. Let’s kick over the ant-pile and see what falls out. “No,” Casey said, softly. “No. She hasn’t been open at all.”
“Shit,” Jack muttered. Her pulse increased.“We got a big group of the Good Folk up here. There was a gentleman up here who ran things behind the scenes, more or less. A few of the Good Folk asked if I could assist them in getting rid of this gentleman. I did. It was messy. I’m not real sure why I’m not dead right now. About a month ago, I was told this gentleman is a dear old friend of the lady running things down there. And that he was holding a hot grudge against me for throwing him out of Atlanta.
“Now, I don’t know if they’re still buddy buddy, but I do know that he’s mighty pissed at me and he might target you. And if the gray lady is still his friend, she might deliver you tied up in a real pretty bow. I’m trying to keep you safe, Karoline. You don’t get it. You are my life. I would die before I let anyone hurt you.”
“Anyone else, you mean.” She closed her eyes and ran her fingers down her jeans.
“That was a mistake. It isn’t fair to hold my mistakes against me. I’m much better now. If you just gave me a chance--”
She heard a car outside. Probably Marco with her Nissan. “I’m hanging up now.” She said.
Hanging up was satisfying. God. Nobody got under her skin the way he did. It’d been almost a year since she’d had to talk to the son of a bitch. Almost a year since she’d had to remember that she still loved him.
It hadn’t been long enough for either wound to heal.
But he was her abuser. You can forgive that, it’s healthy to forgive it, God knew, she needed to forgive it…but you don’t forget, and you don’t let your guard down. That made forgiving very, very hard. She rubbed her right knee and felt the scars through her blue jeans. The joint was artificial. It had taken her six months to learn how to walk again. Jackson Winter might have a lot of power, money, and he might actually feel guilt, but it didn’t make him any less of a waste of skin.
In this incarnation, anyway.
She listened to the fan belt whine as her car turned off.. Another car pulled into the drive, its engine a purring kitten in comparison to the new Nissan’s. If she had to admit the good stuff, it was that Jack had given her useful information. Maybe even enough to leverage her way out from under Raziel.
And Marco was here with her car.
She rushed to the door, wanting nothing quite so much as she did Marco. Not for comfort, but for reminding. The world was not full of ugly people. There were still a handful of men that keep themselves restrained. Sure, he was prickly, and he had that white-knight protectiveness that was both romantic and frustrating, but magic was a potent lure. His had something to do with being an elf, but most of it was sex. Twisting the knob, she threw the door open before the person behind it had a chance to knock…and gave them both a huge start.
It wasn’t Marco Creed.
Raziel looked down as if from an endlessly great distance. The Elestrin leader was Faerie, and Casey was mortal. To Raziel, that was the distance between a throne and the grave. Casey straightened her shoulders and met the other woman’s eyes square. Disappointment that it wasn’t Marco flash-boiled into anger in nine seconds flat.
There’s a gentleman…a friend of the lady who runs things down there. I don’t know if they’re still buddy, buddy, but…Casey smiled. Not sweetly. “Just the person I wanted to see.” She said.
And she dragged the great huntress into her house without waiting for an answer.
GRAY FOX is due out February 15th at Amazon.com, Smashwords and Barnes and Noble. And grab a copy of BLUE GHOSTS on Smashwords before then, using this coupon: TU68W