After a longed-for pregnancy ends in heartbreak, Caitlin Ross plummets into grief and despair she believes can never heal. Worse, her husband and partner, Timber MacDuff, pulls away instead of offering her the solace she craves. When he leaves to attend to a magical problem he claims only he can remedy, the betrayal shatters Caitlin’s last hope of saving a marriage she assumes her shortcomings have destroyed. In Timber’s absence, however, Caitlin discovers her husband has been lured away by a ruse: An old foe has resurfaced hungry for revenge, and Timber is their target. Desperate to prevent another tragedy, Caitlin tracks Timber to a remote cabin outside Boulder, Colorado, where she finds him trapped in the wasteland of his own mind. To rescue him, Caitlin must marshal all her gifts and all her cunning. Only then can they join forces to end their enemy’s power once and for all. The price of failure is not only death, but losing both their souls.
The third book in the Caitlin Ross series is “a heartwrenching tale of pain, loss, and evil” featuring “incredible action” and “the best magical and emotional healing in Contemporary Fantasy.”
Sometimes things just happen.
I told myself that many times in the weeks after the miscarriage, staring without seeing out the window as the grey days of February lengthened toward March. They’d told me as much in the hospital. Sometimes things just happen. There’s no reason, no fault, no blame.
It didn’t help.
They’d kept me in the hospital three days, getting IV antibiotics and blood and probably painkillers too; those days had a hazy quality in my mind, like a movie playing out of focus. Timber provided the blood, as we shared the same blood type. That, the doctor told me, ruled out RH incompatibility as a factor in what had happened—though, as she also told me, such a thing was extremely rare in a first pregnancy. Probably, she said, the miscarriage had occurred due to one of the common factors. Abnormality in the fetus. Some problem with the mother, like an undiagnosed infection or a misshapen uterus. It might well have been the last, as that might explain why I’d never conceived before.
Or it might have been for no real reason at all. Because sometimes these things just happened.
My doctor was puzzled, however, by the suddenness of the onset and the violence of the event, both also rare in early pregnancy. The blood loss could have killed me. In fact, Timber had already given his permission for them to perform an emergency hysterectomy and they were about to wheel me into the OR, when the bleeding just stopped. “Like magic,” my doctor said.
I wondered if it had been. I wondered if some god or goddess had intervened, or if my body had, at the last moment, exerted itself to save my life. I wondered if the effort had cost me all the magic I possessed. I certainly couldn’t find any now. I couldn’t find the gods, either, to ask them. Timber had banned me from the Workroom, ruling that my weakened state made me unfit for Journeys, spiritual or otherwise. He was right, too. For the first two weeks of my recovery, I couldn’t even get out of bed, but lay there, aching in body and mind, thinking of how my body had betrayed me. Of how I had failed.
Inevitably, my body started to heal. I made my slow, careful way down the steep front stairs and exchanged lying in bed for lying on the couch. And then a new kind of nightmare began.
I had visitors. Lots and lots of visitors. I hadn’t realized I knew so many people; it seemed like the whole town turned up at one point or another. I wanted Timber to keep them away, but he seemed to think the distraction would be good for me, so they came.
Cassiopeia Jones, my singer-songwriter friend, painted my toenails bright purple and talked about getting her garden ready for the coming year. I reflected that I probably wouldn’t put in a garden at all; I didn’t feel like growing things. Cassie had suffered a lot of loss in her life, even the loss of a child, and I half hoped to be able to share with her some of what I felt. But every time I tried, she turned the conversation aside into trivial matters like the weather, or the trees, or the birds at the feeder outside our front window. I didn’t blame her. She’d told me before that she was through with grief.
That was one of the better visits.
Debra Montaine from Western Realty brought me a stuffed teddy bear, which had obviously been intended for the baby. She wouldn’t meet my eyes, as if I had been dirtied by my loss. Then she said,
“It wasn’t quite a real person, though, was it? They couldn’t even tell if it was a boy or a girl yet, could they?”
I didn’t know. I hadn’t asked. Debra left soon after.
Old Gary, who had once owned our house, produced a pocketful of rocks he had polished and patted me on the shoulder.
“There, there,” he croaked. “It’ll pass. You’ll get through it.”
I knew he spoke from the wisdom of eighty years, so I nodded. But I didn’t believe it would pass, or that I would ever get through it.
Eva, Bill and Julian from Right as Rain placed a basket of fruit on the coffee table. “You can try again,” Julian said, as if I hadn’t lost a particular person who could never be recreated. “You need to get out in the air. You’re too pale,” Eva declared, as if getting color into my cheeks could lift my spirits.
The poet, Veruca Mayhem, handed me a tiny stained glass swan she had made in her workshop and told me, “It just wasn’t meant to be. When it’s meant to happen it will.” As if my lost child, my baby, had been a mistake, of no particular significance.
After that, I told Timber I didn’t want any more visitors. He let one in, though. My best friend, Breda Ni Fhearraigh. Even she had no words for me, but at least she didn’t pretend she did. She just sat by me and held my hand, and I was finally able to let out some of the tears I had been holding inside.
“Cassie was right,” I told her, wiping my nose on the back of my hand. I had remembered something Cassie had said to me when she had lost her lover the previous fall. “Grieving is messy and horrible and it takes too long. And everyone tells you what you need.”
“What do you need?” Breda asked, but at that I shook my head, unable to say.
I needed my husband. But Timber was distant and distracted. He’d stayed by my side all three days in the hospital, and hadn’t gone back to work since; it was the off season in construction and he had the time coming, so he took it. Yet for all that, he seemed to avoid me. His presence, always so big and immediate, pulled away from mine and he never touched me. I missed that most of all. We’d been sent home from the hospital under the strict injunction not to engage in “marital relations” for six weeks, but it wasn’t the sex I yearned for. It was the casual contact. Our marriage had held so much of it—the brush of a finger as he passed me my coffee, the stroke on my cheek as we sat talking, the gentle pressure of his thigh against mine as we watched a movie. All gone now. Not even my husband could stand to be near me. I felt diseased.
After four weeks, I began to get about a little better. I still didn’t feel up to facing the world, but I could accomplish some light housework. Sweeping, dusting, dishes. No lifting. No mopping. I took it all very slowly, as if every step were up a steep incline.
St. Patrick’s Day came. Timber went out to an afternoon singing gig. I stayed home. For the first time in years I had no band to lead, and it felt odd, even as it was a relief. I wandered around the house, wondering what to do with myself. I considered taking out my flute to honor the day, but music held no appeal. Neither did any of our thousand books. I’d already cleaned as much as I could clean and Timber had made me promise not to overtax myself while he was away.
I sat on the couch and stared at the walls for a time. Then the doorbell rang. I considered not answering it. I did that sometimes, when I didn’t want to be disturbed.
It rang again. I sighed and went to the door.
A slim figure in a white Italian-cut suit stood on our doorstep. He was wearing a white fedora with a white band and his feet were encased in white wingtips. The third finger of his left hand bore a simple gold ring. The right hand, which he held out to me, clutched a bunch of rather wilted green carnations.
“May I come in, Caitlin?” Tintri Fionn Connolly asked in his politest tones.
He was not a human. I wasn’t even sure he was a he, although his favored form, outside his natural state as a sheet of blinding white flame, was that of this young man. He was a creature called a coimhthíoch, a Foreigner, alien to this plane and yet bound to it. He fed off human emotions, preferably violent ones, but he’d take what he could get. He’d promised never to feed off Timber or me, though he didn’t always keep that promise. He’d also once vowed to “be good,” and the ring on his finger was the symbol of that vow. But I had no idea what “good” meant to him, if it meant anything at all.
I knew I shouldn’t let him in. At the very least, Timber wouldn’t like it. I stood aside anyway.
“Please come in, Tintri Fionn.” I took the flowers from him and led the way into the living room.
He stood as I hunted up a vase for the carnations and arranged them on the mantelpiece, his colorless eyes following me, and his odd, pointed face fixed in an expression I couldn’t name. When I sat on the couch, he took a seat on the ottoman belonging to the big tweed chair across the room and crossed his too-thin legs.
“I just heard from my charming niece.” That was what he called Breda. Her great, great grandfather had bound Fionn by making him one of the family, trapping him in our world with blood. “I’m truly sorry for your loss.”
Incredibly, he sounded sincere. “Thank you. I think you’re the first person who’s said that.”
“I’m sorry for that, too.”
“They all seem to want to believe that it didn’t happen, or that it didn’t matter,” I heard myself saying, amazed that I was confiding in this non-human.
“But of course it did.”
“I almost died.”
“So Breda said. If you’ll pardon my mentioning it, you don’t sound as if you care much.”
I shrugged. “I don’t. If I had…” I flinched away from the thought. If I had died, I wouldn’t have to deal with the pain. With Timber’s distance. With anything.
Tintri Fionn got up from the ottoman and sat beside me on the couch, taking my hand. “Caitlin. I owe you a debt for freeing me, you know.”
“I wouldn’t have done it if I’d had any other choice.” I no longer had nightmares about what I had loosed on Gordarosa, to lay a ghost to rest, but I thought about it from time to time.
“Still. You did it.” He paused. “I could repay you.”
“You gave your word not to feed off me or Timber. That’s enough.”
Tintri Fionn gave the strange jerk of his shoulders that served him for a shrug. It didn’t look right. The gestures he copied from humans seldom looked quite right. He had a few. He brushed his long platinum hair back from his forehead the exact same way my husband did, for example. But he hadn’t yet got the shrug.
“I don’t always stick to that, as you know very well.”
I said nothing.
“Caitlin,” he said again. “You’re in pain.”
I didn’t bother to deny it. He fed off emotion; he always knew the truth of it.
“I could take it from you.”
“When you feed off people,” I replied very slowly, “it increases what they feel. It doesn’t take it away.”
“I don’t always have to do that.”
“What would it be like, then?”
“I can’t say. Perhaps it would be as a dream. Perhaps you’d forget even that much.” Again the weird shrug. “I have not talked to many mortals about such things. I don’t know.”
I thought about it, or tried to. My mind kept drifting in and out through a grey haze. To remember it as a dream. Not to remember at all. What would that be like? A relief maybe. But it had happened to me, and something in me couldn’t bear to disclaim it. Maybe the pain was the only thing that let me know I was still alive.
“No,” I told him at last. “Thank you for the offer. But no.”
He squeezed my hand. We sat in silence for a time. After a while, I heard truck tires scrape the gravel in our driveway; the back door opened and closed, and Timber came in, flushed in the cheeks and smelling rather yeasty. He’d obviously partaken of a couple of pints of green beer at the gig.
He saw Tintri Fionn and his face set like cement. “What are ye doing here?”
Fionn rose. “Visiting Caitlin. But don’t worry, I was just leaving.”
“Off wi’ ye then.”
Tintri Fionn bent over my hand and laid a kiss along the back of it. “Do remember what I said.”
The coimhthíoch eased out from behind the coffee table and started for the front door. But as he passed by Timber, he paused. He looked my husband up and down, almost like a bird sizing up a juicy bug. Then he said, “I’d like a word with you.”
Timber raised an eyebrow. “Aye?”
“A private word.” He continued to our entry hall. Timber hesitated, then followed. Not very long after, I heard his raised voice.
“What d’ye mean by coming here and feeding off my wife’s misery?”
I wasn’t supposed to hear this. Fionn had asked for a private word with Timber; after his offer, the least I could do was grant him that. I got up, went to the kitchen and put the kettle on. But when it had boiled and I carried my tea back to the couch, they were still at it. I froze halfway to my goal, unable to either back up or go on.
“You need to do something for her.” That was Fionn. “She’s pining away.”
“D’ye think I canna see that? What would ye hae me do?” Timber was near as angry as I had ever heard him. His Scots accent had gotten so thick I had trouble making out his words.
A snort. “You’re the one they call Soul Speaker. Speak to her.” A pause, then, “They do say that grief shared is grief halved.”
“Are ye a priest now, then?”
“Merely someone who understands mortal emotion.”
Another pause. I fancied I could see Timber running a hand through his dark hair, the way he did when at a loss. When he spoke again, his voice was somewhat softer, the accent a little less pronounced.
“Why d’ye even care? If caring is something ye can manage.”
“I do care.” Fionn sighed. “Your wife is about the only person I can talk to. That means something to me. She’s the closest thing I have to a friend.”
No more words came after that, and soon the front door slammed. I hurried to the couch as fast as I could, sat and composed my features. When Timber came back, I was drinking my tea.
That night, we opened a bottle of wine that one of Timber’s clients, a vintner, had given him in thanks for some woodwork in his wine cellar. It was a very good merlot, and we finished the bottle, but it didn’t loosen my husband’s tongue as I had half hoped it would do. I heard no more about his conversation with Tintri Fionn.
I whiled away the evening with a book, thinking, as if they had been long ago and not just a few weeks, of the days when Timber would share the couch with me. How he’d sit by me and take my feet in his lap to rub them, and trail one big hand up the front of my shin to my thigh. He never did such things anymore. Tonight he sat across the room from me, in the big tweed chair, laptop open in front of him, working out the final details of a bid he’d secured for a house project that would start in May. When I’d told him about the baby, he’d decided to move from working for others to contracting for himself, and he hadn’t changed his mind now that no baby would be arriving. I stole glances at him from time to time, but he always seemed intent on his work, the light of the screen reflecting blue from his face.
At length, I snuck a peek and caught him looking at me. His eyes blazed sapphire-bright over the laptop’s rim, just for a moment before they lowered again, and I thought I saw something of the old hunger in them. As well I might. Six weeks would be a long fast for a virile man like Timber, and things hadn’t been very lusty between us for the thirteen weeks of my pregnancy either, with my being so ill most of the time.
I pondered that look. Maybe Timber didn’t despise me, or blame me, or anything like that. Maybe he simply kept from touching me because he worried that if he started, he wouldn’t be able to stop.
Six weeks, and only four of them gone. But I knew lots of ways to please a man, especially this one.
Heart in my throat, I rose, crossed the room, and climbed into Timber’s lap, straddling his legs. He started up from his work, surprised and, yes, pleased; I saw it. And something else, too. Some expression flitted across his face that I couldn’t name.
“What’s this, then?”
It broke my heart all over again that he could ask such a thing. But I gathered my courage and, for an answer, I leaned across the laptop, buried my hands in his hair and kissed him. His response was instantaneous. He sat straight up; his mouth opened under mine, and he sought my tongue with his own, not at all hesitant, but full of passion. I sighed in my throat as the pressure of his lips increased. For a moment I thought all would be as it had been; he would shove the laptop aside and take me in his arms. Then, all at once, he went rigid under me. He took me by the shoulders and thrust me gently but firmly away. As soon as he had done so, he dropped his hands into his lap, as if touching me had soiled them. My heart died in me.
“Don’t you want me anymore?” I whispered.
“Aye. Always.” In other times, he would have matched the words with a touch to my cheek or a stroke of my hair, but he just sat there. “But we’re to wait.”
He sounded so calm about it, as if he really didn’t care. I thought of the blazing blue look and said, “There are other ways I could satisfy you.”
“No. That wouldn’t do.” He lowered his eyes to the computer screen once more. “I’ll be at this for a bit, yet. It’s best you go up to bed.”
Miserable, I climbed out of his lap and stumbled up the stairs, choking back tears at his rejection. I would not let him see how he had hurt me. I would not let him see me cry. Because if he did, and made no move to comfort me, I wouldn’t be able to bear it.
Shivering, I crawled out of my clothes and into a horrible old flannel nightgown, feeling ancient and ugly and used up. I got into bed, pulled the covers over my head, and huddled under them for a long time in the dark.
Timber never came to bed at all.