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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Born of Ashes

The Guardians of Ascension (Volume 4)

Caris Roane

St. Martin's Paperbacks


I hold him in the palm of my hand,
He presses me to his chest.
His heart thunders through my mind.
Oh, my beloved bleeds for me,
One drop, then another
Until he is spent
And I am satisfied.
Collected Poems, Beatrice of Fourth


"You're standing in front of the grid, Jean-Pierre." Fiona Gaines tried to push her warrior away, her formidable Guardian of Ascension, but for all his leanness the man was a rock.
"Because you do not listen to me, chérie. And I need you to listen. I do not think you should go to the christening today."
She finally looked up at him, something she avoided as much as she could. The vampire was a pain in the ass, but if she met his gaze her mind started sinking into a pile of mush—not because of his enthrallment skills but because he was, well, Jean-Pierre.
He was tall, a beautiful six-five to her five-ten. When she wore heels, she matched him so perfectly that her lips reached his neck, so of course she avoided wearing heels. His eyes were the color of stormy seas, a gray-green-blue. He had strong cheekbones and reckless long golden-blond hair, which he held back in sculpted scraps of pastel brocades, a leftover affectation from revolutionary days in France.
But his body was one powerful thrill waiting to happen, a warrior's body so muscled, so lean, that her fingers trembled when he was close. She avoiding touching him, but sometimes in her dreams she would spend hours roving her hands over every solid inch of him. Every inch of him.
Worse, however, was that he had a scent that kept her very female body in a state of almost constant arousal, a scent that was completely ridiculous. He smelled like the best cup of coffee ever brewed on the face of two worlds, yet at the same time that coffee was laced with something so male that even standing here, looking at him, her tongue tingled.
A smile touched his lips, those full lips with the upper points that were so kissable. Damn him. He knew exactly what she was feeling, since for him she had the scent of a French patisserie. The universe could often show a surprising sense of humor. They were almost a cliché: coffee and doughnuts. Okay, so he said she smelled like light buttery croissants. Still.
"Fiona." A Militia Warrior across the grid called to her and, thank God, broke the spell.
She had to step around Jean-Pierre to actually see Eric. "What have you got?"
Her heart rate kicked up a notch. She knew Eric well because of how much time she spent at Militia Warrior Headquarters in Apache Junction Two. Three others worked the grid, at least four on deck around the clock. With satellite hookups, the grid could be moved to any set of coordinates around the globe day or night, searching for anomalies.
Central Command, attached to the ruler of Second Earth, also had a grid, but they kept theirs fixed on Metro Phoenix Two, hunting for death vampire sign.
"Something just outside Bangkok Two. Thailand."
She rounded the grid, which measured the size of a small car, to join Eric on the opposite side. She wasn't surprised when Jean-Pierre followed after her. To his credit, he let her work. She had no doubt, however, that the subject would rear its ugly head again.
After her release from blood slavery five months ago, Fiona had been a woman on a mission. She obsessed about finding Rith Do'onwa, the main instrument behind the heinous slavery system, and she obsessed about bringing home as many of her fellow slaves as possible. Out of twenty-two known facilities, they had found six, and brought home a total of forty slaves, all women.
Eric had already enhanced the grid and there it was, the signature, so hard to read but fast becoming familiar to her. She had a gift, she knew that. Eric and the other MWs could find the infinitesimal smudges that constituted an anomaly, but only she could see the hint of blue-green, the color of the inside dome of Rith's mist, that indicated they'd gotten a hit.
"Get Gideon on the com." She didn't need to ask if Gideon and his team of thirty-two warriors was ready to go. That would have been an insult to one of the Thunder God Warriors, the nickname for all Militia Warriors.
Nor did Eric ask what, when, or why. He made the call and spoke in low tones.
A minute passed.
"Ready on your mark," Eric said.
She met his gaze and smiled. "Let them fly." It was kind of a joke, vampires having wings and all. And they couldn't exactly fly through the dematerialization fold, since wings were too fragile to bear the process. But Eric smiled as he gave the order.
Eric set the communications system on loudspeaker. Colonel Seriffe, the leader of the Thunder God Warriors, wanted it that way. If there would be a battle, they'd all hear it. Seriffe was all about keeping everyone connected, informed, and aware.
Fiona glanced the length of the room. Over two dozen women staffed the communications along with MW section leaders, like Eric, like Gideon. Most turned in her direction, solemn, waiting.
Gideon's voice, low and quiet, hit the airwaves. He issued orders then said, "No DV sign here."
Fiona didn't know when she had actually backed up into Jean-Pierre, but his presence calmed her. He had a hand on her hip, and she felt his deep breaths. Her heart rate had doubled. She couldn't help it.
She knew exactly what all these women were going through, the despair after usually decades of serving as a blood donor—the polite euphemism for a process that involved taking a woman once a month through death and resurrection by defibrillator to get at the addictive dying blood. Death vampires, by the nature of their addiction, had to drink their victims to death in order to get that last euphoric substance.
A hundred and twenty-five years ago Fiona had been out shopping when two death vampires, whom only she had been able to see, had abducted her from Boston the day after her eleventh wedding anniversary. She had been the first mortal woman to be partially ascended by Darian Greaves and experimented upon. Back then the draining of her blood had involved big steel needles and rubber tubing. Greaves would drain her blood, taking her to the point of death, pump more blood back into her veins, and bring her heart back to life with what she now understood to be powerful hand-blasts from his palm.
Shortly after, Rith, who also had a great deal of preternatural power, had taken over. Fiona rarely saw Greaves after that.
Over the loudspeaker, she could hear Gideon breathing hard as well as the sound of his battle sandals pounding up a flight of stairs. She saw movement to her right. Seriffe emerged from his office, a heavy scowl on his face as he, too, listened.
Gideon's voice, too loud for the speakers, became a shout. "We've got eleven women here!"
HQ erupted in cheers and shouts.
Fiona's eyes filled with tears.
Jean-Pierre leaned down. "Congratulations, chérie." She caught his hand and held it tight. She struggled to breathe and not to cry, but tears escaped anyway.
She could hear Gideon speaking, but not what he was saying.
"Settle down, people," Seriffe called out.
Gideon relayed the information that all eleven were alive and healthy.
Fiona slipped her BlackBerry from her pants pocket, touched the screen, and connected with the rehab center. She let reception know that they'd be getting eleven new arrivals.
The woman gave a little cry. "We'll take it from here, Fiona. Well done."
Well done. She wanted to rejoice, she really did, but that meant there were still fifteen other facilities, that they knew of, and how many more women to rescue before she could really begin to celebrate.
"Take a moment, Fiona," Jean-Pierre whispered. "This is a good thing you have done."
How did he know? Could he read her mind?
She drew away from him and looked up at him. She saw the deep compassion in his stormy eyes and then she understood. He was a Warrior of the Blood. He had fought for over two hundred years, from the first year of his ascension, against the ongoing depredation of death vampires. He knew the victory that the slaying of each death vampire meant, but he also knew the persistent frustration and despair that accrued because right now there seemed to be no end in sight. The enemy, Commander Darian Greaves, encouraged the creation of death vampires, since he used them as a significant weapon in his bid to take over two worlds, Second Earth and Mortal Earth.
She nodded. She glanced at the clock on the wall. The hour was eleven at night. She would have to go home soon with Colonel Seriffe, her son-in-law, at which time Jean-Pierre would join the Warriors of the Blood as they fought at all five dimensional entry points in the Metro Phoenix area.
"Where will you be tonight?" she asked.
"Thorne likes to keep me at the downtown Borderland."
She nodded. She knew why. The downtown Borderland was the closest location to Colonel Seriffe's home, where Fiona now lived. Thorne knew that the situation for Jean-Pierre, serving as her guardian, was something of a nightmare. He looked it, too, with faint circles beneath his eyes. Even relatively immortal vampires could show signs of strain if they had to guard a woman twelve hours of the day, battle death vampires another six, then toss and turn through a restless sleep cycle.
Damn the breh-hedden, she thought. The former mythological state of vampire mate-bonding had also reared its ugly head. She was afflicted with what she thought of as an inconvenient and terrible disease, but for whatever reason, the breh-hedden really took a toll on the men, as though it put all that testosterone on high alert constantly.
Hence, even in the perfectly safe environment of Militia Warrior HQ, Jean-Pierre stuck close.
"Now, chérie, we must talk about the christening tomorrow."
She cocked her head and planted her hands on her hips. "I'm going and I don't care whether you think it's a security problem or not. Alison has been a good friend to me and bringing this baby into the world was no picnic. She's a new mom, and I remember what that was like. She needs my support and if you think that I would bail on her at this late hour, after having been a slave for over a hundred years, because of the threat of death vampires, then you don't know me at all."
* * *
Jean-Pierre Robillard, out of France in 1793, saw the familiar stubborn glint in the eye of his woman and his hopes sank that he would have the smallest chance to change her mind. She was so beautiful, her long thick chestnut hair wrapped in a twist at the back of her head, her lovely cheekbones well on display, the silver-blue of her eyes shining in the dim lights of the central grid room.
Her scent rose to drift into his nose and command his senses, a delicate bouquet of pastries and woman combined, a heady combination that tended to strip him of all rational thought.
His breath caught and held. He felt as he had from the first, that he could lose his soul in the eyes of this woman, his woman.
His woman. Mais quel cauchemar. A nightmare that would not end. The breh-hedden had done this to them both, bound them together when neither of them wanted to be bound.
"I'm going to baby Helena's christening, Jean-Pierre. And that's that. I will not discuss it further."
He could not move her. Whatever her slavery had been, her recovery had been swift. From the withdrawn, despairing woman had emerged a vampire with a dedicated mind-set intent on rescuing all the remaining blood slaves and seeing Rith Do'onwa into the grave.
He applauded her determination but the sheer stubbornness that had arisen, the willfulness, was a thorn in his side, night and day. He would not call her reckless, but certainly fearless. His job would have been so much easier if she had been a wallflower that wilted. Instead she forged ahead, ignored his opinions, and was like an Amazon to the problems in front of her.
He served as her Guardian of Ascension and had from almost the day of her rescue. He was both grateful for and hated the assignment. Grateful because he could not have tolerated any other warrior being close to her. Yet if he was to have a chance to not feel so very bound to her, only distance would answer—and distance he could not get.
Worse, she had emerging powers, which meant that the enemy would soon discover her worth, and would want her very dead. For that reason, he had tried to persuade her not to attend the christening, which he had learned just a few hours ago, and much to his horror, was to be conducted in the open air.
Seriffe commanded the room again. "We have another situation, people."
"Oh, no," Fiona whispered.
Without thinking, he moved in close behind her once more, something she allowed, and he was not surprised when she leaned against him for support. As much as neither wished to be close, a friendship had developed, and he knew that to some degree she relied on him.
Once more, he put his hand most carefully on her hip and worked at his breathing. This close, his arousal was only a thought away. But in the past five months, he had learned some new skills in tolerating the presence of his woman without constantly sporting, as the Americans liked to say, a raging hard-on.
Seriffe had a remote control in his hand. He aimed it at the large central monitor and clicked. "I recorded this a few minutes ago."
Greaves came on the screen. Jean-Pierre could not restrain a soft growl. More than any other creature on the face of the earth, he wanted this vampire dead, set on fire, burned to ashes, then cast over at least five different bodies of water.
"My fellow ascenders," Greaves began, "I have learned this very morning of a grave situation. My staff, in their ongoing efforts to better regulate a world that has fallen into massive decay under Madame Endelle's unfortunate leadership, has uncovered the existence of several blood slave facilities. We are even now in the process of searching these facilities out and ending the reprehensible activity of procuring dying blood from enslaved females.
"I am hereby offering a reward for anyone who can locate the creator and director of these facilities, an ascender by the name of Rith Do'onwa, who has built over the past ten decades an entire black market for this truly heinous commodity."
A picture appeared of Rith, and Jean-Pierre felt Fiona stiffen. He could only imagine how the sight of the vampire affected her.
Greaves continued, "The unfortunate circumstance of the highly addictive nature of dying blood is a problem that the scientific community, attached to the Coming Order, works on relentlessly day and night.
"I wish to set the record straight on one pertinent fact; many decades ago, I had a brief association with ascender Do'onwa, in which as a joint effort we attempted to create an antidote for the disease. When I saw that such efforts would prove fruitless, I ended the project as well as my association with ascender Do'onwa.
"So serious is the nature of this situation that I'm offering one million dollars to anyone who can provide information that leads to the capture of ascender Do'onwa."
He ended the press conference, refusing to take questions, and left the staging area with the flash of lightbulbs glittering off his shiny bald head.
"Fucking brilliant," Fiona muttered. "He's set Rith up as the fall guy. Bastard."
She was using one of his favorite words to describe Greaves.
Fiona continued. "But do you think the world is buying this?"
"He has great presence, and who would not believe those big, innocent, round eyes of his?"
"Yeah, he looks so sincere. I loathe him, Jean-Pierre. I never thought in the course of my life to hate anyone, but that's all I can feel for him."
"I understand," he said. And he did. He truly did.
As he glanced at the clock next to the monitor, his heart tightened. It was past eleven at night. His woman worked long hours and so did he. Fiona needed her rest and he needed to get into the field. But he did not want to leave her. As hard as it was to be around her most of the time, this was the hour he despised the most: Until he met with her again the following morning, he would be separated from her and unable to get to her if she needed him.
So, shit.
"You must go home now," he said, leaning close and dipping down to smell her neck. He took a long sniff and heard her swift intake of breath. "May I see you home?"
She stepped away from him as a strong roll of her delicate croissant scent struck his nostrils. Oui, they were both trapped inside the breh-hedden. He also knew she was a woman quick to experience the little death, the place of ecstasy. He did not understand the why of it, but he could bring her with just a kiss. The first time had occurred the day she was in the hospital just after her release from the New Zealand blood slavery facility.
She turned to face him and he watched her swallow hard. She had a beautiful long neck. Her vein pulsed. He held back a groan. He longed for this woman in every way. He craved her. He wanted her blood.
She shook her head. A wisp of her hair had come loose. She pushed it behind her ear. Even the shape of her ears was beautiful—as if everything about her was designed to torment him.
"I don't think that's a good idea, Jean-Pierre, do you?"
He shook his head as well but his heart tightened a little more. He did not understand all that he felt. Was he experiencing love or was this just the terrible lure of the breh-hedden?
From his side vision, he saw Seriffe move in their direction. Seriffe would fold her back to his house, where she lived with his family, in a guest suite all her own. That had been the one piece of grace that had come out of Fiona's enslavement, that when the Warriors of the Blood rescued her and brought her to Metro Phoenix Two, she had discovered that the daughter she had lost so long ago, because of her abduction, had ascended in 1913 and was now married to Colonel Seriffe and had birthed three small boys.
But as Seriffe drew closer, Jean-Pierre's heart rate increased. He did not want to leave Fiona. His instincts kicked into high gear and he stepped in front of her, his chin lowered, his gaze fixed in a hard stare on the colonel.
Seriffe shook his head. "You're still going to do this?"
Fiona pushed at his back. "Jean-Pierre, this isn't necessary."
Fuck them both, he thought. How could either of them know what he experienced right now? "You must promise me this night that you will watch over her and let no harm come to her. You must promise, Seriffe, or by God I will tear your heart out."
Seriffe sighed. He put a hand on Jean-Pierre's shoulder. "By all that I hold sacred, by the lives of my wife and my children, I do so promise."
It was the best Jean-Pierre could do.
He turned to Fiona and though feeling that his heart would break, however absurd, he caught up both her hands in his and kissed her fingers. "Tomorrow, chérie."
She had tears in her eyes. "À demain, chéri."
He loved her for that. She showed him such kindness. Whatever else she might be, however stubborn, however obsessed with finding Rith, Fiona Gaines was kind.
* * *
The following morning, Fiona stood before the mirror in her bedroom. Colonel Seriffe and Carolyn had given her a suite in their sprawling home where she had lived for the past five months, from the time she learned that her daughter had ascended.
Dressing to go to the christening, she contemplated changing her clothes one more time. The woman she was before her captivity would have had no trouble selecting an outfit to wear. Though she'd adjusted to many things about her new world and her new life, she couldn't quite seem to find the right kind of clothes for herself. She despised the quandary and saw it as a weakness, something left over from her century-plus of living under Rith's thumb.
She needed to be patient with herself, but sometimes she wanted to scream her frustration.
She wore pearl earrings and a cream silk tailored blouse tucked into a navy pencil skirt that had a small slit up one side, topped by three covered buttons. Around her shoulders she wore a light blue cashmere shawl.
The baptism ceremony was being held in mile-high Prescott Two and this time of year, in early March, at ten in the morning, the outdoor ceremony would be on the cool side of fifty, as opposed to the perfect seventy of Phoenix right now.
Still, she worried: Was she overdressed, underdressed, too matronly, too young, was the slit too much? She was uncomfortable in these clothes but she wasn't certain why exactly, except of course that her back itched like crazy and there wasn't anything she could do about it.
Except …
She turned away from the mirror and moved to the nightstand on the far side of her bed. She drew the deep drawer open and took out … a ruler. She hated doing this because it made the wing-apertures weep but she needed some relief … now.
She lifted the heavy fall of her hair and shoved the ruler down the back of her shirt. She closed her eyes, and as she reached the uppermost wing-lock on the left side of her back she gave a little cry. It felt so good.
She rubbed the end of the ruler back and forth over the swollen tissue. She couldn't describe the relief she felt but her eyes rolled back in her head. She moved from one wing-lock to the next until she could no longer reach them from an upper stroke. She dropped the cashmere to the bed and pulled the blouse from the skirt.
She tilted the ruler and shoved it up under the hem of the blouse until she reached the first of the lower wing-locks. She performed the same ritual and winced and uttered little muffled cries the whole time.
She was getting her wings but it was not fun. The itching had gotten so bad that two weeks ago she'd seen one of the doctors who had tended her in the hospital five months earlier.
He'd spent a good half hour with her, asking her questions about the wing-locks: When had they appeared, did she ever experience any burning sensations, had she tried mounting her wings … all the usual.
The problem was, he'd been concerned because by all appearances she should have been able to mount her wings weeks earlier, maybe even the first week after she'd gone through her formal ascension ceremony with Madame Endelle, the Supreme High Administrator of Second Earth.
Now her back was wet. Of course. She removed her shirt and went into the bathroom to dry off with a towel. She returned to her closet and put on a new blouse similar in style and color.
As she tucked the shirt in, she wondered if Jean-Pierre would like this conservative look on her or if he preferred a looser style. She shouldn't care, but she did. She had a very strong affection for the warrior, which didn't help the situation at all.
An odd little vibration moved through her mind and suddenly, without warning, because she had been thinking of Jean-Pierre, now she could feel him, where he was, what he was doing. He was in Prescott, scoping the outdoor chapel where the christening would be held. She felt as though she stood right next to him, as though she could be inside him, inside his mind and his body, which made no sense. She knew, she knew, that with just a thought she could complete this process, be in his mind despite the fact that he was a powerful ascender and his shields nearly impenetrable. Yet she would have no difficulty, not even a little, pressing her mind inside his, as though he had no shields at all!
But then from the beginning, from her ascension all those decades ago, her primary gift was her telepathy. She had abilities that far surpassed most ascenders'.
Of course she would never intrude in Jean-Pierre's mind, or anyone else's, without their permission. On the other hand, knowing him, he would have welcomed the invasion.
She shook her head back and forth. What did this freakish sensation mean? He'd already told her he thought she had emerging preternatural powers, which in turn meant she could be in greater danger than ever of hitting Greaves's radar, the last place any ascender wanted to be.
Great. This meant she needed Jean-Pierre more than ever and she didn't want to need him, or anyone for that matter. She wanted a normal life on Second Earth, to have charge of her own home, to engage in work she enjoyed, and perhaps one day to fall in love in a normal way.
She really had come to despise the breh-hedden.
As she moved back to the mirror, her wing-locks eased for the moment, and she settled the light blue cashmere once more around her shoulders.
She had only one thing left to do. On the table beside the mirror sat the gold locket her long-deceased husband had given to her on their eleventh wedding anniversary. She had kept it with her all through her years as a blood slave in Burma and even in Toulouse until Rith had moved his slaves unexpectedly. She'd been in a drugged, mindless state, unaware that the precious necklace was being left behind.
Yet somehow, miraculously, Jean-Pierre had discovered the locket behind an antique armoire in Toulouse when the warriors had stormed the facility. Later, he had returned it to her, at the palace, the same night as the rescue.
Yes, a small miracle.
The locket had helped keep her sanity all those decades. She fingered the chain now, running it over and over her fingers.
Colonel Seriffe was her protector in the off-hours when Jean-Pierre wasn't pinned to her side. Seriffe had several squads of Militia Warriors constantly patrolling his property even though Endelle had covered the house in a dome of mist—that extraordinary cloak, invisible to most ascenders, that confused the mind and made even huge buildings seem not to exist.
"Mother, may I come in?"
Carolyn's voice still had the power to undo her and tears rushed to her eyes. She was back in Boston in 1886, Carolyn was a girl of ten, and she was combing out her light brown curls. Another miracle that Carolyn had actually ascended, then eventually married Colonel Seriffe.
The sound of her daughter's voice pushed her heart around in her chest and she smiled. How she loved her.
She blinked back the usual tears and strove to calm herself. These past few months had been hard on Carolyn as well. She'd had to adjust to a mother, long thought dead and now risen. No, nothing about her rescue from blood slavery had been simple.
When she could breathe again, she called out, "I'm decent, sweetheart. Come in."
As she looked into the mirror and settled the gold locket between the lapels of the shirt, she watched the door open behind her, and a moment later her daughter's adult face emerged. She remembered the child's face with the same shy smile. Carolyn's hair was still honey-and-brown in color, with streaks of blond, not so different from Jean-Pierre. Of course, the color now came from a salon in Scottsdale Two. Carolyn was a beautiful young mother of three, even if she was 115.
Ah, Second Earth. Time had a different meaning here. Carolyn could be her sister.
She moved to stand behind Fiona. They were tall women, the Gaines women.
"The cashmere is beautiful," Carolyn said, "and you should always wear this icy shade of blue. It's a lovely contrast for your chestnut hair and the silver-blue of your eyes. I think Jean-Pierre will like it."
She met her daughter's gaze in the mirror. "Now, why would you say something so provoking?" But she laughed.
"Because you're being ridiculous. He loves you and you love him and you should be together. You should at least let him date you once a week. At least throw him that bone."
Yes … that bone. She had restricted their dating to once every two weeks. So for the past five months, every two weeks, Jean-Pierre took her someplace special, and the whole time Fiona worked to keep her hands off him.
Fiona's gaze fell away, drifting lower and lower and falling swiftly into the past, into being strapped to gurneys once a month, drained of her blood, then brought back to life with defibrillators. She didn't know how to explain to Carolyn that she didn't want a relationship, she didn't even want to date Jean-Pierre, and she certainly didn't want the terrible breh-hedden. She didn't want to be tied down again. Ever.
She'd reached an impasse and she knew it. She couldn't go back but she didn't know how to go forward. She pushed Jean-Pierre away but she kept dating him, kept longing for him, for his presence, his touch, his kisses. Oh, God … his kisses.
Her gaze traveled back to Carolyn, and there were tears in her daughter's eyes. "I shouldn't have teased you, Mother. I'm sorry." Her arms traveled around Fiona.
Fiona caught them hard over her chest and gave her daughter an awkward hug, a back-to-front squeeze. "I'm lost," she whispered.
"I know. And it's only been five months. I don't know why I keep pushing you."
Fiona nodded. She took another breath. "Are Seriffe and the children ready?"
"We should go."
Carolyn pulled back and Fiona turned toward her. Carolyn smiled suddenly. "I made Seriffe a bet."
"About what?"
"Well, I am convinced that Warrior Kerrick will weep at his daughter's christening. My husband said, Not a chance."
"He's a man," Fiona said. "He has to say that on principle. So what did you wager?"
"That if Kerrick sheds even a single tear, Seriffe will have to take me to Dark Spectacle Phantasmagoria."
"No," Fiona cried. Seriffe was adamant in refusing to buy tickets to an event that he insisted was all smoke and mirrors though it was billed as a preternatural experience.
Seriffe appeared in the doorway. He was as tall as Jean-Pierre—just a few inches shy of the top of the doorjamb. Certainly his shoulders filled the space. "Are we ready?" His deep warm voice boomed into the room.
"Yes," Fiona said.
"I just received a call from Central. Endelle has given permission for Carla to give us a fold as a group to Prescott."
Fiona's brows rose. "Endelle is letting Central help out? Has she gone soft or something?" Madame Endelle had a python's temperament: Circle, squeeze, devour, ask questions later. That she was permitting Central Command to fold groups to baby Helena's baptism was, well, unusual to say the least, which only made Fiona worry more. Was Endelle expecting trouble or just being cautious?
Seriffe chuckled. "The day Endelle goes soft is the day we all buy ice skates and take a dozen turns around a frozen rink you-know-where. Apparently Endelle has some security concerns and frankly, I'm with her on this one. Did you know the sisters are holding the service in that really shitty—I mean in that really awful—outdoor chapel?" He glanced behind himself. Young ears were listening and he tried really hard, though often unsuccessfully, to curb warrior-speak.
"No," Carolyn cried. "The one with the graffiti on half the benches?"
"Don't they have a chapel inside that could pay for a small country?"
"Well … shi … I mean, that's really too bad." This time Carolyn looked down the hall. Her boys could be heard calling to each other. Carolyn, too, had picked up some of her husband's bad habits. Fiona hadn't exactly been exempt herself.
His gaze shifted to Carolyn, and he straightened his shoulders. "The baby needed a change but I took care of it. Just wanted you to know."
"I suppose now you want a medal."
"Hell, yes! You've changed his diapers. Whew!"
Carolyn went to him, drew close, pressed herself against his chest, and kissed him on the lips. "Sorry, Ethan gave him some of his chili last night." Ethan was the oldest of the three boys and enjoyed tormenting his family in as many creative ways as he could conjure. Fiona adored that about him.
"That explains it." But he laughed.
He turned his wife into the hall, smiled at Fiona over his shoulder, then herded Carolyn in the direction of the main rooms. In the distance, one of the boys started to scream, a very normal sound in the Seriffe household.
Fiona smiled. Maybe there was a lot about her life that she couldn't figure out right now, but being part of this family had brought her great joy.
So, yes, as she followed Carolyn and Seriffe down the hall, as she watched her daughter bend over and pick up her now wailing toddler, as Seriffe took the hands of both his older boys, as the family turned almost as one to look at her, yes, she knew joy.
Whatever else ascension held for her, this moment, this pleasure, made every struggle, every difficulty worthwhile.
The thought that once she folded to the outdoor chapel she would begin a new day with Jean-Pierre, however, left her caught once more in that in-between place: longing to move into the future, but clinging to the past.

Copyright © 2012 by Caris Roane