“I trust you.” Three simple words, but they resonated with a new beginning. Somehow, I’d forgiven him yet again. I’d granted absolution for him stealing my daughter and turning my life upside down.
He sucked in a massive gust of air, eyes boring into mine. He didn’t need to say anything, I could read him clear as day. He vibrated with thankfulness.
“Just… be gentle,” I whispered.
He grimaced. “I’m trying damn hard to embrace that word every day.”
Clara moved closer to Fox, and I tensed, hoping she wouldn’t touch him. She must’ve been affected by what Fox did in the office more than she let on because she kept her tiny hands to herself. “Why don’t you like to be gentle? Did you never have a pet to learn how to be nice? I can teach you to be gentle. It’s not hard.”
I laughed softly. “It’s not that easy to teach a man to ignore a lifetime of training, Clara.”
Her face shot to mine, sadness tugging her mouth down.
I rushed to add, “But I know you help Fox a great deal.”
Clara scowled, one dainty foot stomped the floor. “His name is Roan, mummy. How many times do I need to tell you?”
Fox chuckled, smiling sadly in my direction. “I never told your mother what my first name was. She’s not used to calling me by it.” His large hand moved to ruffle her hair, but dropped just as quickly. “My first name is precious to me. I told no one, not even the men I grew up with. You were the first one I told.”
My heart burst. I never thought about a name being sacred or something to be hoarded. In my past, I traded names like I stole new clothing, never attached, always changing.
Fox sensed my train of thought and murmured, “My first name was the only thing I had left of my past before they stole everything from me. I kept it hidden, first in defiance, then in desperation. Only my little brother, Vasily, was allowed to call me Roan. And now Clara. And now… you.”
I swallowed hard, picturing a younger version of the scarred man in front of me. “You want me to call you Roan?”
He captured my heart and soul with his look. “Yes. It would mean a lot to me.”
Fox suddenly moved forward.
My back straightened, stomach flurried. He was close, so close, his white-grey eyes staring mournfully into mine. “Please forgive me for what I’m about to tell you. But if you can’t…I understand.”
Tearful prickles raced up my spine and I couldn’t speak. I nodded, aching to hug him, offer solace in my arms. For two days I kept my distance, harbouring my anger, not wanting to be weak when my first duty was to Clara, but it was no use. I wanted to help this man. I couldn’t stop—just like I couldn’t stop my feelings for him.
Fox’s nostrils flared, his lips parted, and every part of me throbbed for every part of him. Even though Clara would never be safe around him, I had a hard time ignoring practicality in favour of my heart.
And my heart wanted Roan.
I didn’t just want him physically; I wanted him mentally, emotionally, spiritually. I wanted to own every part of him and trade his life for mine.
Clara broke our moment with a cringe worthy question. “You have so many weapons. Have you used them?” She stroked a huge sword that looked as if it should be stuck in a rock in some storybook myth. Her voice was faint, but her question turned Fox to a statue. “Have you killed people before? Did they deserve it?”
Every question sent a dagger into my heart. Who knew that a kid with no life experience could have such perception? She read everyone like a picture book. All our sins and secrets might as well be tattooed on our foreheads.
Fox closed his eyes, an expression of deep regret and pain etched his features. Finally he opened them again. “I wish I didn’t have to answer your question, but I promised myself I would tell the truth.” Sighing, he added, “I’ve taken lives before. Some bad. Some deserving. But most were kind and gentle and didn’t deserve to die.” He looked up, freezing me in his stare. “But I didn’t do it willingly. You have to believe me.”
I couldn’t catch a proper breath. The room closed in, swords and daggers loomed like nightmares, filling my head with horror.
Clara moved closer to Fox and it wasn’t until she put a hand on his leg that I noticed she clutched a tiny dagger with an intricate gem inlaid in the hilt. Fox sucked in a breath at her touch, but didn’t move.
I backed toward a shelf, blindly groping for a blade just in case.
With ease and brittle gentleness, he pried Clara’s fingers from around the dagger before placing it back on a shelf. “I don’t think your mother would want you playing with knifes.” He shot me a look. “How about we get out of here? You’ve seen enough.”
Clara shook her head, her eyes never leaving the pretty ruby inlaid dagger. “I don’t want to play with them. I want to make them. They’re so pretty and shiny, and I want to know how. Can you show me? Please? Can I have that?” She pointed at the knife.
“You’re not having a knife, Clara. No matter how much you beg.” I glared my ‘do-not-mess-with-me scowl.’
Fox didn’t smile. His face remained serious as he said, “Maybe when you’re older I can teach you. You should only have a blade if you know how to use it. It’s dangerous to wield something you don’t understand.”
I balled my hands, fighting the painful squeeze on my heart at the thought of Clara growing up. I wanted that to happen. So much.
Clara moved to the other side of the room, brushing her fingers along a particular sword that’d been polished until the blade turned into a mirror. Her delicate features bounced back, contorted by the shape of the metal. “I suppose I can wait. But don’t be too long.” Her eyes darted up and latched onto mine with intelligence far beyond her years. “Being allergic to air is hard. I don’t think I have too much time.”
My knees buckled and the heavy shroud of faintness almost stole my sanity.
A strangled noise sounded low in my chest, and Fox looked up to glare at me. How did she know? Did she sense her lifespan would be shorter than most?
How does she know?
Tears wobbled in my eyes at the thought of her lying in bed at night afraid and alone. She never asked about her coughing fits, asthma attacks, or constant lung infections, never once questioning what it meant, and why she was different from other kids.
Ignoring Fox’s confused and angry glower, I held my hand out for Clara to come to me. Dropping to her height, I whispered in her ear, “I love you so incredibly much. You’d talk to me if something was worrying you. Wouldn’t you?”
She nodded, rolling her eyes. “Of course. But nothing’s worrying me, so I’m all hunky-dory. Can Roan tell his story now?”
I wanted to scream. To demand she tell me why she thought she had less time. I wanted to know her every thought and conclusion, but I forced my fingers to unclamp around her shoulders and breathed deep.
I couldn’t crush her enthusiasm, but didn’t know if I had the reserves to listen to such a dark and sorrow-filled story Fox obviously had to share. Not now.
Fox seethed with temper; his eyes burned a hole into mine. The energy in the small room was full of questions. He heard truth in the cryptic comment from Clara. His perception was too highly tuned. But that made sense now. After seeing his workshop, weapons, and finding out he killed people; he transformed into more hunter than man in my eyes. Of course, he would have the instincts of a true predator—after all, they relied on their instincts to survive.
I looked up, shaking my head. I’ll tell you, but not yet.
I hoped to avoid the subject to spare him. I hoped to avoid it, because I wasn’t strong enough to voice it. If I told another person, it made it real. I didn’t want to make it real.
Fox scowled and came toward me. Grasping my elbow, he lowered his head to mine. His breath sent shivers down my back as he whispered harshly, “Be prepared to talk after this, Hazel. I’m done being kept in the dark. I want to know. And you’re going to tell me every single thing you’ve been keeping secret.”
Before I could reply, he left the vault and disappeared.
My heart couldn’t calm down at the furious restraint in his voice. He was pissed and no way in hell did I want to deal with a pissed off Fox.
Clara and I followed, hanging back as Fox spent a few minutes dragging dinged up leather chairs toward the central fireplace. Grabbing a poker, he viciously stabbed the coal embers until happy yellow and orange flames came to life.
Pinching the bridge of his nose, he sucked in a heavy breath before deliberately shedding his anger and re-centring himself.
Holding out his hand, he ordered, “Come here.”
My heart couldn’t cope; I shuffled after Clara toward one of the chairs and sat heavily into the soft, springy cushion. Clara lost her fierce independence and instead of taking the other chair, she plopped onto my knee and snuggled. Together we sank into the leather, looking up at Fox. His scarred cheek danced with firelight; his body echoed with pain. Pain given to him by his past. Pain given to him by telling the truth.
His eyes locked with mine, and I didn’t know what he searched for. Acceptance, understanding, willingness to listen and not judge until the end? I didn’t know, but at least he no longer looked as if he wanted to tear me apart for keeping secrets from him. For now Clara’s impending demise was safe.
He held up his hands, bracing them like a traffic warden, displaying fleshy palms and callused fingers. “See that? The marks directly in the centre?” He leaned forward, so his hands were only a foot away from our faces.
Clara spotted the greenish-grey lines before me. “Yep. They’re faded. Do they mean something?” Her voice was timid and I cuddled her closer.
Fox curled his lip, bringing his hands back to him, glaring hatefully at them. “Invisible, impenetrable, invincible.”
The hair on the nape of my neck sprang up as he added in a low timbre voice, “Nevidimyy, nepronitsayemyy, nepobedimyy.”
He looked up, eyes glinting with remembered hatred. “The three things a Ghost must be. I’ve scrubbed my hands with abrasives; spent hours scouring them with sand to remove their trace, to forget, but they never leave, just like the conditioning will never leave.”
His voice turned inward, full of memories, echoing with agony. “That’s all we were. Ghosts to do their bidding and obey their every request. We were told to kill and we did. We were told every murder would slowly turn us immortal like gods. And just like gods, we had power. We were the law and nothing could touch us.”
He shook his head violently. “But that was all a lie. We were just humans, tortured within an inch of our psyche to become what they wanted us to be. A mindless machine for hire. Mercenaries of the highest order who anyone could buy to complete a task.”
His body shuddered, bowing his head. His hands clenched and every turmoil he felt lashed at me, bleeding me dry. He battled so deep, suffered so much, sucked backward where nightmares still ruled.
Minutes passed while Fox stood motionless, only his lips moving soundlessly. I’d seen a few people have flashbacks, their present overcome by an overpowering memory. Clara squirmed on my lap, her little body tensing with every minute.
As sudden as the flashback took him it was over. He looked up, blinking once. He rolled his shoulders. “Sorry.”
Clara shifted. “What were you thinking about?” Her warm, comforting weight helped keep my panic at bay, retaining my utter horror for the pain Fox had lived through.
“I was thinking about a little boy. You remind me of him so much, Clara. He was bright, funny, brave. His name was Vasily—it means kingly, of royal descent. He was nine when he died.”
Clara sighed. “I’m sorry. I like his name. What does yours mean?”
Fox smiled. “It means redhead, even though my hair turned darker as I grew older. A false name really.”