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“Okay, okay. Jesus, how often did you play whack-a-mole with yourself?”

“All the time. That’s what I’m saying.”

I pushed off of the chair and looked out into the connected family room, something I should’ve done before proceeding with this conversation. Thankfully, Mordecai was lightly snoring on the couch and Daisy was probably doing the same in my room.

“Well…I can move Daisy into my room permanently, I guess. But then I’ll have to use the bathroom…”

Kieran stilled, his whole body going stiff. “What do you use? Your fingers, or a vibrator?”

I slid my forearm across my forehead, my body pounding again.

“None of your business,” I forced out, my throat tight.

“Can I watch?” He glanced back, his tone teasing but his eyes on fire. “You can use both methods, and then compare them with my cock. See which one gets you off the best.”

“Vibrator, easy.” I cleared my throat. “It’s got all the bells and whistles. Men just aren’t equipped to compete.”

“I’m not a man.” His voice was deep and rich. “I’m a god.”

10

Kieran

An hour into a pleasant, though very frustrating, evening, Kieran plated the last of the steaks before turning and handing the plate off to a waiting Daisy. She took it without a word, then sauntered over to the table and placed it in front of Alexis’s spot.

Alexis opened the second bottle of wine and set it down in the middle of the table. She glanced his way, quickly saw that he didn’t need anything, and slid into her seat.

Kieran paused at the counter for a moment, basking in the easy family dynamic of these three completely different people. The kids were moody, and they gave plenty of attitude, but under it all was a deep love and respect for their provider. They’d be happy with absolutely nothing, so long as they were all together. They were content in a way Kieran had never experienced. No drama, no turmoil. Just family.

A pang of envy hit him. He’d give up everything for this easy, loving lifestyle. His mother probably would’ve, too. Maybe she’d even tried to establish this sort of life for them, but Valens had always called the shots, end of story.

Rage flashed through Kieran, hot and unexpected. Memories surfaced. Of his mother trying to hide her worry that his father would show up and force him into some painful exercise or another, or take him away entirely. Of her fierce and painful longing for the ocean, so close they could hear it crashing against the cliffs not far from their castle.

Next, images of the hospital accosted him. There, he’d watched helplessly as her frail body withered away day by day. He’d written dozens of pleading emails to his dad to give her back her skin and let her go. Kieran didn’t need her as badly as she needed the ocean. He would’ve given anything to free her.

Instead, he’d been forced to watch her die slowly. Unable to help.

“Hey…”

A soft touch pressed against his bicep. It felt…comforting.

Alexis stood close, her feminine scent mixing with the thrilling feel of her magic. The kids studied him, concern in their expressions.

“You okay?” Alexis asked softly. She put out her other hand, as though trying to hold someone back. “No, no. Remember what I said? You have to learn when to let him come out of it. Touching him now will only keep him under.”

Sorrow welled up inside him, the sharp bite of loss taking his breath away.

His mother was here. She wouldn’t like to see him hurting. She never had.

“I’m fine.” He tried to straighten up, but the heaviness of his plans pressed on his shoulders.

How the hell could he take someone like Valens down? He couldn’t even get the non-magical mayor on his side. The meeting had been a bust. The man clearly hated how Valens ran things, but he’d hinted at some mutually beneficial dealings with the reigning Demigod. He wouldn’t stand in Kieran’s way, or so he said, but neither would he help him.

“Your mother says to sit down and eat. Your food is getting cold.” Alexis’s tone sounded just like his mother’s.

He slipped an arm around her and hugged her close, sinking into the soft support of her compassion.

“Sorry,” he muttered, knowing his mother would hear.

“No, we’re not,” Alexis said, slipping out of his grasp. “He’s just grabby.” She paused, staring at empty space. “That’s all well and good, but I’m not the right one for him. I live in this place, and he lives…somewhere nicer. He needs a girl more his speed.”

Kieran stilled, suddenly desperate to know what his mother had said.

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” Daisy asked as Kieran took a seat at the table. Daisy sat next to him, and Mordecai on the other side. The teens had separated the adults.

“What?” he asked as Alexis braced her hands on her hips, still staring at that spot where his mother clearly stood, there…but not there. In the same room, but a world away.

“When she talks to emptiness.” Daisy shivered. “You know someone dead is in the room. It’s gross.” Her gaze darted to Kieran. “No offense,” she muttered. “Sorry for your loss.”

“It’s not like it’s a corpse. And it’s not empty space to her,” Mordecai said.

“Yes, Sharon the White, but—”

Mordecai bent over in laughter.

“What?” Daisy asked indignantly.

“Saruman. Not Sharon.” Mordecai cut a large piece of steak before popping it into his mouth. He spoke around it. “It’s Saruman the White. The wizard.”

She waved the comment away as Alexis said, “Do you have any idea where your skin might be? Any idea at all?”

“She’s still a dead person.” Daisy cut off a bite of her steak and speared it with her fork. “Which is weird.” She popped the bite into her mouth, then moaned and rolled her eyes. “This is good. Kieran, you’re a better cook than Jack, and he’s great.”

“I agree,” Mordecai said, working at cutting off another piece. “I figured it would be bland and overdone because of where he’s from. I’ve always heard meat is overcooked in Ireland and England.”

Daisy nodded while digging in. “They err on the side of burnt.”

Kieran laughed unexpectedly, the pain of his mother’s loss momentarily eased by the banter of these two. “You’re stereotyping me.”

“Yeah.” Daisy lifted her eyebrows at him, as if to say obviously.

“Well, don’t tell Jack. You’d crush him,” Kieran said, watching Alexis continue to stare at that spot where his mother apparently stood.

Her teeth snagged her plump bottom lip, thinking. She turned toward the edge of the counter near the fridge. “Wait, let me get a pen and paper… No, don’t worry about dinner. I’m fine eating it cold. This is more important, trust me.”

“Something is up with her magic, isn’t it?” Daisy asked Kieran, her intelligent blue eyes piercing his focus. “It’s changing.”

He paused, not sure what Alexis had told them.

“That means yes,” Mordecai said softly, nearly done with his steak. The rest of his plate lay untouched.

“You’re damn right that means yes.” Daisy rested an elbow on the table and conversationally pointed the business end of her steak knife at Kieran. “She doesn’t like the change, right?”

He held his tongue.

Daisy nodded like he’d answered. Mordecai leaned back with a sigh. They looked at each other for a moment, something passing between them.

“No, I did not know that,” Alexis said into the silence. “Is there a code or something?”

“What is it?” Mordecai asked, dividing Kieran’s attention between the kids and Alexis’s one-way conversation. “What’s the magic?”

After another non-answer, Daisy pointed with the knife again, only this time, there was a threat behind it. “We can’t help her unless we know what’s going on. Spill it, Demigod.”

“She’s a Spirit Walker,” he said distractedly as Alexis scribbled something down. “Alexis, what is she telling you?”

“Your father has a trophy room,” she said.

He shook his head, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the table. “It’s not there. I’ve been through it.”

“You forget”—she straightened up and tore a sheet of paper from the notepad—“the skin is a spirit now. You wouldn’t be able to see it.”

“Still, that trophy room isn’t for those kinds of trophies.” He held out his hand for the paper.

“He does think he has all the answers, doesn’t he?” Alexis said, clearly speaking to his mother.

Something within him eased, just a little. The sorrow that suffocated him most nights pulled back. His mother was trapped in the world of the living, and while she’d clearly rather move on, from what he’d heard through Alexis, she didn’t sound like she was suffering. Constant sickness no longer weighed on her every thought. A pile of meds no longer stole her attention. She’d been transported back to the days when she still cared about hot meals and whether Kieran’s attitude needed adjusting.

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