We needed a new Keeper because once Jack and Elodie felt comfortable with his progress, they wouldn’t be staying with us full-time anymore.

   Something had happened in the days after the Vatican. Jack wasn’t the same. None of us were, but he had taken it especially hard. Then one day, he and Elodie had asked to talk to us.

   They had decided to join the Order. Both of them.

   After what had happened, Elodie felt like she’d be more useful with the Order than she would with us. Jack wanted to go with her. He confessed that he’d been secretly considering working with Fitz already, and after what Fitz had done, it only strengthened his resolve. Both of them saw potential to reinvent the Order as a complement to the Circle rather than an adversary. They’d do it aboveboard, and in full collaboration with us.

   It took me a few days to wrap my mind around the most faithful Circle member I’d ever met joining the Order, but Jack looked happy with his decision. It might have to do with the fact that he’d been talking to Nisha every day, but I really did think his new path was good for him, too.

   The rest of the Order claimed not to have any knowledge of Fitz’s campaign to make the Saxons destroy the Circle, and we believed them. There just weren’t enough of them for it to be a big conspiracy. The Order was going to pull their spies out of Circle households, and there was no more need to prevent purple-eyed girls from being born. In return, the Circle would stop hunting them, and the two sides would communicate regularly, through Jack and Elodie and Nisha.

   I heard a laugh and squinted behind where Jack had just knocked Max onto his back in the sand. In the shade of the cliff, watching, was Mariam, the driver we’d met in Egypt. She was wearing a sunny yellow hijab and eating a mango.

   The idea of offering her a permanent position with us had been Elodie’s. We could have gotten anyone—movie stunt drivers or military or trained bodyguards—but we’d gotten used to being us. We liked the idea of building our family’s crew in a way we could all grow into together. It turned out while we were in Egypt, Mariam had told Elodie how jealous she was of our travel—she had always dreamed of seeing the world, but she couldn’t since her family relied on her earnings from her taxi to pay the bills.

   Now her family never had to worry again. Mariam had accepted our offer just as she’d done every strange thing we asked her to on those days in Alexandria, with enthusiasm and without so much as a moment of pause.

   Not all of us were here in Thailand. Luc was in Paris, rebuilding the city and his life—though he sent whiny texts at least twice a day about how unfair it was that we were on the beach. Luc hadn’t introduced Rocco to the Circle yet as anything official. Their relationship would be one thing, but Rocco’s past with the Circle would be a bigger deal. They were going to wait until things had settled to address it.

   Colette was just starting to film a movie with a director she’d been wanting to work with for years. It was an artsy, awards-bait movie, and Colette couldn’t be happier. Elodie had just gotten back from a few days in Paris helping Luc, and then visiting Colette on set, and we fully expected her to tell us all the gossip over dinner tonight.

   Anya put a shovel in my hand. I made some sand into a row of spikes down her creature’s back, and she grinned, pleased. When Stellan came down the beach, she jumped up again and he swung her around until she screamed.

   I wasn’t naive. Our personal demons might be locked away for the moment, but they weren’t gone. The temporary tranquility in Circle and Order relations would erupt sooner than we wanted. Eventually we’d have to be grown-ups. But at least the world had something that looked like a fragile peace, and we had something far less fragile than that.

   Stellan set Anya down. “Sand castle,” he said in English, pointing to it.

   “I think it’s a dragon,” I whispered. He consulted with Anya in Russian.

   “Ah, of course,” he said. “Unicorn-dragon.”

   “Unco-dagon?” Anya repeated, and I high-fived her.

   Stellan reached for my hand and I let him pull me up. He pointed at the cliff. “What do you think?”

   That day at the Louvre, he’d said he wanted to jump off a cliff in Thailand with me. I’d been hoping he’d forget. Despite everything, I still wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of heights. But I took a deep breath. I could do this. I wanted to do this. “Yes,” I said. “Okay.”

   We had to hike off the beach and around the other side of the cliff to get to the top. When we got there, the salt air blowing our hair, the sun on our cheeks, the smell of lemongrass and garlic cooking in tonight’s dinner wafting from the direction of our bungalows, I looked down at all our friends.

   We hadn’t talked much about the worst parts of what had happened. That didn’t mean I didn’t think about it. I sat down on the cliff and looked out over the ocean, picking at the vines growing out of the rocks.

   “Do you think Fitz was actually doing it because he cared about us? That’s not—” I shook my head. I was done with the days when people did what they thought was good for me without consulting me about it. “I do believe he loved me, and all of us. But that wasn’t enough. I can’t believe it wasn’t partially about power, and politics, and I know that’s the world we’re in now, but . . .”

   Stellan came to sit behind me, cocooning me against his bare chest. He smelled like sunscreen and salt water, and I nestled back into his arms. “I will promise you something right now,” he said. “I will always love you more than I care about the Circle.”

   I leaned my head back on his shoulder. “We’ve been together for about five minutes,” I said, because one of the first things we’d promised each other was to try to talk our worries out, even if it was awkward. “How can you be so sure?”

   “It has been only a short time since I’ve been able to do this whenever I wanted,” he said, kissing my neck in a way that brought goose bumps up on my arms despite the scorching sun, “but we’ve been a lot more than that for a lot longer than that. Jack and Elodie and Anya have been my family for a long time, but I can’t remember anymore what it was like not to have you as part of it, too. And I will always put our family, and the people we love, first. I guess nobody can be sure about anything, but I’d say I’m as sure as I can be that I’ll feel this way for the foreseeable future. Is that rational and boring and uncheesy enough for you?”

P/S: Copyright -->www_Novel12_Com

***