The final instalment in Kristen Ashley’s Fantasyland series is coming and Vilma’s Book Blog and I have the stunning cover for you, as well as the first two chapters! You will find the first chapter on Vilma’s Book Blog and the second one right here.
CHAPTER 2 – There Are No Such Things as Heroes
The next afternoon, following one of the royal guards, I strode sedately down the halls toward the queen’s study.
I’d been summoned.
I’d had my bath, my hair arranged, my personal lady’s maid, Josette, working miracles (as she normally did) doing the work of three maids quietly with no complaint and great talent.
I had never told her this, of course. Though I did pay her wages and they were more than others in her position, so I suspected she knew.
If I saw him again, I would also not tell Noctorno that I took his advice about the sleeping draught and now felt more refreshed than I had in months.
Further, I would not tell him that our conversation of the evening before had been most helpful.
It had not alleviated the pain or the guilt.
However, it offered me ways to cope with, at least, the latter.
I had no idea why the queen was summoning me but I hoped whatever it was didn’t take too long. I’d had no food since my bread and cheese (and wine and whiskey) of the night before, and for the first time since Antoine was taken, I was famished.
I also needed quiet and concentration to plan my next steps, those being the ones I took after I visited Kristian to make certain he was healthy and well.
I followed the guard down the hallway thinking all of this as well as the fact I wished to be away from the Winter Palace as soon as I could.
I thought this because I simply wished to be away as soon as I could. It was never safe for me in Lunwyn. Every visit there was a risk.
But also, with the windows being boarded, no natural light could come in, and it made the Winter Palace, a normally beautiful dwelling, eerie in a way I did not like.
The guard stopped at the closed door to the Queen’s study, rapped on it sharply with his knuckles, waited for the command of “Come,” and I felt my lips curl with suppressed delight.
No queen had ever ruled Lunwyn.
Nor Fleuridia or the city-state of Bellebryn. And certainly not any of the savage nations of the Southlands—Korwahk, Keenhak and Maroo.
Women did not rule.
And yet, when Aurora’s Atticus, Lunwyn’s king, had been murdered during hostilities some time past, the most powerful man in our country, (that man, incidentally, was my cousin, Frey), installed his mother-in-law on the throne.
He did not do this as an act of nepotism.
He did this because Atticus was the king he was (a good one) mostly (to my way of thinking) due to the woman at his side.
Queen Aurora was savvy, watchful, deliberate and guarded as well as outwardly attractive and stately of demeanor.
All excellent qualities in a ruler.
It was not a surprise since her coronation that much news had come to me. News that shared she was excelling in her new role.
Our first queen.
Long may she reign.
Of course I thought this, but would never say it out loud.
No, when I followed the guard through the door, my smile died, and with ease born of decades of practice, in order to face whatever was next, as I always did I slipped one of my many masks into place.
This one: Loyal Subject.
As the guard stepped out of the way, in front of me I saw Queen Aurora’s large desk. She sat behind it. Sitting atop and situated at the outer edge of the desk, closest to me, I distractedly noted that there were three chests, one rather small, one somewhat sizeable, one in between.
But this did not take but scant attention.
As ever, I needed to identify the players and act accordingly.
Therefore I saw, surrounding Aurora on both sides, were my cousin, Frey, and his wife, Princess Sjofn, or as Frey and all who knew her (that she felt affection for) called her, Finnie.
Close to Frey stood Apollo Ulfr, the Queen’s general and chief strategist.
At his side was Ilsa, though they called her Madeleine, the other-world woman who’d taken the place of Apollo’s dead wife. Indeed, this Madeleine was going to do that two days hence in an official manner, becoming his actual wife.
I’d met his previous Ilsa prior to her expiring.
The women were the spitting image of each other.
I did not understand this, Apollo carrying on with this new Ilsa. It seemed sordid to me. Disrespectful of Ilsa’s memory.
Even knowing there was another Antoine in the other world, I would never seek to go there to find him or bring the other him here to be with me.
There was no replacing him.
There was only one true Antoine.
However, it appeared Apollo held genuine affection for her.
He was a man of emotion. He’d grieved his wife openly and he’d done that for years.
But he was not a man ruled by emotion. He’d never take to wife a woman who had not found her way into his heart.
This mattered naught to me.
One thing I had managed to decide that day during my bath, with my head refreshed and my thoughts clear, was that the concerns of others were no longer any concern of mine.
My life from that day forward would be quiet.
No more machinations.
No more intrigue.
This decision was Antoine’s fault too. I knew it.
However, despite it not being my character, I couldn’t stop myself from looking to a future such as that, perhaps not with relish as that future held no Antoine, but with a sense of serenity.
I thought this as I turned my head to take in the rest of the room.
On the other side of Finnie stood the mighty (and large) Dax of Korwahk, their king, Lahn, his Circe, and close to them stood Prince Noctorno and Princess Cora.
Taking him in, I found I wished I had the time to study Prince Noctorno more closely. But even with the brief glance I gave him, I noted the resemblance to the man who called himself Noc was uncanny.
Prince Noctorno of Hawkvale had a scar on his face that didn’t mar but instead enhanced his features that Noc did not have.
But that was the only difference.
As I came to a halt at the front of the desk, I sensed more and looked over my shoulder.
When I did, I felt an odd pang hit my belly.
Circe was sitting in an armchair (and it was more than disconcerting, though I’d never allow it to show, the present Ilsa looking like a dead Ilsa, two of the same Circes in that room and two of the same Noctornos).
Noc was standing beside her, leaning into her chair in a way that made me question my read of the situation the evening before.
It seemed with the way he appeared now that what they’d had was not a tryst.
His position, the closeness of it, would suggest something else.
That odd pang came again, stronger, when I saw he was regarding me, a look of familiarity on his face, warmth in his eyes.
He was the only one in the room who was showing even a modicum of cordiality. The rest were regarding me with unconcealed impatience (even if I had just that moment arrived) and even (in the case of Frey and Apollo), dislike.
It wasn’t cordiality Noc was displaying, however.
It was friendliness.
It took me off guard, mostly because, outside my friend Valeria, the only true friend I had in the Drakkar House (or anywhere), no one looked on me with friendliness.
“It’s good you were able to rise from your bed. Or Sjofn’s bed, as the Winter Palace is the home of Lunwyn’s Ice Princess.”
Queen Aurora’s cool greeting turned my attention back to her.
I didn’t trouble myself with a reply.
It was not lost on me that my behavior (in more than being forced to turn traitor against my country, indeed an adulthood (and then some) of behaving precisely like a Drakkar) had earned me this kind of enmity.
Any other person, even our queen (who rarely showed any emotion) would be aware of all they’d lost, all they’d suffered, all they’d known Antoine had suffered, and thus she would deduce sleep would not have been easy.
Indeed, by the gods, day in, day out, simply finding the strength to throw my legs over the side of the bed and face another day plagued with the pain was an extraordinary endeavor.
But I had not earned that regard.
I’d earned the frosty look in her eyes that accompanied the chill in her voice.
And as ever, I withstood it, but this time, I had no venomous rejoinder.
I just stood there silently.
“In order to save you the energy of making your play, Franka,” she continued, “and as we’ve all got much more important things to move on to, we’ve discussed recompense for your activities of yesterday and we’re seeing about doling that out without delay.”
I stood silent, but inside I went still.
How much I had changed.
Even playing my small part in saving the world, it hadn’t occurred to me to use that happenstance to better my circumstances. Prior to Antoine, this very thought would be the first thing on my lips before I’d actually go to Spectre Isle to face the three most evil, most powerful witches in our entire hemisphere.
I’m not slipping, Antoine, my love, I thought in horror. I’ve lost it completely!
Queen Aurora swept out a hand slightly to her right, indicating the small chest on her desk.
“Lunwyn’s Sjofn ice diamonds,” she declared, and I felt my knees lock.
Even that size chest, filled with Lunwyn’s highly sought after ice diamonds, was not a small fortune.
It was a magnificent one.
“This from Lunwyn, as thanks,” Aurora uttered her last word as if it was difficult for her to say. She then gestured to the largest chest that lay in the middle of the three. “Korwahk emeralds, rubies and sapphires.”
By the gods!
It took grave effort not to allow my eyes to widen.
“From the Dax,” she turned her head toward King Lahn and Queen Circe and tipped it their way, “his Dahksahna and the people of Korwahk, in gratitude.” She looked back to me and indicated the last chest. “Gold coin, in appreciation of your efforts from King Ludlum of Hawkvale, his son, Prince Noctorno, ruler of Bellebryn, and, of course,” a small amount of warm infused her features as she looked to Princess Cora, “his princess.”
I turned my gaze their way and saw distaste in Prince Noctorno’s eyes, eyes that were on me.
Princess Cora, however, was studying me as if I was a curiosity.
“And last, from the House of Ulfr,” Queen Aurora went on, and I looked back to her to see she had her arm straight out. I turned my attention where she was indicating, directing it at one of the chairs that sat in front of her desk, a chair that was piled high with luxurious pelts, “sable, chinchilla and mink, the finest, of course, as they’re Ulfr.”
My eyes moved from the dizzying spectacle of that beauty back to my country’s queen as she kept speaking.
“As I know you, Franka, I can safely assume, for your part in the difficulties that played out yesterday, this will be enough. I do hope you consider this a debt fully paid.”
The coin from Hawkvale alone, I could tell from the size of the chest, was more than enough.
This more than enough being the fact that I could live on that quite well (in other words, get Josette a much-needed assistant for the care of my person and belongings). I could also get far better appointed apartments in Fleuridia (or wherever I chose to go). Further, I could have not only a butler, a cook and two lady’s maids (all that I already had in Fleuridia, save the second lady’s maid) with help coming in every two weeks to clean and tidy, I could hire an actual house maid on staff who’d clean and tidy every day.
By Adele, I could hire fifty if I wished!
With the riches that lay before me (and on the seat beside me), I could live in extreme luxury until I took my last breath.
More, I could share them with Kristian. He could then be safe from the House of Drakkar, independent, his own man. He could make his wife safe, his son. He, through me, could make them all safe from the secrets that had plagued us since we were children.
Indeed, if he had a mind to, he could take them away. He could even go live in a realm across the Green Sea where nothing could touch them.
Not even magic (maybe).
This, I would share with him. He listened to me. I’d heard things about those realms. There was great beauty in countries of Airen, Firenz, Wodell.
Perhaps I’d go with my brother and his family.
And yet, as these thoughts raced through my mind—along with feeling the sensation of relief, the knowledge that I no longer had to connive and manipulate to obtain the lifestyle to which I was accustomed, the understanding I could make my brother and his family safe with a finality that would mean decades of worry would disappear—I tasted a sourness in my mouth.
I do hope you consider this a debt fully paid.
Were they showering Noctorno and Circe with riches for the parts they’d played?
Or was it simply me they wished to pay off for they thought (due to my own actions over the years, it must be said) it would be expected.
“And I do hope this extraordinary show of generosity,” Queen Aurora carried on, “will mean that you feel yourself well taken care of and we will find there is some time, a great deal of it, before we’re again in your company.”
They might be showering Noctorno and Circe with riches.
But they were showering me with them to be rid of me.
The queen studied me and I endured her scrutiny even as I tried to understand what I was sensing in the room.
I knew I had everyone’s attention. However, it seemed far keener than this insignificant chore would need. The magnitude of the offering was astounding. But the chore of being done with me surely was felt by all (save Noc) as insignificant.
And yet I sensed they were all watching me closely.
I didn’t like the feeling. It seemed dangerous.
And in a room filled with people who either disliked me greatly or didn’t think much of me, that danger was considerable.
I knew that kind of danger.
And I knew the play that had to be made when I found myself in it.
I needed to retreat immediately.
“My gratitude, your grace,” I said quietly. “May I beg the favor of a servant to carry these generous gifts to my rooms?”
“I appreciate you voiced this request, as you haven’t seemed to concern yourself with ordering about servants who’ve been scuttling around the Palace now for weeks preparing for the Bitter Gales, not to mention after the rather dire and miraculous events occurred yesterday, in order for them to cater to your whims,” Queen Aurora returned.
I fought my back snapping straight.
That was not cold.
It was spiteful.
Any guest in this Palace would not hesitate to do the same.
And I’d ordered wine, bread, cheese and a fire. Noc had ordered the blasted whiskey.
Oh, and I’d asked for a sleeping draught and a bath to be brought up that morning.
But that was all.
I hadn’t even requested breakfast.
“But, yes,” Aurora went on to answer my request. “We’ll see they’re safely delivered to your rooms immediately. Now, can I further offer the services of the Palace staff to assist you in packing and being certain the horses are put to your sleigh so that it’s waiting for you early on the morrow?”
In other words, get out.
I didn’t fight back lifting my chin a smidge. “Yes. You may. And I would be grateful.”
“Excellent,” she murmured, casting her eyes to her daughter (who was not her daughter), somehow communicating at the same time she was casting me out of her mind.
I was to leave.
I did not bow or drop into even a slight curtsy, although this was a considerable breach of protocol.
I’d been dismissed.
Therefore I turned to leave.
“As I said.” I heard Frey mutter.
Apollo’s words came right after. “Yes, Franka Drakkar would never do something for naught.”
I heard this but it was what I was feeling coming from Noc that made my gaze shift to him.
And the pang came back, ten times the strength, searing a swath of pain through my middle as I saw disappointment and even mild aversion in his eyes as he watched me move through the room.
Looking at him, I knew. I knew he’d told them of our time together last night. He’d likely shared he thought more of me than they ever would.
Undoubtedly, this was met with incredulity.
Or, perchance, hilarity.
But I knew he’d also told them I would not accept remuneration for the part I’d played in saving my universe.
Or, perhaps, not that extraordinary amount.
And I knew just looking at him, looking at the carefully blank expression on Circe’s face that I caught when I cast a swift downward glance in her direction, that they may have been offered their rewards.
But they’d declined, or at the very least eschewed such extravagance.
They’d done what they’d done out of care and concern. They’d put their lives at risk because it was the right thing to do.
They’d done it because they were good, kind people right down to their bones.
I’d been born with the black soul of a Drakkar and no matter how hard Antoine had worked to cleanse it, it would forever remain midnight.
“As you said, Noctorno,” I spoke haughtily, looking right in his eyes as I kept moving toward the door, “there are no such things as heroes.”
Except, I thought but did not say, you.
And with that, I pulled my gaze from his, kept my head lifted and swept out of the room.
“She is not a good person,” Lavinia declared.
“Mm…” Valentine murmured, her attention aimed at the large sphere sitting on its emerald-green velvet pillow on the table between Valentine and her fellow witch.
“I can understand your fascination with her, my friend, she’s quite fascinating. As a snake lying coiled in the sun would be fascinating. But get too close, the snake strikes.”
Valentine lifted her hand to her crystal ball, twisted her wrist and skimmed the blood-red tips of her fingers across the cool glass.
The image in it of Franka Drakkar walking with head held high from the Queen’s study drifted away in a mist of green smoke.
She looked up to Lavinia.
“There’s more to that one,” she stated.
“I’m uncertain you wish to discover it,” Lavinia returned.
Valentine wasn’t uncertain.
“Perhaps you forget,” Valentine returned, “the rose grows amongst thorns.”
“This is true,” Lavinia retorted, “and I have not had any direct dealings with the woman, but I’ve heard much. So much, it indicates not only is Franka Drakkar a thorn, her particular thorn is dipped in poison.”
Valentine studied her friend and wondered if she didn’t sense it.
Lavinia was nowhere near as powerful as Valentine was.
However, she held great power. She should be able to sense it.
Where she sat across from Lavinia in the warm comfort of her rooms in the palace, she asked, “Do you not sense it?”
“I sense it,” Lavinia replied.
As Valentine thought.
“Unusual in your world, no?” Valentine asked.
“Unusual and unlawful,” Lavinia replied shortly.
Yes, from what Valentine had learned, it was.
Valentine’s gaze drifted back to her crystal as she purred, “Hmm…”
“The only reason I like that look on your face, Valentine, is because I sense your interest in Franka Drakkar will mean you will not leave our world as you’d planned after Apollo and Maddie’s wedding. I enjoy your company. Over the last months, I prayed to the gods our troubles would end without too much destruction and heartache. But with the fondness I hold for you, I still faced the end of those troubles with a heavy heart for I knew it would take you away for there would no longer be any reason for you to come back. Therefore, even if the reason you’d stay, or return, is Franka Drakkar, I’ll take it.”
Valentine nodded, touched in spite of herself at Lavinia’s words.
Valentine made a habit of not connecting with mere mortals. Not that she was a goddess, but she was also no mere mortal. This, a habit she’d broken of late, precisely when she’d started dabbling in travel between the worlds, her own and the women she’d brought here.
“No, indeed, I do believe things will continue to be interesting in this world,” she raised her eyes to Lavinia. “The good kind of interesting this time.”
Lavinia shook her head, a smile playing at her mouth, and Valentine knew if she didn’t feel it was beneath her, she would have rolled her eyes.
Valentine felt her lips curl at her friend’s reaction, but her thoughts strayed.
There had been much that had happened over the last years in this universe. It took a great deal of attention. So it wasn’t a surprise that the few people she knew in this world, most of them quite clever, had not taken the time to scratch under the surface of Franka Drakkar.
The truth of the matter was Valentine would have been interested in her even if she was as vile as they all thought she was.
In this world, much more than Valentine’s own (even though it was still prevalent in her own, irritatingly), a woman had very little power.
In this world, she had to rely solely on her cunning and wits, her looks, her sexuality, anything at her disposal, in order to get what she needed, grasp hold of what she wanted, wield as much power as she could amass.
These were not weak weapons in any arsenal, a woman’s or a man’s.
It was just, for some reason Valentine didn’t understand, the organ swinging between a man’s legs put him at an advantage.
In this world, where wars were still fought with swords, bows and arrows, it was understandable physical strength was valued.
Understandable but still unacceptable, as the successful reign of Queen Aurora would attest.
And from what Valentine knew, Franka Drakkar enjoyed a good life with no paid occupation, traveling the Northlands, flitting from ball to ball in fine dresses, wreaking havoc as sport as she injected her venom, her aim so true, there were many who actually feared her.
Yes, Valentine found Franka Drakkar very interesting.
She had business to attend to, amongst other, more intimate needs to be met, at home. Those intimate needs she hadn’t seen to in a long time.
She needed to return to New Orleans, see to that business, then spirit back for the wedding.
She was in the mood to do a little scratching, dig beneath the surface.
And it was what lay under the skin of Franka Drakkar that she wished to discover.
“I’m not brooding.”
“You’re totally brooding.”
“Who even says brooding?”
“They do here.”
Noc scowled at Cora.
Princess Cora, to be precise. Her twin was an evil one, and now a dead one, a casualty of yesterday’s dramas and not a big loss.
Her body had been spirited to her parents in Hawkvale.
Apparently they grieved.
But they were the only ones.
Jesus, this place was fucking crazy.
It was also crazy interesting.
But it was still fucking crazy.
The woman sitting next to him had to seriously love her man to give up their world to live in what seemed to Noc like a Renaissance Festival run amuck. I really good one. But with all that snow outside, a really cold one.
Though, Cora had told him Bellebryn, where she lived, was much farther south and had a different climate.
“We have weather like Florida, cool winters, warm summers, sunshiny days,” she’d said then shot him a huge smile. “Without the humidity, which makes it totally perfect.”
Noc shook himself out of his thoughts and carried on the conversation.
“She’s not that girl,” he stated as to the reason of why he was “brooding.”
Cora’s beautiful face got even more beautiful when she openly showed her concern.
“I don’t know her but from what Frey and Apollo say, she is as in she really is,” she replied. “And Maddie told me the story of what she’d said to her, right to her face, and, Noc, it was not nice.”
“It’s an act, Cora. All a big show,” he told her.
“Maybe so, but if it is, from what I’ve heard, it’s a good one.” She leaned his way where she was sitting beside him at the dinner table. “And Noc, okay, she helped save the world. That was a big deal. But Frey explained to you what they gave her in the queen’s study. In our world value, it’s worth millions.” She leaned closer. “Maybe even billions. No joke.”
“She put her ass on the line, babe,” he returned. “And maybe she needs it.”
“Perhaps the furs, some coin.” She shook her head, moving away and tipping her eyes back to her plate. “But all that?” She kept shaking her head, speared a buttered, herbed new potato and looked back at him. “She’s a member of a House. In Lunwyn, they take care of each other in aristocratic families. She’ll have an allowance. And that allowance will be handsome. You can’t know this, but her clothes are of superb quality. She clearly has more than one maid, the way she’s tended to. She wasn’t hurting before. Her taking all that, well, I don’t need to know her to know it’s greedy, Noc.”
“I’m a cop, Cora, I read people for a living. And I’m tellin’ you, that woman who walked into that room today is not the woman that woman is.”
“I know,” she muttered, lifting the potato to her mouth. “You told us all that before she showed.”
She ate the potato and Noc looked to his own plate to spear one too because this world might be crazy, but they had great food, and he didn’t know how those potatoes were made, but they fucking rocked.
“Maybe she was, I don’t know…playing you,” Cora suggested softly.
Noc turned his eyes to her. “I don’t get played.”
“From what I hear, she’s a master.”
“I don’t get played,” he repeated.
“Okay, then maybe she’s more likeable when she’s drunk,” Cora tried.
Noc chewed and swallowed his potato then turned fully to the gorgeous princess at his side, his dinner partner, as Cora explained, something that was important in any seating arrangement in this world.
“There’s more to that woman than meets the eye,” he stated.
Her head twitched. “Are you…I mean, I thought…uh, well, you know, you and Circe seem like…are you…do you…?”
He put her out of her misery by sharing, “Circe and me, that was what it was and what it was was between us. She’s an amazing woman. We’ll keep in touch when we go back to our world. But she doesn’t want that and I’m not looking for it either. We both knew that going in. We both knew what we wanted going in. We both got that. And that part’s done.”
“I don’t actually get any of that,” she admitted.
Noc gave her a grin that he hoped took any sting out of his next words. “Not yours to get, babe. That’s what I’m tryin’ to say.”
“Right,” she replied.
“And straight up, different time, different world, I’d be into Franka,” he glanced up at Cora’s phenomenal, thick, shining, dark-brown hair, looked back to her and winked. “She’s my type.”
And she was.
He’d dated gold and Circe was a blonde.
But he knew the one he’d pick in the end would be a brunette.
And Franka’s hair was even more thick and shining, Cora had great hair, but Franka’s was an even deeper, richer brown than Cora’s.
Not to mention the woman’s eyes were fucking amazing. That deep blue. Goddamned gorgeous.
She also had a beautiful neck.
No, not beautiful.
But it was her mouth that drew him. She was what a cosmetic surgeon would use to create a million different sets of lips. Pink. Full. They looked soft, even pillowy.
Noc had to admit it’d suck, leaving this world and not being able to put his mouth to those lips.
But he was not going to kiss those lips.
He wasn’t about to get in deep with a woman from this world and he knew himself. The way she looked, her manner, the way she was both before and after they got drunk last night, she’d draw him in.
But he’d already done that and it got his ass in a sling in a variety of ways, including him being magicked to a parallel universe, dropped onto some remote island in order to face down three witches who wanted to take over the world and wouldn’t have hesitated to wave their wands or snap their fingers (or whatever witches did) and waste him like blowing out a match.
He wasn’t going to go there with Franka.
That was why he knew they were all wrong about her.
It wasn’t her playing him. It wasn’t her being drunk.
It was that she loved the man who’d been killed by those witches and she’d done it deeply.
The woman they all described didn’t feel anything deep, except for herself.
But the pain behind those blue eyes of hers, she could try to hide it, but it was so immense, that was impossible.
The thing was, Noc didn’t get why he cared so much what they thought.
They’d talked about how much they were giving her, doing this way overkill because they wanted rid of her for good, and sneered at the fact she’d take it.
He’d told them she wouldn’t and the way they’d been when they disagreed was not ugly or mean, just definite.
Then she’d taken it.
He was not that guy who always had to be right and he’d only spent a few hours with the woman.
But he’d felt like she’d personally slapped him in the face when she’d accepted all that treasure from Queen Aurora. He’d been certain, and shared it with Frey and Apollo, after their time drinking whiskey, after she’d admitted how she felt guilt about what she’d done to betray her country, she’d decline.
He didn’t feel like the asshole who had lost a bet. That moron who was in the position to take the hit of I told you so.
He’d felt like she’d betrayed him by not being who he was certain she was by doing what he was sure she wouldn’t do.
All of this meant it was probably good she was leaving tomorrow.
First, she needed to get away from folks who didn’t like her and didn’t mind in the slightest sharing that with her. No one needed that.
And second, Noc needed her away from him.
He was going to go to Apollo and Maddie’s wedding.
After that, he was going to sail with Frey and Finnie as they took Cora and Tor back to Bellebryn.
When they’d offered him his own chests of jewels and gold, he’d bartered instead for that. A few months in this world, taking it in, seeing as much of it as he could see.
Before he’d come there, discussing his involvement with Valentine, he’d already put in notice at work.
And then Valentine had assured him she would find him a position in New Orleans and he was all for that. A big adventure where he didn’t have to worry about reporting for duty, any cases he’d left open, nothing.
Then afterward, a new place, new job, new start.
And the good news was, Circe would be there because she lived in New Orleans so he’d have someone to hang with.
Valentine lived there too but Noc didn’t see that woman hanging with anyone. Though he suspected if they found a place that made good martinis, she might stoop to throw a couple back with them.
Queen Aurora (and Frey, and when Noc kept refusing, the kicker, Cora) had insisted he take a small bag of those ice diamonds and a small chest of gold. And with his adventure in this crazy place, that was all he needed. More than he needed (Circe had taken more but she’d had a seriously fucked-up life, was trying to make a go of it in NOLA as an office manager of a towing company, and after all she’d had done to her, she deserved some cush and the means to spoil herself).
And that was what he was going to get, what he was going to do, what was up next for Noc.
The beautiful, but grieving, Franka Drakkar with her pretty mouth didn’t factor.
“So she’s your type,” Cora said, taking him back into their conversation, “But you’re not gonna go there.”
Noc shook his head. “She’s from here, I’m from home. I’m going home. But it isn’t even about that, babe. Tor got you back. Frey got Finnie back. Won’t go on because you were there, you know. Franka didn’t get her man back.”
“Don’t say that in front of Apollo,” she whispered. “Maddie suggested that and it pisses him off. He thinks she’s incapable of any emotion, much less love.”
“You four couples aren’t the only ones who’ve known love, Cora,” he returned. “Not bein’ a dick, but that’s the way it is. And she’s stone-cold on the outside, babe, but inside the woman is in some serious pain. She’s capable of emotion, just like you and me, and I know that because I saw it.”
What he didn’t share was that Franka Drakkar might be capable of more of it, with the pain he saw in her eyes, the guilt that seemed to visibly weigh on her at what she’d done.
She just, for some reason, wouldn’t allow herself to let it show, even maybe fully feel it.
That reason was a mystery and Noc was a cop. Cops were big on mysteries. Solving them, to be precise.
Another reason he had to steer clear of Franka Drakkar.
Cora nodded. “I think your perception of her is right, at least the way she is with you for whatever reason she gave you that particular Franka. What concerns me, honey, is that it seems to mean so much to you.”
That was what concerned him too.
“Woman’s in pain, she gave me that, she gave me time,” he tried to explain it. “Tomorrow, she’ll be gone and eventually she’ll be just another memory of this place. But you spend hours with a woman drinking whiskey and watching her face light up, the pain she’s trying to hide clearing clean away because she’s never seen a phone before. We’ll just say that’ll be a memory I won’t forget.”
“I’ll bet,” Cora replied, the concern shifting out of her expression, understanding replacing it.
Noc grabbed his knife and started cutting into the tender, moist, perfectly-cooked steak on his plate.
Cora changed the subject.
“I can’t wait to show you my world, Noc. It’s gonna be awesome. You’re gonna love it.”
He looked to her, meat in his mouth, and chewing and smiling, he said, “Can’t wait either, babe.”
Her face lit up too.
And seeing it, Noc knew that’d be another memory he wouldn’t forget that he’d take home from this crazy world.
There it was.
They were having dinner and Franka wasn’t invited.
Tomorrow morning, she’d be leaving.
So she was a memory of this world.
A mysterious one.
A sad one.
But just a memory.
And Noc had to live with that.
What he wouldn’t admit was that he didn’t like it.
© 2016 Kristen Ashley