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Authors: Breeana Puttroff

canes of divergence

Canes of Divergence

 

The Dusk Gate Chronicles,

Book
Six

 

by Breeana Puttroff

 

 

 

 

Canes of Divergence

Book Six of The Dusk Gate Chronicles

 

Copyright © 2013 Breeana Puttr
o
ff

 

 

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or

transmitted, in any form or by any means,

without the prior permission in writing of the publisher or the author,

nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other

than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this

condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

7.15
.13

 

For inquires, please contact the author at
[email protected]

 

Visit my website:
www.BreeanaPuttroff.net

 

Cover Design created by Mallory Rock

www.MalloryRock.com

 

 

Published by Thirteen Pages Press

P.O. Box 350944

Westminster, CO 80035

 

Table of Contents

1   Empty Chair

2 Samuel

3
Princess Annie

4
Problems

5
Abigail

6
In the Rose Garden

7
No Choice

8
William

9
Owen’s Dream

10
Thorns

11
Owen’s Strange Request

12
Linnea

13
The River

14
Coins

15
Surprise

16
The Clinic

17
Stuck

18
History

19
Bloom

20
Ben

21
Quinn

22
Crumple

23
Horses

24
The Tent

25
Charlotte

26
Exposed

27
Dinner

28
The Letter

29
A Trip

30
Mia

31
Earned

32
Weeds

33
Going Home

34
Firelight

35
Answers

36
Welcome

Epilogue

~ 1 ~
Empty Chair

Bristlecone, Colorado

 


Y
O, CUNNINGHAM
. Are you coming?”

“What?” Zander looked up, confused for a second. His friend Adam Lamos was staring at him impatiently.

“Uh, lunch?”

“Oh.” He glanced around,
becoming aware of his surroundings again. Everyone was packing up their things. He hadn’t even heard the bell, but the clock read 12:00.

“What are you working on, anyway?” Adam asked, eyeing
Zander’s notebook.

Snapping the black-and-white cover
closed, he shoved the notebook in his backpack. “Nothing. Just an extra-credit assignment.”

“Dude, it’s almost the end of senior year – you’ve already been accepted into, what? Four colleges? It’s cruise time. Didn’t you get the memo?”

Yes, Zander had gotten the memo – about a thousand times. Adam – like half the senior players on the football team – believed nothing he did at school mattered now that the college acceptances had come in.

Even if they were right,
Zander wasn’t personally taking any chances. Although, to be honest, his “extra-credit assignment” wasn’t exactly for school.

Adam didn’t wait for a response. He
headed for the door, anxious – as always – to see his girlfriend, Abigail. Those two had been together for over two months now, which was some kind of record for both of them.

Zander, on the other hand, was finding the cafeteria harder to tolerate with each passing day. Like every day, he got his lunch tray and followed Adam to their usual table, and like every day, the empty seat beside him
was a black hole, threatening to suck him in.

Of course, the chair
wasn’t always empty. Over the last month, others had begun sitting there. For a week or two after Quinn had left, it was Melanie Fisher, Adam’s first attempt to get Zander to “move on.” Once he’d finally ended that, the seat had been used on a sort of rotating basis by different people. Today, though, nobody was there and he found himself glancing at it a few more times than he should.

“It’s
time to get over her, you know.” Abigail’s voice, too close to his ear, made him jump.

“Excuse me?”

“She’s been gone for over a month, and she hasn’t even bothered to call or text anyone or anything. She isn’t coming back.”

He nodded. “I know that, Abigail
… but don’t you think it’s weird? That isn’t like Quinn – to just take off without a word to anyone.”

“I wouldn’t have thought she would cheat on you, either, Zander, but…”

He flinched. Yes, that still stung; not as badly as it had at first, but it still hurt. He didn’t let it stop him, though. He looked straight into Abigail’s eyes. “Do you know that for sure? I mean, if she left to go with Doctor Rose because he was really her uncle, then doesn’t that make William her cousin or something? I don’t know that she cheated on me.”

“She broke up with you.”

“Yeah. At the same time her mom told her she’d been lying to her about her family for her entire life. Don’t you think she might have been upset about that?”

“How would I know? She never told me – she never even told any of us any of that. She just picked up and went to
Europe
with them without telling anyone anything. And now she can’t even be bothered to call.”

“Maybe she doesn’t have a phone.”

“Maybe she just doesn’t give a rip about us. Last I checked, there are computers in Europe. But has she e-mailed? Anything?” Abigail’s short hair – newly dyed an impossible shade of purple – bobbed back and forth in emphasis.

By now, everyone at the table was staring at them, but Zander decided he didn’t care. He’d had enough of everyone pretending that nothing was going on here. “Or maybe she didn’t tell us anything because we were all so mean to her that last week before spring break. She was your best friend, Abigail. Don’t you care? Aren’t you worried about her?”

Abigail rolled her eyes. “We weren’t mean to her. She was lying and keeping secrets from us then. Now, she’s off running around Europe with her rich doctor of an uncle. Obviously she’s not worried about us. It’s time for you to accept that. If she really ever cared about you, she would have at least called before she left.”

A sudden fierce anger rose inside him, and he knew that if he stayed here, something –
not good –
was going to happen. He stood up, shoved his chair in and walked off, not even bothering to throw away his untouched tray of food.

He didn’t stop walking until he was outside in the parking lot, staring at the front of his little black pick-up truck. After only a moment of considering, he climbed inside, turned the
key, and drove off.

Everything Abigail had said was true – Quinn had broken up with him. She was the one who hadn’t called anyone, who
wasn’t returning calls, or texts, or e-mails, or anything.

At first, he had to admit, he’d had been hurt, and he’d been angry
with her. The last time he’d talked to her had been the last day of school before spring break, and he’d seen her standing in the hallway, talking to William Rose, after she’d just broken up with him the night before…yes, that had been like a knife in his gut. He hadn’t
wanted
to talk to her or see her.

Then, over spring break, on the day that Adam had convinced him to go and hang out with him and Abigail and Melanie Fisher, he’d run into her. Sort of. She’d been eating breakfast with her mom at the café,
and he’d seen her through the window. Her eyes had met his for just a second, though she’d looked down as soon as she saw Melanie. He’d taken some satisfaction from that – her seeing him with another girl after what she’d done to him.

But then there had come the night, the last day of the vacation, when Quinn’s mom, Megan, had come over to Zander’s house for dinner, alone. When Megan had told them the news.

There were a lot of parts to the story – Doctor Rose being offered a prestigious research position somewhere in Europe, Quinn finding out that Doctor Rose was really her uncle and that Megan had been lying to her. Zander hadn’t really been able to listen to it – he’d missed most of the details because they weren’t important. All that mattered was the news that Quinn was gone.

Megan didn’t even know when – or if – her daughter was coming back.

For the first week or so, the anger had been overpowering. She’d just up and left without saying anything to anyone – as if they didn’t matter to her at all.

Gradually, though, other thoughts had occurred to him.
She had been fighting with everyone before spring break. Zander and Abigail, especially, hadn’t exactly been nice to her. If Quinn
wasn’t
cheating on him – if she’d broken up with him because she just didn’t know how to deal with finding out about her mom lying to her – now he felt guilty that she’d seen him with Melanie.

Had they really been
that
awful, though, that Quinn would think they wouldn’t even want to know she was leaving? That they wouldn’t even want to hear the details or say good-bye?

And really, he’d started to think later, wasn’t it all just plain weird? The more time passed, the harder he was finding it to believe that Megan would just allow her daughter to run off to
Europe
with her dead father’s family.

It wasn’t like her uncle had custody of her. Quinn had been legally adopted by Megan’s new husband, Jeff, when she was eight years old. Megan didn’t
have
to let her go anywhere.

In fact, the more he thought about it, the more things just d
idn’t add up, and all of it caused a sick twisting in the pit of his stomach.

As he drove, he tried to clear his thoughts, tried to remember everything that had happened with Quinn before spring break.

She’d been acting weird, even before any of this had happened. One of his most vivid memories was the night she’d gasped when he’d touched her arm. The look on her face when she’d pulled up her sleeve to reveal painful-looking bruises and stitches still haunted him.

That was the first time he realized she was keeping secrets from him. And
right after that – the same night even – she’d disappeared for the entire weekend, without telling anyone, not even Megan. He’d found out later that she’d spent that weekend with William Rose.

Only a few days later, she’d broken up with him, right before spring break. And
right after that, she’d disappeared.

There had to be more to it, didn’t there? Maybe she’d known she was going to be leaving, and that’s why she’d broken up with him in the first place. But why not tell him?

Something was wrong here. But what? Nothing seemed to add up, and each possible answer only led to more questions.

Thinking that a drive up into the mountains might help clear his mind, he flipped on the radio and headed toward the highway.

Of course, in Bristlecone, it was always difficult to drive the way he wanted to right now. The light at River Road turned red just as he was approaching, even though there were no other cars in sight.

Mumbling under his breath as he pulled to a stop, he looked around the intersection, noticing that the county still hadn’t repaired the guardrail on the other side after that tourist had crashed there back in January.

He remembered the incident well. He hadn’t seen it, but Quinn had. Megan had called Zander’s mom the night it happened; apparently it had freaked Quinn out quite a bit. Not that Zander blamed her; he found out later that she’d actually stopped and administered first aid to the banged-up tourist. A situation like that would probably have bothered him, too.

Maybe it was selfish, but he’d been glad for the excuse to talk to her
. At the time, the two of them hadn’t been close for quite a while, and he’d been feeling like a jerk about it. He’d realized how much he regretted not making the effort with her it earlier this year, after that disaster of a homecoming date with Adrianna Marrs.

Working up the courage to talk to her had been hard – he’d worried
that Quinn probably wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him after the way he had been ignoring her, and it never seemed to be the right time. After the accident, asking her if she was okay had seemed like a good way to break the ice.

Now that she was gone, he didn’t know what the right thing was anymore. Maybe she wanted him to just ignore her again, to pretend the whole thing hadn’t happened.
But what if she
wanted
him to reach out to her?

For the past month, he’d fought that battle, alternately writing a letter to her in his notebook and then closing it, shoving it under his mattress for a few days. He didn’t know if there was any way to send it to her even if he did ever finish it. Today in class had been one of the days the letter came back out again.

The light turned green and, without really knowing why, instead of driving straight ahead, he turned left on River Road. There was a little picnic area a little way up the road with a parking lot. Maybe he’d park there and then walk up to look at the damaged rail.

It was stupid, he knew, but he just could
n’t shake the idea that he’d find answers there. A couple of weeks ago, Abigail had said something about Quinn starting to act strangely after that incident. Nothing else was helping, anyway – what did he have to lose?

He drove down into the picnic area and parked.

Although the spring day had been warm enough to leave his letter jacket in the truck during school, here, in the shade of the trees down close to the river, it was cooler, and he wanted to wear it now. Pausing for a moment, he took a deep breath of the mountain air, allowing it to calm him a little.

Birds cha
ttered in the nearby trees, and from here, the rushing of the river, overflowing with spring melt, was loud – almost loud enough to drown out the confusing jumble of his thoughts.

Wanting – needing – that distraction for a while
, he walked down to the edge of the water, watching as it pounded against the rocks and swirled in waves. He stood there for a long time just staring at the river, trying not to think, to erase the questions and thoughts from his mind.

More than anything, he wanted to be able to talk about all of this – with
Quinn
. She was the one who could have talked him down from this – even if they’d stayed broken up, he missed her friendship. He’d have never admitted it to anyone, but what he was writing in his notebook during class was a letter to her, or some version of her anyway – he wasn’t sure it was something he’d actually want her to read even if he could find a way to get it to her, but it felt a little better to organize his thoughts and talk to her the way he would if she was in front of him.

The river was nice, though. Calming, clearing his head enough that he might be able to let some of this go for a while and make it through another day.
Out in the middle, a silvery fish jumped, shimmering in the sunshine before making a huge splash and disappearing again.

Zander smiled and turned to head back for his truck. He’d almost decided not to bother with going up to the guardrail but once he was away from the water, it seemed important again.

Before he got to the parking lot, though, something else caught his attention.

A few feet away from the riverbank, there was an enormous tree. It would have been worth paying attention to all by itself. The massive pine was the largest one he had ever seen – too large, really, to only be a single tree. And, in fact, when he looked closer at the base, he
could see where the one tree had started out as two trunks that had grown next to each other and then somehow twisted and become one.

But that wasn’t what had made him stop.

The whole area underneath the tree was dark and muddy, as if someone had been digging there. In fact, as he got closer, he found several holes that had been started, but then abandoned.

The mud extended all the way around the trunk, although it was much worse on the north side of the tree, closest to the river.
On that side, a big rock had been haphazardly dragged over the center of the muddy patch, leaving a trail in its place. Without stopping to consider what he was doing, he went over to investigate.

The rock was heavy, but not too heavy, and he was able to lift it out of
the way and move it without much effort.

The size of the hole underneath startled him; it wasn’t very wide, but it was deep.

Someone had gone to a lot of effort to dig it, almost as if they were searching for something. He couldn’t see anything inside it, though. Kneeling down on the ground, wondering if he was crazy, he carefully put his hand down in the hole. When his arm was in the ground halfway to his elbow, he hit bottom. There was nothing there, only cold, smooth stone. Almost smooth, anyway.

He felt around some more, running his fingers along the surface of the rock, but then he gasped and brought his hand quickly back up. There was a small cut on his middle finger, just beginning to bleed. He’d run it along a sharp edge where the rock had felt broken, as if there was a chunk missing from it.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” A voice behind his head startled him, nearly sending him face-first into the hole. He spun around.

An older man was standing there – well, Zander assumed that he was older, from the long, white hair that trailed down his back, tied with a leather band. His face looked younger though, except for the bushy white eyebrows under the brim of his hat.

He had no other facial hair or wrinkles, and the gleam in his bright green eyes showed no signs of age. He was decked out in full fly-fishing gear. His dark green waders were wet, and sounds were coming from the creel that peeked around his side, indicating a recent catch.

Recovering from the sudden interruption, Zander shrugged. “I wasn’t really looking for anything.”

“Ah,” the man said knowingly. “That’s often when I find the best stuff.”

Zander blinked.
What?
He stood up, trying to compose himself. “I, uh … I didn’t see you here a minute ago.”

The man smiled. “Who said I was here a minute ago?”

“How did you get here, then?”

“How did
you
get here Zander?”

He almost fell back down. “Excuse me?”

The man’s bright blue eyes –
had they been that color a moment ago? –
flicked to Zander’s jacket and then back up to meet his gaze.

Right. His name was embroidered on his jacket. Zander squared his shoulders and looked directly back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name.”

If the man noticed Zander’s irritation, it didn’t seem to affect him. He smiled brightly, extending his hand. “You can call me Alvin.”

Zander raised an eyebrow, still unusually piqued. “Is that your name?”

“You don’t like it? I’ve always been told it suits me. If you prefer, though, you could call me Blueberry – I rather fancy blueberries.”

All right then, the man was crazy. He didn’t look quite old enough to be having symptoms of dementia, but clearly
something
wasn’t right. It was a little harder to hold on to his anger.

“Can I help you with anything, Mr. … Alvin? Are you lost?”

Alvin’s smile only grew wider. “I’m right where I’m supposed to be. As are you, I should think.”

That made Zander chuckle. “No, Mr. Alvin, I don’t think I’m supposed to be here at all.”

“Zander, if you’re not going to call me Blueberry, you could at least drop the ‘Mister’ bit. Nobody has called me that in a hundred cycles, at least.”

At this point, Zander was certain there was something wrong with the man. His anger had all but vanished, and he was starting to get concerned. “I’m sorry, uh … Alvin.”

Alvin’s eyes were clear and bright – there was nothing about him that
looked
crazy. “Blueberry was the wrong choice, I see; it’s given you the wrong impression
Mister
Cunningham. Maybe Glasberry would have been better – your friend Quinn certainly prefers those.”

Zander had been focused so intently on the man’s strange behavior, trying to figure out how someone who looked so coherent could sound so crazy, that it took a minute before he registered what Alvin had just said.

The blood in his veins turned to ice water. “Excuse me?”

“Glasberries – you know, little green berries. Shiny. Very juicy. Delicious. I heard the king of Philotheum is having his head gardener build a greenhouse just so the queen can have glasberries in any season.” His eyes met Zander’s again. “But that’s a secret – it’s meant to be a surprise for her when they return home.”

“I’ll be sure not to say anything,” Zander answered drily.

“Excellent!” Alvin rubbed his hands together and smiled.

He was no longer interested in the man’s odd ramblings, only in one thing he’d said. “What about my friend Quinn? How do you know about her?”

“I thought you said you weren’t here looking for anything.” The shrewd look on Alvin’s face made Zander suddenly sure that there was nothing crazy about him at all.

“Do you know Quinn?”

“Yes, I know her quite well. She’s a lovely young woman – more stubborn sometimes than you’re being right now.”

He ignored that. “Do you know where she is?”

Alvin looked around, going so far as to turn in a circle. “She doesn’t appear to be here.”

“Obviously.”

“Then why are you searching here?”

Frustration welled inside of him again. “I didn’t mean to search here! I was walking by the river and I saw that whole area dug up right there. It made me curious, that’s all.”

Alvin nodded. “But what are you doing here in the first place? Shouldn’t you be sitting in your English class right about now?”

“I was having trouble concentrating at school. I couldn’t focus on it.” He had no idea why he was telling this to Alvin, especially because it was beyond creepy that the man had guessed right – a glance at his cell phone told him that English had just started.

“What were you thinking about instead?”

“I was thinking that it’s not normal for a teenage girl to just disappear off the face of the Earth and for her mother to not even care.”

“What makes you think her mother doesn’t care?”

“Would you let
your
daughter run off to another country to live with an uncle she never even knew about before? A stranger?”

Alvin lifted one shoulder. “I’d hardly call Nathaniel a stranger.”

Zander’s jaw fell so far that he was afraid he was going to get gravel on it. “How could you know that? Who are you? What do you know about all of this?”

“That’s a lot of questions.”

“I want some answers.”

Alvin cocked his head to one side; Zander felt as if he were being studied. “What do you plan to do with those answers once you find them?”

“Why do you care?”

“Why do
you
care, Zander? What difference does it make to you why Megan Robbins allowed her daughter to go and live somewhere else with her family?”

“She was my girlfriend.”


Was
, being the operative word. I have it on good authority that Quinn ended that in the best way she knew how.”

“She was my friend, too.”

“Was she really? Were you treating her the way you would treat a friend?”

“I thought she was cheating on me! She was running around behind my back and lying to me.”

“Perhaps.” Alvin nodded. “But what does that have to do with what you did?”

“What do you mean? I didn’t do anything. Anybody would have been mad if their girlfriend lied and cheated on them.”

“Many people would have, yes. Of course, I’m not talking with any of those people. I’m having a conversation with you.”

“Are you saying I should have just acted like she didn’t do anything wrong?”

“I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t have done any particular thing. I was merely asking about what you did.”

“Do you think
I did something wrong?”

“What does it matter what I think?”

A sudden pain made Zander look down at his right hand. It was clenched into a fist so tightly that the rough edge of his fingernail was digging into his skin. He had to work to loosen it. “What do you know about Quinn? Do you know where she is?”

“Why isn’t the answer you were given by her mother good enough for you?”

“Because it doesn’t make any sense.”

“It doesn’t make any sense that Quinn would want to get to know her family after being deprived of them for so long?”

Zander stared at him. “It doesn’t make any sense that Megan would just send her child off to another country with people she barely knows. It just feels like there’s something wrong. I’m worried about her.”

The old man rolled his eyes, which was so unexpected that Zander actually cracked a grin.

“Quinn’s a child now?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I’m afraid I don’t.”

“She’s still young enough to be at home with her mother – not running off to live in another country before she even graduates high school. I just
think that something must be wrong.”

“Something you don’t think Quinn’s mother is able to handle?”

Zander didn’t have a response for that.

“Is this because you’re really worried about Quinn, or is it about your own feelings? Because you
believe you’re owed some kind of an explanation that you’re not getting?”

He thought about that for a minute. “Does it matter?”

“Do one’s intentions matter? I think you know the answer to that.”

Zander sighed, more confused now than ever.

“You’re very invested in this, aren’t you?” Alvin’s eyes were gentler now, almost sympathetic, and something about his expression made Zander
want
to answer.

“Yes. I don’t know why – I can’t explain it, but I just can’t let it go.”

“I think you need to stop for a moment, Mr. Cunningham, and decide what it is that you’re after. There are things you can’t unlearn once you’ve learned them. Quinn learning about her father’s side of her family – learning that her mother had been keeping that information from her for her entire life – was such an event for her. While it is not my place to share her story with you, I can tell you this. It changed her life – permanently – in ways she couldn’t have imagined, and forced her to make decisions she probably wasn’t prepared for.”

“And you’re saying the same thing will happen to me.”

“Everyone is different.” Alvin shrugged. “I’m merely warning you that getting involved in things which are not your concern often has consequences. Not the least of which is the fact that Quinn has obviously chosen not to tell you about this – and she has never struck me as the kind of girl who would take that sort of thing lightly.”

“And Quinn is not my concern.”

“She certainly doesn’t have to be. She relieved you of that responsibility, and she did that on purpose.”

“Right after she found out that Nathaniel was really her uncle.”

“Just before, actually. But at that point, she already knew that her life had changed enough that she’d not be able to offer you what you needed from her.”

“So she wasn’t lying to me.”

“Yes, Zander, she was. In the same way that you’re not going to go tell your friends or your family that you ran into me here today – don’t look at me like that, I know you’re not going to.”

“Not telling them something is not the same as lying.”

“What if they asked you directly?”

Zander swallowed, remembering a time when he h
ad not only asked, but
pushed
Quinn for an answer she hadn’t seemed willing to give him. When she’d begrudgingly shown him the stitches and bruises running down her upper arm, he’d freaked out, and she still hadn’t given him a straight answer.

“If you continue on this path, Zander, keep sticking your nose in this issue, you are going to find yourself in the same situation – telling lies to the people you care about.”

Who was this guy, anyway? A CIA agent or something? What in the world?
Zander was getting a little scared now.

“And you’re here to what? Warn me to stay away?”

“Among other things, yes – not to threaten you, Zander. There’s no need to be afraid of me. I’m merely asking you to be sure of what your motives are. Quinn doesn’t
owe
you an explanation. If you insist on having one, you will be responsible for whatever else it brings into your life.”

“Why do I feel like I’m in some kind of weird spy movie?”

Alvin smiled. “It’s not a movie, Zander. I merely consider it only fair to let you know that you might get more than you bargained for if you pursue this, and to give you a chance to back out now.”

Alvin’s face was perfectly kind and friendly now – there was nothing menacing about him at all – but a chill ran down Zander’s spine. “Did Quinn have the same warning?”

“No. That’s an advantage you have that she didn’t – not that she’d likely have taken the warning.” Alvin smiled; the look in his eyes when he spoke of Quinn was a fond one – it calmed Zander a little. “But her circumstances were very different than yours. This isn’t your family, Zander, and it isn’t your concern.”

“Unless I make it my concern.”

“Unless you do.”

“What if I really just want to know that Quinn is all right – that nothing has happened to her?”

“Nothing happening to her and her being all right are two completely different things. I can tell you that she is currently healthy and well. Now, if you will excuse me, today’s an excellent day for catching fish.”

Zander wasn’t anywhere near ready to
excuse
Alvin to go anywhere, but by the time he opened his mouth to respond, the old man was already several hundred feet away from him, down by the riverbank. He wasn’t even sure how he’d gotten there so quickly.

Sighing, his thoughts traveling in even more directions than they had been when he’d arrived, he turned to walk back to his truck. Halfway there, just before heading into the trees that would obscure his view, he glanced back, half tempted to chase the man down and demand more answers from him, but when he looked, Alvin was gone. Zander couldn’t see him anywhere.

Startled, he turned all the way around, looking up and down the riverbank. Nothing.
Weird.
There hadn’t been time for Alvin to leave. He started to walk back down to where they’d been talking, his eyes scanning the entire area.

That’s when he saw it. If not for the small movement, he would never have noticed the man.
Way up the slope that led to the highway above, and quite a distance downriver, there was a man, just sitting there, right next to a boulder.

It definitely wasn’t Alvin – he was too far away for one thing, and for another, this man had
the blackest hair he’d ever seen; cropped close to his head, it looked nearly midnight blue. And he was staring right at Zander.

Even at this distance,
he knew that the man had seen him, too – but the stranger didn’t seem to care. If anything, his posture indicated boredom. He didn’t look away, he just continued to watch. Zander was reminded of a hawk, a thought that sent a shudder rippling down from his shoulders to his toes.

Though the spring day was growing warmer, Zander snapped his jacket closed around him as he turned back and headed toward his truck.

~ 2 ~
Samuel

Rosewood Castle, Eirentheos

 

T
HE KNOCK ON
the door was so soft that at first Quinn wasn’t sure she’d actually heard it, but William’s head turned at the sound, too. The baby in his arms sighed contentedly; William had just finished changing him and wrapping him up in a clean blanket.

“Do you want me to answer it?” he asked.
“I think whoever it is knocked that quietly because they don’t want to disturb us if we want to be left alone.”

“Go ahead,” she s
aid, glancing toward the window at the bright sunlight pouring in through the small crack William had opened a little while ago when the baby had woken them. “They’ve been patient for long enough, I think.”

“You’re not too tired for company?”

She shook her head. “Three hours of sleep at a stretch is probably as good as it’s going to get for a while. Might as well get used to it. Besides, I’m a little hungry.”

“Good.” He smiled,
leaning down to nestle the baby in her arms and kissing her hair before going out to the sitting room to answer the door.

Nathaniel appeared in the bedroom doorway behind William.
“Are you sure it’s okay? If it’s not, I’ll leave this here and go.” He nodded at the tray in his hands, loaded down with bowls of hot grain cereal, sweet rolls, fruit, and glasses of juice.

“Oh
, come in, Nathaniel. We have something we wanted to tell you anyway.”

The answering grin on her uncle’s face
made her glad he hadn’t waited any longer.

William took the tray from him, and Nathaniel approached her. “How are you feeling?”

“Great, actually. I’m not even as tired as I thought I would be.”

He
smiled again, gazing down now at the baby. “May I?”

Nodding, she tucked
the edge of the blanket back over a tiny arm before handing her son to him. Her uncle had come to check on her and the baby last night after William and the midwife delivered him, but he hadn’t held him. Nobody had yet, besides her and William.

“Oh,” Nathaniel breathed.
“He’s perfect. He has William’s hair, but otherwise … he looks just like you, Quinn.” Cradling the baby with one arm, he gently brushed his finger across the little forehead. “This is exactly what you looked like, the first time I held you.”

Warmth filled her chest as
Nathaniel held her son so tenderly. Her uncle wasn’t always expressive, and the two of them were still figuring out what their relationship was going to be like, but watching him now – there was no doubt how he felt about her, and now about her child. Of course, right at the edges of the warm fuzziness was the ache in her chest that never quite went away.

“I’m so sorry that you mother isn’t here, sweetheart,” Nathaniel said, as if he sensed what she was thinking. “Or the rest of your family. I wish they were all here. And I really wish Samuel was here. This would have been a shining moment for him.”

“It’s still a wonderful moment,” William came to sit on the edge of the bed beside Quinn. He handed her a glass of juice and put his arm around her, squeezing her shoulder gently. “I know wherever Quinn’s father is, he’s seeing this now, and I still – we still – have hope that Quinn will see her family again, that they’ll get to meet our son, even if it’s not today. But today is still a pretty great day.”

“Yes, it is,” Quinn agreed, nodding. And it was. S
he would always miss her family; it would always be hard, but something had shifted inside her when William had first set the baby on her chest last night. The joy she’d felt then … the same joy she felt now when she saw that sweet little face … outweighed all of the sadness.

“We wanted to tell you that we’ve chosen a name,” she said.
“I know it’s supposed to be a secret until the Naming Ceremony, but we thought you might like to hear it first.”

“Oh?”

“We were thinking Samuel … Samuel Owen Rose.”

Nathaniel’s eyes lit up. “That’s perfect.” He looked down at the baby. “A perfect name for a perfect little boy,” he cooed, leaning down to kiss little Samuel on the forehead.

“So is everyone else pacing the hallway waiting to get in here?” Quinn asked, once Nathaniel finally handed the baby back to her.

He grinned
. “Only Thomas. Charlotte and Stephen are anxious to see you, of course, but they’ve been through this enough times now to be patient. Alice has asked a few times, too.”

“Bring them in,” Quinn said. “There’s no telling how much longer we have until he needs to eat again.”

William sat down beside her, resting his hand on Samuel’s little head. “If how he’s been so far is any indication, I’d give it half an hour, tops.”

A
lmost as soon as Nathaniel went out, Thomas appeared in the doorway, making Quinn chuckle. “You really were out there waiting for an all-clear, weren’t you?”

“I only have a limited time to spend with my nephew before you run
off back to Philotheum with him.” He grinned. “I have to soak up every second I can get.”

William rolled his eyes. “You’re coming
with
us at first.”

“But only for the Naming Ceremony. I’m not staying.” Thomas’ eyes were on Samuel now. “You two and Linnea and Ben are going to have all the fun after that. Hand him over, Sis. It’s my turn.”

She thought about teasing him for a second, but then she saw the look in his eyes – behind all of the banter, he was quite serious – and she let William take the baby from her arms and hand him to his brother.

He was so natural with the baby; Quinn was reminded instantly of the first morning she’d ever known Thomas, when he’d so easily taken his youngest sister from his mother. Now, he hel
d little Samuel in front of him so they were facing each other. For several moments he was silent, just studying his nephew, while the baby lay there contentedly. Finally, he bent down and kissed Samuel on the forehead before turning his attention back to them.

“I can’t believe you’re a father, Will.”

“No, neither can I. I always figured you would be the first one of the two of us – I was never sure I’d ever get to be one at all.” He sat down next to Quinn again, putting his hand on her knee.

Quinn couldn’t help rolling her eyes. “Whatever. You’re eighteen, Will. And Thomas, you’re sixteen. In my world, people would think you’re crazy for even talking about babies. If I went back there now, with him…” She shook her head. Truthfully, she couldn’t even imagine it. Her life in Bristlecone seemed like a million years ago now.
In some ways it was as if she’d never lived there at all. “What’s your rush?”

Thomas shrugged and pulled the baby closer, cradling him against his chest. “If I’d lived as long in your world as I’ve lived here, I’d be somewhere around a hundred and sixty years old. You’d be a hundred and seventy. Somewhere in there, I think wanting a family is pretty normal.”

“Maybe.” Quinn still wasn’t sure.

“Do you regret marrying Will?”

William’s hand tightened on her knee, and she looked up at him. “No. Of course I don’t.”

“It just doesn’t stop you from imagining other possibilities, does it?” William asked quietly.

She shook her head. “It’s just…nothing prepared me for this, you know? It’s probably still the same school year in Bristlecone.”

“Yes,” William said, nodding. “It’s
been less than two months there since the last time we came through the gate.”

“I will never wrap my head around that.”

“Showing up there now with a husband and a baby would present more problems than just your age.” Thomas chuckled.

“Uh, yeah, no kidding. Maybe it’s best I
can’t
actually go back right now.” But even just saying those words set off the ache in her chest again. Although outwardly she was still smiling, William’s hand moved from her knee to around her waist, pulling her closer to him, and she leaned against his side.

No, she didn’t regret her decision to marry him even a little bit.

“Can we come in?” a voice called from the doorway.

“Of course,” Quinn said, smiling at Charlotte and Stephen.

She pushed back the covers to stand up and go to them, but Charlotte held her hand up.

“You stay right there. It’s our job to wait on you for a few days.”

She sighed, but sank back against the pillows as William stood instead to go and hug his parents. “Will the waiting on me
stop
after a few days?”

Charlotte chuckled
, and gave a wry shake of her head. “No.”

“You’re a queen now, Quinn,” Thomas said. “At some point, you’re just going to have to get used to it.”

“No promises,” she grumbled.

“If I can get used to it, so can you,” Charlotte said, though her attention was almost fully on the baby now, as she lifted him from Thomas’ arms.
Sitting down on the edge of the bed with him, she held him up so she could rest his soft little cheek against hers, and then she cradled him again, kissing him gently on the nose.

“I never thought anything would be as wonderful as snuggling my own babies,” she said softly. “But, oh, grandbabies might be even better.”

“Gee, thanks,” Thomas said, though he was still watching the baby with such wonder that it was obvious he wasn’t actually offended.

“Now that,” Stephen said, coming to stand beside Quinn, “is a beautiful baby. From an equally beautiful couple.”

“Thank you,” Quinn said.

“He’ll make a wonderful king someday.”

Though she smiled, the thought made her breath catch in her throat a little. He was so
tiny
– she wasn’t ready to imagine him as the heir to the throne.

“Hush, Stephen,” Charlotte said, handing the baby back to Quinn. “You should know better than that by now.” She nudged him gently wi
th her elbow, rolling her eyes. “When Simon was born, I had to tell him that, outside of the Naming Ceremony, he wasn’t allowed to mention anything about my baby running a kingdom until he was at least walking. He’s been pretty good about holding back with Evelyn, but maybe he thinks you’re different because you’re the ruler.”

With the baby
safely back in her arms, it was easier for Quinn to smile about that.

Charlotte rested her hand on Quinn’s shoulder. “Queen or not, you need time to just enjoy this little one without worrying about his future.”

“Sorry sweetheart. I’ll go back to my rightful place as doting grandfather,” Stephen said, resting his hand on the baby’s soft hair. “Thank you for making me one again.”

Suddenly, there was a lot of commotion in the doorway.
“Oh! He’s so cute!” Emma exclaimed, running up to Quinn. “Can I hold him?”

“No, Emma,” Stephen said gently, laying his hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “You can look, but the baby needs to stay with Quinn for now, okay?”

“It’s okay, Em,” Quinn said softly. “Just come sit up here by me.”

“You too, Alex.
” William lifted his little brother under the arms and up onto the mattress next to Emma. Both children gently touched the baby’s feet and cooed at him.

“Do you want to see too, Alice?” William asked, picking her up and holding her in his arms.

She nodded, but made no move to get down onto the bed. Instead, she laid her head against William’s shoulder while she stared at Samuel.

“He is cute,” she said.

“I think so,” William agreed.

“I love him.”

“He’s going to love you, too.”

“When he gets bigger.” Alice’s voice was very matter-of-fact.

William smiled. “Yes. He’s too tiny to notice very much right now. But he would love you if he understood who you were.”

“Can I kiss his head?”

“Of course you can.” Quinn shifted the infant up so Alice could reach better.

Alice didn’t leave William’s arms; he just
held on and lowered her so she could lean over and plant a very soft kiss on the baby’s hair. “I love you, baby,” she whispered.

“Hey, quit pushing me. This is my spot!” Emma shrieked beside Quinn.

“Oops,” Stephen said, lifting her down from the bed in one swift motion and then reaching for Alex. “I think it’s time to head back to your lessons. Both of you.”

Emma gave an indignant huff, but neither of them argued.

Stephen turned back to his new grandson, running his finger gently down the side of the baby’s face. “I’ll come back another time to enjoy a cuddle with this one who doesn’t squabble yet. Congratulations, again.”

Then he turned to William, pulling him into
an enormous hug, before stepping back and looking at him, tears in the corners of his eyes. “I’m so proud of you, son. I always have been, in everything you’ve done – but this, William – seeing the kind of husband you are to Quinn, and what kind of father you already are to my grandson … this may be the proudest of you I have ever been.”

Quinn saw tears in William’s eyes, too, as
he stood there with his father; the two of them were nearly the same height – she’d never noticed that before.