Some doors were better left unopened.
The palace had been Deliah’s home for years. It had been her playground, her hiding hole, her classroom. She had been within every nook, every cranny, under every loose floorboard and behind every loose stone. She had grown up with the knowledge that this grand estate would one day be hers, and so she had made it her life’s mission, when she wasn’t in training, to get to know every corner of it. After all, she was required to know every corner of Solaria, the nation she was to rule. Shouldn’t that include her home?
There wasn’t a door that Deliah hadn’t been behind. She had believed as much for years on end – there were the doors behind which she could find her mother or father or nanny should she need comforting. There were the doors that led to forever unoccupied rooms, where she could hide to her heart’s content, whether she was keeping secret some forbidden plaything, or her own sacred tears. There were the doors that led to her capture, or her freedom, depending on the time of day. Years later, once she was Queen, once she was married, there were the doors that she could lock herself on the inside of, and hide those still-sacred tears from the man she had been wed to. There was one particular door that she dreaded, the one that she made herself knock on at least once a week – the one behind which her husband dwelled. Deliah fled through that same door, across the hall to her own room, to lock herself once more in her sanctuary, after every encounter. Yes, her palatial home held many doors, and each one led to their own secrets, knowledge that Deliah herself felt she, solely, was privy to.
But she was certain she had never seen this door before, not once in her twenty-four years. Given its location in the back of the palace, Deliah thought that it might lead out to the back of the grounds, but in her mind’s eye, she couldn’t see a doorway on the outside wall. The door itself was nothing out of the ordinary, a plain, wooden brown reinforced with steel plates, as all the doors on the outside walls were made. Its appearance wasn’t the problem. The problem was that it had never been there before.
Deliah turned and walked away, and there was a thought in her mind that it might have been the hardest thing she had ever had to do, until a tiny voice quashed it out with a reminder that there was still one pressing duty that she had yet to complete, and that the manner of that duty had not once proven to be anything that could be described as easy.
The Queen took herself back to her own chambers, locking the door securely behind her, as she always did. Not that she really thought he would force himself inside, but…best not to leave these things to chance. Approaching her bedside, she pulled the rope that would signal for her maid to come attend her, and within minutes, a slim girl had entered through a secret passage that led directly into her mistress’ quarters. They did not speak, there was no need – the dinner meal was approaching and the Queen needed to be dressed for the occasion. Deliah allowed her maid to dress her in the pale cream silk gown that had been laid out, and to drape the loosely-woven veil of the same color over long, dark curls, left to fall down her back.
“I don’t know why I bother,” she said quietly to herself, gazing within the looking-glass hung on the wall. Dismissing her maid, she unlocked her door and left her room.
As she walked down the corridor that led to the private dining chamber, she was thankful that there was no court feast planned for the evening, she wouldn’t be submitted to the embarrassment of being on show with her husband for the court, when the majority knew that theirs was no real marriage. The court feast held the night before had been an exercise in restraint that she had very nearly failed. The Prince Consort, her husband, made royal by his marriage to her, had danced every dance, but none of them with her. He had spent the majority of the evening at the side of a minor lady – minor in standing of the court, but certainly not in regards to the plentiful curves she had on ample display. And at the end of the night, he had barely bothered to escort Deliah past the dining room doors before begging her leave – she could only imagine attend said lady in his chambers.
Were Deliah a vengeful woman, that lady would have been found dead the next morning. But perhaps that was the problem. Though embarrassed by the place she was put in, before those that she ruled, there was no thought of jealousy or rage when her husband’s exploits came to mind. If she were honest with herself, she had to admit there was no emotion. She had been raised never to let her emotions betray her. But theirs had been an arranged marriage; surely it was no surprise that there was no love between the two of them.
Still, it would have been nice if he displayed some inkling of discretion.
The doors were opened for her as she approached, and closed behind her as she entered. The seat across from hers was already occupied, and Deliah blanched inwardly before steeling herself and walking forward, seating herself in the chair after the servant pulled it out for her. Deliah murmured a quiet thanks before lifting her eyes to meet the steely gaze that was now settled on her. She wished that it didn’t unnerve her so, but she couldn’t help the dizzy feeling that she got, feeling as though his eyes were penetrating her, unraveling her soul before her own eyes.
“Good evening, Ryaice,” she said, almost under her breath. Almost immediately, she looked down, reaching out for the ladle within the cistern to spoon soup into her bowl.
“Good eve, my Queen,” came the reply, and she knew that the rest of the meal would pass with no further conversation. They would eat together, and go their separate ways.
At least, until that time of the night came and she would have to knock on his door. After that, she would go back to her own bed, feeling empty and alone.
How utterly mortifying, she thought, stealing a glance at him as she ate silently. To have to knock on her husband’s door, those separate quarters that he insisted on, to ask him to fulfill his spousal duties. She supposed, however, that nothing could be quite as upsetting as the night that she had approached his doorway only to hear another voice, quite female, through the wood and stone, a voice that sounded infinitely more satisfied than she ever had after being in his bed. It would be easier to bear if the bargain had been fulfilled – if he had given her the child that was to be her heir. But until she conceived, she would have to put up with these visits, and the knowledge that she was doomed to a loveless marriage, and being made a fool of by the man she was wed to.
Deliah was deep enough in her thoughts that the sound of his voice, so very unexpected, nearly had her making a mess, catching herself only at the last second. Blinking quickly as she regained her composure, she tilted her head and allowed her eyes to settle on his, hoping the interlude would be brief. “I’m sorry, I was lost in thought. What did you say?”
She hoped she was imagining the brief curve of his lips that looked rather like a smirk before he repeated himself. “Our esteemed Counselor Varen was here a few minutes before you entered, my Lady, but chose not to wait to attend you as you entered. He said he would instead allow us to dine at our leisure before begging his audience.”
As Ryaice finished speaking, she could understand why he would have smirked as she thought he might have, and that it, amazingly, might not have been at her expense. Varen, the Royal Counselor, responsible for overseeing the running of the palace and, perhaps more so, the royal family, never begged anything from anyone, never mind Ryaice’s pretty speech. He was one of two in the entire country who had the ability to command the Monarch – even if it was done quietly.
“O – oh,” she said, hating the break in her voice as she spoke, and even more the way she could swear that his smirk returned, however slight it was. “Did he…ah…say when we could expect him?”
Deliah watched Ryaice’s eyes flick to a point behind her, and she could feel herself lowering in her seat. No one had the ability of making her feel like a petulant child the way that Varen did, and she especially hated it when he came upon her while she was unawares. Varen had frightened her since she was a child – and she was quite certain that he held a certain amount of vengeful delight that she had attempted to have him replaced when she first became Queen, only to be unsuccessful.
“I do hope that I am not interrupting, my Queen,” came the smooth voice from behind her, and she grimaced, closing her eyes and collecting herself before Varen came around the table and settled his cold gaze on her.
“No, not at all,” she said, knowing that, even if it was a lie, it wouldn’t matter. Life in the palace operated as Varen dictated, and all who lived within the palace knew it. “Please, won’t you join us?”
The niceties given, Varen pulled out a chair that situated him between the royal couple and steepled his long fingers, appearing to regard them both before speaking. “It troubles and saddens me, my Queen, that you have not yet conceived. I know this must trouble you as well.”
Deliah managed to keep from rolling her eyes. If Varen had ever felt a moment’s sadness in his life, she would eat her slippers. But she knew that it was troubling that she did not yet have an heir. It was their country’s belief that her family ruled by divine right – that they were effectively gods on earth, the vessels through which their gods spoke. She had wondered on many occasions if the gods were turning away from her family – if that was the reason that they had not yet given her the child she craved. She waited for it – the blame that she knew Varen would settle on her shoulders. But when she lifted her eyes to regard him, Deliah was surprised to find his gaze leveled on Ryaice. She had to admit – it was strange indeed to see her husband seem to shrink under Varen’s chilly glare.
“Tell me, Prince Ryaice,” the Counselor began silkily, “how many mistresses do you have?”
It took everything that Deliah had to not show her own irrational pleasure at the color draining from Ryaice’s cheeks. She had heard it said before that some silences could be deafening, but she’d never believed it. Hearing the silence that hovered over them now, she could.
Ryaice didn’t say a word. Whether it was because he knew that it would do no good to make excuses or because he was actually speechless, Deliah didn’t know or care. What she knew was that he was being called out on the fact that he had been sorely abusing his privileges as a royal. She felt wrong for the glee that filled her, but she couldn’t dismiss it.
Varen waved a hand as though he was dismissing a comment about the weather, and continued without an answer. “The question was rhetorical. What you should know is – we know. You were bound to our Queen for a very particular reason, and that was to get her with child. Your family was paid a very, very handsome dowry for this privilege, and you have been using it to spread your seed through our court. I am here to tell you that this will no longer be allowed. You are to keep yourself for the Queen and the Queen alone. Should you fail in this, Prince,” Varen paused, and the smile that curved his mouth was the closest thing to demonic that Deliah could ever remember seeing, “you will be executed publically. I will see my Queen with child before a year has passed. If not, trust when I say that there will be consequences.”
The Counselor stood without waiting for a reply from either royal, and bowed to Deliah in a way that she couldn’t remember ever having seen from him before. He swept from the room, the door slamming behind him and leaving a harsh echo. She waited a few moments, and then chanced a glance at her husband. She had never seen him as anything less than cool, collected, utterly composed. It was odd to say, but she hardly recognized this shell-shocked man sitting across from her.
Something told her that she should get up and leave before Ryaice did come back to his senses, that his wrath was not something she wanted to behold just at this moment. She needed to prepare herself for the anger that she was sure he would spew in her direction. Deliah was well aware that he had a temper; she had simply never had it directed at her before. She much preferred putting it off until she could develop a bit of a temper of her own.
Once again, his voice caught her by surprise. His voice, but not his question.
“Did you have anything to do with this, my Queen?” His fingers were drumming the table, but he wasn’t looking at her. He was staring at the tablecloth, seeming engrossed with the yellow flower woven into the silk, but she knew – he simply didn’t dare looking at her just yet.
“No,” she replied in a quiet undertone. “But I think it only fair to tell you that if I had the spine, there is every chance that I might have done.”
Ryaice did look up then, and to her surprise, the look in his eyes was puzzled. “Why?”
She had never in her life felt anger bubble up in the way she did in that moment. Deliah could only look at him incredulously before attempting to answer that question civilly, without throwing something – even if that was her first inclination.
“Do you really even have to ask, Ryaice? Our marriage may have been arranged. You may have been very well paid to come here to marry me. And I am well aware that ours is not a love match. But the fact is that we are wed. And I have been made to look like a fool in front of my court – in front of the people I rule – more times than I care to count. And you have to ask why?” She stood up quickly, and the table rattled from the swift motion. “You have never touched me with an ounce of tenderness, never looked at me as though I was anything else but a means to an end. I am your Queen, but I am also a woman. I have my pride and you, husband, have trampled on it in the most careless of ways. I have been forced to sit back and watch as you seduce every lady of my court, and I can do nothing that won’t cause a scene. I don’t love you anymore than you love me, but I have not spread myself to every single man that would have me, and I don’t think it would be a terrible trouble to request that you accord yourself in the same manner!”
It was Ryaice’s turn to look incredulous, the puzzled look in his eyes quickly turning to surprise as her tirade had gone on. Deliah let out a breath, with a thought that she might have actually gotten through to him, and resumed her seat, but the feeling of calm soon left her as Ryaice stood slowly, leaning forward and bracing his hands against the table. Gone was the surprise and the uncertainty, here now were the dangerous depths that she knew he could sink to – the only difference being that she had only ever seen it indirectly before. It was quite another thing to have it focused expressly on her.
“You have been nothing but cold as ice since I came here to fulfill the marriage contract, Deliah – “
“I was a virgin and had no idea what to expect! You didn’t exactly do much to assure me that my fears were misplaced!” Her anger was such that she didn’t notice him actually voice her name for the first time since they were married. She had stood up again, mirroring his stance, the fire in her own light-brown eyes as harsh as the dark depths of his.
“Shut your mouth, Deliah. You said your piece,” he said roughly, his fist closing and bunching the tablecloth beneath it. “You have been cold. You have seemed utterly uncaring. You have hardly seemed a woman at any time since I married you – all you presented was a Queen with something she needed from me. Your stud horse. I am no bitch’s personal cock, and certainly not some bitch who doesn’t even appreciate me as anything else but a means to an end,” he finished, tossing her words back at her with a hiss.
Deliah hated that her first thought was to feel like she should apologize, but it quickly gave way to her anger once more. So he didn’t like that his virgin wife didn’t immediately know that there was more to the act of mating than simply the making of children? Yes, how dare he be expected to actually have to reassure her and help her along with a gentle hand? If she could have reached him, she would have slapped him, taken pleasure in watching a red mark in the shape of a handprint grow over his cheek. Instead, she shot her hand out and knocked the vase of flowers from the tabletop, reveling in the sound of crystal shattering on the floor. “Yes, I’m the bitch, because I didn’t know there was possibly anything more than you fumbling under my skirt, thrusting a few times, and then rolling away. Let me assure you, Ryaice, if there were any other way of conceiving a child besides letting you climb atop me, I would certainly take it. You were not forced into this contract, but allow me to make it perfectly clear – when you signed your name and took my family’s money for the privilege, you did become my personal cock, so get as high-and-mighty as you want, but trust me when I say that if I find out it’s been inside anyone else, you won’t have to worry about Varen – I will cut it off personally.”
She could see the tic in Ryaice’s jaw quickening, and for a moment, she thought she had perhaps gone too far, and that fearing for her life might be a good idea. One moment, she was staring him down, having to fight the urge to cower and run away, and the next, he had knocked the table over and crossed the distance to her, his hands grasping her roughly against him, his mouth crushing hard against hers. She was being kissed for the first time in her life, and she had never imagined it being anything like this, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself from bunching her fists in the fabric of his shirt, pressing herself as close as she could to him, and parting her lips beneath his, taking his kiss from him and giving it back in kind.
Deliah wasn’t certain how they had gotten from the dining room to her room, or how she had missed her gown and all the things under it being removed, or exactly what had happened after that. What she did know was that she had never felt quite this way before – tired, but not minding it, and thoroughly…sated. She lay there on her back, barely seeing the ceiling above her. Her breath hadn’t caught up to her yet, and from what she could see, neither had Ryaice’s. She was a little sore, but like the tired feeling, she didn’t mind, because there was a feeling of pleasure mingled with it. Her lips were swollen, her hips bore slight bruising, and there were small discolorations over the mounds of her breasts where his feverishly hot lips had attached themselves.
The amazing thing, as far as she was concerned, was the fact that he was still laying there next to her, on his side, fingers trailing idly over her forearm. She could remember brief flashes of the time between his grabbing her in the dining room, and then once they had gotten to her room. It was almost as though everything had happened so quickly that her mind hadn’t caught up, was still piecing things together. She could remember sounds – breathy screams, low moans, the ripping of fabric. The scent of sweat and heavier things still hung in the air around them. Finally, she turned her head so that she could look upon him, and his dark eyes moved to meet hers. For the first time that she could ever remember, she didn’t dread seeing the slow curve of his lips as his smile, slightly smug and very satisfied, grew. His gaze remaining on hers, his hand began to slide past her arm, over the flatness of her stomach, his fingers pressing against the soft flesh lightly. She thought that she should probably say something, but every possible statement sounded either trite, cold, or naïve. So she merely drew her tongue along her lips, the swollen flesh feeling somewhat dry, though, it seemed, the inside of her mouth wasn’t much better, as disconcerting as his stare was.
Long moments passed before Ryaice broke the silence, and Deliah finally let out a breath as he spoke. “I think…perhaps…there is much that we don’t know about each other, that we didn’t bother getting to know. I think we were content to keep to our…preconceived notions of how things here were. So…maybe – maybe we can start over.”
It was amazing, Deliah thought, what a few minutes could change. She had never thought there would be anything resembling passion within their union, and here they were, on the brink of beginning reconciliation, if only because they proved to one another that there were emotions between them. She nodded, her hand moving to cover his where it lay over her stomach. “I think it’d be a shame not to try,” she replied, and her mouth curved to match his as she watched his smile deepen.
“What now, then?” he asked, brow arched as he leaned up to recline on one elbow, looking down on her.
She had to think about that. Did she want him to stay now? She thought so, but…it wasn’t exactly as though they had planned this encounter. Their anger had sparked another kind of passion, and they had ended up in her bed – a thoroughly enjoyable encounter, of course, but they weren’t merely occasional lovers. They were trying to build a relationship where there hadn’t been one before. Deliah understood that they were under time constraints, but there was time enough to be able to come together properly. She bit her lip before she began to speak, and as she did, her tone was shy and quiet. “What would you say…well…what would you say to the idea of courtship?”
Ryaice chuckled and brought the hand that covered his atop her stomach to his mouth, lightly brushing his lips across the knuckles. “Courting my wife. It’s an interesting idea.”
Deliah blushed and shrugged. “I just think…perhaps it would be a little easier if we made the attempt to get to know one another first. This is, after all, not exactly an arrangement that is easy to get out of. It would be better to sow seeds that will continue to grow over the years, would it not?”
“Indeed,” he replied, kissing her hand once more before he sat up and slid off of her bed. He picked up his clothing, taking his time pulling each article back on as he watched her slide beneath the coverlet. “I shall see you in the morning then, my Lady,” and then a grin quirked his mouth, bringing a light to his eyes that she had never thought would be shining in her direction. “And may I have the pleasure of a ride through the park after breakfast with my Queen?”
She laughed and gave a gracious nod in his direction. “You may.” Her eyes shone with the pleasure of actually flirting, and being flirted with, giving the soft brown orbs a twinkle that lit up her face. “I shall look forward to it.”
He chuckled under his breath and bowed before turning and leaving the room. Deliah sighed to herself and snuggled beneath her covers, feeling, for the first time in years, as though things might work out.
Ryaice closed the door behind him and leaned against it quietly, not wanting to give his wife any indication that he hadn’t gone straight to his room. He had never minded being married to her – it was a fact that, when he had met her for the first time, at their betrothal ceremony, he had actually looked forward to it. There was no denying that the Queen was beautiful – slim, curved in the right places, deep, soulful eyes, soft hair that hung in long, dark curls, just begging for hands to tangle themselves within the locks. Deliah, the Crown Princess at that time, hadn’t said much, or even really looked his way, but she had been but fourteen and, by all accounts, painfully shy.
Perhaps he could have taken that into account when they had married, but he had thought she would outgrow that trait, especially being the sovereign of so large a nation as Solaria. When they had wed, he had seen nothing in her eyes that gave him any indication that she would be a pleasant wife to have, or that she even desired this marriage. So he hadn’t tried – but neither had she.
Things could change, though, and he would just have to count on that. Ryaice had no intention of courting execution, especially where Varen was concerned. Were it anyone else in that position, he might have tried to keep his dalliances on the sly, but Varen had eyes where he shouldn’t, and Ryaice was no fool. He wouldn’t test that man.
He straightened and crossed the hallway to his own room, opening the door and closing it behind him. His eyes went immediately to his bed, where he wasn’t surprised to see Lady Marala laying there, her naked body on glorious display. Normally, the sight of her would have had him beside her in an instant, but with the ultimatum he had received today, and the resolve he had made to himself to try to make his marriage work, it left his body cold.
“Please clothe yourself, Lady, and return to your chambers. We are done.” Ringing for his valet, once the man came into the room, he gave instructions for Marala to be escorted back to her own quarters, and to ensure she stayed there. He didn’t dare turn his eyes to the woman, knowing she had to be tossing daggers at him with her own glare. He felt no remorse, though – knowing the lady, she would find herself pleasure in another bed soon enough.
Finally, she was gone, and he slid into his own bed, letting sleep take him, thoughts of his wife entering his dreams for the first time in years.
“I’d like to report a homicide, Detective Jones.”
Holiday looked up from the form she was neatly filling out and gave her attention to the person speaking to her. A thin brow arched over her hazel eyes and she pushed a stray strand of hair back behind her ear – pointless as that gesture was, since it simply fell back into her eyes. “You know we typically get the homicides reported to us, Rob,” she replied to her partner, her mouth curving into a grin. “We’re the poor schmucks with the thankless job of figuring out whodunit.”
Robert Weston sat across from her, his desk flush with hers, and he was all but laid out across the myriad of papers spread across the surface. “Okay, I’d like to report my homicide. If I have to do one more ounce of paperwork, I swear, it will be responsible for my death. Have pity, Hollie.”
“Oh, give it here, you big baby,” she said, laughing, holding her hand out for the remainder of his paperwork. “Go home. I’ll be expecting dinner, just so you know, in return for picking up your slack.”
“Knew there was a reason I kept you around,” he said with a grin, giving her the stack of sheets before standing up. Rob walked around the desks and placed his hand over one shoulder, squeezing lightly. It was the most public display of affection they allowed themselves while they were at work. It was work, keeping their two very different relationships balanced, but somehow, they were managing, and no one was more surprised than Holiday Jones.
When she had been transferred to the San Diego Police Department at the request of her brother-in-law Bradford, the current chief of police in San Diego, she had been a class-A screw-up at her former precinct in Phoenix. Holiday had started out as a uniform in Tallahassee, having always wanted to be a police officer, even after her father had been murdered by his partner, then had transferred to Honolulu when a big case broke there and the chief, a friend of her captain, had requested backup from their precinct. Holiday had volunteered and ended up moving there – mainly because she had become involved with a man she’d worked closely with. Andrew Waterson had seemed perfect, and they were soon married, only to find that everything had changed. She’d suffered three miscarriages before, three years after they were married, she’d walked in on her husband and partner together in bed.
It had seemed like everything went to hell from there. She filed for divorce, was forced to undergo counseling, and was shuffled to a different division than her ex-husband and partner worked in. Finally unwilling to deal with it any further, she left Hawaii and moved back to the mainland, working what was effectively a desk job in Phoenix and sinking deeper into her depression. It wasn’t long before she was a bonafide alcoholic, barely functioning at work, spending most of her time brooding into a bottle. Holiday didn’t learn until a few years later that she had been close to getting canned and losing her pension when her brother-in-law, at the request of her sister Ella, had put through a transfer to his department.
She had moved to San Diego and was working on cleaning up her act when her sister was brutally murdered, the first victim of what turned out to be a serial killer, caught only when a would-be victim blinded him and broke his legs. It caused a downward slide back into her most dangerous depths, and this time, her brother-in-law couldn’t save her, as he was barely functioning himself. It took nearly being drowned after she’d passed out drunk on the beach just before high tide for Holiday to get the help she knew she needed, and pull Bradford out of his own rut.
Holiday was paired with Rob Weston soon after, a transfer from Los Angeles, who could be assigned as her partner with minimal fuss – no one else in the precinct would tolerate being her partner. They had matched up well, though, and before long, a friendship between them had developed – and then, there was more. Holiday had done what she could to temper the feelings, the ever-present memory of the last man that she’d allowed to get close to her forefront in her mind. But every day that passed, Rob, without even trying, made it apparent that there was no similarity between him and her ex-husband, and they had slipped into a romantic relationship as easily as they had friendship. Holiday had been sober for close to a year, and moved in with him three months before.
Rob left, and Holiday allowed herself the pleasure of watching him go before turning her attention back to the paperwork, which included his as well as what was left of hers. She was the only one left in the detectives’ pen by the time she was finished, and she did what she could to clear up her space quickly. She was always a little wary about being places by herself – paranoia of being a homicide detective. She pulled her light sweater on and grabbed her purse, taking her keys out as she left the pen. Seeing a light on under the door of the Chief’s office, she smiled and stepped past the front desk to knock, then open it enough to slip her head through, getting a look at her brother-in-law. “You know it’s well past dark, right, Brad?”
Bradford Montgomery had been an English lord before giving up his seat to a cousin who cared more for the task and leaving for the States. He’d put himself through police training, and settled in San Diego, California, once he was finished, working quickly through the ranks as someone who was fair-minded, rational, with a deep-rooted love for the justice system. His marriage to Ella Jones – though he had been nearly twenty years her senior – had been founded in an intense love for the quiet, shy blonde, and it had never come up that he was an aristocrat and she’d been little more than a waitress working her way through college when they’d met. It had been his desire to make Ella happy in all things that had led him to take on Holiday as a project, and he’d been pleased to find that, once one got past her issues, she had fine detective skills. The murder of his wife had nearly been his downfall, but the daughter she had left behind, Daniella, born to them six months before her death, and the help of Holiday had helped to pull him back to reality.
The police chief smiled and waved Holiday in, and she entered, closing the door behind her. “Could say the same to you, Hollie, you’re the last one here, aren’t you?”
She shrugged and sat down in one of the chairs in front of his desk. “I decided to be kind and finish Rob’s paperwork for him.”
Bradford snorted and made a mark on his own form. “Your kindness knows no bounds. How are you and he doing?”
Holiday lifted a brow. “Very well, thank you. He’s a great partner. Couldn’t ask for someone better.”
Her brother-in-law smirked and his blue eyes lifted to pierce Hollie’s gaze. “You know that’s not what I meant, girl.” He laid his pen down and leaned forward. “He’s a good guy. The two of you are a good match. I know your father is gone, Hollie, but I want you to know – I like him. And when the time comes, I’d be happy to stand up with you.”
Holiday blushed, the heat in her cheeks nearly searing. “Um…ah, that’s a really nice sentiment, and I really appreciate it, but we’re nowhere near even thinking about that yet, Brad.”
He laughed and shrugged, grinning. “You will. Rob would be a fool not to, and he’s no fool. That’s easy enough to see. I’m not trying to tell you that you need to jump into it quickly, enjoy your time together. Just…I know you have issues. And I know you know that, I know you’re being careful. I just don’t want you to let that last no-account ass you married mess up what you have.”
Holiday smiled and looked down. If it had been anyone else saying that to her, she’d have jumped down their throat by now, but she knew Bradford meant well. “Thanks, Brad. I’ll do my best.” She stood up and waved. “Get out of here soon, Brad. Give my niece a kiss for me.”
“I’ll do that. We’re having family dinner tomorrow night. My sister’s in town. I’ll expect to see you there.”
She groaned. Elizabeth Stanley was a formidable woman – one with good intentions, a friendly heart, and keen matchmaking skills. Not a visit went by that Elizabeth didn’t try to plan Hollie’s wedding – an event that wasn’t even on the books. “Please, please, Brad – tell her no wedding talk this time. Please.”
He grinned. “I’ll do what I can.”
Shaking her head, she left the room and made her way down to the parking garage. The drive home wasn’t long, but she liked to take her time once she got off the interstate. Driving along the beach was a sight that she never got tired of. She pulled into her parking spot and ascended the steps to the apartment that she shared with Rob, opening the door after finding it unlocked. A spicy scent wafted through the air, awakening her senses and making her smile. He would take her at her word, not that she minded. Rob was a great cook…much better than she’d ever been. Before meeting him, her idea of a gourmet meal had been getting the single-size serving of Stouffer’s lasagna.
Holiday tossed her purse and keys onto the table by the doorway, then stepped out of her black heels. The ponytail holder was removed from her hair, letting the curls fall down her back. She took her pearl-grey suit jacket off and laid it over the back of the couch, then walked into the kitchen, stepping up behind Rob and slipping her arms around his waist. “Smells good,” she said, eyeing the skillet over his shoulder. “What is it?”
“Curry,” he replied, stirring the contents before looking back at her and smiling. “And I picked up some peanut butter chocolate chunk ice cream and a DVD from the store for dessert.”
She grinned and lifted up on her toes, kissing his cheek lightly before stepping back. “You’re too good to me. I’m going to go take a quick shower.”
Rob turned and leaned into her, kissing her lips softly, his hand sliding over her cheek. “You can go now,” he said with a little smile. “I’ve wanted to do that all day, seemed a shame to let it go on much longer.”
For the second time that night, she felt her cheeks heat up, but it was only a warm feeling this time, and she let her eyes linger on him for a second before turning and heading to the bathroom. The water, hot and hard against her back, beat down incessantly, massaging out the tension she got at work. Holiday didn’t stay under the spray long, knowing that dinner would be ready soon, so got out and toweled herself dry. She dressed in the bedroom and walked back into the kitchen just as Rob was dishing the food onto plates and setting them on the dining table. She slid into her seat and pushed her damp hair back. They settled in to eat, long moments passing before Rob spoke. “Thanks for doing those papers, Hols. I don’t mind the field work, but I swear that paperwork is going to kill me one day.”
Holiday laughed and shrugged. “I don’t mind. It’s kind of nice to basically turn off. Course, everyone was gone by the time I was done. Though that was kind of nice too – Bradford was still there. We had a little chat. And we’ve been invited to dinner on Saturday.”
“Oh? What else did Brad have to say?” Rob asked, his brow lifting as he took a bite.
Holiday winced a little and Rob laughed. Bradford wasn’t quite as bad as his sister, but he came from a culture where marriage and babies were a stage of life that didn’t get ignored. His own wife was dead, he was getting old enough that having more children, even if he did remarry eventually, would be something of a risk, so he was keen on having more children brought into his extended family. And that usually meant that he allowed Elizabeth to have her free reign where Holiday was concerned. As much as it embarrassed her, Holiday knew that she was lucky that Rob was such a good sport about it. “Well, Elizabeth is in town, which is apparently part of the occasion for the family dinner. And Brad wanted to impress the importance of me not allowing my previous divorce – and the reasons for it – impede any possible marriage talk between you and me.”
It was Rob’s turn to wince, though he grinned through it. “That Brad.”
Holiday nodded, only able to agree. ‘That Brad’ was an apt description. “I’m not in any hurry, Rob. You know that. But I suppose what he wanted me to get at – I think – is…if and when you ever start thinking of it as something you want…I won’t drag my feet or give you excuses. All I want, really, is to be with you. A piece of paper and sharing your last name isn’t the important part of that.”
Rob reached over and covered her hand with his, his smile genuine and loving. “That’s good enough for me, Hollie.”
They finished dinner and cleaned up together, then settled on the couch with ice cream to watch the movie Rob had rented. Holiday didn’t realize that she had fallen asleep until she woke to find the credits rolling and Rob’s fingers gently sliding over her cheek, brushing her hair back from her face. Her eyes opened slowly, meeting his smiling gaze, and she couldn’t help but return the smile warmly, her hand moving up to cover his where it rested against the side of her face.
She pushed herself up to a sitting position and leaned in, kissing him softly as she slid her hand back through his hair, her body relaxing when she felt his arms sliding around her, holding her there against him. Holiday’s eyes slid shut as Rob’s lips left hers to trail along her neck, nipping her collarbone lightly. Her fingers tangled tighter in his hair and she shifted until she was straddling his legs, a soft sound leaving her throat when his hands moved beneath her shirt, the warmth firm against her skin.
Rob lifted her as he stood up from the couch and carried her into their bedroom. Holiday’s last thought before she clicked off to everything but Rob was that it was amazing how she always dressed for bed, but she never actually ended up wearing anything to bed.
The next morning, she woke long after the sun rose. Normally, the both of them were up and out the door at least half an hour before sunrise, but Holiday took advantage of days off, using them to sleep in and enjoy lying in bed with a warm body curled up behind her, holding her against him even in his sleep. Holiday pulled away from him slowly and leaned down to kiss his cheek softly, then dressed in the clothing that had been shed to the floor the night before. She wasn’t much good in the kitchen, but she could usually manage breakfast, finding that pretty hard to screw up. By the time Rob had woken and made his way out of the bedroom, she had eggs in a bowl, keeping warm under a paper towel, bacon crackling happily in the frying pan, and a stack of buttered toast on a plate.
He moved in behind her and she looked over her shoulder to give him a quick kiss before flipping the bacon over. “I love off mornings,” he said, sleep still tinting his voice. “Off mornings mean Hollie-cooking that won’t kill an elephant.” He grinned as Holiday playfully send her elbow back into his stomach, then kissed her neck and backed away when she took the frying pan off of the burner, transferring the bacon to a paper-towel-covered plate. Once the dishes were placed on the table, they both sat and served themselves, eating quietly, Holiday working on the newspaper’s crossword puzzle, Rob reading the sports section. Theirs was an easy, enjoyable routine for Saturday mornings, with Holiday finding rather often that she liked the fact that she had a routine with a man that she cared for as much as she did the events of that routine. Finishing breakfast, Rob took kitchen cleanup while Holiday started on their laundry, carting two baskets down to the basement level, along with a Ziploc bag of change and the laundry soap.
It was another part of their routine that they used as ‘alone time’. Rob did the house cleanup, then got the time that she was down in the laundry room to play video games or go online or do whatever he did, while Holiday would use the time in the laundry room to read, or take her laptop with her so she could play games. Today, she’d brought a book she’d just bought with her, intending on reading that while the laundry was going.
She had changed the wash to the dryer and set the timer, and had been settling back in to read some more when she noticed that someone had come into the laundry room behind her. The other washer was going, so she figured that she was doing her laundry as well, but she didn’t recognize the other woman. Being a police officer, Holiday made it a point to know the faces of everyone she lived with. Sure, most would say it wasn’t necessary, but Holiday tended to be a little paranoid. The arrival of someone she’d never seen before who apparently lived in their building gave her a disconcerted sort of feeling, but she gave the newcomer what she hoped was a friendly smile, then returned the majority of her attention back to her book. Try as she might, though, Holiday couldn’t manage to keep from looking up at the other woman every few moments.
After checking the woman several times, she was rather puzzled to note that she had seemed to be staring at Holiday more than once. Her brows furrowing, Holiday took a longer glance at her, finding nothing outright odd about her, but…there was something standing out, she just couldn’t put her finger on it. That, more than anything, gave her an ill feeling. Holiday was used to relying on her senses, but her senses seemed to be all out of whack in the presence of this woman.
Deciding to nix the oblivious approach, she went with being friendly instead. “Are you new here? I could have sworn I’d seen everyone else here at least once, and I’m normally really good with faces. I’m Holiday – up on the third floor.”
The woman at first seemed like she was going to ignore Holiday, simply continue staring, but then her lips curved in what Holiday thought of as a slightly cold smile. “Yes. Yes, I just moved in a few days ago, on the second floor. My name is Sheena. It’s nice to meet you, Holiday. Interesting name.”
Inwardly, Holiday’s guard was up, but since the woman had responded, she could only reply in kind. “Oh, you know mothers. It’s better than my first – my mother thought I’d be a boy and was naming me for my father…then I’m born, and all her plans go to hell. So she sticks with the first name anyway – Michael – and gives me the first word she comes across as my middle name. Suppose it could have been worse.”
“Mmm. Indeed,” the woman – Sheena, Holiday reminded herself, replied. “Tell me, have you noticed anything strange going on here lately? I’ve heard some of my neighbors talking about it…odd bumps coming from down here in the basement, strange lights that seem to be gone when someone goes to investigate, voices that apparently come from nowhere. I haven’t experienced it, but enough of the tenants are talking about it that it has me somewhat frightened. I…ah…wouldn’t have moved in if I’d known there was something wrong with this place.”
Holiday’s instincts were racing a mile a minute. Sheena spoke of being frightened, but nothing of the woman’s body language hinted to an ounce of fear – it seemed, rather, that she was trying to collect information. The way she spoke was cold, clinical even. She had explained the events, and then gave a plausible explanation for why she would ask a stranger – neighbor to neighbor, after all. But nothing about her tone or the way she spoke of it said that she wanted anything more than to know if Holiday – perhaps even Holiday in particular, considering how much she had been staring at her before she’d been spoken to – had come across the occurrences.
But Holiday didn’t want to send the wrong signals herself, and unlike Sheena, if she was trying to hide something, she knew how to work undercover. It was somewhat easy anyway, since Holiday didn’t know what she was talking about. “Can’t say I have. How long have they been talking about it? I usually don’t come down here any time other than Saturday mornings, my laundry day and all.”
“Just this last week. Hmm, maybe it’ll turn out to be nothing. I’ll be going now, need to take care of a couple of things before my wash finishes. Nice to meet you, Holiday. Have a good day.”
She watched as Sheena left, waiting until she heard the steps leave the stairs and go onto the landing, and then she moved over to the washer that was running. Pursing her lips, she lifted the lid, and her brows arched sharply.
The inside of the washer was completely empty.
Holiday managed to go through the motions of finishing the laundry, taking it out of the dryer and folding the loads back into the baskets, and then she headed back upstairs. It was just routine that had he getting back to the apartment door without falling down the stairs or running into a wall, with her thoughts settling on Sheena, the odd happenings, her strange demeanor…and the fact that it seemed she had come to the basement solely to talk to Holiday. Why else would she have started the washer with nothing inside? Sheena needed a rational reason to be in the basement at the same time as her, and she had timed it perfectly, coming in and starting the washer while Holiday had her back to the doorway. Somehow, she doubted that Sheena even lived at the building, and that had Holiday’s pulse racing almost more than the rest of it. It left her unsettled to think that, for whatever reason, there was someone watching her. Someone who knew where she lived, who knew those she was close to.
She opened the door to the apartment and walked in, carrying the laundry back to the bedroom to put it away. Holiday turned from putting away a stack of Rob’s t-shirts to find him standing in the doorway, a concerned look on his face.
“Something wrong, Hols?” he asked, leaning against the frame, and she knew he was watching her carefully. He was just as good at reading people as she was, she knew, and he could read her better than anyone she’d ever known. It wouldn’t do any good to lie to him, she knew, and, thinking about it, she found that she really didn’t want to.
“Just…something that happened downstairs,” she began, sitting on the bed, a pair of socks in her hands. As she recounted meeting the woman, what she said, and what she’d found once Sheena had left, she was twisting and pulling at the socks, watching them dully. Holiday could feel herself trembling slightly with every word she said, and she had to admit that the encounter had shaken her more than she’d thought.
“I know I’ve had my paranoid moments before, Rob, but…I keep thinking about it, and I keep coming to the same conclusion. She knew me before she walked in there. She was there because she knew I was. What else she knows about me, I don’t know, but I don’t think it was a random occurrence. And the things she asked! They make no sense to me at all, which sets me even more on edge. It’s always the crazies, who insist that you know what they’re talking about when you don’t, and are more than ready to pry things out of you the more you resist.” Holiday looked down at her arms, finding them covered in goosebumps. She rubbed her skin swiftly with her hands, trying to warm up, but she couldn’t manage to shake the cold feeling.
“It is weird,” Rob said thoughtfully, one of his hands reaching out to take hers, his thumb brushing reassuringly over her knuckles. “I think you’re right, I don’t think she really lives here – I haven’t seen anyone of that description at all. I’ll ask around and see if anyone else has seen anything strange going on…just because she was lying about living here, doesn’t mean she wasn’t lying about that. When we go in on Monday, we’ll have the sketch artist draw out your description and see if we can’t match it to anyone in the database.” He leaned in and kissed her cheek lightly. “We’re not without options here, Hollie. We’ll take care of it.”
She smiled and leaned in to lay her head on his shoulder, taking comfort in his closeness. She knew she was lucky…if she’d recounted that story to any other person, possibly even Bradford, they might have thought she was drinking again. They'd say that she was seeing things, maybe even just seeking attention. Rob, though, listened. There wasn’t really a shred of proof that she was telling the truth, but he didn’t toss it all out the window. He thought outside the box, not just with her, but in their field work. It was a handy trait to have.
He kissed the top of her head, then stood up and pulled her to stand with him. “Now, come on. There’s not really much we can do right now, so let’s just get dressed and get out of here for a while before we have to go to Brad’s. Alright?”
Holiday nodded and smiled, kissing him once before moving past him to finish putting the laundry away. She dressed quickly in jeans, a thin white shirt with long belled sleeves, and a moss-green sleeveless vest that she circled a wide belt of the same color with a jeweled buckle around. She brushed her hair out and left it loose, then pulled on brown boots that added another couple of inches to her height. Setting the brush down, she eyed herself in the mirror and pursed her lips. Well, at least she didn’t look like a crazy person. Granted, she didn’t feel like a crazy person either, but seeing people who may or may not exist and creating what could be construed as either a conspiracy theory or a plea for attention around it wasn’t exactly par for the course.
“Nothing I can really do about it,” she said quietly. She had already resolved not to say anything to Bradford until they ran the sketch through the database on Monday, to see if she came up with a record. That would determine her course of action from there.
Rob poked his head in the doorway and smiled. “Hey, good-lookin’, you ready?”
Her eyes met his through the mirror and she smiled, thankful that she didn’t have to try and make it look like a real smile, not with him. “Yeah. Just let me get my purse.” She left the room and picked up her purse from the table in the living room, and they left the apartment, Holiday making sure to lock it securely behind her. She always locked the door, but it seemed more important today.
The two of them killed a few hours by walking around the mall downtown and planning out their Christmas shopping. Knowing that Elizabeth liked little trinkets and tended to collect them when she traveled, Holiday bought a figurine of a surfer riding a wave from one of the tourist shops and had it wrapped, then they left the mall and began the drive to La Jolla for dinner. They were quiet, the radio the only sound filling the car, Holiday not wanting to talk and Rob seeming to understand that without asking. The car pulled into the driveway of Bradford’s house, and she looked at Rob before getting out. “I don’t want to say anything to Brad about this before I have something a little more concrete than ‘I saw this woman and she asked me weird things, but no one else has seen her and she doesn’t really appear to exist.’”
Rob glanced at her and lifted a brow. “Brad’s not going to think you’re crazy, Holiday.”
“I’d like to think so too, but the fact remains that I’ve technically got a record that doesn’t exactly speak for me being an entirely rational person.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think Brad would thank you for your lack of faith, but…if that’s what you want, I won’t say anything.”
She nodded and got out of the car, calming herself and putting on a smile before she and Rob headed up the steps and knocked on the door.
There was the usual flurry of movement as the door opened and they were ushered in. Shoes were removed – Bradford’s housekeeper would have their heads if they tracked footprints over her floor – purses and bags were set aside, and the both of them were pulled into tight hugs by a woman smaller than Holiday, but seeming to have more strength than a giant. Lady Elizabeth Stanley, widowed at a young age, was one of those women who enjoyed the lifestyle that being an aristocrat with at least a rudimentary knowledge of numbers in order to turn a profit on any number of ventures brought. She wasn’t as concerned with class as some of her fellow nobles, and had adored her brother’s second wife, the first having died in childbirth when he was considerably younger. Since Ella’s death, Elizabeth had made more frequent visits, both to be there for her younger brother and to spend time with her niece. After a few months, overseeing Holiday’s eventual wedding, never mind that there wasn’t even one in the planning, was added to the list of reasons to make the flight from London to San Diego on a regular basis.
“Holiday, I swear you look younger every time I see you, I don’t know how you do it,” the spry white-haired woman currently squeezing Holiday to pieces said, letting go and leaning back to cast her keen eye over her.
Holiday laughed and shook her head. “Think it must just be your presence, Lady Stanley. The way you move around, I’ve got my work cut out for me just trying to keep up.”
Elizabeth snorted and shook her head. “Every time I see you, you keep up with that ‘Lady’ nonsense. I’ve got your number, girl, you’re just trying to rile me up. It won’t work, I tell you! But be a dear and call me Elizabeth, as I ask you every time I see you.”
Holiday grinned and nodded. “I suppose, Elizabeth. So what are my colors now?” Seeing the woman’s eyes light up, she allowed Elizabeth to take her arm and lead her away, leaving Rob and Bradford to follow behind.
“Is it just me, or does Holiday know just how to handle her, and she just likes pretending like she doesn’t?” Rob asked while they followed.
“She’s got a kind heart and knows what my sister enjoys. For the time being, that’s getting the two of you married. I actually think she’ll be disappointed once that happy day passes – she’ll have to find a new hobby.” Bradford cast his eyes sideways at Rob and smiled. “Not that it’s any reason to hold off.”
Rob shook his head and chuckled. “When we’re ready, Brad. Not a day sooner.”
Brad nodded, and turned the conversation toward the current state of San Diego’s football team. Rob, thankful for the change of subject, readily complied as they entered the dining room, taking their seats.
Holiday was holding Daniella, her eighteen-month-old niece, on her lap, feeding her pieces of bread as she and Elizabeth talked. She winked toward Rob before turning her attention back to the older woman, taking a moment to hand Daniella over when the little girl reached for her boyfriend.
Dinner was uneventful, other than Daniella making her rounds to sit in everyone’s lap at least twice, stealing food off their plates in the meantime. Holiday gave their little gift to Elizabeth, who declared it one of the cutest things she’d ever received, and sat it next to her plate for the remainder of the meal. They had dessert in the living room, slices of rich tiramisu that didn’t quite match the events of Rob and Bradford competing against each other in bowling on Bradford’s Wii.
Daniella went down to sleep for the night, and the four adults spent an hour playing a game of cards before Elizabeth announced that she was too tired to stay up another minute. Rob and Hollie made their goodbyes and left, quiet once again on the way home.
They arrived at home and headed upstairs silently, Holiday unlocking the door and Rob closing it behind him, locking it again. Holiday began to walk back to the bedroom when Rob spoke up.
“Hollie…I know today was weird, and I know you’re feeling a bit paranoid that maybe no one’s going to trust you…but I trust you. I believe you. And I’m going to help you. Just don’t shut me out, alright?”
She turned toward him and smiled softly, walking back across the room. Her arms slid around his shoulders and she kissed his lips lightly. “Thank you. I know…I won’t. Come on, let’s go to bed.”
An hour later, after quietly making love and watching Rob fall asleep, Holiday was staring up at the ceiling, waiting for sleep to come to her. Sighing, she turned over on her side, shoving her hand under the pillow and closing her eyes, willing herself to finally go under. Her last thought was that she thought she might end up regretting this.
She always knew she was dreaming when she had these dreams. Holiday had dreams like any normal person, except where these were concerned, these interludes that she wouldn’t even really call dreams…more like looking into another’s life. She had had these dreams all her life, as long as she could remember. She’d never told anyone about them, never wanted those around her to have more reason to think she was crazy.
She knew that she wasn’t watching herself in these dreams. If that were the case, she would chalk it up to something in her subconscious continually making her dream medieval lifestyles, people dressed oddly and doing things that weren’t possible. But as much as the woman that she watched most nights looked like her – it wasn’t her. It was a woman named Deliah. She had heard the names being spoken – a man that appeared to be married to her, Ryaice – someone who looked exactly like Rob. There was Varen, someone who appeared to wield a formidable amount of power. They lived in an opulent palace, and the woman who looked like her was referred to as ‘Queen’. Through it all, Holiday got the distinct feeling that this Deliah was not happy. Her husband regarded her with indifference, at best. Her friends were few. She was a young queen, and was treated as such. She knew that it was just a dream, but Holiday couldn’t help but feel close to Deliah – after all, she had witnessed Deliah grow up as much as she had experienced her own childhood and adolescence.
She was always somewhere around the queen when she entered into these interludes. She had tried a few times to leave the other woman’s presence and wander around the surroundings, but she was never able to move more than ten feet away, and she never managed to put a door or wall between them. This time, she was within Deliah’s bedroom, somewhere she had been several times before. The room was dark; her night vision hadn’t had time to adjust yet. Holiday had always found that odd, that she had to worry about things like night vision in her dreams – but she’d stopped believing she was dreaming when she was here a long time before. She heard a soft sound, and her head tilted to the side as she slowly made her way toward the sound – toward the bed, she somehow instinctively knew. Another sound, this one with a different tone, enough to tell her that it was a different person, made her stop in her tracks. Was she about to view something private? That was the feeling she had, as though she was intruding on something not meant for her eyes.
A sharp tug on something inside of her that felt almost like pleasure, if a little foggy made her grab the back of a nearby chair, and she licked her lips. It was so strange to her, how everything felt so real when she was here, and yet no one ever saw her. But where had that shred of pleasure raking through her body come from? Almost as though they had a will of their own, her feet kept her moving toward the sounds that were now coming more often, her eyes better able to focus, able to see now a large patch of softer color amidst the dark of the bed. She thought to herself that she should stop, keep from viewing what was certainly going to be a private moment, but she couldn’t make herself stop moving, right up until she was at the side of the bed. What she saw there certainly wasn’t what she had expected to see.
The man that so looked like Rob was leaning over Deliah’s body, hands sliding over pale skin, lips slipping along hidden trails, coaxing those sounds that she had heard from the queen’s throat. Was it any wonder, she thought now, that she had felt what Deliah must be feeling? Though she found it odd, considering what she had seen before of their relationship, that they were engaged in such tender activities. All the same, she knew how the queen must be feeling, if this Rob look-alike had anything else in common with the man. Her version of the queen’s husband was well able to make Holiday feel as though she were being worshipped, every inch of her body something worthy of praise.
She wanted to look away, to give the couple as much privacy as could be managed with the limitations of being in this space, but she couldn’t. It was almost as if there was something controlling her body, overwriting her own commands. Holiday watched involuntarily as Ryaice moved over Deliah, slowly, his lips curving upward in a satisfied grin with every sound that his wife made. Holiday wasn’t entirely certain what had changed in the few days since she had shared this dream-reality with Deliah, but she knew something had to. She had never seen Deliah’s husband even look at her with gentleness, let alone touch her as though he actually wanted her. She had been unlucky enough, once or twice, to view other times when Deliah and Ryaice had been in bed together, and it had been nothing like this.
Holiday watched as Deliah climaxed, and Ryaice soon after, followed by the man moving to the side, his arm remaining draped over Deliah’s side. The woman turned her head to look at him, smiling at him with considerably more care than she had ever seen between the two of them. A few more shared kisses and Ryaice got up from the bed and gathered his clothing, putting his trousers on but nothing else. He left the room, and Deliah curled up in the bed, her smile still tinting her lips. Holiday hadn’t seen the dream-woman look so content in many years.
“Well, this could end up being extremely boring,” Holiday said to herself, ready to move and curl up in a chair until her body was ready to wake when Deliah sat up and swung her legs over the bed. Holiday had never been able to help it before, and she couldn’t now – the woman before her was completely nude, and looked just like her. It was always a sort of guilty pleasure to take a good, long look at just what she looked like naked, without looking in the mirror.
Deliah reached out for her robe and pulled it on, tying the sash as she stepped into a pair of slippers. Holiday watched as the woman let out a breath – one that seemed to be bracing her for something difficult – and then made her way to the door. Holiday blinked and followed close behind – and not just because she didn’t have a choice. Deliah was up to something, and from what Holiday had noticed of the woman all these years, the Queen never did anything that could be viewed as a risk.
The two of them left the room, and Holiday watched Deliah’s face as they walked along the corridor. The Queen’s brow was furrowed, and her step was brisk. She continually looked around, turning her head to look over her shoulder several times. Something had Deliah worried, and the feeling sapped over to Holiday, certainly not helping, when it only added to Holiday’s sense of paranoia.
They turned several corners, until Holiday was in areas of the palace that she had never been before – at least, not that she could recollect. She knew Deliah had made a habit of exploring the palace on a regular basis, and that she probably knew every hiding place and secret passage, but Holiday hadn’t been privy to her entire life.
Finally, they slowed to a stop as they came to a wide stone wall, the back outside wall, if Holiday remembered correctly. There was a door that she knew was there, and one that she didn’t. Blinking, she watched as Deliah stepped up to the door, and was surprised when the woman began to speak.
“I’ve known every inch of this palace all my life, but you are new. I’ve given no commands for a new door to the outside. Varen might have, but he has no reason for it, indeed, he hates the amount of doors that we have already. Ryaice knows his place too well to give the command. It is pointless, I suppose, to wonder. I asked my maid, who walks along this wall many times every day. She has never seen you. Does this mean you are a door meant for me alone? Or are there circumstances that are leading to you being here, and me being the only one to see you?” Deliah sighed and shook her head. “Somehow, I know I should leave you alone. Normally, I would. I do not like risks. But I do not like having a strange door in my abode, either. That supersedes my dislike for risks. I am going to open you, and enter. May I find blessings on the other side.”
The speech confused Holiday, enough that she barely noticed as Deliah reached out for the door handle. But when she did, she had a thought that this wouldn’t lead to anything good.
“No! Don’t!” Holiday cried out as Deliah opened the door, a bright white light filling the doorway, and stepped through. It almost seemed as though Deliah may have actually heard her, looking over her shoulder. Quickly, Holiday followed her through and the door slammed shut behind them.
Waiting for the light to fade, Holiday rubbed her eyes and temples, blinking quickly to help her focus. In a minute, she could see Deliah’s outline, and then more. Walls. Columns. Several doors along one wall. Familiar-looking objects against another. Once it all came back settled into easy view, Holiday gasped, almost in horror. There was a reason they looked familiar. This was her basement! That door had somehow led to her apartment building!
With that knowledge, Holiday’s mind abruptly disconnected from the dream-reality, and her body woke up almost violently, sitting up and retching harshly.
Rob woke and sat up quickly, his hand rising to rest on her shoulder, to offer comfort. “Hollie! Are you alright?”
She coughed roughly, and nodded. She couldn’t tell him about this. She had to go see for herself, find out what was going on. “I’m fine. Sorry I woke you, honey…go back to sleep. I’m going to go get a drink of water and calm down a bit.”
Rob looked concerned, but he knew there was little point in badgering her if she didn’t want to say anything. “Alright. Don’t be up too long.”
She smiled wanly and nodded. “I’ll try.” She got up and pulled a t-shirt and lounge pants on, along with a pair of warm socks. Holiday did go to the kitchen to get a quick glass of water, downing it in a gulp, and then, quietly, she opened the apartment door and made her way slowly down to the basement.
“This is ridiculous. There’s nothing there. There’s no door that leads from my basement to some ancient medieval world, and there’s no girl who looks like me who’s a queen there, and she is certainly not in my basement. No way, no how,” she said to herself as she crept down the steps.
Holiday turned off of the landing and glanced around. “Hello,” she called out softly, swallowing a breath. No one’s going to answer, she thought to herself. This is a wild goose chase, I’m going to go upstairs, get back in bed, and go back to sleep. Tomorrow, I’m going to realize how stupid this is.
“Hello?” broke the silence in the air, and Holiday nearly tripped over her own feet.
“Oh, shit,” she mumbled to herself, turning the corner of a column, and there she was.
The girl in her dreams.
The girl who looked just like her.
“This can’t be real,” Holiday all but moaned out, taking a step backward, a sense of blackness sliding over her.
She woke, and could feel hands on her head. Her focus still blurry, she thought perhaps she had woken from a nightmare, one in which it seemed that dreams she’d had all her life were coming true, and Rob was consoling her. But why was her head pounding. Had she fallen out of bed? Her senses coming back to her, she could feel that the ground beneath her wasn’t the soft carpet of the bedroom she shared with her boyfriend, but rather cold, hard concrete. And the hands on her head were considerably softer, more delicate, than Rob’s.
Blinking hard and fast, she sat up quickly, regretting it immediately as pain enveloped her, seeming to radiate from a spot on her temple. Turning to look behind her, she could see dark curls framing a pale face, a cream-colored robe seeming to be more of a decoration than a cover-up. Large, liquid eyes were watching her, the set of that small face concerned.
“Holiday?” came the soft-toned, mildly accented voice that she had heard in her dreams since childhood. Holiday swallowed a breath and focused on the woman across from her, and then she blinked, realizing something.
“Wait…you know me? I mean, I know you, I’ve seen you in my dreams all my life. You’re Deliah. But how do you know me?”
The other woman flushed and looked down at her hands. “Much the same fashion, it seems. I have lived your life in my dreams, as, I’m beginning to think, you have mine.” Holiday couldn’t blame her for the blush. If this were really true, and not some sort of whacked-out dream, they had both played witness to some very private moments, and some heartbreaking memories. But Holiday couldn’t simply take it at face value.
She swallowed again, knowing that she didn’t want to think about this, but it was the surest way of knowing the truth. “What…what is my worst memory?”
Deliah looked up into Holiday’s eyes, the very same image of her own, and her expression was sad. “That would be debatable…until a year ago, I would have said the murder of your father at the hands of his…partner? I think that was the word used. Now I think it’s a matter of timing, between that, and the murder of your sister.”
Holiday blinked back tears, and asked what had been on her mind for years, watching Deliah as she had in her dreams. “Why did you stay with him so long, knowing he was playing you?”
Blinking, Deliah tilted her head, her confused gaze settled on the woman in front of her. “Playing me? I don’t understand.”
Pursing her lips, Holiday sought an easy way to explain it without actually saying the words. “You know…running around…ah…well…I guess…what Andrew did to me?” She supposed the easiest way would be to relate it to similar events.
“Ah…well. Royalty, in my world…once they are wed, they are wed until death. I hated being made to look like a fool, but my hands were tied. Things are getting better now, though.”
It was Holiday’s turn to blush, considering that she had seen how much better things were getting between the two of them.
“Now, come here, please. I was hoping to finish healing you before you woke, but since I didn’t, I need to before the wound is open long enough to scar.” Deliah reached her hand out, waiting expectantly for Holiday to come closer.
“Excuse me?” Holiday asked, eyebrows arched in puzzlement.
“You know I can heal with my hands, yes?”
“And you know you have a nasty gash on your head from where you fainted and fell?”
“You do. I need to heal it. Come here.”
Holiday pursed her lips, but moved within Deliah’s reach. “Bossy much?”
Deliah smiled and pressed her hand to Holiday’s wound. “One of us has to be.”
The pain faded away and Holiday closed her eyes, her palms spread flat on the floor to brace her upper body up. Hearing a small sound, she blinked and lifted her face to look at Deliah, her brow furrowing as she saw the pained expression on the other woman. “Deliah? Are you alright?”
Deliah’s hand dropped, and she nodded. “Pain is a body’s way of healing, but part of healing is taking away the pain. In order to heal it quicker, the pain has to go somewhere – and that’s usually through the healer.” She shrugged. “Normally, I only heal so much, so as to close the wound, and then I let it heal the rest of the way on its own. But we can hardly have you going home and Rob wondering how you bashed your head open.”
Even with the knowledge that the two of them had been watching the other’s life since childhood, it still made Holiday shiver to hear a woman that, in all truths, she didn’t even know speak of someone so close to her in such familiar tones. She supposed, though, it must have been just as strange for Deliah, to have Holiday ask personal questions. This was something that wasn’t supposed to ever happen, that much Holiday knew.
Knowing that, it made Holiday wonder other things. Bringing her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around her legs, she tilted her head as she regarded Deliah. “What’s it like, being a queen?”
Deliah snorted, and then lifted a hand to her mouth. “Excuse me,” she said, looking down. After a moment, she shook her head. “It’s like that.”
Holiday lifted a brow. “I don’t get it.”
“It’s apologizing for something normal, because normal is not acceptable for a queen,” Deliah replied softly. “It’s wondering if some lady of my court will become jealous enough of my position as my husband’s wife to murder me somehow. It’s knowing that, no matter how unhappy I am, I am never allowed to show it. It’s living my life according to a schedule, and lessons for what a proper lady should know, and not having any clue in this world what I actually like to do.” She shoved a hand through her hair and sighed. “I was born into privilege, and with privilege comes responsibility. I’ve had that drummed in my head all my life. I have never wanted for anything in my life…except some manner of true affection.” She looked at Holiday and smiled, the look in her eyes sad. “It’s something that I have envied of you, this last year, Holiday. Your easy affection with Rob…once the two of you finally stopped dancing around one another and admitted your feelings. I’ve always craved it. My parents loved one another…but it wasn’t more than a few months after being married to Ryaice that I began wondering if I was to live out my whole life without knowing love.”
“See, that’s where it’s funny. I’ve always envied you – always. I could see your relationship with your parents, and it made me ache for my father,” Holiday said, hating the break in her voice. “Always knowing your place in the world, what you are destined for. I’ve always been…adrift, I guess. It’s only been in this last year that I’ve been comfortable, and I still wonder when the other shoe is going to dropped. I can’t let myself be happy, and it kills me. I’ve always thought…maybe, if that girl in my dreams really were me, I could have been happy. I could have known what I was meant for. And, well, yeah, I’m not going to lie. Living in a beautiful palace and having a country at my beck and call wouldn’t hurt either.”
Silence hung heavy between the two women for long moments, before a softly spoken sentence from Deliah broke it. Holiday blinked, unsure that she had actually heard what she thought she might have. “What?” she asked, her tongue wetting her lips after feeling them go suddenly dry.
Deliah lifted her head and met Holiday’s gaze. “We both want to experience what the other has had. So why don’t we switch? Not forever, just for a short period of time. We have one another’s memories, at least, enough to go on. So let’s take on one another’s life for a little bit.”
“Are you insane?” Holiday asked, staring at Deliah incredulously. “We both have things in our lives that we have to do. You run an entire country. I couldn’t do that. And do you really think you could do my job? I hunt murderers, Deliah, day in and day out. It’s not something that you can just waltz in to!”
“As I said, it’s not forever. I want to understand this world. I want to understand you better. You would like to know what it is to always know what you are meant for. We can give this to each other.”
The more that Holiday considered what Deliah was suggesting, the more she found herself considering it. The queen did have a point. It was almost like stepping into her dream, and that was more than enough to have her ask, tentatively, “What happens if we get trapped?”
“I don’t think that would happen. Even if this way closed, there is bound to be another way through. Mine is a land of magic, and there will be help for you, which would allow you to come for me here. All you would need to do is seek out Quinevere.” Deliah wasn’t entirely certain that Quinevere, a woman who seemed to have no real position at court but could often be seen in the company of Emeryss, her father’s former guard, would know the secrets of the portal, but the more that she considered it, she realized that Quinevere was the most logical choice.
Holiday considered what Deliah was telling her, and she found herself surprised to acknowledge that she was seriously considering the offer. She would have to be lying to say that it didn’t interest her in any way. “Alright.”
Deliah blinked. “What?”
“Alright,” Holiday repeated, shrugging. “You have a point, and a decent enough plan to go on. I want to see how you live. You want to see how I live. This is the only way to do that.”
Deliah let out a breath, shaking her head. “I thought it might take more than I had to convince you there for a moment.”
“If I thought about it anymore, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t want to think about it. I just want to say…yes, I’m going to do it.”
Deliah chuckled and shrugged. “That makes sense, I suppose. So how do we want to do this?”
“Two weeks would be best, I think. Enough time to get the gist, and enough time to start to miss home so we’re not going to balk at coming back.”
“Agreed,” Deliah said with a nod, then pursed her lips. “I think we need to discuss one more thing.”
Holiday lifted an eyebrow and gestured for her to go on. “Well,” Deliah continued, “We’re both…involved. I’m married; you are in a serious relationship. My relationship with my husband is only just beginning to repair, and I’m sure Rob would start to wonder if his advances are getting rejected for two weeks.”
“So…we need to discuss what happens if sex comes up.”
“Well…yes.” Deliah’s cheeks heated, but she knew it needed to be said. “I…will not risk my future happiness, on a simple two weeks. Part of the healing with Ryaice and I is the development of our sexual relationship, and acknowledging its importance. Not to mention…and I’m not doubting your strength of will, so please do not feel offended when I say this…Ryaice could seduce his grandmother if he chose. Even if you were to refuse him, if you are what he truly wants, he will find a way around your refusal, and you will have said yes of your own free will. So…if it comes up…you have my blessing, Holiday. I am not going to complain if you put me on a more even footing with Ryaice. After all, he will think you are me. All I ask is that you are careful…we can’t have you getting pregnant.”
Holiday listened, sinking deeper in thought. She loved Rob, that much she was sure of. She’d wanted none but him since they had become involved. But could she really risk the happiness of someone else? Aside from that…while she could understand Deliah’s reasoning, there were none of the same issues in her relationship with Rob, and she wasn’t sure she could give someone else permission to sleep with him, even if Rob would simply think it were her. Then she remembered something that Deliah said…that she wanted to know the easy affection between her and Rob. She wanted to know what it was like to know that someone else wanted her, rather than have it be out of duty.
Swallowing her breath, Holiday closed her eyes tight for a second, and then opened them again. “You have mine, too. It’s up to you, really. Rob won’t force either way. If you tell him you’re not in the mood, he’ll accept that. But…he might start thinking that something’s wrong after several days. We…ah…don’t really tend to ration ourselves.” Her eyes met Deliah’s and she smiled somewhat sheepishly. “You want to know affection…and, well, you really can’t get any better than Rob. As for my work…just let Rob lead. The anniversary for…” she trailed off, unable to say the words, “well, the anniversary’s coming up…so if you’re less than vocal, he should understand without really asking.”
“Alright,” Deliah nodded, taking a breath. “So…we should probably change clothes?”
Holiday nodded, and the next few moments passed silently as Holiday changed her t-shirt, pants, and socks for Deliah’s robe and slippers, and they worked at arranging one another’s hair. They seemed to wear the same style, but, Holiday snipped to herself silently, Deliah’s seemed much thicker, shinier, put-together, even after a round of sex. Once they were changed.
“How does this work, anyway? The…er…changing worlds?” Holiday felt weird just saying it, but she had to ask, since she would be the one doing it now.
“Well…you go through the door. That was all I did,” Deliah said somewhat absently, seeming to be entranced with the pants covering her legs. “Then you go to my room, and go to bed. And tomorrow, you wake up, and live my life.”
Deliah smiled at Holiday and stepped forward, surprising her by wrapping her in an embrace. “I think this will be a wonderful experience for us, and I have to thank you for agreeing.” She stepped back and twirled, laughing as the sock covering her foot slid on the slick concrete ground. “I will go up to your apartment, and go to bed, and wake up tomorrow to try my hand at your life. Is there anything…I suppose…that I should know, that I might not really think of?”
Holiday ran a hand through her hair, eyeing her arm through the semi-transparent sleeve of her robe. “I don’t drink alcohol, at all. It would be very out of character for me to order it or buy any. Anything for you?”
“I go riding every morning – and I do mean every morning. Dinner is always a formal affair. I have a deathly reaction to citrus fruits, and they aren’t ever even present on my table.” Deliah spun again and grinned. “Alright…I think it’s time to go. You through your door…me, through mine. And I will see you here in two weeks.”
Holiday swallowed deeply and let out her breath slowly. “Yeah. Take care, Deliah. I’ll see you soon.”
Deliah waved and ran up the steps, Holiday’s eyes watching her the whole way. Once she was gone, Holiday glanced around. “So…I just go through the door.” Her eyes fell on the door that she knew Deliah had come through – a door she could never remember seeing before.
Then that door opened, and Holiday blinked as she could see the light, blindingly white, filling it. A figure was coming through, and the door shut behind them. They were hooded, cloaked, in black, and Holiday couldn’t see the face. Stepping backward, she found herself hitting a column, and for the first time in years, Holiday felt real fear.
Hands lifted and pulled the hood back, slowly revealing an almost porcelain-like visage, of cool, clear, pale skin, heavy dark eyes, and black hair pulled back severely from the face. It was a woman, who rapidly approached her.
“Your Majesty! How did you get here?!”