With a sigh of regret, Maryse turned another page, looking at the pictures of her youth. She was just a little girl in them, her parents still young and at the height of their own power. In so many of those photographs, they were proudly looking at a boy, then a young man.
His gaze was fierce in some of those pictures, mild in others. She remembered him as always being there to rely on, her protector when their parents went on assignment, her first sparring partner when she had taken up her first blade as soon as her little hands had been able to grip a hilt.
She'd named her youngest son Maxwell, in honor of his uncle.
It had been a point of some contention between her and Robert.
He was a traitor. Deruned and banished from Alicante and Idris and from all Nephilim contact – because, back when he had been a young man and she'd barely been in her teens, he had chosen love over duty.
Max had fallen in love with a mundane woman and, when she didn't pass muster to be accepted into their world, decided to embrace hers instead. He had handed in his blades, and his stele, and his witchlight stones, along with everything else that marked him as belonging to a world that most people never even dreamed of, and he had walked away, stripped of his Marks and stripped of his name.
Her parents had never spoken of him again.
She hadn't dared say the name out loud for years – for decades, even, until she had found that she was pregnant once again, unexpectedly, and the name had sprung up almost as if on its own accord.
Robert had given in at the time, and everyone else had relented. Who even still remembered Maxwell Trueblood's betrayal after all?
All this time, she'd thought the old photographs destroyed, along with everything else that had been connected to him. All this time, until a few hours ago, when she had gone up into the attic to continue the work she'd started recently: Getting some semblance of order into generations of Lightwood – and, more recently, Trueblood – clutter, stacked in that space between the upper floor and the rafters that her children had used to play in and to escape to the roofs when they thought no one noticed.
Her parents' town house had gone to a distant cousin when her mother had died, but she'd had a lot of their personal things brought over, boxed and crated, to be stacked and ignored. She'd never had the time, or the wish, to open any of those boxes.
She hadn't wanted to know what she'd find in them.
She hadn't wanted to know what she wouldn't find in them.
But then things had happened, and she'd been sent to Alicante with her youngest son, still in the process of recovering from a terrible head wound the effects of which he might never shake entirely, to act as chaperone for her older children, banished to Idris for a variety of reasons, none of which held up under scrutiny.
They'd meant for her to keep them from continuing their clandestine work, if not to betray them then at least to stall them and be a deterrent for whatever they were planning to do that was not in the interest of a number of powerful men and woman.
Instead, she'd become complicit in their actions.
Actually, she'd been for a while at that time, though she'd only learned the last of the details, and the full scope of the horrendous truths they had learned, that night after she and Max had arrived in Alicante.
Her older sons and daughter had left the country again, travelling, learning and hopefully staying alive. She had stayed with Max, whose mood and attitude had found some improvement at least after Imogen Herondale, her son Jace's biological grandmother, had taken him on as an intern. Working for the Inquisitor's office wasn't the kind of job Max had dreamed of, but his skills were valued there, and he found joy in being appreciated.
With the boy busy most of the day, Maryse had started to keep busy herself. The attic had been a logical place to start. She had to clear out whatever things belonged to her ex-husband Robert anyway.
Everything she went through was sorted into one of three categories: The things that were sent off to the house Robert now shared with his new wife; the things she wanted to keep; and the things that would go to the family in Canada that had saved her children from certain death once, and since shown them, and her, nothing but kindness. They ran a magic store, concealed as a junk shop, somewhere in Calgary. When she had discussed the particulars with Alysha on that artifact disguised as a cell phone that her children had brought on a brief interruption of their tour, she had only stipulated one thing: Any profit made of selling the things she gave them had to go to Alec, Izzy and Jace.
She could about imagine what Clary and Charlie, the Artist and the Bard, would say when they learned that they would be expected to transport crates upon crates of objects from Alicante to Calgary through that odd dimension they called the Wood that allowed them to travel anywhere in the world near-instantaneously.
Maryse smiled to herself as she imagined it.
Coming across the photo albums had been a bit of a shock. She didn't know which of her parents had kept them, and she didn't want to guess. But she'd just spent several hours going through them, picture by picture, studying every detail, remembering the situations. Taking in that face she hadn't laid eyes on in what was approaching three decades.
Where was he now? She wondered. How was he doing? Was he still happy with his choice? Had his marriage lasted? Did he have any children? If so, they'd surely be at least Alec's age, probably older. He might be a grandfather already.
He probably was.
Turning the pages carefully, smoothing down the separating silk paper every time to make sure to leave no folds, she worked her way to the end of the album. The last few pages were blank, but there was a paper pocket on the inside of the rear cover, meant to hold pictures that were waiting to be glued in.
Just in case there were actually more photos there, she slid her hand into it, surprised when the tips of her fingers touched a scrap of paper.
She teased it out, wondering what it was until she had it where she could look at it.
Her heart skipped a small beat when she saw what she had found.
It was a small square of paper, two sides frayed and irregular because it had been torn from a larger piece. On it, in a hand that she recognized as her brother's even after all these years, stood an address.
"How much am I going to regret it if I say yes?" Imogen asked, but she was smiling as she did so.
The two women were sitting in the Lightwoods' living room, sharing some tea and pastry. They had started meeting this way now and then, sometimes at Imogen's home, but usually at Maryse'. Maryse had no servants, but she had the cozier place, more inviting than the large Herondale Manor in which everything was pompous and targeted at making an impression, but that lacked the feeling of home.
Even Imogen seemed to enjoy the breaks she took in the smaller town house.
"Not at all, I hope," Maryse said. "I won't need a lot of time. Just a couple of days. I'm not used to spending this much time in Alicante. I kind of miss the world out there."
The look Imogen gave her clearly said that the older woman didn't believe a word she'd just heard.
"Max can stay with me for a few days while you're gone," she said after a moment's pause. "But I won't intervene to get you a personal holiday."
Maryse nodded briefly. Having a place for Max while she was travelling had been the more pressing matter on her mind. She could talk to Jia Penhallow about getting leave to be out of the country for a little while. If that didn't work, she knew another few places where she could call in a favor.
"I have an artifact I need an analysis run on," Imogen said, causing the other woman's eyes to narrow at the apparent non sequitur. "I could have it done here, but the best specialist for that kind of thing is attached to the Toronto Institute. Now, I could send someone from my staff to take the object over and the report back, but it's not like you have a lot to do right now… so why should I waste some perfectly good labor?"
Maryse blinked slowly. "You want me to carry an artifact to Toronto for you?"
"That's what I just said. The analysis will surely take three or four days. Let's not waste portal time and portal energy by bringing you back in between. What you do in Ontario while you're waiting for the results is entirely up to you."
"That is—" That was a lot more than she'd expected. She'd be getting close to her desired destination and do so in a way that would rouse no suspicion. She'd be able to use a portal, avoiding both the expenses and the time a flight from Zürich or Frankfurt would have taken. "Certainly. I will carry your artifact."
Imogen inclined her head in acknowledgement. "I didn't expect anything else."
James Riley Huntersblood – the middle name was not optional, as he had made sure Maryse knew – had taken the wrapped bundle and the folder with Imogen's file, as well as the envelope that contained his orders, and told her to be back in four days.
"Make it five if you want," he'd told her. "But don't make it three."
Luckily, navigating mundane transport was a skill all shadowhunters assigned to institutes learned speedily. Soon enough, Maryse was on her way to London, the address from the scrap of paper firmly in her mind and in her phone, and the paper itself inside a small notebook in her purse – the general contents of which surely would have made most of the people she passed faint in fear.
She started to have second thoughts about her mission while she sat in a small train compartment that she didn't have to share with anyone, watching the landscape fly by before the window.
What if he didn't want to talk to her? What if he pretended not to know who she was? What if he didn't believe her who she was? They hadn't spoken in decades. Would he be angry? She should have at least called ahead, probably, but she had deliberately decided against that.
It would be harder for him to deny his identity if she was right there in front of him.
Receiving a call, out of the blue, from a ghost from the past – a ghost from the past who had no idea what kinds of arrangements he had made for his current life to boot – surely would be reason enough to hang up and not pick up the phone again.
She took a taxi from the train station and sent the driver away after she got out. She'd get back somehow, but she had no idea how long she'd be staying here.
Studying the building in front of her, she tried to imagine Max living in it. There was a small garden, neat and orderly, and not looking in the least as if children were ever playing there. No grandchildren then?
Of course, she realized, there was a very real risk that he wasn't even living here anymore. People moved houses at times, after all.
She glanced at the name written next to the doorbell. "J. Carter", it said.
For a moment or two, she stood and stared at it. It was true then – this was no longer his home.
Already about to turn away, several things came to her mind almost at the same instant. Maybe whoever was living here knew where the former residents had gone. And: Maxwell had lost the right to use the Trueblood name. He would have either picked a mundane name for himself, or taken on his wife's. And somewhere in a remote, dusty corner of her mind, where she had buried the memories of that time just before Max had declared his decision to leave, she thought she remembered that his girlfriend's name had been Jane.
Her hand shot out, pressing the button of the bell without giving her time to reconsider.
Then she stood, heart beating heavily, and waited.
It wasn't long before the door was opened, clearing sight of a woman Maryse was sure she had never seen before. Then again, the same went for the woman Max had left for. He'd never even shown her a picture of her, keeping his baby sister out of the entire issue as far as he could.
- Carter, if that was who she was, was a tall woman – easily half a head taller than Maryse – with greying hair and dressed simply but tastefully. Maryse estimated her to be somewhere between herself and Max in age.
The woman looked her up and down, frowning slightly. "Do I know you?"
"Probably not," Maryse admitted. "I was looking for Max… Maxwell. I found this address."
The woman's face lost a few shades of color at the words. For a moment, she looked as if she was about to slam the door shut in Maryse' face. Then she collected herself. "You're little Mary," she stated. "You must be. You look like your mother."
She nodded, not bothering to correct the name. If Max had chosen to refer to her by a name more common among mundanes, she wasn't going to call him a liar. "I've heard that said before."
"You won't find him here."
"I feared so when I saw the sign." She gestured to the doorbell. "But I needed to be sure… Can you tell me where he went?"
At the woman's next words, it was Maryse' turn to pale. "He's dead. I was a widow not quite three months after I married."
Maryse wasn't sure if she'd looked as devastated as she felt at the news, but her shock and sudden grief seemed to register sufficiently on her face that Jane Carter took a step back and waved her inside.
She followed wordlessly as the older woman led her through a short hallway and into a neat living room with all the usual mundane gadgets. A single photograph hung above the mantelpiece of a fireplace that looked as if it actually saw some use. It was framed and kept meticulously clean of dust.
Stopping in front of it, she studied it, feeling tears rising to her eyes. That was Max the way she remembered him, though in the picture he wore black – to his own wedding. Of course. That was the mundane custom, and he had left the Nephilim world behind.
Jane pretended not to watch her as she dabbed at the corner of her eye, busying herself with pouring two glasses for them.
For all these years, Max had been dead to them. They had acted as if he no longer existed, and often as if he had never existed at all. They hadn't known that was actually the truth of the matter.
She'd been prepared to come and find the place where he had lived back then to be a dead end, Max and his family long gone. Hearing that Max was, in fact, the one who was long gone, that she'd come almost thirty years too late to reconcile, was something she hadn't even considered.
"Water," Jane said when she finally turned and looked at the drinks she had poured. "I can get you something stronger if you want it, though."
"No, thank you." Maryse sat on the sofa the other woman indicated, sipping from the glass, grateful to have something to do with her hands. "I don't drink."
"Neither did he." The corner of the other woman's mouth twitched. "But you know that. It was one of the better habits he brought from … that place."
"Right." Maryse swallowed. She wanted to say something, but words didn't come readily. "What do you know of… where we come from?"
Jane's expression changed, reflecting a long time of anger as she spoke. "I know he grew up in some sort of cult focused on finding and exorcising demons. I know he was abused as a child. I saw the marks – the scars. I know how he reacted when he felt threatened. He saw demons everywhere. Demons, can you believe it?" She gave a harsh laugh, then, seeing Maryse' stony expression, sobered. "Of course you can. You must have grown up the same way."
Maryse nodded, unsure of what to say.
"Did you leave?" Jane asked, a challenge in her voice.
Another nod, this one a lie. Or was it? Hadn't she left the organization she'd grown up as part of – if only in her mind – the moment she had chosen to side with her children?
"I couldn't bear it any longer. What they stood for, what they—what we were doing." She thought of Valentine and the Circle; of his connection to the Consul's office. Of Consul Malachi and the men and women who still had to be working in high offices in Alicante, secretly or not so secretly supporting that cause; of the time her daughter had been set up with a box of yin fen in her pocket and the time her son had nearly been crippled for good by an attempt on her children's lives; of how they had ended up in Calgary that time, a few months ago.
"Do you have any children?" Jane wanted to know.
"I do." Her smile felt shaky, but it was genuine. "Three sons and a daughter." She pulled out her phone, flipping through the picture gallery and finding a photo she had taken of her three oldest together that day they had given her the device. "Alexander's the oldest. This is Isabelle. That's Jace."
"He doesn't look much like you," Jane noted, studying the trio. "Or the others."
"My husband and I adopted him when he was ten," Maryse said, opting for the easiest way to tell that story. "His father and Robert – that's my hus—and ex-husband, actually, they were best friends. Battle companions, you know?"
"I don't know, but I can imagine," Jane said.
"He's as much my son as the others are," Maryse insisted.
It was Jane's turn to take a slow, thoughtful sip from her glass. "Fair enough. You said three sons?"
"My youngest is twelve. He'd throw a fit if I tried to take a picture of him to carry around. It's the age." She paused briefly, digging in her purse until she found an older photograph. It showed all of them, including Robert. "His name is Max."
Jane started at the name. "He spoke a lot of you, you know," she said as she handed the picture back to Maryse. "He loved you. He kept reminding me that you weren't at fault for any of the things that happened to him. You were just a child at the time. He was afraid of what would happen to you when they declared you… an adult." She glanced back at Maryse' phone, though the screen had turned black again. "How old is Alexander?"
"Twenty," Maryse said, realizing as she spoke what Jane had been thinking. "When he said adult, he meant being sent to… hunt demons. Not to have children."
She could see the relief on the other woman's face. "Did they—did you leave them… there?"
"They were the reason I found my wits." That, again, was nothing but the truth. "They're safe." She had to believe that, though she hadn't heard of them for days. Surely they would let her know if anything was amiss. Possibly, she thought, the spelled phone would even let her know on its own. It certainly added numbers to the contact list now and then. She decided to change the subject. "You never remarried?"
Jane gave a small shake of her head. "Max was my one love. I've had relationships but I never felt that way about anyone. He was special."
"If you don't mind my asking…" Maryse wasn't sure she wanted to say the next words, but she knew she couldn't leave without knowing. "How did Max die?"
"One of his demons got him."
Looking for some peace and quiet, and unwilling to deal with the bustle of the city right then, Maryse had found a hotel in a smaller town nearby.
She'd planned to stay in her room, thinking about the things she had learned, maybe texting her children to let them know what she'd been up to, but she quickly found that being alone with her thoughts was not a good idea.
Her next path had taken her to the hotel's bar, which apparently served not only the guests, but also the locals.
There she sat, cradling a glass of whiskey she'd ordered but not touched yet.
A few months into his marriage, Jane had told her, Max had gone on a hike and never come home. They'd found him, barely alive, a day later. Something large had gotten to him. Wolves, some had said. Stray dogs, others. Someone had suggested a bear. And then there had been those voices who, looking at the gaping wounds and the torn flesh, the pieces missing from the body, had whispered another word: Wendigo.
Against anyone's expectations, Max had lived through the transport back to town, from where he'd been airlifted to Toronto. All the effort had been in vain, though. Jane had spent days sitting by her husband's bed, stroking his mutilated hand, listening to the doctors talking when they thought she didn’t hear them.
They'd never seen injuries like the ones on Maxwell's body. They knew of no animal that could have left them. The police were brought in when the idea of foul play came up. And again, and again, and again, there were whispers of wendigo.
She'd been asked if her husband was taking any drugs, any kind of substances she knew of. Something had been found in his blood, and they did not know what it was.
Later, when his heart had stopped and the machine that blew air into his lungs had quieted, no one mentioned that again. She'd asked about it, but everyone claimed they didn't know what she was talking about. There were no samples. No analyses. No memories. Jane was sure that those blank looks she received were not pretense.
And she remembered the few things Maxwell had told her about his life before they had met, about the community he had grown up in. She kept quiet, fearing for her own life if she didn't. She said nothing when she knew that his body had vanished, that she had buried an empty coffin.
At times, she said, she felt as if she'd been somehow contaminated by the world her husband had come from. Her eyes were sincere when she said she didn't regret a day of it, though.
Maryse suspected that the true reason she had never remarried was just that – that she was afraid that somehow, something of what had caused Maxwell's death was clinging to her.
She turned the glass in her hand, staring into the amber liquid, then lifting her head a little to look over its rim aimlessly. There, on the other side of the half-circle bar, her eyes found a man, his hands turning a glass of his own. He'd been sitting there for a while. She couldn't remember that she'd seen him drink. Her lips twitched slightly. Apparently, she was not the only one in this place tonight who felt as if she should drink away her worries, and yet was reluctant to do so.
Peter Heerkens knew he should have long returned to the farm. Stuart wouldn't be happy that he was staying in town late. Again. He'd been doing that a lot, recently. It was against their custom, and against everything he had taken for granted when he had been younger. He never could have imagined actively seeking out the solitude to be found in the crowd of a tap room.
So many people, so many sounds, so many bodies with their smells… The need to be dressed, properly. The inability to change. All of that had once felt unbearable to him.
But both he and his twin sister had grown up in the last twenty years, and he'd developed a tolerance to all of the above. So had she. Following their older brother's urgent advice and their uncle's orders, they had continued their studies. Attending college had been even more taxing than somehow making it through high school. Rose, at least, had chosen a field that was useful for the pack. She'd been the family lawyer for a long time now.
Peter had dabbled, starting and dropping out of a few classes before Stuart had finally relented and agreed that he could study the thing that actually interested him. He was a linguist and a historian now, fluent in multiple languages, some of which were only spoken by a handful of people anymore, and also entirely useless for the pack.
Working on the farm had been good enough for generation upon generation before them. Stuart himself, their pack leader, had only the barest of formal education, and he ran the farm, and the family, with a strong hand. He had no plans to pass on to the next generation yet, and Daniel didn't seem inclined to take over from his father anyway.
Colin had found his place in the police. He would do all he could to avoid coming to blows with their uncle. If they fought, and if he won, he would be bound to the land.
When he'd been younger, Peter had imagined himself challenging his uncle some day, winning and taking over the pack, holding the position his father had before his uncle. That dream had died the day in the summer of 1992, when he had stepped into a poisoned wolf trap.
He'd survived the injury, and the poison, but his ankle had been damaged beyond proper repair. He'd shed the crutch, and then the cane, in his human shape in the course of the next few years, and figured out a way to run and hunt as a wolf, stepping high so the paw that wouldn't lift properly wouldn't drag on the ground. As a man, his limp was barely noticeable at walking speed anymore. Much as he hated them, sturdy boots kept his ankle stable.
He didn't run well on that foot, however, and he wasn't a match for any of the other adult wer in his family anymore – or in any other. Even if he'd managed, by some twist of fate, to defeat Stuart, either Colin or Daniel – or one of the young males who had wandered in more recently to join their pack – would feel obligated to remove him from the position of pack leader.
Knowing that, he didn't even try, but he was chafing at the situation.
So he spent his nights, as often as he dared, away from the farm, buying whiskey he didn't drink and thinking his gloomy thoughts. Rose knew it all, of course, but even his twin sister hadn't been able to think of any solution yet. Certainly, they could leave the pack and find another – but the situation would be the same there.
Something that definitely wasn't the same tonight, however, was the situation in the bar.
There was a stranger sitting at the bar. That in itself wasn't unusual. The establishment belonged to a hotel, and strangers were nothing if not a logical consequence of that. It was one reason he had picked this place: There weren't many local regulars who would expect him to act as one of their own.
This particular stranger, however, was different. If his guess was any good – and while he'd grown better at judging humans over time, he was far from perfect at it – she had to be about his own age. Like him, she seemed to have ordered her drink for the comfort of holding it, rather than to use it for its actual purpose.
The thing that took him aback was her smell. His senses were acute, no matter which form he took. He could pick apart the bouquets of scents that made up each of the roughly two dozen guests in the room, and the bartender, and the two servers. All of them, different and unique as they were, shared a quality that immediately turned off every instinct he might have had to approach them for anything more than strict conversation. To him, as to all wer whom he knew, humans held all the sexual allure of a chest of drawers.
The woman across from him smelled, if not quite right to match what his instincts were looking for, then at least almost so. It was an intriguing thing to experience. She was no wer. He was sure of that. And yet she wasn't human either. He could rule out vampire, too. He knew what vampires smelled like. He had some among his close friends.
She was looking at him, studying him with unconcealed interest. Their eyes met, making it unmistakably clear for both of them that their scrutiny had been mutual. She didn't seem angry about it.
Studying her, he took in the odd, black markings, like tattoos, on the exposed skin of her neck and arms. They stood out starkly in his greyscale vision, and he wondered how humans would perceive them. Caught up in his thoughts, he almost missed the gesture with which she waved him over.
Maryse watched the man slide off his stool and walk over, whiskey glass in hand. Though he moved with the grace of a trained fighter – or, more likely, dancer – she noted an irregularity in his steps, ever so slight and minor enough that anyone not trained to spot any potential weakness would not have noticed that it was there.
"Hi," he said as he approached, eyes shining while he ran his free hand through his thick red hair. "I'm Peter. Mind if I take that?" He gestured to the empty stool next to her own.
"Be my guest." She let him sit and arrange his glass before she spoke. "I'm Maryse. The drink's not to your liking?"
Peter shrugged. "I wouldn't know, I don't really drink. I just need an excuse to sit here and be gloomy." A smile tugged at his lips as he spoke. "What about yours?"
Her own expression lightened a fraction. "I don't really drink either," she admitted.
What was she doing here, chatting up a stranger in a mundane bar? Wasn't she really past that age … by at least a couple of decades? She wasn't sure she'd ever been that age. But the distraction was welcome, and she couldn't deny that the man – Peter – was nice enough to look at, with large dark eyes and hair that looked russet in the light of the bar but that would probably be a much brighter red in sunlight.
Besides, it wasn't as if this was going to go anywhere other than a bit of conversation. He looked far too down-to-earth to be out for adventure – and neither was she.
He was dressed conventionally, in jeans and a t-shirt under a denim jacket, his feet in sensible work boots. As he slid out of the jacket to drop it on the floor by his feet, she glanced at his arms, just to make sure that she wasn't mistaken in her assumption that this was a mundane.
"Let me guess," he said, his voice light. "You're some high-up businesswoman on your way to a vital meeting, your car broke down and now you're stuck here in the middle of nowhere until you get it fixed?"
She laughed in spite of herself at the thought. "No."
"You're a princess fleeing from an assassin and trying to hide among the common folk?"
That was too ridiculous to even warrant an answer. Did mundane women actually fall for that kind of talk?
"Actually, I was trying to locate my brother," she admitted. "He left our family when I was a child. I thought it was past time to reconnect."
"Did you?" There was an intensity in those dark eyes that took her aback for a moment.
She shook her head sadly. "In a way, I did – but I was about twenty-five years late. He's dead."
"I'm sorry." That sounded strangely genuine for someone who had met her just a moment ago.
"So what brings you to the area?" That seemed as good a way as any to change the subject – a move she almost regretted a moment later, when his eyes left her face to study his untouched whiskey.
"I live here," he said, his voice a little subdued. "My uncle runs a sheep farm, a little way out in the countryside. I work there."
He sounded as if he found that information unpleasant to share. Maryse wondered if he was ashamed of what some might perceive as lowly labor.
"Nothing wrong with that," she hurried to assure him. "Family business?"
"Kind of." He turned back towards her, his lips twitching into a wry smile. "It just feels like such a dead end sometimes. I mean – everyone helps out on the farm, but everyone else in the family also has a job… "
For some reason, that thought seemed to amuse him. Maryse failed to see the funny part of it, but she nodded, indicating for him to go on.
"My older brother is with the police. My sister's a lawyer. My cousins are a vet and an accountant and a journalist. I could have listened to people and studied something sensible back then. It's not like everyone didn't tell me no one hires a linguist. But I like languages."
She forced herself not to chuckle at that. The last had almost sounded a bit like a whine.
"Which do you speak?" she asked instead, genuinely curious to hear the answer.
"English, obviously," he told her. "French. Dutch. My family immigrated from the Netherlands after World War II. A couple of First People languages."
"Impressive," she said. "My family came from a small place in Europe, down in that area where Germany and France and Switzerland meet." It wasn't entirely a lie. That was roughly where Idris was located. "I have some French and some German." She had quite a few more languages to her name than that, but this wasn't a contest. She was about to ask him another question, but he forestalled her.
"So now that you know that I'm an unemployed linguist working as a sheepherder on my uncle's property – what do you do for a living if you're neither a millionaire, nor a princess, nor an actress?"
A small laugh bubbled up in her throat. "You didn't even guess actress before," she accused him before claiming: "I'm a martial arts trainer." It was a good excuse to get away with in any mundane company. She certainly had the skills to back up that statement.
"Ah." He cocked his head sideways, studying her a little like a bird – or a dog – might.
"Have you thought of leaving? Surely you could find employment in your field if you went to Toronto, for example?"
Once again, he turned towards his drink. "Thought about it, sure. But my family… we're close, you know? Especially me and my sister. I don't want to be that far away. I'd rather herd sheep."
Maryse nodded. "I can understand that."
"You and your brother, were you close?"
She actually had to think about that question for a moment. "I thought so at the time," she allowed eventually. "But he was nearly ten years my senior. I don't think I really knew him as well as I thought I did."
"Why'd he—" Peter began, before stopping himself, before interrupting himself. "That's probably an indiscrete question. Forget that I asked."
The corner of her mouth twitched upwards. "Why'd he leave? He fell in love with a woman the family disapproved of. I met her today. She seems nice enough."
The mention of love caused his expression to darken, and she wondered if there was more behind his reluctance to leave than family ties. She glanced at his hands, noting that he wasn't wearing a ring. His fingers, curled around the glass, looked oddly short – not disproportional enough to be noticeable at first glance, but enough to stand out to someone used to looking for anomalies.
She was sure he wasn't a downworlder – warlock or Seelie, he would have shown some other reaction to her runes if he had been. Maybe he had some Seelie blood somewhere in his ancestry, though. It led to odd physical characteristics sometimes.
Maryse had steered the conversation away from the topic of family, asking him instead about his degree, his time at college, his travels to study dialects. He found himself talking willingly, the words coming fast. It had been a long time since someone had actually been interested in that part of his life.
Someone other than Rose, that was.
And all the time while they were talking, that woman, who was most definitely not a wer, continued to smell almost right. In fact, the longer they were talking, the more her smell approached that of a wer in heat, and he could feel himself react to it. Of course he wouldn't act on that. Wer and non-wer never mated, and he wasn't a pack leader, and as such had no business mating with anyone. At least the almost-right scent was still wrong enough to allow him to keep a clear head and clamp down on instincts. He wouldn't have to get up and leave. He could remain here, talking, and joking, laughing and having a better time than he had had in months, and sniffing his whiskey now and then to cover up the fragrance that he could only have named desire, had he been asked.
Wasn't that ridiculous? She'd just met him, and for all that he didn't know much about humans, he knew they didn't go into heat and they had insanely complicated rituals to follow before they got around to mating. They hadn't gone through any of those, so how would she even begin to smell like that?
It was odd, and it was confusing, and on some level he wanted to know about the why and the how of it. On another, he knew he was already going to be in trouble with Stuart for being away from the farm for so long. A glance at the clock made him wince.
"Anything wrong?" Maryse asked. Like he, she still hadn't actually drunk any of her whiskey. It seemed she'd told the truth when she'd said she didn't drink.
"My uncle's going to be livid," he admitted. "He doesn't like it when we're gone from the farm at night." He sighed. "We had an incident with a killer a while ago. He shot several people and wounded my father." He didn't mention that that had happened more than two decades ago.
"Ouch." Maryse’ voice sounded sympathetic. "Should you at least text someone and let them know you're alright?"
He shrugged. "My sister knows where I am." She also knew better than to share that piece of wisdom with Stuart.
Trying to find another subject to turn to, his eyes once again fell on the black lines inked into Maryse' skin.
"What are they?" he asked, pointing. "Do they mean anything?"
She blinked, surprised by the non sequitur, but caught herself quickly. "Yeah," she said. "They do." She touched the mark on the side of her neck, then one on her arm. "This one's for protection, for example, and that one is for good health."
He followed the lines with his eyes, memorizing the shapes. He'd try to find out where those symbols came from. They looked as if they might belong to some larger system – at least he could see recurring elements in several of them.
His eyes fell on the one she had on the back of her hand, neatly divided down the center by a scar that looked well-healed but recent. "What happened to that one?"
Maryse made a face. "That one symbolized my marriage."
To his surprise, the thought of marriage – which meant a husband – did not change her scent in the least.
"The cut stands for our divorce," she elaborated when she saw he continued to stare at her hand.
"Oh." What was a person supposed to say to that? The wer did not practice marriage and divorce in the same way humans did – or at least they didn't do so on any level that mattered to them. "I'm sorry?"
She chuckled at that. "Don't be. After years of cheating on me, by ex-husband eventually got one of his lovers pregnant and decided to marry her. I have found that I'm far better off without him."
She sounded sincere. She smelled sincere. This wasn't false bravado because she didn't want to admit to being hurt. He was strangely glad to know that.
"If you had a husband…" he began, his thoughts already another step ahead, "do you also have children?"
"Four." There was pride in her tone. "Three of them grown up already. The youngest is twelve."
"Shouldn't he be with you then?" Peter tried to remember what degree of independence his classmates had had at that age, though with limited success. Wer aged and matured differently from humans, and he hadn't paid a lot of attention to the other children back then.
She smiled. "He's staying with his grandmother right now."
That made sense. He was about to ask another question when the barman came over.
"Sorry to interrupt you two," he said, though he didn't sound sorry in the least. "But I'm about to lock up here. It's time." He indicated the clock, then their glasses, which were as full as they had been when he'd handed them over, save for a margin caused by evaporation. "Will you drink that, or are you going to make me pour that away?" The look he gave Peter clearly added: again.
Peter shrugged, pushing over the glass. "Sounds fine to me."
Maryse moved her glass toward the man as well. Her expression at the bartender's face was more amused than most people would have been in light of the fact that they'd just spent money on a perfectly good whiskey, only to have it poured down the drain after cuddling it for a few hours.
"Too bad," Peter said as he shrugged back into his jacket. "I would have liked to learn more about those signs."
She gave that a moment's consideration. "We can go to my room and continue this. I can even show you some more of them."
"That'd be nice!" Peter heard himself say the words and felt his face morph into a broad smile before he even realized what he was doing. The scent in his nose had suddenly spiked, which was probably because he no longer had the whiskey before him to counter it, and he felt strangely light-headed. It was a good feeling, though, and he wasn't going to fight it. "Lead the way."
It wasn't usually Maryse' style to take men she had just met to her hotel room. Then again, she hadn't had a lot of opportunity for that either, and absolutely none since the time of her divorce.
She was, in fact, a single woman. She had no obligations to return to right away and she could do with her night whatever she liked.
She knew what she wanted to do with her night, though until Peter had agreed so very readily to join her, she hadn't been sure if her unexpected companion had the same thoughts. All evening, though he had been talking quite animatedly, his smile brightening up not only his face but the entire room at times, he'd seemed strangely shy and restrained. Then there'd been looks she could have sworn had been positively hungry, and that made her respond in kind to a degree she hadn't experienced since … well, not since before Isabelle's birth, probably.
Yet, they never lasted more than a few moments, and afterwards she could have sworn that Peter didn't even realize what he'd been doing.
She closed the door behind them, watching him stand there and look around, apparently uncertain of what to do next or where to sit.
Slipping off her shoes – she wasn't going to need those again tonight –, she indicated the edge of the bed. "Get comfortable," she suggested as she let her jacket slide off her shoulders and dropped it onto a chair.
He did as he was told, his eyes watching her moves and taking in the Marks on her arms. Of course she wasn't going to tell him what they actually were and how they worked, but if he found the thought of her having symbols tattooed on her body intriguing, she wasn't going to hide them.
"Strength," she said, pointing. "Speed. Agility." She took the place next to him, noting with approval that he shifted immediately to accommodate her, but also to keep her in focus. The expression in his eyes could only be called desire now – and that, too, was something she hadn't experienced in far too long.
Lifting her arm so he could study one of the runes, she kept her gaze firmly on his face.
The tip of his tongue darted across his lips as he traced the black lines with his eyes. "Where are these from?"
He reached out one hand to place his finger against a rune. The touch sent a small shiver of electricity through her.
Maryse moved a little closer, her free arm extending to give the lapels of Peter's jacket a slight tug. "Aren't you warm?"
"A little," he admitted.
"You could do something about that."
Confusion was clear on his features for a moment before the pieces visibly fell into place. "Right." He slid his arms out of his jacket and put it on the bed behind him. The turn back towards her brought him close, their eyes meeting.
She thought she could see her own thoughts reflected there.
When he leaned forward, continuing the movement he had started, she was certain.
Shifting ever so slightly, she met him, lips touching.
It had been a long time since she'd been kissed like this. Later, she'd wonder if she had ever been kissed like that before. There was a certain wildness in his reaction, the probing of his tongue, the way he responded when she brought up one hand to cup the back of his head. She felt his body tense, his hands on her, his touch feeling hot even through the fabric of her blouse. At the same time, he felt strangely uncoordinated, and the look he gave her when they parted seemed bewildered.
"Peter?" she asked, her voice low and a little breathless. "Are you alright?"
"We shouldn't—I shouldn't do this," he whispered, though he didn't pull away.
Maryse waited for a moment until he met her eyes again. "Is there another woman somewhere in your life?"
He shook his head mutely.
She thought of Alec and Magnus. "A man?"
"Do you want this?" Her hand was resting flat against his chest, and she could feel his heartbeat under her palm. His breathing hadn't quieted entirely either since the kiss had ended.
"Yes." The single word came with an inflection she had last heard from her own children, when they had done something they knew they weren't supposed to do.
"Then there's no reason not to," she stated.
He turned his head, forcefully breaking eye contact. "I live on a sheep farm," he sounded subdued. "Not a lot of people, and we have rules." A pause followed while he seemed to wait for her to fill in the blank on her own.
She blinked as she started to suspect what he was trying to imply, but he spoke again before she could determine how to ask without embarrassing him.
"Well, I have," she pointed out. She'd wrap her mind around the concept of a forty-something-year-old man, good-looking, witty and educated, who also happened to be a virgin – which she was now reasonably sure was exactly what he meant – later. "I can show you what to do – if you want it."
Maryse woke with a feeling of disorientation. She was in a strange room, in a bed that wasn't her own, and her head was cushioned on a shoulder that wasn't Robert's.
Which would have been even stranger, come to think of it, because she would have been hard pressed to say when she had last woken up in the morning still entangled with her ex-husband. Neither could she remember waking up still feeling so utterly relaxed and content.
Memory of the last night returned, and she smiled at the man sprawled in her bed. Peter may not have been experienced, but he'd certainly turned out to be a quick study. Running a foot along his leg under the covers, she smiled to herself as she touched the fabric of the sock he'd pulled on before crawling back into bed with her after a quick dash to the bathroom. For some reason, that ring of scarring around his ankle seemed to embarrass him to the point where he wanted it covered up. She'd taken note of it – and of the fact that his limp was a good deal more pronounced when he wasn't wearing boots, his foot not lifting as it should – but not commented on either.
Other than that, he was still entirely naked – his jeans and t-shirt lying somewhere on the floor. He hadn’t worn anything underneath, as she'd found out.
It was, she mused, a good situation to start a repeat of the last night's activity from. She certainly wouldn't have minded.
"Morning, Peter," she greeted him when he stirred, blinking and visibly gathering his thoughts.
His smile was happy, his features relaxed and appreciative as he took her in. "Good—" he began.
Then something changed.
It seemed, she thought, as if he was suddenly hit by a thought, a realization or a memory. He jerked backwards, away from her, almost toppling over the edge of the bed.
Previously content, almost expectant even, his voice was on the brink of panic now. "What have I done? How could—I'm not—I can't—"
She sat up, her hands raised in a reassuring gesture. "You did nothing wrong, Peter!" She hurried to tell him. "I wanted it, remember? I invited you."
"You don't understand!" His eyes wild, he cast about for his clothes, pulling them on as he spoke and not even bothering to check if he had his t-shirt on right-side in.
He was right, too, because she didn't. "Then explain," she suggested. "Calm down, Peter. Whatever it is—"
There was a violent shake of his head. "I can't. You wouldn't—I—I'm not allowed, Maryse."
Before she had finished disentangling herself from the blanket, he had slammed his feet into his boots and taken a step towards the door, backwards, his gaze still focused on her. He blindly groped behind himself for the handle. "He'll kill me."
She blinked. What was Peter thinking? "Robert will kill absolutely no one. He doesn't own me. He's not even married to me anymore."
"Not he." He had found the handle and yanked it down. "Uncle Stuart."
With that, he turned and bolted.