Chapter 1: Ring the Bells
Gabriel paced the hallway in front of Cat’s bedroom. Meabh had kicked him out of the room while she tended to Cat’s injuries. Her pale face and still form invaded his mind, and he closed his eyes, biting his lip until the sharp tang of iron and salt filled his mouth. Come on, Cat. Wake up, please. He slumped against the wall, clutching his head in his hands. You can’t slip away in a coma. You can’t. I can’t— He sucked in a breath and slid down the wall, rumpling his cloak.
Footsteps tapped down the hall, and the scent of vanilla and jasmine enveloped him. A warm, calloused hand slipped into his, and hair tickled at his bare forearms as the newcomer leaned forward with a sigh. “Gabriel.” Awnia’s lilting voice rang loud in the hall, combating the eerie stillness that had overtaken the place. “Listen to me. You can’t do this to yourself. She wouldn’t want you to do this to yourself.”
“I woke up three weeks ago to find the woman I love in a coma because she protected me.” Gabriel gritted his teeth, snatching his hand from hers and fisting his fingers in his long curls. “Don’t tell me not to feel guilt or pain!”
“I’m not telling you not to feel those things.” She wrapped her arms around her torso and leaned against the wall. “What I’m saying is that you can’t punish yourself for it. We all need you to be the leader more than ever now, Gabriel. You’re going to be coronated in a month, but even if you aren’t coronated, you’re the acting king.”
“I know that.”
“So, you’ve got to trust Meabh to do whatever she can for her and turn your attention to ruling the kingdom. Eclesia is in shambles.” She cleared her throat. “Sibhor and I can’t keep running things forever. People are getting uneasy.”
Gabriel drew in a long breath and straightened. “I’ll make a public appearance tomorrow morning. But it’s too late to do anything more tonight.”
Awnia glanced at him and then rose, brushing the wrinkles from her skirts. “Would you like me to inform the others of that?”
He frowned, crossing his arms. “So that you can make sure I don’t back out of it?”
She twisted a black lace-trimmed handkerchief between her long white fingers. The nail lacquer on her tapered fingernails looked like drops of bright red blood on the dainty cloth. “It’s not like that. Not really, anyway.”
“I don’t need a baby-sitter, Awnia.”
“You haven’t been yourself lately, and—”
Gabriel flinched and glowered at her. “Of course I haven’t been myself!” The torches flickered in response to his rising anger.
Awnia glanced at the guttering lights and swallowed hard, her hands crumpling and un-crumpling the silk kerchief. “Please, calm down. You’re letting your power spin out of control.”
“I’m under control.” He clenched his fists at his side. “And if I don’t seem like myself, maybe that’s because the woman I love—the woman I was planning to make Queen—is lying in there dying.” A silent sob wracked his frame, and he clapped his hand over his mouth to hold it in, turning away from Awnia. “Gods. She’s dying, Awnia.”
A gentle hand settled on his shoulder. “I’m sorry we can’t do more. I really am. But all we can do is wait and pray to the gods that she’s able to heal herself.”
“I can’t. I can’t just sit and wait!” Gabriel jerked away from her and slammed his fist against the wall with a scream. “She’s slipping away from me, and I can’t protect her like I promised I would. I promised.” His rage faded, and pain lanced through his hand, shooting into his heart. He dropped to his knees and pressed a hand to the wall with a guttural groan. “I promised.” His voice came out in a breathless whisper, tangling with a choked-off cry.
Awnia sat on the floor and pulled him into her arms, holding him as he sobbed. He clung to her, letting go of the mask and the kingly persona to be the man she’d befriended all those years ago when he’d first lost Cat. She rocked him back and forth, stroking his hair and whispering soothing words that he didn’t comprehend but understood were meant to ease his grief.
The door opened, and the tap of Meabh’s walking stick on the stone floor pulled him from his grief. He let go of Awnia and lifted his head to stare at Meabh through teary eyes. Her lips twisted into a mournful grimace, sending wrinkles webbing across her aged face, and she shook her head. “No change yet.” She hobbled over to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Gabriel.”
He bowed his head and shut his eyes, hot tears scalding down his cheeks and working their way into his mouth to fill it with the salty taste of guilt and regret. “I—” He sighed. “It isn’t your fault. May I sit with her now?”
“Of course. Just make sure you get enough rest. You’re wasting away, dear.” Meabh patted his shoulder and turned to go. “And Gabriel?”
He opened his eyes and looked up at her.
She looked over her shoulder with a sad smile on her lips. “Things will work out the way they’re intended to. She still has a part to play.”
Does that mean she’ll live? He drew his lower lip in between his teeth. “So, she’ll wake up eventually?”
Meabh looked away and began limping down the dark hallway. “That’s yet to be determined, I’m afraid. There are many paths this may take yet. But she is interwoven with what is to come no matter what path is taken.”
Gabriel leapt to his feet and rushed after Meabh, taking her elbow to stop her. “Meabh, please. What aren’t you saying?”
“I can’t be certain of anything I’ve seen, Sire.” Meabh bowed her head, her shoulders slumping. “The future is rife with evil, but I do not know where it will come from yet. Perhaps our ancestors will see fit to bless me with a clearer view of what is to come. But unless they decide I need to know, I know nothing of use except that evil is headed our way, and she will play a part somehow.”
Gabriel dropped his hold on her arm, his breath rushing out of him. “I see. Thank you for all you’ve done, Meabh. Get some rest. I’ll watch over her for the night.”
Meabh nodded, reaching out to squeeze his hand. “You’ll find a way to get us through this. You always were resourceful.” She winked at him. “And you’re far too stubborn a king to just give up even when faced with odds that seem insurmountable.”
A smile tugged at Gabriel’s lips, but the pain and despair lodged in the depths of his soul did not lift with the corners of his mouth. “I hope you’re right.”
A twinkle filled her rheumy blue eyes. “This is something I know for certain. I believe in you.” She resumed her slow walk down the hall to the stair lift that would take her to her room. “Awnia, would you be a dear and come levitate the lift down to the first floor for me?”
Awnia padded past him with a strained laugh. “What? Are you unable to perform the spell yourself?”
“I’m growing old, woman. You shouldn’t mock your elders.”
Gabriel stood alone in the hall and stared after them as Awnia said the spell and lowered the platform down. When they were out of sight, he turned and wandered to Cat’s room. He meandered across the threshold into her sick room, shoving his hands in his pockets. His fingers brushed the crushed-velvet covered box in his pocket. A hollowness settled in the center of his chest, and he stood at the foot of Cat’s bed, staring at her wan face and delicate hands. Her wings spread out across the queen-sized bed, the tips drooping off the edge. The bones had finished healing a few days ago, thanks to the Riladian side of her, but she remained lost in a coma.
And without her, he too felt as if he was a boat cast adrift on the open sea without an anchor or a sail. Aimless. Motionless.
He shuffled to her bedside and dropped into the chair there. Running his hands through his unruly, tangled locks, he let his gaze trail over the translucent skin over her high, sunken cheekbones and the coils of raven hair fanning over her pillow to pool against her shoulders. Reaching out, he took her hand between both of his, sighing. “Cat, I doubt you can hear me, but if you can—” He sucked a breath through his teeth and fought back the swell of pain choking him off. “If you can, I need you to come back from wherever you’ve gone.” He pressed her cold hand to his forehead. “I need you desperately.”
She didn’t respond at all. No twitch to indicate she’d heard. No fluttering of her lashes against those porcelain cheeks.
Gabriel stood and settled onto the bed beside her, careful not to jostle the bandages around her rib-cage. Those too would be removed soon, according to Meabh. He recalled her mentioning that the ribs were mostly healed now. He traced his fingers over the bandages wrapping her ribs and holding them in the right place. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t protect you. You shouldn’t have had to do what you did.” His gut twisted. “You were so brave. I’m proud of you. But I feel so guilty for letting this happen to you. Please wake up so I can apologize and make this right.”
Again, he received no response. Didn’t expect one anyway. She probably can’t even hear me. Tears slipped down his cheeks, and he dragged his knees up to his chest. The swirling vortex of pain and despair enveloping him reminded him of mourning his mother’s death in childbirth when he was thirteen. And it brought to mind mourning his father’s death sixteen years ago. Has so much time really passed? He buried his head in his knees. Eighteen years without this woman, then a year to spend with her, and now she’s dying. I’m losing her yet again.
He sprang from the bed, a lump in his throat, and began pacing the length of the room, unable to sit still. His fingers wove through his hair and tugged at the silken strands as they slid through his grasp. Slipped through his grasp like everything that meant anything was also doing right now. He spun on his heel, his chest constricting. How could Kellan get her involved in this? How dare he let her be hurt because of his rivalry with me? Thoughts spun through his mind faster than he could process them. Emotions burned in his chest and spread through his body, making him blaze and freeze in turn.
Worn out by the constant mental train wreck, he sunk to his knees beside Cat’s bed and laid his head on top of his arms atop the mattress beside her. “Cat, please wake up. When you do, I’m going to propose. We’ll have the wedding you always wanted, and this time, you’ll marry me, not him.”
Her fingers twitched.
Gabriel’s head snapped up. “Cat?” I was imagining it. After three weeks… She can’t be waking up. Don’t get your hopes up.
Her hand moved, and she groaned.
He sprang to his feet, leaning over her bed. “Cat? Are you—” He shook his head. “I must be dreaming. I have to be.”
Her eyelashes fluttered against her porcelain skin. Then her eyes opened, and he stared into their hazel depths again for the first time in weeks. Gabriel released a low sob and sank to the bed at her side, his hands shaking at his sides. “You—You’re really awake.”
She swallowed, opening chapped lips to speak. Nothing came out. She scratched at the IV needles in her left arm with a whimper, then pressed a hand to her throat.
Gabriel tore his eyes away from her. “What am I doing? You’re probably thirsty, aren’t you?”
She coughed and whimpered again.
Leaping up, he strode to the small room adjoining the main bedroom and found a cup. Scooping some water up out of the fresh bowl of drinking water on the counter, he returned to Cat’s side. Her gaze fixed on the cup in his hands, and she tried to push herself into a sitting position. Her arms gave out as he reached her, and she flopped back against the bed.
Gabriel set the cup on the end table and went to her side. “I’ll help if you’d like.”
She nodded, glancing at the water.
He eased a hand under her back and supported her as she scooted into a sitting position. Turning his attention to the pillows, he went to prop more of them up behind her back. His fingers brushed her primary feathers, and she shivered. Snatching his fingers back, he blushed. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to—”
She shook her head, lifting a shaking arm to press a slender finger against his lips.
He closed his eyes, relishing her touch for a moment before remembering the water he’d brought her. Pulling away from her, he snatched the glass up, sloshing water over the rim of the cup in his haste. It dripped over his fingers and splashed to the floor. Gabriel stared down at the small puddle on the floor, blushing. “I’m sorry.” He shook himself out of the stupor and brought the cup to her lips.
Cat gulped at the water, her eyes fluttering shut. She coughed after a particularly large mouthful and shoved it away, choking on the water. Gabriel’s eyes widened, and he slid the cup onto the nightstand. Then he eased her forward, about to thump her on the back when he remembered the injuries she’d sustained to her spine and ribs.
She gasped and coughed for another minute and gagged for several more before she was able to relax against the pillows. Her fingers pressed to her chest, and she leaned her head back. “Thank you.”
Gabriel shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. Cat, I really am—”
Her voice was reedy and weak, but it still held a hint of the old steel he’d seen in her when he’d been on Earth with her. “If you apologize one more time, I’m going to scream.”
Heat rose in his cheeks, and he dropped into the chair at her bedside with a sigh. “But it’s my fault that—”
She shook her head. “You’re such an idiot sometimes, Gabe.” Opening her eyes, she stared at him, a hint of vulnerability glowing in the depths of her eyes as the torchlight from the torches around the room cast shadows across her face. “It’s not your fault. If it’s anyone’s, it’s Kellan’s.”
“You were hurt protecting me.”
A frown furrowed her brow. “Would you prefer I hadn’t saved your life?”
“I—” He had no good answer. “I suppose not. But if you die, what’s the point of life?”
Her lips pressed together in a tight line, and she crossed her arms. Twin spots of color on her cheeks popped against the pallor of the rest of her face. “Don’t you dare give me that load of garbage, Gabriel Luciano! Gods above, I’ve never heard a more asinine statement.”
Gabriel swallowed and looked away. “It’s not stupid. I really do feel that way.”
“Then you aren’t fit to be king.”
His head snapped up, and he glowered at her, his fingers curling into fists. “What?”
Her chin tipped up. Even though her voice rasped with disuse, she held her tone steady. “I said you aren’t fit to be king. If losing me can make you ready to die, you aren’t thinking about anyone but yourself, and that sort of man shouldn’t be king.”
Gabriel bit his lip, a tired laugh bubbling out of him.
She blinked and cleared her throat, playing with the fringe of the blanket thrown over her lap. “What—Why are you laughing?”
“Because any other girl would be thrilled to hear that. But not you.” He shook his head. “You never say what I want to hear. Just what I need to hear.”
Cat stared down at the blue yarn blanket she was toying with. “Is that bad?”
“No. Never.” Gabriel straightened in his chair. “Never think that I don’t want you to tell me what I need to hear just because it isn’t what I want to hear.”
She nodded. “C-can I have another sip of water?”
He grabbed the cup with more care this time and settled onto the bed with her. “Here. But small sips.” Lifting it to her lips, he tipped it enough for her to sip at what was left. “I don’t want you getting sick because you went too fast. How do you feel anyway?”
Her lips curved into a smile against the cool glass rim of the cup. “Better than I look, probably.”
“A slab of concrete and stone ceiling fell on you. I find that difficult to believe.”
She lifted a hand and took the cup from him to cradle it against her abdomen. Her other hand came up to stroke his cheek, running over the stubble on his jaw. “Honestly, I’m feeling more weak than anything. Even the pain is minimal. Did the healers heal the worst of it while I was out?”
Gabriel looked away, shaking his head. “They—” He swallowed. “Cat, they tried, but it failed.”
“It failed?” Her pitch rose an octave. “H-how is that possible?”
“You’re half-Riladian, love.” Gabriel captured her hand with his, pressing a kiss to the pulse point at her wrist. Her pulse fluttered weakly under his lips. “The rules don’t apply to you the same way they do with everyone else, I’d say.”
Cat sighed. “So, how am I even alive?”
“Your Riladian ability. Do you remember anything from before the roof caved in?” He looked up at her with a steady gaze.
“A little?” She squinted at him. “I—Something snapped inside me when he tried to execute you. I did something, I think. I healed you.” She rubbed her temple with her free hand. “The memories are a little fuzzy.”
“Getting hit in the back and the head with a slab of concrete probably accounts for that.” He grimaced. “I tried to take some of the weight off by slowing its descent when I realized what was happening, but—” He sucked in a breath. “It still broke your spine in four places and would’ve killed you immediately if you’d been human or sustained a blow to the head.”
“But I’m not human, and I didn’t take a blow to the head.” She dropped her hand back to her lap and offered a weak smile. “I’m fine, Gabe. I just need time to recover.”
He bit his lip and nodded.
A sly smile spread over her lips then. “Now, I believe you had something you wanted to ask me.”
“I—” Gabriel frowned, scratching his head. “Did I?”
She pursed her lips, a glint in her hazel irises. “Yes, I think you did. You mentioned needing to ask me something if I woke up.”
He wracked his mind, going over everything he’d said to her before she woke up. Then it hit him, and he stilled. His pulse rocketed skyward, and his heart hammered against his chest. All moisture in his throat dried up, and he opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“Gabriel?” She raised a brow.
He cleared his throat and swallowed, trying to get his vocal chords to function properly. I’ve been dreaming of this for years. Why is this so hard? I even did this with her once before. What’s wrong with me? He shoved a hand into his pocket and fingered the velvet box nestled at the bottom of his left pant pocket. “I g-guess this never gets easier.” He chuckled, shifting on the bed and pulling the box from his pocket.
“Enough practice, and I’m sure you’ll be an expert. Just no practicing with anyone else, understand?”
His lips quirked upward. “Cruel woman. Tying me to you for the rest of eternity and teasing me about it too?”
A laugh croaked out of her dry throat. “No crueler than you for trying to put this off.”
True. Difference is, I’m doing that because I’m nervous, not to tease you. His smile dissipated, and he stood. Turning, he knelt beside the bed and opened the jewelry box, staring down at the sparkling emerald and ruby ring there. It had been his mother’s and her mother’s before her. Now, he would pass it down for the second time, and hopefully this time, she’d actually make it to the altar with him. He swallowed back the lump in his throat, his heart squeezing in his chest.
Gabriel looked up and met her teary gaze. In that moment, he realized how much this meant to her. She may have teased him about it earlier, but she didn’t take this lightly. He turned the box to let her see. “It was yours once before.” He gulped back the tears threatening to escape as he knelt in the mixture of torchlight and the moonlight streaming through the window in the wall beside her bed. Memories of the first time he’d given her this ring flooded his mind and warmed his heart. “It’s still yours if you’ll have it. If you’ll have me.”
Cat nodded, tears slipping down her cheeks. In a hoarse voice, she murmured, “Always, Gabe. Always and forever.”
His fingers curled around the box, and his lips parted. Those words were a part of the Eclesian sacred vows. They were only spoken when the man and woman binding themselves to each other intended to do so with the power of the Ancients behind their vows. She hadn’t said those words the first time he’d asked her all those years ago.
She reached out, brushing tears from his cheeks with the smooth pad of her thumb. “I mean it. Always and forever, Gabe. In the sight of the gods and our ancestors, I pledge that to you. For as long as you’ll have me, I’m yours.”
Gabriel drew in a shuddering breath and tugged the ring out of its place nestled in the velvet cushion inside the box. He held it up in the moonlight and then slipped it onto her ring finger. “And for as long as you’ll have me, I pledge myself to you. Always and forever until the gods do us part, my love.”