He straightened to his full height, those unreadable green eyes turning to me. “I can’t do that.”
“I knew it,” I hissed. “I knew you were full of shit. You aren’t rescuing vulnerable mythics and giving them a safe home. You’re no white-knight hero.”
With one hand trailing on the horse’s chest, he ducked under its head and vanished around its other side. “Never said I was.”
“Nadine worships you,” I spat accusingly.
“You—” I gulped back my fury before I said something that would get me killed. “You’re scum.” Well, so much for holding back.
He said nothing, and after a moment, I heard a quiet sound over the scratch of the brush on the horse’s coat—humming. He was humming as he groomed his horse. He held my life and my freedom in his hands and he couldn’t even acknowledge me? Rage splintered through me, one more overwhelming emotion on top of the helpless impotency and simmering fear of the last thirteen days as his prisoner. My composure disintegrated, irrational temper igniting in its place.
“Hey!” I yelled.
The horse’s head jerked up, its ears flattening to its head. It half reared, the lead rope snapping taut. The Ghost caught the rope and pulled the horse’s nose down as he stroked its neck and crooned. Ducking under its head, he stalked toward me.
A wave of fear quenched my unreasoning fury, and I backpedaled as he closed in on me. My back hit a stall door. He stopped a foot away, towering over me.
“So you want to leave.” His rumbling voice was quiet and dangerous, threat hanging in the air like when we’d first met. “Are you ready to talk first?”
“Talk?” I whispered soundlessly.
“Are you ready to share the truth, Victoria?” He loomed closer. “You aren’t a mythic. You aren’t related to any mythics. You haven’t dated any mythics—not seriously enough to leave a mark on your life. You have no obvious ties to the mythic community, but you showed up at the shelter pretending to be a diviner. You talked about magic classes and dark arts. And you agreed to go with me even though you think I’m an evil bastard.”
I lifted my chin. “You are an evil bastard.”
“Never said I wasn’t.” His fingers caught my raised chin, pinching my jaw. “How about the team of mythics who swarmed the park during our meeting? Who were they?”
I swallowed, my throat bobbing. He’d noticed too much. He’d guessed too much. I should’ve known the guys invading the park hadn’t slipped past him.
“Why didn’t you kill me?” I asked harshly. I wanted to jerk my head away from his hand, but I was trapped against the stall door. “Why make your offer?”
“I didn’t know if those mythics were enemies, allies, or strangers to you.” His fingers slipped off my chin and he stepped back. “You were hiding something, but your anger and desperation—those were real. So I took a chance.”
I sagged against the stall door, then pulled myself together. “You believed me because I was angry?” I asked scathingly.
“I didn’t believe a word out of your mouth.”
He stepped into the tack room and returned with a saddle blanket that he laid over the horse. He then brought out a saddle, a leather halter hanging over his shoulder. Flipping the saddle over the horse’s back, he wiggled it into place, then reached under the horse’s belly for the cinch strap.
“I don’t understand,” I muttered.
His hands paused in the middle of buckling the cinch. “I’ve been taking in abused, broken, and abandoned teens for years. I know the signs.”
Horror crystalized inside me, followed by furious denial. “I’m not broken!”
“Seemed like it that night.” Pulling the lead rope off the horse, he put his arm over its neck and guided the bridle onto its head. “Whatever your story is, you don’t need help the way the others did. You’re strong enough to take care of yourself.”
My emotions tumbled over each other, and I didn’t know what to feel first. He thought I was strong?
After adjusting the bridle, he flipped the reins over the horse’s neck, then gave the saddle a final tug.
“You don’t need to be here, but I can’t let you leave. And you know why.” He grabbed the saddle horn and swung onto the horse’s back. His gaze slashed across me. “I took a chance on you, and we’re both paying for it.”
He put his heels to the horse’s sides. With a toss of its head, it clopped past me and out into the sunshine.
You know why. Yeah, I sure did. He might not have guessed I’d been bait to lure him into the open, but he knew I was aware of his reputation. Most of his captives, if not all, knew nothing about a rogue called the Ghost. Even if they rejoined the mythic community later, they’d never connect this place with rumors of a child-napping dark arts master whose face, name, and class were unknown.
Me, though. I knew who he was. I’d seen his face. I was one of only a few people who could link the green-eyed druid and his hippy farm refuge to the infamous Ghost.
He would never let me leave this place alive.
Feeling numb inside and out, I drifted out of the barn. Sunlight blasted my eyes, but I barely noticed. I was trapped here forever. He’d never let me go, and if I tried too hard to escape, he would kill me. He’d have no choice. I was only alive because … because he didn’t want to kill me. That’s what he’d meant when he said we were both paying for his misjudgment. He’d taken on the burden and the risk of keeping an unwilling prisoner here.
I climbed onto the pasture fence and sat, watching him canter the horse the length of the field and back. He rode with easy grace, his strength softened by the gentle way he guided his mount. What kind of evil rogue would put himself through this much inconvenience to avoid killing one girl when he already had so much blood on his hands?
I sighed. The answer was obvious: He wasn’t an evil rogue.
Oh, he was definitely a rogue. He was clearly into some bad shit. But he wasn’t evil. His “captives” were protected and happy. They lived here willingly and could leave whenever they wanted—their trip into town proved that. He’d said himself he didn’t care if they ditched the farm. They didn’t know his name, face, or reputation, and I’d bet if he didn’t want someone to find this farm, they never would, even if they’d been here before.
The fear I’d sensed from the mythics wasn’t fear of him. It had been fear of me. Fear of who I was, why I was here, and how I might destroy the fragile peace they had found in this place. They wanted to protect it—and him. Maybe they didn’t worship him because he’d brainwashed them, but because he’d genuinely earned their respect.
After several laps around the pasture, he walked his mount over to my perch. The horse’s sides puffed, and perspiration shone on the Ghost’s skin, dampening the neckline of his white shirt. He sat comfortably, reins held in one hand, as smooth and confident as Kai on his motorcycle.
“Can I try?” I blurted without thinking.
His head snapped toward me. “You want to ride?”
“Um. Actually, no, I changed my mind.”
I might’ve imagined the glint of amusement in his eyes, but either way, he swung out of the saddle and dropped onto the ground.
“Come over here, then.”
I leaned back, another protest hanging on the tip of my tongue. Swallowing it, I hopped off the fence and cautiously approached him and the tan horse.
“Take hold of the saddle horn,” he instructed as he pulled the reins over the horse’s head to hang from the bridle.
I grasped the leather knob at the front of the saddle. The horse was much bigger than I’d realized—the saddle was level with the top of my head, the stirrup dangling at waist height.
Warm hands closed around my waist and the next thing I knew he was lifting me. I barely got my leg over the horse’s back. As my weight came down on the saddle, the horse shuffled sideways. I clutched the saddle horn, eyes wide.
The Ghost nudged my leg forward and adjusted the stirrup length, then guided my foot into it. “How’s that?”
“Uh, good, I think.”
Holding the reins in one hand, he circled around and adjusted the other stirrup. I slipped the toe of my shoe into it.
“Heels down,” he told me. “Sit up straight.”
I pushed my heels down. The horse shifted and I wobbled. The ground was a long way away.
“You’re slouching.” Moving to my side, he put his hands on my lower back and stomach, his touch firm but gentle. “Tilt your hips forward and put your shoulders back.”
Obeying the pressure of his hands, I adjusted my posture and felt way more balanced. His hands slid away and with a clucking sound, he guided the horse into an easy walk.
As we paced a wide circle, I frowned at the top of his head, his dark hair mussed by the wind of his earlier ride. I did not get this guy. If he wasn’t a dastardly villain and he wasn’t a cult leader—at least not in the nefarious sense—then what was he? What did he get out of rescuing mythic teens and rehabilitating them?
He pulled the horse to a stop and scanned the pasture, tension stiffening his shoulders. The horse’s ears flattened and it arched its neck, blowing a loud, nervous breath.