He inhaled sharply, then pushed his face into the pillow with an annoyed grunt. Oh? Not as deeply asleep as I’d thought.
Propping myself up with one elbow, I poked him in the shoulder. “Hey.” Another poke. “Hey, druid.”
He grumbled wordlessly.
“The talking skull wouldn’t shut up, so I put a box over it. Is that okay?” I gave him a harder poke. “Are you listening?”
With a deep, waking inhale, he half turned, flattening me with his shoulder. He squinted blearily. “Wha …?”
“I put a box on the nasty skull. That a problem?”
He frowned, then rolled back onto his side and burrowed into the blankets.
“Hey! Come on, Ghost. Just answer. Is it bad I did that?”
“That’s what the box is for,” he rumbled, the pillow muffling his voice. “And don’t call me that.”
“Don’t call you what?”
“Ghost.” The word came out slurred, his voice dropping into sleep again. “Hate that name.”
“What should I call you then?” If he said “master,” I’d punch him.
Instead, he answered in a sleepy mumble almost too quiet to hear. “Zak.”
My eyes widened. “Zak?”
“Mm.” His shoulders shifted in a deep breath and his body relaxed. I waited a minute, but he was gone.
I stared down at his profile, my heart somersaulting. First I’d seen the infamous Ghost’s face, and now I’d learned his name. For someone who claimed not to trust me, he was letting me dangerously close—and with each exposed secret, the odds he’d ever let me leave dwindled closer to zero.
The sound of running water dragged me from a deep, peaceful slumber. Cracking my eyes open, I found late morning sunlight streaming through the gaps in the drapes. Man, I hadn’t slept this much since I was a teenager. I yawned widely and rolled onto my stomach, burying my face in the pillow.
The water shut off, then the bathroom door clacked. Quiet footsteps crossed to the bed, then the blankets lifted off me. Cold air rushed across my back. I didn’t move as the bed dipped and Zak climbed over me to his spot. Settling in, he pulled the blankets over us, making sure I was covered. Aw, that was nice.
Then he yanked the pillow out from under me. My face hit the mattress.
I shot up onto my elbows. “Hey!”
He fluffed the pillow and laid his head back. “It’s mine. You’re freeloading in my bed, remember?”
“You could still share.”
Tired green eyes slid across my face, then he nudged the pillow a few inches to one side, freeing up a corner barely wide enough to fit my head on. If he thought I’d be too shy to put my face that close to his, he’d learned nothing from the shower incident.
I skooched right up against his side, dropped my cheek onto the pillow, then blew in his ear.
He jerked his head away, exposing more pillow, and I squished onto it with a triumphant grin. Grumbling, he rolled onto his side, putting his back to me. I wiggled closer and blew on his neck, just to annoy him. His shoulders twitched.
“Would you grow up?” he grouched.
“Make me,” I retorted maturely. “You brought this on yourself, Zachy.”
He jerked upright, pulling the blankets off my torso. His alarmed gaze flashed over me. “Shit.”
I blinked up at him, distracted by the view of his mostly naked drool-worthiness. “What?”
A pained look crossed his face and he muttered, “I’d hoped that was a dream.”
“A dream?” As I clued in, a wicked smile bloomed across my lips. “Oh, you mean you thought you dreamed that you told me your name? Ha! Hate to burst your bubble, Zachary.”
He sighed heavily. “Not Zachary.”
“Oh. That’s a nice name.”
Rubbing a hand over his face, he slumped back. “Great. I should just feed you to the vargs and be done with it.”
“Umm. Maybe you could not?” I poked him lightly in the side. “What if I promise not to tell anyone?”
“You seem like the blabbermouth type to me.”
“Am not! I’m an expert secret keeper.” I poked him again to emphasize my point.
He grabbed my hand. “Stop that.”
I tugged on my hand but he didn’t release it. “Since I’m in on all your secrets anyway, there’s something I’d really like to know.”
Wariness skittered across his features. “What’s that?”
“What the hell kind of cult are you running here?”
His caution morphed into disbelieving affront. “What kind of cult? Are you serious?”
“You live on a farm with a bunch of runaway teen mythics who worship the ground you walk on. What else am I supposed to think?”
“I live here because I’m a druid. Most fae don’t approach cities. As for the kids, I have no control over what they think. Morgan and Terrance take care of them, not me. I’m busy with other things.”
“Things like … selling poisons to darkfae?” I didn’t suppress my judgmental tone.
“Sometimes.” His green eyes seared me. “The difference between wyldfae and darkfae is ambiguous and always changing. Besides, a fae who wants a poison will get its hands on that poison whether I transmute it or not. But they pay me well in magic for making it easy.”
I studied him curiously. No dissembling, no shame. He didn’t care if I thought he was immoral. He gave zero shits about whether I considered him an evil bastard. But I’d seen evidence that there were fae he refused to deal with, and judging by his interaction with the dragons, he was known as a healer as well as a poison-maker.
“Okay, but why the runaways?”
“It …” He grimaced. “It just happened. I didn’t plan things that way, but it works for me. I pick up mythics with nowhere to go and give them a home for a few months or years. In return, they help out on the farm, and when they’re ready, they move on.”
“Why are they never heard from again? Why did you tell me I would never return if I went with you?”
“To make sure you were dead serious about coming. I’m not wasting my time carting around teenagers who want to run back to mommy and daddy once their sense of adventure wears off.” He twitched one shoulder. “The others are never seen again because they don’t want to return to their old lives. Morgan and Terrance help them set up new identities, relocate to new places, stuff like that.”
A new life. That’s what he offered, and the mythics who left this farm went on to something new and different, never returning to reveal they were healthy and far happier than before they’d disappeared. And since he never revealed his name or face to anyone, they didn’t know they were former abductees of the infamous Ghost.
“Why all the secrecy?” I asked softly. “Doesn’t it bother you that you’re seen as a child-abductor and murderer?”
“My reputation is a form of protection in itself.” He lifted my hand, his warm grip tightening ominously. “Don’t get the wrong idea, Victoria. I earned that reputation.”
“I prefer Tori to Victoria.” I tugged my hand free, pillowed my cheek on my arm, and smiled at him. “One more question. How come you’re all fine with me hanging out in your room while you’re fast asleep? I totally could have killed you and made my escape.”
Amusement pulled at his lips. He didn’t smile but his mouth and jaw softened. “You’re a human. What could you possibly have done to hurt me?”
“Seriously?” I scowled. “This room is full of weapons. I could’ve stabbed you right through your black heart.”
“Hmm. You think so?” He canted his head toward the sitting area. In a nook behind the sofa, a huge standing perch was almost invisible in the shadows—as was the giant black eagle, its jewel-bright emerald eyes fixed on me.
Adrenaline shot through my veins. “Oh. Hi there, Lallakai.”
The fae’s raptor glare didn’t shift. How long had the bird been here, watching over her druid?
“What’s with the skull?” I asked, eager to change the subject.
“Cursed fae. He’s occasionally useful, but mostly just annoying.”
“He’s also a complete pig. Did you curse him?”
He snorted. “I don’t have that kind of power. I found him on the black market and bought him so some stupid sorcerer didn’t break the seal and loose a bloodthirsty fae lord in the middle of a city.”
Remembering what Kai had said about the Ghost buying up nasty Arcana magic, I reevaluated the cluttered room. “How much of this stuff did you buy off the black market just so no one else could get their hands on it?”
He stretched his legs out, eyes closing. “Half, maybe. Some of it I trade to fae, since they usually take it far away from humans, and some is just waiting until I have time to destroy it.”
“Huh. You know, Zak, I don’t think you’re as bad as you think you are.”
His eyes opened, sunlight gleaming across his green irises. “I told you not to get the wrong idea.”