I WOKE TO A SPILL OF SILVER HAIR STRETCHED LIKE GLISTENING spiderwebs across my face. I moved just my head, leaving the hair to trail across my face. Frost lay on his stomach, his face turned away from me. The sheets lay in a twist around his waist, leaving his upper body bare. His hair trailed to one side like a second body lying between us, and half across me.
Of course, there was a second body in the bed, or rather a third. Kitto lay on my other side. He was curled on his side, facing away from me, his body huddled around itself as if he were hiding from something in his dreams. Or maybe he was just cold, because he lay naked beside me. His body was pale, like some perfect china doll. I'd never been this close to a man that brought to mind words like petite. My shoulder ached where he'd left his mark: a perfect set of his teeth marks set in the flesh of my shoulder. The skin had bruised wonderfully around it, reddish purple, almost hot to the touch. It wasn't poison, just a really deep bite. It would leave a scar, and that was the point.
Sometime during the third or fourth time with Frost I'd invited Kitto to us. I had waited until Frost's body brought me to a point where pain and pleasure merge, and let Kitto choose his bit of flesh. It hadn't hurt when he did it, which told how far gone I'd been last night. It had hurt a little as we finally drifted off to sleep; this morning it hurt more. It wasn't the only thing that ached. My body hurt, telling me I'd abused it last night, or rather that I'd let Frost abuse it.
I reveled in the small pains, stretching my body, exploring exactly what hurt. It was like the ache after a really good workout with weights and running, except the muscle soreness was in different places. I couldn't remember the last time I'd woken with the feel of sex riding my body like a silken bruise. It had been too long.
Kitto had been honored that I allowed him to mark me so that all would know I was his lover. I don't know if he realized that he was never going to get intercourse from me, but he hadn't asked last night. In fact he'd been utterly submissive, doing only what was invited, or asked, never intruding. He was the perfect audience because he simply wasn't there until called, then he followed directions better than any man I'd ever been with.
I sat up and Frost's hair spilled down my body like the brush of something alive. I ran my hands through my own woefully short hair. Now that I was outed as Princess Meredith, I could grow it out again. My wrists hurt as I touched my hair, and it had nothing to do with the sex. The bandages at my wrists hadn't survived the bath last night, and we should have re-dressed the wounds, but this morning the marks of the thorns were scabbed over, nearly healed, as if they were a week or more old, instead of hours. I ran my fingers over the healing wounds. I had never healed this fast before. Kitto must have bitten me after the fourth time, otherwise it would have healed more. Assuming that the sex was what was healing me. We still didn't know that for certain.
I had a small corner of sheet, but the rest was wrapped around Frost. He was a cover hog. It was chilly in the room. I tugged at the covers, and got only a small protesting noise for my troubles. I stared down at the smooth expanse of his back and had an idea for how to get the covers away from him.
I ran my tongue down his back, and he made a small sound. I leaned over him, drawing my tongue up his spine in a slow wet line.
Frost raised his head from the pillow, slowly, like a man drawn from a deep, dark dream. His eyes were slightly unfocused, but when he looked at me a slow, pleased smile curled his lips.
"Haven't you had enough?"
I draped my naked body the length of his, though the covers kept us from touching below the waist. "Never," I said.
He laughed, a low, pleasant chuckle, and rolled onto his side, propped on one elbow to look at me. He also freed the covers. I pulled them over the bed to cover Kitto, who still seemed to be deeply asleep.
Frost's arm encircled my waist, drawing me back down on the bed. I laid back against the pillows, and he bent down to place a soft kiss across my lips. My hands slid over his shoulder, his back, pulling him against me.
His knee slid over my legs, between them, and he'd made that first movement of his hips to slide on top of me, when he froze, the look on his face totally changed to something watchful, almost frightened.
"What is it, Frost?"
I was quiet. He was the bodyguard. Was it Cel's people? This was their last day to kill me without costing Cel his life. Frost rolled off the bed, snatching the sword, Winter Kiss, from the floor and crossing the room to the windows in a movement like blurred silver lightning.
I got my gun from under the pillows. Kitto was awake, looking wildly around.
Frost jerked the drapes back from the window, and his sword was in midmotion toward the glass, when he froze. A man with a camera was on the outside of the window. I had an instant to see him raise a startled face, then Frost's fist smashed through the window, and grabbed the reporter by the neck.
"Frost, no, don't kill him!" I ran across the room naked, the gun still in my hand. The door behind us burst open, and I turned, gun pointed, safety off, at the door.
Doyle stood in the doorway, sword in hand. We had a moment of eye contact where he saw the gun in my hand. I pointed the gun at the floor and he kicked the door shut behind him and strode into the room. He didn't sheathe his sword, but tossed it on the bed as he moved toward Frost.
The reporter's face had turned that violent red-purple that said he wasn't able to breathe. Frost's face was unrecognizable, torn with fury, enraged.
"Frost, you're killing him."
Doyle came up beside him. "Frost, if you kill this reporter the queen will punish you for it."
Frost didn't seem to be hearing either of us, as if he'd gone to a distant place and all that was left was his hand on the man's throat.
Doyle stepped behind him and kicked him in the small of the back hard enough that Frost fell into the window, cracking more of the glass, but he let go of the reporter. He turned with blood running down his hand, the look in his eyes feral.
Doyle had gone into a fighting stance, bare-handed. Frost threw his sword on the floor and mirrored him. Kitto huddled in the middle of the bed and watched it all with wide eyes.
I went for the drapes, intending to close them, and I saw the reporters running like a pack of hounds toward us. Some were snapping pictures as they ran, others screaming out, "Princess, Princess Meredith!"
I closed the drapes, so there was no gap for them to peer through, but it wouldn't last. We had to get into the room next door where Galen and the rest had slept. I sighted the gun on the wooden headboard of the bed, to one side of the two guards. Kitto saw me and dived on the other side for the floor.
I fired the gun just once, the report thunderous in the room. It whirled the two men around, staring and wild-eyed. I pointed the gun at the ceiling. "There are about a hundred reporters about to descend on us. We have to get to the other room, now!"
No one argued with me. Frost, Kitto, and I grabbed sheets and clothes, and made it into the other room before the reporters started climbing in through the broken window. Doyle brought up the rear with the weapons. He, Galen, and Rhys went back for the luggage. I called the police and reported the reporters for breaking into our room.
The three of us who were naked took turns dressing in the bathroom, not for modesty's sake, but because there were no windows in the bathroom.
When I stepped out of the bathroom with an armload of toiletries, Doyle and Frost were sitting in the room's only two chairs. No one else was here. They were both doing their typical guard face, unreadable, inscrutable. But there was something about the way they held themselves, something odd.
"What's happened?" I asked. I was walking normally-I'd forgotten my ankle was supposed to be sprained until Galen had remarked on it. Neither of them spoke, and that made me nervous.
The men glanced at each other. Doyle pushed to his feet. He was wearing black jeans today, spread over the tops of ankle-high black boots. You'd almost mistake them for dress shoes if you didn't know what you were looking at. The shirt was a black dress shirt, long-sleeved. It was silk and looked it, shimmering against the blackness of his skin. The black of his shoulder holster blended in perfectly with everything. Even the gun was black. A Beretta 10 mm, the older model.
His hair gave the illusion of being very short and cut close to his head. It was in his usual tight braid, curling down his back to be lost in the blackness of his jeans. His high pointed ears gleamed with silver earrings in a shimmering display. Those and a small silver belt buckle were the only things that distracted from the total monochrome of his look. He'd added a silver chain on one ear with a small dangling ruby.
"We have a problem," he said.
"Like reporters taking pictures through the window of Frost and me in bed together. Yes, I'd say we have a problem."
"It is not just the one reporter," Frost said.
"I saw them, like a pack of sharks on the scent of blood." I started to put the small armful of toiletries away in the open suitcase that lay waiting on the bed. "I've been the subject of media attention, but never like this."
Frost crossed the legs of his grey dress slacks, showing pale grey loafers but no socks. Frost would never wear dress slacks short enough to flash sock-so declasse. The tailored jacket matched the pants and had a small pale blue show hankie in one pocket. The shirt was white and held in place with a dove grey tie, complete with a silver tie tack. He'd pulled his hair back in a tight ponytail, leaving the strong, clean lines of his face bare to the eye. He was dazzlingly handsome without the hair to distract the eye. He looked cool, perfect, not at all the same man who'd nearly ground me into the bathroom tile last night. But I knew the other Frost was under there waiting for permission to come out.
I shoved the last of the toiletries in the suitcase, closed it, and started to zip it up. I looked at the two men. "You guys look like something really, really bad has happened. Something I don't know about yet. Where is everybody else?"
Frost answered, "They are guarding the door and the window. They are trying to keep the media at bay, but it is a losing battle, Meredith."
Doyle leaned his hands on the dresser, head hanging down. The thick braid of his hair slid around his legs like some sort of pet.
"You're scaring me. Just tell me what's happened."
Frost touched the paper that was lying on the table next to him. An idle gesture, but...
"Is that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch?" I asked.
Doyle darted a look at Frost, who raised his hands showing them empty. "She has to know."
"It is," Doyle said, voice tight.
"I talked to Barry Jenkins yesterday. He said he'd out me as the faerie princess. I assume he was as good as his threat."
Doyle turned, leaning his butt against the dresser, arms crossed, so that his right hand caressed his gun. It was a nervous gesture for him. It looked like a threat when he stood behind the queen stroking his gun, and it could be, but it was also a nervous gesture.
I walked over to the table. "What is the big deal, guys? Jenkins is an asshole, but he wouldn't actively lie, not in the Post."
"Read it, then tell me we have nothing to worry over," Doyle said.
The picture of Galen and I at the airport was the lead photo, front page. But it was the caption that got me. PRINCESS MEREDITH RETURNS HOME TO FIND HUSBAND. In smaller letters under the photo, it read "Is this the one?"
I turned to Doyle and Frost. "Jenkins could be guessing. Galen and I knew there were photographers at the airport." I stared from one to the other of them, and they were still solemn, worried. "What is wrong with the two of you? We've all been in the papers before."
"Not like this," Frost said.
"It gets better," Doyle said, "or worse. Read the article."
I started to browse the article, but the first full paragraph stopped me. "Griffin gave Jenkins an interview." My voice sounded breathy, and I suddenly had to sit down on the edge of the bed.
"Goddess save us."
"Yes," Doyle said.
"The queen has already been in contact with us. She will see that he is punished for having broken your trust. She's scheduled a press conference for tonight."
"Please, Meredith, read the article," Doyle said.
I read the article. I read it twice. I didn't mind that Griffin had given personal details, but that he'd done it without my permission. He'd shared my private life with everyone. The sidhe have strange rules about privacy. We don't value intimate secrets as humans do, but our own personal life is not to be spied on. Spying on us used to bring a death penalty. For Griffin, it still might. The queen would think it very d'eclass'e to have tattled to a reporter.
I ended simply sitting on the bed staring at the newsprint but not really seeing it. I looked at the two men. "He gives details of our relationship, hints, dirty little hints. I'm just lucky it was a legitimate paper and not some tabloid."
They looked at each other.
"Oh, no, please, please tell me you're kidding."
Frost reached behind his back as if he'd been reading it as I came out of the bathroom. He held it out to me.
I let the newspaper fall to the floor in a scattered heap and took the sleek colorful paper from him. The picture on the front was one of Griffin and me together in a bed. Only his hands kept my breasts from being fully exposed. I was laughing. We were both laughing. I remembered the pictures. I remembered his desire for the pictures. I still had some of the pictures myself, but not all of them. Not all of them.
I heard my voice and it sounded calm, though far away. "How? How did they get the article out so quickly? I thought magazines didn't get out this fast."
"Apparently, it can be done," Doyle said.
I stared at the picture. The caption was PRINCESS MEREDITH AND HER SIDHE LOVER'S SEX SECRETS REVEALED.
"Please tell me that this is the only picture."
"I am so sorry," Doyle said.
Frost started to touch my hand as if to pat it, then let his hand fall back. "There are no words for how sorry I am that he did this to you."
I looked into Frost's grey eyes. I saw compassion there, but one thing I didn't see was anger. And right now that's what I wanted.
"Does the queen know about this?"
"She knows," Doyle said.
I held it in my hands, wanting to open it, wanting to see what other pictures there were, and I couldn't make myself open it. I couldn't make myself look.
I shoved the paper into Frost's hands. "How bad is it?"
He looked up at Doyle, then back to me. The arrogant, distant mask slipped a little, and the Frost that I'd woken up with peeked from his eyes. "The tabloid didn't use any full frontal nudity. Other than that, it's bad."
I hid my face in my hands, my elbows on my knees. "Oh, God, if Griffin would sell them to Jenkins, to the tabloids, then he might sell them anywhere." I raised up like a swimmer coming out of deep water. It was suddenly hard to get my breath. "There are magazines in Europe that would publish all of the pictures. I didn't mind the nude photos, but they were private -just for Griffin and me. If I'd wanted to publish photos, I'd have said yes to Playboy years ago. Lord and Lady, how could Griffin do this?" I had a horrible thought. I looked to Frost.
"Please tell me that you got the camera and the film from the reporter you tried to strangle this morning?"
He met my eyes, but he didn't want to. "I'm sorry, Meredith, the camera should have been my first priority, but I let my anger better my judgment. I would do anything to make this up to you."
"Frost, they'll publish the pictures, do you understand that? Pictures of you and me, and hell, Kitto, in bed together. They'll plaster them over the tabloids, and the ones with nudity will go to Europe." I would have liked to swear, or scream, but I couldn't think of anything harsh enough to make me feel better.
"Griffin would know what the queen would do to him for this," Doyle said. "He'll be lucky if she doesn't kill him."
I nodded, trying to control my breathing, forcing myself to concentrate on the rise and fall of my own chest. I fought for calm, but it wasn't happening today. I nodded again. "He'll do as much damage as he can before they catch him." I took three quick, gulping breaths, and my voice came out strained, but holding. "I assume he's fled the area."
"We will find him," Frost said. "The world is not that big."
That made me laugh, but the laughter turned into tears. I slid off the chair onto the floor among the scattered pieces of the Post-Dispatch. It hurt to land so hard on the floor. I was aching from the sex, bruised. The pain helped remind me that things were not that bad. Horrible, but I still had access to the men of the court. I was still welcome back in faerie. The queen had given her word-and her power-to keep me from harm. Things could be worse. Or at least that's what I kept trying to tell myself.
I got my breathing under control, but not my anger. "I did not mean him harm last night, but now..." I grabbed the tabloid from Frost and forced myself to look inside. It wasn't the partial nudity that really cut me up. It was the happiness in our faces, our bodies. We'd been in love and it showed. But if he could do this to me, then he'd never really loved me. He'd lusted after me, desired me, wanted to own me, maybe, but love... love didn't do things like this.
I threw the pages up into the air and watched them flutter slowly back to Earth. "I want him dead for this. Don't tell the queen that. In a few days I may change my mind, and I don't want her doing anything dramatic." My voice was cold with anger, the kind of anger that settles in your heart and never leaves. Hot rage runs through you, and is close kin to hot passion, but cold rage, that is close kin to hate. For this I hated Griffin, but not enough. "I don't want her to send me his head or heart in a basket. I don't want that."
"She may be planning to kill him anyway," Doyle said.
"Yes, but if she does, then it's on her head, not mine. I won't ask for his death. Let her come up with it on her own."
Frost knelt beside me, gazing up at me with those storm-grey eyes. He took my hands in his. His hands felt warm, which meant my hands were cold. Maybe I was more upset than I thought, maybe I was in shock.
"I am sure our queen has already decided his fate," Frost said.
"No," I said. I stood, pulling away from his hands, from his eyes. I hugged myself, because I knew I could trust my own arms; I was beginning to have doubts about everyone else's. "No, if she catches him right away, she might kill him. But the longer he eludes capture, the more creative she'll get."
Frost stayed kneeling on the ground looking up at me. "If I were he, I think I would prefer to be captured soon, while a quick death was still possible."
"He'll run," I said. "He'll run as far and as fast as he can. He'll delay and hope that some miracle will save him."
"You know him that well?" Frost asked.
I stared down into his face, and laughed. The laughter had a wild edge to it. "I thought I did. Maybe I never knew him at all. Maybe it was all just lies." I stared at Frost. I was glad I didn't love him, glad that it was just flesh. At that moment, I trusted lust more than I trusted love.
Doyle stood, taking my arms gently in his hands. "Don't let Griffin make you doubt yourself, Meredith. Don't let him make you doubt us."
I stared up into his dark face. "How did you know that was exactly what I was thinking?"
"Because it's exactly what I would be thinking in your place."
"No, it isn't, you'd be planning to kill him."
Doyle hugged me to him, resting his face against my hair. I stayed tense against him but didn't pull away. "Say that you wish his death and it will be so. Pick a body part of your choosing, and I will fetch it for you."
"We will fetch it for you," Frost said, standing.
I relaxed enough against Doyle to slide one arm around his waist. I leaned my face against the silk of his shirt. I could hear his heart beating, solid and a little fast.
There was a knock on the door. Doyle nodded and Frost moved to answer it. Doyle drew his gun, then moved me to one side, still in the curve of his arm, so his body blocked me partially from view.
"It's Galen, open up."
Frost checked the peephole, a large nickel-plated .44 in one hand. "It's him and Rhys."
Doyle nodded, lowering his gun but not putting it away. The tension level was high, very high. I think we were all expecting another attack from Cel and company. I know I was, and I was only paranoid by necessity. The guards were paranoid by profession.
Kitto came in behind the two guards. He was dressed in dark blue jeans, a pale yellow polo shirt with a little alligator on the front, and white jogging shoes. Everything looked brand-new, stiff, and fresh out of the package.
Galen glanced at the papers, then at me. "I'm so sorry, Merry."
Doyle let me slide out from behind him, so I could go to Galen. I buried my face against his chest, wrapped my arms around his waist and held on. I felt safe with Doyle, passion with Frost, but it was Galen's arms that made me feel comfortable.
I wanted to hold on to him, to close my eyes and just cling. But there was a press conference planned, and the queen wanted us at the court early so we could all discuss the version of the truth we were going to feed the media. I'd been going to press conferences since I was a child, and I'd never been to one yet where we told the truth, the whole truth, so help us Goddess. There was no way to clean up the mess that Griffin had made. He could be punished, but the story and the pictures were already out there, and nothing would change that. I still had no clue what sanitized version of the truth would account for the pictures of Frost, Kitto, and me naked together. But if anyone could come up with a necessary lie to cover it, it would be my aunt. Andais, Queen of Air and Darkness, could put a spin on any scandal that would make the media's head spin. Bedazzled by her charms, they tended to write what she told them to write, though making this particular scandal squeaky clean was going to stretch even her talents. I used to hope that I'd live to see my aunt fail badly. Now I was hoping she'd succeed brilliantly. Was that hypocritical of me? Maybe, or maybe it was just practical.