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Even if Ilie had found her first, he had a feeling her choice would not have changed.

George says hi.

His jaw clenched.

This would be the last time he’d think of Georgina McCartney as anyone but the duke’s heartkeeper. From here on, he would concentrate on what – who – he had. He would concentrate on the person he was sure truly wanted him.

“I’M AFRAID YOUR TIME’S fast running out, Lady Soleil.” Crystal, her former adviser, was never one to waste words, but surely, Soleil thought numbly, she could have done a little better than that?

She collapsed on the couch in Crystal’s office. She had thought the urgency had to do with her work either as an enforcer or a trainer in ANEX, and she wanted to kick herself in the head for it. How cocky she had been to not even consider the possibility that the urgent message could have something to do with her condition.

Swallowing, she forced herself to ask between bloodless lips, “Why the sudden diagnosis?”

“I’ve had a breakthrough last night studying the curse in your system,” Crystal told her. “And we have good and bad news.”

“Bad first,” she said automatically.

Crystal cracked a grin. “You always were a pessimistic little girl.”

She hadn’t been for years, actually, but Crystal’s announcement might have Soleil going back to her old, dark ways.

“The bad news is that the curse has been fashioned after an aneurysm. This means it can be triggered by just about anything, and it’s designed in such a way that we’ll never know until it’s too late. There are no symptoms to know when, where, or how it will happen. It will just happen, and if we don’t take the necessary steps to get rid of it, you will die.”

Soleil clasped and unclasped her fingers on her lap. “I see. It sounds improbable…”

“I know.” Crystal’s voice became harsh. “But nevertheless, it’s true. Virtually anything is possible for otherworlders, Soleil. It’s just a matter of who’s powerful enough to execute what they want.”

Soleil swallowed her arguments. She had never been blindly hateful of otherworlders, something that she knew Crystal found disappointing. But she didn’t blame Crystal for it either, knowing that the older woman’s bitterness stemmed from having her son killed by an archdemon.

“And now, for the good news.”

Soleil didn’t answer, didn’t really trust Crystal’s version of good news since she had learned how to be pessimistic from Crystal herself.

“You can still get rid of it by being a heartkeeper—-”

She started to shake her head, but Crystal said insistently, “It is the only way, Soleil. The only way.”

Her voice was flat. “No.” She knew what Crystal said made sense. Heartkeeping was the easiest way for her to save her life. But easy wasn’t always the best…or the right thing to do.

“Just choose any demon—-”

“And let the demon die so I can live?”

“We’re talking about demons, Soleil. Demons, you fool!”

She had never heard Crystal shout…until now.

“A demon is the reason why you have this curse in the first place,” Crystal snarled. “Your demonic parent unloaded his or her curse on you. That’s how demons are—-”

“Not all of them.” She swallowed. “I know you don’t believe me, and that’s okay. But I’m no rookie who hasn’t seen the world and still thinks everything is black and white. I’ve seen its darkest corners. I’ve been there, I’ve fought there, and…”

The image of the marquis flashed in her mind.

And almost as if he sensed her pain, she could feel him inside her mind, a strong and steady presence that told her she only had to say the word and he would break all the spell barriers Crystal erected in her office so he could speak to her.

Soleil swallowed. “I just can’t, Crystal.” She bowed her head. “I just can’t.”

Crystal didn’t answer.

Slowly, Soleil raised her head, and she was aghast to see her former adviser weeping silently.

“You’re like a child to me, Soleil. When I lost my son, training you and ensuring you would beat your curse became my reason to live. Please don’t force me to endure the death of another child.”

IT WAS A QUIET AND withdrawn Soleil that came back to the marquis’ side. She expected him to demand what was wrong, to threaten to have ANEX burned down, but instead he did something she did not expect at all.

He did not ask.

He did not say a word.

He simply drew her to his side, his arm around her, while he held the reins with his other hand and drove her home.

Rain started to fall midway and she welcomed it. Rain splashing on the ground, coupled with the sound of hooves clobbering the stony ground, drowned out all else, including the sound of her tears.

Get rid of it by being a heartkeeper. Crystal’s words rang in her ears.

The other woman made it sound so easy, and maybe it was for Crystal, because she cared nothing about the lives of demons.

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