DG hummed as she finished grooming her new horse. They had kept horses long enough in Kansas for her to learn the basics. It was well past dark when she reentered the inn.
"The bathing room is free now," the female innkeeper told her with a smile. "Have you decided what you'd like for supper?"
Fried chicken was not available. For some reason, you didn't eat chickens in the O.Z. and she feared it was like the cows in India, so she didn't ask. But that didn't make the craving go away. "Whatever you have the most of. I'll eat in my room if that's not too much trouble."
"No trouble at all, Miss Cain."
DG swallowed her unease as she gathered up her toiletries and nightclothes. Maybe she should have tried harder to come up with an alias. Hopefully, the search parties will concentrate on the Eastern Territories first. She double checked her map. Tomorrow, she'd be off road making tracking her harder. That cheered her up as she headed down the hall to the bathroom.
She scrubbed away the evidence of the day's ride. The hot water eased the muscles in her legs. Some potholes she hadn't been able to avoid with the motorcycle. And her horse riding skills needed more practice. The hallway was empty, so she hiked up the flannel nightgown and tied it at her waist. The women in the inn hadn't freaked out over her wearing pants to travel in, but she didn't want to take a chance on reactions to sleeping in pants. Hence the too-long nightgown, which covered her pajama pants.
She opened her room's door unseen by anyone. A small fire burned in the fireplace that she hadn't started before her bath. The lamp had been put out. DG held her breath as she reached out with her magic. Someone was in her room to her left, behind the door. Someone working for the inn wouldn't hide.
She still hadn't shut the door. She could go for help, or she could attack. She grinned and shifted her toiletries to her right hand. She slammed the door. The figure in the shadows shielded his head from the soap and hairbrush. DG kicked his shin and whirled to the fireplace, snatching up the poker.
"Damnit, Princess, stop!"
Her stomach flipped, hell, maybe all her internal organs. The voice she had longed to hear for so many months and the man it belonged to lifted his fedora as he stepped into the firelight. Sympathy for DeMilo's dumbfoundment hit her. "Wyatt freakin' Cain."
He grimaced as he shifted his weight off his wounded leg. "Did Glitch teach you how to kick people?"
"Kickball in junior high P.E. class." She still made a joke to hide the anger pounding in her ears. Her grip on the poker tightened. But if she couldn't be honest with Cain, she might as well return and staple the tiara to her head. "Glitch isn't allowed to breathe around me, much less teach me anything." Cain relit the kerosene lamp hanging on the wall near the bed. "I can only see Glitch when he sees Az, so I can learn proper dating manners." She bit off each word she said. "It's stupid to chaperone two adults, so I give them space."
Cain's lips twitched. "Princess."
DG sent a sound barrier around the interior of the room. His eyebrows rose at the golden-hued walls, but she was now too angry to do anything about the magic. "Don't call me that! I quit, retired, resigned; don't you even have the concept here? No more Princess DG, find a new one!" The poker slashed through the air.
"Will you put that away?"
She didn't feel like bashing in Cain's head, so she hung the poker back in place with the other fireplace tools. Cain breathed out hard as he relaxed. Why did that enrage her more? Everything was fine, now that he had found her to drag her back to the Palace? Fear spiked through her anger. Wyatt Cain was the only one capable of bringing her back if he was ordered to. The Queen probably had his duty, honor, sense of right and wrong listed in a file somewhere. Anger overrode the fear. Cain was on the verge of saying something, and she didn't want to hear his lecture or apologies or anything.
"So the Queen sent you to bring me back." Her pronouncement stole whatever Cain was about to say and she ranted on to not lose the momentum. "Nobody gave me lessons on how to be a manipulative bitch. Maybe it's not a class, but just an inborn gift my mother has."
"DG," Cain started.
"She sent you after me. Boy, nothing subtle about that. Wyatt Cain, only allowed to fetch the Princess. Don't dare be anything more or you'll get shipped off to the Great Kells. Why did you agree? Have you no self respect or did she threaten Jeb again?"
"How did you know…."
DG shrieked. "Not you too! Damnit, I'm not stupid! So what if I don't know when a lunch pail is ripe, what a Wheeler is, why Munchkins overcompensate height issues with feathers and war paint? You don't have television or rock 'n roll, or even asphalt! See, you don't know what the hell I'm talking about, but I don't call you a dummy. What else do you have to hold over your head? Jesus, a mobat could figure it out!"
Cain took a step forward, "DG."
"And I don't care how quickly Ahamo, Grandma Dorothy or any other Slippers adjusted. They weren't lied to! I'd forgive the fifteen years on the Other Side, if I hadn't been screwed over this past year!"
DG threw up her hands. "Of course, your answer for everything. I'm just a child throwing a tantrum. Why did I thinking you'd understand? The Queen orders and you obey. You probably think I should say 'I do' to that little prick because the Queen said to." Cain's jaw hardened. He wasn't listening; he didn't believe her; and his mind was made up. "I can't go back to that gilded iron suit." Fear spiked with each heartbeat. "You can't take me back. I won't go back! I'll…."
"Will you let me get a word in!" The skin over Cain's jawbone spasmed.
She sank into the armchair between the bed and the fireplace. He was going to take her back. How could she be so stupid to think he would understand? This room was on the second story; was that high enough to break her neck? She couldn't get his gun away from him to shoot herself.
Cain sighed as he put his fedora on the mantle. She watched him shrug off his leather duster and hang it on the hook on the door. At least, she got one last look at his butt. She could throw herself out the window happily thinking about how his pants molded to his body. Something more would've been nice, but no point in being greedy. Besides, sex had never solved any loneliness before.
He sat on the foot of the full-sized bed. "I'd ask if you feel better but I don't want you to start again." He smirked; DG only stared. He licked his lips. "You're right about your mother. She did order me to bring you back. I didn't turn it down. After seeing your paintings and your goodbye projection, I was finding you regardless."
DG winced. She hadn't planned on Cain seeing any of those. Great, now he would take her to the nearest mental hospital instead.
"But your father changed the orders. So where are we going?"
Her eyes widened. "What?"
Cain smirked again. "I promised the Consort to stay with you and keep you safe. Easiest promise I ever made. All I wanted to do was stay with you."
She couldn't breathe. "You're not dragging me back?"
"No, I'm not dragging you back." He grunted when he caught her launched body.
DG tightened her arms and buried her face against his neck. She couldn't stop shaking. His arm wrapped around her waist and a hand cradled the back of her head. She sobbed. She had to stop; she had to show him how strong she was. The tears didn't stop.
His hand stroked her wet hair. "I'll never leave you again, DG." He pressed his head against hers. "You have my word." His arm tightened around her body.
Her heart hammered her chest. "I missed you." She lifted her head to see his face.
"You missed me?" His crystal blue eyes gazed into hers. She nodded, not trusting her voice. "I missed you too." He winced, "I'm sorry for this past annual."
"It wasn't your fault. You were too grumpy to be leaving of your own free will, I saw that."
He shifted the arms around her. "There was a way around it, but I didn't even look for it."
"And she threatened your son. I know how I am if something threatens you guys or Az, I understand." She shouldn't be so comfortable leaning against Cain, but now that the adrenaline dwindled, she didn't have the energy to move. "I just never expected to put my mother in the 'things to look out for' column."
"Most people don't have to. And since your mother nurture unit…."
"Wasn't a manipulative bitch. It's okay, you can say it." A knock rapped against the door.
Cain chuckled and shifted her aside so he could answer. DG pulled down the spell and found a washcloth to wipe her face. A maid bustled in with a laden tray that had legs. "Just set it in the hall when you're finished." She bobbed and left.
The ferocity of her appetite surprised DG. "Smells good."
"Stew and bread." Cain her passed a bowl.
She dived into what tasted like beef stew. "So Ahamo didn't want you to drag me back?"
"He said you were old enough to know what you want."
"Damn, now I wish I had tried harder to bond."
He dunked his slice of bread into the broth. "Why didn't you?"
"Because he'd sneak up, and bam, it was the Seeker grabbing me again. The more stuff pressed down, the harder it was to hide being afraid of him." She paused her spoon. "I didn't want to be afraid of him."
"Sometimes, you can't help what you feel." Cain watched her from the armchair, making her feel safe, unlike any stares she was given inside the Palace. "But for what it's worth, I think he feels bad about it."
"Great, I made him feel bad. Is there any more stew?"
"No, have the rest of the bread." He took her empty bowl and gave her the platter of buttered slices, so she didn't have to get off the foot of the bed. "I'm the last one to talk about feelings, but even I know you can't make people feel anything. You and Ahamo both feel bad because he blundered, and it's put a strain on your relationship."
She set the empty platter on the tray before he could do it for her. "Is it hard to get a travel storm?"
"I don't think we need to run to the Other Side." His scarred eyebrow rose. "Ahamo will keep the Queen from sending people after us."
"I was just considering an option. My family needs therapy, so maybe I should find a good psychologist who wouldn't be afraid of working with us before ever going back to them."
"You never asked Raw for help?"
"I did. He said he would do anything for me, but he'd rather get hooked to a tank again than counsel my parents." She wrinkled her nose. "Probably sensed how she didn't want him around."
"Your sister and Glitch explained about the Victory Ball. I guess this means we're boycotting it."
"It's not right that Raw isn't there." Something in his tone surprised her. "Did you want to go?"
"Doesn't matter now. And you're right about Raw." He set his empty bowl on the tray. "So where are we headed?"
"You changed my final destination." DG pulled her map out of her pack again and gave it to him while she sat down in front of the fire. Her hair still needed drying. "The circle is where Raw's village is."
"Viewers don't share that, DG. Not after what the witch did to them."
"Raw told me it was a secret, but he marked it in case I needed a safe place to go to. I was planning to get there and then see if Raw and Kalm wanted to go."
"Your base in the Great Kells," she said, looking at the floor.
"You were coming to see me?" His voice sounded like he didn't believe she wanted to.
"Yeah, but now you're here, and I didn't plan further than that." She hugged her knees as she looked at him. "But there's so much of the O.Z. I haven't seen. Western Territories seemed like a good place to start since you were already there."
Cain studied the map. "Why didn't you take the Vinkus Branch of the Brick Route and follow the Gillikin River to Raw's village?"
"Which one is supposed to be the stupid one: the girl, the Princess, or the Slipper? One, everybody in the O.Z. knows that's the general route taken by our merry band searching for the Emerald and after the Eclipse. Two, the first places the Army would search are places I already know. Going into the Pertha Hills and then south avoids all of those. Three, since the last time I was on horseback was the ride to the Tower a year ago, I hoped the search parties would look for me traveling by bike or foot."
"You really did have a plan."
"Just because I don't hesitate doesn't mean I don't think. And I had lots of time to think about this."
"You told Jeb you had a plan a week after I left."
"I didn't lie, but it wasn't completely fine-tuned then."
Cain shook his head. "You still want to see the Fuzzball?" She grinned and he smiled. "Okay, wouldn't want him to worry about us." She hummed happily and picked up her brush and soap off the floor. She returned to the hearth and ran the brush through her black hair. Cain's smile hadn't left his face. "Your sister was upset that you left her behind."
"Az's idea of roughing it is no room service. How does she think she'd survive?"
"I doubt she thought about that. Too busy calling you a little sneak." DG huffed before yawning. "Bedtime."
"I'm not arguing. It's been a long day." She climbed into the bed and turned down the lamp while he carried the tray out to the hall. She watched him resettle into the armchair. "What are you doing?"
"I'm trying to get some sleep."
"The bed is big enough, and I promise not to ravish you while you're sleeping."
He didn't look convinced. "It wouldn't be proper, kiddo."
"Neither was traveling across the O.Z. with four strange men but nobody complains about that. You spent all day in the saddle except for what you spent with my parents. The least I can do is share the bed."
"And about five minutes with Jeb." Cain pulled off his gun belts and set his gun on the nightstand. "Scoot over. I get the side next to the door."
She waited until he settled on the mattress and pillow. "I'm sorry you didn't get to visit with Jeb."
"Don't go feeling guilty about that." The shadows from the fireplace danced over his profile. "I couldn't let him throw his career away to chase you. So why now?"
"Why now what? Running?" Cain grunted an affirmative. DG turned to look at the ceiling. "The Queen kept thrusting the marriage contract in my face, she did Raw wrong and probably pissed off the entire Viewer community, I found out she wanted to send you to the frozen North. Her generals don't even want that fortress in use. And then I found that blasted contract on my desk and I lost it. If I had stayed, we'd be arguing about who could be trusted to be the next Queen, Az or the daughter who killed Galinda." She swallowed hard. "I couldn't fake being a good little Princess any more."
"You shouldn't need to fake anything." He twisted his head to look at her. "Be honest with me."
"Always." DG smiled and closed her eyes, feeling safe for the first time in months.