Hearts in Exile (Tallenmere Book 3)
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Jagged lightning streaked across the sky, showing glimpses of his surroundings. They were no longer spinning; the river swept them toward a bridge. Douglas kicked his legs behind him, paddled with one hand.
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He had to reach the nearest pier before they were swept beyond it. With a loud cry, he propelled himself at a pier, his fingers catching hold as the river did its best to pry him from his stone savior.
He gripped and pulled, until he and Serenya were sheltered by the structure, where it broke the torrential flow of the river. Douglas caught his breath. He lowered her from his shoulder and eased his cloak and her blanket away. The lightning granted him a peek. She moved.
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Still alive, thank Omri. He exhaled with relief. Legs numb, and arms aching, he took several breaths and pushed off the pier.
He swam to the shore and crawled up the rocky beach. They would find somewhere to settle, a small town where no one knew them and no one could find Serenya. Somehow, they would survive.
Douglas huddled beside the bridge where it met the road. A roadside torch burned in spite of the rain. It could have been anywhere between here and the embankment, or in the river itself, lost forever. Serenya was all he had left. He bit back the sob welling up in his throat. There was no time for grief. When he saw a passenger coach speeding across the bridge, he jumped in front of it. What the hell are you doing? Sir, I have nothing. I ask for your mercy. The driver hesitated, but his expression softened when Douglas pulled back his cloak, revealing the blanketed bundle.
The man ran to the rear of the coach and opened a trunk. He pulled out a few blankets and scarves, then hurried back to Douglas and opened the nearest door to the passenger compartment. Douglas obeyed, but held his breath as the man quickly stripped the wet blanket off Serenya. He dried her with another, and swaddled her in two scarves. He swaddled her again with another blanket and handed yet another one to Douglas. It was surprisingly warm in his hands.
The driver stood back. Douglas climbed inside with Serenya. She whimpered, so he rocked her and sang the only lullaby he knew as the coach began to move. They rode through the forest, into the inky blackness of night, destination unknown. He never looked back. The Wasted Witch buzzed with lively conversation. I wiped down the ebonwood bar. He lifted his mug, and I poured him a glass of foamy brew.
He raised an eyebrow and glanced at my hands. There was never a dull moment. We had our regulars, of course, but travelers from all over Tallenmere stopped in each night. At one end of the tavern, a trio of high-elf mage students played cards, their solemn dispositions brightening a bit with every drink of ale.
Across from them, a gathering of young faeries giggled over their glasses of Faewood Blush. It was a fine night in my home away from home.
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He stepped inside. Everyone grew quiet.
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A human twenty years my senior, Sebastian Crowe, Earl of Summerwind, was a fine specimen of a man. Classically tall, dark, and handsome, he had wavy hair with a touch of gray on his sideburns. He adjusted the lapels of his riding jacket and smiled broadly, his arm sweeping out in a magnanimous wave. His most trusted servant, Bax, stood two paces behind him. My lord, I just wanted to thank you again for the loan. Take your time, Will.
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Tell your father I expect a fine cut of beef very soon. Darling, Sebastian said, leaning forward to kiss me. I turned my head and let him peck my cheek. Dad needed some extra help tonight. Ah, yes, my wife the barmaid and entertainer. One might think she was ungrateful to carry the title of Lady Crowe. Heat filled my cheeks. I squeezed the life out of the bar towel and spoke through clenched teeth. He and Bax made their way to a table in the farthest corner of the room. He pulled a cigar from his pocket, and Bax lit it.
Legs crossed, he threw an elbow over the back of the chair and took a couple of deep puffs. Sebastian guffawed. Smoke billowed from his mouth. Douglas, a round for everyone on me! A great cheer rang out. Sebastian smiled wickedly my way and puffed his cigar. He was respected and loved by all his acquaintances. People from miles around spoke of his benevolence. Our vineyards alone provided the community with corbet fruit for wine and pastries and jobs for the halflings who had lost their income when the local mine closed.
When Sebastian said, jump , we asked how high. Dad and I rushed around the tavern, filling mugs right and left. When everyone was drinking happily, we retreated behind the bar again.
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Dad wiped down some glasses and edged over to me. I sauntered over to the piano, spread out my skirt, and sat on the bench. With my hands hidden behind the instrument, I removed my fawn leather gloves. I hated the way their narrow ends curved down into sharp points, like claws. This stupid deformity had kept me from applying to music school in Leogard.
I snapped out of my reverie. My fingers found the keys effortlessly. The points of my nails clicked on the ivory with every note I played.
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One by one, the customers turned to listen. The buzz of conversation died down. I imagined the melody permeating the air like the aroma of fresh-baked bread, touching each of them as it passed.