My Caretaker

A warm, wet cloth blotted my skin, tugging me awake. My eyes fluttered open. The slosh and dribble of a cloth being rinsed and wrung was enough motivation for me to keep them open. I was in Rick's bedroom, stretched out next to him on his bed, his broad shoulders hunched over a basin of water.


"How are you feeling?" he asked. He ran the cloth back up my arm, rinsing the remainder of dried blood from my skin.

"Heavy all over. Like a truck hit me."

"You're lucky to be alive. Your injuries were extensive, and Julius drained you just short of death. My blood will heal you, but it will take some time for your body to produce what's missing."

I probably needed a transfusion. Not gonna happen. A trip to the hospital would bring questions I wasn't prepared to answer.

"How did you find me?"

"Poe. After I left Valentine's, he tracked me down. It took some time for him to convince me you were in mortal danger."

"And that was the only reason you came? Because I was in mortal danger?" I croaked.

He threw the rag into the basin, causing the water to slosh violently. "I came because I am your caretaker. I am bound to you. I have no choice but to come when you call, whether I want to or not."

"I tried to tell you at Valentine's, Rick-"

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"-that you're in love with Logan? That you want your cake and to eat it too?" he hissed.

"Let me explain about Logan."

He clamped a hand over my mouth. "I don't want to talk about Logan, unless of course you would rather he care for you?"

I shook my head. Hurt darkened his gray eyes. I needed to explain that I hadn't wanted Logan to kiss me. I needed to tell him a leprechaun had drugged me, and it was all a big mistake. But I could see that he wasn't open to more conversation. He was still too raw, and I was so exhausted, I wasn't sure I could find the words.

He released my mouth. "Are you hungry?"

"I should tell you why they tortured me," I rasped.

With thumb and forefinger, he pinched my lips shut. "Not yet. We need you well, and I fear reliving the story will further drain you."

I nodded.

"I will prepare a meal for you."

"Out of what? You don't eat, and you don't have a phone to order food."

A ghost of a smile turned the corner of his lip. "I've been keeping some groceries lately, in hopes that you would stay more often." He spoke the words softly, like an admission.

The surrender in his voice broke my heart. Even though he believed I didn't return his feelings, he'd resolved himself to care for me. Tears pooled in my eyes and I swore that, when I was strong enough, I'd find a way to thank him. Then, I'd explain that I didn't love Logan at all and more, I'd figure out what this feeling was deep inside my chest, and I'd tell him about that too.

"Mi cielo, time to eat." Rick cradled my upper body in one arm while he stacked pillows behind my head.

I tried to sit up on my own and failed. Instead, I managed to wrap an arm around his neck to make it easier for him to reposition me. "Thank you," I whispered in his ear.

He closed his eyes and exhaled a shaky breath, hugging his cheek to mine until it was obvious he'd positioned the pillows as much as needed. Once he'd lowered me carefully into the soft nest he'd made, he lifted a bowl and ladled the soup.


I did, and he poured the hot liquid into my mouth. I chewed and swallowed. "What kind of soup is this?" I asked. It tasted like herbal tea with vegetables, not exactly bad but not like my dad used to make... and my dad can't cook.

"I found a spell for a healing infusion of herbs and added some vegetables known to be healthful. The meat I'd purchased was spoiled but I can get some later if you'd like."

I swallowed another bite. It was growing on me. I could definitely feel healing warmth infusing my body from the brew. "It's fine," I said. "I think it's working."

His eyes twinkled with a smile that didn't quite reach his lips but warmed the air between us. Deep inside, that feeling filled me again, the one I'd felt when I'd watched him try to warn me about Monk when I was Isabella. I'd also experienced this when I'd woken up in Maison des Etoiles and when he'd saved me from Julius. I'd been in love before and this wasn't what I remembered; it was stronger. This emotion was a great and powerful mystery I wasn't ready to solve.

"Where did you find me anyway? Julius said he moved from Tiltworld."

"The coven has purchased the Thames Theatre, now in immediate need of renovation."

"A theatre? Smart. Dark, no windows."

"Yes. Julius is a worthy adversary."

"He's nothing compared to Bathory."

Rick slipped another spoonful into my mouth. "No more talk. You need to rest."

Now that he mentioned it, I was exhausted again. I leaned back into the pillows and held up my hand when he tried to feed me another bite. "Rick, will you do something for me?"

"Of course, mi cielo. Would you like something different to eat?"

"No. Tell me about the day we met. The first time. Before you were my caretaker." I dug my fingers out from under the covers and entwined them with his.

Eyebrows rose in surprise. He met my gaze. What I saw in his expression bordered on disturbing: loss, grief, reminiscence, and love. Slowly, he pulled his hand away, but he did not deny me. In a silky-smooth ripple of a voice, he began his story.

"I was only fifteen when we met the first time. You looked the same age but perhaps you were older. Red Grove was a much different place then, with stone cottages like this one distant from each other to allow for the acres of land families must farm to survive. The members of our community lived austere lives of faith. Monk's church was our hub, and his Sunday service, the only time we were all in the same room.

"In some ways it was a simpler time. Expectations were clear and opportunities were few. I was a curious boy with a fascination for the unknown. When I'd finished my chores, I would wander into the woods, sometimes for miles, under the guise of going hunting. In truth, I rarely sought game, but instead visited a fresh water pool at the bottom of a waterfall where I taught myself to swim. My mother would become quite worried at my long absences but would allow it because occasionally I would bring back wild game or fish."

He smiled wistfully. I wondered what his mother was like but didn't want to sidetrack his story, so I nestled into the pillows and listened.

"The day we met, I was swimming, floating on my back in the pool, when I saw you for the first time. I opened my eyes, and there you were, watching me from the shoulder of the waterfall. Of course, I became quite flustered and thrashed to shore."

I giggled. "Why would my fifteen year old self fluster you?"

He smiled, and a hint of color warmed his cheeks. "One reason, I was naked, and another, you were a Wampanoag Indian."

"What?" I interrupted. "I was Native American?"

"Yes. Your father was. Your real mother was the goddess Hecate, but I wouldn't find that out until decades later."

I tried to digest that nugget of information while he continued.

"In that time, Native Americans were often dreaded as violent or wild. I feared for my life. Without bothering to dress, I reached for my bow. But when I turned back toward the pool, you were breaking the water's surface. You'd stripped and dove in behind me. You were always like that: brave, strong, unashamed."

"You knew all that from me diving into the water?" I took a deep breath as a wave of pain washed through me.

He brushed my hair back from my face. "You'd never been there before. Later, you would tell me that your tribe had migrated to the area to escape being sold into the slave trade. You dove into the pool naked, knowing I was watching, with no idea how deep the water was or how safe. Even my fifteen-year-old self knew that made you a force to reckon with."

"Could I speak English?"

"Yes, fortunately for me." He rubbed his forehead, his eyes taking on the sheen of long forgotten memories. "As your head broke the surface of the water, you met my eyes for the first time. I'd never seen anything as beautiful as you. Maybe it was fitting that we should meet completely naked because from that day forward you stripped me of everything. It was like I was born again to a new existence."

"But you didn't know what I was?"

"You didn't know what you were, Grateful. True, you found out before I did, but in the beginning we were both innocent. We met daily after that. You taught me how to hunt and track game the Wampanoag way. I participated in your ceremonies. And we grew together. We became best friends, although my family in Red Grove never knew about you. They only knew that our pot was always full, long after the land gave out and the beginnings of starvation nipped at our community."

I squeezed his hand. "I saw the day Monk came for me in the Book of Light. I lived alone, in town. How did that happen?"

He turned away, to face the wall for a moment. "You are getting ahead of me. Wouldn't you like to hear about our first kiss?" When he turned his attention back on me, his face looked wistful, young.

I nestled lower into the pillows, capturing my bottom lip between my teeth and inhaling sharply at the surge of pain the movement cost me. Rick looked at me with concern. I nodded for him to continue.

"We were seventeen. A late kiss by today's standards, but Monk's parish was a conservative congregation. Most men didn't marry until their mid twenties and physical affection was tightly bound to marriage. Couples had to ask permission of an elder to marry. All very official and reserved. In your tribe, things were different. Any who took a liking to one another could marry; the girl must only demonstrate that she was capable of caring for young and most women of your tribe could by seventeen. And kissing? Your people loved to kiss."

"You're blushing!" The red tint to his cheeks was endearing. I tried to meet his eyes but he looked away.

"The couples in your tribe were quite affectionate. I was...enthralled. From an early age, you showed an aptitude for healing and knowledge of herbs, so you'd trained with the Wampanoag medicine woman. You took me home one day and introduced me to the leader of your tribe in your native language. I didn't know what you'd said, but he seemed very happy. You turned to me and asked if I would like to marry you, as you had obtained permission from your tribe. Then, in the plaza at the center of your community, you grabbed me by the collar, pulled me forward, and kissed me within an inch of my life." A broad smile spread across his face. "I felt it to my toes."

"Wait, I asked you to marry me? When I was seventeen?"

A low rumble shook his chest and he turned to face me. "You knew exactly what you wanted, Grateful, and after that kiss, if I hadn't before, I knew exactly what I wanted too. Forever."

Our eyes locked, and I tried to picture what it was like for us back then. I had a feeling there was more to the story, and by the way he reacted to my question about moving to town, that it wasn't particularly pleasant. What had we suffered together?

He reached over to tuck a strand of hair behind my ear, then seemed to remember himself and retracted his hand. "I will get you something to drink. It is important for you to stay hydrated." He stood and retreated to the kitchen.

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