Moment of Truth – Hailey Edwards

Out of all the lies Liz told, it figured her seeing two blue lines after peeing on a stick would be the truth. >Pop the champagne corks! Light up the stogies! Liz is officially pregnant. Bishop’s texted response, when it came, prompted my stomach to growl. >>Liz is one olive short of a pizza. “Hadley,” Abbott chided, drawing my attention away from my phone. “You might as well stop glaring at the ultrasound photos.” He tugged them out of my hand. “You’re not going to bully the child into revealing its secrets.” The prints were still warm from the machine, and each was as blank as a photo taken with a finger covering the lens. The baby’s magical signature kept shorting out the imaging equipment. I didn’t like that. To be fair, I didn’t like much about this situation. Not Ares turning on her friends and pack to protect her whackadoodle mate and their unborn child from the consequences of Liz’s zealotry. Not the swath of innocents cut down in the coven’s path to owning Atlanta. And not Ares’s abduction of my family that almost culminated in a slower and worse death than the bomb she saved them from would have granted them.

“How sure are you she’s pregnant?” I leaned down, one ear nearly touching her stomach, pretending to listen for a tick-tick-tick noise. “For all we know, she swallowed one of those bombs the coven loves so much, and it will explode nine months to the day of implantation.” “We’ve been over this.” Abbott eyed me over the rim of his glasses. “There’s a heartbeat.” “Or a timer counting down.” “The baby also kicks.” “Those could be levers moving into position under Liz’s skin.” “Midas?” Pinching the bridge of his nose, Abbott shot his gaze past my shoulder. “A little help?” Sliding my focus onto my mate, I couldn’t deny the kick in my pulse that came just from looking at him.

His golden-blond hair was growing out, slowly but surely, but I wouldn’t care if he went bald. The bright spark in his aquamarine eyes was recent, a huge improvement over the shadows that once haunted him. Unable to stop myself from staring, I let my gaze trace the now-familiar arch of his cheekbones, the hard line of his jaw, and the soft curve of his kissable lips. He caught me at it, of course, and a smile twitched at the corner of his mouth. “She’s watched too many B movies.” The Spock to my Kirk straightened from his lean against the wall. “She’s got conspiracy theories for days. Weeks. Months. Years…” “How can I be expected to marry a man who makes fun of me?” As I pivoted to face him, I made certain to place my left hand just so, and my engagement ring caught the light.

As it sparkled, with a little help from my wiggling finger, I waited for him to enlighten me. “What kind of life would that be?” Flashing my bling caused Midas to smile, which had been the point, and I struggled to stay grumpy in the face of his simple happiness. “I apologize.” He wiped a hand across his mouth, but his grin remained, and I was happy they stuck more often these days. “Will this earn me forgiveness?” Midas reached into his pocket and pulled out a golf ball-sized piece of chocolate wrapped in gold foil. He held it out to me, its packaging glittering under the fluorescent lights… A blur of shadow smudged the edge of my vision, and I yelled, “No.” Too late. Ambrose swiped it off Midas’s palm and gulped it down with glee. Truce or not, I thought at him, pull that stunt again, and I will end you. The shadow horked a thumbnail-sized glob onto the floor like a momma bird feeding its baby.

Not gonna lie. I threw up in my mouth a little. Even if I was into regurgitation, and I wasn’t in any way, it was mostly crumpled foil. “What’s wrong?” Abbott ripped a blood pressure cuff off Liz. “Did you drop it?” “I dropped it, all right.” Down the gullet of an uppity shadow who believed we were BFFs now. Noticing my attention on the floor, Abbott craned his neck. “Did it roll under the equipment?” “No.” I kept my head down. “I’m offering a moment of silence for the fallen chocolate.

” Midas snorted then coughed, but it was too late. I heard him, and I couldn’t stop a smile from blooming. Amusement crinkling his eyes, Abbott indicated a nearby basin. “Can you hand me that rag?” “Why is she sweaty?” I wrung out the icy water then handed it to him. “She’s all clammy and shaky.” In my line of work, I had run across addicts desperate for their next hit in better shape. Blotting her forehead, Abbott frowned. “It appears to be an allergic reaction to the anesthesia.” “You mean you don’t know?” I faked a gasp and clutched my chest. “And you call yourself a doctor.

” “I’m not omniscient, Hadley.” He chuckled. “I’m doing the best I can, but pregnancy complicates things.” Witchborn fae complicated every single little thing. One more hurdle barely rated a sigh of annoyance. “You’re tired.” Midas rested his hands on my shoulders. “You’ve been going nonstop since we discovered the archive.” He began a massage that left me putty in his hands. “You need to rest.

” The instinctive urge to shoot him down and keep on trucking got crushed beneath my exhaustion. “Okay.” I didn’t have enough fight in me to argue. “I’ll take a nap. A tiny one. Like thirty minutes.” Midas and Abbott exchanged a glance over my head that smacked of them handling me. Oh, sure. They would say it was for my own good, but I think they were scared of me when I got hangry. Though, to be fair, I had no clear memory of the last time I had eaten or slept.

And that jerk shadow had stolen the mouthful of caffeine that might have made all the difference in my cognitive ability. Just for that, I was going to ask Remy to wrap gas station meatballs in truffle foils from Ambrose’s favorite chocolatier. And then…sweet revenge. Or not-so-sweet revenge. Which was the whole point. Let Ambrose get a taste of how it feels to think you’re getting a treat and then bam. Goddess, I really was tired if I was plotting revenge on, essentially, myself. “I’ll send the ultrasound photos and recordings to Bishop along with Liz’s file,” Abbot promised. “The information will be with your team when you wake.” “Thanks.

” Out in the hall, Midas waited until the shadow made himself scarce before reaching into his pocket a second time. He pulled out a small brown tulle bag tied with a black ribbon that made dull clacking noises when its weight shifted on his palm. The smell hit me, and I moaned, perking instantly. “Gimme.” I lunged for them. “Gimme. Gimme. Gimme.” “Nap first.” He snatched them back.

“Chocolate-covered espresso beans later.” “You’re so mean.” I buried my face in his side, trusting him to guide me to the elevators. “Why do you hate me?” “I also sourced you a copy of Moon Cats Colonize the Sun.” “I take it back.” I kissed his shoulder through his shirt. “You’re the absolute best mate ever, and I love you more than the single-origin Costa Rican chocolate bars I order from French Broad Chocolates in Asheville.” The ride was oddly peaceful, probably due to me shutting my eyes just for a second. Or three. Or maybe during the whole trip.

The jolt as the elevator stopped jarred me awake, and I shuffled out before recalling I was supposed to be going up to our apartment and not making a pit stop in the lobby. As I pulled my vision into focus, I noticed Remy. She grinned at me, her needlelike teeth flashing, her skin so pale it was translucent. Her spiked pixie cut highlighted the roundness in her cheeks, and the green elastics on her braces matched her hair. Tonight, she wore a palm-sized white lily behind one ear, a tame accessory by her usual eighties punk rock standards. Her wide blue eyes, the color of her pronounced veins, sparkled with excitement as she futzed with it. “You look like crap.” Remy wrinkled her nose at me. “Oh, and the Faraday is surrounded by the coven.” Dunking my head in an ice bath wouldn’t have shocked me to alertness any faster.

A cold sweat drenched me, my heart galloped a mile a minute, and the spit dried in my mouth. “The coven?” I reached for Ambrose on instinct. “They’re here?” She had to be wrong, right? Reece hadn’t noticed, and Bishop hadn’t warned me. The OPA didn’t make mistakes on this scale. We ran a tight ship, but if Remy was right, the Faraday was sinking. “The enforcers haven’t reported any unusual activity.” Midas frowned toward the break room where they hung out between shifts. “Are you sure?” “Two and Six have been people watching from the roof for hours.” She honed her glare. “They’re sure.

” Remy was fae. A macalla, if you wanted to get technical. Or simply an echo in layman’s terms. She could split herself into eight sentient halves, or halves of halves, or halves of halves of halves, as the case may be. Make that seven, since Eight had been reabsorbed into the collective upon her death. When not expanding our Peachy Keen Sheets empire, or terrorizing commuters, Remy dispatched her other selves on intel-gathering missions across the city to get me the scoop on any fresh trouble brewing. Now that the Faraday was her home, a territorial side of her was emerging. One that appeared to include spying on her new neighbors. I would have to sit her down and explain how that was wrong, but I was grateful for it right now. Goddess knows, I needed all the help I could get.

Honestly? I wasn’t sure which would kill us first. The coven. The archive. Or Natisha. The last one worried me most. Knowing the archive was anchored in Faerie, that it created a bridge between our worlds, I couldn’t fork over the promised hearts. Natisha was too powerful, and she had no love for mortals. She would parade across that bridge, terrorize the people I had sworn to protect, and then, when she got bored, she would raze Atlanta to the ground. But welshing on our agreement would cost Ford his life. I couldn’t let that happen either.

He was a good man, and he deserved his second chance. And Lisbeth… She would be heartbroken to lose him now that she finally had him. “Why haven’t they moved on us yet?” Stealth mode was only slightly better than an all-out assault. It meant we were safe, for now. But it also meant the coven was watching us, cataloguing our weaknesses, and planning a strike guaranteed to cut us off at the knees. Personally, I preferred to give my enemies as little quiet time to think as possible. We had to distract them, scatter their focus, and see what insight we could divine from their responses. “I’ve been asking myself that.” Her hand strayed back to the flower, and she flicked one of its petals with a thoughtful expression twisting her face. “I don’t think they can.

” Talk about too good to be true. “What do you mean?” “They must be familiar with the layout of the building, Liz would have fed them that, but they don’t know where we stashed her, right? In the infirmary or in a cell will be their top picks, sure, but they can’t tell for certain.” “The coven’s past actions tell us they view members as disposable,” I reminded her. “What makes you think this has anything to do with recovering Liz?” “Two overheard chatter about a baby, a boy, if you’re interested. They’re calling him the child price, whatever that means.” She bounced her shoulders. “Maybe he’s The Chosen One or something, and they can’t afford to hurt his vessel in a siege for fear of harming him. Why else pump the brakes?” We held knowledge of the existence and location of the archive, a catacomb of tombs brimming with the souls of all the creatures the coven had murdered for their skins, their thoughts, their powers. Their very souls. They should have been throwing everything they had at us.

They should have been trying to wipe us off the map before we attacked the wellspring of their power. They should have been desperate to protect their repository of magic. And yet, despite getting the drop on us, they hadn’t lifted a finger against us. “Surprise, surprise.” I rubbed my face. “They know something we don’t.” “Fertility is crap among the fae, but most witches breed like rabbits to build their covens. The bloodline connection enhances their power when they cast spells. The more relatives, the more power, the more magic they can conjure when they work together.” “What do you mean by most?” “Black magic is a toxin the practitioner chooses to release into their system.

Most of them find ways to insulate their brains and organs from its poisonous effects, but a fetus is another matter.” Spinning the charmed ring on my finger, I asked, “The mother can’t protect it?” “Most practitioners aren’t strong enough to shield an infant, a whole other person, from conception to birth, and their magic is too busy feeding on the child’s potential for it to grow strong enough to protect itself.” She hesitated. “There are actually covens who get pregnant for that exact reason. They use the kid as a power boost for particularly tricky spells.” The tips of my fingers went numb. “As in, they sacrifice their unborn children?” “Yeah.” She angled her face away from me. “Fae do it too. We’re just quieter about it.

” As low as birth rates were for fae, I couldn’t imagine them killing their own offspring in the womb. Then again, as I could attest, a kid wasn’t any better off being born to someone with those proclivities. “The coven didn’t reveal themselves until after Liz got pregnant.” I indulged in a brief fantasy. “Just think, if she had gotten knocked up sooner, this could have all been Linus’s problem.” Midas kissed my forehead, right between my eyes, and he smiled while he did it. I chose to view it as his endorsement of me as the better candidate to handle this situation, and not that he was laughing at me. “Liz no longer practices.” Midas rubbed his jaw. “Yet it took her years to conceive.

” The timing worried me too. Had it really taken that long? Or had they planned it that way? Why here? Why now? Why me? Okay, so the last one made me sound like a whiny brat, but I was genuinely curious if this was personal, or if the stars had finally aligned for them. “If she comes from an old bloodline, there’s a chance her infertility battles were genuine. The taint is passed down to children of dark practitioners. With her fae blood, it might have been enough to make conceiving more difficult than she or the coven predicted when they placed her.” “Liz hasn’t once wielded magic against us since she was captured,” I realized. “She can’t, can she?” No wonder she hadn’t worn a more powerful adversary’s skin when we cornered her at the clinic where Ares held my family after kidnapping them. She couldn’t tap into that magic without risking the baby. She was forced to resort to glamour, a cheap trick in comparison. The wonky bombs started making more sense too.

Liz must have tried her hand at spell crafting without drawing on the dark powers she had been taught to wield. Thankfully, those results had also sucked, and we caught her before she got the hang of it. Mix in Ares actively working against her, and you got an operation that appeared to be amateur hour. “Not if she wants her baby to survive.” Remy squinted. “Are you sure you didn’t see her use magic?” Thinking back, I couldn’t say for certain. Things had moved so fast, and I admit I had tunnel vision then. All that mattered to me in those moments was recovering my family and getting them to safety. “Aside from the glamour…” I scrunched up my face, “…I don’t think so.” “Then she had help.

” Midas thought along the same lines. “It’s not like she doesn’t have the resources.” “With the archive nearby, and the coven able to use it as their private transporter room,” I agreed, “Liz had access to any number of people who could have done the heavy lifting for her then gone back to wherever they came from without leaving a trace.” By using the coven for her dirty work, she kept her hands clean and her scent untainted by her magic. “Look on the bright side.” Remy winked. “This means she can’t hurt you without hurting the baby.” “Plenty of people murder the old-fashioned way,” I reminded her. “Stabbings, shootings, poisons. All those kill without the benefit of magic.

” “Oh, to be mundane.” Remy’s expression twisted with pity. “Those poor suckers.” With a firmer grasp on the situation, I texted Bishop the details from Remy’s report. “The OPA is now aware of the situation.” I chewed my bottom lip, worried Bishop hadn’t mentioned this when we talked earlier. “We’ll send eyes in the field and give the Remys a break.” “What’s the point in having seven selves if you don’t put them to work?” She jutted her hip then planted a fist on it. “They get cranky otherwise.” Thumbs hovering over the screen, I pondered that.

“Aren’t they just extensions of you?” Head tipped to one side, she eyeballed us. “Have you met me?” “You’re not cranky so much as homicidal,” Midas informed her. “Violence always improves your mood.” “Eh.” A shrug rolled through her shoulders. “We can’t all be chocoholics.” An incoming message vibrated the phone in my hand, and Bishop’s update left me cold. >>All the cameras are down. A citywide video blackout. We can’t see a damn thing.

>How long ago? >>Five minutes. Maybe six. I would have called you at the ten-minute mark. Without knowing the Faraday had been targeted, the OPA had no reason to alert me unless the blackout spread or lasted longer than routine maintenance or a power surge could excuse. >>Milo is hitting the streets and heading your way. Reece is running a diagnostic. The OPA’s network of cameras, both our mounts and surveillance we mooched off the city, gave Reece a bird’s-eye view of Atlanta. Right now, he was flying blind. And that meant we would never see the coven coming.



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