Layla’s missing. Jon, Kristin, and the rest of the Shifters are trying desperately to find her — even if all that’s left is a body.
Meanwhile, Layla finds herself dependent upon her worst enemies. Assuming that the Shifters aren’t coming for her, she makes a plan to escape on her own. Layla’s a pretty good chess player, but is she good enough to out-wit her captors?
Preview: Chapter 1 of The Rook & the King
Monday afternoon, March 18
An invisible weight pressed down on my back, collapsing my lungs and forcing me face-down into a puddle of blood. I tried to breathe but only gore entered my mouth. I’d always wondered how I would die, and now I knew: I would choke to death on blood. Whether it was mine or the blood of one of the men I had killed, I didn’t know. Did it even matter?
I woke with a start, face buried in my pillow, a cold sweat making the twisted sheets cling to my body. One hand was clenched into a fist at my side, gripping a handful of bedsheets.
A steady beeping came from somewhere above me. In the distance, heels clicked rhythmically against a tile floor.
Where was I?
I disentangled myself from the sheets, banging my elbow against a metal bed rail as I did.
Oh, right. I was in Mercy Hospital in Ozark.
“You’re awake,” Ellen said from the chair beside my bed. She wore her nurse’s scrubs and balanced an ereader on her knee. She looked like she’d been sitting there a while. “I’d just about given up on you ever waking up.”
I rubbed my eyes, wincing when my thumb brushed against a row of stitches. Sun streamed in between the slats of cream-colored blinds, casting striped shadows across the foot of my bed.
“What time is it?”
She glanced at her watch. “A little after one-thirty. I’m going to have to head to work soon, but I wanted to be here when you woke up.” She paused. “I convinced the doctors to release you this afternoon. Your dad’s coming to pick you up in about an hour. He came here last night a few hours after you were admitted — Patti called him and told him you’d been in an ATV accident — but you were already asleep and he didn’t want to wake you. It was a close call for me.”
Selfish woman. She ran off with my baby sister, Leah, and let my father and the rest of Mecksville believe she was dead. Her “death” had destroyed my father and turned my childhood into a nightmare. She’d come back to help the pack fight off a group of Mentalists, but she still refused to tell Dad she was alive. She cared more about protecting her secret than telling him the truth.
“I still don’t see why you can’t tell him you’re alive,” I said.
“We’ve discussed this, Jon,” she sighed. “It’s safer for the pack — and for your father — if everyone goes on believing I’m dead.”
“But why does ‘everyone’ have to include your husband?”
“He hasn’t been my husband in more than ten years.”
“So? If he knew you were alive –”
“Let’s not do this right now — please? You know where I stand on this issue, and it’s not going to change. I’d rather talk about you.” She switched to speaking to me the silent way, despite the fact that the door to my hospital room was closed and it was only us. What happened when you were in the Mentalist world? Kristin said something about an arena…?
The word “arena” triggered a flood of images, and for a moment I was there again, walking through the wooden doors, naked, while the crowd jeered and threw stones and rotten vegetables at me.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
She said you killed five fighters before they finally overwhelmed you.
“Yeah,” I said. I felt the warmth of their blood smeared across my face, running down my chin. I reached up a hand to wipe it off, but the only thing there was sweat. “But it’s over. I’d rather not think about it more than I have to.”
She lowered her voice. “I’ve had to kill people, too, you know. I know what it’s like to live with that burden on your heart. If you want to –”
“I said I don’t want to talk about it!” I yelled, banging my fist against the bed.
Her face contracted into a scowl and she opened her mouth to say something, but a light knock came on the door. Without waiting for an answer, the door creaked open and a thin, balding man with glasses and a long white coat stepped through.
“You’re awake,” he said pleasantly, striding over to the foot of my bed. He picked up the chart that hung there and flipped through it. If he sensed the tension in the room, he gave no sign of it. “Do you remember me? I’m Dr. Eagan. I was the doctor on-call last night when they brought you in.”
I squinted at him, trying to remember his face. The only thing I could remember from the night before was sharing a kiss with Kristin before we both fell asleep on my hospital bed.
“It’s ok,” he said. “Given the extent of your injuries, I was surprised that you remembered your ATV accident at all.”
A hazy memory came back to me. Someone wrapped a bandage around my broken ribs while I recounted a story Patti and Ellen had concocted. I was with Jaden. I took a turn too fast and the ATV flipped over.
Jaden didn’t actually own an ATV. His parents were way too strict for anything like that. Turk owned an ATV, but my dad knew Turk’s family and would be sure to speak to Dr. Turkle about my “accident.” Dad had never met Jaden’s parents and probably wouldn’t reach out to them about it.
“How are you feeling this afternoon, Jonathan? How are the ribs?”
I scanned through my body. I was sore everywhere, but not in pain per se. Chalk up another point to my Shifter’s ability to heal quickly. “I feel alright,” I said honestly.
He walked over beside my bed, and I followed the series of commands he gave obediently. “Lift your arms.” “Look up.” “Follow my finger.” “Does this hurt? How about this?”
“Well,” he said after a few minutes of that. “I was skeptical when your — your…” Dr. Eagan glanced at Ellen.
“Aunt,” she said, at the same moment I said, “Friend of the family.” The doctor’s brow furrowed in confusion.
We look too much alike not to be related, Ellen warned. And I already said you were my nephew.
“Technically, she’s my mom’s second cousin,” I said hastily. “But usually I call her ‘aunt.'”
“Right. I knew she didn’t look old enough to be your aunt,” the doctor said, grinning at Ellen. “Well, I was skeptical when your aunt told me you’d be ready to be released this afternoon. Given the state I saw you in last night, I thought for sure you’d be with us at least for one more night. But you seem to be recovering remarkably quickly.” He gave Ellen a wry grin. “Kids, huh? We’re all made of rubber until we’re thirty. But we certainly pay for our youth later, don’t we?” He laughed heartily.
Ellen returned his smile, but it was forced.
“I should get going,” she said, standing. “My shift starts at three.” She picked up her bag from the floor, slipping the ereader inside.
“Where did you say you worked, again?” asked Dr. Eagan. “Mercy?”
“No. Sparks Regional.”
“That’s right, that’s right.” He hung my chart back on the foot of the bed and turned his full attention on Ellen. “It’s a good place. Is Warren Ritter still out there? Last I remember he was chief of surgery.”
“Dr. Ritter?” Ellen thought for a moment. “Maybe. I haven’t worked there that long.”
“New to the area?”
“In a way.”
He adjusted his glasses. “You’ll have to let me show you around some time, Ellen. Northwest Arkansas doesn’t have much by way of culture, but it’s got its charming pockets, if you know where to look.”
I glanced between them, alarmed. Is he… Tell me he’s not flirting with you.
Ellen shot me a “be quiet” look. “Maybe some time.” She tapped the watch on her wrist. “Not today though. Really have to run.” Then she turned to me. “Stay out of trouble.” Remember, ATV accident at the state park with Jaden. You turned too fast and it flipped, and you fell down the ravine. And don’t elaborate on your story. You’re a terrible liar.
“Got it,” I said. I gave her a smile as fake as the one she’d given the doctor a moment earlier.
“Say hello to Warren for me,” Dr. Eagan called to Ellen’s back as she walked out the door. She nodded without turning around, clicking the door shut behind her.
“Your aunt seems like a very nice woman,” observed Dr. Eagan.
“Mmm,” I grunted.
“She hasn’t left your side since you got here.” He nodded at the empty chair. “Sat right there through the entire night. Didn’t even sleep. I went home for a few hours, got some rest, ate some breakfast, came back around ten this morning, and she was still sitting in the same place.” He clapped his hands together. “Anyway. The unit clerk told me your dad’s on his way. I’ll write you a prescription for your pain. Though at the rate you’re recovering, you might not need it for long. Other than that… follow your aunt’s advice and stay out of trouble. No heavy lifting for the next few weeks.”
I nodded agreeably and fell back asleep the minute he left.
“You know I hate hospitals.”
My dad and I were riding home in his truck. He looked paler than normal; his normally piercing blue eyes were puffy and red as if he hadn’t slept the night before. And he’d barely spoken to me since we left the hospital. Our half-hour drive home had so far been filled only with the low murmur of country music coming from his speakers.
“You shouldn’t have been on an ATV in the state park, anyway. They don’t allow that. There’s signs up all over the place.”
“Yeah. I know. Believe me, I won’t do it again.” I winced to emphasize the point as I adjusted the seat belt across my chest. I wasn’t actually as sore as I had been when I woke up, but I wanted my dad to think I was suffering from my “ATV accident.”
The suffering part wasn’t fake. Even though my body was healing, my mind didn’t seem to be getting any better. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw Mentalists closing in on me. Every time something clattered to the floor or a door slammed shut, I jumped.
And whenever I thought about Layla, my stomach twisted into knots. Kristin told me that she and Dave were heading back to the Mentalist world early this morning to look for Layla — or her body — but I hadn’t heard back from either one of them, and the afternoon was waning. Had they found something and didn’t think I could handle hearing about it? Part of me wanted to reach out to Dave with my mind, to ask him what was happening. Part of me didn’t want to know. Maybe I wasn’t ready to hear about it, after all.
“I always thought Jaden was smarter than you,” my dad continued, his voice still irritated and strained.
“But you let him talk you into riding around hell-bent-for-leather on ATVs? You know those things are dangerous.”
“Well…” Ellen’s words about not elaborating on the lie came back to me, but I couldn’t throw Jaden under the bus. “It wasn’t exactly Jaden’s idea.”
He gave me a brief glare before turning his attention back to the road.
“Why does that not surprise me, Jon? How many times are you going to act before you think? Jumping Dave Bramlett at the homecoming dance last year and landing yourself at the hospital, giving that kid — what was his name?”
“Jared. Jared Stanley.”
“Giving him a concussion and nearly getting expelled… you need to start using your head.”
Following Layla’s hare-brained idea to go rescue Jeremiah and almost getting me and Kristin killed, I added to the list. And now Layla was gone. Could I have talked her out of it? Should I have? Dave had said it was a bad idea from the very beginning. It was only thanks to Kristin’s fast thinking that we made it out of there alive at all, but now Layla was paying the ultimate price for her rebellion.
“But the ATV, Jon, the ATV, that takes the cake. Hearing you’d had an accident and you were in the hospital — you know what went through my head, don’t you?”
I stayed silent.
“The last time I got a phone call about an accident and went to the emergency room in Ozark, it was your mother’s broken, bloody body they showed me.”
“Don’t bring Mom into this.”
“She didn’t even have a face left, Jon. She didn’t even look human. The only way I knew it was her was the long black hair. Can you imagine how that made me feel? Can you imagine looking at the mangled remains of your wife and your baby girl –”
He broke off suddenly, running a calloused hand through his thin chestnut-colored hair. The same color as Leah’s hair. I pinched the bridge of my nose and closed my eyes.
“Come on, Dad. Don’t go there. I’m not dead.” And neither is Mom, I added silently. “I admit it — I did something stupid. I promise I won’t do it again.”
He made a choking noise and covered it up with a cough.
“I should ground you,” he said, almost more to himself than to me. I glanced at him, surprised. I’d never been grounded before, not even earlier in the year when I’d fought Jared Stanley. He seemed to accept fights, especially fights that were about honor, but this time I’d really pushed my luck too far. But I wondered if he’d actually go through with grounding me. It was the kind of thing that might require him to do something more than sit in his easy chair and watch TV, something that might require him to be at least marginally involved in my life and aware of my movements.
“You can ground me if you want,” I said in a placating tone. “I’ll understand if you do.” And I also knew I could sneak out of the house if I needed to, grounded or not. “But I swear I’ve learned my lesson.” I gestured at the stitches on my cheek. “I mean, look at me. Trust me, I’m not doing this again.”
A silent minute ticked by, and some lady on the radio crooned about her lost love.
He sighed heavily. “I need to stop at SaveMart on the way home. You’re out of cereal.”
I nodded but didn’t reply. I knew it wasn’t cereal he was after. I knew he’d drink himself into a deep stupor by nightfall.
And when he did, I’d sneak out of the house and drive to Dave’s, where Patti, Quincy, and Jeremiah had been staying since the night Lawrence burned down their house. Dave could tell me in person what he and Kristin found on their search of the Mentalist world, and if they hadn’t found anything yet, I’d insist on going back right away, with him or without him.
We’d find Layla. Or whatever was left of her. Hopefully she’d have a face left. And then, maybe, life could get back to normal.
Tired again, I leaned my head against the truck window and closed my eyes. But the moment my eyelids fell shut, a knife whizzed towards my face. My eyes flew open and I gasped.
My dad looked over, lines of worry creasing his face. “You alright?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Just, uh, my ribs still hurt.”