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Kenzie heard the guard’s words and her heart stopped. Then she sprang into motion, sprinting past Mad and down the hall to where Carise was supposed to be safe.
Kenzie wanted to scream. She wanted to cut the answers out of people until she knew exactly where Carise was and whether or not she was safe. Had someone abducted her in the night?
Had one of the guards been so loyal to Jadirel that he’d taken Carise away to where other people would hurt her?
Had Kenzie had her in her grasp only to lose her because she was so selfish that she’d rather fuck a hot alien than sit vigil at her sister’s side? Only when her fingers closed around hard wood did she realize she had a knife in her hands.
She had to calm down. She couldn’t tear through the palace in a rage looking for evidence of where her sister was. She needed to do it methodically, to gather every bit of evidence and chase down whoever dared to put a finger on Carise.
Was it Jaek?
She could take Jaek. None of her previous doubts mattered.
“She can’t have gone far.” Kenzie barely recognized her own voice. “I need to find her.”
Mad was right beside her, and he put a hand on her shoulder. “I think you should read this first.” He handed her a folded piece of paper. “It was on Carise’s pillow.”
“Ransom?” Kenzie didn’t have much money, but that didn’t matter. Ransom meant that Carise was probably alive.
“Just read the note.” Mad sounded… strange.
She met his eyes and saw concern. “I’m fine,” she tried to assure him. The fact that she had to grit it out through clenched teeth didn’t help her cause. She unfolded the paper and read.
I’m sorry for leaving like this. I’m safe and with a friend. I know that’s not going to stop you worrying about me, so I promise that I will send a note to check in at least once a week.
Thank you so much for coming for me. I knew you would. Even in the darkest days, I knew my big sister would come. That hope kept me alive when nothing else would. And you came! You freed me! I was so happy to see you and I love you so much.
But I need to figure things out for me. You were making so many plans last night that I didn’t have time to get a word in edgewise. I don’t want to go back to Earth, at least not yet. And it’s not about Jaek, I promise. He ALSO kept me safe for a little while, but that’s not it.
This is about me.
For the first time in years, I have my freedom. I want to figure out who I am and what I want. And I’m afraid that if I leave here with you, I’m not going to be able to do that. You’re a little overprotective, okay?
I’m a big girl now. Let me figure out how to take care of myself.
This isn’t goodbye AT ALL. We’re going to see each other again and we’re going to be sisters. But I need my time. Please give it to me.
I will always love you. I will always be your little sister.
But let me figure out who I am now.
The letter was a punch to the gut, and Kenzie stumbled back until she was sitting on Carise’s perfectly made bed. She wordlessly handed the letter to Mad, who scanned it with a serious look on his face.
“How did she leave?” he asked, and Kenzie was about to give a sharp response when she realized he was talking to a guard.
She looked up and glared at the guard, who shrank back, but steeled himself and responded anyway. “She walked out on her own about an hour ago,” the guard reported. “She had breakfast delivered shortly before sunrise and ate it all. Then she requested new clothing and paper. She asked the attendant if she was allowed to go for a walk, and the attendant told her she was not a prisoner here, so she could do whatever she pleased. She left shortly after that, and when the attendant realized she had been gone for so long, the guard was notified. I have the attendant in the cell awaiting punishment, sire.”
“What?” Mad startled, and even Kenzie was taken aback, no matter her previous desire for violence. “The attendant was doing their job. No punishment necessary. Let them go.”
“But the girl escaped!” the guard sputtered.
“She wasn’t a prisoner.” Kenzie said it faintly, but she had to make herself believe it. Carise wasn’t a prisoner. She was free to walk away whenever she wanted.
“Leave us,” Mad told the guard.
When they were alone in Carise’s room, he gathered Kenzie in a tight hug. “We can still go after her,” he said. “If she’s only been gone an hour, she can’t have gotten far.”
Kenzie wanted to. So bad. It was on the tip of her tongue to agree with Mad’s suggestion. “Give me the letter, please.” Mad did, and Kenzie read it again. The words hadn’t magically changed. “I don’t know what I said last night, but I scared her. I can’t chase after her. She’ll just keep running. Guerran may not be the safest place in the galaxy, but she’s here and I know it. And she’s free. If she needs time to figure herself out, then I won’t chase after her.”
“Do you think she went to Jaek?” he asked quietly.
She shook her head. “She implies she didn’t. But we can always hunt him down if we think otherwise.”
“As long as she’s in my territory, she’s safe,” Mad vowed.
Despite the situation, Kenzie’s lips curved into a smile. “Your territory? You’re getting used to the whole exile king thing.”
Mad pulled her close and kissed her. “As long as you are here, I will protect you. I will always stay by your side. Will you be my queen?”
Kenzie could say yes and have almost everything she wanted. The situation with her sister was rocky, but that could improve. And she could keep Mad. It wasn’t the future she’d imagined for herself, back when she’d been capable of imagining a future, but it was hers.
And yet she remembered the conversation they’d been having right before they discovered Carise had left.
“What do you want, Mad? Before you were talking as if you were ready to leave. Now you’re staying because I’m staying. What if one day I want to leave? We just met. This is crazy.” Crazy how right it felt, at least. Kenzie’s heart had been breaking at the thought of walking away, but how could she just accept this?
Mad kissed her again, but when he pulled away, his face was serious. “You are my mate.” He kissed her again. “My place is at your side, wherever that may be.” He traced his hand down her cheek. “On Guerran, off Guerran, it doesn’t matter. I want to see my own family again, but there’s no guarantee of that, there never was. But with you, I can build something of my own, of our own. Be my mate. Be my lover. Be my queen.”
There was only so much her heart could take before bursting with happiness. She was balancing on a wire, her emotions teetering between despair and joy. She had Mad. She had this.
And she wasn’t letting him go.
She grabbed Mad’s hand and laced their fingers together. “Let’s go figure out how to run a kingdom.”
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