Woodcutter's Grim Series, Book 10, Bridge of Fire, Part 1: Out of the Ashes 2 covers

Woodcutter’s Grim Series, Book 10, Bridge of Fire, Part 1: Out of the Ashes by Karen Wiesner

For the ten generations since the evil first came to Woodcutter’s Grim, the Guardians have sworn an oath to protect the town from the childhood horrors that lurk in the black woods. Without them, the town would be defenseless…and the terrors would escape to the world at large.

Woodcutter's Grim Series, Book 10, Bridge of Fire, Part 1: Out of the Ashes 2 coversThe youngest son in a family of shape-shifting goats, William Gruff escaped a dire fate but his life is desperately lonely, engineering fantastical bridges that defy logic. Nothing prepares him for meeting Adaryn Azar.

Adaryn has a secret that keeps her on the run. Just as everything she’s ever wanted is about to come true with Liam, her enemy discovers her. But starting over would mean losing the timeless love she’s found with Liam.Next Book in this Series

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GENRE: Fantasy/Paranormal/Mild Horror/Romance   Word Count: 57, 996

 

Chapter 1

Liam

 

 

October 19, 2026

 

“Liam! Come to me.”

The far-away whisper woke him, settling shock and anxiety in his chest when he realized he’d fallen asleep. His eyes were heavy, unable to see clearly in the dimly lit living room of his penthouse flat in southern Italy.

“Liam, I love you. You’re all that matters to me. Come to me. There’s so little time now. Hear me, my love. Understand…”

Though the voice could have been a multitude speaking as one, everything inside him insisted it was Adaryn. Was she home? Had he worried for nothing and everything would be all right again? His torment had gone on for the endless days his wife had been missing. Nothing had mattered to him but finding her. Sleep, food, work–he cared nothing for any of them. But his strength had waned.

Alarmed, he sat up in the armchair, but, as his eyes adjusted to the low-lit room with all the curtains closed, he realized anew that he’d been hearing the same voice for days, and she hadn’t appeared, the way she seemed to magically before that.

Grief overwhelmed him, more leaden than ever. How could he have been so stupid not to forge ways to get hold of her when he needed her? She saw little reason to own a cell phone, claimed she had no desire or use for such a device.

Of her background, he knew pathetically little: She was the owner of a family legacy corporation which had been in existence “for ages”, according to Adaryn. She and her descendants were in perpetual control of it, anonymously and autonomously, though they ruled in the background at all times, unnamed and unseen. She wasn’t involved in the day-to-day operations, only peripherally participating with a branch of the business called Fiery Fashions. That particular division provided unique wardrobes for the truly elite around the globe, including royalty and celebrities. Adaryn designed the clothes herself for select clients, though she’d never explained the situation of her schedule since she didn’t go to work each day like a regular person. Even if he knew how to contact anyone there, he already felt sure no one would be able to help him locate Adaryn. Had any of her employees ever met her in person? He suspected not.

Sighing, he scrubbed his hands over his face, trying to wake himself up from the short, unsettling nap. The insane truth was that he’d never needed to so much as call or attempt to physically contact Adaryn before. Whenever he wanted or needed her, she came to him in seconds, almost as if his wish to see her conjured her bodily before him.

My attempts to do just that these past few days have been desperate, bordering on deranged. But she’s not there…she’s not here. She doesn’t come. Yet I keep imagining her crying out to me across the void between us now, begging me to rush to her as if I should know how or where to go.

“Adaryn,” he murmured, so softly he barely heard himself.

When the voice didn’t respond, gone once more like a specter, a sob lodged in his throat, choking him. Why did her summons always sound so real, so tangible–as if he could reach out and touch her because she was that close–whenever he heard it?

The bottom line keeps coming back to one inescapable fact: I barely know my own wife of less than a month, yet she’s become an integral part of me, one that I can’t and won’t live without. Without her…there’s nothing anymore.

 

***

 

October 1, 2026

 

Liam had come to Italy three years ago on a commission to build a bridge that initially sparked as much controversy as a political election but quickly swayed the population in fervent favor by virtue of its indisputable magnificence and elegance. Since arriving, he’d walked the streets of the old-world, enchanting city where he was staying each and every day and night. Without fear, always alone, he’d discovered both the virtues and seedier underbelly of the city center, the crumbling historical district on the waterfront, the old quarter, the myriad neighborhoods that had distinct personalities and flavors, each home to charming piazzas sui generis. Here, the old and new clashed and colluded by choice or constraint.

Liam Grund had fallen in love with the city, just as he did those he’d lived in around the world, building his bridges that defied logic while offering beauty beyond mortal belief. Sometimes, rarely, he visited Casetta della Notte, a nightclub he’d discovered not long after settling in. It wasn’t a dive, nor was it particularly popular. He sat in the same, dark corner table each time, cast in deep shadows.

There, he’d met a woman who’d become his lover. Zanetti frequented Casetta della Notte even less than he did, and he knew only her first name. When she came, she entered his darkness and, before long, they left together, went to a nearby albergo, and made love without hurry until he left her in the early hours of morning.

Without words, explanations, justifications, they shared only passion. All of his relationships had been like this. Wherever he went, he met a lover who agreed to the same conditions he set…and always he fell in love, never certain of her feelings for him. This temporarily monogamous relationship held no depth, no true intimacy, and he knew he wouldn’t have survived without it. His loneliness was a vacuum otherwise.

Until he’d met Adaryn, he’d believed the liaisons were all there were for him, the pinnacle of what he was allowed to grasp. The night he and the woman who would become his wife met, he’d been at the nightclub when he spotted her. Even in shadows, she was unforgettable. He’d realized with a shock that it hadn’t been the first time he’d seen her. Her hair was longer and thicker than he’d ever seen on a woman before, like a lion’s mane of ebony silk shot through with brilliant red flames. It flowed around her like something alive and on fire. In the low-lit nightclub, that was how it seemed to him.

Even in daylight, she was a spectacle to behold. Her skin was white as ivory, her eyes huge and defined, with arched brows, unnaturally thick and long lashes, her mouth a work of art in bold red. Her beauty was timeless and drew notice from all she came in contact with. He couldn’t have forgotten her if he tried, though this was the first time her presence had haunted him with stunning familiarity. Dressed in black and red, her clothing emphasizing her 6’2 height and striking, sylph-slim body, he’d found her breathtaking. But what he couldn’t escape–at the protracted moment before she became aware he’d noticed her and subsequently disappeared–was that Italy wasn’t the only place he’d seen her. He’d seen her while building a bridge in South America–his previous commission before Italy–and perhaps even as far back as Africa.

His terror had gripped him at the comprehension. He’d been safe for 20 years and, in that time, he’d never let his guard down, keeping to himself, not making friends or cultivating relationships beyond a superficial, intermittent lover in each location. His mother had told him the evil could come for him in any form, and almost certainly the one he’d least expect. While he couldn’t be sure what she meant, he’d always assumed it would come for him with the face of his family–either his mother, one of his two older brothers, or even his father, who’d been the one to enslave the Gruff family to the evil with a blood contract.

His mother had found a way to defy the bondage for him, her youngest, when he was just 16. He’d run for his life. William Gruff became Liam Grund, and his brand new identity had allowed him to go to college and get his Architectural Doctorate while building a reputation that now afforded him the choicest commissions in the field of designing bridges. While many speculated about who he was and his almost supernatural skills, he’d built autonomous privacy and security into his contracts.

Liam had become a phantom in his need to escape Casetta della Notte quietly. But something told him it wouldn’t be so easy with this stunning woman. Despite his wariness about who and what she was, he found himself intrigued by her. Her unearthly beauty, naturally, captivated him, but there was something more, something that compelled him to want to meet her in person and draw near to her.

If she’s following me, she must be part of the evil I thought I escaped, even at the expense of abandoning my family…

He’d slipped out the back way, intending to see if she really was tracking him. If she didn’t appear, maybe there was some question about whether she actually was an agent of his enemy, or if this was merely an unbelievable coincidence.

As he suspected–hoped?–she’d come out through the back alley a few minutes after she disappeared, and he hadn’t given her time to slip away, if she’d wanted to.

“You’re following me. Who are you?” he’d demanded when he stepped out, trapping her between the exit and the nightclub.

Much later, when he reflected on their meeting, he wondered why she hadn’t run, something he suspected would have been simple for someone like her. 

“I… You fascinate me.”

Her lilting accent might have been the result of exposure to a thousand locations blended into one fascinating distillation, the words almost painfully honest. He couldn’t deny the edge of shame in her tone.

When he stepped closer, she didn’t run even then. She stood a scant two shorter than his 6’4. He saw her eyes were just as singular as her hair and her elongated, sylph body. They were black with bright orange irises. Given the proof of sectoral heterochromia, it wasn’t impossible for a person to have two colors in the same iris, but hers were even more unusual. The orange might have been a ring of fire around the black pupil for how bold it was. The effect was evident and exactly the same in each eye.

“What fascinates you about me?” he asked, certain he could catch her if she tried to bolt.

“That you’re always alone. That you’re lonely. That your passion is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced or witnessed. That you build bridges unlike–” She swallowed with obvious difficulty. “Your Bridge of Dreams… They’re all predicting it’ll almost certainly make history. I’ve seen you at the top of it many a night. Saw you weaving the magic, your hands wielding power that no human could possibly grasp, let alone control. Your tapestry threads are extramundane. You turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. But no one else can see what you’ve done. Their eyes can’t take it in. They have limited understanding, finite sight. But I can see each bridge for its fantastical beauty. I see each and every strand. I alone can perceive the magic.”

“What do you see?” he asked, jolted, yes, that she knew so much about him when she shouldn’t, couldn’t, but also enthralled at the prospect. His bridges attracted attention, veneration, but humans didn’t have the capacity to fathom what he’d created, just as this enigma of a woman had said. For someone to discern what was otherwise indiscernible… He couldn’t walk away from this, or let her do the same.

“Roses that are works of art, the rain, rainbows, the treasure beyond…all interwoven into something indescribable.”

“You can’t see them. No one can.” No one except me and my family and…the evil.

“You created these bridges. With your words, your vision. You brought them into being with your passion and your gift. No one else knows, no one can comprehend, or possess the sight necessary for beholding such a wonder. You’re one of a kind. And…I’m different…too. That’s how I’m able to see your brilliance.”

“Who are you? What do you want?” He should have sounded defensive. Instead, he heard the truth in his own voice. She’d beguiled him.

“I’m Adaryn Azar. Other than Torin and Celee, I’ve never told anyone my full name before.”

“Who are Torin and Celee?”

“The most important people in the world, any world, to me.”

That she felt compelled to divulge personal information made no sense, especially considering the heartbeat length of time they’d been acquainted. Yet he found himself asking her if she would accompany him back inside Casetta della Notte, where they returned to his table.

Despite the loud, fevered music, they talked without interruption for more than an hour–topics he could hardly remember later–before he found himself requesting a dance. The music was heavy, fast, sensual, and their bodies found a rhythm together that he understood instantly no other could surpass, let alone equal. He’d forgotten Zanetti completely when someone ventured close to their table with the same hair color, jolting him with the awareness of what could happen if his lover showed up tonight.

As though reading his mind, Adaryn said, “She won’t come. She can’t.”

“Who?”

“Zanetti.” She said it with her gaze fixed on his.

“How do you–?”

“I’ve seen you together. I know that what’s between the two of you is fierce…but short-lived. She’s in no more position to wish let alone want more than what you’ve shared for the past three years.”

“Do you know her?”

“I know enough.”

Nothing about Adaryn’s words or manner betrayed jealousy–merely curiosity and intrigue.

“Shall we dance again?” she asked softly, giving him the segue he needed to leave a subject that wasn’t painful so much as mortifying.

All I really want is to become part of Adaryn Azar again, permanently.

For all intents and purposes, they became one being as they danced, talked, stared into each other’s eyes as if they could see every secret. He held her, reminded of a graceful, exotic bird in flight with her eyes and hair of fire. She was as slim as an elemental, unnaturally tall for a woman, but her curves were very definitely perfect, molding to his much larger, muscular frame. A thousand times he thought of how much he wanted to kiss her, explore her, learn all her secrets, give and take the kind of pleasure that required permanence and longevity.

But his uncertainty tempered such an extreme reaction. She’d spoken candidly, openly, with a vulnerability that seemed to forbid subterfuge. The fact remained, he didn’t know who she was, how she knew him, how long she’d been following him, what her intentions were. That hesitation kept him, quintessentially, from requesting everything he’d ever wanted from this winsome creature.

The nightclub forced them to part long before Liam was ready. “Can I give you a ride home?” he asked outside on the dark, almost forebodingly quiet street in front of the business. He’d anticipated seeing Zanetti this night and so drove to Casetta della Notte instead of walking. His only purpose in asking was to prevent Adaryn from leaving his side, now or ever.

She nodded, allowing him to gently guide her to his automobile. Once they were both inside, he asked, “Where do you live?”

“The porto,” she said simply.

“Where on the waterfront?” he asked, once he had the car moving in that general direction.

“Have you been to the harbor?” she asked.

For a moment, he considered asking if she knew the answer to that question herself. She’d given the impression she knew his every move, and he was convinced more than ever that he’d seen her before–in the last two locations he’d built bridges.

“Which side?”

“The opposite side of the beach and cathedral, leading up to the mountains.”

He frowned. “Distretto Povero?” He’d heard locals call it that, mainly because the structures built into the side of the mountain were abandoned, nearly a century old, and crumbling to ruins. The homeless and poverty-stricken tended to converge there for shelter, however decrepit.

She nodded. “There’s a free clinic in the area.”

“Is there?” He thought he’d gone everywhere in the city on his day or night treks, seen everything.

“It’s not labeled as such, but those in the area know it’s there for them.” She turned away and didn’t speak again until he’d parked on the path that was nearly as forsaken as the sector.

She’s slipping through my fingers. And the last thing I want is to let go, leave here without some very definite plan of seeing her again in the future.  

“I have to leave, Liam.”

“What?” he asked in surprise. “Tonight? Leave me? Leave Italy.”

“Italy. I’ve been here for far too long.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done this. I shouldn’t have…met you. I should have–“

“Stayed in the shadows watching me?” he asked pointedly, but he found himself angry not that she’d done that, but that she’d stayed there so long instead of coming into the light.

Who is this woman? Why does she feel like…hell, like my destiny? Like the missing part of myself that I’ve been aware of for as long as I can remember?

“I meant to stay away. I intended to simply…see you. Confirm my feeling about what I sensed in you. But, once I peeked into your life, I couldn’t leave. I saw too much of your sorrow. Passion. Radiance.”

“You were in Maracaibo and Cairo, weren’t you?”

“You’ve been all over the world,” she commented.

So how could he be so sure he’d seen her before? His adamancy wasn’t logical. Still, he couldn’t deny it. All this mattered, yet in comparison with separating and never seen her again… Not at all. “I have to leave, too. I’ve been here too long, fell in love with the city, but the work is done. Or almost done. Just some last minute details that can be completed in a matter of weeks.”

So don’t go. Don’t go without me. When we go, let’s go together.

He shook his head at the thought that was taboo, ludicrous in the extreme. He lived his life alone because he had to. It was the only way to be safe, to prevent what he’d left behind seemingly a lifetime ago from following him and returning him to the blood contract his mother had severed so he could be free. “I feel like I’ve known you my whole life, Adaryn Azar. Which makes absolutely no sense.”

“I feel the same. I felt it the first time I sensed you in the world, a magical being. It’s perfectly logical.”

She was being whimsical, calling him a magical being. She couldn’t know the truth. As otherworldly as she looked, she was a human and she couldn’t grasp the scope of what he was and the abusive prejudice he’d dealt with as a result in his life.

“How can it make sense to anyone?” he asked a question that he already knew didn’t have an answer. But that didn’t make it any less true.

She shook her head. “I sensed you in a sea of ordinary, Liam, and then, from the moment my eyes beheld you, I’ve been drawn irresistibly to you. You hold me where I shouldn’t linger.”

Liam’s suspicions rose again, and he remembered the conversation with his mother just before he fled Woodcutter’s Grim:

“The evil may sense you even after the blood contract bond is severed.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. I don’t understand any of the magic we’ve found in this place. But it may sense you because you’re a supernatural being. Don’t let your guard down. For anyone. For anything. Promise me. And don’t ever come back here, my son. Because you’ll never be free if you do…”

The memory dissipated like dandelion fluff on a strong summer breeze when Adaryn’s face moved close to his. He could smell the sweet wine they’d shared on her breath, see the fire in her eyes that could so easily consume him if he let it and opened himself any more than he already had…irresistibly, without any will at all.

“Who are you?” he asked with far less wariness than he believed was warranted. If she came from Woodcutter’s Grim…

“I’m someone who would never, ever hurt you, Liam.”

She kissed him. Her mouth was a drug, a magnet, the cynosure of his desire. When he instinctively cradled her flawless alabaster face between his hands, he felt how hot and alive her skin was and he devoured her in a kiss that melded them together in every possible way. He felt the exchange between them, the embrace of oneness. His heart raced like a wild horse, the beat so fast and oblivious that the present became the past, the past became the present, back and forth until she whispered, “Think of me, and I will be with you, Liam.”

Only then did he acknowledge he was holding himself tightly in such rapture, his eyes were closed, his senses far beyond his immediate physical location, his mind all but gone. He was that immersed in the woman who’d stolen his heart this night.

He opened his eyes and saw he was alone. Had he imagined the whole thing? Maybe Adaryn Azar didn’t exist anywhere but his very vivid imagination. Maybe he’d created her like the threads of magic that harnessed his bridges.

The scent of her skin–fire and ardor–stayed inside his nostrils, too real to be pure fantasy. When he lifted his fingers to his gently bruised mouth, they came back with deep red lipstick. His body responded with urgency to memories, not merely lustful ingenuity.

Over-warm, he shoved open the door of the car and got out, grateful for the cool breeze coming off the bay. But it reminded him of her words too poignantly: “Think of me, and I will be with you, Liam.”

He was already thinking of her, but she wasn’t here. She’d disappeared as completely as a dream grasped with clumsy, half-roused fingers upon awakening. He wanted her to return more than anything in the world.

He looked around the area, saw the fires of the city’s impoverished burning in barrels providing warmth in the chill midnight hour. His eyes scanned what he could see of the ruins that made up the historic hub, wondering which of them housed the free clinic Adaryn had spoken of and how he could find out. He’d have to return the next day, ask around.

And he had. He’d learned where the free clinic was, that a Swiss doctor and his very young daughter ran it, ministering to the poor. Of Adaryn, he saw and heard nothing. She wouldn’t leave his mind. Over and over, he told himself he couldn’t trust her or his insane feelings for her. How could he? Regardless of how openly they’d talked, he kept coming back to the fact that he knew nothing about her. Essentially nothing. He could hardly remember what they’d spoken of, and yet he recalled almost too nakedly how vulnerable he’d left himself to her, how she’d done the same to him.

How did he know a word she’d spoken to him was even true? For all I know, she could be the enemy in a beautiful disguise, sent to lure me back to the place I escaped with little more than my life and the clothes on my back. My mom warned me that the evil would come with a face I’d instinctively want to trust.

His biggest fear, however, had nothing to do with who she was but that she’d already left Italy, that he’d never find her again. Countless times, he’d driven to the porto, searching for her, some sign of where she could be. Did she live somewhere near here? Where? Was she homeless? A woman who dressed the way she did, looked as stunningly vibrant as she did, couldn’t be. Yet this area was the only lead he had to his exquisite bird of paradise.

Night after night, he returned, and finally, a week later, he parked and got out, barely thinking her name before she appeared before him.

Without hesitation, he reached for her, begging her to never leave him again. If his carefully constructed, hidden life was destroyed, so be it. He had to take the chance. There was no way he could know, but he sensed she’d done the same as he had for her: Waited for him, saved herself for him, took a chance on him when she adamantly avoided contact with anyone and everyone else on the planet. She alone could end his misery, make his life worth more than secrets and shadows and sublime skills that none could fathom.

“We only just met–” he started.

She put her long, graceful fingers over his mouth and said, “I know you. From the first sense of you, I knew you were like myself. That this world isn’t a safe place for you. Hiding is how you survive.”

His last defense, he supposed, because he could already feel himself giving over every part of himself to her. He struck out with the demand, “Who sent you?”

She frowned, looking genuinely confused by his question.

“Did the toll keeper send you after me?”

“I don’t know who or what you mean, my love.”

“You followed me to Italy,” he said, not a guess.

She nodded, confessing instantly to this: “Yes. I saw your Bridge of Splendor in Maracaibo. Your Cradle of Life in Cairo before that. I never intended to stay then, but I couldn’t leave until I saw the beginning and the end. When you went to Venezuela, I…I couldn’t leave you. I tried so hard. I never meant to meet you in person, even after you came to Italy.”

“Some people call that stalking,” he told her, eliciting the response he expected to.

Alarmed, she rushed to say, “I’m sorry, my love. I would have fled if you hadn’t revealed yourself in that alley last night. But, once you did, I was helpless.”

“What do you want from me?”

When she looked at him, her eyes beguiled him but not in the manipulative way that warranted suspicion. She looked willing to do anything he needed or wanted her to in order to keep him from sending her away.

“Tell me the truth,” he urged when she seemed reluctant to answer him.

“I want to see you. Watch you live your life. Get to know you. Face to face. Heart to heart. Mind to mind. Soul to soul. I want to make you forget what loneliness is like. I want to change your sadness to joy, your withdrawal to openness. I want to be close to you, any way you’ll let me. I want to know you the way not a single other being knows you. Much more than the passion you share with a woman who’s your lover but is essentially nothing more than a stranger.”

Something like guilt lodged in his throat. “You mentioned Zanetti before. How is it you know her?”

“She shares your passion. She’s one of the few lovers you’ve taken. You have one in each place you settle for a time. She risks much, but she wants no more from you than you want from her. Those before were similar. Whatever you both felt, you went your separate ways without shedding a tear.”

“You know too much.”

“I want to know everything. I can’t stand it if that’s from afar, not anymore. I want you to know me, Liam. I want to share passion with you, something I’ve never shared with another being. But, with you, I have no barriers, no inhibitions. I can’t keep living the way I have now that I know there can be more for me. More for you. You don’t understand the emptiness. Or…maybe you do. You’re the only one who could.” For a second, she almost looked away but, at the last minute, she didn’t as she spoke her heart, “For centuries, there was no voice, and now there’s only you. Inside me. I’ll never be the same.”

She initiated a kiss that had him holding her so tightly, she couldn’t have disappeared without a trace easily, unless she really was a figment of his imagination, the way he half suspected.

Damn the consequences. His only choice was to cut all ties and go into deep hiding or to surrender himself. He’d amassed a fortune that would have allowed him to disappear for many years. But it was already too late for him. The week without her had told him he was all-in, and their fevered lovemaking that night and each day that followed sealed the bond. He’d never known ardor like what they shared.

Their first night together, she’d asked him about the solid gold biceps cuff he wore on his left arm, and he told her the truth. He wore it because he had to, because he couldn’t remove it, though he’d tried countless times. She’d put her hand over the part of the bracelet that’d been damaged but not severed by a silver bullet–a magical thing his mother had received from the Protectorate, a group she would only tell him had formed to fight the evil in Woodcutter’s Grim. His skin had burned under Adaryn’s touch but, before it could become painful, she drew back and the cuff fell away. One of the many ways she’d freed him in so short a time…

The bracelet had been the mark of his imprisonment–as a Gruff–to a vile creature that enslaved his family after his father signed the blood contract allowing them to enter the magical town of Woodcutter’s Grim. Ironically, they’d dwelt there in safety for the first time Liam could remember.

“How did you do that?” he demanded in shock.

She shook her head, looking as flabbergasted as he was. As suspicious as it was, he couldn’t see it as proof that the toll keeper had sent her after him. Would she have removed the binding if she worked for the creature? That made no sense.

Perhaps against all reason, he relaxed after that.

“Will you miss Zanetti,” she asked softly, when he wrapped her in his arms and closed his eyes in the dark, “when you leave Italy?” She didn’t sound jealous.

“I thought I loved her, though I never had any intention of pursuing more than what we’ve shared these years. But compared to–”

Realizing he was about to say “the love I feel for you” had staggered him. But not for long. Mere days later, he asked her to marry him, and they talked vaguely of taking a long honeymoon in the most remote place on the planet. Where exactly hadn’t been locked down.

Just before the ceremony, she introduced him to Torin and Celestial, the two people who mattered to her more than anyone else. Torin was the Swiss doctor who ran the free clinic in the ruins of the harbor, and his sweet, angelic, bubbly five-year-old daughter, nicknamed Celee, helped out whatever way she could. Both were unlike any he’d ever met before with their caring, selfless generosity, and goodness.

In the short time Liam had come to know them, he understood why Adaryn had bonded with them, the way she claimed she never had with anyone else before. Saints were forged and saints were born, and the two of them qualified on both accounts.

Adaryn’s family became his, and Torin and Celee had all but moved into his flat since the wedding. Instead of sleeping on the foldout couch in the study or the one in the living room, they tended to sleep on the floor, usually on the terrazza, preferring to be out in the open, even when it was chilly. Torin claimed they came from a bitterly cold climate in the Swiss Alps. October nights in Italy were much warmer by comparison. The housekeeper had been complaining since their first night about the shocking amount of hair shed by the two of them, who were far and away the hairiest people Liam had ever met.

But then, inexplicably, just after the ribbon cutting ceremony to unveil Liam’s Bridge of Dreams, or Ponte di Sogni, he’d gone in to tie up the final loose ends of the commission, and he’d come home–not to Adaryn packing for the destination they still hadn’t decided on and intended to once he came back–but gone. Just gone. Torin and Celee owned very little, and they were leaving Italy with him and Adaryn. They’d gone to the clinic for the last time but hadn’t known where Adaryn was either when they returned to the flat.

Liam had searched the city by car, on foot, gone countless times to the places they loved and held meaning for them. She’d disappeared without a trace, and he didn’t have the slightest clue what to do about it.

 

***

 

October 19, 2026

 

Liam wasn’t willing to consider going to the police, not yet, and Torin hadn’t suggested that course even once in the two days Adaryn had been missing.

Across the living room, he felt Torin’s kind, gentle eyes on him. Celee had appeared soundlessly and put her head against his arm, giving him a hug.

“Did I imagine her voice?” he asked, not sure if they’d even heard him speak his wife’s name when he’d woken with a start after hearing her call to him. But both of them had proven to have keen ears, hearing things they shouldn’t have, given the distance, in the short time they’d become fixtures in his flat.

“What Adaryn has spoken, she’s spoken for you alone,” Torin said simply.

“So…you didn’t hear her?”

Celee clutched him consolingly, and he turned to look into her sweet brown eyes. “Her words are never in vain, are they, Papa?”

“For certain they are not, dumpling.”

Celee looked back at Liam. “If she didn’t speak, you wouldn’t hear her.”

What did that mean? As frustrating as the riddles the two had been speaking in the last two days were, Liam couldn’t get mad at the adorable little girl with her angelic smile, barrel-shaped pudge, and plentiful, curly blond-brown hair.

If what Celee says is right, then the opposite is also true: If Adaryn did speak, I’d hear her. So maybe I’m not crazy. She’s still out there. Somewhere. She hasn’t left or abandoned me. She’s trying to contact me…

Torin and Celee had few answers to the million questions he’d asked about Adaryn. He remembered some of the more memorable responses: Adaryn wouldn’t come back to them so much as they would find her. But first they had to know where to look.

The two had acted like they were being clear as a bell when they were anything but. Liam couldn’t decipher their words or meaning, although he did sense they were worried, too.

“She told me it wasn’t safe for her to stay in the same place too long. She’s never told me specifics, but I’ve wondered if she’s on the run. From someone or something. Do you know anything about it?”

Liam steeled himself for another strange answer, and he certainly got it: “She tells each what she wishes them to know,” Torin responded.

So that means either they know something and they won’t or can’t tell me–because if she wanted me to know it, she would have told me herself–or she never told them anything either.

Did she leave of her own volition? he wondered yet again. Or had she fled and couldn’t send him word where or why she had to go? The last time he’d seen her, they’d danced, spoken lovingly of their future, promised to make plans when he returned. Everything had been perfect. She’d given no indication she was going anywhere, especially without him.

Liam couldn’t get himself to believe she would willingly allow him to worry like this for no reason.

A harbinger whispered in his ear, Did the toll keeper send her? If that’s the case, I should flee. But he knew he couldn’t. Not until he knew the truth.

Torin moved to the end of the sofa near the armchair Liam was sitting. “Adaryn set her heart on you, Liam. That’s not something she’s done before, nor is likely to ever do again. Trust in her love. Whatever you do, don’t doubt her. I promise you, master, you won’t regret it.”

Liam winced slightly at Torin’s unbreakable habit of calling him “master”, which made him more than a little uncomfortable and he’d insisted over and over that he had to stop it–to no avail.

Celee nodded fervently against Liam’s arm. “You won’t, Liam. But you haven’t eaten all day. Come on, I’ll make you my favorite.”

Like her father, Celee was first and foremost a caretaker.

“You need to keep your strength up,” Torin agreed with the assessment, “in case she needs you.”

Did they know something they weren’t telling him? Would they let him go through the hell they knew he was enduring if they did?

What did he actually know of them? Damn little, but both had inspired instant trust from him. He’d grown to love and rely on them in such a short time. If Adaryn was treacherous, then so were they, but he couldn’t get himself to believe that. He’d seen their work in the clinic, the sacrificial way they healed and cared for the world hurting around them, wanting nothing more than to make a life better and asking nothing in return.

Doubting them isn’t helping.

Liam let himself be pulled into the kitchen, where Celee made him a peanut butter, strawberry, salami, and cheese sandwich that he was grateful tasted like sawdust to him. Despite the joke he’d been hearing his whole life about his kind eating everything, including the tin can, he tended to be peculiar and picky about what he put in his mouth. Lately, though, he had no appetite, no relish for food or anything that could give him sustenance. He marveled at Torin and Celee’s huge appetites. Given that they accepted no recompense for their work at the clinic, they’d probably gone many a night hungry.

“Can we play Scopa, Papa?” Celee asked after they ate and cleaned up the kitchen together.

Torin glanced at Liam, suggesting, “It would take your mind off things, master.”

Liam shook his head, not up to giving an explanation. The four of them had played the popular Italian card game countless times in the last few weeks. But he had no wish to get his mind off his missing wife.

“Let’s sit with Liam, my pup, why don’t we?”

Celee agreed. “Can I watch ‘Ifformidible mondo di Bo’ while we do?”

The two of them looked at Liam, who shrugged carelessly. If it made her feel better to watch a cartoon, he wouldn’t stop her. But he hadn’t anticipated his feelings about listening to Torin and Celee’s easy laughter when he was going crazy with trepidation.

His life would never be the same if Adaryn didn’t come back soon. And then what would he do?