I mentioned that the loose T-shirts gave Keane convenient handholds. He’d certainly taken advantage of it before. But I don’t know if the T-shirt was just getting threadbare from having been worn and washed too often, or if one of us was pulling harder than usual, or if it was just the angle of the pull. Whatever it was, there was an ominous ripping sound, and I lurched forward, caught off balance and by surprise.
Keane, with his Fae reflexes, managed to grab me before I hit the floor with my face, but I could feel the cool sweep of air over the skin of my back and shoulder where my T-shirt had torn. Right where the Erlking’s mark lay.
“What the fuck?” Keane asked in a horrified whisper.
This was officially Not Good.
I tried to twist away from Keane, to pull the torn T-shirt back over the mark, but he turned me with rough hands, pulling aside the strap of the tank top so he could get a better look.
“Let go of me!” I snapped while trying to introduce his face to my elbow. I missed, of course, but Keane let go and took a couple of hasty steps away from me, like I had a contagious disease or something.
“What the fuck?” he said again, his face ashen. “Dana, what did you do?”
I considered my options. I was a pretty good liar—years of trying to cover up for my mom had given me plenty of practice—but I wasn’t sure I was creative enough to come up with a plausible explanation for the Erlking’s mark. Other than the truth, that is, and there was no way Keane was getting that out of me. Which left stonewalling as my only option.
“It’s none of your business,” I told Keane, rearranging the strap of my tank top so the mark was mostly covered despite the rip in my shirt. It came out harsher than I meant it to, and Keane actually flinched at my tone.
I let out a heavy sigh, trying to let the tension ease out of my body while I did. It didn’t work too well.
“Look,” I said, “if I wanted to talk about it, I wouldn’t be keeping it hidden like this. It’s between me and the Erlking, it’s complicated, and it doesn’t affect anyone but me. That’s all you need to know.”
Keane shook his head, the horror in his eyes slowly mixing with anger. “You’ll have to do better than that.”
I jutted my chin out stubbornly. “You’re not the boss of me, and that’s all you’re going to get.”
“Fine,” he said, eyes boring into me. “I guess I’ll just have to ask your father.”
Like I said, I’m a pretty good liar, but my poker face failed me just then. My dad was the absolute last person I wanted to know about the Erlking’s mark. If he found out about the mark, he wouldn’t rest until he’d wrested every single detail out of me about how I’d gotten it. And if he learned I’d snuck out of my safe house, I’d be grounded for the rest of my life. Maybe even longer.
Not that I felt bad about keeping secrets from him, mind you. He was still keeping what he thought was a whopping secret from me. He was bound by his ties to the Seelie Court not to tell me what would happen if I gave the Erlking my virginity. Thanks to the agreement the Erlking had made with Titania, there was a geis—a magical restriction—that prevented my dad from even talking about the Erlking’s secret.
But when my aunt Grace had tried to kill me, she’d been so determined to hurt me before I died that she’d severed her ties with the Seelie Court just so she could tell me the horrifying truth of what I’d agreed to. That was when I realized that as much as my dad loved me—and he did love me, I knew that—he was a Seelie Fae, too deeply devoted to his Court to consider leaving it, even to protect me.
He had to know what I’d promised the Erlking in order to free Ethan. And yet he hadn’t been willing to renounce the Seelie Court so he could warn me. If he was going to keep a secret like that from me, then I didn’t feel bad about hiding the Erlking’s mark.
“Shall I go talk to your father right now?” Keane prompted. “Or are you going to explain why you have something that looks suspiciously like the Erlking’s mark on your shoulder?”
I considered calling his bluff. He wasn’t generally what I’d think of as a tattletale kind of guy. But like just about everyone else in my life, he’d do any crappy thing you could name if he thought it was for my own good.
“You’re blackmailing me?” I asked, stalling as I tried to make up a half-truth that would get him off my back.
Keane shrugged, but the gesture was tight and tense. “Call it what you want. But if you’re the Erlking’s creature, then I think I have a right to know it before I travel into Faerie with you.”
“I am not the Erlking’s creature!”
“No? Then why do you have his mark, like a brand, on your skin?”
“You mind if I go change before we have this conversation? I don’t like standing around in a torn shirt.” I plucked at the shredded shoulder for emphasis.
Keane took a step closer to me, his jaw set. “Yes, I mind if you take a little extra time to work out the details of whatever lie you’re about to tell me.” There was a hint of a growl in his voice, and I wondered if he was mad enough to hit me in anger. I didn’t think so, despite the clenched fists and the smoke coming out of his ears, but I couldn’t help my primal instinct to take a step back.
Keane blinked, like he was surprised. Then he seemed to realize just how aggressive his body language was, and he visibly relaxed. His fists uncurled, and his shoulders lowered, but I could still see the metaphorical smoke. He wasn’t any less pissed. And he wasn’t going to give me time to think things through before I spoke.