Caution: this story is not meant to stand alone. The Beyond Happily Ever After & Patreon stories are vignettes and outtakes showing the O’Kanes & Riders in their daily lives, in between the adventures and often after their happy endings. These stories were written exclusively for readers and fans of the series, and will probably not make very much sense to anyone not familiar with the characters.
High Priestess: a 2019 patreon story. (Del POV & Mad POV) This story is a short vignette (usually) voted on by our Patreon supporters. In it, the high priestess Del reflects on the path she took to her current place of power as she tries to find the right way to immortalize Carter Maddox as a saint. And Mad grapples with his family legacy as he sees his father remembered. (Note: Patreon stories are exclusive to subscribers for the first six months. After that, they’ll be available to download free on our website.)
Characters: Del, Mad & Jyoti
Timeline: Set after Ivan
Summer was always the biggest test of Del’s willpower.
In the winter, she welcomed the warmth of the voluminous robes she’d adopted. Spring and fall were at least tolerable. But near the end of August, the sun beat down on Sector One with heat so repressive she let the girls in the temple wear light sundresses and shorts outside of official ceremonies.
Sometimes, late at night, she pretended not to hear them as they crept out to the lake beyond the cherry orchard to swim under the moonlight, oblivious to the watchful gaze of Del’s most trusted temple guardswoman. She envied them on those nights, envied the freedom to splash with muffled giggles and feel the cool night air against their skin.
Del could not splash, or giggle, or indulge in any light-hearted games of whimsy. She certainly couldn’t be caught outside her private quarters garbed in anything short of her full priestess regalia. Her robes, her belt, all the gold trimmings and jewelry and trappings lent her a solemn authority she hadn’t yet earned.
That she might, perhaps, never earn.
Del threw the bolt on the door to her suite, locking out the world. Her senior guard had a key that would open the lock, and the discretion to decide what emergencies merited disturbing Del’s rare moments of solitude. No one else came to Del’s inner sanctum, except for the housekeeper, who collected laundry and cleaned once a week. It was the one boundary Del ruthlessly enforced.
Del unbuckled her wide gold belt as she pushed away from the door, tossing it onto the table in her sitting room. Her jewelry followed: heavy rings, bracelets, her necklace and earrings. Spread across the table, it reminded her of the what Nita said about the fancy jewels she wore only reluctantly.
They’re just another kind of armor.
Thirty-four wasn’t precisely young. But it was half the age the previous high-priestess had been on the day she was invested. And Del only been twenty-five upon her own ascension, painfully young. Absurdly young. She’d been intensely aware of how totally her fragile authority rested on Gideon’s willingness to accept her predecessor’s wishes.
Even Del hadn’t known her fate. Hierarchy in the temples could be…fluid. Hierarchy in the temple located on the Rios estate–the Prophet’s Temple–was even more ambiguous. Seniority played its part, but a new high priestess chose her successor on the day she was invested. The name, written on a piece of paper and sealed with the high priestess’s own ring, was locked in a small, ornate golden box in the heart of the sanctuary.
The name might change many times over the years. No one knew, because no one else had a key. Del had been as shocked as anyone else when Gideon withdrew her name on the morning after High Priestess Alejandra’s death. She’d been Alejandra’s apprentice for ten years at that point. Del had been content knowing she’d continue her apprenticeship under a new high priestess.
Instead, she’d become the high priestess.
Goosebumps prickled over Del’s skin. The air in her personal quarters was cool, even in the late evening heat. Del had bucked tradition when she’d hired a mechanic to install a small solar air conditioner in her suite, but she didn’t care. Some traditions held the sector together.
Some just held it back.
The dress she wore under her robes was thin and light, but it was still too much tonight. Del stripped it over her head and let it fall in the wicker basket near her bedroom. She paused long enough to find a hair tie and twisted her hair on top of her head in a sloppy bun.
Blissfully clad in nothing but her bra and underwear, she padded to her workroom.
Her art studio was set off the side of her sitting room, in a corner of the temple that was practically a tower. Stairs curved along the back wall to a second level where she stored old paintings and rarely needed supplies. But her current project sat on display on her easel, hideously, aggressively wrong.
Del frowned as she approached the canvas. Carter Maddox stared back at her, his handsome face determined, his eyes blazing with conviction. She was good at what she did, and the painting was no doubt a beautiful piece of art. Del could imagine this stern, implacable warrior celebrated on the walls of temples, painted on the sides of buildings for luck. Tattooed into the skin of people who felt like they needed protection.
It was a true accomplishment. But it was still wrong.
Saints’ paintings rarely troubled her like this. Alejandra had begun consulting with Del on the final designs by her late teens. People had never been a puzzle to Del. They told you who they were so willingly. So eagerly. All you had to do was watch the way they moved through the world. When they gave way and when they stood strong. What they valued and what they couldn’t seem to see when it stood in front of them.
She knew how to take those things and pull out the essence of a person. The things that made them worth celebrating. The parts of them that shone.
The problem was, she’d only been nine years old the day Carter Maddox died. She’d met him once, three days after she arrived in Sector One as a terrified refugee from Sector Two. Her mother had promised she’d follow soon, but that morning Del had been given the devastating news.
Her mother would never leave Sector Two. Del was an orphan.
Del was alone.
A girl raised by an Orchid of Sector Two did not cry in front of strangers. She’d accepted the sympathetic words of the high priestess, along with her promise to make a place for Del in the temple. She’d thanked the woman for her kindness.
Then she’d fled into the cherry orchard to sob out her broken heart in peace.
That’s where Adriana Rios had found her. The famed princess of Sector One. Daughter of the Prophet. A woman with a thousand responsibilities on her shoulders. A woman who’d set aside all of those responsibilities to sit next to Del and say the only thing Del could have tolerated hearing.
No one will bother you as long as I’m here. Carter will make sure of it.
That was it. No reassurances that it was okay to cry. No pressure not to. Adriana sat in silence as Del hid her face against her knees and sobbed herself hoarse. Then she extended a hand, clasped Del’s fingers in her own, and glanced at her husband.
That glance was all it took. Whatever had bound Adriana Rios and Carter Maddox together had been deeper than words. He strode ahead of them, clearing a path to the private Rios entrance at the back of the temple. Adriana showed her where she could wash her face and found a comb for Del’s disheveled hair.
She’d allowed Del to face her fellow temple initiates with her emotional armor intact. And Carter had winked at her, his stern bodyguard expression melting into a moment of gentle good humor.
It’s nice to have a princess on your side, he’d murmured, and the smile he’d flashed at Adriana had been radiant. It had glowed.
Carter Maddox had always glowed around the love of his life.
“Of course,” Del breathed, as the realization swept over her.
Del lifted the canvas and tossed it haplessly aside. Her largest sketchpad was underneath. She snatched up a handful of pencils and shoved most of them into her hair for safe-keeping. Wielding her favorite, she stared at the canvas.
People told you who they were. Del may not have understood that at nine, but she’d still been listening.
Mad had never been in Del’s private studio before.
He knew he should be moved by the honor. She rarely invited anyone else to see her artwork before it was finished. But as he stepped inside the cluttered room, his stomach twisted with dread.
He hated the painting the old high priestess had made of his mother. Alejandra had been undeniably talented. But Mad had spent decades staring at a version of his mother that smoothed away all the rough edges that had made her so special. His passionate warrior mother had become an ephemeral princess through a few strokes of a brush. Sometimes he wondered if anyone even remembered how she’d really looked.
Sometimes he was afraid he didn’t really remember.
“I want your honest opinion,” Del told him. “Your father waited too long for this honor. I’m not going to reveal a portrait until I know you approve.”
If anything, the tension inside him twisted tighter. Mad had taken his father’s last name in furious rebellion against a sector who had tried to erase the man. So much of the foundation of his life had been built on resenting the way his father’s sacrifice had been erased.
He opened his mouth to lie, but Del was watching him with those too-observant eyes. He recognized that look now. He should. Jyoti had that gentle way of watching a person, so different from Gideon’s soul-penetrating stare. Like Jyoti, Del’s gaze offered a quiet promise. I’ll know if you lie to me, but I’ll understand if you do. You’re safe with me either way.
Mad blew out a breath, wishing he hadn’t left Jyoti back at the mansion. Then again, maybe keeping Jyoti and Del apart as much as possible was a good thing. The two of them together could probably uncover all the secrets in a man’s heart in under a minute.
“I don’t know,” he said finally. “I don’t know how to feel. I’ve wanted this all my life, but that doesn’t mean it’s not…painful. Messy.”
“I don’t mind messy,” Del said softly. “Be angry, Maddox. This sector took so much from you.”
It had, but he wasn’t used to hearing that truth fall from the lips of a priestess. Mostly they gushed about noble sacrifice and asked for his blessing. “Isn’t that blasphemy?”
The sudden smile that curled her lips made Del look almost mischievous. “Not when the High Priestess of the Prophet’s Temple says it.”
It startled him into laughter, and her smile widened. Mad had left the sector not long after Del’s ascension to High Priestess. His memories of her from before were mostly of the serious young apprentice who had been Alejandra’s shadow. Looking at her now, weighed down by her robes and glittering with gold, it was easy to forget that she was four years his junior.
No doubt that was the point. Jyoti hadn’t had to teach him that. A Rios learned about the power of presentation from the cradle. Dallas O’Kane was a master of it. But at least Mad had places he could set down the persona and relax with friends and loved ones. He wondered if Del ever could.
The sudden pang of sympathy must have shown on his face, because her eyebrows creased and her smile faded. Then she seemed to shake herself as she moved to the covered portrait.
“Honesty,” she repeated. “It’s okay if you hate it. It’s perhaps…a bit unorthodox.”
The knot in his stomach eased a little. “That sounds promising.”
Del didn’t waste more words. She pulled the sheet away, and Mad nearly doubled over as emotion punched through him.
He didn’t know what hit harder, the ache of loss or the thrill of recognition. Both tumbled end over end inside him, a maelstrom of joy and grief and sorrow. Because he was staring at his parents. Both of them.
His parents, in all their rough-edged glory.
This Adriana wasn’t a passive princess floating in a mass of perfectly curled hair. Adriana Rios stood proud on the canvas in fighting leathers, her long black hair in the utilitarian braid she’d preferred. The scar across her cheek stood silent testament to how willing she was to use the knife held gracefully at her side. Her crooked eyebrows were just the way Mad remembered, one always quirked a tiny bit up as if she was about to tell you a joke.
And behind her… Carter Maddox. Stern. Protective. Fierce. The tip of a massive sword sank into the earth at his feet. He gripped the hilt with one hand. The other arm disappeared behind Adriana’s back, only the very tips of his fingers visible on her hip in a grip both protective and charged.
He could feel the spark between them. The love. The challenge they leveled at the world, daring it to come at anyone they loved.
“I know saints’ paintings have never been done like this before,” Del murmured. “But he didn’t make sense without her. And she didn’t make sense without him. I know the paintings of her are very popular–”
“I hate them,” Mad interrupted. “I’ve always hated them. Because this is who she was.”
Relief transformed Del’s face. “I agree. This is who she was. A fighter.”
The strongest person I’ve ever met. That was what his father had always said, tugging on the end of Adriana’s braid. And she’d smile at him and stroke his nose–his broken nose that Del had captured so perfectly–and they’d laugh, because she’d been the one to break it during the first training session where he’d underestimated her.
“It’s perfect.” Tears stung his eyes, and Mad didn’t try to banish them. If anything deserved a few tears, it was the thought of Carter Maddox and Adriana Rios being plastered from one end of the sector to the other. Together.
As they should have been all along.
Del’s reached out and squeezed his hand. “I’ll give you a minute.”
She slipped out the door. Mad supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised when the soft click of heels on wood fell behind him and a familiar scent curled around him. “I knew you wouldn’t stay at the house.”
“Scarlet and Dylan are covered in babies,” Jyoti said, sliding her arms around him from behind. In her heels, she was just tall enough to peer over his shoulder. “Oh, Mad. It’s beautiful.”
Mad covered her hands with his, tears obscuring his view of the painting. It didn’t matter. He could close his eyes and see it emblazoned across the back of his eyelids. It was so perfect, it already felt like a memory. “I never thought this would happen. That he’d be recognized.”
“You underestimated how much your cousins love you, then.” Jyoti rested her chin against his shoulder. “Isabela and Gideon may be more reserved than Maricela, but I know love when I see it. And how could they not love you?”
“You’d be surprised,” Mad retorted. “An amazing number of people have managed.”
“I don’t believe you.” Her soft growl was all the warning he got before she nipped at his shoulder through his shirt. “But go ahead and say it again. I’ll tell Dylan you insulted the man he loves, and you’ll be in terrible trouble.”
The thought of Dylan deciding he was in terrible trouble was remarkably appealing. But maybe not something he should dwell on with his sainted parents staring at him. He locked down that train of thought for later and scrubbed the tears from his face.
“This is really happening,” he said, staring at the painting.
“It’s really happening,” Jyoti agreed.
He spent another moment staring at the painting. Carter Maddox would be recognized. His mother would be recognized. They’d be together in death as they had always been in life, and maybe now the wound their loss had left inside him could heal cleanly.
He owed Del more than she knew.
Mad promised himself he’d find a way to repay her. Then he turned his back on the past and smiled down at his future. “Come on. We better get inside before Dylan decides he wants a baby.”
Jyoti laughed. “Scarlet does get much more suggestible when Dylan’s been holding the newborn for a few hours. Maybe I shouldn’t have left them unsupervised.”
“Scarlet’s not the only one who gets suggestible,” Mad retorted. Which was only the truth. Watching the hard-eyed, formerly-burned-out doctor coo to an infant was brain-meltingly cute.
“I know, love.” Jyoti rose up on her toes to kiss him. “Come on, let’s go brave the battlefield of babies.”