Betrayal. According to the dictionary, it is “the breaking or violation of a presumptive contract, trust, or confidence that produces moral and psychological conflict within a relationship amongst individuals.” In the literary world, betrayal of love is so much more then that. It’s the burning taste of despair as it slides down your throat and settles in the pit of your stomach. It’s anguish that chokes the breathe out of you one heartbeat at a time. It’s the fiery emotional onslaught that tears at your soul repeatedly. It’s that single moment of clarity where you see your dreams and desires crumbling before you and dying at your feet.
It is the beginning of your end.
One of the most devastating scenes of love gone awry that robbed me of my breath and shattered my heart was in the Downside series by Stacia Kane. We first meet Chess Putnum in Unholy Ghosts. Chess is a de-bunker (witch) and a drug addict. She makes no excuses for her addiction. She embraces it with the passion and desire one might show a lover. When she is contracted to (blackmailed into) doing a job for her drug dealer, Bump, she suddenly comes into close contact with not one but two gang enforcers. Terrible, who enforces for Bump, and Lex, who is the enforcer for a rival gang. While Lex knows of her dealings with Terrible, Chess can never tell Terrible about Lex. That right there is the beginning glimpse of how Chess is beginning to feel about Terrible. While she gives word play to how he might hurt or even kill her should he find out, we see that Chess knows deep down that her dishonesty will hurt and break the fragile bond she has established with him.
Terrible is not the your normal romantic hero. He is not good looking with his lantern jaw, ridged brow, and Elvis pompadour. He doesn’t wax poetic about his feelings for Chess. He doesn’t come across as gallant or swoonworthy. He is an enforcer. He beats people up for a living. Yet, as time progresses, we see the gentleman buried beneath the rough exterior. He opens doors for Chess. He listens to her and gifts her with his whole attention. He entices her to eat, sleep, and to be safe. He comes to her defense on many occasions.
Chess, at first, doesn’t have relations with either of them. But when she acts upon her attraction to Terrible and throws herself at him when heavily drugged, he gently sets her aside because he wants her sober and sure of them. Her embarrassment and shame drives her into Lex’s bed. She states clearly that she is not with Lex for any particular reason and that is telling in itself.
She didn’t care about him but she liked him well enough and he was certainly sexy and appealing. He wasn’t—well he wasn’t anyone she imagined she could ever being serious about and that was a good thing. If she’s felt anything real for him....she wouldn’t even be able to consider letting him have what he so obviously wanted.
In Unholy Magic, Chess is once again pulled into Bump’s problems and has to work with Terrible. They’re connection becomes stronger then ever as they are put into near death situations and during one particular scene, Terrible shares something precious with Chess that shows her the true depth of his trust in her. But Chess’s emotionally scarred past guarantees she will sabotage anything special or good she might have in her life. Terrible lays it on the line and lets Chess know he’d like to further their relationship, but she tells Terrible she needs time. She doesn’t feel like she deserves to be happy. We see the train barreling uncontrollably towards the unknown and are powerless to do anything but watch Chess self-destruct. In one brutal, life-altering scene, she destroys everything. Terrible catches Chess and Lex having sex in a graveyard. Chess realizes that her enemies must have tipped him off. At that point Terrible realizes that Chess has lied to him for months. That while he treated her with the upmost care and respect, she had been “whoring” herself out to Lex for drugs and information.
Now he knew she had been betraying him for months, knew she had listened to his speech—words she still couldn’t believe he had been brave enough to say—and then ran over to Lex’s place for sex? And then told him she wanted to be with him, but not just yet?
She feels dirty and tired and old, like she has been alive for a hundred years instead of twenty-four. Like everything good that’s ever happened to her has already happened, and all she has to look forward to was death.
Then she gets up. She showers. Dresses. Pretends it’s a normal day, just like any other day. Pretends she wasn’t busted, didn’t fuck over people she cared about, didn’t undo everything that might have been good for her along with her buttons that night with Lex.
Unholy Magic ends with our hearts battered and and our souls bruised. The delicious tension quivering as we are left wondering if Terrible will ever forgive Chess. The answers to that and more are in the third book of the series—City Of Ghosts.