Authors: Lori Handeland
Tags: #Novella, #New York Times Bestselling Author
I couldn’t believe I’d suggested what I had. Sex for the sake of sex, no strings, the relationship would end when we returned to Milwaukee.
I wasn’t fool enough to believe that we could “bang” away for two weeks, then pretend we never had. Either he’d quit when we returned, or soon after. If he didn’t, we’d be in for awkward exchanges. We might get past that eventually, then again we might not. And what if he found another woman—he would, just look at him—would I be able to be happy for him and move on? I hadn’t been able to move on from Max. Then again, Quinn Fitzpatrick wasn’t the love of my life, and walking away wasn’t the same as dying.
Suddenly Quinn was right there, so close his breath brushed my hair. “You’re thinking too much.”
I looked up, and he kissed me. I forgot what I’d been thinking, saying, feeling. I forgot everything but this, but him.
Poor, pathetic, sex starved, older woman.
“Shh,” I murmured into his mouth.
“Didn’t say anything, love.”
“Shh,” I repeated and reached for his hand.
He winced and I realized I’d taken the hand I’d cut. “Sorry.”
I lifted it to my mouth. Kissed the part that wasn’t wrapped, tickled the base of one finger with my tongue. Next thing I knew he’d snatched my free hand with his and dragged me where I’d wanted to go in the first place.
I pulled off his shirt, pressed an open mouthed kiss to his chest. He tasted so good I tried a nipple, the jut of his collarbone, then his hip.
The top button of his jeans gaped open. Convenient. I ran my tongue beneath the waistband, caught the tip of his—
He cursed and lifted me away with a fingertip to my chin. “I’ll be no good to you if you keep that up.”
“You’ll be fine if you keep that up.” I wiggled my brows. He laughed, then seem surprised by it. “What’s wrong?”
“Love is a serious business.”
My happy feeling died. Love
a serious business. But this wasn’t love. Couldn’t be. I would never love a man again. Losing another would kill me.
“Shh,” he mocked. “I know.” He lifted his gaze, staring out the window in the direction of the garden. “’Tis all right.”
His happy had died too, in more ways than one. I put myself to work restoring both, cupping my palm to his fading erection and lifting, kneading, squeezing just a bit.
“You’re always wearing too many clothes.” He began to remove them.
I was tempted to dive beneath the covers before he could see the stretch marks on my ass, the pouch of three births below my navel. He didn’t give me a chance. He put his lips to every mark, cupped my stomach with one large hand, and when I shifted away, set both hands on my hips and pressed his mouth to the soft, cushy skin.
He kissed and nibbled and laved until I was writhing. Who knew the belly was an erogenous zone? No woman with a belly like mine. Then his breath cascaded over my mound, stirring the curls, making me arch, and his tongue flicked just once.
My legs gave way and he caught me, lifted me, laid me on the bed. It wasn’t until later that I wondered how I’d missed knocking him unconscious with a knee. How he’d managed to move so fast and with such grace. Considering.
He slipped into me with equal speed and grace. I teetered on the edge, tightening around him.
“Not just yet,
,” he murmured, and stilled.
My fingers clenched, my nails biting into his back. His breath hissed in. “Sorry.” I released him, and he set his forehead to mine.
“Ach, no. Just... do it again.”
I drew my nails down his sides to his buttocks, scraped them along the skin and gooseflesh rippled. He began to move—first slowly, then when I continued the onslaught of my hands—nails, fingertips, nails again—faster. He gasped; I begged; we cried out as one.
When the tremors had fled and we lay side-by-side, I threw an arm over his stomach—not round or pouched but flat and rippling. I considered tracing the muscles with my mouth but the idea of lifting my head from his shoulder was too much.
He’d used several Gaelic words since we’d come here but right now the latest one was all I could recall.
“Treasure,” he murmured, voice slurred by sleep.
Treasure. I liked it.
I considered asking about the others, but from the way his body had relaxed against mine, and his breathing had evened out, he was gone to dreamland, or close enough.
I thought that was the second best idea he’d had all week and followed.
* * *
Quinn stood in the main room of the cottage. The room was dark, as was the night beyond the windows.
He smelled the sea, caught the distant glimmer of the moon. The door must have blown open—he never should have broken it—because the wind blew through the room, stirring his hair, making him edgy.
Something was coming.
No. Something was here.
The darkness became light in the shape of a woman, and he understood.
“Mistress,” Quinn murmured, and knelt.
“I told you not to do that.” Liz Phoenix planted her booted feet inches from his own.
Quinn straightened. “Why are you here?”
The leader of the light was taller than he remembered. Or maybe it was just because he felt smaller. He’d betrayed her trust, ignored her orders. He’d laid his filthy paws on her very best friend. Quinn doubted a woman who had been charged with thwarting the Apocalypse was going to be swayed by the excuse, “I couldn’t help it.”
Her blue eyes swept the cottage. “Is Megan all right?”
When she turned her head, her short dark hair, which she’d allowed to grow from very short to just plain short, not for vanity but to cover her new tattoo, shifted.
A phoenix took flight from the top of her spine. If she touched it, she would become one. Then she’d no doubt burn him to ashes. That wouldn’t kill him but it would hurt like hell. More importantly, his rising from the ashes, just like the being that had caused them, would reveal to Megan Murphy the truth.
Quinn Fitzpatrick wasn’t human. No matter how much he might long to be.
Liz’s gaze flicked back, narrowed. “Quinn.” She snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Got no time. Megan?”
“I didn’t come all this way when I’m in demons up to my ass so that I could leave without seeing for myself.”
Why had she? The last he’d spoken to her shit had happened, and she’d had no time for him or Megan. Which meant it was very deep shit indeed.
Her gaze lit on the bedroom door, closed, and as it was the only door in the place, it didn’t take a neurosurgeon to figure out where Megan was.
She strode in that direction, and Quinn bit his lip to keep from telling her not to. One did not tell the leader of the light not to do anything. Unless one wanted to become ashes.
Quinn didn’t. Not yet.
Besides, he wore all his clothes. Just because Megan didn’t would prove nothing. If he was lucky, Liz would see her friend was breathing and leave. He’d worry about explaining himself later.
Liz opened the door, and everything stilled. Quinn’s hair stirred again, but this time it tingled, as did every hair on his body. The very air seemed sucked from his lungs, the room, the earth. A snarl rippled around the room.
Quinn rushed forward. There was no reason for Liz to be so furious unless—
His gaze landed on the bed and he blinked. He was both there—all tangled up in her—and here. How could that be?
“You are a dead man,” Liz said.
“I know. Just don’t kill me until she’s safe.” He met her eyes, which blazed like blue neon in the night. “No one will protect her like I can.”
“That’s protecting?” She nodded at the bed where he and Megan slept on.
“No one is closer to her than I at this moment.”
“Max,” Megan murmured.
He stilled as agony flared.
He could be at her side from now until forever, he could make love to her until she slept in his arms over and over again. But she would always love another.
Liz looked quickly away, but not before pity flashed in her eyes. He deserved it.
Quinn beckoned, and Liz followed him through the living room and out the still broken back door and into the moon- shrouded garden.
“I’m dreaming, aren’t I?”
“What do you think?”
“You’re a dream walker.”
“I’m everything,” she muttered.
Quinn didn’t know much about his mistress. He’d heard she was a sexual empath; she absorbed the supernatural abilities of others through sex. Not the easiest way to save the world, one Quinn didn’t envy, which was probably why he was a minion and not the boss.
Liz Phoenix had become leader of the light upon the murder of the previous leader, her adopted mother Ruthie Kane. She’d been thrown into the fight against evil, against doomsday, without time to prepare. Bad things had happened, but she was still fighting. Eventually she would win.
She had to.
While he hadn’t known she had the power to dream walk—the ability to stroll through the dreams of the one with the answer to her most desperate question—he did know what it took to do so. One had to hover between life and death.
“Where are you?” he asked. “What happened?”
She waved away her mortal wound or terminal illness as if swatting a gnat. “I’m too far away for you to help, and what happened doesn’t matter.”
“Liz,” he began.
“At last. It only took my imminent demise to get you to call me by my name.”
“Damn imminent, or I wouldn’t be in your head.”
“What do you need from me?”
Her lips curved. “I didn’t know I needed anything.”
“Yet here you are.”
In Quinn’s dream. Which meant he was the one with the answer she needed badly enough to dream walk. But what was the question?
“Megan.” Her head turned toward the cottage. “I was worried.”
“Your most desperate question was for her welfare?”
She shrugged. “Go figure. But really, Quinn, if I’m not saving the world for her, who am I saving it for?”
“Everyone isn’t real.” She clenched her hands. “I don’t know everyone. Hell, I don’t like anyone.”
Humanity was a large, teaming mass of faces without names, strangers who were mostly assholes. There was a reason the demons had been able to blend in for so long. A lot of humans behaved just as badly, even with a soul. So sometimes it was best to focus on the saving of the ones who mattered the most personally. He had.
“Does she know?” Liz murmured. “What you are?”
He shook his head.
“She knows what I am. All of it. She still loves me.”
“I—” he began, then words failed. There’d been a time when he’d done terrible things. The time was long past, yet it haunted him. “Being friends with the leader of the light is far different than sleeping with... me.”
“I’d hope so,” Liz muttered. “Otherwise you aren’t doing it right.”
He wanted to smile at her jest, one she’d made before, but he couldn’t.
“She’s going to find out. Better that she knows before she sees.” Her gaze went to the cottage. “Believe me.”
Her eyes, her voice, her face were so sad. She’d been lied to. Who hadn’t? But Quinn thought the lies that had been told to Liz Phoenix were earth shattering. Literally.
“I could be human before she need ever find out.”
“Could be,” she agreed.
She sounded no more convinced than he was. Probably because she still planned to kill him.
“I have to go. There’s bad things happening. They might spill onto you, onto her, onto all of us.”
“Don’t they always?”
“Yeah. Keep her safe. Keep her here. I’ll let you know when you can come back.”
“The children are only with their grandparents for two weeks.”
“It’ll be over before then.”
She smiled sadly. “Everything.”
He wanted to ask more but suddenly the wind returned and lifted her off her feet, then dragged her backward and away, though the same wind only ruffled the ends of his hair.
I awoke from a dream of Max. Considering I was naked in another man’s bed, that should have bothered me more than it did. Except in this dream, my dead husband had been saying goodbye.
He’d seemed okay with it too. He’d been smiling and behind him had been this golden, sparkling, blinding ray of light.
You had to move on so I could
, he said.
I’d called his name, tried to run after him, but I couldn’t.
“I can’t stop loving you, Max.” Not when Anna had his eyes and Aaron his nose and Benji his hair.
You don’t have to. The more you love, the more you love.
“I have no idea what that means.”
He turned, walked into that light, and I woke up. I waited for the usual despair to wash over me at the realization that I’d only dreamed of Max, would only ever dream of him because he was gone. Instead, I felt...
Better than I had in a long, long time.
I sat up. I was not only naked but alone.
No answer. Unless you counted the rustles and thumps from the living room. What was he doing?
I climbed out of bed, considered dressing, decided I needed a shower and wrapped the sheet around me instead. It was already torn off the bed anyway. Considering last night’s activities I wasn’t surprised.
I walked into the next room. “What are you—?”
Ben Skrewd turned from his perusal of the back door. Since he held a hammer, I assumed he meant to fix it. From the looks of the thing, he wasn’t having much luck.
His gaze swept over me; he colored and spun about again. I glanced down. I was covered, but considering the sun glaring in from the front window behind me and his reaction, I was revealing more than I wanted to. I stepped into the bedroom and snatched up my clothes.
“Where’s Quinn?” I called, trying to put them on without dropping the sheet.
“I’m not his keeper.”
Thud. Crash. Bang.
“Have you seen him?”
What was he doing out there?
“How do you think I knew to come and fix the door?”
“He called you?”
“I don’t have a phone.”
And that didn’t even seem odd any more.
“Where is he?”
“Still in town I suppose. I’m not his—”
“Keeper,” I finished. “Got it.”
I joined him as he shut the door. It creaked open once again, and he cursed in a language I didn’t know. Which meant it was anything but English.
“Problem?” I asked.
“I know how to fix a bloody door.” He tossed his tools back into their container with more force than necessary. They clattered and clanked, the sound making me wince nearly as much as the idea of a “bloody door.” “I’ll have to order a new strike plate. This one’s busted beyond repair.”
“Okay,” I agreed.
He turned away.
“What did you do with the box?” I blurted.
His fingers tightened around the handle of his toolbox and, for an instant, I thought he’d leave without another word.
“Quinn said it was gone,” I continued. “So you must have taken it.”
He turned back. “It was an old box, why wouldn’t I?”
“It wasn’t an old box when we got here. It was a box full of something with claws.”
“If there was something alive in there, it wouldn’t have been for long without air holes.”
I tried to remember what the box had looked like the first time I’d seen it. Not that large but seemingly heavy. I couldn’t remember if there’d been air holes or not.
“Why do you care about some old box?”
I didn’t care about the box; I cared about what had been inside. It had to be some kind of Nephilim.
“You gave me the sickle to kill it.”
“You tell me.”
“I have no idea what yer gettin’ at.”
The weapon lay across the table. “Why did you give me that?”
“It was all I had, and you seemed nervous.”
“You want it back?”
“Don’t need an old farm tool any more than I need an old box.”
He left. I was glad. I didn’t want to give him the sickle. Whatever had clawed its way out of the box was still loose. Ben could deny all he wanted that there’d been anything inside, but I knew better.
Quinn had no idea what was out there, but I did. The idea of that beautiful, sweet, klutzy man fighting a creature of hell, dying because of it, because of me, terrified me nearly as much as the creatures themselves. So I’d protect him from death-by-half-demon with whatever I had, even if it was only an old farm implement and the iffy magic of a painted red door. It was the least I could do.
I propped that door closed again with the chair, otherwise it kept inching open. I caught the scent of fresh paint, sniffed, followed my nose and saw that Ben had painted a stripe of red across the threshold, from one door jam to the other.
“Superstitious old coot,” I muttered. But what did my relief at seeing it make me?
The morning waned and afternoon approached with no sign of Quinn, and I started to worry. What if his car had broken down on the way back? What if he was walking along the road and darkness fell and the
found him? Did it even have to be dark for the creature to appear? I had no idea. Regardless, Quinn was safer with me.
I picked up the sickle. And my curvy sharp piece of flint.
The house was too small, too stuffy. I stepped into the back yard, taking my sickle along for company. The sun glinted off something in the overgrown garden. I only had to take a few steps closer to see what.
The damn panther statue was there again.
I stared at it, captivated, and the yellow-green jeweled eyes blinked, just once.
“Impossible.” I took a step back. But I knew better.
I’d once seen a woman disappear into a wisp of smoke. Until recently that had been the extent of my encounters with the Nephilim. But I’d heard stories from Liz. Nephilim were evil, and they wanted to kill us just for the pleasure of it.
The thing’s tail twitched, beginning to unfurl from where it curved about the body. The muscles beneath the fur coat rippled. For the first time I noticed that the shoulders looked a bit human, and—
Since when did a statue have a fur coat?
“Shit,” I muttered, and tightened my fingers around the handle of the sickle.
I should have run, but I was frozen with both fear and fascination.
The statue was no longer stone but flesh and fur, lengthening, growing. It glistened, black as approaching night, sleek and beautiful and deadly.
Then it saw me and emitted that same wildcat call I’d heard before. Every hair on my head, and everywhere else, tingled.
“Fuck me,” I muttered, and turned. Only to find my path blocked by something worse.
My mouth fell open as the dragon spread its golden wings and snorted smoke out its nostrils.
The panther plowed into my back, causing me to fall flat on my face. But at least the blast of flame missed me.
The grass wasn’t so lucky. I could smell it burning, feel the heat near my feet. I lifted my head just as the panther landed on the dragon’s back, its claws sinking in and causing the creature to snort fire again. I rolled, narrowly missing another burst of flame.
“There’s a dragon,” I said, as if saying it would make it more believable. It didn’t. If the flames hadn’t convinced me, talking to myself certainly wasn’t going to.
The panther’s shriek sounded like
! Probably just my brain screaming the same word.
I was nearly to the door before I remembered the sickle. I spun, saw it on the blackened grass, considered going back for it. Then the dragon, blood flowing from the gashes the cat’s claws had opened in its neck, swung in my direction. The panther still clung, even though the creature’s wings beat furiously, smacking into the cat on its back over and over, sounding very much like an approaching helicopter.
The dragon’s scales rippled like muscles. Its onyx eyes lit on me, and the dragon drew in a breath so deep all the air around me seemed to disappear.
I dove for the cottage, knowing I was dead, still needing to try. I landed on the floor, considered covering my head, realized how dumbass that was and flipped onto my back, hoping I could kick shut the open red door.
No time. The dragon released fire. I waited for the flames to roll in and over me. Instead, the dragon squealed like a little girl as the flames seemed to hit the red door, even though it wasn’t there, then blow back the way they’d come.
The big scaly, serpent with wings got a face full of fire. The golden scales turned black and fell to the ground, one by one. My gaze dropped to the line of red paint across the threshold. Ben Skrewd hadn’t been so superstitious after all.
The panther still clung to the dragon even though the creature’s body was wreathed in flame. The dragon twisted and turned, writhing, roaring. I put my hands over my ears against the horrible sound, but I could not pull my eyes away.
In its death throes, the dragon spouted fire again, only to have it bounce off the invisible door and into its face once more. The second dose accelerated the blackening of the scales, and within minutes all that was left of the beast was a pile of ash-covered squares.
The panther landed on top of that pile and the scales broke apart like fine china, becoming dust, blowing away on a sudden ill wind. The cat stopped screaming; the lump of fur and bone and flesh stopped moving.
I was still on the floor of the cottage, up on my elbows so I could see. I lay my spinning head down for just one second. What in hell had just happened?
The statue had come to life as a panther then fought a golden dragon. I needed to tell Liz. If I could find her.
Ash swirled above me, drifted down, and outside something moved.
I sat up so fast my stomach lurched. Or perhaps my stomach lurched because the panther that had so recently been a lump of dead, wasn’t.
He rose, lithe and sleek, from the ashes. He stretched, shook and came toward me. I couldn’t tear my eyes from his. There was something so familiar about them.
I should have been more afraid. A panther that doesn’t die by fire is a very dangerous panther indeed. But he couldn’t reach me. I was beyond the red door.
Closer and closer he came. He paused at the threshold, and then...
He stepped in.
I scrambled backward. He kept coming. My shoulders banged against the far stone wall. My heart thundered. I should have returned for the sickle. Except then I would have burned.
Which was worse? Death by dragon fire, or death by shape shifting panther?
A hysterical burble of laughter escaped, and the animal paused. His head tilted. His yellow-green eyes blinked once and suddenly, I knew him.
“Oh, no you’re not,” I muttered.
His head tilted in the other direction, and so many things made sense.
The statue that had appeared in my garden. The one so like it that had appeared here. The box that had been torn apart from the inside. The way my bartender had suddenly stopped tripping.
“You may as well do whatever voodoo you do,” I said.
And in the next instant the beast became the man.