Authors: Donna Grant
“We'll learn if it's Ulrik soon enough. I'm no' going to wait around and hope Iona returns for her father's funeral. She hasna seen him in twenty years.”
Tristan frowned. “Meaning?”
“Meaning, I'm no' taking any chances. Iona will be here soon. Ryder, please pull her picture and show it to everyone. As soon as she's spotted in town, I want to know. She's no' been here for John to pass on the Campbell legacy.”
“Which means one of us will,” Warrick said.
Laith hoped to hell it wasn't him. He didn't wantâor needâto be bogged down with a human who would need to be convinced the Dragon Kings were good. He'd been down that road before.
And it had ended badly.
He just wasn't the patient type, nor was he the type to explain things calmly and rationally over and over again. For him, actions spoke louder than words. The one who needed to take Iona by the hand and show her the way was Warrick, or even Ryder. Hell, even Con would be better at it than him.
Laith was going to make damn sure he didn't get stuck with her. Why then did he have a suspicion fate was laughing at him?
Hal raised a black brow, his moonlight blue eyes filled with doubt. “Are you so sure you can force Iona here?”
Con's eyes narrowed. “She'll be here, but in the end it doesna matter. Iona Campbell can no' sell the land. It stays in the Campbell family through a direct line as it always has.”
“Things change,” Rhys said.
“No' this,” Con stated icily. “No matter what Iona Campbell wants, she can no' sell that land. If we want to remain concealed from the humans, then we're going to have to continue using our few allies like Henry North and the Warriors. And the Campbells.”
Laith didn't think he would ever be grateful to any humans other than the Campbells, but Henry North was an exception. The spy had come to their aid a few times and continued to help time and again.
Warrick cleared his throat and stood. He pinned Con with his blue gaze. “I doona give a flying fuck about decisions we made in the past. We need to look to the future. That doorway on Campbell land needs to be guarded.”
“As only a Campbell can,” Kellan said.
Con blew out a breath. “We made that pact with the Campbells with magic, Warrick. No matter what we might want, that can no' be changed.”
Ryder gave a small nod. “None of us want our war to spill over into the human's world. We've kept ourselves secret for thousands of millennia. We canâand willâcontinue.”
Laith had his doubts, especially with all the technology that abounded, but more importantly, their enemies weren't just trying to kill them, they wanted the Kings exposed to the world.
More troubling was that the Dark searched for something hidden by Con. No one but Con and Kellan knew what the weapon was, and neither was talking. Already the Dragon Kings had fought a war with the humans, a war that caused both sides immeasurable losses.
For one, there was Ulrik. A Dragon King who had been banished because he began killing humans after his woman betrayed him. That in itself was a terrible loss, but more than that was the fact that all the dragons were gone. The humans had been very good at killing, and in order to keep the peace, the Kings sent their dragons away.
Laith looked down at his hands. He knew in his heart he would never see his beloved Blacks again. They were gone for good. All he could hope for was that they prospered and lived.
“Be vigilant,” Con said and returned to his seat.
Laith was one of the first to rise and walk to the door. He needed to return to the pub. The Fox and The Hound had been his idea over a thousand years before. Because he loved being there, everyone knew him, which meant he had to sleep for a generation or two before he could wake once more and take his spot behind the bar. No one knew it was owned by Dreagan. The people did know he was part of Dreagan, but the secret of who owned it had been held since the pub's inception.
Laith reached the stairs leading down to the first floor of Dreagan Manor when he heard his name. He looked over his shoulder and found Tristan hurrying to him.
“How is Sammi doing?” Tristan asked worriedly.
Laith shook his head as he laughed. “As I've told you for the past few weeks, she's doing splendidly. She owned her own pub, remember?”
“Is she happy?” Tristan pressed.
Tristan smiled goofily while they descended the stairs. “Thanks for giving her the job. She needed something to do, and she loves being behind the bar.”
“It was as much for my benefit as for hers. No longer do I have to come up with lies when I need to leave. As your mate, Sammi knows our secret. That makes my life infinitely easier.”
Tristan slapped him on the back, his smile even wider. “I know. She's amazing. I'm going to meet her for lunch.”
Laith stopped at the bottom of the stairs and watched Tristan stride out of the manor. He was always amazed at how his fellow Kings managed to find mates at all, especially since they had gone so many thousands of years alone.
“I doona understand them,” Ryder said as he stopped beside Laith. “Doona get me wrong. I love the feel of a woman's thighs around me, but to be bound to a single woman for eternity?” Ryder shuddered. “It's no' for me. Human or Fae.”
Laith had to admit it was odd to see a King mated to a Fae, and a Fae that was part of a powerful Dark family at that. But Shara proved herself and her love for Kiril to one and all. She was as much a part of Dreagan as the human females who had mated Kings.
“I agree,” Laith said.
Ryder chuckled as he threw Laith a look. “I've seen you flirting with that redhead from the village when she comes into the pub.”
Laith grinned. “I'm a pub owner. I flirt with everyone when I'm behind the bar.”
“You keep doing that, and you'll find yourself mated quick enough.”
“It's no' for me. I'm perfectly content just as I am.”
Ryder made a face. “Are you insane? Why say something like that and tempt the cosmos?”
Laith watched him walk away, wondering if he had just drawn the interest of fate.
After twenty years, Iona was back in Scotland. She drove the small rental through the winding roads of the Highlands ignoring the spectacular beauty around her that urged her to grab her camera and document it. But it was difficult.
It wasn't that she didn't love the scenery. Even when she tried to forget her childhood in Scotland, she felt something missing in her soul. It wasn't until she landed in Edinburgh that she realized that missing piece was the wild, mystical land.
Iona's hands were sweating as she gripped the steering wheel. The closer she got to her childhood home, the more her heart pounded. She wasn't sure if it was nerves or sadness that brought on such a reaction, and she didn't want to delve too deep into the emotions to find out.
Just last week while on assignment in Afghanistan, she'd nearly been killed. It was because of the U.S. Marines she was with that she managed to come away with only minor injuries, but it put things into perspective. It made her realize how very short life was, and regardless of how she felt about what her father did, she needed to talk to him, to see him.
No sooner had she packed her belongings and booked a flight out of Afghanistan to Scotland than people began asking her about her family and where she was from. It wasÂ â¦ odd.
Almost as if fate stepped in and gave her another nudge to return home.
As if she needed it. The near-death experience was enough.
But she was too late. During a layover, she was notified by the company she worked for about her father's death.
Iona hadn't shed any tears. Instead, anger welled up within her. She was furious that her father had died before she got to see him. Yes, it was silly and irrational, but it didn't change her feelings.
No sooner had she found out about her father's death than she got a phone call from her father's attorney wanting to know when she would be in town for the reading of the will.
Iona focused on the winding road as she passed through a cluster of rain clouds. The windshield wipers were loud and squeaky as they diligently worked to keep the windshield clear of rain.
Everything grated on her nerves. She felt raw, exposed. And she hated it.
She was used to being completely independent, moving from place to place with just her backpack. Iona had learned very quickly in her early years that the only one she really could depend on was herself. There was no use putting her faith or trust in anyone else, because they always disappointed her.
It began with her mother and father, and it continued on through school and university. She liked being alone, and despite what some people thought, being alone didn't mean she was lonely.
Which is why she loved her job. Photography was her life. For as far back as she could remember, it's all she had ever wanted to do. She was lucky enough to work for the Communeâa group of wealthy business owners from around the globe who hired experts in various fields for any number of things.
For Iona, her assignments could be nothing more than photographing a horticultural exhibit in Paris or, like her last mission, deep in the middle of battle to get a firsthand view of the war being waged.
She bounced along the roads, encountering a car or two in the otherwise quiet mountains. She might have been only eight when her mother took her away from Scotland, but she recalled how quiet and still life had been.
A glance at the directions next to her had her turning left onto a dirt road that was more mud than anything. She drove around puddles not knowing how deep the holes might be and not wanting to get stuck.
Even after so many years since she lived in the Highlands, she still recognized the gate ahead of her. Iona stopped the car and put it in park, staring at it. Her father had set her atop the gate when he had opened and closed it. It was one of the few memories she allowed herself to remember, because opening that floodgate would do her no good.
Iona unbuckled her seat belt and threw open the door. Her hands shook as she walked to the gate and unbolted it before she pushed it wide. It creaked loudly, silencing the birds chirping around her.
She looked around at the dense forest. Her photographer's eye noticed the deep green of the pine needles, the paler green of the ferns that blanketed the ground and how they added contrast against the dark-colored bark and the sun filtering through the tree limbs.
It would make a beautiful picture, but documenting her trip was the last thing she wanted to do.
Iona returned to her car and drove through the gate before getting back out and shutting it behind her. She then drove slowly down the narrow road through the woods. Twice she had to stop to miss a pine marten that darted across the road.
When the trees thinned and she came upon the clearing with the small cottage, she had to stop the car, she was so overcome with memories.
Iona drew in a breath, her throat tight with emotions. Her eyes welled with tears, but she refused to shed a single one on a man who hadn't tried to contact her in twenty years. He was her father, and she would bury him since she was his only relative, but she wouldn't cry for him.
Or for the memories of the past.
The last time she saw the cottage was in the middle of the night during a vicious thunderstorm. She was drenched by the time her mother dragged her screaming to the car. All the while her mom kept telling her what a good life they would have in Kent, and that while England seemed a long way, it really wasn't.
Iona hadn't paid much attention to her mother. All she could do was stare at the silhouette of her father in the doorway as he stood watching them leave. She screamed for him to stop her mother. She held out her arms to the man who had never let her down.
But that night she discovered the man her father really was.
He watched them leave without uttering a single word. He didn't try to stop her mother or even attempt to keep Iona with him.
For weeks afterward she knew her father would come for her. He would take her back to the cottage and their woods, but the days turned into weeks and weeks into months. He didn't call, he didn't write, and he never came to see her.
Iona blinked away the sudden rush of tears and drove the last few hundred yards to the house. She was slow to exit the car. Once she had, she didn't move. She wasn't sure she could go into the house.
Leaning against the rental car, she slowly perused the area. The cottage itself was in neat order. There were bird feeders everywhere, something that had been added after she was gone.
How many times had she begged her parents for a bird feeder? She hadn't had a camera at that age, but seeing the birds had been just as good.
Iona straightened and walked around to the back of the house. A wooden deck had been extended from the back door. A wrought-iron table and two chairs were perched on the deck as well as a book, opened and lying facedown.
The wind riffled the pages, damp from the frequent rain showers. The book had been set aside as if her father planned to return. Which meant his death had come about suddenly.
That was one thing she hadn't askedâhow he died. Iona hadn't thought she wanted to know.
The sound of a motor broke the peace of the forest. Iona was instantly on guard when she walked back to the front of the house. Her steps slowed, and then halted when she saw the tow truck come to a stop with her father's 1972 Range Rover hooked to the back.
The door to the truck opened and a balding, heavyset man with graying hair and a bushy beard got out. He flashed her a smile. “I was told to return the vehicle now that the authorities are done inspecting it.”
“Inspecting it?” she repeated.
He looked up from his clipboard. “Aye. That's usually the case when an overturned vehicle is found.”