After querying Legend of the Protectors a few years ago and then getting sick and not being able to write much for a few years, I am happy to say that not only have I been writing, I am querying In the Dark. The posts I have on here are all old, so I will update the first chapters for your reading enjoyment. If you wish to read more, pray I get an agent soon. 🙂
Moved Prologue to Chapter 2. Feels it works better there. 🙂
Texas, Present Day
The darkness held no sign of life. At least not human life. Memphis’ muscles tensed as a cold breeze flew past her.
Her lips twitched in pleasure as tingles of electrical current slithered from the nape of her neck, down her spine, and caught fire at the clawed fist of the griffin which started appearing on her hip after her first kill. The image had started out as what she’d believed was a birthmark in the shape of an eye, but over the years had spread and with each kill, another element of the beast appeared.
Laughter erupted on all sides and she braced for battle, her hand on the hilt of the short dagger sheathed on her thigh. Just as the first shadow shifted into a crouch, a strong, lightly calloused hand grasped hers and pulled her at top speed out of the dark alley.
She tried dragging her feet, but the body attached to the hand must have been solid muscle, outweighing her by at least fifty pounds.
“Let go.” She yanked her hand, which only resulted in a tightened grip. Memphis knew not to pull against the hand but push into it, but the angle made it impossible.
“Don’t be stupid,” the deep, masculine voice said, sending a shiver through her body. He stopped long enough to glance back at her and say, “Little girls shouldn’t play in dark alleys,” and he was tugging her along again.
Giving in to the knowledge that she couldn’t very well fight with this idiot-turned-hero without seriously hurting him, and probably herself, she raced with him into what seemed to be an abandoned building, up a flight of stairs, through a hall, and back down another flight. Flinging open the door, back into the night and on the street, they ran for a few miles before he stopped, fumbled in his pocket and with a push of a button from his key fob a dark car just ahead of them roared to life, dispelling the silent night. He opened the car’s passenger door. “Get in,” his deep voice said.
Working to keep her cool, Memphis slumped into the passenger seat of a very clean, very sleek sports car. Mr. Grab-Women-Out-Of-Dark-Alleys hit speeds near eighty miles per hour through the sleepy streets of Austin. Working to find some sort of gratitude that might displace her anger, since, after all, the man had been trying to save her; Memphis sank back into the leather seat and, by the lights of the console, studied the man. Dark hair, black as pitch, hung loosely over a high forehead and curled at his neck and around his ears. A square jaw, clenched in what seemed to be anger, added masculinity to high, defined cheekbones.
Her heart sputtered in her chest, caught in a frenzy of longing and fear, two feelings she had no use for. She had been down the path to longing once before and refused to visit it again. So what if he was beautiful. Not in a pretty, female way, but in a god-fallen-to-the-earth kind of way. She shoved away the mild attraction she felt and concentrated on gratitude again. This man, who didn’t know her, had witnessed a situation he couldn’t possibly understand and stepped in to protect her. Even if he had ruined two hours worth of work, she owed him a heartfelt thanks. So she would work on the heartfelt part.
After what couldn’t have been more than minutes, he slowed and glanced at her. “What the hell were you doing out at this time of night?”
She raised a brow at the growl of anger in his voice as the hard-won gratitude disappeared.
“Have you any idea how dangerous it is to walk around a place like that in the light of day, let alone on a moonless night?”
She stiffened at his use of the phrase ‘a place like that.’ Obviously, Rich Boy didn’t think her neighborhood was livable, but she had a good two bedroom apartment that met her needs just fine. If he thought this was bad, he should’ve seen some of the roach infested dwellings she’d laid her head over the years.
His slur didn’t deserve a response, so she turned and stared out the window, her body tense and still. Anger and confusion rumbled inside her but before she let it spew, she bit her tongue and focused on where she was and where they were heading. Although why she sat there quietly was beyond her. Under normal circumstances, she would have fought tooth and nail. So why not now? She should demand he stop the car and let her out. She should tell him that she was capable of taking care of herself and had been for years. She should not be hurt that he thought where she lived was beneath him.
The city had given way to suburbs, the single family homes yielding to grand estates of the wealthy. What a shock this car probably cost more than her childhood home, of course he lived here. The gated, white brick house sat back on what had to be five acres of land and had an honest-to-goodness statue of two fairies, one boy, one girl, playing in a fountain of water in front.
Memphis rolled her eyes. “You’re kidding, right?” At his puzzled look, she added with a sneer of her own, “You live here?”
He didn’t respond. Instead, he pulled in front, killed the engine, and climbed out. As he skirted the hood and came to open the passenger door, Memphis wondered at the calm that had settled in. He had taken her away from her calling, practically kidnapping her, and yet she felt at ease. If need be, she could take him out and make it home before dawn, but something deep inside made her believe that wouldn’t be necessary. So when he opened her door, she stepped out serenely onto a cobbled stone drive, lit up with solar lights that surrounded the long drive and the fountain.
Rich Boy grabbed her hand and tugged her up the wide steps, over a grey-rust slate tiled porch, and through a carved mahogany door that slammed behind them. They had moved too quickly to make out what had been carved in the door, but Memphis got a sense of protection. Long, slender fingers flew over a keypad as he backed her against a cool brick wall. A protest sprung to her lips, but he covered her mouth with his open palm and growled. “Just shut up.”
Memphis hadn’t said but a few words to the Neanderthal in the half hour of their acquaintance. She’d let him drag her away from a group of Night Shadows she’d trailed for over an hour, one of whom had been stalking her her whole life, and now he was telling her to shut up. All semblance of whatever gratitude she had been able to muster up fled at that moment. She was through being pushed around by this Know-It-All-Rich-Boy.
Her steel-toed boot slammed down on his foot as she jabbed an elbow into his kidney. His hand fell away, but he didn’t crumble, or even bend over for that matter; he gripped her wrist, spun her around and smashed her face and chest into the front door.
“Oh, hell no,” she yelled, banging the back of her head into his mouth.
His curse was vicious and loud as he swept Memphis’s legs, flipping her to her back before ramming her body against the hardwood floor. “I. Was. Trying. To. Help. You.” His voice was low as he drawled out the words, a hint of Irish behind the Texan accent.
Bright white light exploded around them and a clear Irish, masculine voice thundered, “What the bloody hell is going on here?”
Laif twisted toward the foot of the stairs and stared at his parents. The look on his mother’s face was pure scorn, and he’d bet his car it was because he’d broken the unwritten rule against fighting with a woman. His father, on the other hand, fought to suppress a smile.
Sprawled beneath Laif, the surprisingly beautiful woman shoved against his chest, rolled out from under him, and rose to her knees. Suddenly, Laif became very aware of her tight ass, which frustrated anger had kept him from responding to earlier. Now that the situation had defused, arousal hit instantaneously as he took in the smooth black leather that spread out over full hips, sheathing slim, yet muscular legs. A dagger strapped to one thigh caught his attention, along with a small sword sheathed on her back, which he’d felt when he’d had her pinned against the door. He decided he’d ask about the weapons later, when his mind was functioning properly.
His eyes continued upward to the midnight shirt that clung to pert, orange-sized breasts set high above a small waist. Hair of dark fire rained down her back in a thick braid. He wouldn’t say her face was perfect—her lips were a little too large and her oval face came to a slight point at the chin, but the murky-green eyes that sat under slightly arched brows showed intelligence, along with a spark of irritation. Those eyes tugged at a faint memory that refused to break free, but a knowledge of her hit him like a fist to the gut. He knew her.
“I’m sure there’s a really good explanation for this,” his mother said, bringing his attention back to the fact that he’d brought this woman into his parents’ home in the middle of the night and awakened them.
“I’m sure there is. I for one would love to hear it,” the redheaded hellion said in a deep, husky alto. Her voice, along with the angel’s body, ignited every hormone in Laif’s body into a mind-clouding mist.
Laif sat back on his haunches and wiped his hands over his face, then looked from his parents to the woman. His parents would understand, if he could come out and tell them that the alley he’d found the beauty in had been crawling with the Oíche Scáthanna. But he could not say anything about the demons in front of the woman; she already looked at him like he’d lost his ever-loving mind. Hell, maybe he had. His body definitely had turned into a bloody heap of hormones since he’d first touched her. Still, he had to come up with something to say— “Well, that alley wasn’t exactly safe and I didn’t want you getting hurt.” –came out of his mouth. He cringed. Brilliant, Laif.
His mind had gained control over his traitorous body and he was thinking somewhat clearly again. Besides, she was just a woman, nothing special. He simply ignored his mind protesting that she was something special.
The fiery red-head stood up and glared down at him with unadulterated contempt. “Look, Slick, I’m not some distressed damsel who needs saving, thanks all the same.”
“Laif,” he said, standing and towering over her. Not that she was short; he’d put her at about five-seven, but at six-three he was a head taller than her.
“What?” She raised a lovely arched brow and crossed her arms across her chest, clearly wishing she was anywhere else.
Drawing on the Craig charm he grinned. “I’m Laif. And these—” he nodded toward the stairs— “are my parents. Regan and Lydia Craig. Mom, Dad, this is the ungrateful woman I saved from a group of creeps tonight.”
“You saved—” she sputtered, yanking her hand free. “I’ll have you know I didn’t need saving. I was perfectly fine walking home in that alley. I do it almost every night.” She balled her hands into fists and fixed them on her shapely hips, growling, “The big jackass expects me to be grateful.”
Deep, billowing laughter sprung from Regan, and Laif glanced over as his mother elbowed his father in the ribs.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, “this one’s quite a lass.”
“Would you like some tea or coffee?” Mom asked the woman who still hadn’t given her name.
Straightening, she turned toward his mom and nodded. “I’d love some water. Mr. Smooth here dragged me for miles and must not’ve thought I’d be thirsty.”
Muscles clenched his jaw. Impertinent woman. Can’t show an ounce of gratitude for the fact that I helped you, can you?. No, I’m dying of thirst because I had to exert myself while being saved. It didn’t matter that he had dragged her for miles and that he himself was thirsty, he didn’t like her attitude. But he’d be damned if he let her go one more moment without water.
Laif grabbed her hand and hauled her off to the kitchen. The glass tumbler he slammed on the counter nearly cracked. As he grabbed a bottled water out of the fridge, the woman said in a thick Southern accent, “From the tap is good enough for the likes of lil’ ol’ me.”
Pissed beyond believe, more at himself than her for letting her get under his skin, Laif snarled, “Hell, why use a glass at all, just stick your head under the damn faucet.”
Her shoulder rose in a shrug and she stepped to the sink, held her long braided hair out of the way and lowered her head, taking a lengthy drink. She straightened, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and sighed. “Now that’s good water.” She winked and a small smile lit her lips. “And it’s free.”
Need and longing slammed into him when she smiled. Again the sense he knew her engulfed Laif. He wanted to touch her. Anywhere. He should not be reaching for her, damn it. Fighting instinct that demanded he claim her, make her his, when his hand reached her face, instead of stroking her, he pinched her chin between thumb and index finger and sneered. “What’s your damn name, woman?”
The pads of his fingers burned where they touched her skin. She smelled of vanilla and spice, leather, and sweat. She smelled wonderful. He wanted her like he’d never wanted before and it infuriated him. This wasn’t him. Laif Craig was nothing if not level-headed and calm, the one to whom everyone turned in a crisis because he could analyze everything in a cool manner. He rarely gave in to his emotions, especially anger. Spending one’s life avoiding weaknesses in order to keep others safe didn’t generally lead to feeling an almost uncontrollable lust.
As his fingers relaxed just a touch, her eyes clouded and her lips parted. A rush of breath blew across his cheek shooting his need to heightened proportions.
“Memphis,” she whispered.
“Huh?” He swallowed and took a step closer to her, the slight brushing of their bodies sent a tremor through him.
“My name is Memphis McLoughlin and I need to get home,” she rasped out.
His gaze lifted from her full lips to her eyes and he swallowed again. “Maybe I don’t want to take you home.”
She smiled, slow and feminine. “Well, Slick, as pretty as you are, and you are awful pretty, I don’t spend the night with men I don’t know, even if their mommy and daddy are home. So either take me home, or I’ll walk, but I’m not staying here with you.”
Laif shook himself from her spell and moved away. What was he doing? Just step back and let her go, he told himself.
“I believe it would be best for all concerned if I drove the lass home,” Laif’s dad said from the doorway leading to the family room.
Memphis straightened her spine and smiled warmly at Regan. “Mr. Craig, I’d be forever in your debt.”
With a scowl, Laif snatched up the bottled water and twisted off the top. “I’ll take her since I’m going home anyway.”
Memphis stared at him. “You don’t live here?”
He tilted his head and watched as she seemed to relax just a little. “No. Not for about twelve years now.”
Her brows came together in a show of confusion. “Then why bring me here in the middle of the night?”
Why indeed? Maybe, since he’d felt a zing, for lack of a better word, from just touching her, he knew that this meeting would forever change his life and that taking her to his place would be the biggest mistake of his life. Not an answer he was willing to give. Calling on every ounce of calm he could muster up, Laif shrugged. “There are spare bedrooms here.”
Her features relaxed and the transformation from anger to, well, not joy, but somewhere in between, was breathtaking. “So you weren’t planning on me thanking you by putting me in your bed?”
Laif felt the heat spread up his neck, cover his face, and sting his ears. Well, damn, he never blushed. How do you like that? he thought. This woman sure hits me at the core.
“Son, maybe you should stay the night and let me take her home. Then we can drive in for the meeting with the governor together.”
Thanks, Dad, Laif thought as Memphis visibly pulled back. His parents’ money didn’t seem to impress her in the least. In fact, it seemed to have the opposite effect. “I left the blueprints at my house, so I have to go there anyway. Sorry I woke y’all. Kinda figured to be in and out without you being the wiser.”
His dad grinned at that. “That’s what I thought. A word alone first.”
Laif’s shoulders slumped and he felt like a boy of sixteen being summoned for a lecture. “I’ll be right back,” he said to Memphis before following his dad down the hallway leading to his office. He knew what his dad would say before he even stopped and turned to face him.
“So, you are attracted to the lass.” No question there, his dad could read him well enough.
Laif sighed. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find her attractive.”
“Lad,” his father started, “you’ve found many women attractive. This is different.”
He’d always been able to tell his dad anything, but at the moment, he had no desire to discuss the pull this woman had on him. “I’ll be fine.”
“That may be, but there are times when all you know and understand as right becomes difficult to remember.”
“I remember this talk, Dad. I know all about sex.”
Regan raised a brow. “You do, do you? And when, may I ask, did you become an expert?” There was a definite bite to his voice.
“I didn’t say I was an expert,” Laif said with a bite of his own. “But I have a pretty good understanding how everything works and fits together. And quit looking at me like that, you’d’ve known if I’d ever had sex with anyone. I haven’t forgotten what weakens the senses welcomes the Night Shadows to take control. Only sex sanctified through marriage cannot be taken over.” Needing to lighten things up again, Laif grinned. “See, I listened.”
His father shook his head. “You think you’re cute, don’t you, lad.”
Laif raised one shoulder in a half shrug. “Haven’t really been called cute since I was ten, but women—”
“Enough.” Regan Craig cut him off with a roar. “You think this is a game? We’ll see how well you play, boyo, when you donno’ know the rules.” With that, he wheeled around and left his son alone.
Laif rubbed his hands over his face as his mind reeled. His dad had been mad at him before, obviously, but never to the point that he wasn’t willing to finish a conversation. As he started down the hall to find his dad, he heard the front door open.
There was no way would he let her get away before he’d had a chance to find out who she was and what she was doing in that dark alley. With weapons.
By the time he’d gotten through the door, she’d made it past the fountain and was stalking down the driveway, hips swinging to the beat of a seductive drum only the enchanted could hear. He shook his head, attempting to dispel her allure.
“Wait up,” he called out.
If she heard him, she didn’t let on, just continued on her way as if she didn’t have a care in the world. He sprinted after her, thinking only to stop her from leaving. As he reached for her arm, she pivoted to the left and punched him in the kidney as he passed.
Staggered by pain and annoyance, he straightened and hollered. “What the hell was that for?”
Green eyes hinted at the humor beneath, but she was able to keep the smile from breaking free. “Reflex. Sorry.”
He squinted at her, weighing her reaction, and decided against calling her a liar. Instead he asked, “Why were you in that alley?”
The humor in her eyes disappeared. “Why were you?”
“Do you always answer questions with questions?”
Laif growled. “Damn it, just answer the question. Why were you in the alley?”
Memphis shrugged. “Heading home from work.”
Was she insane? Granted, Austin wasn’t the crime capital of the world, but people still got raped and murdered in the city. “Who in their right mind takes that kind of shortcut at two in the morning? And what’s with the mid-evil weaponry?” he asked.
“Look, Slick.” She studied him from head to toe and Laif’s heart beat faster. It irked him that he wasn’t really sure if she liked what she saw. “I appreciate the white knight routine and all,” her tone said she anything but appreciated it. “But I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time and I don’t need a pretty, rich boy to sweep in and try to protect me. Thanks all the same.” She spun on her heel, the long rope of red hair practically slapping him in the face.
He was stunned and at a total loss for words. Never had a woman dismissed him as if he were no better than the scum scrapped off their shoes. Oh, she’d been somewhat polite about it, if you called her sardonic voice and name calling polite, but he’d caught the haughty look she tried to hide under that beautiful smile.
He considered letting her walk home, figuring it would serve her right, but thirty years of training held the gentlemen in place. With a great deal of irritation, he spat, “I will drive you home and then you never have to see me again. Sorry to take the time out of my evening to try and save you.”
Without waiting for her protest, he snatched her by the elbow and dragged her to the side of his car. After opening the door, he shoved her inside, closed the door, and rounded the hood. The need to protect her warred with his need to drop her on her ungrateful butt and tell her to bugger off. By the time he had settled himself behind the wheel and asked for directions, he had worked himself into a black mood.
The Isle of Erin, 1416
Caoimhe smiled weakly at her husband’s scarred face and lightly brushed her hand across his brow. “Dearest sweetling, do no’ fear for me. Ian will protect me. I’ll no’ be gone from ye for long.”
“How am I to continue without ye, my precious?”
Tears streaked Áinle’s handsome face, and knowing he loved her beyond anything in this world, and that he would hate to live without her, saddened her. “Ye must. All we ‘ave worked for mus’ be completed. Síofra mus’ be protected and taught.” She slid her hand behind her husband’s neck. “Áinle, my love, yea must stop yar father and ‘is creatures. They are unnatural. The Tuatha De Danann ‘ave abandoned this world and are willin’ to allow the Druids to destroy the mortals here.”
His chuckle was strained. “I am half human, woman.”
“And yet I love ye still.”
Áinle rolled to his back and pulled his wife atop of him. His large, scarred hands ran up and down her bare back. “I still think there is another way. If we could capture Aiden, his blood could be used.”
“Nay!” Caoimhe raised up on her elbows and looked down at her one and only love, her heart breaking for her warrior. “Sweetling, if any of the fae discover what we attempt here, ye know I will be banished. I will become useless. ‘Tis the only way. I won’ die, only be weakened to this world. I will be able to return home withou’ any fae taking notice of ye or Síofra. And I will no’ use one of me brother tha’ way.” Caoimhe lovingly glided her fingers over her husband’s jaw; to his lips. “Tis the only way, luv. When Síofra is able to attend to herself and protect this world, I will come for ye and take ye home with me.”
“Swear to me ye will no’ die.”
Caoimhe kissed Áinle deeply. When she broke away, she whispered, “I promise ye, I will always be with ye.”
Áinle stretched and reached for his wife. Caoimhe was not on the bed furs where she belonged. As he sat, he heard a small gurgle from the corner and he looked over, allowing his sight to adjust to the darkness. Lying on her side, his woman had their daughter at her breast, a tiny fist kneading the milky white flesh.
Overwhelming love for her and the bairn flowed through him. Here—the two of them—was his life. His everything. He drifted back to sleep, caught up in the peace only his little family could bring.
When he woke again, Síofra was whimpering from the corner, her mother nowhere to be seen. Áinle crawled over to his daughter, and picked her up, dread immediately sweeping into his heart. “Caoimhe?”
Terrified, he made his way out of the small cottage and plunged to his knees at the sight of his wife, wrists cut, blood slowly dripping into the quenching tank used for dunking his swords. He screamed a curse to the gods, and, nearly dropping his daughter, dragged himself to his love. “Oh, Caoimhe, no. Ye promised ye would no’ leave me. Ye promised.”
Sobs retched through him so powerful he knew not how he held his small bairn. How would he care for her? He could not feed her the milk of a mother. He could not allow another woman into his life. Into his home. What had Caoimhe done?
“Why, damme ye?”
But he knew. They had discussed this. He simply had not believed his wife would give so much blood. Too much for her survival. That had not been the plan.
“Oh, my sweetling,” he cried, “ye have surely condemned us all to hell. How do I go on wi’ou’ ye?”
Sweat poured down Áinle’s face, his tunic had long been cast aside and now he wore only a leather apron and gloves to protect his dark skin from the flames he’d called upon from the elements and the molten metals used to cast the third sword of Caomhnóireacht… Swords of the Guardianship.
He’d poured over the ancient text passed down from his great-great-grandmother, Brigid, daughter of Dagda, son of the goddess Danu and Bilé, the god of death. Only one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, People of the Goddess Danu, had the power to fashion such swords, and since fae blood and the magik of the Druids oozed through his veins, Áinle was the only one left on the earth who could fashion such weapons. And the only one with the knowledge to craft the new swords needed to fight the Scáthanna Oíche and defeat them. For, so far, only the Magik Sword of Nuada could inflict a mortal blow to an immortal, and it had been long ago hidden from the Order of the Druids.
The fae blood his wife gave sealed the swords’ power. He fought off the pain of her death. Her suicide. Sacrificed so their daughter could grow up and learn to fight. To rid the world of the monsters his own Druid father had brought to this earth through dark magiks.
The sword he labored over, a bastard sword, was fashioned to be used in either hand of a Guardian. Bronze, cobalt, nickel, and manganese, along with seven drops of his powerful blood were poured into the mould and had been forged. Áinle now went through the process of annealing the short sword. This process of softening the weapon would take him the rest on the night.
He glanced over at the quenching tank and knew he had only thirteen hours left before the fae blood in the tank turned to ash. Again, he fought off pain and rage and worked to make the weapons his wife had so carelessly given her life for.
The magiks used to produce the special metals into the basic form, along with his heartbreak, were draining Áinle of his strength, yet he could not stop until the weapons were completed. The devils from the dark had few weaknesses, and only a Guardian could defeat those who followed Darkness. It took the magik passed down to Áinle by his Druid father and the blood of Dagda to be granted such guardianship, a guardianship he would pass down, Dagda willing.
The small bundle in the corner rolled and a pink face peered out. Áinle smiled, and prayed he’d have the time to teach his daughter the ways of the Caomhnóirí na Oíche.
The Guardians of the Night.
The fate of the world may one day depend upon it.
Texas, Present Day
Memphis removed the slender key out of her boot and slid it into the lock. The buzz of air-conditioning welcomed her home and she breathed a grateful sigh. Summer nights in Austin, Texas were brutally hot and humid, and after chasing demons for miles, she appreciated the finer things of life, such as air-conditioning and a long shower.
She dropped her key on the wooden TV tray used as a consol table and unhooked the centuries old dagger attached to her thigh. The weapon reflected her heritage. A heritage of guardianship, of battles, of war. A guardianship she would honor for all her days.
The phone rang and she checked caller-ID before she answered, “Hello, handsome. What are you doing up so late?”
“I wanted to talk to you, but you haven’t been answering the phone.”
“Of course not, I’ve been out looking for the bad guys. But that doesn’t answer why you’re up so late.”
She sat on the couch and slipped the zipper down on both boots, kicking them off.
“It’s not too late.”
Memphis laughed. “It’s not? I’d say one a.m. is pretty late for you, young man.”
“Aw, Mom. I’m almost a teenager. Can’t you give in sometimes? I mean, you were already killing Night Shadows when you were my age.”
“Only out of necessity.” Memphis hated this part of being a mom. She knew she had to let Callan in on the battles she fought soon, but she didn’t have to like it.
“Mom,” he whined.
“How about when you can say Mom without whining, we’ll talk.”
He sighed. “Mom.”
“Yes?” Leaning back, she closed her eyes.
“I’ve been training as long as I can remember. Don’t you think I could go out with you at least once when I get home?”
No, she thought, but said, “We’ll see. So, tell me about Disneyland and California Adventures. Are you having fun and minding Joan?”
She grinned as she pictured him rolling his eyes. “I guess. I’m a little old for this stuff, and Kiley has wanted me on every stupid kid ride with her. It’s embarrassing.”
“Liar. You’re having the time of your life. Joan texted me pictures of you and Kiley and you looked like you were having the time of your life.”
“Well, I guess it’s not too bad, but she’s not big enough to ride any of the cool ones. She was terrified on Splash Mountain and then she had to hold my hand on everything else today,” he groaned.
Memphis shook her head, picturing little Kiley following Callan around and smiling up at him with her huge doe eyes. At eight, the girl had her son wrapped around her little finger. She wondered if he’d notice Kiley when he grew up, or if he’d always think of her as a little sister or a friend of the family, instead of the beautiful neighbor girl Memphis was sure she’d turn into.
“So,” Memphis said, “you missing me and wanted to talk, or did something happen?”
“Naw.” His voice now sounded tired. “I just wanted to make sure you made it home a’right. I don’t like knowing you’re out there and no one’s around to watch out for you.”
Tears formed behind her closed eyelids and her heart swelled to the point of bursting. “Oh, baby, I love you so much. You are my whole world.”
“I know, Mom. I love you too.”
She sniffed and leaned forward in the chair. “How ‘bout you call me every morning when you wake up and you’ll know I’m home safe?”
“Okay. I’m going to sleep now, ‘cause Kiley’s gonna want to get up early and ride all the princess rides today. I’m gonna need lots of sleep to handle that.”
Memphis laughed and stood. “Good night, my white knight.”
“Good night, my lady.” Callan chuckled and hung up.
As she sat the phone on the coffee table, Memphis thought about the other knight she’d met just an hour before. Heavens to Betsy, she had never had to fight so hard for control. What was it about him that drew her in? She had thought for sure Callan’s father had eliminated any feeling of desire in her years ago, but Laif Craig had come along and ruined things in one swift moment.
“I’ve lost my mind,” Laif groaned as he flipped the burgers on the grill.
Bryson, grinned, loving the completely unnatural mood his brother had been in for the past two weeks. At first, it had gotten on his nerves, but since he’d realized it was because of a woman, Bry had learned to enjoy his little bro’s misery.
Bry leaned back in his lawn chair, sipped a nice, tall glass of mint limeade and said, “It would probably help if you talked about it, instead of just stewing like you’ve been doing.”
“I’m not stewing,” Laif growled. “I’m thinking.”
Bryson bit back a laugh. “Out with it. What’s her name?”
“Memphis,” Laif sighed. He actually sighed her name. Yeah, little bro had it bad.
Obviously Laif wasn’t going to hand out info without prompting, and since Bryson was so good at getting information he wanted out of people, he started the interrogation. “What does she look like?”
Now that was interesting. “Want to elaborate?”
Laif looked up like he’d just noticed Bry was outside with him. “Did I say that out loud?”
With a laugh that couldn’t be held back, Bryson nodded.
“Damn.” Laif rubbed a hand over his face before he placed the cooked burgers on the waiting plate. “Take these in while I shut down the grill,” Laif said.
Bry stood, grabbed the plate from Laif’s hand and went toward the back door, which lead to their laundry room just off the kitchen. He and Laif had bought the three bedroom ranch style home together six years earlier since neither one of them needed a place they could take women. In fact, they needed to not have a ready place to take women, so living together had been a brilliant solution for them both.
As he sat the burgers on the kitchen peninsula, Laif came into the room. They made up burgers and sat to eat. Bry could wait him out—he knew Laif would talk when he was ready, and not a moment before.
“I met her in a dark alley,” Laif started, staring at his plate. “She was surrounded by at least ten Oíche Scáthanna and she just stood there. You could tell she knew something was wrong, but she didn’t try to get away, she just straightened up and looked ready to fight.” He looked up and Bry caught a glimpse of confusion in his brother’s eyes. “Why would she just wait around for some guys to jump her? She had to have thought it was some jerks up to no good. It doesn’t matter if she can fight.”
Bryson admitted he was a little confused and Laif explained, “I got her out of there and took her to Mom and Dad’s because I couldn’t bring her here. She fought me when we got there and damn it if she didn’t nearly take me down. She’s got at least a black belt in something. You should have seen her.” Laif smiled for a second but quickly replaced it with a frown. “I don’t know what I would have done if Mom and Dad hadn’t come in the room once I got her pinned on the floor.”
“You pinned her on the floor?” Bryson couldn’t help the incredulity in his voice. This was not like Laif at all.
Laif forked a hand through his hair. “I don’t really know what happened. I was just trying to protect myself and she somehow ended up underneath me.” He shivered, and Bry figured it was residual lust. He knew the feeling well.
“So Mom and Dad came in?”
Laif nodded. “When I first touched her, it was like being hit by lightning. Everything about her called to me. Like she was mine.” He scrubbed his hands over his face and into his hair, pulling the dark strands in tight fists. “That sounds stupid. Corny. Things like that don’t happen in real life. Right?” He stared at Bryson like he should know.
“Not in my knowledge.”
“Didn’t think so. But, damn it, Bry, when the lights came on… I can’t explain it. All the blood in my head shot straight to my groin and it was like I had to have her. Right then and there. Her ass. Her breasts. Her hair. It was all just… perfect. She was perfect. And I thought, mine! Like I’d been waiting my whole like for her and there she was. It scared the piss out of me.”
Bryson smiled. “So you got mean.” He knew how his brother reacted when he got scared.
“She’s got to hate me. I was such a jackass. I told her to shove her head under the faucet if she wanted a drink.”
Another laugh escaped Bryson. Yep, jackass.
Laif went to the fridge and opened a Coke, but he didn’t bring the can to his mouth, or shut the door. He just stood there, like all his answers would show themselves if he stared in the fridge long enough. Bryson gave him a minute before he said, “Close the door and finish your food.”
Laif did shut the fridge door, but he just looked at his plate, with a half eaten burger and a handful of potato chips, like it contained maggots. He shook his head slowly, as if he couldn’t believe anyone would eat the food on his plate. After a few seconds, he said, “I’ve got to talk to her. I’ve driven by the place I dropped her off every day since I left her there. Yesterday, I actually talked to the guy who owns the bike shop on the main floor and it took a Ben Franklin before he would tell me where she worked. But that was all I got out of the man.” Laif’s skin took on a greenish parlor. “She works at a tattoo parlor doing body piercings. How can I fall for someone like that?”
This was worse than Bryson had thought. Laif’d seen the woman once and was moping around like it was the end of the world. Suddenly, this situation wasn’t so funny.
He stood himself, grabbed Laif’s Coke of the counter and took a swig. When he sat on the sofa next to Laif, he asked, “What do you mean by ‘someone like that’?”
Laif leaned his head back on the couch cushion and closed his eyes. Bry didn’t miss the sheer pain in his eyes before they closed though. “Think of all the women you know who have even been into a tattoo parlor. Would you date any of them?”
Okay, most of the women Laif has dated over the years had been socialite types. Paulina Winthrop came to mind and Bry shivered in terror. This Memphis woman could be the devil reincarnate and still wouldn’t be as bad as that bitch.
Bryson also thought of the woman he had slept with when he’d been in college. She’d had tattoos and he’d kissed and licked every single one of them. He’d loved it. They had broken up after a year, since he’d known he’d never marry someone who couldn’t believe in demons. Hell, she hadn’t even believed in God.
To answer Laif’s question Bryson simply said, “Becky.”
Laif nodded, like that was answer enough. “See. What if she’s like Becky.”
Now Laif was generalizing. “What if she’s not? Look,” —Bry sighed— “Dad said that she was special and that you should give her a chance. So maybe you should.”
Laif opened his eyes, his face haunted. “But what if I do and she doesn’t want me? What if I open myself up to this and she turns out to be like Paulina?”
“Something is going on with you and this woman. Are you going to let her slip away because you’re scared?”
Laif didn’t say anything for so long that Bryson finally got up and went back to the kitchen to finish his cold burger. By the time Bry had eaten and cleaned the kitchen, Laif came in and said, “No. I’m going to call her. Even though I feel like I’m going crazy, I want to see where this takes us.”
Bry thought it might take him straight to the altar. Since having sex with the woman before they got married was out of the question for his brother, and it was obvious that Laif was thinking about having sex with the woman… yeah, straight to the altar.
“You workin’ or not?” Shane Evans looked over his shoulder and caught Memphis’ attention, holding the phone out toward her.
Memphis looked up from Cosmo, where she’d been reading an article on how to know if a man found you interesting. “What?”
Shane, her boss and second best friend in the world, nodded toward the phone. “You’ve got a client in need of an appointment.”
Memphis tossed the magazine back onto the customers’ coffee table in the waiting area and made her way to the reception counter where she checked her schedule book. “I’ve got a four-thirty coming in a few minutes and then I think I’m calling it a day. What do they want pierced?” Memphis asked, rubbing a knot in the small of her back.
“Tongue and eyebrow. Maybe a nipple.”
“Guy or girl?”
Shane raised his brow. “Does it matter?”
Memphis shrugged. She just didn’t understand why a woman would stab a bar or hoop through her nipple. The pain would have to be out of this world. But to each their own, she guessed, and these people paid her bills, so who was she to complain. Only thing she refused on anyone was genital work. That, she wouldn’t touch for anyone. Checking her appointment book, she said, “Nope. Doesn’t matter. I can fit them in tomorrow at three.”
Shane passed the intel along and hung up. “What’s going on with you? You’ve been preoccupied for the last two weeks.”
Obviously Memphis hadn’t done as good a job at hiding her growing annoyance with herself and a one Mr. Laif Craig as she’d thought. She hadn’t heard one word from him since he’d driven her home two weeks ago and promised to leave her alone. Well, who actually did what they promised? Had he not found her attractive? Had she been too bitchy? Heavens, why couldn’t he just call?
“Memphis? Hello?” Shane waved his hand in front of her face.
“What?” Memphis blinked.
“Are you all right?”
“No. I mean yes.” She touched her forehead lightly. “I’m fine. Just missing Callan, that’s all.” She smiled and hoped it was convincing enough.
It must not have been, because he raised a brow. “This isn’t about Mr. Rich Boy?”
Memphis still couldn’t believe she’d told Shane about Laif. Well, except for the part about her being out hunting demons. She’d said that she was out because she couldn’t sleep. Shane had agreed with Laif that she shouldn’t have been out by herself. He found it amusing that she was so out of sorts about tall, dark and handsome, Laif Craig.
She refused to give him anything more to laugh about so she reiterated, “I miss my baby.”
Shane smiled, not believing her, but let it go. “Well, he’ll be home before you know it. I thought you were happy to send him with Joan to stay with her sister for the summer. Said it gave you a chance to catch up on sleep.”
She laughed and stretched. Yeah, sleep. With Callan gone, she spent every night out on the streets hunting Oíche Scáthanna. And tonight would be no different. “You’re right. I’m just being a downer. Ignore me.”
With a laugh and a pat on her butt, Shane walked to the back room to finish the tat sleeve he’d been working on, off and on, for a couple of days.
Memphis leaned against the counter and watched Shane work. He was good looking. Dark hair, cut short, had a touch of grey at the temples, but it only served to make him look more distinguished. Blue-silver eyes crinkled when he smiled and made women take a second, and most times, a third look. He wore a beard and mustache kept trim that added the bad-boy touch to him when you couldn’t see the tats that adorned his very nice, well trimmed, lean body. Yes, Memphis thought, Shane Evans was beyond good looking. So why had she never been attracted to him? Not even in the beginning.
What was it about Laif Craig that drew her attention? she wondered as she stared out the window of Beauty’s Skin Deep Tattoos and Piercings, past the painted picture of the dragon holding a rose that greeted the customers as they entered Skin Deep, and onto East 6th Street. The people passing by were just average Americans, nothing shady or criminal, so what was wrong with walking around this part of the city in the middle of the day? She’d grant Laif that because of all the bars, walking around at night might not be too bright for most women, but the comment about the area not being fit for humans to live—her own words, not his—still stuck in her craw. There was nothing wrong with where she lived and worked!
“Damn it, Memphis, answer the phone,” Shane hollered from the back.
At the shrill ring, Memphis picked up and sighed, “Beauty’s Skin Deep, how can I help you?”
The man on the other end swallowed loud and cleared his throat. “Um, yeah, I’m looking for Memphis McLoughlin.”
Memphis’s heart rate sped up. He called. That meant he cared, at least some. Right? She couldn’t help the stupid grin that lit up her face. And no matter how many times she’d tried to convince herself she didn’t want to ever lay eyes on Laif Craig again, hearing his nervous voice, well, she felt tingles from head to toe. How to play this? Keep it light and fun. For her at least. “Maybe I know her,” she teased.
“Memphis? Is that you? This is Laif Craig. We met the other night—”
“I know who this is. What can I do for you?”
He didn’t say anything for a full thirty seconds, and just as Memphis opened her mouth to ask if he was still there, he said, “I owe you an apology and thought maybe I could buy you dinner.”
She bit her lip. She should not be happy about this. Not one little bit. Say, no thank, you and hang up. That’s the only smart thing to do.
“I guess I could eat.” What? No, you were supposed to say no!
“Okay. What time do you get off work?”
“At eight, but I was going to cut out of here at six. I’m not really dressed for anything fancy, so maybe we can go to Fado’s on West 4th. Know the place?”
“Heard the Irish, did ya? Yeah, I know the place. I’ll pick you up at—”
“I’ll meet you there,” she interrupted. “Say, six-thirty?”
She thought he sighed before he said, “That’d be great. See ya then.”
Memphis hung up, uncoiled the strand of hair she hadn’t realized she’d twirled around her finger, and banged her head against the counter. She had to be the dumbest woman alive, that was all there was to it. Smart women, who knew it was their sworn duty to avoid temptation at all cost, did not run headfirst into the lion’s den.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she said, still banging her head.
Laif rubbed his hands over his face and shook his head. What the hell was he doing? Sure, Bry had convinced him to see her again, but was that really smart? Maybe he hadn’t got his point across to Bry about how badly he wanted Memphis. In his mind’s eye he could recall with perfect clarity the fire of her hair, the passion in her moss-green eyes, the way her body moved seductively under black leather. No. He shouldn’t be here.
“Oh, hell.” He had to stop thinking about her that way or he wouldn’t be able to walk into Fado’s. “This is just dinner. Nothing more.”
He heaved a deep breath, sucked up his courage, and opened his door. It’s just dinner.
The explosion of gunfire sent him to the sidewalk. He searched the lit street for a sign of where it came from, watching the melee of running people.
As he stood again, a slender woman stumbled into the intersection of West 4th Street and Colorado, staggering between slow-moving cars. Her chestnut hair clung to her bone-white face and fell in stringy clumps down her back.
Laif’s legs turned to jelly and his heart jolted him into a stupor when he recognized her. Memphis!
Brakes squealed and a black Mercedes fishtailed toward the woman. Fighting his way out of the haze, he ran into traffic, pulling her out of the way before the car could take her out.
“Night,” she whispered, his face inches from hers. As the words left her lips, she went limp in his arms.
Laif couldn’t catch his breath. Help. He needed to get help.
“Someone call an ambulance.”
“Where’d she come from?”
Words tumbled around him, none penetrating the fog in his head.
His gaze traveled from her battered face to the trail of blood oozing from a hole above her bellybutton. Paying no attention to his surroundings, Laif ripped off his light-blue button-down shirt, scattering buttons—a shirt, that in a moment of extreme stupidity, he’d bought this very afternoon for this dinner—and pressed it into the bloody hole in her abdomen to staunch some of the bleeding. Gripping her body closer to his chest, he stood and yelled, “I need a cab! Get me a cab!”
As a taxi slowed to a stop, someone opened the door and Laif climbed in beside an angry looking man. “Brackenridge Hospital. Hurry! It’s an emergency.”
The Suit snarled, “This is my cab.”
On a low growl from Laif, the man’s mouth snapped shut and he glanced over the unconscious woman.
Laif’s fists balled as he forced himself to focus on Memphis and ignore everything else. “Take us to the hospital! NOW!”
The cabbie hesitated for a second, studying his fare in the review mirror, then gunned it, weaving in and out of the lanes. The hospital was only a couple of miles away, but Laif knew with traffic and lights it could take close to ten minutes.
“Don’t die,” Laif mumbled through lips touching the side of her head. “Just hold on.”
Beads of sweat trickled down his face. His stomach pitched, but the nausea was nothing compared to the contraction of his heart. He hadn’t even said he was sorry yet. And who would’ve shot her? He dug his phone out of his jeans to call the one person who could help in this situation.
“Hey, honey. What’s up?” his mom answered her cell after two rings.
“I’m on my way in with Memphis. She’s been shot.”
“Oh, honey! I’ll meet you in the ambulance bay, and I’ll call Tiegan and have him meet us.”
He disconnected and swallowed back the sudden fear he had of losing her before he even got to know her and inspected the damage more closely. The short, heather grey Abercrombie & Fitch shorts were torn on one hip and covered with blood. Her dark grey tank-top had a small hole where the bullet had entered, but he felt no exit wound.
As soon as he pushed her shirt up under her breasts, his hand stilled. The large red and black griffin with green eyes stared back at him. He smoothed his hand over her side and knew this wasn’t an ordinary tattoo. Memphis McLoughlin was a Caomhnóirí na Oíche. A Guardian of the Night. And from the looks of the griffin, a powerful one. For reasons he couldn’t really fathom, that pissed him off.
As his palm flattened against her skin, she shuddered and exhaled one word. “Callan.”
“I’m— It’s Laif, Memphis,” he stuttered.
What was taking so damn long? And who the hell was Callan? He glanced out the window and his fury flared as the cab came to a stop. “Run the light!”
“Can’t. I’m doing my best here.”
Tempted to carry her the remainder of the way to the hospital, Laif glared at the back of the cabbie’s head. “Can’t you turn on your hazards or something?”
“They’re on,” he said, easing back into the flow of the neighboring cars.
Blood soaked through Laif’s ruined shirt and oozed between his fingers, staining the white t-shirt he still wore. Her breath weakened and her skin beaded with cold sweat. Laif could all but feel her life slipping away.
“Come on, baby, stay with me. Come on, just a little bit further.” He rocked her on his lap, hand pressed in her stomach, mumbling an oath and a prayer. “Don’t die, damn it. Do you hear me? Don’t die.”
The flutter of her eyelids and the smile as she said, “I found you,” caused his eyes to sting.
A half smile sprung to his lips. “Yeah, you found me.”
Just as he started to relax a little, her eyes closed again, and her body jerked as she coughed up blood.
“Hurry!” he screamed at the driver.
The cab jerked to a stop. “We’re here.”
Laif jumped out into the ambulance bay with her gathered against his chest and yelled for help. An attendant, standing about thirty feet from the door, dropped his cigarette and came sprinting. Within seconds, his mother and the hospital staff had her on a gurney and rushed her inside. When they passed through the double doors of the ER, a nurse held Laif back.
“I’m sorry, you can’t go in there.”
He leaned around her shoulder, peering through the small windows on the doors, watching her roll further and further away.
“We need to get a medical history. What’s her name?”
“Memphis.” He stepped toward the doors again as the gurney turned the corner.
“Memphis what?” The nurse’s hand on his chest brought him back.
Laif pushed his fingers through his hair and met her stare.
“You don’t know her name?”
“Yes. McLoughlin. Memphis McLoughlin.” He shook his head and took a step back. “I don’t know much more except where she works.” His gaze bore down on her. “Don’t let her die.”
The nurse smiled reassuringly. “She’s in good hands. What’s your name?”
“Laif.” He shoved his fists into the pockets of his jeans. “Laif Craig. My mother works here. Maybe if you spoke to her, you—”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Craig, but you’ll have to wait over there,” the nurse said, pointing to the cushioned chairs huddled in the corner, shutting him down before he could even get started. “I’ll come find you as soon as I know anything.”
He nodded and turned to the area where the cabbie stood, expecting his fare. Laif passed him a twenty and sat. Clasping his hands together, he leaned back to wait, trying to catch his breath and control the blood pounding in his ears. His head had just begun to clear when his cell vibrated against his thigh. Retrieving it, he saw the number, and sighed. Paulina Winthrop. Not now. He let it go to voice mail, then called his mom.
“They’re prepping her for surgery. I’ll be out just as soon as I know more.”
He could hear the beeping of machines and jostle of metal in the background. “Will she be all right?” he asked, shaking his head to clear it, to cope with whatever it was he felt. And at the moment, he wasn’t sure what it was. Other than pure fear. That he recognized.
“She’s in good hands, honey.”
The phone fell silent and he crumbled into the hard-cushioned chair. With his face buried in his hands, he mumbled, “Mo chuisle, mo chroí.”
Was she? Could that explain the strong reaction he’d had to her almost instantaneously? The knowledge that she was someone important. Was Memphis McLoughlin his heart? His soulmate?
A tight fist squeezed his heart and air sat stale in his lungs. He’d never had a panic attack before, and he’d be damned if he was going to start having one now. He forced out a shaky breath and stood to pace. He wanted to know who did this to her and then go find them and shove that gun so far up their ass that they—
“Laif?” Tiegan Murray burst through the glass doors, almost at a run. “What happened? Your mom called and said the girl you’re seeing was shot.”
The girl I’m seeing? He’d specifically told his parents he wouldn’t see her anymore. Of course he had called his mom in a panic and…
“Laif? Are you okay?”
He shook his head and stared at his brother in law, Tiegan Murray, a homicide detective with Austin Police Department. He’d married his sister Julz six years earlier and they had the cutest kids in the world. Would Memphis be able to have kids? Had the bullet done that much damage? The thought of her not being able to have children ripped up his insides.
“Laif?” Tiegan said again.
Laif stared at his brother-in-law for a long moment, trying to remember his question. He couldn’t concentrate.
Tiegan sat on the chair beside Laif, squeezed his shoulder, asking, “You okay, buddy?”
“I’m fine. They won’t tell me anything. I don’t know anything.”
“Who’s this girl?” He took a small pad out of his shirt pocket and clicked his pen, poised to take notes.
“I don’t know much. I’m pretty sure she’s Caomhnóirí na Oíche. She had a dagger and short sword when we met. Though why she carries those kinds of weapons is beyond me. Maybe she comes against some real bastards when she’s fighting and thinks having weapons will deter them from attacking her. Damn it, she shouldn’t be out there alone fighting.” Laif babbled as he watched Tiegan writing in his notebook and added, “I’m not sure if this is going to be a police matter or one for us and Born Elk.”
His brother-in-law ran his hand through his dark blond hair and shook his head. “I hate it when your family does this to me. Damn it, Laif, I have to write this up. I have to investigate. I’ll get Williams to help me, but if someone was shot, I can’t just sweep it under the rug.”
“I know. All I’m sayin’ is it might have been because of what she does and the person who shot her might be an innocent.”
Tiegan arched his brow. “Innocent? That’s unlikely. I know how these Night Shadows work, even if I can’t see them like you can. The people who they borrow, are anything but innocent.”
Laif blew out a breath. “You know what I meant. Just don’t do much without letting us check into it.”
“I’ll let you and Dad be there when I question her, but I’ve got to go find a crime scene, and I can’t have any of you there in case this isn’t a case of Guardians and Demons.” Tiegan gave Laif a man-hug before letting go and saying, “We’ll find out what happened, and if it needs to be handled by the Guardians, I’ll figure out a way to keep it that way. But if it’s a police matter, let me do my job.”
With a slight nod, Laif answered, “Don’t we always?”
Tiegan laughed. “Mostly.” He patted Laif on the back and leaned back against the hard cushioned chair. “Now, tell me about the woman who has your mom telling Julz that you’ve met your match.”