Maeve finished the crimping of the blueberry tart’s crust. Satisfied with the scalloped edges, she placed it in the small stone oven her brother had built for her. Her long braid swung down, almost touching the floor before she swept it back over her shoulder. Dusting her hands off, she sighed. She was tired, but it was a good kind of tired. It had been a good day.
The stew was almost finished. It needed nothing more than the vegetables to soften with the meat to make it delicious. The scones were baking in their spot on the hearth. There was milk and fresh cheese, along with butter for the biscuits. Everything is perfect.
The cottage glowed with the cleaning she’d given it. And the scent of food lingered throughout their comfortable home. But the tart was Brennan’s favorite. She wanted it to be perfect.
The setting sun let enough light through their windows to make the room appear bathed in sunlight.
Today was the third spring they’d have been living here, in this home. She wanted this night to be special. She rubbed her back and smiled. Perhaps some rest would have been acceptable, too. But there’d been too much to do. The berries were ripe and had needed picking. The garden had been filled with weeds, and Brennan’s shirts had needed mended. The first warm day after a harder than usual winter, and she’d thrown open the shutters and attacked every corner of their home.
It had been a wonderful day.
The door to their cottage crashed against the wall, startling her so badly she dropped the spoon she’d been going to use to stir their stew. The small sketch she’d set in the windowsill fell to the floor.
“Brennan!” He didn’t move, but stood there, breathing so heavily his broad shoulders rose and fell. Queasiness hit her stomach. Not again. Please, don’t say we have to leave again.
“What is it?” She lowered her voice to a whisper, fear making her legs tremble. There was always a chance someone would hear… Has someone heard me? Knows of me? Made it through Evie’s spells?
Brennan cast a glance over his shoulder, then shoved the door closed, his features taunt. He’d not shaved this morn, and the golden bristle on his face always made him appear older, sterner. Heavy brows lowered, he ducked his head to take his satchel off, then his sword before he walked over and set both on the bench by the table. Did he run home from the village?
“There are men here willing to pay for us to lead them through the crossover. This is our chance, Maeve. I feel it.”
The fear tightening her stomach climbed up her throat, closing it off at what he was saying. He’ll leave me now for good. We’ll never be here, again, like this.
“They’ll pay. Even Evie agrees. With their gold, we can begin again, in their realm. Once there, we can find someone to aid you…” He trailed off, but she could see how much he wanted this. His face glowed with excitement. Even his rough voice was filled with hope. “We can get out of this hovel,” he added passionately, easily disregarding all the work they had put into making this cottage a home. “We can be rid of this place. You won’t have to cook every meal and spend all your time cleaning and mending. We can have a real home!”
She loved this hovel. She loved cooking. She loved cleaning and mending and knowing that with her own hands she helped them more than survive, she made them comfortable. Or I thought I did. To Brennan the small one bedroom and with a loft wasn’t enough. He’s never understood that this is all I want. All I need.
“Did you hear me? We can be free. This is going to be the best thing that’s happened to us. I can feel it. Their realm is the best place for you.”
Maeve nodded but made their meal an excuse to turn away before he read the unhappiness dousing all the joy out of her day. She set her spoon down, taking the time to move the pot of stew to a cooler spot on the hearth so she could calm herself. “It sounds wonderful, Brennan.”
Brennan thought he knew her so well, but he didn’t know her—or what was best for her. This is the best place for me. But I can’t say that. She checked the scones, then returned their lid so they could continue browning. The smell of berry tart was beginning to mingle with the other fragrances filling the room. She’d even picked a bouquet of sweet-smelling lavender and her favorite pink lilacs for their table. He doesn’t even realize that lilacs are my favorite flower. But I can’t tell him I want to stay, not when he wants so badly to go.
“It will be enough, you think?” she asked without turning.
Brennan exhaled heavily as if he’d held his breath. She glanced at him, but his attention was on the table. Her heart clenched. His shoulders were so broad, and he carried so much of their load. He needed to be free, to finally live without the constant worry over her. She looked away before he raised his head.
“Yes. I believe so. Evie agrees,” he repeated sounding so eager she felt another sharp pain in her chest.
He’s never understood. But I understand him. He wants freedom—from me.
“She will release me?”
“Yes. She doesn’t hold you here. We have repaid her long ago, ‘Aeve.”
It was true. Evie had always said that Maeve had repaid her the first time she’d sung. But Evie’s agreement to release her still felt oddly like a betrayal or…a too-abrupt dismissal. Why wouldn’t she come speak to me? Evie was busy, of course. She hardly ever came to their realm, but when she did, she was always kind to Maeve, and always, always sought her out. Has she grown tired of protecting me?
“These men have money. They will pay handsomely. We’ll have enough to begin again, safer, there.” Brennan sounded tired. She glanced over and saw the lines of weariness on his tanned face. He’d aged these past few years. But anyone would with having to always be on guard and ready for a battle.
I need to do this. For him. Once there, I will…be safe and when he sees this, he will be free to do what he wants. She cleared her throat, worried that the tightness there would show her emotions. “If we lead them, you mean? If they make a safe crossing, or if we simply take them to the crossover?”
He took a seat at their small table. His gray eyes were darker today, the furrow between his brows deeper. Because of me. He rubbed his thumb along a cut on the scarred and dented surface of their table, lost in thought.
“If we lead them,” he finally answered. “We must ensure they make it across, otherwise we will not be paid.” He caught her eyes and his flashed with excitement. Some of the worry slipped away, revealing a younger, happier man. “Evie knows one of the leaders, and another man. Both have the means to make good on their promise of gold.”
“Then we will go.” She tried her best to sound happy and must have succeeded because he grinned. She hadn’t seen him smile like that in far too long. “When?” She wiped her hands on her apron, trying to clear the painful sadness from showing. “When will we leave?”
“They’ve asked us to leave in the morn. I’m not sure we can, though.”
Her stomach felt as if it fell to her toes. “So soon…”
Brennan didn’t notice. He was already lost in his plans. “We might though. We can gather most of what we need from our own stores. We won’t need anything else from this place,” he muttered, dismissing everything she’d done to their home. “Their realm is rich with resources. We’ll need horses. They have none. We can gather stores along the way. Six men will need to eat a lot.” He gave her a crooked grin. “That might require two extra mounts.” The laugh in his tone had been missing this past year. Brennan had grown more solemn, less the brother she knew loved to laugh at life. “It would be best if we could sell them before we cross over,” he muttered back to his plans for their journey. “But if we can’t, the gold they pay us will be enough for a new beginning.”
It was decided then. She lifted the stew to the table and ladled out a bowl for Brennan. Her stomach was too twisted to hold anything down. She bent and secured the scones, checking the tart once more. Her face felt pale, cold and clammy when moments before she had been hot from all her work. We will travel with men. That will mean I need to stay silent.
“A new beginning,” she agreed, nervously wiping her hands again. “You should wash. Supper is ready. I made you a tart.”
Brennan seemed to hear something of her hidden pain. He caught her hands in his, holding them the way he used to when they were children and she’d forgotten her mittens in the middle of winter. “This will fix everything, ‘Aeve. You’ll be safe there. You’ll see. It will make everything better.”
Her heart twisted. “I’ve always been safe with you, Brennan.”
He scraped his chair back over the hardwood floor as she spoke, drowning her words. Soon it won’t matter. Among a group of men, I won’t be able to speak. Why should he listen now?
* * * *
Ajax paced the confines of the common room, clearly agitated. Stephano sympathized. They’d met with Evie, a woman who owned a club in their world, and now they discovered, here in this realm as well. The two establishments were polar opposites. The one in Los Angles provided all an immortal could ever want. This one was little more than a country tavern. It was a puzzle.
Oh, there was singing and some truly lovely women, but there was also a common room, small rooms for private dinners, and accommodations for weary travelers. It reminded him of an early seventeenth century pub he’d frequented way back when. But this whole world was backward, so it made sense that the last settlement before the dangerous Dark Wood was the same. Evie owning it did not.
Evie had not been pleased to see them. Not one bit. She’d almost denied them entrance, but something Alrick had said must have swayed her. Still, she’d forbidden them to leave the small private room or else be forced out of her establishment all together.
He’d half like to see her try. Like we need one more battle. This entire realm is a battle. Walking into a pub is a battle. He speared a piece of cheese on his knife. The food was at least good. Warm, plentiful and filling.
“Why can’t she allow us journey through to her club in our realm?” Ajax demanded. “It would make too much sense, I assume! The damn woman is straddling the fence, but won’t allow us passage?”
“She has her reasons.” Alrick shot Ajax a frustrated but understanding frown. “We all have our alliances, Ajax. She does not. She stays neutral. For her that’s her safety.” The king of the Lykae was much too tolerant. Stephano didn’t feel so inclined. He’d been six months in this hell. Half of that time had been spent trying to reach a gate guarded by the Silkies, the other half battling their way out of the grip of the Dark Faye. Alrick had surprised him. He’d always thought the man stubborn and hard headed. He was, but he also held his own in a fight.
They’d come here when a gate had been created from their realm to this. One of their team, a witch, had been taken before they’d even discovered the existence of the passage. They’d aided in rescuing her and destroying the gate, but they’d ended up losing three good men. Two were fellow Spartans. He hoped both were already returned from Hades, tipping back Mojitos with their muddy boots up on the coffee table. But the third man, Jacob, was a mystery. They’d seen him fall, but when they’d rescued Garret in the Dark Faye’s arena, the wolf swore he’d had to face Jacob on the sand. And, he’d barely survived.
But they’d searched. Staying far too long within the Dark Faye’s gilded cities for his liking. There’d never been another whisper of the Vampire.
Now, almost at the end, or near enough, to this adventure-gone-bad, he was ready to relax. Evie’s provided plenty to relax with too. There was an abundance of soft, willing women waiting for his attention. No doubt half a dozen of them were right through the door. But could he go and blow off some steam, ease his aching body and find contentment in the arms of one? No. He was forbidden.
“Obviously, the witch wants us to suffer.” Darren’s comment earned him a withering glance from Ajax.
Stephano’s shield mate had more than a soft spot for witches in his opinion.
“Otherwise, why stick us in here?” Darren persisted. “And what the hell is up with having to meet with this brother and sister team one at a time?”
“She said the sister had to be familiar with us, otherwise she wouldn’t guide us.” Alrick stretched his arms behind his head and arched his back as if it ached as much as his did. The other Lykae, Darren’s younger brother, Garret, simply sat, as if he didn’t care how much time passed with him on his ass.
“The witches told us that here we’d find guides. These two must be the guides,” Alrick reminded them all.
The door opened and the cool night breeze washed over Stephano’s face, momentarily easing the heat blistering over his skin. Sweat ran down his back, working to cool him even as another suffocating wave of humidity hit him as soon as the door closed. He was tired. He ached from head to toe. He wanted sex for a few weeks straight and food.
Evie walked in as if she owned the place. She did, but still for a small woman she certainly commanded attention. Alrick even rose to his feet respectfully for her.
Stephano didn’t move.
“So, I have the brother here. His name is Brennan. He is…unusual, but a stronger warrior you couldn’t ask for on your journey.”
“And his shy sister? What of her? Is she a warrior as well?” He meant it as a joke, but it fell flat as Evie’s attention zeroed in on him. He’d never tasted the lush curves of her lips, but then he’d never been attracted to women of power. Not that she looked like an Amazon. She barely reached his pecs. But the swirl of authority in her heavily glamourized eyes spoke of a strength that always brought out the worst in him.
“Maeve is…special. I believe unique.”
“Does that mean she’s in a sped program? I heard that it’s not PC to say retarded now, so they say special, unique, so on.”
Evie didn’t narrow her eyes or show any outward sign of anger, but the air between them grew frosty. He didn’t bother holding in his grin. He loved a battle. Anything was better than the forced holding pattern she’d shoved them into. She walked over until she stood in his bubble of space, until less than two inches separated them.
“Narc, isn’t it?”
“You know it is.” He spent enough money at her club to own stock. She damn well knew his name, probably his birth date. “Unless you prefer Stephano, Evie.”
“Ah, yes, Stephano. That is your true name, is it not?”
He smiled. “I prefer Narc. It suits me better than the self-centered god.”
She didn’t return his smile, but held his stare coldly. Something in her gaze contemplated him in ways he didn’t like. It was almost as if she found him…unattractive. The thought surprised him. Women sought him out, even wrote songs about him, left roses on his door, all in the hope to have one more time with him.
“Yes, of course it does.” There, again in her tone, he heard it, the clear contempt, as if he were soiled, dirty. She swept to Ajax and Alrick, giving the two younger wolves a quick inspection before her focus landed on Alrick. “She will see you first, Alrick. It would be best. If you can convince her, perhaps the others will be an easier sell.”
“Sell? Why should we—”
“She is one,” Evie snapped over the top of his words, “of only two individuals that have made it to the crossing and back. Successfully. Her brother is the other. He will not go without her, and in fact, without her, he cannot open the way.”
“Or you could by letting us use your way.” Stephano crossed his arms when Evie’s gaze once again landed on him.
“The way I use is closed to you. Believe me, Stephano, one such as you could never use it.”
The witch! He dropped his arms and stomped toward her. “One such as—”
“Enough!” Ajax snarled.
Stephano cursed under his breath.
“Narc, take a walk. We’re almost home, back to your routine. Get that through your head. Go and straighten out.” Ajax didn’t bellow, but he didn’t have to. More than anyone else, Ajax knew where to hit him. What could he say? It was comforting to know he knew what his days and nights would be like. After centuries of unknowns, he’d grown attached to his LA mansion and reality TV. He’d had enough in each battle he fought without everything else being all fucked up, too.
He stalked out of the room, out through the dimly lit and deserted common room, and out the door. He was down the muddy street and beyond the guard posts lining the walls of the rickety old town before he even knew where he was headed. The forest surrounded him and gradually the heat of his anger eased. It was much longer before he could bring himself to turn around and head back to the town. Even then he dreaded each step that brought him closer to the confinement of the people traveling with him. He hung back, resting his shoulder on a darkened building opposite the tavern.
The common room still gave off a slight glow, but it was a candle in the window of a room next to it that drew his attention. A figure moved to the curtain, drawing the pale fabric aside to reveal a small face.
A woman. She tucked her mink-brown hair behind one delicate ear and ducked her head. Nervous? She responded to something someone was saying and a worried frown pulled at her smooth, beautiful brow, drawing her eyebrows down adorably.
She was dressed in the fashions of this world, in clothing common hundreds of years ago in his. A gown, pale in color with a modest round neckline and flowing skirts. Her hair was down, except for where she’d gathered it up away from her face much as Aubrey, the witch they’d saved from this world, wore hers. Except on this girl it kept slipping forward in a shiny wave when she bent her head to fall over her shoulder and obscure her features. She was obviously not one of the working girls. She was much too…innocent for that.
Her lips were the lightest shade of pink, but clearly defined against the cream of her complexion. The contrast of her dark hair to her flawless skin was exquisite.
He’d been with countless women, but they were all a blur of blonde, black, red, brown, auburn hair cut in so many styles, with so many features, and so many of them beautiful that he couldn’t pinpoint one who compared to this girl. Without a doubt in his mind he knew this one, this small, striking woman would forever remain etched in his mind.
She’s sad. The thought made a strange burn occur in his throat and chest. He rubbed his chest, unsure why he thought such a thing. But she was. Sad and lonely. Alone. Even if she was speaking to someone, she was on her own. It was clear in the anxious gestures, already familiar as she pushed that silky hair back behind her ear where it fell forward again within seconds of her moving it.
She shifted to the side and his attention caught on her outline. All he’d focused on were the contours of her face, the small shell ears and pert little nose, with the pink softness of her lips, and deep secrets hidden there. Now he realized there was more—much more. His groin hardened. She had her hands in her gown, by her thighs, so that the silver-blue material pulled an outline he was certain she didn’t realize gave him a clear idea of her bottom and the rounded globes of her breasts.
She dropped her hold on her skirts and walked out of sight, toward someone else.
He was moving and had the door open before he knew he’d crossed the street. He barreled in past the door. In his haste he ran into something sweet-smelling and soft that emitted a startled squeal and clutched at his biceps.
The beauty in the window.
The thought was coupled with her small body falling perfectly into his arms. Only he had been reaching out to catch her and found himself slipping backward as his boot slid on a rug he didn’t remember being by the door.
He landed on his back with a loud thud.
The woman from the window fell on him with another soft cry.
His breath left him on a gasp. Not because her knee contacted with his groin—that merely drove home she was real—but because every glorious inch of her was pressed to every hard inch of him, including the pillow softness of her breasts against his face as she wiggled to free herself.
Without thinking of what he was doing, he caught at her tiny waist and held her in place. She’d managed to twist downward, but now instead of her bosom in his face, she stared breathlessly down at him. Her eyes—a gorgeous hazel almost amber—rounded in surprise. There was no hiding the heady pleasure he experienced, or the hard length of his erection pressing into her stomach. Something like elation rose. He felt as if it swallowed his pain and doused his heat, but built a fire he was far more familiar with in his groin. Deep down in his core he experienced another thud as something fit into that place that had been empty since he could remember.