Rory’s cheeks still burned with the smile brought on by her walk with Doc. But it wouldn’t last. Someone had other plans for her.
Rosemary gripped her arm and gave it a slight pull. She held a finger to her lips and led her to the root cellar where Asher was already waiting. The older woman stuck her tongue out at the portal to Mara’s domain and waved a hand. It flickered and vanished out of existence. “That’s better, don’t you think?” Her eyes sparkled in the dim light.
“It is. But not why you brought me down here. Is it?” Rory glanced at Asher and back at his mother. “We haven’t been together; in case you’re wondering. No sordid affair happening.”
Rosemary pished the idea away. “My dear, what you and my son do is none of my business. While it would delight me to invite you into the family.” She glared in his direction. “He isn’t the settling down type. Remember that.”
An unspoken distance between them made a little more sense to Rory. Even powerful old witches must want a grandkid or two. And that wasn’t happening anytime soon with Asher.
But didn’t he mention that was partly Rosemary’s own fault? she thought. Nope, Rory. Back away, that’s their business. You’ve got enough problems of your own to deal with.
“Again,” Asher spoke with mild disdain. “Your faith in me is always so comforting, Mother. Now why am I here and not out hunting?”
“I require the two of you to fetch something for me,” Rosemary said.
“Last I heard, Nadine could turn into a dog. Get her to fetch whatever it is.” Asher moved to leave, but Rosemary snagged his arm.
“This is no time for games. If we stand a chance in the coming war, I need that rod.”
Rory frowned. “The Catherine’s dowsing rod? You want us to walk into Alma and grab it?”
“The very one. Take the portal there in the middle of the night. Asher will sneak you through the shadows to Grace’s chambers and back. I’m sure you can talk your way out of any trouble you encounter. It should be easy.”
Asher snorted. “Why don’t we just off Grace?”
“You’re not stupid, my son, so stop asking stupid questions. If you killed her in private, it’s an assassination and she becomes a martyr. If she’s made to answer for her crimes in public, well, it’s hard to go back from that now, isn’t it?”
“Does Doc know what we’re doing? Or Nadine? Any of my friends?” Rory asked, the weight of their task already bearing down on her.
“No. And they won’t until it’s finished. James has a habit of making poor decisions where you’re concerned, and if anyone else knows, he’ll find out. Are we clear?”
Rory nodded. She didn’t like it, but understood well enough.
From her side, Asher rolled his eyes and made an exaggerated groan of agreement.
“I’m glad you both agree. Now get your things in order. You leave the moment the sun goes down.”
“Wait, you want us to leave tonight?” Rory turned to Asher and gripped his arm. “We aren’t ready, are we? I mean, we should plan or something, right? Just walking in without some idea of what we’re doing could go-”
“You’re babbling,” Rosemary said. “Besides, you and my son act on instinct instead of any concocted plan anyway. I find it both charming and annoying all at the same time.”
“Can I ask Sven for some more of his chameleon potions?”
“Him?” Rosemary threw her hands up in the air. “And what would you say they’re for without causing suspicion?”
Rory tried to think of a reasonable excuse and shook her head.
“Asher will hide you as long as there are shadows.” Rosemary’s face softened after she glanced at her son. “It’s been a while since you’ve hidden someone in there with you. Are you up to it?”
“Yes. It’ll be fine. She’s a lot shorter than the last girl I hid.”
There was an unspoken conversation going on. Rory sat back and watched them stare daggers into each other. It kept her mind off their kamikaze mission.
The tension dampened when Rosemary scoffed. “She is. And she’ll be able to lend you some magic if you need it. Unlike-”
Rosemary sighed at her son and turned to Rory. “Sorry about that, my dear. Dirty laundry from many years ago.” She shook a playful fist at him, and her multitude of bracelets chimed with the motion. “Give me a hug before you leave tonight, will you? Both of you.” Her eyes grew distant as she left them alone.
Rory put a hand on his arm. “So, I’m going to take a stab in the dark and say some of that was about a villager you had a thing with?”
“And she didn’t approve.”
“What happened to her? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Mom wiped her memory of anything we had together and planted her with someone new to get along with. They got married, had three kids and died of old age.”
“Not your fault. While I love mom to death, this is what she does. She’s a talented lady, but loves toying with other people’s lives by playing matchmaker. Have you noticed how often I get sent after you? Or the two of us get assigned on special missions? It’s not a coincidence. I think she’s taken a liking to you.”
“Oh.” Rory frowned and looked away. Had she thought he’d sought her out of his own free will? He didn’t seem like the type who ever had to chase a woman to bed her. For all she knew, they lined up outside his little house in Inboco and he happily obliged every one.
“Again, I wouldn’t say no to a fuck, but she was right about the family thing. It’s not in me.”
“Wait, if she’s trying to set us up, why would she warn me about you?”
“Probably to make you even more interested. Tame the wild beast within the man, you know how it goes.”
“Um, well, thanks for the heads up, I guess.” She kicked at the dirt floor and crossed her arms. “So, we should get ready for tonight then. Is there something I should wear?”
“Low cut. If anything at all.” He grinned.
She sighed in relief as he snapped back to his old self. “Seriously, do dark colors help with the shadow thing.”
“It would.” He nodded. “And nudity does help. I wasn’t being a complete ass about that. The shadows have an easier time with live organic matter.”
“We’ll see how it goes,” she said and winked.
“Don’t get my hopes up too high.” He returned the gesture and put a hand over his heart.
Half of her felt horrified she would even consider doing such a thing. The other half ripped off her clothes and let him take her right there on the dirt floor. She buried the latter line of thinking and marched up the stairs to pretend like it was another ordinary day.
Instead of one that could potentially be her last. Should the mission completely fail.
“You’re clothed,” Asher said dejectedly as Rory joined him in front of the portal to Alma.
She raised an eyebrow and glanced below his belt. “So are you, kind of. You have jeans on at least.”
“I can remedy that.” He moved to unbutton his pants.
“Nope. Always have to take the joke a little too far, don’t you?”
He let his eyes drift over her body. She’d worn all black. It was tight, and the shirt was low cut as per his order. His gaze lingered. Her compliance with his request hadn’t escaped his notice.
“Remember, when we get on the other side, we won’t have cover for a few seconds. When we’re in the shadows, keep skin contact and you’ll be fine.” He grinned at her. “Depending on where you grab me-”
“Since you’re allergic to shirts, your back or arm will work.” She rolled her eyes at him, but internally she fought the urge to let out a little gasp.
He held her against him, breathing in at the base of her neck, and sighed happily. “For good luck.”
“Why do you keep doing that? What does it mean?”
“Just getting a nice dose of pheromones. You’re practically drenched in them when I’m around.”
“It could be for someone else. Ever thought of that?”
“No.” He ran his hands over her golden-brown hair and kissed her.
Her eyes widened in shock, only to drift closed. She wrapped her arms around his neck.
When their lips parted, he drew another deep breath. “About that…”
“Let’s just get on with this.” She swatted at his arm in mild outrage.
He laughed softly at her frustration and grabbed her hand before they walked through.
On the other side, Nadine’s little house looked empty and alone. They’d shared so many memories there. Parties until the break of dawn. Fights. Dinners.
They still had each other, at least.
Just as Asher was about to wrap them in shadows, a line snapped and pots clanged to the floor.
“Who uses booby traps?” Rory whispered.
He held her against him and stepped sideways. The world took on a muted, dark tone, like she was looking at everything through a thin layer of smoky obsidian. They waited in the corner for a guard to inspect the commotion. They didn’t have to wait long.
A Daughter, thankfully not Grace, threw open the door and peered inside. She carried a torch and Asher’s muscles tensed. They were going to have to play a game of stick to the shadows. The Daughter inspected the pots and pans on the floor. While she was busy, Asher crept forward.
Rory kept hold of him and followed. I forgot to mention how klutzy I am. Oh, shit, don’t let this be the time I fall.
The open door drew within reaching distance before another Daughter appeared, torch in hand. Asher pulled her away and down behind a wall, blocking her view with his body.
His first instinct to protect me forces me to stare at his groin, she thought. Yet stare she did.
“Is there anybody here?” the second woman called. She was vaguely familiar, but Rory couldn’t place a name to her face.
“I checked the area already, Ruth, and didn’t see anyone. Do you think they got scared and scurried back in their hole?”
Asher gave her hand a quick squeeze. It was time to move again. They crept out the door and Rory prayed they wouldn’t encounter another torch wielding Daughter.
Streetlights flicked on outside, including one shining right in front of the house. They tiptoed in a thin line of inky black and breathed a quiet sigh of relief once the light was behind them. The walk to the cemetery took the same twists and unexpected turns. To avoid the notice of people moving about at the late hour, they traveled slowly. Doors could still burst open with dazzling brightness pouring out.
The giant monument that marked the tunnel’s entrance loomed ahead, and they crept forward, though more easily with no torches or streetlights in this part of the city.
She found the button that opened the passage and urged him inside. I should have taken a pair of the goggles from the crate, she thought as the door shut off any light available to them.
Asher gave her another quick squeeze and continued. His night vision proved to be more than capable. He guided them forward with swift, sure steps.
When they stopped, she felt his breath in her ear and her heart increased its rhythm by a few beats too many.
In barely a whisper, he said, “There’s a ladder and a latch to open the trapdoor. Do you know if its lightproof? I see nothing from this side.”
“Not unless they added it after we rescued Nadine.” How long had it been? Three or four weeks. Time flashed by at an alarming pace.
“Do you want to go first or me?”
“Let me. I’ll put anyone to sleep before they can raise an alarm.”
“Smart,” he said and gave her a quick kiss.
This is a thing now? Random kisses out of the blue?
He guided her to the ladder. Only to swat her ass on the way up as she climbed. A move that nearly sent her flying back down, but she held tight, cursing at him under her breath.
“Sorry,” he whispered.
Moment of truth. Does Grace know how Sven and I got in before or not?
She clicked the latch as quietly as she could and opened it a crack, inspecting the layout of the surrounding room. Grace wasn’t in bed, but the apartment was quiet and dark. Two things she was hoping for. She gave Asher the all clear.
He surfaced and wrapped them both in shadows once she got a firm grip on his hand.
“How will we know where to find it?” she whispered in his ear. Duh, Rory, why didn’t we think of this earlier?
“Can’t you sense it? It wants us to recover it.”
She couldn’t, but there wasn’t time to contemplate why.
Outside of the room and to their left, she saw an arched door. If her memory served her correct, it led to the audience chamber where she’d gone to a meeting seemingly years ago. To their right, Asher moved towards another smaller, insignificant looking entryway. They slipped inside just as a man’s voice screamed behind them. A voice she recognized and shrieking her name.
Oh, shit, I forgot about Trevor. He smells me and he’s out there somewhere.
“We need to hurry. I’ll explain later,” she whispered in Asher’s ear.
His teeth glowed in the dim light. “I found it.”
She felt the frigid chill of metal against her neck and bit down on her cheek to avoid screaming. “You’re going to give me a heart attack,” she hissed at him and slapped his arm for good measure.
“Sorry. Let’s go.”
At the sharp echo of voices within the vicinity of Trevor’s bellows, they waited until a few more moments passed before racing back to the chambers and out through the passage. Closing it tightly behind them. They ran down the black hallway. Once out of the cemetery, they lessened their pace again.
Across the street from the Grotto, they stopped. Grace and five other Daughters wandered in and out of Nadine’s house.
She took a step in their direction, but Asher held her back and shook his head.
“Too many,” he mouthed at her and tilted his neck sideways with his tongue stuck out like he was dead. More precisely, hanged.
Point taken, she thought. One of them would have more than enough opportunity to call for guards, and they’d be cooked. Besides, Nadine and Rosemary made sound arguments for letting it play out in the public eye. Maybe I should start listening to my friends instead of my impulses.
Rory squeezed his hand and led him through the backyard that once served as her own. She fought an urge to look through the windows and headed behind a neat red house—Doc’s home. They crept inside through the back door and she guided him to the tiny room that held the portal to Inboco. The illumination from it faded their concealment.
Just as a Daughter rounded the corner and spotted them. She opened her mouth to yell.
“Be quiet. We were never here. You’re going to go home and think hard about your decisions because they’ve been real shitty up till now. Also, Grace is a bitch.” Rory wasn’t sure if that long of a command would work, but she fused magic into each word.
The Daughter’s eyes grew hazy, and she turned, walking in the opposite direction.
“Move,” Rory said and pushed Asher through the portal.
The high of success washed over Rory. She turned to Asher and kissed him on the cheek.
He dropped the dowsing rod on the cabin floor and pulled her to him, his lips pressed against hers. Hands, flushed hot with the thrill of adventure, moved to the sides of her neck. One palm lingered as their tongues met while fingers removed her hair from its bindings. His nostrils flared and hunger etched his face. His nose buried in her neck, and a long shudder ran through his body. He pulled away with what seemed to be an effort of will and took her hand. “Come with me.”
“Should we take the rod?”
“Leave it. If they come looking for us.” He kissed her neck. “They’ll see it.” He untucked her shirt and ran both hands along her stomach, sides and back. “Besides, no one knows we’re here.”
After he worked his way under the confines of her bra, all restraint left her. “No strings,” Rory said and gasped as he pinched her nipple.
“No strings.” He kissed her again.
The pair barely kept their hands off the other as he led her through the streets of Inboco to the longhouse in the center of the village.
Of course, he doesn’t live in one of the normal houses. When she thought about it, it seemed ridiculous he’d stay anywhere else. It also erased any ideas of a line of women waiting for him to service them. Rosemary would have a fit if he took human lovers into her house.
Instead of taking the large front door, he went to the back and through a much less grand entrance. He lifted her into his arms and carried her to his room, their mouths devouring the others.
Candles flickered to life at their arrival and died as they left each room. It would have been much more interesting if the situation were different. Not so absorbed in the way her body pulsed after their brush with danger, longing for release. Above anything, there was a need to feel soft and desired. The visions Mara shown her hung like a dark cloud over her head.
Asher set her down on her feet near a mound of silks, furs, and pillows. He removed her shirt. A coy grin pulled at the corners of his mouth as he took her in.
Crazed with adrenaline, she pushed him to the bed and kicked off her boots before slipping off her black leather pants with an extra wiggle.
The hunger intensified in his eyes; it was a job well done.
To give him the full view of her thong and the curves it contained, she turned away.
A moan escaped his throat.
After a glance over her left shoulder, Rory unclasped her bra and let it fall to the ground. Just as she meant to turn and reveal the contents, he was on his feet, pulling off her panties. The delicate lace gave way and tore. He cast the remains aside.
His fingers grasped her thighs, pulling her against him. His jeans and the stiffness inside pressed against the soft flesh of her bottom. One hand found the wetness between her legs while the other toyed with her breasts.
This time the moans were her own as he brought her up and over the edge; kissing and nipping the nape of her neck.
There was the soft sound of a zipper and denim as he wriggled out of his jeans. “Let me look at you.”
Calm at first, she did as he asked. Then grew cautious, while the eyes that moved over her body became dangerous.
His arms wrapped around her, and they fell to the bed.
There was a moment where Rory might have changed her mind, but it passed almost as quickly as it arrived. When their lips met again, he entered her. They didn’t make love as it had been with Byron. It was primal and starved. Two bodies formed a tangled web of sweaty flesh until they gasped and quivered in satisfaction.
Their thirst for release slaked, she pulled herself away and dressed.
He watched her from the tangled silks of his bed with a questioning look. “No round two?”
“Too intimate, don’t you think?” Her cheeks glowed with the radiance of good sex, and all the right parts hummed in delight.
“You could lie here with me and we could sleep for a bit. My bed is far more comfortable than anything at the farmhouse.”
He wasn’t wrong. Rory bit her lip and considered it before shaking her head no. “I need a warm bath and then I’m tucking myself in bed. Alone—unless Nadine is there.” She gave him a kiss.
What had intended to be quick, lingered. His hands found the soft curve of her breast, and his thumb rubbed across its delicate center. A flare ignited between her legs and she forced herself away.
“Thank you for your offer, but this can’t ever happen again. It was a horrible mistake.” His eyes were upon her as she left the room.
When the door to the longhouse closed, and the night air hit her face, she gasped. The full brunt of guilt that had built from the second their bodies parted crashed into her. Byron was no longer the last man she’d been with. More importantly, how could she have just done this to Doc?
Shit. What did I do?