Bewitching the Wolf

Leo Tyler could think of a lot of things he would rather do than represent his pack of werewolves at this government meeting as his Alpha had ordered him to do. Walking on nails. Being kicked in the nuts. Swallowing wolfsbane. He disagreed with his Alpha, James, about a lot of things, and had been relatively vocal about that since becoming Beta after the death of his father some three years previously. But the Local Government Area was apparently insisting that their pack, as the largest group of werewolves in the city, send a representative to their meeting about council activities—something to do with afterschool programs, interspecies integration and helping children stay the course in educational pathways—and James had been insistent that as Beta, Leo go to represent the pack, as he himself was busy. As far as Leo was concerned, it was more than likely that the Alpha just didn’t want to go himself and was fabricating some prior commitment to avoid sitting through several hours of government finagling. It sure wouldn’t be the first time that James had taken advantage of Leo’s obligation to follow his Alpha’s instructions to avoid doing something he didn’t want to do himself.

James had been Alpha for roughly fifteen years—more than half of Leo’s life—and the older wolf, in Leo’s opinion, had stopped proving himself worthy of the role some five to ten years prior—around the time Leo, a freshly minted eighteen-year-old, had taken off to see some of the world before the requirement upon him as heir to the role of Beta trapped him in Mystic City. He’d returned when his father became seriously ill, but Daniel Tyler had held on far longer than anyone had expected, leaving Leo in limbo as the almost-Beta of the pack for more than nine months.

Some of their packmates had had doubts about obeying the instructions of a Beta who had spent so many years away, which was ironic, considering they seemed to have no issue following the leadership of James, who in the time Leo had been out of Mystic City had seemed to completely abandon any effort to deserve the mantle of Alpha. He no longer trained to keep up with the strongest wolves in the pack, no longer joined them in their fight practice or the teaching sessions for the younger wolves about controlling their transformations or avoiding substances like silver and wolfsbane. Leo would hesitate to say out loud that James had gone soft, but it was hard not to think it in the privacy of his own mind. A Beta was supposed to be the second-best in the pack, not the enforcer for a wolf who had allowed his body and resolve both to sink into disuse. James commanded respect by virtue of leading the largest pack in the city, if not the state, but as Leo had settled into the role of Beta, as time went on and James began asking more of him, Leo was coming to believe the older wolf deeply unworthy of his own position. For starters, he should have had the balls to come to this stupid meeting himself, instead of making Leo do it.

Leo took a deep breath to steady his temper and climbed out of his car. The sun was just starting to go down, the intense heat of the day finally beginning to fade. Warmth radiated up from the asphalt of the parking garage, and the city-centre smells along with that of hot tar were ripe in his nose. Underscored by… something. Something else.

He paused for a minute on his walk to the building where the meeting was being held, breathing deeply. Most werewolves had an excellent sense of smell, but Leo’s was even better than most. He tried to separate out the scents of the city… cooking meat from the kebab store down the block, sweat from the gym on the upper level of the building where the meeting was being held, the overriding odour of hot tarmac. And that mysterious something, just on the edge of what he could detect. It smelled like… Christmas. Like cinnamon and nutmeg and warmth, and at the same time, like heat and seduction and a kind of frantic physical need he’d never felt before. He felt his wolf stirring beneath his skin, his body readying itself to fight, or maybe to fuck as though even his physical response to the something couldn’t make up its mind what it was supposed to be.

Part of him was desperate to track down the source of this scent, but a glance at his watch told him he had three minutes to get into the LGA meeting or he’d be neglecting his duties as Beta.

Afterwards, he promised the wolf stirring beneath his skin. Afterwards, we’ll track it down. Just sit through a few hours of political posturing, and we can work out what the hell this is.

The wolf was unsatisfied with this response, but Leo ignored it and made his way into the multistorey building where the local council representatives were gathering, forcing himself to stop paying attention to the information his nose was feeding him, which was specifically telling him that the scent was growing stronger. Stronger.

He wasn’t the only supernatural representative at the meeting, he realised when he entered the room. It was set up with rows of chairs facing a lectern with an aisle down the centre, the windows open to the dense city air. Even though they were facing away from him, he could recognise the scent of the two vampires sitting in the third row, the representatives of several covens of witches in the fifth, and the one other werewolf present, who was sitting on the other side of the aisle in the row front of the almost-empty back row where Leo slid into a seat. The other wolf seemed to sense his arrival at the same time and turned around to greet him with a friendly smile. Petra, if he was remembering her name correctly from the one or two times they’d met before, wasn’t someone he knew well, but he made a note to say hello properly once the meeting was over. It couldn’t hurt to foster some other werewolf connections, especially when their territories abutted that of his own pack, as Petra’s pack’s did.

The full room quieted suddenly, and Leo realised someone had stepped up to the lectern. And with the incredible scent dragging his attention forwards, he focused closely on the something, fixing on its source, on the path it took to reach him. And somehow, somehow, he had no doubt in his mind that it was coming from… her.

It would fit. She was… something. She was a witch; even in his altered state he could appreciate that. Magic hummed over her skin like static electricity. It wound through the gentle curls at the ends of her thick black hair, sparked in her eyes. To his frustration, at this distance, he couldn’t tell if they were blue or green, and that lack of knowledge ground at his nerves. He wanted to know everything about her. Wanted to know what those perfect bow lips looked like when they curved into a real smile, not the practiced one she was maintaining as she spoke to the crowd. Wanted to know how they looked opened in a gasp of pleasure. In a scream. Wanted to know how her face changed when he made her call out his name.

“Good evening, everyone, and thank you for coming.” She took a deep breath and looked down at her hands. “As most of you know, my name is Delphinia Greenbranch, and it really means a lot to us that you’ve all made the effort to attend. You may be aware that our coven, in partnership with the Department of Youth and Community, has been putting a lot of effort into the programs we’re here tonight to discuss, and it is very satisfying for us to see that some of you are interested in what we’ve put together. I’d like to say a special thank you to the representatives of the supernatural communities who have made the effort to attend tonight. Valerie and Beau,” she sent a smile to the vampires, “Lisa, Rupert, Alex, and Simone,” another to the witches. “And in particular, our werewolf guests. It means a lot to us that you would consider being involved in something so far from your packs’ usual methods.” She made eye contact with the wolf in the row in front of Leo, sent her a grateful look, and then suddenly her eyes were on his, and the foundations of his world fucking crumbled.

He saw her eyes widen, was vaguely aware of the way her lips parted on an intake of breath, but he couldn’t look away, couldn’t take his eyes off the witch at the front of the room. Need swelled in his body, sudden as a lightning strike and potent as if he’d been starving for weeks and had just had a buffet of all his favourite dishes displayed in front of him. In his jeans, his flesh swelled irresistibly. Need her. Need her. He felt his canines elongating into fangs in his mouth as the wolf in him made its presence known. It was as focused on the witch behind the lectern as if he’d waved a blood-dripping steak in front of it. The look that Delphinia Greenbranch gave him—initially a kind of practiced appreciation that quickly morphed into what looked like dazed confusion—drew him in like a magnet. He wanted to fix anything that made her look uncertain—especially if it were related to him—wanted to change anything that made her even the least bit unsure of anything. Wanted to fix her entire life so it not only included nothing that ever made her worry even the tiniest bit, but also so that a large fucking chunk of it included him.

He suddenly wanted—needed—access to her. He wanted to touch every inch of her body, to take in the unbelievably perfect scent that was growing stronger the longer they spent in the same room, to weave his fingers into her thick black hair, to trace his hands over the curves that were all too visible under the dress she wore. Surely, she couldn’t have thought that was appropriate attire for a meeting covering local government issues. Sure, it had a high neckline, but his position at the side of the room meant he could see past the lectern to register that it only reached partway down legs that her sensible high heels made look positively endless. Would those heels put her at eye height to him? She was clearly already tall, which was fantastic because it provided more skin for him to memorise with his touch, with his tongue. Werewolves were usually tall, but Leo had always been at the upper end of the spectrum, which had been frustrating with many of the women he’d been with before, who had been too small, too fragile, to match him in any way, even those who were werewolves themselves. He shoved the thought of them out of his mind; for some reason, he suddenly didn’t want to think about anyone he’d been with before. He didn’t want to think about the very idea of letting any woman close to his body other than the one whose gaze had finally broken away from his own.

“As you may be aware,” Delphinia was saying, continuing as though she hadn’t just paused for several silent seconds, “there are a number of local government districts within Mystic City. However, ours, consisting of the territories of two werewolf packs, the vampire coven and those of three witch covens, and the human territories, have the lowest level of continuing education of young people, both human and supernatural, of the entire city. So, one of the things that our program aims to address is the issue of keeping our youths in school. Obviously, there are various issues specific to individual races, such as the sunshine issue for vampires, but what we aim to do is to support young people to complete high school and potentially encourage them to consider further education.”

She continued talking about the ways the programs were planning on keeping young people in school, but Leo barely heard her. His eyes kept fixing on tiny parts of her, like the prominence of her collarbone against her skin, or the curve where her ribs became her waist. The way she spoke with her hands made him imagine her touch on his skin. She was animated, clearly intensely passionate about the afterschool projects she was outlining, talking about ways to incorporate young vampires, who obviously couldn’t be out in daylight, as well as witches, the supernatural race most historically integrated with the humans, and the werewolves, who were the least. Typically, the werewolves kept to themselves, keeping separate from many of the “normal” human ways of life. His own pack, Blue Crescent, existed as an entity in and of itself, taking care of its members as they worked to maintain it and provide for one another. Just the fact that James had sent him to this meeting was strange, given the way that the pack normally functioned as a purposely separate entity, uninvolved in the way the rest of the city ran. Was there something James was considering that he hadn’t shared with Leo? Was he working towards integrating the pack into the wider society of Mystic City without even thinking to run the concept past Leo?

“The other part of this project that’s important to discuss,” Delphinia was saying from the front of the room, “is the fact that we’re not talking about having separate programs for each of our different races. We’re working to include not only humans but also all the supernatural races in all our plans. Obviously, everyone has their own specific challenges when it comes to being included in these programs,” she gestured specifically to the vampires with a sweet smile that sent heat shooting through Leo’s body, concentrating in his groin. “But we think it’s important to try to raise our young people more inclusively than we were brought up. The separations between our various races are important to our identities, we don’t deny that, but we think it would be a positive move if we started bringing young humans, witches, vampires, and werewolves together to learn and grow together. We all live together here in Mystic City. We might as well start learning to exist collectively in a way that brings us all closer together.”

There was a muffled hum in the room as people began speaking to one another, and he wanted to introduce his fist to the face of anyone who dared to interrupt Delphinia. She seemed prepared for it, though, smiling indulgently from behind the lectern.

“I know this is a fairly contentious suggestion,” she said, and thankfully the room fell silent once more to listen to her, or else Leo might have had to do something drastic. “And for that reason, later tonight, we’re going to open the floor to anyone who has any particular issues they want the opportunity for us to address as a group. In the meantime, we have a couple more people we’re planning to have speak this evening, but after that, if anyone else wants to get up and have their say, we look forward to hearing your opinions. For now, I’d like to welcome Marcus Heath to the stage.”

She stepped back from the lectern and someone else stepped forwards, some human with too much gel in his hair. Leo hardly even registered that he was present; his eyes were fixed on Delphinia, taking her seat at the back of the room behind the lectern. The man sitting next to her put a hand on hers and, when she looked his way, gave her an encouraging smile, and Leo almost blew up. Another man, touching the exposed skin of this woman? He’d never been a jealous man before, had always been content to fill a minor role in the lives of the women with whom he had… well, maybe you could call them relationships, at a stretch. When they found men who could give them more than he was able, he had never minded stepping back from that role. But suddenly, there was nothing minor about the role Leo wanted to fill in Delphinia’s life. He wanted to leave his mark all over her skin until any other man in her life thought twice about laying a fucking hand on her.

Maybe the problem was partly the absolute tease of a dress she was wearing. It was almost as black as her hair, high-necked, but tight enough that it clung to her perfectly curvaceous body, ending at her knees in a way that meant when she sat down, it rode up enough that he could see the skin of her legs almost to mid-thigh.

Leo wanted to be the only person who touched her bare skin. He wanted to see and touch and cherish every single facet of her body and memorise them with his lips and tongue. He wanted to learn her so intimately that nothing about her was unfamiliar to him. He wanted to leave his scent all over her so no one else ever got close to Delphinia Greenbranch without knowing that Leo had been there first.

It was this thought that took Leo aback. He was thinking about having her around other wolves, wolves who judged people partly on scent before they’d even met them. She was a witch, for heaven’s sake. Why would she be around enough wolves that it mattered that he’d put his scent all over her?

Unless…

Unless some part of him was considering introducing her to the pack.

Unless he was planning on bringing her into it.

At the very thought of bringing the witch now sitting at the back of the stage into the pack as his partner, something in Leo that he had never known was tense immediately relaxed. Something in him… eased. As though it had always been waiting for Delphinia Greenbranch, been waiting for the concept of bringing her into his life as the kind of a partner the pack’s pseudo-marital system recognised as absolute, been waiting for the option of making her his in the most unquestionable of ways.

Her scent filled his consciousness, even though she was no longer at the lectern, Christmas spices and sex and heat and woman. How had he lived this long without taking in this utterly addictive scent? How had he lived so long without having her?

Before he knew what was happening, the meeting was drawing to a close, having cycled through everyone from humans to vampires discussing the options that would make Delphinia’s afterschool program plan feasible, and the room was emptying. Leo found himself rising to his feet, ignoring the friendly smile of the wolf in the row in front of him as he strode forwards to make the acquaintance of the woman who, in his head, he had already claimed as his own.

***

He was… big. That was the first thing Della thought when the werewolf representative stood in front of her. He was so tall. Broad. His shoulders seemed to be bunching and unbunching as he stood before her, hands making fists and relaxing over and over. She cast her eyes over him slowly, taking in every inch of the man who had looked so disapproving during her meeting. His scowls from the back row, the constant drawing down of his eyebrows, had had her biting her lips with unexpected nerves every time she paused in speaking.

He was bigger than any human—or inhuman—had the right to be. His shoulders were so broad, she had to stop herself from imagining running her hands over the breadth of them. His hair was the colour of melting chocolate, and his eyes were a strange silvery green that, once she looked into them, seemed to almost trap her own gaze, like falling into a mountainside lake. Deep and warm and all-encompassing and somehow both safe and… exciting?

“Who are you?”

The words were out of her mouth before her brain had a chance to catch up. Her voice came out deeper than usual, husky, like she had just finished an extended session of screaming. I’d let him make me scream, a voice in her head said, tone as salacious as the content of the thought.

“Leo,” he growled, then cleared his throat and tried again. “Leo Tyler.” He still sounded angry, the frustration in his voice and face at odds with the anxious tension in his stance.

The name rang a bell, and Della took an involuntary step backwards. “The Beta from the Blue Crescent pack?”

“I… yes.” She seemed to have taken him off guard by knowing who he was.

“We’d kind of hoped your Alpha might join us tonight,” she managed, trying not to get lost again in the silver-green of his eyes. Had they become more silver? Her tone still sounded strangled. What was it about this man that had her so off-balance?

Her statement seemed to startle a laugh out of the man. He ran a hand over his short beard and her fingers tingled at the imagined sensation of hair scratching over her skin. His laugh was like glass mixing with gravel, but somehow… pleasant? Something in her got the sense that he didn’t laugh often and immediately wanted to make him make that deep gravel-glass laugh whenever she could.

“You’d be lucky to get our Alpha off pack territory on a full moon night in midsummer, let alone for an evening of governmental discussion.” He bit his lip, as though he’d said more than he intended. “It’s Delphinia, isn’t it?”

“Just Della is fine,” she managed, trying not to let her perusal of his brick-shithouse body be too obvious. For once in her life, she felt… small. Petite. Her, who had been the tallest woman in her coven since she was fourteen. She let her hair slide out from behind her ear, appreciating the sense of distance, of protection, that the slight barrier gave her.

His hand rose as though he had no control over it, pausing before the sheet of her hair partly covering her eyes. Was that… a growl that came from him? In a move almost swifter than she could follow, he tucked her hair back behind her ear, then dropped his hand back to cross his arms across his impossibly broad chest. Della had to fight to regain her voice. For some reason, she was suddenly breathless, her eyes feeling as wide as silver dollars.

“Leo.” His name slipped from her lips, then she bit her tongue, searching for something they could talk about. Some way to break this silence between them, when it grew more heated with every second that passed. “Um. What did you think of our proposals tonight? The idea of integrating the humans and the supernaturals? I know the humans in Blue Crescent territory tend to keep to themselves.”

He blinked at her as though this was the first he’d heard of the idea, as if she and two other program advisors, as well as one of the other witches, and both the vampires, hadn’t all weighed in on the topic for a good hour and a half.

“The way you were scowling the whole meeting, I presumed you didn’t approve of the suggestion.” She bit her lip suddenly when she realised the statement made it clear just how much attention she’d been paying to him when she should have been completely focused on the meeting she was supposed to be running. His quirked eyebrow seemed to say the same thing.

“Much as I appreciate that you noticed,” he said, and was it just her imagination, or was his voice suddenly a degree more flirtatious? “It wasn’t about your proposal. I was… thinking of something else.”

“What’s so important you couldn’t pay attention to the meeting?” Della demanded and immediately regretted the question, because his deep-set eyes were suddenly fixed on hers with a kind of intensity she’d never seen before, and it was… hot. Surface-of-the-sun kind of hot. A soft throb in the pit of her stomach that was quickly migrating to the juncture of her thighs kind of hot.

What the hell was this? Della had never, as in never, responded this way, to anyone. Even the few men, both warlock and human, she’d allowed to take her on dates, even those with whom the date had gone further than the original drinks or dinner or whatever, had failed to elicit even a fraction of this kind of immediate response in her.

“I’m not sure you really want to know,” Leo muttered, dragging her focus away from her suddenly tightening nipples.

If he’d known her, he would have known that that was exactly the wrong thing to say. Della had been known for her never-ending curiosity within her coven for years, and it had gotten her in trouble more than once.

Why did something in her tell her this was going to be another one of those times?

Why did the throb that had taken up residence between her thighs insist that it would be worth it?

“I think I do,” she heard herself say, her voice again taking on that just-been-screaming husky timbre. She tilted her head sideways and her hair again slid free from behind her ear, but before she could tuck it away again, Leo had stepped close to where she stood behind the lectern—impossibly close, indecently close—and done it for her. Only this time, his hand didn’t disappear after that briefest of touches. This time, his hand sunk into the thickness of her hair and his grip tightened until he’d tugged her head upright again, leaving his mouth so close to her exposed ear that she felt the rush of his hot breath on her skin when he spoke.

“All right, little witch, you want to know what I was thinking about? What was distracting me so I couldn’t pay attention to your meeting?”

With the microscopic amount of movement permitted by his grip in her hair, Della managed a semblance of a nod. Her own breath was loud in her ears.

“I wasn’t thinking about afterschool programs, that’s for goddamn sure,” Leo growled, “because you smell like pure sex, and I can’t get my damn mind off what you taste like underneath this tease of a dress. How long it’s been since you were properly satisfied. How long it’ll be before you let me get my mouth between your thighs and redefine whatever you used to think ‘satisfied’ meant.”

“Delphinia?”

In a flash, Leo’s grip had left her hair and Della was left reeling in something of an aroused fugue state as he stepped back from her, to stand to one side of the lectern as though he’d been leaning on it all along, moving so quickly it was like he was trying to hide that they’d been doing something wrong.

Had they? Was it wrong, the filth he’d just growled in her ear? Was it wrong that the words were humming through her body and, gods above all help her, she wasn’t sure if she’d ever in her life been so aroused?

She didn’t have time to consider it. Valerie, one of the two vampires they’d managed, with some effort, to convince to attend, rounded the corner into the meeting room, a smile stretching over her pale face when she spotted Della.

“There you are! Oh, and Leo, is it? You’re from the Blue Crescent pack, aren’t you? I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

“Not at all,” Della said, hoping she didn’t sound as off-balance as she felt. She smoothed her dress down her legs, suddenly hyperaware of where the hem sat just above her knees. It had felt perfectly suitable when she’d been wearing it in the office, but now she was aware of every inch of exposed skin. I can’t get my damn mind off what you taste like underneath this tease of a dress. “We were just talking about how to go about integrating afterschool programs in Blue Crescent territory,” she invented on the fly.

“Oh, you’re keen to join with the programs, are you, Leo?” Valerie asked, the hyper-friendly vampire not seeming to find it odd that the werewolf had yet to move out from his position behind the lectern. Was he trying to hide that he was as aroused as she was?

“Very much looking forward to joining,” Leo said, his voice as rough as sandpaper and deeper than the ocean. His eyes flitted over her just once more, but Della felt it down to her bones.

“Isn’t that interesting?” Valerie said conversationally, leaning on the other side of the lectern. “I was under the impression most of the werewolf packs preferred to keep things very insular, very isolated from the rest of the supernaturals.”

“Blue Crescent prides itself on becoming more open to new ideas,” Leo replied, not missing a beat. “I’d love to hear more about Della’s… ideas.”

“Well, if you don’t mind doing that another time, might I steal her for a moment? Beau and I need to be back at the nest shortly, and I wanted to have a quick chat about the logistics of including young vampires in programs during times when the sunlight hours are long.”

“Sure,” Della said, her breathing finally steadying. She darted back behind the lectern long enough to collect her notes, carefully not making eye contact with the massive werewolf still standing there and tried not to gulp audibly as she moved past him. When she heard his own harsh intake of breath when the skirt of her dress brushed his legs, she risked a glance up at his face and almost swallowed her tongue. His eyes were fixed on her like she was the finest work of art he’d ever seen, his irises flashing to a far deeper silver that told her the wolf in him was fighting not to make itself known.

“We’re having another meeting,” she managed, just barely. “In two weeks. Same place, same time. Maybe I’ll see you there?”

“Count on it,” Leo said, that sandpaper tone back in his voice, the intensity in his eyes enough to set her absurdly aroused body aflame all over again.

“That’s… good,” she managed weakly, before Valerie was slipping a stone-cold arm through hers and leading her from the room.

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Losing Leo

Shelby hugged her grandmother and said, “Good morning, Gran! I know I’m early, but I just couldn’t wait to get started. I hope you don’t mind.”

GG Beauchamp chuckled and said, “Of course not. Would you like a cup of tea? And how is our little one this morning?”

Shelby made a face. “Determined to crush my bladder, I think. I’m so glad it’s almost time for him to make his appearance. I never dreamed I’d make so many trips to the bathroom when I should be sleeping peacefully.”

GG laughed. “It’s to prepare you for all the times you’ll have to be getting up after he or she gets here.”

“Oh, I didn’t think about that.”

“Just make up your mind that you need to sleep whenever your baby does and let Sam worry about everything else. At least for a while.” GG poured two cups of tea and stirred some honey into them both.

“I just want you to know, Gran, how much it means to me that you’re telling me the whole story of you and Grandpa. You two had such a beautiful love story and I can’t wait to share it.”

GG smiled and said, “Your grandpa was a very special man.”

“I know he was and I bet he’d say the same thing about you.”

GG’s smile turned a little mischievous. “He really did spoil me to death most of the time. He did make me toe the line now and then, though.”

Shelby’s cheeks were a little pink. “How was it that you put it?”

GG said with a wink, “A strong man’s hand can be a very good thing.”

Shelby had to giggle. “Well, I’m ready to begin whenever you are.”

“Let’s do it.” They settled comfortably in front of the fireplace and Shelby turned on her recorder and opened her notebook.

***

The tall man, still lean and fit, even with the gray scattered through his dark hair, leaned his forehead against the tree trunk and counted out loud, loudly enough to be heard across the large yard. There was the sound of an excited giggle and the big Golden Retriever raced in circles at the edge of the yard by a cluster of bushes, barking excitedly as he romped.

A voice called, trying to be quiet, “Rowdy! Go away! Go find Shelby!”

The dog raced across the yard and the man reached the number one hundred and then called loudly, “Ready or not, here I come!”

A small figure darted across the yard as he turned and started away from her, then froze as he turned and spotted her. Stopping as if he were confused, he looked in both directions and then took a few steps toward her. Another small figure crept out of the shadows of the garden shed and advanced toward the big tree until the dog ran to her, jumping up and down in his excitement. The man turned to see where the dog was going and changed directions again, starting toward the child and dog and leaving the other little girl convulsed with giggles. They were quite sure they were tricking him into chasing one of them, then the other until suddenly he turned and they both reached the big tree, just escaping his clutches. They hugged each other, jumping up and down and laughing hysterically.

“We did it! We did it!”

They both let out screams as he ran up behind them and snatched them up, holding one of them under each arm and jogging around the yard in triumph. GG Beauchamp had come out the back door during their game and was sitting on the deck laughing at them all. Her husband, Leo, carried the girls over to her, grinning and bending over to kiss her as he set the two little girls down.

“Gran, did you see?” one of the dark-haired four-year-olds asked.

“We beat Paw-Paw to the tree!” her identical twin sister said in triumph.

“I did see. You were so fast!”

Leo held his hands up in surrender. “I have to admit, you won fair and square.”

“Rowdy always finds us and he tells on us,” the first little girl said.

GG chuckled. “Yes, it’s pretty hard to hide when Rowdy’s around. Who wants a cookie?”

Before the girls could answer, Leo said, “Me! Me!” It made his granddaughters giggle again and GG passed cookies out to them all.

The two little girls were truly identical, with shoulder length, shiny dark hair and brilliant sapphire blue eyes. But Shelby was quieter and gentler than her more temperamental sister, Savannah, although both of them were soft hearted and loving. Leo doted on them both and GG adored them; she could never get enough of them and if she could have changed one thing in her life, it would be to magically make her son and daughter-in-law love the tiny town of Boone, Indiana, just as much as she and Leo did. But they loved living in the city and they had ever since they’d met in college. She had long ago accepted the fact that they were never going to live in Boone. She was just grateful that the girls loved spending time there and their parents were generous with their visits.

“Paw-Paw, can we go see the horses tomorrow?” Savannah asked, turning her big blue eyes on her grandfather.

“Horses? What horses? We don’t have any horses.” Leo loved teasing them.

“Paw-Paw! You know, the horses we always go see! Miss Mamie’s horses!” Savannah’s tone was outraged.

“Hmm. I’ll have to think about that. Horses might make me sneeze.”

Savannah laughed hysterically at the idea of her grandfather reduced to sneezing around horses. He winked at her and she beamed at him, knowing she would get to see her beloved horses the next day.

Shelby said, “I wish Carter was here. He likes the horses too.”

Leo nodded wisely and said, “I know he does, but his Cub Scout camping trip is very important to him.”

“I don’t think I’d like to sleep in a tent. What if a bear came around?” Shelby looked worried.

Savannah said, “There aren’t any bears in Indiana, silly.” She thought for a moment and then said, “There aren’t, are there, Paw-Paw?”

“No, so far Indiana doesn’t have any bears,” Leo said with a wink.

“Well, girls, who wants to help me make dinner?” GG asked.

“I do!” said Shelby, scrambling to her feet. “Can we make biscuits again?”

“We can make biscuits anytime,” GG promised.

Savannah said, “I’m going to help Paw-Paw take Rowdy for a walk.”

“Okay,” said GG. “Make sure Paw-Paw doesn’t start sneezing around Rowdy.”

Both girls giggled and GG winked at Savannah. Shelby and GG made Swiss steak and mashed potatoes with green beans and a basket full of biscuits with GG’s homemade strawberry jam. After dinner, the girls had their bath with mountains of bubbles and then they all played Candyland together until GG could see the signs of bedtime coming on and she turned on a children’s movie they could all watch together. Half an hour later, her little granddaughters were sound asleep on the couch, snuggled against their sleeping grandfather and GG laughed quietly to herself.

She whispered into his ear, “Leo, let’s get these babies to bed.”

He blinked slowly awake and looked down at the peacefully sleeping little girls and sent up a little prayer of thanks for the richness of his life. He carried the girls up to the room they had fixed up for them, the room that had once been his sisters, Molly and Ginny’s room. Their house had held Beauchamps for several generations and when his parents had been ready to retire to Florida, he and GG and James had moved into it. Filling it with family, especially grandchildren, had always been GG’s dream. They tucked the little girls in, turned on the nightlight and went down the hall to their own room.

“I locked up downstairs and I brought us up a glass of wine,” GG said softly.

“Good.” Leo kissed her and said, “We’ll just watch a little TV in bed; that way we’ll be close to them.”

GG went into the bathroom and changed into her pajamas and when she came out, it was Leo’s turn. She put her arms around him and lifted her face for his kiss. He gave a little growl and said, “Are you trying to tempt me, gorgeous?”

She shook her head and gave a little laugh. “You’re so silly. I’m not gorgeous. I’m getting old. I’m getting gray hair and wrinkles, and even though I try to stay in shape, everything is starting to sag.”

Her husband put a finger under her chin and looked directly into her eyes. “Don’t ever say that again. You’re a beautiful woman, GG, more beautiful now than when you were a girl because of the life you’ve lived, the courage you’ve shown, the love and compassion you’ve given. When I look at you, I see all of it, the girl, the woman, the love. I especially see the love that shines from you every minute of every day. How could you be anything but beautiful? Gray hair means nothing, wrinkles aren’t ugly, they’re a mark of character. Your body bore my son; how could the effects that had on you be ugly to me? So don’t ever doubt me when I call you gorgeous.”

GG’s eyes were shimmering with tears at the words he said to her. “Oh, Leo, how was I ever lucky enough to find you?”

His eyes gleamed. “I was the lucky one. I was lucky that you were so stubborn and determined to get your own way when you were a girl that I had to rescue you from the mob at that Vietnam protest. And that was the beginning of our love story; you thought I was an arrogant, bossy asshole and hoped you’d never see me again.”

GG was laughing softly. “And I was so shocked when I found out that you were living right here in Boone! And luckily, it turned out that I was wrong and you were even more stubborn than me.”

He shot her a look of innocence. “I was stubborn?”

“Yep, you wouldn’t give up on me and you made me fall in love with you.”

“I had to. You would have gotten yourself into all kinds of trouble if I hadn’t been there to get you out of it.”

“Don’t forget, Sharon and I managed to go to a music festival for a whole weekend and nobody ever even found out. And we didn’t get into a bit of trouble.” GG looked quite proud of herself.

“I’d never forget that. You were a rebel.” He kissed her on the tip of her nose, remembering her in her faded bellbottomed jeans with her beads and her long, straight hair falling below her shoulders, with one tiny braid swinging alongside her face, a feather braided into it. She had taken his breath away, and the knowledge of how young she was, scared him to death. He had been twenty-two and she was only seventeen, but he couldn’t get her out of his mind and he had ended up waiting for her until she turned eighteen and graduated from high school. They’d been married a few months after graduation and their lives since then had been a rough journey at times, but one that they always traveled together.

They clinked their glasses together and toasted each other, smiling softly as they looked back at their memories. They had their heartaches to look back on, some that had been almost more than they could bear, but they had managed to come through them together and, in the end, they’d been stronger for it. And when they looked back at it all, the joys outweighed the sorrows by far. Leo still enjoyed his full-time engineering position and GG still ran the arts and crafts gift shop that Leo had bought for her when their son, James, went off to college. The shop, GG’s Gems, had become a part of the little town of Boone; it showcased the work of local artists and craftsmen and women and people came from all around to shop there.

James was their only child, but he and his wife, Allison, had three children, Carter, who was seven and the twins, three years younger than their big brother. So Leo and GG had their family, perhaps not as big a family as they had once envisioned, but enough to fill the house with noise and laughter when they were all there. Both GG’s parents and Leo’s had lived to see their great-grandchildren; Leo’s father had passed away a couple of years ago and his mother had chosen to stay in their Florida community where she had lots of friends and one of Leo’s sisters, Molly, nearby. GG’s parents had retired and bought themselves a motorhome that they lived in, determined to visit every state before they would sell it and pick one spot to live in. They had friends everywhere they went; they were still healthy and when the family gathered at Leo and GG’s home, they loved to come and join them whenever they were able to.

GG’s brother, Carl, had finished his master’s degree before he married his wife and settled down to raise a family. Quite the opposite, his twin, Bryce, had made a name for himself as an investigative journalist and had never married after he’d had a short, tragic marriage in name only with a Vietnamese girl he’d met on assignment. He’d received numerous awards for excellence in journalism and they got to see him often on TV. He visited home when he could and it was usually a complete surprise to the family when he would pop in. He had his choice of assignments and he went to the most dangerous places in the world often. He had a thirst for adventure and a strong need to share the true events of the world with the public.

Savannah was awake first, as usual. She peeked in the door at her grandparents and crept over to Leo’s side of the bed.

“Paw-Paw,” she said in a loud whisper, “it’s daytime out.” When he didn’t stir, she reached over and touched his eyelid, light as a feather, and stroked upward to open his eye.

The touch startled Leo, but he realized immediately what it was and struggled to keep from laughing. She was reaching over to touch the other eye when he jumped and whispered, “What are you doing?”

Savannah squealed and jerked her hand back as she jumped about a foot in the air, she was so startled. Leo laughed and reached out to pull her up onto the bed.

“Well, good morning, Shelby.”

She forgot to be quiet, exclaiming, “I’m not Shelby!”

Leo squinted at her, looking her over for several seconds and finally said, “Oh, I guess you’re not.”

“Paw-Paw, you know I’m always the first one up.”

GG groaned, “Yes, she is. Is the sun even up?”

Savannah said, “It’s been up forever!”

Leo chuckled. “I’ll tell you what; you go down and let Rowdy out in the back yard and we’ll get up.”

“Okay!” She scrambled off the bed.

Leo called, “Walk! And be careful on the steps.”

Savannah slowed down and he could see her grip the handrail carefully as she started down the stairs. Leo leaned over and kissed GG. “Give me five minutes in the bathroom, then take your time getting up. I’ll see if Shelby’s awake.”

A few minutes later, GG could hear him talking to Shelby and then she saw the two of them heading down the stairs together. She lay back for just a second and then sighed and got out of bed, stretching as she went. When she started down the stairs herself, she could smell the coffee Leo had started and she thanked him silently. There was plenty of chatter coming from the kitchen and GG went straight toward the coffeepot, where her husband handed her a steaming cup, already prepared the way she liked it.

“God bless you,” she said fervently, cautiously taking the first sip and then sighing in bliss.

“You used to be much more of a morning person,” Leo observed.

“Yeah, I was younger then.”

He laughed at her and gave her a kiss.

“Don’t worry; coffee will fix it,” she said, taking another sip.

It was a good thing she had her coffee early. The phone rang about twenty minutes later and it was James. After she hung up, she said, “Carter fell out of a tree and hurt his arm. James and Allison are headed to the emergency room, the scout leader is taking him straight there. They think it’s probably broken.”

“Is he all right?” Shelby asked anxiously.

“Oh, yes, it hurts some but he’ll be fine. You daddy did almost exactly the same thing when he was Carter’s age.”

Her eyes were huge. “He did?”

“He sure did. And he was just fine.”

Savannah shook her head solemnly. “He should have come with us,” she said wisely.

GG and Leo had to laugh. Leo looked at his wife inquiringly and she nodded. “He’ll be fine. Now, let’s keep busy until they call us again. What should we have for breakfast today?”

Savannah crowed, “French toast!”

Shelby said, “Yeah, with strawberries.”

“And bacon,” Leo chimed in.

“All right, strawberry French toast and bacon it is.” GG began to bustle around the kitchen and Savannah went to let Rowdy in.

“Paw-Paw, can I feed Rowdy?” asked Savannah.

“I’m sure Rowdy would like that.” He watched Savannah go to the pantry with Rowdy’s bowl and struggle to open the lid of the big plastic bin that held his dog food. He knew better than to offer to help her and, after a couple of tries, she got it open. She measured out the right amount of food and closed the lid before she brought the bowl back with Rowdy dancing around her, eager for his breakfast.

Shelby went to the front porch and got the Sunday paper, bringing it in to Leo. After breakfast, he would sit with both girls in his lap and read the comic pages to them. Then he would be left in peace long enough to get part of the paper read, starting with the sports section. When the girls weren’t there, he liked to watch the Sunday morning news shows, but he didn’t attempt that when they were keeping the grandkids. By the time he got the paper read, GG would have the girls dressed, teeth brushed, and hair up in ponytails, ready for their visit to go see Miss Mamie’s horses. It was the perfect way to spend a spring Sunday morning in Boone, Indiana.

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The Watch

Stuck in the Quicksand

Polly

A watch of nightingales

Pollyanna Sonnenschein sat in the dark cell of a room in the kennel of the Dark Lady’s vast estate in Holmby Hills. The chain around her neck was long enough to allow her to move around, use the ensuite bathroom, and open the curtains to look out at the garden, but she didn’t feel like seeing the rose bushes outside her window. She fucking hated roses. They had ruined her life. More. Her life had always been shit—except for a brief period where she had been on the Dark Lady’s good list—but roses had landed her a place at the top of the bad list, waiting for her name to be scratched. Permanently.

They could have her name, frankly. She hated her name. It gave people all the wrong ideas about her. They expected her to be sweet, friendly, kind, bubbly. Or a bird. She wasn’t. Polly was grumpy, ornery, bratty. Polly bit the hand that fed her. Polly was a cat.

That was one thing Johny Black, the psycho who got her in this mess, got right. He had no illusions about her at all. He thought she was just a cunt. Sometimes, it’s all she was. Johny had allowed her to live for however long she proved entertaining or useful to him. Polly had always known she didn’t have long before he put her down.

She was going to die soon, which seemed like a waste. Her twenty-two years on this Earth had been an endless chain of poor decisions, a bad one leading to a worse one, leading to a disastrous one, leading to motherfucking roses. Leading to the end.

Why would she want to see the sun? What was the point?

She was startled out of her surly contemplations, and somewhat blinded, when the door opened, letting in the light from the hallway.

“What the fuck, girl?” A voice as deep as the ocean bounced off the walls. “You asleep? It’s fucking one in the afternoon.”

“Who can sleep?” Polly asked, her voice was a weak, raspy croak. She hadn’t spoken to anyone for hours. No one in the Dark Lady’s service could say a word to her, and after spending all night crying and shouting to be let go, with no one around to listen, she had run out of things to say.

The giant of a man walked up to the blackout curtains and opened them, letting all the California sunshine through to ruin her day. In the light, she got a better look at him. He was painfully handsome, with the features of a film star and the build of a king. She knew him as a member of The Unkindness, and without a mask he was only more attractive. She’d seen him in passing at Gatherings, she never got to play with him, but she remembered his bright eyes, smooth dark skin, and breathtaking physique. His powerful, sculpted body was hidden today under a white dress shirt and tweed jacket which made him look like a college professor instead of what he really was: a killer.

“So you got the job, huh?” she asked.

“I asked for it,” he said casually, returning to stroke her cheek where she sat on the chaise in the corner. “You’re a mess, kitty cat. Let’s get you cleaned up.”

“Why bother?” Polly said. “You can kill me just as easily now, or take me to wherever you want to kill me. I don’t have to be clean to go in the dirt.”

“What makes you think I’m here to kill you, pet?”

“I know who you are,” she spat. “Just get it done. I’m tired.”

“I can fucking guarantee you do not know who I am, kitten,” he said, yanking the chain attached to her collar and causing her to fall on the floor at his feet, “or you would not be giving me a hard time.”

“Oh, I see,” Polly said, resentful. “They’re going to let you play with me first, before you put me out of my misery. Is that Charlie’s big plan?”

He pulled the chain up, yanking her off the floor and raising his arm high so she dangled by the neck on tiptoes in front of him. He put the other hand on her face, squeezing her cheeks so her lips puckered like a fish.

“You’d best forget you know his name, kitty,” he said. “You’ve only got one life left.”

Then he kissed her puckered lips, so gently, before dragging her by the chain to the standing shower in a corner of the bathroom. It was little more than a hose with a shower head. They didn’t even have a curtain.

He let her drop again on the frosted glass tiles and bent down to tear her oversized t-shirt off and strip her of her cotton panties.

She didn’t even try to fight him. She hadn’t really known what to expect when the moment finally came, but her imagination had pictured worse than this. Of course, there was still time. They had all afternoon. She’d be easier to dump in the dark.

The killer grabbed the hose with the shower nozzle from the stand overhead, tested the water temperature and then sprayed her with it, set on pulse, so she felt like she was being pummeled by a hard rain.

“You will call me Master Rick, or you will call me Sir,” he commanded as he hosed her down, beating her with the water. “When you’re nice, I will be nice. When you’re bad, I will be worse. Got it?”

“Stop it!” she shouted, trying to protect herself from the pulsing water near her face.

“That is not an acceptable answer.” He brought the hose down between her legs so the hard pulsing water lashed her pussy.

Polly clamped her legs closed, and he turned up the heat. “You’re going to burn me, you fucking psycho!”

He pointed the hose at her breasts, straight at her nipples.

“You’re dirty, and you still stink of rotten roses,” he said. “I’m here to make you clean. If you do what I say, you may get yourself out of the boiling pot you threw yourself into, headfirst. Otherwise, kitty, I’ll melt the skin off your bones.”

Pollyanna did not like to cry. She worked really hard at keeping her eyes dry over the years—no matter what happened—but she knew some Doms got their rocks off with the waterworks. She couldn’t recall whether Master Rick was the sort. Polly remembered little about what he did at the gatherings, besides look dangerous and sexy as fuck. Which he still did, even dressed like an angry History Professor who was spraying her with hard shots of nearly scalding water for forgetting which president had signed the treaty for the Alaska Purchase. It was Andrew Johnson. On May 28, 1867. Polly knew because she was from Alaska. Not because she was smart. Smart girls didn’t end up like this, she reminded herself.

It was time to try tears. While she didn’t do it often, Polly had studied acting in school—which is why she first ran away to Los Angeles. She’d learned to draw from personal experience to put on a convincing part. Frankly, she had plenty of material to work with for producing tears. The only problem was her face was already wet, so she had to be a bit more intense.

She went through a range of reactions, from puppy eyes, to quivering lips, to whimpers which built up to a heartfelt sob which strengthened into a wail which echoed in the small bathroom.

“Try again, pet,” Master Rick said, moving the spray of water down to her lower belly.

“What do you want from me?” Polly sobbed. She had turned on the tears, and now she couldn’t find the switch to shut them off.

“I want to play with you a while, kitten,” he said, turning the water all the way to ice cold. “To understand your twisted little mind. I want to know why you thought it was smart to trigger a kind, beautiful, traumatized woman who is the property of our alpha. Only an evil little bitch does shit like that. Are you an evil little bitch, pet? Because I can wash the evil right off you.”

“I tried to explain. It wasn’t my idea. I didn’t have a choice!”

“Bullshit.” Master Rick focused the cold pulses of water on her chest, around where her heart might be.

“He would have killed me!”

“Yeah, I heard something about it,” Master Rick said. “I’m not buying it. Neither is our alpha. You want to know why, kitty?”

She shook her head and wrapped her arms around herself as best she could to protect herself from the cold.

“Because there’s always a choice, kitty,” he said. “You acted against us, instead of telling us about your trouble. Why the hell would you do it?”

“You don’t know this man,” Polly cried. “He’s evil. He’s a monster.”

Master Rick turned off the water and tossed the bottle of Irish Spring liquid soap, which had been on the sink, at her feet.

“You have five minutes to wash your body clear of the rose stench, top to bottom, including your hair, then I’m taking you home,” he said. “If you were a good kitty, I would wash you myself. As it is, you’re lucky I don’t stick you in a sack and drown you.”

“Home where?” she asked.

“Home where you’ll learn your lesson,” Rick said, stepping back into the bedroom and leaving her alone to tend to herself.

The night which sealed her fate replayed in her mind as Polly rushed to scrub herself clean with the fresh-scented gel, working it into a lather in her jet black hair.

She had stared off on her knees, a familiar position, this time at the feet of the split-tongued killer Johny Black, waiting for him to tell her what she might do to buy herself another day.

“It’s simple, pet,” Johny had hissed. Johny Black could only hiss, because of that damned tongue of his, intentionally bisected, like a snake tongue. Johny Black thought he was the son of the devil, or some shit.

“You will bathe in roses. Soak your mask in rose oil. Spray yourself with rose perfume from your hair to your toes until all you smell is roses. Bring the rose oil bottle with you to the gathering of The Unkindness. Then you will find the blonde girl who walks with the red man. You know the red man, yes?”

“A? Yes, I know A. He’s a dangerous man,” she said. She knew better than to use A’s name. If Johny didn’t know, she would not be the one to tell him.

“More dangerous than me?”

How could Polly answer, honestly? It was a close tie. While she would bet, in a knife fight between the two of them, Charlie Green would win, Johny was in the room with her. Honesty seemed like a bad idea, and she wasn’t really bothered by lying.

“No one is more dangerous than you,” Polly said.

He patted her head. Hard. Johny did everything hard. Her brain was already buzzing before. Now her ears were ringing.

“That’s right,” Johny said. “So you go all rosy, rosy. Use the rose oil to refresh the scent, if time passes. Then you go stand next to the blonde as soon as you can. Close enough she can smell you.”

“And then what?”

“I don’t know, but you will find out,” Johny said. “Then, you will tell me.”

“Why am I doing this?” Polly asked.

Johny bent down to where she knelt at his feet and slapped her hard across the face, twice, so her cheeks matched. He was detail-oriented, Johny.

“No questions. Just do it.”

And so she did.

And now she was in the shower washing off all the roses, and there was a lot to wash up. By the time Polly got her chance, she had been so nervous about getting it wrong she’d rubbed the entire bottle of rose oil on her skin. It made no sense, this stupid job of Johny’s. Why did she have to smell like a fucking rose garden? What was the point?

A had taken his newly collared sub, Áine, to the improvised whipping post in the patio—an abstract art piece with a stainless steel O. He was punishing her for acting out during his Shibari show. She got jealous and tried to interfere with his aftercare of the rope bunny. It was funny, really, because all the ravens were jealous of her. How had this blonde earned a collar from the man who absolutely refused to collar anyone? Did she know how dangerous A was? Did she have any idea what she had gotten herself into?

Polly had decided it was the perfect moment to do it, with the girl bound in place, and A distracted, flogging her. Plus, The Unkindness were encouraged to watch. All Polly had to do was slip through the crowd to the front, to stand on the other side of the whipping post and to get really close to the girl. No one would object.

They were outside, and there were so many scents in the air, but the oil Polly had coated herself with was strong. She stood close enough to see the girls blue eyes and striking whiteblonde lashes, framed by the black beautiful feather mask which marked her as an owned raven, as special, as prized. Something Polly knew she would never be.

Why was she so special? Not only did Áine have A all to herself, she had somehow come to Johny’s attention too. And she was in ecstasy, as A lashed her between the legs with the flogger, Áine delighted in it. She was right on the edge of coming. Polly could see the moan forming in Áine’s full, rosy, glossy lips.

Then a soft breeze blew on Polly’s back and the bitch went nuts—absolutely insane. She screeched like a banshee, like someone had taken a knife to her belly and was cutting her open, pulling her guts out. Polly couldn’t move. It fascinated her. Áine had looked so beautiful, just a moment before, being punished for acting out, and now she was a horror show. Was it the rose scent which did it? How?

A was shouting at her, but Polly couldn’t move. She couldn’t budge. She’d seen nothing like this in her life. How could the simple scent of roses make someone lose their shit like this? It was almost magical. Polly felt strangely powerful. She couldn’t suppress a grin. A was barking at Polly again to step back. The right thing to do now would be to disappear as soon as possible, but Polly couldn’t get her legs to cooperate.

Then A freed his raven from her chains and carried her indoors, still screeching, kicking and clawing at the air. Polly felt a gentle black-gloved hand land on her shoulder.

Shit. She was fucked.

***

Morrígan, the Dark Lady, purveyor of the finest cunts and asses in all the land, was a meticulous record keeper. Better than Santa. She kept a comprehensive list in her head of who was naughty and who was nice. Morrígan understood all the different shades of naughty under the sun, and there was really only one she couldn’t stomach: disloyalty.

You could do worse than have her as a boss—Polly knew very well—but you could not do worse than have her as your enemy. Except, maybe having both Morrígan and Charlie Green looking at her as the enemy was probably worse. No. For sure, it was worse. Maybe not as bad as having Johny Black decide you served no useful purpose, but really damned close.

Polly was fucked, and not in any pleasant way.

She’d decided, in the short time she was alone in the room staring at Morríganwho stared back at her with those hypnotic violet eyesshe never wanted to see a rose or smell a rose again for as long as she lived. Which wouldn’t be long. Fuck. She was an idiot. Morrígan had given her a good sort of life, all things considered. Polly had messed it all up, like she’d messed up everything else she ever touched.

“I want you to explain yourself,” Charlie said, each word slipping through his sharp white teeth, his jaw clenched in the pauses between them. He was bright red. His hair was red, his beard was red, his face was red and his chest was red. Charlie was literally on fire. And his eyes were ice.

That just… couldn’t be good.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Polly lied.

“Don’t you dare pretend with me!” His voice continued to echo in the room long after he’d spoken, the warning bouncing between Polly’s ears causing tears to sting her eyes. “And don’t you dare cry! You wicked bitch. You know what you did. I just want to know why you did it!”

“I’m sorry,” she said, trying not to upset Charlie more than he already was. “I thought… I had no idea.”

“Why. Did. You. Do. It?” Charlie asked again.

Polly looked to Morrígan for help, but it was pretty pointless. Polly sat at the very top of the bad list, and the Dark Lady was more than ready to put a line through her name.

“I was told to,” Polly admitted. “Ordered to, really. Threatened. I didn’t have much choice, and I never thought…”

“By whom?” the Dark Lady asked. “How did anyone even know she would be here?”

Polly hesitated. This was it. The moment she’d dreaded. Time to pick a side. Sure, Johny would kill her for betraying him, but Charlie looked ready to kill her too, and Morrígan seemed really eager to watch Charlie tear her apart with those enormous claws he called hands.

“I have a client,” Polly started, which on its own was a terrible admission. Johny wasn’t a client of the Dark Lady’s which was a total no-no. You had to keep clean. You had to go on approved assignments, if you were going to work with her. Freelancing and work off the books was strictly forbidden.

“You don’t know him,” Polly had admitted, and she’d turned on the waterworks in case it helped. “He knows A. He told me to wear rose cologne around A’s girl tonight. I thought it was a weird prank of his. He likes to play with people, but I had no idea.”

“Bullshit,” Charlie spat. “I told you to go away, and you didn’t budge. You were enjoying it.”

“I swear…”

“Silence!” Morrígan never shouted, so the sound of her raised voice put Polly over the edge to genuine tears. “You will not lie to us. If your client is not one of us, how would he know about A or about his girl being here, or even that there was a gathering tonight?”

“I…” she started but couldn’t finish. She’d have to tell them the truth now. It sealed her fate. The end had come. A sob broke out of her chest before she could stop it.

“Explain,” Charlie threatened.

Polly took a deep breath and fixed her eyes on a dark spot on the lush cream carpet so she didn’t have to look at Charlie’s eyes. She could see her skull reflected in them.

“I tell him about every gathering I go to,” Polly began. “He pays me extra to say what is happening, and to describe the attendees. When I told him about this one, he said you would probably bring a girl. I told him you never bring your own, but he insisted you would. He told me about the rose cologne trick. I thought she was allergic or whatever, and it might make her sneeze. I never imagined…”

“Stop. Lying,” Charlie growled. “Tell me his name.”

“He’ll kill me!”

“Darling, you’re already dead,” Charlie told her. “You’re only negotiating for less pain now.”

And now the pain was here. And it was Rick, which was a shame because when she’d seen him at the gatherings of The Unkindness, she’d only ever imagined him giving her pleasure.

She had told Charlie and Morrígan everything. Charlie had said Morrígan should ship her off. Polly wasn’t really clear what that entailed. She didn’t imagine it would be good. When they’d brought her over to the kennel for “safe-keeping,” as Morrígan put it, Polly figured her days were now measured in hours. But if they’d sent Rick for her, those hours were nearly over.

Home. Rick had said. He was bringing her home. Wasn’t it just a euphemism for death? In Polly’s brief life, it had always been.

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Found

Prologue

 

Edinburgh, Scotland

Time has a funny way of presenting itself in life. One spends most of their days thinking they don’t have enough of it, only to be stopped short by the moments in which it seems to stand still. A brief moment suspended along the continuity of one’s existence, usually brought about by great happiness or the perception of extreme danger and the feeling which accompanies it. This was the latter. Fear.

She stood there unable to move, paralyzed as if the absoluteness of what she just witnessed ceased to exist. The rational part of her mind told her to run. But instead, she remained frozen, taking in the small, minute details around her—the barstools knocked over, the light shining off the splinters of broken glass, the pattern of blood splattered along the wall, the steel gray eyes of the killer as his pupils constricted to mere pinpoints.

Run. She wasn’t supposed to be here. This wasn’t her reality. This experience was for someone else. This was their pause in existence, not hers. A crash at the door started the ticking of the clock. Someone was shouting in Russian, “Net. Net.”

Run. She turned, sprinting through a small kitchen in the back of the building as fast as her legs would carry her and out a back door into an alley. The unusually warm air, fetid from the reek of rotting trash assaulted her, thick and suffocating.

Run. She kicked her high heels off and made her way down the narrow street. This part of the city was dodgy; people were more interested in keeping to themselves than in helping someone. She turned down a dark street to her left and bumped into a skimpily clad woman. “Watch it, bitch,” the lady said before disappearing into an alcove. Faster, she must move faster. She could hear him behind her. His footsteps echoed off the cobblestones. Her lungs burned from the exertion and a stitch had formed in her side, but she couldn’t stop. He was getting closer. A barricade of rubbish bins and old boxes blocked her way up ahead. She jumped over a short crate and fell, landing with a thud. Pain radiated up her arm. Please not like this, she thought, it can’t end like this. The footsteps were getting closer. She scrambled to her feet and held her injured wrist protectively, looking around. There was nowhere to go. It was a dead end. She turned slowly, facing her assailant. “Please don’t kill me,” she begged.

He stepped closer. “You weren’t supposed to be there.” She kept her eyes on him until the darkness took her and the irreversible succession of time ended.

 

In 1725, following the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, General George Wade was sanctioned by George 1 to form six watch companies to patrol the Highlands of Scotland. These companies were in charge of disarming the Highlanders, bringing justice to criminals and hindering rebels. The force was known in Gaelic as Am Freiceàdan Dubh, the dark or black watch. Their motto-Nemo Me Impune Lacessit. No one provokes me with impunity.

 

Chapter One

 

Charlie was alive. Her head felt like it had been split in two, but she was alive. Gagged and blindfolded, hands and feet bound, she lay in darkness. She knew she was in the back of a trunk, the movements of the car a silent lullaby, composing a heinous requiem of the senses with every twist and turn of the road. Her wrist throbbed but there was no way for her to adjust her body to relieve the constant ache. The smell of urine, sweat, and fear filled the small, dank space. She had wet herself. The dampness between her legs was cold. Its stench was thick and acrid and as oppressive as her restraints. Never go to a second location. She had learned that in a self-defense class she took in college. The second you get into a car, you are dead, and the things the abductor will do to you before you die will be far worse. Tears slid down her cheeks, soaking the cloth tied around her face. She had been so stupid, and she deserved this. It was, in a sense, divine retribution. The darkness sang out to her. It was easier there, simple in its aphotic beauty, devoid of light or hope. She went to it, letting it sing her to sleep.

She awoke sometime later, nauseous and disorientated. The car had come to a stop and she could hear footsteps outside. This was her second location, her final resting place unless she could find a way to escape. The door of the trunk opened, and the rough hands of her kidnapper picked her up. He placed her over his shoulder, carrying her. Cool air brushed her skin, sending a shiver up her spine. She was no longer in Edinburgh, with its late summer heat wave. She heard a door open and close then the steady thud of his shoes on a wooden floor, the heavy cadence resounding the despairing rhythm of a death march. A dog barked in the distance. He placed her down on a soft mattress and the blindfold was removed. She looked up into eyes as cold as icy granite. He took off his suit jacket and set it on a chair, pulling a knife from a leather holster strapped across his chest. Tears streamed down her face and she found herself unable to move, helpless, as panic coursed through her. Dear God, this was it. The blade came toward her and she closed her eyes awaiting its piercing blow, but instead of stabbing her, he cut the duck-tape around her wrists and ankles. The pain in her injured left arm intensified as the blood slowly returned to it. She held it against her chest and bit back the whimper that threatened to escape as she pushed herself with her legs along the top of the bed, putting as much space between her and the man as she could. He opened a drawer on the nightstand and removed a pair of handcuffs, attaching one end to the headboard. A small voice inside her told her to fight or at least die trying. This might be her only chance. As he reached toward her, she struck out at him with her foot, landing a side kick squarely to his chest.

Unfazed by the blow, he grabbed her leg in one of his large hands. His fingers dug into her muscle. “Don’t try that again,” he said, his voice low and menacing, as his eyes continued to pierce hers. He clicked the other end of the cuffs around her right wrist and ripped the tape from her mouth as he pressed his finger to her lips, arching a brow. “Don’t scream,” he warned, shaking his head to emphasize the seriousness of the situation.

Unable to hold his gaze, she looked down. “Don’t kill me,” she pleaded. Her voice, cracked from disuse, sounded hoarse and chaffed. She wasn’t sure why she bothered saying it, only she was desperate.

He continued to study her, not answering. She looked around the room trying to take in all the details in case she had a chance to escape. He hadn’t killed her yet and her only goal was to survive. The room was dark, its only window covered in a thick black drape. Besides the large bed and chair, there was a dresser and an antique wardrobe. Her eyes kept coming back to her abductor. His looks were disconcerting. She placed him in his mid-thirties. The man had a handsome face comprised of a sharp straight nose, high cheek bones and a strong jaw. He was tall and muscular, his shoulders broad and waist narrow. His dark brown hair was neatly styled and the suit he wore expensive. He didn’t fit her image of a murderer and it was hard to imagine the soul of a killer lived just beneath the skin of someone so beautifully made.

“I-I promise I won’t say anything about what I saw. If you let me go, I promise I won’t say anything.” She was rambling; shock and fear were setting in. He would kill her, she had no doubt. She was a witness.

“Wheesht. Hold your tongue.” He reached out and grabbed her chin, tilting her head to the side as he slowly ran the knife down the length of her neck.

Hot tears mixed with the mucus running from her nose. The tip of his blade, cold and sharp, silenced her instantly.

“Good girl,” he said, slipping the knife back in its holster. He walked over to where his jacket lay and pulled a starched white handkerchief from the front pocket. Then, ever so gently, he began to clean her face as one would a small child. “What’s your name?” he asked. His deep voice cut through the darkness of the room.

“Ch-Charlie,” she stuttered.

“Is that short for something.”

“Charlotte.”

“Last name?”

Lie. If he knew her name, he could find her family and harm them. “Adams.” It was her ex-fiancé’s name. The first one, besides her own, that she could think of on the spot.

“Charlotte Adams.” He pronounced her name Charlak. “Where are you from, lass?”

“America.” There was no use lying, he would know by her accent. He gave her a long, hard look, then shook his head and left, locking the bedroom door behind himself. She listened as another door slammed and the engine of a car started up. Her tears came in sobs as she curled into herself. She tried not to let her mind drift to Michael. This was her punishment for leaving him at the altar. She would never see him or her family again. The darkness was close, calling her name, she would find refuge there. Slowly, she let herself submit to it, drifting into a restless sleep.

* * *

Sinclair Stuart pulled his black BMW M8 coupe into the empty car lot in Wick and parked. Dawn was just breaking on the horizon and he had yet to sleep. Last night had been a fucking disaster. What was supposed to be a well-planned out hit had turned into a nightmare in the blink of an eye. The girl came out of nowhere. Mistake number one—if his partner had swept the building like he should have, he wouldn’t be in this position. Phin messed up. He hated mistakes and he hated cleaning up someone else’s mess. Mistake number two and possibly more serious—Viktor Sokolov had been tipped off.

He should be in his bed right now having drowned out the experience with an expensive bottle of whiskey and a good pump with Maurna. Instead, he’d driven all night and was in the northeast of Scotland with a girl who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sokolov would be searching for them both. The girl was a problem. He never should have looked into her violet eyes. They reminded him of a piece of artwork, arousing powerful emotions from his past. His hand twitched in response, closing around a makeshift, outlawed pencil. He made a fist, pushing his past and anger down. Damn Alex McKay and his ultimatum.

His mind wandered back to the girl. She had strength, he would give her that. Even with her dark eye makeup halfway down her face and those dammed haunted eyes filled with panic and tears, he could glimpse her resolve. And although she was terrified, and she should be, she would fight him. If he was going to keep her alive, he needed her to fear him.

He opened the car door and got out. A gust of cold wind whipped through the gray morning sky. It would be raining soon. The smell of salt and fish sat heavy in the damp air. He made his way to Bridge Street where the shops were located and entered the local market, picking up food for the next few days. They would have to hide out until he was sure Sokolov’s men hadn’t followed them. Then he would have to figure out what to do with the girl, before heading to the Tower. He shouldn’t have run after her and he definitely shouldn’t have taken her. Instead, he should have left her to fend for herself. Why the hell did he bring her up here? It was those eyes; he’d only seen eyes that color once before, pale lavender, and a window to her fucking soul. The Watch would be unhappy. Shite, Alex would be furious. He cast a quick glance around to make sure he wasn’t being tailed, before he went into a small shop. A perky blonde girl looked up from behind the counter. “Hi, hun. You’re out early for your messages. We’ve only just opened. I haven’t even had a coffee yet.”

“I won’t be long, I just need to pick up a few things for my partner. Her luggage was lost at the airport.”

“Och, poor thing. She’ll be needing everything then.”

“Just enough for a few days. Nothing fancy, just warm.” He didn’t care what she wore except she had wet herself and her dress was ruined and until he decided what he was going to do with her, she needed clothes.

“There’s a storm coming, ye ken,” she warned, scooping a spoonful of instant coffee into a mug and adding hot water from an electric kettle. “It will be blowing something fierce by tonight.”

“Aye.” He wasn’t here for small talk. He just needed the damn clothes.

She smiled and set her mug down. Opening the top button of her blouse, she let her fingers linger on her ample chest. “What size is she?”

Sin hesitated. The girl was flirting with him. Great. He was hoping to get in and out unnoticed, in case Sokolov’s men had followed them and started asking around. “She’s thin, maybe seven and a half stones. About this tall,” he said, holding his hand up below his chin.

The blonde helped pick out a pair of jeans and a jumper. “She’ll need bras and panties and a parka,” she said with a smile, winking as she added some lacy bits to the pile along with a black down jacket.

“Add a pair of Wellies and that should do.” He pulled his wallet out, paying in cash.

“She’s a lucky girl to have such a caring boyfriend. You must love her very much.”

“You have no idea.”

Finished, he headed back to his cottage by the sea, turning down the single lane dirt road that took him to the small stone house. Girnigoe Cottage, named after the famous castle, sat isolated on the cliffs off the North Sea. He bought it years ago out of some sentiment from his childhood. His mother used to bring him here every year to spend their summers. He planned to use it one day for his retirement. That was before The Watch. There would be no retirement for him now and the place held only false and deceitful memories. This was his first time back in over six years. It had sat empty and the renovations he started back when he purchased it had been put on hold. He only came now because he could think of no other place to go. He looked around the stark grounds, breathtaking in the sheer harshness of the scenery. Ten-meter cliffs formed a small cove which led down to the churning sea. During low tide, a small beach appeared, offering the opportunity for walking or picnics, or at one time sketching. To hell with that now. The area around the house was barren, the elements too rough for most plant life except the beach grass which blanketed the ground. In his mind it was stunning and better yet, private. He only hoped it would keep them safe for a while until he decided what to do with Charlotte.

He opened the bedroom door, checking on her. She was asleep. He needed to clean her up and examine her wrist, but it could wait until he slept. First things first, he needed to set up the security cameras and he could use that whiskey.

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The Thrill of Seduction

She cut a solitary figure and stood tall and proud, perfectly groomed in the middle of the grand reception of Sir Clive Tebbit’s home in Oxford.

Belinda Waltham had a drink in her hand. A classic wide bowl, long stem glass containing her third potent martini cocktail. She twirled it around in her palms with a weary expression.

The old man was a family friend. The Foreign Office had appointed Sir Clive as the new British Ambassador to Italy. That night, they were celebrating his nomination and impending departure. He was to take office in Rome the following week.

The problem was Belinda was fresh out of a three-month stint in prison, swiftly followed by a compulsory six-month stay at Dr. Stewart’s clinic, to learn to moderate her explosive temper. The temperamental disposition that had so often landed her in trouble with the law. For this reason, she had been out of her circuit of friends for a year, but it didn’t stop their tongues from wagging on her well-known shenanigans. Friends and acquaintances looked upon her as notorious, the outrageous member of her family.

The younger sister of Fergus Waltham, the Earl of Buckley, Belinda was of note for her antics in their social circle. Some would say shameful for it.

Upon her discharge from the clinic, Belinda had taken a three-month “refuge” as she called it, in the Scottish highlands. She stayed at one of Fergus’ estates. She’d longed to forget the vibes of the clinic and to eradicate the prison from her mind. The peaceful spot went a long way to urge her to consider what she aspired to do next in her life.

She became uncomfortable at the party, jaded. She’d been away from home and Oxford for too long. Belinda felt like a fish out of water.

On her release from the clinic, she had helped manage two orphanages. She dealt with the financial aspects of them. She was talented at obtaining hefty contributions for them, handling tradespeople to get the best for the children at the cheapest price. She made their budgets stretch. These were the children’s homes her father, the old earl, God rest his soul, had refurbished at a high cost to pull her out of prison, the reason the judge had commuted her jail sentence at Dr. Stewart’s clinic instead.

She felt empathy for the children, with their cause. Despite her wealth, she too had grown up without a mother and had a solitary childhood. She became the patron of the orphanages. She was skilful at making money for them out of donations from her wealthy family friends.

Perhaps I could dedicate myself to it fully. She had managed their finances for the last three months from the Highlands. She had spent a lot of time at the orphanages since she was back in Oxford, continuing her work. The children worshipped her. They were fun and she liked them all. Her mind drifted in and out of these matters as she sipped her drink, bored with the party, engrossed with herself.

Oxford had always given her a buzz, but she was not enjoying it anymore. It brought her to a recurrent drilling question instead. And now what? She had to change. She couldn’t behave wildly anymore; she didn’t want to. This question twirled in her mind the moment she left Dr. Stewart’s clinic. Three months in the depths of the Scottish Highlands hadn’t given her a full answer yet.

Fergus had asked her to work for him. She had agreed. Though, lately, she only felt happy when doing things for the orphanages, so maybe that was her answer. She didn’t know. She sighed. She had too many matters to sort out.

She glanced at two of her brothers, both at the party. The oldest, Fergus, was talking to an acquaintance. The other, Sebastian, was deep in conversation with the ambassador. He was joining Sir Clive in Rome next week. Sebastian was used to the eternal city, where he’d lived for the past two years as attaché under the previous diplomat, now returning to his work with the new ambassador.

She looked around the room.

Belinda had taken her sister-in-law’s place for this party, Fergus’ wife. She had agreed to Marguerite’s request as a favour and attended the party on her behalf. Her brothers, too wary of her erratic behaviour, had kept a close eye upon her.

I’m almost twenty-two, for God’s sake. Still… they have a point!

The girl talked to her godmother for a while, Trini, Sir Clive’s wife. Then she mingled but to no satisfaction. Belinda strolled the length of the reception room, weary and absorbed with herself, with another martini in her hand.

***

A man regarded her with interest from the other end of the room. She didn’t notice him, but he hadn’t taken his eyes off her. People staring at her was not a special occurrence. Belinda was used to the spotlight. When she entered a room, she was invariably at the centre of attention. Men and women found her attractive, irresistible. She was a stunning young woman, beautiful, like a goddess. No surprise, this fellow thought her gorgeous most of all.

She was a tall strawberry blonde. A real looker, with the family trait of pale blue eyes. In the past, every time those blue moons landed on him, they did something to his cock.

She was statuesque, but delicate. The face of an angel with a curvaceous body. He found her delightful, bewitching. Like admiring a fine painting, he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

He struggled to imagine the things she did that had first brought her to his attention as a police officer. Her awful temper had landed her into trouble more than once. Oh boy, the curses that came out of that lovely mouth. Reconciling her character and personality with her looks was difficult. She was a handful, a little devil in an angel’s body. Sometimes, he hadn’t known how to deal with her. In his opinion, nothing a good spanking couldn’t have cured, but that was not his place.

On the other hand if she were mine… Well, good for her, she isn’t. Or she would have learned the hard way!

In his view, as beautiful as she was, when her temper flared, she was an ill-mannered, insolent, loutish girl, an immature young woman. She brought him to the edge once or twice, and if it wasn’t for his self-restraint, she would have known how much she had displeased him.

Chief Inspector Wendell studied her. He had not seen her for about six months. She looked divine that night, in a figure-hugging, mermaid, red lace dress.

He observed how the frock smoothed over the round curves of her hips enticingly. It ended with an elegant, small sweep train at the rear. The sleeveless, tight bodice with a deep V-neck at the front made her plump breasts stand out. He was sure, if a fellow stood close enough to her, he would count this a lucky night, thanks to her vertiginous décolletage. He scoffed. Wendell couldn’t deny the thought of another man looking at her bosom annoyed him.

When she turned, her almost backless dress gave him an astonishing ample view of her creamy shoulders and back, down to just above her lavish, pert bottom. God, I’d do anything to put my hands on that butt.

He had a glimpse of her stylish stilettos, in the same colour and material as her frock, with glittering rhinestones.

Belinda sashayed back and forth in the room aimlessly, as if she was gliding on a catwalk. Echoing the seductive look, he was sure, she was trying to convey. As if to say to men, ‘Fuck you, look at me, but you can’t have me!’ She was succeeding, too, if he had to judge by the expression on the faces of most men in the place. He muttered a curse under his breath.

He found high heel stilettos sexy. He had seen Belinda wear a few pairs over time since he arrested her almost two years ago. Wendell considered lace most attractive, and he loved a woman in it, and tonight she was wearing both.

It made her look dreamy, gorgeous, feminine, and so foxy. An enchantress! A sorceress enticing men to their own destruction! Dangerous, especially to him.

Another glimpse of her red stilettos and he calculated they must be at least four inches high. He was curious as to how she could walk on them with such grace. Jesus, she is tall! Almost as tall as him, but not quite; he was still a few inches taller, stilettos and all.

For heavens’ sake, stop staring at her, you fool. Damn, those brothers of hers are too indulgent with the chit. Who would allow her to wear a dress like that! They have mollycoddled her. God Almighty!

No wonder the trouble she got up to. If she was his girl… She would learn how to behave by hook or by crook!

Annoyed with himself for speculating about Belinda more than he should have, he spotted Delia, an acquaintance of his. The brunette had given him a certain sexy vibe all night.

Chief Inspector Wendell was a bachelor, a desirable hunk. A great catch, girls would say. A tall man, with a manly handsome face and a muscular, athletic body to whom most women would bat their eyelids to. A striking presence at thirty-four, he commanded more than his fair share of women, and he loved them all.

But Belinda, well, she was something else.

Better to stay away from her, he cautioned himself. So, he turned on his heels and moved towards Delia, to talk to her instead.

As the evening wore off, when she disappeared briefly on him, he could not resist and sauntered towards the Waltham girl.

***

Sweet Jesus! Not that damned police officer! At Sir Clive’s party? What the devil is he doing here? He is a dish, though. The black tuxedo fits him like a glove! Lord, when did he turn so handsome? Oh my, my… Huh? Um… this sexy? How did I miss his good looks?

She hadn’t… she would have known the man, gorgeous as he was, anywhere, if truth be told. Her pulse rising, she was suddenly hot. Her weariness vanished as if by magic.

But he infuriated her. That man had a talent for making her feel small and silly, an idiot. Nothing he said, oh, no! It was the way he looked at her, as if chastising her all the time. She would like to kick his ass. That’s what!

Her friend, Erin, was right. He looks like a model rather than a police officer, in that tux, without doubt!

But he had the knack of making her cross, and her temper rose in a jiffy when he was around. He annoyed her. She wished to punch his smug, handsome face. She always reacted to him that way. She didn’t even know why. So she kept looking straight ahead. Everywhere but at him. When men were concerned, it was an art for Belinda to look nonchalant and disinterested.

Dear God, he is coming my way! What the blast does he want?

“Good evening, Lady Waltham. Nice to see you. You look dazzling.” He inspected her for a second and beamed. His large hazel eyes lit up.

Blast, such an attractive grin… Why am I confused? What’s there to grin at when you arrest a person? No! She had never seen the damn man smile before, she was sure of it. Boy! When he smiles, his eyes twinkle. He was tempting. The broody bastard!

Those eyes flickered like stars. Her skin prickled.

Sweet Jesus! He has that commanding attitude… She loved he could be commanding without making an effort, with just a look, without a word. A natural confidence that demands attention. Bloody hell… so handsome, the arrogant beast!

She exhaled, rather annoyed at herself for having those lascivious thoughts about him. Belinda tried to dismiss him. She reckoned she felt this way because she’d not had a boyfriend for almost two years. So, she was easily susceptible to a masculine charm. That was all.

She glanced imperiously about her, like she hadn’t recognised him or heard him, to lift the edge off her unwanted thoughts about him.

He took her behaviour in the wrong way instead, as if she was huffing at him.

When she kept staring ahead without acknowledging him or deigning to respond to him, he felt he should add something. “Lady Waltham, it has been some time, six months, I believe. You may recall, I am—” he said, still smiling, trying to clarify who he was in case she had forgotten him. He was not some man trying to hit on her.

She knew, sometimes, she had that effect on him.

Belinda 1 – Wendell 0! She smirked to herself! Still, it didn’t stop her from getting cross with him.

“I know who you are, inspector,” she blurted out, irritated, tough, interrupting him, “And God knows, it has not been long enough since I last saw you.” Not what she wished to say, but she couldn’t restrain herself. Oh, me and my big mouth, she stressed. Fergus is right when he says I should count to ten before I speak.

“Lady Waltham—-”

“I got rid of the ‘lady’ bit when you sent me to prison, inspector, remember? No one calls me ‘Lady Waltham’ anymore. ‘Miss’ thank you! Why do you think I’ve been standing alone for most of the evening? Ha? Because my friends don’t wish to associate with a person who spent three months in prison. Or with one who spent six months in a clinic learning behavioural attitude, specifically mine. An idiotic discipline if you ask me, anyway.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“All thanks to you, Inspector…” Why had she said that? It wasn’t fair! She should stop talking. Belinda, stop, she told herself.

“It’s Chief Inspector to you.” He was calm, his tone even and clear, although he wasn’t enjoying her arrogant temper tantrum and her voice was going up a notch with every word. He had to master his self-control to sound like this, but his eyebrows crunched and he stopped smiling.

“Chief?” For a moment, he annoyed her even more, and she forgot her best intentions to stop talking.

“Yes, Chief!”

“And what do I care? No! If you ask me, no matter how long it is since I last saw you… it’s not long enough, I guarantee you. You robbed me of my freedom and my friends,” she spat, and her beautiful mouth assumed a thin line. Her blue moons darted a dark scowl at him, as if he were her worst enemy.

He studied her for a moment. His face was serious and a glint in his eyes flashed at her. And there it was again. That look! Chastising her. As if to say, ‘You silly girl! Brat!’

Then he came close to her, way too close, invading her personal space. She could sniff his scent, a manly, invigorating whiff, so fresh and exciting. He smelt divine.

Wendell leaned over to her. She gasped. His lips touched the curve of her ear.

“You did that all by yourself, sweetheart. You were the one who battered your ex-boyfriend’s expensive Ferrari, not me. The criminal damage was all your doing. The judge had no choice. He had warned you, and he sent you to prison. Grow up, girl, and own up!”

“Fuck you! You are a bully and a beast,” she cursed. She made to move away from him, but he grasped her arm, restraining her movement and jerking her back to him.

“At least you are aware now of who your real friends are. I don’t know what sort of company you keep, Miss Waltham, but trust me, a genuine friend does not abandon one in need. If you ask me, you lost nothing. They were not your buddies to begin with.”

“Get off me.” She launched a fiery scowl at him, struggling to free herself.

People were starting to stare at them, and she could see Fergus’ eyebrows knitting at her. The man will get me in trouble!

A curse as black as the night tumbled out of her mouth directed at him with all her vitriolic resentment, knowing full well he was right.

His grip on her got harder and tighter. He stood straight as a pillar, towering over her in his full height. She could feel the pressure of his palm on her arm.

“You are lucky we are at a party, Miss Waltham. I was just saying a friendly hello to you, that’s all. If you swear at me again… see this?” He paused for effect, raised his large hand an inch in front of her nose while she jerked her head back.

“Pfft!”

Leaning over, his lips brushed her cheek, then veered to her ear. “My firm hand will land on that pampered, beautiful ass of yours, I promise you. Am I clear?” he continued, undeterred, in an ambrosial tone, the one he used for women in his bed.

“Go away! You frigging idiot!”

“I’m warning you. I’ll bet no man has spanked you before. Um? Am I right, Miss Waltham?”

Her head snapped up to him. Her breath hitched. Their eyes locked. He astonished her. He held her stare with an amused smile. She gulped, flushed, and lowered her eyes. “Leave me alone.” She moved her arm, trying to get away, but he kept a strong grip on her.

“Have they, Belinda?” he purred. The sound of his voice was pure smoothness with her name on it, raising her temperature. His tone took a mellifluous, silvery murmur. She’d not heard him this way before. It was tantalising, alluring. It drew her to him, like a moth to a bright flame, chiding and teasing her. Her nipples got hard and pert in an instant. In that dress and that material, with her plunging neckline, he couldn’t fail to notice.

His grin broadened. “Answer me, have they?” he insisted, nonchalant, steadying his grip on her arm. She was sure he was marking her with his tight hold, and somehow, it pleased her.

Her stomach did a somersault as his hazel eyes roamed over her body, up and down. His silky, warm baritone and the talk of a firm, large hand on her backside made her pussy clench. It did some warm-up exercises, and her sweet centre drenched in no time.

She gulped, and her skin prickled. “No,” she whispered, to her own surprise. Somehow he’d forced out of her an answer to his question that she had no intention to reply to. It amazed her she had. She turned scarlet.

“I tell you, if those boyfriends of yours spanked you instead of indulging you when you were naughty, we wouldn’t be here. You think about that. You take care, Miss Waltham,” he said as his lips brushed the curve of her ear, over-pronouncing the word ‘miss.’

He let go of her arm and turned to go. He halted after two steps and did a U-turn back to her. “And you are right! With that mouth on you, as beautiful as it is, we cannot call you a lady. I agree.” He turned and walked away from her.

Her jaw dropped. What the fuck! She stood there, barely breathing, still as a statue, as if a cyclone had just hit her. She released the breath she hadn’t realised she was holding.

What the hell is that supposed to mean! Does he mean… or… uh, what the fuck!

What had just happened! She was damp down below and humiliated. Her insides clenched, her nipples were pert, and she had goosebumps. How had this man aroused her with a few words… that included “ass” and “hand” while treating her like a damn fool.

The worst part was she would literally roll over for him and lie with her legs open in a blink of an eye if he asked her. Would I? No, that’s wrong! Lord, what a shambles! Give me strength. I’m an idiot! Perhaps she deserved his chastisement. To offend the fellow like this. Cursing at him. Blast! What possessed her to behave so insolently? All he wished to say was hello. She felt ashamed of herself and she was soaked, her skin tingling.

And when did he become a Chief Inspector?

Belinda sighed and told herself she would never grow up. He was right about her so-called friends, too. She knew that better than anyone. Those daddy and mommy’s boys and girls were too afraid to consort with the scandalous Waltham girl.

Sweet Jesus! He was right on so many levels that she wished to burst into tears. Her lips trembled, but she would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry. She couldn’t forget the silky voice that raised her temperature, though. He had never used that tone with her before. He had always been professional. The vivid image he planted in her mind, that of his hand on her backside, spanking her, made her hot and giddy. Her heart beat violently against her ribcage. Well… the vision sent her pussy into overdrive.

Bloody hell! Suddenly, she felt so ashamed of her behaviour towards him, she wished to say ‘sorry’ to him, she resolved. Belinda had been an outspoken brat with the man. Her brothers were accurate. She should count to ten before speaking.

She would plead insanity and apologise to Wendell. Chief Inspector, no less. How old is the fellow?

She didn’t wish him to go with the idea she was an idiot. Belinda was certain he deemed her a stupid girl, anyway, for the things she had done in the past. Now, she had confirmed his belief. She longed to be a different woman, a mature person, to put her silly behaviours behind her and turn a new leaf. She had promised her dad on his deathbed, God bless his soul.

Her father even extracted a promise from her to marry a good man. Great job, there weren’t any! Besides, she wasn’t the marrying kind. No, no! No husband will lord over me, thank you! But she needed to act grown up. It was about time she did. The police officer was correct on that point, too.

Something about Wendell turned her on, aroused her. She could still feel her damp pussy. She hadn’t had that tingle for ages. So, she marched towards him with a strong desire to apologise to him and to be forgiven. The moment he glanced at her, he went the other way to talk to someone. Is he trying to avoid me?

She tried again a little later, but the same thing happened. Yes. He wouldn’t speak to her! And she couldn’t blame him, either. He wasn’t happy with her. Why would he be? After the horrible things she said to him, she would run in the opposite direction, too, if she were him. She was a resolute girl, and so, she resolved to apologise to him by hook or by crook, to show him she wasn’t the jerk or the brat he assumed she was.

The same thing occurred a third time, and as he dodged her again, she realised it. He would not talk to her anymore, ever.

She hated the idea of him leaving the party like this, thinking she was a silly girl. He didn’t deserve her bitter remarks; he was doing his job when he arrested her. She had caused all of her problems herself; he was correct about that, too. She needed to speak to him, say ‘sorry’ to him.

Her friend Erin, at the clinic, teased her, telling her the inspector had the hots for her. Erin was mistaken. It didn’t look that way. The man despised her now. He had no intention to talk to her. Besides, the brunette he was speaking to was all over him. He seemed to enjoy the woman’s attention.

No doubt after the horrible scene with me, he is revelling in the advances of a rational, beautiful girl. Not a fool like me! Should I forget about this? Ignore him? Get on with the party? She chewed her lower lip, struggling to decide what she should do.

Forget about Wendell, Belinda, if you know what’s good for you. Her inner voice told her… Oh, bother! When on earth had she ever listened to her inner side? Never! She was a creature of impulse!

***

Oh, hell! she thought now. Oh, why! Why had she listened to her sister-in-law.

“Oh, please say yes!” Marguerite had pleaded earlier on in the evening, Belinda recalled. The thought flashed through her mind as she stood there like a statue after the debacle with Wendell.

“I’ve hardly slept for the last three days. The baby kept me up for half of the night,” her sister-in-law went on and slumped in an armchair in the blue room. She was exhausted and closed her eyes for a moment.

Belinda’s expression softened, her face lit up at Marguerite, and she smiled. “Why can’t Fergus help you with sweet Gus? Don’t pamper my brother too much.”

“He does! He had the baby the other half of the night,” Marguerite said and chuckled. “I’m exhausting my husband, and not in the way I would like to. Gus is teething… I know Olivia is happy to help at any time, but I cannot run her ragged. Fergus doesn’t mind having Gus to let me sleep. He is such a good father. Tonight, I’ve given him the night off for the party. Please, say yes, Belinda, you’ll go for me? Trini would love to see you.”

“I have nothing to wear!” she argued, lifting her brows, not fancying going to it.

“Bella, you own a wardrobe that is the envy of half the fashion houses in Europe. Get dressed in something lovely and sexy. Who knows, you may find yourself a new boyfriend. While I’ll relish an early night. I’ll tell your brothers you’ll go for me. Besides, it is nice for you to go out with them. You’ll enjoy it.”

“Only because I love you, Marguerite. I don’t fancy going to those celebrations anymore, and you know it. Besides, I can have the baby any time you want, I told you.”

“Thank you, darling. I may take you up on it. So it’s a ‘yes’ then?”

“You do realise, since I’ve been back from the Highlands, people have shunned me. At the last two parties, hardly anyone talked to me. It was as if I was an infectious leper. They don’t wish to mix with a woman who’s been to prison.”

“Oh, don’t worry about them, Bella. You are a lovely girl. It’s their loss! You know men. Well, they don’t like to have their cars battered,” Marguerite teased her. She was referring to Belinda destroying her last boyfriend’s car to smithereens with a baseball bat. The fellow had cheated on her. So, his car had been unrecognisable as a Ferrari when Belinda had finished with it, hence the criminal charges that sent her down to prison.

“You laugh all you want! But I tell you, it’s true, they are avoiding me. You know they call me the ‘scandalous Waltham girl!’ Some of them are afraid to be seen with me.”

“Oh, ignore them, Bella. They are silly people. They’ll soon get over it. You’ll see.”

“Who’s silly?” Fergus asked, darting his eyes from his sister to his wife as he entered the room.

“Oh, darling, Bella will go with you and Sebastian to the party. Olivia has Gus for the night, and I’m off to bed.”

“Is Lucy with her, too?”

Fergus also had a daughter, Lucy, from a previous relationship. Olivia was the children’s nanny, she would look after them that night.

Belinda adored her brother’s children. She was so close to Lucy, and now baby Gus enthralled her.

“Yes, she has both of them, the sweet girl. So, tonight, nothing will separate me from my sleep. I have a date with my bed,” Marguerite stated with a satisfied smile on her face.

“Not even I?” Fergus brushed his wife’s lips with his, then thought better of it and gave her a full on, delicious kiss.

She put her arms around his collar, and he murmured an endearment in her ear.

“Not even you, darling!” Marguerite said, caressing his cheek.

“Sir Clive won’t need both of us. Trini will be happy to see her. As long as Sebastian and Bella attend, I could stay and we—”

“Oh, gross! Get a room!” Belinda rolled her eyes at her brother.

They laughed.

“You must go to the party, handsome, you know that. But I’ll make it up to you, I promise.” Marguerite winked with a mischievous smile at her husband.

She wasn’t a party animal. So she was glad she had dropped out of the festivities and asked her sister-in-law to attend the celebrations instead.

Belinda was at the party as a favour for her with all her good intentions. Instead, the evening was turning out to be trouble now!

Fuck, fuck, fuck… She wasn’t sure who she was silently swearing at, herself or the damn police officer!

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