Once the guests were gone, Riley and Beck joined the two masters in a cozy sitting room. She snuggled next to her guy on a leather sofa, utilizing Beck’s furnace feature to warm herself. As much as she loved Scotland, she really missed Atlanta’s warmer climate.
MacTavish lit a pipe, filling the air with a rich caramel aroma. That reminded her of Master Stewart, how every evening they’d share how their day went. She missed him, wished he was here. He’d know how to make things right again.
After light talk about the dinner and the guests, the topic of conversation turned to business.
“According to Summoner Fayne’s superiors,” Kepler began, “they have not been able to find out what where that demonic spell originated. In short, the necromancers have closed ranks.”
“Figured that might happen. But wouldn’t there be some sort of magical trace left behind?” Beck said.
“They claim there wasn’t one.”
“That’s a lie,” Riley said. “Our friend Mortimer — he’s a summoner — said that each necro has their own ‘magical signature.’”
“Your friend is correct,” Kepler said, nodding.
MacTavish cleared his throat. “Riley, would ya give us a chance ta talk this out . . . in private?”
She was being dismissed? “I have as much at stake in this as you guys do.”
“Aye, but right now ya need trust us,” he replied.
Riley shot to her feet. “Okay, I’ll just go to my room and buff my nails while you guys can talk state secrets. Will that work for you?”
“Riley . . . ” Beck murmured, shaking his head in dismay.
“We’ll talk more in the mornin’,” MacTavish replied. “Good night, lass.”
Riley resisted the urge to slam the door behind her as fury propelled her down the hall and then up the staircase.
Will it always be like this?
If she and Beck kept secrets from each other now, over the years that cancer would spread, poisoning their relationship. First he wouldn’t tell her about his work, then it’d be other things; who he’d talked to or met for a drink or . . .
But if I want to be part of his life, this is what I have to do.
In her room, she kicked off her shoes and changed into her jeans and a long-sleeved tee shirt. Thick, fluffy socks came next and they soothed her cold feet.
The rowdy part of her insisted she go back downstairs. The unsure part of her didn’t want to act like some little girl begging for an invitation into the big boy’s tree house.
As her temper gradually cooled, Riley checked her e-mails and found there wasn’t much new in Atlanta, which was reassuring. Beck’s neighbor, Mrs. Morton, had left a short note to report that his house and bunny rabbit were both in fine shape. And Riley’s Latin assignment for the week had been posted online.
Mort’s reply wasn’t comforting. In a few succinct paragraphs he explained how it was possible for a summoner to influence another’s behavior, how the magic user didn’t need to be in the presence of the victim, only that the compulsion spell was replenished every now and then.
Her contact with summoners had been limited, at least until tonight, which meant that all her confusion probably wasn’t caused by a spell. More likely it was a fundamental flaw with her and Beck’s relationship.
She felt her eyes misting.
I can’t lose him now. Not like this.
A tap came at her door. Confused as to who this might be, Riley opened it to find the maid with a tray in hand. “Excuse me, Miss. Thought you might like some hot cocoa.”
“Thanks,” Riley said and accepted the tray. The young girl retreated down the hall as she toed the door closed.
Beck had probably arranged the delivery as a peace offering, trying to make amends.
Note to self: stop being a butthead. At least to Beck.
Sinking back into the desk chair, Riley picked up the cup, savoring the heady scent of dark chocolate. Right before she took a sip, she read further into the e-mail.
‘Spells can be laid on food and liquids in such a way that the victim will have no idea they are being enchanted. It’s old tech, but it does work quite effectively. “
“Liquids?” she murmured. Then peered down at the cup. How did she know that there wasn’t something in the drink? Or what about the shortbread cookies that accompanied the hot chocolate? Or if she was really going to be paranoid, why not in the water she’d had at supper?
I’m driving myself crazy.
After three unsuccessful tries to let the cup touch her lips, Riley reluctantly dumped the delicious drink down the bathroom sink and rinsed out the cup. Staring up in the mirror revealed the underlying weariness that seemed to age her from within.
Riley pushed her hair off her face, then growled under her breath. Paul Blackthorne’s daughter should be down there with the grand masters, not cowering in her room. Beck would be angry at her for barging into the meeting, but she didn’t care. Steeling herself, she let the door slip closed behind her and headed toward the stairs.
# # #
Beck’s loyalties were badly divided: he wanted to listen to the conversation between the two masters, maybe learn more about what was happening with Riley, but the other part of him was worried about her. He’d seen the look on her face, how angry she was at being sent away. She’d never tolerated being treated like a nuisance, and he suspected that anger would be directed at him just when they were starting to mend fences.
“Look, I know you think yer doin’ what’s best for her, but I know Riley. She’s got a right to be here.”
“We’re not includin’ her because we’re not sure just how compromised she is,” MacTavish explained.
“I don’t understand. What do you mean . . . compromised?”
Kepler’s aged hands knotted together in his lap. “I have a bit of magical ability myself, and I sensed an enchantment when Riley walked in the front door this morning. Your young lady is under a necromancer’s spell.”
“What?” Beck replied, caught off guard. “But . . . .” Then it made sense. “All this paranoia stuff. You think someone’s made her that way?” Please God, let it be that.
“I’m sure of it,” Kepler said.
“So who did it to her?” he demanded, his fists clenched now. “Was it that summoner you had at dinner tonight?”
Kepler looked over at MacTavish. “Yes, it was.”
“What!?” Beck launched to his feet. “And you let her go?”
MacTavish waved him back into his chair and Beck reluctantly complied.
“We let her go free because we don’t have enough evidence against her. We arranged it so she was here tonight so Kepler could feel out her magic. Now that we know she’s involved, we can take the matter before her superiors.”
“They’re not gonna do a damned thing. Why the hell didn’t we just nail her to the wall?”
“Trust me, I woulda loved ta have sliced off her head and sent it as a warnin’ ta those damned meddlin’ fools, but sometimes ya have ta see the bigger picture.”
“There is nothing more important than Riley’s safety,” Beck said. The moment he said the words, he felt the indecision. As a grand master he couldn’t be that way, couldn’t limit his world to just one person.
Or could he?
“I don’t know if I can do this,” he admitted. “All the learnin’ and such, that’s been okay. But this . . . damn . . . I feel like I’m bein’ ripped apart.”
MacTavish gave a solemn nod. “If ya weren’t, we’d be worried. We all went through this, each one of us in our way. We had ta find peace within ourselves, negotiate the balance between our personal lives and our mission.”
Silence fell, each of them caught in private thoughts.
Was this the way it would always be for him, stuck between the grand masters and the woman he loved?
Beck slowly unclenched his fists and allowed his arms to fall free on either side of the chair. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
MacTavish nodded his approval. “I know it’s hard, lad, and it never gets easier. Especially when ya love someone so verra much.”
“So what is this bigger picture yer talkin’ about?”
“This isn’t the first time the necros have been pokin’ around in Hell. Our biggest worry is if they will ally with Lucifer. By goin’ slowly, we can keep the other necros on the straight and narrow, while dealin’ with the immediate problem.”
Beck stilled. “Then why didn’t ya tell Riley all this?”
“I’m concerned that if Fayne learns we’re onto her,” Kepler said, “she may well compel Riley to harm herself. No living witness? No charges.”
“Ah, shit,” Beck murmured. “I never thought of that.” He rubbed a hand over this face. “I knew somethin’ was wrong. Riley stopped trustin’ me, and that’s not like her. We’ve been through so much together, for her to just back off . . . ”
“That’s why I knew somethin’ was up,” MacTavish said. “Neither of ya are lightweights when it comes ta hard times. The moment ya came back from Hell, we had ta know everythin’ about ya. Even yer private life.”
“Riley’s not part of this,” Beck said, though he knew that wasn’t the truth.
“She’s as much a part of who ya are as anyone,” MacTavish retorted. “Ya’ve been readin’ our history — Hell works through all channels ta destroy us. What better way than corruptin’ one of yer own family?” MacTavish took a deep breath to calm himself. “That’s why we were so pleased ta see ya’d found a lass who knew what ya were facin’, knew Hell’s tricks, had even beaten them at their own game.”
“Without a strong force in your life, it’s too easy to be tempted,” Kepler explained. He and MacTavish exchanged a solemn look.
“Been there?” Beck asked softly.
“Aye. All of us have, at one time or another,” MacTavish replied.
Beck frowned. “I should check on Riley. Make sure she’s okay.”
“Tell her we’ll talk over breakfast, lay it all out for her. Then I’ll contact Fayne’s superiors.”
Beck nodded and rose. He’d taken only a few steps toward the door when the maid scurried in, her face white.
“Sirs . . . ”
“What’s wrong?” Beck said, taking a step closer. “Is Riley okay?”
“I was headed to the kitchen and . . . and . . . I saw her with Mr. Brennan. They were going out the side door. He had a knife at her throat.”
“Oh, sweet Jesus!” Beck exclaimed, and took off a run.
(c) 2013 Jana Oliver
All Rights Reserved