After giving Riley his jacket, Beck had no choice but to help Brennan, whose shoulder wound was bleeding heavily. While MacTavish kept a stern eye on the necromancer, Beck stripped off his waistcoat and shirt. The wind immediately bit at him, making him shiver. He slipped back on the waistcoat, though it was next to useless in terms of warmth.
“This is gonna hurt,” Beck said, then pressed the shirt into Brennan’s shoulder wound to slow the bleeding. His anger found its focus. “Ya know, I should let you bleed out for what you did to Riley.”
Brennan moaned in response, his face ashen. “I never meant . . . to hurt her.”
“The hell ya didn’t. Ya . . . you knew Fayne was batshit crazy.”
“I thought . . . ” Brennan shook his head. “Wanted to be . . . like you,” he continued, his voice fainter now. “A grand master.”
“I just wanted . . . to matter. You know? Not be a loser.”
Beck reared back, wincing as a flash of memory hit close to home. Ever since he was a kid, he’d wanted the same thing, to matter in this life. Not to be a total loser. Only fate, and Riley’s love, had given him that chance.
Oh, shit . . .
He and Brennan’s eyes met. He could continue to hate on this guy or . . . understand him. Beck cleared his throat. “I kinda know how that goes. You just took it too far.”
“I know,” Brennan whispered. “Tell her I’m sorry. Please?”
“You can tell her yerself. Just hang in there.”
“No, you’ll have to tell her. I betrayed the grand masters. I’m a dead man. You know it too.”
Beck grimaced. “We’ll see,” was the best he could offer.
Riley’s head spun, then righted as she kept taking deep breaths. She watched as a trio of police officers hurried across the crown of the hill, as well as emergency personnel. She guessed that Kepler had summoned them. Given Brennan’s injury, it was a wise move.
MacTavish gave the officers a quick summary of the night’s drama, but to Riley’s surprise he wasn’t completely forthcoming. Somehow he didn’t mention that Brennan had been armed when he’d kidnapped Riley, only that the man had forced her to come to the necromancer. That once he had been treated, he was to be returned to the grand masters. But how would they handle Brennan’s crimes? She feared the answer.
Once the wounded man was being treated by the paramedics, Beck returned to her side, his hands bloody. He looked exhausted.
“How’s Brennan?” she asked.
“Hurt pretty bad.” Another round of shivering ensued, though he tried to suppress it.
Riley pulled off his jacket and offered it to him.
“No, I’m good. Besides, I thought you liked it when I don’t wear a shirt.”
She groaned, once again amazed how guys could be so weird. “I do like you without a shirt — when it’s not twenty below zero.”
“You need it more than I do.”
Riley shoved the jacket into his hands and watched him work through his conflicting emotions. “Just take it, okay? Stop being so stubborn.”
He blinked at her, then apparently realized now was not the time to challenge her. “Thanks.” He slipped on the jacket.
She looked toward paramedics and their patient. “Brennan saved your life.”
“Yeah,” Beck replied, clearly uncomfortable. “I’m not sure if that is going to help him much in the long run.”
Riley rose on her own, though he tried to help her. She glanced toward the necromancer, and, without a word of warning to Beck, headed that direction before he could protest. He fell in step next to her, his arm around her waist for support.
Riley halted at the edge of the now defunct circle, her body still tingling from the magic. Her enemy stared up at her, Fayne’s chin and chest covered in drying blood. MacTavish stood nearby.
“You blew my compulsion spell apart like it was nothing,” Fayne rasped. “No trapper could have done that. What the hell are you?“
Riley chose to ignore the question, mostly because she had no answer.
“Remove the spell from Bess’s daughter,” she ordered.
“Why should I?”
MacTavish lined up his sword under the necromancer’s throat. “Because if ya don’t, ya die right here. One way or another, that spell is gone, ya ken?”
“Sir?” one of the cops said, taking a cautious step forward. “I don’t that’s a good idea.”
“This is grand master business, lad, not yers,” MacTavish warned, his tone as sharp as his steel. “Best not ta get involved.”
One of the other officers whispered something to the first one and they stepped back, clearly nervous. That told Riley everything she needed to know about how much power the grand masters wielded.
“So what will it be, Fayne?” MacTavish asked, his sword never wavering.
After a furious glare at him, the necromancer gave a sharp nod. “Once I’ve rested, I’ll reverse the spell.”
The journey down the hill felt surreal. Riley was warmer now, wrapped in a blanket, courtesy of one of the cops. Beck walked beside her with sure footsteps, the kilt swaying with each step, his sword resting on his right shoulder like a warrior from another century.
You belong here. This is your home as much as it is Stewart’s.
He caught her looking at him. “I screwed up everything. I’m sorry I didn’t keep ya safe,” he began, his voice quavering. “I should have seen this comin’.”
She could argue that no one had, not even MacTavish, but Beck would never listen. He was all about protecting her, just as she was about him.
That’s our greatest strength . . . and our greatest weakness.
As she made her way toward the manor house, Riley had the profound sense that her life had changed, again. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that.
“What will they do with Fayne?” she asked.
“Something damned permanent, I hope,” Beck replied. “If not, I’ll make sure she doesn’t pull this kind of shit again.”
Something Stewart said came back to her, how some parts of his job as a grand master were very painful.
“What happens if one of you guys goes dark, starts working with Hell?”
Beck took a quick intake of breath as if she’d struck a nerve. “That person dies.” He hesitated, then added, “Same thing if it’s a master trapper.”
His tone chilled her. “You mean Stewart would have had to kill my dad if he’d really been working for Hell?”
“Yes,” Beck said solemnly. “It’s no comfort, but Paul would have wanted it that way.”
The full reality of what he’d said rolled out in front of her. “You’d have to do that, I mean if . . . ?”
“It’s how it works. It’s how we keep the balance between good and evil.”
And if I went dark?
Beck looked over at her, as if he’d heard her. “If you become a master demon trapper and you . . . start workin’ for Hell, one of us will come for you.”
Riley stumbled to a halt. “And you’d let them do that?” she asked, fearing the answer.
“No. I’d do everythin’ I could to protect you. I would never let them hurt you.”
“But that would put you against your own people. Make you just as bad as I would be.”
His eyes met hers and she saw the raw pain in them now. “If that’s what it takes.”
My God . . .
She took hold of his chilly hand. “No. If I ever go dark . . . let them do what they have to do.”
He looked away, unable to speak.
“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure I never go there.”
“Sometimes that’s a hard promise to keep. You know how Hell works.”
“I know, but I won’t do anything that puts your life on the line.”
Because she knew if he tried to save her, his people would kill them both.
Nothing Hell has to offer is worth that sacrifice.
There’d been no more conversation until they’d reached their room, and in some ways, Beck was good with that. He’d been meaning to tell her more about a grand master’s duties, but she’d already worked it out in her head.
Now she knows. At least that part. There was more, a lot more, but now was not the time.
Riley had insisted she didn’t want a shower, even when he offered to help her. Instead, she chucked off her outer clothes and he tucked her in bed. As it was so often in their past, they were just going through the motions, trying to act like nothing horrible had happened.
She had scared the living hell out of him tonight. Seeing that blade pointed at her throat had driven home how much he loved her, how much he had to lose if she wasn’t by his side. Even now, Beck wanted to shake her, insist that she couldn’t run from her magical abilities any longer, not when she’d just blown a spell back on a mid-level summoner. Once word of that got out it’d play one of two ways: most folks would respect her and back off. Others would take it as a challenge and come after Riley, just to up their mojo.
Now, curled up in bed, she seemed so frail, so vulnerable.
“I love you,” she said simply.
“Right back at you,” he whispered.
Riley closed her eyes and fell into an uneasy sleep.
Beck sat with her for a time, watching each gentle breath, his emotions as sharp as acid dripping onto his flesh. Most of it was anger and fear at how close he’d come to losing her.
Would the night’s horrors bring them closer together, or would she back off, not want anything to do with him now that she knew what he faced as a grand master? He shook his head, not wanting to consider a future without her.
After a trip to the bathroom to wash off Brennan’s blood, he pulled on a pair of jeans and a heavy sweatshirt, relishing the warmth. He placed a kiss on Riley’s forehead, then quietly left the room.
He found MacTavish and Kepler talking in the front hallway, the cops gone and the house quiet. As Beck approached, they turned toward him.
“How’s she doin’?” MacTavish asked.
“She’s asleep. Totally worn out.”
“She threw off a strong spell, she’ll probably sleep for some time,” Kepler advised.
“What about Brennan?”
“He’s in hospital. They think they can save his arm,” Kepler replied
“Thank God. He said he did it just because he wanted to be like us,” Beck said. Like me.
“His damned foolishness cost three lives,” MacTavish grumbled.
“If Fayne hadn’t talked him into helpin’ her, she would have found someone else. Someone with less of a conscience.” Beck paused, marshaling his thoughts. “Sometimes it’s so important to matter in this world that you do dumb stuff, things you’d never do otherwise.”
The grand masters traded looks.
“Aye,” MacTavish replied, his voice quieter now. “But accordin’ ta our laws, he should already have been put ta the sword for betrayin’ us.”
“He saved my life,” Beck said. “That should count for somethin’, don’t you think?”
“Maybe,” MacTavish admitted. “We’ll have ta think on it.”
“I’d like to be in on any decision you make. It’s personal now.”
A pause, then a nod. “As ya wish.”
Beck knew that was as far as he could push the matter. “What about that necro? Is she gonna stay put in jail?”
“Aye, she will. I’ve called her superiors,” MacTavish replied. “I let them know that either they deal with her, or we do. One way or the other, she is out of the magic business forever.”
“Works for me,” Beck allowed. “Thanks, both of you. You kept Riley alive, and I owe you.”
“Glad we could help out,” Kepler replied. “She should be fine from now on.”
“God, I hope so.” With a respectful nod at both grand masters, Beck turned on a heel and headed back to the room, to be by her side.
Even if she doesn’t want me anymore.
Riley woke wrapped in a strong and comforting embrace. Den. It reminded her of being back in Atlanta, how sometimes she’d stay overnight at his place and then wake in the morning, knowing how much he loved her.
As she took inventory she was relieved to find that her body no longer tingled. In fact, she felt stronger, more clear headed, like she’d been before she’d come to Scotland.
The clock indicated it was somewhere near five, and the birds roosting in the trees agreed, chirping to announce the new day.
As she listened to Beck’s even breaths, Riley knew she had a choice: She could step away from him now, let him go his own way, or they could move forward, try to mend what had been broken.
Either way, he would expect her to make the first move.
When she slipped out of his arms, he woke immediately. “You okay?” he asked groggily.
“I’m good. I need a shower.”
“I’ll be here when yer done,” he murmured and curled back into a sleepy ball.
Smiling to herself at the sight, Riley closed the door to the bathroom. As she stripped out of her underwear, her nose crinkled in disgust: all she could smell was dirt, smoke and cast-off magic. Somehow Beck hadn’t noticed all that, or at least had been too polite to mention it.
Later, when she exited the bathroom, he was awake again, his head propped up on a palm. A lazy Southern smile welcomed her, along with those deep brown eyes.
“Hey there, Princess,” he said, his attention drifting to the extra large bath towel she wore. The smile was all bad boy, at least for a few seconds, then he sobered. “Ah . . . .Where are we? I mean . . . are we good again, like it used to be . . . or . . . ”
Riley halted, uneasy. “Do you want it to be that way? Like before?”
Beck sat up now, tucking the sheet around his hips. His worried expression telegraphed he was as terrified of this moment as she was.
He took a deep breath.
Oh God, he’s going to back away. He can’t handle all this.
“Yes, I want us to be together. I don’t give a damn about anythin’ else.”
“Even being a grand master?” she asked, though that really wasn’t a fair question.
To her surprise, the nod came instantly. “I know this is important work, but I’d give it up if you asked me to. You are my life, Riley.”
But that wouldn’t be right. “No, you’re supposed to be a grand master, or you wouldn’t have killed Sartael, made it out of Hell. That was your destiny.”
He sighed. “Yeah, I guess. But me bein’ a grand master will cause problems between us, you have to know that.”
“I do. And what I do causes problems too. That’s us, I guess.”
“So then,” Beck paused to clear his throat. “Are you comin’ back to this bed as a friend . . . or as my girl?” he asked, his voice husky.
Riley unhooked the bath towel and it fell away.
The bad boy smile was back. He grinned at the sight of her, bruises and all. “I’d say that answers my question.”
Riley slid in next to him, tentatively touching his face, feeling the beard stubble as she pulled him down for a kiss. His body pressed against her, warm, strong and alive.
The way forward was clear, no doubts, no insecurity for either of them. There were few words after that, only the unspoken promise that no matter what the world threw at them, they were still one, and always would be.
(c) 2013 Jana Oliver
All Rights Reserved