It was later in the afternoon, after another long stressed-induced snooze, that Riley awoke, groggy. Sometime during the nap Beck had crawled in next to her and was asleep, just as worn out as she was. Fighting off evil necromancers had that effect.
Riley padded to the bathroom and on the way back, she halted in front of the window. Then she smiled. Dropping on the bed, she nudged Beck.
“Hey, you,” she said, “wake up.”
“Hmmm,” he said, turning on his back. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s snowing,” she said.
His response was an unintelligible mumble.
“Come, get up, you lazy thing. We have to go outside.”
“Why?” he replied, slowly levering open his eyes. “It’ll be way cold out there.”
“Because it’s snowing!”
Not waiting to see if he’d join her, Riley quickly pulled on various layers, then laced up her boots. Beck was still in bed as she closed the door behind her.
Riley stepped outside the front door, inhaling the crisp scent of fresh snow. The cars were covered, as were the bushes that lined the long drive. The dragon statues on either side of the main entrance were coated in the fluffy white stuff, making them appear less fearsome.
Scotland crowned in snow. Riley memorized the moment.
The tap of the snowflakes on her face magically transported her to her childhood when her parents would take her for winter walks when they lived in Chicago. They’d help her make a snowman and snow angels and then they’d have hot chocolate. The innocence of that time came back to her, filling her with a sense of peace that had been missing since the day her mom had died.
The front door opened, then closed as Beck joined her. He was bundled up against the cold, stocking cap in place.
“Let’s go up to the loch, okay?” she asked, catching his gloved hand.
“Whatever you want,” he said, smiling over at her.
As they climbed the hill, their cloudy breath intermingling, Riley felt they had somehow been transported to another world, just her and Beck together. “It’s so quiet.”
“Yeah, and damned cold.”
“You’re such a Georgia boy,” she teased.
“Always. Don’t have that freeze-proof blood you got bein’ born up north.”
When they reached the top of the hill, Riley paused, scanning the ground. There was no sign of what had gone down the night before, the grass shrouded in snow, unsullied by magic.
How did I stop Fayne? It was a question that continued to haunt her and would until she talked to Mort.
“You okay?” Beck asked.
“Yeah.” She decided not to tell him what was really bothering her, not until she sorted it out in her own head.
They walked on in silence for a time before Beck spoke again.
“Well, it took some fancy talkin’, but I’ve convinced the grand masters to be a little more . . . forgivin’ with Brennan. More forgivin’ than usual, that is.”
“The usual is him being dead, right?” Riley asked, looking over at him now.
“Yeah. I asked them to give Brennan a second chance. I felt he deserved it because he was in over his head, and I know how that goes. It’s only fair since I got a second chance myself.”
“We both did,” she said softly. “Thanks for standing up for him. I’m really proud of you.”
Beck shrugged, but she could see color creep onto his cheeks now, as if he was embarrassed. “Kepler’s gonna tell the cops that Brennan was under a spell,” he continued. “That should help keep him from bein’ charged.”
Riley pondered on that as they walked along the ridge overlooking the loch. She’d have to come back to Scotland for the trial. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing if Beck was still here, but if he was already home it’d be a hassle.
“Once Brennan’s healed up, they’re bringin’ him back here, makin’ him finish his trainin’ so he can head to Mexico when he’s done. But you can bet they’ll watch him damned close. One foot wrong and he’s history.”
Riley nodded her understanding. The grand masters were fair, but ruthless when they needed to be. Like I’m much different. After all, she’d just threatened two senior necromancers.
They chose a spot that had an unobstructed view and sat on a broad stone overlooking the loch.
“It’s like there’s no one else in the whole world but us,” she said, speaking softly as if they were in church.
“Sometimes I wish that was the way it was. No demons. No necros. Just you and me.”
She laid her head on Beck’s shoulder as it continued to snow.
“I know I’ve kept things from you in the past,” he said, “so . . . ask me anythin’ you want. If I can answer it, I will.”
They really were starting over.
Riley went to the one thing that still dug at her like a jagged thorn, though she should have let it go. She sat up, looking him in straight in the eyes.
“Why Justine Armando? Of all the girls you could have slept with, why that one?”
Beck laughed, brown eyes dancing. “She still gets to you, doesn’t she?”
“Just answer the question, please.”
His laughter faded away. “I went with her because she was smokin’ hot, the kind of woman I never figured I’d ever get to spend time with. Deep down, I knew she was usin’ me, but it felt right at the time.”
“Like me and Ori, then,” Riley replied. “I was mad at you, and he said all the right things and I believed him.”
“Yeah, him,” Beck grumbled. “He really was tryin’ to keep you safe.” He stood, then took a few steps away, his back to her, lost in thought.
“Beck? Are you okay?”
“It depends on how the next few minutes go.” Beck turned toward her, then went down on one knee. Again.
“Riley—” he began.
Before he had a chance to go any further, she launched herself at him and they fell back in the snow. She peered down at his astonished face.
“Yes!” she said. “I will marry you, Denver Beck.”
He blinked a couple times. “For real?”
She nodded enthusiastically.
A rebel yell came next, along with a fist pump. Then he settled down, gazing deep in her eyes. “I love you, girl.”
“I love you, too.” She tapped his chin, thoughtfully. “If we’re going to get married, I need you to promise that if anything happens to me, you’ll go on. That you won’t give up. Won’t go climb in a bottle.”
Beck held his breath for a moment, then exhaled, the snow still filtering down around them. “I don’t know if I can promise that, Riley. I’m not as strong as you are.”
“That’s not true,” she said. “You’re not the same guy you were a few months ago. You’re way stronger. I see it in everything you do.”
“I don’t know about that,” he replied, shaking his head. “I can’t imagine what it would be like without the woman I love.”
Her heart melted, but she couldn’t give this up. It was too important.
“Stewart felt the same way,” she said. “You know how much he misses his wife, but he keeps doing his job, trying to make a difference. That’s why I want you to promise not to give up, no matter what.”
Beck thought it through, his brows furrowed. “Then you have to promise the same to me, that you’ll keep going if I’m not around.”
Could she? Riley swallowed hard at the thought of losing him.
“I agree. We both go on, no matter what,” she said.
They sealed their vows with a kiss. Then he muttered something under his breath and pushed them into a sitting position. After digging in his coat pocket, a small box came her way.
He popped it open, revealing a ring, the one she’d seen in Edinburgh at the street market.
“But . . . it’s . . . a . . . ”
Beck removed the ring, stashed the box away, and took hold of her left hand. With a tug her glove came free and he carefully threaded the ring onto the proper finger. It fit perfectly, the single red stone encircled by the ivy carved into the silver.
“But . . . ” she tried again, still at a loss for words.
“My grandmamma’s ring is for when we get married,” he explained. “This one is to let the world know that yer my girl now, and nobody ever better mess with you.”
He watched her process all that as the glint of tears filled her eyes.
“Oh, Den, it’s so beautiful,” she said.
“Like you,” he whispered. “That’s why I was late gettin’ you at the nail place — I bought it and took it to a jeweler so he could check it over and clean it up.”
Riley held up her hand to study the ring. “Can we afford this? I mean . . . ”
“It wasn’t that bad, and I’ve been savin’ up since last spring.” He cracked a grin. “I always hoped this day would come.”
She looked up into his eyes, her own brimming with tears now. “You’re so good to me.”
“No more than you are to me, Riley.”
Her smile thinned. “I’m so sorry I didn’t say yes the first time.”
Beck shook his head, no longer angry at what had happened between them. It didn’t matter now.
“That wasn’t yer fault.” He gestured at the loch, the dark water against the pristine white snow. “This place feels right, like it was supposed to happen here. You know what I mean?”
She nodded. “Our own special place.”
He stood, dusted the snow off his jeans and then offered his hand. “Come on, let’s get back to the house before it gets dark. I want to tell the whole world yer mine now, and we’d best start with the masters. Fair warnin’ though, I suspect there might be some whisky involved. In fact, I can promise that.”
She chuckled as she rose and began to tug on her gloves. Beck had walked only a few paces away when he realized Riley wasn’t with him. Right before he turned to check on her, a snowball hit him square on the butt.
He whirled around. “Hey!”
“That wasn’t hard to hit,” she said, grinning devilishly as she echoed something he said to her months before.
Beck blinked in surprise. “That was just luck.”
His fiancé’s reply was another snowball that struck him hard, mid-chest.
“Yer payin’ for that one!”
He scooped up some ammunition of his own and the battle began. It was short lived, and in the end, they collapsed into each other’s arms, laughing with unbridled joy.
“This is the way it’s supposed to be,” Riley said, pushing wet hair out of her eyes. “Less Hell. More fun.”
“Then let’s make sure to keep it that way, Princess.”
“It’s a deal, Backwoods Boy.”
(c) 2013 Jana Oliver
All Rights Reserved