How Mountaineering Shaped my Life
First off, I’d like to thank you for hosting me, and for inviting me back. It’s sort of the ultimate compliment. It’s a pleasure to be here.
I started traveling the backcountry when I was a teenager. My first love was a mountain climber, and he shared his love of the outdoors with me. The bug bit deep and after we parted, because first loves almost never go the distance, I found another mountaineer and we made a life together.
I’m an unlikely climber. For one thing, I’m short. If you take a look at most climbers, they’re tall and rangy. Having that extra reach helps—a lot. It’s good for stepping around obstacles and for navigating rock-strewn slopes. But size cuts both ways. Sometimes I’ve been able to wriggle through a tight spot that would have defeated a larger person.
While I can’t point to a specific mountain, each of them (and I’ve climbed close to two hundred) holds a special spot in my heart. Climbing has taught me patience and perseverance. It’s also taught me to manage my fear and to live in the moment. All good life lessons. All the years I was a psychotherapist, I’d tell my clients not to expend too much energy on the might-have-beens in their pasts, and also not to worry about things too far in the future. There’s a middle ground where we can maximize the bang for the buck if we concentrate our efforts.
Boy is that true about climbing. It makes absolutely no sense to get much beyond the next set of moves on a mountain. Either they work for you, or they don’t. If they don’t, you go down. If they do, you keep moving up. There are a couple of caveats, though. If the weather turns, turn around, and if you don’t start early, don’t start at all.
Last summer a physician didn’t get rolling climbing Norman Clyde Peak out of the Big Pine Creek trailhead area until midafternoon. They left the trailhead mid-morning, but by the time they made it to the lake they planned to camp at it was past two. Though he should have known better, he headed for the peak traveling alone. (Another no-no.) He made the summit around 8:30 p.m. I know because that’s when he signed the summit register. It was getting dark and instead of doing the smart thing, which would have been staying on the peak’s broad, flat summit plateau, this fellow headed down. There are some steep, gnarly parts on that mountain. Not something you want to down-climb when you can’t see. Depth perception depends on vision. Anyway, he fell to his death, and extricating his body for his next of kin put other lives in danger. Mistakes in the mountains are cumulative. You can sometimes get away with one, but rarely with two, and he made two: late start and not staying put on the summit pyramid until morning.
There’s an old saying that the mountain gods protect children and fools. Except they don’t. Nature is chillingly random. People die in the world’s high places all the time. Not because they lacked skill, but because their reasoning ability took a hike. Beyond patience, perseverance, and continuously assessing my physical capacity vis a vis the mountain I’m on, climbing has also taught me respect and humility. There’s no shame in retreat. It’s how I got to be an old climber.
One last anecdote, and I’ll close this off. A couple weeks ago, hubby and I were on a backpacking trip. We’d planned a loop, except the pass we planned to exit over was choked by a 45 degree snow slope and the snow was hard and icy. We didn’t have crampons or a rope or ice axes, and the tricky snow extended about 150 feet down and across a very steep mountainside. He and I both understood fully that if one of us fell on the slick ice, we’d be dead. I told him we were retracing our steps, even if it meant an extra fourteen miles and 5000 feet of climbing, which it did. He tried to talk me into the snow route, but I refused. It took us an extra day to exit the backcountry, but at least we exited on foot and not in a box.
That’s a good lead-in to the last thing mountaineering has taught me, which is not to overestimate my abilities. Could I have managed the snow slope? Probably. If I had to lay odds, I’d have given them maybe 80%, but it wasn’t good enough.How about the rest of you? Do you engage in things where you face danger and have to be self-reliant? What’s your fish-or-cut bait criteria?
Ann Gimpel is a national bestselling author. A lifelong aficionado of the unusual, she began writing speculative fiction a few years ago. Since then her short fiction has appeared in a number of webzines and anthologies. Her longer books run the gamut from urban fantasy to paranormal romance. Once upon a time, she nurtured clients, now she nurtures dark, gritty fantasy stories that push hard against reality. When she’s not writing, she’s in the backcountry getting down and dirty with her camera. She’s published over 30 books to date, with several more planned for 2016 and beyond. A husband, grown children, grandchildren and wolf hybrids round out her family.
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Demon Assassins #1
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Urban Fantasy Romance, With a Heaping Side of Hexes, Spells, and Magick!
One of three remaining demon assassin witches, Colleen is almost the last of her kind. Along with her familiar, a changeling spirit, she was hoping for a few months of quiet, running a small magicians’ supply store in Fairbanks, Alaska. Peace isn’t in the cards, though. Demons are raising hell in Seattle. She’s on her way to kick some serious demon ass, when a Sidhe shows up and demands she accompany him to England to quell a demon uprising.
Gutsy, opinionated, and outspoken, Colleen refuses to come. Witches need her help, and they trump everything else. Despite breaking a prime Sidhe precept concerning non-interference in mortals’ affairs, Duncan offers his assistance. Colleen fascinates him, and he wants to discover more about her. Lots more.
The Sidhe might be the best-looking man Colleen’s ever stumbled over, but she doesn’t have time for him—or much of anything else. She, Jenna, and Roz are Earth's only hedge against being overrun by Hell’s minions. Even with help from a powerful magic wielder like Duncan, the odds aren’t good and the demons know it.
Sensing victory is within their grasp, they close in for the kill.
Rain worsened from a steady drizzle to a pounding, punishing deluge of icy sleet. Colleen Kelly strengthened the spell around herself. It sizzled where it ran up against the droplets. At least she wasn't quite as wet as she would have been without its protection. Pavement glistened wetly in the last of the day's light. It was just past three in the afternoon, but December days were short in the northern latitudes and Fairbanks was pretty far north.
“At least it’s not snowing,” she muttered as she pushed through a nearby glass-fronted door into the magicians’ supply store she owned with two other witches in the older part of downtown. Bells hanging around the door pealed discordantly. She sent a small jolt of magic to silence them.
“I heard that. Not the bells, but you. It’s supposed to snow this time of year. How could you possibly be pleased the weather patterns have gone to hell?”
Jenna Neil stalked over to the coatrack where Colleen stood. Blonde hair, hacked off at shoulder level, framed a gamine’s face and shrewd, hazel eyes. Jenna towered over Colleen’s six foot height by a good four inches, and her broad shoulders would’ve made most men jealous. Between her trademark high-heeled boots and a scruffy embroidered red cloak tossed over skintight blue jeans, she looked as exotic as the anti-hex hoop earrings dangling from each ear.
Colleen rolled her eyes, shook out her coat, and hung it on the rack. “Spare me your lecture about global warming, okay? It’s cold enough to snow. It just isn’t, for some reason.”
“Mmph.” The line of Jenna’s jaw tensed.
Indian spices wafted through the air, mingling with the scents of herbs, dried flowers, and desiccated body parts from small animals. Colleen’s stomach growled. Breakfast had been at six that morning—a long time ago. Pretty bad when even dried newt smelled like food.
“Did you cook something?” she asked. “And if you did, is there any left?”
A terse nod. Jenna turned away, walking fast. Colleen lengthened her normal stride to catch up. “Hey, sweetie. What happened? You can’t be in this big a snit over the weather.”
Jenna kept walking, heading for the small kitchen at the back of the store. “A lot of things. I was just having a cup of tea. Shop’s been dead today.” She disappeared behind a curtain.
Colleen glanced over one shoulder at the empty store. The phalanx of bells around the door would alert them if anyone stopped in. The minute she tugged the heavy, upholstery fabric that served as a kitchen door aside, the pungent tang of Irish whiskey made her eyes water. “You said tea.”
“Yeah, well I spiked it.”
Colleen grunted. “Smells like you took a bath in booze. What the fuck happened?” She grabbed the larger woman and spun her so they faced one another.
“We got another pay-your-tithe-or-die e-mail from our Coven.” Jenna’s nostrils flared in annoyance.
“So? That’s like the tenth one.” There were new policies none of them agreed with, so they’d joined with about twenty other witches and stopped paying the monthly stipend that supported their Coven’s hierarchy.
“It’s not what’s bothering me.” Jenna pulled free from Colleen, tipped her cup, and took a slug of what smelled like mostly liquor.
Colleen fought a desire to swat her. Getting to the point quickly had never been one of Jenna’s talents. She clamped her jaws together. “What is?”
“Roz called with…problems.” Jenna turned and started toward the steep staircase ladder leading to her bedroom above the shop.
“You can’t just drop that bomb and leave.” Colleen made another grab for Jenna to keep her in the kitchen. Worry for their friend ate at her. Of the three of them, Roz was by far the most volatile. “What happened? I thought she was in Missouri, or maybe it was Oklahoma, visiting that dishy dude she met online.”
“Didn’t work out.” The corners of Jenna’s mouth twisted downward.
Colleen quirked a brow, urging her friend to say more.
Jenna plowed on. “He only wanted her for her magic. Turned out he preferred men.”
“Aw, shit.” Colleen blew out a breath. “She must’ve been disappointed.”
Half a snorting laugh bubbled past Jenna’s lips. “Maybe now she is. At the time, furious would’ve been closer to the mark.”
Colleen’s throat tightened. “Crap! What’d she do? She didn’t hurt him, did she?”
“Not directly. She turned him over to the local Coven.”
“Thank God!” Colleen let go of Jenna and laid a hand over her heart. Roxanne Lantry was more than capable of killing anyone who pissed her off. It was how she ended up in Alaska. Roz hadn’t exactly been caught when her cheating husband and his two girlfriends went missing, but she hadn’t stuck around to encourage the authorities to question her, either.
Colleen and Jenna had already left Seattle when that little incident went down. Roz repressed her antipathy for Alaska’s legendary foul weather and joined them. Magically, she was strong as an ox, and she had a hell of a temper.
Colleen’s stomach growled again. Louder this time. It didn’t give a good goddamn about anything other than its empty state. She pushed past Jenna to the stove, lifted a lid, and peered into a battered aluminum pot. Curry blasted her. The spicy odor stung her eyes and made her nose run.
“Whew. Potent. Mind if I help myself?”
“Go ahead.” Jenna sat heavily in one of two chairs with a rickety wooden table between them. She picked up her mug and took another long swallow.
Dish in hand, Colleen slapped it on the table in front of the other chair and went in search of a mug of her own. There weren’t any clean ones, so she plucked one out of the sink and rinsed it. Back at the stove, she tipped the teakettle. Thick, amber liquid spilled from its stubby snout into her waiting mug. Jenna waggled the whiskey bottle in her direction.
“Nah.” Colleen settled at the table. “It would go right to my head. Maybe after I get some food on board.” She tucked in. After the first few mouthfuls, when the curry powder nearly annihilated her taste buds, the pea, potato, and ham mixture wasn’t half-bad.
Jenna drank steadily, not offering anything by way of conversation.
When Colleen’s dish was empty, she refilled her mug with tea, filched a couple of biscuits from the cupboard, and sat back down. “Are you going to talk to me?”
“I suppose so.” Jenna’s words slurred slightly.
Colleen cocked her head to one side. “I suggest you start now, before you forget how.”
“Oh, please.” Jenna blew out a breath, showering the small space with whiskey fumes. Colleen waited. The other witch could be stubborn. Wheedling, cajoling, or urging wouldn’t work until she was good and ready to talk.
Finally, after so long Colleen had nearly chewed a hole in her cheek, Jenna finally muttered, “Roz called.”
Colleen ground her teeth together. “You already said that. It’s how you knew what happened with the guy.”
Jenna nodded. “There’s more.” She picked up the whiskey, started to pour it into her mug, then apparently changed her mind and drank right from the bottle. “She’s in Seattle. Checked in with Witches’ Northwest, just to say hello, and because she wanted to touch base with people she’s known for a long time.”
Another long pause. Colleen batted back a compulsion spell. It wasn’t nice to use those on your friends. She shoved her hands under her bottom to reduce the temptation.
Jenna lowered her voice until Colleen had to strain to hear. “The Irichna demons are back.”
“But our last confrontation wasn’t all that long ago. Only a few months. Sometimes when we best them, they’ve stayed gone for years.”
Colleen shook her head. Even the sound of the word, Irichna, crackled against her ears, making them tingle unpleasantly. Irichna demons were the worst. Hands down, no contest. They worked for Abbadon, Demon of the Abyss. Evil didn’t get much worse than that. No wonder Jenna was drinking. Colleen held her hand out for the bottle—suddenly a drink seemed like a most excellent idea—and picked her words with care. “Did Roz actually sight one?”
“Yeah. She also asked if we could come and help. More than asked. She came as close to begging as I’ve ever heard her.”
“Erk. They have a whole Coven there. Several if you count all the ones in western Washington. Why do they need us?” Colleen belted back a stiff mouthful of whiskey. It burned a track all the way to her stomach where it did battle with all the curry she’d eaten.
Jenna just shot her a look. “You know why.”
Colleen swallowed again, hoping for oblivion, except it couldn’t come quick enough. She knew exactly why, but the answer stuck in her craw and threatened to choke her. The three of them were the last of a long line of demon assassins, witches with specialized powers, able to lure demons, immobilize them, and send them packing to the netherworld.
When things worked right.
They often didn’t, though, which was what killed off the other demon assassin witches. It didn’t help that demons as a group had been gathering power these last fifty years or so. Witches lived for a long time, but they were far from immortal, and demon assassin ability was genetic. She, Jenna, or Roz would have to produce children or that strain of magic would die out. So far, none of them had come anywhere close to identifying a guy who looked like husband material…
Colleen looked at her hands. Even absent a husband, none of them had a shred of domesticity. Certainly not enough to saddle themselves with offspring.
“What’s the matter?” Jenna grinned wickedly, clearly more than a little drunk. “Cat got your tongue too?”
As if on cue, a blood-curdling meow rose from a shadowed corner of the kitchen and Bubba, Colleen’s resident familiar, padded forward. When he was halfway to them, he gathered his haunches beneath him and sprang to the table. It rocked alarmingly, and Jenna made a grab for her cup. The large black cat skinned his lips back from his upper teeth, bared his incisors, and hissed.
“Oh, all right.” Colleen clamped her jaws tight and summoned the magic to shift Bubba to his primary form, a gnarled three-foot changeling.
The air shimmered around him. Before it cleared, he swiped the liquor out of her hand and drained the bottle.
“Would’ve been a good reason to leave you a cat,” Jenna mumbled.
He stood on the table and glared at both of them, elbows akimbo, bottle still dangling from his oversized fingers. “If you’re going to fight demons, you have to take me with you.”
“No, we don’t,” Colleen countered.
“You don’t follow directions well,” Jenna said pointedly.
“Isn’t that the truth?” Colleen rotated her head from side to side, starting to feel the whiskey. At least once when they’d humored the changeling, he’d almost gotten all of them killed. Problem was she couldn’t predict when he’d follow her orders, and when he’d decide on a different tack altogether. Then there were the times his fearlessness had saved them all.
Bubba might be a wildcard, but he was her wildcard.
“You forgot when I welcomed your spirit into my body—and kept it alive—while the healers worked on you.” Bubba eyed Colleen, sounding smug.
“If you hadn’t decided to play hero, and needed to be rescued, the demons wouldn’t have injured me.” Colleen winced at the sour undertone in her voice. That incident had happened five years before. Maybe it was time she got over it.
“Nevertheless.” He tossed his shaggy head, thick with hair as black as the cat’s. “When you conjured me from the barrows of Ireland, and bound me, we became a unit. You can’t go off and leave me here. It would be like leaving a part of yourself behind.” His dark eyes glittered with challenge.
“I hate to admit it—” Jenna sounded a little less drunk “—but he’s right.”
“See.” Bubba leered at them, jumped off the table, and waddled over to the stove with his bowlegged gait. Once there, he opened the oven, climbed onto its door, and peeked into the pot. He started to stick a hand inside.
“Hold it right there, bud.” Colleen got to her feet, covered the distance to the stove, and dished him up some of the curry mixture. “Get some clothes on and you can have this.”
He clambered down from his perch and over to several colorful canisters scattered around the house where she stashed outfits for him. Keeping Bubba clothed had been a huge problem until she’d hatched up a plan, and sewn him several pant and shirt combos with Velcro closures, since he didn’t like buttons or zippers.
The changeling dressed quickly and took the bowl from her. “I could’ve gotten my own food.”
“Better for the rest of us if you keep your paws out of the cook pot.” Jenna stood a bit unsteadily. “I’ll be right back.”
Bubba stuffed food into his mouth with his fingers. “Where’s she going?” His words came out garbled as he chewed open-mouthed.
Colleen looked away. “Probably to pee. Maybe to throw up. Um, look, Bubba, it might be wiser if we took a quick side trip to Ireland and released you.”
She glanced sidelong at the changeling spirit she’d summoned during a major demon war forty years before. He’d been truly helpful then, especially after he’d mastered English, which hadn’t taken him all that long. In the intervening time, he’d mostly clung to his feline form, eating and keeping their shop free of mice and rats. They’d lived in Seattle the first ten years or so after he joined them, relocating to Alaska to conceal their longevity. She dragged the heels of her hands down her face, feeling tired. It was getting close to time to move again, but she didn’t want to think about it.
Bubba shook his head emphatically. Food flew from the sides of his mouth. He scooped a glob off the floor and ate it anyway. “I have to agree to being released. I don’t want to go back to my barrow. I like it much better here.”
Colleen sucked in a hollow breath, blew it out, and did it again. Bubba was right. Rules were rules. He’d had a choice at the front end. He could’ve refused her. Witches respected all living creatures. The ones on the good side of the road, anyway. No forced servitude for their familiars, despite rumors to the contrary.
Jenna lurched back into the kitchen looking a little green. “You okay?” Colleen asked.
“Yeah. I drank too much, that’s all.” She rinsed her mug at the sink, refilled it with tap water, and sat back down. “Did you two come up with a plan?”
“I’m going.” Bubba left his dish on the floor and vaulted back onto the table.
Jenna rolled red-rimmed eyes. “That was the discussion when I left.”
“Your point?” Colleen swallowed irritation.
“Nothing.” The other witch sounded sullen, but maybe she just didn’t feel well.
“I offered to free him—” Colleen began.
“I refused,” Bubba cut in. He shook his head. “No recognition for all my years of loyal service. Tsk. You should be—”
“Stuff it.” Jenna glared at him. “We have bigger problems than your wounded ego.”
He stuck out his lower lip, looking injured as only a changeling spirit could, but he didn’t say anything else.
“I suppose we have to go to Seattle,” Colleen muttered, half to herself.
“Don’t see any way around it.” Jenna worried her lower lip between her teeth.
“What exactly did Roz say?”
“We didn’t talk long. Her cellphone battery was almost dead.” A muscle twitched beneath Jenna’s eye. “She’d just stopped in at Coven Headquarters and the group mobbed her. Said we had to come. They’ve already lost about twenty witches to stealth demon attacks.”
Colleen’s heart skipped a few beats. Twenty witches was a lot. Maybe a quarter of the Witches’ Northwest Coven. “Crap. When did the attacks start?”
“Only a few days ago. They’d planned to call us, but saw it as goddess intervention when Roz showed up.”
“Damn that Oklahoma cowboy.” Colleen pounded a fist into her open palm. “If his Coven doesn’t flatten him, I will.”
“He wasn’t a cowboy.” Jenna’s voice held a flat, dead sound. “He was supposed to be a witch. You know, like us.”
“Do you want to close things up here, or should I try to get someone from our Coven to fill in at the shop?” Jenna looked pale, but the tipsy aspect had left her face.
Colleen shook her head. “We haven’t sold enough in the last few weeks to make it worthwhile to pay someone to clerk for us.”
“Okay.” Jenna’s hazel eyes clouded with worry. “When do you want to leave?”
“If you asked Witches’ Northwest, we probably should’ve left three days ago.”
“How are we getting there?” Bubba squared his hunched shoulders as much as he could and eyed Colleen.
“Excellent question.” Jenna looked at Colleen too.
She raised her hands in front of her face, palms out. “Stop it, you two. I can’t deal with the pressure.” Colleen clamped her jaws together and considered their options. Roz already had a car in Seattle. It didn’t make sense to drive their other one down, plus it would take too long. Flying with Bubba was impossible. He looked too odd in his gnome form and his cat form didn’t do well with the pressure changes. They had to teleport, which would seriously deplete their magic and mean they couldn’t fight so much as a disembodied spirit for at least twenty-four hours after they arrived.
Jenna screwed her face into an apologetic scowl, apparently having come to the same conclusion. “Look, I’m sorry I’m not more help. There’s something about that particular mix of earth, fire, and air that I always bungle.”
Air whistled through Colleen’s teeth. It had been so long since they’d teleported anywhere, she’d almost forgotten Jenna’s ineptitude with the requisite spell. “How about this? You go down to the basement and practice. I’ll get a few things together…”
“What do you want me to do?” Bubba asked.
“You can help me,” Jenna said. “I’ll do better if I have an object to practice with.”
The changeling scrunched his low forehead into a mass of wrinkles. “Just don’t get me lost.”
“Even if she does, I’ll be able to find you.” Colleen tried to sound reassuring. She was fond of her familiar. In many ways, he was very childlike.
Heh! Maybe that’s why I’ve been so reluctant to have a kid. I already have one who’ll never grow up.
The bells around the shop door clanged a discordant riot of notes. “Crap!” Jenna shot to her feet. “First customer in two days. I should’ve locked the damn door.”
“Back to cat form.” Colleen flicked her fingers at Bubba, who shrank obligingly and slithered out of clothing, which puddled around him. She snatched up his shirt and pants and dropped them back into the canister.
“I say,” a strongly accented male voice called out. “Is anyone here?”
“I’ll take care of the Brit,” Colleen mouthed. “Take Bubba to the basement and practice.”
She got to her feet and stepped past the curtain. “Yes?” She gazed around the dimly lit store for their customer.
A tall, powerfully built man, wearing dark slacks and a dark turtleneck, strode toward her, a woolen greatcoat slung over one arm. His white-blond hair was drawn back into a queue. Arresting facial bones—sculpted cheeks, strong jaw, high forehead—captured her attention and stole her breath. He was quite possibly the most gorgeous man she’d ever laid eyes on. Discerning green eyes zeroed in on her face, caught her gaze, and held it. Magic danced around him in a numinous shroud. Strong magic.
What was he?
And then she knew. Daoine Sidhe. The man had to be Sidhe royalty. No wonder he was so stunning it almost hurt to look at him.
Colleen held her ground. She placed her feet shoulder width apart and crossed her arms over her chest. “What can I help you with?”
Okay, so he knows who I am. Doesn’t mean a thing. He’s Sidhe. Could’ve plucked my name right out of my head.
“That would be me. How can I help you?” she repeated, burying a desire to lick nervously at her lips.“Time is short. I’ve been hunting you for a while now. Come closer, witch. We need to talk.”
Demon Assassins #2
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Urban Fantasy Romance, With a Heaping Side of Hexes, Spells, and Magick!
Last of the demon assassin witches, Roz, Jenna, and Colleen have escaped disaster so far, but their luck is running low. Demons strike in the midst of Colleen’s wedding, and Roz launches desperate measures. As she shape-shifts to keep one step ahead of evil, at least it takes her mind off her other problems. Personal ones. She burned through a couple of marriages and hooked up with a string of loser men before, after, and in between. Though she wants to be happy for Colleen, the jealousy bug bit deep and hasn’t let go.
In Roz’s secret heart, she’s attracted to Ronin, one of the Daoine Sidhe. He’s so profanely beautiful she can barely breathe around him, but he’s also headstrong and arrogant. Not good partner material—unless she wants to end up dusting her heart off one more time.
Ronin set his sights on Roz the day he met her, and he can’t get her out of his mind. Unfortunately, she’s so prickly getting close to her requires scheming. He casts an enchantment to lure her at Colleen’s wedding, but she senses the spell and calls him on it. Demons swarm out of the ether before he can come up with another strategy. Killing them trumps everything.
Roz is used to calling the shots. So is Ronin. Sparks fly. Tempers run hot, right along with an attraction too heady to ignore.
Roxanne Lantry—Roz to everyone who knew her—paced up and down the sodden lawn outside the huge old Victorian that housed the Witches’ Northwest Coven headquarters in Seattle. Rain pelted her from beneath a gunmetal sky, but it was better out here than inside. She fought an unfamiliar thickening at the back of her throat and balled her hands into fists.
“I will not cry,” she muttered to an inquisitive ground squirrel that ran across her boot tops, but telling herself and controlling her emotions were two different things.
One of her two best friends, Colleen Kelly, would be getting married in less than half an hour. Roz had been inside, in the midst of all the bride-craziness, but seeing Colleen swathed in cream-colored lace sent her into a tailspin.
What the fuck is wrong with me?
She kicked at a hummock of grass and yelped when it didn’t move, but the pain from her stubbed toes helped her focus. If she was honest, not an easy task when men were involved, she knew exactly what was bothering her.
“Yeah,” she mouthed the words, lecturing herself. “Two failed marriages and a whole bunch of loser dudes before, after, and in between. I’m jealous and I need a good, swift boot in the backside. Just because Colleen finally stumbled across Mr. Right doesn’t lower my odds of ever finding someone who’s gorgeous and magical and worships me.”
Now if I could only believe that…
Roz was happy for Colleen and Duncan, the Daoine Sidhe she was marrying. They made a great couple, but surely there was enough connubial bliss in the universe to sprinkle a little her way too. Her last go-round with a strikingly handsome Oklahoman she’d met online had ended in fireworks when he’d admitted all he really wanted was to tap into her magical ability. When the rubber met the road, he didn’t even like women. Her stomach churned. She hated being made a fool of. She’d turned the guy in to his Coven for false advertising and laying a trap to delude a fellow magic wielder, but she doubted they’d done much to censure him.
Water dripped off her nose. She stuck out her lower lip and blew upward, but the rain kept on dripping. Roz shook her fist at the low-hanging clouds, recognizing it for displacement activity. What she really wanted to do was pound her fist through the Oklahoman’s nice, straight nose.
Enough of this. Give it a rest. That happened months ago.
For Christ’s sake, I need to get moving, go inside, and trade my jeans and serape for fancy duds.
Roz took a few deep breaths to settle her angst. She couldn’t show her tear-stained face to the world. She’d never live it down. When she closed her eyes, the Oklahoma asshole formed behind her lids, taunting her. Roz clenched her jaw and summoned a calming spell. It seemed like cheating, but time was short. As the wispy edges of magic caught her up, they soothed her frazzled nerves and she turned hard right and headed for the house at a brisk trot.
She, Colleen, and Jenna Neil were the last of a long line of demon assassins. Witches with specialized powers, they lured Irichna demons, immobilized them, and sent them packing to the netherworld. When things worked right, she and her sister witches—along with Colleen’s familiar—shanghaied the demons and locked them behind the gate guarding the Ninth Circle of Hell.
The demons didn’t go without a fight, though, which was what had killed off the other demon assassin witches. It didn’t help that demons as a group had been gathering power these last fifty years or so. Witches lived a long time, but they were far from immortal, and demon assassination ability was genetic. She, Jenna, or Colleen would have to produce children or that strain of magic would die out. None of them had a shred of domesticity, so no one had signed up for motherhood. At least not yet.
I can’t put two weeks together without a major demon battle these days. How the hell could I take time off to raise a kid?
Rain ran down her neck and Roz shivered. Thinking about demons chilled her bones. Realizing she’d stopped walking, she plodded toward the house again and forced her thoughts to the magicians’ supply store she owned with Colleen and Jenna in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The other two witches had moved there months ahead of her. She hated the idea of all that snow and cold and winter nights that lasted twenty hours, but she’d boxed herself into a dicey situation and hadn’t had much choice. Her temper, never very controllable on a good day, had gotten the better of her, and she made short work of her cheating husband and his two—yup, count ’em—girlfriends. After that, she’d packed up and headed her aging Subaru north. Next stop, Fairbanks…
That had happened a few years ago. So many, it was almost time to move on before anyone noticed she and the other witches didn’t seem to grow any older.
Roz shook her head, not wanting to go there, either. She forced her mind back to the special skill she shared with Colleen and Jenna. She hated to admit it, but demons held the high cards these days, and she had no idea how to even the odds.
Aren’t I just the queen of cheerful?
She gave herself a mental shake with instructions to snap out of her funk.
Roz made it to the huge house and tugged on one of the ground level doors. When it didn’t open, she hit it with a jolt of magic, and the deadbolt snicked aside. She stopped long enough to shake water off her and then loped down a long corridor with a concrete floor toward one of the old mansion’s many stairwells. Fluorescent lights, recessed into the ceiling, gave off a sickly yellow gleam that matched her sour mood.
She’d just begun climbing upward when a rush of footsteps sounded from the hallway below.
“There you are,” Bubba, Colleen’s familiar, cried out and leapt up the stairs after her.
Roz glanced over a shoulder and saw he was in his normal form: a three-foot-tall changeling with oversized feet, long arms, and a bow-legged gait. His shaggy, black hair had been brushed until it shone, and his dark eyes glittered mischievously. Colleen had a hell of a time keeping him dressed, but today he sported black pants and a black jacket over a white shirt.
“Yes,” Roz countered, still feeling out of sorts. “Here I am. The question is why aren’t you upstairs with everyone else?”
“Colleen got worried. She sent me to hunt you down.” Bubba crossed his arms over his chest, looking pleased with himself.
Roz rolled her eyes. “Bubba, look—”
“Uh-uh.” He uncrossed his arms and waggled a finger at her. “Niall. Remember, you all promised to use my real name from now on.”
“So we did. Crap! I don’t have time for this.” She unkinked her neck and trudged upward.
“No kidding,” he agreed. “Everyone’s here, and you’re not even dressed yet.”
Rather than focus on her shortcomings, Roz changed the subject. “You’re looking pretty spiffy, bud.”
“Do you like it?”
“What I saw of it. It’s sort of like a black tuxedo, but with Velcro instead of buttons.”
“I hate buttons.”
Roz grinned in spite of herself. “I know you do, sweetie.”
She came to the third floor landing and pushed the stairwell door open, holding it for the changeling. “Run and tell Colleen I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes.” Without waiting for an answer, she walked briskly halfway down the long hall and let herself into her bedroom. Locking the door behind her, she unlaced her wet boots and toed them off. Next she shucked her sodden clothes, ducked into the bathroom, and gathered strands of coal black hair, pulling it into a ponytail with both hands. Once she had her hair together, she wrapped her head in a towel. She didn’t believe in hair dryers, so once she’d soaked as much water as she could into the towel, she grabbed her comb, made several sections, and plaited her knee-length, straight-as-a-stick hair, weaving it into a pseudo-French braid.
Before she left the bathroom, she inspected her face in the mirror. She never wore makeup because it made her look like a clown. Her bronzed skin and stark bone structure declared her Native American blood more clearly than words could have. She smoothed her eyebrows with a few drops of water and considered which of two outfits to wear. Colleen had said it didn’t matter to her, so long as Roz didn’t show up in her usual tattered blue jeans and combat boots.
With a snort of amusement, she padded back into the bedroom and pulled a long, beaded black buckskin skirt off a hanger. She stepped into it and laced the side fastening. Next came a turquoise deerskin top, also beaded, that clung to her like a second skin. In addition to not bothering with makeup, she also didn’t care for underthings, so the outline of her breasts was clearly visible through the soft leather. She slipped a heavy silver and turquoise necklace over her head, arranging her braid on top of it, and grabbed a matching ring off the dresser.
The only thing left was her moccasins. Roz wriggled her feet into them, enjoying the way the deerskin warmed and hugged her feet. Jenna always wore high heels, but Roz had never understood how she could tolerate them. They’d had a few heated discussions years ago before Roz finally gave up.
“To each her own,” she told the mirror. Satisfied she looked presentable, she focused the threads of her calming spell, strengthened it a bit to make certain she’d last through the ceremony without breaking down and bawling like an idiot, and let herself into the hallway.
The buzz of a crowd reached her from the main floor. She glanced toward the stairs and then the other way, wondering if Colleen was still up here. Figuring it couldn’t hurt to find out, she walked two doors down and knocked. The door flew open almost immediately and she looked into an accusing set of pale blue eyes.
“It’s about fucking time,” Colleen exclaimed. Auburn hair with lily of the valley woven into it swirled around her, falling to waist level. At six feet, Colleen was normally a good four inches shorter than Roz, but today she wore heels and they were of a height.
“Huh?” Roz murmured, confused. “I almost went downstairs. I had no idea you were waiting for me.”
“We’d planned to all go down together.” Colleen sounded sullen. “You know, like a proper wedding party.”
“If we were all that proper,” Roz said, “Jenna and I would be wearing matching—”
Jenna made chopping motions with both hands and unfolded her well-rounded frame from off the bed. Blonde hair, hacked off at shoulder level, framed a gamine’s face with shrewd, hazel eyes. Rather than her standard, thrift store couture, today she wore a short beige silk skirt, a lacy blouse, and her trademark high-heeled boots. Huge, golden hoops graced her ears.
She walked to Roz’s side and looped an arm through hers. “Don’t think anything of it. The bride—” she waved an airy hand Colleen’s way “—has been antsy as a scalded cat all day.”
Colleen closed her teeth together with an audible clack. “Maybe I’m making a mistake.”
Roz and Jenna turned to stare at her. “What?” Jenna asked, incredulous.
“Hey, if you don’t want him—” Roz began.
“No shit,” Jenna interrupted. “Tall, blond, drop dead gorgeous. Those green eyes are to die for and those shoulders.” She made panting noises. “The couple of times I saw him without a shirt, I almost came just watching his muscles rustle beneath his skin when he walked.”
Colleen rolled her eyes. “You two are impossible. Can’t a bride have a case of jitters without her two closest friends turning into vultures?”
“No.” Roz looked down her nose at Colleen. “Considering how long and hard I’ve hunted for decent partner material…” She let her words trail off before the extent of her jealousy leaked out.
The door blew inward and Bubba marched in, hands on his hips. “Come on. Everyone’s ready.” He lowered his voice, but not by much. “I think Duncan’s worried that you—” he pointed at Colleen “—got cold feet.”
“She nearly did,” Jenna muttered.
“Aw, crap. Guess I need to go tell everyone the wedding’s off.” Bubba did an about face, but before he could sprint through the open door, Colleen snatched him up.
“You’ll do no such thing.” She swallowed audibly. “I’m ready. I guess.”
“Let go of me.” Bubba writhed in her grasp.
“Not before you promise to keep your mouth shut.”
Roz smirked. Circumspection was not exactly the changeling’s long suit. She walked to Bubba’s other side. “I’ll take him.” She held out her arms.
“I can walk,” the changeling said with a great deal of dignity, “as soon as Colleen lets go of me.”
“You haven’t promised,” Colleen said. “Please, sweetie. It’s important to me. A girl needs to have some things stay private.”
He blew out an annoyed sounding breath. “All right. I promise.” Colleen relaxed her grip. Shaking himself like a dog might have, the gnome-like changeling chuckled. “Too bad. Something like that’s a prime piece of gossip.”
Colleen broke into a broad grin. “Right up your alley, eh?”
Roz made shooing motions. “Let’s get going. You don’t want all that food the Sidhe catered to get cold do you?”
“I don’t care about food,” Colleen mumbled. “I’m so nervous I probably won’t be able to eat a thing.”
“Well I do,” Jenna said. “I’m with Roz. Let’s get this show on the road.”
“Have a couple belts of whiskey,” Roz suggested. “It’ll do wonders for your nerves.”
The hallway air brightened and shimmered. When it cleared, Titania, Queen of Faerie, shook floor-length silvery hair out of her ice blue eyes and pushed it over her shoulders. A diaphanous gown, more jewels than fabric, floated around her tall, thin frame. “Is there some problem?” she inquired with asperity, and her gaze zeroed in on Colleen.
Colleen half curtseyed.
Roz considered it, but didn’t because Titania wasn’t her queen.
“No problem at all.” Colleen inclined her head. “We were just on our way.”
The Queen of Faerie’s severe expression softened. “Thank the goddess. For a minute there, I was afraid you were going to break Duncan’s heart.” She strode forward and thumped Colleen’s chest with a bony forefinger. “If you ever hurt that boy, I’ll hunt you down and make you very sorry.”
“That boy—” Colleen held the queen’s gaze “—is a thousand-year-old man.”
Titania furled her perfect silver brows. “Details. Besides, it’s rude to contradict me. Privilege of age and rank and all that. Let’s go. I haven’t performed a marriage in centuries. I’m quite looking forward to it.”
Colleen’s eyes widened. “I thought Naomi, the leader of this Coven, was going to join Duncan and me.”
“We both have roles to play.” Titania’s mouth twitched. “Surely you didn’t think I’d let one of my own be bound in marriage without my magic involved.”
“I have no idea what I thought,” Colleen managed, but she looked ready to throttle the queen.
Before things got any tenser and Colleen started in about it being her wedding, Roz herded them out the door and down the hallway. Colleen stopped for a moment at the head of the stairway, tension rolling off her in waves.
Roz wrapped an arm around her. “It will be fine,” she whispered. “Just fine.” After a quick hug, she let go.
As if those six words did the trick—or maybe it was the hug—Colleen swept down the long, curved staircase, looking regal. Roz, Jenna, and Titania jostled one another as they made their way down the twenty-five steps. Bubba made an end run around them and fell in behind Colleen, where he picked up her lace train.
They marched through the dining area where caterers and witches bustled about laying out a spread of food that smelled delicious, into a large, luxurious room that took up much of the bottom floor of the old Victorian. At one point, they’d talked about having the ceremony outside, but the weather put the kibosh on that idea. Roz wondered why they’d wasted their breath even considering an out-of-doors event. It was the winter solstice in Seattle. She bet there’d never been one when it wasn’t raining like crazy—or snowing.
Chairs lined the wood-paneled great room, and a fire burned merrily in a huge stone fireplace that took up one end of the sumptuous space. Old-fashioned chandeliers were festooned with hundreds of blazing candles. Witches sat on one side of a center aisle, Daoine Sidhe on the other. Roz guessed between three and four hundred people were in attendance—more Sidhe than witches. Everyone turned in their seats to stare at Colleen, and a collective aaaaah surged through the room.
Roz clamped down on a grin. Colleen really did make a lovely bride, with her Irish complexion and red tresses. The creamy lace dress was perfect. White would have made her look washed out. Titania strode around all of them and took her place at the head of the room. Roz noted with amusement that Naomi held her ground when Titania tried to push her to one side.
Before she and Jenna left Colleen to find their seats, her gaze landed on Duncan—Lord Regis—and her heart nearly stopped. All Sidhe had an ethereal beauty, but Duncan practically glowed. Dressed in a black tuxedo with a crimson cummerbund and diamond studs, he cut an impressive figure with his high forehead, sculpted cheekbones, and strong jaw. Longish blond hair had been braided in tight rows, but the severe style suited him and make him look like an ancient warrior.
Roz averted her gaze, afraid he’d catch her staring, but he only had eyes for his bride. She said a quick prayer asking the goddess’s blessing on their union and turned toward the witches’ side of the room.
Because Ronin came up from her other side, she didn’t notice the Sidhe leader until he wove an arm around her shoulders. “I saved you a chair next to me.”
Her heart slammed into double-time rhythm. She’d met Ronin two weeks before at his castle in northern England, and they’d shared several spirited conversations over meals. Something magical and electric had sparked between them, but she’d chalked it up to everyone’s emotions running full tilt. She’d just escaped demons by the skin of her teeth, and he was dealing with shame or guilt—or whatever he felt—about forcing witches into being demon assassins two centuries before. While his attentiveness had been welcome—and more than a little flattering—she’d been more focused on her relief at being alive than anything else. Besides, after the Oklahoman, she’d sworn off men—forever.
Ronin smiled, not looking anything but glad to see her, and her heart did a funny little flip-flop, in addition to beating much too fast. Dark hair hung loose to his shoulders, and his blue eyes twinkled warmly. Every bit as handsome as Duncan, he was dressed in formal clothing, black with a blue cummerbund, and what might have been ruby studs.
“I can’t,” she whispered. “I’m supposed to sit over there.” She gestured in the general direction of the witches’ side of the room.
“No one will notice,” he assured her and hooked his hand beneath her arm.
Roz didn’t fully understand why she let him guide her to a padded straight-backed chair near the front of the room and help her into it, but there was something irresistible about his energy. Too late, she recognized a mild compulsion spell. Anger spiked, but now wasn’t the place to give in to it. With every shred of self-discipline at her disposal, she forced her attention to Duncan and Colleen reciting their vows, and to Naomi, who’d muscled her way in before Titania could get rolling.
When Ronin draped an arm around her shoulders, she shot him a harsh look that made him move it damned fast. Good, she thought. It’s about time the Sidhe realize their days of pushing witches around are over. Yes, he was gorgeous, and he seemed interested in her, but the last thing she needed was some overbearing mage mucking things up. She still wasn’t quite certain how Colleen’s marriage to Duncan would impact her and Jenna. They’d always been kind of like The Three Musketeers, demon style. The permanent addition of a Sidhe was bound to have some effect. Exactly what was hard to gauge.
Who am I kidding? We didn’t just get Duncan. We’re stuck with his kinfolk now too. All of them.
She bit back a sigh. If the series of meetings a couple of weeks before in the U.K. was any indication, she, Jenna, and Colleen would have to fight to be recognized as anything remotely close to equal.
Roz snuck a glance at Ronin. He sat straight in his seat, his profile heartbreakingly beautiful. His long-fingered hands were clasped together in his lap. She couldn’t stop herself from wondering what they’d feel like stroking her body. Warm. Electric. Compelling.
Maybe I should give him a chance, a tiny, inner voice piped up.
Roz tried for a stern note, but the other part of her brain wouldn’t shut up.
Demon Assassins #3
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Urban Fantasy Romance With a Heaping Side of Hexes, Spells, and Magick!
Jenna’s a special witch, sort of, when her magic works, which it often doesn’t. One of three remaining demon assassins, she and her sister witches, Roz and Colleen, are Earth’s only hedge against being overrun by Hell’s minions. On the heels of Roz’s and Colleen’s weddings, Jenna is headed for the U.K. when a demon confronts her. Any other witch could teleport out of the plane, but not her. Frustration about her limited power eats at her. It would be pathetic to get killed for lack of skills a teenager could master.
Tristan is a Sidhe warrior, but his primary gift is attunement to others’ emotions. He fell hard for Jenna, but hasn’t had an opportunity to act on their attraction beyond a few kisses because she returned to Alaska, and he’s been in the field fighting demons.
As seer for the Sidhe, Kiernan is haunted by visions, particularly an apocalyptic sending that seems to be coming true. A confirmed bachelor, he doesn’t understand his attraction to Jenna, but it’s so strong he can’t fight it. After a while, he doesn’t even try, despite recognizing Tristan’s claim to her.
Startling truths surface about Jenna’s magic, and then there’s the problem that she’s falling in love with two very different men. At first she believes she has to pick one of them, but her spirit refuses to walk away from either. It’s impossible to choose between a seer with dreams in his eyes and a beautiful man who intuits her every need. Standing on the verge of Earth’s destruction, will she defy convention and follow the song in her heart?
Jenna Neil sank heavily onto her airplane seat and kicked off her high heels, shoving them beneath the seat in front of her. With a small sigh of relief, she rotated her ankles to take the pressure off her aching arches. She’d always loved heels—the higher the better—and insisted on wearing them, never mind they definitely lacked a comfort factor. Once she’d shot past six feet, she figured it didn’t matter if she added a few inches to her already overbearing height.
A flight attendant leaned over to hand her a pillow and blanket. Jenna tucked the pillow behind her head as she listened to the safety briefing and estimates of their arrival time in London.
She closed her eyes, but it didn’t ease how tired and gritty they felt, and smoothed her too-short denim skirt down her thighs. A red wool sweater and matching denim jacket finished off her outfit. She’d been so excited about getting out of Alaska and away from the layers she was forced to wear through the winter, she’d probably underdressed for the current jaunt. Less trendy clothes were tucked in her checked luggage, but they weren’t exactly accessible.
The last few days hadn’t offered much opportunity for rest. She, Colleen Kelly-Regis, and Roxanne Lantry-Redstone—Roz to everyone who knew her well—were the last of the demon assassin witches. Having escaped Irichna demons by a ridiculously narrow margin—again—the three of them were on their way to the U.K. where they could do it all over again.
Jenna grinned ruefully. Demons running amok through the British countryside had thrown witches and the Daoine Sidhe together after two hundred years of enmity. It had also netted impossibly hunky husbands for her sister witches, but that was beside the point. Staying alive was a much more front and center problem.
Because Irichna demons had become so much more aggressive, everyone but her thought it would be best to travel separately. She hadn’t agreed, but she’d been the one dissenting vote. As far as Jenna was concerned, there was always strength in numbers, but the others were convinced their current strategy would confuse the demons long enough for everyone to regroup on the eastern side of the Atlantic. Colleen and Roz were teleporting with their husbands. Niall, Colleen’s Irish changeling familiar, was making his own way back home along with two Scottish changelings, Llyr and Krae. Jenna had never been much good at teleporting, so she’d opted to fly commercial. It would place her arrival at least twelve hours after everyone else, but she could live with that. At least the first leg of her journey, from Fairbanks to Seattle, and thence to New York, had been uneventful.
Thinking about Irichna made her shiver, so she unfolded her blanket and draped it around her shoulders. Demons didn’t get much worse than Irichna. As Abbadon’s chosen henchmen, they played for keeps, and Abbadon was the biggest and baddest of Hell’s denizens, so nothing was off limits. Demon assassin witches had been a craw in his throat for a long time, and lately he’d upped the ante to get rid of them—permanently.
Them means me, and I’d do well not to forget that.
Jenna blew out a weary breath. One of her not-so-distant ancestors had been forced into demon containment two hundred years ago by the Sidhe, breaking every rule that bound magic-wielders, but the Sidhe hadn’t cared. In the intervening years, demons had managed to kill every single witch with demon-assassin ability—except for her, Roz, and Colleen. The Sidhe were primed to take back some responsibility for ferrying Irichna to the Ninth Circle of Hell where the gatekeeper locked them away, but that hadn’t exactly happened yet.
She gritted her teeth and unclenched hands she’d balled into fists around the edge of the thin airline blanket. The aircraft backed out of its slip and headed for one of the many runways at JFK Airport. While it would be lovely to have help with the demons, working with the Sidhe held its own set of problems. For one thing, most of them were insufferably autocratic, which was how Jenna’s great-grandmother had ended up being suckered into picking up the demon banner in the first place.
Even though Titania, Queen of Faerie, appeared marginally tolerant of Colleen’s and Roz’s marriages to Sidhe now, she’d given Duncan quite a bit of grief over his proposed marriage to Colleen at the front end of things. By the time Ronin, the de facto Sidhe leader, made it clear he’d set his sights on Roz, Titania had backed down a few notches, probably because they were beset by Irichna.
Jenna thinned her lips into a hard line. Hundreds of years before, Ronin’s human partner had died in childbirth, and the child along with her. Apparently, both the Queen and King of Faerie made it clear Ronin had sunk himself by choosing to marry someone outside his race. In the face of their indifference, Ronin had carried his grief alone.
It’s just like it is with humans. Everybody’s got to have somebody to look down on…
Jenna tamped back a cynical grin. The Sidhe had made strides accepting other races, but they had a way to go before they moved beyond their intolerant past.
Jenna pictured her friends’ husbands, and a small sigh escaped. Like all the Daoine Sidhe, Duncan Regis and Ronin Redstone were heartbreakingly stunning. Duncan’s blond good looks and green eyes provided a counterpart for Ronin’s dark hair and deep blue gaze. When Jenna scratched the surface and did a little soul-searching, she had to admit she’d never expected to find a permanent partner. Girls like her—well rounded and obscenely tall—weren’t exactly in demand. Colleen was beautiful with her waist length auburn hair and pale blue eyes, and Roz was unusual and striking. Her Native American heritage and long, lean frame turned heads whenever she passed by.
Guess I’m the odd witch out these days…
Jenna pressed her lips together. It remained to be seen how her friends’ marriages would impact their lives. Some things would have to change because she couldn’t quite envision Duncan and Ronin simply moving in to her Fairbanks, Alaska, home along with their new wives. For one thing, all the Sidhe maintained amazing abodes in the U.K. Places that resembled castles more than houses.
Jenna reined in her thoughts. There were a lot of unknowns, but the main problem would be surviving the next few weeks. Once they got the Irichna on the run—if that were even possible—then she could figure out more prosaic things, like if she’d be the only one still living in Fairbanks and running their magicians’ supply shop. Before the thought even finished forming, she knew that arrangement wouldn’t work. She, Roz, and Colleen had to stay together, and if the others insisted on remaining in the U.K., well then she wouldn’t have much choice in the matter. If she returned to Alaska by herself, she’d be a sitting duck for Irichna to swoop down and overpower her.
She shivered again and considered asking for a second blanket.
In an attempt to divert herself and maybe unwind, though it seemed unlikely, Jenna started to push her seat back and then remembered she wasn’t supposed to quite yet. The plane’s engines were revving, but they hadn’t left the ground. She heard the captain instruct the flight attendants to prepare the cabin for takeoff and tried to relax in her plush first-class seat. If the goddess was good to her, maybe she’d catch a few hours of sleep before the plane landed.
A flurry of supernatural energy caught the edges of her attention, and Jenna’s gut twisted into a sour knot. She sat up straight and craned her neck to scan the cabin, defensive magic at the ready. Her eyes widened in disbelief as Krae’s unmistakable form shimmered into being, and the changeling bounded into the empty seat next to Jenna. Her long, bright red hair hung loose, and her eyes shone like emeralds. Krae’s stocky body was draped in wide-bottomed green silk pants and an embroidered black tunic. As was usual with changelings, her feet were bare. The creatures drew their power from the earth, and Jenna assumed they didn’t want layers of leather or rubber or neoprene between themselves and their magical well. With their three-foot height, broad shoulders, and longish arms, they looked like a missing link between humans and the great apes.
“What are you doing here?” Jenna kept her voice low.
“Don’t worry,” Krae replied, not exactly answering Jenna’s question. “No one can see me except you.”
“Where are Niall and Llyr?”
“Niall joined Colleen and Duncan, and Llyr is with Roz and Ronin.”
Of course, why didn’t I think of that?
Jenna cleared her throat. “Why did you make different plans?”
Krae cocked her head to one side and crinkled her gnome-like face, making her look even more outlandish. “We discussed it and decided you might need help.” A corner of her mouth curved into a frown. “Personally, I thought it was a bit overdrawn, but Niall was most insistent about remaining with Colleen.”
“Can he join her teleport spell after it’s already set in motion?” Jenna was curious, but if Krae could teleport into this aircraft, maybe the other two could tap into a spell she’d always considered sacrosanct.
“Not directly, but he communicated with Colleen telepathically, and she altered her destination to pick him up. Llyr did the same with Roz and Ronin.” Krae dusted her palms together and grinned. “Nothing easier.” The changeling swept her agate-green gaze around the first-class cabin. “When will they feed us?”
“As soon as we pass through ten thousand feet, which won’t be long since we just took off.” Jenna paused for a beat. “If you weren’t thrilled about the plans to get to the U.K., why didn’t you speak up back in Alaska?”
“We did. No one listened to us. Roz and Ronin were so wrapped up in lust and pawing at each other, all they wanted to do was get to his manor house as fast as they could.”
“Well, they did just get married,” Jenna pointed out in defense of her friend. “And I don’t recall anyone but me voicing concerns about splitting up to travel.”
“That’s because you weren’t paying attention, either. Look, sweetie, if the Irichna win, no one will be tupping anyone.” Despite being much shorter than Jenna, the changeling managed to send a withering glance her way.
“Point taken.” Jenna shot an equally scathing glance back. “Next time, if you feel strongly about something and no one’s paying attention, talk louder.”
“Rehashing the past is a waste of time.” Krae bounced up and down in her seat. Jenna considered telling her to fasten her seatbelt, but if no one could see her, there wasn’t much point. “Be sure to take everything they offer foodwise,” the changeling instructed. “I’m hungry.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem since I’m not.” Jenna lapsed into silence.
“Why so glum, witchy girl?” Krae trained her ancient eyes, which probably didn’t miss a trick, on Jenna.
“Oh, no particular reason.” Jenna stifled a snort and rolled her eyes. “I find facing death several times a day downright exhilarating.”
A bell sounded, and the fasten seat belt icon winked out. Moments later, the first-class cabin flight attendant leaned close. “Are you all right?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Jenna snapped and then winced at how surly she sounded.
“I heard you talking and thought maybe you needed something.” The flight attendant smiled encouragingly. Airlines had moved past using Barbie clones long since, and this woman was middle-aged with streaks of gray in her dark, shoulder-length hair, the beginnings of wrinkles around her blue eyes, and a kind expression.
“Food,” Krae prodded, not bothering with telepathic speech.
“Thanks for being concerned.” Jenna managed a genuine smile for the cabin attendant. “I am hungry, so snacks would be appreciated whenever you get around to serving.”
“Of course.” The woman smiled back. “I’m Suzanne.” She tapped the nametag hanging around her neck. “Just press your call button if you need anything. Other than that, relax and enjoy your flight.”
“You could’ve been a bit more assertive about our dinner,” Krae complained.
“I’m guessing they can’t hear you, either.” Jenna switched to telepathic speech.
“Of course they can’t.” Krae blew out an annoyed-sounding breath. “Look, witchy-girl, draw a spot of magic and shield your speech. That way no one will bother us, and we can talk.”
Feeling like an idiot because she hadn’t come up with the idea herself, Jenna drew the requisite spell before she spoke again. “I was actually hoping to sleep.”
“You can do that after we eat and talk.”
Jenna turned to face the changeling and raised a quizzical brow. “This is starting to sound bigger than you. Whose idea was it for the three of you to split up, and for you to join me?”
Krae’s generous mouth twitched into a grin, and she jabbed a finger in the air between them. “Smart witch.”
“You didn’t exactly answer me.”
“No. I didn’t.”
Jenna pressed her tongue against her teeth to manage her annoyance. The last thing she needed was a rousing game of twenty questions, so she trained what she hoped was a non-confrontational gaze on Krae and shrugged. “We have seven hours, feel free to take your time.”
The changeling’s green eyes sparkled with mischief. “You’re burning up with curiosity. I can smell it.”
Jenna didn’t bother to point out she was so trashed from the past few weeks that she doubted she had enough energy to burn up with anything. Suzanne handed her a bottle of water and a tray with an assortment of appetizers. The flight attendant had no sooner moved on to the next passenger than Krae bent over the tray and dug in.
The changeling looked up after inhaling half the finger sandwiches and most of the nuts. “Sure you don’t want any of this?”
“Help yourself.” Jenna adjusted her seat so it tilted backward, twisted the cap off the water, and drank deeply.
“Beer, wine, or a cocktail, miss?” a masculine voice asked.
Jenna glanced up at a cabin attendant she hadn’t seen before. He was tall and rangy with very blue eyes, white-blond hair, and a gold band on the third finger of his left hand. She swallowed a smile. With looks like his, he might have begun wearing the ring in self-defense, to slow the tide of women throwing themselves at his feet. He arched a brow and gestured toward the drink cart.
“Um, maybe a cup of coffee with a side of Irish whiskey.”
“Excellent choice.” He beamed at her, displaying very white, very even teeth. He may have winked, but she wasn’t quite certain. “Would you care for cream or sugar?”
Once he handed her drink over, she uncapped the small bottle of spirits and dumped a little into her cup. She’d traveled through so many time zones already, it scarcely mattered whether it was evening yet, and the liquor might have a salutary effect. The steward’s gaze traveled up her body in frank appraisal before he moved to the passenger across the aisle. Jenna’s face warmed a few degrees. What the hell? Was he sizing her up for a quickie in one of the plane’s johns?
Krae twisted her head and stared at the man. The air glistened wetly where the changeling deployed magic. She wasn’t particularly subtle, and the man’s spine stiffened, but he didn’t turn around.
“He felt that.” Jenna pitched her mind voice just for Krae and shielded it to boot.
“Indeed he did.” Krae narrowed her eyes. “Do you know what he is?” Jenna shook her head. “Pity,” the changeling went on, “neither do I.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to send more magic his way,” Jenna murmured. “As it is, what you did tipped him off. How did you know something was wrong?”
“How else?” Krae shrugged. “I almost missed it, but something…odd drew my attention when he looked at you. If he’d been human, his gaze would have held more heat. Instead there was an…unnatural hunger.” She hesitated. “More like he was relieved he’d found you rather than wanting sex.”
A shudder iced Jenna’s blood. Unlike Roz and Colleen, she couldn’t simply teleport off the airplane. Her heartbeat sped up. “Maybe you should leave,” she told Krae. “No point in both of us being trapped.”
“Uh-uh. We hold our ground for now. It’s possible his presence has nothing to do with you.”
“Not very fucking likely.”
Krae picked up another small sandwich and stuffed it into her mouth. Jenna snuck a peek at the steward just in time to see him disappear through the curtain separating first class from the remainder of the aircraft. Because she was desperate for information, she sent a tendril of magic snaking outward and yanked it back as soon as she determined the man wasn’t an Irichna disguised as human. Duncan had run up against one masquerading as a priest near the Witches’ Northwest Coven headquarters in Seattle. It had lured two female teenagers and would have drained them of life if Duncan hadn’t intervened. As it was, he wasn’t certain either had survived because he’d left them at a hospital and hadn’t hung around long enough to find out.
Jenna ran options through her mind, not liking any of them. She didn’t want to end up in a pitched battle inside the aircraft. Hell, they’d probably lock her away as a terrorist the minute the plane landed, and Irichna would pick her off from her cell.
“I was serious,” Krae’s out loud voice intruded. “There’s at least a small possibility he’s simply some sort of mage. He might have gotten a magical hit off your aura and was curious.”
“What did you want to talk about earlier?” Jenna changed the subject because she could speculate about the mystery steward from now until he made a move against her, and it wouldn’t change the outcome, other than making her more aware to watch out for him.
“How much do you know about my race?” Krae countered, answering Jenna by asking a question of her own.
“Mostly what I’ve gleaned from living with Niall for forty years. Why?”
Krae popped the last sandwich into her mouth, chewed, and swallowed. “We’ve always known we would have a key role to play in major battles against the Irichna. It’s written in our histories, and we’ve prepared as best we could.”
Jenna drew her brows together. “Niall never mentioned it.”
“It’s quite possible he didn’t know. We’ve done our damnedest to keep that particular bit of knowledge quiet, so the Irichna wouldn’t target us before the time came to play our part. Not that we didn’t inform our people—and try to coach them—but Niall’s been gone for a good many years.”
Jenna rolled her shoulders to offset the iron bar of tension sitting between them. “You sound like a preacher threatening the latter days are nearly upon us.”
“They are.” Krae’s expression turned deadly serious.
“More whiskey, miss?”
Jenna started at the sound of the steward’s voice. He’d returned to the cabin so quietly, she hadn’t heard him. “Um, no.” She resisted the temptation to look at him. It would give her more information, but that was a two-way street.
“As you will, miss.” He pushed the drink cart past her. It made quite a bit of noise, which led her to suspect he’d used magic to muffle his presence earlier.
How long had he studied her without her knowing?
Why hadn’t Krae sensed him?
Worse, he’d apparently made his way back to the front of the plane, pushed the rattling cart past her, and served other passengers without alerting her to his presence. Not good. Jenna shielded her mind—just in case—and clamped her jaws together when he sashayed into the curtained galley alcove between first class and the cockpit. Her heart thudded against her ribcage, and her throat was dry. It was looking like she’d need to do something, but what would attract the least attention?
Krae uttered a muted expletive in Gaelic, bolted from her seat, and whisked after the steward. Jenna stared after the changeling with her mouth hanging open. She pushed upright, remembered her seatbelt, and fumbled with the clasp. By the time she was free of it, a flash of multicolored light practically blinded her, flaring above, below, and through the curtain. Heedless of the other first class passengers, who couldn’t sense expended magic anyway, she threw her power wide open.
Jenna didn’t realize she’d been holding her breath until it whistled from between her clenched teeth. She drew her lips back, hissing in satisfaction once she realized the blast of power had come from Krae, not the man. Balancing on the balls of her stocking-clad feet, Jenna strode forward and pushed past the curtain.
The steward was shaking his head back and forth, his face screwed into a mask of pain. Power flashed from the changeling’s hands. “No more,” he rasped, tottering from foot to foot. “I won’t hurt either of you.”
Jenna dragged an invisibility spell over all of them, layered a don’t look here spell over that, and prayed to the goddess no one would enter the small, enclosed space for the next few minutes.
“What are you?” She shoved the question hard into his mind.
“I already figured that out,” Krae said sourly. “He’s a minor demon sent to keep an eye on you and report back.”
“I already told you I hadn’t,” he whined. “And I won’t. You can bind me with magic.”
“That’s not good enough,” Jenna growled. “Demons lie.”
“So do changelings and witches.” He shot her a venomous look that belied his promises of non-interference.
“We’re wasting time,” Krae said and settled into a low chant.
A look of horror twisted the steward’s handsome face into something unrecognizable. He tried to walk past them but clearly couldn’t move. The air thickened, took on a blackish tinge, and stank of ozone just before smoke rose from the creature and he vanished.
Jenna drew back, impressed. Whatever Krae had done was magic well beyond her own abilities. Footsteps sounded on the far side of the curtain. Suzanne. Jenna recognized her energy and ducked into a passenger restroom. If Krae was powerful enough to banish the demon, shielding herself from the flight attendant should prove trivial. Kicking herself for being sloppy, Jenna pulled the magic from her spells to make the cramped galley appear as normal as possible.
“Paul,” Suzanne’s voice was pitched low, “your drink cart’s here. Where are you?”
Jenna flushed the toilet and splashed cold water on her overheated face. She took her time drying off and settled her features into a bland expression before stepping out of the john. With a nod and a smile at Suzanne, she pushed the curtain aside and returned to her seat. Krae was already there, doing her best to mask a self-satisfied grin.
“Okay, I give up.” Jenna eyed the changeling. “What did you do?”
“Teleported him outside the plane. Nature took care of the rest.”
Jenna thought about it. “While it’s good he’s gone, how will we know he didn’t report in somehow?”
“We won’t,” Krae said shortly. “Which means we’ll have to be very careful not to lead the enemy right to wherever we’re staying after we land.”