Derry sipped the rich black coffee that burned comfortingly through the cup in his hands. If he had to be living among mortals, he was grateful that there were some comforts that would make the experience more bearable. Giovanni’s fresh-brewed coffee was one of them.
He told himself that this was the reason he stirred from his bed with only a few hours sleep in him morning after morning. He said it adamantly every time he settled down on the corner of Dorchester Avenue, directly across the street from Bryn Mercer’s apartment.
It was just a quiet place to enjoy the effects of the caffeine. It had nothing to do with his ongoing fascination with the woman who’d been coming into his pub, Mallory’s, since its opening a few months ago. Nothing at all to do with those mesmerizing green eyes that sparkled even in the dim light of the bar nearly every night.
And it definitely had nothing to do with the sidhe charm she wore around her neck.
Derry lied to himself more out of habit than out of belief. Something about this woman stirred the most elemental instincts in him. It was a warning that he couldn’t ignore, and she, she was an enigma that he could not wrap his head around.
Damn it, he’d spent the last twenty-five years blending in just fine. Like all of his brethren who’d fled into the mortal lands after their queen had fallen, Derry Caomhanach was hunted.
He never used his magic, lest it alert one from the Draoda Tír of the presence of a sidhe. Never interfered in the lives of the humans he knew in any way that was not 100 percent mortal.
Sure, he partook in the pleasures of mortal life as any man would. But the call of the sidhe warrior inside him was a constant. His body and soul cried out to embrace the magic all around him. As a master of the elements, there was nowhere he could go where he could escape their seductive whispers.
Yet he resisted, calling upon a ceaseless cache of control honed from living century after century. It was his one constant, the strength that had never failed him once throughout war and pestilence, the endless passage of time, or the darkest hours of the night when he yearned to be home.
Bryn Mercer had obliterated that control the night she walked into his pub. One small, troubled woman had defeated one of the most legendary sidhe warriors with nothing more than a sultry smile and a gaze that would shame any emerald in the world.
After that night, he had to know everything he could about the woman, and that was the first time he’d used his power in a quarter-century. He shadowed her invisibly, learned the signature of her thoughts, the color of her energy in the world – and every new piece of information he gÁine d ensnared him further.
She was a social worker for whom the word dedicated would be an insult to the amount of care and attention she gave to her young charges. That surprised him since she was an orphan who was raised in foster care; he thought anyone who had never had a home of their own would want to get as far away from the system that made that so as soon as possible.
Yet, she stayed to help others, and that he found admirable. She had heart, courage, and was a walking paradox that perplexed him more than anything in his near 1,000-year existence.
The woman was a mixture of hardest stone and softest down. He’d seen her with her children, so caring and comforting. Her face was always bright and warm, putting the little ones at ease with a single look.
Behind that, there was also a sharp dagger ready to strike at the right target. In court, she was a vicious advocate for her young charges. No one was spared from her bringing them to justice if she knew they were harming a child.
And she always knew.
At Mallory’s, her moods were unpredictable, almost dangerous at times. She always came in looking for some escape. And she got it, by the gods. Derry could never figure out how she drew the men to her as she seemed oblivious to her beauty and light. Yet to her side they came when her hair shone dark in the low light of the pub and her eyes smoldered with a dangerous glow.
She would only walk in the bar, order a Jameson, and try to fade into numbness. And that was all it took to attract the worst kinds of ruffian to try and make their way into her bed. Few made it, but the ones who did … Derry didn’t want to think about what happened after they left the bar. He’d seen the bruises on her arms, sometimes her face, the day after.
Something had happened to this woman that had turned her fierce in her apathy toward those she shared her company with. It was clear that she cared nothing for herself; she saved her conviction and strength for the children.
It was almost as if she were punishing herself for some wrong she had committed, though what that could possibly be Derry could not fathom. He could almost see the constant battle raging inside the hauntingly beautiful woman; one side fighting to bathe her soul in light, the other in darkness. Night and day the feud played out in the body of one very human female.
When Derry had noticed that her appearance changed to reflect her mood and purpose, he knew there had to be something magical at work here. Humans simply could not alter their appearance like fae glamour. In the mornings when she walked to work, her hair shone in the early day sun. It was a supple gleaming of rich browns, golds and auburns. Liquid silk brought to life in the light of day. Her posture was strong and assured, and she dressed the part: serious, but elegant skirts and blouses for court dates; jeans or khakis most other days with dressy t-shirts and tops. Her face was a wash of emotion: calm and collected with the children; all-business with those who sought to harm or dispensed justice.
At night, though, that haunted quality returned. Her hair was dark, dark brown. Her eyes smoldered in a deeper emerald color unlike any he’d ever seen, and they were on-guard, shifting. Her face betrayed nothing, no emotion other than what those around her seemed to want. She was almost like a chameleon that changes to blend into the situation.
At the pub, she was usually in jeans and scooped black shirts that naturally brought the eye to the firm offering that lay just beneath the cloth. Bryn’s stance and walk became softer, more inviting, more magnetic.
The thing Derry couldn’t understand was that she didn’t seem aware of it, or if she did, she didn’t seem to care about the consequences. He’d done what he could to protect her while she was in his bar, but it was after Jase Murphy, one of the more dangerous members The Syndicate, he knew that he had to do something.
Whatever was going on with Bryn could not continue, not only because what he was seeing was impossible for anyone not of the Draoda Tír. Then he noticed that she wore Queen Áine Dedannan’s talisman. How the hell she got her hands on a lost relic of his people was beyond him, but the one thing he knew was that every moment she wore the talisman of the sidhe queen she was in danger.
If she were a mere human woman, her personal demons would be the worst she’d have to face. Counseling, therapy, and good friends could help her through. But as a human in possession of a powerful piece of ancient magic, those demons could easily multiply and consume their maker. And the fact that she openly wore a symbol of the sidhe made her vulnerable to those who hunted his race – the Collector Demons.
Seeing Lady Áine’s seal on the breast of a mortal threw him off. Perhaps she was part sidhe or another of his kind on hiding. Derry had probed her energy and found Bryn Mercer to be very human. He could sense the absence of sidhe power in her. No magic, no kiss of the elements, no knowledge of the old ways.
And she did not look like a sidhe woman. Bryn was shorter and stockier, more muscular than delicate. She had curves in her hips and center, and though the mere thought of her soft frame brought an aching fullness low in his body, it was not the sort of build sidhe women were known for. Their females were warriors, but held their strength and power within tall, elegant bodies that lured enemies into a false sense of confidence. The last thing they saw before death was beauty incarnate.
Most conspicuously, though, Bryn lacked the tell-tale sign of sidhe birthright: eyes that shone in the colors of nature, not the blues, greens and browns of the mortals. The sidhe were children of the earth and wielders of the elements. Their eyes were the windows to their power and thrust living color back into the world from which that power was drawn. Sidhe eyes ranged from the burning orange and pinks of the setting sun, to the mottled blacks and beiges of the desert sands. Bryn’s sparkling green eyes were certainly remarkable, but still very mortal.
The sun rose higher in the morning sky, bringing with it unseasonable warmth for early October. As a breeze thick with the scent of the New England fall blew around Derry, the door to Bryn’s building opened to reveal the woman he had just spent way too much time thinking about.
She was lovely, as she was every morning. He knew she was due in court and expected her usual conservative attire. Maybe it was a trick of the light or just that he sensed a faint happiness emanating from her, even from this distance, but she seemed to almost sparkle in the beams of light cascading through the buildings this morning. The pale ice blue of her blouse enhanced the smooth paleness of her skin – and with her hair swept up from her neck and her carrying her dress jacket instead of wearing it, he had an expansive view.
Automatically, Derry took up pace behind her. Far enough so that she didn’t notice, but not so far that he couldn’t help if she got into trouble.
Her route to work had been a very real concern for him even before she started hanging around with Jase Murphy. The street rats that lived in this section of Boston were dangerous, but predictable. They were stupid and ruled by their cocks.
Jase, on the other hand, was just downright unpredictable, almost obsessive at times. He would just as soon kill Bryn as fuck her. Unfortunately, Jase had already done the latter with her full consent – and marked her as his property. Derry doubted she knew just how quickly the man could turn on her.
“Let’s keep it casual,” she’d told Jase last week in the bar. Derry made it a point to eavesdrop on their conversations whenever possible. And though he put on a perfect face of agreement in response, when she turned to the bar to grab a beer, Derry saw that look of fierce possession only a stalker has.
Derry took a sip of his coffee to wipe the taste of disgust from his mouth. He growled at the thought of that scumbag touching her.
What a sweet piece of ass.
Derry was drawn immediately out of his brooding, senses on high alert trying to figure out where the errant thought had come from. It could’ve been from any of the apartments or stores lining the street – about anyone, anywhere.
He slowed his breathing and calmed his thoughts, sending his senses all around him to find the source.
A few blocks up and to the right … Was it before or after where Bryn had just been? Derry sped up his pace, listening intently while keeping his gaze locked on Bryn’s hurrying form. She was late, he knew, but if some miscreant who’d become interested in her saw her rushing, she might be in for some trouble.
hat’s it. Make me chase you. It’s half the fun.
Derry could actually feel the guy’s adrenaline spike and his cock swell. Wasn’t being able to hear other people’s thoughts – bidden or not – enough? Did he really have to feel how fucked up they are down to their souls, too?
And still, Derry couldn’t place where the predator stalking Bryn was, only that he was on the move and catching up to Bryn. He looked in every alley, every crook where someone could hide out and follow an unsuspecting target. Gods, it was so easy in the damned neighborhood, dark and grey everywhere you looked.
Two blocks before Derry could see Mallory’s shingle hanging over the dank sidewalk, adding a slice of green and golf to the monochromatic theme of the surrounding streets, he picked up on the dark energy that was skirting around the backs of the standing buildings.
Derry ducked off of the main road to trace the man’s steps and found that he was setting up to intercept Bryn just as she crossed the street by the pub.
Derry faded into smoke, raced to the back of the bar and snuck around the side before either his charge or his quarry made it to the corner. He walked silently up the small alley that separated Mallory’s from the three-family house next to it and peered around the corner.
Bryn was checking her watch, not paying attention as she hurried her pace even more. Her stalker was walking leisurely up to the corner, nearly bursting with anticipation as he fingered the cool blade in his pocket.
I’ll bet you scream as good as you look.
The man’s whole groin twitched with a rush of blood from his speeding heart. Derry stepped out of the alley, coffee still in hand, and stared at the two people on a collision course with each other.
With a thought, the man with the knife stopped short, grabbing his throat. His body was slammed hard into the concrete wall of the corner bodega and was pinned there so that his toes just barely touched the sidewalk.
Derry stood there in front of his pub staring at the man, watching his face go from a rich beet red to a blooming purple, and he smiled. Damn, he loved being able to command energy some days.
Intent on her path, Bryn crossed the street and checked her watch again. Concentrating hard on prolonging the man’s suffering, Derry didn’t notice Bryn was heading directly toward him until it was too late. Before she could look up, she crashed into Derry’s chest, spilling his coffee and breaking his concentration.
“Oh my God! I’m so sorry,” Bryn apologized, not really looking at his face, only his body so she could see if she’d scalded him with his own coffee.
God, how stupid can you get, Bryn.
Derry caught the thought and grimaced at yet another recrimination she gave herself.
“It’s all right Ms. Mercer,” he said in his light Irish burr and smiling down at her. She was batting at his arm and jacket trying to clean the mess, and he put both hands on her shoulders and pushed her back to arms-length. “Nothin’ that won’t wash out.”
Her breath caught, and she immediately stiffened in defense at the sound of her name. She turned her scalding green gaze on his face and jerked herself back out of his grip.
“Did I scare you, love?” he said gently in response.
“Derry,” she breathed in relief, but still backed up a step or two. “Sorry. I’m just a little distracted this morning. I didn’t realize it was you.”
“Anytime, love. Are you alright?” he asked as he looked for a moment over her shoulder at the thug who was coughing and holding his throat like it had been in a vise. But his skin was smooth and white – untouched.
Eyes wide, the man looked about as if he would find whatever had caused his choking fit somewhere on the empty street.
As he made to stand, the thug found himself unable to move. Derry intensified his stare has he reinforced the command for the man’s energy to remain still.
“Yeah, fine, I guess,” Bryn answered, now trying to see if she had any remnants of coffee on her blouse. “It’s just not the morning for this.”
At her words, Derry turned his gaze from the piece of shit panicking around the corner to the woman in front of him. Her movements were jerky, her energy prickling with annoyance and haste. His skin could actually feel the thrum of her vibrating aura starting to heat his skin, which was mere inches from him now.
He had but to reach out and place a mere finger on her bared shoulder and he could savor the full thrill of the burgeoning energy that swirled around her, and, he knew, within her as well. Such promise in such an innocent package.
The gentleness of her features betrayed little of her inner struggles now. But Gods, she was lovely, Derry thought; addictive, really. As she brushed down the front of her blouse, Derry couldn’t stop his eyes from dwelling on the soft slope of her neck, bared to the world with her upswept hair and outlined by a fragile silver chain.
He wondered if it was as warm as it looked, if it would feel as smooth in his mouth as he imagined in his mind. His gaze followed the v-line of her collar to consider more intriguing elements of her form, when his eye caught hold of the prize the chain protected.
Priorities, he reminded himself. Priorities.
“Anything wrong?” Derry asked, looking into her impossibly radiant eyes and sending her a look of pure concern.
“Not really,” she said, returning his stare. “I’m due in court today to finalize an adoption. It should be a very happy day, actually. It’s just…”
She paused, struggling with her expression, like she couldn’t decide what she was feeling.
“It’s just what, love?”
“There was a last-minute change in the scheduling and now the case is being heard by a real hard ass judge. Unpredictable, you know? Makes me nervous that he’s handling this. It’s not usually his type of thing.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he said.
“It’s just rubbing me the wrong way,” she said, running her hands up her bare arms as if to warm herself.
“I wouldn’t worry, love,” he said as he reached out toward her throat. “Your talisman here will guide you, bring you the blessings you seek.”
His nails lightly caressed the skin of her chest as he took the charm in his hand for closer inspection. He ran the pad of his thumb over the circular knotwork of the cool metal. It was soft to the touch, but fortified from within. Certainly, it was made of silver, but there was more to that. A spark, almost of life beating within the entwined strands of silver. Magic. He could feel the thrum of magic infused into the talisman.
The pattern was definitely that of the queen’s family. Now he knew it to be Lady Áine’s lost talisman. Derry’s eyes flew to Bryn’s and took in a quick breath at the realization of what this could mean. Bryn’s cheeks flushed at his touch and she looked at him with alarm in her eyes.
“Maybe you should keep your hands to yourself,” Bryn said with a scowl as she stepped back and took the necklace back into the protection of her hands.
“Shit,” she said after glancing at her watch and starting to push past him annoyed.
“Forgive me, Ms. Mercer, but it’s been long since I’ve seen a true talisman of my home.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked guardedly, turning back to him.
“Where did you get your necklace?”
“Why are you asking about my necklace?”
“You don’t know what that is, do you?”
“I don’t even know what you are right now, but you know what, I don’t have time for this. I’m sorry I knocked into you. Send me the dry cleaning bill.”
Bryn took off again past Derry with an impatience that hadn’t been there a second before.
“Will you be at the pub tonight?” he asked her back as she strode away toward her office.
“Does it matter?”
“I want to talk to you.”
She kept walking without so much as a feigned glance behind. Derry sent his senses out into the few blocks ahead and into the building where Bryn worked. Sensing no negative energy or threat, he set down his coffee cup on the ground in front of the pub and walked around the corner to the paralyzed thug.
The man was now tearing in fright, quietly talking to himself. It sounded like he was fighting with some unheard voice that went back and forth from angry to panicked. Derry stopped in front of the man and a disgusted look slid onto his face.
“Help me man! Help me! I can’t move! Help me up!” the thug cried with desperation seething from every syllable. Derry bent over and picked the guy up by his collar and slammed him one-handed into the building.
“You’re up,” he spat. “Now I think we need to have a chat, you and me, about manners.”
Derry’s eyes grew pitch black with the tiniest flicker of orange flame dotting the centers. The man in his grip began to shake, but as he went to scream, no sound came out of his mouth. Every last molecule of oxygen had been ripped out of his body.