About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Lena Wilson was a woman with regrets. Her shoulders sagged as the day's heat and her high heels made the short walk even harder than expected. She'd worn dress clothes out of respect, but her usual jeans and boots might have been a smarter choice. Lord knows, the person she was going to see wouldn't have cared.
Pausing at the top of a rise, she pulled out the simple map the caretaker had given her. She was almost there.
"One, two, three..."
She counted off the headstones to alleviate the oppressive silence, her footsteps slowing as she approached the end of the row, her goal but a few feet away. She crossed that last painful distance and sank to her knees on the cool grass.
Her hand reached out to trace the inscription on the polished granite marker: a name, a couple of dates, a Bible verse, a fireman's badge. Not nearly enough to define the man who was buried there. Maynard Cooper had been her friend, her father figure, her conscience.
At long last the tears came, flowing down her cheeks in hot streaks.
"Coop, I'm so sorry."
Her throat closed, damming up the flood of apologies she owed to the man who'd been laid to rest on the pastoral hillside overlooking his beloved city. As the tears tapered off and her breathing eased, peace slowly stole over her. Coop had never judged her as harshly as she judged herself, but the self-forgiveness she needed would have to be earned.
That she'd missed his funeral hadn't been her fault, but missing out on the chance to heal the breach between them was. She placed her palm over his name, needing that small connection as she contemplated her next step.
If she couldn't make peace with her old friend, she would do the one thing no one else had been able to: avenge his death.
With a new sense of purpose, Lena rose to her feet and walked away, making plans. Somewhere in this city there was a killer with Maynard Cooper's blood on his hands. She wouldn't rest until the bastard was brought to justice.
The shrill ringing of a phone was Sandor Kearn's least favorite way to wake up, especially when he'd been up late. He didn't know which half of his job he hated more: the frustrating search for the Grand Dame's lost relatives, or his new role as chief enforcer for the Talion warriors Kerry commanded. He covered his eyes with his forearm to block out the sunshine and groped for the phone with his other hand.
When he finally found it, he growled "What?" into the receiver.
Kerry's voice was a mixture of good humor and business. "Sorry, Sandor, did I wake you up?"
"Yeah, you did. Put your husband on the line so I can take my bad mood out on him. When I'm able to be civil, Ranulf can give the phone back to you."
His Dame giggled. He was tempted to point out how undignified that was for the ruler of their people, but that would only encourage her.
"If it's not an emergency, can I call you back in a few?" he said instead. "Right now I won't remember anything you tell me."
"Please tell me you weren't up half the night working again. We've talked about that before, Sandor. You're my Talion, not my slave." She sounded reproachful.
"All right, I won't tell you."
She sighed. "Get up and eat breakfast. Make that lunch -- it's almost noon. When you're feeling human again, come see me."
"Okay. See you in an hour or so." He yawned loudly. "And by the way, I'm not human, and neither are you."
"I'll try to remember that. And an hour will be fine."
When she disconnected the call, he tossed his phone at the table. As it bounced onto the floor, he threw back the covers, then went into the bathroom and cranked the shower on hot. Leaning against the cool tile wall, he let the water pour over him, clearing out the cobwebs better than a cup of coffee.
Kerry knew that he already had a lot on his plate, so whatever was worrying her had to be serious. Well, he'd find out soon enough what it was.
He pulled on jeans and a casual sports shirt, then threw together a sandwich and grabbed a cola to drink on the way. After tossing his briefcase onto the passenger seat, he reached for his sunglasses.
Traffic was light, and he soon reached the gates to her driveway. He punched in his security number, waited as they swung open, then pulled into his usual parking space, alongside an unfamiliar car. Hughes, the butler, opened the front door before Sandor reached the top step. Inside, he headed for the living room, then stopped. Kerry hadn't mentioned the fact that anyone else would be there, so the unfamiliar woman was probably another Kyth who had dropped in to meet the new Dame.
Sandor waited impatiently in the foyer for the visitor to leave. Who was she anyway? He would have remembered meeting someone built like that -- honey blond hair, long legs, narrow waist, and all the right curves. If she was anywhere near as stunning from the front, he might just start drooling. When she finally turned to leave, her piercing blue eyes swept past him, then snapped back to stare into his.
And time stood still.
All of his Talion instincts surged full force, making him want to stop her, to learn her truth before letting her walk out that door. He didn't recognize her as Kyth, but he could have been wrong.
He forced himself to nod politely as she passed. When the door closed behind her, he had the strangest feeling that their paths would cross again and soon.
Kerry was walking out of the other side of the living room as he walked in, leaving only Ranulf waiting to talk to him. The Viking looked hesitant, not an expression Sandor had ever seen on his face before.
"If there's something you want to say, Viking, spit it out. I'm not in the mood for games."
Ranulf 's mouth quirked up in a small grin. "What put a burr up your backside?"
"No sleep. No progress on anything." Gods above, he sounded whiny. "Sorry."
"Don't sweat it." Ranulf turned to stare out the window. "Sometimes things close in on you, especially here in the city. I'm long overdue for some downtime on the mountain, alone with my wife."
"So why don't you and Kerry head up there for a few days? I can hold down the fort."
"She won't go. She worries about you," Ranulf grumbled.
"Damn it, I'm fine." He wasn't and they both knew it. But it was his problem, not theirs.
Ramulf let out a deep breath. "Kerry asked you here about a new problem that's popped up. She needed to make a call but should be off the phone by now."
They found Kerry sitting at the dining room table, immersed in paperwork. She didn't look any happier than Ranulf did.
"Damn it, Kerry, you promised to eat lunch before starting in on that stuff." Ranulf picked up a plate of food and set it directly in front of her. "Now eat or I'll burn those files."
She looked up from the report to glare at him. Her refusal to be intimidated by her warrior husband was one of the many things Sandor liked about the new Dame. Most people took one look at Ranulf and had the good sense to be a little afraid. But Kerry knew she had the man wrapped around her little finger. Ranulf would die before hurting her.
So would Sandor, even though she'd never looked at him as anything but a friend. He sometimes wondered about her taste in men, but he couldn't question the depth of her feelings for Ranulf, or his for her. Their relationship had been tempered in the heat of battle, a life-and-death struggle that had come close to destroying all three of them.
As she dutifully picked up the sandwich, she asked, "Did you already eat, Sandor?"
"Yes." He sat in his usual chair and reached for the coffeepot. "Some caffeine would be good, though. Can I top yours off ?"
She held out her cup. "Sorry to have disturbed your beauty sleep."
"It's my job to be at your beck and call." He softened the comment with a smile. "Finish your lunch and we'll talk."
She gave him the same disgusted look she'd given her husband. Like many Kyth who'd grown up unaware of their true heritage, Kerry had been a loner before fate had catapulted her from graphic artist to ruler of their kind in a matter of days. She wasn't used to having people fuss over her, much less bearing responsibility for an entire race. It was a wonder she was coping as well as she was.
Ranulf had left the room, and now returned with his own sandwich and a plate of cookies. Sandor snagged a couple for himself. The Viking wasn't the only one with a sweet tooth.
When Hughes checked in a few minutes later to see if they needed anything else, Kerry dropped the rest of her sandwich on the plate and handed it to him. "Thank you. That hit the spot."
It was clear that Ranulf thought she should've eaten more, but she shot him a look that said she'd had enough of his hovering.
It was time to get down to business. "So what's up, Kerry? Ranulf said you had something to talk to me about."
"Actually, a couple of things now. That woman who just left has the potential of becoming a problem for us."
"Why? Who is she?"
"Her name is Lena Wilson, and she was a friend of Maynard Cooper's. She said she's investigating his death and wanted to talk to us about it. She's looking for his killer."
That wasn't good. "Why would she think you were involved?"
They hadn't had anything to do with the fire investigator's death. But the three of them had combined forces to execute his murderer, a renegade Talion warrior and Sandor's lifelong friend.
"I don't know that she did," Kerry said. "I think she was on a fishing expedition."
Ranulf looked at his wife. "She tried to read my thoughts while she was here. I suspect she did the same to you."
"What? You didn't tell me that!"
"I figured you could tell."
"Well, you figured wrong. Need I remind you that I've only recently learned something like that was even possible?" She looked more disgusted than upset. "If she did try to read me, she couldn't have gotten far. I'm a lot better at keeping my shields up. If they'd been breached, I think I'd know."