Read an Excerpt
“Who the bloody hell are you?”
Piper looked up from her computer screen and studied the irate male glaring at her from the doorway. Her stomach did a little rock-and-roll number. He was, without a doubt, the guy they’d warned her about—Greyhill Danby. She’d been hired while he’d been in England, and she knew for a fact that no one expected him back yet.
“I suppose I could ask you the same question—but I’d like to think I would’ve been a little more polite.” Her smile wasn’t meant to be nice; rude was always the best response to rude.
His eyes, an incredible shade of bright blue, narrowed as he walked into the cramped room. That fierce gaze wouldn’t miss much. She was willing to bet he’d committed every detail to memory the moment he entered, from the pictures on the wall to the number of buttons on her blouse. He certainly wouldn’t have missed the pink and purple highlights in her dark hair, much less the tattoo on her right arm. And he clearly didn’t approve of any of it.
When he didn’t respond, she continued. “Well, since you’ve obviously forgotten how to speak, I’ll answer for both of us. I’m Piper Ryan, the Dame’s new assistant. This is my office, and you must be Greyhill Danby.”
It took some effort to tear her eyes away from all that masculine intensity, but she managed. Barely.
“Now since the pleasantries are over, you’ll have to excuse me, Mr. Danby. One of us has important work to do.”
Her fingers flew across her keyboard to make her point. She’d delete the gibberish she was typing after he left. If he left. He’d widened his stance and crossed his arms over his chest, clearly intending to take root.
She hit the save button and then looked up, sighing loudly. “Is there something else I can help you with, Mr. Danby? I really am very busy.”
His lips tightened. She’d definitely pushed too far.
“I can see that you’re busy, ah … Miss Ryan, was it?” His eyebrows snapped down over those bright blue eyes as he stared at her. “And I’m sure whatever you’re doing is important to someone, somewhere. However, since this is actually my office, you’ll understand why you need to go do your little job somewhere else.”
Apparently no one had told him that they’d be sharing the space until the workmen finished remodeling the rooms upstairs into offices for her and Kerry Thorsen.
Thanks a lot, Sandor Kearn. You could have warned me that you left this guy out of the loop.
She turned to face Danby directly. “I’m guessing that you haven’t talked to Sandor since your return.”
He nodded sharply. “You’d guess right, although I’m not sure what he has to do with you usurping my office.”
Piper laughed, fueling the flames. Holding her hand up in apology, she finally managed to speak.
“Sorry, Mr. Danby, but with that British accent of yours, it sounds like this is 1776 all over again and I’m one of those pesky American rebels. But I assure you, sir, I didn’t dump your precious tea in Puget Sound. It’s over there on the cabinet right next to my coffee.”
He scrutinized the clutter with a slight sneer before turning back to her. “My advice to you, Miss Ryan, is not to get too comfortable here.”
He stalked out, taking most of the oxygen in the room with him. That was the only reason she could come up with for why she suddenly felt so breathless. Yes, that had to be it. Slowly the pressure in her chest eased, leaving her to figure out how she was going to share such a confined space with that uptight jerk. Sexy, but a jerk nonetheless.
Turning back to her computer, she deleted the nonsense lines. She’d manage somehow. She always did.
• • •
Out in the hall, Grey pinched the bridge of his nose and wished he could rewind and try that whole mess again. Maybe he should take a lap around the rose garden—or half a dozen—before seeking out either Sandor Kearn or the Dame herself.
Granted, neither one of them were particularly happy to have Grey around, but to stick a spy—especially that flit of brunette—in his private office was too much. How was he supposed to work with her in there? She’d already turned his neat and tidy office into complete chaos.
What else had changed in the short time he’d been out of the country? Although Dame Kerry had told him to take his time moving to Seattle, he hadn’t wanted to give her the chance to rethink her decision to appoint him as her Chief Talion and enforcer.
He’d worked around the clock to close up his flat in London and make arrangements to ship his belongings to the States. He’d finished in record time, and it had been exhausting. It also didn’t help his mood that his departure had been delayed for over six hours because of weather, followed by a flight full of screaming infants and heavy turbulence.
So he was seriously jet-lagged and short-tempered. He’d only intended to stop by the Dame’s home long enough to let her know that he was back and to drop off a few things in his office. Which, as it turned out, was evidently no longer just his.
Exactly who was this Piper Ryan? And more importantly, how had she managed to worm her way into the Thorsen household so quickly? The last he’d heard, he was supposed to be in charge of security, which included vetting potential employees. Obviously someone had also usurped his job while he was away.
The most likely culprit was Sandor Kearn, Grey’s predecessor as Chief Talion. Even though Sandor had happily relinquished the role, he’d probably felt obligated to continue his former duties until Grey returned. That was all well and good, but why hadn’t he kept Grey in the loop?
The answer was obvious. Sandor had guessed how Grey would react to finding someone else ensconced in his office. And not just someone, but Piper Ryan. Her image filled his head, another reason to curse his gift of almost perfect recall. Her dark hair appeared to have been cut with grass clippers with no intention other than drawing attention to streaks of purple and bright pink that clashed with her bright red lipstick and nail polish.
Her dark eyes had a faint tilt to them, hinting at an interesting ancestry. And those full lips with that small mole at the corner of her mouth made him wonder. … Better not go there.
He stepped out into the garden, breathing deeply to draw in the damp mist that was often part of a Seattle morning. It was the one thing that his new home had in common with his old one. What London didn’t have were the towering peaks of the Cascades and the Olympics that framed the Puget Sound area. Then there was the impressive presence of Mt. Rainier, the snow-covered volcanic peak that served as a backdrop to the city itself.
He could come to like it here, provided the Dame and her Consort would trust him enough to do his job. If they couldn’t, he’d be banished to serve the Dame at a distance, most likely from London or perhaps Scandinavia. His skin crawled as he remembered the sharp bite of Nordic winters.
Speaking of Europe, Grey needed to check in. Not that he wanted to, as tired as he was, but it was politic of him to do so. Pulling out his cell phone, he dialed the familiar number. After a handful of rings, the call clicked over to voicemail. Considering his mood, that was for the best.
“You wanted to know when I got back to Seattle. Now you know. So far, no new developments. E-mail me if you have any questions. I might even answer if the mood strikes me.”
He hung up, thankful he didn’t have to speak to a man he could barely tolerate. A common interest forced them to be civil, but it wouldn’t last past the resolution of the current situation. That was just fine with Grey. Plus, he agreed with that old saying about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer.
“Greyhill, I hadn’t heard you were back!”
He automatically snapped to attention as he turned to face the new Grand Dame of the Kyth, Kerry Thorsen. His training demanded he bow to honor his ruler, but he held himself back. Kerry had made it clear that she preferred a more casual relationship with her Talions than her predecessor had. Besides, courtly behavior seemed out of place when the Dame was wearing a faded T-shirt and jeans that had more than one hole in them.
The radical change in the royal court was only one of many things Grey struggled to come to terms with since the death of their previous ruler. Although Dame Judith had chosen to live out her last years in the Pacific Northwest, she’d kept many of the customs that had held her in good stead for the thousand-plus years of her reign. The entire Kyth world had been rocked by the combined shock of her death and her choice of successor. It was that last one that had brought Grey to Seattle in the first place.
The puzzled note in Kerry’s voice made him realize that he’d been staring at her. He shook his head to clear it.
“I’m sorry, Dame Kerry. After a long, hectic trip, I’m afraid I’m not back up to full speed yet. Please let me take those flowers for you.” He looked around, searching the garden for some sign of her guards. “Where is everybody? Are you alone out here?”
“For once.” Kerry smiled as she handed Grey the basket of roses. She stripped off her gardening gloves and dropped them, along with her pruning shears, on the table beside the door.
“I believe Ranulf is out hunting down some parts for his pet Packard. Sandor has taken the kids shopping before they head to the airport to meet Lena’s flight. I don’t expect them back before dinner tonight.”
Grey still studied the garden behind her. “May I ask where you left your guard?” Discreet was one thing; invisible was quite another.
She shrugged, obviously not concerned. “Sandor mentioned something about assigning someone to follow me around. I told him not to bother.”
Bloody hell. Sandor shouldn’t have allowed her the option of refusing. It was the duty of the Talions to protect the Dame. If Kerry wouldn’t let them stay nearby, how were they supposed to keep her safe?
“I will ensure any guards assigned to you will be as unobtrusive as possible.”
“But I’ve never needed one before.” Kerry wrinkled her nose and frowned. “Well, unless you count when Ranulf and Sandor get it in their heads to hover.”
“We’re all concerned for your safety, my lady.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said dismissively. But that was all right—he could be stubborn, too.
Kerry started toward the house. “You must be tired. Why don’t you come in and have a seat while I get those flowers in water?”
As they stepped inside, she asked, “Care to join me for an early lunch?”
Since it gave him the perfect excuse to stand guard over her, Grey didn’t hesitate. “Gladly. Why don’t I let Hughes know?”
“Thanks. I’ll wash up and grab a vase.”
Kerry disappeared down the hall toward her private quarters while Grey cursed under his breath. Damn it all! What was Sandor thinking? No matter what Kerry thought, the Talions should stand guard 24/7 to protect the Grand Dame of the Kyth. Like it or not, Kerry was the ruler of their people, one of the few to possess the rare combination of powers that qualified her for the job.
Her ability to heal was crucial to the well-being of those who served her. By all reports, Kerry also wielded an impressive arsenal of combat gifts, but even she wasn’t impervious to attack.
She needed to be protected. Not everyone was thrilled that she’d ascended the throne. Most of the American Kyth simply seemed curious, but some of their Old World kindred were fuming. They’d had their own plans for the succession, and Kerry wasn’t what they’d had in mind.
A small but vocal faction claimed that Judith had meant to give Kerry her memories only as a temporary measure to keep them from being lost forever. If Kerry didn’t step down soon, they might very well attempt to take matters into their own hands.
Well, Grey would certainly be having words with Sandor. Granted, the Dame was married to Ranulf Thorsen, a powerful Talion in his own right. The Viking was perfectly capable of protecting Kerry by himself, but only if he was actually with her. When Ranulf couldn’t be by her side, another Talion should be. Dame Judith had slacked off on security and look where that had gotten her: murdered by a Talion warrior who’d gone renegade.
Ranulf and Sandor had obviously let Kerry have her way too often. As Chief Talion, it was Grey’s honor and his duty to keep her safe. Now if she’d just trust him enough to let him to do his job.
For the time being, he’d use the chance to share a meal as an excuse to remain close by until Ranulf could take over. Grey sought out the butler requested a pot of Earl Grey tea and something to eat for them both. When he returned to the dining room, Kerry was already busy arranging her flowers.
“Hughes will be in shortly.”
“Good. I’m famished.” She shoved the last rose into the vase and stood back to admire her handiwork. “Perfect.”
To Grey, the arrangement looked a bit haphazard, but his Dame looked pleased with her efforts. She buried her face in the blossoms and drew a deep breath, then set the vase on the sideboard before sitting at the table.
“So how was your trip, Grey? I had expected you would be gone longer. I hope you didn’t rush things on my account.”
Was she disappointed that he’d returned so quickly, or only surprised? It was hard to know, but he suspected she’d have been just as happy to have him stay gone indefinitely.
“London was London, so it rained much of the time I was there. There wasn’t much to do, other than shut off the utilities and close up my flat. I’ve arranged to have my things shipped to Seattle, which means I’ll have to start looking for a permanent place to live. Until then, I’ve extended my reservation at the hotel.”
Kerry frowned. “Wouldn’t you be more comfortable staying here at the house? We’ve plenty of room.”
Kerry’s offer seemed sincere, but he couldn’t imagine that she’d want another guest imposing on her hospitality. She and Ranulf had recently taken in three Kyth teenagers whom Sandor had rescued from living on the streets.
“I appreciate the offer, but you already have enough extra mouths to feed. How is that going, by the way?”
“It’s been an adjustment for all of us, but especially for the kids. Sean and Tara have been on their own for years, so they’re not used to taking orders from anyone. God knows, they’ve had little reason to trust the adults in their lives.”
Her smile looked a bit rueful. “Kenny is definitely a handful. He wasn’t happy when we told him he had to go back to school, especially since he’ll need tutoring to catch up. We’re looking into online programs for the older two so they can earn their high school diplomas. After that, who knows?”
Hughes appeared in the doorway with a heavily laden tray. “Ma’am, shall I serve?”
Kerry shook her head. “No, just leave the tray. We’ll take it from there.”
The butler looked a bit disappointed but did as Kerry asked. Evidently Grey wasn’t the only one who would appreciate a little more formality around the place. He wondered how Hughes felt about the newest additions to the household. The teenagers must present a variety of challenges.
Did those three kids have any idea how lucky they were? According to the laws of their people, Kerry would’ve been within her rights to have ordered them executed for the way they’d been stripping life energy from ordinary humans. Instead, Sandor had convinced the new Dame that mercy should also be part of Kyth law.
Grey didn’t necessarily disagree, but he wondered if Kerry’s decision had been driven by compassion or cowardice. Only time would tell. For now, he could only watch and wait.
Piper froze. She’d been on her way to get the Dame’s signature on a stack of papers only to realize that Kerry talking to Greyhill Danby. She was in no mood to deal with him again. Their earlier encounter had been more than enough.
Especially if he started asking a bunch of questions she couldn’t afford to answer. She certainly didn’t want him to start poking around. Her references and paperwork had stood up well enough to Sandor’s inquiries, but she suspected he hadn’t looked all that hard. Between the three kids he’d rescued and Lena’s whirlwind trip to the East Coast, he’d been distracted.
She checked her watch. Another fifteen minutes and she’d be done for the day. If the bus gods smiled on her, she’d even have time to grab a lunch before heading to class. This was one of her long days; she put several hours working for Kerry, followed by the three classes she was taking to finish her degree.
That thought brightened her mood considerably. She’d be twenty-eight on her next birthday, and she was finally going to graduate. It had been a long haul, but the end was in sight.
Deciding the signatures could wait until tomorrow, she returned back to the office and put the papers into a bright red folder labeled with Kerry’s name. If something came up after Piper left, Kerry would know where to look for the documents amidst the clutter.
That had her grinning. She bet Greyhill was an “everything in its place” kind of guy and her clutter would drive him crazy. Poor man, it wasn’t like he had any choice about sharing his office. For an instant she considered straightening up a bit before leaving, but rejected the idea. If Greyhill Danby didn’t like the mess on her desk, he could get over it.
She logged off the computer and snagged her backpack off the floor. After flipping off the lights, she charged out into the hall toward the front door, only to bounce off a obstacle that hadn’t been there a few minutes before.
She stumbled backward and was rescued at the last second when Grey latched onto her arms and jerked her back upright. Despite his obvious impatience, his hands were gentle. She knew she should apologize for almost knocking him down, but her brain and her mouth were seriously out of sync when she spoke.
“Are your eyes really that amazing shade of blue or do you wear contacts?”
Her face flushed hot and then cold as his eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“Thank you for noticing, and yes, they’re actually that blue. Do you always say the first thing that pops into your mind Ms. Ryan?”
“I try not to. I’m sorry I ran into you. I’ve got class.”
Okay,thatcameoutwrong. She tried again, hoping to make more sense, but the warmth of his hands against her skin had her brain firing on only half its cylinders.
“What I meant to say is that I’m running late for my classes at the university. But that’s no excuse for running down an innocent man.”
Those blue eyes suddenly warmed up about a hundred degrees, and his stern lips softened as he smiled. At that moment, innocent was hardly the word to describe Greyhill Danby. Good golly, the man was compelling enough when he was angry. She didn’t know what she’d do if he turned out to be charming, too.
His hands dropped away from her arms, leaving her missing his touch as he stepped out of her way.
“You mentioned something about leaving.”
Piper blinked twice. “What? Oh. Yeah. I was. Excuse me, please.”
She walked down the hallway, feeling his gaze following her each step of the way. It was hard not to turn around and catch him watching.
Just as she was about to turn the corner, a phone rang. She looked back to see Greyhill flipping his cell open.
His eyes flickered in her direction, and just that quickly, every vestige of warmth disappeared from his expression. He muttered something into the phone and then stared at her until she gave up and walked away.
What was that all about? It wasn’t as if she had a burning desire to eavesdrop on his all-important phone call.
She stalked out into the bright sunshine. She was under enough stress working as Kerry’s assistant without having to deal with a man who ran hot and cold. She didn’t understand him, and wasn’t sure she wanted to. Right now she had more important things to do than waste her time thinking about Greyhill Danby.
Piper walked down the street to wait for the bus. Thanks to her encounter with Grey, she’d just missed the last one and had at least twenty minutes to kill before the next arrived. She sat on the bench and pulled out her European history text. Although she was majoring in business, she’d taken the class as an elective.
Today’s lecture was on the Vikings. She was having a great time reading up on the adventures of her boss’s husband back in the day. There was no mention of Ranulf by name, of course, but he’d definitely been there. She didn’t know him well enough to ask him about it; but one of these days she’d corner him and demand some answers.
Heck, maybe she could even use his experiences to write a paper on the true story of his particular tribe leaving Scandinavia. Not that the Kyth would ever let her publish it; they were far too secretive about their existence to allow that.
She stared at the pictures of the artifacts in the book and wondered how people who had created such beautiful things could also have waged war with such passion. But that wasn’t a topic she’d take up with Ranulf Thorsen. Nor was her past.
He and Kerry had no idea why she’d really sought them out, and she wasn’t about to tell them. It was enough that they’d accepted her as one of their kind, even if she wasn’t pure-blooded Kyth. The fact that Kerry had offered her a part-time job had just been a bonus.
Although waiting for Sandor to check out her resume had definitely been nerve-wracking, Piper had passed muster. But now that Greyhill Danby had returned, she prayed he didn’t get it into his head to do some checking on his own. Sandor might have allowed her to disappear from Kerry’s life as quickly as she’d appeared; however, Danby didn’t seem to be the type to let someone off that easily. He’d keep digging and digging until he knew the truth.
And that was something she couldn’t afford. Not now. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
She forced her attention back to the page in front of her. She’d started taking college classes before she’d even graduated from high school, never expecting it would take her so long to finish her degree. She’d always had to fit classes in around her work schedule as she struggled to keep a roof over her head and meals on the table, but the end was finally in sight.
She liked to think her mother would have been proud of her, but it was impossible to guess what her father would have thought. He’d disappeared from her life too long ago for her to have any memories of him.
She ran her finger down the page, looking for where she’d left off. She was quickly drawn into the world the historian described. Picturing Ranulf Thorsen rather than some nameless barbarian helped bring the history alive for her. She was lost in it, and it took her several seconds to notice the purr of a well-tuned engine as it slowed to a stop right in front of her.
When she did look up, she admired the classic lines of the Jaguar before checking out the driver.
Rats! What was he doing there? Hadn’t their paths crossed enough for one day?
When Grey rolled down the window, Piper shoved her textbook back into her pack and approached the car. She bent down to look in the window.
“Did you need something, Mr. Danby?”
“I thought you might like a ride to the university. I’m going right by there.”
He broke off eye contact and stared out the windshield, looking as if he already regretted the offer. Well, he wasn’t the only one who had qualms about the two of them being alone in a car together. But her mother hadn’t raised her to be a coward.
“I’d love a ride if you’re sure it’s no inconvenience.” She reached for the door handle before he could respond.
She’d barely fastened her seatbelt when he hit the gas hard. Piper braced herself and settled back to enjoy the ride.
© 2010 Patricia L. Pritchard