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In Ireland, two thousand people vanish every year.
The Irish countryside was quiet and the darkness was absolute, as it could only be far from the lights of a city. Here, beside the narrow road that led to Westport, the night felt empty, but for the squares of lamplight in the distance, marking the places where farmhouses stood in silence.
In the grassy field, ancient tombstones tipped and tilted crazily as if they'd been dropped from heaven and left to stand as they fell. Trees bent in the wind, and their bare limbs clattered like a muttered conversation. A fairy mound rose from the ground and lay littered with wildflowers that looked black and white in the starlight. A sigh of something ancient whispered in the darkness, and far away, a dog moaned into the quiet.
A young woman stood in the center of the stones, as she'd been told. She waited, impatiently checking her wristwatch and shrugging away the superstitious twitch at the base of her spine. The stones were eerie enough during the day, but at night, when the sky was black but for the stars, the woman half expected ghosts to rise up and chase her out of their graveyard.
The woman shivered again at the thoughts jostling through her mind and shrugged deeper into her coat. There was nothing to fear, after all. Hadn't she grown up here? Didn't she know this road to Westport well enough to travel it in her sleep?
No, the only thing to worry her was that maybe the man she waited for had forgotten his promise to meet her. Maybe he was with someone else. Maybe
"Darlin'," a deep voice whispered from close by. "I knew you'd come. I've been waiting for you."
She whirledaround, a smile of welcome on her face. Something blacker than the darkness rushed at her. She screamed as a howl lifted into the air, and a moment later the cemetery lay empty in the night.
"What was that?" Alison Blair stopped dead and felt the small hairs at the back of her neck stand straight up.
The long, undulating howl still quavered in the air as she stared back down the road into the darkness.
"A dog, no doubt," the guard at the wrought-iron gate muttered in an Irish accent so thick it almost sounded as though he were speaking Gaelic.
"Scary dog," Aly muttered, turning back to watch as the big man studied her ID card. Frowning, she said, "It's not a forgery, you know."
He flicked a glance at her from under thick black brows, and she deliberately lifted her chin and met that stony stare with one of her own.
The man nodded in approval, then said, "There'll be hell to pay when the boss hears you've come."
"I know." As a member of the Guardian Society, Aly knew she would be as welcome here as a flu virus.
Even in the best of circumstances, Immortal Guardians weren't exactly the most hospitable people in the universe. They lived alone, worked in secret and protected their real identities from a world filled with people who would never understand.
Chosen at the moment of their death, the Guardians were given the choice of either moving on to whatever awaited them or accepting immortality and the task of defending humankind against the demon threat. The Guardians were devoted to doing their duty and in general preferred to do that duty with as little interference as possible.
Both from humanity and the Society.
The Society had existed as long as the Guardians themselves. Generation after generation the families who belonged to the Society had worked with the Guardians. Some of those Guardians reluctantly accepted the help of the Society, and some didn't.
Rogan Butler, Irish warrior and a Guardian centuries old, fell into the latter category.
"As you can see," she said, reaching out to take the papers identifying herself as a Society member, "I am who I say I am, and I need to see Rogan Butler immediately."
"He'll not be happy."
"Fortunately," she said, "his happiness is not my responsibility."
She really should have waited until morning to come and beard the lion in his den or lair, she thought, turning her gaze to the two-storied manor house beyond the iron gate. But she'd flown in from Chicago expressly for this meeting, and she wanted it over and done with.
Of course, if her sister Casey had bothered to come along with her, Aly thought, she wouldn't be feeling so on edge. Strength in numbers, after all. But though she'd been happy enough to come along on the trip to Ireland, Casey had insisted on reminding Aly that she wasn't a member of the Society. Casey had been the first member of the Blair family for centuries to not pick up her hereditary calling.
And Aly remembered clearly the argument they'd had at the B and B just an hour ago.
"You could come with me just for moral support," Alison had said as she and her sister fought for space in front of the tiny bathroom mirror.
"Oh, right. That sounds like a good time." Casey tugged at the hem of her V-necked, red T-shirt until it showed just enough of her breasts, then smiled at her elder sister. "Look, Aly, this secret-agent thing is your deal. Not mine. I didn't join the Society, remember?"
Aly scowled, hip-checked Casey out of her way and pulled her long, thick blond hair into a ponytail at the base of her neck. Then she wrapped the elastic band with a dark blue scarf and let the ends trail across her shoulders. Staring into the mirror, she gave herself the once-over before answering her sister. Dark blue jacket, white button-down oxford shirt tucked into dark blue jeans and black boots. She looked fine. Businesslike but casual. Friendly but stern.
Then she rolled her eyes at her own thoughts and turned from the mirror to face Casey. "Yes, I remember that you didn't join the Society. I'm not asking you to be officially there. I was just looking for some company."
Casey muscled her way in front of Aly to check her own reflection again. She fluffed her short, dark blond hair and shrugged. "I don't know why you're so nervous about this. Rogan Butler isn't the first Guardian you've ever spoken to."
"True." Aly sat down on the edge of the bathtub, stretched out her legs and said, "But he's the first one who refused to talk to me on the phone. And our psychics refused to call the Ireland office so one of their members could deliver the message in person, so "
Casey shook her head, fluffed her hair again and leaned in to smooth another layer of dark red lipstick on her mouth. When she was finished, she straightened up, smiled at her reflection and said, "Imagine that. Jealous psychics. Aren't they supposed to be above all that?"
"They should be," Aly admitted. "But you know how they are. Especially Reginald."
"You're defining the reasons I didn't want to join the Society, Aly," Casey said. "No way do I want to spend all my time trying to soothe cosmic egos."
And maybe she had a point, Aly thought now, grimly steeling herself for her meeting with the Irish bully known as Rogan Butler.
"Well, then," the guard said, his musical accent rising up and down as he spoke. "I'll get the gate. Just drive on up to the manor. You'll be met."
Aly got back into her car and swallowed hard as the guard unlocked the gates and swung them open. She steered her car, absentmindedly noting the tidy lawn and the spill of golden lamplight pouring from the lead glass windows of the manor and lying across the gravel drive.
Aly's stomach pitched a little, and she told herself to get a grip. She wouldn't allow a Guardian to make her nervous. As a member of the Society, she had every rightno, a dutyto give him the information the Chicago psychics had discovered.
She parked the car directly in front of the double doors and stepped out, pocketing the keys. Grabbing her purse, she headed for the house and stopped dead when those double doors were pulled open and a giant of a man stood backlit against the entryway.
It had to be.
His shoulders were broad, his hips were narrow and his legs were long and thick with muscles. His black hair hung loose past his shoulders and lifted in the icy wind like a battle flag. As she watched, he folded massive arms across an impressive chest and stared down at her.
"Alison Blair?" His accent was, if possible, even thicker than that of the man at the gate. And his voice was like thunder. Deep and powerful.
"Yes." Apparently his security man had alerted him to her identity. "And you're Rogan Butler."
"I am. Why've you come?"
So much for niceties. "Because you wouldn't take my phone call."
"I had no wish to speak with you. I still don't."
Limned in lamplight, his features were in shadow, but Aly didn't have to see his face to know he was frowning. She could feel his scowl, his irritation, flowing from him in thick waves.
Her nerves jittered a little, and for one moment she wished she were anywhere but there. But there hadn't been another available Chicago Society member to make the trip, and the Society psychics so guarded their "visions" they hadn't wanted to call Ireland and get one of the local members to deliver the message.
So, here she was. Facing down one of the most legendary of the Guardians, and she had to fight to keep from getting back into her car and driving away. But if she did that, she'd never live it down.
"The Society will find no welcome here." He said it briskly, as if already dismissing her.
"We're not your enemy, you know," Aly countered quickly. "We're on the same side. Fighting the same war."
"Is that what you think, then?" He came down one of the steps and stopped. "And how many demons have you fought, Alison Blair?"
"A thousand and more demons have fallen beneath my blade. All without the help you've come so far to offer."
"The Society is"
"Useless?" he offered.
"There's no reason to be insulting, either." She walked toward him, forcing her feet to move despite the fact that her muscles were locked up as if desperately trying to keep her in one place. "I've come with an important message and I'm not leaving until I've delivered it."
He blew out a breath and came down the remaining steps until he stood on the drive right in front of her. Aly tipped her head back to stare up into his eyes. Green, she thought. A shining, clear green that seemed almost iridescent in the pale light. His jaw was hard and square and bristled with a day's growth of whiskers. His mouth was firm and flattened into a disapproving line, and his heavy black brows were drawn down on his forehead.
He was, without a doubt, the most gorgeous man she'd ever seen.
And despite the fact that his irritation still simmered in the air around him, Aly felt a small twist of something hot and needy bubble into life inside her.
Which was just unacceptable.
"Fine, then deliver your message and be on your way."
"If you don't mind, I'd rather not discuss this outside."
"You're a prissy little thing, aren't you?"
"Prissy? Prissy?" Narrowing her eyes on him, she said, "I'm an official representative of the Guardian Society. I've just spent twelve hours in a plane to get here. Then I had to rent a car and try not to nod off at the wheel while I forced myself to drive on the wrong side of the road." He opened his mouth as if to speak, but she kept right on, feeling her sense of righteous indignation build up and spill over. "The hotel lost my reservation, and my sister and I had to search for a local B and B. After getting to our room, instead of having a meal or taking a much-needed napor even, God help me, going for a drink with my sisterI got in that blasted car with the steering wheel on the wrong side of the damn thing and drove straight here, only to be treated like a common criminal by your security thugs and now to be insulted by you. If it weren't in humanity's best interests to give you this message, believe me when I say I'd as soon keep my mouth shut, turn around and go home."