Lust. Elven Keeper Sailor Gryffald's body quivers with it, but is it a symptom of the deadly Scarlet Pathogen coursing through her bloodstream or the proximity of shifter Keeper Declan Wainwright?
Sailor and Declan have had an uneasy relationship ever since they met, and now things are about to get a lot more complicated. A killer is stalking Los Angeles, intentionally infecting Elven with the deadly virus, and now Sailor and Declan must work to keep the supernatural peace while bringing the murderer to justice. But, in doing so, these powerful denizens of the Otherworld find themselves straddling a fine line between lust and love.
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It's the first or last hour of sunlight, when the day is opening or closing up shop, an event so commonplace that only certain breeds of humans notice itmovie people, for instance, who treasure the footage shot in those fleeting moments for the way it can render an aging star young, a dull actor luminous and a plain landscape enchanted.
Sailor Ann Gryffald loved magic hour, especially sunset, loved to end her seven-mile run on a downhill slope as the sky turned red and the canyon faded to black. The name itself was a kind of incantation to her, like all movie terms. She'd been around film sets most of her life and couldn't remember a time when she hadn't known the meaning of "magic hour" and "second meal" and "martini shot."
But Sailor wasn't only an actress, so she knew that magic hour had other meanings lying just under the surface, the way L.A. itself could hide under a veil of smog. The moments separating the worlds of day and night were when portals opened, shapes shifted with little effort, and even the most unimaginative human might stumble upon signs of the Otherworld.
Sailor was part of that Otherworld. She was a Keeper, a human born with a distinctive birthmark, and the mandate to guard and protect a particular species. In her case, the birthmark was a tree and the species were the Elven. These were not the tiny elves of popular culture in green jackets and felt hats, but tall, intensely physical creatures whose element was earth, whose beauty was legendary, whose powers included healing, telepathy and teleportation. The Elven loved Hollywood, and Hollywood reciprocated, rewarding and occasionally worshipping their charisma and physical beauty. Of course, most humans had no knowledge of Others, had no belief in, and thus no perception of, the extraordinary qualities and abilities their neighbors possessed. It was Sailor's job to preserve that. A Keeper's first obligation was to keep secret the very existence of the species, the Elven and vampires, the were-creatures, shifters, leprechauns and ogres whose natures the "real" world could not accept.
Sailor was new to the actual job, had taken it over from her father only months earlier, and found it something of a yawn. But with her birthmark came a fraction of the Elven powers and their beauty, so all in all, not a bad gig. She also had a strong sixth sense that told her things, like.
There was something in the air right now.
Sailor slowed her pace. She was a mile into her run, heading west on Mulholland at a good clip, shoes pounding the dusty road. It wasn't darkness she felt; the sun wouldn't set for another hour or more, and the moon was already out. It was a heaviness, making her want to look behind her, making the hair on the back of her neck
"Hey!" a man yelled.
She turned and spotted him at the end of a driveway, waving his arms as if she were a taxi.
"Hey, what?" she called back, squinting. Did she know him? Were they friends?
"You're breaking the law," the man yelled. "Your dog's off-leash." He was dressed in a suit, standing alongside a Porsche in front of a small mansion.
Figures that he 'd drive a Porsche, she thought.
"He's not a problem," she called back.
"He's a problem if he pisses in my yard."
The man's yard was as dressed up as he was, a flawless green lawn accessorized with white rosebushes, more suited to Beverly Hills than the canyons.
"He's not going to piss in your yard." Sailor jogged in place and snapped her fingers. Jonquil, a huge, fierce-faced mutt with the temperament of a rabbit, loped over to her. "We're thirty feet from your yard."
"There are leash laws," the man retorted. "You're not supposed to let your dog urinate at will."
She laughed. "What are you, the pee police? There are jackrabbits, deer, coyotes, all urinating at will, rattlesnakes, bobcats, possums"
The man gave her the finger and moved into the house.
Sailor lowered her voice. "Go ahead and pee, Jonquil." But the big mutt stared at her and inexplicably began to whine.
A rush of wind hit Sailor, so cold she thought, There must be some mistake. I must be dreaming, followed by a flutelike sound blowing in her ear, a flapping of a wing next to her cheek, striking her face. She swatted at it wildly, but something sharp sliced right down the middle of her chest, ripping through her shirt. Man, that's going to hurt in a minute, she thought.
Jonquil was both whining and barking now, nearly crying, if dogs could cry, Sailor thought, as her legs faltered, refusing to hold her up.
And then she was falling, with the fading sunlight hitting her full in the face, falling onto the gravel and pavement of Mulholland Drive.
Damn, she thought. I'm checking out.
Alessande saw the woman go down. She'd been out gathering fenweddin for a medicinal tea, as fenweddin was best plucked in late afternoon, in full bloom. Alessande was on the hillside, blending in so well that she was effectively invisible both to the woman, whose mind was elsewhere, and the man from the mansion, who wouldn't notice her unless she walked naked onto his lawn. The dog had looked her way, wanting to play, but Alessande was on a schedule, so she sent him on his way with an abrupt thought command.
But then the air changed, and Alessande turned her attention to it, letting the argument of the humans fade into the background. She took two steps backward, touched a bay laurel tree and contracted her energy until she was dense as the tree's trunk, connected to it and virtually invisible, protected from a malevolence she could feel but not identify. Then she watched the malevolence materialize. It began as a blinding bit of light that arranged itself into a creature with wings, moving so violently that she could barely see the talon tearing open the woman's chest.
And then it vanished. As abruptly as it had come, it was gone.
Alessande exhaled, disconnecting from the tree. She moved quickly to the woman, pushing aside the dog that was licking his human's face, apparently trying to revive her.
The wound wasn't deep, and it was nowhere near the carotid artery, which was good. But the woman was unconscious, and that wasn't good. Alessande lifted her carefully. She was tall for a human female, but not heavy, so after picking up a set of keys fallen on the road and sending reassurance to the dog, Alessande moved swiftly. It was rush hour and only a matter of time before a car came along, which would mean curiosity and offers of help. She needed neither, at least not the sort of help a mortal could provide.
She moved down the hillside, directly into the brush, the dog following closely. The woman's bare legs were getting badly scratched, but it was faster than taking the road to her cabin, and made it less likely that they would be spotted by a passing car. Alessande was dressed in earth tones and blended into the canyon, and while the woman wore hot-pink shorts and a white tank top, now stained with blood, the angle of their descent would hide them from Mulholland. Within minutes they'd reached her screen door, which she kicked open.
When Alessande laid the woman on the sofa and took another look at the long gash, she was relieved to find the blood already clotting. On a hunch she lifted one of the woman's eyelids and then the other, and let out a long, slow breath.
The whites of the eyes were perfect, bright and healthy. But the irises were deep scarlet.
Declan Wainwright pulled on a pair of black jeans and a Grateful Dead T-shirt, getting ready for the workday, which in his case began at night. The part he enjoyed, at any rate. He had to deal with banking and office hours like anyone else, but he handed off as much as he could to his frighteningly talented assistant Harriet, without whom, he liked to say, he would be mad and penniless.
Not that Harriet listened to him. "Blarney," she called it when he talked like that, knowing full well he came from England, not Ireland. Outside of calling him Mr. Wain-wright, Harriet was one of the few people who showed Declan no deference, which was one reason he loved her. Another was that she terrified people seeking access to him. She had the face of a horse, and the voice of a drill sergeant. In fact Harriet Brockleman would be the perfect human, in Declan's eyes, were it not for the fact that she turned off her own phone at nine-thirty each night, went to bed and was unavailable to him.
"Mr. Wainwright," she called through the beach house intercom system, "are you at home to Vernon Winter?"
"No. Take a message." Declan exchanged his diving watch for a vintage Rolex, and looked out the French doors to the ocean. The tide was coming in. He wasn't going to interrupt a perfect sunset by listening to the dour predictions of his stockbroker.
The waves beckoned, and he moved out onto the deck.
The house on Point Dume was four stories tall. The master bedroom occupied the top floor, guest rooms took up the third, then the main living area, and at the bottom, built into the cliff, the maid's quarters and his office. The upper deck, where he stood now, made him feel he was in the crow's nest of a ship, out at sea. It was one reason he could stay in L.A., putting down roots, when part of him longed to just set sail and keep going.
The moon was full. It had already risen, its tenure overlapping with the setting sun, and he could feel its energy. His gaze moved to a spot on the beach marked by death. More than a week had passed since the woman's body was found, and each day it weighed on him more. The woman had once been his lover. Their affair had been as brief as it was passionate, but long after both had moved on to other lovers, the bond had lingered. Elven women did that to him.
And now she was dead, tossed carelessly onto the beach by an unknown killer, and the rage he felt wouldn't let him sleep, or work, or play.
Enough was enough. Time to act.
He moved to the edge of the deck, closed his eyes and breathed in the salty air. He let thoughts slip away, his own energy moving into his astral body, the energy field surrounding him. He waited. After a moment there was a gentle shattering of the boundaries that held him in place as a man, a mortal.
And then he was floating.
He spoke not in words but in thoughts, addressing the woman so recently dead. "Charlotte, I will avenge you. Use me."
Charlotte did not appear. But a tornado of currents circled him, the wind picking up, telling him it was no small thing to choose this path, that he was altering his destiny by involving himself in the mystery of her death. He stayed resolute and unmoving until he felt the spirit world acquiesce and the wind die down.
Declan let out a long breath. He'd done it. He'd shifted the course of his immediate future. He couldn't know what that future would bring, only that he would now encounter people and events that would pull him into the orbit of a murderer.
A sound broke into his reverie, pulling him back into his body, onto his deck. It was a high-pitched squeal he couldn't identify. A child?
He looked below, to the beach, to the right, to the left. Nothing.
And there it was again.
He closed his eyes to pinpoint the location of the cries. They seemed to come from under the house. His mental focus shifted to the sand four stories below. He couldn't see it, but he could feel it. Warmth. Life. Terror.
He took the outside staircase two steps at a time, thinking of the panga, a Mexican fishing boat, that had washed ashore a month before from Tijuana, carrying undocumented immigrants, dehydrated, half-drowned. What if it was happening again right now? What if one of them was just a
Baby. The sound was recurring, a cry interrupted by the waves crashing on the shore. It must have found its way to the storage space where he kept the kayak and the beach furniture, in the area formed by the stilts and the rocks. He hit the sand and was instantly ankle-deep in surf. He clambered barefoot under the deck and then worked his way upward to the dry area, barely able to see in the underbelly of the house, where it was already night.
And there it was, clinging to a plank.
He could just make it out in the last moments of sunlight filtering through the slats. An unhappy cat, gray, frightened, mewling.
"So you're the baby." He felt its terror and in response, slowed his own breath. "Come on, then."
But the cat was panicked, hissing, and as he moved closer it stood upright on its hind legs in a freakish posture, displaying its own underbelly. Female, clearly. Her neck seemed stuck to the wall. Declan inched closer and pulled his cell phone from his pocket, used the flashlight app and saw that her collar was caught on a protruding nail. The cat was so freaked out that she was in danger of strangling herself. He put away the cell and crooned to her, using a hypnotic voice. "Come on, girl, let's get you somewhere safe. Warm and dry nice bowl of milk tasty piece of fish " He pulled his T-shirt over his head and draped it around his hands as a shield from her claws, then grasped her and held on, letting her struggle as he worked on unhooking the collar. But for that he needed his hands, so cradling her against one shoulder, he endured her scratches until he'd released it, at which point she wriggled out of both his grasp and her collar. In a spark of movement she took off under the house and into the darkness.
Leaving Declan behind, wet, bloody, shirtless and swearing, and holding her collar.
Minutes later he was back inside the house, dripping on the bleached wood floors. He set his cell on the kitchen counter, its screen showing a voice mail message from Alessande Salisbrooke. He would call her later.
"Look at this," he said to Harriet, who'd brought him a towel. He handed her the collar, which had the Gucci logo on the leather and two green gems hanging from the metal ring like charms on a bracelet. "I believe those are real."
"Emeralds? Leave it to you, Mr. Wainwright, to rescue a cat and end up with a fortune. Does it have a name?"
"The cat? Her name is Tamarind."
"Yes, here it is on the tag. With a phone number. Shall I call it?"
"You needn't bother," Declan said, already stripping off his wet jeans. "There won't be anyone home."
Alessande had the door opened before Declan could reach for the doorbell. She ushered him inside and took a long look out at the horizon, as if scanning it for information. "Thanks for coming," she said.
"Took you long enough." She closed the door.
He laughed and put an arm around her. "Took me no time at all, you ingrate. I came as soon as I listened to your message. What's up?"
"I found a woman up on Mulholland, unconscious. I need help with her."
"You have a dozen family members within shouting distance."
"They're Elven. I don't want any Elven near her."