Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. The Macbethquote fit to a fucking T as Ruby stared through the ten-power Nightforce scope of the McMillan 50-caliber military-grade sniper rifle and saw 100 percent trouble coming her way. Complete with battered cowboy hat, his own Chris Cagle “Chicks Dig It” theme song and honest-to-Goddess dragonskin boots. How the hell had Derek Stormwind found her?
Okay, scratch that. She’d always known he’d find her. She’d just nurtured an unrealistic hope that he would be like most men and, once he realized she didn’t want to be found and that she’d made following her trail a real pain in the ass, he’d sniff out easier prey. But Derek Stormwind was definitely not like most men. Which was why she’d rather be stuck up the backside of one of Artemis’s hunting hounds without a flashlight than face the next few moments.
Putting the rifle down on the counter, she uncapped a mini-sized vodka bottle and dashed the contents into her open Dr Pepper can, then brought the soda to her lips for a healthy swig. Too healthy. She choked, hacking over the part of it that had gone down the wrong tube. Meanwhile, he was crossing the street, seconds away from putting his hand on the brass doorknob and invading her store. Unless she was mistaken and he was in town for a French manicure from the salon next door.
Hell, she needed an extra moment. Flicking a glance down at her feet, she wheezed out the command. “Theo. Kill.”
The elderly mastiff erupted from behind the counter, a bulldozer of rippling muscle and sheer bulk that would have knocked her off her feet, if she wasn’t practiced at flattening herself against the ammo case behind her to give him take-off room.
As Derek came through the door, the dog was clattering across the floor like an approaching herd of marbles, making menacing and somewhat asthmatic noises similar to low-level wheezing thunder. A froth of drool hit the front display case, spattering the glass and obscuring the array of handguns there. Ruby stuck the soda back under the counter and pummeled her chest with a decisive fist at the same moment the dog launched his considerable weight onto his hind legs and hit Derek’s chest with both front paws.
“You great big baby.” Derek tried to fend off a tongue that Ruby knew was like a lukewarm and slimy hand towel. “Still a crappy security guard, buddy.”
He should look ridiculous, struggling with the dog, but of course he didn’t. He’d braced all that well-sculpted muscle against canine attack, which just emphasized the fit of his T-shirt over his broad shoulders. The way his thighs and ass flexed in his worn jeans basically screamed sex-in-faded-denim. The hat was low on his brow, nearly hiding the brown hair teasing at his collar, but which he usually kept trimmed short. He’d not yet looked her way, but she knew what kind of impact those eyes had when they turned toward a female.
His handsome, shit-eating grin could disarm a woman at twenty paces. But every time Ruby looked into those dark blue eyes, the country-boy theme segued quite decisively into the Khazad-dum score from Fellowship of the Ring. She could see Gandalf standing before the Balrog, his voice thundering like the word of God.
You shall not pass.
Her gaze dropped. Anyone else would think the scuffed-up dragonskin boots were some kind of alligator skin. He had a healthy reverence and respect for dragonkind, particularly the non-shifters. However, when she’d pressed him for an explanation of those boots, he’d simply said, “I had a disagreement with that one.” She’d caught a dangerous glint in his eye, the honor-bound sorcerer crossed with the gunslinger who’d be pushed only so far, something between Merlin and Wyatt Earp. That observation had earned her a flash of that devastating grin.
He was one of the most powerful sorcerers she’d ever known, directly or by reputation. He flew so far under the radar that to most he was a myth, or a scary bedtime story. But she’d had him in her bed, and while the feelings he conjured from her there could be overwhelming, they were far from nightmarish. In fact, the only good dreams she had anymore were about him. Which just pissed her off. If she could have banished him from her mind without banishing other important things, things she couldn’t afford to lose, she would have. That was what she told herself.
Pull it together, Ruby.
When he finally managed to shove the dog back down to all four feet, which put his gigantic head at the height of Derek’s waist, she had her hip propped against the shelf behind the cash register and was eyeing them both, hopefully with a faint trace of disgust in her eyes. “I’m trading him in for a Chihuahua. The littler they are, the nastier they are.”
“Make sure it’s a female. I hear they’re even meaner.” He glanced up at the marquee. “Arcane Shot. Firearms, shooting range, safety courses and permits? Pretty radical shift from Witches R Us outside Carmel.”
She shrugged. “I got tired of the Wiccan wannabes, who think granola, hugs and ten-sticks-for-a-dollar incense will change the world.”
“And this works better?” He eyed the sniper rifle under her hand.
“Sometimes magic comes through; sometimes it doesn’t. But superior firepower never lets you down.”
“No argument there. I prefer the pump-action riot gun myself. A classic. Took me a while to find you. Your magic’s gotten stronger.”
And darker. She could tell he thought it, but, points for him, he didn’t say it. “Told you I didn’t want to be found.” She tried to modulate the energy around her so it was more candy and flowers, less the ominous stillness and yellow jaundice of a pre-tornado sky. On second thought, since he knew her prickly nature, candy and flowers might trip all his alarms. His current uncomfortable scrutiny might upgrade to full-body-cavity search.
Okay, that was entirely the wrong thought to have.
“So you ran away and decided to open a gun shop because . . . people suck?”
Her lips twitched. Three years since she’d seen him, and he still knew how to pull a smile out of her. She suppressed the reaction, told herself not to give him that advantage. “I didn’t run away, but that last part works. Why are you here, Derek?”
He seemed in no hurry on that score. He sauntered up to the counter, giving her a nice eyeful of how the man could walk. Damn him. “I understand you followed Raina out here. She still operating her overpriced cathouse with succubi and incubi disguised as hookers?”
“Escorts,” she corrected him. “And yes. It’s doing well here, with the military base nearby. Her cover’s safer than it was on the West Coast. She’ll last longer here.”
“She should change professions.”
“She would, but this one pisses you off.” She flashed a humorless smile. “That’s a perk to her.”
“I’ll bet.” That good-ol’-boy languor only enhanced the sexual confidence that made any wise woman wary. “I’m here about a job for you.”
When disappointment twisted inside her like a poisoned athame, she cursed at herself. Cerridwen, Circe and Cassiopeia. There was only one thing she’d wanted more than for him not to find her, and that was for him to find her. To feel absurdly insulted that he’d come this far merely to find her for a job made it official. Female perversity was the bane of her existence.
She guessed she could find a spell that would turn her into a guy, but she liked her long, streaked brown hair, her gray-green eyes and curvy figure. A better-than-decent rack and wrap-them-around-me-tight-and-fuck-me-all-night legs. Raina’s description, of course, delivered in her typically colorful fashion.
Delicate as a Fae sprite and yet somehow lush as a siren. Derek’s description, eliciting different emotions.
Her self-deprecation didn’t make her feel one whit less different about seeing him. As if he was picking up on it, he took off his hat, dropped it on the counter. All her senses went on alert. A lazy lion had pushed up to his feet, and she was one of the caribou on the open plain. Waiting to see if he was changing position to lick his balls, going to get some water, or had decided it was time to check out the drive-through menu.
“So what’s the real reason you left me, Ruby?” His tone was conversational, mild, but she wasn’t fooled. Not when those intent eyes were focused on hers, probing.
“You were too old for me. You literally know what kind of fruit pie George Washington liked.”
It was true. He’d never said for sure one way or another exactly how old, but from things he’d told her, she knew he’d actually been alive during the Crusades. He’d aged extremely well.
He slid behind the counter. Her hand, resting on the rifle, instinctively tightened. He registered it. “Gonna shoot me just for giving you a friendly hug hello? We are still friends, aren’t we?”
One wouldn’t think so, when she’d basically told him to stay out of her life. But for some reason, she didn’t reply. She couldn’t, because he kept coming on, and then he was there, right in front of her. Goddess, he was a big man, and she remembered way too well how much those broad shoulders could bear. She remembered his scent, a subtle magical heat like the residue of a unique gunpowder, infused with an extra explosive kick. Mixed with something even more potent: the sheer warmth and strength of the man. He was here. Within touching distance.
She’d known him almost all her life, had loved him about as long. Then she’d shoved him out the door like garbage she couldn’t get rid of fast enough. She’d done such a good job of it that it had taken him three years to recover from it and come looking for her.
She would not start shaking. She was not going to break. Yeah, she could have told him to keep his ass on the other side of the counter, or backed away, but she had to prove she was indifferent, right? Friendly hug, a peck on the cheek, then she’d tell him to shove his job up his muscular, far-too-fine butt and get the hell out of her store.
As his arm slid around her, he kept his eyes on her face. She kept hers on his chin, stubborn. He knew her so well, it was like fitting a key to a lock, the way his fingers cruised under the hem of her snug Arcane Shot tee, a forefinger sliding along the valley of her spine, his thumb hooking the waistband of her jeans, stroking the elastic of her panties, so casually seductive.
He tightened his grip, let her feel all that strength reeling her in. She was too stiff, had gone as inflexible as a corpse, and his brow creased. She was proving there was something way wrong, because if she was over him, the hug would have been done by now. Thoughtfully, he leaned down, and she closed her eyes as his lips landed on the corner of her mouth. Just rested there, like a morsel of chocolate icing that had escaped when eating a really, really good fudge cake. The desire to lick at it, rather than reach for a napkin, was almost overwhelming.
The rest of her body wanted to roll the same way. She wanted him to press her back against the ammo case, his oak-like strength against her willowy flexibility, and hook her leg over his hip, bringing him even deeper into the cradle between her thighs.
“I smell Deception potion on your breath, Ruby. You’re double-dosing these days. The Dr Pepper isn’t covering it.”
“I’ve never had a good poker face. You need one in this job. It helps.” She managed a casual shrug, one that she turned into a step back, knowing she was almost against the cash register. But she refused to give off trapped vibes. Sliding a hand in her pocket, she leaned against the ammo case. All by herself. “Okay, you’ve had your hug. Now give me some room and tell me what the job is so I can tell you I’m not interested.”
“Wasn’t much of a hug. You didn’t hug back.”
“You just wanted me to grope your ass, and I’m not in the mood.” Yeah, that was the biggest lie in the history of the world. “I mean it, Derek. I’m busy. Talk.”
The tension was building in her breast, because of the things unsaid, the things she suspected were happening under that casual demeanor. Goddess, hold it together, Ruby.
Giving her a long look, he inclined his head at last, but he didn’t retreat. He propped a hip against the front counter and crossed his arms, keeping her boxed in. His hat was at her elbow. She didn’t want to remember, but she did. That wonderful weekend they’d spent at the beach together. The sun had been so bright, he’d put the hat on her head to protect her fair skin from the rays. They’d walked hand in hand along the shore, like innocent lovers. He’d made love to her later, her wearing nothing but that hat, her sandy toes curled against his calves.
Thank Goddess he started to talk.
“There’s a coven in Florida that needs your help.”
“Tell them I offer group discounts. They can buy thirteen Sigs for a ten-percent markdown, and I’ll throw in a free box of hollow points.”
He ignored that. “They’re on one of the magical fault lines, and there’s been some bad activity brewing there. It’s not a quick fix, so they need training, a way to keep it managed themselves. You’re one of the best instructional priestesses I know.”
“And one of the lousiest practitioners.”
“That’s your mother talking, not you.” He frowned.
“There are better people to do what you’re wanting.”
“That’s your opinion.”
“Mine’s the only one I’m counting.”
He straightened, moved from behind the counter. Though it gave her room to breathe, it didn’t give her any relief, because he stopped, hooking his hands in his back pockets to stare up at the row of assault rifles mounted and locked on a metal backboard. “What happened to you, Ruby?”
When she didn’t answer, he sighed. “They let it go too long. It’s going to take some work to get it all in balance again, and the fight may get ugly. You won’t be in the line of fire; that’s my area, but I need to know they can hold it after I’m gone. That’s where you come in.”
“How ugly?” she asked, then cursed herself for appearing the slightest bit concerned.
“I think it’s torn up enough to attract attention. I’ve heard murmurings in the Underworld Asmodeus is headed that way. I want to fend that bastard demon off before he gets there.”
As she went still, he turned. His eyes narrowed. “Ruby?”
She was pushing the roaring back, wasn’t sure he hadn’t said her name several times, because when she focused on him again, he was right up at the counter, his hand landing over her ice-cold one. “Ruby, what the hell—”
“I’ll think about it. Can’t give you an answer right now.” Though of course she already knew that was a lie, and now he probably did, too. Asmodeus made all the difference in the world.
“Maybe you’re right. This isn’t the right job for you.” He studied her face, stepped back. “My mistake.”
“Give me the number of the coven priestess. I’ll call and talk to her.” At his expression, she rolled her eyes. “Stop being such a ninny and give me the number. I was just daydreaming about how high you’d jump if I peppered your feet with my AK-47, that’s all.”
“Yeah. I’m sure that was what made you turn white as a sheet.” But he wrote down the number on the order pad on the counter, pushed it toward her. When he did, his fingers closed over hers, drew her eyes up to his. “Tell her when you’re coming so she can make arrangements for you. I’d wait and take you down there myself, but I’ve got a couple details to wrap up before I can head that way.”
“I’m crushed.” She arched a brow. “Here I thought we could do some shopping and get our hair done together.”
He gave her a narrow look. “I’ll be down there within the week.”
“Yeah, there is. They need you to train them. But you need me for the rest. I’m not taking a chance of leaving you to face Asmodeus. That’s my job, if it happens.”
“My knight in shining Wranglers.”
Another one of those intent looks, and then he picked up his hat, put it back on his head. To her relief as well as dismay, he moved toward the door, tousling Theo’s ears as he passed the dog. “Keep your mistress safe, Theo.”
Glancing back, his hand on the doorknob, he raked his gaze over her. “You still wear those Victoria’s Secret cotton bikinis. Still prefer pink?”
“You’re losing your touch,” she returned sweetly. “I’m wearing a pair of my boyfriend’s briefs. More comfortable than girl’s underwear, you know.”
He pursed his lips. “Hmm. You may be right about that. I’m not wearing any at all, and I couldn’t say where they got off to this morning.”
She tightened her jaw. “You’re not my boyfriend, Derek Stormwind. I’m long finished with you.”
He didn’t smile. “You may be finished with me, Ruby Night Divine, but I’m far from finished with you. See you in a week.”
After he left, she slumped against the counter, her knees buckling. Fortunately, she kept a stool back here to do computer work, and now she slid onto it, taking another sip of the soda with the potion he’d correctly detected on her breath. Hell, if she were a better liar, she wouldn’t need it, but that part was the truth. She’d always had a sucker’s face, showing every emotion. The Deception potion helped to keep those muscles locked down, which stopped the flickers of the gaze, flushing or nervous body movements that could give things away.
Every part of her was still tingling, her mouth wishing she’d taken that lick. Wishing she’d turned her head and met the kiss full-on, given him everything and taken just as much back. But that was the bitch of it. Some things you just couldn’t take back.
That one touch had brought so many memories to mind. The way he would lie curved behind her in her bed, his arm over her body, his hand clasped around her wrist as they slept. Sometimes she’d wake to feel his thumb tracing slow, sensual runes in her palm, along her pulse points. Protective runes, to keep her safe. She could close her hand and still feel them there. Realizing she was doing it now, she opened her fingers, shaking off the feeling.
It didn’t work, Derek. Damn you.
That day they’d been at the beach, they’d seen two children playing in the waves, a brother and sister, probably no more than six and seven years old. The boy had his plastic sand shovel and was sweeping it through the water in dramatic, sword-swirling motion, sending out geysers of water toward his sister. She was ineffectually trying to use her spread-fingered hands to splash back at him. It was as if males came out of the womb with that warrior instinct, and women . . . women learned too late.
Asmodeus. Bringing the unloaded sniper rifle determinedly back to her shoulder, she lined up the sights with Derek’s retreating form, headed down Main Street. Never again. She’d never be too late again. No matter the cost.