When a brooding Irishman shows up at the hospital where she works, Kennedy Jefferson realizes her fugues are more than simply lost time. She knows this stranger is a threateven as her body craves his masterful touch.
Dylan O'Shea is the druid's assassin charged with finding the single woman who can stop an evil goddess from destruction. He's searched to find Kennedy for centuries. But Dylan finds himself inexplicably drawn to Kennedythe woman he's ordained to kill.
With Samhain fast approaching, duty and desire are on an unstoppable collision course
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County Clare, Ireland, Present Day
Dylan O'Shea leaned back, arms crossed, one booted foot pressed against the stone wall of the westernmost battlement. His gaze was locked on the storm brewing over the Atlantic. Violent winds drove sheets of rain across the Cliffs of Moher. The green of the grass echoed the peaks and valleys of the sea, where waves rose and crashed forward. He watched, unblinking, as lightning struck shallow water.
A sound not unlike a woman's sigh wove through the shrieking wind. He glanced up and shoved his drenched hair back, looking around. No one there, but he wasn't surprised. Still, the sound had his mind pulling up the image of a black-haired beauty with eyes bluer than the shallows near the cliffs and a mouth he couldn't help but consider wanton.
For three hundred years he'd searched for her on the goddess, Danu's, directive. Three hundred years he'd conjured her image during every empty night. Three hundred years he'd spent with that face, and he'd come to want her like he'd never wanted another. And now her timetheir timewas coming. He knew it with the same certainty he knew this storm wasn't a natural occurrence. Not with the extremes he witnessed. No, the balance of the elements was already out of order. It left him uneasy, bordering violent, as he considered how the woman might fit into the threat that built on the air.
And if he knew the elemental balance was threatened, the Elder Council did, as well. It also meant it wouldn't be long before they sought him out, and it was about time. Idleness was driving him mad. Or, if he were dealing in honesty, madder.
As if summoned by his thoughts, one of the very men he'd been considering pushed through the iron-banded wooden door. "It's time," he said.
"Time." Dylan blinked slowly before turning his attention back to the sea. "It's a subjective topic, is it no'?"
"Stalling will do little but delay the inevitable."
"You engage me, of all people, with talk of delaying the inevitable?" The bite of his voice broke through the storm's fury, and the man in the doorway bristled.
"The Elder Council waits for no one, Assassin, not even you."
The slamming of the door would normally have made Dylan smile. Not today.
Shoving off the wall, he dropped his hand to the door latch when a whiff of citrus and heavy spice tickled his nose, the long-forgotten scent called up from memory with the same gut-churning effect as a roller coaster's first radical drop. Dylan froze. Rain still ran in rivers down his face, but the pelting he'd been taking faded. Uneasy, his free hand drifted to his dirk, fisting the handle.
"I would think you'd willingly, and wisely, speak to me without violence, Assassin." The musical lilt of her voice hadn't changed, not in three hundred years.
"You use my title but expect me to behave peaceably?" He let go of the door handle and turned toward the woman who stood untouched by the rain.
"And you, you won't use my name." She tucked longfingered hands into the bell sleeves of her robes; at the same time she cocked her head to the side, openly considering him. It was the equivalent of calling him a coward, and he would suffer a lot of shit, but not that.
"A gracious welcome to you, Danu, Mother of All Things." Dylan's numb lips struggled with the formal greeting. His belly tightened, and he absently rubbed it as he considered the goddess. She hadn't shown herself to him other than that one night three centuries ago when she'd changed the course of his life.
Danu reached for him, dropping her hand when he stepped back. "You are still angry with me for delivering your solemn responsibility at such a young age."
Dylan's mouth opened and closed, his ability to speak lost in a turbulent sea of emotions. Barking out a laugh, he shook his head. "I've spent my life wondering if I'd dreamed the whole conversation, thinking myself mad at best."
"Yet you acted with faith, preparing yourself for the inevitability of death." She closed in on him, laying a hand against his near-frozen arm.
All he could think was that she was neither hot nor cold. Odd that he'd handled meeting her as a lad much better than he was handling this moment. "So I'll die, then, the last of your direct line to hold the position of Assassin, to wield justice as deemed fit by the gods."
Danu stroked his cheek. "It does not have to be so. You must find the truth of which I spoke that night and stop the goddess Cailleach from breaking the chains that bind. Until you have found the truth and made your decision, nothing is guaranteed." She smiled gently. "Man's free will is a factor that tends to skew even the gods' predictions."
Cailleach. The anger that always simmered so close to the surface of his consciousness flared. "Free will, is it? Then I'd have you go back and return mine to me. For I'm nothing if not a man. I'd be something other than what I've become because of your blessed intervention. You gave me nothing, nothing more than a vague promise that I'd perish if I didn't find this truth you referred to. Yet you delivered your jaunty news and disappeared, leaving me with nothing more than your charge. What the hell good has that done me, then?"
The goddess's hand stilled, then fell away, her face transforming. Gone was the compassion of only a moment before. In its place was a cold and deadly stare that told him precisely how far was too far to push herand that he'd crossed that line with a running leap of the mouth. Damn if he'd back up or apologize or
Dylan's back slammed onto the stone he'd been standing on moments before. Air knocked out of him, he wheezed in an effort to regain his breath.
Danu stood over him, glorious in her fury. "You will comport yourself with respect, Assassin. Furious or not, your time has come. You will discover the truth you lack before Samhain or you will damn mankind and the Druid race to the end of life as it's known. Extinction would be a kinder fate."
He slowly pushed himself to his feet. "Will you not give me more to go on than that? Or will you charge me to continue to search the world over with nothing more than faith?"
Her lips thinned. "Still you show such belligerence. My hope for victory fades with every word you utter." She stepped back, putting distance between them. "In order for all to survive, you will have the slimmest of opportunitieshoursto lay either the truth or yourself upon the altar. Regardless of your choice, the sacrifice must be made willingly."
He blinked rapidly. She'd failed to mention that little fact the first time she'd come to him. Opening his mouth to speak, he realized he was again alone.
Fucking gods and their fickle demands.
Fighting to breathe normally, Dylan hauled the heavy door open and stepped inside, shaking the rain from his hair like a dog exiting a lake. He pushed the wet mass off his face then started down the spiral steps. There were one hundred forty-two treads to the bottom, and each one seemed to propel him forward faster and faster until he fought the urge to run. He never ran unless he was the one doing the chasing. Deliberately leaning back far enough he nearly ass-planted on the steps, he forced himself to move slower. The Assassin wasn't running, even from this.
Particularly from this.
He silently rounded the corner at step seventy-three when he heard methodical footsteps coming up the stairs. Whoever it was heard him a moment later and paused. Dylan's hand automatically went to the short sword at his back. He began to unsheath it, allowing the metal to rake against the scabbard in warning to whoever might think to surprise him.
"Put your weapon away."
The voice had Dylan's brows rising even as he let the sword slide back home.
Aylish rounded the corner and stopped three steps below Dylan. The height difference between the two was significant enough on the rare occasion the men were side by side, but now the Elder was forced to tilt his head back at an unnatural angle in order to meet Dylan's shrewd gaze.
The man looked older in the years since Dylan had last seen him. Considering the actual rate at which they, as Druids, aged, that it was noticeable at all said much. Fine lines speared out from the corners of Aylish's eyes, even as deep crevices ran alongside his mouth like cracks in the dry earth. They might have been smile lines if the man ever smiled, but in all Dylan's recollection, such events were rare. Silver strands of hair in the man's black mane reflected the little bit of light in the stairwell.
The Assassin cocked his head to the side and arched an insolent brow. "They sent you for me, did they?"
Aylish stood quietly and looked the giant man over before he spoke. "I'm the head of the Elder Council. No one sends me anywhere."
The surprise having passed, Dylan leaned against the curving stone wall and crossed his ankles, thumbs hooked in his jean pockets. "So you volunteered."
"You believe you're above my notice?"
"Certainly never above." The delivery was intentionally lazy and clearly irreverent.
"You'll do well to remember our traditions and the respect demanded of them, particularly as it relates to your Elders," Aylish bit out.
Dylan inclined his head. Pushing off the wall, he clasped his hands behind his back and spread his feet in a traditional at-rest position. "Forgive my impertinence. I meant no disrespect."
"You meant to press me until I snapped and, while I'm not proud of it, you've succeeded. And quickly. What was gained?"
Dylan chanced a glance at Aylish. "Nothing but personal satisfaction."
Aylish barked out a laugh, his bright grin melting the tension lines around his eyes and lips, the change reverting his appearance to that of a man in his early forties. "I rarely forget you're so direct, but when we've not dealt with each other in so long, it's easy to fall into the habits our brethren use to communicate."
"You dress up the fact that they stall and bicker then hem and haw like old women." Dylan held up a hand and shook his head before dropping back to the at-rest position, dipping his chin to the floor to hide his grin. "It's no wonder they draw straws to see who has to deal with me."
Aylish stepped closer. Reaching out, he laid a hand on Dylan's forearm. "You are our sword arm, our first line of defense against all comers, the shadow of death to those you hunt. It's no wonder they fear you more than a little."
Dylan's chin jerked up enough to meet Aylish's gaze. "Their collective power could end me. I'm not so foolish that I forget this simple fact." He silently cursed himself for admitting he considered his own end. It was soft, indulgent even, given his status and responsibility. He likely wouldn't have slipped if he hadn't just had the very same topic at the forefront of his mind and reinforced by the goddess.
Aylish dipped his chin fractionally and withdrew his hand. "Neither are they so foolish in their power as to forget that you are the potential salvation of our race."
"That answers why you're here." Dylan couldn't stop his lip from curling into a hard smile. "Danu came to me."
"When?" Aylish snapped.
He looked toward the rooftop. "Now. It's time. Either I discover the truth she charged me with finding or all of mankind falls." He arched a brow. "She offered an alternative."
"Tell me." The order was barked out.
"I can sacrifice myself in place of finding the gods' invisible truth, but even so there's only a slim window of opportunity in which it will make any difference."
Aylish reached out a second time only to let his hand drop to his side when Dylan stepped away. He turned to leave then surprising Dylan when he looked back and said, "It should never have come to this, blood of my blood, bone of my bone."
Dylan's whole body jerked at the sentimental address. He couldn't remember the last time Aylish had acknowledged him as such.
"The time for your charge is now. Our safeguards are breaking down, the Shadow Realm of Cailleach and her siblings pressing in. You can see it happening." Aylish raised his brows and tipped his head toward the storm raging outside.
"You blame the weather on a banished god's behavior?" Dylan curled the corner of his mouth up in a nasty smile. Looking out a small window in the battlement that faced the cliffs, his smile faded. A particularly vicious gust of wind blew ocean mist along the glass, and the smell of the seaa source of life and, equally, deathassaulted him. And wasn't that what this was about? Life and death?
Aylish hesitated long enough Dylan was ready to throttle him. "The goddess Cailleach has chosen her physical host. The woman is in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States."
Dylan's false calm broke, and he spun from the window to face the other man. A sick twisting in his gut nearly doubled him over. He fought the urge to grab his belly. "Why has no one told me?"
Aylish's shoulders drooped briefly, and he leaned against the stairwell wall for support. His head hung low, and he wouldn't look at Dylan as he answered. "Because we only just found out. The reports we're getting are disjointed at best. We believe the goddess is fighting to not only gain her freedom but to release Chaos, too."
Dylan's brows winged up sharply. "She's surely not so foolish as to believe she can control it. Chaos ultimately destroys everything. I don't accept it."
"What you accept or reject is irrelevant. There is only what is. Cailleach is pushing with incredible force against the spells which bind her. We're unsure from where she draws her power, but draw it she does." The Elder paused, watching Dylan through shrewd eyes. "You know what we require of you."
The burden of his role had never been so heavy, but he would carry out his dutyfind and eliminate the host. Vengeance was his dance partner, and the music was just beginning to play.
Dylan ran his hands through his hair and, to disguise their shaking, clutched his skull. "You would call on me now, make it an official matter of the Order and not the capricious gods."
"Mind your tongue. Our obligation is to serve the gods' purpose. They've not intervened, so this is for us to do. Eliminating Cailleach's chosen host and banishing the goddess to the Shadow Realm, where we will rebind her, is our only option. We must move, and now, on the woman Cailleach has chosen."