Hidden Government chaser Kam’s luck might finally be changing. Her team of reapers is sent to a riverboat casino to investigate a suspicious increase in missing souls—a job that sounds more like a vacation than an assignment. A little drinking, a little gambling and maybe a little romance with Tahm, the fiancé she’s not sure she wants to run from anymore.
Plans for fun and games are canceled, though, when they find the pesky Leprechaun Mafia is behind the mischief. Of course they are.
Before Kam and her team can spring into action, the leprechauns make good on their threat to capture Tahm.
How far will Kam go to break her true love out of confinement? Working in the casino to pay off some of his debt is one thing, but it could mean Kam spends another hundred years locked up in his stead…
This book is approximately 62,000 words
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Maybe I was being petty, but a guy who constantly second-guessed my every decision could damn well figure out on his own how to coax a loose dryad soul out of a stolen tree and into his soul stone.
I had to admit, though, Tahm did look a little lost and pathetic kneeling in the grass with his ring hand out, pleading, "Come on, Wisteria. Please come out. Please?" The tree shivered. A ghostly head poked out of the trunk, frowned at the handsome djinn hunched at her roots, then faded backward into the tree.
Four of us sat on the hood of my old pickup truck, parked a few feet away in the parking lot. Three of us — myself, my assistant Ash, and Lily, the dryad who owned the hijacked tree — ate cherry Popsicles from a food truck on the far side of the lot. Our fourth member was barely visible, though his silent, frustrated gestures offered Tahm a lot more help than our placid enjoyment of frozen treats.
Pete had been the reaper who first captured Wisteria's wandering soul — along with sixteen others — before he was murdered. In a tussle with the bad guy over Pete's ring, I'd accidentally set those seventeen souls free. Apparently, Pete didn't appreciate all his hard work flying out the window and making a run for it. He took up residence in my own soul stone and refused to vacate. Now he was part of the team.
He couldn't be any real help, as much as he might have wanted to be. As a disembodied soul, he was unable to utter a peep. Or eat Popsicles with us.
Which was a shame, because they were really good Popsicles.
I slurped the melt-off and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. "How's it coming, Tahm?"
He rocked back to sit on his heels. "You know, you're not helping at all."
"You're doing great!" Ash bit off a frozen chunk and gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
Lily arranged her face in a careful, serious expression that threatened to break into laughter. "I really thought you had her that last time."
If I looked at Lily straight on and blurred my focus by squinting a little, she was all browns and greens, mossy brows and leafy hair. Like all the other Hidden creatures of the world these days, her human appearance was a magical overlay that concealed her true form when she was out in public. Blonde, blue-eyed, cute, upturned nose with a spatter of freckles. Adorable.
She was prettier as her dryad self, though. Not for the first time I mourned the loss of diversity in the creatures all around us. But that was selfish. I was also happy they could walk around the world, eating Popsicles in broad daylight.
Pete drifted off the car and moved to Tahm's side. He tossed me a glare over Tahm's shoulder, then folded his arms.
"Uh-oh." Ash nudged me with her elbow. "I think Pete disapproves."
I tipped my head back and let out an exaggerated groan. "Fine. I'll help him." I slid off the front of the truck, the bare skin on the back of my legs squeaking all the way down. Not at all as graceful as Pete. But then, Pete wasn't wearing shorts. I frowned in thought as I dropped my Popsicle stick in the trash and wandered across the grass, licking my sticky fingers.
Tahm stood and brushed his hands on his jeans. "Thank the gods. I don't know what I'm doing wrong."
I nodded, but turned first to Pete. "Hey, can you change clothes or are you stuck forever in what you died in?"
He glanced down at the jeans and polo I'd always seen him in, then shrugged. His mouth moved, but I couldn't read lips very well, and it looked like he said something like "Olives are tuna fortune sex."
"Dude, you really need to work on volume control, because that came out super weird."
His chuckle was silent, but the amusement in his eyes was clear. He pointed at Tahm and gave me a questioning expression.
"I'll take care of it. No worries." We gave each other the approximation of a high five without touching, and he floated away toward the truck, leaving me alone with my apprentice. "So. Tahm. Let's talk about what's going on here."
He ran his fingers through his dark hair. "She won't come out, Kam. It's as simple as that. I've tried everything."
"Okay." I tugged his hand, ignoring the electric current that always passed between us when we touched skin to skin. Right now, I was wearing my boss hat, not my reluctant fiancée hat, metaphorically speaking. One thing at a time. "Sit with me." We settled into the grass beside each other, facing the tree.
Why wasn't I wearing a hat? Hats were great. I made a mental note to wear hats more often. The kind that jazzed up an outfit and made a dame feel like a million bucks.
"Sitting here isn't going to help." His tone was sullen.
I plucked a few pieces of grass and twirled them between my fingers. "Your first mistake was coming on too strong. She's obviously upset. Sometimes, the best way to help is to first find out why she ran in the first place. Maybe there's a simple answer to easing her concerns so she'll go along quietly."
I felt his side-eye more than saw it, since I focused dead ahead on the tree, refusing to look at him. I hadn't set out to lace my lesson so heavily with subtext, but obviously, we both caught it.
Tahm was silent for a moment, his steady breaths the only sound from him before he finally spoke. "I didn't think she'd tell me if I asked her straight out."
I cleared my throat and twisted the blades of grass together. "She probably wouldn't, at first. You have to ease into it, first. Build trust."
Again he was silent, his breathing and the chatter of birds the only sounds. His sudden movement startled me as he bolted to his feet. "Okay."
I squinted up at him. The sun behind his head gave him a golden crown. "Okay?" "Yeah." He reached down and pulled me to my feet, causing that weird electrical rush, this time accompanied by a flutter in my stomach. "I'm going to start over. Give it another shot."
I blinked, unsure if he was still talking about the runaway dryad soul. "Oh. Okay."
He nodded toward the truck and waited for me to leave, then stepped toward the tree, his posture more confident.
I walked past the cheering section on the hood of the truck and climbed into the cab to think. About a hundred years ago, I'd run away from the djinn world to avoid an arranged marriage with Tahm. He was my older brother's best friend, and I'd adored him. Puppy love, a crush, true love — who could be sure after all this time? When I found out our parents had signed engagement papers, I wasn't happy. The bonding ceremony that made the engagement official was when I lost it.
I was a sixteen-year-old kid madly in love with an older guy who was being forced to marry his friend's baby sister. The idea of being married to someone I loved when he wasn't in love with me was devastating. I bolted and ran all the way to the human world.
Where I was captured and kept in a box for most of a century. So that went well.
And Tahm, having come after me and lost the trail once I was locked up, had his own problems until I popped up on his radar and he came to find me. So, here we were, awkward as hell, getting reacquainted and trying to work together while we sorted out our mutual baggage.
It was going ... fine?
Tahm still didn't know why I'd run away in the first place, and now, after my spectacular show of not-so-subtle subtext, he was probably going to simply ask me outright for an explanation. No more dancing around the subject. No more hiding the truth. But how was I supposed to tell him the reason I didn't want to marry him then or now was that I was ridiculously in love with him? It barely made sense to me.
I peered out the window and watched him talk to the tree in front of him. He waved his arm and pointed toward the soccer field, and the dryad eased into view, her neck craning in the direction where he pointed. Together they moved several yards to the left, and Tahm dropped to his knees and pushed aside the grass around a small mound of dirt. Wisteria floated closer, then pressed her ghostly hands into the soil to the elbows, apparently in the spot where her own tree had been before it was chopped down.
When she was finished, she withdrew and nodded at Tahm. He held his soul stone ring toward her and gave a slight tug. Her essence dissolved and, bit by bit, disappeared into the ring.
Tahm had captured his first soul.
Tears slid down my face as I watched him bow and offer his hand to our live dryad, then help her off the hood of my truck. Lily looped her arm through his and waved at us. I waved back and brushed away my tears. Feeling sorry for myself wasn't going to help the situation, and nobody needed to see me moping.
Lily stopped at her tree and waved again, then stepped into it and vanished. Tahm's smile was so bright and filled with pride and happiness, my heart ached.
Because I still was very much in love with him. After a century, I couldn't play it off as puppy love or a crush. Maybe he had feelings for me, too, and he wasn't just acting on his extreme sense of duty and tradition. Maybe I'd overreacted when I was a kid. But I still didn't want to marry him, regardless of how he felt. A lot had happened in a century. I was no longer the kind of girl a guy should marry — especially a good guy like Tahm. He'd have to understand that. I'd have to make him understand that.
No matter what he thought he would be okay with, I wasn't okay with it. I'd done things while I was enslaved. Bad things.
The only way I could think of to save everyone from long-term heartache was to run again. Unfortunately, I was out of places to go.
We couldn't continue in this weird holding pattern much longer. One way or another, I'd have to sort this out.
The nearest soul depository was up at Headquarters, in the middle of a field in Lebanon, Kansas. We could have waited and collected more souls before turning in what we had, but they were stacking up. After what had happened with Pete's stone, I didn't like to let ours get too full. We had enough work to do without having to start over a second time.
I had no idea what happened to the souls after we slid the stones into the depository box, waited the required two minutes per soul, then pulled out an empty stone. Where did souls go when they left the body naturally and didn't get stuck in there, requiring a reaper to pull them out? Nobody could answer that question. The souls crossed over. Whatever that meant. Maybe the depository boxes were tiny portals to another world where the souls started over in new bodies. Maybe people — even the creatures of the Hidden world — went to human heaven, or a Hidden version of the same thing. Maybe they returned to the mothership, or rejoined an all-knowing entity from which they'd been parted so they could journey through a lifetime and bring back knowledge to the whole.
So far, nobody had come back to tell me where souls went when they crossed, but it was my job to make sure they weren't stuck here.
Reapers were sent to the scene of a likely imminent traumatic death, in case the soul involved was too traumatized to leave the shell of their body and cross over on their own, as the majority of people did. Reapers drew the soul from the body with their stone. Soul chasers were sent for the opposite problem. When a soul believed it had unfinished business or was confused or simply extra feisty, they shot out of their bodies after death and made a run for it. Chasers tracked them down and drew them into the stone. My team and I were the first to be trained as both reapers and chasers. This meant we tended to collect twice as many souls in our stones as I had when I was a lone chaser living off ramen and bartending on the side.
Too bad I was salaried now instead of being paid by the soul, like I used to.
When we reached the tourist spot that was designated as the official center of the contiguous United States, I drove the truck to the corner, looked both ways for cars and witnesses, then pulled off the road into a cornfield. The tourist spot was deserted today, and traffic in the area was rare. No one saw us as we disappeared through the illusion that surrounded headquarters. This was the actual center of the country.
Ley lines crossed here from several directions. It was a place of power. And it was the location for the Board of Hidden Affairs, the government for all the Hidden creatures in the country. It used to be a lot bigger — the government, not the compound. Bad things had happened. The world almost ended. All the Hidden were nearly forced to move to a new world. The government was destroyed. It all worked out in the end, but rebuilding an entire government took time.
Halfway down the makeshift path through the corn, the air around us shimmered, and a guard shack appeared out of nowhere. I slowed the truck, but the shack was empty, so I continued on toward the compound ahead.
"Weird." I glanced in the rearview mirror to be sure the guard hadn't been bent over tying his shoe or picking up a sandwich he'd dropped. "Clive's usually there."
Ash half turned in her seat to look. "Maybe he dropped his egg-salad sandwich."
"Hey, that's what I was thinking." I grinned. "Should we go back and check on him? We have paper towels in the back." I hadn't actually been thinking about egg salad before Ash mentioned it, but Tahm's confusion was hilarious.
Tahm leaned forward to frown at me over Ash. "Does that happen a lot to Clive?"
"Does what happen all the time?"
"Clive dropping his egg salad on the floor."
I made a show of readjusting my rearview mirror. "How should I know? I've only met him once or twice. For all I know, he doesn't even like egg salad."
Ash held very still next to me, but we were crammed into the truck, so I felt the tension in her leg as she tried not to laugh. Tahm's breathing was louder than usual, as if he were a pygmy dragon trying to stoke his belly fire.
I could be so annoying. Poor guy. And Ash and I had grown so close lately, we were practically twin sisters — except for the hundred-or-so-year age difference and the fact that we looked nothing alike. But our brains were working the same, so that was enough to make Tahm crazy. I was tough enough to take without there being two of me.
He was always so damn serious, though, I had trouble not poking at him. I supposed if we were twelve, I'd be blowing spit wads at his hair during class. Maybe it was time for me to grow up a little and stop making our situation even more difficult than it was.
We pulled into the central courtyard of the compound, a semicircle of old abandoned buildings facing what might once have been a town pavilion or park, but was now a run-down pagoda on a bed of dried grass and tumbleweeds. I parked the truck across from a house that looked as if a stiff wind would topple it like a bad move in a game of Jenga. We waited in the truck for a moment for the dirt to settle. I always drove too fast on dirt roads because I liked to pretend we looked like a dust devil tearing across the desert. The effect probably wasn't nearly as cool as I hoped.
When the air cleared, we hopped out and climbed the steps to the old house. Tahm reached for the doorknob, but the door swung open before he touched it. At first glance, the hall before us was empty, as if a ghost were letting us in.
Tahm frowned and drew his hand back. "Hello?"
A soft grunt drew my attention to the carpeted floor, and I drew in a sharp breath. "Gris!"
"Surprise! I heard you were on your way in, so I held off on my next trip so I could be here. You look great!"
Gris was a tiny wooden golem, an accidental creation of the previous head of the Board of Hidden Affairs. When Art stepped in and took over as our boss, Gris had stayed behind as a sort of traveling ambassador and contract negotiator. He traveled all over the country rebuilding the missing teams from local government. More importantly, he was also part of the family now, which sort of made him my brother.
"Dude, where's your super suit? I thought you walked around all human-sized nowadays." His maker had built him a golem of his own that he could climb into and control. I was waiting for the day he scored a house-sized one to put the big one in, so he could be an enormous nesting doll that could hang out with giants.
Not that giants were actually that big these days.
He pointed across the compound at a large outbuilding. "It's getting a tune-up."
Tahm cleared his throat. "Think maybe we could come in?"
Gris blinked up at Tahm. "So, who's this?"
"Long story." I stepped forward, pushing the door open the rest of the way and forcing Gris to move aside.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "To Free A Captured Heart"
Copyright © 2019 R.L. Naquin.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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