2004 Chapter 1
“Now this ring is really special. It belonged to a debutante whose cousin dated the Duke of Suffolk- if you remember, he’s one of the people who went down on the Titanic.”
“Yeah, I remember that,” the tall, pretty brunette said excitedly.
Sitting at her desk behind the glass counter, Avery MacArthur had to force herself not to snort at Tanya’s spiel to the poor tourist who’d made the mistake of venturing into Avery’s antique store. Yet for all her flamboyance, Tanya was the best employee she had. The petite blond woman really should be a writer the way she made up stories all the time.
“What about this opal?” The tourist pointed to a five carat ring Avery had been trying to sell for the last three years. It was absolutely stunning, but for some reason no one would touch it.
“This was owned by…” Tanya flashed a quick glance at Avery over her shoulder.
Avery looked down at her paperwork, pretending not to listen.
Tanya snapped back around. “Bat Masterson’s only daughter.”
The tourist frowned. “Bat who?”
“Masterson. You know the infamous outlaw gunslinger who killed Wyatt Earp in the shoot out at OK Corral.”
The tourist’s eyes widened and glowed with excitement. “Wow. How did you get this ring?”
“It’s been passed down through their family. His great great granddaughter lives right here in New Orleans, over in the Garden District next door to the house that used to belong to Ann Rice. And if you like, I can take some off the price.”
Avery’s head went up at that.
“It’s normally nine hundred dollars, but if you really like it, I can let you have it for six hundred.”
Avery was just about to tell the tourist that six hundred was the regular price, but before she could, the tourist whipped out her wallet.
“I’ll take it!”
Tanya turned to face her with a triumphant grin. Shaking her head, Avery rested her forehead in her hands. One day, Tanya was going to get both of them in trouble. The girl’s audacity knew no limits.
So much for being a legitimate business owner.
Avery didn’t speak while Tanya rang the sale. But as soon as she finished and the tourist was gone, Avery stood up from her desk. “I think I just watched you commit fraud.”
Tanya gave her an innocent stare- one that strangely reminded her of the Gerber baby. “How so?”
“That story you made up-”
“I did not make it up,” she said defensively. “I told you, I’m a psychometrist.”
Avery laughed. “Psycho I might give you, but-”
“But nothing.” Tanya gestured toward the door. “Did you see how happy she was to have it? The ring wanted to go with her. It told me so.”
“The ring may have wanted to, but you do know Bat Masterson didn’t have any children.”
Tanya looked taken aback by the knowledge. “What?”
Avery nodded. “And he wasn’t a gunslinger. He was a U.S. Marshall and newspaper reporter.”
“He didn’t shoot Wyatt Earp?”
“Nope. Earp died at home around the age of eighty due to a disease.” And how Avery knew this kind of trivial crap, she had no idea. No wonder she could never find her car keys. Her brain cells were too crammed full of inconsequential matters to retain the important stuff.
Tanya crossed her arms over her chest. “That’s not what the ring told me.”
“Your ring lied.”
She tsked sadly. “It must have really wanted to go home with that woman. I guess it told me what she needed to hear.”
Avery stifled her smile at Tanya’s tenacious insistence that she could communicate with the objects in the store. Tanya was harmless enough. She just lived in her own private universe. And quite frankly, sometimes Avery wished she lived there too since Tanya’s reality was often far more serene and inviting than this one.
“Holy schnikes! That’s the finest POA I have seen this side of the movie screen!”
Avery was just about to ask her if it was Brad Pitt on his bicycle again when the door to the shop opened. The moment it did, she felt a brush of power tingle down her spine. Neither evil nor good, it smoldered there, warning her that something inhuman had just invaded the sanctity of her store.
Slowly and carefully, ready to fight, she stood up and turned to face it. The moment she focused on him, the breath left her body as if someone had hit her squarely and unexpectedly in the solar plexis. By all the saints…
He was gorgeous.
No. He was exquisite.
There was no other description for someone so strikingly handsome. Tall with honey blond hair, he wore a pair of faded jeans low on his lean hips with a tight black t-shirt that outlined every dip and curve of a perfectly sculpted body. Dark sunglasses obscured his eyes, but they only made his face that more appealing.
And his attention was riveted on her as if he sensed her powers the same way she sensed his.
“Can I help you?” Tanya asked, oblivious to the fact that she was addressing something that they should both be running from.
He flashed a set of perfect, white teeth and a hint of a dimple in his left cheek. “I’m looking for an antique.”
Tanya beamed. “Then you’ve come to the right place. We have oodles and oodles of them.”
Avery did her best to shield her powers from him. The last thing he needed to know was the exact extent of her abilities. Especially since she suspected his made a mockery of hers.
“So what are you looking for?” Tanya asked, stroking her hair flirtatiously.
His features were steely and cold. “Medieval weaponry.”
Tanya smiled. “We have a sword…”
“It was sold,” Avery said sternly. The sooner they got this… creature out of her store, the happier she’d be.
Tanya scowled at her. “When?”
That brought Avery back under his bold, brutal scrutiny. “Is that the only piece you have?”
Avery offered him a cold smile of her own. “Ã¢â‚¬ËœFraid so. Sorry. You should try the store on the corner.” Or better yet, one in another city.
He looked past her to the collection of swords and shields on her wall, above her desk. “Then what are those? Really big knives?”
She ignored his sarcasm. “Replicas.”
A slow smile broke across his face, yet it lacked any warmth or friendliness. “You’re lying to me. Why?”
“I’m not lying to you,” she said, careful to keep her tone even and cool. “We have nothing here for you. Sorry.”
Kaziel narrowed his gaze on the small, dark-haired woman before him. Pretty and curvy, she was the kind of woman he wouldn’t mind taking to his bed- provided she had enough stamina. Indeed, if this wasn’t so pressing, he would be much more seductive toward her, but he couldn’t afford to waste even a single moment.
Not even for one so inviting.
She smelled of humanity and he detected no powers from her. Yet even though she hid it well, she was afraid. Wary. The stench of it permeated his head.
The wolf in him ached to attack her for that fear.
But the man in him wanted to understand the cause of it. What was she hiding?
He looked up at over her head. “The sword on the far left is a ninth century battle sword. No replica. The composite of the steel and the hammer marks on it are authentic to the period and too erratic to be modern. That means you’re either the worst antique store owner on the planet or you’re lying to me.” He dropped his gaze to her blue eyes. “You don’t appear to be particularly stupid.”
That made her hackles rise and her cheeks flush. Her eyes narrowed in anger as she stood up on her tiptoes as if she believed she could battle him. A comical thought really. He’d eaten more fierce creatures for breakfast and spat out their bones for pleasure.
“I think you need to leave.”
He pulled a business card out of his back pocket and placed it on her glass counter. He slid it toward her as nonthreateningly as he could manage- which given his ferocity wasn’t an easy thing to do. He wasn’t used to tempering his attacks or censoring his behavior. “I’m looking for a fifth century shield unlike any other… and I’m not the only one seeking it. Call me when you need someone to rescue you.”
He glanced to the blond whose eyes were so wide, he half expected them to roll out of her head and onto the floor. Then he looked back at the one whose name tag simply said: Avery, Owner.
She was his target. A merlin hiding her powers…
She had to be. Why else would she be so defensive and unwilling to show him her weapons?
But there was nothing more to be gained right now. He would pull back, observe and then strategically attack when she least expected it.
They were done for the moment, but not finished by a long shot. Inclining his head to her, he withdrew even though it went against every fiber of his being. He was a wolf known for his attack, not his patience.
Especially not when he saw something as delectable as the merlin. The two of them would tangle soon… and in more ways than one.
Avery didn’t move until he was outside her store. He paused to look back at her through the lead mullion panes that were partially blocked by shelves of inventory and she could swear she heard his promise: I’ll be back. His gaze held hers locked before he turned and continued down Royal Street.
Only when he was completely out of her sight did she dare to breathe again.
“Why did you lie to him?” Tanya asked.
Avery mentally shook herself, trying to steady her raw nerves. “I don’t want his business.”
Tanya scoffed. “I’d like to have his business… at least for an hour or two, if you know what I mean and I know that you do. That man was F-I-N-E.”
And more lethal than a nest of rattlesnakes. Tanya had no idea just how lucky the two of them were to be alive.
Her hand shaking, Avery reached for his card to throw it out. Instinctively, her gaze focused on it. How weird. It was solid black with only two things written in silver.
And as she looked at it, the words call me wrote themselves underneath the number in blood red. She started to toss it immediately and yet her inner voice told her not to.
She wasn’t sure, but when her instincts spoke, she listened to them. Even when she didn’t want to.
At least he wasn’t one of Morgan’s demon knights. She’d battled enough of them to know one when he or she came near. No, Kaziel was something else and until she knew what, she’d give him a wide berth.
“How did it go?”
Kaziel shook his head at Bram’s question as he met up with him on the corner of Royal and St. Louis. A full head shorter than him, Bram had jet black hair and sharp golden eyes. Kaziel knew the wolf could be as dangerous as anyone, but unlike him, Bram usually hid his lethalness behind a facade of… immature stupidity.
“Not the way I wanted it to.”
Bram snorted. “You knew the shield’s merlin wasn’t going to say, Ã¢â‚¬ËœHey, stranger. Here take the sacred object my family’s been guarding for centuries and hand it over to the bitch who wants to kill me and rule the known worlds.’ Did you?”
Kaziel gave him a harsh, droll stare. “Why did I let you come with me again?”
“Personally, I vote head injury.” Bram flashed a smile that should be used to advertise toothpaste. “That or my winning personality has finally worn you down over the last five hundred years.”
Kaziel rolled his eyes at the flippant tone. “What does my sister see in you?”
Bram shrugged sheepishly. “I’m not going there for fear you might cut something off me that doesn’t grow back.”
Kaziel wanted to choke the younger wolfhound, but he wouldn’t. At least not until Aisha was back in their custody. Then he was going to kill his sister himself for putting him through this.
Glancing down, he checked the time… which was running out. Morgen le Fey wasn’t exactly known for her patience and every second that passed could be lethal for his younger sister.
But force wouldn’t achieve his objective. He’d been to two dozen stores this morning trying to find the missing merlin.
He looked back at the sign hanging out front of the unassuming store he’d just left. MacArthur’s Antiques. So obvious really and yet brilliantly hidden among all the other antique stores on Royal and Chartres streets. It made him wonder if the shield of Dagda wouldn’t be every bit as overt.
“So was the merlin male or female?”
Bram flashed a mischievous grin. “I’d ask if she was pretty or not, but I’m rather sure you’d geld me on your sister’s behalf.”
“I wouldn’t geld you. I’d just rip out your throat.”
Bram wisely took a step back. “You know, I don’t understand why it’s so important to Morgen to get this shield anyway.”
“She’s not the one who wants it. Arador is.” Arador was the new king of Camelot and Morgen’s latest paramour. Stupid fool. But that was none of Kaziel’s business. He didn’t care who the king took to his bed or even what artifacts they had. All he wanted was his sister returned to him. “What I don’t understand is how and why we were dragged into this.” Morgen had an entire army of Adoni, demons and others to do her bidding.
Why involve the Hounds of Hel in this? They had no ties to the Celtic gods who aided and fought Morgen. He and his people were Nordic and had made it a practice to stay out of the affairs of all gods. Ever since Kaziel had gained freedom for his people, he’d prided himself on keeping them safe from the machinations of others who wanted to use their powers and enslave them again.
It was something he would never allow.
But Morgen had sent her Adoni warriors out to capture his sister and her court. If he didn’t help the bitch Morgen, she would kill them all. So the war that wasn’t his had just exploded into his backyard.
For his sister’s life, he would sacrifice his own. He’d lost too many he loved to bury one more. That alone was keeping Morgen alive at present.
But if anything happened to Aisha…
The wrath of Hel and Fenrir would rain down on Morgen and her court in a way she couldn’t even fathom. Like his father, Fenrir, Kaziel held more powers and strength than even the gods knew.
He would kill anyone who got in his way and that included the woman who protected the very thing he needed to obtain Aisha’s freedom.
Avery locked the door as soon as she sent Tanya to lunch. Turning the sign over to read Ã¢â‚¬ËœBe Right Back’, she glanced out the window to see the street relatively empty. There was no sign of the man who’d been in earlier.
Her heart hammering, she headed to the storeroom in back so that she could speak to the one person no phone could reach.
Since the death of King Arthur, Merlin had been the one to protect the last bastion of Arthur’s knights. More to the point, she’d scattered the sacred gifts that the Tuatha DÃƒ © Danann had bestowed on the king to help him rule. Gifts that if they were to ever fall into Morgen’s greedy hands would spell disaster for the entire world of man.
Each object had been assigned a waremerlin to guard it. Avery was the waremerlin for the shield of Dagda. On the day that honor had passed from her mother to her, she’d taken a sacred vow to lay down her life to keep her charge out of the hands of evil.
“Merlin,” she breathed, summoning the one who was in charge of them all. Aquila made her home in Avalon. The island of Arthur that had been pulled out of time and space to exist in another dimension with Camelot and Glastonbury Tor. The only way to contact her was through her own powers.
Merlin’s apparition appeared before her in a shimmery translucent hologram. “Avery,” she breathed. “Are you in trouble?”
“I’m not sure. I had a visitor today.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. His name was Kaziel. Have you heard of him?”
“Kaziel? What did he look like?”
Using her powers, Avery summoned his likeness to show her.
Merlin’s face went pale. “Why would she send a Hel Hound to you?”
“A servant of the goddess Hel. They were the ones who dragged cowards into Helheim and made sure that none left. It’s said that once they set their sights on prey, there is not escape.”
And Avery didn’t need Merlin to tell her that today, she was that prey…