Call me loco—and Gran no doubt would—but I love the forest at night. The sweet tang of rain on the air. The musk of earth and leaf litter. The peace of returning and connecting with a landscape I'd grown up in. And no-one else around to witness the nocturnal beauty but me. Bliss.
But tonight, icy wind snuck around my legs. The branches of the gum trees towering above me creaked and cracked. I rubbed my hands together, and my gold ring, warm and smooth on my right hand, rubbed reassuringly against my fingers.
I always cut through the bush on my way home from the bus stop, found comfort in the sounds of the forest as it lived and breathed around me. Though today I hefted my backpack higher and picked up my pace.
With my following stride, the wind whipped up, darts of rain scolded my skin. The trees cracked sharper, louder. High above me, unseen leaves rustled and swooshed.
One by one, the fine hairs on the back of my neck rose. Prick, prick, prick.
A whisper sounded inside me.
But I resisted the urge to pick up my feet and fly. Instead, I turned, unheeding of the warning of the forest.
Long, dark hair, gleaming under the moon, formed before the rest of an ashen body took shape between the trees.
I knew that hair—that face.
A whoosh of air escaped me. My heart stopped. Then started again at pace, thudded harder, faster, with every moment the figure came into being.
I raised a shaking hand—almost touched her. But more and more figures appeared on the wind. And then on silent feet, as one they walked steadfastly toward me.
A blast of icy wind hit the front of my legs. Leaves and branches crashed and smashed against each other.
A shout inside me now. Run.
I turned and ran.
The howl of the wind sprinted with me, but I was fast, nimble, through the scrub and the brush I’d grown up in, knew like the back of my hand.
The rise of the hill loomed out of the darkness before me. I poured more energy into my legs, ignored the burn of my calves, the seizing of my thighs.
The incline steepened.
But I couldn’t stop. Because behind me, the Folk were coming. Their faces were stark, their eyes unseeing except for those they came for.
Never stand between the Folk and their mark. That was the eerie cautionary tale told to children. But I knew the tale’s truth. And the reason behind the warning. And that was why I couldn’t stop—because, please, please, don’t let them be coming for Gran.
Not Gran. Not Gran. The words turned over and over in my mind, a constant prayer in cadence with my legs as I flew up that hill.
My heart feared—knew—differently.
The hill rounded off, and I dragged more air into my lungs to get me home. And there it was, the little weatherboard house, sitting on the side of the hill, looking out over the Gippsland valley below.
Welcoming light spilled from the windows.
Normally a sight that filled my heart with warmth, with the remembered happiness of childhood—Gran making scones, cartoons on frosty mornings before school, the heater on full, hugs and laughs and love. Home.
I risked one glance behind me.
The Folk marched silently. Their sepia faces and bodies moved almost as one over the crest of the hill.
I swerved around the outbuildings, hit the back door of the house hard. The slippery handle fumbled in my grasp. I finally opened it with a jerk and the timber door swung open with a long, thin creak.
“Gran?” I ran through the house, shrugging my backpack off as I skidded to a halt in Gran's bedroom.
Please no. Please no. I dropped to my knees, my heart dropping beside me.
Her eyes were closed, and if not for the utter stillness, she might just have been sleeping. Pillows stacked high at her back; reading glasses dipped low over her nose. Her soft white hair—once a beautiful dark mane—rested over her shoulders.
The bed dipped beneath my weight. Gran slipped, and I caught her in my arms, drew her little body into mine, cradled her gently to me, even as I raised one hand, my fingers trembling, to feel for some sign of life.
Gran’s spell book lay open on her lap. I pushed it aside, and as I did, the pages fell open, handwritten invocations and symbols filling up page after page.
But then my hand was at Gran’s neck; her cool skin papery beneath my rushed touch. I took a breath, forced my heart to settle, tried so, so hard to feel for anything—anything at all other than that awful thud of my pulse as it hammered in my ears.
I wanted to shake her, wanted to yell and cry and tell her no, don’t leave me. I don’t want to be alone. But the time had come. I ran a hand over her soft hair, smoothed it away from her forehead. Pressed a kiss to her soft skin. Whispered my love for her, for the woman who had raised her granddaughter as her own.
“Gran, I’m so sorry I wasn’t home. Wasn’t here sooner.”
The lights dimmed once, the pressure of the air deepened—enough of a change that I looked up.
They were here.
Those Folk who had come inside filled the doorway, their gazes unblinking.
A recollection hit me from the first time I had seen them—their ranks had encircled the cottage back then, ensuring no soul escaped who was to travel with them. They had come that night for my grandfather. That had been the first time I learned of the Folk, and learned that having the sight of them was considered a rare curse; even among the witches in our community.
I hugged Gran to me harder, unwisely tried to keep her tucked into me. The one with the long, thick dark hair, her eyes a brown so dark they were almost black, stepped forward.
Her fingers brushed over my arm.
A glacial, freezing spider-webbed through my veins. The air sucked out of my lungs. I tried to gasp a breath, but as I looked into her dark, dark gaze, only the long cold of the gray between night and day existed. This was why you never stood between the Folk and their mark.
And then her gaze moved past me to Gran.
Maybe because I was in contact with her, maybe because we were blood, maybe because we were witches, and that’s the way of things. Or maybe it was my curse. But as the ice receded, and breath wheezed back into my lungs, in that moment when Gran’s soul connected with the Folk, I was with her.
We are here to take you home.
Tears ran over my cheeks, but I refused to look away as Gran’s soul took flight. Her energy breathed over me in the softest sigh; and for the rest of my days, I’ll swear her hand ran over my hair.
And then she stood before me, a shade of herself, and her warm eyes held mine for one moment before their focus shifted, their recognition waned.
The Folk turned, and Gran went with them.
“Wait. Gran, don’t leave—” I reached out one hand, but the Folk walked, their silent steps leaving nothing but cold air in their wake.
A sob escaped me, and with the shudder of my body, the book shifted, and a photo of two women, one of them holding a baby, slipped out. The colours washed through age. I picked it up, studied the image closely through my tears.
I knew the babe was me, and the older woman was clearly Gran, her dark hair greying. The third woman had her head tilted to the babe in her arms, dark hair caught up, even darker eyes turned to the camera.
I twisted the gold ring around and around my finger. My mother’s ring. My mother, who had just come to take Gran home. Who would one day come for me.
I riffled through the book, came to the last page, and to a spell I’d never seen before.
A soul killing hex. My breath whooshed out. A forbidden spell.
And scribbled at an angle across the bottom of the page, details of who requested the hex, and the intended target.
My blood chilled as I reread the entry.
The first name was the man who’d gotten my mother pregnant. The second I didn’t recognize.
Fear roiled through me. Followed by the swift rise of a current of anger. Hot. Heavy.
Hugging Gran to me one last time, I caught my breath, then purposefully closed the pages of the book over.
With the cadence of my pounding heart filling my ears, I opened the front door to my cottage.
Two men, one holding a sleek black briefcase, stood framed by the sweeping vista of the valley behind them. Distant hilltops glinted gold in the late afternoon sun.
Briefcase stepped forward. Piercing blue eyes surveyed me quickly. They tightened for a fraction of a second before glancing around. “Are you alone?”
“Hello to you, too. Mr. Jones, I presume?”
“This isn’t a social visit.” His gaze coolly returned to mine.
“Now, now. Just because you’re trying to buy me off doesn’t mean we can’t be nice, does it?”
“Trying? This is a done deal, Ms. Shearer.”
“That just proves my father hasn’t heard a word I’ve said. And where is he? Your last email said you’d both be here.”
Wide shoulders, clothed in a deep rich fabric—a hue that set off his eyes perfectly, shrugged. “He changed his mind. Now, are you going to let me in? As quaint as the countryside’s pungent … perfume is, I’d prefer to take care of this inside.”
My gut dropped. But my heart picked up pace again; the familiar tug of war between simply wanting to see the bastard—just once—and never wanting to blight my eyes with the sight of him.
A gust of winter air blew in around Jones, sent an icy shiver to trickle over me, even in my woollen jumper.
The wind also carried a tang of musk and male, and my stomach tightened with an unwelcome warmth. I crossed my arms over my chest.
“If my father’s not here, we have nothing to talk about.”
Jones’s jaw clenched. Then he looked over the old weatherboards. He lifted the briefcase. “Trust me, you want to know what’s on the table.”
Another gust of wind shoved against me, as if it wanted the man inside. I shrugged. What the wind wanted, the wind would get. I nodded once and stepped back from the door.
The man stalked past me; his musky warmth rubbing hot fingers over my skin as he passed me by.
The second man stepped forward. I rolled my eyes at him and jerked the door a fraction. A smile pulled the wrinkled corners of his mouth up, and he slid quickly inside just in time.
Jones took himself into my living room and sat on the chair closest to the flickering fire. The crackling warmth normally soothed my mood, but I refused to let it—not today. I stayed standing; took the power the position gave me.
“So, Jones. What do you for daddy-dearest?”
“I’m the fixer.” Jones flicked open his briefcase, the thick black top hiding the contents from me. “I’m here to fix the problem you pose to Mr. Northcott.”
The second man had moved to the fire, but he stepped forward now. I sent him a warning glance, even as my heart picked up pace.
The man swivelled the case toward me. Wads of cash filled its interior. “This is yours—for the book.”
My blood iced over. “What book?”
“Ms. Shearer, the book is what this is all about.”
A bitter laugh escaped me. “The book’s not here.”
The man with the wrinkled face winked at me. I battled back the smile that threatened as I looked back at Jones. “And money doesn’t mean the same thing to me as it does my … father.”
“You can clearly use the money, Ms. Shearer.” Jones sighed, closed the briefcase. “I’m heading back to the city tonight, but will be back tomorrow, lunchtime. Mr. Northcott is … determined to regain the book. I’m here to make that happen. One way or another.”
The front door crashed open. Wind roared through the cottage.
“What’s that?” Jones sprung to his feet. Surprisingly fast and smooth, given his size.
Through the window, voluminous purple and charcoal clouds steamed across at the valley sky, driving a sheet of hazy rain. Straight for us.
“A winter storm.” Out of nowhere. I glanced at Jones. How much did he know about the book? “Looks like you’re staying for a while. The track down the hill will be unpassable.”
Then the man with the wrinkled face stepped towards Jones. The wind roared again, rattling glass panes all around the cottage.
It also looked like it was up to me to get Jones off the hill alive.
“How much longer will the storm last?” Jones stood at the window, the night sky beyond him lighting up with giant purple and silver shards.
“No idea. Best guess, at least for the night.” Without pause, I put the last of the dinner dishes away. Jones had washed up, and had offered to pack away too, but I had to place everything back in the correct draw or cupboard. My little OCD.
With the kitchen clean, I nabbed a bottle of red wine and took down two glasses. Fact was, the storm wasn’t normal. And I didn’t have to glance at the ghost in the corner of the room—still glaring at Jones—to know what had caused the tumultuous weather.
“I swear I see faces out there.” Jones turned away from the window. “Has to be my imagination, right, Ms. Shearer?”
“Think you can call me Gigi now. And yeah, sure.” I slid a glance at the corner of the room. The ghost rolled his eyes, but a smile tilted the corners of his mouth. I shook my head at him. Incorrigible old codger. But I’d learned better than to try to change his mind over the years.
“You don’t mind me staying here?”
“Not like I have a choice.” If Jones died on my hill, I’d lose the only link I had to my father, after all. And I’d worked my butt off for years to get this close. I wasn’t losing this fight now. I forced a casual shrug and sipped my wine. “Don’t worry, though. I’ve got a spare room you can sleep in.”
Jones’ shoulders would take up the entire width of the little bed, though, and no way would his long legs fit. What other parts of him would be … lengthy? Warmth pooled low in my belly.
Damn, guess it had been too long since I’d had a hot man in my cottage if I was getting hot over a man like Jones.
“Enjoying the view?” Jones stalked across the room and picked up his wine.
Shit. Busted. But I refused to give into the urge to look away and instead gave him a smirk.
“Hey, you’re an attractive man in my cottage. I’m just checking out the view.”
“And am I allowed to check you out back?”
“Don’t think I didn’t notice you staring when we were eating dinner.”
“Well, you do have a stunning face. All that dark hair. Your eyes.” He shrugged those massive shoulders again. “Plus, the way you ate those—sausages, you said?”
“Yep, that’s what I called them.” I sipped my wine and pretended to stare into my glass. How did he not know what sausages were?
“So, Jones.” I swirled my wine around as if I was making casual conversation. “How long did you say you’d worked for my father?”
His eyes sharpened, then he placed his glass on the table and stepped closer.
“So, you think I’m attractive?” he all but purred. “Perhaps we can make the most of the night, since we’re stuck together, here on your hill, and all. The storm raging outside. The fire, you and me, inside.” His caramel voice rolled over me, coated me in a rich, decadent haze.
But I was made of sturdier stuff than my hormones and I pulled myself together.
“Even sharks are beautiful. Doesn’t mean I’m getting close enough to be bitten.”
“Oh, why not though? My bite doesn’t hurt. In fact …” He trailed a finger up my arm. Goosebumps prickled in its wake. “When you know where to nip …”
He leaned in. His breath heated my neck. More of that delicious heat pooled lower. I tilted my head—
A face appeared in the window. Eyes sunken but glowing with a feral red light. Jaws hollow. Bones showing.
“Fuck!” I jumped back. “What—what is that?”
Jones whirled, and a surge of electricity flew through the room. The hairs on the back of my neck pricked.
“Hellhound. It must have followed me here.” He strode to his briefcase.
Snap. Snap. The case opened, and in a flash he rose to his feet in one fluid motion. Two wickedly pointed daggers spun in his hands.
“What are you doing? Why do you have those?”
“What protections do you have? How have you warded the house?”
“The old man, and the other ghosts. Do they listen to you?
Holy shit. My breath punched from me. “You can see the Folk?”
Of course. A chill cut through me. “Jones, just who in the hell are you?”
“I’m the person who’s going to keep that hellhound out of this house. Do you have any salt?”
Was he for real? “That’s it? I meant, how can you see them?” I waved a hand at my grandfather.
“Let’s deal with the hellhound first. I’ll tell you the rest after.”
“Yes, you will.” I had a truth potion ready and waiting, in fact. I ran into the kitchen and grabbed my saltshaker. “Here.”
“That’s all you have?”
“It’s for cooking—not swimming in.”
“Shit. What about the old guy—can he call more of the Folk to help keep the hound out?”
I whirled around. My grandfather’s lips turned down, and he shook his head even as he rolled up his ghostly sleeves.
“Yeah, we’re not getting more help.” My mouth dried up, and I turned back to Jones. “He’s it.”
Jones sighed like we’d let him down. “Fine. Old-fashioned way, then. What offensive magic do you have?”
“I make potions.”
“What? What about elemental magic weapons—shit like that?”
I stared at Jones. Was magic like that even possible?
He looked up at the ceiling and cursed before turning back to me. “Then what was your plan if your father hadturned up?”
“I was going to hold him at gunpoint until he …” Shit. Couldn’t tell Jones about the truth potion. “Until he confessed to killing my mother.”
Jones stilled. “You have a gun?”
“Of course, I live alone on a rural property with farm animals and—”
“Get it. Will the old man listen to me?”
I flicked my grandfather a look. His expression said it all. “Nope.”
I ran into my bedroom, wrenched the wardrobe open, unlocked my gun safe and took out my .22 air rifle. I threw the ammunition container on the bed, grabbed two bullets, and ran back to the lounge room.
Jones had poured the salt in a tight circle near the far wall.
“Stand inside here,” he said. “The hound can’t cross the salt. Keep your rifle ready.”
“What about you?”
“It can’t hurt me, and the old man’s energy can slow it down. So which ever door it comes through, then either you or I take it out. Aim for the heart. Don’t shoot me, though.”
“Then stay out of my line of sight.”
“Send the old man to the kitchen door. I’ll take the front.”
Hands shaking, I loaded the bullets into the rifle. Shit, shit, shit. How in the hell—okay, wrong word—had this all happened?
“Jones, you good?” I called out.
The lounge room window exploded. As shards of glass cascaded onto the floor, I screamed in terror as the behemoth of a creature bellowed through the broken window. Its six blood-red eyes seething with hatred cast a menacing glare, and its sharp claws scraped with determined menace against the frame as it lumbered into the room.
I lifted the gun, pulled the trigger.
The creature kept coming. All six eyes locked on me.
My breath rasped in. Oh goddess, oh shit. I tried to scream for Jones—for my grandfather—but my throat locked. Nothing in. Nothing out. What—
Two blurred shapes whistled through the room in front of me. They hit the beast. The thing howled, then dropped to the floor.
Before I could draw a breath, Jones raced to the hound and knelt at its side. He whispered a tangle of unfamiliar words and withdrew his knives from its chest.
“Is it dead?” I gasped when I could breathe again.
“Yes.” He laid a hand upon the grisly head—almost tenderly. “But only in this world. Its soul will return to Hell.
“The hound came through the window.” And now I had a giant ass hole in the middle of my lounge room. As if the wind had noticed the opening, an icy gust whipped into the room. I shivered under its freezing lash.
“I thought it might. The hound has magic all its own.”
“What? Then why did you go to the front door—holy goddess.” I rocked back on my heels. “You used me as bait.”
“It was the only option. The hound was hunting you, Gigi. It had to think it had a simple path to get to you. I stood right there, ready to take it out.”
“And my rifle? It did nothing to stop it.”
“You can leave the circle now.” He nodded at my feet. “The gun was for your comfort—human weapons can’t stop a hellhound.”
“So what? You isolated me, left me defenseless—”
“The salt protected you from the hound.”
“That tiny circle? What if I’d stumbled and fell over?” I saw red and flew at him. Jabbed a finger into his chest. “Get out. Now. The Folk can take your soul for all I care.”
“I can’t leave.”
“Yes, you can.” I strode to my front door and yanked it open. The storm still howled around the cottage. “Doorway. Open. You. Out.”
Jones prowled toward me—and damn if the play of his lean hips and that glow in his eyes didn’t make my body wish he were staying.
He stopped at the doorway. So close his body heat brushed me with invisible fingers. I suppressed a shiver.
“There are two reasons I can’t leave. And one I don’t want to leave for.” His gaze dropped to my lips, and I licked them even as heat bloomed low in my belly.
“I don’t care,” I whispered.
“You should. Reason one: hellhounds travel in a pack. One found you. The others will, too. And they must be here for the same reason as me—which is the second reason I can’t leave. The book.”
“You want to know who I am? I’m the dark that holds the magic of the underworld. And someone stole from me. A spell that belongs on my side of the veil.”
My breath punched from me.
“The soul hex.” The spell that tore soul from body. Only the worst spell I had ever heard of.
“Correct.” His hooded eyes lifted to mine. “I am here to retrieve my property. Have you read it?”
“Then that’s why the hounds are after you, too. You know the spell, Gigi. You are in mortal danger—maybe for the rest of your life. And no amount of ghosts or potions can keep you safe. Only these.” He held out the knives. “And me.”
Oh no. I was no victim. I lifted my chin. “Then show me how to use them. I’ll save myself.”
“You really are a warrior, aren’t you?” He shook his head and stepped closer. “And now for the reason I want to stay.”
The look in his eyes made my heart pound and that warmth steal back through my belly. But I was pissed off with Jones, damn it. I lifted my chin. “Don’t you dare—”
Two mornings later, with rain hinting on the brisk breeze, I stood out the back of my cottage and threw a kitchen knife at the old tree stump for the fiftieth time.
The blade wedged into the weathered wood. Yes! Finally.
“Who did you imagine this time?” Jones asked from behind me. I resisted the urge to jump and instead chafed my hands together as I stalked to the stump and yanked the knife free.
“I’m alternating between your face and my father,” I said sweetly as I turned around. My self-proclaimed guardian-come-nemesis wore stone-colored chinos that hugged his thighs, and a creamy cable-knit sweater way too fine for my farm. Crap. Why did he have to look so … so … delicious?
And why did his low, velvety voice make me want to hear him say my name over and over? Damn. Maybe I should’ve taken him up on his offer to share a bed after he’d killed the hellhound. At least that itch would’ve been scratched. But no. Jumping into the sack with a lying, hell-guarding, sexy, mysterious stranger wasn’t on the cards. Jones was staying on my couch … for now.
His lips curved as if he could read my thoughts. “Not the first time someone’s wanted to stab me,” he murmured. “Although usually they go for the back.”
Ouch. But I shook off any sympathy. “Why am I not surprised?” I turned and threw the knife again. The blade hit on the flat edge and bounced onto the grass. Drat. “So, where have you been?” I forced nonchalance into my voice as I picked up the knife and went back to my position. “This morning was the first time you haven’t been glued to my side since you got here, Jones.”
I stopped mid-step. “As in that’s your name?”
“Don’t scowl at me. You’ve been Jones for two days, and now you’re Remiel? Why—wait, is this something like now I know your name you have to kill me?”
“Gigi.” He tunneled a hand though that lush hair. “Forget the name. I got this from home.” He drew something from his pocket and held it out.
The morning sun glinted off a flat blue disk attached to a leather cord.
“Uh, hold on, you went home? How does that even happen? Can you just open a door to … wherever you’re from any time you want?”
“I travel as the souls you call the Folk do. Through ancient forests where the whisper of life and death has weathered thin.”
“So that’s why the Folk come through the forest? There’s a gate—portal—what exactly do you call it?”
“There’s no specific doorway. Within the heart of the forest, the veil between our worlds is thin enough for souls—those souls with permission—to cross through.”
“Permission? What does that even mean?”
“You’re asking a lot of questions this morning.”
“You’re being awfully nice this morning.”
“I can be nice. I helped with the purple flower harvesting yesterday.”
“The lavender you mean?” I rolled my eyes. “You grumbled the entire time.”
“But I did it. Listen, just put down the knife down and take this.” Jones—Remiel—held out the blue disk. “I tracked the other hellhounds and returned them home. While I was there, I picked this pendant up.”
I planted my hand on my hip. “Why?”
“Are you always this prickly?”
“What about a deal then? I need that book back, Gigi. It’s too dangerous this side of the crossing. And as long as it’s here, my power is lessened. I can’t allow that to go on.”
“And I want justice for my mother. I need the book for that. It’s my evidence.”
“Then this is my deal. You take this pendant and I’ll bring your father here. You do what you need with the book—I’ll even help you get your justice—then you give me the book.”
“What’s so special about the pedant?”
“It’s a protection charm for the hellhounds.”
“Wait—there’s more? How many are there?”
“I have a few.”
“You? Their yours?”
“They guard the crossings with me. And even if their bodies are killed here, their souls return to hell, and they regenerate.”
“Oh shit.” My mouth went dry. “The one you killed the other night will come back?”
“Yes. But this charm will keep it—them—from hurting you.”
“I thought you said only you could keep me safe from them.”
“I imbued the lapis lazuli with my power. Wear this crystal, and you carry a part of me with you—that will be your protection.”
“Well, in that case.” I licked my dry lips. Considered the being before me. Could I trust him? For some reason, yes whispered through my mind. And maybe, just maybe, he could help me achieve my goal. My resolve hardened and I lifted my chin. “Charm, book, my father … justice. Deal.”
“Done.” His eyes flared, and my belly clenched with a combination of wariness and desire.
“Did I just make a deal with the devil?”
“Looks like.” His lips curved again. “Let me put this on you. Here.” He stepped behind me and the warmth of his chest obliterated the iciness on the morning air against my back. He lifted my hair to one side, his breath washed over my ear, then the cool disk slid around my neck.
A surge of energy flared through me.
“What was that?” I whirled to face Remiel.
“Gigi.” His eyes traced over my face before his hands cupped my jaw. “I knew it.”
As clear as the winter sun on my face, as the tang of lavender and wattle on the air, my choices were evident: shift left and walk away, or turn to my right, and into the man-come-windbreak at my back.
The urge to throw caution to the icy breeze and let desire lead the way flowed through me.
As if even thinking that wish made it come true, warm, firm lips met mine, and every other thought disappeared.
Only Jones … Remiel … mattered. His taste. His heat. His body ranging along mine.
Until an icy trickle down my spine had me come up for air. That was a sensation I couldn’t ignore.
“We have company,” I breathed into the kiss.
“I know,” he whispered back. We broke apart, and he pressed his forehead to mine. Was his breathing harsher than before? Did his heart pound like mine? Did he crave for the rest of the world to fade away until it was just the two of us and we could dive back into each other?
But wishes were for kids.
I turned as my grandfather strode across the crest of the hill behind the cabin, his expression grim.
As soon as he reached us, his eyes went to my neck—to the amulet—and he shot Remiel such a menacing glare I almost stepped between them.
“It’s okay,” I soothed. “It’s for my protection.” I touched the stone, and my fingers tingled against the smooth surface.
Grandfather raised one eyebrow at me before looking back at Felix.
“Go on, Jones—Remiel—tell him. You gave it to me for my safety.”
“He knows,” Remiel murmured. “He also knows what else it is.”
“What do you mean?” This time, I stepped back fully. Remiel’s gaze was on mine—had been staring at me all along?
“Always beware the trickster, girly,” Grandfather said.
Wait. Grandfather had spoken? And I’d heard? That had never happened before. Oh shit. This was bad. So, so bad. The grass at my feet spun around me until I dragged in a breath.
“I’m okay.” I pushed Remiel’s hands away from where he tried to hold me. Maybe I was mistaken? “I thought I heard—”
“You did.” Grandfather scowled. “Because of that.” He pointed one gnarled finger at my amulet.
“What are you talking about? And I can hear you. How? Why? You’re a ghost. You’ve never spoken before.”
“Tell her the truth, Trickster.”
I spun to Remiel. “Why is he calling you that?”
“Some know me by that name, that’s all. And I told you, the amulet is the only way to keep you safe, Gigi. But it comes with a price—you’re marked now.” His eyes deepened, as if that pleased him.
My gut knotted. I didn’t like that look.
“Marked how?” I shoved my hands on my hips. “How, Jones?”
“Tell me, or there’s no way in hell I’m putting it back on.” I tried to pull the amulet over my neck, but it wouldn’t budge. “What. Have. You. Done?”
“You are the one this gift was made for, Gigi. And you accepted it. The gifting cannot be undone.”
Panic welled inside me, but I took a deep breath. “Come on, it’s your gift. You can take it back—surely? And I still don’t understand why this means I can hear Grandfather.”
“Your craft had already nudged the door open to the magic of the other side. Your curse held the door ajar and let you see those who would travel to and fro. My gift—your amulet—has blown the door off its hinges so you may hear, see and feel. And the mark? It shouts to all corners of the universe, for everyone who would dare come near you; would ever think of harming you, that you are one of the Styx realm now. One of my realm.” His lips curled upward. “Mine.”
What the hell? I recoiled fast. “Like fuck I’m yours. You need to go back to wherever the hell you’re from.” I shoved his broad chest so hard that Jones stumbled, then I whirled and strode to my cottage.
“And this time, don’t come back!" I slammed the door behind me.
One week after I’d slammed the door shut in Remiel’s face, I headed into the garden as the sun rose, garden shears and basket in hand, and absently touched the pendant at my neck.
An impression of Remiel, his hands gripping a steering wheel, jaw clenched, eyes glittering, flowed into my mind. Shit. I yanked my hand away.
Damn, damn, damn. No more touching the pendant! I pulled on my gloves and got to work. There were herbs to collect, spells to craft—
The rumble of a car engine echoed up the hill, and I dropped a bundle of freshly snipped lavender into the basket before standing up.
Sunrise visitors to the hill were a rarity—hell, visitors period. So who … My belly tightened. Surely not?
But as the vehicle rounded the driveway, the answer was obvious.
Heat flashed through me—and damn it, not all from anger. Traitor, I mentally muttered at my lady parts.
The garden shears snapped shut in my grip and I laid them purposefully in the basket. Stabbing my early morning visitor might be too much temptation with them in my hand.
Remiel stopped the car in front of me and hopped out, his gaze immediately dropping to where the pendant lay beneath my work shirt.
And he knew it would be there—because I couldn’t remove it. With spells, with water and soap, I’d even tried to cut the cord around my neck. But nothing. The damned pendant wasn’t going anywhere.
“Is that satisfaction in your eyes right now?” I couldn’t stop myself from stepping forward and jabbing a finger into his chest. “I told you never to come back.”
And that was not regret humming through my belly because for a whole week he’d done exactly as I’d ordered.
“I stayed away,” he muttered hoarsely as his gaze raked me from head to toe. “For seven entire days.”
“And yet here you are.”
He let out an aggravated sigh, which I secretly enjoyed. “I missed you.”
“You—” I snapped my mouth shut. “What did you say?”
“Gigi,” he whispered. “I’m not … accustomed to sharing my thoughts with others. But I realize I have not approached you with open communication. So, here I am. I want to be open with you, and to apologize.”
“Why?” I crossed my arms.
“Because what I said is the truth—you’re inside my mind and my dreams and even my body remembers your taste and your scent.” He cursed under his breath, and then his gaze locked with mine. “Gigi, I’m here to apologize, and to ask if you will … please … have me back in your house?”
Please? This was a first.
“And if I say no? Are you willing to end this thing—and take the amulet with you?”
“Gigi, the connection between us is irreversible—from your end and mine. But, if you say you never want to see me again after this, then I will … do my best to honor that request. Although the amulet is yours, no matter what you choose.”
So I had a choice? Well, kind of. But the biggest question of all … did I want this man—this being who was the darkness that owned the magic of the underworld—in my house?
I turned away, drew the fresh scent of the herb garden deep into my lungs to clear my head.
Did I want Remiel—scratch that—anyone in my life? Having an opinion on how I did things? Invading my space? Warming my bed? My lady parts tingled—okay, fine, that part I wanted.
But the rest? I didn’t do visitors—outsiders—at all. Fact was, if I didn’t need money to live, I’d be a hermit up here on my hill. Happily. I snorted—understatement much?
“What?” Remiel frowned at me.
“I’ve lived alone since Nan passed. Happily so.”
Except the lack of warmth in your bed part.
“And …” He picked up my hand, as if he knew that touch might influence me—and he'd be right, given my body’s reaction. I pulled away.
“Listen, I’m a loner. With the forest right here, locals stay away by choice, but even strangers veer away from my hill.”
“It’s not just the forest. You don’t recognize your power, do you?”
“I’m a witch who sees the Folk. Can’t miss that, can I?”
“Not just a witch. Not just the Folk. Let me guess—you find it hard to make friendships as humans gave you wide a birth. You’re more comfortable with ghosts than people—am I right?”
The intensity in his eyes made me squirm. “I don’t know what quasi-psycho-analytic bullshit game you’re playing—”
“No, Gigi. This is no game. The power to see the Folk is a gift is far more potent than you realize. It’s not just the forest that locals and strangers feel. It’s you. Your power.”
“And what—you see past that?”
“Gigi, I don’t see past it. I see you. You called to me across the veil. The book might have been the catalyst, but you’re why I’m really here.”
My chest tightened, and as his words rolled over me, my mouth went dry. Oh sweet goddess, this male …
“Call it fate,” he continued. “Destiny. Whatever you want, but I’ve never known a connection like what I feel for you. And if you choose for me to leave your life, I will honor that request as much as possible, but I have one parting gift.” He stepped behind the car and opened the trunk. Looked inside.
My heart hammered, and I gave the vehicle a wide berth as I made my way to Remiel.
And then I couldn’t stop a gasp. Nausea see-sawed in my gut.
From inside the trunk, my father stared up at me, blinking furiously. Tape covered his mouth, bound his wrists and ankles.
“Gigi,” Remiel murmured. “Be it farewell or welcome that you bid me, this is my gift to you.”
Satisfaction flared through me to see this disgusting excuse for a human incapacitated on my hill.
“Finally,” I whispered. An icy gust tore across the farm, and I took strength from the wind’s fury. “James Michael D’Angelo, you are going to answer my question honestly. And if you do, I’ll let you leave here with some shred of your humanity. Lie to me—and I’ll call a spell to know if you do—and you will never leave this hill. This is a promise I made to myself a long time ago, and I will not give up now. Do you hear me?
D’Angelo nodded. His eyes cut to Remiel, and the hatred there was only a fraction of what he stared at me with.
“Good. I want your hatred. I want you to loathe me before this day is out.”
“Where do you want him? In the house?”
“No. In the barn—in my drying shed. I’ve got everything I need there for a spell and we can tie him up to the chair. Plus it’s cold and uncomfortable, and he doesn’t deserve anything else.”
Remiel’s brows shot up, but he didn’t say anything as he lifted D’Angelo out of the trunk as easily as a suitcase, then set him on his feet.
I raced ahead and opened the drying shed door.
Normally the familiar scents of herbs and flowers and resin were a welcome, calming balm to my senses, but not even they could make the knots in my shoulders and belly release.
Remiel pushed D’Angelo inside and the nausea returned to see-saw though my stomach. Damn. I didn’t want him here—didn’t want his taint effecting my life a single moment further. But I needed to do this, so I took a steadying breath and forced the nausea away.
A fast rummage through the old desk that I’d repurposed into a worktable yielded what I needed.
“Sit him here. I’ll tie his ankles and wrists.” I held up a handful of cable ties and then shoved my old four-legged chair toward Remiel.
“Why do you have cable ties in your draw?”
“They’re handy for tying things up—clearly.” I refused to look at D’Angelo as I secured his arms and legs and yanked them tight.
But then the nausea surged back. I swallowed hard, but the acidic swirling refused to be ignored. Damn it.
“Watch him.” I lunged to my feet and just made it outside before my stomach heaved.
Damn, damn, damn.
Suddenly Remiel was there; his hands pushing my hair back from my face.
“I’m okay,” I whispered.
“He makes you that ill?”
I nodded, and this time when I took a breath, the nausea receded. As I stood up, Remiel’s hand dropped from my forehead, and I hated that I missed it already.
His eyes softened, but I didn’t want soft. I lifted my chin. “I. Am. Fine. And you shouldn’t have left him alone.”
“He’s bound and gagged. And I’m going to get my hellblades—just in case.”
Back in the drying shed, I refused to even look at my father as I gathered a handful of rosemary, a clear quartz crystal and a candle. I’d just lit the candle when Remiel joined us, a hell blade in each hand.
D’Angelo’s eyes widened.
“Can I have one of those?” I nodded at Remiel’s weapons.
He flicked a glance from me to my father, then nodded, and with an elegant swivel of the grip, pressed the hilt of one blade into my hand.
His hand touched mine, and I swear his voice whispered into my mind: whatever you do, don’t let it draw your blood.
“Well, here we are.” I forced a flat expression and turned to D’Angelo. “This spell is simple. Once I call the ritual, I’ll ask you a question. If you lie, the candle will flicker green. Now, Remiel’s going to take off your gag. There you go.”
I called the spell and then took a deep breath. “Why did you kill my mother?”
“That’s what this is about? I thought you wanted to know about the book—”
“Not an answer.” I raised Remiel’s blade. Could I—would I—use it on my father? The answer settled cold and heavy in my gut. “Last chance. Why did you kill her?’
“I didn’t.” The candle stayed yellow and bright. What the hell? “But I know who did,” he sneered. And then a cruel light entered his eyes as he stared at me with every ounce of hatred I wanted. “You.”
“Fuc—” My gaze strayed to the candle. The yellow-flamed candle.
My breath caught in my chest. I tried to inhale, but nothing could get past the knot constricting my throat.
My mother had died … because of me?
The entire world went spinning.
“What happened to Gigi’s mother?” Remiel shifted to stand so close his arm and hip rested against me. And thank the goddess he did, because the steadiness of having him there held me upright. “And tell her everything, or I’ll do the gutting right here and now.”
I sucked in a breath; and the drying shed stopped spinning.
“I didn’t get a chance to kill her,” D’Angelo spat the words at Remiel. “She’d taken the spell book and refused to hand it back. I planned to kill everyone she loved—starting with the baby—until she handed it over. But she called a spell from the bloody book and took the death meant for the baby, trading her life for the infant’s. And before I could kill the baby anyway, the cops got there—I only just got away. I searched and searched for that book for years, but nothing. That bloody bitch ruined everything—”
“Don’t you dare call her that.” I lunged for D’Angelo, knife arm outstretched—
“Gigi!” Remiel grabbed my other hand and spun me around. “He’s not worth it.” Then Remiel’s eyes widened, and his gaze dropped to where the tip of a blade pierced his side, back to front.
I shoved Remiel and spun him behind me, faced down my father who slowly rose to his feet. Broken cable ties swing from his wrists, and a long, thin knife glinting in the dim light in his hand.
“You really should’ve checked my sleeves.” D’Angelo’s lips curled. “Now finally, give me that damn book—”
I hurled the blade in my hand at D’Angelo’s chest. It struck true. He let out a coughing gasp, then fell to the ground. Still.
A grunt echoed from behind me. The hairs on the back of my neck pricked, and I whirled around.
“Remiel!” He knelt on the floor, holding his side; face pale. Gaze locked on mine.
“Gigi …” He gasped, and I lunged to him.
“Oh goddess, no—but you can survive this, right? It’s just a cut—”
“The book. Your … amulet.” His jaw clenched.
“Shh, don’t talk—”
“No. Need to talk.” He hauled in a shuddering breath. “Your amulet … spell in book … can heal.”
“Shit. The book’s in the chicken coop. Stay here.”
“No. Take me.” He shuffled as to his feet.
“You can barely stand.” But I got under one shoulder and together we lifted him to his feet. But his weight bore down on me, and I staggered.
I didn’t bother responding as we got him out of the drying shed and into the yard. But before I’d even taken a step, an all-too familiar icy shiver trickled up my neck.
And then, high on the crest of the hill beyond the cottage, the sepia-toned forms of the Folk, my grandfather leading the way, appeared.
Please no, please no.
Memory of another time I’d chanted those words tumbled through me. Those words hadn’t worked then.
The Folk were here for a soul. I glanced back to the drying shed—D’Angelo had no magic of his own, so they weren’t here for him. And I was alive and unhurt—they weren’t here for me. My arm tightened around Remiel; horror freezing the blood in my veins as I met his gaze.
“They’re here for you.”
The Folk must take a soul. My heart smashed inside my chest as the words I’d heard since childhood replayed through my mind, and atop the hill, the Folk continued their march down towards us—the wind carrying their surging fervor on whispered gusts.
“Why aren’t you healing?” I snarled to Remiel.
“You and I are bonded,” he said through gritted teeth. “I’m part… human.”
“Oh shit. This is because of me? No, don’t answer.”
“Get … the book.”
I checked the Folk’s progress again. “They’re not far away. Can you—” Remiel’s speed picked up, and though he tensed against me, he didn’t say a word as we stumbled to the old corrugated-iron and wire chicken coop beneath the pine trees.
“Stay here.” I leant him against the doorframe and ran into the coop. At the very back behind the nesting boxes, I reached into the dark and fumbled around. Cold metal brushed my fingertips. Thank fuck. I yanked out the old tin box and ran back to Remiel.
“In there?” he rasped.
“Tell me how to do the spell.” I flicked the old latches, and the lid creaked open, and Gran’s spell book stared back at me.
“Find the soul killing hex—”
“What? I’m not killing you!”
“Killing, healing, two sides of the same coin. Trust me, Gigi, this is my magic. But you’re the witch, you have to call the spell.”
“Fine, I’m doing it. I’m doing it!” I flipped to the right page without hesitation. How many times had I stared at those words over the years? I checked the hill—the crest wasn’t visible from here, but I could see the back of the house yard, and no sign of the Folk yet.
“We have to be in contact.” He held out one blood-stained hand. “Now, say the spell, but change the opening—”
“That’s it, Latin for destroy the soul—so we need the opposite, sana occidere, and then the rest of the spell as normal until you repeat the opening line.”
I checked the yard—oh no. No, no, no. The Folk had reached us. My heart rammed so hard in my chest I almost lost my breath. “They’re almost here—”
“Gigi, do it!”
Shit! “Sana occidere, sana occidere, I make these words to spell this life, with will and gift, I make this rift. Sana occidere, sana occidere.”
As soon as the last word dropped from my lips, the amulet around my neck burned white-hot, and an electrical buzz swept through me.
“Gigi.” Remiel dropped my hand, then dropped to his knees and clutched his side. “If I die here and my soul crosses without my body, I may never return.”
“Oh hell, why isn’t it working …” The buzzing of the spell stopped; replaced by a new sensation racing up my spine.
I looked up and found the Folk gathered. Staring. Would she be there? The thought struck; errant, unwelcome. I twisted the ring about my finger even as I firmly grounded my feet.
Clouds passed overhead, darkening what light filtered through the pine trees.
My eyes wanted to flick to the man at my feet, hovering near death, holding to life only through the spell I’d crafted, but I forced my eyes forward. Forced my mind to stay clear.
Please, please let the Folk pass him by.
Skin grey. Eyes seeing yet unseeing. More and more forms had gathered, and then they moved, as one marching up the row of pines towards us.
I licked my lips. My heart furiously beat too hard, too fast.
God, there were so many. I searched the faces, desperate to catch the eyes of one–just one was all I needed.
And there she was.
Long, dark hair. Eyes brown like mine, skin smooth. My throat caught. God, she’d died so young. Younger than I was now. I twisted the ring faster. Her ring.
A shiver wracked me, and not from the frigid night air.
Then the amulet at my neck throbbed hotly against my skin and I shifted to stand over Remiel.
His eyes opened. Pain tore at their glowing green depths, even as he looked straight at me.
“How do humans put up with so much pain?” He swallowed so hard the movement was visible.
“Why aren’t you healing?” Terror made my stomach clench, my hands sweat.
“Might”—he gasped again—“take time.” Then he slumped on his side, and his eyes closed. My heart froze.
But there was no time. The Folk were here.
“Stop.” I took a deep breath, stepped before my mother.
Nothing happened. They swept forward. But I stared at her eyes. Didn’t let go. And then, finally, she caught my gaze.
She slowed. Stopped. The Folk stopped too.
I took a shuddering breath. Breathe, Gigi. Don’t fucking pass out now. With shaking hands, I touched the amulet on my chest. “The Folk are not needed here this eve.”
My mother shifted on her feet. Her voice whispered through the night, “The Folk must bring a soul home.”
I bit my lip. Surely there had to be a reason I’d been born cursed with the sight of the Folk. Please, please let this be it.
So I bared my teeth. “Take me.”
“Gigi, no!” Remiel gasped as the Folk surrounded me. But I didn’t look back, because certainty flowed through me that this was the right step.
Why else was I born with the sight of the Folk if not for this reason?
And so I followed the Folk up and over the crest of the hill, and down the other side into the forest.
Branches softly swished. Limbs creaked. And as we reached the deepest heart of the forest, the Folk ahead stepped between the trunks, and their solid forms turned translucent, then drifted away to a mist that hugged the forest floor.
Would this be the end of my existence as a living, breathing human? What did life—if you could call it that—mean beyond the veil of the forest?
“Gigi!” My name carrying through the woods had me pause.
“A soul must come,” my mother said as she walked past me.
I licked my lips. “Can a soul … also come back?”
My mother stopped. Gran and my grandfather came to stand beside her, and then my mother held up a hand, and through the tree trunks, the mist cleared, and a clear, warm light grew.
“We are our souls,” my mother finally said.
“That’s no answer at all!”
But my mother just stared at me before she stepped backward and disappeared. And then the knots in my belly untied, and with a deep breath, I followed her into the light.
And in one step, the light disappeared, and the forest returned around me. Solid trees with beautiful dark, gnarled trunks, bright emerald moss-covered rocks.
And my mother, right before me. Gone were the sepia toned hair and skin and eyes—replaced with warm, beautiful cheeks, gleaming dark locks and vibrant, glittering eyes. I drank her in.
Thank you, I whispered in my mind for this chance to see her this way.
“Gigi,” she whispered. And the emotion in her gaze made my eyes sting.
And then Gran joined us, just as I remembered her from the night she passed, and I couldn’t keep the tears back.
Before I could think another thought, they were hugging me, and their warm, strong, familiar strong embrace was my everything.
Finally, their arms released me, and I dashed the tears from my cheeks. “But what happened? Why didn’t we go anywhere…” I pivoted. “Wait. This isn’t the forest we left. Is this real?” I ran my hand over the cool, springy moss. My breath whooshed out.
“We are in the afterlife. This is the junction where three worlds meet,” my mother said. “The world of all that has been, the world of all that is now, and the word of all there ever will be.”
“And the world that is now—you mean the mortal realm?” My mother nodded, and I licked my suddenly dry lips. “So who are the Folk? And where do we go now?”
“On this side of the veil, souls exist as were at the time of our death. And we, the Folk, belong to the world of all that has existed before—we come to take the souls of fellow witches to the land of their choice.”
“All souls must choose: stay at this junction, or move to the afterlife and become part of everything that was, or travel to the world of all that will be, and reincarnate when it is your time.”
“And that’s me too, even though I didn’t die? I get to pick where I go?”
“All souls must choose,” she repeated. Then she lifted a hand and brushed the hair back from my face. My chest tightened. “We have never ushered one with a living body into this world.” Her eyes dipped to the amulet around my neck. “Perhaps it is your connection to another realm that makes this possible—your tie to Remiel is strong enough that even we can feel it. Or perhaps it is simply your fate, but either way, you have to choose.”
She turned, and when I twisted to follow her gaze, three paths become visible leading back into the forest.
“Path one is the life that was—that is where we reside when not guiding souls behind the veil. Path two is the mortal world—for the Folk, this means becoming a ghost once more until we cross back through the veil. Path three is the life that will be.”
“And I could stay here with you?” I turned to my family.
My mother nodded and my heart faltered.
So where did I want to go?
When I stepped back through the veil between worlds, the sweet tang of forest loam, the crispness of rain on the air, the raw earthiness to the greens and browns, all shouted home.
I spun around, met the gazes of my family as they stared at me from the other side, before the light shining on their beautiful faces faded like a slow-moving curtain.
A lump stuck in my throat, but I swallowed it down, because this was no time for regret. I was alive, and I’d made my choice, plus they were The Folk. I would see them again, no question.
“Gigi!” Remiel’s voice echoed around the trees, accompanied by the crunch of uneven steps through the scrub. I ran for that sound.
And then there he was. One hand held to his side, blood still staining his clothes, his arms, his cheeks. He held my book in his other hand. But gods, he was there, and that was what mattered.
“You’re alive.” The words were out before I could catch them.
“You’re here,” he said, then wobbled on his feet. “Where are the Folk? Have they—”
“Steady.” I darted to his side and eased under his arm. “Lean on me. I can’t believe you walked all the way here like this. And why hasn’t the spell frigging worked yet?”
“It’s working, believe me. Otherwise I’d have died up at your house. Where are the Folk, Gigi? Did they cross without you?”
“No, I—wait. How much time has passed?”
“I followed you as soon as I could, just got here.” He took my free hand and then went still. “Did you cross?”
“I followed them, if that’s what you mean, into this vibrant forest—so vivid it looked like a painting, but it was real. Is that where you’re from?”
“No, but I can cross from that portal into my realms—because of who I am.”
“You know I still have zero frigging clue what that means, right?”
“My role in the underworld is to control the ebb and flow of magic in that realm, and to do that, I access all portals between realms, including where witches' souls travel.”
“So what now?”
“I return your spell Hellside. That’s why I came here in the first place, to rebalance the magic.”
“Are you healed enough to get back ... wherever you go to?”
“I’ll have to be.”
“I see that grimace, Remiel. What aren’t you telling me? And don’t you dare lie—I risked my own life to save your sorry ass, remember?” A very nice ass, not that that mattered.
“I’m part mortal now, so I don’t know what will happen when I return home.”
“Then why go back?”
“Because I have a job to do.” He stared at me, and something deep and fathomless entered his eyes, but then his jaw clenched. “I got rid of the body.”
“What … oh.” My stomach knotted and I froze. My fath—no, the man who had sired me, nothing else. Who I’d killed.
“I called the hellhounds as soon as you left, so they should’ve fed by now. There won’t be anything left.”
“I guess—thank you? I mean, I hadn’t even thought about dealing with … that.”
“I can get someone to destroy his car, too, so no one will find it.”
“Wow, you can do that, too?”
“I’ve got contacts in your world.” He straightened and his arm dropped from around my shoulders. “I should go. I don’t want to wait any longer to return this spell.”
“Right then, yes, of course.” I stepped back.
“If you need anything else—”
“Go, I’ll be fine. I’ve looked after myself for enough years now that I don’t need you. And I’ve got his, remember?” I rubbed the amulet.
Remiel’s eyes darkened. “You should know …”
“I can feel you through the amulet. When you touch it, it’s like you’re touching me.”
“So right now …?” I stroked a finger over the crystal again and couldn’t hold back a grin when a visible shudder shook through him. “Wow, you do feel that.”
“Witch,” he breathed. “Do you want me to do that to you?”
Yikes. Did I? I wet my lips. Damn, just to feel his kiss one last time—
“Gigi.” His rasp filled my ears before his mouth crashed down on mine. His delicious taste. Those firm lips. The heat of his body so close to mine. I lost myself in our kiss—then he wrenched back, and the fire that blazed in his eyes almost made me drag him back.
And that fire continued to burn bright as he stepped back between the trees; as the light enveloped him. And then he left me alone with the pounding of my heart in my ears. Lips still tingling. Breaths still sharp. Alone.
Just the way I liked it. Right?
Winter had finally taken over from autumn, and I had just stacked another layer of cut timber into the box on my porch when the pressure in the air shifted.
The Folk. What now? I dropped the rest of the wood and ran through the cottage, flung the back door open—
“Gigi.” Remiel stood right there—alive—the afternoon sun a halo behind his head. And damn if I didn’t breathe easy for the first time in four weeks. He stared at me—and I stared back. Jaw. Eyes. Lips. Power and strength radiating from his lean, tall frame. Exactly like the day he’d first come to my cottage.
And then the thumping footsteps of a hellhound bounding through the cottage reached me, and moments later a gnarly head butted the backs of my knees. I shifted, ran a hand over the creature’s head as it pushed past me. The hellhound lunged at Remiel, only to fuss around his legs like a lovesick puppy. Remiel rubbed the creature’s head like I’d done, but his eyes never left mine.
“Some greeting,” I murmured. “Looks like it missed you.” And fine, maybe I had developed a soft spot for them—they were just like big dogs, when they didn’t want to eat you. “They visit every night, as if they’re keeping guard.”
“That’s why I sent them. I couldn’t get back here—had a lot to figure out in Hell after … becoming part human. There were some who wanted me out.”
“Crap,” I breathed. “What happened? Wait, did they kick you out?”
“No.” He snorted. “As if they could. After I made it clear I still had the strength to hold the power—in fact, it seems like through our bond, I have capacity to control even more than before—no-one could argue for my demise.”
“Demise as in, death?”
“Oh.” An oily sensation slicked through my belly. “Well, good to know they don’t want to kill you. So … what are you doing here then? You returned your spell, right?”
“Gigi,” he whispered. “I’m here for you.”
The oily sensation halted, and a new warmth bloomed in its place.
“As in you want me to go to Hell?”
“No, you can’t go hellside.”
“So what then?”
He stepped closer. “The bond we have is one that cannot be broken, and the truth is, I wouldn’t want to even if I could. You are the most fierce, wonderful, stubborn being I have ever met, and whether you’re making magic in your garden, or throwing knives at your stump, or staring down a hellhound, I want to be with you. I want to stand beside you against every person or thing or creature who would ever dare hurt you.”
“Wow.” My heart was racing, and the warmth pooling low in my belly spread through my veins. “You feel that … strongly for me?”
“Gigi, every day of the last four weeks, you are all I’ve thought about. Every day I missed you. And you? Did you ... think of me at all?”
Pft. Think of him? Only like every moment, damn him.
“Gigi.” He picked up my hand, and his thumb stroked my palm.
“Yes, yes. Fine, I missed you, okay? I didn’t expect to, but there you have it. But don’t go getting all excited. So what if I missed you? We live in different worlds, Remiel.”
“We life on the two sides of a veil. But I can come here, and you can go to the junction. If we want this, Gigi, we can make this work. And believe me, I want this.”
His unspoken question hung between us. What did I want? But I didn’t even have to wonder—the answer as certain in my blood as my magic.
“Back at the tree.” I licked my suddenly dry lips. “You offered to stroke your amulet. Is that offer still there?”
“Really?” Delight lit up his expression, and I couldn’t stop the no-doubt silly grin that crossed mine.
“Yeah.” I held the door wide open. “Come inside, Remiel.” I tugged him into my house, lifted onto my tiptoes, and when he kissed me and cherished my mouth, nothing else mattered.