If you want the moon, don’t hide from the night.
If you want a rose, don’t run from the thorns.
If you want love, don’t hide from yourself.
I’ve chosen these three lines as the beginning of each of the three parts of Guardian of the Realm, the second book of the Red Cliffs Chronicles. They fit the story perfectly, but I’m mentioning it now because I’m up to my eyebrows in formatting the e-version of the Guardian. It’s a tad easier than my first project, The Legacy, true, but it’s still maddening.
I did the Draft2Digital formatting of The Legacy as well, and the Kindle version is now available for preorder. It’ll be published on June 30th.
To give myself a break from formatting, I’ll be working on the translation of a beautiful poem, My Brother’s Hands, written by my high school friend, an ER doctor and writer, Jasmina Hanjialic.
Three weeks earlier
THE PHONE ON THE NIGHTSTAND made a hum, jerking me upright. I glanced at the display and felt a prickle at my nape. A call from Tristan Blake at 1:35 a.m. could only mean trouble.
I pressed the answer button. “Is Astrid okay?”
“She’s fine,” Tristan said. “We’ve just got a call from Copper Ridge. The same woman who phoned us before. She says a month ago Seth sent a couple of his people to look for Astrid.”
“A month ago? Why didn’t she tell us until now?”
“Because she didn’t know until now. Seth’s up to something again.”
I rubbed my chin. “That’s what we heard, too. Did his people come close to Astrid?”
“No,” Tristan said. “They looked for her in the wrong place. Dallas.”
“Dallas? Hmm. I wonder what made them go there. She’s never had any connections to Texas.”
“A smokescreen? Perhaps they wanted us to believe they had no clue where she is.”
“It’s possible,” I said. “Or perhaps someone sent them on a wild goose chase. But who? That lunatic Seth must be stopped. The sooner the better.”
“Copper Ridge may need some help to take him down.”
“I know. We’ll help them.”
“We can keep Astrid safe as long as it takes,” Tristan said. “Between Liv, me and your people here, she’s well protected, but it’s a band-aid solution.”
Brother and sister team, the Falconers, had been sent to Rosenthal a while ago to watch over Astrid. Not that Tristan and Livia Blake needed help; their job was to monitor her surroundings for anything unusual. They’d been told to keep a distance so that she didn’t know about them, but to stay close enough to protect her, if necessary. It was time, however, for a more radical move.
“She should come to Red Cliffs,” I said. “She’s too precious to us to risk anything happening to her. I’ll talk to James. If he agrees, I’ll come to Rosenthal and talk to her. Convince her to come with me to Red Cliffs.” I let out a frustrated sigh. “Stubborn little mule. She should’ve come long ago.”
“Astrid’s been reluctant to go to Red Cliffs, true, but she had reasons to be. Try to understand.”
“She’d better come this time.”
“That depends on you, Jack,” Livia Blake said in her slow, sensual drawl. The voice came from somewhere behind Tristan. With her sharp hearing, could hear all of our conversation. With my sharp hearing, her voice was as clear as if she were talking on the phone.
I smiled. Some of the tension caused by Tristan’s call eased. Livia Blake could have such an effect on people. “Hey, beautiful. I was wondering where you were.”
“Hey, handsome. Haven’t seen you in ages.”
“Okay, that’s it,” I heard Tristan again. “I am not teleconferencing again. Livia, if you want to talk to Jack, keep the phone pressed against your ear, not mine.”
I heard Livia sigh. “Okay. Pass me the phone, love” Then, a moment later, “Jack, Astrid’s a sensible person. She’ll listen to you. By the way …” She let her voice drift off. I knew Liv long enough to know what was coming. I could picture the spark in her eyes and a hint of a smile in the corners of her mouth. “She’s beautiful, you know.”
“She’s pretty, yes,” I said. “I saw her pictures. Liv, darling, if this is one of your little matchmaking schemes, you shouldn’t bother. You know they don’t work with me.”
“Should I remind you that your last girlfriend was your own choice, yet it didn’t work either?”
She was right there, I’d give her that.
“Astrid is exquisite, you’ll see,” Livia said.
“I believe you. Liv, listen, don’t tell Astrid Seth’s people were looking for her. I’ll talk to her. Keep her safe until I take over.”
“Pfft, a piece of cake,” Liv said. “They can only get to her over our dead bodies, and that won’t be easy, you must admit.”
“Next to impossible,” I said with a chuckle.
“Are you coming alone?” Tristan asked, half joking, half serious. “Maybe we should have two guest rooms ready? Knowing James, I won’t be surprised to see him, too.”
“It’s understandable. She’s his niece, and he worries about her.” Liv said.
“I’m going to bring her to him.” This time she was coming with me even if I had to tie her up, toss her over my shoulder and carry her to Red Cliffs. “See you soon, then. And don’t worry about the room. James’s not coming with me if I can help it. And I plan to stay at Astrid’s. I need to know her better.”
Before Livia could make a comment, I finished the call.
TWO DAYS LATER, I STOOD behind an old spruce tree in Astrid’s backyard, waiting for Tristan.
She’d just returned home. I watched as she unlocked the door, turned the light on and stepped in. One by one, the other lights went on.
I followed her aura—the clear outline of the body heat some of us were able to see—as she moved through the house. It was bright blue, unlike the deep red of typical wolf-peoples’ aura. From the hallway to the kitchen, to the living room, bathroom, bedroom and back to the living room again, where she walked to the window and closed the blinds.
Did she find my scent inside the house?
Probably not. The search seemed to be over. She was back in the kitchen, opening the fridge and bending over in front of it.
I HAD ARRIVED IN ROSENTHAL earlier that morning. Astrid had been already at work, so I’d taken the opportunity to look around her house. I wasn’t proud of it, but I wouldn’t apologize either. The Falconer siblings’ reports were focused more on her surroundings and the potential dangers than on the things I needed to know: what kind of person the young surgeon Dr. Astrid Mohegan, alias Dr. Rosalie Duplant, really was.
The reason was simple: unbeknown to her, Astrid, the daughter of a wizardess and a werewolf, was a rare, precious, powerful ellida, the mighty force of good and the highest authority of a werewolf clan. That’s why I had to bring her to Red Cliffs. She belonged among us and we needed her as much as she needed us.
The other reason for this incognito visit was more mundane—I’d wanted to look for traces and scents of other people in and around her house—werewolves, wizards, Tel-Urughs, humans. Anyone who could do her harm. I knew Liv checked her place twice a day. It’d be hard to imagine anything slipping her attention. Still, another pair of eyes—or better, another nose—wouldn’t hurt.
Astrid’s house was small and had only two bedrooms. The interior was clean and simple: modern, dark brown furniture, plenty of free space, sliding doors dividing the kitchen from the sitting area and her small office. Natural colors prevailed: butter-yellow walls, a beige sofa and armchairs, dark parquet floor. It would’ve appeared gender neutral if it hadn’t been for the decorative accents in different shades of pink: the cushions, the carpet under the coffee table, the lampshade, the woolen blanket on the sofa, a big bouquet of pale pink roses in a vase.
Hanging on the wall there were several Japanese ink paintings with a four-season theme: orchards, bamboo, chrysanthemums and plum blossoms. More sumi-e artworks of misty landscapes, flowers and small animals adorned the opposite wall.
When I stepped into her tidy, almost spartan bedroom, the floor made a high-pitched squeak. I nodded in silent approval: a nightingale floor, designed to make a sound when walked upon. The dry boards creaked under the pressure of footsteps and the flooring nails rubbed against clamps, producing chirping noises. A simple and efficient security device assuring nobody could sneak into her room. I’d heard about it, but never seen one. Smart girl.
She loved music. I’d heard she had an exceptional singing voice, trained for years. It was so beautiful that she could be an opera singer if she wanted. Or rather, if she could afford the fame and publicity that would come with such a voice.
I checked a pile of CDs in front of her stereo: Guns’n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion was the last one she’d listened to. The jewel case lay open, and the disc was still in the player.
I shook my head, smiling. Who on earth still listened to CDs?
Besides heavy metal and hard rock, the recordings that had been recently played contained Amy Winehouse, Queen, Santana. Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing. I smiled—my all-time favorite. Then I’d opened a big box on the bottom the the bookshelf, filled with classical music: Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Haydn—symphonies, concertos, operas. Several different productions of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
I browsed through her books, hundreds of them packed tightly on shelves that covered a whole wall. Her literary tastes were also interesting. “Tell me what you read, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Hmm. In Astrid’s case, it wouldn’t be so easy. She seemed to like everything from Aristotle to Asterix. Classic titles stood side by side with contemporary bestsellers and graphic novels. A lot of supernatural romance fiction. On the floor beside the sofa, with a bookmark tucked somewhere in the second half, lay a signed copy of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, read numerous times, judging by the condition of the book.
Lots of medical books and magazines, but that was hardly a surprise.
Astrid’s neat, modest little nest didn’t reveal much about her except that she was a down-to-earth young woman who loved books, music, movies. And the color pink.
At least I was sure about two important things: no one had looked for her here, and she wasn’t in a relationship. The only scents in the house except hers were Liv’s and Tristan’s.
It didn’t seem right to further invade Astrid’s privacy. I looked around to make sure everything was as I’d found it. I’d only leave traces of my scent outside her house. I was curious to see if she would notice it.
I KEPT MY EYES ON the house, following her from the fridge to the kitchen table. She pulled out a chair and sat.
I expected her to start eating, but the blue outline of her body was still, like it was frozen.
Something is wrong, flashed through my mind only a second before her scent reached me from behind and her cold fingers closed around my throat in a strong grip.
At the precise moment when her hand touched my neck, a gentle, warm wave washed over me, reaching every cell of my body and every corner of my soul. She winced, and I knew she’d felt it too. Her grasp first loosened then tightened again.
“Who are you and why are you watching me?” Her voice was soft, alluring. A tell-me-the truth-and-I might-let-you-live kind of soft and alluring.
Before I could answer, Tristan appeared in front of me seemingly out of nowhere.
“Wrong time to be late,” I said to him.
“Tristan.” Astrid acknowledged his arrival.
“It’s okay, Astrid,” Tristan said with suppressed laughter. “You can let him breathe.”
My attacker released my throat and I turned. She took a step back and, tilting her head, studied me with open curiosity.
“SORRY YOU TWO, TRISTAN SAID. “I see you’ve already met but let me make a formal introduction. Astrid, this is Jack Canagan from Red Cliffs. Jack, this is Astrid Mohegan. Why don’t we go inside the house?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Jack Canagan. I’ve heard of you. You’re my Uncle James’s stepson.”
With a curiosity that matched hers, I took in the tall, slender, golden-haired and blue-eyed young woman I knew only from photographs. They didn’t do her justice.
I cleared my throat. It didn’t hurt, but her grip had been strong. Good. She was nobody’s fool. “It makes us some sort of family, doesn’t it?”