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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Alpha Male Blog Hop

Leap into Spring with the Alpha Male Blog Hop.
Lots of amazing prizes.
Check out all the participating blogs here

Alpha Males. You know you love em. And so do we! We're celebrating them and all their delicious alpha male glory for an entire week with giveaways at every single blog. Stop by and check out which males are making us pant with all that sexy swagger they have going on.

The Rules!
1. Sign up to follow my blog through GFC or NB and leave me a comment with your favorite Alpha Male. It would be great to tell me why you picked him.
2. Winner (chosen at random) will receive a $20 Amazon GC from me. Available to the .com, .co.uk., and .ca sites only.
That's it! Couldn't be easier.

My hands down favorite alpha male is Jerricho Barrons! He's tall, dark mysterious and KM Moning takes her time developing who he is. Beneath all that smokin' hotness, he has a compassionate side and he loves Mac beyond wisdom or reason. Yup! A perfect alpha for me.

If you'd like, scroll down to the next post for my latest release and a rafflecopter giveaway. Best of luck!
Ann





 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Witches Rule! Win a $50 Amazon GC


Witch’s Bounty
The Witch Chronicles, Book 1
By Ann Gimpel

Publisher: Taliesin
Release Date: 3/6/14
Genre: Dark Paranormal Romance

63,000 words
Amazon Buy Link
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A demon-stalking witch teams up with a Sidhe, but their combined power, never mind their love, may be too late to make a difference.




Blurb:

One of only three remaining demon-stalking witches, Colleen is almost the last of her kind. Along with her familiar, a changeling spirit, she was hoping for a few months of quiet, running a small magicians’ supply store in Fairbanks, Alaska. Peace isn’t in the cards, though. Demons are raising hell in Seattle. She’s on her way out the door to help, when a Sidhe shows up and demands she accompany him to northern England to quell a demon uprising there.

Duncan swallowed uneasy feelings when the Sidhe foisted demon containment off onto the witches two hundred years before. He’s annoyed when the Sidhe leader sends him to haul a witch across the Atlantic to bail them out. Until he sees the witch in question. Colleen is unquestionably the most beautiful woman he’s ever laid eyes on. Strong and gutsy, too. When she refuses to come with him, because she’s needed in Seattle, he immediately offers his assistance. Anything to remain in her presence.

Colleen can’t believe how gorgeous the Sidhe is, but she doesn’t have time for such nonsense. She, Jenna, and Roz are the only hedge Earth has against being overrun by Hell’s minions. Even with help from a powerful magic wielder like Duncan, the odds aren’t good and the demons know it. Sensing victory is within their grasp, they close in for the kill.

 a Rafflecopter giveaway
Excerpt:

…The bells around the shop door clanged a discordant riot of notes. “Crap!” Jenna shot to her feet. “I should have locked the damned door.”

“Back to cat form.” Colleen flicked her fingers at Bubba, who shrank obligingly and slithered out of clothing, which puddled around him. She snatched up his shirt and pants and dropped them back into the canister.

“I say,” a strongly accented male voice called out. “Is anyone here?”

“I’ll take care of the Brit,” Colleen mouthed. “Take Bubba to the basement and practice.”

She got to her feet and stepped past the curtain. “Yes?” She gazed around the dimly lit store for their customer.

A tall, powerfully built man, wearing dark slacks and a dark turtleneck, strode toward her, a woolen greatcoat slung over one arm. His white-blond hair was drawn back into a queue. Arresting facial bones—sculpted cheeks, strong jaw, high forehead—captured her attention and stole her breath. He was quite possibly the most gorgeous man she’d ever laid eyes on. Discerning green eyes zeroed in on her face, caught her gaze, and held it. Magic danced around him in a numinous shroud. Strong magic.

What was he?

And then she knew. Daoine Sidhe. The man had to be Sidhe royalty. No wonder he was so stunning it almost hurt to look at him.

Colleen held her ground. She placed her feet shoulder width apart and crossed her arms over her chest. “What can I help you with?”

“Colleen Kelly?”

Okay, so he knows who I am. Doesn’t mean a thing. He’s Sidhe. Could have plucked my name right out of my head. “That would be me. How can I help you?” she repeated, burying a desire to lick nervously at her lips.

“Time is short. I’ve been hunting you for a while now. Come closer, witch. We need to talk.”

***

Duncan Regis eyed the grim-faced woman standing in front of him. She was quite striking with such stunning bone structure—high cheekbones, square jaw—she could have been a runway model. Her unwavering pale blue eyes held his gaze. Dressed in brown wool slacks, a multicolored sweater, and scuffed leather boots, she had auburn curls that cascaded to waist level. A scattering of freckles coated her upturned nose. Her lips would have been full if they weren’t pursed into a hard line.

He knew he was staring, but couldn’t help himself. Colleen was tall for a woman, close to six feet, with well-defined shoulders, generous breasts, and a slender waist that flared to trim hips. He smelled her apprehension and was pleased she was able to cloak it so well with the defiant angle of her chin and the challenge in her icy stare.

Despite his earlier command, she didn’t move. Annoyance coiled in his gut. He could summon magic and force her, but he wanted—no, make that needed—her cooperation. Compulsion spells had a way of engendering lingering resentments. He smiled, but it felt fake so he gave it up. “I like women with spirit, but I’m used to being obeyed.”

She frowned and tilted her chin another notch. “I’ll just bet you are. I’m not coming one angstrom closer until you tell me why a Sidhe is hunting for me.”

Surprise registered. He tried to mask it, just like he’d attempted to disguise himself in a human glamour. Duncan tamped down a wry grin, wondering if his second ploy had worked any better than his first.

“Not really.” She tapped one booted toe. “I read minds. You’ll have to do a better job warding yours, if you want to keep me out.” Colleen exhaled briskly. “Look. Maybe it would be easier if you just told me why you’re here. I’m sort of busy just now and I don’t have a bunch of time to spar with you.”

“You don’t have any choice.”

“Oh yes I do.” Anger wafted from her in thick clouds. Along with it a spicy, rose scent, tinged with jasmine, tickled his nostrils and did disconcerting things to his nether regions. He resisted an urge to rearrange his suddenly erect cock. Colleen unfolded her arms, extended one, and pointed toward the door. “Out. Now.”

“You’re making a terrible mistake—”

“Maybe so, but this is my turf. If you force me with your magic, you’ll have broken the rules that bind your kind—and the covenant amongst magic-wielders.”

Duncan’s temper kindled, but it didn’t dampen the lust seeping along his nerve endings. Rules be damned. He could flatten this persnickety witch, or better yet, weave a love spell and bind her to him that way. Maybe he should do just that and have done with things. He clasped his hands behind him to quash the temptation to call magic. The movement stretched his trousers across his erection, making it obvious if she chose to look down.

Something dark streaked from the back of the shop and planted itself in front of him, hissing and spitting. Gaia’s tits. A cat. He stared at it. Hmph. Maybe not a cat after all. Duncan reached outward with a tendril of magic. Before it reached the creature, Colleen bent and scooped it into her arms. The not-a-cat wriggled and hissed, but she held fast.

“Leave him alone,” she said through clenched teeth. “He’s mine.”

Duncan narrowed his eyes. “Damn if it isn’t a changeling. How’d he end up with you?”

Her foot tapped the scarred wooden floor again, its beat so regular it could have been a metronome. “I asked you a whole lot of questions.” She took a step backward. “But the only one I want to know the answer to is—”

“What the fuck are you doing?” Jenna wavered into view, having teleported in from somewhere. Her gaze landed on the cat. “Thank Christ! For a minute there I thought the little bastard got away from me.”

“Jenna,” Colleen snapped. “The Sidhe have deigned to call.”

The other woman whipped around and stared at Duncan. He stared back. What was it with these witches? Had they taken some sort of potion to supersize themselves? She made Colleen look positively petite. Jenna sidled closer to Colleen; part of her height came from high heels, but she was still an imposing woman. “What does he want?” she growled.

Duncan cleared his throat. “I’m right here. You can ask me.”

“Fine.” Jenna put her hands on her hips. “What are you doing here?”

“How do you know I want anything?” he countered, trying to buy time to figure out what to do now. He hadn’t counted on two witches, and a changeling.

“Because if you didn’t, Colleen would have shooed you out of here by now. You really do need to leave. We’re busy.”

He snorted. “Yes. Colleen made that abundantly clear.” He looked from one witch to the other. At least his erection was fading a bit. Crowds always had a dampening effect on his libido. Many other Sidhe thrived on group sex, but he’d never appreciated its appeal.

“Either tell us what you want right now,” Colleen moved toward him, cat still in her arms, “or leave. I’m going to count to three—”

“Maeve’s teeth, witch! We’re on the same side.”

“Generally speaking,” Jenna joined Colleen about three feet away from him, “that’s probably true, but the Sidhe have never helped us.”

Colleen quirked a brow. “No, they haven’t.” Her eyes narrowed. “And I have this prescient feeling that Sidhe-boy here is about to ask for a pretty big favor.”

“Sidhe-boy?” The dregs of his lust scattered; he crimped his hands into fists. “Show some respect.”

“You’re not respecting me,” Colleen said. “I’ve asked you to leave—twice. No, make that three times.” The not-a-cat finally twisted free. He skimmed over the distance to Duncan and buried his claws in his leg.

“Why you changeling bastard!” Duncan shook his leg. The thing didn’t even budge. He bent, curled his hands around the furred body, and tugged. The thing bit him. Anger flashed. Magic followed. The changeling howled and fell into a heap on the floor.

“Goddammit!” Colleen shrieked. “He was just trying to protect me. If you’ve killed him…”

“I didn’t. He’s only stunned.” Duncan rubbed his ankle, glanced at the puncture wounds on his hand, and directed healing magic to both places.

Colleen sprang forward and gathered the creature into her arms. Duncan felt her magic quest into its small body. She blew out an audible breath. Cradled against her, shrouded by her long hair, the changeling mewled softly.

Duncan shook his head. He’d hoped to be subtle, accommodating, encouraging, so the witch would at least hear him out with an open mind. The time for that was long past. “All right.” He spread his hands in front of him. The flesh wounds on the one were already nearly closed. “I’m here because we’ve had problems with Irichna demons—”

“Christ on a fucking crutch,” Jenna cut in. “Seems like they’re on everyone’s mind these days. We were just—”

Colleen rounded on her. “Shut up!”

“Oops. Sorry.” Jenna held out her arms for the changeling. “I’ll just take him and—”

“No.” Colleen’s voice was more like a growl. “You’ll stay right here.” She placed the changeling in the other witch’s arms and turned to face Duncan. “I know you’re Sidhe, but who are you?”

“Duncan Regis.” He held out a hand. She ignored it, so he let it drop to his side.

“Regis, Regis,” she mumbled, her eyes narrowed in thought. “Ruling class from somewhere in Scotland.”

He nodded, impressed. “Northern England, at the moment, but the border has moved around a bit over the years. I do lay claim to Scottish roots. I didn’t know witches studied our family lines.”

“Witches don’t, but I did.”

“Any particular reason?” He was almost sorry he’d asked. She had strong feelings about the Sidhe, and he was about to find out why.

The changeling yowled, obviously recovered from his semi-comatose state. Jenna cursed and set him down. “Damn it! He scratched me.”

Duncan thought about saying something cheery, like welcome to the club, but bit back the words.

Colleen rolled her eyes. “He wants to talk. There’ll be no peace until he shifts.” She flicked magic toward the creature winding itself between her booted feet. The air shimmered and a rather large gnome took form.

He rocked toward Duncan with a bow-legged gait that made him look like a drunken sailor; his open mouth displayed squared off teeth. “I’ll tell you why she knows about you.” The changeling drew himself to his full height of about three-and-a-half feet. “She came to the Old Country looking for help during the last demon war. You Sidhe were too high and mighty to get your hands dirty, so she had to settle for me.”

Colleen snickered. “Not exactly the way I might have described it, but close enough. Hey, Bubba! Get some clothes on.”

“Later,” the changeling snapped without looking at her.

“Which of us did you approach?” Duncan made the question casual. Whoever turned Colleen down had broken the covenant binding magic-wielders to come to one another’s aid in times of need. He wondered if she knew.

“Of course I do.” She sneered. “Your thoughts are as transparent as a child’s. Even Bubba here,” she pointed to the changeling, “does a better job masking his feelings when he puts his mind to it.”

“Thanks.” The changeling glowered at her before transferring his attention back to Duncan.

“What kind of name is Bubba?” Duncan linked to the changeling, and was surprised by the complexity of his thoughts. Maybe the witches had been a good influence.

“You didn’t have to just push your way in.” The changeling screwed up his seamed face in disgust, but didn’t draw back. “My true name is Niall Eoghan.”

“Clothes,” Colleen reminded him.

Bubba made a face at her, turned, and walked behind one of the display cases. When he emerged, he wore wide-bottomed green trousers and a black shirt.

“Irish.” Puzzle pieces clicked into place and Duncan transferred his attention back to Colleen. “You never did tell me who you’d asked for help. It appears they not only turned you down, but chased you across the Irish Sea.”

“We left voluntarily,” Jenna said.

Colleen’s lips twisted in distaste. Whatever she remembered apparently didn’t sit well. “We spoke with two Sidhe at Inverlochy Castle outside Inverness. They refused to give us their names, but said they were princes over your people. They heard us out and sent us packing. Gave us twenty-four hours to leave Scottish soil.”

“I was all for staying,” Jenna chimed in. “After all, we had passports.”

“Was it just the two of you?” Duncan asked.

“Roz was with us,” Colleen said.

Understanding washed through him. “Three. You brought three to maximize your power.”

Colleen’s full mouth split into a chilly smile. “We were under attack by the Irichna. Would you have done any less?”

“Probably not. So after we, that is, the Sidhe—”

We worked fine,” Bubba said flatly. “Unless you’ve decided to renounce your heritage.”

Duncan traded pointed looks with the changeling. “Speaking of magic, you’re stronger than any changeling I’ve ever come across.”

“That’s because you’re used to our feeble Scottish cousins. They were stronger before you stripped their magic and diverted it for your own purposes.”

“Enough.” Colleen snapped her fingers. “Or I’ll change you back into a cat. We don’t need a history lesson just now.” She shook her hair back over her shoulders. The movement strained her sweater tighter across her breasts. Duncan dragged his gaze elsewhere.

“About the Irichna—” he began.

“We can’t help you,” Colleen said flatly.

“Why not? We’d pay you well.”

“It’s not a matter of money, although I’m not sure you could afford us.”

“We have an, um, previous engagement,” Jenna offered.

“Whoever it is, we need you more than they do.” He looked from one witch to the other.

Colleen dropped her gaze and rubbed the bridge of her nose between her thumb and index fingers. When she looked up, the skin around her eyes was pinched with worry. “I’m not sure it’s a matter of who needs whom more.” She speared him with her pale blue gaze. “Do the Sidhe know why the demons are so much more active here of late?”

He debated how much to tell her. Given her ability to burrow inside his head, it was unlikely he’d be able to hide much. If he told her everything, though, it might piss her off. Hell’s bells, it annoyed the crap out of him. “Not exactly.”

Her nostrils flared. “You can do better than that. If you can’t, the door is behind you.” She folded her arms beneath her breasts. “Talk now or leave now. It’s all the same to me.”

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Kickass Urban Fantasy


Earth’s Blood
Earth Reclaimed, Book 2
By Ann Gimpel
Publisher: Musa
Genre: Urban Fantasy/Romance
99,000 words

Buy Link: Amazon
Buy Link: Musa
Buy Link: All Romance E-books
Buy Link: Barnes & Noble 

 Clinging to their courage in a crumbling world, Aislinn and Fionn vow to save Earth, no matter what it takes.
Blurb:
In a post-apocalyptic world where most people have been slaughtered, the Celtic gods and a few humans with magic are all that stand between survival and Earth falling into alien hands. The combination of dark sorcery leveraged by the enemy is daunting. Destruction is all but certain if the small enclaves of humans who are left can’t get past their distrust of the Celts.

Captured by the enemy, Aislinn Lenear wonders if she’ll ever see her bond wolf or Fionn, a Celtic god, again. She’s had nothing but her wits to rely on for years. They haven’t failed her yet, but escape from her current predicament seems remote.

An enticing blend of urban fantasy and romance, this second volume of the Earth Reclaimed Series provides fertile ground for Aislinn and Fionn’s relationship to deepen. Headstrong and independent, the pair run up against each other’s demands time and time again. Fireworks spark. In the end, they learn to savor every moment in a bittersweet world where each day may well be their last.

Excerpt:

Chapter One
Fionn tumbled through a gateway and leapt to his feet. Something was decidedly wrong. The wolf and raven were right behind him, but he’d lost all sense of Aislinn’s presence in the traveling portal. It made him half-crazy with fear, but there was nothing he could do until the spell spit him out. Mouth dry, heartbeat thudding in his ears, he waited to see who would follow him out of the ragged hole he’d left in the ether.

For the love of the goddess, please let me be mistaken about this.

Rune emerged. A howl split the still air. “Where is she?” the black and gray timber wolf demanded. He reared up and plunked his paws on Fionn’s chest. “What happened to my bond mate? I cannot feel her anywhere.” He howled again. It was a mournful sound, full of grief. Fionn wrapped his arms around the wolf, but Rune dropped to the ground, apparently not interested in comfort.

“Yes, where did Aislinn go?” Bella demanded, bouncing forward with her awkward avian gait. Ever cantankerous, the raven was bonded to him, so Fionn was used to her moods. She spread her large wings, took to the air, and cawed her displeasure. He stared after her and struggled to manage a mounting sense of panic while balling his hands into fists. Both bond animals knew the truth: Aislinn had disappeared somewhere between Ely, Nevada and wherever they were now. He barked a word to close off his magic. The place they’d rolled out of shimmered and disappeared.

He loosed a string of Gaelic curses. “What the fuck went wrong?” he muttered. Fionn drew magic to augment his night vision and gazed wildly about for clues. They were in the midst of rubble that could well be Salt Lake City. So at least that part of his casting had been true. No, an inner voice corrected him, I doona know that. This could be anywhere. He shoved straggling strands of blond hair out of his eyes and sent his magic spinning outward to gather data. His heart beat a worried tattoo against his ribcage.

The air to his right took on a pearlescent hue. Bran and Arawn leapt through a portal in a flash of battle leathers, the snug-fitting garments indistinguishable from Fionn’s attire. Arawn barked a command; their gateway winked shut. His midnight gaze scanned the small group. “Why is Gwydion not here?” he demanded. “He left afore any of us.”

Rune threw his head back. Another desolate howl split the night.

Bran’s coppery eyes narrowed. “Aye, and where is the lass?”

“And that Hunter scum, Travis,” Fionn growled. He spread his hands in front of him. “I havena felt Aislinn since a few moments after we entered the portal. Join your magic to mine so we might figure out what has happened.”

Bran nodded curtly. “Aye, Travis must have lied to us, but to what purpose?”

“To save his own sorry hide, what else?” Fionn snapped. “Or mayhap because he wanted Aislinn for himself.”

The air took on an iridescent waviness. Gwydion stumbled out of the odd-looking place. Tangled in a welter of blue robes, he clutched an intricately carved staff; blond hair swirled around him. “Be gone, I say—Wait, what happened to—?” He took in the tableau as he lurched unsteadily to his feet. Fionn almost heard wheels turning as Gwydion tallied who was missing. The warrior magician pounded the end of his wooden staff into broken asphalt. Lightning crackled from the end of the staff, betraying his annoyance.

Something snapped in Fionn. Bright, brittle anger lanced through him He launched himself at Gwydion and drove the other Celtic god to the ground. “Bastard,” he screamed. “Ye were in charge of Travis. What? Ye couldna control a simple human? Look what your slipshod seeds have sown—” He raised a fist and drove it into the side of Gwydion’s face. It was more satisfying than using magic. Closer and more personal.

Rune jumped into the fray and sank his teeth into Gwydion’s leg. Bella cawed her disapproval. She tangled her talons in the mage’s long hair and pulled as she pecked at him. Gwydion bellowed in pain. The air thickened and developed an electric quality as he reached for his magic.

Fionn had just cocked his arm back to hit Gwydion again—before his fellow Celtic god shielded himself—when strong arms closed about him and dragged him back. Magic surrounded him, forming a barrier.

“That willna help,” Arawn, god of the dead, revenge, and terror, said, voice stern with command.

“Aye, it willna get your lass back,” Bran agreed. God of prophecy, the arts, and war, he often had a gentler approach than the other Celtic deities.

Gwydion rolled to a sit, looking dazed. He placed his hands on the wolf and raven, muttering in Gaelic. After a time, both animals retreated. He touched the bloodied places on his thigh; the flesh mended quickly. The master enchanter and god of illusion did not make any move to get to his feet. He settled his blue gaze on Fionn, bowed his head slightly, and said, “I am most sorry. Ye are right to be angry with me. The lad came at me flanked by Lemurians. I never even knew how many. When I sent my magic spiraling out to find Travis, he was gone beyond my reach.”

“Why didn’t ye tell me?” Fionn growled.

“How?” Gwydion countered, sounding weary. “Communication isna possible in the portals.”

Fionn groaned inwardly. He knew that. Where were his brains? Taking a wee holiday, a sarcastic inner voice suggested. Fionn jerked against the magic holding him. “You can let me go now,” he told Arawn and Bran. “I’ve returned to my senses.”

He stepped forward and extended a hand to Gwydion, who grasped it. “I am sorry I lost my temper.”

Something sparked from the mage’s blue eyes—compassion laced with pity. Gwydion stood, and then brushed off his robes; dust flew in all directions. He bent to retrieve his richly carved staff. It glowed blue-white when he touched it and he arched a brow at Fionn. “See, the staff knows battle lies ahead. The important thing is what we do now. A good start would be not tearing one another to bits.”

Though Fionn agreed, he secretly wondered if Gwydion might have tried harder were it not for the bad blood between them over Tara, Aislinn’s dead mother. As a MacLochlainn, Aislinn was bound to him, just like her mother had been. But Tara had loved Gwydion. To avoid marrying Fionn, she’d given herself to a stranger and run away to America, effectively severing an age-old bonding. Tara MacLochlainn had been an Irish queen. Under laws of blood and dynasty, she should have belonged to him, Fionn MacCumhaill, Celtic god of wisdom, knowledge, and divination…

Guess she had other ideas about that. What a fankle. Mayhap one we are still paying for. Fionn forced his mind to stay in the present. No point in dragging old bones out and chewing them half to death. Rune’s large black and gray head rammed his side. The wolf bared his fangs and growled.

“I understand.” Fionn settled his blue gaze on Rune. “We have to find her. And we will.”

“Let us go over what we know.” Bran stepped closer. Blond braids were tucked into tight-fitting battle leathers. He had a dreamy look about him, but Fionn wasn’t fooled. The god of prophecy’s mind was sharp as a whip.

“Good idea,” Arawn echoed. Dark hair cascaded down his leather-clad shoulders. Looking as grim as the dead he commanded, his face etched into harsh lines. Eyes so dark iris and pupil were indistinguishable, flashed fire.

“Let us ask the goddess’ blessing,” Fionn intoned. A weight like a cold stone settled into his guts. They couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. Aislinn’s life depended on them getting this right the first time. And my life right along with it. Fionn thought about the next thousand years without the only woman he’d ever truly loved; his soul shriveled. He cursed his immortality. Life without Aislinn wouldn’t be worth very damned much.

Gwydion began a Celtic chant. The other three joined in at proscribed intervals punctuated by Bella’s shrieks and Rune’s barks, whines, and howls. Night yielded to a sickly orange sunrise as they sang.

“I believe we are ready,” Gwydion murmured.

“Aye, I feel a goddess presence.” Arawn spoke reverently. “’Twill provide a balance point against all our male energies.”

“Let us return to cataloging what we know.” Fionn gestured impatiently. Though he understood the wisdom of securing divine assistance, he wanted to get moving before something lethal happened to Aislinn. A vision of her being tortured—long limbs splayed over a rack—rose to taunt him. He muffled a cry, but his mind wouldn’t clear. Blood ran down Aislinn’s face and blended with the red of her hair. Her golden eyes were glazed with pain. He bit down hard on his lower lip, feeling powerless. Adrenaline surged; it left a sour taste in the back of his throat.

“We are, indeed, ready.” Bran nodded.

Fionn latched onto the sound of Bran’s voice and let it pull him out of the black pit his mind had become.

Bran inhaled sharply. “The Hunter, Travis, sought us out. I dinna try verra hard to test his words, but there was enough truth in his tale to satisfy me.”

“And I, as well,” Gwydion agreed. “So mayhap his small group of humans truly was set upon by Lemurians—”

Fionn snapped his fingers. “I have it. That putrid poor-excuse-for-a-human cut a deal to save himself. Mayhap part of it was designed to wrest Aislinn away from me since he was in love with her, too. She told me—” The words curdled in his throat. He couldn’t bear the thought of Aislinn fucking anyone else. She’d been with Travis once. If she was telling me the truth… Mayhap she was with him many times and softened the telling to spare me.

Arawn cocked his head to one side. “Even though ye stopped midstream, what ye did say made sense. Travis agreed to serve as bait in exchange for his life—and mayhap the life of his bond animal as well. If he had his eye on the lass afore all this, well, the pot would have been all the sweeter.”

Fionn waved him to silence. “Ye say ye felt Lemurians?” He looked at Gwydion who nodded. “Well, then, she must be in Taltos. Where else would they take her?”

Relieved to have a destination and something to do, Fionn pulled magic, intent on leaving immediately.

“Hold.” Gwydion put up a hand.

“What?” Annoyed, muscles strung tighter than a bow, Fionn locked gazes with him. Blue eyes sparred with a nearly identical set.

“Ye canna go off half-cocked. There are not enough of us.” Gwydion hesitated. “As the god of wisdom, knowledge and divination, Fionn MacCumhaill, I would think ye would know that without me having to tell you.”

Frustration fueled rage. Fionn opened his mouth to tell Gwydion what he really thought of him. “Why you sanctimonious—”

“Never mind that,” Bran spoke up. “We need a strategy.”

“And mayhap more of us,” Arawn added.

“Aye, and what about Dewi?” Ignoring Fionn’s bitten off words and the challenge beneath them, Gwydion furled his brows.

Fionn blew out an impatient breath; his anger receded. The others were right. Dewi, the blood-red Celtic dragon god, was linked to the MacLochlainn women. She’d also spent centuries in the tunnels beneath Taltos, spying on the Lemurians. Yes, they definitely needed the dragon.

“All right,” he ground out through gritted teeth. “I get it. I agree we need Dewi, and probably more of us as well.”

“We must return to Marta’s house. As soon as we can.”

The wolf’s voice startled Fionn. He turned to look at Rune. The wolf padded closer. “I have been to Taltos both ways,” the wolf reminded him, growling low. “It is much easier and more direct if we enter through the portal in Marta’s basement. That way we maintain the element of surprise. The Mount Shasta gateway is akin to going to their front door and ringing a bell.”

Fionn kicked himself. Even the wolf is thinking more clearly than I am.

Rune had been bonded to Marta and knew her secrets. She’d been onto the Lemurians, delving deep into the extent of their lies. Before they’d killed her, she’d managed to figure out that the war against the dark gods was a sham. The Lemurians were actually in league with the dark. They were the ones who’d masterminded cracking the veils between the worlds to allow the dark ones access to Earth. An ancient race, the Lemurians understood they were dying. They needed an infusion of magic so they’d cut a deal. Access to Earth in exchange for—

Fionn filled his lungs with air, blew out a breath, and did it again. He had to get hold of himself or he’d be less than useless hunting for Aislinn. That will not happen. Focus, goddamn it. Pull it together. Fionn pushed the ache in his heart aside and buried it deep. He couldn’t afford emotion. Not now. Or mental forays into Lemurian treachery. When he’d met Aislinn, she’d been a foot soldier in the Lemurian army, branded so she couldn’t use her magic against them.

Voices flowed over him. When words fell into coherent patterns again, he heard Gwydion ticking off a plan on his fingers. Apparently one the others had formed without any input from him. How dare they? Anger flared hot and bright. Fionn welcomed it like a drowning man might grab a spar. He needed the energy to find the woman he loved.

“…agreed, Bran will hunt for Dewi. Arawn will return to the Old Country to muster as many of us as he can find. Fionn and I and the bond animals will return to Marta’s house. We will sneak into the tunnel a time or two to see what we can discover, but we will not move to rescue the lass until you arrive with reinforcements.”

Gwydion nailed Fionn with his blue gaze. “Aye and ye have returned to us. Did ye hear—?”

“Aye.” Fionn cut off Gwydion’s next words. “Let’s get moving.”

The master enchanter inclined his head. “As ye will.”

Fionn looked at him and wondered if it were mere coincidence Gwydion would end up babysitting him. He decided to test those waters. “I really would be fine with just the bond animals, feel free to join either Arawn or—”

“Pah!” Gwydion interrupted. “Not on your life. I know you, Fionn MacCumhaill. If ye returned alone, ye would turn Taltos upside down to find your lady love. Then the rest of us would have two to search for.”

Arawn moved forward and laid a hand on Fionn’s arm. “Remember,” he said, “the Lemurians came from Mu. They may still have a way to retreat there. If they do so, we will not be able to follow. Or they might strike a deal with the five remaining dark gods and go to one of their worlds if they feel threatened. We can travel to the border worlds, but it isna pleasant. Nay, if they have truly taken Aislinn to Taltos—and we do not know this as a fact—it is imperative they remain there. So, doona do anything foolish.”

“I understand.” Fionn clamped his jaws shut. Thoroughly chastised, he felt like a child again. He hadn’t considered either of the alternatives Arawn had just outlined. Apparently they’d come up in the part of the conversation he’d missed while wrestling with himself.

“I know ye do.” Arawn favored him with a rare smile. “Bran and I are leaving.” The words had scarcely left his mouth when the air around both mages took on a numinous quality.

Fionn locked gazes with Gwydion. “Are ye ready?”

“I am.” Rune took up his traveling position next to Fionn’s side.

“As am I.” Bella settled on his shoulder in a flutter of wings.

Fionn stared at the bond animals. They’d returned to audible speech; that must mean they’d gotten their anger under control. If they can do it, so can I.

Gwydion nodded slowly. “I do not believe there is aught else to be done right now, so the answer to your question would be aye.”

The air thickened as Gwydion drew magic to open a portal. Blessedly numb inside, Fionn added his own to the mix, buried a hand in Rune’s neck ruff, and stepped through.

* * * *

After they returned to Marta’s house in the ruins of Ely, Nevada, Fionn spent the next hour rattling through it looking for clues that might help them. He started in the bedroom, but Aislinn’s scent, a mix of honey and musk, clung to everything and nearly undid him. When he caught himself pulling her pillow to his nose, he threw it against the wall and stormed out of the room they’d shared.

The rest of the house hadn’t yielded anything. Fionn didn’t bother going up to the attic.  Marta’s parents were there, trapped in a state of suspended animation by a strong spell. Best leave them to their rest since they held the gates between the worlds open.

Because there wasn’t anything else to do, he settled at the kitchen table with a bottle of mead and nearly emptied it. The anesthetic effect he hoped for hadn’t happened, though. At least not yet.

“Would ye like to talk about it?” Gwydion’s melodic voice interrupted Fionn’s bleak thoughts. He swiveled his head to look at the mage standing in the doorway, flanked by Rune and Bella. Dirt clung to his robes; Fionn wondered where he’d been. Gwydion had told him where he was going, but Fionn hadn’t paid much attention.

Hmph. Even the animals deserted me.

I’d have deserted me, too, a different inner voice inserted dryly. The way I banged around in here wanting to kill something—anything—if only it would bring Aislinn back to me. Fionn understood at a level beyond reckoning, if he ever laid eyes on Travis again, the Hunter would be dead before he saw what hit him.

He tipped the bottle in Gwydion’s direction. “Not sure what there is to say,” Fionn mumbled.

“Och and there is much to be said between us.” Gwydion clomped to the table, hooked a chair out with one of his perpetually bare feet, and sat heavily. “For example, we havena ever truly talked about Tara—”

“With good reason,” Fionn snapped.

Gwydion shook his head. “Ye doona trust me. I sense your hesitation. We must clear the air.”

Fionn opened his mouth, but Gwydion shook his head. “Hear me out. That empty place inside you? The one ye’re trying your damnedest to ignore—or drown with spirits? ’Tis akin to how I felt when Tara fled Ireland to escape having to choose you or me. She wanted me, but the ancient bond demanded she wed you.”

“I know all that. I still doona see—”

“For the love of the goddess, would ye stop interrupting?” Gwydion’s blue eyes flashed dangerously. Fionn subsided against the back of his seat. “’Twas no skin off your ass when the lass left Ireland, yet I mourned her loss every day. It’s been years, but I miss her still. ’Twas a gift to see her once again in the tunnels under Slototh’s lair—even if she was already dead.”

Something in Gwydion’s words penetrated the desolation surrounding Fionn. He’d known Gwydion cared for Tara, but he’d never appreciated the extent of his loss. Truth hit home and shame washed over him. When Gwydion waved it in front of his nose—no, make that shoved his nose right in it—Fionn recognized kindred pain. He drew his brows together. “Why were ye not angrier at me? We had words, but it seemed we made things up soon enough.”

“Nay, I simply buried my resentment. What would have been the point in holding a grudge? I tracked Tara to America. By then she’d wed another and made it painfully clear she wanted nothing to do with you or me—or the dragon—ever again.”

“At least part of that was my fault. I could have—”

A bitter laugh bubbled past the close-cropped red-blond beard on Gwydion’s face. “Aye, ye see it now. Ye dinna see it then. All ye could see then was that she was the MacLochlainn. Your MacLochlainn.”

Fionn looked at his hands. What Gwydion said was true. He hadn’t loved Tara and he’d known she didn’t even like him, yet he’d insisted on pressing forward with marriage. Of course, there was the niggling problem he already had a wife, so he’d been finagling a divorce. That had been when Tara, finally eighteen, took matters into her own hands and left Ireland.

“I really am sorry. I should have been more considerate—of both of you.”

“Och, aye.” A thread of magic forced his gaze to meet the master enchanter’s. “I forgive you.”

A corner of Fionn’s mouth turned downward. “The question is whether I can forgive myself.”

Gwydion held out a hand for the mead. Fionn passed it to him. Eyeing what was left of the bottle’s contents, Gwydion said, “There never was a drink that offered enough oblivion to purge Tara from my thoughts.”

“Wasna working for me, either.” Fionn snorted. “I should know this. Ye told me, but I wasna paying attention. Where did you and the animals go?”

“We did the same outside as ye were supposed to be doing within. That would be hunting for clues Travis may have dropped while he was here.”

Fionn waited. Instead of talking, Gwydion tipped the bottle and drank until it was empty. “Did ye find aught?” he asked after it appeared the other mage wasn’t going to say anything else.

Gwydion’s forehead creased. He shoved blond hair over his shoulders, pulled a leather thong out of his robes, and bound it out of the way. “It was odd,” he murmured. “At first we all,” he gestured toward Rune and Bella, “thought we sensed Old Ones—ah, I meant to say Lemurians. When I looked more closely, though, whatever had been there was gone.” He shrugged.

Something tugged at Fionn’s internal alarm system. Attuned to danger, it rarely failed him. “Do ye suppose they were after Marta’s parents?”

For a moment Gwydion looked confused. His features smoothed. “Och, ye mean the Lemurian-human hybrids ensorcelled in yon chamber.” He waved a hand over one shoulder. “Mayhap. There is little else here to draw the Old Ones.”

Fionn thought about the genetic manipulation that must have gone into hybridizing the couple in the attic and shuddered. Did the Old Ones want Marta’s parents’ blood so they could do the same thing to Aislinn?

“At least Aislinn is likely still on this side of the veil,” Gwydion muttered.

Fionn looked sharply at Gwydion, realizing the other mage must have read his thoughts. He dragged a hand down his face. “Aye, we all hope that.”

Something sharp closed over his calf. Rune had bitten him. “It is time. We should go into Taltos. I must see for myself whether my bond mate still lives.”

“Can ye feel her?” Fionn asked.

The wolf’s amber eyes gleamed in the dim kitchen. “No, but if she is in Taltos, I will know it once we open the gateway and I cross over.”

“They might have her shielded in some way—” Fionn cautioned.

“Enough words.” Rune nipped Fionn again. As if to support her fellow bond animal, Bella landed on Fionn’s shoulder and dug her talons deep.

A wry smile split Gwydion’s face. “It would appear the animals have spoken.”

“We did tell the others we’d do a reconnaissance.” Fionn stood.

Gwydion followed suit. Both men went to the corner of the kitchen with the hidden trap door. Fionn kicked the rug aside and tugged the door upward. When he looked back he saw Gwydion’s staff glowing with a blue-white light.

Fionn worked his way down the ladder, helping the wolf. It was awkward. When Aislinn had gone into Taltos without him, she’d used magic to transport the wolf to the gateway. The thought of her seared his soul. His throat felt thick. A pulse pounded behind one eye, promising a mother of a headache if he didn’t focus magic to soothe the inflamed blood vessels.

At the bottom of the ladder, he strode to the section of wall holding the gateway and began the incantation from Marta’s journals. Gwydion’s energy vibrated next to him. Stones scraped against one another as the gateway swung open. Fionn bent to give Rune instructions, but the wolf bounded through the opening and disappeared into the dark.

“Damn it.” Fionn swore softly. “Ye stay with me,” he said to Bella.

“I am not going past this doorway,” the bird informed him. She fluttered from his shoulder to a chair and perched on it. “Fewer of us, less chance of discovery. Safer for Aislinn.”

Fionn couldn’t help but agree with her. His bird had warmed to Aislinn much to his relief, since she’d taken a perverse delight in making all the other women in his life—including Tara—miserable.

“Mind speech,” Gwydion said sharply. “And precious little of that.”

“I suppose we follow the wolf. He gave us little choice.”

“After you.”

Fionn stepped through into a dark tunnel. Careful to mute his magic in case the Lemurians had posted guards nearby, he turned left and trailed after Rune. Guts tight, barely breathing, he moved beneath Taltos, the city built by Lemurians deep inside Mount Shasta. Desperation thrummed through him.

I have to find her. Failure is not an option.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Dragon Shifters, Time Travel, and Timeless Romance to Warm a Winter's Night


Dragon Maid
Dragon Lore, Book II

By Ann Gimpel
Publisher: Taliesin
Release Date: 1/2/14
Genre: Paranormal Romance

Buy Link: Taliesin
Buy Link: Amazon
Buy Link: B&N
Buy Link: ARe books


Dragons have always fascinated me. Creatures fresh out of legend, they tempt the soul to stretch its wings. This book is dedicated to Kheladin and Tarika, two wonderful dragons who live in my imagination and who were generous enough to grace the pages of my books.
Blurb:
Jonathan Shea is a software engineer. When pressed, he admits to being a closet witch, but he’s always been a shade ambivalent about his magic—until a dragon shows up in Inverness, and then all bets are off. Along with others in his coven, Jonathan is both charmed and captivated by the legendary creature.

Britta is a dragon shifter. Dragged from the Middle Ages by the Celtic gods, she and her dragon prepare for a battle to save Earth. The first human she lays eyes on in modern times is Jonathan. There’s something about him. She can’t quite pinpoint it, but he has way more magic than any witch she’s ever come across before. Aside from magic, Jonathan is drop dead gorgeous. For the first time ever, Britta questions the wisdom of remaining a maid.

Surrounded by dragon shifters, Celtic gods, Selkies, and a heaping portion of magic, Jonathan comes into his own fast. Good thing, too, because fell creatures have targeted him, Britta, and the dragons. In the midst of chaos, he finds passion so poignant and love so heartbreakingly tender, it will change his life forever.

Excerpt:



…Jonathan tried not to stare, but it was a losing battle. The woman—no, the dragon shifter—was the most perfect, the most alluring, creature he’d ever laid eyes on. Tall, with high, rounded breasts, a slender waist, and curvy hips, she looked like a goddess. Who knew? Maybe she was. The Celts had had many deities. He fumbled with his rucksack, pulled out a turkey sandwich on rye bread, and handed it to her.

She yanked the wrappings aside, dropped them onto the floor, and stuffed food into her mouth, chewing quickly. “Ye said there were two of these meat and bread things.” Britta surveyed him, golden eyes alight with interest.

“Yes, I did. If I give you both, I’ll be hungry.”

She shrugged. “Not my problem. Also, I requested mead.”

Jonathan’s lips twitched. He corralled the smile that wanted out. Britta was an imperious bitch, yet there was something so undeniably appealing about her straightforward nature, it was impossible to feel offended. “No mead. At least I don’t have any. We could ask the other witches, or if we found you some clothes, we could go into the city and buy a proper meal, and as much to drink as you wanted.”

She cocked her head to one side and popped the last bite of sandwich into her mouth. “I can go as I am. Shall we walk or use magic, witch?”

“Um, no, you can’t. You’d be arrested.”

She tilted her chin up. “Why? I can see where I might freeze to death, but who would give a jolly fuck whether I’m dressed or not?”

Before he could craft an explanation, Kheladin stalked over, trailed by three female witches stroking the scales on his lower body. “Lachlan kept a clothes chest against the far wall.” He pointed with a talon. “I am certain some of his shirts and tights would work, though there’s little to be done by way of shoes.”

Her gaze landed on a particularly large heap of gold jewelry and coins. “I could borrow a bit of money from your hoard, just a coin or two, and—”

Kheladin’s eyes whirled faster, glittering dangerously. “I doona think so.”

“Well then,” Britta turned a brilliant smile on Jonathan and tapped his chest with her index finger, “he can buy me what I need.” Magic shimmered around her. “Come close, witch. We are leaving.”

Kheladin stumped to Britta’s side. The counter spell he summoned to dampen her power sparkled; strands wrapped around her. Her lips curled in fury, and she raised her hands to call magic of her own. “Not so fast,” Kheladin snapped. “First, ye’ve forgotten ye need clothes. Second, Tarika was in an all-fired hurry to find me. Such a big hurry, ye went without food or rest. Why?”

Britta shook her head so hard her hair danced about her body. She swept the heels of her hands down her cheeks, distorting her perfect features. “Och aye, whatever is wrong with me? Nay, I know the answer. The Morrigan is furious because Lachlan triumphed over the black and red wyverns, and their dragon shifter mages.”

“Good the old battle crow even noticed,” Kheladin growled and breathed a fiery gout of flames.

“She did more than notice. She cast a spell to disrupt our memories. If ye wouldna have reminded me… Hell, ’tis surprised I am we got here at all. The Celtic gods, Gwydion and Arawn, sent us to warn you and Lachlan. They told us their magic would trump hers, but not forever.” One corner of her mouth turned down. “’Twould appear I just ran up against forever. Or mayhap their magic got subverted by your wards.”

“What impact has the Morrigan’s mischief had on the rest of our kind?”

“Those in Fire Mountain are safe so long as they remain there. The casting only traps them when they set foot on Earth.”

“Did the Celts try to neutralize it?”

She cast a look Kheladin’s way that said he should ask something worth her time answering. Johnathan watched the exchange, chest tight with excitement, feeling he’d fallen into one of the old tales where heroes and heroines walked amongst humans.

“All right. Let me try again.” Kheladin sounded exasperated. “Did the Morrigan wake the black wyvern’s mage, Rhukon?”

“’Twas the first thing she did.”

“So all our effort was for naught.” The dragon clanked his jaws together. “I must alert Lachlan. Where did the Celts find you?”

Britta rolled her eyes. “Not in Fire Mountain, though I admit Tarika and I retreated there after Rhukon, Connor, and their dragons teamed with the Morrigan, and things werena looking good. Nay, the Celts plucked us out of the sixteen hundreds, told us enough about what the future held to alarm us, and sent us on our way. I am far from certain, but it seems they might be gathering reinforcements beyond Tarika and me, so ye and Lachlan willna have to fight alone.”

Kheladin inclined his head. “Thank you for coming.”

A warm smile lit her face. It softened her features and made her look barely more than a girl. Jonathan’s cock stiffened where it pressed against his jeans. Breath caught in his throat, and he fought against touching her, running his hands down her golden skin. He drew magic around himself to mask his lust, make it unobtrusive, but she noticed anyway.

Britta turned an appraising glance his way. “Aye, ye’d do well to hide your rut from me.”

Embarrassed at being caught out but curious, too, he asked, “Why?”

She tossed her head at Kheladin. “Tell him, dragon. Mayhap he’ll believe it if he hears it from another, ahem, male.” Her last word dripped sarcasm.

Kheladin blew so much steam he looked like an old-fashioned train. Jonathan bristled. Worse, his cock didn’t seem to be in the mood for retreat. He tried for dignity. “Look. If it’s all the same to you, I’d just as soon move on. I withdraw my question.”

“Nay.” Kheladin got his mirth under control. “Many have tried to mate with Tarika—and Britta too. I believe they fancy themselves reincarnations of Artemis. ’Tis why they bonded one to the other.”

Jonathan’s brows crawled up his forehead. “The virgin huntress?”

“Good ye know your mythology.” Kheladin clanged his jaws shut for the second time.

“I thought you were Celtic,” Jonathan sputtered. “Artemis was Greek.”

Kheladin bathed him in smoke until he bent over coughing. “I picked a deity ye might recognize, witch. Most of our goddesses have fallen out of human memory. How Britta is isna entirely her fault, though.”

She put her hands on her hips and glared. Breasts peeked through a curtain of hair. “I’m not sure whether to thank you or let Tarika out to throttle you. How would I have had the time to either find a mate or attend to him once found?”

“Lachlan dinna have a wife, either.” Kheladin’s tone was mild.

“Aye, but he fucked enough women to make up for it.” Britta narrowed her eyes. “As I recall, there was a string of housekeepers in addition to a bevy of local maids.”

“He was laird of Clan Moncrieffe. ’Twas natural enough maids would wish to be his lady.” Kheladin defended his shifter bond mate.

Jonathan felt as if he’d wandered in at the midpoint of a very old argument. He cleared his throat. “Was there a specific reason neither dragon shifter wed?”

Britta snorted. “Ye know nothing of what it takes to become a dragon shifter. I studied long—as did Lachlan—and forsook much. A man would have just gotten in my way, as would bairns. I could have made certain I dinna conceive, but what man doesna wish heirs?”

Kheladin leaned closer to Jonathan. “Her da was a powerful mage and laird of Cumbria. Many a swain wished to share her bed—and her dowry.”

“Men! Cretins, the lot of them!” Britta threw a hand in the air, spun, and strode toward where Kheladin had indicated Lachlan’s clothing chest was.

Jonathan cleared his throat and sent a thought to Kheladin since he didn’t want to be the butt of Britta’s scorn. “Temperamental, isn’t she?”

“Ye doona know the half of it, laddie. Yet she is courageous—and compassionate. ’Twasn’t accidental the gods picked her to locate us.”

“Guess I’ll wait until she’s dressed and then take her into Inverness. We can find more clothes, some shoes, and a meal.”

“Aye, and then ye must return here. While ye’re gone, I’ll raise Lachlan.”

“Whatever are the two of you whispering about in mind speech? Sounds like a buzzing beehive over here.” Britta sashayed to them wrapped in a cream-colored linen shirt that fell just south of her groin. A pair of black tights was draped over her arm.

Jonathan eyed her. “Are you going to put those on?”

She focused her golden eyes on him and slowly, deliberately, shook out the tights and rolled one leg. Still watching him intently, she raised her leg, giving him a clear view of tight red-gold curls before she shoved it into the woolen pants. Heat raced through him; it was so intense he could barely breathe. His cock strained against his pants. For one long, awkward moment, he was afraid he’d come in his shorts.

For Christ’s sake. I haven’t had this much trouble controlling myself since I was a teenager twenty years ago. Because he couldn’t force himself to look away, he squeezed his eyes shut and thought about breathing. Just breathing. Not about burying himself to the hilt inside her gorgeous pussy. His cock jerked. It didn’t want breathing. It wanted fucking and reminded him it had been months since he’d paid any attention to his sexual needs.

Time passed. Kheladin’s energy pulsed to one side. Jonathan could pick out witches he knew from how their psychic emanations felt. Maybe I should get one of the women to feed her and get her some shoes…

“Och aye, and that wouldna be nearly this much fun,” she purred.

He pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers. “Stay out of my head. A man’s thoughts need to be, well, private.”

She ignored his plea. “Do ye think I’m dressed enough to be decent?” Her scent eddied closer, lavender, musk, and something he couldn’t identify. Maybe amber. “Ye’ll need to open those lovely eyes to answer me.”

He felt her magic zing into him; his eyes snapped open, and he took a couple of steps back. “The only way this is going to work,” he gritted out, “is if you stop teasing me with your body. It really is incredible, but I’m sure you already know that.”

“Is it now? I have lived amongst dragons and our mages for so long, I’d nearly forgotten. But now ye are near and fawning, I find I’ve missed human attention.”

“We all have,” Kheladin cut in. “Yon lad has a point. His cock is ready to burst from his pants. If ye expect him to sit with you, share a meal and mayhap information about this era—about which ye know nothing, I might add—ye will need to behave better.”

“I doona understand.” Britta drew her perfect brows together. “He can simply tap a serving wench, satisfy his lust, and return to my side.”

Jonathan chuckled. “Ha! I always wondered what it was truly like a few hundred years back. There aren’t too many handy serving wenches willing to lift their skirts—or drop their pants, more likely—these days. I’d have to wine them, dine them, at least pretend to care—”

She waved him to silence. “I am starting to understand. I willna flaunt myself, though ’tis great fun to know I can still heat a man’s blood.”

Heat a man’s blood, is it? He bit back a laugh at the idea and the Gaelic inflection in his thoughts. For a moment, he’d sounded just like his da. “You do way more than that.” He let himself look at her. The tights were in place, waist string tied, but she had yet to button the shirt. Apparently sensing his thoughts, she hastily looped square, wooden buttons into their holes.

She held her arms to the side and twirled in place. “There. Will I do?”

He found he could breathe again. Although still aroused, the desperate edge had receded. Jonathan nodded. “Yes. Your magic or mine?”

“Yours. I am still depleted from my travels.”

He glanced at Kheladin, now surrounded by ten witches, all patting and fussing over him. The dragon almost glowed beneath their attention. “How soon do you need us back?”

Kheladin bathed him in steam. “I would verra much like to tell you to take your time, but I fear ’tis something we may well be running short of. Enjoy a meal. Find the lass some footwear and a warm jacket. Mayhap other clothes that fit her better. Then return.”

“Ye can link to me if something happens,” Britta said.

Kheladin included her in the steam bath. “Aye, ’tis been long since I’ve had another dragon shifter—at least one on our side—near to hand. Thanks to you again for coming.”

“My pleasure. Once we return, Tarika and I want to know about the magic that allows ye and Lachlan the freedom of your bodies yet maintains the bond.” She turned to Jonathan. “I stand ready, witch.”

“Wait.” Kheladin held up a foreleg and chanted a few notes mingled with fire. “There, my wards are open.”

Jonathan threw his rucksack over a shoulder. He summoned magic, wrapped them in it, and aimed for a thick grove in one of Inverness’ many parks. If they got very lucky, they wouldn’t disturb a couple in the midst of enjoying one another. The cave’s walls glimmered, thinned, and turned to black as he ferried them away from Kheladin and the phalanx of adoring witches.

Providence was on his side. It was dim where he brought them out in a thick hawthorn grove. And cold. He slid his iPhone from a pocket and glanced at the time. Just closing on seven. Not so bad, except it meant they’d need to shop first, else the stores would shut for the night.

Britta inhaled noisily. “It smells odd.” She drew closer to him. “Is the air poisoned?”

“It’s just car exhaust. The air’s better here than in a truly big city.”

Car exhaust? Neither word means aught.”

Where to begin? “Let’s get you some clothes. I’ll explain what I can over dinner. In the meantime, it might be best if you didn’t ask too many questions.”

She drew herself up and squared her shoulders. “And why not?”

“You don’t want people to think you’re odd. Or that you don’t belong here.”

A shiver ran through her body. He glanced down and saw her shift from one bare foot to the next on chill, damp ground. “Come on.” He hooked a hand beneath her arm and tugged. “Shoes first. Then clothes.”

She fell into step beside him. “They will have to measure me. It takes several days to craft a pair of boots.”

“Not anymore. We’ll find what you need readymade.”

“Really? Will the quality be acceptable?”

Spoken like a true countess. “Probably not, but you’ll make do. It’s better than being cold and barefoot.” He tightened his hold on her arm, wanting to protect her, care for her. It would take her time to get used to the modern world—if she stayed here long enough to learn about it. Jonathan examined the feelings coursing through him. Was it possible she’d snared him in some sort of spell?

“I did no such thing.” Enough outrage ran beneath her words, he believed her.

“Look here.” He kept his voice low. “You have to stay out of my thoughts.”

“But how else will I know about them?”

He chuckled. “How about if you ask me questions and satisfy yourself with what I’m willing to share. Turn this way.” He pushed open a swinging door and followed her into a brightly lit shoe store. He blinked a few times to ease the transition from daylight to neon.

She shielded her eyes with a hand. “What manner of magic creates light this strong?”

“Hush. We call it electricity. Come on.” He guided her to a display rack and selected a serviceable pair of lace up boots. “What do you think of these?”

She wrinkled her nose. “They’re ugly and shoddily made.” She flicked a loose thread with a fingertip.

“Then you pick something.”

She glanced about and trailed her hands over tennis shoes and sandals as she walked through the store. After oohing and aahing over several pairs of high heels, she let him guide her back to the place they’d begun. “Britta. It’s summer, but the nights are always on the chilly side. Your feet will get cold unless you get sturdy boots and socks. How about if we try these.” He pointed. “And those.” He pointed again.

“I suppose ye’re right. Do ye think either could be dyed black?”

A clerk had been hovering. “We have that style in black, ma’am. What size should I get for you?” He glanced down and inhaled audibly. “B-but you’re barefoot. Your feet must be freezing.”

Color stained Britta’s cheeks. “’Tisn’t so bad as all that, laddie.”

Jonathan thought quickly. He closed his hand around Britta’s arm and gave it a warning squeeze, hoping she’d understand not to contradict him. “My sister just gave birth. Err, twins. Her feet got bigger. Much bigger. Nothing fits but her house slippers, and she was too embarrassed to wear them. How about if you measure her?”

“Certainly. If you’d just sit over there?” The clerk gestured to a bank of chairs.

After shooting Jonathan an annoyed look, Britta followed the clerk.

An hour later, they had two pairs of shoes, one black, one brown, socks, underwear, three pairs of warm corduroy pants, sweaters, T-shirts, and two jackets. Jonathan was a thousand pounds poorer but considered the funds well spent. She’d stopped trying to seduce him from the moment they’d left Kheladin’s cave, which meant he’d simply enjoyed her company.

She led the way out of the clothing store he’d selected after they finished with the shoe store and turned to him. “Can we get something to eat now?” Both of them were laden with bags.

“Sure. What do you feel like?”

She leaned close. “I doona know. Everything here is so strange, I feel I am playacting, yet without knowing my lines. Pick something. Simple food and stiff spirits.”

“Have you heard anything from Kheladin?”

She shook her head. “Nay, but Tarika isna pleased. She believes we waste valuable time. ’Tis possible she will settle once we find food. She is hungry.”

Jonathan considered their options. He didn’t want to bring her to a noisy pub where they’d have to strain to hear one another. Nor did he want a nightclub. He looked up and down one of Inverness’ main streets. His gaze settled on a smallish place where a sign promised EXCELLENT FOOD IN AN INTIMATE ATMOSPHERE. Sounded perfect.

“Let’s try over there. Maybe we’ll have enough privacy to answer some of those questions I’ve seen dancing behind your eyes.”

She smiled at him. Really smiled without coquettish edges. “Ye’ve been truly kind to me. I apologize for…well, for how I was earlier. I shouldna have been such a tease.”

“Apology accepted. I do understand, though.”

She cocked her head to one side. “Do ye?”

He grinned. “Sure. Sex is power. Or it can be. But being friends is better.”

She grinned back. “To friendship, then. Find us a bottle, and we can drink to it.”