The raw burn of my throat struck my ears like a battle call—a cry for my sword.

Quick as lightning, I dove for the hem of my dress.  Though the harder I tried securing its edge, the more miles and miles of tulle and crinoline bunched in my face.  Having spit enough of it away, I fired off a mental, Screw it, and then dug my nails into the fabric, tearing the netting with a scratchy “rip-p-p” scoring the air.  With my leg now as free as a bird sprung from its cage, I summoned the holster to appear and unsheathed my sword.  A feisty twirl sent every inch of the golden topaz blade launching from the hilt as I lunged towards the hissing head.

I was strongly into my attack stance, the tip of my blade ready to claim the spot between those hungry eyes, when Tanner misted to my side.  “That’s not necessary,” he stressed, now back in his corporeal form.  His stare dropped to my exposed leg as he lowered my blade.  “And that one’s on you,” he assured, nodding to the telltale tatters of yet another ruined dress.  A formal dress that wasn’t even mine this time.

Through my heavy pants, my eyes cut to the creature as it rose from the murky waters and into the full glow of the moonlight.  Not a serpent, my mind flashed, despite its head and tail being akin to one.  Hovering before me was a sea creature formed of slick-looking scales and broad flippers whose hump-backed body stretched as long as any of the boats I’d seen cruising these waters.  My stare crashed to the planks of the pier, now acutely aware of whom this rock-star of the deep actually was.

I retracted my blade and whirled to Tanner.  “You told me there was ‘no such thing’,” I said, feeling an uncontrollable need to remind him of the question I’d made a point of raising upon our arrival at Drumandrochit this morning—the town I’d mentally dubbed, Loch Ness Land.

“Not true,” Tanner countered and then turned our conversation to telepathic.  “I told you there weren’t any creatures named, ‘Nessie’.”  I was curious why he’d shifted our exchange, until he added, “That’s not her name, and fair warning — she doesn’t take kindly to hearing it.”

My stare cut to the sea-creature, where its head remained reared back while those piercing red cores still tracked my every move.  “Then what is her name?” I asked, despite my doubts of it cozying up to me even if the correct one were to cross my lips.  Oh, that thing wanted to eat me alive.  That, or snatch my butt up and then bat me against this pier about a hundred times.  And I would know, having been on the receiving end of Charlotte’s PMS eyes plenty of times throughout the years.

Tanner waved a hand, commanding her to come closer.  The sea-creature let out a whiny mewl as she dipped her head towards the Amethyst Talisman, wedging it in between us, which, in turn, almost sent me falling back into the water.  Tanner scolded her with a knife-like point of his finger and then gave the slick scales of her head a frisky rub.  “Shiloh, this is Porcia.”

I found the creature’s name rather specific.  More female-specific than I cared to openly admit.  So after putting that curiosity on a temporary hold, I edged forward and raised my hand, both maneuvers performed with considerable heed.  And still, Porcia looked less than pleased, unwilling to turn her head the first inch towards me.

Tanner stared into the creature’s eyes with the drive of a lion tamer.  “You’re being rude.”

Abruptly, Porcia twisted her neck and thrust her head towards me.  Luckily, I’d found her maneuver too startling, so my hands were already up when she let out a lengthy snort, hosing me down with a lot more than loch water before she was finished.

I unclenched my muscles when the air fell still and silent.  Strings of mucus stretched from my arms like drippy cobwebs when I pulled them apart.  Uck… My biggest take-away from her sliming: now I knew why her scales were so green.

Tanner collected my shoes and then took hold of my hand, his magic instantly wringing all traces of her snotty wrath from both me and my dress.  “I see we’ve come at a bad time,” Tanner hollered as he led me down the dock.  “Maybe the next time I make it over here, you’ll be up to receiving company.”

A guttural growl erupted from Porcia before she dove under the water with a pouty splash, refusing to submit to his bluff.  I looked to Tanner.  “Does she always act this way towards strangers, or is it just me?”

The confidence bolstering his grin was answer enough.  “Do you blame her?  She senses your Veil magic, and she knows you hold the power to send her back.”

With my feet now on dry land, I chewed on his assessment.  I supposed it was no different than a paroled-criminal meeting their son’s new girlfriend for the first time—only to find out that he was dating a cop.  Surely there wouldn’t be any hugs & kisses there either.

“So how long before she fake warms up to me?” I posed, without an ounce of delusion.

Tanner cast a pointed look past me.   “She heard that.”

“I knew she was back there.”  I shot a glance over my shoulder, narrowing my eyes at the creature whose head was arching out of the shallows like the curl of a question mark.  “That’s why I said it,” I stated, firmly standing my ground.

Portia snorted another huff and then began making her way to shore.  I shuffled backward as her flippers trudged through the grass, waddling towards us like a seal—only without the cute and happy.

“Does she come on land a lot?” I asked warily.

Tanner stepped in front of me, greeting her approach.  “She’s not supposed to.”  He cocked a brow at the creature, a warning for her to mind her p’s and q’s.  Then he made another attempt to steady her dinosaur-ish head enough for me to pet her.  And again, Porcia resisted with a jerk of her neck, aiming her head in the opposite direction.  Though instead of an outright refusal this time, she stretched one of her front flippers towards me where it landed on the ground with a petulant “SLAM”.

Well, all righty — A handshake it is then, I noted and then slowly bent down to stroke it.  Cautiously, I eased my fingers across her flipper, the touch of her scales reminiscent of the rubber inner tubes I’d used floating down the Shenandoah River when I was a kid.  “How long has she been here?” I asked.

Tanner knelt beside me.  “I discovered her off the coast of Spain in 458,” he said.  “But she’s been in these waters since 478, keeping an eye out for threats.”

The wariness radiating from Tanner pounded my senses with the force of war drums.  “Afraid she’s going to smack me?” I asked.

“Yes,” Tanner replied and then shot Porcia a steely glare.  “But with her tail,” he stressed loudly to her.  I looked past her flipper, where sure enough, that tail of hers was swaying back and forth like a home-run hitter waiting to be called to bat.  “Only dogs wag their tails when they’re happy.”  Aware of how busted she was, Porcia stilled her makeshift club and dropped it onto the grass with a defeated “thump”.

Tanner huffed a coarse laugh.  “I was hoping she would be a little more cordial.  But even Oakley had his doubts.”

“Oakley?” I echoed.

Tanner nodded.  “He keeps a check on her for me now and then.”  He rose to his feet and gave Porcia’s head a playful rub.  “Oakley said I might have to break up a fight… And by the looks of it, he was right.”

I held onto the whoosh of air bursting to escape as I stood up.  So Porcia was the mysterious “HER” I’d overheard them talking aboutnot the handsy woman in the courtyard…  Which, in hindsight, I couldn’t fault the woman for—not entirely.  So much for “trusting my gut”, I scolded myself, reminded of Oakley’s remark.  And now that half of the crazy had drained from my head, I was ready to flush the rest of it.  “So why the name Porcia?” I asked.

Tanner grinned, his eyes drenched in reflection.  “Because nothing gets past her… No different than my own birthmother.”

“You named her after your mother?”  After seeing his nod of confirmation, I immediately sent the cosmos a silent “thank you” for giving me the good sense not to mention what I’d uncovered after searching through Bea’s memories—a big THANK YOU, as a matter of fact.  I couldn’t fathom the guilt I would’ve had if I’d let loose of what I’d uncovered: that “Porcia” was derived from “porco”, which essentially meant “hog” or “pig-like” in Italian.

How freaking insulting — about his mother, no less, I groaned silently.  So as a show of my gratitude, I decided right then and there to keep my green-eyed monster in check, starting with an order to my red-suited devil, warning her to not let the damn thing out of its cage from here on out—at least not without any solid proof.

Determined to try again, I extended a hand towards Porcia’s side, only for her to whirl around and snap those crocodile teeth of hers less than a foot from my hand.  So she may not have turned out to be a scorned ex, but she sure didn’t lack the temperament.

After rattling off another menacing hiss, Porcia turned and waddled back into the water.  “So you’re allowed to have a pet?”  I cocked a brow when I turned to him.  “Aside from Silas.”

Tanner laughed.  “She’s more of a watchdog, if anything.”

I looked to the loch where the oh-so disciplined guard was hard at it—playfully diving in and out of the water, making some pretty impressive spirals and splashes.  The only thing missing from her bag of tricks was a ball bouncing on the end of her nose.  “Yeah, I’m pretty sure ‘a watchdog’ is still a pet,” I argued.

“Possibly,” Tanner admitted, his grin shameless.  “But I wanted you to meet her before she goes back.”

A pang struck my heart, remembering how hard it had been to send back the balegore.  And this creature had been a part of his life for centuries.  I didn’t think I could do it in the end.  “Does she have to go back?”  As long as she kept out of sight and didn’t eat anyone, I really didn’t see the problem.

Tanner turned to the loch, where Porcia was making a swift run along the water’s surface, sending a ripple of waves breaking towards us.  “Yes,” he said, looking critically mindful.  “She’ll be a much better watchdog over there.”

Perhaps…  Sure, she could handle herself with some of the smaller creatures.  But the others…  The bigger and more bloodthirsty ones I’d caught a glimpse of the last time I was there…  From my vantage, sending her back would be like dropping a declawed cat on the side of the road to fend for itself, even with that bitchy attitude she was rocking.  “So do you know when?”

Tanner shook his head.  “Any time is too soon.”  A second hadn’t passed when a pitiful mewl stabbed the darkness like the cry of a wounded animal, as if the creature sensed the gravity of our words.

Sorrow spilled through me as my eyes steered to Porcia and her latest efforts to snag Tanner’s attention—an impressive double-flip, followed by an almighty splash that columned into the air with the force of a geyser.  “I think she wants to play.”

Tanner unlaced his oxfords and slipped off his socks.  “You can come,” he said, coaxing me with a charming smile.

I loosed a laugh as I grabbed two fistfuls of fabric and then stretched the sides of the dress like the wings of a dove.  “I’d sink straight to the bottom.”

Tanner stepped closer, his eyes tracing the curves of my bodice.  My chest rose with airy flutters as I breathed in the suggestion they glimmered as clear and bright as starlight.  And, were it not for the fact that any of the MacMillan clan could come along at any moment, along with me having to watch Porcia like a fox circling a hen house, on top me lacking the cover of a strapless bra, I would’ve shimmied straight out of this parachute and dove right in.

Go,” I urged, flaring my eyes as if they held the power to give him an actual push.  Then I picked out a dry enough spot and dropped onto the grass with a plop, now looking like a big ball of dandelion fluff.

Tanner shrugged off his jacket and tossed it to me.  “I won’t be long.”

I watched him unknot his tie as I laid his jacket across my lap, paying particular attention to the exactness of his hand; how smoothly the line of silk slipped away from his collar and the alluring way it cascaded onto the grass like the spooling of a ribbon.  A flush warmed my cheeks at the sight of him unbuttoning his shirt—the unhurried release of every closure whispering to me like an unspoken invitation.  Soon the moonlight was dancing across his muscles, bathing his bareness in a heavenly glow.  Another masterful flick of his wrist and his belt was off…  Followed by the racy drop of his pants, where I found myself staring at his black boxer briefs—a second skin that left little to the imagination.

Needing to reclaim some composure, I yielded a shrug and crinkled my nose.  “Is that all I get?”   A tease, but a dare nonetheless.  Though the dare-part was strictly to see Mr. Not-till-you’re-ready squirm a bit—just long enough for me to reel in any lingering traces of my tongue.

His eyes livened with a violet gleam—a challenge of his own, judging from the way he slipped his thumbs under the waistline of his briefs and then teased a couple of stretches.

Pretending to be bored, I went to picking my nails.  My main reason: because I refused to be fooled by a guy who’d rerouted my roving hand a few weeks back.  Those briefs weren’t even close to coming off.

My stare skidded to a halt when I glanced up and noticed the band was much lower, now cradling the cusp of his Apollo’s belt—those two beguiling, V-cut grooves that held the consummate power to turn even the smartest of girls stupid.

A jolt of nervousness sent a tremble straight to my core.  No — He wouldn’t…  My stare rose to his face, only to be pinned by a pair of defiant eyes, along with a bold-as-brass grin that held the promise of an answer.  My breaths came to a standstill as I held his gaze…and held it some more.  So maybe—just maybe, I’d thunk very, very wrong about his limits when it came to an indecent challenge.  And for once, I found myself rooting for that unwavering competitive-side of his to win out.

My heart was pounding steady and strong as I waited for him to make his next move, its beat carrying the cadence of a drumroll up until the moment Porcia came out of nowhere with her sneak-attack and then whisked him away with a snatch of her flipper—denying me his answer.  Considering the depths of my disappointment, I couldn’t fault her.  Not when I’d been sitting here thinking about doing the same thing.   She’d simply had the balls to do it.  So yay for her.  Besides, he would have dived on into the water if the virgin had so much as sneezed his way.

After nestling into a more comfortable position, I sat back and watched the duo commence with a rowdy and affectionate aquatic display.  And regardless of how entertaining it was to see Tanner getting tossed around and repeatedly dunked and dragged through the water, it wasn’t long before my gaze lifted to the canopy of twinkling stars and then onto the bewitching magic of the moon.

Judging from its current phase, it was two days shy of an almost perfect last quarter moon—half of it effulgent, the other a shadowy handprint of itself.  Then, as if urged by a suggestive whisper, I began pondering a peculiar question.  If the moon had its way, would it stay fully aglow all the time, never waxing or waning for a second?  Surely something as wondrous as it would.  And who wouldn’t, even if they claimed a presence only half as stellar?  So perhaps there was something more to its varying lunar phases?  Something more mystical than a routine orbit around the earth?   Maybe the strength and spread of the moon’s glow was an expression of its ever-changing emotions—its own trials and tribulations—no different than what a person would carry day-in and day-out along their destined path.  If something as age-old as the moon couldn’t stay brilliantly lit and full all the time, then why should I expect things to be perfect twenty-four hours, seven days a week?  Every month, the moon knew dark days lay on its horizon, and it willingly accepted its fate—easing into its fade with an unflappable grace.  “A big ball of hope in the sky” was what Beatrix had called it.  Maybe the moon’s magic lay in its own hope: the hope that no matter what force robbed it of its light or how much grayness it consumed, that its glow would inevitably return as long as it had faith that it would.  That was the kind of faith I needed—complete trust that felt effortless and breathed eternal.

A memory took shape as the hitch of my gaze strengthened.  Katie.  It was of Katie and the carousel of full moons that had passed when her soul was trapped inside her diamond pendant.  She hadn’t lost hope—not for a second.  She knew I would bring her back.  Beatrix had said that hope was the most comforting force in the universe.

I closed my eyes, letting the cool night air glide over me.  Maybe it was more than the wind invigorating me as I sat here—something more intentional than a random gust ruffling my dress and breezing through my hair.  Maybe it was a whisper from the universe, a call for me to recognize that ever-present reminder hanging in the sky, the one that would be there every night and left no doubts that faith was attainable, and that holding on to it was the only thing that could shine enough light through the darkness to show me the way to my wand.

Though at the risk of playing Devil’s Advocate, I had been up & going for almost twenty-one hours—most of which I’d spent hiking, biking, touring, and dancing—even with the reviving powers of a tourmaline.  Which, I could tell, was well into a downward spiral of wearing off.  So there stood the slight chance that my aforementioned gush of deep, introspective musings could have come from my need for sleep.  Nevertheless, I sucked in a hopeful breath and cast all of my doubts to the wind, hand in hand with the howl of a jaw-cracking yawn.

My eyes were fighting off a drowsy flutter when I noticed Tanner returning to shore.  “I think it’s time we head back to the inn — before you conk out on me,” he said and then went straight to slipping back into his clothes.

After saying our goodbyes to Porcia, we strolled back to the hotel—once we were assured she wasn’t going to follow us.  And that was only after Tanner had suggested I hail a bolt to a spot in the water.  And he didn’t have to ask me twice.  Though strictly going off the sound of the sea-creature’s roar when it had struck, she was r-e-a-l-l-y going to love me the next time I came calling.

We went straight to the coat-check, needing to collect our clothes, and then headed off to our respective bathrooms.  Inside the ladies room, my eyes fell to my dress with a pout.  Oddly enough, because I didn’t want to take it off—at least not until we’d arrived back at the inn.  The sight of me sauntering in looking like a virgin bride was probably the only thing that would get me out of violating my curfew.  And though Greer hadn’t mentioned one, I wasn’t crazy.  As sure as licking my finger to test the winds, I had no doubts about the startling click of lamplight that would cleave the shadows of the living room upon our arrival.  Nor the disgraceful look I would spy in the innkeeper’s old-fashioned eyes.

 

 

 

Narrow slants of sunlight squeezed through the bars striping the window as I made up the bed, my hands smoothing the ruffled coverlet and positioning all the pillows back in their places—precisely as I’d found it yesterday.  And regardless of how pointless making it up was, knowing Greer would be stripping and laundering my efforts, it just seemed more respectful than leaving a jumbled mess of covers for a hotel maid.  I couldn’t do that—not in her daughter’s old room.

Plus, I’d woken up in a good mood, or rather, I’d woken up to the realization that I couldn’t remember anything from my dreams last night—if I’d dreamed anything.  Only shadows and a haze of blankness came to mind.  Nothing the least bit bothersome, I noted.  No buzzards or any elephants — No nothing…  Though I supposed if I were to have dreamed anything at all, it would have had something to do with Greer—the last person I’d seen before climbing into bed.

As I’d expected, the lady of the inn was still up when we’d arrived.  And after shooing Tanner up to his room with the politest of back-pats, she escorted me to mine for a friendly chat.  And by “chat”, I mean lecture.  Yep.  My first, motherly life-lesson lecture, and it had come from a total stranger off in a foreign country.  But it was kind of sweet, admittedly, and highly enlightening.  I especially liked how she wrapped it up before heading off, when she plopped a tiny white aspirin into my palm and then instructed me on how it was to be used.  Apparently, that’s how good-girls kept their virginity intact—by holding it between their knees at all times.

Too bad it wasn’t extra-strength.

I was zipping up my backpack when my mind tingled with a familiar vibe, followed by the purr of Tanner’s voice.  “How did you sleep?”

 “Good,” I said, confident of my ruling.  Well, with the exception of one little thing.  “But I did miss my sheets.”

My chest rose as a wave of arousal pulsed through the amethyst atop my chest, sending a ripple straight to the tips of my fingers and toes.  So it seemed he did as well.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

I steeled my muscles for the fire of the door buzzer as I reached for the knob.  “I’m making my way to the lobby right now.”

“Then I’ll be right down.”

Freshly brewed tea scented the air of the lobby like a bold perfume, its spicy aroma proving a palatable substitute for my morning lure of coffee.  And after all, when in Scotland, do as the Scots do.  An easy thing to say when I’d already done a search for the closest Starbucks and found only one—8 kilometers from here.  Proving that five miles across town could quickly change a person’s tune.

I was in the process of selecting which of the dainty porcelain teacups fit my fancy when Greer sauntered into the room.  Her eyes sprang open like a piece of bread popping from a toaster as soon as they met mine, her countenance shifting from carefree to antsy.  Though that was nowhere near as strange as her rush to the bottom of the staircase, or how she craned her head up its bounds with the determination of a military-trained scout.

I’d no sooner finished up pouring my tea when I noticed Greer gesturing her hands to me in a hurried fashion, wanting me to join her at the front desk.

With an amused air of curiosity, I sweetened my tea with a blending of sugar and cream and then strolled towards the front desk.  “Yes?”

 Greer cupped a hand beside her mouth and leaned across the mahogany counter with a hushed tone.  “A gentleman stopped by here a little while ago with somethin’ for you.”

My shoulders stiffened.  “Something for me?

“Yes.”  Greer waved me closer.  “But he specifically requested that I give it to you when your fellow wasn’t around.”

My expression paled as I placed the cup and saucer down on the counter with a rattle.  Oh, I so didn’t like the sound of that.

With a weary look weighing her eyes, Greer laid a hand over mine and plied it with a round of pats.  “It seems someone is spreadin’ herself a little thin with the lads,” she said, shaking her head.  “Tsk, tsk, tsk.”

Thankfully I was too busy shaking off the drench of a grim feeling that the echoes of “trollop” I’d heard were easy to ignore.  “Did they happen to leave a name?”

“No,” Greer replied and then threw another look towards the stairs.  “But he was the biggest brute of a man my eyes have ever seen.  Arms the size of watermelons and built like a brick wall.  Just a look from him would have a man quakin’ in his boots.”  She knelt behind the front desk and then rose holding a small wooden box, half the size of her hand.  “Still,” she added, cocking her head, “there was just somethin’ about him that made me instantly like him.”

The description she’d given didn’t match any of my present enemies.  I needed more.  Though I supposed it could have been Oakley.  As far as muscles went, he packed the most of all the Talismans I’d seen thus far.

“Did he have auburn hair?  Maybe eyes the color of toasted almonds?”

Greer shook her head.  “No.  His hair was black and eyes were a much darker brown.  Though nowhere near as dark as his skin.”  She placed the wooden box down on the counter for me to collect while I remained mentally locked in a perpetual pause.  I didn’t know anyone fitting that description.

Greer tipped her head.  “Aren’t you going to open it?”

The sound of approaching footsteps severed the thick nag of silence and sent our eyes straight to the stairs.  The innkeeper’s stare had no sooner fallen on Tanner when she bounced an uncomfortable glance between me and the wooden box and then waved Edmund out of his chair.

“Looks like you’ve got some explainin’ to do,” Greer whispered.  Then she hurried from behind the front desk and steered her husband out of the room.  Tanner couldn’t help but find himself intrigued by her hasty departure, what with that edgy look on her face—along with the sympathetic pat she’d issued his arm.

With a dismissive grin and a slight shake of his head, Tanner swaggered to the front desk.  His eyes immediately fell to the wooden box resting on the counter.  “What’s that?”

“Apparently, it’s a gift that some stranger left for me,” I said, while thoughts of my last surprise present whirled in my head—the snake from Lorelei.  And though I seriously doubted a creature could be hiding within its itty-bitty confines, something along the lines of a hex wasn’t out of the question.

Tanner drummed his fingers on the counter.  “What’s in it?”

I turned to him, riding the strain of my wide eyes.  “I don’t know.  I haven’t opened it yet.”

With a wary look, Tanner collected the box and headed towards the hearth, to where a small fire was steadily burning.  Then cautiously, he eased open its lid.  The nagging creak of its hinges was still trickling into my ears when the sound of a jarring “snap” canceled it out.

Tanner dropped the closed wooden box to his side, the tight grip of his hand a perfect match to the grueling expression I spied on his face.  And after hearing the groan of what sounded like a, Son-of-a-Bitch, my heart came to a crash inside my chest.

“Is it BAD?” I asked, needing a verbal confirmation.

Tanner lifted his head, his eyes still pressed to a painful close.  “You could say that.”

The rawness of his return to silence raked over me like the rub of sandpaper, gritty and cringing.  My hands rolled into a battery of circles, motioning for him to hurry up and just tell me.  “Well?  What is it?”

His reply came in a pained rush.  “A necklace.”

A sick feeling tunneled into my gut.  Having read enough about the choice mode of hexing a person, I asked my next question.  “And did this necklace happen to come with a curse?”

Tanner opened his eyes, meeting my gaze like the drop a nuclear bomb.  “One of the cruelest ones known to man.”

Through the strain of my stunned silence, I could feel the surge of a snarky response rising from my core and heading straight to my mouth like a runaway train.  “Oh — Is that all?”  Regretfully, being right appeased very few of my worries.  Someone knew I was here, in the Highlands of Scotland.  And not just any someone—someone who wanted to slap me with a curse.  And I would bet my moonstone ring it was Lorelei.

“So much for your theory,” I harrumphed and then took straight to pacing.   Lorelei had to have sensed Tanner in the loch last night, which totally confirmed my theory that the powers she held to discern what was stirring in the currents carried the range of daggone satellite phone.  Then again, Porcia could have ratted me out to her, which wouldn’t surprise me.  Actually, I found its likelihood just as probable: two vindictive sea-bitches sticking together, bonded by the common goal of getting rid of yours truly.  And of course, Lorelei would assume I was with him.  Why else would she instruct her spy to make sure her “cursed gift” was to be given to me when Tanner wasn’t around?  My hands tightened into fists.  Leaving it for me at the front desk was a brilliant move on whoever’s part.  I wouldn’t have accepted something from a stranger, especially not a stranger sporting muscles for days.  Even if there was something remotely “likeable” about him, according to Greer.

I clasped my arms while my foot tapped a steady beat on the hardwood floor.  He had to have compelled her

Greer popped her head into the room.  “Is everythin’ all right in here?” she asked, batting her eyelashes innocently as she drank in my pensive stance and ruffled expression.

Tanner flashed a dazzling smile.  “Everything’s fine.”  Then he strutted a confident path towards the front desk, where he wrote something down on a notepad.  When finished, he handed both it and the wooden box straight to Greer and then whispered something into her ear.

My eyes remained hitched to him as he approached, my stare nothing short of blindingly incredulous.  “She’s going to take care of that for us,” Tanner assured.

The Amethyst Talisman may have seemed the epitome of cool and relaxed, however, my mind was far from at ease as I scrutinized the “human woman” stowing away a box that held something “supernaturally cursed” while whistling a merry tune.

“Are you sure giving her that is safe?” I posed, my skepticism in full-force.  Or wise?

Tanner slid his arm around my back and began leading me towards the door.  “Perfectly…  And, as a precaution, I gave her explicit instructions not open it — before she disposes of it.”

I glanced back at Greer as Tanner opened the door, still grappling with the cringey coil of my muscles.  Something about it just seemed too casual, if not a touch cavalier.

“She’s not at any risk,” Tanner reiterated.  “I promise.”

A knowing smile eased onto my face as I turned to him, feeling a little ashamed for thinking he would ever put someone in harm’s way so recklessly—humans, first and foremost.  “Well in that case,” I began, my tone particularly humble, “I suppose I should thank you for swooping in when you did — before my curiosity cursed me.”

Tanner smoothed a hand along the curve of my jaw, his eyes alight with a sparkle.  “Oh, believe me, milady — It was entirely my pleasure.”

I bumped an eyebrow and rocked onto my tiptoes, purposely arching into him.   “You know… The ‘milady’ would sound more authentic coming from someone dressed in the appropriate clothes.”

His only response was to whirl me around and then send me on out the door with a hand to my rear, which made me all the more determined to see him cave.

I noticed our bikes were missing from the rack where we’d parked them yesterday afternoon, and I distinctly remembered seeing them there when we’d arrived last night.  “What happened to our wheels?”

Tanner kept his eyes straight ahead as he guided me past the empty rack and towards the street.  “I downsized.”

Parked on the curb ahead of us sat a sleek Harley Davidson, its gas tank and fenders glistening like garnets at the strike of the sun, while the chrome coating its tubular innards cast a shine so bright I could almost hear that hog squealing with delight.

I handed him my backpack, hopped onto the front seat, and grabbed hold of its handles.  “So where are my keys?” I teased, eyeing the ignition.

Grinning, Tanner shoved my backpack into one of the leather saddlebags.  “In my pocket.”  His gaze snapped to mine after securing the buckled straps with a firm tug.  “When they’re not in the ignition of the rented motorcycle,” he added, looking all adamant-eyed.

Needing a good look into his eyes, I leveled a hand to my forehead.  “Would it help my cause if I told you that Lorelei’s gift was messing with my positive perspective?”

Tanner rose to his feet, staring at me intently.  “Is it?”

“No.  Not really,” I admitted, lowering my hand.  “I’ve been expecting something.”  My smile slid into a thwarted line.  “It just would have been nice to let my guard down over here — totally down — even if it is for only one day.”

Tanner grabbed hold of my waist and lifted me onto the rear section of the leather seat as he climbed onto the bike backward.  “Then I suppose the only thing I can do is not let you out of my sight for the rest of our trip.  So you can feel free to let down your guard while I act as your eyes and ears…  And whatever else your heart desires.”

The grip of his fingers pressing against my thighs blazed a scorching trail throughout my insides.  “Okay,” I mumbled.

Just when I thought he was about to seal his promise with a kiss, Tanner changed into his misty form, teasing my lips with a tingle of his essence.  When his corporeal form reemerged, he was sitting straight forward on the seat of the motorcycle and ready to crank its engine.

I’d no sooner leaned into his back and wrapped my hands around his waist when the motor exploded into a rumble.  And then we were off, slicing through the brisk morning air, cruising underneath another picture-perfect canvas of azure blue.