Around the two o’clock hour, a scattering of country houses and lodges began cropping up within the graceful peaks and dips of the sunlit countryside, followed by more and more the further our wheels carried us down the road.  Within minutes, the town of Auchterarder emerged—yet another one of those idyllic small-towns that sat pillowed like a prized jewel within the velvety green drape of the Highlands, gleaming with its own unique charm and history.

A warm feeling of fondness stirred in my chest as I trailed all the boutiques and eateries and businesses hugging its main thoroughfare, admiring their façades like I would a family portrait that spanned several generations.

Such timeless and inviting place, I marveled quietly.  So nostalgic…  I could just as easily picture a white-suited milkman dropping off his daily deliveries on the doorsteps of half-timbered cottages as I could Amazon porch-bombing their grocery shipments in via remote-controlled drones.  And there were so many faces out and about—friendly faces—either chatting with one another in their huddles along the sidewalk or throwing up a jovial hand in greeting as their collies and terriers and hounds took them for their daily walks.

A sentimental feeling tugged the corners of my lips.  From what I’d seen of its patchwork of vintage buildings, along with its cozy ambience and relaxed pace, Auchterarder seemed like one of those towns where first names followed every spoken hello, and where a troop of town elders greeted strangers and visitors the same as they would long-lost kinfolk, hoping to enlist them into their community’s ranks.  It was everything I loved about small-town life—a tapestry of tradition and togetherness, weaved with a blending of neighborly attitudes and town pride.   And it happened to be our destination, according to Tanner, who’d just whispered it to my head.  So naturally, I was a little surprised when he didn’t show any signs of stopping, let alone slowing down.  Then, after noticing that all the commercial buildings had disappeared and there was nothing but the sight of lonesome pines and meadows to my left and right, I realized we were traveling into more wide-open country.  And as much as I was enjoying the comforts of nature, the last thing I wanted to hear was that we were camping.  In the woods.  With no bathroom.  Yes—nature may be soothing to the soul, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the body’s need for a hot bath and some toilet tissue.

I started to probe him for details when he turned onto a private drive to our left, where a curving line of gray letters rose from the foliage of an elaborate flowerbed.

Gleneagles, I read quietly.  A short turn thereafter brought an imposing Georgian structure into view that shone of sun-honeyed sandstone and cha-chinged of upper-class wealth.  And after taking its stately presence and expansive reach into account, I naturally assumed the architectural wonder up ahead was either a grand resort or the Queen of England’s summer home.

I turned my attention towards the pristine line of trees to my left, where I caught a medley of greens flashing in between the breaks.  A collection of golf courses…  So this was a resort.  Most likely a five-star resort, judging from the scope and splendor of its surrounding grounds.

So my silent prayers for toilet paper had been answered, straight to the point that I could already envision the crisp, triangular taper that would dangle from its first square—directly below the fussy embossing of a fancy monogram.

My stare shifted back to the hotel as Tanner veered towards the circular drive.  As impressed as I was, my thoughts had taken me back to another time I’d stayed at place this massive and posh: The Greenbrier, a luxury resort tucked in my very own West Virginian backyard—which among its lavish rooms, gourmet dining, and vast amenities included a tour of an old Cold War fallout shelter that had been secretly built for our U.S. Congress during the late 50’s.  Nothing but the best for them.

To this day, I still remembered how blown away my eight-year-old self had felt sitting in the backseat of our car as we weaved through the artistry of The Greenbrier’s grounds, my eyes unblinking and my breaths nonexistent the closer we came to its white-columned, Mount Olympus grandeur.  Mesmerized—that was how I’d felt, like a starry-eyed little girl who was keen on seeing and experiencing everything.  At no time was I the least bit nervous, not even throughout Charlotte’s constant warnings for me “to be careful” and “not to touch anything”.  Though right now, as Tanner eased to a stop in front of the Gleneagles’ glass and metal portico, I couldn’t have felt more like a fish out of water for reasons that extended far beyond the realm of proper etiquette and good manners.  One of them, albeit a minor one, was how underdressed I felt.  Plus, I had to reek of nature, and possibly, a little bit of Highland cow.  And all that was on top of the wind-tossed, motorcycle hair and hours of road scuzz I’d racked up.

So right now, I would have to say no—it wasn’t the five-starriest of feelings.

I leaned into Tanner’s ear as he cut the engine.  “The next time you tell me to throw a few things into my bag, please be more specific — so I won’t feel like such a bum.”

Tanner gave my leg a frisky squeeze as he climbed off the bike.  A confident grin illuminated his face as he reached into the saddlebag and retrieved my backpack.  “Don’t worry,” he assured, handing it to me.  “You won’t be in them for much longer.”

My heart screeched to a stop—no thanks to the trail of ambiguity Tanner had left as he strode towards a kilt-clad attendant.  Surely he was kidding.  Surely  Regardless of how fevered our touches had turned in the forest.  I swallowed.  Or how low the band of his boxer-briefs had dipped last night.

Unable to sit still, I climbed off the motorcycle and turned my focus towards the stretch of the grounds, needing to reassure myself that I was reading too much into his words.

Surely he wouldn’t be THAT BLUNT about it

From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a hot air balloon on a leisurely drift across the sky, its vibrant red color screaming for you to take notice—so I did.  My squint deepened as the winds turned it around just enough for me to make out what was written on one of its sides.

 

 

 

 

Lashes fluttering, I forced my lids to a sore close.  A paranoid person would think all of damn Scotland knew.  Fortunately, I recognized the logo.  Still, it served as a glaring reminder that I was entering yet another hotbed where I had to fend off the frenzied surges of my hormones.  So thank you, Sir Richard Branson.  I could only hope that “fine-tuning my chakras” hadgiven me the mental resolve of a hormonal fire extinguisher—something that would snuff out their blaze before they combusted into full-on inferno.  And for a second, I kind of wished Greer was here to run interference, fearing that aspirin she’d given me was on a fast track to a cloud of chalk dust.

Tanner had no sooner wrapped up his conversation with the valet when I took his hand and began guiding him up the steps, eyeing the hotel doors like I had a swarm of hornets on my tail.  The last thing I wanted was him catching a glimpse of that damn balloon—that Post-it note the universe had seen fit to hang in the sky as a reminder.  He didn’t need one anyway—not after streaming whatever vibe that second chakra of mine had been pulsing.  And regardless of the chromatic light-show he’d showered me with when I’d asked, I still didn’t know what it had whispered to him exactly.

I drew in a breath and held on to it fearfully.  Or screamed…  I could only pray that whatever beat it had thumped hadn’t come close to anything as annoying or in-your-face as that god-awful Macarena song.

The haste fueling my gait fizzled out not two seconds after stepping through the hotel doors.  If the balloon outside hadn’t drenched me in enough icy reality, the lobby’s décor sure hit me like a slap in the face—cold, stinging, and final.  My eyes swept every inch of the sophisticated and refined interior, slow and assessing.  Such a grown-up setting…  Mature and graceful in every way—from the smoothness of its curves, the sharpness of its angles and lines, and the drama its vivid hues evoked.  So effortless in its ability to command your eye and so undeniably strong.  Everything about it struck me as being so…

Confident, I affirmed quietly.  Its styling was unmistakably Art Deco, a design period known for its stark transformations and progressive evolutions—be it a building, a piece of furniture, or the hemline of a skirt.  In a sense, it was a “so long and farewell” to the established ways of the Victorian era.  Which, ironically, happened to be the physical embodiment of what I was striving for personally: a noticeable emergence in every respect.  And not just the physiological aspects of periods, boobs, and sex; I wanted the whole kit and caboodle when I made my breakaway—emotional and mental progression included.

My stance stiffened as a familiar fog thickened in my mind—a fog that I’d felt blanketing me for some time.  And there I was, twisting around yet again in the smothering constraints of my little girl cocoon.   Creature-banishing aside, I still felt like the same high-school girl on the inside, so I wasn’t sure when my great metamorphosis into womanhood would take place—or even how.  Was I supposed to wait for it to crack open all on its own or break through the damn thing myself?  I didn’t feel the presence of any wings as of yet—not even the tiniest sprout of them.  And even if I did, how the heck was I supposed to know if they’d fully blossomed? As much as I longed for the day I was finally free of its hold, the last thing this butterfly-to-be wanted was to come out of her cocoon looking all lopsided or stunted.

I glanced at Tanner.  With his head aimed at the front desk ahead, he couldn’t see the strain of my eyes.   Though I had no doubts he sensed every ounce of my insecurity as the lobby walls closed in on me.  This was, without a doubt, a big-girl hotel: a place accustomed to worldly women darkening its doors—worldly women who were far, far more experienced.  And compared to that, I may as well have had a daggone Barbie doll sticking out of my backpack—because I sure felt the weight of one back there.

Maybe that’s what was blocking my wings.

A male receptionist greeted us with a smile so dazzling he looked to have fallen out of a teeth-whitening commercial and then asked if we had reservation.  Tanner gave the man his name, to which the receptionist confirmed his booking of two rooms.

So it seemed that again, my worries were for naught.  Now all I had to fret about was my red-suited devil storming the castle somewhere between now and the moment I retired to my room.  Oh, I was already onto her tricks, having suspected that she was the one responsible for sending Aunt Flo packing a day early, robbing me of a critical fail-safe the little minx knew she didn’t stand a chance of crushing.  And she didn’t give two hoots about Tanner’s decree of “waiting until I was ready”.  Ha!  That was nothing more than a silent, Oh, I’ve got this challenge in her eyes.

“Could you see if there’s a suite available instead?” Tanner asked.  My heart flatlined in my chest until he added, “With two bedrooms.”  The receptionist began hammering on his keyboard as Tanner turned to me.  “Sharing a suite makes more sense.”  He relieved me of my backpack and handed it to a porter.  “In case another one of Lorelei’s minions happens to turn up.”

I may have nodded my agreement, however, I kept any other thoughts to myself.  “That’s very prudent,” I remarked and then wandered over to a nearby club chair, hoping its red velvet fabric could camouflage my flush or that its deep cushions would swallow me whole.  Whichever masked my nerves the quickest.

While waiting for Tanner, I filled my time with scrutinizing the lobby’s stylishly embellished walls.  I figured, why not?  Surely I’d left a life-sized impression of myself somewhere amongst the sconces and artwork and moldings, seeing how their squeeze had felt so viselike.  Though now, all I felt was conflicted—and a whole lot of rear-wiggling awkward.  I didn’t like the thought of having to revisit the whole “sex conversation” with Tanner.  But after sensing his desires out in the woods earlier—every ounce of their passion, along with every raw twist and rise of his want—I couldn’t stop myself from wondering if his views on the matter had changed.  Was he wavering?  Based on his outward appearance alone, I simply couldn’t tell.  He always seemed the personification of composure, whereas I, on the other hand, constantly felt the drag of a panting tongue hanging out of my mouth.  And why was that, precisely?  Maturity—obviously.  It was the only thing I could think of.  Which, in turn, called more attention to my age and inexperience.  Maybe that was where he drew his strength, what he called upon to keep him in-check?  Maybe my age and inexperience were actually deterrents.

Like a flashing caution sign…  Or a warning label on a prescription bottle…  Or like a can of stinky bug spray…  I shifted in my seat, fending off a foul heave of my gut and the imagined scent of citronella.  Now there was a nauseating thought.

Then, as if the universe had been eavesdropping in on my thoughts, a woman came strolling towards the front desk while I was admiring one of the sculptures.  She was, by all accounts, the epitome of what I’d been mulling over: one-hundred-percent, total WOMAN in every way—from her graceful gait and confident poise to her brilliant and buoyant smile that beamed like a crown atop a comfortably squared set of shoulders.  And the scent she’d left in her wake was no exception: a heavenly bouquet of jasmine and rose petals, as subdued as it was alluring.  Nothing like the harsh, saccharine notes of candy that had religiously swamped the halls of my high school for four years.  Even the way her hair was styled radiated sophistication—her sleek, brunette locks fashioned into a soft bun that rested at the base of her neck, cradling it like a perfectly round pillow.  And of course her attire smacked my eyes like an exclamation point—a silken sundress of vibrant and colorful hues that flowed with her steps and carried the graceful flap of wings—emphasizing her butterfly-ness all the more.  I was actually surprised she hadn’t strolled in here accompanied by the hard-hitting chorus of a Demi Lovato song.

Though as drawn to this woman as I was, her physical appearance was only a part of what I found so intriguing—a small part, if anything.  Mostly, it was the woman’s overall charisma and the presence she exuded—a blinding air of self-assurance that spilled from her like the natural plunge of a waterfall.  She was every bit as commanding as she was gentle.  Nothing about her struck me as the least bit vain or arrogant or domineering.  This woman looked like she knew precisely who she was, without having to shout it in anyone’s face.

An admirable quality, I thought, my eyes glued to her steps.  As much as I hated to admit it, she was exactly the kind of woman I pictured Tanner bringing to a place like this.  And on that note, I figured I was due another Big-Girl point added to my score for having the courage to admit something as irritating as that.  Maybe two.

The woman stopped at the front desk, stationing herself right beside Tanner, who was now speaking to the concierge.  I didn’t have the will nor desire to scoot to the edge of my seat, let alone to venture a dip inside her head, not when I knew all too well what was about to go down.

Sure enough, the woman positioned her body towards him at an angle, wanting to make her presence known.  She even went as far as to lay a hand on the counter as she leaned in his direction, which sent the skinny strap of her dress sliding down her arm.  A creative touch, I thought.  And it went perfectly with her smoky stare and its offers of warming his bed.

So maybe I wasn’t looking to be that confident.  I pursed my lips.  Maybe more assured than assertive  Clearly, there was a huge difference between them.

Feeling the fast fade of my tolerance, I shot a message to one of the attendants, letting them know they had a guest in need of some attention.  One of the male attendants—hoping she would get some of that building flirt out of her system.  Which, after watching her flavorful hand gestures and listening to her breathy laughs, she did, and then glided back the way she’d come—only after she’d written something on a slip of paper that she slid in front of Tanner.  And, had she not dared a glance back when she was halfway to the lobby doors—just to see if he’d collected it—I wouldn’t have been forced to steer that wisp of a breeze I’d conjured towards her backside.  Nor gently eased the fabric of her dress into her crack with the flow of her steps.

Yep.  Lightning may be wicked-cool as all get-out, but at times like these, wind really had its advantages.

I settled into the cushions of the chair, my smile beaming.  Tanner hadn’t so much as twitched a muscle towards the note, and the brunette was headed bye-bye, completely oblivious to the puckered depths of her dress.  Even if I did have to forfeit that last Big-girl point I’d tallied, I was good with it.  Considering what I could have done and where we were, I’d thought it best to keep things classy.

After tucking our suite key into his pocket, Tanner strode towards me with a critical eye on his watch.  “We’ve got a little less than an hour to make our tee-time.”

I shot straight to my feet.  “We’re golfing?”  The question fell off my tongue like he was standing there holding another handful of iffy wild berries.

Ignoring my skepticism, Tanner placed a hand on my back and began guiding me through the lobby.  “Yes, we’re golfing.  It’s the perfect game to work on your balance…  And your control…  And your strength.”

A true as his claims might be, I couldn’t shake a suspicious feeling.  “So is this physical conditioning or therapy?

Tanner flashed a smile that screamed he’d been caught red-handed.  “A bit of both actually.  Aside from its physical benefits, golf is all about accepting and forgetting your last lousy shot.  Think of it as a way of working on your focus and tolerance while maintaining a hopeful outlook.”  He directed a nod to an arcade of clothing boutiques that stretched the entire corridor.  “Besides, you can’t say you’ve truly been to Scotland if you’ve never played any of their courses.”

“That may be so, but I’ve never golfed before,” I submitted.  “Aside from put-put.”  And I was pretty sure that any windmills I might find out there would be the eco-friendly, turbine-kind.

“Then you’ll have to try beating me on the putting green.”

“I won’t be beating you at all,” I admitted willingly.

“Probably not.”  His reply was laced with an honest laugh.  “Though I have no doubts that competitive-side of yours will make a strong showing — which I’m counting on.”

I huffed a light snort, knowing he was ten times worse than I could ever be.  “So will you be cheating today?”  I directed a pointed glance to his pockets and behind his back.  “Any trick balls or clubs I should know about?”

Tanner held up his free hand with the blinding innocence of a guilty child.  “No, not with me.  I’ll be relying solely on my skills.”  His eyes narrowed with suspicion.  “Well that, and a wind-less match.”

I breathed a pouty sigh.  “There goes my handicap.”

First thing, we ditched our jeans and tees for more appropriate attire, as per the club’s strict dress code.  And seeing how I was bound to lose our match, Tanner let me pick out our clothes.  For myself, I chose a simple and snug black golf dress with accents of white piping.  And for him, I settled on a pair of tan slacks and an argyle collared-shirt—a mix of red, gray, black, and tan.  Though if I’d happened to have stumbled upon an obnoxious pair of plaid pants, I would have snatched them up in a heartbeat for him to wear instead—just to knock a little of the sting off my impeding defeat.

I’d no sooner slipped on my golf shoes when we were off, en route to our next stop, The Dormy Clubhouse, where Tanner saw to everything else: our clubs, balls, tees, towels, and water bottles—with the exception of a golf cart.  And when I’d inquired as to why, he quickly informed me that to truly play golf as the game was intended, you walked.  Plus, we wouldn’t come off looking like a couple of lazy Americans.  So I was down with that.

We made our tee time at The Queen’s Course, arriving at the tee box of its first hole to the distant “clinks” of balls with only a minute to spare.  According to Tanner, it was the most enjoyable of the club’s three 18-hole courses for both beginners and experienced players alike.  Though he was quick to add that the first three holes were the most challenging.  Not the best morale-booster he could have chosen.  Though on a positive note, sucking right of the bat would make any later improvements seem far greater than they actually were.  So his therapy was working already, giving me an instant “glass half-full” outlook before I’d taken my first faith-driven swing.

My novice eyes swept the rolling terrain of green tracts, paying particular attention to its many trappings of dark lakes, patches of wooded trees, sandy bunkers, and rugged moorlands.  My poor little white ball…  What I really wanted to do was respectfully write R.I.P on it right now and just chuck it on into the water.  It didn’t have a shot in hell of making par, let alone not getting lost somewhere between here and the eighteenth hole.  Admittedly, I had a whole lot of faith riding on that as well.

I insisted he tee-off first.  Judging from the degree of practiced mannerisms I’d witnessed from the time Tanner pressed the tiny peg into the grass until the moment he swung his driver, I would be playing against what amounted to a Zen master.  Every movement he’d made seemed so decisive and ritualistic; the waggle of his arms as he warmed up, they way he scrutinized the intended track of his ball, and the hush that unfolded as he homed in on the wind’s direction.   Even the stance he’d slipped into looked like something plucked from the pages of an instruction manual.  Mostly likely called, “The Budda”.  And that was nothing compared to the fierce level of his concentration—his eyes looking as life-or-death as they did when swinging one of his swords.

The way he remained statue-still in his stance with his eyes never leaving the ball once it was airborne got me to wondering.  “When was the last time you played?” I inquired.

I caught a thoughtful flicker in his eyes as he pulled out of his pose.  “Late October of last year,” he admitted, “…with Malachi.”  He yielded a half-smile.  “That was the day he mentioned Lazarus was going to Welch to purchase a coalmine and then insisted I go with him.”

Hearing something as rattling as that had to have hit like a bomb.  “So who won?”

He extended his arms like the hands of a clock parked at 4 and 8, as if to say, Who do you think?  “Actually, it was my best game to date.  And Malachi can be tough to beat.”

“I would think so with him possessing such a lucky stone,” I remarked.  It was hard to imagine the two of them out on some country club golf course like they were actually pals, aside from the fact they weren’t normal humans.  Though I supposed everyone needed some sort of recreational outlet or hobby, supernaturals included.  I was still reeling over the fact that Tanner was a golfer—an interesting tidbit I didn’t know this morning, nor would have guessed in a million years.  And even though “head-clearing” was the main focus of this trip, I liked the enlightening benefits that came with the two of us spending this time together.

Tanner pressed another tee into the ground, lining it up to the red line—the one for beginners.  As opposed to the white one, where he’d dropped his—the one reserved for pros.  “Come on,” he urged, curling a finger.

I slipped the driver out of my bag and began my approach.  “We’re not keeping score, are we?”

The way his eyes flared with utter disbelief, you’d have thought I’d strolled over swinging a cat by its tail instead of the driver clutched in my hand.  “How else will you know how badly I beat you?” he submitted.

I pointed my finger to his face and sketched a circle around his mouth.  “From the smug look of your jaw,” I assured.  And the cocky gleam in his eyes that followed confirmed how on the money I was.

Tanner positioned himself behind me and adjusted my stance—aligning my left heel with the ball, tilting my hips, and guiding me through a mock drive as he gave me a tutorial.  Surprisingly, I found there to be far more instructions when it came to hitting a little white ball with than there were for cutting a person down with a sword.

“No more than three-quarters of your weight to your right-hand side through your backswing,” Tanner added as he stepped away.

“That’s it?” I posed, batting my lashes.

Tanner grinned and arched a thumb towards the green.  “Make sure it goes that way.”  I was rolling my eyes when he added, “And try not to miss.”

I served him a sardonic smile.  “Well, now you’ve jinxed me.”  And here I was, thinking the worst thing would be knocking the shit out of it.  But a swing and a miss…  Yeah, that would definitely be far more embarrassing.

Following his instructions to the letter, I swung my driver and actually hit my first golf ball, good contact and everything.  To my surprise, I hadn’t expected to feel such a strong wave of pride as I watched it soar through the air, but I did.  And best of all, my ball even landed where it was supposed to—on the green just before the fairway bent blindly to the left.  So maybe golf wouldn’t prove as grueling as I’d originally thought.  Still, it was too early to make any vows that I wouldn’t go all Happy Gilmore somewhere between here and the eighteenth hole.  Which, in all fairness to myself, would hinge solely on the degree of Tanner’s gloating.

By some sheer fluke, I managed to keep my ball on the green throughout our first three holes.  Then again, I was being overly cautious about keeping the strength of my swing under control—so cautious that a five-year-old could have beaten my strokes.  But I could feel myself loosening up a little, despite my paranoia.  Then, as if karma had foreseen my enjoyment, a nagging reminder of what lay on my horizon cropped up when we reached our next hole.  How could I not think about my witch-confession after reading a name like, Warlock Knowe marking Hole #4?  And then again, when we strolled up to Hole #14 whose sign read, Witches’ Bowster.  If anything, the sheer irony of them alone made me all the more determined to give him my confession—come hell or high water—as soon as we got back tomorrow.

Just when I started to think my ball might actually stand a chance of making it to the last fairway, my luck inevitably ran out at Hole #17.  I happened to be placing a ball on the tee I’d dropped when I noticed the hover of that Virgin-balloon off to my left.  So naturally, my ball suffered the consequences, what with my mind more focused on it, rather than my swing.  Though on the plus-side, that little white speck sure looked pretty sailing through the air before it was gobbled up by a thick cluster of trees.  Trees that had sprung up from out of nowhere, I might add.

Tanner slipped a wedge out of my bag and handed it to me.  “The rules state you’ve got five minutes.”

I slung the shaft of the club onto my shoulder and then strutted towards the wooded plat.  With any luck, I would have it located in less than two.  That way, I could spend the other three minutes finding out where on my body that invisible string was attached—the one tethering me to the drag of that hot air balloon—and then work on severing its bond for good.

From the moment I entered the patch of trees, I turned over every blade of grass in my path.  One would think a white ball wouldn’t be hard to find in all this brown and green, but the terrain was entirely too overgrown and bumpy.  So deeper into the maze of trees and bushes I went, searching the ground in all directions until the fairway was no longer visible.  But I wasn’t giving up.  And since I knew winning our match wasn’t even a remote possibility, all I cared about was making sure my ball made it back.  The one I’d started with…  The one that was mine… That was my most important goal: finding my wand.

My ball—finding my ball.  That was what I’d meant to say.

As luck would have it, the one-minute warning Tanner issued my head lent me a helping hand.  That is, when the heavy roll of my eyes landed on a sizeable gray rock up ahead.

Finally, I huffed after spotting my ball nestled in a patch of grass below it.  I stomped towards the rock, knowing there was no way in hell I could hit it out of here, at least not without getting a little assistance from a straight-line wind of the preternatural variety.  A tempting thought, granted, if weren’t for the slap of guilt I’d feel over timbering some trees (on day I’d been consciously appreciating nature, no less), as well as the fact that it would do absolutely nothing to improve my score.

With that firmly in mind, I laid a balancing hand on the rock as I bent down to collect my ball.  At the first brush of contact with the rock’s surface, a peculiar magical vibe began pricking the tips of my fingers.  I jerked up immediately and retracted my hand.  Then, when I focused on the face of the stone, I noticed a symbol taking shape, white and glittery, as if being scripted by invisible hands.  I was so engrossed in the building glow of its lines I didn’t see the thorn-covered vine that had darted out from behind the rock until it was a second away from snatching hold of my leg.

Instinctively, I jumped backward and began whacking it with my club—same as I would a garden hoe to a rattlesnake.  Then swiftly, the vine coiled around the shaft of the club as fast as the snap of a spring.  Its grip was so tireless and tenacious I ended up pitching it onto the ground.

A freakish sense of awe swept through me as more and more of the thorn-covered vine crept over the rock, inching a path towards my feet.  A section of it even wrapped around my ball, cupping it like a taunting hand, as if it was daring me to make a grab for it.  So it was sentient—and wicked pissed.

 

 

 

Oh, yeah.  Regardless of the symbol’s actual meaning, this had every bit of B.A.D. written all over it.

I acknowledged Tanner’s approach with a quick and cautious glance, needing to keep an eye on the sinister vine that held the sway of a cobra waiting to strike.  His stare fell to the rock with a sigh of certainty.  “One way or another, trouble just seems to find you.”

Of course, it did.  I was magnet when it came to magic and mayhem.  Where the heck had he been?  “It would seem so,” I said, jumping out of the vine’s path as it thrust itself towards my legs.

Tanner picked up a fallen branch and gave the thorny vine a quick jab.  “That’s devil’s-paw…  It grows in spots where The Veil has been breached along a ley line in the past,” he explained, his voice coarse.  “It’s a souvenir left from the last person who tunneled a hole into The Darklands.”

My eyes fell to the ground, my head twisting all around.  “So there’s a ley line running through here?”

After receiving Tanner’s official nod of confirmation, I stepped out of the vine’s reach and lowered myself to the ground, hands splayed and eager.  A thrum of magic quivered the pads of my fingers as soon as they connected with the earth.  Then I focused on the diamond’s essence, tunneling my powers down into the soil like an outreached hand.  Slowly, a stream of pure Veil magic seeped into my fingers, alive and electric.  The more power I summoned and the deeper I drove my powers into the ground, the stronger the Veil magic grew until it pounded a path into my hands—then up my arms, past my elbows, and straight into my biceps.  My eyes flickered with amazement when I lifted them.  Stretching from my palms to the ground were tiny tentacles of cracking static that burned as hot as a bolt of lightning.

Tanner bent down beside me.  “The dash of earth element your diamond claims lets you channel its energy.”

Fascinated by the magic’s taffy-like pull and cling, I lifted and lowered my hands.  “It feels like lightning,” I muttered.

“It is, in a way,” he replied.  “Just not from the sky.”  I severed my connection with the Veil magic as Tanner rose to his feet.  He approached the rock, pointing to the symbol glistening on its surface.  “And that sigil was meant to serve as both a ward and a warning.  It’s supposed to make it harder for someone to siphon Veil magic from this spot.  Though it can’t stop everyone…  Particularly if the person is skilled enough to get around its spell.”  He shot me a grin.  “Doubly so if they happen to have a charged diamond that can amplify the ley line and channel its magic.”

I automatically grabbed my arms and issued them a rub, fueled by the feeling of phantom hands hacking into my skin.  Great… Yet another reason my stone was such a hot commodity among the evildoers of the world, and why I shouldn’t be so freehanded with them.

“So Kamya used the diamond I gave her when she attempted to send back that creature — along with the spell she tricked out of Oakley?”

A knowing grin smoothed across Tanner’s jaw.  “That goes without saying.”

I kicked the devil’s-paw away with my shoe as it slithered towards me, then knotted a section of it with the help of a pinpointed gust for good measure.  “Can it be destroyed?” I asked while scanning to see if any more of it needed a little pretzeling.

 “Yes.”  Tanner summoned his ring to appear as he knelt towards the ground, his ring that was spelled with Veil magic and worked the same as the holster on my thigh.  “But only with a diamond,” he said, the stone glinting in a narrow slant of sunlight.  He snatched hold of the pesky plant, leaving enough space to make a sharp cut a couple inches above its roots.  The vine erupted into a scratchy “hiss-s-s” that grew angrier the deeper the diamond sliced into it.  Once Tanner had administered the last cut, we watched the vine disintegrate into nothing more than streaks of black ash.

All throughout the time it had taken him to dispose of the magical menace, his response had tolled in my head.  Only with a diamond…  Only with a diamond…  There was so much that “only diamond” was capable of doing and so much responsibility I’d been charged with because of it.  No wonder I was constantly worrying about not wanting to let anyone down.  At the end of all the calamity, chaos, and crap, the buck ultimately stopped with me.  Always.

Tanner rose to his feet, tugging me up alongside him, as if he’d sensed the heaviness of my thoughts and was determined to pull me out of them before they took a somber turn.

And I refused to let them.

With the threat extinguished, I reached down and collected my ball with a spirited snatch.  “Well, I don’t know about you,” I began, the timbre of my tone overly upbeat, “but I think finding something like that counts as a hole-in-one.”

“I was thinking a double penalty is in order — for bringing your bad luck along.”  Tanner crossed his arms, holding them firmly against his chest.  “Today was supposed to be supernatural-free, remember?”

I gave my ball a frivolous toss and inclined my head, feeling a wave of imminent victory.  “Then my day shouldn’t have started out with Lorelei trying to curse me — no thanks to your swim last night.”

His eyes squinted as he appraised me with an unabashed look.  The next thing I knew, Tanner had unfurled his arms and they were swiftly pulling me into him.  “Obviously you have me dead to rights on that one.”

Obviously,” I repeated, my words a whisper breezing over his lips.  After an impromptu intermission of lazy kisses, we emerged from the accursed tract of land, leaving all its doom and gloom behind us.

Hopefully.

So at the end of my first real golf game ever, the princess found herself wishing she were back at the cèilidh, suffering from the embarrassment of that instead of having to endure the rub of Tanner’s cake-walk of a victory.  The sore winner even went so far as to declare himself, The World Champion of Golf, followed by the announcement that he was officially retiring—shutting down any future chances of a rematch.  Such an arrogant declaration, meant solely to get a rise out of me.  And work like a charm it sure did, I realized when a blinding rush of restlessness began churning around me like the maniacal winds of a tornado.  Only in this particular case, they were fueled by my need to redeem myself—instead of random destruction.

Well, maybe a little destruction, I considered quietly, after being handed the scorecard he’d been tallying all along (unbeknownst to me), along with a request that I read it out loud.  Though he did state that the accompaniment of any trumpeting fanfare was strictly optional.  A magnanimous gesture.

“Shooting range — Now,” I snapped, the demand flying out of my mouth faster than a full moon could cough up a werewolf.  I knew they had to have one somewhere around here.  A place like this would consider it as much of a staple as chocolate truffles on pillows and flushing toilets.

“You sure?”  Tanner tipped his head, baiting me with a wince.  “All you’ll find over there are sporting clays.  No aluminum cans lining backyard fences, I’m sorry to say.”

I stared at him, my gaze as taut as my smile.  I’d never been more eager to go all Annie Oakley in my entire life.  Daddy and Samuel would have been proud.  And if Tanner wanted to assume my shooting experience was limited to picking off beer and soda cans from a strip of weathered wood, then that was fine with me.  I had no intentions of bursting his bubble.  Certainly not with the fact that Daddy and Samuel had built their own bottle launcher, so they could practice for quail season.  Just a little something the two hick-masterminds had fabricated six-years ago, after watching a marathon of Pumpkin Chunkin’ specials on TV.  And possibly, one too many beers.  But to their credit, it worked like a champ.  And it proved that one should never underestimate redneck ingenuity whenever air compressors and guns were involved.

“Just point the way,” I said smoothly.

With a wave of his hand we were off, headed straight for the Gleneagles’ Shooting Range & Gun School—the two of us looking like we were late for a pistol showdown at high noon with our mirror image of cool stares, squared shoulders, and determined swaggers.  A tempting thought that I entertained for more seconds than I cared to admit.

While Tanner took care of securing us a guide, I commenced with a stroll around the interior of the shooting range’s clubhouse, which turned out to be every bit as over-the-top elegant as I’d expected.  Built-in floor-to-ceiling wooden cabinets lined with a carmine-colored velvet hugged all the walls like they were holding up the roof, each of them showcasing a small fortune’s worth of shotguns.  I shook my head when I came upon an ornate island of marble and mahogany one would find in only the finest of gourmet kitchens.  Though instead of cabinet doors, its base was comprised of equally spaced cubbies where their boxes of shells sat on display.  Naturally, they were all arranged by their various gauges and loads, taking the same care a woman would bestow upon her prized collection of designer shoes when ordering them by the height of their heels.  A sportsman’s version of a walk-in closet, custom designed by Ralph Lauren—that’s what it was.

Tanner motioned me over to where he stood with our guide—a gentleman by the name of Henry—who gave us a quick but thorough safety chat, followed by a general overview of their sporting clay range.  Apparently, it was set up like a course, comprised of thirteen stands of varying degrees of difficulty.  So it was sort of like golf—but more fun when you factored in the guns.  Now all I needed was for someone to hand me a big bag of them, stocked and numbered like an assortment golf clubs that ranged in calibers from 10, 12, 20, and 28.  And possibly a .410…  Something small enough to fill the role of a putter.  Imagine my disappointment when I found out no bag awaited my hands and I was only allotted one gun.  But Henry promised to put it in their suggestion box.  He seemed to like the idea.

Tanner and I agreed to a single round of one-hundred clays.  So the way I saw it, if I planned on saving face against a guy who was older than gunpowder itself, I had no less than ninety-nine clays to break, give or take.  No pressure.

None w-h-a-t-s-o-e-v-e-r, said the girl who hadn’t fired a shotgun in almost a year.  If anything, this right here would be a true test of faith.  That, or sheer dumb luck.  Either way, picking an accurate gun was high on my priority-list.

While perusing their cases of loaner guns, my eyes turned all star-flecked and swirly the moment they fell upon the sleek Over/Under 12 gauge Holland & Holland.

“That one,” I breathed to Henry.  As soon as the steel and wood beauty landed in my palms, I began sizing up its feel and checking its wear.  First, by running a hand across the smooth plane of its oil-finished walnut stock and then cupping its equally rich-looking forend.  With a couple of cautious squeezes, I took to reorienting myself with my grip, applying about as much gentle pressure to the forend as I would rolling two raw eggs in my hand, careful not to crack them.  Its straight cast and pitch were similar to the one I used back home, the feeling calling to me like accidentally running into an old friend.  My hand eventually found its way to the gun’s ornate action plate, where my fingers traced the delicate scrollwork of acanthus leaves etched into its silver.  From there, I stroked a slow hand up and down its barrels, making sure the steel was fluid and dent-free, my gaze turning dreamier by the second as I became more and more enamored by its sleek perfection.  I even broke it down and swiped a finger inside its chambers just to check for any rough spots.  Admittedly, I liked the glide of a smooth load.

“This’ll do,” I informed Henry, and then turned to find Tanner still standing there, without a gun of his own in-hand, and his eyes suspiciously glittery.

With a subtle clench of my teeth, I held on to my grin and tossed a nod towards the rack.  “Hurry up and grab a rod, so we can get this show on the road.”

Tanner stepped towards me, the air between us rife with enough sparks to send shells exploding like fireworks around the room.  “Actually, I was just standing here thinking the exact same thing.”  Then, without turning his head or the slightest shift of his gaze, he called to Henry, “Second rack… Third from the right…  The Benelli.”

I glanced back to take a gander at the gun.  “Good choice,” I remarked with a tight-eyed smirk.  Then, with my head held high, I strolled over to collect my shells—refusing to let his tease throw off my focus.

Soon, we were following Henry out the door—both of us weighted down with enough ammo to mow down a mob of ravenous zombies.  Upon arriving at our first stand, I insisted that the World Champion of “Little White Balls” go first—seeking to emasculate my second victim of the day.  Of course with Tanner I was only joking…though not so much with respect to the horny teen druid-reindeer.  And just thinking about what that sneaky little bastard had tried to pull made me all the more eager to shoot something.  Like now-fast.

I was watching Tanner load his shells when a lump underneath his shirt slapped me with a realization.  “Whoa,” I blurted, laying a hand on his arm.  “Take off your larimar.”

Tanner flicked his eyes to his shirt, down to the spot where it lay hidden under a layer of polyester and a short trail of buttons.  “Why?”

I huffed a breath—part gasp, part chuckle.  “Because it gives you an advantage — That’s why,” I argued.  “Specifically, your eyesight.  Topazes don’t grant me the luxury of laser-guided vision.  No matter how many I claim.”

Tanner leaned towards me, the confidence in his eyes as blinding as a lighthouse beacon, even through the yellow tint of his safety glasses.  “I. Don’t. Need. It,” he said and then took it off immediately, his gaze never breaking from mine.

I roused an appeased smile and took a triumphant step backward.  You will if I’m behind, and I start blurring your vision with the powers of a topaz.  Shamelessly, I wasn’t above it.

He started to slip the lagoon blue stone into his pocket when I added, “Hold on a sec… Does that larimar still work without a direct connection to your skin?”

Tanner lobbed a disbelieving grin towards the ground as he halted his hand.  “No.”

“Then feel free to tuck it in there,” I said.  “I would hate for you to lose it — Again.”  He paused for a second to slide me a curious look, to which I responded with an innocent smile that was nothing of the sort.  And yeah, I’d said it on purpose, still curious about the details revolving around his supposedly “lost” stone.  The real details.  Something in my gut still screamed that he’d thrown it away, discarded it like he didn’t want it.  Which, in my version, ran neck-and-neck with the vision of a pouty child slam-throwing a ball across a playground.  Though you’d never know he’d forsaken it from the way he was rarely without it now.  So yeah—the whys behind it were a touch intriguing.  So much that I’d tried finding out for myself with the help of Bea’s memories—which, for the record, were mine now and in no way could be considered “snooping”.  More like rummaging through a box of your dearly-departed aunt’s lawfully willed things.  Still, I was pretty sure someone or something in the universe thought I was, since I hadn’t been able to draw out that particular memory.  Though to be fair, not all of them came easy—personal ones being the hardest to ascertain—which I found frustrating as all get-out.

With his shotgun raised and ready, Tanner called for his first set of clays and was shattering the hell out of them not a second later, followed by a quick reload…  Another two shots…  Then another reload and double-fire of his gun…  The only thing more disappointing than seeing him hit every one of his allotted clays was discovering he was a two-eyed shooter.

Like me, I grumbled.  At least until it dawned on me that I could up the scope of mine to a sneaky three if needed.  Something I planned on keeping just as hush-hush as my fallen mentor would have.  And right up until the moment he called me out on it, I was chalking it up as an un-checked advantage.  An extra stipulation he should have stated back at the gun school, the second after he’d made me promise not to summon the first gust of wind.

Now that I had good feel for the direction and rise of the targets, I picked up my gun, broke the chamber, and loaded my shells.  Left foot first, I stepped into my stance like a prize-fighter ready to throw a punch and then raised the gun.  Countless memories of my father flashed through my head when I anchored the stock to my right cheek.  A hush fell around me as I slipped into that zone of supreme and unwavering focus Daddy had impressed upon me over the years.  Shooting in our backyard had been his sanctuary—a place where he was in control and could let loose of all his worries.  A person could try pounding out their aggravations on every pillow in the house until their arms noodled into exhaustion and they were blue in the face and not lighten their load one bit.  And I was all too familiar with that supposed coping strategy as of late.  But putting them into a single shell and then ridding them with a mere twitch of your finger…  The surge of adrenaline that came from feeling like you’ve beaten them when you hit your mark…  Knowing you only had so many shells at your disposal and making every one of them count…  That was the accomplished feeling I craved—dusting off my troubles by way of blasting them straight to hell.

I called for my first pull.  At the sound of its launch, I immediately set my sights strongly ahead of my first clay.  And when that familiar cry fired from my gut like an old-but-not-forgotten-song, I pulled back on the trigger.  Hearing that sweet “crack” in the sky had me swinging my barrel to the left, my sights tracking the other whirling disc.  And when that feeling called for me to pop the trigger again, fragments of clay exploded into a puff of smoke worthy of a magician.  My heart broke out into a steady pound of applause as it beat inside my chest.  I had seriously forgotten how good that felt.

I opened the chamber, shucked my casings, and rolled two fresh shells into the chamber.  At the sound of my barrel locking, I called off my next release, my smile inching wider with every clay I shattered.  The air boomed to the tune of Pull—Pow—Pull—Pow—Click, Click like the mounting cadence of a battle hymn.  And when the clatter had finally come to an end, all six of my clays lay atop the field like a mess of neon-orange confetti and our score was safely tied.

I placed my shotgun down on the ledge in front of me, lowered the ear muffs to my neck, and then turned to Tanner grinning like a Cheshire cat with a feather hanging out of its mouth.  “Just like ridin’ a bike.”

Our guide bounced an assessing look between us.  “Seems like the two of you are perfectly matched,” Henry remarked.

No matter how much I wanted to crack a smile, I stood there, unflinching, the same as Tanner, both of us keeping a tight hold on the vainglorious stares we were boring into each other’s heads.  And even though I knew Henry was referring to our shooting skills, I chose to broaden his assessment.

I should have known Stand #1 was their version of training-wheels because from the moment I raised my gun at Stand #2, circles of baked clays whizzed from all directions like a charm of hummingbirds hopped up on crack-laced nectar.  Left to right…  Towards and away…  Crisscrossing clays…  Ones that jumped, others that curled…  Some tracking fast, some floating deceptively slow…  Though the worst were the ones at Station #11.  No longer were the clays the identifiable color of bright orange they’d been, but rather a light shade of wheat that gave them the edge of blending into the background of grasses as they clung low to the ground.   So I missed my first pair.  And I knew what had kicked-up my determination not to miss any more of them, which had nothing to do with my score or beating Tanner.  It was how they reminded me of that mimic-creature and the way it could camouflage itself so cleverly.  So with motivation like that, the rest of those little bastards all got the birdshot burials they rightfully deserved.

Once the last trail of smoke had rolled off the barrel of my gun and our match had come to an end, our scores were tied at 93.  And since neither of us was content with calling it a draw, we turned to Henry and asked him to make the final ruling based on the skills we’d displayed.  And when he inquired as to how many years of experience each of us had under our belts, Tanner willingly conceded defeat—not wanting to admit he had several centuries to his credit and by all rights, should have beaten the little girl, hands down.

And to prove I was a better winner than he was, I didn’t rub a bit of my victory in his face.  Though you could sure bet that if I’d beaten him outright—even by one measly shot, instead of a technicality—he wouldn’t be able to stand me right now.  And I had to give him credit.  He seemed to be taking the loss in good stride.  Or so I’d thought, until I noticed the route Tanner had chosen was different from the way we’d come.  Then, not five seconds later, his ulterior motive behind our present course came to light when I spotted a sign that directed hotel guests towards their archery range.  And before the words “tie-breaker” could even cross his lips, I’d already thrown up a hand and announced, “Only if I can bring my shotgun.”