Magic Strikes Chapter 28

IT WAS LATE. I SAT IN THE HOT TUB, SUNKEN DEEP in a windowless room. Moisture beaded on the ceiling and weak electric lamps provided hazy illumination. The jets didn't work with or without magic.

My whole body ached. My side, my arms, my back. The golem had dished out a lot of punishment.

I contemplated emerging from the hot tub. My feet were wrinkled and I was really warm. But that would mean going back into the bedroom. We had made it to the championship fight and the Red Guards kept a very tight watch on us now. The only way out of our rooms was through a first-class interrogation and with a huge escort. Even now, as I sat here, a couple of Red Guards lingered outside the door.

A pale, sweaty Corona bottle invaded my field of vision. It was clamped in a hand attached to a muscular arm with pale blond hair.

"Peace offering," Curran said.

Did I hear him come in? No.

I took the beer. He paused on the other side of the tub. He was wearing a white gym towel.

"I'm about to take the towel off and hop in," he said. "Fair warning."

There are times in life when shrugging takes nearly all of your will. "I've seen you naked."

"Didn't want you to run away screaming or anything."

"You flatter yourself."

He took the towel off.

I hadn't exactly forgotten what he looked like without clothes. I just didn't remember it being quite so tempting. He was built with survival in mind: strong but flexible, defined but hardly slender. You could bounce a quarter from his abs.

Curran stepped into the tub. He was obviously in no hurry.

It was like walking on a high bridge: don't look down. Definitely not below his waist . . . Oh my.

He sank into the hot water near me. I remembered to breathe. "How's your back?"

"It's fine," he said. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it." It had to be sore.

"Does your side hurt?"


His smile told me he knew we were both full of it.

I drank a bit of my beer, barely tasting it. Having him at the other end of the hot tub was like standing face-to-face with a hungry tiger with no fence between us. Or rather a hungry lion with very large teeth.

"Are you going to sack Jim?" I tried to sound casual.

"No," the lion said.

Exhaling in relief was completely out of the question - he'd hear it.

Curran stretched, spreading the breadth of his massive shoulders against the tub wall. "I concede that if I was paying attention, I would have nipped this in the bud. It never should have gotten to this point."

"How so?"

"Jim took over security eight months before the Red Stalker appeared. The upir was his first big test. He blew it. We all did. Then there was Bran. Bran stole the surveys three times, waltzed in and out of the Keep, attacked you while you were in our custody, and took out a survey crew, Jim included. Jim considers it a personal failure."

"The guy teleported. How the hell are you supposed to guard against someone who pops in and out of existence?"

Curran shifted along the tub wall, sinking a little deeper into the water. "Had I known how hard Jim took it, I would've pointed it out to him. You remember when he tried to use you as bait?"

"I remember wanting to punch him in the mouth."

"It was the first sign of trouble. His priorities had shifted to 'win at any cost.' I thought it was odd at the time, but crazy shit kept happening and I let it slip. He became paranoid. All security chiefs are paranoid, but Jim took it further than most. He began to obsess with preventing future threats, and when Derek screwed up and got his face bashed in, it pushed Jim over the edge. He couldn't handle being responsible for Derek's death and for my having to kill the kid. He had to fix it at any cost. Basically, there was a problem and I missed it. And he sure as hell didn't bring it up."

Dear Beast Lord, as your chief of security, I must warn you that I have deep-seated inadequacy issues . . . Yeah, hell would sprout roses first.

"I can't keep up with everyone all the time," Curran said. "And Jim's the one who never went nuts on me. It was his time, I guess. So to answer your question fully, there's no reason to demote him. He has a talent for his job and he's doing reasonably well considering what he's up against. If I sack him, I'll have to replace him with somebody who has less experience and will screw up more. This is a lesson. Three months of dragging giant rocks around will help him get the stress out of his system."

We sat quietly. I sipped my beer, feeling a bit fuzzy. Funny how six months sober had turned me into a lightweight. Curran rested the back of his head on the edge of the hot tub and closed his eyes. I stared at the way his face looked, etched against the darkness of the wall. He really was a handsome bastard. Poised like this, he seemed very human. Nobody to impress.

Nobody to command. Just him, in the hot water, tired, hurting, stealing a few precious moments of rest, and so irresistibly erotic. Well, that last one came out of nowhere. It was the beer. Had to be.

Despite all his growling and threats, his arrogance, I liked being next to him. He made me feel safe. It was a bizarre emotion. I was never safe.

I closed my eyes. That seemed like the only reasonable way out of the situation. If I couldn't see him, I couldn't drool over him.

"So you didn't want to see me hurt?" he said. His voice was deceptively smooth and soft, the deep, throaty, sly purr of a giant cat who wanted something. Admitting that I took his well-being into consideration might have been a fatal mistake.

"I didn't want you to have to kill Derek."

"And if he had gone loup?"

"I would have taken care of it."

"How exactly were you planning on pushing Jim aside? He was the highest alpha. The duty was his."

"I pulled rank," I told him. "I declared that since you had accepted the Order's assistance, I outranked everybody."

He laughed. "And they believed you?"

"Yep. I also glared menacingly for added effect. Unfortunately, I can't make my eyes glow the way yours do."

"Like this?" He breathed in my ear.

My eyes snapped open. He stood inches away, anchored on the tub floor, his arms leaning on the tub wall on each side of me. His eyes were molten gold, but it wasn't the hard, lethal glow of an alpha stare. This gold was warm and enticing, touched with a hint of longing.

"Don't make me break this bottle over your head," I whispered.

"You won't." He grinned. "You don't want to see me hurt."

We lunged for each other at the same time and collided, crazy with need and starving for a taste. Warnings and alarms wailed in my mind, but I shut them down. Screw it. I wanted him.

He found my mouth. The thrust of his tongue against mine made my head spin. He tasted like heaven. I kissed him back, nipping, licking, melting against him. It felt so good . . . His lips traced a fiery line from my mouth to the corner of my jaw and down my neck. My whole body sang in warm liquid triumph. His voice was a ragged whisper in my ear. "Only if you want to . . . Say no, and I'll stop."

"No," I whispered to see if he would do it.

Curran pulled back. His eyes were pure need, raw and barely under control. He swallowed.


It was the most erotic thing I had ever seen. I reached for him and slid my hand up his chest, feeling the taut muscle.

He caught my hand and kissed my palm gently. Heated, tightly controlled want shone in his eyes. I pulled my fingers free, pushed from the wall, and kissed his throat just under the jaw.

This was bliss. There was no hope for me.

He growled, closing his eyes. "What are you doing?"

"Pulling on Death's whiskers," I murmured, letting my tongue play over his skin, rough with stubble. He smelled divine, clean and male. My hands slid up his biceps. His muscles tensed under the light pressure of my fingers. He was trying very, very hard to stand still and I almost laughed. All those times when he'd called me "baby" . . . Revenge was sweet.

"Is that a yes or a no?" he asked.

I slid against him and nipped his bottom lip.

"I'll take it as a yes." The steel muscles of his arms flexed under my hands. He grabbed me, hoisted me up onto him, and kissed me, thrusting into my mouth with his tongue in a hot, slick rhythm, greedy and eager. I threw my arms around his neck. His right hand grasped my hair; his left cupped my butt and pushed me closer against him, his erection a hard, hot length across my lap.

Finally -

"Let me in," Derek growled at the door.

Go away.

The guard said something. Curran's hand found my breast and caressed the nipple, sending an electric shock through my skin, threatening to melt me . . .

"Yes," Derek snarled. "I'm a member of the damn team. Ask them."

"Curran," I whispered. "Curran!"

He snarled and kept going. The door swung open.

I hit him on the back of the neck. He submerged. Help. I've drowned the Beast Lord.

Derek strode to the edge of the tub. Curran surfaced at the other wall. His face wore a snarl.

"What is it?"

"The Reaper woman brought another box. This one had a hand in it. Not Livie's, doesn't smell like her, but a woman's hand. Smells about two days old, maybe more. They must've iced it."

I closed my eyes and let the reality sink in. Somewhere a woman was missing a hand. Her body was probably eaten. Revulsion squirmed through me, followed by indignant rage.

"Turn the hand over to the Red Guard. There's nothing we can do about it until tomorrow,"

Curran said.

Derek left.

Curran watched me from the other end of the tub, the water separating us like a battlefield.

His eyes were still glowing like molten honey backlit from within. I had to get a grip. To him it was a contest of wills. He said he'd have me, I said he wouldn't, and he wanted to win at any cost.

"You missed your chance. I'm not coming anywhere near you, so you might as well turn your headlights off."

He moved toward me.

"No." I'd sunk a lot of steel into that "no." He stopped.

"You wanted me," he said.

Lying would only give him greater satisfaction. I had to keep him on the other end of the tub or I would throw myself at him again. "Yes, I did."

"What happened?"

"I remembered who I am and who you are."

"And who am I? Enlighten me."

"You're the man who likes to play games and hates losing. And I'm the idiot who keeps forgetting that. Turn around, so I can get out, please." And he almost had me, too.

He sprawled against the tub wall in a leisurely fashion, showing absolutely no indication of moving.

"Fine." Let's get this over with. I crouched on the bench and rose quickly. The water came to my midthigh.

A rough noise emanated from him. It sounded almost like a groan.

I climbed out of the tub, grabbed my towel, wrapped it around myself, and left. No more tubs for me. Not for a long, long time.

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