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Welcome to smalltown Beckwell. A world where myths hold some grain of truth, magic is real, and four women will rise to take their place within the dynasty of the four horsemen. In this town, when the apocalypse is nigh, it probably means a party. You should come - there’ll be marshmallows!
Spreading disease isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Piper Bane wants nothing to do with her pesky Pestilence bloodline and would give anything to be a Normal. In fact, she put Beckwell--land of the paranormal and home of the weird--in her rear-view ten years ago, and hasn't been back since. Until an invitation to her best friend’s wedding coaxes her back home and reminds her what it means to continue the legacy of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. She receives a typical Beckwell welcome the second she reaches the city limits where she's stalked by a toad and wraps her car around a tree. And is rescued by the one person she most wants to avoid: Daniel Quilan. Town doctor, genuine nice guy, and her ex-fiancé.
Ten years hasn’t been long enough for Daniel Quilan to forget the only woman he’s ever loved. His responsibilities as Beckwell's only doctor keeps his mind off the hole Piper Bane left in his chest when she broke his heart and skipped town all those years ago. His not-so-ordinary patients and his trouble-making twin brother keep Daniel occupied twenty-four-seven, not to mention magic going haywire throughout town. But his plan to stay busy as the town's golden boy is shattered when his latest patient turns out to be Piper. How good she looks isn't his concern. How she still makes fire shoot through his veins isn't his focus. But the fact that someone wants to end the world and will use Piper to do so......that makes her impossible to ignore.
MUST LOVE PLAGUE
A SISTERS OF THE APOCALYPSE NOVEL
Shelly C. Chalmers
Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek At What’s Next
About the Author
Copyright © 2017 by Shelly Chalmers
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, things, locales, or events is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Paper & Sage Designs
This book is for all the stubborn dreamers. Never give up. Don’t keep waiting for someone to give you a HEA – make one for yourself. I know you can do it.
Thank you to my 2014 Dreamweaver sisters, without whom this book probably wouldn’t exist. Your experience, knowledge, and support helps keep me writing. You are all an inspiration.
A big thanks to my editor, Tera Cuskaden, for helping me shape this book into something worth reading - all errors are definitely my own. Thank you to Christa Holland with Paper & Sage for the beautiful cover and your artistic vision.
This book was very loosely inspired by the wonderful small town I live near—which is so much more beautiful, welcoming, and charming than I could hope for. All the bad things about Beckwell are strictly a work of my imagination. Thank you for being a place I’m proud to raise my children.
To my critique partner extraordinaire, Shelly Alexander: you continue to help me become a better writer through your wisdom, patience, and sense of humor. Thank you for answering my many questions, putting up with me...and for going through all the incarnations this book has experienced.
To my dearest friend, Neelam: thank you for being my number one fan for years...and for never letting me get away with anything but my best. You make me a better writer, and a better person.
Thanks to my family and my friends for your love and support. Thanks to my parents for always believing in me, and my kids for being cool with cereal for dinner. You have all been incredibly supportive, and you keep me going. And if you want to skip a few scenes or chapters (you know the ones I mean), I’m totally cool with that. ;)
Last, but never least, thank you to my husband: for your support, your love, and the many times you’ve not only talked me out of quitting, but in to reaching for my own success. I couldn’t do this without you, and nor would I want to. You and the girls make me strong enough to reach for my dreams. You are my very own happily ever after.
Normal was highly underrated. Especially if your entire childhood had been as distinctly paranormal as Piper Bane’s. It wasn’t as though a kindergartner enjoyed the scrutiny, the whispers about how she might end the world.
Piper tightened damp hands on the steering wheel of her rental SUV. The dark shadowy blotch of the town sign would be visible soon, welcoming her home to Beckwell, Alberta.
Rock music pulsed through the speakers, at odds with the idyllic old clapboard homestead on the right. Slate October skies roiled uneasily and brightened the soaring yellow and orange stands of trees that segregated acres of rolling fields. This late in the season, the fields all had a military brush cut, hedged in on all sides by barbed wire.
Piper swallowed her nausea. She could do this. She might have to toss her cookies first, but she could come home for her best friend’s wedding this weekend, and get out, never to return. Never to have anything to do with all the expectations, the weirdness associated with her hometown.
The SUV whizzed past the green sign marking the closest neighboring town of Buttercreek. Piper swallowed. Maybe ten minutes out now. Beckwell wasn’t on any maps, to protect all of the paranormal folks who lived there…and to protect any Normals from accidentally ending up there. Lucky buggers.
Oh, Ginny. Why couldn’t you have gotten married somewhere—anywhere—else? Antarctica is nice this time of year, isn’t it?
She blew out an unsteady breath. Coming home had seemed less insane six thousand kilometers ago, back in that lonely hotel room in Edinburgh. There was only so long you could live out of a suitcase before the hotel rooms all started to look the same, one town blurring with the next.
The tree-lined highway and the fields looked unchanged in the ten years since she’d stepped foot in Beckwell. Ten years since she’d seen the place where she grew up, where her three closest friends still lived. Ten years since Piper Bane, Pestilence clan, had anything to do with the world she’d been born into. A world where myths held some grain of truth, magic was real, her family was part of the horsemen dynasty, and unicorns could fly. Okay, that last part wasn’t true and probably wishful thinking, but the rest?
Yep, she was related to those four horsemen of the apocalypse: Death, War, Famine, and Pestilence. Who, when they weren’t off causing disaster, had apparently gotten it on with every surviving female they met, creating clans that were now large and spread worldwide. Kind of like royal family lines, where some members were rich and powerful—in both human and non-human ways. The more powerful stood the best chance of becoming the true embodiment of their clan, to ride into the apocalypse as a true horseman and carry forth destruction.
The radio station turned to static. Piper shuddered. Definitely getting close now. She pushed the button and shut the static off, leaving only the collected ghosts of memory filling the car. Her stomach hardened.
What a nightmare. She’d held out hope that someone else would gain the powers of Pestilence, because when they did, they absorbed all the powers of their clan. Poof. Piper would finally be normal. You know…for that little while before the world ended. But she’d be normal. Life would be easier if she were normal. Average. Those people got to fall in love, have kids, have happy lives.
So far, though, no one had taken a ride on that damned horse, which left her in limbo.
Even with a tiny amount of ability—her family was more along the trailer-park trash level of the Pestilence family tree—she was still like asbestos. The longer you were around her, the more likely you were to get sick. And she’d sworn ten years ago she would never make anyone sick, ever again.
She tucked her pale hair behind an ear, a faint tremble in her fingertips and a small frown tightening her lips. Living out of a suitcase wasn’t so bad. No, she could never spend more than a month in any one place. But unless she wanted to settle in a paranormal sanctuary like Beckwell, where people knew what the name “Bane” connoted, it was the closest to normal she could get.
Even if it was sometimes a bit lonely.
She fiddled with the radio controls on the steering wheel. Even cowboy music would be better than the silence, but there was only static, like jeers and hisses. In Beckwell, mystical powers ran through the ancient bloodlines of all the residents, and the nastier the family tree, the better. Having horns or being the descendant of some mythic creature no one ever liked was a good thing. Part of the town had always wanted her to be a full-fledged horsemen, willing to spread disease with a touch of a fingertip. Seriously, who wanted the powers of Pestilence anyway? Spreading disease and plague wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Yet, the other part of the town—the ones with families and a somewhat-normal existence—they’d feared her and her friends from the start. If only they’d known Piper didn’t want an apocalypse any more than they did.
She gave up on the radio, tried to relax the tightness in her neck.
Here she was. Less than eight minutes out from Beckwell. Gulp.
Ten years ago, she’d left here running. Heartbroken after she’d ended her engagement to the only man she’d ever loved with every cell of her being. Daniel Quilan.
Believing she was over him was a lot easier with both time and distance between them.
The wooden town sign hunkered in the shade of gold and yellow poplar trees and hazelnut bushes, like a gloomy shadow. Someone repainted it every year, but somehow it reverted back to peeling and foreboding. Too far away to read, she knew it said “Beckwell” in white. Her stomach churned. Could she really handle a few days with her family, possibly seeing Daniel, all the mess that was Beckwell?
Piper’s foot lifted slightly from the gas pedal.
Just beyond the sign and to the left squatted the huge Cow Palace barn, a faded fuchsia glory in the middle of the town agricultural grounds, stacks of bleachers pushed together in the off-season. To the right was Sal’s Autobody. Rows of cars gleamed through the surrounding brush.
What wasn’t visible was the town barrier that made Beckwell the sanctuary it was and protected those with latent magic in their blood. It also protected the outside world from those magicals, and all the things normal people didn’t really want to know about. The barrier sensed ability in the blood, and made Normals feel like pissing themselves. So far, worked like a charm. It usually killed their cars before they could pass through, leaving plenty of business for Sal to tow away.
Piper scrunched down in the seat and tried to imagine exactly where the border was. It creeped her out. Always had, always would. How was it not creepy—magic touching her all over, reading her blood?
Secretly, she’d always wondered if one of these days it would figure out she’d never really belonged in Beckwell, and wouldn’t let her in.
After all her travels, she’d started to wonder if there was anywhere she did belong.
She sucked in a shuddering breath that didn’t quell the nausea. The girls were waiting for her at the bar, and—glancing at the dash clock—she was already late. Ginny was her best friend. She couldn’t skip her best friend’s wedding. Besides, if she didn’t make peace with Beckwell and her past, she’d always keep looking over her shoulder, waiting for it to catch up.
Piper hit the gas. The quicker she got through the barrier, the better.
The SUV chewed up pavement. The Beckwell sign grew larger.
The engine sputtered and went silent. The dash lights went black. Piper pumped the gas, then tried to move her foot to the brake. The spike of her kitten heel stuck in the floor mat. The wheel wouldn’t turn.
She whimpered, frozen wheel clenched between her fingers, unable to look away from the rapidly approaching sign.
A large, fat toad plopped onto her windshield. Piper flinched. It turned and met her gaze, eyes huge and black, before giving an annoyed croak that sent a chill down her back.
Icy pinpricks settled over her skin. The air thickened around her, smothering her in sticky coldness like she’d been doused in wet cement. All she and the toad could do was watch the Beckwell sign and the huge old tree grow ever closer until the crunch of impact.
Someone in town was planning an apocalypse. And where there was mischief, even the world-ending kind, five-to-one odds said his twin brother was in on it.
Daniel combed his fingers through his dark hair and rolled broad shoulders, weighed down after a long day of medical calls. His old truck grumbled along the road toward downtown Beckwell. The asphalt cut through thick boreal forest that concealed most of Beckwell’s small population on farms and acreages that spread out from the town center like a disjointed spider web. “Downtown Beckwell” itself was a misnomer, seeing as it consisted of the four-way stop and small assortment of businesses clustered around it. Beckwell was many things, but big it was not. You’d miss it if you blinked. There wasn’t even a traffic light to slow you down.
He still had to stop by the Senior Center and finish some paperwork. It’d been the only place in town with facilities to set up his practice and office. This last call had been out to the Ares place for chest pains. Lucky for Old Man Ares it’d been nothing more than a second helping of Mrs. Ares’s extra-spicy chili. But at least they’d called him. He’d been practicing medicine in Beckwell going on four years, but only recently had people to adjusted to the idea of asking a Fomorian for help. Usually after an encounter with a Fomorian, you needed help. Maybe even traction, or a visit to Intensive Care.
Gods, but he’d rather have been any other species. Anything other than like Dad. The bullies of the paranormal world, Fomorians were hard-living warriors with a knack for chaos, drinking and fighting. Large and muscular, sometimes even with wings, horns or tails, Dad always used to say they were made for the three “Fs”: fighting, fury, and fornicating—though Dad preferred a different “F” word.
Fortunately, Daniel was the family black sheep. He’d gone into medicine. Helped people. Healed people. Did everything to prove that just because he had Dad’s Fomorian genes, it didn’t mean he had to turn out the same.
His brother, Mal, on the other hand, had always made the family proud.
Daniel’s truck rumbled toward the stop sign. Sheila Dryad was filling up at the gas station to his right, shouting at two of her satyr sons chasing each other around the car on hooved feet, while her daughter slouched in the backseat of the minivan. Beautiful but harried, Sheila waved when she saw Daniel. A nymph happily married to a satyr, her family was one of many in Beckwell by necessity.
Unlike some of the other creatures who could blend into human society, Beckwell residents like the Dryads couldn’t live elsewhere. They couldn’t blend. Even if they wanted to. Beckwell was their haven, one of a few magical sanctuaries in this part of the world, and be darned if Daniel would let anyone—including his brother—take that away from them. He might only be the town doctor, but for better or for worse, this was his home and these were his people.
Sheila shouted at the boys again as a slick BMW pulled into the parking lot and stopped beside the bar next door. Ginny Lack climbed out from the driver’s seat, her copper hair glinting in the afternoon sun. She didn’t notice Daniel. Maybe she was distracted by her upcoming wedding. Instead, her cheeks flushed, arms waving, she spoke animatedly to her passenger.
Diminutive and black-clad Nia Amort stepped out from the other side of the car, and the two women entered the bar. Once, the two women had been his friends. Once, he would have rolled down the window and called hello. Maybe joined them for a beer. Congratulated Ginny in person on her engagement.
Not since Piper Bane had left, taking his heart with her. But, despite his estrangement from Ginny and the other women, he’d still been invited to the wedding along with everyone else in town, and Ginny had sent a hand-written invite to the engagement party. And as of now, he hadn’t come up with a viable excuse not to go. To avoid seeing Piper in the flesh.
The image of clear amber eyes and hair so blonde it was almost white flashed through his mind. The woman’s hair blew across her face as her coral pink lips turned up in a seductive smile.
He shook the image out of his head and pulled up to the four-way stop. Blinked. Then leaned forward over the wheel. Was that his brother walking down the highway up ahead?
A faded 1965 custom Dodge silver convertible rolled into the grocery/gas station/bar parking lot to his right and honked, breaking his focus. The iron-haired lady who climbed out from behind the wheel was Ms. Boniface. School principal, she also seemed to feel it was her duty to direct the goings-on in town, too. She signaled for Daniel to roll down his window, approaching his truck.
He pasted on his best don’t-make-the-lady-mad smile and cranked down the window. “Good afternoon, Ms. Boniface.”
“Daniel. Any word yet when we can expect your brother to actually start performing the duties he was hired for? It’s been six months. And I haven’t seen one instance of Malcolm performing any policing duties. Instead, he seems content to get in drunken brawls with those cousins of yours and anyone else who happens to get in his way.”
Daniel rubbed the back of his neck and felt the beginnings of a headache. “I’m sorry to hear that, Ms. Boniface,” he said wearily. As though he wasn’t more than aware of what Mal had been up to. The drinking and fighting were some of the less concerning behaviors. “I’ll talk to him.” Again. Because the first five times had been so productive.
He’d convinced the town council to hire his brother as the sole peace officer. The position had been vacant four years now. It’d seemed like a good idea at the time: give Mal purpose again, and a reason to stay in Beckwell. And out of trouble.
Hadn’t worked out so well.
“Well. See that you do. With the Lack wedding on Saturday, there will be visitors from out of town who might bring who knows what trouble. Never mind the inevitable drunkenness and shenanigans that typically accompany events of this nature.”
Trust Ms. Boniface to see a wedding as a disruption.
“Yes, ma’am. And until then, you can depend on me to help out in my brother’s place.” Because there was always plenty of spare time for policing while also running the town’s sole medical practice. He needed to find some kind of twelve-step-program to learn to stop volunteering.
“Excellent. There’s a town council meeting tomorrow.” She turned to stride back to her car in the parking lot, then turned back with a frown. “And please, could you secure that sign pointing out the Lack residence? I understand the fiancé still hasn’t arrived, and we don’t need him or any out-of-towners wandering willy-nilly all over the place.” She offered a tight smile and marched off toward the bar, Lou’s Place, without even waiting for an answer.
Daniel glanced at the signpost to his left and reluctantly noted that the arrow for Ginny’s wedding did indeed look loose. For Ginny, he pulled over, and went around back to rummage in his toolbox for a hammer and a couple of nails before he headed for the post.
Said signpost was a big old clunker that pointed out all of Beckwell’s chief attractions with crooked arrows. Like the library and school. The emergency station off to his right. The Cow Palace and agricultural grounds farther down the highway.
And one crooked, faded arrow labeled “Loki.” Seeing as Loki, the reclusive town founder, was not standing at the end of the arrow, Daniel assumed it pointed in the direction of Loki’s residence. The only person Daniel knew with the cajones—and gall—to follow the sign was his brother, Mal. He’d never told Daniel what he found on the other end.
Thinking of Mal brought Daniel’s brows together, and he gently pried the foam-core arrow reading “Lack-Derth Wedding” off the post and held it as high as he could before stabbing it with a nail. One advantage to being Fomorian was nearly six and a half feet in height.
If only Mal didn’t have to relish all the other parts about being Fomorian. Not the wings and horns—none of those, thank gods, but all the rest.
Daniel missed the nail and almost hit his thumb.
Mal hadn’t been the same since he’d left the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Which was why the policing job here in town had seemed like a good idea. Give him focus again. Mal had always had a natural affinity for the dark—and his dark side—but he’d become even more self-destructive and reckless. When he was around, bad things were more likely to happen. Even if he hadn’t initiated the trouble.
Daniel hit the nail too hard and it bent. He grumbled and set about straightening it enough to hang the darned sign.
He didn’t have Mal’s charisma or fondness for mischief. At best, he was like a super-charged lucky rabbit’s foot. And he was strong—never a sick day since grade two, and that had been to stay home and take care of Mom.
But, he was the oldest by two minutes, which made it his responsibility to look out for Mal.
He pounded the nail flat and headed back to the truck. Either it was a Fomorian thing or a twin thing, but he and Mal also shared strong emotions through a mental link. And Mal had been feeling disturbingly pleased with himself these past few days, in a darkly cynical fashion.
Which probably meant he was getting into trouble. Possibly involved with this latest Beckwellian plot to start the apocalypse.
He put the truck in Drive. Beckwell was a town of outsiders and rebels. The gods and more powerful beings had ignored and taunted their unpopular Beckwell-cousins too often, which led to a surplus of apocalypse plots. This time was more dangerous because the plot was rumored to involve the horsewomen. With Piper headed to Beckwell for the wedding, that meant all four of them were back in town.
If those four friends decided to end the world, there wasn’t an earthly force that could stop them. Ten years ago, he never would have believed Piper or her three friends would consider using that deadly power. But a lot changed in ten years. People changed.
Light glinted off a car ahead on the highway. His gaze snapped up in time to see a silver SUV speed down the highway ahead and plunge into the trees.
Daniel hit the gas and made the old blue pickup grumble and rattle in protest. With the faded fuchsia Cow Palace barn to his right, he jerked the truck into Park, grabbed his med bag from the passenger seat, and jumped out, leaving the door open.
The barrier caught the occasional tourist every now and then. Usually it just killed the car. Sometimes, it killed the tourist.
Hopefully someone at emergency response had seen the crash, too, but they were mostly volunteer and he couldn’t slow now. He was the best emergency medical care available to the driver out here.
Steam rose from the SUV’s crumpled hood where it had bent around a large poplar tree, and somehow, miraculously, missed the Beckwell town sign. The engine was quiet, no visible spills, and the smell of gasoline was faint. The white billow of the air bag filled the driver’s seat and began to deflate as he ran up to the car.
He had to put his shoulder into it, but the door opened with a groan, just in time for the airbag to settle around the driver like a perverted stage curtain. The sight of that pale blonde hair, the petite body, hit him like a two-by-four to the gut.
There she lay. Peaceful and beautiful. Still as death.
His hand clenched on the doorframe for a millisecond before he jerked back to action and checked for a pulse. It was hell to try and ignore her silken skin and focus on being a doctor, not just a man. He closed his eyes a moment and bowed his head a moment when he found a pulse.
Forcing his eyes open, he gently felt her neck for potential damage. His fingers shook as silky strands of hair slid over his hand.
“Piper, can you hear me? You’ve been in an accident. I’m here to help,” he said loudly, firmly. His throat thickened. “It’s Daniel.”
Her pulse was steady. She was breathing well. It didn’t look like she was bleeding. Heck, she had only a light dusting of powder from the airbag and it didn’t look like it had even broken her nose. Sleeping Beauty, waiting for her Prince’s kiss.
A large brown toad croaked at him before it hopped off the hood and disappeared into the underbrush.
Piper frowned and groaned. Her pale eyelashes tinted dark with mascara fluttered open. Her gaze zeroed in on him, and she licked her lips.
An electrical jolt of awareness shook through Daniel as their gazes met, those amber eyes just as he remembered them. Decades melted away, and he was staring down into her eyes as he rose above her body, her lips parting when she came.
Confusion filled that amber gaze now, coupled with wariness and recognition. She lifted a hand to her plump, moist lips before she slid it down the slim, pale length of her throat. Toward the low cut of her blouse, the silk artfully folding over her breasts. He tried to shake off his distraction, pushing himself through a medical checklist. Pupils even. No visible lumps or swelling. No blood. No liquid discharge from the ears.
Eyes gold like an angel’s. Hair against his fingers like silken threads. Skin still smooth and lush.
“Did you…” Her voice cracked. She licked dry lips and tried again. “Did you see the toad?” Her voice was still simultaneously husky and sweet.
Yeah, and she’d just been in a car accident. He gently took her chin in his hand and checked her pupils again. Still even. “I saw it. Do you feel any pain or pressure anywhere? Can you wiggle your fingers and toes?”
Ignoring him, she raised a hand to her temple and rubbed her forehead, fingers trembling. “That stupid barrier killed my car and sent me into a tree.” She dropped her hand and surveyed the car before she made a face. “Argh. I’m going to owe the rental company some cash. Just what I needed.”
She started to turn her head. What if he’d missed an injury? Where the heck was emergency response?
She waved him off. “I’m fine. See? My head didn’t fall off.” She pressed the release on her seatbelt and turned toward him. Then held up her hands and waggled all ten fingers. Not a one of them had a ring. “Nothing hurts other than my rental agreement and bank account.” She sighed. “Do you think I could sue Beckwell for damages? It’s their barrier.”
“Uh…no?” Yep, definitely a genius response. Daniel straightened and tried to ignore her familiar scent, but the fragrance of lilacs, summer thunderstorms, and hot, damp nights, curled around him, made him want to forget ten years had passed. Forget she’d dumped him in a move that would have hurt less if she’d dug out his heart with a plastic spoon.
He switched to his “I’m the doctor and I know what’s best” voice. “Piper, you’ve been in a serious accident. We should get you to the Senior Center, maybe even to the city, to get you checked out.”
“I’m fine, really. And I just got here. I’m not going all the way back to the city.” She rolled her eyes, leaned over to grab a purse from the passenger seat before she straightened and tried to push him aside.
Her hand paused against his chest, fingers tangling in his shirt. She flushed and her gaze snapped to his.
He stood as immobile as the tree she’d hit, which had fared better than the SUV. “Piper, you could be more seriously injured than you know.” His voice was thick and rough. And other parts of his anatomy were responding the same way. He tried to clear his throat, remember he was a doctor and she was in his care. “You could be in shock and not feeling the pain. You just hit a tree—”
She swung her legs around and slid out of the car. Which, unfortunately, meant she slid against him. Every inch of her petite frame aligned with his. His every nerve-ending went on high alert. She stared up at him, her fingers clenching the front of his shirt. Her lips parted. Delicious, lush lips. Her mouth was the perfect height for his if she came up on tiptoe and he bent over her.
He was keenly aware of how thin her skinny jeans were. Her warm thighs pressed against him, still slim, but rounder with maturity. Her breasts thrust against his chest, her silk blouse providing little barrier to the soft warmth against him, the memory of their weight in his palms, the way her nipples hardened in his hands.
Crud. He was in big trouble.
She’d just been in a car accident. He shouldn’t have let her out of the car, let alone be thinking about how good she felt against him while she could be suffering some kind of head injury.
But she was Piper Bane, who’d always reduced him to a pile of hormones, lust, and need with just a smile. Never mind how she spiked his protective instincts.
Yep. Big trouble.
“Daniel, I need you to step out of my way,” she said, a slight breathlessness in her voice. She stared up at him, the vulnerability in her amber gaze doing him in the way it always had. She’d looked that way when she’d handed back the ring box, making him feel like he should make her feel better even though she’d served up his heart on a platter.
“You might be hurt,” he offered lamely.
“Do I look hurt?”
“Well, no.” She looked vibrant. Delicious. Tempting.
Her lips turned up in something that should have been a smile, but wasn’t. She dropped her hand from his chest, and broke eye contact. “Besides, you’re Daniel Quilan. Nothing bad ever happens when you’re around, so I guess I should count myself lucky you were the first one I met when I got back, huh?”
“Yeah, sure.” Them meeting the second she hit town was anything but lucky. He’d spent two days dreaming up ways he might avoid running into her as soon as he’d heard she planned to attend the wedding.
He had too much he had to take care of now. Namely, figuring out what trouble Mal was into this time and getting him out of it. Before it stirred up something worse. In Beckwell, trouble didn’t mean teens causing a nuisance or the occasional act of vandalism. It meant apocalyptic troubles that had worldwide consequences. He couldn’t afford to be distracted by Piper, by her scent, or by the way her breasts felt against him. He couldn’t be distracted by the longing she stirred in him, the way that he’d always known exactly where he belonged when she was in his arms.
“Um, Daniel? Can you let me go?” Piper interrupted.
He should have let her and everything about their relationship go years ago. How was he supposed to ignore her? She was seductive temptation on two legs. Her and that sexy low-cut blouse, which from this angle displayed the most delicious enticement…He bit back a groan. A hint of purple lace against pale flesh he wanted to explore with his mouth and his tongue. Definitely tongue.
Piper cleared her throat, color creeping up her cheekbones.
He ran another quick visual assessment over her, even though he was really covering his return to horny teenager by pretending to be a doctor.
Unlike Mal, good things happened when Daniel was around. People survived accidents, medical crises, and the underdog won.
Although Piper appealed to the darker side of his nature, too. He wanted her. He’d dated through medical school and before he came back to Beckwell, but he’d always kept it safe and casual. It helped that no one affected him the way Piper had. After all these years, after all the ways he’d thought he’d changed, moved past her, he still craved her. She made him feel powerful, masculine, and like a flipping prince in shining armor.
Which was exactly why he had to stay as far away from her as he could. She did make him powerful. He and his brother grew stronger at a proportionate rate. Which meant Piper also made Mal powerful. And more dangerous. She called to the Fomorian in him, who wanted to conquer and enjoy every delectable inch of her.
He stepped aside and shoved a hand through his hair, trying to settle his body down from the ten-alarm blaze that roared through him at the briefest of contact with Piper. He hadn’t felt that way with anyone before or since.
She went around to the back of the SUV, her little heels and slick clothing poorly suited to Beckwell.
He glanced down at his own khaki slacks and blue, button-up short-sleeve shirt. He probably looked like a country hick to her. Not as cosmopolitan as she’d become.
Piper’s annoyed muttering jarred him out of his thoughts. She came around from the back of the SUV with a large pink, cheetah-print, hard-sided suitcase. She hauled it over the grass and scrub, her heels digging into the soft ground.
“For Pete’s sake, Piper, let me take that.” He leaped to her side. Crud. She’d just been in an accident, and here he was mooning about the past and coincidences. Definitely proving yourself a great doc today, buddy.
Piper shook her head. “I’m good.” A small, tight smile. “I’m used to taking care of myself.” She fought with the ridiculous suitcase. The wheels caught in the gravel, and her purse flopped against her thigh as she hauled it onto the pavement.
All while he stood there like an idiot. He stepped forward again. “I know you can take care of yourself. I just want to help.”
She jumped away from him like he was dangerous and shoved her purse up onto her shoulder. Her face flushed, and her gaze flicked quickly away from his. “No. Thank you. I’m good.” She paused a moment. “You don’t have to take care of me anymore, Daniel,” she said softly.
Yes, but I want to.
Almost as though she’d heard him, her gaze fell, and she turned, headed off at a brisk pace down the highway toward town. “I’m not your responsibility anymore. Haven’t been for some time.”
The suitcase bounced along behind her, catching in every dip in the road. Her heels click-clicked along the asphalt, and a breeze shushed through the poplar trees lining the highway.
He clenched his hands a minute, watching after her. Geezus. Piper Bane. Every inch as breathtaking as she’d been when she’d left. Five-feet-six inches of pure temptation.
And no longer mine.
He shook his head, then scooped up his med bag and half-jogged back to his truck in front of the driveway to the Cow Palace. The engine still idled and grumbled away, the driver’s side door wide open. He shut the truck off, slammed the door, and looked up.
He had seen Mal before. And now there went his brother, headed into the Cow Palace—which was closed for the season.
The click-click of Piper’s heels was getting farther away. Daniel rubbed his ear. He and Mal had to talk later anyway. He’d ask about the Cow Palace then.
Daniel grabbed the keys and turned to jog after Piper. Everyone recognized the rusty, pockmarked truck, and the road was never busy.
He slowed a few feet behind her. “I know you’re not my responsibility. But you were just in an accident. And you’re a guest here in Beckwell. I was just being polite,” he called. You were supposed to avoid her. To focus on Mal. And on the threat to Beckwell. And a thousand other things other than the girl—woman—who broke your heart.
Piper paused. Waited for him to catch up before she shot him a sideways look. She looked fresh, sweet, and sexy, a grown-up version of the spontaneous, passionate girl he’d known who dreamed big. Nothing like the cool persona she portrayed online, the woman who dated rock-stars and traveled the world, sharing her adventures on her blog.
Which he didn’t read.
More than once a week.
He might have been better off if she’d been more like that woman and less like the girl he’d loved.
“I know you take your responsibilities and the protection of Beckwell seriously, but are you sure that’s all it is?” She gave him a long look and cocked up a brow. A look that said she might have known he’d been staring at her butt. And noticed the purple bra.
His palms grew damp. “Of course.”
“Oh. Good.” She gave him a distant smile, the kind you gave to strangers. “Well, thank you for your help. Have a nice life, Daniel.” She turned and continued marching.
He should have left it at that. He should have let her walk away. Again. Instead, he strode easily at her side, one of his long steps equal to two or three of her short, agitated steps. “You should probably stop by the office. Just so I can make sure you don’t have a concussion, no lasting effects from the accident.”
She frowned. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Of course, it wasn’t a good idea.
Mal, remember? Group causing trouble. Your practice. The five-billion other things you should be thinking about rather than how Piper Bane’s lips used to taste?
He cleared his throat. “You’re probably right. Just…if there is anything, if you need me, have any problems, my clinic is over at the Senior Center.”
Her cheeks flushed pink and she wouldn’t meet his gaze. “Yeah. Sure. Thanks, Daniel. And, you know, thanks for the rescue.” She turned and hurried away, the rapid click of her heels and impatient jerks on her suitcase indicating just how desperate she was to escape his presence.
He shoved a hand through his hair before he turned to head back to the truck. Could he have been any more pathetic?
So much for having moved on. It’d be better for both of them when Piper left town again.
He frowned. Neither of them might want his help, but how was he supposed to protect Piper and his brother?
Daniel. It had to be Daniel to come to her rescue. Again. As always.
Piper cursed beneath her breath and dragged her suitcase over the gravel parking lot the bar shared with the general store, the post office, and the gas station. The suitcase hadn’t seemed that big until she’d had to haul it out of an SUV that was tangled in bushes and drag it down the highway.
The girls were waiting at the bar, and honestly, maybe she had head trauma from the accident or something, but there had definitely been a toad, hadn’t there?
She could have, maybe should have, let Daniel help her.
The suitcase thunked up the three wood steps to Beckwell Restaurant and Pub, otherwise known as Lou’s Place. It looked like a cross between a Victorian bordello and a biker bar, complete with steel door. One step more, and her heel stuck between the gap of two boards on the porch. She tried jerking it free. Nothing.
She slipped her foot out of the shoe and bent over to yank it out. A car honked and teenagers hooted in appreciation for her rear.
The shoe popped free, and Piper almost somersaulted headfirst into the steel door.
She touched trembling, cold fingertips to her forehead and sucked in a shaky breath. Maybe a good concussion would knock some sense into her. What had she been thinking coming home? She’d barely made it back to town and she’d already been in a car accident and humiliated herself in front of her ex.
Her hands shook as she slipped the shoe back onto her foot. Daniel, who yet again had to rescue her and looked impossibly better than she remembered. His skin still had a sun-kissed glow darkened by his First-Nations heritage, which had also gifted him with killer cheekbones and soulful, dark eyes. He made her hotter just saying her name than some guys had done with an hour of serious effort.
But he wasn’t hers. Not since she’d handed that ring back to him and he’d just stared down at it in his hand, like he didn’t recognize what it was.
She swallowed past a thick throat and straightened her shoulders. The girls were waiting, and it wasn’t like she had a ride out of here.
She reached for the door, but it opened, and Piper jumped out of the way as an older woman stepped through.
“Oh, I’m—” The words died on the other woman’s lips, her hair and spine as steely as the door. Ms. Boniface, the fear of every history student at Beckwell School, who’d always taken particular delight in calling on Piper when she knew a) Piper wasn’t paying attention, and b) Piper didn’t know the answer. The school catered only to Beckwell students and went all the way to high school, so Piper had been stuck with the woman for thirteen years.
There was no proof, but Piper was also almost certain the woman had always turned a blind eye on the mean nymphs who’d spread the rumors that Piper had slept with every boy in the school.
Piper stuck a pale smile on her lips. Frick. She probably looked like something the cat had dragged home. Being in a car accident wouldn’t be an acceptable excuse to Ms. Boniface.
“Hi, Ms. Boniface.”
Ms. Boniface straightened in her serviceable Oxfords and offered a tight smile, touching the tiny silver pin depicting shears she’d always worn on her lapel. In Beckwell it was considered rude to ask someone about their pedigree, associated myth, and ancestors. All the families who lived there had lived in fear of the gods and hatred of their kind for too many centuries for that instinct to hide their true selves to disappear in a few short centuries. But gossip spread like wildfire, and there’d always been bets on who was who. Everyone pegged Ms. Boniface as one of the Fates. Probably the mean one who cut the thread and killed people.
“Why, Miss Bane. You’ve made it back to town, and just in time. How fortunate. I hope nothing…delayed you?”
Something in her look almost suggested she knew about the accident. Or maybe Piper’s doubts about coming home. “I wouldn’t miss Ginny’s wedding.”
Ms. Boniface’s lips spread into something that would have resembled a smile if piranhas could smile. “Oh, I’m looking forward to it, too,” she said with especially creepy relish. “Enjoy your stay, Ms. Bane.”
Piper watched the old spider retreat to her faded silver Chevy convertible parked out front, and shivered. Add Ms. Boniface’s name to the list of “to be avoided” during the visit.
She turned back. Okay, better get inside, face the music and dance before the town threw any other unpleasant surprises her way. Piper pushed open the heavy steel door to the bar, giving her eyes a moment to adjust to the dimmer light.
Country-Western music played, a bouncy tune at odds with the few occupants. Two large men hunched at the bar. Other customers gathered in clutches around the tables in mismatched wood chairs.
The large, antique bar against the far wall dominated the room, mirrors and bottles lined up behind it. The bartender, Lou, a big guy who liked plaid, had a beer gut, and more hair on his chin than on his head, restocked the clean glasses.
All conversation ceased and all eyes turned to Piper and her suitcase.
Piper swallowed, and her face heated.
Lou lifted a hand in greeting, then pointed to the left, where her three friends huddled around a table: Ginny Lack, Anna Fray, and Nia Amort.
Piper spotted the girls, and a sudden giddiness flooded through her and added a bounce to her step. She hadn’t called enough, should have made the effort to keep in touch with these women who’d been her friends since kindergarten.
She bee-lined toward the table. It was unusual for a town as small as theirs to have all four horsemen clans represented, and even more unusual, the four youngest representatives were the same age. Which had only fueled the rumors that it wasn’t coincidence and they would be the four to rise. The fact that the clans could blend with Normals, unlike many other Beckwell residents, also hadn’t earned them allies, and had meant they’d been thrown together perpetually at school. Not like any of the other parents wanted their children playing with Death, War, Famine, or Pestilence. As fellow clans, they were immune to one another’s abilities, and their relationship had evolved as time wore on. No one else understood what it was like to have everyone constantly watching for a sign they were coming into their abilities. Abilities that would put them on equal footing with the gods, if the stories were to be believed.
Not exactly the kind of thing that earned you friends in high school.
Ginny, Famine clan, was red-headed and the tallest of the four at just under six feet. She spotted Piper first and jumped up from her chair, coming around the table for a hug. “You came!” Her embrace was a warm, soft squeeze, surrounding Piper with the sweet scent of baking, which seemed kind of cruel for a daughter of Famine. Though Ginny was definitely the sweetest of the four, and the most “normal,” if that word could be applied to any of them.
“I wouldn’t miss your wedding,” Piper said, squeezing back and ignoring the twist of guilt at the fact she’d considered not coming. Ginny’s hug was almost reason enough to have come home. That, and it was her sacred duty as a best friend to vet the fiancé. He might have also been a Famine clan member, but that didn’t mean he was good enough for Ginny.
The two friends pulled back to better assess each other.
“You look even better than you did in high school,” Ginny murmured. She scrunched up her face. “Mom found me a new diet, but I won’t have lost all the weight I was supposed to before the wedding.”
“You’re curvy. Guys love that.” Piper squeezed Ginny’s hand.
Ginny was a bit softer around the middle than she’d been in high school. Plus, she was dressed in Style by Mom, which today meant a hot-pink sweater set that clashed with her hair and white slacks that pulled too tight across her thighs.
Ginny was the only one of the four whose family was considered “upper class” within her clan, which meant more Famine genes via intermarriage within the clan, and thus usually more ability and money. The Lacks had more money than anyone other than Loki, but Ginny didn’t seem to have any more ability than Piper. Then again, what would a powerful Famine ability look like? Death to all bread and tomato plants? Still, Ginny’s sweet nature more than made up for the frequent failures in her life, like the end of her first marriage two years ago that had brought her home and back into her mother’s fashion clutches.
“Stop hogging her,” Nia said. She gave Ginny a teasing poke and winked at Piper.
Maybe it was because Nia Amort was from the Death clan, but ever since kindergarten, people in town had been a bit afraid of her. Including Piper. And that was before she’d grown a fetish for black and oversized hoodies. Nia was the only one of the group shorter than Piper, and now the petite woman with caramel skin felt too thin in Piper’s arms. It looked like she’d borrowed her overlarge track pants from a man five times her size. Shadows lurked in Nia’s eyes where mischief used to twinkle. The only good thing to be said was at least she’d given up the heavy Goth makeup, her straight black hair cut in a short bob that further shadowed her face. Nia had likewise come back to Beckwell two years ago or so. And she was extremely tight-lipped about what had happened to her while she’d been away.
“Hey, Pipe. Glad you’re home,” Nia whispered in the raspy, sex-kitten voice she’d always hated. “We’re going to figure this out and kick some ass. Promise.” She squeezed Piper again.
“Um, what?” Piper said.
But Nia stepped aside, leaving Anna in her place.
Anna Fray, War clan, looked Piper up and down.
Piper fought the urge to squirm.
Anna had a creepy knack for delivering the equivalent of a three-hour lecture with five words and a hard look. She still wore her long, thick brown hair back in a braid, and her clothes looked like they came straight out of the Silver-haired and Senior catalogue, what with the sage green slacks, cream blouse, and a moth-eaten gray sweater. She’d taken to being town librarian with terrifying zeal, which was good, since she’d never left Beckwell. Not even for a daytrip. But despite her rough edges, she’d always been fiercely protective of their group, and she was probably a genius. She knew more about the history of the horsemen and the clans than anyone else in town, possibly anyone anywhere. It mostly made up for the fact she wasn’t great with people.
Anna pulled Piper in for a fierce but stiff hug. “You shouldn’t have come,” Anna said bluntly, keeping her voice pitched for just Piper’s ears.
Piper shook off her friend, hurt rolling through her. “Gee. Thanks for the welcome.”
Anna wouldn’t let go of her hand. She winced. “That came out wrong, didn’t it? I’m glad to see you. But you don’t understand what’s going on around here. There’s—”
“And this round is from the gentleman over there,” Lou said, interrupting in a large, rolling voice that matched his salt-and-pepper beard and plaid-clad hugeness.
Two large, freckled men, definitely Quilans from the looks of it, and relatives Daniel didn’t associate with, waved and whistled from their table on the other side of the room. They were the usual sort of Fomorian: big, ugly, and mean. One of them even had a tail.
Lou winked, and light caught the twinkle of the stud in his right ear as he set down two beers, a cider for Ginny, and bottled water for Anna.
Piper broke away from Anna and the disquieting intensity and concern in her friend’s voice.
Anna refused to even look at the bartender, her face hot pink. She’d always been a bit extra-odd when it came to him, going out of her way to avoid him, and turning red as a tomato the few times she’d run into him. She’d refused to explain her reaction then or ever. Maybe she had a thing for huge, bearded bartenders. Then again, Anna got excessively abnormal around most men. Probably why she was single.
For his part, Lou glanced at Anna and amusement twinkled in his blue eyes. He patted a meaty hand on Piper’s shoulder, which made her jump. “Glad to see you back here, Piper. Now, you girls, I run a peaceful establishment. I don’t want any trouble.” He cast a particularly meaningful look at Anna, who refused to acknowledge him.
The four of them looked innocent, but that was only if you didn’t know better. Not that Piper made people sick frequently, but if very upset, she had once or twice caused biting insects to swarm. Ginny had been known to make food spoil in the proximity if she likewise became emotional. Nia communicated with the dead, who seemed to be walking around pretty much everywhere and appeared to Nia as clearly as the living. And if Anna lost her temper, her voice could incite people to violence. Maybe part of why she acted abnormally around guys.
Then again, that’s part of why they’d gotten stuck with their nicknames in high school, courtesy of the mean nymphs. Famine, Death, and War. Sometimes known as Frigid, Druggy, and Weirdo.
Piper’s nickname had been Pussy. Oh, but if only that had been because she’d owned a lot of cats.
She adjusted the neckline of her blouse to conceal the purple lace bra.
“No worries, booze-man,” Nia said, winking at Lou.
Lou shook his head with a smile and lumbered back to the bar.
Piper leaned toward Anna. “What are you talking about I shouldn’t have come back? What’s going on?” What could be more strange or bizarre than everyday life in Beckwell?
Anna opened her mouth to speak, but Nia, who faced the door to the bar, gave her a poke. They both looked up. Then looked at Piper.