From Chapter One
"Look, I don't care how you manage it, but you are not coming home with me and I am not your guardian. Get it?"
"I think everybody in the tri-city area gets it, given your decibel level." When Janelle opened her mouth to protest further, Kane held up a hand. "I didn't do this and I can't change it. Talk to the Druid." He continued in a low mutter: "That'll teach me to take the high road. Should've played the royal card and let them eat cake."
Glaring at the convincingly resigned look on Kane's face before studying the sympathetic but unbending expression on High Druid Phil's, Janelle pondered homicide. Actually, any normal person might already be questioning her sanity, given that she was expecting reason from a Druid and a puca.
"What is a puca, anyway?"
Kane and the Druid exchanged glances, before Phil cleared his throat and spoke. "We thought you knew. You said you were familiar with Riordan and, er, Kane, and even Riordan's former guardian, Mina. . . ."
"Apparently I wasn't as familiar with all of you as I thought I was. Just give me the definition. Very simple request. Since you are, after all, trying to put me in charge of one, I think I have a right to know exactly what I'm dealing with here." Before she rejected it completely and threw a tantrum to terrify a Druid and even a puca.
The Druid raised his eyebrows over the rims of his glasses and peered at Kane. "Do you want to field that one?"
"Might as well." Kane looked annoyed.
Janelle glanced back and forth between them. "What, is it that difficult? Simple definition, dude. Oh, but I forget. Even telling me your real name is a challenge for you."
"Kane is my real name." And the puca had the nerve to look offended. "It was given to me at my birth. Legend and old wives' tales named me Robin Goodfellow."
"And that would qualify as an unimportant little footnote in our—?"
"Do you want to talk or to listen?" Kane interrupted.
Patronizing jerk. "Fine. Speak."
"I am a puca. Riordan is a puca. Our father is Oberon, King of all Faerie."
King of the fairies? He didn't really mean… Couldn't possibly mean, not literally…
"Yes, literally, king of the faeries," Kane continued without pause. "But Riordan and I have different, human mothers. As far as we know, we are the only two pucas in existence."
He glanced at her, obviously unenlightened.
She gestured impatiently. "I mean, why would you be the only two?"
"I don't know. I didn't exactly take a census. We are who we are and—"
"And you're incredibly arrogant and short-sighted. So, what's the significance of being a puca?"
He looked harassed, which was mildly satisfying. "A puca is a shape-shifter."
Her satisfaction gave way to the shock she'd so far held at bay. First fairies and now: "Shape-shifters…" She lost her breath in a whoosh. Okay, maybe she’d already been aware of this on an intellectual, completely abstract level. The puca as shape-shifter. A myth. Facing the myth as a reality, however, and attaching it to a guy she once slept with was more than a little jarring. "You're seriously, literally, a shape…" Lost it again.
"Shifter. Yes." Kane nodded, an evil glint in his eye. "I'll show you later."
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me."
"You keep interrupting," he chided. And that had to be the Devil dancing in his eyes. What, he was amused now? So much for repentant puca.
"Say something even halfway intelligent and I'll stop," she replied.
"All right. Humans aren't aware of the faerie realm. We like it that way. Those of faerie blood have the ability to glamour. This means we can change people's perceptions and memories to keep our existence secret."
"I'll bet that talent comes in real handy with your human playthings, too. You don't have to suffer morning-after discomfort if your lover 'forgets' the wild nasty ever happened. Ah, but then, a baffling nine months later . . . God only knows how many halflings and fourthlings and whateverlings wander the earth in complete ignorance. But do go on."
Kane seemed to be holding on to his temper by a thread now, which was mildly pleasing and certainly distracting from the frightening fairy talk. Then he spoke. "You think that's what we do? So explain why I didn't erase your memory, then."
Janelle recoiled, her senses scattering. She thought she read brief regret in his eyes before he glanced away and proceeded as though he'd never paused. As though he'd never made it personal.
"I've seen the birth, rise and death of many civilizations." Kane smiled, not kindly. "And I'll no doubt live to see the fall of this one as well."
The High Druid looked uneasy. "I hope that's not a threat?" Phil's uneasiness terrified Janelle.
"What?" Kane eyed Phil distractedly. "Oh, no. Not a threat. Just a statement of fact. Everything has a beginning and an end." He turned back to Janelle, who had partially recovered but was beyond managing even a pretense of her former casual disdain. "Oh, look. I finally have your attention."
And then some. She licked dry lips. "How old are you. Exactly."
"I couldn't say. Possibly twenty-three hundred years? Give or take a century. We didn't keep exact records in the early days."
"The early days. Right."
He raised his eyebrows, anticipating further comment.
"N-no. Go on. I'm all ears." And light-headed. Really lightheaded. She knew he'd lived longer than the average human, but never had she dreamed . . . To be born twenty-three hundred years ago . . . that was old. Scary old. He'd seen too much. With all those powers and being able to get away with everything, he must feel nothing. No wonder he'd left her so easily. But . . . why hadn't he erased her memory of him? She didn't have the balls to ask. And, frankly, she couldn't spare the pride such a question would cost her.
"I guess you could say I've spent the last two millennia . . . angry." He turned his gaze to his brother, Riordan, who so far had stood silently by, just as Kane had requested in the middle of this foolish ceremony. Well, not foolish, for Riordan's future was decided during it. And Kane's future was tethered to Janelle's because of it. So, basically, it had been pretty darn effective and life-altering considering it was run by a bunch of guys in white robes and sneakers hanging out in the park. Thank God the robed guys had decided in Riordan's favor. Otherwise Janelle would have never forgiven herself for arriving too late to act as a character witness in this odd little hearing. According to the Druid's brief recap earlier, it had been a close thing. Until Kane arrived and confessed his own guilt.
And all over a woman.
Yep, to be two thousand years' worth of angry because of a dispute over a woman, Kane had to be the biggest misogynist in the universe by now. And eight years ago, Janelle had twisted up the sheets with him and given up her heart to his “tender” care. God, what an idiot she'd been. Expect no mercy at his hands.
Which was a good point actually.
Wrenching her gaze from Kane's, Janelle turned back to the Druid, feeling just a little desperate now. "Look, Phil. Let's be honest here. If he's telling the truth about everything—and you seem to believe he is—then how could I possibly wield any influence over him in some ineffectual little 'guardian's' role? According to you guys, your buddy Kane here can change his shape, he can make people believe anything he wants, he lives basically forever, and his daddy's a king.
"Meanwhile, here I am, just an exhausted, seriously indebted general practitioner who splits her worry time between patients and her next malpractice insurance payment. What with patients, the clinic and the grunt work any new-hire salaried doctor owes to the clinic that hired her, I don't spend but ten or so hours in my own apartment each day. If that. I'm too busy working. How could I possibly be responsible for a super-powered, conscienceless freak?"
She glanced uneasily over her shoulder. Well, Kane hadn't whacked her head off or turned her into a jackass yet, so she had to believe he either couldn't or wouldn't hurt her. Let the insults continue. She found them comforting. Like a wall of bricks standing between her and anything that made her feel vulnerable.
"That's a legitimate question," Phil mused quietly. "A puca does have a lot of power at his disposal. As we said, however, he's now lost his ability to glamour, and he's subject to human laws and mores. He can shape-shift, but he can't erase or warp humans' memories of it, so shape-shifting recklessly or for ill gain could land him in a world of trouble."
"Sounds like small consolation to me." Distance, Janelle. Just slide away from the guy. What could he do? She wasn't subject to Druid governance, and somehow she got the feeling Kane didn't welcome her guardianship any more than she did.
Not that she would take it personally or anything. Taking it personally that Kane didn't want her around him would imply that she still gave a shit about him and of course she didn't. Why would she? How could she possibly? Look what he'd done to her. Hell, look what he'd done to Riordan. Kane was cold, cruel and heartless.
He just wasn't her kind of guy at all. Not that she'd had much time for guys recently. But still, she thought it was reasonable to expect a guy to have enough happy-go-lucky in his soul to preclude some psychotic avenger act like the one Kane had going.
"Well, listen." Janelle turned a false smile on Kane and Phil and his happy little Druidic following. "It's been great, guys. Good to meet you, great chatting with you, have fun in the grove, tell great stories over the campfire, all that good stuff. Be seeing you." Or not. Hopefully not.
With another cheery wave and tons of bravado, she turned on a heel and headed off toward the path that would lead to her car, her home, and real life.
"Could you live with yourself?" Phil called out to her, his tone calm and disarmingly confident.
Janelle slowed but didn't halt.
"Kane's free now. Disoriented and lost but not yet evil," Phil continued. "He proved that by coming back to clear his brother—belatedly, sure, but he did come back. He's not all bad. And you have the opportunity to influence him for the good of all."
Her steps were sluggish now, her conscience heavy.
"Two thousand years of vengeance. Now denied. And so he's at loose ends with no one to guide him back to the right path. It could be a turning point for him. For the better . . . or the worse. Without sufficient guidance from the only woman who possesses that power, I'd bet on the latter. I think you would, too. Can you live with that?"
"Damn it." Janelle whirled to face them again. "Of course I don't want that. But why does it have to be me? Why not somebody else? Somebody with more personal sway, more knowledge, maybe some freaky magic of his own to wield? I couldn't possibly be your best choice."
Phil shrugged. "I was going to give the leash to Riordan here. I thought it was fitting. You told me not to do that—in effect, accepting the leash on his behalf. And now you're reneging."
"Oh, no you don't. I never agreed to a thing. You're just twisting words and making assumptions you have no right to—"
"I'll do it," Riordan said abruptly. "He's my brother. I'll do it."
Janelle stared at Riordan then turned to Kane, who looked, if anything, more sober than she'd ever seen him. He honestly didn't want to burden the brother he'd already tortured for so long. Well, damn it, neither did Janelle. But what about her life? Why her? Fiercely torn, she whirled back to the Druid. "That's not fair either. You can't just—"
Phil overrode them all. "No exchanges. The choice of guardian, once made, is final. Janelle Corrington, the duty is already yours whether you accept it or not. He is tied to you alone. What you do with that tie . . . well, that's between you and your conscience."
Janelle felt her heart racing, invisible walls rising high and closing in around her. Claustrophobia. This was too much—
"I have an idea." Riordan’s voice broke through her panic. Janelle focused on him, as did Phil, his buddies and Kane.
"This is a huge burden that you've forced on Janelle. She's right about that. And she is innocent in all this. Agreed?" Riordan eyed everyone, who all nodded slightly. "All right then. I propose that she be compensated."
Janelle groaned. "Oh, come on. It's not about money. I don't need freaking money. I need to get rid of the freak. I just want him gone."
"Well, we can't exactly deal in money anyway." Phil sounded apologetic. "Cash is too materialistic for something like this."
"Yes, cash is bad. Very bad. And I suppose your tricked-out tennies and your purple designer specs were free? Maybe you conjured them while chanting naked under the full moon? You know, right before you punished me for speaking my mind by saddling me with puca guardianship. Hypocrites."
Phil looked less than amused. "The eyeglass frames were on sale, and the shoes . . . are comfortable." He shifted restlessly. "I have high arches."
"I wasn't talking about money," Riordan murmured. "How about giving Janelle something truly valuable? Something she'd consider worth the trouble of guarding a puca she hates." He glanced at his brother. "No offense, bro."
Kane shook his head impatiently. "Just tell us what's on your mind. What would compensate Janelle for something this big? Immortality?"
Phil raised a finger. "Um . . . can't do that one either. Try another."
Riordan met and held Janelle's gaze. "How about an ability? For example, the gift of healing . . . with just a thought."
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Copyright © 2008 Natale Nogosek Stenzel.