FAERY'S BARGAIN: Kane has what Tara wants -- how far will she go to get it?
Tara's witchcraft has failed to save her naga-bitten nephew: the only cure is a rare Faery herb, impossible for a human to obtain.
Kane, a warrior of the Morrigan tribe, is bound to a baigh-duil. He needs a witch to help him send the soul-devouring monster back to its own realm, and he's willing to bargain.
It seems like a fair trade -- the herb for help with a single spell. But what will Tara do when she realizes Kane can only perform sex magic and death magic?
First time in a thousand years the oracle's been wrong, and it's my question she blows. Kane glowered at the occult shop across the street -- a refurbished Victorian painted lemon-drop yellow and trimmed in white, with all the hand-carved flourishes picked out in gilt. Its windows swarmed with faceted crystals that sparkled like drunken pixies in the San Francisco sunlight.
It was too damned cheerful for a woman reputed to have faced down a naga in its own lair.
He stomped down his frustration, focusing on the cool air against his face and the scents of the ocean and car exhaust. The witch inside that candy house might not be the one he sought, but Kane had to admit she was skilled for a human. He could feel the thick, electric buzz of her wards even from across the street. She'd layered the shielding into the walls and powered it with the ley line that ran right beneath the building. Clever, but also dangerous. Tapping straight into the line for spell-work was like drinking from a fire hose. It required excruciating precision to siphon off just the amount you needed without drowning and heroic strength of will to resist the temptation to drink too deep. Kane had seen a mage lose control of a ley line in mid-spell once. The mage had suffered an agonizing death, and the damage wreaked by the botched spell had taken weeks to clean up.
Pain seared through him. The amulet tucked under his shirt flared hot against his skin, its fiery glow visible through the fabric. He hissed out a cantrip, repeating the chant until the pain dulled and the amulet cooled. I won't be able to maintain the binding much longer.
If the witch in the lemon-drop house couldn't help him, he was dead.
* * * * *
Time-yellowed pages slithered against each other as Tara folded the grimoire closed, letting her fingers explore the arcane symbols embossed on the cracked leather cover. Another ancient tome, another chunk out of her rapidly dwindling savings, another dead end. Meanwhile, Jimi continued to weaken under the care of his confused doctors. She didn't blame them, of course. Even if she could make them believe her, what could they do? My nephew was bitten by a half-man, half-snake monster straight out of Hindu mythology. What do you mean you don't have the right anti-venin?
Even more frustrating, she'd found a cure for the naga's poison -- crith-siol, a plant rumored to be cultivated by the Tribes of the Fae -- but it had proven impossible to get. For the last three months, she'd scoured book after book, hoping to find a substitute for the faery herb. As she searched, Jimi grew weaker. Tara had snatched the boy out of the naga's coils before the monster could eat him, but she hadn't saved him. She'd merely postponed the inevitable, and now she could do nothing but watch her nephew deteriorate, his body shutting down one system at a time. The last doctor had given Jimi a couple of months more, at best.
I wish Gran was alive. Gran would have found a cure by now. Or she'd have found a way to get the crith-siol, no matter what it cost.
Gran wouldn't have let Jimi get caught by the naga in the first place.
The brassy jangle of bells signaled the arrival of a customer. The jangle was cut short by a loud thump and a metallic crash -- the front door slamming shut. An impatient customer. Tara sighed, caught between irritation at the interruption and guilty relief for the distraction. She stepped into the front room of her shop.
The man in the black leather duster frowned at a rack of hand-crafted candles as if he found the colorful cylinders of beeswax offensive. He was tall, dark, and too beautiful to be called handsome. His long black hair was pulled back into a sleek braid, the severity of the hairstyle contrasting with the sensual planes of his face -- sloping cheekbones, amber-brown eyes under upswept brows, and a wide, full-lipped mouth over a strong chin. He was the sexiest man she'd met in ages, and if the humming in her head was any indication, a powerful mage. That delicious hum reverberated down her spine, lighting up her nerves as it went.
He looked up, and his frown evaporated in the flash-fire of another emotion -- something so intense it made Tara want to squirm.
Can I help you? she meant to ask. But when she opened her mouth, what came out was, "Mine."
Horrified, she barely managed to stop herself from clapping her hand over her mouth. Mine? Where did that come from? It had been a long time since she'd dated, but was she so lonely that the mere presence of an attractive man was enough to scramble her brains?
The corner of his mouth twitched as if he were fighting the urge to laugh.
Tara flushed. "I mean, I make them. The candles."
He licked his lips, a deliberate, sensual motion, and Tara found herself mirroring the action before she could stop herself. What's wrong with me?
"Um." She cleared her throat and tried again. "Can I help you?"
The stranger smiled. "I believe you can, Bandraoi."
* * * * *
The oracle had been right after all. The witch's aura had responded to him at once, flaring in intoxicating reds and purples the moment she'd emerged from the back room. Her eyes widened with surprise, and the power he sensed sleeping within her stirred, brushing against his aura like a curious cat. He fisted his hands against the near-overwhelming urge to reach out and pet her. She had a touch of the Tribes in her. His body's reaction to it was sharper than a knife to the heart and hotter than a Beltane bonfire. It was like his first fight and his first orgasm squeezed into one frenzied moment.
His witch was short and curvy, and she'd wrapped her luscious figure in a clingy black dress that emphasized her hourglass shape. When she pursed her lips, his cock expanded as his imagination burst open, spilling one wicked fantasy after another into his brain. He pictured her moss-green eyes half-shut with delight, sweat gleaming on her skin, while her wavy gold hair clung to her bare shoulders. He imagined all that power crackling through him as she trembled in the throes of it, her silken voice raw with ardor.
She'd sensed the rousing of her Fae nature; he could tell by the slight quiver of her shoulders, the heat that bled over her cheeks, the pink tip of her tongue wetting her bottom lip. She was perfect -- except for the wariness that glimmered across her face when he'd addressed her by her proper title. Surely she knew Bandraoi was a term of respect among the Tribes? Or hadn't she recognized him for what he was yet?
* * * * *
Tara blinked. Bandraoi. The stranger had called her "Witch," in the same liquid tongue Gran used to mutter when working charms. But when he said the word, it sounded like an endearment. "Who are you?"
"Foilsim." *I reveal.* The room pulsed, the air thickening and shimmering around the stranger like a mirage. The tugging sensation in her guts and the pins-and-needles tingle at her nape signaled the presence of unfamiliar magic. He hadn't even introduced himself, but he presumed to raise power within the confines of her wards?
Tara's vision shifted as if her eyes were refocusing -- a glamour dissolving, she realized. He looked exactly the same without the glamour, except the tips of his ears had gone pointy, a sword hilt peeked over his shoulder, and now she could see the golden torc encircling his neck, its ends capped with glittering emeralds.
Hel's tits. He was Fae.
If Gran were here, oh, the scolding she'd have given Tara. A man too lovely to be true walks into the shop, and you're so busy ogling him that everything I taught you falls out of your head? She should have been terrified, but she wasn't, in spite of all the stories Gran had told her about Fae treachery. Her heart was pounding with anger, not fear. Be honest. Not just anger. Lust, too.
That made the Fae even more dangerous. She wasn't thinking straight, and his kind were masters of manipulation.
How had he gotten inside? The wards were designed to keep out anything with the slightest intention of harm. She checked them, found them solid, with no sign of damage or tampering, and scowled. No way did she believe a warrior of the Tribes was harmless.
"Nice wards," he said. "A little risky plugging them right into the ley line, though."
What do you want? Her mouth wasn't working again. He's enchanted me. Something to make me more malleable. A lust spell, maybe? That explained her insane attraction to him, overriding fear and common sense, which in this case should be the same thing. She had to find a way to break his spell so she could think again.
But the only thing that disrupted Fae magic was cold iron -- iron from a meteorite -- and she didn't have any. It was too expensive, especially when she needed every penny the shop brought in to find Jimi's cure. Besides, this warrior wouldn't require magic if he wanted to hurt her. The body under his leather duster was solid with muscles. Her imagination teased her with a guess at what he'd look like naked, and the swirling warmth in her belly went lower, settling between her legs. She gulped. Focus, Tara. "Leave."
He smiled as if her dismissal was exactly what he'd been hoping to hear. "No."
She snatched up a protective onyx fetish from the display near the register and passed it through the air before her in the shape of Algiz, the rune, Algiz of protection. "Stay back."
The Fae didn't look the least bit worried. If anything, he looked amused. He took a step closer. Tara willed her traitorous arms not to reach for him. It had to be a lust spell. How in Hades had he enchanted her without her noticing? She drew the protective rune in the air again, visualizing a barrier between them and pushing power into it. A ghostly but impenetrable wall did not appear before her.
Damn it. Why wasn't it working?
He laughed and licked his lips again. Tara couldn't help imagining that tongue against her own lips, teasing them until they parted. She inhaled, an attempt to calm the excitement dancing through her. Mistake. He smelled like leather and musk and sunshine on fresh-cut grass -- and something else, something smoky she couldn't identify. Faery pheromones? Her pulse quickened. She tightened her grip on the stone fetish, clutching it so fervidly her hand hurt.
"Third pass activates the spell." Could he tell she was bluffing? "Get out of my shop while you can, elf."
"There's no need for that, Bandraoi. A simple proposition would do." He captured her hand with his own and turned it around so she could see the intricately carved stone she'd been waving at him.
She blushed so hot her skin practically sizzled. It wasn't an amulet of protection; in her panic, she'd grabbed a fertility charm. Good plan, Tara. Maybe you can arouse him to death.
The Fae stroked the inside of her wrist with one thumb, crossing back and forth over her skin in a soothing pattern. "Any way you want me, you can have me, Bandraoi."
The burn of humiliation was a blessing. It helped dampen her near-overwhelming attraction to him. Tara stepped back and yanked her arm out of his grasp. "Who are you?"
"My name is Kane Donal mac Roich," he said. "I claim respite under the Treaty of Danu." Giving his full name was a gesture of respect, and it was a dangerous insult not to return the courtesy -- grounds for him to claim offense and demand restitution, if he chose. But there was also power in a name, and she didn't believe the Treaty would protect her if this Fae decided to use hers against her.
"You can call me Tara." She'd barely managed to keep the tremor that constricted her throat from weakening her words. "What do you want?"
"I've come to bargain for your assistance."
Yeah, right. "Why should I help you?"
"I have something you want." He reached inside his duster, producing a tiny red vial. "Crith-siol."
* * * * *
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