Roughly translated, the slogan on Niall O’Connor’s family crest read: “We need all the help the gods can give us.”
Not that he wanted help from anyone, gods or otherwise. He’d learned early on to look out for himself. Unfortunately, every now and then he had no choice.
So here he was—cap in hand, metaphorically speaking—on his way to ask for a favor from Tristan Jago. Which unfortunately entailed getting past Tristan’s sidekick, Nightshade, a vampiric nightstalker with attitude problems.
Niall rode his motorcycle up the narrow drive to Tristan’s rambling granite manor house, stopped on the circle of gravel outside the front door, and cut the engine.
Trevelion Manor sat alone atop the rocky Cornish cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. In the distance, purple storm clouds billowed across a gunmetal gray sea. A portent of trouble if ever he’d seen one. It looked like the gods definitely weren’t smiling on him today.
As he kicked down his bike stand, the front door opened. Nightshade stepped out of the shadowy interior, folded his arms over his glistening oiled pecs, and spread his wings to block entry.
Quashing a sigh, Niall pulled off his helmet and rested it on the bike’s seat.
Niall flexed his hands to check the position of the two crystal knives strapped to his wrists. If he could avoid fighting Nightshade, he would. Not that he thought he’d lose. Quite the contrary: he was sure he’d win. But he’d fought enough hand-to-hand to last a lifetime.
“It’s a pleasure to see you, Irish!” Nightshade hooked his thumbs in the loops of his jeans and grinned, his teeth white against ebony skin. “I’ve a hankering for a taste of Tuatha Dé Danaan with a seasoning of leprechaun.”
“In your dreams, boyo.” Niall halted a safe distance away and patted the pocket of his flight jacket containing the check. “You going to let me in? I’ve a wee present here for your lord and master.”
Nightshade sneered, exposing the glistening points of his fangs. “I’m no one’s servant. Taunt me again, Irish, and you’ll live to regret it.”
Obviously Tristan’s sidekick had aspirations above his station. Worth remembering.
In the muted light of the corridor, Tristan Jago’s thin, pale face appeared. “Boys, boys.” He smiled urbanely as he approached and placed a restraining hand on Nightshade’s shoulder. “Be a good fellow and let Niall in. I believe he comes bearing gifts.” He stroked his paisley silk cravat and slid an appraising glance over Niall. “You’re always welcome, my friend. Gifts or no.”
Niall suppressed a shudder. The druid boasted reptilian qualities any lizard would be proud of.
“Come and play chess with me, Niall. I still have our game set up in the drawing room.” As Nightshade disappeared into the house, Tristan glanced after him and sniffed. “I can’t get that philistine interested in chess. Says he doesn’t see the point.”
Niall followed Tristan inside. The musty smell of animals long dead tainted the air of the drawing room. Niall spared a cursory glance for the multitude of stuffed wild creatures lining the walls and resisted the temptation to press his sleeve against his nose. How could anyone, even a human like Tristan, live surrounded by death?
Nightshade sat slouched across a chair before the crackling fire, his legs slung over the arm, and pointedly ignored Niall. That suited him fine. He wanted to settle his business, no hassle, and get out.
Tristan walked to the bay window overlooking the sea and lowered himself into a wing chair beside the chessboard. Lightning flashed, banishing shadows from the room for an instant and lending his pale face a ghostly appearance.
Niall withdrew the check from his pocket and held it up so the figure of twenty-five thousand pounds was clear in the pool of light beneath the table lamp.
Bony fingers shot out and plucked the check from his grasp. “You have been a busy boy.” Tristan gave Niall a narrow look. “That’s some return on my initial thousand. What was it this time? Equity options?”
Niall shifted uneasily. He hated discussing his trades. “Commodities, mainly. A little cocoa and oil. Some gold. Dollar and euro to finish up.”
“You really do have the luck of the leprechauns.”
“That scrap o’ paper fulfills my half of the bargain. You’ll renew the spell of protection over me brother and sister for another three months.”
Inclining his head, Tristan indicated the seat opposite him. “Spare me half an hour, and we have a deal.”
Niall tensed in frustration at being manipulated, even if it was only into a game of chess. “Aye, then, I suppose.” He dropped into the vacant chair and scanned the chessboard to refresh his memory of where they’d left the game three months ago.
“Your move, I think,” Tristan said.
Jaw clenched, Niall placed the white knight in a square to protect his queen. The irony of the move brought a grim smile to his lips. He would never return to Ireland and subjugate himself to the Irish fairy queen, even if it meant paying Tristan to protect his brother and sister from her for the rest of their lives.
The frantic jingling of a small bell pulled his attention from the chessboard. On the other side of the room, a gold hand clicked around the face of what looked like a cuckoo clock, and a figure twirled out of a little door on the front.
Tristan jumped up, grating his chair on the parquet floor, and marched across the room to stare at the dancing doll. “At last.”
Pushing up from his seat, Nightshade prowled over to join him. “I thought you said they were all gone,” he whispered in gruff disbelief.
Tristan shook his head. The stalker slanted Tristan an accusing look that raised the hair on Niall’s neck. They both appeared to have forgotten him. “What’s this all about?” he demanded.
Dragging his eyes away from the dancing figure, Tristan gave a thin smile. “This, my dear Niall, is a magical device that tells me a Cornish pisky is about to cross the River Tamar and enter Cornwall.”
Niall frowned. “You told me they’d all disappeared years ago. That’s why I brought me sister here. I assumed the lass’d be safe from the machinations of fairies.”
“And so she is.” Tristan ran his hand across his mouth, then tapped his lips. “Find this pisky for me, Niall. Find her and bring her here.”
Who was this lone pisky woman? The grim set of the stalker’s mouth suggested that she heralded trouble. Niall didn’t want to get involved in anyone else’s disagreements. He had enough problems resolving his own.
Niall leaned back and shook his head. “I’ve no interest in bothering meself with piskies. Find her yourself.”
Tristan turned on him, pale brown eyes flaring with emotion. “That will not do, my dear Niall. Not at all. If you want me to cast another spell to shield your siblings from Ciar’s pervasive gaze, bring the pisky woman here.”
A flash of anger burned through Niall. He was sick of having his brother and half sister used as leverage. Niall unfolded from the chair and took a step toward the druid. He had three inches on Tristan and used every fraction of them to intimidate. “You have me money tucked away in your pocket. I advise you, don’t go adding conditions now, druid. Honor the bargain.” He kept a wary eye on Nightshade, ready for him to jump to his master’s defense, but the stalker stayed still, watching with guarded interest.
Tristan glared. Smudges of red appeared on the taut, pale skin of his cheeks. They stared each other down for a few seconds; then Tristan shook his head. “I only want to give her directions to find her troop, Niall. You’d best do as I ask if you want my help.”
Niall held himself still as death. He didn’t believe that explanation for a moment, but in truth, he had no choice except to comply. The spell of protection over his brother and sister must be recast—whatever the cost.
The pisky should be easy to find. She’d be drawn to him and his brother, Michael, because, apart from Nightshade, they were the only fairies in Cornwall. All he had to do was wait for her to show up at Michael’s pub and then bring her to Trevelion Manor.
Niall thumped a fist on his chest in reluctant assent, then raised a warning finger. "’Tis a bargain, then. But no more demands after this."
Tristan flashed a triumphant grin that added to Niall’s unease.
He could almost hear the gods sniggering at his latest plight. He hoped he wasn’t going to live to regret this.