Genre = Paranormal Women's Fiction, Fantasy, Romance

40 Ways to Catch a Bad Guy

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LENGTH: 77,000 words, 272 pages (approx)

In the future, I need to be careful what I ask for…

I wanted my old guardian back, but now that I have him, I’m thinking about using Orlin’s white feather and crying uncle. Or rather, grandfather. At least the memory-challenged version of Rasmus that Orlin gave me hadn’t questioned every bloody thing I said and did. Yesterday I warned the non-longer-memory-challenge Rasmus that his elitist guardian attitude needed adjusting and that no man was that great in bed.

How am I supposed to get any work done with all this chaos and change going on? Fiona informed me she was staying in Ireland to study with the Shadow Breakers. I offered to transfer there too, but she wasn’t having it. All Conn does these days is laugh at me. Mulan understands my pain but she has her own problems. Her family is coming for a visit. At least we have room to house them in the monstrosity we bought for more money than my brain can handle knowing.

I like the ancient demon couple helping take care of my new home. They seem nice. What isn’t nice, though, is that I signed up to babysit the now memory-wiped female guardian who recently tried to kill me. And don’t get me started about the demon wolves who are impatiently waiting for me to get Zara back up to speed so she can change them back into humans.

But the worst thing is that my traitorous boss is trying to hire my ex-husband. I told Ben it was either me or Jack, but he couldn’t work with both of us because I refused to do it. When the former military man I thought I liked waved my five-year contract around, I nearly turned him into the sneaky snake of a boss he was turning out to be. I think I’m about to become his worst employee.

40 Ways to Catch a Bad Guy is a funny, adventurous paranormal women’s fiction tale from USA Today Bestselling Author Donna McDonald.

Chapter 1
I woke naked and shivering. Why wasn’t I naked and warm? I spent most of the night wrapped around Rasmus and enjoying his heat. What did he do with the bed covers? Uncovering me wasn’t very gentlemanly of him.

Glaring up at the garage door opener reminded me of why the room was so chilly. Memories of what Rasmus and I had done last night—all last night—were instantly validated by the amount of effort it took to simply roll from my back to my side. My groans echoed off the metal and concrete walls but there was no Rasmus there to laugh and be proud of himself.

Finally, I stopped trying to move and instead took stock of my many aches and pains. They’d definitely been worth getting but every relaxed muscle in my body hurt this morning. Overworked muscles rebelled when I slid my knee a few inches up the cold sheets to bend one leg. Both Rasmus and I had gotten tossed across the yard and against the house during my stand-off with Zara. Indulging in sex before I’d healed had been foolish, but I was fresh out of prison and deprived. My willpower had disappeared the moment he’d opened his eyes and asked me why I was fighting Zara. Rasmus claimed he had waited centuries for me. I felt like I’d waited an equally long amount of time for him.

Was I irritated this morning about unleashing my lust? No. I was only mad because the man I’d wrestled with all night had left me again without even so much saying goodbye. It made a woman feel used and not in a good way. Fully awake now, I also could tell Rasmus was gone from the entire house. I couldn’t explain how I was so certain but I was completely sure. The guardian who’d ravished me was no longer on the premises. When he was here, I felt him. I was pretty sure my normal awareness of him had grown after what we’d done last night.

Groaning and feeling sorry for myself, I grappled my way to the edge of the queen-sized bed. I peered over the side to see how far away the floor was and happily discovered a discarded blanket there. Sighing, I pulled it up and covered myself before struggling to stand. The clothes I’d worn yesterday had to be somewhere in the room, but I was in no mood or physical shape to search for them. Thank the Goddess my daughter Fiona wasn’t here to witness my state. My semi-nude walk of shame would only be down the hallway to the bedroom I usually shared with her.

I opened the door leading from the garage into the house and immediately encountered a demon-sized wall blocking my way.

Conn grinned as he raised his voice. “Mulan, you need to see this. Aran has a sex hangover and can barely walk.”

My swearing was low and vicious. “Do not sneak up on me today, Conn, unless ya want yer arse zapped,” I said, pointing a finger at him.

Conn looked around and laughed. “We’re standing in a small hallway, Aran. There’s no room for me to sneak up on you. I was innocently walking from my bedroom to the kitchen when you snuck out of the garage like a drunken frat girl.”

“I was not sneaking. Keep yer freaking logic to yerself,” I grumbled before shoving past the chuckling troublemaker.

I trudged to my room with the loosened blanket trailing behind me like a hairy demon-wolf bridal train.

Conn chuckled at my griping. “Was the guardian that bad? Or that good?”

I stopped at my bedroom door. “Where is Rasmus anyway? I can tell he’s not in the house.”

Shrugging, Conn innocently blinked at my question. “I don’t know where he is today, but I know he was here last night. Either that or some incubus was giving you the workout of your dreams. Even Mulan and I laughing hysterically over the noises you two were making never slowed things down. You were never that vocal with Jack.”

Conn was right about me and Jack, but I didn’t want to hear it this morning. “Don’t be teasing me about my ex-husband. I’m still mad at ya for letting Jack through my wards.”

“Inattentive rats often lose their chance for cheese,” a loud voice chastised from the kitchen.

Conn smirked down at me. “We’re having grilled cheese sandwiches and Chinese proverbs for lunch. Come join us after you’re dressed.”

I closed my eyes and prayed to survive the next few minutes without releasing the rage I felt at Rasmus for not being here. “Keep yer teasing to a minimum until I’ve gotten hold of myself. I need a shower—and then food.”

“It’s nearly noon. Why are you wrapped in one of the blankets Fiona gave to the demon wolves? Did the guardian rip the clothes off your quivering body and hide them from you?”

He had done exactly that. Honestly? I was working hard not to remember, thank you very much.

I glared at Conn. “Keep asking me questions about last night and ya’ll be spending the next three days regenerating body parts.”

Amused and very loud feminine laughter drifting from the kitchen made me sigh. But it also comforted me. I loved having my daughter around—I truly did. But it was nice having another mature woman in the house.

Grateful for once that I was short, I gripped my hairy demon-wolf blanket with one hand and the doorknob of my bedroom with the other. I had no idea where the original blankets for the bed were or where my clothes had gone. This was the least dignified I’d felt since I let the demon hunters take me off to prison in cuffs I could have easily gotten out of.

I grasped for sanity one more time. “Are ya going to tell me where the cowardly bastard ran off to or not?”

Conn coughed to clear his throat of laughter. “Let’s get some coffee into you before we tackle the hard questions. While you’re showering, think of last night and all you would miss if you killed him.”

I gripped my blanket tighter. “If he’d tossed a couple hundred on the bed before leaving, I’d have at least understood his absence. This waking-up-alone shit has got to stop, Conn. I won’t be treated this way.”

Conn chuckled as he reached out to pat my shoulder. “It wasn’t his idea to leave you. Your guardian grandfather came for him. Trust me—Rasmus wasn’t any happier about it than you are. I believe he tried to make you sleep until he returned to avoid this situation. I warned him it wouldn’t work the way he hoped.”

“He was probably hoping I wouldn’t know he’d left me again.”

Chuckling, Conn shrugged. “Your power is flourishing, Aran. Soon, I don’t think even the guardians will affect you. The Dagda Stone seems to finally be revealing itself and it has its own opinions of the people in your life. Most of my keepers wore the stone like a piece of jewelry. You’re the first to internalize it. Anything can happen.”

I knew Conn and I needed to talk about the stone. My parents knew of its existence but not how it worked. It had hung among Ma’s other necklaces for two weeks after my grandmother passed without anyone protecting it. They’d reluctantly handed it over the day they also reluctantly informed me that I’d inherited Conn. Based on Jack stealing the stone from me, I suspected he knew more about it than I did. It wasn’t like I could ask him. No, I’d just have to learn about it on my own.

I gripped the door handle hard and kept my gaze on my hand. There was no way to keep the bitterness from my tone. “Orlin who took Rasmus away again.”

“Well… sort of,” Conn said, snickering at my escalating anger. “I think your guardian got convinced to leave by the end of their debate. Your guardian grandfather did look rather stressed about something.”

“Do ya know why Orlin took him?”

“No, but I tried to find out. The sneaky guardians talked as far out in the yard as they could get. I also think some sort of silencing field was dropped over them. Somehow, they kept Mulan and me from eavesdropping on their oh-so-important conversation. I’m guessing it had something to do with ensuring Zara’s memory loss took place but I can’t be sure.”

I snorted. Orlin could have needed help with restraining Zara but I doubted it. She’d run from him before. My grandfather seemed at the top of the guardian food chain.

“It was probably over the fact that Rasmus got his memories back when Zara threw him around. I should have known Rasmus couldn’t hide his awareness from them. The guardians function like a freaking BORG hive. Sometimes I even think they share a single brain.”

“They’re like a what?” Conn asked with another laugh.

I sneered at him. It was the first time in ages Conn had no reference. “BORG hive mind, Conn. It’s from that Star Trek show with Patrick Stewart as the captain. Jack was a Trekkie the whole time we were married. Look… I don’t have time to explain it. Ask Mulan. She’s up-to-speed on pop culture. I’m going to shower, and then I wouldn’t refuse if Mulan wanted to make me a sandwich.”

“I think what you need most is a pot of strong coffee,” Conn said with more laughter.

Usually, yes, that was what I needed. This morning, what I needed more was a man who would wake up with me but I refused to whine about what couldn’t be changed. It was bad enough my body was protesting every movement I made.

How unfair was it that there was no one I could blame in person for it? Or celebrate with? Blaming Orlin would be redundant and I couldn’t blame Rasmus until I’d heard his side of things.

My bodily discomfort guaranteed that all I’d be doing for the next few hours was reliving and rehashing last night. It wasn’t fair, but I refused to sit around feeling abandoned.

I was forty, damn it. I wasn’t some young girl who regretted her choice of bed partner. Obviously, Rasmus didn’t understand our bed-sharing was a tentative situation that could change—and would change—if he kept up his disappearing act. Neither he nor Orlin would catch me crying over him not being around when I wanted.

My back stiffened with my resolve as I turned back to Conn. “Let’s go look at that house Fiona found. Can you give the real estate agent a call and see if we can go by this afternoon?”

Conn grinned as he bowed his head. “Consider it already done.”

***

The property turned out to be more enormous than Fiona had described.

Mulan sighed and shook her head while muttering to herself in Chinese. I didn’t know what she was saying, but I agreed with her anyway. Her expression probably mirrored my own.

Upkeep on this place would cost us in utilities alone. I could see that the property had some advantages. There was a tall fence around the front with a security gate at the entrance. The real estate agent gave us a code. After tapping it in, the gates swung wide to let us drive down the tree-lined road through the property.

Conn argued his two live-in caretakers were skilled enough not to need additional help with the main house, a giant colonial monstrosity. It boasted three fairly well-maintained porches held up by bulky fluted columns running from the ground to the third-story porch.

We both agreed it would take a lot of work to maintain the property but Conn sincerely felt it was doable. Fiona would get a cottage. Mulan and Conn would get one as well. Upkeep on the other small house would become the responsibility of whomever we let live in it. Conn’s demon couple would monitor tidiness but I knew they would have to use the Wu Shaman’s standards to keep the peace.

Still unconvinced that this sprawling location was the right place for us, I texted Fiona to ask which of the cottages was the one she preferred. She declared it was the yellow one with a paved patio out back containing a built-in pizza oven.

I looked up from the message and glared at the group. “Do ya know who would pay a million dollars for a patio with a pizza oven? Jack Derringer’s frivolous child, that’s who. Goddess bless, I’m thinking that buying this place would be a really stupid thing to do.”

Conn slung an arm across my shoulders. “The main house has a basement with an indoor heated pool and a canning kitchen. The caretakers may choose to live down there. There are two libraries on the main floor. I think there’s a greenhouse somewhere as well. You could make planters for all the porches and turn one of them into a meditation space.”

Memories of Zara calmly sitting on her porch lingered. I frowned and shook my head. Unlike my daughter, I didn’t need a pool or a pizza oven. What I needed was to figure out how to guide Zara’s talents once I inherited the job of babysitting her.

 The Dagda would be returning the demon wolves soon. Where would they sleep here?

And where was Rasmus going to sleep if I stayed this angry? Was I seriously going to buy this mega-mansion without him bothering to offer his input?

I dropped my head and studied my feet so I wouldn’t glare at Conn and Mulan. “I think this place is too much.”

“It is good bargain,” Mulan declared.

Shrugging, I turned to her. “Money isn’t my only concern.” I sighed as I paced around in a circle, which allowed me a view of all four residences. Finally, I waved a hand. “This much property is too much for me, even if we have no debt on it. All I see is work here. I see no sanctuary and no relaxation.”

“Let’s see all of it before we decide,” Conn said, not criticizing my opinion yet.

Somehow I ended up walking through the main house alone while Conn and Mulan checked out a cottage with chocolate-colored siding and another with light blue. No one bothered looking inside the yellow one because Fiona had already claimed it.

Given how much of a stickler Mulan was about neatness, it was easy to see why the clean lines of the blue one held the most appeal to her. I suspected Conn wouldn’t care which house she chose so long as the Wu Shaman shared her bed with him. If the cottage didn’t suit his needs, he’d just fix it until it did.

He did that when we lived in Grandma Murieann’s house, even though he’d spent most nights as a dog sleeping on Fiona’s bed. I had refused to let Da fix my house problems and Jack plain out wouldn’t take the time. Conn had feared Fiona falling on an uneven sidewalk or through a loose board on the porch so he simply fixed any issues he thought needed fixing.

I never had to lie about who did the work because Jack assumed Da had done it and I let him. Back then my father had been the owner on paper. Now, as his heir, I was. Since I lived too far away to take care of things, Ma handled the details of caring for it for me. Recently, Ma had let a young family move into the house while she leased the farmland to locals. I made her keep the money from renting it as a reward for her help.

Mulan and Conn talked in low voices as they looked toward the blue house. It was easy to imagine Mulan chopping vegetables on a freshly installed butcher block countertop in the small kitchen. I could see them maybe adding an outdoor hot tub and building a two-person sauna on the deck behind the cottage. Mulan and Conn both liked their amenities.

Eventually, I walked away to stroll through the cavernous main house. It contained many elegantly painted rooms with nearly no furniture in them. The space felt like a museum to me but no matter how often I said that, no one seemed to care. The house expanded up three stories and outward in sheer area.

Its three floors were of equal size connected by a staircase that curved down on two sides into a grand foyer. There was elaborate millwork around all the doorways and the windows. The beautiful wainscoting in many of the rooms was framed to match.

I finally wandered outside again and over to the chocolate cottage. It was quaint and reasonable but as small as the rental house we currently lived in. The lack of space in the rental bothered me. Maybe that was an after-effect of seven years living alone and having such a big house all to myself. If we bought this space, I could only see living on the bottom floor of the main house. Each floor was over two thousand square feet, which made the mansion much larger than Fiona had described it to be.

Eventually, we all wandered out of the houses and back to the paved area next to the main house where we’d parked our cars. Mulan’s vehicle only fit two people. Since they hadn’t wanted to ride with me in my old car, I’d driven alone.

Our tour of the property ended with all three of us agreeing that it was a lot of property to be priced for a fraction of its true worth. Even with our collective knowledge, we couldn’t determine why it was such a good deal.

“There will be amazing value here once it is modernized,” Mulan declared as she studied the outdoor spaces.

Conn’s hands were tucked into his pants pockets. “Now that I’ve seen it, I can tell you it would easily finance for the price they’re asking for it. That said… it’s going to be a lot of work to renovate and the repairs won’t come cheap. No one touched any of these residences in the last decade.”

“There’s a fancy barn and a paddock ring too,” I said, staring at both of them. “What on earth are we going to do with those?”

“We could raise unicorns,” Conn said with a grin. “They’re great at protecting the spaces where they live. No one likes to deal with them—not even their owners.”

I rolled my eyes before glaring. “Do ya seriously fancy yerself shoveling unicorn poop for a living? They’re not the most pleasant of animals and ya know it.”

Conn gave me his most indignant look. “Silly woman, I would hire the poop shoveling done. We could recoup some of our renovation money if we provided lodging for the paranormals Ben’s going to hire. You already promised Rasmus he could rent a room in the main house. Have you changed your mind?”

I appreciated Conn not asking if Rasmus would sleep in my room for free, but I didn’t like the way he was looking at me. “What’s that pinched look for? Ya look like ya have gas, Conn.”

“Imperial Demons never have gas. My digestive system is flawless.”

Mulan lifted an eyebrow. “Why are we talking about bodily functions?”

I pointed at Conn. “Because he’s about to suggest I let Jack Derringer move into the chocolate house. If he says the words out loud, I’m going to zap him.”

Conn snorted. “I’m not his fan but he helped save your life, Aran. And if he’s going to work for Ben, he will need to be trained. Humanity’s most famous warlords recommended keeping your enemies close. Isn’t that what you’re planning with the female guardian?”

“Do ya think Jack’s going to halt all the evil stuff he’s doing and become some great guy, Conn? Have ya forgotten that being a demon hunter is his lifelong dream no matter how stupid we know that work to be? Jack’s a devious bastard and I’ll not be owing him for Ben’s lack of judgment. He tried to kill me in his monster form. I’m sure Ben properly compensated Jack for his two minutes of work taking Zara down.”

Mulan held up her hand. “I have add-on question. Where will female guardian live?”

Mulan was right to ask. My opinion was that Jack could die and rot in an alley, but Zara needed to be kept close by. Orlin said he could make her forget her true self but what if his memory binding came undone? The original memory blocks hadn’t lasted on her or the other female guardians. It hadn’t even lasted on Rasmus, who had fully cooperated with the entire process.

I turned and looked at the little chocolate cottage. It was located closest to the fancy barn, which was every bit as nice as any of the other buildings. Where would the demon wolves sleep? Should I give Zara the whole second floor of the main house and try to befriend her? Or stick out here alone?

Thinking about my foolish offer to babysit her always gave me a headache. I rubbed my face again and groaned. When had my life turned into this complicated mess?

Conn chuckled as he grinned at me. I’m sure he enjoyed seeing me so overwhelmed. “You’re hungover from your sex fest, Aran. This property won’t seem nearly so daunting tomorrow, and Mulan is right about the increase in value when we finish updating. I’m sure a good meal and a solid eight hours of sleep will work wonders on your viewpoint.”

I shrugged. Maybe it would. Or maybe I’d spend a totally sleepless night wondering where Rasmus was and who he would be when he returned. But did Rasmus even matter in the long run?

It had never occurred to me that I might be able to keep the guardian—not really. He would stay until he was done with me and then he’d leave. Maybe that had already happened. His normal guardian life was too big and too complicated to limit his human interference to merely harassing me.

I frowned as I looked around. This place would never be my real home. It was a business investment. Real estate was supposed to be a safe bet and we had five years to make this worth more than we paid for it.

I blew out a breath. “So, are we doing this?”

Mulan raised a hand. “I see much profit here, so I vote yes.”

Conn lifted a hand. “Your vote is my vote, Aran. We’re always going to be a team.”

I grunted as I pointed between him and Mulan. “Mulan and ya are also a team. Checks and balances are what will make this work. Truthfully, the idea of taking on this place scares me. But it has all the space we need. Five years from now, when my contract with Ben is done, anything we have put into it will undoubtedly make it vastly appealing for the next buyer. We’ll probably make our money back, which means we lived five years for free. I’m not a math person but I get how it works.”

Conn looked at Mulan. “That’s as close to saying yes as Aran ever gets when it involves spending money. Once you meet Bridget, you’ll understand why. Her mother’s middle name is frugal.”

Mulan wrinkled her brows as she frowned. “Irish names are very odd.”

Conn snickered and never even attempted to correct her. I glared at him before looking at Mulan. “Frugal is not her middle name, Mulan. Conn’s yanking yer chain. When Conn says my Ma is frugal, he means Bridget O’Malley hates spending money.”

Mulan shrugged. “I too hate spending money. It is necessary evil, though.”

“Agreed,” I said, turning to glare at Conn who now hid a smile. “I can see I’m the only one with reservations about this place. So, who’s going to make the deal?”

“Conn and I make deal together,” Mulan said. “You two pay your half—I pay other half. We get clear deed on date of sale. Then we fix things.”

I nodded and felt my phone buzz with a text message. It was Fiona asking if we were going to buy the house. I wrote back that we were going to think about it until tomorrow.

Hopefully, by then, the deal would be done, and I could tell my daughter to come home.

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