Genre = Paranormal Women's Fiction, Fantasy, Romance
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LENGTH: 72,000 words, 290 pages (approx)
How many ways do you need to say goodbye to your ex until he finally leaves you alone?
My formal name is Aran of The Dagda. I rue the day I became Aran Derringer, but soon I’ll be changing it back to plain old Aran O’Malley. Most days it’s not so bad being a forty-year-old witch from the lineage of the Tuatha de Danann. The last seven years weren’t the best, but I don’t have time to be regretting the past.
Despite what my demon hunter ex-husband and his demon hunter council told the world about me, I am not and never was a criminal. Before I could break myself out of prison, though, the demon hunter council made me a deal I couldn’t refuse. A legit early release is costing me all my pride and a lot more trouble than a jailbreak would have, but I like the idea of not being a magickal fugitive.
I swear to Goddess Danu that to get my magical divorce from Jack, I’ve become desperate enough to do just about anything, even if it means helping his stupid bosses.
40 Ways to Say Goodbye is an exhilarating new paranormal women’s fiction tale from USA Today Bestselling Author Donna McDonald.
Seven years ago…
My mother always told me that most of life’s problems weren’t hard on a woman, but that loving a man took everything. The last time I heard her issue that warning to me was the day Jack and I married. After that, Ma focused on the granddaughter I happily gave birth to at the end of my first wedded year.
Maybe Ma stopped hinting at the potential trouble I was in because she honored my marital commitment. Or maybe she simply wiped her hands of trying to get me to see the truth. Or perhaps moving from Galway, Ireland to Salem, Massachusetts changed Jack in ways I hadn’t seen, even if the move had been at his insistence.
Today, though, I remembered Ma’s warning and wished with my whole heart that I’d paid more attention to her then. Maybe if I’d thought about why she’d said those things about the man I’d chosen to tie myself to, I wouldn’t be in my current situation.
What situation is that? Well, that would be the situation where a nice Irish witch married a selfish idiot. Most people were grateful when someone saved their life. My husband seemed determined to be an exception of the worst kind.
“Why are ya betraying me, Jack? We made a daughter together. I’m yer wife in word and deed. I don’t understand why ya’re doing this to me.”
This was the demon hunter council room. I hadn’t been in here before because I hadn’t been allowed, but I could well imagine the pilgrim witches being brought here before being dragged away and burned. The stately space had a polished wooden table in the front for the ones who judged ya, and a few equally polished chairs facing it for those like me. Behind us were benches lining each side of the room like a church. They were for a missing audience, but not even my family was there.
Jack’s gaze swept the room, but eventually landed on me. He seemed oddly untroubled about what was happening even though I was losing my mind wondering what he had planned.
Whenever I asked a question, Jack refused to answer. He just kept repeating that he was angry at me. Well, I was angry with him too. I could see no reason for my husband to bring me here to face the people he worked for. He hadn’t even let me comb my hair or wash my face this morning.
Jack was a foot taller than me, so I had to glare up at him when I spoke. Confrontation was the only time in my life that I hated my shorter stature. “I’ve been the best wife I could be to ya, Jack.”
“This isn’t about you being a good or bad wife, Aran. This is about your magick. You called a demon from the Underdark and commanded it to serve you. That goes against everything I believe.”
Everything he said was a little true, but not exactly accurate. “Conn is my familiar but I do not command him. I simply ask him very nicely to help me with a specific problem and he does so. When he bit the mailman on the ankle for opening yer shaving club box, ya didn’t complain about his help then, Jack. I would have thought ya would be grateful that he was willing to fight a demon from the Underdark to save yer life.”
When Jack sneered at my argument, I knew it was a bad sign. He could be stubborn and belligerent when I proved him wrong. As he drew in a long breath to argue back, I realized I was wasting air trying to convince him of Conn’s good intentions.
My husband had already decided that I was the one who was wrong.
“Conn was a dog when he bit the mailman. You didn’t tell me your familiar was a demon, not once in all the time we were married. I thought Conn was merely a shapeshifter. How could you not warn me about what he truly was?”
I straightened in my chair, which wasn’t easy when my feet dangled three inches above the floor. Such irritations made me grateful my daughter had inherited her father’s taller height, but I was praying for all I was worth that my only child hadn’t inherited his closed mind.
“Conn is a bound imp, Jack, and ya never once asked me for details about him in the time we’ve been together. I don’t see how my familiar suddenly became a problem after he saved yer wretched life. Or don’t ya remember that’s part of the story? I notice ya keep leaving it out.”
Jack glared at me with hatred, and it hurt my heart.
“An imp is a lesser demon, Aran. You don’t have to be a hunter to understand the problem with him. Demons don’t belong on this plane.”
Still shocked by my husband’s extreme reaction, I blinked at him. Had Jack always viewed the world through eyes not capable of seeing gray? How had I missed that about him?
Okay, yes. Technically, Jack was right about imps being classified as lesser demons, but that was only a label. Imperial demon history was far more complex than most could handle learning.
The bottom line was Conn had never done anything mischievous to Jack, much less harmful.
It was my cousin, Liam, who called real demons up from the Underdark. And those demons were the kind that caused all manner of trouble just for the fun of it. Why wasn’t Jack worried about stopping him? Liam spoke the demonic language better than I did, and I’d studied hard to learn it.
The demons all liked Liam because they enjoyed being part of his elaborate schemes. Liam was also the reason I came to be Conn’s keeper. My closest cousin had a penchant for using his demon-calling abilities for his own selfish purposes.
Da said I was the only magickal of my generation, on either his or Ma’s side, that could be trusted not to misuse Conn. Had I been foolish to believe Jack also loved me for the innate goodness that made my family consider me worthy of our legacy?
I suddenly had a worse thought. What had Jack told our daughter Fiona about this situation? He’d taken me away this morning before I could talk with her.
I could handle the man I married thinking I was evil, but I refused to let my teenage daughter believe such nonsense. I had enough trouble keeping her outlook positive. As much as it pained me not to spew my hurt like lava all over my disloyal husband, I had to win Jack over before this went too far.
“Listen, Jack. The Dagda himself saved Conn from becoming a wicked demon many centuries ago. I know Da told ya about Conn’s history with our family the first day the two of ya met. I heard the two of ya talking about it for hours. Do ya remember doing that, Jack? Ya have to remember it. I recall ya talking to Da like it happened only yesterday.”
“Of course, I remember it, Aran, but I thought your father was exaggerating because you had said absolutely nothing about Conn being a demon. Everyone knows there are no good demons walking this plane of existence. You’re being foolish to trust even a lesser one. If you freed him from being bound, he’d end your life with no remorse.”
“No, ya’re wrong, Jack. Conn would never harm me. Did ya not hear me when I said he’d served my family for centuries? We’re not talking about a creature who got dragged through the veil yesterday. And he doesn’t live in the Underdark. Conn belongs on this plane now as much as you or I do. He’s belonged here for centuries.”
Grunting with lost patience, Jack pulled me upright by the magickal handcuffs he’d put on me last night. I’d gone along with him snapping them on me because I’d been dressing for bed and thought his action meant we might be heading for a bit of sexy fun. Why had I been so foolish? Because I naively thought Jack was trying to make up for our fight about Conn.
What a fool I’d been about him all these years.
Ma would be ashamed of me if she knew I’d let any man so far into my heart that I’d trusted him with everything sacred to us. She’d remind me that Da never gave her a minute’s worry in all their fifty-two years together.
Up to this moment, Jack had never given me any serious concerns either.
Or he hadn’t until he’d seen Conn turn into a fiery red creature and grow a pair of black horns that curled back over his head. I assumed his true form had been necessary for Conn to sway the battle in Jack’s favor. I’d never imagined there would be such fallout from him helping us.
Jack might not be grateful to Conn, but I was. My familiar had the right to refuse to help anyone but me. Jack had been out of his magickal arrows when the angry demon attacked him. Conn could have let the demon kill Jack. The only reason he hadn’t was because I asked him to save my husband. How could Jack be mad at Conn—or me—when my familiar was the only reason he was still alive?
The realization of what Jack was doing hit me when the entire demon hunter council strode into the room dressed in black ceremonial robes. They took seats at the long, official table and looked at me the way a hawk watches a mouse about to run.
I was no common criminal and had done nothing wrong except save my husband’s life, so I glared right back at them. I did nothing to thwart them either, no matter how I badly wanted to in that moment. Maybe I could have broken the magick of the cuffs, but I didn’t try.
As angry as I was, my instincts warned that zapping the lot of them would not help my case or make me look like the innocent witch I was claiming to be.
Eventually, a female council member stood up and looked me in the eye. The one time I’d seen the woman before today had been at Jack’s consecration when she’d handed my demon hunter husband an enchanted crossbow and a quiver of demon-killing arrows. Yes, I tried to tell Jack over the years that his demon hunting was in vain and that hadn’t won me any points with the man I married. But I swear to Goddess Danu, it never crossed my mind Jack would ever use those arrows on any member of my family.
Now I realized that was precisely what he planned to do.
Last night, Jack said my possession of a demon familiar reflected poorly on him. For the sake of keeping peace, I let my husband’s hurtful comment pass without spelling him to grow a squealing pig’s tail. However, I did tell Jack where to shove his wrong opinions, because even the most understanding witch has to draw a line when faced with such unjust prejudice.
My head whipped around when I heard the female council woman speaking my name.
“Before us stands a witch calling herself Aran of The Dagda. She has confessed to the illegal possession of a lesser demon. The demon hunter council commands her to call him forth so he can be destroyed.”
It’s funny how drastically yer life can change in a single moment of time. That moment for me came when Jack forced me to protect Conn from him. Outside the crushing emotional pain of my husband’s betrayal, choosing Conn over Jack wasn’t as hard as ya might imagine considering only Conn had been loyal to me.
I lifted my chin. “Yer request is not even reasonable. My familiar is a member of my family. Plus, Jack would be dead if Conn hadn’t saved him. How can the demon hunter council ignore those facts?”
Jack’s hand disappeared into some pocket portal of his coat and then reappeared with a loaded crossbow in it. “Don’t be a fool, Aran. Once your demon’s dead, we can work on mending our relationship. Call him—let’s get this over and done.”
My husband’s words worked on my temper like gasoline when thrown on a blazing fire. The handcuffs were all that kept me from hurting Jack. In fact, I might have found a way to use my magick despite the cuffs, but it was my lingering love for the man and my confusion about his betrayal that restrained me.
Though I fought not to show the depth of my hurt, it was breaking my heart. I felt shattered and raw inside. His words made a mockery of our marriage, and nothing I said made a difference.
I turned away from Jack and looked at the woman. “Ya’re all mad fools if ya think I’d help any of ya hurt my truest friend.”
“Call him,” the council woman ordered more firmly.
I shook my head, remaining as stalwart as the Irish cliffs I was named after.
“Call him or face the consequences,” she said.
My instincts warned me that anything other than going along would not serve me well today. I needed to buy myself some time with compliance, even though the cost would be dear to my pride. Worst of all, Ma would no doubt remind me for the rest of my life that I’d brought this mess upon myself by marrying Jack in the first place.
Ever the optimist, I tried one more time to reason with the man I married. I was never going to forgive Jack, but this madness could still be stopped. “Use yer head for something more than a hat rack, Jack Derringer. If ya think so poorly of me and mine, how can we ever have a real relationship? Where is yer loyalty to me?”
Jack sneered at my refusal to obey the woman’s orders—his orders. Why would he ever think I would? He should have known better. It was like he was suddenly a stranger instead of the man I’d lived with for thirteen years.
“The demon you’re protecting will die one way or another, Aran. No one would convict me for killing you to get to him.”
My heart bled at his words until pain filled my chest. “Goddess, one minute ya want to reconcile, and the next ya’re threatening to kill me. Make up yer mind at least. This is a shameful way to treat yer wife.”
Jack frowned at my calm statement. “Controlling a demon is one secret I can’t let you keep from the world. You’re protecting the wrong person, Aran. Can’t you see that?”
“No. What I’m doing is protecting myself and all I hold sacred. I’m fulfilling my duty to my family.”
Jack glared back at me. “I’m your family, Aran.”
“No, ya’re not—not anymore, Jack. Not even the worst drunkard among the O’Malleys ever threatened to kill a family member for no good reason.”
It was a hurtful thing for me to say to the man I promised my loyalty to, but Jack was making me choose Conn over him.
I lifted my chin and kept it high so I didn’t look like a child standing next to him. Never in my life had I wished harder to be six feet tall.
I projected my energy as much as I could under the circumstances and glared up at Jack for making me do this. “If ya want to talk about magickal retribution, no magickal person in the world would arrest me for chopping off yer body parts to defend myself. Challenging me would not be a good idea.”
Jack’s lips formed a sneer. “Are you willing to lose me and our daughter because of your demon? Because he’s going to cost you both of us.”
Heartbroken at the idea of losing Fiona’s love, my voice was quiet when I spoke this time. Any threat concerning my daughter pushed my heart as far as it had room to break.
“No matter what ya tell our daughter, Jack, one day she’ll learn the truth. Yer lies and deceit won’t stay hidden forever.”
“These circumstances are your own fault. They’re not mine. I’m not the villain here, Aran. I don’t even want to do this. You’re giving me no choice.”
I held up my wrists to make sure Jack and his council saw I was still bound with the cuffs he’d placed on me. “Ya’re the only one here with any sort of choice. So kill me if ya want, husband. At least then, we’ll be truly done with each other. Conn will pass on to another in my family line. Once that’s done, though, ya better watch yer back. There won’t be anywhere on this planet where ya can hide from my family.”
Jack’s yell was that of a man being tortured. “Why are you trying to make me into the villain?”
I blinked up at a man I no longer knew. “If not a villain, then what are ya, Jack? Ya’re not being a loving husband. Ya’re not being the caring father of my child. Killing a demon in self-defense is one thing, but killing a bound creature would be flat out murder.”
“Fine,” Jack reached into a small pocket and pulled out a copper chain with a glowing black stone dangling from it. “I’ll just use this amulet of yours to call him here. If Conn believes you’re in real danger, I’m sure he’ll come to your aid.”
My heart sank into my stomach when I saw what Jack held in his hand. Whatever little love I had left for him died the cruelest of deaths in a single dark moment of clearing seeing him for the man he was.
Once again I lifted my chin and glared. “Ya’ve already broken my heart a hundred times yesterday and today. Did ya have to steal The Dagda Stone as well? Ya can’t use it for anything. Not even my own kin can do that. The Dagda Stone is mine and mine alone until my death. Ya’ve betrayed me for nothing. Connlander of the Fir Bolg has nothing to fear from the likes of ya. He won’t come no matter what ya do.”
Jack sighed and hung his head. “Why can’t you side with me instead of against me? I can’t save you from yourself, Aran.”
Snorting at his condescending tone, I spat the truth at him. “Until today, I thought ya were the one person who would stand by me through everything life threw at me. Ya can’t imagine how it feels to learn how wrong I was.”
Jack pressed his lips together. “No matter how difficult this is for me, I will do what must be done. One day you’ll thank me for having the strength to do the right thing.”
“No, I won’t because I’ll be too busy hating ya for doing me wrong. I’ve been the best wife I knew how to be. In the past, I bowed to yer wishes instead of doing what I knew to be right, but I won’t be giving into yer demands today. I can’t let ya murder someone in my family. I’d die myself before tainting my soul with such an act.”
“Nonsense!” the council woman said as she waved a hand. “Demons do not belong to families. They do not feel loyalty.”
The Dagda Stone necklace disappeared from Jack’s hand and magickly appeared in hers. Apparently, the demon hunter woman was also some kind of witch.
“Aran of The Dagda, you are to be magickly incarcerated for a term of twenty years, which should be enough time for you to reconsider your stance.”
I drew myself up to a stiff five-foot one. “I don’t know what authority ya believe ya have over me, but it’s not as much as ya think. And to be blunt, council woman, I’ve been reconsidering all my life choices for the last several hours. Divorcing my traitorous husband is now at the top of my to-do list, and getting even with ya for helping him steal my private property is next. Consider yerself warned, council woman. Ya better take superb care of my necklace while ya have it. The true owner of it is a Celtic god who’s not as merciful as I tend to be.”
Jack frowned at my threat before defending himself again. “I don’t want a divorce from you, Aran. I love you and the life we made together, but I can’t let you run around calling forth a demon all the time. You are not above the rules.”
I swung to glare even more fiercely at him. “Whose rules, Jack? Are they yer rules? Are they yer council’s rules? The only rules I follow are the ones sanctioned by the Goddess Danu. And I’m pretty sure she’s okay with Conn getting to live or he’d already be dead.”
Jack glared again. “Humor won’t change the seriousness of your infraction nor keep you from being incarcerated for your refusal to cooperate.”
I sneered at Conn’s would-be murderer for daring to chastise me. “Yeah, well, using big words to describe locking me up won’t change how wrong ya are in using yer authority for this purpose. There will be consequences for yer behavior today. My family does not take betrayal lightly.”
“My job is to remove all demons from the Earth permanently. Why can’t you let me do my job without fighting me every step of the way? You have never supported my work.”
My disappointed sigh was loud and long, but no tears fell. Ironically, I considered not weeping over my heartbreak to be a small win for my pride… and I desperately needed one. My future looked very bleak for the next few years.
“So what happens now, Jack? Are ya planning on torturing me in hopes I’ll change my mind? Will I have to wear yer magick handcuffs forever? This is a modern-day witch hunt and ya know it. I’m innocent of any wrongdoing.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the councilwoman who took my amulet wave her hand at some nearby guards. Her voice carried with almost no effort. “Deliver Jack’s wife to Asbury Cottage. It’s warded against her Celtic magick. She can have visitors there but won’t be able to leave until she changes her mind. If she calls up her demon, the house will alert us. For extra insurance, we’ll keep her family heirloom.”
Jack bowed his head to the woman when her gaze landed on him. I guessed it was to show his agreement with her plans for me.
That nod finished us as far as I was concerned.
For now, I would go along with their incarceration for Fiona’s sake. I had no choice but to protect her from Jack until she was old enough to deal with her father on her own terms.
I would not serve a sentence I did not deserve in some demon hunter prison. When the time was right, I would leave, and Goddess only knew Jack better be ready to deal with my wrath.
Several years later, also known as today…
The seventh spring of my incarceration caused the same wishing in my witch’s soul as the other six springs at the cottage that passed before it. After being alone for so many years, I knew longing for the impossible was hopeless.
Those who’d imprisoned me would not be experiencing some miracle that would change their minds. That hope died during the first year.
My official enemies now included the entire demon hunter council and the self-righteous, deceitful demon hunter I’d foolishly married and bred a witch daughter with.
Not only had Jack sided with strangers when I’d refused to help him murder Conn, but he also stole my family legacy for Goddess only knew what reason.
It had been five years since I last wept at the unfairness of it all. But I hadn’t seen the man I married in the entire seven years of what they called my magickal incarceration.
His total absence from my life seemed normal to me. If he had shown up after all this time, I might not have been able to contain my wrath, and I imagine Jack suspected that.
I was very proud of myself for never accepting the injustice the demon hunter council did to me. With Da gone from this life, Ma returned to Ireland during my prison years. I hadn’t been allowed to see her the whole time. Despite their promises that I could have visitors, Fiona had been the only one they allowed.
My parents had encouraged me to use my inherited powers for the good of people on this side of the ocean after I married one of its citizens. Jack and Fiona were the only reasons I stayed here in America, especially when my heart longed for cliffs and the sea.
My family plans hadn’t exactly worked out for me, though. Instead of using my gifts for good and training others to do so, my powers had been questioned, betrayed, and hidden away for the last seven years.
But there were good reasons my mother had named me after the Aran cliffs near her original home. A diminutive witch named after towering rock surfaces could not be broken by the opinions of others, especially when they were flat wrong.
The day marking my fortieth year of living on this earth was less than two weeks from now. With that celebration would come an additional burst of power not constrained to the family heirloom necklace Jack stole from me.
Not that I needed its power to get out of this place. I never had.
If Fiona had been willing to follow me back to my family’s original dwelling place, I’d have returned to Ireland long before now. There I could have raised her in a land where magick was respected and our family was honored.
Fiona had been thirteen when they sent me to the cottage and she hadn’t wanted to leave her friends. So I’d stayed and dealt with my imprisonment for her sake.
They let me see Fiona as often as I wanted, which was a powerful motivation to not become a fugitive. Obviously, I couldn’t escape and leave her behind. No way was I letting Jack raise my daughter to be a traitor too.
My goals changed, though, after Fiona came into her own. She was twenty now. Whatever choice my adult daughter made about where to live, I’d already decided not to serve out the remaining years of my unjust imprisonment.
Monitoring Fiona’s life at a distance was not reason enough to go without seeing the rest of my family. No, my celebration plans for my fortieth birthday year involved gaining my total freedom.
I’d always possessed enough power to break their so-called Celtic magick wards, but it was instinct that held me back. Something told me life would be easiest if I stayed a while longer. I hadn’t listened to my gut back when my instincts warned me about the shadier side of the man I married, but I was listening now.
Planning to escape instead of actually doing it always made me restless, though, so I rose from my seat on the porch and walked out into the yard as far as the warded boundary allowed without setting off the blasted alarms.
I’d done that multiple times—all accidental—during my first year here and what a mess that had created. They’d almost put Jack’s handcuffs back on me.
Standing at the edge of their boundary now, I stared resentfully at the road I wasn’t free to walk down before I strolled back toward the porch. Maybe it was the line of blooming pink azaleas growing on both sides of the porch that had me wishing things could be different.
I headed to sit on the swing that Fiona had helped me lower enough that my feet touched.
The house was perfectly pleasant. I hated my prison for what it represented—Goddess knew I did—but I also understood the Victorian cottage pleased most eyes with its pale yellow exterior trimmed in bright white scrollwork. Given the world’s current infatuation with all things “vintage”, the quaint Victorian kitchen made the cottage a realtor’s dream. It didn’t appeal to my aesthetic tastes, but feeling trapped in it certainly didn’t help my opinion.
In all honesty, the only real negative was the too-modern living room. Rumors from food deliverers and the guards assigned to check on me was that the warlock previously imprisoned in it requested the large masculine furniture that dwarfed my petite body.
Sure, I’d spent a few nights sleeping on the monstrous couch in the living room when I was feeling depressed and too lazy to climb the stairs, but never once had I sat in any of the matching oversized chairs. Instead, I’d dragged a reasonable-sized wooden rocker from the master bedroom downstairs. The rocker wasn’t the most comfortable seat for lounging, but at least my feet touched the floor. That was my usual requirement for furniture.
I sat beside the fireplace during lonely winter nights and rocked myself into a state of calm.
Long ago, I was told everyone imprisoned here got to redecorate a room or two, but I’d found that offer too ironic to take them up on it. Why bother changing the contents of my prison cell? I was neither tenant nor guest in the cottage. The mismatched furnishings kept my situation from feeling normal, and my discomfort reminded me that this was not my true fate.
I refused to adapt any further to this farce.
The only reason I hadn’t tried to escape was because they’d allowed Fiona to visit me over the years as much as she wanted. Using her as my excuse not to change my situation had reached its expiration date, though. At twenty, she was a child no longer… and thank the Goddess for that. I mean, I loved my daughter madly, but being stuck in this place was more maddening than an innocent woman should have to endure.
Time had passed faster for me when she came to visit. Even with several bedrooms to choose from, my daughter favored the weirdest one in the house. Its dark purple walls were adorned with posters of boy bands from the 80s. I hadn’t tried to find out if some incarcerated teenager chose the furnishings. Anger simmered in me still. Learning that Jack and his demon hunter council had imprisoned a teenage witch would have only made it worse.
Fiona said she liked the feeling of the furry black rug by the bed on her bare toes. Goddess knew she’d not been a simple child, especially for me as a part-time mother, but I loved my daughter with my whole heart. Knowing she’d made it this far in her life still able to appreciate such minor pleasures as a furry rug made my heart happy.
There was no man in my daughter’s life yet, nor did Fiona seem to want one. Life was funny, though, because I had been exactly her age when I met Jack. We’d married quickly, and soon I had gotten pregnant with Fiona. Like my daughter, I also appreciated life’s simple pleasures. Without a single doubt in my soul, I’d given all of myself to Jack believing the two of us truly were meant to be together.
On good days, the mystery that was my only child convinced me I hadn’t made such a colossal mistake in sleeping with him. But on other days? Well, I suppose I preferred not to dwell on those.
When I finally grew tired of dwelling on the same old things I thought about every day, I rose from the porch to go back into the house. Last week Fiona brought me a new book of spells. I couldn’t perform the more interesting ones with the limited magick allowed around the property, or at least, I couldn’t without revealing my powers.
Instead, I focused on memorizing the more intriguing ones.
One day soon I was going to leave this place and practice whatever spells I wanted. I had an entire list of what I would do when I left. The first and most important goal I had was to get The Dagda Stone back no matter how many dead bodies I had to step over.
Then I was going to do what I should have done the day Da gave it to me. The only reason I hadn’t done the ritual was because Jack had been too fearful of the magickal cost. I wouldn’t be incarcerated if I had fully accepted my legacy because the demon hunters would have known that their pitiful wards wouldn’t have held me, not even a single day.
Many times in the last seven years, I’d asked the Goddess to apologize to my Da and The Dagda for putting Jack ahead of my other responsibilities. I’d vowed that I would fix things as soon as I could, and that it wouldn’t be much longer now that Fiona was grown.
It had been Fiona who had explained to Conn all those years ago that they had incarcerated me because of my relationship with him. Calling him to me in my magickal prison was out of the question when that was precisely what Jack and the demon hunters wanted.
But I hadn’t wanted him to feel abandoned either, so Fiona had arranged with my mother—her maternal grandmother—to keep my familiar until I got out of here. Da’s mother was the last legacy witch in the family before I became one, but she’d passed long before Da did.
Ma was all I had left, and she hadn’t batted a false eyelash at the request. She’d taken Conn in because that’s what family did when ya needed help. Or it was what real family did.
Before I left this country and the unhappy life I’d lived here, I would track down my traitorous husband and magickly divorce him. It was a sad truth that I might not be able to take back the blood vow I made to him on our wedding day, but I refused to stay connected to Jack in any other way. Killing him was not an option because of the vow, but maybe I could watch while someone else did it.
Perhaps I’d leave this place the day I turned forty. Sure, I still had to decide what I was going to do with this midlife opportunity to reinvent myself, but I’d figure it out. For sure, I would not be spending the rest of my life with some other man who might stick a knife in my back. One of those in my life was enough.
* * *
The moment I crossed the threshold of the front door, I knew I was no longer alone in the house.
Feeling someone magickal, I made my way into the kitchen and found a stranger sitting at my kitchen table. Intruders were a common occurrence, and one I didn’t dare try to prevent, so I didn’t react to this one either. No doubt he was here simply to make sure I still was. They sent someone to check on me every day.
“Greetings, stranger. Do ya fancy a cup of tea before we get to yer business? I have a nice herbal blend that won’t ruin yer dinner or keep ya up all night. I’m having a cup myself, so it’s no trouble to make ya one.”
“Is the tea your own magickal blend?” he asked.
“No,” I said, chuckling at the thought of having that much control over what I ate and drank while at the cottage. “My daughter brings it to me when she visits. Her father checks it for poisons and hallucinogens before she does. Since I’ve been drinking it for years without issue, ya’re probably safe. There’s honey and milk too if ya have an urge for those.”
“Just honey, please.”
I got two big mugs down and the squeeze-bottle of cheap honey they provided. Food appeared in my kitchen every week like clockwork. I think the house reported how much I used because nothing ever got doubled. Either the house was magickal or it was spelled. Mostly I couldn’t complain about the way they fed me, but the quality wasn’t high.
Before my incarceration, I used to harvest honey from the bees living in my garden. Fiona reported that she’d tried to keep the hives up over the years but didn’t have my touch for beekeeping. I grieved my bee loss years ago and set it aside just as I had all the other things I’d taken for granted.
Each loss only made me hate my demon hunter husband that much more.
After dropping a strainer filled with loose tea in each mug, I carried them to the table. On the second trip, I fetched honey, two saucers, and two spoons. There was something soothing about the ritual of making tea that never failed to make me feel slightly better, despite my deplorable circumstances.
“While the kettle heats, we can get yer business done. Are ya my checker today?”
The man was at least Jack’s size, which meant he cleared six feet or more in height. Although he was seated, I could tell his height because our eyes met easily as I stood next to the table. His longish hair was pulled back in a ponytail streaming down to mid-back. It was charcoal black with a bit of silver showing at the temples, suggesting he was my age or older.
I was surprised. They usually sent younger ones to chat me up. The young ones were eager to tattle on me for whatever favors the demon hunter council promised them.
After spending the first year being mean and surly to visitors, I eventually forced myself to be nice. Revealing that I was still angry gave too much of my true feelings away, so it became my best kept secret. I even kept it from my visiting daughter because I didn’t want my teenager rebelling against her father on my behalf. Also I didn’t know what Jack might do to control her. Given the ease with which he’d betrayed me, I couldn’t take any chances.
I returned to sit at the table as I waited for the kettle to boil, I caught myself imagining what my new visitor would look like with his hair undone and falling over his very wide shoulders. I imagined it would be as long as mine, but then I hadn’t had a real haircut since I got here. Dye also was forbidden to me for some strange reason, so now I looked the way the Goddess intended.
When the silver grew below my shoulders after three years, I’d had the then sixteen-year-old Fiona cut the old half straight across with a pair of kitchen shears. Half my old hair fell to the floor that day, and along with it all the memories it carried. Fiona scooped the cut strands up and put them into the trash while asking me why I looked so sad when my hair looked much, much better.
There was no answer to give her that she’d have understood at that age. My imprisonment had become too normalized in our life. One day years from now, I’d remind her of that haircut and explain how it had felt to see a gray-haired stranger when I looked in the mirror. If she showed compassion for those feelings, I might also admit to her that I was ashamed of myself for not using my powers to change my fate.
Maybe she’d figure out that the reason I restrained myself was her. Or maybe she wouldn’t. Ya couldn’t tell what a young person was thinking most of the time. She was twenty now and I still couldn’t tell.
My visitor’s grin over my silent musings annoyed me, so I pulled myself back to attention. I met his gaze and waited until he finally answered my question.
“Maybe I am your checker today. No one used that term when they sent me to come talk to you.”
The teakettle chose that moment to whistle loudly. I held up a finger for him to pause his comments as I rose from the table to retrieve it. After filling both our mugs with hot water, I returned the kettle to the stove and dug for a package of cookies in a nearby cabinet. I rarely indulged in eating sugar because it messed with my energy, but Fiona enjoyed them whenever she stopped by.
Since I had not invited this man, I didn’t bother with a plate when I brought the cookies back to the table. I just slid the now open package in front of him so he could help himself when he was ready.
“My name’s Aran. I’m sure ya know that already, but introductions make me feel normal, so I indulge myself with every new person. Now, who would ya be?”
He glared over my cheery greeting like I’d offended him somehow. I decided it was a peculiar reaction, but who was I to judge what his day had been like before I saw him?
“Why are you incarcerated, Aran?”
Before I attempted to explain, I removed the tea strainer from my cup, set it on the saucer, and added some honey to my tea. I gave the brew a slow stir to make him wait a bit longer.
“How is it ya don’t know about my situation?”
His shoulder lifted and fell as he shrugged. “They say you’re here because you control a demon who obeys you.”
I lifted my hands and looked around. “If I controlled a demon like they say, don’t ya think I would have burned this bloody house to the ground by now?”
He brought his cup to his very nice lips before he spoke again. I was too mesmerized to look away. That was what seven years of celibacy did to a woman. It caused me to fantasize about one of my jailers. Wasn’t there a syndrome for that nonsense?
He smiled as he lowered his mug. “I’m a good listener, Aran. Why don’t you tell me the truth?”
Was he really implying that I was a liar? I laughed at his nerve. “I didn’t expect to be playing twenty questions with a stranger over tea today. Ya’ve caught me unprepared.”
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “The council told me their side of your story. I came to hear your version.”
Yes, I was sure that was true to some degree, but the real question was why he wanted to hear what I had to say. The man wanted something big from me. Even though I had no clue what that could be, I could feel him working his courage up to ask for it.
I sipped my tea as I gave him what he asked for. “Oh, my side of my story is very simple. I’m stuck here because the man I married betrayed me. However, being betrayed is an old, old story, ya know, as well as a boring one. Don’t ya find it hard to talk about personal things with a stranger? I know I do. Or are ya intending to eventually tell me yer name and why ya’re really here?”
While he mentally wrestled with my insistent curiosity, I let my gaze travel over his face. I think my staring made him more uncomfortable than my verbal challenges because he lifted one dark eyebrow in surprise. The man who had yet to give me his name wasn’t nearly as handsome as I recalled Jack being, but it had been many years since I laid eyes on the man I was still legally bound to.
Fiona hadn’t even shown me any pictures. She said her father had asked her not to. I had my suspicions as to why Jack made that request of our child, but I chose to remain in denial until my suspicions were confirmed.
My mysterious visitor’s mild scowl hinted at the sort of masculinity I’d found vastly intriguing when I was younger. The brooding sort offered a challenge that appealed to me—unfortunately. That was probably how I ended up with Jack. No one brooded better than he did when he didn’t get his way.
Thankfully, I was no longer as stupid as I once was. Or maybe I only found him attractive because most people who visited were half my age. I admit I was lonely for company who could relate to me as an adult. I had too much time to analyze things in life these days and there was no one around to talk sense into me.
Over-thinking, which is what I called my tendency to dwell, did nothing but frustrate the saner parts of me.
My fantasies about the man’s hair for sure were a sign that it was time for me to resume a life that included having some male company now and again. Grateful for the epiphany he’d provided, I sipped my tea and stayed silent when he still didn’t offer to introduce himself.
Eventually, I had to speak because the silence was simply too awkward to stand.
“Ya don’t have to tell me yer name, of course. Everyone magickal knows there’s power in the label we receive at birth, so I understand yer hesitation.”
He lifted an eyebrow again, like he’d forgotten he hadn’t responded. I snorted but didn’t laugh.
“My name is Rasmus.”
His name sounded like the long rasp of a file as it slid across metal and hearing it told me my initial instinct was spot on about him. Since he appealed to me on some womanly level that felt ignored in the worst way, I suppose I secretly hoped to be wrong this once. But I was rarely wrong in intuiting what a person did for a living.
I lifted my cup to drink the last of my tea. The honey hiding at the bottom wasn’t enough to sweeten the bitter conclusion I had to force down my throat before I told him what I knew.
“Ya’re not a warlock, but power simmers along the edges of yer energy. It’s sharp and deadly, just waiting for a chance to be released.”
Rasmus grunted into his cup. “When you’re done guessing, let me know and I’ll tell you.”
“Oh, I know yer kind all too well, demon hunter. I was stalling while reminding myself not to cut yer throat until I discovered why ya came.”
He lowered his guilty gaze as he sipped the last of his tea. After a few seconds, his gaze lifted to mine again. His eyes reflected a sober unhappiness, and he looked resigned.
“Should I apologize for my entire profession?” he asked.
“Not for all,” I replied, pushing my empty mug around with twitchy fingers. “Yer work probably serves a good purpose as long as yer original purpose is good. Despite my husband’s threats to kill me and my family members, I don’t consider all yer kind to be arses of the lowest order. But I find that powerful males like yerself are often incapable of comprehending the gray areas of life.”
Rasmus shook his head. “That’s quite a denigration of my character when you really don’t know me.”
I put the strainer with the tea leaves back into my cup and glared at him. “Guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that point. My desire to know more about ya ended with yer confirmation of what ya’ve devoted yer life to doing. I haven’t forgotten my husband put his work above my well-being. Surely ya can’t be surprised by my mistrust.”
My patience with his wordplay was wearing thin. It was time for him to get to the point before I lost my temper. “Why are ya really here, Rasmus? My husband hasn’t visited me in the whole seven years I’ve been trapped here. No demon hunter but yerself has darkened my door.”
Not bothering to dunk his strainer again, Rasmus pushed his cup of hot water in my direction. “Thanks for the tea, Aran… and you’re right. I came here to make you a deal. If you help us with a demon problem, the council will reduce your sentence.”
Never in a million years would I say yes to that sort of deal because my freedom was non-negotiable. I wanted their acknowledgement of my innocence as much as I wanted my property returned.
“Help ya how and with what?” I asked.
Rasmus blew out a breath before taking in a deeper one. “Demons are showing up in greater numbers than we can destroy. We haven’t been able to locate the Underdark portal where they’re entering this plane of existence. Jack said you might help us if we showed you leniency.”
“He’s right that I could help ya, but ya’ve given me no good reason to yet. And I’m not in the mood to play word games with ya. Offering me leniency when I did nothing wrong is a joke.”
Rasmus glared at me for all he was worth. “Demons are hurting some people and killing others. Why wouldn’t you help us just because it’s the right thing to do?”
I snorted. “Yer words and opinions can’t be trusted. Didn’t ya hear what I said about why I’m here? My husband threatened to kill me and someone else in my family. As if that wasn’t reason enough to hate ya all, one of yer council women stole my personal property. So take yer pick of those reasons, Rasmus. My actual list is much longer, but those are the top reasons why I’ll never agree to help ya for so little gain.”
Rasmus slapped a palm down on the table. “Look, we’ve exhausted all our efforts to find the portal. Twenty-seven demon hunters died last month because we failed. A bigger infestation of demons might be more evil than all magickals working together could eradicate.”
I softly chuckled at his dramatic claims. “Yes, well, I know only what the average magickal does about a demon’s goals, but I’d bet my supply of sweet biscuits this portal problem of yers is limited to this side of the ocean. Do ya know why, Rasmus? Because all other countries in the world have their own methods of dealing with the Underdark. There’s nothing for me in yer offer of alleged leniency except a lot of personal risk. So no thank you. I’ll be returning home as soon as I’m able and leaving ya to solve yer demon problems on yer own.”
Rasmus sighed. “Fine. Name your terms then. I know you have to want something badly enough to help.”
I widened my eyes at the offer. “Seriously? Can ya grant me three wishes like a bloody djinn?”
He spoke through tight lips. “No, but I can take your wishes back to the council and argue that they grant them.”
“Wow. I suppose I’ll have to think about yer generous offer for a few moments then.”
Pretending to think, I rose and walked to get the teakettle again. I carried it back to the table and filled our mugs to the brim with hot water that still steamed. His mug sat unattended, so I played the friendly host. “Do ya want some fresh tea leaves for your strainer, Rasmus?”
He frowned and shook his head. I knew letting him stew would convince him better than words would that I had little interest in his petty offer.
After returning the kettle to the stove, I plucked an amber and black stone from a bowl of crystals on the counter before I turned back to talk. Cradling the stone in my hand, I studied Rasmus and his frown.
“How desperate are ya for me to say yes?”
“Desperate enough to entertain your requests,” he answered, glaring full-out at me.
Snorting at his irritated tone, I crossed my arms. A tingle of excitement crawled over my skin. This could be a chance to get my freedom to-do list done legitimately and in one fell swoop. How could I pass up a chance to make the council restore my freedom and to force Jack to drop his dogged pursuit of killing Conn?
Hope could do a lot to fuel my cooperation.
“Okay, demon hunter. Here are my non-negotiable requests. My familiar, Conn, is forever off-limits as a target for yer kind. Jack personally must swear to abide by that as well. Plus, I want Jack to retrieve my heirloom necklace from yer council and hand it back to me, since he was the one who stole it. He owes that much to my Da. Last, of course, it’s only logical for the rest of this bogus incarceration to be dismissed as if it never happened. I want to be a completely free witch.”
Rasmus chuckled low. “That’s quite a list for a proven criminal. I don’t know if they’ll agree to all that.”
I smirked at him. “Did I ask ya for reparations or money for the time I’ve been wrongly held here? No, I didn’t ask for that, because I don’t need to extort anyone for gain. All I want is for my rightful property to be returned to me and for my witch integrity to be restored. To do that, Conn needs to be safe from the likes of yer kind. Ya heard my deal. I want it all or I won’t be helping ya.”
Rasmus chuckled. “I find your negotiation-free stance surprising for a woman who’s been magickly confined for so long. I figured you’d be desperate by now to get out of this place and willing to do whatever it took.”
I tilted my head as I stared at him. “I only stayed here because I had reasons for staying. When those reasons are no more, I promise ya I’ll be leaving when I please no matter what ya try to do to stop it from happening.”
A sexy male smirk formed across lips that should have been used for much nicer purposes.
“You stayed because of the wards on this place. It’s warded against Celtic magick. I know all about the details of your incarceration.”
It was my turn to chuckle. “No, ya don’t. Ya know only facts that aren’t important. No one can ward against the power of the gods. It’s infinite and changeable and blesses my family as it chooses. My heritage never lets me down when I call on it. I haven’t yet made that call, but I’ve been rethinking the value of my cooperation with the likes of ya.”
Snorting because he didn’t believe my claim, Rasmus glared at me. “Are you saying you’re a god, Aran? That’s pretty arrogant of you. If you had that kind of power, they would have recruited you to help us long ago.”
I rolled my eyes and counted to ten in my head before speaking. “Do ya know who The Dagda was?”
“Sure. I read mythology. He was one of the original leaders of the Tuatha de Danann, who were not gods as far as I know. They were extremely magickal humans with advanced skills in technology.”
When I looked at Rasmus, my insides got warm and mushy, but when I listened to him, all I heard was another version of Jack trying to convince me he knew something more than I did.
“The Dagda was the first ancestor of my bloodline. I never tracked how many great greats exist between us, but Ma says he’s always been around in some form. The tribe of Danu eventually became immortals. Goddess Danu allowed it.”
“Do you have any proof of your claim to have the power of gods?”
I frowned at the question and pretended to be saddened by his rudeness. “I suppose ya require some extraordinary magick to convince ya, don’t ya, Rasmus? I’d remove the wards on the house, but that would bring the wrath of yer snooty council down on my head, and I’m not ready to deal with them yet.”
Even though I was still standing by the sink, Rasmus pushed his watery mug to my side of the table. “My tea’s gone. You could conjure some hot tea for me with magick.”
“That’s way too easy for our purposes,” I said, waving away his suggestion. Then I chuckled. What popped into my mind was a simple magick trick, but one I would enjoy inflicting on him for the rest of the day.
Raising my hand, I pointed one finger at his hair. “Enchanta purpleanta,” I announced. A stream of purple traveled to him from my finger and burst into a million sparkles in front of his face. My annoying visitor coughed and waved the sparkles away as I laughed at his new hair color.
While the spell took full effect, I turned and casually refilled the kettle at the sink, which was still nearly full. Filling it gave me something to do while I thought about what to say to convince him.
“This house restricts what the council thinks of as real magick, but that’s because they understand nothing except their own limited view of things. Demon hunters are far more mortal than my ancestors ever were.”
I turned and waved a hand at the stove. “This stove made by human hands works as much magick as any spell I could cast. For a simple exchange of energy, the teakettle heats all water we could ever want for tea. Science, technology, and mechanics are just as magickal as conjuring or sending forth a spell from yer fingers. My family taught me to respect all power… and all creatures. That’s a life lesson the magickals in yer country could use.”
“I’m still waiting for you to convince me of your god-like powers.”
I rolled my eyes at Rasmus and his impatience. “Well, ya’re doomed to disappointment today, then. I’m going for a walk in the front yard to check the wards. Why don’t ya leave before I return? I refuse to eat dinner with a person of so little faith.”
Rasmus rolled his eyes as he stood up. “If I wanted to stay here with you, nothing you did could make me leave.”
One corner of my mouth lifted. “Are ya truly sure about that? I can be pretty forceful when I need to be.”
“I’m a foot taller and outweigh you by at least a hundred pounds. I would have a natural advantage in any fight, but I also know your magick is restricted here.”
My sigh was loud. “Every confrontation comes down to some egotistical guy pointing out how short and powerless I am. I’m sick of people thinking they’re smarter than me simply because they’re taller.”
I lifted my hand and squeezed my fingers into a fist while Rasmus continued to self-righteously smirk at me. My gaze bored into him as I moved my intention from my fist to his neck. Soon, Rasmus grabbed for his throat and fell back into his seat gasping for the air I denied him.
I smiled at his pain and shock. “Bullying is rude, and it’s no way to say thanks to someone who served ya tea. I guess I’m going to have to post a ‘no bullies allowed’ sign in the kitchen. Now go away before I get even madder.”
I slowly unfurled my fist to let my power wane bit by bit. While I did that, an explanation rolled out of me, even though Rasmus had done nothing to deserve it.
“The Tuatha de Danann belonged to the Goddess Danu. They were her chosen people. She gifted each of them part of her goddess power so they could do the tasks she assigned them. As her first born son, my ancestor got the biggest share. The ancients would have laughed at yer petty debate about whether or not they were actual gods because they always knew what they were and felt no need to label themselves. I refuse to tolerate yer disrespect towards me and my people. I had my fill of that with Jack. A forty-year-old witch deserves to be respected.”
Rasmus gasped for breath as he dragged gulps of life-giving air into his lungs. I watched his struggles without feeling a drop of regret. When the kettle whistled once more, I turned it off and walked back to sit down across from the still recovering demon hunter. Maybe I missed his playful teasing a little, but I wanted no misunderstandings.
I was done catering to male egos. If Rasmus truly wanted my help, he was going to earn it by legitimately freeing me from this place.
After he started breathing normally again, Rasmus stared for a long time before speaking. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to bully you. I’m worried that we’re wasting precious time when we should be hunting for that portal.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Rasmus. Yer problem is a Demon portal. My problem is being punished unjustly. Until I solve my problem, I have no motivation to help ya solve yours. Do ya understand me?”
“Did you miss the part where you would get out of here? Even temporary freedom should tempt you after all this time.”
I sighed, and it echoed in my kitchen. The man was dense and had a one-track mind. It lowered his appeal until even my hormones shut up their chirping about his wide shoulders, nice lips, and longish hair. I had no energy or time to give to another man like Jack.
“Let me see if I can clarify my position for you. Fiona was thirteen years old when Jack put me here simply for not letting him kill the familiar I inherited, and who once served The Dagda himself.”
“Your familiar is a demon. Demons can’t be trusted.”
“Anyone ever tell ya that ya have a one-track mind? For the last bloody time, Conn is my familiar, a member of my family, and my friend. He saved Jack’s life the day before I ended up here. He did it because I asked him to help my husband. Most of the time, Conn is a dog of one sort or another. But to fight the demon Jack battled back then, Conn had to assume his truest form. He revealed himself for my sake, and I will allow no harm to come to him for it.”
Rasmus snorted. “And I suppose you’ve been protecting him further by never summoning him to help you escape here.”
“Good Goddess, ya’re a stubborn man, and the answer is no. I stayed where I was put so my daughter would have as normal a life as I could give her. It wasn’t her fault she was born to a father who might one day lock her up like he did her mother.”
“You’re exaggerating,” Rasmus said.
“No, I am not. Staying here has been a very hard decision for me, but in the end it all worked out. My daughter could have been the unfortunate child of two constantly fighting parents. Instead, Jack became an extra-good father to make up for what he did to me.”
Rasmus nodded. “Okay, I get it. Everything was always about the welfare of your child. You’ve made that point very clear.”
I shrugged before going on. “Accepting my priorities is a good start to yer understanding of me, but ya’re still not seeing the big picture. When a daughter of the gods is ready to leave a place, she will leave, one way or the other. Ya don’t scare me with yer bullying threats, Rasmus. If I was a restored witch and felt like my old self again, then I’d probably help ya with yer demon problem out of the compassion I feel for all mankind. But that compassion will never be felt by a fugitive witch once she moves out of yer council’s precious reach.”
He shook his head. “Are you seriously saying you’re more than a witch?”
“I don’t know why ya’re so fixated on my ancestry. Jack knows all about me. Da explained it to Jack before we ever married.”
Rasmus frowned into his empty tea mug.
I glared at him. “Ya should ask yerself why Jack sent ya here to ask for my help instead of coming to ask me himself. Better yet, ask Jack about our pre-nuptial agreement. I took extraordinary steps to make sure Jack had no reason to fear me. Yer appearance to do his dirty work tells me that apparently, he still does. He’s afraid to face me, and the reason why makes me loathe him.”
Rasmus glowered before he spoke. “Jack’s story is nothing like yours. He’s a devoted husband. He’s eagerly waiting for you to say yes to this offer.”
I gave Rasmus the same look I gave Fiona when she tried to convince me her father still loved me. “Do ya think I’m surprised that ya trust Jack’s words more than mine?”
“We’re not trying to trick you. Why are you so suspicious? He’s telling the truth.”
“Well, I think it’s exactly like that, and I will not be further debating the matter with someone wearing blinders. Go get everyone to agree to the whole deal, Rasmus, so I can help ya. I want it all, free and clear. Do not betray me.”
Rasmus narrowed his eyes. “Or what?” he demanded.
I leaned toward him. “If ya betray me like Jack did and tell the council that I can leave this place on my own, I will make sure the demons aren’t the only problem ya have. See? I can make threats too. I want my life back, and ya’ve given me a high road I can use to walk out of here. Ya know what I want. Be my hero and I’ll be yer heroine.”
He lowered his gaze from mine and rubbed his throat as he stared at me. “I get why Jack believed you could help us.”
I rolled my eyes. “And just so we’re clear about everything, Jack gets nothing at all from me in this deal… or ever again. He married a kind witch, got a wife eager to please him, and a caring mother for the child we made together. He willingly threw me and that life away. Jack knows absolutely nothing of what I’ve become since he put me here or what I want out of life these days.”
Rasmus scrubbed his jaw. “Jack still loves you, Aran. He tells everyone that all the time. Maybe when you see him again things will be clearer.”
The irony had me chuckling and made me roll my eyes. “Yes, my husband loved me so much that he betrayed me and left me alone here—all for denying him the privilege of killing the creature who saved his life.”
“He’s living for your removal from this place. Everything he does is working toward that goal.”
I held up a hand to stop him before I got mad enough to shut him up. “Believe his lies if ya want, Rasmus, but I’ll not be doing so. What Jack should know by now is that I intend to divorce him first chance I get. If he’s planning a reconciliation, he won’t be getting one. He doesn’t deserve me anymore. And I deserve better than him.”
Rasmus shook his head at my answer. How was I less believable than the man who betrayed our marriage for his job?
“Look, if we end up working together on yer demon problem, ya’re going to have to accept that I’m telling ya the truth. Maybe Jack’s fantasy of me pining away for him soothes his ego and assuages the guilt he felt about his betrayal. All I can say is that the love I once felt for Jack died the moment he gave yer bloody council woman my family property. He betrayed me and my Da. That’s not something I can ever forgive Jack for doing.”
“Jack won’t return the amulet because he thinks your family heirloom will give you too much power. He fears it will ruin your life.”
I laughed at that, but it wasn’t truly funny. My heart was still broken over Jack’s theft. “The Dagda Stone is a family gift I was tasked with guarding for the rest of my years on this Earth. I was supposed to do a ritual to bond with it, but Jack was afraid it might change me as a wife and mother—or so he said. I put off the ritual thinking one day Jack’s faith in me would show him the truth of my power. These last seven years without him have made me realize I put off many things for him. Jack was afraid of my power because I have never allowed him to control me or it.”
“He was your husband. Don’t you think he had a right to worry about you?”
I shook my head. “No, and I don’t know why I’m even speaking to ya about the matter. Ya weren’t the one who married him, so it’s none of yer business.”
“Explain to me how Jack was wrong in what he did.”
I lifted both hands palm up. “How could my magickal growth be a problem for a man who professed to love me as I was when we met? If ya truly love a person, don’t ya by default believe the best of them instead of the worst? No, Rasmus, I’m done with Jack. In fact, I’m done with all men. But that won’t keep me from helping ya solve yer problem if ya get the council to agree to everything. Like I said, mine is an all-or-nothing offer.”
“In the years I’ve known him, Jack has never said a single word against you. All his stories have been flattering. All he talks about is how wonderful his life will be when you get out of here.”
I snorted and looked away from the fool. “And yet Jack never visited the wife he told you he loved so much. Nor did he apologize for leaving me here to rot. That’s strange behavior for a husband who says he loves his wife, don’t ya think?” I blew out my breath. “Have ya ever been married, Rasmus?”
“Not that I remember.”
“With the Goddess as my witness, I promise ya that Jack’s stories about me haven’t been true since Fiona was a small child. He’s living in denial if he thinks otherwise. Don’t be raising his hopes when ya get home. Whatever delusions Jack harbors, I refuse to be a pawn for him to move around on his demon hunter chessboard. If I help ya, I’ll be working alone and reporting to someone other than Jack. Ya need to add that to the deal because I’m not giving Jack another moment of my life.”
“I’d have a better chance of getting everything else but that. Jack is a Marshal now. He makes his own calls about who people answer to on jobs.”
“Marshal? When did that happen?” The truth hit me in a flash and I rose to walk it off. “Of course—they promoted Jack because he incarcerated his own wife. I’ve been such a fool for that man.”
I turned my back to Rasmus. Just when I thought the knife couldn’t be shoved any deeper into my back, I discovered I was bleeding and in pain again.
“Aran, it’s not as bad as you’re thinking. He never meant your incarceration to last more than a year. Everyone assumed you’d do the right thing for Jack’s sake.”
That was because Jack saw himself as the victim instead of the wife he’d willfully betrayed.
I hung my head. “Yer words are nothing but wisps of empty air, demon hunter. Get out of my sight and don’t return until ya can promise me everything.”
“Okay. What if that’s all true, Aran? It changes nothing.”
I thought a sentient ring that hid itself from everyone but me changed a lot. I held out my hand. “Conn, there’s something about Da’s ring I haven’t told ya. It’s far more than what it appears to be.”
“I want to hear about it, but can we eat first? Your blue funk has been worse than being on a diet.”
He sounded so pathetic that I smiled and nodded. We ate silently, which depressed me further. I couldn’t help remembering how much more lively meal conversation had been when Rasmus was still with us. But then thinking about him spiraled into wondering how he came to be a demon hunter and how he had forgotten what he really was.
What had Jack and others done to a guardian to make him forget his true self? If he was as powerful as Peter said he was, why had he and his comrades ever allowed Jack and his fellow bad guys to do that to him?I gave up after two bites and set my sandwich down. I had no appetite for food. I was only hungry for knowledge about guardians and answers to my questions. This was the one aspect of my nature that family and friends often hated about me. I couldn’t let things go until I’d gotten to some reasonable point of understanding.
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