A Lifetime Deal

This vignette gives us a peek at Griffin Dare and Valeria Banning, the hero and heroine of Renegade, just after the end of that book.  It has been edited to keep it PG-13 (or so) and to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t yet read Renegade.

“Griff!  Down!”

Griff dropped to the ground and rolled left with his quarterstaff held close.  Twin blasts of ghoul energy, muddy yellow and palm wide, shot through the space where he’d stood.  On his back, strengthening his magical shield, he spotted the two ghouls that’d attacked him.  

Will Davis, who’d shouted the warning, stabbed one of the pair.  His sword drove through the ghoul’s dirty yellow shield aura.  

Griff set his thumb over thurisaz, the P-shaped rune on the staff, to amplify power, and blasted the other ghoul with silver mage energy from the staff’s end. The ghoul rocked back, giving Griff time to spring to his feet.

Spinning his staff, he drew power from the forest around them.  In seconds, the staff’s silver end caps and copper runes glowed as brightly as the morning sunlight streaming through the trees.  The ghoul closed, swiping at him with talons extended.  Griff ducked and rammed the staff’s end forward for a chest strike.  The power he’d stored drove the ash shaft through the ghoul’s shields.

Morere!” As Griff shouted the command to die, his magic sizzled along the staff and into the ghoul’s chest. 

The ghoul crumpled, its jaundiced skin already taking on the greenish cast of death.  Its ammonia stench intensified.  It was definitely dead. 

Wheeling, Griff sought other foes, but neither eyesight nor mage senses caught a sign of any living ghouls.  Good. 

“I think we’re clear,” Will said.  Frowning, he used his sleeve to wipe a brown smear from his left cheek.  “Hell.” 

“Is that venom?”  Griff peered at it.  “Your skin looks raw.” 

“It’s a scratch, Griff.” 

“Clear,” called a deep voice some sixty yards away.  Other calls echoed it.  

Triumph gleamed in Will’s light blue eyes.  “One nest more down, and we all walk away again.”  He shoved his shaggy, tan-streaked blond hair out of his face. 

Griff nodded.  “But you can’t go back to the Collegium with a venom burn on your cheek.  Hold still.”  He held his fingers a hair’s breadth from Will’s injury.  Murmuring, sanere, the command to be healed, he slid a stream of blue mage power over the burn. 

Any mage with battle experience would recognize that welt as a venom wound.  If Will returned to his job as assistant archivist at the mages’ southeastern US base looking like that, he would have awkward explanations to make.  Griff didn’t want company on the Fugitives Sentenced to Death list. 

“At least this wasn’t a breeding nest,” Will said, barely moving his lips to keep his cheek still.  “Only animals to liberate.” 

“Umhm.”  Griff shot him a satisfied look. 

The ghouls’ use of dark magic had corrupted not only their hearts but their bodies, rendering them unable to eat anything but fresh kill or breed among themselves.  Their magic couldn’t match that of mages like Griff and his friends.  Still, their retractable talons could rend flesh or suck out magical or life energy.  They kidnapped both mages and Mundanes, or normal humans, to breed with or to torment for the fun of it.  And occasionally for snacks. 

Slight, dark-haired Javy Ruiz jogged through the trees.  “Chuck and I didn’t find anything worth keeping in the first hut.  He’s torching it now.” 

Nodding acknowledgment, Griff noticed the squirming ball of brown fur Javy held close.  “Whatcha got there, bro?” 

Javy grinned.  “Puppy, a Heinz 57 most likely.  We put the others in a pen, but this little guy needs to go home with me.” 

“You think Karen will be for that?” Griff asked.

“We talked about getting a dog, though not a puppy, so she’ll be on the fence. But the kids’ll carry the day.” 

“Sneaky,” Will murmured.  “I like it.” 

Griff lowered his hand.  “How’s that feel, Will?” 

“Better.”  Mischief glinted in Will’s eyes.  “Of course, Stefan will say he could’ve done it faster.” 

“Yeah, but he’s not here.” Tasha Murdock reminded them.  Stefan Harper’s job as the Collegium’s chief doctor gave him little time for going along on secret raids.  Tasha studied Will as she brushed her sweaty auburn bangs off her face.  Her mouth crooked up in a teasing smile.  “Hate to break it to you, Will, but you still aren’t GQ material.” 

“For which I give thanks daily.”  Will shuddered, but he and Tasha grinned at each other.

“Okay,” Griff said.  “Let’s give Chuck a hand and wrap this up.”  Standard operating procedure required burning the buildings and the ghoul corpses to sanitize the site. 

Everything seemed fine.  They’d done well today. So why did he suddenly have an itchy feeling, as though he’d lived this before?

The scene shifted.  The sun had dropped into the west, signaling late afternoon. Griff stood alone, preparing to quench the smoldering, ruined structures.  

How had he lost hours of the day?  He’d sent his friends back to their lives.  The ghoul bodies had all burned, as the reek of ammonia permeating the air attested, and Javy was taking the animals to a mage who specialized in finding homes for them.  She’d made it clear early on that she had no desire to know where they came from, and that was a great boon.  Griff remembered all that, but he hadn’t actually done it.  Or he felt as though he hadn’t.

What the hell?

A faint sound caught his attention.  His grip on his staff tightened as he tipped his head up, listening.  Helicopters.  Well, well.  Maybe his anonymous tip had gotten through to Valeria Banning, the current shire reeve, after all.  Considering that he’d sent it a month ago, he’d begun to wonder..but there was something else about her, something–

Kra-ka-BOOM!

Magic slammed into the ground, a bright flare that flung him into the trees.

No!  He fought for balance, control…and found himself sitting straight up in bed, breathing hard while his heart pounded.   The forest faded into the bedroom of his renovated barn home.  At his side, Valeria stirred but didn’t rouse. 

He shoved his dark hair out of his face.  At least his sudden drop into nightmare hadn’t reached her through their bond.  He must not have been touching her when it happened.

It was only a dream.  A memory.  No wonder he’d felt itchy, then had that weird time shift.  The raid had happened, but it hadn’t ended that way.  He’d quenched the dying flames and made his way home. There’d been no helicopter, no deputy reeves, no attack. 

No Valeria beside him.  

He glanced down at her, and his heart softened.  She lay close, tawny hair tumbled around her face.  In the faint light from the curtained window, he could barely make out her features. 

Griff shifted to lie on his side, propped on an elbow, as he watched her sleep.  Her soft, warm breath brushed over his hand, and his blood stirred. 

The dream must’ve been a reaction to getting his life back, to knowing he and she actually would have a future together.  Yeah, he was still a little afraid she’d come to her senses and ditch him.  Who wouldn’t be, considering that she’d been shire reeve and he’d been a fugitive when they fell in love?  Even now, more than a few mages didn’t trust him.  She should run for the hills.

But she’d made it plain she wouldn’t.

Smiling, he gently brushed her thick, soft hair off her brow.  Mine.  My love.  Always.  

She’d had a meeting with the Wayfarer town government yesterday, after she and Griff breakfasted with their friend Hettie.  Aside from a quick grocery run for champagne and miscellaneous other stuff she’d tossed in the basket, the rest of the day and night had been spent right here, and a fine interlude that’d been. 

But today was for buying a ring and telling the world.  They’d agreed on that sometime in the watches of the night.  He took a deep breath of her honeysuckle scent. 

With a sigh, she reached for him.  “Griffin?” she murmured. 

He caught her hand and kissed it.  The drowsy pulse of her thoughts brushed his brain.  “Go back to sleep, love.”

“Not when you’re wide awake.”  Her eyes opened, and she smiled. 

His heart kicked hard.   He couldn’t make out the color of her eyes in the predawn light, but he knew they’d be hazel.  They always were, except when she wore green, and just now she wore nothing at all.  And he was not only awake now but eager.

Her smile faded as she turned her hand to cup his cheek.  “What’s wrong?” 

“Nothing.  Bad dream.”  He trailed his fingers across her smooth, warm cheekbone and exulted in his right to do so.  Magical battles were in his past, and his future was brighter than he’d dared hope. 

Valeria frowned up at him.  “After everything that’s happened, you might have nightmares for a while.”

Damned if he’d let dreams add to his baggage.  He brought enough crap to this relationship.  “I have you,” he told her, pressing a kiss into her palm.  “That makes me the luckiest man on the planet.  I don’t care about anything else.”  

“Back at you, love.”  Valeria slid her fingers into the hair at his nape and tugged.   Her breath whispered over his mouth, and her sincerity rang in their joined minds. 

When he lowered his head, her warm, soft mouth opened for him.   Griff groaned and sank into the kiss.  His arms encircled her automatically, drawing her close as he savored the warm, smooth skin, deceptively soft over the toned muscles that made her dangerous.   Cupping her breast, reveling in her gasp, he rolled above her without breaking the kiss.

I love you,  she thought to him.  Always

Always, he echoed. 

What more could any man ask?  A little voice in the back of his mind whispered, forgiveness, but the rush of Valeria’s love drowned it.  

For now.

Barefoot on a hardwood floor wasn’t the easiest way to boot scoot boogie, but Val managed.  She didn’t even spill the cream she’d pulled from Griffin’s gleaming fridge.  

Really,  did anyone have a right to be so happy?  If not for the shadows lurking in his soul, which he didn’t hide from her in their mind bond nearly as well as he thought he did, her entire world would be perfect.   Surely, in time, he would forgive himself.  She would do everything she could to see to it.

He chuckled from his seat at the breakfast bar.  “What’s that?” 

“This is me in a good mood.”  She flashed him a grin.  “Get used to it.”

“Gladly.”  His thick, inky hair was still damp from the shower, and his ocean blue eyes gleamed. 

Val’s breath hitched.  Someday he’d realize he wasn’t the only one feeling lucky and just a little dazed.  He was not only six feet, two inches of gorgeous, lethal male but brave and kind and, though he would deny it, noble.  She splashed a bit of cream into the eggs, whisked them, and decided the texture was right.

“So my bachelor kitchen works for you?” he asked.

“It’s new, and your mom planned it.  How could it not?”  Before he could reply, she added, “Besides, I remember that you cook pretty well when you want to.”  The granite countertops and gleaming steel appliances were like kitchen heaven, especially compared to the old ones in her former Collegium apartment. 

“Mom and Dad will want us to come to Macon,” Griffin warned her.  “We should plan the wedding before we do.  If Mom reacts to our news the way she did to my buying this place, she’ll go full bore.  She means well, and since any furniture is fine with me, I didn’t care.  This is our wedding, though.  She’ll steamroll us if we don’t know what we want.”

“Okay, you first.”  Val had heard plenty from other women about grooms standing back in the planning.  “This is a wedding for two, so I require your input.”  

She grabbed the jack cheese and his grater–he was good with simple food, but there was no way he’d have a grater if Lara Dare hadn’t supplied it, so she gave her future mother-in-law a silent nod of thanks–and set to work. 

Griffin frowned over his coffee.  “I can chop tomatoes and chilies, stuff like that.  You don’t have to do everything.”

“I like to cook.”  She set the grater aside and reached a for paring knife.  Its sharp blade sliced neatly through the tomatoes.  Lara had supplied him with a top-rate knife set in addition to the latest appliances and very nice, very expensive furniture.  The maroon and blue plaid sofa and coordinating pieces brought the paneled walls and plank floor several notches up from rustic yet looked as though they belonged in the space.  Maybe he had a point about planning the wedding before they told her. 

And maybe his offer to help hadn’t been an idle one.  Val set the tomatoes aside to look at him.  “I’m used to cooking alone.  But if you really want to join in, I can adapt.” 

He shrugged.  “I like watching you, but I didn’t want you to think I wouldn’t pull my weight, that’s all.  I can take direction.” 

Val wiped her hands and hurried over to him.  Wrapping her hands around his on his coffee mug, she leaned across the bar for a quick kiss.  He tugged her back, took it deeper, and wiped everything else from her mind. 

“Wow,” she breathed.  She was just tall enough on tiptoe, with him leaning forward, to drop her forehead against his shoulder despite the counter between them.  Griffin slid an arm around her and rested his cheek against her hair.

Lucky, she thought to him.  I feel so damned lucky.  Straightening reluctantly, she asked, “Where was I?”

“Chopping stuff.” 

“Ye–ah, no.  Nice try, but no.”  She wrinkled her nose at him.  “Input, that’s where I was.  I want input from my bridegroom.”

“Okay.”  He frowned at the ingredients she’d amassed by the stove.  “Eggs, tomatoes, spinach, cheese, chilies.  That looks a lot like a quiche in the making.” 

“It’s a frittata, no crust.  No girlie threat to your guy powers.  And don’t change the subject.”

“It was worth a try.”

His grin made her heart turn gooey.  Smiling, she dropped butter into the skillet and turned on the heat.  “So spill.”

“I want to fix up the house,” he said.  “We agreed we want kids, so we have to do it eventually, and if we’re spending more time here, I’d like to have space for our friends.”

“I can roll with that.”  Val added chilies to the skillet.  The barn remodeling job had worked out beautifully, with a studio him to paint in above and living space on the ground floor, but cramming more than two people in here would become irritating very quickly.  “The house looks pretty decrepit now, but it feels solid.  And it would be beautiful with some work put into it.”

“Of course, if you want to sell the place, find something else, I don’t mind.”

“It’s a great house, even if it needs a fair amount of work, and a gorgeous piece of property.”  It was only a mile from the Okefenokee Swamp, an abundant source of natural energy for recharging her powers.  And the ghouls he’d hunted so relentlessly and for so long didn’t know about it.  “I’ll have to keep a place at the Collegium for when the task force is active, but it will never be home, not like this place could be.”

Leading a task force to track mages secretly allied with ghouls would carry a barge load of stress.  She would welcoming having this beautiful piece of land and this man to come home to.

He was frowning slightly, his gaze unfocused.  Val turned down the heat under the skillet.  “Griffin?  Everything okay?”

“Yeah, sure.”  His eyes snapped into focus.  He smiled, but his heart wasn’t in it.   “So that’s some input.  Now tell me what you want.”

“Besides you?”  She grinned, her heart lifting when his smile finally lit his eyes.  Val continued, “I want a simple wedding, maybe outdoors.  Hettie’s offer of her back yard could be perfect.   I want our friends, who are mostly yours–”

“Yours, too, now.”

“–to stand up with us,” she finished, acknowledging his correction with a nod.  She hoped his friends accepted her.  They seemed to, even the once-prickly Tasha Murdock. 

“Let’s go to the beach,” he said abruptly.

“A beach wedding?”  She would marry him barefoot in Death Valley if he wanted.  “Okay, sure.  I like the ocean.  It could be beautiful.”

“Not the wedding.”  He set his mug on the counter with a clunk.  “The honeymoon.”

The bleakness in his eyes didn’t belong on the face of a man planning a wedding trip.  Val turned off the heat and walked around the counter.  Pressed close, with her arms around his neck, she said, “Tell me about the beach.”

Griffin turned on the stool, locking his arms around her and burying his face in her hair.  Val tightened her hold and waited.  With her hands against his bare skin, their bond was active.  He was struggling, not sure he should’ve said anything, reluctant to continue, but wanting her to know. Wanting to move past whatever this was. 

Val swallowed the impulse to urge him on.  Instead, she held him and waited.

At last, he raised his head.  “Allie loved the beach.”

Allie was Allie Henderson.  The woman he’d loved before Val.  The one he’d been falsely accused of murdering five years earlier.  Val breathed through the pinch at her heart.  “Go on,” she said steadily.

“We used to go there.”  He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “After she died, I couldn’t stand it.  I went out to the Cumberland National Seashore on the first Valentine’s Day after, and I…had to leave.

“Oh, Griffin.”  His pain echoed in their bond, not acute now but soft, silvery with the sadness of grief both familiar and accepted.  Gently, she brushed back his hair.

“She wouldn’t want that,” he said, his eyes suddenly fierce.

“Of course she wouldn’t.  She loved you.”

“Part of me will always love her, but you’re my heart now.  You’re my life.  You know that.”  He stared hard into Val’s eyes, waiting until she nodded despite the uneasiness prickling in her chest.  “I’m not bringing a ghost to our wedding, I just–I love the beach, too.”

And he wanted Val to give it back to him.  His belief that she could made her throat tighten and her eyes glaze.  The prickles subsided.

Mustering a watery smile, she cupped his face in her hands.  “I would be delighted to honeymoon at the beach.”

The sadness in his eyes faded before bright, blooming joy.  “I love you so much.”

He would’ve leaned in to kiss her, but she held him back, her gaze locked on his face.  “As long as we’re talking about what Allie wouldn’t want, Griffin, my love, my heart, she wouldn’t want you feeling responsible for her death.  It was not your fault.” 

His shoulders stiffened.  “If I hadn’t–”

“Other choices than yours led down that fatal path.  She chose to step into the crossfire.  Didn’t she?”  Because Allie had loved him as much as Val did.  Allie, too, had wanted to save him.

His longing to look away, to shut down, echoed in their bond, but his eyes stayed on hers.  Welcoming that small victory, Val softly repeated, “Didn’t she?”

That slight nod from him felt like a bigger victory than demolishing a sixty-ghoul nest.  Griffin swept her into his arms, his mouth catching hers in a kiss that threatened to set them both ablaze. 

Breathless, she pressed her face into his neck.  His heart pounded as hers did, and his breathing was equally ragged.  Settling, they held each other.

He kissed her again, quickly this time.  When he raised his head, he’d locked the shadows away.  In a light voice, he said, “Your girlie food smells good.”

 “It tastes even better.”  Smiling at him, she re-lit the burner and dropped the spinach and tomatoes into the pan.  “If you’d like to open the champagne, we could start on it while I finish this.”

 “I like a woman with a plan.”

Keeping her eyes on the sizzling pan didn’t prevent her from tracking his movements around the kitchen.   He seemed at peace again, and that was enough for now.  He’d taken a step toward healing.  Sooner or later, he would take another and, eventually, another, until he was finally free.  The grief he carried wouldn’t dissipate easily, but that was okay.  They had time.

After all, theirs was a lifetime deal.

 

The End

 

Feb 15 2013, 9:16 am 2 Comments

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