With Theo facing deadly odds in a fight to the death, Sar makes a pact with Lash, agreeing to give Devlin another chance in return for Theo’s life. Reforging her relationship with her handsome vampiric lover mends old wounds, even as Theo moves to regain Sar just for himself. But Devlin’s old enemy Ulysses appears, taking Sar prisoner and burning Devlin badly in a surprise attack. Rescued at the eleventh hour by Lash, Sar nurses Dev back to health, Theo bristling at a distance. Yet Lash’s own day of reckoning is here as his long life ebbs to a finale, leaving Sar to face the decision of offering him salvation, knowing that the price is her own humanity.
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There was a rustling sound, then Lash came into view at the edge of the woods, snapping his coiled whip onto his belt as he walked in my direction through the tall grass. Relief flooded me, that I hadn’t stumbled on him either in snake form or naked, as he’d likely been a few minutes before. Lash was looking down as he walked, watching the ground for some reason, and didn’t see me.
I gathered my courage together, took a long breath, and then went to meet him. He heard me, his head snapping up after I’d gone a few steps. His face registered faint surprise, but didn’t call out a welcome. When we were face to face, we both stopped.
“What are you out here for?” he hissed, folding his arms over his chest, his eyes and tone cold. “Dev and Venus are inside.”
“Your help,” I ventured. “If you’ll give it to me, Lash—”
“No,” he said curtly, then walked around me.
I reached out and grabbed a hold of his arm. “Wait—”
He shook me off, and kept walking.
“Please,” I begged, hating the fact that I was pleading with him. “Please, Lash—”
“Sar, go home. Go to Danial. Go to Theo. Go anywhere, just leave,” he hissed, still walking away
I ran after him. “I need your help, Lash.”
“I won’t give it to you,” he hissed, still walking. “You can’t afford me.”
He was right about that. Being the best, he probably made 100K just to scare someone a little. I swallowed my pride, then my conscience. “I know that Lash. I’m not offering money; I’m offering you control over me. I’ll do anything you ask me to.”
Lash stopped, turning to look at me. Then he began walking back, eyeing me hungrily. “Anything?” he said, hissing. “Anything I ask you to do, you’ll do?”
I hated him for making me crawl. “Yes,” I said defiantly. “Anything.”
“What do you want me to help you with?” he said, folding his arms across his chest. “My price depends on what you are asking me to do for you.”
“Not me. I want you to help Theo. Robert asked him to come alone, that they would settle this one on one—”
“That’s as it should be,” Lash interrupted coldly. “I shouldn’t interfere with a challenge.”
“Don’t interfere,” I said. “But this wasn’t done fairly. Theo is still weak from the beating he took from Karl’s men. If Robert beats him, fine, just don’t let him kill Theo. I don’t trust that Robert won’t just stab him in the back, or ambush him with more men, rather than fight him one on one—”
“Robert will kill him if he beats him, Sar,” Lash hissed. “That’s the way of challenges. I have always killed anyone who challenged me. You don’t want them coming back for revenge later. So you’re really asking me to kill Robert.”
“I’m asking you to save Theo’s life. Will you do it?” I pleaded desperately.
“Did you go to Dev, and he refuse your request?” Lash hissed scathingly. “I can’t believe that, Sar. He still believes if something happens to Theo that you might die, too. He wouldn’t refuse you, though he would make you—”
“I came to you,” I said angrily. “Dev doesn’t know I’m here. No one does, except Serena. Theo can’t know about this—”
“You must be desperate to come to me like this,” Lash hissed, his cold eyes glittering. “To put yourself in my power, knowing what I might ask of you. To trust me that I’ll help you, if I say I will.”
“You never hurt me. So far as I know, you haven’t lied to me either. You kept our last times together a secret, just like I kept yours from everyone.” I paused, meeting his cold stare. “I trust you, Lash. If you say you’ll do this, I’ll take you at your word, and give mine in return.”
Lash looked at me, considering. “It should be doable,” he hissed finally, his tone thoughtful. “Where is the location of the fight? When?”
“Tomorrow night. I’m not sure where. He’s leaving around dusk—”
“I can follow Theo easily enough. I’ll be waiting near your barn on a motorcycle. If you tag him with a transmitter, I can track him if he loses me. Can you put one in his vehicle?”
“Yes,” I said without hesitation.
“I’ll put it in your truck, before you go,” Lash instructed. “Put it in his glove compartment within the truck manual case. He will not see it there, or think to check. Remove it after, and give it to me the next time you see me.”
“Agreed.” Now for the hard part. “What do you want in return?”
Lash came closer. “First kiss me, to seal our pact,” he hissed.
Shit, he was going to ask me to be weresnake so he could coil with me. I shifted uneasily.
“I’m waiting,” Lash hissed softly. “Unless you want to reconsider.”
You can do this, Sar. You have to do it. If Theo is saved, that’s all that matters.
I put my hands on Lash’s arms, and slowly leaned in towards him. Lash reached up and grabbed my hair, pulling my lips forcefully to his. But the kiss was chaste, lasting only a few seconds before Lash pulled back from me. “I want you to take Dev back,” he said softly.
Oh, God, no.
As Ulysses lurks in the shadows launching repeated attacks on the vampire Devlin and his allies, Sar and Theo move on from Sar’s affair with Lash, building a new life with their werecougar son Devon. Rebuffed, the newly young weresnake Lash takes steps to regain his old solitary existence, even as the vampire Danial prepares his dhamphir son Theoron for manhood. A chain of tragic events cumulating in the shattering of the magical “dream bond” between Theo and Sar turns the lovers against one another even as Ulysses delivers a last devastating blow to Devlin in his relentless quest for revenge.
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I snuggled close to Theo. While both of us were silent, neither of us was asleep.
Only a few hours ago, my werecougar husband, Theo, had come to blows with the weresnake, Lash, on our front lawn. Theo had come to my defense when he saw me struggling with Lash, and had gotten stabbed for his trouble. In the aftermath of patching up his wound, we’d had makeup sex, I’d gone to pieces, and he’d forgiven me my indiscretion with Lash more than a month before.
Indiscretion. If only that was all it had been. Lash had been dying, and I’d given him a lot of my blood to save his life. In the painful process, he had also regained his youth…and we’d had sex. That might have been bad enough, in some people’s book. But I’d gone ahead and compounded the error by throwing the gates wide open, welcoming Lash into my arms again and again, afterwards. We’d been friends for some time already, but somewhere along the line we’d ended up more…or, at least, those were my feelings. Lash’s were unknown to me. Sometimes he seemed thoughtful and caring; then, like today, he’d turn violent and nasty. And his language and crudity…appalling was the only word to describe the things he’d said to me in his anger.
Why had I welcomed such a man into my body and heart? A question I couldn’t answer. Sure, we liked the same entertainment, and I’d been going through more than a little angst with the vampire brothers, Devlin and Danial, clamoring for a re-Oathing with me by Christmas, enduring my second paranormal pregnancy—and The Lust that always accompanied it— and my husband Theo’s ever-present jealousy over having to share me at all.
It doesn’t matter why it happened. It’s over. Stop thinking about it and move on already, Sar.
“We should get ready,” Theo said abruptly, standing up. “I should have been at Danial’s hours ago.”
“Let’s get dressed then,” I said with a satisfied sigh. “I’ll grab Devon from the living room.”
“He’s sleeping in front of the TV,” Theo said, handing me my clothes. “Here.”
After dressing hurriedly and throwing a new change of clothes and my hairbrush in a bag, I went into the living room to get Devon. As Theo had stated, our little cub was curled up asleep on the couch, snoring softly with his left paw over his eyes, his tawny tail twitching ever so slightly as he dreamed. The TV was still on, the last few minutes of the old animated version of The Return of the King playing. As I moved to turn it off, an ominous feeling came over me as the dramatic music swelled louder, freezing me in my steps.
…If you win then you will lose. Choice of evils yours to choose….
It was the scene at the end of the movie, where Aragorn confronts Sauron’s emissary with his small army at the Black Gate, knowing that he cannot win until Frodo destroys the One Ring. That same sense of utter despair had also been present in the same scene from the later movie with real life actors, sans, of course, the song. While I’d always thought the music perfectly suited to the scene, there was some edge to it today that caused an involuntary shiver to go up my spine.
You are standing in the eye of the storm. Move an inch…and you’ll be dead…
Of the many themes from my most beloved childhood story, this was the one message that I had hated: that sometimes there was no way to triumph without a terrible loss. I always wanted to believe if I worked hard enough, was good enough to others, and tried my best that I could win out over the odds against me, whatever they might be. And hadn’t I? Wasn’t all I’d gone through in the last few years proof enough of that?
Win the battle, lose the war…choice of evils lie before your feet…retreat, retreat, retreat!
“Not this day,” I said harshly, clicking off the TV. I woke up Devon by stroking his tawny head, then handed him to Theo, who had just come up behind me. He slung our yawning sleepy-eyed son up onto his shoulder, then grabbed my hand with his free one. I teleported us to Danial’s home in an instant. Devon reacted as usual to the magical transport, sinking his claws into Theo and hissing, even though Theo reminded him to relax. We arrived in the great room to find Danial on the couch with Theoron, waiting for us.
Danial gave me a nod, his gaze unreadable. “Theo, come into the office with me for a moment.”
Theo handed Devon to me, and followed Danial upstairs.
“Mom, can I talk to you?” Theoron asked.
To my shock, his voice had deepened to that of an older teen. My son who had been a toddler less than a year previous was well on his way to becoming a man. I was instantly ill at ease, not knowing if I should treat him differently. He already seemed so different to me, so changed from the little boy he had been. While I was relieved that he would be safer now that he was older, I missed the child wearing horns and a tail who had played at being a devil only a few months ago.
Pull it together, Sar. He needs you now, and you need to be there for him. “Sure, what about?” I responded, sitting down next to him on the couch.
“We need to go for a walk,” he said cryptically.
Curious, I followed him into the mudroom. “Do you mind if Devon comes?”
Devon ran around making little cries as we dressed in jackets and shoes, so excited and eager to be going for a walk. He loved to play in the snow and wasn’t often allowed outside at night. This would be a special treat for him.
When we were a hundred yards from the house, with Devon running back and forth looking for snow mice, Theoron finally spoke. “I want self defense lessons,” he said hesitantly. “Dad’s okay with the idea, but he is a little hesitant about me actually getting physical.”
“Why?” I gave Theoron a look that said I didn’t get what he was saying. “I’d think he would be glad to teach you—”
“I don’t want to learn from Dad,” Theoron said, looking into the forest. “He can shoot, and defend himself okay, but he’s not really into fighting. He told me with a little disdain he has bodyguards for that, and then began talking about teaching me sword fighting. I’ll take those lessons, but that’s not really practical in today’s world. I need real-life lessons.”
“I’m sure Theo would be glad to—” I began.
Theoron quickly took my hand in his, squeezing. “I want to learn from the best,” he whispered.
Now I understood why we’d come out here. Theo and Danial would not only be angry, they would be hurt, too, that Theoron wanted lessons from Lash instead of either of them.
“Have you asked him to teach you?” I said pointedly.
Theoron shook his head. “I finally told Dad that I wanted Lash to train me. He said to ask you first, because maybe you could convince him to teach me,” he said hopefully. “Dad says Lash has never taught anyone. Dad wanted Lash to teach Theo back when Dad first hired him years ago, and Lash refused. You go to Hayden regularly and you’ve gotten to know Lash this past year. If you asked for me, he might agree—”
I didn’t think Lash would be in any mood to be doing me any favors after my rebuff this afternoon, but I couldn’t say that to Theoron. “I’ll ask him to consider it,” I said haltingly. “But I can’t say that he’ll make an exception for you, if he’s never taught anyone.”
“Lash loves you, Mom. Dad told Theo he did,” Theoron said, making me flush. “Doesn’t a man who loves a woman want to please her?”
Ah, if only it was so easy, Theoron. “Even if that is true—which I don’t know if it is—that doesn’t mean he’ll teach you,” I said, giving him a raise of my eyebrows. “Lash can be very stubborn about some things. He separates his emotions from his reason easily.”
Well, maybe not today, but most of the time.
“But you’ll ask him, next time you see him?” Theoron pressed charmingly, smiling at me.
“Yes, I’ll ask,” I conceded. “Next you’ll be wanting lessons from Dev in his specialty, too—”
“Since you’re bringing it up, yes, I do,” Theoron said quickly.
Gaping, I blinked stupidly, then blushed from my face to my toes. “Theoron!”
“Dad said I’m old enough for that,” Theoron said hesitantly. “And I’ve…I want to know what to do about that, too. I know Devlin’s renowned for his skills in the bedroom. I’ve never even kissed a girl, and I want to be confident that if I wanted to be with a woman, that I’d know what to do, so it would be…good for both of us.”
What had Danial said to that request? I couldn’t bring myself to ask. I was woefully unprepared. Where was Danial with his smooth words when I needed him? “I’ll talk to your father about it,” I said quickly. “But when it comes to this subject, I think you are too young, Theoron. Not to mention that your sister will be saying she’s ready for sex, too, if she hears you have permission from your father—”
“Elle’s still looks only thirteen at most. I’m a man.”
“You are a boy who is becoming a young man,” I corrected him. “You are not a man, not by a long shot. It takes more to be a man than looking a certain age.”
Theoron opened his mouth to protest, his green eyes spitting fire.
I held up my hand. “But I allow that this is your father’s territory. He was raised a certain way—as was Devlin—and you are his son. He wants a lot for you, and I trust his judgment. So if he tells me that he believes you should learn from Dev, I’m not going to stand in the way. He would never allow you to do something that might hurt you. He loves you too much for that.”
“Really?” Theoron said, eagerness on his face. “You’ll let Devlin teach me?”
Had I ever been so young, so hopeful? A long, long time ago. “Yes. But you’ll have to ask him yourself, or have your father arrange it,” I said flatly. “I’m not asking Dev for that.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to ask him, Mom,” Theoron said a trifle arrogantly. “I’ll ask Dad whether he wants to talk to Dev or he wants me to.”
We began walking back to the house.
“Anything else?” I hoped not. I was still coming to terms with the little we’d discussed.
Theoron shot a look at me and smiled. “No.”
He was so much like Danial, so handsome. He was right that it was time for him to start becoming a man, as he certainly was going to get female attention the moment he stepped off this estate. But that also meant it was time for another big talk. And even though I was sure Danial had mentioned this subject to him, it was my place as well to bring it up now.
“What do you think you want to do, when it’s time for you to work?” I asked. “I know that you read well, and can do some math and sciences on a high school level, Theoron. You are very intelligent, even though you have had only a little time to learn schooling—”
“I want to try going into business with Dad,” Theoron said, kicking at a few visible rocks. “I know how much he wants that. I can answer most of the e-mail already, and Dad has been teaching me some of the computer programming, and code writing he knows. I have a gift for it, he says.”
I’d gratefully thought that the business was slowing down. Instead, unknowingly, I’d had help. Still, this was a good first step. If Theoron wanted so badly to learn to be a man, the first thing he needed to learn was how to work long hours. Because no matter what career he decided on, he would need concentration, drive, and more than a little ambition to make his dreams happen.
“Good. Has he taken you to meet clients yet?”
“Not until I look eighteen, at least, he said,” Theoron said grumpily. “He is having some contacts of his make up some valid ID for me, and he said he is going to have one of the foxes, probably Hans, teach me to drive starting tomorrow. But he doesn’t want me to go on jobs until I have some defensive training. He told me about Ulysses—everything. I know even if Devlin or Lash kills him eventually, there will always be someone else out there wanting to hurt me, to get to either him or you—”
I sighed. “That’s true. I wish you could get your sister to understand that.”
“Some of that is because Dad is too protective of her,” Theoron said, kicking a clump of frozen grass. “He wants me to grow up, to be a man, but he wants her to stay a little girl forever. And she wants to be a woman, not a girl.”
I could understand that, even if I didn’t know what to do about it. “Some of that is that Elle was your dad and mine’s first child, Theoron—”
“Can you call me “T” please, Mom?” he said interrupting.
I stopped walking and turned to him. “Danial and I called you Theoron for a reason, Theoron,” I said, irked. “For Theo.”
“But I can’t be called Theo,” Theoron said with a sigh. “People are always getting us confused, especially now that my voice is deeper. Theoron is too long to say all the time. Please, call me T.”
Meet Tara Fox Hall!
Tara Fox Hall is an OSHA-certified safety and health inspector at a metal fabrication shop in upstate New York. She received her bachelor’s degree in mathematics with a double minor in chemistry and biology from Binghamton University. Her writing credits include over twenty short stories published in the nature magazines Catnip Blossoms, Meanwhile, and On The River. Her short horror stories have appeared in Deadman’s Tome, Flashes in the Dark, Halloween Alliance, and Ghastly Door. She also coauthored the essay “The Allure of the Serial Killer,” published in Serial Killers – Philosophy for Everyone: Being and Killing (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). She divides her free time unequally between writing novels and short stories, chainsawing firewood, caring for stray animals of all species, sewing cat and dog beds for donation to animal shelters, and target practice.
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