Big, Bad Red
Red had the worst case of cotton mouth in the history of oh-my-God-kill-me-now hangovers, but she hadn’t had a single sip of anything stronger than the bar’s watered-down OJ. She cracked an eyelid. The room didn’t spin exactly, but it glowed soft and fuzzy like a woodland pixie bonfire. In the middle, staring at her like a man ready to devour her whole—but in the good way—stood Liam. Her lips curled upward and her heartbeat went into teenage-girl-at-her-first-dance mode, all jittery and fast. It was new, this feeling, and it sent her brain into panic mode.
Fight-or-flight response engaged, Red paced as she tried to get her bearings and quell the unfamiliar giddiness making her insides fizz with…happiness? “What time is it?”
“Eight.” He stayed planted in front of the display case holding the little mermaid’s clamshell bikini top, arms crossed. He watched her with as much focus as a predator deciding whether to go in for the kill.
Refusing to act as though she were anywhere but at the very tip top of the food chain, Red crossed over to him and—ignoring the way his nearness made her belly flop—reached behind him to tilt the bikini top display so the enchanted door would open. “I gotta get out front before the night rush swallows up Charming.”
“A.M.” Liam shifted, blocking her from touching the display case.
“What?” Her hand fell to her side, hitting her hip with a resounding thump.
“It’s eight in the morning.”
Frantic, her gaze crisscrossed the treasure room searching for the true Blarney Stone, the real one not the replica tourists kissed. She spotted it in the back. It remained as gray as iron, without a hint of the green glow denoting someone was telling a lie.
“What the hell?” She scurried away from him and an ice pick of pain sliced her brain in half, knocking her off balance.
Liam’s strong arms wrapped around her before her ass hit the ground. The pain disappeared in half a blink. Gone. As if it had never existed. Relaxing her back against his strong chest in relief, she closed her eyes and sighed, unable to hold the reaction inside. The stubble on his jaw scratched her cheek as he dipped his head lower and kissed her temple.
Everything rushed back, like a movie playing on fast forward. Treasure room. Liam. Sword. Bolt of lightning straight to the chest. Bam! Darkness. Whatever this was, it smelled of magic, double-crosses and hot-dude sex pheromones.
She peeled her back off his wide chest, immediately missing his touch and internally berating herself for it. Needing space so her brain could focus on something else besides Liam’s sinewy arms and firm pecs, Red took three steps before the pounding started again. She paused by the sword, letting her fingers trace the Celtic cross carved into its grip. “Spell or a curse?”
“Spell.” He didn’t hesitate—a point in his favor.
Finally, some good news. “So it can be broken.”
Liam shook his head and shoved his hands deep into his pockets. “Not this one.”
No. Every spell had an out. Witches loved loopholes. “Why not?”
“We’re already bound together.” His gaze held steady. No jerk to the left to signify a fib. No sinking to the floor to avoid the situation. No skittering to the right to add mental distance between them. Just a steady gaze as solid as the floor under her feet.
“Bullshit.” It came out too fast, too high. As if she were grasping at straws. Even if she was, she knew better than to let the truth slip out. Strangers couldn’t be trusted. Ever. This man, Liam, he’d done something to her that went beyond a cheap love spell. She squashed her nerves with a well-practiced mental shove. “There’s nothing tying us together.”
He snorted. “So you don’t have a headache when I do this.” He crossed the concrete floor, getting as far away from her as possible in the tightly packed treasure room.
The hammer whacking against her skull picked up the pace. She almost dropped to her knees, but like before, he was there to stop her fall. His legs were long and thick with muscle, but he shouldn’t have been able to cross the room that quickly.
“How’d you do that?” Understanding prickled across the back of her neck before she’d even gotten the words out. Liam MacTíre was many things, but one-hundred-percent human wasn’t one of them. She hot-stepped it out of his grasp.
“Cross the room so fast?” The wide yellow band around his blue irises grew more vivid. “Long story.”
“I’ll make time.” Crossing her arms over her chest and planting her feet shoulder width apart, she tilted her chin up and gave him an icy smile, challenging him head-on. A scrapper, that’s how Granny had described her when she took a half-starved Red in after she’d been cornered by a roving band of tree elves. The elves had thought they’d found an easy target. They’d been wrong. Very wrong.
“Do you know the history of the Caladbolg sword?” Liam wrapped his fingers around the sword’s hilt and lifted it from the velvet case. The sword was heavy—six-big-bags-of-dog-food heavy—and he held it as if it wasn’t any weightier than a pencil. The air shimmered around him.
Refusing to acknowledge the magic winding around them, heating up the air, Red stuck to what she knew: Attitude. “Up until now, I’ve only been interested in the money that comes with it.”
He held out the sword, testing its balance and weight, before turning it with the flick of his wrist. “Most folks think it belonged to Fergus mac Róich. According to the tales, when Fergus swung his huge sword in battle, a circle—like an arc of rainbow—appeared, juicing up the power factor and giving it enough umph to slice the tops off mountains and slaughter whole armies. It was his greatest possession, but Fergus had a wandering eye and lost the sword in a battle after sleeping with a more powerful warrior’s wife.”
“A sword for a sword, eh?” So what if she had the sense of humor of a twelve-year-old boy.
“Something like that.” He laughed; a big, booming sound that filled every nook and cranny in the treasure room and even shook loose a genuine smile from her.
Wiping it from her face before he noticed, she hitched her chin at the sword. What she needed was information, not cheap laughs. It was the only thing that would give her the napalm needed to decimate the butterflies in her stomach that took to flight whenever she even looked at him. “But that’s not really this bad boy’s story though.”
“No.” Liam laid the sword back in its case and closed the velvet lid. Some of the magic swirling around them dissipated and the yellow faded from his eyes, leaving them the clearest blue. “Have you heard tell of the talking wolf from Ossory?”
“Werewolves? Please. They’re as extinct as the Dodo bird and my virginity.” Next he’d be telling her he’d found that bimbo Bo-Peep’s sheep.
He rammed his fingers through his thick blond hair, sending the long strands every which way until they stood up nearly on end. One quick head shake and every strand fell back into place. “Once upon a time, there was a witch in County Cork who came upon a werewolf that wanted to be completely human. The witch warned him it had never been done before and she wasn’t sure he could. But he begged her to make him and his entire family human and, finally, she said she’d try. She performed a complicated ritual and the werewolf became, as did everyone in his clan, human.”
A shiver worked its way up her spine, coaxed to the surface by his low, honeyed voice. The last time that had happened had been never. The fact that it wasn’t the man but the spell causing it just pissed her off. Some things weren’t meant to be magically controlled. Gathering her arms tighter around her, she hardened her tone. “Fascinating. Now, can story time be over so I can concentrate on how to break this love spell?”
“Patience is a virtue.” He grinned, and it was all dark promises and hot nights.
Her stomach did a loop-de-loop. Just a spell. Just. A. Spell. “I only have a few of those and patience sure as hell isn’t one of them.”
“The witch had done her best,” he went on, “but she wasn’t powerful enough to turn the entire family of werewolves completely human. It wasn’t until everyone in the family began turning from werewolves into actual wolves—permanently—that they realized what had happened. Instead of breaking the curse, she put their beasts into hibernation mode. Their wolf sides grew stronger with every full moon that passed because they weren’t able to roam free. Then, at midnight on the person’s twenty-fifth birthday, the beast would break free and the person couldn’t change back into human. And so it’s been for centuries. The beast’s emergence can be delayed for seven years with the aid of a powerful shaman, but only once.” He paused and his jaw hardened, the blue of his eyes sparking with unspoken fury. “After that, nothing can stop them from becoming forever hairy.”
A heaviness thickened the air around them, weighing against her shoulders and pressing them down until her bones winced. “Damn, you read a lot of dark shit.”
His gaze locked just above her head, he continued, all the brass gone from his low voice. “In an effort to keep the family line from dying out before a reversal ritual could be found, the clan decided to marry off their sons and daughters at early ages so there would be enough time to produce the next generation.”
Man, it just got worse. There were curses and then there were curses. “Child werewolf brides and grooms that turn into real wolves, isn’t that just what every in-law wants.”
He shrugged his broad shoulders. “The witch couldn’t reverse her so-called cure, but she tried to fix the damage by enchanting the Caladbolg sword with a love spell. Whenever a non-family member touched the sword, he or she fell in love with their intended werewolf spouse immediately. As everyone knows, true love conquers all—even the most impassioned parental objections.
“Everything worked fine until someone stole the sword. Without the help of the love spell, the family members found it harder to find love and produce offspring before their perma-wolf side emerged. The family was devastated and without hope until, one day, they discovered a reversal ritual, which has been handed down from generation to generation. Once the ritual is performed, everything will return to normal. However, without the sword to use for the reversal ritual, or to set off the love spell, the family tree dwindled down to a single small branch with only one non-wolf family member.”
Her gut tightened. She knew the answer, but she still had to ask. “And you work for him?”
“I am him.”
Unless her brain had frizzled out, there was a time bomb ticking over his head. “How old are you?”
“I’ll be thirty-two at the end of the month,” Liam said.
“And what happened to the ones hit by the love spell after their spouse goes all wolfy?” Red asked, ugly possibilities swarming around her like biting flies.
“I don’t know.” But the grim lines etched into his forehead told a different tale, one that didn’t have a happy ending.
Holding tight to the only thing that felt more real than the spell pushing her toward Liam, Red let herself get angry. Really mad. The kind of deep-seated fury that loosened all the emotional release valves, until anger poured out in heated blasts and decimated anyone standing in the way.
“This is a bunch of shit,” she yelled as she stomped over to him and jabbed one finger into his unrelenting chest. “There is no forever true love spell. They don’t exist. I’m not in love, I’m just woozy.”
“Really?” He wrapped his fingers around her wrist and yanked her close, so her body lined up with his from thighs to lips. “So this shouldn’t do anything for you.”
Anticipation sizzled against Red’s skin as Liam stilled, his mouth nearly touching hers. Heartbeat thundering in her ears, she gave in to the heat seeping through her in waves too potent to ignore and melted against him—as soft and pliant as he was hard and unyielding. She should run, kick him in the nads and escape, but it was too late. She wasn’t going anywhere.
Stretching her body as much as she could, she brushed her lips across his and the rest of the world disappeared as the spell’s magic whipped around them.
Miss out on previous episodes of Big, Bad Red? Click here!