by Alyssa Day
Christophe opened his mouth to answer and then decided to ignore the impertinent boy. He turned his attention to Fiona, who was well into her reading. She told the story of a Gille Dubh, a lonely and lost dark-haired lad who played and danced in the forest, clothed in moss and leaves, luring unwary children to come and play. Unfortunately, once they danced with the Gille Dubh, they were stolen away to the land of the Fae, to play and dance for years and years and years, until their parents and everyone they’d ever known were long dead.
It was a grim tale, the truth behind her made-up story, and only too real. Christophe had no love for the Fae, who played games with humans as easily as though with chess pieces on their carved marble boards. But in Fiona’s version, the lad—a spirit, no longer a living child—fell in love with a bonny lass who enticed him back into the sunshine of the fields, which released him from the spell of the Fae, and he became a real boy again.
As in so many modern fairy tales, the children in the tale all lived happily ever after. If only life outside of books were as happy or predictable.
“We need to help now,” Declan said, and Christophe realized that everyone was clapping and standing up from their seats. “They’ll ask questions and then queue up to get their books signed.”
“What do we do?” Christophe asked, bemused that this lad was confident enough in his new partner to order him around like an old friend. Hopkins would have been pointing a gun at him, undoubtedly.
“We ask for names, entertain the kids in the line, that sort of thing.”
Christophe folded his arms across his chest. “Do I look like the sort of man who would stand around entertaining children?”
Declan blinked. “Actually, I don’t know what you look like. You don’t seem to exist in any database, civilian or governmental, so I’m guessing Fae. Hopkins has a bit of a talent for reading minds, actually more like reading intent, and he said you believed you’d never harm us, and, well, you rather look a bit like an action film star, but this is what we do, you wanted to be here, soooo . . .”
It took Christophe a moment to work his way through all that. Hopkins could read people, could he? Obviously not in any degree of specificity or the questions that morning would have been a great deal more intense. As to entertaining children? “Absolutely not. I’ll be out front, looking for danger, protecting our flank, and that sort of action film star thing.”
“Whatever, dude. Gotta get busy.” Declan strolled off, turning on his not inconsiderable charm, leaving Christophe blinking at the idea that a human man—barely a man, practically a child himself—had just called him dude and Christophe hadn’t stabbed him for it. Something was very, very wrong.
Maybe the sex had made him soft.
He grabbed one of the books on his way to the front of the store, where he could breathe since the crowd was all centered around Fiona. As he casually opened the book and started flipping through the pages, he slowed, and then returned to the first page to begin the story. Examining each illustration, he realized that Fiona had a true gift. The soft watercolors made her paintings come so alive that he half expected the fairy to dance right off the page. Her imaginative retelling of the tale kept the slightest undercurrent of danger, but the bright, cheerful language and happy ending guaranteed both small children and parents alike would be content to share this book, over and over, at bedtime, with no fear that it might cause nightmares of being stolen by the Fae.
Not that only the Fae stole children. Sometimes humans stole children after the Fae finished murdering their parents in front of them.
He gritted his teeth against the memories that he’d thought safely buried in the dark recesses of his mind so many long years ago. Perhaps being around all these children was doing it. Whatever the cause, he needed it to stop. He needed to focus. Steal the Siren, forget about his worthless childhood, and conquer his obsession with the Scarlet Ninja.
No problem at all.
The voice that spoke up behind him was as unexpected as it was unwelcome. “Christophe, we’ve got a problem.”
Christophe swung around to find Denal standing behind him. The younger warrior was trying to act casual and doing a terrible job of it. In his black clothing, the bones in his face standing out starkly, Denal was as out of place in the children’s bookshop as Christophe himself. Looking around, though, Christophe noticed several of the mothers—and a couple of the fathers—giving the two of them more than friendly looks. The Atlantean gene pool working its magic. Christophe scowled, and most of them quickly found something else to do.
“What are you doing here? How did you find me? And what problem?”
Denal grinned. “One question at a time. I’m here because Prince Conlan sent me. I found you because I could feel your presence on the Atlantean mental pathway, even though you weren’t answering me, and the problem is something we probably shouldn’t discuss in public.”
Denal glanced around curiously. “What are you doing here anyway?”
“Browsing,” Christophe said dryly. “This fairy book is great. Fast-paced, lots of suspense. Later I might go for ice cream.”
He grabbed Denal’s arm and steered him out of the path of the doorway as the crowd began to filter out, signed books clutched in tiny fingers. “Look, it’s a long story and I’ll have to tell you later. Now you have to leave. Meet me tonight. I’ll contact you. In the meantime, go play tourist and find out anything you can about the Scarlet Ninja.”
Denal looked like he might protest, but Christophe outranked him, so he finally nodded and left the store. Christophe turned and found Fiona staring at him, her lovely eyes narrowed. Probably suspicious, now that she’d caught him conspiring. Of course, she thought he was a criminal, which was almost funny, coming from the Scarlet Ninja, but there were criminals and then there were criminals. He had a feeling she didn’t place him in the high-minded category.
But she’d slept with him, so maybe . . . maybe nothing. Maybe she slept with all the criminals she met. A sheet of red-hot rage blurred his vision for a few seconds, and when it passed he stood stock-still, in shock.
Was that jealousy?
Not possible. Not once in his centuries of existence had he felt such a stupid, worthless emotion. Jealousy was for fools and suckers, and he was neither. She could have sex with anybody she wanted—and he’d kill any man who touched her.
The force of the threat—no, the sure certainty—in his mind rocked him back on his heels. She was dangerous. She was setting him off-balance in the worst way and causing him some sort of insane mental illness. Jealousy. Thoughts of brutal, bloody murder for any man who dared to touch her.
He needed to get away from her. Now. Get the Siren and get out of London and never have anything to do with any ninjas for the rest of his life.
“Christophe?” She called his name from the table where she still stood, chatting with a few customers. “Do you have a moment?”
It was now or never. He was closer to the door than to her. He needed to get the hells away from her in case this madness or magic she’d infected him with could somehow become permanent if he stayed near her any longer.
Now or never.
Every fiber of his being rebelled against the idea. He was Christophe of Atlantis, more magically powerful than any in the Seven Isles except for—possibly—the high priest. He could handle one problematic female whose only real magic was bending light—well, unless he counted the enchanting effect of her enormous blue eyes. He took a last, long, rueful glance at the door and then started toward her, wondering if, somewhere, the gods were laughing.
The bell tinkling as the door opened was his only warning before a woman rushed past him into the store, crashing into him so hard he spun halfway around and had automatically started to reach for his daggers, when he realized the elderly, if rather stout, woman posed no obvious threat. He caught her as she teetered and almost fell.
r /> “He’s done it,” she blurted out, gasping for breath, her face red. “The Scarlet Ninja’s gone and robbed the Tower of London.”
Christophe released her. Fiona stumbled to a halt in the middle of the shop, staring at the woman as if she had three heads.
“What? Are you sure?” Fiona said.
Christophe caught her gaze almost before the words were out of her mouth, and he shook his head almost imperceptibly. She didn’t want to be remembered by anyone in this crowd for asking about the Scarlet Ninja.
On the other hand, what normal person wouldn’t? He followed up. “Where did you hear that?”
The woman put her hand over her heart and struck a pose, thrilled to be the center of attention for such dramatic news. “It’s in the papers. Not only that, but he stole old William the Conqueror’s sword, what was called Vanquish, don’t you know, and he killed three guards to do it.”
Every person in the room burst out into excited and shocked babbling as Christophe, with as much courtesy as he could muster, cleared a path to Fiona. She simply stood, an island of quiet in the noise, the blood draining from her face. “It’s not true,” she whispered when he reached her. “You know it’s not true.”
“I know. I also know we need to find out what is true.” He took her hand, almost without realizing it, as a sudden and unexpected need to protect her from this and any danger rose hot and deadly inside him. “Somebody has raised the stakes. We need to find out who and where, and then we’ll get it back.”
Her lips quirked a little in an almost-smile that just as quickly faded. “Oh, that’s all, is it? Glad I have you around to point out how easy this all is. But that’s not the only problem here.”
The woman who’d brought the news wasn’t done. “BBC called him Scarlet Ninja the Bloody and said Scotland Yard is making this a top priority.”
The words “Scarlet Ninja the Bloody” swept through the room, increasing the excited chatter tenfold in intensity, and Fiona turned even more pale. Christophe scanned the room for a quick way out, and Declan, entering from the back door and looking around the room in surprise, gave him an answer.
“I think this subject is not quite appropriate for the children,” Christophe said to the shop owner as she approached.
“Quite right. Quite right.” She clapped her hands. “Now, everyone, let’s leave the dreadful crime gossip outside the store, shall we? Lady Fiona must be on her way. Shall we give her a warm thank-you?”
“Thank you, Lady Fiona,” the children dutifully intoned, and even some of the parents chimed in.
“You’re welcome. I’ve loved being here,” Fiona replied, gracious and poised even in the face of what Christophe knew to be severe distress. His admiration of her went up a few notches. She’d make a damn fine warrior, cool under pressure.
Declan took charge and hurried them all out of the store, murmuring things about another engagement, so sorry, must be off, in his charming way, and within minutes they found themselves in the car, once more in the horrible nightmare the Londoners called traffic. Fiona leaned forward to talk to the driver, who’d started glaring at Christophe again the minute they stepped foot in the car.
“Sean, take us to the Tower of London.”
“Now? You want to play tourist with him?” Sean’s eyes narrowed as he stared a threat in the rearview mirror, and Christophe’s very limited supply of patience wore out.
He leaned forward and spoke softly, so no one else in the car would hear. “Look, boy, I don’t know and I don’t care where this attitude is coming from, but Fiona is not in the best of moods, so why don’t you shut up and do what you’re told? You and I can have it out later.”
Sean made a low growling noise in his throat, but after catching sight of Christophe’s eyes, which were almost certainly glowing, he swallowed whatever retort he’d planned to make and pointed the car toward the Tower.
“There’s been very bad news, Sean,” Fiona said. She told him what the woman had said, and Sean immediately flipped on the radio.
The newscaster was in the middle of the story: “—sometime before dawn. The Tower Guard say they have proof the Scarlet Ninja was involved, since he left his trademark calling card at the scene. Officials are refusing to speculate why the Scarlet Ninja would take Vanquish and nothing else. We’ll keep you up-to-date as more details are released and we’ll be live on the scene in thirty minutes when Lord Fairsby gives a press conference on-site. In other news—”
Sean flipped off the radio. Fiona closed her eyes, her hands clenched into fists on her lap. “This is the end. Everything I’ve worked for—finished. It’s over.”
Declan took his sister’s hand. “Fee, don’t say that. It’s just one sword. We can go after something else. Or even give this up altogether. You knew it had to end one day.”
Fiona made an anguished noise from deep in her throat, cutting off her brother’s flow of words.
“No,” Christophe said, his gaze fixed on her too-pale face. “That’s not it, Declan. She doesn’t care about the sword. At least, not much. It’s her reputation—her integrity. The Scarlet Ninja is known for never harming anyone; only helping those in need or want due to the vampires and their unending greed and lust for power. Now they’re saying that the Ninja is a murderer. It’s one of the worst things that could have happened to your sister, and it’s devastating her.”
He suddenly blinked, realizing he’d damn near made a speech. Where in the nine hells had that come from? He shut up and angled his body to face the window, clenching his jaw shut against more stupid yammering. But a touch made him glance down, and the sight of Fiona’s slender fingers on his sleeve caused something hard and painful to catch in his throat.
“How did you know?” she whispered. “How could you know? You’ve only just met me, and yet . . . and yet you knew exactly how I was feeling.”
He had a moment to wonder if a man could drown in her eyes, before the car slammed to a halt.
“We’re here, or at least as close as I’m going to get you,” Sean snapped.
“You don’t have to do this,” Christophe told her, ignoring the driver and Declan for the moment. “I can go listen and find out what they know.”
She squared her slim shoulders and lifted her chin. “Yes. I do. I’m going with you. Someone murdered those guards and I’m going to find out who did it. Then we’ll get the sword back.”
She’d said we. We’ll get the sword back. A flash flood of fierce joy rushed through him, in spite of the circumstances.
“Let’s go to a press conference, then.”
“I’m going to work the crowd. Find out if anybody knows anything, what the rumors are, and so forth,” Declan said, reaching for the door.
“Good, but don’t be obvious,” Christophe told him. “We don’t want you to become a target. Whoever they are, they’ve almost certainly got men in place in the crowd watching and listening.”
Declan nodded and left.
“Why do you think that?” Fiona asked him. “They got what they wanted, why would they be here?”
Before he could answer, help came from an unexpected source.
“He’s right,” Sean said grudgingly. “That’s how I’d have done it, back in the day. Need to keep eyes and ears on the investigation, find out how hot the situation is. You’d best get out now, before I get moved along or ticketed. I’ll be circling. Just give me a ring when you need me to swing back in and pick you up. Same spot.”
Christophe nodded his thanks and opened the car door. When he and Fiona were on the sidewalk, he watched the car pull away.
“You have a good kid there,” he finally admitted. “He’d do anything for you.”
“That’s what I worry about, especially now. If I put him or Declan or Hopkins in danger, I’d never forgive myself.”
“Hopkins? I’d be more worried about anybody trying to face him down. That man is a warrior dressed up in a butler suit.”
A true smile appeared for an instant on her f
ace. “Yes, I’ve often thought that. He will never tell me much about his younger days, but I get the feeling he wasn’t always a butler.”
“I’d put coin on that,” he agreed, taking her hand. “So let’s play tourist and go back to the Tower of London.”
“We should be thankful they don’t behead people there anymore, I guess,” she muttered.
“Nobody will touch so much as a hair on your aristocratic head while I’m alive to prevent it,” Christophe vowed, all humor vanishing.
She stopped and stared up at him, a curiously vulnerable expression in her eyes. “Why would you care so much? Or want to protect me? Surely not simply because we . . . slept together. You just met me.”
Part of him was wondering the same thing, but damned if he’d admit it. “You’re my partner. It’s just good business,” he finally said.
Fiona pulled her hand away from his and a sheet of ice masked her expression. “Right. Of course. How could I forget? And so long as you have blackmail material on me, I’m stuck with you. Come along, then, partner. We have a crime to solve.”
Regret swept through him as she marched off, not looking back once to see if he followed or not. Crime solving. Right. Christophe and Sherlock Holmes. Conlan was undoubtedly going to have something very unpleasant to say about this. He grinned at the thought, shoved his hands in his pockets, and strode off after his unwilling partner. At least he could piss off the high prince and the high priest all in the course of one mission. The day was looking up.
Fiona stormed off toward the main gate, berating herself for her foolish moment of softening toward that criminal. What had she been thinking, to sleep with him? He was so aggravating. Annoying. Infuriating.
She ran a hand through her hair, suddenly as disgusted with herself as at him. She decided to break her sexual fast and it had to be with a jewel thief. Who just happened to have blackmail as a trump card.