Free Chapter Friday! Baptism by Fire, Chapter Five Friday, Oct 21 2011 

**warning–adult content**

This chapter continues the physical relationship of the characters, so if you’re under 18, this is no place for you to be!

Chapter Five

Aidan stood in front of Sophie Kincaid’s desk, barely containing his impatience. “I requested the ownership information on these
warehouses the day after each fire. Why has it taken over three weeks to get them?”

“Budget cuts, Hughes. No clerks to hunt down the histories. Until your homeless guy died, we were probably on the bottom of the
priority list. Now, with the fire a few days ago, someone finally decided to push it to the top. We only found out about the ownership of the last one because of the security guard.” Sophie held out a thick yellow envelope.

Aidan shook his head in disgust and took the proffered paperwork. “Sorry, Sophie, you know I’m not mad at you.”

She responded with a cheeky smile, her teeth blindingly white against her ebony skin. “It’s okay, sugar. You can get pissed with me any ol’ time you want.”

That had Aidan chuckling. Sophie was happily married to a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers. While she was gorgeous and had a wonderful personality, there was no way Aidan was going to go head-to-head with a professional athlete who could break him in half, Fae power notwithstanding.

“Very funny. I’m quite attached to my head, thank you very much. Any chance Mikey and I can use the conference room?”

“Go right ahead,” she said, consulting her computerized calendar. “There’s nothing in there all day. Give a shout if you
need anything.”

“Thanks, Sophie.” Aidan poked his head into the hallway, pulling Mikey away from his conversation with a beautiful patrol officer.

“Quit drooling on her, Alvarez. You’ll get her uniform all slobbery.”

“Piss off, Hughes,” Mikey retorted, turning his back to Aidan.

“I’ll be in the conference room when you decide to get to work, you piker. Don’t believe a word he says, Officer. He’s all smoke, no fire.” Chuckling, Aidan walked into the conference room and began laying the background paperwork of the three fires on the table.

It only took twenty minutes for the connection between the three fires to become clear. When it did, it shook Aidan to his core.

“Mount up, Mikey, we’re going to the university.”

* * * *

This time Leanan didn’t miss him, or the Hispanic man waiting by his side.

Her stomach muscles clenched as her mind flashed to last night and her shower scene just an hour ago. She so did not need this, not this early in the morning, not with her equilibrium shot to hell. It was a damned good thing she had her keys in hand already, or she’d be digging for them for five minutes while Aidan watched. “Aidan. I didn’t expect to see you so soon.”

“Me either. We need to talk.” He turned to his friend. “Leanan Murphy, Mike Alvarez.”

Alvarez stuck out his hand. “Very nice to meet you, Doctor Murphy.”

Leanan absentmindedly shook the man’s hand, but her eyes were locked on Aidan. Damn, he looked good, even better than she
remembered. Her nipples tightened in anticipation of a touch she would never feel again. Tonight, however, when she was all alone, was a completely different story.

She tore her eyes from Aidan to see Alvarez watching them both with a sardonic smile on his face.

“Nice to meet you, too. And please, it’s just Leanan. Hang on a sec and I’ll get us some java.”

When the three of them were comfortable, sipping their coffee, Aidan began speaking.

“Did you realize, Leanan, all three of the torched warehouses belonged to SDSU?”

“Huh? That can’t be right. As far as I know we only had the one. That’s why so much stuff was stored there.”

“Maybe it’s the only one you were aware of, but all three were held by the university. The warehouse holding your exhibit just
happened to be the one most deeply buried in paperwork. Probably because of the value of the contents. Mike and I are working on a hypothesis the arsonist might have gotten what he wanted this time around. Your exhibit.”

Leanan reached out blindly, grasping her worry stone and rubbing the stylized rune engraved on it with her thumb.

“Why would my exhibit be of any interest? Especially to an arsonist. What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense.”

Aidan leaned forward in his chair and met her eyes. “Think about it, Leanan. You have a student who’s expressed specific interest in your courses. A student you were so concerned about you actually went to where he lived to check up on him. Are you sure you’d never seen him before he started attending your classes?”

Shaken, Leanan sat back, continuing to caress the rune stone as she racked her memory.

“No. He was a complete stranger to me when he showed up the first day. I can’t believe this is happening. He’s just a kid, almost a
boy.” She pushed out of her chair. “C’mon, let’s go see what the Admissions Office has on him.”

* * * *

It wasn’t much. The student’s name, Ian O’Shea; his address; his transfer paperwork from a university in Dublin, which hadn’t been confirmed yet. Budget cuts, again. Aidan would bet his last dollar the transcripts were fake.

Dean Harris hadn’t been much help either. He’d known the first two warehouses belonged to the university, but hadn’t given it a
moment of thought until something of value, namely Leanan’s exhibit, was destroyed. While Harris’ response to the whole situation struck Aidan as false, over the next few minutes, the man’s utter prissiness and self-importance came through. It was simple. He was just a dickhead.

Apparently, the vagrant who’d died in the second fire wasn’t something the academic considered “valuable.” Aidan’s already poor
opinion of the man had gone even further south when he started haranguing Leanan about what she was planning to do to resurrect the opening at the Corcoran.

It had taken everything Aidan had not to give the man a serious case of hot-foot, just as payback. Mikey’s reaction to the little
man’s attitude hadn’t been any better, if the stiffening of his wiry frame was any indication.

Now they were back in Leanan’s office.

“I’m sorry I have to bail, but I have a class I’ll be late for in about two minutes. I’d let an aide take it, but it’s a graduate course, so it’s definitely something I need to be there for.”

“That’s fine, Doctor Murphy. I think we’re done here, at least for now. Right, Aidan?”

Mikey poked Aidan in the ribs. He would have winced, but didn’t want to give Alvarez the pleasure of seeing such a response.

“One more thing, if you please.” He’d worked hard at keeping his professional demeanor all morning, but Mikey had seen through it from the start and was giving him grief. It was discreet, but definitely goading.

Leanan looked at her watch, nodded, and bent to pick up a stack of papers, her slacks drawing tight against a perfect, heart-shaped
ass.

Aidan dragged his eyes away and focused on the painting of Leanan Sidhe over her desk. He knew, without looking, that Mikey
had a shit-eating grin on his face. “Do you have any of O’Shea’s papers? Something we could look at and read over?”

Leanan straightened, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Not here. They’re all at home. I didn’t even think to bring them along this
morning. If you like, I can have them here tomorrow.” She walked to the door and ushered them out.

“Actually, if it’s all right with you, I’d be happy to pick them up tonight.” Aidan fought to keep the strain out of his voice. He
was going against Rhiannon’s strict orders, but he hadn’t been able to get Leanan out of his head. He could tell it was mutual, and that it was something Leanan fought as strenuously as he. Perhaps what they both needed was time alone to talk it out, to acknowledge their attraction for the other, to clear the air.

Even as he thought it, he understood he was attempting to justify a chance to get to know her better. A chance to taste her again. A chance to do so much more.

He watched Leanan gulp, then force a smile. “That’s just fine. You’ve got my contact information from yesterday, right? Just give
me a call before you head over. I’ll be leaving about six.”

With that she closed and locked the door behind them. “Mikey, it was nice to meet you, even under these circumstances. Aidan.” She acknowledged him with a short dip of her head, turned and walked down the long hallway.

“Oh, my man, you are so hooked.” Mikey singsonged in Aidan’s ear. “This is going to be more fun than I’d imagined.”

“Shut up, Alvarez,” Aidan growled, and stalked to the exit.

* * * *

How in the hell are you going to handle this? Leanan asked herself for the hundredth time as she looked around her tiny house. It
was much too small for both her and Aidan to mingle in, too close for comfort. And he’d be here any minute.

She’d spent the afternoon thinking of little else, finally coming to the conclusion that being around Aidan Hughes was nothing but
bad news. He consumed her thoughts when she should be thinking about her career. Especially after the tongue-lashing the dean had given her … in front of Aidan and Alvarez no less. It had been an utterly humiliating moment. She’d already known Dean Harris was an asshole, but this morning’s events had made that fact even more clear.

She’d done as Maggie had asked, and thought about what might happen if she got together with Aidan. Even knowing him as briefly as she had, she couldn’t deny she wanted more than a brief affair with him. He’d shown a passion she’d never experienced before, and such passion shook her to her very foundation. It was a distraction she couldn’t afford, not in her career, and not with her still-shaky psyche.

After tonight, she decided, she and Aidan would stay as far away from each other as possible.

She settled into her rocking chair, restlessly pushing it into motion as she scanned Ian O’Shea’s homework. The boy was a talented writer, and obviously knew the subject matter. But there was nothing about fire anywhere to be found in his work. Instead, he’d presented fascinating conjecture on the day-to-day lives of the Fae.

That made her think about Aidan and what her mind was now insisting had been a trick of her eye. The Fae were not real, they were simply a colorful legend, an immensely entertaining mythology. She had to keep thinking that, or begin to slide into a land better inhabited by minds like Tolkein.

The doorbell interrupted her thoughts before they went too far into the bizarre. She answered the door, struck again by the pure,
wholly sexual aura Aidan carried with him. His sky-blue gaze danced over her face, her breasts, her hips, before coming even with her eyes. Each place he lingered over burned with sensual heat.

His scent surrounded her, making her dizzy. But it also held a certain comfort, a feeling of coming home.

She was right. Her house would be much too small for the two of them. They should have met at a neutral place, over drinks. But it
would have seemed too much like a date.

Leanan shut down the babble in her brain and the edgy fire in her body and invited him in without a word.

“Would you like some iced tea?” She would have offered wine, but she’d need every single one of her faculties tonight.

“That would be fine.” Aidan’s answer was just as stilted as her offer had been.

“Please, have a seat,” she continued as she walked into the kitchen. “I have to tell you I went over Ian’s assignments this
evening, and I don’t see how it could have anything to do with your investigation. Or with me.”

“While I certainly trust your guidance on academia and your specialty, let me be the judge of what is relevant to my case.” Aidan’s amused answer didn’t come from the living room, as she’d expected, but instead from directly behind her.

She barely stifled a purely defensive leap away and steeled her nerves.

Turning, she found herself staring at his chest for the second time in two days. At least it was clothed this time.

The deep breath she took didn’t help. Instead of calming her, it gave her a lungful of Aidan and started the dizzy sensation
again. Shoving the glass into his hand, she darted around him and into the other room.

Space, she needed space.

She dropped into her rocker as Aidan settled onto the sofa.

“We need to talk about this.”

“About what?” Leanan knew exactly what he was referring to, but wasn’t ready to discuss it while her head still swam.

“The chemistry between us. It makes us both edgy, and to be honest, it shakes my concentration all to hell when I should be working on this case.”

Well, it didn’t get much more out-in-the-open than that.

“I don’t know what to say. You’re right, there is something between us, but it’s not something I’m comfortable talking about now.
You and I are like fire and water; there’s a lot of steam, but we’re just not compatible.”

Aidan visibly started at her analogy, then relaxed.

“I don’t know,” he murmured softly. “It might be a test worth taking.” He stood, placing his tea on the side table before walking
the few short steps to her.

Leanan’s heart stuttered in her chest. This was not happening. Especially after the little heart-to-heart with herself this afternoon. She should say something, anything to stop this, but no words came. “What do you say we give it a try? It’ll stop the wondering, at least.” He leaned down, gripping the arms of the rocking chair, stopping a hair’s-breath away from her.

“Just say the word, and I’ll stop.” His eyes were locked on hers, and if her life depended on it, Leanan couldn’t say no.

He waited a moment that seemed to stretch into infinity before lowering his head, brushing his lips against hers gently. Sparks mushroomed inside her from that simple contact, setting her already overheated body aflame. Any reservations she might have had were incinerated.

She didn’t even try to stifle a moan, immediately gratified when Aidan groaned himself and delved into her mouth, his tongue hot
against hers as he thrust in, claiming her. She rose up, putting her own demands into the kiss as she twined her fingers in his hair, pulling him closer, so much closer.

Aidan stood, bringing her with him and into full contact with his body. Her sensitized nipples brushed against his chest, shooting sensation straight to her core, flooding her with scalding, wet heat. His erection pressed against her belly through the denim of his jeans, making her impossibly hotter.

She wanted him here, now, on the floor, anywhere, it didn’t matter.

“Bed, Leanan. Where is it?” Aidan rasped against her lips.

“First door to the right. Hurry.”

Keeping her in his arms, Aidan walked backward, resuming their kiss as he did, stumbling over the threshold of her lamplit bedroom.

Leanan pulled away, ready to strip off her t-shirt. Damn the consequences, she wanted this with Aidan, even if it was only a
one-time deal. She’d never really, truly been wanton before, but that was exactly how Aidan made her feel. Wanton and needy and powerful, all at the same time.

“Ach, Leanan, stop.” Tension threaded his voice and etched itself into the chiseled planes of his face.

She did, confused. He wanted her to stop, now? Was this some kind of game to him?

“Slowly, please. I want to see every inch of you.”

Oh. He wanted a striptease, did he? That she could handle.

She inched the cotton up, and up and up, oh-so slowly. Pulling it off, she shook her head, reveling in the sensuous feel of her hair against her bare back and at the blue fire in Aidan’s eyes. Reaching back, she unhooked her bra and let the straps fall off her shoulders, caressing her breasts and pinching her nipples as she peeled the cups away.

Aidan’s harsh, indrawn breath made the delay worth the torture.

She flung the bra away and unbuttoned her shorts, sliding them down her legs, bending as she did so, bringing herself face-to-face with Aidan’s crotch. Impressive.

With a smile, she stood back up, clad only in red lace panties.

“Your turn.”

His only response was a low growl as he began to tear away his clothes with barely restrained ferocity. Apparently going slowly when it came to him wasn’t an option. That was perfectly fine with Leanan.

Oh my.

She’d seen enough last night to know his body was perfect, but now, totally naked, she saw what she’d been missing. His cock was
long and thick, and had her licking her lips in anticipation. She sat on the edge of her bed, refusing to move when Aidan stood between her legs.

“Lie back, Leanan.”

“Hmmm. I don’t think so.” Control … she would keep control. She leaned in, licking away the drop of pre-cum glistening on the
purplish head of his shaft, and took him deep into her mouth.

His hands fisted in her hair as she began to move, ever so slowly, learning the taste and texture of him with her lips and tongue.
He tasted as good as he smelled … warm and salty and all man. His taste and obvious desire for her had her spiking even higher with each long suck and pull until she thought she might come just from the act of giving him head.

Aidan pulled on her hair, tilting her head up so she was looking in his eyes. Oh, those eyes. They were so blue they glowed.

With one last stroke inside her mouth, Aidan pulled free. “My turn, indeed,” he grated, dropping to his knees in front of her.

With leisurely, tantalizing strokes, he traced the band of her panties, touching her everywhere but where she really wanted to be
touched. Leanan leaned back on her elbows as he dipped a finger beneath the lace, tracing her slit, making her arch her back for more.

“Mine,” he whispered softly, dipping his head and blowing a scalding breath on her pussy. A sensuous thrill, instead of pure
panic, ran through her at his possessive word. Pushing the crotch of the panties to the side, he tasted what he’d just touched, tongue dipping and swirling, fingers stroking and plunging into her.

Leanan threw her head back and moaned as the first tremors shook her, collapsing as the tidal wave hit. She barely registered
Aidan’s heavy weight next to her until his hand began coasting over her body, igniting her all over again. Feather-light touches against her collarbone, her navel, under her breasts, tracing the arch of her eyebrows; they were tender and reverent and made her want to cry.

She opened her eyes to find him propped up on an elbow beside her.

“Definitely a test worth taking,” he murmured, then lowered his mouth to hers.

*

Leanan’s lips parted beneath his again and Aidan was lost in a swirling maelstrom of desire and emotion he’d never experienced
before.

He plundered her mouth with bold, hot strokes, fondled her breasts until her nipples stood up in tight, hard peaks.

Levering over her, he stared down into her whiskey-colored eyes, half-lidded with a combination of satisfaction and lust, and felt something kick deep inside him. It wasn’t, couldn’t be what he thought it was. His fate was not here.

With something akin to panic, he leaned in and kissed her. Anything to erase the feeling of ownership, of complete rightness, that kick implied.

Leanan’s hand on his cock had the desired effect, spinning him past his thoughts and into pure sensation. He mimicked the motions of her hand with his mouth, thrusting again and again until they were both trembling, sweaty and hot with anticipation.

“Now, Aidan,” Leanan ordered, a sultry smile tipping her pouty, kiss-bruised lips. “But first…” She pointed to the nightstand, and
he understood immediately what she meant.

He found the box of condoms and ripped one open, sheathing himself with trembling fingers, knowing she watched him with tacit
approval as she shimmied out of her panties.

He rolled back to her, and letting her guide him, feasted on her neck as she positioned him at the entry to her scalding entrance. Rising up, he thrust into her in one long, smooth stroke, almost coming from the sense of completion he felt in joining with her.

“Oh, God,” Leanan breathed, clamping her legs around his body, urging him in further.

Exquisite sensation ripped through him as he began to move, slowly at first, then picking up speed until flesh slapped against flesh
in a tempo as old as time. Leanan’s heels dug into his ass, her nails clawing at his back and shoulders.

Dropping down, he took her mouth with his, reveling as her tongue dove into his mouth, exactly mirroring the possession he was
taking of her body.

Suddenly her hands were twined in his hair, pulling his head back. She stared into his eyes as she began to come undone, each
miraculous second stretching elastically as he felt himself join her, swirling deeper into an abyss he had no hope of escaping, until they came together, bodies pulsing as one.

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Free Chapter Friday…Chapter Four, Baptism by Fire Friday, Oct 14 2011 

**warning–adult content**

This chapter continues the physical relationship of the characters, so if you’re under 18, this is no place for you to be!

Chapter Four

“She is not for you, Aidan.”

“I know, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting her.” Aidan sat in front of the fire, clothed in his human guise. Once the connection with the Realm had been made, the “line” had stayed open until he or Rhiannon chose to close it. Therefore, she’d heard and seen everything that had transpired with Leanan. Everything. Including the rather impetuous kiss that had led to something far more potent. He was still hard as a post.

“Wanting is one thing. Partaking is another. I saw the look on your face.”

“Don’t lecture me like a child. Even if you are Moira, you have no right to take that tone with me.” In truth, she had every right, but he wouldn’t give her an inch on this one. They’d known each other far too long for her to begin acting like a mother. “I’ve got it under control. Now, what are we going to do about her? She saw me.”

Rhiannon snorted. “You don’t have anything under control, but you will have to, if you are to complete this mission. Your fate has been presented to you. It is to find this rogue, not chase after a water sprite. As for her seeing you, give her time, a few days. She is human, and will begin to dismiss it with every passing hour until she imagines it as a trick of the light.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Be that as it may, she can do nothing about it. No one would ever believe her, and I doubt she would be willing to sacrifice her professional life to make such a claim. Simply stay away from her and all will be well.”

“There’s more. She opened my warded door.”

“Perhaps your warding wasn’t as strong as it might have been.”

Aidan mused over her words. She was probably right. With his mind on both the rogue and Leanan Murphy, it was a possibility he had been sloppy.

He had also forgone the joy of slipping into his Fae form for far too long. It was a necessity for their kind to flee the shackles of human guise regularly, something he had neglected through absentmindedness more than anything. Was he becoming too
human? Perhaps the only way to find out was to reconnect with his tribe, physically.

“When will you be here?”

Rhiannon sighed, her voice muted against the crackle of the flames. When she spoke, it was as his playmate, not as Moira, and she sounded weary.

“Very soon, I hope. Things are not well here, old friend. Dissention grows. There are those who feel the time for isolationism has come to an end, who wish to experience the world as you and others have, but without your training. I have to wonder if
your rogue is not a part of it all, a distraction to keep me from fulfilling my purpose here.” She sighed. “They do not understand that by leaving the clan without the proper training they endanger the very fabric binding us together, even with the absence of the last four runes.”

“They dare question you, the Council?” Aidan didn’t even try to hide the incredulity in his voice. No one, be they fire, earth, water or air, went against the Moira. It simply wasn’t done. The Moira, and by extension, the Council, was the one being holding their combined clans together, had saved them from sure extinction in the days when Fae were hunted for their power. Saved them all still. The Moira’s will simply was.

“Find our rogue, Aidan, and contain him. I will be there when the time of Sanctioning comes, and we can both return home. And stay away from the human. She will bring you only misery.”

With that, the fire went out, dead and cold as a stone.

Aidan stared at the empty grate, thoughts churning.

Home. As much as he’d longed to experience the Outer World as a boy, now he yearned to return home even more, to be among his people once again. To find a mate and frolic in the trees with the freedom denied him here.

When had things begun to go so wrong in the Realm? The Fae had lived there in harmony for centuries, building their population slowly, communing with Mother Earth, as was their way. They had branched out into the world slowly when the runes decreed, set forth to meet a fate even the Moira could not see.

Surely the dissention hadn’t been underway when he was still in Ireland? He would have sensed it, somehow.

It couldn’t be the earth elementals; they were too strongly tied to the soil itself and usually disgruntled, at the very least, when decreed to leave for the Outer World.

The undines only haunted rivers close to the Realm, since the sea, with the humans’ legion of warships and pleasure craft, was out of the question.

And the air elementals were too closely tied to Rhiannon to ever go against her wishes.

No, it had to be a fire, from his own clan, who was fomenting a rebellion. A rebellion which could quite easily destroy more than two centuries of peace.

Aidan speared his fingers through his hair.  He had a feeling his rogue was the answer to all of this, and it was time for him to begin tracking him down in earnest.

Rhiannon was right. Leanan Murphy was off limits, no matter how good, how right, she’d felt in his arms, tasted on his tongue. He had a goal, a mission, and it continued tonight.

* * * *

Leanan stared up at the wood-beamed ceiling of her bedroom, sexually frustrated and angry as hell with herself.

She couldn’t get Aidan’s taste and touch out of her mind; it was driving her nuts. She should be asleep now, but the feel of his hands on her was seared into her memory. His scent haunted her, making her body itch and burn in a purely sexual way she’d
never felt before.

Why couldn’t he have been some old, balding guy with a paunch? It would have made her evening a whole lot less eventful.

Yeah, she was frustrated, but she could deal with it. But the anger, oh, that was a different story.

She’d run–actually run away. And from what? A hot, utterly delectable man who had obviously wanted her … just as she’d wanted him. So why had she bailed? She could be lying in Aidan’s bed right now, with a satisfied smile on her face. Instead, she was
cold and lonely in her own. Oh, to hell with this. She needed a good bitch session, and there was only one person who fit
the bill, even if it was almost midnight on the East Coast.

She punched the phone number in by memory and heard her best friend’s voice answer cheerfully.

“Speak, and you shall be heard!”

“Hey, Maggie-girl, you alone?”

“Disgustingly so. What’s shakin’, chica?”

Leanan threw her free arm over her eyes. “I met a guy today. An incredibly hot arson investigator.”

“No shit?” Maggie paused, and Leanan could almost see her mulling the situation over in her amazingly agile mind. Whoever said blondes were dumb had never met her college roommate. “You didn’t sleep with him, did you?”

“No,” Leanan sighed, “but it was a close thing.”

“Hmmm. Is that good or bad?”

“I don’t know. He scares me a little bit.” With the lights off and her best friend on the phone, she could admit to that much.

“What?” Maggie’s voice raised in concern. “Scares you how?”

“He’s … intense.”

“Good lovin’ intense or stalker intense?”

Leanan laughed. “Good lovin’ intense, for sure.”

Maggie was quiet for a long moment. When she came back on the line, her voice was contemplative. “You probably don’t want to hear this, but you need to let go of the past, girl. You’re a different person now. Hell, you always were, just beaten down by
your father and that prick James. It’s a freakin’ miracle you ever made it out of Boston.”

“I know, and it’s probably past time I heard it. Realizing it doesn’t make life any easier, though.” It helped, since Maggie knew all of her secrets, her fears, her insecurities. It had been Maggie who’d helped her pull it together in those first few months after she left James at the altar and started her new life three thousand miles away in Berkeley.

“Are you going to see him again?”

Leanan worried herbottom lip between her teeth for a moment before answering. “I don’t think so. He makes me forget who I am, what I’m doing. I can’t let someone have so much power over me again.”

Maggie sighed. “What you’re talking about is a different kind of power, and you know it. Think about it for a while first, all right?” She shifted tack with blinding speed. “So how did you meet Mr. Studmuffin?”

Leanan thumped her forehead with her palm. “Shit, I can’t believe I told you about him first and not the fire. Shows you how fucked-up my priorities are right now.”

“Fire, what fire? Are you okay?” Real worry laced Maggie’s voice now.

“I’m fine, at least physically. The warehouse the collection was in was torched last night.” The loss still echoed through her in resounding waves.

“Oh, shit. What are you going to do?”

“Start pulling together what I can, I suppose. We’ve already done all of the prelim stuff, and we’re committed to the Corcoran.”

“I wish I could tell you not to sweat it, dear, but I know you too well. Just take some time for yourself, ‘K?”

Leanan snorted. “Yeah, right.”

“I mean it.”

“I know you do. Listen, I’ve got class in the morning, and you’ve probably got early rounds at the hospital. Thanks for listening to me whine.”

“Hell, girl, you know I’m here for you anytime. Love you, sis.”

“Love you too, Mags.”

She disconnected and thought back to the day she’d become a new woman, her woman.

She’d learned a vital lesson six years ago and it was one she’d held close since. Enjoy your time with a man, but never let him hold sway over you. Her father and James had tried to force their version of the future on her. Her father, through years of nannies and indifference, until she would do almost anything to incite a response, including graduating from Harvard by the time she was twenty-one. James had stepped right into his shoes, but instead of ignoring her, he had lavished her with the attention she was starved for, and in doing so, began to enslave her.

The criticisms had begun early, and with great subtlety. But when she began to dress as he wanted and take the graduate courses he said would be most beneficial to his career, she’d felt like she was being smothered.

Two weeks before her wedding, a society event to be sure, she’d begun packing her treasures, wishing for the thousandth time since she was ten that her mother was there to help her, to lend advice on how to be a good wife. It was while she was spreading paper to wrap her favorite painting when it really hit her.

She’d stood, staring down at the unbridled, free spirit of Leanan Sidhe and seen the future as it would be with James. The conservative dresses, the downcast eyes, the continued verbal abuse which would almost certainly escalate when she was
finally “his”. In that moment she hated herself, hated what she had allowed her father to mold her into.

She’d continued packing, but instead of putting the things she valued most into storage as James had insisted, she loaded up her ultra-conservative Volvo and started driving until she hit the West coast, and Berkeley.

On the long journey she’d made peace with herself, of a sort. She would be the woman her mother had named her for, and damn any man who stood in her way.

Never mind the fact that since then, her relationships consisted of short, brief affairs, which ended when her partner became too stifling.

Silent, angry tears leaked down her face as she realized, really realized, why she’d fled from Aidan. She’d been scared to death of the way he made her feel. Of the way she’d lost her head, been caught up in the moment.

She was scared of losing not only herself, but the carefully constructed, albeit, empty life she’d created along the way.

* * * *

Aidan slipped through the quiet night, scenting the air as he went. Older homes surrounded him, some run down, some vainly holding on to their fading glory.

He breathed in the heavy fragrance of jasmine and the tang of salt air from the nearby Pacific, barely tasting the taint of sulfur hidden cunningly beneath.

Aye, his Fae had been here, but in the past, perhaps when the home had originally been destroyed.

He’d thought the burned-out home might draw the Salamander back, but it was not to be, at least not this night.

Returning to his truck, he sat in the driver’s seat, thrumming his fingers on the steering wheel. Leanan’s warehouse should be his next destination, but it didn’t feel right. In truth, nothing had felt right after he’d digested Rhiannon’s disturbing message.

Were he a Fae bent on changing destiny, where might he go next? From where would he draw his greatest strength? Where would he hide?

In plain sight, perhaps?

If only he had another Fae to turn to besides Rhiannon. Someone who lived here and understood the Outer World as he had come to understand it these past ten years.

But he only had one being to gain counsel with tonight, and he was human. Mikey.

With a short nod of his head, Aidan pulled out of the convenience store lot he’d parked at and headed for Old Town. Finding Mikey should be no problem.

* * * *

And it wasn’t. Alvarez was propped on the same barstool he occupied every night he was off-shift, in a tiny hole-in-the wall frequented by cops and firefighters.

Aidan slipped onto the stool next to him and signaled the bartender for his usual, Jamison’s, straight up, with a Guinness draft on the side. When he’d first come to Callahan’s he’d found it interesting an Irish pub could peacefully exist in the heart of San Diego’s Mexican-inspired Old Town, but it not only existed, it thrived.

“Didn’t think I’d see you tonight, my man.” Mikey toasted him with a dip of his longneck Miller.

“Couldn’t stop thinking about last night,” Aidan admitted, nodding to the bartender as he took a sip of the whiskey.

“There’s always another fire, amigo. That’s the way of our world. What’s got you so bothered about this one?”

“Besides the obvious connection to the other torches?” Aidan quirked an eyebrow at his friend and took another sip.

“Hell, Aidan. There’s firebugs all around us, you know that better than anyone. So what’s the problem?”

“The signature is strange.” He paused, then continued. “This feels almost personal. Like he’s laughing at me. You know damned well every one of these has been in my jurisdiction.”

Mikey shot him an odd look. “Personal, huh? You need to get out more, Hughes, maybe even get laid with one of those honeys I always see you around.”

Aidan replied with a short laugh. There was only one woman he wanted in his bed, and until Mikey brought the subject up, he’d been avoiding the thought quite admirably.

“What, the mighty Aidan Hughes is striking out? I don’t believe it.”

Aidan finished his Scotch and turned to face his only friend. “Not quite.”

“Humph. Not quite ain’t scoring, my man.”

“I’ve had my mind on other things.” Aidan launched into their oft-argued discussion. Anything was better than thinking about Leanan again. “Speaking of other things, did you take the exam today?”

“Shit. Why’d you have to bring it up?” Mikey stared at his beer, peeling the label off with one stubby finger. “Yeah, I took it, for all the good it’ll do. I’m not like you, Hughes. I ain’t cut out to be an investigator, and I don’t know why in the hell I let you talk me into taking the damned test every time it comes around.”

“Because you’re good, that’s why. You’re destined to do more than pretty up your rig and cook shitty chili every week.” Aidan grinned as he said it. Mikey was obsessively proud of his chili.

For once, his friend didn’t rise to the bait. “Destined, huh?”

“Yeah. Mikey, I want you to come in on this with me. I need a clear set of eyes and ears. He’s only killed once, but what will happen the next time? What if he pulls an Orr and starts torching someplace with someone other than vagrants living there?”

If nothing else, his reference to John Orr snapped Mikey’s head around. John Orr had been a legendary arson investigator–and an even more notorious arsonist, setting hundreds, maybe thousands of fires up and down the state before he was finally caught.

“You think it’s one of us?”

“I don’t know, but the similarities are starting to grate on me.” The possibility did exist the rogue had blended in where he would be the least noticeable … in a firehouse. AndMikey knew more about the crews than Aidan, as an outsider, ever would.

Mikey heaved a big sigh, pushing his bottle around the table aimlessly as Aidan took a pull on his Guinness.

“Well, what do you think? Are you in?”

“Yeah,” Mikey replied, sounding tired. “I’m in.”

* * * *

The alarm chirped obscenely in Leanan’s ear for at least a minute before she flung an arm out and silenced the wretched thing.

What day was it? Friday, thank God. She only hoped her week ended better than it had begun.

She lay in bed for a few moments, gathering her thoughts. Her mind latched onto Aidan almost immediately, but she pushed it away forcefully, grabbing the next thing that swam into focus.

The fire fairy. She snorted, snuggling underneath the covers. She’d begun her career of studying mythology to spite her father more than anything, but found herself falling in love with the concept all over again, especially in the first year after James, when she needed a giant heap of magic. Having a free spirit like Maggie in her life had only boosted what would have been a totally irrational career path just six months before.

The study of mythos had rekindled her fascination, but as much as she tried to grasp the magic of what she’d seen when she was ten, nothing had even come close.

She remembered standing, all alone, in front of a giant ancient oak, the moon high above her. Her parents had been involved in an academic argument about the standing stones they’d camped next to, and not even noticed when she wandered off.

The night had been full of magic. It sparkled on the moon-touched trees and long grasses and rode the sigh of the wind as it slipped through the leaf-laden branches.

And on the soft sough of the breeze, she could hear singing, so beautiful it made her heart ache and brought tears to her eyes. Then she’d seen the first one, flittingaround the branches of the great tree, delicately silver and dancing with the wind. A rainbow of color streaked through the sky, and coalesced into tiny fairies, hovering, dancing and swooping in a swirl of joy around and around and around until Leanan was dizzy and sat down hard on the ground.

She watched for what seemed like hours, transfixed at the pixie play. Taking the carved stone her mother had given her earlier in the day from her pocket, she tumbled it through her small fingers.

Suddenly, her father’s voice, stern and unbending, broke the ballet apart into disjointed pieces. “Leanan Murphy,” he’d yelled, “come down off the hill this instant and into bed.”

She’d gone, but not before shooting one last wondering glance at the tree. They were all gone now, scattered into the night like they’d never been.

Her father had, of course, spent the next eleven years reminding her of her flight of fancy, and how serious academics should never actually believe in what they were studying, because it took their objectivity out of focus. In time, she’d been browbeaten into accepting his truth.

Leanan sighed. She’d thought too much about the past in the last twelve hours. It was time to worry about the future, about what she’d have to do to make the exhibit at the Corcoran the success she so richly deserved.

Pushing out of bed, she poured a cup of coffee and slouched to the shower, taking the brew with her.

As she stood with her back to the deliciously hot spray, she sipped the equally warming caffeine and let her mind roam. Of course, it went exactly where she didn’t want it to go. Aidan Hughes. She should be thinking about how she was going to raise her exhibit from the ashes with the few pieces she had secured here at home and in her office. She should be thinking about insurance forms and meetings with the dean and Ian O’Shea, her peculiar student. Not about Aidan Hughes.

But the image of his face swam from the back of her mind no matter how she tried to push it back. The picture of him in those low-slung shorts that left so very little to the imagination. The feel of him behind her in the living room; standing in front of her at the kitchen table. The gentle grip of his hand on her shoulders, her arms, her hands, and oh God, her breasts. The velvety slip of
his tongue as it plunged into her mouth again and again.

Those images ran through her mind, her body, and suddenly she was hotter than the water pummeling her back.

With a muttered oath, she slammed the coffee mug down on the back of the toilet tank and leaned back into the spray. Aidan Hughes was a fantasy come to life, but one she would never realize, no matter how much her body protested.

And right now, her body was protesting mightily. As she massaged shampoo into her hair, she imagined it was his hands caressing her scalp, following the soapy trail down her body to her breasts. Cupping them so gently with his work-roughened
fingers, then tweaking her nipples until she thought she’d combust.

Her hands followed the imaginary path his would take, smoothing over her hips, brushing the silky hair of her mound, then dipping in, teasing her clit with fairy-light touches as he pressed against her, the rock-hard length of his erection pressing
against her ass. He’d go further, lifting one leg and propping it against the side of the shower, slipping inside her with one finger, then two, thumbing her clit as he moved slickly against her back.

Pure sensation washed over Leanan as she pleasured herself, lost in the moment. White light exploded behind her closed eyes as she came, sagging against the cool tile of the shower, barely able to hold herself up on trembling legs.

The cooling water brought her out of her pleasure-induced fog.

God, how long had it been since she’d come so hard by her own hand?

She pushed away from the shower wall and leaned back, rinsing her hair with shaky fingers. If nothing else, Aidan Hughes was damned good, as far as fantasies went.