Book: Darkness on Fire

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Next: Chapter 5

Chapter 4

Penn used the thin towel to dry his hair. “It’s probably best that you keep out of sight for now. I’ll go across the street and pick up breakfast while you shower.”

Jora hated feeling so dependent on the goodwill of this Paladin, but what choice did she have? She reached into her pack to dig out her wallet. “I’ll give you some money.”

“Don’t sweat it. We’ll settle up later.”

Penn disappeared out the door before she could protest. She was down two meals to none so far, not that Penn Sebastian seemed to be keeping score. Besides, her cash was limited until she could get to a bank machine, and that worried her. If the men who’d chased her last night were as well connected as she feared, they might be able to track her movements if she used her credit cards or an ATM.

She went into the bathroom to shower while he was at the diner. It was still steamy from his shower, and her wayward mind again imagined his hard warrior’s body under the stream of hot water.

Though he was her enemy, something about him appealed to her. Once he’d gotten past his initial shock that she was Kalith, he’d treated her with cautious courtesy, and even given up his comfortable bed for her.

It was hard to reconcile her parents’ description of what it meant to be a Paladin with this man. Maybe Penn was an exception to the norm, but she had no way of knowing that. The trouble was, she badly needed someone in her life whom she could trust, someone who could help shoulder this burden of worry she’d been carrying around for weeks. Right now, Penn Sebastian was the best candidate to fill that need. The only candidate.

She showered quickly and got dressed. After her clothes had been wadded up in her backpack for months, the best she could say about them was that they were clean. Since her thick hair would take forever to dry with the small hair dryer provided by the motel, she settled for braiding it.

She heard Penn moving around in the other room. Gathering up her things and her courage, she left the bathroom to face her Paladin accomplice.

He held out a Styrofoam container. “Hope scrambled eggs and hash browns are okay. I didn’t think to ask.”

“That will be fine. I’m a vegetarian, not vegan.”

She accepted the food and a carton of orange juice, then sank down onto the floor to eat. To her surprise, Penn joined her rather than sitting on the bed. He stretched out his long legs, opened up his own meal. The next few minutes passed in silence.

Finally he said, “That hit the spot. Did you get enough to eat?”

She nodded as she finished off the last bite of toast. “Plenty.”

“Good. I didn’t want to raise suspicions by ordering a lot more than a guy my size would normally eat.”

Jora stuffed her empty container into the bag he held out. “Why? Was someone acting suspicious?”

“No one stood out, but there was no way to know who belonged there and who didn’t. While I waited for the food, I drank a cup of coffee. I didn’t pick up on anyone paying special attention to who came and went.”

He paused to drink his juice before continuing. “Even so, with only the one place to eat in town, it would be a logical place for them to wait for you to show up.” Penn frowned. “They could also be keeping watch from outside the diner.”

Jora’s breakfast turned into a solid lump of tension in her stomach. “I never asked. Did you have a chance to read over the reports I gave you?”

Penn nodded. “Yeah, a couple of times. I’m going to call Devlin to see if he can send me some help.”

“Do you want me to step outside so you can talk to him in private?” She crossed her fingers that he’d say no. Standing out there exposed to the world would feel as if she had a target pinned to her chest.

“No, if Devlin has something to say to me that he doesn’t want you to hear, I’ll step outside or go sit in my truck. I don’t want you standing out there when we don’t know who’s watching.” He gathered up the rest of their trash and threw it into the wastebasket, then grabbed his cell phone.

To give him a little privacy, Jora went into the bathroom to brush her teeth. Then she washed out a few things and hung them to dry, leaving the water running the whole time. She could hear the deep murmur of Penn’s voice, but that was all.

She pulled the shower curtain to hide the undies she’d hung up to dry, then she rattled the door handle a bit to warn Penn that she was coming out.

The motel room was empty and she heard Penn’s voice coming from the parking lot. His angry voice. Pulling the curtain aside, she peeked out to see what was going on. Whoa—from the way he was waving one arm around and glaring, Penn Sebastian was seriously ticked off. He kicked a rock, sending it flying high in the air.

When he started to turn in her direction she quickly closed the curtain, not wanting him to think she was spying on him. What had him so upset? Did Devlin Bane not believe her? If that was the case, Penn Sebastian would undoubtedly disappear from her life as quickly as he’d entered it.

Though that should worry her, oddly all she felt was disappointment.

“Damn it, Devlin, why not?”

Fully aware of Jora in the bathroom, Penn decided to take this argument outside. “Look, I know you’re shorthanded, but I’m not asking you to send any Paladins as backup. Ask Barak if he’ll come and bring Lacey. Hell, I’d settle for just Larem.”

He held his phone out at arm’s length and could still hear Bane’s frustrated reply. “Damn it, Penn, I can’t pull Lacey off her duties without permission from the Regents. I already told you that I wanted this to fly under the radar.”

“I get that.” Penn stroked his short beard, trying to maintain some control. “But I can’t protect Jora and investigate this anomaly she’s talking about at the same time. And to do this job, I’m going to have to go underground to check out the rip in the barrier Jora found. That means no guns, just blades to fight with. How the hell am I supposed to do that?”

Devlin wasn’t just his superior; he was his friend as well. “Okay, you’re right. I’ll see about getting Barak and Larem heading in that direction by the end of the day. I’ll text you with their flight information.”

Shit, he’d forgotten that neither of the Kalith warriors could drive. “Fine, I’ll meet their plane. And I’m sorry to be such a demanding pain in the ass, Dev.”

“You are that, but it’s okay.” A heavy silence came from the other end of the line. “I have one more question for you, Penn. When were you going to tell me that Jora is Kalith, too?”

Shit, how was he supposed to answer that? But Devlin was like an old dog with a bone; he wouldn’t give up until he had the truth. Might as well give it to him.

“You know I was going to tell you, Devlin. It’s just that she’s . . .” He turned to face the closed drapes of his motel room.

“She’s what?” Devlin’s voice took on that quiet note that meant he was about to move in for the kill.

“She’s not like Barak and Larem, or even Lusahn. She’s this little bit of a thing, not a warrior like they are. What do you think is going to happen if the Regents find out she’s here? They might not order you to take her out, but we’re not the only Paladins on the planet.”

Finally Devlin sighed, sounding much put upon. “Okay, but that’s the last bit of information you withhold from me. If I find you’re censoring reports for any reason, you’re going to be wearing my boot print in a mighty uncomfortable place.”

Penn had to laugh.

“I mean it, Penn. I can’t do my job if you guys start holding out on me, especially for some woman you met less than twenty-four hours ago. When are you going to see her again?”

Penn was pretty sure Devlin wasn’t going to like finding out that Penn had moved her into his motel room for safekeeping. “She’s with me now. Jora has some of that Kalith mojo that Barak has, only different, and she said two men were stalking her through the woods last night. She had nowhere else to go, so she showed up at my motel room door after midnight.”

He sensed a major storm brewing on Devlin’s end of the conversation, so he kept talking, hoping to avoid the lightning bolts his friend was about to hurl in his direction.

“I decided to keep her under wraps until I can investigate the situation. Why don’t you make the arrangements for our two friends while Jora shows me around? I should have more information for you when I call in this afternoon. Say around four o’clock?”

He counted down from ten, hoping Devlin would just agree.

“Son of a bitch, Sebastian, are you trying to get yourself killed? That’s the only reason that would explain why you’d let a Kalith you don’t know a damn thing about get close enough to slit your throat in your sleep!”

Penn gritted his teeth; matching Devlin’s temper with his own would only fuel the flames. “I don’t have a death wish.” At least not anymore. “All I can say is that Jora isn’t like that; there’s not a whiff of crazy Other about her. I don’t know why I believe she’s not out to kill me, but I do.”

“That better be true, because you’re on your own in this mess until I can get your two buddies over there to help out. Keep your eyes open and do your thinking with the head on your shoulders, not that other one.”

“Yeah, you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you, Devlin? If I recall, that’s why we have Barak hanging around these days.”

The Kalith warrior had risked his life twice to save Laurel Young. Against all protocols and even the demands of his friends, Devlin had spared Barak’s life because the woman he loved had asked him to. Sometimes a man had to break the rules in order to live with himself.

“Shut the fuck up while you’re ahead, Sebastian. Like I said, just be careful.”

“I love you, too, big guy. Now let me do my job.” His voice turned cold. “And one more thing. If someone does come after Jora, they’ll have to go through me first.”

He disconnected the call. When he turned back toward the motel door he saw Jora standing there, looking confused.

“What?” he asked.

“You defended me to Devlin Bane even though you hardly know me, and then threatened anyone who might try to hurt me. Why would you do that? I’m your enemy.”

So Penn wasn’t the only one who found the whole situation confusing. “Technically, that road runs both directions. That didn’t seem to stop you from showing up on my doorstep last night when you needed a place to hide.”

“That was different.”

It wasn’t, and they both knew it. Rather than argue the point, he tried a different tack. “Right now we have a common enemy. There’s an old saying you may have heard, that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Works for me.”

She hesitated briefly before finally nodding. “When do you want to see the rift?”

“I’ll gather a few things and be ready to go.”

He brushed past her, all too aware of her feminine scent. Maybe it was just proximity, but the more time he spent in Jora’s company, the more he wanted to slam that motel door shut and lock the two of them inside for a week.

Images of the two of them tangled in the sheets, naked and sated, sent a powerful surge of heat through his veins. He risked a glance in Jora’s direction. He had a feeling she would gut him for such thoughts.

He quickly banked that particular fire and checked over his weapons. His sword and extra ammunition went into the duffel. Though his ability to use the blade effectively was limited, he’d feel naked near the barrier without it.

“Want to put your sword in with mine? It’s a little less obvious than having it stick out of the top of your backpack.”

She drew the blade. After a second’s hesitation, she held it out to him.

Penn studied the engraving on the blade and then gave the sword a couple of practice swings. “This is a beautifully made weapon.”

“It was my father’s,” she said with a wistful smile. “He was a master with it.”

“I’m guessing he taught you how to use it.” He ran a careful finger along the curve of the blade.

“Yes, he did. I even competed in fencing in college. Not quite the same as real fighting, but it helped keep my skills sharp.” She flashed him a shy smile. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a sparring partner. Maybe if we get a chance . . .”

Yeah, like he wanted an outsider to see how clumsy he was these days. His fighting prowess had always defined him as a Paladin and a man.

“I’m here to work. Not play.”

He stalked out into the parking lot, leaving Jora to follow.

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Next: Chapter 5