Book: Darkness on Fire

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Next: Chapter 3

Chapter 2

Jora slowly cruised the parking lot of the small motel at the edge of town, just as she had at this same time for the past three evenings. She checked each vehicle as she passed by, looking for ones with license plates from Washington state. Over the previous two nights she’d found a couple, but none of the owners met the description Devlin Bane had given her—a male traveling alone. A name would’ve been helpful, but she couldn’t blame Bane for protecting his man’s identity. She hadn’t actually been forthcoming herself.

She circled around to the back half of the lot, the thought of the head Paladin tying her stomach in one huge knot. Ever since making that phone call to Devlin Bane, she’d worried about what she’d unleashed. The only comfort was that the man, with his reputation as a stone-cold killer, wasn’t coming himself.

What would her parents have thought about her decision to call upon the Paladins for help? She wished they were still alive to advise her. But they weren’t, which left this whole mess squarely in her court. She’d made the best choice she could from the limited options available to her.

She spotted a black truck parked in the shadows at the end of the row and knew the Paladin warrior had really come. Unsure whether to be relieved or terrified, she backed her small SUV in next to the oversized pickup and left the engine running.

There was only one room with its lights on, leaving no doubt where the warrior waited for her call.

From the safety of her car, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed the motel office and asked for room fifteen. A male voice finally answered. After a brief exchange, she put her car in gear and drove away, circling the block before heading for the diner on the chance he’d spotted her SUV through his motel window.

Ten minutes later, she parked under a flickering streetlight and retrieved her briefcase from the backseat. A bad case of nerves had her clutching the handle hard enough to make her hand ache, but she would go through with this meeting.

She’d been tempted to leave the files laying on his doorstep and then walk away from this whole mess. The Paladins should be able to handle the problem. After all, it was their job. But what if they couldn’t? What if it required someone with her special talents? No, better to meet the enemy in person and judge his ability to fight their common foe.

Approaching the diner, she caught her reflection in the window. Maybe she would’ve looked more impressive if she’d worn her uniform instead of a T-shirt and jeans. But at only five feet two, she couldn’t count on her appearance to intimidate anyone. Perhaps it would work in her favor if the Paladin underestimated her.

Inside, she made eye contact with Betsy, who cocked her head in the direction of the back corner to signal that Jora’s guest had arrived. Earlier, she’d asked the waitress to reserve the most private booth in the diner for her for several nights. Since it wasn’t the first time she’d met someone there for dinner to discuss business, Betsy hadn’t asked any questions.

Jora wound her way through the crowded diner, smiling and nodding at the occasional acquaintance as she did. By the time she reached the far end of the room, she had a jumbo-size case of nerves.

The Paladin was busy studying the menu. She waited impatiently for him to acknowledge her presence, unsure of how he would react once he got a good look at her. Finally, she cleared her throat.

Without looking up, he said, “Can you give me another couple of minutes? I’m expecting someone.”

“I know. I’m the someone.”

Fierce blue eyes glared up at her, widening in shock as he got a better look at her. “Holy shit!” he blurted.

At least he hadn’t immediately gone on the attack. Considering he killed her kind for a living, she supposed she should be grateful for that. Now that the moment was upon her, she wasn’t sure what to say.

“Mr. Bane told you to expect me?”

He nodded, still looking at her as if she’d grown a second head. Was he just going to sit there and stare up at her all night?

Finally the Paladin blinked a couple of times and shook his head as if to clear it. “I’m sorry, it’s just that you’re Kalith.”

He stopped and tried again. “I don’t mean that I’m sorry you’re Kalith. I just wasn’t expecting that—although maybe I should have.”

At least he hadn’t called her an “Other,” the usual epithet his kind used for hers. “I wasn’t sure you’d come if you knew.”

He looked past her. “Are you here by yourself?”

Why did he want to know that? She had opted for the diner as a meeting place because she wasn’t eager to be alone with this man. She backed away a couple of steps. “Yes, I am. Is that going to be problem for you?”

“Not at the moment.” He gestured toward the other side of the booth. “Why don’t you sit down? People are starting to stare. We’ll eat and then you can tell me what’s going on.”

She slid onto the opposite bench and picked up the menu, not that she needed it. Betsy knew without asking what Jora would order. Being known to everybody in town was one of the benefits of living in a small town, but one of the downsides, as well. By morning, everyone would’ve heard about Jora’s dinner with a strange man.

She fought the urge to smile. Her friends and neighbors had no idea how really strange this guy was. Her, too, for that matter, so she’d have to keep his secret to protect her own.

The waitress appeared with her notepad in hand. “What can I get you, mister?”

The Paladin looked to Jora for advice. “What would you recommend?”

Her friend laughed. “I wouldn’t depend on her for recommendations ’cause all she ever eats is salad. She’s one of them vegetarians.”

For the first time there was a glint of humor in those blue eyes. “I should’ve guessed that.”

Betsy pounced on that remark. “Really? You never said how you know our Jora.”

“You might say we have some mutual acquaintances.” He looked back down at the menu. “I’ll have the meat loaf. Is that blackberry pie I spotted as good as it looks?”

That was one recommendation Jora could make. “Better. Betsy, make it two pieces of the pie with ice cream on mine.”

“Mine, too,” the Paladin added as he handed the menu back to Betsy.

Jora waited until she was out of hearing before speaking again. “You know others of my kind?”

“Several.”

How could that be? Who were they? Paladins hunted down and killed any Kalith who made it across the barrier. This man’s hands had calluses from swinging a sword, marking him as a Paladin warrior. Her father’s weapon hand had looked just like that, and she had a matching set herself.

Her companion tore open three sugar packets and dumped them into his coffee. “What’s your name?”

“I was born Jora b’Larth, although the people here know me simply as Jora Larth. And you are?”

“Penn Sebastian. Are there other Kalith living in this area?”

Despite his casual tone, his interest was anything but. “There is no good answer to that question.”

He arched an eyebrow. “I’d settle for the truth.”

“If I say no, you won’t believe me anyway. If I say yes, you’ll want details. It’s bad enough you and Bane know that I am here. I wouldn’t think of putting anyone else in danger.”

His eyebrows snapped together as he considered her answer. Finally he jerked his head in a quick nod. “Fair enough. One Paladin and one Kalith. Works for me—at least for now.”

Betsy chose that moment to deliver their food. Rather than continue the conversation, Jora toyed with her salad while Penn Sebastian dug into his dinner.

Okay, so maybe they should’ve guessed that the mysterious woman would turn out to be Kalith. From the records Hunter and his woman had unearthed from her family’s old bed-and-breakfast north of Seattle, they knew that people from Kalithia had been buying their way into this world for a while. Jora could be part of that migration.

How had she gotten here, and how long ago? No harm in asking, although he wouldn’t be surprised if she refused to answer. “So, have you lived here long?”

She speared another piece of lettuce before answering. “I’ve lived here most of my life. My parents crossed the barrier when I was an infant.”

“Where are they now?”

Her pale eyes turned bleak. “Dead. They both died in a car accident a few years ago.”

Oddly enough, Penn found himself sympathizing. “My folks are gone, too, so it’s just me and my sister now.”

Jora abruptly shoved her dinner to the side and set her briefcase down in the space she’d cleared. She pulled out a couple of files and shoved them across the table toward him.

“I brought these for you to look over. They’re copies, so you can take them back to your hotel room to read. My phone number is in the top folder. Call me when you’re done, and we’ll decide where to go from there.”

“I’ll read them tonight.” The waitress approached. “Looks like our pie is coming.”

He studied his wary companion between bites of pie when she wasn’t looking. There was no mistaking her Kalith heritage. Her dark hair hung down past her shoulders with two narrow streaks of silver framing her face. They should have made her look old, but instead they accented her smooth pale skin and light gray eyes. She was pretty, especially if you liked your women petite, and she had plenty of curves in all the right spots.

He usually went for leggy and blond, but maybe that had changed during his long dry spell. He found himself thinking how cuddly Jora looked, the kind of woman who would tuck in nicely next to him in bed between sessions of mind-blowing sex.

That image made him choke on his pie. Where had that thought come from? Pretty or not, she looked just like all those crazies he’d been fighting his whole adult life. Just the thought of her being Kalith had his right hand aching, his scar burning.

He stood and picked up the check the waitress had brought with the pie, then grabbed the folders Jora had given him. “I’ll be in touch.”

Those solemn eyes followed his every move, taking in the uneaten pie and the bill clutched in his hand. “I’ll come with you so Betsy can split the charges.”

He needed to put some serious space between them. “I’ll take care of it. You can buy next time.”

He walked away, knowing her eyes followed him each step of the way.

Three hours later, he’d read through Jora’s reports twice, the first time straight through without stopping. The second time, he’d taken his time, making notes in the margins. Damn, he wished his sister was here. A geologist for the Regents, Lacey had far more technical expertise about what made volcanoes tick—and explode. She’d know better if it was possible to steal energy and send it across to Kalithia.

He flexed his hands, running through his stretching exercises as he considered his options. At the top of the list was getting some sleep. First thing in the morning he’d call Devlin to see if he’d give Penn permission to bring Lacey and maybe Barak in on the problem. Then he’d contact Jora and go from there.

Tired beyond belief, he tossed the files onto the nightstand and crawled under the covers. If only he could shut his mind off as easily as he had the lights. For some reason, he kept seeing Jora b’Larth’s pretty face and wishing he could have done something to ease her mind.

The mission clearly had him all keyed up. Yeah, right. How many missions had him thinking about how soft a Kalith female’s lips looked, or how much he wanted to test the fit of her breast in his hand?

Lusahn, the only other Kalith woman Penn had ever met other than at the end of a sword, was pretty enough but wasn’t his type. For one thing, she belonged to his good buddy Cullen, and Paladins didn’t poach. But mainly, she was a warrior. Penn had always envisioned someone a little softer in his life—not that he figured there was much chance of that happening; Paladins weren’t the best bet for husband material.

Enough already. If he kept this up, he wouldn’t get any sleep at all. He couldn’t risk screwing up this mission just because he’d been too long without a woman to share his bed. Well, and for one other reason.

He threw back the covers and headed for the weapons bag he’d stowed in the closet. Once he had it unzipped, he stared at the contents in disgust. After all this time, he shouldn’t have to do this. To give himself credit, lately there’d been far more nights that he didn’t. Maybe it was all that was riding on this mission; or maybe it was knowing that there were Others out there in the darkness. But the reasons didn’t matter—not if he wanted to get some sleep.

He pulled out his Glock and his sword and headed back to bed. With the gun tucked under the other pillow and the sword lying within reach on the floor, he closed his eyes and slept.

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Next: Chapter 3