The Druid Next Door (Fae Out of Water, #2)
This title is #2 of the Fae Out of Water series.
Professor Bryce MacLeod has devoted his entire life to environmentalism. But how effective can he be in saving the planet when he can’t even get his surly neighbor to separate his recycling?
Former Queen’s Enforcer Mal Kendrick doesn’t think his life could get any worse: he’s been exiled from Faerie with a cursed and useless right hand. When he’s not dodging random fae assassins in the Outer World, he’s going toe-to-toe with his tree-hugging neighbor. And when he discovers that the tree hugger is really a druid, he’s certain the gods have it in for him—after all, there’s always a catch with druids. Then he’s magically shackled to the man and expected to instruct him in Supernatural 101.
All right, now things couldn’t possibly get worse.
Until a mysterious stranger offers a drunken Mal the chance to gain back all he’s lost—for a price. After Mal accepts, he discovers the real catch: an ancient secret that will change his and Bryce’s life forever.
Ah, what the hells. Odds are they won’t survive the week anyway.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
Click on a label to see its related details. Click here to toggle all details.
A jar of pickles.
A fecking jar of fecking pickles, gods damn it to all the hells.
Mal Kendrick stood in the middle of his kitchen, the victorious pickle jar jammed in the crook of his right elbow, his thrice-blasted useless right hand flapping in the air. Foil a coup to topple the Queen from her throne and this is my reward?
Sod it, he was a bloody legend on both sides of the Faerie threshold: the never-defeated Enforcer of the Seelie Court, the designated muscle for every supe council from vampire to dragon shifter, the undisputed lord of Outer World bar hookups, who’d never failed to pull the hottest man in the place for his shag-du-jour.
Yet he was helpless against a jar of fecking pickles.
“It’s not fair.”
“Talking to yourself is a sign of mental instability, Mal.” His brother-in-law swept into the kitchen, a grocery bag in one arm and a cardboard box tucked under the other.
At least David hadn’t brought his infernal physical therapy machine this time.
“Don’t you ever knock?” Mal set the pickles on the counter next to the bloody energy-efficient refrigerator.
“Why bother? You never answer.”
“I could have been banging some guy over the counter for all you know,” Mal grumbled, relieving David of the grocery bag with his left hand.
“In that case, I’d have discreetly withdrawn and done a happy dance all the way down the sidewalk.”
“Spare the neighbors that sight—they hate me enough already.”
David pouted, which was far more adorable than should be allowed. “Alun loves my dancing. He told me so just last night.”
“He’s your husband. He has to say shite like that. Besides, maybe he needed a good laugh.” He peered into the bag. Beer. Thank the Goddess. He was running dangerously low. “The sight of you dancing would be enough for the covenant committee to fine me for violation of the eyesore ban. They might ask me to vacate the premises.” He stopped, one six-pack of microbrews in his hand. “Although that might be a good thing. Go ahead, boyo. Dance away.”
“I don’t know why you don’t like this place.” David set the box on the fecking recycled glass countertop. “We thought you’d like it because you’ve got the whole wetlands preserve practically in your backyard.”
Mal shrugged. “It tries too hard. Solar panels. Geothermal energy. Drought-resistant ground coverings. Feh. Besides, I never asked you to buy me a fragging house.”
David’s gray-blue eyes turned serious and so kind that Mal wanted to punch the refrigerator in its energy-efficient gut. “If you hadn’t stopped Rodric’s sword strike, Alun would be dead. I’d buy you fifty houses, a hundred, the whole freaking subdivision, and it still wouldn’t be payment enough. Besides,” he flipped open the box, “I’m the one with the dragon treasure. I can afford it, and we’re family now, so you can just shut up and deal.”
Although David’s chin lifted with the stubborn pride that kept Mal’s perfect big brother totally dick-whipped, he still looked like an apprentice brownie who’d spent hours on a feast for his master, only to have the bastard throw the beautifully prepared meal on the floor.
Ah, shite. I can be such a bloody arse sometimes. Most times, actually, but he used to be able to cover it up with something resembling charm. Seems he’d lost that ability along with his hand, his job, and his place in Faerie.
He pulled one bottle out of the six-pack and pried the cap off with the opener Alun had mounted on the underside of the counter. Shite, he wouldn’t have been able to open his own damn beer without help from his brother. “Yes. Sure, Dafydd bach. It’s great.”
David smiled crookedly and turned away to poke about in the box, but not before Mal caught the hurt his lake-storm eyes. “You know, I’m still not used to your face without the scruff.”
Mal rubbed his perfectly smooth chin. None of the highborn fae sported facial hair, although when he’d still commanded his fae powers, he’d manufactured a little magical stubble to make the club boys swoon. “What can I say? No connection to the One Tree—no glamourie. No glamourie—no scruff.”
“Oh. Right. Well, um, I brought you some things.”
“You brought me beer, so you’ve already qualified for sainthood.”
“You don’t believe in saints.”
“Just because the fae don’t have any doesn’t mean I can’t adapt to my new home.” His permanent home. Away from Faerie. Away from the Seelie Court and everything he’d ever known. Away from the only work that gave him any satisfaction. He chugged half his beer. “Not like I have much choice.”
“Mal, you can’t lose hope. Alun says there’s always a way to reverse a curse, that the end is always contained in the beginning.” He took Mal’s unresponsive right hand. “That night, the Queen said—”
“I have to make whole what I cost her. Not a chance.” Mal pulled away and strode to the French doors that opened onto his patio—paved with recycled concrete, for shite’s sake—and stared at the greensward that sloped to the edge of the wetlands. “Even if I could put that bastard Rodric’s hand back on his arm, I wouldn’t. That piece of shite deserved what he got and more.”
David’s footsteps whispered on the cork floor. “Believe me, no one is more on board with that than I am. I’m the one he planned to sacrifice, remember? You didn’t only save Alun that night. You saved me. You saved the Queen. You saved every single Seelie fae from suffering under Rodric’s rule. Trust me—I don’t blame you. But there has to be a way to lift the curse. We just have to find out how.”
“Can you . . .” Mal swallowed around a sudden lump in his throat. “Isn’t there anything you can do?”
He immediately wished he could take back the words. David had recently discovered he was achubydd, the last known member of a meta-magical race who could heal with a touch, whose essence had the power to reverse catastrophic harm or effect extraordinary physical change. But the bigger the change, the higher the toll on the achubydd. Until now, Mal had resisted begging for help because—well, for one thing, he never begged. Why the hells should a jar of fecking pickles push him over the edge?
“I’d do anything for you or your brothers. But I’m still learning how this stuff works.” He recaptured Mal’s hand, stroking the palm, but Mal felt nothing. Not a touch. Not a tickle. Nothing. “With Alun’s curse, I could see the lines of energy running through his body, the pain backed up in his veins. But with your hand . . .” He shook his head. “It’s as if it’s not there at all. Your energy patterns are perfectly normal. They simply stop at your wrist.”
Mal tugged his hand away and tucked it under his left arm. “Maybe you should just amputate the useless thing. At least then I could get a prosthesis.”
“Don’t say that. We’ll find a way.” David sounded so fierce that Mal had to chuckle. His brother-in-law had more determination than any ten men, and he’d needed it to break through Alun’s armor of guilt and self-recrimination. “But, in the meantime, come and see what I’ve got for you.”
Mal groaned. “Goddess preserve me.”
David grinned and smacked Mal’s shoulder. “Don’t be a jerk. Accept our help. It won’t kill you.”
“No. I’ll just wish it had. At least you didn’t bring that blasted physical therapy machine this time.”
David caught his lower lip between his teeth, and his gaze skittered away from Mal’s face. “Well . . . as a matter of fact . . .”
The front door creaked open, and something scraped and clattered against the slate tiles in the entryway.
“Dafydd bach?” That sounded like . . . No, it couldn’t be. “Where the hells should I put this thing?” But even the obvious irritation in the tone couldn’t mask the beauty of a true bard’s voice.
Mal turned a stunned look on David. “Gareth? How did you . . .?”
David shrugged, sheepish. “Um . . . surprise?”
Mal set his beer on the table and bolted around the corner into the living room. Sure enough, his younger brother was standing inside the door, the cables of the PT machine draped over his shoulder, the sun backlighting his golden curls like some freaking halo.
Mal covered the distance between them in three strides and grabbed Gareth in a tight hug, pounding him on the back, one-handed. “Shite, man. I had no idea you were back from your tour.”
Gareth returned the hug and the pounding with interest. Little brothers. Always trying to one-up their elders. “I’m not. Portland’s one of our stops. We’re playing the Aladdin tonight, so I decided to squeeze in a trip out here to the wilds of—what is this benighted place again? Oh right. Hillsboro.”
“Smart-arse.” Mal pulled back and flicked Gareth’s hair with his fingers. “Get a haircut. You look like a revenant from the Middle Ages. Or the seventies.”
Gareth’s expression locked down. “I like it this way.”
Shite. It wasn’t Gareth who liked the outdated hairdo. It was his lover, gone these two hundred years and more.
“Well. Come in and check out the house Alun and his husband have forced on me.”
Gareth handed the machine off to David and strolled into the living room. “Seems like a nice enough place. Beats the hells out of that hut where you squatted in bleeding Faerie, right?”
“It wasn’t a hut.”
“A hut, Mal, face it.” Gareth pointed to the flat-screen TV mounted on the wall. “You have anything like that in Faerie?” He waved a hand at the L-shaped sofa upholstered in slubbed natural fibers. “Furniture that doesn’t numb your arse? Hells, indoor plumbing?”
“I didn’t need it.” Mal gritted his teeth. “I had magic.”
Sorrow flickered across Gareth’s face before he recovered his habitual sardonic half smile. “Nothing technology can’t replace. Trust me—in another few days, a month at most, you won’t miss Faerie at all.” He wandered through the archway into the dining room. “Goddess knows, I never do.”
Mal followed in time to catch David opening the insulated blinds in the kitchen, flooding the rooms with unwelcome sunshine.
“I don’t know why you want to live in a cave, Mal, I really don’t.”
“Don’t you know, Dafydd bach?” Gareth sauntered over to the table and dropped into one of the ladder-back chairs, his long legs stretched out in front of him “It’s his natural habitat.”
“Then sunlight will do him good. You too, since you spend most of your time in dark studios or concert halls.”
Gareth snorted and got up to wander off down the hallway.
Mal waited until he was out of earshot. “He’s spending time with you and Alun now?” he murmured. “They’ve made up?”
“They’re . . . working on it. Gareth still gives us the side-eye sometimes because you know—” David gestured between the two of them. “Cross-species relationship. He’s still not a fan. But at least he’s not treating Alun like a monster anymore.” He held out a strange wooden object: a hinged wooden rod, each arm bowed out in the middle into a padded half circle. He brought the ends together to form a full circle, about ten centimeters in diameter. “Here.”
Mal took it, letting it fall open again. “What is it? Some kind of kinky sex toy?”
“No, doofus. It’s a jar opener. Aunt Cassie asked Nola to make it for you.”
Mal dropped it on the counter as if it were hot iron. “Druid crap? Not on your life. With druids, there’s always a catch.”
“It’s not bespelled, if that’s what you’re worried about. You can buy something like it at Fred Meyer or Kitchen Kaboodle, but Nola’s is prettier.”
“No, thanks. I’ll manage without.”
“Honestly. You and your brothers. Does y Tylwyth Teg mean ‘stubborn as a twenty-mule-team hangover’? Go club-hopping and find someone to bang over the counter, for pity’s sake. Work off some of that temper with sex the way you used to.”
“How many guys do you think would be interested in me now? I can’t even jack myself properly, let alone live up to my reputation.”
David propped his fists on his narrow hips and glared. “Listen up. You’ve sustained a traumatic injury, like many other soldiers, and you’ve got a disability—a temporary disability. Don’t you think it’s time to accept that and learn to take help when it’s offered?” His expression softened. “From where I stand, you’re a hero—but not even heroes can handle everything on their own.”
Mal scooped up his beer bottle and drained it. Damn it, he’d never had to ask for help before. Goddess knew he didn’t want to do it now. He’d had no trouble twisting people around to do his will before, when it was only a matter of taking the mickey out of Alun or Gareth or even David. But now? When he had no choice? It stuck in his craw like an enchanted fishbone. He couldn’t do it.
“Where’s Alun today? I’m surprised he didn’t tag along to make it a full family funhouse.”
“He’s mediating the quarterly supe council executive meeting.” David shot Mal a half-guilty glance as he jockeyed the PT machine into position next to the dining table. “I’m sure they’d have asked you, just like usual, but two of the werewolf packs had a territorial dispute and the council leaders thought Alun’s psychologist chops would be necessary.”
Mal’s hand clenched around the empty bottle. Typical of David to try to spare his feelings, but Mal held no illusions about his usefulness to the council. He’d only been the stand-in, the understudy, the Queen’s Enforcer.
Alun had been the Queen’s Champion.
Once the Champion was back, the Enforcer had to retire from the lists, and Alun had been miraculously restored to his full status, rights, and abilities, thanks to David helping him overcome his curse. So the councils, the Queen, even the club boys could get along without Mal just fine now.
But if I hadn’t cut Rodric Luchullain’s hand off at the wrist, Alun would be dead now—David too, and maybe Gareth as well.
Some sacrifices were worth the cost.
“Mal?” David fidgeted with one of the machine’s cables. “Is that— I mean, are you okay?”
He forced a smile for David’s benefit. “Aye. Alun’s a manipulative bastard. Much more suited to the job. He should be able to get them to toe the party line.”
David chuckled, the anxiety fading from his expression. “It takes a manipulative bastard to know one, Mal.”
Mal glanced around, checking for Gareth’s whereabouts. Judging by the sounds emanating from the back of the house, Gareth found the place just as ridiculous as Mal. Not that Gareth, the last full bard in all of Faerie, ever sounded anything less than perfectly musical, even when snorting derisively at low-flow toilets, LED light fixtures, or whatever else had caught his fancy.
“Has Alun had a chance to talk to the Queen yet?” Mal kept his voice low. With Gareth’s longstanding hatred of the Queen, he’d have a fit if he knew Mal was angling to get an audience with Her coldhearted Majesty—even though it was to get his sentence commuted and his curse removed.
David didn’t meet his eyes as he set up the PT machine and affixed the contacts on Mal’s right arm and hand. “I told you. He’s been tied up with the supe councils.”
“They can’t take all his time. He has a practice to run and a husband to shag. You’d be a damn sight less chipper if he’d been neglecting that particular duty.”
David’s cheeks pinked—adorable, really. No wonder Alun had fallen so hard, but it had made him even more self-righteous than usual, holding his relationship up as the way to true happiness.
True happiness would be the end of this fragging exile and a return to my rightful place in Faerie.
Mal knew why he’d earned his cursed hand—he’d broken one of the primal laws of Faerie when he’d maimed the Queen’s Consort. But why had he been cursed with one brother who believed the process of redemption was a necessary part of recovery, and another who didn’t care if he ever set foot in Faerie again?
Mal wanted his old life back. All of it.
David turned on the machine, fiddling with the dials. “Do you feel anything?”
“No. Come on, Dafydd bach. It’ll be awkward for Alun, begging a favor of the Queen, but you can talk him into it. You can talk him into anything with a flutter of those eyelashes and a wiggle of that perfect arse.”
Instead of rising to the bait, David took Mal’s right hand in both of his, his brow furrowing and his eyes losing focus. Mal felt the bone-deep heat that signaled David’s achubydd powers and jerked his arm away.
“Stop it. Alun would kill me if I let you waste your essence on me.”
David grabbed his hand again. “I’m not wasting it. I’m not giving you any more than a boost.” He opened Mal’s crabbed hand and pressed the fingers wide and flat. “Push back.”
“I told you, I—”
“Damn it, Mal. Push back. As much as you’d like to think there’s a magic bullet for this, there’s not. One way or another, you have to put in the effort, just like any other wounded veteran.”
Heat burst under Mal’s sternum at the unfairness of David’s words, and he leaned forward. “I—”
“There! You did it. You pushed back.”
Mal stared at his hand, the heat dissipating under a flare of hope. “I did?”
“Absolutely. See? Human PT, plus a little achubydd special sauce, and you can make progress. But you have to do the work.”
This work is shite. I want my old work. A position backed by the full tradition of Faerie. Mayhem sanctioned by the Queen. Magic as full and easy as breathing. Men who fell to his charm as easily as his enemies fell to his sword. Why was it that the one time he’d done a selfless thing, he’d gotten everything stripped away from him?
Right, then. Lesson learned: screw self-sacrifice. And as for taking the high road to recovery? Bollocks to that. He’d find an easier way.
He always had.
“You know what? Never mind. I’ll figure this out on my own.” He jerked his right arm, dislodging the machine contacts, and surged out of the chair.
“You two can let yourselves out. And take that infernal contraption with you. I never want to see it again.”
Ignoring David’s wide-eyed hurt, he threw open the gods-be-damned triple-glazed French doors and stalked across the fecking reclaimed concrete patio toward the wetlands, his empty beer bottle still clutched in his hand.
Bryce MacLeod stoppered the last water sample and carefully settled the test tube into the rack in his satchel. He’d run the preliminary tests in his home lab before he shipped them off for official analysis, but they were bound to be perfect—all the beneficial microbes in place, water quality well within the standards he’d specified when the reclamation project began four years ago.
The preservation of the wetlands and the adjacent woods, named in his grandmother’s honor, were the result of years of environmental activism and fundraising. He knew it was fanciful, not fitting an environmental studies professor, but he swore he could almost feel the fragile ecosystem knitting around him, the scents of plants in each appropriate stage of growth and decay, the buzz and whine of insects, the chirp and flutter of birds, the sunlight glinting off the water under the reeds.
He remembered how he’d cried as a boy when his grandmother had told him there were no wild honeybees in Oregon anymore, that they’d been killed off by a mite introduced by an illegal import of infected specimens. That, along with the love of the land she’d instilled in him before her death when he was barely twelve, had shaped his life, his career.
He sighed. His sabbatical had been ideal for finishing up this project, but it had sucked big time when it came to his social life—not that he had much of one anyway. Being a Myers-Briggs one hundred percent introvert pretty much guaranteed that. But at least when he was teaching, he spoke with other professors, interacted with his students, had a reason to get out and exercise his vocal chords and practice his minimal social skills. Now that the majority of the labor on the wetlands was completed and he was no longer managing work crews, he’d turned into a virtual hermit. It was rather disquieting how much that suited him.
“Probably start talking to myself next,” he muttered to the Steller’s jay perched on the branch of a nearby crabapple.
He made his way along the berm that cut a wandering path through the wetlands, carefully designed to allow access without disturbing any plants or habitat. He slowed when he rounded a clump of thimbleberry to see a blue heron standing in the shallows amid the cattails. He hunkered down in the shade, hardly daring to breathe as the bird dipped its bill into the water. So beautiful.
He’d been waiting for a moment like this since he’d begun lobbying for the project.
He caught a flash of motion out of the corner of his eye and turned to see an emaciated coyote approaching through the underbrush. Bryce didn’t want to do anything to drive the heron from the area, but he didn’t want it to fall victim to the coyote either. He straightened, hand reaching out to rattle the thimbleberry branches, when a beer bottle rocketed across the water and struck the coyote in its washboard ribs.
The heron flapped away, squawking its distress, as the coyote bolted for the woods. Bryce whirled in time to see his surly next door neighbor—Kendrick, M., according to the tag on the mailbox—standing ankle-deep in the slough, laughing like a loon. Under Bryce’s stunned gaze, the bastard actually fist-pumped the sky as if he’d thrown a winning touchdown pass.
Bryce considered himself an even-tempered guy, the quintessential mild-mannered professor, but anger at his irresponsible neighbor boiled up under his sternum. He stalked over to the spot where the bottle had struck the coyote. Luckily, it hadn’t shattered, so he fished it out of elbow-deep water. If he hadn’t been afraid of damaging the fragile biosphere, he’d have sloshed straight through the water, slashing the reeds out of his path. Instead, he continued along the berm, his fury building with each step.
Marching straight up to the idiot on the bank, who was grinning as if bashing a starving animal entitled him to a medal, Bryce brandished the bottle under Kendrick, M.’s nose.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing? I could have you arrested for littering, let alone endangering the ecosystem. This is a protected site.”
Kendrick blinked as if he hadn’t even noticed Bryce’s presence. He probably hadn’t. Men this handsome never did. And this man was definitely in the top one percent of male beauty, with his square jaw, cleft chin, and model-worthy cheekbones. Stylishly overlong dark hair waved across his forehead and curled against the collar of his snug white T-shirt. At six three, Bryce wasn’t short, but Kendrick topped him by a couple of inches, and his shoulder width and upper-body definition marked him as someone who wrestled with more than test tubes and sloppy undergraduate lab notebooks.
Kendrick’s grin didn’t falter. “Did you see that? I nailed him. I never thought—”
“Yes, I saw.” Shit. The guy had a killer British accent too, a weakness of Bryce’s that he blamed on too much Masterpiece Theatre as a kid. Be strong. “I saw you purposely flinging dangerous refuse at a starving animal. What if the bottle had broken? The glass could have injured dozens of fauna. The health of this whole area is very precarious. We’ve only just—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Kendrick held up one hand, palm out, angling his body so that his other arm was hidden. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
“The rules about the wetlands and woods are clearly spelled out in the CCRs.”
“Codes, covenants, and restrictions. The by-laws for the whole development.” He tore off his hat, bunching it in his fist, and flipped up his clip-on sunglasses, the better to glare. “We’ve got a zero-tolerance policy for environmental negligence, let alone intentional pollution. It’s in the papers you signed when you bought the house.”
Kendrick shrugged his wide shoulders. “A little behind on my reading. Like I said. Sorry.” His tone of voice belied the words.
“I suggest you catch up, because we also have a zero-tolerance policy for ignorance.” Bryce pulled a notepad out of the pocket of his vest. “Since I’m on the board of the homeowners’ association, I’m reporting you.”
“Do your worst.”
“There’ll be a fine.”
“Yeah?” Kendrick’s grin was nearly feral. “Don’t expect me to pay.”
“Then we can put a lien on your house. Foreclose. And you’ll be out before you can do irreparable damage.”
“Flaming abyss, man, will you calm down? You’ve got a bigger stick up your arse than my self-righteous brother.” He flicked a finger at Bryce’s vest. “Fishing’s forbidden in your holy wetlands. I do know that much. How do you justify that to your fellow inquisitors?”
Bryce’s hands twitched, and he resisted the urge to pat his vest pockets. “It’s not a fishing vest. It’s a tactical vest.”
Kendrick smirked. “I suppose those are tactical pants.”
Bryce raised his chin. The pants with built-in kneepads (and more pockets) were practical, but not exactly man-magnet material. He looked like what he was—a science geek. “As a matter of fact, they are. Very useful in fieldwork.”
“I’m sure. What’s next? Tactical underdrawers?”
“I didn’t buy any of those.”
Kendrick barked a laugh. “Shite. You mean they actually make them?”
“Yes, but I don’t need them for my purposes.”
“If your purpose is being a nosy parker, you’ve got it nailed, mate.” He yanked the dripping bottle out of Bryce’s hand. “I’ll put this in the bleeding recycling, shall I?”
“Glass,” Bryce grumbled, wiping his hand on his pants.
“I know it’s glass. I don’t drink beer out of a flaming paper cup.”
“I mean you have to recycle glass separately from other waste. You always throw everything in the same bin. I should have reported you for that infraction already.”
“What are you, the bloody trash police? Why didn’t you, then?”
Bryce didn’t have a good answer for that, not one that he wanted to share with Kendrick anyway. He couldn’t exactly say I’ve been sorting it for you because I liked watching you walk out to the curb and bend over the bins. It had seemed a fair trade. But now that he’d had a chance to talk to the man, the bloom was off that algae.
“Maybe I wanted to be neighborly. Unlike some.”
* * * * * * *
Gwydion’s bollocks, and I thought Alun was a prig. Mal’s irate neighbor had him beat to flinders. Under the man’s self-righteous glare, Mal’s elation over discovering his left hand was good for something faded completely away. Shite, he’d done the bloke a favor—he’d nailed that Unseelie redcap who’d been about to piss in the water to paralyze the heron before it ate the stupid bird raw.
Still, Mal supposed he had to cut the guy some slack. The redcap was undoubtedly cloaked in glamourie. Before Mal had been deprived of most of his fae abilities, he could have easily perceived both the illusion and the reality. Now, since he could no more detect glamourie on others than he could cast one on himself, he had no idea how the blasted assassin had appeared to human eyes. Probably as something totally inoffensive, fluffy, and cute, so Mal looked like a sociopath.
Just fecking brilliant.
“Look. We’ve obviously got off on the wrong foot. I’m Mal. You are . . .?”
The man crossed his arms over his chest. “Not amused.”
“I got that. Thanks.” The bloke wasn’t bad looking, although he wasn’t the sort Mal usually hooked up with. Taller, for one thing—and he’d never had a man other than his brothers frown at him that way. He offered the best grin he could conjure under the circumstances. “Another chance maybe?”
Neighbor-bloke’s chest lifted in a sigh. “All right. Dr. MacLeod . . . er . . . that is, Bryce.”
Without thinking, Mal held out his right hand. Bryce extended his, ready to shake, but then his eyes widened behind his black-framed glasses. Shite. Mal snatched his crabbed hand behind his back, the pity in Bryce’s face making him want to bite something.
“Anyway. Sorry about the bottle and the . . . what was that thing I hit?”
The pity faded under a look of disbelief, bordering on contempt. Much better. Anything was better than pity.
“A coyote. Don’t they have those in . . . England, is it?”
Oh, if only you knew, boyo. “Wales, actually, but it’s been a long time.” A very long time. He brandished the bottle. “Anyway, I’ll take care of this, shall I? Nice to meet you, Bryce. Cheers.”
He trudged up the hill and through the shady path between their houses to where his refuse containers stood outside the garage. Bryce was watching him from the corner of his patio, a scowl still bunching his eyebrows.
Mal held the bottle up between two fingers, placed it in the bin labeled Glass, then bowed in Bryce’s direction. Ha. Just as he thought—a smile on those lips made all the difference.
Maybe I don’t need to troll the bars for a little action after all.
The next morning, Bryce had recovered from his less-than-pleasant introduction to Kendrick, M. Mal’s curtains were drawn tight as Bryce passed by on his way into the wetlands, so there’d be no encounter with his surly neighbor to spoil his optimistic mood. If today’s water samples were as clean as yesterday’s, he could officially report the project ready to move to maintenance mode.
He took the alternate way through the slough this morning, past the succession pools that were part of the housing development’s water conservation and reclamation infrastructure. The morning sun glinted off the water, turning the chevron wake of a trio of ducks peach against the dark water.
He loved this whole community, proof that environmentally sound building practices could be beautiful and functional as well as planet-friendly. His grandmother would be so proud of what her legacy had produced.
He took a detour off the berm and into the woods to check on the progress of a family of bluebirds that had moved into the nest box he’d mounted in a bitter cherry tree in the spring.
For a few minutes he paused, soothed by the bluebirds’ song, the chirrup of chipmunks, and the hum of mason bees in the lupines. Yes, all the work had been worth it.
He turned back, ready to jump the stream that fed into the slough, when a glint of silver in the reeds caught his eye.
Damn it. Mal had better not have been tossing trash in here again.
Bryce crouched down, parting the knife-edged cattail fronds. A trout was floating belly-up at the edge of the water.
His breath sped up, heat shooting up his throat. Calm down. This could be the heron’s abandoned kill from yesterday. Doesn’t have to be a setback—or evidence of Mal Kendrick’s malice. He edged along the berm, peering down through the reeds, and spotted a second dead fish, a third, a fourth.
This time, the blood rushed out of his head, and he had to sit down and hunch forward over his knees. This cannot be happening. Just yesterday, the water quality had been perfect. Had an unexpected source of pollution leached into the water? Something upstream in one of the feeder creeks or a failure in the reclamation fields?
Examining the dead fish at this point wouldn’t tell him anything since their internal organs decayed so quickly after death. Pulling on a pair of disposable gloves from his satchel, he removed the pathetic little corpses from the reeds, dug a shallow trench in the soft ground under the thimbleberries, and buried them. He ought to search for a live affected fish to collect for a necropsy. Later. Not now.
Instead, he retrieved a water sample from the site, and another from further along, near where a creek emptied into the slough. He was about to head back into the woods to check further upstream when he saw Mal standing knee-deep in the water in the same spot where he’d tossed his bottle yesterday.
Bryce’s temper boiled over again. Christ, hadn’t the man promised to keep out of the wetlands? Well, maybe not in so many words, but he’d said he’d stop throwing bottles. Was he dumping something else in the water, something that was toxic to fish and possibly other species?
“Hey!” Bryce shouted.
Mal’s head snapped up, but before Bryce could deliver a more articulate reprimand, Mal toppled face-first into the water.
“Oh, just fucking perfect. Is he already drunk at this time of day? Bad enough he throws his trash here, now he’s decided to bathe in the . . .” Why isn’t he getting up? Mal was floating on the water, bobbing in the wake from a passing duck.
Bryce dropped his pack and raced down the path, wading into the water to flip Mal over. He pulled him to the bank and rolled him to his side. All his CPR training fled—a fat lot of good it does if I can’t remember it when I need it.
Before he could descend into full-fledged panic, Mal choked and retched, bringing up at least a beer bottle’s worth of slough water. Bryce kept a steadying hand on his shoulder until Mal had subsided to wheezing gasps. As he helped Mal sit up, he noticed that the man had a bloody lump the size of a golf ball on the back of his head.
“Where did it—” Mal coughed again. “Bloody hells, that water is foul.”
“It’s not intended for drinking, let alone breathing.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Mal lifted his left hand to the back of his head, wincing when he came in contact with the lump. “Shite. Must have been more than one of the bastards. Did you see where they went?”
Bryce looked around, but the greensward leading up to the back of both their houses was empty, as was the bank of the slough. The only things in sight were a couple of raccoons and a well-fed nutria. “Nobody here but us.” Mal shot a narrow glance at him, and Bryce raised his hands. “Hey. I promise. I didn’t conk you on the head. Although I would like to know what you were doing down here today.”
“I was . . .” Mal pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered something that sounded like bloody curse. “I saw some suspicious characters down here.”
“Suspicious, huh? Were they perhaps wearing masks?” Bryce jerked his head at the raccoons peering at them from the underbrush.
Mal lurched to his feet, and the raccoons bolted toward the woods, the nutria waddling after them. “Bloody bastards. I’ll—”
“Hold it, neighbor.” Bryce grabbed him before he face-planted in the reeds again. Maybe the bump on the old noggin had done a little more damage than it appeared. “You can’t slaughter the wildlife any more than you can use the slough for your personal trash bin.”
“I didn’t— They . . .” Mal grabbed a handful of his hair, nowhere close to the lump. “Ah, shite.”
“Look. I think you should maybe go to the ER. Get your head checked out.”
“No bloody chance of that, mate.”
“Then at least come over to my place. Let me patch you up.”
“I’ll be fine.” Mal turned, but before he could take two steps up the hill, he wobbled and nearly fell on his ass.
“Sure you will. After you’re patched up.” And see a doctor, if I have anything to say about it. Still, thanks to his grandmother’s training, Bryce wasn’t completely without resources. “Come on. I’ve got everything I need in my kitchen.”
“Planning to grind my bones to make your bread?”
Grind? Bones? Wha . . .? Oh. Bryce pulled his thoughts out of the gutter and chuckled. “I’m not a giant, Jack. You’re safe from me. Let’s go.”
He put a hand under Mal’s elbow, supporting him up the hill and through the French doors so he could park him in a chair at the dining table.
“Your kitchen has the same bloody appliances as mine.”
“Of course it does. They’re part of the specs for the development.” Bryce pulled his first aid kit out of the cupboard over the refrigerator. He’d inherited the wooden box from his grandmother, and he still regularly replaced the herbs and ointments with fresh preparations according to her instructions. He sorted through the pots of jars until he found the ones he wanted—the antiseptic soap paste and the antibiotic ointment. “You know, I still think you need to go to the—”
“Fine.” He beckoned Mal over to the sink, pulling two tea towels out of the drawer. “Can you lean over the sink? You’ll stay dryer than if I try to wash the wound while you’re sitting in the chair.”
“‘Wound’? I wouldn’t dignify it with the term.” Mal stood up and walked around the breakfast bar into the kitchen. “It’s not that bad.” He touched the back of his head and seemed stunned when his fingers came away coated in blood. “All right, then. Bugger it.” He crossed his arms and propped them on the edge of the counter, his head over the sink.
The way Mal’s jeans fit over his ass as he shifted from foot to foot, the play of his back muscles under the wet cotton of his T-shirt, made Bryce swallow convulsively and edge away. Mal hadn’t shown any overt signs of sexual preference, but he’d definitely shown signs of finding Bryce annoying. Not a recipe for a successful hookup, even if the man was gay. Besides, now was not the time, regardless of inclination.
Bryce cleared his throat as he unscrewed the lid of the soap, releasing the scent of mint and apple. He’d always been glad that his grandmother’s remedies weren’t overly floral, and he imagined Mal would appreciate not smelling like a nosegay while he healed as well. “Did you get hit anywhere else other than your head?”
“No. Didn’t drown either, thanks to you.”
“Well, I’m opposed to littering the slough, so didn’t have much choice.” Bryce filled his cupped hands with warm water and let it trickle over the back of Mal’s head. He froze when Mal twitched and groaned. “Sorry. Does that hurt?”
“No. Feels bloody marvelous.”
“Good.” He smeared a fingertip of soap onto the wound, and Mal shot backward as if Bryce’s touch had been red-hot.
“Shite, man. What in all the hells are you doing to me?”
“Just washing off blood.”
Bryce held up the pot. “It’s just a homemade herbal soap. Perfectly safe.”
“Like bloody hells it is.”
Mal strode to the table and pawed through the first aid box, tossing the contents onto the table, occasionally holding a packet or pot up to his nose. “Rosemary. Vervain. Rue. Faugh.” He flung the packet across the kitchen and it burst against the refrigerator, scattering fine brownish-green powder across the floor.
For a moment, Bryce couldn’t do anything more than goggle, his jaw sagging like a freshman non-major in his geomorphology class. But the destruction of hours’ worth of painstaking work finally refired his motor neurons.
“What the devil do you think you’re doing?” He took two giant steps across the kitchen and yanked the box out of Mal’s reach. “If this is how you repay hospitality, no wonder you never leave your fucking house. Isn’t polluting the wetlands enough for you? You have to destroy my property and vandalize my kitchen too?”
Mal swept a half-dozen pots off the table with his right forearm, the first time Bryce had seen him use his disabled arm for anything. One pot, an opaque white glass holding an insect repellent, shattered, sending blobs of yellow lotion in a blood-spatter spray against the cabinets. The others rolled across the floor as if they were fleeing Mal’s temper. “Who sent you? Was it my brother-in-law? His busybody aunt? The others in her circle? Did one of them give you this shite?”
Anger curdled Bryce’s belly and tightened his chest. He could count the times that he’d lost his temper in his thirty-two years on one hand, and three of them had been in the last twenty-four hours, the direct result of Mal Kendrick.
“For your information, this ‘shite,’ as you put it, is mine—made by my own hand from recipes I learned by the time I turned twelve.”
Mal crowded up against Bryce, but Bryce refused to back away, putting them almost chest to chest, nose to nose. “Was it the Queen, then? Are you her spy, sent to make sure I’m working my cursed arse off to return her Consort to her in all his traitorous glory? Well, you can tell Her bloody Majesty—”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Bryce ground out between clenched molars, “but I’m trying to help you. Although I’m beginning to think that’s beyond my abilities. Or anyone’s.”
Mal sounded positively deranged. And I was so blinded by a pretty face that I invited him into my home without knowing anything about him. Brilliant, just brilliant. If his students ever found out, he’d never live it down.
Although perhaps living through this should be his immediate goal—he’d worry about living it down later.
* * * * * * *
A druid, damn it to all the bloody hells. He had a gods-forsaken druid for a neighbor. How likely a coincidence was that? Not one Mal was willing to believe.
But if the twisted magician wasn’t part of Cassie’s coven, and if he hadn’t been sent to spy for the Queen . . . Gwydion’s bloody bollocks, could his tree-hugging neighbor be in league with the Unseelie thugs who had attacked him this morning? An unaffiliated druid was worse than a dozen loose cannons.
Shite, he should have known the word of his helplessness would spread. He shouldn’t have tipped his hand by winging that redcap yesterday. He should have remembered it would have pack mates.
Mal’s vision dimmed around the edges, sharpening everything in his direct line of sight, a sure sign he was falling into battle-trance. Good. This bastard deserved it.
“Who’s paying you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Come off it. No wonder you’re arse-deep in this bloody green-construction shite. The recycled building materials—you use them to tap into the earth, don’t you? Draining power from their old life as well as the new.”
Bryce drew back, his eyebrows bunched over his glasses. “Listen, I’m willing to cut you some slack because of the head injury, but—”
“Stop evading! I’m not an imbecile.”
“I never said you were. But your head. A possible concussion—”
Mal shouldered Bryce against the wall. “Shut. It. Did you cast a summoning? Blood magic? Something to lure my brother-in-law to buy that gods-be-damned house? I should have known he’d never have chosen it on his own.”
Bryce shoved Mal’s chest with respectable force, but Mal hadn’t spent the last two hundred years swinging a broadsword for nothing. Druids might have unfair advantage with their theurgic charms and potions, but when it came to brute strength, Mal had the upper hand—even if only one of them worked.
His right forearm blocked Bryce’s windpipe quite nicely though. Mal leaned in, but not with his full weight, not yet. He still needed answers, and for that Bryce needed his breath.
But not that much of it.
Mal bared his teeth in a battle grimace. “You have one more chance. Who.” He jerked his arm against Bryce’s throat and felt the man’s Adam’s apple spasm. “Paid.” Another jerk, and Bryce’s brown eyes widened and watered behind his glasses. “You?”
“Fuck you,” Bryce croaked, and pain burst in Mal’s bollocks as Bryce grabbed and squeezed.
Goddess. He dropped his arm, scrabbling at Bryce’s wrist, attempting to loosen that deadly grip, but his fingers flopped uselessly against the corded muscles. Left hand. Left hand. He dug his fingers into the tendons at the base of Bryce’s thumb, both of them sweating and grunting with pain and effort.
“Shite, man. Let go.”
“I will if you will.”
Mal nodded once, teeth clenched, and released Bryce’s wrist. Immediately Bryce dropped the grip on Mal’s balls.
“Flaming abyss, man. Did you have to try to neuter me?”
Bryce snorted and rubbed his throat. “Seeing as you were about to strangle me, yes.” He moved to the other side of a heavy antique maple table, countering Mal’s staggered movements so the table remained between them, blocking either of them from another assault. Probably a good idea.
“Air. Pfaugh. Not as necessary as bollocks.”
“Listen. I’ll forgo pressing assault charges this time, but only if you agree to go to the hospital. Get checked out. Because I have to tell you . . .” He shook his head and pulled the wooden potion box across the table, laying a protective hand on its lid. “You sound fucking insane.”
“I told you. No hospitals. But if it makes you stop hovering like a ministering angel with a homicidal streak, I’ll give my brother-in-law a call. He’s a nurse. Or almost.”
“Nope. You get official help. If you don’t, I’m reporting you to the police and the homeowners’ association as a danger to both the public and the community.”
“No negotiation. Show me the discharge orders tomorrow or it’s the police.” He rubbed his throat again. “No doubt I’ll sport a very nice bruise that’ll match your handprint to help them with their case. Now get out.”
“No fear. The less time I spend in your presence, the better I’ll like it.”
Mal managed to maintain his dignity—and a marginally steady gait—until he exited the blasted druid den. Then he gave in to the pain and limped across the grass and through his own door.
Shite, what a disaster. Unseelie thugs stalking him with intent to kill. A fragging unaffiliated druid living next door. Bollocks that felt as if they were on fire.
At least he could do something about the last one. He minced his way to the refrigerator and pulled a flexible ice pack out of the freezer. Since David had outfitted the place, it had every first aid supply in his nurse’s bag of tricks, and despite being the adopted nephew of the local arch-druid, David always stocked human remedies, not magical ones.
He didn’t need them, after all. As an achubydd, he was a walking first aid station all by himself.
Come to think of it, he could use David’s healing touch right about now—on his skull, not his bollocks. If Alun found out Mal had asked David to touch him there—even if the touch was metaphysical, not hands-on—his brother would finish the castration Bryce had started. Besides, Alun would consider the pain Mal’s own damn fault.
Mal settled on his sofa and eased the ice pack over his crotch. Shite, Bryce has a grip on him. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and speed-dialed David, who answered on the first ring.
“It’s a good thing you called,” David said, no hint of his usual cheerful teasing tone, “or Alun was going to take steps.”
“He doesn’t scare me.”
“Fine. He scares me, but only because I never know what self-righteous stunt he’ll pull on me next. I’m surprised he doesn’t make me wear a chastity belt in your presence.”
“You’d look hot in one, especially if it was all you were wearing.”
“Thanks, love, but don’t let Alun hear you say that.” He winced and rearranged the ice pack. “Although I’m not sure any sex restraints will be necessary for at least a while. My bollocks are in recovery from a run-in with my neighbor’s fist.”
“What? He punched you?”
“That would have been too easy. No. I think he mistook them for a stone and was trying to extract a little blood.”
“Oh my god, Mal. Do you need me to come over?”
“I do, but not for that.”
“There’s something else?”
“I got hit in the head.”
“He hit you in the head too?”
“Not him. An Unseelie redcap ambushed me in the wetlands and his cronies nailed me in the back of the head with a sling full of elf-shot.”
“I’ll be right there.”
“Wait, David. There’s more.”
“More? What else can there be?”
“I think my neighbor is a druid. An unaffiliated.”
“Is that bad?”
“Ask your aunt. And be ready to duck.”
“Oookaaay. I’ll swing by to pick her up, then. Can you lure him to your house?”
Mal shifted on the sofa. “I don’t think he’ll be amenable to an invitation from me.”
“Well . . . I kind of tried to choke him.”
Silence. He could imagine David’s eyes narrowing and hear his foot tapping. “Was this before or after he crushed your balls?”
“Kind of during. Although I suppose my part came first.”
“Mal . . .” The exasperation in David’s voice carried clearly over the call.
“I know. I’m not the Enforcer anymore. I can’t kill anyone with impunity, including the Unseelie swine lurking in the fragging swamp behind my house.”
“It’s not a swamp. It’s a wetlands reclamation project.”
“Considering I swallowed half of it this morning, I can tell you without a doubt—it’s a swamp. I’ll see you when I see you.”
After one of his grandmother’s pain remedies, washed down by two tall glasses of ice water, Bryce could finally swallow without wincing. He swept up the spilled herbs from the kitchen floor. Useless, damn it, and his herb garden wouldn’t be ready to harvest for at least another month. He’d have to hope he wouldn’t need the rue before he had a chance to replenish his supply.
He should have known that Mal was unstable after the bottle-flinging event yesterday—although he’d never have imagined the guy would go so far as to attack him. And that rant about—well, whatever it was. The man was clearly paranoid and probably more than half-crazy.
Bryce paused, the paper of meadowsweet in his hands. Paranoia. Was that a symptom of subdural hematoma? Should he have allowed Mal to go home without ensuring that he’d go to the ER?
He wasn’t even sure the man owned a car. He’d only ever seen an enormous Harley, which Mal had never actually ridden. He’d just let it idle in the open garage, polluting the air with exhaust.
Oh. His hand. He probably couldn’t ride the bike anymore. His disability must be pretty recent if he hadn’t figured out how to function with it yet. Maybe some of his anger was post-traumatic—and now Bryce had exacerbated it by adding borderline genital mutilation.
He stalked to his own garage and checked the charge on his LEAF. It was ready to go, so if he had to, he’d drive Mal to the hospital himself. He unhooked his old Louisville Slugger from the pegboard over his workbench—although he’d approach Mal to insist on medical intervention, he wasn’t stupid enough to do it without a little insurance.
He walked out the side door and across the strip of fescue between his house and Mal’s, adjusting his grip on the bat so he didn’t look quite so much like a basher. As he walked past the recycling bins, an emaciated coyote slunk around the front corner of the house and froze when it caught sight of Bryce and his bat.
Bryce froze too. Was it the same one that had stalked the heron yesterday? An animal that starved, that obviously unhealthy, was a wild card. Normally a single coyote wouldn’t attack a human, but thanks to Mal, this one already had experience with human aggression. That, coupled with desperation, might alter its behavior.
The coyote crouched down, belly brushing the grass. Its eyes, even in the shadow under the wide eaves of Mal’s house, glowed yellow, and its black pupils looked almost vertical, like a cat’s. That can’t be normal—does it have issues other than starvation?
It crept backward. Bryce frowned. He didn’t know canines could do that, but then he was an environmentalist, not an animal behaviorist. He kept still, waiting for the beast to make its next move.
It continued its retreat. When it moved through a shaft of sunlight reflected off Bryce’s study window, a trick of refraction wildly distorted its shadow on Mal’s garage wall, making it look more like a squat, misshapen child than a cowering canine.
The crash of a door being thrown open startled the animal to its feet.
“Oi!” At Mal’s bellow, the coyote took off, racing within inches of Bryce, and disappeared into the woods at the foot of the hill.
Mal barreled around the corner of the house, skidding to a stop when he saw Bryce.
“Oh. It’s you.”