I've always loved country music. The classics are wonderful, especially the whiny, sing-through-your-nose songs of lost love, hard drinking and life gone wrong. A few years ago I got the CD dwightyoakamacoustic.net for Christmas. I love it! Every song has wonderful imagery and they stick with me. After a few plays, I decided that it would make a great starting point for a series of stories. Life intervened, however, and until now I've not touched that project. When CJ approached me about writing a short story with a song title, I immediately pulled out the CD and gave it a listen. Of all the songs on that album, Two Doors Down popped out at me.
A neighborhood bar, a refuge from the world. It sounds nice and comfortable...but what happens when the world intrudes? And what happens if that world is not the one we expect? Yes, in my mind, strange things abound. This is a bit of a departure for me because it's a sweet story (no sex! what was I thinking? LOL) but it's just as fantastic as my usual tales. I mean that as dealing with fantasy. I love this little story but then who ever has an ugly baby? Not me.
I live off the grid, hiding from a past I'm trying to forget. Two doors down from my apartment is a bar that has become my home away from home. I spend time there with the closest thing I have to a friend...until a stranger intrudes and I start remembering things a lot of people would consider best forgotten.
Rated - PG-13
Rated - PG-13
Genre - Urban Fantasy / Contemporary
Heat Level - Sweet
Heat Level - Sweet
Two Doors Down
by Liddy Midnight
Cool air surrounded me as the door swung closed, cutting off the heat. Although the bar was only two doors down from my place, the short walk was brutal in the late summer evening.
The place was almost empty, not unusual for a weeknight. A few regulars sat in their usual places. Nothing amiss. Good.
I slid onto my usual stool next to Pam, the artist whose old apartment I was sub-leasing. I relaxed in the shadows. Just where I wanted to be. Last stool in the corner, close to the unisex toilet. The window above the hopper was just big enough to let me out in a hurry. I tried it when I first found this place. To be honest, I tried it before I sealed the deal with Pam. I've learned to check all possibilities and contingencies up front.
I don't like surprises.
With my history, that was to be expected. For what felt like a lifetime, I'd been poked and prodded and had my brain taken apart and put back together. My escape from that treatment was still vivid nearly a year later. They were not going to take me again.
Townsend, the owner and main bartender, drew a pint for me without asking. The glass fit comfortably into a depression on the bar much like the stool cradled my butt. Both were worn from years of use.
This North Philly neighborhood of old warehouses and factories, with a few that had been converted to artists' lofts and roomy townhouses before the money ran out, was perfect for hiding. I needed to blend in, not draw any attention. Life off the grid suited me.
The beer was ice-cold and bit my throat a little. Perfect.
“Good to see you, Wendy.” Pam, who never stopped asking me to pose for her, lifted her glass. I returned her salute and shook my head at the question in her eyes. I would never let her paint me. She'd stopped asking out loud but always reminded me that the offer was open.
“Fries?” Townsend waved a meaty hand in the direction of the tiny kitchen and I nodded. The man made awesome fries. No one knew his secret, whether it was a blend of oil or the seasoning that he shook over them hot from the fryer. I'd asked once and got a smart-ass answer. Really, what did it matter? They were delicious and cheap.
I dug in before the plastic basket came to a halt in front of me. “Help yourself,” I told Pam. Why not? She was paying for it, in the odd jobs she and her friends threw my way.
We sat and ate in companionable silence. The ancient jukebox - Townsend hadn't gone to the electronic machines that pulled songs and games from an internet service - wailed about old loves and new lives.
“How's your show doing?” Pam had recently gotten into one of the prestigious galleries in Center City and her work was starting to sell. For big bucks, apparently.
“Better than I ever dreamed.” She reached out and almost patted my hand. At the last minute she pulled back and smiled. “Sorry, I keep forgetting you don't like being touched.”
I smiled back at her. As little as I trust anyone, Pam had worked her way past my guard. “It's still too hard for me.”
“Have you found a therapist here?”
“Yes.” I got the impression that she didn't believe me but I couldn't look at her to confirm that. If I did, she'd know I was lying.
“Hmmmmm,” was all she said.
We sat for a little longer. I avoided memories of therapy, of deprogrammers, of too many lost months, and gave myself over to the cool breeze from the lazy fans overhead, the cold beer, and the scent of cooling fries. It worked. I found myself almost lulled to sleep.
Pam's swiftly indrawn breath roused me. I opened my eyes as the door banged shut.
The man who stood just inside the doorway was a stranger. I would have remembered him. Oh, yes.
He had the build of a basketball player: tall and slim, with strong, lean arms and well-muscled shoulders. His dark hair just brushed the top of his collar. I couldn't see his eyes, but somehow I knew they would be dark and intense. All in all, quite yummy, despite the air of danger that surrounded him and put my whole system on alert. Alarm fought with sensual awareness. The awareness won.
I didn't realize I'd spoken the word until Pam agreed. “Precisely.”
Something about this man reached me in a way no other had. I couldn't tear my eyes away from him.
He turned and braced an arm against the door, as if to hold it closed. The pose revealed a series of ornate tats curling about sinewy muscle.
Just like mine. Just like the artwork doctors unanimously declared permanent, done with ink that had somehow become part of me. The one who tried to remove it had cut a portion out. When I took off the bandage five days later, my skin was smooth and whole--and decorated. The tattoo appeared to have never been touched.
Perhaps this stranger could answer a few questions for me, like how it had been done and what the secret to getting rid of it was. I was tired of wearing long sleeves year-round. Letting them show and enduring the curious stares or envious questions was worse. People with tats all wanted to know where I'd had it done. Explaining that I didn't know just led to more and more questions I didn't want to deal with.
My speculation was interrupted by a flare of intense light that came from everywhere and nowhere in particular.
My breath stopped. My heart lurched in my chest. Time stood still.
I knew that light.
I knew that light from before, from my life before therapy.
The bar glowed with the light of a thousand wards, now shining in intricate patterns on walls, the floor and the ceiling.
Recognition burst through layers and layers of blocks in my mind.
My eyes closed on a parade of images as snatches of the past flooded in, filling the gaping holes in my life.
I wasn't who I'd been certain I was, just moments before.
I was Other.
There were more strange things in this world than most people ever suspected, and I was one of them. My eyes flew open. Night had fallen outside and the wards provided the only light, filling the interior of the bar with their soft illumination.
In their glow, everyone I thought I knew, neighbors and friends, now looked different.
The couple by the door, who lived two floors above me, had a greenish cast to their skin. Merfolk, by the looks of them. I turned to Pam, took in the tilt to her eyes and her abnormal pupils, and drew back.
She merely smiled. “You're safe here.”
Right, I wasn't buying that. “I'll never be safe again.”
“I'm one of your Guardians. Until you come into your Power, whatever tripped the wards will have to go through me. And Roman,” she gestured to the man I knew as Townsend, who looked a lot bigger and tougher than he had moments ago.
A shiver ran through me at the deep, male voice. Warm hands cupped my shoulders. To my amazement, instead of revulsion, reassurance and relaxation flowed from his touch. Involuntarily, I leaned back into the comfort he offered.
The mirror behind the bar showed me the form of the stranger, tall and strong. By my estimate, he topped me by almost a foot, and I'm damned near six feet. His tattoos wrapped as much of his arms as I could see.
“What is this?” I managed to find my voice. “What's happening?”
Pam answered. “We've been searching for the trigger to break down the barriers those interfering humans constructed to keep the truth from you.”
“What truth?” I knew a lot more than I had a half an hour ago, but I wanted to hear it spoken. How much of what I remembered was fact and how much fiction? Were those memories incomplete?
Pam glanced first at the glowing wards and then the man behind me. “You are half human, but the Other within you is dominant. We believe your father was Elven, which is why the Companions' Guild was able to find you. When they did, your acceptance of your nature was swift and you consented to their training. These aren't tattoos, they are spells.” She patted the sleeve that covered the tattoos on my upper arms.
Amazing. I no longer shrank from her touch.
“Those appear during the final ceremony, indicating your status and abilities. Unfortunately, your coming-of-age ceremony was interrupted by your mother's hired guns.” She shivered.
A chunk of my memory dropped into place and I relived the chaos of a SWAT team invading a beautiful sanctuary, battling a powerful group of Others who proved to be no match for bullets of cold iron.
“She did her homework well. We lost...but that is over.” Pam's voice held deep sadness. “We never did get a good look at your spells. Roman and I were assigned to find and protect you but we couldn't get you out of that facility. We had to wait until you were released, only to find that you were...quite damaged by their treatment.”
“I wasn't released, I escaped.” Everything she said was true. Either my restored memories or just how right they felt confirmed the details. “Looking back, I think they believed they had effectively cured me, so they let me go.”
“We have little time.” The man behind me still held my shoulders.
Knowledge came back to me in bits and pieces. If my tattoos were those of a Companion, then I was a destined mate for a Hunter.
Hunter. The word resonated within me. This man was a Hunter.
This bar didn't get casual visitors, and I now knew why. I had lured him here, with my similar tattoos and the genetic changes brought about by my apprenticeship to the Dark Lady. Even without any recollection of those weeks or awareness of my nature, my very presence had called him to me.
Did I want to be mated with this man? I wasn't sure I had a choice. I hoped I did.
With a start, I realized that I did have the means of knowing the man. Or whatever he was. I recalled a lot of my training, including some mental gymnastics beyond the ability of normal humans.
Our eyes met in the reflection of the mirror. Opening my senses, reaching out with my mind, I encountered strong shields. A shock ran through me as I realized two things. First, he was indeed a Hunter. Second, he was unbalanced, although he hid it well. On the surface, he sent reassurance and warmth to me through his touch. Deep down, he was slowly bleeding into a dark place.
My heart went out to him. Despite that, there were things I needed to know. “Can we have a minute to talk?”
With a worried backward glance, Pam slipped off the stool and went over to talk in low, worried tones with Townsend.
I turned to face the Hunter, shrugging off his hands. Before I got lost in his dark eyes, I blurted out, “There are things I don't remember. I don't know how this works, or what choices I have.”
“I am called Gideon.” He gently took my hands in his. Unbidden, my fingers curled around his. “You always have free will. Our natures call to one another but there can be no bonding between us unless we both will it.”
The tightness in my chest dissipated. I breathed a sigh of relief and took a deep breath, my first since the past pushed its way into my present.
“You do not remember me? We danced at your first Court ball, three years ago.”
Surely I would have remembered this hunk. I used the opportunity to take a good, long look at his features. A wide forehead topped canted dark eyebrows that matched his blue-black hair. Yes, his gaze was intense. I sorted through memories of my early days among the Fae and came up empty. None of the men I had met, young or old, came close to the near-perfection of this man. His chin sported a dimple that made me want to dip my tongue in and taste him.
Whoa! Where had that thought come from? I wasn't the kind of woman who fantasized about a man she'd just met. Or maybe I was. My gaze strayed to his lips. The lower one was bit fuller than the upper.
Focus, Gwen. Focus!
“I hadn't yet come into my Power. I was a gangly youth.”
“Don't you remember a skinny, awkward boy?”
I did. One with the same impossibly black hair. He'd held me carefully, with trembling hands, as though he was afraid I'd break. I remembered feeling sorry for him, being forced to dance with the new girl. Just because--
“You're a prince!” Somehow, it came out as an accusation.
He winced. “One of many. Not such a big deal. My father has many spares.”
“But still--you're important!”
“As are you, my sweet. I believe you are, but I need to be sure.” He glanced at my sleeves. “May I?”
I nodded and watched as he gently rolled them up. Townsend came out from behind the bar and joined Pam a few feet away. I was a little self-conscious. For so long, my 'scars' were something to be hidden, ignored in the hope that they would disappear.
But who had decreed that? My captors, not the 'cult' responsible for the marks. I straightened my spine and thrust away the urge to hide. I wasn't the damaged goods my mother's family thought. I was valuable. I was a Companion. I was Other.
I rolled up the second sleeve myself, with a sure hand and a lighter heart than I had carried in over a year. “Branwen.” They all looked at me in surprise. “Call me Branwen. Wendy is a human name.”
Pam's grin split her face. “Excellent!”
Townsend's voice was deeper than I had ever heard it, a rasp like stone rubbing on stone. “But remember, the ritual was never completed. We do not know what will confer her Power on her.”
Gideon looked up from examining my arms. “I can guess. This is interesting. She bears almost the twin to my spells, with a few crucial differences.” He looked into my eyes.
I shivered, suspecting that I didn't want to hear this. Once I knew the whole of what I was and was meant to become, I could never go back. There would be no army of therapists and shrinks to reconfigure my thoughts, erasing my past. Not this time. Whatever happened, I would be fully aware and part of it.
“We are like bookends. One will support and match the other, giving necessary strength. We would augment each other, if we choose to bond.”
“If?” Pam's tone was horrified. “How can you consider otherwise? You are needed! We lost too many in that raid. We need you together!”
Gideon shifted his stance so he stood partially blocking me from Pam. He kept hold of one of my hands, a warm and reassuring anchor for me. “She has the freedom to make her own choice. Too many have been taken from her. I will not let anyone force her. As her Guardian, you should support me.”
“As her Guardian, I must help her achieve her destiny.”
“Her destiny lies in her hands, not ours. None of us have our fates decided for us. We each must walk our own path.”
“Stop!” I held up a hand. “Let me know what I'm getting into here. Gideon, what exactly is involved in choosing to be your Companion? I'm assuming that you and I would be a couple from here on. Would we have to be bonded? As in forever? Will we have jobs? You're a prince, yet you're a Hunter. You say that I will have Power at some point but I have no idea what that would be.” I tried to concentrate on my concerns and not on the play of emotion across Gideon's face.
He raised my hand to his lips and pressed a kiss on my knuckles. “My lady, I would be honored to be your Hunter. If you so desire,” the timbre of his voice dropped and sent a frisson of heat through me, “we would indeed be bonded, for the duration of our lives.” His gaze roamed across my face. His eyes darkened to black. “You are not what I ever wanted, for I can see that I shall have to face much envy at Court. You are beautiful now. When your Power shines through you, I shall have to--what is the human phrase--beat the men off with a stick. I would wed you with full fanfare and ceremony, staking my claim before all of Faerie. As for the nature of your Power, we must wait to be certain but I can guess. I wield wind and water, so as my complement, I suspect you will command earth and fire.”
“Would that be my job?” Tossing around clods of earth and walloping globs of burning lava sounded pretty awesome to someone who'd felt out of control for so long. I knew a couple of mansions and a certain hospital I'd gladly rain down fire on.
“Not so much a job as, perhaps, a vocation. I only Hunt when the need arises. Once the current class of Hunters graduates, that need will lessen.” He rubbed his thumb across my palm. “I would appreciate your assistance. I have always hoped for a mate who is a full partner, not a subservient woman.”
“That's what I want, too.” I enjoyed the novelty of looking up at a man. “But are we compatible?”
He smiled down at me. “There's only one way to discover that.”
I held my breath as he lowered his head. Our lips met in the softest of kisses. He brushed his mouth over mine again and again, small touches that served only to whet my appetite. I wanted more. I wanted Gideon.
Oh, Dark Lady above, I had never felt anything like the sensations that wove their way through my body. I had been kissed but never with such tenderness. Gideon swept me into his arms and deepened the kiss. What a novelty! I wasn't used to being handled at all, let alone with such caring. The man cradled me gently while his mouth did wicked things to mine. My arms crept around him until we were pressed together from hips to lips. With a distant part of my mind, I realized the tattoos on my arms were tingling. Or were they singing? Whatever. It felt oh so right.
So did the Hunter's essence. The imbalance I'd felt was righting itself. The bleeding slowed. I understood then the healing a Companion offered a Hunter.
He released me and I reluctantly let him go.
“Well?” His smile was confident and just a little arrogant.
“I would say that's a good indication that we might be compatible.” I touched my lips with my tongue and tasted the pure male flavor he'd left behind. I could get used to that.
His smile widened to a grin and grew more arrogant.
Pam cleared her throat and we sprang apart like guilty teenagers. Gideon kept one arm around me, holding me close to his warmth. I'd thought the heat of the street was oppressive. Gideon's heat was intoxicating.
“Do you have enough to know what your choice will be?” The woman, elf, whatever, was just not going to give up.
Gideon's tone was firm.“She has to decide on her own. Do not push her.”
The wards flared anew.
Pam gave Gideon a hard look. “What followed you here?”
My new partner drew in a deep breath.“Something you cannot defeat. The two of us have a chance but not as she is now. She must control her Power.”
Controlling Power sounded good to me. I liked hearing the capital letter when the word was spoken. It sounded, well, powerful.
Pam's eyes widened in fear. “We do not have time for your kid-glove treatment. She must decide soon.”
I didn't want them fighting over me but I didn't want to be railroaded into anything permanent, either. “How is Power or whatever you call it usually acquired?”
“The ritual that was interrupted at the sanctuary is the customary way. It conveys Power to the individual, in a controlled and safe manner. The recipient determines the nature of the Power. It is transmuted as it becomes part of them.”
“Why can't we do that here?”
Pam and Gideon both stared at me.
He recovered first. “We do not have the safeguards we need.”
I looked pointedly around at the wards covering the interior of the bar. “What safeguards do you need beyond those?”
Pam gathered her wits. “I think she might just have the solution. Roman will stand as her Guardian. Gideon, you may act as the Dark Lord and I will stand in as the Dark Lady's representative.” The wards increased in intensity. Pam cast a worried glance at the door. “But hurry. We do not have much time.”
Gideon and Townsend began clearing tables and chairs from the middle of the bar. The merfolk helped, while Pam began sorting things behind the bar.
That left me to fret. “What do I need to do?”
“You merely stand in the center of the circle when we complete it. Let us do the rest. Relax if you can. It will not help if you fight the changes that will take place within you.”
Changes? I could deal with that, as long as I wasn't getting hitched on the spur of the moment. Now that I'd had time to cool down and get a little distance from Gideon, he still looked pretty good as a partner. Even so, I wasn't going to make a permanent commitment without a little more wooing. After what I'd been through in the past few years, I deserved to be pampered and romanced. If he passed that test, we'd be good to go.
Pam and the others were good to go with the ritual too soon for me. Arcane designs covered the floor. I hadn't paid attention to what they did, but the lines they'd drawn glowed with a pure white light. Pam led me to the center, kissed me on the forehead and whispered words in a language I recognized but didn't understand.
I stood alone, waiting to be filled with whatever I was supposed to receive. Gideon, Roman and Pam appeared to know what they were doing, passing the chants back and forth as they waved their hands over the sigils scribed on the floor.
The sound of their voices was soothing and I did relax. When their rhythm sped up, I paid more attention. The floor beneath my feet began to vibrate. The glowing signs shifted and coalesced into new shapes. As I watched, they moved across the floor, encircling me in an ever-tighter coil that rose to form a column with me in the center.
When it reached my knees, the intensity of the light increased until I was forced to close my eyes. I knew when the glow reached my face because the brightness hurt my eyes, even through my eyelids. Right after that, incredible heat enveloped me, searing my skin and making me suck in a breath.
Agony exploded in my chest with the heated air I drew in. I didn't have enough strength to scream.
In the next heartbeat, the pain was gone, leaving behind...exhilaration? I almost wept with the joy that poured through me, joy and strength and Power.
Sweet Dark Lady, I felt like I could move mountains. I stretched one hand in front of me, opened it and a flame danced in my palm. It rose and expanded as I willed it. When I made a fist, it disappeared. Sweet indeed!
I stood alone in the center of a floor now bare of anything but the few wards that guarded against subterranean attack. I felt very different. My pants had shrunk. The hems now rode several inches above my ankles.
Gideon came to me and I looked him in the eye. Holy crap! I'd grown a few inches! So that's what they meant by changes. I saw a lovely shopping trip in my future. What a perfect way for Gideon to woo me. With a prince as a partner, I could probably afford anything I wanted.
“How do you feel?”
“Like I could take on the world.” I stretched and reveled in the feeling of muscle and joints realigning themselves.
“Not all at once, and just a portion of the underworld today. Let's not rush things. You have not yet been trained in combat.” He stepped back, looked me up and down, and shook his head. “I was afraid of this.”
“What?” If he didn't like what he saw, I might have to scale back my wardrobe plans.
“You are far too gorgeous. Even in your ill-fitting garments, you take my breath away. Once we've clothed you properly, I see a lot of jealous men in my future.”
I was half-afraid to ask. “Do you see me there?”
Gideon's eyes darkened with desire and what just might be the beginnings of the emotion I felt sparking to life in my heart. “Oh, yes. If you'll have me.”
His hand no longer dwarfed mine. We clasped hands as equals, as partners, and I felt the wholeness in him. Being able to heal his soul filled me with a sense of power that had nothing to do with the ceremony. I could save this man. We could complete each other.
I gave him a sidelong glance. “You can work on convincing me. The mall sounds like a good place to start.” I was flirting! Me, the woman who an hour ago avoided any prospect of social interaction whatsoever. It felt great and made me look forward to my future. My past was now firmly in place. I liked that, and I liked the prospect of choosing to walk a path beside this generous, handsome, strong man.
His teeth flashed as he laughed. “I think I can handle that. As long as you can keep up.”
“On a shopping trip? No question.” I wasn't so sure about aiding a Hunter in a fight but with Gideon's guidance, I'd manage. I trusted him deep inside, where it counted.
“First things first. Pam, keep everyone inside. I think things are going to get ugly out there for a few minutes.”
Hand in hand, we went out to slay the monster.
Liddy Midnight loves, works and writes in the woods of eastern Pennsylvania, surrounded by lush greenery and wildlife. Although raccoons, possums, skunks and the occasional fox eat the cat food on her back porch, she's no more than half an hour from some of the finest shopping in the country. Situated in this best of all possible worlds, how could she write anything other than romance?
For the latest in Liddy's writing and excerpts from all of her stories, please visit her website.
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