I’m about to run a sale on the books in The Sanctum Trilogy so thought maybe it’s a good time to share another chapter from one of the books. I intended to share something from The Boy so I opened that manuscript and happened to land on a Jools chapter. Those of you who know me also know Jools is hardly my favorite character; in fact throughout most of the time I spent writing The Sanctum, I rather detested her.
Until that chapter.
If you’ve read Book III: The Prophecy, you know which chapter I’m talking about. I like to call it “Bringing the Death” and no lie, I fell in love with Jools as I wrote that part of her story. I don’t know why I had to do that to her to succumb to her charms, but I did.
I admit it was brutal and ugly, but it was also very necessary. Mostly because it led to some of my favorite scenes between Jools and Ryker, deepened their relationship, and made them such a force to be reckoned with.
I kind of love them together these days.
Anyway, enough babbling from me. Check them out for yourself. And watch for the sale – it’s coming soon.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
Standing in the back of the room, well hidden from almost everyone, he watched her stride through the doors, step to the podium, and stare out at her audience. Her long, dark hair was pulled into a ponytail, making it quite easy for him to study her expression and follow the trail of her blank stare. She looked exhausted, the hollows of her cheeks prominent, the circles around her eyes dark. Scanning the room, she recognized faces here and there and smiled politely in acknowledgement, but her eyes remaining cold and distant.
Even with him she was like that, aloof and disconnected, sometimes acting as if his very existence pained her. They had spoken little in weeks, she had an arsenal of excuses handy for avoiding him, and had not been alone with one another in over a month. One night in Dubai. It now seemed a very distant and hazy memory, one involving two very different people. He had to remind himself it had been them, wrapped around one another for hours on end, laughing and joking, tasting and touching. Now here he was, hiding from her in the dark corners of the room, studying her on the sly as if he knew she would take offense at his presence. She glanced his way briefly and for a moment he thought he was made, that she caught him, but he realized otherwise when she continued her detached sweep of the room.
And then, out of nowhere, a distinct change, a clear flush of emotion crossed her face, only for a second. Blink and he might have missed it. No one else noticed the shudder and slight intake of breath, but he never neglected a single detail when it came to her. Trailing the direction of her gaze, his eyes came to rest on a tall, lean, dark soul standing off to the side, alone but near the Big Sur pack, and immediately he knew.
Unable to help himself, Ryker studied the Magical, certain that from his vantage point he could do so unseen. Except for a raging scar cutting across half his face, Wycoff was good looking in that very California wolf way, wholesome with a dangerous edge, sun-kissed with a hint of darkness just below the surface. Standing so still and solitary, he gave off an air of calm and self-assuredness, but it was tinged with melancholy and a hint of despair. Such sorrow was not on full display, instead it remained hidden, residing in the hold of Wycoff’s shoulders and the tilt of his chin, the corners of his mouth and the shadows of his eyes. The wolf probably believed his emotions were concealed from prying eyes, but Ryker was not the average observer and could discern despair in the unlikeliest of places.
As he continued his surreptitious study of Wycoff, a tall, voluptuous woman with flawless, ebony skin came up behind and whispered something in the wolf’s ear, making him smile and his eyes appear to dance. Wycoff glanced back and caressed her cheek, pulling her close to whisper something in response, then returned his attention to the podium and Jools. The woman playfully grabbed his behind, making him chuckle, wrapped her arm around Wycoff’s waist, and then she, too, turned to Jools and listened intently.
Ryker knew it right away. Their easy energy with one another, the way neither seemed stunned by the other’s beauty. Only inevitable love, the kind ruled by fate, seemed so easy and unburdened. Because otherwise, there was no way one could remain so calm in the face of the woman’s overwhelming sensuality. Even from across the room, Ryker found himself drawn to her every movement, watching the sway of her full hips and the curve of her wide lips, captivated by her dark eyes and tiny waist. She exuded desire and lust and stirred something carnal in him as he watched her interact with her mate.
Studying the couple, Ryker noted a slight change in the wolf’s demeanor as Wycoff watched Jools speak. Ryker returned his attention to the podium and caught sight of Jools pushing up her sleeve to absent-mindedly scratch her elbow as she spoke, exposing her mutilated flesh to those present. The angry marks covering her skin gave him pause, as did their effect on the wolf.
Was Wycoff reacting generally to the violence of Jools’ injuries or was it more personal for him?
Had he matched or did Jools still matter?
Remaining in the shadows as Jools took a seat and allowed the Imps to address the gathered crowd, Ryker inched along the back wall of the War Room, silent and unseen. Without rhyme or reason for his actions, and within minutes, he found himself directly behind the wolves, listening as they teased each other, watching them exchange caresses and laughter. In such close proximity, Ryker could not help but stare. Wycoff was so very Jools: charismatic and virile, charming and affectionate. And as much as he hated to admit it, he could see why the wolf attracted and held her attention and love all these years.
While he remained absorbed in the wolves and their interactions, the Imps finished addressing the crowd and Jools returned to the podium, catching Ryker off guard. He slipped back into the shadows, but not before catching her eye and pausing. She knew what he was doing and he knew she knew what he was doing. For a moment they seemed stalled at an uncomfortable impasse and he thought she might react, somehow acknowledge his behavior, possibly chastise him as only Jools could. In fact, a part of him hoped she would do just that. And although Jools contemplated Ryker for an extra second, gave him an additional beat of her silence, she offered little more, instead opting to close the meeting and make a hasty departure.
Ryker watched her escape the room then returned his attention to the wolves.
“Sasha Wycoff, correct?” Ryker asked as he held out his hand to the surprised wolf, “Ryker Morrison.”
Sasha shook Ryker’s extended hand and laughed, seeming off-balance and momentarily out of sorts.
“I know who you are,” the wolf replied, a hint of nerves tainting his baritone timbre, “every wolf knows who you are, especially after Caleb Creek.”
Ryker grimaced, rather embarrassed by the mention of his single-handed destruction of a particularly huge and nasty nest of rogue vampires terrorizing the wolf packs of Southern California. The feat cemented his stature as a friend to the wolves and had taken on legendary status with Magicals of all stripes.
“You’re not exactly a stranger around these parts either, seeing as some members of the Clayworth family are quite taken with you,” Ryker replied cryptically before turning his attention to Wycoff’s mate and holding out his hand to her, “but your partner is another story altogether. I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure of meeting.”
The wolf with the dark eyes flashed him a wide smile and took his hand in both of hers, a gesture full of warmth and affection.
“The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Morrison,” she replied, her voice low and gruff, “and please call me Oni. Oni Dimka at your service.”
Ryker leaned against the back of a chair and studied the couple, a million questions and thoughts running through his head, all of them returning to the same place. He knew his silence was disconcerting, but he did not care. A little discomfort would not hurt. And the way Ryker saw it, if Sasha was man enough to sleep with his lover, his love, then he was man enough to suffer through Ryker’s conversation.
Or lack thereof.
Sasha fiddled with something in his pocket while Oni glanced at the two guys and then around the room, wondering what to do next. Ryker answered that question for all of them, cutting through the awkward silence.
“If you two are matched, then what’s your fascination with Jools?”
For a moment in time, everything stilled and all that could be heard were the heartbeats of the wolves and the warrior. The latter sat in silence, patiently waiting for an answer to his question while the former wondered when the blows would begin. And so the third did what the other two could not and moved to mend the breach.
“It’s not a fascination, Mr. Morrison,” Oni began quietly, “it’s more a knowledge or understanding of Jools, but certainly not a fascination, at least not in the way you might think.”
Ryker studied Oni but said nothing, waiting for her to continue her explanation.
“As you know, when we wolves match, we do so for life, so to ease that burden, our nature obliterates any memories of love and desire we might have held for others prior to matching. In Sasha’s case, he’s really only ever loved Jools, of this I assume you are aware.”
Oni glanced at Sasha and continued.
“When Sasha first learned of our match and we met, I knew right away when he gained me he would be losing another, someone he loved deeply, someone quite profound, so I asked him about it. Of course, he lied, trying to spare my feelings or some such nonsense,” Oni playfully punched Sasha in the arm, pushing her mate with a laugh, lightening the mood, at least between the two of them, “but I persisted, mostly because I’m annoying like that but also because I thought perhaps I could be his memory keeper and then our match might not be so devastating.
“I started asking questions and digging and probing and eventually he started telling me everything about her, this incredible love of his, every laugh and every tear, until finally he trusted me enough to also tell me her name.
“By then I was already madly in love with her myself, smitten by this ghost of a woman who had taken over my life, so naturally, learning her name, that teeny-tiny yet incredibly significant piece of information about her, only made me love her more.
Oni paused and let her story sink in to Ryker’s psyche for a bit.
“You love him so much that you would carry his love for another in your soul?” Ryker finally asked. “That is quite cruel.”
“That’s precisely what I said when Oni presented the idea,” Sasha explained as he leaned against a chair, hands in pockets, still a bit unnerved by Ryker, “but she was insistent and persistent.”
“And as I explained to Sasha all those months ago, the idea wasn’t born of pure selflessness, but rather self-preservation. I could not live with myself knowing our match would destroy such a vital part of my mate’s soul. And I wanted him to come to me willingly, with a light heart, and love me just as passionately as he loved her, so I became the holder of his memories.
“Of course, the basic stuff is his to keep: growing up together, the time Jools and Wyatt spent in Los Angeles, and the summers she spent on the West Coast. But the love, the lust, the sex, all of that is right here,” Oni pointed to her head.
“So yes, he is fascinated with Jools, but in almost a clinical sense.”
“And really, the fact remains I miss her,” Sasha added, “she was one of my best friends. She’s hilarious and wild and unpredictable and I miss her energy in my life. So I snag glimpses of her whenever I can, hoping that one day she’ll return my smile, say hello, and let me back in.”
Ryker stared at them for a moment in slight disbelief, both with their story and the feelings it evoked.
“I’m almost sorry for you, Wycoff. Almost. That sucks. On so many different levels,” he finally stated after sitting with the wolves’ story for a few minutes.
Oni bowed her head and smiled to herself while Sasha nodded in agreement.
“It does,” the wolf replied as he wrapped his arm around Oni’s neck and pulled her close, “but it’s not as bad as it could be. As confusing as it could be. At least for me it’s not. So accept my apologies if it seemed I was showing a little too much interest in Jools. I am profoundly sorry. For everything. Even the things I don’t remember, but Oni does. I’m sorry.”
Sasha paused and considered his next words carefully lest he test the warrior’s patience.
“And if it makes a difference, she told me she loves you madly,” Sasha offered.
Ryker remained seated and appeared calm, but shot Sasha a glare so full of rage and ire that the wolf immediately regretted his words.
“And if it makes a difference, loving me was never the problem,” Ryker replied as he collected himself, breathed deeply, and rose to depart, having had more than enough of his fair share of Sasha Wycoff for one lifetime, “it’s her I’m worried about.”
He then graciously shook the wolf’s hand, kissed Oni’s cheek, and headed for the corner suite at the end of the South Wing.
Rapping lightly on the door, he stepped back and waited. Ryker could not recall the last time he walked through Jools’ doorway. A wave of sadness washed over him as he stood in the hall, realizing that once upon a time he would have never bothered knocking on her door, he would have strode right into her suite as if he owned the place.
But that was another lifetime and another woman. And he was not so sure this woman wanted any part of him. So he waited.
And then sliding to the floor and leaning against the wall, he waited some more. Until one and half hours later, when it became painfully clear she wanted nothing to do with him.
Ryker stood and stretched his sore muscles, not used to sitting in one place for so long. He stared at her door for a minute as if willing Jools to open it, then shook his head and turned to leave. Walking down the hall, he told himself she made her feelings for him perfectly clear months ago when she disappeared with the wolf and then upon her return, avoided him at all costs. She then proceeded to lead battle after battle after battle until there was no more killing left to do and she was forced to return home, without her dad, and face him. Even then she faltered, pushing him away, bemoaning his presence, and finally sending him into battles she knew he wanted no part of but would never disobey an order from his Academy Head.
Jools wanted nothing to do with him.
Which was exactly why Ryker turned around, walked back down the long hallway, opened the door to her suite, and entered.
As if he owned the place.
The apartment felt empty, as if no life existed within its walls. Despite the numerous lamps and candles, the place was dark. And although a fire burned in the fireplace, there was a distinct chill in the air. Ryker stood in the hallway, looking into the living room and out onto the city, watching the lights from the buildings and the people walking on the street below.
He wondered where she was, then heard the shower start and noticed the light under the bathroom door. Lowering some of the lamps and blowing out all of the candles, Ryker poured himself a drink and stood by the window. The slow burn of the scotch was a necessary distraction, its smoky perfection a heady indulgence. He checked the label on the bottle and smiled, knowing he had tasted the heavenly concoction once before while caught up in some of Faery Queen Shema’s magic.
The bathroom door opened and he turned to catch sight of Jools as she walked toward her bedroom, her naked body covered in more of the violent marks he had noticed earlier. Ryker watched her move around her room and wondered who tortured her, swearing to hunt them down and ensure their very long and very painful death.
She returned minutes later, clad in a tank top and sweats, her wet hair tied high on top of her head, completely oblivious to his presence. Ryker remained perfectly still against the window, his silhouette outlined by the lights of the city, and watched her. Jools opened the fridge, grabbed a carrot to snack on while she poured herself a shot of tequila. Tossing her head back and downing the liquor, she then bit into the carrot as she poured a full glass, added a splash of pineapple juice, and swirled it with her finger.
“Beta carotene and agave. Breakfast of champions,” she stated and held up her glass in his direction.
“It’s 11:30 at night,” he noted.
“Then call it a midnight snack.”
Ryker held up his glass and tipped it in her direction.
“In that case, cheers,” he replied, then downed the contents of his glass.
She tossed what remained of her carrot into the trash and studied him as she sipped her drink, numbing herself with the libation, her routine as of late.
Finally she spoke.
“You should go.”
“I should,” he agreed.
“So go,” she replied, more a request than a command.
“You said I should go, and I agree, I should,” Ryker replied, “but there are hundreds of things I should do, like sharpen my blades and get a decent haircut, or buy those Adidas I saw in the window of that shop on Avenue C. That doesn’t mean I’m going to do them.”
Jools shot him a hateful glare, her eyes fiery in the darkness. Ryker met her glare with a slight curve of his lips, an almost smile.
“As your Academy Head,” Jools hissed, “I demand you remove yourself from my premises.”
“You demand I remove myself from your premises?” Ryker repeated, his tone incredulous, “you have got to be kidding me, Clayworth.”
“I am absolutely not kidding. I want you gone. That is an order,” Jools stated with finality.
Ryker paused, as she knew he would. It was precisely her intention. She knew it would go against every Class A Warrior instinct of his, ingrained into his being from such a young age, probably pumping through his blood for generations. He always listened to his Academy Head, even if doing so led to his detriment. That was the nature of a Class A Warrior.
And Jools was playing upon that nature, manipulating him to get her way. It was purposeful, it was planned.
Only this time it was not going to work.
“Nice try, Clayworth,” Ryker approached the breakfast bar where Jools stood, stopping directly across from her, “I like the way you did that, toying with me just then. I appreciate your gangsta, always have, and will admit you had me there for a split second. That idiotic Warrior sensibility rose up as soon as you issued that command, sounding so badass and pissed off, and I almost complied. Almost.”
“You will be in violation of Sanctum Bylaw 106, part A…,”
“But I’m not leaving,” Ryker ignored her and her recitation of the Book of Peace, “until you talk to me once and for all. I don’t care what you decree or order or whatever else it is you’re going to do. For once in my life, I’m refusing to listen to my Academy Head.”
Jools downed her drink and poured another.
“What do you want?”
“For starters, it would be nice if you could look at me,” Ryker replied and Jools glared at him, staring directly into his eyes, “and then maybe talk to me. We haven’t spoken in ages. The last time we really talked to each other was in Dubai. Then you disappeared in New Orleans and everything changed. You came home and never even…,”
“Is that what this is about? New Orleans?” Jools rolled her eyes, her voice taunting and unkind, “is that what’s got your panties in a bunch, Ryker? Is the big, bad warrior pissed off that his lover disappeared for a few days and never told him what she was doing or who she was doing it with? Who told you about Sasha anyway? Your boyfriend, Wyatt, I’m sure, gods forbid he keeps my secret.”
“Jools, come on…,” Ryker pleaded.
“Shut up, Ryker!” she slammed her glass against the counter and stormed around the breakfast bar until she was standing in front of him, shaking with rage. “This is what you wanted, no? Talking? Me talking to you? So I’m talking. You want to know about New Orleans, I’ll tell you all about it, every last stinking detail. I met with Mellette and those goddamned wolves…”
“You don’t have to do this, Jools.”
“…and I was so freaking tired and they were such assholes and I threatened them, thinking the whole time to myself, you know if Ryker was here, none of this would be happening. But you weren’t there, I was there by myself, and it happened. And then it had to be smoothed over and made right and by that point, I couldn’t see straight. I just wanted to sleep.
“That’s when he found me and as soon as I saw him, I knew I should leave New Orleans and come home, but he’s Sasha and I hadn’t seen him in years, hadn’t allowed myself to even think of him, so once he was standing before me in the flesh and blood, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave. And then when I learned he matched and would belong to another forever, I could not bear it. I begged him to take me and love me and think of only me for whatever time we had left together and that is exactly what he did.”
“Do you feel better now, Ryker?” Jools sneered, angry tears in her eyes, “is that what you wanted to talk about? My idiotic, desperate love for some creature that will never belong to me? Are you happy now?”
Ryker studied her as she stood before him, gaunt, exhausted, mutilated, and shaking. She was so angry and haunted and hurt and for the first time in his life, he was at a complete loss. He had no idea how to reach her and pull her back and so he took a chance and simply started talking.
“Jools,” he whispered.
Upon hearing him speak her name, she looked down, unable to meet his gaze after assaulting him with such painful words. Ryker reached out and gently lifted her chin so he could see her eyes. He so badly wanted to pull her into his arms and stop her shaking, but he did not dare. She was not ready for that. Right now, he sensed she just needed him to speak.
“Do you honestly believe the only reason I wanted to talk to you was to question you about the wolf? I never cared about the wolf. I still don’t care about him. I only care about you. I’ve always only cared about you, the rest of that stuff is just white noise.”
He caught her look of disbelief and shot her a sad smile.
“I have loved more than any being should be allowed to love, I have spent days on end lost in another, ignoring calls and messages, a slave only to my love, lust, and desire. I would never begrudge you the same. Never. I only want you to be happy.
“For two days the wolf made you happy and even though that’s painful to think about, it’s fine. I can handle it. Trust me. Plus, I saw him so I get it. I’d probably let him make me happy for a few days, too.”
Jools looked up, caught sight of Ryker’s crooked grin, and chuckled.
And for a moment she fooled him into thinking he was getting through to her, that his words reached her, she listened and was coming back. But just as quickly her laughter turned to tears, her whole body shook with grief, and she was lost again.
So he kept talking.
“That’s what I wanted to tell you,” Ryker continued, “I wanted to say that I love you no matter what. And I miss you and I’m worried about you. Not a word about the wolf, just about you. It’s always been just about you.”
Ryker quieted and gave her a moment to say something but when she remained silent and shaking, he went on.
“I think when you first returned you avoided me because you felt bad about what happened but now, when I study you, when I take in the faraway look in your eyes, the flat tone of your voice, the marks on your body,” Ryker reached for her hand and ran his fingers up her mutilated arm, “I know it’s something altogether more profound and devastating. What happened here? Who did this to you?”
He ran his hand up her arm, feeling the raised roughness of the tiny scars dotting her fair skin, feeling her tremble under his touch. Her neck was similarly marked, as were her shoulders and other arm. Tentatively lifting her shirt, he found similar marks on her stomach and back.
Jools stilled and allowed him to continue his search of her body, closing her eyes, and trying to relax under Ryker’s gaze.
Ryker untied her sweat pants, pushed them over her hips, and allowed them to fall to the floor. He stepped back and stared before falling to his knees and running his hands over her damaged skin. There was very little of Jools that was not marked, grotesquely cut up and mutilated. Seeing her like that, so calm and detached, dead almost, broke something in him and despite every ounce of his being shouting at him, raging really, to control himself, he failed.
And instead of being strong and angry and fearless in the face of her devastation, he bent his head and cried. For some part of Ryker feared that Jools, his Jools, the passionate and headstrong, fiery and unpredictable Jools, was dead and gone and this ghost of a being standing before him, so distant and detached, had taken her place.
He did not cry for his loss, but rather for hers.
Jools studied his bowed head and slightly shaking shoulders and for the first time in what seemed like forever, she felt a twitch of something besides anger and murderous rage.
Speaking his name without guilt or remorse seemed foreign.
Caring seemed an emotion for another woman. Another life.
Something buried deep within her, locked up and hidden, never to be seen or heard from again, stirred at the sound of Ryker’s grief, at the sight of his persistence, at the very presence of him.
And then she closed her eyes and remembered.
The alarm she felt watching her dad gear up. His amusement with her concern. A raised brow, mocking her youthful questions. His warm smile as he cupped her face and kissed her forehead. The spot on his chest where she nestled against him. His need to kill. His promise to stay safe.
And his request.
One of the last things she ever heard her dad utter.
His desire for her to speak to Ryker, to go to him and make it all right. His promise to her that if she did that one thing, that simple, simple thing, then everything else would be fine.
But then all hell broke loose and she witnessed Josiah crumple to the floor and turn to dust and any thoughts of Ryker vanished. And in their place grew a need to unleash rivers of blood, to evolve into a queen of destruction, to become a mutilated angel of death.
Strangely, none of those things helped quell the sadness residing in her soul or filled the void Josiah’s death left in her life. Instead, she became a shell of herself, wracked with despair, covered in the gruesome reminders of her killing spree.
She was sad and scared.
And so she did the only thing left to do, the only thing she had not yet tried to ease her own suffering.
She begged him to rescue her.
“Ryker,” Jools cried softly, running her fingers over his head.
Her touch shocked him out of his own grief and he stood, watching her tremble before him, shaking uncontrollably. Jools was broken and brutalized but for the first time in ages, her eyes were soft and deep and he could discern a spark of life.
“Please,” she gasped.
He touched her face, the only part of her not viciously maimed, and held his breath when she closed her eyes and placed her palm flat against his.
“Save me,” she whispered.