The stench of stale sweat woke me from a deep slumber, and I jerked upright, fighting the gag reflex. The source of the stench was Beau Hardshaw’s sweatshirt on my pillow. Dang it! I’d fallen asleep on the job.
Naked jocks flashed in my head, images I was still trying to erase from my memory. Served me right for trying to steal something of Beau’s. But what was a witch supposed to do when a Mortal was in danger of destroying his life? Brave the worst place in Kayville High School—the boy’s locker room.
I picked up the sweatshirt with my thumb and forefinger like it was a rattlesnake, but that was all the contact I needed to get a vision. My room faded into darkness. Walls and cabinets appeared in its place, and then I was standing in the same room I’d visited earlier this evening—Beau Hardshaw’s kitchen. The scene played out like my worst nightmare.
Beau raised the gun, green eyes fierce and crazed like a cornered animal, and pointed it at his stepfather.
The lumberjack stumbled back, an empty beer box dropping from his hand. He only wore underwear—tighty-whities, hairy chest and large stomach hanging over stick legs. Not exactly what I wanted to see in a vision.
“What do you think you’re doing, boy?” Hardshaw senior snarled. “You’d better be prepared to pull that trigger, because I’m gonna teach you a lesson when I come over there.”
Beau grimaced and shook his head. He either didn’t like being called a boy, or he objected to being taught a lesson by anyone. Beau was tall and buff with serious tats and a killer smile. It didn’t help that he was the co-captain of Kayville High’s baseball team and a chick magnet with a reputation for girl hopping. Yep, Beau wore his douchebaggery on his sleeves and didn’t care who knew it. Even I had noticed him, Kayville High’s Number One Bad Boy, during my pre-Torin years.
“Get out or you’re a dead man,” Beau threatened.
“This is my home, boy, and she is my wife!” his stepfather bellowed.
“She’s my mother and tonight is the last time you touch her.” Beau angled the gun.
“Don’t, Beau!” a woman cried out. I followed the voice to the corner of the cabinets, where a woman crouched, cowering. From the way she held her arm it was probably injured.
“He’ll kill you if I don’t stop him, Mama,” Beau said in a shaky voice. He released the safety of the gun, the sound loud in the stillness of the moment.
“I’d never kill your mother, Beau,” his hulking stepfather said, his voice now whiny. He moved backward toward Beau’s mother. “I love her. Put the gun down, son.” Then he grabbed his wife by her hair and hauled her in front of him, just as Beau pulled the trigger.
The sound of the gun wiped the vision, and I was back in my room. I jumped to my feet. At least that was my intention. I landed on the floor with enough noise to wake the dead. Lucky for me, Mom and my boyfriend, Torin, were out reaping souls. Dad was doing much better, but he was a deep sleeper these days, courtesy of some serious pain and sleep runes for his terminal cancer. Femi, his nurse, would understand once I explained.
As though my thoughts had conjured her, a portal appeared in my room and Femi peered at me. “You okay, doll?”
“Yes. Just a nightmare.” Go away now, I projected into her head.
The portal closed behind her, and I wondered if I’d gotten inside her head or if she’d believed that I was actually okay. I didn’t like getting inside people’s heads and playing with their thoughts, but sometimes, it was necessary. Besides, I was new to these witchy powers. I improvised a lot.
I engaged my runes and started for the mirror. Before it responded to my runes and changed into a portal, I caught my reflection and grimaced. My hair was a mess, and I still wore my pajamas—shorts and a tank top. The silk robe only came to my thighs. And I couldn’t remember where I’d put my slippers.
Oh well, I had more important things to worry about than my appearance. In the seconds it took for the mirror to turn into a portal, I mentally went over what I knew about Beau’s life.
His stepfather was a bastard. If I hadn’t seen him treating Beau like a punching bag in my earlier vision, I would not have fallen asleep holding his dirty sweatshirt. I needed to touch items belonging to people to get a vision. Being a Seeress had its perks, but when it involved a life-changing vision, it totally screwed up my day.
I’d received the first vision in the school cafeteria today, when Beau had brushed against me. The bloody scene and the gun in Beau’s hand had been enough to make me lose my appetite.
The second one had happened after I’d deliberately followed him, bumped into him, and dropped my books. He’d probably thought I was coming on to him, especially when I’d grabbed his hand and hung on to it for dear life. My visions had never been so clear, but the look on Beau’s face, a cross between shock and fascination, could lead to complications. My eyes glowed whenever I had premonitions. So he could either tell his friends that Torin St. James’ girl was into him or was a witch. I’d been labeled a witch before I even knew I was one. Now I wore the label with pride. Too much had happened the past nine months for me to disregard my magical gifts.
Bottom line was Beau could kill his abusive stepfather and possibly his mother tonight.
The thought brought me back to the present, and I watched the portal form. The mirror changed texture until the surface looked like a rippling pool of water. Portals come in all sizes: some with hallways and others without, depending on the runes used. Tonight, the surface peeled back into a short hallway, the floor and the walls shimmering.
The lights weren’t on in Beau’s house. The fact that there were no flashing red and blue lights outside told me that the events in my vision hadn’t occurred yet.
I stepped into his living room, and the portal closed. The runes glowing on my body gave me enough illumination, so it wasn’t hard to get my bearings. I recognized the worn out sofas and pictures of Beau in baseball outfits on the walls and fireplace. There were a few pictures of a little girl, and I wondered if he had a sister. She appeared much younger than Beau, and in the pictures; he couldn’t have been older than ten.
I left the mirror in the living room, skirted around chairs and tables, and went toward the hallway. During lunch, I’d followed Beau home in my car and searched his house for a gun, a very frustrating endeavor since I couldn’t use my elemental magic.
Was it only a week ago I’d discovered I was linked to the world around me in ways that were both scary and beautiful? I could communicate with trees. Command the ground I walked on. And don’t get me started on what I could do to the human mind. That wasn’t elemental, but it was still pretty amazing. Even Torin, a powerful Valkyrie, was not immune to my magic.
I reached the basement door, and I found myself hesitating before creating the next portal. Doubts crept in. I hadn’t found the gun during my earlier search. What were the chances I’d find it now? It was quiet. Maybe nothing was going to happen tonight.
I peered into the hallway. The house wasn’t large, just a single story with a basement, where Beau’s bedroom was located. He lived on the west side of Kayville, where most Chandler Lumber Corp’s workers and their families resided. Chandler was the single largest employer in Kayville, Oregon. We might boast of being wine country with huge vineyards, but the wineries were actually in the neighboring towns. Half the kids I went to school with were from families like Beau’s, with generations working or having worked in the lumber industry.
Beau, however, could break that circle. He had an amazing arm and a chance at a full ride to college on a baseball scholarship. Scouts were already coming to the games to watch him when he was only a junior. This mess with his stepfather might just prevent that from happening.
Why should I care about what happened to Beau? The guy I loved would definitely not understand. Torin was a Valkyrie, a soul reaper, and he strongly believed in letting one’s destiny take its course. I was the opposite. I believed that everyone should have the right to change his or her destiny. You know, make mistakes, and pick themselves up, dust off their pants, re-evaluate, and try things a different way. And if they got a little help along the way, that was just great. As long as it was what they wanted, and not what some hag, deity, or supernatural being had decided before they were born.
So here I was, butting my nose into Beau’s business. It might come back and bite me in the butt. Heck, I might even fail to help him. Beau with his tattoos and bad reputation was the worst candidate for a first case, but I didn’t choose the visions I got. This one happened and I was dealing with it the only way I knew how. I was giving Beau a nudge off a destructive path. The rest would be up to him.
The Norns weren’t going to like me interfering in their business, but then again, when have I ever done anything that made those hags happy? I just couldn’t sit back and do nothing. Or I could have called the cops and told them… What? I saw a vision of a crime that hadn’t been committed? They’d laugh at me or haul me off to a mental house.
Sneaking into the guys’ locker room to find something of Beau’s had been traumatizing. High school guys are gross. They fart, and scratch their asses and balls with no shame. I’d always thought my first naked guy would be Torin, the man I was crazy about. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I’d grabbed the first thing of Beau’s and used an air portal to get out of there fast. Not fast enough though. The images of naked jocks were trapped in my head.
A door opened down the hallway, and lights flickered on. During my earlier search, I figured that this was his parent’s bedroom. Sure enough, Beau’s stepfather cursed as he staggered into the hallway. TV sounds said he’d been watching something. He wore his tighty-whities, the same ones in my vision. As though he realized he wasn’t alone, Hardshaw Senior looked up and scowled, staring straight at me.
I’d never made a portal through a wall so fast. It led straight to Beau’s room, bypassing the creaky wooden steps with worn out carpet. Another thing I’d noticed during my first visit.
A shirtless Beau was on his back, an open laptop on his stomach. I’d never have guessed Beau was the type to stay at home on Friday night. The tattoos on his left arm extended to his shoulder and chest. In the vision, he’d worn a T-shirt with the same pajama bottoms. Yikes. I just realized his hand was inside his pants doing something I didn’t want to watch. If he started moaning, I was so leaving.
I looked around. Where could the gun be? I’d checked everywhere, except… Ah, his school stuff. Where the heck was his backpack and gym bag? Like most ballplayers, he should own a Kayville High gym bag with the school name on it.
I searched around the room, the closet, and bathroom. If he noticed the draft caused by my hyper-speed movements, he didn’t show it. He had headphones on and his eyes were glued to the screen. I tried not to listen to his side of the conversation, but couldn’t help it once I found his gym bag and slowed down. At high speed, sounds tended to disappear.
I tried not to gag as I searched the bag. Dirty gym clothes, socks, and wet towels. Ew, and women’s panties. Trophies probably. He had enough condoms to supply the entire baseball team. But there was no gun.
“Lower your hand,” I heard him say. “Perfect. Closer. I don’t want to miss a thing.”
“Janice! Get your fat ass out here!” his stepfather bellowed from upstairs. Their walls were seriously paper-thin. “What happened to my beer? If that boy took them again, I’m going to teach him a lesson he’ll never forget.”
There were three empty cans of beer by Beau’s bed. I spied his messenger bag hidden under a pile of dirty clothes by his desk. I left the bathroom and inched closer to the bed. He cocked his head. At first, I thought he’d finally sensed my presence. But then he said, “Yes, Ellie.”
Ellie? I only knew one at our school. Ellie Chandler. She was the captain of the cheerleaders and Justin Sinclair’s girlfriend. Justin played football with Torin. He was a total douche though. So what was his girl doing talking to Beau?
I couldn’t help myself. I walked around the bed to see the screen. Her mouth opened and closed, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. Didn’t want to. She was also in her panties and wore no bra. More images in my head I didn’t need.
I went back to retrieving the backpack.
“My stepfather is being a shithead, again,” I heard Beau say. “Don’t stop.” She must have protested because he added, “No, forget him. Let’s finish this.”
Lala lala lala… hmm-mmm… Lala lala lala…
I tried to drown out his words as I slowly pulled the backpack away from his line of vision. I wasn’t sure what Ellie just did, but air left Beau’s lungs in a rush and a quick glance over my shoulder made me wish I hadn’t.
I went into hyper speed as I searched the pockets of his backpack. More dirty socks. Candy wrappers. Bikinis. More condoms. I got a few visions I didn’t want to see and one that was very helpful. I now knew how he’d gotten a gun, but I still didn’t see where he’d hidden it. Stupid visions. I slowed down, frustration setting in.
“Get your sorry ass down here, boy!” came from upstairs.
“Damn it.” Beau growled. “Don’t go anywhere,” he said and closed his laptop. He grabbed a T-shirt from the floor. By the time he pulled it on, I’d disengaged my invisibility runes.
I blocked his path.
“What the… Fuck!” Eyes widening, he scrambled to get away from me. He bumped the edge of the bed and struggled to stay on his feet as he put some distance between us. “Raine Cooper? What are you doing in my house?”
I hadn’t thought this far. My plan had been to find the gun, take it, and leave without revealing my presence. I improvised.
“What name did you call me?” I asked, faking ignorance.
“This is not funny, Raine. How did you get in here?”
“I don’t know who this Raine is, but if that’s the image you’re seeing then that’s what your mind conjured. Why you may ask? It’s what Mortals do when they see me.”
His jaw dropped. Then he shook his head as though to rattle his brain into place. “What?”
“I’m your, uh, Norn.” I hated using that name, let alone admitting I was one, even though I was embracing my destiny. When he stared at me blankly, I added, “I’m what you Mortals call a guardian angel and I’m here to help you. The projection you see here,”—I waved a hand to indicate my body—“is what your mind chose.”
He swallowed, ran his fingers through his hair, and grimaced. “You’re screwing with my head, right? You’re right here in front of me. I can see you.”
“And now you don’t.” I engaged my invisibility runes and watched him look around in panic, cursing up a storm. I reappeared again and he grew paler. “Like I said, I’m your guardian angel and I’m here to make sure you don’t do something stupid, Beau Hardshaw.”
He gulped and blinked. “Stupid?”
“You have a gun that doesn’t belong to you. I want it.”
His eyes darted to his bed. “How do you know that?”
I sighed. “Because I know things, Beau. Remember the guardian angel part? Randy showed you his father’s collection after school today and you took one.” Randall Meyer’s father was a survivalist with enough weapons to start World War Three. “Give it to me.”
Beau frowned and stared at me, thinking things through. “I meant to return it.”
“After using it.”
He shook his head. “I’m not going to use it. I just want to threaten the ass-hat with it.”
“Except it will go off.” He was beginning to believe me. “You are an amazing baseball player with a bright future ahead of you, Beau. Don’t blow it. He’s not worth it.”
Thuds came from upstairs followed by a scream. A tortured look entered Beau’s eyes. “He’s hurting her. I have to go.”
I moved and blocked him. “No.”
“He won’t stop until I give him a different target.”
Which explained the discolorations on his left cheek. Earlier, at school, he’d fibbed about sliding into a plate during a game and hurting himself. As a right-handed pitcher, he’d do everything to protect his right arm, which meant all his defensive bruises would be on his left. The tattoos could be covering scars from years of abuse.
Anger slammed through me. “I’ll take care of him, Beau. Just give me the gun.”
He glanced toward the door and I could see him trying hard to decide whether to trust me or not. More thuds, followed by, “You stupid bitch. You think you can hurt me?” More thuds and screams.
“The gun, Beau,” I said firmly and with a confidence I didn’t feel. Beau wasn’t the type of guy a girl ordered about.
He reached under his pillow and pulled out a gun. I didn’t know anything about guns, except you cocked it and pulled the trigger to shoot. I gripped the middle and made sure the muzzle was pointing away from me.
“Stay here,” I said. Beau opened his mouth, but I shook my head. “No. Stay. I don’t like to be interrupted when I work.”
I engaged my invisibility runes, moved into hyper-speed, and created a portal. Beau stared around in confusion, probably wondering where I’d gone.
Chapter 1, First Case
His stepfather stood over his mother while she cowered in the corner of the room by the stove. She was holding her arm, just like in my vision. He had the empty box of canned beer in his left hand.
“You stupid woman. You can’t do a simple thing unless I tell you over and over again how and when to do it.” He raised his fist.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” I said calmly.
He whipped around, ran his eyes over me, and leered. “Who are you? One of Beau’s girls? Get out of here before I show you what a real man can do.”
“Real men don’t beat up helpless women and children, Joe Hardshaw,” I said, sliding the gun behind the knife holder.
“This is my house, girlie. No one touches my things.” He reached for his wife.
Moving fast, I closed the gap between us and gripped his wrist before he made contact. He stared at me as though I was crazy.
“You little slut,” he growled, and stale breath fanned my face. My stomach rebelled. He tried to push me, but I had engaged strength runes. I twisted his wrist and a yowl escaped his mouth. He dropped the box and tried to jerk his hand from my grip, but he couldn’t break my hold.
“Names? Really?” I twisted again and he adjusted his body into a weird shape to relieve the pain. “One more twist and I’ll snap your wrist, Mr. Hardshaw. Stop struggling and listen carefully to what I have to say.”
“How…” He took a swing at me with his other hand. I caught his beefy fist and squeezed hard. “Aw, my fingers,” he moaned.
“I’m really trying hard not to hurt you, Mr. Hardshaw. If I squeezed hard enough, I would crush your bones.” His face twisted in pain. “If you rammed me with your head, you’d only split your skull. If I pushed you, you’d fly through the window behind you, taking the counter and the sink with you. Now, are you ready to listen?”
“Good.” I let him go. “Don’t move.” I turned and offered the wife a hand, but she cringed. “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m here to help.”
“Watch out!” Beau yelled.
I turned to see his father lunge at me. I ducked and, grabbed his arm and yanked. He tethered on his heel, then he went down, taking the counter with him. I lifted him by his tighty-whities, which gave me a nasty view of his butt crack. Didn’t want to see or smell that.
I pushed him against the counter, careful not to break another section of it. He had bruises on his arms and back. “I’m trying to be nice and you’re not helping,” I said, annoyance lacing my words. Beau was attempting to help his mother to her feet. “Don’t move her.”
“She needs to see a doctor. The bastard broke her arm this time.” He glared at his stepfather.
“No, call 911. Her arm is broken.” Beau looked ready to argue. “Please.” I needed to erase their memories and I couldn’t if they left. He nodded and reached for the phone. I focused on his stepfather.
“I’m here to protect your wife and son, Joe,” I said. “If you ever hit one of them again, I’ll know and I’ll come for you. You haven’t seen what I can do. I’m strong and I’m fast. I’m relentless when I want something and mean when pissed. Everything about you pisses me off, Joe. Do you understand?”
He nodded, fear clouding his pale blue eyes.
“They won’t remember what I did here tonight, but I want you to remember me. I know everything about you, Joe Hardshaw. You’re a bully and you drink too much. Touch them again and I promise you, you won’t live to see another day.” I stepped back and removed my artavus. His eyes went to it. Beau was squatting by his mother consoling her, but his eyes were on us. Any second, I knew the police and EMTs would come barreling toward their house.
I turned my back to Hardshaw Senior, knowing he wouldn’t dare attack me again. “I have to go now, Beau. If he hurts her again, I’ll know.”
“How?” Beau asked, glancing at his stepfather before focusing on me.
Yeah, that was a good question. How, genius?
“I’ll know,” I said with a confidence I didn’t feel. I glanced over my shoulder at his stepfather. “See you around, Joe. Be good. You’ve been warned.”
I used invisibility runes to disappear, etched forgetful runes on Beau and his mother, and walked across the room to get the gun. Now to return it to Randy’s before his father finds out it’s missing.
“What are you doing?” a woman’s voice cut through the air and my stomach dropped. That annoying, arrogant voice sounded way too familiar.
I turned, expecting to see the Norns assigned to me, the bane of my existence, and found myself facing a couple instead. Relief coursed through me. They were not the ones. Catie, Marj, and Jeannette, as I liked to call my Norns, always appeared to me together. It didn’t matter whether they were men or women, they were always in threes.
The guy was handsome, tall, and slender with pitch-black hair that reminded me of Torin’s hair, except Torin’s was thicker and more luxurious. This guy was a walking ad for tattoos, which blended with his runes. The sleeves of his coat were rolled up and he wore biker gloves like Torin’s. He was handsome with unforgettable violet eyes. The woman was exotic with high cheekbones and slanted eyes. She reminded me of someone, I just couldn’t remember who.
“Follow us,” she said and created a portal.
“What are you? Valkyries? Grimnirs?” The sound of an ambulance and flashing lights drew closer. “I gotta go.”
The woman moved fast and blocked me. “No, you’re not going anywhere. You just stole our soul.”
Her tone of voice didn’t surprise me. Most reapers were arrogant. But to stop me from leaving? “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. We were supposed to reap him,” she pointed at Beau’s stepfather, “tonight. You interfered.”
Grimnirs. The trench coats should have warned me. I didn’t want to antagonize them. “I saved his son from a fate worse than death tonight, guys. That’s better than a soul bound for Hel. Maybe he just needs a little nudge to change his ways.”
They looked at each other and shook their heads. “You can’t interfere with our reaping by changing what is meant to happen.”
“I’m a Norn-in-training, Grimnirs, so yeah. I can.” I glanced over my shoulder at the kitchen. Beau stayed with his mother while his stepfather lumbered to the door and opened it for the EMTs.
“Thugs broke in here and attacked my wife and me. They ran that way,” Mr. Hardshaw pointed down the street as he continued to lie. “If our son hadn’t come upstairs, they would have killed us.”
“Where’s your wife, sir?” an EMT asked.
“This way. I think they broke her arm and ribs.”
What an a-hole. From the look on Beau’s face, I couldn’t tell whether he bought his father’s story or not. Maybe I shouldn’t have runed him.
While the EMTs went to get Beau’s mother, his stepfather talked to two police officers, repeating the same lie about a break-in by thugs he couldn’t identify because it had been too dark. Someone gave him a blanket. Through the door, I could see neighbors stepping out of their homes to gawk.
The Grimnirs were arguing softly, but the girl gave me a look that said she wasn’t going to leave until she spoke with me further. Her partner hadn’t said anything since they’d arrived. I had a feeling nothing bothered him much.
“I have to return this gun before the owner finds out its gone. I’m sorry you didn’t reap the douchebag, but I couldn’t let Beau kill him. He would have ended up in jail, which would have been a waste of his potential. He has an amazing arm.” The Grimnirs scowled. “Baseball.”
“We know what you meant,” the woman said through clenched teeth. “That doesn’t make it right. And you’re not a Norn yet.”
Her attitude didn’t bother me. Soul reapers took their jobs way too seriously. Since I was all about helping living people, not the dead, we were bound to knock heads. “Then you understand that he might get a full ride to college. I had to do something to help him. If you have a problem with it, report me to the Valkyrie Council or whoever you answer to.”
I brushed past them, but the girl reached for me. I jerked my hand away, but not fast enough. Her hand closed around my arm, and I wasn’t surprised that a vision appeared. I had gotten used to them by now, but I really needed to learn how to close my mind to them. Beau’s kitchen disappeared to be replaced by a familiar, brightly lit hallway.
The two Grimnirs stood at the end of the hallway as though waiting for someone. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they didn’t look happy. A blonde approached them. It was Cora Jemison, my best friend. No wonder the hallway had looked familiar. It was the nursing home where Cora volunteered.
Cora saw the two Grimnirs and broke into a run, but they stopped her, the woman grabbing her arm and the guy creating a portal. They disappeared through the portal with Cora.
The vision cleared, leaving me shaken. I jerked my arm from the Grimnir and stepped back. “What do you want with Cora Jemison?”
Surprise flickered across the woman’s face. The guy had a poker face.
“Who?” the woman asked.
“Really? You want to pretend you don’t know her?” Cora was dating a notorious Grimnir. There was no way they didn’t know her. “Do not pay Cora a visit at the nursing home. Do not touch her, or do something stupid like kidnap her, because I’ll know. She’s under my protection, so if you mess with her, you mess with me. And where I go, the Valkyries follow. So leave her alone.”
“You think we are afraid of the Valkyries?” the girl asked. The guy smirked.
“Oh, then you’d better be afraid of one of your own. You touch Cora and I’ll tell Echo.” That got their attention. The girl paled and the guy stopped smirking. “Happy reaping, Grimnirs.”