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The Immortal Highlanderby Karen Marie Moning
Cincinnati, Ohio Several months later . . .
Summer, Gabrielle OCallaghan brooded—always her favorite season—had absolutely sucked this year.
Unlocking her car, she got in and slipped off her sunglasses. Shrugging out of her suit jacket, she nudged off her heels and took slow, deep breaths. She sat collecting herself for a few moments, then tugged free the clip restraining her hair and massaged her scalp.
She was getting the start of a killer headache.
And her hands were still shaking.
Shed nearly betrayed herself to the Fae.
She couldnt believe shed been so stupid, but, God, there were just too many of them this summer! She hadnt spotted a fairy in Cincinnati for years, but now, for some bizarre reason, there were oodles of them.
Like Cincinnati was some kind of great place to hang out—could a city be more boring? Whatever their unfathomable reason for choosing the Tri-State, theyd appeared in droves in early June, and had been ruining her summer ever since.
And pretending she didnt see them never got any easier. With their perfect bodies, gold-velvet skin, and shimmering iridescent eyes, they were a little hard to miss. Drop-dead gorgeous, impossibly seductive, dripping pure power, the males were a walking temptation for a girl to—
Brusquely she shook her head to abort that treacherous thought. Shed survived this long and was darned if she was going to slip up and get caught by one of the erotic—exotic, she corrected herself impatiently—creatures.
But sometimes it was so hard not to look at them. And doubly difficult not to react. Especially when one caught her off guard like the last one had.
Shed been having lunch with Marian Temple, senior partner at the law firm of Temple, Turley and Tucker, at a posh downtown restaurant; a very critical lunch, during which shed been interviewing for a postgraduate position.
A soon-to-be-third-year law student, Gabby was serving a summer internship with Little & Staller, a local firm of personal injury attorneys. It had taken her all of two days on the job to realize she was not cut out for representing pushy, med-bill-inflating plaintiffs who were firmly convinced their soft-tissue injuries were worth at least a million dollars per ache.
At the opposite end of the legal spectrum was Temple, Turley and Tucker. The most prestigious firm in the city, it catered to only the most desirable clients, specializing in business law and estate planning. What carefully selected criminal cases they chose to represent were renowned, precedent-setting ones. Ones that made a difference in the world, protecting fundamental rights and addressing intolerable injustices. And those were the cases she hungered to get her hands on. Even if she had to slave away for years, doing research and fetching coffee to get to them.
Shed been stressed all week, anticipating the interview, knowing that TT&T hired only the cream of the crop. Knowing she was competing against dozens of her classmates, not to mention dozens more from law schools around the country, in a cutthroat bid for a single opening. Knowing Marian Temple had a reputation for demanding nothing less than high-gloss sophistication and professional perfection.
But thanks to hours of aggressive practice interviews and pep talks from her best friend, Elizabeth, Gabby had been calm, composed, and in top form. The aloof Ms. Temple had been impressed with her scholastic achievements, and Gabby had gotten the distinct impression that the firm was predisposed to hire a woman (couldnt be too careful with those equal-opportunity statistics), which put her ahead of most of the competition. The lunch had gone swimmingly, until the moment theyd left the restaurant and stepped out onto Fifth Street.
As Ms. Temple was extending that all-important invitation to come in for a second, in-house interview with the partners (which was never arranged unless the firm was seriously considering making an offer, joy of joys!), a sexy, muscle-bound fairy male sauntered right between them in that infuriatingly arrogant Im-so-perfect, dont-you-just-wish-you-were-me way they had, so close that its long golden hair brushed Gabbys cheek like a sensual ripple of silk.
The intoxicating fragrance of jasmine and sandalwood surrounded her, and the heat radiating off its powerful body caressed her like a sultry, erotic breeze. It took every ounce of her considerable self-discipline to not inch backward out of its way.
Or worse—yield to that incessant temptation and just pet the gorgeous tawny creature. How many times had she dreamed of doing that? Copping one tiny forbidden fairy-feel. Finally finding out if all that golden fairy skin really felt as velvety as it looked. You must never betray that you can see them, Gabby.
Thoroughly discombobulated by the fairys proximity, her suddenly nerveless hand lost its grip on the iced coffee shed taken from the restaurant in a to-go cup. It hit the sidewalk, the top flew off, and coffee exploded upward, drenching the impeccable Ms. Temple.
At that precise moment, the fairy turned back to look at her, its iridescent eyes narrowing.
Panicked, Gabby focused all her attention on the sputtering Ms. Temple. With the enthusiasm of near-hysteria, she plucked tissues from her purse and dabbed frantically at the spreading coffee stains on what had been, moments before, a pristine ivory suit that she had a sick feeling cost more than she made in a month.
Babbling loudly about how clumsy she was, apologizing and blaming everything from eating too much, to not being used to heels, to being nervous about the interview, in a matter of moments, she managed to completely blow the image of cool, composed confidence shed so painstakingly projected through lunch.
But shed had no choice.
In order to make the fairy believe she hadnt seen it, that she was just a clumsy human, nothing more, shed had to act like a complete spaz and risk sabotaging her credibility with her prospective employer.
Sabotage it, she had.
Swatting away Gabbys frantically dabbing hands, Ms. Temple smoothed her ruined suit and huffed off toward her car, pausing to toss stiffly over her shoulder, “As I told you earlier, Ms. OCallaghan, our firm works with only the highest caliber clients. They can be demanding, excessive, and temperamental. And understandably so. When there are millions at stake, a client has every right to expect the best. We at Temple, Turley and Tucker pride ourselves on being unflappable under stress. Our clients require smooth, sophisticated handling. Frankly, Ms. OCallaghan, youre too flighty to be successful with our firm. Im sure youll find an appropriate fit elsewhere. Good day, Ms. OCallaghan.”
Feeling like shed been kicked in the stomach, Gabby watched in stricken silence as Ms. Temple accepted her spotless Mercedes from the valet, dimly registering that the fairy, blessedly, was also moving on. As the sleek pearl-colored Mercedes merged onto Fifth Street and disappeared into traffic—the job of her dreams flapping farewell on its tailpipe—Gabbys shoulders slumped. With a gusty sigh, she turned and trudged down the street to the corner lot where simple law students not-destined-for-success-because-they-were-too-flighty could afford to park.
“ ‘Flighty, my ass,” she muttered, resting her head on the steering wheel. “You have no idea what my life is like. You cant see them.”
All Ms. Temple had probably felt was a slight breeze, a moderate increase in temperature, perhaps caught a whiff of an exotic, arousing fragrance. And if, by chance, the fairy had brushed against her—although they were invisible, they were real, and were actually there—Ms. Temple would have rationalized it away somehow. Those who couldnt see the Fae always did.
Gabby had learned the hard way that people had zero tolerance for the inexplicable. It never ceased to amaze her what flimsy excuses they dredged up to protect their perception of reality. “Gee, I guess I didnt get enough sleep last night.” Or, “Wow, I shouldnt have had that second (or third or fourth) beer with lunch.” If all else failed, they settled for a simple “I must have imagined it.”
How she longed for such oblivion!
She shook her head and tried to console herself with the thought that at least the fairy had been convinced and was gone. She was safe. For now.
The way Gabby figured it, the Fae were responsible for ninety-nine percent of the problems in her life. Shed take responsibility for the other one percent, but they were the reason her life this summer had been one crisis after another. They were the reason shed begun to dread leaving her house, never knowing where one might pop up, or how badly it might startle her. Or what kind of ass shed make of herself, trying to regroup. They were the reason her boyfriend had broken up with her fifteen days, three hours, and—she glanced broodingly at her watch—forty-two minutes ago.
Gabrielle OCallaghan harbored a special and very personal hatred for the Fae.
“I dont see you. I dont see you,” she muttered beneath her breath as two mouthwatering fairy males strolled past the hood of her car. She averted her gaze, caught herself, then angled the rearview mirror and pretended to be fussing with her lipstick.
Never look away too sharply, her grandmother, Moira OCallaghan, had always cautioned. You must act natural. You must learn to let your gaze slide over them without either hitching or pulling away too abruptly, or theyll know you know. And theyll take you. You must never betray that you can see them. Promise me, Gabby. I cant lose you!
Gram had seen them, too, these creatures other people couldnt see. Most of the women on her moms side did, though sometimes the “gift” skipped generations. As it had with her mom, whod moved to Los Angeles years ago (like the people in California were less weird than fairies), leaving then-seven-year-old Gabrielle behind with Gram “until she got settled.” Jilly OCallaghan had never gotten settled.
Why couldnt it have skipped me? Gabby brooded. A normal life was all shed ever wanted.
And proving damned difficult to have, even in boring Cincinnati. Gabby was beginning to think that living in the Tri-State—the geographical convergence of Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky—was a bit like living at the mystical convergence of Sunnydales Hellmouth.
Except the Midwest didnt get demons and vampires—oh, no—they got fairies: dangerously seductive, inhuman, arrogant creatures that would take her and do God-only-knew-what to her if they ever figured out that she could see them.
Her family history was riddled with tales of ancestors whod been captured by the dreaded Fae Hunters and never seen again. Some of the tales claimed they were swiftly and brutally killed by the savage Hunters, others that they were forced into slavery to the Fae.
She had no idea what actually became of those foolish enough to be taken, but she knew one thing for certain: She had no intention of ever finding out.
Later Gabby would realize that it was all the cup of coffees fault. Every awful thing that happened to her from that moment on could be traced directly back to that cup of coffee with the stunning simplicity of an airtight conditional argument: If not for A (said cup of coffee), then not B (blowing job interview), hence not C (having to go into work that night), and certainly not D (the horrible thing that happened to her there) . . . on to infinity.
It really wasnt fair that such a trivial, spur-of-the-moment, seemingly harmless decision such as taking an iced coffee to-go could change the entire course of a girls life.
Not that she didnt hold the fairy significantly culpable, but studying law had taught her to isolate the critical catalyst so one could argue culpability, and the simple facts were that if she hadnt had the cup of coffee in her hand, she wouldnt have dropped it, wouldnt have splattered Ms. Temple, wouldnt have made an ass of herself, and wouldnt have lost all hope of landing her dream job.
If not for the cup of coffee, the fairy would have had no reason to turn and look back at her, and she would have had no reason to panic. Life would have rolled smoothly on. With the promise of that coveted second interview, she would have gone out celebrating with her girlfriends that night.
But because of that nefarious cup of coffee, she didnt go out. She went home, took a long bubble bath, had a longer cry, then later that evening, when she was certain the office would be empty and she wouldnt have to field humiliating questions from her fellow interns, she drove back downtown to catch up on work. She was behind by a whopping nineteen arbitration cases, which, now that she didnt have a different job lined up, mattered.
And because of that calamitous cup of coffee, she was in a bad mood and not paying attention as she parallel-parked in front of her office building, and she didnt notice the dark, dangerous-looking fairy stepping from the shadows of the adjacent alley.
If not for the stupid cup of coffee, she wouldnt have even been there.
And that was when things took a diabolical turn from bad to worse.
From the Hardcover edition.
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