February 2023 Update
February started with me writing my pen-off. Currently, there are fifty-seven thousand, one hundred and eleven words in the manuscript…i.e., fifteen chapters so far, which equates to sixty-three percent completion.
For my beautiful readers, here is the Winter’s Mother 2, Chapter 1:
Winter’s Mother 2, Chapter 1
Everything beyond the mystic perimeter was burning. Fire rained in apocalyptic torrents from the mouths of three gargantuan beasts in the sky. Liam crossed the garden toward the Mount Gambier Council Chambers. Jerking his head towards the sound of someone calling his name, he spotted Bailey Dougherty beside the pub across the carpark. Figures he’d gravitate towards his natural habitat. He started striding toward Bailey but stopped when the warlock punk shook his head and pointed down the street. Lava continued to flow from the Blue Lake although the recently erected wards kept the magma from reaching the Council Chambers and surrounding buildings.
Bailey jogged up to him. ‘On the horizon, look.’ He gestured to the distant shadows flying directly for Mount Gambier. ‘Looks like more of their friends are coming.’
‘Shit! They must be from the southern seamounts.’ Liam wished he could channel senses mana or get his hands on a pair of binoculars so he could get see the dragons clearly. ‘We need to hurry evacuate the rest of this area before they get here. Have you cleared out your sector?’
‘Yeah, Naracoorte’s empty. Cara and I have been helping with this place.’
‘Thanks, man. I better let the mayor know what’s going on. Keep your eye on the sky and get me on the radio if you have any issues.’
With a nod, Bailey took off toward Cara Hughes, who also happened to be his girlfriend. Liam had paired them on purpose because their relationship gave them additional incentive to protect one another. A pang of jealousy tightened his chest as he watched them work together and for the umpteenth time that day, he wanted his wife by his side. Powerful as she was, Alannah would have more hope defeating the dragons than anyone else there. He also worried about Brendan worming his way back into her broken soul while they sought refuge at Cailleach Estate together. He disliked High Magus Kieran’s decision to keep her in the reserves, supporting the war effort with her conjuration expertise, but he respected the need to protect her.
He turned away from the devastation and went back inside The Council Chambers where he found Councillor Johnathan Ryan—the town’s mayor—talking to a local mage.
Councillor Ryan glanced at him with a furrowed brow. ‘I’m glad you found Danny—err, Warlock Erling alive. It saddens me that the rest of Warlock Grant’s team perished.’
‘What about Doran?’ asked Liam.
Ryan’s eyes narrowed. ‘Who?’
‘Hugh Doran. The man who helped us get Warlock Erling back here. Tall blond guy with a British accent.’
‘Hm. I have no idea who that man is. Might be worth asking the High Magus to do a background check on him. Internet is down across town so I can’t exactly look up his file on my computer.’
Liam tensed. ‘Will do. The last thing we need to worry about right now is a potential traitor in our midst.’ He moved closer to Ryan and whispered, ‘Can I speak to you in private?’
The mayor led him into a boardroom and shut the door. ‘What’s the situation out there?’
‘Not good. Three dragons have taken to the skies above us and there’s another thunder of them heading this way from the south. I’m not sure how many—they are too far away to count.’
Ryan heaved a mournful sigh. ‘It’s time to count our losses and hightail it outta here.’
He nodded. ‘I’ll talk to Dad about getting his patients to safety.’
‘Thank you, Warlock Winters, for this and everything else you’ve been doing to help us.’
‘I wish I could do more.’
With heavy hearts, they left the Council Chambers and trudged across the lush garden.
‘It will be sad to see such beauty perish,’ Ryan mused while waving his hand toward the large sinkhole dominating the garden. ‘I assume the Umpherston Cave down the road has collapsed beneath the magma by now.’
‘It is likely, Sir. There is only so much we can do and saving lives is our priority.’
Ryan huffed. ‘But only certain lives, right? I can’t pretend to like High Magus Lane’s directive. Not when I have so many human friends in this town.’
He wanted to explain Kieran’s reasoning: that protecting humans would only anger the dragons more. He bit his lip instead and fell silent for the rest of the walk.
Entering the hall, they found Ross tending to Danny Erling’s injuries. The burns were severe but healing fast. He observed the dark circles around his father’s eyes. Dad looks as exhausted as I feel.
‘We need to go.’
Raising his brows, Ross shot him a wide-eyed look. ‘We can’t. Half these people are out cold, and the others aren’t fit to travel by ley line.’
‘We’ll transport the unconscious in the truck and send each of the others with a warlock/shaman pair,’ Liam explained. ‘Travel along the Coorong and take regular rest stops on your journey.’
Doran rose from his seat beside Erling’s stretcher. ‘I will help ward the truck.’
‘Um….’ He hesitated, concerned by what Councillor Ryan had mentioned earlier.
‘It’s okay, Liam,’ Ross assured him. ‘Kieran already vouched for Hugh.’
Liam exhaled his relief in a gust to rival a gale. ‘Fine. Mr. Doran—go with your friend and keep the others safe.’
Doran smiled. ‘Of course. Oh, and please call me Hugh.’
Sensing something was off about Doran, Liam gave him a curt nod. The man was far too friendly given the circumstances.
A tempest raged within Alannah’s mind as she curled up on the sofa with her fluffy white cat. Thoughts and feelings for Brendan whirled about like a cyclone. She wanted to trust him again, but she did not know how. What the hell did he mean about protecting me? Does he want to shield me from his life of crime? Or is there something else?
‘Hey, are you okay Alannah?’
She looked up at Amy’s gruff voice and forced a smile. In the chaos of her morning spat with Brendan, Alannah had forgotten about the other house guests staying with her at Cailleach Estate. Amy and Jacob had arrived in the middle of the night, just as Liam was leaving with his parents. She sighed. ‘No, not really.’
The butch dwarf sat beside her on the couch. ‘Worried about Liam?’
A short, bitter laugh escaped her raspy throat. ‘Not as much as I should be. I was thinking about Brendan.’
Amy perked up. ‘Oh shit! Really? What happened with Brendo?’
Alannah briefly debated the wisdom of confiding in Amy. They had never been especially close, but that had more to do with circumstance than the woman herself. Yet she needed someone to talk to and Cara was away helping with the volcano situation.
‘Promise to keep a secret?’
‘Of course, dude! I’m not a gossip queen, unlike some of your other friends.’
Ignoring the snide remark clearly aimed at Monique Lane and Jessica Ó Máille, Alannah took a deep breath and braced herself. ‘I’m still in love with Brendan.’
‘Well dah. That much is obvious with the way your eyes glaze over every time his name comes up in conversation. I hear he is back in town, though. Has something happened between the two of you?’ Tears trickled down her cheeks as she nodded.
‘Oh hell. What did he do?’ Amy clenched her fists in her lap. ‘Want me to beat the crap out of him?’
Alannah snorted. ‘No, but thanks for the offer. I’m upset because of lost opportunities.’
Amy scrunched her brow. ‘Whadda ya mean?’
‘Brendan left me all those years ago because he thought I betrayed him.’ She explained how Liam had kissed her on the night Brendan announced their soul link, the way Brendan had reacted to the scene, and the Bridey related aftermath that followed. ‘He still wants me, Amy. Brendan never stopped loving me, but I don’t know how to trust him anymore.’
‘Fuck, that’s heavy stuff,’ Amy admitted.
‘What should I do?’ Alannah sniffled and grabbed a nearby tissue box.
‘You should give him a second chance.’ The voice to her left startled her. Jacob slouched in the doorway with his arms crossed. ‘It’s only fair after the number of times you welcomed Liam back after he screwed up.’
‘Jacob?’ Alannah queried in a mumble. ‘I didn’t see you there.’
‘They don’t call me a spymaster for nothing, sweets.’
Amy scowled at him. ‘How long have you been eavesdropping, Bennett?’
‘Long enough to know how Alannah truly feels about Brendo.’ Jacob drew closer and sat in an armchair facing them. ‘That man’s heart bleeds for you, Alannah. His soul aches for its other half and I’m sure yours does too. Am I right?’
She sucked in a lungful of air. ‘But Bridey—’
‘Can suck my cock! Seriously woman, you can’t let that bitch keep him from you any longer.’ The doorbell rang, putting an end to their conversation. She sprang to her feet and frowned at Jacob. ‘You should hide. I’m expecting Kieran today, so that might be him now. I can’t afford to lose his favour. Offering asylum to unseelie is a sure way of doing so.’
Grinning wide enough to show his razor-sharp teeth, Jacob saluted her. ‘Yes, ma’am!’ He marched out of the living room and hurried upstairs toward the secret attic hidden by powerful glamour.
High Magus Kieran stood on the doorstep, flanked by two large trunks. ‘Hi, Alannah. I have more armour for you to imbue.’
‘Come in.’ She unlocked the screen door and held it open for him as he wheeled the crates inside. ‘I finished the last lot.’
‘Already? How did you finish so quick?’
Leading him through to the family room, she shrugged. ‘You said it yourself. I’m a powerful mage.’ No way in hell was she going to admit Brendan had helped her.
Kieran chuckled. ‘Modesty doesn’t suit—’ Stopping dead in his tracks, he stared at Amy on the sofa. ‘Miss Smith? What are you doing here?’
Leaping to her feet, Amy bowed before him. ‘Greetings, Your Honour. Councillor Winters was kind enough to offer sanctuary, Sir.’
‘Shouldn’t you be helping your parents at the forge. We need all hands-on-deck right now.’
‘Apologies Sir, but my folks and I don’t exactly see eye-to-eye.’
Kieran harrumphed. ‘With your lifestyle choices, I’m not surprised.’ The High Magus was nothing if not ultra conservative. He would never understand the kinkster scene; few pureblood mages did. ‘That said, I’d still appreciate your help in the war. The dragons have appeared now, so we need to double down on our preparations.’
‘What?’ Alannah and Amy screeched together.
‘Did you just say the dragons are here?’ Alannah’s voice trembled, revealing the panic she felt thumping in her veins.
‘Not in Gaeilge Shores, yet. They are still down in the Southeast, but it’s only a matter of time before they descend upon the rest of the state,’ he explained.
‘I’ll go get the first batch of armour and take these to the cellar.’ She grabbed a trunk and dragged it toward the stairs.
‘I’ll give you a hand,’ insisted Kieran as he took the other case.
Once they reached the glamoured door hiding the ritual room from the rest of the basement, Kieran seized her wrist. ‘Please tell me you aren’t sheltering any other lost lambs here?’
Holding his gaze, she schooled her expression. ‘No. Amy is the only one staying with me. My other friends are either helping with the war or they have their own safehouses.’
‘For your sake, I hope that’s true. Spending time with Brendan is dangerous in ways you can’t even begin to fathom.’
The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Laughing it off nervously, she shook her head. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, Your Honour. There’s no way I’d let a villain like him back into my bed, let alone my heart.’
He cocked a brow. ‘Please be careful, Alannah.’
Gulping, she turned to unlock the cellar.
Wrapping herself in a plush robe, Neve stepped out of the bathroom and crossed Erik and Elna’s bedroom to look out the window. The house—a massive log cabin structure—sat nestled in the thick bushland canopy. Letting her mind drift, she spied a koala chomping on the leaves of a neighbouring gum tree. Her own stomach grumbled at the thought of food, but there was something else the koala had that she craved even more.
‘You’re dripping all over the floor, Neve,’ Erik grumbled while glaring at her bare feet. Completely starkers, he stood tall, not the least bit self-conscious. Not that anyone would be ashamed of such a finely sculpted body and flawless golden skin.
Lowering her gaze, she glimpsed a few trickles of water trailing down her legs and splattering on the timber floor. She shrugged. ‘It’ll dry.’ Her attention returned to the sleepy marsupial outside. ‘Am I a prisoner?’
With a huff, he closed the distance between them and hugged her from behind. ‘Is it so terrible here? I thought you enjoyed my company, and Elna’s.’ He spun her around to face him and smirked. ‘You weren’t complaining this morning, or this afternoon. I lost track of how many times we made you come.’
Her cheeks flushed as recent memories flicked through like a movie reel in fast forward. ‘I… Don’t get me wrong. The sex is amazing… a great distraction, but I miss my other friends and family. I’m not a fan of being cooped up inside too long either.’
Erik sighed and released her from his grip. ‘You’re not my captive, Neve. Feel free to come and go as you please.’
‘But your dad—’
‘I know what my father said last night, but I won’t stop you. I wouldn’t advise it, however. The outside world is not safe and every time you step beyond the borders of this property, you risk a toasty fate.’
‘What if I hop the ley lines and only go to safehouses?’
Erik laughed drily. ‘The only safehouses belong to the seelie. Your mage friends are fools to they think their wards will hold against dragon fire.’
She gasped and dashed to the wardrobe, throwing clothes on the bed in a rush to get dressed. ‘Oh Gods! Mum and Caitlin! I can’t let them burn—’
‘Neve, wait! Don’t go running off without a care for your own safety.’ Erik tugged at the collar of her robe, pulling her back into his arms.
Collapsing under the weight of frustration and worry, she twisted in his embrace and sobbed against his shoulder. ‘I need to do something to save them.’
‘Don’t worry, my love. Dad intends to help your mother if she agrees to the terms of our betrothal.’
She peered up into his impassive green eyes. ‘What terms?’
‘The legally binding conditions of our betrothal contract. Would you like to read it before or after your mother signs on the dotted line tomorrow?’
Realising she was gaping at him; she snapped her mouth shut and frowned. ‘You make it sound like a financial transaction, as if I’m a piece of property for sale.’
‘That’s how marriage works in my world. From what I understand, it’s not much different for most pureblood mages either. Love and happy endings are luxuries most of us can only dream of, which is why I feel so lucky to have your heart as you have mine.’ He stroked the side of her face tenderly and leaned down to kiss her lips.
Erik still hadn’t bathed after their day of making love and she tasted her own tang on his lips. It sent tingles through her body and stirred her core.
‘And here I thought we were getting ready for dinner,’ Elna remarked as she opened the bathroom door. Plumes of steam billowed around her, and a skimpy scrap of terrycloth struggled to conceal her voluptuous curves. ‘Looks like the pair of you are ready to go another round.’
Tucking Neve into his side, he grinned at Elna. ‘I was just easing our girl’s anxieties while you hogged all the hot water.’
‘Pfft. Looks like you could use a cold shower anyway, Brother dearest.’ Elna glanced at the situation below his waist and smiled smugly.
He pressed his mouth against the shell of Neve’s ear. ‘Wake me up next time so I can shower with you, sweetheart.’ His teeth nipped at her earlobe and she half-squealed, half-giggled as he strode toward the ensuite.
‘Hm, I wonder,’ Elna mused as the girls watched Erik disappear into the bathroom. ‘Is it a puberty thing, or are you the reason for the increase in his sex drive?’
‘Are you saying he wasn’t this…?’ Neve blushed.
‘I think the word you are looking for is horny. And no—before you, he was content with far less.’
‘Oh.’ She fell silent and shifted her attention to getting dressed.
Dinner was another awkward affair of forced conversation and stiff formality. She wondered if things would remain this way, or if Alvar would eventually warm up to her. After placing her cutlery neatly on her plate, she cleared her throat. ‘Excuse me, Your Highness. May I please read the betrothal contract?’
Alvar sipped his red wine and dabbed his mouth with a linen napkin. ‘Certainly. It is wise to understand the rules, so you do not break them unknowingly.’ He rang the brass bell beside his glass and asked the butler to fetch the document. ‘I am confident your mother will agree to my terms. She stands to lose a great deal by refusing, so it is in her best interest.’ He handed her the papers.
She felt the blood drain from her face as she read through the extensive list of conditions and her heart skipped a beat when she reached the virginity clauses:
During the period of betrothal, The Claimed will submit to a physical examination on an annual basis to confirm her hymen remains intact. This procedure will be performed by an independent party.
If The Claimed loses her virginity at any point prior to matrimony, The Claimant will lose his claim and the parties responsible will be charged with treason, punishable by death.
She didn’t need a law degree to understand the severity of her situation. If Mum signs that contract, I’m as good as dead when they check for my hymen. But if she doesn’t sign it, her own life and those of everyone staying at Cailleach Estate will be in danger.
Alannah awoke with a start beneath the solid mass of a man’s body. She tried to scream, but a hand clamped over her mouth, and she flicked her eyes open. Within the seconds it took her vision to adjust to the darkness, his familiar musky scent filtered through the panic and seeped into her senses. The tension eased from her muscles, and she stopped struggling. Another second passed before she realised Brendan had crept beneath the covers to straddle her and heat crept across her scantily clad skin. When she attempted to question him, he increased the pressure of his grip against her mouth.
Bringing his chest flush with hers, he whispered in her ear, ‘Shoosh gorgeous. Erect a sound ward first.’
She glared at him but did as he asked. ‘Why couldn’t you put up your own damn soundproofing?’
‘Your wards are much stronger, and they even hold up if someone opens the door.’
‘Oh.’ The hint of a blush warmed her cheeks. ‘So, what do you want to talk about?’
Brendan smirked. ‘Why do you assume I want to talk? Maybe I just want to ravish you and spare our guests the embarrassment.’
She arched her brows and gave him a sidelong glance.
‘Yeah okay, you got me there. I couldn’t care less if they heard your cries of ecstasy, but I do owe you an explanation.’
‘And you had to wake me up in the middle of the night? I’m exhausted after a full day of conjuration, and it wasn’t easy to get to sleep.’
He gave her a sheepish simper. ‘I’m sorry, Lana. I couldn’t wait any longer.’
‘Okay fine. Let me sit up first because I won’t be able to concentrate in this position. I can feel your dick straining against those flimsy track pants you’re wearing.’
He gave her a sly grin. ‘At least I’m wearing pants,’ Brendan’s hand slid up her thigh as he spoke, ‘unlike you. I’d forgotten how you tend not to wear panties to bed.’ He tugged gently at the hem of her black satin slip before lifting it above her hip.
‘Brendan.’ She intended to use a threatening tone, but her warning sounded more like a whimpering plea.
‘Hm, maybe the talk can wait a little longer.’ He brushed his lips across her cheek and thrust his erection against her.
She moaned as her body shuddered and her core flooded. ‘Brendan, please.’
‘Please what, Lana?’ He breathed the words against her lips.
‘Who are you trying to convince?’ His cock pressed hard against her clit.
Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and blurted out, ‘Richard.’
He scrambled away from her and sat on the edge of the bed with wide eyes.
She had never needed to safeword out with him before and it pained her to do so, but they had too many issues to resolve first. Sitting up, she leaned against the headboard. ‘I’m sorry, Brendan, but I’m not ready. We really should talk first.’
‘Don’t ever feel you need to apologise for using your safeword, gorgeous. I’m just surprised is all.’ He was panting heavily and took several seconds to compose himself. ‘Is it okay if I still hold you while we talk?’
She nodded and moved across to give him space. Sitting beside her, he pulled her into his arms. Slumping down, she placed her head against his chest and listened to the frantic thumping of his heart.
A full minute elapsed before he spoke again. ‘The reason I didn’t return after gaining my freedom, my excuse for staying away from you all these years was fear. I’m a coward when it comes to you, Lana, always have been. Yeah, I was scared you’d reject me, but I was even more afraid of losing you to our enemy.’
‘I still don’t know who they are, but I’m pretty sure their identity is part of Tara’s big secret.’
‘Wouldn’t I be safer with you here to protect me?’
He squeezed her tight and pressed a chaste kiss against the crown of her head. ‘I wish it were that simple. The enemy doesn’t want us to be together. Bridey made that abundantly clear.’
She tensed at the sound of the bitch’s name. ‘Why? And what does the she-devil have to do with this?’
‘I only just learned Bridey is working for the enemy by trying to keep us apart and even spying on me. I don’t know the full extent of her involvement, which is why I can’t cut ties with her yet. I used to think her dislike for you was personal. When I first gained my freedom, I struck a deal with her. I was still heartbroken over you at the time, so I agreed without question.’
Painful silence followed and she prompted him to continue with a soft voice, ‘What did you agree to?’
He sucked in a breath. ‘To stay away from you. In exchange for her support in the Syndicate and… continued access to Caleb.’
‘Fuck.’ The muttered curse slipped out before she could stop it.
‘Yeah, I know. I didn’t intend to keep my word for long. I dreamed of ways I could sneak away to visit you in secret. But then I started unravelling the doppelganger mystery with Tyler and that threw a massive spanner in the works.’
‘I heard about that stuff from Tyler, but what does it have to do with us?’
‘Tyler hasn’t told you the full truth of the mater because he doesn’t even know. I kept my theory to myself.’
‘Then you went and proved it yesterday.’
Goosebumps prickled her exposed arms. ‘What theory, Brendan?’
‘You’re my doppelganger, Lana.’
She sat bolt upright and gaped at him. ‘What? How? I’m a woman, I can’t be your doppelganger.’
He leered at her breasts and licked his lips. ‘I’m quite aware of your gender, gorgeous.’
She smacked his arm. ‘Quit it.’
Mischief twinkled in his eyes when they returned to hers. ‘From what I understand, doppelgangers don’t have to be the same sex. We are mystic twins because of your DNA. Your bio dad, whoever he was, must descend from a God of magic, probably The Dagda if he was Irish, but who really knows? That power surge we felt during the ritual yesterday—that was due to our mystical connection. I felt the same with Tyler, but it was much stronger with you, and I think that is why the enemy wants to keep us apart. Because us working together, on top of your Beltane blessing, turns us into a force to be reckoned with. Someone perceives us as a threat, and they’ll stop at nothing to keep us from working together. We can’t fight an unknown enemy, so until we know who they are, we must be extremely careful.’
‘If we are such a threat, why not take us out before we become unstoppable?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve wondered the same thing. Maybe they have plans for us? Like how the Obsidian Cult used Tyler and me. The value of our mystic connection might outweigh the risks, but this is all conjecture because I have no fucking idea who this dickhead is, let alone how their mind works.’
She inhaled deeply and breathed out through pursed lips. ‘Thanks. I understand now. I hate it, but I get it.’
‘Yup. It sucks balls alright. Now that I know what really went down with Liam back then, and I know how you feel about me, I’m willing to fight for us. I’m sorry it took me this long to grow a pair.’
She sank back into the bed. ‘Will you stay with me tonight?’
‘Of course.’ He held her, stroking her until she fell asleep in his arms.