Hard to Handle
A Beauty and Beast Novel
A SEDUCTION STRONGER THAN STONE
The only male among four sisters, Michael Drummond is no stranger to women’s strength and formidable will. His Dublin pub, the Skin & Bones, is his refuge, a reassuringly masculine retreat. Until a fierce woman warrior from another realm bursts into his life, bringing with her a battle between good and evil…and an explosive dose of desire.
The first and only of her kind, Ash is a lone female gargoyle, a creature destined to protect mankind from Demons determined to unleash their darkest forces. But her arrival on Earth is more confusing than she expected: her bone-deep instinct to do battle is matched only by her untamed attraction to stubborn, stalwart Drum. If they manage to keep the world safe, can they turn the passion crackling between them into a love that will withstand the test of time?
+ “This is another winning addition to a series unafraid to challenge convention, but always able to entertain.”
— Bridget Keown, RT Book Reviews awarding Hard as a Rock 4 Stars!
Read the whole review.
Michael Drummond was a man blessed with sisters, though there were times—much like the present—when he wished his parents had perhaps done a little less blessing and a little more sinning. Prophylactically speaking. But like the good Irish Catholics they were, Madelaine and Stephen Drummond had brought five healthy children into the world—four beautiful, independent girls and one sadly outnumbered boy, wedged smack into the middle and with no hope of escape.
What else but a sister could have Drum standing outside in the wet, unseasonable chill of a late September night with his arse turning to ice and his breath curling into a mist around his head, while all of respectable Dublin lay snug in their beds? Not a single damned thing, he acknowledged as he shoved his hands deeper into the pockets of his battered leather jacket. Nothing but a sister and the persistent tingling at the back of his neck that plagued him like an unreachable itch.
The tingling had started nearly six months ago, when the proposed peaceful events commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the Easter Uprising had lurched off the charted course and into a chaotic nightmare of bomb shrapnel and bloodied faces. Terrorism, the government had called it, and Drum couldn’t argue with the label, but he also couldn’t shake the niggling certainty that the deadly attack had signaled something more.
Drum couldn’t point to what he meant by that. Hell, he couldn’t even wave a hand in any one, slightly indeterminate direction, but ever since the Easter riots, the air in his hometown of Dublin had felt different, sharper and thinner, like the edge of a knife poised forever at one’s throat.
And imagine him spouting off such nonsense without so much as a speck of real, tangible evidence to point to and say, “Look. See how that’s changed?” No, Drum had grown up differently enough to know better than that, as had the sister with a much better chance of seeing disaster looming than he did. Both of them knew better than to start shouting that the sky was falling before they had damned good evidence to back up their claims. Even the sentimentally superstitious Irish drew the line between intuition and insanity with a definite stroke of the pen. He kept his mouth shut.
He also kept up his guard, if for no better reason than to keep the dreams at bay. Ignoring his feelings had only led to fitful sleep and persistent visions of things he refused to name and would prefer not to remember. So, he took his precautions and couched them in terms of modern crime and the upswing in global terrorism. He made sure to impress on his family members that no one should take silly chances in today’s world, and that family was meant to stick together and to watch each other’s backs.
Which made it his own fault that the youngest of his sisters had brought him out into the unpleasant damp at such an hour. It went without saying that he’d have much preferred to be behind the bar at the Skin and Bones, his pub in the Liberties. But wandering through the streets on their own in the dark before midnight was among the things he had asked his sisters not to do, so begrudging one his company drew him a wee bit nearer the rocky shoals of hypocrisy than he liked. A year ago, he’d not have thought twice about such a schedule, but a lot had changed in Dublin town this year.
Maeve, the sister in question and the youngest of the pack of them, was late, however. As usual. She’d dragged him from the Bones less than an hour before closing, just when the Guinness flowed most freely and the music made even his toes tap behind the counter. Under circumstances like those, she might have at least put on a bit of a hurry.
But hurry wasn’t in Maeve’s nature, at least not in any way that had ever made sense to the rest of the world. Occasionally, she rushed here or there, most often trailing the scent of spilled, milky tea and dropping scraps of paper left and right behind her. Her goal at those times was always the book she suddenly needed but had abandoned hours earlier in the parlor, because she had relocated her scribbler’s nest to the table near the kitchen, where the light was better. Or maybe it was the Internet on the computer she used no more than necessity demanded, and with the greatest reluctance, because electronic devices had never warmed to Maeve Drummond.
In either case, she would hurry for the precise amount of time needed to reach her destination, then she would burrow in like a dormouse and not stir again until the next urgent summons from a forgotten piece of knowledge only she seemed to care about. That was Maeve—twenty-four years old, doctoral candidate, and well on her way to the life of a professional academic.
This, at least, explained Drum’s current odd surroundings. The Abbey of St. Ultan crouched in the shadows of Trinity College, half forgotten and sulking with it. Long abandoned by the full complement of monks, the few remaining buildings now housed a collection of ecclesiastical documents and works of art dating back past the medieval era and all the way into the heart of the Dark Ages. Scholars from the neighboring university regularly sent eager petitions to the few remaining brothers for access to the vast reserves of early printed books, illuminated manuscripts, and preserved letters and scrolls that traced their provenance back to the days of the Irish kingdoms. To Maeve, the place seemed to double for Neverland and Tír na nÓg in one shining package.
By contrast, the abbey always gave Drum the creeps. He never felt easy in the shadow of the hulking limestone buildings, the cold gray of the rock streaked with black stains he knew came from the damp Dublin weather and centuries of polluted air. But to him, they always looked like thick corruption oozing from the pores of the place. The ground beneath his feet felt a great deal less consecrated than he imagined the Church had intended. Of course, his teachers and others had always called him fanciful.
The truth was that fancy ran in his family. His grandmother had fancied away several cases of polio among family and friends well before a vaccine had been invented, and rumor had it that her grandmother had once fancied that the passengers aboard the unsinkable ship sailing from England to New York in 1912 might wish to get their affairs in order before the tide came in.
Drum couldn’t swear to the truth of any of the family stories, but he knew for a fact that his elder sister Sorcha’s poultices would cure an infection faster than any antibiotic she could prescribe, and that Maeve, for all her inattention to the world around her, always knew when the telephone was about to ring, as well as who would be on the other end of the call. She also knew when someone of her acquaintance was about to fall ill or be injured, which candidate would win an election, and who was about to have a baby of which sex, weighing how much, at which time, and on which day. It drove the family odds makers batty.
Drum had never caught so much as a glimpse of the future himself—thank heaven for small mercies—but if pressed, he would be forced to admit that he did see other things, find things. Occasionally.
At the moment, his eyes provided an adequate view of the abbey common, though the mist did obscure things at a certain distance. It wrapped around shrubs and statues, drifted among trees, and parted like whispers as Maeve’s coltish figure appeared racing toward him full tilt.
Drum’s mouth quirked up at the corner, and he parted his lips to tease her about imagining he had pages to wade through when a lamp from the nearby street sent a beam of light across her face. The bright glare of safety bulbs had faded by the time it cast Maeve’s wide, doelike eyes and narrow pointed chin in stark relief against the clinging shadows, but it offered proof enough to show Drum that something was very, very wrong.
“Michael.” The urgency in her voice rose above the clatter of sharp boot heels on the cobbled pathway and made his stomach twist hard and tight. “Hurry! We have to get away. Now.”
She didn’t even stop to greet him, just gripped the leather of his jacket above his elbow and spun him in the direction from which he’d come just a quarter of an hour earlier. Dragging him along like a plow behind a mule, she plunged off the path and into the shadows between the chapel and the misericord attached to the adjacent converted infirmary.
His toe caught in a rough patch of ground, and he stumbled before catching himself and hurrying after her. The blood in his veins seemed to burn with urgent energy, and the hairs at the back of his neck stood on end. He tried to reassure himself that his sister’s ominous words and air of panic had just proven contagious, like a yawn, but the fist in his gut didn’t ease.
“Mae, slow down,” he said, pulling back against her grip. “Tell me what has you in such a state, love. What’s going on?”
She shook her head, not bothering to look at him. “Just hurry. We need to get home. Something’s going to happen.”
His heart stumbled. “Happen to who?”
“Just happen, Michael. Hurry.”
And so he hurried. Maeve was never wrong.
Drum let his sister lead him through the darkness beneath the chapel wall. It seemed to loom over them, canted off its foundation at a precarious angle. High above, the stone buttresses creaked like old wood, and the jeering, screaming faces of the grotesque statuary cackled down at them like fairy-tale witches.
Christ Jesus. Had he gone mad, or had tonight’s beef pie contained quite another kind of mushroom altogether?
Maeve tugged harder on his hand, her much shorter legs covering the distance at a rate he had to strain to match. She ran as if the hounds themselves were chasing her, and though he couldn’t see her face, he could feel the anxiety and fear billowing out of her like the steam from her breath hitting the cool air. He could almost see it, and that wasn’t the sort of Sight Drum had been touched with.
“Come on, come on.”
He recognized the sound of his sister’s words gritted through clenched teeth, but he couldn’t tell if she spoke to him or the universe at large. Maeve had never boasted much patience. She’d been the type of child who had to be reminded to let the beaters stop spinning before she stuck a finger in to scoop up the batter. It wouldn’t surprise him to find her demanding that whatever she had foreseen hurry itself along and be over.
Based on her behavior and the near panic in which she had grabbed him and run, Drum on the other hand felt in no hurry at all. In fact, if the impending disaster wanted to cancel its Dublin tour date entirely, he’d not shed a tear. Maeve had begun to frighten him, and like many a man before him, when Drum got frightened, he got angry, as well.
Which meant that when the atmosphere lit up with a sudden crack of unseasonable lightning, he greeted the phenomenon with an angry shout of, “Oh, piss off!”
For better or for worse, the words were drowned out under an earsplitting crack of thunder.
Why did it feel as if the heavens had timed that specifically for him?
Drum might even have descended into melodrama and raised a shaking fist to the sky had his sister not chosen that very moment to dig her fingernails into the skin of his hand and jerk him forward. “Run!” she shouted, and hearing the terror and urgency in her voice, Drum pushed aside his own resentment and took off at a dash.
As it turned out, that first running step might have saved his life.
It was one of only three he managed, because just as he began to hit his stride, some unseen force grabbed hold of the earth’s mantle and shook it like a rug on cleaning day. The ground heaved up beneath them and tossed them into the air, sending both brother and sister sprawling on their faces in the cold, wet grass. Drum had just enough time to lift his head and spit out a mouthful of soil when another crash sounded, one not at all like the sharp report of the thunderclap, barely feet away from where he had landed. On the spot where he had stood before Maeve had screamed.
Now, Drum screamed for himself.
In the retelling, he imagined he would change the scream to a hoarse, manly shout of surprise; but in the moment, the high pitch of his girlish exclamation sounded like a harmony to the unearthly shriek that shook the air around them. He half expected a bean sidhe to swoop down from the spire to warn them of impending death, but what he saw struck him as not half so plausible a thing.
Adrenaline picked him up like a kitten by the scruff, sending him scrambling away from that second crash in a move born of pure survival instinct. He rolled to his back and crawled across the grass like a crab, hands and feet slipping and sliding on the wet blades, wishing the continuing drizzle of misty rain would do him a mercy and obscure the sight before his eyes.
Where he had stood not a moment before, the earth gaped open in a ragged crater, clods of dark, peaty soil scattered about it like crumbs round a teacake. At least five feet wide and half as deep, the ugly gash appeared to spit out the cracked and broken remains of one of the elaborately carved statues that graced the chapel’s ornate battlements.
Drum’s eyes locked on the ruined hunks of stone in the same instant that another bolt of lightning sizzled through the darkness, the accompanying crash of thunder sounding almost simultaneously. The deep, echoing boom rattled the teeth in Drum’s head and he winced, arms shooting up to clap over his ears as if he could protect himself from the deafening impact.
But he couldn’t protect himself from the vision that appeared.
His eyes closed for an instant. He couldn’t stop them, not when the lightning seemed to strike the ground just inches from his feet. Even through the shutter of his closed eyelids, the glare nearly blinded him. Perhaps it did blind him for a moment. Maybe permanently. For what else could explain the sight that greeted him when his lids lifted? Before him, the pile of stone split further and a creature from heaven or hell launched itself into the fraught night sky.
Drum had never seen anything like it. It screamed as it flew, not like a banshee but like a Valkyrie, a cry of rattling shields and bloody spears, of battle fever and furious determination. Its body arrowed through the air as if it chased the lightning back to its source. In that brief flash, its gray skin appeared silver, glistening with the rain and glowing in the blinding light. It reached its apex and spread a mantle of enormous feathered wings, casting Drum and Maeve in shadow. Then just as quickly as it had risen it dove, slicing through the atmosphere into a dense collection of shadows where the misericord backed up to the high wall of the cloister garden.
The thing let out a bloody roar, and a jagged circle of eerie red light the color of blood backlit by fire exploded. The dark light illuminated the winged creature as well as the inspiration for its battle cry—a human figure, hooded and robed all in black but for a strange sigil that marked the fabric like an insignia on the left breast.
Drum had the almost simultaneous thoughts that he should attempt to help his fellow man, and that he wanted to get no closer to the robed figure than he did to the one with the wings and tail. In fact, while the latter disturbed him because it should not have existed in his reality, the former literally made his skin crawl.
The man—well, he shouldn’t assume, because it could be a woman, but it certainly looked human, at least—in black made Drum recoil on a purely visceral level. Sure, the robe thing pointed toward a certain eccentricity, but why should the simple sight of him make Drum want to take his sister and go somewhere very far away? He had no answer, but a little discomfort didn’t mean he could allow himself to stand by and watch another human being be torn apart by a monster.
He had no weapon and no intention of sacrificing his own life for the sake of the stranger, but he could at least perhaps cause a distraction. Fumbling about the edge of the crater beside him, Drum closed his hand around a chunk of granite approximately the side of a cricket ball and hefted it in his right hand.
“Oi!” he shouted, following the salute with a raucous whistle. Then, not waiting to see if he’d caught either figure’s attention, he hurled the stone at the monstrous creature’s head.
Had Drum mentioned that he’d never played cricket? Or baseball? Or any other game except soccer, where a player never put a hand on the ball, let alone attempted to throw it with any accuracy?
The stone missed its mark entirely, instead impacting the cloister wall a good three feet behind the winged beast and even farther away from the man in the black robes. For that reason, he never expected the man to turn in his direction and send another one of those balls of red fire straight at his head.
With a shout of his own, Drum threw himself over his sister and rolled them both across the damaged earth. Maeve shouted a protest, but it cut off abruptly when the fireball hit the ground where she had lain a moment ago. For her, the close call must have come as a shock, but for Drum it was the second time tonight. Hell, it was the second time in a quarter hour!
And to think, he’d been trying to help the moldy wanker. People these days had no sense of gratitude. Perhaps this would be a good time to forget about the git and hurry their arses home?
Before Drum could collect himself to suggest as much to his sister, the monster emitted another shrieking cry and slashed long, taloned fingers across Robe Fella’s hooded face. The figure screamed and threw itself backward, raising its hands to unleash not a ball of fire, but a strike of lightning in that same disturbing shade of red.
The creature dove out of the way, and the bolt ripped past to crash into the damp earth just beyond. As it impacted, the earth shook almost as hard as it had just before the creature had appeared. A powerful beat of the thing’s wings lifted it into the air high above the garden wall. Drum saw it gather itself, and the man in black must have noticed the same thing, because before the beast could strike, Robe Fella jumped up and fled through the shadows away from the abbey and out toward Dublin’s rain-slicked streets.
The thunder and lightning cut off as if someone had thrown a switch, plunging the grounds into darkness. Somehow, even the lights of the nearby streets seemed shrouded, leaving Drum and Maeve helpless as newborn pups, before their eyes began to open. Drum could hear, though, and even in the blackness he heard the soft thud of feet hitting the ground and the rush of air as something moved quickly toward him.
“Who are you?” a voice demanded.
Drum was prepared for neither the question nor the sound. First, because he hadn’t gotten a clear look at whatever it was soaring above his head in the white nimbus of the lightning strike and then attacking the hostile figure in the dark robes. The distance between him and his sister and the darkness had been illuminated only by occasional fireballs and lightning bolts, which hadn’t provided for more than disturbing flashes caught on the fly (pardon the pun).
Secondly, Drum found himself momentarily taken aback by the question because, whatever it was that had spoken, it sounded almost like a woman. A very angry woman.
Instinctively, Drum pitched his own voice to the timbre he’d perfected over long years of living with five independent-minded females—calming without being patronizing. “Michael Drummond. And that’s my sister. We’re no threat to you.”
The voice scoffed. “As if a human man hurling rocks and a trembling girl could threaten a Guardian. Are you nocturnis?”
Drum shook his head, blinking as the world slowly came back into focus. It took his eyes precious seconds to adjust to the dimness after the abrupt changes in light, but soon he found himself staring into the most unusual face he’d ever seen. A face whose curled lip and glinting fang demanded an immediate answer.