Hello, friends. I’m wishing you a healthy, safe and happy Saturday. Here’s chapter four of Rescuing Lara to fly you away to the emerald isle for a while. I hope you enjoy Lara’s adventure as Conn takes her for a ride on his Harley.
At the end of the chapter, I have included universal links to the whole Romancing the Guardians series, as well as the two box sets. Also keep in mind you can read these books for FREE with Kindle Unlimited.
Several days passed uneventfully. Lara was more than satisfied with Conn’s vigilant performance of his bodyguard duties. He walked her property several times a day, looking for any sign of intruders, and made sure all windows and doors were securely locked after dark. A time or two while she lay awake unable to sleep, she’d also heard him let himself out in the dead of night to check the premises.
Despite his careful guardianship, Lara grew more and more fearful, jumping at every little sound and finding it difficult to sleep. When Conn asked if she sensed the Hellhounds – he called them bad guys – were nearby, she had to admit her nerves were so frayed that she couldn’t tell for sure one way or the other. The admission left her feeling powerless.
One morning about a week and a half after their visit to Conn’s relatives, she sat before the open front door, staring outside, with Penguin in her lap. She didn’t realize she was hugging the cat tight until he meowed in complaint and struggled to get away.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sweetie,” she murmured, releasing him. He leapt to the floor, gave her an accusing green glare and trotted off toward the kitchen, no doubt in search of a tasty treat from Una. Returning her gaze to the outdoors, Lara wrapped her arms across her chest as a wave of fear threatened to engulf her.
The floor creaked a moment later, giving her a start before she recognized Conn’s footsteps. Half turning her chair, she saw him scowl as he walked up to her. He sighed, took hold of the chair arms and brought her around to face him.
“You’re driving yourself and me crazy,” he said, leaning down to look at her squarely. “This has to stop.”
“I’m sorry.” Clenching her hands in her lap, she bent her head, unable to meet his steely gaze. “I know you’re doing everything you can to keep me safe, but I can’t help being afraid.”
He straightened and, without another word, turned on his heel and went up to his room, taking the stairs two at a time. Lara was closing the door when he dashed back downstairs carrying his leather jacket and two helmets. He thrust one into her hands.
“Here. I carry a spare just in case.”
“In case of what?” Perplexed, she eyed the shiny royal blue helmet.
“In case I pick up a passenger. I’m taking you for a ride on my bike.”
“What? No! I can’t, I’ve never ridden a motorcycle, and my leg might give out.”
“You’re wearing a brace. It supports your leg, right?”
“Well, yes, but I don’t dare put any weight on it. The bones aren’t completely healed.”
“You don’t need to put weight on it. I’ll carry you out to the bike. It tilts to the left when on the kickstand, so you might want to steady yourself with your left foot. Nothing wrong with that leg, is there?”
“No, but –”
“Good. And once we’re moving, all you’ll do is sit there and hold on to me.”
“I-I don’t know . . . .”
“Come on, it’ll do you good to get out of the house and feel the wind in your face.” He glanced at her long denim skirt and frowned. “Do you own a pair of jeans, or any kind of pants?”
“Yes, but I really don’t think –”
“Good. You’ll need a warm shirt or jacket too. Go change. I’ll get the bike out of the shed and bring it around front.”
Too flabbergasted to speak, Lara watched him stride down the hall and out the back door. It seemed she had no say in the matter. Well, no, she could flatly refuse to go, but did she want to? Or did she dare challenge herself to take a risk, to try something new? Excitement fizzed through her blood like champagne.
“Una, come help me!” she called.
Twenty minutes later she sat perched behind Conn on the pillion seat, a leather covered backrest hugging her lower back, with her feet planted on passenger “foot pegs” he’d adjusted to her height. The big Harley purred like a huge cat and vibrated between her legs. She’d donned a sturdy pair of brown corduroy trousers, white cotton turtleneck, woolen plaid shirt over that, and a red windbreaker. Conn’s spare helmet covered her head. On her feet she wore her hated orthopedic shoes. She wished for boots like his to protect her ankles, but her AFO probably wouldn’t fit inside a boot anyway, unless she bought an oversized pair. Then the left one would be too big, meaning she’d have to buy two different sized pairs as she’d done with the shoes.
“Hold on to me,” Conn directed.
She gripped his waist while he guided the motorcycle out to the gravel road. With a wave to Una, who stood in front of the cottage, hands clasped and lips moving in evident prayer, he gave the machine more gas. Lara caught her breath and clutched him tighter.
“We’ll take it slow until we’re off the gravel,” he said with a glance over his shoulder.
With her pounding heart lodged somewhere in her throat, she didn’t even try to speak. Although Conn kept to the smoothest path he could find along the country lane, the uneven ground jarred her now and then. When they reached the main road, the ride smoothed out.
“Okay, I’m gonna open her up now. Hang on tight.”
He accelerated and, instinctively, she wrapped her arms around him and plastered herself to his back. The solid strength of his body was comforting as they flew over the blacktop. Pulse racing, she ducked her head, using him as a windbreak. However, after a few minutes she began to relax. Loosening her hold on Conn, she straightened and opened a small space between them.
“I apologize for clinging to you like a leach,” she yelled over the motorcycle’s growl and the buffeting wind. She felt the vibration of his laughter beneath her hands although she couldn’t hear it.
“I didn’t mind,” he shouted back. “Nicest leach I ever met.”
She laughed in reply and relaxed a little more. Lifting her face to the wind, she felt almost as if she were flying. After being cooped up so much since the accident, it gave her a feeling of freedom, with an exciting trace of danger. Conn had set out to distract her from her constant fear and lift her spirits, and he’d succeeded. She hadn’t felt so carefree in she didn’t know how long.
Neither of them spoke for a long while. Lara admired passing fields of green divided into small sections by dry stone walls like those surrounding her small rented plot of land. Built without mortar, the walls were a marvel of construction. She’d learned the building method dated back thousands of years, perhaps to the time of her ancient ancestors, the Tuatha Dé Danann.
“Do you want to stop for lunch?” Conn called out when the sun hung high in the sky.
“Yes!” she said, wondering if he’d heard her stomach grumble. Don’t be silly! Of course he didn’t, not when we can barely hear each other shout.
He pulled off the road and followed a rutted path to one of the low stone walls Lara admired. Switching off the motorcycle, he dismounted, lowered the kickstand, then removed his black helmet and hung it on one handlebar. Lara did likewise with hers. She was tucking a stray lock behind her ear when Conn bent and scooped her up, drawing a startled cry from her lips. His rugged features crinkled into a broad grin, revealing his dimples.
“Easy, darlin’, I’m just escorting you to our picnic table.” Carrying her as if she weighed nothing, he set her down carefully on the stone wall then strode back to the Harley, dug in one of the saddlebags and returned with the lunch and thermos Una had hastily packed for them. He seated himself near her, poured coffee into insulated cups also provided by the Irishwoman who now doted upon him, and laid out thick, plastic-wrapped sandwiches between them. A container of strawberries and a small bag followed. Opening the bag, he gave a pleased chuckle.
“The old girl sent along some of those oatmeal cookies she baked yesterday.”
“Over here they’re called biscuits, not cookies.”
Conn shook his head. “Yeah, but I can’t figure out why.”
“It’s just a difference in language. What we call biscuits at home are called rolls here and in the UK.” Unwrapping her sandwich, Lara took a bite.
“Humph.” Biting into his own sandwich, he chewed and swallowed. “Speaking of biscuits, I sure do miss my mama’s baking powder biscuits. They’re so light they melt in your mouth.”
“Oh, I miss my Uncle Malcolm’s, too, with creamy sausage gravy over them. That was my favorite breakfast.” Too late, she realized she’d virtually confessed her southern roots – and the fact that she’d lied to Conn about it. She darted a sheepish glance at him and met his amused gaze.
“Relax. I knew you were a southern gal all along.” A corner of his mobile lips curled upward. “I’m kinda curious, though, about why you didn’t want me to know.” He bit off another mouthful and continued to eye her as he chewed.
“I . . . I’d only just met you and wasn’t sure you could be trusted not to repeat what I told you.” She stared at her sandwich. “And it seems best not to let people know where I came from. I hope you understand.”
“I do. Question is do you trust me now?”
She smiled at him. “Yes, and to prove it, I was born and raised in Shreveport, Louisiana.”
His gray eyes twinkled, not looking nearly so steely. “We’re neighbors. I can hop on Interstate 20 in Fort Worth and reach your hometown in a couple or three hours.”
“Is that the voice of experience speaking?” she teased.
“I admit I’ve stopped by Shreveport a few times.”
“Mmm, and paid the casinos a visit, I suspect.”
He showed his dimples again. “Might have dropped a few bucks on the tables.”
They returned to eating, polishing off everything down to the last biscuit crumb. Still working on his coffee, Conn cleared his throat. Meeting her gaze, he said, “You mind me asking about the accident that caused your injuries? How it happened, I mean.”
Lara shifted on her rocky seat and gazed into the distance, hesitating to voice her dreadful memories. Thinking about the accident and her uncle’s death brought her back to reality. Gone was the carefree exhilaration she’d known during their ride. She hated to let it go, but at the same time she felt horribly guilty for enjoying herself for a short time. Her sister certainly wasn’t enjoying her life. Providing she was still alive.
“If you don’t want to tell me, that’s okay. It’s not my business.”
“No, I don’t mind you knowing, but it . . . it’s hard to talk about.”
He nodded. “Might do you good, though.”
“Maybe.” She struggled with herself a moment longer, then gathered her courage and spoke quietly. “It happened close to four months ago. The day was lovely, warm enough for short sleeves but not yet high summer. Uncle Malcolm insisted we go for a drive in the country to take my mind off work. He drove his old 56 Chevy. He loved that car.” She smiled wistfully and sipped her cold coffee before forcing herself to recount the terror.
“We were only a little way from town, on a curving road, when the brakes failed. Malcolm tried down shifting, but the gears wouldn’t hold. We came to a sharp turn. The car flew off the road, straight into a tree. I-I remember screaming and turning toward Malcolm. Then blood was pouring from my cheek and from here.” She lifted aside a section of hair to show him the partially grown in patch where the smashed windshield had cut her, and where the ER doctor had shaved her head.
“Like I said, the car was old. It didn’t have all the modern safety features. The engine had been pushed almost into our laps. Because of the way I twisted in the seat, my left leg was only bruised and cut in a couple places, but my right one took the brunt of the impact and shattered. The pain was beyond words.”
“Th-then I looked at Uncle Malcolm. Oh God!” She caught her breath and pressed her trembling lips together. Her voice grew raw with emotion. “The steering wheel had crushed his chest. H-he had such a surprised look on his face, as if he couldn’t believe what had happened. He was dead, I knew, but I screamed his name over and over. Then I must have passed out. I never got to tell him goodbye.”
Lara didn’t realize she was shaking until Conn scooted close and wrapped his arm around her. “That’s enough,” he said gruffly. “You don’t need to say anymore.”
“B-but I want you to know all of it,” she choked out. “I vaguely remember waking up in the hospital the next day. They’d stitched up my face and scalp as best they could, but my leg was a mess. I underwent four operations to save it. The surgeon pinned the bones together where he could, removed ruined sections and put in a titanium rod to replace the missing bits. Then infection set in. They pumped me full of antibiotics and ended up having to open up the leg again to pick out a few more tiny bone fragments and drain the wound.”
Embarrassed by her show of weakness, Lara straightened and drew away from Conn. “I heard all the gory details later, of course. They kept me so doped up through most of it that I hardly knew day from night. Somehow, I must have given consent for the surgeries but I don’t remember doing so. Once I grew strong enough, they transferred me to a rehab facility for therapy to keep the leg muscles from atrophying. Eventually, I was fitted with this.” She tapped a finger on her AFO.
“Did you have family nearby to help you through it? You mentioned a sister once.”
She nodded. “My folks both died years ago. Uncle Malcolm took over raising my sister and me. Her name is Sara. We’re twins.”
“No kidding! Where was she while you were in the hospital?”
“She didn’t get along well with Uncle Malcolm and was away, staying with friends. We shared a sort of link, though, as twins often do. When she sensed I was hurt, she came to see me at the hospital several times. I don’t remember much from those days. Later, she visited once while I was going through rehab.” Lara swallowed hard. “We argued over whether I should give the Hellhounds what they want. I refused and she stormed out.”
Conn scowled, brows meeting in a sharp vee above his nose. “I think it’s time you tell me more about these Hellhounds. You said the man who heads them up has a grudge against your family. Who is he? And what does he wants?”
“I don’t know who he is, but my uncle believed he must be a member of our family, a distant relative who knows about the . . . the family heirloom Malcolm possessed.” Skirting the issue of what it was, she said, “This relative or whoever he is sent anonymous letters threatening my uncle’s life if he didn’t turn over the object. Now it’s clear he wasn’t making idle threats.”
“What do you mean?”
“The accident was no accident. The police had the car examined and found out the brake line had been partially cut. Most of the transmission fluid had also been drained away, causing the gears to slip.”
“Damn!” Conn shot to his feet and paced back and forth, fists opening and closing at his sides. “The bastard intended to kill your uncle and probably you.”
“Yes, and I fear he has also murdered Sara.”
He stopped short, frowning at her. “Why do you say that?”
“When my doctor finally released me from the rehab center, I returned home, to Uncle Malcolm’s house I mean, and found everything torn apart. The Hellhounds had obviously searched the place, looking for the . . . the heirloom. They didn’t find it, but they left me a message. On a wall, in blood-red paint, it said, ‘We have your sister.’” Throat clogging, she couldn’t say anything more.
Shaking his head, Conn slammed his fists onto his hips. “Is the thing you’re supposed to protect really worth your uncle’s, your sister’s, even your own life?”
“Malcolm believed it was. When he told me about it, he made me swear to guard it, and yes, with my life if necessary. He also swore me to secrecy. I can’t tell you what the heirloom is.” Fingering her pendant, she held his gaze, willing him to understand.
Muttering a string of curses, he scraped a hand through his wind-ruffled hair, sat beside her again and caught hold of her chilled hands. “Don’t assume your sister’s dead. The lowlifes are probably keeping her alive, thinking to capture you and use her to make you cooperate.”
She gave him a wobbly smile. “I hoped that for a while, but I haven’t sensed anything from her since the day I last saw her. That isn’t normal. Even when she was hundreds of miles away, I would pick up flashes of her moods. Now, I feel nothing but an empty void.” Lara squeezed her burning eyes shut, but a tear escaped to slide down her scarred cheek.
Conn pulled her against him, pressing her head to his shoulder. “Did the mongrels’ leader send you any more messages?”
“I didn’t stay around long enough to find out. I had to protect the heirloom no matter what. It was my duty. So I ran. I-I left Sarah in their clutches and ran.” Giving in to guilt and fear for her twin, she sobbed brokenly in Conn’s arms.
He held her without saying a word, gently stroking her back, chin resting on top of her head. Surrounded by his reassuring strength, she gradually regained control of herself and eased out of his embrace, sniffling and swiping at her damp cheeks. Certain he must think her a horrible person for deserting her sister, she hesitantly met his eyes and saw only compassion in their depths.
Lara caught her breath when he leaned toward her. His breath fanned her cheek, then his lips caressed hers, causing heat to flood her body and her heart to flutter. He kept the kiss light and drew back after a brief moment.
“We’d better start back,” he said gruffly, “or Una will have my head for sure.”
“Y-yes, we’d better,” she stammered, wishing he hadn’t ended the kiss so soon. He’d simply meant to comfort her with that fleeting touch of his lips, she told herself, refusing to read anything more into it. Giddy in reaction, she watched him rise, gather up and pack away the remains of their lunch.
* * *
Lara found a parcel waiting for her when they arrived home.
“It came all the way from New York,” Una excitedly pointed out. “The delivery man brought it by this mornin’ a short time after ye left.”
“Thank you, Una,” Lara said, recognizing the return address of her uncle’s attorney on the small padded shipping envelope. He was the only one who knew where she was, the only one who was supposed to know, that is. Wary of what the lightweight parcel held, she laid it in her lap and glanced up at Conn. His expectant gaze made it clear he wanted her to let him see the contents, but she couldn’t. “I’ll open it in my study.”
His flaring nostrils and sudden frown dismayed her, but she had no choice. The rest of her secrets could not to be shared with anyone, even him. Wheeling herself into the study, she locked the door and crossed to the work table, where she broke the envelope’s seal and withdrew a small, thin book bound in scarred brown leather. A folded sheet of paper with her name on it was tucked inside the front cover. Unfolding it, she read in the attorney’s hand,
I received this today from the realtor I hired to sell your Uncle Malcolm’s home, as you requested. While the house was being cleared out, this journal, for want of a better word, was found wrapped in plastic and taped under a plant stand on the front porch. Since Malcolm had secreted it away, the realtor thought it might be important, although neither she nor I can make sense of the contents. Perhaps you can.
Lara laid the note aside and turned the blank first page of the book. She was taken aback by the lines of block letters filling the second page. They were a jumble with no meaning she could discern. The next page revealed more of the same, and the next and the next. She kept turning until she came to the last page of letters and found the rest of the small book empty.
Flipping back through the mysterious gibberish, she wondered what on earth it all meant. Did the letters form some kind of code? The answer struck her like a jolt of electricity. Gasping at the revelation, she hastily counted the pages of writing. Six! She was right.
The mixed up letters were indeed a code. Each page must give directions to one of the other six Guardians, who Lara had met only once, at her initiation as Uncle Malcolm’s apprentice and the next High Guardian.
She’d often wondered if the others knew of Malcolm’s death. Had they felt him pass through the veil to join their ancestors, or did they await his call to gather for the annual ceremony honoring the great Goddess? A call she had no way to send because Malcolm had never told her how to contact them. Not that she blamed him. He’d been intent on teaching her the Old Ones’ difficult alphabet, wishing her to translate the High Guardian’s scroll – the Ruling Scroll – for herself first of all. He’d thought they had plenty of time for everything else.
Lara choked down a cry of grief. She mustn’t break down again. She had to be strong. Somehow, she must decipher these pages and evade the Hellhounds until she was ready to call the Guardians together. Perhaps with their help she would be able to put an end to the threat their enemies posed and find her sister. Alive, pray Danu!
Unfortunately, she had no idea how to decode the scrambled letters. Could she hire someone to do it? No, that was out of the question. What if the person was untrustworthy, or what if he or she fell into the hands of the Hellhounds? It was far too risky.
Her thoughts turned to Conn. He’d been in the Special Forces. Had he been trained to break secret codes? Did she dare ask him? Did she have the nerve to request his help after implying she didn’t trust him only moments ago? For that matter, did she trust him enough to allow him access to information that might endanger not only her but her fellow Guardians and the all important scrolls?
What a quandary! Part of her wished she’d never seen or heard of the Scrolls of Danu. Then she and Sarah would be safe, going about their lives in happy ignorance of the burden their uncle carried. If only Malcolm hadn’t chosen her . . . but he had, and she must do her best to prove his faith in her wasn’t misplaced.
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