* * *
“Get tha bloody hell out!” I bellowed. “I’m scunneredwi’ tha lot o’ ye drunken ghosts.”
A chair sailed through the air, and I ducked, cursing foully as it crashed into the mirror behind me. Glass exploded off the wall, shards of the mirror skidding across the wood floor and clattering around my boots. I surged back to a standing position and blackened my scowl. Bunch o’ bampots! Stalking around to the front of the bar, I planted fists as big as bagpipes on my hips, and snarled in a voice that no man had ever disobeyed. “Plant yerarses! NOW!”
I stood well over six-and-a-half feet tall and owned the shoulders of two stout men, the breadth of my body magnified by a wild mane of black hair that, combined with the tangled froth of my beard, flowed around me like a mantle. My appearance was pure dead fearsome; I knew it, and used it. Aye…
The occupants of my bar dropped into their chairs like their innards had turned to haggis.
I combed my one-eyed glare over the men, raking my gaze over to— I stopped, two pieces of information seizing my attention nearly at the same moment.
First, a blasted woman was in my place, sitting perched on the edge of a chair, her hands folded in her lap, her widened gaze pinned on me. She was no boot, this one, rather a bonnie little miss with gem-green eyes and long curly hair the color of my wee Fiona’s—that of a full-blooming red rose. She was dressed in jeans, black riding boots, and a light gray wool coat left unbuttoned to reveal the curves of a woman, the kind of full-figured body a man would find plenty on to explore…and the desire to take his time with the adventure.
Secondly, there was a man next to her, and the thing that most notably stuck in my craw was that the ballhead had not sat his arse down.
He stood there insolent as if he was Christ’s own son, scrutinizing me with a pair of bold indigo eyes.
I gave him a good measure of scrutiny back, loath to admit that the newcomer was a braw lad, but so he was. He had hair as black and long as my own, although his was tied back in a queue, and the type of face that would give any woman between the ages of eighteen and eighty visions of the bedroom. He was dressed all in black—jeans, boots, shirt, and long coat—which did an admirable job of giving his appearance its own high level of fearsome. He was also very tall. Not as tall as me, of course—few men were—but well-built enough to suggest he could serve up one helluva skelping in a brawl.
And a brawl was about to happen to judge by the collective stink eye the inhabitants of my tavern were giving him. Aye, damnation, it was this brazen ghost’s uninvited arrival that had just caused the ruckus. My tavern was currently heevin with other ghosts of the Day Walker sort, fierce enemies of the Shadow Walker kind, of which this stranger belonged.
I took a step closer to the impudent cuss. I’d be a hellbegotten ninny if I allowed the ingrate to stay. A row of the kind two opposing sides of Walkers could dole out would only lead to my bar getting completely panned in. And last I checked, I was no eejit. “On yer bike, Shadow Walker,” I barked at him. “Yer breed are only allowed in ma place on even days.” I swept my hand over the other men. “Day Walkers come on thaodd’uns.”
The seated woman followed my gesture, scanning the room, clearly able to see the ghostly occupants.
A frown tugged at my mouth. Interestin’. So the lass was a Seer. Like me.
“You serve Day Walkers?” The ingrate sneered at me.
Bristling at his tone, I crossed thick arms over my chest. “Nothin’ wrong wi’ a man feedin’ his family.” I hooded my lids. “Ye’re at war wi’ tha Day Walkers, dobber, no’ me.”
The man’s lips curled into a tighter sneer.
I sniffed and gave him a bland look. I knew what the cuss was thinking; Day Walkers were out to destroy humans like myself, so I was a nitwit to serve them. But since nary a one had ever made a fuss at me directly, I figured I’d relieve them of their coin now and let the gods sort out the rest.
One of the Day Walkers shifted forward.
My unwelcome intruder wrapped his hand around the hilt of a large knife strapped to his waist.
Crivvens, this was a bloody powder keg. “State yer business,” I growled at the ingrate. “Then get tha feck out.”
The sneer never left the man’s face. “Are you Malloy the Scot?” he asked, clearly hoping the response would be no.
I found malicious delight in answering, “I am.”
The man paused. His lips moved…in a silent curse? “I can’t leave, then,” he told me. And did he derive his own malicious delight from informing me of that? “Thorne has commanded Maggie”—he gestured at his woman—“and I come talk to you. So unless you want to displease a god…” He trailed off
Thunder and piss. That put me in one ballache of a position. “Well, I dinna want tae earn Dayne’s wrath, either, ye tube. And roustin’ these lads”—I jerked my chin at my clientele—“would come a peedy too close tae doin’ that for ma comfort.”
The god, Dayne, ruled the Day Walkers, his brother, Thorne, the Shadow Walkers. These two noisome deities were the ones who were actually at war, only drawing in their Walkers to do their dirty work. Although, granted, the Shadow Walkers were trying to save humanity, which added a certain shine to their side of matters. Regardless, I’d always found it bloody well prudent to stay out of the middle of all their ruck; hence the odd-even days compromise at my bar.
Maggie pointed toward the door. “The sign in your window says you’re supposed to be closing now for the afternoon, anyway.”
I gave the girl a flat stare. Verra true. But now I was feeling grumpy.
She smiled at me, and some of the tension melted from my shoulders. She really was a bonnie thing, and, och, I never had been any good at resisting the sweet attentions of a pretty lass. Something my wee Fiona used to her full advantage.
I made a curt gesture at the Day Walkers. “All right, lads. The lassie here is right. On yer trolleys. I reopen at six.”
The Day Walkers vanished from the room.
The moment they were gone, the ingrate Shadow Walker pulled a flask out of his inside coat pocket, then sauntered forward…sauntered past me…sauntered around to the backside of my bar and over to my collection of liquor. He yanked up a bottle of Ravensmore whiskey, uncapped it, and started to fill his flask.
Heat shot in scorching waves up the back of my neck. “That’ll be two crown,” I gritted.
He tucked away his now-brimming flask, then raised the bottle of Ravensmore to his lips and swigged down a quarter of what was left of the bottle.
I watched his throat move with the consumption of my best whiskey, and my fists landed on my hips again. “Who thahell are ye?”
He returned the Ravensmore to its proper slot, then threw a tenner on the bar.
That mollified me. A bit.
He inclined his head in an abbreviated brow. “Robert Bartholomew of Wales, at your service.”
I hauled up my bushy black eyebrows. “Black Bart, are ye?” I snorted. “Well, that explains ye bein’ such a bugger.” Black Bart was one of the most formidable—and ruthlessly prosperous—pirates on the high seas. If there was ever a man who had earned a right to be arrogant, it was this one. Him being dead since 1644 hadn’t slowed his success a mite. I turned toward Maggie. “What tha devil is a sweet miss like ye doin’ wi’ such a reprobate?”
She tilted her chin and her eyes sparkled. “Robert’s a teddy bear on the inside.”
I guffawed. “I’m right sure he is.” I looked her over again, sobering my expression. “So how did ye die, lass?”
The girl wasn’t surprised by the question. Only people who’d once been declared legally dead acquired the ability to see ghosts.
“I drowned when I was five,” Maggie said quietly. “And you?” Her gaze strayed to my milky left eye.
I nodded. “Ye guessed it.” I tapped my index finger below my disfigured eye. “Took a blade here in a fight.” Strangely enough, the injury hadn’t ripped out my eyeball. Just slid right into the gushy orb, barely punched through my eye socket bone, then nicked my brain. Stranger still, that wee pinprick had given me more than the ability to see ghosts. Now sometimes I had visions…which was probably why Thorne had sent these two to me. I was now considered to be “a man of great wisdom.” Which was a laugh, but if the populace wanted to build castles on my head, who was I to stop them? “So why does Thorne have a burr in his butt about ye two?”
Black Bart strode out from behind the bar, his boots crunching through broken glass, and sat on a stool. “He doesn’t like his Shadow Walkers being distracted. Makes for bad soldiers.”
Crunching myself, I took his place behind the bar. “Ye’re distracted?”
Black Bart glanced at Maggie as she slid onto a stool next to him. “She and I are having some arguments here and there.”
“Ye’re quarrelin’ with this bonnie thing?” I didn’t even try to hide the ye stupid fud from my tone. I looked at Maggie. “Ye want me tae bash the wanker’s skull in for bein’ such an idiot?”
“Maybe.” Her lips twisted. “But probably not.”
I plunked a shot glass on the bar and grabbed another bottle of Ravensmore. How bothersome was it that me and a pirate had the same favorite brand? “What’s tha argument?”
Maggie sighed expansively. “Robert is trying to keep me like a bird in a gilded cage. We went through this his over-protectiveness once before, but I thought we’d moved past it after I went off to work with Monroe, an ex-cop turned PI.”
Black Bart laughed darkly. “You mean the time when you were almost killed in an explosion?”
“That happened, yes,” Maggie agreed. “But I’m immortal now, so you don’t need to worry about such stuff anymore.”
I froze in the act of pouring. Ye’re what…?
Black Bart spun on his stool to face her. “You’re immune to physical hurts, Maggie, but not to things that can upset you. Considering the life you’ve already had, I don’t see what’s so bad about me wanting you to live in luxury in my castle, reading books, gorging on fruit, and drinking as much Pepsi as your heart desires.” He shook his head. “I know firsthand the life you’ve had up till now. When I was young, I lived on the streets, too, and that was after being born in a whorehouse.”
I spilled whisky over the lip of the shot glass as a vision played across the screen of my mind, a jumble of tawdry, disturbing images. I kept my eyes on Black Bart as I tossed back my drink, but the whisky backed up and burned my nose. Born in a whorehouse…
“You’ve had enough of life’s grimy side,” Black Bart concluded.
“Lazing around your castle isn’t truly living,” Maggie insisted. “I need to feel useful.”
“You’re about to open a new school,” Black Bart countered.
“Angus is handling most of that, and…” Maggie expelled a hard breath. “Okay, maybe this is more about the principle than anything else. I survived years living on the streets, as you just said, and before that, a pill-popping mom. I’m not a little birdie who doesn’t know how to do things for herself. I realize I never finished school, but I’m very good at adapting and—”
“Holy gods,” Black Bart exclaimed. “Are you trying to say you think I don’t know you’re capable?”
“What she is,” I inserted, “is a lot less cynical about life than ye are, man. Why is that? Ye’ve clearly had similar experiences on tha streets.” Wi’ one major traumatic difference on Black Bart’s side, at least accordin’ tae ma vision.
Black Bart turned to face me, his expression cold and closed.
“Did something happen in tha whorehouse?” I asked, even though I already knew it had.
Black Bart adjusted the set of the knife on his hip.
“I can start guessin’, if ye’d prefer,” I offered.
“Yes,” Black Bart said in a low tone. “Something happened. I learned that everyone can be bought and sold.”
“Ah.” I set another shot glass on the bar. “Yer mum, for one.”
Black Bart didn’t say anything.
“She was the whore, I’m assumin’.” I filled the two shots, one after the other without stopping. “Who else?”
Black Bart’s nostrils flared. “My sister. My mother sold her to a gentleman who’d lost his child.”
And ye?Who were ye sold tae? I shoved a full shot glass at Black Bart. “Maggie? Can she be bought and sold?”
A muscle jumped in Black Bart’s cheek. “No.”
I poured another shot for myself. “What happened tae yer mum?”
Black Bart paused, glancing sidelong at Maggie. “She was beaten to death by a deviant noble lord who was her…client. I had the tremendous pleasure of seeing her after the fact.”
Maggie gasped. “Oh, Robert. I’m so sorry.”
Robert shook his head.
It was more than that. My vision had shown me the horror of what Black Bart had endured as a young lad, but this pirate was barely managing to confess the things he was. Best I not push him to work out any other tragedies here in The Last Drop. Painful memories needed to be conquered, aye, but no man could draw a blade on them until he was ready. I ran a hand over my beard. “Can’t for tha life o’ me figure how ye came tae trust this lass wi’ a past like ye have.”
“Maggie earned it,” Black Bart said rigidly.
“No,” Maggie denied softly.
I looked at her.
She bowed her head. “I left him.”
I clunked down a third shot glass and exhaled. “What did tha cheeky brigand do?”
One side of her mouth lifted. “He didn’t tell me about a curse he was fighting when we agreed no secrets. I felt betrayed and so I left him with hardly a word, not wanting a relationship with a man I couldn’t trust. But…” She scrubbed a hand over her brow. “Now I see that probably added to his losses. I know what it’s like to lose a mother. Thankfully, not to witness the aftermath, but…”
“What happened to yer mum?” I asked.
“She was hit by a train.”
I felt my eyebrows twitch. That caught me off guard; I was expecting to hear a story about the woman od’ing on her pills. “Ma apologies, girl.” I tipped whisky into the third shot and pushed it across the bar to Maggie. “Ye obviously came back tae tha brigand, though.”
“What made ye decide ye could trust him?”
Maggie hitched a shoulder. “Robert didn’t really see the curse as a secret, merely something he had to take care of. He was just being over-protective again.” She picked up the glass and took a sip. “While that’s annoying, it’s how he shows he cares.”
“Every man has his ways,” I agreed. I wasn’t sure I’d be too keen on my Fiona running amok, either, if she’d already proved herself adept at getting herself exploded. “Why is this no secrets agreement so important tae ye?”
Maggie looked taken aback by the question. “It’s how people build trust.”
“Eh.” I moved my head from side to side. “Yea and nay. No one is completely an open book, lass. There are pains and shame a soul sometimes needs tae keep tae himself.”
Black Bart’s jaw tightened.
Maggie sipped down the rest of her drink, her face lost in consideration. “I’m probably sensitive to feeling betrayed because it’s happened to me so many times—with my mom, and two of my friends, Josh and Ned. Now I think I just want straightforward answers so that I know exactly what I’m dealing with; I don’t have to wonder if someone is trying to pull the wool over my eyes.” She set down her shot, but kept her eyes on it. “You know, I thought my mother got killed because I’d been a bad girl somehow. I know that’s a seven-year-old’s way of thinking, but it’s stuck with me.” She shrugged and glanced up. “If I’m not told something upfront, I make assumptions, and, unfortunately, those generally don’t come out in my favor.”
“That’s a bugger, aye.” Nodding, I picked up the whisky cap and ran it through my fingers, thinking over things. I expelled a loud breath and scratched my chin through my beard. “Ye two say ye trust each other, but I’m no’ seein’ it, entirely.” I screwed the cap back on the Ravensmore. “I give ye credit for tryin’, for certain, but it seems tae me that ye’re both still stuck in the ways o’ bein’ a couple o’ street kids.”
Black Bart sat back on his stool and gave me a narrow look.
“Think on it,” I continued. “For much o’ yer young lives, neither o’ ye had nary a soul around tae help ye—no parents, probably no’ a whole lot o’ friends ye could depend on. Ye had tae learn how tae do everything yerselves. That set o’ survival skills served ye well on tha streets, definitely, but now ye’re bringin’ these habits into this marriage and they aren’t workin’.” I looked at Maggie. “Ye said that after ye felt Black Bart betrayed ye, ye left wi’ hardly a word tae tha lad. That’s operatin’ like a street kid, lass, handlin’ tha situation on yer own, when what ye need tae do is talk things out wi’ yer man here. That’s marriage, girl, plain and simple.” I turned to Black Bart. “And ye, Pirate, are suffocatin’ this poor lass. Ye lost your mum, your sister, and this here girl here for a time, so I understand tha instinct tae protect tha people and things ye hold dear. But yer years on tha street have taught ye tae act, no’ think—just do what needs doin’ tae live. So now ye’re goin’ tae have tae slow down and mull through things. When Maggie wants tae go someplace or do something, don’t jump right tae sayin’ nay. Take a moment tae consider if what yer missus is askin’ is really all that treacherous afore ye go pullin’ yer sword on tha matter. Ye two have got a real advantage, ye know. Yer similar experiences mean ye can understand each other down tae tha depths o’ yer bones, more so than anyone else can. Use that, eh? Work together, no’ against each other.” I shot back my last glass of whiskey and smacked my lips.
Black Bart stared at me for a long moment, then glanced down. He moved his shot glass around on the bar, his chest moving. “I want you to be happy, Maggie,” he said quietly.
“Well, that’s obvious.” She smiled gently. “I want you to be happy, too.”
“It’s not good if you’re feeling suffocated.” Black Bart’s lips slanted. “If you want to go out…do things, I…” His eyes closed briefly. “I can try and be better about that.” He swiveled his head toward her. “But can you please not ask for too much right off? When you go flying around on your adventures with Draken, it makes me insane.”
She laughed softly. “Okay. I’ll only go out to tea for the next two weeks.” A mischievous sparkle entered her eyes. “Of course, I’ll be going to tea with Fury.”
I frowned. Wait… The three-headed hound from hell who worked for the god Dayne, head of the disreputable Day Walkers?
Black Bart snorted. “Just because he turned you immortal doesn’t make him a friend.” He took Maggie’s hand and helped her off the bar stool. “Let’s go home.” He flashed her a wicked smile. “And make up.” He turned toward me, his eyes narrowing again. “Don’t know why people call you a man of great wisdom,” he tossed out. “You didn’t help us at all.”
Black Bart led Maggie for the door.
She flashed a beatific smile at me over her shoulder.
I watched the two of them, then threw back my shaggy head and roared with laughter. “See you here on the next even day, Shadow Walker.”
* * *
I hope you enjoyed this session between Cynthia Luhr’s characters, Robert and Maggie. Follow Cynthia’s Shadow Walkers Ghost series and you’ll get to enjoy more swashbuckling adventures about ghosts and gods. Cynthia and I love discussing the session with readers. Comment on whatever you’d like or use the questions below as a guide.
1. Maggie and Robert are both “survivors.” We’ve seen how this can cause problems in a marriage. But how do you think survival qualities could help a relationship?
2. Robert was hanged in 1644. Do you think that his over-protectiveness comes from him being a product of his times or is it more a reaction to his past losses?
3. Why do you think Maggie feels oppressed by Robert wanting to give her a life of luxury? Why is it so important for her to feel useful? Does it have to do with her years spent as a street urchin? Being raised by a pill-popping mom? Or perhaps her own definition of what it means to be a wife?
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With a degree in business from Towson University, Cynthia Luhrs started out working in the utility industry before becoming a full-time writer. She has now authored seven books in the popular Shadow Walker Ghost series. Her latest is a prequel to how the Shadow Walkers came to be. Check out BORN IN SHADOW and immerse yourself in the exciting story of the brother gods, Thorne and Dayne.
See where it all began! Download the first book in the Shadow Walkers Ghost series, LOST IN SHADOW, for FREE!
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Tracy is the award-winning author of gritty romance, her books spanning genres across paranormal (The Community series), military suspense (The Wings of Gold series), and Historical (The Baron’s War trilogy). Tracy holds a master’s degree in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling, and has used this background to create a fan-based website called The Character Couch, where romance’s favorite couples are brought into a fun session with therapist, Regan Malloy. Her debut paranormal novel, THE BLOODLINE WAR, is a Bronze Medal winner for romance of the prestigious Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY), available now on Amazon. http://amzn.to/18XDygs
Book 2 in the series, THE PUREST OF THE BREED is now available on Amazon: http://amzn.to/UXOGX7
Tracy loves to connect with readers. Please visit her website at www.tracytappan.com follow her on Facebook at Tracy Tappan Romance Author and Twitter at @TracyTappanor email her at firstname.lastname@example.org