Donovans woman, p.1
Donovan's Woman, p.1Part #1 of Brynn Tor series by Amanda Ashley
Copyright © 2016 Amanda Ashley
Published by Butterfly Kisses Press
The woman with the long golden-blonde hair was still sitting at the end of the bar when the last sky pilot staggered out of the place. Gryff Donovan shook his head. He didn’t know who in blazes she was, but as sure as white tigers ran wild in the jungles of Brynn Tor, she didn’t belong in a two-bit dive like this. She was too quiet, too polite, and looked far too innocent. So, who in hell was she? And what in blue blazes was she doing in a slag heap like Ironntown?
Picking up a rag, Gryff began to wipe the bar top, hoping she would take the hint and get lost so he could close up. But she just continued to sit there, staring into her empty glass as if it held the answers to all the mysteries in the galaxy.
Damn and blast. He was going to have to throw her out.
Tossing the rag aside, he moved toward the end of the bar.
The woman didn’t stir, didn’t look up at his approach.
“We’re closing,” he said curtly. “That’ll be three credits for the drink.”
Lifting her head, she met his gaze.
Gryff swore softly. She had the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen. Large and almond-shaped, they were a brilliant blue-green, as clear as the Brynn Sea at sunrise. Sad eyes bright with unshed tears. Damn and blast! The last thing he needed was to get involved with some lost soul.
Leaning forward, he crossed his arms on the scuffed bar top. “You want to talk about it?” Listening came with the territory. He had lost track of the number of sob stories he had heard in the last five months.
She stared at him blankly. “Excuse me?”
“Something’s troubling you. You want to talk about it before you go?”
“Go?” A single tear slipped down one pale cheek. “Where should I go?”
Gryff dragged a hand across his beard-roughened jaw. He hadn’t shaved in a couple of days, but what did it matter? “Home?” he suggested.
“I…” A second tear followed the first, promising a flood to come. “I don’t know where that is.”
“I guess I must be.”
He blew out a sigh. “You got a name?”
“Of course. Everyone has a name…” She hunched her shoulders as a sob racked her slender frame. “I just can’t remember what mine is.”
Damn and double damn. If he were smart, he’d throw her out on her curvy little butt and lock the door behind her. Too bad he had never been smart where pretty women were concerned. If he had been, he wouldn’t be holed up here now, in the arm pit of the galaxy, serving drinks to sky pirates and marauders.
“Listen, it’s closing time,” he said. “So…?”
“Oh, of course. I’m so sorry.” She stared up at him. “I can’t pay…”
He followed her out the front door, locked it behind him. He hadn’t gone ten steps when something made him glance over his shoulder. She stood where he’d left her, gazing off into the distance.
Shit! No money. No place to stay. He couldn’t just leave her standing in front of the bar, prey to pirates and wild animals.
Backtracking, he placed his hand on her shoulder. “Come on,” he said, “you can spend the night at my place.”
“That’s very kind of you, but I couldn’t.”
She stared up at him, eyes wide and uncertain.
“You might want to reconsider. I know we’ve just met, but, unlike some of the creatures that come after dark, I promise not to eat you.”
“Thank you for your offer of hospitality,” she said.
Nodding, he headed for the winding gravel path that led to the rundown shack he currently called home. It wasn’t much to look at, inside or out, but he could come and go as he pleased and that was a big plus.
Inside, he switched on the room’s single light, heard the familiar skittering as the roaches that shared the house with him scurried into the shadows.
He didn’t miss the look of revulsion on the woman’s face as she glanced at her surroundings. He didn’t know who she was, but he would have bet his last credit that she had never been in a dump like this in her life. And it was a dump, from the uneven dirt floor to the drooping ceiling. The amenities were scarce - a faded green divan, a rough-hewn, three-legged wooden table, and a chair. A single barred window looked out on the barren desert. A small stove and a solar refrigerator stood in one corner.
Well, he’d seen better places in his time, too. But he much preferred freedom in a roach-infested shack to the life he had known before, where every day had been a fight to survive. Hell, he had the scars to prove it.
He jerked a thumb toward the curtain that divided his living quarters from the bedroom. “You can have the bed.”
“Thank you.” She stared at him a moment, as if trying to decide if she knew him or not, then stepped behind the ragged brown curtain.
She was a strange one, he mused as he shrugged out of his jacket and tossed it over the back of the room’s only chair. Sitting down on the lumpy divan, he pulled off his boots and reached for a cigarette. He lit it, took a deep drag, and sighed with pleasure. With the price of imported cigarettes, he couldn’t afford more than one smoke a day. It was his one vice, and his one indulgence.
He took another drag, his mind wandering to the woman. She seemed disoriented, maybe a little muddled. Well, it didn’t matter. She could spend the night here and then she was on her own. He had enough to worry about, what with Serepta’s informers and guards scouring the western territory looking for him, though it seemed unlikely that anyone would look for him in this godforsaken place. Still, it paid to be cautious because he sure as hell wasn’t going back to being Serepta’s lap dog!
He smoked the cigarette down until it burned his fingers, stubbed it out on the dirt floor, and stretched out on the lumpy couch, his thoughts turning toward the distant, snow-covered mountains of home. Some day, he thought as he drifted off to sleep, some day he would see them again.
* * *
She sat on the edge of the bed, her head cradled in her hands. What had made her agree to stay with this man? And yet, unless she wanted to sleep outside, what other choice did she have? And why, oh why, couldn’t she remember who she was?
Sometimes she could almost remember her name, but as soon as she tried to grasp it, it slipped through her fingers like smoke in the wind.
Why couldn’t she remember?
She ran her hand over the poorly woven material of her long brown skirt. It felt alien to her touch, as if some part of her knew that she was used to finer things. Had she truly chosen such a dreadful frock? And in such a dismal hue? But then, for all she knew, muddy brown might be her favorite color.
She glanced at her surroundings. How could anyone live like this? There were reddish-brown stains on the walls; she didn’t even want to think what might have left marks like that. The floor was dirt. No spread covered the bed, just a moth-eaten, gray wool blanket. No drapery at the single, narrow window, and only the stub of a candle for light. The three-drawer chest was missing one drawer.
Tears stung her eyes. She told herself it was useless to cry. It would solve nothing, change nothing, but still the tears came, rolling down her cheeks faster and faster, until she was sobbing uncontrollably. She was lost on a barren planet. She didn’t know who she was. And she was sitting in a room that was barely fit for human habitation.
“Here now, what’s wrong?”
She looked up, startled to see her benefactor staring down at her. He had a nice voice, she thought absently, in spite of its gruff tone. It resonated deep within her.
“Take it easy,” he said in that same gruff tone. “I’m not gonna hurt you.” Pulling the black kerchief from around his neck, he wiped the tears from her cheeks. “What’s wrong, honey?”
She stared at him, startled by the unexpected endearment. What was wrong? She didn’t know who she was or where she was, couldn’t remember how she had come to be in his establishment, or what had possessed her to agree to stay in his house. What was wrong, she thought, teetering on the edge of hysteria. What wasn’t?
Muttering an oath, he drew her into his arms and patted her back as if she were a child.
For a moment, she remained rigid, then slowly relaxed against him. There was nothing threatening in his touch. His hand, though callused and twice the size of hers, was gentle as it slid up and down her back. He smelled of tobacco and sweat. She was sure there had been a time when she would have found his odor distasteful but it was oddly comforting now, as was the steady beating of his heart and the feel of his broad chest beneath her cheek.
“I’m guessing you’ve got some form of amnesia,” he remarked after a time. “Either that or someone drugged you to make you forget who you are. Either way, your memory will probably come back in a few days.”
She didn’t know whether to believe him or not. He could be lying. For all she knew, he could have been the one who drugged her. Still, his words made her feel a little better.
“How about if I call you Cay?” he asked.
She repeated the name in her mind. Cay. It was pretty, but totally unfamiliar. She sniffed, then nodded her approval. “And what should I call you?”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Gryff.” He was a handsome man, with his long blue-black hair and tawny skin. A thin white scar bisected his left cheek. A second scar ran down the right side of his neck and disappeared beneath his shirt. Strangely, instead of marring his appearance, the slight disfigurements added a touch of rugged masculinity she found oddly appealing. It was hard to judge his age, but she guessed he was in his mid-thirties.
“Just Gryff,” he said.
He smiled at her and something warm and totally unfamiliar blossomed deep within her, making her feel as if she had swallowed a piece of the sun.
“Why don’t you try and get some sleep?” he said, rising.
She nodded. “Thank you for everything.”
She stared up at him, thinking there was something strange about his eyes. Earlier, in the tavern, she would have sworn they were dark brown but now they looked almost gold. She shook her head. It was bad enough she didn’t know who she was. Now she was imagining things.
He brushed a wisp of hair from her cheek, then glanced out the window. She followed his gaze, though she could see nothing through the dirty glass but the faint silvery light of the moon peeking through the clouds. She felt him tense a moment and then, without another word, he turned on his heel and left the room.
She stared after him, puzzled by his abrupt departure. With a sigh, she stood and went to the window. What had he seen out there? She glanced left and right, but saw only the rising moon playing hide and seek with the drifting clouds. Here and there, a few stars were visible.
She was about to go back to bed when a movement from outside drew her attention. Leaning forward, she saw a large black wolf standing only a few feet away from the shack. It stared at her through golden eyes for a long moment, then turned and trotted away, disappearing into the scrub brush beyond.
Jerking back from the window, she hurried back to bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. A moment later, a wolf’s mournful howl lifted the fine hairs along her nape.
The wolf paused in the shadows, nostrils testing the air, hackles rising when he spied two men clad in dark clothing skulking toward the shack. He watched as they deftly picked the lock, paused a moment, then opened the door.
A low growl rose in the wolf’s throat when the two intruders stepped inside. Belly to the ground, he moved toward the shack, pausing briefly inside the doorway, ears twitching. He could hear muted voices as the two men moved deeper into the building’s gloomy interior.
A muffled cry drew the wolf into the bedroom. The woman thrashed about on the bed, arms flailing in an effort to fend off the burly man who was holding her down. Apparently tiring of her struggles, the man struck her, knocking her unconscious. With a grunt, the second man drew a wicked-looking knife from the inside of his boot.
The wolf didn’t need to see any more. He launched himself at the man wielding the knife, his fangs sinking deep into the assassin’s throat, ripping out his jugular. Blood fountained from the killing wound, spraying the floor, the walls, and the wolf.
The second man whirled around and ran for his life, but he wasn’t fast enough. Before he reached the door, the wolf was on him, jaws closing around the man’s nape. A quick twist broke the assassin’s neck.
The smell of blood and urine fouled the air.
Sitting back on his haunches, the wolf let out a long, low howl. Then, tail wagging, he went back into the bedroom and sniffed the woman. She was still unconscious but seemed unhurt, save for a few bruises on her arms and face.
With a low growl, the wolf returned to the main room. Seizing the dead man’s shoulder in his jaws, he dragged the corpse out of the shack and into the desert beyond.
When the wolf returned for the second man, the woman was sitting up on the bed, one hand pressed to her swollen jaw.
Cay’s eyes widened when the black wolf padded into the bedroom. She glanced around, seeking another exit, felt a shock of recognition when she looked at the dead man sprawled on the floor. As if blinders had been stripped from her eyes and her mind, she knew who the dead man was and, more importantly, who she was. Her name wasn’t Cay, it was Marri of House Treymanne. Her father, Leonid, was king of Brynn Tor. Had Gryff recognized her? Was that why he had brought her here? Was there a reward for her return? Judging from her surroundings, the barkeep could certainly use a few extra credits.
But there was no point in worrying about Gryff, not now, not when the biggest wolf she had ever seen was standing no more than an arm’s length away, its head canted to one side as it regarded her through unblinking yellow-gold eyes.
Heart pounding with fear, she stared at the creature, wondering if it was the same beast she had seen through the window earlier. As far back as she could remember, she had been afraid of wolves, though she couldn’t remember why. Her father had told her she had nothing to fear from the wolves that roamed the hills and mountains at home. He had assured her time and again that the animals didn’t attack people. If she ever saw her father again, she would tell him that he had been mistaken.
She glanced at the dead man again. His throat had been ripped out. Judging from the wolf’s bloody muzzle and the blood smeared on its chest, she had little doubt the wolf had killed Trist. What had happened to the second man? Had the creature killed him? Would it kill her, too?
Her gaze darted around the room a second time, anxiously seeking a weapon, but there was nothing save the bed she occupied and the stub of a candle on the crude bedside table.
Feeling completely helpless and vulnerable, she drew the covers up to her chin, and waited.
The wolf looked at her, its tongue lolling out of the side of its mouth in a wolfish grin. And then it took hold of the dead man’s leg and dragged the body out of the room.
For a moment, Marri fell back on the pillow, weak with relief, and then she scrambled to her feet. She had to get out of here, now, before the wolf came back, before more of Artur’s men found her.
Her hand flew to her mouth as she realized that she hadn’t seen or heard Gryff. Had the wolf killed him, too?
Afraid of what she might find, she hurried into the other room. The door was ajar. There was no sign of the second assassin or t
The open door left her feeling exposed. She was about to cross the room and close it when Gryff appeared in the doorway.
Startled by his abrupt appearance, she took a quick step backward.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
She stared at the blood on his hands and at the crimson smear across the bottom of his right cheek. “Are you all right?”
“It’s not mine,” he said flatly.
She didn’t know what to make of that.
After wiping his hands on his trousers, he grabbed a towel and mopped the blood from his face. “Go on back to bed.”
“I can’t stay here.”
He kicked the door shut with his heel. “Why not?”
“I just can’t.” She knew who she was now, knew why those men had tried to kill her. When Artur’s assassins didn’t return, he would send someone else, and he would keep sending his men after her until she was dead.
She had to leave now, had to make her way to Tarnn. She would be safe there, with Annis, until she could figure out who, if anyone, she could trust at home.
She met Gryff’s gaze. “Thank you for everything, but I must go.”
He looked at her, his eyes narrowed. “Those men are dead.”
How did he know about Trist and the other man? Was the wolf a pet?
Before she could question him, he closed the distance between them. Her heart skipped a beat when his fingertips lightly stroked her swollen jaw.
“They can’t hurt you any more.”
His touch sent an unexpected rush of longing through her, a sudden yearning to be held, to know that she wasn’t alone. Her gaze darted to his mouth. What would it be like if he kissed her? What would he think if she kissed him?
Shocked by her wayward thoughts, she backed away from him. “What do you know about those men?” Was Gryff in league with Artur? Was that how he had known about Trist? No doubt Dakkar had been the second assassin. They often hunted together.
Donovan's Woman by Amanda Ashley / Romance & Love / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes