Gabrielle watched Rider sleep beside her in the late afternoon sun, her hand gently stroking his bare chest. Filaments of light added flecks of gold and red to his blond hair and coated his damp skin in warm hues. Jack Rider was a good man... a human like she was, who hadn't judged her, hadn't lied to her, but who had become her friend and lover over time, even though he couldn't bring himself to commit to loving her fully.
But he'd also been honest about that. They both knew the reason why. Tara. Oddly, she owed Tara for sparing her, when it would have been so easy for that female vampire to take her blood to survive the Level-Seven Hell onslaught visited upon Master Yonnie, Tara's new mate. Yet Tara had shown honor, and had bled out only her demon brothels to heal him. Gabrielle let out a quiet sigh. The complexity of it all was profound.
Life as she once knew it was peeling away from her; New Orleans was gone, the French Quarter and her establishments were now shambles and mud hovels. Hundreds of people had died, graves were overturned, and the spirits were restless.
It was time. Her bargain with the dark side would be a debt called in soon. Gabrielle brushed a stray lock of mussed hair away from Rider's forehead and kissed him there softly so not to wake him. He looked so peaceful when his haunted eyes were closed and his breaths came deep and slow. But she also enjoyed his ribald humor; a slight smile tugged at her mouth. Yes, she loved Jack Rider.
Ever so gently, she nestled her head in the crook of his shoulder and felt him stir to protectively pull her in beside him, and wondered what her life might have been like had she met him before she made a dark bargain. As she listened to him breathe and his heart quietly thud within his chest, she knew the answer. There would have been no coven brothels, no death, Hell, and destruction in her life. She would have stayed within the safety of this semi-jaded Guardian's arms and never let him go.
Tears of remorse wet her lashes, but she refused to cry. The forces of darkness were realigning; she'd felt it in her bones. The dark covens had surged up, briefly siphoning power from all, and then it went still in the underworld. An event had been set in motion. Something had happened, and now the aftermath would have to play itself out. It was a strange knowing, like something was gloating and watching an evil strategy take form, and it could now just confidently sit back and watch the pawns move on an unseen chessboard, but she couldn't put her finger on the source.
For a moment she'd thought this was the final hour, that she'd been called to deliver what she'd promised so long ago to the Dark Lord, but then an eerie stillness had claimed her. Temporary reprieve had been granted, a more powerful female had taken the brunt of the unseen fury. However, one day or night her turn would come due, and she wanted Jack Rider and the Guardians nowhere near that awful conclusion. She also had to protect her two young coven initiates... they, like her, had come into this life out of desperation, not knowing how long a dark eternity could be.
Gabrielle leaned up and brushed Rider's lips with a soft kiss to wake him, watching his eyes slowly open. "You should go home," she said quietly.
He smiled and cupped her face with his palm and glimpsed the bright sunlight. "Don't tell me I'm losing my touch, darlin'. You putting me out already?"
She forced a smile and allowed her finger to trail along the edge of Rider's jaw. "Never," she whispered. "I just have a funny feeling they're gonna need you there."
For a moment he didn't move, his smile fading into a sober expression. "Gabby, what's wrong?"
She sat up slowly in bed; he followed suit, staring at her. The hotel room felt like it was closing in on her.
"I don't know," she said quietly, "I just want you safe. Even in the daytime." "Now you're making me nervous."
Too many thoughts crowded into her mind at once, and it took her a moment to sort them out before she could reply. Dark power was realigning, and he didn't need to be anywhere near a lightning rod--her. If the surge she'd felt was accurate, then he also needed to go back to the new Guardian compound to help protect her sister and niece and nephew. The senior members of the team couldn't be distracted during this fragile space and time.
Gabrielle gazed at Rider for a moment without speaking. Krissy, her young niece, had the potential, like her mother, Marjorie, to be a significant white lighter. Her sister, Marj, was going to need all the guidance possible to take over her role, once Hell demanded full payment. Bobby, her nephew, stood on the precipice between becoming either a wizard or warlock. Their decisions needed to be clear--go toward the Light. Bobby needed to lean wizard, Krissy and Marj toward Druid white-lighter Celtic ancestry that ran through their collective bloodlines. None of them needed to do what she'd done.
Gabrielle's eyes searched Rider's. Her family being with a Neteru Guardian team was the only thing that allowed her to sleep at night; her family had a choice that would be heavily weighted by the powerful influence of the Light. They didn't have to go out like she had, making the dark and irreversible decision of black magic.
"I love you, Jack Rider." It was the first of many thoughts that leapt to the front of her mind.
He lowered his forehead to hers and stroked her hair, but didn't answer.
"No commitments, remember?" she whispered, her fingers trembling as they grazed his jaw. "I'm a big girl, and I understand."
"It's not like that," he said quietly. "It's just . . ."
"I know I'm not Tara."
He let his breath out hard in a sad sigh. "You don't have to wear lavender for me."
"I know," she murmured. "You tell me that every time. But I do it because I know you need that, even if you'd never expect it and would touch me without it. Just knowing the sacrifice you'd make to lie with me without that scent, is enough.... You respect me by not requiring it. That's also enough."
"It's not a sacrifice to touch you, Gabrielle. You're a beautiful woman in your own right. Gorgeous auburn hair," he said quietly, allowing his fingers to become tangled in her long, silky tresses. "Pretty face, smoky, green eyes, wonderful mouth... fantastic body that can stop traffic on Sunset Boulevard. Go shower and get the lavender off you and I'll call housekeeping to get the sheets changed, and then I'll show you it doesn't have anything to do with the lavender you wear. Afterward, you tell me if you still think it's a sacrifice for me to be with you." He shook his head in disbelief. "Is that why you want me to leave? Because if I did that to you, made you feel like that, then I'm sorry."