Darren had always enjoyed the Morning Office. The pattern of prayers and readings were a predictable, soothing, regular start to the day, and gave a rhythm to his life that could be incredibly chaotic. Today, however, it felt like dust. He gently closed the prayer book and turned around to face the empty church.
He was supposed to carry on sorting through the old papers from the Paladin’s Citadel, but his heart wasn’t in it. For once, doing his duty seemed like a long, dry stretch. Perhaps if he went for a run first, he may find the clarity of mind he needed.
The church door clanged, and Darren winced. He wasn’t up to parishioners today. He turned his attention to a stack of tattered hymn books that needed to be junked and hoped that whoever was marching in with such purpose would take the hint that he was extremely busy. He looked up and his stomach seemed to freeze. “Jasmine, what are you doing here?” He looked around quickly, but she was on her own.
“You never called me!” Jasmine strode up until she was barely inches from his face. “You never called once!”
Darren looked away. “I didn’t know what to say. I’m sorry…”
“Look at me when you’re making pathetic excuses.” Jasmine snapped. “Why didn’t you call?”
It took all of Darren’s legendary willpower to look fully at Jasmine. “I didn’t think you would want to talk to me.”
“We had the most amazing…”
Darren held up his hand. “Not here, we could be overheard by anyone coming in and I don’t want you to get into trouble.”
“Ian is not my keeper.” Jasmine followed him into the vestry. “It’s nothing to do with him.”
“He’s the head of the pack.” Darren said. He stumbled over the words. “He may think less of you.”
“Are you worried that he’d beat you up?” Jasmine asked.
Darren shrugged. “I’d deserve it. You were drugged. It wasn’t fair.” He turned away, unable to look at her anymore.
“We had the most amazing night of sex that I could ever imagine.” Jasmine said. “And, yes, we were drugged by something, but it wasn’t your fault. And it wasn’t mine.” She took a deep breath and added quietly, “but it was… It was fantastic.”
“I’ve seen something like this in others.” Darren said, still unable to look around. “It’s an elfen aphrodisiac. They spike each other’s drinks with it or they use it to spice up their bedrooms. They’re careless with it, though, and it gets complicated.”
“Like us?” Jasmine sank into one of the hard, wooden chairs against the wall. “Why won’t you look at me?”
“Because I’m ashamed of taking advantage of you.” Darren said with his usual honesty. “It was… It was extraordinary and amazing, and you are so beautiful, and the drug meant that it wasn’t real.”
“I want to do it again.” Jasmine said.
“Well, we can’t.” Darren turned around finally and saw the determination on her face. He didn’t want to deal with this.
“Why not?” Jasmine said. She stood up and moved closer to him.
Darren could smell the scent of her shampoo, fresh and clean, and see too clearly the fear of rejection in her eyes, but she wasn’t backing down. “I’m a vicar and I’m old enough to be your father.”
“But you’re not my father and even vicars get married. I’m not suggesting marriage,” Jasmine added hurriedly, “but we’ve already had sex.”
Darren said. “We were drugged. And Ian wouldn’t like it.”
“Are you seriously so afraid of Ian?” Jasmine asked.
Darren frowned. “It’s about respect. But I am still far too old for you and…”
“Are you gay?” Jasmine asked.
“What?” Darren looked at her blankly. “No, I’m not. But it doesn’t matter. It would be wrong.”
“It’s just that most men don’t turn down sex.” Jasmine said. “Not if they’re single. And you’ve said I’m beautiful.”
“But you’re so young.”
“I’m 24, old enough to make a decision.”
“And I’m 38.” Darren took a deep breath. Their night spent under the influence of the elfen aphrodisiac had been one of the most amazing of his life, and he had never wanted to love someone so much in his life. But he had to do the right thing, no matter how hard. “You should be with someone your own age.”
“I left the Liverpool pack because I made my own choices.” Jasmine said. “You can say ‘no’ because you don’t want me, but don’t say ‘no’ because you don’t respect my choice.”
“It’s not as easy as that.” Darren said. He could remember with excruciating clarity the softness of her hair and the taste of her lips.
“Why not?” Jasmine said. “Is it because you don’t find me attractive? I’ll know if you lie.”
“And so will I”
Darren and Jasmine whirled around. Ian was standing in the doorway and looking furious. Darren’s shoulders slumped. “It’s all my fault.”
“It really isn’t.” Jasmine rushed in. “There was something in the hot chocolate, but we didn’t realise.”
Ian held up a hand. “Whatever was in that hot chocolate, it’s still affecting you.” He looked at them, anger growing on his face. “A respected exorcist and a member of my pack were drugged with an elfen drug and all you talk about is dating? You should know better, Darren. Accidental or not, it’s an attack and we need to send a message.”
“But what will people say about Jasmine?” Darren said. He swallowed. “They could say that she’s…”
“They will say that she’s well protected, just like the rest of my pack. And you need to speak to Dave and the Templars.” Ian looked ready to shake Darren. “You’ve just been drugged by an elfen. What if someone had needed you that night? What if there had been a demon? Or a bad haunting? How about someone possessed that were losing control? How about one of your flock needing you because they were losing a loved one, or dying? Something needs to be done. I’m going to speak with Kieran and Lady Freydis.” He turned towards the door. “Darren, get on that phone and make some serious calls. And yes, you can date.” Ian turned back to give Darren a very hard look. “As long as it all stays respectful. And at least your mouse problem is getting dealt with.” Ian waved at a skeletal hand which was scuttling past with a small, furry shape impaled on its middle finger, before sweeping out, slamming the door behind him.
Darren watched the hand dive behind the heavy bookcase in the corner and decided that he could shelve that problem. He turned towards Jasmine who was looking smug.
“So, are we meeting for coffee?” Jasmine asked.
“I’m taking you to dinner, tomorrow night, no arguments.” Darren said. “Wear something nice but not too fancy. And then we can come back to the vicarage and work on those papers like we should have done that night.”
“Just work on the papers?” Jasmine asked carefully.
“We can take a few breaks.” Darren said, suddenly feeling energised. “Now, I need to make some calls.”
Dave parked the car and looked at Luke sitting next to him. “We don’t have a legal leg to stand on.”
Luke shrugged. “Ian asked nicely. And from what Callum said, being a stray is tough. He was probably desperate. And at least he’s not on drugs.”
“So we’re just dealing with a desperate werewolf, not a drugged up and desperate werewolf.” Dave sighed. “If it comes out, the police could still be called in. You know, they won’t ignore it. They treat a crime as a crime.”
Luke grimaced. “Ian may be able to speak nicely to Ms Royston, but let’s worry about what could happen later. Let’s just deal with what’s happening now. As far as anyone can tell, it’s the first time he’s crossed a line. We may be able to put him on the right path.”
“If anyone can, Ian can.” Dave said. “He handed out a few lessons to Callum and he takes no nonsense.” He sighed. “Let’s get on with it.”
The two men left the car, looking around carefully. It wasn’t a bad part of town, but it wasn’t the best. Dave locked the car and walked up to the flats. The buzzer system was broken and someone had helpfully propped open the entrance. Dave raised his eyebrows and eased inside. Luke checked behind him and followed Dave.
The flat they were looking for was up echoing concrete steps and Dave and Luke didn’t bother trying to hide their approach. Werewolves had notoriously sharp ears, even in human shape. Dave ignored the bell and rapped on the door. It echoed. There was a long pause and then the door opened.
The man the other side was not what Dave expected. For one thing, he was barely a man, looking in his late teens or early twenties, his straight brown hair hanging limp around his thin face and the t-shirt and jeans hanging off his skinny frame. And he looked far too nervous to be the expert stalker who tailed a business man to and from his date with his mistress. Instead he looked like he was waiting for the next kick. Dave could understand why Ian wanted to give him a chance, but he had learned never to trust a werewolf in loose clothing.
“Hi, my name is Dave Kinson, this is Luke Fawcett. May we come in?” Dave stepped forward with assurance, not giving the young werewolf a chance to reply. Dave glanced around the bedsit. There was no-one else in the shabby space. Luke strode over to the door to the small bathroom and glanced in. He looked back at Dave and shook his head. No-one else was around.
“Do I know you?” The lad cleared his throat. “I mean, I think you should leave.”
“You’re Trent Robson, aren’t you?” Dave said. “And you’ve been a naughty boy. Have you handed over the photos yet?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Trent backed away. “If you don’t leave, I’ll call the police.”
“Go ahead,” Luke said calmly. “It’s Tim Pierce who deals with non-normals.”
Trent sagged. “Who are you?”
“We’re paladins, but we are here because Ian Tait asked us nicely.” Dave said. “He’s asked us to give you a chance.” He exchanged a glance with Luke. “So, tell me all about it.”
“Do you know how hard it is to get a job without the proper ID?” Trent asked. He sat down, hopelessly, on his unmade bed. “And no experience? And I daren’t ask for references.”
“Your pack got scattered, didn’t it?” Dave asked as he walked over to the window and checked outside. “There was a dispute over leadership.”
Trent shrugged. “I thought it would be okay. I’d heard Old Phineas talk about York having opportunities to work below the radar, so I came up here.” He looked between the two stern faced men. “But it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Listen, it was good money, and no-one would get hurt.”
“It wasn’t an affair.” Luke said from his place by the door. “He was visiting his sister. He would have spotted any other private investigator following him, but he wouldn’t notice a large dog, would he? It was perfect. It’s a shame that the guy that hired you wasn’t an offended husband, but a stalker. Have you passed over the information yet?”
Trent went pale but shook his head. “I’m supposed to be meeting tonight.”
“Give us the details and we can make sure someone who can deal with breach of a restraining order can be waiting for him.” Dave said. “But why don’t you come with us and we’ll introduce you to Ian Tait. He may give you a chance, if you keep your nose clean.”
The atmosphere in the Lady Freydis’ Great Hall was tense as small and awkward knots of non-normals waited for her to appear. Darren stood next to Dave, Luke and Sir Ewan, his face immobile. Jasmine looked pale, standing next to Ian and Kieran who were both looking furious.
Lady Freydis appeared, striding through a door tucked behind one of the Victorian ferns and dragging Egerton along the floor behind her. She threw him down in front of her favourite chair. Egerton sprawled helplessly in front of her. His glamour could only hide so much, and he looked very much the worse for wear. Martin and Atherton followed, their faces stern.
“Do not think to try me.” Lady Freydis looked around her court. “I will not brook such behaviour. It is one thing to be careless but to try and drug your Prince but fail and instead drug a respected and admired exorcist and a member of a werewolf pack in very good standing is unacceptable.” She kicked Egerton hard in the ribs and he groaned and rolled over. “I am not to be trifled with!” She kicked Egerton again. “You think because I am a widow that I am easily played? I think not!” She grabbed Egerton by the hair and dragged him to his feet. “I am feeling inclined to mercy, as no permanent damage has been done.” She looked around the court to make sure everyone was getting the message. Egerton was barely conscious and swayed gently as she held him upright with a hand on his neck. “This miscreant who so misjudged matters is to be a servant to the Reverend Darren King for the rest of the minister’s life. He is to wait on him and do his bidding.” A brief flicker of horror ran across Darren’s face at the thought before he controlled himself. “Do not worry. He will serve in spirit as well as to the letter.” She gave the unfortunate Egerton a shake and his teeth rattled. “And when he is not in service to the good minister, he will be watching the fields of the Tait pack and ensuring their fertility for the lifespan of Jasmine, in good faith.” Lady Freydis gave Egerton another shake and dropped him.
“Thank you for your judgement.” Darren bowed politely. “Perhaps I should take him back to the vicarage?” Darren looked at the heap on the floor and wondered how you nursed a well beaten elfen.
“An excellent idea.” Lady Freydis said. “He can be ready to start any duties you assign him.” She nodded to Atherton. “Help this creature to the vicarage with the Reverend, please.”
“Thank you for your wise and merciful judgement.” Ian Tait said as he bowed. “We are grateful that your loyal werewolf subjects were heard.” He glanced at Atherton hoisting Egerton over his shoulder and leading Darren out. “It is a graceful judgement that shows your power and your mercy.” He followed Darren out and gradually the Hall returned to normal.
Lady Freydis sat in her favourite chair. “I wonder if Egerton knows how lucky he is?” She said quietly as Martin brought her a glass of wine.
“He does now.” Martin said. “But he has a point. The healing of the realm would go much faster if you were married.”
“You too?” Lady Freydis sipped her wine. “I know what you’re thinking. But if I were to marry you, I would break your heart. I would destroy you.”
“I’ll take that risk.” Martin said. “And you need someone loyal at your side. Someone who has your best interests at heart.”
“There are many stories about marrying an elfen and regretting it.” Lady Freydis said softly. “And I would not wish to hurt you.”
“I know.” Martin said. “That is what is heartbreaking. Near but not quite there.”
Lady Freydis looked around the Hall. “We’ll talk about this later, in sunlight, and everything is calm.” She sighed. “I fear for you, Martin, but you will not hear it.”
Martin shrugged. “Let us look forward to lighter things, my lady. I cannot wait to see the havoc that Egerton can cause in a vicarage.”