Authors: Jess Raven,Paula Black
I scrambled back down the eroded stone steps, clutching onto the dune grass for dear life. Sheets of rain lashed my face, and my cheeks burned with a genuine windburn, mixed with chagrin at everything I had allowed to happen. Only hours before I had been in this same cove with him, willing him to look at me with those
jewelled green eyes and tell me I was beautiful. How the tides turned.
Just across the bay, the village of Crooke lay huddled in a cluster of twinkling lights and fishing boats bobbing in the swell. The promise of sanctuary, tantalisingly close yet agonisingly far away.
Some people say Fate puts you in a particular place at a particular time for a reason, that certain events in our lives are preordained to happen, regardless of free will. Fate wasn’t something I’d ever given much thought to before that night. Sure, I believed in shitty luck. I’d had my fair share of that. Mostly, events in my life had taught me to trust no one and always expect the worst. That way you didn’t leave yourself vulnerable to disappointment.
With Jack Pembroke, I’d expected the worst. Before I ever laid eyes on the man, I’d blackened him with the tar-brush of my own prejudice. Then, when he turned out to be nothing at all like my pre-formed ideas of him, he disarmed me, left me naked, defences down. He planted inside me the seed of that wretched thing that is hope. Hope that life might just have a little slice of happiness carved out for me, a reward for everything it had asked of me until then. Like life owed you something. Right. That’s what hurt the most. Life had stolen my mother from me too young, raped my father’s wits, and killed my capacity to ever openly trust another person. Life had smothered the carefree joy I remembered from my childhood. Life was a slow, ruthless killer. I had no one to blame but myself. I’d mistaken Jack Pembroke for my antidote, when really he was poison to my soul.
As I stumbled down the steps towards the little row-boat tied up in the bay, I felt crushed by the disappointment I’d promised myself never to feel again. My chest hurt, like that seed of hope had been ripped from its bed and now I was bleeding out all the shattered expectations I’d managed to keep shored-up for so long. One small slip-up and life was rubbing my nose in it. Always expect the worst and you won’t be let down. Trust nobody but yourself. Well, life had shown me good. It really couldn’t get much worse than this, I thought.
I was wrong.
I looked out to sea and saw a dark shadow moving across the waves towards me. As I stared, it coalesced into the distinct form of a man in a small boat. The oars sliced through the water, powering in to shore, cutting across the white-tops. The silhouette grew, gaining definition until there was no mistaking the identity of the oarsman. I’d have known the shape of those broad shoulders and the curl of dark hair at the nape of his neck anywhere.
“Liam,” I shouted. “Oh my God, Liam. What the hell are you doing here?”
“Darcy? Is that you?” my brother called over his shoulder. There was a note of panic in his voice, a momentary hesitance. “Thank Christ. I came to get you,” he said finally. “You never came home, sis. The road in to Bronach is blocked with fallen trees. I feared the worst.”
He lifted one oar and steered the boat around until he was facing me.
His expression was grim for someone who’d just discovered his missing sister had survived one of the worst storms in Crooke’s living memory. Then again, I must have cut a miserable sight, shivering in my thin skirt and blouse, with my hair bloodied and plastered wetly to my swollen, scratched-up face. In contrast, Liam was insulated from the weather by a heavily-padded black parka, gloves and a beanie hat. He put his back into the oars with renewed vigour and heaved the boat into shore, hopping out into the shallows to drag the vessel up onto the shingle.
It was only then, staring into the boat, that I discovered the truly grisly explanation for Liam’s grim face.
“Oh God,” I breathed. “It’s John-Joe.”
Flopped across the bottom boards of the boat, John-Joe’s half-naked body lay face-down, bloated, slick with seawater and battered black and blue. Dead, his pale, hairy back streaked with blood, he resembled a harpooned whale.
“What’s he doing here?” I said shakily. “Why is he in the boat Liam?”
Worst case scenarios swarmed in my head. Liam had come good on his threat in the pub. He’d killed John-Joe, after all, and was back to dispose of the evidence. He hadn’t come here looking for me at all. My brother was a murderer and I ...
“Darcy. Darcy!” I felt Liam’s gloved hand on my cheek as he turned my face from the gruesome sight. He gripped my jaw and forced me to look at him. “Darcy, keep it together,” he said. My whole body went leaf in the wind, trembling in his grip. “I hit something on the way over," he said ardently. "It was him. He was floating, face down, out in the bay. I dragged him into the boat, but he was already gone. He must have been washed out to sea. I think something attacked him, Darcy. A wild animal or something. His neck is ripped wide open.”
"A wild animal?" I asked, incredulous. Ireland didn't have any wolves or bears or big cats outside of zoos. I stiffened and my own voice sounded frigid to my ears. "Tell me the truth, Liam. Did you kill him?"
Liam's gloved hand dropped from my face. "Did I kill John-Joe?" he asked. His brows pulled together and he regarded me like I was some alien, unfathomable creature. "Of course I didn't bloody kill him. Darcy, what's gotten into you? What the hell happened here tonight?" His eyes narrowed on me like he was really seeing me for the first time since he'd arrived. "Did somebody hurt you?"
What had happened me? Between the storm and the dead body, the wild passion, and Jack Pembroke’s wife attacking me with those freaky demonic eyes, I started to wonder if I’d totally lost my mind. And now, here I was, accusing my own flesh and blood of murdering some harmless farmer, just for copping a drunken feel of my ass down the pub. Had any of it happened at all? Was I dreaming, delirious in my bed with fever? If I was, I needed to wake from this nightmare, and quick, because there was nothing dream-like at all about that cold body in the boat, with the smell of death and the sea on it, with its jugular torn out and its blood drained dry.
“Darcy, talk to me,” Liam pleaded.
A cry from the cliffs above stole the response from my lips. Shrill, hoarse and anguished, like the scream of a fox, the sound chilled my blood to ice-water.
Liam turned to see what had transfixed my eyes with terror. A female figure, clothed in grey and crowned by a halo of long, wind-blown hair, stood perched on an outcrop of rock. Her hands were curled into claws and her eyes, oh God, I knew those demonic eyes, and yet this woman definitely wasn’t Adriana. She was something altogether more dreadful. Hunched forward like a vulture, poised to swoop down on us at any moment, the corners of her mouth lifted in a macabre smile, revealing rows of sharp, pointed teeth.
I struggled to stifle the scream bubbling in my throat, and instinct had me backing away. One step, two, never taking my eyes off the cliff. She didn’t make a move, but then neither did Liam. I grabbed at the sleeve of his parka and tugged. We had time. We could dive in the boat and escape out to sea, assuming the creature with its sights trained on us couldn’t swim, or fly, or worse. Fear pulsed through my body, pounding in my throat until I thought it would choke me.
“Liam,” I whispered, “Liam, we have to get out of here.”
“You go, Darcy,” he said, without even turning to look at me. “I’m good right here.” His voice, calm as a slow breath, filled me with cold dread. The creature was doing something to him, influencing him, and before I could even react, he was striding forward, mounting the steps towards it.
“Liam,” I shouted. “Liam, don’t!”
I ran, grabbed onto the back of his coat and with all the strength I could muster, attempted to drag him back. But he was so much stronger than me. He shrugged me off him, and I tumbled backwards down the slippery stone steps.
I landed hard, pain bursting through my head as my skull cracked against a jagged edge of the rocks. Momentarily stunned, I was forced to watch as Liam reached for the creature’s outstretched hand and she pulled him into her. I saw his woollen hat fall to the ground as her blackened fingernails raked his curly hair, closing in a fist that jerked his head to one side, exposing his throat.
“No,” I cried, “please!”
But Liam was docile in her hands, even as her tongue shivered across those pointed fangs and she spread her lips on the pulse at his neck.
Driven by pure desperation, on hands and knees I crawled towards the steps, still reeling from the concussion of my fall. All I knew was that I had to get to Liam before he ended up like John-Joe in that boat. I couldn’t lose him too. He was all I had left. My vision blurred, but still I saw with crystal clarity the moment when her pointed fangs penetrated skin, bleeding crimson ribbons down his pale neck. His pliant body jerked as she sealed her lips to his pulse and sucked from him in long, greedy draws.
A cry of pure anguish breached my lips. Liam was dying and I was powerless to prevent it. “Let him live,” I begged her, “please, let him go.”
“Let him go.”
Confused, I heard my words repeated back at me, not an echo, but the grim authority of a male voice I recognised instantly.
“Let him go,” he said, louder this time. “It’s me you want, not him.”
Squinting up at the cliff top, the image of Jack Pembroke came into focus. Wild-eyed, shirtless and buffeted by the wind and the sea-spray, he looked larger than life. This was no Colin Firth coming from the pond, this was crazy Heathcliff on the moors.
“It’s me,” he called to the creature. “Jack Pembroke.”
At the sound of that name, she paused in her feeding and her black-veined eyes flipped up to pin him with a death-glare. Having drawn her attention away from Liam, he pressed the advantage.
“You came back from the dead for me, didn’t you?” Jack shouted. “Just as you did my father, and countless generations of Pembroke men before him. That’s what my mother was trying to protect me from. That’s why she sent me away. But I’m here now. The debt lies with my family bloodline, not with this innocent man. Let him go, Dearg-Due. Take me instead.”
Teeth still embedded in Liam’s throat, the creature regarded Jack with the ominous stillness of a bird of prey sizing up its kill. She looked to be ruminating on his offer, but the wildness in her eyes betrayed her hunger for what he offered. She released her grip and my heart rate slowed to a nauseating pound as I watched Liam’s body crumple down onto the rocks. The Dearg-Due stepped over his limp, discarded form, a bloodied smile spreading on her lips as she ghosted towards where Jack stood his ground at the summit of the cliff.
Frantic, I scrambled up the steps and over the rocks to where Liam lay sprawled. His skin was parchment-pale in the darkness. I cupped a cold cheek, and his head lolled to one side, exposing the ravaged mess where she’d bitten him. Tears clouded my vision as I pressed my fingers to the wound, willing the blood back into his body. With my free hand I sought a pulse at the other side of his throat, and for an eternity, there was nothing, but then I felt it, weak but unmistakable, tap-tapping against the pads of my fingers.
“Thank you God,” I cried, sobbing on Liam’s chest as I felt his lungs inflate beneath my cheek.