“God know you escaped from heaven?
You can hang around my place until he calls looking for you.”
— Jack MacGunn, King of the Bad Pick-Up Line
Cassiopeia Noyon had finally turned twenty-one, only to find herself still being babysat. Worse that her bodyguard was a color blind berserker with a penchant for “extreme cliff diving,” the too-dazzling, immortal Jack MacGunn. She’d healed his bruised ribs yesterday, but perhaps she shouldn’t have, because dawn had not yet peeked over the sandstone canyon walls of Lake Powell, and he jostled her awake so he could ski.
Cassie bit back a smirk as Jack tried to fit his torso into a ski vest. With sixty-eight-inch shoulders tapering into a thirty-eight-inch waist, it was no mean trick. He struggled to adjust the straps and had some serious man-cleavage going on.
“Where is your neoprene vest?”
“Dunno.” He followed her gaze to his chest then flexed his pecs in a quick left-right-left. “There’s more where that came from, baby, if you ask nicely.” He winked, willing her to play along. Girls loved his bad pick-up lines.
“In your dreams, Jack.”
“In yours too, Cass. I can make all your dreams come true.” Jack flashed his shy-guy smile, the one that made him look vulnerable. Yeah, right.
“Tempting.” She ignored the exclamation points flashing in her head, notifying her, Hey, Jack is flirting with you. Flattering, but she refused to fawn over him. So what if he looked like the God of Underwear Models? Cassie ran the bilge and idled the boat in reverse, relishing the distinctive earthy Lake Powell smell: sun-baked algae, gasoline, and soggy tamarack.
She didn’t have the heart to tell Jack that ski vest was hers, purple with teal and pink trim. At least it matched his ridiculous shorts. She gave him a mental nudge and teased, I can’t believe you’re wearing pink trunks. Easier to speak inside his mind than shout over the roar of the 500-horsepower engine.
Who told you that?
The tag, before I ripped it off. ‘Ripcurl Aloha Coral Sunrise, Size 38.’
Jack, ‘coral’ is a pinkish color. And don’t tell me the flower print escaped your notice.
He stared down at his shorts and blinked. My fire shorts got ripped yesterday. This is all they had in my size at the marina.
Yes, she remembered how his hundred-foot dive into the water had split his absurd flame-printed shorts, drawing attention to the equally absurd plump quadriceps peeking through the tear running the length of his thigh. Crisp bronze hair dusted his leg, and Cassie had noticed his tanned skin went all the way up–meaning every inch of him saw the sun, perish the thought. She slammed her mindshield shut before he heard.
There should be some law against allowing hot men to buy bad clothes.
You think I’m hot?
Jack, everybody thinks you’re hot. Big deal.
He blinked again and scratched the stubble on his jaw. His thoughts shuttered, leaving her to wonder what he didn’t want her to hear. If she came across as jaded, then fine. It was bad enough she had emerged from puberty a low-grade extra sentient with marginal powers; the humiliation could only be eclipsed by having the Jack MacGunn assigned to her security detail.
People tagged him as a steroid junkie, a super-soldier type. The latter wasn’t far off. Jack descended from an ancient line of kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing, Gaelic-speaking Scottish berserkers. Beyond that, Jack had won the genetic lottery. Or he was a freak of nature, also being an immortal extra-sentient, one in four million with a hyper-evolved brain and seemingly supernatural abilities.
She had grown up admiring him—okay, worshipping him. But he didn’t need to know the “big brother” vibe, for her, had long ago morphed into a desire to get him alone in the dark.
Jack flexed his shoulders and cocked his head. Then go fix my fire trunks. Until then, you can look at my pink-flower-covered arse.
Cassie arched a brow and occupied herself with the controls. Are you going to ski, or not?
Maybe she would mend his trunks, but not until he asked nicely. He tossed an avocado slice in his mouth–part of his 4,000-calorie breakfast–and Cassie geared into neutral, brushing him aside. She hefted the opposite seat cushion up and produced Jack’s gray neoprene vest from the storage compartment. She shoved the cushion back into place, rolling her eyes at his silent plea not to dent the chrome trim. Jack scoffed and slapped her backside. No way.
She shot him an icy glare. “Jerk,” she mouthed.
On a bad day that would be prelude to a nasty fight. But today it felt more like terms of endearment. The smile he flashed her was nothing short of devilish, but at least he put the vest on without complaint. When knocked unconscious, 240-pound Jack felt like double the weight. Cassie knew; she’d once rescued him when his “triple-gainer” wakeboard stunt had disagreed with the canyon wall. That he hadn’t completely crushed his skull was a miracle, but if she knew one thing, Jack MacGunn had a thick head.
I heard that.
Before she could fire back, he sprang from the deck, leaping fifteen feet into the air in a clumsy dive, hitting the water with his rear end sticking up. Of course she laughed, he always knew how to get it from her. Their quarrels never lasted long.
He yelled “Hit it!” before she could scramble back into the captain’s seat. She geared the throttle forward, easing the boat into the insane sixty-three miles per hour speed he loved when skiing slalom. For Jack, a dozen loops around the bay at breakneck speed soothed him like a meditation ritual or yoga stretch.
She drove toward Stateline marina and looked back to check on him. He dragged his back foot on the surface of the water, spraying a cloud behind him. Cassie chuckled as he explained, My foot itches, feels good.
Cassie compensated with the throttle as Jack tugged on the rope, preventing him from pulling the boat backward. She turned to watch as often as she dared and studied his form. She liked to ski too, but she couldn’t do that near-horizontal trick he did when he cut: His extended arm made a straight line from his fist down to the ski, his body suspended horizontally only inches from the water. And then he snapped back so fluidly, the transfer of balance made a fan of water spray from the side of his ski in impressive rooster tails. Art in motion.
Whoa. What—Another boat careened across the bay, heading straight for them. Cassie turned to give them room, and they followed. She didn’t like how they closed in, chasing her and pushing her closer to the canyon walls. The prow jerked every time the boat changed course, as though a three-year old was driving. She maneuvered in sharp loops to get away, but they kept trying to corner her, pinning her against the side of the canyon.
What’s wrong with these people? Cassie waved her hand horizontally from the wrist to warn Jack they approached a set of rollers, leftover wake from the other boat. She swerved as the yellow boat t-boned across her path. If this was some sort of prank, it wasn’t funny. Jack was getting dangerously riled, on the edge of a berserker rage. He cursed and thrashed, gesturing at the other boat. If he lost control, the situation would turn ugly for everyone.
Let me at ‘em Cass.
No way. She didn’t say, “Are you crazy?” because they both knew he absolutely was.
I’m not gonna wait until someone gets hurt. Either you give me a tow or I’ll get there myself.
Reluctantly she looped around to face the opposing boat, a flashy yellow Mastercraft Jack was sure to find inferior to his maroon and silver custom Nautique. He pulled hard against the rope to increase the momentum, swinging like a wrecking ball, then leaned on the back rudder to cut even with the boat, spraying a wall of rooster tail right into the yellow Mastercraft.
“Good mornin,’” Jack’s voice boomed over the dual roar of engines. “The way ye drive, it’s dangerous. Not to mention piss-poor. Someone’s goin’ to get hurt. So sod off.”
Finally near enough to hear their thoughts, Cassie recoiled. A wrongnesss seeped from the boater’s minds, a discordant static-like sensation in unnatural, stunted rhythms. By all indications the boaters were ordinary–though stupid and drunk–humans, the only extra-sentients here being herself and Jack. Yet someone had to be tampering with their heads.
Jack, what is… she trailed, disturbed to find his mindshield completely closed.
Cassie heard a burst of malicious intent from the driver. He yanked the wheel, spearing his prow right at her. She steered at a ninety-degree angle to avoid the collision. It made her hit a four-foot tall roller square on the nose, jarring the hull. The engine whined in protest as she worked the throttle. The two boats churned the water into dangerous white-capped waves, and the canyon walls reflecting them back aggravated the stew. They could capsize—if they didn’t get battle-rammed first.
She tried to veer left and escape into the open channel, but Jack cut across the wake and jumped, shed his ski, dropped the handle of the rope, and landed squarely on the nose of the yellow Mastercraft with a jarring boom. It cracked the fiberglass—she heard splintering.
The driver startled and dropped the throttle, and Jack made a snakelike lunge to balance himself as the boat sank to the rails then bobbed at the abrupt halt. In comical silence everyone gaped at Jack, who looked like a pissed off superhero, even in his pink shorts. He dripped water that seemed to evaporate to steam, and his windblown hair stuck straight up like an animé character. With their heads craned to look up at all six-and-a-half feet of Jack, fear seeped through the odd static of their thoughts.
Collectively they startled as Jack leapt from the prow into the aisle. The driver with a scraggly bleached goatee wet his pants, but moments later his arm jerked to aim a pistol at Jack.
Motion blurred as Jack snatched it, twisted the silencer off the barrel, then field-stripped the pistol, tossing each piece in the water. He wore a puzzled expression, as though he expected something other than standard factory pieces inside the Beretta 9mm semi-automatic.
Jack opened the cooler on the back seat, seemingly suspicious of the six-packs of beer and bottles of wine coolers and whiskey. He tossed those in the water too, after crushing them with his bare hands–to prevent them from floating, or because he thought they would blow up or something? His dripping blood mingled with water, painting the floor pink. The drunken blond woman in the front seat swayed and whimpered in fright.
Jack MacGunn: mascot for creative DUI prevention.
Considering the interference in the boater’s minds and Jack’s strange behavior, there was more going on than a case of reckless driving, and Cassie wished she knew what. Jack hadn’t reacted much to the gun, and the driver had seemed to pull it without consciously deciding to do so. She gripped the steering wheel and watched Jack’s eyes for warning that he would fly into a rage.
Jack leaned over the driver—who crouched, whining like a girl–and yanked the keychain apart. Sunlight glinted off the key as it flew in the air then fluttered down below the water. Jack wrenched the emergency oars out of the side compartments, mindless of the paraphernalia he sent flying, and shoved the oars into the laps of the cowering men.
Jack articulated each syllable, “Now get off my lake. And don’t come back.”
Though the first time seemed to happen in a flash, it appeared in slow motion when the man sitting across from the driver raised his arm to point the barrel of a gun at Cassie. Jack pivoted and stepped in front—point blank. The same time the man squeezed the trigger, Jack slapped the gun aside with a wet crick sound that meant the man’s wrist had broken clean through. Cassie heard the bullet ricochet off the sandstone wall behind her and far to the right.
Jack made a growling sound, raw tenor with a feral edge that raked down her spine. He snapped the pistol in half like it was plastic then stared the man down, flexing his hands alternately into fists then claws. Cassie held her breath, waiting for him to lose control, wondering what she should do, if there was anything she could do to stop an enraged berserker.
Jack, she nudged his mind, but he was still closed off. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
He shook his head and slapped a hand over his eyes, probably trying to hide their iridescent glowing. His shoulders heaved in a visible struggle for control. Finally he turned, wearing a stricken, miserable expression.
She fished his ski out of the water while Jack leapt back across, ripped off the ski vest, and shoved the boat in gear. He tried to wave her away, but she knelt at his side and ignored his seething as she healed the lacerations on his hands. At least her abilities proved useful, limited though they may be.
She kept her thoughts quiet so Jack wouldn’t think she needed comforting. She didn’t. She’d only worried he would do something highly illegal, like commit aggravated murder; he did vaguely illegal deeds constantly. Just now Jack had staved off his berserker rage, control she didn’t know he possessed.
What was the matter with those people? Bad enough to be drunk at dawn, but the chaotic noise in their heads? And the silencers on their guns—not typical equipment for civilians. Once Jack calmed down she’d fish for intel. He seemed to know something…
She’d seen him like this before; jaw clenched, muscles tensed, eyes narrowed and all expression wiped from his face. It meant he struggled to douse his anger so he could think, the berserker battling the soldier for dominance inside the same head.
Jack vented his frustration on his fancy boat, which was up to the task. He shot around the channel like he auditioned for a James Bond movie. He had worked as a stuntman before, so he knew his business even though it felt risky. They whipped passed Gunsight Butte, and Cassie was about to ask him to drive back to camp for breakfast when his luck ran out.
The Valkyrie’s Guardian by Moriah Densley