Light’s Bane (Daughters of the People, Book 2)

Daniella Nehring is a fierce warrior with a turbulent past. Born in the earliest days of World War II to unknown parents, she was raised by Rebecca Upton, one of the People’s most notable leaders. Dani has always had questions about her parents’ identities, information Rebecca refuses to reveal, leaving a gaping hole in Dani's own identity.

Dani travels to New York on Rebecca's orders to search for the mysterious woman who stole a copy of the Prophecy of Light from the People. There, she teams up with Dave Winstead, an FBI agent working undercover with the People's most ancient and deadly enemy. Dave has a soft spot for the young warrior that divides his loyalties between her and the job he took in order to fulfill a promise he made a decade and a half before, a promise he's determined to keep, no matter what the cost.

As Dani and Dave are drawn deeper into the hunt for the missing artifact, Dani's immortality is jeopardized, and with it, her ability to reclaim the Prophecy tablet. When she learns the truth about her heritage, Dani must confront her past in a struggle that will change her life forever.

Released June 2014. First edition copyright 2014.
Second edition copyright 2015. Published by Bone Diggers Press.

Excerpt from Light's Bane

Daniella Nehring stood behind a string of yellow police tape and stared at the remains of the man left in a dark alley in one of the Big Apple’s worst slums. He’d been beaten before being killed, or possibly he’d died while being beaten. Either way, it had been an ugly death, and probably no more than the man had deserved. He’d killed the ex-wife of an ally of the People a few weeks ago. Now, her death had been avenged. A cool, early morning breeze blew over Dani, wafting the scent of filth and decay through the alley and into the street. A small crowd gathered behind the police tape. The crime scene had briefly stirred interest in the neighborhood’s residents, mostly among passers by. A few mothers pulled their children away, but for the most part, the locals were unconcerned. Death was a regular visitor here. Already, the crowd was thinning as people drifted back to their normal routines.

Dave Winstead stood beside Dani, as still and resolute as Lady Liberty, his strong features stoically set under a battered Chicago Cubs baseball cap. Though he knew the man whose body had been found in the alley, Dave made no move to identify him, surprising Dani not at all. Doing so would lead the police directly from Dave to Lukas Alexiou, an antiquities dealer that had been the victim’s former employer, and probably the one that had ordered the man’s death.

Nobody crossed the leader of the Shadow Enemy without feeling the lash of repercussions.

Dave turned and walked away, and Dani followed silently behind. She put the crime scene firmly out of her mind, instead admiring the broad expanse of Dave’s shoulders tapering to narrow hips, the loose-limbed stride that covered ground quickly without being hurried. At six three, Dave topped Dani by less than a hand, though he out-bulked her by a mile. She’d had a lot of chances to observe him building that muscle, and one memorable close encounter with his naked chest.

Not close enough to touch, true, but close enough for the play of light on muscles to imprint itself into her mind in a way she wouldn’t forget anytime soon. She’d pulled that memory out a few times, running it through her head to keep from smacking Dave down when he did something stupidly male.

Shame to ruin a fine chest that way.

They walked until the streets grew cleaner and the buildings less shabby, with open businesses instead of broken and boarded up windows. The dull hopelessness of the people they passed was gradually replaced by industry and neighborliness. Dani’s stomach growled every time they walked by a restaurant and she caught a whiff of frying food, an unpleasant reminder that she hadn’t eaten breakfast before Dave had dragged her to the murder scene.

They caught the subway after walking for blocks and eventually wound up at the building where Dave lived.

Dani had been to Dave’s apartment only two times, first when she’d broken into it to gain his help in the search for some stolen artifacts, and then earlier that morning when she’d arrived in the city after a long flight from Atlanta. He’d offered her his spare bedroom, and Dani had accepted. They’d be working closely together for a while, though expedience played only a part in her decision. Deep down, she hoped to gain another glimpse of his bare chest.

In spite of the grim events greeting her arrival in New York, Dani smiled. A girl had to take her fun where she could get it, and the sculpted muscles of Dave’s bare chest promised a lot of that in the not so distant future.

He was one of the most stoic men she’d ever met, she reflected as they climbed the stairs to his apartment, and also one of the most thoughtfully cautious. As an undercover FBI agent tracking black market antiquities, he had to be in order to protect his identity and, therefore,  his job. His caution had annoyed her a few weeks back, when he’d drugged her and duct taped her to a chair, ostensibly to protect her. Then, he’d had no idea she was a decades-old, kickass warrior. He’d only thought to keep her out of harm’s way and under a watchful eye as the People exchanged artifacts for kidnap victim.

So he said, anyway. That incident, along with his allowing her to escape through New York’s sewer system, still pricked her temper.

Think of his chest, Dani.

When they were in his apartment, Dave locked the door behind them. Dani waited while he did the usual check for bugs. Paranoid? No. She’d found a couple herself in her initial sweep of the apartment. Her favorite Feebi was being watched, by more than one party. Why, he wouldn’t say, but she just knew he knew.

Dave Winstead was frustratingly silent on a lot of matters. No amount of prodding could pry information loose if he didn’t want to talk. The only thing she hadn’t tried yet was sex, not because she wasn’t attracted to him, but because she knew it wouldn’t work. And, she hated stooping to such underhanded tactics if a more savory one would do the trick.

So far, she hadn’t found the secret to manipulating him. As far as she could tell, he was simply unmanipulable. She’d already tried blackmailing him by threatening to tell the wrong people that he was working undercover. That had seemed to work for a while, until he’d called her bluff the weekend before Labor Day. She had no idea why he’d continued to help her then, and only an inkling of why he helped her now.

Fact was, she needed his help. When the Sandby borg artifacts had been stolen from under her nose a few months back, she’d tracked them from Sweden to London to New York. Part of those artifacts had been recovered, but one crucial tablet had been stolen again by an unknown woman. Dave had originally played a critical role in helping Dani pinpoint the artifacts’ location in New York. Now he was going to help her track that woman, in part by giving Dani access to Lukas Alexiou’s property.

Dave shrugged out of his jacket and hung it on a coatrack nailed to the wall behind his front door, then took off his battered baseball cap and hung it on another peg. Dani hung her jacket up beside his and followed him into the kitchenette.

He opened the refrigerator and rummaged inside. “Hungry?”

She leaned a hip against the edge of a counter. “Starving. Whatcha got?”

“Omelet ok?”

“Sure.”

Dave pulled eggs, vegetables, cheese, and a small package of ham out of the fridge and laid everything on the counter. When he began rinsing the veggies, Dani said, “Need help?”

He looked at her directly for the first time since she’d arrived at his apartment earlier that morning. “You cook?”

Hmm. How could she test him without lying? “I can press buttons on a microwave as well as the next woman.”

He grunted and turned back to the cutting board.

She bit back a smile. What a caveman.

He moved efficiently around the kitchen, chopping and stirring and whisking. Since he seemed to be working through something, she left him in silence. It was more fun watching him anyway as he shifted from counter to stove and back again, his well-toned muscles playing subtly beneath his clothing.

They ate at the tiny table he’d shoved into one corner of the kitchen. It was just big enough to seat two people, as long as nobody minded knocking knees occasionally.

At her first bite of the omelet, Dani moaned and barely stopped herself from shoving another bite in immediately after the first. “Good stuff.”

“Thanks.”

“Where’d you learn to cook?”

“Mom.” He relaxed against the back of his chair and pinned her with one of his patented expressionless stares. His slate gray eyes glinted in the sunlight pouring through the window’s blinds. “She said if I wanted to eat, I had to learn to cook.”

“Wise move.”

Dani took another bite of her omelet, savoring the burst of flavors across her tongue. Dave watched her eat for a minute, then turned back to his meal. When they’d both finished, she carried their plates to the kitchen and turned on the faucets in the sink.

“You cooked, I’ll clean,” she said.

He grunted what might have been an agreement and began clearing the counters, putting away unused vegetables and raking organic material into a small bowl.

“What’s that for?” Dani asked.

“Compost. 201C has a garden on the roof.”

“Does 201C have a name?”

“Sure.”

Dani waited, her hands immersed in sudsy water. “And the name is…?”

He flicked a finger down her nose. “Mind this.”

The casual gesture caught her by surprise. “Knowing your neighbors’ names isn’t nosey.”

He settled back against the counter beside the sink, arms crossed over his chest, feet spread apart for balance. “It is if they’re not your neighbors.”

“They’ll be my neighbors for the next few days. What if I need help?”

“You won’t.”

“But what if you’re gone and, I don’t know, the sink backs up.”

He shook his head slowly. “Where I go, you go.”

Dani rinsed the last dish and put it in the drainer, then shook her hands over the sink, slinging off excess water. He leaned around her and snagged a dish towel from the drawer beside the sink, and his body rubbed against hers, male and muscled and warm.

Pinpricks of heat slid over her skin. She cleared her throat and focused on the dishes. “Thanks.”

His mouth quirked to one side in a small lopsided grin. “Welcome.”

He settled back into his pose beside her and watched her expectantly.

“What?” she asked.

“I can hear questions burning through your mind. Spit ‘em out.”

Dani leaned her hip against the counter beside him, taking care to keep a decent distance between them. “I know you have a plan.”

“Yeah.”

“Care to share it with me?”

“Got some things to do first.”

“And I’m supposed to, what? Sit around and twiddle my thumbs like a good girl while you go out and do my work for me?”

He considered her for a minute. “Would you?”

She bit her tongue and fought for patience. Neanderthal Man had only an inkling of who and what she was. Smacking him down every time he acted like a caveman wouldn’t help them get this job done. “Not the little woman type,” she said flatly.

“I know.” His mouth quirked into another grin. “Just wondered if you’d follow my lead.”

“Only as long as you’re useful.”

“Fair enough.”

He pushed away from the counter. Dani followed him out of the kitchenette and as far as the doorway of his bedroom. She propped against the doorframe while he rummaged through his spare possessions.

She’d explored this room thoroughly the first time she’d come to Dave’s apartment. The only furniture in the room was the Queen-sized bed draped with a black comforter, a nightstand holding a lamp, and a matching chest of drawers. Two small, hand-thrown pots rested on the top of the latter, one filled with change and the other with knickknacks. The nightstand held some well-worn, paperback Westerns. Other than a backup service weapon and his clothing, stacked neatly in the chest of drawers and hung just as precisely in the closet, the room contained nothing else, not photos or letters from home or an old annual or even pictures on the wall. Just the things he needed to get by from day to day.

Dave tapped a small pile of ephemera gathered on top of his chest of drawers. “Spare key and my cell number.” He walked toward the doorway and Dani moved out of his way, standing aside while he put his cap and jacket back on.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“Out. Back soon.” He zipped his jacket and locked a no-nonsense stare on her. “Don’t bother the neighbors.”

He walked out and shut the door behind himself, and Dani stared after him. He’d left, just like that, giving her no idea of where he was going or what he was doing. She’d come to New York to do a job, a job he was integral to, and he’d just…left.

“What happened to where I go, you go?” she muttered.

She pivoted on her heel, marched to her bedroom where she’d stashed her gear earlier, and slapped the doorframe as she passed. Dave Winstead was the most infuriatingly frustrating man she’d ever met, and she’d encountered a lot of men in her time.

She yanked clothes out of her suitcase and put them away in the closet of the spare bedroom, then set her toiletries out in the apartment’s only bathroom. Her irritation with Dave had evaporated by the time she finished, so she took out her laptop, a notebook, and a pen and concentrated on work.

She called Rebecca with an update on the crime scene she and Dave had visited that morning. Her mother would pass the information along to James Terhune, whose ex-wife, Linda, and daughter, Amelia, had been victims of the dead man.

Her mother had another interest in that information. The world at large knew Rebecca Upton as the director of the prestigious Institute for Early Cultural Studies. In reality, heading the IECS was only part of her job. Rebecca served as the primary strategist in the People’s ongoing war with the Shadow Enemy, directing efforts to keep the People safe and undermine the Shadow’s operations. Knowledge of those operations was critical to Rebecca’s efforts, and so a file on the crime scene would take a permanent place among the IECS’ holdings.

Near the end of the call, Dani asked after Maya Bellegarde. The Daughter had been badly wounded in the attempt to regain Amelia. Maya, a respected member of the People, had once been Dani’s teacher. When Rebecca told her Maya was still in a coma, Dani gritted her teeth. A wave of helpless fury rolled over her and she slapped her laptop closed and slid it onto the couch. If Dave hadn’t duct taped her to a chair, she might’ve been able to affect the outcome of that exchange and keep Maya out of harm’s way. Instead, she’d been forced to watch as Lukas Alexiou aimed a gun at her friend and pulled the trigger. Who cared what the man’s intentions had been? Maya had been hurt, and Dani hadn’t been able to stop it.

She popped off the couch and paced in short, quick strides across Dave’s living room while she finished talking to Rebecca. When the conversation ended, she hung up and rubbed a tired hand across her neck, already regretting the excess emotion. Hadn’t she learned yet how futile it was to fret over the past? There was no going back. Lingering on what couldn’t be changed was a waste of energy.

Dani dropped her phone next to her laptop and stalked into her bedroom. She changed into yoga tights and a matching tank top and found a suitably large empty spot in Dave’s living area to use as a workout space.

Her muscles were tense, taut. She rolled her shoulders and deliberately emptied her mind, then stretched into a series of Yoga postures. She blocked out the feel of Dave’s body brushing against hers, the bruises and wounds littering the body of the dead man, blood dripping down Maya’s chest. She moved until she felt clean and whole, then put herself through a series of katas to erase the last of the useless emotions weighing on her. Anger and frustration and helplessness, gone, pushed away through positive action.

When she felt more balanced, Dani threw a ragged sweatshirt on over her workout clothes and settled down in Dave’s living room with a bottle of water and a stack of notes to review. The sofa’s leather upholstery molded itself to her body, and she relaxed into it, enjoying its cushy comfort. Dave’s apartment might be Spartan, but he had good taste in furniture.

She focused on work for the rest of the morning, using it to keep her mind active and away from thoughts of the frustrating man whose apartment she temporarily shared.

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