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Between A Rock And A Hard Place

The Q Collection, Volume Six

“I can’t believe you bought that shithole.”

Sighing long and loud down the phone-line, I remind myself to ignore my best—and only—friend’s disparaging remarks. “Fuck off, bitch.”

Simone tsks at me before launching into a detailed account of her latest blind date disaster, then we swap slow cooker recipes before circling back around to the “shithole” I now call home. She ends our conversation with, “Well don’t blame me when the zombies crack your skull open to get to the gooey centre.” She pauses for a moment, and even through the phoneline I can tell she’s biting her lip, debating her next words. But then she clears her throat and says, “Um, Chloe?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t be too disappointed if this whole thing doesn’t go the way you want, okay?”

I push out a quiet sigh knowing that yes, even my bestie thinks I’m crazy. But at least she’s supportive and doesn’t just flat out say it to my face like everyone else. “Yeah, okay,” I say, knowing she doesn’t buy it for a second.

“I’ll pop ‘round tomorrow. Good luck!”

“Thanks, babe.” I end the call and toss my phone on the couch, then flop down beside it and tuck my hands behind my head.

Okay, so buying a house that comes with its very own graveyard isn’t exactly normal, but being normal isn’t something I’ve often been accused of.

When I was six, I used to catch spiders in a glass jar and sleep with it beside my bed. By the time I turned ten I was collecting animal skulls and displaying them on my bookshelves according to size and genus. And at the ripe old age of twelve, there was what my father refers to as “The Gargoyle Incident”, only ever to be spoken of in hushed and reverend tones.

And preferably in the presence of a licensed therapist.

Everyone thinks I’m nuts, and maybe I am. I don’t know. All I know for certain is that twenty years ago I fell off the roof a house—this house, to be exact—but I never hit the ground.

Arnaath saved me.

Of course, my father said it never happened. “You were dreaming, Chloe. You fell asleep in the garden and dreamt you were falling,” he used to say.

The psychologist he took me to as a kid—after six months of me insisting that Arnaath was real—agreed with him. “Gargoyles aren’t real, Chloe. It’s all in your head.”

For years that was my mantra.

Gargoyles aren’t real, it’s all in my head.

But every time we drove past this old place I’d wonder, was it really?

I suppose it didn’t really matter one way or the other.

Life went on regardless.

I was still the weird girl no one wanted to sit next to in class, who grew up to become the weird chick who couldn’t get a date, who went on to take over the family masonry business and bought an old house that came with its very own graveyard.

Annnd also happens to have a large winged, sullen-looking stone gargoyle on the roof.

I let my gaze drift upwards.

The house sits on the outskirts of town, way back from the edge of a lonely pockmarked road. A sad ramshackle of a building hidden behind an unruly thicket of hazelnuts and blackberry brambles, it’s exterior leaves much to be desired. In the twenty years since I fell off the roof the old girl has had four owners. Each of them well-intentioned and enthusiastic and choc-a-block full of the over-confidence that can only be garnered by watching too many home renovation shows on “reality” TV.

Of course, when they found out exactly how much it would cost to renovate the quaint stone church that looked like a small castle in the middle of bloody Nowhereville, they put it back on the market quicker than you can say “money pit”. The upshot being that every time it went back on the market the value dropped just a little closer to what I could afford.

So now I’m sitting in my very own castle surrounded by dead people and watched over by mythical creatures who—let’s face it—are quite probably not real and are in fact all in my head.

Time to find out for sure.

Finding my feet, I head to the stairs at the rear of the house and make my way to the roof. The view is as beautiful as I remember and I take a moment to watch the sun setting in the west, the golden orb dipping behind the mountains. In that direction, the evening sky is an undulating quilt of pink and orange and purple, but a quick look in the other direction tells me that won’t last long. Dark clouds are rolling in, slowly swallowing the last of the blue in the east and casting shadows for miles. The air is heavy with the promise of a late night storm, a rumble of thunder echoes in the distance.

But it’s not the weather I came up here to see.

From his position overlooking the graveyard, Arnaath is a hulking black figure silhouetted against the candy-coloured sky. He’s crouched on top of the thick parapet wall that borders the rear section of roof, his clawed feet and hands positioned for balance. Bat-like wings arch over broad shoulders and his strong back sweeps down to a narrow waist, a firm arse and thighs bunched with muscle. A long tapering tail extends from the base of his spine and drapes idly over the edge of the parapet.

I look over the edge to the grounds below and immediately regret it. I don’t do well with heights, which is how I managed to fall off the roof in the first place all those years ago. I’d waited until my dad and his team had gone to lunch, then against his strict orders, I’d snuck up to the roof to get a better look at the graveyard, leaned over the parapet wall, looked down, realised my mistake, tried to stand up too fast, felt my head spin like a fucking merry-go-round at warp speed and pitched over the side.

Thankfully my head doesn’t spin as much as it did when I was a kid and I quickly right myself. Good thing too. On the off chance that Arnaath really is just a lump of sexy stone and therefore unable to save me from a fall, I don’t really want to land on the big, jagged pile of building rubble the previous owners left behind. Ouch.

The parapet wall is wide enough that I can sit comfortably and not fear falling off, so I take a seat and study the front of my giant stone guardian. An armoured vest and vambraces are carved onto his chest and forearms, but I can’t see if he’s wearing anything else as his brawny arms block my view of everything else.

I stare at those arms for what feels like an eternity, remember how they felt when I was wrapped up in them, gliding to the ground. Warm, solid, strong. I felt safe in those arms. Reaching out, I stroke that strength now, trace my fingertips over each curve of carved muscle, feel the warmth of him radiate into my own skin, and I smile.

I know the naysayers would say he’s only warm to my touch because he’s been sitting in the sun all day and stone has a tendency to absorb and retain heat.

Yeah, thanks. I’m a stone cutter. I know how stone works.

But knowing what I do about this particular creature, I prefer to believe his heat comes from within. From the beating heart at the hot-blooded centre of him.

“Hello, Arnaath,” I say, my voice quiet and no where near as confident as I’d imagined it would be when this moment came. He doesn’t answer.

I persevere. “Arnaath, it’s me, Chloe. Do you remember me? I know it’s been a while—twenty years, in fact—but I’ve never forgotten you. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. You saved me. Do you remember?”

Searching his face for any reaction, no matter how small, my hope begins to dim. What am I doing wrong? What did I do last time that I’m not doing this time?

And then it hits me.

Gargoyles—or more accurately grotesques—are guardians, built to ward off evil and protect the people. Just like Arnaath protected me when I fell.

I’d been in danger and my guardian had come to my rescue.

But I’m not in danger now.

Or am I…?

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