Griffin’s Protection by Lola Gabriel

1

Oakley grilled dinner while the witch frantically explained over the phone that she hadn’t killed the demon and that the Immortal Council was going to kill her for a crime she did not commit, as one does.

Oakley flipped the steak over on the grill. The flames burst higher for just a second, lapping at the juices and sizzling the meat, before receding again like a scorned dog. “Right, Poppy…” He slipped his tongue over his teeth thoughtfully. How was he supposed to say this? “Look. I’m retired. I want to help you. But…” Ah shit. What was a good excuse? You obviously killed the demon and now you’re cashing in some old family favors as a disgraceful attempt to save your own hide? “But it sounds like there’s not much I can do.”

Ah, that was a good one. It didn’t work. She went back to asking him to listen, just listen for a second please, and blah blah blah. Yeah, he’d heard it a million times. He’d lived multiple centuries, been around the world more times than he could count, and he’d experienced just about everything. Oakley had heard it all, yet there was always someone who thought they could sweet-talk their way out of some mess they created. He bobbed his head indulgently, muttering a few things as she kept talking. He leaned over the grill and watched a glowing ember crumble and fall apart.

Poppy. All that he knew about her was that she was some witch who owned a shop in Minneapolis that got behind on her payments and got mixed up with some bad people. She got involved with demons, and lo and behold, she was arrested for murdering one of them. Apparently, she’d been having an affair, and when word was about to get out, she put the bastard in the ground.

What he knew about Poppy from Poppy’s point of view was that she was innocent, and she’d never do any of these things.

Right… He didn’t believe it for a second—an awful lot of coincidences in her story made her rendition unbelievable. He’d been on the Immortal Council a mighty long time, a mighty long time. Sure. She just happened to be the owner of the medicine that got the demon killed. Sure, she just happened to be the one who prepared the potion. Sure, she just happened to fit the exact description of the woman who killed him. Sure, she just happened to look precisely like the woman that the demon’s mate said was having an affair with the demon. All coincidences.

Totally believable.

In fact, the only reason he was still on the phone with her was because of Donny. Good ole Donny. A smile slipped across Oakley’s face before watering down into a grimace. God, he really was getting old. He was talking to a witch that was the, what, great-granddaughter of one of his friends? And it wasn’t even a big deal?

The call took a little while. She’d been arrested, her powers temporarily ripped from her, and she had been sanctioned to house arrest. She’d await trial, and then if all went well, she’d be released and her powers would be returned. If she was found guilty, she’d have a significantly worse time.

He zoned back in to the conversation. Her voice was quieter now. Softer, with a hint of desperation slipping out beneath the strength she’d been showing the whole time. Most of the entire conversation had been her, furious and frustrated. This was new. He lowered his spatula and listened more, waiting to hear what the witch had to say.

She sighed audibly from the other side. “Listen, sir, I…I’m sorry. I wish I didn’t have to call you, but I’m out of options. I need your help. Please.” A pause. “And I’ll understand if you don’t want to help, but I needed to try. I know you hold a lot of power, and…I don’t know, I know you’re supposed to be a computer genius and all the security footage vanished and nobody seems to be able to get them back. So I just…I just had to ask.”

He opened his mouth to tell her no, and that he wasn’t going to be coming back into the arena to help her out. He’d probably be backing a murderer, first off, and he’d worked too long and too hard on his reputation to have it dragged through the dirt in the shitshow this case was already becoming.

Probably.

The word kept ringing around in his head. Probably. He’d probably be backing a murderer. But what if they were actually wrong about her? What if she genuinely hadn’t killed the demon and he let the descendent of Donny face the slammer or execution wrongfully? All the odds and evidence pointed one way, but maybe this was the one time where everything lined up perfectly and the wrong person got put away or executed. He’d retired. This was a game for the Immortal Council to decide.

He sucked in a quick breath, tossing the idea around in his head. Worst-case scenario, his reputation would be linked with a lying murderer, dragged through the dirt and stained. Best-case scenario…she was innocent, and he could help.

A scowl hardened on his face before he spoke. This would be the correct time to ignore his instinct, to live out his happy life and not get sucked back into the messy political world. But he couldn’t. And his instinct said he had to at least hear her out in person and see how much truth there was to this whole situation, even if it was just for Donny. He flipped the burger over one more time before speaking.

“Okay. Fine. I’ll come down there and see what’s going on. I’m not promising anything. But I’ll check it out.”

He heard a whoosh of relief from the other side. “Thank you, thank you. God, you’re the best!”

An uneasy feeling coiled around his guts, tightening and tightening. This was going to be…unexpected. He didn’t know what it was, or why he felt that way, but his instinct screamed at him that something here wasn’t going to go the way he expected. Maybe she’d try to kill him, marry him, or betray him. But this wasn’t going to go the way he expected. He knew that already, and his instinct was never wrong. His brain made bad decisions, his heart had been led astray, but his instinct, his gut instinct…when it spoke, he listened.

* * *

Poppy’s dayhad gone from good, to bad, to shitty, to downright abysmal.

Her day had started off wonderfully. The apothecary was doing well, business was on the rise, and she lived in Minneapolis—a fantastic progressive city. She’d wanted to live there since she was a kid, and part of her wondered if the delight and magic of the city would wear off with time, but it didn’t. Every day, she woke up and felt refreshed. Chasing the dream, living the life.

Until some assholes arrested her for killing a demon.

That was about the point where her day got significantly worse. A couple of men in suits brushed in through the shop doors, triggering the bell hanging over the door. A friendly little chime signaled the entrance of two very unfriendly guys. The second she’d looked at them, her shoulders drew back and her fingers clenched. Some characters didn’t need to say a thing to say who they were. Danger seeped off them, a certain sense of uncertainty and angst oozing off their sharp pressed suits and designer sunglasses.

She’d been right.

The moment she’d identified herself, they’d arrested her in the name of the Immortal Council. Then they’d cuffed her, brought in some assholes who cast a few spells on her before she could even figure out what was happening, and within an hour or two, she was on house arrest and powerless. Powerless, like a human. Powerless, like a person who’d killed someone and who was too dangerous to be given magical abilities.

And there she sat, trapped like a mouse inside of her own house, her natural abilities pulled from her, accused of something she had to get someone to explain, and under house arrest. Apparently, she was waiting for a trial. Right. She was certain that her trial wouldn’t be exactly fair. She was being treated like she was one hundred percent the murderer already. The goons had made that pretty clear from the way they’d moved her around like an animal, locking her in and telling her that if she left or tried to access her powers, she’d be gunned down without hesitation.

Great.

For probably a good two hours, she was furious and dealing with an absolute emotional whirlwind, when abruptly his name came flying into her head like a cannonball: Oakley. She was supposed to call him and cash in a favor if she ever really needed it. She was planning on saving it just like every other member of her family had since Donny, but if there was ever a time, it was now.

He obviously hadn’t believed her. That was fine. He didn’t really need to. If she’d been called by some frantic person with a crazy story, she wouldn’t have believed it either. But all he had to do, all he really had to do, was show up and show some support. He carried enough of a reputation to make her not as easy a target to bring down, or at least that was the theory. And you know what? This wasn’t the time to be looking a gift horse in the mouth. He said he was going to come, and that was it. That was all she really needed, and from there, he’d see that she was innocent.

Hopefully.

Time passed somehow instantly and slower than possibly imaginable. Every ten minutes, it had only been ten seconds, but an hour had passed. But finally, somewhere late in the evening, he arrived. Oakley himself, the griffin, the myth, the legend.

She went to the door, pausing a moment before opening it. He was old. Very old, so she prepared herself for seeing some grey-haired, stooped-over, grandfatherly figure.

She pulled open the door.

Oakley was very much not a grey-haired, stooped-over, grandfatherly figure.

The first thing she noticed about him was his chest and the way his impressive pecs caught the light, seeing as that was where her eyes started. The next thing was how his broad chest tapered into a narrow waist, sporting powerful legs and a statuesque, godlike physique. Then the way he stood there in the doorway, defiantly, confidently, with the cockiness and charisma befitting such an appealing and attractive man. Then the tousled brown hair and the kind, hazel eyes that stared straight into her, then finally the fact that he didn’t look a day over 35.

Her mouth locked up, her hand freezing halfway to shake the hand of someone she had expected to be frail and small. She opened her mouth to speak and introduce herself, but her words caught in her throat and she stared like an idiot for a second before she snapped herself out of it.

“H-hi!” Shit. It was a hell of a first impression. She looked like a moron who couldn’t put a string of words together in a sentence. It wasn’t that hot guys made her uncomfortable or shy, it was that she had not been expecting him to show up and her brain hadn’t quite caught up with her body yet. “My name’s Poppy. Are you…?”

He smiled with a lopsided smile that probably made all the girls love him. He smiled like he knew he was hot, like he knew that he was distracting her, and the little bastard was enjoying it. “Oakley. Charmed.” His eyes drifted casually lower to her hand that she’d extended. “No contact, remember?”

She pulled her hand back to her hip. This couldn’t be him. Not Oakley, not some ancient being that several generations ago her family knew. He looked more like he belonged on the front page of Sexy Businessmen. “No contact?”

His eyes fell past her, studying her house which suddenly didn’t seem clean enough, even though she’d prepared it for a visitor. “Right.” His focus fell back on her, and an excitement, a heat, blossomed in her hips and spread outward. Tendrils of it ran down her hips, into her thighs and coiling around between her legs, snaking up to her heart and making it beat faster, faster, faster! He kept talking, seemingly unaware of the feeling that was ravaging her. She threw up a quick, tight smile and curled her fingers into her hip subtly. Down, dammit, down! He spoke.

“Immortal Council rules. Physical contact could contaminate you, and they’re going to need you…uncontaminated for the trial.” He waved his hand around for emphasis. “Magic aura and all. But regardless…” he paused, studying her for a long second. For just a second, just long enough to wonder if she’d imagined it, his eyes flashed with lust before it was gone. “I’m compelled to hear your story. Shall we start at the beginning?”

She slipped a hand over her hip to feel the energy rushing through her legs, resting it there before nodding and ushering him in. So, Oakley was here, and Oakley did not look like he was supposed to, but at least he was here. Hot or not, she needed help and he was the best chance she had at getting out of there. Eye on the prize, Poppy. Eye on the prize. No matter how much she felt drawn to him, sensing a magnetism and attraction from three seconds of seeing him, the end goal here was not being executed. There’d be time to figure out everything else. Right. Yes. Eye on the prize. Don’t die.

And ignore the passion gushing through her.

And don’t die.

Sounds like a plan.