The 13th Hour

© Julie Harrington 2016.
Cover design by StormCloud

The Road To Hell…

Ella Harper’s problems are disturbingly earthbound – cheating husband, crumbled marriage, messy divorce. With the smoldering ruins of her past life firmly in the rearview mirror, all she wants is to start over – with a new job in town of Grayburn – and finally put down roots to build a real home.

Damon Cross knows what it’s like to try and put the past behind you. He’s spent centuries trying to do just that. Only in Grayburn for a spell, he’s hell-bent on achieving one goal: find a new wife.

Is Paved With Invitations

A chance encounter sparks a chemistry they can’t deny. But when past and present collide inside the walls of Rookfall Castle, resurrecting an enemy out for revenge, Ella discovers that Damon’s sitting on a Hell of a secret and – before the clock strikes midnight – they’ll all be laid bare.

Will their newfound love stand the test of time, or will the truth cost Damon his last chance at Forever?

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Damon eased her hand to the side, opening her up for frank appraisal and approval, as he took in her costume once again.  “I admit, you have me curious, Ella.  May I call you Ella?”  When she nodded, he said, “Who you are supposed to be?”

She peered up at him, that light back in her eyes, making them sparkle against her thick, black lashes.  “My true self.  Isn’t that the theme of the evening?”

“Ah, but who is that?  Do we ever really know?  Isn’t that the real question?”

“Yes, it is.”  Her smile returned, enigmatic and beautiful as Ella drew her hand from his.  “Fortunately, Mr. Cross, you have the entire evening to figure out the answer.  If you can.”




If Hell ever spawned a night, it was this one.  Thick fog draped low across the countryside, turning its once recognizable landmarks into ghostly shadows.  The haze seemed to absorb all light from the full moon above, illuminating the mist from within and lending it an unearthly bluish-silver glow.

On a normal night, Ella Harper would have appreciated the poetic vista.  At nearly midnight, however, driving the high cliff roads, and already late for her hospital shift – the same rotation she’d worked for the last two weeks – the inhospitable October night promised only two things: her supervisor would give her hell for being late (again) and the emergency room would be crammed to the ceiling.  Sure, the hospital would get the normal car accident, heart attack, and occasional hit and run victim, but tonight it would overflow with flat out nutbars.  It never failed with a full moon.  Add in that Halloween was just a few days away, and every flake in Grayburn would come out of the woodwork.

Ella checked the dashboard clock and cringed.  Definitely going to be late.  How the hell was she supposed to know that this pea soup would churn in off the harbor waters?  She automatically glanced toward the cove on her left, barely able to make out the jutting shape of the mansion on the island in the inlet, and definitely not able to make out the horizon.

Was this weather normal for this town?  God, she hoped not.  She’d only lived in Grayburn a few short weeks, started her job in even less time, and this?  She cringed again.  Yeah, this wasn’t helping her make a good impression at Grayburn Community Hospital at all.

She dragged her attention back to the road.  The glow of her headlights bounced back in a harsh glare off the ever-thickening fog.  Her frown deepened.  Easing her foot from the gas pedal, she guided her car around a particularly sharp turn.  The reflective disks on the guardrail flickered amber – demon eyes waking briefly to watch her pass.

And then it was there – a hulking, black, four-legged beast in the middle of the road – dead center between her headlights.

Ella stomped on the brake and jerked the wheel hard to the right even as the realization that she was going to hit the animal fired through her brain.  The tires locked, then squealed.  The stench of hot tire rubber punched through the air vents.  The car snapped sideways, performing a compact hundred and eighty degree arc that apparently missed the animal, but not the guardrail.

Metal screamed against metal.  The rear window exploded and, predictably, the airbags deployed in a deafening rush.  A second later, Ella’s seat belt snapped tight across her shoulder and yanked her back in her seat.

Then it was over.

Trembling, her fingers locked tight around the steering wheel, Ella stared through the windshield.  The guardrail had somehow risen up and wrapped around her car hood like a fat, steel boa constrictor.  Its heavy metal coils squeezed the hood and front bumper together as if trying to stem the engine’s strange hissing moans.  The headlights bulged outwards, casting the twin beams in opposite directions – one toward the ground, the other toward the sky.  A hubcap rattled as it rolled away from the car and then collapsed to the pavement with a clatter.

Ella still didn’t move.

Shock numbed her, stealing all sensation – along with reason – for a full five seconds.  Then the first twinge came, a pain in her shoulder, a stiffness on the left side of her neck.  She forced her fingers to release their death-grip on the steering wheel.  Her hands slipped off the leather and dropped to her lap.

Groaning, she fumbled to release the seat belt, already diagnosing herself.  Possible whiplash.  Superficial cuts and scrapes.  No broken bones, thank God.  She hadn’t even hit her head on the dash or windshield.  In fact, she assured herself, forcing back a wave of panic as she pushed the safety strap away, she was probably more shaken than actually hurt.  The diagnosis seemed to confirm itself as she crawled across the seats to the passenger door to get out.

Stiff, a little slow, and a lot wobbly, Ella lowered her feet to the damp pavement.  She tightened her grip on the door and used it to steady herself as she stood.  The shock faded fast, logic and control flooding in to replace it, bringing the clarity that always made her good in a crisis.

She dragged her fingers through her dark brown hair as she assessed her damaged car.  The whole frame sagged before her, making her suspect that – should she check the other side – she’d find the tie rod snapped and the tire canted in toward the wheel well.  Combine that with the fact that her engine wasn’t running, yet her car was still hissing, and that the steam billowing out from beneath the hood carried a distinct sulfurous smell, and Ella concluded her radiator was most likely cracked.

“Damn it,” she groaned as she slammed the door shut.  Glass tumbled from the broken back window, tinkled as it hit the ground and, to Ella, sounded suspiciously like laughter.

Anger fired through her.  She turned on her heel, dropped her hands to their natural position on her hips, and glowered at the road behind her.  The fog roiled around her while the specters hidden within continued to creep and crawl.  Her eyes struggled to adjust to the inky blackness until —  There!

Ella froze.  Her breath caught.  Her heart stuttered.

There it was!  A phantom black shape with strange, pointy, horn-like protrusions from its blunt head – a beast escaped straight from hell to prowl the lonely road – still sitting in the middle of it as if nothing had happened.

She squeezed her eyes shut, gave her head a sharp shake to mentally kick the horror movies her mother warned her not to watch as a kid, but that she had anyway, to the curb.  Monsters didn’t exist.  At least, not the kind on four legs.  Real monsters walked on two.

Her lashes lifted.

A goddamned dog.

Her eyes narrowed.  Her breath released on a long, low sigh.  “Thanks a lot,” she muttered.  The dog still didn’t move.  Ella cocked her head and arched her brows.  “I don’t suppose you’re insured, huh?”

“Cerberus.  Come.”

Ella jolted at the low, gruff, male voice.  Automatically, she stepped back.  Her elbow whacked into her car’s side mirror.

The dog grumbled as it rose and then trotted through the fog – not closer to her, but toward the other side of the street – its nails clicking on the pavement like hail against the side of a house.

Ella lost the animal for a moment, found herself searching the night for it.  Then form broke from shadow; a slow, distorted separation until a man emerged.  He came no closer than necessary, regarded her with eyes that were unusually bright and gray, even in the dark.

He stood taller than she.  Much taller.  His black hair was longer than most men she knew.  He’d left it fairly natural, as well.  The dark locks hung long and loose against his temples.  It drew attention to the hard planes of his face; the strong cheekbones, firm line of his jaw and chin, both shadowed by stubble, and the slight crook of his nose.  Wide shoulders stretched his black, wool pea coat.  An equally wide chest was emphasized by the snug fitting black cashmere turtleneck he wore with matching jeans and boots.

Cerberus stood beside him, an ugly creature Ella hadn’t seen outside televised dog shows, but knew was some breed of Mastiff.  A gigantic Mastiff, she amended as the man absently shifted his hand to touch the top of the dog’s head, which stood nearly level with his thigh.  The canine was practically a small horse, weighing a hundred and forty pounds if it weighed an ounce, and probably standing more than two feet at its withers.

A big dog for a big man.

He dismissed her then, a simple shift of his gaze from her to the dog as he crouched.  He murmured something Ella couldn’t hear as he rubbed the animal’s head and neck with obvious concern and affection.  The dog – Cerberus, he’d called it – poked the man’s shoulder with its snout.

He gave the dog a solid pat between the shoulders before turning his attention to her once more.  “Are you hurt?”

“Are you familiar with leash laws?”  She gestured to the dog.  “Grayburn has them for a reason, you know.”

His thick brows inched upward.  His hand, large and lean with long, blunt-tipped fingers, began a slow, rhythmic stroke over the dog’s short, dense coat.  “He’s a very well-behaved dog.”

Ella’s eyebrows mirrored the hitch of his.  The implication being what?  That she was an ill-behaved driver?  She angled her chin upwards and folded her arms tight across her chest.   “Well, your ‘very well-behaved’ dog was in the middle of the damned road.”

His smoke-colored eyes flickered, darkened, and then narrowed.  His shoulders squared, and he straightened, rising with a grace that defied his size.  “I’d ask again if you were injured, but obviously you’re not.”

“No thanks to the horse.”

“Horse?”  He glanced down.  His brows pulled together, creating a deep line of annoyance between them.  “He’s a pure bred Cane Corso.”

“I don’t care if he’s flipping Lassie, he was still sitting in the middle of the road.  I’m lucky I didn’t hit him or get myself killed trying to avoid him.”  Ella turned back to her car.  Her moan was devastation.  “Aw, man, I just got this car.  Look at it!”

“It could have been worse.”

She jumped at his unexpected nearness, jerked her head around to find him standing next to her, his hands in his pockets, that steely gray gaze on the damaged car.

He still didn’t look at her.  “You must have exceptional reflexes.”

“I got lucky.”

“There is a difference between skill and luck.  In my experience, one should not dismiss either so readily.”

Ella shook her head as she pulled her cell phone from the pocket of her pink scrub top.  “Kayla’s going to kill me.”

He did look then, confusion stamped clear on his face.  “Who?”

“Kayla Baker.”  She brought the phone to her ear.  “My supervisor.”  She waited for the line to ring.  And waited.  And waited.  Lowering the phone, she checked the display.  The signal bars that normally dotted the top of the small screen were gone.  “Oh, that’s just perfect.  Great.  Of course.”  She wagged the phone in his direction.  “No signal.”  She eyed him.  “I don’t suppose you…”

He shook his head.  “Afraid not.”

“Figures.”  She dropped the phone back into her pocket.  “I’m dead.  That’s all there is to it.”  Cold.  Wet.  Miserable.  Owner of a destroyed car.  Yeah, this was really going to be her night.

A wet, cold poke to her butt had her glancing down to find the Mastiff staring up at her.

“What do you want?” she demanded even as she stroked the top of the dog’s head.  The black fur was coarse against her palm, but she rather liked the texture.

“There’s a gas station down the road,” the man told her.  “I’m certain they’ll have a phone.”

A mile walk.  In the dark.  Swell.

He seemed to read her mind.  “Or I’m sure someone will come along sooner or later.”

When she sighed, he said, “I’m sure Kayla will understand.”

“Understanding and Kayla don’t always go hand-in-hand,” Ella told him.  “I’ve already taken enough time away from work.”

“You don’t like your job?”

She stiffened.  She couldn’t help it.  “Personal time.”

“Ah,” he murmured, a wealth of understanding in that simple syllable.

Ella pinned him with a look.  “Ahhh… what?”


Her jaw dropped.  “How did you —”

“No wedding ring.”  He gestured at her hand.  “But you wore one until recently.”

Ella looked down at her fingers even though she knew very well the faint tan line was there.  Years of wearing a ring tended to do that.  She snatched her hand away from the dog’s head.  “What are you?  A detective or something?”

He chuckled.  The sound did something funny to the pit of her stomach that Ella wasn’t sure she liked.  Not sure at all.

Laughter glittered in his eyes.  “The bumper sticker kind of gave it away.”

Ella gave a mental groan as she recalled the Ran into my ex, put it in reverse, then ran into him again sticker that currently adorned her rear bumper.  “Gag gift from my Ball and Chain Bash,” she explained, though not sure why she felt compelled to.  The guy was making her nervous, looking at her the way he was. His eyes were gray serenity while the expression in them told her he understood far more than she could ever say.

“Ball and Chain,” he repeated dryly.

“It was symbolic.  Or at least was supposed to be.”  She shrugged as she shifted her weight to her other foot.  “My friends thought it would be therapeutic for me.  A symbolic breaking of the chain of my marriage.”  Why the hell was she explaining this to him?  The man didn’t care about the failure of her marriage.  He certainly didn’t need to hear details.  She pressed her lips together for a moment.  “Never mind.”

“Ah, I see.  They thought you’d celebrated the union, so you should celebrate its dissolution to give you closure.”

She shifted again.  “They thought it would snap me out of my funk and liberate me from the past.  It was either hammer through a plastic chain link or smelt my wedding band.  Since I’m far too practical to go around melting gold for no reason, I preferred to pawn it for first and last months’ rent.”

“So plastic chain bashing it was.”


He slanted her a sideways look and lingered on her.  “Did it work?”

She shrugged again, but knew the answer in her heart.  It hadn’t.  Not the way her friends wanted it to.  Oh, she no longer loved her husband – ex-husband.  Ex-husband.

Divorcing David had been the right thing to do.  A woman had her pride, after all, and there was no way she could stay with a man after catching him jerking off in the bathroom.  With her sister’s underwear in hand.  While her sister watched.

The divorce, however, had left her shaken and unsure of everything she once believed in.  That uncertainty included her taste in men, her views on love, her ability to put her life back together and be completely on her own again, and on why David had strayed in the first place.  Logically she knew that men who cheated, cheated.  It wasn’t the woman’s fault.  But that other part of her, the one she didn’t want to admit existed, worried that she’d somehow failed him.  That, somehow, she hadn’t been enough for him – in or out of bed – and had forced him to find whatever she lacked somewhere else.

Light flashed across them, momentarily giving Ella a super clear look at the man’s face before he turned toward the approaching vehicle.  He automatically put his arm out, moving her behind him in a strangely protective gesture.  Cerberus didn’t budge from his side; the dog’s docked ears pricking forward as the low rumble of a heavy truck engine growled through the night.

The truck lights were a solid blob at first.  As it neared, however, that blob began to divide – two for the headlights, another two, no, three, on top.  A police car?  No.  The lights were the wrong color.  Ella watched as the truck rolled to a stop, causing the thick chain on the flatbed behind it to rattle and sway, like a rustic pendulum of a clock, back and forth between the cab and the bed.  Tow truck.

“Of all the dumb luck,” she muttered.

“Perhaps it’s Fate,” the man said, peering over his shoulder at her.

Before she could respond, the driver’s window rolled down.  The man behind the wheel poked his head out.  He took a long, surveying look at the car, then the pair.  “Looks like you could use a little help.  Everybody all right?”

Ella stepped forward.  “Yeah.  Yeah, I’m okay.”  She glanced at the man next to her, unsure of what to say.  ‘Thanks’ seemed out of place considering the reason the accident happened in the first place.

Shaking it off, she strode toward the tow truck.  She rested her hand on the door and rose up on to her toes to get a better look at the driver.  “It’s probably going to take a while to untangle this mess and I have to get to work.  Could you drop me off in town and then come back for the car?”

“No problem.”  He busied himself with shifting all the papers and binders off the seat next to him.  “Hop on in.  I’ll drop you wherever you want to go.”

She smiled her thanks, then turned to tell the other man, but both he and his beast were gone.