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EtErnal Kiss

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					                EtErnal Kiss
               Mark of the Vampire
             by Laura Wright
         Author of Eternal Hunger




          T                            T
    An April 2011 Signet Eclipse Mass Market Paperback


         “Dark, delicious, and sinfully good . . .
                an addictive new series.”
        —Nalini Singh, New York Times bestselling
               author of Bonds of Justice


Sacrifice will be their downfall. And their resurrection.

Raised by the Breed, Nicholas Roman wants to stop the Eter-
nal Order of Vampires from controlling his life, and trans-
forming more males from his bloodline for their vicious reign.
   Only a beautiful vampire stranger can help him. But what
are her true motives?
   Kate Everborne claims she’s sheltering Nicholas’s long lost
son. If this is true, then who is the mother? And how endan-
gered are they if indeed he does possess the bloodline so cov-
eted by the Order? These are questions that with every
seductive whisper, every silken touch draw Nicholas and Kate
intimately closer, and nearer still to the truth. But aroused,
too, are Nicholas’s fears that this tantalizing woman has even
more secrets—both dangerous and provocative—she has yet
to share.
MArk of tHE VAMpirE



Nicholas Odysseus Claudius Roman did not fight. In fact, as he lay
on his back, strapped down to the stone table, bare as the day he
slipped from his mother’s weary body, he projected an almost eerie
calm.
    The leather restraints placed on his upper arms, belly, neck and
ankles by the Order sliced into his skin like dull razor blades, but he
ignored the pain. It was as it must be. Inside the Tomb of Nascita,
the massive hole cut deep within hundreds of layers of rock, the
Order performed the morphing ritual several times per year. When a
paven hit his three hundredth year on earth, he was brought to the
tomb, laid out on the slab of stone, and more often than not, held his
position without restraints. He was, after all, being gifted with the
strength and power of morpho. But the ancient ten were a bit unsure
of how the Son of a Breeding Male would react to the final strikes of
the maturation ritual. After all, their body and brain chemistry was
so very different than the average paven. Would Nicholas Roman’s
pain override his good sense and spur on the instinct to attack, to
drain, to kill? No one was sure. So imprison him they must.
    “Get on with it,” Nicholas said with grave irritation, lifting his
chin. “My brothers search for a way here even now.”
    One of the female members of the Order sniffed her disbelief.
“Surely, they wouldn’t come without an invitation.”
    “There is no one who wishes to incur the wrath of the ancient
ten,” said the paven beside her.
    Nicholas laughed bitterly. “If you think that, you’re all even big-
ger fools than I thought you were.”
    Several low, bloodthirsty snarls sounded behind him, but one
very cool head prevailed and the paven said, “We waste time with
things that matter not. Prepare yourself, Son of the Breeding Male.”
    There was a sudden crack, and above Nicholas, the perfectly
painted night sky split apart. The sounds of day echoed all around
him; birds waking one another, insects searching for a meal, and in
4                       L Aur A Wrig Ht

moments the cold, happy darkness ceased to reign. The brilliant white
light of a fabricated sun spilled into the stone room, its greedy fin-
gers reaching for every dim corner and crevice.
    And for the skin of a newly morphed paven.
    No stranger to pain, Nicholas remained still as death, even as the
hot branding iron of the false sun went to work on his forearms, carv-
ing the daggers and his true mate’s marks into his skin. It took only
minutes, but when it was done and his arms smoked in the light, he
cursed his ancestry as he had many times in his one hundred and fifty
years. For most pavens, this would be it, the end of the physical tor-
ture, but not for Nicholas. He was a Son of the Breeding Male and his
pain had just begun.
    Up the heat traveled, over his chest and shoulders, up his neck,
trailing his jawline in savage pursuit of its target until the blazing
sunlight reached his cheekbones. A hiss escaped his lips as the nee-
dle of fire carved the second set of brands into his cheeks; the Breed-
ing Male circles, and his true mate’s symbols within it.
    As quick as the light had come, its return to the makeshift heav-
ens was even quicker. The sounds of day died off and the ceiling
fused, and once again he was bathed in darkness. Breathing heavily,
his head feeling as though it had been rammed against a brick wall
forty times in succession, Nicholas heard the gentle footfall and swish
of the Order’s burgundy robes as they approached him. The ancient
rulers, the treacherous ten, gathered around the stone table and trained
their eyes on him.
    Cruen, as he so often did, spoke first. “Dare has been in hiding
these past months, licking his wounds, eerily silent—like a rat. But
he has emerged, calling Impures to his fold—filling their heads with
lies, filling their hearts with a need for freedom. Find and kill him,”
he said, but through Nicholas’s mind he uttered, Or your brother
will have stone at his back, leather around his extremities and no
doubt two empty circle brands on his cheeks.
    Nicholas hissed and pulled at his binds, strained to get up, out
and extinguish the pale blue light in Cruen’s malevolent eyes for-
ever. But he was held, caught.
    The image of Lucian, circle brands on his cheeks with nothing
inside, no mark of his true mate because he would never have one.
No love, no life—only the cries of a near-animal like paven bent on
feeding and breeding.
    The possibility that any one of the Roman brothers could have
                        EtErn AL k iss                               5

the Breeding Male gene was a good one, but Nicholas and Alexan-
der had long suspected that Lucian, with his pale features and insa-
tiable sexual appetite, was the carrier.
    It appeared as though Cruen believed so as well, and if Nicholas
wanted to keep his oath, his private promise to protect his younger
brother—as Lucian had once protected him—resurrected him—on
the dangerous French streets all those years before—Nicholas would
heed the monster before him.
    “Release me,” Nicholas demanded. “Now.”
    Cruen grinned, his red fangs—a symbol of The Order’s end of
blood consumption—were pin-prick sharp. “I appreciate your eager-
ness. Will you be a good little paven, then?”
    It took every ounce of mental restraint for Nicholas to spit out
the words, “I will.”
    The thick leather straps around his arms, belly, neck and ankles
evaporated like boiling water, and before another word was spoken,
before he could even sit upright, he was flashed from the Tomb of
Nascita and dropped naked, his brands still smoking onto the moun-
tain top next to the cave.
    Night covered the sky, a spring mist coated the air, and his broth-
ers stood at the mouth of the cave, matching expressions of rage on
their faces.
cHAptEr 1

Vermont credenti

As the blue light of day succumbed to the pale lavender of evening, a
bitter cold moved over the land, shook the snow from the trees and
curled around the veana and the balas who sat on the front steps of
the small credenti elementary school. The snow on the ground that
had been melting just a few hours earlier now glistened under the ris-
ing moon as water quickly turned back to ice. It was nearing six p.m.
and in accordance with the laws of the Order, it was time to end the
labor of the day and begin the calm of night. Most residents of the
credenti had left their work or schooling and had entered their homes
for Family Meal and reflection. Kate Everborne, however, had no
family to go home to. What she did have was a belief that reflection
was for unthinking drones, and the unwelcome responsibility of a
seven-year-old balas who once again had to be watched until his
mother showed up.
    “She’s not coming.”
    Kate glanced down at the boy. With his large black eyes and
shock of white hair he didn’t blend in well. She knew how that was.
“She’s coming. She’s just late.”
    “She’s always late,” he grumbled.
    “Give her a break, okay, kid? She’s doing the best she can.”
    “She should work inside the credenti. Like you. Do what veanas
are supposed to do.”
    The smile on Kate’s face was tight and forced, just like the white
purity bindings on her wrists and throat. The last thing in the world
she wanted to be doing was living inside the credenti, or any vam-
pire community, for that matter. And her work at the elementary
school, passing out lentils and fruit during mid-meal—well, it was
utter bullshit, a way to keep her in plain sight, see if she could live
among society again.
    But she didn’t have a choice. Not yet.
    “She dishonors my father’s memory by leaving the credenti,” the
boy continued.
8                       L Aur A Wrig Ht

    “You’re a good kid, Ladd Letts, but right now you’re acting like
a brat.”
    He crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t care.”
    “Yeah, I can tell.”
    “I don’t care about me and I don’t care about her.” He puffed
out his lips. “Maybe I wish she’d never come.”
    Kate sniffed. “Maybe she wishes that, too.”
    Ladd’s eyes grew wide and balas-wet as he stared up at her, took
in what she’d just said and molded it into the worst possible aban-
donment scenario.
    Ah, shit. Kate released a weary breath. She could be a real ass-
hole sometimes. “Listen, kid, I didn’t mean it like that.”
    “I’m here. I’m here.” Mirabelle Letts came running across the
tree-littered play yard toward them, her feet sinking calf-deep in the
heavy snow. She was a pretty veana; small, curvy, with soft brown
doe eyes that did their best to exude happiness. Slightly breathless,
she called out, “Sorry, Kate.”
    “No problem,” Kate returned, coming to her feet. She was just
relieved the veana had shown up. She really sucked with kids, wasn’t
sure what to say to them, how to comfort them. Sticking her in a
school wasn’t the Order’s smartest move, but hell, she wasn’t about to
complain. She had two months left on her work release, two months
until she could finally consider her time spent in the vampire prison,
Mondrar, over and done; the debt for another’s crime paid.
    Until then, she was keeping her nose clean and her fangs retracted.
    Ladd jumped to his feet and waved his arms like he was landing
planes, all anger gone now. “Mommy! I see you!”
    Kate chuckled at the quick recovery. At Ladd’s age, it seemed
that no matter what a parent did, said or forgot, they were always a
welcome sight.
    Give it a few years, kid.
    No more than ten feet away, Mirabelle waved back at her child
as she waded through the snow. “Training went over and there was
a gardening demonstration—”
    Something shot out of the shadows of the trees, cutting off Mira-
belle’s words. A paven; tall and dark. In under a second, he was on
Mirabelle, ripping the scarf from her neck, searching her flesh. Kate
opened her mouth to scream when she saw a silver flash. A knife!
Oh, shit. No! Terror locked the scream in her chest, and she fought
                         EtErn AL k iss                                9

the dual urges of running to help the veana and protecting the young
balas at her side.
    Before she could make her choice, the paven plunged the knife
deep into Mirabelle’s chest, then yanked it back out again and took
to her thighs, slashing at her skin until he severed the two main
arteries. Blood exploded from her legs in violent sprays.
    Her attacker released her, let her limp body drop to the ground,
and a piercing scream whipped through the night and jerked Kate
from her horror.
    Ladd.
    His face contorted with panic, he tried to run to his mother, but
Kate caught him in her arms and held him back.
    The dark-haired male suddenly glanced up, locked eyes with Kate
and grinned. Fuck. It was there in his eyes, in his smile—hunger to
spill blood. He was going to take her out and the kid too if she couldn’t
run or fight him off.
    The butcher paven started toward her and Ladd, his movements
graceful, catlike. Knowing she couldn’t outrun him, not with the boy,
Kate shoved Ladd behind her back, opened her arms to the evil com-
ing at her and flashed her fangs. Come and get it then, asshole. His
smile widened, the moonlight catching the tips of his fangs. Then
suddenly he stopped, lifted his chin and sniffed the air. With a growl
of annoyance, he turned around and ran back across the field, into
the trees.
    What the hell?
    Kate sucked in the bitterly cold air scented with blood and screamed,
“Help!” Silently praying that Mirabelle was still alive, she raced to the
female’s side, Ladd at her heels. The veana’s eyes were open, but her
quick, shallow breaths signaled how close to death she was. Kate
dropped down in the snow and pressed her hands to the gaping wound
in the female’s chest. Forcing up the healing energy all Pureblood
veanas possessed, she blew on the wounds in Mirabelle’s thighs—back
and forth, back and forth, each breath a show in pure determination
and desperation. But the cuts were so deep, the femoral artery calcula-
tedly severed. Red death seeped between her fingers, over the veana’s
chest, spilling out onto the pure white powdered floor.
    “Goddamit!” Kate screamed. “We need help here!” Darkness had
come. Where were all the selfless, community first, pious bastards
when one of their own needed them?
10                       L Aur A Wrig Ht

    Ladd laid his head on his mother’s belly and howled in misery.
    Mirabelle’s eyes were glassy as she hovered somewhere between
this world and the next. Her gaze flickered toward her son, then back
up to Kate. “Take him,” she uttered through short gasps of breath.
    “Don’t talk,” Kate said.
    “Take him. Please. He can’t be tested.”
    Lifting her head again, Kate yelled into the frigid air, “We need
help!”
    “No!” Mirabelle rasped. “Please. Before they come . . . take the
balas.”
    She was delusional, had to be. Kate shook her head. “He’ll be
okay. Don’t worry.”
    Mirabelle whispered something.
    “I can’t hear you . . .”
    “Come. Please.”
    Kate lowered her head, her ear to the female’s mouth.
    “He will be . . . caged if they find out.”
    “Find out what?” Kate uttered, keeping her ear close to the female’s
lips.
    In the last seconds before her death, Mirabelle revealed not only
her secrets, but her desperate plea to save her son’s life, all to the one
vampire on earth who, if she wanted to gain her freedom, could do
nothing for her.


The steady beats of the Impures’ hearts beckoned.
    They always did.
    Ethan Dare was one of them and yet the males that hovered so
near within the Vermont credenti woodlands would be hard pressed
see his merciless destruction of a Pureblood veana as a sacrifice to
the cause. No. They’d been raised to serve, protect and defend their
Pureblood masters, not rebel against them. And when Ethan had
finally left the vicinity, they would run back to their quarters and
squeal to the very ones who had once upon a time turned them over
to the Order for blood castration. Yes, even taking away an Impure’s
ability to breed or even enjoy sex could not spur the inferior class
into running away.
    Ethan closed his eyes and flashed out of the woods.
    According to the Order, his Impure brothers and sisters of the cre-
denti were sterilized for the good of the Breed. Keep things nice and
                         EtErn AL k iss                               11

pure. Well, the Order could keep their precious purity. After a slow
recovery from the bullet wounds he’d suffered at the hands of Alexan-
der Roman, Ethan and his recruits had begun anew, and soon he
would be coming back to the Vermont credenti just as he’d done in the
Maine and Pennsylvania communities to offer each Impure a new life.
    From frosty air and heavy snow to arid, oppressive heat, Ethan
touched down on the iridescent sand of the Supreme One’s existence.
His partner in the Uprising could command time, place, mood, and
much to Ethan’s irritation, temperature. The paven got off on heat—
intense, land-of-satan kind of heat—and for a male who had a hard
time regulating his body temperature as of late, it was a real pain in
the ass for Ethan to take a meeting there.
    But he never complained. After all, he would always go where
the power meal was.
    Sweating like a whore in church, Ethan trudged down to the
water’s edge. His arms hung at his sides, empty. They should’ve held
the balas, but his attempt to get Ladd Letts hadn’t been successful.
Not that he really gave a shit, but the one who fed him, the one who
gave him power did, and Ethan knew he was in for a fang lashing.
    No sympathetic breeze caressed his face as he grew nearer the
water, just incessant blasts of wet heat. The Supreme One’s reality
was a massive one-room beach setting, open to the elements, dressed
with plant life and flowers, and three white walls adorned with
Hockney miniatures. As Ethan passed by a stand of palm trees, he
took in the sight of his human female, lying on a beach chair sunning
herself. Pearl McClean’s eyes were closed and her hands were on her
round belly. She was a ‘guest’ of the Supreme One’s. Instead of stay-
ing with Ethan at his new compound, which had been given to him
by a Hollywood actress with a penchant for males with fangs, the
master had insisted she remain with him. The sweet, stupid little
thing had happily agreed before he’d even had a chance to persuade
the paven otherwise.
    Poor Pearl. She had no idea she was collateral.
    Ethan kept walking until sand gave way to sea. Over the water,
lying in a hammock supported by nothing at all, the Supreme One
reclined, his gnarled hand passing back and forth over the blue water,
manipulating the speed of the waves as they rushed to the shore.
Slowly at first, then a bullet train of saltwater crashing against Ethan’s
thighs, followed by the ever popular freeze in midair trick.
    Ethan sighed. Oh, the drama.
12                       L Aur A Wrig Ht

    When he reached the Supreme One, he inclined his head. “It is
done, my lord.”
    The Supreme One dragged his gaze from the water and nar-
rowed it on Ethan. “You’re certain?”
    “Her blood ran like sweet wine into the snow.”
    “And you saw the mark? The eternal kiss?”
    “It was on the back of her neck as the genealogist claimed.”
    The Supreme One grinned. “Nicholas Roman’s true mate extin-
guished.”
    “Yes, sir.” It was a bizarre partnership, Ethan thought, wiping
the sweat from his face and neck. The supposed ancient Pureblood
teaming up with an Impure who was hell bent on the destruction of
the Pureblood race—but they both had much to gain it seemed.
    “And the boy?” the Supreme One said. “Where do you have him
hidden?”
    There it was. The dreaded question. Ethan forced out his chin.
Fucking up was one thing, but he must never appear the weaker to this
paven—even if they both knew he was. “I couldn’t get to the boy.”
    The Supreme One sat up. Fool!”
    “There was a veana with him, and Impures close by, watching. I
didn’t want the whole of the credenti on my ass.”
    “Of course you didn’t,” the Supreme One muttered with undis-
guised sarcasm. “Impure coward.”
    Ethan sniffed. Impure coward indeed. Though the Supreme One
had great and awe-inspiring power, he had revealed to Ethan the
truth about his own blood—the drops of Impurity that lay dormant
in his cells, his secret lineage; a male on his father’s side who had
been born of a human woman. The Supreme One hated his Impurity,
even as he had given his support to the uprising.
    “I will get to the boy,” Ethan assured him. “I just need to rest,
gain more strength. Perhaps if you had fed me more regularly dur-
ing my recovery I could have remained and fought—”
    Ethan shot into the air, flew forward and slammed head first into
the water. A light thread of panic jumped in his blood and he tried
like hell to lift his head out of the rushing current, but his neck refused
to give. He couldn’t move. Not even a fingertip. He knew better than
to criticize the Supreme One.
    Holding his breath as long as he could, he whimpered his exhaus-
tion, his eyes scanning the empty sea floor. Then his lungs gave out
and he inhaled, swallowing the salty water in gulps. Pain surged
                        EtErn AL k iss                           13

through him, an empty ache. Recognizing he was in the moments
before death, Ethan conjured an image of the child he’d created, yet
would never see. He barely felt the force yanking him up, out of the
water and tossing him onto the sand.
    Choking on the water in his lungs, weak as a balas, Ethan tried
to sit up. He clutched his skull and whimpered as stars played on his
eyelids.
    “Open your eyes, Impure.”
    Ethan forced his lids back.
    The Supreme One still lounged in his hammock, a soporific smile
on his lined face. “You want your feed, do you?”
    Ethan could only nod. What he would give to make the Supreme
One choke, just once.
    “You may have it.”
    Once on his knees, Ethan tried to capture a clear breath, then
attempted to stand.
    “Remain,” said the Supreme One.
    Ethan lifted his eyes. “My lord . . . ?”
    “Remain on your hands and knees and crawl to me.”
    Because he had to, for now he had to, Ethan did as he was told,
inching toward the master—a dog looking for a scrap—as his human
female watched from the sanctuary of her lounge chair, her eyes los-
ing a thread of their admiration.
    Someday he would be the one who controlled all—someday he
would make the Purebloods—and the paven before him—crawl.
cHAptEr 2



The collar of his coat flipped up to mask the brands that were now
seared into the skin of his cheeks, Nicholas pushed his sunglasses to the
bridge of his nose with his index finger and moved through the crowd.
On the stage to his left, an all female heavy metal band rocked out,
their hands working their instruments, their bodies gyrating against
their mike stands. The guitar player, a tall redhead with ripped fishnets
and dragon tats up both arms grinned at him and tried to catch his eye,
but he was on the hunt for one hidden somewhere in the strobe-lit
shadows.
    The Eyes, the New York City street rats who ran the sales of
drugs, blood and body to both human and vampire had texted Nich-
olas twenty minutes ago—just as he was getting balled out by his
brothers for going it alone before the Order. It had been a real shame
to have to bail on Alexander’s lecture, end Lucian’s rant regarding
his bullshit actions and inconsiderate stupidity. But hey, The Eyes
were claiming to own some information Nicholas wanted pretty badly,
and rescheduling his brothers’ tantrum for sometime next century
seemed the wisest course of action.
    Pissed at the lack of control they had over the situation with the
Order, Alexander and Lucian had made it clear they’d wanted to be
at this little meet and greet. But The Eyes tended to clam up around
blood they didn’t know, and Nicholas wasn’t going to risk that.
    He walked around the bar, his gaze sliding from one face to
another. His brothers would ease off, calm down and get on board
once he came home with the location of Dare and his recruits.
Because Dare’s whereabouts was the reason for this meet.
    Had to be.
    Better be.
    His gaze shifted to the hallway leading to the emergency exit.
There. Bingo. A tall, lean figure stood under the pale red sign, deep in
the shadows, the agreed upon Mets cap tilted low. Nicholas headed
in that direction, but even before he reached the hazy spotlight of red,
                         EtErn AL k iss                              15

he knew something was off. Way off. The one waiting in the shadows
wasn’t a member of The Eyes, wasn’t an Impure—and definitely was
not a paven.
    Another step forward and her blood scent hit him like a battering
ram; up the nostrils, into the lungs and straight down to his cock.
    Holy shit. His hands dropped to his sides, hovered near his weap-
ons. What the hell was this? As one who’d spent years selling his flesh,
only the scent of currency made his body react like that. He inhaled
again, filling his lungs with that luscious, highly addictive scent she
was throwing off, as his brain searched for clues into what was waiting
for him under that Mets cap besides a few strands of escaped blond
hair.
    She was a Pureblood veana, and if the abilities of his newly morphed
status could be trusted, untouched by a paven.
    What the fuck was going on here? Had Dare orchestrated this
meet? Or was this something else altogether? Someone sent through
the wrong channels—the Nicholas Roman for-hire channels—the
one he kept private for . . . private clients.
    The veana lifted her head then and he saw her face for the first
time. Jesus. She was gorgeous. Drop dead. Her skin was smooth and
tantalizing, like cream with a touch of honey mixed in, and her nose
was small and perfect. But it was her lips that really made his cock
stir . . . full and pale pink. Christ, he wanted to run his fangs, his
mouth up one cheek and down the other, catch her lips as he went,
suckle the dark pink top, then the extra plump bottom.
    Then there were her eyes. Large, deeply brown, tough as a brick
wall, and screamed disaster. They were the most beautifully haunt-
ing things he’d ever seen. And he’d seen many pairs of fine eyes.
    She was his perfection, and well, that just couldn’t be an acci-
dent now could it?
    As he headed for her, his hands stole inside his coat, closed around
the guns at his waist. She was tall for a veana, perfect height in fact,
and even in the credenti rags she wore, he could tell she was built for a
paven’s hands—his hands.
    He released the safeties on his twin Glocks as he met her under the
red glow. He didn’t want to shoot up the place, but he wasn’t about to
walk into a trap unprepared either. “Who are you?” he asked her.
    Her eyes met his with an abrasive wariness. “A messenger.”
    Her voice coated the air around him, like honey for the ears.
Whoever had sent her knew him well. “Have a message for me?”
16                     L Aur A Wrig Ht

    She nodded. “If you’re Nicholas Roman.”
    But who knew him that well, save his brothers?
    “Are you?” she asked. “Nicholas Roman?”
    He wanted to see how this played out. He nodded. “Yes.”
    She turned then, called out to someone behind her. “Ladd. Come
here.”
    Nicholas reached out and grabbed her, had her back to his front
and his gun trained on her temple in under a second. “Don’t move,
veana.”
    She didn’t. But she did growl at him. “Put the gun away, asshole.”
    “Not a chance.”
    “You’re going to scare him.”
    “Scare who?”
    “Please don’t do this.”
    “Scare who?” he said again, his tone lethal, his hands crushing
against her ribs.
    “The balas,” she uttered between gritted teeth.
    A boy stepped out of the shadows and into the pale red spotlight
where the veana had been just seconds ago. His hair was snow white
and his dark eyes were wide and filled with fear as he took in the
sight before him.
    Nicholas dropped his gun at once, but didn’t release the veana.
His tone went dry and deeply suspicious. “What is this?”
    The veana didn’t struggle against him, but she turned her head
and looked up into his face, her large, haunting eyes threatening to
bore a hole right into his skull. “This, Nicholas Roman, is your son.”
               Dragon BounD
           A Novel of the Elder Races
                by thea Harrison




           T                           T
   A May 2011 Berkley Sensation Mass Market Paperback


      “Black Dagger Brotherhood readers will love
            Dragon Bound . . . I’m hooked!”
     —J.R. Ward, #1 New York Times bestselling author


    “I loved this book so much I didn’t want it to end.”
     —Nalini Singh, New York Times bestselling author


The passion that burns also consumes . . .

Half-human and half-wyr, Pia Giovanni spent her life keeping
a low profile among the wyrkind and avoiding the continuing
conflict between them and their Dark Fae enemies. But after
being blackmailed into stealing a coin from the hoard of a
dragon, Pia finds herself targeted by one of the most powerful—
and passionate—of the Elder races.
    As the most feared and respected of the wyrkind, Dragos
Cuelebre cannot believe someone had the audacity to steal
from him, much less succeed. And when he catches the thief,
Dragos spares her life, claiming her as his own to further
explore the desire they’ve ignited in each other.
   Pia knows she must repay Dragos for her trespass, but re-
fuses to become his slave—although she cannot deny wanting
him, body and soul . . .
cHAptEr 1



Pia was blackmailed into committing a crime more suicidal than
she could possibly have imagined, and she had no one to blame but
herself.
    Knowing that didn’t make it easier. She couldn’t believe she had
been so lacking in good judgment, taste, or sensibility.
    Honestly, what had she done? She had taken one look at a pretty
face and forgotten everything her mom had taught her about sur-
vival. It sucked so bad she might as well put a gun to her head and
pull the trigger. Except she didn’t own a gun because she didn’t like
them. Besides, pulling the trigger on a gun was pretty final. She had
issues with commitment and she was so freaking dead anyway, so
why bother.
    A taxi horn blared. In New York the sound was so common
everyone ignored it, but this time it made her jump. She threw a
glance over one hunched shoulder.
    Her life was in ruins. She would be on the run for the rest of her
life, all fifteen minutes or so of it, thanks to her own foolish behav-
ior and her shithead ex who had screwed her, then screwed her over
so royally she couldn’t get over the knifelike sensation in the pit of
her stomach.
    She stumbled into a narrow trash-strewn street by a Korean res-
taurant. She uncapped a liter-sized water bottle and chugged half of
it down, one hand splayed on the cement wall while she watched the
sidewalk traffic. Steam from the restaurant kitchen enveloped her in
the rich red-pepper and soy scents of gochujang and ganjang sauces,
overlaying the garbage rot of a nearby Dumpster and the acrid
exhaust from the traffic.
    The people in the street looked much as they always did, driven
by internal forces as they charged along the sidewalk and shouted
on cell phones. A few mumbled to themselves as they dug through
trash cans and looked at the world with lost wary eyes. Everything
looked normal. So far so good?
20                     tHEA HA rrison

    After a long nightmarish week, she had just committed the crime.
She had stolen from one of the most dangerous creatures on Earth, a
creature so frightening that just imagining him was more scariness
than she ever wanted to meet in real life. Now she was almost done.
A couple more stops to make, one more meeting with the shithead,
and then she could scream for oh, say, a couple of days or so while
she figured out where she would run to hide.
    Holding on to that thought she strode down the street until she
came to the Magic District. Located east of the Garment District
and north of Koreatown, the New York Magic District was some-
times called the Cauldron. It comprised several city blocks that
seethed with light and dark energies.
    The Cauldron flaunted caveat emptor like a prizefighter’s satin
cloak. The area was stacked several stories high with kiosks and shops
offering Tarot readings, psychic consultations, fetishes and spells,
retail and wholesale sellers, imports, those who dealt with fake mer-
chandise and those who sold magic items that were deadly real. Even
from the distance of a city block, the area assaulted her senses.
    She came to a shop located at the border of the district. The store-
front was painted sage green on outside, with the molding at the plate-
glass windows and door painted pale yellow. She took a backward
step to look up. divinus was spelled in plain brushed-metal lettering
over the front window. Years ago her mother had on occasion bought
spells from the witch who owned this shop. Pia’s boss, Quentin, had
also mentioned the witch had one of the strongest magical talents he
had ever met in a human.
    She looked in the storefront. Her blurred reflection looked back
at her, a tired young woman, built rather long and coltish, with
tense features and a pale blonde tangled ponytail. She looked past
herself into the shadowed interior.
    In contrast to the noisy none-too-clean surroundings of the city
street, the inside of the shop appeared cool and serene. The building
seemed to glow with warmth. She recognized protection spells in
place. In a display case near the door harmonic energies sparked
from an alluring arrangement of crystals, amethyst, peridot, rose
quartz, blue topaz and celestite. The crystals took the slanting sun-
shine and threw brilliant rainbow shards of light onto the ceiling.
Her gaze found the single occupant inside, a tall queenlike woman,
perhaps Hispanic, with a gaze that connected to hers with a snap of
Power.
                       Dr A gon Boun D                             21

    That was when the shouting started.
    “You don’t have to go in there!” a man yelled. Then a woman
shrieked, “Stop before it’s too late!”
    Pia started and looked behind her. A group of twenty people stood
across the street. They held various signs. One poster said, magic =
highway to hell. Another said, god will save us. A third declared,
elder races—an elitist hoax.
    Her sense of unreality deepened, brought on by stress, lack of
sleep, and a constant sense of fear. They were yelling at her.
    Some of humankind persisted in a belligerent disbelief of the
Elder Races, despite the fact that many generations ago folktales
had given way to proof as the scientific method had been developed.
The Elder Races and humankind had lived together openly since the
Elizabethan Age. These humans with their revisionist history made
about as much sense as those who declared the Jews hadn’t been
persecuted in World War II.
    Besides being out of touch with reality, they were picketing a
human witch to protest the Elder Races? She shook her head.
    A cool tinkle brought her attention back to the shop. The woman
with Power in her gaze held the door open. “City ordinances can
work both ways,” she told Pia, her voice filled with scorn. “Magic
shops may have to stay within a certain district, but protesters have
to stay fifty feet away from the shops. They can’t come across the
street, they can’t enter the Magic District, and they can’t do any-
thing but yell at potential customers and try to scare them off from
a distance. Would you like to come in?” One immaculate eyebrow
raised in imperious challenge, as if suggesting that to step into the
woman’s shop took a real act of bravery.
    Pia blinked at her, expression blank. After everything she had been
through, the other woman’s challenge was beyond insignificant—it
was meaningless. She walked in without a twitch.
    The door tinkled into place behind her. The woman paused for
a heartbeat, as if Pia had surprised her. Then she stepped in front of
Pia with a smooth smile.
    “I’m Adela, the owner of Divinus. What can I do for you, my
dear?” The shopkeeper’s face turned puzzled and searching as she
looked Pia over. She murmured, almost to herself, “What is it? . . .
There’s something about you. . . .”
    Crap, she hadn’t thought of that. This witch might remember
her mom.
22                     tHEA HA rrison

    “Yeah, I look like Greta Garbo,” Pia interrupted, her expression
stony. “Moving on now.”
    The other woman’s gaze snapped up to hers. Pia’s face and body
language transmitted a closed sign, and the witch’s demeanor changed
back into the professional saleswoman. “My apologies,” she said in her
chocolate milk voice. She gestured. “I have herbal cosmetics, beauty
remedies, tinctures over in that corner, crystals charged with healing
spells—”
    Pia looked around without taking it all in, although she noticed
a spicy smell. It smelled so wonderful she breathed it in deeply with-
out thinking. Despite herself the tense muscles in her neck and shoul-
ders eased. The scent contained a low-level spell, clearly intended to
relax nervous customers.
    While the spell caused no actual harm and did nothing to dull
her senses, its manipulative nature repelled her. How many people
relaxed and spent more money because of it? Her hands clenched as
she shoved the magic away. The spell clung to her skin a moment
before it dissipated. The sensation reminded her of cobwebs trailing
across her skin. She fought the urge to brush off her arms and legs.
    Annoyed, she turned and met the shopkeeper’s eyes. “You come
recommended by reputable sources,” she said in a clipped tone. “I
need to buy a binding spell.”
    Adela’s bland demeanor fell away. “I see,” she said, matching Pia’s
crispness. Her eyebrows raised in another faint challenge. “If you’ve
heard of me, then you know I’m not cheap.”
    “You’re not cheap because you’re supposed to be one of the best
witches in the city,” said Pia as she strode to a nearby glass counter.
She shrugged the backpack off her aching shoulder and rested it on
the counter, pulling the tangle of her ponytail out from under one
strap. She stuffed her water bottle inside and zipped it back up.
    “Gracias,” said the witch, her voice bland.
    She glanced down at the crystals in the case. They were so bright
and lovely, filled with magic and light and color. What would it be
like to hold one, to feel the cool heavy weight of it sitting in her
palm as it sang to her of starlight and deep mountain spaces? How
would it feel to own one?
    The connection snapped as she turned. She looked her own chal-
lenge at the other woman. “I can also feel the spells you have both
on and in the shop, including the attraction spells on these crystals
as well as the one that’s supposed to make your customers relax.
                        Dr A gon Boun D                              23

I can tell your work is competent enough. I need an oath-binding
spell, and I need to walk out of the shop with it today.”
     “That is not as easy as it might sound,” said the witch. Long eye-
lids dropped, shuttering her expression. “This is not a fast-food drive-
through.”
     “The binding doesn’t have to be fancy,” said Pia. “Look, we
both know you’re going to charge more because I need it right away.
I still have a lot to do, so can we just please skip this next part where
we dance around each other and negotiate? Because, no offense, it’s
been a long bad day. I’m tired and not in the mood.”
     The witch’s mouth curled. “Certainly,” she said. “Although with
a binding, there’s only so much I can do on the spot, and there are
some things I won’t do at all. If you need something tailored for a
specific purpose, it will take some time. If you’re looking for a dark
binding, you’re in the wrong place. I don’t do dark magic.”
     She shook her head, relieved at the woman’s businesslike attitude.
“Nothing too dark, I think,” she said in a rusty voice. “Something
with serious consequences, though. It’s got to mean business.”
     The witch’s dark eyes shone with a sardonic sparkle. “You mean
a kind of ‘I swear I will do such-and-such or my ass will catch fire
until the end of time’ type of thing?”
     Pia nodded, her mouth twisting. “Yeah. That kind of thing.”
     “If someone swears an oath of his own free will, the binding
falls into the realm of contractual obligation and justice. I can do
that. And have, as a matter of fact,” the other woman said. She
moved toward the back of her shop. “Follow me.”
     Pia’s abused conscience twitched. Unlike the polarized white
and black magics, gray magic was supposed to be neutral, but the
witch’s kind of ethical parsing never did sit well with her. Like the
relaxation spell in the shop, it felt manipulative, devoid of any real
moral substance. A great deal of harm could be done under the
guise of neutrality.
     Which was pretty damn self-righteous of her, wasn’t it, coming
fresh as she did from the scene of her crime and desperate to get her
hands on that binding spell. The urge to run pumped adrenaline into
her veins. Self-preservation kept her anchored in place. Disgusted
with herself, she shook her head and followed the witch. Here goes
nothing.
     She really hoped that wasn’t true.
     They concluded business in under an hour. At the witch’s
24                      tHEA HA rrison

invitation she slipped out the back to avoid more heckling from the
protesters. Her backpack had been lightened by a considerable amount
of cash, but Pia figured in a life-or-death situation it was money well
spent.
    “Just one thing,” said the witch. She leaned her curvaceous body
in a languid pose against the back doorpost of her shop.
    Pia paused and looked back at the other woman.
    The witch held her gaze. “If you’re personally involved with the
man that is intended for, I’m here to tell you, honey, he isn’t worth it.”
    A harsh laugh escaped her. She hefted the backpack higher onto
one shoulder. “If only my problems were that simple.”
    Something moved under the surface of the other woman’s lovely
dark eyes. The shift of thought looked calculating, but that could
have been a trick of the late afternoon light. In the next moment her
beautiful face wore an indifferent mask, as if she had already men-
tally moved on to other things.
    “Luck, then, chica,” the witch said. “You need to buy something
else, come back any time.”
    She swallowed and said past a dry throat. “Thanks.”
    The witch shut her door and Pia loped to the end of the block,
then moved into the sidewalk traffic.
    Pia hadn’t shared her name. After the first rebuff, the witch
knew not to ask and she hadn’t offered. She wondered if she had
trouble tattooed on her forehead. Or maybe it was in her sweat.
Desperation had a certain smell to it.
    Her fingers brushed the front pocket of her jeans where she’d
slipped the oath binding, wrapped in a plain white handkerchief. A
strong magical glow emanated through the distressed denim and
made her hand tingle. Maybe after she met with the shithead and
concluded their transaction, she could take her first deep breath in
days. She supposed she should be grateful the witch hadn’t been
more of a shark.
    Then Pia heard the most terrible sound of her life. It started low
like a vibration, but one so deep in power it shook her bones. She
slowed to a stop along with the other pedestrians. People shaded
their eyes and looked around as the vibration grew into a roar that
swept through the streets and rattled the buildings.
    The roar was a hundred freight trains, tornadoes, Mount Olym-
pus exploding in a rain of fire and flood.
                        Dr A gon Boun D                              25

    Pia fell to her knees and threw her arms over her head. Others
screamed and did the same. Still others looked around wild-eyed,
trying to spot the disaster. Some ran panicked down the street. The
nearby intersections were dotted with car accidents as frightened
drivers lost control and slammed into one another.
    Then the roar died away. Buildings settled. The cloudless sky
was serene, but New York City most certainly was not.
    Alrighty.
    She pushed upright on unsteady legs and mopped her sweat damp-
ened face, oblivious to the chaos churning around her.
    She knew what—who—had made that unholy sound and why.
The knowledge made her guts go watery.
    If she were in a race for her life, that roar was the starter pistol.
If God were the referee, He had just shouted Go.


He had been born along with the solar system. Give or take.
    He remembered a transcendent light and an immense wind. Mod-
ern science called it a solar wind. He recalled a sensation of endless
flight, an eternal basking in light and magic so piercing and young and
pure it rang like the trumpeting of thousands of angels.
    His massive bones and flesh must have been formed along with
the planets. He became bound to Earth. He knew hunger and learned
to hunt and eat. Hunger taught him concepts such as before and after,
and danger and pain and pleasure.
    He began to have opinions. He liked the gush of blood as he
gorged on flesh. He liked drowsing on a baked rock in the sun. He
adored launching into the air, taking wing and riding thermals high
above the ground, so like that first endless-seeming ecstasy of flight.
    After hunger, he discovered curiosity. New species burgeoned.
There were the Wyrkind, Elves, both Light and Dark Fae, tall bright-
eyed beings and squat mushroom-colored creatures, winged night-
mares and shy things that puttered in foliage and hid whenever he
appeared. What came to be known as the Elder Races tended to clus-
ter in or around magic-filled dimensional pockets of Other land,
where time and space had buckled when the earth was formed and
the sun shone with a different light.
    Magic had a flavor like blood, only it was golden and warm like
sunlight. It was good to gulp down with red flesh.
26                     tHEA HA rrison

    He learned language by listening in secret to the Elder Races. He
practiced on his own when he took flight, mulling over each word
and its meaning. The Elder Races had several words for him.
    Wyrm, they called him. Monster. Evil. The Great Beast.
    Dragua.
    Thus he was named.
    He didn’t notice at first when the first modern Homo sapiens
began to proliferate in Africa. Of all species, he wouldn’t have guessed
they would flourish. They were weak, had short life spans, no natural
armor and were easy to kill.
    He kept an eye on them and learned their languages. Just as other
Wyrkind did, he developed the skill of shapeshifting so he could walk
among them. They dug up the things of Earth he liked, gold and sil-
ver, sparkling crystals and precious gems, which they shaped into
creations of beauty. Acquisitive by nature, he collected what caught
his eye.
    This new species spread across the world, so he created secret
lairs in underground caverns where he gathered his possessions.
    His hoard included works of the Elves, the Fae and the Wyr, as
well as human creations such as gold and silver and copper plates,
goblets, religious artifacts and coinage of all sorts. Money, now there
was a concept that intrigued him, attached as it was to so many
other interesting concepts like trade, politics, war and greed. There
were also cascades of loose crystals and precious gems and crafted
jewelry of all sorts. His hoard grew to include writings from all Elder
Races and from humankind, as books were an invention he (only
sometimes) thought was more precious than any other treasure.
    Along with his interest in history, mathematics, philosophy, as-
tronomy, alchemy and magic, he became intrigued with modern sci-
ence. He traveled to England to have a conversation on the origin of
species with a famous scientist in the nineteenth century. They had
gotten drunk together—the Englishman with rather more despera-
tion than he—and had talked through the witching hours until the
night mist had been burned to vapor by the sun.
    He remembered telling the drunken clever scientist that he and
humankind civilization had a lot in common. The difference was his
experience was couched in a single entity, one set of memories. In a
way that meant he embodied all stages of evolution at once—beast
and predator, magician and aristocrat, violence and intellectualism.
He was not so sure he had acquired humanlike emotions. He had
                       Dr A gon Boun D                              27

certainly not acquired their morality. Perhaps his greatest achieve-
ment was law.
    Humans in different cultures also had many words for him. Ryu,
they called him. Wyvern. Naga. To the Aztecs he was the winged ser-
pent Quetzalcoatl whom they called God.
    Dragos.


When he discovered the theft, Dragos Cuelebre exploded into the
sky with long thrusts from a wingspan approaching that of an eight-
seater Cessna jet.
     Modern life had gotten complicated. His usual habit was to
focus Power on averting aircraft when he flew or, simpler yet, just
file a flight plan with the local air traffic control. With his outra-
geous wealth and position as one of the eldest and most powerful of
the Wyr, life scrambled to arrange itself to his liking.
     He wasn’t so polite this time. This was more a get-the-fuck-out-
of-my-way kind of flight. He was blinded with rage, violent with
incredulity. Lava flowed through ancient veins and his lungs worked
like bellows. As he approached the zenith of his climb, his long head
snapped back and forth, and he roared again. The sound ripped the
air as his razor claws mauled an imaginary foe.
     All of his claws except for those on one front foot where he held a
tiny scrap of something fragile and, to be frank, inconceivable. This
tiny scrap was as ludicrous and as nonsensical to him as a hot fudge
sundae topping an ostrich’s head. The cherry on the hot fudge sundae
was the elusive whiff of scent that clung to the scrap. It teased his
senses into frenzy as it reminded him of something so long ago that he
couldn’t quite remember what it was—
     His mind went white hot and slipped from its mooring in time.
Existing in his wrath he flew until he came to himself and began to
think again.
     Then Rune said in his head, My lord? Are you well?
     Dragos cocked his head, for the first time coming aware that his
First flew behind him at a discreet distance. It was a measure of his
rage that he hadn’t noticed. Any other time Dragos was aware of
everything that happened within his vicinity.
     Dragos noted that Rune’s telepathic voice was as calm and neu-
tral as the other male’s physical voice would have been had he spo-
ken the words aloud.
28                     tHEA HA rrison

    There were many reasons why Dragos had made Rune his First in
his Court. Those reasons were why Rune had thrived in his service for
so long. The other male was seasoned, mature and dominant enough
to hold authority in a sometimes unruly Wyr society. He was intelli-
gent with a capacity for cunning and violence that came close to Dra-
gos’s own.
    Most of all, Rune had a gift for diplomacy that Dragos had never
achieved. That talent made the younger male useful when treating
with the other Elder Courts. It also helped him to navigate rocky
weather when Dragos was in a rage.
    Dragos’s jaw clenched and he ground massive teeth shaped for
maximum carnage. After a moment, he answered, I am well.
    How may I be of service? his First asked.
    His mind threatened to seize again in sheer incredulity of what
he had found. He snarled, There has been a theft.
    A pause. Rune asked, My lord?
    For once his First’s legendary coolness had been shaken. It gave
him a grim sense of satisfaction. A thief, Rune. He bit at each word.
A thief has broken into my hoard and taken something of mine.
    Rune took several moments to absorb his words. Dragos let him
have the time.
    The crime was impossible. It had never happened, not in all the
millennia of his existence. Yet it had happened now. First someone
had somehow found his hoard, which was an incredible feat in itself.
An elaborate fake setup complete with state-of-the-art security was
located below the basement levels of Cuelebre Tower, but no one knew
the location of Dragos’s actual hoard except himself.
    His actual hoard was protected by powerful cloaking and aver-
sion spells older than the pharaoh tombs of Egypt and as subtle as
tasteless poison on the tongue. But after locating his secret lair, the
thief had managed to slip past all of Dragos’s physical and magical
locks, like a knife slicing through butter. Even worse, the thief man-
aged to slip out again the same way.
    The only warning Dragos had received was a nagging unease that
had plagued him all afternoon. His unease had increased to the point
where he couldn’t settle down until he went to check on his property.
    He had known his lair had been infiltrated as soon as he had set
foot near the hidden entrance to the underground cavern. Still, he
couldn’t believe it, even after he had torn inside to discover the indis-
                        Dr A gon Boun D                               29

putable evidence of the theft, along with something else that trumped
all other inconceivability.
    He looked down at his clenched right foot. He wheeled in an
abrupt motion to set a return path to the city. Rune followed and set-
tled smoothly into place behind him, his rear right wingman.
    You are to locate this thief. Do everything possible, Dragos said.
Everything, you understand. Use all magical and nonmagical means.
Nothing else exists for you. No other tasks, no other diversions. Pass
all of your current duties on to Aryal or Grym.
    I understand, my lord, Rune said, keeping his mental voice quiet.
    Dragos sensed other conversations in the air, although no one
dared direct contact with him. He suspected his First had begun giv-
ing orders to transfer duties to the others.
    He said, Be very clear about something, Rune. I do not want this
thief harmed or killed by anyone but myself. You are not to allow it.
You should be sure of the people you use on this hunt.
    I will.
    It will be on your head if something goes wrong, Dragos told him.
He couldn’t have articulated even to himself why he pressed the mat-
ter with this creature who for centuries had been as steady and reli-
able as a metronome. His claws clenched on his implausible scrap of
evidence. Understood?
    Understood, my lord, Rune replied, calm as ever.
    Good enough, he growled.
    Dragos noticed they had returned over the city. The sky around
them was clear of all air traffic. He soared in a wide circle to settle on
the spacious landing pad atop Cuelebre Tower. As soon as he settled
he shifted into his human shape, a massive six-foot-eight dark-haired
male with dark bronze skin and gold raptor’s eyes.
    Dragos turned to watch Rune land. The gryphon’s majestic wings
shone in the fading afternoon sun until the other male also shifted
into his human form, a tawny-haired male almost as massive as Dra-
gos himself.
    Rune lowered his head to Dragos in a brief bow of respect before
loping to the roof doors. After the other male had left, Dragos
unclenched his right fist in which he held a crumbled scrap of paper.
    Why had he not told Rune about it? Why was he not even now
calling the gryphon back to tell him? He didn’t know. He just obeyed
the impulse to secrecy.
30                     tHEA HA rrison

    Dragos held the paper to his nose and inhaled. A scent still clung
to the paper, which had absorbed oil from the thief’s hand. It was a
feminine scent that smelled like wild sunshine and it was familiar in
a way that pulled at all of Dragos’s deepest instincts.
    He stood immobile, eyes closed as he concentrated on inhaling
that wild feminine sunshine in deep breaths. There was something
about it, something from a long time ago. If only he could remem-
ber. He had lived for so long, his memory was a vast and convoluted
tangle. It could take him weeks to locate the memory.
    He strained harder for that elusive time with a younger sun, a
deep green forest and a celestial scent that drove him crashing
through the underbrush—
    The fragile memory thread broke. A low growl of frustration
rumbled through his chest. He opened his eyes and willed himself
not to shred the paper he held with such tense care.
    It occurred to Dragos that Rune had forgotten to ask what the
thief had stolen.
    His underground lair was enormous by necessity, with cavern
upon cavern filled with a hoard the likes of which the world had
never seen. The treasure of empires filled the caves.
    Astonishing works of beauty graced rough cavern walls. Items
of magic, miniature portraits, tinkling crystal earrings that threw
rainbows in the lamplight. Art masterpieces packed to protect them
from the environment. Rubies and emeralds and diamonds the size
of goose eggs, and loops upon loops of pearls. Egyptian scarabs,
cartouches and pendants. Greek gold, Syrian statues, Persian gems,
Chinese jade, Spanish treasure from sunken ships. He even kept a
modern coin collection he had started several years ago and added
to in a haphazard way whenever he remembered.
    On the ostrich’s head was a hot fudge sundae. . . .
    His obsessive attention to detail, an immaculate memory of each
and every piece in that gigantic treasure, a trail of scent like wild
sunshine, and instinct had all led Dragos to the right place. He dis-
covered the thief had taken a U.S.-minted 1962 copper penny from a
jar of coins he had not yet bothered to put into a coin collecting book.
    . . . and on the hot fudge sundae atop that ostrich’s head perched
a cherry. . . .
    The thief had left something for him in place of what she had
taken. She had perched it with care on top of the coin jar. It was a
                       Dr A gon Boun D                            31

message written on a scrap of paper in a spidery, unsteady hand.
The message was wrapped around an offering.
   I’m sorry, the message said.
   The theft was a violation of privacy. It was an unbelievable act of
impudence and disrespect. Not only that, it was—baffling. He was
murderous, incandescent with fury. He was older than sin and could
not remember when he had last been in such a rage.
   He looked at the paper again.
   I’m sorry I had to take your penny. Here’s another to replace it.
   Yep, that’s what it said.
   One corner of his mouth twitched. He gave himself a deep shock
when he burst into an explosive guffaw.
cHAptEr 2



Pia spent the next hour trekking across town. She witnessed how the
city transformed after that unholy sound, as if it were a painting some
artist smeared with sinister streaks of dark colors. Stress carved itself
into the expressions of the people she passed on the street. Anger
erupted in shouted confrontations, and clumps of uniformed police-
man appeared. Pedestrians moved with greater urgency. Smaller shops
and kiosks put out closed signs and locked their doors.
    In normal circumstances she would have taken the subway, but
as ugly as the mood had turned on the streets, she wasn’t about to
risk getting trapped underground. At last she stood in front of the
shithead’s door.
    The tenement where he lived was in miserable condition. She
breathed through her mouth and tried to ignore the used condom on
the floor of the stairwell and the baby squalling two apartments
down. After she did this one last thing and she stopped by work to
say good-bye to Quentin, she was so out of here.
    The door yanked open. Her fist was moving before she had fully laid
eyes on him. He doubled over as she punched him in the stomach.
    He wheezed and coughed. “Fuck, bitch!”
    “Ow!” She shook open her fist. Thumb outside, not inside, dummy.
    He straightened and glared at her as he rubbed his abdomen.
Then he started to smile. “You did it, didn’t you? You actually, really
did it.”
    “Like you gave me a choice,” she snapped. She shoved at his
shoulder. It knocked him back enough so she could stalk inside and
slam the door shut.
    His smile turned into a gleeful laugh. He fist-pumped the air.
“Yes!”
    Pia regarded him, her gaze bitter. Shithead, aka Keith Hollins, had
amiable good looks with shaggy dishwater blond hair and a surfer’s
body. His cocky grin had women flocking to him like flies to honey.
    She had been one of those flies once. Then disillusionment had set
                       Dr A gon Boun D                             33

in. She had thought him kind when he was charming. She had taken
his caressing manner for real affection and called him boyish when the
truth was he was selfish to the bone. He was Captain Fantastic in his
own mind. He created the fiction that he was a risk taker when in real-
ity he was a gambling addict.
     She had broken up with him a few months back. Then just last
week his betrayal had punched her in the teeth, but it felt like much
longer.
     Pia had been so lonely since her mother died six years ago. There
was not another single creature who knew her for who and what she
was. Only her mother had known. Her mother had loved her so much
she had devoted her life to safeguarding Pia’s welfare and safety. She
had raised her daughter with a fanatical attention to secrecy and with
every protection spell she could muster or buy.
     Then Pia had thrown away almost everything her mom had
taught her for a sweet smile and the promise of some affection. I’m
so sorry, Mom, she said in her head. I swear I’ll do better now. She
stared at Keith doing a touchdown shimmy. He pretended to slam a
football on the ground and grinned at her.
     “I know I had that punch comin’ to me. I owed you one. No
hard feelings, sugar.”
     “Speak for yourself.” Pia’s words were coated in frost. “I’ve all
kinds of hard feelings going on over here.”
     She dropped her backpack to the floor and glanced around even
though she was pretty sure they were alone. Fast-food wrappers lit-
tered the thrift store coffee table. A dirty T-shirt draped the back of
the couch. Some things never changed.
     “Aw, come on, P., there’s no need to be like that. Hey listen, I
know you’re still pissed, but you gotta understand somethin’, sugar.
I did this for us.” He reached for her shoulder, but she jerked back
before his fingers could touch her. His smile dimmed, but he didn’t
lose his easy, caressing manner. “P., you don’t seem to get it. We’re
gonna be rich now. Really fucking rich. Why, you can have any-
thing you want. Won’t you like that, darlin’?”
     Keith was the one who didn’t get it. The dimwit didn’t realize he
was collateral damage. He had constructed this fantasy world in
which he was a player while his gambling debts grew worse, and he
fell more and more under the control of his business associates.
     Those “associates” were shadowy connections a couple times re-
moved from Keith’s bookie. She imagined them as a cackle of hyenas
34                     tHEA HA rrison

gathering around their prey with languid purpose. Keith was lunch,
but they had decided to play with their food before the kill.
    She didn’t know who his contacts were and she didn’t want to. It
was awful enough that she knew there was real Power somewhere up
that food chain. Human or Elven, Wyr or Fae, it didn’t matter. Some-
thing nasty had turned its attention this way. It had enough magic
and muscle to take on one of the premiere Powers of the world.
    And here was Captain Fantastic, a mere human with not a single
spark of Power in him and not a lick of sense, either. The fact that she
had ever hooked up with him, even for a few months, would keep her
humble forever.
    She told him, “You sound like the dialogue from a bad movie.”
    Keith’s flirtatious manner fell away and he glared at her. “Yeah?
Well, fuck you too.”
    “And it goes on,” she sighed. A headache had begun to pulse in
her sinuses. “Look, let’s get this over with. Your handlers wanted
me to steal something from Cuelebre—”
    “I bet my associates that I could get them anything from anywhere,”
Keith sneered. “And they suggested something from Cuelebre.”
    Today had been long bad day on top of a long bad week. It had
started the moment Keith had put an object of Power in her hand and
told her she was going to find Cuelebre’s lair with it. The shock still
clung as she remembered the pulse of serious magic that had seared
her hand.
    The feeling was compounded by a rush of terror for whomever,
or whatever, had the kind of mojo to create that artifact and hand it
to Keith.
    That was sure a special moment, when she discovered Keith had
betrayed her. When she realized that, between Cuelebre and the cackle
of hyenas, she was screwed. If she stole from Cuelebre, she was dead.
If she didn’t, she had no doubt Keith would tell his hyenas, and she
was still dead. Rock, shake hands with hard place.
    Having the charm sit in her hand was like holding on to a cluster
bomb. The design had been deceptively simple. It had felt like a find-
ing charm with a onetime activation, but it had had the Power to
slice through all of Cuelebre’s protections.
    Her breath shook as she remembered the terrible walk she had
taken earlier that day, through an innocent sunlit city park where
coffee-drinking adults watched over shrieking children as they threw
sand and pelted from the merry-go-round to the jungle gym.
                       Dr A gon Boun D                              35

    The sounds of traffic and barking dogs had punctuated the blis-
tering pain in her hand, as the charm’s activated Power flared and
drew her along a flower-lined path to an anonymous, utterly forget-
table rusted metal maintenance door set into a park viaduct. The
charm drew a thin shimmering path that led through an invisible
mist of cloaking and aversion spells, which had her convinced with
increasing urgency that she was lost, mistaken, cursed, trapped in
her worst nightmare, in mortal danger, damned for all eternity—
    Pia’s fragile control snapped. She slapped Keith’s chest with both
flattened hands, driving him backward a few feet. “You blackmailed
me into stealing from a dragon, you asshole!” she shouted. She pushed
him again and he staggered back. “I trusted you with my secrets.”
Although not all of them, thank the gracious Powers, not all. She’d
somehow retained a few last scraps of self-preservation. “I thought
we loved each other. God, what a wretched joke. I could crawl under
a rock and die from embarrassment except you. Are. Not. Worth it.”
    Her last shove knocked Keith into a wall. The look on his face
would have been comical if she’d had a sense of humor left.
    His astonishment turned ugly. His hands shot out faster than she
expected. He shoved her back so hard she tripped and almost fell.
“Well, I must have done a good goddamn job of faking it,” he snarled.
“Because you’ve got to be the most miserable fuck I’ve ever had.”
    Pia never knew until that moment that she was capable of killing
someone. Her hands curled into claws. “I am an excellent fuck,” she
hissed. “I am the best thing that ever happened to your sorry deluded
preejaculating ass. You just didn’t have the good taste to recognize it.
And you know what? Now I don’t even know why I put up with you.
I had a better sex life with five minutes and my hand in a hot shower.”
    Captain Fantastic’s face turned puce. She stared. She’d never
seen that color on a person before. He cocked back his arm as if to
hit her.
    “You do that and you never get what you want. Plus you lose a
hand.” The frost in her voice turned to an ice pick. He froze. The
ruthless stranger that had taken over her body brought her up nose
to nose with him. “Go ahead,” she said, settling into a soft and even
tone. “Amputation might be a little therapeutic right now.”
    She stared him down until he dropped his hand and took a half
step back. The move wasn’t much, but it meant a lot to her battered
pride. In a contest of wills she’d pinned him to the mat.
    “Let’s get this over with,” he snapped.
36                     tHEA HA rrison

    “About time.” She dug into her jeans and gave him a folded piece
of paper. “You get what I stole when you read that out loud.”
    “What?” He gave her a blank look. It was clear things had taken
a turn beyond his comprehension. As a nonmagical human he
couldn’t feel how the paper glowed with Power from the binding
spell.
    He unfolded it and scanned the contents, and his face contorted
again with rage. He dropped the paper like it was on fire. “Oh no,
bitch. This isn’t gonna fuckin’ happen. You’re gonna give me what
you took and give it to me now!” He lunged for her backpack. She
took several quick steps back, letting him rifle through the contents.
Wallet, tennis shoes, the half-empty bottle of water and her iPod
spilled onto the floor.
    He made an incoherent strangled noise and rounded on her. She
danced back another step and kept on her toes, both empty hands
held up as she gave him a mocking smile.
    “Where is it!” Spittle flew. “What did you take? Where did you
hide it? Fuck !”
    “You said it didn’t matter,” she said. As Keith advanced on her,
she kept moving in counterpart, keeping a few feet between them.
“You said your keepers—”
    “Associates!” he roared, fisting his hands.
    “—didn’t care what I took as long as it was from Cuelebre, since
they had the means to verify the take. I suppose that means they can
spell it somehow to prove it really is from him.” The back of her shin
came in contact with the coffee table. She gathered herself and sprang
backward as Keith made a lunge for her. She put a lot of push into her
jump and landed in a crouch on the couch as Keith stumbled into the
table. “And you know what?” she said. “I don’t give a damn, except
for one thing.”
    Pia paused and straightened. She bounced a little as Keith scram-
bled back to his feet. His good surfer looks had twisted into an
expression of hate.
    She wondered if it would occur to him that her backward jump
had been too far and high for a normal human woman to make, but
she supposed none of that mattered anymore.
    “The thing about blackmail is it never stops at just one payment.
All the TV shows say so anyway,” she said. She didn’t know she had
any more disappointment left until her stomach sank at the cunning
expression that flashed in Keith’s eyes. “Did you think I wouldn’t
                        Dr A gon Boun D                               37

guess you meant to keep using me? After all, why would you stop at
just one theft? It was always going to be like, ‘Hey, Pia, I’ll keep quiet
about you if you’ll do just one more little thing for me.’ Wasn’t it?”
     His top lip curled. “We could have been a real partnership.”
     He had the gall to sound bitter. Unbelievable. She dropped her
flippant tone and became serious. “Either you would keep blackmail-
ing me, or sooner or later—if you haven’t already—you would tell
your owners about me. Or”—she held up a finger—“how about this
scenario? You’re going to give them what I stole, which will prove to
them you were doing more than just idle boasting. It’s going to make
them take you seriously.”
     His mouth tightened. “They already take me seriously, bitch.”
     “Riiight.” She continued, “They probably promised to wipe out
all your gambling debts if you could pull off the theft. Maybe they
said they’d give you a good chunk of cash as well. You’re hoping this
will save your miserable hide. Then they’ll finally sit up and give you
the kind of attention you deserve. They’ll have to take you as a real
player and not some chump up to his ears in bad debt. But don’t you
see—if that happens, they’re also going to get seriously interested in
how you pulled it off. They’re going to want to ask you a lot of
questions.”
     The anger faded from Keith’s face as what she said sank in. “It
wasn’t going to be like that,” he said. “I didn’t tell them hardly any-
thing about you.”
     Hallelujah, it looked like he was turning thoughtful. Or what
passed for thoughtfulness, for him. She relaxed enough to step off
the couch and sit down. “You know, I think I believe you on that,”
she said. “At least I think you believe it. But what you ‘hardly didn’t
tell’ was already too much.”
     She could see how his thought process would have gone. He was
going to retain all the power. He would keep her strung along in a
pseudo-partnership where he held all the strings and got her to do
whatever he wanted. His “associates” were going to be admiring and
respectful. He probably thought he would end up being a real broker
for them too and get them whatever they wanted for exorbitant fees.
Then Keith was going to get to living him the good life.
     “Okay,” she said, scraping at the dregs of her flagging energy to
adopt a brisk attitude. She braced her hands on her thighs. “We have
to step outside of Keith’s fantasy land now. Here’s how it’s going to
be. You swore you would keep what I said in confidence. This is all
38                     tHEA HA rrison

about keeping a dishonest man honest. You blackmailed me, so now
I’m blackmailing you, because however you look at the scenarios I
just painted, I’d be screwed.”
    He shook his head and said, “No you wouldn’t, P. All you gotta
do is work with me. Why can’t you just fuckin’ see that?”
    “Because I’m not like you, Keith,” she snapped. “And damage
control is the only way I have a remote chance of getting out of this
nightmare.”
    “I can’t believe you would just walk away.” He looked as petu-
lant as a little boy.
    “I walked away a couple of months ago,” she reminded him. “You
just wouldn’t stay gone. Now pick up that piece of paper and swear
the binding oath, or I’m leaving and you’re never going to get what I
stole. That would mean you’ll have to renegotiate a different payment
plan with those ‘associates’ of yours on the money you owe them.
Wouldn’t it?”
    She didn’t have to say how those different payment options would
go. She could tell he knew his life was on the line. Keith regarded her,
his mouth turning down at the corners. “You know, it could have
been good.”
    She shook her head. “Only in your dreams, cowboy.”
    He walked over to the spell and picked it up, reluctance in every
step. She held her silence as he paused one last time. She could tell
he was trying to think of a way to get out of reading it. But there
was nothing he could do, and they both knew it.
    He read it in a fast ill-tempered tone. “I, Keith Hollins, hereby
swear never to talk about Pia or her secrets in any way, either directly
or by inference or silence, or I will lose my ability to speak and suffer
unremitting physical pain for the rest of my life.”
    He gave a shout as the magic activated. The paper burst into
flame. Pia sighed as a weight lifted, just a little, from her shoulders.
She went to stuff her things into her backpack.
    Keith said, “Okay, I did what you wanted. Now we go to pick up
what you stole. What is it—a gem, a piece of jewelry? It had to be
something you could carry.” Avarice crept back into his eyes. “Where
did you hide it?”
    She shrugged. “I didn’t hide it anywhere.”
    “What?” Realization dawned. He bared his teeth like a feral
dog. “You had it on you the whole time.”
    She drew a folded linen handkerchief from her jeans pocket and
                       Dr A gon Boun D                            39

handed it to him. He tore it open as she shouldered her backpack.
She walked out the door as the swearing began.
    “Oh fuck me. You stole a goddamn penny!”
    “Bye, baby,” she said. She walked away. The hall misted in front
of her. She gritted her teeth until pain shot through her jaw. She
would not spill one more tear for that loser.
    He shouted after her, “What is a dragon doing with a penny in
his hoard? How do I know this goddamn penny is even his?”
    Well, there was a question.
    She thought about reminding him his “associates” could verify a
real theft. She thought about telling him she knew a fake would have
gotten him killed, but the poor dumb schmuck was doomed anyway.
    Either Cuelebre would find and kill him, or sooner or later he
would piss off one of his “associates.” They would want to know
how he got hold of Cuelebre’s property. And now Keith wasn’t going
to be able to tell them. How awkward was that.
    Then she thought of telling him about her own stupidity since it
hadn’t occurred to her to try to pass on a fake to him. Despite a few
unusual abilities, Pia didn’t have a larcenous bone in her body. She
couldn’t think with the cunning of a criminal.
    Besides she hadn’t dared to do anything but the job once she had
realized real Power moved in the shadows behind him. Something
was brewing. It was bigger and worse than anything Keith could
imagine or she would want to. It smelled dark like assassination or
war. She wanted to run as far and as fast as she could away from it.
    Never in a million years would she have imagined finding a jar
of pennies amid all that blinding treasure in Cuelebre’s lair, or that
“take a penny, leave a penny” would come to mind. Everybody did
it at gas stations. Why the hell not.
    She thought of a whole conversation she could have had with
him. Instead she shook her head. It was past time to leave.
    “You’ll be sorry!” he shouted at her. “You’ll never find anyone
else that will put up with all your bullshit!”
    She gave him her middle finger and kept walking.


Dragos stood at the edge of his penthouse balcony atop Cuelebre
Tower. He looked out over his city as the sun approached the hori-
zon. This late in the day the deepening sunlight was a heavy golden
weight with the richness and complexity of a rare aged white
40                     tHEA HA rrison

burgundy wine. His feet were planted wide apart, hands clasped
behind his back.
    The balcony was one of his favorite places to meditate. There was
no railing. It was a large ledge that ran the circumference of the build-
ing, which took up a city block. The balcony was a handy, more pri-
vate place to launch or land when he didn’t feel like going to the roof,
which was used by his sentinels and certain other privileged members
of his Court. He could enter or exit the penthouse from any number
of large French-style doors.
    Cuelebre Enterprises was the umbrella for any number of busi-
nesses, and it consistently ranked in the top ten of the world’s largest
corporations. Casinos, hotels and resorts, stock trading, shipping, in-
ternational risk assessment (private army for hire), banking. He em-
ployed thousands of Fae, Elves, Wyr and humans worldwide, although
the majority of Wyrkind preferred to live in New York State so that
they could live within the law and protection of his demesne.
    Those Wyr who clustered in Dragos’s Court and occupied key
positions in his companies tended to be predators of some sort, the
type of shapeshifter that thrived in a competitive, volatile, some-
times violent environment, although there were a few tough-minded
exceptions like Cuelebre Enterprises PR faerie Thistle Periwinkle,
known to her friends as Tricks.
    Like Rune, his First, all seven of his sentinels were immortal crea-
tures strong in Power. They were also raptors of some sort. There
were the four gryphons, Rune, Constantine, Graydon and Bayne,
each responsible for keeping the peace in one of the four sectors of his
demesne. The gargoyle Grym was in charge of corporate security for
Cuelebre Enterprises. Tiago, one of the three known thunderbirds in
existence, headed his private army.
    Last but not least was the harpy Aryal who was in charge of inves-
tigations. She had not taken well to giving over the investigative reins
on this theft to Rune. She was not known for having a serene tem-
perament. There was a reason she had risen to such preeminence in
his Court. Dragos’s smile was grim. The harpy was one hell-spawned
bitch when she lost her temper.
    He reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew the scrap of paper
left by his thief. The message was scribbled on the back of a 7-Eleven
receipt. The thin paper was already getting dog-eared from his han-
dling. He opened it and read what the thief had bought yesterday. A
pack of Twizzlers and a large cherry Coke Slurpee.
                       Dr A gon Boun D                              41

     Rune, he said telepathically.
     His First’s response was immediate. My lord.
     You will go to—he squinted at the faded lettering on the receipt—
the Forty-second Street 7-Eleven store and retrieve all of their secu-
rity footage for the last twenty-four hours. There is a good chance
our thief may be caught on it.
     Re-eally, drawled Rune, his hunter instincts engaged. Leaving
now. Back within the hour.
     Oh, and Rune?
     Bring back Twizzlers and a cherry Coke Slurpee. He wanted to
know what these things were.
     Sure. You got it, said his First, clearly taken aback. Dragos?
     What. He squinted and stretched, basking in the last of the sun-
light.
     Any idea what size Slurpee you want? His First’s mental voice
sounded odd.
     They had known each other and worked together for several
hundred years now. Dragos said, You know my tastes well enough.
Will I like it?
     Now that Dragos was back in control of his temper, Rune fell
into their normal friendly informality. Uh, I don’t think so, buddy.
I’ve never known you to do junk food before.
     Make it a small, then. Dragos held the receipt up, sniffed and
frowned. Even to his sensitive nose the receipt was starting to lose
that delicate feminine scent and smell like him.
     He strode inside. The penthouse took the Tower’s top floor. Just
below that were his offices, meeting rooms, an executive dining hall,
training area and other public areas. The third floor down housed his
sentinels and other top Court and corporate officials. If it had been a
stand-alone building, it would have been a mansion. All the rooms
and halls were built on a massive scale.
     Dragos located the kitchen in the penthouse. It was a foreign place
filled with chrome machines and countertops. No one was there. He
went in search of the communal kitchen responsible for serving the
dining hall and all the sentinels, Court and corporate executives’
needs. He located it on the next flight down.
     He strode through the double doors. A half-dozen kitchen staff
froze. In the corner a brownie gave a squeak of dismay and faded
into invisibility.
     The head chef hurried forward, wringing her hands. She was a
42                     tHEA HA rrison

dire wolf in her Wyr form, but she kept her human shape, that of a
tall gray-haired middle-aged woman, during work hours. “This is an
unexpected honor, my lord,” she gushed. “What can we do for you?”
    “There are plastic bags with zippers on them. I’ve seen them in
commercials,” Dragos said to her. He snapped his fingers, trying to
remember the name. “You put food in them.”
    “Ziploc bags?” she asked in a cautious voice.
    He pointed at her. “Yes. I want one.”
    She turned and snarled at her staff. A faerie leaped to a cupboard
and then bounded to them. She bowed low to Dragos, head ducked
and eyes to the floor while holding a cardboard box up. He pulled out
a baggie, placed the 7-Eleven receipt inside and zipped it closed.
    “Perfect,” he said, placing the small bag in his shirt pocket. He
walked out, ignoring the babble that rose behind him.
    While he waited for Rune to show up, he went to his offices to
confront the most urgent of issues waiting for his attention. His
four assistants, all Wyr hand-picked for their quick intelligence and
sturdy dispositions, occupied the outer rooms that were adorned
with works of abstract expressionism by such artists as Jackson Pol-
lock and Arshile Gorky and sculpture by Herbert Ferber.
    Located in a corner of the building, his office was decorated in
natural tones with wood and stone. As with the penthouse, the outer
walls of the office were plate glass set with wrought-iron French
doors that opened to a private balcony ledge. The interior walls were
adorned by two mixed media canvases he had commissioned from
the late artist Jane Frank. They were from the artist’s Aerial Series,
which depicted landscapes as if seen in midflight. One canvas was a
landscape by day, the other by night.
    As he sat at his desk, his first assistant, Kristoff, poked his dark
shaggy head in the door. Dragos clenched his teeth on a surge of irri-
tation. Head bent to the contracts laid on his desk, he said, “Approach
with caution.”
    The Wyr’s ursine nature and shambling demeanor masked a
Harvard-trained MBA with a quick-witted canny mind. Clever bear
that he was, Kristoff said the two words guaranteed to grab his
attention. “Urien Lorelle.”
    His head lifted. Urien Lorelle, the Dark Fae King, was one of the
seven rulers of the Elder Races; his demesne was seated in the greater
Chicago area, and he was the guy Dragos most loved to hate. He sat
back and flexed his hands. “Bring it.”
                       Dr A gon Boun D                             43

    Arms overflowing, Kristoff lunged forward and spilled documents
onto his desk. “I’ve got it—the link we were looking for between
Lorelle and weapons development. Here are hard copies of everything.
Transcontinental Power and Light’s 10-K filing with the SEC, last
year’s proxy statement and annual report and its quarterly corporate
earnings conference calls. I’ve marked the relevant pages and typed up
a report.”
    Formed in the latter part of the nineteenth century, Transcontinen-
tal Power and Light, Inc., was one of the nation’s largest investor-
owned utility companies. The Dark Fae King was the largest individual
shareholder.
    Dragos picked up the 10-K filing and began to flip through it. The
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission document was thick, some
450 pages in length and dense with statistics, tables and graphs.
    Urien Lorelle and he shared so many differences of opinion.
Lorelle’s utility company was partial to mountaintop-removal min-
ing. Dragos preferred mountaintops to stay where he could see them.
Urien’s fleet of aging coal-burning power plants emitted over one
hundred million tons of carbon dioxide annually. Dragos preferred to
breathe clean air when he flew. Urien wanted to see him dead. Dragos
preferred to see Urien not just dead but utterly destroyed.
    “It’s because you prefer to live in an Other land. You don’t care
how much you pollute this side of things, you anachronistic bas-
tard,” he muttered. He said to Kristoff, “Summarize.”
    His assistant said, “Transcontinental has set up a partnership
called RYVN, the acronym—well, it doesn’t matter. RYVN has
applied for a Department of Energy grant to clean up an old Energy
Department site in the Midwest that produced nuclear fuel and defense
applications back in the fifties. RYVN says they want to explore build-
ing a new electricity-generated nuclear plant on the site, along with
new contracts with the Defense Department.”
    His eyes flashed lava hot. He hissed, “Defense applications.”
    Kristoff nodded, dark eyes bright. “Weaponry.”
    The financial documents he held smelled like printer ink and
paper, but Dragos scented the blood of an imminent kill.
    “Get a hold of our DOE contact,” Dragos said. “Make sure he
knows to reject RYVN’s grant application and why. After you’ve
done that, I want you to destroy the RYVN partnership. When that’s
gone, go after the individual partners and dismantle them one by
one. Head the project yourself.”
44                     tHEA HA rrison

    “Right,” said Kristoff.
    “No mercy, Kris. When we’re done, no one will dare partner with
Urien on something like this again.”
    Kristoff asked, “Project budget?”
    “Unlimited.” The Wyr-bear turned to go, and he added, “And
Kris? Make sure they know who shut them down. Especially Urien.”
    “You got it.” Kristoff gave him a grin.
    So many differences of opinion between him and the Dark Fae
King. So much hate, so little time.
    Just then Rune appeared in the doorway wearing torn jeans, com-
bat boots and a Grateful Dead T-shirt. The gryphon’s tawny hair was
windblown. He carried two drinks in a cardboard box drink holder,
a plastic bag and a bulging manila folder under one arm. He dumped
out the contents of the bag. Packets of Twizzlers tumbled across the
desk.
    Dragos tore open one packet. Rune shoved straws into the drinks,
gave him one and kept the other.
    “I’ve got the footage,” said Rune, gesturing to the folder under
his arm. “Do you know what we’re looking for?”
    “Make prints of anyone who buys Twizzlers and cherry Coke
Slurpees and bring them to me. Just those two things, nothing else.
It will be a female, although she may be in disguise.” Dragos bit into
a red rope of candy. He stared in disgust at the remaining half in his
hand and threw it in the trash can. Then he picked up the drink and
sucked on the straw with caution.
    Rune burst into laughter at his expression. “I said you wouldn’t
like it.”
    “So you did.” He slam dunked the Slurpee. “Apparently you will
be watching the tapes for someone with no taste.”
    “This shouldn’t take long. Thank the Powers for fast-forward,”
Rune said. He swiped up a few of the Twizzlers packets, winking at
Dragos. “Since you don’t like them,” he said, and left.
    Dragos went back to work, but his concentration had splintered
for other matters. He kept three wide-screens on the opposite wall on
different news channels. His other three assistants came and went.
The ticker tape headlines of one channel caught his attention and he
turned the volume up. The preliminary cost estimate for the property
damage he caused that afternoon was already in the tens of millions.
    The news crew conducted interviews of pedestrians. One woman
                        Dr A gon Boun D                              45

said tearfully, “Forget about property damage. I heard that sound ear-
lier today and I’m going to be in therapy for the rest of my life. I want
to know if Cuelebre is going to pay for that!”
     He pushed the mute button. It was turning out to be one expen-
sive damn penny.
     Outside the wall-sized windows early evening fell into full night.
Then Rune came loping back into his office, paper in his hands.
     “I’ve got it, got her,” his First exclaimed. “Lots of people bought
lots of crap, but only one woman bought only Twizzlers and a Slur-
pee. What are the odds?”
     Dragos leaned back in his chair. He felt a pulse of dark anticipa-
tion as Rune handed him the paper. He shuffled through all of the
photos. They were of a fixed scene of the 7-Eleven’s registers and the
glass front doors. Rune threw his large frame into a chair and
watched as, with an impatient shove, Dragos wiped clear the large
expanse of his desk and began to lay the photos out one by one.
     Rune had printed several sequential eight-by-elevens. As Dragos
laid out the grainy black-and-whites he could almost imagine the
woman in the photos moving. He couldn’t wait to see the footage
and watch her move for real.
     There she was, opening the door. She moved to the left and dis-
appeared from the camera. There she was again, reappearing, hold-
ing a packet of Twizzlers and a Slurpee drink in slender hands. She
paid, gave the cashier a smile. The last photo was of her pushing out
the front door.
     He went over them again with more care.
     The angle of the shots made it difficult to say for sure, but she
seemed a normal height for a tallish human woman. She was whip-
pet graceful with long bones and delicate curves. The camera caught
the dip and hollow of her collarbones. She wore her thick hair in a
ponytail that was somewhat disheveled, and it was either white or
some other light color. He was betting on some shade of blonde.
Her triangular face was far too young for it to be gray.
     The slash of Dragos’s dark brows lowered over his blade-straight
nose. The woman looked tired, preoccupied. No, she looked more
than tired—she looked haunted. The smile she gave the cashier was
courteous, even kind, but sad. She wasn’t what he expected, but he
knew in his old wicked bones that this was his thief.
     He traced a finger down the silhouette of her figure as she walked
46                      tHEA HA rrison

out the 7-Eleven door. It was the only one of her walking away. He
didn’t like this picture. He slammed his flattened hand down on it
and crumpled it in his fist.
    “I’ve got you,” he said.
    “I have just one question for you,” Rune said. The gryphon’s
long legs were spread out, his eyes curious. “How did you know to
send me there and what to look for?”
    Dragos looked up with a flash of secretive jealousy. “Never mind
how. We’ve found her and your part in this is done. You can go back
to your regular duties.”
    Rune nodded at the photos. “What about her?”
    “I’ll take care of her.” Dragos bared his teeth. “I’m hunting this
one. Alone.”
    He sent Rune away, climbed to his penthouse bedroom and opened
the French doors. The late spring air licked into the room. He stood in
the doorway looking at the gleaming city lights.
    Where are you, thief? I know you’re running somewhere, he said
to the night. He lifted his head to the breeze, which carried the city’s
complex mélange of scents.
    Power, magical or otherwise, has its own set of habits. He realized
he had fallen into a bored complacency. Either life conformed to what
he desired or he bent it to his will. He didn’t ask, he took. If a business
interest threatened him, he had them destroyed. No mercy. He had
settled into the unsophisticated laziness of brute force.
    Dragos summoned his Power and began whispering beguilement
into the night. He held the image of his thief firm in his mind. The
magical threads flexed like long unused muscles and began curling
outward on the breeze. It was only a matter of time before they found
their target.
    I’ve got you now.
                    nightfall
           A Dark Age Dawning Novel
                 by Ellen connor




          T                            T
       A June 2011 Berkley Sensation Trade Paperback


               Their instincts will save them.

            Their passion will transform them.

Growing up with an unstable, often absent father who
preached about the end of the world, Jenna never thought,
in her wildest nightmares, that his predictions would come
true. Or that he would have a plan in place to save her—one
that includes the strong, stoic man who kidnaps and takes
her to a remote cabin in the Pacific Northwest.
    The mysterious ex-Marine named Mason owes a life-
debt to Jenna’s father. Skilled and steadfast, he’s ready for
the prophesied Change, but Jenna proves tough to convince.
Until the power grid collapses and the mutant dogs attack—
vicious things that reek of nature gone wrong.
    When five strangers appear, desperate to escape the blood-
thirsty packs, Jenna defies her protector and rescues them. As
technology fails and the old world falls away, Jenna changes
too, forever altered by supernatural forces. To fight for their
future, she and Mason must learn to trust their instinctive
passion—a flame that will see them through the bitter winter,
the endless nights, and the violence of a new Dark Age.
proLoguE



In the mid-twenty-first century, the power grid collapsed. No warn-
ing. No exceptions. Religious people called it the Rapture or the end
times, but there came no blood rain or plague of locusts. It began in
Great Britain. The island went dark, total radio and satellite silence.
No one knew what had happened; the news simply ceased.
    Next came the easternmost cities of the Western Hemisphere—
as if a dark wind had swept in from across the Atlantic. Electrical
and nuclear substations simply stopped working. Despite working
day and night, technicians could not get the equipment to function.
Planes fell out of the skies when they tried to land. Cars with com-
puter chips turned into giant paperweights, though older ones went
unaffected.
    Without power, with catastrophe imminent, people went out into
the streets seeking answers. They found violence. Mob rule began.
Glass shattered and buildings burned. People took whatever they
could carry. In the city that never sleeps, the government imposed
martial law and assigned curfews. The National Guard arrived,
geared for combat, and the populace rebelled. They demanded
answers. Some blamed terrorist cells as tensions escalated. Racial hate
crimes quadrupled, and the U.S. military killed its own citizens on
American soil.
    Without the proper equipment, refining fuel became difficult.
The first Fuel War began, which ushered in an era of prophets who
clamored with stories to explain away the madness.
    In affected areas, this sudden Dark Age changed the world and
the way people lived. Survivors of the first city riots scrounged what-
ever they could carry and pushed westward, out of the dead zone.
But the wave followed at an inexorable pace; they could not outrun
the change.
    Politicians could provide no answers. The military fought on,
using old weapons. Desperate for news and hope, people turned on
their radios, wanting the company of someone else’s voice in the dark.
50                     ELLE n c onnor

Pockets of survivors tried to find each other, only to be ambushed by
unscrupulous road gangs. Raiders and privateers flourished all along
the eastern seaboard.
    Then the first transformations began—people into monsters—
and the world changed again, this time forever.
cHAptEr 1



“Don’t move.”
    The hot rush of breath against the nape of her neck made Jenna
juggle her keys and then drop them. She had pepper spray on the key
ring, received as a gag gift, but at hearing that raw, gravelly voice,
she lost all control of higher motor functions. A shiver jumped up her
spine.
    Something prodded her back. A gun? Jenna didn’t even shift.
    Her reply came out in a nervous squeak. “Are you mugging me?
I don’t have much cash on hand.”
    Liar.
    Her dad had always insisted she keep at least five hundred in the
house in case of emergencies. He hadn’t liked banks, lines of credit,
or the federal government. But he’d also said there would come a time
when skills would become the real commerce and that the entire
world monetary system would fail. Of course, trouble clung to her
father like ticks on a hound, so she didn’t agree with his philosophies.
He’d gone around quoting obscure prophecy and claiming insight
into great doings to come, and she wanted nothing to do with any of
his crazy friends. She’d seen what that life had done to her mother.
    Hence the move to quiet, dull, out-of-the-way Culver. Sure, she’d
heard the talk of trouble on the East Coast—blackouts and riots—
but the city wouldn’t be NYC if there wasn’t something crazy hap-
pening. It was like LA in that regard. At one point, there had been so
many fires, mudslides, and earthquakes that fringe factions claimed
California was about to slide into the sea. There was no more sub-
stance to these East Coast rumors. It was just normal crime.
    But muggings didn’t happen in Culver. Maybe this guy was an
escaped con from the correctional facility in Northbend. It wasn’t
unheard of for them to break out and live rough until they emerged
in dire need of food and supplies. Her breath puffed out in a smoky
devil’s sigh. Cold. It was so cold. He’d need winter gear too. If she
gave him what he wanted, he might go away. She hoped.
52                      ELLE n c onnor

    Because of her dad, Jenna nursed a secret soft spot for outlaws
and renegades, but that didn’t ease the fear in her stomach.
    She tried to stay calm. “I have things inside you can use. Soup, an
insulated sleeping bag, pretty much everything you need to rough it.
You don’t have to steal from me. I’ll give you the stuff. No strings.”
    Silence.
    Please don’t let him take my credit cards. Those take forever to
replace.
    But maybe she should be worried about something else. Some-
thing worse. Jenna couldn’t even make herself shape the words
mentally. Things like that never happened in Culver. She should have
been safe walking down the driveway to get her mail. Her mind
had been on heading into town and joining Deb and Mara at the
Louie: beer, laughs, friends—not defending against armed psychos.
It was their weekly girls’ night, where they drank too much, laughed
a lot, danced with strange men, and generally cut loose after a week
in the cubicles.
    “Are you Jenna Barclay?” he asked.
    Her heart thudded in her ears. She wondered if she ought to lie.
Would that make it worse? Fear tasted sharp on her tongue. She
wouldn’t give a desperate man a reason to hurt her. Sometimes they
didn’t need a reason, but she’d play it smart. And she’d walk away
from this.
    “Yes,” she managed to say. “I’m Jenna. What do you want?”
    Instead of answering that question, he returned to one she’d posed
before. “No, this isn’t a mugging.”
    “Then what is it?” Surely they weren’t conversing while he held a
gun on her. She thought she felt the barrels through the thick down
of her jacket and refused to think about bullets tearing through her
flesh, blood-spattered feathers wafting up.
    No running, no sudden moves. She’d be all right. She just had to
make him think of her as a person. Not an object he could take into
the forest and have fun with.
    “It’s a kidnapping,” he said, and stuffed a cloth in her mouth.
    He moved too quickly for thought—even faster than the panic
that followed his words. Jenna heard a ripping noise before he sealed
a strip of duct tape over her mouth. When he slung her over his
shoulder, her stomach slammed against his back. The wind knocked
right out of her, and she had the irrational thought that he smelled
                          n igH tfALL                             53

like the forest—a tangy sharp whisper of pine, cut with fresh air
and moss.
    Hauling her as if she weighed nothing, he squatted, snatched her
keys, and then sprinted up the drive toward her garage. He levered
it up one-handed and taped her ankles. Her wrists came next, and
that was when the fear sunk all the way in.
    He wasn’t kidding.
    Jenna thrashed and fought. If she let him take her away from
here, she’d never see home again. She didn’t care about the threat of
a bullet any longer. A quick death would be better than whatever he
had in mind. Tears seared the corners of her eyes and felt hotter
because her skin had chilled in the late autumn air.
    But he handled her struggles with impersonal proficiency. She
managed to elbow him in the sternum, and he didn’t even grunt. Iron
man. Unmoved. Maybe begging would work. “Nobody will pay the
ransom,” she tried to say, but it came out more like, “Mmdy wuh
puh,” before she gave up.
    Oh God. Oh God. Oh God—
    Nightmare. It had to be. She’d wake up soon.
    Terror flared like a struck match as he popped the trunk of her
car. He deposited her inside with curious care. Once he closed the
metal top, it would be like a tomb.
    No. Please, please, please.
    With the setting sun behind him in a nimbus of fire, he looked
like a dark god, broad shoulders and features blurred by her tears.
But Jenna saw one thing clearly. He wasn’t wearing a mask, and
that meant he wasn’t ever letting her go.
    The trunk slammed and took all the light with it.
    Minutes turned into hours, and hours into eternity. After she’d
died at least a million times in her mind, in almost as many different
ways, the car slowed and stopped. She listened to the engine ticking
over.
    A key clicked in the lock. Jenna expected her captor to yank her
roughly out of the trunk, so she braced. But he might not need an
excuse to hurt her. To her surprise, he drew her up with the care one
would use with a sleeping child. His gentle hands belied the tape
across her mouth and her bound limbs.
    Wordlessly, he set her on her feet. As her blinking eyes adjusted
to the rich twilight, she saw there was no reason he’d fear she might
54                       ELLE n c onnor

run. In addition to the hobbles on her ankles, they stood in the mid-
dle of a deep forest. They might still be in Oregon—she’d lost track
of time while he drove—but in a remote region she’d never seen.
    A reassuring bulge in her left pocket meant that her cell phone
had made it out of the trunk with her. She just needed to bide her time
and humor him until she could text someone for help. If cop shows
were to be believed, they could track her phone and find her that way.
    I just have to stay calm, make him think I’m buying whatever
he’s selling long enough to get a minute alone.
    She stood quietly, awaiting instructions. Crazies liked feeling in
control, didn’t they? She wouldn’t give him any reason to search
her—or worse. Giving him a quick once-over, she reassessed what
she’d hoped back in her driveway. He didn’t need winter gear. A knit
cap stretched over his skull, and he wore dark heavy-gauge Carhartt
jeans and a woodland camouflage jacket that looked military. He
slung a serious semiautomatic rifle across his back, and the gun he’d
poked into her back must be the nine-millimeter in his hip holster.
    Fighting him was completely out of the question. A one-man
army. Oh shit.
    “I’m sorry it had to be like that,” the man said, his voice rough.
“But we had to get away from the city. You wouldn’t believe me
without proof.”
    Believe what?
    Jenna stared at him in silence. How was she supposed to answer
through the duct tape anyway? Not that there was any point. It was
a stretch to call a burg like Culver a city, which proved he was mad
as a hatter. A frisson ran through her as the sun filtered out of the
dense foliage entirely, drenching the world in shadow. Nightfall had
never been so sinister.
    “Anyway, we should get inside. We can talk in the cabin. It’s freez-
ing out here, and I promised your dad I’d keep you safe.”
    Now that was just pure bull. Mitch Barclay had been dead for
over three years, and even before that, he’d never been particularly
interested in her well-being—except when it suited him. Over the
years, he’d faded in and out of her life like a ghost, and each time he
seemed a little more disconnected with reality. His last visit had been
so strange that she hadn’t wanted to see him again. He’d come just to
stare at her, it seemed, like he could x-ray the inside of her head.
    The man knelt and peeled the tape from around her ankles. She
wanted to run, but taking off ill prepared in the cold might be
                             n igH tfALL                                 55

stupider than staying put. Besides, her feet had gone completely numb.
Blood rushed back in splinters of pain.
     Distracting herself, Jenna tried to memorize the dwelling’s exte-
rior. Maybe she could put some detail in her text message. They stood
in a clearing ringed by heavy trees. The split-log cabin looked like
someone’s hunting retreat, rustic but not shabby or ill maintained.
     When the man straightened, he was bigger than she’d realized,
perhaps as much as a foot taller than her own five foot six. His swar-
thy skin bespoke some mixed ancestry, and he was built like a Mack
truck. Solid muscle. Quite simply, she could hit him with a brick and
he wouldn’t even notice.
     She’d have to outsmart him.
     With a gesture, he indicated she should precede him. It wasn’t
good manners as much as him keeping an eye on her. She stumbled
a little, her legs still stiff and tingling. To her surprise, he steadied her
with a hand on her back. She flinched and pulled away, but a small
part of her was thankful that she hadn’t fallen. Keep my balance.
Stay calm.
     Jenna crossed the small porch, her shoes clunking heavily against
the plank wooden floor. Dread churned up her nausea when reached
the door. He leaned past her and opened it—again, probably not a
courtesy so much as a recognition of the limitations of her bound
hands. The inside of the cabin matched the exterior: woven rugs,
hand-carved furniture with homey sewn cushions, and a big stone
fireplace. Avocado appliances decked out an antiquated kitchenette,
and a ladder led up to what might be a loft.
     “Go in,” he said. “I need to take care of some things. Then I’ll cut
you loose, so you can ask all the questions I see burning in your eyes.”
cHAptEr 2



Mason watched from the doorway as Jenna settled onto the over-
sized wing-backed chair. Despite an expression stricken with fear,
she did so with grace. The massive wooden chair would have better
suited a lumberjack, all but dwarfing her. She kept her back straight,
bound hands in her lap, and those cool green eyes aimed at the bar-
ren fireplace.
    He wanted to be surprised at finding Mitch’s daughter graceful
and collected. Prophetic, canny, even capable—that made sense. Mitch
Barclay had definitely been resourceful. But graceful? Never. Yet Mason
had felt it when he’d scooped Jenna into the trunk. Through the win-
ter coat and her belated struggles, he’d held a dancer’s body. Long
limbs and resilient muscles. His own muscles had responded, blood
and bone finding a match in her strength.
    Strength they’d both need to survive the coming storm.
    Mason locked the door behind him, shoved his AR-15 under the
porch, and stalked through the dusk to check the windows. Bolted
and blackened. He climbed the metal extension ladder. His pulse kept
the moderate rhythm of steady movement, amplified by the urgency
of preparation. As he paused atop the roof, he inhaled. The nighttime
forest breathed with him, the snap and spice of cold evergreen air.
    After making sure the barbed-wire screen and charcoal filter
over the chimney were secure, he climbed down and collapsed the
ladder. He shoved it into the tiny cellar with the rest of the ammo
and supplies, then snapped the padlock.
    Next was Jenna’s car. He’d taken a chance driving so close to the
cabin, valuing speed rather than stealth. Now he checked the igni-
tion, harboring the slightest hope that it would flare to life. A turn of
the key produced nothing—not even a click. The little hybrid was
simply too new, too wired with computer-based circuitry. They might
have made use of his late 1970s Bronco but not for long. The Fuel
Wars would hit the west in time, and the Bronco would be harder to
hide. Better to make a clean break with those old luxuries.
                           n igH tfALL                             57

    Accepting that the car was a useless relic, he grabbed the emer-
gency gas can from the trunk. At least the gasoline would still come
in handy. He used his hunting knife to slice a three-foot length of
garden hose, shoving the filthy green rubber into the tank. Eyes
closed, he sucked and sucked on the length of hose, his lungs burst-
ing. Gasoline filled his mouth. He sputtered and spit, then caught
the flow of fuel in the can.
    When he’d completely drained the car, he popped it into neutral.
One hand on the open driver’s-side door and the other on the steer-
ing wheel, he rocked the foreign compact back and forward. Sweat
soaked the T-shirt beneath his camo field jacket. The car edged for-
ward. Momentum took control. Grunting, pushing until his shoul-
ders burned, he steered it into the woods, then dragged netting
laced with branches over the gold metallic paint job.
    Good. Everything as he’d planned.
    Mason looked back toward the cabin. It stood small, squat, and
blanketed in darkness. Their shelter. But preparations aside, he had
one more task to complete. Convincing Jenna would be difficult, if
not impossible. Although she’d understand everything in time, he
would rather she take his word for it. She’d be more prepared, less
shocked when faced with those undeniable things the brain refused
to accept without evidence.
    A shiver touched the nape of his neck, quickly followed by the
primal call for safety. Get indoors. Now.
    Minutes later, arms laden with firewood and the rifle across
his back, Mason kicked the cabin’s only door with his heavy
Timberlands—and caught Jenna in the midst of a getaway. Her ass
hung halfway out a window. His toolbox lay open beneath her dan-
gling feet. A serrated kitchen knife had taken her place on the wing-
backed chair, strips of dull silver duct tape scattered on the floor.
    Crossing the cabin with long strides, Mason flung the split logs
toward the fireplace where they crashed like bowling pins. He
stripped off his work gloves and grabbed two handfuls of female.
Hips, to be exact. That soft upper-thigh part of the hip where a little
extra flesh tempted a man to squeeze. He tightened his fingers. Her
frantic yelp sent a rush of blood to his cock.
    “Let go of me!” She kicked backward. He yanked her back into
the cabin, her head smacking the window frame. “Ow! Shit!”
    Every instinct told him to protect this woman, but his nerves
were already shot to shit after getting her out of town—and
58                       ELLE n c onnor

knowing what was to come. He’d seen it. Before, he hadn’t believed
either.
    He spun her and pushed her against the stout log wall. “Where
would you go?”
    “Home!”
    Her knee came up between his legs. Mason deflected her desper-
ate attack with his forearm. She twisted and tried to spin free, forc-
ing him to let go of her hips. He settled for her wrists, still red from
the duct tape, and pinned her hands above her head.
    “My name is Mason,” he said, pushing his body flush to hers.
That thump of blood increased. Fighting had always done that to
him. Violence and sex together. “If you leave now, you’ll find your-
self walking back to Culver. No water. No flashlight. No car.”
    Pale green eyes widened. “What’d you do with my car?”
    “It’s in the woods, and the gas from the tank is in a can.”
    “You siphoned my gas? What the hell is going on?”
    “I’m saving our lives. I know you don’t understand, but it’s the
truth.” He inhaled through his nose, regaining control of his fight
response. “At least acknowledge that leaving now and heading back
to the city is not a good choice. And that I’m carrying a semiauto-
matic rifle.”
    She nodded, a mere tilt of her head.
    “I’m going to let go of you now.” He could hurt her, but keeping
her safe and cooperative would require more than brute force. “I
said you could ask questions. Can we do that now?”
    A sneer twisted her lips. “You’re asking me? I don’t have any
choice in this.”
    Mason closed his eyes briefly. No choice. She wasn’t far from the
truth.
    He glanced down, realizing he dwarfed her just like that massive
chair. “Look at me, Jenna. If I wanted to hurt you, I could’ve done
it already. Can you admit that too?”
    “That doesn’t mean you won’t.”
    Easing the pressure from her wrists, Mason lowered their arms
and tugged her away from the wall. She stumbled and steadied her-
self with a palm against his chest. Her nostrils flared, animal-like.
Full lips the color of a ripe peach fell open.
    He quickly unzipped her down coat and yanked it off. Like a sol-
dier sizing up the enemy, he took in her athletic build, the swell of her
breasts beneath a thin T-shirt, and jeans that fit like a surgical glove.
                           n igH tfALL                             59

    “Now you have no coat either. Sit here,” he said, pushing her
shoulders until she sat on a bench at the kitchen table. He ran his
palms over the thistle of his cropped hair, scrubbing the tension from
his scalp, and sat across from her. “Go ahead, if you want. Ask.”
    “Ask what? I don’t even know where to start.”
    “Ask me if I intend to hurt you.”
    Her clear eyes turned cloudy. She glanced at the open window.
The muscles of her shoulders tensed, as if preparing for flight. But
she swallowed. The fear faded. She appraised him with a coolness
that reminded him of her father—curious but detached, two steps
removed from this world. Late in life, Mitch had possessed a sha-
man’s eyes, and he carried that weight in bowed shoulders. He’d
glimpsed what was to come, and it nearly broke him.
    “Fine,” she said, tight and clipped. “Will you hurt me?”
    “No.”
    “Good. Can I go now?”
    “No.”
    “Why not?”
    “It’s not safe out there.”
    Eyebrows two shades darker than her blond ponytail pulled into
a frown. “Probably because someone disabled my car and took my
coat.”
    “We’re safer here.”
    “From what, kidnapping psychos?”
    “No, you already have one of those.”
    Her lips quirked. She slanted her gaze to the floor.
    Mason wasn’t used to sitting still, no matter her obvious need for
something as normal as conversation. It wove under his skin. So he
gave up on stillness. After removing the magazine from his rifle and
stashing it in his trouser pocket, he walked to the toolbox beneath the
window.
    Jenna gasped. He spun, looking for what had surprised her. But
nothing in the cabin had changed. She stared at the sixteen-pound
hammer in his hands.
    His exhalation sounded more tired than he wanted to admit.
“Relax. I’m just going to fix the window. And then dinner.” He pulled
the window shut, speaking past the two galvanized nails between his
teeth. “You’re hungry, right?”
    “I can’t eat nails,” she muttered.
    “No, but you’d spit them at me if you could.”
60                     ELLE n c onnor

    “You’d deserve it.”
    She crossed bare arms around her middle, which pushed her
breasts front and center. Suddenly Mason had no taste for food, espe-
cially not a winter’s worth of generic canned goods. Jenna’s body,
both lush and tight, would be feast enough for any man. He hadn’t
indulged in mindless sex for months, and she made him all too aware
of that fact. An unwelcome distraction.
    He pounded the nail with two sharp strikes and replaced the tar
paper. “I had tuna in mind,” he said at last. “We have lots of tuna.”
cHAptEr 3



So he wasn’t the raving brand of crazy. Good to know.
    Huddled in her chair, Jenna watched him put together a rudi-
mentary tuna casserole. He hadn’t added enough water to the cream
of mushroom soup, so it would turn out gluey, but he probably
didn’t take criticism well. Not that it mattered. She wasn’t going to
stick around long enough to eat.
    He’d said she could ask questions. Time to test that.
    “Where are we?” Location would shape her escape plans. If they
were too far out, walking would be impossible without survival gear.
    Jenna didn’t honestly expect him to answer. It would be stupid
if he meant to keep her.
    “North of Culver,” he said readily enough. “Several hours,
maybe halfway to the Washington state line.”
    She tried to bring up a mental map of Oregon, but either her geog-
raphy was lacking, or she was too shaken to concentrate. “What do
you want with me?”
    Mason glanced up from the casserole dish. “Me personally?
Nothing. I’m just keeping a promise, like I said.”
    At the second reference to her father, Jenna’s heart sank. Aw
Christ, Mitch . . . what’ve you done?
    Now she knew what flavor of crazy he favored: the same as her
dad. Before he’d died, Mitch Barclay kept a basement full of old
newspaper clippings, prognostications of some cataclysmic event.
He’d joined some group, chock-full of crackpots and conspiracy
theorists. They’d obsessed over portents and signs, discussed magic
theory, and tried to talk to spirits. Mitch had preached the coming
of a bleak age of heavy, destructive magic. If he’d lived in a city
instead of a compound in the woods, he would have been the crazy
bearded guy on the corner, holding a hand-lettered the end is
nigh sign. His followers had a habit of turning up at her house from
time to time but were generally content with a bowl of soup. The
62                         ELLE n c onnor

mooching had slacked off after her dad died, and none had ever
tried to stuff her in a trunk.
    “Here,” Mason said, digging into a pocket of his Carhartt jeans.
“He left this for you.”
    Jenna eyed the trifolded piece of lined paper like a snake. A let-
ter from Mitch. From beyond the grave. As if she needed to be even
more freaked out.
    But strangely enough, she needed something familiar, even if it
was just Mitch being himself. She snatched the letter away and
retreated to a corner by the fireplace to read it.

     Dear Jenna,

     If you’re reading this, it means I’m gone. I was always sorry I
     couldn’t be around more. I know your mother made excuses for
     me because that was her way, and I know you were disappointed
     in the kind of father I turned out to be. It wasn’t because I didn’t
     care, I promise you. I just had other work I needed to be doing.
         I can imagine your expression. Work? You never held down
     a job for more than six months in your life, you’re probably
     thinking. And while that’s true in certain terms, by other
     reckonings, I had a calling, one to which I was faithful until my
     dying day.
         These next words will be the most important ones you’ll
     ever read, my darling girl. There’s a Dark Age dawning, and it’s
     more than just the hint of bad things to come. The world, as
     you know it, is coming to an end. It’s more than bombings,
     earthquakes, inexplicable weather patterns, and unnatural
     geological phenomena. Everything passes. Time is a wheel, and
     the age of technology is spinning away. Soon, magic will return,
     or a power our primitive ancestors would name so. Past a
     certain point, names lose their meaning. What will be will be.
         I knew I’d never live to see what’s foretold come to pass, so
     I did my best to make sure you’d live because you have to. I
     can’t say more because you wouldn’t believe me if I did. Some
     things you simply have to see for yourself.
         The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie
     down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling
     together, and a little child shall lead them.
         Remember those words. Remember what I taught you, those
                           n igH tfALL                                  63

   long-ago summers in the woods. Remember it all, dear girl.
   There’s going to be a heavy weight on your shoulders one day
   soon, but I know you can bear it. Oh, and one thing more: when
   the dark man comes for you, don’t be afraid. It is as it was meant
   to be.

   Your loving father,
   Mitchell P. Barclay

    Jenna wiped at her eyes, fighting to keep from crying out of sheer
anger. How dare he? After all these years, tying her to some nuthatch
who’d taken her car keys and her coat.
    Forget Mitch. Forget dire portents and doom. She’d heard that
same song since she was a toddler. What she really needed was to
get the hell out of that cabin and back to town.
    “Have you read it?” she asked her captor.
    He seemed offended by the possibility. “No, but I have a good
guess what’s in it.”
    Jenna kept her face and voice neutral. “What do you think’s going
to happen in Culver?”
    “I doubt you’ll believe me. You might have to see it for yourself.”
    “Try me.” She worked on making her expression inviting when she
really wanted to scream and keep screaming until somebody came to
help. But like every other time in her life, she knew that wasn’t hap-
pening. She’d have to save herself.
    “I know you have a cell phone in your pocket,” he said.
    Jenna froze, wondering why he hadn’t taken it away. When he’d
gone out to sabotage her car, she tried to dial but found no signal.
She’d cursed the thickness of the woods and the remote area. Still, she
might get a bar somewhere. Then the Feds could go all Big Brother
and track her phone. Sometimes it was good when people could find
you.
    Her voice quavered—and she hated that weakness—as she asked,
“Do you want it?”
    He shook his head. “It won’t do you any good.”
    Relief swamped her. Maybe he didn’t know the area as well as
he thought. If she went up one of those trees, the altitude might get
her a signal.
    “And why is that?” she asked.
    Mason put the finishing touches on the casserole and popped it
64                       ELLE n c onnor

into the wood-burning stove—an incongruous scene because he still
wore the camouflage jacket. He’d taken off the knit cap, his dark,
skull-cut hair accentuating the hard lines of his face and thick mus-
cle along his neck and shoulders. Not the kind of guy she’d imagine
in a kitchen. Ever. Between the warmth and the smell of food, the
cabin had gained an unsettlingly cozy air. But she didn’t want to be
snug and toasty here with him; she wanted to go home.
     “By now, all the cellular signals have gone down,” he said, his
eyes grave and dark like a night unbroken by the moon. “Even here.
The television stations will fail next. Only old analog radios will play,
and most likely, by this time next week, we’ll be blanketed in com-
plete radio silence as well . . . because there won’t be people to man
the controls. You wouldn’t believe what it’s like out east right now.”
     A shiver rolled through her. That sounded like more of her dad’s
paranoid apocalypse fantasies, but hearing it from Mason fright-
ened her more than Mitch’s most vehement rants. They were so iso-
lated out here. She almost believed they could be the last people on
earth. Doubtless that was exactly how he wanted her to feel, com-
pletely helpless and dependent on him for her survival. He wouldn’t
break her with cruelty. Instead he used ominous whispers.
     Jenna extrapolated the one significant fact from his doom-and-
gloom prediction. “So, you don’t care if I call my friend and let her
know I won’t be joining her for drinks?”
     The sudden warmth of his smile struck her like a fist in the solar
plexus. “Not at all.”
     He knows. He knows I don’t believe him.
     Still, she wouldn’t let the opportunity go to waste. She dug her
cell out of her pocket and dialed Deb. Nothing. Weirder than that,
the phone read “network failure” instead of “out of network” or “no
signal.” Alarm rose up in her throat, threatening to choke her.
     Jenna kept one eye on him as she slipped from her chair and moved
around the cabin, but no change in location fixed her phone. She shook
it. Then, while he watched her with an inscrutable look, the display on
her new Nokia shimmered and went black—even though she’d just
charged the thing. She mashed buttons, trying to get the menu back,
but the phone became an inert piece of carbon in her palm.
     “Digital electronics won’t work anymore,” he told her. “Already
your car won’t start. The computer circuitry won’t survive any of
this, so it’s useless. I’m sorry.”
     “You must’ve done something to my phone.” Her voice shook.
                          n igH tfALL                             65

    How disgusting. He’s winning.
    Mason’s brows rose in gentle derision. “While it was in your
pocket in the trunk? Or while you were in the cabin alone?”
    “Maybe you have some kind of damping device in here.”
    “Feel free to look around.” His amused expression said she was
the loony one. “Do you concede I’ve never touched the thing?”
    Her hands clenched into fists at her sides as she fought the urge
to go shrill. She had to keep a level head. Antagonizing him would
only get her hurt. Jenna took several deep breaths until she could
control her tone.
    “I don’t know how, but you’re doing something.”
    “I’m baking a tuna casserole.” For the first time, he sounded
tired. “I don’t have anything to do with the rest. I’m just trying to
weather it.”
    “Let’s say I believe you.” Which she didn’t. But she was curious
what kind of story he’d trot out. “What’s causing this collapse?”
    At that, he propped his elbows on the counter. “You’ll just think
I’m crazy.”
    I already think that.
    “Indulge me,” she said.
    “What’s the point? You don’t have to know why someone stabbed
you to die from it. All I know is what I’ve seen working with Mitch.
And judging from what’s out there now, the shift will be dangerous
and chaotic, and it’ll cull the hell out of the human populace.”
    “Oh?” She tried to look encouraging. Maybe he’d elaborate. With
a beginning like that, the rest was bound to be entertaining.
    “I know Mitch tried to explain in his letter. I don’t know exactly
what he said, but there’s nothing more I can add. I’m not a . . .
prophecy guy.” His tone gained subtle scorn.
    “So you believe that stuff he said . . . about the Dark Age? And
that this shift has broken my cell phone and my car?”
    “Not just yours, but technology failure is the least of our wor-
ries. The transition is here.”
    “What are you talking about? What transition?”
    His eyes seemed to darken, taking on an even more sober cast.
“Did you watch the news last night, the report about the riot at the
penitentiary outside Culver?”
    Jenna rubbed her upper arms as the news footage flashed through
her mind. She normally didn’t watch the news, but she’d wanted to
see her friend Jeannie make her television debut as the stand-in
66                       ELLE n c onnor

weather forecaster. The lead story had been filled with gruesome
images of prisoners beating one another bloody. Then the cameras
had gone blank.
    “I saw it,” she said, throat tight. “They set the riot dogs on them.”
    “Those weren’t riot dogs.” He shrugged. “But that’s when I knew
it was time. It’s not my problem whether you accept it. I swore to your
dad that I’d make sure you survive it.”
    “Why would he care?” she snapped, patience long gone. “He cer-
tainly didn’t while he was alive. What hold did he have on you any-
way, to make you do this?”
    “He saved my life.”
cHAptEr 4



Mason walked to the fireplace. He stacked the wood he’d tossed
aside but didn’t light it. Only for emergencies. Not comfort. The
woodstove would do for now.
    “I’ll make a deal with you,” he said. “You sit down and eat din-
ner with me, and I’ll tell you how I met your father.”
    “Look, just call him Mitch,” she said. “I did. He spawned me.
That’s about it.”
    “From the way he talked about you, I would’ve thought you were
close.”
    That seemed to take her by surprise. She matched his frown,
twirling the end of her ponytail around her forefinger. “Now I know
you’re shitting me.”
    He grinned despite everything. Something about Jenna Barclay
tempted him. If—no, when—she became aware of her effect on him,
he’d lose part of himself. Control, maybe. She’d hold the threat of it
over his head like an anvil.
    His ridiculous mental image reminded him of Looney Tunes and
Saturday morning cartoons. He’d been four years old and oblivious
to anything beyond the TV screen. But nothing so normal as vegging
on a Saturday morning would ever happen again. No more homes
and towns, no more modern life. None of it.
    That meant his control had to stay intact.
    Besides, at that moment, another of his body’s needs had to be
satisfied: his stomach growled. He hadn’t eaten in two days, not since
that thing had tried to eat his leg. He’d chopped off its head. He had
barely escaped being cornered in the motel parking lot. While clean-
ing up, he’d seen the footage of the prison riot and knew their time
was up. Time to keep your promise. Which was the only reason he’d
been hanging around a one-horse town like Culver.
    Mason returned to the kitchen and retrieved the casserole. Like
he’d learned in the marines, he approached his chores in linear
68                       ELLE n c onnor

fashion. One thing at a time until the area is secure. Multitasking
left a body open to shoddy work. So food first. Preferably with Jenna.
Second, he’d find a way to keep her in the cabin without tying her
down.
    The noodles sticking out from the tuna goo were overcooked, all
brown and crispy from the woodstove’s uneven heat. They would
have been better off eating the ingredients straight from the can.
    He gestured to the dish. “So, are you going to have any of this?”
    “I’m not eating with you,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m not
going to keep talking to you. I’m not going to be your friend or your
confidante or your shrink. I want to go home.”
    Mason swallowed his temper and set the table, as if she’d agreed
to sit down. But he didn’t wait for her to get off her ass and join him.
Even the charred casserole was enough to turn his stomach ferocious.
He ate in silence, needing the fuel.
    Even after twenty minutes, she hadn’t budged. He knew because
he kept his eye on the clock—not that time meant much anymore.
Not like the trains and buses would be running, or folks waiting to
punch out after a hard shift. There would be daytime and nighttime.
There would be safe times and times to hide. That was all.
    He almost smiled. There was freedom in letting certain aspects
of the modern world go.
    Then, just when he was beginning to lose hope—not that she
would eat, but that she might be too stubborn to be of use—Jenna
stood. She didn’t meet his eyes as she sat before her plate. But she
served up the food. And she ate.
    “Now talk,” she said simply.
    He had his answer now. No matter how long it might take, he’d
eventually have a partner. Mitch had said as much, describing how
clever and practical his daughter was, the daughter who apparently
felt none of the same affection in return.
    Mason had made his promise with a worst-case scenario in mind.
He’d try. And if Jenna Barclay proved too stubborn or stupid to take
hold of the lifeline he offered, he’d be discharged from that promise.
Now he saw her as the kind of woman who’d grasp any chance, any
possibility of survival, just like she swallowed those overcooked noo-
dles along with her pride.
    “I never knew my folks and grew up in foster care,” he said,
his throat tight. “A lot of being smacked around but not a lot of
                           n igH tfALL                             69

supervision. I knocked off my first convenience store when I was
fourteen.”
     Jenna swallowed. He found no accusation or pity on her face. Just
enough curiosity to suggest she was paying attention. “Not much of
a future, starting out that way.”
     “No future outside of the penal system, no,” he said. “But Mitch
got me out of it. Broke the cycle.”
     “Never took Mitch for the big-brother type.”
     “Never said he was.” He shoved away his empty plate. “Me and
two buddies held up a liquor store. I was sixteen. Hadn’t been to
school in years. The dude behind the counter opened fire. I caught
one in the leg.” He resisted the urge to rub his upper thigh, the place
that ached whenever he thought of his youth. Stupid kid. “But instead
of waiting for the cops, I took off for the woods.”
     “Where Mitch and his mystic types used to make camp.” Jenna
rubbed the back of her neck, like she was tired or sore, and Mason
caught sight of her reddened wrists. He felt a twinge of regret. “Don’t
tell me you fell in with that lot,” she added.
     “I did.”
     She snorted. “Hardly better than a cult.”
     “They had order and honor at least. Mitch took care of my leg
and taught me survival skills. I was young. I never knew anything like
it before. He had people who knew all about old-timey shit, making
soap and herbal medicines. It was all pretty weird. I admit, I thought
most of them were crazy. At first.”
     Jenna sipped from her water glass and looked down at her own
empty plate, practically licked clean. She shrugged. “Guess I was
hungry after all.”
     “Guess so.”
     “How long ago was this?”
     “Fifteen years now.”
     “I was in junior high,” she said, her expression souring. “There
I was, pulling good grades and captain of the volleyball team while
he was trouncing around the woods with some delinquent. I mean,
seriously, can you respect a man like that?”
     “Yeah. But my perspective was different.”
     “I’ll say.”
     “He talked about you all the time,” Mason said. “How proud he
was of you.”
70                       ELLE n c onnor

    “Bullshit.”
    “No bull. He had a manila envelope full of articles about you.
Volleyball. Debate. Whatever.” He stood and rounded the table, dar-
ing to put his hands on her shoulders.
    She flinched. “Don’t touch me.”
    But he didn’t let go. The tension he found there begged for some
release. He began with his thumbs on the back of her neck, hoping
to ease the ache she’d unconsciously shown him.
    “Look, Jenna, he didn’t think he had anything to offer you. I was
just somebody the world threw away, and he tried to make use of me.
But he didn’t want this life for you until there was no other choice.”
    “Bullshit,” she said again, with less conviction this time.
    Did she notice how she’d leaned into his touch? Mason did. That
small measure of trust returned him to thoughts of sex. Damn, but
he was in a bad way. Being cooped up with her for the foreseeable
future wouldn’t help.
    He leaned over, his lips near her ear. “No bullshit, Jenna. The
times he was around you and your mom, what did he do?”
    “Drink. And fidget. He always wanted to be out there.” She ges-
tured at the window and trees that lay beyond. “Preparing. Preaching.
Whatever. After a while she told him not to come around anymore. I
was . . . relieved.”
    Sliding onto the bench next to her, he took her hands. “I never
saw him take a drink. Not ever. And he was calm in the woods.”
    “I remember,” she whispered, her eyes unfocused.
    “When I turned eighteen, he said I should get out of the woods
and learn more, the things he couldn’t teach me. I got my GED and
I joined the marines. And no matter how he did by you, he made me
a man. He saved my life.”
    Reality returned to her. He saw it happen, like switching off a
light. She yanked her hands back into her lap. “Fine. Say I believe you,
at least about Mitch—what the hell does he have to do with you kid-
napping me? I don’t believe the shit you’re spinning for a minute.”
    “You’re right.”
    Mason stood and fetched their coats. He held it in the air
between his body and Jenna’s, waiting.
    She eyed it with suspicion. “What?”
    “You wanted to get out of here, so let’s do it.”
    “So you can kill me in the woods?”
    “Why not here? And why not hours ago?”
                           n igH tfALL                             71

    “I don’t know, but I’m not going out there with you.” Her gaze
darted to the blacked windows.
    Mason laughed tightly. “C’mon.”
    Without waiting, he grabbed his nine-millimeter and a Maglite.
    Jenna didn’t miss his preparations. “I’m not stupid, you know, if
you’re expecting trouble from me.”
    He shook his head. “Not from you, no.”
    “You’re trying to scare me and it won’t work.”
    “It’d better. You need to be scared. And quick.”
    Ten minutes later, with Jenna trailing like a sleepwalker, they
stood in a small clearing just north of the cabin. Mason didn’t trust
her compliance. She was still thinking, always thinking, and that
would get them into trouble.
    God, he didn’t want to get rough with her, but she wasn’t getting
away from him. She couldn’t. Her life depended on him—his will,
his cool, his knowledge. But his survival through the coming storm
depended on her too.
    “C’mere,” he said quietly.
    She didn’t move.
    So he walked to her instead. Something good and calm opened
up in his chest when she didn’t shy away.
    “Listen, Jenna.”
    “What now? More stories?”
    “No, listen. Listen to the forest.”
    The stillness enveloped them, a dark and unnatural stillness that
gnawed at bones and wore away at the mind like a drip, drip, drip of
water. No moon shone through the quiet leaves. No animals moved
among the foliage. Although they stood in the trees, those countless
living plants, breathing each other’s poison air, there wasn’t a single
noise to indicate life.
    Jenna stood at his side. He could barely see her in the thick black
soup of night, but he heard her frantic breathing like a Klaxon.
    “Where is everything?” she whispered.
    “Mitch took you camping, right? When you were younger?”
    “It creeps me out, you knowing stuff like that.”
    “Did he or didn’t he?”
    “Yeah, when I was a kid. And you were right. He never hit the
bottle out here. For him, being in the woods was normal.” She inhaled
deeply, unsteadily. “But this . . . this isn’t normal.”
    He held her hand, the only solid, real, warm thing in the forest.
72                   ELLE n c onnor

“I’m not crazy, Jenna. And everything I’ve said is God’s honest
truth.”
    She tightened her fingers as a shiver worked down her arm.
“There’s no God here.”
         a touch of crimson
            A Renegade Angels Novel
                    by sylvia Day




           T                            T
   An October 2011 Signet Eclipse Mass Market Paperback


A touch can bring it all back . . . or take it all away.

Adrian Mitchell is an angel of immense power and insatia-
ble desire. Leading an elite Special Ops unit of the Seraphim,
his task is to punish the Fallen—angels who have become
vampires—and command a restless pack of indentured
lycans.
    But Adrian has suffered his own punishment for becom-
ing involved with mortals—losing the woman he loves again
and again. Now, after nearly two hundred years, he has
found her—Shadoe, her soul once more inhabiting a new
body with no memory of him. This time he won’t let her go.
    With no memory of her past as Shadoe, Lindsay Gibson
only knows she can’t help being fiercely attracted to the smol-
dering, seductive male who crosses her path. Swept into a dan-
gerous world of tumultuous passion and preternatural conflict,
Lindsay is soon caught in the middle between her angel lover,
her vampire father, and a full-blown lycan revolt. There’s more
at stake than her love and her life—this time she could lose her
very soul . . .



 Praise for sylvia Day writing as s.J. Day:

“Great characters and terrific storytelling in a hot-blooded
adrenaline ride. A keep-you-up-all-night read.”
        —#1 New York Times bestselling author Patricia Briggs
cHAptEr 1



“Phineas is dead.”
    The pronouncement hit Adrian Mitchell like a physical blow. He
gripped the handrail for balance as he rounded a bend in the stair-
well, and looked at the seraph who walked abreast of him. With the
relaying of the news, Jason Taylor advanced into Phineas’s former
rank as Adrian’s second-in-command. “When? How?”
    Jason easily kept up with Adrian’s inhuman pace as they ascended
to the roof. “About an hour ago. It was called in as a vamp attack.”
    “No one noticed a vampire within striking distance? How the
fuck is that possible?”
    “I’m not sure it is. I sent Damien to investigate.”
    They reached the last landing and the lycan guard in front of
them pushed open the heavy metal door. Adrian slipped sunglasses
over his eyes before stepping into the Arizona sunshine. He watched
the guard recoil from the oven-like heat, then heard a complaining
growl from the second lycan who brought up the rear. As base crea-
tures of instinct, they were susceptible to physical stimuli in ways the
seraphim and vampires were not. Adrian didn’t feel the temperature
at all; the loss of his best friend had chilled his blood.
    A helicopter waited on the pad in front of them, its whirring
blades churning the oppressively dry and gritty air. Its rounded side
was emblazoned with both “Mitchell Aeronautics” and Adrian’s
winged logo.
    “You have doubts?” he asked, focusing on the details because he
couldn’t afford to vent his fury now. Inside, his vaunted control was
shattered by grief over the loss of a good friend and trusted lieuten-
ant. But as leader of the elite team of seraphim known as the Senti-
nels, he couldn’t appear diminished in any way. Phineas’s death
would send ripples through the ranks, and the Sentinels would be
looking to him for strength and guidance.
    “One of his lycans survived the attack.” Despite the roar of the
aircraft’s engines, Jason didn’t have to raise his voice to be heard.
76                         syLViA D A y

He also didn’t cover his seraph-blue eyes, despite the pair of designer
shades perched atop his golden head. “I find it a bit . . . odd that
Phineas was investigating the size of the Navajo Lake lycan pack,
then he gets ambushed on the way home and killed. Yet one his dogs
survives to call it in as a vamp attack?”
    Adrian had been utilizing the lycans for centuries as both guards
for the Sentinels and heeler dogs to herd the vampires into desig-
nated areas. But the recent signs of restlessness among the lycans
signaled a need for him to reevaluate. They’d been created for the
express purpose of serving the Sentinels. If necessary, Adrian would
remind them of the pact made by their ancestors. They could have
all been turned into soulless, bloodsucking vampires as punishment
for their crimes, but he’d spared them in return for their indenture.
Although some of the lycans believed their debt had been paid by
their predecessors, they failed to recognize that this world was made
for mortals. They could never live among and alongside humans.
Their only place was the one Adrian had made for them.
    One of his guards ducked low and pushed through the air turbu-
lence created by the helicopter blades. Reaching the aircraft, the
lycan held the door open.
    Adrian’s seraph gifts buffered him from the tempest, allowing
him to proceed without effort. He looked at Jason. “I want to see
the lycan who survived the attack.”
    “I’ll tell Damien.” The wind whipped through the lieutenant’s
blond hair and sent his shades flying.
    Adrian snatched them out of the air with a lightning quick grasp.
Vaulting into the cabin, he settled into one of two rear-facing bucket
seats.
    Jason occupied the other single seat. “But is a guard dog that can’t
guard worth anything? Maybe you should put him down as an
example.”
    Adrian tossed the sunglasses at him. “How can I kill the one
responsible for Phineas’s death if all the witnesses are dead?”
    The two lycans dropped onto the opposite bench. One was stocky;
a bruiser. The other was a few inches shorter than Adrian, approxi-
mately six feet tall.
    The tall lycan secured his seatbelt and said, “It was that ‘dog’s’
mate who died trying to protect Phineas. If he could’ve done some-
thing, he would have.”
                   A touc H of criM so n                            77

     Jason opened his mouth.
     Adrian held up a hand to keep him quiet. “You’re Elijah.”
     The guard nodded. He was dark-haired and had the luminous
green eyes of a creature tainted with demon blood. It was one of the
points of contention between Adrian and the lycans that he’d trans-
fused their ancestors with demon blood when he’d severed their angel
wings. That touch of demon is what made the lycans half-man/
half-beast and it had spared the souls that should have died with the
amputation of their wings. But it also made them mortal with finite
life spans, and there were many who resented him for that.
     “You seem to know more about what happened than Jason does,”
Adrian said softly, studying him. Elijah had been sent to Adrian’s pack
for observation, because he’d displayed unacceptable Alpha traits. The
lycans were trained to look to the Sentinels for leadership. It was a
serious complication when one of their own rose to prominence and
diluted their purpose.
     Elijah looked out the window, watching the roof recede as the
helicopter lifted high into Phoenix’s cloudless blue sky. His hands
were fisted, betraying his breed’s innate fear of flying. “A mated pair
can’t live without each other. A male lycan would never deliberately
watch his mate die. For any reason.”
     Adrian rolled his shoulders back, attempting to ease the strain of
restraining wings that wanted to spread and stretch in a physical
manifestation of his pain and frustration. He knew what Elijah said
was true, which left him facing the possibility of a vampire offen-
sive. Exhaling harshly, his head fell back against the seat. The need
for vengeance burned like acid in his veins. The vampires had taken
so much from him—the woman he loved, friends and fellow Senti-
nels. The loss of Phineas was akin to severing his right arm. He
intended to sever far more than that from the one responsible.
     Knowing his sunglasses wouldn’t hide the flaming irises that
betrayed his roiling emotions, he shuttered his gaze . . . 
     . . . and almost missed the glint of sunlight on silver.
     He jerked to the side, narrowly missing a dagger slice to the neck.
Catching the arm reaching over his headrest from the cockpit, he
snapped it.
     The pilot.
     The crack of bone resounded, but was drowned out by a female
scream. The broken limb flopped against the leather at an unnatural
78                         syLViA D A y

angle; the blade clattered to the floorboard. Adrian lunged onto the
bench across from him, directly between the two guards. The lycans
shot forward; one to the left, the other to the right.
     Without a guiding hand at the stick, the helicopter pitched and
yawed. Frantic beeping sounded from the cockpit.
     Adrian rounded on his attacker with claws bared. The pilot—a
female vampire—ignored her useless arm and used the other to thrust
a second silver dagger through the gap between the two rear facing
seats.
     Bared fangs, foaming mouth, and bloodshot eyes.
     Aberrant signs. Distracted by Phineas’s death, he’d missed them.
     The lycans partially altered into beasts in response to the threat,
their roars of aggression reverberating in the confined space. Elijah,
hunched by the low roof, pulled back his fist and swung. The impact
knocked the pilot into the control stick, shoving it forward. The
nose of the helicopter dove, hurtling them toward the ground.
     The wailing of alarms was deafening.
     Adrian lunged, tackling the vamp with a midsection hit, smash-
ing her through the cockpit window in a shower of glass.
     Freefalling, they grappled.
     “One bite, Sentinel,” she sing-songed through froth, her eyes
wild as she struggled to bite him with needle sharp canines.
     Punching into her ribcage, he split the flesh and cracked through
ribs. Clenching her heart in his fist, he bared his teeth in a smile.
     His wings snapped open in a burst of iridescent white tipped in
crimson. Like a parachute deploying, the thirty-foot expanse halted
his descent with teeth-rattling abruptness, ripping the beating heart
free of the writhing vampire. She plummeted to the earth trailing
acrid smoke and ash as she disintegrated. In his hand, the heart still
beat, spurting thick blood before losing life and bursting into flame.
He crushed the fleshy organ into a pulpy mass, then tossed it aside.
It fell in burning embers, billowing away in a glittering cloud.
     The helicopter whined as it spiraled toward the desert floor.
     Adrian flew toward the aircraft with arms outstretched. One
lycan peered out the shattered front window, his face blanched and
eyes glowing green.
     Jason shot out of the damaged cockpit like a bullet. He circled
back, his dark gray and burgundy wings making him a racing shadow
across the sky. “What are you doing?”
     “We’re saving the lycans.”
                  A touc H of criM so n                          79

    “Why?”
    The ferocity of Adrian’s glare was answer enough. Jason rolled
and came back around.
    Knowing the beasts would need to be spurred through their innate
terror of heights, Adrian compelled the one standing in the cockpit.
“Jump.”
    The angelic resonance to his voice rumbled across the desert like
thunder, demanding undeniable obedience. Mindlessly, the lycan
tumbled into the open sky. Jason tackled him with a midsection hit
and pushed him out of harm’s way.
    The second lycan needed no compulsion. Exhibiting remarkable
courage, Elijah launched himself from the doomed aircraft in an
elegant dive.
    Adrian flew under him, grunting as the muscle-heavy lycan
slammed onto his back. They were mere feet away from the ground,
close enough that the beating of Adrian’s massive wings sent sand
twisting upward in spiraling gusts.
    The helicopter hit the desert floor a heartbeat later, exploding
into a roiling tower of flames that could be seen for miles.
cHAptEr 2



There was a walking wet dream in Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Interna-
tional Airport.
    Lindsay Gibson spotted him at her boarding gate during her cur-
sory surveillance of her immediate perimeter. Arrested by his raw
sensuality, she slowed to a halt in the middle of the concourse. A low
whistle of appreciation escaped her. Perhaps her luck was finally turn-
ing around. She’d certainly welcome a silver lining after the day she
had been having so far. Her takeoff from Raleigh had been delayed
almost an hour and she’d missed her original connection. From the
looks of it, she’d barely made her rebooked flight, if the number of
passengers standing by the gate was any indication.
    Finishing her assessment of the crowd around her, Lindsay re-
turned her attention to the most decadent-looking man she’d ever
seen.
    He paced sinuously along the edge of the waiting area, his long
jeans-clad legs maintaining a precisely controlled stride. His thick
black hair was slightly overlong, framing a savagely masculine face.
A cream-colored V-neck T-shirt stretched over powerfully ripped
shoulders, hinting at a body worthy of completing the package.
    Lindsay pushed a lock of rain-damp hair back from her forehead
and cataloged every detail. Unadulterated sex appeal—this guy had
it. The kind you couldn’t fake or buy; the kind that made hand-
someness a bonus.
    He moved without looking, yet unerringly avoided a woman who
cut through his path. His attention was occupied with a BlackBerry,
his thumb rhythmically stroking over the track pad in a way that
caused places low in Lindsay’s belly to clench.
    A drop of rainwater slid down her neck. The slow, cool trickle
heightened her physical awareness of the guy she devoured with her
gaze. Behind him, the view of the tarmac revealed a late afternoon
sky that was a gloomy gray. Sheets of rain pelted the windows fram-
ing the terminal. The inclement weather was a surprise, and not just
                   A touc H of criM so n                               81

because there’d been no rain in the forecast. She always anticipated
weather with uncanny accuracy, but she hadn’t felt this storm com-
ing. It had simply been sunny when she landed, then pouring buck-
ets shortly after.
    Usually, she loved rain and wouldn’t have minded having to step
outside to catch the inter-terminal bus from one Sky Harbor termi-
nal to another. Today, however, there was a morose quality to the
weather. A weight of melancholy. Or mourning.
    As long as she could remember, the wind had spoken to her.
Whether it shouted through a storm or whispered through stillness,
it always conveyed its message. Not in words, but in feelings. Her
dad called it her “sixth sense” and went out of his way to make it
seem cool instead of freakish.
    That inner radar drew her to the luscious man by her gate as much
as his looks did. There was a brooding air about him that reminded
her of a brewing storm gathering strength. She was strongly attracted
to that quality in him . . . and the lack of a wedding band on his
finger.
    Pivoting, Lindsay faced him head on and willed him to look at her.
    His head lifted. His gaze met hers.
    Suddenly it felt as if she was standing outside again, buffeted by
the wind, the gusts whipping through her hair. But there was none of
the chill. Only heat and seductive humidity. Lindsay held his gaze for
an endless moment, riveted by the drawing pull of brilliant azure
irises, eyes that were as tumultuous and ancient as the fury of the
weather outside.
    Inhaling sharply, she turned and walked to a nearby gourmet pret-
zel shop, giving him the opportunity to chase her obvious interest . . . or
not. She knew instinctively that he was a man who pursued.
    She reached the counter and glanced up at the menu. The smell
of warm, yeasty bread and melted butter made her mouth water.
The last thing she needed before sitting on her ass for another hour
straight was a carbohydrate bomb like a giant pretzel. Then again,
maybe the temporary rush of serotonin would soothe her nerves,
which were jangled by the sensory input from the large number of
people around her.
    She ordered. “Pretzel sticks, please. With marinara sauce and a
diet soda.”
    The clerk relayed the total. Lindsay dug in her purse for her
wallet.
82                         syLViA D A y

    “Allow me.”
    God . . . that voice. Deep and resonant. Lindsay knew it was him.
    He reached around her and she breathed in an exotic, wholly
masculine scent. Not cologne. Earthy, virile male. Crisp and clean,
like the air just after a rainstorm.
    He slid a twenty-dollar bill across the counter. She smiled and let
him.
    It was too bad she was wearing her oldest pair of jeans, a loose
T-shirt, and Army-issued jungle boots. Great for ease of movement,
but she would’ve preferred to look hot for this guy. He really was
way out of her league, from the movie star good looks to the Vach-
eron Constantin watch on his wrist.
    Turning to face him, she held out her hand. “Thank you, Mr. . . . ?”
    “Adrian Mitchell.” He accepted the handshake, with the addi-
tion of his thumb stroking across her knuckles.
    Lindsay had a visceral physical response to his touch. Her breath
caught and the tempo of heartbeat accelerated. Up close, he was
devastating. Both fiercely masculine and terrifyingly beautiful. “Hi,
Adrian Mitchell.”
    He reached down and caught her luggage tag with long, elegant
fingers. “Nice to meet you, Lindsay Gibson . . . from Raleigh? Or
returning there?”
    “I’m heading your direction. We’re sharing a plane.”
    His eyes were the most unusual shade of blue. Like the pure, bril-
liant blue at the heart of a flame. Set within olive skin and framed by
thick dark lashes, they were stunning.
    And they focused on her like he couldn’t get enough of looking
at her.
    He raked her from head to toe with a heated glance. She felt bare
and flushed, left naked by the undressing he’d done in his mind. Her
body responded to the provocation. Her breasts swelled; everything
else softened.
    A woman would have to soften for him, because there was noth-
ing remotely yielding about his body. From the sculpted definition
of his shoulders and biceps, to the chiseled features of his face, every
angle was sharp and precise.
    He reached around her for his change, moving with a lithe and
primal grace.
    I bet he fucks like an animal.
                  A touc H of criM so n                           83

    Heated by the thought, Lindsay caught the extension handle of
her suitcase. “So is Orange County home? Or are you traveling for
business?”
    “I’m going home. To Anaheim. And you?”
    She moved to the pick-up counter. He followed at a more sedate
pace, but there was something inherently determined about the way
he came after her. His predatory nature sent a shiver of expectation
through her. Her final destination was Anaheim, too. Her luck had
definitely changed.
    “Orange County is going to be home. I’m relocating for a job.”
She wasn’t going to get as detailed as naming a city. She knew how
to protect herself, if she had to, but she didn’t want to buy any more
trouble than she already had.
    “That’s a big move. One side of the country to the other.”
    “It was time for a change.”
    His mouth curved in a half-smile. “Have dinner with me.”
    The velvety resonance to his voice engaged her interest further.
He was charismatic and magnetic, two qualities that made short-
term relationships memorable.
    She accepted the pretzel bag and soda the clerk passed to her.
“You get right to the point. I like that.”
    The calling of their flight number drew her attention back to the
gate. A short delay was announced causing the waiting passengers
to shift restlessly. Adrian never took his eyes from her.
    He gestured toward the row of chairs near where he’d been pac-
ing. “We have time to get to know each other.”
    Lindsay walked with him over to the seating area. She canvassed
the area again, taking note of the numerous women following Adrian
with their gazes. Through the wall of windows overlooking the air-
port ramp, she saw that the rain had abated to a heavy drizzle. She
returned her attention to the man beside her. The sense of him being
a leashed tempest was no longer so overwhelming. The correlation
was intriguing.
    Her ferocious reaction to Adrian Mitchell and his unique ability
to set off her inner weather radar cemented her decision to get to
know him.
    He waited until she was settled into a seat, then asked, “Do you
have friends picking you up? Family?”
    No one was picking her up. She had a shuttle reserved to take
84                         syLViA D A y

her to the hotel where she’d be staying until she found a suitable
apartment. “It’s a security risk to share that sort of information
with a stranger.”
    “So let me address the risk.” He shifted with sleek fluidity, reach-
ing into his back pocket to grab his billfold. Withdrawing a business
card, he held it out to her. “Call whoever is expecting you. Tell them
who I am and how to reach me. If you like, I can call my office and
arrange for a press release.”
    “You’re funny.” Also, used to giving commands. She didn’t mind
that. She had a strong personality and needed the same in a man or
she ran right over them. Docile men were fine in certain situations,
but not in her personal life.
    “I’m determined,” he corrected.
    Lindsay reached for the card. His fingers touched hers and elec-
tricity raced up her arm like static shock.
    His nostrils flared. He caught her hand; his fingertips teased her
palm. He could have been stroking between her legs, given how
aroused she became from that simple touch. He watched her with an
almost tangible sexual heat, dark and intense. As if he knew what
her hot buttons were . . . or was determined to figure them out.
    “I can tell you’re going to be trouble,” she murmured, tightened
her hand to still his questing fingers.
    “Dinner. Conversation. I promise to behave.”
    She reached for his business card with her other hand, while still
holding him captive. Her blood was thrumming through her veins,
roused by the excitement of such an immediate unruly attraction.
“Mitchell Aeronautics,” she read. “But you’re flying commercial?”
    “I had other plans.” His tone was wry. “But my pilot dropped
out unexpectedly.”
    His pilot. Her mouth curved. “Don’t you hate when that hap-
pens?”
    “Usually . . . then you came along.” He pulled his BlackBerry
out of his pocket. “Use my phone so whomever you call will have
that number, too.”
    Lindsay reluctantly released him and accepted the phone, even
though she had her own. Setting her soda on the worn carpet, she
stood and Adrian rose with her. He was affluent, elegant, mannered,
solicitous, and drop dead gorgeous. But as polished as he was, there
remained a dangerous edge to him that titillated a woman’s basest
senses. Maybe the bombardment of intuitional data from the crowded
                   A touc H of criM so n                             85

terminal made her more susceptible. Or maybe they just had a com-
bustible sexual compatibility. She wasn’t complaining either way.
     Leaving her pretzel bag on the chair, she moved a few feet away
and dialed the number to her father’s auto shop. While she was occu-
pied, Adrian walked to the gate counter.
     “Linds. You’re there already?”
     She was startled by the abrupt greeting. “How did you know it
was me?”
     “Caller ID. It shows a 714 area code.”
     “I’m on my layover in Phoenix, using someone else’s cell phone.”
     “What’s the matter with yours? Should I overnight you a new
one?” A single parent for twenty years, Eddie Gibson had always
been over-protective, which wasn’t surprising considering the hor-
rific manner of Regina Gibson’s death.
     “Nah. Mine’s fine. I met someone, though.” Lindsay explained
the situation with Adrian and relayed the information from the busi-
ness card. “I’m not worried. He just seems like the kind of guy who
could use a little resistance. I don’t think he hears the word ‘no’ very
often.”
     “Probably not. Mitchell is like Howard Hughes.”
     “Howard Hughes,” she repeated, startled to hear that he was a
well-known personage. “How so? Money, movies, starlets? All of
the above?”
     She assessed Adrian from the back, taking advantage of the
opportunity to check him out while his attention was diverted. The
rearview was as impressive as the front, revealing a powerful back
and luscious ass.
     “Adrian Mitchell is reclusive, a gazillionaire, and he likes planes.
He keeps to himself to the point that it’s weird. He lives on some
kind of compound in Orange County. I saw it on a television spe-
cial once. It’s some sort of architectural wonder.”
     She laughed softly. And to think, she’d picked him out of a
crowd. “Thanks for the heads up. I’ll call you when I get settled.”
     “I know you can take care of yourself, but be careful. I love you.”
     “Love you, too. Don’t eat fast food for dinner. Cook something
healthy. Better yet, meet a hot chick and have her cook for you.”
     “Linds . . .” he began in a mock warning tone.
     Laughing, she ended the call, then went into the phone’s history
and deleted her dad’s number.
     Adrian approached with a ghost of a smile. He moved so sinuously,
86                         syLViA D A y

exuding power and confidence, which she found even more attractive
than his looks. “Everything okay?”
    “Absolutely.”
    He held out a boarding pass. Lindsay saw her name and frowned.
    “I took the liberty,” he explained, “of arranging adjacent seats.”
    She took the ticket. First class. Seat Number Two, which was
more than twenty rows closer to the front of the plane than she’d
had originally. “I can’t pay for this.”
    “I don’t expect you to foot the bill for a change you didn’t ask for.”
    “You need photo ID to mess with someone’s ticket.”
    “Yes, but I pulled a few strings.” He retrieved the phone she
handed to him. “Are you okay with that?”
    She nodded without hesitation, but her inner warning light lit
up. With TSA security being what it was, it should’ve taken an act
of God to change her ticket without her permission. Perhaps the
gate attendant had simply succumbed to Adrian’s charisma and sex
appeal or maybe he’d seriously greased her palm, but Lindsay never
ignored alarm bells. She was going to have to dig deeper where he
was concerned, which—sadly—impeded what she had hoped would
be a short and sweet, hot and raunchy, no-strings-attached affair.
    Frankly, there was no need for a guy like Adrian to go to any
trouble to get into her pants. Every woman in the vicinity was watch-
ing him, some with the sort of searching glance that said, Give me
the slightest encouragement and I’m yours. Shit, even some of the
men were looking at him like that. And he handled the prurient
interest so deftly that Lindsay knew it was par for the course for him.
He kept his gaze moving, never lingering, while wearing an air of
indifference that acted like a shield. She’d arrowed right through it
with her direct come-and-get-it eye contact, but it really made no
sense that he’d taken her bait. She was rain damp and scruffily-
dressed. Yes, confidence was a lure for powerful men and she had it,
but that didn’t explain why she felt as if she was the one who’d been
snared.
    “Just so we’re clear,” she began, “I was raised to expect men to
open doors, pull out chairs, and pick up the tab. In return, I dress
up nice and try to be charming. That’s as far as it goes. You can’t
buy sex from me. Work for you?”
    His mouth curved in that now familiar almost-smile. “Perfectly.
We’ll have an hour to talk on the plane. If you aren’t completely
comfortable with me by the time we land, I’ll settle for an exchange
                  A touc H of criM so n                            87

of phone numbers. Otherwise, I have a car picking me up and we
can leave the airport together.”
    “Deal.”
    His gaze held a hint of self-satisfaction. Lindsay kept her similar
response in check. Whatever else he may be and whatever his motives
were, Adrian Mitchell was a challenge she relished.
cHAptEr 3



I have her, Adrian thought, with a ferocious surge of triumph.
    If Lindsay Gibson knew how predatory and rapaciously sexual
that sense of conquest was, she might think twice about having din-
ner with him. His first urge upon seeing her had been to press her
against the most convenient flat surface and take her swift and hard.
To her, they were getting to know each other for the first time. To
him, they were reuniting after two hundred years apart. Two hellish
centuries of waiting and craving.
    Today of all days. Life had a way of grabbing him by the balls at
the most in-fucking-convenient times. But he couldn’t bitch about
this. Would never bitch about it.
    Shadoe, my love.
    They had never been apart this length of time before. Their re-
unions were always random and unpredictable, yet inexorable. Their
souls were drawn to each other despite the disparate roads their lives
were traveling.
    The endless cycle of her deaths and her inability to remember
what they meant to each other was his punishment for breaking the
law he’d been commanded to enforce. It was an excruciatingly effec-
tive reprisal. He was dying in slow degrees; his soul—the center of
his angelic existence—was ravaged by grief, rage, and a thirst for
vengeance. Every time he lost Shadoe and every day he was forced
to live without her further compromised his effectiveness and his
mission. Her absence had been impairing the commitment to duty
that was the cornerstone of who he was—a soldier, a leader, a pro-
tector of man, and the gaoler of beings as powerful as he was.
    Two hundred fucking years. She’d been gone long enough to make
him a danger to everyone and everything around him. A danger to
her, because his hunger for her was so voracious he doubted his abil-
ity to restrain it. When she was gone, the world was dead to him.
Similar to standing at Niagara Falls, yet hearing and feeling nothing
at all; the silence was deafening. Then she returned, and the rush of
                  A touc H of criM so n                            89

sensation exploded around him—the roar of sound, the mist of water,
the force of nature. Life, which was lost to him when she was.
    As they returned to their former seats, Lindsay said. “My dad
says you’re the Howard Hughes of my generation.”
    Discussing his necessary but meaningless façade while his heart
was aching with yearning for her was both perverse and anguishing.
He was throbbing with need, his blood flowing thick and hot with
his driving hunger.
     “I’d like to think I’m less eccentric,” he replied in a voice that
was rougher than he would have preferred. Every cell in his body
was attuned to Lindsay Gibson—the vessel carrying the soul mated
to his. The illicit physical needs of his mortal shell roused with vio-
lent alacrity, reminding him how long it had been since she’d last
been in his arms. He knew how good it was between them. A single
scorching glance could set off an incendiary hunger that took hours
to burn out.
    He missed those intimate hours with her. Missed her.
    Her appearance was different, her physical form determined by
the genetics of her latest family line, but he felt and recognized Sha-
doe’s soul regardless of the body she was born into. Over the years
her appearance and ethnicity had varied widely and he loved her
regardless. His attraction was borne of the connection he felt to her,
the intense inner “click” of finding the other half of himself. A war-
rior’s soul like his own, a soul that had known him almost from his
inception.
    Lindsay shrugged. “I like eccentric. Makes things interesting.”
    Raindrops glistened in her hair. She was a blonde in this incar-
nation, with tousled curls that were sexy as hell. The length was
short, about four inches all around. His hands ached with the desire
to fist the lush mass, to hold her motionless with his grip while his
mouth slanted over hers and quenched his desperate thirst for the
taste of her.
    He was in love with Shadoe’s soul, but Lindsay Gibson herself
was inspiring a ferocious lust. The combination was potent, blind-
siding him when he was already off-kilter. His spine prickled with
awareness and he forcibly restrained the wings that wanted to flex
in sinuous pleasure at the sight and smell of her. Sitting next to her
on the plane would be both heaven and hell.
    He had the advantage of remembering every one of their pasts, but
Lindsay Gibson had only her instincts to go on and they were clearly
90                         syLViA D A y

sending her signals she wasn’t sure how to process. Her nostrils were
flaring gently, her pupils were dilated, and her body language con-
firmed her reciprocating attraction. She watched him carefully, assess-
ing him. There was no coyness to her. She was bold and self-assured.
Definitely comfortable in her own skin. He liked her immensely
already, and knew that would be the case regardless of his history
with Shadoe.
    “Where in Orange County are you heading?” he asked.
    Although Adrian knew her as deeply as any man could know his
woman, in many ways he was starting from scratch every time he saw
her again. Shadoe’s soul was familiar, but everything else—Lindsay’s
likes and dislikes, her personality and temperament, her memories—
was different. Every time she returned to him was a rediscovery.
    She peeled back the flimsy plastic top to her paper soda cup and
took a drink. “Anaheim. I work in hospitality.”
    He gave the appearance of reaching into his back pocket. With
his hand behind him, he summoned a straw and then presented it to
her. “Restaurants or hotels?”
    How did she take her coffee? Did she even like coffee? Did she
sleep on her back or her stomach? Where did she like to be touched?
Was she a night owl or an early riser?
    Lindsay stared at the straw, then arched a brow at him. She
accepted it and tore into the protective paper, but was clearly won-
dering when he’d picked it up. “Thank you.”
    “You’re welcome.”
    There was so much to assimilate and an unknown amount of
time in which to do it in. Once, she’d come back to him for twenty
minutes; another time, twenty years. No matter what, her father
always found her. The leader of the vampires was as drawn to her as
Adrian was, and Syre was determined to finish what he’d started.
He wanted to make his daughter immortal through vampirism,
which would kill the soul connecting her to Adrian.
    Which would never fucking happen as long as Adrian was
breathing.
    “Hotels,” she answered, returning to his former question. “I love
the energy. They never sleep, never close. The endless flow of travelers
ensures there’s always another challenge to tackle.”
    “Which property?”
    “The Belladonna. It’s a new resort near Disneyland.”
    “The Belladonna is a Gadara Enterprises property.” It wasn’t a
                  A touc H of criM so n                           91

question. Raguel Gadara was a real estate mogul rivaling Steve Wynn
and Donald Trump. All of his new developments were heavily adver-
tised. Adrian knew him well. Not just through their secular lives, but
also through their celestial ones. Raguel was one of the seven earth-
bound archangels, falling several rungs below Adrian’s rank of seraph
in the angelic hierarchy.
    Lindsay’s dark eyes brightened. “You’ve heard of it.”
    “I know Raguel.” He began planning the steps required to
research her history from birth until this moment. There were no
such things as coincidences in his world. He and Shadoe found each
other with every reincarnation not due to chance, but because their
souls were drawn to each other by love and tragedy—they were des-
tined to cross paths. But to end up in Anaheim and in Raguel’s
employ . . .? Raguel owned properties all over the world. It couldn’t
be an accident that she’d landed in Orange County.
    Adrian needed to know the opportunities and decisions that led
her so directly into his life. The discovery process was one he under-
took whenever she returned. He looked for routines or patterns ap-
plicable to her former lives. He gained knowledge used to build her
trust and affection. And he searched for any sign that they were
being manipulated, because the time was fast approaching when his
retribution would be due. He’d broken the very law he had been sent
to earth to enforce: he had fallen in love with Shadoe—a naphil, the
child of a mortal woman and an angel—and he’d succumbed, count-
less times, to the decadent sins of her flesh.
    He had personally punished her father for the same offense. He’d
severed the wings from the fallen angel, taking Syre’s soul and mak-
ing him the first of the vampires. Soon, the consequences of Adrian’s
hypocrisy would catch up with him. If Raguel was the executioner of
his punishment, he needed to know . . . and be prepared. He had to
ensure that Shadoe would be taken care of when his time came.
    Looking around the terminal, his gaze met those of his lycan
guards who sat a few rows away on either side. They were obser-
vant. Curious. They couldn’t help but see that he was reacting dif-
ferently to Lindsay than he did to other women. The last time
Shadoe’s soul had been with him, neither of the two lycans had been
born yet, but they knew his personal life. They knew how little
attention he paid to the opposite sex.
    He would need more than two guards now that he could resume
his hunt for Syre, and Lindsay would need her own dedicated
92                        syLViA D A y

protection. Adrian knew he’d have to manipulate that carefully. She
was young, twenty-five at most, and starting out on her own in a new
place. Now was the time for her to broaden her horizons, not find out
that her new lover was micromanaging her life.
    Lindsay rolled her straw between her fingers, her soft pink lips
hovering over the tip before parting for a drink.
    A wash of heat swept over him, a sensation he felt only when he
was with her. Even the knowledge that he would lose her again, that
he was forsaking his duty once again, couldn’t dampen the rush of
hunger and desire quickening his blood. He wanted those lips on his
skin, needed to feel them sliding across his flesh, whispering both
raw and tender words as they teased him mercilessly. Although the
Sentinels had been forbidden to love and mate with mortals, noth-
ing in heaven or on earth could convince Adrian that Shadoe hadn’t
been born to belong to him.
    Syre . . . He grew very still.
    “You said you spoke with your father?” Adrian kept his face
impassive, but he was intensely alert. Her various incarnations had
always been raised by a single-parent mother, never by a father. It
was as if Syre had marked her soul when he’d begun the Change that
would have transformed her into a vampire, ensuring that no other
man would ever take his paternal role in her life.
    “Yes.” A shadow passed over her features. “My mother died
when I was five.”
    His fingers flexed restlessly. While Shadoe’s physical appearance
had been mutable in her incarnations, the order of her parents’
deaths had never been.
    His long-stable world canted slightly, enough to challenge his
balance and cause the objects around him to begin a slow slide away
from their predetermined place. The lycans grew more agitated by
the day, the vampires had crossed a precipitous line with the death
of Phineas and the attack on Adrian, and Shadoe had returned to
him after an interminable absence . . . and the most basic pattern of
her life had changed.
    “I am sorry for your loss,” he murmured, adopting the custom-
ary remark offered to grieving mortals who so often viewed death
as a lamentable ending.
    “Thank you. How about your family? Big or small?”
    “Big. Lots of siblings.”
                  A touc H of criM so n                           93

    “I envy you. I don’t have any brothers or sisters. My dad didn’t
remarry. He never got over my mom.”
    Adrian had become quite adept at winning over her mothers.
Men, however, tended to give him a wide berth regardless of any
efforts he made to put them at ease. They sensed the power in him;
there could be only one Alpha in a designated space and he was it.
Gaining acceptance from her father might take some work, but he
would have to make the time. Familial support was just one of the
many avenues he’d utilize to garner her complete and total surren-
der, which was the only way he could bear to have her. Completely.
Totally. No holds barred.
    He touched the back of her hand where it rested lightly on the
armrest, relishing the charge he got from the simple contact. He
heard the elevated beat of her heart as if his ear was pressed to her
chest. Over the paging of flight information, boarding calls, and gate
changes, the strong and steady rhythm of her heartbeat was crystal
clear and deeply beloved. “Some women are unforgettable.”
    “You sound almost like a romantic.”
    “Does that surprise you?”
    Her lips curved gently. “Nothing surprises me.”
    His heart ached at that smile. He’d gone so long without her and
his wait wasn’t over yet. While she couldn’t fail to feel the connec-
tion between them, she didn’t love him as he needed her to. He’d
have only her body for a time, which would sate the sharpest edge
of his need but still leave him wanting.
    “I’ll keep you guessing.” His attention diverted to Elijah, who’d
pushed to his feet and moved off the carpeted waiting area to the
main concourse. The lycans were uncomfortable in enclosed, crowded
spaces. Just as seraphim were ill at ease underground and vampires
had a dislike of cold temperatures. Adrian could have chartered a
flight or waited for one of his own planes—either action would have
spared the lycans their discomfort—but he’d needed to send a message
to any vampire who might consider today’s attack a victory: he wasn’t
weakened and he damn well wasn’t afraid. Come and try me again.
    “You love surprises,” she guessed.
    Adrian looked at her. “Hate them. Except when they’re you.”
    Lindsay laughed softly and he fell in love with the sound.
    A young woman pushing a stroller and carrying a fussy infant
headed toward the gate counter via the pathway directly in front of
94                       syLViA D A y

them. As she argued with a toddler dragging a small carry-on
behind him, Adrian’s phone rang. He excused himself from Lindsay
and stepped a few feet away.
   The caller ID on his phone showed a number, but no name.
“Mitchell,” he answered.
   “Adrian.” The voice on the other end of the line was instantly
recognizable.
   Primal aggression accelerated Adrian’s pulse. Lightning split the
sky in response, followed by the roar of thunder. “Syre.”
   “You have something that belongs to me.”
              hEart of stEEl
            A Novel of the Iron Seas
 by the new york times bestselling
      author of the iron Duke
          Meljean Brook




          T                          T
    A November 2011 Berkley Sensation Trade Paperback


      “Meljean Brook has brilliantly defined the
         new genre of Steampunk Romance.”
  —Jayne Ann Krentz, New York Times bestselling author


Named one of Publishers Weekly’s “Best Books of 2010,”
 The Iron Duke introduced the gritty, alluring adventure
  of the Iron Seas. Now, Meljean Brook returns to the
       world where nanotech fuses with Victorian
                sensibilities—and steam.

As the mercenary captain of the Lady Corsair, Yasmeen has
learned to keep her heart as cold as steel, her only loyalty
bound to her ship and her crew. So when a man who once
tried to seize her airship returns from the dead, Yasmeen
will be damned if she gives him another opportunity to take
control.
    Treasure-hunter Archimedes Fox isn’t interested in the
Lady Corsair—he wants her coldhearted captain and the
valuable da Vinci sketch she stole from him. To reclaim it,
Archimedes is determined to seduce the stubborn woman
who once tossed him to a ravenous pack of zombies, but she’s
no easy conquest.
    When da Vinci’s sketch attracts a dangerous amount of
attention, Yasmeen and Archimedes journey to Horde-
occupied Morocco—and straight into their enemy’s hands.
But as they fight to save themselves and a city on the brink
of rebellion, the greatest peril Yasmeen faces is from the
man who seeks to melt her icy heart . . .
cHAptEr 1



Yasmeen hadn’t had any reason to fly her airship into the small
Danish township of Fladstrand before, but her reputation had obvi-
ously preceded her. As soon as the sky paled and Lady Corsair
became visible on the eastern horizon, lights began appearing in the
windows of the public houses alongside the docks. The taverns were
opening early, hoping to make a few extra deniers before mid-
day . . . and the good citizens of Fladstrand were probably praying
that her crew wouldn’t venture beyond the docks and into the town
itself.
    Unfortunately for them, Lady Corsair’s crew wasn’t in Flad-
strand to drink. Nor were they here to cause trouble, but Yasmeen
wasn’t inclined to let the town know that. Let them tremble for a
while. It did her reputation good.
    Standing behind the windbreak on the quarterdeck, Yasmeen
aimed her spyglass at the skyrunners tethered over the docks. She
recognized each airship—all of them served as passenger ferries
between the Danish islands to the east and Sweden to the north.
Several heavy-bottomed cargo ships floated in the middle of the icy
harbor, their canvas sails furled and their wooden hulls rocking
with each swell. Though she knew the skyrunners, Yasmeen couldn’t
identify every ship in the water. Most of Fladstrand fished or
farmed—two activities unrelated to the sort of business Yasmeen
conducted. Whatever cargo the ships carried probably fermented or
flopped, and she had no interest in either until they reached her mug
or her plate.
    When Lady Corsair’s long shadow passed over the flat, sandy
shoreline and the first rows of houses overlooking the sea, Yasmeen
ordered the engines cut. Their huffing and vibrations gave way to the
flap of the airship’s unfurling sails and the cawing protests of the
seabirds. Below, the narrow cobblestone streets lay almost empty. A
steamcart puttered along beside an ass-drawn wagon loaded with
wooden barrels, but most of the good people of Fladstrand scrambled
98                     M ELjEAn Brook

back to their homes as soon as they spotted Lady Corsair in the skies
above them—hiding behind locked doors and shuttered windows,
hoping that whatever business Yasmeen had wouldn’t involve them.
    They were in luck. Today, Yasmeen only sought one woman:
Zenobia Fox, author of several popular stories that Yasmeen had
read to pieces, and sister to a charming antiquities salvager whose
adventures Zenobia based her stories on . . . a man that Yasmeen
had recently killed.
    Yasmeen had also killed their father and taken over his airship,
renaming her Lady Corsair. That had happened some time ago, how-
ever, and no one would consider Emmerich Gunther-Baptiste charm-
ing, including his daughter. Yasmeen had seen Zenobia Fox once
before, though the girl had been called Geraldine Gunther-Baptiste
then. As one of the mercenary crew aboard Gunther-Baptiste’s sky-
runner, Yasmeen had watched an awkward girl with mousy-brown
braids wave farewell to her father from the docks. Zenobia had been
standing next to her pale and worn-looking mother.
    Neither she nor her mother had appeared sorry to see him go.
    Would Zenobia be sorry that her brother was dead? Yasmeen
didn’t know, but it promised to be an entertaining encounter. She
hadn’t looked forward to meeting someone this much since Archime-
des Fox had first boarded Lady Corsair—and before she’d learned
that he was really Wolfram Gunther-Baptiste. Hopefully, her acquain-
tance with his sister wouldn’t end the same way, with Yasmeen throw-
ing Zenobia to a mob of zombies.
    A familiar grunt came from Yasmeen’s left. Lady Corsair’s quar-
termaster stood at the port rail, consulting a hand-drawn map before
casting a derisive look over the town.
    Yasmeen tucked her scarf beneath her chin so the heavy wool
wouldn’t muffle her voice. “Is there a problem, Monsieur Rousseau?”
    Rousseau pushed his striped scarf away from his mouth, expos-
ing his short black beard. With gloved hands, he gestured to the
rows of houses, each one identical to the next in all but color. “Only
that they are exactly the same, captain. But it is not a problem. It is
simply an irritant.”
    Yasmeen nodded. She didn’t doubt Rousseau could find the house.
Though hopeless with a sword or gun, her quartermaster could inter-
pret the most rudimentary of maps as if they’d been drawn by skilled
cartographers. That ability, combined with his expressive grunts and
                        HEA rt of stEEL                              99

eyebrows that could wordlessly discipline or praise the aviators—and
a booming voice for when nothing but words would do—made him
the most valuable member of Yasmeen’s crew. A significant number of
jobs that Yasmeen took in Europe required Lady Corsair to navigate
through half-remembered terrain and landmarks. Historical maps of
the continent were easy to come by, but matching their details to the
overgrown ruins that existed now demanded another skill entirely—
that of reading the story of the Horde’s centuries-long occupation.
     Though not ruins, Fladstrand’s identical rows of houses told
another tale, one that Yasmeen had seen repeated along the Scandi-
navian coastlines.
     Soon after the Horde’s war machines had broken through the
Hapsburg wall, the zombie infection had outpaced their armies, and
the steady trickle of refugees from eastern Europe had opened into a
flood. Those who had the means bought passage aboard a ship to the
New World, but those without money or connections migrated north,
pushing farther and farther up the Jutland peninsula until they
crowded the northern tip. Some fled across the sea to Norway and
Sweden, while others bargained for passage to the Danish islands.
Those refugees who were left built rows of shacks, and waited for the
Horde and the zombies to come.
     Neither had. The Horde hadn’t pressed farther north than the
Limfjord, a shallow sound that cut across the tip of Jutland, separat-
ing it from the rest of the peninsula and creating an island of the area.
The same stretch of water stopped most of the zombies; walls built
near the sound stopped the rest. And although poverty and unrest
had plagued the crowded refugees, and the noose had seen frequent
use, the region slowly recovered. Rows of shacks became rows of
houses. Now quiet and stable, many of the settlements attracted fam-
ilies from England, recently freed from Horde occupation, and from
the New World. Zenobia Fox and her brother had made up one of
those families.
     “We are coming over her home now, captain.” Rousseau’s an-
nouncement emerged in frozen puffs. “How long do you intend to
visit with her?”
     How long would it take to say that Archimedes had discovered
a valuable artifact before Yasmeen had killed him, and then pay the
woman off? With luck, Zenobia Fox would send Yasmeen on
her way in a fit of self-righteous fury—though it might be more
100                     M ELjEAn Brook

entertaining if she tried to send Yasmeen off with a gun. In both
scenarios, Yasmeen would hold onto all of the money, which suited
her perfectly.
    “Not long,” she predicted. “Lower the ladder.”
    Rousseau relayed the order, and within moments, the crew un-
rolled the rope ladder over Lady Corsair’s side. Yasmeen glanced
down. Zenobia’s orange, three-level home sat between two identical
houses painted a pale yellow. Unlike many of the houses in Flad-
strand, the levels hadn’t been split into three separate flats. The slate
roof was in good repair, the trim around the windows fresh. Lace
curtains prevented Yasmeen from looking into the rooms. Wrought-
iron flower boxes filled with frosted-over soil projected from beneath
each window sill.
    Large and well-tended, the house provided ample room for one
woman. Yasmeen supposed that much space was the best someone
could hope for when living in a town—but she couldn’t have toler-
ated being anchored to one place. Why would Zenobia Fox? She
had based her adventures on her brother’s travels, but why not travel
herself? Yasmeen couldn’t understand it. Perhaps money had been a
factor—although by the look of her home, Zenobia didn’t lack
funds.
    No matter. After Yasmeen paid her off, Zenobia wouldn’t need
to base her stories on Archimedes’s adventures. She could go as she
pleased—or not—and it wouldn’t be any concern of Yasmeen’s.
    As this was a social visit, she’d removed the guns usually tucked
into her wide crimson belt. At the beginning of the month, she’d
traded her short aviator’s jacket for a long winter overcoat, and the
two pistols concealed in her deep pockets provided enough protec-
tion, backed up by the daggers tucked into the tops of her boots,
easily reachable at mid-thigh. She checked her hair, making certain
that her blue kerchief covered the tips of her tufted ears. If necessary,
she could use her braids to do the same, but the kerchief was more
distinctive. There would be no doubt exactly who had dropped in on
Zenobia Fox today.
    The ladder swayed when Yasmeen hopped over the rail and let the
first rung catch her weight. Normally, she’d have slid down quickly
and landed with an acrobatic flourish, but her woolen gloves didn’t
slide over the rope well—and Yasmeen didn’t know how long she
would be waiting on the doorstep. She wouldn’t risk cold, stiff fingers
                       HEA rt of stEEL                             101

that made drawing a knife or pulling a trigger difficult, not for the
sake of a flip or two.
    The neighbors might have appreciated it, though. All along the
street, curtains twitched. When Yasmeen pounded the brass knocker
on Zenobia’s front door, many became bold enough to show their
faces at the windows—probably thanking the heavens that she hadn’t
knocked at their doors.
    No one peeked through the curtains at Zenobia’s house. The
door opened, revealing a pretty blond woman in a pale blue dress.
Though a rope ladder swung behind Yasmeen and a skyrunner hov-
ered over the street, the woman didn’t glance up.
    A dull-witted maid, Yasmeen guessed. Or a poor, dull-witted rela-
tion. Yasmeen knew very little about current fashion, but even she
could see that although the dress was constructed of good materials
and sewn well, the garment sagged in the bodice and the hem piled
on the floor.
    The woman must have recognized Yasmeen as a foreigner, how-
ever. A thick Germanic accent gutted her French, the common trad-
er’s language. “May I help you?”
     “I need to speak with Miss Zenobia Fox.” Yasmeen smoothed
the Arabic from her own accent, hoping to avoid an absurd comedy
of misunderstandings on the doorstep. “Is she at home?”
    The woman’s eyebrows lifted in a regal arch. “I am she.”
    This wasn’t a maid? How unexpected. Despite the large house
and obvious money, Zenobia Fox opened her own door?
     Yasmeen liked surprises; they made everything so much more
interesting. She’d never have guessed that the awkward girl with
mousy-brown braids would have bloomed into this delicate blonde
thing.
    She’d never have guessed that her first impression of the woman
who penned clever and exciting tales would be ‘dull-witted.’
    Archimedes certainly hadn’t been. Quick with a laugh or clever
response, he’d perfectly fit Yasmeen’s image of Archimedes Fox,
Adventurer. She could see nothing of Archimedes in this woman—
not in the soft shape of her face or the blue of her eyes, and certainly
not in her manner.
    Her eyebrows arched ever higher. “And you are . . . ?”
    “I am Lady Corsair’s captain.” Kerchief over the hair, indecently
snug trousers, a skyrunner that had once belonged to her father
102                    M ELjEAn Brook

floating over her house—was this woman completely blind? “Your
brother recently traveled on my airship.”
    “Oh. How can I help you?”
    How can I help you? Disbelieving, Yasmeen stared at the woman.
Could an aviator’s daughter be this sheltered? What else could it mean
when the captain of a vessel appeared on her doorstep? Every time that
Yasmeen had knocked on a door belonging to one of her crew mem-
ber’s family, the understanding had been immediate. Sometimes it had
been accompanied by denial, grief, or anger—but they all knew what
it meant when Yasmeen arrived.
    Perhaps because Archimedes had been a passenger rather than her
crew, Zenobia didn’t expect it. But the woman should have made the
connection by now.
    “I’m afraid I have unfortunate news regarding your brother,
Miss Fox.”
    The “unfortunate news” must have clued her in. Zenobia blinked,
her hand flying to her chest. “Archimedes?”
    At a time like this, she called him Archimedes—not Wolfram,
the name she’d have known him by for most of her life? Either they’d
completely adopted their new identities, or this was an act.
    If it was an act, this encounter was already turning out better
than Yasmeen had anticipated.
    “Perhaps we can speak inside, Miss Fox.”
    With an uncertain smile, the other woman stepped back. “Yes,
of course.”
    Zenobia led the way into a parlor, her too-long skirts dragging
on the wooden floor. A writing desk sat by the window, stacked
with papers. No ink stained Zenobia’s fingers. Obviously, she hadn’t
been busy writing the next Archimedes Fox adventure.
    A shelf over the fireplace held several baubles, some worn by
age, others encrusted with dirt—a silver snuff box, a lady’s minia-
ture portrait, a gold tooth. All items that Archimedes had collected
during his salvaging runs in Europe, Yasmeen realized. All items
that he’d picked from the ruins, but hadn’t sold. Why keep these?
    Her gaze returned to the lady in the miniature. Soft brown hair,
warm eyes, a plain dress. The description seemed familiar, though
Yasmeen knew she hadn’t seen this portrait before. No, it was a
description from Archimedes Fox and the Specter of Notre Dame.
In the story, Archimedes Fox had found a similar miniature clutched
in a skeleton’s fingers, and the mystery surrounding the woman’s
                       HEA rt of stEEL                            103

identity had led the adventurer to a treasure hidden beneath the
ruined cathedral.
    How odd that she’d never realized that fictional miniature had a
real-life counterpart. That she’d never imagined him digging it out
of the muck somewhere and bringing it to his sister. That he’d once
held it, as she did now.
    The stupid man. Yasmeen lied often, and so she didn’t care that
he’d lied about his identity when he’d arranged for passage on her
airship. Had she not discovered who he was, she’d have invited him
to her bed—but she could never offer an invitation after he’d made
a fool of her in front of her crew.
    It didn’t matter that he’d lied. It did matter that she’d allowed
Emmerich Gunther-Baptiste’s son aboard her airship without know-
ing who he really was. A threat had sneaked onto Lady Corsair right
beneath her nose.
    She couldn’t forgive him for that. Too often, she led her crew into
dangerous territory, and they would only be loyal to a strong cap-
tain. A captain they could trust. She’d invested years making certain
that her crew could trust her, and rewarded their loyalty with piles
of money.
    There wasn’t enough gold in the world to convince a crew to fol-
low a fool, and Archimedes Fox had come close to turning her into
one. She’d only been saved because he’d openly thanked her for kill-
ing his father, negating his potential threat.
    Yasmeen turned to Zenobia, who stood quietly in the center of
the parlor, tears trailing over her pink cheeks.
    “So Archimedes . . . is dead?” she whispered.
    Funny how that terrible accent came and went. “As dead as
Genghis Khan,” Yasmeen confirmed. “Unfortunate, as I said. He
was a handsome bastard.”
    “Oh, my brother!” Zenobia buried her face in her hands.
    Yasmeen let her sob for a minute. “Do you want to know how
he died?”
    Zenobia lifted her head, sniffling into a lace handkerchief, her
blue eyes bright with more tears. “Well, yes, I suppose—”
    “I killed him. I dropped him from my airship into a pack of
flesh-eating zombies.”
    The other woman had nothing to say to that. She stared at Yas-
meen, her fingers twisting in the handkerchief.
    “He tried to take control of my ship. You understand.” Yasmeen
104                    M ELjEAn Brook

flopped onto a sofa and hooked her leg over the arm. Zenobia’s face
reddened and she averted her gaze. Not accustomed to seeing a
woman in trousers, apparently. “He hasn’t come around for a visit,
has he?”
    “A visit?” Her head came back around, eyes wide. “But—”
    “I tossed him into a canal. Venice is still full of them, did you
know?”
    Zenobia shook her head.
    “Well, some are more swamp than canal, but they are still there—
and zombies don’t go into the water. We both know that Archimedes
has escaped more dire situations than that, at least according to his
adventures. You’ve read your brother’s stories, Miss Fox, haven’t
you?”
    “Of . . . course.”
    “He mentions the canals in Archimedes Fox and the Mermaid
of Venice.”
    “Oh, yes. I’d forgotten.”
    There was no Mermaid of Venice adventure, yet the woman who’d
supposedly written it didn’t even realize she’d been caught in her lie.
Pitiful.
    But the question remained: Did that mean Zenobia wasn’t the
author after all, or was this not Zenobia?
    Yasmeen suspected the latter.
    “So he might be alive?” Zenobia ventured.
    “He still had his equipment and weapons. But if he hasn’t con-
tacted you after a month now . . . he must be dead, I’m sorry to say.”
Yasmeen meant it, but she wasn’t sorry for the next. “And so that’s
the second man in your family I’ve killed.”
    Surprise and dismay flashed across her expression. “Yes, of
course. My . . .”
    She trailed off into a sob. Oh, that was good cover.
    “Father.” Yasmeen helped her along.
    “Yes, my father. After he . . . did something terrible, too.”
    That was good, too. Smart not to suggest that the armed woman
sitting in the room had been at fault.
    “Was it terrible? I’ve killed so many people, I forget what my
reasons were.” A lie, but Yasmeen wasn’t the only one telling them.
Now it was time to find out this woman’s reasons. With a belabored
sigh, Yasmeen climbed to her feet. “That’s all I’ve come to say.
                       HEA rt of stEEL                            105

A few of Archimedes’ belongings are still in my ship. Would you like
them, or should I distribute them among my crew?”
    “Oh, yes. That’s fine.” For a moment, the blonde seemed distracted
and uncertain. Then her shoulders squared, and she said, “My brother
hired you to take him to Venice, and was searching for a specific item.
Did he find it . . . before he died?”
    Ah, so that’s what it was. Yasmeen had spoken to three art deal-
ers about locating a buyer for the sketch Archimedes Fox had found
in Venice. A flying machine drawn by the great Leonardo da Vinci,
the sketch was valuable beyond measure.
    She’d demanded that the dealers be discreet in their inquiries. Not
even Yasmeen’s crew knew what she’d locked away in her cabin. But
obviously, someone had talked.
    “It was a fake,” Yasmeen lied.
    No uncertainty weakened Zenobia’s expression now. “I’d still
like to have it. As a momento.”
    Yasmeen nodded. “If you’ll show me out, I’ll retrieve it for you
now.” She followed the woman out of the parlor and into the hall-
way. “Will you hold the rope ladder for me? It’s so unsteady.”
    “Of course.” All smiles, Zenobia reached the front door.
    Yasmeen didn’t give her a chance to open it. Slapping her gloved
hand over the blonde’s mouth, she kicked the woman’s knees out from
beneath her. Yasmeen slammed her against the floor and shoved her
knife against the woman’s throat.
    Quietly, she hissed, “Where is Zenobia Fox?”
    The woman struggled for breath. “I am Zen—“
    A press of the blade cut off the woman’s lie. Yasmeen smiled,
and the woman’s skin paled.
    Her smile frequently had that effect.
    “The dress doesn’t fit you. You’ve tried to take Zenobia’s place
but you’ve no idea who you’re pretending to be. Where is she?” When
the woman’s lips pressed together in an unmistakable response, Yas-
meen let her blade taste blood. The woman whimpered. “I imagine
that you’re working with someone. You didn’t think of this yourself.
Is he waiting upstairs?”
    The woman’s eyelids flickered. Answer enough.
    “I can kill you now, and ask him instead,” Yasmeen said.
    That made her willing to talk. Her lips parted. Yasmeen didn’t
allow her enough air to make a sound.
106                    M ELjEAn Brook

    “Is Zenobia in the house? Nod once if yes.”
    Nod.
    “Is she alive?”
    Nod.
    Good. Yasmeen might not kill this woman, now. She eased back
just enough to let the woman respond. “Where did you hear about
the sketch?”
    “Port Fallow,” she whispered. “We also knew you were looking
for Fox’s sister. We realized he must have found the sketch on his last
salvaging run.”
    Yasmeen had only spoken to one art dealer in Port Fallow: Franz
Kessler. Damn his loose tongue. She’d make certain he wouldn’t talk out
of turn again—especially if this had been his idea. This woman cer-
tainly hadn’t the wits to connect the sketch to Zenobia.
    “You and the one upstairs. Was this his plan?”
    Yasmeen interpreted her hesitation as a no—and that this
woman was afraid of whoever had set it up.
    She’d chosen the wrong person to fear.
    “What airship did you fly in on?”
    “Windrunner. Last night.”
    A passenger ship. “Who’s upstairs?”
    A different, deeper fear entered her eyes now, but she answered
anyway. “My husband.”
    A man she genuinely cared for. A man who either didn’t care as
much in return, or was as stupid as his wife. “Did he create this plan
to cheat me? Answer carefully. Whether he lives or dies depends on
your response.”
    The woman finally used her brain, and gave up the name Yas-
meen wanted. “No. It was Peter Mills. He’s waiting for us at the
Rose & Thorn Inn.”
    Miracle Mills, the weapons smuggler. A worthy occupation, in
Yasmeen’s opinion, but Miracle Mills sullied the profession. He always
recruited partners to assist him with the job, but as soon as the cargo
was secure, the partners conveniently disappeared. Mills usually
claimed an attack by Horde forces or zombies had killed them, yet
every time, he miraculously survived.
    No doubt that if this couple had secured the sketch for him,
they’d have disappeared soon, too.
    “Did he hire you just for this job?”
                       HEA rt of stEEL                             107

    “Yes. We’re grateful. We’ve been out of work for almost a full
season, and he promised us a share.”
    A full season of what? This woman’s soft hands had never seen
any kind of labor. Only one possibility occurred to her.
    “Are you actors?”
    The blonde nodded. “And dancers. But they replaced us with
automatons, and we lost our positions.”
    Yasmeen suspected that the automatons displayed more talent.
“All right. Call your husband down.”
    “Why?”
    “Because I’ll make you a better deal than Mills will.” Yasmeen
wouldn’t kill them, anyway. “And because if I go upstairs holding a
knife to your throat, he might do something stupid to Miss Fox.”
    “Oh.” Her eyes widened. “How do I call him?”
    God save her from idiots. “I’ll let you up. You’ll open and close
the door as if you’ve just come in from outside, and yell, ‘I’ve got it!
Come see!’ You’ll be very excited.”
    “And then?”
    “I’ll do the rest.” She waited for the woman to nod, then backed
away and hauled her up. “Now.”
    Yasmeen had to admit, she played the scene perfectly. Her hus-
band rushed down the stairs so quickly, he didn’t notice Yasmeen
standing in the entry to the parlor until he was almost upon her. She
smiled.
    The man paled.


While two members of her crew escorted the husband and wife up
to Lady Corsair, Yasmeen searched upstairs. She found Zenobia—
still with brown hair, and just as handsome as her brother—tied
and gagged in the first bedroom. Two maids lay next to her, bound
hand to foot.
     Yasmeen sliced through their ropes, and after accepting their
thank-yous, returned downstairs to wait so that they could weep in
private. Her cabin girl, Ginger, brought Yasmeen’s favorite tea down
from Lady Corsair, and relayed that Rousseau had sent messages to
the passenger airship captains, suggesting that they didn’t allow
Miracle Mills to board any of their vessels before Yasmeen had a
chance to speak with him.
108                     M ELjEAn Brook

    None of the captains had yet replied, but Yasmeen doubted that
they’d risk Lady Corsair chasing them across the skies. So Mills
couldn’t leave town, even if he became aware that he should.
    When Zenobia came downstairs, still moving stiffly after hours
of being tied, Yasmeen relayed the same information to her. The
other woman nodded and poured herself a cup before sitting on the
chair opposite Yasmeen’s.
    “You’ve come to tell me that Wolfram is dead,” she said.
    “Yes.” Yasmeen studied the other woman’s expression. She saw
resignation. Sadness. But no sudden grief. “You aren’t surprised.”
    “I was supposed to receive word from him six weeks ago. By the
third week, I had to accept that a letter wasn’t coming. So I have had
three weeks to adjust myself to the idea.” She sipped from her tea
before leveling a direct stare at Yasmeen. “Wolfram isn’t part of your
crew. So why have you really come?”
    “He was on my ship. He wasn’t my crew, but he was my respon-
sibility,” she said, marveling at the other woman’s composure. How
was it that Yasmeen didn’t feel as steady as his sister looked? She
slipped her fingers into her pocket, produced her cigarillo case and
lighter. “Do you mind if I . . . ?”
    “Yes,” Zenobia said bluntly. “It reeks.”
    “If you smoke one, too, you won’t notice it as much.” Yasmine
smiled when the other woman only fixed a baleful look on the prof-
fered cigarillo. She slid it back into the silver case. “I have his belong-
ings and his purse—minus the five livre he owed to me for his
passage.”
    Five livre was a large sum of money, but Zenobia didn’t blink.
“I’ll take them. And the da Vinci sketch?”
    “You’d be a fool to keep it in your possession.”
    “As aptly demonstrated today.”
    Though dryly stated, Yasmeen could see that the other woman
knew it was the truth. “Mills will only be the first.”
    “Yes.” Zenobia took another sip before coming to a decision.
“Sell it, then.”
    Exultation burst through Yasmeen’s veins. She contained it, and
merely nodded. “I will.”
    A tiny smile flirted with the woman’s mouth. “I understand that
on dangerous flights, the airship captain receives twenty-five per-
cent of the salvage.”
                       HEA rt of stEEL                             109

     Yasmeen met Zenobia’s steady gaze. “For this job, I’ll take fifty
percent.”
     Her tone said there’d be no negotiation. Her face must have con-
veyed the same. Zenobia studied her, as if weighing the chances of
coming to a different agreement.
     Finally, she took another sip and said, “I suppose fifty percent of
an absurd fortune is still a ridiculous amount of money.”
     Clever woman. This was the Zenobia that Yasmeen had expected
to find. She wasn’t disappointed. “I’ll see that you receive your half
when the sale is finalized.”
     “Thank you.” She hesitated, and some of the hardness of nego-
tiation dropped from her expression, revealing a hint of vulnerabil-
ity. “I heard a little bit of what you said about the zombies, captain.
Is it true that you deliberately threw him into a canal?”
     Yasmeen shook her head. “It was the middle of the night. I
couldn’t know where he landed.”
     Lies. Her eyes saw well enough in the dark. She’d watched him
splash into the canal. She’d known that with luck and brains, he’d
survive—and her crew wouldn’t think she’d gone soft or weak.
     But even for Archimedes Fox, his chances of survival were slim.
She wouldn’t give this woman any more false hope than she offered
herself.
     “I see.” Zenobia’s fingers tightened on her cup. “If, on your trav-
els, you see him with the others . . .”
     “I’ll shoot him,” Yasmeen promised.
     “Thank you.” The vulnerability left her face, replaced by sudden
amusement. “Speaking of your travels, captain . . . you’ve tossed
the source of my stories overboard.”
     Yasmeen looked pointedly at the ink staining her fingers. “You’re
writing.”
     “Only letters.”
     “You won’t need the income when I’ve sold the sketch.”
     “You misunderstand me.” Zenobia set her cup on the table and
leaned forward. “I don’t need the income now. I write because I
enjoy it. Will you leave your airship when you’ve received your por-
tion of the money?”
     “No.” When she left her lady for the last time, it would only be
because her dead body had been dragged away.
     “It is the same with me for writing. I won’t stop, not voluntarily.
110                    M ELjEAn Brook

But I do need inspiration for the stories. With the basis for Archime-
des gone, I’ll have to create another character. Perhaps a woman this
time.” She sat back, her gaze narrowed on Yasmeen’s face. “What
about . . . The Adventures of Lady Lynx?”
    Yasmeen laughed. Zenobia didn’t.
    “You’re not joking?”
    The other woman shook her head. “You’ve killed my research
source and taken an extra twenty-five percent from his spoils. You
live a life of adventure.”
    “Yes, but—”
    “I’ll write them. You receive twenty-five percent of royalties.”
    The sudden need for a cigarillo almost overwhelmed her. A drink,
a hit of opium. Anything to calm her jumping nerves. Was she going
to agree to this?
    Yes. Of course she was. Even without royalties, she would have.
    But still, no need to be stupid about it.
    “Fifty percent of royalties,” Yasmeen countered.
    “Twenty five. You send me reports of where you go, who you
see, what you eat. I need to know how long it takes you to fly to each
location. I want your impressions of your crew, your passengers,
and everyone you meet.”
    Impossible. “I won’t share everything.”
    “I won’t name them. I only seek authenticity, not a reproduction
of the truth.”
    “I won’t share everything,” Yasmeen repeated.
    For a moment, Zenobia looked as if she’d try to negotiate that,
too. Then she shrugged. “Of course you can’t. But let us begin with
your background. Where were you before my father’s ship?”
    In a very pretty cage. But did she want to share that? Yasmeen
shook her head.
    “As far as I’m concerned, my life started when I boarded Lady
Corsair. Make up what you like about what came before.”
    “All right. A mysterious past will only make Lady Lynx more
fascinating,” she mused. “I could deliver the background in bits, like
crumbs.”
    “Whatever you like.” Yasmeen stood. “The other reports, I’ll
send to you regularly.”
    Zenobia’s expression sharpened as she rose. “Where are you
heading after you leave Fladstrand? Do you have a job now?”
    “No. We’ll spend the day traveling to Port Fallow. Mills is only
                       HEA rt of stEEL                            111

here because another man talked about the sketch. I need to have a
conversation with him.”
    Then she’d fly to England, and ask the Iron Duke to hold the sketch
safe at his London fortress until she found a buyer. She couldn’t risk
carrying it with her any longer. Lady Corsair had become a moving
target.
    “And will you also have a conversation with Mills?”
    A frown had furrowed the other woman’s brow. Did she think
Yasmeen would leave without taking care of Mills, or did some
other matter concern her?
    “Yes,” Yasmeen said. “I’ll make certain that he knows—that
everyone knows—you don’t have the sketch, and that you’ll never
have access to it.”
    “Thank you. May I come? For research.”
    Yasmeen didn’t care. She nodded, then waited outside while the
other woman retrieved her coat. The frigid air shivered through her.
Lighting a cigarillo, she let the smoke warm her lungs and ease the
tiny shakes.
    A few neighbors had ventured outside, tilting their heads back to
gape at Lady Corsair. Zenobia waved to them and called a good
morning when she finally emerged, and Yasmeen couldn’t decide
whether surprise or relief added such volume to the Good morning!s
they called to her in return. Feeling the cold down to her toes, she
started for the rope ladder.
    “Captain Corsair?” When Yasmeen turned, Zenobia avoided her
gaze. She seemed to find the act of pulling on her gloves either fasci-
nating, or extraordinarily difficult. “I thought we might walk rather
than fly.”
    “I thought you might want to have a look at my lady. For authen-
ticity.” And because the steam engine kept the cabins heated and the
deck beneath her feet warm.
    “I’ve seen her.” She shot a glance upward. “When she was my
father’s.”
    Damn it. Yasmeen wouldn’t ask what had happened. “We walk,
then.”
    Zenobia’s boot soles clipped across the cobblestones as she matched
Yasmeen’s long stride. So loud. Yasmeen’s soft leather wasn’t as warm,
but at least it was quiet—and didn’t announce her approach from hun-
dreds of yards away.
    “Perhaps I shouldn’t have stopped you from boarding Lady
112                    M ELjEAn Brook

Corsair.” Zenobia’s cheeks had already flushed with cold. “You only
intend to talk, but who knows what Mills intends. You should have
armed yourself first.”
    Funny. Yasmeen pulled open her coat, exposing the knives sheathed
at her thighs. “I’m always armed.”
    “You’re only taking daggers?”
    No need to mention the pistols in her coat pockets. Yasmeen
didn’t intend to use them. “The only weapon I bring to a conversa-
tion is a knife. A gun means that the talking is over.”
    “Oh, I must make Lady Lynx say that.” Without a break in her
stride, she tore off her right glove with her teeth before digging out
a paper and pencil from her pocket. She scribbled the line as she
walked.
    Inspiration was to be taken so directly? Yasmeen slowed to
accommodate the other woman’s preoccupation, wondering if she’d
often done the same when walking with Archimedes . . . who was
charming and fun, much like the character she’d written. Yasmeen
had assumed it also reflected the sister, but she seemed far more
sober and practical than her brother had been.
    “How much of Archimedes came from him, and how much was
you?”
    Zenobia tucked her notes away. “All Wolfram. It was easy,
though, because I know him well. Lady Lynx will likely have more of
me in her.”
    Because she didn’t know Yasmeen as well. Fair enough.
    “If there is anything that you think she shouldn’t be, Captain
Corsair, I would appreciate you telling me now. I can’t promise that
you’ll like what I write, but I prefer not to be . . . inaccurate.”
    Or to offend her, Yasmeen guessed. She appreciated that. “Don’t
let her be an idiot, always threatening someone a gun. Only let her
draw it if she intends to use it.”
    Zenobia’s color deepened. “Unlike Archimedes Fox?”
    In her stories. “Yes. You have to assume that someone will try to
kill you while you’re deciding whether or not to shoot them. And so
by the time the gun comes out, that decision should have been made.”
    “I see.” Her notes were in her hand again, but Zenobia didn’t add
to them. “Is that what Wolfram did—wave his gun around?”
    “Yes.”
    Her eyes closed. “Idiot.”
    So Yasmeen had often said, but his sister should know the rest of
                        HEA rt of stEEL                            113

it. “Stupid, yes. But also exhausted. He returned three weeks late,
and Venice wouldn’t have given him time to sleep or eat.” Too many
zombies, too few hiding places. “When he climbed up to the ship, he
ordered my crew to set a heading for the Ivory Market. I refused and
told him to sleep it off before making demands. That’s when he drew
his gun and—”
    “You waited in Venice three weeks for him?”
    Blissed on opium, and wondering why the hell she was still float-
ing over a rotten city. But she’d known. She’d read through each damn
story of his, each impossible escape, and she’d known he’d make it
out of Venice, too. So she’d waited. And when he’d finally returned to
her ship, she’d had to toss him back—believing he might still make it.
    But after he’d tried to take her ship, she wouldn’t wait for him
again.
    “I waited,” she finally answered. “He still owed me half of his fee.”
    Zenobia studied her face before slowly nodding. “I see.”
    Yasmeen didn’t know what the woman thought she saw—and
didn’t care, either. She was more interested in the reason Archimedes
had been late. “He couldn’t have known I’d wait,” she said. “The
sketch wouldn’t be worth anything to him if he died there.”
    Zenobia’s chin tilted up at an unmistakable angle, a combination
of defiance and pride—as if she felt the need to defend her brother.
“Perhaps he was late for the same reason you stayed: money.”
    Yes, Yasmeen believed that. If she had followed Archimedes’s
orders and flown directly to the Ivory Market, he could have quickly
sold the sketch. Which meant that he’d risked his life those three
weeks because if he’d left Venice without the sketch—or access to
the money—he’d have been dead anyway.
    He’d owed someone, and they intended to collect. Few debts
would need a da Vinci sketch to cover them, though. Even small
salvaged items like those Archimedes collected in Europe sold high
at auction. Of the baubles in Zenobia’s parlor, the miniature alone
would purchase a luxury steamcoach.
    “Does he really owe so much?”
    “Yes.”
    “So you changed your names.”
    “Yes.” Zenobia’s sigh seemed to hang in the air. They’d almost
reached the Rose & Thorn before she spoke again.
    “Is there anything else? For Lady Lynx,” she added, when Yas-
meen raised a brow.
114                    M ELjEAn Brook

    “Yes.” The walk here had reminded her of one rule that she’d
been fortunate to have learned before Archimedes Fox had boarded
her ship. “Don’t let her go soft for a man.”
    Zenobia stopped, looking dismayed. “A romance adds excite-
ment.”
    “With a man who tries to take over everything? Who wants to
be master of her ship, or wants the crew to acknowledge that she’s
his little woman.” Yasmeen sneered. God, but she imagined it all
too easily. “What man can tolerate his woman holding a position
superior to him?”
    Zenobia apparently couldn’t name one. She grimaced and pulled
out her notes. “Not even a mysterious man in the background? More
interest from the readers means more money.”
    Yasmeen wasn’t always for sale, and in this matter, the promise
of extra royalties couldn’t sway her. “Don’t let her go soft. Give her
a heart of steel.”
    “But . . . why?”
    The woman had begun that morning tied up and gagged. Now
Yasmeen was going to threaten a man’s life to make certain it wouldn’t
happen again, and yet she had to ask Why? Shaking her head, Yas-
meen started for the inn.
    “Because there’s no other way to survive.”
cHAptEr 2



Yasmeen flew into Port Fallow from the east, high enough that the
Horde’s combines were visible in the distance. Thirty years ago,
Port Fallow had been established as a small hideaway for pirates
and smugglers on the ruins of Amsterdam, and had boomed into a
small city when the Horde hadn’t bothered to crush it. Either they
hadn’t considered the city a threat, or they hadn’t been able to afford
the effort.
    Only fifty years ago, a plague had decimated the Horde popula-
tion. A rebellion within the Horde had been gaining in popularity
for years, and after the plague, had increased in strength from one
end of the empire to the other. Now, the Horde was simply holding
on to what they still had, not reclaiming what they’d lost—whether
that loss was a small piece of land like Port Fallow or the entire Brit-
ish isle. No doubt that in the coming years, more pieces would come
out from under Horde control.
    Just as well. A five hundred year reign was long enough for any
empire. Yasmeen would be glad to see them gone. But then, she’d be
glad to see a lot of people gone—and currently, Franz Kessler was at
the top of her list.
    It wouldn’t be difficult to find him. Port Fallow lay between the
harbor and the city wall. Few zombies stumbled up to Fladstrand,
but not so here. The plains beyond the town teemed with the raven-
ous creatures, and gunmen continually monitored the city’s high
walls. Kessler couldn’t run that way. The harbor offered the only
possibility for escape, but Yasmeen wasn’t concerned. Though doz-
ens of boats and airships were anchored at Port Fallow, not a single
one could outrun Lady Corsair.
    And of those ships, only one made her glad to see it: Vesuvius.
Mad Machen’s blackwood pirate ship had been anchored apart from
the others, near the south dock. Yasmeen ordered Lady Corsair to be
tethered nearby. She leaned over the airship’s railing, hoping to see
Mad Machen on his decks. A giant of a man, he was always easy to
116                      M ELjEAn Brook

spot—but he wasn’t in sight. She caught the attention of his quarter-
master, instead, which suited her just as well. Yasmeen liked Barker
almost as she much as his captain.
    With a few signals, she arranged to meet with him and descended
into the madness of Port Fallow’s busy dockside. Men loaded lorries
that waited with idling engine and rattling frames. A messenger on an
autogyro landed lightly beside a stack of crates, huffing from the exer-
tion of spinning the rotor pedals. Travelers waiting for their boarding
calls huddled together around their baggage, while sailors and urchins
watched them for a drop in their guard and an opportunity to snatch
a purse or a trunk. Food peddlers rolled squeaky wagons, shouting
their prices and wares.
    Yasmeen lit a cigarillo to combat the ever-present stink of fish
and oil, and waited for Barker to row in from Vesuvius. His launch
cut through the yellow scum that foamed on the water and clung to
the dock posts.
    Disgusting, but at least the scum kept the sharks away. In many
harbors in the North Sea, a man couldn’t risk manning such a small
boat.
    His black hair hidden beneath a woolen cap, Barker tied off the
launch and leapt onto the dock, approaching her with a wide grin.
“Captain Corsair! Just the woman I’d hoped to see. You owe me a
drink.”
    Possibly. Yasmeen made so many bets with him, she couldn’t keep
track. “Why?”
    “You said that if I ever lost a finger, I’d cry like a baby. But I didn’t.
I cried like a man.”
    Yasmeen frowned and glanced at his hands. Obligingly, he pulled
of his left glove, revealing a shining, mechanical pinky finger.
    She met his eyes again. “How?”
    “Slavers, two days out. I caught a bullet.” He paused, and his
quick smile appeared. “Literally.”
    “And the slavers?”
    “Dead.”
    Of course they were. Mad Machen wouldn’t have returned to
port otherwise. He’d have chased them down.
    Barker replaced the glove and glanced up at Lady Corsair. “None
of your men have come down. Is this just a stopover?”
    “Yes.” Even if it hadn’t been, she wouldn’t leave the airship
                      HEA rt of stEEL                           117

unmanned while the sketch was aboard. “I’m only here long enough
to have a word with someone. We’ll fly out in the morning.”
    “A word with someone?” Barker had known her long enough to
guess exactly what that meant. “Would you like me to come along?”
    She didn’t need the help, but she wouldn’t mind the company. “If
you like.”
    “I would. I’ll fetch a cab. Where to?”
    His brows lifted when she told him their destination, but he
didn’t say anything until they’d climbed into the small steamcoach.
    He had to raise his voice over the noise of the engine. “Why
Kessler?”
    “He talked when he wasn’t supposed to.”
    “Is anyone dead?”
    “Not yet. But he gave information to Miracle Mills.”
    Barker’s frown said that he was having the same thought Yasmeen
had: men like Kessler and Mills didn’t usually do business together.
Though plenty of art was smuggled into the New World, it wasn’t
something Mills ever handled. If Kessler needed weapons, yes. Not a
sketch.
    The coach slowed over the bridge across the first canal, crowded
with laborers passing from the shacks near the city wall to the
docks. Kessler’s home lay just ahead.
    “Do you want me to go in with you?” Barker asked.
    “Just wait in the cab. I doubt I’ll be long.”
    “What do you plan to do?”
    The same that she’d done to Mills. “Make certain he won’t talk
again.”
    The cab rounded a corner and slowed. Yasmeen frowned, leaning
forward for a better look. Wagons and carts blocked the street ahead,
each one half loaded with furniture and clothes. Men and women
worked in pairs and small teams, hauling items from Kessler’s house.
    Barker whistled between his teeth. “I don’t think he’s talking
now.”
    Barker was right, damn it. The households in Port Fallow oper-
ated in the same way as a pirate ship. When the head of the house-
hold or business died, they voted in a new leader who took over the
business. But Kessler’s business was in knowing people, and keeping
those names to himself. No one could carry on in his profession,
and he had no family—and so everyone who worked for him, from
118                     M ELjEAn Brook

his housekeeper to his scullery maid, would split his possessions
and sell them for what they could.
    Seething, Yasmeen leaned out of the coach and snagged the first
person who passed by. “What happened to Kessler?”
    The woman, staggering under the weight of a ceramic vase, kept
it short. “Maid found him in bed. Throat slit. No one knows who.”
    He’d probably flapped his lips about someone else’s business.
Yasmeen let the woman go.
    “So we turn around, then?” the driver called back.
    If he could. Carts, wagons, and people were in motion all around
them, crowding the narrow street—several more had already parked
at their rear. Beside them, a wagon piled high with mattresses lurched
ahead, giving them more visibility but nowhere to move.
    The cart that took its place didn’t block Yasmeen’s view. Her
gaze swept the walkway across the street—and froze on one figure.
Oh, hell. Her muscles tensed, ready to fight . . . or flee.
     Dressed in a simple black robe, the woman stood on the walk-
way opposite Kessler’s house. Unlike everyone else, she wasn’t in
hurried motion. She watched the activity, her hands demurely folded
at her stomach, her head slightly bowed. Gray threaded her long
brown hair. She’d plaited two sections in the front, drawing them
back . . . hiding the tips of her ears.
    As if sensing Yasmeen’s gaze, she looked away from Kessler’s
home. Her stillness didn’t change; only her eyes moved.
    Yasmeen had been taught to stand like that—to hold herself silent
and watchful, her weight perfectly balanced, her hands clasped. She’d
been taught duty and honor. She’d been taught to fight . . . but not like
this woman did. Yasmeen knew that under the woman’s robes was a
body more metal than flesh. Designed to protect. Designed to kill.
    Yasmeen lowered her gaze first; not out of cowardice, but a mes-
sage that she wouldn’t interfere with the woman’s business here—
and she certainly wasn’t stupid enough to challenge the woman.
    Beside her, Barker eyed the woman with a different sort of
appreciation. Of course he did. She’d been designed to provoke that
response.
    “Don’t try,” Yasmeen warned him.
    “She’s a little older, but I like the mature—”
    “She’s Horde. One of the elite guard who serves the royalty and
the favored governors.”
    Barker didn’t hide his surprise—or his doubt. He studied the
                       HEA rt of stEEL                           119

woman again, as if trying to see beneath the demure posture and
discover what had earned the elite guard their terrifying reputation.
    He wouldn’t see it. The elite guard earned that reputation when
they dropped that modest posture, not when they wore it.
    He shook his head. “She’s not Horde.”
    “She’s not a Mongol,” Yasmeen said. The Horde weren’t a single
race—only royalty and the Great Khans had pure blood, and they
never ventured far from the Horde capital. In five hundred years,
their seed and the empire had spread too far for every member of the
Horde to be Mongols.
    He glanced over at the woman again. “Why is she here? No one
in Port Fallow is Horde royalty.”
    “Then she’s here to kill someone, or to take them back to her
khanate.” Obviously not Yasmeen, or she’d already be dead—but
instead, she was forgotten. The woman was watching the house
again . . . waiting. “Whatever her purpose, don’t get in her way.”
    “All right.” Barker leaned forward and tapped on the cab driv-
er’s shoulder before dropping a few deniers into his palm. “Shall we
walk? By the time we get back to the docks, I’ll be ready for that
drink.”
    Yasmeen would be ready for three.


Barker took his leave after finishing the one she owed him, but
Yasmeen stayed on, nursing hers until they were warm. Some nights
in a tavern were meant for drinking, and others were meant for
listening.
    Midnight had gone when Yasmeen decided she’d heard enough.
She emerged from the dim tavern into the dark and paused to light a
cigarillo, studying the boardwalk along the docks. It was just as busy
at night as during the day, but the crowd was comprised of more
drunks. Some slumped against the buildings or slept beside crates.
Groups of sailors laughed and preened and pounded their chests at the
aviators—some of them women, Yasmeen noted, and not one of them
alone. The shopgirls and lamplighters walked in pairs, and most of the
whores did, too.
    Yasmeen sighed. Undoubtedly, she’d soon be teaching some
drunken buck a lesson about making assumptions when women
walked alone.
    She started toward the south dock, picking out Lady Corsair’s
120                    M ELjEAn Brook

sleek silhouette over the harbor. Familiar pride filled her chest. God,
her lady was such a beauty—one of the finest skyrunners ever made,
and she’d been Yasmeen’s for almost thirteen years now. She knew
captains who didn’t last a month—some who weren’t generous toward
their crew, or not strict enough to control them. Some who were too
careful to make any money, or too careless to live through a job.
    She’d made money, and she’d lived through hundreds of jobs dur-
ing the French war with the Liberé: scouting, privateering, moving
weapons or personnel through enemy territory, destroying a specified
target. Then the war had ended—fizzled out. All of the same ani-
mosities still simmered, but there wasn’t enough gold left in the trea-
suries to pay for it. So Yasmeen had left the New World, returned
back across the Atlantic, and carved out her niche by taking almost
any job for the right money.
    Lately, that meant carrying a lot of passengers over Horde terri-
tory in Europe and Africa—a route that most airships-for-hire would
never take. Sometimes she acted as a courier, or she partnered with
Vesuvius when that Mad Machen carried cargo that needed airship
support, fighting off anyone who tried to steal it from them.
    A routine life, but still an exciting one—and the only kind of
settling down that she would ever do.
    Yasmeen flicked away her cigarillo, smiling at her own fancy.
Routines, excitement, and a particular version of settling down.
She’d have to record that thought and send it to Zenobia—along
with an account of the little excitement that was about to take place.
    Someone was following her.
    A man had been trailing her since she’d left the tavern. Not some
drunken idiot stumbling into a woman walking alone, but someone
who’d deliberately picked her out—and if he’d seen her in the tav-
ern, he must know who she was.
    But he must not be interested in killing her. Anyone could have
shot her from this distance. Instead he tried to move in closer, using
the shadows for cover. He paused when she did, and though he tried
for stealth by tiptoeing, his attempts only made him more obvious.
Of course, he couldn’t know that Yasmeen was at her best during
the night—and that she had more in common with the cats slinking
through the alleys than the lumbering ape that had obviously
birthed him.
    She’d only taken a few more steps when he finally found his balls,
and called her name.
                       HEA rt of stEEL                             121

    “Captain Corsair!”
    The voice was young, and quivering with bravado. He’d either
taken a bet at the tavern or was going to ask for a position on her
ship. Amused, Yasmeen faced him. A ginger-haired boy stood quiv-
ering in the middle of the—
    Pain stabbed the back of her leg. Even as she whipped around, her
thigh went numb. An opium dart. Oh, fuck. She ripped it out, too
late. Pumped with this amount, her mind was already spinning. Hal-
lucinating. A drunkard rose from a pile of rags, wearing the gaunt
face of a dead man.
    No, not a drunkard. A handsome liar.
    Archimedes Fox.
    Yasmeen fumbled for her guns. Her fingers were enormous. He
moved fast—or she was slow. Within a blink, he caught her hands,
restrained her with barely any effort.
    She’d kill him for that.
    “Again?” he asked, so smooth and amused. “You’ll have to try
harder.”
    The bastard. She hadn’t tried at all. And though she tried now,
she sagged against him, instead—and for a brief moment, wondered
if she’d fallen against a zombie. Each of his ribs felt distinct beneath
her hands.
    But zombies didn’t swing women up into their arms. And they
didn’t talk.
    “My sister sends her regards,” he said against her cheek. “And I
want my sketch.”
    “I’d have given it to you.” She couldn’t keep her eyes open. Her
words slurred. “You just had to ask.”
    “Liar,” he said softly.
    So she was.
               FIRST I N A NEW SER IES!


            avEngEr’s angEl
          A Novel of the Lost Angels
      by Heather killough-Walden




          T                          T
  A November 2011 Signet Eclipse Mass Market Paperback


         Passion that makes a heart take wing . . .

Since the beginning of time, the archangels have longed to
know true love. When four female angels were created for
the four archangels, Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Azrael, a
chaos spurned by jealousy erupted, and the archesses were
secreted away to Earth. The four favored archangels fol-
lowed, prompting a search that has lasted millennia . . .

Uriel had once been the Archangel of Vengeance, but that
was lifetimes ago. Now he’s a heartthrob movie star at the
helm of Hollywood’s biggest vampire franchise. And he’s
never been lonelier—until a chance encounter with Elea-
nore Granger. The moment he lays eyes on her, he knows
she’s his.
    Ellie’s first instinct is to run. People have always been
after her for her hidden powers, but something about Uriel is
different. She can’t deny her deep attraction to this emerald-
eyed stranger, and decides to put her trust in him. And just
in time, for there is another who intends to use the archesses
for his own ends, and Ellie is his first target.
introDuction



Long ago, the Old Man gathered together his four favored archan-
gels: Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Azrael. He pointed to four stars
in the sky that shined brighter than the others. He told the archan-
gels that he wished to reward them for their loyalty and had created
for them soul mates. Four perfect female beings—archesses.
    However, before the archangels could claim their mates, the
four archesses were lost to them and scattered to the wind, beyond
their realm and reach. The archangels made the choice to leave their
world, journey to Earth, and seek out their mates.
    For thousands of years, the archangels have searched. But they
have not searched alone. For they are not the only entities to leave
their realm and come to Earth to hunt for the archesses. They were
followed by another. . . .
cHAptEr 1

2,000 years BcE

The archangel Michael gripped the rock in his right hand so hard that
his fingers left imprints in the stone. His jaw was clenched, his eyes
shut fast against the pain coursing through his veins. The woods were
sparse this far north, and the ground beneath him grew colder and
harder as the strength was sapped from his inhuman body.
    His brother, the archangel Azreal, transformed as he was to a
predatory creature, had his fangs embedded deep in the side of his
throat, and with each pull and swallow, Michael experienced a new
and deeper agony.
    “Az . . . that’s enough,” he ground out, hissing the words through
gritted teeth.
    I’m sorry, came Azrael’s hesitant reply. He didn’t speak the words,
but Michael could hear the genuine regret skating through his broth-
er’s mind. Azrael had yet to pull out—to stop drinking him down.
    Not for the first time, Michael knew he would have to use force.
He picked up the rock that his fingers grasped, and after another
grimace and wince of pain, he slammed the stone into the side of
Azrael’s head. His brother’s teeth were ripped from his neck, tearing
long gashes in his flesh as Azrael toppled to the side, catching him-
self on strong but shaking arms.
    “Az,” Michael gasped, dropping the rock to cup his hand to the
side of his neck. “Az, I’m sorry.” He slowly rolled over, propping
himself on one elbow as he attempted to heal the damage. Light and
warmth grew beneath his palm, sending curative energy into his
wound. But Azrael’s head was still down, his long sable hair conceal-
ing his features from Michael’s sight.
    “Az?”
    “Stop, Michael. I can’t bear it.”
    Michael felt the healing complete itself, heard his heart beat steady
within his body and closed his eyes. His brother had an incredibly
beautiful voice. And yet now, it resonated with despair.
    Michael let his hand drop and sat up the rest of the way. He
128           H E At HEr kiLL oug H-W A L D En

opened his eyes again and looked upon his brother’s bent form. “This
pain you’re going through can’t last much longer,” he said, softly.
    “A single moment longer is too long,” Azrael whispered. Slowly,
and with what appeared to be great effort, his tall, dark figure straight-
ened. He raised his head to meet his brother’s gaze and Michael found
himself, once more, staring into eyes of glowing gold, eerie and mes-
merizing, in the handsome frame of Azrael’s face.
    “Kill me,” Azrael said.
    Michael steeled himself and shook his head. “Never.”
    If any one of the four archangel brothers could have summoned
the will to kill the other, it would not have been Michael, or even
Azrael, but rather Uriel. He was the Angel of Vengeance. Only Uriel
would be capable of comprehending what it would take to smother
empathy and reason and love long enough to deal the final blow
Azrael begged for.
    But Uriel was not with them. He and their other brother, the
archangel Gabriel, had been lost in their plummet to the Earth two
weeks ago. The four archangels had been separated and scattered,
like dried and dead leaves on a hurricane wind. Michael had no idea
where the others were, much less what they might be going through.
    He only knew that he had gone through a transformation as he’d
taken on this human form. Michael was not as powerful as he’d been
before their descent. The nature of his powers was the same, more or
less. But the scope of those powers had diminished greatly. He was
only able to affect what was immediately around him, and only for
a relatively short period of time. His body grew weary. He knew
hunger. He often felt weak. He had changed drastically.
    But not as much as Azrael.
    As the former Angel of Death, Azrael’s change was different from
Michael’s. It was darker. It was much more painful. It was as if this
new form were steeped in the negative energy he had collected during
his seemingly endless prior existence. As the reaper in the field of mor-
tal spirits, Azrael had taken so very many lives. There was a weight to
that many souls, and they carried him down with them now. His
altered form bore the fangs of a monster, a sensitivity to sunlight that
forced him to hide in the shadows of night. Worst of all, it demanded
blood.
    Always blood.
    “Please, Michael.” Azrael’s broad shoulders shook slightly as he
curled his hands into fists, and the powerful muscles in his upper
                      A VEng Er’s Ang EL                           129

body drew taut and pronounced. His skin was pale, his hair the color
of night, his eyes like the sun. He looked like a study in contradiction
as he gritted his teeth, baring his blood-soaked fangs. “Don’t make
me beg.”
    Michael got his legs beneath him and stood. He backed up against
one of the few trees in the area and opened his mouth to once more
refuse his brother’s request when Azrael was suddenly blurring into
motion.
    Michael’s body slammed hard against the tree’s trunk and the
living wood splintered behind him. He was weaker than he’d been
several minutes before; blood loss drained precious momentum
from his reflexes. Though he was able to heal his wound, he was not
able to replace the blood that Azrael took from him.
    He’d been here before. He and Azrael had been here every night
for two weeks.
    Michael didn’t know how long he would be able to engage in this
nightly battle with his brother. Azrael was very strong. Even half-
crazed with pain, he was most likely the strongest of the four of them.
The monster that he had become was eating him up inside. It was
devouring the core of his being, leaving him an empty shell.
    Life was different on Earth. There had been no discomfort before
this. No hunger. No thirst. These sensations were novel to Michael,
but whatever discomfort he was experiencing because of his new,
more human form, Azrael was obviously suffering a thousandfold.
His transformation was brutal, and it was killing him.
    But Michael wouldn’t give up on him. Not now—not ever. With
great effort, he shoved Azrael off of him and prepared himself for
another senseless battle with his brother and best friend.
    Somewhere, Uriel and Gabriel were most likely struggling as
well—either with themselves, or with each other. Or both. Michael
had to find them. He had to find them, and bring the four of them
back together. They were on Earth for a reason. They had come in
order to find the women, the soul mates that the Old Man had cre-
ated for them. They’d come to Earth to find their archesses. And
they didn’t stand a chance at finding their archesses until they found
one another first.
    Worse, Michael knew that they hadn’t made it to Earth alone. He
knew the four of them had been followed. Samael was the one arch-
angel they had reason to fear. He had always been stronger than
Michael, and at one point, he had been the Old Man’s favorite
130           H E At HEr kiLL oug H-W A L D En

himself. But that was a long time ago, and now, due to his jealousy over
the archesses, he had come to Earth to find the women for himself.
    Over the years, Samael had proven himself to be a charismatic,
cold, calculated, and wholly dangerous rival.
    Michael didn’t know what would happen if Samael got to the
archesses first. He had no idea, in fact, what would happen if he and
his brothers found them, as they were meant to. All he knew for cer-
tain was that he wasn’t willing to leave this to chance. Each archess
was too important. Michael and the others had experienced loneli-
ness for too long. These women would be the end to that. They meant
everything.
    Time meant everything. Michael gritted his teeth, narrowed his
gaze, and rolled up his sleeves. Azrael came at him like lightning,
and like thunder, Michael met him halfway.
cHAptEr 2



He’d been warned, hadn’t he? Again and again and again. . . . 
    The archangel Uriel blew out a sigh and ran his hand over his face.
Then he clenched his jaw and looked back out the limousine window.
He watched, distractedly, as the car passed several shop windows
decorated in larger-than-life movie posters of the blockbuster, Come-
uppance. It was late afternoon on Saturday and the town was small;
the shops were closed. But the posters were still larger-than-life. He
flinched when his own ice-green eyes stared back out at him from a
backdrop of crumbling castle walls and lightning-marred skies and
beautiful co-stars that hung on his well-muscled arm.
    “Christ.” He looked away and sank further down into the leather
seat.
    “You’d better not let on to Gabriel that you’re regretting this in
any way, because he sure as shit won’t let you live it down.” Across
from him, Max Gillihan, Uriel’s agent, sat with crossed legs and a
knowing smirk, his own dark brown eyes glittering from behind his
wire-rimmed glasses. As usual, he wore a three-piece business suit
in muted colors, and his brown hair was cut short and styled neat.
He smiled, flashing white teeth. “Ever.”
    “Tell me about it,” Uriel mumbled under his breath.
    He was more than aware of what his brother would think of his
newfound sense of regret. Especially since Gabriel had repeatedly
warned him against taking on the world of fame and fortune, shak-
ing his damned raven-haired head and touting his counsel in his deep
Scottish brogue. He’d warned against becoming too well known and
having his face plastered to the sides of buildings. The archangels
were immortal; they didn’t age. What kind of fake disaster was Uriel
going to have to fabricate in order to keep the world from noticing
that he hadn’t grown any older in decades? Gabriel was right, as
much as Uriel hated to admit it. Forget that he was drunk when he
had doled out his unwanted advice. Whether he was sober or not,
Gabriel was never wrong.
132           H E At HEr kiLL oug H-W A L D En

    And that irked Uriel to no end.
    “You shouldn’t be regretting it anyway, Uriel. Hell, you’re Chris-
topher Daniels and he’s a big movie star now,” Max told him, using
Uriel’s stage name.
    Uriel’s right brow arched in that irritated way that drove women
crazy on the big screen. “And I care about that why?” he mumbled.
    Max threw back his head and laughed. “You cared plenty enough
a year ago, when you signed the Comeuppance contract.”
    Uriel crossed his arms over his chest and looked away. It was as
good as admitting defeat.
    Again, the man across from him chuckled, this time adding a
head shake. “Two thousand years and you never get any credit. Give
yourself some now, Uriel. You’re an archangel, for Christ’s sake.
You’re supposed to be in the limelight.” He paused for effect. “Right?”
    “You sound like Samael when you argue like that,” Uriel
muttered.
    “I bet I do. He may be a royal pain in the ass, but you have to
admit he’s got great business sense.” Gillihan’s smile never wavered.
The man was multi-talented. He was Uriel’s agent, and he was also
their guardian. As a guardian, he was a very old, very wise man,
despite his wrinkle-free face and the youthful glint in his chocolate
brown eyes.
    Uriel shook his head. He felt strange in that moment; displaced.
He was an archangel—or he had been many years ago. Give or take
a century, two thousand years ago, he and his brothers had given up
their positions with the Old Man and elected to come to the mortal
realm in order to find the one thing they lacked in their own realm—a
mate.
    Being an archangel was a gift and a curse. They were the favored
ones, closest to the Old Man, and together, they had all of the power
in the universe. The Old Man had created his archangels as perfect
male specimens. But a male naturally desired a female. And because
there were no female archangels, they each felt a gaping loneliness
that nothing seemed to fill.
    So, two thousand years ago, the four favored archangels, Michael,
Gabriel, Uriel and Azrael had been gathered to speak with the Old
Man. He’d told them that as a reward for their continued loyalty, he
had created for each of them the most precious gift of all: a female
mate.
    These, he called archesses. Uriel closed his eyes as his memories
                     A VEng Er’s Ang EL                           133

turned dark. He and his three brothers had never had a chance to
claim their archesses. Before they could accept them, disaster struck
and the women were lost; scattered on the winds of Earth.
     The archangels decided to go after them.
     They’d thought it would be easy. They were archangels, after all.
Nothing had ever been difficult for them. But decades passed and
centuries crawled by and the four brothers found no trace of their
archesses. Instead, they found themselves trapped in bodies that were
more human than archangel. They experienced human emotions and
felt human agony. After a while, they found that just the struggle to
survive the human condition was a constant distraction from their
search for their archesses.
     Michael was the first to make his stand in the human world. He
was the warrior among them and joined every army, fought in every
war, and volunteered for every dangerous job humanity required:
spy, fighter pilot, rebel. He moved from village to village, town to
town, and city to city, leaving friends behind as time passed and it
became clear he wasn’t aging. Life was hard, but as the years went
on he assimilated, along with his brothers. Michael was now a police
officer in New York City.
     Gabriel, the former Messenger Archangel, lived in Scotland off
and on since his arrival on earth. He possessed an affinity for the
land and its people, but he, too, needed to be exceedingly careful
with the passage of time. Every twenty years or so, he regrettably
departed the land of the Thistle and was away for some time. He
was on one of those breaks now and working as a firefighter in New
York City, not too far away from Michael.
     Azrael, the former Angel of Death, didn’t keep to any particular
place on Earth. His existence was even more difficult than that of
the other three brothers. At first, they hadn’t understood what hap-
pened to Azrael when they all came to Earth and were transformed.
His form had been altered in a cruel and painful manner. But now
the archangels now knew what to call his transformation. They
knew what he was. He’d been the first, in fact—the first vampire.
     As such, he visited a different city every night. He stayed in the
shadows, he fed, and he moved on. He never killed when he fed. He
drank from abusive drunks and addicts, evening out the score for
the humans they would have harmed, and he was never hurt by the
taint in their blood.
     For centuries, Azrael had kept to this pattern of constant
134           H E At HEr kiLL oug H-W A L D En

movement. However, in the last few years, he’d changed his behavior
somewhat. Now when he wasn’t or sleeping or drinking from some
unsuspecting mortal, Azrael was onstage, dressed in black leather
and a single black mask. That was the costume he used when he
performed his music, hiding half of his face from the prying eyes of
his millions upon millions of screaming fans.
    Azrael was the Masked One, lead singer of Valley of Shadow, an
immensely popular rock band that had taken the world by storm ten
years ago. He had always had an amazing voice. It was mesmeriz-
ing, literally, and it had propelled him to the top of the charts in no
time flat.
    Occasionally, Az was approached by someone who recognized
him for what he was. A rare individual would sometimes come forth,
knowing that Azrael was a vampire, and desperately wanting that
vampirism for themselves. Seldom did Azrael oblige. However, once
in a while, he felt the choice to turn a mortal was the right decision.
He would feed from that individual a certain number of times—and
the change would take place. Over the course of thousands of years,
even a seldom-granted request will add up. Whether he approved or
not, vampires now roamed the Earth, claiming Azrael as their father.
    Uriel, for his part, had never really felt that there was a niche in
the mortal realm he could comfortably fill. He’d once been the
Angel of Vengeance. He had once punished the plethora of evil-
doers that the Old Man had created and unleashed upon the world.
Along with the conception of humans had been the making of vari-
ous animals and creatures. Some of these creatures had come to be
known in the mortal realm as demons, devils, ghouls, and goblins.
    When he’d resided in the archangel realm, it had been Uriel’s
task to seek out these creatures and the humans who joined them.
But now that he was on Earth. . . . It wasn’t as easy to tell the mon-
ster from the human. And punishing them was no longer his task
anyway.
    He still knew right from wrong. He still hated evil and felt the
need to protect innocence. But finding a way to do so on the mortal
plane was not easy. It hadn’t taken Uriel long to tire of his role as
human assassin for the troublemakers in human history, as sharp-
shooter in war after war, as a sniper, as a double agent, as a killer.
In the end, he’d realized that he was tired of being Uriel. He wanted
to be someone else for a while. And so he’d answered a casting call
                      A VEng Er’s Ang EL                           135

pinned to the wall of a coffee shop in California. After all, acting
was all about pretending to be someone you weren’t.
     And now here he was, in a limousine on his way to a signing
because he’d suddenly become as popular as the Masked One. The
movie, Comeuppance, had been so overwhelmingly successful,
they’d turned it into a book and now the cast members were signing
copies of it all over the country.
     Outside the car window, the blur of buildings passing by slowed
down and the car pulled to the right, gently rounding a corner into
a drive. Overhead, a built-in speaker came to life.
     “We’re here, Mr. Gillihan.”
     Max sat up a little straighter and nodded at Uriel. “All right,
here’s the deal. The bookstore said there would be a pull of two to
five hundred people today—”
     “Here?” Uriel was certain his expression matched his emotions.
He was an actor, after all, and expression was everything. “In this
podunk little town?”
     “There are teenyboppers everywhere, Uriel,” Max explained
calmly. “When it comes to you and your fake set of fangs, they’ll
come out of the woodwork if they have to eat their way out.”
     “Nice visual.”
     “I know, isn’t it?” Gillihan laughed again.
     The limousine slowed to a stop and thunder rolled over the top
of the car. Uriel frowned. A storm was coming? He hadn’t sensed it,
and usually he could. He must have been incredibly distracted not
to notice.
     “I told Nathan to pull to the back of the store to give us a little
time to prepare before we head in,” Gillihan continued, suddenly all
business again.
     “Did you hear that?” Uriel asked, interrupting him.
     Max frowned and then blinked. “What? The thunder?”
     “Yeah,” Uriel replied, peering out the window at the gathering
darkness as he pulled on his leather jacket. “Did you notice it com-
ing before?”
     Max seemed to consider this for a moment. He glanced out the
window and his brow furrowed a little more. “Actually, no. But this
is the Southwest. These things come up out of nowhere and all of a
sudden.” He shrugged as he pulled a few new pens and a file folder
filled with photographs out of his briefcase. “I grew up down here.”
136           H E At HEr kiLL oug H-W A L D En

    Uriel rolled his eyes. Max Gillihan hadn’t “grown up” anywhere.
He’d simply existed for two thousand years. But, for some strange
reason, he always waxed nostalgic when they visited a new location,
and insisted that he’d been raised there.
    “In a place not too far from here, actually. Called Lovington. It
was a crap-smudge on the map thirty years ago, and it’s even less
than that now,” Gillihan continued, shaking his head as he effort-
lessly doled out the lie. “But I remember the storms. Blew the roof
off of our house one summer.” He handed the pens to Uriel and
turned in his seat to signal to the driver.
    “Wait.” Uriel held up his hand. Gillihan paused, his brow
arched.
    Uriel felt uneasy. Something was off. This was supposed to be
just another signing. . . . And yet something told him that it wouldn’t
be. “I’m not ready yet.”
    Max’s gaze narrowed and he sat back in the leather of the oppo-
site seat. “You’d best get ready, my friend. Because it’s going to be a
long night.”
    Uriel blew out a sigh and ran a hand through his thick brown
hair. “That’s what I’m not ready for.”


Eleanore Granger glanced up when she heard the thunder. She’d
known the storm was coming. She smiled to herself. She always knew.
    She glanced back down at the gathering crowd beyond the front
doors of the store and couldn’t help the out-and-out grin that lit up
her face. “They couldn’t have picked a worse day, could they?”
Within minutes, the rain would be falling. Everyone outside would
get soaked.
    It was probably wrong that the thought gave her a thrill of satis-
faction. But she was tired and she was frustrated and she was sort of
sick to death of seeing Comeuppance posters in every store window
from here to Timbuktu, interviews with all the cast members on the
news, and new fashion designs in department stores that mysteri-
ously resembled what the characters wore throughout the film.
    And all because the main characters were attractive.
    A jet plane carrying 236 passengers had gone down over the
Pacific last week and the news slot that covered the horrific story was
composed of a single live hour, and a revisit that night and the next
morning. Meanwhile, the handsome visage of Christopher Daniels,
                      A VEng Er’s Ang EL                           137

the actor who played Jonathan Brakes in Comeuppance, seemed to
be plastered nonstop on the 50-inch plasma TV screen above the
fireplace in the café of the bookstore. Whether in movie trailers, on
interview shows, or in news clips, he had been there for two weeks
straight.
    He was up there again, in fact. It was late Saturday afternoon and
Denna’s Day was airing their interview with the star. Yes, he was
gorgeous. Ellie had to admit as much, though she did so only to her-
self. The actor was quite tall and trim and broad-shouldered, and his
thick, dark hair was slightly wavy where it hit the collar of his shirts
and jackets. His nose was Roman, his chin strong but not too strong,
and whether clean-shaven or darkened by a shadow of stubble, his
face forced a double-take.
    It’s his eyes, Ellie thought distractedly.
    Those eyes. Christopher Daniels had eyes of the lightest green
she had ever seen. She had thought they were contact lenses when
she’d first seen them on the big screen. But interview after interview
later, it was clear that the eye color was his own. Ellie had dreamt
about those eyes a few times. Not that she would willingly share
this information.
    He was most certainly a stunning man. His voice was smooth,
and he moved with a nearly unnatural grace. Ellie had to force her-
self not to gaze at his pictures when she passed them – everywhere.
On store windows, the sides of buses, in Wal-Mart.
    Were the women of the world truly that desperate for a pretty
face? Including herself? Since when did a handsome man trump a
tragedy in the news? It was crazy.
    Ellie refused to play into that craziness. At least when she was
awake.
    The walkie-talkie on the customer service desk a few aisles away
came to static life, and someone in the stockroom asked her if she
was there. Eleanore finished shelving the books she had with her and
strode to the desk to pick up the walkie-talkie. “I’m here, Shaun.
What’s going on?”
    “The bigwigs are here. But they pulled up to the back door instead
of the front door. You want me to tell Dianne or Mark? What should
I do?”
    “Um . . .” Eleanore thought for a minute. Why would they have
pulled up to the back? Were they hiding for some reason? Did they
need to talk to a manager? “Give them a minute, I guess. Maybe they
138           H E At HEr kiLL oug H-W A L D En

just need some time to get ready. If they’re still back there in five,
we’ll tell Dianne.”
     “Oh my God!”
     Eleanore jumped and turned to face a group of three girls who
were standing at the entrance to the science fiction aisle behind her.
One of the girls was pointing at Eleanore.
     “I heard you! Christopher Daniels is here, isn’t he?”
     “What? No, I—”
     “I heard that guy on the other end, Shaun! He said that they
were pulled up by the back door!” The girl’s voice dropped to a very
loud, conspiratorial whisper and she turned frantically to her two
companions. “Oh my God, guys, we can head to the back of the
store and see him before anyone else does!”
     “Wait!” But before Eleanore could even contemplate stopping
the trio, the girls were off like Abercrombie-armored rockets, weav-
ing through the store to the front door while trying not to draw too
much attention to themselves.
     “Crap.” Eleanore pressed the talk button on the walkie-talkie
and put her hand on her hip. “Shaun, do me a favor?”
     “Sure, babe.”
     “We’ve got a threesome of Brake’s Flakes racing toward Chris-
topher Daniels’s limo. Can you head them off for me, please?”
     Shaun managed to click the talk button on his handset in time
for Eleanore to catch his laugh. “I’ll see what I can do.”
     “Thanks.” She put the radio back on the desk and ran a rough
hand through her hair. “Shit.” She squeezed her eyes shut tight. Then
she picked up the phone at the desk and addressed her boss. “Dianne,
I’m afraid I need to head back to help Daniels. There’s a group of fans
racing through the store.”
     It was clear from her heavy sigh that Dianne wasn’t pleased.
“No kidding. The kids in front just noticed, and there are more
heading back there now. I’ll get someone to cover for you temporar-
ily. Hurry and help Shaun,” she replied and hung up.
     Eleanore whirled around and left the customer service desk to
head toward the exit beyond the bathrooms, but just as she was
passing the women’s restroom, the distinct sound of someone retch-
ing stopped her in her tracks.
     Oh no, she thought. Someone’s sick.
     The sound came again, this time followed by the low whine and
                     A VEng Er’s Ang EL                           139

sniffling sounds obviously made by a child. Eleanore’s heart broke.
Not only was the person sick—she was just a kid.
    “Crap,” she whispered. Double crap.
    She glanced once toward the locked back door and then down at
the key that hung on a lanyard around her neck. She had a choice to
make. She could go and save Christopher Daniels from his fans, and
in turn, save the bookstore from any resulting reprimands, and
hence, save herself from losing her job.
    Or she could go and save the child instead.
    As Eleanore pushed on the swinging door to the women’s restroom,
she realized that there had really been no choice to make after all.


Uriel stared out the window at the falling rain. He sighed. One of
his given powers was that he could forecast the weather; he could
accurately determine what the sky was going to do a good while
before it actually did it. However, today, the storm had come with-
out warning.
    Which left Uriel a bit befuddled. Perhaps he was more distracted
than he’d realized. He had to admit that he’d been busy. Filming for
the second movie had been nonstop and trying. Promotional inter-
views for the first movie took up the majority of whatever time was
left. Add to that signing autographs and answering fan mail and
finding dates for red carpet events. . . . 
    “Shit,” he suddenly swore under his breath.
    “And here I was hoping that you were just about to tell me that
you were finally ready to go in and lay down in the bed you’ve made
for yourself.” Gillihan sighed. “What is it now?” He still sat back
against the opposite seat, his legs crossed, his hands resting casually
on his perfectly creased trousers. He arched one brow and waited
for Uriel to answer.
    “I have to find a date for Thursday night.” He had a gala in Dal-
las to attend that night.
    “Ask one of the multitude of women who come to your signings.”
    “I’d rather not.” Uriel shook his head. “It feels wrong—like I’m
pitting my fans against each other or something.”
    “Oh, listen to yourself.” Gillihan rolled his eyes.
    Uriel cocked his head to one side, his green eyes sparking with
warning.
140          H E At HEr kiLL oug H-W A L D En

    Gillihan sighed again. “You and your brothers are more trouble
than you’re worth. You wanted this, remember? You swore you had
to have it.” Max leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees. “I
bet you don’t even remember why you were sent down here in the
first place.” He shook his head and gazed at Uriel over the tops of
his glasses.
    Uriel frowned. “To Texas?”
    Max shook his head. “Earth, genius. A few piddly thousand years
go by and you all get so mired in what it means to be human that you
take your very existences for granted.” Here, he paused and consid-
ered something. “Except, perhaps, for Michael. He rides the other
end of the spectrum and takes himself too seriously.”
    “I haven’t forgotten,” Uriel told him, firmly. And it was true. He
hadn’t forgotten why he and his brothers had been given human-
like forms and allowed to reside on Earth two thousand years ago.
It was just that they had been looking so long without finding any
sign of even one archess that they’d gotten to the point where they
just didn’t think about it most days.
    That was all.
    “The least you can do is quit your whining and get on with your
increasingly meaningless existence without giving me any more trou-
ble,” Gillihan told him flatly.
    Gillihan’s words were abrasive, and were meant to be. But Uriel
knew that, deep down, it wasn’t the guardian’s fault. He’d been
down here for as long as Uriel and his brothers had, and it was sim-
ply too long for anyone to go without accomplishing something and
gaining a sense of fulfillment—no matter how immortal he may be.
    “I’m sorry, Max,” Uriel said, softly.
    Gillihan blinked. He sat up straight, and then blinked again.
“You are?”
    “You’re right.” Uriel shrugged and slapped his hands on his jeans
in a gesture of defeat. “What have I got to complain about? Chicks
dig me. I should be happier than a pig in shit.” He smiled that smile
that had women swooning in the aisles. “That is what they say down
here, right?”
    Max laughed. “It’s what they used to say, mostly. But close
enough.” He shook his head and turned in his seat to reach his arm
through the opening between their cabin and the driver’s seat. Just
as he was signaling for Nathan to head back around to the store-
front, a shrieking sound drew his attention to the windows.
                      A VEng Er’s Ang EL                           141

    Uriel looked too. And then his eyes grew very wide. “Is that
what I think it is?”
    “I’m afraid so,” Gillihan replied.
    “They’re blocking the exit,” Uriel said, his tone laced with shock.
    There was no time to formulate a plan. He could either stay
inside the car indefinitely and wait for the cops, or escape from the
car and run. Fast.
    Uriel threw open the door of the limousine and bolted out of the
back seat. Behind him, he heard Max calling, but he ignored the
guardian and headed directly for the bookstore.
    Later, and in retrospect, he would realize that heading toward
the bookstore instead of away from it was, at the very least, a
bizarre decision. Especially considering that the throng of teenage
girls now racing toward him like a medieval village mob was com-
ing from said store.
    However, there was little thought involved. The girls were com-
ing around the corner from the front of the store, which gave him a
clear shot at the back door. It was mostly instinct that propelled
Uriel across the lot to the locked back exit of the establishment. And
it was superhuman strength that then allowed him to wrench the
door open against the lock and rush inside.
    He sensed that the alarm wanted to go off. He used his powers
to silence it and pulled the door shut behind him, making sure to
yank it in tight enough that it warped a little and held.
    The girls outside reached it just as it shut and their fists pounded
furiously on the metal of the barred exit. They were getting soaked
out there. He was more than a little damp himself.
    He wondered if they were also hurting each other as they shoved
toward the door. He sincerely hoped not. But whatever was happen-
ing, the sheer number of them suggested that the door wouldn’t hold
for long. All they had to do was work together and it would come
open.
    Uriel passed the restrooms on his left and strode toward the sci-
ence fiction section of the store just beyond the exit foyer. There, he
stopped and grimaced. Another mass of girls, nearly as large as the
first, was grouped around the front of the store. There must have
been a hundred of them. . . . Maybe more.
    The door behind him creaked and then scraped.
    Uriel thought fast and ducked into the women’s restroom. Once
inside, he closed his eyes, pressed his back to the wall beside the door,
142           H E At HEr kiLL oug H-W A L D En

and listened. The exit door of the bookstore gave way beyond, and he
could hear the group of girls rush into the hallway. They raced by,
their Converses squeaking with rain water on the linoleum tile.
    “You have to memorize a script to act, and the movie you starred
in was also turned into a book, so I assumed that you could read.”
    Uriel’s eyes flew open to find a woman and a little girl standing
a few feet away beside the door of the first stall.
    “I was obviously wrong,” she continued. “Because you’ve mis-
taken the women’s restroom for the ridiculously famous sex symbol
restroom—which is next door.”
    Uriel’s heart stopped beating. His jaw dropped open.
    He couldn’t be seeing what he was seeing in that moment. He
couldn’t be feeling what he was feeling. Not now. Not here, in a
bathroom—after two thousand years. Maybe he’d slipped in the
rain outside and hit his head.
    No, that was impossible. He was relatively invincible. Being hit
on the head would do nothing to him but make him a little cranky.
    She was really standing there before him. She was real; he could
see her, hear her—he could even smell her. She smelled like sham-
poo and soap and lavender.
    Jesus, he thought, unable to refrain from letting his gaze drop
down her body and back up again. She was everything that he had
ever imagined she would be, from her tall, slim body to her long,
jet-black hair, and those indigo blue eyes the color of a Milky Way
night. Her skin was like porcelain. Her lips were plump and pink
and framed perfect, white teeth. She was an angel.
    She was his archess. And she was . . . scowling at him?
    He frowned.


The door to the bathroom had shut firmly behind Christopher Dan-
iels., and he clearly had heard what she’d said, but he still just stood
there like he was frozen, and Eleanore could not figure out why. “Mr.
Daniels, is there something I can help you with?” Eleanore asked.
     She had to admit to herself that when Daniels had first entered
the women’s restroom, she’d been taken completely and utterly by
surprise. First of all, he was even more handsome in real life than he
was in his plethora of press photos. And that wasn’t supposed to be
the case at all. Wasn’t there supposed to be loads and loads of makeup
                      A VEng Er’s Ang EL                           143

involved? Tricks of the light? In real life, didn’t actors have acne and
scars and wrinkles and undyed roots for miles?
    In real life, an actor’s eyes didn’t seem to glow the way they did in
the movies. But Christopher Daniels’s eyes did. It was nearly eerie,
they were so intense. They instantly called to mind the dreams she’d
had of him. It was always his eyes she saw just before she woke up.
All of the pictures he had plastered across the nation didn’t do them
justice. His eyes were the color of arctic icebergs, so very, very light
green that they seemed . . . more than human. They were incredibly
beautiful.
    She was standing in a restroom, face-to-face with a famous actor
who was, quite literally, the most attractive man she had ever seen.
And yet he was looking at her as if she were the gorgeous movie star
instead.
    And, so, she was more than a little surprised at herself when,
instead of feeling faint and falling all over him like all of the other
girls in the world seemed to do, her first instinct had been to stand
up to him. For what, exactly, she had no idea. For coming into the
girl’s restroom, she guessed. Of all things! What kind of crime was
that, exactly?
    Eleanore’s subconscious mind knew the truth. She wasn’t mad at
him for coming into the wrong restroom, of course. She was mad
at him for being who and what he was. Gorgeous—and famous. It
was an old brain kind of thing.
    He was obviously hiding. That was clear. And from the sound of
the giggling school girls beyond the door, she would wager a guess
that it was his fans he was hiding from. The nerve! First, these guys
fight tooth and nail to climb their way into fandom and then they
balk at being loved by the masses.
    What was up with that?
    Meanwhile she’d forgotten Jennifer, the little girl she’d come
into the bathroom to help in the first place. But Jennifer had clearly
noticed Daniels as well. Her hand slipped out of Eleanore’s own as
she spoke up. “Miss Ellie made my stomach feel better!” she chimed
in, completely out of the blue. “I was throwing up, but she touched
my tummy and made it stop.”
    Eleanore paled. Oh no, she thought. Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet—
don’t say any more!
     “Which is a good thing,” Jennifer went on, nodding emphatically,
144           H E At HEr kiLL oug H-W A L D En

“because the throw up made me want to throw up some more.” Jen-
nifer was only about five, but she wasn’t shy. She grimaced and seemed
to want to push the memory away with her little hands. “It was so
gross.”
    Eleanore felt herself blanching further. She pulled her gaze off of
the famous actor and looked at the wall. She needed to compose
herself. She needed to get a handle on the situation—take control.
    Finally, she rolled her shoulders and looked back up at him.
    She blinked. He was still staring at her in abject fascination.
That was fascination, wasn’t it? Not amusement? Maybe he just
thought she was mental. . . . 
    “Mr. Daniels, I’m going to find Jennifer’s parents, and then I would
be happy to announce your arrival over the intercom, if you’d like—”
    Daniels pushed himself off of the wall and stepped toward her.
His motorcycle boots made a heavy sound on the linoleum floor. It
sounded dangerous. A warm, erotic warning thrummed through
Eleanore’s body.
    “You’re the reason it’s storming,” he said. “Now it makes per-
fect sense.”
    Eleanore’s world tipped on its axis, and fear gripped her. Her
vision began to tunnel. “P-pardon me?” she asked. Her voice sounded
hollow to her own ears.
    What is he talking about? He can’t know.
    She almost shook her head against the possibility. She thought
about taking a step back, suddenly needing space. But there was a
tiny hand in hers, squeezing tight, and she couldn’t escape.
    “You’re a man and this is a girl’s bathroom,” little Jennifer said.
    Christopher Daniels glanced down at the child. Jennifer’s nose
was scrunched up and her gaze was reprimanding. The actor seemed
to be considering the girl for a moment, and then he looked back up
at Eleanore.
    “Ellie,” he said softly.
    Eleanore swallowed hard. Her mouth and throat had gone dry.
“It’s—it’s Eleanore,” she stammered. And then, realizing that she’d
just given out her name and that, perhaps, she shouldn’t have, she
looked away from him and shook her head. “Mr. Daniels,” she tried
again. “Excuse me. I really do need to find Jennifer’s parents. She’s
just been pretty sick.”
    She brushed past him to push open the door, and as she did, the air
seemed to thicken around her; it suddenly felt cloying and confusing.
                      A VEng Er’s Ang EL                           145

It took forever to get by the actor; she could feel him watching her as
she came near, and he made virtually no move to get out of the way.
His nearness was electrifying and disarming, his body tall and hard
and very real. Time seemed to slow down as she opened the door and
stepped out into the store.
    But once she was past him, she walked as quickly as she could
with a five-year-old tethered to her arm, which wasn’t very fast at all.
She heard footsteps behind her and glanced back to see that Daniels
was following her. He kept pace easily, a small, determined smile
playing about his lips.
    Christopher Daniels is behind me, Eleanore thought. The famous
actor, Christopher Daniels is behind me! He’s probably looking
at my ass. She tried not to groan out loud at that thought. As if it
mattered!
    She wasn’t sure what her bottom looked like from his vantage
point; she never bothered with the mirror that much in the morning.
And she was nearly as horrified by the fact that she cared what she
looked like to him as she was by the fact that he seemed to be look-
ing at her. Was he looking at her butt?
    Of course he’s looking at my butt, she thought. He’s a guy!
That’s what they do!
    She berated herself for the internal monologue of Clueless-worthy
concerns and once more wondered what he’d meant by his storm com-
ment. Did he know that she’d caused the storm? If he did—how?
    There’s no way, she thought. He must have meant something
else.
    Eleanore stopped beside the customer service desk and bent to
whisper into Jennifer’s little ear.
    “This is our secret, okay?” she said, hoping against hope that
the child would catch the urgency with which she made the request.
    Jennifer looked up at her and then glanced over at Daniels, who
was leaning against a bookshelf a few feet away, his arms crossed
over his chest, his expression both bewildered and amused. Then she
nodded and smiled up at Eleanore, and Ellie’s fear dropped down a
notch.
    Eleanore straightened and picked up the phone at the customer
service desk. She saw Daniels peek over the racks at the crowd by the
front doors. A woman dressed in a suit with a name tag glanced
nervously at her watch and then stood on her toes as if to look for
someone. They were wondering where their star was.
146           H E At HEr kiLL oug H-W A L D En

    There was a tall man in a suit with them. He was pushing his
way through the women—and a few men—to the front of the store.
Eleanore wondered vaguely who he was, but let it go as she made a
“lost child” announcement over the intercom to get the attention of
Jennifer’s parents.
    When she’d finished, she put the phone back in its cradle and
turned to face a harried-looking couple who instantly knelt before
Jennifer to console her. Jennifer’s mother scooped her up into her
arms, and with a quick “thank you” to Ellie, they were on their way
out of the store.
    Now Ellie turned to face Daniels, who was still leaning against
the bookshelf, watching her. In the next split second, he straight-
ened from the shelf, closed the distance between them with two
purposeful strides, and pinned her to the customer service desk, one
strong arm braced against the counter on either side of her.
    Eleanore inhaled sharply and her heart did a somersault in her
chest.
    “I have to go to a big party on Thursday night. Come with me,”
he said. He was so close, his breath whispered across her lips; lico-
rice and mint.
    “Wha . . . ” she stammered. Then she dry swallowed and tried
again. “What?”
    She heard a faint cracking sound and glanced down to see that
his grip on the desk behind her had tightened. She turned back to
face him and watched as his gaze flicked to her mouth and back.
    “Ellie,” he said, as if testing her name out on his tongue. “Here’s
the thing,” he continued softly. “I need a date to a big promotional
party in Dallas. A gala. I don’t know anyone in Texas. You were
kind enough to let me hide in the women’s restroom.” He smiled an
incredibly charming smile. “And I appreciate it,” he added. “So, I
would be honored if you would consider being my date next week
on Thursday.”
    Eleanore took a few seconds to digest this. There was a part of
her that simply couldn’t believe her position at that moment. She
was being cornered by Christopher Daniels, against her own cus-
tomer service desk, and asked out on a date. But despite the impos-
sibility of it all, she knew she wasn’t dreaming. This felt too real.
    He was so big. So tall and . . . he looked hard—everywhere. And
his nearness was doing strange things to her. He smelled good. The
                     A VEng Er’s Ang EL                          147

leather of his jacket and whatever aftershave or shower gel he’d used
were a heady, highly tantalizing combination. There wasn’t an ounce
of him that wasn’t pure masculinity, from the set of his jaw to the
smooth, determined sound of his voice.
    “You’re not answering,” he said, once more glancing at her lips
as he’d done before. He seemed to be leaning in closer now, and
Eleanore was finding it more difficult to breathe. “Does this mean
you’re considering it?”
    Christ, I’m falling for this jerk. I’ve barely met him and I’ve
already got it bad.
    She tried to swallow past a spot in her throat that had gone dry.
She wondered, then, as she gazed up into those impossibly colored
eyes, how many women he’d done this to lately. He was good at it.
    He’s an actor, she told herself. Of course he’s good at it.
    That was a sobering thought. She blinked and felt her own gaze
harden. He seemed to notice, because something flashed in his eyes
and his gaze narrowed in response.
    “You’re serious,” she said in a low voice. “You don’t know any-
thing about me and you want me to just agree to go out on a date—
in another city—with you.”
     “I know enough,” he told her plainly. “And yes. I want you to
go out on a date with me.” He paused, and then added meaning-
fully, “Very much so.”
    She stared back at him for several more hard beats, and then,
before she realized what she was doing, she had the customer ser-
vice desk phone to her ear and was pressing a button behind her on
the carriage.
     Daniels seemed as surprised as she was and only watched as she
put the speaker to her mouth.
    “Attention guests! It is my pleasure to announce to you all that
the star of the evening, Mr. Christopher Daniels, is here with us
now and is making his way to the front of the store to begin signing
autographs for all of his much appreciated fans.”
    The sound of cheering rose from the front of the store and spread
through the aisles. Daniels glanced up, not moving from where he
had her ensnared between his arms.
    Eleanore glanced behind her to catch frantic movement at the
front of the store. When she turned back to face him, it was to find
Christopher’s jaw tensed and his teeth clenched in obvious irritation.
148           H E At HEr kiLL oug H-W A L D En

But his ice-green eyes returned to Eleanore’s face and once more
trapped her gaze in his. He took a deep, calming breath and seemed
to ponder the situation.
    Then he smiled and straightened, stepping away from the desk.
Eleanore stayed where she was and watched him warily. For a moment,
his eyes flicked to her neck, her shoulders, and back up again. She
could have sworn she saw a troubling indecision cross his handsome
features. He looked as if he were tempted to grab her, throw her over
his shoulder, and abscond with her.
    “It was a pleasure to meet you, Ellie,” he said instead, locking
gazes with her a final time. “I’ll be seeing you again soon.”
    With that, he turned and strode down the aisle toward the front
of the store.
    Eleanore was too stunned to move. She watched him go, and as
he disappeared, she listened. The ecstatic greetings started up almost
immediately. They were crazy about him.
    And now she could see why.
    He asked me on a date, she thought. The gorgeous, famous movie
star from Comeuppance asked me on a date.
    A part of her wanted to be thrilled at the thought. But there was
another part of her that knew better. It was that other part that had
forced her to cut their exchange short by announcing his arrival.
Because that part of her had a feeling that Christopher Daniels was
not who he pretended to be. Not just on the screen—but in real life.
    He knows something, she thought.
    She didn’t know how it was possible; even the very idea was
unfathomably weird. But somehow, Christopher Daniels seemed to
know that Eleanore had caused the storm. He’d told her as much.
You’re the reason it’s storming, he’d said. She was willing to bet a
dollar that he even suspected her healing powers after Jennifer’s
untimely exclamation in the bathroom.
    And now he also knew her name and where she worked.
    Several more long, tense seconds passed, and Eleanore’s body
finally relaxed a little and slumped against the desk. She closed her
eyes and ran a somewhat shaky hand through her long hair.
    Life had just gotten a little too interesting for her taste. Maybe it
was time to move again.
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language:English
pages:156