Author of Paranormal Romances

Read An Excerpt



from Bound by Sin
(available 12/29/09)


   Ben Hennessey was some sort of fisherman. At least that’s the way it appeared from the nets piled in his boat and the pungent aroma of fish and saltwater that emanated from his person. By the looks of his derelict boat he couldn’t be too successful at his trade, or perhaps he simply drank up all his profits. He was a big man with blond hair and bushy sideburns. It was difficult to tell his age because the sun and the liquor had taken their toll; he could have been thirty or fifty, or anywhere in between. He shuffled across the deck of his small steam-powered fishing vessel with a painful-looking gait. There was something wrong with his right leg, which was probably why he was plying his trade here instead of fighting in the war.

   “Mr. Hennessey,” Michael called from the dock. “I have a job for you.”

   Hennessey tipped his hat back and looked up at us. “I reckon I already got a job, mister.”

   Michael held up the bottle of whisky. “One trip down the coast to Devil’s Island in exchange for a bottle of fifteen-year-old Glenlivet single malt.” 

   Hennessey eyed the bottle covetously. “Well, now, why didn’t you say so in the first place? Although, Devil’s Island?” he said with a lick of his lips and a remorseful shaking of his head. “Take a chance on gettin’ shot goin’ there. Seems to me a man’s life is surely worth two bottles of whisky, don’t you think?

   “Oh, for the love of Danu,” I muttered.

   “Done!” Michael agreed, and hopped down into the boat. The little craft was so shoddy that I had momentary visions of him going right through the floor. He handed Hennessey the bottle with the promise of the second one upon our safe return. Then he turned and grasped me by the waist and swung me into the boat.

   “You’re wantin’ to go now?” Hennessey asked. “In the dark?”

   “Is that a problem?” I inquired.

   “No,” he said, shaking his head thoughtfully. “No, ma’am, I guess it ain’t.”

   Hennessey fired up the engine while Michael untied the craft from its mooring. The boat had a shallow draft and we hugged the coastline as close as we could to avoid running afoul of any Union gunboats. The trip was interminably long and made worse by the fact that the night was warm and the fog had rolled in. As a result, my lovely green dress was damp and my coiffure was probably ruined. For the first time I was grateful for the popularity of hoop skirts. If it hadn’t been for the belled foundation garment, my skirt would undoubtedly have been clinging obscenely to my legs.

   “There she is,” Hennessey said gravely. “Devil’s Island.”

   There were no lights, nor anything that indicated this stretch of land was any different than the miles of shadowy shoreline we’d already passed. I trusted that Hennessey knew these waters, though, and watched expectantly as he piloted the boat into an inlet between the island and the mainland. The night was eerily quiet, which seemed to magnify the sound of the steam engine. I was certain that anyone for miles around could hear us coming. Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t surprised to see a lone figure on the dock ahead of us. As we got closer I could tell that it was a woman. She was standing still as a statue, holding a lantern aloft. It was as if she’d been waiting for us.

   “Anyone but me find that peculiar?” Hennessey mumbled.

   I glanced at Michael, but he just shrugged. As Hennessey steered the boat to the dock and Michael tied it up, my eyes were riveted to the woman. The light illuminated her face, casting shadows under her high cheekbones and a golden hue to her cocoa skin. She was dressed entirely in white, from the turban covering her hair to the blouse and skirt she wore. She was young, perhaps in her late twenties, but her dark eyes held wisdom beyond her years. She stared at me, never once looking at Michael or Mr. Hennessey, and I found it hard to drag my gaze from hers.

   I heard Michael turn to Hennessey and whisper, “If you’re not here when we get back, you won’t live long enough to finish that bottle.”

   Michael leapt onto the dock and I looked up at him as he reached down and helped me from the boat. It was unnecessary, but it was a polite gesture. As soon as my feet hit the boards, though, I turned back to the woman. This close to her, I could feel it. She had magic.

   “I been waitin’ for you,” she said to me, her voice thick with a lilting accent I hadn’t heard in Savannah. “I told him you would come. You won’t be gettin’ the girl, but I expect you’ll be wantin’ to see that for yourself. Come.”

   She turned and strode off, carrying herself like a queen. With no other option before us, Michael and I followed her. A long, wide road led from the dock, running straight into the center of the island. Giant oaks rose up on either side of the road, their branches forming a canopy over our heads. There must have been hundreds of them stretching out into the distance. Up ahead, perhaps a half mile down the tree-lined drive, I could see the lights of a great house.

   “What’s your name?” I asked the woman, thinking that it was going to be a long, quiet walk and perhaps she could be induced to tell me something useful.

   “I am Pandora,” she replied.

   “Do you work in Mr. Boucher’s house?” Michael inquired.

   She laughed. “I do many things for the master.”

   I inwardly cringed at her use of the word “master.” The practice of slavery was repellant to me and I wondered with distaste exactly what sort of things Boucher forced her to do for him. By the color of her skin it was obvious that there were least one or two white men in Pandora’s ancestry, and I could think of little that was worse than being owned by a man that you had no right to say no to. Whether or not Boucher was like these men, Pandora still called him master and that made me want to bite him all the more.

   Such thoughts flitted in and out of my head as we walked quietly to the house. Pandora’s terse answers discouraged any more questions, so I simply held Michael’s hand and enjoyed the majesty of the oaks and the songs of the night birds in the trees. I wanted to find the whole island as distasteful as I found Boucher but, in truth, I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen anything more beautiful. Before long, the tunnel-like corridor of the drive opened up and gave way to an expansive lawn leading up to the plantation house.

   “Welcome to Kenneway,” Pandora proudly announced.

   It was exactly the way I’d envisioned a southern plantation house would look, sitting like a dazzling white pearl against the green velvet lawn. Eight Doric columns marched in stately elegance along the front of the house, supporting two stories of wide porches with finely wrought iron railings. Many such railings and decorative ironworks in Savannah had been removed and melted down to help the war effort. Kenneway’s iron still stood, though, like delicate black lace, perfectly complimenting the black shutters that graced each of the eight tall windows. As if on cue, the double front doors swung open and I came face to face with Adrien Boucher.

   I could well imagine what Miss Evangeline Peyton had seen in this man. He was in his mid-to-late forties and he had a sleek, hungry look about him, very sophisticated and urbane. His rich brown hair was slicked back with not a strand out of place and there was something quite temptingly dangerous about his eyes. They were the same golden brown as a tiger’s, and his swarthy skin only added to his exotic appeal.

   “Don’t look into their eyes,” Pandora whispered to him as she sailed through the door. “She’s a powerful bokor. I can feel her magic crawlin’ across my skin like a thousand tiny ants.”

   Adrien’s lips twitched in a smile under his thin mustache but I noticed that he heeded her advice. His eyes focused just below mine, but never meeting them directly. By doing this he insured that I couldn’t use vampire magic to bespell him and I was hesitant to use my regular magic at this point because of Pandora. She could feel my power, but I could also feel hers. There was darkness in it and I’d learned long ago not to tangle with black magic unless it was absolutely necessary. If we could get into the house though, brute force would accomplish our goal.

   “Mr. Boucher, I believe we have some business to discuss,” I said. “May we come in?”

   He smiled. “I think not. I believe I am much safer with the threshold between us, Mrs. —?”

   I narrowed my eyes and looked at Pandora. She knew what we were and that we couldn’t enter the house without an invitation. Somehow she’d known before we’d even arrived.

   “My name is Cin Craven and you are in possession of my cousin Claire,” I said coldly. “I want her back.”

   “I would be happy to return the girl to you,” Boucher announced, “but she has something I want and until she gives it to me she will not leave this house.”

   There were several ways to interpret such a statement and I didn’t care for any of them. “If you’ve hurt her in any way?”

   Boucher held up one hand. “I’ve not harmed the girl,” he said. “Yet. But I am running out of time and patience. Perhaps you can convince her to do what’s right. Mr. McCready!”

   The doors off the central hallway opened and a stocky man with a bushy red beard and a halo of carrot-colored curls entered the hall. His beefy hand was wrapped around a young lady’s wrist as he dragged her behind him. I knew this was Claire for she had the stamp of the Macgregors on her— a head full of thick, coppery curls pulled back in a simple bow at the nape of her neck. She was a pretty girl with her father’s height and her mother’s face. Her celery green dress was a trifle loose and though she looked too thin, I could see no marks or other visible signs of abuse. I expected her to be frightened but her blue eyes were merely cautious, and angry.

   “Claire,” I said, gaining her attention. “We’ve never met, but I’m your cousin, Cin Craven. Your mother sent me to bring you home.” I held my hand out to her. “Whatever he wants, give it to him and come with me.”

   Her anger melted away at the mention of Raina and her expression softened. A tear slipped down her cheek. Mr. McCready still held her wrist but he released it when she raised her hand to wipe away the tear. I didn’t like the way his small, round eyes watched her covetously.

   “Tell my parents I’m sorry, but I can’t do it.” She looked to Boucher and her eyes hardened. “I won’t do it,” she said mutinously, “and you can’t make me!”

   With that she picked up her skirts, turned on her heel and, with a toss of her copper curls, marched up the stairs. My mouth fell open as I watched her storm off. I wasn’t sure what was going on; this spitfire was certainly was not the fragile, damaged young girl Raina had led me to believe I’d find. When Claire reached the top of the stairs she was met by a tall, lovely brunette in full evening dress. The woman made some comment, but Claire held one hand up dismissively and strode past her.

   “Gold,” I said, jerking my attention back to Boucher. “I have quite a lot of it. Name your price for her freedom.”

   “While your offer is tempting, I’m afraid what she possesses is without price,” he said as he nonchalantly pulled a pocket watch from his vest. He flipped the lid open and looked down at the time. “You’d be wise to return to your boat, Cin Craven. If you take shelter anywhere on this island, I’ll know about it and I will see you burned come the dawn.”

   And with that he closed the door in our faces.

   “What the hell just happened?” I said, more to myself than to Michael.

   When he didn’t respond, I turned to him. He was leaning back against one of the columns, staring at the front doors with a thoughtful expression on his face. “Why didn’t you say anything?” I prodded.

   “You seemed to be handling everything as well as could be expected, given that for once the element of surprise was not on our side,” he replied. “Besides, I was busy noticing other things.”

   “What things?” I asked.

   He held his hand out to me. “Come on,” he said leading me off the porch, “before Mr. Hennessey drinks himself into a stupor.”

   “But what are we supposed to do now?” I asked.

   “We tried it your way,” he replied. “Now we’re going to go back to Savannah and try it my way.”

   “Your way usually involves a sword and a lot of fighting,” I pointed out.

   “Very true, my dear, but I’m getting wiser in my old age,” he said, smugly.

   I narrowed my eyes at the self-satisfied smile on his face. “What are you planning?”

   Michael slid his arm around my waist. “Why don’t you let me surprise you?” 





 

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from The Eternal Warrior
in The Mammoth Book of Irish Romance anthology
(available 1/26/10)

Castle Tara

Connemara, Ireland

1260

 

   They had come to kill him. At his invitation they had come, hundreds of them, across seas and continents, until they filled the courtyard of his great castle. They had come to vanquish the arrogant bastard who dared to claim sovereignty over the vampire nation. His summons had appealed to their pride, their vanity, their curiosity: an open challenge that whoever could defeat him in single combat would unite the world’s vampires under the authority of one High King.

   The warrior braced his hands on the cold gray stone of the parapet wall and listened with satisfaction to the murmuring voices below. When they had embarked on this journey they had been certain that the challenger would be easily dispatched, but now that confidence was beginning to waver, for Castle Tara was unlike anything they had seen before. It was a palace straight out of Faerie, built for beauty and not defense. There was nothing like it this side of the Veil. Indeed, the whole structure often slipped in and out of Faerie in order to keep itself hidden from human eyes.

   The vampires below truly had no understanding of what they were walking into. One complained bitterly of the cramped quarters that surely awaited them, for no castle could comfortably house this many people. The warrior smiled. Even now the stewards were showing his guests to their chambers and he had no doubt that they would all find their quarters more than satisfactory. The castle was almost a living thing, expanding and contracting, changing as she saw fit. He watched the vampires below gaze covetously at what was his, each of them imagining what it would be like to live in such a place, each of them imagining they would be the one to defeat him. It was truly a pity they would all go home disappointed.

   The warrior tensed at the sound of wings beating against the cool night air. A moment later a black raven swooped down, landing on the wall to his right. And a moment after that the bird seamlessly transformed itself into a beautiful young woman. He nearly growled in frustration at the sight of her… and at the reaction his body always had to her presence.  How he wished he could look at her and feel nothing, but after a millennium he’d finally given up on that ever happening. For some reason she stirred his blood as no woman ever had, or ever would.

   She smiled seductively and lounged on her precarious perch, propped up on one elbow with her long, lean body stretched out before him. Her hair looked black as sin under the night sky but he knew that by candlelight it shone with the subtle, iridescent purple and green of a raven’s wing. Her face was angular and strong, her lips full and sensual. Even though he tried not to, he couldn’t help imagining those lips doing things to his body, wicked things that he didn’t even have a name for. Her gown (if you could call such a thing a gown) clung to her curves like shadows, the black fabric so sheer that he could see her white skin beneath it. She wore the damned thing just because she knew it drove him mad.     

   “I told you they would come,” she said smugly, nodding to the throng below. “And you said they would not.”

   He snorted derisively. “I have no doubt that a goddess’s whispered commands in their ears as they slept had something to do with it.”

   “I can be very persuasive,” she purred.

   He scowled at her smiling face. “I know that all too well,” he said harshly. “You were quite convincing when you struck the deal that damned me for eternity. Tell me, Morrigan, did you feel the slightest bit of guilt when you had me killed?”

   She swiftly sat up from her reclining position, her black eyes boring into him with an intensity that made him take a step back. “Do not pretend that I was some she-wolf taking down an innocent lamb, Cullen. I gave you everything you asked of me and before this week is out I will make you a king!”

   “And I will keep my end of the bargain,” he assured her. “I will lead your vampires, Morrigan. But I will never forgive you.”

   “I do not require your forgiveness, nor do I seek it.” She slid off the parapet wall and stalked toward him. “By the gods, for such a big, strong man you certainly have become adept at whining like a wee girl.” Trailing her long, glossy black fingernails across the rise of his chest, she looked into his dark eyes. “One would think that a thousand years would have cooled your temper, Cullen.”

   He grasped her wrist and pulled her hand from his body. “Then one would be mistaken, for I will always hate you, Morrigan.”

   The words stung, and she looked away. At least they were the truth. She would rather have that than the pretty lies he’d told her when he was human. He had turned the head of a goddess with his beautiful body and his honeyed words. He had made her love him and she would never forgive herself for that weakness. Well, she certainly wouldn’t allow him see that weakness now.

   She let all emotion drain from her face before she once again raised her eyes to his. Even her skin seemed to pale further, until she was every inch the cold, heartless goddess of legend. And he flinched. A look something akin to guilt crossed his face before he pulled his gaze from hers.

   Satisfied, she took a step away from him. “I believe I will retire to my chambers,” she informed him coldly.

   He released her wrist and gave her a low, mocking bow. “It is your castle,” he conceded.

   Morrigan arched one black brow at him. “Yes, it is.”

  

 

    

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from Grave Sins
 


   There is a fine line between looking aggressive and looking like assassins. I thought we’d all done rather well, though our color palette did run mostly to black. All together we probably had enough weapons on us to have stormed the Bastille, but the only blade visible was Michael’s claymore. He’d left off the frock coat and instead had the long sword in its sheath at his back. He said it was to remind the king that they were countrymen. This wasn’t the basket-hilted broadsword he’d worn earlier, but the great two-handed Highland claidheamh mòr. Michael rarely used this sword because it was four and a half feet long and nearly impossible to conceal. It was, however, an impressive weapon and, according to Fiona, not nearly as heavy as it looked. I wouldn’t know. Having vampire strength, it was easy enough for me to wield with one hand.

   I dragged my eyes from Michael as Drake finally made his way down the stairs. The Sentinel made his way to me and ran an appreciative glance over my attire.

   “My dear,” he said smoothly, “you look deliciously dangerous.”

   “Why, thank you,” I replied.

   It was clear that he would have liked to have continued the conversation, but I had noticed the scowl on Michael’s face as he overheard the compliment so I politely extricated myself from Drake’s company. It was the king’s prerogative to make us wait for an audience, but I doubted that we would be standing on the spacious second-floor landing much longer, now that Drake was here. I didn’t imagine that he would be content to lounge on one of the velvet-upholstered chairs and await the king’s pleasure. Personally, I would have been more than happy to retire to my room and miss the whole thing. There was an oppressive feeling in the air that had nothing to do with the decorating scheme, which tended to run mostly to red velvet and heavy gilt. Just as I opened my mouth to ask if anyone else felt it, too, Khalid, dressed in heavily embroidered sage-green silk from his turbaned head to his black-booted feet, threw open the great double doors and ushered us inside.

   The room we entered made me catch my breath at the sheer unexpectedness of it. While the rest of the house, from the first floor receiving rooms to the third floor bedrooms, looked as if its furnishings had been stolen from Versailles, this room was built like a medieval king’s Presence Chamber. It was the sort of room a centuries-old king would be comfortable in. The tapestry-lined walls were made of the same gray stone as the floor and fitted at regular intervals with sconces holding flaming torches. A row of medieval backless chairs lined the left and right walls, but other than that, the room was devoid of other furnishings. Except for the throne and the man who sat upon it.

   MacLeod, King of the Western Lands, was not exactly what I expected, either. I’ve met many vampires, and killed more than a few, but MacLeod was the first I’d seen who had been old enough when he’d been turned to have liberal splashes of silver in his dark hair. That being said, I had no problem imagining him on some ancient, body-strewn battlefield, covered in blood, claymore in hand. His face, with its strong, square jaw and deeply cleft chin, drew my attention. It was a face that had settled during his mortal years, so that you knew without a doubt that he was much more handsome in his late forties than he had been in his early twenties. There were lines on that face that remembered squinting into the sun, and he was infinitely more interesting for having them.

   No, he didn’t look at all like I had expected him to. What he did look like was every inch a king, from his short salt and pepper hair to his broad shoulders draped in full highland regalia. This was a man who was used to giving orders and having them followed without question. He had an air of authority about him, a sense of unquestioning confidence that he could face anyone he encountered and come out the victor. If he had been in a room with a hundred other men, I’d still have known him for a king. 

   Of course, the throne certainly helped to convey that image. Vampires, I’d come to realize, were particularly fond of thrones, whether they held any claim to one or not. MacLeod wore this one with as much confident grace as he did his kilt and sporran, as if it were an extension of himself and his power. Its centuries-old wood was dark with age and heavily carved, and I wondered briefly what long-dead king or emperor had sat on it before him.  

   My gaze moved to the king’s left, to where Hashim stood dressed in a darker green version of his twin’s attire, and finally settled on the petite woman standing at MacLeod’s right. She was obviously a vampire, and I wondered if she was the queen. If so, she was exquisite. She wore a gown that had been the height of fashion in the last century, with its wide skirt and yards of tucks and lace. She should have looked outdated, but she didn’t. She looked like she had been made to wear it, and I couldn’t imagine her in today’s less complicated fashions. Her glossy black hair was piled in artful curls atop her head, and every feature on her heart-shaped face was nothing short of perfection. Black brows arched delicately over eyes that looked to be almost violet. She was like a tiny porcelain doll. She did not look like someone Justine would call the most frightening woman I’ve ever met.

   Khalid stopped us halfway across the room and said in his deep, accented voice, “Your Highness, King of the Western Lands, may I present Drake, Sentinel of the High King of Tara, and his companions, The Righteous.”

   “The Righteous?” the woman gasped, her hand going to her throat.

   Her eyes widened as they traveled over the four of us, and then she did something I never thought I’d see in this new world that I lived in.

   The vampire fainted.

   The men rushed forward but Justine and I hung back, staring.

   “What the — ?” I opened my mouth, closed it, opened it again. “Vampires don’t faint!” I exclaimed in a whisper.

   Justine chuckled and grinned at me. “She has your helpless routine down pat, mon amie.”

   I glared at her, offended. I had never resorted to something as trite as fainting.

   “Well, it certainly seems to be working,” I said, cocking one eyebrow. “She has your man fawning all over her… mon amie.”

   Justine’s eyes narrowed as she watched Devlin pull the woman into his arms. Michael was frantically fanning her with his hand. Khalid paced and fretted behind them, and Drake had moved up to watch the whole scene with a bemused expression. Hashim, I’d noticed, hadn’t moved an inch. In fact, his gaze stayed riveted on me. MacLeod was watching the woman with concern on his face but he hadn’t risen from his seated position. Not the queen, then. So who was she? She was about to find herself staked if Michael and Devlin didn’t quit drooling over her, and at this point I wasn’t sure who would be the one to do the deed, me or Justine.

   “Is she all right?” Khalid inquired.

   “She’ll be fine,” Drake assured him. “Who is she?”

   “The young lady is new to Edinburgh,” Khalid explained, then his voice fell to a whisper. “I believe she had a falling-out with her lover. She arrived by ship with not a shilling to her name. One of the Wardens took pity on her and brought her here.  Naturally, the king was kind enough to offer her a room.”

   The woman’s violet eyes fluttered open and she gasped as she saw Michael and Devlin leaning over her.

   “You have nothing to fear from us,” Devlin said, his voice so deep and gravelly that I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t scare her into another swoon. “What’s your name?”

   She looked at him with wide, round eyes. “Belinda,” she whispered, and placed one dainty hand on his chest. “But you may call me Bel.”

   I rolled my eyes and shifted my weight. Justine’s fingers were inching ever closer to the sapphire-tipped dagger she had hidden in her boot.  I cleared my throat, and Michael turned his head to look at me. I gave him a meaningful look and pursed my lips. His gaze moved over my face, and then on to Justine’s. He took one look at her and reached down, pulling the woman to her feet as he gently shoved Devlin away from her. Justine relaxed at bit, and I let out a breath. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in Devlin’s shoes if he was ever foolish enough to stray.

   Drake stepped up and took control of the situation. “My dear Belinda, we aren’t here to harm you. We are here to investigate the bodies that have shown up in the city in recent months.”

   MacLeod leaned back and narrowed his eyes. “Let us not play games, Drake. You are here to investigate my queen. You are here because some spy in my court has whispered to the High King that she is guilty. That is why you’ve brought them with you,” he said with a sweeping gesture.

   Drake inclined his head. “If she is guilty, then she must pay the price.”

   MacLeod’s fingers gripped the arm of the throne, his knuckles turning white. “What will you do, Drake? Have one of them take her head? Lock her away somewhere in the bowels of Castle Tara?”

   Drake laced his hands behind his back and paced. “So quick to judge, my old friend. Do you think she is guilty?”

   MacLeod’s head jerked back. “Of course not. But she is… not well. Leave here, and I will take her into the hills to Caisteal Dubhar, and not bring her back to the city.”

   Caisteal Dubhar, or Castle Darkness, was the king’s country residence north of Inverness. It was remote and well protected, a veritable fortress.

   Drake shook his head. “I will not bargain with you, MacLeod. The truth must be uncovered, one way or another.”

   MacLeod leaned forward. “She is my wife, my world. I will not let you take her.”

   “With all due respect, Highness, you are outnumbered.”

   MacLeod leaned back and chuckled. “You are no warrior, Drake, and the red-haired girl is a mere fledgling. Three against three are odds I’ll take any day.”

   Khalid and Hashim flanked their king, and I had no illusion that they were as unarmed as they appeared to be. We certainly weren’t. This could get messy quickly. I moved up to stand between Michael and Devlin, and Justine moved in to guard my back.

   “With all due respect, Highness,” I echoed, holding my hand out, palm up. I conjured a ball of pure magic above my palm, glowing with iridescent golden light. With a thought and a touch of glamour, the ball seemed to burst into flame. It wasn’t a true flame, only the illusion of it, but I was counting on the fact that no one would put it to the test. Technically I could conjure fire in the palm of my hand, but I would never try it, vampires being so very combustible. “The fledgling begs to disagree. It is a fight you cannot win.” I snapped my fingers and the ball of flame disappeared. “So why don’t we try discussing this like rational adults instead?”

   Five pairs of eyes regarded me with fascination or horror, or both. Bel’s hand went to her throat again and I snapped, “Woman, if you swoon again you’ll wake up on fire.” She gulped and took a step back, but thankfully stayed on her feet.

   MacLeod smiled. “Such power in such a small package. You’d best beware that you don’t become so powerful, you are more of a liability than an asset to the High King.”

   I glanced at Drake, but his expression gave nothing away. It was, in fact, so devoid of any reaction to MacLeod’s statement that a cold knot of dread clenched in my stomach. Ah, bugger, that was all I needed. I couldn’t do anything about it now, though, so I would worry about it later. At the moment I had bigger problems, like Hashim gliding toward me with the stealth of a serpent.

   “She is dangerous, Your Majesty. She will use her magic to effect whatever outcome they desire, whether it be the truth or not.” I rocked back on my heels at the force of his fear and hatred. “Let me kill her now.”

   “Don’t be a fool,” I snapped. “I have not wronged you in any way, Hashim.”

   “Your very existence is an affront to Allah. You are an abomination,” he spat.

   “Oh. Says the vampire.”

   Sometimes I really don’t know when to keep my mouth shut, and this was one of those times. Hashim’s hand drew back to strike me, and before I could even blink two things happened at once: I heard the slap of flesh against flesh and the sharp hiss of steel clearing a scabbard. I hadn’t flinched. I’d known without a doubt that he would never be able to touch me, not with Michael standing at my right and Devlin at my left.

   A muscled ticked in Hashim’s cheek as he took in the result of his folly. Devlin’s hand gripped his wrist, not six inches from my face, and the tip of Michael’s claymore was pressed into his jugular.

   I glanced at Michael and found his face cold as stone. His high cheekbones seemed sharp as a knife’s edge when his jaw was clenched in fury. “You lay a hand on my woman,” he said in a low, deadly voice, “and you’re going to die bloody.”

   Khalid reached out and jerked his brother back, whispering fiercely to him in Arabic.

   I looked at MacLeod. “It’s not my magic that you need to worry about, it’s whatever magic has been worked here before me. The air fairly reeks of it.” Everyone looked around as if they expected to see magic floating above their heads. I laughed and shook my head. “For people whose entire existence is due to some sort of magic, it always amazes me that vampires aren’t more sensitive to it. Someone has been working magic in this house.”

 

 


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 from Wages of Sin

 

 

 

   Somewhere in the depths of the house a clock chimed midnight. I sat in the ballroom, alone, my back against the far wall, and waited. I’d taken off my cloak but the chill in the large, empty room soon prompted me to settle it back over my shoulders. I hooked the clasp but didn’t bother to put my arms through the sleeves. Snuggling deeper into the folds, I shivered. Dear Goddess, what had I done? I’d invited three vampires into my home to save me from the one outside it. I would have laughed if I’d been able. 

   The wind picked up, beating against the glass on either side of me like some living thing pounding to gain entrance. I picked my head up and looked around, my heart hammering in my chest. He was here; he was close.

  
One of the terrace doors to my left crashed open and the wind blew a swirl of dried autumn leaves into the ballroom, the leaves twirling around each other in little eddies like fairies waltzing across the floor. They drew my attention for only a moment. What stood in the doorway was far more fascinating.

  
I had expected him to be bigger somehow, like some great hulking demon, but the fact that he wasn’t didn’t dampen the frisson of sheer terror that blew through me when I first saw him. Terror, oh yes, and something else. Something that made my blood sing and my stomach tighten just to look at him.

  
He was several inches shy of six feet and built like some sleek, angry jungle cat. Michael. The Devil’s Archangel. And indeed that face could have belonged to some fallen god or angel. He was too unearthly, too beautiful, too starkly dangerous to be real. His hair was dark blonde and longer than had been fashionable any time in this century. It was tied back at his nape except for several strands that had worked themselves free, as if tousled by the wind or by a lover’s hand. His brows were darker, set over eyes that were either blue or green, but what took a face that was merely handsome and catapulted it into the realm of mesmerizing or godlike were his cheekbones. Sharp as a knife’s edge, they made my breath catch just to look at him. The candlelight flickered across his face, casting deep shadows in the hollows under those incredible cheekbones, drawing my attention down to his lips. Neither full nor thin, they were incredibly sensual, shaped in such a way as to make me wonder what they’d feel like against mine, what they’d feel like trailing along the bare skin of my throat. The thought made me shiver again but this time not from cold or fear.

  
In truth, he looked more like a pirate than a vampire. Tall black leather boots encased his legs up to mid-thigh and a simple white linen shirt was tucked haphazardly into his black breeches, as if he’d dressed in a hurry. Perhaps my summons had pulled him from a lover’s bed? I didn’t much like that thought. His shirt was open at the neck, exposing a smooth expanse of pale chest, its full sleeves gathered at the wrist in a small fall of lace. That lace should have looked feminine but instead drew my gaze to his hands, which gripped either side of the door frame. They were strong, the fingers long and blunted. His knuckles looked as if he’d seen more than his share of brawls and I wondered briefly whose blood ran in the veins that stood out on the backs of his hands. He was not armed with so much as a dagger but when his fingers clenched on the door frame and I heard the soft crack of the wood underneath, I realized that those beautiful, lethal hands were weapons in themselves. And even knowing that, all I could think of was what they would feel like on my skin, moving up my arm, drawing my hair aside, moving lower...

  
He made a sound, a growl like that of a jungle cat. A sound unlike any that had ever come from a human mouth.

  
“Witch,” he whispered and pushed away from the door. And then he was moving, crossing the ballroom with such malevolent grace and inhuman speed that it was only two heartbeats before he was nearly upon me.

 

 

 

 

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