Lonesome Paladin

An Urban Fantasy Novel

God is dead. Lincoln Marshall knows who killed Him...

It's been a month since apocalypse destroyed the world as Lincoln Marshall once knew it. The new world is populated by deadly faeries, wild shapeshifters, and humans without a god. Lincoln's sins can never be absolved now that God is dead. There's nothing left for him but the bottom of a whiskey bottle.

Until Cesar Hawke comes seeking help. The undersecretary of the new Office of Preternatural Affairs has manifested uncontrollable magical powers. The only cure lies beyond the frontier of the untamed faerie worlds -- a land that no mortal man can survive. He needs Lincoln to escort him to the Winter Queen through hostile territory riddled by killer unicorns, doppelgangers, and false prophets. No big deal.

Lincoln Marshall once conquered Hell. He's certain he can conquer the Middle Worlds too -- and if he can't, he's happy to die trying.

Excerpt:

Eloquent Blood was only one of a dozen bars in downtown Reno—the oldest of the businesses in the area. It looked its age. Sulfur had long since crystallized on the tabletops and along the edges of the floor, then gathered dust on that, and dirt on the dust. Nobody had cleaned it since the world became new. That was part of the appeal. You could sink into Eloquent Blood and nobody would bother you.
There weren’t a lot of places in America these days where the government wasn’t watching.
That was why Spencer had spent most of his days in the last month at Blood. His golden eyes marked him as one of the Rebirthed, and he couldn’t wipe his ass without the Office of Preternatural Affairs wanting him to check in. Give a blood donation, get scanned for emergent powers, provide the mandatory hours of public service that all citizens were now expected to contribute to rebuild the infrastructure of the broken world.

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Spencer had tried to show up for Work Crew once, a couple mornings after Day Zero, and they’d had him sterilizing a hospital full of orphans. Hundreds of preternatural orphans with uncontrolled powers. Hundreds of crying children who didn’t understand why they’d died, why they’d come back, why they didn’t have parents anymore.
Blood was better. Grimy, smelly, but *better*.
“Two drinks,” Spencer said, lifting a finger to the bartender.
“You know what we’ve got,” said Cassandra.
“Yeah, I know.” They didn’t have any good liquor in the bar. At least, nothing that Spencer could afford.
“How’s it going?” Javi asked, sliding onto the barstool beside Spencer.
“Bad,” Spencer said. Cassandra cracked two beer cans and poured them into glasses. He took one and gave the other to Javi. “It’ll be worse in an hour though.”
Javi squinted up at the light at the surface. There used to be a casino named Craven’s atop what the patrons called Blood, but while the bar had survived urban warfare against demons, it’s surface-level structure had been flattened. The only way into Blood was through a crumbling rebar-prickled crevasse near Fourth Street, which flooded every time it rained and the Truckee swelled against its banks.
At the moment, Blood was dry, and the clear sky beyond was red-shifting away from daytime into twilight. Moonrise would come once the sun vanished. It was a shockingly regular activity these days. The moon came up when the sun went down, and they traded places in the morning. It was magic, no doubt about it, and a small nod toward order in a chaotic world.
They probably had thirty minutes to get to a safe house. The nearest was a five minute walk, not far from Greater Nevada Field on First. Plenty of time for them to drink.
Javi lifted the glass to his mouth, but the rim never met lips; instead of cold glass, his mouth touched the skin of his friend’s hand. Spencer scowled at him from the adjacent bar stool.
“You didn’t give thanks,” Spencer said. “You know better than that.”
Javi set the glass down slowly, and Spencer’s hand followed the rim to ensure that Javi wouldn’t sneak a gulp the instant he withdrew. “It’s three-year-old Coors Light,” Javi said. “It tastes like stale water and beer can. There’s nothing to give thanks over.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Spencer said. “We came back from the end of the world. We aren’t in one of those hospitals. We have *something* to drink, and a lotta people don’t. You think that NKF thinks there’s nothing to be thankful for?”
“I don’t think NKF is thinking much about what’s going on in some underground hole of a bar where two asshole shifters are trying to delay going to a safe house,” Javi said.
“NKF is God. He can think about everything.”
Javi grew quiet at this, contemplating the foul yellow drink in his murky glass. “All right.”
They extracted a couple of wooden crosses from under their shirts. Spencer had gotten a matching pair from a gift shop on North Virginia, right next to the Little Nugget. It used to sell novelty t-shirts and shot glasses. Now it sold crosses, charms, and flimsy switchblades. Nothing that could actually protect anyone from folks who Rebirthed as vampires or whatever, but it made folks feel good.
He wrapped his hands around it, bowed his head to his knuckles.
“We give thanks for this life, and what we’ve got in this life,” he murmured.
“We give thanks,” agreed Javi.
Spencer started to say, “We give thanks for—“
“Careful,” whispered Cassandra as she leaned across the bar to pass napkins to them. Her gaze flicked toward the corner. There was a booth in shadow, its leather sliced open to allow the guts of its stuffing to bulge free. A pair of crossed legs clad in tattered, mud-stained denim extended over the seat. The man was reclining so Spencer couldn’t make out a face.
Face or not, there was nobody to stop him from praying. “We’re supposed to give thanks to NKF every time,” Spencer said.
“Skip this time,” Cassandra said.
“That kind of shit’s how we got in trouble the last time.” If the gods hadn’t been pissed off at the world, then they wouldn’t have all died. The world wouldn’t have ended. They’d still be all human, without safe houses and cheap beer, and Spencer would have his old job at the Amazon warehouse.
If a few people had stopped to give thanks, maybe they wouldn’t have suffered through Genesis at all.
Cassandra lifted her hands in surrender. “You get into a fight with Lincoln, take it outside. We’re not having that in here.”
Javi waved her off. “Nobody’s gonna try to fight us looking like pussy babies who say their widdle prayers before drinking fucking Coors Light.”
“Javi,” Spencer warned.
“I give thanks for my fucking Coors Light,” he said, assuming prayer position again. “I talk crap but I’m happy for it. I’m happy for my life, this world, this ‘beer.’ So I give thanks to NKF.”
“What in the hell was that supposed to be?” The inquiry was said in an unfamiliar voice, gravelly and filled with hot anger.
The person in the jeans.
The man Cassandra identified as Lincoln.
He sat up slowly, his jacket creaking, blond hair slanting across sharp eyes. An arm hung over the back of the booth. He was glaring at Javi and Spencer.
“We’re praying,” Spencer said. “Do you have a problem with it?”
“Fuck, not this again,” muttered a guy down at the end of the bar. He picked up his drink and relocated closer to the surface tunnel.
“Who are you praying to when all the gods are dead?” asked Lincoln.
Spencer silently asked NKF for patience. That was one of the theories going around—that Genesis had been a result of war between gods, and that both sides lost. All the gods were dead now.
They were wrong. Spencer had seen death come upon him, he’d seen the dawn on Day Zero. He knew what it was to believe.
He drained his Coors, shoved the glass aside. “I take it you haven’t heard about NKF yet.” He lifted his wooden cross so that Lincoln could see it. The aluminum clasp caught the fading sunlight topside, making it glow where it draped over his fist. “The god who made us all what we are now. Shifters and sidhe, vampires and witches.”
“Is that right?” Lincoln asked. He pushed out of the booth and came upright. The man was a little above average in most ways. A little prettier than most men, yet a little more rugged; a little more thick-built but also a little taller. Just good enough to catch looks from Cassandra, even though he also looked like he hadn’t showered since Genesis. “How d’you know anything about what’s going on with the gods? You think you’re some kind of prophet?”
“I’m just a follower,” Spencer said. “Javi too.”
“Oh, so that’s how it is? We’re both doing this?” Javi asked. He’d come to recognize NKF more reluctantly, only because Spencer dragged him to worship on Sundays. He’d heard the stories. He believed too. But he wasn’t ready to face some ripped drunk dude over it.
Spencer didn’t think Lincoln would present much of a threat. He was swaying where he stood and it didn’t seem to be a result of alcohol. The man smelled like he’d never touched a drop of hard liquor. He didn’t have the sallow, sagging look of an alcoholic, either. But it had to be something. Everybody was on something to get through life these days.
A quick sniff told Spencer that Lincoln wasn’t a shifter. Wasn’t a vampire. He smelled like human man, unwashed and unshaven and unmotivated.
“God is dead,” Lincoln said. “You disrespect the man by praying to false idols.”
“Are *you* a prophet?” Spencer shot back.
“No,” he said, “but I dated the bitch who killed God, and she told me all about it.”
Spencer and Javi exploded into laughter.
Lincoln wasn’t laughing.
After a moment, it didn’t seem funny. Spencer shot a questioning look at Cassandra. She just shrugged.
“NKF appeared as a vision to people in Genesis,” Spencer said. “There are witnesses. The sidhe gentry—”
“Magic fags, all of them.” Lincoln spit on the ground of the bar.
Spencer’s hackles lifted. He went from dubious about this asshole to instantly loathing him. “They witnessed NKF. They’ve got a temple to our God in Alfheimr, and they talk to him, so his existence is fact.” He dropped off his barstool, cracked his knuckles. “You got a problem with fags?”
“Or just magic fags?” Javi asked. Now he was looming at Spencer’s side, equally offended.
“I got a problem with disrespecting God’s law,” Lincoln said. “The guy might be dead, but that doesn’t mean you should be spreading blasphemy and getting up to unholy bullshit. Leviticus was real clear about men laying with men. Now, my ex-girlfriend—the Godslayer—she said that the Bible was a book of man, not a word of God. But she did go out of her way climbing to Heaven in order to kill God. Maybe I shouldn’t have listened to her about much of anything.” He scratched the blond scruff on his jaw and gave a mirthless grin, a baring of teeth. “I’m gonna trust the Book.”
“Can you believe this dick?” Spencer elbowed his friend. “You hearing any of the shit he says?”
“Take it outside,” Cassandra called.
Lincoln stepped closer to them. When he passed through the last beam of fading sunlight, Spencer saw why he was swaying. The guy was already bruised in a few visible places. It was probably worse in the places his clothes covered. He was swaying from broken bones, struggling to breathe with cracked ribs.
But he didn’t smell like prey.
Spencer didn’t have a lot of experience as a shifter, but he’d run across enough injured people to know that weakness made them smell like prey. Didn’t take much. A broken bone in the foot, a mild flu. Anything that slowed them down and made them vulnerable. Just a whiff of it got Spencer’s animal stirring with frightening hunger, and sent him running to an OPA support group for shifters.
Sniffing Lincoln’s sweat and hair didn’t give Spencer any sense of weakness.
“Are you smelling me?” Lincoln asked.
Spencer had drawn nearer the man’s shoulder by force of habit. His animal liked greeting other shifters by smelling their necks, right behind the ear, along the hairline. And his animal was curious about this limping not-prey. “If you don’t like gay people then I bet you don’t like me getting in your face like this, huh?” Spencer kept his tone tauntingly soft. “Am I gay? What do you think I’ll do, suck your dick? Or are you afraid you’ll wanna suck *my* dick?”
Lincoln shoved him.
Had Spencer braced himself, he wouldn’t have moved an inch, much less stepped back. Lincoln pushed with human strength. But Spencer allowed himself to be rocked back, and he turned to Javi.
“That was a push,” Spencer said.
“Looked like aggression to me,” Javi said.
“Take it outside,” Cassandra said again.
And Spencer would have listened to her. He’d have walked away from this blond asshole in a heartbeat, since it was about time to get to a shifter safe house anyway.
Then Lincoln said, “If there’s still a Hell, I know at least two reasons you’re going there.”
So Javi punched Lincoln.
“Hey,” Spencer said. “That was my shot.”
Lincoln dropped, and Spencer smashed his heel into Lincoln’s gut.
“Fuck!” Cassandra leaped over the bar, yanking long linen ribbons along with her. Magic surged over the runes stitched into the cloth. “He’s human, you fuck-rods!”
“Homophobic too,” Javi said, delivering a bonus kick to Lincoln’s jaw.
“He’s *human*,” she hissed. She shoved between the man on the ground and the shifters standing over him, flinging her arms out to guard him. “And it’s sundown.”
There was no light left in the hole leading to the road.
“Shit,” Spencer breathed.
He grabbed his jacket, grabbed Javi’s arm.
“I already called the OPA,” Cassandra said, checking Lincoln for a pulse. “You know I have to report preternatural crime against mundanes. You know I do. And I warned you. You better not be here when an agent shows up. Nearest safe house is—”
“I know,” Spencer said.
They ran.


Lincoln swam to consciousness with Cassandra the bartender looming over him. She was a pretty enough lady, with big eyes and a little bow for a mouth. Too young for Lincoln. Too much like his kid cousin. She was slapping him gently across the face with her mouth moving, but all he heard was ringing.
When his ears cleared, she was saying, “The ambulance should be here before curfew.”
An ambulance.
Lincoln wasn’t getting in an ambulance.
He shoved away from her, rolled onto all fours. His skull pressed down on his eyeballs and his stomach pressed up against his throat. Cassandra didn’t help him stand, but she backed up to give him room. She had that look of frustrated helplessness again.
“You shouldn’t move,” she said. “They got you good this time. Better than Gutterman did.” Lincoln still had the bruises from that beating. It had a compounding effect. One beating atop another to scramble his neurons. “Hold still until the ambulance arrives.”
“No ambulance,” he said, leaning over the bar to get a water bottle. He fumbled in his pockets for cash. Lincoln had a dollar or two. He was sure of it. “Damn, Cass, can you find my wallet?”
“Just take it. Swear to God—whichever God, I don’t fucking care—you get into those fights because you *want* your ass kicked,” Cassandra said.
“Only a crazy man would want to get beat by shifters,” Lincoln said.
“Then what’s that make you?”
“A winner,” he said. He didn’t find cash in his pocket but he did find what he’d grabbed from Javi before falling. Lincoln lifted the chain and the wooden cross dangling at the end.
Cassandra flung her hands in the air. “Try getting your ass kicked in someone else’s bar once or twice!”
He lurched up the tunnel, lukewarm bottle pressed to his forehead. He couldn’t see much of anything. Couldn’t navigate through the rebar and rubble without slipping. He put the cross in his pocket to free a hand. It felt like he had to climb to the street, even though he knew it was real possible to walk the distance.
Ambulance lights whirled at the end of the street. He pitched the opposite direction, away from the ambulance, up the road toward Virginia.
It was Lincoln’s lucky day. Nine out of ten emergency calls didn’t get a response nowadays. Between first responders failing to return from Genesis, organizational collapse, and the frequency of crime, more people died while sitting on the line with a dispatcher than ever saw those red and blue lights.
But Lincoln was lucky.
So fucking lucky.
Maybe if everyone had woken up one day preternatural, the world could have continued the way it used to. They’d have found jobs for the werewolves and the faeries and vampires. Gotten them nice and integrated. Made them into cops and EMTs and made sure the world kept spinning.
Except people had died without coming back, too.
There were millions of orphans. Millions of businesses suddenly unstaffed. Millions of empty homes and grieving widows.
And a whole lotta folks had turned preternatural on top of that.
It was too much all at once. The world couldn’t keep spinning.
Civilization had kind of stopped.
So Lincoln wasn’t the only aimless soul on the streets of Reno, most of the time. Like most, he didn’t have a home to go back to. On Day Zero, he’d come back into his skin in Reno, Nevada—a city far from what he regarded as his stomping grounds—and without public transit working right, he wasn’t going to get far anytime soon.
In better years he’d heard Reno equated with whores, easy divorce, and gambling. In the worse years, he’d heard about its demon apocalypse. From what he knew, back in 2009—before anyone knew demons and angels were real, before anyone knew that God was on a one-way trip to murder town—there had been a visit from some kind of devil who essentially dropped the city into a sinkhole, rendering it permanently inhabitable.
The city Lincoln staggered through wasn’t in a sinkhole anymore. Not a literal one, anyhow. He’d never seen a city with so many bars. Never seen so many strip clubs, casinos, and homeless filth smeared across the gutters.
Except that these pits of sin had lost employees too. Only a couple of the casinos had opened part of their floors, and mostly just so that they could try to figure out how much was missing. In the meantime, every oversized casino sign was advertising mandatory Office of Preternatural Affairs “services” available to city residents.
“Gold eyes? No problem!” In the photograph on the banner, a model was grinning and pointing toward a structure that looked like a squat stucco house. “Check into your local safe house every full moon and new moon!”
Golden eyes were the universal symbol of shifters. Some of them had silver eyes, but they were the good kind, the type with more control over their animals. Or so they said. There was a push from silver-eyed shifters to be exempted from the brand new regulations saying all shifters had to spend their moons in safe houses.
The ad made it look real nice. Lincoln had stopped to stare at one of those billboards before, drinking in the sight of the flowers lining the sidewalks, the friendly signage, the beautiful model. There were three safe houses around downtown and midtown Reno alone. One on First, one on North McCarran, one over on Plumb. None of them had flowers.
The government was especially struggling to manage a world with thousands of shifters that hadn’t been there before. They’d commandeered bunkers, warehouses, anywhere with barred windows that could hold supernaturally strong people who didn’t know how to control their beasts.
The law said shifters needed to go to such safe houses.
But some of them didn’t.
Some did, but broke out.
Hence the curfew.
The sun had dropped behind Harrah’s, casting the streets in blue-black shadow. The Aces stadium darkened as Lincoln trudged past. He didn’t have to look up to see the big baseball over the ticket stands go dark; it had been bright enough to glint gold on the sidewalk where he stared. Arroyo darkened when he walked past too, and so did the signs outside an art studio, until the only light left on the street was from those damn OPA billboards.
“Answer the call!” A staggeringly attracting man was beckoning toward the camera. He looked like his skin was glowing on the inside. He had wings like a butterfly. “Get screened for sidhe blood at United Health Services!”
Lincoln heard voices behind him.
“It’s him again. Is he following us?”
“Don’t, Javi.”
His night was getting luckier. Turning away from the ambulance meant Lincoln had accidentally gone the same way as Spencer and Javi. They were ahead of him, looking back his way, golden eyes glinting in the casino billboard lights.
Lincoln got to the corner—a pay by the week motel with an art deco sign and a blinking light that said “VACANCY.” Most of the hotel rooms were dark. He’d break into one of them, sleep as long as he could behind the bed. They’d probably give him a room free if he asked, since the government claimed to reimburse hotels that accommodated people displaced by Genesis, but Lincoln didn’t want to ask. Not for that, not for anything else.
“Just keep walking,” Spencer said, trying to push his friend.
Javi resisted. “But he took my cross!”
“I’ll give you mine, all right? The safe house—”
“Hey! Asshole!”
That was all the warning Lincoln had. One shouted insult, a couple fast-pounding footsteps, and then Javi struck.
Brick wall met face.
Stars exploded through Lincoln, hot and sick and tasting like the stale canned lima beans he’d eaten two days earlier.
They were going to kill him this time.
Lincoln was going to die.
Lying there on the pavement, looking at the shifters’ legs as they swung and kicked and knocked his teeth out of alignment, he thought he saw a third person watching over him. A woman wearing black leather and a disapproving frown. He remembered the way her colorless skin had tasted when he fucked her in the shower, damp and sweaty and a little like blood, and he remembered her flat tone perfectly too. *Seriously, Linc? You’re just going to sit there?*
“They’re shifters,” Lincoln tried to say. Something jagged touched his lip. Broken molar. He spit it into the pool of blood. “Can’t fight back.”
He could have fought back. He could have avoided a fight impossible to win in the first place.
*Seriously, Linc?*
“Ask him where he put it,” Spencer said, hanging back, looking nervously around the street.
“Where’d you put it?” Javi asked. His voice writhed within Lincoln’s skull.
“Put what?” Lincoln asked.
Wrong answer.
Javi picked him up, and the change in orientation hurt worse than the impacts at this point.
Lincoln took a fist to the jaw. Felt like he should have been decapitated by the force of it. His head stayed on his shoulders, which meant that the shifters were being gentle. They could have turned his skull into a rotten watermelon with a blow. They wanted him to hurt, not die.
He had the dying part covered anyway. Javi let go of him and he stumbled again, caught in Spencer’s tree trunk arms.
The pale-fleshed woman wasn’t really there, but her annoyance felt so real. She was the only clear thing in a foggy world. She was in sharp focus, from her breasts piled atop the steel bones of her corset to the slick black hair slithering over one shoulder.
*You’re better than this, Linc.*
“I’m not,” he said.
“We don’t have time for this,” Spencer said. “Sorry Javi.”
Lincoln almost relaxed, thinking he was about to be freed, left to stagger to wherever he ended up next.
Instead he took a knee to the gut.
It was instinct to bend over at the impact, folding in half, but that put his face at the right level to take another jab. He was reeling so hard from that he didn’t even realize he’d been thrown into the street until his vision cleared and he saw the yellow double line under his head.
“Hurry,” Javi said to his friend.
Their retreating shapes were blurry and dark. Shadows in dusk. Not shifters, not men. Just the dark dreams that chased Lincoln everywhere he went.
*Seriously, Linc?*
He didn’t try to get up.
From the way it felt, Lincoln suspected he had broken ribs. Inhaling was like taking a knife to the collarbone. But his hand slid into his jacket, and he felt a cold aluminum chain wrapped around cheap wood, and he knew he’d kept the crucifix.
It was some kind of victory. Maybe not a victory that made anything better, but a victory that scuffed dirt in the eyeball of some blaspheming piece of shit clinging to lies after Genesis.
“You killed him,” Lincoln told his ex-girlfriend.
The Godslayer shrugged. *That doesn’t mean there aren’t any gods left, does it? You didn’t need to pick a fight.*
Lights swam over Lincoln.
His whole head was ringing like a bell, so it took him a minute to realize he heard sirens.
A tire stopped in front of him. Boots dropped out of a car. Black-gloved hands grabbed his arms, hauled him upright. Lincoln found himself face-to-face with someone whose eyes were a normal shade of brown, with thick brows at a disapproving slant. He wore a black suit with a silver pentacle pinned to the lapel. He was an OPA agent.
The agent’s mouth moved. Lincoln could hear just enough to figure out what he was saying.
“Are you aware it’s seventeen minutes past curfew?”
Lincoln opened his mouth, vomited on the agent, and blacked out.

COLLAPSE

Forbidden Witches

Book Cover: Forbidden Witches
Part of the Tarot Witches series:
Editions:Kindle: $ 3.99 USD
ISBN: B00QU3MCSE
Pages: 223
Audiobook: $ 17.95 USD
ISBN: B00TKJZVPQ
Paperback: $ 9.99 USD
ISBN: 1505400422
Size: 8.00 x 5.00 in
Pages: 222

In a week, straight A student and total good girl Leah Todd is supposed to graduate with her bachelor’s degree. Then she receives a mysterious tarot card in the mail and everything changes.

The tarot card seems to serve as a VIP ticket into a show by a metal band called The Forbidden. She’s never heard of them before, but the instant she lays eyes on the lead singer, Rage, she knows that she’s much more than a fan. She’s found where she needs to be.

Weirder still, the band agrees. They’ve been waiting for a tarot witch like Leah to save Graham, a dying werewolf, by mating with him. The problem is that Leah’s not a witch, she doesn’t believe in magic, and she quickly falls for the wrong werewolf. But Donne doesn’t seem to return the feelings. In fact, he might kind of hate her.

As high priest of his coven, Rage has solutions for Leah. All she needs to do is surrender her life to the coven, the werewolf pack…and to him.

Published:
Publisher: Red Iris Books
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Excerpt:

Did I mention that the last concert I’d seen outside of my temple’s holiday productions had been The Backstreet Boys? Because that was the last major concert I’d seen.

It didn’t prepare me for watching The Forbidden perform.

The music began with heavy drums. Lights blazed to life underneath me, revealing a man sitting at the center of the drum kit. He only had two arms and two drum sticks—hardly the dozen drummers I’d imagined would be required to play such a huge instrument.

His hands moved so fast that it looked like he had a thousand limbs. He slammed out a beat that I could feel deep in my chest, pumped out over the giant speakers, magnified for the entire stadium to hear.

That primal sound set my blood on fire and sucked all my breath away.

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Distantly, I was aware that I was leaning so far forward that I had almost fallen off of Storm’s lap. He chuckled. The drums were loud enough that I could only feel the motion of his chest behind me, not hear the sound.

I didn’t care if he was laughing at me. The alcohol was too heady, the music too overwhelming.

Now there was a bass line with the drums, and a man sauntered onto the stage who looked a lot like the drummer—narrow-shouldered, pale-skinned, and dark-eyed. Both had hair so long that it brushed their knees. But their coifs weren’t ratty, like the hippie guys at my college. These guys had hair like sheets of shimmering silk. All that hair should have made them look feminine, but it didn’t. Even with makeup, they were incredibly masculine.

My heart had skipped a beat or six at the music they created together. I gripped the edge of the balcony, gasping for air as I watched the bassist’s fingers pluck out a rhythm in time with the drums.

Fire erupted at the edge of the stage. It was so hot that I could feel it all the way up in the balcony. My internal eight-year-old Leah had completely vanished sometime around the first glass of liquor, so all I felt was an overpowering sense of awe.

The audience in the stadium screamed. They weren’t awed. They were exhilarated.

It sounded like they were about to riot.

When the fire finally dropped again, there was one more man on stage.

I had never seen a guy more gorgeous than this one. He looked like a painting rendered in adoring detail by one of the great masters, with all of the perfect musculature, the full lips, the dimpled chin. His eyes were rimmed with black kohl. His hair, long enough to brush his chiseled jaw, had been smeared with glitter that made him shimmer under the stage lights.

His bared chest muscles were completely covered in tattoos, all the way from collarbone to the place his waist sloped into his hips. They curved in abstract patterns around his abs and made spikes digging into his ribs. His arms were covered, too.

I wondered what other tattoos his leather pants might be hiding, and immediately blushed for thinking such a thing.

I’d seen him backstage, although he’d been wearing a shirt at the time. It was the man who had been staring at me as Road Crew led me up to the VIP balcony. Now he wore a guitar slung low over his shoulder so that the instrument was by his hips.

He was the lead singer.

“Rage,” Storm whispered into my ear. “His name is Rage.”

Rage caught the microphone in one hand, and he began to sing.

The words didn’t make any sense to me. I’m sure he was singing in English. I’m sure they were words that I knew, too. I was an English major, after all, and my vocabulary was a force to be reckoned with.

But my brain didn’t want to process the lyrics. It was like he sang pure emotion into my chest.

I understood why they called him Rage.

The song he played on his guitar, backed by those wicked drums—it made rage build in my chest like I was angry for whatever crimes had been committed against this guy. I felt his anger and I liked it.

It wasn’t just anger. His power chords switched to flats, making a bittersweet melody that evoked an aching deep within my heart.

I lost myself in that music. And I lost myself in the sight of Rage’s face as he chugged on his guitar. He was beautiful to behold, like a work of art come to life.

The music built toward a crescendo as he screamed. My legs clenched together, and I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to suppress the climax that I felt building.

Oh my goodness. Just the freaking music was going to make me orgasm.

Here. In front of all these people I didn’t know.

I’d only ever touched myself a couple times, hesitantly exploring the parts of my body that my roommate’s steamy romance novels called “rosebud” and “moist center,” things that the anatomy books gave much uglier names. It was too overwhelming for me to have done anything more than once or twice.

Now I was on the brink just by listening to music.

Oh. My. Goodness.

A feminine voice whispered in my ear. “You’re thinking too much. Stop thinking.” It was Ravyn. She tried to hand me a drink, but my hands were shaking too hard to take it.

She laughed at my awkwardness, the sound inaudible under the pounding music, and tipped my chin back with a finger so that she could pour the alcohol into my mouth.

At first, I balked. I tried to close my lips. Liquor slid down my chin.

Then I drank.

Oh my gosh, did I drink, taking long swallows that filled my stomach with the heat of the alcohol. I was so thirsty.

The alcohol hit me immediately.

The balcony blurred as someone took my hand, spinning me off of Storm’s lap into a dance. I glimpsed Ravyn’s face flashing through the strobe, reducing her joyous laughter to a jerky motion play.

Hips ground against mine from behind, driving someone’s erection hard against my pelvis. I knew what that was. I wasn’t that innocent. But my normal embarrassment was nowhere to be found, and I pushed back, dancing in time with him.

Ravyn’s hands clutched my waist, pressing her breasts to mine.

My head fell back, and I laughed.

The music went on for what could have been an eternity.

Rage rocked through me. Rage and exhilaration and excitement and…hunger. A deep, carnal hunger that I’d never felt before.

For some reason, I found myself thinking of Road Crew with his black t-shirt and red mohawk staring at my chest. I thought that if he’d joined us up on the balcony at that moment, I might not have been able to resist the urge to dance with him, too. Maybe do a lot more than dance.

Liquor flowed. Bodies danced.

I forgot my shame, my fear, and all I knew was the music.

If only Chad could see me now…

Time faded into a blur of music, alcohol, and dancing. I fell from the arms of one fan to those of the next—Ravyn and then to Storm, then over to a woman calling herself Phoenix, and a man who didn’t tell me his name. I let the beat move me. I’d always been too self-conscious to dance, but it felt good with these people. It felt right.

At some point, I thought that maybe, just maybe, Chad had been right to drag me out of the house after all.

We were having so much fun that I didn’t notice when the music stopped. It was easy to miss, since the fans never quit dancing. The drinks still flowed, and now we moved to the beat of our blood.

Only the touch of firm, rough hands on my arms brought me down from my high.

I twisted to see that Road Crew had come back again. It was hard to focus on his square features through my tipsy haze, but my cheeks immediately flushed at the sight of him.

I’d been thinking about Road Crew ever since the moment that he left me with the fans. Those thoughts had become increasingly dirty with every ounce of alcohol Ravyn poured down my throat.

Now he was here again, holding on to my arms, and he was even more ruggedly handsome than I’d remembered in his absence. It seemed impossible that a man could be so darn chiseled.

My thighs were clenching at the sight of him. His eyes were so penetrating that it felt like he should have been able to look through my skull and see all those dirty thoughts.

It was so presumptuous of me to think about climbing into Road Crew’s lap, grinding myself against him, exploring the parts of his body I’d always been too embarrassed to explore on my ex-boyfriend. I mean, it’s downright rude to fantasize about someone you’re not involved with. Isn’t it?

But my fingers crawled up his neck, tracing his cheekbones and ears and hairline. I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t get him out of my mind and I didn’t want to get him off of my skin.

I wasn’t shy about touching what I wanted to touch now. Ravyn and Storm and the gang had taken my sense of shame away for the moment.

His expression remained rigid as I touched him.

“Is it over?” I asked, stumbling over the words. “Is it time to go home?”

“No,” Road Crew said. He steered me back toward the stairs, and I stumbled after him, held upright only by the mercy of his incredibly thick biceps.

Ravyn noticed that I was being abducted. She cried out with complaint. “The kitten’s having fun! Let her stay and have fun!”

Road Crew’s response was curt. “Rage wants to examine her.”

A giggle slipped from my lips. “Examine me? What, is he a doctor or something?” Goodness, I was drunk. “I had this really hot doctor once. Um, he was actually a pediatrician—the guy I saw when I was like, you know, sixteen years old, and ancient Dr. Ermine retired, so the new guy wasn’t even thirty, and…” What in the world was I saying? “Rage can totally examine me. That’s what I’m getting at.” Yeah, I didn’t sound drunk at all.

I almost slipped down the stairs. Blame Chad’s stupid drag queen heels.

Road Crew’s steadying grip kept my ankle from twisting.

“Careful,” he growled, fingertips digging into my elbows. He looked angry that I’d almost fallen. “Don’t hurt yourself.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry. Be careful trying to handle me. We don’t want your mohawk getting hurt.”

“How much did they give you to drink?”

“I don’t know. A couple.” Another giggle. I couldn’t stop giggling. I might never stop giggling. “I feel nice, Road Crew. Really nice.”

“Road Crew,” he muttered, hefting me off of my feet.

Oh my goodness. I weighed a lot, and he could pick me up like I was nothing.

He practically carried me down the stairs into the darkness backstage, barely allowing the soles of my shoes to brush the floor.

The post-concert disassembly was chaotic. Reporters were cordoned off behind a line of tape, prevented from entering the crew-only area by a bunch of muscular men.

Those reporters had cameras. Someone could easily take my picture and publish it somewhere, in some newspaper or on some celebrity blog, and my mom could see it. She could know that I’d been drinking.

Luckily, I’d had enough to drink that even that thought didn’t bring me off of my high.

The crew that wasn’t holding off reporters were already breaking down, packing up, taking the equipment back out the way they had come. The tour buses would be waiting in the parking lot, along with a lot of eager fans desperate to meet the band, and—hopefully—my friend Chad.

Yet I wasn’t guided back to that dark hallway and the freedom beyond. I was taken to another room in the back corner. Its walls were painted black. The floor was concrete. There were a couple of folding tables in the corner.

Road Crew stepped inside with me. He cupped my face in both of his hands, searching me with his eyes. “Calm down, kid. You need to be calm. Can you do that for me?”

Somehow, I stopped giggling. “What’s going on?” I asked, swaying against him.

Road Crew gently dislodged me. The fact that he could handle me like that, firmly but without causing any pain, seemed incredible given his raw size. “Rage is going to inspect you. Wait for him here.”

He shoved the door shut again.

Suddenly, I was alone.

“Hey, Fabio, where’d you go?” I asked, trying to open the door.

It was locked from the other side.

The warmth of alcohol burned from my veins awfully fast, and worry filled the void where that buzz had been. I’d been having so much fun with the fans upstairs that I’d forgotten how weird the whole situation was in the first place.

I wanted Chad. I wanted the safety of his car. I wanted a ride back to the dorms and to snuggle up under my down comforter.

But the door wouldn’t open.

“What did you think of my show?”

I whirled, flattening my back against the locked door. Ooh, don’t move that fast. Whipping around made my head swim like I was on a cruise ship rocked by a storm.

“Your show?” I echoed. The room was too dark for me to see who had spoken.

Soft footsteps, like bare feet padding against the carpet, whispered through the shadow. “I saw you on the balcony with my people. I watched you, watching me. Did you like it?”

That deep, husky voice. I recognized it even through the alcohol’s fog.

I swallowed hard, but my mouth was almost too dry to speak. “Are you…?”

A man slipped into the edge of the single floodlight brightening the room. It illuminated his feet first, then slid up the black leather pants that hugged his thighs, his hips, and then highlighted the curves of his muscular chest.

My heart started pounding when I saw those distinctive tattoos. They curved around his pectorals, scraped at his ribs with sharp fingers, outlined his abs. It drew my eyes from the dark circles of his nipples down to his navel.

Then he took one more step forward, and I could see his face.

My eyes snapped up to his. There he was—this man that I had just been watching below me on the stage, his image projected a thousand times on giant screens as he screamed and sang into a microphone, pushing my body toward an unwilling climax.

He looked even angrier up close. I guess that was why they called him what they did: Rage. Like he wasn’t a man at all, but a force of pure anger locked inside a human body.

A really sexy human body that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the cover of my roommate’s romance novels.

This was the guy who all those reporters were dying to meet, but weren’t permitted to approach. Chad would have sawed off a body part to be in that room with him. Or sucked off a body part.

But the reporters and Chad and a million loyal fans of The Forbidden weren’t in that room.

It was me. Just me.

Leah Todd, too drunk to say anything that wouldn’t sound stupid.

Somehow, I managed to talk. “Thank you for the ticket.”

He prowled toward me, allowing me to get a closer look at the sleeves tattooed from his shoulders, down his biceps, to encircle his wrists. On his right arm, he had jagged forests, a dark sky, a full moon. All of it swirled with inky smoke as though the entire mountain was on fire.

These weren’t abstractions, like what he had on his chest. They were masterful works of art that evoked a frightening night in the wilderness as fire closed in on me. I could almost hear the howling of wolves over the crackling of flames.

And then Rage was there. Standing right in front of me. So close that I could feel his breath, so close that I could have touched him if I lifted my hands.

His face was shadowed as he gazed down at me. The spotlight shining behind him rimmed his hair and shoulders.

“Ticket?” he finally asked.

Did he want to see it? Proof that I was allowed backstage to meet the band?

I pulled The Hierophant out again. “This…” I couldn’t manage to get more than a single word out. I couldn’t feel my cheeks. Or my teeth, for that matter. Could I ever feel my teeth?

What I wouldn’t have given for a little more sobriety.

Rage, oblivious to the worrying status of my teeth, sucked in a breath at the sight of the tarot card. “May I hold it?”

Why was he asking me? “It’s your ticket.”

The lead singer took it from me, almost reverently. The tattoo sleeve on his other arm, the left one, didn’t match the right. It had a group of indistinct human figures swirling around a five-pointed star.

There were flames, sure, but there were also crashing waves, clouds, flowers sprouting from the earth. Blood dripped from the humans onto the pentagram.

Wolves on one side, witches on the other. This guy was occult all over.

I was never going to invite him to spend Thanksgiving with my family.

He studied the card as closely as Road Crew had, like there was nothing in the world but him and The Hierophant. “This is no ticket,” Rage said. “This is an invitation.”

“To your concert?”

“To something much, much greater than that.” He handed the card back to me and brushed his lips over the back of my hand. “Take care of the card. It came to you, and it’s yours now—for the rest of your life.”

His lips lingered on my skin. It was like he’d kissed me somewhere much more intimate. My knees pressed together, squeezing my thighs.

“Why? What does it mean?” I hoped he didn’t notice how breathy my voice was getting.

“It means that you’re like me.” Rage brushed his knuckles along the line of my jaw. My eyes fell shut. It was too overwhelming to look at him when I could already feel his touch throughout my entire body. “We’re the same. But you—you’re so much more. You have The Hierophant. You’re one of us, and one of them.”

I was pretty sure that I had absolutely nothing in common with Rage. I definitely wasn’t better than him. I wasn’t a rock star who could fill entire stadiums with my presence.

But I didn’t want to argue with him. I wanted him to like me the same way that I wanted the people in the booth to like me.

He hooked his arm around my waist, pulling me flush against his chest. I was locked in place as his other hand took possession of my body.

Rage explored my curves as though we’d already been involved much more intimately than as lead singer and new fan. His fingers darted between the laces of my corset and raked the furrow of my spine. He cupped my ass, crumpled my skirt in his fist, jerked my hips hard against his.

It was the inspection that Road Crew had promised. An incredibly physical inspection. I had a feeling Chad would have approved of it.

My whole body was burning hot. Embarrassment coupled with arousal. Nobody touched me like that, not even my former boyfriends, but Rage made it seem so casual. He wasn’t offering to have sex. He was sizing me up, taking stock of my body, seeing what he had to work with.

“Not a mark on your body—or on your soul, for that matter. You’re still so pure. So human.” Before I could ask what he meant by that, he abruptly changed the subject. “I’m going to show you something. Do you want to see?”

The good girl inside of me who had fought so hard against coming to the concert was dwindling rapidly to nothingness. She was being replaced by a wilder woman, a woman who hungered for Rage’s touch, someone who wasn’t afraid of anything.

It was that woman who groaned at his knee pushing between my thighs, hands splayed over his tattooed chest.

“Yes,” I gasped. “Please…show me everything.”

The fire in his eyes told me that I was going to get exactly what I had asked for.

COLLAPSE

Winter Court

Book Cover: Winter Court
Editions:Kindle: $ 3.99 USD
ISBN: B01759SV7M
Pages: 250
Paperback: $ 13.99 USD
ISBN: 1518798330
Size: 8.00 x 5.00 in
Pages: 340

CEO Pierce Hardwick is testing a cure for lycanthropy. Jaycee Frost, witch and executive assistant, wants to help. But she can’t risk getting too close to her irresistible boss. Ever since that one hot night they shared in the break room—the night before Jaycee realized Pierce would be her new employer—Jaycee has been struggling with her entirely unprofessional attraction toward him.

Then Jaycee receives a magical tarot card, and the message is clear: destiny has plans for her. No matter that Jaycee only wants to achieve professional domination with Hardwick Medical Research. She’s got a bigger job.

And that job might have to do with mating to Pierce Hardwick…

Excerpt:

CHAPTER ONE

As the assistant of one of the most powerful businessmen in the world, I’ve become accustomed to invisibility. Invisibility indicates I’ve done my job well.

I am not Jaycee Frost, executive assistant, graduate from one of those major colleges you’ve heard of before, seeking prestige at the right hand of Pierce Hardwick.

I am the nameless, faceless person who increases the value of Hardwick Medical Research’s stock by making Pierce Hardwick’s life run perfectly.

That’s why it was so strange to get an envelope with my name on it delivered to the office.

My name: “Jaycee Frost.”

READ MORE

Not “Pierce Hardwick, c/o Jaycee Frost,” or “Hardwick Medical Research,” or the name of a department.

“Jaycee Frost” in calligraphic letters, inked so darkly that they were difficult to read against the black A3 vellum envelope.

I turned it over to search for a postmark, a return address, or any indication of who might have sent it to me. There was nothing beyond my name on the front and a crimson wax seal on the back. The seal was unbroken. Nothing entered my office unbroken—not since the anthrax scare.

What the letter was didn’t matter. It was most likely an invitation to some ridiculous charity event, simply misaddressed to me rather than my boss. The fact it had been delivered in such condition was of much greater concern.

I tossed it into the trashcan and pressed the button for the intercom.

“Felicity, please remind the mail boy that we need all mail screened,” I said. I released the button. On second thought, I pressed it again. “And then fire him.”

My heeled pumps clicked against polished tile as I paced to the espresso machine, flipping through the remainder of Pierce’s mail. There wasn’t much. We had gone digital for important communications, and only inter-departmental notices too private to entrust to even our encrypted servers stubbornly maintained a paper trail.

There were lab results, primarily, and other medical minutiae that Pierce found fascinating. He enjoyed digging into that kind of data even though it was hardly a profitable use of his time. I set them aside for his later analysis regardless.

Ordinarily, I would have taken those results to him directly, but Pierce was already in a meeting. His door was closed—a clear sign that he didn’t want me to intrude.

I could just barely make out the shape of his body moving on the other side of the frosted glass. Even when he was nothing more than a blurred silhouette, I could make out the trim lines of his tailored suit, the graceful motion of his arms as he gestured.

There was no early-morning meeting on his agenda. Pierce seldom came in before nine, and never before me. But there was definitely another man in there with him.

Their deep-voiced murmurs made the walls hum faintly.

I made myself an espresso first. If Pierce wasn’t going to allow me to help him with his morning meetings, then he would just have to wait for his coffee. I was an excellent assistant, but not a pushover.

I pulled a jar of blessed cinnamon and nutmeg out of the cabinet and sprinkled it atop my espresso. The jar’s lid had a pentagram on it, which funneled the full moon’s energy into my spices and gave me a little extra mental clarity through the day. The flavor was lovely, too.

Sipping the hot espresso, I gazed out the floor-to-ceiling windows. The Hardwick Medical Research building was taller than everything else for miles. It gave me an excellent view of the rising winter sun and cars inching over the ice-limned streets.

The day’s agenda buzzed through my mind as I surveyed the city—a place where Pierce and I had created thousands of jobs, and crafted medicines to benefit millions.

There were meetings to come, studies to conduct, pharmaceutical agents to brief. No time to linger over my espresso.

I tossed back the remnants and spun to return to my desk.

The toe of my shoe pushed an envelope across the tile.

“What…?”

That heavy parchment envelope was on the floor between my feet. I was certain that I had tossed it in the trash.

I picked it up. I had been too distracted the first time I touched it to recognize the buzz of magic when I traced the edge of the wax seal. That was why I could read the dark-red ink scrolling my name across black vellum, and that was why it had fished itself out of the trash to demand attention at my feet.

“Ah, I see.” I pressed the intercom again. “Have you fired the mail boy yet, Felicity?”

“I’m doing the paperwork and arranging a security detail to escort him out of the building first,” she said. She sounded nervous.

“Shred the paperwork and forget about it. He’s fine.” There was no point in firing the mail boy over a piece of mail that had been magicked to arrive in my mailbox, after all.

Correspondence from my old coven, perhaps?

I glanced at Pierce’s office door. He was still talking to his mysterious guest, and Goddess only knew how long that would take. Unscheduled meetings seemed to be the most time consuming. There would be no harm in reading personal mail while I waited for him.

My thumb slid under the wax seal, breaking it.

There were only two things inside the envelope: a short letter, and a large tarot card.

I read the letter aloud. “‘The wheel of life turns and the Forbidden yearn for a world that no longer exists. Solve the card and you’ll find you can leave this behind and join the rest of us in the mists…’ Hmm.” Forbidden? Mists? If those were magical terms, they weren’t ones that I was familiar with.

The back of the tarot card was patterned with a twisted art deco design, a little too industrial to quite be pretty. The shapes seemed to shift when I turned the card in my fingers. The picture was elaborately drawn, but that didn’t account for the illusion of motion. It must have been more magic.

I turned the card over to examine it.

The Chariot.

I knew The Chariot. It was part of the major arcana—the trump suit of the deck—and it was meant to indicate control in all its forms: being in control of one’s life, collapsing under the pressure of refusing to relinquish control, etcetera.

This was a strange version of the art, though. It wasn’t the Rider-Waite image I was familiar with from early readings with the coven.

There was a man sitting on a chariot, as always, but he was being led forward by only a single sphinx. There were always two creatures. Whoever had designed this card didn’t understand the symbolism well, though everything else was in place, including the square on the charioteer’s chest.

I gazed at his face, which was a hard-edged rectangle with intelligent eyes and sensitive lips.

The charioteer reminded me of Pierce.

And the sphinx—the lioness—she had hair like mine. She was naked, on all fours, fingernails digging into the earth. The entire design was much more sexual than usual.

Strange.

I’d read tarot in the past, just for fun. There was little magic to it. The cards had been designed by a mundane man for gambling centuries earlier, and had since been reproduced by thousands of publishing companies and charlatans for fun. As a method of meditation, scrying, and focus, they were fine. Tarot was not inherently magical, though.

Even so, there was nothing mundane about the strange feeling that came over me when I looked at that picture.

When I shut my eyes, I could imagine kneeling in front of Pierce, harnessed to his Lamborghini as he flicked a whip at my flank.

A man shouted in Pierce’s office, loud enough that the tone penetrated the walls.

My head snapped up. My eyes narrowed.

I stuck the strange tarot card in my desk and was halfway to my boss’s door when it swung open.

Pierce Hardwick emerged.

Even now, after working with him for so long, the sight of him momentarily awed me.

He was a rare kind of man who was even greater than his reputation would suggest. People whispered about how he was as sexy as he was rich, but they were wrong: if raw magnetism could be given a dollar figure, Pierce would be worth far more than his billions. They also called his style “nerd chic” in the tabloids, chalking up his square-framed glasses to fashion, and utterly ignoring the athletic body that slid under the sheath of his perfectly tailored suits.

There was nothing nerdy about the man once he got naked.

The fact that I knew that from firsthand, intimate experience is something I’ve struggled to forget every time I see him, even now, years after that one ill-advised tryst we shared.

I should not have been Jaycee Frost, breathless schoolgirl who couldn’t remember her birthday when her eyes met those of Pierce Hardwick.

I was an executive assistant—the best possible executive assistant—and a consummate professional.

My knees were not shaking as Pierce strode across my office, storm clouds brewing in his wake. A river of fire was not coursing from between my legs to my pounding heart. And I didn’t have to grip the reports tightly in my fists to steady myself.

Pierce carved a path across the office to meet me.

My smile of greeting was practiced and professional. I had spent thousands of dollars to make my teeth as perfect as the rest of my appearance, ensuring that there wouldn’t be so much as a hair out of place. I looked good when photographed behind Pierce. And by looking beautiful, I made myself easily dismissed, forgettable to the powerful men that Pierce met with.

The way that Pierce looked at me, though—I was not invisible, easily dismissed, or forgettable to him.

That was part of the problem.

“Good morning, sir,” I said with chill calm. “I wish you had told me that you had an early meeting this morning. I would have come in earlier.”

“I didn’t tell you for a reason.” Pierce was always prickly in the mornings, and even more so when I didn’t arrive in time to meet him with a double shot of espresso. “I want you to meet an old friend of mine. His name is Rage.”

It was only then that I took a chance to study this “friend.”

I’d been anticipating Pierce to meet with an allied CEO, most of who were entirely interchangeable rich old men.

This man may have been rich, and he was certainly male, but there was nothing interchangeable about him.

Rage was tall, muscular, longhaired. He wore leather as though he was taking a break from a BDSM dungeon to have breakfast with my boss. His chest and stomach were covered in tattoos, though I could only see some of the ink sticking out of his sleeves and the neck of his shirt. I had seen the man naked on several album covers, so I could easily summon the memory of his tattoos no matter how clothed he was.

Rage was the lead singer of a band called the Forbidden. He had been big for decades, ever since his teenage years, and produced so many award-winning albums that he likely picked spinach out of his teeth with a Grammy.

He was well known among witch circles for being one of us: a skilled practitioner of the craft.

His appearance settled one mystery of the morning. He must have left the tarot card and poem for me. I should have realized he’d be involved as soon as I’d read that line about the “Forbidden.”

“An honor to meet you,” I said, shaking his hand.

“Pleasure is all mine,” Rage said. He tried to let his grip linger, which I’m sure he thought would be seductive. To be fair, it probably was seductive to many women. I didn’t allow it.

“How do you prefer your coffee?” My smile remained fixed and professional. Whatever game he was attempting to play with that tarot card, I wouldn’t engage. I was better than that.

“Irish,” he said. “But I don’t have time for that today. I was just…leaving.”

Rage gave a significant look to Pierce.

Wordless communication passed between them.

“I’ll see you soon,” Pierce said.

I held the office door open. Rage slunk outside. Felicity was waiting to take him downstairs, her cheeks a brilliant shade of pink, hands fluttering over the buttons on her blouse’s collar, as though she were considering flinging off her clothes so she could jump on him.

Rage’s gaze skimmed over me one last time, from head to toe.

And then his eyes flicked to the desk drawer where I had hidden the tarot card, though there was no way he could have known where I had hidden it.

The door swung shut, and he was gone.

~~~

It had never been my job to know everything that Pierce was doing. There were happenings at Hardwick Medical Research too classified for even me to know about, such as military contracts or even business with foreign governments. Typically I had no trouble shutting those things out of my mind.

Whatever had gotten Rage worked up in Pierce’s office was too interesting for me to pretend I hadn’t heard it. Too interesting, and too personal, since it had resulted in that magical tarot card tucked in my drawer.

My curiosity warred with my urge to respect Pierce’s privacy.

I brought his double shot of espresso to his desk. He watched me cross the office, eyes narrowed, hands steepled in front of his chiseled features.

The mail that had been delivered that morning was spread across his desk. All of it except the tarot card. He’d moved one lab result to the center of the blotter and been drawing on it in red.

“Problem with the results, sir?” I asked, handing him the cup of espresso.

His right eye twitched when I called him “sir.” Pierce had made it clear a thousand times that he’d prefer less formality between us. “It’s fine. Everything here looks fine.” He shoved the papers into a pile. “What do you know about lycanthropy, Jaycee?”

I concealed my surprise by tidying his papers.

Pierce knew that I was a witch. I had never attempted to make a secret of it, and I had even consulted on establishing the wards that protected the corporation from magical onslaught. But he had made it clear that he preferred all things preternatural and medicine not to intersect. The pharmaceuticals we developed were purely science.

“It’s regarded as a curse,” I said. “The people who are bitten change twice a month, on the new moons and the full. They turn into killer monsters that can only be stopped with silver bullets. Or so I’ve heard. Werewolves are a dying species. Few remain. I’ve never encountered one.”

“I’ve been working on a cure for those who are still around,” he said. “On the side. Not officially.”

Now my curiosity was too strong. Pierce had started out in biosciences, but he didn’t do much hands-on research anymore, despite his insistence on getting elbow-deep in reports for his favorite project of the month. “Is your friend Rage a werewolf?”

“No, but he’s got friends who are. He’s got a personal interest in curing lycanthropy, and whatever Rage has a personal interest in, I do too.” Pierce sat back in the chair with a sigh, ripping the thick-framed glasses off his face. “Rage is the reason I have all of this.” He waved the arm of his glasses at the office. “We went to college together. He was my first and only angel investor.”

“Generous classmate.”

“I owe him big time, but my cures keep failing,” Pierce said. “Nothing is working. Now Rage tells me we’re out of time. A friend of his, Graham—he’s an aging werewolf, and the transformation is killing him. Rage has worked up some magical ways to delay it, but those are failing, too.”

“I could inspect the spells Rage has put into place,” I said. “I may be able to help.”

“It’s still only a delay. We need to be able to cure werewolves.” He glanced at his watch, pushed his chair back. “Cancel everything on my agenda for the day. Everything tomorrow, too. And call the chopper.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “Where should I tell the pilot to take you?”

“Rage’s mansion, up on the coast.”

My lips thinned. I was a witch, so of course I knew that tonight would be the new moon. It was no coincidence that Pierce was rushing to Rage’s house—and all his werewolf friends—on a night like this. “You’re going to attempt to administer a new cure yourself.”

“I owe him everything, Jaycee.” Pierce moved toward his coat rack.

I stepped in his path. “I’m coming.”

“Jaycee,” he said. His hand rested on my wrist.

My heart skipped a beat.

I gazed at the place that our skin touched, and those memories I did my best to push into the back of my mind came raging to the forefront.

The way that he had ripped my blazer open, buttons pinging against the wall.

Pierce’s hot mouth sucking my nipples into peaks.

His fingers scraping up my thighs, seeking the band of my underwear.

I hadn’t been working for him when we’d had that encounter. I had been executive assistant at another company, which Hardwick Medical Research had been in the process of buying. Pierce hadn’t had a clue who I was or that he would inherit me during the transition. And I hadn’t recognized him without the glasses, especially since I’d been at least two bottles deep into my wine drinking for the night.

Pierce was used to being treated reverently, like corporate royalty, so he must have been confused when I’d pushed him into the closet at the office Christmas party. Confused or not, he hadn’t protested when I’d forced him to sit against the shelf while I stroked him to hardness through his slacks.

And then he’d probably been even more confused when I showed up to the official meet-and-greet the next day, perfectly coiffed and hiding my hangover behind a pair of sunglasses.

One night. One intense, smoking night together before we’d ever worked together.

Biggest mistake of my life.

As I’ve said, I was a consummate professional. I didn’t sleep with coworkers. I certainly didn’t sleep with my bosses.

Of course, as Pierce had later pointed out, we hadn’t done any sleeping at all on that night.

He had a good sense of humor about it. But I always steered the conversation away from that night whenever he brought it up, just to be safe, just as I always called him “sir” or “Mr. Hardwick” to properly distance myself from him.

We’d had a fantastic working relationship for the last four years. We were a team. The best damn team.

Even so, when he touched me, it was hard not to think about how he had felt moving inside of me. Even drunk on wine, I had committed rolling that condom over him and guiding Pierce’s cock into my body to permanent memory. I remembered the taste of cognac on his lips and the scrape of his stubble against my chin.

I especially remembered the low groan he’d given when he’d spent himself—easily the most delicious sound I’d ever heard.

Pierce’s fingers were still on my wrist.

I drew my hand back.

“You need me,” I said.

His eyebrow arched.

I cleared my throat. “You need help if you’re going to administer experimental treatment to werewolves. Lycanthropy is likely to be as magical as it is physical. It’s not as though we’re trying to annihilate cancer. You need a witch. I’m the best witch at the company.”

A smile slanted across his mouth. “You’re probably the only witch.”

His fingers slipped across my inner wrist, as though feeling for a pulse. Or else I was the one drifting toward him, and he was just responding.

Either way, it wasn’t professional.

“Dennis, the mail boy,” I said. “He’s a witch.”

Pierce’s smile faded a fraction. Fierceness sparked in the warm brown pools of his eyes. “Dennis? You know Dennis very well?”

“I know everyone in this building well.” It helped ensure Pierce didn’t need to know them. “Dennis wouldn’t be able to help you on the trip. I would. I’m coming to help you test the cure on the werewolves.”

“Okay,” Pierce said. He whipped his jacket off of the hook. “Get in the helicopter.”

COLLAPSE