Against the Dawn (Shaede Assassin #4)

Against the Dawn (Shaede Assassin #4)

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Publisher: NYLA

Release Date: May 20th, 2014

Six months can feel like a just couple of weeks when you’ve been away in another realm. Literally.

Now that Darian is back in Seattle, she’s ready to face the life—and the man—she left behind. But it’s not going to be easy when a ghost from her past shows up looking to wreak havoc on Seattle’s supernatural crime scene.

Darian isn’t as careless as she used to be, though. She and Tyler, her sexy Jinn protector, have come a long way in the trust department. And it’s a good thing too—because when Ty contracts her to assassinate a wickedly powerful supernatural who goes by the name of Mithras, it will take all her faith in Ty, and herself, to get the job done.

While Darian does whatever it takes to get to her mark, Xander, the Shaede King is busy making plans of his own. With Darian’s attention divided between Lorik’s secrets and her mission she might not be able to stop Xander from doing anything in his power to separate Darian from her sworn protector and in the process, destroy his own kingdom…

 

EXCERPT:

Chapter One

“I wish you didn’t have to leave so soon.”

That made two of us. I gave Brakae a sad smile that I doubt she noticed as she directed her attention back to the issue of Vogue that she thumbed through for the hundredth time since I’d brought it O Anel. I came here in the first place to take a break from reality and get my head on straight. Problem was, it was time for me to return to the mortal realm, and I didn’t feel much better than I had when I arrived.

“I still can’t believe the fashions women wear in your world,” Brakae mused, her voice sounding younger than the centuries she could claim. “When you come back will you bring me more Honey Nut Cheerios? They’re delicious.”

“Food of the gods,” I agreed solemnly.

I’d learned a lot about the Faerie Realm in the brief time I’d been here. There was so much more to this place than I thought I knew. Chaos ruled here. Even time flowed at a different pace depending on where in the Faerie Realm you happened to be. If you ventured too close to Kotja A’ma, the fount from which time sprang, minutes passed in the blink of an eye as if time itself were being sucked into a swirling vortex. The further away you moved, the more time slowed. I looked around Brakae’s spacious cottage, which was situated in a small village miles away from Kotja A’ma. I was still amazed by this strange land that had seemed so barren to me the first time I’d been here.

When Faolán dragged me along on his quest to merge the human world with the Faerie Realm, I’d thought that O Anel was nothing more than fields of endless tall grass and densely treed forests. But beyond the land that was closest to Kotja A’ma—the true faerie ring—were outcroppings of civilization. Villages and towns populated with all sorts of preternatural beings. This far from the ring, the chaos was less noticeable. The seasons had a rhythm all their own and the sun rose and set to mark the passage of another day. But the land was encased in an aura that felt a little…off to me. It could have been the magic that the Fae used regularly. Or it simply could have been that even though it was my job to guard the doorway to O Anel, it was not my home. No, I belonged in the mortal realm.

A couple of weeks spent in Brakae’s village equaled months at home. By my estimation, I’d been here for about six months. Two weeks here, one half of a year passed in Seattle. Some vacation. The details of what had happened to me back at my apartment would have become nothing but a hazy memory to everyone who’d been present to witness my shame.

Precisely the reason I’d come here in the first place.

I knew that I needed time, and a couple of weeks away from home weren’t going to erase the memories of what happened to me. My job had been simple: protect Anya, one of Xander’s favored subjects. The branded property of a Cambion, he was after more than revenge for his imprisonment and the death of his mate and unborn son. He’d killed, Dimitri, Anya’s husband, and demanded she turn over a demonic codex she’d stolen from Kade’s father. If she didn’t, her life—as well as her unborn child’s—was forfeit. I was so confident I could take the half-Incubus-half human out myself. But I’d been dead wrong. Kade saw through my not-so-clever plan and used the addictive toxin that leeched from his pores and saliva to enslave me.

Addict.

That’s what Kade had made me. I wanted him, craved his touch like a drug and there hadn’t been a damn thing I could do about it. Now, mere weeks later, I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing Kade’s face looming above mine, or feel the rush of revulsion mixed with need that his touch evoked in me. In my dreams, his black, serpentine tale slithered up my body, caressing me before it wrapped around my neck to choke the air from my lungs. I woke up most nights gasping for air as I tried in vain to fight an invisible foe. A shudder passed along my skin as the memories bombarded me. Even now, I craved him.

“Darian, are you okay?” Brakae and I were tied to each other through our connection to the Faerie Realm and she could sense my unease.

“I’m fine,” I replied, not willing to expend the effort for even a wan smile of assurance. I wasn’t fine. Why in the hell did I always feel the urge to tell people I was?

“What would you like to do your last night here?” She sounded sullen and it broke my heart to think of leaving her. She couldn’t visit the mortal realm as long as she was the Keeper of Time in O Anel. I hated that she had to stay here, separated from everyone she’d known and loved. And it burned my ass even more that I was able to come and go as I pleased. Sometimes the rules of the natural—and supernatural—world just sucked.

Brakae looked expectant as she waited for my answer. Raif’s daughter was as far from pushy as you could get. She was like a lake on a windless morning: calm, serene, and lovely. She simply sat in silence until I was ready to speak and I let her calm wash over me. “Let’s visit Moira,” I said at last. The Guardian of the key and doorway that led from the Faerie Realm into the mundane world lived here with Brakae. Moira was Sidhe, one of the oldest creatures in the Fae lineage. Fierce, beautiful, and a force to be reckoned with in battle. Not to mention a little on the snarky side. I couldn’t help but like her.

“All right,” Brakae said, closing the copy of Vogue. She smoothed the cover lovingly before placing it on the stack of other magazines I’d brought her. The supply of pop culture fodder would hopefully tide her over until my next visit. “She’s going to hear an earful from me, though. Moira never brings me magazines or Honey Nut Cheerios.”

#

My return trip home from O Anel took more effort than I was used to. As if my will fought against my mind, the desire to come home took actual effort to manifest. The roar of traffic, the hum of pedestrians and other city sounds were deafening in comparison to the quiet of O Anel. The sensory overload was almost too much and it took everything I had not to return to that quiet place and continue to hide. Instead, as though my feet had rooted themselves to the sidewalk, I stood outside of my apartment building, my stomach coiled into a tight, anxious knot.

I wasn’t ready.

The building loomed above me, the windows, empty eyes that looked down on me with disdain. I swallowed down the fear rising up my throat. I could do this. Kade was dead and he couldn’t hurt me or anyone else ever again. Come on, Darian, you’ve got this. Put one foot in front of the other

To whom do you belong…? Kade’s words echoed in my mind, accompanied by the memory of writhing beneath his hands, begging for his touch. I doubled over, and gulped in drafts of breath as I hung my head between my knees. I don’t know how long I remained that way, focusing on sound of breath contracting and releasing in my lungs until my heart rate slowed to an acceptable pace and I was satisfied that I wasn’t going to pass out. Or empty the contents of my stomach onto the street. “Bullshit,” I said, loud enough startle a pigeon who’d wandered toward me on the sidewalk. I belonged to myself. I would not let that Cambion bastard have power over me, especially in death.

On shaky legs, I made my way up the stairs to the building’s entrance. Magic swirled at my feet, sniffing like wary hounds. Reaver, the Time Keeper of the human realm had cast powerful protection wards on my building. I didn’t know the specifics, but I assumed they protected my place from unwanted entry of those who would do me harm, while allowing my allies to pass through safely. At least, I hoped that was the case. The heady Sidhe magic crept up my calves like a vining plant before slinking away once it recognized me. I reached out, my hand coming to rest on the door handle while I took a cleansing breath and pulled open the door.

Nothing jumped out at me. But then again, Reaver’s magic was ancient and I knew the wards would hold. Coupled with the high-tech security system Raif had installed, the place probably had better protection than Fort Knox. I stepped inside the metal cage of my service elevator, surprised to find that it had been repaired. Kade had bent and damaged the cage door and car when he’d tried to kick his way inside. It obviously hadn’t taken too much to fix it. At least one thing I could be glad for.

I spent the short trip to the second floor with my eyes closed. I could have traveled as my ethereal self, merging with the daylight, but my nerves were jittery and my skin crawled. The added sensation of leaving my body behind would have been a little more than I could handle. God, I hadn’t felt so vulnerable in over a century. Not a feeling I enjoyed. The elevator came to a halt, and as I stepped into my studio apartment, I slowly opened my eyes. I blinked. Took in my surroundings. Blinked again.

Jesus.

The space no longer resembled the apartment I’d left days—or rather, months—ago. My studio had been completely transformed, and from the looks of it, the individual who’d taken it upon himself to remodel had dug deep into his pockets to get it done.

“Xander,” I muttered under my breath.

No doubt the High King of Highhandedness was behind my extreme home makeover.  He was the only man I knew ballsy enough to invade my space—and totally redecorate it—without asking permission first. My dark hardwood floors had been replaced with lighter bamboo. The white leather furniture exchanged for plush sofas and chairs in earth tones and covered in some cozy, velvety fabric. My head spun at the number of throw pillows on each piece. Was there even room for anyone to sit?

My bed, that awful, godforsaken bed that Kade had tortured me in, was long gone. My stomach unknotted as relief flooded me. A large, mahogany four-poster sat in the far left corner of my studio, covered in a lovely dark blue duvet with yet another pile of frivolous decorative pillows. Even the kitchen counters had been redone: no longer polished concrete but shining black granite running with veins of blue. Jesus, he’d even ripped out all of my appliances, each and every piece now professional grade stainless steel and shining in the morning sunlight without even a fingerprint to mar their surfaces. A gourmet kitchen for the woman who never cooked. Typical Xander.

Heavy drapes accented my windows; gorgeous Impressionist art graced the walls. Vases of fresh dahlias, daisies, and mums adorned the kitchen table, the kitchen island, and the coffee table in the living room. No one knew I was coming home. Did he have someone on fresh flower patrol or some shit? My jaw hung slack as I took in my studio, once so cold and uninviting and now so…homey.

“’Bout time you came home.”

My heart jumped up into my fucking throat, and I spun around to find my favorite pain-in-the-ass planted in the entryway. One shoulder supported his body as he leaned against the elevator gate, filling the space with his large, muscular build. I’d forgotten how tall he was. And how eerily quiet he could be. An amused expression lit his face, one corner of his mouth curved into a lopsided grin. He was every bit laid back California surfer guy with his too long wavy blond hair and sparkling blue eyes. According to Xander, he’d assigned Asher to watch over me, and apparently, his duties hadn’t ended with Kade’s demise.

“Here to check on the flowers?” I teased.

“Here to check on you,” he replied. “Or rather, for you.”

My smile melted at the severity of his tone. The knot that had only recently begun to loosen tightened once again in my stomach, anxiety coursing through my veins like liquid fire. I wasn’t ready for this. I wasn’t prepared to face any of them. “How did you know I’d be here?” I asked as I dropped my gaze to the floor.

“I didn’t,” Asher said with a shrug. “He makes me come here. Every day. Sometimes twice a day.”

Can you say awkward? I’d left for O Anel with my life in shambles. Xander was only one of the shattered pieces I was going to have to clean up now that I was home. “That’s pretty messed up, even for Xander.” I tried to laugh but it came out as more of a strangled snort. “I’m sorry you’ve had to waste your time for the past few months.”

“My king is very concerned for you, Darian.” I’d never heard Asher refer to Xander in such a formal manner. “Whatever he commands me to do, I do. If that means camping out on your front steps for half a year, so be it.”

Xander—sneaky SOB that he was—planted Asher in the team I’d assembled to help protect Anya when Kade had threatened her. But what I didn’t know at the time was that it wasn’t Asher’s job to look after Anya at all. He’d been hand-picked by the Shaede King to look after me. Though I’d been angry with Xander over the deception, in hindsight, it hadn’t been a bad idea.

“So you just wander over a couple times a day, peek your head in, and shout, anybody home?”

“Pretty much.” He pushed himself off the jamb and walked in to the living room.

“And the flowers?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“Not my responsibility,” he said with a smile. “Maybe you should ask Raif?”

A pang of emotion tugged at my chest at the mention of my best friend’s name. Of all the things I’d left behind for my brief vacation, I missed him the most. “How is he?” Though I knew a reunion would be tough, I couldn’t wait to see him. In fact, Xander’s house was my next stop.

“Unflappable. As always,” Asher replied. “He doesn’t say it, but I think he misses you, too.”

“Too?” I let the word hang. Besides Xander and Raif, I wondered if anyone else had missed me. Maybe a certain over protective Jinn…

“Yeah,” he said, mockingly. “I sort of missed you, too.”

A corner of my mouth lifted in a half-smile. Truth be told, I’d missed the little shit as well. And though I knew that he and Tyler didn’t exactly pal around or anything, I guess some part of me had wished that Ty kept contact, checking in with Raif perhaps, in the hopes I’d been in touch with him. That maybe, Ash would have mentioned something about him, no matter how small.

“Have you seen any action lately? You know, besides your housesitting gig.” I’d come a long way in the past couple of years, but I’m not going to lie, emotions were still pretty tough for me. It was best to stick to light small talk.

“Nada. Well, that’s not exactly true,” Asher said as he settled himself down on the couch and propped his feet up on the coffee table. I had a feeling Xander would blow a gasket if he was standing here right now and I couldn’t help but smile at the thought. “There’s something coming down the pipes but I’m not high enough on the ladder to know what it is quite yet. An envoy arrived last week. Sent by his majesty’s regent. There have been a lot of closed door meetings.”

Just my luck that I’d decide to come home at the moment trouble began to brew. I’d never given Xander’s actual kingdom much consideration before. Of course I knew the heart of his kingdom was nowhere near Seattle, but I’d never asked where. And it served to reason that he’d appoint a regent to hold down the fort while he was away. “You think it’s something big?” I asked, taking a seat across from Asher in an overstuffed chair. Somehow, it made me feel better to pretend like it was business as usual, and I hadn’t just shown up from being scarce for half a year.

Asher cocked his head to the side as if considering the options. “With issues of a political nature, it could be anything,” he replied. “I mean it could be as minor as a burst pipe in the king’s palace, or as major as a coup.”

I doubted closed door meetings and so much secrecy were for the benefit of something like Xander’s plumbing. “It’s definitely not the pipes.”

“Probably not,” Asher said, fixing me with a stare. “Why don’t you go over there and find out what’s going on?”

Nothing like a little political intrigue to distract a girl from her problems. But there were still a few things I needed to do. When I’d left for O Anel, I’d said goodbye to Raif and even to Xander. I hadn’t seen Tyler since the night he killed Kade. And no matter how much I wanted to say hi to Raif, and maybe even nose around a little, I needed to see Ty first. “I’ve got a few things to knock off my to-do list, but after, I think I’ll see what’s up.”

“Who knows,” Asher mused, “maybe it’ll give us an excuse to get the gang back together.”

The gang he was referring to was the group of Shaedes I’d assembled to help me hunt down Kade. I wasn’t sure I was ready for something quite so hard core, yet. “Maybe,” I said as I stood and headed for the elevator, “But to be honest, Ash, I hope I get a break before shit hits the fan again.”

“With you around?” Asher’s tone was incredulous as he followed me into the elevator. “Now that you’re back, Darian, shit is guaranteed to hit the fan.”

That’s what I was afraid of.

 

Chapter Two

 Before Ash took off to do whatever it was Xander had laid out for him for the rest of the day, he convinced me to head to Xander’s before I did anything else. I agreed because I didn’t want any distractions when I came face to face with Tyler and if trouble was brewing in the Shaede kingdom, I’d need to get the low-down from Raif so I wouldn’t be too worried about him. I traveled from Belltown to Capitol Hill as my ethereal self, gliding over the streets with the fading rays of sun that cast swaths of light on the sidewalks. As sluggish as the encroaching afternoon, I couldn’t help but wish I owned at least a motorcycle right about now. My fatigue from leaving my body behind and traveling as one with the light had little to do with the fact that I hadn’t done so in a while. Simply put, I was plain tired.

Two weeks. Fourteen measly days. Three hundred and thirty six hours. Such an insubstantial amount of time compared to the century I’d lived, and yet… I felt older now than I ever had. A person can only take so much. I’d shut myself off from the world for a reason: no entanglements equaled zero chance of being hurt again. A cold hearted bitch like me had no chance of being crushed when she kept everyone at arm’s length. But Tyler had managed to coax me out of my shell and taught me how beautiful and selfless love could be. Raif had reminded me of the power of true friendship. And Xander…well, the jury was still out on what I’d gleaned from my relationship with him.

Even Anya managed to teach me a thing or two about what it meant to love and be loved. And so I’d allowed them all to melt my icy exterior. But despite all of the warm fuzzy feelings, my entanglements had led to yet another hurt I’d been trying so hard to avoid. It reminded me of why I’d chosen a life of closed-off solitude. Would it really be so bad to curl up in a ball and sleep the rest of my life away?

In a word: Yes.

Henry, my human husband, beat me almost daily and I’d lived through it. Azriel used me for his own devices and left me alone, naïve, and helpless and I’d lived through it. Faolán manipulated me, controlled me, and sought to destroy the world through me, and I’d lived through it. And Kade. The worst of them all, had killed someone I cared for, threatened my friends, drugged me, toyed with me, tortured me, and nearly raped me. And damn it, I would live through this, too.

In no time at all, I looked up to find Xander’s ostentatious mansion staring down at me. Self-reflection has a tendency to make the time pass quickly. I stood outside of the gate for a few minutes, my mind nothing more than tangled brambles of thought. So much had happened under this roof. Things I wasn’t quite ready to deal with. If Xander pushed, though, I’d push right back. I was twice as stubborn as he was persistent. He’d have to suck it up and let me get used to feeling comfortable in my own skin before I spared even a second to address what had happened between us while I lived here.

Feeling a little of my old pluck, I hopped over the gate and made my way to the front door. So many times, I’d walked in like I owned the place and as I turned the knob, I found myself slinking through the entry like a burglar. The house was quiet, no doubt most of Xander’s staff was busy preparing the evening meal. Most of the time, a plate wasn’t set in front of his regal face that didn’t look like it had popped off the pages of Bon Appetite magazine. Though I’d had occasion to see His Royal Haughtiness partake of a fast food burger at least once.

From the bowels of the house, heated voices made their way to my ears. I abandoned the course I’d set for Xander’s office and headed instead downstairs toward his council room. It seemed odd that he’d have anything brewing this late in the afternoon, but if Asher’s assumptions carried any merit, then something unsavory was indeed coming down the pipes.

“Your refusal to leave Seattle has caused considerable unrest!” an agitated voice exclaimed.

Another voice jumped in after the first, “Usurpers circle the throne like hungry wolves and everything you’ve worked so hard to accomplish stands on the precipice of collapse. So please, indulge me, your highness and give me an explanation to relay to your regent—nay, to your people—why you insist on remaining here?”

Uh-oh. I couldn’t place the voices, but I sure as hell knew the tone. Someone was taking Xander to school in a very serious way. I couldn’t imagine who would have the balls to talk to him like that, but whoever the second speaker was, he had a pair on him. Big and brass.

“My reasons are my own.” The king sounded as tired as I felt. “You forget your place, and apparently so do others. I am the king. Me. Take care with your words when you address me in the future and take greater care to never question me or my reasons for doing anything ever again. Have I made myself clear?”

“Your majesty.” The second voice had gone from demanding to simpering in a couple of seconds flat. Guess I overestimated the size of his cojones. “We’ve been sent out of concern, nothing else. Decisions must be made. The kingdom must be ruled. You cannot possibly—”

“Get out of my sight!” Xander railed, and I swear the doors to his council room quivered on their hinges. “I’ll not abide being taken to task by the likes of either of you! Leave now before I lose my temper and forget my manners.”

Xander had manners? Who knew? The double doors swung open and the two Shaedes rushed from the room, their heads bent together as they spoke hurriedly under their breaths. I merged with the light, careful to remain unseen and waited until they’d rounded the corner and headed up the stairs before I regained my corporeal form. No use adding to the ruckus when Xander had done such a good job all on his own.

“Will you not listen to reason?” Raif’s soft, yet commanding voice echoed from the confines of the room, but still I held back and waited right outside the door. Insufferably calm, that was Raif all the way. “It’s been months. Perhaps if you went home, just for a while, so our people could see—”

“Shall I throw you out as well?” Wow, looked like Xander wasn’t letting anyone finish a sentence today.

Where Raif was level-headed and pragmatic, his brother was hot-headed and rash. Any discussion between them wasn’t going to end well. I’d come here to butt in, after all, and there was no use loitering in the hallway any longer. Besides, I didn’t want to listen to them fight. Sheesh. Brothers.

I walked through the door to find Xander standing at the head of the council table, his palms flat on the polished mahogany surface, arms bracing his muscular body. His head hung between his broad shoulders, his golden hair framing his face like a curtain. Raif stood beside him, a look somewhere between pity and outrage etched on his hardened warrior’s face. As if sensing me at the same moment, both sets of eyes turned toward the doorway and settled on me: Raif’s sapphire ones flooded with relief and Xander’s molten caramel burning with something closer to pain.

“My lady,” the king said, as he straightened to his full height and inclined his head. I would have laughed if I hadn’t known the gesture was meant as a token of his esteem. And since I wasn’t about to insult him mere minutes after traipsing through his door, I made sure to keep my expression pleasant. Xander and his dramatics.

“So…” I said, averting my gaze and kicking a booted foot at the carpet. “What’s shakin’?”

What’s shakin’? Jesus, Darian, that’s all you could think to say? While I cursed my abysmal conversation skills, Raif crossed the room in a few long strides and swept me up in a bear hug that damned near squeezed the air from my lungs.

“Gods, I wondered when I’d hear that smart mouth of yours again,” he said as he set me back down on my feet.

“Your hair is longer,” I remarked, my fingers skimming the tawny locks that spilled over his collar. I hugged him back for all I was worth and said, “I missed you too, Raif.”

Xander cleared his throat, apparently miffed at being upstaged by this brother and Raif took a step back as if opening a path from me to the Shaede King. For the second time since I’d been home (which wasn’t very damned long) I experienced an awkward moment at facing someone I’d hoped to avoid. It’s not avoidance when you voluntarily show up, you idiot. Maybe I needed a lesson in staying off the radar. I’d obviously forgotten how to maintain my low profile.

“Are you well?” Xander asked, and I realized that there was someone in the room more uncomfortable than I was right now. The time difference between the human and faery realms was still tough for me to wrap my head around. No one here had seen me in a long time.

“Well enough,” I replied. I’d decided that I was done telling people I was fine when I wasn’t. And what I’d told Xander was the truth. I wasn’t one hundred percent, but I’d get there. Eventually. “Brakae sends her love to you both.”

Raif smiled. The distance that separated him from his daughter was so much farther than it should have been. I pulled a packet of papers from my duster pocket, parchment sealed with wax, and held them out to him. “Letters from Brakae.”

His smile broadened, melting some of the tension that tightened my limbs and caused my heart to beat a little too fast. “Thank you, Darian.”

Raif sat down at the table, his attention solely focused on the letters. He broke the seal, impatient, and skimmed over what Brakae had sent. The room became unbearably silent and now I had no other choice but to focus my attention on the Shaede High King himself.

Xander approached me slowly. He tried to come across as harmless, but the intensity of his gaze, coupled with the way his muscular body rolled with each step, made him look more like a predator than anything meant to put me at ease. When only a foot or so of space separated us, he stopped. He glanced down at my hands which I only now realized were balled up into tight fists. I took a tentative step back but my progress was stayed by the long table. Awesome.

“You have been gone for far too long.” His murmured words encircled me in a velvet embrace and I shivered. “Your absence has been…”

“A nice break?” I ventured with a small laugh.

“Unbearable,” he said, his own voice devoid of humor.

“Xander.” My voice stalled in my throat, panic rising up in me like a high tide. He was too close. I needed space. Room to breathe. I needed him to avert his gaze and quit looking at me like I was a freaking cheeseburger! “Don’t take this the wrong way, but if you don’t take about five steps back, I’m going to go ballistic.” His brow furrowed and his jaw took on a stubborn set. Great. Now I’d gone and hurt his regal feelings. I was the one about to suffer from a Godzilla-sized panic attack, but it was his feelings that were hurt. “I’m just…not ready. You know?”

Raif pulled his attention from Brakae’s letters, his gaze focused on his brother with a seriously scary intensity. Xander nodded his head in acknowledgement and pulled out one of the chairs for me while he returned to the head of the table and took a seat. With a fair amount of distance between us, I could finally take a deep breath. It’s not that I thought he’d pounce on me or anything, but I had no idea how he’d react to my being back and that was the problem. Any intimate contact: a touch, an embrace—I shuddered—would be too much. I could handle giving Raif a hug. Raif was safe. My chest burned with anger over what Kade had done to me. The fear he’d caused to spring to life inside of me. I’d get past it. I knew I would. But it was going to take more than two weeks away for me to heal completely.

“I forget it hasn’t been as long for you,” Xander said as he leaned back in his chair, looking very much the self-possessed king. “For those of us here, it’s been a little over six months since you left.”

My estimation of the time difference had been pretty damned close. I’d left Seattle in April. It was now—I ticked the months off in my mind—October. Damn. I’d missed all of my favorite months. The warm ones. It was almost winter again and I’d have to endure the cold winds and biting rain. I really needed to reconsider moving somewhere more tropical. “It’s only been about two weeks for me,” I admitted. “Weird, isn’t it?”

Xander snorted. “Weird is an understatement.”

I gave a nervous laugh. “I guess you’re right. So, what’s going on? Asher said there’s been a lot of activity around here lately? Care to fill me in?”

Xander’s eyes sparked with curiosity. “You’ve been back to your apartment?”

“Yeah, and about that, what’s up with the remodel? I didn’t ask you to do that.”

“You’re so certain I’m responsible?”

I quirked a brow.

“Fine.” He sighed. “I didn’t want you to be surrounded by…unpleasant memories when you returned home. I thought that a change of scenery would make the transition easier.”

Well, at least his heart was in the right place. “I’ll reimburse you for the work.”

“Nonsense.”

“Xander.” I paused. I was too damned exhausted to even argue right now. “I know it wasn’t cheap.”

“It is a gift,” he said simply. “I will not accept reimbursement.”

I filled my lungs with air, held it, and let it all rush out at once. “Fine. Now, what’s going on?”

With a dismissive wave of his hand, Xander said, “Politics. I should have considered my choice of regent more carefully. Apparently he fears for the kingdom. He wants me to return home.”

“You should return home, Xander,” Raif chimed in, his expression stern. “If only for a while.”

“The matter is closed for discussion,” Xander said as though he’d dealt with hundreds of worse political headaches. He gave Raif a very pointed stare. “We’ll not speak of it again this day.”

Huh. Well, he hadn’t shut down the discussion completely, just, “this day.” I suspected Raif would start up again in the morning, but until one of them decided to spill the beans, this had nothing to do with me. “Anyway, I wanted you to know that I’m back.” A pregnant pause filled the air. What else was there to say?

“Stay for dinner,” Xander suggested, his gaze becoming hungry again. And not for food. Nervous energy skittered up my spine. I needed to calm the fuck down. “You don’t have to go back to your apartment, Darian. Not until you’re ready.”

I gave Xander what I hoped was an apologetic smile. I knew that things were far from settled between us, but I was certain that staying here was not a good idea. “Thanks, Xander, but I have to go back sometime. The longer I put it off, the harder it will be.”

I turned to Raif as I pushed my chair back from the table. “I’ll call you in the morning.”

His expression was soft, yet concerned. “All right. But if you need anything before then…”

“I know,” I said, heading for the door. “Thanks, Xander, for my apartment. It really does help.”

He didn’t hide his disappointment that I was leaving when he said, “It was my pleasure. Good afternoon, Darian.”

I became one with the encroaching twilight and left them both where they sat.

 

Chapter Three

I told Xander I’d have to go back to my apartment sometime. But sometime wasn’t right this second. I took a detour by way of The Pit, anxious for the familiarity of my favorite haunt and a few quiet moments in my usual corner at the back of the bar.

Since I was currently sans cell phone—it’s not like Verizon had a tower in O Anel—I could only guess by the sun’s position in the western sky that the day had ventured into early evening. Where was a sundial when you needed one? Better yet, I should’ve just gone home and grabbed my phone. But since my place had undergone an extreme makeover, I had no idea where any of my stuff was. Maybe in a warehouse somewhere with the Lost Ark and the rest of Indiana Jones’s stash.

The Pit was gloriously empty when I walked through the swinging double doors. Levi, my favorite bartender and personal encyclopedia of all things supernatural was apparently off for the day. I didn’t recognize the woman standing behind the counter and my heart sunk a little. It would have been nice to see another friendly face, but on the bright side, at least I didn’t have to engage in any small talk. I ordered a Coke and headed to my favorite table in the back corner of the bar. Picking up where I’d left off, slipping into my old routine, felt good. I could pretend that this was any other day and I was my same old detached apathetic self. For a while, at least.

An hour or so later the happy hour crowd began to filter in, providing me with some grade-A people watching. I loved the normality of it all. I envied the mundane, craved a boring existence that consisted of sleep, work, drinks, eat, sleep, work. All in that order. I wondered, as I observed nothing in particular, how many people in this after work crowd were harboring a secret. Who was cheating on his wife? Who had lost her job today? Which one of them had fended off an attack or lived with the shame of being too weak to stop something they didn’t want to happen. Was I the only one harboring shame, or was there a kindred spirit not ten feet away, battling the same demons I was, all the while wearing a fake, cheerful smile. Somehow, the thought was strangely comforting.

Happy hour converged into happier hour the later the night went on. What day was it, anyway? I had no idea. Too busy for a weeknight, I assumed this was the Friday crowd, blowing off the week’s steam and gearing up for the weekend. I was nursing my fourth Coke and the bartender was starting to give me sidelong looks that indicated she might be suspicious of my loitering. Six months was a long time to be gone, I supposed. To her, I wasn’t a permanent fixture, I was the weird chick dressed like a throw-back to vampire-goth casing the joint from the back of the room. That, coupled with the fact that I’d been sitting here for going on six hours with nothing but watered down soda to keep me company and, sure, I could see why she might think I was a little on the suspicious side.

As I pondered the whereabouts of my cellphone and other personal belongings—did Xander rearrange my underwear drawer while I was gone?—I couldn’t help but dwell on one of the considerable loose ends I’d left behind six months ago. As I was about to pop over to O Anel for my brief vacay, Raif flashed me a postcard with a picture of Seattle’s Space Needle on its glossy surface. A not-so-subtle indicator that my past had caught up to me.

Or rather, was making an unwelcome re-appearance.

Lorik, the son of an Armenian mob boss had all but owned Seattle in the 1930s and by all rights, he should have been dead by now. Not traipsing all over the globe, taunting me with postcards from each of his pit stops. Now, the questions assaulted me faster than my brain could process them: Why had he resurfaced? What did he want? How had he managed to cheat the laws of nature? And most importantly, was he still in the city, waiting for me?

I sat a little straighter in my chair, no longer slouched and relaxed as I sipped from my drink. My skin crawled and my breath hitched in my chest as I was struck with the sensation that someone was watching me. It could have been triggered by the bartender, but I doubted it. The sense of unease intensified with each passing moment, and my heart skittered in my chest as an anxiety fueled burst of adrenaline spiked my bloodstream.

I wanted to run.

Fear constricted my lungs and pooled in my limbs until they twitched. I twisted the ring on my left thumb, the one piece of Tyler that was always with me, silently mustering up the courage to wish for him. Five little words would have him by my side in an instant and then I could finally breathe. Maybe if he was here, the uncontrollable fear would disappear.

The self-loathing that I felt over my weakness was far worse than the fear that threatened to crush me under its weight. I reminded myself that I wasn’t weak. Or helpless. I could kick a little ass if I had to and it’s not like I wasn’t armed. Besides, what could possibly happen to me here? The Pit wasn’t overly seedy or dangerous. This was supposed to be my safe place. My fear was irrational and I was totally overreacting.

Right?

I reached down to my thigh and caressed the hilt of my dagger. Overreacting or not, my gut told me something wasn’t right. My back was to the wall, and I could easily defend myself from my little corner of the bar. Not to mention the fact that if I truly felt threatened, I’d simply give myself over to the protection of the shadows. I didn’t have to fight if I didn’t want to…

I narrowed my gaze at a lone form making its way to me through the press of people crowding the bar. The swagger was unmistakable, seeming to rocket me back to a place and time when I was another woman: blinded by infatuation, eager, drunk on my own power, excited by the danger and risk that had become a part of my existence. And though I knew he’d come to Seattle to find me, I doubted that I would’ve been any more shocked if Azriel himself had strolled through The Pit to my table. Because Lorik seemed no less a ghost than Az would have been.

Holy shit. He hadn’t aged at all since I’d last seen him over eighty years ago. It shouldn’t have freaked me out. I mean, supernatural creatures just didn’t age at the same pace that humans did. I could have been in O Anel for centuries and when I came home Raif would have been as vibrant and youthful as ever. But Lorik wasn’t a supernatural creature. He was human. At least, he’d been human. He should’ve been nothing more than a walking skeleton. Gross. My first day home and I’d already had more than a couple WTF moments. Stellar.

“Dariana!” Lorik exclaimed, arms spread wide as he approached my table. The nostalgia was totally creeping me out, the way he pronounced my name, softening the “ar” and adding an extra “a,” making it sound so much more elegant than it actually was, reminded me of one of our first encounters. “Finally you decide to come home. Tsk, tsk.” He wagged a scolding finger at me. “You make me think you don’t want to see me, running off like you did.”

My mind drew a blank as I sat there, staring.

“Well,” he said. “Are you going to invite me to sit down?”

Was I? I had no fucking clue. I couldn’t even form a coherent thought, let alone display social grace and pleasantry. The music in the bar was a little too loud, the ever-present hum of the crowd, too distracting to my overloaded senses. Through the cranks and turns, the gears in my brain tried to make sense of what my eyes were seeing.

“You’re so young!” I blurted. Totally classy.

A brilliant smile dawned on Lorik’s face and his dark eyes sparked with a mischievous light. He was attractive in a flashy sort of way: always dressed to the nines, clean and well-groomed, though he pulled off that disheveled look without making it appear orchestrated. His dark hair was longer than I remembered; the thick waves brushed both his collar and his brows. He reminded me of Azriel in a lot of ways, though his personality was good-humored, something Azriel never managed.

“I’ve missed you,” Lorik remarked as he pulled out the chair next to mine and sat down. He motioned for a cocktail waitress—another new employee I didn’t recognize—and slid a hundred dollar bill onto her tray. Just as slick as I remembered. “Whiskey. Neat. And bring my friend a—” he looked to me.

“Coke.”

Lorik laughed. “Bring my friend a martini. Dirty. And keep the change.”

The waitress flashed him a million-watt smile before she headed off to the bar and Lorik turned his scrutinizing gaze to me, mouth puckered in distaste. “Coke,” he mocked in a flat, emotionless tone. “Darian, really?”

The last time I’d laid eyes on Lorik, I’d been a different creature than the one I am now. I guess you could say I was almost…fun. Lighthearted. Maybe even a little carefree. But a lot had happened to me since those good ‘ole days. Apparently, Lorik hadn’t kept up with the gossip. I sat there, staring, pretty sure my mouth was hanging open, unable to reply.

When our waitress returned with our drinks, she looked from me to Lorik and back again, as though weighing our expressions in an effort to gauge our moods. Lorik was grinning like an idiot while I…well, I was still too shocked for anything other than a wide-eyed stare.

“Drink,” Lorik urged as he pushed the elegant martini glass in front of me. “You obviously need to loosen up.” He tossed back his own drink and raised the empty glass to the cocktail waitress who was already headed back to the bar for another round. “Where have you been for the past six months, my darling? I’ve been so bored waiting for you to come home.” He leaned forward, his lip curled in distaste. “And for the love of god, what are you wearing? Did you go to a funeral today?”

I looked down at my usual black ensemble and shucked the duster that suddenly seemed like a poor wardrobe choice considering my surroundings. Again I was reminded of the person I used to be, a woman who wore a little color now and then. Apparently one who didn’t look like she was in a perpetual state of mourning. “What are you doing here, Lorik?” Charming old friend or not, his appearance defied the laws of nature and man it wigged me the hell out. “More to the point, how are you here?”

“Always so suspicious,” Lorik admonished as round two made it to the table. He tossed another hefty bill onto the girl’s tray and she promised to keep them coming. “Why aren’t you drinking?” I now had two untouched martinis in front of me and a half-finished Coke. “Come on, Darian, it’s been ages. Let’s have a little fun.”

Ages was right. Jesus. As Lorik guzzled whiskey number two, I stared at the speared green olive bobbing in my martini like a buoy. A thousand memories assaulted me, and a thousand more theories as to how Lorik could have remained frozen in youth for the past eighty years. I had a feeling it had little to do with a great plastic surgeon and top of the line wrinkle cream.

“I haven’t seen you in almost a century.” Okay, so I was having a little trouble with articulation. In my defense, I was pretty sure I was in shock.

Lorik flashed me a smile. “All the more reason to celebrate!”

“How did you find me?” Even though I’d never left Seattle in all of these years, it wasn’t like I’d been camped out at the same address for decades on end.

Lorik canted his head to the side, his lips pursed in a chiding expression. “Darian, please. I am nothing if not resourceful. You’ve made quite the name for yourself and as always, you are a creature of habit. It was a small thing to find you.”

Ask a stupid question… There was no doubt in my mind that I wasn’t at the top of my game. Going to O Anel had seemed like such a good idea at the time, and I couldn’t deny that being in Brakae’s presence for even a short time had been a soothing balm for my troubled soul. This was not the time for me to check out. I might not have been at a hundred percent, but I needed to get my head in the game. No longer on the defensive, I leaned forward in my chair and scooped one of the martinis up in my hand. I downed it in a couple of swallows—I needed a little liquid courage—and leveled my gaze at Lorik. “What do you want?”

“That’s more like it.” Lorik had always appreciated getting right to business, that much hadn’t changed. “I was worried for a second that you’d gone soft, Darian. That perhaps, you’d lost your edge.”

“You don’t know anything about my edge,” I remarked, downing the second martini.

Lorik laughed and motioned for another round. “I know enough. And might I add, you keep quite the esteemed company. A king, no less. I have to admit, I never pegged you as the type to consort with royalty.”

“Yeah, well, I’m full of surprises.”

“Indeed. Tell me, what exactly is your arrangement with the Shaede High King?”

Finally, down to business. Lorik wouldn’t have shown back up if he wasn’t looking for something. He never made a move that didn’t play to his advantage. Though I could speak to our arrangement, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly where Xander and I stood. I’d broken things off with him before my little vacation. But from the looks of my remodeled apartment, not to mention Xander’s attitude earlier today, that in his mind, things were far from over between us. “I work for the king on occasion.” No need to give Lorik any more information than necessary. “That’s all.”

“I’m sure,” Lorik said with a sly grin. Ugh. “And what about now? Who’s paying your bills my dear?”

I didn’t appreciate Lorik’s undertone, though it could have been my own hang-ups that caused me to interpret his question as innuendo that I might be someone’s kept woman. “I pay my own bills.”

“So touchy,” Lorik said with a shake of his head.

Round three arrived just in time and though the first two martinis had begun to take their effects, I swallowed down the third with gusto. I figured the alcohol would burn through my system fast enough to keep me from getting too drunk, and though I hadn’t eaten all day, I counted the olives as dinner. It wasn’t good to drink on an empty stomach.

“Do you honestly think you can show up here after months of mysterious postcards and just plop down at my table and ask a bunch of questions like we’re chummy, Lorik? It doesn’t work that way.”

He shrugged his shoulders as if unconcerned. “I’m sure you have questions of your own and I have nothing to hide. Ask away.”

His insufferably calm attitude was beginning to get on my nerves. It wouldn’t be long before I’d be tempted to stab him in order to release some of the tension I was feeling. “Will you even give me a straight answer if I ask? So far, you’ve been pretty good about dodging me.” I wasn’t in the mood for flippant replies. “Are you ready to be straight with me?”

“As an arrow,” Lorik proclaimed. “What would you like to know?”

“For starters,” I said. “How is it that you haven’t aged a day since I saw you last?”

“Ah,” he said as he sipped from his drink. “Right to the point. I always liked that about you.”

I quirked a brow. “Well?”

“A gift,” he replied, “from a gypsy queen and powerful sorceress.”

“A gift?”

“Yes.” He waggled his brows. “I gave her many nights of pleasure and in return, she gave me eternal youth. Not a bad trade if you ask me.”

Not the craziest thing I’d ever heard, but still… “You must have been great in the sack to get that kind of reward from her. Where did you meet this so-called sorceress?”

“Ah, ah,” Lorik chided. “If I tell you all of my secrets at once, I won’t be half as interesting to you. Let’s keep a little mystery between us, shall we?”

Yeah, he was totally hiding something from me. Though I had no doubt there was more to it than a few great orgasms, I had a feeling I’d have to accept his explanation. For now. “Okay, so, immortality and your skills as a great lay aside, why are you here?”

“I miss Seattle,” he said with a shrug. “I’m tired of traveling and want to put down roots. Where better to settle than my home?”

How about a million miles from me? I believed his explanation for being here about as much as I did for his immortality. Lorik wasn’t a native of Seattle. He’d been transplanted here by his father, Vasili, after they’d been run out of Chicago by the mob in the thirties. “Seattle’s your home, then?”

“Of course it is. I spent some of the best years of my life here, and considering my longevity, that’s saying a lot.”

“Okay, so you’re nostalgic. I can live with that. But why look for me? It’s not like you’re obligated to let me know you’re back in town.”

“True,” he said, “but you have to admit, it would have been rude not to look up one of my oldest friends upon my return home.”

I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. “Try again, Lorik.”

“You’ve soured in your old age,” he complained.

I was sweet enough, thank you very much. I stared him down, unwilling to engage in any more of his verbal volleys until he answered my question.

“I think you need me now more than ever. If anything, to help you pull that considerable stick from your ass.”

I continued to stare.

“Fine,” he said with a sigh. “I have several business ventures in the works and I want you on my payroll. It wouldn’t do for me to have some run-of-the-mill meathead as my muscle and like I’ve said, you’ve made quite a name for yourself over the years. I want the best. You’re the best. End of story. Is that a dull and boring enough explanation for you?”

Truth be told, it was a little too dull and boring. “And the postcards?”

“A joke,” he remarked. “My god, Darian, I stand by my earlier assumption. You’re no fun anymore.”

I couldn’t afford to be fun. “Sorry, Lorik. But I’m not interested.” No way could I simply jump back in the saddle after everything that had happened over the past few weeks. Or rather, several months. Jet lag had nothing on the experience of traveling from realm to realm. Besides, this wasn’t eighty years ago. Azriel was gone and though Lorik hadn’t mentioned him, I had to wonder if he already knew that Azriel was dead. Or that I was the one who’d killed him. His reappearance was a little too convenient. His familiarity with me, much too easy. There was more to Lorik’s presence here than he was letting on, and until I knew more, I needed to keep him at arm’s reach.

“I can’t say I’m not disappointed.” Lorik leaned back in his chair and finished off his fifth whiskey. I guess he wasn’t too concerned about his liver. “But you’re crazy if you think I’m letting you go so easily, Darian. I’m not going anywhere any time soon. No need to disregard my offer just yet. Promise me you’ll consider it.”

I didn’t need to consider anything. Rather than reply, or give him a reason to stick around, I simply inclined my head in acknowledgment. My nerves were frayed and hanging on by a single thread. I wanted to get the hell out of here but I wasn’t moving from my seat until I was assured that Lorik was long gone.

“I’ll be in touch,” he said as he pushed his chair from the table and stood. “And for the love of god, Darian, try to dress in something a little less mournful, will you?” He gave me a wink in parting and strode out the way he came in, with a confident swagger.

Not even home for a full day and I was already up to my neck in bullshit. Was it too late for me to run back to O Anel?

 

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