My Darkest Passion - Excerpt

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one

Addison stood up when she heard a car stop on the gravel driveway. Sweat trickled down her spine. She breathed through her mouth because the air was so thick with heat and humidity she could taste the stink. Even so, the skin along her arms and the back of her neck rippled and goose-pimpled as if an arctic wind had penetrated the walls that confined her

Since the only movement of air in her ten-by-ten prison came from the heat radiating from the floor, she had to wonder if the reaction might be a symptom of heat stroke.

Her legs wobbled, and for a couple of seconds she expected to collapse again. She didn’t. She shuffled forward to sneak a look out the window. Lucky her, she had a prime view of the car and the two men who got out. By now she’d guessed enough about the people who’d locked her in here that she figured the two men weren’t any more human than the others. They didn’t mean her any good, either. Why would they?

The shed she was trapped in was fifteen or twenty feet from where they’d parked and in direct sun. For the next four hours it would only get hotter inside and out. She knew that because she’d been stuck in here for at least three days. Might be only two. Could be four. She was losing track. There was no water. No food. No furniture. No toilet.

Naturally, she’d tried to escape, but every time she touched the door the resulting shock sent her crashing against the opposite wall. No matter how hard she hit the ramshackle walls, they never broke. Same thing if she tried to open the window. Or break it. Or pry up a floorboard or punch through the ceiling.

She didn’t want to risk another of those full-body shocks, so she kept her distance from the window while she watched the two men. Both were tall and fit. One of them was dark-haired with brown skin that announced he wasn’t from Anglo-Saxon stock. The other one was at least mixed ethnicity. He had hair just short of blond.

The darker man had gotten out of the driver’s seat, and now he stood by the car, within spitting distance of her. He pressed his key fob. The cherry-red Mercedes chirped in response. In twenty minutes, the inside of that car was going to be an oven.

That invisible arctic wind danced along her skin even as she breathed in hot, suffocating air. The darker man wore shiny shoes and a suit and tie, and he held himself like someone who knew he could beat the crap out of anyone who looked at him crosswise. He dropped the fob into his pocket.

When his companion walked around the car to the driver’s side, she could see he was as casually dressed as the car’s driver was formal. His jeans were ragged at the knees, his tee-shirt was faded to a shadow of its original blue, and his tan shoes were battered. He looked as if he’d enjoy any and every opportunity to be mean. She didn’t like his looks. At all.

Another ripple of awareness shuddered through her. She no longer believed she was imagining it. Whoever those men were, they set off a physical reaction in her that threatened to shake her apart; a reaction that had begun before she heard the car.

Her body had become alien to her the minute she lost control over what happened to her. Not just her body. Forces she didn’t understand ruled her new reality. She’d been changed against her will and there was no one to tell her how to deal with what she was now.

She resisted the urge to step away from the window, but there was no holding off the apprehension that curled in her stomach. She knew, without understanding why, that the man in jeans was the source of that new and deeper dread. He looked young, her age. Early twenties for sure.

The dark-haired man might be late twenties, maybe early thirties. Mere surface, of course, because they were passing for human right now. If she was right about what she’d figured out on her own—from words overheard, actions observed, knowledge that seemed to have been injected into her with no context—they could be thousands of years old.

Every moment since she’d been abducted to right now had reduced her to a set of survival instincts that qualified as insane. She had no idea how to get back to normal when everything that happened here was so emphatically real.

The man responsible for all this controlled demons who did his bidding. Demons. Creatures who didn’t always look human and who could take over your will. She’d tried refusing to believe, and for that she’d damn near died. Not believing had ended up with her here. Trapped. A prisoner. Dying by the hour. Watching two strangers she knew were demons.

The two stood by the car, and she was convinced they were taking defensive stock of the surroundings. They did not look comfortable. Maybe they weren’t friends of her captors? She pushed away the surge of hope. No one was going to rescue her. Nobody but her captors knew she was here. Still, if the newcomers caused a commotion, maybe she could get away. Somehow.

The men scanned the outbuildings: stables, the falling-down chicken coops, kennels, the barn. The tumble-down 1850s-era house and what had been, back in the day, the bunkhouse for a working dairy. She didn’t know much about where she was except the obvious. She was in the middle of nowhere.

Her spine turned to ice as, very slowly, the younger-looking of the men faced the shed. No man as heartstoppingly gorgeous as he was should feel that evil. But he did. The danger rolled toward her in a stomach-turning wave. The other man turned, too, and his face was a whole other kind of gorgeous. Indian. Not Native American, but Indian from India. She felt that beauty in her bones, and it terrified her, as unwelcome as it was perverted to be attracted to creatures that weren’t even human. But that was the whole point, wasn’t it?

They saw her. Staring out the window at them. She stayed where she was, her skin practically leaping off her body. These…creatures didn’t like to be challenged. They took staring as a challenge. The sick thing was, part of her wanted to challenge them. Even the two newcomers. Especially them. She didn’t just want to win, she needed to win.

A whirlpool of energy formed in her chest and spread outward, roaring through her with hurricane force. The last time that happened, five of those things out there had ended up dead.

The temperature in the shed reached the point where the heat seared her nose and throat and burned in her lungs. They’d done something to the structure she was in, the mage and his demon slaves, that kept her inside these flimsy, rotting walls. The power coiled in her wanted out; it whispered to her like a lover. She could blast everything around her to atoms, except if she did, whatever they’d done to trap her here would either kill her or make her wish it had. A hard lesson painfully learned.

Now that the men were facing her head on, she could see the color of their eyes, too. Normal for now. Demons, she’d learned, when they weren’t pretending to be human, had eyes that changed colors, whirling specks of otherworldly colors. They were passing right now. The younger one had light brown eyes, golden, really. The older man’s ink-black eyes made him look like his thoughts weighed on him. That bit of anthropomorphism was likely to get her killed faster than the heat. His gorgeous physical appearance was nothing but an illusion. He wasn’t human.

Her biggest lesson, the one burned into her marrow, was that his kind didn’t give a shit whether she lived or died.

She didn’t doubt for a second that they’d been brought here to kill her.

two

Harsh walked out of the main house and stood at the bottom of the steps, head tipped to the sky. Not a cloud in sight and not even a hint of fog yet. He was rarely comfortable when he visited what he considered unfriendly locations and this place was exceptionally unfriendly.

Another ripple of awareness slid down his spine, as malign as anything he’d felt in his life. The sense of something not right hadn’t let up once since he and Kynan got out of the car. Whatever that goddamned mage Infante had going here, it was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. He was fast approaching the point where he was done asking questions and waiting for answers.

No, this encounter was not going well. At all. His dislike of what he’d seen so far pushed him in the direction of precipitous action. Decisions made in the heat of emotion were rarely wise, but Giuseppe Infante set his teeth on edge. Not just Infante, but Infante and this entire compound.

Kynan joined him. Unlike Harsh, he didn’t bother admiring the scenery. Kynan Aijan was all about violence as a way to remind others of their character flaws. He didn’t believe in half-measures or interim steps, so Harsh was prepared for attitude from him. He got it.

“There’s no point working with this asshole.”

“He’s a mage.” A human who could do magic. Most humans with magical ability didn’t understand what they were, but some, like Infante, did. They studied the art. Honed their skills. They believed they had a sacred calling to protect innocent humans from demons. Like him. Like Kynan Aijan.

“Fucking mages,” Kynan said.

The landscape was a deceptively bland palette of browns and greens because it was October and there hadn’t yet been enough rain to turn the hills green. In this part of California, October weather was often hot, as it was today. Most of the vegetation was the color of sand, or was faintly reddish, and set amid the dusty green of some hardscrabble plant that thrived in the salty air. To the east, the hills behind the compound were the gentle, rolling sort. There wasn’t a house in sight besides the one they’d just walked out of. “He has a legitimate complaint.”

“I have a complaint about him.” Kynan wasn’t shy with his opinions about anything. “He has a house full of magehelds.”

“That will be addressed in due course.” Times like this he hated politics. He truly did. He and Kynan were sworn to the demon warlord Nikodemus, and Nikodemus wanted peace, and if not peace, then a truce. Part of Harsh’s job was to broker a detente between the magekind and the demonkind—the kin, as they called themselves.

“We ought to call in a crew and fucking enforce the rules right now. Strip him of his magehelds, sic Paisley on his sorry ass, and send in Leonidas to do some reeducation.”

As usual, Kynan was morally right and politically wrong. Harsh’s own opinion was that the politics were bullshit. Utter bullshit. The longer he had to play this game, the more he wanted to institute the nuclear option. He sighed and glanced at Kynan. A year ago, the warlord couldn’t have been trusted on this excursion. A year ago Harsh would have refused to bring him. “Giuseppe Infante has friends in high places. Let’s not piss him off if it’s not necessary.”

“Fuck Infante, and fuck his friends.” Kynan looked in the direction of that shed.

There was a reason Kynan Aijan, for all that he had more power in his little finger than most of the kin had in their whole bodies, wasn’t leading the negotiations. The problem now was that Harsh didn’t disagree. They ought to level the place and be done with Infante and whatever the hell he had trapped in that shed.

Harsh walked away from the house, west, toward the ocean and the sun, but the slither of foreboding down his spine didn’t stop. That goddamned shed. Still baking in the sun. Recognition of the woman inside zinged through him. Always an unpleasant shock when it hit hard like this. More than human.

The inside of the structure was dark, but he saw enough to know she wasn’t in his line of sight. He moved to change his point of view into the shed. All he saw was more weathered redwood boards. She was in there and had been all day. In this fuck-awful last-gasp of summer heat that wasn’t yet relieved by even a hint of breeze from the ocean.

Kynan followed. “I say we talk to her now.”

He stared at the shed and thought about the woman he’d seen staring out the window at them. She hadn’t looked like a stone-cold killer. But then, neither did Kynan. He didn’t like this. At all. Everything about Infante stank. Everything about his compound felt off. Why would the only thing Infante wasn’t lying about be in that shed? “And ask her what?”

“How about ‘Addison fucking O’Henry, did you ritually murder a mageheld and then try to kill Giuseppe Infante?’ If the answer’s yes, I’ll do the needful, and we can go home happy.” He brushed his palms against each other in his imaginary clean up after expressing some of his violent tendencies.

Infante was still inside the house with his toothy smile and three-hundred year old eyes looking at the world from the face of a forty year old man, and it made him sick to think of how that happened. How many of the kin had Infante killed in order to maintain his youthful appearance? He stared at the sky in an attempt to get some other image fixed in his head. This time of year, dusk was at least three hours away, but, at last, he didn’t think he imagined a hint of fog when he breathed in. He tasted salt and listened to the faint roar of the ocean and the keen of seagulls.

To their right, a man in faded jeans and a plaid shirt walked from the stables toward another of the outbuildings, taking the path that took the widest arc from him and Kynan. The man was a nullity. Not human. Not mage. No wonder Kynan wanted to call in a team to take care of the abomination of this place. “How many of them?”

“I counted fifteen just like that one.”

It was too fucking hot out here. He wished he’d taken off his suit jacket when he was inside, but with Infante setting him off, he didn’t want to waste the seconds it might take to snatch his coat if he had to leave quickly. “Let me ask the questions.”

Kynan bowed and made an after you gesture.

There was no sound inside the shed, a ten-by-ten wooden structure with one window and a rippled tin roof. The thing looked like one good wind would blow it down. There was old chicken shit encrusted on several of the boards. A rickety porch led to the door, but he and Kynan stopped well short of that. Someone had set up some very nasty wards to keep her in there.

Kynan put his hands on his hips and shook his head. “Now that is just fucked up.”

“What?”

“Sloppy work.” Kynan meant the wards. “They must have been in a panic when they did that.”

A dark shape appeared in the window. She didn’t come too close. Who would with wards like that set? She let out a soft laugh, but there was a rasp underneath, a gritty, painful sound. “What, I don’t even get a last meal?”

He held up a hand to forestall whatever inappropriate remark Kynan was about to make. “Am I speaking to Addison O’Henry?”

“My friends call me Awesome.”

Kynan snorted.

“Bad joke that stuck.” She coughed, a dry sound. Guarded. As if she were trying not to cause herself pain. “Used to be funny. It’s not anymore.”

“It would help if you would affirmatively state your name.”

She laughed again, and he could feel the dryness of her throat and how hard she was working to speak. “Wouldn’t want to execute the wrong person.”

“Among other things, yes.”

“Whatever.” Exhaustion edged the word. Not resignation, exhaustion. “My name is Addison O’Henry.”

“Thank you.” He took a step toward the porch.

“I wouldn’t get too close.” Her raspy whisper carried. “This place is booby trapped somehow.”

“We are aware.” He motioned to Kynan. “But thank you for the warning.”

Kynan approached the shed and spent all of fifteen seconds taking stock of what had been done to make sure Addison O’Henry didn’t get out. And, it would seem, that she would suffer while she was in there. “Shield yourself. It’s going to hurt when I blow these wards.”

There was, Harsh felt, a confusion in her silence.

“There’s nothing in here but me.”

Kynan made a face. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Well, what am I supposed to shield myself with?”

Still with his hands on his hips, Kynan rolled his eyes. “Your fucking magic.”

She didn’t move from the window. “I don’t know how to do that.”

Harsh frowned. She was earnest, much more convincing than Infante, for example, but then it wouldn’t be hard to be a better liar than Infante.

“Right. You keep telling yourself that,” Kynan said.

“Asshole.”

“Honey, you better duck and cover.” Kynan waited for her shadow to disappear from the window. She didn’t move. “Would you just do it? In five, four, three—”

“Wait!”

“What?”

Harsh stared into the shed, but she’d positioned herself out of his sight.

“I don’t have any clothes.”

Kynan was predictably crass. “I’m a tit man. How do you stack up in the tit department?” She didn’t answer, and the silence sent a chill down Harsh’s spine. Kynan, oblivious, grinned. “Not good?”

“Kynan.” Harsh failed to keep the irritation from his voice.

“That’s too bad.” Kynan looked over his shoulder. “Harsh here likes a tight ass. Are you a tight ass?”

“If you touch me, I will kill you.” The power that carried in her voice gave Harsh a jolt. Maybe Infante wasn’t lying about her.

“Honey.” Kynan laughed. “That’s not nice.”

He didn’t like this. At all. “Kynan, please.”

“Awesome, you better duck. Harsh, naked chick in two, one.”

The pulse of Kynan’s magic was smooth as silk and unbelievably efficient. Leaves on the trees closest to the shed rustled, and the window and door bowed outward then snapped back. The air around the shed heated several degrees from the wards he’d vaporized without breaking a sweat. He made it look easy, and it wasn’t. There were probably fewer than a dozen of the kin left who had that kind of power. The crack of the window breaking sounded like a gunshot.

Harsh whipped off his coat and stepped in front of Kynan. Residue from the wards scattered along his skin, popping and crackling. He had to give the door a hard push to get it open, and when it hung broken in the middle, the hot, fetid air made him wish he’d let Kynan go first. Behind him the warlord made a choking sound. Harsh took a deep breath before he went inside, his coat held up and open.

Addison O’Henry lay in a heap in the middle of the floor, one arm over her head. The other had fallen to her side. As she’d claimed, she was naked, but since she was face down he didn’t see much. Other than the faint movement of her ribs, she wasn’t moving. With clinical detachment, honed during his years in hospitals, he noted the contusions on her back, shoulders, and the exposed part of her arms. Most were consistent with blunt force, getting knocked against a wall, for example, by a ward going off. But there were some, the ones high around her thighs and upper arms that were better explained by fingers pressing hard. There were a lot of fading scrapes and new ones, too. He smelled blood, but did not yet see where it was coming from.

Kynan stepped in behind him just as Harsh got his coat over her. “There’s nothing in here.”

“She did warn us.” The walls and floor were faded gray redwood planks, rough hewn but weathered and warped enough in places that, but for those wards, breaking out of here would have been child’s play.

“Jesus, it stinks.”

Psychically speaking, Harsh didn’t get anything from her; not good. Not good at all. Out of habit, he set two fingers over her carotid. Thready pulse. Clammy skin. Strange the way he noticed the darkness of his fingers against her pasty throat. Unless he altered his human form from his default appearance, he was brown, not white. Ms. O’Henry was as white as they come.

Kynan walked to the broken door and looked out, which was decent of him since it left Harsh free to get her arms into the sleeves of his coat without Kynan getting a look at her. Her right nipple was pierced, but that was a well-healed wound. That hadn’t been done here. A year ago, Kynan wouldn’t have had the decency to look away. Two years ago, Addison O’Henry would have already been dead. Three years ago? Kynan would have taken his time before she was dead. Sometimes, Harsh wondered whether Kynan had changed or whether he’d just gotten better at controlling those impulses.

Nothing about her condition made him very happy with Infante. Bruises covered her forearms, her hips, and the inside of her thighs. There were bite marks in all the places where it was easy to draw blood. Fangs, not teeth. Some of them were new.

From the doorway, Kynan said, “Infante called Nikodemus about her two days ago.”

“I know that.” The call had been about a demon who was attacking humans and who, during the supposed rampage, had attempted to kill Infante. Since Infante was negotiating with Nikodemus about whether he was going to accept a truce, both Harsh and Nikodemus had thought it politic to help Infante with his problem demon. As a show of good faith. Harsh didn’t have much love for mages who thought nothing of treating any living creature like this.

Her head was so recently shaved, her hair hadn’t even begun to grow back yet. Odd, that, since she was definitely not mageheld. The process of enslaving a demon included cutting the demon’s hair. A buzz cut was one of the physical hallmarks of a mageheld. In her case, she’d been shaved bald, which made the contusion at the back of her head—an injury that wasn’t recent enough to have happened in here—all the more obvious.

Given the timing of Infante’s call, likely, she’d been locked in this shed for going on three days now. Anyone who went inside, to give her food or water, for example, or bring her a bucket in which to relieve herself, would have had to destroy and recreate the magic that imprisoned her. Plainly, that had not been done.

With the weather this time of year, the shed would have been cold at night and hot in the afternoon. She must have been suffocating in there this afternoon and every other one since they put her in here. Whatever crimes she’d committed didn’t justify this. Harsh scanned her bruises and the bite marks and didn’t like his conclusion about what had happened to her. One thing she wasn’t, though, was Infante’s slave.

“Wake her up, Harsh. The asshole is headed this way with six of his best and brightest.”

“Will do.” He drew a small amount of magic and let that pulse through her.

She twitched, he did it again, and then her eyes popped open. Not instantly aware, which was interesting, since the kin did not experience states between conscious and unconscious. Those middle states were human reactions.

For several seconds she was groggy-eyed. He had to help her to her feet. He yanked on his coat and got her covered decently enough. She was medium height. Maybe five-six. Young, he thought, though with people like her it was never wise to confuse apparent age with chronological age. Her apparent age was early twenties at best.

Now that she was conscious, he was aware of the extent of her power, and it was not insignificant. To a frightening degree. No wonder Infante had locked her up. If she’d gone on attack, the mage might not have had the magical chops to control her, which would explain a failed attempt at enslaving her.

Harsh maintained his grip on her arm and continued to breathe through his mouth. The remnants of the wards and Kynan’s magic swirled around the interior of the shed; tiny flashes of color in the air and a few painful and nauseating pinpricks of contact. She looked too young to be this dangerous.

The more aware she became, the more human she felt. He reminded himself Infante had accused her of ritual murder and attempted murder. Her age, real or apparent, was not relevant at the moment. The conditions of her captivity, however, were. Her injuries definitely were. He got another dose of her power and decided he and Kynan couldn’t afford to take chances.

“Jesus, “Kynan said. “She’s been fucked over.”

He privately agreed, but that was no excuse for not taking precautions. “Lock her down, warlord. I don’t want any accidents.”

A whisper of something swept through the air. The woman groaned, but her consciousness winked into being along with an increased recognition of her as more than human. Other than human. His heart rate settled down once Kynan had her cut off from her magic. Considering how much she had, that was a damn good thing.

“Thank you.”

“No problem.” Kynan kept his distance from the stench.

She wavered on her legs, got her balance back, then blinked several times. She swallowed gingerly then focused on him. At first he had the unsettling impression that her eyes were damaged, but that was because her irises were such a pale blue they were almost white. She squinted and rasped, “Who are you?”

“Harsh Marit.”

She continued to gaze at him, and Harsh could not shake the conviction that she was as young as she appeared. Ridiculous, since that kind of power in someone who was genetically human was incompatible with youth. “Hello, Harsh Marit. I’m Awesome.”

“Well, Awesome, how about we get you outside?”

“Can’t.” She shook her head. His psychic impression of her mental state was that she was not as sharp as before she ended up in the middle of Kynan’s work. She was not yet completely aware of her surroundings or her situation. “Get blown clear across the room every time I go near that door.”

“That’s been taken care of.” The smell was too pungent to tolerate so he propelled her out the door and far enough away from the shed to be upwind of the breeze. Kynan, he noted, did the same. She walked as if she didn’t feel the gravel under her bare feet. She should.

Harsh stared at her. He knew damn well she wasn’t safe and couldn’t be trusted. No one here could be trusted. But there some something wrong with this whole set up. She looked half-starved and her eyes were huge in her face, an artifact, in part, of her shaved head. Even knowing that, he wanted to put her in his car and drive her somewhere so he could feed her a decent meal.

Her head whipped toward the house, and she went completely and utterly still. Magic whirled through her even though Kynan had cut her off. The warlord leaned in and said, “Shut it down.”

She tilted her head back to get a better look at Kynan. Her reaction to him made the hair on the back of Harsh’s neck stand up. “I don’t know what you mean.”

In daylight, her bruises and other injuries were appalling. She rocked up on her toes and back down, one hand on her head. Two fingers probed the lump at the back of her head, but she didn’t so much as wince.

Kynan gave her a hard look. “How the hell did you not blow that asshole to hell?”

“I—” Her mouth worked. A choked sound bubbled out of her, and she doubled over. Blood trickled from her mouth and her legs crumpled. Despite Harsh’s grip on her arm she landed on her knees, her free hand slamming onto the ground. She dry heaved, and then spit out a mouthful of blood. His coat was askew and exposing more of her than any woman would want to show two men she didn’t know.

Kynan bent down and touched her shoulder, and the storm of magically induced pain leaking from her eased at about the same time Giuseppe Infante arrived with his magehelds.

three

Once again Harsh crouched beside Addison O’Henry whose friends called her Awesome. At least now he only smelled stale sweat. Her stomach heaved again, and she spit up more blood. He got an echo of psychic pain from her that reeked of that peculiar and unpleasant marker of what happened when a demon was attempting to do serious harm to a human via an indwell; possession was another word for that. He shot a look at Infante. “Tell your mageheld to stop whatever he’s doing to her. Now.”

Infante moved close, crowding in with his magehelds in a pathetic play at intimidation. Asshole. “If you won’t take care of the bitch, I will. She’s dangerous.”

“That was not a request.” Harsh had a good guess about which one of the magehelds had been ordered to attempt the indwell. In fact, he wondered if Infante hadn’t planned this all along. After three days in that shed, she’d deteriorated to the point were it wouldn’t take nearly as much to kill her. He rose from his crouch. “If you do not order your mageheld to stop, I will lay him out so hard you’ll feel the rebound in your ass.”

Infante pointed at a mageheld who wasn’t doing anything but standing there waiting for the mage to make a mistake. That was a downside to enslaving a demon instead of killing it outright. There were stories, apocryphal he was quite sure, about magehelds who found a way to kill the mage who held them enslaved. If Kynan Aijan couldn’t find a way to make that happen during the years he’d been mageheld, then Harsh doubted anyone else had managed it. God knows he never had.

The woman convulsed, but she was fighting, and that was either a miracle or a mistake, considering how close she was to a fatal cardiovascular event.

He shot a glance at Infante. “Now.”

The mage snapped his fingers at the mageheld who wasn’t doing a damn thing. “No more. But keep an eye on her. She goes after anyone, you can fucking take her head off for all I care.”

Infante’s attempt to convince him he’d done as asked was absurd. Ludicrous, actually. Her convulsion ended, but her breathing turned choppy and shallow. Harsh kept a hand on her, pushing enough magic into her to force her heart rate down to something less than three hundred beats per minute. His efforts had little to no effect.

“Did you hear what he said?” Kynan took a step toward the mage. His eyes were flecked with gold. If Kynan lost control, they were going to be in a world of trouble. Harsh wasn’t so sure he wanted to stop him, if he did.

“Infante.” Harsh knew he’d spoken too sharply. Anger begat anger, and that was not what they needed here. He dug deep for calm. “We seem to have had a miscommunication.”

“I don’t know what you mean.” The mage raised his hands in an I’m innocent manner. “I’m not doing anything.”

Then again, sometimes soft words just didn’t work, and you had to bring out the big stick. “Kynan, take them down. All of them.”

One of the magehelds let out a grunt and hit the ground hard. The warlord did like the more violent punishments. Kynan’s hand shot out and another one went down. Infante turned red, but he made a sharp gesture in the direction of another mageheld.

The woman gasped once and went still. Her pulse dropped into the realm of normal.

Kynan’s hand remained around the third mageheld’s throat. “She all right?”

He smoothed a hand across her forehead. Not a wrinkle or line in sight. “I don’t know.”

“Well, find out, would you? I need to know if I get to kill this piece of shit.”

He frowned, immersed in following his train of thought about how a human woman ended up like this when she had none of the magical ability that would make her one of the magekind.

“Harsh? Is she okay or do I need to drop this one, too?”

He waited for her pulse to regulate, then slipped a hand under her upper arm and tugged gently. “Let him go.”

Kynan shoved the mageheld back. “Too bad.”

Harsh gestured at Kynan. “Get her under control again.”

Addison’s eyes flew open, and she lunged upward, her free arm flailing. A scream tore from her throat, rough, desperate and incoherent. The sound sliced through him, and with it came the kind panic that overwhelmed. If he’d not had a firm grip on her, she might have escaped. She wouldn’t have gotten far, naturally. He held her until her initial response bottomed out. Not so incoherent, now, but not in control of herself, either.

Her mind was wide open to him, and he fell into the psychic connection, drowned in it. Images leapt from her to him; unwanted, unwelcome, and so vivid he could practically touch each and every one of those recollections. They came colored with disbelief. Denial. Horror. She hooked into him without focus, without any intent to do harm or to seek solace, for that matter.

The private wards he had in place thinned dangerously. “Warlord!”

“Got her,” Kynan said.

The connection between them shut down.

“Ms. O’Henry.” His sharp tone penetrated because at last she turned her head to look at him. Her too-big eyes were a stark and icy blue. With full respect for her abilities, whatever the source, he touched her forehead and pulled her back to the present. She slapped away his hand, but he let that pass. For now. When he was certain she was back, he said, “You will be not harmed. My word on it.”

She used him for leverage to steady herself. At the last minute he remembered to get out of the way enough for her to keep his suit jacket closed around her. He’d fastened just one of the buttons, not that it made much difference, seeing as two of her could have fit in it.

Infante crowded in again, but Kynan blocked him by being a hell of a lot bigger. Simple, but effective. The mage pushed him. Kynan didn’t budge, and Infante reacted with predictable fury. He had plenty of vitriol to go around, the mage did. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, you fucking bastard hotblood?”

Harsh summoned his blandest expression. Without much success, it seemed, since the mage stopped in his tracks. Then again, maybe it was Kynan’s glower that made Infante back down. The magekind were a trying lot of assholes. He wanted to take the woman’s side just because Infante was so annoying.

“I’m damned lucky she didn’t cut me open the way she did my mageheld.” Infante appeared to believe he deserved Harsh’s sympathy. Poor mage, losing a slave who would not have died if he’d been free. “Well?” Infante said.

“Well, what?” Harsh was delighted to pretend he was baffled.

“Take care of her.” Infante and his magehelds moved closer again.

Kynan stepped in front of Addison. His focus locked on Infante, not the magehelds, because the power to command those magehelds came from the mage. No one knew that better than Kynan Aijan.

Head cocked to one side, eyebrows arched, Infante made a rude gesture. “Are you two out of your minds? For fuck’s sake, she’s dangerous, or didn’t I make that clear?” Harsh felt the pull of Kynan’s magic, and so did everyone else. The mage’s flush deepened. “Are you threatening me? You.” He gestured to the mageheld who’d been trying the indwell. “Get her back in that shed. All of you. Double the warding this time.”

That brought another warning growl from Kynan. “Your guy comes one step closer, he’s dead.”

The mage grinned in a way that showed his teeth. His gaze flicked to Harsh. “I should have known you fucking demons can’t be trusted.”

Kynan leaned forward. “I don’t give a shit what you think.”

“Tell your magehelds to step back,” Harsh said. “All of them.”

“Tell that monster to back off.” He stabbed a finger in Kynan’s direction.

He made sure he kept a straight face. “Kynan. You’re frightening the mage.”

“So?”

“So frighten him a little less, please.” Harsh didn’t relax when Kynan complied. He didn’t relax when Infante’s magehelds mirrored the retreat, either. No one, in his opinion, had backed off enough.

“You want to prove you’re serious about this deal with Nikodemus,” Infante said, “you deal with her now. She’s a killer. A cold-blooded murderer. Or does Nikodemus not mean what he says about protecting my kind from your kind when they attack?”

Harsh sent a meaningful glance at Addison, who even now was barely conscious. “Yes, a grave and immediate threat.”

“She killed five of my magehelds. Unprovoked.” Infante drew on his magic, and Harsh decided if the mage used any of it, he was a dead man.

At Harsh’s side, Addison lifted her head. He tightened his grip on her upper arm. “It is a shame you find yourself with five fewer slaves. But you’ve only yourself to blame for that.”

“Take care of her the way you promised or there’s no goddamned deal.”

The woman stared at Infante with an intensity that sent a chill down Harsh’s spine, and that made him wonder, again, if Infante didn’t have a point. “Fuck you,” she croaked. “Fuck you to hell—”

Infante backhanded her. Her head snapped back. Harsh caught the mage’s wrist in one hand to keep him from hitting her again. “That’s enough.”

At the same time, Kynan growled, and his hand snapped out. He struck the nearest mageheld in the center of its forehead. The demon’s head jerked back, and then it collapsed. “You touch her one more time, and I’ll fuck up the rest of them, too.” He looked over his shoulder at her. “Awesome. Did you try to kill this asshole mage?”

“Yes.”

“Did someone order you to kill him?”

“No.”

“Did you kill his magehelds?” Harsh asked.

“I don’t know.”

Kynan laughed, but it wasn’t a joyous sound. “You don’t know if you cut out some poor fuck’s heart?” That had to be conjecture on Kynan’s part, but whenever there were mages and knives, some demon died horribly. A ritual murder, even one gone wrong, would explain how a human ended up feeling like kin. “I think that’s something you’d remember.”

“I didn’t do that.”

There was something ugly in the way Infante stared at the woman, but the mage kept his distance this time. “You heard her. She admits she attacked me. What more do you need?”

“Ms. O’Henry, please do not move.” Harsh reached into his coat pocket, an awkward motion, since she was wearing it, and fished out his fob. He pressed it without taking his attention off the woman, Infante, or his magehelds. The Mercedes beeped. “I realize that we do not yet have a formal agreement, but I assure you Nikodemus takes an attack on any mage in his territory quite seriously.”

“Terminate her now. So I know Nikodemus means what he says.” Infante was practically spitting, and Harsh was losing patience. At the moment, she was no threat to anyone. She was still cut off her from her magic, as well as physically injured and at the edge of collapse.

“And I have told you that we will deal with this very serious matter.”

“Buncha fucking liars, all of you hotbloods.”

“If she needs to be terminated, that will be done.”

“I want her dead now.”

Addison’s mental status sharpened. “What you did to me—”

The leading edge of Infante’s magic glanced through Harsh on its way to Addison, and it hurt. It fucking hurt. Locked down as she was and physically weakened, she was defenseless. She rocked back on her heels and let out a soft grunt before she went limp. If Kynan hadn’t moved quickly, she would have crashed to the ground.

Harsh took two steps forward and closed the fingers of one hand around the mage’s throat. Infante’s eyes bugged out. “I’m going to enjoy watching you die.”

“Whoa. Hey.” With his free hand, Kynan grabbed Harsh’s wrist and yanked. A gurgling sound came from the mage’s open mouth.

The magic Harsh kept warded off battered his defenses against it, roaring to be let free to deal with this asshole Giuseppe Infante. No competition. Ever. Harsh’s stomach turned at the thought that he might lose control of those wards even as his fingers tightened on Infante.

Kynan put a hand on Harsh’s shoulder, and if he understood how close Harsh was to losing his internal struggle, he didn’t let on. “Hey. My friend. Mages need to breathe.”

He pushed all that sick and sickening magic away. Locked it away tighter yet. He loosened his fingers, but didn’t remove them because he didn’t trust the mage. Not for a second.

Infante sucked in a breath and stared into Harsh’s eyes. “Get your filthy hands off me.”

“No.”

He shook his head several times. “Maybe you’re the one needs to die.”

Harsh didn’t answer.

“Does Nikodemus know about you?”

“He does.”

Infante drew on his magic again, and Harsh was right back at the edge of losing it. Kynan’s fingers tightened on his shoulder. “You’re an abomination,” the mage said. He took a step back, out of Harsh’s grip. “You and her and every goddamned monster like you.” He flicked his fingers underneath his chin. “You ought to be dead or under control, every one of you. Starting with that bitch who tried to murder me.”

With the sizzle of that other magic still filling him, and without looking away from the mage, he said, “Is she all right, Kynan?”

“Still breathing.”

He glanced to his left. Kynan had the woman tight against his side, but she was out cold. Decision made. “She’s coming with us. If you do anything to prevent that, I will tell Kynan Aijan to level every single building on this property.”

“How about we save time and I do that now?” Kynan said.

Harsh glared at the mage. “Understood?”

Infante made a show of straightening his coat. “Your promises are bullshit.”

“Get her in the car, Kynan.”

The warlord swung her into his arms and headed for the Mercedes. Harsh kept his arms free, and his spine went cold when the mage slowly smiled.

“I can help you.” Infante wiggled his fingers at Harsh’s midsection. “With your little problem.”

“No, thank you.”

He laughed. “So what if you didn’t pass the test when you were three? Oh, come off it. You aren’t one of the ancient ones like that monster you brought with you. You grew up human. Don’t deny you were tested.”

The magekind tested all their children for magical ability at the age of three. The ones who failed were abandoned or adopted out. Harsh had been adopted.

“We’re more open minded about freaks like you these days. In fact, we have a lot in common.”

“I am not one of you.”

Infante stopped grinning. “Some demon raped your mother, and you’re on their side? You ought to be protecting humans from that shit. You ought to cut yourself loose from these hotblood bastards and accept what you are.”

“Respectfully, I decline.”

“Like I said, I can help you.”

“No thank you.” He whirled and headed for the car.

“Traitor.”

The word followed Harsh all the way to the car. Kynan, standing with one arm on the roof and the other on the open driver’s-side door, lifted a hand for the keys. Harsh threw the fob at him and slid into the back seat with the once again unconscious woman.

He wondered if she would still be alive tomorrow.