Saturday, October 25, 2014

Dark Blood by Christine Feehan

Dark Blood

  (Dark #26)



At long last you are truly back with us…

Zev Hunter was an elite warrior, a dark-blood dealer of death to rogue Lycans who preyed on mankind. He was a loner, never given to personal attachments, and damned fierce at his job. But Zev begins to question his past and his purpose when he awakens in the darkness of the sacred cave of warriors—and is soothed back to consciousness by the sensuously familiar voice of one woman, the woman who has haunted his fantasies for centuries. She was Branislava, member of the Dragonseeker clan…

Mother Earth called the ancients to witness your rebirth…

For this half-mage, half-Carpathian temptress, the ritual of awakening Zev to the council of warriors was the only way to save him. Locked away for his own protection, the time has now come for his rebirth, for his blood to stir with that of the ancient warriors before him. He has been assured by Branislava that their fates are entwined, that their spirits are woven together for eternity and that his new purpose in life is beyond imagining.

Now, with a blood-sworn vow of honor, mercy and endurance, and under the influence of a siren as bewitching as Branislava, Zev begins to wonder what his purpose is, what it means for the future of the Carpathians and what it is about his rebirth that he has to fear…


Sound came to him first. A low drumming beat growing louder. Zev Hunter felt the vibration of that rhythmic booming throughout his entire body. It hurt. Each separate beat seemed to echo through his flesh and bone, reverberating through his tissue and cells, jarring him until he thought he might shake apart.
He didn’t move. It was too much of an effort even to open his eyes and figure out what that disturbing, insistent call was—or why it wouldn’t go away. If he opened his eyes he would have to move, and that would hurt like hell. If he stayed very still, he could keep the pain at bay, even though he felt as if he was floating in a sea of agony.
He laid there for a long time, his mind wandering to a place of peace. He knew the way there now, a small oasis in a world of excruciating pain. He found the wide, cool pool of blue inviting water, the wind touching the surface so that ripples danced. The surrounding forest was lush and green, the trees tall, trunks wide. A small waterfall trickled down the rocks to the pool, the sound soothing.
Zev waited, holding his breath. She always came when he was there, moving slowly out of the trees into the clearing. She wore a long dress and a cape of blue velvet, the hood over her long hair so that he only caught glimpses of her face. The dress clung to her figure, her full breasts and small waist, the corset top emphasizing every curve. The skirt of the dress was full, falling over her hips to the ground.
She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Her body was graceful, fluid, an ethereal, elusive woman who always beckoned to him with a soft smile and a small hand gesture. He wanted to follow her into the cool forest—he was Lycan, the wolf lived inside of him preferred the forest to the open—but he couldn’t move, not even for her.
He stayed where he was and simply drank her in. He wasn’t a man clever words came easily to, so he said nothing at all. She never approached him, never closed the distance between them, but somehow, it never mattered. She was there. He wasn’t alone. He found that as long as she was close to him, the terrible pain eased.
For the first time though, something disturbed his peaceful place. The booming beat found him, so loud now that the ground lifted and fell with an ominous, troubling thump. The water rippled again, but this time he knew it wasn’t the wind causing the water to ring from the middle of the pool outward. The drumbeat throbbed through the earth, jarring not only his body, but everything else.
The trees felt it. He heard the sap running deep in the trunk and branches. Leaves fluttered wildly as if answering the deep booming call. The sound of water grew louder, no longer a soft trickling over rocks, not a steady drip, but a rush that swelled with the same ebb and flow as the sap in the trees. Like veins and arteries flowing beneath the very earth surrounding him, making its way toward every living thing.
You hear it now.
She spoke for the first time. Her voice was soft and melodious, not carried on the wind, but rather on breath. One moment she was on the other side of that small pool of water, and the next she was sinking down into the tall grass, leaning over him, close to him, her lips nearly skimming his.
He could taste cinnamon. Spice. Honey. All of it on her breath. Or was it her skin?
His Lycan senses, usually so good at scent, seemed confused. Her lashes were incredibly long and very dark, surrounding her emerald eyes. A true emerald. So green they were startling. He’d seen those eyes before. There was no mistaking them. Her bow of a mouth was a man’s perfect fantasy, her lips full and naturally red.
The booming continued, a steady, insistent beat. He felt it through his back and legs, a jarring pulse that refused to leave him alone. Through his skin, he seemed to follow the path of water running beneath him, bringing life-giving nutrients.
You feel it, don’t you? She insisted softly.
He couldn’t look away. Her gaze held his captive. He wasn’t the kind of man to allow anything or anyone to ensnare him. He forced his head to work—that first movement that he knew would cost him dearly. He nodded. He waited for the pain to rip him apart, but aside from a little burst through his neck and temples, that quickly subsided, the expected agony never came.
What is it?
He frowned, concentrating. The sound continued without a break, so steady, so strong and rhythmic, he would have said it was a heart, but the sound was too deep and too loud. Still, it was a pulse that called to him just as it called to the trees and grass as if they were all tied together. The trees. The grass. The water. The woman. And him.
You know what it is.
Zev didn’t want to tell her. If he said the words, he would have to face his life again. A cold, utterly lonely existence of blood and death. He was an elite hunter, a dealer of death to rogue packs—Lycans turned werewolves and preying on mankind—and he was damned good at his job.
The booming grew louder, more insistent, a dark heralding of life. There was nowhere to hide from it. Nowhere to run even if he could run. He knew exactly what it was now. He knew where the sound originated as it spread out from a center deep beneath him.
Tell me, Hän ku pesäk kaikak, what is it you hear?
The melodic notes of her voice drifted through his pores and found their way into his body. He could feel the soft musical sound wrapping itself around his heart and sinking into his bones. Her breath teased his face, warm and soft and so fresh, like the gentlest of breezes fanning his warm skin. His lungs seemed to follow the rhythm of hers, almost as if she breathed for him, not just with him.
Hän ku pesäk kaikak. Where had he heard that before? She called him that as if she expected him to know what it meant, but it was in a language he was certain he didn’t speak— and he knew he spoke many.
The drumbeat sounded louder, closer, as if he was surrounded on all sides by many drums keeping the exact beat, but he knew that wasn’t so. The pounding pulse came from below him—and it was summoning him.
There was no way to ignore it, no matter how much he wanted to. He knew now, that it wouldn’t stop not ever, not unless he answered the call.
It is the heartbeat of the earth itself.
She smiled and her emerald eyes seemed to take on the multi-faceted cut of the gems he’d seen adorning women, although a thousand times more brilliant.
She nodded her head very slowly. At long last you are truly back with us. Mother Earth has called to you. You are being summoned to the warrior’s council. It is a great honor.
Whispers drifted through his mind like fingers of fog. He couldn’t seem to retain actual words, but male voices rose and fell all around him, as if he were surrounded. The sensation of heat hit him. Real heat. Choking. Burning. His lungs refused to work, to pull in much needed air. When he tried to open his eyes, nothing happened. He was locked in his mind far from whatever was happening to his body.
The woman leaned closer, her lips brushing against his. His heart stuttered. She barely touched him, feather-light, but it was the most intimate sensation he’d ever experienced. Her mouth was exquisite. Perfection. A fantasy. Her lips moved over his again, soft and warm, melting into him. She breathed into his mouth, a soft airy breath of clean, fresh air. Once again he tasted her. Cinnamon. Spice. Honey.
Breathe, Zev. You are both Lycan and Carpathian and you can breathe anywhere when you choose. Just breathe.
He was not Sange rau.
No, not Sange rau, you are Hän ku pesäk kaikak. You are a guardian.
The breath she had exchanged with him continued to move through his body. He could almost track its progress as if that precious air was a stream of white finding its way through a maze until it filled his lungs. He actually felt her breath enter his lungs, inflating them.
I’m not dreaming, am I?
She smiled at him. A man might kill for one of her smiles.
No, Zev, you’re not dreaming. You are in the sacred cave of warriors. Mother Earth called the ancients to witness your rebirth.
He had no idea what she was talking about, but things were beginning to come back to him. Sange rau was a combination of rogue wolf and vampire blood mixed together. Hän ku pesäk kaikak was Lycan and Carpathian blood mixed. He wasn’t certain what or where the sacred caves of warriors was and he didn’t like the word ‘rebirth’.
Why can’t I move?
You are coming to life. You have been locked away from us for some time.
Not from you.
She had been with him while he was locked in that dark place of pain and madness. If there was one thing he knew for absolute certain, she had been there. He couldn’t move on, because he hadn’t been able to leave her.
He remembered that voice, soft and pleading. Stay. Stay with me. Her voice had locked them both in a sea of agony that seemed endless.
Not endless. You are awakening.
He might be waking, but the pain was still there. He took a moment to let himself absorb it. She was correct, the pain was subsiding to a tolerable level, but the heat surrounding him was burning his body. Without the air she’d given him, he would be choking, strangling, desperate.
Think what body temperature you wish. You are Carpathian. Embrace who you are.
Her voice never changed. She didn’t seem impatient with his lack of knowledge. Before, when she was a distance from him, she hadn’t been aloof, she simply waited. Now she felt different, as if she expected something from him.
What the hell? If she said to think about a different body temperature other than the one burning his flesh from his bones, he could give her that. He chose a normal temperature and held that in his mind. She spoke to him without words, telepathically, so she must be able to see he was doing as she asked.
At once, the burning sensation ceased to be. He took a gasping breath. Heat filled his lungs, but there was air as well. He knew her. Only one woman could speak to him as she did. Mind to mind. He knew her now. How could he have ever forgotten who she was?
How had she gotten trapped with him in such a terrible place? He sent up a small prayer of thanks that he hadn’t left her there. She had been the one to whisper to him. Stay. Stay with me. He should have recognized her voice, a soft sweet melody that was forever stamped into his bones.
You recognize me. She smiled at him again and he felt her fingers brush along his jaw and then go up to his forehead, brushing back strands of hair falling into his face.
Her touch brought pleasure, not pain. A small electrical current ran from his forehead down to his belly, tightening his muscles. The current went lower, coiling heat in his groin. He could feel something besides pain and wouldn’t you know it would be desire?
It seemed absurd to him that he hadn’t known all along whom she was. She was the one woman. The only woman. The woman. He’d known women, of course. He’d lived too long not to. He was a hunter, an elite hunter and he was never in one place long. He didn’t form attachments. Women didn’t rob him of breath, or put him under spells. He didn’t think about them night and day. Or fantasize. Or want one for his own.
Until her. Branislava. She wasn’t Lycan. She didn’t talk much. She looked like an angel and moved like a temptress. Her voice beckoned like a siren’s call. She had looked at him with those unusual eyes and smiled with that perfect mouth, inciting all sorts of erotic fantasies. When they danced, just that one unforgettable time, her body had fit into his, melted into his, until she was imprinted there for all time, into his skin, into his bones.
Every single rule he’d ever made about women in the long years he had lived, had been broken with her. She’d robbed him of breath. Put him under her spell. He thought of her day and night and fantasized far too much. He wanted her in every way possible. Her body. Her heart. Her mind. Her soul. He wanted her all for himself.
How did you get here? In this place?
It alarmed him that he might have somehow dragged her down into that sea of agony because he’d been so enamored with her. Could a man do that? Want a woman so much that when he died, he took her with him? The idea was appalling. He’d lived honorably, at least he’d tried to, and he’d never hurt a woman who hadn’t been a murdering rogue. The idea that he might have taken this woman into hell with him was disturbing on every level.
I chose to come with you, she replied, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to do. Our spirits are woven together. Our fate is entwined.
I don’t understand.
You were dying and there was no other way to save your life. You are precious to us all, a man of honor, of great skill.
Zev frowned. That made no sense. He had no family. He had his pack, but two of his pack members, friends for so many long years, had betrayed and tried to murder him. He was mixed blood now and few of his kind would accept him.
Us all? He echoed. Who would that be?
Do you hear them calling to you?
Zev stayed very still, tuning his acute hearing to get passed the heartbeat of the earth, the flow of water beneath him, reaching for the distant voices. Men’s voices. They seemed to be all around him. Some chanted to him in an ancient language while others throat-chanted as the monks from long ago had done. Each separate word or note vibrated through him, just as the heartbeat of the earth had.
They summoned him just as the earth had. It was time. He couldn’t find any more excuses and it seemed no one was going to let him vegetate right where he was. He forced himself to open his eyes.
He was underground in a cave. That much was evident immediately. There was heat and humidity surrounding him, although he didn’t feel hot. It was more that he saw it, those bands of heat undulating throughout the immense chamber.
Great stalactites hung from the high ceiling. They were enormous formations, great long rows of teeth of various sizes. Stalagmites rose from the floor with wide bases. Colors wound around the columns from the flaring bases to the pointed tips. The floor was worn smooth with centuries of feet walking on it.
Zev recognized that he was deep beneath the earth. The chamber, although enormous, felt hallowed to him. He lay in the earth itself, his body covered by rich black loam. Minerals sparkled in the blanket of dirt over him. Hundreds of candles were lit, high up on the walls of the chamber, illuminating the cavern, casting flicking lights across the stalagmites, bringing the muted color to life.
His heart began to pound in alarm. He had no idea where he was or how he got there. He turned his head and instantly his body settled. She was there, sitting beside him. Branislava. She was truly as beautiful as he remembered her. Her skin was pale and flawless. Her lashes were just as long, her lips as perfect as in his dream. Only her clothes were different. He was afraid if he spoke aloud, she would disappear. She looked as ethereal as ever, a creature from long ago, not meant for the world he resided in. The chanting swelled in volume and he reached for her hand, threading his fingers tightly through hers before he turned his head to try to find the source—or sources—of that summons.
There were several men in the room, all warriors with faces that had seen too many battles. He felt comfortable with them, a part of them, as if—in that sacred chamber—they were a brotherhood. He knew their faces, although most he’d never met, but he knew the caliber of men they were.
He recognized four men he knew well although it felt as if a hundred years had passed since he’d seen them. Fenris Dalka was there. He should have known he would be. Fen was his friend, if someone like him could have friends. Beside him was Dimitri Tirunul, Fen’s brother and that too wasn’t surprising. The brothers were close. Their last name was different only because Fen had taken the last name of a Lycan in order to better fit in during his years with Two figures stood over another hole in the ground where a man lay looking around him just as Zev was. The man in what could have been an open grave, looked pale and worn, as if he’d been through hell and had come out the other side. Zev wondered idly if he looked the same way. It took a few moments before he recognized Gary Jansen. Gary was human and he’d waded through rogue wolves to get to Zev during a particularly fierce battle. Zev was very happy to see him alive.
He was familiar with Gregori Daratrazanoff. Usually Gregori wasn’t far from his prince, but he hovered close to the man who struggled to sit up. Gregori immediately reached down and gently helped Gary into a sitting position. The man on the other side of the ‘grave’ had the same look as Gregori. This had to be another Daratrazanoff.
On the other side of Gregori, a short distance from him, stood two of the De La Cruz brothers, Zacarias and Manolito, both of whom he knew and had joined with him in a battle of some kind. The actual facts were still a little fuzzy. A third man stood between them.
In the center of the room, were several smaller columns made of crystals forming a circle around a blood-red formation with what looked to be a razor-sharp tip. Standing beside it was Mikhail Dubrinsky, prince of the Carpathian people. He spoke very low, but his voice carried through the chamber with great authority.
Mikhail spoke in an ancient language, the ritual words to call to their long gone ancestors. “Veri isäakank— veri ekäakank.
To his absolute shock and astonishment, Zev understood the words. Blood of our fathers—blood of our brothers. He knew that was the literal translation, but the language was an ancient one, not of the Lycans. He had been born Lycan. He had heard the language spoken by Carpathians down through the centuries but he shouldn’t have understood the words so clearly.
Veri olen elid.
Blood is life. Zev’s breath caught in his throat. He understood. He spoke many languages, but this was so ancient he couldn’t have ever learned it. Why was he understanding it now? Nothing made sense, although his mind wasn’t quite as foggy as it had been.
Branislava tightened her fingers around his. He turned his head and looked at her.
She was so beautiful she took his breath away. Her eyes were on his face and he felt her gaze penetrating deep. Too deep. She was already branded in his mind. She was coming far too close to his heart.
Andak veri-elidet Karpatiiakank, és wäke-sarna ku meke arwa-arvo, irgalom, hän ku agba, és wäke kutni, ku manaak verival,” Mikhail continued. The power of his voice rang through the chamber, raw and elemental, bringing Zev’s attention back to him.
Zev interpreted the words. ‘We offer that life to our people with a blood sworn vow of honor, mercy, integrity and endurance’.
What did that mean? This was a ritual—a ceremony that he felt part of—even though he didn’t know what exactly was going on. The appearance of Fen and Dimitri was reassuring to him. The longer he was awake, the more his mind cleared. The two were of mixed blood, although both had been born Carpathian.
Mikhail dropped his palm over the very sharp tip of the dark red column. At once the crystals went from dark red to crimson, as if Mikhail’s blood had brought them to life. Verink sokta; verink ka?a terád. Mikhail’s voice swelled with power.
Zev saw sparks light up the room. He frowned over the words Mikhail had uttered. ‘Our blood mingles and calls to you’. He was mingling his blood with someone of power, that much was obvious from the way the columns throughout the room began to come alive. Several gave off glowing colors, although still very muted.
Akasz énak ku ka?a és juttasz kuntatak it.
Zev interpreted again as the columns began to hum. ‘Heed our summons and join with us now.’ The columns throughout the room rocked, the multi-colored crystals illuminating, throwing vivid, bright colors across the ceiling and over the walls of the chamber. The colors were so dazzling, Zev had to shade his sensitive eyes.
Crimson, emerald, a beautiful sapphire, the colors took on the strange phenomenon of the northern lights. The humming grew louder and he realized each took on a different note, a different pitch, the tone perfect to his ear. He hadn’t noticed that the columns appeared to be totems with faces of warriors carved into the mineral, but now they came to life, the color adding expression and character.
Zev let out his breath slowly. These warriors were long dead. He was in a cave of the dead and Mikhail had summoned the ancient warriors to him for some purpose. Zev had a very bad feeling that he was part of that purpose.
Ete tekaik, sa?eak ekäakanket. ?a?3katlanak med, kutenken hank ekäakank tasa.
Zev swallowed hard when he translated. ‘We have brought before you our brothers, not born to us, but brothers just the same.’
Zev had been born Lycan and he’d served his people for many long years as an elite hunter who traveled the world seeking out and destroying rogue wolves who preyed on mankind. He was one of the few Lycans who could hunt alone and be comfortable and confident doing so. Still, he was Lycan and he would always have the need to be part of a pack.
His own kind despised those of mixed blood. It mattered little that he became mixed blood giving service to his people. He’d been wounded in hundreds of battles and had lost far too much blood. Carpathian warriors had more than once come to his aid as they had done this last time.
Zev looked up to find Fen on one side of him and Dimitri on the other. The two De La Cruz brothers stood with the stranger between them.
Gregori and his brother stood on either side Gary who now was getting to his feet with Gregori’s help. Zev took a breath. He would not be the only man sitting on his ass while the others stood. He was getting up or would die trying.
Zev let go of his lifeline, and the moment he did nearly panicked—another thing men like him didn’t do. He didn’t want her to disappear. His eyes met hers. Don’t you leave me.
She gave him a smile that could allow a man to live for the rest of his existence on fantasies. We are tied together, Zev. Where you go, I go. Only the ancients can undo a weave of the spirits.
Is that what this is about? He wasn’t certain he wanted to continue if it was.
Not even the prince can ask for such a release. Only me. Or you.
She gave him the information, but he had the feeling she was a little reluctant. That suited him just fine. He wasn’t willing to relinquish his bond with her just yet.
Fen, I don’t have a stitch on and I want to stand up. I’m not going to lie in this grave like a baby. For the first time he realized he was absolutely naked and Branislava had been beside him the entire time holding his hand—even when his body had stirred to life she hadn’t run from At once he was clean, and clothed in soft trousers and an immaculate white shirt. He struggled to get to his feet. Fen and Dimitri both reached for him at the same time, preventing him from falling on his face and making a fool of himself. His legs were rubber, refusing to work properly. For a Lycan, that was embarrassing, but for an elite hunter, it was absolutely humiliating.
Mikhail looked over at him and nodded his approval, or maybe it was relief at him being alive. Zev wasn’t certain yet if he was relieved or not.
Aka sarnamad, en Karpatiiakak. Sa?eak kontaket ?ama?ak tekaiked. Tajnak aka-arvonk és arwa-arvonk.
‘Hear me, great ones. We bring these men to you, warriors all, deserving of our respect and honor.’ Zev translated the words carefully twice, just to make certain he was correctly interpreting the prince’s discourse with the ancient warriors.
Gary, standing between the two Daratrazanoff brothers straightened his shoulders as if feeling eyes on him. Zev was fairly certain that somehow, those spirits of the dead were watching all of them, perhaps judging their worth. Colors swirled into various hues and the notes blended together as if the ancient warriors questioned the prince.
Gregori, és Darius katak Daratrazanoffak. Kontak ?ama?ak sarnanak hän agba nókunta ekäankal, Gary Jansen, hän ku olenot küm, kutenken olen it Karpatii. Hän pohoopa kuš Karpatiikuntanak, partiolenaka és kontaka. Sa?eak hänet ete tekaik.
‘Gregori and Darius of the great house of Daratrazanoff claim kinship with our brother, Gary Jansen, once human, now one of us. He has served our people tirelessly both in research and in battle. We bring him before you.’
Zev knew that aside from actually fighting alongside the Carpathians, Gary had done a tremendous amount of work for the Carpathians, and had lived among them for several years. It was obvious that every Carpathian in the chamber afforded him great respect, as did Zev. Gary had fought both valiantly and selflessly.
Zacarias és Manolito katak De La Cruzak, käktä enä wäkeva kontak. Kontak ?ama?ak sarnanak hän agba nókunta ekäankal, Luiz Silva, hän ku olenot jaquár, kutenken olen it Karpatii. Luiz mänet en elidaket, kor3nat elidaket avio päläfertiilakjakak. Sa?eak hänet ete tekaik.
‘Zacarias and Manolito from the house of De La Cruz, two of our mightiest warriors claim kinship with our brother, Luiz Silva, once jaguar, now Carpathian. Luiz saved the lives of two of their lifemates. We bring him before you.’
Zev knew nothing of Luiz, but he had to admire anyone who could stand with Zacarias De La Cruz claiming kinship. Zacarias was not known for his kindness. Luiz had to be a great warrior to run with that family of Carpathians.
Fen és Dimitri arwa-arvodkatak Tirunulak sarnanak hän agba nókunta ekäankal, Zev Hunter, hän ku olenot Susiküm, kutenken olen it Karpatii. Torot päläpälä Karpatiikuntankal és piwtät és piwtä mekeni sarna kunta jotkan Susikümkunta és Karpatiikunta. Sa?eak hänet ete tekaik.
‘Fen and Dimitri from the noble house of Tirunul claim kinship with our brother, Zev Hunter, once Lycan, now Carpathian. He has fought side by side with our people and has sought to bring an alliance between Lycan and Carpathian. He is of mixed blood like those who claim kinship. We bring him before you.’
There was no mistaking the translation. Mikhail had definitely called his name and indicated that Fen and Dimitri claimed brotherhood with him. He certainly had enough of their blood in him to be a brother.
The humming grew in volume and Mikhail nodded several times before turning to Gary.
“Is it your wish to become fully a brother?”
Gary nodded his head without hesitation. Zev was fairly certain, that like him, Gary hadn’t been prepped ahead of time. The answer had to come from within at the precise moment of the acting. There was no prepping. He didn’t know what his own answer would be.
Gregori and Darius, with Gary between them approached the crystal column, now swirling a dull red. Gregori dropped his hand, palm down, over the tip of the formation, allowing his blood to flow over that of the prince.
“Place your hand over the sacred bloodstone and allow your blood to mingle with that of the ancients and that of your brothers,” Mikhail instructed.
Gary moved forward slowly, his feet following the path so many warriors had walked before him. He placed his hand over the sharp tip and allowed his palm to drop. His blood ran down the crystal column, mixing with Gregori.
Darius glided just behind him with the same silent, deadly way of his brother and when Gary stepped back, Darius placed his palm over the tip of the bloodstone allowing his blood to mingle with Mikhail’s, Gregori’s, Gary’s and the ancient warriors who had gone before.
The hum grew louder, filling the chamber. Colors swirled, this time taking on hues of blue, green and purple.
Gary gave a little gasp and went silent, nodding his head as if he heard something Zev couldn’t. Within minutes he stepped back and glanced over to the prince.
“It is done,” Mikhail affirmed. “So be it.”
The humming ceased, all those beautiful notes that created a melody of words only the prince could understand. The chamber went silent. Zev became aware of his heart beating too fast. He consciously took a breath and let it out. The tension and sense of anticipation grew.
“Is it your wish, Luiz, to become fully a brother?” Mikhail asked.
Zev took a long look at Zacarias and Manolito. The De La Cruz brothers were rather infamous. Taking on their family as kin would be daunting. Only a very confident and strong man would ever agree.
Luiz inclined his head and walked to the crystal bloodstone on his own, Zacarias and Monolito behind him. Clearly Luiz had not been wounded. He was physically fit and moved with the flow of a jungle cat.
Zacarias pierced his palm first, allowing his blood to flow down the stone, joining with the ancient warriors. At once the hum began, a low call of greeting, of recognition and honor. Colors swirled around the room as if the ancients knew Zacarias and his legendary reputation. They seemed to greet him as an old friend. There was no doubt in Zev’s mind that the ancient warriors were paying tribute to Zacarias. Many probably had known him.
When the humming died down, Luiz stepped close to the stone and pierced his palm, his blood flowing into that of the eldest De La Cruz. Manolito came next and did the same so that the blood of all three mingled with that of the ancient warriors.
At once the humming of approval began again and the great columns of both stalagmites and stalactites banded with colors of white and yellow and bright red.
Luiz stood silent, very still, much as Gary had before him, and just as Gary, Luiz nodded his head several times as though listening. He looked up at Zacarias and Monolito and smiled for the first time.
“It is done,” Mikhail murmured in a low, carrying tone of power that seemed to fill the chamber. “So be it.”
Zev’s mouth went dry. His heart began to pound. He felt tension gather low in his belly, great knots forming that he couldn’t prevent. There was acceptance here—but there could also be rejection. He wasn’t born Carpathian but Fen and Dimitri were offering him so much more than that—they stood for him. Called him brother. If these ancient warriors accepted him, he would be truly both Carpathian and Lycan. He would have a pack of his own again. He would belong somewhere.
The feeling in the great chamber was very somber. The eloquence of the long dead slowly faded and he knew it was time. He had no idea what he would do when asked. None. He wasn’t even certain his legs would carry him the distance and he wasn’t going to be carried to the bloodstone.
“Is it your wish, Zev, to become fully a brother?” Mikhail asked.
He felt the weight of every stare. Warriors all. Good men who knew battle. Men he respected. His feet wanted to move forward. He wanted to be a part of them. He was physically still very weak. What if he didn’t measure up in their eyes?
You aren’t weak, Zev. There is nothing weak about you.
Her voice moved through him like a breath of fresh air. He hadn’t realized he was holding his breath until she spoke so intimately to him. He it let, braced himself and made his first move. Fen and Dimitri stayed close, not just to walk him to the bloodstone, but to make absolute certain he didn’t fall on his face. Still, he was determined it wouldn’t happen.
With every step he took on that worn, stone floor he seemed to absorb the ancients who had gone before him into him. Their wisdom. Their technique in battle. Their great determination and sense of honor and duty. He felt information gathering in his mind, yet he couldn’t quite process it. It was a great gift, but he couldn’t access the data and that left him even more concerned that he might be rejected. Somewhere, sometime, long ago, he felt he’d been in this sacred chamber. The longer he was in it, the more familiar to him it felt.
As he approached the crystal column, his heart accelerated even more. He felt sheer raw power emanating from the bloodstone. The formation pulsed with power and each time it did, color banded, ropes of various shades of red, blood he knew collected from all the great warriors who were long gone from the Carpathian world, yet, through the prince, could still aid their people. Mikhail understood their voices through those perfectly pitched notes.
Fen dropped his palm over the tip of the stalagmite. His blood ran down the sacred stone. The colors changed instantly, swirling with a deep purple through dark red. He stepped back to allow Zev to approach the column.
Zev wasn’t going to draw it out. Either they accepted him or they didn’t. In his life, he couldn’t remember a single time when he cared what others thought of him, but here, in the sacred chamber of warriors, he found it mattered much more than he wanted to admit. He dropped his palm over the sharp tip so that it pierced his palm and blood flowed over Fen’s, mingling with the one who would be his brother, and the great warriors of the past.
His soul stretched to meet those who had gone before. He was surrounded, filled with camaraderie, with acceptance, with belonging. His community dated back to ancient times, and those warriors of old called out to him in greeting. As they did, the flood of information through his brain, adhering to his memories was both astonishing and overwhelming.
Zev was a man who observed every detail of his surroundings. It was one of the characteristics that had allowed him to become an elite hunter. Now, everything seemed even sharper and more vivid to him. Every warrior’s heart in the chamber from ancient to modern times matched the drumming of the earth’s heart. Blood ebbed and flowed in their veins, matching the flow of the ancient’s blood within the crystal, but also the ebb and flow of water throughout their earth.
Dimitri dropped his palm over the crystal and at once, Zev felt the mingling of their blood, the kinship that ran deeper than friendship. His history and their history became one, stretching back to ancient times. Information was accumulative, amassing in his mind at a rapid rate. With it came the heavy responsibility of his kind.
The humming grew loud, and he recognized now, that what those notes meant— approval—acceptance without reserve. Colors swirled and banded throughout the room. Those ancient warriors recognized him, recognized his bloodline, not just the blood of Fen and Dimitri who claimed kinship, but his own, born of a union not all Lycan.
Bur tule ekämet kuntamak. The voices of the ancestors filled his mind with greetings.
Well met, brother-kin. Eläsz jeläbam ainaak. Long may you live in the light.
Zev had no knowledge of his lineage being anything but pure Lycan. His mother had died long before he had memory of her. Why would these warriors claim kinship with him through his own blood line and not Fen and Dimitri’s? That made no sense to him.
Our lives are tied together by our blood. They spoke to him in their own ancient language and he had no trouble translating it, as if the language had always been a part of him and he had just needed the ancients to bridge some gap in his memory for it all to unfold.
I don’t understand. That was an understatement. He was more confused than ever.
Everything including one’s lifemate is determined by the blood flowing in our veins. Your blood is Dark blood. You now are of mixed blood, but you are one of us. You are kont o sívanak.
Strong heart, heart of a warrior. It was a tribute, but it didn’t tell him what he needed to know.
Who was my mother? That was the question he needed answered. If Carpathian blood already flowed in his veins, how was it he hadn’t known?
Your mother’s mother was fully Carpathian. Lycan’s killed her for being Sange rau. Her daughter, your mother, was raised wholly Lycan. She mated with a Lycan, and gave birth to you, a dark blood. You are kunta.
Family, he interpreted. From what bloodline? How? Zev knew he was taking far longer than either Gary or Luiz had, but he didn’t want to leave this source of information. His father never once let on that there was any Carpathian blood in their family. Had he known? Had his mother even known? If his grandmother had been murdered by the Lycans for her mixed blood, no one would ever admit that his mother had been the child of a mixed blood. The family would have hidden her from the others. Most likely her father had left his pack and found another one to protect her.
The humming began to fade and Zev found himself reaching out, needing more.
Wait. Who was she?
It is there, in your memories, everything you need, everything you are. Blood calls to blood and you are whole again. The humming faded away.
“It is done,” Mikhail said formally. “So be it.”

Chrisitne Feehan
I write every day and have done so since I was old enough to pick up a pen. (I spent a lot of time getting in trouble at school for writing instead of doing the things I was supposed to do.) Once I create my characters, I try very hard to have them react to situations as they really would. Sometimes I have preconceived ideas of what I would like them to do, but they don't mind me, because it would be out of character for them. They take on a life of their own. Sometimes when I throw difficult situations at them in the hopes I'll get a certain reaction and they don't do what I want, I complain bitterly to my husband and he laughs at me. Still, it is important to me to have them be real, not perfect people, so they make mistakes we lesser mortals might make.

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Release Date 
(September 2, 2014)

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Scandal and the Duchess by Jennifer Ashley

Scandal And The Duchess

  (MacKenzies & McBrides #6.5)



Scandal follows Rose Barclay, young widow of the Duke of Southdown, wherever she goes. It's never her fault--honor bright--but newspapers love to write about the young woman from Scotland, and the much older duke she married, who died on their honeymoon. The duke left her with a large widow's portion, now contested by his son, who kicks Rose out of the estate's dower house and uses it to kennel his dogs.

Rose does *not* need to be found with a large, handsome Scot passed out at her feet, fueling gossips and giving her stepson more ammunition. The Scot is Steven McBride - a decorated soldier who is notorious for heavy gambling and womanizing during his leave time. Steven is happy to open his eyes and find the beautiful woman standing over him, and happy to help spirit her away. He comes up with a ruse to foil the journalists, but Rose will have to go along with his very scandalous proposal.


November 1885
When he was this drunk, there was only one thing to do. Steven McBride laid the rest of his money on the table and got unsteadily to his feet.
“Divide it,” he said to the assembled men, his Scots accent slurring. “I cannae see my cards anymore, and you’ll have it off me anyway. Good night.”
His friends and acquaintances, some as drunk as himself, either laughed or grunted and went back to their cards. Bloody Scottish upstart, he knew many of them thought.
Some thought much worse than that—those who knew the story—by their dark looks. Army should have slung him out.
Steven knew exactly why he was imbibing to his eyeballs on his leave, and why he’d come home earlier this year. Knowing whydid not make it any easier to leave the card room, navigate his way down the stairs—who the devil had put the card room upstairs?—and stagger into the street.
He looked up and down for his carriage, then remembered he’d hired a carriage to bring him to the soiree tonight. Steven vaguely remembered dismissing it, blast it all, telling the coachman he’d make his own way home.
The November cold was bitter, a wind sweeping down the street to cut straight through Steven’s uniform coat. Steven’s regiment was currently in West Africa, a land of warmth. Bloody great heat, actually, but Africa was an amazing world full of amazing people. Nothing there like this frozen London passage, wind howling down it, stinging him even in his drunken state.
Which way were his lodgings? Steven didn’t have a permanent house in London, so he usually hired rooms whenever he came to town—flats that catered to single gentlemen. He stayed in the same area each time, but rarely in the same house or even the same street. Sometimes he didn’t bother with rooms at all and stayed in a hotel like the Langham.
The Langham—had a familiar ring to it. Was Steven living there now? Or had that been last year?
Steven realized he was standing befuddled in the street, buffeted by the wind. Passersby, what there were of them on this bone-cold night, were looking at him askance.
The pungent, grassy smell of horse dung caught his attention. A carriage clopped slowly by, the horses doing what horses did even when walking about. Wildcats in Africa were cagey about where they relieved themselves, hiding it from all but the most canny hunters. London horses simply let it fall to the street, and humans came along behind and swept it up for them. Which animal was the more clever?
Steven half jogged, half stumbled toward the carriage. A hansom, that’s what he needed. He could tell the cabby to take him to the Langham, where they’d find him a room, whether he’d booked in already or not.
The shape was wrong for a hansom, but Steven was past caring. He had to get somewhere, or he’d fall down in the street and spend the rest of the night unconscious on the cobbles. Even in this part of London, even in this weather, he doubted he’d have much left on him when he woke up.
The carriage stopped. Wind cut Steven, making his eyes water. He folded his arms against the cold, and ran toward the carriage, head down.
A woman bundled in a thick cloak and hood came out of the lighted house the carriage had halted before. As soon as she crossed the threshold, four or five other persons appeared out of nowhere to block her way.
“There she is!”
“Duchess . . . Your Grace . . .”
“Your Grace, my readers would love a description of your gown tonight . . . Are you still in mourning?”
“Your Grace, how did it feel to have ensnared a duke, only to have him perish in the wedding bed?”
“Your Grace, there are rumors of you carrying on a flirtation with the Earl of Posenby. Or his son. Some speculate both. Would you tell us which it is?”
Bloody journalists, Steven thought in disgust. They were after some aristo, more dirt for the scandal sheets. Steven had no idea who the cloaked woman was and had no interest. He only wanted to climb into the carriage—private or not, he’d pay the coachman handsomely to take him anywhere.
Of course, he’d just thunked a large wad of money to the game table. Steven wondered vaguely if he had any left as he made a lunge for the coach.
The cloaked woman broke from the vultures—“Your Grace, is it true you’re wintering in Nice with a comte?”
She put on a burst of speed. Steven stumbled on his drunken feet, and he and the woman met in a crash of flesh and breathlessness.
Steven found himself landing face-first on a bosom of exceptional quality. The woman’s cloak had pulled away, revealing a gown fairly modestly cut but giving Steven enough bosom to enjoy. His cheek rested on warm flesh, his lips pressed onyx beads, and he inhaled a heady, womanly perfume.
He heard a heart beating rapidly under his ear, and a voice vibrating through a body of fine plumpness.
“Oh dear.”
Steven tried to raise his head—not that he wanted to—but he couldn’t. He could only lever himself up by grasping the woman by the hips and pulling himself upright.
The hips were a warm handful, the thighs beneath her skirts and stiff bustle even better. Steven climbed the poor woman, unbending himself as he went.
Unfortunately, his legs had stopped working. They gave way again, throwing his weight onto her. She retreated to compensate, but her back met the carriage door. Steven kept falling, his body landing full-length against hers, plastering her to the coach.
The woman’s hood slipped down. Steven saw eyes of clearest green, a round face haloed by golden hair, flushed cheeks, and a wide mouth that begged for kisses. It would be rude to kiss her without asking first, but Steven didn’t have the words to inquire.
His face and hers were very close together, the kissable lips an inch away.
“My dear fellow,” the woman said breathlessly. “Are you all right?”
“No,” Steven tried to say. “Damn, woman, but you’re beautiful.” The words came out a jumbled mess, in broad Highland Scots, but the journalists heard them.
“Your Grace, who is he?” “A regimental affair, is it? Or a Highland fling?” “What about the comte? And the earl?”
“Good Lord,” came the impatient voice of Steven’s angel. “Leave the poor man alone. Can’t you see he’s ill?”
“Falling down drunk is more like it,” one of the journalists said, and laughed. “Who is he? Give us a name.”
“You lot, clear off!”
The coachman had come down off the box, and flapped his hands at the journalists like a woman shooing chickens out of her garden. Steven wanted to burst out laughing. At the same time, a footman exited the house from which the woman had emerged and laid hands on Steven. Steven heard the cry of a constable coming up the street, along with the man’s heavy footsteps.
“Off with you,” the footman growled at Steven. The constable came faster, his tall helmet bobbing out of the gloom and making Steven laugh harder.
Laughter and the footman’s heavy hands made Steven slide down the woman’s body. He found the hard street beneath his knees, his face buried in her abdomen, the black bombazine of her gown smooth against his nose.
She smelled wonderful. The perfume didn’t come from a bottle. It was her—soap and the scent of fabric, warmth and woman. Steven pressed his face to her belly, wanting to take his ease with her.
“Sir.” Her hands were on his hair. Steven snuggled in closer. If they’d been alone and without so many clothes, this would be the perfect way to finish the night.
She leaned to him, his angel, and whispered, “What on earth are you doing?”
“Loving you,” Steven said. “You deserve every bit of loving a man can give you.”
“Oh,” she said. “You are very drunk, I believe. Perhaps the nice constable will see you home.”
“No home.” His home was a tent in Africa, under huge sky, in blessed warmth. “I have no home.”
“Dear me, that’s sad. Do you need money? Perhaps a meal?”
Steven’s laughter returned. She thought him a homeless, helpless sot, and maybe he was.
The journalists surged forward. More people seemed to be on the street, and someone threw a stone. “Tart!” a woman yelled. “Be off with ye.”
The coachman growled. He flung open the door of the coach and more or less hoisted the woman inside. Steven grabbed the door as it swung shut, hanging on to it to keep him upright. The coachman started to wrench him away, but the journalists pushed in, as did the sudden crowd. London loved a riot—best way to keep warm in the winter, Steven mused—any excuse to begin one.
“Miles, let him in. He’ll get trampled.”
Steven heard her voice, felt himself be hauled up under the arms by a man of amazing strength, and then he met the floor of the carriage. The door slammed, bumping Steven’s booted foot. After a moment, the carriage jerked forward, and things splattered against it—the denizens making good use of the handy horse apples in the street.
The angel seemed to be speaking to him. Steven heard her clear voice but no words. He laid his head on her skirt, blissfully warm, and drifted off to sleep.
When Steven cracked open his eyes, it was daylight; at least as much daylight that could filter through the narrow, dirty window on a London winter day.
The narrow window went with the narrow room, wide enough only for a single bed and a corner washstand. That was all. No curtain or blind, no bureau, no cheerful fire, only a brick chimney that went up through the room and gave off a modicum of heat.
Where the hell was he? The last thing Steven remembered was a card game . . .
No, a cold London street, someone throwing things . . .
Green eyes, red lips curving into a little smile, and a scent like roses. Deep red roses, heady and intense.
Had Steven dreamed her? If so, he wanted to go back to sleep.
But the cold, Steven’s pounding head, and details of the night were knocking for attention. He should climb out of bed, dress, and face his problems like a Scotsman and a soldier.
The bed was warm, and raising his head hurt like hell. Steven laid it back down.
He must have slept again, because when he next opened his eyes, the room was brighter. The door swung open, and in came his angel with a wooden tray heaped with crockery.
“Good morning,” she said brightly. “Would you like some tea?”

Chapter Two
The unknown man stared at her over the bedcovers with bloodshot, sunken eyes in a face covered with stubble. Rose reminded herself he was a pathetic creature, a war veteran, likely in need of charity.
The former soldiers she’d seen eking out a living on the streets weren’t nearly as handsome as this one, though. Winter sunlight burnished his short hair golden, his whiskers too. His hard face was the bronze color of someone who’d spent time in a climate hotter than England’s. Rose had thought him older on the street, but she could see now that he was a fairly young man, battered and suntanned from his profession.
The man’s eyes, other than being bloodshot, were a profound gray. He pinned her with that gray gaze as though she were an enemy soldier, not a kind young woman come to bring him breakfast.
“They called you duchess,” he said in a voice strong despite his obvious hangover.
“Briefly,” Rose said, carrying the tray toward him. The tray had small legs and was designed to go over the breakfaster’s lap, much like one her mother had owned. The lady of the house always took breakfast in bed, her mother had told the child Rose, the privilege of a wife. What had become of that tray Rose sadly didn’t know. “I was Duchess of Southdown,” Rose said. “Still am, really—the dowager duchess now. What do they call you?”
The man ignored her question, his gaze becoming more focused. “What I mean is, if you’re a duchess, why are you carrying trays to hungover officers in your garret? If this is a garret. Where the devil am I?”
He had a pleasant Scots accent and a nice rumbling baritone to go with it. A lady could listen to his voice all day and not tire of it.
“This is Miles’s house,” Rose said. “He didn’t know where else to bring you. Or me. Miles is my coachman. Well, he was my coachman. I’m staying with him at the moment.”
“Your coachman.”
“That’s right.” Rose gave him an encouraging smile. “Now I have tea here, and plenty of toast with jam and butter, and a bit of sausage. Mrs. Miles makes a wonderful breakfast. Perhaps Miles can find a few odd jobs for you to do for a bit of coin before you go. Would you like that?”
The man’s look turned to a glare—perhaps Rose shouldn’t have mentioned the work; his pride was obviously intact. He didn’t soften his gaze, but he struggled to sit up, his nostrils widening at the scent of the hot food. He was hungry, poor lamb.
The man’s bare torso emerged from the blankets, and Rose swallowed and tightened her hold on the tray. His shoulders and chest were broad and sunbaked, his chest dusted with golden curls. The hard planes of his torso made her remember him falling against her, how she’d felt the steel of muscle beneath his soiled uniform coat.
This man had honed his body, had fought with it, if the scarred fingers, healed from breaks, told her anything. She could imagine women running their fingers down his chest, finding the hollows and planes of it, touching the dark areola that slid above the sheet.
The man saw her gaze and tucked the sheet under his arms, hiding most of his chest. But he didn’t stammer or apologize for his nakedness in front of a lady, nor did he try to burrow back under the bedclothes. He simply reached for the tray that she’d frozen to, pried it out of her hands, and settled it across his lap.
“Where are my clothes?” he demanded.
“Pardon?” Rose blinked, tearing her gaze from the play of his thick-muscled arms as he uncovered the toast and poured tea.
“Clothes,” he repeated. “I’m not wearing any. Where are they?”
The bareness of him went all the way down, Rose realized. She clenched her hands, since she didn’t have anything else to hold. “Miles took your uniform away to be cleaned. It was dirty from the streets.”
“London streets will do that.” The man took a long drink of tea, and another, and another. The liquid had to be scalding, but he gulped it down and poured another cup. “You still haven’t told me why a duchess is living with her coachman,” the man said, lifting the first piece of toast. “And her coachman’s wife.” He put away the half slice in two bites and reached for another.
“I’m a duchess, because I married a duke,” Rose said. “I was plain Miss Barclay before that, but my family is all gone now.” The sorrow of that tore at her, and it always would. “I’m stopping with my coachman, because I’m skint. I had been staying with a friend, but she asked me to leave last night—or, rather, hinted strongly that I should go. Can’t blame her, really. Journalists follow me about, waiting for me to do something scandalous, which happens all the time, unfortunately. I’m telling you this to warn you, because I’m certain the story of you coming home with me is all over London this morning. If you keep your head down, I think you’ll be all right.”
“Probably too bloody late for that,” the man said. He downed two more half slices of toast. “Why is a duchess skint? Some aristos are impoverished these days, but dukes seem to do pretty well, overall. What about your widow’s portion? Your dower house? Your jewels?”
All very good questions. “Ah, well, you see, much of my fortune is dependent upon the current duke, my late husband’s son by his first marriage,” Rose said. “My stepson is one of these modern men—he’d been rushing about being something in the City before he came into the title last year, and he learned all about profits and losses, turning land to the best use, investments and capital, and so forth. The wife of a former duke isn’t much of an investment, is she?” Rose shrugged, pretending that the soldier’s blatant masculinity didn’t unnerve her.
At the same time, Rose found it easy to talk to him. The man kept eating—she hadn’t seen such a healthy appetite in years—and he watched her, listening to every word. Rose wasn’t used to someone who truly listened, not anymore.
“You must have settlements,” he said between bites. “A widow’s portion. Use of a house for your lifetime.”
Rose nodded. “If all were well, I would. But my stepson is trying his best to prove that the settlements aren’t valid. I have a solicitor to fight him, but he hasn’t made much progress. I can’t pay him much, you see, and my husband’s solicitor now works for the new duke.”
The man finished the toast and ate the sausages in about four bites. “You said your family was gone.”
She gave him a sad smile. “Papa never had much but his connections, and he left me penniless. I’d been contemplating advertising for a post as a companion or governess when I met Charles . . . the duke. Soon after that, I became the second Duchess of Southdown.” Rose let her thoughts go back to the fairy-tale glory of the wedding at St. George’s, Hanover Square, the lavish entertainments afterward. Rose had been so happy that day. She was glad she hadn’t known what was to come.
The man finished the last bite of sausage. “What happened?”
He sounded so interested that Rose peered at him. “You’re not another journalist are you? Worming your way into my confidence with false pretenses?”
“Good God, no.” The man laughed. When he did, he changed from hard-bitten soldier to a man of startling handsomeness, despite his unshaved face, sun-browned body, and shorn hair. “I’m only a grateful sinner, lass, glad of a warm bed and bit of breakfast.”
His accent sent pleasant tingles down Rose’s spine. “Not that it would matter. There is nothing about my life that hasn’t been splashed across the newspapers. A young second wife is always food for gossip. I knew things would be difficult when I accepted Charles’s proposal, but I never knew how vicious it could become.”
“Gossips are all malicious,” he said around the last swallow of tea. “Especially about beautiful women.”
The flattery was delivered so even-handedly that Rose’s face heated. She cleared her throat. “Now, I’ve told you my life story—what is yours? May I have a guess? Served your regiment faithfully for years, then they discharged you with nothing to live on? A common tale, I’m afraid. One of the charities my husband supported helps soldiers shunted unceremoniously back to England. They might be able to do something for you.”
The man leaned back, breakfast over, and ran one hand through his shorn hair. “My story is that, in the regiment, I’m an honorable man. Outside it, I drink too much, gamble too much, and too much like . . .” He made a vague gesture, his cheekbones going red.
Rose broke into a grin. “Ah, the ladies. The downfall of many a man, as Charles used to say.”
The man’s gaze roved her, as though he tried to decide what to make of her. His look was thorough, that was certain. He would see a young woman in black, buttoned up to her chin, her only jewelry a mourning brooch and a string of onyx beads. Rose should really be in half mourning now or even out entirely, because Charles had been gone a year, but she couldn’t afford to change her wardrobe. She’d likely be in black the rest of her life.
“You’ve been kind,” the man said. “If you’ll bring me my clothes, I’ll leave you in peace.”
Disappointment bit Rose, surprisingly so. She’d been enjoying speaking to him, pouring out things to him she’d been bottling up for nearly a year. Her girlhood friends, though they tried to be kind, didn’t really want to talk. Not about things that mattered.
“You don’t have to,” she said quickly. “It’s no bother, and as I said, Miles can find you things to do, so you can have some coin to take with you.”
He rubbed a hand along his jaw. “What I’d truly like is a razor.”
“That can be supplied. I’ll ask Mrs. Miles.”
Rose reached for the tray. In the confinement of the room, leaning down put her close to him, and she found his face a few inches away. His eyes were stormy gray, a beautiful color.
He did smell a little of whiskey, but the overall scent of him was warm, with a bite of spice. A man a woman would want to curl up with. No wonder ladies got him into trouble—he must attract them by the score.
“What is your name?” she asked, her voice barely working. “If you don’t mind telling me.”
“Steven,” he said. The rumble flowed over her. “McBride. Captain, Twenty-Second Fusiliers.”
Rose couldn’t move. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
His gaze moved to her lips, lingered there for a moment, almost as though he wanted to kiss her. Rose imagined it—his mouth would be strong, Captain McBride kissing her because he wanted to, not asking nicely for it. No politeness. Just desire, a man and a woman, and winter sunshine.
Rose dragged in a breath. She tried to make herself straighten up, but she couldn’t. Captain McBride had a virile handsomeness behind the rough whiskers, not to mention a dangerous and compelling way about him.
Run away with me, Rose wanted to say. She longed to flee the constraints her life, the narrow confinement of mourning and shame, the rabid hunger of the journalists. She imagined herself roving the world with this man, both of them free and laughing, sleeping rough, snuggled together.
Poor and starving, shunned by gentlefolk, and prodded by constables. Ah yes, such a golden land she pictured.
Steven’s expression changed, softening suddenly, and Rose realized she’d smiled at him. The hardness left his face, making him look so tender that Rose nearly dropped the tray.
He lifted one finger and brushed it across her cheek.
Compared to the way he’d clutched her last night, burying his face in first Rose’s bosom then her stomach, the touch was nothing. But fire arced from his fingertips and shot swiftly down her body, lighting every feminine place.
Captain McBride slid his fingertip to her lips. Then his breath, warm and smelling of tea, touched her mouth.
“You’d better find me that razor,” he said, his Scottish voice soft.
“What?” Rose blinked. “Oh. Yes. Of course. At once.”
She made herself straighten up, the tray pressed hard to her stomach. Captain McBride kept his gaze on her, as palpable as his touch, as she backed away from the bed.
Rose forgot the room was so tiny, and she stumbled into the wall. She righted herself with a laugh, her onyx beads bumping her chest, and she swung away.
Now her skirt got caught on the bedpost. Rose tugged at it, but she couldn’t grab it and hold the tray at the same time.
Captain McBride came halfway out of the bed, the covers sliding down to bare his chest, his side, the curve of his hip. Rose stilled, her eyes widening as he reached for the trapped skirt. She’d only seen a body like his in classic statues she was not supposed to look at. But cold marble had nothing on the living flesh of Steven McBride.
Steven tugged her skirt loose and sat back down, unselfconscious. Rose was free now, but she couldn’t make herself cease staring at him. He noticed of course, but he said nothing, only met her gaze with a challenging one of his own.
Rose at last forced herself to turn away and open the door, but again, she had to juggle the tray to navigate the door handle.
A brown hand came around her and pressed the old-fashioned door handle down for her, Steven’s strong arm pulling the door open. Rose had no breath. She knew she shouldn’t dare peek behind her and look at him, but she couldn’t help herself.
He’d managed to bring the quilt with him, wrapped around his waist. Even so, most of his upper body was bare, the heat of it pouring at Rose through her clothes.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Steven smiled, a devastating, knock-a-lady-down smile that had nothing feeble about it. Captain McBride knew Rose liked looking at him, and he didn’t mind one bit.
She drew a stifling breath, yanked herself away from him, and scuttled out the door. Rose was halfway down the stairs when she heard his deep and satisfying laughter.
The duchess was scintillating. Not an adjective Steven used much in his life, but Rose Southdown was a lovely, lively woman. Her sad story, delivered with an oh-well-things-could-be-worse briskness tugged at his heart.
The coachman’s wife, a plump and pink-cheeked woman, brought up the hot water and razor, and also the pile of Steven’s clothes, brushed out and mostly clean. Steven was disappointed Rose hadn’t delivered them herself, but he’d probably scared her away, coming out of the bed like that.
She’d been married, yes, but to a middle-aged man. Steven remembered meeting the Duke of Southdown once at a soiree at Hart Mackenzie’s mansion. Southdown had been a pleasant enough chap in the English country gentleman sort of way. Hounds, horses, and farming had been his world. Though Southdown was a duke, the highest of the aristocracy, Steven couldn’t help feeling the man would have been more at home talking in the pigsty with his steward about animal husbandry than making pleasantries in a Mayfair drawing room.
Rose’s marriage meant she’d shared a bed with a man, but her shyness with Steven had been deep. Likely Southdown hadn’t removed all his clothes when he came to his wife, only enough of them to do the business.
Or, perhaps Steven wronged the man. Who wouldn’t look at that angel and not fling off his nightshirt and bear her down to the bed?
Mrs. Miles filled the basin, deposited Steven’s cleaned and brushed uniform, gave him a cheery smile, and left him to carry on. Steven filmed his face with soap and carefully shaved his face. Felt good to wash away the stains of travel, too much whiskey, and whatever he’d fallen into out in the street.
He knew he was putting off the inevitable lingering here, but the inevitable was going to be difficult. He couldn’t accomplish the task today anyway, he already knew that. So why shouldn’t Steven take his comfort with the pretty and intriguing widow, cushioning himself against what was to come?
He was closing up the clasps on his uniform jacket when someone knocked on the door. To his “Come,” the plain paneled door swung open to reveal Rose once more.
This time she had a newspaper in her hand, and her face over it was agitated. “I beg your pardon,” she said, then she stopped and stared at him.
Steven said not a word as he finished doing up the buttons, straightening his jacket. Rose flushed as red as his army coat as she realized her mistake at thinking him a pathetic resident of the streets.
“I beg your pardon,” she repeated. “But they’ve done it. Miles tried to break it to me gently, but I’m afraid they’ve included you too.”
“Who has done what?” Steven asked.
For answer, Rose thrust a handful of newspapers at him. Steven turned the first one to where she pointed and read.
The Scandalous Duchess caught again, in the arms of Captain Mc—, a Fusilier in Her Majesty’s Army. Will wedding bells ring, or will they play a different tune?
The second said, Our favorite Duchess comforts a Scottish officer in the street. A Moral Tale.
The third newspaper showed a cruel cartoon of Rose, her bosom exaggerated, and Steven, all arms and legs and chin, pinning her to the coach. The two weren’t exactly copulating in the picture, but the cartoon strongly suggested it. “Ken ye assist me, lassie?” Captain McB—, brother-in-law to those notorious Scots, the Mack—z—s, asks a favor from a Duchess, late of S—d—n. Nothing too sacred for Queen and Country.
Nonsense, but when Steven looked up at Rose, tears stood in her pretty green eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I seemed to have landed you in it.”
The scandal sheets printed filth, and she was apologizing. Steven tossed the papers to the bed. “No, love, I’m sorry I’ve landed you in it. Don’t worry, I’ve weathered worse. I’ll take myself away, and the scandalmongers will forget in a few days, when something more juicy comes their way.”
A shame, but there it was. Perhaps when Steven finished his duty and had leave again, he could find her and speculate on what might have been. That is, if another aristo hadn’t snatched Rose up in the meantime. A woman as headily desirable as this one wouldn’t stay alone for long, unless every man in London was blind and stupid.
Rose chewed her lower lip, a fine sight, and her brows drew into an agitated frown. “I’m afraid the scandalmongers will not let you get away so easily. They followed me home, it seems, or were bright enough to come here—I’m sure a few coins in the right hands let them know I spent the night in the coach house behind the duke’s mansion. With you.”
Looking into her eyes, Steven wished like hell he’d spent the night in the way the journalists speculated. He and Rose in the narrow bed, cuddled under the blanket against the November cold, bare flesh to flesh.
Steven started to get hard at the thought, the buttons of his trousers suddenly too snug.
Rose watched him, worry for him in her expression. For him, Steven realized. For the drunkard who’d fallen on her and made her life even more wretched.
“We can slip you out the back,” she was saying. “Or Miles can take you in the coach, perhaps quickly enough so they can’t follow. To a train out of London?”
Yes, Steven could board a train for Scotland, bury himself at his brother Elliot’s estate, fishing and playing with his niece and new nephew. Forget that he’d ever seen Rose Southdown and had the pleasure of being naked in her bed—unfortunately not in the way he’d have wished.
But no, he had errands to run, even if the result would be hell. He’d get away, but not lightly.
Or . . .
Steven shot her a sudden smile, his natural wickedness pushing aside all thoughts of running. “Send for your coach,” he said. “Have it meet us in the front of the main house, or wherever the journalists are prowling. Put on your best frock, and come out with me.”
Rose’s eyes widened, but she looked curious rather than afraid. “What on earth for?”
“Because we’re going to face them. If they want scandal, we’ll give them scandal. We’ll ram it down their throats. And then we’ll turn the tables.” He held out his hand. “Do you trust me?”
Rose’s green eyes danced. “I have no idea. I’ve only just met you.”
“Good. I’ll tell you all about my ideas on the way.”
“On the way where?”
“The Langham. I have a room there, but I’ll have them put us in a couple of suites.”
Rose’s smile began, a wickedness matching his own. “Us?”
“This will take courage, but I’m certain you’re up to it. Any woman who dragged a drunken, dirty lout home with her and carried breakfast to him in the morning has courage, in my opinion. Are we agreed?” Steven stuck out his hand again, and this time, Rose took it.
Steven shook her soft, warm hand, but that was much too businesslike. He raised the backs of her fingers to his lips. “Agreed.”
He wanted to haul her all the way against him and kiss her very kissable mouth, but Steven took pity on her and let her go.
“I will meet you downstairs,” Rose said. Her eyes were alight, her face beautiful. “Au revoir.”
She laughed and breezed out, leaving the room much emptier.
Rose knew she had to be mad as she hurried down to her own room, but she pushed the objections aside as she donned her Sunday best. The gown was black bombazine and quite plain, but looked well enough. Rose settled its small bustle and put the matching hat on her head.
Downstairs she walked out of the coach house and through the passage to the main house. The interior was dark and musty-smelling—Albert, the new duke, wasn’t in residence, and rarely opened the place even when he was in Town. Charles would be so unhappy; he’d loved this house.
Rose swung open the front door, which had already been unbolted, and walked out, head high, to face the mob.
Most were journalists in black suits and hats, with three or four female scribblers in their midst. The women who followed Rose tended to be even harder on her than the men—the men at least could sometimes remember to be gentlemen. The women always let Rose have the worst of their opinions.
The crowd surged forward, intent upon her, but Rose remained firmly on the doorstep, glancing about for her carriage as though she didn’t notice the scandalmongers. The coach was coming, driven by Miles, and when it stopped at the door, Steven got out of it.
Seeing him resplendent in his clean and brushed red uniform, the gold braid gleaming in the winter sunshine, Rose wondered how she’d ever thought him a pathetic castaway of the streets. Darkness, grime, and the rife smell of drink had convinced her, but there was no trace of dirt and alcohol now.
Steven stood tall and strong, his hatless head the color of sunshine. His hair was cropped close, as some military men’s were, and he was clean-shaven, young gentlemen nowadays eschewing the heavy moustaches, beards, and mutton-chops of the older generation.
The journalists watched, agog, as Steven walked through them, took Rose by the arm, and led her to the carriage. At the carriage door, he lifted her hand to his lips, pressed a warm kiss to her glove, then helped her inside.
He jumped onto the carriage step, turning to beam a smile at the collected journalists. “Congratulate us,” he said, then he sprang inside, snapped the door closed, and rapped on the roof to signal Miles to go on.
The coach jerked forward, the horses moving into a trot on this relatively empty street. A few intrepid scribblers jogged after them but gave up as the carriage turned a corner and was swallowed by thicker traffic.
“Congratulate us on what?” Rose asked as Steven settled into the seat opposite her.
Steven’s grin beamed out, his eyes sparkling with merriment. “Our betrothal,” he said.

Jennifer Ashley / Allyson James
New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author Jennifer Ashley has lived and traveled all over the world, and now lives in the Southwest. She writes historical, paranormal, and contemporary romance as Jennifer Ashley; mysteries as Ashley Gardner; and paranormal romance and urban fantasy as Allyson James.
Jennifer’s/Allyson’s/Ashley’s more than 83 novels and novellas have won RWA’s RITA award, the Golden Quill, RT Reviewer’s Choice awards, and the Prism award, among others. Jennifer’s novels have been also been translated into French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, Norwegian, Hungarian, Italian, Thai, and other languages.
Jennifer enjoys writing and reading above all else, but her hobbies include cooking, hiking, playing flute and guitar, painting, and building miniature rooms and dollhouses.

You can find Jennifer on her website and on her facebook page, she loves to hear from her fans.

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Release Date 
(September 16, 2014)

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Priestess Dreaming by Yasmine Galenorn

Priestess Dreaming

  (Otherworld/Sisters of the Moon #16)



We're the D'Artigo sisters: savvy half-human, half-Fae operatives for the Otherworld Intelligence Agency. My sister Delilah is a two-faced werecat and a Death Maiden. Menolly is a vampire married to a gorgeous werepuma. And me? I'm a Moon witch married to three gorgeous husbands, and I'm about to journey through the veils to search for a long lost legend...

With the war in Otherworld raging, the Queen of Shadow and Night summons me to her court. Aeval orders me to embark on a hunt through the mists to find an ancient ally she once knew. I must seek out The Merlin and wake him from his long sleep. But Morgaine and Bran are along for the journey, and the pair pose a threat to both me and my quest. Now, surrounded by danger on all sides, I must pray they are allies rather than enemies, as we undertake a perilous search through the labyrinth of time..


I contemplated going back into the house, purse over my shoulder. Should I, or shouldn't I? Utter mayhem lay within. Absolute chaos in a kitchen, complete with spilled food, a huffy dragon, one very pissed-off house sprite, and my sister, the wide-eyed, catch-da-giant-bird turkey-chaser. Add to that the rest of the milling-and by now, thoroughly confused- throng that made up our extended family, and it was a no-brainer. Not a chance. Nope. Not gonna happen.

I was perfectly fine out here in the pouring rain, getting soaked. Let Smoky take his lumps from Iris. This was all his fault, not mine. The only part they could blame me for was that I had assigned him the chore of bringing home a twenty-five- pound turkey for tomorrow's Thanksgiving dinner. Was it really my responsibility to remind him to make certain it was already dead?

Not. My. Fault. And neither was the Three Stooges after- math that followed. Now, with Iris and Hanna both on the warpath, I had no desire to go back in there and subject myself to their outrage.

As my gaze wandered over to the turkey pecking around our backyard, it occurred to me that the bird was giving me the evil eye. He reminded me of a big fat demon bird, gloating like some demented vulture. The fat old Tom was closer to the woods than our back door, and I wondered if he realized just how lucky he was.

I stamped my foot in his direction. "Go on, you dumb bird. Make a break for it while you can, before Smoky comes looking for you." As if he understood me, the turkey turned toward the tree line back of the yard and slowly began to waddle off into the sunset. Or as the case actually was, the pitch darkness. It was only around five thirty, but by this time of year, the Seattle area was swathed in night. Sunset had come and gone about an hour ago.

I snorted. "Have a happy Thanksgiving, bird. You lucked out, so say a prayer to the Great Turkey."

As I watched him vanish into the woods, I wondered where the hell Smoky had found him. No doubt he'd stolen him from some turkey farm or something. Wild turkeys generally didn't go running around the streets of Seattle. But I wasn't going to ask. After this fiasco, I had a feeling that my dragon-shifting husband wouldn't be in any mood to discuss turkey-napping.

Thanks to sheer dumb luck, the bird had managed to escape from the kitchen. He'd left behind a trail of walking wounded, though-including me. That beak was nasty sharp and I had the scratch to prove it, but at least I didn't have a hole in my hand like Roz did. Yeah, in the great dinner war, the bird deserved his freedom. He'd earned it. As the last of his tail feathers vanished from sight on the path leading to Birchwater Pond, I saluted him.

"You've got what it takes to make it, soldier. Carry on."

With one last look at the house, I straightened my shoulders and headed toward my car. We still needed a turkey for Thanksgiving tomorrow, so I might as well head out to buy one. On the up side, by the time I got back, things should have smoothed over and the mess should be cleaned up.

Families. One thing was for certain: Mine was loopy, batty, and all around, a freakshow crew. But I wouldn't trade them for all the glitter and glitz in Otherworld or Earthside.

I slid into the driver's seat, but as I inserted the key into the ignition, a shiver ran down my back. A shadow passed through me, cold and dark and incredibly ancient.

Suddenly nervous, I hit the button to lock the doors. Maybe it was the wind that rattled the trees that had spooked me. Or maybe it was the driving rain. Or perhaps the darkness and perpetual gloom had finally managed to suck the smile off my face. Whatever the case, I glanced back at the house, anxious.

PTSD, maybe? We had recently come through a horrible stretch, what with the war raging in Otherworld and losing our father. We were all still a little shell-shocked. I had been coping with a lot of nightmares and flashbacks the past few weeks, but this didn't feel like it originated from the same place.

Trying to quiet my mind, I listened, breathing slowly.


At first, I could sense only the wind and rain that lashed the yard, but then . . . below that . . . There it was. Something was on the move. Something big. I searched my feelings, examining the sensation. Was it fear? Yes, I was definitely afraid, but there was more to it than that. Anticipation? Anxiety? A tingling at the base of my neck told me that deep magic was afoot, and would soon be knocking on my door.

Magic rode the currents, on the wings of a flock of birds. They were there, in the astral, black as coal and shrieking warnings from an ancient wood filled with extraordinary beasts. The rolling mists of time poured past as the ravens cried, their song echoing with magic. Dark magic, deep wood- land magic. Death coming in on waves of flame and smoke.

As if in synch with my thoughts, a shriek cut through the darkness, startling me out of my trance. I recognized the cry. Raven. Raven was calling. And where raven flew, Raven Mother couldn't be far behind.

And behind Raven Mother, chasing her, was a dragon. At first I flashed back to Hyto, but then caught hold of myself. Hyto was dead and gone. I forced myself to focus, to examine the energy that rushed past. This dragon was ancient-not a dragon from the Dragon Reaches, but even older. This creature rose from the depths of the earth, come awake after eons of time asleep in its lair.

As he roared to life, chasing the flock of ravens, he suddenly vanished from my sight.

I found myself sitting in the car, my hand on the keys.

What the hell was that all about?

Almost afraid to examine the vision, I shuddered and started the ignition. As the engine warmed up, I stared into the darkness, my thoughts far distant from Thanksgiving.

Something big was headed my way, and there was no use trying to avoid it. I might as well just open my arms and brace for whatever it was. Trying to hide from trouble had ceased to be an effective defense mechanism a few years ago when the demons had first shown up.

With a grimace, I pulled out my phone and texted Menolly that I was heading for the store to replace the turkey. As I eased out of the driveway, I whispered, "Bring it on, Raven Mother. Bring it on. I'm waiting for you."

A faint laughter echoed over the howling of the wind. She'd heard me. And she was waiting.


"Give me that!" Delilah's voice rang out, and I turned, scanning the mob for her face. Somebody was bound to get hurt in this mess. People were shoving in every direction, trying to push their way through the mass of churning bodies. To my left, a woman tripped and fell. I tried to maneuver through the crowd to reach her, but a man stopped to help her back to her feet and she dusted herself off, looking no worse for the wear, and then, a glint in her eye, she vanished into the seething throng.

Still unable to locate Delilah, I glanced over my shoulder. Smoky and Trillian were standing at attention, waiting for my orders, both looking resigned and rather frightened. Their arms full, they threaded their way through the chaos as they tried to follow me. With Delilah still nowhere to be seen, I made a unilateral decision. She'd just have to catch up to us later.

"Over to the pet section, pronto!"?

Pointing toward the opposite end of the store, I began to traverse the aisles. Wordlessly, they filed along behind me. I gauged the easiest, quickest route, then began to wind through the rows of merchandise, narrowly skirting a table of precariously stacked crystal dishes. Motioning for the guys to be cautious, I held my breath until we were past the display.

Once we were out of housewares, the crowd began to thin out as we maneuvered our way over to the pet toy aisle. Along the way, I caught sight of an insulated lunch bag in fuchsia, with a cat appliqué splashed across the front. It really was cute. Another woman was eyeing it and I had a split second to make up my mind.

"Nerissa would love that." I snatched it up seconds before my opponent could grab it and, once again, we were on the move, leaving her sputtering in the dust. A few moments later, we reached our destination: the pet care section. We had the department to ourselves. Most of the crowds were over in electronics and toys. Chase and Iris were forging their way through the latter and I silently wished them luck.

"Are we done yet?" Smoky grumbled. "Haven't you found enough loot? It's four thirty in the morning, woman." He didn't sound that angry, though. In fact, the twinkle in his eye told me he was putting on a show because he thought it was required. Just like a man.

Trillian, also my husband, snorted. "You really think that's going to work? Dude, you should know your wife and her sisters by now. We've got at least another hour to go. Remember last year?"

Trillian's obsidian skin glistened under the florescent lights. He'd braided his hair to keep it out of the way. The silver strands rested smooth against his back, shimmering with the faintest of cerulean highlights. He had worn a sleek black turtleneck and black jeans, but left his jacket in the car, claiming it made him more aerodynamic in the crowds. A Svartan, one of the Dark and Charming Fae, he usually man- aged to get what he wanted by smooth-talking whoever was in his way. But on Black Friday, all bets were off. My sisters and I overruled all opinions in the household.

Smoky, on the other hand, was attired in his usual get up: white jeans, V-neck pale blue sweater, and long white trench.

At six-four, my dragon towered over the crowds. Though I kept him near, even his imposing nature didn't offer us much protection during the early hours of the most terrifying shopping day of the year. He, too, had braided his hair, though it was ankle length instead of mid-shoulder like Trillian's. Luckily, his hair moved all on its lonesome. If it hadn't, his braid would have gotten trampled several times tonight.

"Don't remind me." Smoky rolled his eyes. "Last year was worse than this, I'll give you that."

"The others aren't done yet, so just hold your horses. Remember? Hanna promised leftover turkey soup along with fresh baked homemade bread if you guys play nice." I picked up a catnip mouse and shook it, frowning at the squeaky-squeaky sound. Delilah would love it.

Her toys were constantly ragged, she played with them so much. And then, the thought occurred to me that we should get her panther form a toy, too. One that could withstand a good mauling. Also-why not one for Nerissa? Her puma liked to play and, on occasion, Delilah and our sister-in-law went hunting together in the forest behind our house. They never really caught anything, but the big cats liked to prowl through the trees.

"After we're done here, we're heading over to the stuffed toys. So gird your loins, or whatever it is you boys do in order to stay sane."

Oblivious to their groans, I began tossing toy mice in my cart, before we pushed onward.

We had not only brought Delilah's Jeep, Menolly's Mustang, and my Lexus, but also Morio's SUV, which gave us room for everybody who had wanted to come, and all the packages as well.

Hanna had stayed home to watch Maggie, our baby calico gargoyle. Vanzir and Rozurial had begged off. They were planning some secret surprise and had shooed us out of the house, instructing us not to return till early morning. I wasn't sure what they were up to, but could only pray it wasn't something stupid like turning the house into a giant video game or something.

It was nearing 6 A.M. as we pulled into the driveway of our lovely old three-story Victorian with basement. Menolly still had some time before she had to be in her lair to sleep. Vampires and sunrise? Not such a good mix, so we always made sure she was home in time to get to bed. But we still had nearly ninety minutes before the sun crawled over the horizon. Or up behind the clouds, as was more often the norm here in Seattle.

As we piled out of our cars, the men gathering all our loot for us, I glanced at Trillian and Smoky and wearily smiled. "You do realize how much I love the pair of you, don't you? And Morio, too." Morio was my third husband. I was one hell of a lucky woman.

His hands full, Smoky winked at me as a strand of his hair unbraided itself, slowly reaching over to caress my cheek. A smile creased his face. Dragon smiles were always a little sly, a little coy.

"You can show us just how much you love us after we haul all this stuff inside." His voice was husky, and I caught my breath as the touch of his hair sparked off an ache that rose between my legs. I wanted him and I wanted him now. It had been two days since I'd had sex-we'd all been busy. But that was two days too long.

Trillian brushed past me, arching an eyebrow. "That's the best idea I've heard all night."

"I wish." Shaking my head, I forced my attention away from my nether regions, which were now up in arms, demanding attention. "Go on, the pair of you. You know what waits for us inside there. An early morning brunch, and then Iris and Hanna are going to put us all to work. Except Menolly, of course. Honestly, how Iris manages to have as much energy as she does after having the twins, I have no clue. It's been less than a month and she's raring to go."
As much as the thought of an early A.M. tryst with my men appealed to me, the morning was given over to homely duties. Today we'd all be decking out the house for Yuletide, from bottom to top. With Iris and Hanna in charge, it meant we'd fill every nook and cranny with some sort of decoration. But I didn't begrudge the time spent, especially this year.

With Father dead and so much upheaval in our lives, it was important to keep our traditions alive. We needed these touchstones to ground us and keep us on track. My premonitions of the other night had faded, and I had put them down to skittishness. So far, nothing had happened, and I hadn't bothered telling anybody about them.

Trillian laughed. "Fine. We'll avoid facing the wrath of the house-maidens. But that means we're on for this evening, though frankly, I'm going to need a nap before then. The few hours we got after Thanksgiving dinner were helpful, but not enough."

But as we approached the porch I lost track of what he was saying, because the front door burst open and Vanzir came racing out, the look on his face somewhere between guilty and terrified. He scrambled down the stairs, leaping to take the last few.

"Run! Get out of the way!" The dream-chaser demon pushed past us looking like hell itself was on his heels.

Confused, I glanced back at the door. Holy. Fuck. It couldn't be-no, no . . . I couldn't be seeing what my brain thought it was seeing. Could I?

But there, on the porch, with gleaming yellow eyes, stood a very large, very burly creature with bluish-white fur covering its body. It was bipedal . . .

"Yeti! There's a freaking yeti on our porch!" I dropped my purse and backed away from the steps, never letting my gaze waver from the creature. Trillian and Smoky were doing the same.

Yetis were unpredictable. Like their cousins, the Sasquatch, they are large and muscular, but their hair runs from white to a dusky silvery-blue, compared to the deep brown of the Sasquatch's fur. Camouflage, no doubt. But what the hell was a yeti from the mountains of Tibet doing here, on our front porch? And more importantly-at least for the moment-what was it going to do?

The creatures were wild, almost alien in nature. In fact, back in Otherworld, there were rumors that the entire Sasquatch-Yeti family were originally from another planet, though nobody knew if this was true. It could have just been an urban legend. They belonged to the Crypto family, but they weren't found in Otherworld and they sure didn't mingle with the Cryptos over here, Earthside. Or with the Fae. Pretty much everybody but monster-hunters gave the primate-like creatures a wide berth.

I searched my memory, trying to calculate our options. Attempting to communicate wouldn't do any good, not unless the creature was willing to talk. And so far, nobody I knew had gotten close enough to one to invite it to tea, at least not without getting mauled. Usually, approaching beyond a certain range triggered their defense mechanisms, and the creatures would attack. And an eight- to nine-foot-tall agitated primate who was feeling hemmed in wasn't the safest of critters to be around.

"Anybody have any suggestions about what we do with the big white giant on the porch?" I tried to keep my voice even and neutral. No use setting it off with any loud noises.

"My babies!" Heedless of the danger, Iris broke into a run, heading around the left side of the house. Her home was in back of ours, and her twins were there, waiting for her with their grandma and their daddy. I pitied any fool who tried to get between her and the babies, that was for sure. The house sprite might be a gorgeous, buxom hottie, milkmaid-pretty with golden hair down to her ankles and cornflower blue eyes, but she could turn a grown man inside out if she got mad enough. Literally.

"Astrid!" Chase followed Iris at a dead run. He and his daughter Astrid lived with Iris and Bruce. No doubt, he was just as freaked.

Startled by the sudden movement, the yeti let out a roar and bounded down the steps. My men moved immediately to intercept-Smoky, Trillian, and Morio dropped their parcels and darted to cut off the path so it couldn't follow Iris and Chase.

I backed up, looking at the sky. The clouds were thick. It was almost cold enough to snow, and there should be enough energy around to summon the lightning. I raised my arms and called on the Moon Mother. She was huge tonight-not quite full but nearly there, and I could feel her shining down even though she was obscured by the boiling clouds.

As I drew the energy into me, a crackle of silver racing through my arms, I began to feel giddy. What the hell? Her magic made me drunk at times, but never like this, and never this fast.

I wanted to dance, to spin and cackle and laugh. Trying to focus, I forced my attention back to the tingling moon-fire, but it was no use. The next moment, I heard music. Faint at first, the melody quickly swept up to surround me. Reverberating with a rhythm as deep as the soil, the singer enticing me to join the dance, his voice deep and guttural.

I began to whirl, laughing as I looked toward the sky. The Moon Mother, she was up there, and I could hear her singing along. But whatever the words were, I could not understand. Weaving in and out like a sinuous chain of dancers, the words sang of adventure.

The sky shimmered, a thin veil of sparkling lights flitting around me. Enchanted, I reached out, trying to capture the twinkles in my hands.

A low growl startled me. To my left, Delilah, in her panther form, bounded by, chasing a translucent figure with wings. Tiny, it was barely a foot tall. Oh hell! Some semblance of coherency broke through. I knew what that creature was! A pixie. A freaking pixie.

We were friends with a pixie, but the majority of them were annoying pests and worse. They liked to lead people astray, and they had it in for witches like myself. And this one was darting around, sprinkling dust right and left.

No wonder I wanted to dance. But then, reason escaped me as once again the music lured me in. I whirled, holding my arms out, and the energy I had drawn down from the Moon Mother suddenly cut loose in a volley of bolts as I became a spinning wheel of silver fire, sparks flying from my fingers.

Delilah snarled and lumbered out of reach. I heard Nerissa curse as I hit her with one of the mini-bolts. I wanted to stop, but my feet kept moving, I kept twirling, and the sparks kept flying.

"Stop me! Somebody stop me! Pixie dust!" I managed to shout between the violent fits of laughter that were erupting from my core. I had no clue what was so funny, but I couldn't stop that either.

By now, it occurred to me that if I had to be shooting out sparks, why not move to where they'd do some good? I tried to catch sight of the yeti in my dizzying spin and realized that if I shifted in a northwestern direction, I'd end up near the creature, who was now fully engaged with Smoky and the boys.

As I danced closer, still spinning like a crazed top, Smoky let out a shout, and then Trillian. The next thing I knew, the smell of burning fur filled my nostrils, and with each spin I found myself facing one very pissed-off and scorched yeti.

One circle around and I caught sight of him gazing at me with those glowing, angry, topaz eyes. A second circle, and a large fuzzy white arm came flying out. The third and I staggered to the ground as his big ole fist met my crazed body.

I landed on the frozen driveway. Apparently the temperature had dropped enough for frost to form. The fucking dirt was hard and cold. But even getting smacked by Mr. Abominable Snowman couldn't shake the pixie dust off me, because I began to struggle to my feet, still needing to dance. The next moment, Smoky had grabbed me under his arm, dragging me behind him as we raced through the yard toward the studio that had originally been a shed.

The minute we hit the door, he swept me up and barreled into the bathroom, where he shoved me-clothes and all- into the shower. One more second and he'd turned it on full blast. The water was cold, and shocked me into silence. As the spray warmed up, it began to wash off the pixie dust and my foggy thoughts began to lift. My body was still jazzed higher than a kite by all the energy I'd drawn in, but at least I didn't feel the need to go gallivanting in a crazed polka around the room. I stood there, mutely, under pounding water. Yeah, this outfit is a goner.

After a moment, Smoky turned off the spray. "Pixie dust gone?"

I searched for the dazed feelings brought on by the dust, but the only thing I felt was wired and bedraggled. After a moment, I nodded.

"Yeah, I think so. I'm pissed, but I'm thinking clearly and I don't feel quite so possessed to go frolicking with Mr. Yeti. The yeti! Where the hell did it come from, and more importantly, what are we going to do about it?"

"I don't know. When I saw it attack you, all I could think about was to get you out of the way. You were in no shape to protect yourself." He held out a towel. I stripped and, leaving my wet clothes in the shower stall, I stepped out and wrapped the thick terrycloth around me. The soft cloth against my skin felt good, and I suddenly realized that I was rapidly growing tired-another side effect of too much pixie dust.

"I need to find something to wear and then we have to get the hell back to the house. The fact that pixies are having a field day in our yard is bad enough, but a yeti bounding out of our front door? More than a little scary." A sudden thought hit me. "Maggie! We have to make sure Maggie is okay!" Pushing past him, I rushed out of the bathroom.

"You can't go racing out there in a bathrobe." Smoky motioned toward Rozurial's room. "Grab something from the incubus's closet and I'll go check on Maggie. I'll let you know the minute I find her and Hanna." And he was out the door before I could touch the knob.

Wanting to run after him, but realizing that dashing naked through the storm wasn't exactly the brightest idea, I hurried into Roz's room and tossed my way through his dresser. I found a tunic that fit over my Double-Ds, and a pair of drawstring pajama bottoms. Cinching them firmly, I realized I'd have to go barefoot. My shoes were ruined, and I couldn't wear any of Roz's boots-they were far too big. Sopping hair and all, I headed out of the studio, back toward the house, my feet freezing. The frozen soil and frosty grass made for a slippery mix, and I struggled to keep my footing as I jogged back toward the house.

All hell had broken loose. Trillian and Morio were still fighting the yeti and from what I could see, the damned thing seemed tougher than a dubba-troll. But that was only the half of it. Glimmers flickered from all over the yard- and every glimmer seemed to have some sort of creature attached to it.

The pixie was still flying around like a crazed maniac, and to my dismay, I spotted a couple more nearby. Hell. They were bad news, in general. Mistletoe was the exception to the rule and that's only because he was our friend.

Beneath a huckleberry bush near my herb garden, I could see some sort of frosty hedgehog-like creature. Not certain what it was, I decided I had better get dressed before investigating.

Trampled shopping bags were scattered all over the yard, and I scanned the area, trying to locate everyone. I finally spotted Nerissa, in her werepuma form, and Delilah, who was still in panther form. They'd treed something, and both big cats were standing up against the trunk staring at whatever it was they'd managed to trap in the branches.

Menolly was up on top of the roof. She was after-what the hell? It looked like some sort of gremlin. She was climbing along the shingles, but the creature scampered over the tiles as if it were running on flat ground.

Rozurial was nowhere in sight, and Iris and Chase had taken off for Iris's house. Vanzir was struggling with a figure beneath a cedar. They were rolling around on the ground, locked in a wrestling match, and I heard Vanzir utter a string of curses. Shade was chasing another glimmer around toward the backyard.

Motherfucking son of a bitch, what the hell was going on?

Just then, one of the Fae guards who patrolled our land ran over to my side, panting. "Camille-we're overrun. Four of the men are out back fighting a group of barbegazi. And two of the men are chasing a couple of ice wolves."

"Barbegazi? Ice wolves? What the hell are they?" I wasn't sure I wanted to know, but then again, there was a lot I'd learned the hard way that I wished I didn't have to know about.

"Barbegazi are creatures from the Northlands. They're very much like dwarves only smaller and hardier. Usually they're kindly natured but this batch appears to be a particularly surly lot. As for the ice wolves, they are also known as amaroks, at least to one Earthside tribal group. They're wolf demons, dangerous and hungry for human flesh." The guard glanced around, shaking his head. "I don't know what happened, or where all of these creatures came from. The wards suddenly went off and we were swarming with them."

"The rogue portal out back? Could they have come through there?" I motioned toward the porch steps, which were surprisingly clear. "I need to get dressed and get back out here."

He followed me up the stairs. "No, the portal hasn't been active at all. I-"

As we entered the house, he fell silent. First of all, the foyer was filled with snow. White, cold, sticky wet snow. And it was snowing up a storm. Inside the house. Second, a loud humming emanated from the living room.

"Well . . . this is a new look. Ice palace décor, for the win." But my sarcasm fell flat, even to my own ears, as I stared at snow on the floor. All twelve to fourteen inches of snow. My feet were beginning to freeze.

"Wait here, Lady Camille." The guard plowed his way into the living room, then within moments returned. "There's a portal in your living room. The snow's coming through there. Ten to one, that's where all of these creatures came from, too."

A portal? In the living room?

"Okay, then, well. I don't know what to say to that." I wanted to
go prowling around, looking for Maggie, but Smoky had promised he would let me know the moment he found them and truth was, I was starting to chill. "Come with me, please. I need to change and I don't know what else might be rampaging through the house. I'd rather not be surprised while I'm getting dressed." I darted through the snow, wincing as the sting of the frozen water hit my feet. The guard- whose name was Dez-followed me, sword out and ready.

The snow was beginning to drift up the living room walls and out into the foyer and the parlor. But even more alarming, the room was also decked out in the most garish holiday décor I had ever seen. In one corner stood a ten-foot-tall tree, blazing with neon flashing blue and green lights that made my eyes hurt. The lights also ran the length of the room, following the ceiling around to form a terrifyingly bright border. Huge, ugly, acrylic ornaments bedecked the tree, catching and reflecting the lights like crazed prisms.

"What the looks like Crack Santa and his methed-out elves descended on our living room."

"I don't know, Lady Camille." Sheepishly, he said, "I thought perhaps you decorated before you left for your shop- ping trip."

"Oh, hell no. This mess? I have better taste than that. And you know Iris...yeah..."

The thought of Iris allowing such a tawdry show in our living room almost made me laugh. Thoroughly confused, I turned to the portal, which was shimmering in the opposite corner near the window. It was swirling with icy blue sparkles. I had no clue to where it led, and I sure as hell wasn't going to dive through to find out.

"Okay, upstairs, to my rooms."

As we headed up to the second story, the chill followed. It was still snowing when we reached my suite of rooms and by the time we entered my bedroom, I could see my breath and my toes were numb.

Dez made a quick survey around the room and ascertained that nothing was amok-or at least, nothing was running amok.

I stripped down as he kept watch. The Fae-including half-Fae like myself-generally weren't modest or embarrassed by nudity, and he stood by the door, guarding me, without so much as blinking an eye.

Slipping into my ready-to-rumble catsuit that I wore when I knew we had a fight on our hands, I zipped it up and slid on a pair of kitten-heel granny boots. Then, slinging a belt around my hips, I fastened on the sheath containing my silver dagger.

After dressing, I made certain my unicorn horn was still safely hidden away in the secret compartment in my closet. For what we seemed to be facing, I didn't think we'd need to use it. I wasn't about to deplete its power this far from the new moon unless it was absolutely necessary.

Once I was finished, I slipped a capelet over my shoulders for extra warmth and quickly scrubbed the streaked makeup off my face. My eyeliner and mascara had survived-they were waterproof-but everything else was a lost cause. Less than ten minutes after we hit my bedroom, I was finished and ready to rock.

"Okay, back down to the first floor."

But as we reached the landing, I paused. Someone was coming up the steps. I pulled out my dagger as Dez held his sword at the ready.

As the sound of footsteps rounded the turn, I held my breath, but then let it out in one big exhale as I saw it was Smoky, looking grim. My heart skidded to a halt.


"Maggie's safe and sound," he said before I could burst into tears. "Hanna took her down to Menolly's lair when the shit hit the fan. I told her to stay there for now. But that portal in the living room? I know where it goes. I hopped through to find out what the hell was going on."

"Where does it lead? And can you close it?" We followed him as he turned, heading back down the stairs.

Smoky shook his head, glancing over his shoulder. "No, I can't close it. The gate was opened by powerful magic, and I can't do anything about it. But as I said, I crossed over to see where it led. I'm not sure who the hell did this, but the portal? It leads into the Northlands, as far as I can tell."

My heart began to beat faster. The Northlands could be reached via Otherworld, and through perilous routes up in the higher reaches over here, Earthside. I had a lot of bad associations with the lands at the top of the world. A lot of harsh, volatile creatures made their homes there, including dragons like Smoky's father, who had imprisoned and tortured me.

"So the question is, who opened this portal, and why?"

"Right now, I think the more important question is: Just what all has come through so far? And what else can we expect before we manage to close it down?" Smoky's grim smile deepened. "Let's get back outside, woman. We need to do something to stop that yeti from trampling the yard."

I turned to the guard. "Dez, stay here, please, and guard the portal. Don't put your life in danger, but if something else comes through, do your best to stop it if you can. And if you can't, get the hell outside so we know what we're facing next."

With that, Smoky and I headed back outside, into the fray.

Hi, I'm New York Times, USA TODAY, and Publisher's Weekly bestselling author Yasmine Galenorn.  In April 2012, I won a Career Achievement Award in Urban Fantasy at the Romantic Times Convention.
I write urban fantasy/paranormal romance for Berkley: the Otherworld Series, (aka Sisters of the Moon Series), the Indigo Court Series, and the upcoming spin-off series in the Otherworld altaverse--the Fly By Night Series.
In the past, I've also written a paranormal mystery series (the Chintz 'n China Series) for Berkley Prime Crime, a short-lived mystery series (the Bath & Body Series) under the name of India Ink, again for Berkley Prime Crime, and eight metaphysical nonfiction books (Llewellyn Publications and Crossing Press).
I'm represented by Meredith Bernstein of the Meredith Bernstein Literary Agency--I adore my agent and am thrilled to have her on my side.
And yes, I'm a shamanic witch and am considered an elder in the Pagan community, having been in the Craft since February 29th (yes, leap year day), 1980.  I walk an eclectic path and consider my life to be a blend of teacups and tattoos--the former in my china closet, the latter on my skin--I'm heavily inked.  I collect teacups, teapots, Old Country Roses china (Royal Albert), antlers and skulls (of the non-human variety), daggers and crystals.  And of course, my bookshelves are overflowing with books.  I cannot walk out of a bookstore without buying at least one book.  My TBR pile is huge!

You can find Yasmine on her website and on her facebook page, she loves to hear from her fans.

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Release Date 
(September 30, 2014)

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