Book II of the Arcane Shot Series
Released May 2012
All witch and part succubus, savvy businesswoman Raina has converted a Southern plantation house into an extremely profitable old-fashioned bordello. Because of her abilities as a witch, the demons under Raina’s protection can feed off the sexual energy of their clients without killing them—definitely a good thing for repeat business.
But when a rogue incubus shows up on Raina’s doorstep begging for asylum, the witch’s well-run business is put in jeopardy. The incubus has stolen an object of great power from Lucifer, and Underworld Dark Guardian Mikhael will do anything to get it back—even if it means incinerating the incubus on Raina’s porch to get the answers he seeks.
Not to be trifled with, Raina enters a dangerous match of wits with Mikhael to achieve their mutual goals—only to discover that the reluctant attraction between them is the most hazardous game of all…
© Copyright 2011 - All Rights Reserved
Something was coming. Damn it all to hell and back.
Every time she planned an evening for herself, the Underworld had to vomit out some kind of trouble. A hundred million places it could go, but no, it oozed right to the doorstep of her bordello.
“All I wanted was a cup of tea, People magazine and a movie.” Raina cast an irritated eye toward the heavens. “What? You don’t get enough Me time, so I can’t have any, either?”
Yeah, pissing off the Goddess right before trouble arrived was a winning plan. The wind picked up, bringing a wealth of messages with it. Nothing clear except one thing—danger.
Stepping to the edge of the porch, Raina saw heat lightning flash, heard the distant rumble of thunder. A gust blew across her velvet skirt, rippling it against her legs.
At the deep man’s voice, she flicked a glance toward Cathair. The raven was perched on the porch swing. His weight was settled low, so with the flex of his claws and the help of the rising wind, the swing maintained a steady rhythm.
“Not sure yet. Be still for now.”
His usual response to that command was an impudent composition of the most obnoxious sounds in his repertoire. Discordant screeches, hoarse coughing sounds, and a peppering of vulgar words strung together in a creative way. But, sensing what she was sensing, her familiar stayed silent, his head cocked, bright eyes sharp.
Moving down the wooden steps, she listened to the resonances coming through the weathered planking. Not clear enough. She descended to the stone walkway and stepped onto the grass alongside it, a cold cushion for her toes. Instantly, a shiver went up into her soul. Power. Lots of it.
Whatever was coming, it was coming fast, through the forest.
The winding drive to the Queen Anne style house was about a mile long, all of it through thick wood and marsh. Ancient oaks draped with Spanish moss lined the road like gray-bearded, gnarled wizards, the great ancients of times past. The energy running through those trees now was electric, crackling static, radios gone haywire.
Might be good to get a head start on this one. She shrugged her shoulders, cracked her neck. Let her hair loose, so it blew down her back. Dropping to a squat, she slapped one palm flat on the earth, drawing energy. The other she thrust to the sky, pulling light from the moon and the airstream scudding the clouds across the dark firmament. When her gaze went to the center fountain, its waters rippled as if her hand had swept across it, a disruption of its flow. Nerve endings tingled along her spine, her palms heating from the elemental charge.
As she straightened, her eyes narrowed. The driveway appeared to be moving. Snakes, coming out of the foliage. About a dozen of them, copperheads, black snakes, a rattler. A blink later, two alligators followed. In the coastal South, a reptile pedestrian crossing wasn’t unusual. Those coming up the driveway to indulge in the dark delights her bordello had to offer would slow their vehicles until the animal passed. But seeing a mass exodus of snakes, in the company of alligators, was not the norm. Whatever was coming was not headed in her direction for the pleasures the house had to offer—it was coming for the sanctuary it provided.
Walking down the lawn, she passed the Sweet Dreams welcome sign, positioned before the center fountain. Glittering water poured over the smooth sculpted lines of a naked man and woman embracing in erotic bliss. Over the sound of that, she heard the rushing beat of Cathair’s wings as the raven took flight. Glancing up, she saw him pass across the yellow crescent moon, then do a loop. She braced herself out of habit as he landed on her shoulder, but he folded his wings with minimal mussing of her hair, underscoring the seriousness of the situation.
“Be ready to move,” she said, low. “I wouldn’t want to ruffle your feathers.”
He hunkered down like a soldier settling into a foxhole. She almost smiled, but then she was hit full blast.
Panic, desperation. Air... She struggled to work through the images tumbling through her mind. Blood, death. Pain. She was in the head of something running for its life. A male, gasping for air as he ran through the swamp. Trying to escape.
She focused, parsing his emotional responses from her own, steadied. He was coming from the southwest side of her property. However, he wasn’t her main concern. She extended her senses, pushing past him. What was following him? That was the true threat. She didn’t identify it right away, but she caught a magical whiff of something strong, deadly... male. Something that had every intention of catching up to the fugitive and using lethal means to get what he wanted from him.
Automatically, she reinforced the wards on her house. Inside, those she protected stirred, feeling the danger, so she sent them a compulsion to stay where they were. It was Sunday evening, the only day of the week they slept at night. The Bible was a good practical handbook, all said and done. Sex demons stayed on a better keel when they observed a day of rest.
Plus, they’d only be in the way. Ironically, succubi and incubi were deadly in a sexual encounter, but less than useless in a fight. A macabre twist on the whole lover not a fighter adage.
Another blast of fear hit her like an ocean wave. The prey was running, scrambling, using every ounce of self-preservation to get to her. His testicles were shrunk up into his body. If what was behind him caught up, death would be the least of his worries.
Unfortunately, what pursued him was closing the gap, and suddenly it was a direct ping on her radar. A crimson dot moving calm, steady... cold.
Oh, shit. A Dark Guardian.
Fuck. Her lips drew back in a snarl. She loved her quiet Sundays, the fact she had very few roles to play. She’d sit on the rooftop porch, listen to her music and feed Cathair bits of biscotti. She’d already picked out her movie for the night. Titanic, because she’d seen it a hundred times, and loved it even more each time. Now Leonardo and Kate’s beautiful scene at the prow of a doomed ship was going to have to wait because a damn Dark Guardian was making an unplanned visit.
That just pissed her off.
Sifting the power she’d drawn from the elements, she spun it up fast and sharp, like revving a street racer before the light change. Since it was going to be a shitty night, she might as well come out fighting. The fugitive was one of her brethren, an incubus. Though she was only half sex demon, she was all witch. The Guardian wasn’t going to get him, even if she had to use her dead body to stop him.
There. The frightened male broke out of the forest. He was swift, as their kind could be, flashing over the ground. However, as fast as he was, she already knew he wasn’t going to make it.
“Duck,” she shouted, raising her hands. “Do it, now!”
Fortunately, he wasn’t too panicked to listen. He dropped. Her power crackled past his head like a horizontal lightning blast. Twenty yards behind him, just inside the forest line, that volley hit a force field. She had herself braced for impact, but it still felt like she’d slammed her fists against a brick wall, shock and pain reverberating through every joint and bone from fingertips to collarbone. Cathair let out a shriek and took off.
The backwash of her power glittered along the full scope of the Guardian’s protective shield, about fifty feet wide and at least that high. Holy Goddess.
Never mind. She might not have hurt him, but she’d slowed him down. And her clever incubus hadn’t needed further instruction. As soon as she’d loosed her power, he’d been moving toward her like a veteran marine, his pelvis glued to the earth and his strong arms and legs pumping like a crab’s. The whites of his eyes were prominent as a cue ball, lips drawn back in a rictus of fear, his body soaked in sweat.
She shot another barrage over his head, buying him more time, but this time the Guardian answered. The incubus cringed to a halt as red flame arced through the sky and speared the ground at her feet, billowing out searing heat. Seeing it coming, she slammed down a protection on herself and the sex demon, just in time. Only that kept her from being flung back up on the porch. Even so, the charge rang through her legs, making her sway, but she locked her knees, held fast.
“Get over here,” she snarled at the incubus as she suppressed the fire with an air-sucking counterspell. Lifting his head from beneath his hands, he shot forward in that same low-level crawl.
“Damn it.” Some of the flame had squeezed through a crack in the protection and the fluttering hem of her dress had caught fire. She doused it, scowling at the scorched edge. She’d have to shorten it, and she liked that hem, nearly two hundred inches around, so it flowed just right when she moved. Asshole Guardian.
The incubus collapsed behind her. He was wheezing like a hunting dog who’d gotten too carried away with a scent and overtaxed his lungs. Or gotten lost from his clod-headed owner and nearly starved in the swamp. She’d nursed a few of those stressed beasts when they stumbled into her driveway. Found them nice homes and didn’t lose a bit of sleep over the whereabouts of the owner. There was plenty of need and reason to kill in the world if you had the itch for blood and the balls to do it. Blasphemy to be doing it for sport.
Keeping the canine theme in mind, she glanced at the incubus. “Stay,” she ordered. “I can’t protect you if you move away from me. Nod if you understand.”
She asked for the confirmation, because his almond-shaped eyes were half wild. He wasn’t like the incubi and succubi who lived in her establishment. Nor even one of those who’d learned to live unnoticed on the fringes of human society. Though he had the shape of a man, everything else about him told her he lived as a deadly scavenger, an opportunistic feeder who’d never known or learned better. She was all too familiar with the story. What hunted him probably held the usual philosophy toward her kind. Exterminate them.
The old, bitter rage turned over inside her, but she pushed it back. She’d need her wits about her, because it was about to become that kind of fight. The Guardian had only fired the one volley, and that told her he’d been checking to see if she’d turn tail and scamper back into the house. Yeah, that’d be a cold day in hell.
She waited, because she certainly wasn’t going to him. The small fires scattered across the lawn were starting to ebb, though she concentrated more bursts of oxygen deprivation magic on them to finish the job. If he’d damaged her landscaping, particularly the delicate clematis vine on the nearby trellises, she was going to have his ass for dinner.
Maybe he’d called it off, headed to a Starbucks for an overpriced coffee, chalking it up to a bad business. And she’d get that People magazine fantasy tonight. Sure.
The incubus stirred, started to speak. “No,” she ordered. “Be quiet until Mommy and Daddy finish our custody fight.”
Her dry humor went right over his pretty head. Definitely a scrounger. Even though his type could be vicious and savage, she had pity for him. She’d take the straightforward challenge of vicious and savage over the subtle quagmire of cultured and deadly any day. The latter was coming toward her now.
As the Dark Guardian emerged from the forest, she caught a glimpse of his wings. She had to admit, that was kind of a thrill. Not many got a chance to see their wings. For one thing, much of their wetwork was done at the dead of night, and the wings were black. Not glossy black like Cathair’s, but the deep ash of cemetery statuary at midnight on a moonless night, where the shadows seemed to collect in the hollows, offering a mere glimpse of the eerie silhouette. She noted the texture was more bat than bird. Sinister looking. In fact, the ragged edges made her think of the black sails on a pirate ship, loaded with cold-eyed criminals armed with wicked daggers to slit their victim’s throats.
The fact the wings were out suggested he’d had to exert himself to stay in the race. The incubus cowering behind her had some game. Didn’t mean he was clever. Incurring the wrath of a Dark Guardian was a low check on the IQ scale.
As the Guardian strode toward her, the wings tucked in and vanished, leaving her looking at something altogether different. She told herself she wasn’t impressed. As the madam of a bordello, she was well aware a man’s outer beauty had nothing to do with whatever lay inside his soul. Appearances only offered clues to a man’s bankroll. A normal man, that is. What she was seeing was pure illusion, unless they had a fabulous gentlemen’s store in the Underworld.
His clothes were custom tailored. Black slacks, white shirt, black suit coat. What every discerning, fashion-conscious man wore to a hard chase through a Southern swamp. Not a speck of mud or a drop of sweat evident. Not even a spiderweb caught in his dark hair, which was cut short but had an array of strands across a broad forehead, teasing a woman’s fingers to touch it.
As he shifted in and out of the moonlight, his brown eyes became black, then brown again. His cruel face was precisely chiseled, as beautiful as Creation could make it. Cruel things were always beautiful. That was the way it worked; otherwise he couldn’t get close enough to be cruel.
He could break anything he wanted, destroy anything he desired. Destruction was not new to him. Actually, it was no more than breathing. She knew it, because she knew him, indirectly. By reputation versus face-to-face meeting.
Mikhael Roman, Dark Guardian of the Underworld, and the hugely inadvisable former hookup of her good friend Ruby. Ruby was keeping better company these days, with the wizard and Light Guardian Derek Stormwind, the polar white to this guy’s dark. Raina would never admit that was a good change, because there was no sense in letting Derek know she liked him. Reciprocal affection would be distasteful to them both. A shared love of Ruby was enough, thank you.
A Dark Guardian was essentially a cop, just like Derek, and Raina had never had a good relationship with authority. Neither Heaven nor the Underworld favored her decision to open a bordello with creatures who sucked life out of mortals through sexual touch. Hers didn’t do that, thanks to her special abilities, but it didn’t mean anyone approved. If she ever relaxed her enchantments and her incubi and succubi unleashed the fatal side of their nature, Derek would be the first on her doorstep to take her down. It was his job, nothing personal. She understood it, the way he understood she had to dislike him on principle.
She didn’t really give a rat’s ass what any of them thought, but she had learned to be diplomatic enough about her disdain to be left alone. Unfortunately, standing between a Dark Guardian and his prey was likely to destroy that already thin civilized façade.
Ruby had described Mikhael as “distracting”, in a bad boy way. Actually, her exact quote was: “He’s the bad boy of all bad boys. Rhett Butler lumped in with Sawyer from Lost, Alex from Grey’s Anatomy—first and second season, Mickey Rourke from 9 ½ Weeks, and Nicholas Cage from Valley Girl”—the best part of that ’80s movie, they both agreed. “Oh, and Antonio Banderas doing the tango in Take the Lead. That sexy part where you see the cross tattooed on his arm, a weird mix of the sacred and profane.”
As she watched him approach, Raina agreed, enough that she wondered if Mikhael also had some incubus blood. Though he was built much bigger than most incubus males, the sinuous muscle and broad shoulders, as well as the way he moved, the intensity of his eyes, flex of his hands, were all designed to make a woman think of sex. When he finished his stroll across her lawn, he might try to dismember the incubus behind her or do something equally nefarious to her, yet all she could think about were tangled sheets, those muscles slick under her palms, his body moving upon her.
Ruby had been pretty obsessed with him for a while, and she could see why.
She wouldn’t fall under the same spell as Ruby, though, because sex didn’t matter. It could be strong, passionate, overwhelming, but in the end, it was a moment balanced against the whole-rest-of-your-life kind of shit. So she set it aside and focused on what mattered—whether she was going to have to kick his ass. On her home turf, she was unbeatable. Most of the time.
“Dark Guardian.” She nodded. “Fancy seeing you all the way out here on a Sunday night. We’re closed. If you come back tomorrow night, perhaps we can meet your needs.”
Mikhael glanced at the incubus cowering behind her. “He took something of Lucifer’s. Lucifer wants it back.”
You dumb bastard. Raina looked down at the creature, who was staring at Mikhael as if he held a death notice in hand. Except for his drop-dead sex appeal, Mikhael did look as emotionally invested as a bored collection agent who regularly de-limbed individuals.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We didn’t get around to names. You are?”
The incubus shifted his terrified gaze up to her, blinked in surprise, probably at her pleasant tone. “R-Reginald.”
“A fake name will do right now.” She nodded. Spoke succinctly and slow. “Reginald, you’ve taken one of Lucifer’s toys. They’re very possessive of their toys in the Underworld. If you have his toy, you need to give it back, because it’s not nice to take other people’s toys. Do you have the toy?”
“N-No, I don’t have it.”
“I see.” She looked at Mikhael. “Seems we have a conundrum. He has sanctuary here. Until I can get to the bottom of this, maybe you can just go away. Give me your cell number and I’ll text you.”
Mikhael pivoted, made a gesture. That minuscule movement had the incubus whimpering, quailing into a smaller ball behind her. However, Mikhael’s head tilt said he wanted her to step toward him for a semiprivate word. There was command in that motion, which annoyed her, more because something in her responded to it than the fact he did it. She drew closer with an arched brow that said she recognized the command and was unimpressed by it. Her protections on the incubus remained firmly in place.
Because of her shorter stature, close proximity required that she tilt her head to stare into his face, which was an advantage she wouldn’t give him. Instead she looked past his shoulder, staring at the woods, waiting for what he had to say. He bent his head, the heat of his breath stirring against her ear.
“I will incinerate him where he lies, witch. I will also do the same to you, your house and everyone in it, before you have the chance to cast your next spell. Is he worth that to you?”
His low tone wasn’t for the incubus’s benefit, she was sure. His concentrated intensity was enough to command attention without him ever having to raise his voice. Ruby had said he had a prominent Russian accent. It wasn’t that pronounced now, suggesting it had been exaggerated for the role he’d played with her, a gunrunner, but it wasn’t false. It was still there, a faint hint that gave his speech a rhythmic cadence intriguing in the deep timbre. She shifted her gaze up to his, locked. “You can huff and puff all you want, big bad wolf. This house isn’t blowing down.”
“You think I’m bluffing?”
“No, I think you’re testing. If you’d intended to do such a thing, you’d have already done it. Regardless, I won’t be your doormat. If you want to slaughter us for your information, you go right ahead.”
His face was so close to hers, it brushed those tempting strands of hair along his forehead against her brow. Her protection allowed that simple penetration, but it was almost as ground-rocking as a face punch. His gaze dropped with interested speculation to her mouth. She suppressed the flutter in her throat, the need to swallow.
Something in the dark eyes flickered. “All right, Raina. What would you propose?”
“You know my name.” That was unexpected, but then she knew his, didn’t she? They probably had the same source of information.
“Dark Guardians know everyone’s name.”
“How lovely. You never have that awkward moment at parties where you can’t put a name to a familiar face.”
He didn’t blink. “I can read your mind. That’s how I know.”
“You’re lying.” She stepped back, a deliberate insertion of space, not a retreat.
He flashed a dangerous smile that wasn’t a smile. It was a baring of teeth. “You’re calling me a liar?”
“If it rubs your fur the right way, yes. Perhaps even if it rubs it the wrong way. Some cats like that.”
His gaze swept over her, a gesture that felt like a full-body stroke. “I’m afraid I’m here to rub your fur the wrong way, because I am taking that thing that’s behind you.”
“Only over my dead body. Are you willing to push it that far?”
“Now who’s bluffing?” But he sighed. “Help me find what I need, and then I will be out of your hair, all those wonderful miles of it.” As his attention slid over it, she could visualize the two of them naked, his fingers buried in her hair, tugging her scalp as he pulled her to him for another taste of his demanding mouth.
Okay, he might not be an incubus, but his sensual compulsion worked on her, which didn’t ever happen. If this was a natural gift, she wanted to figure out how to bottle and sell it for a fifty percent mark up. She quelled her shiver of reaction. “Give him time to calm down, let me discuss his options with him. He’s not going anywhere. What he’s stolen, does it jeopardize anyone’s life tonight?”
“Unlikely. There are too many of us out there looking for signs of it.”
“Fine, then. You can go help them. If he doesn’t have it, you’re wasting your time being here anyway. I can question him, keep him secure, while you do that.”
“He took it, Raina. The question is why and for whom, and where it is now, because it’s not with him. You can talk to him, but only while I’m present.”
“Then there won’t be a lot of talking. There will be gibberish and pissing himself, because you scare him half to death.”
“Do you find mescary?” He raised a brow.
She snorted. “In your dreams.”
“Yes.” He gave her an appraising look. “You do not fear, but you respond well to certain... types of intimidation. Elevated pulse, increased breath. A lovely flush across your skin. Desire often reads like fear.”
“Oh, for the love of the gods, Mikhael, you know you have an effect on a woman’s body, the same way I have an effect on a man’s. It doesn’t mean anything more than adding jam to toast.”
His gaze lifted to hers. “You know my name.”
“Maybe I read minds. For real, no faking.”
“Ruby described me.”
“Yes, bad breath, warts and all.”
Goddess, she needed to stop goading him. Every time he got that dangerous glint in his eyes, things went to liquid in her knees and stomach. But now he moved his attention to the incubus.
“How do you know he’ll tell you the truth?” he asked.
“I don’t know if he will. But I will get the truth from him. That’s my particular gift. It’s what we do here.” A bordello was as much a confessional as a church. Most of her clients thought they checked their souls at her threshold. She knew differently.
Reginald kept his eyes down, fingers dug into the earth so his dirty knuckles were white. He wore only torn jeans, his slim, leanly muscled body scratched and bug bitten from his trek through the swamp.
“All right,” the Dark Guardian said. “You can try.”
“Wonderful.” She offered a sarcastic curtsy that made his eyes narrow. Yet when she knelt to touch Reginald’s arm, she let out the relieved sigh she’d been holding. She kept those protections locked down tight, though. She trusted only a couple people and, in the words of Nicholas Cage in Con Air, “One of them’s me. The other’s not you.”
“Follow me,” she said to the incubus. “Let’s talk, then we’ll get you a bath and some clean clothes.”