“YOUR TIMING BLOODY SUCKS,” Simon Northam, Duke of Hurstgrove, said as his boots crunched on the snowy field. Charred ruins rose like specters in the foggy distance. Fat gray clouds and evening mist promised more bad weather.
“Tell that to Mathias.” Bram Rion brushed back his tawny wind-blown hair.
“True,” Duke, as Simon preferred to be called, conceded.
There was no convenient time for Mathias d’Arc to attack Bram’s home. But weeks ago, he and his Anarki army had descended on Bram’s residence in the hopes of eradicating the Doomsday Brethren, a group of wizards devoted to ridding magickind of the evil sorcerer and his minions. Mathias preached equality to the Deprived class of magickind, but it was a ruse. He dealt in torture, plunder, and murder—all for ill-gotten power. The attack had nearly taken Bram, the Doomsday Brethren’s leader, and the rest of the warriors by surprise. They’d barely escaped, and had been forced to abandon the house—their headquarters—to stay alive.
Now, Bram had gathered Duke and two other warriors together at the estate’s remains. Duke dreaded sifting through the piles of blackened stone, plaster, and brick scattered among so many discarded personal effects. It looked like the aftermath of a natural disaster. But there’d been nothing natural about this.
“You’re missing my point.” Duke raised a brow at Bram. “Today is damn inconvenient for you to drag me here. Yesterday? Tomorrow? Either would have been splendid.”
“So sorry I didn’t consult your social calendar.” Bram’s tone dripped sarcasm.
“If I’m late to Mason’s wedding, my family will kill me. He’s my brother.”
“Half-brother,” Bram pointed out none too gently. “This won’t take long, your highness. You’ll be at Lowechester Hall long before the big event.”
Duke smiled. “I’ll string you up by the balls if I’m not.”
“You’ve got time. The ceremony isn’t until midnight, yes? Odd time.”
“It’s New Year’s Eve. New beginnings, and that sort of rubbish.” Duke shrugged. “What I’m wondering is why you demanded we come here tonight.”
“I only discovered hours ago that I can no longer teleport inside my own home. Or enter in any other way. There are several possible reasons.” He sighed. “None of them good.”
“Think you, the great Bram Rion, will explain himself?” Marrok leaned across the line of warriors, his blue-gray eyes full of mirth. The gargantuan Arthurian warrior loved teasing Bram.
“Without his usual dodgy charm?” Ice Rykard, Bram’s brother-by-mating, raised a dark brow that nearly disappeared beneath his black skullcap. “Why would he start now?”
“The lot of you can piss off.” Bram pressed ahead to the blackened, leaning house in the distance. “Other than the recent attack on the Lowery family, Mathias has been like a church mouse since he failed to defeat Ice for a Council seat. We know he won’t abandon his quest to overtake magickind. So his nearly three weeks of silence makes me itch.”
Agreed. The Doomsday Brethren was the biggest stumbling block between Mathias and ultimate power. None of them liked it when they couldn’t guess the vile wizard’s next move.
With a ripe curse, Bram ranted on. “The Council gave us—and us alone—the mandate to kill Mathias … but to do that, we must find him.”
“We will.” Duke hunkered into his brown Italian wool overcoat, then drawled, “I hope he doesn’t feel compelled to ring in the New Year with a bang. Tomorrow is much more convenient for me to fight mayhem.”
As was often the case, humor was lost on Ice. The warrior’s mood was as black as his turtleneck sweater. “Fucking bastard needs to be put down. But how do we kill a man who was already once dead?”
“We will—somehow. But first we must gain entrance to my house. There’s too much information inside that could help him.”
Ice shot Bram a stunned glare. “Not your grandfather’s writings?”
Bram didn’t say a word.
“You left Merlin’s work here
?” Duke nearly choked.
“I was unconscious when Mathias attacked, if you’ll recall,” Bram said defensively.
A sick feeling settled into Duke’s stomach. Merlin had been the greatest wizard ever, dating back to the time of King Arthur. “If those writings fell into the wrong hands, magickind would be totally buggered.”
“Completely,” Bram admitted.
“Fuck,” Ice muttered. “Any chance Mathias doesn’t know you have Merlin’s texts?”
Bram shrugged. “At the very least, I’m sure he hopes I do. And of course, I have no idea what Shock might have told him.”
Their supposed double-agent Shock Denzell … whose loyalties no one could quite seem to pin down. Dodgy bastard.
Duke sighed. “Fine, then. We’ll try to enter the house and look for Merlin’s books. I can stay an hour now and return tomorrow, if necessary. Mason extended an olive branch by asking me to be his best man. We haven’t been on speaking terms for roughly a decade, so I really can’t be late.”
Not that Duke particularly wanted to attend the festivities. Felicia Safford would be a stunning bride. White would only heighten her air of innocence. Her blue eyes would dance with life and fire that she’d do her damnedest to repress.
The thought of Felicia made his blood stir, his breathing ragged. Bloody hell
At their first official meeting last night, when Felicia had slid the soft skin of her palm against his, he’d felt a jolt. Duke suspected then that she didn’t belong with his brother. But she’d chosen Mason for reasons he couldn’t fathom, so Duke would grit his teeth through tonight’s ceremony, hope he could keep his stare off the bride, and tamp down his guilty urge to strip her bare and take her to bed.
“Best man.” Ice scoffed. “All the pomp and ceremony of a human wedding sounds absurd. Why don’t humans simply speak words, like the Call, and be done?”
Duke hid a smile. “They speak vows, but the pomp, I suspect, is for the mothers. Mine is in her element, planning Mason and Felicia into oblivion.”
“If you and Mason don’t get on well, why did he choose you as his best man?” Bram’s tawny brow wrinkled in confusion.
“I’m certain our mother had a hand in it.” Plus, as Duke knew, his presence—given that he’d been labeled one of England’s most eligible bachelors by the human tabloids—would mean lots of press. Damn, where was a noose when he needed one?
“Are you feeling well enough for the festivities?” Bram frowned, staring at the space just around Duke. “I noticed earlier that your magical signature seems a bit faded, like you’re unwell. But shiny ’round the edges. Never seen that.”
His signature was off kilter? The magical aura around every witch or wizard told all others about the person’s state of being. If someone magical was mated, their colors blended with their love’s and visually proclaimed them bonded. If they were magically very weak or strong, a wizard’s or witch’s signature would reflect that with the choice and intensity of colors. Likewise, if one of magickind ailed, their signature would appear faded. But shiny edges?
Sometimes, growing up human only to discover at age thirty that he was actually a wizard was a detriment. He often didn’t understand magic’s subtleties and intricacies any better than magickind understood those of humans.
Duke frowned. “I feel fine.”
“Something is definitely off.”
Something other than the fact he’d awakened in a cold sweat last night, thinking about Felicia being his brother’s wife, thinking of her smiling up at Mason as he sank deep into her body? Imagining her with him made Duke want to demolish buildings with his bare hands.
“You low on energy?” Ice asked, crossing thick arms over his massive chest.
Duke winced. Among magickind, energy was best derived during sex. Frequent, raw exchanges of pleasure powered their magic. Last night, he’d bedded a witch he’d met at a pub. Pleasant enough. He’d already forgotten her name, but remembered her dark blond hair with honey streaks and her shining blue eyes. She’d made it easy to close his eyes and pretend.
“I said I’m fine,” he bit out. “Let’s focus on why Bram is unable to enter his house.”
“Once we reach what’s left of the walls, we’ll find out,” Bram vowed as they strode through the night.
Suddenly, they hit an invisible barrier inches from the crumbling ruins. Marrok stopped short, shoving at the unseen obstruction with a massive shoulder. Ice pushed with brawny hands. Bram poked and punched it, cursing and kicking when he couldn’t break through. Duke probed it mentally. The barrier didn’t budge.
“The bastard put up his own barrier to prevent me from getting inside,” Bram cursed. “I think he lives to torment me.”
“Who?” Marrok asked.
“Shock.” Bram skimmed his fingers across the wall, then nodded. “His magic is all over this place. He wants me to know that—...