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“What do you do when they order you to kill?”
The conversation instantly died as every witch and vampire in the room turned to stare at Davon Fredericks. Davon did not flinch under the weight of those incredulous stares. He’d been a trauma surgeon before becoming a vampire, and he’d never lacked balls. He just gazed at Belle, his chocolate eyes level and troubled. He was a big man in his jeans and dark blue oxford shirt, broad shoulders stretching the fabric as he leaned forward, elbows on knees. His curling black hair was cut close to his scalp, emphasizing the strong, handsome lines of his face—the full lips, the broad cheekbones, the wide swoop of his nose. His skin was precisely the color of milk chocolate, smooth and clear, with a faint, creamy gleam.
Belle looked up at him from the plates of hors d’oeuvres on the coffee table, a stuffed mushroom halfway to her mouth. “Why do you ask?”
A muscle flexed in his chiseled jaw, and he looked up at the CONGRATULATIONS, DAVON AND CHERISE! banner hanging across the back of the den.
Belle had designed the room especially for the dinner parties she loved to throw, with two big white leather L-shaped sectionals arranged around a low, square coffee table. Davon’s brooding gaze dropped to the table, flicking among the trays and bottles that crowded it. He chose a beer and opened it with a violent twist of one strong hand. “I was just wondering.”
Now all twenty of her guests looked uneasy. Ten vampires and ten witches, Asian, black, Caucasian, Latino, all of them wet behind the ears. Though they were either in their early thirties, like Davon, or late twenties, none of them had been Magekind for longer than a few months. Well, except for Cherise Myers.
And Belle herself, who had been around one hell of a lot longer than that. She sighed and decided she’d better scotch this concern before they all started obsessing about it. “First off, none of you is going to be ordered to kill anybody.” She dropped the mushroom on her plate and used a toothpick to skewer a couple of cheese cubes from a tray. “If someone needs killing, Arthur will send one of the Knights of the Round Table.”
Like Tristan, who had been avoiding her for the past month. She curled a lip and stabbed a cheddar cube through its cold, imaginary heart.
“But . . .” Cherise began, only to fall silent with a glance at Davon, who sat beside her on the sectional. Each promptly looked away from the other, as if they’d synchronized their chins. Cherise looked delicate as a fairy next to big, broad Davon. She had a heart-shaped face, enormous blue eyes, and a tumble of blond hair that made her look like she’d just stepped off the cover of a romance novel. Yet a solid buzz of power radiated from her, and intelligence lit those blue eyes.
So what was with the grimness that thinned the line of her full mouth?
Frowning, Belle eyed the couple. They’d returned from their first mission a few days before, which was the whole point of this get-together. Belle always threw her boys a party to celebrate that first-mission milestone. You’re a real Magus now, kid.
There was more to being a Magekind vampire—a Magus—than having a set of fangs. You had to save the world, too.
Whether the world liked it or not.
But Cherise Myers was no green recruit; she’d been a Maja for several years now. A steady, intelligent young witch, she had just enough power to handle most jobs without getting dangerously cocky about it. Belle had been pleased Davon had been assigned to her.
So why were they acting so twitchy now, when neither was the twitchy sort? “Look, Arthur doesn’t make the decision to kill humans lightly. You’ve got to be a career asshole along the lines of Osama bin Laden to make him decide to take you out.”
Richard Spotted Horse looked up from pouring himself a glass from one of the bottles of donated blood each of the witches had brought. He cocked a dark eyebrow. “But why not just cast a spell on Osama to make him give up the terrorist business?”
“Wouldn’t work,” she said, and noticed that Davon was now pointedly avoiding her gaze. She’d have to pull him aside after the party and make him spill whatever was bothering him. Nobody had appointed Belle den mother to the men she’d recruited; she just couldn’t help herself. “Once a murderous attitude becomes deeply engrained, you can’t wipe it out of a subject’s mind no matter how much magic you use.”
“So why is he still alive?” Davon picked up a chocolate-covered strawberry, then dropped it back on the tray as if remembering he didn’t eat anymore.
Belle laughed. “Oh, chéri, the fights the council had over that subject. We finally decided killing him would just make him a martyr, which is the last thing we need right now. There are enough psychos in the Islamist movement that the loss of one wouldn’t even put a dent in it. I . . .”
“Belle, we’ve got a mission.” The familiar male voice rang across the room, cutting her off as a shaft of helpless longing stabbed through her. Which instantly pissed her off. Tristan.
The knight filled the doorway with his height and swordsman’s solid brawn. He was dressed all in black. He would be, she thought. A black knit shirt tucked into black jeans over soft black boots, the darkness broken only by the glint of the silver belt-buckle at his narrow waist. His hair fell around his shoulders in thick, blond strands that gleamed like expensive silk.
Tristan had the face of a Renaissance warrior, long and square-jawed, his cheekbones precise juts, with sculpted hollows and a determined chin. His mouth was wide and far too sensual for her peace of mind. His eyes glittered vividly green under his thick blond brows demanding and more than a little arrogant. .“Sorry to interrupt your party, but I’ve got a nasty situation on my hands.”
Belle gave him a smile sweet enough to rot the fangs right out of his head. The kids, of course, were staring at him in hero-worshipping awe. “Come on in, Tristan.” Since you already let yourself in my house without knocking. “We’re celebrating Davon’s first mission.”
“Congratulations.” Tristan didn’t even glance over at him. “Look, Belle, I’ve got a pissed-off werewolf waiting for me. It’s kind of urgent.”
She bared her teeth. They weren’t fangs, but they apparently got the message across; he flinched. “I’ll be happy to open a gate for you to go meet your fuzzy friend, but I’m a little too busy to accompany you just now. I’ll join you once the party’s over.” Damned if he was going to stroll into her house and start ordering her around. Not when he’d been treating her like a Black Plague victim for weeks.
“Belle, if you need to go on a job, we can clean up,” Cherise said earnestly.
“I think we can all be trusted not to get drunk and trash the place.” Richard gave her a lazy grin, shameless flirt that he was.
Tristan glowered at him before turning the glare on her. “Look, I realize I’m interrupting fun and games with your . . . boys, but the Direkind needs us to investigate a murder. And they’re convinced magic was involved.”
Belle stared, making the instant leap. “Warlock.”
“That’s my thought.”
“A murder?” one of the kids asked. “Who?”
“What happened?” Davon looked uneasy.
Tristan didn’t reply, his gaze hard and demanding on Belle’s.
Dammit, there was no choice in this one. She had to give him what he wanted. Again. Warlock and his daughter were the only Direkind werewolves who could work magic, and he was both immortal and incredibly powerful. He was also murderous, ambitious and insane.. Belle and Tristan had locked horns with him the month before, and had damn near died doing it. If he’d surfaced again . . .
Belle stood and looked around at the Majae. Unlike the vampires, they did eat, which is why she’d spent the day cooking for them. “There’s more hors d’oeuvres in the kitchen, girls. Please finish them off. Stay as long as you want.”
As Tristan stepped aside, she stalked past him through a chorus of good-byes. “All right, where am I opening this gate?” she said after he’d closed the door behind her. “And what the hell’s going on?” And why have you been avoiding me?
Tristan shook his head. “Actually, I don’t know many of the details myself. William Justice is my contact. He’s the Wolf sheriff—the top werewolf cop, appointed by the Direkind Council of Clans. He’s a good guy . . .”
“As opposed to the aristocratic nutjobs we dealt with last month,” Belle muttered.
“Right. This guy fought for us during the Dragon War.” He was referring to the battle the Magekind had fought a few months ago, when they’d been ass-deep in alien demons and calling in every ally they could find. The Sidhe, Dragonkind and assorted werewolves had joined the battle against the Dark Ones, and a lot of them had died doing it. “He’s been contacting me for help on cases ever since, usually when he needs me to bring in magical firepower.”
Like vampires, werewolves couldn’t use magic beyond the limits of their own bodies; for spell work, they needed witch help.
“So where is this scene?”
“South Carolina. Some podunk little town.” There were a lot of werewolves in South Carolina, Merlin only knew why. Tristan reached into a pocket to pull out an iPhone. “Hey, Justice? I found my witch. Help her with her gate, would you?” He offered her the cell, and she accepted it. The touch of his hand sent a flush of frustrated heat zinging up her arm.
Belle dragged her attention away from his stern, handsome face as she put the phone to her ear. Some Maja had enchanted it to carry inter-dimensional transmissions between Mortal Earth and the magical city of Avalon. She could sense the buzz of an active spell as she handled it. “Hello, Justice?” Good name for a cop.
“Look, you people need to get over here now,” growled a deep voice with a distinct Southern drawl. “The kid’s parents have called every wolf in the fucking county. The mood’s getting ugly. I need to get you and the knight in and out before I have a riot on my hands.”
“I’m sorry for the delay,” Belle told him. “We’re on our way.”
“Do you want to gate directly to the scene?”
“Not if you want me to sense any magic cast by the killer,” she told him. “A dimensional gate produces a pretty strong blast of magical energies that would destroy older traces. We’re going to have to come in some distance from the scene if we don’t want to contaminate it.”
“You do realize that means you’re going to have to walk through a pack of pissed-off family members?”
She shrugged. “Can’t be helped.”
“All right. How far out do you want me to get?”
“At least a couple of blocks.”
“Okay. Give me a minute.” She listened to the rustle of clothes and the murmur of angry voices, then the click of boots on cement. Silence fell, broken by the chirp of distant crickets. “I’m there.”
Belle concentrated, drawing on the hot roil of the Mageverse as she used the phone’s magical connection to home in on Justice’s location. Magic poured from the tips of her fingers, conjuring a glowing point in the center of the hallway. A heartbeat later, it had expanded into a shimmering oval: an inter-dimensional gate.
Avalon, the Magekind’s capital city, was located in another universe entirely, on a world that was a twin to Mortal Earth. Magic was a physical law in the Mageverse; both the Magekind and their werewolf cousins, the Direkind, drew on its energies to power their magic. Travel between the two Earths could only be accomplished with a magical gate, which meant Tristan needed Belle’s help. Otherwise he’d probably still be avoiding her, the bastard.
Tristan ducked through the gate before it was even finished expanding. Belle followed, trying not to admire his ass as she went. Like the rest of him, it was a very nice ass.
Too bad his personality wasn’t as pleasant as the view.
They emerged in a neighborhood straight out of a fifties sitcom. Middle-class tract homes, all very similar, nestled in small yards surrounded by azaleas and oak trees. A startled black cat crouched and hissed at them, before darting away to vanish under a wax myrtle hedge. William Justice must be the guy pacing the sidewalk. Lean as a fencer, dark haired, and starkly handsome, he wore chinos and a navy blue polo shirt. He carried a pump-action shotgun tucked under one muscular arm.
Justice wasn’t fooling around.
“Clock’s ticking here,” he told them after a quick round of introductions. “I need you to check the scene so we can get the boy to the funeral home before some human cop shows up and starts asking questions. Or before there’s a riot.” His mouth tightened into a grim, flat line. “Could go either way.”
“Tell us about this kid.” Tristan frowned down the length of the sidewalk as though he’d heard something that worried him. Belle, whose Maja senses were less acute, heard nothing.
Justice swung the shotgun up across one shoulder. “Vic is seventeen years old. Name’s Jimmy Sheridan. Just got through his transition successfully, so his mom and dad thought they were in the clear.”
“In the clear?” Belle asked. “Of what?”
“A fifth of our kids don’t survive their first transformation. The magic runs rogue and burns them alive. Just incinerates them to ash.”
She stared at him, having never heard that particular horrific detail about the Direkind. “My God.”
“Why do you think we call it ‘Merlin’s Curse’? It’s hell on our families. Which is why we’re a little nuts when it comes to our kids.”
“Everybody’s nuts when it comes to their kids.” Belle cast a quick spell, opening a telepathic link to Tristan. “This is going to get really, really ugly.”
“Yeah, I picked up on that.”
“You are quick.” Smart-ass. Belle curled her lip at him before turning to Justice.
“The Sheridans took their oldest son, Steve, out to dinner,” the Wolf sheriff continued. “They left Jimmy at home because he had a term paper for summer school he’d been putting off writing. Paper was due tomorrow, so he was cutting it pretty close. Apparently, they had a little fight about that.”
“And the parents are now suffering the agonies of the damned, wishing they’d taken the kid with them.” Belle had been a parent once, a couple of hundred years ago. Never again. She had to deal with enough loss and grief as it was.
Genevieve had been her light and her pride, but like all Magekind children, she’d also been born mortal. The Majae’s Council had ruled the girl wouldn’t be able to withstand the Gift without going mad. Watching her die of old age had almost been more than Belle could take.
“Yeah, well, unfortunately, the family left Jimmy at home,” Justice said. “They headed to Outback Steakhouse at 5:40 P.M. When they got home at 8:20, they found the den sprayed with blood splatter. Boy’s body was sitting in an armchair with his Xbox controller in his lap. They found his head under the coffee table. Looked like he didn’t even hear his killer walk up behind him. Sure as shit didn’t put up a fight. He was just executed.”
“Fuck.” Tristan scrubbed a hand over his face.
“You haven’t heard the worst of it yet. The weapon was obviously a sword, and the room stinks of magic.” Justice eyed them, his face utterly expressionless. “Magekind magic.”
Belle felt her jaw drop.
“Wait a minute.,” Tristan’s eyes narrowed to green slits. “Are you suggesting one of us decapitated a seventeen-year-old boy? From behind?”
Justice didn’t drop his hard gaze. “The evidence is pretty damned clear, Tristan.”
“Fuck that,” the knight spat. “We don’t murder children, boy.”
“Any of us with that kind of mental defect is discovered right after they turn,” Belle said, laying a calming hand on Tristan’s tense shoulder. “We have to kill them on the spot. It could not have been one of us.”
“You’re assuming the killer is crazy,” Justice said. “The family thinks this could be revenge for the attempted murder of Arthur’s son a few months ago.”
“You’re suggesting Arthur Pendragon butchered that lad?” Tristan’s voice dropped to a furious hiss Belle found more unnerving than a shout.
“That makes no sense.” Belle shot a warning glance at her partner. Tristan’s temper could be explosive, and they didn’t need him to go off on the only ally they had. “Logan already killed the werewolves who tried to assassinate him.” And prevented the deaths of three hundred humans in the process.
Logan’s fellow cops had gathered at a funeral home to mourn the death of an officer murdered by the werewolves’ hired assassin. “Those wolves strapped suicide vests on the human sheriff’s grandchildren,” Belle told Justice. “Everyone would have died if Logan hadn’t disarmed the bombs.”
Which he then used to blow up the werewolves. Pissing off a Pendragon is never a good idea.
“I’m aware of that,” Justice said. “That’s why I want you to check out the scene. I don’t believe Arthur would kill a child either, but the family is pretty worked up.”
“I don’t bloody care,” Tristan snapped. “Yes, Arthur has ordered deaths, but only terrorist leaders and military dictators. He’s not going to murder an innocent boy to revenge himself on the Direkind. That’s insane.”
“But it’s exactly the kind of thing Warlock would do,” Belle said thoughtfully. “Especially if he’s trying to trigger a war between the Direkind and the Magekind.”
“Warlock?” Justice gave her a blank look. “Warlock’s just a legend.”
“Yeah, we’ve already heard that song and dance from every werewolf we’ve talked to,” Tristan drawled. “Except your ‘myth’ damned near killed one of my best friends last month, so please believe us when we tell you he definitely exists. And he’s a psychopath, so if anybody is butchering seventeen-year-olds, it’s Warlock.”
“But . . .” Justice stared at him, shaken out of his cool professionalism. “If Warlock really does exist, he’s as big a hero to my people as Arthur is to yours. Why would he kill one of our boys?”
“Because he’s a son of a bitch.”
“Look, why don’t you let us check the scene and see what we can find out?” Belle said. “If he’s trying to frame Arthur, I can work a spell to prove it.”
Justice took a deep breath and blew it out. “Fine. Come on then.”
The scent of Belle Coeur was driving Tristan insane. Some of that cock-teasing smell was expensive perfume—probably French, knowing her. Jasmine and moonbeams . . .
And what romantic tripe was that? Great. She’s making me think in stupid poetry. But it was hard to resist the scent of distilled sex, as female as the swing of her ass and the sway of her breasts.
Tristan had spent the past month trying to dig Belle and her scent out of his skull. There’d been the workouts with Arthur, both with blade and hand-to-hand, until his hair streamed sweat as his muscles cramped and shook.
“You’re obsessed with that woman,” Arthur had told him after listening to Tristan bitch about Belle one too many times. “She’s worked her way under your skin all the way to the bone. Serves you right after all the women whose hearts you crushed.”
So Tristan tried women as the cure. He banged every pretty young Maja he could seduce, the older ones being wise to his habits. Unfortunately, those green enough to be susceptible to his advances maddened him with their awed stares. He could say any rude thing he pleased, and all he’d get in return was a lip quiver that made him feel like a prick.
Belle didn’t quiver her lip. Belle gave as good as she got, toe to toe and snarl for snarl.
And his mind was supposed to be on the murdered boy, not on Belle’s admittedly luscious body. How did she do this to him? He never had trouble keeping his mind of the job. Distraction got you killed in this line of work. Worse, it could get innocents killed. Like Belle . . .
Jesu, look at all the werewolves.
Jarred out of his preoccupation, Tristan stopped dead in the center of the sidewalk, staring at the crowd gathered around the house at the end of the cul-de-sac. The brick colonial had a bigger yard than most of those on the block, with a long colonnaded porch, neatly trimmed holly hedges, and a yard shaded by a huge magnolia tree whose ghostly white blooms perfumed the night air.
The werewolves gathered under the magnolia’s spreading limbs and clustered around the pickup trucks parked along the street. The smell of Dire Wolf magic rode the summer breeze, thick with the scent of fur and rage.
And beer. Coolers sat on the open truck gates, filled with cans nestled on piles of melting ice. Just great. The werewolves are getting plowed.
They were all still in human form, thank Merlin. The men were dressed for the weather in short-sleeved shirts and jeans or khakis, while most of the women wore sundresses or shorts. The females all clustered together on the porch, gathered around a woman who sobbed fitfully in utter despair.
The boy’s mother, no doubt.
Every instinct Tristan had told him this was going to get nasty. For a split second, he considered asking Belle to conjure his armor and sword.
Then again, better not. The sight of an armored knight would only light the tinder under the werewolves’ rage. He simply couldn’t afford to do that, even though it meant being seriously under-equipped if things went south.
So instead Tristan fell back a pace behind Belle, guarding her back as Justice led them up the walk toward the house. The big cop carried the shotgun at the ready, his black eyes moving in wary flicks. Evidently he didn’t like the smell of the situation any more than Tristan did..
Sure enough, one of the werewolves stepped directly into the Wolf sheriff’s path. “What the hell are you doing bringing them here, Justice?”
Tristan was instantly aware of being the focus of enough fury to light a bonfire.Looks like we’re about to be the guests of honor at a werewolf lynch mob.Belle’s voice rang out, cool and clear. “If one of the Magekind did kill that boy, I can work a spell to identify the source of the magic.”
“Question is, will you tell us who it is—or will you cover it up?” another man shouted.
She turned and scanned every face in the yard. The Direkind was immune to magic, but Belle had another kind of power in her eyes, the kind that made even furious werewolves remember she was a woman.
And decent men protected women.
“I swore to serve mankind when I became a witch,” Belle said, her voice ringing calm and steady. “Anyone who would kill a child—especially from behind with a coward’s stroke—deserves nothing but death. If it’s one of the Magekind, I’ll kill him myself.”
“What if it’s Arthur?” a hoarse voice shouted.
Tristan had heard more than enough of that. “Arthur Pendragon is no child-killing coward. And any man who says he is in my presence again had better be prepared to bleed!” The last word was a little too close to a battlefield roar, but damned if he’d back down.
Arthur might no longer be High King of Britain—he hated anyone calling him by that title—but he’d never be anything but king to Tristan. Even if Tristan would rather die than admit as much out loud. He’d certainly never say so to Arthur himself.
Silence fell, broken only by the crickets.
“Any more questions?” Tristan snapped.
Apparently the point had been made, because nobody said a damned word as the Wolf sheriff led the Magekind toward the house.
But as they climbed the steps to the porch, Tristan realized they had yet another gauntlet to run. The werewolf women glared at them, radiating an outrage that seemed to sting his skin like sparks raining from burning gunpowder.
One of them rose, the tracks of tears glistening on her cheeks in the moonlight. She wiped her eyes with a swipe of wadded Kleenex and managed a croak. “He was a good boy. Maybe his grades could have been better, maybe I had to ride him about doing his homework. But he cut the lawn every other Saturday without being asked.”
It’s the kid’s mother, Tristan realized. Just what we needed—a nice match to light all this dynamite.
Stopping for another swipe at her cheeks, she sniffled. “Somebody hit the neighbor’s cat with a car last week, and he found it lying on the side of the road, all bloody and hurt. He took it to the vet himself and paid for it to be treated. He hates cats, but he said Bonnie—that’s the neighbor’s five-year-old—she loves that animal. And the cat made it because Jimmy took it to the vet.” Sheridan’s mother was crying so hard by this time, Tristan could barely understand her. “He didn’t deserve this!”
“I know, ma’am.” Belle reached out to lay a gentle hand on the woman’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry this happened. We’ll find out who’s responsible.”
The kid’s mother gave them a look so pitiful, Tristan felt his chest ache. “That won’t bring him back.”
Belle dropped her hand. “No, I’m afraid it won’t.”
“Could you . . .” A sudden, horrible hope lit the woman’s eyes. “They say you Magekind are really powerful. Could you bring him . . .”
“No,” Belle interrupted, her voice catching. “If I could, please believe me, I would.” She swallowed. “I had a daughter once. I know how . . . I’m sorry. Sorry for your loss.”
Breaking off as if realizing she was on the verge of losing it completely, Belle whirled and headed for the house’s front door. Justice pulled it open for her, and she started inside—only to recoil in the doorway.
Tristan realized why as the smell of blood rolled out in a choking wave. The boy’s mother collapsed into her chair and began to sob. The women around her joined in, voices a rising wail that made Tristan wish he was any other damned place at all.
Helpless. He hated feeling helpless.
Belle straightened her shoulders and walked into the house, her head high, her spine erect. The two men followed. Justice closed the door behind them, muffling the wails and angry mutters.
In the foyer, Justice took the lead. Not that he had to. They could easily tell where the scene was from the bloody tracks on the polished wooden floor.
When they stepped into the small den, they saw it was every bit as bad as Tristan had known it would be. He was no stranger to the effects of a beheading, so he’d expected the blood spray. He’d expected the body, still sitting erect in the armchair, since the chair’s cushions supported it.
What bothered him was the big screen television and the Xbox, which was still mindlessly running the kid’s last video game. Two armored knights swung swords at each other, accompanied by the sound of ringing steel and cries of pain. “Christ.”
“Yeah,” Justice agreed. “But take a deep breath. Under the blood—isn’t that the smell of a vampire?”
Tristan frowned at him, but dropped to one knee and took an obedient breath right behind the armchair, where the killer must have stood.
He expected some generic odor that Warlock had faked in an effort to trigger the war he wanted. Maybe even Arthur’s scent, since Warlock hated the Magus with an insane jealousy.
But as he breathed in, Tristan recognized a scent he didn’t expect. One he’d smelled just a few hours before.
Startled, he looked up at Belle, who was standing frozen at his side, her face pale as fine porcelain. “Merlin’s cup, Belle—It’s Davon Fredericks.”