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I hope you’ll enjoy the newest sneak peek from the third book in my Brimstone Series from Harlequin Nocturne…BRIMSTONE PRINCE

Prologue

He was dying. The blade his former partner, Reynard, had plunged into his back had failed to kill him immediately, but the blow would be fatal all the same. Samuel Santiago could taste sulfur in the back of his parched throat. When he coughed up blood, it was tinged with black. He could feel the burn as the taint from the daemon blade Reynard had used spread its way through his veins.

Daemons weren’t damned. But just like men, they could choose evil paths.

The cab dropped him at a familiar corner in Santa Fe. He was able to walk slowly but surely to the address of the apartment building where his young daughter would be sound asleep. He had a job to do. His Latin-scribed blade was wrapped in burlap and hidden beneath his coat. It and secrecy would be the gifts he’d leave Lily and her mother, Sophia. He’d been wise to forge a deal that would protect her and her mother from Reynard’s treachery even if he hadn’t been able to protect himself.

It took forever for the elevator to respond to the summons of the glowing button that wavered in and out of focus as he waited. The Rogue daemons Reynard had sold his soul to were blackened by the desire to rule the hell dimension and then conquer heaven. They wanted to reclaim the paradise Lucifer had rebelliously left. Hell was embroiled in revolution. Loyalists against Rogues. But the Rogues couldn’t be stopped by Lucifer’s Army alone. At one time, Samuel had hunted all daemons, but he’d learned that Loyalists had no quarrel with humans. It was the Rogues who desired to enslave and destroy. The daemon king needed help from humans to defeat the Rogues. That fact might save Lily’s life.

Rogues would hunt him down. He looked over his shoulder when a random noise from a nearby apartment made him feel as if they were already behind him preparing to pounce.

The hall was empty. Somewhere in the distance a small dog barked.

Samuel stumbled into the elevator. He jabbed at the button to close the door as if the hounds of hell snapped at his feet. In a way, they did. He didn’t sigh in relief when the door closed. He leaned against the elevator’s humming wall, tense and watchful, as it rose up to the tallest floor. It was almost midnight. They would be sleeping. He didn’t have much time. He couldn’t see them. He couldn’t say goodbye. He couldn’t risk staying longer than it would take to place the wrapped sword on the mantel.

Lily had his blood. For better or worse. He supposed that was a gift he would leave her, too, although it often seemed a curse. His affinity for daemons had led him to join with Reynard in hunting them. It was Reynard’s joy in the hunt, his increased ruthlessness, that had led Samuel to question his gift. He was drawn to daemons and they were drawn to him, but in the end he had decided he was supposed to be the bridge between humanity and daemons, not their executioner.

That realization had come too late.

The Rogues were evil because they sought power and dominion over the entire universe. Loyalists only wanted to build an autonomous life for themselves. Lucifer didn’t fall from heaven. He leaped. Others had followed him. His death at the hands of Rogues had begun the revolution.

Samuel quietly let himself into the apartment. He left his key and the sword on the mantel near the kachina dolls his wife had arranged above the fireplace. The colorful Hopi statues had caught his eye many years ago, even before he’d fallen in love with the woman who carved them. She’d been at a stall in a Native American market. He’d paused, drawn to a spiritual song from the dolls that only his affinity could hear. She would know when she found the sword that it was a farewell. They had only ever had stolen moments anyway. His life wasn’t his own. He hadn’t been free to settle down and live with the family he loved.

Maybe Sophia would understand the deal he’d had to make to protect Lily.

An indistinct murmur was his undoing. His resolve had been firm. Get in. Get out. But he heard a rustle and murmur and he was drawn to his daughter’s bedroom. He didn’t go in. He only peeked from the door. She had murmured in her sleep. He watched as his three year old child snuggled deeper into her pillow. The softest whimper reached his ears. Samuel had to reach for the doorframe to hold himself in place rather than go to her.

Was it a nightmare, or did she sense his presence and his pain? Her mother might understand the desperate measures he’d been driven to take, but would Lily?

He watched as soft moonlight from the window illuminated her hand. Her tiny fist opened to reveal a kachina doll that had been grasped in her fingers. A frisson of dread shivered down his spine when he saw it was the doll that had been carved in the shape of a warrior angel. The wings down its back had been painted black long ago by one of Sophia’s Hopi ancestors. Unlike the other kachina dolls that were traditionally carved with indistinct features and masks with rough edges and curves, the warrior angel was like a Renaissance sculpture in miniature form, but crafted of wood instead of stone.

Had a Hopi priest seen his daughter’s future in some prophetic dream long, long ago?

He forced himself to turn away. He spared only a glance for the bedroom a little farther down the hall. Sophia had been a softness to his otherwise jagged life. It had been weakness to love her. But it was strength to leave her now. The wound on his back screamed for surcease that would never come. He had to walk away. He was a deadly magnet on an ordinary day. Injured and weak, he was an irresistible lure to Rogues or anyone with Brimstone in their blood.

In time, Lily would be a magnet as well. That’s why he’d been forced to ask for help.

This time as he made his way to the street, the building around him was utterly silent. No creature stirred. The simple operation of the elevator doors sounded like a shriek. Finally, he made it to the street where he remained on foot. He headed to the bus station. One dogged step after another. If anyone saw him, they would have assumed he was a drunken vagrant. He planned to get on a bus and ride as far away as he could ride from his precious family before he fell.

He could only hope and pray that the daemon deal he’d made would protect Lily once he was gone.

Chapter 1

When the daemon stepped from the shadows, the darkness seemed to cling to his tall, lean form, separating from the black leather of his jacket and the faded denim of his jeans reluctantly. For long seconds, his angular face and muscled shoulders seemed to be draped in a dark winglike mantle. Lily Santiago’s breath caught in her lungs as familiarity punched her in the gut until he came forward another step.

She blinked as he moved, and she exhaled a long shaky breath as the shadows retreated to the corner of the kiva where they belonged. The daemon didn’t have wings. But he should, her senses told her. He should. An impossible familiarity began to foment in her brain. She’d seen this daemon before.

The underground Hopi chamber was a circular room with a packed earthen floor and stacked stone walls. There was only one opening to the sky where an old wooden ladder would have leaned. She’d used a nylon climbing rope to descend ten feet. The abandoned chamber would have been dark at midday—at midnight only her lantern and the occasional flash of the daemon’s nightglow eyes as they refracted the low light held back the night. The firepit on the other side of the Sipapu had been cold for a century or more. She rose slowly from her crouched position near the kachina dolls she had carefully placed for the ceremony she was about to invoke. She gripped a short silver flute in one clenched fist.

“Move away from the edge,” the daemon ordered.

Lily had heard daemons speak before, yet none of their voices had been so deep and melodic. Her heart thrummed in response to the mellow drawl of his vowels and the low pitch of his husky tone. He wore a guitar on his back, she noted. The silver-studded strap crossed across his broad chest and she could see the neck of the instrument behind his right shoulder.

If his voice caused gooseflesh to rise on her bare arms, it was the Brimstone of his blood that forged a deeper reaction. Her stomach coiled. Her muscles tightened. Her skin flushed and her breath, once caught, now came too quickly between parched, parted lips. She was used to being buffered against the Brimstone burn. She’d known she would have to be much stronger outside the palace walls.

Her affinity for daemons was her greatest strength and her greatest potential weakness. She could summon them, but she couldn’t control them. Her control was limited to the elemental spirits that dwelled in the kachina dolls her mother had carved. Those she could summon and control.

But daemons were different.

No one could control Brimstone’s burn, not even the daemon whose veins flowed with the lava of hell. Her affinity made her vulnerable, so she stood and waited for the inevitable fight.

“I promised my mother when she died that I would seal every sipapu in New Mexico with the skills she had taught me,” Lily said. It was a warning. She wasn’t here to fight ,but neither would she be swayed from her mission.

The Sipapu was a hole at the center of the kivaKiva. It was thought by many to be a symbolic opening to the lower world. Hopi people believed that their ancestors had risen up from such places to become a part of this one. In most kivas, the hole was only a few inches deep. In this unexplored, undiscovered kiva she had found with the direction of her affinity and her mother’s kachina dolls, \the sipapu’s floor was so deep that it wasn’t revealed by her lantern’s light, and a cool waft of air rose up toto chill the whole chamber.

Lily set her teeth, hardened her jaw and dug her heels into the hard-packed desert earth that had been carved into a religious chamber hundreds of years ago. She needed to seal the portal to the lower world. Then she needed to pretend she had discovered the kiva and the surrounding ruin of a small unknown Hopi pueblo on an innocent hike so that archaeologists and Native historians could come in and excavate the site.

“A noble promise, but I bet you’ve met resistance along the way,” the daemon replied.

He didn’t hold a weapon. But he was obviously big and powerful. Not to mention the whole daemons-being-nearly-immortal thing. At five foot four inches and one hundred ten pounds, she was in trouble. She had no one to rely on for protection but herself. Not anymore.

The daemon edged closer. The kiva chamber was a large circular room. She was separated from the approaching daemon by the fire pit and the sipapu, but the sipapu was only about a foot in a diameter and he’d already made his way around the bigger indention of the pit that was still blackened by ancient fires.

“I have a sacred duty. I handle resistance as it comes. I’ve sealed every single sipapu I’ve discovered,” Lily warned.

Her family tree could be traced to ancient Aztecs on one side and to Spanish settlers on the other, but it had always been rooted by one simple thing: standing against evil. There was irony in that, considering where she’d spent the last fifteen years, but she had no time to let that slow her down.

The daemon didn’t flinch or falter when she refused to move away from the portal. He continued to approach. Slowly, carefully, as if he were giving her time to get used to his presence. The pleasure of his voice spread warmth to other places already warmed by his Brimstone burn. The whole chamber had gone from chilled to heated. Her gooseflesh was gone. Her flush had deepened. The perspiration had evaporated from her skin. She’d been warned to guard against daemon persuasiveness. Her powerful affinity wouldn’t protect her from it. On the contrary, it made her more susceptible than most.

“The other daemons who tried to stop you were Rogues. They want as many pathways to the hell dimension as possible to remain open as they resist the rule of the rightful daemon king,” the daemon said in a soft, reasonable voice, as if he was pacifying a madwoman.

Who was he and how did he know these things?

Considering her free hand had gone to the hilt of a hidden sword at her back, his tone was probably justified. She could feel the grimace that stretched her face taut as she prepared to battle. She was no warrior, but the small elemental spirit dolls at her feet weren’t her only weapon. The flute and the dolls helped her channel her affinity to call on the elemental spirits. In days long past, she would have been deemed a priestess. Her mother had trained her in the old Hopi ways…but the sword had come from her father.

“My mother gave me a job to do and the sacred tools with which to do it. My father gave me this,” Lily said. The rasp of steel against its leather scabbard sounded loud in the underground room.

Perhaps the daemon could see the Latin prayers scribed into the blade even by lantern light, but if he could he didn’t retreat. He came toward her one more step. Then two.

“And what makes you aware of the daemon king’s wishes?” Lily asked as she brought her father’s blade down in a practiced move that prepared for the daemon’s attack.

The whole while she took in the daemon’s appearance. The absence of wings didn’t matter. Her mother had given her a gift along with her training and her tools. It was nestled in the backpack that had held all the other kachina dolls that were now arranged near the sipapu. Hundreds of years ago one of her ancestors had carved an unusual kachina doll. It had been passed down for generations. From the time the daemon had stepped from the shadows, she’d recognized the sharp angle of his jaw and the full swell of his lips. She recognized the thickness of his wavy, shoulder-length hair swept by the desert winds. His broad shoulders, the set of his eyes and the patrician nose were all familiar.

The kachina doll had stiff wings that had been carved in a mantle down its back and painted black. This daemon had no wings. That initial illusion had only been created by shadows. But his fallen angel’s voice made the idea of wings possible every time he spoke.

He couldn’t be her warrior angel.

Her hand gripped the hilt of her sword to stop the trembling in her wrists and fingers. This couldn’t be her family’s kachina come to life. He was no nature spirit or ancestor who had come to help her. When he moved, she could see the glint of Brimstone glow in his eyes. She could feel the heat of his blood. She refused to let fire and familiarity influence her actions.

“The daemon king doesn’t rely on sipapu portals. He has his own pathways he protects,” the daemon explained. “But it isn’t safe for a human to meddle in these matters.” He had paused, but it didn’t feel like a reprieve. It felt like he was waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

“Are you his servant then? And you’ve come to help me?” Lily asked.

Likeness to her family’s oldest treasure aside, she still held the sword at the ready. Over the long, hot months of the strangest summer job any runaway had ever taken on, she’d learned to guard against daemon deception. They couldn’t be trusted. It wasn’t her Hopi mother who had told her that the devil had a silver tongue. That bit of wisdom had come from her guardian himself.

“No. I’m not his servant. I’m his adopted grandson,” the daemon said. “My name is Michael D’Arcy Turov.”

Her sword didn’t waver, but the air did catch in her lungs again in a hiccup of surprise. Her guardian’s heir wasn’t here to hurt her. She’d never been allowed to meet him, but she’d known about him from afar. The guitar on his back should have given his identity way, but her shock over his features had distracted her.

Michael Turov was a living replica of her warrior angel, but he was also the Brimstone prince. He was the talk of the hell dimension and had been since it had become common knowledge that he didn’t want the throne.

The unusual kachina her Hopi family had once worshipped, then treasured for centuries, was the perfect likeness of a daemon prince. She wondered why her guardian, the daemon king, had never deemed it necessary to warn her. Lily was distracted by the revelation only long enough to blink in surprise, but that was long enough. The daemon leaped. His body slammed into hers and her planted feet slid backward with the force of his superior weight and strength. His momentum pushed her back from the portal’s edge, and his hands over hers on the hilt of her sword kept her from using it in defense.

It didn’t matter. She couldn’t have attacked him anyway. Not even if she hadn’t realized he was trying to protect her from the Sipapu’s edge. She’d always slept with the beautiful kachina beneath her pillow. When Michael Turov pressed her back against the chamber’s earthen wall so that his body was between her and the open Sipapu, the shock of his Brimstone heat didn’t stop her from tracing the familiar features of his face with her gaze. It was almost too sharply cut to be traditionally handsome. There was something inhuman in the perfectly pronounced bone structure beneath his skin.

This daemon prince’s face was the reason she’d been drawn to kachinas in the first place.

Face-to-face with a living replica of the unusual doll, her hand twitched against the hilt of the sword. Her mother had been a carver, but Lily suddenly ached to be an artist. Could she re-create the angles of his cheeks and jaw? Could she capture in wood the ferocity of his expression while still creating the slight softness of his lips? She noted his mouth seemed to tilt on one side as if he laughed at the world, or himself or some unseen joy in the shadows that gamboled for his attention alone.

“Grim, we’re about to have some unsavory visitors. You might want to come out here and give us a hand,” Michael said. “Or a paw.”

His gaze swept over her face as he spoke as if he was the sculptor who would try to capture the blend of Hopi and Spanish that came together to create her brown eyes, dramatic brows and dark hair. Her hair had loosened when she hit the wall. It had fallen around her face in a black waterfall of straight silky chunks.

“Your hair reflects the light,” Michael said.

Maybe it was a daemon prince thing to say, but it wasn’t a usual thing for her to hear. She’d been kept in isolation her whole life. The wonder in his tone and the admiration in his eyes gave her pause. For the first time, her grip loosened beneath his fingers on the hilt of her sword.

“Who is Grim?” Lily asked.

Michael turned his face toward the shadows where he’d appeared earlier and his move—when she dragged her gaze from the razor’s edge of his lean jaw—allowed her to see a monstrous doglike beast swirl into being as ashy embers coalesced into a canine shape. A snarling maw of snow-white teeth was the first to solidify, followed by a muscular form surrounded by shifting fur that seemed more smoke than hair on the ends.

Lily’s nose twitched as the pleasant scent of wood smoke filled the air around them. It was a scent her body instinctively associated with hearth and home—because of the slight sulfuric burn, not in spite of it. She’d found a haven in hell with her mother as a child. They’d created a home in one wing of an immense Gothic palace others would have feared.

Her hands tightened again and she tried to pull from the daemon’s grip, but he held fast. His hands were big and warm around hers. She glanced down. The indentions his guitar strings had caused in the tips of his fingers were slightly rough against her skin.

“Grim is a friend. And we’re going to need his help,” he warned.

She stilled and looked up into Michael Turov’s gaze. In this position, the glint was gone and all she saw was sincere hazel irises rimmed with a darker chocolate as he met her gaze without blinking. But movement behind him kept her from becoming mesmerized. Smoke poured up from the hole in the ground. The sipapu now seemed like a slumbering volcano that had wakened. The wood smoke scent was suddenly tainted by a much stronger sulfuric stench.

“Let us take the lead,” Michael said. “Rogues give no quarter and they have particular reason to want me dead.”

“Oh, so you came to make it worse then?” Lily joked. “Don’t let my hesitancy to lop off your head fool you. I don’t need anyone to take the lead. Not a prince or a…” She failed to be able to label the creature across from them that snarled and snapped at the sulfuric smoke.

“Hellhound,” Michael supplied. “Grim is my hellhound.”

“Of course he is,” Lily replied.

A fissure had begun to open up from the sipapu. She gasped, more concerned at the destruction of the kiva than she was over what the fissure signified…until daemons began to climb from the widening portal.

“Complete your ritual,” Michael yelled over the grinding of crumbling earth.

But frankly, she was too busy deflecting the daemon blade that aimed for the back of Michael’s neck. He fell back as her sword clashed, metal against metal, and sparks flew. Several Rogues had climbed from the sipapu, but several more had come from the shadows and the smoke. Half a dozen daemons attacked. Michael fought with his bare hands and his hellhound’s crushing bite. She fought alongside them until she realized they didn’t need her help. For now. The widening fissure was the threat if it allowed more of the Rogue daemons to join in the fray.

Her traditional kachinas were already in place. She raised the flute to her lips and called the spirits to life with the song her mother had taught her. It didn’t matter that her mother had considered it nothing but tradition and a comfort during the difficult times following her father’s death. Lily’s affinity brought the old ways to life. The song came from her flute, but it also came from the affinity in her heart and the Hopi blood in her veins. She could feel Michael’s gaze on her as she moved. She’d never done the ritual with an audience. For the first time, distraction threatened. She struggled to block the daemon prince from her mind, but hadn’t he somehow always been there? The hidden kachina in her backpack was one of her earliest memories. It had fascinated her forever. While her mother’s kachinas were masked and carved with blocked shapes, the one with wings had been rendered with meticulously lifelike features. She hadn’t known how meticulously until moments ago when Michael Turov had walked into the kiva.

The earth calmed as she played. The fissure shrank, and then closed. The sipapu became filled in to the point of being a shallow, symbolic hole the size of a melon. There was a pause as the kachina spirits quieted and the universe accepted her interference. She’d run away from her refuge in hell in just this way by widening a Sipapu portal with the kachinas’ help. Even though it had been three months, she still couldn’t believe that the daemon king hadn’t retrieved her.

In the lantern’s glow, motes of ancient desert dust hung in the air before they began to float and fall again.

Lily fell, too, her energy completely spent. But instead of the hard-packed soil she expected, her body was caught by strong, muscular arms.

*

Michael quickly carried his slight burden up out of the earth. Grim helped without being asked. Leading the way, he led Michael and the woman he carried through pathways only he could find. Michael was used to walking through the chill of an otherworldly portal. He was used to de-materializing in one place and reappearing in another. He laid the woman on a smooth patch of ground and shrugged out of his jacket to roll it up and cushion her head. Then he forced himself away to start a fire beneath the rising moon and sleepy stars winking awake in the night sky. The desert sky wasn’t black. It was a midnight blue so deep and lush it reminded him of velvet. But the night would grow cold and the young woman, no matter how ferociously she’d fought, didn’t have Brimstone in her blood to keep her warm.

The fire kindled easily while she murmured in her sleep.

He approached her after the fire was built. She drew him with a powerful pull—like the moon to his sea—and damned if he didn’t feel like waves crested and crashed inside of his chest with every heartbeat. She didn’t seem hurt, only drained. Sleep was probably what she needed to recover. She was petite, but athletic, and obviously used to fighting daemons. He touched her face when a particularly loud whimper escaped from her rosy lips. It was a mistake. The scars that tracked along his arms flared to life with a red glow. The sudden ignition startled him into stumbling backwards to cradle his tingling fingers against his chest.

The tempest in his chest was shocked into stillness.

Her affinity was stronger than any he’d felt before. And it called the Brimstone in his blood to roaring life in spite of a lifetime of practice in tamping it down. After that touch, he took a seat well away from the young woman. He put the fire between them. Not because the flare had hurt him. It hadn’t.

It had been a pure pleasurable jolt of heat akin to desire.

Where had this woman gotten an affinity so strong that it tempted him to loose his Brimstone burn? He had inherited affinity from his own mother, Victoria D’Arcy. Affinity for daemons had been passed to his grandmother, Elizabeth, by a monk named Samuel. She had passed it to her daughters and, in turn, it had come to him. But each passing had diluted the affinity’s strength.

He was used to its almost musical call. He wasn’t used to this. The woman’s affinity was nearly pure and so powerful that he could feel it calling the Brimstone blood he’d inherited from his biological father even though he had a lifetime of experience guarding against it.

He hadn’t trusted his daemon blood since it had almost killed him as a

He hunted daemons. He refused to accept that he was nearly one himself. But hunting Rogue daemons wasn’t the only family business and the daemon king wasn’t their only concern.

The Turov estate was one of the largest in Sonoma, California with thousands of acres of vines. His stepfather had established it right after the Russian Revolution when he’d brought his parents to America and he’d had many years to bring it to lush, thriving success.

Brimstone wasn’t all bad. It had extended Adam Turov’s life and allowed him to help Michael’s mother after Michael’s real father had died. Turov had helped Victoria defeat the Order of Samuel when they’d kidnapped Michael as a small child. Then, Turov had married Victoria and raised Michael as his own.

The Brimstone in Michael’s blood had almost killed him when it had first flamed high during his rescue. He’d never trusted it since.

He reached for his guitar to keep himself from standing and going to the woman again. Her restless murmurs drew him as much as her affinity. She was distressed. What worried this amazing woman who had used her affinity and her dolls to call Fire, Water, Wind and Earth to defeat the Rogues that stalked her? Were more daemons on their way? He could see Grim silhouetted on a rise just outside of the fire’s light. The hellhound was alert and watching for trouble, but Michael still felt every protective instinct he possessed on high alert as well.

The fire’s glow was gentle in comparison to the glare that had come from his scars. It helped to filter the woman’s murmurs and sounds through a soft haze of smoke. By all accounts, his grandmother had been a remarkable woman too. She’d loved the daemon king before he was a king. He’d loved her as well. So much so that he’d “adopted” her human children after her death. Unfortunately, his devotion to the D’Arcy family shadowed Michael’s future.

And now it would shadow this woman’s future as well.

He was in the fight of his life against more than the Brimstone in his veins. He fought against the daemon king’s expectations. Ezekiel had proclaimed Michael the heir to the throne of hell. But Michael’s scars were a constant reminder why that could never happen. They didn’t glow anymore. He’d succeeded in extinguishing the flare. He always would. He refused to acknowledge his daemon heritage, now or ever. He’d seen the harm his own blood could do. He’d grown up knowing that daemons couldn’t be trusted. He refused to accept a position that might make it impossible for him to protect others from the power in his blood.

His guitar came to life in his hands as the elements had come to life for the woman nearby. She’d used a flute and the dolls to channel her affinity. He used the guitar’s strings. But he wasn’t calling anything. He played to drown out her affinity’s call. He played to control the Brimstone in his veins. If he also soothed her distress so be it. He would give her peace before he shattered her peace completely.

Because in spite of needing to keep his distance from the woman who obviously tempted his burn he needed her help to find the one thing his “grandfather” the daemon king wanted more than Michael—Lucifer’s wings.

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Here’s a Sneak Peek at my first Harlequin Nocturne Series, Brimstone Seduction and Brimstone Bride

She was used to being followed. Sometimes she lost him. Sometimes she didn’t. It was those times she feared. Father Reynard wasn’t her enemy, but as she cut down the familiar side street that formed an alley between the auditorium and her apartment, she knew what he was to her was more complicated and more frightening than if he was something she could fight.

The Savannah, Georgia, air was muggy in July, and her efforts to evade Reynard had left her damp with a sheen that was more humidity kissing her skin than sweat. But she didn’t pause to set down her cello case so she could mop her forehead with a lace hanky like a flustered southern belle. Instead, tendrils of her thick chestnut hair curled around her face as strands loosened from the diamanté clips the salon had used when she’d been cool and collected and air-conditioned that morning, preparing for the afternoon’s performance.

She heard his footfalls behind her. She knew his step. Others from his Order often hunted as well, but Reynard considered her his own.

Her faltering steps had brought the sound of his relentless pursuit closer. A desperate instinct to run, to hide, rose up in her chest, squeezing her lungs so that she breathed more quickly than her current exertions required. It was fear, plain and simple and stark.

Because there was no escape.

The city was draped in a gloaming blanket of twilight. The muggy haze had dimmed to purple with the setting of the Georgia sun. In the distance, she could hear the traffic and the hum of people on the sidewalks of the historic district, preparing for ghost tours and streetlight-lit carriage rides. But here, on the leftover cobblestones of a distant time, she was alone…except for Father Reynard.

His whistle began as it always did, with a lilting trio of notes that led into song. She recognized it as a Verdi piece she’d played that afternoon. Gooseflesh rose on her arms in spite of the oppressive heat from the summer day trapped in the narrow alley. The whistle meant he had her. It meant there must be a daemon nearby that she’d been drawn to. Her affinity had reliably led Father Reynard right where he most wanted to be. Again.

She did stop then.

Not giving up. Never that. She only paused to brace herself for what might be an ugly, dark and dangerous evening more from the violent monk who dogged her steps than the daemons he hunted. Although there was danger there, too. Certainly.

She was trapped in the middle of a war that would never have a winning side.

Katherine saw the daemon then. A woman. The glow of the horizon narrowly visible at the end of the alley cast her stiff form in stark relief. She stood poised for a fight. Her arms akimbo. Her knees slightly bent. It was going to be one of those times when the daemon didn’t go quietly. This was no hopeless soul longing to be sent back home. Katherine could see determination tense every muscle in the figure she faced.

“A female. Good job, Katarina. It’s so important to banish these before they breed,” Father Reynard said as he came up behind her. She kept her focus on the daemon, but she was totally aware of Reynard’s movements. The same way she would be if she were a hiker who was suddenly forced to skirt a mountain ledge over a steep precipice. Her footing was just as precarious. One wrong move with the deadly daemon hunter and she might be dead herself. She could feel the suck of gravity as if she was on the ledge, inches from death. His steps were slow and steady. Not rushed. He was confident. His voice was already smug with success. She was the one who was in danger. She was the one who might slip and fall.

Kat cringed at the utter contempt Reynard had for the daemon as a living, breathing creature, whether it was human or not. And at his total disregard for her and her disgust for his bloodthirsty quest.

Kat fisted her hands, but the woman leaped before she could decide how best to give her a chance to flee. The alley was too wide, an access point for delivery trucks to service the buildings on either side. She dropped her cello case and jumped but had no chance to keep the hunter and his prey apart. Not when the prey was determined to get around her. Kat was pushed to the side. She slammed against solid brick, and all the air left her lungs in a painful rush.

The daemon attacked Reynard with a fury Kat had never seen.

He was the one with the drawn blade, but Kat was as much a weapon as the bloodstained blade in Reynard’s hand. She didn’t deserve to be bypassed. The daemon should have attacked her first.

The sight of the deadly knife always repelled her. But it was Kat’s ability that had led Reynard and his weapon here. Like deadly magnets with a pull she couldn’t resist, daemons called and called to Katherine.

She was inexorably drawn to daemons, and Father Reynard followed with crimson death across all their throats.

“Stop,” Kat choked out as her own throat empathetically tightened—to the daemon or to Reynard or to the family gift she hadn’t asked to receive.

It was too late. Grizzled and gray, Reynard had fifty years of experience in killing. An extension of his wiry, muscled arm, the long knife gleamed red in the last hurrah of sunset on the horizon. Then it dripped a much darker stain from the daemon’s blood. Kat shuddered and backed away.

It was always the same.

The body went up in flames, consumed from the inside out, eyes and mouth and the gaping wound across the daemon’s throat gone to glowing with an impossible heat of coals in a fiery furnace. It was the freed Brimstone that did it, an otherworldly fuel that flowed through a daemon’s veins. Reynard said it was a little bit of the hell dimension they took with them wherever they roamed.

Kat always forced herself to watch until there were only curls of smoke where a daemon had been, but this time there was a sound discernible beneath Reynard’s triumphant chants.

To the left, behind a Dumpster, there was a shuffle of rubbish and gravel. There was also a sob. A small face peeked from around the refuse container. As the embers died, Kat could see chubby wet cheeks and eyes widened in shock and fear.

By then, the sun was gone and the sky was dark. It was only the glow of the daemon’s banishment that lit the scene. The light flickered and faded, but the daemon’s last dying illumination caused an eerie spotlight on the cowering child.

This time, she wasn’t too slow to react. While Reynard was occupied with ritual, in those few seconds it took for him to finish with one daemon and turn his attention when he realized there was another, Kat was the one who leaped. She wouldn’t let the mother’s last light aid Reynard in his hunt.

The child tried to get away. After all, Kat was part of his mother’s murder. Or so it seemed. So it felt. Regardless of what Reynard said about the daemons rematerializing in their own hellish dimension.

Kat was faster than the child. He was young. No more than five. And the mother’s desperation had transferred itself to Kat’s arms and legs. In those moments, Katherine D’Arcy was fit, fast and nobody’s bloodhound. Not anymore.

She grabbed the reluctant boy. He balked, planting his small feet on the pavement as if he planned to remain a statue in the alley, a fierce little memorial to his mother forever. He wouldn’t run with her. She had to pick him up. She tucked his squirming limbs against her side and bolted, deciding to base jump instead of fearing the fall. She’d never openly defied Reynard. Her grandmother’s fear had been passed to her mother. Her mother’s had been passed to her and her sister, their legacy darkened by his long shadow. His surprise at Kat’s action gave her precious seconds to get away with the child.

But even if she was faster than the small boy, Reynard was faster than her.

She’d long since realized his obsession drove him to superhuman lengths. His madness gave him strength beyond that of a mortal man.

Her only hope was to get back to the crowded street with the boy, where a blade across his throat would be too bold a move even for Father Reynard. The trench coat he wore like a monk’s robes flapped as he ran, great dark wings on either side of his lean body.

He seemed supernaturally unstoppable. As if he would never need rest. Her back. Her arms. Her shoulders. They all screamed under the squirming boy’s weight. Far too mortal in comparison to Reynard. She didn’t look back again.

“Hold still. Hang on. We’ve got to get you away from him,” she said into the boy’s towheaded curls.

The strands smelled like baby shampoo against her face. The simplicity of that impacted her even harder than the sneakers kicking her side. The daemon woman who had attacked Reynard to defend her child had also lovingly washed his hair like any human mother would. Kat couldn’t let Reynard kill him. She couldn’t let the boy die because of her gift.

She heard booted footfalls catching up behind them as she flew from alley to street to sidewalk, trying to get back to the main thoroughfare where people would be.

If the boy had been a few pounds lighter or a few years younger or less panicked in his struggle against her, she might have made it.

“Katarina!” Reynard boomed close behind her. His pet name for her grated on her nerves as always. Now it was a proclamation of her guilt. She had betrayed him.

Resignation softened the muscles in her legs as adrenaline deserted her. She would never beat him in a foot race, even if she wasn’t carrying the child. Her only hope was to reason with a madman. No hope at all. Fortunately, the lack of hope made her more determined to try. Though she stopped to turn and face him and his blade with a pounding heart and ice in her veins, she couldn’t help noting his giddiness was gone. He was raw anger personified now. The guise of his righteous joy had burned away as surely as the daemon’s human form.

The boy had stopped his efforts to wiggle out of her arms. Perhaps between the man who had cut his mother’s throat and the woman who held him, he chose her.

Being the lesser of two evils didn’t seem a triumph at all.

“I won’t let you kill him, Father,” she said.

She held the boy close. She wrapped him tighter in her arms. She could feel the frantic beat of his heart against her chest, an echo to the thud of her own. She placed a hand on the back of his shampoo-scented head and pressed him even closer.

“I banish. I don’t kill, Katarina. You know this. I send them back to hell where they belong,” Reynard said. He stepped nearer. One stride. Katherine took the same stride back and away. He had always refused to call her by the name her mother had given her. It was as if he attempted to erase her true identity and replace it with one he had created.

But she had nowhere to run. She could still hear traffic and people in the distance. So close and yet so far away. The hum of the city mocked her efforts to defy the man who had dogged her steps from the time she could walk.

“So you say. All I’ve ever seen is the blood. The suffering. The pain,” Kat said.

The boy trembled in her arms. At some point, his small arms had twined around her neck.

“They are deadly. They manipulate us with trickery and deceit. Have you forgotten your mother?” Reynard asked.

Her mother had been killed by a daemon. It was true. They were dangerous. Deadly. But so was the human being she faced.

Reynard held his long blade in a steady hand. She could see the muscle and sinew standing out in his right forearm where his coat had fallen away. He was ready to slit the throat of a child…or her throat if she got in his way.

“A daemon killed my mother. But you were using her to hunt him when it happened. Would she be dead if it wasn’t for you?” Katherine asked.

“She would never have been born if it hadn’t been for Samuel. He gave his last breath to resuscitate your grandmother, a stranger he met on a train. He passed his ability to detect daemons hiding among us to your family. And this is the legacy you spurn.” Spittle flew with the accusation, and then several sudden steps brought Reynard much too close.

There was nothing she could do. Her back was pressed to the grungy brick wall. Only decades of faded graffiti would mark her grave if she continued to fight him. She had nowhere to go, but then again, she never had.

“It’s you I spurn, Reynard,” she said.

Slowly she lowered the child to the ground and pushed him behind her legs. Her body was the only shield she had to give. Her cello case had been dropped back where his mother’s smoke still swirled in the air.

“Your sister has evaded me for a long time. Too long. I begin to wonder if she spurned me only to be killed by a daemon, too. Perhaps your family legacy is one of failure,” Reynard said. The glee was back in his voice, lilting his words.

She thought of her cello, of her mother’s and sister’s singing. They had turned to music to buffer the bloody killings and to mute the daemon’s call. Had they failed, after all? Had all the years of practice and performance been for nothing? Her fingers tingled and ached, reminders of how many times she’d played until the tips bled in order to thwart Reynard.

The boy clung to her legs. She could feel the damp of his tears soaking through the chiffon of her concert gown. It was no suit of armor. No barrier to Reynard’s seasoned blade. She was no match for a killer.

When her sister Victoria had flown to Baton Rouge to take the role of Faust’s Marguerite at l’Opera Severne, she’d told Katherine not to worry. She’d been gone for months, but she’d kept in touch at first. Kat hadn’t heard from her sister in a few weeks, but with rehearsals and the rush of preparing for performances, she’d hoped all was well.

“Give him to me, Katarina. End this. Embrace your legacy. Do not embrace a daemon,” Reynard coaxed, edging closer.

The idea that Reynard might be right about her sister hollowed out her insides until she echoed. Hollow or not, alone or not, she wouldn’t give up. She didn’t have a parachute to count on. She could only jump and try to fly.

“My name is Kat,” she replied, pressing her hand against the boy’s back and lifting her chin. Whether he accepted it or not, she would claim autonomy. She would follow her heart and her instinct to protect the trembling child behind her.

A sound of disgust erupted from Reynard’s lips and he brandished his knife. Would he slice her throat or stab her through her pounding heart?

Either way, if Reynard had to deal with her, it might give the daemon boy a chance to run.

She braced to push the child away, but before Reynard’s blade descended, an eerie mimicry of his earlier whistle began in the alley behind them. It stayed Reynard’s hand and caused Kat’s breath to catch in her throat. The boy against her leg lifted his head and turned his face to see.

There were few streetlights nearby. Most had been busted. Barely mitigated darkness enveloped them. Only one flickering holdout, the ambient light of the city against the sky, and the humid atmosphere gave them illumination to see. It was light pollution, but it mimicked fog. Through its violet haze and the floating of particles that were probably Brimstone ash, a figure stepped toward them.

The whistle and the posture of the man were casual. Exaggerated ease. He must see the confrontation he’d interrupted. He must see a woman and child threatened by a larger, stronger man, but he acted nonchalant, as if he was only out for a stroll. He must see the knife Reynard hadn’t bothered to hide away.

Man?

Kat’s gift wasn’t one of sirens and flashing lights. She was pulled toward daemons. It was subtle. The tingle, the thrill that shivered along her veins as the man approached was probably only shock that he would stroll past Father Reynard with barely a glance in his direction. A daemon wouldn’t dare approach them.

Closer, she could see that the stranger’s tall form was clothed in evening apparel. The flash of white from his shirt contrasted with the inky darkness of his suit or tuxedo. But closer still, she noted his bowtie was undone at his neck and hung on either side of his collar. So easy. So debonair.

It wasn’t until he stopped at her side that she knew she’d been fooled. He wasn’t relaxed. The tension in his body transferred itself to hers when his arm brushed her elbow. Hard. Prepared. Ready.

He might wear formal clothes, but beneath them he was all warrior. Molded body armor would have been more appropriate to the purpose inherent in every flexed muscle and the energy he exerted to hold himself in check.

“Who are you? What do you want?” Reynard asked.

The blade of his knife had dipped. He preferred an audience of one for his performances. Her. And her alone. Or her sister in turn. Their mother and grandmother before that.

“A bystander who finds himself unable to stand by,” the man said.

For her ears alone he added, “I’m John Severne.”

Memories of the opera house in Baton Rouge teased her mind, but she pushed them away.

She had no time for nostalgia. Worry for her sister wound tighter until her insides were pulled like cheap strings on an instrument’s bridge, stretched to the breaking point. One clumsy finger would cause her to snap.

Severne reached for the boy, but she stopped him. It only took one hand on his hard arm, but touching him felt braver than that. Almost as brave as opposing Reynard. His cultured Southern tones seemed as incongruent to him as his evening apparel. Beneath the polish, he was a man to be reckoned with. She couldn’t see his face…only a suggestion of angles and curves, but as he drew his arm back, she felt what it cost him. He forced patience with her interference. A thrill of cool adrenaline rushed down her spine at his stiffness, his anger. It shored up her nerve…barely. The boy trembled against her, not oblivious to the forces at work above his head.

“You are making a mistake,” Reynard growled.

“I would say the same to you,” Severne replied.

Then he pulled Katherine against him. She’d been right about his tension. She could feel the planned action in his body everywhere it touched hers. Muscle. Energy. Strength. And more adrenaline rushed because she was fairly sure the warning in his words, just like his name, had been for her, not Reynard.

He was warning her it was a mistake to resist his help.

But she didn’t snap like the cheap strings she imagined. She held fast. Unbroken.

“Let me take the boy,” he said for her ears alone, the flow of the Seine even more apparent in an intimate whisper than it had been in his louder speech. He had a Southern accent, but it was old-fashioned, formal and touched with a hint of Paris. Clenched teeth and a hardened jaw and the iron of his body against her offset the softness of his accent.

He was no French-kissed delta dream.

He was real. And the potential for danger radiated off him in heated waves.

“Hell, no,” Kat replied.

She finally recognized Brimstone’s fire. She’d felt it only a few times in her twenty-two years. Normally she avoided touching daemons. Pressed close to him, the simmer his body contained couldn’t be ignored. He had seemed so cool and collected in his initial approach. He wasn’t. Beneath the surface, he burned.

Her rescuer was a daemon, and she was damned for sure because she still refused to join forces with Reynard against him.

“We need more time to negotiate,” he said as if they sat at a boardroom table. “I can arrange that.”

She’d seen Reynard fight before, but when the energy she’d sensed in Severne erupted, the ferocity of his clash with her lifelong tormentor took her by surprise.

Reynard was in trouble.

Severne used only his body—fists, feet, arms and legs—but he used them in a graceful dance of martial arts moves meant to be deadly. The tuxedo he wore was revealed inch by inch as his coat was shredded away by Reynard’s blade.

John Severne was in trouble, too.

When a particularly vicious slice cut the fabric away from his muscled chest to reveal a hard, sculpted body, she blinked the sight away, but not before she cringed at the dark rivers of his blood.

After Reynard, there was always the desperate flight and the need to hide again. This time she’d flee for two. For the first time, she imagined what it must have been like for her mother to protect them from the obsessed monk. It had been a lost cause. But she had never stopped trying.

“We have to go,” she said to the boy. The fight was the diversion they needed to get away. She pulled him up into her arms again and ran. He clung to her this time, wrapping his legs around her waist and his arms around her neck, subdued by all he’d seen.

*

The absence of her cello made her ache. It wasn’t a missing limb. It was a missing chamber of her heart. There was nothing to be done. She couldn’t go back for it. She had gone to her apartment for a few necessities, but had sought shelter in the house of a friend who was out of town rather than risk Reynard knowing her current address. She moved often. It never mattered.

He always found her eventually.

While the boy slept, she looked up driving directions to Baton Rouge. She couldn’t ignore her concern for Victoria any longer. They’d been out of touch too long, and Reynard’s appearance only confirmed her fear. Urgency pounded in her temples to no avail. She couldn’t fly because she had no papers for the child. He wouldn’t even give her his name. If Reynard defeated the daemon, he would hunt her down. She didn’t have much time to save the daemon boy and find her sister. She’d called Victoria’s phone again and again. The cheery voicemail greeting became more ominous with every repeat. And what of John Severne? Had he ended up with his throat slashed and Brimstone-burned back to wherever he’d come from, or did she need to fear him as well as Reynard?

“Let me take the boy,” he’d said.

But every fiber in her body had resisted. It was her fault Reynard had found the boy’s mother. It was her responsibility to protect him.

The boy had refused to talk, but he’d seemed to understand everything she’d said. He’d also refused to let her out of his sight until he finally fell asleep. His dark lashes against his chubby cheeks gave him an angelic mien against his borrowed pillow. She’d smoothed his soft hair back from his forehead to kiss it, finding the extra warmth beneath his skin pleasant instead of frightening.

After that, the loss of her cello didn’t matter.

She’d curled her legs under her in a nearby armchair, determined to watch over the boy through the night.

But a noise outside interrupted the tea she’d made to calm herself. It had been cooling untouched anyway. She’d been replaying every word Severne had spoken. She’d even closed her eyes to remember the song of his voice, to gauge what was the truth about the daemon—his drawl or the deadly way he’d used his whole body as a weapon. His anger or the way he’d restrained his impatience with her resistance.

At the sound of a step on the front porch, she rose from the chair beside the boy’s bed.

She didn’t know whom she most feared to see.

It was ridiculous to feel gratitude to a stranger for his help when he might have his own daemonic designs on her family. The name Severne couldn’t be a coincidence. She hadn’t heard from her sister since Victoria had gone to the Theatre de l’Opera Severne in Louisiana, and Kat had felt the heat from Severne’s Brimstone-tainted blood.

She’d been desperate to defy Reynard, and for the first time she had, openly and with no regret, but she’d been successful only with the stranger’s help.

The shotgun colonial had creaky floors and high-ceilinged rooms. Kat moved along the edge of the hall where the boards were more firmly nailed to diminish the sound of her feet on the floor. The peach chiffon of her soiled and torn gown swirled around her legs. She hadn’t wanted to leave the frightened boy alone long enough to change, and now she padded downstairs on bare feet, pausing only long enough to pick up a bronze statue. It was a cherubic angel.

Her friend’s decor held an irony she was too tired to appreciate.

“Did you know your ability to detect daemons works both ways? They’re drawn to you like moths to flame,” a familiar voice said. Her memory recalled the exact inflections and the intimate way he drawled certain vowels, low as if in a register she felt more than heard. Musical. His voice was musical.

Severne.

He came through the front foyer painted by shadows and soft light.

The door had been locked, but that fact seemed distant. As if she’d expected the bolt to be nothing to him. She feared him. She feared what his intentions might be. But there was a song in his accent she couldn’t help appreciating. His voice called to something deep inside her, making her fingers itch to play.

All the lamps had been extinguished. The light from an open laptop and the streetlights outside still didn’t fully reveal the daemon’s face, but they did reveal the familiar shape of her cello case in his hand.

He came toward her with no hesitation, completely undaunted by the statue in her hand until he was only inches away…until she could feel his Brimstone heat. Again, the heat wasn’t unpleasant. In fact, in the air-conditioned chill of the unfamiliar house, she could almost lean into Severne’s heat if she allowed herself to be lulled by his song or relieved that she wouldn’t have to fight Reynard to protect the child…yet.

“Judging by body temperature, you’re mistaken about which of us is the flame in that scenario,” Kat said.

She’d never had a conversation with a daemon. It was wrong. Against everything she’d ever been told or taught. The trouble was, it was also exhilarating. Part of her was still all adrenaline from the way the night had played out. She should have been shaky and over it. Ready to hide behind Tchaikovsky and Wagner as safe excitements she could easily handle.

Instead, a part of her wanted to jump off a ledge again with this flaming parachute she’d been given and enjoy the burn all the way down.

Could he sense her exhilaration? How it barely edged out fear? Could he tell she trembled when he moved a little closer?

“I could have taken the boy away from danger,” he said, so close now that the statue pressed between them was even more useless than before. He didn’t make her put it down. He ignored it. As if he knew she wouldn’t give in to fear. As if he expected her to be braver than that.

She would have to be braver, because the real danger was Severne and her reaction to him, and there didn’t seem to be any escape from that.

“I don’t trust Father Reynard, but I don’t trust daemon manipulations, either,” Kat said. “Did you kill him?”

He paused. Hesitated as if her words had stopped him. Maybe she shouldn’t have spoken her suspicions about him and what he was…but the thought disintegrated when he lifted a hand to touch her face.

“No. He isn’t dead. Only slowed down for awhile,” Severne said. “I’m sorry.”

She let him touch her. She didn’t cringe away. As his warm fingers lightly trailed across her skin, Kat suddenly thought of the graceful but deadly way he’d dealt with Reynard in the alley. He was a daemon. It didn’t matter that he had helped her. She wouldn’t trust him. She hadn’t even fully seen him yet in a night of shadows and flickering light…

She could tell his hair was dark. Not whether it was black or brown. His eyes were dark mysteries. They could be any color. They held all his secrets in depths that appeared onyx in the night.

When he leaned down to press his lips to her temple, then to her cheek, then to trail them along her jawline as if to trace her face in the darkness…she didn’t protest. Was he comforting her? His lips were warmer than they should have been. The heat caused a responsive flush to rise on her skin. Her affinity kept her from reacting the way she ordinarily would if a man she’d just met had been so bold. It was a secret pulse between them, heightening a natural flare of chemistry, drawing them closer, sooner, than it should.

“Don’t be sorry,” Kat said. “I think he can’t be killed. He’s like Death himself, a Grim Reaper I can’t escape.”

He was all relaxed grace, taking the statue and placing it on a nearby table. She was all adrenaline and trembling sighs, but when both hands were free, she kept them at her sides. Not pulling him closer. Not pushing him away. Only refusing to hold on with all her might. He warmed her in ways that went beyond mere physical heat. Her usual affinity was magnified by his touch. It rose up and rushed through her veins almost as heated as Brimstone until she had the crazy urge to surrender to it and press herself closer into his arms. She saw it again in her mind, the way he’d braved Reynard’s deadly blade.

Those images held her still for his kiss.

Or did they? Her body mocked her need for an excuse. This—the heat, the masculine aura drawing her in, the night-cloaked scent that clung to his earthy skin and his hair and clothes—wasn’t he enough?

Right now, he was everything.

Because by then his soft, tracing lips had discovered her mouth in the dark, and a more intimate exploration of it had begun—lips, teeth, tongue. So velvety and alive with tremors and gasps and the sudden moist dip of his tongue.

A hot coil unfurled in her abdomen, her nipples peaked and her knees grew weak.

Then Severne pressed the handle of her cello case into her right hand. Her fingers curled around the indentions they’d made over fifteen years of constant companionship to the leather-bound grip.

“Never trust a daemon bearing gifts, Katherine D’Arcy. There’s always a price to be paid,” he murmured into her hair when she slumped loose-limbed and faint against the firm wall of his body.

“No,” she protested. But it was too late. She’d accepted the cello like a long-lost love. The Order warned against communicating with daemons. Hell was structured around a complex system of negotiating. She could feel daemonic power like static in the air as some unspoken bargain physically materialized around them, beginning with her acceptance of her case from his hand.

He lifted her and the cello easily. He cradled her against his chest, but she couldn’t make her body resist or her hand release the cello. He carried her and the instrument upstairs and placed her beside the boy on the bed with the cello case cool and lifeless on the other side.

Then he made the trade.

He picked up the daemon child.

Kat couldn’t move. He was no longer touching her, but his heat had remained, leaving her lethargic and weak.

Somehow she had agreed without meaning to. The cello for the child. The daemonic bargain held her in place. She couldn’t fight its power.

“Come and play for me in Baton Rouge, Katherine. We have more bargains to make. I can help you find your sister,” John Severne said.

“Never trust a daemon,” Kat promised her pillow. She refused to let her tears fall. Or maybe it was daemon manipulations that suspended each perfect droplet on her lashes as Severne walked away.

Brimstone Seduction

And scroll down to read an excerpt from the second book in the Brimstone series…

41aphs-thkl

Chapter 1

Playground sounds made the danger beside Victoria so much worse. High-pitched laughter and conversations about make-believe seemed surreal. Across the mulched expanse, her sister, Katherine D’Arcy, pushed Victoria’s toddler, Michael, and her own baby, Sam, on the swings. She glanced toward Victoria and waved. Vic waved back.

Pay no attention to the madman beside me, Kat. Keep my Michael and your Sam safe.

The monk sitting beside Victoria on the park bench was in a businessman’s suit, as if he’d dropped by the Baton Rouge, Louisiana playground during his lunch break. He crossed his legs gracefully like a civilized man. Kat probably thought he was a father watching his child play instead of an evil man come to threaten their own. Victoria had been resting in the sun when he’d approached. She’d actually smiled at him when he’d joined her on the bench.

And then he’d revealed his true purpose.

“The Order of Samuel has proven time and time again that you cannot run. You cannot hide. You will learn this lesson or your child will join us. A half daemon brother would be unusual, but I’m sure we could train him, put him to good use for Father Reynard’s cause.”

“Stay. Away. From. Michael.” Victoria said. Her voice cracked with emotion. Her baby was only two. Katherine pushed her nephew higher and he squealed.

Victoria’s throat had yet to recover from the injuries she’d sustained in the opera house fire set by Father Reynard. They’d blamed it on an obsessive fan. He’d been obsessive all right. But not a fan. He was a daemon hunter and she and Katherine had been his reluctant bloodhounds. They’d been born with an affinity for Brimstone blood that inevitably led them to the daemons Reynard hunted. Violence. Blood. Pain. No rest. No peace. He had dogged their steps for as long as they could walk.

He’d died in the fire, but apparently his cause hadn’t.

“I will leave your daemon spawn alone, only if you set my brethren free. This man is our greatest enemy. He must be stopped,” the monk in disguise said.

He held a magazine in his hands and tilted the cover so she could see the man who graced it.

Michael’s laughter floated to her ears as his doting aunt pushed him on the swing. Victoria had fallen in love with a daemon. Her affinity for the Brimstone in his blood had drawn them together, but it had been more than that. He’d been a stop to running. He’d been hope. He had died trying to protect her and Michael. The Order of Samuel said they were warriors for heaven. They lied. The members of the D’Arcy family were tools used by one faction of daemons to hunt another.

Politics.

The D’Arcy ability to draw and be drawn to daemon blood had placed them in the middle of an otherworldly civil war.

Love wasn’t allowed.

Ironic that her favorite role to play had always been Juliet. She’d traveled around the world to sing the part of a tragic romance again and again.

“What do you want me to do?” Victoria asked.

The man on the cover of the magazine was a beautiful stranger in a designer suit. Behind him, a vineyard stretched in seemingly endless verdant rows. He stood with one foot on the threshold of a historic stone building, a massive wooden door with iron lathes looking rough-hewn and craggy in sharp contrast to his polished clothes. There was a gleam to the black waves of his hair, but those waves and his sun-kissed skin seemed more in keeping with the door than his suit. Victoria had grown up in the dramatic world of the opera. She knew a costume when she saw one. The man’s civilized suit was a lie.

“You will gain his trust. You will learn his secrets. Once you discover where he keeps his prisoners, you will free them,” the monk said. “Once they are freed, they will use their combined strength to kill him. In this way, you will guarantee your son’s safety.”

Children laughed and ran and played all around them. Tears burned behind her eyes. But she forced them to dry. She waved again and this time Michael waved back, still laughing. Katherine was looking at Victoria closely now. As if she sensed something wrong. But the monk had already risen, prepared to walk away. He didn’t need her answer. He could sense her defeat in her slumped shoulders and her trembling wave of reassurance to her child.

“I’m not a spy. How will I do this?” she asked his back. He paused and halfway turned back to reply.

“He has Brimstone in his blood. He’s damned. Your affinity is the perfect weapon. His home is a fortress. You will penetrate his defenses. Seduce his secrets from him. Free our brothers. Capture him. Then, you and your family will be left in peace.”

He lied.

She would never know peace.

“Who knows? You might even enjoy yourself. You have proven you have a taste for damnation,” the monk said. His knowing laughter didn’t blend with the innocent laughter of the children around them. It jarred. It condemned. Her cheeks burned. Not because she was ashamed of loving Michael’s father, but because this man didn’t deserve to pollute what they’d shared by mentioning it. Daemons were nearly immortal beings who lived in the hell dimension. They were different but, like men, they were only damned by their actions, not by their blood. Michael’s father had been heroic in the end, sacrificing himself for his child even though he’d been a daemon.

The children on the playground seemed to sense the evil in their midst. They parted as the monk passed as if a snake slithered among them. One little girl began to cry without obvious cause and a kind woman ran to see what she could do to help.

The monk had left the magazine beside her on the bench. She picked it up. The man on the cover hadn’t looked at the camera. The photographer had caught him in a moment of reflection, with dark shadows from the vine-covered building on his face. The photograph drew her as if the Brimstone in the man’s blood could already sense her affinity. Yes. He had secrets. She could see them in his shadowed eyes.

A single tear did fall then. The monk had already walked away. His laughter drifted back to her on the humid Louisiana breeze. She had loved and lost, but she wouldn’t lose again. Only one tear fell. It rolled down her cheek to fall on the back of her hand. It glistened there, useless.

She would do what she had to do to protect her son.

She willed the unshed tears to dry as she widened her eyes and clenched her jaw. The magazine crinkled in her ferocious grip.

Her son’s vigilant protector, the hellhound Grim, wasn’t allowed to materialize in the playground, but Victoria saw a shimmer of shadows near the swings, too dark to be cast by the blossoming grove of cherry trees that surrounded the park.

The wind blew and petals fell like pale pink rain. They settled on Katherine’s dark hair and the children laughed. They raised their hands to the sky to try to catch the drifting blossoms. Near the shadow of Grim, the petals shied away in puffs of disturbed silk as the giant dog shook his sooty coat to maintain his disguise. She could imagine his movements because she knew he was there. No one else noticed. Just as no one else had heard the monk’s threats.

During the fire,

But Grim wouldn’t be enough.

Victoria had to do more.

Even if it meant continuing to be a servant to madmen whose evil requests damned her as if she’d sold her soul.

As the playground full of children continued to laugh and play, fear burned hotly inside her chest, exactly as she imagined the damning fire of Brimstone might burn in daemon veins.