Somewhere on I-95 in Rhode Island
You can’t leave now. Not after…
The recent words from her mother echoed in Celeste Stanford’s mind. She watched the scrawny trees lining the highway zoom by her car as she sped away from her family in the dead cold winter afternoon.
You can’t go, the sorceress had said. You need us.
Why would she need them? With their magic and mystical powers which had brought it all upon her.
Celeste shuddered at the memory of her supernatural assault and let her foot fall heavier on the gas pedal to emphasize her resolve.
Distance. That was what she needed.
Between her and her family’s historical Seaport mansion. Between her and the warlocks. Between her and her trauma. She had never wanted a part in the magical ancestry of her family and their tight knit circle of friends, which dated back to a dark time in the late seventeenth century when a handful of young men had crossed paths with a mysterious stranger persecuted in a witch hunt and who’d revealed to them her secrets under a wide black oak tree.
Celeste had never wanted to learn more and explore what lay inside her. At least, not until this past fall.
But now that she truly needed to learn to protect herself, they had insisted she leave the magic alone, claimed they’d shield her from dark magic themselves. Keep her close, but defenseless.
They were still so worried.
The lower your abilities, the less likely shadow creatures will seek you out, her father had said.
Fine, Dad, she’d responded. Whatever you want.
But after her abduction from the sadistic dark mage James Rodney Burton had left her shattered and weak, she had sneaked into The Crest, her family’s mansion, to devour her late grandmother St-Amand’s countless books of shadows and grimoires hiding in her mother’s private sitting room.
Crawling with witchcraft secrets that belonged only to her mother’s side of her family, the tomes spoke to her. Perhaps due to her Stanford magical blood legacy from her father, the St-Amand’s earth-based magic had come to her naturally. She had studied spell after spell, incantations, summons and bindings. And learned.
Then, when she’d deemed the time right, she had taken her practice of the craft to the deep woods under the moon.
No one had known.
Celeste sighed, then caught the green sign at the side of the road. Mystic, Connecticut, 30 miles. Almost there. She could stop for dinner.
She’d be away from it all soon. But sadly, he was still on her mind.
She exhaled slowly. Just the name brought a quickening to her heart.
She’d also left him behind. How could she love someone so badly, yet run away from him?
And yes, that’s exactly what she was doing. Running.
Away from her father and Sin’s father, both elders of the warlocks of the Black Oak, sorcerers hiding their otherworldly powers behind the ancestral lavish mansions in Seaport. Away from her brother Diesel, the Order’s new leader. And from her mom, who feared so much for her daughter that since the abduction, the sorceress had treated Celeste like a twelve-year-old.
You need us around, she’d often said, you know, since… And her mother never finished those sentences. As if all that had happened on that fateful autumn day could be summarized in a series of hushed ellipses. Never to be talked about.
But I want to talk about it.
And Celeste also wanted to move on, leave her hometown. Against her earlier plans of building a life near her family, she’d now chosen to accept that law firm offer in New York City. She studied so much all these years. Why not make the most of it and seek the new possibilities her dedicated efforts now offered her?
One day, she’d make partner.
And like normal people with trauma, she would find herself a therapist she trusted to get through this with hard work. It seemed simple enough.
But no. For her family, there were always these words, never quite fully expressed. Your ordeal, your trial. Your experience.
What would they say if they knew she used what she was good at—persistent determined study, hours buried in books—to become as powerful as them?
And Sinclair, even with his magic and dual nature—how she loved him, the man who could shift into a sleek and fierce panther when needed—even he would worry about her newfound powers. They came from a source entirely different than his.
He would not be able to reconcile it. She knew it.
Baby, don’t worry. He’ll never touch you again. I’m here for you.
Baby, he’d say. So many times he called her “baby” now. Never sweetheart, or honey, or my love. No, just “baby.” A new habit. As if she’d turned into a tiny infant to be protected. Not the twenty-five-year-old Brown law graduate that she was.
And all of Sin’s magic and shifting nature hadn’t prevented James Rodney Burton the Third to get to her.
Celeste swallowed, disgust lodged in her throat and masked the fear that always came with the memory.
Disguised as a perfect elderly gentleman, he came, seeking council at the local firm where she interned after graduation. One handshake, one deep look. She was caught off guard.
What had he truly done to her, they would never know. They had found her dumped in front of her father’s estate on the side of the road. Unconscious.
Her breath shortened for an instant, matching her racing heart. In that slumber he induced, there was nothing but death, darkness and horror. Repeated horror that assaulted her brain, wrung her organs raw and seized her heart in a frigid grip that would never let go. Over and over. Torture. For weeks.
She automatically searched for air as she remembered the agony of never being able to draw a full breath. Her lungs crushed, forever seeking for a hint of life. The burn searing her esophagus each and every time. Thinking, horrified, that each scorching gulp was her last.
But no. She hadn’t died. She had remained there, suspended. Her instinct madly fighting for relief while she truly wanted to end it all. Tormented beyond reason.
She’d never forget what she saw, never forget the agony. Ever.
No matter how often she took her sacred tools to the woods or sandy shores and asked for answers on why Burton had put her under his curse.
She couldn’t forget.
Relief did come at times, but never true recovery.
Her hands tightened on the wheel as she let out a slow breath. She’d never again be someone’s tool.
And for that, she had to leave them. Her parents, her brother. And even Sinclair, her sexy overbearing boyfriend.
Regret shot through her heart. She already missed the feel of his silky skin under her lips. The planes of his muscular chest and flat stomach. His powerful arms around her. His scent, a mix of expensive soap and something utterly manly with that hint of the predator which was forever part of him.
Yes, the pain and memories receded for a time in the protection of his arms. But how he called her “baby” now. With that condescending tone. No. Even after she’d asked him repetitively to stop.
That wasn’t okay.
She had to leave Seaport.
She was pressing deeper on the accelerator again when the screen of her cell phone lit up.
She pushed her glasses back on the bridge of her nose in frustration. No, no, no. She didn’t want to talk to them. None of them. Not now.
Maybe in two weeks. Once she was settled. Had started work.
She paused and shook her head with sudden concern. What if the text was from Mr. Cones’ assistant, with details about her new job.
She snatched her phone from the passenger seat and briskly peered at the screen.
Are you okay? Just checking.
Her shoulders slumped. Mom. The third message today.
Celeste let out a slow breath. Her mother checked on her daily now. She didn’t know yet her daughter had moved out of the condo downtown. And hopefully, it would take a few days before she found out.
Celeste would text back as soon as she stopped to get gas. Good mom. Just shopping.
She hated lying to her mother. But the sorceress would easily pull her back in again. Celeste could fight back against her dad, against Sin, even. But her mom’s enhanced psychic abilities meant the elder had the guilt trip technique down to perfection.
She couldn’t imagine how scared her mother had been while her only daughter lay unconscious for days. Kept alive solely by the sorceress’s sheer will and strong healing powers. Celeste hated what she was doing to her mother by leaving, but she couldn’t live in her family’s shadow forever.
This was her life. Her decisions.
She checked the gas indicator. Time to refill. Stretch her legs, maybe get a snack at the station, then send that text to her mom. Ease her worries a little for now.
She pulled into the first stop on the way, a plain but tidy independent business empty of customers this late in the day, but inviting with its cheerful lights stringed along the bay window. After tightening the rubber band holding her long hair into a messy bun, she shrugged into her peacoat, wrapped her knitted scarf at her neck, and stepped out of her new white Lexus, a recent present from her dad, as if the pricy gift would make it all better somehow.
The cold dry air bit her skin and she shivered, tightening the scarf against her cheeks. Typical east coast winter. So windy, dead and empty.
The mid-afternoon sun hung low, the rays not strong enough to warm her skin. Patches of snow remained in the grass behind the roadside station. She’d get herself a strong cup of hot coffee as soon as she’d done filling up.
She slid her card into the self-serve pump and waited for the gas to fill up her tank, surveying the stretch of highway behind her. Her gaze narrowed on the road and settled on a sleek black vehicle in the distance.
Her heart jumped.
Her fingers seized the pump handle tight at the sight before her. No!
She swallowed and shook her head. It couldn’t be. Not now.
But as the car came closer, she knew. Luxurious, polished, expensive. The latest Jag. The small silver feline ornament at the hood gleamed in the frosty low sunlight and the irony wasn’t lost on her.
She shook her head with dread, cut the gas supply, and fumbled with the hose.
She wasn’t ready to see him.
She’d have to skip that coffee. Just get out. Now.
But she heard her name before having a chance to make for the Lexus’s door handle.
Then the word. “Baby.”
The tone of voice sent both shivers of lust and swells of deep panic inside her.
A shocking ache sank to the bottom of her stomach. He had blocked her way out. His Jaguar sat parked in the exit, right across from her car.
He unfolded his powerful body from the vehicle, then leaned back on the shiny dark metal hood, arms casually crossed at his chest. His well-defined shoulders barely contained by the long dark cashmere coat, his lazy smile taking her in.
And while her heart melted at seeing him—his dark exotic features so dear to her—everything in his posture, the bound muscles ready to uncoil, the calm demeanor concealing his stormy temper, and the hint of death in his stare, meant her plan of escape was doomed.
He was, after all, a predator. Not truly human.
And she knew, right there, that she’d never easily run away from him.
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