Pawtuxet Beach, Rhode Island
The stretch of sand sprawled ahead of Kerala Clarke, the beach deserted on this cold November day. Empty, except for the five men striding toward her.
Tall, dark, powerful, they were apparently unaware of the icy wind which forced their black dusters to billow in the clear marine air.
Kera couldn’t make out their faces yet, but she knew them well.
Knew every single one of them.
Yet as they closed in, their aura hit her full force and she swallowed with dread. Even that far, they were still lethal.
Her brother Sinclair hadn’t mentioned he was bringing company to the meeting. For a moment, she thought of running away. But it would be pointless. They wouldn’t let her get far.
No, better to face them. Her people, the Order. See what they wanted.
The five warlocks neared and she remained motionless, waiting, her shoulders purposely set rigidly back.
Her gaze narrowed and angst seized her throat.
Why had he come?
After all this time, why would Diesel Stanford, now leader of the Warlocks of the Black Oak, want to see her? She’d made it clear she wanted nothing to do with his family. Or with him.
He looked different than the last time she’d seen him.
Six months ago.
And minutes after the tragedy.
When blind with tears, she had looked up from her mom’s bloody and lifeless body, hoping he would do something to bring her back. Anything.
As she’d gripped the inert black fur of the dead panther that had been her mother, she had prayed for his magic, waited for him to do something.
For a brief moment, she’d seen pain in Diesel’s eyes, a deep empathy for her loss. But it had been too late.
Kera, overcome with both grief and anger, had shifted and lunged. Straight at his throat.
When she’d returned to reality, all she’d seen in Diesel’s expression was disgust.
Now staring at him, she bit down on her lip, tasted the sea breeze, then let out a slow breath. All had changed that day. The event, and its consequences, remained branded in her mind.
Barely half a year now since they’d shared everything.
They had been so carefree. He hadn’t yet inherited the leadership of the Order. Hadn’t cared one bit for responsibilities.
He’d spent his days surfing across the bay instead of sailing in the races with his father. Or had disappear for days to ride his motorcycle up and down the coast. And she’d been right there with him, always. Two perfectly connected souls.
Those days were long gone. Kera’s mind was now consumed with one thing.
And the only way she could exact her revenge was on her own terms.
Away from their rituals, from the magic that had gotten her mother killed.
Away from their rules that would blur her focus.
Her heels dug into the sand as she eyed her ex-boyfriend, her insides frozen with apprehension.
She inhaled deeply to settle her pounding heart as the five warlocks stopped at a respectable distance and watched her without a word, their expressions unreadable.
Forcing herself to ignore Diesel, she first glanced at her brother who, along with the other sorcerers, stood beside his leader.
“Sinclair.” She lifted an eyebrow at him. “Why this meeting?”
His discomfort was palpable but to her only. As always, he stood cool and collected. One of her kind, of their mother’s kind. With his dark exotic features, her brother looked elegant and deadly as usual, his lean muscular body covered with an expensive full-length black cashmere coat to fend away the cold.
Sin always liked his luxury.
If he was here with the warlocks, it had to be something serious. He knew how she swore she’d never go back.
Sin tilted his head toward Diesel. “Someone here wants to talk to you, Sis.”
Gnawing her bottom lip, she continued to avert her eyes from her ex-boyfriend. Her emotions in check, she studied the small band of deadly sorcerers facing her.
Thornwood, as menacing as ever in all black—jeans, shirt, faded coat.
Knightley and Duke, the Morgan brothers, still deadly handsome but with haunting green eyes, their dark curls flying in the blistery wind.
The three of them had the distinctive air of Ivy League bred men, but with that undercurrent of danger always present. That hint of menace brought by the powerful arcane knowledge passed on to them by their elders, the power of sorcery, the control of the life force itself.
A power that Kera, by a strike of genetics, had never been able to harness.
They’d all grown a long way since their carefree prep school days.
Her mother’s murder had changed all that.
Kera tensed with contempt as she inhaled the cold air. She had no place in their elite community of Cliffstone Avenue, Seaport. In a way, they had failed her.
She glanced at the ocean surf and pondered why Diesel would want to see her after she’d ignored him for so long.
After she nearly killed him.
Returning her gaze to Sinclair, she refused to acknowledge Diesel, while still fully aware of his authority.
“He’s so scared to talk to me,” she spat, “he needs you all to come with him.”
Her hands fidgeted in her coat pocket. Had Diesel been affected by her not returning his calls? He’d been gone for six months. Had he even tried to find her on his return?
Or did he remember her only as the beast lunging at him, teeth bare, ready to rip out his throat? Unable to control her rage?
Diesel still hadn’t uttered a word. Yet his silence showed he wasn’t troubled by her presence. In fact, his quiet bearing betrayed the weight he now held over them all. His steel blue gaze rested steadily on her, his wide shoulders squared with calm strength.
The feline DNA of her body bristled at feeling him so close. His strong masculinity was indisputably too potent for her to resist and she felt herself wanting to both recoil and lean into his broad chest.
“Come back to The Crest, bahan,” Sinclair said. “Dad doesn’t have many more years left.”
She shot her brother a dead stare, frustration rushing through her. “I don’t have a father.”
“Kera.” Grief tainted her brother’s tone.
Her jaw clenched. This wasn’t new. They had this conversation each time they saw each other.
Every weekend when he tagged along on the hunt for their mother’s murderer.
“He should have defended her.” Her careful guards slipped away. A surge of raw emotions bubbled up inside her. Anger, sorrow, a mix of both. “For all his magic,” she said, “a Warlock of the Black Oak couldn’t even protect his own wife.”
“She had shifted,” Sinclair said, his tone defeated. “There was nothing he could do. His spells couldn’t protect her. She wasn’t human when Burton attacked her.”
How could Sinclair explain their mother’s death so casually?
As Kera pushed away the haunting memories of her mom’s last breath, she became painfully aware of Diesel watching her reaction to Sinclair’s words. Her throat swelled, a sorrow quickly repressed.
“Shut up, Sin,” she said a little too loud. “I’m getting angry.” She narrowed her gaze at her big brother as she leaned back on her heels. “Who knows what I’ll do to your friends if you push me.”
Sinclair sighed at her words, obviously acknowledging she’d shift to her black panther form at being provoked, whether she chose to or not.
And if she did change into a feral beast, she’d also be loose long enough to hurt his warlock posse before Sinclair had time to restrain her.
As she almost did to Diesel that fateful night.
Trying to control her anger now, she overlooked her brother to slowly turn her attention to Diesel.
He towered over her, a dirty blond curl falling over his eye. His full lips as enticing as ever despite the serious set of his chiseled jaw. Still too handsome. Still making her body tremble.
But no, that was the past. The breech between them was now too deep to repair. She buried her hands deeper into the pockets of her coat.
The wind howled as angry waves crashed ashore beside them. Grey heavy clouds built on the horizon. Rain and brine thickened in the air.
He finally broke his silence.
“Kera.” His rich voice hit her full force, the low frequency of his tone reaching deep down to her chest, lower even. And all the memories they’d shared came rushing back to her, the blissful days, the heated nights.
She stared hard at him as she fought the power and lust radiating from him, both physical and otherworldly, with still a glint of the rebel in his familiar low-slung cargo pants and fitted white t-shirt under the black warlock’s coat.
“What do you want?” she asked.
He shoved his hair back with a casual hand and studied her.
Struck with the intensity of his metal blue eyes, she bit her lip again with disquiet.
He took a few steps closer as the wind blew harder around them. “You’ve changed, Kera. I don’t know…” He frowned. “You were softer, nicer.”
His words cut her deep. Hurt, she fixed on him, then looked away to contemplate the flock of seagulls scavenging the dead seaweeds left behind from the receding tide.
“Yeah, well, things happen.” She shifted her weight around and let her steel cap boots dig farther into the sand.
“What do you want?” she asked again.
He leveled with her steadily. “The dagger.”
Her heart tumbled in her chest.
The Dagger of the Huntsman.
Her sacred dagger.
Disappointment sank through her and she slowly exhaled. He only wanted her dagger. Of course. What else did she expect? She had left him behind when she’d fled the Order and her family to hunt Burton on her own terms.
She hadn’t wanted anything to do with the warlocks.
The Warlocks of the Black Oak that were his destiny. Next in line to lead the Order after his father, they were his responsibility.
Kera had always known this and hadn’t wanted to put Diesel in the difficult spot of having to choose between her and his duty. She had to cut him out of her life.
Had to be alone.
Alone to heal. Alone to put all her energy and focus on finding her mother’s murderer.
She fought a swell of pain at her throat. Had she made the right choice by fleeing him, by refusing to see him again?
She’d always wondered.
But now he’d reached out to her and all he wanted was the Huntsman Dagger. The blade that was now safely hidden in a leather holster at her calf under her faded jeans. The blade James Rodney Burton the Third had used to slice open her mother’s belly.
The enchanted knife that she would soon use to exact her revenge. The only weapon that could destroy Burton.
“No,” she said. “I can’t give you the dagger.” And go away now, she wanted to add, sadness creeping inside her.
Would they not leave her alone?
Flashes of anger rose to replace her sorrow at the thought, her epinephrine hormones level spiking up. Her arteries constricted to increase the flow of her blood. If she weren’t careful, she’d be a full-size panther in seconds and be at his throat. Once more. She had no control over that.
She watched him close his eyes for a moment at her answer. Her fists tensed as she anticipated his cold response and she forced her breath to slow.
But he barely shook his head. His expression softened.
“It’s not for me,” he said. “It’s Celeste. She was dropped unconscious at the gates of Breaker Hall two days ago. Burton’s behind this.” He raked a hand through his hair. “She’s alive but cursed,” he added. “We need the dagger. For a ritual at dawn. The day after tomorrow. Hunter’s Moon.”
Burton. Kera’s fists tightened as her heart hammered in her chest.
He was back in Rhode Island. Confirming what the hedge witch she knew had said.
The wind turned suddenly colder on her skin.
But attacking Celeste, she thought. No. He couldn’t have. Burton had brought his evil back to the Order. Again struck one of their own.
But why Celeste? It made no sense. Diesel’s sister didn’t even want to acknowledge her blood’s magic legacy. So quiet. Always buried in a book. Libraries and coffee shops were her usual haunts. Definitely no match for the rogue who’d managed to take the best of Kera’s powerful mom.
“Aren’t there any other ways?” she asked Diesel carefully.
She needed her dagger. If her information was correct, these coming days were her chance to exact her revenge and kill the bastard. Surely the warlocks knew a way to get Celeste out of her coma without the weapon.
“No,” Diesel said. “She’s delirious. Mom keeps her alive with charms, but barely. My father will need the dagger to perform the deliverance ritual.”
“I thought you were still their leader. Even after the attack.” Sinclair had kept her informed of all that was going on in the tight group of sorcerers.
Their families had become prominent to Rhode Island society in the days of the seventeenth century’s Gilded Age, building some of the great Seaport mansions. But their power was much older, originating from a handful of young men who met a Northern stranger persecuted in a witch hunt and who’d revealed to them her secrets under a wide black oak tree. Diesel had just received the leadership of the Order the week Burton had attacked.
“Yes,” Diesel said. “I’m their leader. But for this, wisdom is more important than strength. The whole Elders Council will be needed.”
Kera stared out at the crashing wave, conflicting thoughts racking her mind. Her witch connection had said Burton was to meet an underground magic supplier in Mystic Town in the early morning of Hunter’s Moon. She had planned her surprise attack all week.
“I need to think,” she told Diesel.
She’d been at this for months, tracking every supernatural encounter, talking to everyone she knew. Chasing leads all over the coast. She was so close.
But Celeste… She bit her lips again.
The guilt and embarrassment she felt at attacking her ex-boyfriend still lay heavy on her chest. She had to make it up to him somehow. But could she let go of this chance to kill Burton? Celeste would be free of the curse if she succeeded.
“I know you meant to keep it, because of your mother,” Diesel said somberly. “But Celeste will die if you don’t hand it to me now. Do you have it here?”
“No.” She was not one to lie but needed time to sort out her feelings. “It’s on the boat.”
“Tony Jackson’s boat, my boss’s. He’s a fisherman. His boat’s in Norwich Haven. I’ve been sleeping there lately. Quicker to go to work in the morning.” She wrapped herself in her leather coat, more as a protection from the impeding evil she sensed around them than from the cold.
“Kerala, what are you doing working on a boat?” Diesel protested. “Come back to Seaport.”
“I like it.” She jerked her head toward the ocean raging beside them. Why did he care what she did with her life? He’d been gone from Seaport for months. “It’s calm over there. I can think.”
And she could focus on her hunt. She’d been lucky to find an understanding boss who’d let her go when she needed to.
“We could all help you. You shouldn’t do this alone.”
“Don’t start. It’s my choice.” She rubbed the sleeves of her jacket as if it would make her think faster. “If I give you the dagger, it’ll be for Celeste. You and I…”
Diesel started to say something, but she stopped him.
“Come see me tomorrow afternoon. In Lochman’s Bay, by the docks. The Sea Dweller. Come alone. Four o’clock. “ Her arms were now tight across her chest, daring him to ask her for more.
But he nodded and she couldn’t tell if he was relieved or mad.
She took in the pack of warlocks, her old friends, now a posse of mystic warriors keeping people’s lives free of shadows. They’d go against her if she didn’t deliver what they needed. Even her brother. He was truly one of them.
But she didn’t fear the warlocks. Let them try to cross her will.
She had her own path to follow.
She’d meet Diesel on her own turf. Where she felt in control. Without Sinclair there to muddy things, she would be able to trust her gut instinct.
“Alone, I said.” She eyed her old lover with force. “And I’ll want it back. The dagger’s my legacy.”
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