This is a sneak peek at the first two chapters of To Enthrall the Demon Lord (releases December 3). Please bear in mind that this is pre-editing, so it is not as polished as the final version will be, and there may be minor mistakes or errors in the text.
I hope you’ll enjoy this early glimpse into Maeve and Arawn’s story!
Maeve’s hand trembled as she picked up the pen. The first lines she scrawled looked as jittery as what fluttered in her chest, but she kept writing, and her hand became steadier as she went. She couldn’t stop. Had to get this down on paper before courage deserted her.
A last line drawn under her name at the end—done.
The pen clicked on the wooden desk, and her hand shook once more as she read the note to her sister, to her friends.
I know about the baby. I know you didn’t want me to find out, but I’m glad I did. Merle, maybe you don’t want to put me in this position, but it is where I need to be. This is my choice, my responsibility. I never wanted you in that position, never wanted you to have to make these tough decisions because of me. You’ve already done so much for me, risked so much, and I am so, so thankful. Which is why I can’t allow you to risk anything else—anyone else—on my behalf.
I’m surrendering myself to Arawn, so he will stop using your magic. Your baby will be safe.
Please, don’t come after me. By the time you read this, I’ll be well on my way to his lair. It’s long overdue, and it’s what I should have done weeks ago.
Merle, I love you. You deserve to be a mom, and I’m so happy for you.
Rhun, I would have enjoyed getting to know you.
Lil, I love you, too. Please hug Baz and Hazel for me when they get back. I haven’t known Alek long, but I’m so glad you found each other.
I’ll keep you all in my heart. Maybe one day I’ll get to see my niece.
The room resounded hollow with silence as she stared at the paper. The house was quiet, too. Alek and Lily were still asleep, had only gone to bed two hours ago, when the impending morning turned the sky that special shade of indigo. Being pranagraha demons, Lily and her mate preferred to sleep during the day, since their kind was vulnerable to sunlight.
No one else was at home, Basil having gone off to Faerie to search for his lost adoptive sister Rose, his mother, Hazel, having gone right after him, and Merle and Rhun wouldn’t come over this early. It was the perfect moment to leave–in part also due to the fact that now, with the morning sun gilding the frost on the grass, the demon sentinel keeping watch over the mansion for Arawn would be replaced by a shifter whose powers weren’t bound during the day.
It shouldn’t matter, considering what she was about to do, where she was going, and yet…the thought of approaching a—with her luck, male—demon to take her to Arawn’s lair curdled her stomach with this instinctive, damning fear she hadn’t been able to shake in all these months. She was okay around Alek, after a rocky start, and even around Rhun, though it took her the better part of summer to be able to breathe freely in Rhun’s presence, that insidious panic clawing at her simply because he was a bluotezzer demon, same as the one who—
She blinked, shook herself. But a complete stranger? A male demon she didn’t know?
She’d rather try her luck with a shifter. Might keep the panic down. And who knew, maybe the sentinel on duty today would be a female. She didn’t dare hope for that, but it would be the best option. From what Alek, who worked for the Demon Lord, had said here and there, the enforcers keeping watch over Arawn’s “asset”—i.e. Maeve—were a mix of males and females. Physical strength wasn’t quite as important a marker among otherworld creatures, what with magic being the true edge for most, and magic didn’t differentiate between sexes. The Demon Lord’s ranks thus featured males and females alike, as Arawn valued power above all else—and wasn’t so short-sighted as to exclude great power based on gender.
Time to go before doubts had a chance to creep in after all.
She laid the note on her four-poster bed, on top of the neatly arranged blue comforter, and straightened one of the pillows again. A duffel bag packed with a week’s supply of clothes, a few toiletries, her cell phone, and a framed picture sat next to the door, waiting for her.
One last look at the room that had been her refuge for the past six months, had given her peace and comfort after she was freed from that place drenched in darkness and pain, and her heart hurt thinking she’d never get to see this house again. Or the people who’d filled it with life and laughter for her, who’d never given up on her, even when she was little more than a broken shell hiding in her bed, staring at the wall for hours, for days.
Picking up the duffel bag, she went out the door, her breath hitching, her eyes burning.
A quiet voice inside her spoke up, a hopeful part of herself that not even blades dripping with her blood had been able to kill. Maybe she would get to see them all again. Maybe this was not the walk into darkness and more torture that she made it out to be. She didn’t know what awaited her. Maybe the Demon Lord wouldn’t—
A shudder whispered through her, and her stomach cramped. Insidiously, despite that part of her that clung to hope throughout a storm of nightmares, another voice grated across her nerves, slipped pervasively into the darkest corners of her mind, filled it with images of the worst that could happen to her—and it shook her to her foundations precisely because it had already happened.
You know what that feels like, the voice hissed. You know you’re powerless to stop it when it happens again. Don’t pretend you don’t know what you’re walking into. You know.
That voice…that voice… Spots of light danced in front of her, breath so shallow she might as well have been choking. She barely made it to the bathroom down the hallway in time, heaved her breakfast into the toilet until her chest ached, her throat burned. Sniffling, she clutched the porcelain bowl for a moment before she got up, brushed her teeth with quick efficiency, chucked the toothbrush and toothpaste back into her duffel bag, and crept out into the hallway again.
The fact she’d never hear that voice again in real life was too small a consolation. It was branded into her memory with the freshness of a bleeding cut, and she could still recall the sound of it after months, as if he’d just spoken, as if his breath still warmed her skin yet chilled her soul, making her tremble with impotent fear…
It wouldn’t fade. It just wouldn’t fade, no matter how hard she tried…because it had become the voice of every dark doubt inside her, whispered through her when she least expected it, froze her thoughts and dragged her back under, until she found herself emptying her stomach into the nearest bowl.
Rhun might have ripped him to shreds, but no one could slaughter the memory of his voice.
She quietly descended the large, curving, marble staircase leading down into the foyer. The morning sun shone through the huge window in the wall above the front door, glinted off the massive crystal chandelier dominating the room. She dropped her duffle bag at the entrance and headed to the kitchen, crossed to the French doors opening to the backyard, and walked all the way to the rear fence. To the spot where—according to Alek’s inside knowledge as a former sentinel—Arawn’s guards liked to keep watch over the property. Over her.
Nerves prickling, she stopped just a few feet from the fence. Cleared her throat. “I want to surrender myself to Arawn.” Her heartbeat thudded so loud in her ears, it drowned out the early-morning birdsong. For the rest of the world it would seem like she was talking to air. And even though nothing indicated anyone’s presence, she knew the sentinel was there, listening. “I’ll be waiting at the front gate for you to take me to him.”
And with that, she turned on her heel and marched back to the house, through the kitchen, the foyer, grabbed her duffel bag, and walked out the front door, making sure to close it quietly behind her. The last thing she needed was to wake up Alek or Lily now.
She came to a halt at the front gate, remaining within the perimeter of the magical wards protecting the property. Her pulse still raced as she dropped her bag on the gravel driveway, crossed her arms, and waited. Minutes ticked by. The sun rose higher. Where was that sentinel? She threw a nervous glance at the house looming behind her. Please let them keep sleeping…
Would she have to go back to the yard and tell the darned sentinel again? She bit her lip and suppressed a frustrated groan. I don’t know if I have the guts to ask a second time. The more time passed, the more her thoughts turned to the myriad ways why this was the most suicidal thing she’d ever done. Besides moving out of the protection of her witch community. Which had led to her being kidnapped and… Nope, not going there.
Merle’s image flashed before her inner eye, and just like that, her spine locked, her shoulders straightened, and she lifted her chin. No, she had to do this. For Merle, for her unborn baby, for all the ways her sister had protected her until she bled—literally—and restructured her life around Maeve’s needs. No more. Merle would have to suffer no more on Maeve’s account.
A scuffle at the front gate snagged her attention. Breath stalled in her lungs, she waited.
“I mean it,” she called out to the spot beyond the gate, where the tiniest flicker in the air hinted at a concealment spell of Arawn’s making. “Take me to him now.”
A second, a heartbeat, then—as if melting under heat, like a desert mirage, the air shimmered, changed, and revealed the bulky form of the sentinel on duty. Maeve’s stomach turned. Her fingers curled into her palms.
Of course. Of course it had to be a male.
She closed her eyes briefly, willed the anxiety scratching under her skin to quiet down. You can do this. What’s a little terror compared to the safety of Merle’s baby?
The sentinel cleared his throat, brows drawn together over light brown eyes in a rugged face, his skin a dark tan. “Just to get this straight” he said. “You want me to take you to the Demon Lord?”
“To complete the bargain my sister made with him. Yes.”
“Are you sure? He hasn’t…called it in.”
“I know. But I am.”
Because if she didn’t, if she stayed in the protective bubble her sister had built for her with tears and blood and magic, if she kept living on stolen time, time Merle paid for by loaning out her powers to Arawn so he wouldn’t come claim Maeve…her sister’s baby would die the next time Merle had to uphold the balance of magic. As head of her family, as the oldest living witch of her line, Merle had to pay back to the Powers That Be for the magic she used, and with Arawn demanding she put her powers at his disposal, Merle had to pay back a lot. And the last time she did, she almost lost the baby.
Chest aching, Maeve picked up the duffel bag, opened the gate, and stepped through the wards onto the sidewalk, in front of this male she didn’t know, whom she now had to trust to deliver her to the Demon Lord in one piece. Breathe. He won’t hurt you. He’s not allowed to hurt you. She had to rely on the probability that he wouldn’t risk Arawn’s wrath by touching her, had to repeat to herself, over and over, that she was safe from this male—because the Demon Lord wanted her for himself. Presumably unspoiled.
Not that she wasn’t already the very definition of damaged goods. Heat flushed her neck, her cheeks. Her shoulders hunched forward, and she angled her head so the ginger strands of her hair would partially cover her face. That nasty scar running from one temple across her nose to the other side of her chin would still be visible, but…well.
The sentinel nodded to her and gestured down the street. “Car’s parked around the corner.”
Bag clutched tightly to her chest, she followed him, doing her best to ignore the fear snapping at her heels. Focused on the sound of his boots thudding on the sidewalk, the brilliant patterns of shadow and light on the ground from the sun shining through a dancing, lacy lattice of near-bare autumn trees.
At the car, he opened the passenger side door for her. She slipped in before her anxiety would root her to the spot. The slamming of the door made her jump, hug her bag even closer.
Too fast. She was breathing too fast.
It’s just a car ride, damn it. Pull yourself together.
She stared straight ahead as the driver side door opened, and the car dipped a little when he got in. Another flinch when he shut the door. Even with her dull human senses, his male scent—condensed in the tight space of his car—pressed in on her.
He fastened his seatbelt, and she felt his eyes on her. “Buckle up.”
“No.” Choked out between her teeth. “Just drive.”
To be in any way restrained in the presence of a man… A cold shiver rolled through her, iced her very bones. As ridiculous as it was, she couldn’t even strap herself in while riding in a car with a guy.
An assessing glance from the sentinel, then he started the engine. “Name’s Warrick, by the way.”
A nod. That was all she was capable of.
Her heartbeat wasn’t even thundering in her ears anymore. No, it had almost flattened out, the rhythm so rapid, so irregular, it could have been a hasty Morse code sent out during times of war. And what raged inside her was a battle after all. A struggle for control over her most basic functions, her body, her mind…control that had been wrenched from her during days of torture and humiliation, until the simplest tasks and situations would trigger an avalanche of panic, burying what was left of her.
The car’s vibrations as it rolled along the street sank into her, and the next second a flash of memory short-circuited her brain. Another car, another time, another male… Maeve panted, sitting in the front passenger seat, too weak to fight him even if he didn’t hold her immobile with his telekinesis. He’d taken so much blood—too much—and she was dizzy, her head lolling from side to side with the movements of the car, her eyelids drooping despite the fear burning like corrosive acid in her veins. Up ahead a warehouse loomed in the darkness, a single lightbulb illuminating the wide garage door as it opened, ready to swallow her whole.
She couldn’t breathe. Chills rattled her, made her tremble. The world spun, spun, spun, everything lost color, became lighter, yet a weight pressed down on her chest, and she couldn’t move, couldn’t move, couldn’t—
The car screeched to a halt. She rocked forward from the sudden stop, her duffel cushioning the impact as she hit the dashboard. She couldn’t see, the world leached of all color, whited-out. The sound of a door opening, but it was dulled, as if filtered through cotton, far away. Fresh air streamed in, cool on her sweat-coated skin. Choking, she clutched her bag. Her legs tingled. Like a fish on land, she gasped for breath, that weight on her chest pressing in.
Gradually, it lifted. Bit by bit she could haul in air again, forcing her lungs to expand and breathe. Plastered to the dashboard, she focused on her surroundings. The controls of the radio. The scent of the leather upholstery. The sunshine as it glinted off the metal knob of the stick shift.
The empty driver’s seat.
Feeling returned to her body, her limbs prickling like waking up after blood flow had been cut off. She blinked, looked around.
The car was parked next to the curb, the evergreen trees of a Pacific Northwest forest creating a backdrop of breathtaking beauty, misted by soft rain. The door on the driver’s side hung open. A few feet in front of the vehicle, the sentinel—Warrick—stood with his back turned, hands on his hips, head lowered. His heavy breaths flexed the muscles in his broad back and shoulders.
She slid out of the car, her bag still clutched to her chest, walked around the open door, and cleared her throat.
Warrick turned, his features tense. “Are you all right?” His nostrils flared.
She gave a shaky nod, swallowed past a thick throat. “It’s the scent, isn’t it?”
For a shifter, with his sensitive nose, she must have been reeking of fear in that car.
He rubbed a hand over his face. “It’s hard to…remain calm when we smell…”
It made perfect sense. The animal part of shifters, the aspect that wasn’t human, wasn’t controlled by millennia of civilized evolution, reacted to strong emotions based on instincts that warred with the human half. The smell of fear would send some animals fleeing, but in others—predators—it might incite a different impulse… She looked down, forced herself not to tremble.
“Tell me,” Warrick rasped, “he died a bloody death.”
She glanced back up at him.
“The one who made you this afraid.”
Her fingers curled into the the bag clutched to her chest. “He was torn to shreds.” Something deep inside her stirred in grim satisfaction, flexing talons in simmering darkness. She’d never get tired of saying that.
“Good.” A muscle feathered in Warrick’s jaw.
A moment passed while they looked at each other, and the tenuous bond that wove itself between them in those seconds made it possible for her to get back into the car, to breathe past the remnants of her panic and ride the rest of the way with him without another incident.
He parked the car close to a lake, and then led her down a dirt path toward the water. The surface glistened in the midmorning sunshine peeking through intermittent clouds, an eerie hush in the air. The lake…the sight of it jogged her memory, and she drew in a small, sharp breath as she realized—
“We’ll have to go through the lake,” she croaked.
Merle had said as much, of course, when she recounted how she and Rhun had gone to Arawn to beg for his help in finding Maeve. But Merle told her that during those first days spent in the MacKenna family’s old Victorian after Maeve was rescued, and those days were hazy, Maeve’s mind and body still numb from her prolonged torture. She’d forgotten this was the way to travel to Arawn’s lair.
Warrick nodded, face turned toward the still lake. “I hope you can swim.”
Swimming wasn’t the problem. Her nails scratched over her duffel bag as she grabbed it tighter. She’d have to leave it behind. No way the contents would survive being dunked.
Heart aching, she set the bag softly on the ground. Maybe…maybe she could ask to have it retrieved later. If she was allowed to make any requests at all.
Warrick squatted at the edge of the rocky shore that fell sharply down into the lake. No gently declining beach here. Only rough-cut stones and pebbles crunching under her shoes as she stepped up next to the sentinel, who had his hand in the water, making tiny circles with his fingers.
A moment later, a head broke through the surface, and a beautiful naiad swam closer, her dark hair dancing in the waves stirred by her movements. Skin the color of moonlight, she peered at Warrick with eyes holding the depths of the lake she called her home, then glanced at Maeve.
“I remember your sister,” she purred. “She was an ember, but you…you’re flame.”
Maeve’s heart stumbled.
“Come.” The naiad waved an elegant hand. “Let my water cool your soul.”
Warrick cleared his throat. “Just take us to the other side, please. We need to see Lord Arawn.”
Regret flashed in the water nymph’s eyes, but she inclined her head, swam back to make room. And Warrick jumped right in without so much as a flinch. He popped up again, shook his head, and, treading water, raised his brows at Maeve.
Alrighty, then. Deep breath, and she dove into the lake. The near-freezing water closed in all around her, shocked her heart into stopping for agonizing seconds, pierced her skin with a thousand fine needles. She hauled herself up, broke the surface and sucked in air. Her hair hung in her face, clung to her skin. She brushed it away with a quick move.
And froze at the wide eyes of the water nymph, fixed on her scar. The heat rolling up from her stomach through her throat and into her cheeks dispelled the chill of the icy lake. Always, always, that hated reminder of how much her life had changed. Even if she had good moments, even if she managed to forget the horror for a little while, inevitably the reaction of others to the visible proof of how she’d been hurt would shatter whatever brittle shield of normalcy she’d tried to erect.
A second nymph appeared, and after exchanging a nod with Warrick, she pulled him under. Maeve was still staring at where the lake had swallowed the sentinel when the first naiad swam up to her.
As I’ll ever be. “Let’s go.”
She glanced at the duffel bag sitting abandoned on the shore, and couldn’t manage to draw in enough air before the nymph grabbed her and yanked her down into the depths of the lake. Deeper, deeper they went, until her ears ached with the pressure, until the breath she was holding burned in her lungs, until there was nothing but darkness closing in on her. Panic beat along her nerves, not just for fear of drowning, but because of the dense, unrelenting black surrounding her.
And then…the direction changed.
The nymph pulled her up again, the pressure eased, light filtered through the murky water, and within seconds she broke the surface, gasping for breath with aching lungs. The nymph who had pulled her through inclined her head and swam away, leaving Maeve treading water in…a different lake. A sandy shore framed this one instead of jagged rocks, and the trees surrounding the water loomed much closer.
She’d known about this magic way of reaching the heart of Arawn’s dominion from Merle’s tales, but to see it actually work, to realize she’d just crossed over what had to be miles in the span of mere seconds rattled her nonetheless. Warrick already stood on the small beach, wringing water from his T-shirt. Used to this style of travel, no doubt.
Shivering from the cold clinging to her skin through her soaked clothes, she trudged out of the lake as well, joined Warrick as he took a trodden path through the undergrowth. The air was colder here, her breath almost fogging in front of her, and she barely kept her teeth from clattering.
“Warrick.” The female voice drifted out from between the trees shortly before a woman stepped onto the path. “Aren’t you supposed to be on watch duty?”
“I was,” Warrick drawled.
The woman’s golden eyes—striking against her brown skin—tracked to Maeve, who stood half behind Warrick. Taking a step to the side, the female angled her head, frowned as she gave her a once-over–and then those mesmerizing eyes widened.
“Yes.” Warrick shifted on his feet.
“She’s surrendering herself.”
“And I do have a voice,” Maeve said quietly. That voice was scratchy, hoarse, her vocal cords permanently damaged by the screaming marathon she did while shackled to a dirty bed for days. But it was steady. Firm.
The female blinked, and a small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “Yes. Yes, you do.” She turned to Warrick. “I’ll run ahead and let him know.” She walked backward a few feet, still looking at Maeve. “And maybe I’ll make some popcorn. This promises to be interesting.” With a flash of a smile, she whirled around and jogged off.
“Wait!” Warrick shouted. “Where’s he at?”
“In the Grove,” came back the answer, the female almost out of sight. “Playing.”
Maeve barely held back her flinch. She didn’t even want to imagine what “play” meant for the Demon Lord. She trudged behind Warrick as he followed the woman’s path winding along a bubbling creek, between copses of trees that seemed to pulse with power—discernible even to Maeve’s dull human senses. Witchborn as she was, she should have a keen awareness of everything magical, but since her powers were bound inside her at the age of eight, she had no access to her witch heritage, nothing but a weak, unreliable inkling in the presence of strong magic.
And this territory here, this land, the earth itself breathed such magic that even Maeve could perceive it. No way to tell if this was Arawn’s influence—a sample of whatever strange, otherworldly power he held—or if it was a result of all the magical creatures he “collected” and kept close through favors and cunning. She’d spotted swarms of fairies flitting past, several kobolds peeking out from the undergrowth, dryads—tree nymphs—watching her with forest-green eyes from their perch atop branches, and even the light itself seemed different, as if dancing, iridescent…alive.
Even though this was a forest, she couldn’t shake the feeling of walking through a city instead, a bustling hub of otherworldly activity teeming with inhabitants. She couldn’t see most of them, and yet their presence was so palpable it buzzed over her skin.
She’d once been to New York City, and the feeling…it had been so similar. Only now instead of walking among a jungle of steel and glass and concrete, she was a tiny speck amid an enormous maze of wood and stone and shadow and light, woven with magic that raised the hair on her arms and neck, feeling a thousand pairs of eyes on her, tracking her every move.
Up ahead, a tighter grouping of trees loomed at the end of the path, set apart from the rest of the forest, like a building within the woods. The branches formed an intricate, interlocked pattern reminiscent of the elaborate grillwork found in windows and doors of faraway palaces, stretching down to the moss-covered ground, giving the impression of walls.
Scattered fallen leaves from the few trees shedding their foliage in autumn rustled and crunched beneath their shoes as Maeve and Warrick approached the grove. A high double door of branches and vines opened on a silent wind before them, and they stepped into the…well, the best way to describe it was cathedral of trees.
“Grove” seemed indeed too small and humble a word for it. There was nothing humble about this building of living wood and green. Towering trees rose on all four sides, stretching up so high that Maeve had to crane her neck to make out the lofty, vaulted ceiling of twining branches above her. Moss covered those branches all over, hanging down in gossamer threads and casting the light pouring in through the tracery in glowing green.
Its haunting beauty rivaled the cathedrals of old, the ancient mosques and temples decked out in carvings and glittering stones.
Power such as she’d only felt once brushed her senses, snagged her attention away from the glory of this natural architecture, to the source of that force. Her heartbeat pounded in every cell of her body as she looked over the plush carpet of moss covering the floor toward a dais at the end of the vaulted hall, to the set of black chaise lounges facing each another, a table with some sort of board game in between, to the hulking form of the Demon Lord.
Sprawled on one of the chaise lounges, opposite another male who was about to make a move on the board game, Arawn was…a challenge to her vocabulary. She’d seen him before, when he came to claim her after her rescue and Merle made that ill-fated deal with him, and then—as now—he pooled darkness around him even without a change in lighting. The very fabric of the world appeared dipped in ink around the contours of his shape, and instead of glinting off his onyx hair, the sunshine seemed to be absorbed by it, as if sucked away. As huge as this cathedral-like space was, his presence alone filled it.
Black dress pants molded to his long, muscled legs, and a burgundy button-down shirt hugged his massive frame, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, exposing forearms corded with more muscles. There probably wasn’t an inch of him that was soft, wasn’t forged in brutal strength and unforgiving harshness, the epitome of hard masculinity. That thought alone should have catapulted her into dizzying panic.
She waited for it.
But when he turned that face of dark bronze and bored arrogance toward her, when those eyes the color of shadowed woods swept up her body in a languid perusal with a whisper of sensuality underneath, she didn’t cower in fear. She didn’t wince. The part of her that recoiled in instinctive terror in the presence of males—the more powerful, the more she shrank away—now lay silent…and watched, in deference, as another, long-forgotten part of her stretched its talons in welcome…in appreciation.
There you are, it seemed to say. I’ve been waiting for you.
Few things had the capacity to surprise Arawn. One didn’t live as long as he had, seeing everything this world had to offer, from the blunt reality of unnecessary, undeserved cruelty to the depths of grace in the face of darkness, without acquiring a sometimes-tiresome prescience regarding unfolding events, an acute understanding of the ways the minds and hearts of creatures big and small worked.
But he hadn’t seen this coming.
There she was, the witch he’d been watching for the past six months—the duration a mere blip compared to the lifetimes he’d experienced, the coming and going of seasons and eras that honed his appreciation of patience—now standing before him, upending all his plans and carefully laid out tactics.
And most curious of all? She didn’t quail. Not a whiff of the acidic fear he’d smelled when he first went to claim her months ago, no sign of the terror that had frozen her that day. No, those delicate hands didn’t shake, her posture not quite defiant but far from cowering. And when he locked gazes with her after a slow survey of her soaked appearance—had she indeed come through the bloody lake?—her eyes didn’t shimmer with tears. They burned with an inner fire he hadn’t seen since…
His magic stirred, as if in response to a silent greeting. How very, very interesting.
Maeve’s eyes cut to the male seated on the chaise lounge opposite his, and she winced. A move so minuscule, he might have missed it, but the reaction following it was striking in its clarity. The sharp aroma of fear filled the air. If someone could tremble without actually moving, the witch in front of him managed it. Her already light skin lost even more color, the ginger freckles dotting her face now all the more apparent.
“Maeve MacKenna,” Arawn said.
Her attention flicked back to him.
He rose from his seat, and she watched him with the alertness of a doe facing a noise in the woods, but her scent…calmed.
A movement on the chaise lounge next to him, and Maeve flinched as if ready to take a step back.
Deimos, he said mentally, without looking at his second in command.
I’m not even doing anything, the male replied along the pathway Arawn had opened for their telepathic conversation. Deimos shifted again on the seat, leaning back into a more relaxed position.
Maeve inhaled sharply, her hands curling to fists.
I never thought I would be less intimidating than you, Arawn said mentally. Yet here we are.
Deimos’ chuckle echoed in his mind. I’ll…leave you to it, then.
Check on Anselm’s family and find out if there’s anything else they need. Putting his hands in the pockets of his pants, he strolled down the dais, glancing from the youngest MacKenna witch to Warrick, who rose from where he’d bent the knee in deference to his lord.
Yes, sir, Deimos said.
His second made his way down the steps as well, trailing shadows in his wake, and when he passed Maeve going to the door, she scooted to the side, glancing furtively at the impeccably dressed male who moved with silken grace, his human shape betraying nothing of the nightmare of his true form. Yet those with finer senses—and a healthy instinct of self-preservation—always seemed to catch on to the lethal threat underneath the semblance of a charming appearance. Did Maeve belong to that group, or was her caution courtesy of a general fear of males?
“To what,” he addressed the witch as the doors closed behind Deimos again, “do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”
He knew, of course. Lucía told him as much when she bounced in here a few minutes ago. She’d barely toned down her excitement, now leaning against one the wooden pillars holding up the vaulted roof of the Grove, arms crossed and eyes sparkling.
Maeve cleared her throat and swallowed, and the ripple of her throat muscles drew his focus to the elegant slope of her neck, to the water droplets clinging to her creamy skin. One of them ran down to the high neckline of her thick navy sweater. “I’m surrendering myself.”
So hoarse. A result of her torture, obviously, and yet…the smoky quality of her voice seemed to echo the same aspect lighting her eyes just moments ago.
He sauntered toward her. “Did your sister send you here?”
Her answer didn’t surprise him. “No. She doesn’t know.”
Given that he’d just returned from Merle MacKenna’s home a little while ago, where he paused the deal with her after he found out the Elder witch was with child, it would have been highly unlikely that Merle would order her sister to fulfill the original bargain he made with her. And if Merle didn’t know, if she hadn’t sent Maeve to him…
“Why, then, are you here?” He prowled around her, still several feet away, though close enough that she tensed. He waited for the scent of her panic to drench the air.
She followed his trek by half-pivoting with him, not giving him her back. “I’m…turning myself in so you’ll stop using Merle’s magic.”
“And why,” he purred, “now?”
She didn’t respond.
Again, he knew exactly why. But that was not the point, was it?
“Why now,” he continued, “after I have been using your sister’s powers for half a year?”
Those eyes the color of fire-and-smoke narrowed. “Does it matter? I’m here. It’s what you want, isn’t it?”
“I want,” he murmured, the mossy ground soft beneath his shoes, “many a thing. And knowing what others want is part of it.” Another round circling the witch. “What happened to make you walk into the lion’s den of your own accord?”
Her nostrils flared, and a muscle feathered along her jaw. That scar across her face stood out starkly when she ground her teeth. “It’s time. I should never have let Merle make that bargain with you in the first place. You’ve harassed her long enough. You’ll leave her alone now.”
A movement in the corner of his eye made him glance at Warrick, who lingered a few feet away and looked decidedly uncomfortable, face pale as he gaped at Maeve. He’d get to the sentinel in a minute.
Focusing on the tiny witch again, he said silkily, “Perhaps you feel your sister is somehow more…vulnerable than before?”
Maeve stilled. Like Merle, she telegraphed her emotions clearly in her body language. Her breath flattened out. Her eyes widened just a bit. At this point, given his questions, she had to suspect he knew. And yet, she refused to reveal what she thought was her sister’s secret, on the off-chance, maybe, that she suspected wrong and he wasn’t privy to Merle’s pregnancy. She refused, even in the face of a force like his, even knowing she’d have to bow to his demands.
Not that he would demand she betray her conscience.
“Your sacrifice is admirable.” He stopped right in front of her. “And I accept.”
Her lashes lowered over her amber-lit eyes, and for a second he stilled. Copper. Her eyelashes were copper-colored. He surveyed her from head to toe again, from her red hair dripping water on the ground, to the soaked sweater that, though oversized, now clung to her body, revealing slender curves, to the loose jeans and the hopelessly wet sneakers that made annoying squeaky noises when she moved.
She angled her head, and when one of the strands of her hair slipped to the side, it revealed a tiny, fresh bruise on her temple. Something dark and furious shot through his veins, and he raised his hand to her face, wanting to brush away the rest of her hair to get a better look at the injury.
Maeve jerked back as if he’d slapped her. There it was, the acidic smell of her fear as it streamed from her pores. Her chest heaved with her quick breaths, and her right hand twitched as if to draw a weapon.
“Lucía,” he said without taking his eyes off Maeve. “Please get our guest some ice for the bruise on her face.” At the last part of the sentence he leveled his focus on Warrick.
The sentinel became impossibly paler.
While Lucía left the Grove, Arawn sauntered past Maeve toward the shifter, cold anger biting at his nerves. “And you…brought her here without notifying me first. You took her through the lake, when I would have come to pick her up myself, had you possessed the presence of mind to contact me first. And now she sports an injury that looks like it is fresh from this morning, and I have to wonder just what exactly you did to her on the way here.”
Warrick choked as Arawn grabbed the sentinel with invisible claws around his throat, lifted him three feet in the air. The shifter struggled, coughing and pawing at his lord’s magical hold.
“My orders for you,” Arawn continued, his tone all the more gentle for the rage inside him, “were to keep her safe. And yet—”
The hoarse voice made him turn, and he blinked at the trembling witch next to him. Only Maeve didn’t seem to be shaking with fear this time. Her amber-gray eyes glinted again with an inner fire, her hands were clenched to fists, her ginger brows drawn together.
“Let him go,” she said, her voice almost steady. Almost. “He didn’t do anything. He was nice to me. I…didn’t buckle my seat belt, and when he had to brake, I hit the dashboard. That was my fault, not his.” Her eyes flicked to the still-struggling sentinel. “Let him go.”
Well, now. That was the second time today that she managed to surprise him. Not many creatures dared to interrupt him, let alone order him to do anything. Especially not if they found themselves in the position Maeve was in. But as scared as she undoubtedly had to be, faced with uncertainty about her future, she stepped up to defend someone she barely knew–against a powerful being who held her fate in his hands.
Reckless. That’s what it was. Imprudent. Brash.
And yet the corners of his mouth felt the foolish urge to twitch upward, and the magic keeping Warrick in an airborne chokehold lessened, receded. The sentinel slumped to the ground and coughed, clutching his throat.
“The next time,” Arawn said to him, “when a situation changes from the baseline of your original mission, you get in touch with me to receive new orders before you act on your own. If you fail to do so, I will not be as lenient as today.”
“Yes, my lord,” Warrick croaked.
Arawn nodded toward the exit. “You are dismissed. Take the day off. I will assign you a new task tomorrow.”
“Thank you, sire.” And with a last anxious look at Maeve, the shifter hurried out of the Grove.
Leaving Arawn alone with Maeve in the green-filtered light streaming in through the foliage above.
Maeve, too, must have realized there were only the two of them left, because her spine locked and her breath became shallow as she did her best to study him without actually looking at him directly.
“I am not,” he said quietly, “going to kill you, torture you, or touch you without your consent.”
Her throat muscles worked as she swallowed hard, still not facing him.
“Look at me.”
Copper lashes fluttering, she turned her eyes on him.
“While you are here,” he continued, “no one else will harm you either. Is that clear?”
She gave a shaky nod, still holding his gaze.
“I do, however, have a vested interest in your powers, and based on the bargain your sister made, I lay claim to your magic and intend to use it.” He inclined his head. “With your cooperation.”
She lowered her eyes. “My powers are locked inside me. There’s nothing I can do to access them. I can’t…cooperate.”
He allowed himself a small smile. It was the kind of smile that usually drained all color out of her sister’s face, but contrary to Merle, Maeve didn’t blanch at the sight. She blushed.
“We will work on unlocking your powers,” he said. “Together. Your cooperation will consist of allowing me to look into the spell that binds your magic. Every spell can be broken. I simply need to study the spellwork in order to unravel it.”
The door to the Grove opened again, and Lucía strode in, carrying an ice pack. She handed it to Maeve.
“Here. Press this on your temple.”
“Thank you.” Maeve applied the ice pack to her bruise.
“Maeve,” Arawn said, “meet Lucía. She will…keep you company.”
Maeve narrowed her eyes. “Like a prison guard?”
“Like a bodyguard,” Lucía corrected, crossing her arms and giving her a half smile.
Maeve glanced at him. “I thought you said your lands are safe for me.”
“I like to prepare for every contingency,” he replied, his voice silken.
She raised her brows.
“Now,” he said, putting his hands in his pockets again, “before we show you your new lodging, there is one more issue we need to deal with.”
Maeve, he found, was incredibly skilled at moving without moving. This time, she gave every impression of taking a wary step back without actually retreating. Fascinating.
“The original bargain I made with your sister was a carte blanche favor, and when I came to collect it, my demand was for her to transfer magical custody of you to me.”
“I remember,” Maeve murmured.
“Even though you have come to me voluntarily now, Merle still retains magical custody over you. That is a problem.”
She pressed her lips together.
“I would rather not,” Arawn continued, “ask your sister to transfer custody to me now. She is sure to refuse and has displayed an irritating irrationality when it comes to you. And it is not enough for you to simply stay here of your own free will.” He made a pause and added quietly, “To fulfill the bargain Merle made, you will have to sever the familial link to her and bind yourself to me.”
Maeve made a small sound, her eyes rounding. “You can’t ask that of me.”
“Funny,” he murmured. “Your sister said almost the exact same thing when I came to claim you.”
“But,” Maeve sputtered, “severing that link…it will mean I’m not…”
“…part of the MacKenna family anymore. Correct.”
“We’re sisters. I can’t give that up.”
“You will still be related to her genetically. Just not magically.”
She jerkily shook her head. “No. I can’t do that.”
“If you don’t sever the link, Merle can exercise the privilege and power she has over you as head of your family and compel you back by magic. Think of the lengths Merle has gone to in the past to keep me from claiming you, and then tell me she would not resort to forcing you back, if that is what it takes.”
He wouldn’t put it past Merle to be so desperate and irrational as to go for the nuclear option of exerting this kind of power over her sister, even though she had to be aware that it would very well feel like a violation to Maeve.
“I can’t give up my sister.” Her voice was but a whimper.
He was quiet for a moment, studying the quivering witch before him. Shrugging, he clucked his tongue. “Then go home.” Signaling Lucía, he turned away. “Escort her back to the lake.”
“What?” Maeve croaked.
He spared a glance at her over his shoulder. “We don’t have a deal unless you sever the link.”
“That is the condition to fulfill the bargain. I will not accept the risk of your sister whisking you away at any given moment. As long as she retains magical custody of you, that scenario is a viable threat. And if you are not willing to sever the link, I will send you back and continue using Merle’s magic.”
He would do no such thing, of course. As long as Merle was pregnant, he’d leave her alone so as not to risk the unborn babe. But Maeve didn’t know that.
And he’d be damned if he enlightened her.
A beat of silence.
“Don’t,” Maeve whispered.
He turned back to her, one eyebrow raised.
“Don’t use her magic anymore.” Her voice wavered. “I’ll…do it. I’ll sever the link.”
“Good.” He inclined his head, gathering his powers. “I will show you how. Your mental shields are practically nonexistent, so I will project the instructions for how to cut the connection right into your mind. Ready?”
A shaky nod, her lips quivering.
He sent the images and impressions, directing her how to reach deep inside her, where that strong bond originated, its roots linked to her own magic. How to sharpen a mental talon, even without access to the simmering powers bound in her core, how to slice it across the thread linking her to all MacKennas, living and dead.
It was vital she did this herself. No one else would be able to break that link. No one but her sister, as head of the family.
With his mind still reaching out to hers, he felt the exact moment she cut the bond. Like an earthquake in the microcosm that was Maeve, the severance rocked through her, shaking her down to her foundations. Crying out, she fell to her knees, her features twisted.
“Lucía,” he murmured.
But his ward was already at Maeve’s side, grabbing her shoulders and steadying her. Maeve didn’t wince at the female touch—as he’d expected. It was one of the reasons he’d chosen Lucía as her companion. The other being that Lucía might look unassuming, but was a force to be reckoned with, able to handle some of his most deadly assignments.
A shame neither of her parents had accepted her into their folds. Or rather, lucky for him, for if they hadn’t thrown her away back then, he’d have missed out on one of his best enforcers, not to mention some unexpected joy over the years, brought on by her shenanigans.
Maeve’s breathing was calmer now, and she let Lucía help her stand up.
“Are you okay?” Lucía asked softly.
Maeve shook her head, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. “It hurt.”
She looked up at him then, and the reproach on her face, echoed by her thoughts—still visible to him—settled with heaviness in his gut. He retreated from her mind and slammed his own shields up once more.
It was necessary, he told himself. Repeated it a couple of times, until the tightness in his chest eased.
“What now?” Maeve rasped.
“Now,” he said, “you need to bind yourself to me.”
Her swallow was loud enough for him to hear. “How?”
“You need my blood.”
“To drink?” Anxiety threaded through her voice.
With barely a thought, he formed a claw at his right index finger and slashed over his left wrist. Blood welled at the cut. “No. It needs to mix with yours.”
A small, nervous sound broke from her throat as she apparently put together what that meant. He studied the scar across her face. According to his intel, that wasn’t the only place she’d had a close encounter with a blade during her captivity. The sadistic demon who held her shackled for days enjoyed using a knife on her, and word was she still bore the proof of it on the rest of her body. Not to mention her mind.
To be faced with another situation in which she would have to endure a blade cutting into her skin…
Her eyes became glazed, her gaze turning inward, her breath too fast.
“Maeve,” he said, and laid every ounce of his power into that one syllable, until the word rang in the vaulted space of the Grove like the sound of a gong.
Even Lucía shrank away from the sheer dominance in his voice. He rarely ever used it on her.
Maeve jerked, blinked, her instincts yielding to the compulsion of the magic underscoring his tone. She hauled in air, glanced around, as if reorienting herself.
“Use the knife strapped to your right leg to make the cut.” He cocked his head. “You choose where, and how. But you better do it quickly, or else this here”–he raised his bleeding wrist–“will close, and I will have to cut myself again. You do not want to force me to do that.”
Maeve bent down to retrieve the dagger from its hidden sheath on her shin, straightening again with a rosy blush on her cheeks. She peered at the blade, hesitating.
“This is different,” he said gently. “It is you. Your hand wielding it.”
Those reddish lashes fluttered again as she parted her lips. Lips he found himself far more interested in than the situation demanded. His focus slipped for a moment, and he realized with a start he’d missed the instant she slashed at her own wrist.
Her arm shook slightly as she held it out. “Here.”
He raised his left arm, brought it close to hers as he called upon his powers. They rose, writhing and tangling, ever hungry and eager. Holding her gaze, he touched his wrist to hers, wound to wound, blood to blood. She jolted, and then a second time when he used his other hand to apply pressure on her wrist from the opposite side, pushing her arm against his. He breathed past the prickling of magic flowing through him at the touch, reined in his powers as they lunged for her.
“Do you bind yourself to me, Maeve Lonewitch?”
She gasped, and something broke in those eyes of smoke and flames at his mention of the new name that described her identity of a witch without family ties. “Yes,” she whispered.
“In magic and blood?”
“Then I claim you as mine.”
His magic struck, still only a fraction of the real power churning in his core, but enough to make Maeve stagger back. He kept his hold on her hand so the connection of their wounds wouldn’t break yet, and wove his magic into hers. Roots to roots, vines along her branches, darkness to her fire. Mine, his powers whispered into every cell of her. Mine.
The bond snapped taut between them, a link that went beyond the fealty sworn to him by the creatures in his service, beyond the favors that bound people to his will. He felt her now. Sensed her like an extension of himself, sensed that simmering magic shackled inside her so much more clearly than before. So close, and yet so far from his grasp. For if he were to shatter those bonds and free what slumbered in her core…
He wouldn’t go there. Yet.
Letting go of Maeve’s hand, he signaled for Lucía to bandage her wrist.
Maeve’s eyes met his for a searing moment, and he gave her a smile that colored her cheeks a lovely rose.
“Welcome to the family, Maeve of Arawn.”
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