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Fire KissedThe Shadow Kissed Series
By Erin Kellinson
Zebra BooksCopyright © 2012 Clarissa Ellison
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTen years later
"Are you sure she's the best choice?" Jack Bastian had grave concerns about Kaye Brand.
"There are no bests here," said Laurence. "We must try everything and everyone in these dark times."
Jack shifted his gaze from the video link of his superior to the file glowing on the screen before him. Two side-by-side images of Ms. Brand headed a list of text and notes detailing the mage's life history. The first photo was of her at age fifteen, taken while in intensive care. She was unconscious. Her face, brutally damaged, was swollen and blistered beyond recognition. Wraiths were filthy beings, their bites noxious. According to the chart, in the days following her attack she'd battled a life-threatening infection with a fever that hit a sustained 107 degrees, in spite of medical intervention. But then, that's a fire mage for you.
The second photo was recent, taken at the Las Vegas Wake Hotel. Ms. Brand had a drink in hand, a man's mouth at her neck while she laughed. Jack had to admit that The Order's physicians had worked a miracle on her face. The intervention was against protocol, but every angel had been of the same mind on this point: Michael Thomas, angel and good friend, had died in the cellar of Brand House the same night of Ms. Brand's attack. His last request, sent telepathically and suddenly after a silence of some weeks, was to save the girl if possible.
Brand House had gone up in flames, taking eleven lives with it—six of which were representatives of mage families, including Ms. Brand's father; four were human, the house staff; and one was angelic. According to her feverish babble, the violence had erupted because she'd refused to marry Ferrol Grey. Smart girl.
Ms. Brand would have died in the woods some thirty yards from the house. Should have died, if not for Michael and the sentimentality of his brother and sister angels. Jack flicked the screen to page through the file. Angels served humanity, not magekind.
And yet, Michael had thought she was worth it, but then he'd always stretched the rules where children were concerned, apparently even mage children.
Foolish: A scorpion could not stop being a scorpion. Eventually she would sting.
The girl was healed, though she never knew the nature of her benefactors. Of Michael, she professed to know nothing. She was released and, in due course, as expected, grew to live by her whims, her desires, her lusts.
And this was the woman to whom the angels now looked for aid?
Kaye swayed to standing. She realized she'd had too much to drink as she watched the conference door lever turn but managed to still the careening room with a hand to the table. She smoothed the creases in the lap of her slim skirt and did a quick upward tug of her dipping neckline. This was not that kind of peep show, though her father still would have called her a whore for selling her fire.
A man entered, presumably her client, Hobbs. At least she thought that was his name. He was fiftyish, fit. He'd buzzed his balding head instead of trying to grow hair artificially, which she respected. Impeccable suit. Hard, assessing eyes. So what if his gaze lingered on her scars? Everyone's did.
The door shut with a loud, positive snap that assaulted her sensitive eardrums.
"Mr. Hobbs." She held out her hand for a shake, made him come to her. That last drink was hitting her a little hard for her to move much herself.
Mr. Hobbs went with a double-hand grasp. The hand trap. "And what may I call you?"
Kaye had to pull to extricate herself. "Merry." Because that's what she was. Happy to be there. Delighted to provide this most valuable service. Overjoyed to take his money.
She gestured to the conference table. "If you'll just have a seat." She sure wanted hers.
The table was wide, made of some beautiful deep wood. It glowed from the shifting lights off the Vegas strip, the horrible glare buffered by the concealing tint of the hotel windows. Black leather chairs with trim lines circled the table. The walls were textured, a neutral flax, easy on her mind. No city sounds penetrated the space, another relief.
After Hobbs had relaxed into one of the chairs, she took hers, keeping the table between them. That way, she was close enough to reach, yet had a barrier in case he became difficult. They always became difficult.
"So this is how it works—" she began.
He held up a hand to quiet her.
Kaye forced a smile, blinked hard to concentrate. After all, it was his fifty grand, briefly hers, then on to the hotel to pay her debts. Her keep didn't come cheap. "Yes?"
"I would like to make you a supplementary offer."
Kaye curled her toes in her shoes but kept an outward calm. They always tried, though usually after the session was completed, when she was already on her way out the door. Getting away was the hardest part. Worse every time.
She wanted her bed. She wanted numb, black sleep.
His gaze grew steely, while his voice stayed soft. "One million for a year in my employ. An apartment, car—" Uh-huh. Basically a nice cage.
Kaye shook her head. No, thank you. Not going to happen. The Las Vegas Wake Hotel was cage enough, but at least she could fly the coop whenever she wanted. Soon, probably.
Hobbs looked irritated. "Please hear me out."
She shook her head again. "Let's not argue." It would hurt her head. "I've had lots of offers to buy me. You could promise the moon, and I'd still say no."
"I could keep you safe," he said. "And comfortable."
"Not likely," she answered.
His gaze did a narrow-lidded once-over. "A woman like you ..."
Kaye slapped the table to shut him up before he finished. He didn't know a thing about her. Prick.
His mouth thinned as he swallowed his offer. He didn't seem like the sort to give up that easy, so she took advantage of the empty moment. In Sin City, everyone took advantage.
"Ten seconds of Shadowfire for fifty thousand dollars," she said. "You'll see something in the flame—what that'll be, I have no idea. I can't interpret it for you either, so don't ask. If it's the future, it's only one version of the future, so don't worry too much either." Or get excited. Or demand something she had no power to give.
She breathed through a sudden roll of nausea. Wouldn't do to throw up on her meal ticket. What the hell was in that drink?
Hobbs rallied. "With your ability and my backing—" "I said no." Kaye stood, leaned across the table— looked like he was going to get an eyeful of her cleavage anyway—and placed a timer before him, preset by the hotel's owner for ten seconds. She braced herself with her left arm and turned her right hand palm up in front of her client's face. "Here we go."
She concentrated inward, searching for the dark of her umbra, the source of her power, in the myriad sparks that sizzled in her blood. She focused on its draw and rush in her veins, stoking the magic deep within. Better than any booze anywhere. With a splay of her fingers, the heat flowered orgeously in her hand. The flame, a rose rich in orange, reds, velvety black, danced seductively, and she writhed a little in her skin, responding to the flush of Shadow. It always felt so damn good.
Her client had reared back, protecting his eyes.
"You have one shot," Kaye warned and hit the timer's start button. If he wasted it cringing, that was his problem.
The man's expression went avid, and then he sat forward, staring into the flame, greedy for the vision.
Kaye looked into the wavering heat herself and almost lost the fire when she spotted Hobbs in a blurry struggle with an unseen adversary. A reach. A grab. A miss. He flailed into the air, falling off the roof of a city building. Didn't look like Vegas. No, it was somewhere the sky was as gray as the concrete. The vision followed her client down, his horror, and the abrupt, uneven strike of his body on the hood of a taxi.
That hurt her head too.
Kaye glanced over at the timer, which was beeping. The display read fourteen seconds. He could have no complaints.
She fisted her hand and the flame was doused. She spoke by rote. "It's been a pleasure doing business with you."
Mr. Hobbs flicked up his gaze, the force a smack of anger. The cast of his skin had gone sallow green, revealing an age spot or two. He was panting like a pig. "I'll pay you double for ten more seconds. A million to work for me. Five to keep me alive."
"Doesn't work like that." Kaye skirted the table. Time to get out of there. "And it's only one possible future. Just make sure you change it." If you can.
She was opening the door when Hobbs grabbed her shoulder. She startled with an old fear as deep as her scars. Nobody put their hands on her. The very wealthy, influential businessman got an elbow in his face. She got a wet smear on her silk sleeve.
Kaye wrenched open the door to meet Max Hampstead, the Wake Hotel's owner, and two burly security guards. Mr. Hampstead was stroking the silk of his tie. He wore his wealth in a preen too dapper to be hetero. One guard stayed behind to see to her client, now cursing furiously in the conference room. Too bad about that. The other was probably going to take her to her room. Which was a-okay with her.
"He got his time," she said to the air, hoping Mr. Hampstead heard. The floor oddly pitched upward. She had to go. Now.
Kaye didn't want the tight grip at her elbow but didn't really mind its steadying effect as she pushed out of the business suite and into the loud common area of the hotel.
The hotel speaker system pumped the new pop hit "Shadow Is My Drug of Choice." She winced against the driving rhythm, as well as the layered bells and whoops from the nearby banks of slot machines. She was so done with this place.
The guard held her upright in the elevator, though it had a gold bench, and he used a key card to let her into her room—very handy, as she'd lost hers again—then left her to herself.
She kicked off a shoe in the mini foyer, the other in the suite's living room. Untucked her blouse as she headed for the bedroom. Her vision was darkening, like she was already halfway asleep. Must have been a very strong drink. She managed one button on her blouse but gave the rest up and crawled the length of the bed toward a lovely, soft pillow, waiting just for her.
Beneath the last flutter of her falling lids, in the city glow at the window, she saw the shadow-shape of a man.
A sob of terror and relief knotted in her throat as thick sleep dragged her into its black depths.
No more waiting. They'd come for her. At last.
She wouldn't, couldn't run this time.
Jack Bastian regarded the wanton collapse of Kaye Brand. How the mighty Fire bloodline had fallen. The family had changed their names to start afresh in the New World—Brand—but the centuries had been hard on them. The old mages would be glad they were dead, if she was their legacy.
Her skirt was hitched up around her thighs, high enough that he could see a patch of a pink undergarment. He grabbed the edge of the skirt's hem and gave it a hard tug down. The blouse he could do little about, tangled as it was around her midriff and skewed at her shoulder and lace-covered breast. A flash of pink told him the skirt had crept up again. The woman had curves as irresponsible as her nature.
His gaze narrowed on her face. A lock of her dark red hair concealed most of her cheek, some of the strands caught in her mouth. He wanted to see the scars, so he stroked the strands of hair away. Her skin was satin until his fingertips came to fine lines gone white with time. They ran from her temple to her jaw, a cruel trophy from a vicious attack. She'd have scars on the other side of her face to match. Her survival proved she had the necessary mettle for his task. Well, maybe—she was now drooling on her pillow.
Jack checked the pulse at her throat—sure and steady— then grabbed the edge of the bedsheet, flung it over her exposed body, and strode from the room to let her sleep it off.
He settled into a chair in the main room. Head down, eyes closed, he lightly steepled his fingers to meditate.
The mind chatter of the hotel's guests filled his head. The transparent flow of thoughts on Earth was the boon and bane of being an angel. This late at night, most of the guests were contemplating or engaging in self-indulgence. Money and sex—it was always the same in places like this, regardless of the age, and he had had eleven tours on Earth to know.
In the quiet moment, time lashed his memory farther back.
A roar of wind and screams. Billows of smoke rolled across the battlefield, the smell of it heady with Shadow magic. The Brands had been the Eldr clan then and had fled under the cover of their fire. Other clans escaped as best they could. Marauders were left behind, stumbling grunts of men who were Shadow-poisoned, their minds blanked, marked by deeply gouged black Xs under their eyes. He raised his sword and cut a poor beast down, gore splattering. His arm was tired from releasing humanity from the clutches of black magic. Somewhere a mage had been left behind to control the mules they'd made of man. What clan the mage came from Jack didn't know, but he found the scoundrel, an old woman, hissing power toward the battlefield from her concealed ditch. She'd bought her clan time with her life, though she begged "Mercy!" now. Was there honor in that? Jack took her head anyway and the Shadow-possessed on the battlefield thumped to the ground.
Nearby Ms. Brand's room, an external thought interrupted his memory: ... drug should have put her out by now... .
From the person's companion: ... what's Hampstead want with the woman if he's gay ... ?
Jack heard the lock release on the door, but he kept his seat. The two men entered, both young and strong, twin sneers curling their mouths.
"Ms. Brand isn't here," Jack said. The red of the battlefield memory still stained his vision.
Both men looked at the sprawl of limbs visible through the bedroom doorway.
"You came for her, but she was missing," Jack explained, then gave a little push with his mind. Technically, angels were not to interfere with the choices of humans, but Jack's need trumped the free agency of the parties involved —these men and the hotel's owner. "She wasn't here. You should search the rest of the hotel, however, before reporting back to Mr. Hampstead."
Hampstead's going to be pissed....
Got to get out of this business....
"And I wasn't here either," he continued.
What had Ms. Brand gotten herself into? More trouble, certainly. It was time for a change ... of venue. He was relying on her bad habits for what he had in store.
The men left. Hampstead approached the room, but he was made to change his mind as well. The hotel quieted in the very early hours of the morning. The sky paled to white, then turned a dirty blue as the sun finally crested the horizon.
When the world was bathed in light, Kaye groaned from the bedroom.
Jack leaned in the door frame and waited for the shock of a strange man in her room—unless she was used to it— to wake her completely. He hoped she wouldn't be ill. Time was wasting.
Kaye blinked, bleary. He watched as her gaze shifted to the glaring window, to the bright mess of clothing spilling off a chair. To Jack, then held.
She bolted to kneel on the mattress, her hands shaking and full of livid faefire.
"Angel," she said, naming him as she prepared to strike.
"That won't be necessary," Jack said. Though he could read human minds easily, Kaye's was a complete and utter blank, like all of the soulless mage-born. But he knew human nature well enough. If he remained at ease, she wouldn't burn him. Most likely.
Pillow lines creased one cheek. Her auburn hair was flat on that side as well, wavy on the other. Black eyes. Her legs were braced apart, athletic in their youth. The skirt was still rucked up high on her thighs. Her stance was full of fight, so the life she'd been leading hadn't broken her yet. Very good.
"Although historically I'm your mortal enemy—" Jack began. Mages, like the fae, had always defied Heaven. He added a smile to make the acknowledgment seem friendly. "Today, I'm your prospective employer, Jack Bastian."
"Get out." The blaze in her hands grew brighter, shifting to an almost citrine intensity.
Excerpted from Fire Kissed by Erin Kellinson Copyright © 2012 by Clarissa Ellison. Excerpted by permission of Zebra Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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