Read an Excerpt
Ten years ago . . .
Gray Calhoun shut the front door behind him and paused in the foyer, his skin prickling. The entire house was dark and quiet. Typically, their housekeeper greeted him, standing as his wife’s sentry to make sure he took off his shoes and put away his Court robes. It was strange not to hear Cook’s usual dinner-preparation noises—pots banging and Swedish curse words flying.
The silence—and the sense of emptiness—unsettled him.
“Kerren?” he called out.
“Upstairs,” she answered.
He breathed a sigh of relief. This morning, after the shocking revelation about the Rackmores hit the Grand Court’s chambers, she’d called him before he’d even gotten their home number dialed. “Stay there, Gray. Do your job. I’m fine. I have you, remember?”
“Damn the Grand Court,” he’d said, and she’d laughed, then made him promise not to come home early. He wanted to hold his wife, and tell her he didn’t care that she was a Rackmore. He loved her—and love meant loyalty. His heart aching, he moved toward the staircase.
“Don’t you dare come up here with those shoes on!”
He looked down at the foot hovering over the first polished wood stair, and chuckled. The knots in his stomach unfurled. Feeling lighter in spirit, he returned to the foyer and toed off his shoes.
They’d been married for nearly two years, after a whirlwind six-month courtship. Kerren’s parents had welcomed their engagement announcement far more easily than his mother. Leticia Calhoun had thrown every excuse possible at him:You’re too young. You’re too new to the Grand Court. You’re a Dragon. She’s a Raven. And on and on. Eventually, though, she’d given her blessing.
Despite his mother’s worries, he was happily married, and his career was on the fast track. His mediation of several ongoing internal disputes within the House of Dragons led to unheard-of cooperation, and creative resolutions. The success of those negotiations gained him many friends, a very few enemies, and, just last week, the highest accolade offered by any House: Wizard of Honor.
He put his shoes in the foyer closet, and took off his robes, hanging them up. He probably shouldn’t have been surprised that his wife had given the staff the day off. When the world felt the reverberations of what some were calling the “great reckoning,” all hell had broken loose.
The wealth of every single Rackmore had disappeared.
All day, details had been plucked from speculation and rumors until an enterprising scholar had dug through the Great Library’s archives. He’d found a single diary entry from Pickwith Rackmore, Earl of Mersey—a well-known Raven who’d risen in that House’s ranks quickly in the sixteenth century. Pride radiated in the words the man wrote about a ritual in which his entire family had called forth a demon lord. They’d made a bargain for wealth—a whole “spin straw into gold” scenario that would last five hundred years. The most sickening part detailed the sacrifice of the earl’s youngest daughter and her husband.
They hadn’t cared that later generations would reap what they had sown. Death magic and collusion with demons were the two biggest sins a magical could commit. And not only had the Earl of Mersey and his family done both, but they’d also forever intertwined themselves with the House of Ravens.
The fallout would be tremendous.
But those were worries for later. Now he wanted to focus on the needs of his beautiful wife. Kerren was strong-willed and practical. If there was any Rackmore who could weather the storm, it would be her.
Besides, she had him—and he would never abandon her.
Gray took the stairs two at a time. It was dark upstairs, too, but he managed to find his way. Kerren stood in the middle of their richly appointed bedroom, which was cast in shadows, thanks to the single bedside lamp she’d left on.
Kerren was dressed in a diaphanous silver gown that clung to her curves, and offered him a feast. He knew well what lay underneath that simple dress, and he couldn’t wait to take it off her. She was so lovely. Her long blond hair hung in silky curls that draped her shoulders. One hand reached out for him, while the other stayed behind her back.
“What are you hiding?” he asked, amused. It was a game they often played. Sometimes, she had a can of whipped cream or a jar of caramel, and other times, she presented him with trinkets she’d found on her shopping excursions.
“It’s a surprise,” she said coyly.
“Can’t wait,” he murmured, leaning down to brush his lips across hers. “How’s your family?”
“Oh, fine,” she said. “They’ve already made arrangements—but they did say thank you for offering them the spare rooms.”
“Our house is big enough for ten people.”
She sighed. “You’re not going to talk about having babies again, are you?”
“No,” said Gray, though he very much wanted to start a family. Kerren said she wanted children, but she always tabled the topic whenever he broached it. Instead of saying anything else, he lowered his head to give her a proper kiss.
“Gray,” she murmured, stalling his progress.
He looked up, brows raised. “Hmm?”
“You would do anything for me, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course,” he said instantly.
She stepped out of his embrace, but kept her hand on his forearm. Her eyes gleamed. “I had hoped to keep you,” she said with a regretful smile.
Before he could respond to such a strange declaration, she placed that pale, perfect hand against his chest and whispered, “Kahl.”
Pain radiated through him, clogging his throat, throbbing in his eyes, bubbling in his veins. He tried to scream, but no sound could escape through the agony crawling up his windpipe.
His vision grayed at the edges as he stared down at his wife.
“You said you’d do anything for me.” The arm she’d had tucked behind her swung up in a wide arc. In her hand, she clasped an obsidian cudgel. The smooth stone smacked him hard in the temple.
Stars exploded behind his eyes.
Then the world went black.
Gray awoke to the stench of sulfur, and the chill of stone beneath his bare skin. His wrists and ankles were manacled to the granite. He felt the dark magic pulsing in the metal, and the thick ugliness of it stifling the room. His right side burned, as though acid had been dribbled from his temple to his shoulder.
He tried to call his magic, but it was useless. The metal dampened his abilities. Besides, not only was there no living thing from which to borrow energy, but also the negative vibrations of this prison suffocated any hint of good.
Bile rose in his throat.
“The heart of a Dragon.” Kerren’s voice issued from the darkness, seconds ahead of the woman. As she walked toward him, looking coldly beautiful in that damned silver gown, torches flamed to life. He could see now that he was in a small cavern, the craggy walls a mixture of black and red. The rectangular rock on which he was pinned was the centerpiece. “All that my lord wanted was me—and the heart of a Dragon.”
“Your lord?” he rasped. Betrayal sat like an anvil on his chest. “What have you done, Kerren?”
“What I must.” She stopped near the edge of the altar and let her gaze rove his naked body. “Such a shameful waste.” She trailed a hand down his inner thigh, then encircled his hip with a sharp nail.
He hissed in pain.
She grinned, and he saw the madness glittering in those chocolate brown eyes, the hint of crazy proffered by that cruel mouth. Oh, Goddess. Not Kerren. Not his wife. “This is a nightmare,” he whispered.
“Not yet,” she said. “You know, Gray, you were very sweet to be so worried about me.” She patted the wound she’d caused on his hip. “The Rackmores weren’t all that interested in their own history—not until today. All our collective paperwork was tossed into our private archives at the Great Library. Piles and piles of moldering ledgers and diaries and personal letters. When I was seventeen, a small indiscretion of mine angered my father so much, he decided to punish me.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
She spread her fingers against his lips. “Shush. I’m telling a story. I’m not without compassion, you see. I thought you should know why you’re going to die.”
The blood drained from his face. Kerren wanted to kill him? Why?
“No more questions, Gray.” Her gaze was that of a stranger, as hard and cold as muddy ice. “If you interrupt me again, I’ll stab you through the heart, and you can go to the darkness not knowing a gods-be-damned thing.”
He pressed his lips together, mostly because he didn’t want to feel the soft reminders of comfort and pleasure the treacherous woman had once given to him. She feathered her fingertips down his cheek and let them rest on his aching shoulder as she leaned against the altar. He knew he should try to think of ways to free himself, or reason with her, but shock had numbed him. His thought processes felt sluggish, and his body clumsy, probably the result of the poisonous magic that surrounded him.
“My punishment was to organize the archives. It took a whole summer. My stupid baby sister went to Paris while I toiled away in that tomb. But I found some very interesting things. For instance, the Earl of Mersey’s diary, his personal spellbook, and a little prophecy he’d written before his death. Imagine my surprise when I read all about the demon bargain and found out that in a few short years, I would be penniless.
“Me? Poor? I don’t think so. I used the same summoning spell, and called forth my own demon lord. He’s very handsome and virile—a real devil in bed.” She winked at him, and nausea churned in his guts. “In exchange for me keeping my wealth and accumulated pretties, all he wanted—other than me, of course—was the heart of a Dragon. Your heart, to be precise.”
“You don’t love me.” The realization slashed at him, and self-pity was the salt on those wounds. Everything he’d believed about the woman he’d married was wrong. He’d been fooled and cuckolded.
Kerren watched the play of emotions on his face with avid interest, and Gray realized he was giving his sociopathic wife quite the show. He did his best to blank his features, but she merely laughed. “You can’t hide from me. Or from destiny.”
Then she produced a wicked dagger and pressed it against his chest. Blood welled where it bit into his skin.
“I liked you. I enjoyed you. I fucked you.” She leaned close, her breath ghosting over his mouth. “But no, my darling, I never loved you.”
“Please,” he said as tears fell. He wasn’t sure what he was begging for—mercy or death—but he couldn’t stop the rejoinders. “Please, Kerren. Please.”
Disgust entered her gaze. She curled back her lips. “I never expected you to simper. You’re pathetic.” Then she raised the dagger and screamed, “For Kahl!”
Her aim was true, vicious, and supernaturally strong.
The double-bladed dagger slid through muscle, bone, heart, lung, flesh. He heard the tip of the blade scratch the stone; then he managed one hoarse scream before the sharp agony abruptly faded.
In the viscid dark of hell, Gray’s soul struggled.
Trapped, whispered a thousand voices, betrayed. You are nothing. No one. You are unloved. Unwelcome. Unheralded.
No, he screamed. I am Gray Calhoun. I am a Dragon. I will live.
Become one with us. You are the dark. You will always be the dark.
Pain ripped through him. Though he had no body now, the agony was just as real. He accepted every lightning bolt of anguish, every jagged strike of terror. I will not bow to you, he yelled. You will not break me!
Then the monster appeared. Its awful smile displayed razor-sharp rows of bloodstained teeth. Gray could discern no other form to go with its terrifying visage—just soulless black eyes, leathery skin, and that terrible grin.
The heart, it demanded, give me the heart.
I will not give you anything. Ever. Gray battled through the sludge, exerting his will. I belong to the Goddess. I call upon the blood of my ancestors, the righteousness of all good Dragons, to help me.
You are the dark, cried the voices, you are one of us.
Light burst through the blackness, and the voices screamed in frustration.
A huge claw reached through golden brightness and grabbed Gray. He was slammed back into his body. The knife was expelled, the horrific wound closed, the chains shattered, and then he was lifted from the altar, and shoved up, up, up through fire, through rock, through earth, until he came to rest on soft, dewy grass.
Gray took a shuddering breath and opened his eyes. Above him, he saw leafy tree branches reaching up as if trying to tickle the full moon. A glance around confirmed he was in some sort of wooded clearing—which could be located in California or France or anywhere in between. He had no idea where he was, only that he was free.
Within himself, he felt the slither of scales, the heat and shape of something foreign.
He had escaped hell.
But he had not come out alone.