The Shadow Guardby Diane Whiteside
SAHIR. Astrid Carlson is one of them, a mage on a mission. With her wispy blond hair and those long, long legs, she can make a man forget himself. Until it's way too
The Shadow Guard. They are the darkest of Black Ops. A force operating outside the sphere of the CIA or FBI. Taking their mandate not from the U.S. government, but from magic. And sex.
SAHIR. Astrid Carlson is one of them, a mage on a mission. With her wispy blond hair and those long, long legs, she can make a man forget himself. Until it's way too late.
KUBRI. Jake Hammond is the only thing she needs, the human conductor who can focus all her strength, bringing her to a peak of power, or shattering her completely. Yeah, she's got a hundred or so years on him, but who's counting when there's an unstoppable assassin to take down--and unstoppable chemistry to take on. . .
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The Shadow Guard
By Diane Whiteside
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Diane Whiteside
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSnow coiled like serpents through the trees' barren branches and flung a silent net over the Potomac River below, as if warning the water to be wary of onlookers. Icy frills marked where a wave dashed over a boulder or tumbled too long in a pool, isolated from its fellows in this rocky wilderness.
Twin beams of golden light lanced across the sky, followed by an SUV's sullen rumble. A few dead leaves from last fall shuddered for an instant on the trees, then began the long, slow fall through the gorge.
Astrid Carlsen froze into position, her skin colder under her jacket than the mid-March temperature called for. If that vehicle turned into the overlook above—or worse, its driver climbed out to see the famous view—she couldn't hide.
She hadn't spun a spell strong enough to stay invisible from farashas, the ordinary mortals who walked the earth. If any passersby looked down, they'd surely spot the silvery glow wrapped around her and her partner.
Guard law would demand she cast their memories, and possibly their minds, into the shadows as penalty for seeing too much.
The headlights scythed through the tree branches and swept past. The river torrents quickly drowned out any sounds of the SUV's departure.
Astrid allowed herself a small, silent sigh of relief. It sent no warmth through her veins before she started scanning again.
A snowflake tumbled from a tree onto her cheek and clung for a moment, chilly as the late winter blizzard or her stomach's unhappy contents.
Only high summer would see humans visit this landing often, with its deadly currents tumbling so close to the shore. Late winter should bring nobody here except the wild animals.
"Where did that scream come from?" she muttered and tilted her head back, hoping against hope she'd see an honest buzzard shredding its prey.
Her partner Nathan Bradshaw braced himself against her until his heavy coat rasped the nape of her neck. They stood back to back, of course, in the only safe formation for two sahirs working magick alone.
"Nothing up there big enough to shriek like a banshee," Nathan growled, his native Boston accent thick and harsh. "It'd take a strong life force to wail that loud and long."
Astrid flinched, ice ripping into her veins from fading magick. She'd find out who was wounded, no matter what the cost to herself.
She set her jaw and began to reframe her spell.
"Can a magickal death really be heard from far off?" Nathan asked. "They say the sound cuts you to the bone, even from miles away."
Astrid's hands shook and nearly lost their grip on Nathan. Only his wrists' quick twist saved their vital contact.
"Yes," she agreed in hoarse tones that bore little resemblance to her usual polite instructor's voice. "Mages can hear someone killed by magick for a long distance, certainly as far as the main highway."
"Where we were."
"Yes." It had ripped all joy from their souls until ice carved apart their bones. Agony and anger shrieked through the skies until no man could hear the banshee wail and not act.
Or even worse. Seventy years ago, a similar scream had torn twenty-five years of hard-won happiness from her heart.
This time, her partner shot the car across three lanes of traffic to reach the nearest icy exit before she even asked him to.
She caught her breath and forced herself back to the present. She'd had decades to cry a river of tears until she built a new life.
"Can you see anything yet?" he asked. Seventy years since she'd been his first trainer but Boston still thickened his vowels.
She spread her legs a little wider and reached deeper into the earth for strength. But pulling it back felt like sucking a milkshake through a broken straw. Sustenance was out there somewhere; she simply had no way to reach it, not without a kubri.
She shook her head in frustration. She'd spent an entire week interpreting for the FBI before and never failed a basic scrying spell afterward.
Dammit, they should still be able to solve this puzzle. Something else was wrong than simple exhaustion.
They'd both already taken off their gloves to let the magick flow more easily. Now they'd just have to go further.
"Give me your hands."
"What?" Nathan was so surprised that he turned to look her in the eyes.
She hissed in alarm and jabbed his ribs with her magick, a trainer's sharp warning to a reckless student. If they'd been strangers partnered in a spell, she'd have scorched his face for risking both their lives with a direct glance when they weren't safely anchored by a kubri.
Nathan jerked away in surprise but quickly flattened his back against hers with only a guttural curse. He hadn't made the mistake of trying to watch another sahir from within a spell since his first semester at the academy.
Still, she was wryly glad he'd satisfy his lust with somebody else that night, not her. Nathan loathed yielding to anyone's magick, even if he owed a student's duty to serve his instructor.
"We'll pool our power and extend the spell that way." She cast another wary eye around the small grotto, listening for more than the ice-shrouded river. Instinct still insisted this was the only place to look.
"Right," Nathan agreed. "But make it fast, okay?"
She snickered at that statement of the obvious and stretched out her arms. An instant later, his fingers twined with hers and they stretched their arms out.
The magick, which had circled and howled inside her, snapped and snarled its disgust around her head, then suddenly swung into smooth, clean lines of force. They charged through her bones like horse-drawn chariots, prancing and snorting their eagerness to do her will.
Nathan huffed once, then settled more solidly against her back. Red flames danced along the magick coming from him but they couldn't stop to let him take the lead, not now.
She stretched her fingers slightly and pushed the magick out. It swirled forth in a shimmering haze that snatched her breath away.
She choked—and the silvery mist sagged back toward her before it had entered the river of time to find out who had summoned them.
Crap, that was weird. Even so, she managed to catch the slippery mass of not-quite-real stuff.
"We can come back tomorrow, after we recharge," Nathan suggested, pragmatic as ever.
The woman's scream echoed in her memory again, long and heartrending as Astrid's husband's death cry. She'd tried to gate to him, only to slam into an icy black wall. She'd collapsed, the loss echoing through her body and soul for years.
Now another family would be wracked by the same despairing grief, dammit.
Even so, Gerard had at least made his attackers pay a high price for his death. This lady deserved the same justice.
"Like hell." She'd find out what had happened if she had to spend every drop of blood in her body.
She wheeled slowly and Nathan moved with her, as steadily as if they wielded this much power every day.
The spell's silver strengthened into a ball of light, as bright as a candlelit hall. The magick had finally dived through time's murky waters and found a responsive eddy.
The river and its boulders suddenly danced into a new pattern. A large pool lay at the water's edge, shaped like a teardrop, deep at one end but pouring into the main channel like a grand prix racetrack at the other. Moonlight spilled into its darkest recesses—and every wave turned crimson.
Astrid forgot to breathe. Her legs screamed their exhaustion again and she ignored them yet again.
"What is it?" Nathan tapped his boot against hers.
"Two people, a man and a woman. She's much smaller and he's got her in a choke hold with a knife against her throat."
What else could she see? She forced the magick forward but the Potomac drank the spell down, melting its edges as if a new waterfall had just joined it.
"I can see her face but not his. He's wearing a ski mask, dammit." Astrid nodded, useless tears touching her eyes.
"Can you describe him?"
"Bigger than she is. Tall, perhaps your height, and heavier. He's wearing true cold-weather gear, not lightweight, fashionable stuff." She hesitated and tried to push the magick through time and the snowy vortex in the air. "His ski mask has a black-and-white pattern."
"Not solid black?"
"No, its design blends into the snow so I can't see him very well."
"Damn," Nathan said with more emphasis that he usually allowed himself to express. Astrid couldn't have agreed more.
"She's arguing, but I can't hear the words over the water's roar."
"Does he know about us and magick? Enough to use water as a barricade?"
"Or simply trying to block farasha forensics?" Astrid shook off useless questions impatiently. She had a job to do somehow—trigger justice for that beautiful young woman. "He's laughing at her words. And then. And then ..."
She closed her eyes too late. The memory seared its way like a welder's torch deep in her heart.
She'd need a very long session with the healers tonight, when they finally returned home to Georgetown.
She forced herself to speak, to give the memory voice. That beautiful woman's ghost deserved a little peace.
"He cut her throat and tossed her body into the deep water. The blood went everywhere." She stopped, her empty stomach now a rocket headed up her throat.
Nathan's hands clasped her hips in silent sympathy. Strength poured back into her. She allowed herself to accept it for an instant, knowing he risked his life to offer the closer grasp during this spell.
Then she leaned her head against Nathan's back and firmly relinked their fingers.
"When I lock onto that moment and scan," Nathan said briskly a moment later, "I can spot the corner of a single car's hood in the parking lot up above."
"Can you describe it?" A trickle of hope brightened her heart.
"Dark colored, since it was just before today's snow started, and square." Nathan hesitated. "It's hard to see much more. Maybe because I have a bad angle on it from here or maybe—"
"What?" She focused her power and poured it into her partner. The murderer's ghost shrank into a puff of smoke and vanished into the late afternoon mist. She'd seen enough of his body to describe it, and she'd recognize his black aura anywhere.
Just give her the chance to hunt him.
"The car might be warded—there's a faint shimmer around it." Nathan shifted on the balls of his feet, in a knife fighter's deadly search for an advantageous position.
Astrid dragged in another breath and wished she could find a straightforward clue in the air.
"Shit." Magickal protections were almost more frightening than a psychic scream loud enough to alert two Shadow Guard members. Only registered sahirs were permitted to set wards this close to Washington, D.C., with its treasures. The penalty for disobeying that law was death, a price that hadn't been exacted since the Civil War.
"Exactly. Can't prove it, though. There were absolutely no witnesses."
"Maybe no farashas but—"
"Not even a spider was nearby when this happened."
Hell and damnation, that took serious power—which the killer himself didn't reek of. He was hidden death, like arsenic added to narcotics. Did he have enough magick to set such wards?
If that tall hellhound had killed so easily once, he'd probably do so again. But where and why would he do so? How much of a threat was he?
"She died screaming about duty." Astrid allowed herself to relive the memory's last few moments.
"Let the local police handle it." Nathan stretched to unkink his larger body. "They'll have a corpse to study, once she washes ashore."
Ghostly waves, livid in the moonlight as if the river itself bled, washed over the lady's body and swept her downstream across Astrid's memory. Far, far too similar to her last glimpse of Gerard.
Astrid gagged and hunted for a more useful image. "He marched her into the water upstream from here. The rocks are snow-covered by now."
"Making it impossible for anybody to find evidence." Nathan rolled his shoulders to stretch them. "There's no reason for us to make the cops search here."
She frowned at his logic, even though it followed paths she'd taught him.
Still thinking, she closed down the spell, her duty as elder.
"We need to get back to Georgetown and report to the Shadow Council on what we learned from the FBI." The Boston banker turned weapons master stepped away from her, his voice animated as a child anticipating Christmas Eve delights. "If we could combine some of the FBI's stuff with the military's ..."
Astrid gave the river a long, considering stare. Even without the scrying spell's aid, her magesight showed long tendrils of blood weaving through the water. How many more miles of rapids would batter that poor woman's body before her brave spirit could find rest? And justice?
"I'll make some phone calls tonight," Nathan went on, "after I have something to eat and recharge. We could wind up with some great stuff for our troops." His voice faded, accented by the sound of snow and ice crunching under his boots.
Astrid frowned. The blizzard was forecasted to bring heavy snow, followed by another, wetter storm in a few days.
The woman had fought valiantly against her killer, even when she knew it was hopeless. Her body could be damaged during the days it journeyed downstream, so badly her family might not recognize it.
The possibility was intolerable. The lady deserved a proper funeral.
Astrid gathered what remained of her strength, raised her hand, and cast a fine sheen of magick across the river. The delicate dust collected itself into tiny sprites that dove under the water, like dolphins riding the current.
Astrid sagged and the cold, dank air sank into her bones as if her sturdy coat was paper. Then she turned to follow Nate out of the gorge.
She'd cast just enough of a spell to protect the gallant lady, yet not enough to cause trouble for herself with Shadow Guard regulations.
If she was lucky.
Two days later
"What did you find, Miller?" Jake Hammond jogged the last few steps down the steep hill, vaulted over the sandbag barricade, and landed silently on cobblestones. Nothing more than puddles here, now that the floodwaters had finally gone down.
Plus, of course, whatever corpse had raised alarms amid the ancient taverns and shops on a starless night.
This alley had been old before the Revolution was fought. Hell, George Washington probably slipped along it to plot treason against the British and Bobby Lee undoubtedly used it to play hooky from school. Belhaven had built it narrow as a thieves' path to the docks, and nobody had widened it in the centuries since gold stopped coming in from selling slaves.
The light from Miller's flashlight was a bright bubble that disappeared quickly against the dark, wet bricks all around, like a miner's headlight in a tunnel. Behind Jake, a bar's single backlight fizzled and turned his shadow into a giant, onrushing silver-edged mist.
Water rippled beyond Miller, black and quiet, as predictable and patient as the winter runoff that had birthed it. Dawn would find it vanished into the Potomac River again, underneath the marina's boats. Now it formed a moat against the old munitions factory's thick stone walls. Nobody could pass without paying heed to what it had brought forth.
Something shimmered under its surface, like a network of stars.
Jake shrugged off the ridiculous idea. No way could a cop's flashlight produce something like that. He stooped down beside the canny beat cop, careful not to disturb anything, and flashed his own light on the scene. "Oh, hell."
A woman's corpse lay curled into an oddly regal posture, like an Egyptian mummy protected from time by the embalmer's art. Well-made, fashionable clothing shrouded her long limbs, and muddy water slowly crept away between the cobblestones like mourners. A diamond glinted on her left hand, large enough to snare any thief's eye.
Her head canted back helplessly at an impossible angle, held only by her spine. Gray blurred her once chocolate skin, as if hell had sucked out her color with her life. Her eyes were dark pits of blackness, lost between heaven and hell. Her right hand reached out, palm open, fingers extended, begging for help.
Somehow, if Jake tilted his head back just a little and the city lights blurred a bit on the wet streets until they offered a halo rather than sharp spotlights, she looked just like his mother the last time he'd seen her. Lying on the gurney at the morgue with her hand lying loose to one side and the gunshot wound that killed her hidden by her thick, dark hair ...
Excerpted from The Shadow Guard by Diane Whiteside Copyright © 2011 by Diane Whiteside. Excerpted by permission of BRAVA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Diane Whiteside is the author of The Irish Devil and other erotic romances.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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The Shadow Guard had an intriguing premise, sassy characters and started off good. But, I became disappointed quickly. I felt the emotional disconnection of characters, and too many sex scenes for my liking. Yes, I know that's the norm these days, and I normally don't mind it if it fits the story. I was hoping for more planned out storyline. The book had quite a bit of action, but I found myself confused and had to go back a few times to understand right. Astrid, the heroine, is interesting, sassy and fun. She's not the kind of woman you want to mess with. The world building in the story is creative and fun. If you enjoy paranormal romance filled with steamy love scenes, heroines that are feisty and tough, then you may enjoy this book.
FBI interpreter Astrid Carlsen as a sorcerer also belongs to Shadow Guard; a top secret organization with strict rules governing the use of magic. When she mentally hears a psychic final scream of a woman murdered by magic, Astrid investigates. Police officer Jake Hammond leads the official inquiry. He and Astrid are on-line gambling opponents. When they meet for the first time in person, she realizes he is Kubri, an essence who can recharge her magical energy to its acme with sex or for that matter destroy her through her libido. She hopes he desires an older woman as they team up on the case and in the boudoir where the magic they generate enables the pair to challenge the psychic serial killers more powerful than either of them. The Shadow Guard is a superb erotic urban fantasy police procedural that blends the elements from the various genres into a power paranormal page turner. With an entertaining investigation, the fast-paced story line heats up on the normal and paranormal planes as Astrid and Jake learn the whole is greater than the sum of the parts when it comes to this pair sexually charging up their prowess. Harriet Klausner