Instead of fearing for his life, the man has a conversation with the lion and casually walks out to face Leda-all six foot and change of him, wearing nothing but jeans riding low on his hips. He exudes more life magic than Leda has ever seen, easily erasing the wards she's put on her island home.
He is Hunter, one of the Immortal brothers, jerked from his snug bed by the Calling spell, thrown here when the spell was broken. He knows there's something wrong with the world, but he'd rather hole up on this quiet island with the beautiful Leda, and let the world deal with it.
But too soon Leda and Hunter, and the lion Mukasa, must journey to the mainland to join Hunter's brothers for the final battle against evil, to rescue the trapped Tain, which will call for Hunter to make a sacrifice that threatens to break him.
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Immortals: The Gathering
By Jennifer Ashley
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Jennifer Ashley
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Chapter OneHunter always hated to wake up. This time it was from a sound sleep, made sweeter by the presence of two females, one on each side of him, the three forming a warm nest on a Minnesota April night.
Pain jerked him like clamps trying to tear him apart. Hunter sat up, naked and sweating, ready to blast whatever it was with his magic. But the bedroom was dark and quiet; no sign of any intruder, no sense of one. He doubled over and clutched his chest, struggling for breath. And just as suddenly as it had come upon him, the searing agony disappeared.
What the hell?
Hunter would know if anyone had entered the house. He'd put his hand to the lintel of the front door when he'd come in, marking wards to keep away both danger and inquisitive neighbors. Nothing had been disturbed that he could sense. No death magic had crossed the boundaries, no spell.
Hunter was still trying to catch his breath when the cat of the house stalked by. It sank to its haunches, slitted green eyes meeting Hunter's own green eyes. It projected in the way of cats, My bowl might be empty, maybe you should check.
Hunter warily slid out of bed, doing his best not to wake the sleeping women. He eased a pair ofjeans over his bare hips, retrieved his sword in its leather sheath he'd left leaning against the dresser, and padded barefoot to the kitchen, followed by the cat.
The house was silent. The two women lived in an ordinary neighborhood in an ordinary town in northern Minnesota and had found an ordinary method of keeping warm at night. They hadn't questioned the fact that Hunter carried around a large sword, and in fact innuendo about it in the bar tonight had led to him coming here at all.
These days most humans were afraid to walk the streets without a measure of alcohol in them to give them courage. Demon attacks had escalated of late. People hired witches to ward houses and businesses, and to provide amulets of protection, but most witches weren't strong enough to deflect demons that came en masse.
So humans stayed indoors as much as possible and drank more and laughed louder. Minnesota was farming country, but this year the ground had remained frozen too long, and Hunter heard muttering about crops not being sown on time and strange weevils infesting anything farmers managed to plant.
The two women seemed to sense that Hunter possessed incredible life magic and had purred at him until he'd given in and accompanied them home. After all, protection of humans was his Immortal warrior duty. They didn't smell of death magic; not demon-whores, but friendly young women who enjoyed men.
In the kitchen Hunter found the cat food and dispensed a measure into the almost-empty bowl. The cat twined itself around his ankles, projecting the thought that this human male was preferable to the ones who usually turned up.
Hunter suppressed amusement as he put away the bag of food. He'd figured he was the boy toy of the night, and he didn't mind at all. He made it fun and asked nothing in return. Once upon a time he'd thought of lovemaking connected with family and children and happiness, but painful experience had taught him otherwise.
He walked out of the kitchen to check the rest of the house when pain jerked him again-deep, searing magical pain that reached inside to yank him apart. Clenching his teeth, he gripped his sword and waited.
The cat lifted its head and chewed, bits of food dropping from its mouth as it mewled. With that soft sound, the comfortable kitchen suddenly shattered into large, jagged pieces, hurling Hunter away from the cat, the warm house, and the Beltane night into cold and darkness.
He saw far away a glaring light, heard voices chanting in unison. In the middle of the light stood an impossibly tall man with a hard face and coal-dark eyes. He knew the man, had last seen him seven hundred years ago in a battle in Scotland. In front of the man stood a woman in blue robes wearing a garland of flowers in her dark hair. She was chanting, chanting, chanting.
Hunter started to say, "What the f-" when the world splintered again, and he felt himself spinning and twisting uncontrollably through darkness.
He landed on something hard, the wind knocked out of him. A warm, ocean-scented breeze wafted across his body; then someone with scalding hot breath and a face full of fur kissed him on the lips.
Leda Stowe awoke in the dawn light. The electronic clock on her bedside table told her it was a half hour before the alarm would go off. From the kitchen she heard the slow drip of the faucet that never shut off right, but other than that, her house held silence.
She lay still, stretching her witch senses to decide what had awakened her. Outside she heard the usual rush of wind in palm trees and the crash of breakers on the beach, the tide at its height. No throb of a helicopter or a motorboat, not even her animals making noises in the night. But every sense she possessed told her the wards around her island had just been breached.
In the front of her mind were the threats from the animal "collector" from whom Mukasa, the African lion in her largest enclosure, had been rescued. Diego Valdez, head of a Mexican drug cartel, had been incensed when an animal-rescue organization had liberated the abused Mukasa, and he'd vowed to get his lion back, by force if necessary. This little island of rock and beach, though technically belonging to California, lay very near the waters of Mexico.
Leda lifted the tranquilizer gun she kept next to the bed and opened the box in the bedside drawer to load it. Tranquilizer darts worked equally well on human beings as on a hurt big cat in a frenzy. The human would be out long enough for her to call the coast guard or the Drug Enforcement Administration who patrolled these waters.
She pulled on a T-shirt and khaki shorts and slipped on her sneakers. Her enclosures right now held only two animals, the lion Mukasa and a Japanese bear called Taro. Taro was waiting until facilities were ready for him in Hokkaido, where he'd be transferred back into the wild. Mukasa's fate was yet to be determined.
Valdez's threats aside, both animals were valuable to unscrupulous collectors who would sell them for untold sums, dead or alive. Leda's wards were strong, her air magic enhanced by the trade winds that blew continuously across the island. No one should have been able to breach them.
She walked onto the veranda with the rifle in one hand and her radio in the other. The radio was better than a cell phone out here, because she knew there would always be a coast guard dispatcher on the other end. She hung the radio on her belt, then reached behind the door and snapped switches that flooded the compound with light.
Taro reared up against the twelve-foot chain-link fence of his large enclosure, grunting a greeting. He was a curious animal, liking to watch everything she did, and Leda felt a measure of relief that he seemed unhurt and unbothered.
Mukasa, on the other hand, did not appear. Leda went down the wooden steps and walked quietly across the sand. She saw nothing out of the ordinary-no boat rocked next to her own sailboat, the helipad and airstrips down the beach were empty, and no lights glittered on a craft out to sea. She heard nothing but the wind in palms, the roar of waves sliding up the beach.
Something moved in Mukasa's enclosure beyond the pool of light, something upright and human that skulked in the shadows. Leda lost her temper. The threats of the drug lord enraged rather than frightened her, especially after what Valdez had done to the noble Mukasa.
She drew power from the air around her and traced a rune of protection with the toe of her sneaker, pouring her magic into it. A faint yellow glow danced from the rune, the color of air magic.
She cocked the rifle and aimed it at the gate. "I see you in there," she called. "Come out. Now."
Mukasa walked into the circle of light, growling the deep, grunting growl of an irritated lion. Relief trickled through Leda that he was still alive, unhurt.
"I'm waiting," she said clearly. "I will fire this weapon, and believe me, I'm a dead shot."
She sensed the man in the enclosure homing in on her rune in the sand. What was he? Witch? Demon? But she sensed no death magic from him. Of course, a strong demon or vampire could hide its death magic-not a comforting thought.
The man walked forward and stopped behind the inner gate. Each enclosure had two gates with a small passage between-opening and closing one gate at a time ensured that the wild creature inside wouldn't charge out whenever Leda or her assistant had to enter the enclosure.
The gates were about six feet high. The man inside stood a good six inches taller, and his shoulders were nearly as wide as the gate. The lights of the compound glinted off golden highlights in his hair, but the shadows didn't let her make out his features. She sent a cautious tendril of magic toward him to learn what he was.
The blast of life magic that returned nearly knocked her over. He exuded life magic; it roared out of him to crash like the breakers on the beach. Before her startled eyes, sand rushed to fill in her rune of protection, erasing it completely.
"Come out," she repeated in a hard voice. "Leave my lion alone."
Mukasa padded over to stand beside the man. The lion, with his full mane and massive girth, came up to the man's chest. Leda watched, amazed, as Mukasa rubbed his head against the man's torso.
"Is she always like this?" the man asked her lion. His voice was deep and low, the kind that had a place in dreams of the most erotic kind. It was a voice that hinted of sultry nights and cool linen and pleasure she could scarcely imagine.
Mukasa made a faint answering noise in his throat. The man opened the gate, moved through the passage in what Leda could only describe as a saunter, and started to open the second gate.
"Close the first one behind you," she called.
"Because he'll get out, that's why. Mukasa is smart enough to get around you."
"He wants to come out. He wants to see what's up there." He pointed to the dark cliffs rising from the palm-lined beach. The hand that made the gesture also held something long and thick, a sword or some such weapon.
"Close that gate, or this dart goes into your chest."
The man looked back at Mukasa. "You'll have to stay behind for now, my friend."
The lion grunted, then turned and walked back into the deeper part of the enclosure.
The man closed the gate behind him and opened the second gate. He shut that one as carefully and stepped into the light.
Holy Goddess of the Moon.
Not only did his voice come from her erotic dreams, so did his body. A tall, hard body in nothing but a pair of jeans that rode low on his hips. A tattoo of some kind peeked over the waistband. He had arms thick with muscle, a chest of honed pectorals dusted with golden-brown hair, hips tight below a narrow waist, thighs outlined by denim, and strong, bare feet.
The lights of the compound accented the gold in his hair, and the eyes that studied her from an impossibly handsome face were emerald green. She could imagine those eyes half closed in seduction, fixed on her as though she were the only woman in the world.
Bedroom eyes, her mother would have called them. Watch out for those.
He held a sword sheathed in leather, its hilt thick and plain. A fighter's weapon.
"Put your sword on the ground," Leda commanded.
To her surprise, the man obeyed. He gently dropped the weapon and looked at her expectantly, bare toes curling in the sand. "Why did you bring me here, witch?"
"To fight?" he went on as though he hadn't heard her. "Or for sex? I hear some slaves hate women summoning them for sex, but me, I'm all for it."
Slaves? Summoning? Sex?
"I didn't summon you."
He took a few steps toward her. "Do you have anything to drink? I could murder some coffee."
"Stand still and tell me who you are and why you're messing with my lion."
He didn't stop. "I'll make the coffee, I'm good at it. Then we can talk about the summoning. Or your lion. Or sex. Whatever you want."
Was he insane? Probably. Too bad, but just because he was utterly gorgeous and exuded magic that nearly floored her didn't mean he wasn't dangerous.
He kept walking toward her, leaving footprints in the sand. His smile was lopsided, his hair mussed, sand clinging to his jeans and bare torso. He was delectable.
"Did Valdez send you?" she croaked.
She felt his magic concentrate and slide around her, and knew her own power was nothing in the face of his. His magic could make her drop the gun, fall at his feet, anything he wanted. Her island, her home, and he'd take it over with a sheathed sword and a crooked smile.
She shot him.
His green eyes narrowed, and he looked at the dart protruding from his left pectoral.
"A tranquilizer?" he said in mild surprise. "How interest ..."
His right leg folded under him, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he toppled limply to the sand.
Excerpted from Immortals: The Gathering by Jennifer Ashley Copyright © 2007 by Jennifer Ashley. Excerpted by permission.
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