One tragic impulsive mistake made Chloe Winslow an outcast to her influential magic family. As a medical student, she wants to combine science with sorcery to heal those she hurt and right her wrongs. But brilliant, charismatic Devlin Marsh re-routes her plans with a once-in-eternity offer: membership in the exclusive Northern Circle, a mysterious Vermont coven known for pushing the limits.
Enthralled by Devlin and their mesmerizing mutual attraction, Chloe makes a dangerous sacrifice to help the Circle’s high priestess awaken Merlin himself—and learn his timeless cures. But a foreshadowing soon causes Chloe to doubt the Circle's real motives, as well as Devlin’s . . .
Now Merlin's demonic shade is loose in the human world, while Chloe and Devlin's uneasy alliance will pit them against ancient enemies, malevolent illusions, and shattering betrayal. And with the fate of two realms in the balance, Chloe must risk her untried power against a force she can't defeat—and a passion that could destroy her.
Praise for Pat Esden and her Dark Heart Novels
“Esden creates a world of incredible atmosphere.” —RT Book Reviews
“This is a fantastic book. Pat Esden is extremely skilled at creating a tense atmosphere and spooky setting. I’d recommend this book to anyone who likes a good story with suspense, romance, and a super cool world.”
—Pintip Dunn, New York Times bestselling author, on A Hold on Me
“It's a unique paranormal twist on the gothic novel, complete with old family secrets, bloody dilemmas, steamy guy with hidden truths, all set in an vast manor built along the foggy shores of Maine. For anyone in love with Daphne du Maurier. Or if you're just tired of the same old paranormal fodder out there, this one is a nice and refreshing read.” —Rachel A. Marks on A Hold on Me
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Earth. Air. Fire. Water.
— Inscribed into a white candle
Chloe padded barefoot across her apartment to the altar on her windowsill. She struck a match and lit a candle. Its light shimmered over a row of crystals and washed into the darkness beyond the open window.
"Spirits of air," she intoned, holding out her hands. "Guardians of thought and intent, grant me your presence today. Spirits of fire, guardians of will and passion ..."
A gust of wind sent autumn leaves whirling through the darkness and rustling against the window's screen. She stopped chanting and cupped her hands around the candle, shielding it from the breeze. She shivered. There was a sense of foreboding in the air, a whisper and a chill that a witch like her could not ignore. Someone else with powers was close by. And they were thinking about her — at least that's what her intuition murmured.
She glanced out the window. There was no one in the tiny parking lot, one story below. The windows in the house next door stood dark and silent. She caught a whiff of bacon and hash browns, but the smell was faint and not unexpected. It was almost five-thirty, breakfast time for the couple upstairs.
Quiet as could be, she tiptoed past her bed and a stack of textbooks to the studio apartment's front door. She opened it a crack and glanced out. The hall light was on, its brightness fanning across the hallway between her and the main staircase. But the doors to the other two apartments on her floor were shut, everything dead silent.
Remembering her candle, Chloe swiveled back. "Out," she whispered, flicking her fingers to send a burst of energy at its flame.
The flame obeyed, only a thread of its rosemary-scented smoke trailing behind her as she opened the door all the way and crept down the hallway, the hairs on the back of her neck prickling.
When she reached the top of the staircase, everything was still quiet. But after a moment, a faint thump-thump echoed up from the foyer below.
Thump-bang. Bang. Chloe froze, her breath knotting in the back of her throat. It was as if someone had leaned into the front door, hard shouldering it to see if it would give way.
She waited, listening for the noise to happen again. One long second passed, then another. She gritted her teeth and took a cautious step downward.
Her ear caught the swish and clink of something being slid through the mail slot, followed by a hum of magic.
Not daring to breathe, Chloe snuck down the stairs far enough that she could see the foyer and the front entrance. A narrow envelope lay just inside the door, as white as moonlight against the worn floorboards.
She glanced at the window set into the front door. No one was looking in or lurking in the shadows on the porch, so she sprinted down the rest of the stairs and snatched the envelope. Even before she read who it was for, her intuition screamed that it was addressed to her:
The ink was black. The handwriting neat and controlled. Perfectly centered. But it wasn't an envelope. It was handmade, paper folded and held shut by a disk of gold sealing wax stamped with an N surrounded by a circle.
She nudged the seal with her index finger. Energy crackled off of it, snaking up her arm. She gasped. Powerful magic. She was certain of it, though if any of the other tenants had found the letter and touched the seal, they wouldn't have felt a thing.
Adrenaline pumped into her veins. A month ago, she'd moved out of her parents' house in Connecticut to take prerequisite courses at the University of Vermont before applying for medical school. In all those weeks, she hadn't encountered any other true witches or magic. No way in hell was she going to let someone drop off a thing like this and then escape before she could meet them.
She shoved the letter into the waistband of her yoga pants, unlocked the front door, and charged out onto the porch. Her gaze flashed to the left. Parked cars lined the dark street. But no one was getting into or out of any of them.
The swish of someone striding through fallen leaves came from the opposite direction. She wheeled and caught a glimpse of him. Definitely a guy, striding down the sidewalk through a glimmer of streetlight. Broad shoulders filled out his dark quilted jacket. Khaki chinos. Lean.
Chloe's long legs took the porch stairs in a single leap. She sprinted down the sidewalk after him, leaves scattering beneath her bare feet.
The guy jogged between two parked cars and crossed the street.
"Wait!" she shouted.
He slowed and glanced back. That was all the time Chloe needed. She willed her legs to go faster and in a dozen strides caught up to him and snagged his sleeve.
His eyes met hers. He looked to bemaybe twenty-four or -five. His dark-brown hair curled at the nape of his neck. Deep, brown eyes. Muscular. Classy. Gorgeous. His magic purred in the air around him.
She gulped a breath and toughened her voice. "You owe me an explanation."
His gaze traveled over her slowly, from her bobbed honey-blond hair, past her makeup-free face and stretched out T-shirt, down to her stormy-blue painted toenails, then back up to her eyes.
Dimples formed as his lips twitched into a roguish smirk.
"Not afraid of confrontation, are you?" he said.
His voice was warm and deep, liquid danger spiked with an undercurrent of confident innuendo.
It sent an excited shiver up her arms. Still she glared at him. "First of all, I suspect you dropped off that letter at this time of morning because you knew I'd be awake and sense you. That means you've been spying on me."
"Is that so?" He shifted closer, his magic sweeping her skin.
Her legs weakened. Desire thrummed low in her belly. Dear Goddess, this hadn't been one of her brighter moves. Maybe she could snuff out a candle with a flick of her fingers, but with seemingly no effort his magic had aroused every inch of her. Clearly, he was extraordinarily gifted — and not just with working spells.
She let go of his sleeve, retreated a step, and found herself trapped against a cedar hedge.
He cocked his head. "Why don't you open the letter if you're so curious?"
Her fingers obeyed, sliding it from her waistband —
She stopped. What the heck was she doing? She'd felt the magic crackle off the seal. If she broke it, there was no telling what kind of spell might be activated.
Chloe pulled herself up to her full height and looked him square in the eyes, which wasn't that hard to do. He was probably five-foot-ten, but she was only a couple of inches shorter even in bare feet. "I've got a better idea. How about if you tell me what it says?"
He frowned as if the idea didn't appeal to him, then surprisingly he stepped back and shrugged.
"All right, if you insist. It's an invitation from the Northern Circle coven. Have you heard of us?"
"Umm— no." Her pulse quickened, renewed wariness pumping into her blood. Her parents had mentioned a few older hereditary witches who lived in this area, but never this group.
"It's to a party. A meet and greet. A chance to see if you might be interested in joining us and if we think you're a good fit." He rubbed a hand down the sleeve of his jacket as if deciding whether he should say more. Finally, he went on, "We're dedicated to finding ways to access ancient knowledge. Through out-of-body travel, retrocognition ..." He studied her face carefully, as if watching for her reaction.
She pressed her lips together, refusing to give him one — though what he'd said totally enticed her.
Amusement twinkled in his eyes for a second, then he continued. "We believe there are cures to modern diseases and conditions that have been lost to time. The wisdom and magic of Imhotep, Hippocrates, even Merlin." He smiled, slyly. "You are interested in medicine, right?"
Her wariness evaporated and that thrum jumped to life again deep inside her. But this time it had nothing to do with sex. Magic. Medicine. Secrets lost to time. None of the classes she was taking or anything she'd come across at the university were even remotely as exciting as this.
She folded her arms across her chest. "Of course you'd know I'm interested in that. You've been keeping tabs on me."
"I — we haven't been spying on you. You don't always use protection spells. We picked up on your energy. That's one of the ways we find new potential members." He stopped, his jaw tensing as if he were holding something back.
She pinned him with a steady look. "And?"
He grimaced. "All right, we have contacts in administration. We may have checked your college records as well: graduated from a community college, taking additional prerequisites before applying for medical school. Top-ten test scores. Not a great apartment. But somehow you scored it last minute."
Now he sounded like her father, using his connections to screen potential employees. She thrust the letter out. "If this is all so innocent, then why don't you open it? Or does the seal bother you?"
He laughed, tugged the letter from her fingers, and broke the sealing wax. The welcoming scent of sage and lavender perfumed the air, and a trail of green firefly-like sparks twinkled upward, swirling around before vanishing off toward the brightening eastern horizon.
"Better now?" he said, handing the open letter back to her.
She skimmed it, nibbling her bottom lip. Even in the dim streetlight, she could see he'd told the truth. It was an engraved invitation signed: Athena Marsh, high priestess, Northern Circle.
"You can take a city bus — or text Athena if you want a ride. She'll probably ask me to pick you up, but she's the one doing the organizing. This is her pet project," he continued. "You won't be the only newbie. No one will force you into anything."
His voice settled sugar-sweet in her ear. Medicine. Magic. A chance to gain the knowledge from ancient physicians, scholars, and sorcerers. Perhaps even pick the wizard Merlin's brain. How could she say no?CHAPTER 2
The clouds I saw that morning were shaped like a fool and a red dragon. I meditated on them, but their meaning remained hidden. "In time," my mother said. "In time, you will understand."
Magic. Medicine. As Chloe walked back to the apartment house, the words set off a wildfire of possibilities in her mind. But another thought whispered as well. Protection.
She sighed and scuffed into her apartment. The guy was right. She hadn't been as careful about protecting herself as she should have been. Sure, she had hung charms and talismans to ward off bad spirits and attract good energy. She had the crystals on her windowsills and a bowl of them on the tiny kitchen bar that doubled as her desk. Her apartment overflowed with candles, herbs, incenses all the essential tools of the Craft. However, when she'd done her rituals, she cast only the most basic of magic circles to do them in, to save both money and supplies. That negligence could have allowed a coven working in unison to spy on her— or even a single witch with the right skills and interest. She needed to up her protection in that area immediately.
Her chest tightened as she switched on her reading light and settled down on the edge of the couch with the invitation in her lap. She unfolded it, staring at the words but not seeing them. The life changing possibilities they offered were immense. She'd always be a part of her family's coven. But joining the Northern Circle would provide the new beginning she'd longed for, a second coven made up of witches who wouldn't judge her by her past mistakes. And maybe, just maybe, the chance to discover a potion or spell that could reverse the harm she'd caused five years ago and lift the shame she'd brought down on her family.
Chloe folded her arms across her chest and rocked forward, hugging herself as her mind flashed back to that horrible night. Tuesday, June 15th, two days before her seventeenth birthday.
She was babysitting for the Vice-Chancellor of the High Council of Witches and his wife. She'd put their kids to bed and stretched out in a poolside lounge chair with her e-reader. Lights brightened the pool's smooth blue water and illuminated the terrace around her. Soft music played in the background. She sipped an iced tea and swiped her finger across the reader's screen, devouring page after page of the latest issue of Glamour Magazine. When she got to page 44, she stopped, mesmerized by the photo of a long-legged model in a red sequined dress: the Vice-Chancellor's wife, his trophy bride. She always looked gorgeous. Spiked heels. Amazing dresses.
Before Chloe knew what she was doing, she'd left her lounge chair and was upstairs in the Vice-Chancellor's bedroom, going through his wife's walk-in closet. The two of them wouldn't be home for hours, and the kids were in bed. There was no way could she could get caught. She flicked through the designer dresses, imagining what it would be like to wear such clothes. Then, there it was, right in front of her, the red sequined dress from page 44. Chloe wriggled out of her T-shirt and shorts, and into the dress. She turned to admire herself in a mirror —
The crash of breaking glass reverberated up from downstairs. She swung away from the mirror, dread squeezing the air from her lungs. A burglar. The kids. The sound had come from somewhere near the pool.
As if trapped in a slow-motion horror movie, Chloe would forever remember the tight silk lining of the red dress cinching her thighs as she flew to the top of the stairs to see what had happened. She'd never forget looking down to where her iced tea glass now lay broken at the edge of the pool. But most of all, she'd never forget the ripples in the blue water ...
Nausea surged up Chloe's throat. She swallowed back the bitter taste, jumped up from her couch, and paced to the window. She looked out toward where the guy from the Northern Circle had walked through the glimmer of streetlight only minutes earlier, the wind swirling around him. She'd known in that instant that she was going to catch him, that she had to. Like she'd known that night, all those years ago at the Vice-Chancellor's house, that someday, someway, she had to right the tragedy that she'd caused.
Chloe took a deep breath, easing herself past the memory. Her tension subsided. But it picked up again as her thoughts shifted back to the guy and the heart-pounding sensation of being trapped against the cedar hedge, with nowhere to escape as he stepped closer. Now that she thought about it, Chloe could remember how he smelled too: like bacon and coffee, and cinnamon. Magic. Power. Confidence. His dimples and smirk.
Her stomach tensed and a wave of tingles surged low in her body. She brushed her fingers across her lips, imagining his lips against hers. Spicy and sweet. The kiss deepening. His fingers trailing magic down her arms, caressing the sides of her breasts.
Heat flushed her cheeks. She wheeled from the window. What he smelled like or might taste like or how titillating his witch-touch might feel weren't important. What was vital was the Northern Circle and that they were interested in her.
She retrieved the invitation from her bed. Thanks to the guy breaking the seal, she could read it again without fear.
A thought darted into Chloe's head, wicked and enticing. The last thing she wanted to do was drive the coven off. But that didn't mean she couldn't have a little fun and at the same time show this Athena Marsh and her coven that they weren't the only ones who could play the spy game.
She dropped into her desk chair, closed her eyes, and drew in a long breath through her nose. Then she focused all her energy on the invitation and let the breath out slowly, allowing her magic to flow from her fingertips into the paper's fibers.
"Reveal to me," she murmured.
A tight sensation spread upward from her throat to her ears. Her heartbeat slowed and images rippled into her head, the recent history of the paper:
Feminine fingers, long nails, pale skin scented with lavender oil, holding a stick of gold sealing wax. Her pinky is weighed down by a ring, amber set into gold. Another ring is on her middle finger. An amethyst crystal carved with an N surrounded by an etched circle, its power flowing along with magic into the hot wax. The woman sets down the stick and intones a spell. Her voice reverberates. The scent of burning sage smokes the air.
Chloe focused harder, straining to see the rest of the room, using more power than perhaps she should.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "His Dark Magic"
Copyright © 2018 Pat Esden.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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