As security chief of the supernaturals’ ruling council, Michaela Chui has seen more than her fair share of disaster. For centuries, she’s survived through caution and strategy. But when the only human councilor is viciously murdered, Michaela knows the coincidences that keep blocking her investigation are a sure sign of bad things to come. She needs answers fast. And her only ally is Cormac Redoak: wild, unpredictable, unreliable—and worse, distractingly attractive.
A HIDDEN TRUTH
An exile from the court of the Fairy Queen, Cormac has all the experience with careful strategy and veiled intentions he can stand. But he also has the fey talent for getting his way, and he’s sure his way lies with Michaela’s. No matter that she can change her lovely face at will; there’s a clarity to her being that he’d know anywhere. Working with her will be temptation and frustration bound together. Somehow, though, he must convince her to trust him—without revealing the secrets he dares never share . . .
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Michaela Chui lifted the lid of her white-and-blue glazed teapot and poured in the water with deliberate care. Morning tea was a ritual she'd observed for as long as she could remember and it never failed to fill her with a sense of calm.
Sometimes, though, the calm was illusory and she knew it. For the last six months, Michaela had lived with an ever-increasing sense of dread. No surprise, she thought, as she watched the pale gray leaves swirl under the tendrils of steam. The masquerada were in the final stages of mopping up what had been a nasty insurrection of chauvinists and bigots led by Franz Iverson. It was a big job and Eric Kelton had asked her to oversee it.
The death threats had been irritating but expected.
She glanced at her watch. Soon she'd need to leave for a meeting with her mentor, the vampire Madden. More secrets. While she wasn't alone as a shape-shifting masquerada in a human world, her role on the Pharos Council couldn't even be shared with Eric, her Hierarch. Charged with keeping the arcane world hidden from that of the humans, the Pharos walked unknown among their compatriots and ensured all followed the Law.
The tea was perfect now and she stood at the window to enjoy it, relishing the familiar, almost ritual action. Her friend Caro nagged her about her painful lack of spontaneity, but Caro was young. The thought wasn't catty or malicious; Michaela admired Caro and her strength. However, she knew living in the moment wasn't a trait she herself had. Centuries of watching the world's many casual cruelties had created a need to make life as predictable as possible.
It was how she survived.
Time to go. She sighed and focused inward for a long moment. She'd worked since childhood to master the perfect natural poise that still betrayed nothing of her inner self. Although not a physical masque, Michaela was a tougher version of the Miaoling she had been in her youth. Stronger, less vulnerable. A colder face she had created to survive the demands of life away from her family and one she now found invaluable for the arcane society in which she lived. She hadn't allowed herself to truly embrace being Miaoling for centuries. As Michaela — suspicious where Miaoling was natural, cold where the other was warm, and deliberate rather than impulsive — she was more suited for success in this world, and she meant to succeed.
Her drive took her south through Toronto's downtown core, a cold valley of bank headquarters and overpriced restaurants, to a small heritage building that had been partially incorporated into a skyscraper. Even in temporary headquarters, Pharos members demanded elegant and old-fashioned surroundings with every modern convenience.
Michaela locked the car door and was checking the handle when a soft, low growl came from behind her.
"Councilor. You're here early."
Not now. It was too early in the morning. She steeled herself to face Cormac Redoak, exiled fey, special ambassador to the Pharos Council, and world-class pain. "Ambassador," she said briskly, heaving her bag over her shoulder.
"May I take that for you?" Even after centuries away from the fey homeland, he still had a bit of an accent, almost but not quite Irish.
"No." She walked towards the door. Although they had known each other for decades, she'd had few conversations with him, and in fact tended to avoid him. Not because of the wild rumors that surrounded his exile from the fey court or because she'd been on the receiving end of more than one of his inquisitions when she'd objected to his schemes. He was too erratic for her. Wild. Unstable. Even his eyes refused to stay a single color. Right now they were a light jade but could easily change to gray or brown depending on his mood.
This criticism was grossly hypocritical coming from a masquerada and she knew it. Her eyes, like the rest of her, could be transformed in a breath to become part of any masque she chose. That was the point, though. While Cormac was at the mercy of his emotions, she needed to keep perfect control at all times. Failure — if her masque slipped and humans witnessed a shift — would result in a breach of the Law. Worse, she could lose her natural self in a sea of other personalities: the dreaded convergence.
Cormac said what he wanted, did what he wanted, and damned the consequences. The ambassador was not a man who accepted limits to his desires and it made her wary.
"I want to speak about our discussion the other day," he said.
She didn't bother to look at him. "By discussion you mean when you attempted, and failed, to humiliate me in front of half the Council?" He made an airy details, details gesture.
"I asked for a simple clarification."
"About a subject you had no business with and at a meeting to which you were not invited." She reached out to pull the door open but he moved in front of her with the fluid grace typical of the fey. For a moment she breathed in his unique pine scent — the one thing she enjoyed about him.
Then she silently brushed by with a nod of thanks, mind already on the day's agenda. She had about ten minutes before she was due to meet Madden, enough time for a few emails and to re-check her calendar.
"I assumed my invitation was lost. Luckily Hiro told me about it."
She kept walking. "Which he also had no business doing. We have meeting procedures for a reason."
"Procedures are for the masses." He paused when they reached her office door. "Look, Michaela, my point remains valid."
Michaela opened the door. "As I said before —" Her voice trailed off as she flicked on the light. "Good God."
Cormac peered in, then tried to block the door. "You don't want to see this."
Did the man not remember she was the Pharos security chief? She shoved him aside. "That's Hiro. In my office."
Cormac stood beside her, his cool skin brushing her hand. "It was Hiro," he corrected. "It's not anymore."
* * *
Cormac knew Michaela was not the type to scream and faint at the sight of blood, but this was a truly monumental amount. The copper smell that rolled out of the open doorway was thick and rank, enough to give most people nausea and probably send vampires into a frenzy.
Michaela, however, was not most people. Her sharp gaze darted around the room, taking in details and assessing the situation.
"Don't go in," she said in her usual crisp voice, her arm flashing out to prevent him from going farther when he took a step.
"I want to check that he's dead." The response was automatic.
She shot him a glance with those gorgeous obsidian eyes. "Seriously?"
He assessed the gore of the murder scene. "Right." Hiro was human, not arcana. There was no way he could have survived such an assault.
She pulled out her cell phone and called Anjali, her witch deputy, providing a summary with military conciseness. It gave him time to absorb what he was seeing, and more importantly, what it meant for him.
Hiro Murakami was dead.
That a human was dead was no surprise. In Cormac's eyes, humans died with astonishing frequency and he often watched with wonder as so many of them squandered their short years on silly pastimes and trivial vengeances. But a Pharos councilor who had been essentially gutted in a colleague's office? That was unusual, and for Cormac personally, extremely inconvenient.
Michaela pulled her laptop out and balanced it open on one arm to take notes.
"Aren't you going in?" he asked. Was she afraid of getting bloody? She didn't seem to be thesqueamish sort.
She shook her head and kept typing. "Don't want to contaminate anything."
Of course she would have a logical answer. He wasn't even sure she had feelings — she certainly wasn't displaying any now. Time to ask the second most obvious question. "Why was Hiro in here?" Now her fingers paused. "I'd like to know as well."
Well, Hiro at least had the good sense to be killed in Michaela's office. If anyone on the Council could find an answer, it would be her. She'd been the Pharos security chief for as long as he could remember and was one of the most formidably effective women he knew.
He watched as she continued to type. As usual, it was impossible to tell her true thoughts. Was she horrified by the body? Saddened? Curious? Titillated? Probably not the last, although reading a masquerada's body language could be fiendishly difficult.
He'd never seen Michaela in any masque but the current one and he assumed, though he would never know, that it was her natural self. Like many arcana, it made him uneasy to know that Michaela could easily become Michael or anyone else she chose. Other arcana could change their appearance temporarily, but none with a masquerada's expertise or proficiency. He'd heard they could take on the same masque for years if they wished, or rotate through an endless parade of personas. It struck him as unnatural. Sinister. Completely shady.
That being said, he had zero complaints about how Michaela chose to present herself. The security chief had a fragile, austere loveliness that roused the same admiration he felt for exquisite sculpture. Michaela was art, in a way, a practiced and deliberate performer. She had the usual aggravating masquerada haughtiness in spades, and her every glance, word, and movement was as choreographed as a dance. She would have done well in the Lilac Court, he mused, a court where everything was judged and assessed.
He had not.
"You can go." Michaela put down her laptop and pulled out a thin black notebook. "Anjali will come by your office to ask questions."
"No, thank you," he said pleasantly. "I'm going to stay."
"It wasn't a question."
"I know." He smiled, knowing that she wouldn't lower herself to debate with him.
Nor did she, but instead returned to work on what looked like a sketch of blood splatter. He spared it a quick glance — Michaela's sure fingers had created an almost photographically accurate representation of the horror in the room — and turned his attention back to the body, diminished by death.
Damn Hiro. How dare he get himself killed, right when Cormac needed him? The only time Cormac had ever needed him? Time, usually not even on his radar, had become his enemy. Under his shirt was a pendant containing a leaf fragment given to him by his tree, a great red oak that rose high above Yetting Forest.
The leaf had been green when he'd been forced to leave the fey Queendom. Six months ago, he'd seen traces of brown outlining its edges. Every fey forest needed a steward to survive and his had been without for three hundred years. The deal with Hiro would have given Queen Tismelda matchless forest in northern Japan, forest that would have laid the foundation for Cormac's campaign to thaw the queen enough to reverse his exile, even if only to re-establish himself as steward. Yetting Hill had to survive. Without it, there would be no Redoaks. Fey and forest lived and died together.
He'd been so close. Who had known of his plans? Had someone killed Hiro to thwart him, to prevent him from returning to his forest?
He had to know. He turned from the room's carnage to regard Michaela, who ignored him as her fingers flew over the page. He would know, even if it meant working with a masquerada with ice in her veins. Or around her.
Anything he had to do.
Focusing on the sickening scene in front of her took Michaela's mind off Cormac's irritating hover, but his question continued to echo through her thoughts. How had Hiro come to be sitting at her desk, in her locked office, when he was killed?
Anjali appeared around the corner, followed by other members of Michaela's security team. "Ma'am, we're —" As Michaela's had, Anjali's voice stuttered to a stop when she saw the extent of the carnage. "Goddess."
Michaela didn't hesitate. "Anjali, you're with me. The rest of you, escort Ambassador Cormac to his quarters and one of you stay with him until I call. He is not to communicate with others." She ignored Cormac's rumble of protest. Until proven otherwise, he was a suspect and she wouldn't allow him to eavesdrop on her investigation.
Anjali finished gawking and rummaged through her bags for disposable latex gloves. "It's fresh," she said as she tucked her curly black hair under a shower cap. "Smell's still strong and the blood's only tacky around the edges. Why was Hiro in your office?"
"Good question." Michaela pulled on her own gear and stepped into the room, laid out with elegant dark woods and marble floors. Getting to Hiro while avoiding the blood was slow work and when she finally managed it, she gazed down at his wide, still eyes. His arms were flung open from the ferocity of the attack, but she knew he'd been typing at her computer. Even with the slaughter in front of her, that minor violation — his fingers on her keyboard — was disturbing. An office key sat on the edge of the desk, marked with blood.
Anjali joined her. "There's a stab wound near the neck, much deeper than the others."
"He's been skinned." Michaela pointed at his forearms, which showed large, gory patches reaching almost to the bone.
Anjali blanched. "Did he have tattoos? They might have pointed to the killer."
"Not that I recall."
"Anything is possible."
Dev, her forensics expert, arrived back on the scene. "I left Nadia with the ambassador," he reported. "He wasn't too happy."
Michaela felt a petty surge of unprofessional satisfaction that she instantly repressed. "Come see."
Weres might be stereotyped as thoughtless and impulsive, but Dev's process was slow and thorough. He never hurried. The two women left and shut the door, each sighing with relief at the fresh air. "We need to tell Madden and the other councilors," said Michaela.
"Yes, ma'am." Anjali's gaze slid to the door hiding the carnage. "Are you going to tell them everything?"
Michaela stifled a sigh, knowing the multiple layers of drama and paranoia that would ensue if — when — the Pharos councilors discovered the gruesome details of Hiro's death. "Only Madden. He can decide what to tell the others."
"Some help?" called Dev. Anjali wrinkled her nose and steadied herself before heading backinto the room.
Michaela stayed out. At least Madden was in the building for their meeting, so she wouldn't have to wait. He answered the phone on the first ring.
"You're late." He was testier than usual but she ignored it.
"There's a reason." She told him about Hiro.
"In your office?"
"I'll be there immediately."
No wasted words. She approved. Michaela stood at the threshold and peeked in through the crack in the door at Anjali and Dev as they muttered to each other. Hiro. Of all the people on Pharos to have been killed, he was both the most and least likely. He was a strong advocate for his fellow humans, and Michaela suspected he harbored an active dislike of his supernatural colleagues. Hiro made a habit of phrasing his points in a way that made the arrogant blood of his arcana fellows boil.
The phone buzzed again and filled her with distaste for this fast-paced modern life. When she was a child, it took weeks for news to travel. Months, even. There was time for people to absorb information and make a sensible decision before they reacted. Not now.
It was a text from Nadia. C made call before I could stop him. Didn't see him.
Michaela breathed deeply. Cormac had no respect for appropriate process at the best of times. She shouldn't have assumed the gravity of the situation would cause him to behave any differently. Then, as a fey, he could glamour himself when desired. Nadia, young and cocky even by vampire standards, had probably not known he could, or that Cormac was a rule unto himself, not to be halted by irrelevant things such as rules, or protocol, or minding his owndamn business.
"We've got incoming," she called in to Anjali and Dev. "You keep working."
She shut the door and stood planted in front of it like a sentinel as a babble of voices rose from around the corner. The six or seven councilors were led by Oksana, the other human representative on the Pharos Council. Uneven red blotches stained her leathery, weathered face and her mouth worked as though she chewed a rubbery bite of steak.
"Michaela." Oksana's voice rang out over the others. "What are you hiding from us? Is it true? Hiro is dead?"
"Yes." Michaela kept her voice cool and face smooth but cursed inwardly. It would have been proper for Madden to give the news, but there was no point lying.
Another reason Cormac should have kept his mouth shut.
Excerpted from "Masked Desire"
Copyright © 2018 Alana Delacroix.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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