Caro Yeats doesn't run from much. As a former investigative reporter now working PR for Toronto's supernaturals, what she hasn't seen mostly isn't worth seeing. But the assignment to "rebrand" Eric Kelton's out-of-control alter egos has her on edge from the start. Kelton is the heirarch of the Masquerada, beings able to change their face-their entire persona-on a whim. Eric's charisma muddles her instincts. How can she trust a man who can become anybody?
A Woman Without A Past
Eric has never met anyone like Caro, with her lightning wit and uncanny insight. But desirable as she is, he'd be a fool to let her near. Struggling to hide the sudden loss of his powers, Eric can't risk becoming entangled with a woman who scorns her supernatural side and claims not to play politics. The enemies on her trail are strong, clever, and vicious. And when they force Eric and Caro together, the fallout could shatter far more than two hearts . . .
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.58(d)|
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Caro Yeats entered the lobby cursing her new stilettos. Sure, they were sexy as hell and made her legs look a mile long but they were terrible for, say, walking. It had been a mistake to wear them, but they'd sat at the back of her closet for weeks and she'd grabbed them in a moment of uncharacteristic boldness brought on by the perfect spring day.
Estelle, receptionist at Julien D'Aurant Public Relations, gave a low whistle as Caro strutted past her desk. The strutting wasn't deliberate; it was impossible to walk any other way in the damn shoes. "What's the occasion? Hot date tonight? It's sure not for any of us here."
"Not true," Caro said. "I wore my mouthwatering baggy jeans and stained sweatshirt ensemble to impress you last week."
Estelle winced. "Forgot about that. Anyway, you clean up nice. The boss will be impressed."
Caro rolled her eyes. Julien D'Aurant was so stereotypically French that she suspected it had to be an act. "Why do you not dress plus comme une femme?" was a question she'd had to dodge on multiple occasions. Her usual wardrobe of jeans and ballet flats seemed to cause him real anguish.
"Speak of the devil," Estelle muttered.
Julien strolled into the lobby, his crisp, pressed, blue button-down tucked into his perfectly creased gray dress pants. The caramel-brown belt was the exact shade of his casual summer loafers, which he naturally wore without socks. In his hand — Estelle had told Caro that he went for weekly manicures and she'd never been able to look at his buffed and shiny nails again — he held his phone, regarding it as warily as he would a snake coiled to strike.
He glanced up, then back at the phone. After a moment, his head flew up in such a comical double take that Estelle burst out laughing and Caro felt a bit insulted.
"Mon ange. This is what I mean by dressing like a woman." He strode over and grasped Caro by the shoulders, giving her a lingering kiss on both cheeks before stepping back and looking her over in admiration. "Quelle différence. Dress like this every day. You must." His expensive Hermès cologne wafted over her.
Although it was nice to have her efforts appreciated, Caro suddenly had the impression that her black pencil skirt was a little too tight and definitely too short. Time to deflect his attention. "Good morning, Julien. What were you frowning about?"
"Ah. Yes, that." He waved the phone at her. "Emergency meeting in the boardroom in an hour. New client."
"Who?" She didn't particularly care, but knew enough to feign enthusiasm once in a while. Or at least interest.
The phone rang out with the opening bars of Nina Simone's "I Put a Spell on You." Instead of answering, Julien pointed a single, pampered finger at her before murmuring "Allô?" and breaking into rapid French.
Caro raised an eyebrow and looked over at Estelle, who shrugged and shook her short, black, Louise Brooks bob into place. Caro caught a quick glimpse of Estelle's wickedly pointed fangs. How the vampire avoided slicing up her own lip was something Caro always wondered but was afraid to ask. Friendly as she was, Estelle could bring on the predator when she wanted. She called it her resting-death bitch face and Caro had seen it reduce grown men to inarticulate lumps.
When Caro first started working at JDPR, she'd been surprised that a vampire could be out during the day — Estelle was the first one she'd ever met. Estelle had laughed and said silly rumors made for amazing camouflage. "You can see us in mirrors and I put garlic in everything," she had said. "We're like humans. Except for being almost immortal and drinking blood. Minor differences."
Now Estelle said, "It's a masquerada. That's all I know."
"Masquerada?" A fine tension weighed down Caro's shoulders — her usual reaction to masquerada, the powerful shapeshifters who took on human forms.
"We don't usually get many but why are you complaining? You were the one who pulled the ghoul client last month. This should be a cakewalk."
Caro could not deny the sewer-dwelling ghoul had been a nasty piece of work. The office had to be professionally cleaned after his visit to dispose of the residue he'd left behind, and the meeting room had both looked and smelled like a post-plague charnel house.
She shuddered and slowly teetered her way to her office, where she kicked off the shoes with a sigh of relief. Taking one poor foot in her hand, she gently rubbed the feeling back into her toes as she waited for her computer to boot up.
A light-brown ring showed where her coffee cup should be — and wasn't. One of the misfortunes of working for a fey man was that items constantly went missing. Apparently minor theft was a fey thing. Last week Julien had pilfered her lipstick. When she first started, Caro had thought he did it as some sort of hazing prank, a test for how much the newbie could take. Now, many discussions with Estelle later, she realized that Julien often didn't even notice his thieving.
Not for the first time, she wondered if she'd made the right decision by taking this job. The supernatural arcane world was one that she had avoided for years. Now she had deliberately placed herself in the direct heart of it.
Inside the drawer of her minimalist white acrylic desk lay evidence of her past life — a battered envelope containing a single Washington Post newspaper clipping, the pages still crisp. Lynn Butler's first A1, over-the-fold story was an exclusive scoop tracing criminal kingpin Franz Iverson to a string of illegal activities that reached right to the Mayor's Office and even to the Senate.
Every time she looked at it, she felt a thrill that was immediately followed by deep aches in the year-old scars that traced pale, jagged paths along her abdomen, chest and back. The doctor had said the pain might never completely subside. It was a miracle she wasn't dead from the attack, he'd added. "I don't understand how you didn't bleed out from those wounds. You're one lucky woman."
She rubbed her stomach with a shaking hand. The police had never caught the men who left her for dead and she didn't expect them to. There was no need. She knew exactly who had ordered the hit.
Not even incarceration had limited Franz Iverson's reach, or his need for revenge.
Those knife thrusts had ended her career in journalism and her life as Lynn Butler. When she finally got enough courage to walk back into the Post's newsroom after her recovery, she barely managed to smile through her colleagues' standing ovation before limping to the bathroom and collapsing in a shaking heap. The thought of writing another story made her hands shake uncontrollably and she had known, suddenly and without a doubt, that the life she loved as a reporter was done. Over. That had been a year ago.
The sea of multi-colored project folders that sat in neat layers on her desk made a knot twist in her stomach. Caro twirled her chair away to cast her eyes over the gray accent wall in her office. A single print hung there, a huge close-up of Banksy's iconic protestor throwing his bouquet. Trendy and ironic, exactly the image that Julien worked hard to maintain in an industry where perception was everything. Caro rubbed her eyes. The job at JDPR was as far away from investigative reporting as she could get while still staying, however peripherally, in media. She'd left Washington in a panic to create a new life for herself in Toronto at JDPR. She was lucky the city was big enough to hide under a new name and new job, but with neighborhoods that gave her the homey feel she craved. It had turned out as best it could, but sometimes she regretted the move from hack to flack so much she felt numb.
Quit this, she told herself sternly. Enough. You're alive, you're working. Just because you're not a reporter, it doesn't mean it's a bad life. It's different. You chose different, remember? It's what you wanted. It's what you needed.
JDPR was definitely not a typical PR agency. It represented only arcane clients. Humans who stumbled across it were given such an outlandish rate list and cold welcome from Estelle that they didn't return. For the most part, the company dealt in the delicate art of keeping humans unaware of the fantastic beings who shared the world with them. Most arcana could either pass as human, pass as odd humans, or lived as isolated as possible from populated areas. Regardless, there were enough incidents to make for some interesting days. She was grateful for that busyness at least.
Caro tapped her fingers on the table. Julien had made it clear that she had gotten the job at JDPR because she was part masquerada, although a latent and an extraordinarily and determinedly ignorant one at that. Before her death, her mother had tried to train Caro in the basics of taking on a masque, but Caro had stubbornly opposed any arcane education. Nor was there anybody else to learn from, even if she changed her mind. Besides her mother, she'd never knowingly met another masquerada and she often wondered if this avoidance was as deliberate on their side as it was on hers. Her mother had made it crystal clear that being a half-blood was nothing to be proud about, so she wasn't surprised if none of them wanted to make themselves known to a pariah. One of the things Caro did know about masquerada culture was that it was unusually hierarchical and status-driven, like some time-traveling medieval court.
Not that any of this mattered to Caro, who had always despised the fundamental trickiness of masquerada and had done her best to ignore that entire part of her heritage. Her mother had changed masques the same way other women changed clothes. As a child Caro would often kiss one woman good night and wake to an unfamiliar one in the morning. It was years before Caro even knew what her mother truly looked like and that was only because she had found an old photo in a shoebox.
"Oh, her?" Her mother had shrugged dismissively when Caro showed her the photo of the dark-haired, dark-eyed woman who looked like Caro herself. "That's my natural self. A bit of a wet blanket. I much prefer this one." At the time she was a curvy platinum blonde with Asian eyes and features, and so stunning that people stopped on the street to watch her walk by.
"Can't you at least look like this when you're with me?" Caro had asked, shaking the photo. She'd been nine or ten. Her mother had glanced at Caro's reflection in the mirror with an unreadable expression, mascara wand steady in her hand.
That was the day Caro decided she would never take on a masque. She would never give in to that pathological need to be someone else — she was going to be good enough as she was.
However, Caro's boo-hoo, sad-face childhood issues turned out to be an advantage in her new job. Although she'd rejected her arcane heritage, it meant JDPR's clients would trust her, Julien had explained when he'd hired her. "You have an insider's knowledge of the human world, without the taint of humanity," he had said. "Our clients don't trust humans. Et bien sûr, protecting our clients' confidentiality and interests requires more layered complexity than it does for humans working with some vulgar reality star from Atlantic City."
She had nodded, but wondered how on earth it was possible to keep decrepit ghouls and pale creatures with fangs hidden from the public eye. Julien had stressed that upholding the Law — the ancient agreement made by all arcana to stay secret from humanity — was their primary task, but surely at least one damning image would go viral. Then one did and Caro watched as it was ripped apart, ridiculed as fake, and sent to join the ranks of fringe theories about the Bermuda Triangle and the Illuminati. It wasn't that hard to keep the arcane world a secret after all, Caro reflected. What normal person would admit to believing it?
"We've got a problem."
Eric Kelton stood looking through the elegantly mullioned, bulletproof windows of his library to the street below. A line of bicyclists were taking advantage of the lovely spring morning and he could hear the faint, tinny rings of their bells, occasionally interrupted by a car's horn or some random insults. He'd fallen in love with this graceful street of large Victorian houses and it still lifted his spirits to see humans busily going about their lives.
He stretched and joined his lieutenant, Stephan Daker, at the ornate desk. As usual, neat piles of paper covered its surface. "We've always got problems," Eric said.
"True. That's why you get the big bucks, sire."
"Don't call me sire." The formality that came with being a Hierarch was one of the things that drove Eric nuts and Stephan knew it. Naturally, he took every opportunity to rub it in.
Eric ignored that one. "I'm dealing with something personal that's a little complicated now. How bad is this other trouble?"
"Bad," Stephan announced. "But since you mentioned it, let's talk about your other issue first. I noticed something this morning and I think you can shed some light on it."
He moved to the bank of monitors on the other side of the long room. Eric followed warily, watching as Stephan turned them on. Each broadcast a familiar face — all were Eric's current masques. On the screens, the images Stephan had captured showed them wearing identical smiles, or making matching gestures.
Dangerous similarities that meant something was very wrong.
"You know," Eric said finally.
"I know now. You should have told me."
"I've got it covered."
Stephan banged the desk with the palm of his hand hard enough to make the monitors jump. "Dammit, Eric, you're converging!"
"The hell I am." The denial came too quickly and too harshly. In response, Stephan pointed at the monitors. He didn't have to say a word. The proof was there.
Convergence. Every masquerada's nightmare. Eric ran his hand through his tangled hair. He thought he'd hidden it, but clearly he'd done a piss-poor job. Then he swallowed hard at the thought of convergence. It wouldn't happen. He wouldn't let it happen.
Stephan glared at him with barely concealed fury. "You have no right to put yourself in such danger," he rumbled. "When were you going to tell me? When you were curled up on the floor with four heads? I told you five masques were too many at one time, even for you."
"It's not a big deal." Eric deliberately kept his eyes away from the monitors. "I'm nowhere near a convergence. I can handle it."
He could, too. He was four hundred years old, for God's sake, and he'd created more masques than he could remember. Those hundreds of masques provided enough practice to keep any masquerada in check. The ones Stephan had pulled up on the screen were simply his latest creations.
He was still in control. In complete and total control.
Stephan jabbed his finger at the screens. "Refresh my memory. I could have sworn you created these masques to be completely different."
Eric glared at him. "What's your point?"
"My point is that they're acting like goddamn clones!"
A brisk rap sounded at the door and Thomas Minor, Eric's head of security, came in. Even here, in the safety of Eric's main house, he remained fully armed and, as usual, scanned the room as soon as he entered.
"Tom, come over here and tell us what you see." Stephan nodded at the screens.
Tom gave the images on the monitors a quick glance, then paused and frowned as he examined them more intently. "You should have told us, sire," he said after a long silence. "You know what this means." His hand rasped as he ran it over the dark stubble covering his head.
"Well, Eric?" Stephan demanded.
His lieutenant and security chief looked at him expectantly. Shit. Eric grimaced. That he resented they even suggested there was a problem was bad news. Masquerada needed to keep some emotional distance from the masques they took on — his defensiveness was a strong indicator that he had dug himself in too deep. Stephan and Tom had both warned him not to take on any more masques but he'd insisted on pushing himself to the limit, then over it.
It was time to man up and deal.
"It's possible that I have unconsciously become more attached to these masques than is wise," he allowed. "It is also possible I took on more than I should have."
"And?" Stephan prodded.
"I can fix it." Eric shrugged. "I will fix it."
Stephan bit his lip, clearly fighting a strong urge to ask the obvious question: So why haven't you done it yet? Instead he tossed over a little gray-and-yellow rectangle.
Excerpted from "Masked Possession"
Copyright © 2017 Lanna Crucefix.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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