Lucy’s twin sister, Margot, may be safely back with her—but all is not well in Plague-ravaged Dominion City. The Watchers have come out of hiding, spreading chaos and death throughout the city, and suddenly Lucy finds herself torn between three men with secrets of their own.
Betrayal is a cruel lesson, and the Fox sisters can hardly believe who is behind the plot against them. To survive this deadly game of politics, Lucy is forced to agree to a marriage of convenience. But DNA isn't the only thing they want from Lucy...or her sister.
As they say in Dominion, rogue genes can never have a happy ending...
The True Born series is best enjoyed in order.
Book #1 True Born
Book #2 True North
Book #3 True Storm
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All our lives, the Harvest Moon Masque was but a fairy tale for my twin sister, Margot, and me. The Masque follows the last of the country harvest, attended by the elite and upper crust in Dominion's Outskirts. It had been my sister's dream to dance at this riotous ball in a matching gown and mask. So it's a bitter- tinged irony that I'm here instead, without her.
The rules of Dominion's Upper Circle society aren't followed out here. Here, at Senator Theodore Nash's sprawling plantation home in the Outskirts, surrounded by verdant fields I've never seen the like of, the country folk follow their own gods. The Plague may be gobbling up these people, same as in Dominion. But here the wealthy farmers, their mercs and field hands, seem less worried about the death and starvation that perch on each street corner of Nor- Am's capital city. Out here, under a stretch of endless gray sky, people may die, but they don't starve by the bucketful. Here, Lasters and Splicers aren't so different.
Lasters are those near certain to die from Plague — or the empty bellies and hard times that come hand and hand with it. Lasters don't last. Splicers survive. The wealthy Splicers attend Splicing Clinics, where new DNA is sewn in to take over from that spoiled by Plague.
In Dominion, there's no mixing of these social worlds. The Lasters are our servants. They are the mercs who guard, our cooks, our caregivers, while Splicers — those from the elite Upper Circle, like me — take up positions as politicians, socialites, doctors, and lawmakers. Splicers run our world. Splicers will inherit the earth. Or so it seemed, once upon a time.
I know better now.
If anyone is to survive this brutal Plague and its endless destruction, it's to be the one group that I've not seen in and around Nash's country estate.
Laster, Splicer ... True Born.
To be True Born means you can't catch the Plague, though you're a pariah in so many other ways. They say True Born DNA has all but jumped back in time. A natural defense mechanism against the wasting sickness, they say. True Borns have special rogue DNA that has burrowed back into our ancestral past, turning some into what we all once were: not fully human. Some True Borns have the strength of cheetahs or the speed and grace of gazelles. Some have the hirsute bodies of our furry ancestors and some the scaly skins of our reptilian cousins. Near all I've met, I reckon, are extraordinary in some way. Hated and feared by all, too.
But here, in Nash's well-appointed ballroom, it's only rich and poor, Laster and Splicer, who dance side by side. As level as death itself.
Margot would love the romance of the Masque: the high and mighty of our elite world hobnobbing it with the sons of farmers. As for me? I love it a lot less, though likely because the romance of the evening is not coming alive in the arms of my current partner, Gordon Preston the Third.
"Y'know, you sure are the prettiest little gal," the Third slurs with a half note of surprise. He slips his mask up on his forehead and blinks at me owlishly. Drunk as sure as I'm a Fox. Gordon has not been withholding on a number of things this evening, booze being one of them. His identity being another — despite the nature of the event we are currently attending.
What he hasn't told me is anything useful. Though I play the role of flirt and ingénue, I'm here less to dance than to gather information for my guardian and leader of the True Borns, Nolan Storm. I've buttered up Preston the Third in a thousand delicate and flattering ways, all to have him answer a handful of questions: Have people in the Outskirts heard tales of a new, miracle cure for the Plague? Do the farmers trust the newly elected Senator Nash? Are the Outskirts at all worried about the reach of Dominion's rabble-rousing preacher men?
He's hummed and hee-hawed and grown so bold as to tell me not to worry, as he and his papa will protect me and the rest of the pretty gals of Dominion's Upper Circle. In other words, so far all I've really pulled from the Third is a lesson in lechery.
"Y'really not going to tell me? 'S just yer name." He jostles my arm as though I'm joking.
"No. It's a masque ball, Gordon. We don't reveal our identities until midnight. We've been through this."
My partner eyes me wolfishly. "You're gonna tell me your name. 'Ventually."
"Nah." I shake my head. "Spoil the fun." I'm ready to disappear, certain that even if Preston the Third has any information that would be useful to the True Borns, he's too glogged to give it to me. But farmers' sons, I'm coming to learn, are persistent.
"Where y'goin'?" he whines, halting me with a surprisingly strong grip on my arm. A shiver of apprehension rushes through me. Gordon's hair is a messy dark mop. It's bunched and pinched where his black mask rides up. His nose falls like a thin, sharp blade, but it's the curl of his bloodless, thin lips that I don't like, the sharp slant of his cheekbones. More than anything, I don't like the gleam in his black-black eyes.
I don't bother to smile from under my violet mask. He's too far gone to notice politeness anyhow, I remind myself. I had let Gordon lead me into a secluded alcove off the main dance floor, hoping the relative quiet would help him focus. Now I realize my mistake.
Gordon Preston the Third has begun to focus on only one thing: getting fresh with me.
I glance out from the alcove with its marble benches and exquisitely detailed walls and ceilings. In the ballroom proper, those ceilings rise a good twenty feet, high enough to have a band play on a little stage overlooking the dancers, who whirl as one under the bright crystal chandeliers. It really is like a dream, I think to myself. A lovely, old-fashioned dream. A dream where no one dies, shaking and sickened by the Plague. A dream where there are no poor, no desolate survivors.
And no Gordons, I think to myself wryly.
"Well, terrific to meet you, Gordon. Thanks for the dance," I chirrup brightly and take a step away. Any young man of breeding would recognize this as a clear signal that his presence is no longer requested by the lady in question.
Gordon, apparently, skipped this particular etiquette lesson.
"You ain't leavin'." Gordon lunges at me.
I recoil in shock, but it's too late. The thin strap of my dress snaps under his clumsy paws. I take another step back, holding the front of my dress. It's a fitted bodice, unlikely to fall. Still, I feel exposed, vulnerable to eyes and wagging tongues.
I glare daggers at my partner. "Oh, you didn't just do that. Who the hell do you think you are?"
Eyes glazed with as much excitement as drink, Gordon gives me a belching half sneer. "Oh, but I jus' did. Ev'y'one knows you Upper Circle girls are fast."
"You lecherous, arrogant ass!" I call Gordon out as he reaches for me again. My hand comes down automatically in a well-formed, defensive chop. I enjoy his surprised howl as I mentally scroll through all the ways I will murder him. Before I can make a second move, though, a shadow appears behind Gordon. It moves so fast, so silently, I almost miss it. Then one long finger reaches out and taps Gordon on the shoulder.
"May I cut in?" a voice rasps from behind a midnight-black mask. The candlelight from the wall sconces bounces off the tall figure, the pearly light absorbed by the black velvet of his suit. He's tall, lithe, and cuts the kind of dashing figure that makes girls feel dreamy.
Gordon frowns at the intruder. "I don't th-think," he sputters in protest.
But by then the masked man has inserted his more muscular frame between Gordon and myself and swept into a low bow before me. He wears his hair in the way common to the men here: slicked back and smoothed to one side. The mask covers most of his face, drawing shadows down over his lips. Even the color of his eyes is a secret, hidden by the dim lighting of the alcove.
"My lady, if you would care ... ?" the masked figure trails off and extends a hand to me.
I take the solid fingers, their flesh hot as coals against my own, and allow myself to be pulled into an alcove waltz. His steps are slow but sure, and when he turns me, I spy Gordon fuming at us from a distance.
"Is he still watching?" that voice purrs into my elaborately upswept hair.
"Good," rasps the voice.
Moments later the masked man's lips come down and sear me with a kiss I feel all the way to my toes. He pulls back a fraction of an inch while my breath hitches. His fingers stroke my waist. I sigh and lean my forehead against his tuxedoed chest, feeling the familiar shiver of comfort and crazy overtake me.
"I thought you'd never show," I murmur.
"And miss all this fun?" comes the man's sarcastic reply.
My partner turns me in time to watch Gordon storm off in a huff. A hand lightly skims the skin of my collarbone, causing a revolt of sensation to ripple through me.
"You okay? I thought I was going to have to decapitate him," my dance partner says, staring at me earnestly as he tucks the broken strap into the bodice of my dress.
"That would have spoiled my fun. I had it covered, you know. And anyway, Storm wouldn't have liked that."
"I don't care what Storm would like," he purrs with anger. "If that boy had laid so much as another finger on you, I was going to feed every single one of his digits back to him."
I sigh again and let my True Born partner twirl me around. "Storm really wouldn't have liked that. I'm supposed to be gathering intelligence, not body counts."
Tense and ready for war, the True Born graces me with a terrifying smile. "You know what I think about Storm sending you off on recon."
I stop dancing and place my hands to the hard muscles of the True Born's chest. "We've been through this." I sigh. "Who better than me? All I'm doing is asking a few questions to people I would ordinarily be associating with. I can look after myself, you know. I'm not some helpless damsel in distress."
"Dammit, Princess. I know that, Lu. Doesn't stop me from wanting to do very bad things to anyone who so much as thinks about hurting you." My partner pulls his mask away from his face, revealing the cut and chiseled cheekbones and absurdly full lips of Jared Price. I try to calm the flutter of my pulse at the sight of him, but I'm about as successful as I was at pulling intel from Preston the Third: not at all. Instantly I'm lost in the green glow of his eyes, a sure sign he's about a whisker away from either ripping someone to shreds or dragging me into a shadow and kissing me senseless — that last would be my choice. But though I know Jared is one of the most dangerous creatures in this house — a close second only, I reckon, to my guardian, Nolan Storm — I'm not afraid this panther man will hurt me.
At least, not intentionally.
Mine. Not mine. My heart trips through the familiar ebb and flow.
I blink, forcing back the thought along with an unexpected welling of tears. Our situation is complicated. Jared is Storm's man. Though I don't think he'd give me up for Storm — should I ever be stupid enough to ask that of him — he'll be cautious about giving in to what some days feels like a Flux storm brewing between us. And then, everything is made more complicated by who I am. By what I am.
Whatever that may be.
"Don't look like that, Lu," Jared mutters as he curses under his breath.
"Like what?" I blink at his too-handsome face. The curved planes of his cheeks. The perfect softness of his lips, so strange in contrast to his killing nature, and the tiny scar that sits right beside them. But it's the eyes that hold me mesmerized. Jared isn't like most True Borns. When he's calm and human, his eyes are an indigo-blue sky filled with promises. When he's stirred, when his True Born nature is called, the monster that claws itself to the surface and screams like the hunting cat it is, his eyes turn a vivid emerald green. Like they are now. Those eyes momentarily blur before me as a tear gets tangled in my lashes. So soft and swift I almost don't notice it, Jared scoops up the tear and stares at it like it's a miracle. I watch, blushing and confused, as he kisses the damp drop from his finger.
We've stopped moving, though I hardly notice. I only know the hot strength of his hand on my back. Only the tug of my heartbeat, a steady drum gone haywire, and that peculiar scent of his, musk and cinnamon, that makes me feel at once calm and safe and utterly out of control. I don't even know if he's aware he's pulling me closer, tighter, his head tilting toward me as though he can't help but meet my lips with his own.
"What'd you get?" A bright voice pops up between us.
Not two hairs from us stands a gorgeous redhead in four-inch stilettos. Her low-cut sheath dress hides nothing from the imagination — save the pistol strapped to her inner thigh. Storm's assassin, Kira, cuts a pretty picture, but I'd as soon not cross her. I've seen what this True Born can do with a stiletto.
"Nothing, I'm afraid." I grimace and try to step away from Jared, but he holds me fast and glares at Kira.
"Our friend had a few too many," Jared drawls, looking pointedly at my dress strap, which has pulled loose once again from Jared's fix. "Do you have a pin, Kira?"
The gorgeous woman rummages through a tiny beaded handbag and pulls out a pin. "Ta-da!" She smiles and hands it over to Jared.
Jared's eyes cross as he concentrates on the tiny pin. "Hold still," he tells me. Despite his preternatural dexterity, I'm somehow not reassured.
"Do you know how to work these things?" I ask nervously.
A lock of slicked blond hair falls across his forehead as he stops to grin at me, a pure boyish grin that turns my guts to mush. "Relax, Princess," he tells me. "Can't be harder than surviving an arena fight. I got this." His fingers skim the skin beside my shoulder, leaving behind a tingling wake of sensation. Jared looks in my eyes and for a few long seconds I reckon the pin has been forgotten. Then with three quick twists, he wrangles it into the thin black strap of material. Though it's fixed well enough for now, he shrugs off his coat and drapes it over my shoulders anyway.
"What's this for?" I ask as my chilled flesh is suddenly enveloped by Jared's extraordinary heat, his scent tripping through my senses.
"In case the pin comes loose," he tells me with a dark look.
I can read murder written there, wrestling with something just as primitive: as though just by draping me in his jacket he claims me before all these country politicians and their reckless sons. But then the tall, lithe warrior laces his fingers through mine. And as he tugs me through the crowded dance floor into the heart of the darkest men of Dominion, my feet, like my heart, are light as air.
* * *
The True Born winds me through the buzzing, busy ballroom, up a marble staircase that rises into a curved balcony where the band plays something bone- jarring and sweet. He ducks me past them, into a black-and-white-tiled hallway. We flow beyond several pairs of armed men, none of whom seem to be concerned by us. They'll know which guests are which by now, I reckon. Jared's coat barely keeps me warm amid the arctic chill of the room I'm ushered into, flanked by two mercs in matching navy suits. They don't wear earpieces, these country mercs. Then again, I don't suppose they'd have to.
Criminals are sent here to the territories of Dominion, the Outskirts, to till and water the fields and harvest food, to be sold in the city. But once their sentences are up, many prefer to stay, putting to use their hard lives and harder bodies as the personal security to the Upper Circle elite. They say the mercs are reformed, more loyal and trustworthy than most. Still, when I pass the two mercs and one of them looks at me with the inklings of appreciation, I shiver with unease.
We pass through a heavy oak door and into a hallway lit only by candles shoved into wall sconces. The tiny flames make the hallway seem warm in contrast to the voices raised in anger coming from a room beyond. We follow the argument to the end of the hall and step into a brightly lit room fit for royalty.
Our host looks dapper for a dead man, I'll give him that.
"Ah, there. See? I told you she was fine," cries Theodore Nash. The new senator for the Outskirts lounges back in his chair with the smug satisfaction of a man who has everything. He's got a cigar in one hand and a snifter of spirits in the other, while his bow tie has come undone and hangs down alongside his neck like a deflated balloon. The tux he wears is impeccable, and though he doesn't don a mask like the dancers in the ballroom, I'd swear his is the most deceptive of all.
Because just a few weeks ago, Theodore Nash sat before us sweating and patchy, clearly about to hurl into his end days: Plague-struck. Today, though, he's fine.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "True Storm"
Copyright © 2018 L.E. Sterling.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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