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First pages

Chapter One

Innocence Lost

I learned two disturbing things the night of my Sweet-Sixteen party. In a drunken display worthy of a frat boy, my father announced to the crowd that he named me Envy as his idea of a sick joke. I also discovered that I tortured and killed an innocent man…

My fingernails tear through the crumpled paper clenched in my fist, digging into my palm. Pain helps keep the tears at bay, for the moment at least. The sounds of the party are hollow in my ears as I stare into the dancing flames of the massive bonfire on the beach. My guests shriek and laugh while dancing around, utterly oblivious to my plight.

I turn away from the spirited group to walk up the coast, still crinkling the offending note in my hand. Not one of the many partygoers follows me as I walk toward the pounding surf. Sand squishes beneath my toes and salty spray tickles at my face, stinging my eyes.

The cold water of the Pacific Ocean laps over my bare feet, leaving behind bits of kelp entwined around my ankles. I don’t bother to kick the seaweed away. As more pieces wind around my lower legs, they feel like ropes binding me to a fate I never chose, would never wish on anyone.

When the noise from the raging party is a distant roar, I stop. Unfolding the note, I read the incriminating words again in the dim light of the full moon. Blinking back tears I read and reread the note until I’ve memorized every word.

Uriah Amstead framed an innocent man because he coveted the man’s wife. It’s all here in Uriah’s own handwriting, the entire plot a complete success because of me.

He stuffed this, a thank you note of all things, in my birthday card along with a check for five grand. Blood money. But I’ll take it without comment and put it in my secret savings account. What else can I do? If I give it back, it will infuriate Uriah, and he’ll find a painful way to punish me. One day that account will have enough cash to escape. I’ll flee from Uriah and his contemptible world—disappear into the night to live under the radar. The rest of my life would be spent hiding from Uriah and his goons, but I’d be free.

The phone in the pocket of my torn jean shorts chirps and vibrates. Yanking it out, I scan the message. Never forget, I own you.

I feel Uriah’s dark brown eyes burning into me as I read the message again. Shivers race through me that have nothing to do with the cool breeze off the ocean, though I pull the sleeves of my UCSD sweatshirt down to cover my hands. Uriah is one of the most powerful beings in San Diego. He kills without remorse daily. But he won’t kill me. No, he needs me too much for a simple mercy like that.

I’ve been forced to do his dirty work for five years, helping him secure his power base in northern San Diego. When he wishes to punish me, he can find such inventive ways—most times leaving no marks on my body. My mind just breaks a bit more, sending me one step further down the rabbit hole. The creepy spider shifter is nothing if not creative.

Another annoying chirp from the phone. Party’s over, duty calls.

The hair on the back of my neck rises to attention, but I refuse to give in to the urge to glance over my shoulder to see if Uriah is watching. I know this is another attempt to break my spirit, to bring me further under his control. Why else would the sadistic bastard give me the note incriminating himself with a big grin on his handsome face?

When the phone chirps again, I fight down the urge to heave it into the frothing waves. Now, Angel.

Shoving the phone and the note into my pocket, I trudge back up the coast toward the flickering light of the bonfire. “What I’ve Done” by Linkin Park blares from the speakers set up by the expensive DJ, courtesy of Uriah no doubt. One more attempt to break any spirit I might still possess? Idiot didn’t listen to the lyrics. It’s about atonement and acceptance of one’s deeds. It raises my spirits and gives me secret hope. The smile tugging at my lips must stay hidden. I bite my lower lip to keep it at bay as I approach the raging party.

Jack, my silent shadow, lurks nearby—close enough to watch but far enough to offer a semblance of privacy. The only place my bodyguard doesn’t accompany me is the bathroom. Though he’s under the employ of Uriah, after four and a half years we’ve become quite close. Jack is still a wild card. I’m not sure which side he’ll choose when I find the courage to rebel against Uriah. He’s like a beloved older brother. I’m much closer to him than any of my three sisters. The fact that I love Jack makes rebelling that much harder.

He watches me approach, his hulking frame unmoving. I don’t say anything, just hold up my phone. His lip twitches, giving away his irritation, but other than that his features remain impassive. He towers over me, looking every inch the bodyguard. Who else would wear black leather and jeans to a beach party? Sunglasses block his eyes from me, but I imagine a dark glare as he stares over my head at the party. My party that I now have to leave. Not that I ever wanted it in the first place.

He puts his arm around me and gently steers me toward the raucous revelers. When we reach the bonfire my jaw drops at the sight of four police officers schmoozing with my father and Uriah. They must’ve been sent to break up the party and douse the illegal bonfire. Yet here they are, beer cups in hand, the only female officer running her fingers through Uriah’s thick mane of long, black hair. That woman has lousy instincts for a cop. Uriah oozes evil—can’t the idiot sense it?

Pushing my way through the many bodies gyrating to the deafening music, I search for my true friends. Max and Phoebe stand on the fringes watching the party with sober eyes. Phoebe leans against Max’s arm, her lips curled into a melancholy smile. Her dark blond hair, streaked with lighter shades of blond, falls to her shoulders in messy waves. She calls it surfer girl hair. She’s the epitome of a Southern California girl: tan, blonde, slender, perfect. But she has a sharp brain and an even sharper wit beneath those beautiful blond locks.

Maximillian looks bored, but he always wears the same blank mask when he’s in public. Most shifters do. Max is a fox shifter from an old family who settled in San Diego when it was still part of Mexico. His parents were well acquainted with the Whaley’s of Whaley House fame, one of the most haunted places in the United States. Shifters have a much longer life span than humans. Once they reach puberty, they only age about one year for every twenty human years. Though Max is seventeen, his parents are probably at least two hundred years old. I’ve never asked.

Max runs a hand through his short, brown waves before snaking his arm around Phoebe’s shoulders, making me snicker. It’s nice to know you never outgrow the classics.

“I’m off.” My shoulders slump betraying my disappointment. “Duty calls.”

“On your birthday?” Phoebe’s light brown eyes spark in rage. “Can’t he let you have any fun?”

“That would defeat his purpose, Phoebe.” Max shifts his dark gaze to Uriah’s back, watching the spider shifter lead the lady cop to her squad car parked at the entrance to the beach. The tires kick up a storm of sand as she peels away, hitting the siren several times on her way out. “Dangle something nice then snap the leash. Father always says that’s the quickest way to break someone while still keeping up appearances.”

Phoebe gasps. “Max!”

“It’s true,” I say, coming to Max’s rescue.

I appreciate his honesty. It’s refreshing and a definite change from Uriah and my parents who wouldn’t recognize decency if it struck them upside the head. Few things bother me more than those who lie to my face with a smile plastered to their lips. With sudden resolve, I push the crumpled note Uriah gave me into Max’s hand. Shifters have hearing worlds better than humans, so I lean in close, hoping the music will cover my whisper.

“The man referenced in that note worked for Tiberius,” I whisper to Max while watching Jack for his reaction to my words. It’s a test of his loyalty to me. If he fails I’ll be in a world of pain. But I have to know where Jack stands—with me or with Uriah. “Ask your father to arrange a meeting with Tiberius for me.”

“Are you sure about this?” Max’s normal mask slips, concern reflecting in his shrewd eyes. I smile. He has no idea what the note he just shoved in his pocket says, yet he cares enough to worry. That unease will skyrocket after he reads the incriminating words on the paper.

“Yes,” I say, allowing the anguish I’m feeling to leak into my voice. “Uriah has gone too far this time. What he did… what he made me do—”

“Come on, Envy.” Jack takes my arm, dwarfing it in his large hand.

Before I can ask, Phoebe points to the sand beside her where my silver flip flops sit. Jack doesn’t release my arm while I pull my shoes on. Is he afraid I’ll take off running?

“Bye, guys,” I say as Jack drags me away. “Make sure my father gets home okay.”

My gaze moves to the prone, unconscious form of my father, Simon. True to form he finally passed out from alcohol. At least this time he managed to fall face up. I doubt most people here would be kind enough to kick him to his back to keep the sand from suffocating him. It’s difficult to fault him completely for his alcoholism. He started working for Uriah twenty years ago. Two decades with that sadistic monster would drive anyone to the bottle. My mother’s infatuation with Uriah doesn’t help matters.

As Jack drags me through the parking lot, I see something that makes my stomach churn, threatening to reject the burrito I ate earlier in the evening. Uriah leans against his Rolls Royce limo, my dimwitted, social-climbing mother in his arms. When I pass by, Uriah pries his lips from the imprudent woman to smirk at me. How I hate him!

“Ignore it,” Jack whispers, his fingers digging into my upper arm. “It’s not the first time… won’t be the last.”

“Goodnight, Mother,” I call out, loathing dripping from every syllable.

There isn’t a response, not that I expect one. Maribelle Davis is too wrapped up in herself to notice her own daughter’s presence. The stupid woman wouldn’t be where she is today without my light magic. While my parents seem to have no qualms about exploiting me, common courtesy is too much for the selfish pair.

When we approach my main Sweet-Sixteen gift from Uriah, I clench my jaw, grinding my teeth to keep from screaming my frustration to the entire parking lot. Uriah has a way of taking anything that should be wonderful and turning it into crap. Jack stops next to my brand new, victory-red Camaro, complete with eight-cylinder engine, leather interior, and moon roof.

He dangles the keys in his hand while I stare at the car in disgust. My first car should be a joyful occasion, not another chain linking my destiny to Uriah. I’d rather have a jalopy that’s really mine than this gorgeous sports car bought with the blood of others.

He tosses the keys at me. “You ready to drive this beauty?”

“Knock yourself out, Jack,” I say, refusing to catch the keys. “I hate this thing.”

“How can you hate such a wonderful piece of machinery?” Jack cringes as the keys fall to the asphalt with a loud clatter. “Come on, Envy. Uriah can make life a living hell, so you should at least enjoy the perks that come with the torment. Besides, you seemed so happy when he presented it to you earlier.” The bear shifter snatches the keys from the pavement before forcing his bulky frame into the driver’s seat.

“I took the car because I had no other choice, not because I wanted to.” I open the door and grab the giant black bow sitting on the front passenger seat. It becomes the latest casualty to my wrath as I smash and shred the glossy paper before stuffing it into the back seat. Leaning back, I close my eyes, listening as the engine roars to life.

“Uriah’s not stupid,” Jack says, revving the engine a few times. “You involve Max and he’ll be in danger too.” He backs from the parking space and takes off in a squeal of tires.

“I know.” I watch the dark landscape blur by. “Do you know what that note Uriah gave me said?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you know?” My voice is high-pitched and squeaky, like a young child. “While I was torturing that man, when I killed him… did you know he was innocent?”

“No, I didn’t.” Jack keeps his gaze trained on the road ahead. “But if I did I wouldn’t have said anything.”

“Why?” I ask in a broken sob.

“You suffer enough every single day,” he replies with a deep sigh. “Besides, I’m far from a saint. Watching that man die, even knowing he’s innocent, just doesn’t matter to me.”

“Your apathy must make life much easier.”

I look away to watch the freeway zoom by, most cars left in the Camaro’s dust. The car has an ambassador sticker on the back which would give us immunity should any officer decide to pull us over. The shifters run this town in secret, most humans unaware that they walk among us. Charmed items, like jewelry, keep their appearances so close to human nobody suspects a thing. But the more powerful shifters, like Jack and Max, don’t need charmed items to pass for human.

Jack swerves around a slow vehicle in the fast lane, taking the Camaro up onto the narrow shoulder and uttering some colorful words under his breath. Some bodyguard! He protects me from everything but his own homicidal driving.

I remain quiet as Jack exits the I-5 freeway and heads east into Rancho Sante Fe. My mind continues to contemplate his earlier words. The first statement made it sound as though he cares about my welfare. He tries to hide behind a tough, amoral exterior, but every so often I have glimpses into something more. Perhaps I can trust him, maybe even convince him to join me in my betrayal of the crime lord.

We turn from the main street onto a curvy, two-lane road that winds away from civilization. I always enjoy this part of the drive, an escape from the endless, boring subdivisions like the one I live in. Carmel Valley is only minutes away, but with the solitude out here, it may as well be miles.

Here the houses are set on acres of land, not just a few thousand square feet. Some people have horses and farm animals. This is where the wealthy of San Diego, the ones who eschew the coast, live. Uriah’s stronghold is nestled in here on fifty acres. I have no idea what his property is worth, but it must be millions.

Jack turns off the two-lane road, stopping at the colossal metal gate marking the edge of Uriah’s property. An electrified fence runs along the entire perimeter and guard dogs roam the grounds. This is not just a mansion—it’s an impenetrable fortress in northern San Diego.

Two guards leading snarling Doberman Pinschers approach the car, looking through the open window to make sure the back seat is empty. Jack pops the trunk, and the silent guards inspect that as well before hitting the remote to open the gate. It’s impossible to miss the assault rifles slung over their shoulders. No one gets on or off the property without Uriah’s consent. It’s better guarded than most U.S. prisons.

Without a word Jack drives through the gate and into a forest of eucalyptus trees. The only thing I like about Uriah is his desire to leave nature intact. He was born hundreds of years ago, and though he seems to enjoy modern conveniences, he still keeps some of the old world charm around him. Besides, the trees provide cover for his more nefarious activities.

Though I’ve ridden down this winding dirt drive more times than I can count, apprehension still stirs within my chest. With every rotation of the tires, every foot traveled, my heart pounds just a little faster.

When the turrets of the fortress appear above the dense treetops, my breath catches in my throat making it difficult to breathe. This place reeks of evil. It oozes from the gnarled tree branches, trickles up from the gravel coating the ground, and seeps from the stone walls of the castle itself.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

Fate of the Pawn

 

 

 

As soon as the Camaro stops on the large, circular drive, I leap from the car not waiting for Jack to turn off the engine. Someone waits in the dungeon for me, shaking in fear from the knowledge that the Scarlet Angel will arrive any minute. Five years ago the prisoners would spit at me, refusing to talk. But as my powers grew, so did my reputation. The stupid nickname Uriah coined helped too—Scarlet Angel—a tribute to my long, red tresses as well as the rivers of blood spilled by my hands.

Most of the time, the captives are tortured for the information Uriah wants and then released. Seldom am I required to kill a prisoner, even rarer an actual assassination. The released prisoners would recover and recount their terrifying experience at my hands. In five years, I’ve lost count of the number I’d tortured.

But I remember the faces of each individual I was forced to kill. They haunt my thoughts. The dead make me scream out from nightmares where they plague me, trying to drag me down to Hell with them. I didn’t choose this life. My materialistic parents sold me to Uriah like a common slave. But I’ve suffered every day for the last five years thanks to their selfishness.

I move to the trunk and pull out a plastic bag. It contains toys for the new cook’s two young children. They are halflings. Their mother, the cook, is a raccoon shifter and their father human. The kids are treated like crap by many of the shifters here, forcing them to stay in one room while their mother works. I only hope a few toys can help lessen the boredom they must face spending so much time alone.

Halflings tend to be ostracized by the older shifter community—it’s only the last century or so that human/shifter relationships stopped being taboo. Some of the older shifters still cling to the deep-rooted ideals from ages ago.

My eyes stray down to the absurd personalized license plate Uriah ordered just for me—UAANGEL on the California coastal plate, short for Uriah Amstead’s Angel. It was both nice and disturbing. He took something important to me, protecting the coast, and combined it with something I hated. It’s like a slap in the face—showing me how well he knows me even though I try to hide my true self from him. How the hell did he know I like whales? Not to mention, how am I supposed to explain the plate to anyone who asks about it?

Oh, I’m an inquisitor and assassin known in the shifter community as the Scarlet Angel. The UA is there since I belong, literally, to crime lord Uriah Amstead. Wanna go get a coffee?

Yeah I’d get a one way ticket to an asylum, complete with a straight jacket. Shifters only make up about two percent of the population, and they are careful to keep their existence a secret. The general population is unaware of the powerful beings living among them. Not only can shifters change into an animal form, usually a larger version of the animal, but they also have heightened senses, reflexes, and strength.

Jack is a stunning example. He’s a bear in his animal form—a huge grizzly bear with golden-brown fur the same color as his hair. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was ever mistaken for Bigfoot. Jack is also huge in his human form, tall and all hard muscle.

“You okay, Envy?” Jack asks in a low rumble. Uriah’s spies are everywhere, along with several cameras trained on us at any given moment.

“Yeah, let’s get this over with.”

After one last lingering look at the license plate, I turn and stride toward the mansion. It’s a castle straight out of Middle Aged Europe. Uriah had it flown over from Austria piece by piece. When I was younger I’d imagine I was a captive princess forced to serve an evil wizard. I dreamed that a handsome prince would ride forth on a white steed to save me from my torment.

In a way it was almost true. I wasn’t a princess but an enslaved enchantress, forced to use my light magic for evil. Over time, much quicker than I would’ve liked, I wised up, and the exciting fantasy faded away. No one is coming to save me from this fate. If I want out I need to rescue myself, which is much easier said than done. Uriah will hunt me down no matter where I run. I’m far too valuable to let go.

Heavy, double, oaken doors open with an ominous creak that echoes in the quiet night. Two sparkling chandeliers light the grand foyer. A spiral staircase covered in black shag carpeting leads up to the living quarters. I always wondered if Uriah chose black to hide any spilled blood. He has a penchant for tossing people down the stairs to the marble floor below.

Intricate tapestries cover the walls, detailing the grisly saga of a bloodthirsty Austrian prince from centuries ago. This nameless prince gave Vlad the Impaler competition in the sadistic bastard category. As much as I love the history behind the old tapestries, I hate the gruesome images. They are a constant reminder of just how twisted my captor really is.

I follow Jack to the back of the mansion where the kitchen sprawls out across a space larger than the downstairs of my house. Gerta, the new cook, is busy making biscuits, but other than her the kitchen is empty. With such a large staff, someone is always on duty to prepare meals. It’s strange that Gerta is alone, even with the late hour since the kitchen is normally the gathering place for the servants to gossip. Deep down I know it’s due to my arrival.

As soon as the Camaro appeared, the servants all skittered away to hide in the dark recesses. Most of the servants are shifters or halflings. They all have a healthy fear of me. I’m an enchantress from a long lineage of powerful women. For whatever reason, shifters and halflings are vulnerable to the light magic I wield with ease. It can be used to torture a shifter better than any manmade weapon.

If I’m not careful I can shock them with just a touch, like static electricity but stronger. Uriah had tutors who taught me to control my magic, but they mainly helped me become more powerful. The servants are superstitious and ignorant. Jack has been around me for over four years, touching on a regular basis, and I never once hurt him beyond a light shock when he startled me. Gerta glances up from her dough, smiling at me across the kitchen. Well, at least there’s one servant here who doesn’t run scared whenever I appear.

“Good evening, Envy. Jack,” she says while brushing flour from her hands. “I have some wonderful baked potato soup if you’re interested.”

“Thanks, Gerta, but we have work waiting,” Jack replies.

A frown mars her brow. It’s obvious she doesn’t approve of our business.

“I brought toys for Michael and Sarah.” I place the plastic bag on the counter. “I wish I had time for soup. Baked potato is my favorite.”

“I’ll just package some to go for you then, dear,” she says, her smile returning. “Thank you for thinking of my children.”

I nod to her before following Jack to the pantry door. At the back of the pantry, I enter the security code on the keypad beside the solid metal door, nine digits that change on a weekly basis. No one gets in or out of the dungeon without the code. The guards are stuck down there for their entire shift since only the dungeon master, Uriah, and I have the code.

As we descend the stone steps, I glance at the sconces lining the dank walls, each holding several flickering electric bulbs, making them appear like candles. Leave it to Uriah to capture that medieval dungeon feel with flickering lights. Of course the lights aren’t the only medieval thing in this dungeon. Uriah has a veritable museum of torture devices down here, some still stained with the blood of countless victims.

When we reach the bottom step the pungent smell of urine mingled with other bodily fluids assaults my nose making my eyes water. I don’t know how Jack or the guards can stand it with their enhanced senses. We pass cell after cell, each one foul-smelling whether inhabited or not. Some of the captives moan and cry out as we walk by, begging for mercy, release, or even death.

I wonder if I’ll end up here to rot if I ever have the courage to rebel against Uriah. Being stuck chained to the wall in one of these tiny cells, never to see the light of day again, is an awful fate indeed.

A shudder courses through me as a long-buried memory pops up unbidden. When my parents first sold me to Uriah five years ago, I spent time in one of these cells. Three separate occasions I was locked up when I refused to obey Uriah’s orders. No food, no fresh water, and daily lashings made a naïve, eleven-year-old girl shatter quickly.

Along with that memory comes one far worse, the act that ultimately broke me to Uriah’s will with little hope of salvation. Panic rises as I try to bury that wretched memory. I can’t relive that moment… if I do I might break again.

“Envy, you okay?” Jack asks in a whisper. “You don’t look so good.”

“Memory…”

“Ah, crap.” He grabs my arm, dragging me into an empty interrogation room and closes the thick metal door. “Envy doll, it’s okay, I’m here.” He pulls me into a tight embrace.

I rest my head against his broad chest, listening to the calm thump of his heart. His lips brush the top of my head while his fingers knead small circles on my shoulder blades. My arms snake around his back, clinging to this pillar of support. Jack has been the one constant in my life these last few years, the one person I can turn to, the only person I can show weakness to.

My racing pulse is so loud, it roars in my ears. Jack’s soft humming fills the tiny room, and I’m taken by surprise when that humming turns into singing. He sings “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas in a melodious voice so at odds with his gruff, masculine appearance. My heart begins to slow as I listen to the words, the longing in his voice. It occurs to me that my bodyguard is suffering the same as I am. We are both prisoners, trapped by an evil man, desperate for a way to escape.

“That was beautiful,” I murmur when silence reclaims the room. “I—”

“Careful,” he whispers in my ear. His words remind me that we’re never alone in Uriah’s stronghold. Though the room we’re standing in is pitch black, the audio feed from the security cameras would still work. “Better?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

After over four years of my panic attacks, Jack can stop them almost immediately. Although his singing stopped this attack faster than anything he ever did in the past. I wonder if he was trying to convey something with that particular song. Before Jack, I suffered through the attacks alone… somehow. They could crop up at any time though they occurred down here in the dungeon more often than anywhere else.

Thinking back, I wonder how often Uriah watched security tapes of my attacks. I can picture him, wineglass in hand, enjoying my torment caused by his hands and twisted mind.

Taking my hand in his, Jack leads me out of the small room and back down the hall of cells. A noise in one draws my attention, and my gaze flies to the cell’s occupant. The poor man is desiccated so much that he resembles an Egyptian mummy. Several large rats crawl around his legs, feasting on the corpse served up to them like a banquet. Thank goodness he’s dead. Just as I’m about to move on, the man lifts his head, his eyes large in the gaunt face, his lips bared in a silent scream.

“J-Jack!” I gasp, unable to tear my eyes away from the hideous sight.

“There’s nothing you can do.” Jack pulls me away from the doomed man. Perhaps I should be used to this after so long, but suffering is something I can never accept. “Pull yourself together unless you want to end up like him.”

Knowing he’s right, I clamp down on my emotions, pushing them to the back of my mind. Jack doesn’t release me. He leads me down the hall, his warm fingers wrapped around my upper arm. To an outsider it would appear as though he’s dragging me, but I know he’s offering comfort in a way others won’t notice. I pull on the strength he offers, preparing myself for the distasteful job ahead.

When we reach the torture chamber, Jack holds the thick iron door open for me. Harsh light floods the room from stark bulbs hanging from the ceiling. My eyes blink against the sudden light, made that much brighter after the dim corridor we just passed through.

Bound to a steel chair bolted to the floor in the center of the room sits my latest victim. With just a brief glance at the gagged man, I cross the room to sit at the small desk on the far wall. I can feel the captive’s eyes boring into my back, can almost taste his fear. The captive’s fear excites Jack’s predatory instincts, and a small growl rumbles in his throat.

The bound man releases a pitiful whimper that fills my heart with sadness. My hatred for Uriah spikes again, soaring to new heights. Just when I think I can’t hate the man more than I already do, he never ceases to surprise me.

Georgie Anton, age twenty-six, a fox shifter and drug runner for Josef, the southern San Diego crime lord. He was captured while attempting to infiltrate Uriah’s fortress. What a moron! Short list of questions since good old Georgie is low in the southern rankings.

When I turn to face the prisoner, he stares back with terror in his muddy-brown eyes. Several tears trace a path down his cheek as he shudders in his bonds. His blond hair is filthy after four days in a dank cell. Tiny bite marks dot his arms and feet, either rats or insects. Both are prevalent down here. His jeans are caked with dirt and torn in so many places it’s a wonder they stayed on at all.

“Based on your reaction, introductions are unnecessary.” I stalk toward the quivering man. He nods, never taking his eyes from mine. “I’m going to remove that gag now. No screaming. It’s not like it’d do you any good anyway.”

Jack pulls a switchblade from his pocket and cuts through the gag. It flutters to the cold, stone floor to lie at Georgie’s bare feet. He doesn’t utter a sound which is surprising. Normally they scream for a while.

“Now I only have a few questions for you. If you cooperate, you could be on your way home tonight. Otherwise…”

I leave it hanging in the air. After years of this I’ve learned that unspoken, unknown threats can be much more effective. It gives the captive time to use their imagination. In this business the players know the lengths the lords will go to have an advantage over a competitor.

“Lord Josef… he’ll kill me,” Georgie rasps out.

“Jack, get our prisoner a glass of fresh water,” I say, plastering a sympathetic look on my face, which isn’t so hard. “Poor guy has screamed himself hoarse, and the torture hasn’t even begun.”

While Jack goes to get the water, I circle my prey, clucking my tongue as though I pity the idiotic man. It’s all part of the act. My hope is always to break the subject without laying a hand on them. I hate using my light magic to hurt shifters. It’s not that it feels wrong. The problem is that it feels good—no it feels fantastic. After centuries, enchanters have evolved to crave the destruction of their enemies, the shifters.

I feel the desire burning through my body, surging up and down my extremities as though it travels in my bloodstream. I want to touch Georgie, to push my power into his body until he bursts into bright blue flames that burn so hot he’d succumb in seconds. But I know these feelings are wrong, so I bury them deep within and concentrate on my current task.

When Jack returns, he holds the glass to the prisoner’s mouth, pouring the water all over Georgie’s face so the man doesn’t get more than a small mouthful. The rest of the water trickles down his ruddy cheeks, mixing with the tears and leaving streaks of dirt behind.

“Did I mention today is my birthday?” I ask. The prisoner surprises me again by shaking his head. Most ignore my banter. “I turned sixteen today.”

“Happy b-birthday.” Georgie’s voice is a hoarse croak.

I keep the shock from materializing on my face. The damn idiot sounds sincere. How odd.

“Thanks, Georgie,” I reply in a flat, disinterested tone. “Why’d you try to break in here? You must’ve known you’d get caught.”

“Needed money,” Georgie whispers, his eyes trained on the stone floor. “My boy has leukemia, and I can’t afford the treatment he needs.”

“Do I look like I was born yesterday?” I ask, raising my eyebrow at him. It took me months of practice in front of the mirror to perfect this look. “There are much easier ways to earn money.”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Kimber Leigh Wheaton is an award-winning, bestselling YA author with a soft spot for sweet romance. In addition to writing, she works as an editor for two publishers, as well as select indie authors. She is married to her soul mate, has a teenage son, and shares her home with three dogs and lots of dragons. Kimber Leigh is addicted to romance, video games, superheroes, villains, and chocolate—not necessarily in that order. (If she has to choose, she’ll take a chocolate covered superhero!)

Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
I love to connect with readers. Please visit my website for more info about my books, including excerpts from each. http://www.kimberleighwheaton.com Twitter @Cymberle https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7885752.Kimber_Leigh_Wheaton https://www.facebook.com/KimberLeighWheaton
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
Main character Envy Davis suffered quite a bit before the book takes place. Writing about her past was hard, but part of being a writer is connecting with the characters on a very deep level. To do Envy justice, I had to become her in my mind and experience her pain and fear.
Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
Your life is your own. Do what you feel is right even if it isn't the popular decision. Sometimes we must make hard choices. Own them and move forward with your head high.

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Nikki Saturn and The Rogue...
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