Meriel stretched her legs out the open car door, unfolding her body to stand beside the shiny curves of steel. Part of the reason people stared was the car, and she totally got that. Normally, Meriel drove an Audi. Low slung, sporty and temperamental. Sort of like she was on a good day. Heh.Still, maybe a little bit of Nell’s sexy-momma mojo would rub off on her.
The valet tried to look sullen and bored as he approached with an outstretched hand. A valet at an industrial nightclub? What was the world coming to?
Sullen and on the verge of tears seemed to be similar looks for this boy. No way was he more than a hair this side of nineteen. His skinny jeans only emphasized just how thin his legs were. It must have been a serious workout for him to move in those big boots he had on. Couldn’t have been more than a hundred pounds soaking wet. Probably why his guyliner was running. Or maybe that was on purpose. Whatever, she didn’t really care. Emo boys were not her cup of tea anyway. As long as he didn’t scratch the car, he was free to weep and write bad poetry all day long.
She dropped her keys into his palm and raised one eyebrow. Might as well put on a show all the way and throw a little Edwina in there. “Do be careful, won’t you?” She added a touch of magick to be sure he was.
He nodded, Adam’s apple sliding up and down as her magick tickled his skin and permeated his brain. She briefly toyed with also telling him to eat a sandwich, but let that go.
“Tell me”—she paused, looking at his nametag—”Spider. Very goth, by the way, Spider.” She tried very hard not to snicker. “Is Mr. Bright in this evening?”
“Should be.” Spider tried to look tough, but she could use him to pick spinach from her teeth with one hand so the effect was lost on her.
She nodded, taking her tag and sauntering past the line and through the doors. The bouncer took one look, a smile settled over his features and he stepped back, letting her pass.
Once inside, the scent caught her attention. Mmmm. Humanity. Sex, lust, greed, anger. Beautiful. The hard-edged beat vibrated off her skin as she prowled through the crowd. In every flash, flash, flash of the strobe lights bodies moved, arms up in the air.
Magick drifted through the large room, catching her attention, drawing her to its source. It wasn’t hard to find the go-between, the place normals wouldn’t see but Others would be drawn to, and through, into their own private club.
Heart of Darkness—not a bad name for a club, really. One of her favorite books too. Too bad Gage wasn’t here. The women would have been falling over themselves to get to him. Her mother would also have a cow when she heard Meriel had disobeyed her orders and had come out unescorted, but for goodness’ sake, it wasn’t that dangerous to talk to a thief in public. And hello, she wasn’t fifteen. It had been a long time since Meriel had looked to a mother to do any taking care of her. And last, it amused her to visualize her mother having a cow.
Despite her amusement and admittedly, no small amount of admiration for how much talent it took to set this place up, Heart of Darkness had the potential to be dangerous for them all. Dominic Bright took risks he had no right to. Not on Owen ground and certainly not with Owen font magick.
Though the Weres had been out for a decade and the vampires discussed it endlessly, witches were far less enamored of the idea.
They’d been there and done that and many of them hadn’t survived. In fact every time humans focused on them it involved hanging or drowning or being burned alive so they were obsessive about keeping what they did quiet. Pagans and Wiccans already got enough hatred; if humans knew there were witches like Meriel, well, she didn’t like thinking about it overlong.
This place was a risk of exposure on top of the fact that one simply didn’t just steal from Clan Owen and not face consequences. Clan witches loved rules. Rule breaking was frowned upon because risks were dangerous.
Mr. Bright needed to be taught that it was the height of offense to a clan to come in this way. Some of them would have sent enforcers in and he’d never have been heard from again. Lucky for him, Meriel thought that a big show of aggression would be an overreaction. At least until she learned more.
And then, if he needed to be disappeared, Nell would make it happen. The weak got preyed upon and Clan Owen wasn’t weak.
Already she knew he had some sense. The closer she got to the go-between door, the more the repulsion spell increased in intensity. The entrance looked like a back door and the presence of two large bouncers looking like bartenders would stop interlopers.
The nature of the club would tend to have their kind blend in, although she didn’t know a single vampire who actually looked like the ones she saw in movies. Still, she’d have to talk to Bright about it.
Ignoring the stares and touches from men and women alike as she passed through the crowd, she moved with single-minded purpose toward the warded entrance.
The bouncers didn’t bother removing their sunglasses. They wouldn’t need to. Even with shades on, they’d see the magick crackle over her skin with their othersight. With the patented bodyguard nod, they stepped aside and let her pass.
The sound dampened and the energy changed as magick of all sorts sparked against hers. The wards recognized her and she passed through the human part of the club and into the domain where her people walked. She recognized the flavor of the magick as Owen font magick. This was their power being used to hide that doorway. Oh, that naughty man. Against her better judgment and a lifetime of training, instead of apprehension, a glimmer of excitement slid through her. A challenge.
By contrast to the press of humans out front, this part of Heart of Darkness wasn’t such a crush. The pulsing lights and dark ambiance outside had been abandoned. Within this world created just for them, it was more like a restaurant/pub than a dance club, though there was a dance floor too. She imagined later tonight and on the weekends it would probably be busier and noisier. Magick of all sorts danced through the air. Were, vampire, witch—even a bit of fae. Bright might be breaking the law by stealing magick, but she couldn’t deny the place had appeal.
Moving through the crowd, Meriel realized the dark interior and the light effects would hamper her ability to sight Dominic Bright easily. Still, the club was filled with pretty, shiny men and women from all sorts of backgrounds so a bit of people watching would add to the fun. This was far more interesting than take-out and a movie.
She may as well head to the bar and grab a drink as she looked around. Meriel didn’t need a picture to know who Dominic Bright was. She’d recognize his magickal signature if he was there. She just needed to be patient and look around.
“Hello there, witch.”
Meriel looked up into the face of a very handsome Were. His looks matched the low bass of the voice, masculine, hard. Not a run-of-the-mill shifter, this one smelled of Lycia. Royalty even. Lycian pack royalty on this side of the Veil was an unusual sight. They liked to keep to their own realm instead of having to deal with humanity and all her complications.
“Hello there, Lycian.”
He laughed, showing straight, white teeth, as he leaned against the bar behind him and held out a hand. She reined in the urge to goggle at how big the aforementioned hand was. “Simon Leviathan. Can I buy you a drink?”
Oh sure, she knew she was there to find Dominic Bright, but no one said she couldn’t enjoy the attentions of a very handsome Were while she looked.
The warmth of his power rolled through her as she took his outstretched hand. He held on just a bit longer than simple courtesy dictated, letting the warmth of his energy roll over her playfully. The possibilities with this man could bear some thinking on. She let him have the smile she’d been holding back. “Pleasure to meet you, Simon Leviathan. I’d love a drink, thank you. I’m Meriel Owen.”
Meriel leaned around him and told the bartender she wanted a Jack and Coke. When she straightened, Simon’s hand found its way to her waist. Lycians were very to the point.
Recognition lit his eyes. “Ah, an Owen. What brings you here this evening, Meriel?”
His scent, rich and spicy, tickled her senses and tightened things low in her belly. Alpha males were a double-edged option. Who didn’t like a man who was self-assured? But she didn’t think she had the time to manage one.
“Just looking around.” Tool came on and she let the sound roll over her as she opened her magick, letting it float up and out over the crowd, seeking. Dominic Bright would be a very powerful witch to work those spells on the door. Merely the stolen energy from the font wouldn’t be enough. The magick that had to be melded together and woven into that sort of protection and deception was complicated. Only a very talented and powerful witch could manage it. It wasn’t just the amount used or borrowed, it was the ability to use it and build it into other things. In any case, the odds of that meant there would be very few with that kind of power in the room. Namely Meriel and Dominic.
“Holy shit, what is that?” He leaned in, taking a deep breath. “I like your magick, witch.” Simon leaned down to murmur in her ear. “Then again, you’re not any old witch are you, Red?”
“I’m not any old anything at all, Simon. Just like you’re not any old werewolf. You’re Lycian and your daddy is alpha of a pack back home. You’re marked.”
She paid attention to all that supercharged alpha male energy while keeping her seeking spell anchored. It wasn’t hard when she was surrounded by so much raw energy. All that sex in the air, all the Others in the room and the magick they bled off as they went about their evening fed her way more than enough. So much she was a bit giddy with it.
“Don’t run into too many people who’d know that.”
“I like to know things. I’m a curious woman.” Another thing she thought Owen should be doing better was reaching out to all groups of Others. Those Others who originated from the other side of the Veil—the Fae and Lycians—were far more powerful than those paranormals from earth. They could move back and forth into other dimensions and their magick was unique.
Just how much Meriel didn’t know because they were just as secretive as witches and there wasn’t a lot of information sharing. She wanted that to change and if it came all wrapped up in this attractive a package, well, that was icing.
“I like a curious woman. Now, other than a drink, I think there might be a few other things I’d be happy to give you.” The smile he gave her promised all sorts of tingly things.
Before Meriel could respond, there was a definite tug at the end of her spell. She turned and saw the smudge in the energy of the magick. It’d snagged over at a booth on the far side of the room. There he was.
Sadly, she turned back to face Simon. “I’m sorry to have to do this, but the person I’ve been looking for is here, just when I’d begun to hope he wasn’t. I need to go deal with a problem.”
His face changed a bit as he looked in the direction her attention had been. “I’m sorry to hear that. I’ll be here for another hour or so if you wrap up your problem. I come most nights. Or, I’m at the W if you find yourself in need of some company.”
She smiled, taking a long look from the top of his dark-hued hair to the tips of his expensive boots. Long and lean, broad in the right places. He sure was pretty to look at.
“Thanks for the drink. Maybe I’ll be seeing you around.” She touched a fingertip to her lips and took one last look.
He pushed a hand through his hair. Such a bad boy there. She winked and turned, swaying toward the tug on her spell.
The crowd moved aside as she walked, her magick brushing against them, tendrils of their energy drawing back into her, strengthening her as she took a taste of all that paranormal strength in the room. Heady stuff.
She wasn’t surprised that he knew she was there. His awareness of that fact was quite clear as she approached. The energy of his focus on her pricked at her skin. Not painful, but clearly could be if necessary. Still, nothing could have prepared her for the sight that greeted her. She knew his eyes were pale green even though the room was dim—eyes locked on her like a predator.
Dominic Bright in the flesh was a punch to the gut. A sensory wallop of total and unbelievable hotness.
Sprawled in a booth in a roped-off VIP section, his physical presence was nearly as large as his magickal one. The dark T-shirt he wore stretched over tight muscles and broad shoulders. Black boots peeked from the bottom of his jeans. Long legs stretched out before him.
Masculine. The man was breathtakingly masculine. Sharp features marked him, heavy-lidded, sexy eyes, a goatee; his shoulder length hair was thick and she wondered what it would feel like between her fingers. His lips promised such carnal delights she had to take a deep breath to steady herself.
His energy was immense. He had reserves she’d lay odds he had no idea how to use. She wondered if he even knew he was a Council witch. So much raw power emanated from him she wanted to lean in and take a long sniff.
Since that would undermine her own position and power, and since most people didn’t smell each other in public, she refrained from the aforementioned sniffing and found her own center.
His gaze caressed up her body and settled upon her face. “Welcome to the Heart of Darkness, pretty witch.”
His voice was deep and scratchy. He didn’t yell over the music and yet she heard him perfectly.
She continued her approach, steadying legs that may have buckled had she been a lesser woman, stopping finally when her thighs touched the table. The scent of his magick hung about him like a heavy cloak. And fed her like she’d been starving.
“Mr. Bright, you’ve been a very naughty boy.”
“So I’ve been told a time or two. I take it you’re Clan Owen here to spank me.”
“I bet you have.” But she wasn’t there about that. Not until she finished this other business at the very least. She modulated her voice, not yelling, but whispering on the wind. “You tapped into Owen property without asking.”
His eyelids slid down just a little and she nearly moaned when he licked his lips. “Very nice. All that sex and magick . . . potent.”
One of her brows rose as she favored him with a smile. This one was a charmer.
“But you’re not a hunter.”
He knew enough to understand at least something of the structure of a clan. Ignorance wouldn’t be his excuse for theft then. “If I was, we wouldn’t be talking. We don’t want to kill you. We’re not like that. Most of the time. We just want you to ask nicely when you take our property.”
“Would you like to sit?” Goddess, his mouth was an ode to the creator. The way it quirked up just a bit when he finished a sentence was a sight burned into her retinas.
Her gaze flicked over the women splayed on either side of him before moving back to his face. She wouldn’t spill Owen business in public. Nor did she want to share his attention with anyone else. “I’d prefer to speak with you in private.”
He stood, stepping over the women carefully, and Meriel tried not to gulp like a sixteen-year-old girl. He moved the few feet to her, his energy barely leashed. It was a good thing she stood nearly six feet tall because Dominic easily topped six and change.
“Shall we go to my office?” He motioned with his hand and she allowed him to steer her, his hand at the small of her back. That touch nearly undid her.
Dominic had felt the Owen witch the minute she walked through the doors out front. Her power rolled through the building, slid through him, velvet and warm. Her presence coursed through his veins. She’d sent out her spell as he watched her drink with Simon at the bar.
He liked the way she tasted on the air. Bright and spicy. Dusky and earthy too. Her spell was clever and apparently effortless. Something like that might take him a few hours to create. He admired it, even as he kept out of range.
Unreasonable anger sparked when Simon did what Simon did best. Dominic had stewed as the Were put his hand on her waist and she responded, standing close and flirting. The closer she moved to Simon the more agitated Dominic had become until finally grabbing her spell and tugging hard to snag her attention. When she’d turned and he saw her face, really saw her face, he’d hesitated a moment, fascinated. Beauty and power, a very potent combination in any woman.
Watching her approach had been worth giving her his location earlier than he’d planned. She moved like sex, rhythmic, smooth like honey. Generous curves filled out the snug shirt and he liked the look of her legs with the short skirt and mid-calf Frye boots she wore.
Shit kickers, those boots. They sealed the deal as far as he was concerned. Another woman would be teetering in sky-high stilettos, but this one looked just as hot and she’d have been able to run his ass down if he gave her trouble.
He didn’t know a whole lot about the universe of clan witches, but he’d done some digging on Owen when he’d decided to use the back rooms there as a club for Others. This one was the daughter of the leader Edwina Owen. Next in line.
In a world of beautiful women, this one lodged herself in his attentions. He wanted more of her, which was interesting in and of itself. Powerful, so powerful he fought the urge to drag his tongue up her throat to get a taste. She held it to herself, snug. Tightly controlled just like the rest of her. He wanted to muss her up. Repeatedly.
Unbelievably, after less than ten minutes of seeing her, he had a mighty big want on for the delicious Ms. Owen.
He usually avoided sexual interludes with other witches. He was outclan and his unaffiliated status tended to make clan witches territorial. Before he’d been with them a few months they started talking about clan affiliation.
And he wasn’t a joiner.
But he couldn’t shake the image of her spread beneath him, naked, writhing, her body offered up to his hands and mouth like the feast she so clearly was. Without a doubt, he knew he needed to sink balls-deep into this woman’s body, and as soon as possible.
The hallway from the club back to his office was far quieter than in the club itself. He caught the sound of her breath, the hiss of fabric as they walked. Her scent wisped in her wake, seducing, teasing, but not giving him enough to satisfy.
He found himself wanting to slow down. Wanting to stretch out all the time he had with her. He must have done it because she reached his office and turned back to him, waiting.
He approached, not hiding the way he ate her up with his gaze. But when he reached around her body to use the small spell to unlock his door, their magick mingled for long moments. Tugging low in his belly, mimicking sexual attraction.
“Please, have a seat,” he said as they entered and he closed his door.
“I’m Dominic Bright, I didn’t properly introduce myself out there.” He bowed slightly, remembering he had some manners.
She waved a casual hand. “I know who you are. I’m Meriel Owen. We both know who the other is. Now, care to explain why you’re drawing from our font without permission?”
Up-front, this witch. He should just get it over with. He knew it. He needed to pay his dues or whatever. But the flavor of her magick all around him made him crave more. He wanted to spar, to whet his appetite for her.
“The wards here are for the good of all. I can’t see why you’d begrudge me that tiny bit of power.” He shrugged, spreading his hands out to appear reasonable.
She exhaled, clearly annoyed. It only spurred him on.
“Begrudging.” She rolled her eyes. “Really, Mr. Bright. If we begrudged you, we’d be teenage girls.” She shrugged. “Certainly we wouldn’t be powerful enough for you to be concerned when you shoplift from our font.” When she cocked her head, her hair slid forward, red, burgundy, threads of gold glinting in the light. He wondered what it would feel like. Before he reached to find out, he busied his hands with a pen.
“You’re using our magick and you haven’t asked. Clearly the nature of this place mandates strong wards to prevent exposure. And you know our position on exposure. So while Clan Owen is certainly sympathetic to your problem, the bigger issue remains.”
Yes, he knew the prevention of exposure was paramount to their people. And yes, he tended to agree that keeping what they were on the down low was a very good thing.
“Lastly, you’re a businessman, Mr. Bright. If I had a drink here, I’d have to ask for it and offer some sort of payment for it.”
“Or be so fucking sexy a Lycian prince buys you one.”
She smiled and he felt a corresponding tug in his groin. She shrugged and went on, “We all have our little bonuses in life. But in any case, you get my point. The font exists to be used by all witches within this clan. We don’t quibble with another witch using it. But there are rules and even an outclan witch knows to ask.”
He didn’t like asking any more than he liked rules. Damned witches and their rule obsession. Plus, he knew he’d have to give them information about himself, an in to his own magickal signature. He didn’t like anyone having knowledge about him that they could use.
Perceptive brown eyes looked into his. Reading him. Knowing. Saw through the outer faÃ§ade, right into his soul. He didn’t like that she got him so well, much less the fact that he’d known her all of twenty minutes.
Just for the briefest of moments, she caught her bottom lip between her teeth. But that brief moment was enough to send shards of desire splintering through his system. Her presence affected him so much he’d have suspected magicks, but there were none. He had excellent personal shields; he’d have known if she had attempted to ensorcell him. Just being near, the taste of her magick on his skin, had rendered him slightly punch-drunk.
He didn’t trust it. Didn’t trust anything that fast and intense.
She finally spoke, breaking the silence and saving him from the urge to blurt out that he wanted to take her back to his place and strip her naked. He wanted to see what sunrise looked like on her neck, what shadows it would create in the hollow of her throat, the dip of her belly button.
“I can close my eyes when you share magick with me, if that helps. That’s it, right?”
He paused, the words stuck in his throat. Perceptive. So much so he found himself ruffled by it. He cleared his throat. “I don’t share magick very often,” he said, his annoyance clear in his voice. Enough that her eyebrows rose in response.
She sat forward, choosing her words carefully. “Look, I get that you’re probably unaffiliated for a reason and we respect that. We’re a clan, not a cult. We’re all members by choice. Others make different choices and that’s fine too. I respect your choice. But the font is powered by every witch in the clan and they all agree to let others use it as long as everyone shares. That’s how it works. We all pay in. We all can use it. If we let you shoplift, others will too. And then what’s the point? You don’t want to be in a clan, that’s your choice. But it’s not your choice to steal from us. We won’t allow it.”
She paused, letting what she’d said sink in. He’d never mistake her for a pushover, pretty face or not. She was a smart, savage woman who’d kick his ass from Seattle to Toronto if she had to. Which only made him want more.
Her voice softened, “No one can get into your head. No one can steal your magick.”
“But that’s how the font works. You take power from witches in the clan.”
She made a face, first annoyed, then confused. Strangely, he wanted to laugh.
“No, that’s not how the font works.” She twisted the bracelet on her left wrist and he saw her clan mark. A pretty, stylized O for Owen. “Has no one ever explained it to you?”
He shook his head. He didn’t need her pity. “I’ve been told enough to get by. I wasn’t raised in a clan. My foster father was my teacher but he’s unaffiliated.”
She nodded, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Fair enough. I’m not insulting your intelligence or what you were taught, but you don’t understand how it works. When you expend magick—if you’re keyed into the font—the magick once performed will absorb back. It’s a collector of sorts.”
She must have seen his confusion.
“Okay, so you know energy never dies, it simply turns into something else. That’s physics. It’s not like I made it up. Anyway, the font doesn’t steal your magick. It collects whatever the magick dissipates into once the function is served. Like a cistern collects rainwater, for example. Only the dissipated energy once collected, will mature into magickal energy over time and be there should anyone need it.
“Essentially, if you were a registered user of the font, each time someone walked through those wards, a glimmer of energy would travel back to the font. But it can’t because you’re not keyed in. It’s either wasted or it amps up the witches here in the club. I don’t own a nightclub but I know enough to think that’s a dumb idea. Alcohol, pheromones and added magickal power is an unstable combination.”
She sat back, crossing her legs, flashing a slice of pale inner thigh. Good goddess, any minute he was going to drool or something. Even so, he wasn’t so far gone that he failed to notice the intelligence she possessed, the calm confidence with which she carried herself.
“We’re not like some of the other clans. I’m not here to hurt you, although I’d like to bite you, right there on your biceps. Just because it looks tasty.” She blushed a little bit, like she was surprised by her own words. He understood the feeling, being off balance at the moment as well.
“You should feel welcome to bite any part of me you like. Within reason.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Then her flirty nature disappeared as she clearly got back to business. “You have to key in or we’ll cut you off. We don’t negotiate on this. If you try to get into the font again, I won’t be back but our hunters will and they’re not nearly as nice as I am.” She shrugged after relaying the threat.
“You say no one has to be clan but clearly they do.”
She made a face, disappointed in that response. “You’re too pretty to be a whiner. Look, you’re powerful, I can see that, but you don’t have enough skill to ward this place on your own. You can key in with me, which I hasten to add will not automatically make you a member of Clan Owen. You’d have access to the font and, let’s be honest, shall we, some goodwill that might allow this place to stay open in our territory. Or you can try it on your own, without our font. You and I both know how that will end.”
“And then you’d be really hard to convince to go out with me.”
She paused and blushed, just a little. The openness of the moment slowed that time in between them for long moments.
She’d spent every day of her entire life around witches. There was always something comfortable about that. Sometimes it was also exciting or even arousing depending on the other witch. But this connection they had, the way she couldn’t stop thinking about touching him, the way the stamp of his magick caught her breath, that was something different. Deeper. A little scary and a lot exhilarating.
As it happened, she liked this man a lot and it pleased her to know he felt the same. He flirted really well too.
“Yes, very likely I’d be quite annoyed if you made me come all the way down here and refused to key in and then called me to ask me on a date. Say to Turandot, which is in town and something I quite love.” Her lips twitched into a breath of a smile before she resumed her best attempt at a calm expression.
“And, if you like, I can give you a bit of a primer on other things you may not know or understand about us.”
“I could key in with you?”
“Of course.” She waited for him to think over his answer. She wasn’t going to push him to rush his choice. He was a businessman, he’d know he had to do it to keep that doorway hidden. But he’d have to find a way to accept it because she had plenty of power to cut him off right then and there. One brief spell and she’d unravel all those ties to the font and his spellwork would slowly die off without all the energy he’d been thieving.
“And other things? I could do other things with you?”
She couldn’t deny it. When they did end up in bed, there’d be teeth marks and no few scratches. There was so much something between them. Energy? Yes, but that wasn’t quite it. Chemistry, yes. Attraction, sure. Potential. Yes, that’s what it felt like.
“Let’s start with keying in and we can discuss your definition of other things.” Her insides jittered, thrilled at the idea of working magick with him. Her power flowed, building within, filling, filling as she drew her shields away. Never had it been like this with anyone before.
Normally her magick would rise as she let her shields down, but this was a rush of energy. Surging in reaction to his. She knew she teased him now with hers. Knew tendrils of it slid over his, seducing. It brought her to her metaphorical knees.
The building could fall down around them and it wouldn’t matter. There was nothing else she wanted to do in the world but share magick with Dominic Bright.
“Do I have your permission to ward this room and set a circle?”
He’d been caught by the looks of her. Fascinated and ensnared by all the parts of her. Been impressed by her demeanor and intelligence. But the surge of her energies had washed over and through him with such force it was physical. His own shields had slid aside and his magick rose in response. The pleasure of it shocked straight to his toes. And another place or two.
Clearly working magick with a council witch was a far more intense thing than with a commonwealth witch. Whatever it was, it felt awesome and he wanted a lot more.
Admittedly, her explanation of how the font worked had made him feel better. Not that he really had that much of a choice. She’d been absolutely right when she’d said he didn’t have the skill to keep the wards and other spells working on his own. And he didn’t want any part in exposing his own people by being a selfish sloppy asshole.
“Yes. My permission is freely given.”