In the relative security of Atlantic City, Lindsay feels safe for the first time in his life. He and Dane even sneak away from their mage “family” for the occasional date.
All that ends with the arrival of Noah, whose magic is a pure, wild fire fueled by terrible grief over the loss of his wife. To Lindsay’s great surprise, he is assigned to be Noah’s mentor, protector and healer. Of course, his efforts to help Noah master his immense power aren’t without a few fiery slip-ups.
Just as Lindsay is rising to the challenge, word comes that Moore, the scientist who once imprisoned Lindsay, holds a young girl who has manifested a powerful new magic. The desperate mission to free her leaves Noah severely wounded, Dane captured…and Lindsay in charge of those who remain.
The fate of Dane and the lives of the family rest on Lindsay’s untested shoulders. He must trust in himself and his growing connection to Noah to save his lover, his friends, and everyone else who will suffer if Moore’s plans go unchecked.
Contains graphic language, violence, and explicit erotic content.
There were only a few photographs left in the box. Noah took one out carefully, holding it by a corner. One wrong thought and it would go up in flames. The carpet under his feet was dusted with ash and spotted with burns. Cradling the photo in his stiff hands, he sat on his bed and let the image draw him down into his memories.
Sun spilled across a stony beach and a sapphire lake, shredding into shadows and rays on the points of pines and cedars. Noah sat on a stone that jutted out into the lake like a prow and then plunged away hundreds of feet into the dark. Here, a glacier had pulled up short thousands of years ago, thought better of crawling south, and turned around to slink home, leaving a chain of lakes behind like footprints.
All around him, Noah could feel the weight of time and distance as well as the ephemeral presence of sun and stone and water. His camera was a familiar weight in his hands as he waited to capture the next perfect moment.
“I can’t believe you won’t come in.” A woman pulled herself up onto the stone at his feet, sprawling there like a mermaid. “You’re such a baby.” Her hair, wet, was barely darker than the sunlight. Her eyes were the same color as the lake.
“It’s cold,” he pointed out. He hated being cold.
“Only for a minute.” She got to her feet and took two steps closer, but turned her back on him and faced the water. “You can get used to anything, Noah. You’re strong.” She glanced back at him, just long enough for him to preserve her laughter, then she was gone.
One step, two steps, and her feet were off the ground. She was a pale sickle cutting the water. The water closed over her and all he could see was the white ghost of her diving deeper than he could go.
“She’s right, you know.” Noah’s sister sat on the bed beside him, bouncing him back into reality with her arrival.
Noah wiped his tears from the glossy face of the photograph. In the picture, his wife was still looking over her shoulder at him, still laughing.
“I don’t want to get used to it.” It hurt to move, but Noah pushed himself to his feet and took the photo back to the box on the table by the window. “I want to go swimming.”
“I don’t trust you to actually swim,” Rose said dryly.
“I’m not going to kill myself.” Noah was past the point of doing more than wishing for death.
“Being alive is punishment enough now?” Rose lay down on his bed with her head on his pillows. Looking at her had been like looking in a mirror, once. Now there was barely any familial resemblance. His hair was gone, his neck and jaw twisted with scars, his mouth twisted with pain.
Rose was right. Of course she was right, she was cherry-picking in his brain.
“Why are we talking?” Noah sat on the hope chest at the end of his bed, on one of the myriad quilts that cluttered the family home. His mother had eight children and a farm, and she still had to ward off boredom by making enough quilts to bury them all twice over.
“Because you’re keeping me out.” There wasn’t any criticism in Rose’s tone. Noah looked back at her and winced as fragile skin and scabs cracked on one side of his face.
“Am I?” He turned his attention inward and he could feel it, all the halls and doors of his mind overgrown and choked with the clutter of every bit of Elle he kept hoarding so he wouldn’t forget her. Behind it, in the center of him, there was a fire burning. “I’m sorry.” His hands were rough with scars when he covered his face with them.
“Noah. Noh. My Nonoh.” It was what she’d called him when they were babies.
Her soft arms wrapped around him from behind. They were almost a year apart, but they might as well have been twins. She cradled him against her; his back was barely scarred and she could rest against it. He could feel her strong heart overriding his, like it was beating for him.
“Let me in, Noh.”
He exhaled and pushed open the nearest door by leaning his will against it. “It’s a mess in here,” he warned her.
“I know. I’ve been in here enough since you came home.” Her voice wasn’t outside him anymore. “Someone had to keep it up until you came back. You were gone a long time.”
Gone. Not the time he’d spent away from the family, from the Quinn enclave deep in the Canadian North. Not the time he’d been out in the world without any magic to call his own. No, he had only truly left after the accident that had taken his wife. It had taken Elle and given him the magic he’d once learned to live without because he had her.
Gone. Every day, he woke on fire, his nerves screaming with the memory of burning and the absence of her and the heat of his wild magic. Every day, he was sorry his father had brought him back from the human world, dying—trying to die—and full of fire.
“You have to forgive the magic,” Rose said quietly. In his mind, she was sitting in the secret fort they’d shared as children. “It didn’t hurt you, it didn’t take her.”
“I know.” Noah sat on the dirt floor and picked up a twig to scratch at the earth. “You’d think I’d be able to make up a story I could live with. About how it was worth it in the end.”
“You used to tell the best stories. But you can’t make up stories like that.” When Noah looked back at Rose, she had a rag doll in her lap. “Those stories, you have to live, if you’re ever going to believe them.”
“Are you knocked up again?”
The moment broke and Rose tumbled out of his mind even as she fell back on the bed, laughing.
“You’re not the problem child around here, Noah,” she said, still laughing. She propped herself up on her elbows and shook her wild chestnut hair out of her face. “You just have problems.”
Noah held his hand out to her when she reached for him, the hand that was still missing the finger that had worn his wedding ring. She was careful not to tug too hard. The healers—his mother and Alice-from-up-river—were still working against his magic and his memories to heal him. The scars on the soul, the saying went, would never leave the flesh until they healed within.
“Come on, baby.”
He let his sister reel him in like a fish—his mind struggling against being comforted all the way—until he was lying beside her with his head on her shoulder. Once, it had been the other way around. Once, he’d been the one to hold her; his familiar thoughts and his impotent magic had made his presence tolerable, even with her mind torn wide open.
When their father thought she didn’t need him anymore, he’d left the enclave and he couldn’t be there for her. She’d had her magic and all the pain it gave her and he’d had nothing, and he would have traded places with her in an instant.
“I know you would have,” she said, in his head. “Like I would now, except that it really is beautiful on you.” In her third eye, he was a pillar of sunlight with a halo like the heart of a candle flame. “It’s yours. You’re going to be amazing.”
“Telling futures now?” He closed his eyes and listened to her sturdy heart.
“Best fortune teller is the past,” she quoted. “You always were amazing, Noah. You didn’t need magic to be magical. You’re not the one who watched you being beautiful all those years. People want to love you.”
“That’s what they call irony,” he said dully. Beauty was going to come slowly, if it came at all. There was only one love he wanted and the long years of his mage life stretched out like a galaxy between them now. Maybe he’d get— “Ow!”
Rose’s sharp nails left cruel little crescents of pain on his ear. “None of that.”
“Sorry.” Noah let the thought go and was rewarded by her kiss on his too-hot, too-thin scalp. “So, who’s Dad gonna kill this time?” He laid his hand on her soft belly, wondering who was in there instead of wishing he were dead.
“I have a list,” Rose said unapologetically, making him laugh with it.
“I love you.” He said it inside and outside.
A knock on the door was followed by the handle twisting and a dark head poking in. Ruthie.
“Hey, little bit.” Noah took a deep breath and pushed away all his negativity as he struggled to sit up without wincing. Ruthie was still waiting for her magic, still a spindly girl with unraveling braids and skinned knees. He always put on a good face for her. “Did you need something?”
“Daddy’s home,” she said solemnly, smoothing down her clean pinafore. “Mama says to come. He brought Nathan.”
Nathan had been sent all the way to Ireland, to a druid henge that needed a healer ready to step into the place left when one of the elders passed. The letter had come to them by way of the Australia Quinns, and Nathan had leapt at the chance to leave, even though it meant he might never return. That he’d come home could only mean one thing.
“You’re going,” Rose said softly.
“I know.” Noah got to his feet. Nathan had come to do what Mama and Alice couldn’t, to make him fit for the world again. “Thanks, sweetheart. Tell Daddy I’ll be right there.”
“You’re going?” Ruthie didn’t move, her small brown hand white-knuckled on the doorknob. She’d been stricken when he left the first time. “You can’t go. Who’s going to take care of you?”
“It’s important,” Rose said gently. “That’s how we survive, Twiglet.” She got up, shaking out her skirt in a gesture so much like their mother that it was eerie. “That’s how we make our families.”
“Noah’s sick, though.” Ruthie’s lower lip pushed out and her eyes glistened.
“His new home will make him better than his old one.” Rose looked over her shoulder at Noah, and he could feel the words she didn’t say: If he lets it. “Besides, they need him. He’s running late, this one. You know what they say.”
“I know.” Ruthie sucked it up and rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes. “Born by chance, bound by choice. It’s the way of it.” That sigh was their mother’s as well.
“Go get Kaylene for me, baby,” Rose said. “I hear her waking.”
“Okay!” Just like that, sorrows forgotten, Ruthie was gone with the flash of a smile and the thunder of bare feet. She was no end of proud about being allowed to take charge of Rose’s first, who was turning two. Babies were a good cure for sadness, Mama always said. Noah never asked what it meant that she had so many.
“You look like crap,” Rose said matter-of-factly. “Let’s hope Nathan can do something for you, or whoever gets you is going to send you back with a complaint.”
“Shut up or I’ll tell Dad you’re knocked up.” Noah tried to stifle his terror and emptiness and the yawning dark that whispered about it being easier to lie down and not get up instead of facing the world.
“Oh, I’m already a ruined woman. It’s only a shock once.” Rose came over and kissed his cheek. “It’s good that Nathan came to help you get ready. You need to go.”
“What?” That felt like betrayal, that she hadn’t told him he was ready to leave. He couldn’t see it from inside his unhappiness.
“Oh, Noah.” Rose stopped in the doorway and laughed at him. “You’re burning the carpet. Try not to do that in your new house.”
Fire was dripping from his fingers, and Noah swore as he stamped out the smoldering carpet and shook off the flames. The old bracelet he wore—the barre salvetet—was supposed to stop the magic leaking out, but nothing was quite enough.
Noah didn’t blame his father for sending him away; Abram couldn’t have his oldest son cluttering up the house. It wasn’t seemly. People might think Abram was hoarding his children, what with Rose still living here. Besides, all the common wisdom said Rose was right. He needed to go, if he was going to keep living. Here, he had too much time to hate himself, and too many reminders of all the reasons he should—no one could heal with the wounds pulled open every morning.
Lindsay’s heart pounded, and adrenaline surged through his veins. The few seconds he took to glance behind him were wasted; he couldn’t see past the mass of people moving in and out of the casinos.
Line of sight didn’t matter to the hunter on Lindsay’s heels. He was coming, whether Lindsay could see him or not. Lindsay couldn’t wait anymore, trying to catch a glimpse of him.
He turned and ran, losing himself in the crowd. The boardwalk was packed, a midday rush of bodies seeking sustenance away from the blackjack tables and the slot machines, and once his magic settled into place, he fit right in. Panicking was the worst thing he could do. Predators could sense fear. He wasn’t prey anymore.
He slipped past a rickshaw and into the Taj Mahal, through the entrance lit with bright red neon even during the day. The inside was as crammed with tourists as the street out front. Lindsay wound his way through, between slots and poker and men saying, “Hit me,” like they knew what they were doing. The sea of anonymity gave him a moment to catch his breath and figure out where to go next.
There was no way to tell time in here, and Lindsay didn’t wear a watch, but he knew he’d stayed too long when the urgency of Dane’s hunting instincts began creeping into his mind. Even the thick scents of smoke, cologne and perfume wouldn’t mask him much longer. Out on the boardwalk, the wind would sweep his smell away into the mélange of salt water and seaweed and popcorn and hotdogs and sweat.
He took the stairs by twos, dodging women in stiletto heels and tight dresses and men with comb-overs and potbellies. He couldn’t risk getting caught in the elevators. Dane was close, and if Lindsay didn’t make it to Steel Pier first, he’d be back at square one. Again.
He’d been practicing using magic to hide himself for months now and, every time, Dane had been able to find him. This time, he’d done more than change his appearance, though. He’d altered his scent, and he’d been careful not to speak to keep from giving himself away that way either. Now, he had to make it to the carousel before Dane found him. There was no time to enjoy the view from the skywalk. He raced across as fast as his legs and lungs would allow. Dane wasn’t far behind.
It had taken Lindsay weeks to master the skill of running full tilt through a world that couldn’t see him coming. Vaulting over a toddler, Lindsay hitched himself up on the rail of the stairs and slid down, catching himself at the bottom just before he fell. If nothing else, all this practice had made him an excellent sprinter—he was hardly even winded.
From the base of the stairs, he could see straight out onto Steel Pier, where the white horses of the double-decker carousel stood ready to carry their next riders. Almost there. Lindsay kept going, letting the momentum of the trip down the stairs carry him. It felt like his feet hardly touched the ground when he ran.
Arms, legs and hair flying, he came to a complete stop as an arm as strong as a steel bar wrapped around his waist and took him off his feet.
“Almost, little bunny,” Dane rumbled in his ear. “But not quite.” Dane bit his ear and growled. “Tasty bunny.”
Fueled by adrenaline, Lindsay struggled at first, heart pounding and elbows flying. That voice, though… That voice got him every time, and the bite left him shivering with more than thwarted energy.
“Would’ve made it if that kid hadn’t been in the way,” he said, throwing up a token protest. He hadn’t made it, and that was what mattered. Dane must have cut around and hidden in a shadowed alcove under the stairs. “Next time.”
Dane purred and licked the hollow under his ear. “Maybe.” His voice had a raw, predatory edge to it. “Even when you don’t smell like you, you do.” He pulled Lindsay out of the way of oblivious tourists passing around them, into the alcove, and trapped Lindsay against him with both arms. “Good.”
He snuffled in Lindsay’s hair with another growl. There was no telling when he’d be done making sure Lindsay was all his all over again. Sometimes it was brief, a kiss and a snuggle. Other times, Lindsay ended up more than a little disheveled and—if the circumstances were right—quite a bit ravished. Putting Dane in hunting mode had its benefits.
Lindsay wriggled in Dane’s arms, turning to face him. He wanted real kisses, a reward for making it as far as he had. Farther than he’d ever gotten before. Dane’s teeth were sharp against his lips, but that only made the kisses more intense.
Dane’s next growl was louder and deeper, a rumble that went right through Lindsay. He spun them both around, pushing Lindsay up against the wall, one hand in his hair, the other working up under his shirt. Dane’s teeth were sharp and slick on Lindsay’s throat as he kissed his way down. He never asked Lindsay to hide them, or asked if they were hidden. It was up to Lindsay to maintain decorum. The ability to become less feral hadn’t changed Dane at all.
No one could hear them, but Lindsay swallowed down his moan anyway, and tangled his fingers in Dane’s hair, dragging him back up for a kiss on the mouth. As much as he would’ve liked to win their game, losing had its own rewards.
Something popped in Lindsay’s ear, and a puff of air blew their hair in all directions. “Training?” The voice on the wind was arch and as chilly as the wisp of breeze that tickled past Lindsay’s cheek. Cyrus. The wind could find him from time to time, if Lindsay weren’t careful. He wasn’t sure how—Cyrus couldn’t, from what he could tell. Just the wind.
He slumped against the wall and fought down the annoyance that bubbled up inside him. “I failed. Again.”
“Are you sure you’re trying to succeed?” the wind wondered. “No matter. We will find out how successful you are when it is not you alone who fails. Come now.”