Love spells are a lot like platform diving. Once you start the process, there’s no going back, and the end will be fugly if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.
−Mariketa the Awaited
Mercenary of the Wiccae, Future Leader of the House of Witches
Witches are good for one thing.
−Bowen Graeme MacRieve
Third in line for the Lykae throne
The Forest of Three Bridges
It wants to mark my flesh . . . The full moon beat light down on a canvas of snow and barren trees, making Mariah’s hunter green dress glow as distinctly as a beacon for the beast pursuing her.
Mark me with its teeth, she thought wildly as she leapt across an icy rivulet.When the beast’s frenzied roar echoed through the forest, she stumbled at the embankment. Frantically scrambling up, she continued her flight for home.
Birch branches clawed at her hair and raked her cold-numbed face. As she twisted from their grasp, snow began to fall once more, blurring her vision. Another bellow in the dark silenced night creatures; the sound of her ragged breaths became deafening.
Bowen, the man she’d loved since she was a girl, had warned her of the full moon, preparing her: “I will change, Mariah. I canna control it. And you are vulnerable to harm still . . .”
She’d insisted on meeting him this night, because she’d known how critical this time was for him—and because she was anxious to make up for denying his desires again and again. But then, at this last hour, her courage failed her. She’d looked upon the face of her beloved, and the moon had revealed a monster in his place.
It had known she was horrified. Its eyes, glowing ice blue, had been filled with an animal-like yearning until they narrowed with comprehension. “Run . . . Mariah,” it had grated in an unfamiliar rasp. “Get to the . . . castle. Lock yourself away . . . from me.”
She could hear him crashing toward her, ever nearer, but she was almost there. Reaching the edge of the forest, she saw her home in the snowy plain below her—a castle towering amidst the confluence of their kingdom’s three great rivers. So close.
Mariah raced for the familiar winding path that would lead her down. As soon as she alighted upon it, movement exploded before her eyes. Suddenly the air teemed with ravens, shooting up all around her, wings batting her numbed face. Swinging at them blindly, she stumbled and lost her footing on the icy, root-strewn path.
Weightlessness . . . falling . . . tumbling down the side of the ravine . . . The impact wrenched the breath from her lungs and made her sight darken. Falling still . . .
When she landed at the bottom, it was to a sickening wet sound as some force punched through her stomach. Unimaginable pain erupted through her. She gaped in incomprehension at the sharp stump jutting up from her body. No . . . No . . . cannot be.
As the pain dimmed to only a chilling sensation of pressure within her, she weakly grasped the remains of an axed-down birch, felled by one of her kingdom’s woodsmen.
With each breath, blood bubbled from her mouth. It dripped from her face into the snow, as softly as tears.
Mariah of the Three Bridges would die in the moon’s shadow of her own home.
In a daze, staring at the sky, she listened while the beast crashed toward her impossibly faster, as if scenting the blood. Before it could reach Mariah, she recognized she was no longer alone.
Just after she spied more ravens circling overhead, icy lips meet hers. Emptiness and chaos seeped through her like a disease. As she writhed futilely, a voice inside Mariah’s head spoke of this night, a wintry eve brimming with purpose.
“Die,” the voice whispered against Mariah’s bloody mouth. Immediately, she perceived the stillness of her heart. Her lungs ceased their labors and the mask of pain on her face slackened.
The presence faded, replaced by another. Mariah’s last sight was the beast, roaring in agony to the moon, clawing at its chest with wild sorrow.
Tomb of the Incubi, the jungles of Guatemala
Day 3 of the Talisman’s Hie
Prize: Four Mayan sacrificial headdresses, each worth seven points
“Stalking me, Mr. MacRieve?” Mariketa the Awaited asked the Lykae behind her without turning around. In the dark of a corridor leading to a burial chamber, Bowen MacRieve had been following her silently. But she’d felt him staring at her—just as she had at the Talisman’s Hie assembly three nights ago.
“No’ likely, witch.” How could such a rumbling Scots’ burr sound so menacing? “I only stalk what I want to catch.”
Mari did turn to slant him a glance at that, even knowing he couldn’t see her face under the hood of the scarlet cloak she always wore. But by the light of her lantern hanging over her shoulder, she could see his, and used the cover to disguise her long, appreciative look.
She inwardly sighed. Lykae males were notoriously good-looking, and the few she’d seen had lived up to their reputation, but this one was heart-poundingly sexy.
He had black hair, stick straight and thick, reaching to the collar of his obviously expensive shirt. His body—which she’d found herself thinking about frequently over the past few days—was sublime. He stood a good bit over six feet tall, and though the corridor was wide enough for two normal-size people to pass, his broad shoulders and big, rangy build filled the space.
But even with all his many attractions, his eyes were what made him so unique. They were the color of rich, warm amber, and yet there was a kind of sinister light to them, which she liked.
She was a little sinister, too.
“Look your fill?” he asked, his tone scathing. Yes, he was sexy, but unfortunately his dislike of witches was well known.
“I’m done with you,” she answered and meant it. She didn’t have time to pine after brusque werewolf warriors if she planned to be the first of her kind ever to win the Hie, an immortal scavenger hunt à la The Amazing Race.
With an inward shrug, she continued on toward yet another burial chamber. This was the tenth she’d investigated over the hours she and several other competitors had been down deep inside this never-ending Mayan tomb.
She might have surprised him with her curt dismissal because a moment passed before he followed her. The only sounds in the echoing space were his heavy footfalls that he no longer bothered to muffle. The silence between them was grueling.
“Who opened the stone slab to the tomb?” he finally asked, trailing far too closely behind her.
“The three elven archers and a couple of demons.” The archers, two males and a female, were deadly shooters with lightning-quick speed, and the male rage demons were incredibly powerful—second in physical strength only to the Lykae. Yet even for them, the stone portcullis sealing the tomb’s entrance had been nearly impossible to budge.
They’d realized the entire pyramidal structure had shifted from time and earthquakes and now rested on the portcullis, making it weigh tons. Raising it had taken all of the others cooperating—with the two demons lifting it and the archers shoving an enormous boulder under it to prop it open.
“And they just let you enter after their effort?”
She stopped and faced him again. “What should they have done, Mr. MacRieve?” The others had not only allowed her to enter. Though she barely knew any of them, they had wanted to work together since there were four prizes. Cade, one of the demons, had even helped her climb down the dozen feet from the outer entrance into the first anteroom. Then they’d all split up to cover the maze of chambers and vowed to the Lore to alert the others of a find.
MacRieve’s smile was a cruel twist of his lips. “I know exactly what I would have done.”
“I know exactly how I would have retaliated.” He seemed surprised that she didn’t fear him, but the truth was that she didn’t spook easily—when not faced with heights or unnecessarily large insects. And she was well aware of how vicious the Hie competitors could be as they raced around the world for prizes.
This ruthlessness in the Hie was why Marihad been sent by the House of Witches to compete, even though she was only twenty-three and hailed from the shady New Orleans coven, the slacker Animal House of witches. And even though she had not yet made the turn from mortal to immortal.
But Mari was not above trickery, and unlike many witches, she would not hesitate to use magick to harm another if they deserved it—and if she could manage it with her volatile powers.
MacRieve closed in until nearly seven feet of seething werewolf male loomed over her. He was at least a foot taller than she was and hundreds of times stronger, but she forced herself to stand her ground.
“Watch your step, little witch. You doona wish to anger one such as me.”
The grand prize for the Hie was an object called Thrane’s Key, a key which allowed its possessor to go back in time—not just once but twice. For a tool like that, she knew he was ready to take her out of the contest. So she had to convince him that it was impossible for him to do so.
“Likewise, you shouldn’t anger me.” Her voice was steady as she looked up at him. “Remember that I could turn your blood to acid as an afterthought,” she said, baldly lying.
“Aye, I’ve heard rumors of your power.” He narrowed his eyes. “Curious though, that you dinna open the tomb with one flick of your finger.”
Yes, she might have managed to lift the portcullis—with concentration, an unprecedented bout of luck, and the absence of a hangover. Oh, and if she were in mortal danger.
Unfortunately, her power was adrenaline-based, making it as infinite as it was uncontrollable.
“You think I should use magick like mine to open a tomb?” Mari asked in a scoffing tone. Mistress of bluffing, working it here. “That’d be like calling you in to lift a feather.”
He tilted his head, sizing her up. After what seemed like an hour, he began walking again.
Mari gave an inward sigh of relief. If anyone in the Lore found out how vulnerable she really was, she’d be doomed. She knew this, but no matter how hard she worked, whenever she manifested and unleashed significant power, things ended up exploding.
As her befuddled mentor Elianna explained, “Horses have powerful legs—but that doesn’t mean they’re prima ballerinas.” The ancient Elianna trained with Mari daily to control the destructive nature of her spells, because she believed the subtle magicks invoked the most fear in their enemies.
And the House of Witches brokered in fear.
The corridor finally ended at a broad, high wall, covered in carvings of ghoulish faces and animals. Mari lifted her lantern high and the reliefs seemed to move in shadow. They’d apparently been put there to guard a small tunnel opening near the floor, which itself was made out like a gaping mouth with fangs dropping down.
She waved the Lykae forward. “Age before beauty, Mr. MacRieve.” She sized him up again, then studied the small opening, which couldn’t be more than three feet square. “If you think you can fit.”
He stood motionless, clearly not about to be directed. “Only humans call me Mr. MacRieve.”
She shrugged. “I’m not a human.” Her mother was a fey druidess, and her late father had been a warlock of questionable repute. So Mari was a fey witch or a “weylock,” as her buddies teased. “So would you like me to call you Bowen, or Bowe for short?”
“Bowe is what my friends call me, so you doona.”
What an ass . . . “No problem. I have a slew of other more fitting names for you. Most of them end in er.”
He ignored her comment. “You in the tunnel first.”
“Don’t you think it’d be unbecoming for me to be on my hands and knees in front of you? Besides, you don’t need my lantern to see in the dark, and if you go first, you’ll be sure to lose me and get to the prize first.”
“I doona like anything, or anyone, at my back.” He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned a shoulder against a snarling visage on the stone wall. She’d never seen a Lykae turn into its towering werewolf form, but knew from those who had that this male could be as frightening as any monster real or imagined. “And you’ll have your little red cloak on,” he continued, “so I will no’ be able to see anything about you that might be . . . unbecoming.”
“Twisting my words? I’ll have you know that I am criminally cute—”
“Then why hide behind a cloak?”
“I’m not hiding.” In fact, that was precisely what she was doing. “And I like to wear it.” She hated it.
Even before her birth, she’d been predicted to be the Awaited One, the most powerful born to the House of Witches in centuries—but four years ago, it was also foretold that a male from the Lore would recognize her as his own and claim her. He would seek to lock her away, guarding her with a ferocity that no magicks could defeat, thus robbing the House of her powers.
Since the prediction, she’d been forced to cover herself every single time she set foot outside her home. Needless to say, the robust dating life of her late teens had taken a hit.
She sported the cloak—a red one because she was a Scarlet Letter-type rebel at heart—and as a backup, she also hid behind a magickal glamour that disguised her looks, the tone of her voice, and her scent.
If a male like MacRieve did see her, he would perceive a brunette with blue eyes—when in fact she was a redhead with gray eyes—and he would have difficulty recalling anything that was the same, like her features, her figure, or the length of her hair. The glamour was so second nature that she hardly thought about it anymore.
Even with all these precautions, it followed that unattached males in the Lore were to be avoided. Yet Mari had heard at the Hie assembly—a gossip fest if she’d ever seen one—that MacRieve had already found his mate and lost her more than a century ago.
Mari had felt sympathy for him. A Lykae’s entire existence centered around his mate, and in his long immortal life, he would get only one—just one chance in an eternity to find happiness.
When she saw he wasn’t budging, she muttered, “Fine. Beauty before age.” She unlooped her lantern strap and crawled in. The space was tighter than she’d imagined, but she didn’t have time to rethink her decision because he climbed in directly after her. Resigned, she exhaled and held her lantern up to light her way.
The stone was cool and moist and she was glad for her cloak—until she caught her knee on the end, and the tie around her neck yanked her head down. When it happened again, she shimmied, working the material back so that it flowed behind her as she made progress forward. There. Better.
Five seconds later: “MacRieve, you’re on my cloak. Let up—”
Before she could react, he reached between her knees and then up against her chest to slice the tie at her neck with one claw. Her eyes went wide and she dropped her light to snatch fistfuls of cloth, but he jerked the cloak out of her grasp.
“Give it back!”
“It was slowing you—and therefore me—down.”
She gritted her teeth, struggling to control her temper. “If you had gone first—”
“I dinna. If you want it, why no’ use magick to take it from me?”
Did he suspect how volatile her power was? Was he sussing out her weaknesses? “You really do not want me to do that.”
“You really must no’ want your cloak back. Come then, witchling, just take it from me.”
Glamour or not, she had grown used to the physical security of the garment. And when she realized she wasn’t getting it back from him, Mari just checked the urge to rub her bared arms. All at once, she became very much aware of how high her hiking shorts were on her thighs and how her tank top was riding up, about to reveal the mark on her lower back.
She steeled herself and made her tone nonchalant. “Keep the cloak.” Though she knew he was ogling her, she forced herself to put one knee in front of the other. “It’ll be worth money one day.”
After a few moments, he said, “Doona fret, witch. You’re no’ so unbecoming from my angle. Bit scrawny where it counts, but no’ too bad.”
Yep, ogling. Many adjectives could be used to describe her ass, but scrawny was not among them. He’s just making these comments and brushing up against you to unnerve you. Knowing that didn’t make his efforts less effective! “Scrawny where it counts, MacRieve? Funny, I’d heard the same about you.”
He gave a kind of humorless half chuckle and finally followed. “No’ likely. Maybe you’re just too young to have heard the rumors about Lykae males. Tender wee ears and such.”
No, she’d heard. And over the last couple of days, she had wondered about that rumor and if it applied to him.
How long was this damned tunnel—
“Still, lass,” he grated. Her eyes widened again when she felt his hot palm lying flat against the back of her thigh. “There’s a scorpion tangled up in all that hair of yours.”
“Get your hand off me, MacRieve! You think I can’t see what you’re doing? I’ve been scanning every inch of this tunnel—I would have seen a scorpion.” When she started again, he squeezed her leg. His thumb claw pressed against her skin, high on her inner thigh, sending an unexpected shot of pleasure through her. She had to stifle a shiver.
It was only after she felt a whisper of touch over her hair that she got her wits again. “Like I’m supposed to believe there’s a scorpion and it just happens to be in the tunnel we’re crawling in and then in my hair? Any other creature-feature props you’d like to reference? Is there a mummy’s hand tangled up in there? I’m really surprised you didn’t go with ‘classic tarantula.’”
His arm shot out between her legs—again—jostling against the front of her body as he tossed something in front of her. Something with mass. She held her lantern farther forward—
The sight of a scorpion as big as her hand had her scrambling back . . . wedging herself firmly against MacRieve—in a very awkward position to be in with anyone, but especially with a werewolf.
He stiffened all around her. Every inch of him. She felt his arms bulging over her shoulders and his chiseled abs taut over her back.
His growing erection strained thick against her backside. So the rumors about werewolf males are true, she thought dazedly. Exhibit A is quite insistent.
“Move forward,” he said, grating the words. He was breathing heavily right over her ear.
“No way. Kind of between a scorpion and a hard place here.” She bit her lip, wishing one of her friends had heard her say that.
He eased back from her. “I killed it,” he said between breaths. “You can pass, just doona let it touch you.”
“Why do you care?” She frowned to find herself feeling chilled without him over her.
“Doona. A sting will slow you down. And I’m behind you, remember?”
“Like I’m going to forget that anytime soon.” Then his callous words sunk in. “Hey, werewolf, aren’t you supposed to gnaw on your prey or play with it with shuffling paws or something? Want me to save it for you?”
“I could put it back where I found it, witch.”
“I could turn you into a toad.” Maybe an exploded toad.
Without warning, he fingered the small, black tattoo on her lower back. “What does this script mean?”
She did gasp then, as much from the shock of his touch there as from her visceral reaction to it. She wanted to arch up to his hand and couldn’t understand why. She snapped, “Are you done groping me?“
“Canna say. Tell me what the marking means.”
Mari had no idea. She’d had it ever since she could remember. All she knew was that her mother used to write out that mysterious lettering in all of her correspondence. Or, at least her mother had before she’d abandoned Mari in New Orleans to go on her two-hundred-year-long druid sabbatical—
He tapped her there, impatiently awaiting an answer.
“It means drunk and lost a bet. Now keep your hands to yourself unless you want to be an amphibian.” When the opening emerged ahead, she crawled heedlessly for it and scrambled out with her lantern swinging wildly. She’d taken only three steps into the new chamber before he’d caught her wrist, spinning her around.
As his gaze raked over her, he reached forward and pulled a lock of her long hair over her shoulder. He seemed unaware that he was languidly rubbing his thumb over the curl. “Why hide this face behind a cloak?” he murmured, cocking his head to the side as he studied her. “No’ a damn thing’s wrong with you that I can tell. But you look fey. Explains the name.”
“How can I resist these suave compliments?” He was right about the name though. Many of the fey had names beginning in Mari or Kari.
She gave his light hold on her hair a pointed look, and he dropped it like it was hot, then scowled at her as if she were to blame.
“Right now you’re working your spells, are you no’?” He actually leaned in to scent her.
“No, not at all. Believe me, you’d know.”
As if he hadn’t heard her, he continued, “Aye, you are.” His expression was growing more savage by the instant. “Just as you were born to do.”
But for some reason she wasn’t afraid. She was . . . excited. He must have seen something in her eyes that he didn’t like, because he abruptly turned from her.
As he surveyed their surroundings, she scrutinized him, searching for a single thing about his appearance that she didn’t find sexy—and failing.
All immortals were “frozen” into their immortality when they reached the peak of their strength and were best able to survive. But MacRieve had turned later than other males she’d seen in the Lore. He appeared as though he’d aged to be at least thirty-five. And, damn, it was a good look for him.
His clothes were well made but raffish. A small, ancient-looking medallion hung from a short length of leather around his neck, and a large hunting knife was strapped to his belt. He made Indiana Jones look like a poser pretty boy.
MacRieve also wore a whip at his side, no doubt to be prepared for an encounter with the vampire who’d entered the Hie. Like many demons, vampires could teleport—or trace—making them impossible to vanquish. Mari knew that some younger vampires could be trapped with a whip, preventing them from tracing and making them easier to kill.
That night at the assembly, MacRieve had clashed against the vampire in a bloody, vicious brawl, yet never had Mari seen anything so beautiful as the way he’d moved. The fight had been broken up by a Valkyrie, but Mari could have watched him for hours. . . .
When MacRieve visibly tensed, she followed his gaze. There, toward the back wall was a sarcophagus, the first she’d seen. A headdress would have to be within!
They both raced forward, colliding right before it.
With a growl he grabbed her arms to toss her away, his gaze already back on the crypt, but then he did a double take, frowning at her. He faced her fully as his grip eased on her. “You actually think to play with me?” His hands skimmed down her arms, then rested on her hips.
She exhaled a shaky breath. “Why do you assume I’m working spells?” She might have the requisite adrenaline flowing, but knew she couldn’t focus it. Especially not since she could feel the heat of his rough hands through the material of her shorts.
“For one hundred and eighty years I’ve no’ touched another.” He leaned in closer to her. “Have never even given a woman a second look. But now I canna seem to keep my hands off a slip of a witch,” he rasped at her ear. “A witch who has me feeling like I’ll die if I doona find out what it’d be like to kiss her.” He drew back, his face a mask of rage. “O’ course it’s a goddamned spell.“
He wanted to kiss her now? Why now? He’d been faithful to his dead mate all this time? The idea softened something inside her—even as alarm trickled in.
What if she was working a spell? Elianna had once advised Mari to be careful what she wished for. When Mari had nodded at the old truism, Elianna had added, “No. Really. Be careful. We don’t know the extent of your powers, and many witches can effect their desires with a mere thought.”
Did Mari want to kiss Bowen MacRieve so badly that she was enthralling him?
When he lifted her onto the sarcophagus and wedged his hips between her legs, she suspected she might. She swallowed. “I take it you plan to find out what it’d be like?”
The battle raging inside him was clear on his face. “Stop this, Mariketa.” The way he rumbled her name with his accent made her melt. He removed his hands from her, but when he rested them beside her hips, his fingers curled until his dark claws dug into the stone. “Can you no’ ken why I’m in this contest? I seek her again and wish to be true.”
He wanted his mate back. Of course. He wanted to use Thrane’s Key to go back in time and prevent her death. Surprisingly, Mari resented the woman who’d engendered such loyalty in this warrior for so many years. “I’m not . . . or I don’t mean to be . . . doing anything to you,” Mari whispered, but the way she was reacting to his scent, his mesmerizing eyes, and his hard body between her thighs belied the words.
There was an aura about him that was staggering to her, making it difficult to think. It wasn’t mere male heat and sensuality. It was raw sexuality, animalistic in its intensity—and she was starving for it.
Ah, gods, she did want him to kiss her. Wanted it with everything that she was and willed him to do so. Want me as fiercely as I want you . . . desire me as you’ve never desired another.
He cupped the back of her neck, staring down at her. As she gazed up in fascination, the amber of his eyes turned to ice blue. He seemed desperate to recognize something in her, and when he clearly didn’t find it, his hand on her began to shake. “Damn you, witch, I doona want another.”
She suddenly knew two things: He was about to kiss her so fiercely she would never be the same again.
And he would hate himself for it afterward and despise her forever . . .
The witch seethed with power. Spells and magicks swirled about her. Bowe could sense them, could perceive them tangling around him, binding him to her—because she was beckoning him to kiss her . . .
No, he couldn’t get distracted from his aim! He wouldn’t. So much was at stake with this competition. His past, his future. He knew this—knew what he was fighting for—so why couldn’t he drag his eyes away from the witch’s face?
As she gazed up at him, her features seemed to shift. Her irises briefly flickered from an ordinary blue to a stormy, intense gray. She licked her lips, and right before him they turned from pink to the deepest, most enticing red. His shaft throbbed harder, straining against his pants.
Yes, he had to taste her. To walk away without knowing what those glistening lips promised . . . ? Impossible. Not after beholding the body she’d concealed beneath her cloak. She was lush, surprisingly curvy with high, plump breasts. And in that tunnel, when he’d gazed upon her crawling in front of him, the allure of her generous hips and arse had been as strong as a siren’s call to him. He’d have followed her for miles, hard as rock, heart thundering in anticipation.
Then to be wedged against her in that position? Hell, he’d just stopped himself from thrusting uncontrollably against her—
“Bowen . . .” she whispered, an edge of need in her voice.
The witch wanted; he was helpless not to give.
His first kiss in nearly two centuries.
Pulling her closer with his hand at her nape, he leaned down and took her mouth with his. The merest contact rocked him. From the first touch, he felt how giving her lips were, parting in welcome. She gave a cry against him, and her palms traced up his chest to rest at his neck, her fingers twining in his hair.
He slipped his tongue into her mouth, and she met it with her own, with slow, wicked laps that made him inhale sharply to groan against her. His free hand grasped her waist to hold her as he deepened the kiss, and she moaned her approval, going soft against him.
She was the one enthralling him, so why did she seem to be going out of her head with desire? She seemed . . . lost for him. When would she pull back? Surely he couldn’t be expected to. She would tell him to stop, and he would somehow manage to relinquish what he desired, as he had hundreds of times before.
But she didn’t tell him. Between licks, she whispered, “Yes, Bowen, yes.” Instead of checking his lust, she urged him on, as if she wanted him, a Lykae, to lose control.
He clutched her neck hard. For over a thousand years, he’d unwaveringly scorned witches. Yet now he was savoring the wanton, drugging kiss of one—a soft, ruby-lipped witch, who, he feared, could make all his sexual dreams come true. Having been without sex for so long, Bowe dreamed about it constantly.
To be lost after so long . . . Follow her into oblivion. Follow her down.
* * *
At last Mari sensed him letting go, growing more aggressive, turning as fierce as she’d expected.
His kiss was hard and heated as he claimed her mouth. And she was more than ready to match his need. She found herself going up on her knees, brazenly pressing her body into his, feeling his unyielding erection against her belly.
She would become an immortal soon, she sensed it, and everyone had told her the flood of desires she’d experience leading up to the change would be strong. So far it had proved overwhelming. Was that what was happening here? Was she enjoying her first taste of lust between two immortals?
He was the most sinful kisser she’d ever had, and she knew she wasn’t going to get another chance with him ever. So she gripped his head, kissing him as if her life depended on it.
When she’d made love in the past, Mari had felt that something vital was missing, something she’d feared she couldn’t do without for much longer. Now she knew what she’d missed. Intensity. That hectic passion so strong it made good sense—made thought itself—fade to nothing but feeling. He could give that to her.
With the hand gripping her waist, he rubbed his thumb up and down her torso. When he made contact with the small ring at her navel, he drew a quick, surprised breath against her lips.
His shaking hand finally trailed lower. . . .
Aching to touch him as well, she ran her fingers down his broad chest. Just as she reached the waist of his jeans, he began working his fingers into her shorts. Their kiss grew more desperate.
When she thought about them touching each other like this, pleasuring each other, she couldn’t prevent her hips from rocking up to his hand. But when her curious fingertips dipped down, and she brushed the broad, slick head of his erection, he jerked as if in shock at the touch, as if she’d seared him.
He grabbed her wrist, seeming to decide if he should pull her hand away or press it against him. “Need this,” he finally rasped, forcing her hand into the heat of his jeans to grip his thick shaft. “So damned much.”
“Yes!” she cried, feeling him stroking at the lace edge of her panties.
He groaned and reached lower. When he cupped the wet flesh between her legs, he shuddered, thrusting himself into her fist.
Just when she had no doubt they were about indulge in each other, he stilled. Even as his erection throbbed in her grip, and his breaths were ragged, he withdrew his hand from her and shook his head hard. “But canna have it.”
Suddenly, he snatched her hand from him, squeezing her wrist so tightly, magick began building in her palm in reflex. His ghostly blue eyes flickered over the light. Then, as if reminded of what she was, he looked disgusted with her. His voice low, he said, “Quit the Hie, witch.”
She slowly shook her head. “Not on your life, MacRieve.” Not after everything she’d done to get here. And not when the next Hie wouldn’t be for another two hundred and fifty years.
His lips were subtly drawing back to bare his lengthening fangs. “Vow you’ll quit, or I swear I will make it so you do no’ distract me again.”
“I wasn’t trying to distract you—”
“Bullshite!” He shoved aside the sarcophagus cover she was perched on, jarring her. His hand rooted down, and he plucked out the headdress—a stunning gold and jade piece. “You could almost make me forget what I really want.” Fisting his fingers around it, he cast her a menacing smile. They both knew that all he had to do was lift the prize above his heart, and it would travel to Riora, the goddess of the Hie. He raised it, and the headdress disappeared; for a second afterward, Mari felt the magick, clear and true, and smelled the goddess’s forest temple halfway around the world.
So easily, Mari had just lost those points—or had had them taken from her.
“Do you really think you can defeat me?” he demanded. “And if no’ me, then the Valkyrie or the vampire?”
“A seer predicted Kaderin will lose the Hie for once. This is anyone’s game.”
He eyed her. “You know why I will win. What do you seek?”
To show everyone! “It’s personal,” she said instead. “Look, we could team up. The key works twice.”
“Team with you? What could you possibly offer me?” The expression he gave her said he was amused by her statement. Her eyes narrowed. He shouldn’t be amused.
“I’m not without skills, MacRieve. I won the first two tasks I undertook.” Mari could be surprisingly effective for someone who rarely put herself in challenging situations. When she did decide to work for something, she worked hard. In the Hie, she had to work harder merely because she was a mortal. “And I do believe I beat you here.”
“Do you have any idea how much I despise witches?”
Many Lorekind did. Witches were feared and mistrusted, used only for their purchased spells. And that disdain had never bothered her so much as it did now. “No, that fact escaped me when you were sticking your tongue in my mouth.”
The reminder seemed to enrage him. “You will no’ take yourself from the hunt? Then I’ll take the hunt from you.” He twisted away from her, then charged for the tunnel.
Suspecting what he planned to do, she felt panic—and magick—rising up within her. After a sharp shake of her head, she hurried after him. “Wait, MacRieve!” When she got to the tunnel, he was already climbing out the other end. A concentration of magick built in her palm, and she threw a beam of it at him. Didn’t know what she expected . . .
Though it shot straight as a laser, it just missed him. Once the tunnel was cleared of everything but after sparks and residual power flares, he leaned down to give her a black look, then disappeared.
Snatching up her lantern, she crawled through that awful space, breaths panicked and sharp, magick cloying about her. Once freed of the tunnel, she dashed down corridors, finally reaching the first anteroom.
The tomb’s entryway was at least twelve feet above this chamber’s floor. She arrived in time to see him leap the distance, easily clearing it.
As he gazed down at her from the opening, his eyes looked crazed, and she saw he was turning more fully. An image of a furious beast flickered over him. He ducked down, positioning himself under the portcullis. When he raised his hands above him to grip it, she said, “Don’t do this, MacRieve.”
He hefted the weight—with difficulty, but by himself. Two demons had labored with that feat. And the colossal stone that the three archers had struggled to shove under it? MacRieve simply kicked it away, toppling it from the ledge into the space near Mari.
As if her thoughts of them brought the other competitors, the archers entered the outer chamber, their easy smiles lit in the glow of their lanterns. When the three saw her, they appeared shocked that she wasn’t in her cloak. Each gaze locked on her pointed ears. “Mariketa, you’re fey, like us?” Tera, the female asked. “It was rumored at the assembly . . .”
Tera trailed off when Mari nervously jerked her chin in MacRieve’s direction. The archers eased farther inside. In a heartbeat, they’d swung three nocked bows up at him, yet they knew if they shot, he’d drop his burden, sealing them in.
But he’s going to do it anyway.
The demons arrived then, quickly comprehending the situation. Their fangs lengthened as they began to turn into their own enraged demon shape.
Their eyes grew black as their skin darkened into a deep red. Their elegantly turned horns, which usually curved out from just past their temples to run along the sides of their heads, now straightened and sharpened into deadly points, the normally shell-like color blackening.
Rydstrom, the older demon grated, “Bowen, think on what you plan.” The two obviously knew each other.
Tera murmured to Mari, “Can you get a call out, Mariketa?”
Mari raised her right palm, intending to send a psychic message to her coven. Nothing came. She shoved her palm out again.
When she failed once more, MacRieve laughed at her. His voice sounding like a beast’s, he grated, “No’ quite so powerful, witch.”
Enough. Fury churned in her like she’d rarely known before. She wanted to hurt him, needed to, and suddenly a rare focus came to her wrath, control to her power.
She put her left hand behind her back, and a spine of red light rose up from her palm, taking shape like a dagger. Tera must have seen what she was doing because she sidled up to her and raised her lantern to camouflage the magick’s glow.
Building . . . building. . . .
In a flash, Mari threw the dagger of light overhand. MacRieve appeared shocked at the speed and twisted to dodge it, but it exploded into painless fragments over his heart.
Bull’s-eye. Subtle like.
With a glance down, he smirked, thinking himself safe. “Keep your daggers to yourself, witchling, till they get some bite.”
He calmly took one step back . . . then dropped the stone. As it slammed shut with a deafening boom, a volley of arrows sank into it, too late. Air, rock, and sand rushed over Mari’s face, gritting into her eyes. She heard the elven males yelling with rage as they rushed forward and banged on the wall.
When Mari wiped the sand from her eyes, she blinked, disbelieving what she saw. The elves backed away in silence. Once, long ago, something had leapt up, desperately seeking release from this place.
Deep claw marks scored the back of the portcullis in frenzied stripes.
As Bowe slowly backed from the tomb, he was met with silence. He knew that inside they were cursing him, but he wouldn’t be able to hear. Much of the pyramidal steps were coated with thick soil and draped with roots and towering trees.
Yet even the jungles surrounding this square perimeter of ruins were quiet.
He continued to gaze at the edifice, finding himself unaccountably reluctant to leave. Part of him wanted to charge back in there and vent more of his rancor at the witch. To his shame, part of him was burning to retrieve her and finish what they’d started together.
He thought back to that moment when the witch had comprehended he was going to seal them in. She’d seemed hurt and her glamour had flickered.
In that instant, Cade’s predatory gaze had darted to her, even in the midst of his killing rage. Divested of her cloak, comely Mariketa had seized the demon’s attention. His brother Rydstrom, too, had done a double take.
Bowe had been surprised to find that the two demons Mariketa had mentioned were ones he knew. He had a history with the brothers—they’d fought side by side centuries ago—and had noticed them at the assembly, vaguely, when he could drag his eyes from the witch.
He recalled that the demons had been extremely popular with females.
Why in the hell did the idea of either brother with her sit so ill with him? They can have her. . . . With a final look, he turned, loping away to his truck.
Bowe was not immune to a Lykae’s marked sense of curiosity, and when he came across the line of the others’ vehicles, he decided to investigate the interiors.
Empty bottles of a local beer and crushed cans of Red Bull littered the demons’ truck. The archers had water bottles, protein bars, and electronic gadgetry in theirs.
Then came the witch’s Jeep. She’d driven these demanding mountain roads—mud coated all the way up to the soft top—alone. And she’d driven them through a hotbed of political unrest and danger. This densely jungled region had been simmering with the threat of war between two human armies—a turf war between an established drug cartel and a sizable band of narco-terrorists. The conflict surely would erupt soon.
What in the hell had she been thinking? The fact that she’d somehow arrived at the same time as the others—and before Bowe himself—didn’t matter.
She’d left two maps spread over the passenger seat, both with highlights and copious notes scrawled on them. Four research books lay in the backseat—among them Pyramids & Palaces, Monsters & Masks: The Golden Age of Maya Architecture. Many of the pages were systematically flagged with colored paper clips.
Beside the books, she had a well-worn camouflage backpack. A muddy machete hung from one side of the pack with an incongruous bright pink iPod on the other.
A pink iPod with stickers of cats on it, for all the gods’ sakes.
Exactly how young was she? It was possible she’d only recently become immortal, possibly wasn’t even over a hundred.
Whatever her age, she obviously was too young and too foolish not to know better than to toy with a powerful, twelve-hundred-year-old Lykae.
And she had toyed with him, had enthralled him to kiss her. Bowen MacRieve despised witches; he did not go out of his mind with desire for them.
His own father had been a victim of one’s machinations. Bowe remembered his father’s eyes were haunted, even centuries later, as he’d recounted his meeting with a raven-haired witch of incredible beauty—and unspeakable evil.
Angus MacRieve had come upon her at a snowy crossroads in the old country. She’d been wearing a jet black ermine stole and a white gown and had been the most lovely female he’d ever imagined. She’d told that she’d grant him a wish if he would direct her to a neighboring town. Angus was just seventeen and had wished what he always did: to be the strongest of his older brothers, who picked on him good-naturedly but unmercifully.
The next day, three of them had been crossing a frozen lake they traversed daily. In the dead of winter, the ice had broken and they’d drowned. The day after that, two more brothers had fallen ill with some kind of fever. They’d quickly passed away though they’d been hale, braw lads.
In the end, the evil witch had granted his wish. Angus was indeed the strongest of them.
Bowe’s father would never outlive his debilitating guilt. Because of his actions—inadvertent though they might have been—only two of the Lykae king’s seven sons would survive, Angus, and a much younger brother.
Worse, Angus had been sickened to realize he was now the heir, and readily abdicated the position.
That witch had delighted in ruining a mere lad who was not an enemy and hadn’t yet raised a sword in anger or aggression.
Witches had no purpose but to spread discord, to engender hatred. To plant destructive seeds in a once proud family.
To enthrall a male to be untrue for the first time.
Rage engulfed Bowe when he comprehended what he’d just done—with a bloody witch.
He roared, the sound echoing through the jungle, then stabbed his claws into the side of her jeep, slashing down the length. After puncturing the thick tires and plucking the engine from the chassis, Bowe set to all of their trucks, mangling them until they were useless.
Out of breath, covered in metal slivers, he scowled down at his hands. He could claw through a half-foot plate of steel like it was tinfoil without feeling it.
Yet now he felt . . . pain. Unfathomable pain.