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There are good guys, there are bad boys, and then there are men with a danger all their own—these are the ones who take you places you never imagined…and will never forget.
“The Undying Heart” by Zoe Archer
Samuel Reed had no idea magic existed, until it almost destroyed him. Thirsting for vengeance against the enemy who made him something less than human, Sam returns to England and crosses paths with Cassandra Fielding. His best friend’s little sister has become a fearless woman on a dangerous mission of her own. And against all odds, she sees past what he’s become, and stirs a desire he thought he’d lost forever…
“Simon Says” by Bianca D’Arc
Special Forces soldier Simon Blackwell ended his affair with Mariana Daniels three years ago, but he hasn’t stopped protecting her. Mariana has no knowledge of the dark, deadly creatures that lurk in the forest surrounding her clinic, or of the mysterious powers that make Simon the only one who can defeat them. But soon he’ll have no choice but to reveal the truth, and urge her to trust in an explosive passion that never faded…
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Yorkshire, England, 1858
Ladies never hunted humans.
Fortunately, Cassandra Fielding never truly concerned herself with how ladies should and shouldn’t behave. As she crouched in the shadows of a stonemason’s yard, pistol ready in the folds of her skirt, she kept her focus off such inconsequential things as decorous, ladylike behavior and on the front of the tavern opposite the yard. Her prey was inside the tavern. She needed to be ready to move, to follow. To hunt.
The windows of the tavern glowed yellow, and within the taproom, raucous male voices rang out—laughing, boasting, debating. Within was Cassandra’s intended target. Colonel Kenneth Broadwell. Entirely unaware that his every moment was being monitored, Broadwell had been spotted several days ago in the vicinity after years abroad. As the Blade closest to where Broadwell had been seen, Cassandra was dispatched to follow him. Her orders were clear, however: track Broadwell, but do not engage. So Cassandra now waited in the stonemason’s yard, her cloak wrapped around her against the night’s chill, a pistol standing by should it be needed.
Her parents, tolerant though they were of her campaigning for factory conditions reform, would most definitely not approve of their daughter skulking about on her own in the middle of the night. But Cassandra never told them she was an operative for the Blades of the Rose, had been one for nigh on a year. It was for her parents’ protection as much as her own.
Right now her protection nestled in the folds of her skirt, and her pocket held a goodly handful of bullets. Not that Cassandra had ever shot anyone before. As soon as she’d received her assignment, she’d gone out and bought her very own gun. Borrowing one of her father’s would raise questions, questions she couldn’t answer, so she purchased her own. The weapon was necessary, but it felt strange and alien in her hand. Yet she would use it if she had to.
She prayed she didn’t have to. Her goal had always been to improve people’s lives, not end them.
Moonlight spilled into the yard, and the hulking forms of uncut stone turned to creatures of silver and darkness. Cassandra hid herself behind one slab of granite, entirely alone except for the stone. Overhead, the night sky was a black, glittering void. All the decent citizens of this small town had been asleep, safe in their beds, for hours. No one walked the streets, and the wind cut down the narrow lanes with soft, keening sounds.
As a child, she’d been afraid of the dark, thanks to her brother Charlie. He’d once locked her in the cellar as a prank, luring her down there with promises of treacle tarts. She’d spent terrible hours crying in the darkness, until Mrs. Walsh, the housekeeper, heard her sobs and let Cassandra out. For months afterward, she couldn’t sleep without a lamp burning.
But that was long ago. Cassandra now knew that things really did creep in the darkness, but they were often just as afraid of her as she was of them. She took some comfort in that as she hid herself in the stonemason’s yard.
Her childhood imagination must now enjoy taunting her. How else to explain the sinister feeling lurking among the shadows with her, a presence that felt palpable, malevolent.
A slight shifting, the merest suggestion of displaced air. Cassandra whirled around, gun pointed. She knew better than to dismiss instinct. One of the first things she learned when she joined the Blades: never shrug off intuition. That’s where the true danger lay, for magic dwelt in the margins of awareness.
In the gloomy darkness, she saw nothing. No person, no animal. Yet nothing could shake her sense that something was there. A presence that loomed just beyond the boundaries of sight and perception. Unnamed, unknown, drawing closer. Closer. Her heart stuttered as her every nerve became a plucked string, reverberating with tension.
She knew it now without a doubt.
She wasn’t alone.
Fighting the sudden lump of fear in her throat, Cassandra pressed herself against the granite slab. Not for protection, but to better see whoever, whatever, prowled in the darkness. She held her breath, waited.
There, again. A justified chill of fear scraped down her neck. Someone was sliding from shadow to shadow, movements so swift, so silent, anyone who wasn’t trained to spot such subtlety would have missed it. Who could it be? Another Heir of Albion, like Broadwell? It couldn’t be a Blade, for Cassandra had been unable to send a telegram to let them know Broadwell’s whereabouts. Someone else, then.
Something else. The shadows gathered, shaping themselves into the form of a man gliding from darkness to darkness—tall, long-limbed, powerfully built. Twenty feet away. At a slight sound, he turned to investigate. His eyes literally glowed. Hollow and white, unearthly.
Cassandra stifled a gasp. Oh, it was one thing to read about and study magic. Entirely different to sense it, see it.
Whatever this . . . man . . . was, he moved with unearthly speed and stealth. She could not see his face as he shifted back into the shadows, more subtle and elusive than any human or animal. What was he? Before she could study him further, he melted into darkness, disappearing.
For several moments, Cassandra peered into the night, straining for another sense of him. Yet he was gone, absorbed into the fabric of shadow like a half-remembered dream. Cassandra, trying to refocus, turned back to keep her vigil on the tavern.
The unknown man stood right in front of her.
They both started, neither expecting the other.
Her pistol came up immediately.
Ambient light from the tavern revealed his face, the glow of his eyes vanished, and her fingers around the trigger slackened in shock. The tall man also started again, as shocked as Cassandra.
It could not be. Yet it was. She took a step forward, lowering her weapon, hardly daring to believe what she saw.
“Sam?” Her voice was a stunned whisper. “Samuel Reed?”
Oh, God, she knew that voice. Knew it as well as she knew the deepest recesses of her own heart. A low, masculine rumble, much deeper now than it had been ten years ago, but it was him. Sam.
“Cassandra now,” she said automatically as she grappled with understanding. Nothing made sense. It could not be that Sam was the creature she had just witnessed prowling through the darkness. “What the blazes are you doing here?”
Sam emerged slightly from the darkness, wariness evident in the guarded movement of his long, lean body. He’d been only eighteen the last time Cassandra saw him, verging into adulthood. Now there was no debate. Sam had grown up. He was, positively, a man. She noted it in the breadth of his shoulders, his broad chest, and powerful limbs. Even in shadow, even dressed in clean but slightly threadbare clothing, she could see it. Sam had left boyhood long ago. This man radiated potent strength, barely restrained.
Cassandra stared up at his face and felt another jolt of shock. The softness of youth had vanished entirely. Sam’s face . . . there was no other way for her to describe it . . . it was hard, a collection of sharply chiseled planes that made no allowance for leniency. Bold jaw, tight-pressed lips, sharp nose, and forbidding, dark brow. Too severe to be handsome, but undeniably striking. Such a change from the boy he’d been.
“I should ask you the same damned question,” he growled. “You shouldn’t be out. Alone.” He moved, as if to reach for her, but his hand stopped, curling into itself and falling to his side instead.
Fear suddenly danced along her neck. His voice was rough, almost menacing. But that was ridiculous. This was Sam, her brother Charlie’s best friend, the boy she’d known—and adored—almost her whole life. Ten years ago, he and Charlie both bought commissions, joining the army and serving in the same unit together, as they had done everything together. Including—
“For a lady,” Sam growled, “you’re pretty damned free with that gun.”
She glanced down at the weapon in her hand, then tucked it into her skirts. Proper young women did not carry pistols. Certainly not during the day, and most assuredly not in the middle of the night while lurking in deserted stonemason yards.
“Pistols are all the rage this season,” she said. She could not tell Sam anything about her mission, bound by a code of silence, as well as for his own protection.
Although, she amended, gazing at Sam, he seemed perfectly capable of protecting himself. If forced to use only one word to describe this man, the word she must choose would be lethal. She’d never met a man who held such dangerous intent in his body, including the most seasoned Blade field agents. He did not even offer a veneer of a smile at her attempt at humor.
“Nothing good brings a woman out at night,” he rumbled. “Some kind of assignation, then. A husband? Lover?” He raised a brow.
Cassandra wondered what kind of lover necessitated having a gun. “I might not be the same girl who collected spiders in jars,” she said, “but I’m not the sort of woman who arranges moonlight trysts.” However, she wasn’t a maiden any more. She’d seen to that a few years ago, though she wasn’t about to tell Sam.
Truthfully, she did not know what to say to Sam. She’d so often dreamt of this moment, how she would greet him upon his return. She had even contemplated something as frivolous as the dress she would wear. It would show him she was no longer a girl with dirt under her fingernails, but a grown woman, with a grown woman’s desires. And he would see her as if for the first time, a slow smile of wonder illuminating his face, and realize that what he had been searching for had been at home all along. Her nails, too, would be clean. She curbed the impulse to check them now—for often, after touring factories and inspecting conditions, her fingernails did get dirty. But that was a minor detail compared to seeing Sam again.
Her dream of their reunion had ended two years ago, but she remembered it vividly, an imprint of abandoned hope burned into an afterimage on her heart.
Yet this . . . fierce, dangerous man . . . was entirely unlike the Sam she’d longed for, resembling him only in the most superficial way. He burned with a deep, profound coldness that seeped into her own bones.
She realized that it had been Sam, stalking the darkness. Moving with an eerie fluidity. More at home within the realm of unnatural shadow than light and life. But how could that be possible?
“I’ve no idea who you are anymore.” Sam’s voice glinted like a knife in the darkness.
“That feeling,” she said, “is mutual.”
Truthfully, she had no idea who he was. Or, her mind whispered, what he was. She tried to push that thought away, but it would not be staved off.
Unfamiliar, this terror. Something clammy and frightened uncoiled in her stomach as she stared up at his impassive face. The changes wrought in Sam went beyond the shift from youth to maturity, from civilian to veteran soldier. Yet she did not know what, exactly, was different, was deeply, profoundly not right.
A burst of noise careened out of the tavern. Both Cassandra and Sam shot alert glances toward it, but no one exited the building. As Sam continued to rake the tavern with his gaze, Cassandra could feel the waves of anger and purpose emanating from him, palpable as frost. The gentling of his expression was gone. Nothing gentle in him now.
Sam had been a soldier, a major, the last she’d heard, and still held himself with a soldier’s vigilant, capable presence. He wore civilian clothes, yet carried, she saw at that moment, an officer’s sword and wore tall military boots. The war in the Crimea ended two years ago. What had become of him since then?
“This makes no sense,” she said. “I was told . . .” Her words dried as he swung his gaze back to her. Even in the weak light from the tavern’s windows, she saw his eyes were the same palest blue, edged in indigo, only now his eyes did not dance with humor or mischief. They were . . . haunted.
“I was told,” she began again, “that you were dead.”
He stared at her with those anguished, cold eyes. And said, “I am.”
Cassie—Cassandra—jolted. Her eyes rounded as she took a step back. Sam hated putting distance between them, the girl he’d known for almost his whole childhood, but it was necessary. He didn’t want her close to him. She was a relic, a reminder of the life he’d lost and everything he could never have.
He waited for her to dispute him, claim that he was, in fact, not dead, since he stood right in front of her, talking like any ordinary man. But Sam wasn’t an ordinary man. Far from it.
And Cassandra just stared at him, her familiar whiskey-gold eyes gleaming with shock. Sam kept himself silent, watching, waiting.
Cassie Fielding, a grown woman. He remembered her, trailing after him and Charlie as they rambled over Sam’s father’s estate, or the much smaller park around the Fieldings’ home. She’d been a scrawny thing, all eyes and bones, a mass of chestnut hair. But her delicate appearance belied a girl with strong opinions and a will of iron. Always abandoning her deportment lessons and embroidery hoops to join in the boys’ mischief— building fortresses in the woods, playing pirates, digging in the dirt for odd and interesting rocks. Sam’s own sisters were nothing like Cassandra and often snickered at private family dinners that the neighbor’s daughter made a far better boy than a girl. Sam, to his shame now, never defended her. Just shrugged and kept on eating, adolescently indifferent.
When Sam left for the army, she’d been on the cusp of womanhood, almost ready to make her debut. A debut that Cassandra did not want. The closer she came to being out in society, the less she readied herself for it. There were fights, Charlie told him, yelling matches between Cassandra and her parents, slammed doors, threats, and pleas. Cassandra called the whole business of having a Season “hogwash for ninnies,” which made her mother furious and her father retreat to his study. Sam wondered if she’d had her debut, after all that turmoil.
His mother had sighed, saying that Cassandra would never be beautiful. Now that Cassandra was a woman, his mother’s prediction had been proven both true and untrue. Cassandra wasn’t a society beauty, her looks were far too singular for that— she still had those large, canny eyes, a jawline that verged on handsome rather than pretty—but she had matured into herself with a self-awareness and strength that stirred him.
Damn it, he thought savagely, turning away, he had no right to be stirred. He had only vengeance, and, when that had been meted out, he had nothing. Just the hope of rest. Finally, rest.
And the man who’d cost Sam everything was in that tavern right now. Sam wanted to run across the street, slam into the tavern, and simply cut Broadwell down with Sam’s old officer’s sword. But he couldn’t. Not with innocents around who could be hurt. He had no idea what he would do when he finally unleashed himself on Broadwell. Sam’s control would be gone, and he’d lose himself to the beast of his retribution, and nothing and no one would be safe. Not even Cassandra.
Incredibly, despite what he’d just said to her, she actually took a step closer to him, not away. He recoiled. But she persisted, coming yet nearer, raising one slim, gloved hand and, when he tried to slip farther back, she managed to take his own hand, her fingers pressed to his wrist.
He stilled, wanting to shut his eyes against the flood of sensation. It had been so damned long since a woman—since anyone— touched him. But he forced himself to stare down at her as she felt for his heartbeat. He was certain that horror and repulsion would cross her face, as she realized what he truly was, and why she should run, run like hell.
“Satisfied?” he sneered as something he thought already broken shattered within him.
He saw it then in her expression. Full understanding. Stealing like an eclipse. Yet she didn’t look anything but sad, deeply sad. She raised her eyes to his, and he found himself staring into them, finding in them a warmth he never anticipated, and did not want.
“You’re very close to home,” she whispered.
His sneer fell away. Home. His parents’ estate was only a dozen miles from here. And Cassandra’s family home adjoined the boundaries of that estate. Memories assailed him, swirling as thick and dangerous as ocean currents, threatening to drag him out to sea, drowning him. Childhood, the cheerful knowledge that he was a third son and hadn’t his older brothers’ responsibilities, the reckless carousing of adolescence, he and Charlie drinking and wenching at the very same tavern where he now lurked. His mother’s exasperated sighs. His father’s stern admonishments that he must make a man of himself. At Sam’s urging, his father bought him a commission, and so the adventure of life truly began. And ended.
His parents must never see him again.
“Not coming home,” he growled. He pulled his hand from hers, and missed her touch at once.
Just then, the very man Sam wanted stepped from the door of the tavern. Sam’s heightened hearing caught the sound even before the man emerged. Sam’s eyes narrowed, his body tensing, as he watched his former commanding officer tug on a dark coat and look up at the glinting night sky. A smug smile tugged on the corner of Broadwell’s mouth. Doubtless the bastard was planning his next defilement. But Sam would stop him before that.
Sam almost forgot Cassandra standing beside him, until he heard her short, indrawn breath. He glanced over to see her also intently watching Broadwell with a look of recognition. What the devil? Was she here for that son of a bitch, too? If that bastard had hurt her, Sam would gut him and force him to watch the spectacle.
Broadwell strode away from the tavern, heading down the deserted street. He still had the same arrogant gait, as if he owned the world and the world should be grateful for the honor. Sam waited until the colonel was well away from the tavern— and civilians—before darting after him. He’d end this tonight.
“Sam, no, wait!” Cassandra’s hissed warning behind him did not register. All he saw was Broadwell’s retreating back, all he heard were the hated bastard’s footsteps upon the cobbled street.
Broadwell rounded a corner, heading toward where his horse was stabled. Noiselessly, Sam drew his sword, then pressed himself against the wall, listening to the sounds around the corner. He heard the colonel enter his horse’s stall and lead the animal out. The shuffling of hooves and feet in straw. The stable boy must be asleep somewhere. Broadwell was alone and had not yet mounted the horse. Now, when the swine wasn’t paying attention.
Sam sprang around the corner, leaping over a low, spiked iron fence that enclosed the stable yard. He raised his sword, ready to strike. Only the alarmed horse alerted Broadwell to his attack. The beast whinnied in fear, dancing to one side, and Broadwell spun around just in time to dodge Sam’s blow. His sword caught in the curve of the saddle, cutting into the leather. Sam pulled it free immediately, but Broadwell had been a soldier, too, and nimbly darted away before Sam could strike again.
“Still on my trail, Major Reed?” Broadwell smirked in the darkness of the stables. God, that face, so thin and cruel, the face of a so-called gentleman—it was burned into Sam’s mind. All around them, animals shifted nervously in their stalls.
“Won’t stop until you pay,” Sam growled. He lunged for Broadwell again.
Broadwell dashed to the side, narrowly avoiding the slicing blade. He grabbed a whip that leaned against a wall. “Your bloody tenacity.” The whip snapped out, biting at Sam’s sword hand, but Sam didn’t let go of the blade. “Thought it was an asset once,” Broadwell sneered. “Now it’s just a damned nuisance.”
Sam swung, and caught Broadwell across the shoulder, cutting through the fabric of his clothes to the flesh beneath. The colonel hissed, sounding more annoyed than in pain.
“I’ll give you a hundred more of those before I kill you,” gritted Sam.
Furious now that he’d been wounded, Broadwell tossed the whip aside just as he launched himself at Sam. The two men grappled, the air thick with the sounds of their boots scraping on the cobbles, their grunts of rage, fearful horses whinnying. And the faint sound of a woman’s running steps coming closer. Hell—Cassandra.
At her approach, Sam’s attention wavered for less than a moment. But it was enough. Broadwell shoved Sam back. The heel of Sam’s boot caught between two stones, costing him his balance. He stumbled backward and then—
Cassandra gave a quick, horrified cry.
A dull white echo of what once had been pain speared through Sam’s chest. He tried to spring forward for another attack, but couldn’t move. Something held him immobile. He glanced down and saw a spike of the iron railing protruding from his chest.
He swore, struggling to pull himself up and off the spike. As he did this, Broadwell leapt upon the back of his horse. The horse wheeled around, snorting and anxious.
“Such a pleasure, Major Reed.” Broadwell turned to Cassandra with a threatening glare. “Whoever you are, you’d best forget everything you’ve seen here tonight.” He gave a mocking salute, and kicked his horse into a run. As he did, bolting from the stable, he sent Sam a glance of pure malicious glee. Sam snarled with fury as his intended prey evaded him yet again.