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Authors: Heart of Briar

Laura Anne Gilman

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“He has been taken. And you are his only chance.”

That wasn’t something Jan expected to hear—especially from strangers who’d just rescued her from some mysterious and ferocious creatures. And she really hadn’t expected her rescuers to be shape-shifters....

Now it turns out her boyfriend, Tyler, hasn’t gone missing, he’s been stolen—and Jan’s the only one who might be able to get him back.

From Elfland.

Yeah, Jan’s pretty sure the entire world’s gone crazy. Even if the shifters claim that the naturals (like her) and the supernaturals (like them) belong in this world...but the preternaturals, what humans call elves, don’t. And they’ve found a portal into our world. A doorway they can use to infiltrate, to take, to conquer.

And now Jan’s not just Ty’s only hope—she’s got to rescue humanity, as well….

Praise for

“Do you believe in magic? You will when Gilman’s done with you.”
—New York Times
bestselling author Dana Stabenow

“Readers will love the
-style fun of smart, sassy people solving mysteries through experimentation, failure and blowing stuff up.”
—Publishers Weekly
(starred review) on
Hard Magic

“Layers of mystery, science, politics, romance, and old-fashioned investigative work mixed with high-tech spellcraft.”
—Publishers Weekly
(starred review) on
Pack of Lies

“Innovative world building coupled with rich characterization continues to improve as we enter the third book of this series.”
—Smexy Books Romance Reviews
Tricks of the Trade

“Gilman spends a good deal of time exploring
—and subverting—the trope of the fated-to-happen relationship. Readers will find this to be an engaging and fast-paced read.”
—RT Book Reviews
Dragon Justice

“Gilman delivers an exciting, fast-paced, unpredictable story that never lets up until the very end. There’s just enough twists and turns to keep even a jaded reader guessing.”
—SF Site on
Staying Dead

Also available from

and Harlequin LUNA

Paranormal Scene Investigations

Hard Magic
Pack of Lies
Tricks of the Trade


Staying Dead
Curse the Dark
Bring It On
Burning Bridges
Free Fall
Blood from Stone

For Jenn. With thanks.

Chapter 1

yler Wash had pulled off another miracle at work today. There would be another crisis in the morning—there always was—but for this one day, good had triumphed, evil had been banished, and the world—or at least, the university’s intranet—was safe from bad coding.

His lips twitched as he imagined his girlfriend’s reaction to that stream-of-consciousness ego trip. She’d roll her eyes, even as she smiled, and ask him if he had a cape and long underwear hidden somewhere, probably. SuperTy, she’d call him, until he distracted her enough to forget....

“You’re not drinking your coffee? Do you not like it?”

His companion looked at him, her lovely face creased with worry. Even though they’d only just met, it seemed a shame to cause any wrinkles on that face, and so, to appease her, he lifted his cup and took a sip.

“That’s better,” she said, the frown easing, and she reached out to touch the back of his hand, her long fingers stroking his skin in a way that would have made even a eunuch think dirty. She wasn’t sex on a stick, exactly, but there was something about her that made him feel a little bit like a bad boy, the kind of guy mothers warned their daughters about, instead of being the one they urged the girls to catch.

He kind of liked that feeling.

That was why he’d agreed to meet her tonight, to feel that way. Not forever, just a little while, a chance to be someone other than Tyler Wash: ordinary, reliable, predictable. Not that he had a problem with his life, his life mostly rocked. But sometimes... Sometimes he looked in the mirror and all he saw was

So when a woman like this offered to buy you coffee, and you had nothing else on your schedule, why the hell not?

Tyler took another sip of the coffee, and his nose twitched. The steam was still rising, and the coffee tasted thicker and heavier—more pungent—than he had been expecting. Were they trying out a new blend? If so, he wasn’t sure that he liked it: the smell was less coffee than spice, not unpleasant, but different. He liked different, but...

Her foot touched his under the table, and then he felt it slide, slowly, up his calf, a touch that couldn’t have been accidental. He managed not to startle, acting as though women did this to him all the time, no big deal. He’d tell her to cut it out in a minute, or maybe two. Or if her foot went any higher.

Her foot lingered just below his knee, a warm, pleasant weight, and his thoughts drifted off, spiraled around, the faint memory of the song he had been humming earlier tangling with the hiss-and-chunk noise of the espresso machine behind him, the low conversations of the people around them. What had they been talking about?

She was talking again, her voice a pleasant murmur, but he found it difficult to focus on the words. He put his coffee down, tried to shake off the disorientation, but his eyes were filling with the steam, his mind equally clouded, and when she touched his hand again, pulling him toward her across the table, he did not resist.

Her lips tasted like spice, cool and firm.

This was wrong. This was further than he’d planned to go—wasn’t it?

What else did you come here for? What did you think—hope—would happen?

He stared at her, unable to answer the voice in his own head, the mocking, cool tone.

“Come,” she said, and they rose from the little table, her hand still on his, leading him to the door. He followed, obedient, his coffee and coat, his wallet and phone, left behind at the table, forgotten.

Outside, the air was clearer, the smell of the coffee fading, and he blinked, shaking his head slightly to clear his thoughts. The song came back to him, the notes more clear. He had been singing it in the shower this morning, thinking about...what? About the day, the job, the night before. Her? No. Someone else. He tried to grab hold of the music, the memory, as though it would lead him out of the fog. “Where...?”

“Come,” she said again, her fingers curling around his, tugging him gently forward. The sound of her voice was honey and spice, her skin soft and cool, filled with promise and suggestion, and the song—and the memories—faded under its intrusion.

They walked through the night, heading away from downtown and the university campus, onto streets he should have recognized but did not. His skin prickled, uneasy. “I don’t...”

“Shhhhh...” Her voice had less honey and more spice now. “You came to me, joined your hand with mine. Of your own will do you come, Tyler Wash?”

He shouldn’t. He couldn’t. There was something he had left behind.... But the hint of promise and suggestion lured him on; the male ego impulse—stupid, but irresistible—pushed him over.

“I do,” he said, and she smiled, teeth too white, eyes too sharp.

Around them, the air crackled, a faint familiar smell overlaying the normal odors of the city at night. Something twisted inside him, hard enough to hurt. He managed to lift his eyes from her face, force them to clear enough to see something ahead, dim lights swirling like a corona, the static fizz of noise on the wire, and then it cleared, creating a massive oval of cold white, filling the entrance to an alley, and obscuring what was beyond.

He stared, fascinated. “What?”

“Yours. Yours and mine, together. We will make it stronger.” That too-white smile disappeared, and her face went still. “Come,” she said again, her fingers hard against his own, and together, they stepped through.

* * *

Jan was dreaming. She knew it was a dream: it wasn’t a nice dream, it was the same dream she always had when she was stressed, about not being able to breathe and nobody hearing her call for help, but she let it carry her along, anyway, unable to stop it until the alarm went off, and she woke up.

Over the years, she had perfected a basic morning routine, Monday through Friday. Roll out of bed two minutes before the alarm went off, take the litany of pills waiting on her nightstand—birth control, asthma meds, iron supplements—then stagger into the kitchen and pour herself a glass of grapefruit juice while the coffeemaker—set to go off exactly at six in the morning—started its spluttering little song. Pour that first cup of coffee, feel her neurons start to fire, and head back across the apartment to her office. Flip open the laptop, start the email download to see what fresh hell her office had sent her overnight. Sometimes she missed having a commute, an office, coworkers to gossip with. The rest of the time she thanked god for telecommuting. She could start work at seven and get a head start on whatever was going on.

And for the past three—almost four—months if she had woken up alone, she had added another early morning routine. The first words of the day, typed into the small text box in the upper left hand of the screen:
Hello, lover.

Normally, her screen would show a reply almost immediately. But today, the text box on her screen remained blank, save for her words.

She waited a minute, then another. Nothing.

Well. Maybe he was in the bathroom. Or dealing with a work thing. Tyler did contract work for the university, which meant there was almost always a crisis happening—academics were worse than corporations for wanting something changed and then not understanding why it couldn’t be done. But it also meant he wasn’t away from his monitor, when he was on the clock. Not for long, anyway.

They’d met in one of those dating-site chat rooms, ironically self-conscious and, she admitted, a little desperate. She hadn’t expected anything; so many of the guys would chat, email, they might even call once or twice, and then disappear. But Tyler had suggested they meet for coffee, almost immediately. They’d both been awkward, almost shy, for about ten minutes. Then...magic.

It wasn’t because they were so alike—they weren’t. And it wasn’t because they were total opposites, either. There was just enough overlap that they didn’t run out of things to talk about that night, or after, for that matter.

Jan frowned at the screen. Maybe he had gone onto campus today, rather than working from home? He hadn’t mentioned anything about it yesterday, but something might have come up after he left.

He’d gone home the night before around eight o’clock; they both were busiest in the morning, so Monday through Thursday they tended to sleep in their own beds, work until around two in the afternoon, and then hook up again. She might have liked waking up with someone snuggled against her more often, but Jan admitted that she liked her space, too.

So, yeah. That was probably it: he was on the bus heading toward campus, and he’d check in later. Reassured, she opened her work in-box and got hit with an urgent email from a client in Ireland whose site had apparently gone FUBAR, “and she swears she didn’t touch it, didn’t do anything,” according to the email from the project manager.

“Yeah. Sure you didn’t.” Jan shook her head and got to work, digging through the code.

By the time she’d restored the site, finished her first pot of coffee and refilled it, there was still no message from Tyler in her text box. She frowned, chewing on her thumbnail, then—after glancing to make sure no new mail had come in red-flagged for an emergency—typed again.

You there?

No response. She looked at the time display: 10:40. More than enough time for him to have gotten into the office—maybe it was a really massive crisis?

She opened another browser and brought up the university’s site. It seemed to be running fine, although god knew what was going on with the intranet, which was Ty’s baby.

“Okay, then,” she said, and typed,
catch up with you later, then, mmmkay?
It wasn’t as if he had to check in, after all. She was just used to it. Spoiled, after three months. Odds were, the project he’d been working on yesterday had gotten more panicked, and he was head down in that. He’d resurface later, apologize, or just show up, filled with news of how he’d licked the problem. The vague sense of disappointment she felt was silly, and she pushed it aside.

The worry didn’t set in for another six hours, when he didn’t show up after work, and nobody in the campus office had seen or talked to him all day.

By twenty-four hours, the worry had become panic.

* * *

The next morning, Jan needed to talk with someone, preferably someone who could talk her down off her nerves.

“Come on, come on, pick up....” Jan drummed her fingers on the desk and stared at the monitor, where the icon was circling around, the faint, antiquated noise of a phone ringing accompanying the visual.

Finally, it stopped, and the screen cleared. “Hey, there. You rang?”

Glory’s tousled black curls suggested that she’d just gotten out of bed, and her accent was a blurred version of her usual clear tones.

Jan frowned at the screen, taking in the backdrop. “It’s lunchtime there. You should be at work now, not just waking up. Oh, Glory, did you get fired again?”

Her friend lifted her coffee mug in salute. “How’d you guess? Yeah, guess calling the boss’s pet a puss-bucket wasn’t the best thing to do.”

Jan was momentarily distracted from her own woes. “Glory...”

“Ah, don’t lecture me, Janny-girl.”

Glory worked in the UK; they had met through a “women in tech” mailing list back when those were the hot thing, and when the list died, they stayed friends. That didn’t mean they always approved of each other’s choices, though.

Jan couldn’t help herself: “Some day you’re not going to find another job.” The economy still hadn’t entirely recovered, and she knew Glory didn’t have any savings left.

“Ah, I’m too good at my job to not find work, and hiring a black woman fills two slots on their to-do list. But you, you’re not looking good, and you’re doing that keening thing again. Sweetie, stop it, it makes my stomach hurt watching you. What’s wrong?”

Saying it made it real. “Tyler’s missing.”

“What?” Glory’s coffee mug slammed down on her desk hard enough to slosh the liquid over the side, unnoticed. “Did that SOB dump you? I swear...”

“No! No, I mean, he’s missing, he’s gone. He didn’t go to work, and it’s been twenty-four hours, and I haven’t heard a thing from him.”

Jan leaned forward, and then back again, unable to stop the slow rhythmic rocking motion that bothered Glory. “He’s never not responded for this long. We talk every day, Glor, every day we’re not together. And he’s never once missed a good morning.”

“Yeah, I know. But, sweetie, you’ve only been together, what, three months? Guy’s what, thirty-two? He probably has a lot of bad habits he hasn’t shown you yet.”

Jan tried to still herself, focusing on the screen where her friend’s image was looking out at her. Miles away in distance, but Glory was still one of her best friends, the person she’d told about Tyler, punch-happy from their first date, when she’d finally thought that maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t doomed to go through life alone. And then again after the third date, when he’d told her he’d felt the same way.

Glory had always given her good advice.

“Janny, listen to me. One day? That’s nothing. Boys will be boys, and Tyler-boy is probably just fine. If you spank him when he comes back, he’ll promise never to do it again. He’ll be lying, but he’ll promise, and you’ll feel better. That’s how happy relationships stay happy.”

Jan rocked back and forth again, but more slowly. “Says the woman who’s been single for how long now?”

“Thirteen years, and loving every minute of it. Look, sweetie, give him a little space, then call his mom, or something, see if he’s been in touch with her.”

“He hasn’t talked to his stepmom in two years. His dad is dead, his sister’s off somewhere on a fishing boat or something....”

Their lack of any real family had been one of the things to bind them: her mother was gone, her father was in a nursing home, didn’t even recognize her anymore, and she’d been an only child. “Us together against the storm, Jan,” Tyler had said after one of his sister’s infrequent phone calls, holding her while they’d listened to a thunderstorm rage overhead. They had fallen asleep tangled together on the sofa, her last conscious memory him humming contentedly under his breath.

Jan felt her body sway forward again and tried to halt the backward motion without success. It normally calmed her, the back and forth almost a meditation, but no matter what she did, the thready feeling of panic wouldn’t subside. It was like her dream the night before: no air, and nobody coming to the rescue.

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