Authors: Hazel Hunter
ACROSS a remote lake in the Tennessee mountains, the water mostly petrified by winter. Only thin, rick-rack ribbons of determined currents interrupted the ice. Framed by steep banks of leafless trees silvered by frost, and evergreens blanketed by constant snowfall, the blue-gray water huddled under its crystalline mantle, waiting for spring—or perhaps dreading what was about to happen on its banks. There terrible possibilities formed a menacing triangle between a hulking, battered brute, a weeping teenager on her knees, and the small, fierce-eyed woman confronting them both.
Squinting against the sun, Kayla Rowe kept her eyes on Dirk Blackstone’s bloodied face. He and his biker gang had been stalking her and her sister, Tara, for months. They’d forced them to run from their home in Florida to the small town of Ashdale. They’d taken jobs at Forever Faire, a traveling Renfaire run by unearthly, powerful Fae warriors who used magick to disguise themselves as humans. Kayla had hoped the Fae would help them, but now things had come to a disastrous turn. She had never imagined offering herself in trade for her younger sister, but she’d rather die than allow Tara to be raped by the Dark Fae biker gang leader.
“I mean it, Blackstone,” Kayla said as she took another step closer to the massive thug. “Let her go, and you can have me. I’m the one you wanted, not her.”
His bruised features twisted with a sneer as he shoved the swollen club of his penis back into his trousers. “Little sister is mine.” He jerked Tara off her knees, and slowly licked a tear from her cheek while watching Kayla. “Now so are you.” His voice took on a spine-clawing resonance as he added, “Come here, you tiresome bitch.”
His cold, dark magick wrapped around Kayla like a frozen, invisible fist, jerking her a step closer. A shockwave of raw panic flashed through her, and something buzzed in her ears. The sound grew louder until a trio of motorcycles roared out of the woods on her left. Just as she saw the furious faces of Colm Longacre, Jannon Ferguson and Ryan Sheridan, the huge bikes bucked and exploded with a burst of copper-gold light.
The power gripping Kayla vanished as the light transformed the three motorcycles into massive horses. As soon as they spotted Dirk they reared in unison. Only their rider’s powerful grips and horsemanship kept them seated. But in a split second, Ryan dismounted and hit the ground running. Colm and Jannon did the same, all of their bodies shifting into their unearthly Fae forms.
Kayla had no intention of wasting the massive distraction. She darted in front of Dirk, grabbed Tara, and dragged her back. The Dark Fae warrior only had a moment to glance after them before he turned and fled for the trees. The Forever Faire men nearly reached him before he jumped into a pool of shadow. He sank into it as if he were melting, finally disappearing from sight.
Jannon halted beside the women as Ryan and Colm went after their mounts. He looked at Tara for a long moment before he turned to Kayla. “Did he harm you?”
“We’re good,” Kayla said, though she didn’t particularly believe it. She put her arm around her sister as she looked up at Jannon’s godlike face and his bristling mane of gold-streaked copper hair. “Thanks for coming back with the cavalry.”
He grunted and sheathed his long dagger before heading toward the other men.
Kayla faced her sister. “Hi. Nice to see you again. Mind telling me why you were kissing that asshole?”
“I don’t know,” Tara said, tucking her chin in. Her long, ash-blonde hair veiled her face. “I couldn’t help myself.”
After personally experiencing the force of Dirk’s dark magick, Kayla should have believed that. But she didn’t. At the same time she knew her sister had nearly been raped, and that was enough trauma for a teenager to handle—for now, anyway.
“We’re going to talk about this later. Right now we need to get out of here, pronto.”
“If you leave Forever Faire, he’ll take you,” a deep voice said.
Kayla spun around to face Ryan Sheridan, the master of Forever Faire. At nearly seven feet tall, he loomed over her, his big, tough body a sculpture of heroic muscle and otherworldly beauty. The breeze stirred his long, white-gold mane, which perfectly framed his gorgeous features and stern, jewel-blue gaze. He might look like a prince straight out of a fantasy movie, but he’d been lying to Kayla from the moment they’d met. Oh, she’d fallen hard for him—no woman with a pulse wouldn’t have—until he’d tried to convince her that Tara was not her sister. According to him Tara was some evil changeling the Blackstones wanted. That was when Kayla had slammed the door to her heart in Ryan’s face.
“Go to hell,” she told him flatly, and guided Tara away from him. “Come on, honey. Road trip time.”
“He’s right, lass.” Colm stepped into her path, his glittering garnet-colored hair darkening to black as he shifted back into his average, normal mortal disguise. “You’ll not get more than a mile away. The Blackstone clan use shadows like doorways to any place they wish to travel. But Dark Fae can’t pass our boundaries, so they and their filthy magick can never breach the faire grounds.”
“Really?” Kayla said hotly. “So the last place on earth I want to go is the only place that’s safe. How convenient.” At least now she understood why the biker gang had kept finding them while seemingly appearing out of nowhere. “You also made it clear that Tara isn’t welcome at the faire anymore. What do you expect me to do? Dump her outside the gates? How long will it take for that rapist asshole to snatch her and force himself on her again? Five minutes?”
Colm glanced over at Ryan before he said to her sister, “Jannon told us he saw you kissing Blackstone.”
“He made me do it,”
Tara shrieked, and then buried her face against Kayla’s shoulder as she sobbed.
Rubbing her sister’s narrow back, Kayla closed her eyes for a moment to force back her own tears before she glared at the men.
“I know you guys are magical fantasy warriors who battle dark forces, slay dragons, and save princesses, or whatever. Well, we’re not, okay? I’m a groom. Tara is a seamstress. She’s not evil. She doesn’t have super powers. She’s never hurt anyone in her life.”
At that Tara wailed even louder, and Jannon muttered something under his breath and turned away. Colm looked as if Kayla had kicked him in the groin. Kayla eyed the man she’d lost her heart to, but his expression remained unmoved.
“For God’s sake, Ryan,” she spat at him. “What’s the matter with you? She’s just a kid.”
“So she is.” The grim line of Ryan’s mouth softened for a moment as he looked into Kayla’s eyes. “Very well. You may both stay at Forever Faire.”
Kayla couldn’t believe he had to think about it. “Maybe we’d better take our chances on the road. I wouldn’t want to put anyone out.”
When he took a quick step toward them, she handed Tara off to Colm, and went toe-to-toe with him. Despite her seething fury, her fists quickly unclenched. It was like that first night she’d met him. He smelled hot and delicious, like dessert and wine and sex under a pale moon, and she wanted to throw herself into his arms and beg him to take her away. Which was another problem she had with Ryan—the minute they got within a foot of each other the only thing she wanted was him, naked and on top of her. It had to be another of his magick tricks.
“Stop doing that,” she said through her teeth.
He stared down at her lips. “I will if you stay.”
Was he lying to her again? Would she fall asleep tonight and end up floating in his arms while he once more used that beautiful mouth on her body? Or would he have her chained naked beside him in a crystal cave for another emergency that only sex could solve? Her cheeks flushed hot at the memory. To be truthful, she wanted that badly. But it had to be her choice, not magick.
Yet what choice did she have? Forever Faire was the only place where the Blackstones couldn’t get at them.
“I don’t trust you,” she finally said. She jerked her chin at Colm and Jannon. “Or them. But the Blackstones are worse, and I can’t keep Tara safe by myself. Those are the only reasons we’re staying, is that clear?”
Ryan’s jaw tightened. “We are sworn to protect those who come to us.”
“Good, then do your damn job.” She went over to Tara, who had managed to stop crying and now simply looked shattered. “I’m sorry, but we have to stay here.” Her sister gave her a blank look, as if she didn’t comprehend what she was saying. “Only until I figure out something else,” Kayla tacked on.
Tara took a deep breath and turned to Jannon, reaching out to him with her thin hand.
“Thank you for saving me,” she said, her voice shaking. But rather than take her hand, Jannon recoiled from it. “I know what I did…it was…”
Colm uttered a sharp sound and darted forward. Kayla didn’t understand why until Tara fell like a swan shot out of the sky. Colm caught her thin body before it touched the ground.
“I’ve got her,” he said, cradling her to his broad chest. “I’ll take her back to the lodge.” He waited for a nod from Kayla, and then stalked off in the direction of the faire grounds.
Ryan dragged a hand through his hair, which changed along with the rest of him into his only-average-looking mortal guise. He followed Colm without a word.
Jannon watched them leave before turning to Kayla.
“Blackstone cast no spell over her,” he said. “I would have felt the burn of it.”
“Well, it happened,” Kayla snapped, but suddenly she felt very old and utterly exhausted. “She’s nineteen years old. She’s never had a boyfriend, or gone on a date. In fact, I’m pretty sure that was her first kiss.”
“Aye.” Jannon’s expression darkened. “And ‘twill be his last.”
TO PASS out had been lame, but Tara remained limp and motionless on her bed. She could feel Colm Longacre staring down at her, and wondered if he knew she was faking. But Tara didn’t think so. Kayla had told her that the show manager’s weird power was to see things a few seconds before they happened. Like her phony faint.
“Rest now, lass,” was all he said before switching off the lamp by her bed and leaving.
Tara opened her eyes to stare at the dark ceiling. She couldn’t see the thin, mildewed crack in the plaster that ran from one corner to the other, but she knew it was still there. Just as Dirk Blackstone had always been there, lurking in the shadows ever since he’d found her and Kayla in Florida.
Tara dampened her dry lips, and tasted blood on them—his blood. It had flavored that awful kiss, along with his lust. She’d always thought a man’s mouth would taste warm and wonderful, not cold and coppery. And still, some part of her had wanted it. That part had let him stick his tongue in her mouth, and made her clutch at his neck, and it had been horrible and terrifying and something else, something she would never, ever think about again.
Pushing herself up, Tara listened, but heard no sounds from outside in the hall. No doubt Kayla was beyond pissed with her now, but she’d never show it. She’d just shift into her mommy mode, like always. Tara didn’t want to sit through another kind, gentle, stupid-ass lecture. She’d already endured thousands of them. She was all grown up now anyway, wasn’t she? She could deal with her own problems.
Tara changed out of her dress, which still smelled of Dirk’s icy sweat. She wanted to shower, but knew Kayla would be back soon. After dressing in a dark blue sweater and black jeans, she stuffed her hair under a black knit cap and pulled on her heavy gray down coat, which made her look fifty pounds heavier.
Climbing out the window felt silly and awkward, but Tara was glad she had when she dropped to the ground and heard her sister’s voice calling her name from their room. She hurried around the back of the lodge, keeping her head down whenever she passed someone. She saw Colm and Ryan having an argument by the barn, and did an abrupt turn toward the smithy on the other side of the faire grounds. There she saw Wallace Magee dressed in a leather apron and hammering on something, and stopped to watch the blacksmith for a while.
Like the other guys he used a nothing-special illusion that made him look ordinary and human, at least in the face. He wasn’t wearing a shirt under the apron, and his roof-beam shoulders and car hood of a chest flexed with so much muscle he should have toppled over from the weight. One of his arms had to be bigger around than her whole body. Her gaze shifted as another big man joined him, and her heart clenched.
Since the day she and Kayla had started working at Forever Faire the guy had been watching her. She’d thought it was creepy in the beginning, and braced herself for another attack, but Jannon had kept his distance. She did the same, but gradually she realized he wasn’t doing it because he disliked her. When she looked in his chilly golden eyes she’d sometimes catch a glimpse of something soft and almost wistful, right before he turned away. It was like he was crushing on her, but couldn’t work up the nerve to say anything.
Jannon hated her now, Tara reminded herself, but couldn’t resist creeping closer to the smithy so she could listen to their conversation.
“’Tis a bad business,” Wallace was telling him, and tucked his enormous hammer in his belt before using tongs to shove the blade he was hammering into a barrel of water that sputtered and hissed. “Mark my words, whoever cursed that girl intended it for more than passing a changeling as mortal.”
“She’s a wisp of a thing. What could she do?” Jannon swatted at the huge cloud of steam that rose from the barrel. “Snip off our ear points? Stick pins in our arses? Stitch our smalls to our balls?”
Tara thought, smiling a little.
“You do fancy her.” The smith set aside his tongs to smack Jannon in the back of the head. “You bloody idiot. Do you not remember what Blackstone said about this changeling? Did you not see her kissing that piece of filth this very day? She’s meant for evil purposes, not you.”
“’Tis a choice to go over to the dark,” Jannon said, snarling the words. “She’s not made it.” He stalked away from the smithy.
“Yet,” Wallace called after him, and then turned his head to scowl in Tara’s direction.
She shrank back behind the tree trunk, holding her breath until she heard Wallace begin hammering again. She fled, using the straw-stuffed targets at the archery range to cover her movements. Only when she was out of the blacksmith’s sight did she slow to a walk as she thought about everything she’d heard. Three words kept screeching silently in her mind.
Cursed. Filth. Evil.
Tara went to the costume tent, where she sat in the dark among the performer’s gowns and tunics. She picked out a hooded cape she’d made out of an amber velvet to match Kayla’s eyes. Her sister was probably looking for her right now. Tara hugged the cape to her chest. But instead of recalling Kayla’s voice, she remembered Jannon’s. He’d said it was a choice to go over to the dark.
“Jannon,” she muttered, sitting on the ground. She pulled the hood over her head and wrapped her arms around her knees, tightening into a miserable huddle. “Stupid name.”
But Jannon didn’t believe she was evil—even after seeing her with Dirk. It made Tara wish she’d kissed him first.
Brooding turned to shivering as the temperature dropped, until Tara reluctantly got up. Taking the cape with her, she left the tent to return to the lodge. On the way there she passed men gathered at the nightly bonfire and pretended not to notice their hard gazes. When she saw Jannon, however, she gave him a small nod and smile. He reacted by turning his back on her and took a drink from the glittering blue bottle in his fist.
Tears stung Tara’s eyes, and her throat tightened up. But she wouldn’t cry. It was time to behave like what she really was: an adult.
The thought of going back to the room she shared with Kayla made her stomach knot, so she changed directions and walked into the wing reserved for the Forever Faire men. It felt odd and was too quiet, as if a thousand eyes watched her from mouthless faces. Tara shrugged off the feeling and went down the row of doors. Near the end of the wide hall, the doors were open. As she peeked in the first, she realized why: they were unused, and therefore perfect. She immediately went over to shut the open windows. After turning on the heat and warming her hands in front of the big vent, she found matches on the bedside table and lit the oil lamp. Though there were no bedclothes on the large mattress, she stretched out on it.
Cursed. Filth. Evil.
Pulling her velvet cape around her like a blanket, Tara closed her eyes. The men would spend a couple of hours talking and drinking by the bonfire. As for her, she’d rest a few seconds, and then she was leaving.