Stone Cold Seduction
SET IN STONE - Book One - by Jess Macallan
When a regular night of Robin Hood-ery results in the manifestation of some, um, unusual paranormal abilities, perfume-maker Elleodora Fredricks realizes the normal world she lives in isn’t quite… normal. And neither is she, thanks to her father, king of the shadow elves. Not only is he evil incarnate and the reason Elle moonlights as a burglar—someone has to take care of all his victims—he’s stolen her memories.
And only reading her fate can fix that.
Good thing she’s got a trio of hotties willing to help her find said fate. Saving her oracle BFF’s fiancée, falling in love with the gargoyle, and making up for breaking the phoenix’s heart ought to be a piece of cake for the princess of the shadow elves.
If only the king didn’t want his daughter dead…
Title: Stone Cold Seduction
Author: Jess Macallan
Genre: Paranormal w/ strong Romantic Elements
Length: 246 pages
Launch Date: September 2011
ePub ISBN: 978-1-937044-24-4
Print ISBN: 978-1-937044-25-1
Books 2 and 3 coming November 2011 and January 2012!
Praise for Stone Cold Seduction:
“Clever, sexy, and razor-sharp…STONE COLD SEDUCTION is a magical, thrilling page-turner.”
-Alayna Williams, author of DARK ORACLE and ROGUE ORACLE
“A sexy gargoyle, a hot phoenix, and a heroine just coming into her own all add up to a great read!”
-Alexis Morgan, Best selling author of the Paladins series
© Jess Macallan
The worst day of my life began with a double mocha, extra whipped cream. I burned my tongue, spilled whipped cream on my black top, and then dumped the whole thing when I tripped while walking up the stairs to my second-floor apartment. It got worse. Like a bad country song, I broke things, lost things, ran over things, and hurt things—mostly myself.
If it had stopped there, I could have slept it off with a little help from a bottle of cabernet. But, naturally, it didn’t.
Now, a little past one in the morning, I’m balancing on a stone ledge outside a building that doesn’t belong to me, trying to get away with gems that don’t belong to me. An employee who does, sort of, belong to me, has just opened the nearest window and casually said hello.
Being caught stealing by my newest employee—who happens to be a hottie—tops my list of Worst Situations Ever.
Yes, I’ve had better days.
My name is Elleodora Fredricks—Elle for short. I’m not a fan of my name, especially because it comes from my paternal line. By day, I’m a small business owner, the proprietress of an organic soap store. By night, a cat burglar. I’m moderately talented at both professions. In my defense, I do my part to spread good karma. I donate pet food and blankets to the local animal shelter, I collect donations at my shop twice a year for the food bank, and the only person I ever steal from is the biggest son of a bitch in town.
I typically refer to him as the jerk who mistakenly donated DNA. He never earned the title of dad. It’s safe to say we have father-daughter issues.
A small bead of sweat slid down my jaw and disappear into my collar. It was a cool October evening, but a combination of nerves and leather had me perspiring. Face first, I pressed my weight against the building and gripped the decorative stone that surrounded the window. It had rained earlier, so the stone was slick, but the swirls and pattern in the stone made it fairly easy to grip, despite the rain.
The ledge under my feet was another matter. The eight inches of concrete I balanced on were not nearly enough to make me feel safe from the potential five-story drop. Heights made me queasy, but the gorgeous man staring at me from the window I’d just crawled out of unnerved me.
For starters, he hadn’t taken his eyes off me. For a brief moment, I wondered why I’d listened to Teryl and worn the black catsuit. I was a walking cliché for cat burglars, clinging to a ledge with gemstones hidden between my breasts, wearing a freaking black leather catsuit. I’d only wanted to blend into the shadows and avoid leaving a scrap of identifiable clothing behind. Teryl had sworn the neck-to-ankle black one-piece made me look dangerous and sexy.
Teryl was a liar.
However, Teryl is a liar who also happens to be my best friend, and a key component to this failure of an operation. He’s the one and only informant I have inside my father’s business. Without him, I wouldn’t have access to any of the information I need to stay one step ahead of dear old dad. Too bad Teryl was striking out tonight. Big time.
Excuses to explain my position to my hot employee began to run through my mind, but as quickly as they formed, I dismissed them. It was as bad as it looked. Catsuit, theft, and all. Tonight’s cache included fifty-two carats of flawless Paraiba tourmaline gemstones. It really doesn’t hurt my father’s bottom line—he’s loaded—but it keeps him distracted. More importantly, it prevents him from murdering any more innocents. The money goes back to the families of those who weren’t so lucky, and to the small few who’ve survived, but wished they hadn’t.
Breathing deeply, I prayed for strength and slowly turned my head to look at Jaxon West, otherwise known as Jax. I’d hired him two months ago to help with deliveries, shipments, and all-around handy man tasks.
The man was hot, sweaty, bring-the-roof-down sex poured into jeans.
Jax stood a solid six-feet tall, with broad shoulders, a tapered waist, and every inch of him threaded with muscle. His hair was cut short and an honest-to-God black. It’s so black, it has a gorgeous blue sheen in certain light. And then there were his eyes.
Oh, his eyes.
They’re a steely, flint gray. I swear, at times I’ve seen them shimmer with streaks of silver. Most days, they reflect a sense of calm and knowledge that you associate with the very old, very patient, and very wise.
The strange thing: he’s only thirty-four.
While I stared at him, unable to form a coherent explanation, he leaned out of the window and softly cleared his throat. “Hi, boss.”
His voice reminded me of my favorite chocolate. Dark, smooth, and so delicious, you can only eat one small bite at a time, because you want to wrap it around yourself to savor every little bit. Too bad this was the wrong place, wrong time.
Thankful for the dark of night, I offered him a stiff smile he probably couldn’t see. “Hi, Jax. Fancy meeting you here.”
He crossed his arms and settled against the window frame as if he had all night. One black brow lifted, but he said nothing.
Jax was good at silence. There were days he’d work for hours without saying a single word. I didn’t get the impression he was anti-social, just quiet and observant. He didn’t miss a thing, but he rarely offered his two cents. His silent presence was usually calming. Right now, I felt anything but calm.
Gritting my teeth in disgust, mostly at myself, I lifted my gaze toward the dark, October, night sky. He was going to be difficult, and I didn’t have time to offer up the harsh details of why I was here. Plus, I really wanted to get out of this catsuit. Sweat accumulated in uncomfortable places when wearing leather.
Teryl would have to die for this.
“I know this looks bad, but if you’d let me—” I bit off the rest of my words when Jax’s head whipped around to look at something in my father’s office. He put a hand up to silence me.
I heard the voices, and my blood ran cold. My heart began to pound hard against my chest. If my father’s men found me… I couldn’t even finish the thought as my stomach began to churn. I wondered if jumping would be a better option.
Jax motioned for me to remain quiet, and he carefully climbed onto the ledge without making a sound. He managed to close the window most of the way before the men walked into the room.
I inched my way over, so Jax could slide beside me on the slippery, narrow, brick ledge.
At least I’ll die with a gorgeous man, I thought morbidly, trying not to panic.
I could hear the men shuffling around in the room, their voices tense and angry. Holding my breath, I kept as still as I could. I’d never been this close to being caught. I felt knots forming into hard, heavy lumps in my stomach as I pressed into the stone wall.
“Mr. Warlow is gonna be pissed if another one goes missing,” a raspy voice pronounced.
“That’s an understatement” was the sarcastic reply.
I didn’t recognize the first voice, but I knew the second.
It haunted me.
I hadn’t seen Luke for over ten years. Hearing his voice…it was as if the nightmare had ended only yesterday. Except it hadn’t really ended. I’d merely been given a reprieve.
Luke is my father’s right-hand goon. He is pure nastiness behind an ugly mug of a face. Built like a tank, Luke enjoys inflicting pain in ways that go far beyond disturbing. No amount of therapy or medication would ever get through to him. Some people are born evil, and Luke fit that description to a T. I had nightmares about that man more often than I liked to admit.
If he was involved tonight, things were going to get ugly, soon. I pushed distant memories into the furthest corners of my mind and laid my cheek against the cold, wet stone. It would be embarrassing if I got caught and cried in front of Jax in the same night.
On the bright side, if Luke was on the job, my father must be getting irritated. Maybe I was finally getting results. It thrilled and terrified me at the same time.
“Seriously man, we’ve got to find this bastard.” The raspy voice sounded slightly panicked. “This will be the third one in four months. You know how Mr. Warlow is. Heads will roll.”
Luke’s reply was muffled, and I sent up a quick thanks. I didn’t want to hear anything he might have to say about what he’d do when he caught me.
I could hear the men moving things around, probably looking for the small bag of gemstones I had secured against my chest. Were the police on their way? I pressed closer to the stone face, trying to make myself as small as possible. It was a futile effort. You can’t hide a five-foot, eight-inch tall, catsuit-covered woman on an eight-inch ledge.
Did I mention I’m not great under pressure?
Jax put an arm around the back of my waist, for comfort or safety, I wasn’t sure. I shifted slightly, distracted with the close contact. His arm was warm and hard, and a small part of me enjoyed the touch. Jax was an innocent in all this. I still didn’t know why he was there, but I did know he should have never been caught up in my mess. I drew in a breath to whisper that I was sorry, but he stopped me.
“Hush.” His breath felt warm against my ear as he whispered the command. “They will see the open window soon.”
I ignored the shiver his words conjured. I’d rather jump from five stories than let Luke find me.
Almost on cue, that raspy voice called, “Hey, did you check the window?”
I heard someone scramble toward the window. As it slid open, I was desperate for the night to swallow us whole. Bile rose in my throat as the thought burned through me.
I saw a shaved head poke out and look both directions. Luke’s cold eyes scanned the area, and I could almost feel that sharp gaze cut over me. His image wavered as I forgot to breathe, and I waited for the pain and oblivion that always followed Luke. I squeezed my eyes shut as fear wrenched me back to the past.
I stood before my father, hands clasped in front of me, eyes on the floor. He was angry again.
I tried not to cry. He hated it when I cried. He called me a sniveling weakling. Not fit to share his blood. Mom said I had to be here because we were blood. My seven-year-old mind didn’t understand.
But I did understand his anger. It meant pain for me.
I heard a door creak open and dared to look up. A terrified whimper escaped before I could stop it. Father would be furious at the sound.
His fists clenched until the knuckles were white.
He never hit me. I always flinched, waiting for his blow. But he never hit me. I could see in his eyes that he wanted to.
“Luke, make sure the child understands her place,” Father bit out, raking me with one last, scathing look. Shaking his head in disgust, he walked out.
Luke watched him leave, a small, cruel smile playing at his lips. His eyes were lit with an unholy gleam, and he smoothed a hand over his bald head. “Well, well, Princess. Shall we play?”
Seven-year-old legs trembled, unable to run. No longer caring about father’s wrath, I opened my mouth to scream. I knew I shouldn’t. Luke loved it when I screamed.
His smile grew wider.
Tears streamed down my face and I wondered how long it would take for the darkness to come this time.
“Anything?” the unknown voice inside called, jarring me back to the present. I dared to open my eyes. This time, they were clear and dry.
“Nope.” Luke’s shaved head disappeared. Moments later, their voices trailed away, still grumbling.
I remained still, confused. Luke never walked away when his prey was in sight. Maybe this was a new, sick twist of his. Psych out the prey before you torture and kill it.
I hated him with every fiber of my soul.
Almost choking on my rage and fear, I held still, waiting to be discovered. He’d be back. He always came back. Maybe he’d left to call the police. I waited for the sound of a security alarm or sirens.
After a full two minutes of quiet, I worked up the courage to whisper, “What the hell just happened? Are they gone?”
Jax was silent. His body stiffened at my question. The darkness made his fierce expression even harsher. It was not a happy look.
When he finally spoke, his voice stretched between us, low and deadly. “How long have you been able to shadow?”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I didn’t answer. I was still shocked we hadn’t been seen.
With a muttered curse, he grabbed me around the waist with both arms and jumped. I didn’t have time to draw in a breath to scream before he gently set me down on the street, five stories below.
I gurgled and stared up to where we had just been standing. “What…I…I…”
His expression was grim when he faced me. “We need to talk.”
“Buh…buh…but how did you…” my words trailed off as I looked up and down the street, at a complete loss. Was I going crazy? How had we gotten to the ground in one piece? How had Luke not seen us? Maybe I’d finally gone off the deep end. It sounded like a viable option.
I brushed a shaky hand against the small, velvet bag that was nestled against my chest, inside the suit. It was still there. My heart thundered against it, and I swore I heard the echo of the beat. The stress of the past few moments caught up with me, and I felt my knees begin to buckle.
I was in another nightmare. Except Luke didn’t have a starring role, and I couldn’t seem to wake up from this one.
Jax grabbed me around the waist before I crumpled to the pavement. He strode away from the building, half-dragging me beside him. “Let’s get you home and get you a drink. We have a lot to discuss.”
I stumbled along and felt my breath coming in short gasps, suddenly feeling uncomfortably awake and wishing I weren’t. Jax had caught me breaking and entering, we’d barely escaped my father’s sadistic enforcer by jumping from five stories up, and now he wanted to go get a drink?
The cool night air held the lingering scent of rain and the undertones of a flowering tree, but thankfully, no sound of sirens or alarms. I couldn’t remember the name of the tree, but the soothing ritual of identifying scents helped calm me down.
We arrived at my apartment on Seattle’s Capitol Hill a half hour later. My neck hurt from constantly looking over my shoulder for Luke or the police. I’d cringed at every shadow, real and imagined. Despite my paranoia, I hadn’t seen anyone on our walk beyond the late night partygoers.
I loved the area. It had a fun, funky feel and suited my business perfectly. My building was plain, but my neighbors were great. I had a Thai restaurant to the left and an accountant’s office to the right. Directly across the street was my favorite yoga studio. I didn’t have to venture far for anything. My shop was downstairs, and my apartment was upstairs. As an employee, Jax already had a key to the shop. Now, he held out his hand and demanded the key to my apartment.
Don’t ask me how I managed to fit a key in a leather catsuit. I did.
My limbs felt heavy with exhaustion. The long walk home hadn’t helped, but public transportation hadn’t been an option. I remained silent until Jax had pushed me inside and locked the door behind us.
“Am I dreaming? Because not one moment of the last twenty minutes has made much sense.”
Part of me was hoping he’d lie. Maybe Teryl would jump out from behind my favorite overstuffed chair and yell “You’ve been Punk’d!”
Life is never that easy.
“Elleodora,” Jax began.
“It’s Elle. Just Elle,” I grumbled. I’ve been telling him for two months to call me by my nickname. Only my father and my mother called me Elleodora. My mom had only used it when she was mad at me. My father used it as an insult.
Jax sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. Putting extra emphasis on my name, he said, “Elle, I need to know how long you’ve been able to shadow.”
I still had no idea what he was talking about, so I turned away and walked into my small kitchen, and sagged into one of the chairs at my breakfast table.
I love my little kitchen. It smells like an herb garden. I keep pots of lavender, basil, thyme, and lemon balm on the counter. My favorite place to be is sitting at my table, holding a cup of hot tea. I’d found the round table at an antique shop and refinished it myself. The scrollwork on the pedestal leg shows old-fashioned craftsmanship at its finest.
The warm mocha color of the kitchen walls wraps around me like a cozy blanket. I can read the paper, eat in peace, or stare out the small window and watch people rushing by on the sidewalk below. I always find comfort here.
Tonight, that comfort eluded me. Instead, I felt cold and numb.
Folding my hands on the table, I let my head sink onto them. My breath shuddered through me as I tried to let the weight of my tension slowly slip away.
If my father had Luke on the job, it would only be a matter of time before he found me. I was certain Luke had never, ever come up empty-handed in a hunt. And fool that I was, I had taken on this crusade like some misguided, modern-day Robin Hood. The problem was, I had no Little John to back me up, and I was completely inept.
Who was I kidding? I’d been playing a dangerous game, and I’d known the potential outcome. I had let my ego get the better of me. Seeing Luke today had brought reality crashing down around me.
Lost in a moment of self-pity, I jumped when Jax sat down in the opposite chair.
He watched me with his calm, knowing eyes.
I took another breath and stared at my hands. “What shadows are you talking about?”
Jax leaned forward and stared at me intently. “You really don’t know what shadowing is.” It was a statement, and he was waiting for my reaction.
Some of my hair had escaped the ponytail I’d pulled it into earlier. I wearily tucked it behind my ear. “Since you showed up tonight, nothing has made sense. I don’t understand what you’re asking me, and I don’t understand how we got off that ledge. If Luke had caught me tonight, neither you nor any shadows would have been much help.” My voice had risen with each word, and Jax sat back at the volume of my last word, “help.”
Fear had overridden my good sense once again. Jax didn’t know a thing about my father or Luke or our history, and I didn’t want him to know. The fewer people on this planet who knew how screwed up I really was, the better. “Never mind. Scratch that. I don’t know what shadowing is.” And I didn’t really care at this point. I had enough on my plate that I couldn’t handle. The police worried me a hell of a lot more than Jax’s shadows.
His voice was soft when he replied, “You’re coming into your powers, and one of them is obviously shadowing. How else would they not have seen us?”
I dropped my head to my hands once more. Powers? Shadowing? Maybe he’d had a good idea with that drink suggestion. I also needed to get out of this catsuit.
One crisis at a time.
I decided to tackle the simplest one first. With effort, I pushed myself to my feet. “I need to change. I have no idea what’s going on, but I sure hope it was a really, really bad dream. I’ll see you in the morning.” I turned to walk away. Hopefully he’d let himself out, because I just didn’t have it in me to play hostess. My terror had gone as quickly as it had come, and it had burned through my energy reserves. I was wiped out and wanted to be alone.
Jax gently stopped me with his hand on my arm after I’d gotten only two steps out of the kitchen.
A banging at my door made me jump. Heart racing again, I stared at Jax.
How had they found me so quickly? Luke must have called the police. I could hardly believe he’d decided to let the authorities handle this, but if Luke was at the door himself, he wouldn’t be bothering to knock. I had to hide the stones. Crap, I had to answer the door. I had to—
“Elle, open up! It’s colder than shit out here.”
I let out a strangled laugh when I recognized the voice. Teryl had the worst timing.
He’s been my best friend since we were ten years old. He’s my partner in crime and the worst fashion advisor a girl could have. I leaned against the doorframe of the kitchen while Jax went to the front door.
He’d barely turned the lock when Teryl pushed his way in. “What in the hell happened? I tried to…” He stopped short when he saw Jax standing halfway behind the door. “Hey, Jax. I…um…this must be a bad time.”
Pivoting quickly, he turned to leave.
Jax grabbed his arm. “In the kitchen. Now.” Gone was the soft, steady voice. Hard steel, coated with menace, Jax all but growled at Teryl.
Eyes wide, Teryl pivoted again and brushed past me into the kitchen. He looked like he’d stepped out of a clothing ad. Dark wash jeans fit his slim, lanky figure great. A black jacket hung unzipped over a wildly-striped polo. He looked as comfortable as I wanted to be. He sat at one of the four chairs and watched Jax nervously. I took the seat to his right, too tired to argue about shadows or leaping off buildings, and too confused to care.
Jax said nothing. He stared at Teryl, while Teryl did his best to look anywhere and everywhere but in Jax’s direction. He jumped when Jax said his name.
Even in my weary state, I recognized the command in Jax’s tone. I slapped a hand on the table with irritation. “Can someone please explain what is going on?”
Neither man answered right away. They were too busy staring at each other, communicating silently.
My hands slapped on the table as I stood up. “Have your silent manversation outside, but right now, I want words!”
“Manversation?” Teryl’s smile was brief. “Is that even a word?”
“I suggest you start kissing the ground I walk on because you will pay for the rest of your miserable life for tonight. And for your information, a manversation is a conversation men have where only grunts, growls, and manly looks are exchanged.”
“Is that so? I had no idea we did that.” Teryl’s cheeky grin pissed me off even more than his sarcasm. Normally, I found his sense of humor a little twisted, but a lot funny. I found nothing funny about what had happened tonight.
His smile faded as he realized I was serious. “Hey, I think you look freakin’ amazing in that leather.”
I dropped into the chair, slumping back. “Start explaining what you’re trying to avoid telling me. Now.”
Teryl began to fidget, which was never a good sign. He fidgeted, but he didn’t say a word. I looked at Jax, who was equally silent.
It didn’t matter who spilled the beans, but they’d better start talking. Now.
Jax sighed and leaned back so his chair tipped against the wall, facing us. He folded his arms across his chest, causing the muscles in his shoulders to bunch. Not that I’d notice such a thing at a time like this. Not that I should notice such a thing.
Jax’s sigh strummed across my last nerve.
“You know what? To hell with you.” I let my glare slide over Teryl’s guilty face. “You, too. Luke almost caught me tonight, Teryl.”
His face blanched and he reached across the table and grabbed my hand. “Luke? He’s in town? Are you okay?” He squeezed gently.
Teryl was one of the only people alive who knew my history with Luke. Because I wanted to keep it that way, I tilted my head slightly to remind Teryl that we had an audience.
He cleared his throat and let go of my hand. “Right. Uh, what happened?”
I rubbed my temples. A headache was beginning to develop behind my right eye. I pulled the ponytail holder out of my hair and let it fall loose around my shoulders in an effort to ease the tightness along my scalp. “I don’t know what happened. We weren’t caught, and we didn’t die after stepping off the ledge, and if one of you doesn’t explain, I’m going to start crying. Big, fat, hysterical woman tears.”
“Elle shadowed,” Jax said to Teryl.
There was that word again. Shadowed. It sounded like something a superhero—or supervillian—would do. I caught another meaningful stare between the two of them.
The chair squeaked against the floor as Teryl scooted back and stood up. “How about a drink?”
“I don’t want a damned drink.” Well, I did, but that could wait.
“I meant for me,” he grumbled, as he began rummaging around in my cupboards. He found a bottle of whiskey in my small liquor stash and poured a shot. I watched him grimace as it went down. Teryl rarely drank.
Unease slithered through my irritation as I watched him drink a second shot. He coughed when the alcohol hit his throat, and then turned back to us. “She doesn’t know about it.”
The word Jax muttered under his breath startled me. I’d never heard the man curse before, not in that deep, sincere voice of his.
“Doesn’t know what?” I asked, eyeing the bottle of whiskey Teryl carried to the table. He sat down and poured two more shots, handing one to me.
Jax spoke for him. “Your father is a shadow elf king, and you’re his heir.”
I polished off the shot of whiskey in between bouts of laughter.
The guys sat silently, waiting. Teryl was turning his shot glass around and around, watching the liquid swirl. Jax didn’t move a muscle.
“Okay, okay.” I laughed and waved a hand at them. “A shadow elf king, right. My dad had his ears surgically altered in order to conform and walk among humans.” I rolled my eyes and continued. “And wait, let me guess. He met my mom, they fell in love, but because elves and humans can’t be together, we were cast out, and he had to stay and lead his people.”
I sobered and stared hard at them. “Next, I suppose you’ll tell me he really did love me, but the elf rules require him to treat me like a monster.”
“No,” Teryl replied softly, still fidgeting with his glass. “He’s the monster, even in elven terms. His mistake was that he wrote you off as human, and therefore, powerless. Now we know he was wrong.”
The sadness in Teryl’s voice was unsettling. But not nearly as unsettling as the line of crap he was trying to feed me.
“Honestly, I don’t know what sick joke you’re trying to play, but I’ve had it.” I wiped a hand over my face and stood up. “You can both show yourselves out. I’m going to take a hot shower, then sleep this nightmare off.”
“Sit.” The command in Jax’s voice was unmistakable, but I ignored it.
Before I got out of the kitchen, he grabbed my arm. Again. “We have much more to tell you, and you need to sit.”
I glared over my shoulder at him.
“Please,” he added.
“No more lies, no more stories.” I tried to shake his hand off. “I just want the tru—”
The word stuck in my throat.
Because the hand holding my arm had turned to stone.
Cold, heavy, unyielding stone. And the fingers, one by one, wiggled at me before slowly releasing. My eyes followed the movement as Jax let his hand drop to his side, and it slowly returned to normal.
What the hell? I downed the shot Teryl handed me.
“Jax,” I tried to whisper, but it came out as a squeak, from the whiskey or surprise, I couldn’t tell.
“I’m a gargoyle,” he said, as casually as one might comment on the weather.
I couldn’t seem to look away from that normal-looking hand. Jax sighed, and I watched his entire arm turn gray as flesh turned to stone once more.
“How is that possible?” I asked, not taking my eyes off the marbled muscle. My brain was having trouble processing what my eyes were seeing. Even so, I made a mental note that cast in stone, Jax would be so sexy. He was a living, breathing statue. At least partially. Move over, Michelangelo’s David.
No man should look that good without trying. It was a crime. One I was happy to admire, as I noted how the muscles of his arm were etched perfectly into stone. Besides, focusing on the sexy part was easier to cope with.
“I was born this way, just as you were born part shadow elf.”
Shadow elf. Right. My desire disappeared at the unwelcome reminder. The bizarre explanation was not what I wanted to hear. I slid my gaze to Teryl, almost afraid to ask. What sort of freaky body-changing tricks was my best friend hiding?
Teryl rolled his shoulders, obviously uncomfortable. “I’m an oracle.”
“An oracle,” I repeated. “Of course, because that makes so much sense. And I’m Dorothy. I want to get back to Kansas, and you can both stay in Oz.” My voice began to rise along with my temper. I thought I’d been lost when my mom was murdered, but now I was being told I wasn’t even human?
“How could I, all of the sudden, be a completely different species and not know it? I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me my father was the devil himself, but wouldn’t I know what I am?” I crossed my arms over my chest, and I pinned Jax with a hard stare. “Prove it.”
“We don’t know what your powers are,” Teryl answered for him. “If you’d just let us explain.”
I’d reached my breaking point. “You’re telling me I’m some sort of freaky, half-human thing. Jax can turn to stone, and I don’t know what the hell an oracle can do, but I’m sure it’s weird, too.”
Jax placed a hand on my arm. I’m sure he meant it to be comforting. At the moment, I found it condescending. I shrugged him off. “Don’t touch me.”
He lifted a brow at me. “I was going to show you, just as you’d asked.”
“Do it without touching me,” I said, with my teeth clenched.
He smiled—he probably knew his touch distracted me—and walked past me into the living room. He stood in the center and faced me, then pulled off his shirt in what could easily have been the sexiest strip-tease I’d ever witnessed. Wings appeared behind him, folded against his bare torso. It happened so fast, it seemed as if they appeared out of nowhere.
“I’d show you the whole wingspan, but your room is too small.”
I swallowed the startled expletive in my throat and frowned at him. “Why is it always a size thing with guys?”
That wiped the smile off his face. “You wanted to know how we got off the ledge. I’m offering you an answer.”
“You flew us down?” I could see the wings, but my brain was having a harder time processing how good he looked with them. Hot. Beyond hot.
I took a moment to look at him. Really look at him.
His stance was casual. Legs shoulder-width apart, arms hanging at his sides. My mouth went suddenly dry, so I swallowed a few times. My imagination had not done his body justice. He was Gorgeous with a capital G. Every muscle on his upper body was well defined, even as he stood relaxed. A shadow of dark hair lightly covered his chest and made the sexiest trail down his abdominals. I greedily followed the path that stopped—much to my disappointment—at the waistband of his jeans.
I bit my bottom lip. I’d never be able to look at him without drooling again.
Focus! I tried to shut up my inner hussy and deal with the problem at hand. But oh, what a problem. Those two shots of whiskey were settling my nerves and firing up my libido.
Jax frowned at me. “Is something funny?”
I wiped the inappropriate but appreciative smile off my face and shook my head. “No, sorry. I got distracted.”
His slow, sexy smile came back. He didn’t speak, but he didn’t have to. Jax had the amazing ability to say so much without uttering a single word. And I needed to get back on track.
His aura of danger had increased exponentially with the addition of dark, leathery wings and I found myself wanting to touch them. Walking into the living room, I examined the wings.
Irritation forgotten for the moment, I moved closer and circled around. His wings flared out from his shoulder blades. They were the same dark gray color his arm had become when he turned to stone. A shade somewhere between his black hair and silver eyes, including threads of dark, shimmery gray. Even folded, they were huge. They skimmed the ground next to his feet and extended almost to the crown of his head. No feathers, I noted.
On him, they looked…right. The wings looked like a natural and necessary part of his body.
Jax shrugged his shoulders and the wings moved with him.
“What are they made from?” I asked softly.
“Bone, skin, muscle,” he replied. He shifted and the wings extended out slightly, enough for me to see the skeletal structure and the muscles. They were incredible.
“You can touch them.” His voice rumbled through me, striking the right chord.
Have I mentioned his voice? It’s deep and low and when he speaks, it echoes in all the right places. And when he told me to touch him, my hormones perked up. Everything did. Which is why I hesitated. For some reason, I knew touching him in that moment would be a bad idea.
“What else can a gargoyle do?” I stepped away and put my hands behind my back.
He turned his head so he could see my face. “We’re immortal. We fly and turn to stone. Our role is usually bodyguard.”
“And they’re damn near indestructible.”
Teryl’s voice brought me back to the present. I’d forgotten he was here. In fact, I’d forgotten almost everything, I’d been so fascinated by my gargoyle employee.
Teryl stepped into the living room, too, shot glass in hand. “He’s being modest. What Jax isn’t saying is that when they turn to stone, they can crush just about anything. I once saw a gargoyle smash a man’s face right in.” He downed the drink in one swallow, then shuddered. “Let’s just say, you don’t want to piss one off.”
I wondered what else Jax could do? Teryl’s words had brought up a gruesome image, so maybe I really didn’t want to know.
Just then, I noticed his wings ended in sharpened points of the silvery threads. They could be used as weapons, not only for flight. Or whatever we’d done tonight.
I felt the anger and frustration building and tamped them down. Those emotions weren’t helpful. I’d learned that long ago. And if I were honest, I could admit this situation wasn’t their fault. It was a mess, but not their fault. But maybe, just maybe, they could shed a little light on it all.
I turned to Teryl. “What can an oracle do?”
The expression that settled on his face was not a happy one. “It depends on the oracle’s lineage. Some oracles are used to locate people or things. Others can predict the future, but that line isn’t as strong as it used to be. Some can read minds.” He leaned against the wall, close to the small side table at one end of my couch. His hands idly spun the small, decorative globe I had on display, because he couldn’t contain his nervous energy. “And a few read fate.”
He’d always had trouble staying still, but tonight I heard weariness in his voice, which was something I’d never noticed before. I studied Teryl’s face and saw lines of worry. The corners of his mouth were turned down in a slight frown.
On most people, the look wouldn’t be a big deal. We have days that are up and days that are down. But Teryl is a perpetual optimist. My brown-haired, brown-eyed friend is always smiling and joking. He’s engaged to a perfectly nice woman named Clio. I swear, they were made for each other. She works for my father, and since she transferred to the London office months ago, Teryl has become increasingly unhappy.
Right now, he was subdued and quiet as he revealed the types of oracles. The normal spark in his eyes was gone. He seemed a little lost. The words coming out of his mouth were a far cry from his usual jokes and devil-may-care persona.
What he was describing seemed surreal. I tried to wrap my brain around the last skill he’d mentioned. “Read fates? Sort of like the Greek Fates and the threads of life?”
He shook his head slowly, and folded his arms as he looked up from the spot on the floor that had held his gaze. “Not quite. When one of us is born,” he gestured to each of us, “our fate is read and recorded at birth.”
“It’s a summary of your life and potential,” Jax added.
Okay, that still didn’t tell me much. “So, only oracles get to read these?”
“No, the fates are sealed until the recipient is old enough or the family decides they’re ready. Most of us get ours by the time we hit double digits.” Teryl shrugged. “But it’s really up to your parents or guardian. It’s a personal thing, so it doesn’t come up in regular conversation. They’re not known to anyone but you and anyone you choose to tell.”
Jax answered my unspoken question. “Your father would have yours or know where it is. As would the oracle who read it.”
“You both have yours?”
The men nodded. Teryl put his glass down on the coffee table and sat in my favorite chair. “You could say it’s a rite of passage. For humans, it’s a big deal to turn sixteen to drive, eighteen to graduate, and twenty-one to drink. For us, it’s a big deal to be deemed ready and worthy to know your fate.”
Now I was confused. If I was part of this, where was my fate? Better yet, why was all of this news to me?
“Why didn’t I get mine?” At twenty-seven, I had a feeling I was behind the curve with this one.
“That’s a good question,” Jax answered, his face pensive. “What would Warlow have to gain by keeping it from you? I’ve never heard of anyone not receiving one.”
If my father had it, I wasn’t about to go ask him about it. The last time I’d seen him had been at my mother’s funeral, when I’d accused him of murder. The smug bastard had smiled and tried to placate me in front of the horrified guests. A phone call or visit with him was out of the question.
Teryl drummed his fingers against his thighs. “If we knew the oracle who read your fate, we could track it down. Each oracle keeps a record of the fates they read. It goes into the Library of Shadows.”
I held up a hand. “Okay, wait a second. Let’s deal with one issue at a time. I don’t need to hear about secret libraries, the intricacies of the different types of oracles, and who was on the grassy knoll.”
Teryl shot me an irritated look, one I’d never seen before my father had moved Clio across the ocean. It was one I’d been getting used to seeing more and more often. “I was answering your questions.”
“I know.” I rubbed my brow and took a deep breath. “This is a lot to take in at one time, so let’s get back to the first topic.” I turned to Jax. “You flew us off the ledge tonight. We weren’t seen because you said I shadowed. What does that mean?”
“It is a trait of the shadow elves. You become the shadows, and because I was holding you, you made me become the shadows, too.”
The headache I had was starting to make my eyes hurt. “Become the shadows? Like a mist?”
“Sort of,” Teryl answered for him. “The more powerful the shadow elf, the better they are. Your father can move into the shadows and disappear. Lesser shadow elves can blend into the background a bit, but not disappear. Most shadow elves fall somewhere in the middle.” He directed his next question to Jax. “What did Elle do?”
“She is Jedren Warlow’s daughter.”
“Damn,” Teryl swore softly and went back to pacing.
Tension crept across my shoulders. “I thought we were past the vague comments already.”
“Your father is the only shadow elf alive who can disappear for a few minutes a time. Most are limited to seconds or up to a minute, max. It’s a temporary state because it drains their energy quickly.” Teryl got more upset with each word. “Jax, how long was it?”
Jax was staring at me. “Four minutes. Possibly five.”
Teryl’s mouth opened but no words came out. It was never a good sign when he was shocked into silence.
Waving a hand at them, I laughed, but it sounded hollow, even to my ears. “Oh please. It can’t be that big of a deal.”
“Your father’s known limit is five minutes, and it leaves him incapacitated for hours.”
“I don’t feel well now. Does that count? You could even say I feel downright sick.”
Teryl stood up and began pacing. “He means Jedren can’t move afterward. Shadowing drains a shadow elf of their energy. The original purpose was a defense mechanism. But that was centuries ago. All of the family lines, from oracles to shadow elves, have suffered a dilution of power. Your father is no exception.”
“But Elle appears to be.” Jax’s soft proclamation sounded ominous.
I didn’t want to be the exception. I wanted to be a run of the mill sort of woman. Minus my side gig as catsuit-wearing Robin Hood wannabe.
I tugged at one sleeve of the catsuit, suddenly remembering how uncomfortable it was. I wanted to move through a few yoga poses to ease my tension, but couldn’t do it in this outfit. “That’s all the intrigue I can handle for one night. I am exhausted, exception or not. I would love to sleep on this, and we can talk about it in the morning. The shop is closed, so we can have coffee and quiet.”
“I’ll bring food,” Teryl offered. One of the reasons he was my best friend was because he could always tell when I needed my space, and he respected it.
“Good idea. Is that okay with you, Jax?” His wings were gone, and he’d put his shirt back on. I was tired, but not so tired that I didn’t feel a twinge of disappointment. “Can we finish this conversation tomorrow?”
His smile was slow. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Oh, that sounded promising and scary, all at the same time. And there was no way was I going to take that bait tonight. I really didn’t have the energy.
I waved good-bye to them and walked into my bedroom. They could let themselves out or stay. I didn’t care, as long as I could peel off this leather, stash the gemstones, shower, and then sleep in peace. Maybe, just maybe, all of this would look better in the morning.
My sanity was counting on it.