Authors: Erin Kellison
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Paranormal
It had to have been the music that changed her. He’d gone too far, revealed too much. But that was the way with music; it demanded everything. No holding back. Denying what he’d played now was like trying to stop something that had already happened.
Fine, then. She knew. He loved her. He’d loved her since he first saw her dance in the Shadowlands.
But she had to understand.
He said, “I. Ruin. Everything.”
Annabella’s smile faltered, a dark glimmer of sadness far away in her eyes.
So she did understand. No matter how he felt, he was no good for her. He could play well and fight better, but that was about it. He was a thieving, murderous opportunist. Not too long ago he’d taken all he could get from her, and he would again tonight.
He dropped his gaze to get rid of Adam’s cuff links. Everything borrowed, nothing his. Never his. He threw them on an end table, rolled his cuffs, and forced himself to look up again.
“You’ll have to tell me what you’re thinking,” he said. She was smart; by now she had to have guessed that he’d quit trespassing in her head.
She pinned him with dangerous intent. “Fine then. You ruin everything? Ruin
Table of Contents
For Mom and Dad with love.
The Faerie have no concept of time, breath of life, or gift of death. They are Other, neither good nor evil, and therefore capable of both extremes. They inhabit the twilight Sha-dowlands, a
space that buffers mortality from the hereafter, where magic is thick, influencing human dreams and nightmares.
The greatest of the Fae, Shadowman, also known as Death, guarded the veil and couriered souls across the divide for millennia upon millennia.
One day, Death fell in love and abandoned his post. As a direct consequence of his actions, the boundary between mortality and the Shadowlands thinned and is now…
to beings on both sides.
The Shadowlands Treatise
by Talia Kathleen Thorne,
The Segue Institute
fist to his jaw snapped Custo’s head to the side. His ear roared as a storm of broad heat spread across his cheek and behind his left eye. He shuddered with the swell of ache that followed, each beat of his heart searing a lightning strike of pain through his skull as dark clouds gathered in his mind.
He flexed his hands against the bonds that cut into his wrists—not to escape, that was impossible—but to control the wicked-slick fear that might wheeze out of him in a weak moment.
He was going to die. The trick now was to die well. No sniveling allowed.
Spencer’s face loomed into Custo’s blurred view. His brown hair was close-cropped, just shy of a buzz. A black earbud connected him to the rest of his team, the covert government agency that investigated paranormal activity. They were supposed to be the good guys, but something had gone terribly wrong. Spencer had always been a bastard, but colluding with the wraiths made him a traitor.
“Just tell me where Adam is, and I’ll let you go. There’s really no need for this—we’re going to find him anyway. He doesn’t need to know it was you,” Spencer said.
A wet, warm trickle found the channel beneath Custo’s nose. The coppery smell filled his head.
Adam would know, and worse, Adam would forgive.
A rough scrape—metal on the floor. A coin of light pressure on his foot.
Custo cracked his eyes.
Spencer had positioned one of Adam’s sleek chairs directly in front of his own and levered himself into the seat, close enough to bump knees. With Spencer’s weight in the chair, the pressure on Custo’s foot increased. A bone ached, burned, then snapped with a sizzle of white-hot sparks that shot up his calf. Reality slipped out of focus for a fraction of a moment.
Spencer sat back in the chair, a friendly smile on his face. “Really, I’ll let you
right out of here. Just tell me where Adam is.”
Spencer loved games, loved winning. The only way to thwart him was to beat him into the ground, or not to play. There was no winning today. It was better to think of something else.
Custo focused beyond Spencer, scanning the bedroom for a distraction. The New York City loft was typical Adam Thorne—clean lines of modern, uncluttered wealth in industrial grays and blacks, accented by bold colors—a strong red in the case of the bedroom, which detailed the side table and the low Asian bed centered on the opposite wall. In the abstract painting above, the red deepened to a
Blood. Custo dropped his gaze to the wide-planked wood floor.
“You must know where he is.” Spencer gripped Custo’s hand, his urgency overriding his previous levity.
I thought he was here. We were supposed to meet here.
Adam had brought Talia to the loft for safekeeping. Custo was to rendezvous with them, and together they would strategize an offensive strike on the wraiths’ locus of power. Adam had even checked in with Custo several times over the course of the evening to monitor his progress.
Something must have happened, and Adam and Talia bolted.
“He tells you everything.” Spencer found Custo’s index finger. Lifted it away from the arm of the chair.
Draw this out, and maybe they can escape.
Custo’s breath caught in his chest as his finger came to a burning right angle with the back of his hand. He gritted his teeth—a molar had loosened—and waited for the—
Pop. Custo shivered under the break of his cold sweat, then surged against the bonds that held him to the chair. Too fucking tight.
He just had to hold out a little longer. Long enough for Adam and Talia to get to safety.
“So sorry,” Spencer said, pulling the finger back into alignment. He twisted it this way and that. The little bones screamed. “I think it’s broken.”
Very funny. Only nine more to go.
“What about that freak Talia?” Spencer lifted the middle finger. Custo tried to pull his hand back, but the damn ropes held him firmly to the chair.
Talia. Yeah, she was a little odd. No doubt about it. One scream and her dark daddy Shadowman came to the rescue. Handy having Death for a father.
Death. Custo watched as a female wraith glided from the corner of the room and settled onto Adam’s bed to lounge against the pillows, her hungry gaze meeting his. A thin, pale brunette. She looked human, and at one time she was, but something had changed her and made a monster of the woman. A soul-sucker. The Segue Institute, a private organization that had teamed with Spencer’s government group, had been dedicated to discovering the source of the human-wraith transformation and curing it, if possible. The focus had shifted to full war when Talia deduced that wraiths were monsters by choice, forgoing humanity for immortality.
Pop. Custo’s hand twitched in an acute spasm of agony, double that of the first break. He breathed deeply, lungs straining for control.
Spencer selected another.
Heart lurching in his chest, Custo ground his teeth together as the pressure on his thumb increased to liquid fire, but pissed himself anyway.
Spencer lurched back with a laugh. “Whoa, buddy! Ya scared to die?”
“Not as scared as you.” Custo’s voice was gravel, the sound rumbling from his chest.
“I’m not the one who peed my pants.”
The sour-sweet smell lifted into the room and burned through the coppery scent of blood.
“You”—Custo put his tongue to his loose tooth—“you turned coward the moment you sided with the wraiths.”
The wraith woman winked. “On the contrary, takes nerve to be in the same room with a hungry one.”
Spencer ignored her. He gave a huge sigh and rolled his eyes heavenward. “You just don’t get it, Custo. You never did. There’s no fighting immortality. Adam and I have been over this a million times. What the wraiths do may not be pretty—feeding on the life essence of their human forebears—but it is a natural evolutionary step toward conquering Death. I merely read the writing on the wall.”
“You got scared. I always knew you were chickenshit.”
“I got smart.” Spencer’s tone rose with anger. “Who are you to talk anyway? I know what you’ve done.”
What I’ve done?
“Heinrich Graf for starters.”
Oh. The German bastard who’d had a contract out on Adam’s life. A shot at long distance had taken care of him. “Scum.”
“You seduced his daughter to discover his whereabouts. Scum, yourself.”
“I didn’t suck out her soul.” Custo’s gaze darted to the wraith.
“Splitting hairs. You used her to kill her own father.”
A mistake, and not the worst of his wrongs. Some things simply had to be taken care of, and Adam couldn’t do it. Didn’t have enough of the dark side in him to see it through. But yeah, if there were a God, there’d be no mercy when this was through. Just more hell. Once there, at least, he could scream. Not here. Not for a piece of shit like Spencer.
Bad life. Good death. He’d settle for that.
“Where’s Adam?” Spencer repeated. “You’ll tell me before we’re through.”
Custo gave him his best, bloody smile. If Spencer and his wraiths hadn’t found the emergency escape, he sure as hell wasn’t going to tell him. Not even to save his own life.
Custo gathered the saliva and blood that coated his mouth and spat in Spencer’s face. Got the asshole’s chin and neck.
Spencer drew his sidearm. He touched the hard tip of the gun to Custo’s forehead while he wiped himself clean with his other sleeve, a sneer of disgust stretching his face.
The wraith woman sat up on the bed and whined. “If you’re giving up on your questions, let me finish him. I’m hungry.”
Spencer’s eye twitched. “No. He’s mine.”
He drew his arm back. Struck. Knocked the sight from Custo’s eyes.
Pain wedged through his cheekbone to split his skull. Custo blinked hard against a thick film obscuring his vision, and yet, strangely, he was able to see perfectly: The room changed, brightened. Long fluorescent lights glared overhead where the bedroom had been lit by recessed cans. A sense of constriction bound his chest in a different, suffocating kind of discomfort. Thick, earthy smells of blood and fluid and sweat filled his nose.
A man masked in soft blue-green stared down at him and commanded, “One more push!”
Oh, dear God. His birth.
Then a cry, the squall of an infant, offered up from his own throat.
A nudge under his chin brought Custo back to the bedroom in the loft.
Spencer leaned in, and Custo could feel his breath on his face. “You can die fast and easy or slow and miserable.”
Custo’s heart labored while he refused to inhale—no used Spencer air for him, thank you.
“It’s your choice,” Spencer said. He scratched his cheek with the barrel of the gun.
“Schl—” Custo’s jaw wouldn’t work right. He tried again for
slow and miserable.
Give Adam time.
“Let me have him,” the wraith complained. “Adam and the girl are probably long gone anyway.”
“No. And stay out of my business,” Spencer answered.
The wraith stood, hand on the doorknob. “What a waste…”
Spencer brought his gun-heavy hand down again.
A crush of blackness hit Custo and jarred his memory to sudden clarity a second time. A private library, wood shelves gleaming. A young man in a dark suit sat behind a wide desk, while Custo perched on a hard, striped sofa, feet swinging in the air above the floor, trying not to—what word had his mommy said?—fidget. One of his shoelaces had come undone again.
“I said I’d pay for his schooling, but that’s it.” The man’s voice was cold.
“He’s your son,” his mommy answered. She was wearing the shirt that showed her bra today. Custo hated that shirt—why didn’t she fix that top button?
—it’s a little different—and I want nothing to do with him.”
Reality tumbled back into Custo’s consciousness, Spencer slapping his cheek. Custo tried to lift his head, but his chin only bounced on his chest. His ears were full of the rush of ocean and wind, which made no sense in the middle of the city.
“Adam wouldn’t do the same for you,” Spencer said. “He has to know you’re here and what I’d do to you. Last chance.”
Not even if it were his first. “No.”
“You can’t save him, you know. Not even if he gets away today.” Spencer leaned in to Custo’s ear. “A little secret, just between you and me…there’s someone else at Segue who sides with the wraiths. Someone you both trust. The minute Adam turns his back…”
Spencer reared back for effect, swung, and the world split again. Custo was in a school yard surrounded by wide white buildings and the strong scent of honeysuckle. That first day at Shelby Boys’ School.
Some pansy blue blood planted a fist to his face.
Custo shook off the surprise of the blow and looked for the assailant. The kid was tall and skinny, face flushed, blue eyes bright with fear as a bunch of other boys egged him on.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!” the rest of the boys chanted.
This should be easy. Custo ducked to the side when the pussy threw a wild punch, then clocked him on the jaw.
The boy fell in a sprawl on the ground.
Custo stepped forward, shifted to plant a kick in the boy’s gut—a reminder to everyone what would happen if they dared put their hands on the poor, stupid new kid again—and got hauled back by his collar. The fabric burned at his throat.
“He hit me first!” Custo yelled to whatever teacher had made it to the grounds in time to stop the fight. They couldn’t expel him on the first day, could they?
“And you got him back. Enough.”
Not a teacher. An older kid. Well, Custo could take him, too. He dropped his weight and spun. Buttons popped, but the other kid hung on.
“I’m Adam Thorne,” he said, seemingly unperturbed, “and we’re going to be friends.”
Custo wrestled against Adam’s hold. He stamped on the older boy’s prissy loafer—a baby trick, but Adam was keeping him too off balance to do more.
“Best friends,” Adam amended in grim, low tones. “The rest of you, move out. Not the time or place, men.”
The skinny kid scrambled up from the dirt and milled away with the rest of group. Custo lifted his chin to their backward looks.
Just try me.
Adam saved his life that day. Another expulsion would have sent him back to the streets. Permanently.
Spencer’s earbud buzzed through the cloudy murk of Custo’s memories.
“Repeat,” Spencer said, “Adam’s here?”
Custo’s heart clenched.
Goddamn stupid hero.
“Guess we don’t need you anymore,” Spencer hissed darkly in Custo’s face. “This was way too easy.”
He had to warn—
A white thunderclap of pain and Custo’s consciousness spread like water running from a dropped clay vessel, his life falling in so many pieces around him. The expanse of the loft was laid open to his understanding, a sixth sense that strengthened exponentially in the sudden absence of all others.
In the great room beyond, Adam and Talia held their ground near the elevator, darkness billowing out in silken waves from Talia’s position. She stood at the brink of Shadow, one foot in mortality, one beyond, compelling the Other darkness to obscure the room, to hide them from capture.
Custo’s mind clouded with Shadow as well. The darkness flickered with lightning strikes of memory. His first lay, Janet Summerton, with her peachy breasts and ginger hair. University, still on his father’s buck, dorming with a geek on scholarship. Adam’s frantic call for help when his brother Jacob had gone insane—turned wraith—and killed their parents. The flashes of memory advanced with each trembling heartbeat toward the decision to enter the loft’s building to meet Adam and Talia, when the place had so clearly been compromised.
And Custo would do it again.
My life for his.
Spencer crossed the room and stood, his back to the bedroom door, gun ready at his chest, and utterly oblivious to the murky forest of dark trees that grew in place of the dissolving walls. Black trunks and skeletal limbs stretched into a violet sky through which brilliant stars blazed, each with a skittering comet’s tail streaming the passage of time.