Read an excerpt of The Exile, a new suspenseful urban fantasy from C.T. Adams, publishing March 10th.
Brianna woke before the alarm to the smell of fresh coffee and the sound of her roommate puttering in the kitchen. She couldn’t see what Pug was up to, but from the sound of it he was getting food ready for Camille and her kittens. He doted on those cats. Then again, having been a house pet at one point in his life he had very strong opinions as to how pets should be treated.
The clock on the nightstand read 5:30 a.m. It was still dark outside, without so much as a hint of dawn on the horizon. Brianna knew she should throw off the covers and start the day, but the bed was warm, soft, and inviting and the past few mornings had been, not cold precisely, but chilly enough to make her old injuries ache. She scratched absentmindedly at the scar above her left breast.
Five more minutes . . . five more minutes wouldn’t hurt. But that was a lie and she knew it. Five minutes would become ten, then half an hour, and before she knew it she’d be skipping her workout because she was running late. Missing one workout was no problem. But once could easily become twice, and soon enough the habit that kept her fighting fit would go out the window. If she even thought about letting that happen, Mei would kick her ass.
You do not want to piss off a dragon, even if she is one of your better friends. Still, with Mei out of town she didn’t feel the least bit guilty about exercising at home rather than going to the gym.
So Brianna threw off the covers with a groan and rolled out of bed. Padding down the hall to the bathroom, she tended to her immediate needs before pulling her hair up into a ponytail and dressing in a sports bra and black leggings.
Ready to start her daily routine, Brianna took her place in the clearest part of the living room. She began with stretches and yoga, breathing carefully and steadily, then moved into her favorite martial arts kata. After that, she stepped onto the treadmill and punched in the preprogrammed setting: first, a gentle slope, then increased speed and incline, and finally a gentler cool-down.
As she jogged, she reviewed her plans for the day. Work, of course. But there was nothing special about that. When her mother had opened Helena’s, it had been a very small, very exclusive shop. It was still exclusive, but the store had grown considerably under Brianna’s management; it was a popular venue for local magical practitioners and did a good amount of online business.
There was always plenty of work to keep Brianna busy.
Busy, but bored.
The thoughts were unbidden and unwelcome, but also unavoidable.
There was no challenge to her life. Everything was moving along smoothly. She told herself that this was a good thing. She wasn’t having to watch over her shoulder every moment, be suspect of everything and everyone because relaxing would put her life at risk. This was positively excellent. But she wasn’t happy.
A new man would be a nice distraction and she could think of several who’d be happy to oblige. She was, after all, an attractive woman. Oh, in Faerie she was pretty but fairly ordinary, but on this side of the veil, her looks were exceptional. She had luckily inherited her Sidhe father’s tall frame and exotic features, but they had been softened by her human mother’s lush curves.
Yes, there were always men. But while Brianna had a perfectly normal libido, lately she’d found herself finding fault and nitpicking when she considered possible suitors. That meant that the men weren’t the problem . . . and a new lover wouldn’t be the solution.
What the hell is the matter with me?
Surely she wasn’t . . . homesick?
She shook her head. She did not want to go back to Faerie. She shuddered as memories best left buried tried to force themselves to the forefront of her thoughts. There was no good reason for her to go back. Yes, she missed her father. But she did not miss the endless jockeying for power and position or the very real threats on her life.
If she returned to Faerie, even for a visit, everyone, including her father, would think she was putting herself back into the race to become his successor. Ulrich, one of her father’s most powerful nobles, would hound her. He was so certain she’d had something to do with his son Viktor’s disappearance—and she had, though not in the way he’d thought.
Brianna’s siblings, who’d rejoiced when she’d left and mostly ignored her since, would turn on her in a heartbeat. Lucienne would be subtle; Eammon, direct but basically honorable; Rihannon was unstable enough that there would be no predicting what she might do. Rodan . . . Rodan was subtle, capable, and vicious. Brianna couldn’t prove it, but she’d lay money that the one or two attempts that had been made against her on this side of the veil had been Rodan’s work.
Not for the first time, Brianna wished she knew what was happening back home. Mei, with her trace of human magic, could go back without problems. She would go, and report honestly back if Brianna asked it. But what did it matter to Brianna what was happening there? Her life was here. She’d made her choice. Surely she wasn’t regretting it?
She had used a boon—owed her by her father—to leave Faerie when her mother had returned to the human world. Brianna had grown tired of the politics, the backstabbing, and the bullshit—and was more than a little afraid that eventually one of the innumerable attempts on her mother’s life would succeed. Helena had lived out the remainder of her life unmolested and happy, and Brianna had been happy with her.
Helena had died years ago. Brianna could go back if she wanted. Her father would welcome her. Not for the first time Brianna wished there were a seer she could consult. Was this unease hers alone—or her other sense giving her a warning? Was something wrong in Faerie? Did her father need her? There was no way of knowing. Because, even if Leu were desperate for her return, he wouldn’t ask her to come. He was too stubborn, too proud.
She was still pondering her best course of action after she finished her workout, cleaned up, and headed downstairs to open the shop and face the ordinary business of the day.
“Can you kill someone using magic?”
The words made Brianna stop mid- step.
She was on her way through the open front area of the shop. It was pretty, airy, with big windows and brightly lit displays, including glittering crystals and big printed signs saying video surveillance in use. A stupid and unlikely place to discuss potential murder—but a surprising number of people had asked that same question over the years. Damn it, not again! She sighed.
Amazing really, how many people would love the opportunity to end another’s life. Well, this wasn’t going to be her problem—David was working the counter and he could handle it.
She grabbed the laundry basket of clean towels from the counter in the back room and started up the stairs to her apartment. David was better at dealing with the somewhat murderous than she was: tactful and sympathetic, but firm. Brianna was much too inclined to be harsh and blunt, mainly because she was still angry.
Five years earlier, a young man had come into the shop—an outcast with an air of primal force about him. Within three minutes of his arrival, every customer was gone and Maxine had begged Brianna to take over so she could go on break. Almost as soon as she entered the front room, the man had approached and asked to buy the tools to do the blackest magic available. Cost was not an issue. When she refused to help, he threatened her.
Brianna Hai did not react well to threats. The would-be customer left the shop quickly, with his proverbial tail between his legs. Later, the police investigation revealed that he’d found what he’d been looking for online.
Perhaps because she’d turned him down, the young man’s first—and last—attempt at murder by magic targeted Brianna. He wasn’t powerful enough to breach the shields and defenses built into the walls and mortar of the shop building, let alone Brianna’s personal defenses. And magic, thwarted, bounces back on the caster—with interest.
It was a particularly gruesome and well-publicized death. Coming as it did after the dead man’s none-too-subtle boasting to confidants, questions were raised. The authorities, not believing in magic, cleared Brianna immediately. But rumors continued to swirl and the Internet kept the story fresh, and all that led to the kind of inquiries that gave her ongoing headaches.
Grumbling under her breath, Brianna shifted the laundry basket to her left hip. With her right hand she made the swift gesture that would allow her to pass through the wards on her door unharmed. Only when she felt the moving energies still did she pull the apartment key from the pocket of her pants and slide it into the lock.
Once through the door she set the basket atop the occasional table, turned to the painting on the wall, and sank to one knee, bowing her head in the traditional obeisance. She had no way of knowing whether or not her father was watching, but it would never do to show the king of the Sidhe less than the proper honor. After the prescribed ten count she raised her head. The painting was still just that—a painting.
Once it had been nothing more than a landscape painted by Bob Ross, a field of wildflowers in the foreground, a mountain in the distance, the sun shining brightly over all. But that was before her mother had turned it into a private portal connecting Brianna’s home and her father’s library. Helena had done more than create a doorway between two worlds; she had altered the painting so that the image reflected the king’s mood. She’d wanted her daughter to have adequate warning of what to expect on the other side of the veil. It had been an unfathomably subtle and difficult piece of magic. But Helena had been the most skilled practitioner Brianna had ever heard of—on either side of the veil.
Today the painting showed the wildflowers in shadow, with only scattered beams of sunlight finding their way through the clouds above. In the distance, near the mountain, a huge storm was brewing. The clouds were thick and black, with the hint of dangerous green and yellow that spoke of hail; flickers of lightning could be seen.
The unsettling image was not one Brianna had ever seen before. What was going on in Faerie that had her father so upset?
David called from the bottom of the stairs, a welcome interruption.
“Boss, the UPS guy is here.”
“I’ll be right down.”
Brianna glanced down at the laundry. She’d come back later to fold and put away the towels. It was a nice, mindless chore that would give her time to consider what might be bothering her father—and what, if anything, she should do about it.
She wondered what was in the UPS shipment—probably the South American artifacts she’d ordered from Raymond Carter. David had some magical ability but was not skilled enough to test these particular items to see if they were as advertised. Besides, she’d been looking forward to this shipment for weeks. Brianna hurriedly locked the door, reset the wards, and headed downstairs.
The moment she stepped away from the wards she felt a thrum of power from below. There was something truly special in that box. Thoughts of her father, nasty customers, and old rumors disappeared in a flash. She was as eager to open that package as a child on Christmas morning. That constant sense of excitement got her through the drudgery and paperwork that was so much a part of running a small business.
Brianna took the electronic delivery tracking device from the UPS man and signed her name with a decided flourish before handing it back. As soon as his brown-clad back was out of sight she pulled a knife from her boot and began cutting through the packaging.
Up close the power of the box’s contents was breathtaking, singing along her senses in a low thrum that rang through her body like the vibrations of a tuning fork. When Raymond had called to offer her this merchandise, she’d been half worried that the shipment would contain exotic but magically worthless junk. Normally she would have flown out to meet him, to check the quality. But time hadn’t permitted it. She’d been forced to risk trusting him, or pass on the shipment altogether. Now she was glad she had. He had come through for her, better than she’d dared hope. She dug through the packing peanuts with absolute glee, pulling out three separate items. The first two were stones—one infused with magic to attract prosperity; the other, for fertility. They were good objects but not exceptional. The last, an ancient stone knife, held the true power. Touching it stole her breath for a moment. It was . . . magnificent. Worth every penny she’d paid and more.
Raymond Carter might have no magical talent to speak of, but he was the absolute best at procuring quality magical items. Occasionally Brianna wondered how he managed it. After all, he was a very modern American. He didn’t believe in magic or psychic phenomena. The only things he believed in were the almighty dollar and his own cleverness, and he had spent a number of years using the latter to make lots of the former by finding unusual items for Brianna.
She was setting the artifacts back in the box when the bell above the shop door rang. Before she could even look up a chill ran down her spine. She turned to greet the woman who stepped through the doorway. Brianna didn’t know who she was, but she knew full well what she was—only the Fae had that level of power, and only a Sidhe would be using it out among the humans in broad daylight.
Sidhe both look like the humans—and don’t. The differences are mostly subtle. No pure Sidhe has ever had a pimple or blemish. Most are tall and more slender than the average human. Their ears are ever-so-slightly pointed, their hands long-fingered. But the Sidhe glow. It was a power they used to influence others, or as a weapon to overcome another’s mind and will.
The woman entering the shop was as beautiful as a warm dawn after the bitterest of winter nights, every delicate feature perfect, her hair spun gold, her skin flawless cream. Her eyes, the blue of a midnight sky, sparkled with a hint of starlight. Her suit matched her eyes, just as the silver silk blouse beneath the jacket matched that twinkle of starlight. The entire outfit had been tailored to emphasize slender curves and long, silk-clad legs.
Brianna had been raised in the high court of King Leu, but even she wasn’t completely unaffected by the woman’s glamour. Undoubtedly every human her visitor had passed on the street had stopped, staring dumbstruck in her wake, their eyes gleaming with yearning awe.
Brianna shook her head, clearing the cobwebs. The shine was one of the gifts of the Sidhe, a dangerous beauty that could lure the unwary into betraying all they held dear. Helen of Troy had been an exiled Sidhe.
“Can I help you?” Brianna rose to her full height, keeping her voice neutral and pleasant. Her smile was even sincere. Few of her father’s people lived in the human lands. It might be pleasant to speak to someone from back home. And while there had been a time when she’d envied the pure-blooded their shining, that was long past. Her mother’s human blood and human magic gave her strengths and skills that a pure Sidhe couldn’t match, and enabled her to live comfortably and invisibly in the human world.
The woman, who was studying the granite gargoyle standing between the front door and the picture window, glanced at Brianna for a moment before returning her gaze to the statue. The gargoyle was short and squat, his body as heavily muscled as a Rottweiler with a muscular tail ending in a sharpened barb. His back legs ended in paws with curved claws, his front, in something very close to hands. His face was both wrinkled and elongated, somewhat like a dragon’s.
As Brianna watched, the woman held her hand over the statue’s head. Brianna felt the subtle surge of power as the newcomer tested the air surrounding the gargoyle, then gave a small, satisfied nod.
“How much for the statue by the window?” the woman asked as she strode over to the counter, high heels clicking sharply against the tile floor. In one smooth move, she pulled the designer handbag from her arm, set it atop the glass display case, and opened it in preparation for payment. She was smiling, utterly confident.
“He’s not for sale.” Brianna kept her voice neutral and calm.
She didn’t want to get into a metaphysical shoving match with this woman. She might lose. On the other hand, Pug was her friend, and was not, under any circumstances, for sale.
In the background Brianna saw David hustling the teenager toward the exit, the girl so stunned she moved more like a doll than a human being. The front door bell dinged, bringing Brianna sharply back into the moment.
“I want it.” The woman bit off each word, pulling back her shields and turning up the charm until the glare was nearly blinding. If Brianna had been full human she’d have fallen to her knees and worshipped this glorious creature as a goddess—would’ve done absolutely anything to please her. Which was, no doubt, the point.
The polite smile Brianna had been wearing vanished. She spoke softly, but clearly, putting a touch of force behind each separate word. “He is not for sale.”
The blonde’s hand froze above the credit card she had set onto the countertop, her eyes widening. She gave Brianna a measuring look, taking in every detail of the shop keeper’s appearance: the knee-high leather boots with silver bat-shaped buckles, the black suede trousers, the black brocade and lace top with a sweetheart neckline that accented curves that were not delicate enough to be Sidhe. She stared for a long moment at Brianna’s face, with features that were delicate, but not quite delicate enough. The coloring, too, could be Fae, or not: milk-white skin, waist-length hair that was true black with blue highlights.
“Who are you?” the woman hissed. She said who, but it was clear to Brianna that she meant what. No ordinary mortal could have withstood her, and they both knew it.
“Who are you?” Brianna glanced at the credit card on the countertop and saw the letters of the woman’s name blur, shift, and reform. One moment the card read Ivy Woods, then Brooke Rivers, then Heather Meadows. Pure illusion, but as solid as the floor beneath Brianna’s feet. Impressive. Unethical, too, but the woman facing her obviously wasn’t the type to sweat that sort of thing.
The woman didn’t answer. Instead, she turned up her power, creating a pure, brute force meant to crush Brianna’s resistance. It was breathtaking and cruel, and the Sidhe didn’t even appear to be working up a sweat.
It was real work for Brianna not to show how badly that lash of power hurt, but she managed. Despite pain that burned across sensitive nerves beneath her skin, she managed to sound utterly blasé. “I’m the owner of this shop, and the granite gargoyle is not for sale. We do have several plaster versions of similar design—”
The woman’s hand shot out like a snake, trying to grab Brianna’s arm. Touch would make the spell much stronger and more effective. Brianna stepped back, out of reach, and put up her best shields—just in time, too, as a blow of pure magic and will slammed into her defenses like a sledgehammer. The impact didn’t stagger her, but it came close. Damn, the bitch was powerful. Brianna was already preparing her return strike, but before she could release it, Pug leapt into the space between the two women.
He landed with a crash. Sixty-five pounds of granite was more weight than the top of the display case could bear. Glass exploded outward—not toward Brianna. She’d had enough warning to redirect her shield. But the Sidhe bitch hissed in pain as blood from multiple cuts stained the silk of her suit.
Her power flared blindingly. Through watering eyes Brianna saw the wounds healing, the glass slide free of the woman’s body to fall tinkling onto the floor.
“You insult a guest.” The woman’s voice was an ice-edged razor.
“No. This is a public shop. You asked for what you got. Now I suggest you leave.”
The situation balanced on a knife’s edge. Brianna waited for the woman to say the words, to call for a true duel. She could see that the Sidhe wanted to—rage blazed in those midnight eyes and her bloodied hands were clenched in fists. Gritting her teeth, the blonde hissed, “This isn’t over,” before leaving in a blur of furious speed.
“Wow! What was that all about?” David’s eyes were a little too wide as he stared at the shattered glass on the floor and the gargoyle busily licking up the pool of blood.
Brianna sighed. “Sidhe bullshit.” She glared down at the gargoyle but held her tongue. He had, after all, earned a reward. Besides, there was never any point in admonishing Pug. He did what he did, and that was the end of it.
David said, “I got the kid out of the shop before Pug jumped. She didn’t see anything.”
“I know. I’m surprised you were thinking that clearly, all things considered.”
He grinned. “One, I wasn’t the one she was focusing on. Two, I’m gay. Cut the attraction factor considerably.”
Brianna shook her head. He was so wrong. Sexual preference means nothing to Sidhe power. The woman’s magic should have overridden everything. That it didn’t made her wonder, yet again, if someone in the Antonelli family tree was more than human. Not that it mattered. Unlike most of the Fae, Brianna really didn’t have any problem with it one way or the other. She saw and experienced more prejudice, brutality, and cruelty on the other side of the veil than she had ever run into here.
“Boss, you’re fading out on me,” David observed.
“Sorry.” Brianna smiled at him and forced her mind to focus on the here and now. “Just thinking.”
“And not about anything too pleasant, judging from your expression.”
“Perceptive, as always,” she admitted. It was one of his best and most annoying qualities and was probably part of why her mother had hired him five years earlier.
Then, David had been a rebellious sixteen-year-old with an unhappy life. His father didn’t approve of the fact that his son was gay. Kids at school had been giving David a hard time. Life, in general, had sucked. His father had insisted he get a job to “keep him out of trouble,” but David had been turned down everywhere he’d applied—not surprising given his disaffected, sullen attitude.
He’d walked through the door of Helena’s and Helena Washington had hired him on the spot, to his and Brianna’s surprise. David had come a long way since then. Gone was the gangly teenager, replaced by a man. Six feet tall and muscular, with dark brown curls kept just long enough to frame a face dominated by luminous dark eyes and a very kissable set of lips that were smiling more often than not. He had grown into himself. He was confident about his abilities both as the assistant manager and as an artist. And well he should be. He had brains and talent by the boatload.
Today he was dressed in black leather pants with short black suede boots. His tight black T-shirt showed off every rippling muscle as well as the clear outline of nipple rings beneath the thin cloth. The edge of an elaborate Asian-style tattoo peeked out from beneath the sleeve of the shirt.
“Why don’t you go in back and get online, see if you can find someone willing to deliver a replacement display case on a rush basis,” Brianna suggested. “I’ll clear up the mess and put away the new stock.”
“Right.” As David turned to walk through the door to the office and storeroom Brianna almost stopped him to ask what he’d said to the girl to get her to leave. She stopped herself. David didn’t need her second-guessing him. He was good at his job, knew the drill. She was just being paranoid. The Sidhe bitch had shaken her. Brianna had lived long enough in the human world, away from her enemies in Faerie, that she’d let down her guard. It wasn’t a mistake she’d be making again. And it reminded her all too clearly just how dangerous it would be for her to go back home.
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